Topics of Conversation: Desire, Difficult Conversations and An Even More Difficult Narrator

I’m writing this review feeling just a little bit unsure what I have just read because Topics of Conversation is unlike anything else I’ve read. An unreliable and at times unlikable narrator draws out, often inadvertently, the deepest secrets of those women she meets whilst also ruminating on her own existence. Miranda Popkey does not shy away from having these women speak about problematic issues.

Based around a series of conversations between the narrator and various women in her life, this premise is the standout feature of this book. To tell a woman’s story through the conversations she has with other women and to boldly celebrate the ways in which women will open up to one another is refreshing. 

Popkey celebrates and elevates conversation throughout – at times making it appear also like an erotic experience:

There is, below the surface of every conversation in which intimacies are shared, an erotic current … this is the natural outcome of disclosure, for to disclose is to reveal … and that unwrapping, that denuding, is always, inevitably sensual.” 

Bold too is the narrative style which jumps forward in time with only the briefest of explanations from the narrator as to what has happened in the intervening time. Yes this is disconcerting at first, but the manner in which it mimics our own thought processes means that, for me anyway, the reader is able to settle into the narrative rhythm. 

Our narrator speaks with a cool stream of consciousness which is not dissimilar in style to Sally Rooney, though it is slightly more nuanced. Like Rooney much of the setting is everyday but the characters crackle with interest and individuality, from a women who effectively divorces both her husband and daughter, to the first female conversationalist who discloses her experience of an almost stalkerish first husband.   

I have seen a few mixed reviews for this novel and I wonder if perhaps it’s down to the narrator who is both unlikeable and unreliable. This is in some ways a fun little conceit but for me at times it put me off reading. 

Why is she unlikable? Well to begin with she is pretentious, apathetic and unsympathetic to those around her. She is selfish. All this is off putting but so is her unreliability which makes it hard to get a handle on the narrator. Of course this is a part of her stream of consciousness; at times it seems as though she is trying to fool herself. She openly admits to lying or to telling half truths. 

These details are hard to remember. Also I may be exaggerating them. Also I may be minimising them. The difference between the two – for when memory is retold in particulars, inevitable, are brightened or muted depending on the arc of the story of which it is part – a question of, determined by, desire.”  

Female desire features prominently and in many ways this book explores the sexual wants and drives of women in a much more honest way than Three Women (which was hailed as a very modern take on the topic). Here women simply fall out of love, question their sexuality and acknowledge that at times their desire is shaped by their self image or past experiences. 

All in all this novel is an interesting and at times challenging read. If you’re a fan of Sally Rooney then this might be for you.

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