The North Recommends: Whitley Book Group

Whitley Book Group, Whitley Bay, North Tyneside


We are a group of readers in Whitley Bay, linked by a mesh of friendship, home, young children, and love of reading. We are also a group of women – which I think is semi- intentional and perhaps gives us a sense of common ground, sometimes comfort, and affords us a freedom we might not otherwise feel.

Most of the books we’ve read are by women; we have read books by men, one was Lolita (by Vladimir Nabokov) which many of us found unbearably distressing…yes, but excruciatingly and brilliantly so. His play with words is unfathomable – they twist and slip together descriptions like wholly satisfying objects you want to roll around in your mouth, every minute move of the horrific protagonist is palpable, and every scene is filmily present, (no, I haven’t seen the film); you can’t help feeling yourself present, he can even be funny, then the next moment is so magnificently ghastly that you have to stop reading to extricate yourself.

I felt that Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein opened up the area of gender identity and explored it with a light touch. Most of our group found the book stilted, not helped by the many puns. But I loved the feeling of dampness which pervades the whole book and found the thematic riffs that ring through it satisfying (I’m still puzzling over ‘am I the teller or the tale’). The atmospheric monster business in the rain came back to visit me watching Jodie Whittaker in a recent episode of Dr Who with the children.

We all loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and were universally blown away by the depth of characterisation. I felt totally bereft at the end and had to find all the songs Ifemelu listens to on youtube to reinhabit her world. The book provoked much discussion around Adichie’s complex drawing of how being black is viewed in American and British (London in the novel) society. I found much of it deeply shocking and learnt a lot about the fault lines drawn by racial biases in both societies. There’s nothing remotely didactic, or dry; it’s articulated through the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze, always with warmth and compassion. And, Adichie also pulls you breathlessly through the sweetest most torturous love story ever.

Other highlights have been Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo which tells the gloriously various, individual and interlinked stories of twelve people; mostly black, mostly women; and Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means. This is pure elegance, run through with an exquisitely searing, dry wit which grabs you by your chest forcing you to laugh; meanwhile, terrible yet understated tragedies quietly unfold.

Next, we’re onto The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, chosen as usual by a hilariously convoluted voting system which could be simply replaced by each of us choosing a book in turn…. but that would be way less fun!