BOOK REVIEWS

The Travelers by Regina Porter

The cast of characters and locations at the start of Regina Porter’s The Travelers is a tiny bit daunting as they promise to cover a far wider scope than your usual family saga. The Travelers explores the lives of characters who are either related, sometimes distantly, or connected in less obvious ways. Porter’s switches between perspectives and modes of writing, always maintaining authority over her prose and subjects. The Traveler provides its readers with a captivating look into Americans lives, chronicling the discrimination black Americans were subjected during the Jim Crow era, the experiences of black soldiers and female operators in the Vietnam war, the civil rights protests in the 1960s, and America under Obama. Porter combines the nation’s history with the personal history of her characters, who we see at different times in their lives. Sometimes we read directly of their experiences, at times they are related through the eyes of their parents, their children, or their lovers. Rather than presenting us with a neat and linear version of her characters’ lives, Porter gives us glimpses into specific moments of their lives. At times what she recounts has clearly shaped a character’s life (such as with an early scene featuring two white policemen), at times she provides details that may seem insignificant, but these still contribute to the larger picture.
Porter provides insights into racial inequality, discrimination, domestic abuse, parental neglect, PTSD, and many other subjects. Although she never succumbs to a saccharine tone, she’s always empathetic, even in her portrayal of characters who are not extremely ‘likeable’ in a conventional way. Sprinkles of humour balance out the more somber scenes, and her dialogues crackle with energy and realism. The settings too were rendered in vivid detail, regardless of when or where a chapter was taking place.
Porter’s sprawling narrative achieves many things. While it certainly is not ‘plot’ oriented, I was definitely invested in her characters. Within moments of her introducing use to a new character I found myself drawn to them and I cared to read more of them. Part of me wishes that the novel could have been even longer, so that it could provide us with even more perspectives. I appreciated how Porter brings seemingly periphery characters into the foreground, giving a voice to those who would usually be sidelined.
Her sharp commentary (on race, class, gender) and observations (on love, freedom, dignity) were a pleasure to read. I loved the way in which in spite of the many tragedies and injustices she chronicles in her narrative moments that emphasise human connection or show compassion appear time and again.
An intelligent and ambitious novel, one that at times brought to mind authors such as Ann Patchett (in particular, Commonwealth) and one I would definitely recommend to my fellow readers.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami

Considering that Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favourites authors this was a big letdown. The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino lacked the zing that made Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop into such fun and engaging reads. Nishino, the novel’s central character, is a boring creep and I could not for the life of me understand why so many women cared for him.

The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino is divided in ten chapters, each one narrated by one of Nishino’s ‘loves’. The chapters do not follow a linear structure, so Nishino’s life is given to us in an almost fragmented way. The women Nishino loves easily blend together as they all shared the same kind of voice. I did not find them as likeable as the protagonists of Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop and maybe that’s because much of their narrative focuses on the relationship they have with Nishino. Most of them realise that Nishino is bad news who cheats and is emotionally unavailable. Yet, usually after they claim to dislike him, they will confess that they are on the verge of falling in love with him. Alas, because of ‘reasons’, they break up. The Nishino that emerges from these accounts is that of a pathetic and needy man who habitually lies. He has 0 charisma, here are two examples of some of his lines that make his ‘loves’ ‘giggle’: “Girls’ bottoms are always so cool, so smooth—I love them . . .” and “I love women’s breasts,”. Wow…isn’t he a poet?
Nishino is troubled and ‘broken’ and the women he loves pity him for it, hoping that one day he will find a woman good enough to ‘fix’ him (ugh).

minor spoilers ahead
The thing is, Nishino is a shit. He obviously does not care to have consensual sex with his ‘loves’: “I said, Stop, over and over, each time he quietly replied, I will not stop.” and “Hey, let’s have sex right now,” Nishino said. And then, without waiting for my response, he took me roughly.”.
He has sister issues, boo-fucking-hoo. Give me a break. The guy is a massive creep. He jokes to one of his ‘loves’ that he will marry his daughter (who is a child). Was it supposed to be funny? Coming from a guy who then at the age of fifty starts a sexual relationship a woman thirty years his junior?
I also did not care for the whole ‘breast milk scene’ involving Nishino and his sister. Surely that would not be the only way of ‘easing’ her pain (this is the third book I have read this year with weird breast milk scenes and I can safely say that I care little for this trend).

If you are thinking of reading something by Kawakami, I strongly recommend you pick up Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop instead of this.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

The Lake is narrated by the quintessential Banana Yoshimoto protagonist. While Yoshimoto’s sparse yet dreamy makes for an easy reading experience this is definitely not one of her ‘strongest’ novels.
Chihiro, daughter of an ‘unconventional’ couple, moves to Tokyo in order to pursue a career graphic artist. She’s still grieving her mother’s death and spends most of her time on her own. One day, as she is staring out of her window, she sees a young man staring back from a window across the street. The two quickly form a bond and begin to spend their spare time together. Nakajima, who has also lost his mother, is somewhat unwilling to discuss his past with Chihiro and when their relationship becomes more of a romance it becomes clear to her that he must have experience some childhood trauma.
This short novel is definitely not plot-oriented as the narrative mainly consists in Chihiro either navel-gazing or pronouncing two-bit aphorisms.
While Yoshimoto does evoke the places and sensations Chihiro visits/experiences, The Lake lacked the atmosphere and feeling of Kitchen an Umi no Futa (which I believe has yet to be translated in English). And whereas I usually enjoy how nostalgic ambience of her work, The Lake just came across as dated. Chihiro seems almost to relish the idea that Nakajima may be deeply traumatised and we also have a side-character who is affected by a mysterious illness and bed bound yet she is also omniscient and able to speak through others…
Overall, this was definitely one of Yoshimoto’s more banal stories as it lacked that vital zing which usually makes her books such zesty reads.

my rating: ★★½

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Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura

“The only place she could now go to freely from her bedroom was the castle. If I’m in the castle, she started to think, then I’ll be safe. Only the castle beyond the mirror could offer her complete protection.”

Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a heartfelt slice of life novel with a magical twist. Personally, I don’t think that this novel has much in common with Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman…while I understand that yes, they both are authored by Japanese women and yes, they both are concerned with mental health but story and style wise the two have nothing in common. Lonely Castle in the Mirror is closer to the work of Ghibli (more When Marnie Was There than Spirited Away) or anime such as AnoHana or Orange.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror is told by third-person narrator that primarily focuses on Kokoro, who is in seventh grade (first year of junior high). Kokoro, however, no longer attends school. The prospect of going to her class fills her with such unease that she often experiences anxiety-induced stomach aches. She’s unwilling to ‘confess’ to her mother the reason why she stopped going to school and spends her days at home, trying and failing not to think about her classmates. One day she notices a weird light emanating from within her mirror and finds herself transported into a castle that seems to belong in a faerie tale. Kokoro, alongside six other children/teenagers, has been selected by the Wolf Queen (whose appearance is that of small girl wearing a wolf mask) who informs them that within the castle is a key and whoever finds it will be granted a wish. The magical castle has opening hours and if they fail to leave by 5pm they will be eaten by wolves. The castle will be available to them for a year, until the end of March (school years in Japan go from April to March).

While this summary makes this story sound like a fantastical adventure, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is more of a character-driven story that just happens to take place in a magical castle. Kokoro and the other students spend most of their time playing games and slowly getting to know each other. For the majority of the novel they do not seem overly interested by the promise of a ‘wish’, nor are they worried by the possibility of being eaten by wolves. The castle becomes their playroom, a safe space in which they do not have to think about their home-lives. Although they differ in age they are all in junior high. While they realise immediately that they have all stopped going to school, they do not often broach this topic.
Overtime however they get to know each other. There are a few disagreements now and again, and their bond with each another is not always an easy or drama free one. Still, in spite of their different background and interests they do begin to view their time together as an escape from their intolerable ‘reality’.

While Mizuki Tsujimura touches upon sobering topics—such as bullying, domestic and sexual abuse—these do not weigh down her narrative. When discussions around these subjects crop up the author demonstrates great sensitivity and empathy. The friendship that blossoms between Kokoro and the others makes for some tender scenes. The ‘revelation’ behind the castle and the reason why they were chosen will probably were not all that ‘surprising’. Still, even if readers know more than Kokoro or the other characters, this will probably not detract any enjoyment from their reading experience (the story has a lot to offer without those final ‘twists’).
While I understand why the narrative mainly stuck to Kokoro, part of me wished that the story could have also focused on the other characters.
Tsujimura certainly captures the anxiety and fear that many feel at the prospect of going to school. When I dropped out of high school I felt much of what Kokoro was feeling.

“School was everything to her, and both going and not going had been excruciating. She couldn’t consider it only school.”

Although the castle lies inside of a mirror, it did not feel all that magical. There are very few descriptions about the way it looks, and I think that the story would have benefited from having a more vividly rendered setting. And, maybe I would have liked the story even more if there had been more fantastical elements (the Wolf Queen makes an appearance now and again but other than that the castle is very much like an ordinary playroom). Towards the end the story definitely has more of a fantasy feel and really reminded of a Ghibli film.
Overall, I did enjoy this novel. I think Tsujimura’s narrative succeeds in being both gentle and emotional. She allows time for her characters to develop and learn to get to know and care for each other. Kokoro, in particular, is given a satisfying character arc.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a novel about friendship, realistic issues (such as bullying), self-acceptance with some magical undertones.

my rating: ★★★½

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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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You People by Nikita Lalwani — book review

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“People can see you, but they don’t want to see who you are.”

Given Britain’s political climate (in other words: the madness of Brexit) Nikita Lalwani’s You People is a poignant and incredibly relevant novel. Set in London, Lalwani’s story takes place in 2003 (get ready for some nokia-related nostalgia) and focuses on Nia and Shan, respectively a waitress and a cook, both of whom work at Pizzeria Vesuvio.

Although her father is Bengali nineteen-year old Nia ‘passes’ for white and is often mistaken for Italian. Having been raised by her Welsh mother Nia has never been in contact with her father or his culture. After years of putting up with her mother’s spiralling mental health and alcoholism Nia is eager to leave her hometown. University however doesn’t go as planned and she flees to London.
With a few white lies on her part Nia is hired by Tuli the owner of Pizzeria Vesuvio and soon she is enthralled by him. Yet Tuli—a Tamil who grew up in Singapore—with his philanthropist ways seems too good to be true. How can he afford to help so many other people? Why do people go to him?

“He is a walking set of choices and consequences: love thy neighbour, the greater good, take your pick. This image of him—of them—filters and echoes through her memory, there are a thousand iterations or more. She can never be certain of its imprint or impact. She tells herself the story as it unfolds from this moment. She does it to understand him, and so to believe in his cure.”

Having left his wife and son behind, Shan, a Tamil from Sri Lanka, is wrecked by guilt. His passage to Europe doesn’t go as planned and he falls more and more into debt. While at first, out of naïveté or perhaps desperation, he believes that he can at a later date be joined by his wife and son, once in London, he realises that the agents who organised his ‘trip’ are little more than conmen. London too isn’t the city he’d envisioned and he finds it hard to make enough money to survive each week, let alone pay his debts or the passage of his loved ones. It is Tuli, his new boss, who comes to his aid.

“They all know, everyone knows, that he did it partly for them, partly for himself, there is no way to disentangle the motivation and purify it.”

Unlike Tuli’s other employers Nia has never been subjected to xenophobia or racism. While her life has been less than ideal—punctuated by poverty, emotional neglect and abuse—she has a simplistic view of immigrants and her government, and it in her time at the Pizzeria Vesuvio Tuli challenges her idealistic notions. Nia is shocked to learn of what Shan was subjected to in Sri Lanka and that for him to be an ‘illegal’ immigrant is better than the alternative, which may be death, torture, or imprisonment.

“So, the question would be—is it better to tell all of the truth, one hundred per cent, and get deported, or is it better to tell mostly the truth, with a few untruths, and become legal?”

Yet, in spite of their different backgrounds and circumstances, both Nia and Shan are wracked by guilt. They both left someone behind in order to survive and as the novel progresses their two narratives become entwined with each other.

What stands out in Lalwani’s novel is the ambience and imagery that are the backdrop to Nia, Shan, and Tuli’s lives. Through the scenes that take place at the Pizzeria and the ones that take place on London’s busy roads, Lalwani’s creates a portrait of community life. Her ear for accents and mannerism brings to life many different people and their cultures.
Through a few description Lalwani emphasises the characters’ environments. Occasionally she does so by focusing on a small detail, or by presenting the setting of a scene in an almost cinematic way.

“The glass was spotting with rain again and there was something sublime in how the red and yellow lights outside were permeating each individual bubble of water with colour.”

The unease that pervades Nia and Shan’s narratives builds up in a quiet crescendo. Although ‘not much’ seems to go on, both the characters and the readers are aware of the dangerous and vulnerable position Shan is as he spends most of his waking time unsure whether his loved ones are alive and in fear of being deported.
You People is not an easy read. The violence against and dehumanisation of ‘illegal’ immigrants is horrifying. They do not have the freedom that most people—me included—take for granted. To even speak of or refer to people as ‘illegal’ seems wrong. Yet, sadly that is how they are seen by the government. There is one particularly harrowing scene in which the immigration enforcement turns up and what follows will haunt both the readers and the other characters. The ‘not knowing’ what is going to happen to them is terrifying. That a person can be simply taken away like this is horrifying.

“They have come from the government, the logo is all over them, they think they are invincible, that is how these people see themselves. Someone has told them that they are the good guys, like those superhero films, where the audience is instructed to cheer for each every violence act committed in the name of freedom.”

Both narratives are told from a third point of view but while Nia’s sections are in the past tense, Shan’s are in the present tense. This switch between tenses suited the characters and their storylines. Nia herself says that she is always looking back, whereas Shan is stuck in a fraught present, not knowing his fate or the one of his loved ones.

“Already she was looking back at life and saying to herself, I was young then, as thought that idea of youth was over.”

Rather than using ‘Nia’ or ‘Shan’ the narratives often address them as ‘she’ and ‘he’. This might annoy some readers, and it does take some using to, but once you’ve leaned into the flow of Lalwani’s prose you might appreciate the ambivalent mood that this technique creates.

“There had always been this relationship with fiction, she imagined it could offer her blueprints for living, loving, dying—that it could save her, let her know how things should be.”

I loved the scenes which depicted interactions between the Vesuvio staff. Although Shan is far too preoccupied by his life to socialise with the other Tamil cooks, he finds himself bonding with Ava, who is a waitress at the Pizzeria. Nia, who is seen as a white British girl, feels somewhat left out by her colleagues. It is Tuli who quickly becomes the central figure of her ‘new’ life and seems to take an interest in her.
The character dynamics were as nuanced as the characters themselves. Although the cast of characters is fairly small, and the story is mostly focused on Tuli, Shan (his wife and son) and Nia (her mother and sister), however short their appearances may be Lalwani’s characters struck me as incredibly realistic.
It was interesting to see Tuli from different perspectives. His characters always retains a sense of mystery, and for most of the narrative readers are never sure of who he truly is.

Nia and Shan’s stories are steeped in loneliness. As they try to reconcile themselves with their past decisions and their new circumstances their worldview is irrevocably altered. While this novel certainly doesn’t provide easy solutions or happy endings, what it does offer us and its characters is hope.

Occasionally there were the odd descriptions which were a bit too purple for my taste ( “her whole physicality is streaked with the force of these tight lines of feminine power” / “that solid, satisfying element which ran down her spine like the hard chocolate centre of a Feast ice-cream bar”).
For the most part however I appreciated the aesthetics created by Lalwani’s idiosyncratic way of presenting a scene or articulating a phrase.

You People is a deeply melancholic and heart-rendering novel one that I would describe as being the book equivalent of an independent film. Lalwani’s quiet yet atmospheric style and her character-driven and introspective story won’t appeal to everyone…but I do hope that her novel will strike a chord with those readers who are looking for a poignant and necessary story.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up)

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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 NAKANO THRIFT SHOP: BOOK REVIEW

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

I thought about how what I felt for him now and what he felt for me at that moment must be totally and completely out of sync. Trying to imagine it made me dizzy.

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Hiromi Kawakami can really capture the most ordinary thoughts and moments of everyday life. While Strange Weather in Tokyo was focused on a woman’s evenings in a bar, leaving out her day job, The Nakano Thrift Shop is all about our protagonist’s job. We don’t know much about Hitomi other than that she is employed at the Nakano Thrift shop. The story is concerned with a particular time in her life, and avoids adding unnecessary information.
In her new job Hitomi meets plenty of interesting, eccentric, if not downright weird, people: from her employer, Mr. Nakano, to his sister, Masayo, her colleague, the nervous Takeo, to the many different customers. The novel is divided in twelve chapter, and each one of them tells of a particular period in the Nakano shop, focusing in turn on Mr. Nakano’s love life, or Masayo’s, or even on a set of cursed bowls. There are plenty of colourful characters who provide funny anecdotes or peculiar conversations. Each chapter is self-contained given that they tell of different moments of Hitomi’s time at the thrift shop.
Kawakami excels in capturing the misunderstandings and awkwardness that can arise between two people, wherever they are romantically involved or not. The characters’ conversations and arguments are incredibly believable given their propensity for ‘going nowhere’ or ‘around in circles’. Unlike other books, (I’m looking at you Normal People and Outline), this novel relays clumsy interactions, evincing the limitations that our words often have, in a truly credible manner. There are these moments of sullenness over what’s been said or what hasn’t been said or even the way it has been said in.
I also love the way in which these ordinary moments can almost seem surreal or fantastic.

I liked the way Masayo held those scissors. It was like she had a small woodland creature playing in her hand.



Kawakami is not for readers who seek plot, action and meaning. If you don’t need these things, and if you are looking for a read that will fill you with a sense of nostalgia and make you smile, look no further.

I hear somewhere that human cells renew themselves every three years. His name might still be Takeo, and he might look just like him on the outside, but this guy was a totally different person.



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Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper grown-up. I had been very much the adult when I was in elementary school. But as I continued on through junior high and high school, on the contrary, I became less grown-up. And then as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself with time.

Hiromi Kawakami injects a series of ordinary episodes between two people with a dreamy atmosphere, one that makes the events she describes anything but boring. In Strange Weather in Tokyo, also translated as a The Briefcase, Tsukiko, a 38-year-old woman who works in an office (it is never specified what her job truly entails), runs into Sensei, her former teacher. The two are both gourmands, and find themselves conversing over food and becoming ‘drinking companions’. Their talk feels very natural, especially in the way it often leads nowhere. They talk of their favourite foods or haikus, comment on the weather, disagree over the best baseball teams. As unlikely their companionship is (there is an age gap of 30 years), their connection is vibrantly rendered. Tsukiko’s tranquil yet quirky narration will appeal to readers who enjoyed Hilary Leichter’s Temporary or Convenience Store Woman.

This slight novel is very much a slice of life, a glimpse into the everyday experiences and thoughts of its main character. Each chapter focuses on a certain episode from her life: she goes mushroom hunting, walks around the neighbourhood with Sensei, witnesses the cherry blossom with a former classmate, spends a weekend away from Tokyo. There are paragraphs in which Tsukiko considers fizzy water, and many pages are dedicated to scenes in which she’s eating or drinking (alone or with Sensei). The author’s dialogues have an almost mumblecore-esque quality to them, one that makes them ring true to life. Throughout the course of these self-contained chapters Kawakami showcases an incredible understanding of ‘loners’ such as Tsukiko and Sensei, and of all the little things that go through people’s mind.
Each chapter brought a smile to my face. Tsukiko, our peculiar narrator, is an endearing, if puzzling, character, and her gradual relationship with Sensei felt very authentic. There are small, and often silly, misunderstandings or disagreements, drawn out silences, and moments of true companionship.
Because the story was written in the early 2000s, I experience a certain nostalgia while I was reading it. There is lack of modern technology (mobile phones appear towards the end of the story) that gives it an enchanting sort of timelessness.
I would definitely recommend this for those who want to read something less plot oriented or for fans of quiet yet atmospheric storytellers such as Banana Yoshimoto.

MY RATING: 4 of 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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