Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger
Shelf Worth: 4/5
It's a lot easier to write eloquently about books you don't like, than books you really do. Perhaps if you imagine me pointing at Eat My Heart Out, making wild gestures and nodding with my eyes wide open? Or maybe I could draw a picture? I haven't been this repulsed, outraged and enchanted by a book in years.
Ann-Marie, 23, is an arresting and arrestable girl who is living with her closeted ex-Etonian friend Freddie after flunking her finals at Cambridge. Freddie aspires to be a film artist. Ann-Marie is in the middle of a mental breakdown after Sebastian, her artist boyfriend since school, disappears with her nemesis Allegra. Ann-Marie fixates on an unimpressive man called Vic and convinces herself she's in love with him, before falling into the path of ghastly celebrity feminist Stephanie Haight who decides to rescue Ann-Marie from herself by making her confront her femininity through a series of increasingly ludicrous stunts.
God, it sounds rubbish, doesn't it? It is in fact, brilliant. I haven't been so utterly captivated by a book in ages. I couldn't predict what Ann-Marie would do next, or what gorgeous, wry phrase Zoe Pilger would use, and while all the characters are completely awful, it didn't put me off in the way that Edward St Aubyn managed to do so thoroughly.
Pilger, an arts critic at the Independent, takes what could be a depressingly earnest treatise of mental breakdowns in hipster, hyper-intelligent graduates, and turns it into a witty, waspish and completely OTT pastiche of the modern world. From terrible Little Mermaid-themed raves in Hackney peanut factories, to even worse poetry and art, Pilger manages to pastiche hipster art life by creating it rather than illustrating it.
Every sentence is in its place, every twist takes you along with it in a great whoosh comparable to Angela Carter's brilliant Wise Children. Pilger has a wonderfully relaxed style that doesn't worry about whether you, the reader, are enjoying yourself and would you like your cushions plumped and is everything to your liking? There are so many bon-mots and beautifully tart phrases, but each link to the next bit and the one before that if you pull them out, they wither and die. Just read it. You'll zip through it in a couple of bus rides and feel like you've gone on a demented, completely fantastic ride.
Reassuringly for a book that rings many Martin Amis bells (and Fay Weldon ones too), there is no random bleakness or cruelty thrown in to punish Ann-Marie for her decisions or her madness. Rather, she bounces back from everything like an invincible Swiss ball. It helps that everyone in Ann-Marie's world is filled with the confidence that comes from being terribly posh. When Vic finally succumbs to Ann-Marie's spell, he bleats that he wants to be a bohemian. Ann-Marie's contempt is glorious - suddenly, she feels like a normal, self-involved 20-something rather than someone people want to save or flee.
Ann-Marie's ride is a complete riot and this would get a shelf rating of 5 if the last chapters didn't fizzle out.
I've also been reading...
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
I knew nothing about this before I bought it off Audible in January to listen to while running. It's a compelling imagining of the lives of Sara and Angelina Grimké, two real-life sisters in slavery-era America. What makes it particularly compelling is the relationship between the elder sister, Sara, and her slave girl Hetty. The Grimkés would grow up to be abolitionists.
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer
This year's Costa winner failed to impress for its entire first half - I know because every time I finished a chapter I checked to see how much I had left on my Kindle. Things pick up in the second when Filer gets a zippier pace going and stops faffing around trying to be clever and play with the reader's expectations. My expectations were of a good, gripping book, and eventually I got that. Eventually.