Feeling exhausted? Meet the book heroines who are capturing the zeitgeist – and not giving up.
Are you OK, hun? Because judging by a new raft of book releases due out in 2022, we are very much not. Scrolling through Twitter the other week, a perceptive tweet by Louise Richardson, an editor at @ZombiesRunGame, caught my eye. She posted “I see floppy women” alongside three of 2022’s most anticipated books: Vladimir by Julia May Jonas, Careering by Daisy Buchanan and I’m Sorry You Feel That Way by Rebecca Wait. All are beautifully shot covers of young, stylish women – and all have their faces hidden in what looks like total defeat. It’s an aesthetic even The Guardian has noticed.
A further scan of 2022 proofs easily uncovered more tales of burned-out women: family dysfunction is at the heart of At The Table by Claire Powell (out 31 March, £14.99, Fleet) and it comes complete with an image of a woman faceplanting into a cake on the cover, while Wet Paint by Chloe Ashby (out 14 April, £14.99, Trapeze) is a blistering story of one girl’s attempts to outmanoeuvre past trauma, loss and rejection only to find her life descending into chaos (those hands in front of her face tell their own story).
Chantal V Johnson’s forthcoming Post-Traumatic (out 7 April, £16.99, Dialogue) may feature direct eye contact but the towel wrapped around the woman’s head and the large joint she’s smoking signify this is not someone who’s living her best life.
In fact, it’s the beautifully written story of Vivian – a successful Black lawyer – which author Johnson describes as: “The aftermath of caregiver abuse, childhood sexual assault and emotional neglect. I was motivated by anger and sorrow at the injustice of these experiences, and a desire to counteract abuse survivor stereotypes I’d grown up with on TV: the white girl who can’t make eye contact, speaks in a whisper, and hides behind cardigans. So I wrote Vivian, a dynamic Black survivor who lives boldly in the world despite a compromised childhood. Also, I wanted to write about the moral issues that arise in a family where abuse is cyclically perpetrated and enabled.”
If we look beyond these stylised covers – these female characters are really not OK. Vladimir (out 26 May, £14.99, Pan Macmillan) is described as a “#MeToo novel” as its narrator faces up to her lecturer husband’s sexual transgressions with former students; Careering (out 10 March, £14.99, Sphere) is a blistering and funny exploration of our too-often unhealthy relationship with work, money and self-esteem while I’m Sorry You Feel That Way (out 8 July, £14.99, Riverrun) tackles dysfunctional family dynamics.
Elsewhere, Jendella Benson’s eminently readable Hope & Glory (out 7 April, £14.99, Orion) has a heroine whose existence is totally unravelling to an unforeseen extent while Jessica Moor’s Young Women (out 26 May, £14.99, Manilla) is a visceral slice of female friendship and complicity in a violently patriarchal world.
So the real question is: why are we now craving books about women who seem to be teetering on the precipice of their mental health and pasts? Delving into women’s psyches is not new – it’s been a go-to theme from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892 to the work of Sylvia Plath and Toni Morrison – but this is definitely a trend that’s cresting in 2022. One cynical answer would be, right now, this subject matter is commercially on the nose.
In the last few years the big names in fiction are those writers who have directly tackled the systemic repression of women’s bodies, relationships, lives and sexuality and explored how misogyny, economics, racism, mental health and power have affected us in the early 21st century: Sally Rooney, Raven Leilani, Candice Carty-Williams (whose new book People Person also features a lonely and confused heroine, Dimple), Meg Mason and Lisa Taddeo all spring to mind.
Plus, it’s women who buy books. According to a 2020 YouGov survey, the audience that powers modern reading are women aged 25-55 (68% of women prefer paperbacks compared to 53% of men while 42% of women prefer to read fiction compared to 29% of men). So are these new 2022 titles down to publishers energised by the Sally Rooney effect?
“I think it’s a genre that publishers are prioritising because of the commercial successes of writers like Sally Rooney and Raven Leilani, but I do think that this is a genre that has boomed because of the way that young women now have the space to explore their position in the world in a new way and, in most cases, are being taken seriously as writers,” reflects Chrissy Ryan, founder of the well-loved London independent bookshop and social space BookBar.
“I think lots of these books have a political as well as an emotional spin to them: what does it mean to be a woman today? And I think these books have a part to play in shaping the way many different sorts of women are viewed and treated, and how we view ourselves. BookBar’s audience is so eager to hear from young women writers.
“Some of our most popular books of the year have included Leilani’s Luster, Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters, Boy Parts by Eliza Clarke and Megan Nolan’s Acts Of Desperation – all of which have sold hundreds and hundreds of copies. I don’t see it slowing down, and I think it’s only going to become a more inclusive and exploratory genre that explores an even wider range of experiences.”
It’s also telling that some of the biggest titles in the commercially heavyweight genre of “women’s fiction” aren’t anywhere close to the fluffy romance stories of lazy stereotype either. Mhairi Mcfarlane’s moving Mad About You (out 14 April, £7.99, HarperCollins) explores coercive control; Marian Keyes’ brilliant Again, Rachel (out 17 February, £20, Michael Joseph) is about life after alcoholism while Louise O’Neill’s unmissable thriller Idol (out 12 May, £14.99, Bantam) pierces social media, repressed memory, bulimia and sexual assault.
Sign of the times
Plus – let’s face it – pretty much everyone seems to be grappling with some form of existential dread; whether that’s mental health issues after the pandemic or whether it’s trying to assimilate news headlines that reveal widespread corruption, inequality, exploitation and repression from governments to judicial and legal systems. #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and Reclaim These Streets movements have then also given people the vocabulary to vocalise the everyday trauma of their lives, allowing them to recognise just what they’re living through. Books are at least acknowledging how we feel.
“There’s a real issue of cognitive dissonance where lip service is paid to the idea we might be struggling, but women especially are made to feel as though it’s on us to resolve it ourselves,” explains Careering author Daisy Buchanan. “We joke about it. ‘Feeling anxious! You need self-care, babes! Bath and an early night.’ But for a long time, we have been ‘good’, and we have absorbed the message that if our life doesn’t feel ‘good’ it must be because we’re not working smart enough or hard enough.
“I think the reckoning has been in the water for ages, and the pandemic has made the issue unignorable. It is very convenient for a very wealthy minority if the rest of us feel sad and inadequate, and desperate to work ourselves happy. And the climate emergency has started to make us feel very differently about the traditional ‘rewards’ for hard work (holidays, shopping).”
Outside of books, think about what we’re watching and listening to: Yellowjackets and Billie Eilish both feature the primal scream of women searching for catharsis outside of the traditional norms. In the 2019 book Why Women Read Fiction by Helen Taylor, writer, director and commentator Bidisha remarks: “I think women read a lot of fiction because life is so crappy.” Do we disappear into fiction so we can safely examine and reflect on the things that do us the most harm?
“I’m not a historian, but I assume that BLM, #MeToo, the murder of Breonna Taylor, the 2020 protests and social media are all contributing to an upheaval in how Black women think about their experiences of violence (institutional and domestic),” says Post-Traumatic author Chantal V Johnson. “This violence has been minimised/erased for many reasons: a failure of both early white feminism and civil rights activism to adequately address our experiences, a justified suspicion of carceral feminism and misogyny within our families and culture that we have to address. Storytelling is one part of that, but cannot be the only part: the goal in my view is a political movement against violence and abuse.”
Shedding some light
In an age of burnout and anger, we need to find answers. And, if that’s the case, what’s also crucial about all of these books is that while they explore our darkest moments, they are also building towards acceptance, resolution and hope.
“I wanted to give my women a hopeful, happy ending,” explains Buchanan. “Realistically, I think and hope we’re starting to see a huge structural revolution – it’s not something that an individual can solve. We’ve all tried that, and it doesn’t work for us.
“But if I want readers to take away one message from Careering, it’s the realisation that our dreams have to be bigger than our jobs. Work won’t ever love us back, but it was never supposed to. We can’t keep outsourcing our self-esteem and sense of identity to our employers. But maybe it begins with a little honesty and reflection. It will be painful and awkward but we need to work out what it is that we’re looking for work to give us, emotionally. Then we can begin to create it for ourselves.”
Johnson also writes towards notes of hope: “I thought [Post-Traumatic’s] ending should land softly. I prefer the word recovery to healing. Recovery denotes ‘getting something back that you’ve lost’ which is more resonant to me than ‘becoming whole’. As one of my characters would say, ‘Wholeness is, like, a myth or whatever.’
“Violence and mistreatment can deprive survivors of their ability to relate to other people, so activities that enable commonality can be vital for recovery. In Post-Traumatic, commonality happens through advocacy for others, reading, music, and friendship. Therapy as well, but to me, good therapy is about more than disclosure: it’s a kind of friendship.”
In Post-Traumatic, Vivian’s story concludes: “The best writing was like a good friend, in the way that it gave you permission to be yourself.”
These new books are holding up to the light what it means to be a woman in 2022 to and, in doing so, are showing us ways to navigate the most complex of times.
Other titles to watch
Lauren John Joseph’s At Certain Points We Touch (out 3 March, £14.99, Bloomsbury) tackles love, toxicity and grief told by a trans protagonist while the highly acclaimed I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins (out now, £16.99, Riverrun) is about a new mother who breaks out from her stifling domestic demands to pursue hedonism in the Mojave Desert.
New Animal by Ella Baxter (out 17 February, £14.99, Picador) channels the heroine’s grief and pain through a 72-hour wild exploration of sex and BDSM. The burnout aesthetic even extends to the Vintage Heroines’ new editions of classic books, Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel My Year Of Rest And Relaxation and Xiaolu Guo’s 2008 book 20 Fragments Of A Ravenous Youth.
Images: courtesy of publishers