Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Have had the pleasure of reviewing two wonderful books lately for Necessary Fiction. The first is Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës—and this title tells you nearly all you need to know, except how absolutely excellent the writing is in this collection. Unthank Books and Editor A.J. Ashworth put together an incredible list of contributors, and each writer seemed to have had their fun with the idea of re-envisioning, re-writing, or working through Brontë inspiration:

Here is a little of what I had to say about the collection:

There are also stories that engage with the melancholy of the Brontës, like David Rose’s beautiful “Brontesaurus” and Carys Davies “Bonnet.” The first is an elegant story of loneliness and academic solace, a piece that worries away at words like grief and drear in first a strictly literal manner and then a more emotional, more metaphorically delicate way. In “Bonnet” we are back to contemplating the real Charlotte Brontë in an imagined scene that quite possibly could have taken place and that gets at the heart of Charlotte’s conflicting personality: the passionate writer, the careful lover.

The range of subject and theme in the other stories is quite impressive: the deceptions of a modern-day governess, the death of a loved one, a contemporary Catherine & Heathcliff romance, a hike on the moors invoking Sherlock Holmes and much Brontë lore, and even fictional letters between Emma Woodhouse and Jane Eyre. As a purely selfish wish, I would have enjoyed a bit of direct engagement with Anne Brontë, she seems so often overlooked and yet her works are as powerful and complex as her two more studied sisters. And it is fun to speculate what a story inspired by Branwell or the Brontë children’s fantasy worlds of Angria or Gondal might have added, but this is not to say that Red Room feels incomplete, only a little Charlotte-heavy. As a whole, Red Room is a provocative, emotionally-engaging and witty anthology. It is clear that the authors featured here took to their task with both application and admiration.

You can read the whole review here.

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Next, I read a début novel by an American writer, Elizabeth Gentry, called Housebound, which was quite simply excellent. If you are a fan of Barbara Comyns (and I know many of you are), you will want to go right out and get this book.

“They” are a peculiar family—nine children, two parents—living in a large house on the outskirts of a small city. In many respects, they are an experiment, a utopia created by the parents according to very specific rules. The greatest of which is their near complete isolation from anyone else excepting a weekly trip to the library. This excludes the father who works every day in the city—and his difference from the rest of the family is an important element of Gentry’s narrative structure. Now, if this house and family is a utopia, it is one without a moving force; it has turned inward and become frozen. And even when the story’s action begins with Maggie, the oldest child, deciding to leave the family and take a job in town, this feeling of being perched and poised continues. As Maggie begins her preparations for leaving and, suddenly relieved of her role as child-minder for the first time, begins to wander about the property and visit the neighbors, there is a sense of the family holding its breath. And this psychological stillness begs the question—what is everyone waiting for? That tension stretches on, and gently but powerfully becomes the novel’s focus.

I have nothing but high praise for this unique story and Gentry’s descriptions and careful storytelling. It is quite dark in some ways, but thoughtful and beautifully written, and more interested in complicated salvation than any kind of long drawn-out portrayal of gorgeous failure. That sentence may need some explaining, but I hope it is clear that I mean this book does not focus on making something horrible seem beautiful nor on ending on some trite feeling of redemption. The book has a wonderful mood to it and I’m really looking forward to anything else that Gentry will write.

You can read the whole review here.

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Also, I’ll sneak two mentions of my own writings in this post. I have a short poem in the Fall issue of the Ann Arbor Review. A tiny thing, some thoughts about the word proof.

Lately, I’ve been working to write fiction from photographs again, and it was nice to think about the very first time I did this and ended up with “St. Tropez.”

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Finally, I started reading Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (tr. Anne Born) the other day. What a beautiful book—I am sad it has taken me so long to get to his work. (Of course I could say this about so many authors-the panic of someone who would like to read it all.) Reading this book has me also thinking about John Pistelli’s list of books he’d put into a category he is calling Penitential Realism. I am very drawn to this idea, and I would definitely put Out Stealing Horses on this list. His essay on this idea of Penitential Realism (HT: Anthony at Time’s Flow) has been circulating around in my brain for the last week or so.

Something I am really enjoying in Out Stealing Horses are the narrator’s tangents—how odd, or slightly off-topic, but always somehow organic they seem to be. Like this one, which addresses a supposed coincidence in the story, but ends up commenting on life and fiction in general, but also addresses something Pistelli mentions in his essay about the books on his list and their “resistance to the kind of holistic plotting that binds the narrative into a fully meaningful structure of coincidence…”

I have in fact done a lot of reading particularly during the last few years, but earlier too, by all means, and I have thought about what I’ve read, and that kind of coincidence seems far-fetched in fiction, in modern novels anyway, and I find it hard to accept. It may be all very well in Dickens, but when you read Dickens you’re reading a long ballad from a vanished world, where everything has to come together in the end like an equation, where the balance of what was once disturbed must be restored so that the gods can smile again. A consolation, maybe, or a protest against a world gone off the rails, but it is not like that anymore, my world is not like that, and I have never gone along with those who believe our lives are governed by fate.

6 Responses to “Two new reviews, poetry and Per Petterson”

  1. johnpistelli

    Thank you, Michelle. I know what you mean about “the panic of someone who would like to read it all,” but now Out Stealing Horses is on my short list!

    • Michelle

      Now that I’ve finished it, I think I can say that Out Stealing Horses does fit on your wonderful list. I am very much looking forward to reading the ones you mentioned that I haven’t yet read – Open City is at the top as is Julia Leigh’s Disquiet. I’ve never heard of Leigh, so am very curious now. (and now that I think about it, I’d also recommend Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour to you.)

      • johnpistelli

        Thanks for the recommendations, Michelle–I hadn’t heard of The Detour. Open City is a masterpiece, in my opinion, while Disquiet is fascinating if not a masterpiece. (Leigh’s background is interesting in that she won a competition to study with Toni Morrison in a kind of master-class situation, and Disquet at its best can recall Morrison’s intensity. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend Leigh’s film, Sleeping Beauty, which I found to be a bore.)

      • Michelle

        I don’t know what has taken me so long to read Open City – probably just that I’ve been focusing intensely on women writers for several years now. But I will read it soon, it comes with high praise from several readers/writers I respect.

  2. Rebecca H.

    I agree with your description of Housebound as having a wonderful mood — I like its tone and atmosphere very much. Having read other novels by Elizabeth, I can say that she always has a distinctive tone, and they vary from book to book too.

    • Michelle

      The mood of Housebound is what instantly draws you in – and she never breaks it, which is just wonderful. I cannot wait to read her future work. Thanks again, Rebecca, for pointing her in my direction and vice versa!

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