When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
Review by Daisy Young
Is there a part of me, after reading this book, that wishes I could turn into a dragon whenever I'm overwhelmed or angry? Yes. Yes, there is. However, in the alternate universe that Barnhill sets out for us, “dragoning” is an unspeakable social taboo. With layers of metaphor and allegory, Barnhill’s first adult publication is a triumph for contemporary female writing.
Set in an alternate 1950s Midwestern USA, When Women Were Dragons follows the story of Alex Green and her family, following her growth into womanhood and the ever-changing relationship dynamics with the key women in her life: her mother, her aunt Marla and her cousin Beatrice. Much of the novel takes place after the catastrophic events of the Mass Dragoning of 1955: when hundreds of thousands of women shed their skins and took their fiery and scaly new selves to the skies – never to be seen again.
Alex learns how to navigate this new world of forgotten women, her aunt amongst them. I especially loved the aspect of ignorance as a tool for freedom and how she acknowledges the pressure she and many other young women feel to forget those who dragoned.
“People are awfully good at forgetting unpleasant things.” But not everyone has forgotten, and not everyone wants to stay quiet. As Alex begins to understand herself and her femininity – in a time where expectations of women were restricted – she soon realises the “embarrassing” appeal of dragons and worries about Beatrice’s fascination with the forbidden.
Then, the dragons come back and are here to stay.
My favourite thing about Barnhill’s writing is the balance of magical realism alongside an almost scientific narrative voice. The Alex telling the story is her older self; a successful scientist living in a world where dragons are visible and accepted. Her voice is not nostalgic for past events but instead examines how her younger self reacts to her lived experiences – her mother’s overprotectiveness, the abandonment of her aunt, then later her father and the loss of her first love.
The story is brilliantly married alongside the interviews, accounts and writing of Dr Henry Gantz – a man obsessed with de-mystifying the ins-and-outs of dragoning in the 1950s. Barnhill has cleverly woven these two perspectives together to show the gradual change in personal and political mindsets, allowing us to understand and grow with them.
Overall, Barnhill has written something that is unabashedly female. The moments of pain and tenderness are beautifully constructed and are something that make you cry, rage and hope all at the same time. At times, this was a difficult read, but I feel that only shows the growth potential of Barnhill in her quest to write more adult fiction. When Women Were Dragons is an extremely worthwhile read and has left me extremely excited for her latest book, The Crane Husband.
Happy Place by Emily Henry
Review by Becky Connolly
Emily Henry’s Happy Place has been bouncing around every corner of BookTok (and then some)! She is known for her ability to create a swoony rom-com, but this book is so much more.
Happy Place is a story about Harriet, a resident surgeon, who arrives on holiday to find that her ex-fiancée, Wyn, is also there. After a relationship of nine years and a sudden split, Harriet is shocked, and her friends are not in the know. So, Harriet and Wyn act like nothing’s happened.
The story is split between the present, “Real Life,” and the past, “Happy Place,” which you discover over the course of Wyn and Harriet’s romance, interwoven with an “ideal” summer holiday. The summer holiday aspect is fun, and makes it the perfect escapist novel. The interlacing of the timelines is integral to retaining the addictiveness of this book: in seeing the beauty of their love, you feel the pain in its loss. It is through their tale that Henry addresses the sad truth of how external circumstances can pick apart loving relationships, as well as depicting a heartache so raw, so painful, that it feels desperately real.
However, Harriet’s relationship with Wyn is by no means the sole-driving force of the book. You are taken through the friendship between Harriet, Sabrina and Cleo, as well as Parth and Kimmy. Their bond feels similar to watching an episode of Friends: humorous yet utterly unique characters with an incredible friendship.
Harriet’s character is incredibly likeable – she’s brilliant, yet humble. She worked for her success, and you sense her authentic love for the people around her. Through Harriet, Henry explores the pressures of imposter syndrome and familial sacrifices. Similarly, the rest of the characters are each carved according to their personal experiences, creating incredible emotional complexity to all of their relationships.
My only slight critique concerns the decisions made at the end, which seem sudden and extreme. I don’t disagree with what the character does per se, but what they go on to do afterwards.
Happy Place is a story about love, friendship, grief, anxiety, familial discord and, fundamentally, change – themes which are cleverly and intrinsically woven into the character’s lives. It’s an emotional roller-coaster, and it hits you just in the right spot. This book should definitely have a place on your to-be-read pile this summer.