BOOK REVIEWS

Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz

“She was of that special age where she knew both nothing and everything, and no matter where or at whom she looked, she saw her own reflecting glimmering back like a skim of oil. She could be anyone, still.”

Milk Blood Heat is a promising debut, one that I’m sure will be well-received by readers who enjoy lyrical proses. While I personally found Moniz’s style to be occasionally a bit too flowery and/or impressionistic (“she’s Frankenstein’s monster. She is vampire queen. She is newly thirteen, hollowed out and filled back up with venom and dust-cloud dreams” / “my mouth a black cave, ugly and squared” / “I want to swallow my mouth—to fold in my lips and chew until they burst” / “my body felt made of stars”), I was nevertheless absorbed by her rather mesmerising storytelling.
Like most collections of short stories, some aren’t as memorable or well-executed as others, but even in the stories that I didn’t find particularly affecting there were moments or scenes that stood out (in a good way).

Most of these stories seem to possess an ambiguous quality, offering little resolution or at times clarity on the characters’ feelings and/or futures. With the exception of two stories, most seem to be centred on either a young girl or woman whose lives are about to change or are in the process of changing. In the first one, ‘Milk Blood Heat’, follows a young girl, Ava, who spends her days playing with her white best friend, Kiera and begins to question their differences: This year she’s become obsessed with dualities, at looking at one thing in two ways. Although Ava’s mother disapproves of Kiera and her wild ways, the two girls are inseparable, or they are until tragedy strikes.
The second story, ‘Feast’, a woman is the deep thralls of depressions after having a miscarriage. She begins to resent her partner, as he seems not as affected by their loss. Moniz renders the uneasiness and sadness that have become backdrop to the woman’s every thought and action, revealing how deeply her miscarriage has altered her state of being. Her grief, the disturbing visions she has, her numbness are hauntingly conveyed through Moniz’s sharp yet poetic language (which in this instance worked perfectly with the kind of story she was telling).
Most of the other stories explore similar themes (grief, identity, motherhood, friendship) without ever seeming repetitive. Two stories seem centred on a girl’s passage from youth to adulthood, one that forces them reconsider their worldview and notions of good and bad (especially in terms of their sexuality), and each one gives us a different take on ‘growing up’.
My favourite stories were probably ‘The Heart of Our Enemies’ (which focuses on a fraught mother-daughter relationship) and ‘Snow (in which a young woman is having second thoughts about her marriage). The two I liked the least were ‘The Loss of Heaven’ and ‘Exotics’ (which was short and employed a first-person plural perspective, ‘we’, that came across as an exercise for a creative writing class).
Even if Moniz’s prose was a bit too sticky and snappy at times (a la ‘girls are daggers/my eyes are full of stars’), I still was able to appreciate the majority of her stories and I look forward to what she will write next.

My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars

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The Confession by Jessie Burton – book review

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Although The Confession had a very promising start…I think I liked the book’s cover more than its actual contents.

“It came smoothly to me, this loosening the threads of my own identity, weaving a new one. How had it become this easy to let go of myself, to pour words and fantasy into these gaping holes?”

The premise of The Confession is one that has been done time and again. A young-ish woman forms a bond with an older woman, the latter is often famous (she can be an actress like in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo or a writer such as in The Thirteenth Tale) or merely involved in some mystery of sorts (The Brimstone Wedding). The older woman will often confide in the younger one, who in her turn will find herself re-assessing her often until then unfulfilling existence. These books often implement a dual timeline to tell both of these women’s stories and towards the end a big secret will be revealed. So yes, I knew that this book was threading familiar paths…still, I hoped that it would give this scenario or these dynamics a new spin…(it didn’t).
In The Confession it is Rose Simmons who approaches the reclusive Constance Holden, an author who vanished from the ‘literary’ world after publishing her second book decades before. After years of silence, before Elise Morceau mysteriously disappeared, she was last seen with Connie.
Having waited so long for any information regarding her mother and her past, Rose, quite unwisely, decides to approach Connie under false-pretences and is employed by her. As Rose becomes invested in Connie she finds it more and more difficult to reveal her true motives and identity to the novelist.
All the while Rose is having some sort of identity crisis: does she love her boyfriend ? What does she want to do with the rest of her life? Can she ever know herself when she’s grown up with a missing parent?
In some chapters the narrative switches to third-person and jumps back in time, taking us to when Elise first met Connie. We see the way in which she falls for Connie, who by then is at the high of her career. The age gap and power imbalance in their relationship however soon causes a rift between them…

I enjoyed the first section of this novel and, in spite of Rose’s temporary lack of sense, I found both narratives to be engaging. Rose and Elise’s story arcs seemed almost to mirror one another; they both lack(ed) a mother figure and they are uncertain of their own abilities.
Much of the novel is concerned with themes of motherhood and pregnancy. Rose resists the pressure from her father, her best friend, and her boyfriend’s family to get married and have children. Feeling that she has yet to truly live she is not willing to lose her agency, and therefore, independence. It is Connie, a woman who has always dedicated mind and body to her writing, who helps Rose recognise that there are other paths for her…
Sadly, the characters, and by extension the relationships they had with one another, weren’t as nuanced as I would have liked. Most of the romantic relationships were rather unconvincing and never gave the impression that the characters actually cared or loved one another (view spoiler). Worst of all, the book, rather than creating a narrative in which there is room for different perspectives regarding certain topics, it goes on a self-righteous spiel. We get it, this is a truly feminist book.

Here are some of the reasons why I didn’t like this book as much as I hoped to:

✖I found many of the discussions surrounding female rage and autonomy as either incongruous or too ham-handed. First of all Connie expresses disapproval that she and her writing are defined only in terms of their femaleness; yet Rose, Connie, and Elise’s questionable actions or general flaws are presented as an unavoidable outcomes in a ‘patriarchal‘ world. Rather than being angry, they were feeling anger on behalf of their whole sex. Their words or choices seemed to always carry on some debate regarding their being female, which went at odds with the way in which these two narratives imply, directly and non, that these women should not be seen only in terms of their gender.

✖While initially I appreciated the story’s conversations around motherhood, I soon noticed that there wasn’t a single female character who was happy or at peace with not having children. We have the one who desperately yearns for a child; one who is about to have a second one and although she is not blind to the stress this will bring she seems relatively happy; and there are the ones who become pregnant and are faced with the choice of continuing or terminating their pregnancy. Connie, the one character who had the potential of being content with not having children, (view spoiler).
I also hated the fact that (view spoiler). All of the women seemed framed by their potential to become mothers. Couldn’t we have one woman who wasn’t defined by her ability to procreate ?!

✖Rather than having flaws the three main characters (Rose, Elise, and Connie) are merely reacting to a mean world. Their selfishness, anger, and stupidity were made to seem like the only solution to the bad people *ahem* or should I say men *ahem* around them. Rose and Elise’s seemed to share the same sort of aimless personality and funnily enough they both seemed too fixated on Connie (for Rose she is a sort of model for female independence; while for Elise she seems to be everything, yikes). Rather than being held accountable for their actions they are made to seem as if they are the wronged ones…they just didn’t seem to posses any distinctive characteristics, which the narrative tries to pin to the fact that they grew up without a mother figure. Mmmh.
Overall I just wasn’t keen on the way they would dramatise themselves and everything they did or felt.

✖The men are portrayed in such a shallow way. The two most prominent male characters seemed to just shrug a lot. They exist only to be insensitive: not only are they completely ignorant in matters concerning motherhood but they often seem to be held accountable for the female characters’ poor choices or bad behaviours. They were deliberately made to seem as little more than ‘meh’. They have no idea how to deal with emotions of any type or form (sadness, anger, love, you name it, they won’t cope with it).

✖While for the most part I really appreciated Burton’s prose, I soon grew wary of the odd way in which she would suddenly turn to saccharine language (for example in expressing the ‘anguish’ experienced by Rose and Elise). There were many sex scenes that were far too twee for my taste. And yet, amidst these corny love making scenes, there were these abrupt crude descriptions which seemed like a poorly veiled attempt to bemodern‘ that succeeded only in irritating me: (view spoiler).

✖This novel takes itself far too seriously. I found the self-congratulatory and polemical tone of the book to be off-putting. Rose and Elise’s stories were made to seem as ‘relatable’ narratives portraying a contemporary/modern female experience…and yet rather than starring complex and flawed protagonists the book focused on two female characters that seemed often just that: female. Oh, wait a second, Elise is beautiful. There we go. And in spite of its attempts to be a serious, if not literary, type of the novel, both Rose and Elise’s narratives soon turned into soap-operas full of perfectly avoidable miscommunications that have serious repercussions.

✖The mystery element is…lacking if not MIA.

In spite of its promising start (I did enjoy the first few cheap tees), and its beautiful front cover (isn’t it lovely?), The Confession was a rather frustrating book. Between its dichotomous arguments, its poorly developed characters, its uneven tone, and its propensity for melodrama it just didn’t work for me.
There are so many books that use a similar premise with much better results…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars (rounded up to 3)

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