Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

According to her author bio, Yoko Ogawa has won “every major Japanese literary award”, and yet I (along with a lot of other monolingual English readers) hadn’t heard of her until The Memory Police exploded on #Bookstagram. This 1994 science fiction novel (called 密やかな結晶 in the original Japanese) quietly trundled along until, in 2019, it was translated into English by Stephen Snyder. Soon, it seemed like EVERYONE was reading it – because they were.

The Memory Police - Yoko Ogawa - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Memory Police here.
(Don’t forget: if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission.)

The Memory Police is a melancholy Kafka-esque novel, one that clearly owes a huge debt to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The story is narrated by a novelist who lives on an island under the control of the titular authoritarian force. Through an unexplained and seemingly random mechanism, everyone who lives on the island is forced to “forget” objects or concepts. Uniformed enforcement officers patrol the island, making sure the “forgotten” items are truly gone and anyone who gives the appearance of remembering them is disappeared.

All kinds of things are “forgotten” in The Memory Police, and it’s difficult to discern a pattern. Perfume, stamps, birds, emeralds, ribbon – unusually for a dystopia, nothing “forgotten” seems inherently dangerous. Props to Ogawa for foregoing the heavy-handed metaphor of “forgetting” journalism or books, but the seemingly random array of everyday objects targeted is a bit of a head-scratcher.

What’s more, the narrator of The Memory Police isn’t one of the Special People who – again, for reasons unexplained, other than a couple of lines of dialogue about how it “might be genetic” – can remember things after they’ve been “forgotten”. Her mother was one, and kept a stash of “forgotten” objects in her artist studio, before she was disappeared.

R, the narrator’s editor, also reveals himself to be one of these Special Rememberers, about a third of the way into the story. The narrator, fearing that he might meet the same fate as her mother, takes him into hiding in a fitted-for-purpose hidden room of her house.

With all these factors combined, The Memory Police is basically a dystopia told from the perspective of the Chosen One’s side-kick.

I really wanted to enjoy The Memory Police, and find the wonder and meaning in it that others seem to, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was missing something the whole way through. There’s no explicit reason given in the story for the existence of the Memory Police, or why they make the whole population forget these apparently random objects. Without a narrative justification, it was hard to get invested.

Don’t get me wrong: the writing is great, the translation is well done, the characters and the setting are believable and well-crafted… it’s just missing something. I wish Ogawa had used something more than bog-standard suspense (about whether R would be discovered in hiding) to draw us in.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for people who haven’t read The Memory Police as yet, so I’ll say this on an IYKYK basis: I feel like the dramatic conclusion was meant to be shocking or significant or moving… but I couldn’t drum up anything more than mild interest. I suppose it felt a bit “too little, too late”, given how little I’d felt engaged by the story up to that point.

But, maybe it’s just me. The Memory Police was named a finalist in the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature, as well as making the shortlist for the 2020 International Booker Prize. It was also a finalist in the World Fantasy Award that same year. So, don’t let my underwhelmed response persuade you. Give it a go, and hopefully you’ll be able to tell me what I’ve missed!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Memory Police:

  • “Depressing. R’s disregard for his wife and child was appalling.
    Book summary: Crazy lady who writes about crazy lady who writes about crazy lady, all fixated on hands” – Roger N Gallion
  • “This book was weird and never felt like it had a point. Ok if you like really strange stories.” – M in Marble
  • “So I read this book as a suggestion from Kindle. It said that it was a science fiction book, and gave the premise. This is not a science fiction novel. I am not even sure it’s a fiction novel per se. It’s a poem.” – Rob McNeil

Legitimate Sexpectations – Katrina Marson

Legitimate Sexpectations - Katrina Marson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Katrina Marson spent years prosecuting sex-based offenses, so understandably she has a vested interest in exploring any and all opportunities for prevention. When she was awarded the Churchill Fellowship in 2019, she used the time and resources it afforded her to learn from experts around the world about how comprehensive sex and relationship education can prevent the crimes that passed across her desk. In Legitimate Sexpectations, she lays out what she learned and what we can do to ensure that everyone lives a life not just free from sexual violence, but far from it.

Bri Lee, one of Australia’s most recognisable survivors and advocates, called Legitimate Sexpectations “urgent, clear, and pragmatic… a beacon of hope for a brighter, safer, better future”. So, needless to say, I was thrilled when the team at Scribe sent me a copy for review.

This book “exposes the limits of the criminal justice system and the fault lines in our society when it comes to sex, sexuality, and relationships… [and] makes the case for a cultural shift”. See, it’s not enough for institutions to ‘leap into action’ after something terrible has happened. Kids don’t (just) need to learn how to put a condom on a banana when they turn 16. Telling kids to ‘just say no’ to sex before marriage leaves them horribly ill-equipped to navigate the murky waters of burgeoning sexuality, and leaves them vulnerable to violations of their bodily autonomy (sexual and otherwise).

I considered myself fairly open-minded and well-informed about sex education prior to reading Legitimate Sexpectations – even though I received little more than the standard “how to use a pad” and “how the sperm penetrates the egg” at school, as far as I can recall. And yet, Marson opened my eyes, again and again, as to how the system as it stands is failing kids (and adults).

Most importantly, she doesn’t just identify the problems. In Legitimate Sexpectations, Marson outlines potential solutions.

This is a very well-balanced, forward-thinking book, one that would make an excellent pair with Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do. I want to thrust Legitimate Sexpectations into the hands of every politician, parent, and school principal.

15 Dark Women’s Stories

The London Book Fair is finally back, and The Guardian helpfully distilled their showcases into a list of book trends we should be on the look-out for over the next couple of years. One in particular caught my eye: dark women’s stories. The Guardian said: “Among many of the big deals announced at the fair were a number of novels about women in dark and desperate situations, perhaps reflecting current discussions about women’s health and safety.”

Even though I don’t love the descriptor (why are they “women’s stories”? won’t people who aren’t women read them?), I looked over my shelves and found a bunch of titles that fit the bill. So, if you don’t want to wait for the showcased titles at LBF to trickle out, here are 15 dark women’s stories to tide you over.

15 Dark Women's Stories - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
(I won’t keep you in the dark: if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission.)

Adèle by Leïla Slimani

Adele - Leila Slimani - Keeping Up With The Penguins

On the face of it, Adèle sounds more like one of an adolescent boy’s wet dreams than one of the dark women’s stories that fascinate readers – but glances can be deceiving. The narrator is a sex addict. She lives in Paris, she has an adoring husband, a healthy kid, and a satisfying job as a respected journalist. Her addiction threatens to ruin it all. Adèle is a Moshfegh-esque protagonist, one whose single-minded desire and self-interest will undoubtedly turn off a lot of readers. She’s effectively delusional, and she (almost) sucks the reader under with her. Read my full review of Adèle here.

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

The Dressmaker - Rosalie Ham - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Dressmaker is set in a (fictional) Australian country town in the 1950s, so everyone has names like “Gertrude” and “Muriel”. The protagonist (Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage) returns to her hometown to take care of her ailing mother – who is more than a little cracked, it must be said. That might sound like the premise of a great rom-com, but instead, Ham’s debut novel is one of the darkest women’s stories to come out of Australia in the early 2000s. Yes, Tilly finds herself falling in love with a hometown boy, but there’s a very dark twist to that affair you won’t see coming. Read my full review of The Dressmaker here.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Gone Girl came on the crest of the wave of psychological thrillers with unreliable female narrators, and it sold over two million copies in the first year following its release. As a result, it’s become one of the most iconic dark women’s stories in living memory, synonymous with both dime-a-dozen female revenge fantasies and subversion of the typical “plot twists” we see so often in this kind of novel. Every character – from the married couple to the childhood friends to the greasy lawyer – exists in a murky grey area. There are no heroes and no villains (basically, everyone sucks here), and yet it’s a compelling read. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If it’s dark women’s stories you’re after, Her Body And Other Parties has them in abundance. This game-changing short story collection ricochets from magical realism to horror to science fiction to comedy to fantasy to epistolary, so fast that the genres and tropes are pureed together into a deliciously heinous pulp. It all starts with The Husband Stitch, Machado’s take on the classic spooky story of the Green Ribbon; women’s stories don’t get much darker than a narrator losing her head because of her husband’s selfish greed. And – believe it or not – the stories only get better, more twisted, from there. Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman - Anna Burns - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The unnamed narrator of the Booker Prize-winning novel Milkman has a remarkably blasé approach to telling one of the best dark women’s stories to come out of Northern Ireland. As per the blurb: “In this unnamed city, to be interesting is to be dangerous… [Milkman is] a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.” The narrator is being stalked by a paramilitary honcho she calls “the milkman”, and his pursuit of her increases in intensity over the course of the novel, to the point where it becomes life-threatening. Read my full review of Milkman here.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As much as we all love to read dark women’s stories with a bit of mystery and intrigue, sometimes it’s nice to read one with the premise laid out completely in the title. My Sister, The Serial Killer gives you exactly what it says on the tin: the story of Korede and her sister, Ayoola, who has the unfortunate habit of killing her boyfriends. The stakes ramp up when Ayoola sets her sights on the doctor that Korede has been crushing on for months. Korede is literally the person Ayoola calls to help her drag a body across the floor, but sibling loyalty can only go so far. Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room - Emma Donoghue - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Few real life crimes have captured and horrified the world like the Fritzl case. Elisabeth Fritzl had been abused by her father since age 11; after she attempted to escape, he lured her into the basement of their family home and knocked her unconscious, and so began her twenty-four-year imprisonment. The story sparked an idea in Emma Donoghue, and her fictional book Room – in which a young woman kept imprisoned by a man who beats and rapes her, raising a child in the most horrifying of circumstances – is the result. In a remarkable step forward for dark women’s stories, though, Donoghue’s story doesn’t focus on the captor but on his victims, and their journey to “freedom”. Read my full review of Room here.

She Came To Stay by Simone de Beauvoir

She Came To Stay - Simone de Beauvoir - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dark women’s stories are hardly a recent phenomenon. If we look hard enough at the classics, we’ll find plenty of them – like feminist icon Simone de Beuavoir’s She Came To Stay. It’s a fictional account of her and Jean-Paul Sartre’s relationship with Olga Kosakievicz (to whom the book is dedicated). This will hardly come as a shock, but it turns out de Beauvoir had some hard feelings about the 17-year-old who “came between” her and Sartre, the love of her life, and in many ways this novel is her act of revenge. The proof is in this dark, twisted pudding. Read my full review of She Came To Stay here.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian - Han Kang - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” Isn’t that just… *chef’s kiss*? It’s an opening line that promises a brilliant, twisted story to come. The Vegetarian is “a beautiful, unsettling novel in three acts about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul”. It’s a story about Yeong-hye, an ordinary woman with an ordinary husband, who up-ends her life and the lives of those around her by deciding to commit to vegetarianism. Even though Yeong-hye doesn’t have much of a voice in the novel, this is one of the definitive dark women’s stories of the century. Read my full review of The Vegetarian here.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

The Bass Rock - Evie Wyld - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Evie Wyld is renowned for her dark women’s stories – in fact, she’s won awards for them, time and time again. The Bass Rock is undoubtedly the darkest. It stretches across centuries to examine the various forms of violence visited upon women by men. There are three women at its heart: Sarah, in the 1700s, accused of being a witch and forced to flee into the woods; Ruth, navigating a new home, a new husband, and a new family in the wake of WWII; and Viv, in the present day, forced to reckon with the weight of inter-generational trauma and dysfunction. Read my full review of The Bass Rock here.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Earthlings - Sayaka Murata - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sayaka Murata has produced the best dark women’s stories out of Japan this decade (and that’s a hill I’m willing to die on). Take Earthlings, which might appear to be a story about a family black sheep who believes she has super-powers… before it twists, and twists again, and again. At 34 years old, Natsuki is pretending to be normal, living a quiet life in an asexual marriage, hoping that she can someday succumb to the pressure to be truly “normal”. Unfortunately, the horrors of her childhood won’t be quieted so easily. Elements of the surreal and the horrific make the story tangible, visceral, and unforgettable. Read my full review of Earthlings here.

The Recovery Of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

The Recovery Of Rose Gold - Stephanie Wrobel - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Stephanie Wrobel’s debut novel, The Recovery of Rose Gold (called Darling Rose Gold in other regions), explores the twisted co-dependent relationship between mother and daughter that develops as a result of the mother’s Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. As far as dark women’s stories go, it’s hard to imagine anything darker than a woman intentionally making her own child sick to serve her own pathology. MSBP is a relatively rare psychological condition, and as a premise for a thriller it’s intense and fascinating. Read my full review of The Recovery Of Rose Gold here.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

Hurricane Season - Fernanda Melchor - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hurricane Season is a murder mystery (of sorts) set in rural Mexico, and translated into English by Sophie Hughes. It’s inspired by real events, an honest-to-goodness witch hunt, near Melchor’s hometown. The story begins when a group of children discover a decomposing body in a canal, that of the local Witch, and the story unfolds through the perspectives of bystanders, accomplices, and (of course) the perpetrators. That might sound fairly benign for dedicated thriller readers, but it’s a heavy read, well deserving of its place on this list of dark women’s stories. Read my full review of Hurricane Season here.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ottessa Moshfegh has basically become the poster child for dark women’s stories. Eileen is the one that shot her to literary stardom. Eileen Dunlop is “an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s caretaker in a home whose squalor is the talk of the neighborhood and a day job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, filled with its own quotidian horrors”. As you can imagine, this has left her pretty bitter and twisted, which is why Rebecca – the prison’s new counselor – is a breath of fresh air. But in dark women’s stories, there’s never an uncomplicated friendship, and no such thing as a truly happy ending.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

Heaven - Mieko Kawakami - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Two bullied teenagers find connection and solace in each other. A lazy eye and a dirty shirt are enough to see them ostracised by their peers. They exchange letters, each dripping with the desperate emotional intimacy of kids who don’t have anyone else. Over the course of just 167 pages, their friendship devolves to a horrifying denoument. The narrator of Heaven is an adolescent boy, but it’s so rich in feeling and so deep in despair (plus, it’s written by such a badass Japanese woman) that it surely belongs among the best dark women’s stories of recent years. Read my full review of Heaven here.

Dear Child – Romy Hausmann

I sought out Dear Child by Romy Hausmann after I heard it described on The To Read Podcast as Room meets Gone Girl. Indeed, that’s the description used in its blurb, as well. If you thought Emma Donoghue’s story about a child born in captivity was as sick and twisted as it gets, Dear Child will sweep your legs out from under you. This edition was translated from the original German by Jamie Bulloch.

Dear Child - Romy Hausmann - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Dear Child here.
(And if you, dear reader, use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission.)

Dear Child starts around Room’s mid-point: a woman and child escape a life of captivity, and shocked hospital workers try to piece together their story. It’s alternately narrated by Hannah (the child), Lena (the mother), and Matthias (Lena’s father, who has been searching for his missing daughter for 13 years).

Lena is immediately hospitalised, floating in and out of consciousness, as she was hit by a car in their bid for freedom. That leaves Hannah, who claims to be 13 years old (though her diminutive appearance and childlike mannerisms would cast doubt on that), to explain their circumstances. Unlike Lena, Hannah doesn’t seem glad to have “escaped”; quite the contrary, she seems eager to return “home”.

“Home”, in Dear Child, is a windowless shack in the woods. The windows are covered by insulation panels, the air is pumped in through a “recirculator” that occasionally stops working, every door and every cabinet is locked. Lena, Hannah, and another child Jonathan, live as a “family” according to the strict rules set by their cruel patriarch. Their lives are scheduled to the minute: bathroom visits, study time, meals, sleep, all highly regimented under threat of sadistic violence.

So, why doesn’t Hannah seem particularly traumatised? Why is she so eager to return? And why is she insisting that her “mother” is Lena when Matthias, Lena’s father, insists that woman is not his daughter?

Of course, I can’t reveal any more on that front without spoiling Dear Child for you, but if you think that’s enough of a mystery to build a full and complete plot, Hausmann will one-up you yet again. “Lena” continues to be tormented: by mysterious letters in her mailbox, by unwanted visitors to her door, by her unstable memories of killing her captor, by her slavish devotion to his schedule even after she is “free”.

The narrators and perspectives in Dear Child shift quickly – sometimes too quickly, but it’s an effective way of building suspense and keeping you reading, regardless. I read the whole thing in one night; I couldn’t bring myself to go to bed without getting to the bottom of what was going on. It’s compelling and scary and definitely as twisted as promised (I wouldn’t want to see Hausmann’s search history).

There were a few clunky moments, though. On occasion, the translation didn’t quite scan – though it was difficult to tell whether that was the fault of the translator, or part of Hausmann’s characterisation of Hannah, a particularly strange girl. I’m also not quite sure I bought Hausmann’s explanation of Hannah’s claims that “Lena” took her on trips outside the cabin all the time (to Paris, and to garden parties). And, finally, I didn’t love the supposed “Asperger’s” diagnosis; the way in which it was delivered, and the character about whom it was delivered, when it’s already such an outdated label… it just gave me the ick.

But those hang-ups weren’t enough to stop me charging through Dear Child. It was a gripping, chilling read (and a quick one!) to devour on a dark, stormy night. If you’re in the mood for a charged thriller and you can cope with all the triggers (cruelty, violence against women and children, etc.), this is a good one to try.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dear Child:

  • “I found I kept mixing up the characters in this confusing novel but as I did not care what happened to any of them it did not really matter.” – Joy
  • “I love it when my housework suffers because of a good read.” – robin teets

Everything Feels Like The End Of The World – Else Fitzgerald

Everything Feels Like The End Of The World - Else Fitzgerald - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Everything Feels Like The End Of The World is “a collection of short speculative fiction exploring possible futures in an Australia not so different from our present day to one thousands of years into an unrecognisable future”. The wonderful team at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

These short, sharp stories are like fireworks. Fitzgerald is clearly a writing talent to be reckoned with. I particularly appreciated her brilliant use of simile and metaphor, the kinds of descriptions that make you say “woah” out loud.

Really, the only downside to reading Everything Feels Like The End Of The World is that Fitzgerald writes so well, the science fiction (science faction?) is all too believable. It’s straight-up frightening. The intensity with which she depicts the fires and floods, the confused yearning she captures so beautifully about the future and whether or not to bring kids into it – it’s honestly terrifying.

I couldn’t sleep after I finished this book; I needed a glass of wine and a cuddle with my dog until my heart stopped pounding. It’s scarier than any “horror” novel I’ve ever read.

So, obviously, I need to offer trigger warnings for natural disasters and in/fertility in Everything Feels Like The End Of The World. If you can handle that, and you’re a fan of Black Mirror, you absolutely must read this collection – it hits a lot of the same, terrifying, notes. This is an incredible debut collection, Fitzgerald’s writing belies her early career status, but be sure to take care of yourself while reading it.

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