1. “Never Anyone But You” by Rupert Thomson
Based on actual historical characters, “Never Anyone But You” is narrated by Marcel Moore. Published in June 2018, Thomson sets his eye on the biographies of two pioneering female French surrealists to create a moving fiction that navigates same-sex love and self-transformation in a time when women’s voices were just starting to be heard.
Set in the early twentieth century in western France, the narrator, born as Suzanne Malherbe, is a shy 17-year-old who changes her name to Marcel in honor of Marcel Schwob — an avant-garde writer — who was a favorite uncle of Moore’s female lover. Moore becomes entranced by the young and troubled Lucie Schwob, who is death-obsessed and poignantly exposed to her own mother’s insanity. Simultaneously, Lucie transforms herself into the androgynous Claude Cahun. Embarking on a surreptitious love affair, they remain undetected because of their relationship as stepsisters. This timely cover was due to the fact Moore’s mother marries Cahun’s recently divorced father.
To escape an overly patriarchal society, they move to Paris in order to not be ruled by provincial conventions. Cahun emerges as an artistic pioneer through gender-challenging self-portraits, winning her a spot in the glamorous social circles of André Breton and Salvador Dalí. She tackled the confining gender conventions through her style, shaving off her hair, passing as a young man in public and posing for more flamboyant portraits.
Often, her self-portraits featured her looking directly at the viewer, focusing solely on the head and shoulders — eliminating the rest of the body from view. This blurring of gender indicators enables Cahun to undermine the patriarchal gaze and distort the notions of sexuality and gender.
Cahun and Moore share the sentiments of the surrealist movement, the rejection of family and religion, having the same “determination to re-enchant a disenchanted world,” yet never officially join the movement. They are able to find brief bliss: “and Eden with two Eves, no Adam.”
The novel transitions to tackle the idealism with the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands. The horrors of slave labor that is utilized to fortify Jersey shock Cahun and Moore into conducting a heroic, albeit naive, propaganda crusade. The aim was to target the hearts and minds of the occupying enemy. They worked to undermine what they staunchly believed to be “a questionable fidelity” to Hitler by the average German soldier.
“Never Anyone But You” is a breath of fresh air from the traditional literary canon, a love story that breaks norms and reminds the readers to be true to themselves. -Lauren Souza
2. “Vox” by Christina Dalcher
With the rise of feminist speculative novels, “Vox” by Christina Dalcher is the latest addition to a terrifying dystopia where rights have been stripped away. All women and girls in America are limited to 100 spoken words a day, having been fitted with a metal bracelet that will electrically shock them if exceeded.
Books are locked up, pens and paper are forbidden and any type of gestures are punishable. The shock is relatively mild for first-time infractions yet becomes more intense later on. The women who campaigned against this situation or committed other offenses against these archaic gender-based laws were forced to become slave laborers in sparsely populated states.
The rest of women have lost their jobs, leaving Dr. Jean McClellan — the protagonist — a researcher in neurolinguistics stuck at home in the kitchen. Her research led her to almost developing a serum to reverse Wernicke’s aphasia, a trauma-induced condition that causes people to speak only random words in a nonsensical order. Now, Jean is reduced to a stay-at-home wife of four children, who must spend most of her time in complete silence.
The situation that Jean faces is awful, and she recognizes her own contribution to this totalitarianism society. She partially blames herself and recalls, “my fault started two decades ago, the first time I didn’t vote … was too busy to go on [a march].” When her best friend Jackie was campaigning on women’s issues, Jean stayed home studying.
She has an overall fear for her family, specifically her 6-year-old daughter Sonia, who also wears a counter. She is too young to have fully developed language skills, and with only speaking 100 words a day, she will never do so. At school she is taught to sew, cook and “a bit of addition and subtraction, telling time, making change. Counting of course. They would learn counting first. All the way up to one hundred.”
While women are the main victims, “Vox” demonstrates that everyone eventually becomes a secondary victim pushed into cruel circumstances in this totalitarian regime that enforces self-censoring. Jean’s husband is sympathetic to her plight but is unwilling to speak up for fear of losing his job. Without words, everyone is limited.
The novel shifts to a thriller style when Jean is sent back to work to finally produce her serum due to the president’s brother developing aphasia, which gives her the reprieve to speak. Will she use this as an advantage to dismantle this new system of power that places women at the bottom? Jean will fight to reclaim the voices for all women. This novel is a strikingly relevant story that will terrify everyone but inspire to fight for one’s rights. -Lauren Souza
3. “Feel Free” by Zadie Smith
“Feel Free” is a collection of essays by British writer Zadie Smith. Smith’s debut novel, “White Teeth,” was an international success, launching her to literary fame at the age of 25. In addition to publishing a number of novels and short stories, Smith has also written nonfiction essays, many of which are featured in “Feel Free.” For fans of Smith’s characteristic wit and insight, her newest publication will be anything but a disappointment.
As the title suggests, the essays cover a wide range of topics all unified by a singular theme: freedom and its pursuit. Smith offers her thoughts and observations on multiple facets of contemporary culture, from Facebook to Brexit, while intertwining philosophical and historical influences as well. Her arguments are intelligent and often profound, leading readers to consider issues in a fresh way.
Some of the best portions of the book are when Smith delves into her own personal experiences. For example, in her essay “Love in the Gardens,” she reminisces of a trip to Italy with her father. In “Getting in and Out,” she discusses what it means to be biracial in today’s society and critiques trends in perception of race through an examination of Jordan Peele’s 2017 film “Get Out.”
Whether one chooses to read through this collection in one continuous session or pick and choose from the essays, there is no wrong way to read “Feel Free.” Readers, writers and fans of contemporary culture alike will appreciate the insight that Smith offers. Her essays are rooted in fact but enlivened with personal touches; they’re understated, astute and will leave readers wanting to read more. With “Feel Free,” Zadie Smith has yet again shown her remarkable abilities as a writer. -Madeline Peterson