BOOK REVIEWS

Dove mi trovo (Whereabouts) by Jhumpa Lahiri

Dove mi trovo, which will be published in English as Whereabouts next spring, is the first novel Jhumpa Lahiri’s has written in Italian. Having read, and deeply empathised with, Lahiri’s In Other Words—a nonfiction work in which she interrogates her love for and struggles with the Italian language—I was looking forward to Dove mi trovo. Although I bought this book more than a year ago, during my last trip to Italy, part of me wasn’t ready to read it just yet. A teensy-weensy part me feared that I would find her Italian to be stilted. As it turns out, I should have not second-guessed Lahiri.

This novel consists in a series of short chapters, between 2 to 6 pages long, in which we follow a nameless narrator as she occupies different spaces. The titles of these chapters in fact refer to the place—not always a ‘physical’ one such as in the case of the recurring ‘Tra sé e sé’ chapters (an expression that for the life of me I cannot translate in English)—she is in or thinking of. She’s on the street, in a bar, a restaurant, a museum, her apartment, by the seaside…you get the gist. The novel takes place during a single year, and our narrator will often remark on the current season. She’s a solitary woman, and although she’s deeply aware of her loneliness, she’s not burdened by it. It is perhaps because she’s alone that she can get lost in her surroundings or in her thoughts. Even in those occasions where she interacts with others—who also remain unmanned and are referred to as her former lover, her friend, a professor, etc—she remains a lonely person. By seeing the way she interacts or navigates certain spaces, we learn more about her. Ultimately, however, she retains an air of mystery.
One should not approach this novel hoping for a plot-driven novel. Dove mi trovo is very much about language. Lahiri’s Italian is crisp and deceptively simple. There are observations or conversations that are rendered with clarity, and there are passages that convey a sense of disquiet. While I can’t say whether Lahiri always articulated phrases like an Italian would, I didn’t notice any Englishism on her part. I loved the way Lahiri articulated her phrases and the correct if démodé terms she used.
While Lahiri’s ‘Italian voice’ differs from the one in her English works, Dove mi trovo is the kind of quietly reflective and deeply nostalgic novel that I would happily revisit time and again.


MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars


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Travellers by Helon Habila

“Are you traveling in Europe?” he asked. I caught the odd phrasing. Of course I was traveling in Europe, but I understood he meant something else; he wanted to know the nature of my relationship to Europe, if I was passing through or if I had a more permanent and legal claim to Europe. A black person’s relationship with Europe would always need qualification—he or she couldn’t simply be native European, there had to be an origin explanation.

Helon Habila’s Travellers is a searing and heart-wrenching novel that recounts the stories of those who are forced to, or choose to, migrate to Europe. Readers learn of how their lives have been disrupted by conflict, war strife, war, persecution, and famine. They embark on dangerous journeys, alone or with their loved ones, only to end up in countries which will deem them criminals, illegal, and aliens.

“As far as they were concerned, all of Africa was one huge Gulag archipelago, and every African poet or writer living outside Africa has to be in exile from dictatorship.”

Travellers can be read a series of interconnected stories. One of the novel’s main characters is nameless Nigerian graduate student who follows Gina, his wife, to Berlin where she has been granted an arts fellowship. Here Gina works on the ‘Travelers’, a series of portraits of “real migrants” whom she pays fifty euros a session. Gina shows little interests in those who sit for her, seeming more focused on displaying the pain etched on their faces (turning down those whose faces seem too “smooth” or untouched by tragedy). In spite of her self-interest and hypocrisy, Habila never condemns her actions. Our nameless protagonist however becomes close to Mark, a film student whose visa has just expired, who goes to protests and believes that “the point of art” is to resist. We then read of a Libyan doctor who is now working as a bouncer in Berlin, a Somalian shopkeeper who alongside his son was detained in a prison reserved for refugees in Bulgaria, a young woman from Lusaka who meets for the first time her brother’s wife, an Italian man who volunteers at a refugee center, and of a Nigerian asylum seeker who is being persecuted by British nativists. Their stories are interconnected, and Habila seamlessly moves switches from character to character. He renders their experiences with clarity and empathy, allowing each voice the chance to tell their story on their own terms. Habila shows the huge impact that their different statuses have (whether they are migrants, immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers) and of the xenophobia, racism, and violence they face in the West. Habila never shies away from delving into the horrifying realities faced by ‘travellers’. Yet, each story contains a moment of hope, connection, and of humanity.
Habila writes beautifully. From Germany to Italy he breathes life in the places he writes of. Although we view them through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, Habila’s vivid descriptions and striking imagery convey the atmosphere, landscape, and culture of each country.
Habila also uses plenty of adroit literary references, many of which perfectly convey a particular moment or a character’s state of mind.
Travellers is as illuminating as it is devastating. Habila presents his readers with a chorus of voices. In spite of their differences in age and gender, they are all trying to survive. They are faced with hostile environments, labelled as ‘aliens’, dehumanised, detained, and persecuted. They have to adjust to another culture and a new language. Yet, as Habila so lucidly illustrates, they have no other choice.
Haunting, urgent, and ultimately life-affirming, Travellers is a must read, one that gripped from the first page until the very last one.
If you’ve read the news lately you will know that the current pandemic is having devastating consequences for migrants and refugees (here is a article published a few days ago: ‘Taking Hard Line, Greece Turns Back Migrants by Abandoning Them’). I know that we are not all in the position to donate but I would still urge you to learn how to support local charities (here are two UK-based charities: ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’. A few days ago I listened with disbelief and disgust as a man on the radio said that allowing the children of immigrants and refugees into British school would somehow be detrimental to the education of ‘genuine children’. Maybe that person wouldn’t have said such an ignorant thing if he had read this book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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L’Arminuta (A Girl Returned) by Donatella Di Pietrantonio

In spite of its short length Arminuta packs a real punch. I was almost hypnotised by its incredibly unsentimental narrative. Although Di Pietrantonio uses a seemingly direct and unadorned language, she’s able to brilliantly evoke the narrator’s world. However stark and unpleasant, everything was depicted in such a sharp and vivid way that I was entranced even by those scenes which held no beauty.
The intensity of the narrator’s account of her ‘return’ is striking. As a child she is unable to reconcile herself with being sent away from the parents who raised her, and there is nothing quite as heartbreaking as a child who is made to feel like they are unwanted. Her biological parents are so different from her ‘previous’ parents that the narrator feels increasingly lost and unhappy. Angry at those who have rejected (treating her as if she were little more than a parcel), having to adjust to her family’s poverty (far from what she was used to), and enduring her brothers’ taunts, it is only through her studies and her younger sister Adriana that the narrator can alleviate her despair. The bond between the two sisters was rendered with incredible realism. Adriana is incredibly loyal to the narrator and provides plenty of heartwarming moments (she is such a passionate and resilient girl!).
In Arminuta the narrator relates her uneasy formative years, and her narrative is underscored by a muted ambivalence. In spite of its length this novel gives a layered portrayal of a girl divided between two families.
In an introspective and thought-provoking journey the narrator ventures into her painful childhood, viewing the behaviour of the adults around her with a new understanding while still faithfully conveying the feelings and thoughts she had at that young age.

Rating: 4 ½ stars

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The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

The premise itself was enough to intrigue me. A close-knit group of friends attending Oxford? Yes please. Naomi Alderman’s style lends itself well for this: it has a ‘polish’ that evokes notions of privilege. However, the characters and plot do not convey the good qualities of Alderman’s style. Throughout, there is a sort of entitlement which feels hollow: Oxford is not the forefront of the story, and it is the annoying attitude of the characters which render this novel so self-important rather than the ‘exclusive’ setting. The Lessons lacks the compelling characters of The Secret History, the atmosphere of The Likeness, and the dramatics of If We Were Villains.

The focus of the novel isn’t as clear-cut as I expected. For such a short novel, I found my interest wavering time and again due to the lack of the story’s focus: Oxford seems forgotten soon after the first few intriguing chapters and Mark’s house also becomes seemingly forgotten. Alderman doesn’t spend enough time maintaining the background of this novel and the characters are not fleshed out enough as to detract from this. I would have been forgiving if I could at least have read about a decent character study, but there was no such thing. This ‘group of friends’ was composed of interchangeable characters who were so poorly developed that even the author is aware of it and tries to excuse her poor rendition of them by having the narrator say things like ‘so and so is still a mystery to me’ and ‘no one ever understood what she/he was about’. Really? That is a cheap trick. Her characters aren’t unknowable as they claim to be, but rather, they simply lack, in all fronts. They are shallows sketches who do not even appear that often in the novel. And I wouldn’t have minded as much if at least the two ‘main’ characters were fully developed. But they weren’t. Their relationship was…questionable. We saw no proof or progress, but we are made to believe that the protagonist falls under the influence of this very charismatic character who is anything but interesting. They all read like copies of the cast of *ahem* The Secret History *ahem*. What was the point of it all?
Lastly, the ‘Italian’ factor of this novel is complete nonsense. At least google real Italian names for Pete’s sake.

My rating: 1 star

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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

“If I had been a man, I would have knocked him down on the threshold of his own door, and have left his house, never on any earthly consideration to enter it again. But I was only a woman – and I loved his wife so dearly!”

A thoroughly entertaining novel that is intriguing from the very start. One of the most famous works of what is now called ‘sensation fiction’, it combines gothic elements with romantic ones voicing anxieties of the Victorian era in an almost inconspicuous manner.Serious issues are shadowed by highly dramatic moments charged with an almost surreal quality. This novel is a brilliant example of melodrama that is brimming with Collins’ sharp sense of humor. His characters are vivid and interesting. Marian, well, I loved her. On the surface she confirms the idea of a resolute strong woman is either ‘manly or unattractive’, yet, if you look beyond that, you see that she is a much more encompassing portrayal of a resilient woman living in a society that seeks to diminish her sense of self: she believes Victorian gendered ideals for she is a Victorian woman. Still, Marian remains aware of wanting to behave in a way that wasn’t deemed appropriate; she scorns most members of her own sex because they are made to fit notions of femininity that she abhors. Her sister Laura embodies conventional ideas of a woman, an ethereal fragile beauty, yet, when the situation demands it, she showcases a wilful mind. The bond between these two sisters is one of the strengths of this novel.

“Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”

Then we have Count Fosco…well, he is an engaging ‘villain’. I sort of loved-to-hate-him. His appreciation for Marian was priceless.
Walter Hartright wasn’t as interesting as the other characters, however, I did enjoy reading about his deep friendship and loyalty to Marian, who he had initially judged based on her appearance. His love for Laura is somewhat ‘instant’, but, I believe that it fits with the overall story.

“The woman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remained unknown to us till she appeared.”

The story slowly unravels the mystery of this ‘woman white’, with Marian and Walter acting as sleuths. I did find the last part a tad drawn out. Marian seems to fade into the background which seemed odd given her pivotal role in a major section of the novel.

“The only mystery that remains, is the mystery of his motive

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

“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!

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

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