LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
The dress was of plain black jersey, and its skirt had a dancing swing, as if it had a life of its own. There were three small buttons at the neck, on a neat little placket, and the black silk label hand-sewn into the collar read Gabrielle Chanel Paris, embroidered in gold; it was Lettie’s dearest favourite, had been so ever since she had unobtrusively removed it from the dressing room of a grateful patient the year before.
observations: The Booker Prize longlist has just been announced: 10 men and 3 women. Pity they didn’t find room for Patricia Ferguson on it – this is one of the best new books I have read this year.
The marvellous Amanda Craig (see her Vicious Circle here on the blog) recommended it to me – I’d listen to her reco’s anyway, but her exact words on Twitter were ‘fab description of evil blackmailer’s lust for couture’ so it would have been impossible to resist in any circumstances.
And I am so grateful: what a terrific book. I liked a previous novel by Ferguson – Peripheral Vision, here on the blog - well enough, but this one was a tour de force. (Apparently it’s a sequel to her book The Midwife’s Daughter, but can be read as a standalone.)
Ferguson is not looking to make Aren’t We Sisters? instantly likeable or an easy read: it starts with a rather grim description of an internal examination, and there’s a lot more in similar mode to come. The themes of the book are childbirth, sex, family planning and above all women’s sovereignty over their own bodies. I think Ferguson is staking a claim, laying out a thesis that men’s doings are automatically allowed in fiction, but that women’s concerns can be dismissed more easily – ‘Now, says Dickens, now we can get on to the really important stuff, the proper story, the real story. Now we’ve got those dead mothers out of the way.’
It probably doesn’t make it an easy sell, but the book is much more readable and entertaining than that sounds: it is very gripping – you really do want to know what is going to happen to these characters – and also very very funny. The class consciousness in the small town in Cornwall in the 1930s is hilarious, and Ferguson gives a convincing voice to three very different women: a family planning nurse on the make, a come-down-in-the-world spinster, and a film star hiding her secrets from the world.
More to come on this book.
The underwear is from a magazine advert: the other picture is Coco Chanel herself in one of her little black dresses, and is from Dovima is devine.