This week’s Book of the Week is Lissa Evans’s new novel – which is appropriate because it comes out on Thursday! You may remember that one of her previous books, Crooked Heart, was a Book of the Week just under 18 months ago so I was thrilled to spot this one on NetGalley and be able to pick it up. You don’t need to have read Crooked Heart to read this – but if you have I think it will add an extra layer to your enjoyment.
Old Baggage is the story of Matilda. Before the war, she was a suffragette and her life revolved around the quest to get women the vote. Now it’s 1928 and women are about to get parity – the vote on the same terms as men. Mattie is pleased but she doesn’t think the battle is over. Unfortunately no-one else seems to agree with her and she’s rather at sea trying to figure out what she should do next. The book follows Mattie as she searches for a new mission – with her loyal friend Florrie Lee (known as The Flea) supporting her and trying to be a calming influence. Along the way she encounters old friends who’ve faced a similar dilemma and is stung by a criticism from one of them, who is trying to recruit Mattie to help with her facist youth group, that she is just a dabbler. And so she sets up a rival group – to try and educate young women about why they take an interest and get involved in causes that they believe in – or that Mattie thinks that they should believe in.
I really liked Mattie as a character – she’d be a nightmare to be friends with because you’d never get a word in edgeways and she would always tell you if she disagreed with you and go into details about why – but she’s fascinating to read about. For all her talk of being sensible and levelheaded, she has some very real blindspots. She’s definitely on the right side of history but she’s not always going about it in the right way. And when she picks the wrong person to try and take under her wing, it puts everything that she’s worked for at risk. On top of this, Mattie’s history with the suffragettes – her confrontations with police, her time in prison etc – often means that there are people who aren’t prepared to listen to her or take her seriously. It almost goes without saying, but the title of this book is so clever and well chosen – Mattie has a lot of baggage from her suffragette days but a lot of people see her as an old baggage – a nuisance of an old woman, out of touch and past her prime.
I also really liked the Flea – for all Mattie’s talk and noble aims, it’s Florrie who is out there in the real world trying to do something to make a difference on a day to day basis. She’s the sensible counterpoint to Mattie’s idealist and shows that you need the quiet organisers behind the scenes to get things done as well as the people on the frontline. And Ida, one of the young women who is drawn into Mattie and Florrie’s orbit, is an interesting character in her own right and not just a plot device for showing the strengths and weaknesses of Mattie and Florrie.
It’s 100 years this year since some women in Britain got the vote and a lot has been written about the Suffrage and Suffragette movements. There’s a stack of new books out this year – and I’ve got many of them on my to-buy list – many of them non-fiction. But sometimes the situation calls for some fiction too and Old Baggage reminds us – in a very readable and compelling way – that the fight didn’t end in 1918 and takes a very plausible (in my view) look at what might have happened next to some of the women whose lives had revolved around trying to get the vote before the start of World War One. Evans has used a very light hand when it comes to the flashbacks of the realities of Mattie’s life as a suffragette – I could have read pages more about it.
I may not have read much last week in the grand scheme of things, but I think this would probably have been my BotW pick even if I’d read a dozen books. It’s not onle massively readable – I raced through it and wished that I could have been disciplined enough to make it last longer – but it makes you think and gives you things to chew over long after you’ve finished reading it. As I mentioned at the top, my copy was an e-galley – so it’s also going on my to-buy list because I know that my mum and my sister will really enjoy this.
Old Baggage is out in hardback on the 14th – you’ve still got time to preorder it and have it get to you on the day of release if you’re quick. I hope it gets a good push at the bookshops – I’d expect it to be in all the good bookshops, but I’m not sure about the supermarkets. I’m sure Big Green Bookshop will be happy to get it in for you, but it’s also available in Kindle and Kobo if you want an ebook.