I’ve been reading quite a lot now that my commute is five hours long. Daily. I read two books recently, a mixed bag – one, a literary fiction that left me cold, the other a historical fiction that was heartwarming.
In an isolated college hall in California, a student falls asleep and doesn’t wake up. She is alive but sleeping. Her roommate, Mei, is right there at the start of what can only be described as a surreal event that snowballs from there. Little by little, people start falling asleep– a lot of them, other students from the same college, raising questions with regards to how this… virus? Thing? spreads. The number of cases multiply, some of the affected end up dying and panic then spreads. There is a quarantine, they shut down the town and then… one of them wakes up and it becomes clear that these people might be actually… dreaming weird things in their slumber.
I wanted to read The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker (Penguin Random House, January 2019) exactly because of the high-concept plot. It sounded right up my alley. The story is told from a kaleidoscope of narratives in mini-vignettes following a bunch of characters as they are confronted by their fears when the virus starts to spread. It is rather a snapshot of a tragedy. Sadly, the execution did not live up to the expectations with a morose, detached, almost apathetic take on a cataclysmic event that affected so many people. None of the characters are specially developed beyond the surface probably because the narrative choice is distanced from them. The fact that out of all the viewpoint narrators, the only one who actually died a senseless death was the one obvious character of colour in a largely white cast? Just the icing on a very average cake.
Rating: 5 – Meh
Now, I was very pleasantly surprised by The Familiars by Stacey Halls ( Mira Books, February 2019), a fictional take on the historical Pendle witch trials of 17th century North England and the hysteria around these poor women who were charged with witchcraft and executed. The Familiars follows Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a 17-year-old married girl whose fear of losing yet another baby (and die in the process) has taken over her life. She meets a midwife named Alice Grey and they form a bond of sisterhood and trust – since Fleetwood discovers how powerless she is in life with a cheating husband and a an oppressive mother and Alice is someone she can count on to relay her fears. But Alice is soon accused of witchcraft and taken away and Fleetwood will do everything in her power to help. But how much power does a woman really have?
Both Fleetwood and Alice are historical figures and Alice was one of the accused who actually survived although no one knows how. Stacey Halls has imagined a story over this record emptiness by intertwining her story with Fleetwood’s.
This is a book about places for women, their voices and their roles. How can they attempt to stretch those and how it is a different matter altogether depending on your social class. As powerless as she feels (as powerless as she is), Fleetwood is still a gentlewoman with more social capital than Alice and there is a degree of freedom in that. I loved that she used it to help the other woman over the bond they formed. The Familiars captured their lovely sisterhood in a way that felt genuine just as it examined the frenzy of the trials and the arbitrary use of power help by the people in charge of them in a way that made me want to punch things.
Rating: 7 – Very Good