BOOK REVIEWS

My Education by Susan Choi

“Love bestows such a dangerous sense of entitlement.”

Sometimes books really deserve their average rating…and this is one of those cases. As I am writing this the majority of readers have given My Education three stars, and more reviewers have given it 2 stars than 5. I know that at the end of the day ‘ratings’ are insubstantial, not reliable gauges, yadda yadda but readers who are considering picking up My Education should bear its score in mind….it’s low for a reason.
I for one can’t say whether I disliked it or not. There were many elements I did not appreciate but I could also see what the novel was trying to do. For the most part, it was a rather funny novel and there were many passages and scenes that were almost endearingly offbeat.
Susan Cho’s satire—of academia, of ‘affairs’ between a younger & naive person and an older married one, and of all sorts of people—did occasionally hit the mark, and the narrator’s caustic commentary did amused me. But, and it’s a big but, Cho’s hyperbolic and bombastic language made for a dense and ultimately not very rewarding reading experience. She has a Joycean approach to syntax, with baffling backwards-sounding sentences that go on forever and are punctuated by highfalutin words that more often than not do not fit the context they are in. Also, I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this novel with two others I’ve read in 2020, Pizza Girl and Luster, both of which explore dynamics similar to the ones My Education . Whereas I found those books to be highly absorbing and I enjoyed their ‘effervescent’ prose, My Education is bogged down by its author’s circumlocutory and turgid style. At times it seemed that I had to find my way through a discombobulating and never-ending warren of florid sentences, with little success. I was perplexed by Cho’s writing, especially since it did ‘sound’ like the authentic ‘voice’ of her main character. Would Regina really make such ostentatious metaphors and penetrating if convoluted observations and assessments? At times her comments seemed to originate from a perspective outside of her own one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. While this is by no means a plot-driven narrative, it does have a storyline, however feeble, and it unfolds as follows: Regina, the type of protagonist who should have and could have remained unnamed, is a directionless graduate student who upon hearing about Professor Nicholas Brodeur’s ill repute decides to join his class and attract his attention. For reasons that are never truly disclosed to the readers Regina is attracted to Nicholas because of the allegations against him… her excitement at his sexual misconduct was certainly bewildering. Was she aroused by the idea of his illicit behaviour? Who knows! Her true feelings and motivations are lost in her pleonastic inner-monologue. Which, as I’ve mentioned above, just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of her persona. She’s naïve, childish, inward-looking (yet, her act of introspections added little to her characterisation), impulsive, and socially myopic. The author tries to emphasise her ‘youth’, and in the process she made her seem closer to a teenager than a twenty-one-year-old (time and again we are reminded of her ignorance, and lack of interest or understanding, of what being a mother entails…is she 12?). Anyway, Regina, for obscurely perverse reasons, ‘pursues’ Nicholas, who isn’t as alluring a man as she’d hoped. Cho, in fact, subverts the trope of the young ingénue student who begins an affair with an older charismatic professor as Regina’s liaison is not with Nicholas but his wife. She falls in love within a few pages, lusts after this wife, Martha, for reasons that aren’t that clear (which is the norm in this book). More perplexing still is that Martha reciprocates, to a certain degree at least, Regina’s infatuation. The sex between these two women is awfully over the top, and I don’t I’ve ever come across such bad sex scenes (this book was nominated, and should have won, for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award). Regina lusting for Martha makes for 40% of this novel. They either have petty squabbles or convoluted sex (“I would have liked a single rope to bind us together, with tightly stacked coils, so that we formed a sort of Siamese mummy”) . Readers will probably not root for them as they are unlikable or unsympathetic as each other. The male characters, however flawed and problematic, at least had discernible personalities and could even be quite amusing.

The narrative then takes us away from the 1990s and into the late 2000s where we witness how Regina’s life has come to look similar to Martha’s own one. I didn’t particularly like the message here: the three main women in this novel are all at one point or another mothers and wives. While the male characters had character arcs, Regina and Martha…I could not for the life of me understand what compelled them to act they way they did. Given that this novel popped up in ‘best campus/academia’ novels I was hoping that Regina’s studies would play more of a role in her story, but they don’t. Even when we see her as a ‘proper’ grown-up, her work and interests remain off page.
While I liked the idea of this novel, the execution was not my cup of tea. Cho’s lampooning style could be amusing, but then we would get things like: “It was deep winter now, the season when suicides rained down like apples from the limbs of the gorge-spanning bridges” or “something in her bearing, an extremely compressed capability, suggested to me that she might be a butcher, or a construction foreperson, as well as a lesbian”.
I just don’t know what to make of this book. It had the right ingredients for a funny yet cutting read but Cho’s overplays her already intentionally exaggerated style. Then we have two boring and undefined main characters, many failed attempts at subversiveness, and a repetitive and ultimately skin-deep story…and you kind of lost me. What pissed me off the most was a scene towards the end where Cho makes a character who was sexually abused have a cameo appearance where she discloses this to Regina for no real reason other than for some shock-value content. The tone in this scene was so off, it was almost gleeful…which, yikes. That’s fucked up.
When Regina tells us “Reader, I grew up”, I wanted to call out bullshit because Regina, darling, you did no such fucking thing. The ending really wants to paint her as being more mature and sensible, but it doesn’t work as we only glimpse these traits in the very last few pages. Why was Martha interested in Regina anyway? Why would anyone be in love with someone like Martha ? Search me!
Last, but not least, because of Cho’s extravagant and syntax-averse writing this 300-page novel read like a 600-page tome. Still, I did manage to finish it, and it was probably thanks to Nicholas, Dutra, and Laurence who kept me interested in the story. Also, to be fair, Cho’s commentary and her observations could be spot on…then again, more often than not, a good point would be lost in a sea of gaudy and seemingly never-ending asides.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

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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

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Man of My Time by Dalia Sofer

“After nearly a decade of delirious revenge, rations, war, and death, we saw the world in shades of blood.”

In Man of My Time Dalia Sofer makes a fascinating and unsettling inquiry into morality. The novel is centred on and narrated by Hamid Mozaffarian. When Hamid, a former interrogator for the Iranian regime, travels to New York he reconnects with his younger brother, Omid, who he hadn’t seen or spoken to since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. As the day passes Hamid finds himself looking back into his past, tracing his history with his family and his country.

“The point is that in the autobiography there is a time-honored tradition of redemption and repentance, which is a concept dear to all: towbeh for Muslims, teshuvah for Jews, penance for Christians—who doesn’t appreciate a good metamorphosis story, a passage from wickedness to virtue? Even the contemporary secular tale, say, of the disillusioned drunk or the wayward hustler, hasn’t escaped this familiar trajectory, of darkness to light, anguish to liberation.”

From the very beginning readers will be aware of Hamid’s dubious morals. To label him as antihero however seems inadequate as Sofer’s protagonist challenges easy definition. He’s capable of betraying and self-betraying, of committing reprehensible acts and of shirking accountability.
As Hamid revisits his childhood we are shown contradictory episodes: at times Hamid seems like a sensitive child who is made to feel ashamed of his own fragility, and then we see the same child becoming obsessed with the “demise” of insects. Hamid’s formative years are shaped by his difficult relationship with his father and by Iran’s growing unrest. As a restless teenager Hamid’s unease towards his father morphs into contempt, and he finds himself projecting his hatred towards his father’s authority towards those who rule the country. He becomes entangled with rebels, agitators, and idealists, and seems eager to prove himself to them. When Hamid’s family flee the country during the revolution, he refuses to go with them.
From mutinous teenager (“there was something consoling about being maligned, having a grievance, and maybe even dying misjudged”) Hamid grows into a deeply alienated man who leads a solitary existence. His wife wants to divorce him, he has become estranged from his daughter, and he has parted ways from the man he considered to be one of his only allies. His cynic worldview and the rancour he feels towards everybody and everything (from every generation to Iranians who live abroad to Western ideologies) give his narrative an unsparing tone.

“We were, all of us, funambulists skywalking between the myth of our ancestral greatness and the reality of our compromised past, between our attempts to govern ourselves and our repeated failures. We were a generation doused in oil and oblivion, the city expanding in steel and glass around us, erasing at dizzying speed the alleys of our grandfathers, hemming us in along the way.”

As Hamid recounts his life-story, his growing disillusionment towards the revolution and his generation becomes apparent. His interrogation into his past doesn’t provide easy answers. There are plenty of instance when Hamid seems to consciously choose to do something he himself considers to be wrong. But we are also shown the sway that one’s family and one’s country have on a man.
Sofer’s erudite writing was a pleasure to read. Hamid’s adroit narration provides us with plenty of shrewd observations about his country and history in general. He analyses his past behaviour and that of others. Hamid offers plenty of interesting, if not downright disconcerting, speculations about a myriad of topics.
Through Hamid’s story Sofer navigates notions of right and wrong, good and evil, judgment and forgiveness. Troubling as it was, Hamid’s narration also provides plenty of incisive observations about human nature. The way he describes the feelings he experiences (love was a sweet interruption in the lonely march toward nonbeing) could also be startlingly poetic.
Yet, while Sofer succeeds in making giving Hamid nuance and authenticity, her secondary characters often verged on the unbelievable. We aren’t given extensive time with any other character, which is expected given our protagonist (Hamid repeatedly pushes others away, from his family to his partners and his daughter: “I heard the sound of my tired breath inside absences I had spent decades collecting, with the same diligence and fervor with which my father once amassed his beloved encyclopedia”). However, the fact that they have few appearances made me all the more watchful of those scenes they do appear in…and I couldn’t help but noticing that the way they spoke at times seemed more suited to a movie. What they said often didn’t really fit in what kind of person they until then seemed to be or their age (Hamid’s daughter speaks in a very contrived way).
I also wish that the story had remained more focused on Hamid’s childhood and that his relationship to his mother could have been explored some more.
Still, this was a nevertheless interesting read. Sofer has created a complex main character and she vividly renders his ‘time’.

“What was to be said? Absence was our country’s chief commodity, and we all had, at one time or another, traded in it.”

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Given that this book was described as being in the vein of Isabel AllendeI, I had quite high exceptions. While I did find the opening chapter to be intriguing, to compare Fruit of the Drunken Tree to Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez seems both lazy (a comparison that has less to do with substantial similarities—such as style or genre—that with geographical location….I’m not sure why publishers are still comparing any new authors from Latin America to Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and inadequate. Sadly, I never warmed to Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ writing style nor her characters. While I understand that the author based the story on her personal experiences, I found her storyline to be more intent on creating emotional drama than sense. Worse still, I could not get past the novel’s subtly racist undertones

“War always seemed distant from Bogotà, like niebla descending on the hills and forests of the countryside and jungles. The way it approached us was like a fog as well, without us realizing, until it sat embroiling everything around us.”

First, I’ll start with a few positives. Ingrid Rojas Contreras renders the internecine climate of 1990s. The author details the realities of Colombia during Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror by conveying the day-to-day dread, fear, and violence that prevailed in this period. I appreciated the factual aspects of this novel, such as when Contreras’ recount Escobar’s latest actions by having characters listen to the radio or watch tv. The atmosphere of political uncertainty has a visible influence on the characters—regardless of their age/class. I liked reading about the games Chula and her older sister played (the bond between Chula and Cassandra was the most believable relationship in the whole novel).

Now, for the not so positives. The writing was weighed down by laboured similes (in which red fishes are “gelatinous mice” and headlights seem “traced out of nothingness by the invisible hand of God”). Ineffectual descriptions added little to the narrative, seeming more confusing that evocative (a particularly bad one is: “They looked different, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Other than to say they were thinner, and they no longer looked like children. It reminded me of how Petrona didn’t look her age, but older. Like they were scratched behind their faces.”). Chula and Petrona’s had a too similar way of narrating things, which cast a doubt on their supposed differences in age/class.
Chula’s perspective is incredibly one-dimensional. Chula is looking back to this period of her life. She’s now older and in America. Yet, ‘present’ Chula offers no special insights into what happened in Bogotà. She more or less sticks to the perspective she had of things as a child. She doesn’t understand and is mystified by what’s going on around her. There is 0 foreshadowing, which again felt like a missed opportunity. It would have added much needed suspense and provided a break from child-Chula’s limited pov. I wasn’t expecting a Kazuo Ishiguro level of conversation between past and present but Chula’s perpetual incomprehension grated on me. And Contreras could have done something more similar to what Wayétu Moore does in her memoir (the first section she recounts the Liberian Civil War as she experienced it—that is as a child—while the following ones focus on her as an adult looking back on those same events).
Perpetua’s chapters were brief and intentionally vague. Her feelings towards Gorrión and her employers are never clearly depicted. A lot of what she does or say seemed out of the blue, and ultimately made her into an unconvincingly inconsistent character. Her story also seems to carry a moralistic tone that I didn’t particularly care for (her mother warned her not to frequent that “bestia, animal, atrevido, desgraciado” who is “black like dirt”).
The mothers in this novel are portrayed like the classic ‘hysterical’ mothers, prone to screaming outbursts and fits of violence. 90% of the time Chula’s mother is portrayed as being horrible, irrational, and/or insensitive. Then she has these very out-of-character in which she seems to have had a completely switch of personality. While I know from personal experience that there are parents who can be very erratic (the joys of bipolarity) Chula’s mother was often presented as being some sort of wicked witch (the whole thing with the drunken tree). Her instability existed only to make readers pity Chula (who otherwise would have been too ‘privileged’).
Now….Gorrión. He is the only explicitly black character and he’s a monster with no redeeming qualities. Every scene he’s in is made to feel the reader uneasy. His eyes ‘bore’ into this and that, he uses his body to intimidate women and children, he’s an abusive rapist with no scrupulous. He’s just bad, through and through. Often, he’s described as the ‘black guy’ or the young man with ‘afroed hair’. Other are suspicious of his blackness, and the narrative seems to agree with their racial judgment. He’s the true ‘villain’ of the novel while Escobar remains a background figure. Gorrión doesn’t have a real personality as he only seems to have morally reprehensible character traits. The way the author describes his eyes and nose also worked to give this impression of Gorrión being less-than-human. Which…how about not (before I’m accused of being overly sensitive, there are at least three other reviews on GR who—regardless of whether they ultimately liked or disliked this novel—criticised the author’s portrayal of Gorrión.
The novel’s examination of class divide seemed simplistic and relied on tired stereotypes.
The drawn-out plot is slowed down by the author’s repetitive language. Some of the characters seem to change in the last few chapters, but this change seemed more for effect than anything else.

Overall, I did not like this novel. It was quite moralistic (especially towards Perpetua’s sex life) and the ‘friendship’ between Chula and Perpetua was poorly developed. The author seemed only to have scratched the surface of the reason why Chula was so obsessed with Perpetua. The characters—in particular the adults and Perpetua—acted incongruently throughout the novel, often only to add unneeded drama or angst.
I doubt I will ever feel inclined to read more by this author.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi — book review

718ueoaymll_custom-1871d31e9581dd75468c9026b282ff89ad688693-s800-c85.jpgThe Death of Vivek Oji is an enthralling novel. Akwaeke Emezi’s lyrical prose is by turns evocative, sensual, and heart-wrenching. With empathy and understanding Emezi writes about characters who are grappling with grief and otherness, as well as with their gender identity and sexuality.

“Did it feel like terror? More like horror, actually. Terrible sounded like it had a bit of acceptance in it, like an unthinkable thing had happened but you’d found space in your brain to acknowledge it, perhaps even begin to accept it. Then again, horrible sounded the same way. The words had departed from their origins. They were diluted, denatured.”

The first line of The Death of Vivek Oji informs us of Vivek Oji’s death. When Chika and Kavita discover the body of their only child outside of their home, their lives are shattered. While Chika retreats inside himself, Kavita is desperate to find out what happened to Vivek. She urges Vivek’s friends to speak out, but they seem unwilling to discuss Vivek with her. While the narrative mostly focuses on Osita—who is Vivek’s cousin—and Kavita’s perspectives, we are also given glimpses into the lives and minds of Vivek’s friends.
While The Death of Vivek Oji follows a formula that isn’t entirely original (a novel that revolves around the death of story’s central character is dead) Emezi’s use of a non-linear narrative and the skilful way in which they inhabit different perspectives (switching between first and third povs) makes this novel stand out.

Nigeria is the backdrop to Vivek’s story and Emezi vividly renders its traditions, its idiosyncrasies, its contemporary culture (90s). Emezi’s narratives is centred on those who feel, or are made to feel, different. Kavita belongs to the Nigerwives, foreign women married to Nigerian men. As this group of women help each other to navigate their married lives, their children come to form a deep bond.
Emezi recounts Vivek’s childhood through Osita’s perspective. When one of Vivek’s blackouts causes Osita to feel greatly embarrassed, the two become estranged. Over the next few years Osita hears of Vivek only through his parent.
Vivek becomes increasingly disinterred with the rest of the world, hides at home, stops going to university, and Kavita, understandably, is worried. She tries to understand her child but seems unable to accept who Vivek is.
Thankfully, Vivek finds solace in the daughters of the Nigerwives. Osita too re-enters Vivek’s life, and the two become closer than ever.

While I found both the sections set in the past and in the present to be deeply affecting, I particularly loved to read of Vivek’s relationship with the Nigerwives’ daughters. Reading about Osita and Kavita’s lives after Vivek’s death was truly heart-wrenching as Emezi truly captures the depths of their grief.
I did find myself wishing to read more from Vivek’s perspective. It seemed that Vivek’s story was being told by people who did not have a clear image of Vivek. There was also a section focused on a character of no importance to Vivek’s story (like, seriously, what was the point in him? it felt really out of place). The mystery surrounding Vivek’s death was unnecessarily prolonged.
But these are minor grievances. I loved the way Emezi articulated the feelings, thoughts, and impressions of their characters with grace and clarity. Emezi’s novel is a real stunner, and if you enjoy books that explore complex familial relationship, such as Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful, chances are you will love The Death of Vivek Oji.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Apartment by Teddy Wayne — book review

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“I’d been happy before just to be his classmate, to learn from him osmotically, but now I grew excited at what this might blossom into, the sort of close, symbiotic relationship I’d hoped grad school would offer and the Hemingway-Fitzgerald complementary pairing I’d always thought necessary to one’s artistic development.”

Set in New York between 1996 and 1997 Apartment portrays the making and dissolution of a friendship. Our unnamed narrator, who is attending the MFA writing program at Columbia, is a rather introverted young man. His father is paying for his tuition and his other expenses while he is staying in his aunt’s apartment (in what amounts to an illegal sublet).
His loner existence is shaken up when he begins to hang out with Billy, a talented classmate of his. Billy, who hails from the Midwest, has only recently gotten into writing and reading. Unlike our narrator, Billy struggles to make ends meet and works as a bartender. Out of a combination of guilt and genuine admiration for Billy and his writing, our narrator offers him his spare bedroom.

“A first sleepover, whether it was sexual or platonic, had a way of making you both more and less comfortable around the other person; you’d jumped a fence of intimacy, but now you saw each other in the blunt morning light.”

Living in such close quarters however is not easy. The power imbalance between the two of them (which sees the protagonist becoming Billy’s benefactor), their opposite financial situations, as well as Billy’s writing capabilities, put a strain on their bond. Soon it becomes apparent that they also have differing interests and political outlooks.
The unspooling of their relationship is uncomfortable to read. As their awkward chats give way to tense silences, we read with a mounting sense of dread.
The narrator’s discomfort becomes our own. Yet, his caginess puts us at arm’s length. Early on he confesses to Billy that his biggest fear is that no one will truly know him. While this hints at a certain level of self-awareness, our protagonist remains unknowable. His writing too, according to his classmates’ feedback, reflects his reticence to let others see him.
His self-imposed isolation gives way to a perpetual cycle of loneliness and alienation. As he realises that his friendship with Billy is irrevocably damaged, the narrator does the unthinkable.
In spite of the narrator’s unwillingness to articulate his true feelings, I came to care for him. His observations were rendered in a shrinkingly genuine manner, and even if he does not reveal himself to us, or others, we do become familiar with his solitude and with his feelings of not belonging.

“I would never relate to these people after all, they wouldn’t come to know me and no one ever would, and it wasn’t because I was a misunderstood rebel or suffered from some diagnosable pathology; I was an oddball—but not even a ‘classic’ oddball, no, I was an oddball among self-selecting oddballs who had found community with other oddballs, and to be on the outside of mainstream society i one thing, and admirably heroic struggle, but to be on the fringes of an already marginalized subculture is simply lonely.”

With a narrative that is rife with literary allusions and academic terms, Teddy Wayne’s conveys the sheltered yet claustrophobic atmosphere of an MFA program. The narrator and his classmates seem aware that they are active participants in what they define as ‘real life’. Billy’s less than privileged background is what differentiates him from the rest. Yet, the more time he spends at this program, the more self-assured he becomes. There are some great discussions around talent and ambition.
The narrator’s internal monologue also provides some moments of humour. For example, in contemplating a romantic relationship with another writer he makes the following observation:

“Writers were either histrionic or reserved or oscillated wildly between the two poles, all we’d have to talk about would be what we’d composed that day or how we were depressed that we hadn’t produced anything, the whole thing would be insular and incestuous.”

The novel also delves into themes of masculinity, identity, friendship, creativity, and sexuality. Wayne’s depiction of the mid-90s is simultaneously piercing and nostalgic. New York too is rendered in an evocative way.

Written in a propelling style and possessing all the trappings of a psychological thriller without actually being one, Apartment tells a profoundly poignant tale in which the narrator’s namelessness reflects his withdrawn nature.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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SWING TIME: BOOK REVIEW

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Swing Time
by Zadie Smith

★★✰✰✰ 2 of 5 stars

I feel cheated.
The beginning of this sprawling and pointless narrative promised something. It gave me certain expectations. So, when I found myself questioning the direction of this novel, I told myself that surely, by the end, this would all make sense. Turns out I was hoping against hope.
Maybe, my expectations lie in Zadie Smith’s writing. Among the many peculiar passages I caught glimpses of just how beautiful and poignant her writing could be. Now, however, while I do believe that Smith can write well, I think that Swing Time does not showcase her writing ability but rather it seems an example of good writing turned bad.

This is not a novel about friendship. It isn’t a coming of age, nor is it a portrait of ambition. This novel consists in a series of grotesque caricatures. All of the characters are in turn false, unprincipled and or bitter. These ‘characters’ not only came across as being stereotypes, and Smith seems to ridicule all kinds of people. Fair enough, the narratives spares no one and every single character becomes little more than an unfunny joke.
Her unsympathetic nameless narrator seemed a poor attempt to write from the point of view of an ambiguous and possibly apathetic individual.
Tracey, her supposed best friend, is over-sexualised and is the typical friend who is better looking and more talented than the protagonist is (when will we ever get to read about a more nuanced female friendship?). The narrative uses Tracey time and again, throwing her in as to confuse and irritate both the main character and the readers. She is so illogical and incoherent that I had a very hard time taking anything she did or said seriously. Every-time she appeared I find myself thinking ‘of course, there she goes again‘.
The protagonist is worse than a shadow. She isn’t merely the type who prefers to observe rather than be observed. She is completely feckless. Her stupidity and her naïveté were jarringly unbelievable. I didn’t so much care for her lacking a name but her lack of an actual personality was harder to ignore. Her narrative is needlessly confounding. The time jumps were handled poorly, it seems that Smith wanted to do more than the classic then & now timeline, and in doing so ended up with a lot of odd transitions. The obvious retaining of certain information from the reader was both unnecessary and annoying (these instances rather than generating suspense just come across as being stilted). Also, are we to believe that someone so nonexistent would describe certain random acts in a completely exaggerated manner? Because our narrator loves giving random dramatic descriptions…and has a penchant for the word ‘gold’ .
As much as I personally dislike this narrator, I dislike her because we see from her point of view. Other characters don’t know just how irksome she is and yet….every single person she encounter seems to give her a sermon which consist in slightly varying versions ofyou have no idea/you are so privileged/you don’t nothing bout anything/listen to what I know/I know what’s what/listen to my life story/yadda yadda‘. Very likely…
Smith occasionally does turn her writing skills to do ‘good’, and she offers observations that don’t seem to come from the narrator’s point of view, and therefore did not seem theatrical or irritating. Sadly, she also comes up with things such as:

“I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her […] I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

What the actual…am I to believe that our ‘woke‘ protagonist would think this? A ‘broken’ girl?! And that cheesy line about ‘a secret she can’t tell’?!

This novel is indeed ambitious…it tries to include as many topical and relevant things but it all just comes across as overreaching. Rather than offering a nuanced cast of characters and believable scenarios, Smith seems to go out of her way to portray grotesque impressions of people (for example when the narrator is on a plane she is seated next to two truck-drivers with ‘bleeding gums’, ‘yellow teeth’ and seem to be rather crass…) and all for the sake of what? I wanted a story about ambition, I wanted a complex depiction of the dangers that words such as ‘potential’ and ‘talent’ can have, and above all, I thought there would be a friendship between two passionate girls...what I got was a series of cruel and degrading lampoons with a few ‘in’ terms & topics.
Massive let down.

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THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR: BOOK REVIEW

housekeeper_professor
The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yōko Ogawa
★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

A poignant and gentle tale of a friendship between a professor (whose memory lasts approximately 80 minutes), his housekeeper and her ten-year-old son, who goes by the nickname of ‘Root’.
The narrative of The Housekeeper and the Professor although brimming with compassion avoids being over-sentimental. There is plenty of kindness and love to be found in this novel. Ogawa’s style depicts with honesty the friendship between an old and vulnerable man and a hard-working single mother. The housekeeper, a good-natured woman, becomes interested in maths thanks to the professor, who prior to his brain injury was a professor of maths. While living in solitude, cut away from the world, he still possess his love for numbers and a knack for teaching.
Nothing eventful really happens, and this is not a plot-driven novel. The narrator recounts this friendship and a particular time of her life in an almost wistful manner. Her reminiscing provides some beautiful observations and some lovely phrases.
As silly as it might sound, there was a bit too much talk of numbers&maths and baseball, so I did feel a bit distanced from the story at times. Nevertheless, if you fancy a quick and moving story, look no further.

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The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy by Barbara Vine

“I want to be in love. I want to be possessed and obsessed by it, I want the sky to change colour and the sun to shine all the time. I want to long for the phone to ring and pace the room when it doesn’t. I want to be breathless at the sound of her voice and tongue-tied when I first see her.”

A layered and complex character driven novel, one that from start to finish thrums with suspense.
Guilt, lost chances, secretive relationships and desires are explored throughout this novel.

After the death of her husband, renown writer Gerald Candless, Ursula considers her loveless marriage and the freedom she has gained as a widow. Her daughters, unlike her, loved Gerald. It is hinted, from the very beginning, that Gerald marries solely to become a father: his desire, during the 60s and the 70s is made to make him unusual, different. Yet, he takes control of his daughters, pushing Ursula out of the family picture. Sarah, the eldest daughter, is charged with writing a memoir in his memory. Grief stricken, she agrees, only to then discover than her mythical father is not who he claimed to be.
A perusal of the past brings to life Ursula’s unhappy marriage as well as the lives of the families surrounding the mystery of Gerald’s true identity. Identity, love, freedom, all play a large role in the story’s narrative. The richly detailed backdrop provides a wistful portrayal of 20th century (from the 40s to the 90s) England. Characters who actively challenge themselves and one another make the narrative utterly engaging. Barbara Vine doesn’t shy away from depicting the most unnerving and uncomfortable aspects of her society: personal vices, poverty, depression, repression, and various injustices abound.
Also, Vine doesn’t provide clear cut answers or universal truths. Her story and her characters do no fit in neat little boxes. She explores the actions of different types of people without any sentimentalist moral lessons.
Vine allows us to know what is coming – that is the ‘mystery’ at the core of this novel – however she doesn’t let the details, the particulars, of that mystery known to us: she keeps us guessing, even when we are fairly certain of what exactly happened, we are only provided with fragmented glimpses of the fuller ‘picture’.
With a beautiful and richly descriptive prose, characters who are both sensual and finicky, a plot that relies on the art of writing itself (so many books are mentioned!) , well, The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy is a truly remarkable read.

My rating: 5 stars

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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

There are so many new releases that are focused on a particular family’s history, and there is a trend for storylines that follow members of a family through the decades (e.g. The Good Children, Commonwealth). The Immortalists might revolve around four siblings, but there was little – if any –interaction between them. This novel focused on each of the Golds individually rather then showing them as being part of a whole. At times, I could almost forget that they were part of the same family, and that is perhaps one of my biggest problems with this novel. Also, that and the fact that there was none of the magical realism promised by its premise, so I found the lack of fantastical elements to be disappointing.

Chloe Benjamin’s novel provides little respite: bad shit happens, time and again. Small issues and arguments are enlarged so much so that each of the Gold sibling – as well as the other characters –seem to be over-reacting almost all of the time.
There is a sense of dread embedded in each of the four narratives, and this unease felt – to me – unneeded. Things that should seem every-day – ‘manageable’ – actions become sources of humongous distress. And the characters act-out, they are so inconsistent, so bloody ambiguous, that I felt little for them. That each of the Gold is confronted by a certain character – a friend or a lover – became predictable: this one character will them that they are selfish, self-absorbed, that they should not think themselves as having faced any tragedies, that they should not use their Jewish heritage as a source of pity. Really?
Here are a few other things that I found annoying (possible mild spoilers ahead):
Simon’s storyline. Now, there is a character who is gay, and he will be rather young during the 70s…we know he will die young…can you guess? Yes. His narrative was also the only narrative to contain multiple explicit sexual scenes…so because he is gay, he has to be sex-crazed? The author tries to make it seem as if it was the knowledge of dying young that pushes Simon to lead an unsafe and pleasure-seeking lifestyle…but to me, his story and the way his story is told was just banal and came across as rather distasteful. Simon never seemed fully-fleshed out. He makes lots of (bad) choices, but doesn’t do a lot of thinking…
➜we see little of the strong bond between Klara and Simon. We only see her missing him, but the few scenes between them did not reflect the affectionate and deep bond that Klara claims they had…
➜Daniel…what the actual heck? His narrative sets him up as being this one type of person and ends by having him do completely out of character…
➜Varya’s story was so deeply uncomfortable. Grotesque…and, dare I say, unbelievable? There is this one scene in which she takes off her socks (after having fallen asleep in her car) and they are drenched with sweat. After one night in a car? Come on!

Moralistic side-characters, ludicrous descriptions, senseless dialogues, sudden lewd observations…what was meant to be edgy seemed plain gross. Unlikable characters are okay, heck I loved Emma Bovary in spite of her many flaws, but the Golds were scarcely credible, so I found it hard to feel much beyond confusion in their regards.

Simon and Klara’s stories were supposed to show how two people, convinced of knowing when they will die, decide to live life at its fullest: they purse what they want, they focus on themselves. Both of their stories unfolded in a predictable way: Simon’s section is focused on his sexuality, the dangers of not being allowed to feel comfortable and accepted by others, while Klara’s journey takes her down a more puzzling path, her own mental health affects large chunks of her narrative. David and Varya’s stories were – not so subtly – meant to contrast with the ones of their younger siblings . While the ‘death date’ pressures Simon and Klara into pleasure-seeking lifestyles (their decision to put aside family duties) David and Varya seem not as convinced by their own death days. They both have chips on their shoulders, and because of that bitterness they have little to do with one another and think little of their younger siblings. Through their careers the author attempts to question the ethics of their practices: David is allowing people to go to war, while Varya’s lab is studying and imposing a restrictive lifestyle on some monkeys. Their narratives focus on a short fraction of their lives: their job is key and at one point or another they are both challenged by that one convenient character….

It wasn’t terrible, there were instances were I actually liked it, but by the end, I felt somewhat cheated. After all of that, all of those embarrassing and sorrowful scenes, those inanely stupid decision and those awkward arguments, after all of that…and then what? What is the message of this novel supposed to be?

My rating: 2.5 stars

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