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Yet what comes through forcefully in all these narratives is a desire for intimacy, whether with a partner, family member, or imaginary interlocutor. Invariably vulnerable to self-sabotage, when and if it does arrive, that intimacy is more likely to be found in a friendship with a female friend. Men are afterthoughts, while marriage and motherhood are treated, at best, with extreme ambivalence, a phenomenon increasingly seen across different art forms — in films like Yngvild Sve Flikke's Ninjababy; books such as Sheila Heti's Motherhood; and Ferrante's The Lost Daughter, now a film. But though unflinching and unsentimental, this rawness — call it flawed-ness — is also deliciously subversive, a counter to all the restrictive norms dictating what women protagonists, and women generally, should be. Maria may be tangled up in her thoughts and tethered to her distinctive voice, but they are a treat for the reader to inhabit, even if only for 24 hours. As Strout correctly says to Ferrante in their epistolary back-and-forth, "For me, Lucy [Barton] was her voice. And in your work, the protagonists are their voice."
Laura Allsop is a writer and editor based in London, with a specialism in art and culture. Her writing has appeared in AnOther Magazine, ArtReview and The Guardian, among other titles.
Thirsty Sea continues a tradition of simultaneously confessional and elliptical writing by women that stretches from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar to the fourth-wall busting, televisual crise de coeur Fleabag. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge's delightful, spiky protagonist, Maria is unable to sustain a relationship, treading water professionally and still processing family trauma. "Today, it’s twenty-five years since I killed my sister," she tells us early on, packaging her lifelong guilt in a matter-of-fact, almost comical bluntness that has come to characterise the narrative voice in a growing canon of female-scripted books, TV series and films. Balancing pain with a kind of jaded humour, it contains a direct challenge to the audience: "Love me or hate me," it seems to say, "I don't care."
Except these women clearly do care, no matter the context. Whether it's Waller-Bridge's titular Fleabag; the broken, unreliable narrators of Ottessa Moshfegh's novels; or the eternally self-conscious narrator of Lauren Oyler's Fake Accounts, whose know-it-all posturing is ultimately completely undermined – these are lost souls trying desperately to find their way. Spontaneously informal at moments, cautious and withholding at others, the voice they speak with, whether in a voiceover or first-person narration, and despite regional and cultural differences, is one that provokes, teases, and resists all at the same time.
The Female 'I'
By Laura Allsop.
"In reality there is no story of the other that is not filtered through an 'I'", wrote Italian literary phenomenon Elena Ferrante to the esteemed American author Elizabeth Strout in a correspondence recently published in The Guardian. "No matter how love for others and language as an act of love try continuously, insistently, desperately to get outside the margins of the suffocating first-person singular," Ferrante goes on to say, "we remain bodies organically enclosed in our isolation."
The immersive seductions of the first-person singular are very much at work in Thirsty Sea, Italian singer-songwriter Erica Mou's debut novel. Narrated by Maria, it chronicles a day in the life of a young woman in a state of free-fall, haunted by her past, sidestepping her present, and stalked by a future she is reluctant to meet. Switching between different narrative modes — poetry and comedy, memoir and stream of consciousness — Maria is trapped in her impossible, maze-like consciousness. But the 'I' she would clearly love to escape nevertheless appears halfway through the very first sentence of the novel, as if it couldn't be avoided — just like her daily homecoming to a partner she no longer loves cannot be put off, nor the looming doctor's appointment she has booked for the following day.