The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud had been on my radar for a long time. So much so that when I decided to do some second-hand bookshop in Cardiff last year I knew I would buy a copy of the book if I found it. For those of you who kept recommending the book to me: Thank You.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs tells the story of Nora Eldridge, a middle-aged teacher who sees her conventional American class and life disrupted with the arrival of a new pupil from France. Nora describes herself in the first lines of the book as ‘a good girl’, and that is probably the description that best fits her until the following question is posted: What makes a good girl and why? In this first chapter we learn about her anger and her frustration with her life. If she has been a good daughter, a good colleague, and a good woman in general, why did this happen to her? Of course ‘this’ is the whole of the book. Messud is a master at describing psychological processes, and the novel focuses on Nora’s internal life and her evolution. But before we learn more about the year the incident that changed her life forever, she graces us with one of the most intense, truthful and brief takes on anger expressed by a female character in contemporary literature:

Maybe, instead, I’ll set the world on fire. I just might.

This anger floods her story like a hemorrhage she cannot stop when she reconstructs what happened between her and the student’s family. Because I do not wish to spoil the novel to anyone, I will leave it here, and instead I will focus on why so many people have considered Nora a unlikable character. For me she was a heroine, but I am the one who takes Rebecca’s side on the Du Maurier classic. As a female character, Nora uses the narration in first person to vent her anger and her frustrations, and she directly links her situation to the fact that she is a woman and has been socialized to be quiet, silent, kind, show acceptance, and care for others. But above all, she highlights how society teaches women to repress negative feelings, and most importantly to not show the in public:

Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish.

Despite the importance of these feelings, Messud gives Nora a rich internal life, and her ambitions to be an artist also play a key role in the narrative. Even though she earns her living as a teacher, Nora has always wanted to be an artist but saw her will and determination crashed by society and her environment. Sadly this is a too common situation for many women even nowadays, and the fact that Messud chose to write about it may give help female readers give a second chance to the dreams of their youth. Nora’s self-rediscovery is one of the most beautiful and inspiring processes I have seen portrayed in literature, and it stands along with the library scene in Atonement, which two years later still lingers in my mind.

It has been over a month since I finished The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, but I fiercely miss Nora. Every day I look at my piles of books trying to find something that will make up for the loss, but I am afraid I will not find anything until Messud’s next book comes out this year. Even though reading The Woman Upstairs l may take a while due to the intensity of the story, Nora will remain with readers as one of the most complex, fierce, brave, inspiring and flawed characters in contemporary literature. For me this is probably the best book I have read this year so far.

He’s Gone by Alex Clare

Last January’s Women’s March events all over the world raised a lot of questions about who had a right to participate, and why. The concept of “woman” has been destabilised and questioned since Simone De Beauvoir announced to the world that one becomes a woman, rather than being born one. In fact, postmodern theorists like Judith Butler have denied the existence of a subject that exists under the label ‘woman’, and instead advocates for a more diverse take on womanhood that breaks away with society’s traditional constructions and expectations.  Hes Gone explores this postmodern postulate by having a trans-woman detective as a main character. Meet Robyn Bailley, DI of the Meresbourne police in Kent (UK), a working-class town witness to the industrial crisis of the 20th century. Like the town, Robyn has felt her life deteriorate for decades now. That is, until she realised that she no longer was Roger Bailley, but Robyn.  Is crime fiction ready for a trans-woman main character? Apparently not. As Robyn struggles to come back to work as her true self, she will find rejection from her colleagues, Melissa – mother to Ben – and whose child’s disappearance she is investigating; and the rabid journalists who want to know more about her transition and think that maybe she is not the right person to be involved in a case involving a child. If this situation was not enough, Robyn’s daughter cannot believe what her father has become and wonders if their relationship can move forward to healthy grounds.

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Hes gone can be labelled as one of the first novels to introduce a trans-woman main character in crime fiction. But the novel is also rich in female characters, and one of its peculiarities is the construction of the victim’s mother as a dislikeable woman. Robyn’s struggle is also adorned with the echoes of Melissa’s conservative church, for whom Robyn’s identity emerges as a dangerous and contagious state of identity that should not be allowed to exist: “Let me be clear. I meant why were you speaking at the press conference? Now, rather than thinking about Benjamin, everyone will be focusing on you and your deviance”. Melissa Chivers emerges as one of the most unlikable characters in contemporary crime fiction, where the victim and their family needed the sympathy of the detective, and the reader, in order to move the story forward. Not in this novel. The creation of Melissa as unlikable character works as a test for political correctness when she is described as an overly ambitious black woman who made herself, but who is a terrible mother to her kid. This type of femininity, that goes against the traditional image of the loving and caring mother, presents the reader with questions about how the expectations of being a woman in contemporary society, as well as the importance of seeing beyond stereotypes in criminal investigations.

Ironically, Robyn perceives Melissa as a woman that exudes the power and authority that she feels she is lacking, and that Roger clearly had. In an effort to present herself to the world in a similar light, Robyn keeps in mind Melissa’s body: “She remembered how Ms Chivers stood when she exuded a feminine authority and turned a little to the side so that she no longer faced the camera head on, putting one foot half a pace in front of the other. That felt more natural”.

Along with posture, Robyn has also incorporated new hair, and the use of make-up and nail varnish to the set of acts that make her a woman. These typically feminine products become her trademark, as they are used to trace the thick line that has traditionally separated masculine and feminine aesthetics. Her insistence on adopting traditional female markers could not have found a better historical moment, as Third-wave feminism, postmodernism at its best, relies on traditional feminine traits. As Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards explain in Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (New York: Farrar, 2000): ‘Girlie encompasses the tabooed symbols of women’s feminine enculturation—Barbie dolls, makeup, fashion magazines, high heels (p. 136.) However, traditional feminine aesthetics are constructed in spaces restricted to women with no safe space for masculinity. As Robyn faces her first week as a woman, the novel takes us back to Roger’s decision to buy women’s clothes for the first time, and the worried looks of the shop assistant that forced him to purchase Robyn’s wardrobe fully on the Internet: “She’d visited a few shops as Roger but the questioning looks from shop assistants whenever she’d picked anything up had put her off and decided it was much easier to buy the first set of female clothes online”. Hence, social media and the Internet emerge as a safe place in which liminal identities can be performed and shared with people with a similar life experience. The community Robyn found online, as well as the anonymity of online shopping, granted her the opportunity to explore alternative constructions of womanhood, as well as people who, like her, do not adhere to traditional cisgender discourses. The ultimate questioning of the construction of safe spaces for the performance of non-normative gender identities comes up in the form of bathrooms. After Robyn’s struggle to choose which bathroom to use, the issue intersects with Donald Trump’s recent revocation of federal protection for trans-students in schools all over the country starting a conversation about human rights, and the construction of gender identity. In her first day back, she enters the men’s bathroom, but she will later on move to the disable’s one.

The patriarchal segregation of non-white and non-normative bodies outside the dominant discourse tangentially emerges as a key element in the construction of the postmodern identity and the forensic detective process. As Robyn negotiates her new identity with herself and her colleagues, she ponders on the physicality of forensic science, and the need to go beyond the metaphysical and consider the importance of the victim’s personal narrative and life story. This moment, although as brief as a paragraph, constitutes a remarkable point of inflexion in contemporary crime fiction, comes when the remains of a victim need to be identified though DNA testing. In this precise moment – and still a year far from her complete physical transformation into a woman – Robyn realises that were she to die, her DNA would come up as masculine in the system. With this scene, Robyn’s narrative is questioning long-held beliefs about the legitimacy of forensic science, and the blind trust that the 20th century deposited into scientific discourses. It is true that the production of scientific knowledge needs to rely on the metaphysical world in order to avoid past mistakes such as the pseudo-scientific theories used to back up racism and discrimination against women. But, crime fiction goes a step beyond this metaphysical world and posts questions about the construction of the subject victim from the investigating team’s point of view.

The necessity of approaching the detective process from a more personal point of view led to the questioning of Robyn’s detective process, as she sees how the loss of Roger’s male gaze has resulted in her re-education about what she is allowed to see as a policewoman. If Laura Mulvey met Robyn, she would have a perfect case study of how men are given the privilege of looking, while women are looked at. The term “gaze” appears throughout the novel linked to the pressure Robyn feels from people around her, yet another struggle of her new identity. This is reflected in Roger’s pastime as a photographer, while Robyn struggles to pick up a camera after her transformation. However, discrimination is subtler, with of her peers presuming that Robyn, unlike Roger, will not be driving the police car, relegating her to the passenger’s seat, where she is a mere spectator. As the late John Berger stated (1972): ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’. Robyn herself feels the weight of this gaze when the case becomes news, and she is faced with several press conferences. Have the audience noticed her chipped nail polish? Will the camera enhance the different between her skin tone and her new foundation? And, will the evening audience notice that the laser removal still did not get away with her beard? Directly related to being watched comes sexual harassment, which takes a darker turn with Robyn’s trans identity, as an officer jokes she may be on her period, on the one hand constructing women’s minds as unstable and, on the other hand, being cruel to Robyn who clearly does not have a period. Her final recovery of agency will come through the detecting process, as Robyn solves three cases in collaboration with her team and finally finds peace in her negotiation of her past and present by incorporating Roger’s professional experience into Robyn’s life story. In the eureka moment that postmodern fiction relies on – that scene where everything comes together and the truth is revealed to both the main character and readers – Robyn can only solve the case because of the specific knowledge that comes from lived experience, in her case, a female (albeit short) lived experience.

As Roger morphed into Robyn, she was faced with the task of redefining her relationship to those in her inner circle of friends. The novel centres around Robyn’s relationship with her daughter, Becky, to whom Robyn communicated her new identity in a letter. The necessity to redefine paternity in the postmodern is also highlighted by the case Robyn investigates, as the disappeared child’s father is unknown. However, Robyn’s daughter appears as a young agent of change, who will offer the detective the possibility of deciding which place to occupy in her life. Robyn’s decision to remain Becky’s father opens up a dialogue about how gender structures family life, and the necessity to break way with traditional representations of motherhood and fatherhood. The case itself works as a bone of contention, as Robyn faces the recent of the emergence of conservative groups that, in the postmodern era, fight for a return to more stable definitions and meanings. As the mother of the victim, a religious extremist member of a cult against abortion, homosexuality, birth control, and any kind of “diversity gone mad”. Melissa voices religious concerns about gender fluidity, but The Men’ Rights movement also makes an appearance highlighting the necessity of every child to have a father relaying on traditional discourses based on gender-biased arguments. However, the eventual defeat of these discourses comes from Robyn’s solving of the case and her refusal to give up a job she loves.

He’s Gone by Alex Clare is a thrilling post-modern novel in which the inclusion of a trans-woman detective questions the conception of the detective novel and its normative and traditional representations of women as victims. However, it is still to be seen whether the novel receives praise for its inclusion of a transwoman as a main character in a literary tradition that has been considered masculine since its inception, or whether the creation of a trans character by a cisgender woman is still problematic. I, for one, was very happy to meet Robyn, and I hope that more writers – cisgender, trans, and genderqueer – venture into crime fiction to prove that the word ‘detective’ welcomes all subjects alike. It’s just about time.

I Love Dick (1997) by Chris Kraus

I love Dick (1997) by Chris Krauss made an appearance on my Twitter feed thanks to Elizabeth Morris’ account last Autumn when she gushed about the book and the upcoming TV adaptation. She highlighted how the book dwells on women, sex, agency, and art:

I was sold from that same minute. Not only because the book promised to be a landmark in my feminist reading, but because I had been reading about rape culture and forensics for three months and I craved something different. This hype about the book, along with Wallace Yovetich’s series on romances novels for Book Riot I realised the ‘something different’ that I wanted was a story about female desire. So, when M and I decided to exchange books in Christmas instead of splurging on presents, I knew what I wanted: I love Dick.

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Even though I finished reading the book some weeks ago, I haven’t been able to put my thoughts in a coherent order. Reading I Love Dick parallels the main characters’ chaotic descent into her desire for Dick, a man she met during a networking dinner with her husband. The woman is named after the author after – as gossip goes – she had a relationship with art critic Dick Hebdige. This much was said after the book’s cool reception twenty years ago, but after the rise of the unlikable female character, all the Nasty Women, and a constant fight to be human and not perfect, I Love Dick was rediscovered by pop culture as a chant to freedom and female agency.

As an academic the book posted some interesting and complex questions about who gets to speak in specific contexts and why. Chris is an experimental artist married to Sylvère, a professor who embodies all the post-structuralist and post-modernist theories that I live by, and that I write about. However, as the couple goes to dinner with Dick, Chris finds herself unable to join the conversation. She feels an outsider to a world – Academia – that is masculine, theoretical and patronising to women and women’s experience. As the novel progresses, we learn about Chris’ past as an artist in NYC, and the many lived experiences that have shaped her into the person that falls immediately head over heels in love with a stranger.

Sylvère keeps socializing what I’m doing through with you. Labeling it through other people’s eyes – Adultery in Academe, John Updike meets Marivaux… Faculty Wife Throws Herself At Husband’s Colleague. This presumes that there is something inherently grotesque, unspeakable about femaleness, desire. But what I’m going through with you is real and happening for the first time.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first one – ‘Scenes from a marriage’ – presents the reader with a third-person narration of the events the set the plot in motion and how Chris shares her infatuation with Sylvère and they jointly decide to start writing letters to Dick. In them, they describe how the stranger is profoundly changing the way they relate to each other with desire taking central stage, as the couple had given up on sex for a few years now. Their sexual relationship relinked, they wonder how the introduction of a third person may change their identity as a couple, but also individually (*). The author’s vast knowledge of literature and postmodern theory allows for references to every unfaithful partner in literature, as well as even more dark references that can only be gasped at during second or third readings. Because if there is something that characterises I Love Dick that is the impossibility to control the text and pin it down to references known by the reader, a process that mirrors the beautiful yet chaotic event of falling in love and seeing your life turned upside down and blurry for a period of time.

The second part of the book is called ‘Every letter is a love letter’ and it takes place after Chris abandons Sylvère and reappropriates the relationship the couple had with him as hers only. During this period she is travelling across the United States and she presents herself to Dick by sharing her past with him: How she worked at a strip club, how she is dismissed because of her art, her constant struggle against anorexia, and how she ended up marrying Sylviere. As someone interested in the representation of eating disorders, I was shocked by the blunt description of Chris’ necessity to stop eating sometimes and the happiness that comes with the restrain and the supposed control derived from the starving. The main character’s lived experience emerges in this part of the book as her own, and she unties herself from Sylvères-wife through her desire for Dick. This does not mean that the main character replaces one partner from another as Dick is just a recipient for her letters and the only voice that we hear is hers. Instead, the return of her sexual desire brings back her desire to live and to exist outside institutions and discourses that deem her a secondary character, a side-passenger. The ending, as it happens with every infatuated state, is a crash against reality reminded the reader that the process is as important as the goal.

The fact that Chris Krauss (author) and Chris Krauss (main character) seem to be the same person posts a lot of question about women in the arts and how we have been told to dismiss the female voice and avoid questioning why it is not being heard. I Love Dick challenged the status quo and inscribes two women’s lived experience as a female artist in pop culture: the fictional Chris’, and the real-life Chris’. With the upcoming television adaptation starring Kathryn Hahn as Chris and Kevin Bacon as Dick, the wold is about to be taken by storm by a tour de force on what it means to be a woman and dare to have any kind of desire for one’s self.

In short, I Love Dick by Chris Krauss is an essential read for anyone interested in women’s agency in art, feminism, female desire, relationships and postmodernism. It is not an easy read, and the process will be plagued with chaos, infatuation with the book, hate towards the book, and a necessity to run back home to read one more chapter. But that is exactly the power of the book: Its ability to make us feel like Chris does, with no Dick whatsoever.

(*) If you are interested in how the introduction of a third-party may affect a couple I highly recommend the Netflix show You Me Her (2016 – ), where a couple gets obsessed with a female escort that eventually enters their relationship in nonprofessional terms.

Nasty Women: A Collection of Essays + Accounts on What It is to be a Woman in the 21st Century

Nasty Women: A Collection of Essays + Accounts on What It is to be a Woman in the 21st Century by indie publisher 404Ink took the Internet by storm some months ago. The book contains essays by women writers on their lived experience as women in the 21st century. The project caught the attention of feminist all over Twitter, and it was even backed up by Margaret Atwood herself:

‘An essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now.’ – Margaret Atwood (Twitter

I first encountered Nasty Women through their Kickstarter campaign in which 404Ink aimed to get the book published, paid the 20 authors they had commissioned texts from, and spread their nastiness all over the world. The campaign went viral and it raised £ 22.156, an amount which greatly exceeds the funding proposed by the publishers by a 369%. In an attempt to make my next visit to the UK more interesting I had hoped to buy a book at a local library when I saw they had review copies, and they were being sent to bloggers, and yes, 404Ink would be generous enough to send me one. I could not believe my luck.

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The book covers the complex, and sometimes heart-breaking experience of being a woman in the times of Brexit, Trump, and an economic crisis that has left little time and space for any other issues than money. All the authors make an effort to situate their experience, that is, they acknowledge their race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, family history, gender identity, sexual orientation and even tastes make them who they are. Hence, their stories come from them and do not aim to speak for any collective, they are a subjective approach to a given issue. All of them are survivals of the political experience of identifying as a woman in a patriarchal society, but they choose what to talk about, and why. Some of them self-identify as victims, some others not, but they all have something in common: A desire to keep fighting. Among my favourite topics were social class, the importance of imperfect role models for young women (both famous and familiar!), and the struggle of losing a beloved one and become the next tangible generation.

It is difficult to review Nasty Women as a single work due to the wide range of voices that it contains. The experiences of these women come from other countries and even other times. They have travelled the world, and they have chosen to share their experiences with an audience that is hungry to know more, to learn more and to connect. The book achieves that, but for English-speakers only, as all the women have written their own pieces and they all come from English-speaking countries. However, this tiny blind spot does not take away from the collection as no work is perfect. In fact, the collection covers some silenced issues such as fashion for disabled people, culture from in a working-class environment, and the recovery of traditional female knowledge once deemed ‘witchery’.

Nasty Women is a collection of essays that will open readers’ minds to the complexity of being female and making the political decision to identify as such in a patriarchal society. But above all, Nasty Women will connect the women who wrote it, publish it, and read it. Turning the last page feels like saying goodbye to that group of female friends who you only meet once in a while, but who make life better. And in order to keep them heard and heard, it is necessary to remember their names (in alphabetical order): Alice Tarbuck, Anna Cosgrave, Becca Inglis, Chitra Ramaswamy, Christina Neuwirth, Claire Heuchan, Elise Hines, Jen McGregor, Joelle Owusu, Jona Kottler, Kaite Welsh, Katie Muriel, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! (in conversation with Sasha de Buyl-Pisco), Laura Lam, Laura Waddell, Mel Reeve, Nadine Aisha Jassat, Ren Aldridge of Petrol Girls, Rowan C. Clarke, Sim Bajwa, and Zeba Talkhani. And these are their faces:

[L-R] Anna Cosgrave, Nadine Aisha Jassat, Sim Bajwa, Aiice Tarbuck, Becca Inglis, Chitra Ramaswamy, Christina Neuwirth, Claire Heuchan

[L-R] Anna Cosgrave, Nadine Aisha Jassat, Sim Bajwa, Aiice Tarbuck, Becca Inglis, Chitra Ramaswamy, Christina Neuwirth, Claire Heuchan. From 404Ink.

[L-R] Jen McGregor, Joelle Owusu, Jona Kottler, Kaite Welsh, Katie Muriel, Laura Waddell, Mel Reeve, Zeba Talkhani

[L-R] Jen McGregor, Joelle Owusu, Jona Kottler, Kaite Welsh, Katie Muriel, Laura Waddell, Mel Reeve, Zeba Talkhani. From 404Ink.

Nasty women is set to become THE non-fiction book of 2017 thanks to the complexity of every essay, and the importance of the topics covered in a time when being other than a white, middle-class, Western, abled, cisgender man has become a political act of rebellion against the status quo.

Nasty Women is published by 404 Ink on International Women’s Day, 8th March 2017. You can pre-order your copy directly from the publisher here.

Thanks to Heather McAid and Laura Jones for the collection, the review copy, and the many conversations on Twitter. #NastyWomen.

Ofrenda a la tormenta by Dolores Redondo – Giving Closure to the Baztan Trilogy

Right after I finished reading The Lecagy of the Bones by Dolores Redondo I knew I had to read the next (and last) installment in the Baztán Trilogy. Keeping on the promise I made to myself to use the public library as much as I can, I borrowed Ofrenda a la Tormenta – ‘Offering to the Storm’, though there is no translation to English available yet – and I got lost in the dense greenery of the Baztán valley one last time.

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The story picks up right after The Legacy of the Bones, with D.I Amaia Salazar chasing the network of criminals that has been targeting the families of the Baztán valley for decades, and with her personal struggle with the handsome Judge Marquina. Even though I found the second novel in the series a real page-turner, Ofrenda a la tormeta despite its necessity to give closure to the story, does not equal The Legacy of the Bones in holding the reader’s attention. As Salazar tries to solve the case, her past comes to haunt her one more time in the form of dreams that become an over-used resource by Redondo, making me skip whole paragraphs without having any troubles following the story afterwards.

The novel’s strength lies in the cryptic combination of Amaia’s personal and professional struggles, as her husband James takes a secondary role, and her relationship with her son Ibai no longer plays such a big role in the creation of her own identity, which is to thank after the obsession with motherhood that plagued the previous novel. Instead, Amaia’s relationship with Judge Marquina takes a central role, making Salazar question the decisions that have shaped her life until she met him. However, Redondo does not offer a fresh take on female desire in crime fiction, and Amaia’s infatuation with the Judge takes a darker turn – no spoilers! – that will become the most remarkable struggle of the novel. As for the closure, the Baztán readers will get it as all the events from previous novels – that Redondo wisely brings up again with a few sentences – are tied together.

I was very, very disappointed by Ofrenda a la tormenta as the final installment in the most successful crime series in 21st century Spain. Questioned by a few fellow crime readers here, I had to admit that The Invisible Guardian is a good book, The Legacy of the Bones is a great one, but Ofrenda a la tormenta makes for a very poor ending. I think my main problem relied on how Redondo tells the story, and how Amaia’s issues with her mother, as well as her nightmares became tiring narrative strategies that tried to move the plot forward connecting Salazar’s past and present. However, I had no problem finishing the book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has read the two previous installments as a way of finding closure.

As a Spanish crime fiction reader, I must say that I am really happy that Redondo’s books are also enjoying some success in more than 30 countries now. The novels have changed the way many people in this country perceive crime fiction, especially written by women. Even though the novels were a bit expensive (20€ each!), the publishers also released cheaper paperback editions and most local and public libraries have them as well. In an effort to expand the series’ success, a film adaptation combining the three novels is to be released the 3rd of March 2017, with Basque actress Marta Etura starring as Amaia. Here’s the trailer in Spanish. No spoilers!

If you have not heard of Dolores Redondo’s Baztán Trilogy, you can find more information here:

Review: Baztán Trilogy #1 – The Invisible Guardian

Review: Baztán Trilogy # 2 – The Legacy of the Bones

Exclusive Interview with Dolores Redondo for Books & Reviews

Legado en los huesos (The Legacy of the Bones) by Dolores Redondo – Baztan Trilogy #2

As I visited the public library to return Ferrante #4 last December, I stumbled upon Dolores Redondo’s Legado en los huesos (The Legacy of the Bones) in the New Books section. As I eyed the familiar cover – all the Spanish editions share a similar cover, with greenery and a woman – I realised that it had been a year since I had read El guardián invisible (The Invisible Guardian), the first installment in the series. I realised then, it would just be perfect to put an end to 2016 the same way I had started it: By returning to Baztán.

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Legado en los huesos takes place as Amaia Salazar gives birth and is forced to return to Elizondo, where a local church has been vandalised. If El guardián invisible was constructed over the greenery and the scenery typical of Navarra and the Northern part of Spain, then Legado en los huesos highlights the unique political environment of the area. Amaia, despite being in charge of the team now, sees herself investigating the desecration of a local church because a high-ranking prelate from the Opus Dei specifically requests her. The right-wing organisation is extremely powerful in Navarra, where they are in charge of the most prestigious Medicine college of the country. Their influence is however greater than that, and the novel is built on Amaia’s struggles to reconcile her job and her new role as a mother, and the Catholic doctrine with the pagan beliefs of Elizondo.

Amaia’s recent maternity and mother-child relationships take again a central role in the narrative as she gives birth to a baby boy, instead of the girl they were expecting, and she struggles to become the mother she has pictured herself to be. Redondo makes an effort to include the difficult task of caring for a newborn, even though Amaia always has James by her side. Post-natal depression, as well as remorse, sleep-deprivation, and the importance of finding time with her husband make up for most of the main character’s personal arch. I found Amaia’s views on motherhood a bit old-fashioned, especially when she tries to put her son’s breastfeeding above everything,  and she refuses to let it interfere with her work. However, all her worries disperse throughout the book when she accepts help from James and Engrasi to take care of the baby, and she recovers some personal space and time. Some of that personal space will be clouded by Judge Markina’s interest in Amaia, posting questions about flirting, infidelity, love, and marriage, thus giving adding even more depth to the main character.

It is a bit difficult to describe the crime that sets the plot into motion because everything is directly linked to the events on the previous book. So, if you have not read El guardián invisible, Legado en los huesos is not a good place to start. As Amaia investigates the desecration of a church in Elizondo, Johana Marquez’s father commits suicide in jail, leaving a strange message for Amaia that sends the whole team into a thrilling investigation during the cold, wet and dark winter of Northern Spain. Personally, I was thrilled to see our short and wet days inscribed in popular literature, as we do not get much sun and warmth in the North of Spain, where we share more similarities with England than with Barcelona. The return to her hometown will also help Amaia deal with her traumatic relationship with her mother, as well as with her older sisters, Flora and Ros. Tía Engrasi is always present in the background, taking the role of mother, confident, and now grandmother to Amaia’s kid, as well as facilitator of the family’s return to the town. Without giving anything away, Amaia will discover a dark family secret that will change her forever. All these stories are entwined with the Basque mythology that made El guardián invisible such a distinctive book.

Legado en los huesos is a an even better read than El guardián invisible, though longer and darker. Despite my passion for crime fiction, I found myself agitated and unable to read this book during bedtime due to Redondo’s masterful story-telling skills. The crimes Amaia investigates also take a darker turn, and although I do not want to give anything away, please beware the book contains graphic descriptions of violence against children and teenagers (as did the previous installment), as well as desecration of Catholic places. If you can bear that, then you are in for one of the best books written in Spain in recent years.

Spinster. Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

This semester I joined a feminist book club that takes place in my favourite city and is led by a fellow feminist PhD candidate at my same programme. The club is organised nation-wide, with different physical meetings all over Spain by the feminist organisation La Tribu (‘The Tribe’). Our first reading was Spinster. Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick, a non-fiction book, partly memoir, about what it means to be single nowadays.

The book has been translated into Spanish but I decided to go with the original for two reasons. One is that I read faster in English and I also enjoy the text more, the second one is that books in Spain are quite expensive because as cultural products they have a 21% tax on them with Spinster‘s price rocketing to 24€. So, after a quick search at Abebooks I found an in-good-condition edition for less than 2€. Here’s my now battered copy:

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I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Spinster, as I found myself thinking about the book all day long and wishing it was bedtime to return to it. I usually read novels, but this year I have felt drawn to non-fiction. The boyfriend got me Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road for Christmas and it had been a long time since I had been so inspired by a book. Non-fiction is teaching me that life is gray, messy and wonderful. Kate Bolick’s book has taught me that our emotional and personal lives do not have to be coherent.

Spinster is divided into chapters according to the different ‘awakeners’ that Bolick has chosen as her role models. The term ‘awakeners’ is a feminist one related to Kate Chopin’s feminist novel The Awakening in which a young wife and mother wakes up one day to a life that does not make her happy and decides to change that. One thing to highlight is that Bolick’s experience is highly situated as a white, middle-class American woman, meaning that she, like we all are, is a product of her surroundings. Hence, the women that she choses as role models are culturally and geographically similar to her: They were either born in New England, or they moved to New York city. All of them were women of letters and arts, and most of them will be familiar to the Western feminist reader. And if not, Bolick’s admiration for them is so contagious that you will find yourself researching these awakeners. I did not know a thing about Irish author and journalist Maeve Brennan, but I am now fascinated by her life and I hope to explore some her works later this year. The rest of the awakeners, you will have to discover for yourself as their identities and their historical relevance are key to the development of Bolick’s train of thought.

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Irish author Maeve Brennan (1917 – 1993)

When a non-fiction book deals with such a sensitive topic as women’s personal lives, it is almost impossible not to be passionate about what you think. As a feminist I have never found myself against anything as long as it is a woman’s choice and it does not cause her any harm. I am not against marriage, probably because my parents have been together for almost 40 years and they are a happy and strong couple. I am not against choosing to remain single because some of the women I admire the most are not married, nor do they have children. In short, I truly believe it is important to remain true to yourself and choose what makes you happier. Said choice is a difficult one when it comes to our private lives, as society still seems obsessed with women marrying and having children so that they are defined by their relationships to other people rather than in their own terms.

Bolick explores what singlehood means for her, and reflects on whether it is conscious choice or the product of failed relationships in which she did not feel comfortable. Having said this, the author is very clear in that she has experienced most kind of relationships: Open relationships, one-night stands, long-term relationships that everyone expected to end in marriage, she has shared a flat with her partner, and she has lived alone. As she approaches her 40th birthday she realises that she does not need to accommodate to anyone’s idea of how her life should be, but it takes a process of reflection and self-criticism to reach this point. That is what Spinster is, a woman’s journey to define herself and find what makes her happy in a society where dating, marrying and having children are considered the default life paths of the vast majority.

We like to pretend that only single people are lonely, and coupledom is the cure.

I only found a problem with the book and that was the definition of singlehood by Bolick. As a white, middle-class, educated woman living in New England she works with a very fixed definition of what being in a relationship means, and what getting married means. Throughout the book I was surprised to find that this definition remained stable through her 20’s and 30’s, and I wondered if the age gap between her and me was the problem here. She even admits to seeing women in two groups: Married and not-married, and wonders if singlehood will mean she will end up a bag-lady, or a cat-lady. For Bolick being in a committed, long-term relationship and eventually marrying equals will compromise the woman’s freedom and right to act on her own terms. On the contrary, being single may be hard, but grants the woman an escape from patriarchal subjection. Contemporary feminist writers, such as Louise O’Neill, have already written about the complex relationship between being a feminist and the consequences of entering a heterosexual relationship in a society where women are still not considered equals to men.

While this could be true to our mothers’ generation, I am hopeful things have changed for some of us as more men define themselves as feminists and make a conscious effort of escaping traditional gender roles in relationships. But also, as women escape stereotypes and try to find a balance between being completely alone in life or the centre of a big family. Being in a couple will not guarantee anyone’s happiness, nor will being alone make you a cat-lady. Bolick plays with extreme situations while making her choice, and although no one knows what the future holds, I want to believe that things are changing. More and more people are questioning the dating-marrying-children lifestyle, and more and more people are defining their lives on their own terms. There is no need to torture ourselves with the idea of becoming a desperate housewife or a bag lady, is it? But maybe that is my Millennial’s naiveté speaking (*).

Bolick herself sees some light at the end of the tunnel when she speaks about Markus and Nurius’s study about the imagined future and our possible self from 1986. These two researches from the University of Michigan conducted a study on how our own perceptions of the future affect our present and the future itself. You can check the abstract of their academic article here. This mechanism is also known as self-fulfilling prophecy and it concludes that human agency depends on our capacity to imagine ourselves in the future. Hence, if you imagine yourself a happy single woman with significant relationships with your family, friends and colleagues, it is very more likely you will achieve that situation. On the other hand, if you think that remaining single will turn you into a cat-lady then that situation is more likely to happen. This is why Bolick’s awakeners and role models in feminism are so important: If you can see it, you can be it.

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Astronaut and astrophysicist Sally Ride (1951 – 2012), the first American woman in space aboard the space shuttle Challenger on the importance of female role models.

However, the thing that I loved the most about Spinster is Bolick’s love for these women writers and the act of writing on itself. Bolick is a journalist and a writer, and she has a passion for stories, especially women’s stories, especially from the past. While I read this book I found myself writing more than I usually do, and the author became a colleague, a friend, who was struggling with writing the same way that I was, and was pushing me harder, forward. Even though I did not agree with everything that Bolick says about partnership, being in a relationship and marriage, I respected her point of view and instead chose to fully connect with her through respect for our different points of view and our shared love for literature and writing.

To write a sentence, then a paragraph, then another, and to have someone else read those lines and immediately understand what I meant to express – I wanted to try that.

In short Spinster is a very interesting and necessary book for anyone looking to reflect on women’s lived experiences and women writers alike. This is not a self-help book, nor does it contain any answers. What works for someone could be a personal nightmare for me and vice-versa. Bolick works hard at defending her singlehood, but so would I about defending my relationship. What matters the most is that this book is visibilising singlehood and putting it out there as a happy choice in life. Spinster is then a celebration of women’s right to choose what makes them happy, rather than just conform to society’s expectations. A luxurious choice for women in the past not so long ago, and a necessary conversation still nowadays.

(*) If you are interested in reflecting about marriage, feminism, children, committment, education and the intersection of all these issues, check the Stuff Mom Never Told You Youtube channel where feminist Cristen Conger does research on similar issues. In this video she reflects on the statistics that show how Millennials have different values regarding committment, marriage and stability than the previous generation: