BOOK REVIEWS

African Europeans: An Untold History by Olivette Otélé

“The history of African Europeans is vibrant and complex, just as it is brutal.”

Olivette Otélé, who happens to be a professor at my university, is the first black woman in the UK to be appointed to a professorial chair in history. African Europeans is her meticulously researched and illuminating examination of the relationship, past and present, between Europe and Africa. Otélé reveals key figures and connections that have long been overlooked by historians and public discourse. By revealing the lives and experiences of African Europeans throughout the centuries Otélé dispels the popular myth of Europe having an exclusively white historical narrative (which leads many to criticise period/historical dramas that are set in Europe and star non-white characters, claiming that it isn’t ‘historically accurate’).

In the first chapter, ‘Early Encounters: From pioneers to African Romans’, Otélé states the following: “From confrontations to collaborations, the relationship between Africans and Europeans has been tumultuous since the third century”. She discusses figures such as the Queen of Sheba and St Maurice (an Egyptian and leader of the Roman Theban Legion) as well as African-born Romans such as Emperor Septimius Severus (who was born in Leptis Magna ie Libya) and Marcus Cornelius Fronto. who “paved the way for a strong tradition of African European intellectuals”. In the second chapter, ‘Black Mediterraneans: Slavery and the Renaissance’, Otélé touches upon famous names such as Alessandro de Medici to ‘ordinary’ ones such as Ursola, a black slave in a Valencian household, who hoped to “buy her freedom”.
From the Renaissance Otélé moves onto the following centuries, exploring, and challenging, Europe’s shifting perceptions of race and blackness. Otélé also demonstrates the ways in which racism has evolved throughout history.

“From religious artefacts to representations of the magi; from an intellectual in fifteenth-century Granada to the young grime artists of twenty-first-century Britain, African European identities have continuously evolved.”

In the latter half of this book Otélé focuses on more recent history, describing how many European countries refuse to acknowledge systemic racism (as if ‘apologising’ for their colonial pasts absolves them completely) feigning ‘color blindness’. I also really appreciated Otélé’s intersectional approach as she always takes into account the different ways in which one’s gender and sexuality contributes to the way they are treated by and seen by their society.
The lives, experiences, histories Otélé ‘unearths’ are riveting. While Otélé does not pose questions to the reader, the histories she ‘unearths’ are definitely question-inducing. Racism, citizenship, identity, notions of freedom and of belonging all shape the individuals Otélé is writing about.
This is the kind of history book that should become part of the curriculum. Although I did not attend a British school many of my British acquaintances have complained about the lacunae in their studies (especially when it comes to discussing the relationship between Africa and the UK). And I also hope that it will be translated in Italian and many other languages.
I think this an inspiring work that will definitely appeal to those with a ‘history’ background or to history aficionados.
Otélé is a thoughtful yet objective writer and her work demonstrates incredibly acuity and knowledge.

Many many many thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an a copy of this.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

As the title itself suggests this book is about undocumented Americans. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio never treats the people she is writing of as passive ‘subjects’, or worst still ‘objects’, her gaze is neither voyeuristic nor impersonal. She does not give the impression that she is filtering their experiences and stories, even if she admits early on that due to privacy she may or may not have altered names and specific/recognisable details. In the interactions she has with those who are undocumented she isn’t a stoic journalist or interviewer, she doesn’t only ask questions. She shares her own thoughts, feelings, and circumstances with them, and often seems to form a bond with them. Which is what sets apart The Undocumented Americans from other works that wish to elevate the voices of those who are so often silenced.

Villavicencio isn’t interested in relating stories of those deemed ‘exceptions’, as exceptionalism ignores narratives that are not deemed ‘extraordinary’. Throughout the course of 6 chapters, moving across America—Staten Island, Miami, Cleveland, Flint, New Haven—Villavicencio reveals the complex lives, identities, and histories of undocumented immigrants. The voices she ‘collects’ in these chapters belong to day labourers, housekeepers, family members who have been separated from their loved ones, those who have lost loved ones because they do not have medical insurance, those who have been or are still being affected by the Flint water crisis, and the first responders to 9/11.
The people Villavicencio connects with do not want our sympathy or pity. They share their experiences with her hoping perhaps that their stories will reach those in need, those who perhaps like them are being or have been exploited by a country that treats them as ‘illegal’ and ‘aliens’. Even in the UK there is this stereotype of immigrants as lazy when the exact opposite is true. Chances are they work harder and for much less than the ‘natives’, whilst being subjected to all sorts of injustices. Villavicencio challenges this view of immigrants as criminals, lazy, welfare cheats, ‘less than’. She also confronts the myth of the ‘American Dream’ as she comes across people who do nothing but work, yet, no matter their hard work they risk being deported or are forced to turn to ineffective herbal remedies in order to cure serious illnesses or health problems they probably have developed while working physically and emotionally draining jobs and/or in dangerous environments.

Villavicencio speaks frankly and readers will feel her anger and sadness. She confronts the realities of being an immigrant, of working unfathomable hours for little or no money, of being treated unfairly, of experiencing health issues and being unable to seek treatment. However sobering their stories are, the people she writes demonstrate commendable qualities. They are multi-faceted individuals and their stories will undoubtedly resonate with many.
Villavicencio is an empathetic writer, who shares her own experiences and feelings throughout the course of this work. While this is a read that will both incense and depress you, it will also (hopefully) make you want to do something about it.

Although I live outside of America, immigrants do not face an easier life here in Europe. There are “immigration removal centres” (who thought that the word ‘removal’ would be okay when speaking of HUMAN BEINGS?), governments which are willing to let people drown rather than reach their shores (and at times orchestrate these shipwrecks), collude with other governments in order to stop people from leaving their countries….the list of horrors go on. I urge you, if you are in a position to donate to charities such as ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’ (these are UK based) to do so.

The Undocumented Americans is a heart-breaking, urgent, thoughtful work. Villavicencio is a talented writer whose prose is both eloquent and raw. I will definitely read whatever she publishes next.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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Not My Time to Die by Yolande Mukagasana

In this powerful and gut-wrenching testimony, which has only been recently translated in English, Yolande Mukagasana writes of the Rwandan genocide. In a striking and incisive prose Mukagasana recounts the horrific three months in which Hutus massacred hundred of thousands of Tutsis. Mukagasana, a Tutsi, worked was a nurse/doctor in Kigali. She was married with three children. When Hutus begin persecuting and killing Tutsis Mukagasana and her loved ones attempt to flee away from Rwanda. Their attempts are unsuccessful as the people who they had once considered their friends turn against them. Mukagasana narrates these events through a first-person perspective and using the present tense. These two modes lend immediacy to her experiences.

There are many distressing if not downright nauseating scenes in this novel. Mukagasana doesn’t gloss over the truly horrific realities of a genocide. These pages are dripping with violence, grief and despair. Before reading this memoir I knew next nothing about Rwanda or its history. Mukagasana provides many illuminating insights into her country’s past and present, emphasising the role that the West played in the fraught relationship between Hulus and Tutsis. Mukagasana challenges Western views of her country and of genocides (the West dismissing the “genocidal violence” that broke out in 1963 as “the usual tribal infighting”) as well as the hypocrisy of organizations such as the United Nations (“expressing platitudes but not acting”). Mukagasana also addresses the causes and consequences of genocidal violence. The author regards violence from numerous standpoints: from a global, national, and individual level.
While Mukagasana conveys with painful clarity the shock and agony that she experiences her audience’s understanding of her grief and pain will be infinitesimal.
However challenging and upsetting this memoir is I encourage others to pick this one up.

MY RATING: 4 of 5 stars

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Dove mi trovo (Whereabouts) by Jhumpa Lahiri

Dove mi trovo, which will be published in English as Whereabouts next spring, is the first novel Jhumpa Lahiri’s has written in Italian. Having read, and deeply empathised with, Lahiri’s In Other Words—a nonfiction work in which she interrogates her love for and struggles with the Italian language—I was looking forward to Dove mi trovo. Although I bought this book more than a year ago, during my last trip to Italy, part of me wasn’t ready to read it just yet. A teensy-weensy part me feared that I would find her Italian to be stilted. As it turns out, I should have not second-guessed Lahiri.

This novel consists in a series of short chapters, between 2 to 6 pages long, in which we follow a nameless narrator as she occupies different spaces. The titles of these chapters in fact refer to the place—not always a ‘physical’ one such as in the case of the recurring ‘Tra sé e sé’ chapters (an expression that for the life of me I cannot translate in English)—she is in or thinking of. She’s on the street, in a bar, a restaurant, a museum, her apartment, by the seaside…you get the gist. The novel takes place during a single year, and our narrator will often remark on the current season. She’s a solitary woman, and although she’s deeply aware of her loneliness, she’s not burdened by it. It is perhaps because she’s alone that she can get lost in her surroundings or in her thoughts. Even in those occasions where she interacts with others—who also remain unmanned and are referred to as her former lover, her friend, a professor, etc—she remains a lonely person. By seeing the way she interacts or navigates certain spaces, we learn more about her. Ultimately, however, she retains an air of mystery.
One should not approach this novel hoping for a plot-driven novel. Dove mi trovo is very much about language. Lahiri’s Italian is crisp and deceptively simple. There are observations or conversations that are rendered with clarity, and there are passages that convey a sense of disquiet. While I can’t say whether Lahiri always articulated phrases like an Italian would, I didn’t notice any Englishism on her part. I loved the way Lahiri articulated her phrases and the correct if démodé terms she used.
While Lahiri’s ‘Italian voice’ differs from the one in her English works, Dove mi trovo is the kind of quietly reflective and deeply nostalgic novel that I would happily revisit time and again.


MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars


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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is an unflinching and deeply harrowing examination of race, colorism, gender, and trauma. Throughout the course of her narrative Toni Morrison captures with painful lucidity the damage inflicted on a black child by a society that equates whiteness with beauty and goodness, and blackness with ugliness and evil.
In her introduction to her novel Morrison explains her inspiration of the novel. Like Morrison’s own friend, the central character in The Bluest Eye, Pecola, is a black girl who yearns for ‘blue eyes’. Similarly to Sula in the eponymous novel, Pecola becomes her community’s scapegoat, but, whereas Sula embraces who she is, Pecola’s self-hatred is compounded by her community’s demonisation of her. The more people speak of her with contempt, the stronger her desire for blue eyes becomes.

Rather than making us experience Pecola’s anguish first-hand, Morrison makes readers into complicit onlookers. We hear the venomous gossip that is exchanged between the various members of Pecola’s community, we witness the horrifying sexual abuse Pecola’s father inflicts on her—from his point of view, not hers—and the good-hearted, if ultimately inadequate, attempts that two other young girls, Claudia and Frieda, make to try and help Pecola.
The adults in this novel are color-struck and condemn Pecola for her parents’ actions, suggesting that she herself is to blame for the violence committed against her. The story is partly narrated by Claudia, whose childhood naïveté limits her comprehension of Pecola’s experiences. We are also given extensive flashbacks in which we learn more about Pecola’s parents (their youth, their eventual romance, and their extremely fraught marriage). There are also scenes focused on characters that belong to Pecola’s community and who either use or abuse her
.
Throughout the course of the narrative, regardless whose point of view we are following, it is clear that Pecola is suffering, and that her home-life and environment are fuelling her self-loathing.
This is by no means an easy read. There is a nauseatingly graphic rape scene, incest, and domestic violence. Pecola is bullied, maltreated, and abused. The few moments of reprieve are offered by Claudia and Frieda, who unlike Pecola can still cling to their childhood innocence.
Pecola’s story is jarring and sobering, and at times reading The Bluest Eye was ‘too much’. Nevertheless, I was hypnotised by Morrison’s cogent style. She effortlessly switches from voice to voice, vividly rendering the intensity or urgency of her characters’ inner monologues. In her portrayal of Pecola’s descent into madness Morrison is challenging racist ideals of beauty, binary thinking, and the labelling of races and individuals as being either good or evil. Pecola’s family, her community, even the reader, all stand by as Pecola becomes increasingly detached from her reality. This a tragic story, one that is bound to upset readers. Still, the issues Morrison addresses in this novel are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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Travellers by Helon Habila

“Are you traveling in Europe?” he asked. I caught the odd phrasing. Of course I was traveling in Europe, but I understood he meant something else; he wanted to know the nature of my relationship to Europe, if I was passing through or if I had a more permanent and legal claim to Europe. A black person’s relationship with Europe would always need qualification—he or she couldn’t simply be native European, there had to be an origin explanation.

Helon Habila’s Travellers is a searing and heart-wrenching novel that recounts the stories of those who are forced to, or choose to, migrate to Europe. Readers learn of how their lives have been disrupted by conflict, war strife, war, persecution, and famine. They embark on dangerous journeys, alone or with their loved ones, only to end up in countries which will deem them criminals, illegal, and aliens.

“As far as they were concerned, all of Africa was one huge Gulag archipelago, and every African poet or writer living outside Africa has to be in exile from dictatorship.”

Travellers can be read a series of interconnected stories. One of the novel’s main characters is nameless Nigerian graduate student who follows Gina, his wife, to Berlin where she has been granted an arts fellowship. Here Gina works on the ‘Travelers’, a series of portraits of “real migrants” whom she pays fifty euros a session. Gina shows little interests in those who sit for her, seeming more focused on displaying the pain etched on their faces (turning down those whose faces seem too “smooth” or untouched by tragedy). In spite of her self-interest and hypocrisy, Habila never condemns her actions. Our nameless protagonist however becomes close to Mark, a film student whose visa has just expired, who goes to protests and believes that “the point of art” is to resist. We then read of a Libyan doctor who is now working as a bouncer in Berlin, a Somalian shopkeeper who alongside his son was detained in a prison reserved for refugees in Bulgaria, a young woman from Lusaka who meets for the first time her brother’s wife, an Italian man who volunteers at a refugee center, and of a Nigerian asylum seeker who is being persecuted by British nativists. Their stories are interconnected, and Habila seamlessly moves switches from character to character. He renders their experiences with clarity and empathy, allowing each voice the chance to tell their story on their own terms. Habila shows the huge impact that their different statuses have (whether they are migrants, immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers) and of the xenophobia, racism, and violence they face in the West. Habila never shies away from delving into the horrifying realities faced by ‘travellers’. Yet, each story contains a moment of hope, connection, and of humanity.
Habila writes beautifully. From Germany to Italy he breathes life in the places he writes of. Although we view them through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, Habila’s vivid descriptions and striking imagery convey the atmosphere, landscape, and culture of each country.
Habila also uses plenty of adroit literary references, many of which perfectly convey a particular moment or a character’s state of mind.
Travellers is as illuminating as it is devastating. Habila presents his readers with a chorus of voices. In spite of their differences in age and gender, they are all trying to survive. They are faced with hostile environments, labelled as ‘aliens’, dehumanised, detained, and persecuted. They have to adjust to another culture and a new language. Yet, as Habila so lucidly illustrates, they have no other choice.
Haunting, urgent, and ultimately life-affirming, Travellers is a must read, one that gripped from the first page until the very last one.
If you’ve read the news lately you will know that the current pandemic is having devastating consequences for migrants and refugees (here is a article published a few days ago: ‘Taking Hard Line, Greece Turns Back Migrants by Abandoning Them’). I know that we are not all in the position to donate but I would still urge you to learn how to support local charities (here are two UK-based charities: ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’. A few days ago I listened with disbelief and disgust as a man on the radio said that allowing the children of immigrants and refugees into British school would somehow be detrimental to the education of ‘genuine children’. Maybe that person wouldn’t have said such an ignorant thing if he had read this book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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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
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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

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My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

“Ayoola lives in a world where things must always go her way. It’s a law as certain as the law of gravity.”


Having read this novel twice I can safely say that I find it to be an exceptionally riveting read: once I start it, I just want to keep reading.
My Sister, the Serial Killer is a darkly funny and engrossing read about two sisters in Lagos, one of whom is a serial-killer.
The chapters are often only two or three pages long, and not one word—or chapter title—goes to waste. Through these brisk chapters Oyinkan Braithwaite presents her readers with snapshots-like scenes that perfectly capture a particular a moment, conversation, or memory in Korede’s story. While these scenes aren’t extremely detailed, there is always something that really makes them pop to life (it might be a reference to Ayoola’s glossy appearance, or a description of Korede’s workplace).
The novel moves at a swift pace, keeping a focus on the tense dynamic between Korede and Ayoola, maintains its initial momentum: Korede’s alertness and wariness keep us on the lookout, so we too are wondering wherever Ayoola will strike again.
Another aspect that I enjoyed is the ambiguous relationship between the two sisters. Korede was not necessarily jealous of her sister, it was more than she was frustrated by the way others fell under her spell of her beauty. In spite of their differences, and of all the small betrayals, Braithwaite managed to make their bond stand out (those rare moments of affection show readers why Korede would put up with Ayoola). Although Korede, as the older sister, feels like Ayoola’s protector, when Ayoola goes after a man Korede cares for…well, Korede’s own loyalties start to waver.
Interspersed throughout the this sleek and utterly energetic narrative are snippets of the poem’s of one of Ayoola’s victims. While Ayoola shows little remorse for her actions, Korede has a harder time letting go of her guilt.
My Sister, the Serial Killer is a compulsive read that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Sayaka Murata and the recently released Pizza Girl.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie — book review

Death on the Nile is one of Agatha Christie’s most ingenuous mysteries. While Christie has definitely penned more ‘twisty’ whoddunits, the shifting dynamics between the book’s various players make for a suspenseful story.
With the exception of our wonderfully punctilious Poirot, Death on the Nile is almost entirely populated by unlikable characters (who are either blatantly racist or express misogynistic and classist sentiments). While Christie’s characters are in essence stereotypes—the self-centred socialites, the oppressive mothers, the vociferous communist, the self-effacing plain-Jane, the vengeful scorned woman—to dismiss them as ‘shallow’ or ‘caricatures’ is rather unjustified. Through her sharp-wit, Christie observes how duplicitous her characters are, regardless of their class and gender. The murder victim is initially presented as heroine of sorts: admired for her beauty, wealth, and altruism. But, here and there, we see glimpses of her flippant and selfish nature.
Throughout the course of the novel, Poirot, as per usual, demonstrates the power of his little grey cells. His denouement, however, wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed how enraged the suspects became once Poirot confronts them about their lies (I mean, they had it coming).

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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