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Not to be Overlooked

By Natalia Alvarez and Jasmine Aldridge


Not to be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers a review of Madwoman by Louisa Treger and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.


Mad Woman by Louisa Treger

Review by Natalia Alvarez

 

This novel, based on the pioneer journalist Nellie Bly, has solidified itself as a must-read not only for historical fiction fans, but anyone interested in reading about women's beginnings in journalism.

 

Madwoman begins with our protagonist, Nellie, arriving on Blackwell Island in 1887, when the island was used to house the infamous women's insanity asylum. The novel does an amazing job of working backwards; drawing readers in by opening in the thick of things before going backwards to examine Nellie’s life and the decisions that led her to this situation. Readers then see Nellie as a child, using her given name Elizabeth Cochran, but still preferring to go by her then nickname “Pinky.” As Pinky, Nellie is shown to have a fascination with storytelling, and a rebellious streak that will spark her interest in examining the roles women have been pushed into during her time. Her father’s position as a judge allows Nellie to get a good education and he encourages her to study law, but after his tragic death, Nellie’s mother’s lack of support and her remarriage to an abusive scam artist make this opportunity impossible. Still, she continues to pursue her passions.

 

After sending in a rebuttal in her local newspaper (under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl”) that garners much attention, her desire for a career in journalism is ignited, eventually leading to a job at the Philadelphia Dispatch. In this position, she attempts to showcase women’s unfair and dangerous working conditions, seeing journalism as a way for her to make a difference in the world. This leads Nellie to chase her dream job working for the popular New York newspaper World, though she faces many challenges because of her gender. When Nellie learns World has been attempting to break a story on the condition of the women's insane asylum on Blackwell Island, she hatches a plan to fake insanity in order to get herself admitted, report on her findings, and finally earn her spot as a respected journalist in the eyes of World. While this is just the kind of story Nellie is drawn to, the conditions she faces in this asylum are worse than anyone could have guessed.

 

This novel is impossible to put down and will have readers invested from beginning to end. A beautifully written story about a woman who pioneered investigative journalism, Madwoman promises great intrigue and an opportunity to delve deeper into the world of Nellie Bly.

 

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Review by Jasmine Aldridge

 

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is a powerfully clever coming-of-age story that follows Jeanette’s experience growing up as a young girl destined to become one of God’s elect. Driven ferociously by her strictly fundamentalist mother, Jeanette becomes dedicated to her religious mission, passionately becoming a missionary speaking the true word of God to those around her. Growing up, her path is clearly defined before her: she knows what she must do and what her calling is. It all seems to be going to plan, with both her mother and their church pleased with her progress, until one day it unexpectedly goes awry. Aged sixteen, Jeanette ends up falling for one of her converts, another young girl named Melanie. From this moment on, Jeanette’s life as a devout missionary is turned upside down as she grapples with her faith, her identity, and the pressurised expectations of those around her. The tale that follows is one filled with heart, self-belief, and the rawest of emotion.

 

Winterson’s writing is captivating and laced with nuanced genius and this semi-autobiographical novel captures perfectly her complex emotions and decisions as she left behind the life she had always known. Although the novel explores finding freedom beyond confinement and throughout Jeanette battles with the restrictive doctrines of the Bible, it is also the Bible that gives shape to the book’s structure and underpins a significant space in Jeanette’s life. This is an example of one of many cleverly nuanced dichotomies that emerge as the narrative progresses, and these creative explorations, along with moments of intense emotion, are what make this novel such a captivating read. As Jeanette rebels against convention, you find yourself as the reader foreseeing the challenges that lie ahead for her; this is not to say that this book is predictable (it is engaging until the end!), but Winterson cleverly exposes layers of vulnerability in Jeanette’s character that foreshadow later events for the reader.

 

You will never be disappointed by the level of skill and humanity Winterson inserts into her prose and this novel is fully deserving of all the praise it has received since its publication in 1991. There is a definite effortless fluidity to Winterson’s voice, and this becomes even more enthralling when we consider the novel’s autobiographical roots; there is so much nostalgia and truth enveloped in every chapter that transforms this book from a well-written story into an impactful tale of belonging.

 

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