Polly Clark's Top 7 Books with Heroines on the Edge

Polly Clark
Category: Reading
Tagged: reading

Polly Clark's much anticipated debut novel Larchfield is released today. It charts the tale of Dora Fielding and the challenges she faces as she adapts to small town life and finds herself on the edge of the world she once knew. Read on to discover some of Polly Clark's favourite novels concerned with women on the edge... 

It’s not difficult to find heroines on the edge in fiction, whether contemporary or classic. A woman’s struggle to submit completely to the roles demanded of her has driven plots since the novel began. I am drawn to such stories, in part for the obvious reason that I am a woman myself and have some inkling of these matters, but also because this writhing inside, disintegrating beneath or triumphing over forces beyond our control is the human story. We all exist at the intersection between society’s expectations of us, and our simple humanity trying to exist: this conflict is as old as society itself.


Thinking through these particular favourites what interested me most was how slippery an idea madness soon becomes. How much of madness is a natural response to a mad situation? How much a survival strategy? What does it really mean to be mentally ill, and what does it tell us that so often the drugs don’t work? A tenet of psychoanalysis is that really listening to and understanding another person is an act of love with great healing powers. All these stories to some extent explore that powerful notion: we are all sane when we are loved.


1. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This longish short story published in 1892 is startlingly modern, in that the nameless heroine’s breakdown resembles so many accounts you might read about today. The end is truly shocking, even though the book never moves from its simple one room setting. Its terror derives from this very simplicity: the heroine is wrapped in the well-meaning cotton wool of her husband’s love from which there is no escape.


2. Paradise by AL Kennedy

This is a lesser-known novel by Kennedy but my favourite. Hannah Luckraft is a hapless alcoholic whose life is disintegrating around her. What is so heartbreaking about this book is the love story at its heart, not with booze, but with Robert, also an alcoholic. Their story, mired in blackouts and mishaps, is as touching and romantic as any more conventional, and shows the human longing for connection over impossible odds.


3. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Towes

It is the heroine’s sister who is on the edge in this story. It’s a powerful evocation of the effect of mental illness – or simply endless despair – on those around those afflicted. Elfrieda is talented and fragile and is obsessed by her wish to end her life. Her family repeatedly intervene to save her, but in the end how long can it go on for? Should the real act of love be to help release the person from their pain? It’s a fascinating perspective to take, showing the sheer human cost of untreatable mental illness.


4. A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

The whole of London is on the edge in this thriller, where heroine Stevie fends off a deadly virus and some assassination attempts. On the way she loses a boyfriend, and a potential new love to the virus and has nowhere to turn. I’ve included it because it’s an interesting take on the idea of a heroine being on the edge: not a victim in any way, Stevie channels despair into action, and keeps doggedly on because everything depends on her doing so. It may be a deadly virus and not the patriarchy, but this novel cheered me up with the notion that fighting the forces beyond your control is good for you!


Goodmorning Midnight
5. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

I love Jean Rhys’s heroines, many of them rooted in autobiography. They exist on the margins of life, adept at surviving poverty and indifference. Heroine Sasha returns to Paris though she has no money, and the city is where her marriage broke down and her child died. This novel did not do well when it was published, being criticised as ‘too depressing’, but I find it a stunning portrayal of female loneliness, and I loved too the colourful depiction of a kind of ‘community of the lonely’.


6. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

This is one of my favourite books of all time. Frank, the hero, is struggling to keep dreams alive in the tedious world of work and 1950s conformity. But it is his wife, the dreamer April, who provides the novel’s devastating twist. She throws into stark relief the question burning at the heart of every heroine’s instability: is it her fragile, girlish nature which has caused her downfall – or is it the roles imposed on her that have proved impossible to withstand?


7. Transit by Rachel Cusk

This second in a projected trilogy finds heroine Faye moving to London with her sons and renovating a flat above some ghastly neighbours. As in the previous book Outline, Faye operates as a kind of reflector of those around her. Through her we see the foibles and peculiarities of others, while she herself remains enigmatic. I find the voice of Faye, and therefore of the novel, unique in any fiction I’ve read: in a sense she is the logical extension of these other suffering heroines. Faye is obliterated, like sand turned to glass by some incredible force. It means we can see through her and understand her world clearly, but it takes an act of human connection at the end of the book, someone actually ‘seeing’ her, to restore her to herself.


Find more reading recommendations in our book lists!

Polly Clark

Polly Clark’s debut novel Larchfield is published by Riverrun in March 2017. It stars W.H. Auden, the Scottish town of Helensburgh, and the fictional Dora, poet and heroine on the edge. When still a manuscript Larchfield won the Mslexia novel prize and is described by Louis de Bernieres as ‘a mysterious, wondrous, captivating book’. She is the author of three poetry collections, which among them have won an Eric Gregory Award, been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and twice been chosen as Poetry Book Society books of the year. Polly is Literature Programme Producer of Cove Park, Scotland’s International Artist Residency Centre, where she brings writers from all over the world to take part in an interdisciplinary residency programme.

Find out more at: www.pollyclark.co.uk, on Twitter @MsPollyClark, and on Quercus' website.

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