There’s a theme I’ve noticed more and more on Twitter: read more women. It’s something I’ve been consciously doing myself, which is why if you’ve been following my blog, you would have noticed outpourings of devotion to writers like Emma Cline, Mary Watson, Sophie Hannah and Karen Russell among others.
My most recent outpouring of praise was for Madeline Miller’s Circe, which was phenomenal. You can read my review here.
Recently I’ve been juggling two fantastic titles, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar and See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt – the former was shortlisted for and the latter longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year.
Both novels are exceptionally beautiful, and very, very different.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock follows the interweaving tales of working girl Angelica Neal and widowed merchant Mr Hancock, who happens to be in possession of what he believes is a fossilised mermaid.
Their fates collide when Angelica sets her sights on Mr Hancock after he lends his treasure to a house of ill refute to amuse customers.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is lyrical historical fiction at its finest, and is peppered with memorable female characters trying to make a life for themselves in Georgian England.
It’s wonderfully atmospheric and visual with the mermaid theme skillfully carried through to the end. I loved the imagery of nautical London obsessed with the curious and grotesque, as well as the fine attention to detail paid to the costumes and homes of the period. It makes for a fully immersive, spellbinding read.
But while reading The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was like being carried over a sea of words towards a past perfumed with atmosphere and magic, See What I have Done was a different experience altogether.
A re-imagining of the Lizzie Borden murders, See What I have Done opens with Lizzie finding her father’s body cracked open, and once the police arrive, her stepmother. Both were killed by multiple blows with an axe.
The novel is feverishly told through the alternating perspectives of everyone who was in the Borden house at the time – Lizzie, her sister Emma, Bridget the maid and Benjamin, a stranger.
It’s very dark and claustrophobic, with stunted, intense prose detailing the tension in the house, making the family’s misery tangible in every scene. Lizzie has her sister in an emotional stranglehold, her stepmother believes she is being poisoned, Bridget is abused and resentful, and the father is a tyrant. This style of writing keeps the pace as taut as a string about to snap.
See What I have Done is a gothic masterpiece so expertly delivered that I couldn’t read too much in one sitting without having to go stand outside for some fresh air.
Both novels are excellent in their own ways, and while they’re highly-readable works of fiction, they are also indicative of a movement of exceptional women’s fiction being put out into the world.
Plus I’ve always been a fan of historical fiction, my all-time favourites being Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. In South Africa alone there’s an abundance of recent historical fiction by female authors available. Two I’m dying to get my hands on are Softness of the Lime by Maxine Case and Under Glass by Claire Robertson.
It’s put me in the mindset to go out and find the rest of the Women’s Prize titles and more importantly, inspired me to put fingers to the keyboard myself.
As always, you can see more of my LEGO stories on Tumblr.