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
——Percussively
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”

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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!


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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).

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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