REVIEW: Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

In brief: A story of an unnamed woman, told through conversations with others.

The good: Quirky but fascinating.

The not-so-good: If you’re looking for a plot driven book, this isn’t it.

Why I chose it: Readings said it was good. So I bought it because I trust their recommendations.

Year: 2020

Pages: 215

Publisher: Serpent’s Tail

Setting: America

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Topics of Conversation is an interesting book in terms of format and it won’t be for everyone. If you enjoy Rachel Cusk’s books, I think you’ll love Miranda Popkey. The style is similar, but Popkey’s writing seems more personal to me. It’s a not a plot or character driven novel, but it’s fascinating because of all the in-depth, primarily one-sided conversations that make up the novel. It’s like eavesdropping, but without the guilt.

The narrator of Topics of Conversation isn’t named, and the reader gets a vague understanding of what is occurring in her life as the basis of the conversation pieces. It can be summed up as a young woman going through life, making bad decisions and trying to make her life hers. Each chapter is denoted by a place and year, running in chronological order. The locations of conversation are varied, but the overall theme is that of women. The imbalance between genders. Relationships, and what happens that can influence a young woman’s path through life. Assault, sexual assault. Desire. Hatred. Infidelity. How to stuff things up because they are going too smoothly. It’s the story of women making decisions that can be long lasting and having to live with the consequences. Some decisions are poor and set the women up for a hard road. Others are occasionally liberating. The topics of conversation also offer advice, which for the main part the narrator doesn’t listen to, she’ll make her own way there. Her own mistakes. Sort out the consequences later. It’s a warts and all book.

The book is a little disjointed because of the style. (The conversation ends when the other character wants it to, which means that it’s not necessarily complete with all questions answered). It would be relatively easy to pick up and put down, reading each section as a separate short story but I think that would mean losing sight of the overall themes of the novel. It’s a story of feminism, it’s a story of the bad things the sexes do to each other and it’s a story of intimacy. Each character lays their soul bare in the conversation for the reader to pick up on what wasn’t said. That is something Popkey does well – the nuances of what isn’t said with little detail. The run-on sentences help too with the conversational feel.

While this book won’t be for everyone, I enjoyed it. It’s like a series of essays told by a character in conversation. I liked that informal feel, in addition to the intimacy.

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