I’m delighted to share the third of my reviews as shadow judge for The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award this year. Today I have my review of Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler. You’ll find more about the award here on Linda’s Book Bag and on The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer’s Award website.
Published by Little Brown imprint Fleet, Stubborn Archivist is available for purchase through the links here.
When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world.
This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity.
My Review of Stubborn Archivist
An account of a young woman’s life.
Stubborn Archivist is a complex and intriguing read that held me spellbound even as it confused and beguiled me. I loved the title. With little conventional fictional plot, the narrative is, to some degree, an archive of one person’s life and whilst they have both British and Brazilian heritage, they have to cling stubbornly to their own sense of self and identity. I’m writing so generically about ‘they’ because other than being referred to frequently as the baby, the name of the woman is elusive, reflecting the looseness of her identity and her difficulty in defining herself and where she belongs.
The sections in Portuguese added a brilliant level of authenticity because my inability to read them perfectly mirrored the struggle in the protagonist’s life. Snatches of meaning came through, and at other times these meanings felt obfuscated so that I experienced some of the same frustrations and misunderstandings of the woman whose life is gradually being revealed by the narrative. I thought this was a hugely appropriate technique.
Similarly, the fractured structure of the book, looking sometimes more akin to poetry or a list than prose, the white space suggesting not all the protagonist’s life has been lived or defined yet, but rather that there is more to come, all contributed to the sense of searching for personal identity. I thought this was innovative and so effective. Although punctuation is used almost haphazardly on occasion, I felt this was perfect in delineating some of the truths in the book and leaving open interpretation or less definite elements at other times. Stubborn Archivist pushes the boundaries of conventional writing and makes the reader engage with the text on so many levels. The total lack of speech marks led me to wonder how much of the conversation had been filtered or falsely remembered and how much was true. There’s an unreliabilty in Stubborn Archivist that I found fascinating.
Frequently Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s writing is visual and poetic. Through imagery of food, flora and vividly lyrical descriptions the reader is transported to Brazil, rural England and London so that there is a deep sense of place and its relevance to identity in Stubborn Archivist. The contrast of heat and cold gave far more definition to Brazil and London than the young woman is able to find in her own identity. I also loved the way in which quite shocking or disturbing events are dropped into the narrative almost casually so that I actually exclaimed aloud on a couple of occasions.
The theme of identity is masterfully presented, especially through the physical effect on the protagonist’s body and through the inclusion of family oral history, because although it is individual and personal it also helps create a sense of national and political identity too. It had the added effect of making me recall my own family’s stories and thereby reconnected me to my own sense if self as well as to Stubborn Archivist as a reader.
Feminist, international and creative, Stubborn Archivist is a book I haven’t fully got to grips with. It will reward many readings and I have a feeling I have hardly scratched the surface of what it has to offer. It’s intriguing, frustrating and simultaneously beautifully written. I think you should read if for yourself!
About Yara Rodrigues Fowler
Yara Rodrigues Fowler is a British Brazilian novelist from South London. Her first novel, Stubborn Archivist, was published in 2019 in the UK and USA. It was called ’stunning’ by Olivia Laing, ‘visceral and elegant’ by Claire-Louise Bennett and ‘breathtakingly written’ by Nikesh Shukla.
Yara was named one of The Observer’s nine ‘hottest-tipped’ debut novelists of 2019 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.
Yara is also a trustee of Latin American Women’s Aid, an organisation that runs the only two refuges in Europe for and by Latin American women. She’s writing her second novel now, for which she received the John C Lawrence Award from the Society of Authors towards research in Brazil.