On Denial

Grief is a hard thing to write about, for many reasons.

For one thing, it’s a pretty intangible concept—what is it that you’re feeling when you’re grieving? “Grief” itself isn’t so much an emotion as a frame for it: a word made to weather the changeability of loss.

That’s the other problem with grief—its variability. The experience of grief differs wildly from person to person. Grief will even differ, I imagine, from loss to loss (I’m a first-timer, so I can’t confirm this theory, but it seems to me that there are too many colours of pain in the world for anyone to ever grieve the same way twice). So how are you supposed to write about it?

I can only speak for myself, and if it were me, I’d spend the first few paragraphs talking about why it’s so difficult to write about—a sort of disclaimer, to show the reader that you know that you’re not an emotional everyman, that you make no claims to represent for the billions of other people dealing with the aftermath of death.

Once this writerly loophole had been exploited, I’d take a look at the language that we do have to talk about grief—perhaps the widely-known “stages” of this variable, intangible, invisible experience.

Everybody knows about the five stages of grief. The theory was introduced by psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, and posits that there are five key steps in the walk through grief—these being denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Predictably, a lot of experts have taken issue with this theory when applied to grieving for a dead person.

For one thing, Kübler-Ross didn’t actually base it on the behaviour of people who’d experienced the death of a loved one. In fact, the model was based on the observation of the terminally ill (for a surprisingly accurate summary, see The Simpsons).

For another, researchers have found that people experience multiple trajectories following a loss, and have said that Kübler-Ross’s model is too simplistic. The world and grief are complex—who knew?

Still, I like the five stages model. “Stages” is probably over-generous—emotion isn’t linear, and the idea that none of these things bleed into one another seems far-fetched. But I like it, all the same.

I like that it offers a way in, that it’s allowed me to prevaricate for so long while actually touching on a lot of the things that I think are key to understand about grief before you even begin to talk about it, namely

  1. that it’s messy,
  2. that it changes, and
  3. that even experts can’t tell you what to expect or how to come out the other side, so I certainly don’t claim to.

So, that is where I’d start. Over the course of writing about grief, I’d probably write and rewrite, go through several drafts. I’d question why I was even trying, spend a week procrastinating, before deciding that if grief is a deafening silence, that’s no reason why the conversation around it should be.

To talk about grief, I’d begin at the (not by any means empirically-supported) beginning: with denial.

Years before

Six months ago, my dad died.

He was 61. It was a Friday. The weather was grey. To add insult to life-altering emotional injury, I was hungover at the time.

Dad had been in and out of hospital over the last three months, and he’d been optimistic lately of being out again.

(Normally when people ask if the death was sudden, and I say that he’d been in hospital for a while, they nod as though that alleviates the suddenness. Here’s something people might not tell you about death: it still feels sudden, even when it’s not unexpected.)

At first, grief felt like a lot of running around. To be very bluff about it, having someone close to you die is a real trip, but being the one who has to organise everything afterwards adds another element of strangeness.

In the first month after he died, grief was a lot of train journeys back and forth to my family’s house. It was a lot of reading, a lot of TV watching, a lot of sleeping almost anywhere but in my own bed, alone. It was making a lot of decisions I didn’t feel qualified to make, and receiving a lot of condolences that didn’t really feel like they were for me at all.

It might not seem possible to be in denial of something when you’re actively involved in dealing with its aftermath like this, but it is. I was even aware of it—when I was answering calls, planning the funeral, choosing the flowers and the coffin and making decisions about who should speak, what they should say.

3 days after, Clapham Common

I wasn’t deluding myself about whether or not he was actually dead. (That’s what I’d always thought denial was—the flat-out refusal to believe something had happened.)

It was more the feeling that, although I knew the stone had been cast into the water, it hadn’t quite settled yet. It had been in the air for a long time, and now it had finally broken the surface, the cool, hard fact of it was still drifting slowly down through sunlit layers of upper water. The currents were still warm, there were still living things up there—new things he’d written to me or for me that I hadn’t seen, shining envoys swimming through from his last weeks.

It had a long way to travel, then. It still does. Down to the dark bottom of the world, burying itself in the silted floor to fossilise—or be preserved, I don’t know in which direction this metaphor goes. (Part of me thinks that maybe grief is a rock that never reaches the bottom; it just goes down and down and never stops.)

In that sense, denial, and grief itself I suppose, feels a lot like waiting. For other people also, I think this is the perception—particularly given the linearity of the stages theory. For the grief-adjacent, you feel like you’re waiting it out: waiting for each stage to be over, waiting and waiting, through denial and bargaining and anger and depression, waiting for the rock to hit the sand as though that is the final truth of grief: acceptance, devoid of anything of these prior things. A point of stillness. A fact.

But that hasn’t been my experience. (At least not yet—as I said, I’m a first-timer, and this grief is very young.)

So what is it? In my experience, denial is a necessary mechanism, a kind of self-preserving reflex. In fact, it was what made almost everything I did in those first weeks and months possible.

4 months after, at the memorial

Denial gave me the courage to assert authority, for one thing—to make decisions as though I knew absolutely what the right call would be, because I still felt like at the end of all of it, at an undisclosed point, he would be able to tell me what I’d done right or wrong. Crack a joke, call me a name. It made authority feel like something borrowed, rather than something that was new and mine and the best we could do. That was another thing denial was: the anaesthetic daze before and between pain.

Part of the issue is that “denial” isn’t great at describing itself. Is a scar “denying” a wound? That’s an overly philosophical way of putting it, but a useful way of thinking about it. You can’t live in the pain all the time, and I have no doubt that the brittle barrier I’d shored up between myself and the bottomless pit that all my energy would have drained into otherwise was an essential part of trying to heal.

Six months down the line, I don’t feel what authority I have to be borrowed anymore. I’ve gotten used to its shifting weight, and the idea that it’ll never really feel like it’s mine. Denial allowed me to share the burden for a while, while I learned to take that weight myself.

So how do you write about grief? How do you write about denial?

My answer is that you say that denial is your body’s way of being kind to itself. It is saying to yourself, Here. Come inside. Get warm. Eat. Speak to someone who loves you, let them tell you a joke. Laugh at yourself and stupid things on the TV. Read a new book, or an old one. Take the rest you need.

And when you’re done, then you can brace yourself for everything else you have to do—the entire lifetime that is to come.

Forgetting it is important. We do it on purpose. It means we get a bit of a rest. Are you listening? We have to forget. Or we’d never sleep ever again.

—Ali Smith, Autumn


Notes from the Commuter Train: Reading in Review

At the end of last year, I spent three months commuting into London every day for work. From leaving home to arriving at the office in Shepherd’s Bush, the commute took about one hour and forty minutes, the majority of which were spent on some form of train.

I like travelling by train. There’s a romance to it that feels peculiarly British. In a strictly historical sense, the rail network is the skeletal infrastructure of British industrial growth over the last 150 years; it is both historically significant and persistently relevant in a way that it’s not in, say, America, land of the road trip or the domestic flight. And in a purely cultural sense, the blitz spirit of being trapped in a metal tube surrounded by other passengers all tutting in polite consternation whenever there’s a delay is the closest I get to chest-beating patriotism.

I’ve spent a lot of time (and money, oh dear God, the money) on trains over the years, zipping up and down regularly between York and Oxford during my undergrad degree. But I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much daily time on them: three hours, give or take, every single day. I needed to find something not only to pass the time but to activate it, to not let it drain away into hours I’d never get back or get anything real out of. And as someone who’s always loved reading, my route was clear: I read my way through it.

I read 21 books in those three months, some of them staggering, some of them not so much. Below are some brief reviews and recommendations from the reading train.

Best non-fiction book: The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing

I’m not ordinarily a huge non-fiction reader, but this book totally changed my outlook. Part-memoir, part-art history, part-critique, Laing explores a city and a set of artists through a lens that would never have occurred to me but which seemed indispensable once she’d  put it in front of me. It’s the kind of book that leads you on a meandering path around the same central subject: loneliness, the feeling of profound isolation, and how artists including Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, and a new favourite of mine, David Wojnarowicz (pronounced “Wonna-row-vitch”), transmuted those feelings into art. I don’t have a picture of my own copy, as I’d already lent it to a friend to read, but this is undoubtedly one of my reading highlights of the year.

Read this if you’re remotely interested in New York, modern art, or have ever felt lonely. Yes, I’m aware that last one includes everyone and I’m not sorry. Avoid it if you don’t like being shaken to your very bones.

What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.

Best poetry book: Off-White by Annie Bryan

Now, full disclosure: the author of this particular work is very dear to me and I did Snapchat her frantically whenever I encountered a line in this book that moved me to my core. BUT I also firmly believe that there is enough beautiful writing in this book that I would have been frantically Snapchatting somebody about them – it was just a peculiar privilege that that person could be the author.

This book will teach you about love and finding your way back to yourself. It is about pain, and family, and getting better. It harbours such enormous feeling that from the first page to the last the time you spend in Annie’s thoughts is a lesson in empathy and being a little kinder to yourself and to those around you. It will open your eyes.

Read this book if you want to hear from a woman speaking frankly and beautifully about coming out, eating disorder recovery, and so many more difficult topics it is so hard to bring into the light. Avoid it if you’re not into poetry or beautiful things.

But she says “few things make me happier than a blue sky with white clouds”
And she looks at me like i’m one of them.

And it all felt like a river that was heading towards the sea
Though we did not know which one

And so i go on loving you
Like water.

Best novels: a top 3 list (in no particular order)

1. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I first came across Jennifer Egan in my American literature module at York, when we read her 2001 novel Look at Me. I loved Look at Me, and had heard interesting things about Goon Squad before reading it. Nothing could have prepared me for this though – it’s a feat of ingenuity that I’d never anticipated. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, each of them tangentially related to one another. In each one you are sucked completely into that character’s world and their problems, and although you never see their story in its entirety from their perspective, there’s a particular thrill in glimpsing them through other characters’ eyes. There’s also a chapter that’s entirely told through PowerPoint, which is the most bizarre thing that I never expected to move me in the way it did.

Read this book if you are a fan of unorthodox storytelling and want to try something compelling and different. Avoid this book if you think that jumping between so many different characters would shake off your interest after a while.

2. Autumn and Artful by Ali Smith

I make no secret of how much I adore Ali Smith. How to be both, as I frequently tell anyone who will listen and recently told the author herself at a book event at Foyles, changed my life and what I thought was possible from reading and writing. Autumn and Artful are both comparably brilliant.

The former is the first book in Smith’s ongoing seasonal cycle, and has been widely billed as the first post-Brexit novel. It examines activism and political change and art, with a shining handful of central characters that you care deeply about by the time the book ends. It makes history beautiful as it’s happening, which is unbelievably rare.

Artful is a literary- and art-historical ghost story about grief and beauty, and was unusual and unexpected in all the most important ways. It’s a tour of the mourning period and of great art and embraces intertextuality arguably more than any of Smith’s other works. Smith does this nimbly and manages never to seem pretentious or unfocused. The book also prompted me to rewatch the 1960s Oliver! which was delightful.

Read these books if you love or are curious about Ali Smith – she will not disappoint. Avoid these books if you’re not a fan of postmodern style, and prefer a more traditional narrative voice.

To be known so well by someone is an unimaginable gift. But to be imagined so well by someone is even better.

— Ali Smith, Artful

3. The Master by Colm Toíbín

This book is one of those quiet gems that you don’t realise has become so meaningful to you until you’ve finished reading it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought about it since putting it down. The novel is a fictional retelling of the life of Henry James, the “master” of American fiction, but you don’t need to know anything about James or to have read him to enjoy it. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by James, and I actually think it helped: I encountered him for the first time through Toíbín’s understated and sensitive prose, and when it was over I would have rushed out to read him immediately had I not worried about disturbing the magic this book had created.

Read this book if you love fictional interpretations of real stories and you love learning to care deeply about fictional characters. Avoid this book if you’re not much into stories about writers or literary history, and want something a bit more fast-paced.

Special mentions

The book I wish more people knew about: The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong

Immediately after reading this book I Googled it, hoping to find some kind of discussion of the narrative perspective Armstrong uses here. Alas, I found nothing. Somebody please read it so that I can talk your ear off about it.

The book that disappointed me the most: Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

This is less the fault of Woolf than it is of my own astronomically high expectations: I’d been looking forward to finally reading this for years and expected the richly-textured prose I remembered from Mrs. Dalloway or her letters. But Orlando is not quite that book. One to revisit in future with a more open mind, perhaps.

The book that made me cry on the Tube: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

A beautiful, vast storytelling voyage that nearly made me sob on the Circle line. You cover so much ground and learn so much about Chinese history and family and music in this book, it’s a little overwhelming but well worth all the feels.

If you’ve read any of the books I’ve mentioned here, either in these highlights or in the full list below, let me know your thoughts!

The full list (in order of reading)

  1. Sagan: Paris 1954 by Anne Berest
  2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  3. The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong 
  4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  5. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing
  6. Lust by Roald Dahl
  7. Autumn by Ali Smith
  8. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
  9. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  10. Artful by Ali Smith
  11. The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry
  12. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
  13. Off-White by Annie Bryan
  14. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
  15. The Power by Naomi Alderman
  16. Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
  17. The Master by Colm Toíbín
  18. Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy by Neil Astley
  19. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
  20. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  21. Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest

Further reading (as if you needed it): Train Songs, an anthology of poems about trains and stations, edited by Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

— Ezra Pound, “In A Station of the Metro”

My piece made Narratively’s end of year top 10!

My piece on the first same-sex marriage in Colorado more than a hundred years ago made it to number 7 on Narratively’s list of the 10 most-read pieces of 2017 on their site! The story of Helen Hilsher and Anna Slifka is very close to my heart, and it’s great to know that so many people have learned about these two brave and boundary-crossing women. It’s so easy to think of the women of the past as having little to do with the desires that women today experience – to explore, to learn, to love whoever they want, and see and do everything they possibly can. We rarely hear those stories; they’re too often written out of history. It was a pleasure to write just one of them back in.

See the other amazing pieces on the round-up on Narratively here, or find the link to my original piece right here.

New publication: “I. Paris” in the SYMPHONY issue of Thistle Magazine

This week, my poem “I. Paris” appeared in the final ever issue of Thistle Magazine on the theme SYMPHONY. I’ve been a fan of Thistle for a long time now so it’s an honour to be included in their last issue alongside a lot of other amazing work.

Download SYMPHONY for free here.

in the beginning,
you will love him like you love
Paris. electric – the rain
on your skin will feel like the ripple
on the surface of a cymbal
as it crashes… 

Within/Without: Reflections on a Year in Oxford

Almost five months ago now, I graduated from the University of Oxford with a Master’s degree in English with American Studies.

In many ways, my arrival in Oxford last September was the final stage of a long journey back. Nearly 23 years ago (yikes) I was born in Oxford in the John Radcliffe Hospital, and lived on Great Clarendon Street in Jericho with my parents and later my younger brother for the first couple of years of my life. We left the city before I had even turned two, but returned periodically for day trips throughout my childhood, and throughout that time, ever since I can remember, I wanted to go to uni there.

I’m sure most small children don’t fantasise about the university they’ll one day send their UCAS forms to, but I did.  I was one of those unbearably ambitious children who’s always shoving things they’ve written or made in your face and telling you how big and famous they’re going to be when they grow up. (I say “unbearable” as if I won’t defend to the death small children’s radiant ambition for their futures. Don’t be fooled by this. I am very much pro-precocity.) I dreamed relentlessly big and out loud, and my grandiose speech was always pretty much the same: I was going to be an author, and I was going to do English at Oxford University.

Now, I have done that, albeit a few years later than planned, but ultimately in a better way than I could have imagined. (Well, the Oxford part. Still working on the other one.) I initially applied to the University at undergrad, interviewed at a few colleges, but was ultimately rejected. I’m sure it sounds like saving face now – and I’m not denying that at the time I was disappointed and periodically very depressed about it – but getting rejected by Oxford at undergrad was possibly the best thing that ever happened to me. Scroll back in this blog and you’ll see how much I loved where I ended up for undergrad, and I think I’d probably be very different and arguably worse if things had all gone to plan. But getting there, finally, after such a long time, after so many changes of heart and mind and relationship with the place, was a provoking enough experience to me that I thought I should try to explain it, write down my impressions of the place, as much for myself as for the benefit of anyone else. So here it is.

Oxford comes to me now mostly in terms of spaces. Spaces in and out of sight; the thin membrane of locked doors or ‘Closed to Visitors’ signs that separates the indiscriminate street from the discriminate (and often discriminatory) enclave of the University.

For years – for as long as I could remember, even – I had been an outside visitor, and the condition of possibility created by the University’s enforced privacy had allowed my imagination to run wild. In my head, rooms bloomed behind the college walls: rooms endowed with no physical features as such, but instead a kind of amorphous promise, an almost electric charge that crackled in the air and wriggled into the bloodstream so that those granted entry carried it around in their veins and nerve-endings long after leaving, alive with it.


There was a slight shift in this thinking as I moved to undergrad in York, visiting Oxford two or three times a term to see my boyfriend. I was now allowed mediated entry into the inner spaces of the University, and the life associated with them – formal dinners, black tie balls – but the membrane was still robustly intact. If I wandered outside of it unmet or unaccompanied, I could be stuck on the other side, lacking a student card to swipe me back through. Oxford is not the easiest place to inhabit without a University library card – there are few places, even in the city centre, in which you can be inside without paying anything, and where you can stay as long as you like. The result is that it was a place that was difficult to totally relax in. In winter, I’d find myself either trying to amuse myself in my boyfriend’s study bedroom all day while he worked in the library, or wandering around the city’s collegiate facades, exposed to the cold, lacking a broader selection of shelter.*

2017-04-05 14.49.58.jpgSo, to suddenly – or so it seemed to me last autumn – acquire the means to pass back and forth across that barrier at will (which is, really, to make it disappear altogether) was slightly strange. I guess it was a case of seeing the city from a new perspective again, an opening-up: looking out from the library or classroom window at the watcher in the street, at the camera lenses that blink up at you from wherever you look in Oxford, rather than being the one with their feet on the cobbles, their finger poised on the shutter.

That inside-outside negotiation is, I think, my dominant association with the city. It is always going to be a place that I view multiply. There are so many different perspectives or lenses through which I do view or have viewed it. There is, of course, the rosy lens formed of idolising it, outside-in, growing up. The haziness around the edges, every space an imagined or half-imagined mirage. And then there’s the practical, day-to-day lens, tempered by the act of living in the place for a year. Its scenery become a permanent backdrop, its quirks and shortcomings absorbed into the texture of my life.

It’s rare that these lenses ever slide across one other, line up just right for me to see in its many-layered entirety what Oxford means, has meant, to me. Like a lunar eclipse, it’s a momentary event, and occasions for it are few and far-between, but maybe it’s fitting that my most vivid memories of it happening are from sitting in the library at dusk, and watching the sun set over the familiar rooves around which I’ve been skirting what seems like my whole life. Glancing out and suddenly being hit over the head with it, red light on the RadCam, and realising I made it to a seat I’d wanted to be in for so long. Not only that, but that I’d managed it so thoroughly that I actually had the audacity to find it uncomfortable.

Picture it – you’re sitting there, thrilled at your occupation of this (symbolically) fantasy seat, and yet also cognizant that this is not the best seat in the library. All the adjustable, more comfortable chairs were taken. In fact, this library, the most picturesque, is not even your favourite. You could sustain a good ten-minute rant on why this library, in fact, for all its beautiful ceilings, is actually vastly inferior to many other libraries outside of this hallowed institution for the simple fact that it does not the most efficiently facilitate its purpose: effective university study. You realise that you finally know all the little things about what it’s like to actually work in this library day-to-day because that is what you do; you finally know all of the things that you couldn’t have imagined from the outside; you know its reality, because it is your reality. And yet, the sudden reality of the situation similtaneously makes it more surreal. For a moment you are both inside and outside, you’re amazed and you’re impatient, you’re everywhere, you’re all over the place. This is your life!

2017-03-22 19.14.12Then, of course, you get back to the task at hand. The light fades as you shift in your uncomfortable chair. You work on your essay notes ‘til the library closes and then cycle home in the cold, every time trying not to think about the bicycle accident statistics on the Cowley Roundabout as you’re crossing Magdalen Bridge. You get home, make dinner. Sleep in your uncomfortable and overpriced single bed. This is your life.

Of course, it’s not my life any more. I’m back outside the membrane now – though there are ways in and out if I want to go. But by and large, the barrier is back up and the open book of ever-expanding possibility that Oxford was for a good nine months has gently closed.

In a lot of ways, it feels good to stand outside of it. In this laboured metaphor of inside versus outside space, it’s probably appropriate that the Oxford atmosphere could very often be oppressive. As much as you can read the disappearance of the barriers into the University as the opening-up of the city for me, in some ways it was like a closing-down, or a swallowing. There’s a reason they have such beautiful ceilings in libraries at Oxford: they hope that if they’re at least pretty, you’ll forget how much time you spend under them, and how little time you spend out, away, doing anything or thinking about anything else.

2017-03-28 12.09.36-1An example: in the spring I completed what was undoubtedly the most full-on essay period of my life, wearing my fingers to stubs on my keyboard and hardly having time to think about anything else. When I had finished, I went to the Exam Schools on the High Street to hand the final essay in (evidence again of Oxford’s obsession with the crossing of a physical and exclusive threshold to achieve literally anything). I then cycled to meet fellow survivors at The Perch pub on the edge of Port Meadow. I was tired, exhilarated, slightly in denial that I had actually finished the essays and not perished in some kind of referencing-induced swoon. I coasted down Binsey Lane towards the river, nobody else on the road, and looked up for the first time in what felt like forever at the sky overhead, pale and high-up. I remember laughing as though a sudden burst of oxygen had rushed to my head all at once. Getting out of those spaces, sometimes, could be just as good as getting into them. There’s more air out here.

So that’s Oxford, I suppose. Multiply-meaningful, impossible to pin down to one thing, or one emotion, even one period of my life. Even since graduating I feel like I’ve conducted a whole other life in the city that was equally as new and different to those that went before it. So it goes. It both was and wasn’t like living inside a dream, and going back, as I always have, and maybe always will, will probably keep on feeling familiarly strange.

The world surely has not another place like Oxford; it is a despair to see such a place and ever to leave it, for it would take a lifetime and more than one to comprehend and enjoy it satisfactorily.

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The English Notebooks

I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the  inexhaustible variety of life.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

*I would like to add that the city centre has become a bit more congenial now. For visitors to Oxford looking for a free place to rest or wander, I recommend the relatively recently-opened Weston Library, where they have running free exhibitions of the University’s archival materials and, mercifully, benches where you can sit, for free, and watch people eat overpriced scones in the library tea-room. You’re welcome in advance for your exploitation of this resource.

New publication: “In 1913, She Walked Down the Aisle Disguised as a Man”

Illustration by Ellen Surrey

I’ve written a piece for Narratively on the tale of Colorado’s first same-sex marriage!

“Colorado’s first same-sex marriage happened more than a century ago, when a lovable rogue named Helen Hilsher — posing as “Jack Hill” — married her sweetheart.”

Read more over on Narratively.

The Cult of Girlhood: Emma Cline’s debut novel “The Girls” and the power of teen girl experience

Note: Both the book and this review discuss sexual assault. This review also includes what some might consider spoilers, so if you haven’t read it and want to go in completely fresh, then save this for later!

2017-04-07 17.42.32
A photo of my second-hand copy of The Girls, appropriately taken in my teenage bedroom

By the time I stumbled upon Emma Cline’s 2016 debut novel The Girls in hardback in a charity shop for 99p in April this year, the book had already been drifting around the edges of my awareness for quite a while. The cover of the U.K. Penguin edition, designed by Neil Krug, had caught my eye a number of times in shop windows or on Twitter and Instagram. It has that alluringly sunset-y, light-leak-y effect that reminds you simultaneously of Instagram filters and the actual photographic processes they emulate – appropriate for a book that takes place both in the present of smartphone filters and in the 1969 of Polaroids and the Summer of Love. The Girls had the look to me then of something unearthed – but also pristine, promising, glamorous, exciting. Whenever I’d come across the book before I’d always made a mental note to come back to it, and the serendipity of finding it waiting for me so cheaply and expectantly was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The novel charts a summer in the life of Evie Boyd, who is fourteen years old in 1969 when she becomes involved in a Manson-esque cult, complete with a grisly quadruple-murder in which Evie mercifully (or, the novel suggests, merely arbitrarily) takes no part. The story is retold by a middle-aged Evie in the present, and the novel divides its action between the two moments with most of its pages spent in the past.

I’ll spare you the suspense about my reaction and say that it’s some of the best writing about being a teenage girl that I’ve ever read, if not the best, and I absolutely loved it. The writing was beautiful enough that I was dog-earing every other page so I could come back to some of Cline’s spectacular turns of phrase, and, at least for me, the two timelines complemented each other and each justified its existence alongside the other.

Given the hype around the book – it was bought for an unheard-of $2 million advance in 2014, and since its publication has garnered a string of celebrity endorsements and a handful of prizes – I was not surprised to find that reviews of it echoed my amazement. But as the reviews wore on I began to get the (appropriately teenage) feeling that, yes, these reviewers got that this was a great book, but at the same time they didn’t really seem to get it. However complimentary they were about Cline’s style – the “perfect pointillism” of her prose, her “obvious talent” for storytelling – they would repeatedly come back to the Manson aspect of the novel as though it were a broken promise. Dwight Garner writes for the New York Times that “Ms. Cline can’t come close to sustaining her novel’s early momentum. […]  The storytelling becomes vague and inchoate, as if you are reading a poem […] about the novel you’d rather be consuming.” James Wood, writing for the New Yorker, says that “‘The Girls’ never entirely succeeds in justifying itself – in making the case that there was anything personally or historically necessary about Cline’s decision to raid the American-culture store and pluck one of the best-known and most lurid episodes from the shelf. […] my admiration for its many beauties was corrupted by a worming question: ‘Why this subject?’ Without an answer, the novel comes to seem manipulative.”

These statements, and others like them in other reviews, were a bit of a sticking point for me. They all seemed to take the cult aspect of the novel as a central premise that failed to get off the ground, and this focus seemed, to me, slightly bizarre. Because after reading The Girls, I really can’t imagine a book about a cult that is less about the actual cult.

Let me explain.

Photo of Charles Manson
Charles Manson c. 1970, photographed by Michael Ochs

Everyone is familiar with the story of the Manson “family”. It’s a true-crime, true-horror classic, and much of its appeal lies in the magnetism of its central figure. I’m guessing that most people reading this won’t be able to name any of the women in Manson’s “family” who actually committed most of the group’s murders (I know I can’t) but everyone is aware of Charles Manson. He has become a special kind of dark celebrity, assailed by letters from admirers, even in prison, and remains a staple of internet listicles, documentaries, and books. The reasons for this are fairly clear: Manson typifies a kind of real-life villain that is extremely compelling for exploration in art – a seemingly-ordinary man possessive of a manipulative magic so powerful that it can transform ordinary people into murderers, unrecognisable by “civilised” society. The narrative of the innocent outsider brought into the doomed fold through their fascination with a charismatic leader is a familiar one, one we’ve seen over and over again in fiction and film – and one that these reviewers evidently expected to find in The Girls.

And yet, the magnetic central figure in this novel isn’t the Manson-inspired figure of Russell Hadrick, whom we see only dimly. Instead, it is with Suzanne Parker, one of Russell’s closest teenage followers, that Evie develops an intense infatuation. From Evie’s first glimpse of her dumpster-diving in a local park, Suzanne is the object of a fevered fascination that is not distinct from physical desire. Over the course of the novel she becomes a model of the kind of obsessive adulation that is deceptively common in friendships among teenage girls: the need to cleave to another girl who seems wiser, to see her as a guide, a role model, a kind of idol. Rather than seeing it as a disappointing deviation from the narrative of the male cult leader, the relationship between Suzanne and Evie quickly became for me the compelling heart of the novel (which, one might point out to any reviewers confused about its focus, is after all called The Girls).

The Manson girls, photographer unknown

Indeed, the novel gives the resonant impression that to be a teenage girl, now as much as in 1969, is to engage in ritualistic worship – of beauty, as when Evie and her best friend Connie spend hours before the mirror experimenting with grooming techniques; of boys, as when they try, like “conspiracy theorists”, to divine meaning from their crushes’ scattered movements; and, ultimately, of each other. Suzanne is canonised by Evie as the patron saint of girlhood: she is beautiful, but with an “error” in her features that renders her impression somehow “better than beauty”; she is self-assured, desirable, yet also vulnerable to the desire that Evie herself seems to feel towards her. Suzanne loves Russell and it is her love for him that binds Evie to him (though Russell does successfully manipulate Evie, it’s pretty clear that Evie would not keep returning to the ranch if it weren’t for her attachment to Suzanne). Cline appears to suggest throughout the novel that the cult of girlhood into which Evie had been inducted over a lifetime of ’60s social conditioning is ultimately what renders the more insidious ranch commune not just a welcoming and promising new environment, but the almost logical culmination of her femininity.

Cline herself certainly seems to see the book in this way. In an interview with the Guardian in May she declared that

The crime aspect is the least important part of the novel. It’s much more a story about the everyday violence of girlhood, the daily brutalities. It was almost a challenge I gave to myself – can I write a book where a literal crime serves as a backdrop to these more psychological crimes?

It is this aspect of the novel that Cline’s male reviewers often seem to miss, an absence that appears with frustrating frequency in the New York Times’ review of the book and elsewhere. The cynical explanation is that the Manson-derived figure of Russell, despite existing on what is really the emotional and psychological outskirts of the novel, by default as the main man in the story takes up much of male reviewers’ interest and the burden of their expectation. If this is the case then I can’t blame them for their frustration with it – of course The Girls seems like it’s slow to getting anywhere if the place that you expect it to be heading towards is a man and a crime that is really not the point of the story.

The point of this review is not to be a die-hard defence of The Girls. These reviewers’ criticisms – most frequently of Cline’s decorous language, her consistently elegiac tone – are fair, even if these things didn’t negatively affect my personal experience reading the novel. The problem was their overwhelming maleness, the fact that, for a book called The Girls, there was a surprising lack of women’s voices in media outlets’ reactions to the book.

This showed perhaps the most plainly in male reviewers’ treatment of the sexual scenes in the novel – all of which are, to a greater or lesser extent, exploitative. Garner in particular writes at the end of his review that Evie “performs sex acts on Russell. She has sex, too, with the grizzled pop star Mitch, whose life will be upended when Russell turns against him.” To be perfectly clear, these are rape scenes: assaults perpetrated by much older men against a fourteen-year-old girl. The trap that Garner seems to fall into here is in thinking that Evie’s unflinching account of her assault, the absence of a claim to victimhood, even the strange pride that she reports after her first encounter with Russell, amount to consent, to “sex”. This is not what these acts are. This is shown even in the way that these scenes are written – there is a notable absence of pornographic detail, particularly in the scene with Russell: we see the before, the after, and flash back briefly later in the novel to the act itself, but it is never directly focalised. Cline’s descriptive attentions signal that enjoyment – both Evie’s and the reader’s – is clearly not the point of these scenes.

Garner’s misunderstanding here speaks to the misjudged focus I felt was common to many of the reviews I read, because surely if someone were paying attention to the way that Cline paints power and gender throughout the novel it would be impossible to read these assaults as “sex”, Evie’s coercion as consent. Because ultimately what The Girls explores, as Cline gestures to in the quote above, is the issue of free will. The background action of the cult and its crime is a tool to bring the novel’s larger examination of this concept into focus – Evie wonders as an older woman whether she could have participated in the murders her friends committed, and suspects that she could. But the novel also zooms in and out from the event, exploring all the big and small ways in which the cult’s structure parallels particularly women and girls’ experiences of coercion and how they coerce each other. Evie’s longing to be loved, her craving to be seen and desired, can be seen as a socialised quality – it’s what makes her vulnerable, but also relatable. Its centrality to her character therefore seems to suggest that what Cline is getting at is that coercion, the blurring of consent, is at the heart of teen girlhood and the initiation into womanhood that it constitutes; Evie’s exploitation becomes a badge of initiation into the cult of girlhood.

With this in mind, it’s possible that the reason I found the book so powerful while these writers merely “appreciated” it is simply that I was indoctrinated into the cult of girlhood, and so were most, if not all of the girls I grew up with. I recognise the rhythms of Evie’s teenage desperations so well that Cline’s writing is not only “accurate” but sometimes almost painful. She has an uncanny knack for describing the minutest shifts in psychosocial relations without sounding paranoid, without taking on the tone of the “conspiracy theorist” attitude she nonetheless recognises these relations to originate from. In fact, much of what the present-day fragments of the novel show and what make them pull their weight as sections is that these relations have hardly changed since the period of the novel’s main action. In the present day, Evie speaks to us from her temporary home in a friend’s vacation house, where she encounters said friend’s teenage son Julian and his girlfriend, Sasha. Their relationship – exploitative, with a disproportionate balance of desperate love on Sasha’s side – serves as a foil to Evie’s own teenage experiences with Suzanne, and despite her efforts to intervene, Evie is forced to accept that Sasha cannot be reached.

For me, clearly, the book’s focus was always powerfully, beautifully girls, their relationships with each other and not their “leader” or leaders, and I think that’s why I never felt that the novel had lost steam or veered off-course. It brought with it an instinctive, even visceral honesty that its male reviewers, through no fault of their own, could not have identified, because it did not come from the buried core of themselves.

In short: I loved this book, and I wish I could have read more, higher-profile reviews from women. I don’t think that only women should have reviewed it, or that every review done by a man was bad – Christian Lorentzen’s review for Vulture for example was really compelling – just that a diversity of views, approaches, and experiences would have done more justice to what is a truly amazing first novel.

Read The Girls if you like beautiful writing, character (rather than plot) -driven narratives, and heady, absorbing period settings that don’t shower you with pop culture references to back themselves up. Avoid it if you prefer a narrative that is moved forward by action and exciting events (this is much more of a contemplative novel), straightforward language that doesn’t mess around so much, and singular narrative structure – the split between the two timelines, as evidenced by other reviews, can be fairly taken as needless and a bit distracting.

Further reading: “See Me”, Emma Cline’s 2014 piece in The Paris Review about adolescence and the Manson girls.

I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.

– Emma Cline, The Girls

Poem on Longwall Street, 20.04.2017

A cool breeze after warm spring rain
and leaves back on the trees again:
a spray of wet green overhanging the sandstone wall.
Dim silver on the pavement and in the gutters,
in a cascade of beads down a woman’s raincoated back
and you not there at all –
not in the doorway that frowns over passers-by
at the noise from hometime traffic,
and not in the coffee shop beyond, hunched
over a book or a laptop or a cup
of bitter black beans brewed
by a waitress who’s not me
with no milk, no sugar, just
a spoon.

Women I’m Listening To #1: Lorde’s “Green Light”

Lorde’s debut album, Pure Heroine, transfixed me from my first listen. Everything about it seemed to evoke the exact feeling of premature nostalgia I had felt between the ages of sixteen to eighteen, and I only wished I could have been born a few years later, to hear that album at that age and feel it like an electric arrow to the heart. As it was, I was a late adopter – my first listen was more than a year after it first came out, but that didn’t stop me from buying it on vinyl after a week. I would listen with rapt attention in my bedroom in York, turning the lyrics over in my mind with joy and reverence. It was the record I would put on when I felt hopeless, or when I needed to escape. It’s still my favourite record that I own, despite its second-hand scuffs and the nanosecond-long skip on one track that I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not. I’ve spoken before about how vinyl collecting is an act of space-making, and I definitely have made a sacred space for that album.

It was a tough act to follow, but now, at last, Lorde is back with something new – and glorious.

“Green Light”, the first single from her sophomore album Melodrama, is the get-up-and-dance song that I didn’t know I needed. It’s the kind of song that so perfectly captures a specific emotion that it makes the urge to dance increase tenfold because you’re not just moving to it, you’re channelling it. Lorde herself explains the emotions behind the song best when she says that “I realized this is that drunk girl at the party dancing around crying about her ex-boyfriend who everyone thinks is a mess. That’s her tonight and tomorrow she starts to rebuild.” And that’s really what it is – for anyone who’s been that drunk girl, or seen her, or danced with her, “Green Light” perfectly evinces the physical restlessness that comes in the dying throes of heartache. The anticipatory chords that impatiently urge towards the explosive chorus; the lyrics – so classically Lorde – that shake you to your bones and yet are simple enough that you can chant them like an incantation (“Honey I’ll come get my things, but I can’t let go…”). The whole song is a revving-up in the chest: it’s Lorde saying emphatically that she is back, and better, ready once again to make something new and strange out of the familiar.

But it’s not just physical restlessness that Lorde seems to appeal to, it’s a kind of creative restlessness too. The lines where Lorde sings that she “hear[s] sounds in [her] mind” evoked, for me, a feeling of being trapped beneath a weight that you feel instinctively should be written away, but which presses on your writing hand and makes creation impossible. Tavi Gevinson covered this brilliantly in her talk at the Sydney Opera House in 2013: she spoke about how, when she was reeling from a breakup, she held her pain out to other people to try to make sense of it, and they’d well-meaningly reassure her with the promise that “This is what great art is made of!” But when she took the pain home and set it on the kitchen table, it didn’t turn out any original metaphors or genius verse. It just sat there. Instead, she found solace in words from others’ mouths – rewriting others’ lyrics and poetry: being, as I said above, a channel. Taking the hand that stretches out to you through art that says that somebody else has been there before, that the words will come, but they’ll stay with you while you wait.

Lorde in this song seems to be at the end of that waiting. She can feel the horrible now receding and is waiting with her eyes on the traffic light, urging it to go green, hearing “brand new sounds in my mind.” Sounds – not yet in discernible shape, not yet truly something, but approaching, gathering speed. It is a truly marvellous thing to be able to write so beautifully the feeling of not being able to write, or, in line with the song’s more generally-accepted arc, the feeling of being stuck on the brink. Her anticipation is intoxicating, joyous, explosive with kinetic energy: it reaches out a hand and promises that you, too, will reach that brink, will feel energetic and explosive and creative again.

The video to the song heightens this feeling to a giddy intensity. Lorde dances in a bathroom, in a crowded club, through nighttime city streets, even atop a parked car, all while clad in a blindingly brilliant pink dress. It’s beautiful for a plethora of reasons, many of which are covered expertly in Rosianna Halse Rojas’s vlog about the video’s use of light (in which she discusses a beloved favourite of mine, The Great Gatsby).

screenshot-2017-03-04-11-27-34What Rosianna points out and talks about in her typically brilliant and perceptive way is all true and important, and for me is key to the way in which the video so expertly navigates illusion and realism to produce a sense of delirium – of apt melodrama. In the same moment that we see Lorde dancing to the music of her own personal pianist (producer Jack Antonoff), placed beside her, as in a dream, in a grubby bathroom, we also notice the girls lined up behind her in the bathroom mirror, waiting to use the toilets. When she dances alone atop a parked car, a blazing figure bathed in red light, we also see, comically incorporated into the frame, the car’s driver vaping, waiting it out. The landscape of “Green Light” is alternatingly dreamy and mundanely lucid, pulling the feverish, transfiguring misery/joy of its central character into the same visual frame as fragments of the real world, of other people unconnected to her consuming catharsis.

Perhaps my favourite of these moments in the video – though by no means its most dramatic – are those in which Lorde is dancing alone in the street to music from her headphones. It seems like a trivial detail to point out, but the visual presence of the headphones and her phone, clutched desperately in her hands as she dances, indicates that this is not a usual dance track video. Lorde’s is not a performance in the vein of so mascreenshot-2017-03-04-11-32-20ny pop videos in which the song appears to fill the scene like the voice of God, the singer staring directly into the eye of the camera, and the absurdity of the situation is only neutralised by its unspoken recognition as long-abiding music video trope.

Instead, what we get is the exact feeling of reckless abandon that Lorde described in reference to the song’s conception. This intensity of emotion does not belong to a separate dream world, it belongs to ours – it is solitary and ludicrous and funny but these things do not diminish it. In fact, it ties in to one of my favourite moments in Tavi Gevinson’s speech, and something that she has said in many interviews: when the audience laughs at a page from one of her journals, she turns to Screenshot 2017-03-04 11.32.53.pngthem and says, half-embarrassedly, “That’s not funny!” When things that are coded feminine are constantly held up to ridicule and women’s emotions dismissed as hysteria, girls taking ownership of their love and enthusiasm and their ability to feel recklessly for things makes me so happy. These all-important moments of puncture in “Green Light” serve to highlight the absurdity of this intense feeling, even making it (as in the case of the vaping driver) funny, but to me this seems only to elevate the experience, to make it freeing, shameless. It is an indestructible display of vulnerability and it is absolutely beautiful.

Screenshot 2017-03-04 11.28.38.png

One commenter on the YouTube video of the song suggested that this song is a radical – and radically negative – departure from the stripped-back straightforwardness of Pure Heroine. Some song, he remarked, from a girl who used to sing about how much she hated parties and celebrity life. Isn’t the glamour of the video hypocritical? We thought she was above this!

Personally, I think that if “Green Light” is anything to go by, Lorde is as aware as ever of the “real life” that her inspiration springs from and that her songs voyage out to meet. This is not an inaccessible pop video brewed in a world of its own. It is Lorde’s world, and it is also, she wants us to know, ours, and she is as unapologetic for her honesty now as she was when “Royals” first brought her to fame.