November is a month of celebrating all things non-fiction. For Non Fiction November, our books editor Simon Savidge shares four of his favourite non-fiction books by women, plus a non-fiction book that blew his mind, as it defies gender, is a must read. Well, they all are.
My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life by Georgia Pritchett
(Hardback, Faber, £12.99)
I wanted to start with a fantastic book that I have not heard enough about and that everyone, and I mean everyone, should read. The subtitle of Georgia’s memoir is ‘adventures in anxiety.’ Don’t worry that this might make you anxious (always my fear) as whilst Georgia looks at anxiety in a very frank way, the book is more likely to make you laugh out loud, often, or have a good cathartic weep.
Through short, sharp, hilarious, and emotional, vignettes Georgia shares her life with us. From pretty much birth through to her awkward teenage years (which we have all had and you will totally chime with) to the early days of her career often being the only woman in a writing room, regularly overlooked, to her days in Hollywood now writing for shows such as Succession.
She covers the relationship with her parents, schools, and education, relationships with people she never expected, and the journey to motherhood, which has been a challenging one in a myriad of ways. And as we follow her, so does her sense of feeling a little bit different and always with a little foe of anxiety by her side.
This could make for a heartbreaking read, and, in some parts, it is. As I said, you will probably cry, so have some tissues at the ready. Yet with her comic timings and turns of phrase, plus her ability to be self-deprecating, without coming across like a victim of circumstance or ‘poor me,’ and deft turns of dark humour at tricky times, the book feels hopeful, funny, and gives us a sense of resilience. One of my absolute favourite books of the year. I know it is a book I will reread again and again in the future when I need to level myself with some honest insight with a sprinkling of the giggles.
Manifesto by Bernardine Evaristo
(Hardback, Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)
I am a huge fan of Bernardine Evaristo, both as a writer and as a human being. Not only does she create incredible novels – you will all have heard of Girl, Woman, Other and hopefully have read it (if not, you are in for a treat); do also head to Mr Loverman, another of my favourite books of all time – but she is also one of those people who celebrates others, and she has used her Booker win to highlight other writers’ careers and issues she believes. Manifesto carries this forward as she uses her life experiences so far to create a manifesto for never giving up.
Unlike a memoir that would start at the beginning, in Bernardine’s case, growing up with seven siblings in working-class London with a black father and white mother in the sixties, which did not make for an easy time, Manifesto is a wonderful set of chapters that you tie together to create a fabulous quilt of someone’s life and all they’ve learnt.
While the first chapter does focus on Bernardine’s early years, her foundations, if you will, the others will whizz about over different years on specific subjects. It could be all the places she has lived, with all the different characters she’s encountered in them. It could be the relationships she has had, and I loved how she describes her twenties as ‘the lesbian stuffing in a heterosexual sandwich,’ including one particularly abusive one.
Not only do you get all this, but it is also about the different books she has written and how they have come about, a brilliant guide for prospective writers within a guide to going for whatever you want. Like Bernardine herself, this is warm and generous with its audience. I am sure it will do the same for anyone who reads it. It has certainly left me thinking about how I can manifest more in my future.
What It Feels Like For A Girl by Paris Lees
(Hardback, Particular Books, £20)
Another of my absolute favourite books of the year is Paris Lees’ memoir What It Feels Like For A Girl, which unexpectedly stole my heart earlier this year and, like Georgia Pritchett, had me laughing out loud and having a weep quite a few times.
Some non-fiction books read like fiction, there is a narrative and propulsion, and of all the books I have chosen for you to devour, this is probably the one I would most recommend to people who don’t think they like memoirs or non-fiction books.
The way Paris tells her story is non-nonsense, swaps pretentions for page turning prose, and has a slight soap opera like nature – I mean that in the best way, all thriller, no filler.
I don’t want to give too much away because discovering Paris’ story is quite the ride, and I wouldn’t want to ruin that for anyone. Suffice to say, it looks at gender, sexuality, abuse, class, drugs, survival, and hope.
It is also incredibly lyrical, partly due to Paris’ prose and how she crafts conversational while compelling storytelling. It’s like she is whispering it in your ear. It is also written in the Nottinghamshire dialect, which has a wonderful way to it. If this makes you nervous, two top tips. One, read it out loud to get the gist of it. Two, listen to Paris read it to you on audiobook. I have had the pleasure of seeing Paris read from it, and it’s just sensational. The inference, the pace, the wit, and the sadness are all in the right places, which are there in her prose. I am just giving you options because I want everyone to read it. I chuffing loved it. So, get to it pronto, me ducks.
Inferno by Catherine Cho
(Paperback, Bloomsbury, £9.99)
One of the reasons I love narrative non-fiction, which all my choices are, is that, like the best fiction, it can put you firmly into the lives and experiences of people entirely different from you. That is one of the many reasons I think Catherine Cho’s Inferno is such a powerful book.
When her son was three months old, on a trip to America to meet some of his relatives, Catherine looked at him and saw the devils’ eyes instead of her child’s. Within hours she had lost sense of time; she thought she was her grandmother and was convinced she was in hell. This was the start of her postpartum psychosis which led her to be sectioned, by which time she had forgotten who she was anymore. Inferno follows the two weeks after this in the psychiatric ward and interweaves memories from her past, including a raging father and a murderous ex-boyfriend. She also looks at her family’s cultural beliefs and how defying the Korean culture of keeping her child indoors for 100 days caused all of this?
Told in vignettes, you know I love to see them, Catherine creates the shorter, sharper bursts of thoughts along with some slightly longer passages which seem to match the frame of mind she was in at various times and illustrate so vividly what she was going through. In doing so, this creates a brilliantly frightening experience for the reader, nothing compared to what Catherine Cho was going through herself. Yet, we get a deeper understanding, we empathise, and that, to me, is part of what the best books are about.
As with all the books I have mentioned, there is hope too. That isn’t to suggest that everything is tied up neatly in a bow. We all know life isn’t like that. This is what Inferno is all about, one part of Catherine Cho’s life. It shows that we never know where life can take us and, in a time where mental health is at an almost crisis point, we need to be listening to those who have experienced something which, along these lines, could happen to anyone of us. A brutally beautiful book.
Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi
(Hardback, Faber, £14.99)
Last but certainly not least, Akwaeke Emezi’s memoir in letters, Dear Senthuran. Possibly one of the most fascinating, eye opening, and thought-provoking memoirs I have ever read. Subtitled ‘a black spirit memoir’, Akwaeke Emezi looks at life past gender and binaries and the spirit within us, which may not be human. Bear with me. It is so worth it.
Akwaeke Emezi first came to my attention when their debut Freshwater, a tale of someone with several spirits inside of them, became the first trans/nonbinary entrant for the Women’s Prize. It is one of the most incredible novels about what it must be like to be trans or nonbinary.
Their YA novel Pet looked at a world of angels and monsters through the perspective of a young trans child. The Death of Vivek Oji (one of my favourite novels of the last five years) was about the difficult life (also with lots of love and joy) the trans community has in Nigeria.
For most of the time of these being published, Akwaeke Emezi identified as trans themselves. In Dear Senthuran, we discover how that didn’t work or fit as a term, and in fact, Akwaeke is a spirit. We follow their story back and forward from adulthood to childhood as they come to discover who they really are, sometimes to shocking effects (suicide is a theme in the book) and sometimes to incredibly darkly humour filled ones. The fact that this is written in letters to people makes it so honest that you sometimes need to look away, yet these kinds of reads are often the most directly enlightening and unflinchingly insightful.
Dear Senthuran is one of those books you will want to talk to everyone about once you have read it. I love books that feel like the author has poured loads of new ideas into your head, given it a good shake, and left you with all sorts of new thoughts whizzing and popping around your brain. I am still living that not long after reading it and need people to talk about it too, so if you have or once you have, give me a shout. I am desperate to discuss it with as many people as possible.