Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Three literary sisters

As an antidote to Carsten Jensen's very male We, the Drowned, I recently embarked on three books new to paperback by women authors. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad won this year's Pulitzer Prize and is great fun, a series of interlinked tales equal to the best, early Douglas Coupland novels. It's extremely readable, though finally there's a suspicion Egan doesn't have much to say beneath the literary fireworks.

Siri Hustved never struggles for something to say, but the manner in which she does so may prove trying for readers of her dated feminist tract, The Summer without Men. On retreat to the country following a breakdown inspired by the break-up of her marriage, the book's narrator, Mia Fredricksen, teaches young women poetry and joins a book club with older women.

Fredricksen opines: 'Lots of women read fiction. Men don't. Women read fiction by women and by men. Most men don't. If a man opens a novel, he likes to have a masculine name on the cover; it's reassuring somehow.' (Elsewhere, there is reference to Hustved's husband, the 'prominent American novelist' Paul Auster.)

Like Fredricksen, the narrator of the first section of Great House, Nadia, is a poet, though she's found success as a novelist. And like Egan and Hustved, author Nicole Krauss plays with form and voices in her Orange-shortlisted novel. Following author Polly Courtney's branding dust-up with publishers HarperCollins, it's worth noting none of these books could be categorised as chick lit.

While Krauss's novel seems to be very determinedly pitched at the literary market by publisher Penguin, the same can't be said entirely for the other two - the paperback edition of The Summer without Men has one of the worst covers I've ever seen (I wish I had bought the original imprint). It gives the lie to Fredricksen's admission: 'You will notice that the written word hides the body of the one who writes. For all you know, I might be a MAN in disguise. Unlikely, you say, with all this feminist prattle flying out here and there and everywhere, but can you be sure?'

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