My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Feminist literature has a bit of a scary ring to it, so I am quite wary of using this label. However, Clare Azzopardi’s Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh, fits the description perfectly, because it is feminist literature as it should be done. Azzopardi’s latest book is a collection of short stories that celebrates women in the best way possible… women in all their diverse personalities, backgrounds, foibles and loves.
Azzopardi’s is a collection of tales that is linked together by one element – the strong personalities of the protagonists. This is a novel way of telling us stories about women, not only because of content and plot – although those, too, are charming, intriguing and exciting in turns, depending on the individual story , but also because of the way the prose is presented.
Azzopardi’s pen is an easy and flowing one, and she makes our task of picturing the women she writes about easy. Each story is named after the woman it celebrates. Not every heroine is likeable, and some may even qualify as anti-heroines.
There’s Sandra, for instance, whose manipulative nature is positively scary. She traps men with the simple expedient of leaving her key lying around. But then she disposes of them just as easily.
And there’s Rita, her of the depressive lifestyle, who makes us think of so many of our acquaintances, trapped in a routine they can’t esape from, the most exciting happenings in their lives being funerals.
A collection of tales that is linked together by one element… the strong personalities of the protagonists
Gracey brings in a touch of the supernatural, an unexpected surprise that somehow works well even in the context of the rest of the tales. Possibly, this is because Azzopardi’s style is so matter-of-fact, so conversational, that everything is believable.
Azzopardi’s collection has many a poignant moment, perhaps none so strong as in Roża, a story with a decidedly chilling introduction that describes that life of a woman who is already dead, while she is still living… a story of a woman for whom the question of what clothes to be buried in became as important as life itself.
My own personal favourite is Lily, a highly contemporary tale with a strong dose of nostalgia and a killer ending. The way the story progresses from a purely warm account of a woman’s love for her childhood home, to her rising obsession with this old home is masterful – the introduction of a more sinister element closes the story most unexpectedly.
I found Camilla’s story equally entertaining. Azzopardi switches between different narrators in a very deft manner. Every narrator brings with them a new style of dialogue, so that you could almost hear the different protagonists in the story talking to you directly. And they also bring a new point of view about the person they talk about, the ultimate heroine – and victim, in many ways – of the story. You could say that Camilla is a very subtle indictment of the uncharitableness and the eagerness to gossip of our society.
And then there’s Margaret, the nun, a bittersweet take on life at a Church school and Polly, another indictment of the coldness of our society, only too ready to emarginate anyone who doesn’t fit the mould.
You could say that emarginisation is a common theme to all of Azzopardi’s stories. None of the women are your run-of-the-mill characters. They are strong, strange, obsessive, stubborn, yes, but never ordinary. And when placed in an ordinary, everyday setting the strength and attraction of their personality can’t but shine through.
Azzopardi’s book might not be the militantly feminist prose that we associate with the term. It is certainly, however, a tribute to real women.
This review was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta.