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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These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

“They could only stitch themselves back together if they did something irreversible.”

Heavenly Creatures by way of Patricia Highsmith, plus a sprinkle of Like Minds, and with the kind of teenage morbidity one could find in Hangsaman or Stoker.

Adroit and gripping, These Violent Delights is a superlative debut novel. Being the self-proclaimed connoisseur of academia fiction, I was drawn by the comparisons to The Secret History and I was amazed to discover that unlike other releases (not naming any names) These Violent Delights definitely had some TSH vibes. But whereas most academia books focus on a ‘clique’, Micah Nemerever’s novel is very much centred on the obsessive relationship between two seventeen-year olds.
If you’ve read or watched anything that revolves around a toxic relationship, you know what to expect from These Violent Delights. The prologue itself reveals to us that all will not be well for these two boys, and that at some point will embark on a path of no return.

“He couldn’t remember ever being the person he’d decided to become.”

The narrative takes us back to their first meeting. Paul, our protagonist, is a university freshman in Pittsburgh during the early 1970s. His father has recently committed suicide and his mother has yet to recover. Paul suffers from an almost debilitating insecurity, and shows a propensity for virulent self-recriminations. His inward-looking nature brings him no joy, as his mind is often consumed by his many ‘shortcomings’, and those of others. He feels misunderstood by his working-class family, and without his father, his grandfather, a man whose good-natured attempts to connect with Paul inevitably miss the mark, has become his closest male figure. His family fails to accept that Paul isn’t the type to ‘loosen’ up with his peers or have ‘fun’ with some girl.
When a discussion on experimental ethics in class gets Paul hot under the collar, Julian Fromme comes to his defence. On the surface Julian is the antithesis of Paul: he comes from wealth, he’s self-assured, easy-going, and charismatic. Yet, Paul is enthralled by him, especially when he realises that Julian carries within him a darkness not unlike his own. Their mutual understanding and their interest in one another results in instantaneous connection. They can have erudite talks, challenging each other’s stance on subjects related to ethics and morals, and revel in the superiority they feel towards their classmates. Within hours of their meeting their bond has solidified, becoming something impenetrable to outsiders. It soon becomes apparent that neither of them is in control in their relationship, and things are further complicated when their platonic friendship gives way to a more sexual one.
Their symbiotic bond is of concern to others (to be queer—in both senses—is no walk in the park, especially in the 70s), and attempts are made to separate the two. But Paul and Julian are determined to stay together, and more than once they tell each other that the idea of life without the other would be unbearable.

“[H]e wasn’t afraid anymore. After a lifetime of yearning and trying not to yearn, he imagined the relief of surrendering.”

Even if we suspect that Paul and Julian’s intoxicating liaison will have internecine consequences, we are desperate for a moment of reprieve. But Nemerever’s narrative does not let up, not once. Readers will read with increasing anxiety as Paul and Julian embark on an ‘irreversible’ path, alienating those around them. Dread and anguish became my constant companions while I was reading this novel and I’m glad that I choose to read this when I was off work (I devoured this novel in less than 24h) since These Violent Delights is a riveting edge-of-your-seat kind of read.
A sense of unease pervades this story as even the early stages of Paul and Julian’s relationship are fraught. Julian is almost secretive when it comes to his family, and disapproves of the contempt Paul harbours towards his own mother. Their love for each other often veers into dislike, if not hatred, and they are quite capable of being extremely cruel to each other. Even so we can see why they have become so entangled together, and why they oppose anyone who threatens to separate them. But as they enable one other, their teenage angst morphs into a more perturbing sort of behaviour. Time and again we are left wondering who, if anyone, is in control.

“All they were—all they had ever been—was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun.”

My summary of this novel won’t do it justice as I fear I’m making it sound like any other ‘dark’ tale of obsessive friendships (in this case a romantic one but still). It is Nemerever’s writing that elevates his story from ‘interesting’ to exhilarating (and downright distressing). He evokes the claustrophobic and oppressive nature of Paul and Julian’s bond, making us feel as if we too are caught in their all-consuming relationship. Nemerever’s also acutely renders Paul’s discomforts, the intensity of his love for Julian, of his self-loathing, and of his conflicting desires (to be known, to be unknowable). He wants his family to understand him, but in those instances when they prove that they may understand him more than he thinks, he does not hear them out.

“All I want to do is make you happy, and you’re the unhappiest person I’ve ever met.”

Similarly to The Secret History, the narrative is very much examining the way we can fail to truly see the people closest to us. Paul’s low self-esteem makes him constantly doubt everyone around, Julian included. He perceives slights where there are none, and even seems to find a sort of twisted pleasure (or as Lacan would have it, jouissance) in second-guessing Julian’s feelings towards him or in assuming the worst of others. He projects a preconceived image of Julian onto him (someone who is cruel and deceitful, someone who, unlike Paul himself, can easily adapt or pretend to be normal), and this prevents him from seeing him as he truly is.
The love Paul feels for Julian is almost fanatical, doomed to be destructive. This is the type of relationship that would not be out of place in a Magda Szabó (The Door), Joyce Carol Oates (Solstice) or a Barbara Vine novel (The House of Stairs, No Night is Too Long, A Fatal Inversion) or as the subject of a song by Placebo (I’m thinking of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’).

“They were wild and delirious and invincible, and it was strange that no one else could see it.”

Nemerever’s writing style is exquisite and mature. I was struck by the confidence of his prose (it does read like a debut novel). Not one word is wasted, every sentence demands your attention (which is difficult when the story has you flipping pages like no tomorrow). Nemerever brings to life every scene and character he writes of, capturing, for example, with painful precision the crushing disquiet Paul feels (24/7), his loneliness (exacerbated by his queerness and intelligence) and his deep-seated insecurity. Nemerever doesn’t always explicitly states what Paul is feeling, or thinking, and the ambiguity this creates reminded me very much of Shirley Jackson, in particular of Hangsaman (a scene towards the end was particularly reminiscent of that novel). Readers will have to fill the gaps or try to read the subtext of certain scenes or exchanges between P and J.

Not only did this book leave me with a huge book-hangover but it also left me emotionally exhausted (when I tried picking up other books my mind kept going back to Paul and Julian). Paul is one of the most miserable characters I’ve ever read of. And while he is no angel, I found myself, alongside his family, wanting to help him. But I could also understand him as he strongly reminded of my own teenage experiences, and of how ‘wretched’ and alone I felt (woe is me), as well as the fierce, and at times detrimental, friendships I formed during those vulnerable years.
In spite of what Paul and Julian do, I cared deeply for them. I wanted to ‘shake’ them, but I also desperately wanted them to be happy.
I’m sure I could blather on some more, but I will try and stop myself here. Reading These Violent Delights is akin to watching a slow-motion video of a car accident or some other disaster. You know what will happen but you cannot tear your eyes away. Read this at your own peril!

MY RATING: 5 / 5 stars

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Blue Lily, Lily Blue & The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

Blue Lily, Lily Blue is probably my second favourite book in the TRC series. Sad, funny, and magical Blue Lily, Lily Blue is a truly spellbinding novel. Each member of the Glendower gang is struggling with something, and even if it isn’t easy to see them fight with each other their bond is incredibly moving.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars


I have a hard time reviewing books that I really loved. The story and characters in The Raven Cycle seem so much more than ‘fiction’, so it isn’t easy to speak, or write, about them in those terms. Still, I will try to express the reasons why I love this series so much: Maggie Stiefvater’s writing (I have pointed out before but she has a way with words), the myths that are explored within these books, the atmospheric and incredibly vivid setting of Henrietta (and Cabeswater, Monmouth Manufacturing, 300 Fox Way, the Barns), the balance of humour and sorrow, the tarot readings and ley lines, and of course, the characters, whose flaws make them all the more wonderful, and the relationships they form with one another. A lot happens in The Raven King, so much so that we don’t really have the time to process some of the more heart-wrenching scenes (if you’ve read this you know). Part of me wishes that we could have had a longer epilogue…still, I’m extremely grateful to Stiefvater for what she has accomplished with TRC. Ronan Lynch, I’ll be seeing you in your trilogy

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves is pure adrenaline. Ronan Lynch is my favourite asshole, which is probably why The Dream Thieves is my favourite book in The Raven Cycle series (and one of my favourite books period). Ronan is an incredibly complex boy whose ‘I don’t give a shit’ attitude makes him say or do rude and reckless stuff. He’s addicted to trouble.
I love the shifting dynamics and knowing looks that take place between the various members of the Glendower gang. I also really appreciate how Stiefvater never reveals too much about her characters or their motivations/feelings.

P.S. I’m not a car person, I don’t drive, I know nil abut cars…but damn, every time I read this book (or think about this book) I find myself agreeing with Ronan: cars are sexy.

MY RATING: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater is a marvellous storyteller. The Raven Boys is a fantastic novel: we have an intriguing storyline, Welsh mythology, magic and curses, and a cast of unforgettable characters. Rather than presenting her readers with ‘heroes and heroines’, paragons of beauty and virtue, Stiefvater’s characters, regardless of their role, are nuanced and messy. The raven boys and Blue can be insecure about themselves, each other, and their future. Their friendship is an intense one, but things are never easy between them. Stiefvater never reveals too much about her characters, so that they always retain a certain ambiguity, an enticing air of mystery. Stiefvater style carries a wonderful rhythm. I love the way she plays around with repetition and the way she describes her characters or how animated her scenes are (there are so many secret looks shared between the raven boys).
The Raven Boys is an incredibly atmospheric book that will always have a special place in my heart. Words cannot express how much I love this series.

MY RATING: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Schwab’s aesthetics dominate this novel. There is a focus on how words and phrases sound, which does pay off, in fact, Schwab’s prose is one of the most likeable things of this novel. At times certain turn of phrases or repetitions may come across as pretentious or flowery but I think that for the most part Schwab exerts great control over her words. She measures pauses and words as to instil a rhythm to her narration. So, in some ways, Vicious is more ‘style’ than anything else. What characters say, how they look, how Schwab words things, it all creates a certain ‘look’.
While I did find the story to be engaging (different timelines keep the momentum of the story) I wasn’t completely taken by the characters. They seemed very much ‘sketches’ of existing types: morally grey for the sole purpose of seeming ‘ambiguous’…hopefully the sequel will provide them to be slightly more complex then what they came across as…


MY RATING: 3 of 5 stars

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Notes on a Silencing: A Memoir by Lacy Crawford

“The teachers, rectors, lawyers, and priests of St. Paul’s School lied to preserve their legacy. It would take decades to learn not to hate the girl they disparaged, and to give her the words she deserved.”

Notes on a Silencing is a profoundly poignant memoir and a deeply moving account of a young girl’s sexual assault and its aftermath. With clarity and precision, Crawford describes her time at St. Paul’s School, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, where, at the age of fifteen, she was sexually assaulted by two older students, both of whom went unpunished and were able to graduate with awards. The physical violence of the assault is followed by a different kind of violence when the school, more concerned with its own reputation than pursuing the matter, silences her.
Crawford revisits the assault, the months that led up to it and what followed. She recreates the atmosphere and toxic culture of St. Paul’s, a place predominantly attended by the children of WASP families. Although Crawford’s vision of this rarefied world is far from idealistic, she also writes about the friendships she formed at St. Paul’s. Yet, after her assault rumours begin spreading and Crawford is labelled a ‘slut’ and ostracised by her friend and fellow students. Crawford exposes the double standards applied to male and female sexuality that enables victim blaming.
With the pace and tension of a psychological thriller, Crawford revisits these events both through the eyes of the fifteen-year-old and with new adult insight. She details the mental and physical anguish of the assault and its traumatic aftereffects. By showing St. Paul’s as a microcosm of society, Crawford reveals the underlining mechanisms that permit systemic abuse of power.
Notes on a Silencing is a gripping and powerful memoir, one that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.

A few quotes:

“The simplest way I can tell the story of my assault is to describe how the boys made me feel I was no longer a person. The first violation was erasure.”

“In bearing witness, we’re trying to correct a theft of power via a story. But power and stories, while deeply interconnected, are not the same things. One is rock, the other is water. Over time, long periods of time, water always wins.”

“If one of the great sources of misery for all high schoolers is the illusion that high school will never end, the reach of power implied (and wielded) by the alumni and trustees of St. Paul’s School threatened that in our particular case, that nightmare was real.”

“We were people on this earth. This life was all we had. It was all we fucking had, and life, my life, could not be determined by cruelty like this. It could not be allowed to stand.”

“If the first violation of the boys who assaulted me was the way they made me feel erased, it was exactly this injury that the school repeated, and magnified, when it created its own story of the assault. This time the erasure was committed by men whose power over me was socially conferred rather than physically wielded, by men who—some of them—had never ever been in a room with me. They still never have.”

“I did not want to write it because it should not matter, but of course it does, because a girl who is attacked will so often assume the fault lies with her. There is no escaping a primal culpability.”

“When the boys did what they did to me, they denied the third person on that bed. I had no humanity. The impact of this violation only sharpened with time. My careful distinctions of injury and responsibility—the difference I imagined between what they did and rape, between terrible things you should put behind you and truly hellish things no one would expect you to bear—allowed me, for many years, to restore that third person in the room in my mind.”

“I recognized the school’s act, of course. Its precise cruelty, the fanged transformation of private pain into public shame, turned a key in me.”

“Why now?’”A typically defensive question, and I could dismiss it for its insinuation that I had some underhanded motive whose tell was my delay in availing myself of the criminal justice system. I’m not sure what motive that would have been—I wasn’t suing, wasn’t pressing charges. But that wasn’t the point of the question. The question tries to portray the victim as the predator, the one with a clever plan. It aims to throw the whole circumstance on its head.”

“The work of telling is essential, and it is not enough. There is always the danger that the energy of the injustice will exhaust itself in the revelation—that we will be horrified but remain unchanged. The reason for this, I suspect, is that these are stories we all already know. A girl was assaulted. A boy was molested. The producer, the judge, the bishop, the boss. To hear these stories spoken aloud is jarring, but not because it causes us to reconsider who we are and how we are organized. It is only when power is threatened that power responds.”

“It’s so simple, what happened at St. Paul’s. It happens all the time.
First, they refused to believe me. Then they shamed me. Then they silenced me. On balance, if this is a girl’s trajectory from dignity to disappearance, I say it is better to be a slut than to be silent. I believe, in fact, that the slur slut carries within it, Trojan-horse style, silence as its true intent. That the opposite of slut is not virtue but voice.”

“ Consequences were not our concern. The school’s rules were not even called rules—they were formally known as expectations. Here the children of the elite were trained not in right or wrong but in projections of belief.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Abigail by Magda Szabó — book review

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“In later years, whenever she dreamed of the fortress and the city the wind would always be present, moving restlessly among human figures obscurely glimpsed in the haze.”

Abigail follows fourteen-year-old Gina Vitay’s time as a Matula student in the months leading to the German occupation of Hungary. First published fifty years ago, its English translation has only just come out (Len Rix’s translation does not disappoint). Last year I read, and was perturbed by, Magda Szabó’s The Door. While I was enthralled by Szabó’s prose, I was ultimately left feeling rather mystified by the whole ordeal. Abigail, on the other hand, is deceptively simple in that it may at first strike readers as a conventional coming-of-age. Szabó however permeates this tale of youthful innocence and friendships with an air of unease. Similarly to The Door, Abigail presents its readers with a narrative that is fraught with a quiet suspense. Our heroine is initially oblivious to the threat looming over her country and she’s far more concerned with the various dramas that make up her everyday life at her exclusive all-girls school. After she’s made privy to a secret that if known could wreak havoc, she will have to learn “dignity and self-discipline”.
Although the narrative obliquely hints at this possibility of danger and violence, an atmosphere of apprehension prevails.

“From this moment onwards, Gina, your childhood is over. You are now an adult, and you will never again live as other children do. I am going to place my life, and yours, and that of many other people, in your hands. What can you swear on that you will never betray us?”

61W2x8+3CJLIn the autumn of 1943 (when Hungary was still a member of the Axis powers), the pampered daughter of a widowed General is abruptly sent away from her beloved home in Budapest and enrolled in a remote all-girls boarding school. Located in Árkod, Bishop Matula Academy is an exceedingly puritanical institution, a place that our heroine quite fittingly describes, more than once, as a “fortress” and a “world of black and white”. The General refuses to disclose the reason for this ‘exile’ and an uncomprehending Gina is unable to discern her father’s true motivations.

“In the past she had been able to persuade him to do almost anything; now he seemed deaf to all her pleadings. He had decided on her fate without discussing a single detail and had merely informed her what would happen.”

At Matula Gina feels constricted by the school’s “strictly regimented life, with every minute accounted for”. Worse still, after her catastrophic first day at Matula she becomes persona non grata with the rest of the fifth year. To begin with Gina views the other girls and their traditions through her ‘big-city’ lenses. She’s contemptuous of their childish games believing that her flirtations with a young lieutenant (which took place at her Auntie Mimó’s tea dances) make her far more worldly than the other girls. Being ostracised from the other girls soon takes its toll and Gina is left feeling profoundly alone and miserable. Most days, her classmates (who share her living quarters with) refuse to interact with her, and when they aren’t ignoring her they insult or bully her.
Gina is also forbidden from interacting with the outside world, and her letters and weekly phone calls to her father are monitored, and if need be censored, by members of staff (since the general should only hear “cheerful, positive things from [her]”).
Gina’s difficult beggings at Matula are alleviated by the presence of a statue known as Abigail. According to school legend, Abigail aids and protects Matula’s students. Gina’s initial skepticism dissolves when she herself receives Abigail’s protection. The mystery of Abigail’s identity underlines Gina’s story, even after Gina reconciles herself with life at Matula.

“Everything that had been boring, childish and indeed hateful the day before now seemed wonderful, reassuring and comforting.”

szabo.1_2048x2048.jpgWhile there are moments of idyllic happiness, these are far and few between. Gina’s prickly, and impulsive, nature are rendered with great empathy. Szabó’s narrative reflects Gina’s ‘limited’ worldview. She misunderstands and misinterprets the adults around her, in particular the dynamics between two of her teachers and Sister Susanna, the fifth year’s prefect. Gina, like most of the other girls, views her class tutor Kalmár as a contemporary “St. George, a knight in shining armor”. Her feelings towards her Latin teacher, Kőnig are far from amicable. She mistakes his kindness and compassion for cowardice and stupidity (another reviewer quite aptly compared him to Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin).

“Once again she had the feeling of being caught up in a play, a play in which she had a totally insignificant role and whose plot was impossible to follow.”

After Gina’s adolescent worries are replaced with far greater ones (ones that serious social implications), she tries to become a responsible adult. She soon learns that even good actions can backfire. Similarly to The Door, the characters in Abigail often cause the most harm to each other when they are trying to do good.

“All my life I have been a wild thing, Gina reflected. I am impatient and impulsive, and I have never learned to love people who annoy me or try to hurt me. Now I shall try to learn these virtues, and I shall do so for the sake of my father: for him I shall seek to be gentle and patient.”

In spite of her best efforts, Gina cannot pacify herself with her school’s authorities nor does she feel less stifled by its suffocating rules. Still, readers will be able to witness Gina’s incredible, and admirable, character growth. I deeply sympathised with Gina, especially since I too found Matula to be a repressive institution, more interested in assigning blame and punishment than actually encouraging students to learn and grow from their mistakes.

“She was oppressed by a consciousness of living in a world of strangers, subject to rules that constantly disrupted the rhythm of her life, and where everything that belonged to her, everything that was part of her, seemed far away.”

In many ways Abigail has all the trappings of a coming-of-age. While Abigail’s identity is not a mystery to the reader, there are plenty of smaller mysteries peppered throughout Gina’s story. Harrowing moments are made all the more powerful by the fact that they often occur off-page. Gina’s troubled relationship with her classmates feels far from childish, and the friendships that she will later develop with some of the other girls are rendered with surprising tenderness.

“When they were at last in bed she lay there, wide awake, thinking about the strange and unexpected way important events in our lives come about—never as we imagine them beforehand, always in quite other ways, in very different circumstances and seemingly by chance”

Szabó’s sinuous and beguiling storytelling gripped me from the very first pages. Abigail provides us with an intimate glimpse into the life of a girl burdened with a dangerous secret. Szabó captures the fraught climate of a country at war.

“She tried to imagine what it would be like if every window in the country could be left open and every street flooded with light, and there was no war and none of this dying, no burdensome secrets, no danger or destruction. ”

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Bunny: A Novel by Mona Awad — book review

Untitled drawingThere are those bizarre and experimental books that manage to be entertaining, transgressive, and on occasion even thought-provoking. And then, there are books like Bunny whose weirdness largely rests on overusing the word bunny(which appears approximately 350 times, one time too many).
An intentionally silly story that owes more to Scream Queens and The Babysitter then Heathers or Mean Girls. If you are picking up Bunny thinking that it is some sort of intriguing campus novel, you should reconsider given that this book is the anthesis to The Secret History. If you are hoping for some sort of absurdist black comedy à la Yorgos Lanthimos, think again. The ‘satirical horror’ I was hoping to encounter in Bunny was closer to the ‘comedic horror’ in the Scary Movie franchise…

Writing about writing is never an easy endeavour since there is the high risk that you will remind your readers that they are indeed ‘reading’ a fictitious work. Since the main cast in Bunny is part of a creative writing MFA program…we were constantly reminded of how inane criticism can be. The five girls part of this program are apparently only able to write fiction that reflects their personal life or preferences…funnily enough, a lot of the criticism that these characters throw at each other’s pieces of writing could easily be aimed at Bunny (oh, the irony):

“Um, what the fuck is this, please? This makes no sense. This is coy and this is willfully obscure and no one but [the author] will ever get this […] spoiled, fragmented, lazy, pretentious […] And then I feel like screaming JUST SAY IT. TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED. TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK THIS MEANS AND WHAT YOU DID WITH HIM EXACTLY.”

Four of these girls are part of a clique that is the ultimate parody of cliques. From the first few pages they are presented as some sort of ‘hive-mind’, some sort of multi-conscious entity. Some of their conversations between them—as well as the narrator’s observations about them—could be amusing.
Although the narrator keeps insisting that she is ‘different’ (aka the only ‘big’ difference between her and the bunnies is her finances) she falls prey to this clique. Personally, I don’t think the story provides with a convincing reason for the MC to fall in with these girls. Even when the Mc sees their most secretive activities…it seemed that she stayed with them out of laziness (or merely as a way to further the plot).
The weirdness of this story seems contrived. This whole novel seems (rather ironically) like an exercise for a creative writing class. Many of the ‘bizarre’ elements in this story were predictable and had me rolling my eyes. The whole book is like a joke that goes on for too long. The first few chapters were amusing and the scenes that took place in the creative writing workshop were on point (and reminded me of the creative writing module I took in my first year of uni):

“Samantha, we’re at Warren. The most experimental, groundbreaking writing school in the country. This goes way beyond genre. It subverts the whole concept of genre.”
“And gender narratives.”
“And the patriarchy of language.”
“Not to mention the whole writing medium.”
“It basically fucks the writing medium, Samantha. Which is dead anyway, you know?”
“Exactly. This is about the Body. Performing the Body. The Body performing in all its nuanced viscerality.”

Yet, soon enough the repetitiveness of these exchanges grew tiresome and the style of the narrative became increasingly annoying and unnecessary. The narrative mimics the language—and perhaps vision—of this clique of girls: it is sweet, sticky, and extra. If you like eating candy floss until you feel sick you might be up for it…the narrative—if not the whole story—is a parody that lacks subtlety or real wit:

Here at Mini they have many cupcakes in mini but they should have more. Why don’t they have more? They should have more in mini, more! We tell them how they should have more in mini and they do not seem to make a note of it.

The narrative’s style was so repetitive! All too frequently words were repeated three times in a row in a cheap attempt to give urgency to the story.
The plot (if we can call it that) even in its ‘wtf moments’ is tedious. The characters and story seem merely a backdrop to this sickeningly sweet and repetitive language (hair like feathers, tiny pink-y small-ish hand, glossy this and that, teensy-weensy girls who eat teensy-weensy food).
This book didn’t inspire feelings of panic or fear, which I was expecting given its summary…I was never afraid of these demented girls and their stupid activities. A lot of the things seem to just happen to the MC as if she isn’t capable of these laughable ‘terrible’ things from happening (insert eye roll here). Again, I find it ironic that the MC’s own writing is criticised for this exact reason:

“Although we could hardly call her a heroine, could we? I mean, could we even call her that, Samantha? […] She’s quite passive, Samantha, isn’t she?”

I guess you could argue that this is all ‘intentional’. The stupid characters, the saccharine and repetitive language, the MC’s spinelessness…these things come across this way on purpose…but that seems like a cheap excuse to make the lazy and unfunny elements of your story ‘deliberate’.
The worst ‘sin’ of all is that this book leaves us with a less than favourable opinion about writing and criticism…which isn’t a great message.

 

My rating: ★★✰✰✰  2 of 5 stars

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Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson — book review

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“Dearest dearest darling most important dearest darling Natalie—this is me talking, your own priceless own Natalie.”

Alice in Wonderland meets The Bell Jar.
The first time I read this I felt confused. Although Jackson demonstrates her usual sharp humour and rhythmic writing style, the story seemed far less structured than her other novels.
A second reading however made me much more appreciative of this weird anti-bildungsroman. What I previously thought of as being a confounding narrative with an unclear storyline became a clever take of the three-acts typical of a monomyth: the story begins with Natalie ‘departing’ from her home, she is ‘initiated’ in college, and after a particularly illusive confrontation in a forest she ‘returns’ to her campus with the realisation that “as she had never been before, she was now alone, and grown-up, and powerful, and not at all afraid”.
Natalie’s alienation has an almost alienating effect. Bored by her life, she often looses herself in her imagination. When her parents are bickering she entertains an imaginary conversation with a detective who accuses her of murdering her lover. Natalie is both afraid and excited by this scenario, finding a strange sort of pleasure in the possibility of being a murderer.
When her parents host a garden party her fantastical narratives take an even weirder turn, and she seems—or pretends to be—unaware that what occurs is a product of her imagination, so much so that the first time I read this scene I believed that what was happening was real.
Natalie is quite happy to leave her home (which is made oppressive by her pompous father and depressed mother) to go to college. However, her ‘unformed’ personality soon causes her to dissociate from her surroundings. Amidst the other girls she struggles to define herself. Fearing that she is ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ Natalie rejects her peers and finds solace in a girl called Tony.
Throughout the story Natalie looses herself in her elaborate narratives, where she can take whatever role she pleases, and most importantly, where she is able to distinguishing herself from others. Her visions of grandeur provide many amusing moments that reveal just how desperate Natalie is to be recognised for her unique personality. The novel seems to chronicle, however unclearly, her attempts to find and fit a ‘self’ that is unlike those of others.

‘“My name is Natalie Waite.” Is it my name? She wondered then, afraid for a minute that she had appropriated the name of the next girl.’

However challenging this novel might be it is a truly remarkable work. Although Natalie’s ‘journey’ into adulthood is shrouded in ambivalence, there are many scenes which showcase Jackson’s wit . If you are looking for an unreliable protagonist, look no further.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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