Malarky by Anakana Schofield: Anatomy of a Review

This book is really weird. This review is really weird. Both the reading and the reviewing consumed me more than any other book this year. After struggling to make it fit a standard review format and failing, I’ve decided to strip away the “rating/synopsis/teaser/what I liked/what I didn’t/funny picture/conclusion” thing I usually do, and reveal what goes into a review here on Reading in Bed. I don’t do all this stuff for every book. Malarky works because I spent more time and energy than I usually do. The amount of work I put into a review is correlated with how strongly I feel about it, whether that’s love, hate, or yeah, sometimes obligation. This one is a labour of love.

Reading reviews
I heard about Malarky and about author Anakana Schofield in a book column that appeared in The Edmonton Journal back in October of 2013.

“I’ve decided it’s like a pan of porridge,” Schofield says, in her thick Irish brogue, of her writing process. “It’s permanently simmering, and then: a little bubble. And a little bubble. And a little bubble. Until there’s about 15,000 of these little bubbles.”

The image of a simmering pot of porridge is great. I added Malarky to my TBR list. I was reading Dragon Bound at the time, so I probably wasn’t thinking clearly, and let it languish there till March of this year.

After reading the book, I went back and read the usual suspects for CanLit reviews: Quill and Quire, Globe and Mail, National Post. The reviews are all positive, and all mention the experimental quality of the writing. The strange thing is, months after finishing, I didn’t remember the experimental stuff, or even the stream of consciousness stuff, though it is there. I remembered marriage and motherhood and sexuality described in ways I couldn’t really compare to anything else.

Reading the actual book
I finally picked the book up in March and read it in a week. I was reading The Monk at the same time so there were a lot of weird sex things being read in March.

I didn’t actually pick it up, I read it on my Kobo. I took a look in my local Coles and didn’t find it. I wasn’t too upset, because the ebook is usually cheaper, and I’m not a fan of the cover art, so didn’t feel I needed it on my shelf. I feel differently now. I would really like these words on my shelf, and would like to loan them to others. Maybe I can track down an American or UK cover, as I like them a lot more.

Canadian, UK and American cover art:

malarkyMalarky ukMalarky US

Since I waited four months, I had to revisit the book. I sat down to scan through and ended up rereading it in its entirety. If I had a paper copy that I could actually flip through, it may not have been necessary. I’m glad I did it though. The same damn thing happened on both readings, and it’s all because I read the ebook. The thing with ebooks is you can’t really tell how much farther you have to go. You have to deliberately check your percentage read. Malarky has a devastating last line. The first time, I didn’t realize the book was over till I tried to turn the page. The second time, it wasn’t till I was halfway through that sentence that I realized I was done. I thought I had lots more to read. I cried at the end of a lot of reasons, one of which is disappointment that there were no more words.

That sentence isn’t spoiler-filled or anything, but I won’t quote it. Go read it yourself!

Making annotations
I don’t have a usual way of annotating books. I use pen on the book itself, pen in a separate notebook, Evernote, emails to myself, and Kobo’s in-app annotations (hideous but necessary when I’m reading in bed at midnight with any number of people and animals who might be disturbed if I turned a light on to find a pen.) I made a few highlights my first go round, and a ton on my second. Here are some things I highlighted in Malarky.

On marriage:

The fourth day she reduced the teabags inside the pot to one, and he commented the tea had gone very weak, as thought it was being controlled by the weather or an outside force.

On infidelity:

…different people inside different places at different times. That was all it was. She had had a different man inside her at a different place and different time and now she was going home to put the potatoes on.

On feminism(?)

She wants to consume, rather than be consumed.

On mothers and daughters:

People assume a mother to be protective over who marries her daughter, not me, any man who wanted them could have either of mine, if he’d a clean face and a warm hand. I never worried about my girls. I raised them strong and indifferent… neither of them let me down.

Then, if I’m reviewing a book, I will write some notes about potential allusions or comparisons I want to make, either to other literature or my own life (this is a blog so I can be self-centred like that.)

  • ulysses Ulysses. I haven’t read Ulysses, so I can’t say much. It’s Irish? The cover reminded me of this Ulysseys cover? Stream of consciousness and stuff? It’s definitely provocative and challenging.
  • Infinite Jest, because once you’ve read IJ you have to compare everything to it. But the mom with an absent husband and troubled son(s) and the sexual escapades with a younger man are all there.
  • The Stone Angel. Our Woman is only sixty, but she’s made painfully aware of her infirmities and mortality after becoming stranded. In face, After Alice is another CanLit book wherein a woman is stranded in the course of trying to assert her independence and then has some epiphanies. Must be a CanLit thing.
  • Hardy, maybe Tess of the D’UbervillesI think there a direct reference, and the pastoral thing comes up a few times. There are certainly a few dirty deeds done near sheep.

Oh and of course I try to think about the “theme.” Because I really miss high school English.

  • Motherhood. I’ve read a lot about early motherhood lately, which is great, but it’s nice to take the longview once in a while. You know, to when you lose all your children one way or another. Grim stuff, but powerful.
  • Identity (you can say this about pretty much any book and it’ll work out.)
  • Getting one’s groove back. I don’t even know how to write about the sex scenes in this book. They are awful, hilarious, revealing, disturbing, clinical, ridiculous, profound. You know, like the real thing.
  • Pay attention. Our Woman often admonishes us to pay attention. Not quite in a Ferris Buehler “life moves pretty fast” kind of way. Or, maybe it’s exactly like that.

Despite my months-long review backlog on the blog, I do rate each book I read on Goodreads right away, even though I hate the rigid five-stars-no-halfsies scale. I agonize between two and three, and three and four, often. Not four and five, though. I’m stingy with a five-star review. Malarky got a swift five stars from me for reasons which are hopefully evident.

Typically I link to Goodreads (for quick addition to your TBR) and grab the synopsis. This book is tough to synopsis-ize, but here it is:

Malarky is the story of an Irish mother forced to look grief in the eye, and of a wife come face-to-face with the mad agony of longing. Comic, moving, eccentric, and spare, Anakana Schofield’s debut novel introduces a brilliant new voice to contemporary fiction.

Our Woman will not be sunk by what life’s about to serve her. She’s caught her son doing unmentionable things out by the barn. She’s been accosted by Red the Twit, who claims to have done things with Our Woman’s husband that could frankly have gone without mentioning. And now her son’s gone and joined the army, and Our Woman has found a young fella to do unmentionable things with herself, just so she might understand it all.

Do check out the Goodreads page, for no other reason than the videos of Schofield reading from the book. Hearing it read in an Irish accent is really helpful. I didn’t find the setting very obtrusive, and almost wished it was, because I was hearing the voices like a accent-less Canadian voice sometimes, which is no fun.

I generally avoid Goodread reviews at least until I’ve read the book, and ideally till after I review it, but if I’m stuck, as I was this time, I read them all (well, unless there are thousands.) The reviews for Malarky are polarized, with many raves and a fair amount of DNF (did not finish.) What stuck out, though, is that Schofield responds to many of the reviews, including the scathing ones. She’s always polite but sometimes insinuates that the reader didn’t “get it,” which is probably true. I don’t think I fully got it either, and definitely not on the first reading. Remarkably, no drama ensues. I often hear about “Goodreads drama” but have never seen it in real life.

I wonder, though, is this appropriate? I believe a review is for the (potential) readers, not the author, so it felt weird to see such direct and public responses from the author. Then again, doesn’t it make more sense to an author to connect with readers in this way, using the tools that are out there, rather than answer the same boring interview questions? I’m going to think on this one some more. It did contribute to my (lack of) ability to write a review, even though I unreservedly love the book.

Talking to readers
On social media, I mean. Despite the acclaim, I don’t know anyone in real life who’s read this book. I put a tweet out there about my reviewer’s block and got a response from the author, which prompted me to write this strange review:

Reading blog posts
I really try to avoid reading other blogger’s reviews of a book until I’m done my own. I get psyched out when I read a really good one, and I’m afraid I’ll accidentally plagiarize. I found the traditional reviews of Malarky too sterile though. I want to know how many other people gasped audibly during the sex scenes, and how many had to put cold compresses on their eyes the morning after they finished, and The National Post ain’t gonna do that. 

I also just discovered something wonderful: Google blog search. How have I lived without this?

Reading the author ‘s other work
This is Schofield’s first novel, but she’s written many an essay and article. This one, about an author’s role in publicizing novels, made the round on Twitter and makes some really interesting comments on how the press talks to and about authors. My first reaction was to come up with some questions for her, to see if I could do a better job. Then I thought better of it, as my questions were not that great, and the whole point (I think) is to read the book. The book is the point.

Letting it simmer
I think Schofield’s porridge simile (metaphor?) applies here. I know many bloggers write their reviews immediately upon finishing a book, some going so far as to not begin a new book until the review is written. I can’t do that. Even if I don’t go through an exhaustive process like I did here, I still need to let things percolate for at least a week or two, and often much longer. I’m also a huge procrastinator, but let’s pretend this is part of the creative process, okay?

I’m not pleased that it took me four months to review this book. I’m not really pleased with the form it took, or that it’s 2,000 words long, ensuring tl;dr status. But if I let it simmer any longer, it’s going to boil dry.

Read the book. Tell me what you thought. Let’s talk about all the weird sex stuff. And bloggers: I would love to hear about your review writing process!




  1. Naomi

    I love the form of this review, and I read every word, even though I should be asleep right now. You had already convinced me to read this book, but since then I found that my library doesn’t have it, so now I will just have to buy it. Consider it done. I wish I had already read it, though, so I could more fully discuss it right now.

    I love ‘She wants to consume, rather than be consumed’. And, I love the opening line of Matilda Magtree’s review. Perfect.

    • lauratfrey

      Aw jeez. 2000 words I didn’t give you a shoutout for encouraging me to review this book. WELL thank you for the kind comment and I can’t wait to hear what you think of the book!

    • lauratfrey

      Ooo hope you get a chance to review!

      I’m just about done Strike Sparks. I don’t think the best way for me to read it was straight through. Sometimes it became a bit “much,” if you know what I mean. But some of those poems? Whoa. There was one that was so specific to a situation in my life right now and so powerful. Now I’m trying to figure out how to review *that!*

  2. Brie

    Wow, I’m super impressed with how much time and energy must have gone into writing a post of this length! Not to mention the time to gather all those links. I’m proud to say I read the whole post although I did think tl;dr a few times 😉

    BUT google blog search!? Thank you for that!! (I had no idea!?). Brilliant.

    • lauratfrey

      Glad it was worth the tl;dr 😉

      I know, I find “normal” reviews don’t do it for me, I just want to see what bloggers think. Now I don’t have to go to page 3 or more of the Google results to do it!

  3. doradueck

    This book is on my to-read list, which gets longer and longer… Thanks for the warm push to it. And for stopping by my blog, which means I’ve discovered yours. And from Edmonton, which in the vast scheme of things, feels almost next door.

    • lauratfrey

      And I found your blog because you reviewed The M Word, which I am reviewing next! If I get a few more people to read Malarky, I’ll feel very accomplished 🙂

  4. ebookclassics

    Wow, this post is fantastic. It sounds like you had a very one-of-a-kind experience with this book. Not just with the story, but with the author and the review process. I may have to read this book to see what has had this affect on you.

    • lauratfrey

      Yep, the whole thing was weird and wonderful. I hope you get a chance to read it. I’ve had a few people add it to the TBR after this review and I’d love to follow up in a few months with “here’s people I forced to read this book and what they think.” Even if I have to wait for Rick to do another secret Santa… haha.

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