Alex Landragin has written an ambitious tale, one that begins with the following line: “I didn’t write this book. I stole it.” This prologue, written by a bookbinder, tells us of how this manuscript has come to be in his hands. The manuscript in question comprises three seemingly separate books: ‘The Education of a Monster’ written and narrated by Charles Baudelaire, ‘City of Ghosts’ which consists in diary entries from Walter Benjamin, and ‘Tales of the Albatross’ which follows Alula, who lives on Oaeetee, a remote island in the Pacific.
Crossings can be read in the conventional way or the Baroness way (which gives page particular page numbers one has to jump to at the end of a chapter). I read it the Baroness way, and I believe I made the ‘right’ choice. The Baroness sequence, unlike the traditional one, intertwines chapters from each section (Alula’s, Charles’, Benjamin’s), making the connection between these three narratives much more clear. To give more information on the plot (or maybe, I should say, many plots) would risk giving the novel away. I will try to be as vague as possible: the novel will take readers across time and space, combing genres and playing with tone and style.
As much as I enjoyed the labyrinthine and story-within-story structure of this novel, I was ultimately disappointed by its characters and the ‘star-crossed lovers’ theme that unifies these seemingly disparate narratives. Alula, someone I wanted to root for, commits a particularly heinous act, one that she quickly absolves herself of, reassuring herself that she did what she did ‘for the greater good’. The personality of the two supposed main characters never truly came across. While it made sort of sense, given the conditions they are in, I wanted some more interiority on their part. Additionally, Alula sounded very much like a Western woman. This could be excused away, given the direction that her story takes her in, but her voice still lacked authenticity. While the author renders in minute detail aspects of the time he writes of, I wonder why he brought two real-life figures into the folds of his story. After all, Baudelaire’s work isn’t exestively discussed, nor does it actually play a significant role in the story (a Baudelaire society appears now and again but it seemed more a prop than anything else). It seemed that by making Baudelaire and Benjamin into his protagonists the author was trying to spruce up his otherwise boring narrators. The villain, who comes out with things ‘we are not so different you and I’, was painfully clichéd and not at all intimidating. This novel will definitely appeal to fans of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or even Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A novel that reads like a puzzle, one that combines different styles and genres. While I did enjoy the adventure-aspect of this novel, and its structure is certainly impressive, I can’t say that it left an impression on me.
Once again, I am in the minority as I did not find Red Pill to be a particularly artful or clever novel. To be clear, I do think that Hari Kunzru can write very well indeed, however, his narrative struck me as all flash and no substance.
I was amused by the first quarter of this novel. Kunzru’s writing didn’t ‘blow’ me away but I did find his narrator’s inner monologue to be mildly entertaining. The more I read however, the more my interest waned. My mounting frustration at the silliness and superficiality of the story soon morphed into an overwhelming feeling of exasperation. Maybe, this is my fault. The summary, cover, and general ‘hype’ surrounding this novel led me to believe that Red Pill would be something more than your average ‘well-educated yet exceedingly average straight man has midlife crisis in Europe’ story but I was wrong. As per usual, if you enjoyed this novel, well, ben per te. And, at the risk of anticipating righteous Kunzru devotees: No, I did not in fact ‘get’ this novel. There you have it.
I’m all for historical and literary references or philosophical asides but boy, oh boy, Red Pill sure liked to flex. Maybe, one needs a master in Philosophy and Literature to understand the brilliance of the narrator’s endless ramblings on Kleist, the Enlightenment, western philosophers, postmodern theorists, Evil, self-determination, and violence. This nameless narrator of ours (of course he remains unnamed) is experiencing some existential dread. This may be because the novel is set in 2016 and our protagonist lives in America. His conviction that ‘something’ bad is going to happen soon aren’t unfounded. Suffering writer’s block our narrator is given a ‘golden’ opportunity, a three-months residency at the Deuter Center (located in Wannsee, Berlin). Here he will supposedly be able to crack on his “The Lyric I”. Our narrator was no however prepared for the Deuter Center’s many rules. The Center is in fact a “experimental community” that promotes, nay insists, on the “public labor of scholarship”. The narrator finds the idea of having to undertake his research in a ‘communal’ space to be abject. His feelings of discomfort and anxiety are exacerbated by a particularly unpleasant and hectoring resident, a man who relishes in making others miserable, using pseudo-intellectual jargon to ‘demolish’ their thesis and beliefs. Cowed, our narrator, who is fully aware of his own inability to speak against this bullying man, hides in his bedroom, watching episode after episode of Blue Lives an America show about cops gone ‘rogue’ and operate under a ‘violence begets violence’ mentality which sees them torturing and killing criminals. As the narrator’s obsession for this show grows, he starts exhibiting paranoid behaviour. His thoughts too, which are very much convey this sense of ‘being watched’ or controlled (by the Center? The show? Who knows.). The narrative then switches to the story of Monika, a cleaner who works at the Center. Monika decides for some reason to make our unremarkable, and increasingly unbalanced, narrator into her confidante. She recounts of her time in a punk girl band in East Germany, and of the way she was persecuted by the Stasi. The story exists solely as a poorly veiled allegory. This novel is not really interest in Monika, and why should it be? This is very much a narrative about an average man’s midlife crisis and of his ‘descent’ into madness. Pure happenstance, our narrator meets Anton, the creator of Blue Lives, at a party in Berlin. Anton is a ‘bad’ guy, our narrator is sure of this. Anton does in fact act like a dick, and doesn’t bother to conceal his alt-right leanings. This encounter upsets our narrator so much that he looses grip of himself. What follows is a sequence of fevered events in which our protagonist tries to expose Anton to the world, believing that the best way of doing so is to hurtle down the path of insanity. Paranoia and gas-lightening abound in this part of the novel. Much of what happens seems to exist merely to ridicule our narrator, to emphasise his inability to form cohesive counter-arguments to Anton’s Mad Max worldview. He now ‘sees’ the world in all its ugliest glory, he has indeed taken the ‘red pill’ mentioned in the title.
The cartoonish characters (the Center guy and Anton are pompous and blustering finger-wagging caricatures) and awkward interactions could be chalked down to Kunzru’s predilection for hysterical realism. This is satire. Okay. Fair enough. Still, what lies beneath his ‘satire’? An intelligent social commentary? A cautionary tale? Methinks not. The exaggerated characters and outlandish plot did not seem to have anything particularly to say. Beware ‘Antons’? Those who hold extremist views and use scholarly or high-register words to deflect their audience from the true meaning of what they are saying? Paranoia is a sane response to an ‘insane’ reality? Kunzur’s arguments felt tired, especially in 2020, and serve a merely ornamental function. Take the role of the show Blue Lives in the story. Our narrator watches it with a mix of horror and fascination. He worries that no one has caught on the messages that Anton has peppered in his show, particularly a troubling quote by Joseph de Maistre. Our narrator tries to call out Anton, by criticising his show’s pessimistic worldview, in which the world is an “abattoir”. But that’s it. He doesn’t try to think why viewers of this show condone this kind of vigilante sort of justice. Kunzru has one quick scene in a kebab shop in which he attempts to unpack the psychology of people like Anton, but he does it in such a harried and obvious way (Anton telling our protagonist why his friends dislike immigrants and non-Western cultural influences), to which our inept narrator responds “fuck you”. Kunzru also tries to show how good intentions can be misunderstood by having our supposedly progressive narrator attempt to help a refugee father and her daughter. Except that his attempt to help them is from the get go dodgy as he wants to prove Anton and his violent worldview wrong. He’s also, surprise surprise, like Monika, made to seem complicit with Anton (so that he’s mistaken for a Fascist). I get that we are not meant to like the narrator (he’s kind of a coward, kind of pathetic, kind of a creep when it comes to attractive women), but did the author really have to go out of his way to humiliate him? I already felt little for this man, and the more the story seemed intent on emphasising his many failings, the more I lost interest. The author seemed more focused on making his narrative as nebulous as possible than of fleshing out or giving some nuance to his characters. Yet, the structure of the novel isn’t all that innovative. The plot too unfolds rather predictably. The narrator’s unreliability and his imminent breakdown are obvious, and I felt no apprehension about his decline or wellbeing. While the author’s prose was exceedingly well-articulated, I failed to grasp the meaning behind his words. The narrator often recounted the conversations he had with others. Consequently, not only did the plot lack immediacy but the majority of the secondary characters were made to speak only through our narrator recalling the gist of their words (one could say that this is realistic as he is retroactively describing his time in Berlin but why do we get some dialogues then? Am I to believe then he has a sporadic exceptional memory?). The narrator’s inner-monologue is repetitive and appeared to be little other than navel-gazing. Many of his thoughts and feelings aren’t all that complex, and yet the author will dedicate entire paragraphs to them. Also, while I understand that there times when you can get so flustered as to be unable to form a cohesive sentence or valid counter-argument (just think how many videos there in which ‘liberals/snowflakes/feminists are destroyed with FACTS and LOGIC’) it didn’t ring quite true when at the Center what’s-his-face is offensive towards every single other resident, and no one does anything about it. He wasn’t their boss or a threatening guy, yet, not one of these learned individuals was capable of calling him out. His behaviour, as far as I remember, doesn’t even get reported (which it should be given that he says inappropriate things, and actively works against the Center’s ideology). Speaking of the Center, that felt very much felt like ‘bait’. It seems that it will play some sort of role in the novel but it is totally sidelined in favour of our narrator spiralling out of control. Another thing I couldn’t quite behind was Anton and his supposed powers of influence over our main character. While I can recognise that the narrator was in a susceptible, if not vulnerable, state I wasn’t convinced by the way Anton comes to dominate his every-thought. The guy may have been able to quote some obscure philosopher but that hardly makes him into almighty persuader. The ‘writing about writing’ angle was but underwhelming and obnoxious. If anything, the narrator’s reflections on writing seemed to serve as excuses for the actual novel’s failings: “Plot is the artificial reduction of life’s complexity and randomness. It is a way to give aesthetic form to reality” (insert headache inducing eye-roll here). And of course, Chekhov’s gun gets a mention. How very self-aware. While the protagonist did touch upon interesting subjects and ideas, often using researched vocabulary, he did so superficially, so that ultimately his narration seemed little other than bloviating.
In spite of the novel’s lampoon of the academic world, the narrative struck as being extremely elitist. Red Pill tells a meandering and ultimately inadequate story, attempting perhaps to shock or impress its own importance onto its readers. But I felt mostly annoyed by it all. Meaning and depth are lost in a prolix narrative that meanders maddeningly from one subject to the next without having anything substantial to say. Reading this was a huge waste of time, time I could have spent watching ContraPoints or Philosophy Tube. Did the world need another book dedicated to a self-proclaimed ‘average’ man who is having a ‘midlife’ crisis?
Initially, I was torn between reading the English and the Italian translations of « Arrête avec tes mensonges ». I settled for the Italian because —to my mind at least— it seems closer to the original French language (at least they are both Romance languages ). Anyhow, I found this a very personal and intimate portrayal of first love. Besson’s elegant prose could occasionally become too impressionistic for my liking but the latter part of this autobiographical work was deeply moving.
Besson’s examination of his own first love depicts a really distinctive picture. With a few carefully chosen words he singles out the loneliness, contrition, and jealousy experienced by his teenage-self. The few sex scenes included in his otherwise delicate and poignant remembrance have an almost jarring effect.
Sometimes Besson could get lost in his own language. There are moments that border close to being stream of consciousness…which do not always ‘work’.
Overall, I enjoyed this. The latter part of this short ‘memoir’ had a lot of beautiful and painful moments.
If you don’t mind reading of the somewhat abstract meanderings of one’s mind, « Arrête avec tes mensonges » might be your perfect cup of tea.
You would think that dragons + the Napoleonic Wars = entertaining story . . . yet His Majesty’s Dragon managed to be consistently boring.
I was expecting something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Sorcerer to the Crown but I soon realised that His Majesty’s Dragonlacks the spark that animates those novels.
Novik is a good writer but she seemed to be restricting herself to the same two or three scenarios throughout the course of her novel. It seemed that Novik was focused more on making the dialogue and Laurence’s reactions believable (as to be consistent with the time the story is set in) than to write an actual story. If I were to replace the dragons with any other animal, eg. horses, very little would change. These dragons lacked the fantastic or alluring aura that dragons should have. I understand that within this universe dragons are ‘normal’ but the story could still make them interesting. Novik’s dragons are basically giant winged cats. The story, if I can call it that, revolves around this Laurence guy, a good old 17th century man (so he is obviously both righteous and conservative) who ends up having to give up his life at sea so he can become an aviator…his new ride is Temeraire a relatively cute dragon who talks in a contrived manner…but hey. Laurence washes his dragon, he rides his dragon, he has some minor quibbles with other aviators…and that’s that.
The plot was mainly concerned with ‘theory’ and not practice. The characters discuss strategy and tactics, they have a few fights, but all of these scenes lacked the sense of urgency and or suspense that they should have . This concept would have worked better in a novella rather than a full length novel. The story is boring, the dialogues are monotonous, and the characters are just as bland as the dragons. There are a few scenes that I could consider ‘cute’ but they didn’t really make up for the rest of the novel.
Lastly, in spite of the seeming accuracy of the time (dialogues & customs) I don’t think Novik evoked the 17th century really well. Her depiction of this period is flat and the story lacks a sense of place. And, what about the actual war? Laurence – or any other character for that matter – has very little to say about it…
If the author wanted to take a lighter approach to the Napoleonic Wars then perhaps a bit of humour could have salvaged her story. Jane Austen, for one, knew that wit could go a long way…
Even after a second reading I am still surprised by how much this novel resonates with me. A lot readers will start Villette expecting a rehash of Jane Eyre—a novel which I enjoyed but wasn’t particularly taken by—which is a pity given that the narrative of Villette takes its reader through a much more labyrinthine path that the straightforward Bildungsroman of Jane Eyre.
“No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, ant tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. She is a divine dew which the soul, on certain of its summer mornings, feels dropping upon it from the amaranth bloom and golden fruitage of Paradise.”
From the first few chapters I fell in love with Villette. Brontë’s writing is so insightful that it is hard not wanting to highlight, or make a not of, every single paragraph. She has a way with words, managing to orchestrate long yet fluid phrases, that project both strong imageries and feelings. She gives intricate and sharp observations, vivid descriptions, thoughtful considerations and manages to imbue her characters with unnerving realism. Villette‘s plot rests upon its narrator. In fact, this novel, is all about Lucy Snowe. A study of her psychology and of her own sense of self. Yet, even upon a second reading, she remains somewhat unknowable to me as she is careful to keep her feelings in check, and on more than one occasion she refrains from sharing certain knowledge with us readers. Her self-division is such that might lead other characters—and some readers—to assume that she is ‘cold and distant’, a desired effect as she intentionally wants to curb the part of her self that is passionate and feeling.
“Oh, my childhood! I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future–such as a future as mine–to be dead.”
Her unreliability seems a natural outcome of her not wanting to reveal herself completely to us and others, and perhaps by lying to her readers, she can also deceive herself. We never know why she has become so alienated from her feelings but given that even as a child she was self-possessed, a quiet observer, it seems that it is merely an aspect of her self. This divide between duty and self-fulfilment is the main focus of the narrative. Brontë’s Lucy, similarly to her more famous literary sister Jane, is a woman living on the social margins of her society: an orphan with few living relations and or friends, she lacks conventional beauty and the wealth necessary to be respected by society. Lucy minimises the loss of her family, not wanting to dwell on how this affected her nor on the difficulties she experienced as an orphan, dismissing that period of her life as “a long time—of cold, of danger, of contention”. Her hardships go unheard since “to whom could [she] complain?” and so she grows accustomed to solitude believing that “there remained no possibility of dependence on others” . The narrative that follows will see her confronted with different forms of femininity and womanhood which are often embodied in the women she meets in England and in Villette.
“When I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who had never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life: in that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah’s gourd.”
One of my favourite scenes sees our narrator rejecting ideals of femininity in a museum. One painting features a Cleopatra-like figure whose sumptuous body makes our protagonist at ill at ease; the other one demonstrates the traditional life of woman: a young and demure bride, a wife and mother, and finally a widow. Lucy, in the course of this maze-like narrative will demonstrate a headstrong will in that in spite of the concealment of her feelings she remains true to her self. Her character is so real that I was inevitably drawn to feel what she felt: I wanted what she wanted, for I couldn’t stand to see her unhappy.
“My state of mind, and all accompanying circumstances, were just now such as most to favour the adoption of a new, resolute, and daring–perhaps desperate–line of action. I had nothing to lose. Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past, forbade return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer? If I died far away from–home, I was going to say, but I had no home–from England, then, who would weep?”
The ending is ambiguous and somewhat open-ended yet those last bittersweet pages soften the story’s final blow. This novel is a beautifully written character study that plays around with Gothic and Romantic elements. There is great character development, shifting dynamics between friends and acquaintances, a painfully concealed and unrequited first love, and a series of feverous experiences which blur the line between reality and fantasy…Villette is a compelling portrait of a woman’s individuality.
A small part of him which he already recognizes as a lost, former self longs for his mother’s garden, the sound of wind rustling the leaves. He takes a breath, his feet flat against the carpet. His right toe itches.
Despite being a beautifully written novel Salt Houses lacks personality. We follow different generations of a Palestinian family whom are forced to relocate time and again due to the constant strife that is – sadly – the backdrop in their lives. So while the story has the potential to explore the emotional turmoils of its characters, whom are undoubtedly affected by the various wars taking place around them, they feel flat. They do not differ greatly from one another, their differences feel forced, one child is the ‘wild one’ the other is the ‘studious one’ and so forth, but ultimately they all revealed the same ambivalence: they are constantly unsure and undecided in a way that just made them irritating rather than realistic. They do not convey any sympathetic attributes or qualities, they all seemed, at one point or another, just obnoxious and inexplicably problematic. The relationship they had with one another were unbelievable: they seem to dislike and resent each other so much it is hard to believe that they would care for each other. We are given no proof of the love they profess one another and at the same time, the amnesty and tensions between them reads as completely factitious and unnecessary. Ultimately, the characters sounded so much alike that midway through the novel, in my mind, they sort of merged into one unlikable protagonist: a character who shows little depth and can be described as being completely and utterly fickle. I did not care for them nor their story. Characters and story aside, Alyan’s prose is alluring. So much so that it nearly makes up for her lacklustre characters and tedious storyline. Alyan’s style combines lyrical allusions with impersonal observations<. Juxtaposing characters feelings with their surroundings, their fears and doubts against the actual present. It would have had even more of an effect on the reader if the characters did not seem so dispassionate – so stale – and whose thoughts and actions verge the border of apathy itself, their remoteness so complete, that Alyan’s consideration lose their momentum. Ironically, there is a great sense of place in this novel: Alyan manages to bring each city to life, evoking places through incisive descriptions and careful remarks. Smells, colours, seasons, all play a part in making Salt Houses very atmospheric. Overall, Alyan has all the right ingredients for a great tale, however, she doesn’t seem to invest enough time into making her characters as rich as their background, which consequently makes their stories less appealing. Alyan’s writing professes talent but Salt Houses is, at best, a lukewarm read.
A challenging and emotional novel that is both engrossing and difficult to read. Boyne offers us a tale of war, love, jealousy, and the way in which one’s principles can dictate one’s life. It is a gut-wrenching story and it was impossible not to feel affected by what Tristan – our main character – experiences before, during and after the Great War. From the very start we know that something tragic – a personal loss – has happened to him. Tristan professes diverging feelings in regards of what has happened to Will, a young man who he befriends during his training, before his time in France. The characters are as compelling as the story itself, in a few lines Boyne is able to depict believable individuals who inspire a range of conflicting emotions within the reader: given the strenuous situations they are it is natural that their actions and words showcase all manners of complexities. I was, for the most part, taken by Tristan: I often found myself wanting to hug him or shake him. I didn’t always understand his actions but I believe that is because he didn’t always understand them himself. I was frustrated by him and for him, no matter what I found his voice compelling and heart-rendering. There is a feeling of growing unease that made me both eager and terrified to read on. The plotline is unpredictable, Boyne delivers a few ‘I did not see that coming’ moments. I read this book quickly, desperate – and anxious – to know what would happen next. And while Tristan’s story is emotionally draining, I also didn’t want to leave him. Terrible things happen and yet I was so engaged by his story that I kept at it. It is also a novel that makes you think by challenging your own moral code without giving us predictable outcomes and or answers. The Absolutist made me cry, it made me angry, it made me hopeful and it left me bereft. It isn’t an easy read but I recommend it to those who are looking for something more substantial.
“The great tragic love story of Percy and me is neither great nor truly a love story, and is tragic only for its single-sidedness. It is also not an epic monolith that has plagued me since boyhood, as might be expected. Rather, it is simply the tale of how two people can be important to each other their whole lives, and then, one morning, quite without meaning to, one of them wakes to find that importance has been magnified into a sudden and intense desire to put his tongue in the other’s mouth.”
A sweet and fluffy read that follows Monty – the son of an earl – and his misadventures through Europe. Monty, our protagonist, is the force of this novel. His voice is incredibly funny and, often, too honest: even when he acts like a prat, it was hard not to like him. He is just so engaging and fleshed out that by the end of the third chapter I already felt as if I knew him. His escapades in Europe are, for the most part, pure entertainment: highwaymen, pirates, angry dukes, alchemical compounds…this book has them all. Percy and Felicity make for some more sensible company, although that doesn’t make them any less likeable. Despite the highly hilarious scenarios our main characters finds themselves in, most of the time because of something Monty has done or said, Lee still manages to address more serious issues: Monty doesn’t realize his own privilege, causing him and Percy to argue, given that Percy’s epilepsy and skin colour cause him to be ill-treated, while Felicity, being a female, is unable to pursue the medical studies that fascinate her so. Monty’s character growth and adventures make a winsome combination.The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an absorbing read that is both cute and bittersweet. Go read this!
A moving novel that has a few flaws. Yes, I was – in more than one occasion – moved to tears, however, I was also aware that the story and its characters were rather clichèd.
Full of ‘compassion, suffering, romance, and constant danger’, Kristin Hannah was inspired by a Resistance heroine — the 19-year-old Belgian woman Andrée de Jongh – who established the Comet Escape Line, a secret network of people who risked their lives to help Allied servicemen escape over the Pyrenees to Spain. The Nightingale focuses on two strong but vulnerable sisters, bolder Isabelle who has been kicked out of her latest private school, and Viann, the eldest sister, who lives a quiet and happy life with her husband and young daughter. When her husband – a ‘simple’ postman – is enlisted things take a turn for the worst. The sisterly relationship between Viann and Isabelle is a tricky one, and when Isabelle made to stay with her in the countryside tensions soon arise. After the Germans invade France, Viann is forced to let a German captain lodge in her home while Isabelle joins the Resistance. Casting past regrets behind them is not easy, especially when the sisters are constantly thrusted in life-or-death situations.
Hannah portrays in painstaking detail the cruel and brutal world that these women inhabited. Page after page, we see their freedom being eroded. However, it is when their loved ones are in danger, that the sisters are faced with making the most difficult choices.It is perhaps because – throughout the whole book – we see both Viann and Isabelle suffer all kinds of abuse that the reader comes to care for them.
Hannah has created an encompassing epic that is capable of moving to tears and of making the reader incredibly frustrated by the terrible circumstances that the characters are in and the choices they make. The Nightingale has it all, so much so that perhaps the story could at times feel a tad melodramatic; that is to say that the writing occasionally resorted to cheesy turns of phrases and that there were too many convenient occurrences within the plot. Nevertheless, the over-the-top parts do not deter from the overall enjoyment of the book and its themes. A touching –albeit occasionally corny– tale of survival that combines high-stake scenarios with a realistic family portrait.