Review: The Growing Season by Helen Sedgwick

growing season.pngThe Premise (from NetGalley): Now anyone can have a baby.
With FullLife’s safe and affordable healthcare plan, why risk a natural birth?
Just choose the colour of your pouch and its accessories.
Without the pouch, Eva might not have been born. And yet she has sacrificed her career, and maybe even her relationship, campaigning against FullLife’s biotech baby pouches. Despite her efforts, everyone prefers a world where women are liberated from danger and constraint and all can share the joy of childbearing. Perhaps FullLife has helped transform society for the better? But just as Eva decides to accept this, she discovers that something strange is happening at FullLife.
Piotr hasn’t seen Eva in years. Not since their life together dissolved in tragedy. But Piotr’s a journalist who has also uncovered something sinister about FullLife. What drove him and Eva apart may just bring them back together, as they search for the truth behind FullLife’s closed doors, and face a truth of their own.

Thoughts: The Growing Season presents its reader with a really interesting premise; what would the consequences be if pregnancy took place outside of the womb? Women would no longer suffer the risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth; a greater sense of equality could be achieved in relationships and workplaces. At least those seem to be the justifications for the large-scale adoption of pouches as a means of producing children in The Growing Season.

The novel follows a range of people involved in the process. A mysterious character writes to an old friend from a secluded lighthouse, seemingly ashamed by their role in the creation of the pouches. Holly, the first woman ever to use one, awaits the pouch-birth of her great-grandchild. Piotr, a journalist, looks out for a scoop that will make his career, while his ex-partner, Eva, also investigates FullLife and remembers her mother, who campaigned against the organisation before her death. There’s a lot going on, and it’s a little confusing to begin with, but the disparate strands do come together satisfyingly by the end.

The Growing Season made me think a lot about birth, babies and equality. It’s unclear in the book whether women became scared of childbirth and that’s why the pouches were invented, or whether they’ve become scared because of the availability of a simpler option. I am always really baffled when people romanticise natural childbirth as something magical and lovely; I’ve done it. It’s a biologically impressive means to an end; it’s not something I recall with great affection. But, equally, it’s not something to fear, so I found myself getting quite angry with the views of FullLife. I would also question whether such a system would really create gender equality; without pregnancy and childbirth, would women suddenly not be expected to perform the majority of childcare? I’m skeptical. But reading something that encourages the asking of so many big questions is a weird kind of treat; I finished The Growing Season with lots of questions about how realistic its premise is, as well as the implications within the book.

In Conclusion: a strange but compelling book, The Growing Season is worth reading. I think it was compared to The Handmaid’s Tale in a marketing email, which is why I requested a copy; it’s not actually anything like Atwood’s book, but it does raise questions about fertility and equality in intriguing ways.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Is ‘Dysfunctional Family Fiction’ A Genre? It is Now.

This week’sTTT, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is all about the hidden gems of a particular genre. For some reason, I have found this topic really difficult, mainly because I don’t particularly read genres. Or do I? I don’t even know. Anyway, I’ve invented one; it’s called Dysfunctional Families and it should definitely have its own section in Waterstones.

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
A classic trope of this genre I have just invented is the dead relative/bizarre will, which is what happens here when all of a great aunt’s heirs are left a seed pod. They’re all pretty awful (the heirs, not the seeds) and my mum disliked this book because they all swore too much.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
I really liked this book and its crazy family, with parents to whom everything is a performance and their grown-up children who would really prefer it wasn’t.

A Semi Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland
This new YA novel features a family torn to pieces by a curse and a selection of crippling phobias. Esther always dresses in costume. Her brother is so scared of the dark that he tapes over light switches to stop anyone turning them off. Oh, and the grandad is sort-of mates with the Grim Reaper. Standard.

The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver
I can’t think of any of Shriver’s books that feature a properly functioning family unit, but this is a particularly fine example of a group of relations who should just cut their losses and leave each other alone. Living through the complete financial collapse of the USA doesn’t really help.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
I finally read this a few weeks ago and, like all Morrison’s novels, it features a family with some serious issues. Sethe had four children, but two left home and another remains only as a ghost: the eponymous Beloved. This book is super creepy.

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Generations of a Jewish family find their relationships challenged by their own bad behaviour and a global crisis. I loved this book.

Watch Your Mouth by Daniel Handler
Not so much dysfunctional as completely wrong and illegal. Like, they family are all sleeping together. Yeah, it’s not nice.

If You Look For Me, I Am Not There by Sarayu Srivatsa
A mother loses her daughter, whose twin ends up pretending to be his sister. It’s confusing.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie’s books all feature dysfunctional characters, and this one shows the effects of a religious fanatic father on his children.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Obviously this would be a family-in-crisis kind of book, taking its inspiration from Cain and Abel. Also it features one of my favourite messed-up characters of all time in Cathy Ames.

I love a fictional dysfunctional family, so if you have any more novels from this genre I’ve invented to recommend, go right ahead.

Review: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

my absolute darling.pngThe Premise: (from NetGalley)
At 14, Turtle Alveston knows the use of every gun on her wall;
That chaos is coming and only the strong will survive it;
That her daddy loves her more than anything else in this world.
And he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her with him.

She doesn’t know why she feels so different from the other girls at school;
Why the line between love and pain can be so hard to see;
Why making a friend may be the bravest and most terrifying thing she has ever done
And what her daddy will do when he finds out …

Sometimes strength is not the same as courage.
Sometimes leaving is not the only way to escape.
Sometimes surviving isn’t enough.

Thoughts: If good literature is writing that can shock and alarm the reader long after it’s been read, then My Absolute Darling is really bloody good literature. I was disturbed and discomforted by it from the beginning, with Turtle’s relationship with her terrifying father outlined in no uncertain terms from the outset. I found everything about Martin horrifying and upsetting; while the violence and, particularly, the language is gratuitous at times, it all serves to ensure the reader is completely focused on willing Turtle to escape. And, good grief, did I want Turtle to escape. Midway through the book, I felt like I’d actually forgotten she was a fictional character, such was the depth of my emotional involvement.

When she does, fleetingly, manage to evade her father, she encounters two slightly older boys, who represent an entirely different tone to what has been established in the claustrophobic early sections of the novel. I’m not sure any high school boy ever talked the way these two do, but I loved their pseudo-intellectual banter and Turtle’s flabbergasted response to them. It added much-needed comic relief in an otherwise bleak atmosphere, and was an effective way of showing the vast different between Turtle’s reality and theirs.

The sense of danger and abject fear increases later on, culminating in a return to the claustrophobic terror of the beginning; it’s just one aspect of the novel’s genius. Turtle becomes a more compelling character as the novel goes on; she’s a really memorable figure.

In Conclusion: My Absolute Darling is a knock-out read; I found it difficult to go on at times, such is the level of trauma inflicted, but it’s an extraordinarily effective book that produces an immense impact. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, primarily because of the harshness of the content and language; I’ve seen it compared to A Little Life, which I haven’t read, but I know that book disturbed some people so a warning is probably needed. My Absolute Darling is a visceral and powerful book on its own terms, however, and one which I’m unlikely to forget in a hurry.

Review: What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

what it means.jpgThe Premise: the daughters, wives and mothers in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s remarkable debut collection find themselves in extraordinary situations: a woman whose mother’s ghost appears to have stepped out of a family snapshot, another who, exhausted by childlessness, resorts to fashioning a charmed infant out of human hair, a ‘grief worker’ with a miraculous ability to remove emotional pain – at a price. What unites them is the toughness of the world they inhabit, a world where the future is uncertain, opportunities are scant, and fortunes change quicker than the flick of a switch.

Thoughts: this has been one of my most anticipated reads of 2017 and it didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of short story collections (a recent development, perhaps due to my dwindling attention span) and what I particularly liked about this one was the way Arimah manages to balance variety with consistency; sometimes the stories of a collection are too samey but, equally, if they’re too different, it’s hard to flit between wildly varied plots. This is managed really well here, with an intriguing mix of emotive family-based narratives and some beautifully executed magical realism. If you’ve read and enjoyed Roxane Gay’s excellent Difficult Women, I recommend this.

Relationships are a key feature, with mothers and daughters cropping up frequently, along with culture clashes between the USA and Nigeria that reminded me of the imperious Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Fathers feature too, with the story Light having a particularly strong effect on me. There’s a focus throughout on close bonds and the claustrophobic effect these can produce, also seen in the story Buchi’s Girls. Who Will Greet You At Home is exactly the kind of odd and unsettling story I seek out in collections like this one; its focus on a woman making a baby out of whatever she can find is both heartbreaking and creepy, justifying other comparisons I’ve seen between Lesley Nneka Arimah’s writing and the stories of Helen Oyeyemi. I loved the title story, with its portrayal of a strange, futuristic world in which people are curiously divided and reliant on a Formula to make sense of the world around them; this story is one that left me yearning for more, desperate for a full-length novel about the Mathematicians and an Earth redrawn by environmental catastrophe.

In Conclusion: What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky is definitely a book I want to revisit. Sometimes I feel like reading on my Kindle prevents me from fully immersing myself in a story, and I’ll ensure I buy a ‘proper’ copy of this so I can appreciate once again Arimah’s exquisite prose and glorious narratives.