Books

REVIEW: Catherine Chung's entertaining, provocative new feminist novel

Chris Deerin hails the inspirational tale of a brilliant maths student who battles everyday sexism in order to fulfil her destiny in Catherine Chung's The Tenth Muse and enjoys the timeliness of Adrian Tinniswood's look at the Uber-posh in The House Party

The nine muses, known as the Daughters of Zeus, bestowed genius upon men in the fields of literature, science and the arts.

But there was, according to Catherine Chung, a 10th muse who refused to play the game. Rather than pass her juju on to the fellas, she decided to keep and use it for herself. For this choice, she was stripped of her title, her gifts and her immortality.

Thus begins The Tenth Muse, Chung’s exquisitely mapped journey through the life of Katherine, a brilliant Chinese-American maths student who is repeatedly forced to choose between being true to her precocious talent and accepting the reduced role society expects of her.

Katherine is repressed, underestimated and betrayed in the heavily masculine environment that characterised her discipline through the middle of the 20th century. “If only you were a man… I’d ask you to be my assistant next year”, one professor tells her. “If you were a man, you’d have a brilliant future ahead of you”, says another. The reader’s blood boils along with Katherine’s.

As she fights for recognition, she also embarks on an investigation into her own confused origins – where does her gift come from? What is her true family background? – that takes her to Europe and into the darkest recesses of the continent’s past. The novel unfolds, fittingly, as a series of puzzles that must be solved.

Page-turner, philosophical investigation and statement of intent, The Tenth Muse is an entertaining and provocative contribution to the era of #metoo

Throughout, Katherine fulfils the role of a feminist Scheherazade, relating the stories of women through history who have fought for their individuality, who have taken the harder path. She puts some things right: how the original Little Red Riding Hood escaped the wolf using her wits rather than being rescued by a woodsman; how mothers rather than stepmothers were once the villains. Then men such as the Brothers Grimm got their hands on the stories.

Page-turner, philosophical investigation and statement of intent, The Tenth Muse is an entertaining and provocative contribution to the era of #metoo.

Speaking of good timing, Adrian Tinniswood’s The House Party has come along at just the right moment too. Britain having decided to revert to being run by entitled Old Etonians, Tinniswood provides us with a guide to the anything-goes weekend pursuits of the uber-posh. Shooting, croquet, gambling and midnight bedroom-swapping in baronial halls all feature, as do debauched royals and their aristocratic hangers-on. It’s a highly enjoyable romp through toff etiquette and bad behaviour. Boris fits right in.

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung (Little, Brown, £16.99)

The House Party – A Short History of Leisure, Pleasure and the Country House Weekend by Adrian Tinniswood (Faber&Faber, £10)

Illustration: Michelle Urra

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