Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

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The titular heroine of Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie begins the book with her legs in stirrups, undergoing a gynaecological exam. This sets the tone for a debut novel that is a candid and funny, no-holds-barred exploration of a young black woman’s life. 

The colour of Queenie’s skin is absolutely not incidental: she is exoticised by men on dating apps, in the street and even in her office. She notes this with humour, exasperated at “men calling me confectionery” as they tell her she “tastes like chocolate”. But what makes Queenie so appealing is that this doesn’t stop her from sleeping with these men — she feels utterly, fallibly real. 

The casual sex she has after breaking up with her long-term boyfriend is frequent and random, but what makes it disturbing is that it is violent enough to leave her with injuries that alarm a sexual-health adviser sufficiently for her to recommend counselling. Queenie is funny throughout this: smart enough to recognise that a man she is in bed with is unable to take a second to “step out of his own pleasure and see that I didn’t like what was going on”, but also wry about the sexual-health adviser who looked “like she’d heard it all in the Sixties and was tired of it”. 

 

Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt

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Siri Hustvedt has never been afraid to go against the grain, and her seventh novel, Memories of the Future, confirms it. She has important things to say about sexual politics, capitalism and art but enjoying this book as a reader means relinquishing the desire for the plot to make linear, logical sense. 

Those of us who love her work will consider it worth the mental switch, and there is a great deal of transformative joy to be found in this story of a young woman arriving in New York to find her voice as a writer. The 23-year-old in question is later known by the initials “SH” and is nicknamed “Minnesota”, the state Hustvedt herself is from. 

The similarities between the author and her fictional heroine don’t end there: as a student, Hustvedt looked pale enough with hunger for a university professor to encourage her to ask for an emergency loan. In the novel, SH rescues a cheese sandwich from a garbage bin so that she will have something to eat. 

 

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.

 

The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer

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The fascinating details of Lee Miller’s life have been pored over multiple times by biographers. Historical novelists must now be kicking themselves as Whitney Scharer has written an evocative and impressive novel, The Age of Light, out of the raw material of Miller’s extraordinary life. Miller was one of the most beautiful and photographed women of the twentieth century. Scharer brilliantly evokes how different artists divided up Miller’s physical self, painting her lips, photographing her wrists or her ribcage. It is even said that a French glassware company modelled their champagne coupe on the shape of her breasts.

 

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.