Free by Lea Ypi
Ypi explores the changing political and ideological landscape of her country, Albania, alongside the usual challenges that teens have with self-image and peer groups. Albania moved from Soviet-style socialism to a ‘free market’ in the early nineties, and Ypi observes family and friends either embracing or resisting the changes.
In the past, one would have been arrested for wanting to leave. Now that nobody was stopping us from emigrating, we were no longer welcome on the other side. The only thing that had changed was the colour of the police uniforms. We risked being arrested not in the name of our own government but in the name of other states, those same governments who used to urge us to break free. The West had spent decades criticizing the East for its closed borders, funding campaigns to demand freedom of movement, condemning the immorality of states committed to restricting the right to exit. Our exiles used to be received as heroes. Now they were treated like criminals. Perhaps freedom of movement had never really mattered. It was easy to defend it when someone else was doing the dirty work of imprisonment. But what value does the right to exit have if there is no right to enter?
The charm of this book is in Ypi’s perspective – she had kept a diary growing up, and her record is a mix of understandably naive observations about family and friends, and startling detail about the difficulty of life in Albania. I particularly enjoyed her references to ‘popular’ culture – the papers from chewing gum still bearing scent were playground currency; Coke cans were used as status symbols (and vases); and a Westerner decked out in Lacoste clothing was referred to as ‘Crocodile Man’.
Heartsick by Jessie Stephens
Heartsick is essentially the ‘heartbreak’ version of Three Women, minus the gritty edge of Taddeo’s book. Stephens’s work of narrative nonfiction examines the heartbreak experienced by three people – a young woman who meets her wife in London, only to have the marriage breakdown when they return to Australia; a male university student whose first relationship ends badly; and a middle-aged woman embarking on an affair. The stories are book-ended by Stephens’s own tale of romantic loss, and it is in the introduction and the epilogue that she explores the unrecognised grief associated with the end of a relationship.
Heartbreak does not seem to be a brand of grief we respect.
She’s preaching to the converted in me (I recognise grief in all sorts of losses), but her ideas around the problematic lack of ritual in Western society associated with heartbreak are interesting (although she does acknowledge that in comparison to men, women have a familiar ‘script’ – eat ice cream, new haircut, and so forth – available to them). She notes that we usually suppress heartbreak grief (telling people we’re fine; that we’re moving on; that there are plenty of fish in the sea), when perhaps what we should be doing is ‘…sitting in the mess for a bit…and not demanding happiness of ourselves when we’re so desperate to feel sad.‘ I only wish there was more of the epilogue and less of the stories, which while interesting enough, felt stretched.
Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield
No, I’m not a fan of magic realism… but… but… this book totally captivated me. I loved the structure (alternating between the points of view of the two women to maintain the tension); I loved how our biological and evolutionary links to water and the sea were so powerfully incorporated in the narrative; and I really, really loved how Armfield tackled the theme of ambiguous loss (and went a step further by aligning it to the character’s previous losses).
…grieving was complicated by the lack of certainty…
The strangest part about reading this book was how viscerally I felt the sections that described Leah’s time trapped in a submarine on the bottom of the ocean floor – I was immediately taken back to the combination of exhilaration and panic that I experienced when I learnt to scuba dive.
Pick up this book with no expectations, and I reckon you’ll love it.