It may only be fragments of conversation, but nothing is off limits in Miranda Popkey’s first novel Topics of Conversation. Desire, motherhood, loneliness, relationships, pain and art are all explored in this short but potent book. Literary in style, it evokes the writings of Rachel Cusk and Sally Rooney, but has a strong voice and style. The unnamed narrator explores her own identity through conversations and confessions, and at the same time the novel broadens out its horizons to discover what a female identity is. Many experiences are paralleled, yet at the same time the feelings they trigger are utterly unique. Ruminations and reflections illuminate the narrator’s and reader’s lives at the same time.
It’s all about working out which moments make a life, and how we get to where we are – and crucially, who we are. The controlled yet stream of consciousness style evokes the feeling that you are thinking through the issues with the narrator, who may or may not be Popkey herself (both are Californian natives in their early thirties). ‘I, at twenty-one, did not, had not yet settled on the governing narrative of my life. Had not yet realized the folly of governing narratives,’ she says, and embarks on trying to figure that out. She acknowledges that, like so many women, ‘I have been, that I continue to be, best at being a vessel for the desire of others.’
It’s a biting dissection, and the self consciousness that gleams onto the page sometimes feels selfish, but you get the feeling that’s what she’s aiming for. We are all living our own lives, and it shouldn’t be shocking that sometimes what we want comes first (even when it’s a case of disliking your own child, as one woman reveals). There’s a brilliant line that rings true yet makes the reader feel slightly uncomfortable in its veracity – ‘Isn’t that the test of love? The test of intimacy? The willingness to be cruel and the belief that, the moment of cruelty passed, the love, the intimacy, remains, undamaged.’
Each chapter could stand alone, as it’s more a selection of reflective pieces rather than pacey plot driven novel. Coming of age and discovering yourself can be lonely and difficult, but this brilliant first step from Popkey is a handbook to have onside.