Ottila McGregor has a new year resolution. She’s going to make herself happy – “so happy it hurts,” she tells her therapist, “SO FUCKING HAPPY IT REALLY FUCKING KILLS,” she writes to herself. At the moment, she’s just hurting herself, via a destructive relationship (an affair with her boss) and too much drink. That’s not too much drink in a Bridget Jones, fake-horrified, unit-totting sort of way. It’s too much drink in a sexting-your-manager-again, tweeting-that-you-want-to-die, having-your-stomach-pumped way. So Ottila is going to “turn everything around”, confiding the process to the “grief scrapbook” she’s assembling inside a vandalised copy of The Little Book of Happy. Ottila knows about grief scrapbooks: she works in a support centre for people with cancer and their families. What is she grieving for? Booze, of course – and other things, the things her drinking tried to chase away.
The Little Book of Happy doesn’t actually exist, but I assumed it was real until I checked: one of those small, square hardbacks where inspiring quotations nestle against platitudinous advice. So Happy It Hurts, on the other hand, is a pleasingly unfamiliar kind of book. Anneliese Mackintosh’s debut novel (a follow-up to the scabrous short-story sequence Any Other Mouth, many of the themes of which are revisited here) is told through Ottila’s diary entries, transcripts of therapy sessions, emails, Snapchats and receipts. It’s an epistolary novel for a hyperconnected world, and the effect is appropriately chaotic – the reader feels at first a little like a drunk turning out her pockets and trying to reconstruct another night of blackout from the detritus she’s accumulated.
Read the full review at the Guardian
As the computer Deep Thought pointed out in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s no good spending seven and a half million years working on the answer if you don’t start with a good idea of what the question is. Lacey’s second novel, the follow-up to 2015’s Nobody Is Ever Missing, opens with a full-scale assault on readerly curiosity: a female narrator wakes up in her own bed and then locks eyes, shockingly, with a woman called Ashley who is outside her window, staring in. The who, what and why are a powerful incentive to drive through the pages. But for the characters in The Answers, the thing they are looking for is always being deferred or displaced.
Read the full review at the Guardian
This was the game. In the real world, I was lying on the sloping edge of Melton Leisure Pool sometime in the 1980s, shuffling my child body down into the water; in my imagination, I was on the sea shore and the irresistible ocean had come to take me and make me a mermaid. It was a game played entirely alone, because its object was utter and perfect passivity.
Some people never stop playing mermaids. At conventions such as Mer-Mania in North Carolina, Merfest in Florida, or Merfolk UK, hundreds of adults gather to, as the Merfolk website puts it, “transform [themselves] into a magical mythical being from the depths of the ocean” and swim with the “Mer-community”. (These gatherings are not uniformly idyllic: Mermania 2017 was reportedly riven with cyberbullying and physical confrontations between merfolk, leading to the Mail dubbing it “the DARK SIDE of the real-life mermaids”.)
Read the full essay at Little Atoms
Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.
A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.
“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.
Read the full review at the New Statesman
The idea that all of us have a self – essential, irreducible and inherently valuable – is something that’s accepted across social divisions, party-political lines and ideological differences. The mere suggestion that the existence of the self is a belief rather than a natural law can induce the scratchy, uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Yet, Will Storr argues in Selfie, it is only a belief: in reality, human beings are inchoate creatures, acting under influences we barely comprehend and creating post-hoc rationalisations for our behaviour to sustain the fiction of coherent identity. And this is all just in the first chapter.
Read the full review at Literary Review
Beyond the patricide and even the incest, the horror of the Oedipus myth lies in its insistence that our fates are not ours to change. And yet the story itself is far from unalterable, having been handed down in multiple variants — something that Natalie Haynes knows very well as a classics scholar. Now Haynes has written her own version of the tragedy, finding new space in the narrative by looking at it through the eyes of two characters neglected by antiquity: Oedipus’s mother/bride Jocasta and their youngest daughter Ismene.
Read the full review at the Spectator
This is a review essay of four new books about trans issues: Trans Like Me by C. N. Lester, Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt, The Secrets of My Life by Caitlyn Jenner, and Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee.
The world of transgender politics is full of big claims and bold declarations, but here is an understatement to start with: “The media is having a trans moment,” writes C N Lester in Trans Like Me. They are not wrong (“they” because Lester identifies as non-binary, and so asks to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns). Besides the books addressed here, recent additions to the discussion include the novel This Is How It Always Is (based on the transition of the author Laurie Frankel’s own child), The Gender Games by the Glamour columnist Juno Dawson (modestly subtitled The Problem With Men and Women . . . from Someone Who Has Been Both), The New Girl by the Elle columnist Rhyannon Styles, True Colours by Caroline Paige (the first openly trans person in the British military) and Surpassing Certainty by the trans activist Janet Mock – a second volume of autobiography to follow 2014’s Redefining Realness.
These books cover memoir, popular science and manifesto. Inevitably, they are wildly variable, both in quality and in ideology. I suspect that Lester might prefer a little less ideological range. Trans Like Me opens by asking, “What does the word ‘trans’ mean to you?” which, Lester then explains, is how they begin the corporate diversity training sessions they lead. Few books have so accurately captured the experience of being detained in a conference room and forced to reckon with a whiteboard.
Read the full essay at the New Statesman