After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz

With After Sappho, Selby Wynn Schwartz takes an entrancing look at art, sapphism, feminism and the emancipation of women in 19th- and 20th-century Europe. Not just a feminist manifesto, After Sappho is also a testimony to the beauty of women – not in a material sense, but rather in celebration of their intelligence, their strength (both quiet and boisterous) and their endurance to keep fighting for a better future.

Using a multitude of storylines expressed in short vignettes, Schwartz dives right into the heart of the patriarchal systems designed to place women as subordinate to men. In re-imagining the lives of noted figures such as Gertrude Stein, Romaine Brooks and Josephine Baker, as well as lesser-known writers such as Rina Faccio Pierangeli, Schwartz details the harsh oppression these women faced, from being denied an education to the transactional nature of their marriages to abusive men – one even to her rapist. But from the depths of this darkness, Schwartz shines a light, connecting these women’s struggles to the likes of women in the past. Though they may live like the cursed prophet Cassandra, whose words were always dismissed and forgotten, they are buoyed by the gentle power of Sappho, whose writing exemplifies the support that women can offer each other, in both friendship and love.

One storyline follows Virginia Woolf at the beginning of her writing career, highlighting the brightness and cleverness that would make her one of the most prominent modernist authors known today. Although many of the other women Schwartz writes about have been largely forgotten, Schwartz begs us to look back and acknowledge the potential they had, the passion they held in their hearts and the tenderness they had for one another. There is a delicacy to those bonds women have, an invisible string that connects them, which Schwartz honours with her equally beguiling prose.

After Sappho is not just a tribute to the women of the past, but a call for women in the present to continue this legacy, to embrace every feminine and womanly thing about you – however you choose to define it – despite any adversity the world throws against you.

Aurelia Orr is a bookseller at Readings Kids.

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After Sappho: Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize

After Sappho: Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize

Selby Wynn Schwartz

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