Before I go to sleep, I stare at the ceiling. I want to calm down, but my mind is up, up, up.
I’ve got the itch.
I’m manic with adrenaline.
Pregnant with possibility.
Sleep brings me no solace: the visions go with me, as real as the beat of my heart, and I wake up in those terrible night terror-induced sweats.
After years of stillness, I’m eager to go. I don’t want to wait. I don’t want to talk about getting round to it someday because I’m anxious that someday might not come.
It’s not a given. Nothing is.
I spend the days fantasising about the opportunities that tomorrow could bring. I see myself stronger, leaner, faster, taller. I see myself successful and ambitious, but content and grateful. I see a place that is my own, where I govern myself and myself only. It’s a cosy and comfortable space. It’s not much, but it’s home to me. It’s the place I feel safe.
It’s a home, not a house, filled with patchwork furniture dotted around the living room and framed photos of those uni mishaps, awkward family photoshoots and pixelated selfies at a festival on the walls. It’s the stack of bequeathed vinyls, yet to be sorted through, and a record player poised on the shelving unit, no sign of dust: ready to play. It’s the coffee machine finally unboxed and perched on the kitchen unit where it belongs. It’s the lived-in office room, desk littered with paper and shadows cast on the wall by tilting bookshelves, spines of all varieties spilling over the edges. It’s the faint aroma of incense sticks that are so constantly burned that their musk is practically embedded in the walls. It’s the silence in the mornings as coffees are sipped on the breakfast counter, interrupted only by audible yawns and the creak of dry eyes as the sleep is rubbed away to reveal the world anew. It’s the night-light aglow as the hypnotherapy tape plays aloud and lures me into sleep.
I’ve grown attached to the ideas of what could be. But that’s all they are for now: ideas. And that’s what really gives me the itch.
Until I act to make these fantasies real, they’re about as valid as the Tory government. I want to act instead of talking, talking, talking and never seeing these talks into fruition. I’m desperate to manifest it all before the energy is all gone and I’m completely deflated again.
I want to carve out an existence for myself, the kind I can grow to be proud of. I want to look myself in the mirror and know that I saw and I conquered, or at least I tried.
I want to get out and see the world. I’ve genuinely forgotten what it feels like, to adventure beyond the perimeters of safety and routine. The same faces and the same places make for a stagnating mind.
I want to reconnect with the friends from my old life, the pre-illness life where I was independent and capable as my own person.
I want to drown out the constant chatter of UNWORTHY INCOMPETENT NOT ENOUGH TOO-SENSITIVE. I want to be formidable and fierce, a real force to be reckoned with. I want to be.
There’s no plot, as such, with this one. It’s more Samantha Ellis‘ quest to determine which of her childhood literary heroines live up to their status when re-read years later. She talks us through some of her favourites and, with a retrospective view, dissects problematic aspects of the women we hail as heroines. After all, the heroines we idolise as children don’t often stay with us to adulthood because we outgrow them. Ellis discusses the influence of the authors and their tribulations upon their fictional characters, as well as relevant cultural discourse at the time of publication.
Things I like about the novel:
Writing style: succinct, comedic, poetic at times. It slightly felt like reading somebody’s PHD thesis, though it was accessible and never ‘lost’ me, despite my lack of familiarity with some of the texts. Overall, reading this book felt like being at a cafe with a cappuccino in-hand and sitting across from a fellow bookworm, losing hours of time over a good gab on our favourites.
Little snippets of Ellis’ cultural background sneak into the book. There’s stories of growing up in a Iraqi-Jewish household with conservative cultural beliefs and expectations. In between the discussion of literature, I really enjoyed Ellis’ account of how the books impacted her life decisions and perspectives, particularly her earlier relationships. I definitely relate to the romantic notion of seeking out fictional ideas of fictional men when it comes to relationships. I could blame authors for distorting my worldview of men, but at the end of the day, we all need a bit of escapism. Sometimes it’s it’s nice to fantasise about those mysteriously enigmatic and brooding men who swoop in at all the right times and say all the right things. However, I’ve learned that, in reality, chasing archetypes of the Byronic bad-boy and sensitive romantic aren’t worth it. Real people are so much messier and problematic than fictional figures. Part of me really likes that, actually.
Admittedly, I haven’t read all the titles featured, so some sections were a little lost on me in that I lost the impact I would inevitably have felt if I was more acquainted with the characters and narrative arcs. That being said, Ellis does a brilliant job of summarising the key elements of the novels so that you don’t feel completely in the dark. Also, her passion for literature absolutely shines from the outset till the end.
This book is a lovely ode to heroic wordsmiths who have provided the world with the light of these iconic protagonists. It says a lot that these heroines have lived on for hundreds of years, in some cases, through faithful readers and word-of-mouth. Ellis’ book is a firm reminder that we still turn to our creature comforts despite our busy lifestyles, re-reading classics like Wuthering Heights on the bus to work or tuning in for the latest remake of Emma. This is because, despite our differences, there are admirable and strong traits to be noted in these iconic literary heroines and they continue to inspire us to this day.
Today I finished a Stephen King classic: The Green Mile. I was ugly crying by the end, you know, delivering a full “Kim K sob” moment to the audience of my unimpressed teenage sister. I expected greatness, naturally. However, I hadn’t expected that I would be so immersed and emotionally involved, especially having seen the film a number of times. It turns out that great stories continue to hold a great power over their readers, no matter how many times they’ve read those pages or watched those films.
So, what’s the story?
Protagonist Paul Edgecombe is an elderly man living in a residential home. He spends his mornings going for mysterious walks into the woods, his days writing solitarily in the sunroom and his insomnia-riddled nights watching TV in the “resource center”. The subject of his writing is his earlier years, which were spent serving as a supervisory prison guard on Block E of Cold Mountain Penitentiary death row. This block is also known as “The Green Mile”, on account of the fact that the block features a green strip that leads directly from the bars of the jail cells all the way through to the room that hosts the electric chair, nicknamed Ol’ Sparky.
The main year of interest in his memoirs is 1932: the year that saw Block E populated by the likes of Delacroix, John Coffey and Wild Bill. Delacroix is a French-speaking, balding arsonist, rapist and murderer. Wild Bill is a sociopathic wild card and John Coffey, like the drink only not spelled the same, is a gentle-mannered giant who was found with the bodies of two bloodied and desecrated young girls in his arms.
A series of strange events take place in 1932. There’s the pernicious UTI festering in Edgecombe’s loins, a prison guard with a penchant for meanness, mice miraculously resurrected from almost-death and eventful executions that have the room smelling of burned flesh for the rest of time. 1932: this was a year that irrevocably changed Edgecombe’s life. Above all, 1932 was the year that cemented the legacy of John Coffey, the mysteriously vacant and supernatural inmate who changed the lives of all those around him.
Things I like about the novel:
I really enjoyed the format in which the novel is written. There’s obviously two timelines: Edgecombe’s present and the events of 1932. Both seamlessly weave in and out of each other, with Edgecombe slowly becoming more saturated in his memories as the novel goes on. Apparently, the novel was initially released in small paperback sections and then merged together into one due to demand from King’s faithful readers. This could explain the slight repetition among chapters, but even then, this never seemed to disrupt the flow of the narrative. Rather, it added a little quirk to Edgecombe’s account as he was flitting between present and past.
Another thing I loved was how there were whole chunks of narration, speech and imagery that came alive as I read and I realised that the movie had utilised a lot of the written material, with only a few deviations along the way. The movie, released in 1999, was ridiculously faithful to the book. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but picture the characters as they had been cast. Perhaps the greatest of all casting choices was that of John Coffey: Michael Clarke Duncan’s performance gained him a series of nominations for prestigious awards such as an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture. While reading, it honestly felt as if King had written the entire part with only Duncan in mind.
Once again, King has worked his magic with the supporting cast so that even the most minor of the characters are fleshed out with such detail that they become as integral to the narrative as the core protagonists themselves. Nobody’s neglected, even Ol’ Sparky, Mr Jingles and Toot-Toot are given their time to shine and readers can’t help but regard them with as much affection and attention as the big wigs like Brutal, Harry and Dean.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been the busy-body, workaholic, type-A individual. My life has comprised of working very hard towards a focused goal, accomplishing that goal with blood, sweat and tears, and then swiftly moving onto the next big objective in line. It has always felt alien to “rest” and has been a legitimate struggle to find ways to relax, as it seems my mind has always been more adept with chaos and, in contrast, struggled with stillness.
As you can imagine for a person with my tendencies, a period of unemployment earlier this year, for two whole months, could have been more than enough to send me spiralling. However, I actually found this quiet time for reflection to be very powerful. This was because I was emancipated from a job that was, quite frankly, completely draining me dry. After more than a year of “What’s wrong with me? Why aren’t I good enough?”, I was finally free.
Of course I had the standard anxieties about the prospect of finding a new job and financial security, but first and foremost, I was relieved. I was no longer bound to a job that was making me, and consequently my loved ones, deeply unhappy. My life suddenly had perspective again: there’s so much more to living than being chained to a desk chair for 9 hours a day! There’s so many things I used to enjoy before this job took over every brain cell! I am so much more than just an employee! I felt like an absolute fool for allowing the drama of that employment spell to sink me so considerably for such a long time.
I don’t think I’d have felt this sense of clarity and peace without the context of my previous illness. Up till a few years ago in 2019 when I hit ultimate burnout/the darkest depression/the fiery pits of hell, AKA literally not having the physical or emotional capacity to keep on carrying on, I thought I’d be that person who just kept going forever and ever. I had never really imagined myself succumbing to full physical sickness due to mental exertion. However, when that burnout period came along, aspects of my life changed irrevocably and I have since learned a lot about my unhealthy coping mechanisms and attitudes towards failure/success.
I definitely feel the outside pressures of wanting to make my family proud and wanting to be perceived by society in a successful light, but the majority of my pressure to succeed comes from within and is entirely irrational. I’d always envisioned being unemployed as a sign of personal failure. I’d always considered overworking to be a sign of professionalism and necessity. I genuinely once thought that taking time to “do nothing” was a lazy cop-out for people without stamina. How criminally wrong I was.
This is evidenced by the fact that I stayed for so long in a working situation that made me so stressed, anxious and depleted. Despite absolutely giving my all, working endless overtime, taking on extra responsibilities and trying to pick myself up after being repeatedly knocked, I just couldn’t make my previous role work for me. Even though I knew I was regressing mentally and physically due to my efforts, I couldn’t throw the towel in because I was scared that it would amount to failure. The official nail in the coffin: “I’ve failed myself. I’ve failed the company. I’ve failed my colleagues. I’ve failed my family”.
In reality: I absolutely bloody did not.
It seems that I’ve been hardwired to push myself to absolute exertion for the majority of my life and, as a result, I’ve suffered massively. On a personal level, I’ve sacrificed a lot of precious time with family and friends. On a professional level, I’ve managed to self-sabotage opportunities for advancement due to being inundated with other responsibilities after overloading myself with absolutely everything else possible.
Part of me is ashamed by the fact that it’s taken me this long to redefine my ideas of success and failure, yet overall, I’m glad I’ve learned it in the first place. Sometimes I look at people far older than me and wonder whether, despite all the letters after their names, certificates on the walls and zeroes before the dot on their salaries, they’re actually content. Because when it comes down to it, I think that would be the ultimate success story now to 26-year-old me.
Summary: Life isn’t linear and neither is progress. Losing a job or a relationship or a status does not amount to failure. Wads of mullah do not amount to success. Working yourself to the bone in the hopes that you’ll please everybody will not lead to anything but incredibly bad and sad times. Life is precarious and oh so short. Don’t waste it always looking ahead to what you want to be and what you want to have and focus instead, at least sometimes, on the person you’ve already become and the things you’ve already accomplished.
TW: This post talks about abusive relationships, sexual abuse and grooming.
Book #20! A title I found, again, through rave reviews on many bookstagram accounts. It has also drawn its fair share of controversy, as I noticed last year when a series of headlines found their way to my attention (I purposely turned away as I was trying to avoid getting sucked in to yet another expensive book haul). I try to avoid looking into the synopsis of new reads, simply because I like starting books with a blank slate. This approach generally means that the impact of a good book is made greater by the fact I have no pre-existing ideas or expectations. However, in this context, I do want to make it clear to readers that this book and my review will touch upon really triggering themes for survivors of abusive relationships, sexual abuse and grooming. So, with this in mind, if you consider yourself to be a survivor who might not be ready to read about these kinds of topics, maybe this review and book isn’t for you right now.
My Dark Vanessa by Katie Elizabeth Russell. A debut that was voraciously consumed in a matter of days, which is impressive given the fact I work a full-time job now.
The story begins as so: at the tender age of 15, Vanessa strikes up a sordid relationship with her considerably older English teacher, Mr Strane. As a young girl at a prestigious boarding school with no friends, she’s ripe for plucking by a sinister predator with a knack for young, vulnerable girls. He lures her in through a collective love of poetry and literature, and the pair conduct their affair under the radar for a number of years before it’s brought to the attention of the superiors at the school and the consequences of their transgression are felt.
This novel was highly triggering, as a survivor of abuse. However, I’m so grateful it was written as I feel it really brings to light the reality of living with trauma and also raises very powerful, astute questions about how we, as society need to change in order to deal with the pandemic of misogyny that continues to run rampant.
Russell is a fantastic writer. The novel made me squirm. It was a deeply uncomfortable read from the perspective of a young woman entrenched in trauma, and it didn’t feel gratuitous, disingenuous or exploitative. I didn’t once get the feeling that Russell wrote this story merely as a means of selling copies and also wondered whether it was on-the-nose because she has stood in these shoes herself, but of her own volition, Russell has refused to clarify whether this is the case (too right, it’s nobody’s business unless she wants it to be!). It’s personal, gritty and cuts to the bone. Russell builds a devastating and authentic picture of what trauma does to a person: Vanessa is a really troubled young woman who has failed to move on and live her life as a result of what she has gone through. Unstuck in time, Vanessa’s world revolves around Strane and reliving the past, obsessing over the details of her youthhood. She’s entangled in a web of her own self-loathing and coasting through her life with a low-end job, no friends and no notable romantic relationships. Her days are spent fantasising and enviously casting glances at young girls, living in their prime of their lives as she continues to stagnate with no considerable prospects. Every day, she contends with powerful, all-encompassing emotions such as shame, jealousy, regret and anger. She abuses her body with recreational drugs and seeks out self-destructive relationships, believing herself incapable and undeserving of a healthy partner.
Russell really honours the voices of survivors, both those who have spoken out about their ordeals and those who feel unable to. There are graphic scenes of sexual abuse depicted, which describe in agonising detail the extent to Vanessa’s dissociation and fear. Though she looks back in retrospect with desire, it’s clear from the chapters about her early-teen experiences that the nature of the events as they were happening were considerably more ominous and dangerous than she describes in later life.
A lot of Vanessa’s memory of what happened is the product of Strane’s recollections and forced narrative. Whilst others are quick to classify Vanessa’s experience as abusive, brandishing words like paedophile to describe Mr Strane and rape to best-describe their physical intimacy, Vanessa herself looks back fondly on her time with the enigmatic teacher. At the heart of her story, Vanessa is broken and as much responsible, if not more-so, for the relationship she shared with Mr Strane than he himself.
Russell breaks down society’s toxic obsession with the glorification and romanticisation of relationships between children and grown men. From Vanessa’s perspective, we see the impact firsthand of unhealthy relationships and the lifelong impacts they have. It’s not a harmless fling, it’s not an innocent foray into romance, it’s not a noble way to enter adulthood. It’s abuse and it’s indefensible, which only makes it so much worse when society normalises these relationships by encouraging the premature sexualisation of young girls and pardons those in power who abuse their positions, time and time again.
In addition, Russell excellently pinpoints the shifting behaviours of a strategic predator who deploys gaslighting techniques from the outset in order to lure Vanessa into an awful downward spiral of self-doubt. Mr Strane evades all blame and instead assigns it to Vanessa, romanticising her power over him as though she really is a living nubile Lolita-esque nymphet, unaware of her fatal grip over older men. It’s a really intimate look at what gaslighting is truly like when you’re inside the bubble and unable to hear the pleas of the outside world, begging you to get out while you can.
Especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement with pressure mounting to “call out” oppressors, Vanessa is forced to reconcile with her memories of her first love and to deal with the problematic questions that arise when she compares her memories with the accounts of other bystanders and victims. Through Vanessa’s messy outlook on the relationship, both from a younger and older perspective, Russell does a brilliant job of raising important questions with this story:
For instance, is a victim obligated to share their experience, potentially unearthing years of repressed trauma, in order to help others come forward? And what does coming forward with these stories achieve, especially years after the incident? Are predators capable of realising their role in past abuse and can they be rehabilitated? What’s the point and how can we expect there to be a societal change when we’re living in an era that excuses the likes of Bill Crosby and sentences Britney Spears to more years living under the thumb of a court-mandated conservatorship?
There are no categorically black and white answers to these questions. There are a lot of emotions, a lot of them ugly, and a lot of very traumatised people walking around wearing masks because they know they don’t have overnight solutions to the source of their pain, and they know they never will. All we can do is ruminate on how we can be stronger allies to survivors of assault and how we can help to confront misogyny, in whatever way is safe, in our daily lives.