Review: What Doesn’t Kill You by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska and Others (2020)

I am very pleased to share my review of this powerful and important non-fiction collection published by Unbound. Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.


“A stellar cast of writers and thinkers.” Nathan Filer

An explorer spends a decade preparing for an expedition to the South Pole; what happens when you live for a goal, but once it’s been accomplished, you discover it’s not enough? A successful broadcast journalist ends up broke, drunk and sleeping rough; what makes alcohol so hard to resist despite its ruinous consequences? A teenage girl tries to disappear by starving herself; what is this force that compels so many women to reduce their size so drastically?

In this essay collection, writers share the struggles that have shaped their lives – loss, depression, addiction, anxiety, trauma, identity and others. But as they take you on a journey to the darkest recesses of their mind, the authors grapple with challenges that haunt us all.


In her foreward, Elitsa Dermendzhiyska asks the following questions:

“How can we live with our demons? How can we grow from our wounds? How can we write another story when the one we wanted is taken away from us?”

As anyone who has struggled with mental health issues knows, there are no easy answers. But one thing which is becoming increasingly clear is that the first step is breaking the silence and having open, honest, often painful conversations about our demons and our wounds. Personally, I am so much more open about my own battles with depression and anxiety than I used to be, partly – and I cannot stress this enough – because others are also more willing to share their stories. This project, clearly a labour of love by Dermendzhiyska, is of vital importance not only for those of us who may have experienced these kinds of issues, but also, I think, for those who have not. Revealing what goes on beneath the surface of the ‘self’ which we present to the world is hugely illuminating in terms of helping us to understand each other a little better, and to treat each other with more compassion and kindness – qualities we need now more than ever.

The book is divided into three sections: ‘Struggle,’ ‘Self,’ and ‘Striving’. Each contains essays by different authors, representing a huge range of experiences and opinions. Every essay deserves its place here, and I took something from all of them. Together they form a record of human experience which is profoundly moving. I was particularly struck by A.J. Ashworth’s ‘Eight,’ in which she recounts in vivid present tense her first ever panic attack; Irenosen Okojie’s beautiful, almost fable-like ‘Three Wise Women,’ telling of how she was saved by her grandmother when she was a baby; Hazel Gale’s incredibly powerful ‘The Last Fight’ and Ben Saunders’ brutally honest ‘A Very Long Walk in a Very Cold Place.’ These latter two essays are particularly shrewd inclusions in this collection as, on the face of it, Gale and Saunders have both completed physical achievements (in kickboxing/boxing and polar exploration respectively) that outwardly seem to represent a kind of ‘success’ unthinkable to those of us for whom getting out of bed is sometimes more than we can manage. There is a lesson here about challenging our assumptions and respecting the fact that we can’t judge the interior lives of others based on what we can see from the outside.

The final point I want to make about this collection is an aesthetic one. Many of these essays are written in gorgeous, startling prose, sometimes experimental, representing the very best of creative non-fiction. The talent on display adds a bittersweet layer of pleasure to the pain of the experiences recounted, and got me thinking deeply about the connection, explicitly mentioned in several of these essays, between creativity and inner struggles. This is a beautiful, affective, important collection that delves into what it means to be an imperfect human. I highly recommend it.

What Doesn’t Kill You is published by Unbound and is out in June. It is available for preorder now.


Review: Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught (2020)

Saving Lucia is the first book of indie publisher’s Bluemoose’s year of publishing women only. Bluemoose is one of my most exciting Book Twitter discoveries – this is the second book published by them that I have read, and I have three more waiting on my shelf. Do check them out on Twitter @Ofmooseandmen. They do brilliant things.

Onto the book itself: I have only just finished it, and my mind is still fizzing. It is, quite simply, a true work of art. I am hugely concerned that I won’t be able to do this brilliant book justice here, so I am tentatively (and perhaps appropriately) subtitling this review “Initial Impressions From an Over-Stimulated Mind” as I guarantee you now I will be revisiting this book, and it will be in my thoughts for a long time.

I can’t remember the last time a book made me feel so intellectually excited. The premise, as laid out in the blurb, is in itself enough to set my thoughts spinning:

“How would it be if four silenced women went on a tremendous adventure, reshaping their pasts and futures as they went?”

Well, let me tell you, it would be a literary rollercoaster, a delicious journey through some of the finest writing I have encountered for a long time. Vaught teeters gracefully on the boundary poetry and prose, building in motifs and refrains that bring to mind music, visual arts, and the very best of literary traditions. The book reads like a classical work, richly woven with references and wide-ranging knowledge, and yet it is also something entirely new. We do not so much follow the four women, psychiatric patients all, as enter into their consciousnesses, and it is a thrilling experience.

Lady Violet Gibson, who once attempted to assasinate Mussolini, is an engaging, funny, utterly unique character, and I was as eager as Lucia Joyce, forgotten daughter of James Joyce, to join her on her imaginative adventures. This is an intellectual book, but it is also brimming over with love, and the friendship between the two women at the heart of the book is beautifully depicted. The trust they place in each other as they, along with Bertha and Blanche, dash through time and space, seemed to me to absolutely capture the essence of the best of female friendship. We see each other’s flaws, but we love each other full-heartedly anyway – unlike with a lover, we do not have to internalise those flaws – they do not hurt us in the same way. (Oh, how I miss my female friends! V, A, M – I love you!)

There is also such a spirit of generosity in this book, built into its very structure. Violet asks Lucia to set down this story, trusting her implicitly to do right by these women who have been so wronged and silenced by society. And Lucia rises to the challenge: the first person voice used by all four protagonists blends into a beautiful harmony. At first, it requires intense concentration to follow who is speaking, but gradually the reader’s attention is rewarded by it becoming easier and easier to know whose voice we are in. This is a marvellous achievement by Vaught, and I am going to have to go back and puzzle out how she pulls it off.

This is a book that demands close reading, but that attention more than pays off. I had a couple of instances of feeling so deeply connected to the text that I felt it like a tug in my chest: the first was when I was doing my usual thing of trying to work out what the book reminded me of – it is highly original, but I had just begun to think that it called to mind The Waves, which I finally read last year, when on the next page I read the phrase “a room of one’s own” and then a few pages later Woolf herself was referred to. I honestly get so excited by these psychic coincidences when I am reading! And I had another one – I had been thinking all the time I was reading that I wanted to write an essay about this book, to make notes, to research the background which is so richly mined by Vaught, and then Lucia herself gave gentle permission for the scribbling of notes in the margin, and, I admit, I thanked her out loud. You get me, Lucia.

There is so much I haven’t even touched on here – the nuanced exploration of mental illness and the destructive objectifying of these women by their societies, the astounding depth of the historical research which lends Vaught’s book authority even as she subverts and plays with the official historical narrative, the recurring motif of the passerines whose wingbeats echo throughout the story…I could go on!

As you can no doubt tell, this book has left me buzzing. It hits that sweet spot for me that the work of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood does – imaginative flights of fancy combined with so much profound truth and beauty that my mind and my heart feel full. This book is a gift.

Saving Lucia is out now and is available to purchase directly from the publishers here.

Anna Vaught’s website has lots of fascinating information about the book and the history behind it:

Twitter: @BookwormVaught

PM Press Submission Call: New Crime, Thriller and Dystopian Fiction Imprint @PMPress1 @damppebbles

I am really excited to share this amazing opportunity with you all! Read on to find out details of how you can submit your crime/thriller/dystopian novel or novella to this inaugural imprint!

About PM Press:

We are a Kindle-First imprint of Holland House Books that specialises in crime, thriller and dystopian fiction. Phaidra Robinson and Mia Skevington set up PM Press in April 2020 in order to pursue their respective loves of true crime and detective fiction. Our background of Literary Fiction at Holland House Books means that we bring an expectation of and experience in producing high quality books to these genres. An inaugural imprint, this is the time for authors to submit their work for the chance to be one of our founding book releases.

Call for Submissions:

We are looking for most types of crime and thriller fiction, from the classic English whodunit through to police procedurals, or classic noir through to mind-bending psychological thrillers. Maybe you want to introduce us to a dystopian future. We want well-written, satisfying work – a good twist and convincing characters are the ways to our hearts. It may be cosy and comfortable or dark and disturbing… or something completely different.

If you have a completed novel or novella which you believe may fit, then send us:

1) The first fifty pages of your work.
2) A synopsis of your work (maximum two pages).
3) A covering letter with a brief overview – we do NOT need you to do a brilliant ‘pitch’ or the kind of blurb which would go on the back of the book. The basic story, main character(s) and the general themes is all we need.

These documents should be Word Documents, size 12 in a standard font, with a line spacing of 1.5.

Please email us at and address them to the Editor Phaidra Robinson.

PM Press Social Media Links:




Good luck to everyone who submits their work! Thank you to Emma at Damp Pebbles and PM Press for inviting me to take part in this exciting call out!

Review: Watermarks: Life, Death and Swimming by Lenka Janiurek (2020) #Watermarks @LenkaJ12 @AllisonandBusby @EmmaFinnigan @damppebbles #damppebblesblogtours

I am really excited to share my thoughts on this moving and beautifully written memoir by Lenka Janiurek. Many thanks to Emma at Damp Pebbles for my spot on the blog tour, and to Emma Finnigan and Allison and Busby for providing me with a proof copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Blurb:

Lenka Janiurek’s story really begins with the death of her mother when she was nine. She is the daughter of a Polish immigrant father, and one of eight children. Across the years she is plagued by the rage, addiction and despair of the controlling men she is closest to. This memoir grapples with identity, of trying to find a place in a world and within a family, that don’t feel like your own.

This remarkable story from the 1960s to the present day, describes the loss of her mother to her relationships with 2 stepmothers, early success as a playwright, extensive travel, and encounters with both extreme wealth and poverty. Throughout Lenka explores and celebrates the beauty and tragedy of living life to the full.

Watermarks is a stunning evocation of alienation, searching, and the restorative power of nature.


Truth, the old saying goes, is stranger than fiction, and one of the main things that struck me about Lenka Janiurek’s compelling memoir is what an utterly unique journey she has had. If this were a novel, you might begin to think that no protagonist could undergo so many transformative experiences, both painful and healing, but the depth of emotion and honesty that Janiurek reveals in this remarkable story could only come through lived experience. The other thing that is clear from the outset of the book is her talent with words. Her prose style is lean and supple, and wonderfully descriptive, and I was drawn in right from the opening passages. The use of the present tense creates a sense not so much of remembering but of reliving, and it is immensely powerful. I was captivated by her story, following Lenka through her life as she negotiates the ebbs and flows of her curious and difficult path, immersed in her beautiful words.

There are many different elements to Lenka’s story, and I don’t want to divulge too much information in this review, as one of the joys of reading a memoir by someone whose life story is not common knowledge is discovering its twists and turns for yourself. Suffice it to say that plenty happens in this book: childhood loss, early success, unhappy relationships, travel, motherhood, spiritual and artistic exploration – the list goes on. I doubt Janiurek ever had the problem that many of us would encounter on considering whether to write our memoirs: “But what on earth would I write about?”

Losing her mother at such a young age is obviously a pivotal moment for Lenka, but what follows is far from a universal story of grief. The idiosyncracies of her scattered upbringing are brought to life through the disorientating but effective jumps in time and location that occur in the spaces between the chapters. This technique creates the sense of rootlessness, of contradictions, and a kind of desperate searching that seems to me to be at the heart of her book. She veers between places and situations in a way that reminded me of theatrical scene changes: when the lights come up on the stage of each new chapter, we are often in entirely new surroundings. From lavish country mansions to basic lodgings, from luxury to only the necessities, Lenka’s story is one of contrasts. The one constant is swimming: water is her element, it is where she feels most at home, and her descriptions of wild swimming in beautiful locations are stunning.

While the narrative drifts in an almost dream-like way from location to location, it is rooted by Janiurek’s sharp, clear-eyed prose. Her language is spare and piercing; the nouns anchor her descriptions in reality: stones, water, buildings, places. As a reader, I felt as if I was seeing through her eyes, which is surely the sign of an incredibly effective memoir. There is a raw honesty here that is brave and deeply moving, but it is tempered by what I came to see as a really strong sense of respect, both for herself and for others: whether she is grappling with her spiritual side (which she approaches with a dose of cynicism, even as she joins a guru in India and free-thinking camps of hippie artists) or examining her fraught relationships with troubled men, it is her story she is telling, not that of her family members or her destructive partners. This is emphasised by the fact that the men in her life are referred to euphemistically, as ‘the tall man’ and so on; the story is not about them, it is about her, and she never attempts to infer the thoughts or feelings of others. There is nothing intrusive about this memoir in terms of those surrounding her – even the men who might seem to deserve harsher treatment in the narrative are not given that power over her story, and this left me full of admiration in ways that I am still thinking about.

Watermarks is an appropriately immersive experience; a dive into a bright, original consciousness whose lived experiences are uniquely and beautifully described. It was a pleasure to see the world through Lenka’s eyes, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in exploring different ways of being. It is a thoughtful, honest, at times almost meditative book, and it had a profound impact on me as a reader. I am grateful that she chose to share her incredible story.

About Lenka Janiurek:

LENKA JANIUREK was born in York. At the age of 17 she won the prestigious Young Writer’s Competition at the Royal Court Theatre and subsequently had three plays on at the Royal Court Theatre, a platform play at the National Theatre, and one at the Other Place with the RSC in Stratford-on-Avon. She has facilitated workshops in writing, drama, art and well-being, in schools, colleges, at camps, and in a women’s prison. And worked as a baker, fundraiser, caretaker, green builder and researcher. She has four children. She lives close to the sea in Wales.

Social Media

Twitter: @LenkaJ12

Purchase Links:

Amazon UK:



Review: You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr (2019)

First of all, there is a bit of a backstory to how I ended up reading this book this month, and since, to misquote Lesley Gore, it’s my blog, and I’ll share if I want to (share if I want to), do please indulge me. In terms of obtaining my physical copy of the book, it was a perfect example of everything I love about Bookish Twitter. I’ve only been active on Twitter for a few months, despite signing up 5 years ago (it seems I signed up and then forgot about it, which may have had something to do with the two small humans who have joined us in the meantime), and it has been a joyous revelation of tribe-finding. Honestly, I love it. And so, briefly: as part of the Stay At Home Litfest, the wonderful @writerlynds ran a competition for a ‘tweet story’, I was one of the winners, and the prize was a book of my choosing. You Will Be Safe Here had been on my radar for a while, and a brilliant review by Ellie (Number 1!) @ReadtoRamble sealed the deal.

I promise I will get to the actual book in a second; I just want to share why this book attracted me. I spent part of my childhood in Namibia, and we visited South Africa often as a family, both from Namibia and for many years after we left. That part of the world means a lot to me. My own novel-in-progress is set in southern Africa. When I was at university, I had the option to study a module on commonwealth and post colonial literature, and, thanks to a wonderfully supportive tutor, I was able to explore some brilliant South African writers in quite a lot of depth. My essays for him were always at least three times the prescribed length: he wrote on one of them: “I see what you mean about having been ‘carried away’!” but he was kind enough to assure me that the content justified the length. The months I spent reading writers such as J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Zakes Mda, Njabulo Ndebele, Andre Brink, Damon Galgut and others represented the first time I had felt totally free to explore my own interests academically, and it was very important to me. So Barr’s book (to cut an overly-long story not terribly short) was not a random choice by any means. Its South African setting made it a must read for me.

You Will Be Safe Here is a beautiful and powerful book. It opens with teenage Willem being taken from his home in Johannesburg to New Dawn Safari Camp by his mother and her boyfriend, a place where they ‘make men out of boys’. After this brief prologue, we are plunged into the past, back to 1901, through the diary of Sarah van der Watt, a Boer farmer’s wife whose husband is fighting the British and who finds herself and her young son taken to the concentration camp at Bloemfontein as part of the British ‘Scorched Earth’ policy during the Second Boer War. During the first half of the novel, Sarah’s gripping story details life in the camp with all its horrors and contradictions – the squalid conditions, the expectation of gratitude towards the British officers, the changing allegiance of the black servants, who realise that for survival they need to be on side with the British. There is an awful lot going on here, and Barr handles it with a delicate, almost poetic touch, never losing sight of the personal stakes. I was fully immersed in the world that the author creates – the use of sensual detail is exquisite, and his metaphors are visceral and surprising. I would have read an entire novel of Sarah’s first person narration quite happily, but Barr has even more spectacular designs with this novel.

From 1901, we jump towards the 21st century in Part Two, pausing to take in key moments from the lives of Willem’s grandmother, Rayna, his mother, Irma and from Willem’s early childhood. Rayna is a fascinating character, a woman who lives on the verge of being an outcast due to having two children by two different men, but whose tenacious survival instinct sees her through. Irma is less sympathetic, particularly as her relationship with Willem grows more fractious, but she is equally complex and intriguing. One of the many things which is extremely well done in this novel is the careful handling of the attitudes of the Afrikaner characters not only towards race (Barr refuses to fall into the trap of giving his older characters more pleasingly enlightened opinions than is realistic – the tangled issue of racism cannot be ignored so easily) but also towards language (Afrikaans vs English), homosexuality, and ideas of masculinity. When Rayna expresses concern over Willem’s ‘softness’, it is clearly a genuine worry, and when we see the repercussions of being regarded as a ‘moffie’ by his peers, this concern seems justified. Irma’s decision to send Willem to New Dawn seems callous, and certainly when the true goings-on at the camp come to light, it is hard not to feel fury towards Willem’s mother, but there is the question of how much we can hold her responsible for responding to the reality of the society they live in. I still haven’t come to a firm conclusion on this one – like all the best books, You Will Be Safe Here will have me pondering such questions for a long time to come.

Again, I would have read a whole novel in the more contemporary Johannesburg setting and thought it quite brilliant, but what Barr achieves with his dual narrative is something absolutely extraordinary. I am probably going to get a bit passionate here, so do excuse me. Literature which shines a light on the dark corners of history seems to me to be absolutely crucial. At school I studied history and learnt about the Tudors and the Nazis on repeat, but it wasn’t until I studied South African literature and other post colonial literature that I started to get any kind of understanding of just how brutal my own country’s recent past had been; the utter devastation of British colonialism came as a shock. And it was fiction that brought it home to me, so to speak. When people dismiss fiction as escapism, I take strong issue with that: I have no doubt that I would know far less about the world without literature, and literature always shows me how much more there is to learn. Damian Barr’s book is essential reading: it is brave, beautiful, gripping and so intelligent about the ripples that reverberate out from history into our present. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I am sure I will be rereading this book.

You Will Be Safe Here is published by Bloomsbury and is out in paperback now.

April 2020 Reading: Girl, Woman, Other; The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually; We Are Animals; Leonard And Hungry Paul; You Will Never Be Forgotten; The Book of Shanghai; A Bookshop in Algiers; Silver Sparrow; The Silence And The Roar; The Codes of Love

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)

I don’t think I really need to convince anyone that this is a book worth reading, considering the amount of press and prizes it has received. I had been saving it for a time when I needed a guaranteed sensational read, and I am glad I did, as it was exactly what was required to cheer up these tough times. Evaristo is a writer so brilliant that I don’t even like to try and analyse her work – it speaks for itself, and it is just outstanding. This book, like a lot of her other work, straddles the fluid border between poetry and prose with ease. The lack of punctuation, which might be gimmicky in a lesser writer’s hands, quickly becomes part of the wave that carries the reader through this story of twelve characters, whose lives overlap but are sufficiently distinct to give the book an ‘anthology’ feel. If you haven’t read this yet, you are in for a treat.

The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually by Helen Cullen (2020)

This book is coming out in August, and it is simply beautiful. I wrote a detailed review here. You do not want to miss this exceptional novel. It is an exquisite book that I know I will be rereading, and I am already looking forward to doing so. I have also bought her first novel, The Lost Letters of William Woolf, and will be reading it soon – look out for my review.

We Are Animals by Tim Ewins (2020)

This debut novel is funny, fresh and more than a little bit different. I came across it via Tim Ewins’ hilarious ‘lockdown readings’ on Twitter – if ever an author has earned your 99p for their book, his heroic efforts certainly have. My full review is here – do check it out.

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession (2019)

A beautiful, gentle book which I have reviewed here. Highly recommended – it is just lovely, and it ends with the best final sentence I have read in a very long time. I can’t think of a more soothing book for these times.

You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South (2020)

This is a startlingly original short story collection; in my review here I mention that it reminds me of Black Mirror. South is a rare talent. This is bold, innovative fiction with a strong voice, and I will definitely be looking out for more from this author in the future.

The Book of Shanghai edited by Dai Congrong and Dr Jin Li (2020)

I reviewed this outstanding collection of translated short stories here. Published by Comma Press, it takes the reader on an immersive literary tour of Shanghai and introduces a huge range of memorable characters. It is the first book I have read from Comma Press’s ‘Reading the City’ series, and I am very keen to check out more of them.

(Aside: I was pleased to manage to read two short story collections this month, but I have still read less short fiction than I normally do so far this year, so do hit me up with your suggestions for short story writers/anthologies.)

A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi, translated by Chris Andrews (2020)

I won a proof copy of this book in a giveaway. I was very excited by its premise – the combination of a bookshop and an exotic location sounded absolutely perfect, but unfortunately it wasn’t for me. This is an interesting, well-written book, and I learned a lot about Algiers, but the fractured structure of the book, and in particular the short, time-skimming diary entries from the bookshop’s original owner, left me feeling as if I never quite got inside the story. There is a lot of detail about the ins and outs of being a bookseller/publisher, and I could imagine this appealing to anyone who works in that industry, but personally I just couldn’t find a foothold with this story.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (2011)

I have to admit, I didn’t realise at first that this novel was published before An American Marriage and reprinted due to that novel’s enormous success. I was a big fan of An American Marriage, and if anything I loved this book even more. The sensationlism of its premise, and its opening line: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” belies the subtlety with which Jones explores the complex family dynamics at play. The novel is divided into two parts, narrated by James’ two daughters, Dana, his ‘secret’ child, and Chaurisse, his daughter from his ‘conventional’ marriage. The structure works very well: both Dana and Chaurisse are engaging characters, and it was interesting to see both sides.

Dana is a more instantly intriguing character, and I was concerned that I would not enjoy the second half of the narrative, from Chaurisse’s point of view, as much, but in fact it adds a depth and nuance that only enhances the experience of reading this story. Although it is a bold choice to explore James and Laverne’s early relationship through the lens of their daughter’s narrative, it is surprisingly effective, and by the end of the novel, I felt as if I had been fully immersed in these characters’ complex lives. This is the kind of emotionally powerful novel that I really enjoy, and I would definitely recommend it.

The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees, translated by Max Weiss (2013)

This is the first book I have read by Syrian writer Nihad Sirees, but it will certainly not be the last. Syria is a country very close to my heart; my parents lived there when I was at university, and I went back there for my first teaching job after they had left. My affection for the friends I made there has had a real impact on how I perceive the ever-worsening news coming from that country; it pains me so much to see what has happened in Syria over the last decade. And yet, to my shame, I have read very little Syrian literature. This book turned out to be an excellent place to start.

The Silence and The Roar, which was published in Arabic in 2004, is set in an unspecified country, with details left deliberately vague. The unnamed Leader, a dictator whose cult of personality dominates every aspect of his citizens’ lives, is celebrating 20 years of rule. The ‘roar’ of his regime drowns out individualism and thought, and is contrasted with the stubborn, quiet resistance of the narrator, a blacklisted writer. The protagonist’s first person narrative only covers about 24 hours, but during this time we see the struggle he faces to hold onto his principles in the face of the regime. At times, the Orwellian nature of the novel reminded me of Anna Burns’ brilliant novel, Milkman, which I read last month. Like that novel, The Silence and the Roar also features an engaging, sympathetic, humorous protagonist. But it also brought back strong memories of the wallpapered pictures of Assad I saw everywhere in Damascus, even back before anyone could have imagined what he was truly capable of. My personal connection with this novel definitely enhanced the experience of reading it, but I also think that it is a deeply important book that should be widely read.

The Codes of Love by Hannah Persaud (2020)

My final read for April was one that I had been looking forward to, and while it was quite different to what I had imagined, it did not disappoint. My full review of Hannah Persaud’s intelligent and intricate novel is here. Persaud is definitely an author I will be looking out for in the future.

I’ve had another varied and exciting month of reading, which makes me very happy. I have also managed to catch up a bit and am back on track for my target of 100 books this year.

I’d love to know if you’ve read/are planning to read any of the books above, and of course, always, always, always hit me up with your reading recommendations. I have discovered so many fantastic authors since joining the bookish community on Twitter – I feel like I have discovered a not-so-secret treasure map!

Happy reading!

Review: The Codes of Love by Hannah Persaud (2020)

I have been keen to read this for a while, and was excited to finally embark upon it this month. It is a tricky one to review because the plot is full of unexpected twists and turns: the fewer spoilers the better, so I will keep this brief.

The novel is an exploration of relationships and marriage, and takes the form of chapters headed with “Rules For An Open Marriage”. Initially I anticipated a study of a mutually agreed open marriage and how it worked for one couple (no doubt with difficulties along the way), but the story that Persaud presents is far more complex and nuanced than this. I actually found it quite shocking to discover that only Emily had wanted an open marriage, and that Ryan’s agreement was not only reluctant but very nearly coerced. At first, this gave me much more sympathy for Ryan than for his wife, but gradually Emily’s reasons, both explicit and implied, became clearer to me, and I think by the end of the novel she was the character I felt I most understood.

Although I occasionally struggled with the fact that the characters are really quite unpleasant to each other, that reflects more on my naive desire to have a ‘good guy’ to root for than on the book itself. The lack of emotional warmth is deliberate, I think, showing how relationships are in many ways contracts, with some of the terms and conditions clearly understood and others inscrutable and changing over time. This is an intellectually rigorous novel, reminding me of Sally Rooney and Tessa Hadley in its almost forensic dissection of the ways we interact with those we claim to love. At one point, a character on the periphery of the story comments explicitly on that ‘fine line’ between love and hate; indeed, the antagonistic way in which couples often interact is uncomfortably highlighted in this novel. The edge of dislike in much of the dialogue cuts close to the bone, and makes for an unsettling read. Fans of cosy romantic tales will find no refuge here.

Persaud excels at setting, and the Welsh cottage which features heavily in the story is practically a character in its own right. I could clearly picture its sloping croft, the open fire, the newly made staircase, and the nearby mountain. The physical distance between the cottage and London provides an opportunity for the characters to almost become different people in different locations, which, without saying more, works very well for this story. She also writes well about physical injury (as a clumsy person myself, I get mildly annoyed when fictional characters seem to sail through life without so much as a stubbed toe) and at various points this awareness of physical frailty creates a thrilling sense of danger. Recklessness is an important theme here, and the isolation of the cottage is effective in upping the stakes.

The story is far from straightforward, and Persaud does a very good job of balancing its many strands and its non-linear chronology. She also weaves in elements that are surprising and tantalising – a hint of other genres such as horror and crime that deepen the flavour of the book and show the writer’s range. At times I wanted to follow these threads further, although I can see why they are left as suggestions here. I think there is a lot more to come from this author, and I am excited to read more of her work in the future.

The Codes of Love by Hannah Persaud is out now, published by Muswell Press.