BOOK REVIEWS

Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin

Pretend I’m Dead was 50 shades of fucked up but boy was it funny.

“When he went to order their drinks, he asked, “What’s your poison?”
“Oven cleaner,” she’d said with a straight face.
Her sense of humor sometimes made people—herself, included—uncomfortable.”

This novel is divided in four chapters, each one focusing on a particular relationship of our protagonist. In the first chapter, ‘Hole’, we are introduced to Mona, our main character, a twenty-something who works as a cleaning lady in Massachusetts and volunteers at a clean-needle exchange. Mona doesn’t have any particular aspirations and she is fine with her job. At the clean-needle exchange she meets a man she nicknames ‘Mr. Disgusting’, “on account of his looks and dirty clothes”. Mr. Disgusting is in his forties and has clearly been through the wringer. The two get involved, and things get weird and messy fast. In the following chapter, ‘Yoko and Yoko’, Mona moves to Taos where she lives in an adobe house. In spite of her reservations, she gets close to her neighbours, Nigel and Shiori, a couple that gives some strong ‘cult’ vibes. Mona understandably ends up nicknaming them Yoko and Yoko. Mona misreads the situation and things also get weird between the three of them. In ‘Henry and Zoe’ Mona becomes convinced that her newest client, Henry, a seemingly nice guy, is a less than decent person. This chapter crosses quite a few lines, and it is bound to make readers’ queasy. The last chapter, ‘Betty’, sees Mona becoming close to another client who happens to be a psychic.
Given that each chapter is more or less self-contained, these end up reading a lot like vignettes, each centring on a different period of Mona’s life. However, is only by reading all of them that we begin to understand Mona and her past. Her fraught relationship with her father is of particular importance in the overall narrative. Mona’s mind often turns to Mr. Disgusting, so that he also becomes a perpetual presence in her story. Through Mona’s ‘misadventures’ the story examines themes of loneliness, connection and belonging.

In spite of its offbeat main character Pretend I’m Dead made for a morbid, grotesque, and occasionally obscene reading experience. Yet, it was also undoubtedly one of the funniest books I have ever read. Mona’s wry sense of humor, her deadpan replies, and her mental meanderings (which lead to some freaky fantasies) were thoroughly entertaining. While none of the characters are strictly likeable, they were certainly fleshed out. With a few selected words Beagin brings her characters to life, rendering the way they look and behave with clearcut precision.
As funny and absurd as Pretend I’m Dead was, the novel touches on quite a lot of serious issues (sexual abuse, drug addiction, depression, suicidal ideation, trauma, incest). It is remarkable that Beagin manages to explore these through Mona’s lenses. Dark humor indeed!
I really liked the way the story was written, which is saying something as I usually don’t care particularly for 3rd person narrations that refer to the main character as ‘she’ (as opposed to her name, in this case Mona). Beagin has an ear for dialogue and a talent for portraying those thornier feelings and emotions.
If you are a fan of Ottessa Moshfegh, Melissa Broder, Raven Leilani, or Jean Kyoung Frazier chances are Pretend I’m Dead will be up your street. Those who aren’t keen on books that examine challenging, if not controversial, topics or cannot stand vulgar or non-PC content might want to give this book a wide breadth.

my rating: ★★★★

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House can be best described as: “talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before…”

Leigh Bardugo sure showed me. I went in to this expecting the worst (most of my GR friends panned this book, and their less-than-impressed reviews are hilarious) and soon found myself amazed by how much I was vibing with it.
Ninth House‘s campus setting brought to mind urban fantasy series such as Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines and Rachel Caine’s The Morganville Vampires but with the kind of magical elements and aesthetics from The Raven Cycle, or even Holly Black ‘s Modern Faerie Tales, and the dark tone of Vita Nostra. In brief, Ninth House was 100% up my lane.

“There were always excuses for why girls died.”

It took me a few chapters to familiarise myself with the story and its protagonist as when we are first introduced to Yale student Galaxy “Alex” Stern its early spring and shit has already hit the fan (ie she has clearly been through a lot). Thankfully the narrative takes us back to the autumn and winter terms, and we get to read of the events that lead to that prologue.
Alex’s ability to see ghosts (called ‘grays’) has caught the attention of Lethe (aka the Ninth House) a secret society that keeps in check the occult activities of the Yale’s eight secret societies (if you are wondering, yes, they do exist in real-world Yale…). She’s offered a place at Yale, for a price: Alex is to be Lethe’s ‘Dante’, who under the guidance of ‘Virgil’, ensures that the eight houses are obeying Yale’s rules. Each house practices a different kind of ‘magic’, but, it becomes quite apparent that magic, of whatever form or type, in this novel is not an easy or strictly ethical endeavour.
Alex, is just trying to survive. She run away from home as a teenager, started using downers to suppress her ability, lived with a man who abused her, and was the sole survivor of a multiple homicide. The girl is dealing with a lot of trauma and she’s kind of mess. Her mentor, Darlington, comes from a drastically different background. He’s white, wealthy, educated. Yet, in a manner very reminiscent to Gansey from TRC, he feels mundane and wants more. The two had a great chemistry (not in the romantic sense, at least, not in this first novel) and I appreciated the way in which Bardugo doesn’t present any of them as being ‘good’ or ‘heroes’ of some sort. If it wasn’t hard enough to adapt to Yale and Lethe, the societies may have had something to do with the murder of a ‘townie’. While almost every person she encounters tries to wave away her suspicions, Alex knows that the societies had something to do with it.

“I’m in danger, she wanted to say. Someone hurt me and I don’t think they’re finished. Help me. But what good had that ever done?”

If you ever craved a dark academia novel with a paranormal twist, this is it. But, as pointed out in many other reviews, this novel is Dark with a capital D. There are explicit scenes depicting sexual assault, rape, abuse, death, and other unpleasant, if not downright gory, things. It never struck me as gratuitous, anymore than I would call a novel by Stephen King gratuitous. The mystery kept me on the edge of my seat, the different timelines piqued my interest, the setting—of New Haven and Yale—was vividly rendered, the tone was gritty and real, the atmosphere was ‘edgy’ (in the best possible way), and the paranormal elements were hella innovative. I loved the descriptions of Alex’s environment, the attention paid to the architecture, the tension between her and the other characters, the momentum of her investigation. Yale is a haunted place, in more than one way. Bardugo combines fantasy elements with a sharp commentary on privilege, corruption, accountability. The story’s is an indictment against abuse of power and against violence (towards women, minorities, those deemed ‘expandable’). Trauma is not pretty, and Bardugo does not romanticise it in Alex. Speaking of Alex, she was a memorable character. I loved her for her strength and her vulnerability. Her cutting humour provided a few moments of respite from the novel’s otherwise dark tone.

Prior reading this novel I wouldn’t have called myself a ‘fan’ of Bardugo. I liked her YA stuff but I was never ‘blown’ away by it. Her foray into adult fiction has changed that.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Cardiff, by the Sea: Four Novellas of Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates

As I highly rate Joyce Carol Oates I was quite looking forward to Cardiff, by the Sea, a collection of four novellas ‘of suspense’. While I have only read a few of Oates’ works Patricide, a novella of hers, is a favourite of mine. The novellas collected in Cardiff, by the Sea have more in common with Oates’ The Pursuit as they are not only just as depressing but they are also written in a similar ‘stop and start’ type of prose. We have staccato sentences that often elide their subjects (such as “Chewing, trying to swallow but can’t.” or “Seeing the apprehension in the child’s face.”). While this style worked in the first novella, the longest in the collection, it felt a bit repetitive and overall less convincing in the following ones. In the first one we follow a deeply traumatised young woman and because of this the prose perfectly conveyed her ‘disturbed’ psyche. There were scenes where Oates’ choppy prose worked well, especially in terms of visuals and pacing: “Mia felt a stab of excitement. Following the flashlight beam. Shining light on ugly gouged tire tracks. Broken and shredded trees.”. As I’ve said however I do wish that this collection could have showcased Oates’ impressive stylistic range.
These novellas also share many other similarities outside of the way the are written. They feature women who are traumatised, abused, sexually assaulted, and/or gaslighted/manipulated. All of the male characters in these novellas are awful human being. They are pedophiles, rapists, murders, opportunists….the lists goes on. The women in these stories lack agency. There are one or two incidents that suggest otherwise but throughout the course of their narratives they are very much confined to the role of victims.

‘Cardiff, by the Sea’: 4 stars
As I’ve said the best story in this collection is the very first one: ‘Cardiff, by the Sea’. This novella was creepy and atmospheric. We follow Clare a woman who receives a call informing her that her grandmother has died…except that Clare has never met or know of her having been raised by adoptive parents. When she visits her newfound ‘blood relatives’ in Cardiff she becomes increasingly obsessed with the death of her birth parents. She stays with her two great-aunts, who very much reminded me of April Spink and Miriam Forcible from Coraline (except they are far more sinister). They are perpetually arguing and interrupting one another. Perhaps their creepiness is due to Clare’s susceptible state of mind, perhaps not. Clare’s uncle also lives with them and soon enough Clare becomes convinced that he played some sort of role in her family’s demise.
This story is pure Gothic. Unease reigns supreme. Clare’s fragmented and unreliable memories contribute to this unsettling atmosphere. Oates’ prose her works really well as it reflects Clare’s psyche. Her trauma and shock definitely give her an alienated view of things. If you enjoy Shirley Jackson’s work or macabre stories such as the ones penned by Mariana Enríquez chances are you will appreciate this novella which is equal parts suspenseful and disturbing.

‘Miao Dao’: 3 stars
This story had potential. I mean: cats killing pervy men? I’m sold. We follow Mia who has just turned thirteen. Her father recently separated from her mother and she now rarely sees him. Her male classmates begin to harass her and her female peers are not all that supportive (if anything they perceive as either a loser or a potential ‘threat’). As Mia is ‘shamed’ for body she begins to feel deeply alienated. Mia finds momentary solace when she is among a group of feral cats that has taken residence in her neighbourhood.
When her mother gets together with a seemingly ‘good’ guy things take a turn for the worse. Mia ends up taking in a kitten, whom she names Miao Dao, and weird things start happening.
This story was kind of miserable. Even more so that ‘Cardiff, by the Sea’ as it focuses on sexual abuse. It also reminded me of my own adolescent, a period of my life I never wish to relive again. The ‘leering’, the comments, the physical harassment. The way all of these make the victim feel ashamed and embarrassed (as she perceives herself guilty since it is her body that is making these boys and men act this way). So, given all the horrible things that happen to Mia, I was hoping for the story to present us with a satisfying revenge storyline…and it kind of doesn’t. The ‘cat’ element was definitely underused, and I think that the story would have benefitted from venturing more into the paranormal. Still, the ending does kind of make up for some of my initial frustration towards this story.

‘Phantomwise: 1972’ : 2 ½ stars
This seemed a rehash of the previous two stories. We have a nondescript young woman—who similarly to Clare and Mia is mostly defined by the fact that she is being ill-treated/abused as opposed to having a discernible personality. The story follows a student who becomes involved with a professor (yes, this is that kind of story). As things sour between the two of them, the young woman becomes close to an older man who likes to talk about Lewis Carroll and his ‘Alice’. This isn’t a gripping or even suspenseful tale. Oates doesn’t really subvert this tired female student/male professor dynamic, if anything she goes full on misery porn. Misery and more misery. Women are helpless and men are predators. Great stuff.

‘The Surviving Child’ : 2 ½ stars
This last novella seemed a mix between Rebecca and Verity. We follow the new wife of a man whose previous wife not only committed suicide but she killed their daughter too. She spared the son and the new wife wonders what could have driven her to do so. The prose is once again full of Yoda-like sentences which didn’t really add anything to my reading experience. Kind of predictable but not as miserable as the previous novella.

With the exception of the titular novella I didn’t particularly care for stories in this collection. Oates can certainly write but her style here could have been more varied. Her female characters are passive, even pathetic at times, and I found myself wanting these stories to be more subversive.

MY RATING: 3 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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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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Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith — book review

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Blackwood is a gritty read. Set in Red Bluff, Mississippi, a rather dismal small-town, the story follows a small cast of miserable characters. There is a family that is new to town, that are referred to as ‘the man’, ‘the woman’, and ‘the boy’, who stir some trouble with the locals, the sheriff, Myer, and Colburn, a sculptor who has return to Red Bluff after years away. The characters spend most of the narrative expressing their dejected opinions, the male characters in particular seem prone to long and existentialist monologues (that did not seem to fit with their characters but whatever) and feeling a growing sense of unease. In the background there are some kudzu vines that are acting up, swallowing up whatever, and whoever, is in their path.
I wasn’t fond of the way in which Smith would avoid referring to his characters’ names, and often I wasn’t sure who the scene was focusing on. The two ‘mains’, Myer and Colburn, had the same kind of wretched disposition. The three women who have some page-time are treated like doormats most of the time….or are just there so the men can lust after their bodies.
I guess I liked the atmosphere but I didn’t find this to be a particularly memorable or disconcerting read.

My rating: ★★★3 of 5 stars

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The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel — book review

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“We can be sad, distraught, confused, pleading, forgiving. But not furious. Fury is reserved for other people. The worst thing you can be is an angry woman, an angry mother.”

Once again I find myself in the minority but I just didn’t find The Familiar Dark to be a very riveting read. From its gratuitous and cliched opening pages (in which two twelve year olds are murdered) to its stagy finale, I had a hard time believing in the story I was reading.

Some of my favourite books, such as Winter’s Bone and Sharp Objects, depict rather bleak realities, but they do so convincingly. Here, Eve Taggert’s narration is so exaggeratedly ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ as to be hard to buy into. Although she says that she has spent all her life in the same small town, she often describes its people’s ways through comparisons (saying things on the lines of ‘in other places people would react differently/here rules are different’). Given how insular her world is, it seems weird that she would so often view her town and her family through an outsider’s lenses.

The many metaphors about darkness and poison also struck me as contrived. Eve’s circumstances spoke for themselves. Abuse, neglect, sexual harassment, rape, poverty, and addiction are the norm in her town, especially for women. Would she really waste her time thinking of allusions or similes for ‘darkness’?
In spite of her truth seeking/no bullshit attitude she conceals certain knowledge from the reader…for what purpose? To ‘shock’ us? It seemed weird that Eve, who is able to see through her community and the dubious intentions of the people around her, would lie to herself and to us about someone’s identity.

Eve’s narration aside, I did find the novel to be evocative. The dialogues where for the most part believable as was Eve’s grief. Her search for the truth behind her daughter’s murder is filled with both tense and sorrowful moments. Her rage was also convincing, as were her reflections regarding the limited options women in her position have.

The Familiar Dark sacrifices realism for the sake of dramatic twists. Moments of poignancy or insight into Eve’s life are often lost beneath the author’s overemphasis on ‘darkness’.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell — book review

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“I think we’re very similar, Nessa,” he whispers. “From the way you write, I can tell you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things.”

Recently I read a nonfiction book which claimed that when reading a book “However you get it, you’ve got it right”. When I read those words I found them vaguely equivocal…case in point, in My Dark Vanessa the misreading of a novel has disastrous consequences.
When fifteen year old Vanessa is given a copy of Lolita by her forty-five year old teacher, Jacob Strane, she becomes obsessed with it and comes to regard it as a tragic love story. In her eyes Humbert Humbert is not a degenerate pedophile but an unlucky man who happens to fall in love with a twelve-year old girl.

“That seems the likely ending to this love story: me dropping everything and doing anything, devoted as a dog, as he takes and takes and takes.”

Short review
On the one hand I believe that this novel presents its readers with a horrifyingly realistic character study of a sexual predator (a pedophile, a rapist, a molester). It tells an uneasy story, one in which a man creeps his way into the mind and life of a vulnerable young girl, that is bound to make some readers uncomfortable.
On the other, I found the narrator’s introspection to be monotonous, and the secondary characters are mere plot devices.
Although Kate Elizabeth Russell’s writing could be striking, she sometimes resorts to edgy observations which are a bit cringe-y. Some of her descriptions were trying (eg: “dishwater blonde hair and granola clothes”) and I was frustrated by the blatant yet limited way in which she would convey Vanessa’s distress (she bites her cheeks a lot).
There are some great discussions in here (on abuse, guilt, desire, power, literature) and while this is ultimately a story of an uneasy self-reconciliation, it is one that is as uplifting as a work Joyce Carol Oates (ie: pretty fucking depressing).

An extremely meandering and longwinded review
Narrated by Vanessa, Russell’s novel opens up in 2017 when the #MeToo movement became viral. Vanessa, a disillusioned thirty-something concierge, is forced to re-evaluate her relationship to Strane after one of his former students, Taylor Birch, writes a Facebook post accusing him of assault. Although Vanessa is still in touch with Strane, the two are no longer ‘involved’, and she thinks that Taylor is lying. Yet, even as she tells herself this, there is a niggling doubt at the back of her mind. When Taylor messages her asking her to share her own experience with Strane, Vanessa is compelled to comb through her memories of her relationship with Strane.
Vanessa regards her relationship to Strane as a consensual love story hindered by an age-gap. The only reason why she entertains the possibility of it having unethical is because he was her teacher. Yet, when Vanessa revisits her past, she is not always able to romanticise Strane and his actions.

“I know what he thinks, what anyone would think. That I’m an apologist, an enabler, but I’m defending myself just as much as I am Strane. Because even if sometimes I use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else’s mouth, the word turns ugly and absolute. It swallows up everything that happened.”

In 2000 fifteen-year old Vanessa returns to her second year at Browick, a private school in Norumbega, Maine (although according to Google this town does not exist, Russell’s vivid depiction of this fictional place makes it seem all too real). Vanessa is all too aware of her distinctive red hair, of her lack of friends, and of her penchant for morose observations.
It isn’t all surprising then that Vanessa initially ‘responds’ positively to Strane’s attentions. He compliments her appearance and her writing, and soon enough Vanessa comes to believe that he is attentive because he thinks that she is “special”.

In spite of the superficial charm that Strane uses in order to make his abhorrent actions appear ‘darkly romantic’ readers are aware of his true nature. He is a perverted manipulator who masks his inclination for young girls under the guise of being a hopeless romantic, as if he is a blameless victim of love. He instills in Vanessa his own skewed perception of their relationship, he uses her own insecurity against her, and makes her feel complicit. He makes her believe that it is ‘them’ against the world.
What becomes apparent through Vanessa’s recollection is that Strane would use any means necessary in order to gain her trust. For instance he uses Vanessa’s poetry against her as he attributes to her poems mature and inappropriate meanings (for instance he calls one of her poems “sexy”…) making her once again feel ‘seen’ (something he knows she craves).
Strane also implements Lolita in order to introduce to Vanessa the possibility of an adult-child ‘relationship’, and while he often compares Vanessa to Lolita, as the self-denying hypocrite that he is, he refuses to cast himself as Humbert (“Is that what you think I am?” He asks. “A pedophile?”).

The novel does a terrific job in portraying the power-imbalance between a grown man and a teenager girl. Strane uses his age and experience to manipulate Vanessa, often leading her to believe that she is the “boss”. His disgusting behaviour is rendered in minute detail as the author does not shy away from portraying him at his most repugnant.
Rather than ‘empowering’ Vanessa however he is disenfranchising her. He convinces her that she is ‘precocious’ and far more mature and independent that other girls.

“Every first step was taken by him. I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.”

While we are made to see how Strane manages to convince Vanessa that they are mutually complicit, two ‘dark romantics’, his charm never reached me. Everything he says and does felt wrong and illicit. While Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert admits to himself that he likes little girls, Strane seems to actually believe that he has fallen in love with Vanessa not because of her age but in spite of it. Yet, as present-Vanessa grudgingly realises, he would find it arousing to infantilise her and his attraction for her diminishes as she grows ‘older’.

“Like I was crazy. A stupid, crazy little girl. I get why you did that. It was an easy way to protect yourself, right? Teenage girls are crazy. Everyone knows that.”

While I think that this novel does an exceptional job at depicting Vanessa’s horrifying story of abuse (she would dislike my using this word but I call it what it is) I did not feel incredibly affected by it and for the most part I was simply disgusted.
Strane was the only character who struck me as believable…and he was a monster. Vanessa however remains more blurred. While this is likely to be somewhat intentional (the trauma caused by Strane has had horrific repercussions on her life and her sense of self) it also made it harder for me to believe in her as a character. Her dissociation and alienation are a result of her ‘relationship’ with Strane and his presence in her life is toxic , that much is clear. Still, she often makes out-of-character choices or big decisions without any distinct reason. There are two instances were she makes potentially life-changing decisions without articulating the reason behind her actions. Much was made of her ‘darkness’ but I could only see it as a consequence of Strane’s gaslighting her. Part of me wished that we could have seen her before him, perhaps during her first year at Browick. That way we could have gotten to know her on her own terms, and not as Strane’s victim (not that Vanessa labels herself as victim or survivor, in fact she hates these terms: “But that word, with its cloying empathy, that patronizing, flattening word that makes my whole body cringe no matter the context”).

There were moments when more could have been made of her personality. Yes, she has been manipulated into assuming the role of ‘Lolita’, but she could still have had traces of her own distinctive personality. Her job sadly seems merely to recount in an almost detached way Strane’s repulsive actions towards her. And if she is totally disconnected from her own self then I wish we could have been at least made privy to what she was thinking when she makes those potentially life-altering impulsive decisions (usually she just describes her movements or surroundings in these instances).
There are many other characters but they all blurred together. Once again this may be deliberate, given that Vanessa herself knows that she struggles keeping people straight in her mind. However, even during those scenes set in her past, I found that the characters to be lacking: there were a few named J-something and I could barely distinguish them from one another. Most of them seem to have been included only to say or do something to hurt Vanessa. Their motivations were sketchy and given that their personalities remain off-page, I had difficulties believing them.
Vanessa’s parents are incongruously depicted. Her mother seems to undergo three or four changes of character in the course of the novel. The father is totally expendable. Maybe if they had more page-time, we could have seen glimpses of their personalities/thoughts/motivations (we never know how they felt about their daughter’s time at Browick). Even in the few scenes where they actually appear, they remain vague un-active presences.

“So if someone doesn’t want to come forward and tell the world every bad thing that’s happened to her, then she’s what? Weak, selfish?”

While I appreciated the way the novel unflinchingly discusses sexual and emotional abuse, its praise and critique of certain aspects of the #MeToo movement, as well as its incorporation of texts (Lolita and Ethan Frome) and historical figures/anecdotes (which Strane used to normalise or romanticise ‘relationships’ between under age girls and middle aged men), I found that much of the narrative relied on explicit content. The first few times, as I already mentioned, I thought that however revolting these scenes were necessary. Needless to say, these scenes were not easy to read. Strane eroticises his fifteen-yearl old student and makes Vanessa believe that, like Lolita, she is ‘precociously seductive’. Although Vanessa tells herself that she enjoys this feeling of making a grown man sexually desire her, readers will have a less rose-tinted view of things. While their first encounters are graphic, I did not see these as being included for shock value. However, as these scenes increased, I found their frequency almost distasteful. To be repeatedly exposed to them seemed unnecessary. If anything they made the first explicit scenes less impactful.
Sometimes keeping certain things off the page isn’t a sign of ‘cowardice’ or ‘sensibleness’. If anything it requires even more effort to make your audience aware of certain ‘transgressions’ without having to actually to include them. For instance, in a recent episode of one of my favourite tv shows, a character is forced into the realisation that he was abused as a child. Rather than cutting to a tasteless flashback of this, the camera remains trained on his face, and viewers can see the incalculable hurt that this abuse caused him. His trauma, anguish, and despair are conveyed without the episode having to actually show this abuse happening.
Another example I can give is by the great Stephen King (who happens to have appreciated My Dark Vanessa more than I did, given that he described it as a ‘package of dynamite’) who in his latest novel avoids depicting in horrific detail a scene in which a child is tortured, cutting instead to the before and the after. Even if he doesn’t include e the ‘during’ scene, his readers can clearly see the harmful effects that this maltreatment has had on the child in question.

Sadly, I found that once I was 30% into My Dark Vanessa the graphic scenes lost some of their significance. They were so lurid that I could not see why there had to be so many of them. I get that some were meant to show us why present-Vanessa has such as distorted perception of her sexuality but when a story relies on numerous revolting sex scenes…I loose interest. I don’t think ‘splatter’ films are good horror films, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that I wasn’t all that impressed with My Dark Vanessa.

Additionally this year I read two other books that deal with similar topics. What Red Was is a stark novel that depicts the lasting effects of rape on a young woman’s mind, body, and life. I found that novel poignant and heart-wrenching. Promising Young Women instead tells an imaginative and subversive story of a relationship between a female employee and her boss. Those two novels resonated with me a lot more than My Dark Vanessa did. In Russell’s novel, the only character that was truly believable happens to be one of the most disgustingly perverse characters I’ve read of in a while. For all her self-fashioning, Vanessa did not strike me as ‘dark’ or even ‘precocious’. For the most part she is passive and apathetic towards other people. In one scene she willingly stands by as one of her young colleagues is harassed by a patron. In those instances where she is spurred into action, I still could not understand her or her motivations. More could have been made of her inner monologue, her sense of loneliness/emptiness, and of her fraught relationship with her mother.
The novel takes its time discussing the guilt she feels, and by the end I just wanted this novel to end.

“But it’s the truth, even if no one believes it. Driven towards it, towards him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: eager to hurl herself into the swamp.”

Nevertheless, future readers should not be deterred by my not so positive review. So far, most of the reviews are singing this book’s praises. Heck, even King liked it…so maybe I’m just not the right reader for it.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

Blood Orange: Book Review

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Blood Orange
by Harriet Tyce
★★★✰✰ 2.5  stars

Blood Orange left me feeling…not much at all. It might be because of the narrative, which is propelled by a protagonist who is the embodiment of a train-wreck, or it might be because of Tyce attempting to gross readers out trough lazily nauseating scenes, but this novel just seems to hit the one note. It focuses on three or four equally frustrating characters who behave or say things that are almost excessively—if not goofilyunpleasant.
While the elements of the story are standards of the domestic thriller, the writing offers them in a very graphic way. Combining vivid imagery with a taut prose not only does Tyce bring Alison’s experiences to life but she also gives a transfixing edge to her narrative. While reading this I felt an almost inevitable dread. Reading about Alison…it was like watching a car-crash in slow motion.
More than once I was fooled into thinking that Alison could not sink lower than what she already had…well, she showed me! For the most part of the novel Alison keeps drinking herself stupid, engages in an affair with a colleague who keeps treating her liker crap, and promises her husband that she will ‘do better.
For some obscure reason Alison is good at her job. She is a criminal law barrister who has just received her first murder case. This case takes is on the sideline of Alison’s narrative. The story is more concerned with Alison’s affair, her marriage, and the vulgar texts she has started receiving than her case.40605438.jpg
Although the story tells us that Alison is good at what she does…well, I found that hard to believe. I couldn’t even really think of her as a ‘workaholic’. Most of the time she just wants an excuse to hang out with Patrick. I get that she is meant to be pathetic and spineless and just a sort…of a walking trashcan but at a certain point I started wondering just how thick can person be.
A lot of what she does is motivated by immature desires (‘I want Patrick’, ‘I want to be a good mum’, ‘I want to work on this case’ ). She thinks things in a very simple manner, and to begin with I thought that she was being ‘ironic’ but no, she actually thinks like child. Alison’s voice is so monotone. She is not a nuanced portrayal of a married woman who is cheating on her husband and drinks too much. If you are looking for a layered and believable character…look elsewhere. There is this half-hearted attempt to make her seem like she knows just how terrible her marriage is by making her identify with the case she is working on (a case in which a wife has stabbed to death her husband) but it is done in such a blatantly matter-of-fact way that I never believed that Alison possessed the awareness and or perspective to notice the strong similarities between her marriage and the one of her case.
Not much happens but I did find myself almost hypnotised by these horrible people. Alison is so passive that a lot of the time I actually hoped that someone would slap or harm her. Her solipsistic drives cause her to be in a miserable situation and I think that the epilogue tries to paint her immaturity, selfishness, and dangerous behaviour as being someone else’s fault…

Ultimately the novel fails to be dark. There are weak attempts to make the story bold ranging from description of gross things (there was an almost an excessive amount of scenes revolving around Alison stepping on ‘piss’, touching ‘shit’, getting covered in ‘puke’, cooking food that looked like ‘sick’) or having characters degrade themselves and or others.
Although Tyce’s prose could be rather compelling her characters were almost laughably dislikable and her story leads to simplistic resolution.

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang


Review of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
★★★★✰ 4 that-was-bloody-intense stars

This novel is incredibly engaging. I found myself desperate to read it as often as I could, because I was involved by the story Kuang has so vividly rendered.

The storyline might seem a bit predictable at first – orphan goes to a special school, discovers ‘uncanny’ abilities, yadda yaddabut the way in which Kuang delivers this trope-y story made it seem anything but clichéd.

It might sound daft but one of the aspects that pulled me into this story is that Kuang made me believe in Rin and her tumultuous and often hostile world. The many physical and inner conflicts she faces made me deeply weary. I grew increasingly apprehensive. Kuang does not sugar coat the brutality of war and the inevitable horrors brought by such conflicts. Yet, Kuang’s prose could deliver such beautiful and elegant phrases that I could not find anything she wrote distasteful. Her style would often come across as simple but it is this apparent simplicity that makes Kuang’s words all the more effective. There is a raw almost visceral aspect to her writing that makes it hard not to be affected by what she writes of.
The Poppy War makes you constantly re-think and re-evaluate what you read of.

As much as I loved this book there are a few things that I thought could have been “better” or that I hope can be more developed in the next instalments.

Here are a few thoughts:

✔The way in which Kung depicts a moving body is simply captivating. I was in awe of her descriptions of combat. Even when during these fighting scenes the “eyes” seem to be a bit overdone (everyone seems to have very arresting eyes, especially those who fight well or are shamans).

Rin, this girl, this young woman, frustrated the hell out of me. She is a act first, think later, kind of person. Also, you know how some say that there is no such thing as a stupid question? Well, I disagree, because Rin asks a helluva of stupid questions. And the she is ‘stunned’ or suprised by the unfavourable reactions these often insubordinate questions illicit. She enragers her peers, and her superiors, with her words and her obtuseness. Yet, in spite of my not liking her or her attitude, I still cared for her. Especially since she seems to be treated like a pinata by most of the characters.

And yes, I do mean that she is treated as something that should be bashed about. Her mentors are not upfront enough, pushing her to make stupid decisions. Her friends…well, I don’t think that there is one healthy relationship or friendship in this book. ,b>The relationships she has verge on or are of an abusive (physical and non) nature. Given the world Rin lives in it’s hardly surprising that this should be the case….still
The path that she takes feels sadly unavoidable. It’s refreshing to read about a female character who longs for power….but the damage caused by Rin’s newfound thirst for revenge…well…mmmh…there is no coming back from that.

✖A lot of characters tell Rin the classic “you don’t know what I’ve been through” line. I mean, they are all living through a war, so I don’t think Rin should just let others bemoan their own tragedies, especially since before this new explosion of violence, Rin was already an outcast.

The few female characters that make an appearance are all very negative depictions of femininity. They are shrill and or unnecessary mean, especially towards – surprise surprise – Rin. They seemed very “flat”. They were either jealous or callous, treating Rin in a cold or aggressive manner. Hopefully new female characters in the following instalments will change this but…

✖I think the novel would have benefited from having a few more descriptions of the characters’ surroundings. I know it is an action focused novel but a more delineated landscape would have made Rin’s world all the more vivid.

Overall, I recommend this very much to both historical and fantasy fans. If you love the trope of the “tragic hero/ine” whose thirst for revenge and power bring about their own destruction…look no further. Rin is an Anakin Skywalker in the makings…

I know quite a lot of people are worried by the “trigger warnings” but this book is never gratuitously violent. The violence depicted is both brutal and necessary, and because of it, we can better understand Rin and those around her.

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