BOOK REVIEWS

Carol by Claire Morgan

“My Angel,” Carol said. “Flung out of space.”

Fans of the film adaptation of Carol may find the novel to be not quite as polished or romantic. I, for one, find the novel’s elusiveness and opaqueness to be entrancing. Unlike other books by Highsmith Carol is not a thriller or a crime novel, however, it has plenty of moments of unease (dare I say even of ugliness?) that brought to mind The Talented Mr. Ripley. Therese is a somewhat disaffected young woman who wants to become a theatre set designer but in the meanwhile she works in the toy section of a department store in New York. She observes the world and people around her with a mixture of apathy and ambivalence, the only feelings she experiences seem negative (her repulsion towards her coworkers, her disinterest towards her beau, her dread at the idea of being stuck at the department store ).

“Had all her life been nothing but a dream, and was this real? It was the terror of this hopelessness that made her want to shed the dress and flee before it was too late, before the chains fell around her and locked.”

Estranged from her mother Therese longs for her boyfriend’s family more than the man himself. And then she sees Carol: “Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and caught by them, Therese could not look away.”
Therese’s infatuation is immediate, and the two women—in spite of their age gap, their differences in background and circumstances—begin to spend more and more time together. Highsmith’s captures the intensity of first love, as Therese’s thoughts become increasingly preoccupied by Carol. There is a lot of longing in this novel and Highsmith expresses it beautifully, rendering the nuances of Therese’s uncertainty, jealousy, and yearning. Therese’s naïveté and Carol’s rocky marriage create friction between the two women, but the attraction and affection they feel for each other is palpable. Even if Carol remains a bit of a cypher, I too like Therese found myself drawn to her.
Some may find Therese’s narration to be too dry or cold, but I have always felt the most for characters such as her. I appreciated how Therese reflects upon the smallest of things, and there are times where she entertains rather cruel or disquieting. Nevertheless, I found her to be a sympathetic and interesting character, and I certainly admired her determination to follow her own heart.
The languid pace and alluring language make this into an unforgettable slow burner. I love the dreamlike quality of the narrative, the chemistry between Therese and Carol, the nostalgic atmosphere, the realistic rhythms of the dialogue, the winter setting…I don’t know what more to say other than this novel just does it for me.

my rating: ★★★★½

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The Rebellious Tide by Eddy Boudel Tan

This is one of those rare cases where I genuinely feel bad for not liking a book. The more I read The Rebellious Tide, the less I liked it. Yet, I really tried to pretend otherwise. Having loved Eddy Boudel Tan’s debut novel (it moved me to tears, something that does not happen often to grinches like moi) I had high expectations for his sophomore novel and I can’t help but be disappointment by it. If you are thinking of reading this novel I recommend you check out some positive reviews out as this review won’t be particularly ‘rosy’.

The Rebellious Tide follows Sebastien, a young man who is grieving the death of his mother. He resents his hometown as he believes that the townspeople have always treated him and his mother like outsiders (his mother was originally from Singapore). We learn of his on-off again relationship with Sophie and of his hatred towards his father, a Greek man who allegedly abandoned his mother when she was pregnant with Sebastien. So, naturally, Sebastien decides to take revenge on his father. Lucky for him, he manages to get himself hired as a photographer on a luxury cruise ship monstrosity (as a former Venetian I abhor cruises) which happens to captained by his father. He makes fast friends with two other members of staff and decides to make inquiries about his father, wanting to learn what kind of person he is. Soon Sebastien realises how rigid the hierarchy among staff members is, and his resentment towards his father makes him start a ‘rebellion’.
There were elements of the story that I liked, such as the cruise as microcosm of society. The ‘confined’ setting augmented the already brewing tension between the ship’s crew and the staff (who are deemed ‘inferior’ or ‘expandable’). But…I just could not believe in any of it. I couldn’t suspend my sense of disbelief, and I never bought into any of it. The characters were painfully one-dimensional, the female ones especially, and yet the storyline tried for this serious tone which…I don’t know, it just didn’t work for me. As I said, I wanted to like this so bad but the more I read the less I liked what I was reading. The story is very on the nose. The ‘Greek myth’ connection was jarring and out-of-place. While I could have bought the whole ‘lower decks=Hades’, ‘passageway in the lower decks=Styx’, okay…we get it, lots of Greeks work on this ship. But the whole thing between Sebastien and his supposed ‘love interest’ where they call each other Achilles and Patroclus? Come on! The two men barely know each other, their relationship struck me (and yes, this is once again my personal opinion) as just sexual. And there is nothing wrong with that! But why present it as a tragic love story? Bah!
The characters did not sound like real people, the dialogues were clunky, and the writing…I don’t know, I guess I preferred the author’s prose in After Elliot because it was in the 1st person (making the whole thing much more ‘intimate’) whereas here we have a perspective that is all over the place and yet it doesn’t really delve beyond a character’s surface level.
And the whole storyline is so damn cheesy and gave me some strong soap opera vibes. Convenient coincidences and clichés abound! And don’t get me started on Sebastien’s father (and that done to death line, “you remind me of myself when I was your age”).

As I said (or wrote) I do hate myself a little bit for not liking this novel. While I am of the opinion that this novel is in desperate need of an overhaul, I hope that it will find its audience and that readers will connect to Sebastien in a way that I was not able to.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★½ stars

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Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

“Hold it gently, this hungry beast that is your heart.”

Butter Honey Pig Bread explores the complex relationship two sisters who were once close but have become estranged as adults. Their mother, Kambirinachi, believes that she is an Ogbanje, a malevolent spirit who haunts mothers by ‘coming’ and ‘going’ (usually the child dies in childhood). After being born and dying a few times Kambirinachi decides to remain in the ‘earthly’ realm and goes on to become a wife and mother to twin girls, Kehinde and Taiye. After a horrific event drives the twins apart they embark on separate journeys. Years later, Taiye has moved back Lagos and now lives with Kambirinachi. When Kehinde and her husband come to visit them, the twins are forced to confront the reasons why they grew apart.

“Our relationship has always struggled against our twinness.”

Through alternating chapters Francesca Ekwuyasi recounts Kambirinachi, Kehinde, and Taiye’s lives, from their childhoods until the present. The snapshots into Kehinde and Taiye’s youth and early adulthood are vividly rendered as they capture the places and people around them. Regardless of where the story was set—England, France, Canada, Nigeria—the setting was more than just a backdrop. Ekwuyasi conveys the Kehinde and Taiye’s loneliness as well as the cultural clash they experience once they move to other countries. The relationships and conversations they have with their friends, colleagues, peers, and lovers always rung true to life. Throughout the course of the novel Ekwuyasi touches on numerous interesting and topical topics, on art, intersectionality, sexuality, feminism, racism, and identity. The twins have been shaped by trauma they experienced as children, trauma they both try to overcome in not always successful ways. They are also grieving for one another. Their severed bond has clearly left a mark on them, so that even when they begin into their new lives loneliness weighs them down.
I just loved how realistic this story was. Ekwuyasi’s characters are authentic and fleshed out, their motivations and personalities are nuanced, the relationship between the twins is rendered with poignancy and empathy. By recounting the time they spent apart Ekwuyasi provides each sister with solid pasts, that is, real histories. With lucidity and insight Ekwuyasi writes of platonic and romantic love—queer love especially—of motherhood, of different forms of faith, of growing up, of trying to acclimatise to a new culture, of reconciliation, and of guilt.
As the title itself suggests, food is key in this novel. There are many scenes that feature characters cooking and eating. At times a certain dish or ingredient leads to a certain memory. These semingly quotidian scenes were really enjoyable to read and often they revealed more of a character or a certain relationship. Plus, Ekwuyasi serves us with some mouth-watering descriptions (my advice: do not read this novel on an empty stomach!).

Kambirinachi’s chapters perhaps didn’t always feel very cohesive. Whereas the twins’ chapters are grounded in realism, Kambirinachi’s ones foray into the magical realism. While we do learn in her chapters why Kambirinachi wasn’t a very present mother I think that this came across already in the twins’ chapters. Her perspective didn’t add a lot to the overall narrative, and perhaps, I would have loved this novel even more if it had remained focused on the twins and not Kambirinachi. Nevertheless, I did appreciate Ekwuyasi prose in her chapters. It had a rhythmic quality that resulted in some great storytelling.

“Something you must know is that Kambirinachi and Death were no strangers—no, but certainly not friends, either.”

Butter Honey Pig Bread is a touching debut by a clearly talented writer. If you enjoy authors such as Maame Blue and Zaina Arafat, you should definitely pick this one up.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

This novel proved to be the perfect ‘escape’ read. While I may not have been enamoured by every single book I’ve read by Libba Bray (the finales to her series left me a wee bit unsatisfied) I do consider her to be an amazing writer and a favourite of mine. Usually, however, her books are in the realms of the ‘historical’, so I wasn’t sure what to except from Beauty Queens, I just knew that after watching a certain series I fancied a Lord of the Flies kind of tale (with a female ensemble). And wow…Bray sure delivered. Beauty Queens was everything I didn’t know I wanted. This is the kind of satirical teen comedy that will definitely appeal to fans of classics such as Heathers, But I’m a Cheerleader, and Mean Girls. The story, writing, and characters are all over the top in the best possible of ways. This is the funniest book I’ve read in 2020.

Beauty Queens begins with ‘the Corporation’ addressing us readers, “This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better™. We at The Corporation would like you to enjoy this story, but please be vigilant while reading”. We are also told to keep vigilant as the story we are about to read may have some ‘subversive’ content. Throughout the novel there are footnotes by ‘the Corporation’, sometimes advertising ridiculous products and sometimes professing distaste or disapproval over a certain scene.
The novel mainly follows nine beauty queens contestants who after surviving a plane crash that killed the majority of the other contestants (one for each state) find themselves on a seemingly deserted island. Rather than focusing on two or three contestants, Bray gives each of these nine beauty queens a backstory (I think only three contestants do not receive this treatment). We start with Adina, Miss New Hampshire, an aspiring journalist who joined the contest only to expose how misogynistic it is. At first Adina is snarky and not a great team player. Although she calls herself a feminist she has very ‘fixed’ notion of feminism, and her relationship with the other contestants will slowly challenge her previous views (on the contest itself, on liking thinks deemed ‘girly’,etc.). She immediately takes against Taylor, Miss Texas, the ‘leader’ of the surviving beauty queens. Taylor insists that they should keep practicing their routines for the contest as she believes that help is on the way. Taylor is badass, and I definitely enjoyed her character arc (which definitely took her down an unexpected path). We then have many other entertaining and compelling beauty queens: Mary Lou, who becomes fast friends with Adina in spite of their seemingly opposing views when it comes to sex; Nicole, the only black contestant, who wants to be a doctor but has been time and again been pressured into contests by her mother; participating as the only black contestant faces racism from the contest itself and the her peers; Shanti, an Indian American girl from California, who initially sees Nicole as ‘competition’ but as time goes by finds that she is only who understands how challenging it can be to navigate predominately white spaces; Petra, a level-headed girl who faces a different kind of prejudice; Jennifer, a queer girl who loves comics and has often been deemed a ‘troubled kid’; Sosie, who is deaf and always feels that she has to be happy in order to make others feel more ‘comfortable’; and, last but not least, Tiara, who at first seems like a comedic character, the ditzy or dumb blonde, but who soon proves that she is a very empathetic girl.
The girls don’t always get on with one another. In spite of their different backgrounds, interests, and temperaments, they have all been made to feel inadequate or ‘too much’.
As if surviving a deserted island wasn’t difficult enough a certain corporation is running some secret operation not far from the girls’ camp. Throw in some pirates/reality show contestants and there you have it.
Bray satirises everything under the sun: reality shows, beauty contests, pop culture, beauty products, corporations. While some of her story’s elements may be a bit ‘problematic’ in 2020, her satire never came across as mean spirited. In the end this is a story about acceptance and female solidarity. Bray shows all the ways in which society pressures and controls teenage girls, allowing for diverse perspectives and voices. Most of all, this novel is hilarious. Bray handles her over the top storyline and characters perfectly.
What more can I say (or write)? I loved it. This is the kind of uplifting read I would happily re-read.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue

Caroline O’Donoghue’s foray into YA will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Although I do have a few criticisms I can safely say that I found All Our Hidden Gifts to be an entertaining read.

Set in Ireland, our narrator and protagonist is sixteen-year old Maeve Chambers, the youngest in a big family. She has quite a chip on her shoulder when it comes to her ‘brilliant’ sisters and brothers. Unlike them she isn’t academically gifted and for a period of time she was put in a slow-learning class. Maeve now attends an all-girls Catholic school and in trying to impress her peers lands herself in trouble. It just so happens that her detention includes cleaning out a cupboard know as the ‘Chokey’ where she finds a set of tarot cards…and it turns out that she has a skill when it comes to reading the cards.

The story takes a Labyrinth turn when Maeve’s new talent results in the disappearance of her former best friend, Lily, who she’d ditched in order to climb the social ladder. Was I expected the Goblin King to be responsible for Lily’s disappearance? Maybe…
Anyhow, when the police gets involved and things get serious Maeve’s life becomes quite messy. Maeve believes that a mysterious card from her deck may have stolen Lily away so she decides to deepen her knowledge of magic. Along the way she becomes close with another girl from her school and with Lily’s older brother, Roe.
As the kids investigate Lily’s disappearance they become increasingly suspicious of a cult-like Christian group that is very vocal in opposing LGBTQ+ rights.
I appreciated the issues O’Donoghue incorporates throughout her narrative. We have characters who are discriminated against for not being white or for not conforming to one gender. Lily wears a hearing aid, which is probably another reason why her classmates bully or exclude her, Maeve’s sister is gay, Roe is exploring his gender identity. As inclusivity goes, this novel is beautifully inclusive. Maeve, who is white, cis, straight, and from a possibly middle-class family, is called out for being insensitive or naive when it comes to discrimination. She’s also somewhat self-centred, in an angsty sort of way, and this too is pointed out by other characters. Fiona also makes a point of reminding Maeve not to make other people’s oppression all about herself.

While I appreciated her growth, I still struggled to sympathise or like her. I found Roe and Fiona to be much more likeable and interesting characters. Maeve was the classic ‘I’m not beautiful like x or intelligent like y’ self-pitying kind of gall. She was boring and sounded much younger than her allegedly sixteen years of life. Which brings to my next ‘criticism’: there is a discrepancy between the tone and content of this novel. The tone, which is mainly created by Maeve’s direct narration, would have been more suited to a middle-grade book while her narrative’s content—the issues and discussions that came up in the story—are more tailored towards a YA audience. Both Maeve and the other sixteen-year olds sounded like they were twelve a lot of the time. Which made it weird when things like sex came up.
The bad American dude was somewhat cartoonish, and that whole side-plot felt rather undeveloped.
Lily was a promising character who might have been more fleshed out with some more flashbacks. And, to be honest, I would preferred this to be a friendship-focused kind of story. The romance between Maeve and Roe did not convince me, at all. She crushes on him from the get-go of the novel, but I could not for the life of me understand or see why he reciprocated her feelings. She says some pretty shitty things now and again to him and acts in a possessive way which irked me. I get she’s insecure but still….she knows she may have been responsible for his sister’s disappearance…and all she can think about are his lips?

Nevertheless, this was far from a bad or mediocre book. I like the way O’Donoghue writes and I appreciate her story’s themes and imagery so I would probably still recommend this. I, however, might stick to her adult fiction from now on.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Travelers by Regina Porter

The cast of characters and locations at the start of Regina Porter’s The Travelers is a tiny bit daunting as they promise to cover a far wider scope than your usual family saga. The Travelers explores the lives of characters who are either related, sometimes distantly, or connected in less obvious ways. Porter’s switches between perspectives and modes of writing, always maintaining authority over her prose and subjects. The Traveler provides its readers with a captivating look into Americans lives, chronicling the discrimination black Americans were subjected during the Jim Crow era, the experiences of black soldiers and female operators in the Vietnam war, the civil rights protests in the 1960s, and America under Obama. Porter combines the nation’s history with the personal history of her characters, who we see at different times in their lives. Sometimes we read directly of their experiences, at times they are related through the eyes of their parents, their children, or their lovers. Rather than presenting us with a neat and linear version of her characters’ lives, Porter gives us glimpses into specific moments of their lives. At times what she recounts has clearly shaped a character’s life (such as with an early scene featuring two white policemen), at times she provides details that may seem insignificant, but these still contribute to the larger picture.
Porter provides insights into racial inequality, discrimination, domestic abuse, parental neglect, PTSD, and many other subjects. Although she never succumbs to a saccharine tone, she’s always empathetic, even in her portrayal of characters who are not extremely ‘likeable’ in a conventional way. Sprinkles of humour balance out the more somber scenes, and her dialogues crackle with energy and realism. The settings too were rendered in vivid detail, regardless of when or where a chapter was taking place.
Porter’s sprawling narrative achieves many things. While it certainly is not ‘plot’ oriented, I was definitely invested in her characters. Within moments of her introducing use to a new character I found myself drawn to them and I cared to read more of them. Part of me wishes that the novel could have been even longer, so that it could provide us with even more perspectives. I appreciated how Porter brings seemingly periphery characters into the foreground, giving a voice to those who would usually be sidelined.
Her sharp commentary (on race, class, gender) and observations (on love, freedom, dignity) were a pleasure to read. I loved the way in which in spite of the many tragedies and injustices she chronicles in her narrative moments that emphasise human connection or show compassion appear time and again.
An intelligent and ambitious novel, one that at times brought to mind authors such as Ann Patchett (in particular, Commonwealth) and one I would definitely recommend to my fellow readers.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

I was intrigued by this novella’s premise—The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle in a Vietnamese inspired setting—by its cover and of course by the promise of sapphic love story. Sadly, I can’t say that Fireheart Tiger was a particularly good read.
As per usual, if you are thinking of reading this I recommend you read some more positive reviews as my one is not a particularly enthusiastic one.

Fireheart Tiger would have probably worked a lot better if it had been told in a larger format as under its thinly rendered characters and world lies a potentially interesting story. Sadly, this is not a fully fledged novel. The first few pages deliver some exposition: our main character is Thanh a princess who was sent off to Ephteria as a political pawn (ie hostage). Now she’s back to her mother’s court (a place which is hardly described) where she chafes against her mother’s rule. Thanh’s self-pitying is interjected by various memories, mainly, one of a fire, and another one of a kiss she shared with the blue-eyed Eldris (her blue eyes are her major character trait) who is from Ephteria. With 0 preamble she finds herself reigniting her relationship with Eldris…it isn’t clear why as Eldris is as ‘magnetic’ as a slice of stale bread. Thanh too is the classic supposedly quiet and smart yet totally hapless heroine who really grinds me nerves. She claims to care for her country but spends the majority of her time passively thinking about Eldris and of how her mother is evil and uncaring. Thanh’s mother, however one-dimensional, made for a much more compelling character.
There is also another girl who after one brief meeting Thanh begins to call ‘little sister’ (or something along those lines) even saying that she misses her when this girl isn’t around (after one day?).
Eldris is clearly bad news, she is creepy but fails to be a truly manipulative or charismatic villain. The other ‘bad guy’ is portrayed in a very cartoonish manner (“We’re going to have such a lovely time together”) .
Perhaps I approached this with the wrong expectations. I hoped for something more mature and complex. The dialogues were clunky, the descriptions clichéd, the love story was unconvincing and undeveloped, the main protagonist was a boring Mary Sue, and the setting was barely rendered.

my rating: ★★½

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The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami

Considering that Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favourites authors this was a big letdown. The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino lacked the zing that made Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop into such fun and engaging reads. Nishino, the novel’s central character, is a boring creep and I could not for the life of me understand why so many women cared for him.

The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino is divided in ten chapters, each one narrated by one of Nishino’s ‘loves’. The chapters do not follow a linear structure, so Nishino’s life is given to us in an almost fragmented way. The women Nishino loves easily blend together as they all shared the same kind of voice. I did not find them as likeable as the protagonists of Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop and maybe that’s because much of their narrative focuses on the relationship they have with Nishino. Most of them realise that Nishino is bad news who cheats and is emotionally unavailable. Yet, usually after they claim to dislike him, they will confess that they are on the verge of falling in love with him. Alas, because of ‘reasons’, they break up. The Nishino that emerges from these accounts is that of a pathetic and needy man who habitually lies. He has 0 charisma, here are two examples of some of his lines that make his ‘loves’ ‘giggle’: “Girls’ bottoms are always so cool, so smooth—I love them . . .” and “I love women’s breasts,”. Wow…isn’t he a poet?
Nishino is troubled and ‘broken’ and the women he loves pity him for it, hoping that one day he will find a woman good enough to ‘fix’ him (ugh).

minor spoilers ahead
The thing is, Nishino is a shit. He obviously does not care to have consensual sex with his ‘loves’: “I said, Stop, over and over, each time he quietly replied, I will not stop.” and “Hey, let’s have sex right now,” Nishino said. And then, without waiting for my response, he took me roughly.”.
He has sister issues, boo-fucking-hoo. Give me a break. The guy is a massive creep. He jokes to one of his ‘loves’ that he will marry his daughter (who is a child). Was it supposed to be funny? Coming from a guy who then at the age of fifty starts a sexual relationship a woman thirty years his junior?
I also did not care for the whole ‘breast milk scene’ involving Nishino and his sister. Surely that would not be the only way of ‘easing’ her pain (this is the third book I have read this year with weird breast milk scenes and I can safely say that I care little for this trend).

If you are thinking of reading something by Kawakami, I strongly recommend you pick up Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop instead of this.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Three years after I purchased my copy of The Stone Sky I finally got round to reading it. I’m not sure why it took me so long but I thought it best to re-read the first two instalments before approaching its final chapter. As I loved re-reading The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate I was ready to fall just as hard for The Stone Sky…but I didn’t.
The thing is, the pacing and direction of the story closely resemble those of The Obelisk Gate which I probably wouldn’t have minded if Nassun had actually developed as a character. Essun has very few chapters compared to the first two volumes and I missed her. I would have loved to read more of her and Tonkee or her and Ykka but their scenes make up very little of the overall narrative. While Jemisin tries to give Schaffa a sort of redemption arc I could not bring myself to like or sympathise with him. Nassun got on my nerves, especially when it comes to how obstinate she becomes towards the end. While she seems capable of caring for murderous men her resentment towards her mother struck me as unfair and childish (especially if we consider some of what her mother has gone through). While I was interested in Hoa’s chapters, especially since they give us a lot of information regarding the Stillness prior the seasons. I am not sure whether I always understood what was going in his chapter, especially given the nature of his narrative voice.
As finales go The Stone Sky suffers from anticlimax. The pace is slow, the characters don’t develop all that much, and the storyline needed more cathartic scenes. Still, Jemisin sure can write, and her style always manages to capture my attention (even when her story doesn’t).
While I am not sure whether I would re-read the whole trilogy I still consider The Fifth Season to be one of the best fantasy/spec fiction novels of all time and I will probably never tire of re-reading it.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon

“With no words, Yeyemi says, I am the strength and fire in you, I am everything that is and was and every will be. You are the stuff my stars are made of. I am you and you are me.”

An Ordinary Wonder tells a moving coming of age, one that will definitely appeal to young adults (heads up: it does contain some potentially triggering content).
The novel is set mainly in the 90s in Ibadan, Nigeria. The story is divided in classic two timelines (NOW and BEFORE) and is narrated by Otolorin, focusing in particular on her younger teenage years. Oto is intersex and is forced by her family to live as a boy, even if from an early age Oto has clearly identified as a girl. Oto’s father, a wealthy business man, refuses to acknowledge her existence. Oto’s mother blames Oto for her broken marriage and treats Oto in an appalling manner. Wura is Oto’s only ‘beacon’, but even she’s uncomfortable with the idea that Oto could identify as female. The BEFORE sections give us a glimpse into Oto’s life before moving to ISS (International Secondary School) and it is far from pleasant. Oto’s mother abuses her, emotionally and physically, and forces her to undergo ‘cleansings’ and ‘treatments’ at the Seraphic Temple of Holy Fire. Oto spends her childhood believing that she is abnormal and abhorrent, and is to be blamed for her mother’s unhappiness. While Oto tries to live as a boy, she is not always willing to hide her true self (trying out her sister’s clothes etc.).
In the NOW sections we follow Oto, who is now 14, at the ISS. Here she once again tries to blend in with the boys but the appearance of an old bully threatens Oto’s newfound peace (away from her mother). She becomes fast friends with her roommate, Derin, who is ‘half-oyinbo’ (his mother is white). Not only does Oto excel at school but she is also able to learns more about what it means to be intersex.

I’m not sure whether the dual timeline added a lot to Oto’s overall story. I think that her childhood could have been summed up in just a few chapters here and there, rather than prolonging those BEFORE sections. The story too veers into the clichéd, especially the way the ‘bully’ storyline unfolds. I would have much preferred for that storyline to be a side-story instead of taking up most of the overall plot. The bully in question, Bayo, was beyond one dimensional. There is an attempt at giving him the usual ‘but he comes from a possibly abusive family’ sad backstory but this seems a bit like a cop out to excuse his most egregious behaviour.
I also wish that Oto’s friendship with Derin had not been so immediate. The two become BFF overnight. Other students, especially some of the girls, are not fleshed out at all and serve as mere plot devices (like someone’s GF…ahem). Wura too was a somewhat disappointing character. Her bond with Oto didn’t convince me all that much.
My biggest problem is that the first 70% of this novel is basically misery-porn in which we read scene after scene of Oto being bullied, emotionally and physically abused, sexually harassed, demonised, and ostracised. It wasn’t great. Oto is a sweet and somewhat naive narrator and to read of her being endlessly maltreated was kind of exhausting (I understand that a few scenes of this nature were needed in order to understand her circumstances and experiences but should those scenes make up 70% of the novel? I think not).
Thankfully the last 30% sees Oto finally receiving some validation. There is an unavoidable misunderstanding between Oto and the person she loves which I could have done without but for the most part this final section delivers. Oto’s relationship with Mr. Dickson, her art teacher who is originally from Ghana, was truly moving. Their moments together were powerful and heart-rendering.
Buki Papillon’s prose for the most part rendered Oto’s young perspective but there were a few phrases that were very, shall we say, ‘debut-like’, such as the overused “I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding”…surely there is another way to convey Oto’s anxiety or tension? I also thought that the “little/tiny/small” voice inside of Oto was unnecessary. This voice always voices her true feelings or fears…and it got kind of old. Why just not directly write what Oto fear or wants without resorting to that ‘little voice’?
Still, there were elements of Papillon’s writing that I really liked. Her descriptions for example were extremely be vivid, at times quietly beautiful, at times vibrant and full of life (someone is as still as an “Esie statue”, “jealousy pierces my heart, stinging like a vexed scorpion”, words “sting like pepper”, Oto observing her mother during her father’s rare visits “it was like watching plucked efo leaves left out in the sun. She’d wilt slowly till he left”).
Another aspect of this novel that really worked was Yeyemi, an entity that brings comfort and strength to Oto (often appearing in dream sequences). Oto’s book of proverbs also added a nice touch to her story as the proverbs she thinks of are quite apt.
This novel deals extensively with Oto’s exploration of her identity, the bullying and abuse she experiences along the way, and, at long last, her self-acceptance. Overall, I would probably recommend this to fans of coming of age stories or to those who enjoy the work of authors such as Akwaeke Emezi and, to a certain extent, Won-pyung Sohn.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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