As part of 4th Estate’s month-long celebration of women’s writing, we’re bringing you personal picks from the 4th Estate team. Today’s variety of choices are from Tara Al Azzawi, Naomi Mantin, Liv Marsden and Jack Smyth.
Tara Al Azzawi, Senior Marketing Manager
The most influential piece of writing I’ve ever read is Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble.
I read it in my first semester of my first year of university as part of dizzying ‘Introduction to Literary Theory’ course.
New ideas were crashing in all around me – from Marxism and Adorno’s Dialectics to Freud’s superego – but it was Judith Butler who cut through and cast the world in a brand new light.
Reading this book upended my deep-rooted beliefs about sex and gender – as fixed and biological – and blew open all my assumptions. She explains that gender identity is not a manifestation of intrinsic essence but rather ‘performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results’.
The thrill of this re-education is something I can recall even now (I distinctly remember hogging a Nandos lunch illuminating my flatmates about the new world order). This book reminds me to stay vigilant, to continue to interrogate traditions and beliefs – no matter how liberally minded I think I am.
Naomi Mantin, Publicity Manager
I scare easily. As a child, I kept a wide berth of anything that I deemed to contain even a hint of peril. This included, but was not limited to: Goosebumps, lifts, rollercoasters, forward-rolls, dogs, boats (after watching Titanic) and bats (after watching Basil the Great Mouse Detective). I still don’t like danger and I avoid it wherever I can.
It is all the more surprising, then, that one of my favourite books of all time is also the scariest I’ve ever read: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. The story follows Eleanor, a shy, reclusive young woman who accepts an invitation from Dr. John Montague to investigate the supernatural goings on at an eighty-year old remote mansion. She takes up residence at Hill House, and things get very spooky very quickly.
It’s difficult to articulate just what it is about this book that gets so firmly under your skin. Shirley Jackson’s writing is so perfectly taut and controlled with not a word spared, yet she builds an atmosphere so claustrophobic and a threat so terrifyingly unknowable that your imagination can’t help but run wild long after you’ve stopped looking at the pages. The opening paragraph has been hailed as one of the best beginnings to a ghost story ever, but for me it’s Eleanor’s gradual descent into hysteria as the house takes hold of her more and more that makes me shudder the most.
Written in 1959, on the cusp of second wave feminism and a few years before Betty Friedan coined the growing unrest amongst American Housewives ‘The Problem That Has No Name’, The Haunting of Hill House is scary because it’s true. On one hand, it’s haunted house horror at its best. But it’s also about the horror of domesticity. Shirley Jackson knows that nothing is more terrifying than a woman confined to the home.
Liv Marsden, Marketing Assistant
I read Frankenstein in one sitting about 4 years ago, and since then I’ve read it a further two times. It is the kind of book that totally captivates your imagination, and it’s a book I will no doubt read again and again. The depth of human emotion that Mary Shelley explores is fascinating, and to think she was only eighteen years old when she wrote it is absolutely astonishing.
The overwhelming quest for home and family in the novel is something that struck a chord within me. I didn’t expect to feel so sympathetic towards a monster created from dead body parts, but I did. The innocent (yet monstrously ugly) creature’s first experience of the world is when it opens its eyes in Victor Frankenstein’s lab. Victor sets eyes on his monstrous creation, completely freaks out and runs away. Victor, the creature’s own ‘father’, rejects it at first sight which results in the monster being totally alone, like a vulnerable new born child with no information on what it is or how it should be. This rejection turns into total isolation and unhappiness which is what ultimately leads to his monstrous actions. A very poignant quote which resonated with me is from the monster: ‘I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.’ Gut-wrenching stuff!
The entire novel makes you realise how important a sense of belonging is. Without a home, without a family and without a sense of knowing who you are can result in terrible loneliness and bitterness. I know that when I got to the final page of the book, I felt an overwhelming amount of gratitude for my own family and friends. An incredible piece of work from an eighteen-year-old woman. I must go and pick up my heavily annotated and underlined copy and give it another read…
I had heard people mention Eimer McBride’s A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing for weeks – months even – before I finally dove into it. Eventually, a family member physically put a copy into my hand with a look that said ‘read this’. What I encountered was unlike anything I have ever read – a novel written in and internal monologue / stream of consciousness which at first is like learning a new language. I remember reading the first ten pages and doing that thing where you stop, turn the book over and examine the cover again, perplexed as to what I had got myself into.
It turns out that I had got myself into one of the most encapsulating novels I’ve ever read. While the writing style is daunting at first, what quickly happens is that the reader becomes superimposed onto the protagonist. It is incredible to be so deeply transported into the mind of a character from her birth, growing with her as she develops speech, and begins to understand the workings of the world. McBride’s approach and her incredible handling of language changed the way I think about fiction. For me, this is the benchmark for the reader becoming the character, something that I imagine many writers aim for – that ability to create such deep empathy in the reader that they cannot separate themselves from the character they are reading.
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