Books in brief: Annie West’s grim keeper, and fanfare for great female writers
West wittily tackles famous deaths; and Lyndall Gordon on five authors of change
One of Annie West’s illustrations in Another Fine Mess: Peculiar and Amusing Ways to Die
Another Fine Mess: Peculiar and Amusing Ways to Die
By Annie West
New Island, €18.95
“I admit I spent many days sitting in Irish class writing lists of Ways to Kill Peig Sayers.” The artist, illustrator, Ben Bulben caretaker and Twitter star Annie West (@anniewestdotcom) has turned her attention – and her imagination – to Death, in particular to some of the more ignominious in history and legend. The survey is chronological, starting with Sisyphus, and includes, among many, Sir Walter Raleigh and Liz I, Lewis and Clark, poor Peig and Sarte’s existential demise. There is a falling tortoise, a killer joke, dangerous make-up, aliens and the truth of what really happened on the Mary Celeste. West’s work is instantly identifiable: bold colours that leap off the page, images packed with telling detail and the frequent appearance of domesticated animals, crowd scenes, Irish literary figures and subterranean monsters. If in the coming weeks you find yourself celebrating a pagan festival appropriated by the early Christians during which commonly gifts are exchanged, then this should be just the ticket.
Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World
By Lyndall Gordon
Outsiders “use their apartness to see the world afresh”, Lyndall Gordon believes. Five 19th-century female writers, she contends, changed the world. In a period when a woman’s reputation was her security, Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf defied convention and “changed the face of literature”. Shelley was the “prodigy” (she wrote Frankenstein at 19), who committed herself to a married poet. Brontë was the “visionary”, devoted to “the world within” and despising “the world without”; “visions come to a rebellious loner bold enough for the encounter”. Eliot is the “outlaw”, scandalously living with a married man; she refused “submissiveness to a gender code based on female passivity”. Schreiner is the “orator”, fearlessly defying authority; she wrote of the isolated South African veld and spoke out against cruelty and injustice, “giving voice to the voiceless”. Woolf is the “explorer”, a “restless searcher” after unknown modes of being. All motherless, they rejected violence of any kind, weren’t afraid to speak truth to power and “summoned the will to explore oddity – in ways that speak to us about our unseen selves”.
The Body’s Little Secrets
Gibson Square Books, £9.99
Seeking a contrast to his life as Cambridge academic, Doc moves to Sheffield ‘to live among the mines and the steel works and the ordinary people’; however, such an image is brought into question. Over the course of the novel, many versions of the industrial north of England during the Thatcher years are presented, lifted into view, and then replaced. His is a plucky, charming, confident narrative voice, and he relates acts of violence and scenes of great tension in an unsettling manner, where colloquialisms mask but also reveal the brutality of life on show in the underworld of Sheffield. There are some hackneyed turns of phrase (blond women quickly become “the blonde” and they also tend to have “ample chests”), but the voice of Doc, the protagonist, is compelling and well-observed, and does something to offset those shortcomings. Occasionally Beattie’s background as a behavioural psychologist comes through too heavily in the study of body language and communication. Seeing an autumnal landscape, for example, Doc says: “It meant something, as my mind did the necessary computations to turn it from a pattern of lines and geometric shapes into something suffused with meaning and significance.” This, however, is a pacy thriller, incisive and compelling and full of psychological insight.