The Push by Ashley Audrain
Review by Natalie Joyce
The Push is Ashley Audrain’s debut novel which shows the dark side of motherhood and how family history can threaten to overpower stability.
Blythe is a woman who had a complex relationship with her mother growing up, and who walked out on her when she was a child, leaving her father to look after her and her kind neighbour as a substitute mother.
After college, she marries and soon is pregnant with her daughter, Violet. Her family history of trauma and neglect from her grandmother and mother makes Blythe anxious about motherhood and has her questioning if she really can be a good mother. Despite her worries, she pledges to give Violet the love she deserves after being unloved by her own mother. Blythe’s firstborn proves to be a challenge for her, she feels emotionally detached from her daughter, letting her cry for hours, blocking out the sound while she writes to escape. During the daytime, she cares for Violet while her husband works, but she struggles to bond with her daughter, sensing something is not quite right about her.
As the novel progresses, we see the young girl grow and problems start to arise when Violet turns four. Her behaviour becomes concerning, with incidents such as her stabbing a girl with a pencil and twisting a boy’s fingers until he cried. Her parents have a talk with her and think everything will be ok. But when a boy dies at the playpark when Violet is present, Blythe begins to suspect that there is something wrong with her daughter.
The Push is packed with twists and turns and will leave the reader feeling flabbergasted. Blythe’s journey is a turbulent one, and she must do all she can to reconcile with what she has lost.
Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshefegh
Review by Cassie Waters
“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.”
Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel opens straight into the action of a murder mystery. Except it isn’t exactly a murder mystery. For a start, there’s no murder.
Seventy-something-year-old Vesta lives in isolation in a lakeside cabin where a Girl Scout camp used to be, having moved there after the death of her dominating and unfaithful husband. Widowed and lonely, Vesta lives her days in a state of perpetual routine, carefully writing down the same to-do list each morning. That is until, whilst walking her dog Charlie, Vesta stumbles across the note. But there’s no body and no signs of a crime.
Vesta initially thinks it’s a prank or the beginning of a story that the writer decided to toss out. But it’s not long before Vesta becomes consumed by the note, reverse-engineering the mystery of Magda’s death. With the help of Ask Jeeves and a hefty dose of imagination, Vesta becomes a kind of novelist, creating elaborate fictional stories that place the local townspeople as potential suspects in the murder. Life and fiction blur as Vesta’s carefully constructed new life begins to fall apart and memories of the past come back to haunt her.
This is a story about writing, about novels and cleverly poking fun at the formulaic murder mystery genre. It’s about loneliness, ageing and our inner lives. Those who enter into its pages hoping to read about an old lady who discovers the truth behind a murder will be disappointed, but Death in Her Hands offers something much more intriguing.
Pine by Francine Toon
Review by Verity Stuart
‘She doesn’t smell unpleasant, but familiar, of how she imagines the moon might smell, or a flower that only bloomed in winter.’
It is hard to believe that Francine Toon’s unsettling 2020 publication, Pine, is a debut novel. While telling a seemingly simple story, Toon manages to retell grand gothic archetypes and reclaim and unsettle the isolation that so many of us have experienced this year.
Pine centres around Lauren and her father Niall, who live alone in a small Highland village. When a woman is found on a road on Halloween night, Niall drives her back to his house, but in the morning she has disappeared. This straightforward but compelling narrative marks another addition to the ever-growing canon of books inspired by radical, empowered witches, commented on by the author throughout Pine’s extensive marketing campaign. Indeed, Toon’s references to gothic authorities such as Shirley Jackson thrive alongside familiar crime sensibilities. But from the first page, Toon commands the attention of her own reader, insisting on her own, defiant, narrative voice.
Finding home in the shadowy Highland forest, Toon records the wildness of rural teenagedom and small-town oppression. In a novel that often defies generic classification, Toon insists on both the chill of the modern gothic alongside the grit of a thriller. This makes for an admirable generic experiment, one that captures the claustrophobia of our own, haunting year. Toon’s debut is one of many contemporary books drawing upon these traditional folklore themes, but Pine remains a standout; a moving contemplation on grief, memory and the maelstrom of human emotion.