Monthly Archives: September 2012

I’m not sure what to say about this book. I read it very quickly, and the whole way through I struggled with two irreconcilable critical opinions. On the one hand, I absolutely loved it. On the other, I hated it. The only possible way to reach something approaching a consensus would be to say that I hated myself for enjoying it. Not a promising start, I agree.

A bit of background: I picked this up because I read an interview with the author in one of the weekend review supplements, where Riley was being hailed as one of the most exciting young writers around. I am often chastised by various friends about the fact that my bookshelves are disproportionately populated by dead, white, male authors; as they say, ‘it’s a fair cop’. In my bid to broaden my literary horizons (which is part of the point of this blog) I’m always on the lookout for well-reviewed up-and-coming, perhaps little-known and unstudied authors. Gwendoline Riley seemed to fit the bill, so I sought her out. The back of my copy reads: ‘Sick Notes is a powerful and moving study of urban disaffection, female friendship and the longing for love and redemption.’ I guess that about sums it up, but for whatever reason she took me completely by surprise.

Now, I love a bit of urban disaffection: I’m something of a disaffected urbanite myself, and my specialism in the field of literary study is Modernism, where they lay it on pretty thick. I’m also big on female friendship, can’t get enough of it in fact; and I’m a reluctant expert in the longing for love and redemption. Put all these things together, as the blurb would suggest, and you might think it’s all systems go. Well; yes and no. I guess what I wasn’t prepared for is the closeness of this novel. Riley’s prose is claustrophobic. It’s like being inside the head of a teenage woman-child with an empty stomach, cold feet and a drinking problem. And whilst I’m sure we can all relate on some level, I’m not sure that I want to. It all seems a little self-indulgent.

Having said that, however, by god is it beautifully executed. The whole thing is like a whirlwind of hormones, booze and hunger and anxiety and draughty rooms; you can really feel out every crackle of a bare duvet on skin; the rain pelting down, the ice in a glass of gin in a dingy bar. Everything perfectly observed and damningly examined. The shark-eyes of drunks; the dry teabags on the windowsill; the unopened boxes in the corner. There’s something exhilarating about the momentum of the thing. Like the desire that grips one, ever more rarely as the years stack up, to get lost for a few days… a rush of self-annihilating giddiness. It left me feeling self-conscious and a little embarrassed at how swept up I’d become. Exactly like a night on the tiles, I guess.

I’m going to come back to Gwendoline Riley, I’m sure, inevitably, but I think we need to take a break.


Somehow, in my journey through the education system, I managed to completely bypass Angela Carter. One of those strange omissions. This is my first, belated, foray into that weird and wonderful world. Nights at the Circus. I must admit I approached this novel with caution. I half expected to be shocked: testament to the power of the Carter myth. In the end I wasn’t – I get the impression The Bloody Chamber earned her that reputation – but I was entertained. Here are some reflections..

My copy had been frantically underlined by someone clearly doing GCSE or thereabouts – some very earnest recognition of innuendo going on. However, they only got a few chapters in, and the rest of the copy was mercifully untouched. More fool them.

I can see that Ms Carter is an ideal writer to teach – this novel lends itself very well to the illustration of literary devices and introduces some big themes in an engaging and memorable way. In particular, in the muscular, cockney-angelic Fevvers: the Feminine and Otherness.

Other notable characters are the mute pianist tiger tamer, along with her lover; a gifted singer, and survivor of an abusive marriage to a ‘monkey man’. And of course the journalist who loses his memory and becomes a visionary shaman, and the American circus-master who makes all his important decisions through his pet psychic pig, Sybil. So many convoluted metaphors.

Indeed, I began to suspect that the story was at times simply a device to link all these characters together. There is a whole episode, for instance, where we deviate from the central narrative entirely, and visit a hellish prison, designed by a murderess for the incarceration and correction of other murderesses. God knows it’s a powerful image – the panopticon; the surveillance punishment and the cells full of unrepentant women who eventually break free – but how on earth did it find it’s way into this novel? It seems a little far-fetched. But that’s not an argument for or against. This novel is a playground of mythic archetypes, superimposed on a fantastical modern stage. Any criticism on the grounds that it is absurd is irrelevant.

Final impressions.. Storytelling seems to be a big theme here, and feminine storytelling, that is, necessarily a-historical. What do the central characters – who are all women – have to say? They are carnal, hearty, sometimes villainous, sometimes vain; resourceful, outsiders, fiercely loyal and, above all, great talkers. This novel might as well be a yarn spun from the same riotous evening at the very beginning, when big ben repeatedly chimes midnight: time stands still, and the boundaries between fact and fiction, stage fantasy and droll reality become irrevocably blurred. In all the little episodes of this novel, the reader might sense Fevvers nudging us in the ribs. Great fun, if a little disorientating.