Diane Cook ‘The New Wilderness’

Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The New Wilderness”: In order of reading book number 2.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


He and Bea weren’t married yet, though they knew they would. He was already in love with Agnes. And when he explained fully about the study and his idea, Bea had said, “It seems crazy.” “It is crazy,” he said. “But if we stay, she’ll die.” It came out so flatly, so unequivocal, she felt like he’d slapped her. They stared at each other, not speaking. She thought hours might have passed. She wished that she’d had better thoughts running through her head. Thoughts like, I don’t even need to think—of course that’s what we’ll do. Like, Whatever it takes. But really she thought, So, we have to risk all our lives just to save hers? Is this the rule, or do I have a choice? She looked at Glen and he had that resolute look.


Another 2020 Booker Shortlist book, another complicated mother daughter relationship. Diane Cook, in this dystopian future, tells us the story of Bea and her daughter Agnes. As living in the city becomes impossible for them due to Agnes’s worsening health brought on my the conditions in the city Glen, Bea’s partner is able to get them onto a research program in the Wilderness to save Agnes’ life. As illustrated in the opening quote, Bea is not sure she wants to risk their lives to save Agnes.

Life in the Wilderness turns out to be wild and difficult, many of the original group die from either illness or accidents as the group learns to move and act like the animals around them to find water and to hunt, to skin the animals to obtain leather. All of this is policed by rangers that move them on if they try to settle, give them pointless targets and seem to hide information about the Wilderness but also about the evolution of the City :


Ranger Bob cleared his throat. “You know you were supposed to get along to Lower Post, right?” Her heart skipped. She felt like they were doing everything wrong. “We heard. But we were so close. It didn’t make sense to turn around. And we worried it might have been a mistake . . . ” She trailed off. “It’s not a mistake,” he said, again with a sternness that surprised her. “Granted, Ranger Gabe should have caught up with you earlier. But there were some unexpected events that needed handling.” “Like what?” “Well. Hmm.” He screwed his mouth. “That’s classified.” “Really?” Bea didn’t know why, but she felt incredulous to think there were things she couldn’t know about this place where they ate, drank, slept, and shat. “It’s a big place. You’re not going to know about everything that goes on.”


After following Bea’s story, the book turns towards Agnes, who in the Wilderness learns to grow up quickly and having arrived young understands the animals around them better than the others. Suddenly one day whilst visiting a ranger post Bea runs towards a highway for lorries crossing the wilderness, flags down a lorry and leaves them, Agnès must have been ten or eleven years old. Agnès is chosen by the group to lead them on their walks as she is able, through her understanding of the Wilderness and the animals, to guide them to water and away from danger. Agnes is lead to think about her position in the group:


Agnes had noticed that a mother would only be a mother for so long before she wanted to be something else. No mother she’d ever watched here remained a mother forever. Agnes had been ready for this without knowing it. She hadn’t cried once and that had to mean she was ready for it. She was not a bear cub any longer, but a juvenile on the lookout for her own place in the world. And so when Val called her a fearless leader, Agnes believed her. Val saw her for what she was now. An equal.


This book did not particularly interest me, I’m not sure why this made the shortlist, even the long list.

First Published in English as “The New Wilderness” by Oneworld Publications in 2020

Tsitsi Dangaremga ‘This Mournable body’

“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“This Mournable Body”: In order of reading book number 3.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


Christine has that layer under the skin that cuts off her outside from her inside and allows no communication between the person she once believed she could be and the person she has in fact become. The one does not acknowledge the other’s existence, the women from war are like that, a new kind of being that no one knew before, not exactly male but no longer female. It is rumored the blood stopped flowing to their wombs the first time they killed a person


In this book set in Harare in late 1990’s Zimbabwe, Tambu is trying to exist in a world that has no place for her. Tambu’s education at a Catholic school during the fight for independence has left her with no direct experience of and thus no real links to the generation that fought this war and the war of independence in Mozambique, represented in particular by Christine, illustrated in the opening quote who comes from the same village as Tambu’s family and who is sent to Harare to protect her aunt, Tambu’s landlord, from her aunt’s own sons who want to dispossess her. Tambu is also in her late thirties, too old for the younger generation that make it difficult for her to find a new job in copy writing:


You tortured yourself in the early days…with the idea that you have no one but yourself to blame for leaving your copy writing position. You should have endured the white men who put their names to your tag lines and rhyming couplets. You spend much time regretting digging your own grave over a matter of mere principle. Your age prevents you from obtaining another job in the field for the creative departments are now occupied by people with Mohawk haircuts and rings in eyebrows, tongues and navels.


Tambu tries to take some distance from what is happening to her by narrating this story in the second person referring to herself as “you”, as she first rebels and so loses her copy writing job, she is then forced to leave her hostel because she is too old, moving into Christine’s aunts lodgings and slowly poverty encroaches on her: 


Once a week you go shopping at a tiny supermarket as depressed in its appearance as you are. Leaving the yard you force a spring into your step in order to walk to like a woman with lots of dollar bills lying in the bottom of her bag inside the shop pretense suffocates you as though you were wearing a too tight corset. Completing your purchases you do not want to go out again because your bag bulges with budget pack plastic bottles smallest size sachets and minute boxes cooking oil, glycerin for you skin, candles for power allergies, matches, everything broadcasts your poverty.


Tambu cannot just go back home as her mother lives in a remote village in very difficult conditions. After an incident during a temporary teaching job, when she attacks one of her students, she is eventually rescued from a psychiatric clinic by Christine and one of Tambu’s aunts, both veteran fighters, and is taken to live with her cousin Nyasha. Through living with Nyasha, Tambu realises that life isn’t easy for other’s and gains in her own self esteem, feeling for the first time in her life “superior”.  Nyasha is married to “cousin brother-in-law”, a german and her stay in Europe and return has ill prepared her for Zimbabwe:


You have entered a new realm of impossibility, worse even than the discovery that your cousin has been placed on the slide to impoverishment in spite of her degrees in Europe. You had not believed there was such a thing on this earth as a European without means or money. Now in her reckless manner Nyasha has married one she has made him your relative.


Tambu, through a job in the tourist industry, eventually comes back to her native village, we understand something of the difficulties of her relationship with her mother but this return seems to bring something of the seeds of being able to accept herself and her life. This was a story of a delicate woman, we don’t know if she will find a “raison d’être”, but she is a survivor, an engrossing read.

First Published in English as “This Mournable Body” by Faber & Faber in 2020

Avni Doshi ‘Burnt Sugar’

“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Burnt Sugar”: In order of reading book number 4.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


I wonder how I will love Ma when she is at the end. How will I be able to look after her when the woman I know as my mother is no longer residing in her body? When she no longer has a complete consciousness of who she is and who I am, will it be possible for me to care for her the way I do now, or will I be negligent, the way we are with children who are not our own, or voiceless animals, or the mute, blind and deaf, believing we will get away with it, because decency is something we enact in public, with someone to witness and rate our actions, and if there is no fear of blame, what would the point of it be?


This book told by Antara is the conflictual story of her and her mother Tara in India, beginning in 1981 for Tara’s arranged marriage which Antara likens to a sactioned kidnapping. Each chapter represents a moment in their lives, told in two parts, the first part purtains to the moment in time chosen for the chapter, 1981 then 1986 and other dates, the second part of the chapter tells us of Antara and her husband Dilip and Antara’s relationship with her mother in the present day, advancing in the light of the newly revealed past.

As we learn later on in the book even her very name, given to free her has another effect:


My mother has a beautiful name. Tara. It means star, another name for the goddess Durga. Like Kali Mata. She named me Antara, intimacy, not because she loved the name but because she hated herself. She wanted her child’s life to be as different from hers as it could be. Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother. But in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other.


We learn early in the book tha Tara has Altzeimer’s and begins to lose her mind in her early fifties as illustrated in the opening quote, leaving Antara to worry about and look after both her mother and her grandmother. And this for a mother who ran away from her husband and his family to join a sect whilst Antara was still a young child, in the sect her mother became the latest lover and plaything of the Guru, leaving Antara to be looked after and brought up by Kali Mata, a previous favourite of the same Guru and seemingly not caring about her. then we move forward to learn something of her views on mother daughter relationships:


She continues talking about how difficult things were. These tales have been passed down from mothers to daughters since women had mouths and stories could be told. They contain some moral message, some rites of passage. But they also transfer that feeling all mothers know before their time is done. Guilt.


In this excellent emotionaly complex book there are of course hidden secrets and guilt as well as an ambiguous ending which is in tune with the story. And as for the title, well if you have a mother who due to illness has no restraint or notion of embarassment, well there’s an interesting secret, but of course it comes with a feeling of guilt.

This may be my favourite, the coming posts may confirm this. Buy it!

First Published in English as “Girl in White Cotton” by Fourth Estate in 2019

Douglas Stuart ‘Shuggie Bain’

Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Shuggie Bain”: In order of reading book number 1.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


I said to him well I’ve got two grown boys at home to feed an’ they cannae find any work either so what do you suggest I do about that? He looked at me and he didn’t even blink when he said try South Africa”. She closed the bag, “they’ve never even been to south Lanarkshire never mind South Africa”. She kept rubbing her red thumb. “It ain’t right, the government should do something, shutting down the iron works and the ship building, it’ll be the miners next you watch, South Africa, never! Go all the way to South Africa so that they can build cheap boats there and send them home to put more of our boys out of work, a shower of swine”.
“It’s diamonds” Shugg offered “they go to South Africa to mine diamonds”. The woman looked as if he had contradicted her.
“Well I don’t care what they mine they could be pulling liquorice out of a black man’s arse for all I care, they should be working here at home in Glasgow and eating their mammies cooking.”


Common themes in the selected books this year seem to be the relationship between generations and hardship, here Douglas Stuart takes us back to Glasgow between the seventies and eighties, a city hard hit by the closure of the traditional industries as illustrated in the opening quote between the taxi driver Shugg and a customer. The story seen through the eyes of Shuggie, the youngest son of Agnes and Sgugg. He plunges us into the life of the Bains familly which faced with poverty in Glasgow is blown apart by the mother, Agnes’s drink problem, which we visit in frightening everyday detail:


To Agnes Sue-Ellen Ewing was like her reflection but maybe in a fun house mirror she could relate to the alcoholic character and every time she was drunk on the screen Agnes would make a tutting noise and say to Leek “well that’s just like me isn’t it” then she would giggle through chocolaty false teeth. The fake glamour of Sue-Ellen’s tragedy made it look almost enviable. Agnes would tell the tv “it’s a disease you know” and “the poor lassie cannae help it”. Shuggie watched the actress tremble her bottom lip with fake emotion. The whole thing was a pile of lies, where was the head in the oven and the house full of gas? Where were the tears and the half dressed uncles and the sister who would never come home? The curtains lay open and the orange lights came on all over the scheme, Dallas finished and the street began to empty of wains.


The husband and father Shugg, a womaniser manages to get a council house to rent through a fiddle, the house is in a dessolate pit town just outside of Glasgow where there is no work and everyone seems to be related. Shugg drops them of at their new house and immediately leaves them not to come back. There is no way out, Agnes and Shuggie stand out. Agnes who no matter what her state dresses as if to go out, the drinking doesn’t particularly stand out. Shuggie who on arrival is in primary school, well he just isn’t like the other boys, he wishes he was but his favourite toys are long haired coloured ponies whose hair he can brush.

Agnes has a habit she has to feed and with thirtyfive pounds child support per week, after the drink there isn’t much left for eating, because of his age, Shuggie isn’t a completely reliable narrator, as he and we find out, first his eldest sister leaves home as soon as she can and moving to South Africa and never coming back, then his brother Leek leaves home as soon as he can after an argument with Agnes. Agnes is full of anger when she has been drinking and then turns to the phone to call and insult people, with the rapid change in mood when she wakes and the drink is worn off. The it is Shuggies turn, Shuggie who does everything to help his mother discovers that she can’t live with him or anyone in her house when he gets to fifteen years old and she throws him out, it was probably this way around for his brother.


He believed that if he could fill her every moment with noise then maybe she could stay away from the drink. He stood outside of the bathroom as she peed he told her of the pheasants that Danny tripped with sleeping pills he climbed into her cold bed at night and read non stop as she lay awake, when she could take no more Agnès filled him full of milk of magnesia and was relieved when he was loosened up enough to go back to class.


Douglas Stuart instills in us the way alcohol can tear people apart, the alcoholic and all of the people around them. Shuggie’s life is like Chinese water torture. This book is without hope.

First Published in English as “Shuggie Bain” by Picador in 2020

The Booker Prize – The Short List – Prognostics

This year, thanks to Corona the Booker prize will be discerned on the 19th of November, SO I’m going into prognostics “say it with data”.

I have one month left to finish reading the shortlist and to predict, foresee, guess the winner.

You will see it here first, I’m sure the Booker jury will copy me soon after so here goes!



Claudie Hunzinger ‘Les Grands Cerfs’


The economic impact for the Rhineland can be summarised as follows: 1 deer shot = 1260 euros saved for the timber industry.***


Years ago, Nils and Pamina, still students take the radical decision to move to the mountains and live on a high prairie cut of from the world in this book read for the Roman de Rochefort. Sure each year at set times they heard wild life noises and discovered their young trees had been massacred in the morning, but then Léo arrived, maybe an ex-military man, wanting to know if he can set up an observation post on their land and then for ten years not much happens.

Léo tells Pamina of the stags he observes and of which he takes photos, of Wow of Apollo, of Arador and of Geronimo. Léo who has observed these animals and knows them has given them names to personalise them. Slowly Pamina is pulled into the story until one day she gives in to a whim and goes to the observation point. She slowly learns that observing these animals is 99% waiting and 1 % observation, she is drawn in to Léo’s tales and marvels at these wonderful creatures. As she gets to know more about them, of their world, of their vocabulary, antlers, horns, velvet, moult and feels she knows them, of their life cycle, the animals begin to be shot, the wonderful Wow and the old clever Arador.

Claudie Hunziger renders their lives real to us, their growing antlers, shedding their velvet by impact with the trees, rubbing their antlers up against the trees to give them a finish, colour, rubbing up against a nut tree for instance to give an antler a gold colour. She tells us of the nights where they fight for ascendancy, of their mating and of then losing their antlers, their moult until the cycle begins in the spring. She tells us of their surviving the hunger of winter in the snow, eating tree bark.

Léo brings Pamina into contact with the forestry commission and the hunters who together “regulate” the “stock” of deer and learns of the future for the deer as shown in the opening quote from the representative of the commission. He explains to her that the forestry commission who regulate the livestock, auctioning of bracelets, the right to kill a deer, are only interested in the timber the forest produces:


He presented himself, what’s more, as a representative of the forestry commission responsible for implementing the national policy which is to ensure the regeneration of the forest and of its financial returns. That is to say to favour coniferous trees, silver firs, spice trees, Douglas firs, the woody species the most chewed by stags, eaten if you like……And that that required a population of deer reduced to a strict minimum.***


And of course what the hunters really want are the antlers, the stags are their real prey. Pamina lives this as her personal window onto the sixth great extinction which is now underway.

If you didn’t know about the life of stags before you read this, you certainly knew more afterwards. This was written passionately.

First Published in French as “Les grands cerfs” by Grasset in 2019
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

L’impact économique pour la Rhénanie Palatinat se résume ainsi: 1 chevreuil tiré = 1260 euros d’économie pour l’industrie forestière.

s’est d’ailleurs présenté comme un agent de l’ONF chargé d’appliquer la politique nationale qui est de veiller à la régénération des forêts et à leur rendement financier. C’est à dire de veiller à privilégier les conifères, sapins pectinés, épiceas, douglas, espèces ligneuses les plus “abrouties” par les cerfs, bouffées, quoi…. Et que ça passait par un peuplement de cervidés réduit au minimum

A Wave of Apathy

The coronavirus is an easy scapegoat, since the UK brought back the quarantine and France reciprocated, holiday plans were thrown into limbo, second wave and tuti quanti. Haven’t been able to see my parents, daughter and grandchildren for a year.

So yes a wave of apathy has submerged my blogging, but now I am resurfacing and should probably admit to myself that from time to time my output flags. So before I get hit by the second wave of apathy time to start again.

Are you ready…… Don’t all answer at once.

Iegor Gran ‘Competent Departments’

We should have neutralised Pasternak for good. Back in the good old days….the valiant Tcheka…the NKVD….I don’t understand why we put up with it.
What a dumb fool he is!
We have to be tactically astute, declares Pakhomov. We can’t just go in all guns blazing when the eyes of the world opinion are on you……the international interest of the foreign media have created an invisible protective dome around Pasternak.***


Iegor Gran takes us back in time to Moscow in the 1960’s and illustrates this schitzophrenic period by the true story of his parents and the five year hunt for his father by the eigth section of the KGB, responsible for anti-soviet propaganda.

This is a time, following Krouschev’s recognition of Stalin’s crimes, where we follow the life of lieutnant Evgueni Feodorovitch Ivanov as he tries to find out who is hiding behind the name of Adrien Tertz, a jewish name, and is publishing in the West, first in French and then in Russian. His writings criticising the Soviets are too precise and could only come from within the USSR. Tertz begins by quoting the union of Soviet writers:


Socialist realism is the fundamental method in soviet literature and in soviet literary criticism. It requires of the artist a true historically tangible representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Amongst other things it should contribute to the ideological transformation and of the education of workers in the spirit of socialism.***


Siniavski and the French diplomat that helps him get his works out of the USSR laid down at the beginning, the strategy that allowed him to write for so many years, a Jewish name, hints of links with both Poland and Lenningrad that had Ivanov well off track in his hunt.

The main choice of Iegor Gran to reverse the vision and to write the story not from his father’s point of view but from Ivanov’s liberates the author to show the contradictions from within, for instance Gagarin’s first space flight and his hero’s welcome contrasting with his reward being a state secret, if the West were to get their hands on the clothing list he was granted as a hero, they would understand the state of things for the Soviet Peoples, as Gran points out the list was signed in person by Krouschev:


Coat mid-season – 1 off
Light summer coat – 1 off
Raincoat – 1 off
Suits – 2 off (one light, one dark)
Shoes – 2 pairs (black and light)
Shirts white – 6 off
Hats – 2 off
Ties – 6 off
Gloves – 1 pair
Handkerchiefs – 12 off
Socks 6 pairs
Underpants, vests – 6 off
Electric razor – 1 off***


As Ivanov laments, if only they could have found Adrien Tertz quickly, the Soviet Union was in a state of constant flux following the death of Stalin, each change affecting the resources and morale of the KGB, Krouschev denounces Stalins crimes, Stalin’s body is removed from the mausoleum he shared with Lenin and buried secretly, Krouschev is “retired” and throughout all of this the eigth section is unable to find Tertz. Meanwhile Siniavski knows he will be caught, sometime, he just doesn’t know when as months turn into years.

Iegor Gran then through his narrator tells us of the french and Italian, communist parties, the hope of whose victories kept the KGB hardliners in check, of the Nobel literature prize for Pasternack for the Dr. Zhivago that was forbidden in the USSR, as illustrated in the opening quote, of the eigth section often finding illegal copies on raids of the intelligentsia.

I particularly liked the raid on Siniavski’s house when his mother after years of preparation was more than a match for the officers, telling them when they revealed that her husband was in the Lubyanka of her relief to find out that he wasn’t with another woman. And of course when she quickly places her young baby, Iegor Gran, in Ivanov’s hands before he could avoid it.

He gives a sense of the time in history to the story and brings Ivanov to life as a complex character. Their very hunt for Tertz and his imprisonment bring the light of the western media on an otherwise little read author. This is an engaging book that will do well and would deserve a translation.

First Published in French as “Les services conpétents” by P.O.L in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

On aurait dû neutralisé Pasternak définitivement. Au bon vieux temps… La valeureuse Tchéka… Le NKVD…Je ne comprends pas pourquoi on tolère.
Quelle brute épaisse, celui-là!
Il faut être tactiquement astucieux, affirme Pakhomov. On ne peut pas y aller à la hache quand les yeux de l’opinion internationale sont braqués sur vous…….l’attention des médias étrangers à créer autour de W Pasternak un dôme de protection invisible.

Le réalisme socialiste est la méthode fondamentale de la littérature et la la critique littéraire soviétiques. Il exige de l’artiste une représentation véridique, historiquement concrète, de la réalité dans son développement révolutionnaire. En outre, il doit contribuer à la transformation idéologique et à l’éducation des travailleurs dans l’esprit du socialisme.

Manteau demi-saison – 1 unité
Manteau léger d’été – 1 unité
Imperméable – 1 unité
Costume – 2 unités (un clair, un sombre).
Chaussures – 2 paires (noires et claires).
Chemise blanche – 6 unités.
Chapeau – 2 unités.
Cravate – 6 unités
Gants – 1 paire.
Mouchoir – 12 unités.
Chaussettes – 6 paires.
Slip, maillot de corps – 6 paires
Rasoire électrique – 1 unité

Liz Moore ‘Long Bright River’

The first time I found my sister dead, she was sixteen. It was the summer of 2002. Forty-eight hours earlier, on a Friday afternoon, she’d left school with her friends, telling me she’d be back by evening.
She wasn’t.


In the Long Bright River Liz Moore gives us a woman’s take on policing in a run down area of Phiadelphia.
Michaela, known as Mickey has patrolled Kensington, near the river Delaware, a area she was brought up in, over the last thirteen years and watched it slide through the devastation of drugs to a point where the main transactions are either narcotic or drug related, life expectency is short:


Thirteen years ago, when I first started, it happened a few times a year: we’d get a report that someone had fatally overdosed, had been deceased so long that medical intervention was unnecessary. More common were calls about overdoses in progress, and typically those individuals could be revived.


Mickey’s last partner is on sick leave due to an incident that leaves her feeling guilty and she is paired with Lafferty and tries to get him interested, to no avail, in the lives of the people in the area she patrols, her ex-schoolfriend Paula Mulroney who works a corner with Kacey, Mickey’s sister. Kacey hasn’t been seen for a while as a serial killer begins operating on their patch. Mickey is more of a doer then a talker and is comfortable with silence, not to be with Lafferty:

Facts I have learned about Eddie Lafferty in the first hour of our acquaintance: He is forty-three, which makes him eleven years my senior. A late entrant into the PPD. He worked construction until last year, when he took the test. (My back, says Eddie Lafferty. It still bothers me sometimes. Don’t tell anyone.) He’s just rolled off his field training. He has three ex-wives and three almost-grown children. He has a home in the Poconos. He lifts. (I’m a gym rat, says Eddie Lafferty.) He has GERD. Occasionally, he suffers from constipation. He grew up in South Philadelphia and now lives in Mayfair. He splits Eagles season tickets with six friends. His most recent ex-wife was in her twenties. (Maybe that was the problem, says Lafferty, her being immature.) He golfs. He has two rescued pit mixes named Jimbo and Jennie. He played baseball in high school. One of his teammates then was, in fact, our platoon’s sergeant, Kevin Ahearn, and it was Sergeant Ahearn who suggested he consider police work. (Something about this makes sense to me.) Facts Eddie Lafferty has learned about me in the first hour of our acquaintance: I like pistachio ice cream.

The book, veering between then and now, brings us up to date on Mickey and her life, she is saved from her sister’s fate when in her early teens, by a local police after-school initiative, the Police Athletic League. Already back then her younger sister Kacey, more street wise, sees through the officer who takes her under his wing, officer Cleare, a married man, with whom she ends up pregnant.

Liz Moore keeps us following this story through the earnest character of Michaela, juggling between her job and her child, as the deaths pile up, as danger comes close to home and as suspicion points to an unidentified police officer.

This story pulled me in through the refreshing writing of Liz Moore.

First Published in English as “Long Bright River” by Hutchinson in 2020

Joyce Carol Oates ‘A Book of American Martyrs’


Terence Mitchell who’s 29, a former US marine and a member of the catholic right to life organisation, The Lambs of Christ, had spent many hours in prayer before driving to the abortion clinic in Travers City with a double barrelled shotgun. After the shooting of the abortion doctor he made no attempt to escape from the police but surrendered his weapon and made a full confession to authorities


Joyce Carol Oates has taken on a huge work here, to try to render the right to abortion debate readable. In this piece of fiction set in the 1990’s and the aftermath of events she attempts to get up close to both sides of this divide, deep diving into the characters and events portrayed as Luther Dumphy early one morning, turns up at the Broom county women’s centre, follows doctor Guss Vorhees’ car in through the gate and turns his shotgun on Vorhees and his police driver killing both. She uses multiple first person narratives taking us into the minds of the protagonists, their lives and the events that lead them to this point. She begins with Luther Dumphy, who after a “strict” upbringing turns into a wild unreliable youth until he discovers religion at his wive’s church, The Saint Paul missionary church of Jesus, leading to his wish to become a preacher.

We follow his indoctrination process as we discover the background to the “debate” that isn’t one in the mid-west. One day a trip is organised by their church to see a professor Wohlman, an ex-Jesuit who finishes his presentation with the following declaration:


We the undersigned declare a state of war in the struggle to defend innocent human life. We declare our allegiance to the word of Jesus and not the law of man. We declare that we will not shrink from taking all earthly action required to defend innocent human life including the use of force. We declare that whatever force is necessary to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child. We declare that the martyrs Michael Griffin, Lionel Green, Terence Mitchell though they may have broken the law of the state have not broken the law of God though they have shot abortion providers who were about to commit the terrible act of fetuscide they are not guilty of murder but of intervening in the premeditated murder, that is to say that these courageous men committed acts of defence against murderers not to save their own lives but the lives of unborn children therefore their use of lethal force was justified.


Dumphy, who’s daughter had been killed in a road accident as he was driving, is portrayed as a sincere, fragile and easily manipulated person, just enough as to almost feel a certain understanding for him.

Vorhees is investigated mostly through the people around him, his wife and daughter rather than through himself, he was a staunch, even radical defender of women’s rights, at great danger to himself, he chose to work in medical centres where, through fear, no one else was prepared to work. Oates tells us of the Right for Life organisation’s published league tables where the higher up the table the doctors find themselves, the more likely they are to be assassinated, exactly because of these tables, and the pressure put on the law by declaring the perpetrators martyrs. His daughter learns more about him posthumously through interviews she carries out:


Interviews: Was it known to you that your father was a crusader for abortion rights? Did you know as children what abortion rights meant? Did you know that your father performed abortions? Did you know that your father had many enemies? Did you know that your father was considered difficult even by those that were his allies? Have you read your father’s published writings, his famous controversial address to the national women’s leadership conference 1987 in Washington DC? Are you familiar with that? “There cannot be a free democracy in which one sex is shackled to biological destiny”. Are you familiar with this much reiterated remark of doctor Guss Voorhees? Do you or have you ever felt as a girl that you are shackled to biological destiny or did you inherit a strong feminist identity from your parents?


No subject such as this where there is so much hatred, where the two sides cannot talk to each other can exist without hypocrisy, and here there are ladles of it, on Vorhees’ side where in fighting for the freedom of women he essentially takes away the freedom of his family. On the “pro life” side, the following quote goes deep into public relations denials to a case of clear support:


Though our church is staunchly pro life and opposed to abortion in any way shape or form as a legally sanctioned slaughter of the innocents in the United States at the present time. We do not and we have not ever condoned violence against the practitioners of abortion and those associated with them we do not condone violations of state and federal law and we do not excuse those who commit such violations despite of our sympathy for their moral convictions it is a profound step from believing that abortion is state sanctified murder to believing that an individual has the right to assassinate an abortion murderer. The Saint Paul missionary church of Jesusis adamantly opposed to such an act and is in no way associated with the practitioner of such an act. Though I remain in contact with Luther Dumphy currently incarcerated at Chillicothe correctional facility, Chillicothe Ohio. I am not in a position to provide any sort of information about him or to convey remarks made by him to any third party or to the media it is true I am involved in the Luther Dumfy defence fund which welcomes donations to aid in Luther’s appeal to the Ohio State Supreme Court, cheques money orders cash as little as a few dollars as much as several hundred or thousand all are welcome and greatly applicable in the name of Jesus.


As a European, I have trouble understanding this “debate”, but Oates ends with some hope, through the two men’s daughters, that future generations could grow to understand each other.

This is a must read.

First Published in English as “A Book of American Martyrs” by Fourth Estate in 2017
Translated into French by Claude Seban and published by Philippe Rey as “Un livre de martyrs américains” in 2019