The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood
For the few months covered by this novel, however, she’s intensely preoccupied with her body. With the discharge – part blood, part defunct tissue – from her vagina, to be precise, following a miscarriage she observes with detached curiosity.
She doesn’t tell her friend about the miscarriage; nor does she tell either of her two therapists. It’s not, she rationalises, avoidance but that the opportunity has passed her by.
There’s not much plot to Christine Smallwood’s debut novel, but Dorothy’s wry observations and neurotic self-analysis kept this reader turning the page. Stream of consciousness minus the boring bits, The Life of the Mind is a refreshing exploration of the gap between thinking and doing, between the female body and the non-gendered mind. Thanks to publishers Europa Editions for my advance proof copy.
But, Anne, you haven’t slated the characterisation of the therapists! Turns out, I haven’t much to say about them, apart from the obvious absurdity of Dorothy seeing a second therapist to talk about the first. Otherwise I’d give them both a B+ (not that I’ve ever graded fictional therapists in my growing library before, but Dorothy gives all her students and A-).
The Retreat by Alison Moore
Like all of us, Sandra has her oddities but are they enough to make her the odd one out? The group quickly develops routines and rituals that leave little space for Sandra’s preferences. Determined not to waste the opportunity to practice her art, she shrugs off the other members’ mockery of her evening gown and their complaints about the meatless lasagne she makes when it’s her turn to cook. But neither the house itself – former home of a reclusive film star – nor her flat watercolour seascapes can compensate for the emotional chill.
I’ve loved all four of Alison Moore’s previous novels for adults – the most recent being Missing published in 2018 – and this was no exception. I particularly admire the ability to make relatively ordinary situations seem macabre. I also love the visual imagery: how objects are planted, as they might be in film, as clues to how we might interpret the story. No doubt I missed several in The Retreat, but picked up on doubles and mirrors; fantasy and fairy tale; and the small, smaller and smallest islands like matryoshka dolls.
With a heavily pregnant character and a parallel narrative concerning a writer on an individual retreat, also on an island, this can be read as a novel about ambition and creativity. For me, however, it’s much more about the power of group processes: the pain of exclusion and the pressure, both internal and external, to fit in. That pressure is especially intense on an island, with no easy way of escape; The Retreat, although less violent, put me in mind of The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and The Lord of the Flies.
Thanks to Helen Richardson and Salt publishing for my advance copy. If you’d like to know more about The Retreat, why not come to the online launch next Monday, November 15, 2021?
My latest novel is about a woman who also keeps going when her hopes are more dramatically dashed. Watch the trailer and/or go here to Matilda Windsor’s webpage to learn more.
I also considered calling this post carrying on, but wanted to avoid suggesting the alternative meaning messing about. But I’m carrying on anyway because, by sheer coincidence, that’s this week’s flash fiction prompt.
Having recently returned to my maybe-YA novel Snowflake, I considered writing my 99-word story about kids messing about. But, walking the fields this morning, I remembered carrying on past a no entry sign on a country walk several years ago when my stubbornness was met with unexpected kindness:
Mile by mile her mood lightens, until the signboard returns the clouds to her mind. FOOTPATH CLOSED. BRIDGE REPAIRS. FIND AN ALTERNATIVE ROUTE. She’d stamp her foot if it weren’t already aching. She can’t trudge for an extra hour.
She’ll ford the stream if there’s a shallow spot. If there’s no-one around. But that hammering isn’t a woodpecker. That whistling isn’t a starling.
The sky darkens. The foreman bars her way. She’s ready to argue when he directs her to a hidden bridge, ten minutes upstream.
She’d sought succour in solitude. She found it in kindness she didn’t deserve.