There’s been quite a bit of debate lately about unlikeable characters – especially female characters. [As an aside, if men are boring, middle-aged, navel-gazing and tend to drone on about every little twinge and stirring of desire, that’s literary. Or so it seems at times.] Readers love to hate the main protagonists in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Personally, I don’t need to like a character to find their story compelling – and if it makes for uncomfortable reading, it’s surely because we can catch in them glimpses of our innermost selves, all those things we dare not admit. Let him/her who is truly flawless cast the first stone!
So I prefer to call the women in the three books that I’ve recently read ‘quirky’ rather than unlikeable. I probably wouldn’t want any of them as my best friend (at least not as they currently behave during the course of the book), but guess what? My best friends would probably make for rather dull reading.
When Anna Buck’s son Daniel disappears one day, she blames her husband for leaving the front door open and very nearly loses her mind polishing the five little footprints he had left in the wet cement they day he went missing. She clutches at straws and – although initially sceptic about it – she consults a psychic (a shut eye) in an attempt to find out what happened. This psychic is also part of a police investigation into another, older missing child, an investigation which still haunts DCI Marvel and which he refuses to relinquish.
I did find Anna’s grief and anger a bit hard to read about – plausible, well written, but just emotionally draining. I have to admit that the ‘medium’ elements did not work well for me and the police seemed oddly incompetent or blind to things. So I was a bit on the fence about this book. Belinda Bauer is an excellent writer and I’ve enjoyed her previous books very much – she always has a chilling dark side. As a portrayal of bereavement and how grief drives to you obsession and madness, I found it very compelling, but as crime fiction – not so much.
This is the story of a friendship gone very badly wrong. Wild child Krissie and picture-perfect Sarah have been best friends since childhood. Sarah is respectably married and trying desperately to conceive, while Krissie still dabbles in alcohol, weed and carefree one-night stands. But their friendship suffers a bit of a setback when Krissie accidentally becomes pregnant and then displays a bit of a haphazard attitude to looking after her baby (fuelled in part by post-natal depression). A walking holiday is supposed to bolster up old friendships, but turns instead to betrayal and violence.
Krissie is the main narrator and she often acts thoughtlessly and selfishly. Yet her voice is utterly unforgettable: razor-sharp, unsentimental, very funny and often a complete bitch. There are of course some reasons behind her frankly quite foolish behaviour at times, there are times of poignant lack of self-awareness (about her depression, for instance) and you really will her to succeed. The ending might be over-the-top, some of the description will make even hardened readers queasy – but it is Fitzgerald’s debut novel (she admits herself that ‘she had no idea what she was doing at the time’). A cracker of an outing for a strong fictional voice!
A. M. Bakalar: Madame Mephisto
I’m very proud that I managed to squeeze in a second book for Stu Jallen’s East European Literature Month. This time it’s a Polish author, with sharp and often very witty observations about the differences between Poland and the UK.
Magda is a recent immigrant from Poland who works in a variety of office jobs in London. Her descriptions of asinine corporate life and HR interventions make for great satire, but in fact all of these jobs are nothing more than a cover for Magda’s real career: building a cannabis-growing and dealing empire. Her family back in Poland worry incessantly about her apparent aimlessness, but she knows very well what she is up to. In spite of that, she often acts impulsively, and the author has rendered this divide by using first person for the practical strategist and third person for the angry bitch. It’s a device that doesn’t always work for me, but I did enjoy the sullen, rebellious voice of the main character and the way she tries to protect her family from her shadier dealings.
Some Polish readers have commented that the author is a little too unkind with her depiction of Polish prejudices and religious mindset, but that is typical of recent immigrants. A love/hate relationship develops with the home country. There is so much you are glad to have left behind, you feel alienated from your own culture, so you become hyper-critical of all that you are trying to differentiate yourself from. However, you begin to realise that you never quite fit into your adopted culture either. Magda is told that she is not getting jobs because she doesn’t smile, she is not ‘positive enough’ in the workplace, she refuses to play the silly team building games and speaks her mind too clearly for British politeness. Cultural contrasts and misunderstandings are subjects very dear to my heart, so I enjoyed that aspect of the book immensely.
This book fulfills many of my obligations, not just as an entry to the East European Literature Month canon, (but NOT for #translationthurs, as the author wrote this book in English), part of my TBR Double Dare Challenge (it’s been sitting on my tablet for a while) and for my second European entry for the Global Reading Challenge.
30 thoughts on “Recently Read: Three Quirky Women in Fiction”
I do not characters to be likeable, but they do need to be interesting. I just finished reading The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky for the IFFP shadow jury. Inge, the bitter biology teacher at the heart of this intriguing read does not have much time for anyone, perhaps to her own great emotional loss. The resulting novel is darkly humurous and yet filled with beautiful drawings. Quite an unusual, and I think, engaging read. Set in GDR, originally in German (the author was born in east Berlin), it might qualify for your eastern European goals too. 🙂
Thank you for your recommendation. When I saw the IFFP list, I couldn’t resist this particular one and have ordered it from Germany, together with Tiger Milk. And yes, I agree with you: interesting trumps likeability in fiction!
I came across Helen Fitzgerald through her book ‘Bloody Women’ and the main character in that is also a challenge to like, though, in the end, I got caught up in the book and would recommend it. People have said one of the main characters in my novel ‘The Art of the Imperfect’ – a woman – is hard to like. She has depression and is very self-critical and has a very bleak out-look (I based her on my own experiences of depression). Some people said they found her ‘hard to warm to’ while others reported ‘rooting for her’. I think it’s about representing as far as I can the reality of an experience within the fictional context and none of us are lovely through and through.
Exactly! Dare I suggest that perhaps we all have a rather inflated opinion not of ourselves, but of how we’d react under some circumstances? We all think we’d make better choices, not be so foolhardy, recognise if we are falling into depression and ask for help… etc. etc. But the point is that none of us know how we would really be until we are i that situation. Plus, if everyone were to behave so super well-adapted and wise, a lot of fiction would become very bland indeed!
I think humans are a bit like icebergs, there’s the tip which we show to the world and then there’s an awful lot going on underneath, some of which we are not entirely aware of either. Thanks for a great post Marina.
I like your opening paragraph, Marina. Likeable characters are a bit like happy relationships: one hopes for them in real life but they don’t make particularly interesting fiction.
That sounds like a book that Tolstoy might have written, Susan! I suppose they do have to be believable though, not so excessively foolish that we cannot relate to them at all.
You are absolutely right, Marina Sofia. We don’t at all need to like characters to find them interesting and/or to want to read more about them. And it’s true, we often feel uncomfortable when we get annoyed by characters who have very similar traits to us. The literary mirror doesn’t always present an attractive reflection…
I tend to see traits of myself (especially flaws) in all the main characters, yes, even boring middle-aged men bemoaning their lack of sex-appeal…
Helen Fitzgerald is one of my fave authors – her “Bloody Women” is very good. Thanks for the other picks!
I was told that my writing style is similar to her earlier work, so I had to read her debut novel to see if that is true. I don’t think it is (luckily for her, unluckily for me), but I will continue with ‘Bloody Women’ – several people have now recommended it o me.
It’s always interesting when people liken your style to another writer’s isn’t it… I was just talking to a friend about her yesterday, how she makes a lot happen very quickly, yet still gives us such clearly drawn characters. I’ve got her new one, “No Exit” waiting for me on my Kindle as we speak…
Oh, and I’ve downloaded the Polish book too, as your description intrigued me…
Love your opening paragraphs, Marina. I think I’m with you on this: characters don’t have to be likable, but they need to be compelling. There has to be some sort of emotional hook for me to latch onto.
I’m not familiar with the work of any of these three writers, but Madame Mephisto (great name) sounds quite a find.
I’m not sure British (or HR) people will like the book very much, as she doesn’t mince her words about the things she finds ‘fake’ and ‘annoying’ about life in the UK. Mind you, she is equally if not even more critical about life in Poland, and I recognise that all so well from my immigrant friends.
Having said that, you should hear the English-speaking expat community over here moaning about the Swiss and the French…
Ha! I must say I’d rather read about a boring middle-aged woman than man – marginally! I’ve reached the stage almost of banning any male ‘literary’ author over the age of 50 from the TBR… 😉
I did like Anna, though, in the Bauer book – though in this case I liked her husband more. I seem to be going against the consensus on this one – I found the psychic element tolerable because I enjoy Bauer’s writing style so much. I’d have hated it in a book by almost any other author, I suspect.
Ah, so you do like male characters as well, as in the case of Anna’s husband… I liked him too, and of course the detective, with all his flaws.
Really thoughtful reviews, and I totally agree that characters don’t need to be likeable – they just need to be human.
And it’s our faults that make us human, right? Thank you for your comment, Jo.
Quirky characters of either sex are my thing!
I like Madga “Magda is told that she is not getting jobs because she doesn’t smile, she is not ‘positive enough’ in the workplace, she refuses to play the silly team building games and speaks her mind too clearly for British politeness.” Dear, that’s the hard part of imported Anglo-Saxon corporate culture. It doesn’t work well in France, people are too cynical.
And I once worked for an American company with their ‘ra-ra-ra’ cheerleading style – that didn’t work well even in the UK!
Imagine with blasé French employees!
I completely agree that unlikeable characters are often guilty of displaying traits readers would rather not admit they have! Too true! I love them for that very reason. These sound like three intriguing novels, though the last one perhaps tempts me the most. It’s great to read reviews of books that I’ve never heard of before!
I am totally in agreement with your review of The Shut Eye, I really enjoy Belinda Bauer’s previous books but this one didn’t work quite as well for me. I’m a huge Helen FitzGerald fan but I haven’t read this debut yet…
I like the sound of Madame Mephisto. I’ve a couple of Helen FitzGerald’s books on my Kindle, but not this one. I kind of wondered why they were friends, seeing as they are SO different?