Red Comet: The Short and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark
Many would ask how it is possible to write a 1300 page biography about a woman who only lived for thirty years. Those people clearly don’t understand just how much incredible and ground-breaking writing Sylvia Plath managed to produce in such a tragically short period of time. Clark paints a vivid and human portrait of a gifted artist who struggled with the restrictions and expectations placed on her by her society, going into tremendous amounts of detail about her family life, her early relationships, her struggles with her mental health and her traumatic experiences at the hands of psychiatrists. Clark draws on huge volumes of Plath’s personal writing including diaries and letters to bring this often misunderstood figure to life as a real living, breathing, brilliant and flawed woman. She affords similar generosity to other polarising figures from Plath’s life, including Ted Hughes, Assia Wevill and her mother, Aurelia Plath. Where others have demonised these individuals in the wake of Plath’s suicide, Clark also shows them compassion and presents a balanced portrait that acknowledges their own strengths, struggles and flaws along with Plath’s. While many previous Plath biographies have scried though her poems to find signs that make her tragic end seem like the inevitable conclusion of a life possessed by a powerful poetic spirit, Clark’s work feels as though it does the opposite. Reading it I was overwhelmed by the sense that her death was deeply preventable. Had the freezing winter not left her isolated and miserable, had the medication she was on been better monitored, had in-patient mental healthcare not been such a terrifying prospect, there might have been a very different outcome and she might have lived decades more. The loss to the literary world is incalculable and the loss to her many many friends and loved ones immeasurable. For anyone who loves Plath’s poetry, Red Comet is an undertaking that will leave you devastated, but it is worth every page.
Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire
Having been thoroughly depressed by the life of Sylvia Plath, I needed a dose of fantasy ASAP. Once again, Seanan McGuire’s wacky world of wayward children who have travelled to other worlds and are now struggling to readjust to life back in the ‘real’ world’ ticked all my boxes. But on this occasion there is an edge to McGuire’s work as Where the Drowned Girls Go shows us a frightening alternative to Eleanor West’s accepting and welcoming academy for heroic youngsters. This novel largely takes place at the Whitethorn Institute, a school that seeks to force children to forget the magical worlds that they travel to through a harsh regime of repression, gaslighting and bullying. Traumatised by her encounter with the Drowned Gods in the Moors, Cora turns to the Whitethorn Institute hoping for a reprieve but instead finds herself forced to confront and conquer the darkest parts of her past and save her fellow magical children from the villainous Headmaster. As per usual, this is an extremely readable fantasy novella that speaks to the deeply weird and away with the fairies kid who still lives inside me and I will never be able to review it objectively because it taps into too many of my feelings.
Haruki Murakami has the most incredible talent for making the most insane situations not only readable but also plausible within the world that he has created. The plot of this novel is extremely difficult to describe succinctly and without giving away huge swathes of the plot, but in essence it covers the year in the life of two seemingly unrelated individuals as they unwittingly fall into a dystopian parallel world. Although it’s a fairly massive book (over one thousand pages), it packs in a lot with religious cults, assassinations of abusive men, literary conspiracies, a ghostly TV licence fee collector and, of course, the mysterious ‘little people’ who seem to be the driving force behind many of the novel’s events. It’s bursting with magical realism and the interplay of the fantastical and the mundane is one of the major appeals of the novel. 1Q84 is always going to be divisive and you’ll either love it or hate it, but if you’re prepared to embrace all of the insanity and go along for the ride, you’ll be richly rewarded.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Continuing on my surrealist dystopian kick, I finally got around to reading Brave New World. Huxley has created a world in which pain and distress have been completely eradicated with drugs, constant consumption of material goods, readily available light entertainment, lots of casual sex and a healthy dose of genetic engineering. While most humans have grown up in this highly controlled environment, there are still a few reservations where ‘savages’ live unregulated lives with all of the highs and lows of human emotion and experience that we have come to expect. When one such ‘savage’ is brought to the civilised world as an object of scientific interest, the distinction between ‘lack of distress’ and ‘happiness’ becomes apparent as he looks with horror upon a world with no true feeling. Although Huxley wrote Brave New World ninety years ago, his prescient warnings about mankind’s worship of mindlessness still feels incredibly relevant in the era of smartphones and wellness.
All In: An Autobiography by Billie Jean King
I’m not normally much of a fan of autobiographies, but then again, most people haven’t lived a life like Billie Jean King. Not only is she a world-class athlete and one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, but she is also a tireless campaigner for social justice and played a key role in making women’s tennis the hugely popular sport it is today. King (rightly) spends plenty of time on her sporting achievements but it seems clear that the accomplishments that she is most proud of are the ones that took place off the tennis court. Whether it was setting up the first professional women’s tennis tour, being a founding member of the Women’s Tennis Association, her triumph over Bobby Riggs in the infamous ‘Battle of the Sexes’ or her activism around LGBT+ rights after she was forcibly outed by an ex-lover, it seems like there is no challenge that King couldn’t conquer. She is an absolute inspiration and I would recommend this book to anyone, even if you aren’t a big tennis fan.