Quarantine Read-List: Female Authors
Lock-down. The perfect time to fall in love with reading again.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith's first novel, White Teeth, is a novel so rich with the life of London; visuals, scents, sounds, as to have the strength to transport you to the city's busy streets, and almost make you forget the current silence of our times. Following three families of mixed-ethnicity, this powerful novel questions identity, race, culture, prejudice and the theory of nature vs nurture. Samad Iqbal is convinced that British values are corrupting his twin sons, but can only afford to send one to be raised by relatives in Bangladesh. Archie Jones begins New Year 1975 by attempting suicide after his wife leaves him, only for a chance interruption leads instead to his meeting his second wife, the beautiful Clara, a Jamaican woman whose mother raised her as a Jehovah's Witness. As the Jones and Iqbal children reach their teens, we meet the third family of this tale, the white, middle class Chalfen family; Jewish-Catholic liberal intellectuals. As time passes, the lives of the three families become strangely intertwined.
Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tolkarczuk
Polish author Olga Tolkarczuk has certainly reached stellar levels in her career recently. Winning the International Man Booker prize for her novel Flights in 2018, swiftly followed by her being awarded the Nobel Literature Prize for 2018, her name is on the lips of bibliophiles, publishers and booksellers the world over. Therefore, if you haven't already, now is an excellent time to read her excellent works. While Flights, a collection of vignettes loosely connected around the human body, is her better-known novel to have been translated into English, begin instead with Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, the title of which is taken from William Blake's poem, Proverbs of Hell. It tells the tale of the eccentric Janina Duszejko, who lives alone in a rural Polish village. An outspoken feminist and intellectual, and a firm believer in animal rights, she has been ostracised from society as a targowiczanin: a traitor. Meanwhile, a series of mysterious deaths are occurring in the the village, including a local frequent hunter, a fur farmer and a Catholic priest. Controversial in Poland (published during a time when Poland's political leanings have veered sharply to the right), this novel is part murder-mystery, part study on the politics of animal rights and vegetarianism, this dark feminist comedy will undoubtedly stay with you.
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
Published when Sagan was only eighteen, this short novel was an overnight sensation. Seventeen-year-old Cécile spends her summer on the French Riviera with her father Raymond and his latest mistress, Elsa. Cécile and her father live a carefree, amoral existence, under the guidance of Oscar Wilde's quote, 'Sin is the only note of vivid colour that persists in the modern world.' Peace is shattered by the arrival of principled and hard-working Anne, who swiftly replaces Elsa as Raymon's lover, and soon, fiancée. What follows is a spiralling turn of events as Cécile struggles to accept her soon-to-be-stepmother, with disastrous consequences.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Set in the 1960s, The Help tells the tale of three women in Jackson, Mississippi; Aibileen Clark, an African American woman who works as a maid and nanny for the wealthy Leefolt family, Aibileen's friend Minny Jackson, whose refusal to accept the racism and prejudice of her employers has resulted in her being fired from nineteen jobs, and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a young, white woman whose family own a cotton farm. Skeeter returns from university and intends on pursuing a career as a writer, to the dismay of her traditional mother, whose focus is on finding a husband for her daughter. Perplexed by the disappearance of the black maid who raised her, Skeeter notices how differently the farm's black employees are treated compared to white employees, and sets out to write a tell-all documenting the treatment and feelings of black maids in Mississippi. As the three women come together, this is a beautiful, profound novel highlighting discrimination and prejudice, but also friendship and kindness.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
The lesser known Brontë sister, and yet arguably the greatest feminist of them all. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the tale of a mysterious widow, Mrs Helen Graham, the new tenant of Wildfell Hall. The locals are intrigued by her and her past. Though Helen Graham's diaries, we (and our narrator), learn of her past; her marriage to an abusive, substance-abusing husband. Scandalous at the time of publication, this novel shone a beacon on the hypocrisies of Victorian society (and the patriarchy), and its tale of an abusive marriage is, sadly, as relevant today as it was 112 years ago. If you're going to begin with any of the Brontë sisters, begin with Anne. She deserves much more credit than she has ever received, after all.
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
Everyone has heard of Ferrante's masterpiece, The Neapolitan Novels, a series in four parts, telling a tale of a complex friendship between two women, from childhood to adulthood. But fewer people have read her wonderful second novel, The Days of Abandonment. Olga's world falls apart when her husband of fifteen years, Mario, abruptly informs her that he is leaving her. Disbelieving at first, she is soon forced to accept her new reality as a single mother of two children. After discovering the identity of her husband's new love, the woman for whom he left her, Olga's life, and grip on reality, begins to spiral dangerously out of control.
Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky
Arguably Némirovsky's masterpiece, her final, uncompleted novel was hidden in an old suitcase by her daughter for sixty years before its publication in 2004. While the original plan was to write the novel in five parts, Némirovsky achieved only the first two parts and an outline for a third, before her tragic death in 1942, in Auschwitz concentration camp. These writings depict the horrors of France during WW2, and the reality of the occupation. We follow several families as they each attempt to flee Paris under the threat of German invasion. The Péricands head for Nîmes, where they have property, losing relatives on route, while Gabriel Corte flees with his mistress to Vichy, and Charles Langelet, alone in his car, for the Loire. The Michauds, meanwhile, attempt to reach Tours, but are forced to return to Paris. In part two, the German occupation seems almost peaceful, but there is a tension in the air, maintained only by bowing to the every whim of the German army. Lucile Angellier lives in Bussy with her disapproving mother-in-law, and, as theirs is the best town in house, the commanding officer, Bruno von Falk, is billeted to live with them. As time passes, she finds herself unwillingly falling in love with him, but there is bitterness lingering beneath the surface of all things. A vital read, this is undoubtedly one of the most powerful novels to emerge from the second world war.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Kitchen is the tale of a young Japanese woman, Mikage, lover of kitchens and culinary teaching assistant, during her discoveries about food and love amongst a background of tragedy. Struggling to move on after the death of her beloved grandmother, Mikage grows close to one of her grandmother's friends, Yuichi, owner of a flower shop, staying with him and his transgender mother, Eriko. During her stay, she develops affection for Yuichi and Eriko, almost becoming part of their family. A story of grief, relationships and the comforts of home, this is a beautifully lucid, evocative and earnest read.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
During a time when Nigeria was under military dictatorship, two teenagers Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. As many flee the country's totalitarian rule, Ifemelu moves to the United States to study, struggling for the first time with racism and discrimination, and discovering what it means to be a "black person". Obinze's, hopes to join her are dashed when he is denied a visa after 9/11, moving instead to London. Years later, Obinze returns to Nigeria and becomes a wealthy property developer, while Ifemelu gains success in the USA, known for her blog about race in America. When Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, the two meet again, and compare where life has taken them, trying to establish who they have become, and whether there is still hope for their once-budding romance.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
A ground-breaking novel in its day, Woolf's Orlando is a satirical retelling of British History, telling the tale of a seemingly immortal poet and nobleman, Orlando, who lives for centuries while changing his gender frequently between male and female. Born as a nobleman under the rule of Elizabeth I, he quickly becomes a court favourite as a teenager. We follow Orlando through the centuries, during his commission as ambassador to Constantinople, her inexplicable and spontaneous transition into womanhood and, after her change of gender made it impossible for her to maintain her post as ambassador, her life amongst gypsies. Eventually returning to England, Orlando switches gender roles frequently, living as both male and female, while having affairs with lovers of both sex. Reflecting Woolf's liberal views towards gender and sexuality, Orlando was heavily inspired by Woolf's lover and life-long friend, Vita Sackville-West.
The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector
The Hour of the Star writes of the problems of the rural Northeastern Brazil versus the urban Southeast; poverty, sexism within society and the struggles of uneducated women as they strive for survival and a better life. The novel, centred on Macabéa, a poor 19-year-old living in Rio de Janeiro, who somehow manages to remain ignorant of the struggles caused by her poverty. She begins dating a boy named Olímpico, who mistreats her. After a positive prediction from a fortune teller, Macabéa, things take a sudden and unexpected turn, and it becomes quite clear just how inaccurate the fortune teller's predictions were to be.
The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon
Easily the oldest book on this list, Shōnagon's The Pillow Book was written between the years 990-1010 in Japan. A collection of essays, anecdotes, poems, and descriptive passages, this isn't a novel, rather a diary of Shōnagon's thoughts and observations during her time as court lady at the Empress Consort Teisi's reign. A highly personal book, this is a beautifully poetic glimpse into times gone by, and a must-read for any bibliophile looking for something a bit different for their next read.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Spanning several decades, Pachinko tells the tale of the Baek family. Beginning in 1883 in the Korean fishing village of Yeongdo, an ageing fisherman and his wife take in lodgers as an extra source of income. Their only surviving son, Hoonie, is arranged by a matchmaker to marry Yangjin, the daughter of a poor farmer, and the couple take over the running of the lodging house. Their daughter, Sunja, is born in the 1910s. As a teenager, she is pursued by the wealthy fishbroker, Koh Hansu, by whom she becomes pregnant. As her lover is already married, she instead marries a Christian Minister in order to prevent her child; Noa, from being born illegitimate. Sunja and her husband move to Osaka in Japan, where she is shocked to witness the mistreatment of Koreans.
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen
This autobiographical trilogy is based heavily on Ditlevsen's childhood in the poor neighbourhood of Vesterbro in Copenhagen. Each of the three novellas are based around an era of Ditlevsen's life; Childhood, Youth, and her four marriages and struggle with substance abuse in the final book of the series; Dependency. Ditlevsen portrays her rise from extreme poverty to a glittering career as a poet, and her descent into addition, aided by her third husband; a deranged, controlling doctor who introduces her to the opioid, Demerol. Told with Ditlevsen's trademark wit and dark humour, and the intimacy of a journal, this short trilogy (collectively amounting to about 270 pages), can be devoured in a single sitting.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
Inspired by George Orwell's 1984, Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police takes place in a future of mass surveillance. On an unnamed island, the Memory Police enforce the removal of objects from the island, such as birds and roses, while an unknown force causes the islanders to collectively forget the existence of the removed objects. Anyone who continues to remember 'forbidden information' is also removed from the island. With the help of an elderly neighbour, a novelist and resident of the island, harbours her editor in a secret room in her home when he reveals his fear that he will be taken by The Memory Police.