Monthly Archive for December, 2015

Present Imperfect

Merry Christmas one and all, and a very Happy New Year as 2016 approaches.

In December we met to discuss Debbie Taylor’s novel ‘The Herring Girl’ which is set in the fish quays at North Shields, and centres around twelve-year-old Ben who has always felt that he was born into the wrong body, enjoys dressing as a girl and wearing make-up and nail varnish and is adamant that he wants a sex change. Ben believes that he’s trapped inside the body of Annie, a herring girl who lived and worked on the North Shields fish quays in 1898. He experiences flashbacks to Annie’s turbulent life and eventually meets up with psychiatrist Mary who hypnotises him, allowing Annie’s full story, including her murder, to unfold.

H girlsThe Herring Girl is a sprawling story of reincarnation, trans-gender issues and past-life regression and flits between the present day and the late 19th century. The group felt that Taylor had had a brilliant idea, but completely lost her way with an over-involved plot. The book’s prologue is good, with Ben’s character drawing the reader in to what promises to be an interesting and unusual story. However, this initial promise is quickly dispelled, with large sections of the present day story that could have been simplified or left out completely.

BoatsThe historical part stands up well on its own, however as one character after another in the present day realises that they were the reincarnation of a character from the 1898 section, we collectively despaired of such a preposterous notion. I rather enjoyed the 1898 part of the novel, with the drawing out of Annie’s life and romance. I loved the language and descriptions of the landscape, looking down from the narrow alleyways to the old fishing quays, and the introduction of the Scots herring girls who followed the fishing boats from Scotland down to North Shields and Cullercoats in search of work. The present day narrative is another thing entirely, and the language that Taylor has her characters use doesn’t sound natural.

Some of the group thought that Taylor’s historical research was a bit obvious and could have been weaved into the story in a more subtle way. Important themes that Taylor introduced at the beginning of the story were undeveloped and dropped altogether by the book’s conclusion. On the whole, we felt that Taylor has some good ideas, but over-writes and has an inability to maintain a good plot.

January 2016 is our Poetry Meeting. Bring a poem or two that you love or simply listen to others’ favourite poems. No pressure!

In February we’ll be reading ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel, and in March we’ll be holding a Young Adult evening as new member Caroline’s daughter enjoyed a previous group discussion when she came with her Mum and would like to join us again.

New book releases in 2016 include Jessie Burton’s ‘The Muse’ which follows her brilliant debut ‘The Miniaturist’, a lost novel by Stella Gibbons, Julian Barnes’ ‘The Noise of Time’, Yann Martel’s ‘The High Mountains of Portugal’ and books from Margaret Drabble, Eimear McBride and Ali Smith.

I’m currently ploughing through Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ in time for the BBC television adaptation in mid-January, but keep cheating on it with other tantalising books.

If you’d like to join us at our next meeting, please do come along. We’d love to meet and welcome you to our book discussion.

See you all on 11 January.


Rachel Orange