A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago
Anne Turner is a reasonably contented mother of six when she's summoned to the Royal Court to dress the beautiful but unhappy Frances Howard. Frankie, the reluctant young wife of the brutal Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, sees in Anne a kindred spirit and, despite differences in age and status, the two become friends. Anne is both beguiled and bemused by the world she's entered, where extravagant display is a poor substitute for warmth and kindness, where families fight for political power and few have the freedom to be themselves. But, for a while, with mutual support, the women thrive.
As their ambition expands, others' envy turns to enmity and Frankie's determination to escape her marriage endangers both their lives. Can they shake off the shackles of convention? When the law steps in, will their loyalty survive?
Based on the true scandal that rocked the court of James I, I found this an absorbing and engaging story, despite my ignorance of the history and the Tudor Fever inspired by Hilary Mantel having passed me by. (Okay, this is Jacobean, but it’s all one to me.) It's testament to the author's skill that I was never confused by the large cast of characters, perhaps because the women are always centre stage. I read counting my blessings for living in more flexible times, while simultaneously enraged that domestic abuse can continue to this day. A feminist history with implications for the lives of contemporary women that's well worth your time. Thanks to Ros Ellis of Bloomsbury publishing for my advance copy.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Although they sleep together, they don’t sleep together: their relationship initially almost too intimate for sex. But the grief he carries threatens to come between them, a grief too deep to articulate, despite her efforts to support and understand.
His parents, whose house he still shares, have gone to visit family in Ghana, following his grandmother’s death. His father hasn’t been the parent he needed and, in consequence, our narrator has had to care for his brother, now at university, his junior by five years. Yet it’s the strain of inhabiting a Black body in a racist culture that might break him, the pain of being looked at but not seen.
This isn’t an easy read, either in subject matter or style. There’s a scarcity of contextual detail, apart from literary, music and film references, much of which passed me by. (I think because I’m the wrong generation, but it might also be that I’m white.) The second-person narration can jar, but presumably that’s the point. How else to underline the impact of constant objectification on a sensitive man?
We’re told of a British-Ghanaian painter “externalising her interiority, which isn’t something Black people are afforded very often” (p88). In contrast, it seems as if the narrator, as a photographer, is introjecting his subjects’ interiority, expending great effort to see them, rather like a therapist does, which takes its toll. That’s coupled with the backdrop of fear of police hostility, with echoes of slavery (p102):
Walking towards a cinema, you pass a police van. They aren’t questioning you or her but glance in your direction. With this act, they confirm what you already know: that your bodies are not your own. You’re scared they will take them back
Twenty-six-year-old British-Ghanaian Caleb Azumah Nelson has produced an important and accomplished debut about the challenges of creating and loving amid the macro and micro aggressions of racism, which many still refuse to see. I predict a literary prize or two heading his way. Thanks to publishers Viking Penguin for my review copy.