Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Girls


And now another coincidental pairing: two current novel in stories/ short story collections that both feature young women as their central character -- plus the number 13. The first is the last of my Giller Prize nominee reads, and the other is a recent book I won via a Goodreads giveaway, happily.


Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl / Mona Awad
Toronto: Penguin, c2016.
212 p.

Over 13 chapters, Awad's heroine -- Lizzie, Liz, Beth, Elizabeth, it changes according to where she is in her life -- struggles with her appearance and her weight, in a world in which women are told they are only valuable for their thin beauty. 

Lizzie starts out as an awkward adolescent doing awkward things alongside her best friend in stifling Misery Saga (actually  Mississauga, a suburban setting). This first story nearly put me off the book altogether (I feel like there's a surfeit of disaffected teens in my reading lately) but I persisted. 

As Lizzie turns to Liz, then Beth, then Elizabeth, her self-perception changes. Who is she when her body changes - must she rename herself to feel real - will she always be a "fat girl", even when she's starved herself into more scrawny submission? Awad approaches this topic of body image and self-awareness in each story, and the first half seems full of energy and struggle, but the second half loses its drive as Lizzie moves into what feels like an imaginary 'perfect' future in which she's skinny and has what she wants, even is she still isn't happy. Perhaps that future would have been more energetic, more enlivening if she remained her large self and found herself happy that way. But then, that's probably another book.

I liked what Awad was doing here, but I didn't end up loving this book as a whole.



Thirteen Shells / Nadia Bozak 
Toronto: Anansi, c2016.
320 p.

This is a "proper" novel in short stories; by which I mean it follows Shell (not Michelle, not Shelley, just Shell) chronologically, from the age of 5 til 17, with an accretion of details through spotlights on specific moments of her childhood over 13 stories.


Shell grows up in Somerset, a smaller Ontario town, in the mid 70s. Her parents could be called hippies; they grow a huge garden, can everything, forage for mushrooms, only eat whole foods (thus Shell has an unnatural craving for the unholy glories of Corn Flakes, or Freshie). They have a small house that is useful for its garage/studio for her parents' pottery making. But the inevitable cracks appear in her parents' marriage and by halfway through her father has left for the big city, and her mother has gone back to school to study Women's Studies. A result of which is that Shell is often left alone in her adolescence, as the 80s begin.

This was a good read. Shell is a very real character, the narrative is pretty straightforward - no experimental prose or strange timelines here. Bozak is really good at making all the characters, even the incidental ones, very rounded and individual, through small details. You keep thinking about them. It seems like a story about its setting as much as its main character - the 70s and a mildly counterculture childhood loom large. Even as Shell turns into a teenager and the 80s chase away the 'hippieness' of her early years, that imprint stays with her and with the reader.

As Shell gets older, and is left to her own devices, she does fall in with a crowd that represents the new counterculture - those who spend their time on large parties and drugs. This element reminded me of the 90s adolescence of Catherine, in small town Quebec, in The Goddess of Fireflies - although this book still has a little more innocence. I was getting a bit tired of the relentless party scene of Shell's teen years by the end; I was glad that in the last story there is a glimpse of her future, of where she might end up, looking back at herself in this angsty moment of her life. It's refreshing. 

This is from the final story, "New Roof" (and incidentally, my own favourite):

She’ll have to go someplace where the library has more books and the essays she writes can be longer and harder and so beautiful and in a way Somerset can’t ever understand. And she’ll have to go soon. A world lives out there. She’s already seventeen.


11 comments:

  1. I also had mixed feelings about 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, but at the same time I felt it made a powerful statement.
    Looking forward to reading Thirteen Shells at some point! Interesting that they have similar structures.

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    1. It's so funny when you read two books that are so coincidentally similar! A life in 13 stories seems to work pretty well. I agree with you on 13 Ways -- it is an important theme and a great conversation to start, but I wasn't 100% in love with it.

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  2. I haven't read either of these books, but I think the way each author chose to tell their stories is intriguing. Might just have to give them a try. :)

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    1. Yes, they were both intriguing even if there were parts I found a little overdone within the context of my reading this year (the troubled teen, argh) But that's just personal reader fatigue, not the book's fault.

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    1. Melwyk,

      Thank you for your honest reviews of these books. Both of these sound engaging--and angst filled.

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  4. What a fantastic pairing. Very fortuitious! Yeah, I think that would've been a different book (had Awad's heroine found a "happy" ending) and I'd've lost patience with that one (even though I wanted her to be happier, at the same time). Which I realize is inconsistent, but I think we're meant to feel that "rub". And I was impatient for Shell to move out of that scene too (and loved, loved her bookishness). A remarkable pairing for sure! (And it gets me thinking about other 13 stories.)

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    1. Yes, taking the "happy" ending would be nice but not quite as consonant with the story in the end. Sometimes I just want characters to be happy once in a while though ;)

      It's made me think about other 13s for sure. And all the poetic variations on the original as well.

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  5. Cool coincidence! I have had Thirteen Shells on my TBR list since seeing on Buried in Print in June, and 13 Ways since it was listed for the Giller, but never connected the two.

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    1. Reading them close together made me see the similarities beyond title; don't know that I'd thought of it before reading! It's always interesting to see that extra-literary conversation going on :)

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Thanks for stopping by ~ I hope you will leave your comments and reflections to let me know what you think!