30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #29 Jane Summer

Erebus cover

The most remarkable book I read in 2015 is Erebus by Jane Summer. To be clear, it isn’t exactly a novel, as it is written with line breaks and rhythms like poetry. But it isn’t exactly poetry, as it contains dialogue, excerpts from official reports, photos, maps, newspaper headlines and even a dental record.

A new kind of book

It is a new kind of book about an old and aching loss, the death of the author’s beloved friend in a still-unsolved airline disaster, when a New Zealand Air jet smashed into Mt. Erebus in the Antarctic during a sightseeing flight in 1979.

“Despite our best intentions,” Summer writes, “we forget the dead. Do they forget us?” She has never forgotten her friend Kay, who died instantly at age 29, along with her mother and 255 other sightseers, when their airplane met the mountain at 450 miles per hour.

Shards and splinters

Summer builds her story seemingly of shards and splinters, but somehow with these slicing fragments she constructs a robust narrative. We see the blossoming of the tender and intense connection between the two women, who meet as colleagues. “The rising /tide sends survivalists for higher ground. This woman, /Kay Barnick, is higher/ ground. I know it/ right away. / Like I know/ I’m sick/ of all the lies I tell.”

We meet Kay’s mother, one of the earliest women pilots, who convinces Kay to take this adventure in the air and then dies with her. We see the horrific crash, still New Zealand’s worst national disaster, and learn with scientific precision what happens to the human body in a collision with such force. And Summer shows us, with a calm accretion of facts, the corporate malfeasance that almost certainly caused the crash, and the cover-up that shielded the corporation from accountability at the cost of family members’ anguish.

Brace for impact

Certain lines repeat at unexpected moments throughout the text, achieving a different meaning and resonance each time. “Make the worst of what you’ve done/ luminous,” and “What does death do/ but make of someone three-dimensional two?”

“Brace for Impact,” one of the sections is called, and it could be a description of the whole book. Evocative and unsettling, Erebus lets you glimpse the icy landscape of the Antarctic and the equally unforgiving landscape of loss, the moonglow of friendship tinged with regret. We can never know who the dead might have been, and who we ourselves might have become if they had not left us.

The fine print

Jane Summer is a friend of mine. We met in college, both struggling to figure out how to make a life out of writing, and remain friends although we have never lived in the same city and years pass between our meetings. Don’t let that convince you to pass up this powerful reading experience.

If Erebus is a literary hybrid, but mostly poetry, why is Jane Summer one of the 30 women novelists you should know? Her previous book, The Silk Road, is a lyrical novel about a teenage girl living in a suburb called Hell, whose first love is an elegant older woman who drives an equally elegant car. The novel was recently released as an audiobook.

The Silk Road cover

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #28 Natalie S. Hartnett

Natalie S. Harnett

The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett presents several views of hell. The hell of craving to be loved in ways your relatives cannot manage. The hell of struggling to get by economically as hopes and options dwindle to nothing. Most of all, the hell of living in a plundered landscape where mining companies have gouged the ground hollow and made the earth’s thin crust rage with sink holes, poison gases and underground fires that cannot be extinguished.

The novel’s narrator, Brigid Howley, is eleven years old, going on forty. In her matter-of-fact way, she tells us about her life and that of her family, a white Irish-American clan in the Pennsylvania coal country that she believes has been cursed for generations either by a priest’s malediction or by their own bad choices and worse luck.

Sinkholes and secrets

Brigid’s beloved father, a miner like all the men in his family, was injured years ago in a mysterious mining disaster that took the life of his brother. Brigid also has a beautiful, prickly mother and a baby brother. In 1961, the family is living with a great-aunt until a sinkhole sucks her under and turns her house uninhabitable.

The Howleys have to move in with Daddy’s mother and father in the even more bleak and ecologically devastated town of Barrendale. There Brigid makes a best friend and discovers the body of a murdered man, a crime that brings to light all the secrets, blame, guilt and longing that have roiled under the surface of her family for years.

Upending my expectations

The Hollow Ground upended all of my expectations. Before I opened the novel I had just finished a powerful book that still had me slightly under its spell, so I expected to read a good bit of The Hollow Ground before it fully won my interest. Nope. By the time I had read the prologue – less than a page long – I was utterly absorbed.

The prologue begins, “We walk on fire or air, so Daddy liked to say,” and ends with this: “I’m just saying that sometimes what we seek is something we hope, with all our blood and bone, we’ll never find.” Who can resist such an opening?

I generally don’t like child narrators, and expected Brigid to be equally problematic, either too cute or preternaturally wise. She is neither. Brigid Howley is a unique character with an original narrative voice that is brushed with rough poetry. In fact, every character in the novel – from the members of the Howley family to the women who work in the mill with Brigid’s mother to the detective who investigates the murder – is clear-cut, full-bodied and memorable.

A monstrous crime

But the star of the novel is the earth, exploited and abused by the coal companies until it no longer resembles the planet we know. “Steaming green lawns in the dead of winter.” A character “would talk about which part of her basement was too hot to touch and how many tomatoes had ripened in what should have been the frostbitten ground in her garden.” To me, the murder mystery that creates one strand of the novel shrinks to insignificance in the face of the monstrous crime committed by the coal companies against the land and all the families who live on it.

Most striking was the way the characters and their entire communities take the devastation in stride. When they learn that an inspector needs to test the air in each house in the middle of every night so they don’t suffocate in their sleep, the local families simply leave the door unlocked for him. “They [the coal companies] don’t care how many houses and families they wreck,” Brigid’s grandmother declares, “as long as they get every last flake of coal down to the bedrock.”

Unforgettable

This is a novel that creates an unforgettable world teeming with full-bodied characters. Each page rewards the reader with some new insight, character revelation or bit of fresh, distinctive language. Once you read it, you won’t be surprised to learn that The Hollow Ground, published in 2014, won both the John Gardner Fiction Book Award and the Appalachian Book of the Year Award for Fiction.

Get a free copy of The Hollow Ground

The paperback edition of The Hollow Ground was just published in August. I’m happy to have a copy to give away. There are two ways to toss your name in the hat to win a copy.

You can contact me through this blog and let me know you’d like a copy.

Or better yet, you can sign up for my newsletter to be eligible to win this and other free books by women writers.  When you receive the newsletter, just hit reply and tell me which book you want.

I’ll choose a name from those who contact me. (Sorry, I can only ship to U.S. addresses.) I hope you will appreciate this new voice in literature and look forward, as I do, to future books by Natalie S. Harnett.

Hollow Ground cover

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #27 Stephanie Feldman

Photo: Theday.com

Photo: Theday.com

The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman is a wonderful novel – beautifully written, engaging and surprising. It’s also full of wonders: miracles, myths and mysteries.

Marjorie and Holly were as close as two sisters could be. They adored their grandfather, who lived with them and told them enthralling stories about the White Wizard and an angel, even though he sometimes got angry when they asked too many questions. Both girls were heartbroken when he died.

Things turn strange

But by the time we meet Marjorie and Holly, things have changed. Marjorie is a Ph.D. student researching the ancient anti-Semitic legend of the Wandering Jew, and spending more time in the library than with her family or friends.

Although they were raised as  Christians, Holly has converted to Judaism, changed her name to Chava, and married into an ultra-Orthodox splinter community with mystical beliefs so strange even other ultra-Orthodox groups look askance at them. Marjorie and Holly (she refuses to call her sister Chava) have barely spoken in months.

Then Marjorie finds one of her grandfather’s notebooks – which he had begged his son to destroy after his death – and discovers something shocking. Her grandfather has written down all the tales he used to tell about the White Wizard, but in the notebook the magical man is the White Rebbe, a rabbi who has been blessed with the power to perform miracles and cursed with immortality.

A survivor bearing a dreadful secret

What’s more, Marjorie realizes that her beloved grandfather had been lying to her all along. He was Jewish, it turns out, a survivor of the Holocaust bearing a dreadful secret. He was also the carrier of a legacy so powerful and mysterious it will take all of Marjorie’s strength and intellect to track down the truth and protect her family – particularly Holly’s newborn son.

“He’s coming for me,” Marjorie’s grandfather tells her in what she hopes is a dream. “And then he’s coming for you.”

Ancient mysteries and present dangers

But who is “he” – the White Rebbe? The Angel of Losses that the Rebbe must confront? The mysterious old man who seems to follow Marjorie everywhere and dole out tiny fragments of the story she’s so desperate to understand? And what do any of these ancient mysteries have to do with Marjorie and Holly? The only thing that’s clear is that Marjorie must figure it out, because the life of her infant nephew is at stake.

“A breathtakingly accomplished debut”

Ellah Allfrey of NPR Books called The Angel of Losses a “breathtakingly accomplished debut,” and I couldn’t agree more. The book sparkles with sharp, fresh images and gorgeous writing.

For a novel about angels, miracles and Jewish history from the medieval era through the Holocaust to modern-day New York City, The Angel of Losses is as suspenseful as any mystery story. You don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy and appreciate the novel. Everything you need to know is in the book, along with a healthy dose of wonder.

“I still believe that writing is most exciting when it’s an act of discovery,” Stephanie Feldman said. In that case, it must have been thrilling to write The Angel of Losses. I know it was thrilling to read.

Get a free copy of The Angel of Losses

The paperback edition of The Angel of Losses was just published a couple of weeks ago. I’m delighted to have two copies to give away.

There are two ways to toss your name in the hat to win a copy.

You can contact me through this blog and let me know you’d like a copy.

Or better yet, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter to be eligible to win this and other free books by women writers. I give away one or two each month. When you receive the newsletter, just hit reply and tell me which book you want.

I’ll choose a name from those who contact me. (Sorry, I can only ship to U.S. addresses.) I hope you will enjoy this enthralling novel as much as I did.

Angel of Losses

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #26 Tayari Jones

 

Photo: radcliffe.harvard.edu

Photo: radcliffe.harvard.edu

Silver Sparrow is a book with a beating heart. The novel is about two girls growing up in Atlanta during the 1980s who have much in common. They’re the same age, live in the same middle class black community, frequent the same malls and follow the same rules and rituals of teenage life.

But only one daughter, the smart and beautiful Dana, knows what they really share: a father, James Witherspoon. And she’s understood since she was six years old that she and her mother Gwen are the family that must remain a secret.

Inside the sparkling world

It seems to Dana and Gwen that James’ other family – his wife Laverne and daughter Chaurisse – are the fortunate ones. They live in the nice house and see James every day, not just during a surreptitious visit once a week. And we, the readers, think so too, until the novel shifts from Dana’s voice to Chaurisse’s, letting us inside the sparkling world that Dana and Gwen have glimpsed only on their spying excursions.

There we learn that Laverne, the lucky legal wife who owns a hair salon, married James at 14 because she had gotten pregnant after a one-afternoon stand. She hadn’t realized that sex could lead to babies, or that being pregnant meant she would never again be allowed to go to school. When daughter Chaurisse meets and becomes friends with the mysterious “silver” girl Dana, she has no idea of their connection or of the cataclysm that creeps closer every day.

The shadow of Jim Crow

The shadow of Jim Crow looms over this lovely and heartbreaking book. And for me, another shadow: the closet. As a lesbian who came out in the unwelcoming days of the early 1970s, I know what it is to be someone’s dangerous secret.

Silver Sparrow was one of those novels I hated to leave. Fortunately, Tayari Jones has created other worlds for us to explore in her two earlier novels, The Untelling and Leaving Atlanta, which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction. I am now an unabashed fan of Tayari Jones, waiting eagerly for her next novel. Read Silver Sparrow and see if you can resist its pull.

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #25 Susmita Bhattacharya

 

Photo: parthianbooks.com

Photo: parthianbooks.com

What is it worth to fit in? How do societies evolve, and what does it cost those who dare to push for change? These are among the questions Susmita Bhattacharya explores in her wonderful debut novel, The Normal State of Mind.

Hanging on the edges of society

In urban India during the last years of the 20th century, two women tumble off the small, flat world known as “normal life.” Dipali has been married for only three years when her beloved husband is killed in one of the terrorist bombings that have convulsed Mumbai. Far away in Calcutta, Moushumi has also found love, but in a dangerous place – the arms of another woman. She is exiled from her family and flees to Mumbai. There Dipali and Moushumi, both teachers, develop a firm friendship as they explore their shared experience of being “edged out into the border of society,” as Dipali puts it.

And what is it the young widow and the young lesbian have in common? It is the “lack of men in their lives” that in male-dominated and tradition-bound India leaves them “hanging on the the edges of society.”

Pain and politics

Dipali, for example, is politely invited to leave her cousin’s wedding party so her widowhood will not throw a shadow on the celebration. Instead of participating in the ceremony where the bride’s skin is covered in turmeric, she must content herself with munching on snacks in a separate room with the other widows, her mother and aunt. And despite being only in her twenties, Dipali is expected to remain true to her husband’s memory and never remarry.

The political context in which Mishoumi discovers herself as a lesbian reminded me more of the early 1960s in the U.S. than the 1990s, when Mishoumi’s story is based. She cannot find a model of the life she wants to live – a “normal,” open family life with another woman instead of a man. What she does find is ostracism, bigotry and violence from individuals and the state.

In a devastating scene, Mishoumi after years of separation finally finds the courage to call her family, only to have her father hang up on her. Later she drives past a movie theater and sees patrons running into the street, their clothes in flames. The theater has been fire-bombed with the audience inside, all for the sin of showing a movie about two sisters-in-law who fall in love with one another.

Two voices

The Normal State of Mind is narrated in two voices, Dipali’s and Moushimi’s, whose separate stories soon intertwine. I very much enjoyed the tactile details about life in India – the sounds, smells and tastes – and the insights into the lives of modern women. The novel begins with a funny and warm wedding-night scene in which both the husband and the wife – strangers mere weeks ago – face each other with no idea of what to do next and only Bollywood movies to guide them. The book ends with just the right touch of ambiguity, offering hope but no easy promises for either the women or their country.

A writer to watch

Susmita Bhattacharya, who says “My name is not easy to say even after a few drinks,” grew up in Mumbai, lived for several years in Wales, and now lives in Plymouth, England with her husband and children. I thought I felt the pang of the expatriate in her loving descriptions of Indian food, but that might have been my imagination.

Her short stories and poems have been published widely in the UK, but I believe The Normal State of Mind is the first piece of Bhattacharya’s work to be available in the U.S. I doubt it will be the last.

Get a free copy of The Normal State of Mind

Want a free copy of this excellent novel? There are two ways to toss your name in the hat to win a copy.

You can contact me through this blog and let me know you’d like a copy.

Or better yet, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter to be eligible to win this and other free books by women writers. I give away one or two each month. When you receive the newsletter, just hit reply and tell me which book you want.

I’ll choose a name from those who contact me, and if it’s yours The Normal State of Mind will soon be winging its way to you. (Sorry, I can only ship to U.S. addresses.) I hope you will enjoy this lovely and unusual book as much as I did.

Normal cover