BOOK REVIEWS

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

“I had always understood, of course, that the task of rooting out evil in its most devious forms, often just when it is about to go unchecked, is a crucial and solemn undertaking.”

As much as it pains me to admit this…I didn’t particularly care for this novel. While it is written in Kazuo Ishiguro’s trademark prose, which is both eloquent and introspective, the more I read and the less invested I felt in the story and in particular in Christopher Banks, our narrator and protagonist. It saddens me not to have enjoyed When We Were Orphans as I consider Ishiguro to be an excellent writer and certainly a favourite of mine. Then again, Ishiguro himself said that “It’s not my best book”. Still, while I wasn’t expecting When We Were Orphans to be as poignant as
The Remains of Day or Never Let Me Go, I hoped that I would at least find it to be an engaging read.
At first I was intrigued by the narrative. Although Christopher is a famous detective his investigations are only alluded to. This itself is very unusual and it subverts the reader’s expectations. Usually, when a book revolves around a detective chances are that whatever case(s) they are working on will be a central part of the story. Here instead Christopher’s job is treated like any other job. It is Christopher himself who is a mystery. Ishiguro introduces us to certain aspects of his life, for example at first we read many scenes in which he is socialising at glitzy parties or events. The story begins in the 1930s England and Christopher is slowly making a name for himself. We learn that he is an orphan and that he grew up in the International Settlement of Shanghai. As with other novels by Ishiguro our narrator finds himself recollecting a certain period of his life, in this case is childhood. He reconsiders figures and scenes from his past, scrutinizing and questioning his own memories, re-experiencing specific episodes both through the uncomprehending eyes of a child and through his newly acquired adult perspective.
Scenes from his past are interspersed throughout Christopher’s narrative. In the present he meets Sarah, a young woman who also happens to be an orphan. Sarah seems intent on upward social mobility or so we can assume given that she expresses a wish to marry someone of importance. We also learn more of Christopher’s circumstances.
Throughout his careful examination of his past Christopher remains a somewhat remote and cautious narrator. Usually I find cold or detached narrators to be right up my street (such as with Brontë and Kincaid’s Lucys) but Christopher’s opaqueness seemed a bit contrived at times. He remains a half-formed thing for much of his narrative. For instance, when he is thinking of childhood it is Akira who steals ‘the sh0w’. Child-Christopher remains an amorphous figure, who possesses no discernible traits.
Still, I appreciated the way he considers the limitations of memory, how certain events are coloured by later ones, how some incidents will always remain unclear.
What seems to drive his remembrance is the loss of his parents (the exact nature of which we learn quite late in the narrative). The second half of the novel sees Christopher back in Shanghai and here things take on a hazy quality. While in the first half there are many time skips, I never felt that I was missing out on any vital scene. Once Christopher is Shanghai however I started to feel mildly annoyed by how many things happened off page. Nothing is explained to us, we are simply made to go along with Christopher and his outlandish plans. He finds himself in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War and kind of loses his marbles. He makes foolish decisions and behaves in an abhorrent fashion. I could not for the life of me believe that he felt any particular strong feelings for Sarah. During his earlier reminiscence I did not feel his grief or anguish when he considered his parents. And yet, all of a sudden, it seems imperative for him to uncover the truth. The more ill-behaved he became the more antipathy I felt for him and the book as a whole. This character change was abrupt and doubtful. While Christopher never struck me as a particularly likeable or kind person he seemed a level-headed and sensible person. And then he just becomes this increasingly tyrannical, inconsiderate, and impudent man.
The mystery was anti-climatic and the story lacked a cohesive structure or at least a rewarding storyline. Christopher remains undeveloped and uninteresting, while the secondary character seemed mere devices. Take Akira for example…his role in the story is disappointing. At the end especially he just ‘puffs’, vanishes, disappears. Christopher doesn’t think of him or their last encounter.
Nevertheless Ishiguro’s prose is certainly refined and, to begin with, thoughtful. His dialogues always ring true, from the words they use to express themselves to the vernaculars they use, even when the motivations of his characters don’t. He certainly succeeds in evoking the society in which Christopher moves, as well as the cultural differences between England and China. While I didn’t particularly enjoy this novel I still consider Ishiguro to be one of the best writers ‘out there’.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

On paper A Lover’s Discourse is the type of book that I generally like: we have an unmanned who recounts her relationship to her unmanned ‘lover’—a man she addresses as ‘you’. Our narrator met ‘you’ after moving from China to Britain in 2016. Recently orphaned and feeling somewhat alienated by her new environment the protagonist of A Lover’s Discourse enters into a relationship with a German-Australian man. They begin living together in a houseboat, but while ‘you’ finds freedom in this kind of ‘unmoored’ lifestyle, our narrator would much rather live in an actual house or apartment. While ‘you’ earns money as a landscaper, our protagonist works on her PhD.

The structure of this novel is what initially caught my attention. The narrative is comprised of a series of dialogues in which the protagonist and her partner discuss an array of subjects: British-related issues, love, sex, nationality, identity, landscaping, architecture…sadly their conversations aren’t particularly deep or compelling. Maybe I write this because I found both characters to be different shades of obnoxious: our mc isn’t particularly passionate or interested in anything. While I should have found her efforts to understand British customs and culture, as well as trying to master the English language, to be relatable, given that I am in a similar position, I disliked profoundly the way she was portrayed. She was acerbic nag. She makes generalisation after generalisation about other countries, her own country, and about men. Not only does she repeatedly use the word ‘peasants’ to refer to the residents of her hometown, but her tone, when using this word, left a lot to be desired. She comes out with obsolete comments that make me question why she would ever want to be in a relationship, especially with man, given that she considers sex to be a violent and invasive act that she doesn’t enjoy. Her navel-gazing was far from thought-provoking. She laments her boyfriend having to work, seeming to forget that he is their sole provider as she’s busy completing this PhD she doesn’t even particularly care for (she kind of forgets about her studies once she starts her relationship with ‘you’). Her PhD actually sounded quite interesting, and I wish that it had played more of a role in the narrative.
‘You’ is a condescending man who is kind of dull. He ‘explains’ things to our narrator, and he does so in an exceedingly donnish way.
Attempts are made to connect their ‘discourse’ to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and I wonder…why? These two characters didn’t strike me as the types who would care about Barthes’s writings.
Bland, uninspired, and repetitive, A Lover’s Discourse was a deeply disappointing read. Thankfully it was a relatively slim book.

MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua

Hua’s stories explore, however superficially, the experiences of Chinese and Chinese-Americans in the United States: the generational and cultural differences between immigrant parents and their American-born children, the struggle to assimilate into a different country, especially one which will treat you as Other, the desire to adopt new customs vs. the pull towards traditions. These were all potentially interesting avenues, sadly, none of the stories delves deeply into them. Each story follows the same formula: we have a main character who is at a turning point, and they are forced to or decide to ‘deceive’ others or themselves. With one exception, they all commit some selfish or unscrupulous act. At times they do so because of monetary reasons (“VIP Tutoring”) or because they believe they have no other options (“Accepted”) or for some obscure reasons that I personally did not find all that convincing. They usually try to excuse their behaviour, but inevitably, they are exposed as ‘frauds’.
I didn’t like the fact that all of these stories unfold in the same way, so that within the very first pages I would guess the story’s inciting incident, trajectory, and conclusion. Perhaps I wouldn’t have minded as much if the characters had struck me as sympathetic or realistic, but for the most part they were rather one-dimensional, all a similar shade of self-deceiving and egotistic. Yet, even if I did not like them, I wasn’t gratified by their eventual comeuppance. The moralistic tone of these stories was really off-putting, and while I found “The Responsibility of Deceit” to be the most ‘decent’ story of the lot, I thoroughly disagree with the author’s equating a man’s closetedness to ‘deception’ (coming out can be dangerous, and chances are that it will make others treat you differently or even condemn you for your sexuality).
I wasn’t take by the author’s writing style, which relied on clichés such as “asking for an apology was easier than asking for permission”. Personally, I find descriptions such as “the air was muggy, swollen as a bruise” to be overdone.
While I’m sure that there is a reader for these type of stories, that reader is not me.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang

While browsing a charity shop I picked up this collection of short stories. What drew me the most to Home Remedies was its cover (bright pink in my edition), and while I wasn’t expecting to like every single story, I hoped that I would find a few to be memorable. Sadly, none of the stories drew me in. Wang examines some serious—and potentially compelling—themes (generational differences, dislocation and deracination, familial expectations vs. personal identity) but her stories never led anywhere interesting, they meandered without focus, loosing themselves in details or exchanges that did not really contribute to the overall storyline, only to reach anticlimactic conclusions.

The collection is divided in three sections (‘Family’, ‘Love’, ‘Time & Space’), each containing 4 stories. One would think that these stories somehow focused on the topic of the section they are in, but they don’t. Take the story ‘The Strawberry Years’, I don’t think it had anything to do with ‘Love’, and yet it was in that section (the story is a surreal ‘someone is taking over my life’ kind of thing). One would think that a father-daughter story would fit in the ‘Family’ category but no, we find it in ‘Time & Space’ instead. But this is a minor, and I recognise, ultimately superficial ‘quibble’. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much if I found any of the stories interesting or affecting…but they left me cold. The author’s prose presented us with some pretty phrases, and some lucid imagery, but her characters and their experiences felt flat. Characters who belong to older generations are traditional, conservative, hard-workers. Younger characters are materialistic, lazy, opportunistic, and keen to emulate Western ways.
I read Home Remedies less than a week ago and I can hardly remember any of its stories.
Anyway, just because the author’s style did not really resonate with me doesn’t mean you should skip this one.

MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars


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Severance by Ling Ma

“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

Severance is an engrossing and, given the current pandemic, timely read. Through the use of a dual timeline Ling Ma’s novel encompasses many genres: we have chapters set in the past, pre-apocalypse, when the Shen Fever is a mere afterthought in the daily lives of New Yorkers, and the ones post-apocalypse, in which our protagonist joins a cultish group of survivors who seem to be immune to the fever.

Kmart realism meets millennial malaise in Candace Chen’s first-person narration.
Candace’s sardonic observations lightened the mood of the story. Her drone-like work attitude brought to mind novels such Convenience Store Woman and Temporary. The chapters set in the past detail Candace’s daily routine, in which we see that other than her half-hearted interest in photography, Candace is resigned to her position as Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, and isn’t too disturbed by her role in the exploitation of workers outside of America. She’s yet another disaffected, somewhat directionless, twenty-something female protagonist who has become all the rage in contemporary fiction. Thankfully Ma makes Candace her own unique creation, one who, as the fever starts spreading in America, actually undergoes some character growth (making Severance a coming-of-age of sorts). Although Candace operates very much on auto-pilot, her listless routine is soon interrupted by the pandemic.

In the chapters focusing on ‘after’, once New Yorkers have either fled the city or become infected, Candace joins a group led by the rather bullying Bob, a man who isn’t particularly charming or clever but has somehow successfully convinced others that they will be safe if they follow him to the Facility (a ‘mysterious’ but safe location). Along the way, they raid the houses of those who are infected, and Candace finds herself becoming increasingly disenchanted towards her so-called leader.

In Ma’s novel the fevered repeat “banal activities” on an infinite loop: they will spend the rest of their days performing the same activity (such as washing dishes, opening a door, dressing , trying different clothes). Ma’s fever works as an allegory, one which reduces humans to the humdrum activities—getting dressed, preparing food—that constitute their lives.
Tense or even brutal scenes are alleviated by Candace’s caustic narration. And there are even moments and dialogues that are so absurd as to verge on the hysterical realism. Ma makes it work, and unlike her characters, or the circumstances they face, her language remains restrained.
Underneath the novel’s hyperbolic scenarios lies a shrewd critique of capitalism, consumerism, globalism, modern work culture, and the American Dream. Through flashbacks we learn of Candace’s parents’ arrival in America and of how their diverging desires—Candace’s mother wishes to return to China while the father believes that will lead more successful lives in America—created a rift in their marriage.

Ma covers a myriad of topics in a seemingly offhand manner: adulthood, loneliness, connectedness, dislocation. Candace’s deadpan narration takes her readers alongside a journey that is as surreal as it is chilling. Ma, far more successfully than Mona Awad with Bunny, switches with ease between the first and third person, showing her readers just how easily one can lose sight of their identity.
My only criticism is towards Ma’s use of the dual timeline. At times there wasn’t a clear balance between past and present, and some sections detailing Candace’s work at Spectra were overlong. Still, I really enjoyed Severance, it is an impressive debut and I can’t wait to read more from Ma.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars of 5 stars

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