It’s been a long while since I have written regularly – life, lockdown, insert further reasons here. But with lockdown restrictions slowly lifting, at least here in the UK, I’m beginning to feel eager again to go out and explore what the world has to offer. Of course we’re not out of the woods yet and I for me will not be celebrating the end of the pandemic while covid-19 is still raging in so many other countries. But at least things are looking a bit better for over here than they did a few months ago.
Anyway, for the last few months all I read were books I borrowed from friends or found in community libraries, with a tendency towards anything easy to comprehend and not too demanding. My feverish lockdown brain needed something simple and soothing, or so it seemed, and I couldn’t imaging trying my hand at anything more challenging. Those times, fortunately, now seem to be over.
I found Lisa Alther’s 1975 novel Kinflicks in an unlikely place: a community library at Somerleyton train station. There’s not much to say about Somerleyton train station other than that it is tiny – a mere strip of concrete surrounded by fields – and that I only found myself there on a Sunday afternoon because I had visited the gardens of Somerleyton Hall nearby. Incidentally, those are worth a visit should you be in the area and a lover of slightly crumbling Jacobean estates. But I digress.
I only picked Kinflicks because of its slightly raunchy cover – a scantily dressed young woman jumping into the air, her face drawn into an expression of pure ecstacy. Turns out the book is actually a coming of age novel about Ginny, who returns to the Virginian town she grew up in to look after her dying mother. Oh, and also because her husband has thrown her out for what she insists was not cheating. Promising start.
“My family has always been into death,” the first line reads. Now that’s my kind of first line. As the book moves on, Ginny reflects on the many lifestyles she has tried out before ending up at her mother’s bedside: all-American cheerleader, sulky college sophomore, reluctant soy-eating radical lesbian, and Tupperware-loving housewife. Perhaps a bit much for one person to experience in a short amount of time but I read the story as allegorical more than realistic. To me, Ginny is a kind of cipher who effortlessly adapts to whatever environment she finds herself in, allowing Alther to dissect said environment with vigour. A vigour that goes on for over 500 pages without running out of steam.
I’m a child of the eighties, so I can’t vouch to what extent Alther’s observations are correct, but I was struck by their richness and level of detail. I can imagine Alther quietly sitting in at a Tupperware party and taking notes before dashing off to a local college to listen in to students discussing the difference between Nietzsche and Descartes. The tediousness of the latter, I can’t help but note, hasn’t changed a bit since, if my own university days are anything to go by.
And then there’s the humour. Not many books cause me to laugh out loud. This is quite a feat, particularly given that Alther wears her politics firmly on her sleeve, and second wave feminism isn’t exactly known for its sense of humour. Granted, the book is quite raunchy in places, and readers who don’t like sex scenes better look elsewhere. But I would recommend readers at least try to look beyond that sexy surface. Alther uses sex and humour to tear into the various ideologies she describes and attacks each and everyone of them with equal gusto. Yet there’s also a tenderness in her writing. It would be easy to rip characters like Clem, Ginny’s punkish boyfriend-turned-Holy Roller, to bits. Instead, Alther chooses to simply describe him, leaving judgment to the reader.
In fact the novel’s message appears to be something like: don’t live your life the way others expect you to, but choose your own path. While also acknowledging that finding said path is a tough and ongoing process. This statement seems particularly apt considering the time the novel was written – the story is surely packed with characters who have no idea what to do with their lives now that the structures they know are falling apart, and are desperately seeking for answers. But of course the theme is still relevant, perhaps now more than ever. It hit home for me, trying as I am to find my feet again in a changed world. At least I still have one unchanged certainty to go by: there will always be good books to discover.