Review: The Servant by Maggie Richell-Davies (2020)

The Servant by Maggie Richell-Davies

Blurb

1765.

London.

Young Hannah Hubert may be the granddaughter of a French merchant and the daughter of a Spitalfields silk weaver, but she has come down in the world.

Sent one spring day as maidservant to a disgraced aristocrat, she finds herself in a house full of mysteries – with a locked room and strange auctions being held behind closed doors.

As a servant, she has little power but – unknown to her employers – she can read. And it is only when she uses her education to uncover the secrets of the house, that she realises the peril she is in.

Hannah is unable to turn to the other servant, Peg, who is clearly terrified of their employers and keeps warning her to find alternative work.

But help might come from Thomas, the taciturn farmer delivering milk to the neighbourhood, or from Jack Twyford, a friendly young man apprenticed to his uncle’s bookselling business. Yet Thomas is still grieving for his late wife – and can she trust Jack, since his uncle is one of her master’s associates?

Hannah soon discovers damning evidence she cannot ignore.

She must act alone, but at what price?

Review

I am extremely grateful to the author for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I was very intrigued by the description of The Servant: genre-blending historical fiction with a strong female protagonist ticks a lot of boxes for me, and I am delighted to say I was not disappointed. This is a brilliant, powerful book.

The story is narrated by the servant, Hannah, in vivid present tense. Rich in sensory detail and expertly crafted, the narrative feels completely immersive, and allying us so closely with Hannah’s experiences has the effect of drawing the reader right into the book, in a way which is almost suffocating at times, echoing Hannah’s suffering. It is incredibly effective, removing the barrier between protagonist and reader, putting us in Hannah’s place, and I have to say that during some of the more traumatic experiences, I had to come up for air and escape for a short while. It does get dark, and I would advise readers who find themselves triggered to tread carefully. But it is also, I think, one of the most realistic portrayals of servitude that I have ever read – Hannah’s desperate situation rings true. This is not a caper or a jolly, this is the harsh, brutal existence that many in her position would have faced.

Hannah herself is a strong woman in an appalling situation. I had some frustrations with her as a character at points because she closed herself off from a path of escape due to her principles, but this was a sign that she had become so real to me that I felt annoyed with her for not doing what I wanted her to do! Her relationship with Peg is touching and original, and I was glad she had at least one companion she could trust. Her fear of men, which understandably grows as the novel progresses, highlights her vulnerability in the male-dominated world she exists in, and had me aching in sympathy for her. The sense of not knowing who to trust, of not being able to rely on anyone except herself and poor, beaten-down Peg, looms tragically over the story, and eventually I came to understand her actions more and more. The author deftly avoids neat solutions and happy ever after cliches, bringing to bear a modern understanding of the effects of repeated trauma and suffering.

The Servant is an extremely well-written, powerful novel, which draws the reader into its dark, sometimes terrifying world and offers an examination of the real consequences of the class system at the time. It is brutal but skillful, encompassing big themes of power, corruption, education, and so on, while remaining focused on the story of one individual whose life was not counted as important by so many around her. At its best, historical fiction gives a voice to the forgotten, and Maggie Richell-Davies pays respect to the women of Hannah’s class by doing just that. This was an emotional, immersive, utterly engrossing read, and I am very glad I had the opportunity to follow Hannah on her journey.

The Servant by Maggie Richell-Davies is published by Sharpe Books and is available to purchase here.

Review: Three Rival Sisters by Marie-Louise Gagneur translated by Anna Aitken and Polly Mackintosh

Blurb

Much acclaimed amongst her contemporaries and yet all but forgotten today, Marie-Louise Gagneur was a defining voice in French feminism. These stories, translated into English for the first time, critique the restrictions of late nineteenth-century society and explore the ways in which both men and women are hurt by rigid attitudes towards marriage.

In ‘An Atonement’, the Count de Montbarrey awakes one morning to find his wife dead, leaving him free to marry the woman he really loves. Could the Count have accidentally killed his wife? And how can he atone for his crime?

‘Three Rival Sisters’ tells the story of the rivalry between Henriette, Renée and Gabrielle as they compete for the affections of one man. But marriage does not necessarily guarantee happiness, as the sisters are about to find out.

Steeped in wit, empathy and biting social criticism, and with echoes of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin, these stories show Gagneur to be worthy of renewed attention.

Review

I was lucky enough to win an ARC of this book, which is part of Gallic’s Revolutionary Women series, and I will definitely be checking out the other titles. I always think it is quite exciting to read an older book which has been translated for the first time: there is a sense of rediscovery, of hidden treasure coming to the surface.

This book is made up of two stories, the title ‘Three Rival Sisters’ and ‘An Atonement’. Taken together, they give a wonderful flavour of Marie-Louise Gagneur’s style and concerns. The tone is acerbic, dripping in irony, revelling in melodrama while undercutting it with sharp wit. Imagine a French Jane Austen: more stylish, darker, Galouises cigarette dangling from a painted lip as she jabs into the hypocrisies of the French upper classes with her pen.

In the first story, the sisters compete for the affections of the entirely unworthy Monsieur de Vaudrey, whose arrival provides intrigue and excitement in their mundane lives, but also tears them apart. There is an arch knowingness to the writing, as Gagneur draws attention to the conventions of novels of the day, establishing a delicious complicity with the reader in which the artifice is both exposed and scrutinised:

“Let us, then, bring our modest tale to its quiet conclusion, and put aside the conventions of storytelling with their twists, turns and entanglements.” (p.71)

Despite the acid wit, there are notes of tenderness, particularly in her descriptions of the relationship between the two younger sisters, Gabrielle and Renee. Cynicism may be the key flavour here, but there is enough heart to engage the reader and to save the story from total parody. In ‘An Atonement’, too, there are hints of real love and hope and conflict which stand out as nuggets of truth amidst the melodrama.

The translators, Anna Aitken and Polly Mackintosh, have done a great service in bringing these stories to an English readership. There is enough that will be familiar to readers of nineteenth century literature to enable them to quickly immerse themselves, while the delightfully sharp edge adds fresh bite to this style of tale. I highly recommend this book, and will be keeping my eye on future publications from this publisher.

Three Rival Sisters is published by Gallic Books and is available to purchase here.

Review: The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor (2020)

The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor

Blurb

July, 1962
 
Sixteen year-old Evie Epworth stands on the cusp of womanhood. But what kind of a woman will she become?
 
The fastest milk bottle-delivery girl in East Yorkshire, Evie is tall as a tree and hot as the desert sand. She dreams of an independent life lived under the bright lights of London (or Leeds). The two posters of Adam Faith on her bedroom wall (‘brooding Adam’ and ‘sophisticated Adam’) offer wise counsel about a future beyond rural East Yorkshire. Her role models are Charlotte Bronte, Shirley MacLaine and the Queen. But, before she can decide on a career, she must first deal with the malign presence of her future step-mother, the manipulative and money-grubbing Christine.
 
If Evie can rescue her bereaved father, Arthur, from Christine’s pink and over-perfumed clutches, and save the farmhouse from being sold off then maybe she can move on with her own life and finally work out exactly who it is she is meant to be.  
 
Moving, inventive and richly comic, The Miseducation of Evie Epworth is the most joyful debut novel of the year and the best thing to have come out of Yorkshire since Wensleydale cheese.  

Review

This wonderful debut novel is a breath of fresh air, and the perfect antidote to all the 2020 madness. I am not going to write a long review, because some books lodge themselves firmly in my heart and not my head, and simply deserve to be shouted about as an absolute joy. In a way, I wish I had read this book sooner, but actually, Evie came to me at the perfect time, and reading this novel felt like a warm hug from a friend at a time when warm hugs are hard to come by/legally prohibited.

The book reminded me of Adrian Mole, in that the young protagonist feels so incredibly real that I completely forgot that she was fictional. But of course, Evie is very different from Adrian. Evie ROCKS. She is, in terms of likeability, probably my favourite fictional character that I have met this year. She is such a joyous presence on the page – her voice is authentic, hilarious, realistic despite the crazy circumstances she finds herself in, and, although she is far from annoyingly perfect, she seems to me to represent a really lovely way to live and to be. I honestly think Matson Taylor has created a character whose ability to learn and to change and to grow up without losing the best of childlike joy and innocence is a lesson to us all. We should all try to be a bit more like Evie!

The story itself is funny, poignant, and well-written. The period detail is lovely (I keep using that word because it is such an Evie word!) and despite Taylor’s light, humorous touch, there are plenty of truly moving moments. And also lots of drama, which is a huge amount of fun! The supporting characters are a fabulously eccentric bunch, and I loved – or loved to hate – them all.

I think what I loved most about this book was the way in which it shows, in a completely non-preachy way, how to accept imperfections or disappointments without letting them curb your enthusiasm for life. Life is messy, it is imperfect: sad, crazy, mad, bad, weird stuff is always going to happen, but there is always joy and humour to be found in between.

I am absolutely thrilled to hear that an Evie sequel may be on the way – I would follow her for many, many more books!

The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor is published by Scribner UK and is available to purchase here.

Review: A Necessary Blessing by Sarah Head (2020)

A Necessary Blessing by Sarah Head

Blurb

A stunning novel of family secrets, ancient magic and healing – perfect for fans of Barbara Erskine and Christina Courtenay.

Ruth Turner has a unique ability. She can walk through time, seeing the village, religious community and inhabitants as they used to be. Abandoned by her philandering husband, she makes new friends amongst village leaders, Greg Iles, the village blacksmith, Granny Compson, a retired farmer’s wife and Lord Peter Brazington, the prickly Earl of Haverliegh, owner of Roelswick Estate.

As Ruth learns more about village history, she uncovers many secrets, which change her life and affect her closest friends, putting her at the centre of ghostly retribution. Can she use her new knowledge to unravel the cause of all the trouble before her community is torn apart again?

A Necessary Blessing is the first book in the Roeslwick Chronicles by Sarah Head. Set deep in the heart of the Cotswolds, it charts the story of a rural village where modern and ancient practice work side by side.

Where past beliefs inform present customs, promoting future action, we understand how water is a necessary blessing to us all.

Review

Many thanks to Charlie Farrow for providing me with a digital copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. I was really intrigued by the sound of this book – I didn’t quite know what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised by how quirky and original it is.

The world this novel takes place in is very unusual. While it is set in Roeslwick Village in modern times, it is as if the contemporary gradually recedes as the novel progresses: there is a strong sense of moving back in time, as the traditions and superstitions that link the villagers to their past subsume the touches of modernity that open the book. By the end of the novel, it is almost a shock when email or mobiles or Landrovers are mentioned, as I really felt as if I was reading historical fiction by that point. I can’t think of anything else I have read which does this in quite the same way – it is strikingly original.

The large cast of characters are all vividly drawn and their individual personalities come through as the story unfolds. However, there is also a strong sense of the collective, of a community bound together by its history and its rituals. Ruth is an interesting guide to follow as she is seemingly an outsider, but gradually becomes more and more inextricably linked with the village. For me, the supernatural storyline worked well, and I liked that the majority of the characters seemed surprisingly unperturbed by the existence of a spirit world alongside their own – it added to the sense of quirkiness and strangeness!

The novel is fast-paced and very visual – action scenes are dramatically described, and the village itself provides a convincingly constructed stage for this bizarre events to play out on. It occurred to me more than once that it would make a fantastic TV adaptation! The conclusion is satisfying, but with a hint of more to come, and I do think Roelswick would be an interesting place to revisit. The rich folklore and mysterious goings-on are underpinned by solid characters that engage the reader’s sympathy. I very much enjoyed the way this book started out quite conventionally, with a woman escaping a bad marriage, and then quite quickly became something very unconventional indeed! You certainly need to be able to suspend your disbelief to fully enjoy this book, but if you are prepared to go with the flow and let the excitement carry you away, you’re in for a fun ride!

A Necessary Blessing by Sarah Head is published by Heresy Publishing and is available to purchase here.

Review: In the Sweep of the Bay by Cath Barton (2020) @CathBarton1 @LouiseWalters12 @damppebbles #damppebblesblogtours #InTheSweepOfTheBay

In the Sweep of the Bay by Cath Barton

Blurb

This warm-hearted tale explores marriage, love, and longing, set against the majestic backdrop of Morecambe Bay, the Lakeland Fells, and the faded splendour of the Midland Hotel.

Ted Marshall meets Rene in the dance halls of Morecambe and they marry during the frail optimism of the 1950s. They adopt the roles expected of man and wife at the time: he the breadwinner at the family ceramics firm, and she the loyal housewife. But as the years go by, they find themselves wishing for more…

After Ted survives a heart attack, both see it as a new beginning… but can a faded love like theirs ever be rekindled?

“A tender and moving study of a marriage” Alison Moore, author of the Booker short listed
The Lighthouse

Review

I have been really looking forward to reading this novella, having heard wonderful things about it. Thank you so much to Emma at Damp Pebbles, Louise Walters Books and to the author for having me on the blog tour and providing a digital copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

I don’t think I have actually read all that many novellas, and certainly not recently, so I was very excited to read this one. The first thing to say is that Cath Barton has chosen her form perfectly. The narrow, specific location works extremely well in a book of this length, and the sweep of years it covers are given more space to breathe than they would be in a short story. Time is extremely well-handled in this book – it feels neither rushed nor too slow, rather an expertly judged dipping in and out of the lives of the characters, which just so precisely matches the beautiful cover image – the very structure of the story really did conjure up a feeling of swooping gulls dipping their beaks into an ocean, skimming and tasting, giving us glimpses of lives that feel full and realistically drawn.

The framing device of the narrator worked really well for me, and I grew very fond of the characters very quickly. Ted and Rene’s story is resonant with simple, quiet dignity and sadness. This is an elegant story, evoking an old-fashioned and yet timeless quality. It reminded me of Clare Chambers’ book Small Pleasures, which I read earlier this year – a careful, detailed rendering of the small, important things in life. The links between the characters are satisfying and add to the sense of completeness and roundness.

Cath Barton’s writing is wonderful. Parts of the book, particularly the natural descriptions, are lyrical and poetic, creating a soothing rhythm that washes over you. The dialogue feels real, and the little details added to descriptions are finely judged, never overdone. There is a quiet confidence bubbling beneath the surface of this gentle book, and also a delicious sense of humour that peeks through the poignancy. It is a delight to read, and I reached the end with regret, but nevertheless pleasantly sated by the experience of reading this story.

All in all, this is a perfectly formed novella. It is gentle yet poignant, expertly crafted and delicately gilded with the aches of love and disappointment. It feels true and beautiful, and I was deeply moved by it. I highly recommend this book, and I look forward to reading more by Cath Barton in the future.

About the Author

Cath Barton lives in Abergavenny. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella in 2017 for The Plankton Collector, which was published in September 2018 by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. She also writes short stories and flash fiction and, with her critical writing, is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review. In the Sweep of the Bay is her second novella. 

Social Media

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CathBarton1

Website: https://cathbarton.com/

Louise Walters Books: https://www.louisewaltersbooks.co.uk/cath-barton

Purchase Links

Louise Walters Books: https://www.louisewaltersbooks.co.uk/shop-1

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/3ez3EwP

Amazon US: https://amzn.to/3k7aVF6

Foyles: https://bit.ly/2U0o3Bs

Book Depository: https://bit.ly/3ka6d9Hhttps://bit.ly/3ka6d9H

Kobo: https://bit.ly/2U5Nm5c

Review: Everything Is Fine by Gillian Harvey (2020)

Everything Is Fine by Gillian Harvey

Blurb

Jessica Bradley has it all: the perfect boyfriend; influential healthy-eating blog; successful PR company and wonderful daughter, Anna. Or at least that is what her thousands of followers believe.

The truth is, her boyfriend just broke up with her in four words on a post-it; her zest for healthy-eating has all but disappeared; her PR success is all reliant on her now not-so-honest online-life and she just got caught eating her daughter’s Coco-Pops.

So as they say: fake it ’til you make it. A few little white lies and phoney smiling selfies and Jess can keep up appearances. But when her real-life starts to spiral out of control how can Jess tell the truth from the lies? And will she be able to seize real happiness when it is right in front of her?

Hilarious, heart-warming and oh-so relatable, Everything Is Fine is perfect for fans of Louise Pentland, Anna Bell and Lindsey Kelk.

Review

I am extremely grateful to the author for providing me with a digital copy in exchange for an honest review. This is not my typical genre, but if you are one of my regular followers (hi both!) you’ll know that I firmly believe in mixing things up when it comes to my reading. Variety is the spice of life, and all. With the weather turning grey and the relentless slog of 2020 madness showing no signs of letting up, the best thing to do is, of course, LAUGH.

I laughed A LOT while reading this book. I loved the way Jessica’s problems always seemed to begin as something utterly relatable and then gradually started to spin out of control and tumble into the realm of ridiculousness. The situations she finds herself in rival Bridget Jones herself for sheer farcical comedy value, but since much of the delight is in the element of surprise, I shan’t elaborate further. No spoilers here.

While the comedy in this novel is big, and the scenarios burst joyously against the seams of credibility, there are kernels of truth and poignancy which point to the fact that this is also a book with a big heart, and a sharp eye for the idiosyncratic ironies of modern life. It feels especially relevant to me as someone newly fumbling around the world of social media (not that I would ever consider myself an ‘influencer’ – as I have said before, I am at most a ‘tentative suggester’), but it is certainly the case that questions of how much to share of your true self online, or how different each version of our ‘selves’ can be, is one that plays on my mind, as I suspect it does with many of us. (My sister likes to tease me about my bookstagram pics of neat stacks on pristine mantelpieces, knowing full well, as she does, that behind me is a scene of utter chaos and carnage). Everything is Fine takes this idea to the extreme, tethering Jessica to a version of herself from which she she feels she cannot escape, and though there is a lot of humour to be derived from the disparity between her social media self and her IRL self, I think the author has really tapped into something that affects a lot of us, probably more than we care to admit.

But hey, let’s not get too serious here, this is supposed to be fun, after all. And it really is – complicated, messy, 21st century fun, with a cast of characters that each add sparkle and intrigue to Jessica’s story. I loved the portrayal of her daughter, Anna, and found the cosy home-spun wisdom of Jessica’s client, Remembering Rainbows author Robert, endearing and sweet. I don’t mind admitting I tried a couple of his tips out to cheer myself up. They do actually work. As for Dave, he deserves a thump, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why.

This was a lovely, quick read which lifted my spirits and made me laugh. And in 2020, you can’t say fairer than that.

Everything Is Fine by Gillian Harvey is published by Orion and is available to purchase here.

Review: The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (2019)

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

Blurb

London. 1850. On a crowded street, the dollmaker Iris Whittle meets the artist Louis Frost. Louis is a painter who yearns to have his work displayed in the Royal Academy, and he is desperate for Iris to be his model. Iris agrees, on the condition that he teaches her to paint.

Dreaming of freedom, Iris throws herself into a new life of art and love, unaware that she has caught the eye of a second man. Silas Reed is a curiosity collector, enchanted by the strange and beautiful. After seeing Iris at the site of the Great Exhibition he finds he cannot forget her.

As Iris’s world expands, Silas’s obsession grows. And it is only a matter of time before they meet again . . .

Review

I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, so when I got the chance to pick a book for a readalong with some of my fab @The_WriteReads crew on Twitter, I snuck this one in. It is, by the way, the perfect book for group discussion – the only problem we had is that there was possibly TOO much to say about it! I’m delighted that The Motherload Book Club on Facebook will also be discussing The Doll Factory this month, so I get another chance to chat about this wonderfully immersive, delightfully dark book!

The setting is fantastic. 1850s London comes alive in the novel’s pages, aided by the vivid present tense and the carefully crafted details which build up a world around the reader, so that you really feel as if you are there. The level of sensory detail lends a heady atmosphere of total immersion that serves the story incredibly well. The novel ranges widely, taking in all walks of life, from shopkeepers to artists to street urchins, transporting us from galleries to alleyways, and there is a wonderful sense of the author taking the reader by the hand and running at full pelt through a city caught in a moment in time, delightedly showing off both its glamour and its seedy underbelly. I loved the scenes at the Great Exhibition, and the contrast between that huge collaborative grand endeavour and Silas’ gloomy shop, with its dark cellar beneath it.

Silas is a complex, sinister character whose growing obsession with Iris drives the novel. Iris herself is equally complicated, and her relationships with the other characters are well-drawn and realistically tangled. I enjoyed watching her escape the confines of her narrow existence in the hope of making a new life for herself, and I liked the way several narrative threads play out at once in the book. It gives the story a depth and a kind of roundness, which takes me back to that feeling of being totally immersed in the world of the novel.

This novel is exactly the sort of historical fiction I enjoy: vividly detailed, atmospheric, and full of unexpected events. I couldn’t finish my review without a shout-out to my two favourite characters, the heroes of our readalong chat: Albie and Guinevere. Read this book to meet them, and for many other reasons. I’m really looking forward to reading more work by this author in the future.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is out now, published by Picador, and is available to purchase here.

Review: Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat (2019)

Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat

Blurb

WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD
WINNER OF THE STORY PRIZE
WINNER OF THE 2020 VILCEK PRIZE IN LITERATURE

From the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of Brother, I’m Dying, a collection of vividly imagined stories about community, family, and love.

Rich with hard-won wisdom and humanity, set in locales from Miami and Port-au-Prince to a small unnamed country in the Caribbean and beyond, Everything Inside is at once wide in scope and intimate, as it explores the forces that pull us together, or drive us apart, sometimes in the same searing instant.

In these eight powerful, emotionally absorbing stories, a romance unexpectedly sparks between two wounded friends; a marriage ends for what seem like noble reasons, but with irreparable consequences; a young woman holds on to an impossible dream even as she fights for her survival; two lovers reunite after unimaginable tragedy, both for their country and in their lives; a baby’s christening brings three generations of a family to a precarious dance between old and new; a man falls to his death in slow motion, reliving the defining moments of the life he is about to lose.

This is the indelible work of a keen observer of the human heart–a master at her best.

Review

A few months ago, I reviewed Dancers on the Shore by William Melvin Kelley, a collection of short stories republished this year by riverrun. The stories blew me away, to the point where I couldn’t believe I hadn’t come across the writer before. With this book by Edwidge Danticat, out with the same publisher, that feeling came upon me again. A massive thank you to Katya Ellis for my copy, which I received in exchange for an honest review. I am so thrilled to discover a new-to-me author of such incredible talent and poise.

It takes an absolute master of the short story form to do what Danticat does in this stunning collection, which is to cut to the core of human experience. Like Kelley, or like Alice Munro, the stories in this book perform a kind of ‘deep mining’ of psychological and emotional experience, so much so that it reads not like fiction but, as I have previously said of Munro’s work, like documents of human truth. The eight stories in this collection, which together form a beautifully varied record of the Haitian immigrant experience, also reminded me some of the very best of films and literature, the ones which give me the sense that we’re coming in part-way through the story, that the lives of the characters existed before we started reading, and will continue after the final scene. (In case you’re at all interested, Pedro Almodovar’s films also give me this sensation, as well as the short story writers mentioned above.)

Having established that I am firmly of the opinion that this collection is utterly astounding, it is quite hard for me to pick out my favourite stories. Each offers something different; each stands apart from and in relation to the others. If I had to add one to my imaginary anthology of all time greatest short stories (which I really ought to do a write up of one day…) it would be In The Old Days, a delicately balanced, hugely poignant story of a daughter’s return that had me in tears. Other stories which will stay with me for a long time are The Gift, in which the spectre of tragedy hangs over a meeting of former lovers; Hot-Air Balloon, a story whose last line gave me the ‘short story pang’ of emotion; and the final story, Without Inspection, which brings the collection to a surging, impactful (sorry, I shouldn’t pun about such a beautiful book) conclusion.

I find it very hard to write coherent reviews of books which move me as much as Everything Inside did, so I will wrap up here. Suffice it to say that if you read to better understand what it is to be human, what it is to feel, then you will want to read this book. I am desperate to read more by Danticat, and feel lucky to have had the chance to read such a powerful and profound writer.

Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat is published by riverrun and is available now.

Review: I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite (2020)

I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite

Blurb

It’s about time we made motherhood more diverse…

When Candice fell pregnant and stepped into the motherhood playing field, she found her experience bore little resemblance to the glossy magazine photos of women in horizontal stripe tops and the pinned discussions on mumsnet about what pushchair to buy. Leafing through the piles of prenatal paraphernalia, she found herself wondering: “Where are all the black mothers?”.

Candice started blogging about motherhood in 2016 after making the simple but powerful observation that the way motherhood is portrayed in the British media is wholly unrepresentative of our society at large.

The result is this thought-provoking, urgent and inspirational guide to life as a black mother. It explores the various stages in between pregnancy and waving your child off at the gates of primary school, while facing hurdles such as white privilege, racial micro-aggression and unconscious bias at every point. Candice does so with her trademark sense of humour and refreshing straight-talking, and the result is a call-to-arms that will allow mums like her to take control, scrapping the parenting rulebook to mother their own way.

Review

Becoming a mother is utterly terrifying. It is like entering a new universe, one which you know nothing about, where everything is strange and difficult and the highs are so high and the lows are so low. Nothing can really prepare you for it. When I became a mum, I remember feeling completely lost and bewildered. But as I tentatively navigated this brave new world, I took comfort from the support systems: my lovely NCT group, endless hours scrolling on Mumsnet (I never asked anything, I just searched frantically for someone else with the same problem), various online parenting magazines and Facebook groups. Looking back, I took these things for granted. I saw myself and my struggles reflected back at me in the warm, friendly faces and the helpful advice from people who were in a similar position to me. After reading Candice’s book, I have to say, it really hit home just how lucky – and yes, I am going to say it – privileged I was.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to try and negotiate the tricky, sometimes downright traumatic, terrain of pregnancy, birth and motherhood when no one is holding a space for your experiences, when you don’t see yourself reflected back, when issues which are faced by so many mothers are swept under the carpet because they don’t affect white mothers in the same way. I’ve seen the statistic that black women in the UK are five times more likely to die in childbirth several times now, and it never gets any less shocking.

What Candice Brathwaite does so brilliantly in this book is to carve out the space for Black British mothers, to demand it, to show why it is not just necessary but vital. Her personality comes through wonderfully: she is funny, brave and honest, and the trust she places in the reader is an honour not to be underestimated. Her experience at the birth of her first child makes for upsetting reading, as do other incidents where she faces microaggressions and more direct racism in almost every sphere of her life as a working mother.

But this is a hopeful book. It is a powerful, fresh, insightful look at the ways in which spaces CAN be reclaimed, progress CAN be made. Candice states that her primary aim for this book is to help Black British mothers “feel validated and encouraged to take up space.” I can’t speak for that, but to her hope that for all others reading, she can “accurately describe the many hurdles black British mothers are up against,” I can definitely say that this book opened my eyes. I highly recommend this book, and I am very excited to read her next book, out next year.

I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite is out now published by Quercus Books.

Review: Sway by Pragya Agarwal (2020)

Sway by Pragya Agarwal

Blurb

For the first time, behavioural and data scientist, activist and writer Dr Pragya Agarwal unravels the way our implicit or ‘unintentional’ biases affect the way we communicate and perceive the world, how they affect our decision-making, and how they reinforce and perpetuate systemic and structural inequalities.

Sway is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive look at unconscious bias and how it impacts day-to-day life, from job interviews to romantic relationships to saving for retirement. It covers a huge number of sensitive topics – sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, colourism – with tact, and combines statistics with stories to paint a fuller picture and enhance understanding. Throughout, Pragya clearly delineates theories with a solid grounding in science, answering questions such as: do our roots for prejudice lie in our evolutionary past? What happens in our brains when we are biased? How has bias affected technology? If we don’t know about it, are we really responsible for it?

At a time when partisan political ideologies are taking centre stage, and we struggle to make sense of who we are and who we want to be, it is crucial that we understand why we act the way we do. This book will enables us to open our eyes to our own biases in a scientific and non-judgmental way.

Review

As part of my resolve to read more non-fiction last month, I finally read this book, which has been on my shelf for a while. I am so glad I read it, as it is a fascinating, deeply important study that gave me a lot to think about. I took my time with it and made plenty of notes, but I will still be going back to it again and again. I also have her new book, Wish We Knew What To Say, and am very much looking forward to reading it.

The style of the book is comfortingly factual. Dr Pragya Agarwal’s rigorous, meticulously researched exploration of unconscious bias is rooted in scientific evidence and backed up by descriptions of experiments and studies. She does include some personal anecdotes, and I found these touches of personal experience helpful in linking the theories to how they might be manifested in everyday life.

So much in this book is fascinating and eye-opening. I feel I learned a lot about how the brain works, the way it processes information, and how biases often stem from evolutionary responses: survival tactics based on a kind of short-hand of threat assessment. The author is quick to point out that such instincts are not an excuse to allow unconscious bias to go unchecked: one of the main drives of the book is the hope that by understanding these processes more fully, we can address and change them.

I could go on and on about specific chapters and themes in this book that struck me as deeply important, but I will just highlight a few of the key points that really caught my attention. The distinction between in-groups and out-groups is fascinating, and when the author moves on to discuss the echo chambers that we exist in when we ‘hang out’ on social media with like-minded people, it is increasingly clear just how massive the effect of this has become in our society. The myth of a ‘post-racial’ age is exploded, with Agarwal firmly in agreement that silence is complicity, and that it is not enough to be ‘not racist’ – we must be actively anti-racist if we are to make progress on this front.

Finally, the section on technology opened my eyes to the way in which unconscious bias can have pervasive influence beyond anything I might have imagined. That facial recognition software should carry within it an implicit bias towards whiteness perhaps should not have come as a shock to me, but it did, and the whole notion of AI bias blew my mind wide open.

This book is a comprehensive, fascinating, hugely important study of a topic that we need to address, constantly and consistently, even if it makes us uncomfortable. The situation is not hopeless; as Dr Agarwal states, we must try to find strategies to “mitigate and counter our unconscious biases.” Understanding those biases is the first step. I urge you to read this book: it will change the way you think about the way you think.

Sway by Pragya Agarwal is out now, published by Bloomsbury Sigma, and is available to purchase here.