Review: Frankissstein – Jeanette Winterson

023 - Frankissstein

023 - Frankissstein

★★★★★

I adore Jeanette Winterson – she’s fast becoming one of my favourite authors and when I was on holiday and saw a signed copy of this book, I just had to buy a copy. I couldn’t resist. As it so happens this has now been longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize and, having now read it, I am going to say I am surprised in the best possible way (because I enjoyed this book, but it doesn’t seem very “traditionally” Booker). I adored this book. I originally gave it 4 stars but in thinking more about it, and realising just how unforgettable this book is going to be for me, it easily bumped up to a 5.

This book follows two timelines. Firstly we follow the life of a young Mary Shelley and her contemporaries starting in the period which she wrote Frankenstein. I loved this fictionalised account of her relationships with her husband – Percy Bysshe Shelley – Lord Byron, and some others I’d not heard of until I read this book (and subsequently went on to research about them more) including John Polidori and Claire Clairmont. Mary faces her own oppression, and is a very forthright kind of young woman in a time where that was not the norm. To me that is not one jot out of character given who her mother was (Mary Wollstonecraft; 18th Century Feminist Extraordinaire) and I could very easily have read an entire novel based on the fictional account of Mary Shelley’s life.

Secondly, in the present, we follow Ry Shelley. Ry is a transgender/non-binary doctor who gets involved in his very own Frankenstein related story by Victor Stein. Along with Ron Lord (a man who is promoting the use of AI in sexbots) and a woman known as Polly D they get swept up in a frankly insane plot involving cryogenics, stolen body parts and absolutely mad science. The thing I loved about this present day section is how the parallels between it and the past unravel. Ry is a fantastic character, and in my opinion good representation of a trans/non-binary character (of course I can’t comment on the views of trans/non-binary people on this representation, I might be very wrong in how I’ve read Ry so if that’s the case, I apologise). We learn early on that Ry was assigned female at birth, and while he identifies as male and has had top surgery, he’s happy as he is without having bottom surgery. Ry is Ry – and I think it’s fair to say that the issues he faces throughout about his gender and transphobia in 2019 draw parallels to the oppression Mary was facing in the early 19th century.

Winterson is a genius. For me this book is genius. It’s a good mix of serious and laugh out loud funny. She draws parallels between the industrial revolution which Mary Shelley was living through, inspiring Frankenstein to the current boom in technology and AI. She makes the reader question so many things about life and intelligence and transhumanism, the role of AI and how that might change us as humans. More than anything, the modern period was funny. It wasn’t without it’s darker moments (gender related violence towards Ry to name the most obvious) but it was witty, and genuinely made me laugh.

I also have to confess that it took me a shamefully long time to work out that the 21st century names were all plays on the 19th century names. Ry/Mary was obvious, as was Victor Stein/Dr Frankenstein but Ron Lord (Lord Byron), Polly D (Polidori) and the modern day Claire (Claire Clairmont) took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out.

I loved this book. It wasn’t without it’s flaws, and I think it is fair to say that a lot of people on Goodreads have fair criticisms about Winterson’s representation of a trans character and I get that, I do. I’m yet to see one review by a trans individual though, and I have looked. If I find one, and they say it’s problematic, I would take everything I’ve said back and reassess my current opinion with new knowledge. But I leave this review with a quote from Ry, which I think sums up this book beautifully:-

“I am what I am, but what I am is not one thing, not one gender. I live with doubleness.”

The Odyssey – Homer (Translated by Emily Wilson)

022 - The Odyssey

022 - The Odyssey

★★★★

I first read The Odyssey in August 2014 – so it’s been 5 years almost exactly since I last read it and, honestly, I think I enjoyed it so much more this time around. I don’t know if that’s because I listened to it as an audiobook this time around, the fact it was a different translation, or a combination of the two, but it moved it from a 3 star read to a 4/5 star read easily.

Most people are familiar with parts of The Odyssey – the stories of Circe, the Cyclops, Odysseus’ journey to the underworld – so it doesn’t seem worth rehashing over something that has been reviewed numerous times before in much better ways than I am capable of.

What I would like to discuss is the translation I read. Emily Wilson is the first female to translate The Odyssey in to English – and she didn’t just do that, she intended to keep the same rhythm as the “original” Greek verse so rewrote it in iambic pentameter. Not only that but she made it accessible. The foreword to this edition was enlightening, and discussed her translation process and choices and is actually something I’d highly recommend you read – before or after reading the main meat of the book. She points out in this section that many translations have made the book inaccessible due to their linguistic choices to give their version that “authentic” feel – something she says is absolute rubbish as the story has an oral tradition, and would have been adapted by each generation to fit in with the language of the day. If her goal was to bring The Odyssey to a new generation, I think she’s certainly going to achieve it with this translation.

Something else she’s done throughout this book is stripped away the former translators misogyny. This book is always going to be problematic in the way women are treated and represented, and while she has stayed true to the original story. Previous translations refer to the women who are enslaved to Odysseus and Penelope “sluts” or “prostitutes” – Wilson addresses them as slaves, and does seem to imply that a lot of their perceived wrongdoing against Odysseus is not entirely their fault, but a nature of their station. She explores Odysseus as a “complicated” man, which he most certainly is – and she doesn’t sugarcoat him or enhance his heroic deeds, which for me is appreciated.

She has stripped this story back to the roots, removing a lot of ingrained misogyny of translators along the way, leaving it to be told as simply and effectively as possible. I for one loved this translation.

The audiobook, read by Claire Danes, was also spectacular and something I would highly recommend. The story is, historically, orally told and hearing it rather than reading it was a very different experience and one I really enjoyed.

The Familiars – Stacey Halls

021 - The Familiars

021 - The Familiars

★★★★

I was lucky enough to win this book in a competition run by Bibliobeth way back at the start of the year, and I’m so glad I finally picked it up. For me this book had echoes of Rebecca – high praise given it’s one of my favourite books – not in the sense that it is an altered version of it, but in the characters and  the general atmosphere. Rather than being a poor-mans du Maurier, Stacey Halls takes all of that style and puts it in her own setting and it really, really worked for me.

In my opinion there are not enough books about witches – witches of the historical variety that is – and certainly not enough books about British witches. This book is based around the story of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, and is a fictional account of her life around the time of the Pendle witch trials in Lancashire. At the start of the book she is 17 and pregnant for the fourth time, but fearing for her life after her last 3 pregnancies – which ended in miscarriage and stillbirth – she chooses to hire a midwife of her choosing, Alice Grey. Alice is deeply entwined with those accused of witchcraft and over the course of the novel (and Fleetwood’s pregnancy) we unravel her story, and with it we watch Fleetwood grow. Fleetwood’s pregnancy goes on, along with the witch trials, and both reach their peak at the same time – Fleetwood going in to labour the night before the accused women take the stand.

Something I loved in this book was the friendship which developed between Fleetwood and Alice. Two women of very different upbringings and classes, yet they found this very unorthodox friendship and working relationship. The love that Fleetwood has for Alice – someone she calls her first friend of her own choosing – is special. I love a good friendship in a book, especially one which is so unlikely. The transformations in both Fleetwood and Alice over this book are something to love – Fleetwood was a bit of an airheaded socialite-wife who becomes a mature woman, a woman who fights for her child and her friend; and Fleetwood’s belief in the unassuming Alice gives her the confidence to grow. The true magic of this book is friendship – not witchcraft.

Womanhood is something that is also explored in this book – what it means to be a woman in 1612. At one point Fleetwood says that she “wouldn’t wish a girls life on anyone” and in a time when women are treated as objects, that isn’t exactly a surprise. Fleetwood, while still being a woman of the 17th century, has a (slightly) more modern monologue which enables these themes to be explored. She points out that most of the women accused of witchcraft are just poor women, using what skills they have to make their way in the world, they were mistresses to a man who wanted them to disappear, most accusations of witchcraft cam from a person of standing – and who was going to be believed in a public arena?

Having mentioned it, I can’t not go back to it  – the echoes of Rebecca. Fleetwood reminds me very much of Mrs de Winter, and her husband of  Maxim. Their relationship is very similar to the relationship between Mr and Mrs de Winter once they’re back at Manderley, a husband keeping secrets and a wife trying to unravel a mystery. We have a woman in the background who, while alive, torments Fleetwood much the same way that Rebecca did Mrs de Winter. There’s also a token Mrs Danvers like character, and even a dog who is similar to Jasper. All in all, there are a lot of similarities which I actually really loved because this was very much its own story, but I can see a lot of inspiration there and (for once) it’s done very well.

Ultimately this is a fantastic debut, and Stacey Halls is an author I will keenly await a second book from. I also think this would be a really good book-club book. For me, there was a few things lacking which is why this is a 3/4 star book opposed to a 5 star book. But make no mistake, I really enjoyed this and I would recommend it (especially alongside a read of Rebecca! Just for the parallels!)

 

Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

020 - The Priory of the Orange Tree

020 - The Priory of the Orange Tree

★★★★

After what feels like a very long reading slump I thought it’d be a great idea to pick up an 850 page epic fantasy novel to ease myself back in to reading gently, I don’t like to make things easy for myself after all. But I’m really, really glad I picked this up. Samantha Shannon is a new author to me, having not read The Bone Season, but as soon as I found out there were lady gays and dragons in this, I knew I had to read it. It took me a little while to get in to it, but my word once I was in to it I devoured it.

As far as fantasy goes, this book is very “traditional” in that there are two very different parts of a world, one where dragons are revered as gods and the other where they’re considered dangerous. These two parts of the world are separated also by geography (East and West), and their religious views. They have differing views on what happened 1000 years ago, when The Nameless One – a dragon like creature – was vanquished and with the imminent return of this creature threatening them all, is what drives this story along. All of this is explored through our four narrators: Tane, Ead, Niclays and Loth. Tane, a young girl in the East hoping to become a dragon rider; Ead, a young woman who has been appointed as a member of the household staff to Queen Sabran Berethnet but is hiding a lot of herself; Naclays, an alchemist who is spiteful and driven by a lost love; and Loth, best friend to Queen Sabran who is sent on a dangerous diplomatic mission. All of these threads interweave perfectly by the end of this though, which is much appreciated! Something unusual for me, however, is that all of these points of view were enjoyable. Each character had a unique voice which made the jumping perspectives more tolerable, and by the time all their stories intertwined I appreciated each of them individually.

Far and a way my favourite character in this book though was Sabran – for me the central character who never got her own voice. A very deliberate move on Shannon’s part. Sabran is directed in her queenly duties by those who surround her, she hasn’t left the palace since her mother died, every move she makes at the beginning is very much decided by someone else and by the end of the book she’s her own person, and a lot stronger as an individual than she was at the start. The whole story revolves around Sabran and her family’s involvement in the slaying of The Nameless One, and Sabran feels that pressure.

The relationships depicted in this book are also something special – and not just the romantic ones – the love between friends and family is something explored beautifully in here. And while there is romance, it’s not forced, it’s not over the top and it’s not in your face. It feels natural and organic, which is a rarity in fantasy! Romantic love comes in all varieties too – gay and heterosexual – and rather than being shoehorned in, it just is and I LOVED that.

Ultimately for me the start of this book let it down a bit. It was a bit slow going which is why it’s only a 4* read for me.