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Highlights in the Charts

By Arabella Petts and Jenna Tomlinson


Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova


Named after Marcel Carné’s classic 1945 film, Children of Paradise is a grotesque book for us weirdos. Arriving alone in a new country and desperate for a job, the narrator, Holly – not her real name – responds to a “We’re Hiring” sign on the door of a rundown cinema. Hired immediately for low-paid, zero-hour shift work, she spends her first few weeks being ignored by her tight-knit colleagues, who seem to be a part of the cinema itself. After a while, she gains their trust, and she too begins to become part of the Paradise.

This is definitely not a plot-focused book. Although we don’t get to know any of the characters in depth, their connection to the cinema itself and the pact they have with it creates a powerful character-focused story. Through the depiction of the characters and the cinema, a very specific tone is set at the beginning of the book which stays consistent throughout, making it easy to get immersed in the creepy, twisted energy and to read it in one sitting.


In a way, this novel is an ode to cinema – each chapter is named after an old film, and a connection to the movie is hidden within that part of the story. I have only seen a few of the films mentioned and so I can only comment on those, but it was exciting to see what the tie-in would be. Not having seen most of the films definitely didn’t take away from the reading experience, however, and I enjoyed trying to work out what the link might have been in the chapters whose namesakes I hadn’t watched.


There are not many novels that relate to cinema these days, and I thought Children of Paradise was a great way to infuse this topic into fiction, particularly because of the ways that it plays with reader expectations of what cinema is. There are a lot of interesting takes on audience, film taste and perspective, which were all thought-provoking to me as someone who knows nothing about cinema.


I wouldn’t have heard of this had it not been for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, for which it was longlisted in 2023 – and for good reason. I feel as though book prizes usually neglect novels like this, so I’m glad this one in particular was given its moment to shine (even if I wish it had made the shortlist).


Women Talking by Miriam Toews


You may have heard of Women Talking, the recent Hollywood film nominated for a number of well-deserved awards and accolades. However, while the film is astounding, if you haven’t yet seen it, then I would implore you to first read the book on which it is based.

Toews’ novel is actually based on true events that occurred in Bolivia in the early 2000s. It follows a group of women in a Mennonite community as they make one of the biggest decisions of their lives. After a series of the community’s girls and women are drugged and raped in their sleep, some of the attackers (men from the community) are arrested, leaving the women with a decision: forgive their attackers and allow the community to continue as before, or refuse and be exiled. The fate of every woman in the community then rests with eight women chosen to debate the merits of their three options: do nothing, stay and fight or leave.


Not only do their current choices have implications for them, but the actions of the men have already had long-lasting and far-reaching effects. Toews chooses her central characters well to depict this, not only showing their status as victims, but as strong survivors too. Gentle Ona is pregnant with her rapist’s child and determined to keep the baby, even though to do so and then raise the child as a single mother would be a direct violation of her religious beliefs and community teachings. Curious Neitje, whose mother committed suicide as a result of the attacks on the colony, is only a teenager, and yet she offers nuanced views to the discussion. Fierce Salome is angered by the general misogyny and inequality that has manifested and culminated in a community where not even her three-year-old daughter is safe from such attacks and to whom vital medication is not available.


We are spared the gruesome details of the attacks. Instead, Toews focuses on the conversations and arguments of the women as they are faced with a choice that doesn’t seem to offer a way for them to win or any real punishment for the men. With no education or prospects besides life on the colony, the intellectual and emotional discussions the women have weave together all the problems they face: will mothers who leave have to abandon their sons? How can a group of women whose faith teaches pacifism honestly stay and fight, when to do so would ensure they are rejected in Heaven? Would doing nothing be a violation of their beliefs?


I felt so angry at the attackers and at first, my reaction was visceral: of course, these women should leave – and quickly. However, being presented with their dilemma showed me how these discussions are not always black and white. The women even require the help of a man, August, to record their meeting because none of them are able to read or write.


Toews’ sixth novel is short but fascinating. It’s a compelling take on the power dynamic of patriarchal societies and a scathing look at the role religion plays in upending the balance of community as well as how power operates through gaslighting and fear. The women’s concerns are very real and Toews’ own background of growing up in a Mennonite community has obviously helped her to put such an emotive and brave story together. It is insightful, powerful and ultimately redemptive.



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