BOOK REVIEWS

Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

“My father wasn’t a wound or even a scar, not a black hole or a dry desert. He just wasn’t. Not for me anyway. Mom was my sun and my moon. I was her all, too, and that was us.”

In Crooked Hallelujah Kelli Jo Ford presents her readers with a nonlinear exploration of the lives of four generations of Cherokee women. Each chapter can be read as a self-contained story, focusing on a particular phase of a character’s life (childhood, teenage years, early adulthood, etc). The first chapter gives us a flavour of these women’s lives: in 1974 Justine lives with her mother, Lula, and her grandmother, Granny, in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Both Lula and Granny are ardent members of the Holiness Church. Justine, like the rest of her relatives, has to abide her church’s strict rules: she has to lead a pious life, dress modestly, conduct herself in a godly manner, say no to the sins of the flesh…the list goes on. Whereas Lula and Granny are passionate about their community, Justine finds herself growing restless. As teased by the novel’s summary, an ‘act of violence’ sets on her own journey, one that sees becoming entangled with layabouts, abusers, and alcoholics. Her daughter, Reney, finds herself following in her mother’s steps, ending up with men who are good-for-nothing. Some of the chapters focus on characters who don’t seem all that connected to the lives of Justine and Reney, and Granny, easily the most likeable character of the lot, doesn’t get enough page-time.
The nonlinearity of these stories was detrimental to my reading experience. Justine and Reney’s personalities blurred together, as they both seemed defined by the men they are with. Granny, on the other hand, had some discernible character traits that made into a far more rounded character. Lula remains an undeveloped character, someone who appears know and again as a woman who has been indoctrinated and blinded by her religious (in the first chapter alone she demonstrated some initiative). Justine has some sisters but they might as well not be there as are barely mentioned. The majority of the men were either despicable or incompetent. Then we have this odd chapter which focuses on a Forrest Gump sort of figure that felt really out-of-place (what did he have to do with Justine and Reney’s stories?).
I can’t say that I found Crooked Hallelujah to be a particularly memorable read. Rocky structure aside the characters and their storylines did not really leave a mark. We have snapshots from Justine and Reney lives, and these often emphasise how rootless they feel, or their questionable taste in men. I wish I’d gotten a stronger impression of the bond between Justine and Reney, or Reney and Granny (Reney tells us that Granny was her soulmate but the two shared very few moments together).
Still, I liked the author’s dialogues as she manages to convey different argots and dynamics. Her prose was for the most part okay, but, as I said above, her storyline seemed unfocused and repetitive and her characters were pretty thinly rendered. I can sort of see why so many other reviewers gave this one 3 stars. It isn’t necessarily bad but it just never seemed to reach its full potential. Zalika Reid-Benta in Frying Plantain not only implements a similar narrative structure but explores similar themes and dynamics (between mother/daughter, mother/grandmother, grandchild/grandmother) in a much more impactful and meaningful way, so I would probably recommend you pick that one up instead.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

“Loving a country besides the one you lived in was a recipe for disaster.”

The Star Side of Bird Hill is an enjoyable coming-of-age novel about two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, who are sent off by their mother to spend their summer with their grandmother, Hyacinth, in a small town in Barbados. The girls’ aren’t too happy to leave Brooklyn, even if their homelife hasn’t been great given that their mother, who is suffering from depression and no longer works, can’t look after them (or herself for the matter). In Bird Hill they are forced to acclimatise to a different culture, and are often treated as foreign by their grandmother’s community. Although Phaedra, who is 10, misses her mum, she soon grows attached to Hyacinth, especially once she learns how vital a role she plays in the community. Fifteen-year-old Dionne on the other hand, repeatedly clashes with Hyacinth and her rules. Even if she resents her mother, for having sent her away and for forcing her to take care of both her and Phaedra, she’s clearly hurting.
As the summer goes by the two sisters adapt to life in Bird Hill. Phaedra, who is made fun of by other young girls for being a bit of a tomboy, finds fulfilment in learning more of her family’s history and of her grandmother’s job as a midwife. Dionne takes far longer to adjust to Bird Hill and their grandmother’s presence. She flaunts her rules and seems intent on being as difficult as possible. After certain events happen, she too begins to reconcile herself with her life in Bird Hill and Hyacinth.
Throughout the course of the novel we are given flashbacks into the girls’ childhood as well as the start and end of their mother’s relationship with their father.

“You practice being one kind of thing too long, and soon enough that’s who you become.”

While the storyline is somewhat conventional of this ‘coming-of-age’ genre, the author injects vitality into her story thanks to the character of Hyacinth and the vividly rendered setting of Bird Hill. Hyacinth was a force of nature (and funny too: “Oh Lord, please deliver me from these Yankee children”). I loved her no-nonsense attitude and the many wisdoms she imparts on her granddaughters. Phaedra too was a likeable character (who likes reading Jamaica Kincaid, always a plus in my books), who had a clear personality from the get-go. Dionne, in comparison, was a far weaker character. She’s very much the epitome of rebellious and angsty teenager who spends most of her time disrespecting her elders and thinking about sex. Which is fair enough, but because Hyacinth and Phaedra weren’t relegated to their ‘grandmother’ or ‘young child’ role, Dionne’s poor characterisation—which hinges on her being a teenager—stood out.
The writing was heavy on the ‘telling’ and light on the ‘showing’. Conversations are summarised rather than being ‘played’ on the page, and because the third-person narrative switches from character-to-charcater the same events or information would be repeated over the course of a few pages. The flashbacks could have been better integrated within the narrative, as they often broke the flow of the story, and gave us chunks of backstory that could have been portioned out more uniformly.
Still, I liked reading about Bird Hill, Hyacinth, and Phaedra. And even if the story touches on topics such as mental illnesses, it did so without delving too deep in them, so that it maintained an overall lighthearted, if bittersweet, tone.
I would probably recommend it to readers who enjoyed Frying Plantain or other novel that focus on family relationships between women (mother/daughters, granddaughters/grandmothers).

MY RATING 3 / 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

V

BOOK REVIEWS

Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese

“We become eternal by being held in memory’s loving arms.”

After I read Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk, I was looking forward to reading more of his work. And Ragged Company did not disappoint. Similarly to Medicine Walk, which felt like a long conversation between a dying man and his son, Ragged Company presents its readers with a dialogue-heavy narrative. Amelia One Sky, Timber, Double Dick and Digger are the makeshift family at the heart of this novel. After enduring personal tragedies and hardships they now live on the street, referring to themselves as rounders, where they spend their days drifting from street to street, on the lookout for warm spots, food, and drink. During a particularly cold winter they start seeking refuge in movie theatres, where they find themselves being swept away by the films they watch. They repeatedly come across the same man, a former journalist called Granite, who also views films as an escape. After the loss of his wife and child Granite views films as an escape from the pain of his lonely existence. While not everyone is keen on his presence, Digger for one is particularly against ‘Square Johns’ (that is ‘respectable’ members of society), our rounders form a sort of companionship with Granite.
When Digger picks up a winning lottery ticket, for the value of 13.5 million dollars, their lives are irrevocably changed. Because they don’t have any proper identification they seek Granite’s help. Although their newfound wealth drastically changes their lives and lifestyles, they have difficulty assimilating back into society. They carry their trauma with them, and are all similarly haunted by their past. As each character tries to confront their past actions and mistakes, the bond between our makeshift family deepens. Things don’t go smoothly for all, and at times no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to forgive yourself for the terrible things that you did.
As I said this is a very dialogue-oriented story. Whereas in Medicine Walk descriptions of the natural landscape offer breaks in the father/son talk, in Ragged Company the focus remains on the characters’ conversations and arguments. Still, First Nation beliefs and teachings around spirituality illuminate its narrative.
Although this isn’t an easy or fast read, I loved it. Wagamese has a gift for creating realistic characters, and an ear for dialogue. Although he doesn’t loose himself in sentimentalities he demonstrates careful empathy when writing about his characters’ suffering. Because the story is set in 1980s the films our characters watch and discuss could easily seem dated or obscure, but thanks to Wagamese skill for conveying his characters impressions of these films they don’t (if anything he made me want to watch those films I didn’t know about). Plus Cinema Paradiso gets a mention!
If you happen to have read other books by Wagamese or you watched and enjoyed Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers chances are Ragged Company is the book for you.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Uncategorized

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

“What we had that day was our story. We didn’t have the other bit, the future, and we had no way of knowing what that would be like. Perhaps it would change our memory of al of this, or perhaps it would draw from it, nobody knew. But I’m sure I felt the story of that hall and how we reached it would never vanish.”

Mayflies is novel about the friendship between two Glaswegian men. The first half of the novel is set in the summer of 1986 when our narrator, James, alongside four of his friends go to Manchester to watch some of their favourite bands. Andrew O’Hagan really brings this era to life, through their slang and the references they use. During the course of this freewheeling weekend they have the time of their lives, going to pubs and clubs, getting up to shenanigans, hanging out withs strangers, all the while animatedly discussing music and politics (Thatcher, the miners’ strike). James, who is the more bookish and reserved of the lot, is particularly close to Tully, who is the undeniable glue that binds their group together and a wonderful friend. While this first half of the novel is all about what if feels to be young, reckless, free, and full of life, O’Hagan’s characters, regardless of their age, are capable serious reflections, such as wondering what sort future awaits them and their country.
This section is so steeped in 1980s culture that I sometimes had a hard time keeping up with their banter (I am not from the UK and I’m a 90s child so I’m sure that readers who are more familiar with this era won’t have such a hard time).

“The past was not only a foreign country, it was a whole other geology.”

The second half brings us forward to 2017 when both James and Tully are in their early 50s. Here the narrative feels far more restrained, reflecting James’ age. He has different preoccupations now, a career, a partner. Yet, he is recognisably still James. Tully too is both changed and unchanged. In spite of the distance between them (James lives in London now) the two have remained close friends. This latter section moves at a far slower pace, which should have been jarring but it wasn’t. If anything it felt very natural. Here we have more measured meditations about life and death, questions about what we owe to the ones we love, and reconciliations with the past.
O’Hagan succeeds in uniting two very different moments/stages of a man’s life. An exhilarating snapshot of being young in the 80s is followed by a slower-paced and more thoughtful narrative centred around people who haven’t been young for quite some time. I have read very few—if any—novels that focus on male friendship. So often we see portrayals that show how intimate and deep female friendships are, which is wonderful but it’s refreshing to read a novel that is very much an ode to the friendship between two men. O’Hagan’s portrayal of the relationship between Tully and James was incredibly moving and nuanced.

“Loyalty came easily to Tully. Love was the politics that kept him going.”

Although I may have missed quite a few cultural references and I definitely didn’t get a lot of the Glaswegian/80s, thanks to the musical education I received from my parents I mostly managed to keep up with this novel’s music front. I really appreciated James’ literary references, which later in life make their way into his conversations with Tully. I also liked the way James would observe the character traits of those around—both as a young man and later in life—as well as his pondering about childhood, adulthood, generational differences, life in general. His thoughtful narration was truly compelling.
Mayflies is an affecting and realistic novel that presents its readers with a vibrant examination of friendship and identity, one that I would thoroughly recommend to others.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

“There is no time in our lives when we are so conspicuously without mercy as in adolescence.”

I don’t think I would ever picked up this ‘obscure’ and forgotten novel if it hadn’t been for the ‘crime fiction’ module I took during my second year of uni. Thanks to that module, which was in every other respect a huge waste of time (lecturer on Tom Ripley: “he does bad things because he wants more stuff”…truly illuminating), I was able to ‘discover’ Barbara Vine’s work.
Since then I’ve read a few other novels by Vine (which happens to Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume) and while I can safely say that she is an excellent writer, The House of Stairs remains my favourite of hers. Perhaps it is because of its sapphic undertones, or maybe I’m just a sucker for unrequited love stories.

“It felt like a passion, it felt like being in love, it was being in love, it was the kind of thing you delude yourself that, if all goes well, will last a lifetime. Things, of course, didn’t go well. When do they?”

The House of Stairs tells a dizzying tale of tale of psychological suspense. Like other novels by Vine it employ two timelines and explores the haunting effects of the past on the present. ‘The present’ features characters whose lives have been altered by an often unspecified accident and or crime. The second timeline, narrated from the retrospective, focuses on their past, and in particular on the events leading to that ‘one big event’. Vine does not limit herself to recounting past occurrences, instead she allows her characters to re-examine their own actions, as well as attempting to understand the motivations behind those of others. The past and present flow into each other, and throughout her narratives Vine traces both a crime’s roots and its subsequent ramifications.
Set in London The House of Stairs London opens in 1980s when Elizabeth—protagonist and narrator—glimpses Bell, a woman who has been recently released from prison. Seeing Bell is the catalyst that makes Elizabeth recount her story (transporting us to the late 60s and early 70s) but even if she knows the identity of Bell’s victim she does not share the details of this fateful event with the readers, preferring instead to play her cards close to her chest. This dual storyline creates an apparent juxtaposition of past and present. We can hazard guesses through brief glimpses of her present, her ambiguous remarks, such as ‘Bell’s motive for asking those questions was outside the bounds of my imagings’ and ‘[A]s they wished me to do, I was seeing everything inside-out’, and through her carefully paced recounting of those events.
By re-living that particular time of her life, Elizabeth—alongside the reader—acquires a better understanding of the circumstances that lead Bell to commit murder. Her narration is a far from passive relay of what happened for Elizabeth in the present seems actively involved in this scrutiny of past events.

“It is interesting how such reputations are built. They come about through confusing the two kinds of truth telling: the declaration of opinion and principle and the recounting of history.”

One of Vine’s motifs is in fact to include a house which is the locus of her story, functioning as a Gothic element within her storylines. In this novel the house (nicknamed—you guessed it—’the house of stairs’) is purchased by Cosette—a relation of Elizabeth’s—soon after the death of her husband, and becomes home to a group of bohemians, hippies, and outsiders of sorts. The house become an experimental ground: it is an escape from traditional social norms, a possibility for Cosette to make her own makeshift family.
The house creates an almost disquieting atmosphere: those who live there are exploiting Cosette, and tensions gradually emerge between its tenants. The house can be a place of secrecy—doors shut, people do not leave their rooms, stairs creak—and of jealousy, for Elizabeth comes to view the other guests as depriving her of Cosette’s affection.


Elizabeth, plagued by the possibility of having inherited a family disease, finds comfort in Bell, a beautiful and alluring woman. Elizabeth comes to idolize Bell (comparisons to the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi abound), and finds herself increasingly obsessed by her. Bell’s arrival into the house, however, will have violent consequences.
As Elizabeth is examining this time in her life, she, once again, finds herself falling under Bell’s spell.

“I found her exciting in a disturbing way, a soul-shacking way, without knowing in the least what I wanted of her.”

Like many other Vine novels The House of Stairs is a deeply intertextual work. Henry James, in particular, plays a significant role in Elizabeth’s narration.
Guilt, culpability, love, obsession, desire, greed, past tragedies, and family legacies are recurring themes in Elizabeth’s story. Vine, however, doesn’t offer an easy answer as she problematises notions of normalcy and evil.
There are many reasons why I love this novel so much: Vine’s elegantly discerning prose, her examination of class and gender roles in the 1960s-70s, the way she renders Elizabeth’s yearning for Bell…while I can see that some readers my age may find this novel to be a bit outdated, I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy reading authors such as Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Magda Szabó.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · MY WRITING · REVIEWS

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan — book review

9781913348328_FINAL.jpg

“When I closed my eyes, I could still hear her sharp, stubborn voice and surprisingly unbridled laugh.”

With grace and clarity Clarissa Goenawan’s The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida tells a tragic yet tender tale, one that begins with an ending: Miwako Sumida, a university student, has committed suicide.

“I hadn’t thought I would use my mourning suit again anytime soon. Apart from my sister, I had no living family or relatives. My friends were around my age, and we were all approaching the first peaks of our lives. Graduating, finding a job, getting married, having kids. But Miwako Sumida wouldn’t be among us.”

The novel is divided in three sections, each one following a person who cared for Miwako: there is Ryusei Yanagi (the only first-person narrative) who was in love with her, Chie Ohno, her best friend since high school, and Fumi Yanagi, Ryusei’s older sister. Miwako’s death leaves them reeling, from shock, grief, and guilt, and forces them to question how well they knew her and whether they could have some intervened or prevented Miwako from committing suicide.
Through their different perspectives readers will slowly come to know Miwako. While we may guess what she might have been ‘hiding’ from her loved ones, Miwako retains an air of unknowability. In each section the characters find themselves revisiting their memories of her, giving many scenes a bittersweet quality. Perhaps the setting too contributes to this sense of nostalgia (most of the story takes place in the mid-to-late 80s).
Through her luminous prose Goenawan sheds light on a painful subject matter. Like her characters, she doesn’t romanticise nor condemns Miwako’s actions, rendering instead with empathy the pain that drove her to commit suicide. Goenawan demonstrates the same delicacy when touching upon subjects such as sexual abuse and bullying.
I felt lulled by gentle pace of this novel, even as the story explored distressing realities. Friendships, family history, gender, and sexuality play an important role in each narrative, and I found Goenawan’s portrayal of these to be extremely compelling.

“Her bold strokes gave off a sense of alienation and desperation, but her choice of muted colors conveyed a hidden loneliness. My sister had mastered the application of intricate details to her pieces. At the same time, she took extra care to make sure nothing was overwhelming. I recognized a delicate balance, a sense of equilibrium in all her pieces. What my sister couldn’t tell anyone, she whispered into her work.”

As much as I loved Goenawan’s evocative prose and her well-drawn characters, I was underwhelmed by the overarching storyline. The last section, which followed one of the characters I liked the most, seems far more meandering than the previous ones as it seems to move away from Miwako. And while I do count myself as a fan of magical realism, here it felt a bit sudden.
The ending was rushed and left me wanting more. Still, I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoy literary fiction.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr — book review

529493.jpgThe Necessary Hunger, Nina Revoyr’s debut novel first published in 1997, had the potential of being a great YA book. In many ways this novel was ahead of its times. Set in Inglewood, L. A., in the late 1980s The Necessary Hunger is narrated by seventeen-year-old Nancy Takahiro, a Japanese-American all-star high school basketball player. Nancy, who is a lesbian, falls hard for Raina Webber, an African-American all-star guard from a competing school. Raina, who is also a lesbian, is in a relationship with an older girl.
When Raina’s mother and Nancy’s father get together, things get a bit complicated. Nancy, who isn’t used to sharing her home with anyone other than her father, has to get used to the presence of two other people. Her massive crush on Raina further complicates matters.

There were aspects of this novel that I really liked such as Revoyr’s approach to sexuality and race. There are quite a few gay characters, and their sexuality is never made into a big deal. While stories about coming out and/or exploring your sexuality are certainly important, it was refreshing to read a storyline that casually revolves around gay teens. Nancy’s sexuality is never made into an ‘issue’.
The novel also has a great sense of time and place. Revoyr’s Inglewood is vividly rendered. From the graffitis decorating some of the more run down buildings, to the ever-present threat of danger (government neglect results in gang violence, drive-bys, carjackings, burglaries). Acquaintances of Nancy drop out school, get into drugs, go to prison. Life isn’t easy. A sense of solidarity unites Inglewood’s various residents and both Nancy and her father navigate Inglewood with ease. When Raina and her mother move into their house tension arise. Inglewood informs Revoyr’s discussions about class hierarchies and social / race relations (particularly interracial relationships).

Sadly, readers merely ‘overhear’ these more interesting conversations. Nancy is a snoop, and she will often sneakily listen to other people’s conversations. For all her navel-gazing Nancy’s character lacked interiority. She’s defined by her love for basketball and her obsessive feelings for Raina. Although other characters aren’t distinctly three-dimensional, they at least had a semblance of personality. Nancy was a not very profound bore. The narrative tries to emphasise that she’s looking back to these events, by making her reflect on ‘what-ifs’ or the significance of a certain moment, but this technique added little to the narrative.
While I knew that this would be a novel about basketball, I wasn’t expecting pages and pages of basketball games. Perhaps if I had been more interested in the characters or if I had felt that these game had some sort of stake…but readers know from the beginning that unlike her teammates Nancy will have plenty of college offers. Raina is often reduced to the role of ‘object of desire’. Nancy’s feelings for Raina never struck me as genuine. It seemed a classic case of ‘physical attraction + jealousy/awe’.
At times the writing seemed quite dated (for example Nancy uses the word ‘schizophrenic’ to describe her room’s decor).
Nothing remarkable happens. Nancy is often a mere observer in the novel’s more compelling moments. A lot of the narrative is dedicate to Nancy’s ‘yearning’ for Raina….and the ending was incredibly underwhelming. What was all that for?
All in all The Necessary Hunger strikes me as a rather mediocre piece of fiction. It had the potential to be a really thought-provoking read but it just felt flat to me. There were also so many cheesy lines that were probably meant to be taken seriously.

My rating: 2 ½ of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach — book review

Untitled drawing.jpg

“A year or so after my mother died, I received an unexpected inheritance.”

In Confession with Blue Horses Sophie Hardach captures the fraught atmosphere between East and West Germany.

When Ella, a rather aimless thirty-something year old, comes across some of her mother’s diaries, she’s drawn back to her birth city, Berlin, where, assisted by an intern archivist, she will try to uncover who betrayed her parents all those years ago and the fate of her younger brother, Heiko.
Moving between past and contemporary Berlin, Hardach’s contrasts the stifling climate, as well as fear and suspicion, that pervaded the lives of GDR citizens to the bohemian and artistic Berlin of the 2010s. Yet, as Ella discovers on her trip, few people have forgotten the past.

While the ‘daughter finds papers/diaries from a female relative and decides to uncover secrets from the past’ is a rather tired premise, Hardach focuses on a time that has not received enormous attention in fiction (these type of dual narratives usually take place between now and WWII). Hardach excels in depicting Berlin and its different people, showing us that families, like Ella’s, can have divided allegiances. Rather than completely demonising those who worked for or respected the GDR, she gives these characters a chance to express themselves and their views. Her narrative navigates themes such as guilt and culpability with poignancy.
Given the nature of this story’s subject Hardach touches upon some frankly horrific topics, but she does so with an unsentimental approach.

What perhaps kept me from being fully immersed in this novel was the characterisation of certain characters. While those who have only small appearances struck me as believable, Ella and her family lacked…personality. Her parents and Toby in particular seemed somewhat unfinished portraits. While I understood that someone with PTSD could be a difficult character to render, someone like Toby should have had a lot more development. Ella too was very much reduced to her quest to find the truth about her parents failed escape attempt and of what happened to her little brother. Supposedly she is an artist but she never seems to think of her art or artistic process.

Not only does the storyline switch between Ella’s childhood to her present but there are a few chapters from the third perspective that focus on Aaron. These chapters felt somewhat out of place. Aaron remained a bit of a non-entity, whose only purpose is to assist Ella in her quest.

While I really appreciated the way Hardach’s handles difficult subjects matters, the wit and sorrow of her prose, and the mentions of Christa Wolf, part of me was left wanting more. The storyline treads a familiar and fairly predictable path.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski — book review

Untitled drawing (1).jpg

“It’s best to start with the beginning—or at least what feels like it. I realise now that we never much talked about our pasts. Maybe it would changed something if we had, maybe we would have understood each other better and everything would have been different. Who can say?”

Swimming in the Dark is a strikingly elegiac novel. The story, in its broadest terms, explores a young man’s identity and sexuality under Communist Poland.
In December 13th 1981 martial law is declared in the Socialist Republic of Poland. Ludwik Glowacki, a young Polish man now living in America, hears of this on the news. This Western ‘acknowledgment’ of his home country’s political unrest triggers a recollection of his past. Rather than reiterating his whole childhood, Ludwik lingers on some of his more meaningful experiences: starting at age nine, when he became infatuated with a Jewish boy, to his longer-lasting relationship to Janusz, a young man he meets while working on an agricultural camp.
Throughout the narrative Ludwik addresses Janusz in the second-person (which will probably elicit comparisons to Call Me By Your Name), giving his reminisce the impression of being an unwritten letter of sorts.

“You listened, really listened, gentle eyes taking me in without judgment, making me feel more heard than I knew I could be.”

But this is only partly a love story. Ludwik’s examination of his time in Poland will make you feel uneasy. We read of Ludwik’s early struggle to reconcile himself with his sexuality, of his self-discovery (aided by a copy of Giovanni’s Room), of his attempts to create a future in a growingly alienating society, and of the way Poland’s tumultuous political and economical landscape affect him and those around him.

“To my own surprise, I was unable to accept the shame he wanted me to feel. It was too familiar to be imposed: I had produced it myself for such a long time that, right then, I found I had no space left for it any more.”

Ludwik’s daily life is permeated by an undercurrent of fear one that forces him into secrecy. Yet as Ludwik struggles to maintain his identity in an increasingly watchful city, he finds himself not only holding but voicing dissident opinions. Because of this, his relationship with Janusz, who is much more complacent, becomes strained.

“Selfish. Growing into yourself is nothing but that.”

Jedrowski’s writing is by turns allusive and explicit. Ludwik’s intimate narration is one that might make readers feel almost uncomfortable, as if we were encroaching upon his privacy. Yet, this intimacy also allows us to experience some of Ludwik’s emotions, to understand the depth of his feelings for Janusz, his apprehension and guilt for having moved away from his grandmother, his growing sense of dislocation.

“I even attempt a smile. But I sense that either way my foreignness somehow absolves me from their judgment. To them, it must explain my strangeness completely.”

Jedrowski renders in an almost painful clarity what it means to live in a country in turmoil, a country whose government and (collapsing) economy worsen its citizens quality of life.
Against this bleak backdrop, Jedrowski’s prose seems almost startlingly luminous. He emphasises the more striking nuances of the English language, and his word choices perfectly lend themselves to conveying the beauty and anguish in Ludwik’s life.

“I was transported into a vision of my life that made me so dizzy my head began to spin. Shame, heavy and alive, had materialised, built from buried fears and desires.”

Jedrowski’s writing also showcases a propensity for metaphors: “‘Perverts’ — the word falling from her lips like a two-limbed snake, dangerous and exciting”. At times these metaphors could be beautiful, and often brought certain moments or images from Ludwik’s memory into the foreground, so that certain scenes are rendered in almost snapshot clarity. In other instances these seemed to accentuate Ludwik’s impression or feelings towards someone or something.

“My life was a tiny narrow corridor with no doors leading of it, a tunnel so narrow it bruised my elbows, with only one way to go. That or the void, I told myself. That or leave.”

Certain metaphors however stood out for the wrong reason, seeming over-written, silly, a bit too impressionistic, and made me wonder whether Jedrowski had an aversion for calling things what they are (for instance: “Tears started to slide down my cheeks like melted butter” / “Warm cave of his mouth” / “your ass was powerful, like two great smooth rocks sculpted by the sea” / “breasts like overripe fruit”).
Still, Jedrowski is a clearly skilled writer. The imagery he creates make his narrative into an almost sensory experience. His prose is acutely lyrical, and there were many instance in which I became lost in his language, in his rich, if occasionally high-flow, expression, and in his arresting juxtapositions.
Jedrowski’s flair for metaphors brought to mind authors such as André Aciman and Ocean Vuong, while the ambivalent tone that shapes much of Ludwik’s retrospective narrative reminded me of L’Arminuta and Lie With Me.
In spite of his novel’s tragic undertones, Jedrowski’s prose remains luminous, and there are some rare moments of true beauty in Ludwik’s deeply personal tale. Still, a sense of disquiet seemed ever present. Perhaps Ludwik’s hindsight distorts some of his memory, turning blissfully happy moments into bittersweet memories.

“One day your country is yours, and the next it isn’t.”

Living in a country that through its laws and policies imposed uniformity on its subjects, Ludwik not only does he hold onto his individuality but he tries to overcome the shame and guilt that seem irrevocably ingrained in him. Ludwik’s psychological turmoil is temporarily alleviated after he comes across an illicit copy of Giovanni’s Room. He begins to draw parallels between himself and its protagonist, and soon he fears that he too will behave in a cowardly way. I too became increasingly afraid for him, especially as he is repeatedly forced into morally distressing situations. Yet, to go against the tide is no easy feat, and there were many challenging occasions where Ludwik has to fight not to stray from his values.

“But like stones thrown into the sky with all one’s might, pieces of that night – the boys and the men who wanted them, the flirtation, the codes of seduction I could only guess at – returned to me with even greater intensity than I had lived. The law of gravity applies to memories too.”

Ludwik’s relationship to Janusz is rendered with poignancy. There are moments of vulnerability, of frailty, of emotional and physical abandon, of weariness, and of grief. Due to the secret nature of their relationship Ludwik seems to be perpetually longing for Janusz. However, Ludwik’s anxiety for his/their future, Janusz’s job and acquaintances, and their contrasting political views, create conflict between them.

“I wondered about your role in all this, what kind of pact you’ve made with yourself. Because we all make one, even the best of us. And it’s rarely immaculate. No matter how hard we try.”

This novel is a deeply intratextual work. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room appears throughout the narrative, at times it alleviates Ludwik’s despair, in other occasions it appears to him almost as a cautionary tale. Baldwin’s novel allows him to read from a perspective he can understand.

“I was paralysed by possibility, caught between the vertigo of fulfillment and the abyss of uncertainty.”

In navigating his past Ludwik demonstrates incredible self-awareness. He acknowledges early on that his recollection of his past is imperfect and possibly biased. Retrospective blurs his memories. Yet, its is his present knowledge that allows him to ‘dig’ deeper, to discern his own motivations and feelings as well as those of others. In fact, as Ludwik ruminates his way through his past, he seems also to be trying to understand or question some of his choices.

“How does one bond with another child, as a child? Maybe it’s simply through common interest. Or maybe it’s something that lies deeper, for which everything you say and do is an unwitting code. ”

Swimming in the Dark presents its readers with an examination of a young love that is filled with passion, misery, contrition, and jealousy. Simultaneously graceful and unrestrained, this novel is brimming with sensitive and penetrating observations about youth, love (of being gay in a society that deems same-sex love unacceptable), family, and freedom. Written in a fluid prose Swimming in the Dark tells a moving story one that struck me for its piercing realism, for its painful subject matter, and for its believable and compelling characters.

“It sounded like an appeal, a right violated and invoked. My hand on the door handle, my back to you, heart pulsing in my temples. I could sense the word throbbing in the air. My name, claiming me. It wrapped its fingers around my shoulders and tried to hold me back.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

L’Arminuta (A Girl Returned) by Donatella Di Pietrantonio

In spite of its short length Arminuta packs a real punch. I was almost hypnotised by its incredibly unsentimental narrative. Although Di Pietrantonio uses a seemingly direct and unadorned language, she’s able to brilliantly evoke the narrator’s world. However stark and unpleasant, everything was depicted in such a sharp and vivid way that I was entranced even by those scenes which held no beauty.
The intensity of the narrator’s account of her ‘return’ is striking. As a child she is unable to reconcile herself with being sent away from the parents who raised her, and there is nothing quite as heartbreaking as a child who is made to feel like they are unwanted. Her biological parents are so different from her ‘previous’ parents that the narrator feels increasingly lost and unhappy. Angry at those who have rejected (treating her as if she were little more than a parcel), having to adjust to her family’s poverty (far from what she was used to), and enduring her brothers’ taunts, it is only through her studies and her younger sister Adriana that the narrator can alleviate her despair. The bond between the two sisters was rendered with incredible realism. Adriana is incredibly loyal to the narrator and provides plenty of heartwarming moments (she is such a passionate and resilient girl!).
In Arminuta the narrator relates her uneasy formative years, and her narrative is underscored by a muted ambivalence. In spite of its length this novel gives a layered portrayal of a girl divided between two families.
In an introspective and thought-provoking journey the narrator ventures into her painful childhood, viewing the behaviour of the adults around her with a new understanding while still faithfully conveying the feelings and thoughts she had at that young age.

Rating: 4 ½ stars

Read more reviews on my blog or View all my reviews