Leila Slimani: Sex and Freedom

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Leila Slimani’s novel Lullaby not only won the Prix Goncourt in 2016, making her the first Moroccan-born winner of the prize, but it also was the most read book in France for that year. Emmanuel Macron, who is known to consider himself a man of letters, asked to meet her during his presidential campaign and she publicly supported him as a candidate.

French media subsequently reported that he offered her a job as a culture minister once he was elected but she has since accepted a less demanding role reporting to him on Francophone literature and culture; traditionally, a post for a career politician.

This feels a long way from 2010 when she was arrested by the Tunisian Army whilst working as a journalist during the Arab Spring. When I meet her in a central London hotel, she describes feeling like “it was 20 years ago.” The reason her work as a novelist seems so essential to her is that it affords her a freedom she couldn’t have as a politician, or even as a journalist.

 

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

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The gingerbread at the heart of Helen Oyeyemi’s sixth novel has a startling impact on those who eat it, not least the three generations of women from one family who make it. Harriet Lee, whose mother Margot and daughter Perdita also follow the recipe, “ate a piece of gingerbread and tingled all over. It was a square meal and a good night’s sleep and a long, blood-spattered howl at the moon rolled into one.”

Readers of Oyeyemi’s previous novel Boy, Snow, Bird (2014) will remember it was based loosely on Snow White and when a character called Gretel turns up alongside the gingerbread this time round, the stage seems to be set for a warped fairytale. 

 

Educated by Tara Westover

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Tara Westover already numbers among her fans former US President Barack Obama, who called the writer to discuss her book.  He praised Westover’s first book as a “remarkable memoir of a young woman raised in a survivalist family in Idaho who strives for education while still showing great understanding and love for the world she leaves behind”. The last point is significant – whilst Educated can be seen as a clarion call for education, Westover’s motivation (perhaps surprisingly) does not seem to be sheer rage. 

The first half of the book deals with Westover’s childhood as the youngest of five children in a radical survivalist Mormon family and is full of warm memories. She often depicts herself laughing and is amused when her father angrily rebuffs his mother in law for suggesting his children wash their hands after they go to the toilet.

 

Blood by Maggie Gee

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Maggie Gee has written 14 novels including The White Family, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize). Blood, her latest, is a bizarrely misfiring black comedy. The setting is Thanet, which was the only Ukip-held council in Britain until March last year, when almost half of its councillors resigned and formed a breakaway group. The choice of Thanet is not accidental, and one’s initial hope was that this might be the first great Brexit novel.

Brexit is mentioned, but the narrative is dominated by 38-year-old ‘buxom bruiser’ Monica Ludd, an unconventional deputy head at a local secondary school, who we are repeatedly told is six foot.

 

Adèle by Leila Slimani

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Leila Slimani’s “Lullaby” was the best selling book in France in 2016 before becoming an international success. “Adèle” came out in France before “Lullaby”, but this is its first outing in English, in a sharp and nuanced translation from Sam Taylor. It is a short, disturbing novel, written in the present tense and set in a bleak and amoral Paris.

Like Emma Bovary, Adèle is married to a doctor. She also echoes the nihilism of Flaubert’s heroine. Adèle is a successful journalist, but thoroughly bored by her rather proper, borderline-prudish husband Richard. She feels excluded – almost redundant – because of her husband’s fierce love for their child. She is also obsessed by transgressive sex – with her boss, her best friend’s boyfriend, and a pair of male prostitutes.

 

Another Planet by Tracey Thorn

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Tracey Thorn, the singer-songwriter and one half of the band Everything But the Girl, now feels like she lives a conventional middle-class life in north London, with her three children and partner of over 30 years. Even this apparently settled life doesn’t stop her father commenting: “Oh, Tracey. She’s from another planet.” We shouldn’t be surprised. After reading Thorn’s first memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, he said “I never knew Tracey was so into music”—this about a woman who has sold over nine million records.

Another Planet, Thorn’s second memoir, is full of such moments of low-key comedy but there is also a serious side to the estrangement that she felt from her parents. She is candid about how the “distance that had grown up between me and my parents in my teens never quite closed up.”