The Not the Wellcome Prize Blog Tour: Sara Stridsberg and Ian McEwan

I’m thrilled to be part of the ‘Not the Wellcome Prize’ blog tour, hosted by Bookish Beck.

Books considered for the prize have a health theme. My contribution is The Faculty of Dreams by Swedish author, Sara Stridsberg, and Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan.

The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg

Have you ever sat through a movie or show and come out thinking ‘what the hell was that?’

It happens less often with books because when things get too strange, you stop reading. Unless of course you’ve pledged a review as part of the Not the Wellcome Prize 2020 – which is why I strapped in for the roller coaster that is The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg.

The book is a fictitious account of the life of Valerie Solanas – writer, radical  feminist and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol (of her failed assassination attempt, she says to the judge, “I should have done a bit more target practice…”). Stridsberg leapfrogs between key periods in Valerie’s life – her childhood; her time at university; the formation of the imaginary Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM), during which she wrote her feminist manifesto; her incarceration at a mental hospital; the trial for her attempted assassination of Warhol; and the hotel room where she died alone.  

I’m going to assume that Stridsberg’s jarring mix of imagined conversations, rantings, court transcripts and interviews to tell the story was a well-thought-through strategy to reveal Valerie’s fractured thinking and extreme interpretations of the world around her (because if I didn’t make that assumption, the book could be viewed as a hot mess).

In terms of style, Stridsberg’s strategy works – the whole thing (the book and Valerie’s life) feels completely unhinged. It leaves the reader scrabbling to find the narrative thread, and guessing at what is ‘real’ and what is imagined. It also makes for a rather taxing reading experience. Nothing about this book is easy – quite the opposite, it’s exhausting. And it must have been exhausting to be Valerie, with so much fear, and anger, and energy.

Fortunately, my interest in the story was focused on the psychological elements. I’m certain that Valerie’s relationship with her psychiatrist, Dr Ruth Cooper, crossed all sorts of boundaries. Their sparring and what seemed to be Cooper’s open admiration for Valerie was fascinating. She says to Dr Cooper –

I’ll help you. Diagnosis: fucking angry. Pissed off. Man-hating tigress. All married women are whores. Are you married? Meat is murder. Sex is prostitution. Prostitution is murder.

Equally interesting was Valerie’s relationship with her mother, Dorothy, who she describes as ‘incandescent with despair’. If I ever needed an interesting case study for attachment and trauma, Valerie and Dorothy would be a goldmine.   

There’s some terrific writing in this book –

Dr Ruth Cooper gives one of her West Coast laughs, a laugh of salt and beach wrack and sea anemones.

But would I recommend it? Yes, if you want something challenging, however I can’t say I enjoyed it.

 Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

This book is less obviously about health than some of the others on the Tour list, however the central theme of the story is ‘what makes us human’. Find my full review of Machines Like Me here.

7 responses

  1. ooh The Faculty of Dreams sounds great, if challenging! I love a fictionalised account of real life characters and Valerie Solanas is certainly a dramatic figure. I’m going to look out for that one for sure.

  2. Thank you so much for these reviews, Kate — especially for persisting with a bizarre and difficult read. It sounds like an interesting experiment that didn’t quite work. I’m glad you enjoyed the psychological case study aspect, at least. The Wellcome Book Prize has occasionally shortlisted books that use an experimental style to convey a disturbed state of mind, like last year’s winner, Murmur by Will Eaves (which is about Alan Turing, a nice tie-in to your McEwan review). I found it very challenging but, ultimately, rewarding.

    • The banter between Valerie and Dr Ruth was by the far the best part of the book – needless to say, DOZENS of ethical boundaries violated!

      Will I read another by Sridsberg? I’m not sure. Her previous book, Gravity of Love, was in my top ten the year I read it – the style was unusual but not extreme.

      Anyway, looking forward to what makes the Not the Wellcome Prize shortlist!

    • I’m sure it was way too much for my brain when I read it! It was very different to Gravity and, had it not been for the Wellcome Prize, I would have abandoned it.

  3. Pingback: Recapping the Not the Wellcome Prize Blog Tour Reviews | Bookish Beck

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