The Bookcase

This week’s bookcase includes reviews of Normal People by Sally Rooney, Women Talking by Miriam Toews and Transcription by Kate Atkinson.


Normal People by Sally Rooney is published in hardback by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99 (ebook £6.99). Available September 6

Sally Rooney has a lot to live up to. Her 2017 debut novel, Conversations With Friends, was a runaway success. For it, she bagged the illustrious Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year prize. This meant the pressure was on when it came to writing her ‘difficult’ second novel – but Rooney’s fans needn’t worry, as Normal People is a triumph. I gobbled it up in one sitting – the compulsion to read it was too great to exercise an ounce of self-control.

The story centres on the high school friendship of Marianne and Connell. It’s a roller coaster that will break your heart, but also fill it with joy and hope. The lead characters come from the same small Irish town, but have very different backgrounds. They move together to study at Trinity College, learning to navigate each other, society and Dublin with varying degrees of success. It sounds overblown, but we are so lucky that Sally Rooney is writing – her style spare, her approach to dialogue quite exquisite. I can barely wait for her third book.

(Review by Frances Wright)

Women Talking by Miriam Toews is published in hardback by Faber & Faber, priced £12.99 (ebook £6.47). Available now

It’s incredibly tough to write stories that tell of unimaginable suffering and pain, of mental and physical torment and anguish, and yet Miriam Toews manages it every time. Whether it’s handling suicide in All My Puny Sorrows, or, as in Women Talking, the impact of sexual assault.

This short, spare novel imagines a series of conversations amongst the women of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia as they decide whether to quit or stick with a community that expects them to forgive their attackers. It’s based on the experiences of women of the remote Manitoba Colony, who, over several years during the 2000s, were knocked out with animal anaesthetic and raped by several men in their community. Toews takes these real events and weaves a response, in the form of the minutes of a meeting held in a barn, where the women plait one another’s hair, rage and riot, argue and sob, and try to navigate a way through the constraints of their lives and the suffering forced upon them and their children.

The minutes are recorded by a formerly ousted Molotschna Mennonite, August Epp, who records what the women say, for they cannot write themselves, while adding his own comments and efforts to encourage and listen to the group. The women themselves are conflicted and contradictory, and vividly wrought – you become simultaneously attached, furious and frustrated with them all, wanting to pitch in with your own outrage and opinions on what they should do before the men get back from the city. A searing, brutal and quite astounding read, it will hit you devastatingly hard.


(Review by Ella Walker)

Transcription by Kate Atkinson is published in hardback by Doubleday, priced £20 (ebook £9.99). Available September 6

In recent years Kate Atkinson has turned out back-to-back modern classics with Life After Life and A God In Ruins, so Transcription was always going to have a steep hill to climb. Frustratingly, this gentle, post-war set spy thriller doesn’t quite wheeze its way to the top. Juliet Armstrong’s WWII days as a MI5 operative, in a department that’s arcane, ambiguous and dull (for both Juliet and the reader), are over, it’s 1950 and she’s working for the BBC, except she appears to be being followed. As her war experiences resurface and begin to slip into Juliet’s present-day life, Atkinson explores the tediousness of British fascism, the very male limitations on her heroine’s espionage aspirations, and a very drab London. There’s no sexiness here, instead Transcription proves a tame, meandering tale that leaves you a little unsatisfied.

(Review by Ella Walker)


Amateur: A True Story About What Makes A Man by Thomas Page McBee is published in hardback by Canongate, priced £14.99 (ebook £11.99). Available now

This is the true story of a man who decides to train and fight in a boxing match at Madison Square Gardens. Lots of blokes do this, of course, often for charity, perhaps as the ultimate accessory to their hard-working, fast-living Wall Street lifestyle. But McBee is the first trans man to do so. After a slightly confusing and ponderous introduction, the books settles down to more of a straightforward narrative about the build-up to the fight: Training, setbacks, coaches, how McBee’s wife-to-be notices he’s changing. But McBee also uses the book as a lens to explore the dark side of masculinity. He notices that, when perceived by the wider world as a man, people more naturally defer to his voice and his opinions.

Even for someone who has passed as a woman for years, it requires special vigilance not to talk over women. He discovers, too, that there is a tenderness at the bone-crunching heart of boxing – that men who have honestly confronted their shadow side, the urge to hurt, are capable of a kind of profound love. When men fight, they are fighting the parts of themselves they hate, as McBee, himself a victim of abuse, discovers. This account, which began as a magazine article, and still feels a bit like (a rather long) one, is interspersed with insights from a wide range of commentators and experts on issues relating to masculinity, race, gender and violence. It all adds up to a gripping and fascinating journey.


(Review by Dan Brotzel)


Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini and illustrated by Dan Williams, is published in hardback by Bloomsbury, priced £12.99 (ebook £10.90). Available now

The photo of three-year old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, who drowned while trying to reach safety in Europe in 2015 touched many people, including author Khaled Hosseini, best known for writing The Kite Runner. Sea Prayer are the words a loving father speaks to his sleeping son, telling how they came to be standing on a beach waiting for a boat that could take them to safety, or to their deaths.

Aimed at all ages, it is beautifully illustrated by Dan Williams, who depicts the horrors of civil war as well as the joyous times that came before. The father is trying to reassure his child that all will be well and he will be safe, but the father knows how treacherous the sea can be – and all he can do is pray and hope. Hosseini, a Goodwill Ambassador UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, is making a plea for people to be kinder to those fleeing war and persecution – it’s a plea that cannot be ignored.

(Review by Bridie Pritchard)