Books by Women (for International Women’s Day)

It’s International Women’s Day, and to celebrate it Rick O’Shea started a little experiment in his book club* this morning – asking us to pick one book by a woman, past or present, that you absolutely, positively, definitely think should be read by someone wanting to read more by women authors, and share it on social media. I failed spectacularly at picking just one, so it’s gonna have to be a blog post!

International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. Yet progress has slowed in many places across the world, so global action is needed to accelerate gender parity. In the European Union in 2016, the number of extra days a woman must work to match the amount of money earned by men in the previous year was 67. Ireland, my country, has a constitution that enshrines a woman’s place as being in the home; has an abysmally low conviction rate for rape and sexual assault, and some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the EU. Contraception was illegal in Ireland until 1980, when it was legalised only with strong restrictions – all firmly pro-birth, not pro-life, as the catalogue of horrors inflicted on women and children in laundries and Mother and Baby ‘Homes’ proves. Last week’s sickening discovery that 796 babies were dumped in a septic tank in one of these ‘Homes’ in Tuam, is horrifying not only for the barbarity of the act itself but because this happened in our time, our parents time. This is a recent darkness – the last Magdalene laundry only closed in 1996. This International Women’s Day we should all remember Gloria Steinem’s words “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.” We all need to use our voices to stand up for women, to speak the truth even if our voices shake.


I love Rick’s experiment for this very reason – women’s words are important. Women’s work is important. Women’s health is important. Women are important. Here are some books by women that I think everyone should read. Happy International Women’s Day.


handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A searing speculative fiction about totalitarianism, this is one of the few books I can definitively state changed the way I see the world. Vivid and terrifying – and uncomfortably plausible. “That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on”

paradiseParadise by Toni Morrison

A brilliant portrayal of race and gender spanning the 1960s and 70s, Paradise begins with the brutal attack on a group of young women in a convent near an all-black town, and unpicks the events leading up to it through the interior lives of the citizens of the town. “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.”

needleworkNeedlework by Deirdre Sullivan

Irish writing is having a bit of a moment, and Deirdre Sullivan is an unmistakably authentic voice who deserves more recognition.  Needlework is beautiful, painful and full of things we need to be aware of. I can’t talk about this book without raving about it, so here’s a more thoughtful review I made earlier.

wideWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

A must read for fans of Jane Eyre, this book gives a voice to Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic’. Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress, marries Mr. Rochester… and is slowly driven mad, a madness arising from her voice being silenced, and others speaking for her. Moody, introspective, and sad – “There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”

buddha atticThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

So beautifully written it hurts, this book, spanning the years between WWI and WWII tells the story of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’, who travel to America speaking no English clutching pictures of husbands-to-be they knew nothing about. The use of collective voice makes their stories all the more heartbreaking: “We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.”


beauyThe Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Smart and righteously angry, this book examines the beauty industry and the rise of a social control based on appearance that is just as oppressive and damaging as traditional roles trapped within the home, showing that the beauty myth is always prescribing behaviour, not appearance. “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

sexual politicsThe Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J Adams

The idea of meat as a macho food is overt, and this book looks at the interplay between contemporary society’s ingrained cultural misogyny and its obsession with meat and masculinity. This is a truly seminal work for me – while I don’t agree with all of Adams’ ideas, this is an important and provocative book that has inspired and enraged across the political spectrum for more than 25 years. “Feminist-vegetarian activity declares that an alternative worldview exists, one which celebrates life rather than consuming death; one which does not rely on resurrected animals but empowered people.”

wild swansWild Swans by Jung Chang

This book has it all – if it were fiction it would be an impossibly perfect story, this is utterly unforgettable and one of the few books I would call a masterpiece. Through three generations of Chinese women – a grandmother who was given to a warlord as a concubine, her communist mother, and the daughter herself – we encounter bravery, love, hope, nightmarish cruelty, the will to survive, and an understanding of the epic sweep of China’s twentieth century. “As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say: ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!”

* The Rick O’Shea Book Club is the nicest corner of the internet, and Ireland’s largest online book club with almost 6000 members. Each month, Rick (the Book Warrior!) recommends two books for us to read (see our previous choices here), but the conversation ranges far beyond those selections and the meet-ups, author interviews and blind book swaps are always brilliant. Want to join the club? Just head over to Facebook, and be prepared for your TBR pile to just grow and grow!


The Other Einstein – Marie Benedict #BlogTour #AuthorInterview #BookReview

9781492637257-prHistorical fiction is one of my favourite genres, particularly when it gives us a point of view overlooked by official history. So I was really interested in the premise of The Other Einstein… which tells the story of Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva Marić, who in 1896 is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. She married her charismatic classmate looking forward to a union of equals.  A brilliant physicist in her own right, her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century… but her name has been largely forgotten.

There is always a risk with historical fiction based on real people, and I must emphasise that this is a work of fiction… there is speculation in The Other Einstein. We can never know the full truth of what goes on behind closed doors, and I have no doubt that Mileva Marić collaborated with Einstein to some extent – however I would have preferred if credit was not fully transplanted away from him in the way this book does. Despite this caveat there is a lot to enjoy in The Other Einstein. The research into the time period is woven lightly into the narrative, and the sense of time and place is skillfully evoked. Mileva is a wonderful character, and her struggle to reconcile her ambition and societal expectation for her gender is one that resonates. In a world where women are still under represented in STEM this book is well worth reading.

Marie Benedict 

As part of the blog tour for The Other Einstein, author Marie Benedict answered some of my questions about the process of writing the book:

Marie, welcome to Eats Plants, Reads Books! Tell me, what is the best thing about being a writer?  As a child, I always dreamed of stepping through a time machine and entering another era, and writing historical fiction is the closest I’ll probably ever get to stepping back into the past! I adore this aspect of my work, and I suppose that’s why I’m so drawn to being an author of historical fiction.

How much time did you spend researching the book? Can you tell me a bit about your process?  Research is my favourite part of writing historically-focused fiction, and I adore lingering in the historical research of many time periods. That said, when I am engaging in the fact-finding necessary to tell a particular tale, I usually spend six to eight months researching, and The Other Einstein is no exception. I generally like to uncover and rely on original source material — like the letters between Mileva and Albert — when writing a story, although I will delve into reliable secondary materials when original source material is scant.

Have you always been interested in science or was this a new subject for you?  I almost did not write The Other Einstein because of the heavy scientific component of the story’s backdrop! History has always been my passion, not science. Yet once I immersed myself in the science of the time and began to view science through Mileva’s eyes — science and religion were intertwined for her — I gained a new perspective and started to really enjoy it.

Mileva is a wonderful character — how much of her voice is from historical documents and how much did you have to invent? Thank you for enjoying Mileva as much as I have! She was a tremendous character with which to spend a considerable amount of time. In writing The Other Einstein from Mileva’s perspective, I really relied on her letters to Albert, friends, and family to get a sense of her voice and thoughts and fashion a character akin to the real-life Mileva. The Other Einstein, however, is a work of fiction and so is Mileva, as we can never deeply know a person from the past.

Albert is such an iconic figure — was it a daunting to fictionalize him? Did you ever consider writing from his point of view? Absolutely, the iconic status of Albert Einstein was a hurdle I had to surmount in writing The Other Einstein, which necessarily required fictionalizing him during certain key years of his life. I had to remind myself that I was writing Mileva’s story, not his  – as his life has been recounted over and over – when I found myself intimidated by including him in a scene. And to remember that hers was a story that needed to be told.

Given that Mileva overcame so many obstacles in life — her ethnicity, her limp, her gender — she must certainly have been strong and determined. What does it say about the institution of marriage that a woman such as Mileva ‘dwindled’ into a wife? I think it was less that the institution of marriage “dwindled” Mileva — as you so interestingly described it — and more that certain of her personality characteristics led to her susceptibility to diminishing herself and her abilities. While it must have been true that Mileva was tenacious to surmount the many obstacles in her life, her unusual academic gifts, physical challenges, ethnicity and gender meant that she was ostracized from friendships and romantic interests until her university years. Consequently, she arrived at university emotionally quite naive, which led her to tolerance of negative behaviours on Albert’s part, behaviours that contributed to the demise of their marriage and Mileva’s marginalization from science.

Why do you think that Albert tries to suppress the very aspects of Mileva that drew him to her? Why do you think it was important to him that his new wife knew nothing about physics? I do not think that Albert Einstein specifically sought out a second wife who was unfamiliar with physics, but I do think that, in straying from his first marriage with his first cousin and ultimately marrying her, he selected someone who was not particularly challenging from an emotional or intellectual perspective. He chose someone who was very familiar with his habits and ways, and would allow him to pursue whatever course he chose, to which, I suspect, Mileva objected.

Albert Einstein is not the only famous figure in the book — what was it like writing about Marie Curie? Would you consider writing a book about her? Did you consciously include the Curies as a reminder to readers that it is possible to have two equal partners in a marriage if the will is there? Marie Curie was nearly as much an obstacle to writing The Other Einstein as Albert Einstein. She is an iconic figure herself, and has become such a symbol for the potential for women in the sciences. You are correct in surmising that I included Marie Curie in the book not only because she knew and interacted with Mileva and Albert, but also because Marie’s relationship with her husband was a foil for the relationship of Mileva and Albert. I also imagined that Mileva must have admired Marie Curie’s successes — both in the sciences and in her marriage.

Was it hard to let go of these characters, and do you think you would return to them again? What are you currently working on? I do not feel as though I’ve let go of Mileva. As I talk with people about The Other Einstein and people read the book, I feel as though I am sharing her story with others, an objective about which I feel very strongly.  In my upcoming novels, I will continue to write narratively connected novels about untold stories of historical women, whose lives contain issues that women currently face. I have just finished an initial draft of Carnegie’s Maid, which shares the story of the lady’s maid of Andrew Carnegie’s mother and the part she played in transforming the ruthless businessman into the world’s first philanthropist, a role that impacts our lives today.

The Other Einstein is available now online and in all good bookshops.

Foster – Claire Keegan

fosterThis short story, recently published as a standalone work, is about as perfect a prose snapshot as it is possible to get. I hope people aren’t put off by the title and the grim cover – despite the appearance of similarity with ‘misery porn’ the Ireland in this story is one blessedly free of rain drenched institutional child abuse. We see the world of Foster through the eyes of a young girl, sent away from her parents and siblings to live with a couple in Wexford. This new home has an abundance of milk and fruit and even extra money – there are clean clothes and baths and apparent happiness. The couple are strangers to our young narrator, although they are family, and we can pick up on the familial politics through her relayed information. Like our narrator, we have no idea how long the foster arrangement will be in place. We are forced to see the world through the naïve eyes of a child, and to learn both the reality of her own home life and the secrets of the home she is placed in along with her. It is both affirming to watch her unfurl like a flower from the care and attention she now receives, and heart-breaking to see her new self-worth buffeted first by the jealousy of neighbours and then by the reality that children are often pawns in a game they do not understand. Not a word is out of place, and it is utterly absorbing. Highly recommended.

The Call, Peadar Ó’Guilín #AuthorInterview #BookReview

You have three minutes to save your life…

You know how if you really love a book it’s hard to rationally recommend it to people, you just push it on them saying “you just have to read it, it’s brilliant, just read it”? Well, The Call is a bit like that for me. Sometimes it’s harder to review a book you loved than one you quite liked, or one you hated. I am not quite sure what I expected from The Call, but I can tell you I was surprised by how much I LOVED it. I fell headfirst into the world of the book and only emerged twice – once to seriously consider putting it in the freezer because I was freaked; and once when my other half looked over and said “Jesus! Your face!” because I was reading through a distorted mask of facial tension. It’s that good.

The Call is like a mash-up of the darkest parts of Irish mythology and teen survival stories… albeit more Battle Royale than The Hunger Games. Let’s call it fantasy horror folklore, if we must genre it at all. Set in an Ireland where the Sídhe (fairy folk) have sealed the borders of the island and ‘call’ the youth of Ireland one by one to fight for their survival in the Grey Land where the Sídhe were banished thousands of years before. The call lasts three minutes of our time; twenty four hours of theirs. But the Fair Folk don’t just want to hunt their prey… they want to play with it.

Our heroine Nessa is a student at Boyle Survival College, one of several schools throughout the land where young people prepare for The Call that hardly any survive. They train to fight and to hide, study hunt theory and learn the enemy tongue – but for 25 years the population has been rapidly dwindling.   Nessa is intelligent, beautiful, and a total badass who is determined that her disability will not stop her surviving the Call. Her pacifist vegan love interest Anto was definitely my favourite character (what? ethics and empathy are sexy!), and unusally for a teen ensemble piece the supporting characters were well developed. But it is well structured plot, the skillfully built up tension, and the twisted brilliance of the scenes in the Grey Land that sold me on this one – honestly don’t ask me to summarise it. Just read this one asap.

This is the very definition of YA not just being for young adults, it is a stonker of an adult read. That said, if you have young people in your life – they need this book and you should buy it for them immediately. Parental types – many are the excellent life lessons. Aunts/Uncles/Older siblings – there’s also loads of warped scary gross stuff, it’s a cool book to give, and the season of giving approaches!

Author Interview – Peadar Ó’Guilín

I met Peadar at the Easons brilliant DeptCon2, and despite my initial nervous burble I got it together enough to ask him to grace the blog with an author interview, which he did, because he’s only marvellous:

Welcome to Eats Plants, Reads Books Peadar! First up – I absolutely loved this book, it’s unquestionably one of my books of the year. When did you get the idea for The Call, and can you tell me a bit about the process of writing it?

Thank you! I always think you need to marry at least two separate ideas together to form a book. In this case, the first idea was just an image of somebody disappearing in the middle of a crowded room. Where had they gone? What was happening to them? The answers to these questions were provided by earlier short stories I’d written about the Sídhe and my conception of what their homeland must look like.

Did you spend a lot of time researching the Sidhe/Tuatha de Danann/faerie folk, or did you draw more on your cultural memory of these stories?
No. I did no research outside of what I grew up with. But that was considerable and I had always loved the stories, so a lot of it stuck. I didn’t worry about changing things, though. I’m a writer: I love to make things up and I’m pretty sure there’s not one person who touched those stories over the centuries without altering them in some way.

Peadar being all dark and moody

Despite the fantastical premise, this book felt totally grounded and real. Reading it I wondered what my impression would be if I wasn’t Irish/aware of Ireland’s folklore… was it hard to pitch to publishers outside of Ireland?
Not at all! You have to remember that a lot of people read SF and Fantasy, not because they want to visit the same old places again and again, but because they’re looking for a book to take them somewhere truly different. The UK and US publishers both bought publishing rights straight away. And a lot of translation deals are in the works too. I think the words “evil fae” are enough to get readers of any culture on board!

Continue reading “The Call, Peadar Ó’Guilín #AuthorInterview #BookReview”

Why Blog about Books?

I was absolutely delighted to be asked to guest blog for Ireland’s longest running literary magazine about why I love reading, and why I blog about books. Text below originally published by Books Ireland.


One of my earliest memories is my eldest sister, passionate about education to this day, teaching me to read the word ‘wheelbarrow’. There must have been simpler words before that of course, but I remember ‘wheelbarrow’ because once that jumbled mess that started with ‘w’ became a word, every word made sense. I could read on my own and it meant that I could go anywhere. I might have grown up on an isolated farm, but I found a kindred spirit in Anne Shirley; triumphed over bullies with Matilda; solved riddles in the dark with Gollum and became a vegetarian before I knew the word as I cried with Wilbur over Charlotte. Before my teens I had realised that books are not only a portal to knowledge, but a chance to go places in your head – anywhere you want to be, a good book can take you there. Books are not about escaping reality, they are a way to improve upon lived reality. George RR Martin said it best “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

Studies of embodied simulation have begun to prove what every keen reader knows – reading books alters our perception, makes us more empathic, improves our memory and the flexibility of our thinking. If we are totally immersed in fiction, we become part of that world in ways that are not entirely metaphorical. For example, if you hold a warm drink while reading you are more likely to think warmly about the character in the passage. If you hold an iced drink you are more likely to feel coldly towards them. If you sit on a hard seat rather than a cushion, you are more likely to come to harsh judgements (and juries on hard benches find the accused guilty more often). If you read a book while travelling on a bus or train, you’re more likely to have a sense of racing through a story. This blurring of reality and immersive fiction is why I love reading – but it’s also an intimidating reminder of the subjectivity of book reviews.

Undeterred, I started Eats Plants, Reads Books while nursing a hangover from academia – I missed taking time to stop and think about what I had read.  One of my favourite things has always been getting someone to read a book I know they will love, and book blogging allows me to press books into virtual hands and say “This. Read This”. I try to keep my reviews spoiler free, and prefer analysis to synopsis. I am a passionate advocate for books that I enjoyed, and I get particular satisfaction from writing reviews of books without a big marketing push for that reason. It makes my day to hear that someone has picked up a particular book because of the blog, or to have an author thank me for a review.  I have always been grateful for the worlds, lives and experiences I have accessed through books, and am newly thankful for the wonderful community of readers and writers I have become part of through blogging.

Books Ireland is the only publication of its kind, specifically focusing on books published in Ireland and books of Irish interest. Follow them on twitter @booksirelandmag. Print and digital subscriptions are available via their website.

On the Run- interview with Izai Amorim

img_1656I am delighted to welcome Izai Amorim to the blog today to discuss his newest novel On the Run. I really enjoyed this darkly humorous fast-paced tale, set in the USA in the early 1990s. We follow the sardonic anti-hero Pablo, a young, rich, and well-educated Central American man accused of crimes he didn’t commit, as he flees from the police and Colombian drug dealers due to a case of mistaken identity. Ready to do whatever it takes to survive, Pablo ironically embraces the very drug trade that threatened his life in the first place. The reader descends with Pablo down a slippery moral slope from someone who shares his mother’s mortal terror of being discovered wearing dirty underpants to someone capable of… well, I’ll leave it for you to read and find out! Occasionally un-PC, this might not be one for the sensitive souls, but Pablo’s merciless asides on society were one of my favourite parts of the book.
It’s always great to get to speak to authors about their influences and process, so I’ll get straight to the main show – an interview with Izai Amorim!

Izai thanks so much for taking the time to chat about On the Run… First things first – why do you write?

Because it’s fun and liberating. I’ve done architecture, and still do sculpture and photography. But writing beats them all. There are no limits whatsoever in storytelling: You can move in space and time, you can create virtual worlds, you can do pretty much anything and get away with it.

What books have influenced you the most?

You mean as a reader or as a writer? Every book leaves an impression on the reader, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. It depends a lot on your state of mind at the time you read it. Sometimes you reread a book a few years later and ask yourself why you liked it the first time. The writer in me pays attention to what works and what doesn’t work in a book, which is a matter of personal opinion. Even good books have some flaws and even bad books have some good points. With time you accumulate a lot of do’s and don’ts and that does influence your writing more than the individual books.

You were born and raised in Brazil but have lived most of your adult life in Germany – do you think this has any impact on your writing?

Yes. When you are a foreigner, in the beginning you don’t know all the rules so you have to watch your environment, observe people, look for clues, read between the lines. With time you see patterns that even the natives ignore. These are good skills for a writer. When I tell a story, I tell from an angle readers are not familiar with, so it surprises them.

Pablo is wryly humorous even in the most extreme of circumstances – why is humour important to your writing?

Humour is very important not only to my writing but to all aspects of my life. I have trouble relating to people without a sense of humour. It’s hard and takes a lot of control to repress a good joke when working in a corporate environment. So it’s natural that I tend to add humor to my writing. Humor is a very useful tool, especially when talking about very serious issues. I have the impression that people can process serious information much better if it’s delivered in a funny way.

What phrase/passage in the book are you most proud of?

I like the opening a lot, the first two paragraphs. I think that it draws you in very quickly. And it really sets the tone for the story. The rational-esoteric conflict between Pablo and Douglas is already built into it, as well as Pablo’s childhood problems.

Near the start of the book it is suggested that the shooting in the fast food joint is the perfect culmination of the three American obsessions: guns, dieting, and TV. It made me wonder – what would Pablo have to say about the current US presidential candidates?

He would probably saw that the candidates are doing what they are expected to do: to use all means at hand to destroy the opponent. In America violence is a legitimate way to solve problems. Worse, many times it’s the method of first choice: shoot first, ask later. Election campaigns are very violent affairs with no place for civilized discourse. Candidates try to destroy each other with all possible means, using what we could call “metaphorical guns.” And it’s all done on TV. Only the dieting is missing. The 2016 campaign has been particularly nasty but it’s not an aberration, rather the next step down. Things have being moving downwards for a long time.

Given the subject matter of On the Run you may not wish to answer this – but how much of the book is based on your real experiences?

Anything you write is somehow autobiographical. It’s either stuff you’ve done or that happened to you or stuff you’ve seen other people do. You basically have two choices: to tell exactly what happened or to create a kind of metaphor where fictive story A is told as a proxy for real story B. That’s the case with On the Run. It’s a metaphor. The more literal you take it, the less real it is. Maybe one day I’ll write an autobiography and spill the beans. Concerning real experiences, a lot of snippets are true. For example, the room Pablo takes in the warehouse in Brooklyn really existed, I checked it out when I was looking for a room in the early 1990s but decided not to rent it; I was having lunch with a friend in NYC in February 1993 when the waiter told us that a bomb had gone off in the garage of the World Trade Center; I knew a Jamaican guy called Winston who had a disarming laughter; I used to buy falafels from an Egyptian street vendor in Midtown; etc.

Can you tell me about anything that you edited out of the book?

I’m a ruthless editor and I deleted about twenty thousand words from the final manuscript, mainly subplots and comments that slowed the story down. For example there was a passage I particularly liked where Pablo’s friend Winston explained that baseball was invented to combat the “Loss of Privacy Syndrome.” Any idiot can say who the fifteenth American president was. The challenge is to know who holds the record for homeruns in 1957. Americans’ weird fascination with sport statistics was described as a way to have some cultural heritage that isn’t understood by foreigners and therefore remains their own private field.

Who would you cast in a movie adaptation of On the Run?

When I was writing it, I always saw Joe as the young John Goodman, like at the time of the movie Barton Fink. But John might be too old for the role since Joe should be someone in his mid forties. I think that the most difficult role to cast would be Douglas/Mad Dog. It has to be a guy who can have cool laugh attacks. I could imagine the French actor Omar Sy (The Untouchables).

How can readers discover more about you and your work?

If they want to hear it directly from me, they can check my website If they want to find out what others think about my work, they can check my pages on Goodreads and Amazon. Thanks a lot for having me here, Cathy. It was great fun talking to you.




The Smell of Other People’s Houses – book review

an94870956housesTwo sentences into Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s The Smell of Other People’s Houses and I thought to myself – this is not the book for me. It opens with a vivid description of dismembering a recently shot deer, and a small child being brought “a still-warm deer heart” in a bowl. Luckily I didn’t have to read on too much further to realise that this story was about much more than hunting, and is both a fascinating snapshot of 1970s Alaska and a powerful examination of teenage pregnancy; family; society; judgement, and forgiveness.

The book is a coming of age story told from four different teenage viewpoints: Ruth, raised by her stern Catholic grandmother; Dora, living with a loving family that is not her own and haunted by the abuse she was raised with; Alyce, torn between her dreams of dancing and not losing touch with her estranged fisherman father; and Hank, who has led his brothers to run away from home to protect them as a family.  Looming over everything is the coming of age of Alaska itself – recently granted statehood, with ingrained class and racial divides (Alaska has more than 200 different native tribes). The epic scale of this wild place – where eking out a living can be brutally difficult; rivers burst their banks and sweep away towns; car journeys can take weeks; whole fishing fleets can be wiped out in one storm – gives extra poignancy to the human suffering in this story. In a world where everything can be washed away at any moment, how do we know what to hold on to?  The importance of a smell; a touch; one red ribbon; one bunch of wildflowers or a homemade pie when they are such tiny things amid vast coldness is heart-breaking.

This is not a book with a religious focus per say, but Ruth’s story has some of the best reflections of being raised Catholic I have read outside the Irish setting: “’How did you get them all to believe it was a virgin birth?’ I ask her, but of course she doesn’t answer. I notice that her eyes are cast off to the side, as if to deflect questions like this from girls like me”. The lives of the leads weave together cleverly, and the first person viewpoint allows us to see new facets of all the characters. Tiny offhand observances relating to the title  reveal a multitude – Ruth’s house smells of “mould in second-hand furniture…guilt and sin” to her, but when Dora visits it smells so overwhelmingly of cleaning products that she doesn’t know how to be comfortable in a house so well cared for. It’s difficult to do justice to this nuanced debut – this is a totally absorbing, beautiful book that you should read and discover for yourself.

I recieved a copy of this book from Faber & Faber via Netgalley in return for an impartial review. Buy The Smell of Other People’s Houses online, or available in bookstores now.