Other People Manage review: Tale of lesbian love and belonging

Ellen Hawley’s novel is packed with ordinary wisdom and the weight of a woman’s heart

Ellen Hawley: Her  book is one of women across generations. Every character bar one is female.

Ellen Hawley: Her book is one of women across generations. Every character bar one is female.

Sat, Apr 16, 2022, 06:00


Book Title:
Other People Manage


Ellen Hawley

Swift Press

Guideline Price:

It is rare that a novel of such quiet observation and gentle introspection moves me as profoundly as Other People Manage.

Written by Ellen Hawley, the novel had sat in a publisher’s slush pile until being resurrected by Swift and released in hardback form. This is Hawley’s first novel published in the UK though she has been writing for many years, and her comfort with a pen shows.

It is the late 1970s when the protagonist of the novel, Marge, meets her long-term partner, Peg, at the Women’s Coffee House. As they dance they feel the exact shape for one another, and in the way that people know, they each understand that they will be conjuring a life together. But there is someone else watching, someone whose gaze will mould their love.

The plot follows the course of Marge and Peg’s love and its inevitable loss, via harassment and tragedy early in the relationship, opening at the death of Peg. Some of the more startling scenes are in the initial chapters of the novel, and explore sexual obsession, how it is a fire blazing on a front porch. But the book is as much about the process of belonging as the process of grief, and much of the book explores this idea: whether bus driver Marge belongs with trainee psychotherapist Peg, whether she belongs with Peg’s family after her death. The final third of the novel devotes itself to this question of blood and belonging. Written with a steady hand, it is somehow a calm book despite the turmoil. It is a tightly told story.

Sense of butchness

Marge provides the voice of the novel, though even when she is the subject of a scene she still seems somehow at a distance. Perhaps it is a sense of butchness. Perhaps it is to reinforce a sense of observation. Either way, the narrator narrates herself and is slightly outside of the conversation, the scene, her own body. There is the feeling that the world is happening to her or around her rather than as a consequence of her being.

Despite this distance, the story is somehow still one to warm the hands in front of. Marge is a likeable character, a good if reserved friend, and Peg is the antidote to her silences. The later characters bring a noise and confused joy that echo after the book is closed.

It is a novel written with exquisite attention to ordinary detail, elevating the everyday into something miraculous, and interspersed with a tender poetry even when recounting a scene of violence.

“And that’s the thing about violence . . . Your body remembers it, and it reminds you, night after night: your hand connected with bone under the flesh and it felt like this; the sound when she hit the dumpster was like that; she had blood and dirt mixed together on the toe of her right foot.”

Poetry of losses

To read of a woman involved in a physical fight and for nothing to be made of the fact that it was a physical fight between women is a liberating sensation. The focus is on the minutia of violence, on its consequences, the small poetry of its many losses. And the story moves on from the moment carrying the weight of it unspoken through the narrative.

The pages are packed with ordinary wisdom, the hard-won kind, the blistered-hand and aching-back kind, conveyed in a beautiful, spare poetic prose. Class is the book’s undercurrent, again never directly discussed but a constant buzzing in the corner of the room. But overall, it is a book of women across generations. Every character bar one is female, including the unborn baby, but only a vague attention is paid to this, without fanfare or direct musing on the status of women in late 1970s to late 1980s America.

Marge is the “archaeologist of mourning” sifting through her lost lover’s clothing, dropped arguments and shared ideas, unearthing simple memories and finally a renewed sense of self. And so we leave her, doing ordinary things, full of ordinary loves and losses, and ready to “Begin the day like the living do.”

And underneath the story is the critical value of a book centred on a long-term lesbian relationship, perhaps a butch femme one, that never really mentions sexuality. The sexuality isn’t the story. The weight of a woman’s heart is. The story is the story.

Other People Manage is a tender and beautiful addition to the literary canon, and a mirror for LGBT readers.

Joelle Taylor won the 2021 TS Eliot Prize for her book C+nto