BOOK REVIEWS

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Burnt Sugar is one of the worst books I’ve read in 2020. If you were able to appreciate this novel, I’m glad. This may be one of those ‘it’s me, not you’ cases…or maybe I’ve read too many stories exploring a complex mother/daughter relationship. To be perfectly frank, I bloody hated this book. It was painfully intent on nauseating the reader. We get it, the human body is base (Julia Kristeva has been there and done that). Burnt Sugar is ripe with garish descriptions of the abject human body: we have bodily fluids and waste, failing bodies, changing bodies (pregnancies, puberty), body parts compared to food or objects (breasts like dough, buttocks like empty sacks).
The narrator of this novel, someone who was so remarkable I can no longer recall her name, is the classic disaffected woman who is alienated from everyone and everything. A few days before listening to Burnt Sugar I read Luster, a novel that features a similar type of character except that there the author manages to make her protagonist into a nuanced human being, one who isn’t nice or extremely likeable but is nevertheless realistic and capable of moving the read.
But here, dio mio! The narrator comes across as petulant and myopic, understanding nothing about anything and no one. Readers are clearly not meant to like her but there are various scenes that try to elicit some sort of sympathy (the nuns mistreat her, her mother is mercurial, her ‘silly’ Indian-American husband is blind to her anguish) on her behalf. Except that I didn’t.
The MC goes and on about her mother, but we never gain insight into her actual feelings towards her. The MC is happy detailing all the wrongs she has endured, and seems to insinuate that she has become such a stronza because of her mother. The whole thing is incredibly superficial. Here we have another mother who is ‘hysterical’ just because ‘hysterical’ mothers can make for some dramatic scenes.
Indian-Americans are portrayed as foolish and brainwashed. Everybody is nasty and disgusting. Ha-ha! Oh wait, that isn’t quite ‘caustic wit’. There were a few—and when I say a few, I mean two or three—phrases that under certain circumstances (if you are as high as a kite) may come across as slightly amusing, but for the most part the MC’s cutting humour fell flat. Viewing everything as grotesque is hardly funny, and it gets tiring, fast.
I also found the author’s treatment and portrayal of postnatal depression and dementia to be highly insensitive. The mother in question becomes ‘monstrous’, the type of character that one may expect in Victorian literature. Who cares about realism when you can write explicit and ‘subversive’ things for the sake of shock value?
I think this was an awful novel…and it seems that I’m in the minority. Who cares. If you want to read it or loved it, good for you. I’m glad I was able to return this audiobook and I sincerely doubt I will ever try reading anything by this author.

Books with believably fraught mother/daughter relationships featuring alienated, disaffect, or challenging main characters : You Exist Too Much, The Far Field.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Given that this book was described as being in the vein of Isabel AllendeI, I had quite high exceptions. While I did find the opening chapter to be intriguing, to compare Fruit of the Drunken Tree to Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez seems both lazy (a comparison that has less to do with substantial similarities—such as style or genre—that with geographical location….I’m not sure why publishers are still comparing any new authors from Latin America to Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and inadequate. Sadly, I never warmed to Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ writing style nor her characters. While I understand that the author based the story on her personal experiences, I found her storyline to be more intent on creating emotional drama than sense. Worse still, I could not get past the novel’s subtly racist undertones

“War always seemed distant from Bogotà, like niebla descending on the hills and forests of the countryside and jungles. The way it approached us was like a fog as well, without us realizing, until it sat embroiling everything around us.”

First, I’ll start with a few positives. Ingrid Rojas Contreras renders the internecine climate of 1990s. The author details the realities of Colombia during Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror by conveying the day-to-day dread, fear, and violence that prevailed in this period. I appreciated the factual aspects of this novel, such as when Contreras’ recount Escobar’s latest actions by having characters listen to the radio or watch tv. The atmosphere of political uncertainty has a visible influence on the characters—regardless of their age/class. I liked reading about the games Chula and her older sister played (the bond between Chula and Cassandra was the most believable relationship in the whole novel).

Now, for the not so positives. The writing was weighed down by laboured similes (in which red fishes are “gelatinous mice” and headlights seem “traced out of nothingness by the invisible hand of God”). Ineffectual descriptions added little to the narrative, seeming more confusing that evocative (a particularly bad one is: “They looked different, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Other than to say they were thinner, and they no longer looked like children. It reminded me of how Petrona didn’t look her age, but older. Like they were scratched behind their faces.”). Chula and Petrona’s had a too similar way of narrating things, which cast a doubt on their supposed differences in age/class.
Chula’s perspective is incredibly one-dimensional. Chula is looking back to this period of her life. She’s now older and in America. Yet, ‘present’ Chula offers no special insights into what happened in Bogotà. She more or less sticks to the perspective she had of things as a child. She doesn’t understand and is mystified by what’s going on around her. There is 0 foreshadowing, which again felt like a missed opportunity. It would have added much needed suspense and provided a break from child-Chula’s limited pov. I wasn’t expecting a Kazuo Ishiguro level of conversation between past and present but Chula’s perpetual incomprehension grated on me. And Contreras could have done something more similar to what Wayétu Moore does in her memoir (the first section she recounts the Liberian Civil War as she experienced it—that is as a child—while the following ones focus on her as an adult looking back on those same events).
Perpetua’s chapters were brief and intentionally vague. Her feelings towards Gorrión and her employers are never clearly depicted. A lot of what she does or say seemed out of the blue, and ultimately made her into an unconvincingly inconsistent character. Her story also seems to carry a moralistic tone that I didn’t particularly care for (her mother warned her not to frequent that “bestia, animal, atrevido, desgraciado” who is “black like dirt”).
The mothers in this novel are portrayed like the classic ‘hysterical’ mothers, prone to screaming outbursts and fits of violence. 90% of the time Chula’s mother is portrayed as being horrible, irrational, and/or insensitive. Then she has these very out-of-character in which she seems to have had a completely switch of personality. While I know from personal experience that there are parents who can be very erratic (the joys of bipolarity) Chula’s mother was often presented as being some sort of wicked witch (the whole thing with the drunken tree). Her instability existed only to make readers pity Chula (who otherwise would have been too ‘privileged’).
Now….Gorrión. He is the only explicitly black character and he’s a monster with no redeeming qualities. Every scene he’s in is made to feel the reader uneasy. His eyes ‘bore’ into this and that, he uses his body to intimidate women and children, he’s an abusive rapist with no scrupulous. He’s just bad, through and through. Often, he’s described as the ‘black guy’ or the young man with ‘afroed hair’. Other are suspicious of his blackness, and the narrative seems to agree with their racial judgment. He’s the true ‘villain’ of the novel while Escobar remains a background figure. Gorrión doesn’t have a real personality as he only seems to have morally reprehensible character traits. The way the author describes his eyes and nose also worked to give this impression of Gorrión being less-than-human. Which…how about not (before I’m accused of being overly sensitive, there are at least three other reviews on GR who—regardless of whether they ultimately liked or disliked this novel—criticised the author’s portrayal of Gorrión.
The novel’s examination of class divide seemed simplistic and relied on tired stereotypes.
The drawn-out plot is slowed down by the author’s repetitive language. Some of the characters seem to change in the last few chapters, but this change seemed more for effect than anything else.

Overall, I did not like this novel. It was quite moralistic (especially towards Perpetua’s sex life) and the ‘friendship’ between Chula and Perpetua was poorly developed. The author seemed only to have scratched the surface of the reason why Chula was so obsessed with Perpetua. The characters—in particular the adults and Perpetua—acted incongruently throughout the novel, often only to add unneeded drama or angst.
I doubt I will ever feel inclined to read more by this author.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Confession by Jessie Burton – book review

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Although The Confession had a very promising start…I think I liked the book’s cover more than its actual contents.

“It came smoothly to me, this loosening the threads of my own identity, weaving a new one. How had it become this easy to let go of myself, to pour words and fantasy into these gaping holes?”

The premise of The Confession is one that has been done time and again. A young-ish woman forms a bond with an older woman, the latter is often famous (she can be an actress like in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo or a writer such as in The Thirteenth Tale) or merely involved in some mystery of sorts (The Brimstone Wedding). The older woman will often confide in the younger one, who in her turn will find herself re-assessing her often until then unfulfilling existence. These books often implement a dual timeline to tell both of these women’s stories and towards the end a big secret will be revealed. So yes, I knew that this book was threading familiar paths…still, I hoped that it would give this scenario or these dynamics a new spin…(it didn’t).
In The Confession it is Rose Simmons who approaches the reclusive Constance Holden, an author who vanished from the ‘literary’ world after publishing her second book decades before. After years of silence, before Elise Morceau mysteriously disappeared, she was last seen with Connie.
Having waited so long for any information regarding her mother and her past, Rose, quite unwisely, decides to approach Connie under false-pretences and is employed by her. As Rose becomes invested in Connie she finds it more and more difficult to reveal her true motives and identity to the novelist.
All the while Rose is having some sort of identity crisis: does she love her boyfriend ? What does she want to do with the rest of her life? Can she ever know herself when she’s grown up with a missing parent?
In some chapters the narrative switches to third-person and jumps back in time, taking us to when Elise first met Connie. We see the way in which she falls for Connie, who by then is at the high of her career. The age gap and power imbalance in their relationship however soon causes a rift between them…

I enjoyed the first section of this novel and, in spite of Rose’s temporary lack of sense, I found both narratives to be engaging. Rose and Elise’s story arcs seemed almost to mirror one another; they both lack(ed) a mother figure and they are uncertain of their own abilities.
Much of the novel is concerned with themes of motherhood and pregnancy. Rose resists the pressure from her father, her best friend, and her boyfriend’s family to get married and have children. Feeling that she has yet to truly live she is not willing to lose her agency, and therefore, independence. It is Connie, a woman who has always dedicated mind and body to her writing, who helps Rose recognise that there are other paths for her…
Sadly, the characters, and by extension the relationships they had with one another, weren’t as nuanced as I would have liked. Most of the romantic relationships were rather unconvincing and never gave the impression that the characters actually cared or loved one another (view spoiler). Worst of all, the book, rather than creating a narrative in which there is room for different perspectives regarding certain topics, it goes on a self-righteous spiel. We get it, this is a truly feminist book.

Here are some of the reasons why I didn’t like this book as much as I hoped to:

✖I found many of the discussions surrounding female rage and autonomy as either incongruous or too ham-handed. First of all Connie expresses disapproval that she and her writing are defined only in terms of their femaleness; yet Rose, Connie, and Elise’s questionable actions or general flaws are presented as an unavoidable outcomes in a ‘patriarchal‘ world. Rather than being angry, they were feeling anger on behalf of their whole sex. Their words or choices seemed to always carry on some debate regarding their being female, which went at odds with the way in which these two narratives imply, directly and non, that these women should not be seen only in terms of their gender.

✖While initially I appreciated the story’s conversations around motherhood, I soon noticed that there wasn’t a single female character who was happy or at peace with not having children. We have the one who desperately yearns for a child; one who is about to have a second one and although she is not blind to the stress this will bring she seems relatively happy; and there are the ones who become pregnant and are faced with the choice of continuing or terminating their pregnancy. Connie, the one character who had the potential of being content with not having children, (view spoiler).
I also hated the fact that (view spoiler). All of the women seemed framed by their potential to become mothers. Couldn’t we have one woman who wasn’t defined by her ability to procreate ?!

✖Rather than having flaws the three main characters (Rose, Elise, and Connie) are merely reacting to a mean world. Their selfishness, anger, and stupidity were made to seem like the only solution to the bad people *ahem* or should I say men *ahem* around them. Rose and Elise’s seemed to share the same sort of aimless personality and funnily enough they both seemed too fixated on Connie (for Rose she is a sort of model for female independence; while for Elise she seems to be everything, yikes). Rather than being held accountable for their actions they are made to seem as if they are the wronged ones…they just didn’t seem to posses any distinctive characteristics, which the narrative tries to pin to the fact that they grew up without a mother figure. Mmmh.
Overall I just wasn’t keen on the way they would dramatise themselves and everything they did or felt.

✖The men are portrayed in such a shallow way. The two most prominent male characters seemed to just shrug a lot. They exist only to be insensitive: not only are they completely ignorant in matters concerning motherhood but they often seem to be held accountable for the female characters’ poor choices or bad behaviours. They were deliberately made to seem as little more than ‘meh’. They have no idea how to deal with emotions of any type or form (sadness, anger, love, you name it, they won’t cope with it).

✖While for the most part I really appreciated Burton’s prose, I soon grew wary of the odd way in which she would suddenly turn to saccharine language (for example in expressing the ‘anguish’ experienced by Rose and Elise). There were many sex scenes that were far too twee for my taste. And yet, amidst these corny love making scenes, there were these abrupt crude descriptions which seemed like a poorly veiled attempt to bemodern‘ that succeeded only in irritating me: (view spoiler).

✖This novel takes itself far too seriously. I found the self-congratulatory and polemical tone of the book to be off-putting. Rose and Elise’s stories were made to seem as ‘relatable’ narratives portraying a contemporary/modern female experience…and yet rather than starring complex and flawed protagonists the book focused on two female characters that seemed often just that: female. Oh, wait a second, Elise is beautiful. There we go. And in spite of its attempts to be a serious, if not literary, type of the novel, both Rose and Elise’s narratives soon turned into soap-operas full of perfectly avoidable miscommunications that have serious repercussions.

✖The mystery element is…lacking if not MIA.

In spite of its promising start (I did enjoy the first few cheap tees), and its beautiful front cover (isn’t it lovely?), The Confession was a rather frustrating book. Between its dichotomous arguments, its poorly developed characters, its uneven tone, and its propensity for melodrama it just didn’t work for me.
There are so many books that use a similar premise with much better results…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars (rounded up to 3)

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The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes – book review

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“She wasn’t really one for big groups, but she quite liked this, the jokes and the merriment, and the way that you could see actual friendships springing up around the room, like green shoots.”

The Giver of Stars is a sweeping romantic western that tells a fictionalised account of the Kentucky Pack Horse Librarians. It is very much a book-club kind of book as it is inspired by a real group of librarians who between 1935 and 1943 delivered books to some of the most remote regions in the Appalachian Mountains. Although this project, and the women behind it, make for a very inspirational subject matter….I’m not sure that this book does them justice.

While I enjoyed those parts that focused on the library project, I found much of the story to be bogged down by unnecessary drama. Most of the book focuses on the way in which the big bad Van Cleve tries to ‘destroy’ this project and the women behind it…and it was all-too predictable. Plus, I found the romance factor to be far too twee for me.
When the narrative chronicled the librarians’ rounds, swiftly taking us alongside them through their rides across a vast and treacherous landscape, I felt very much engaged. The interactions between the librarians and those who inhabit these remote places were compelling, especially since the people they visit were mistrustful, if not downright aggressive. The librarians rise to the ‘challenge’ and try to emphasise the importance of literature without causing offence. In these sections the novel outlines the direct correlation between poverty and illiteracy, and the way in which literature can ‘unite’ people together.

Sadly, to deliver some of these deliberately positive messages, the book relies on a cast of shallow characters. We have the clearly good gals/guys (Alice and Margery are very much the heroines of the story) and the comically wicked guy, Van Cleve.
Alice would have been more suited, and convincing, in an 18th century novel (something like Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady). Her main distinguishing attribute is that she is British, so she has an ‘accent’ that is different from those around her. She possess only good qualities, and it is other people’s (the baddies) lack of understanding or ignorance that makes her seem like a ‘rebel’ of some sort (she isn’t).
Margery was the typical unconventionalwoman, who is opposed to marrying until she (view spoiler) Why in historical fiction there has to be this female character who is made to seem so unlikeother women (often the narrative or other characters will compare her to a man) in that she is against the marriage institution and does not wish to be tied down, and then (view spoiler).
Alice and Margery happen to fall in love for two handsome men, who happen to be laid-back, kind, aware of social injustices as sexisms and racial intolerance (ahem…sure….lets remember that this book is set in Kentucky during the 1930s)….and they (view spoiler).
The three other librarians are not given their individual character arcs, rather if something happens to them it is usually when either Alice or Margery is there, so that it can be thanks to our heroines that these other women gain self-assurance or whatnot. In fact Alice and Margery seems singlehandedly able to right any wrongs, save lives, unmask Van Cleve…
Van Cleve…is all flaws. You name it, he has it. He is corrupt, sexist, racist, cruel (against his fellow humans & animals), greedy, hypocritical…the list goes on. He is the villain. That’s all you need to know.
His son, Bennett, is presented as a coward who is unwilling or unable to stand up to his father (even when Van Cleve is haranguing Alice, his wife). Unlike the two heroes Bennett doesn’t do physical work and doesn’t care about women’s rights or literature…and that’s believable-ish…I guess (after all he does come from a well to do family). What I found pretty objectionable is that his sexual inexperience is made fun of by the narrative and our so called heroines & heroes. For some reason or other Bennett has never learnt about sex, and perhaps because of this he has come to regard sex as a sinful if not ‘bad’ act. Rather than making it clear that it was his strictly conservative and religious upbringing that has lead to his sexual abnegation/impotence, the narrative implies that it is another facet of his cowardice, something to be ridiculed as it is further confirmation that he is notenoughof a man (he doesn’t stand up to his father, he doesn’t work, he isn’t concerned by the inequities around him) and because of this he is ‘afraid’ of having sex. Ahaha (not).
If we were to reverse Alice and her husband’s role (so that it was Alice who was reticent or unwilling to have sex ) wouldn’t we criticise Bennett for pressuring his wife into having sex? Or of thinking her a coward or less of a woman because she doesn’t want to/can’t have sex? Wouldn’t we disapprove of the narrative and other characters making fun of her because of it?

The story started well enough but the cheesiness of the story, the one-dimensional characters, the unnecessary melodrama, were all not to my taste.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali — book review

the-stationery-shop.jpgMaybe I shouldn’t have read this alongside a book by Elif Shafak…a writer who brilliantly evoke multiple cultures and cities populating them with vastly differentiating, and realistic, people. Although in The Stationary Shop there are glimpses of a talented writer, the writing was incredibly repetitive with an abundance of clichéd phrases and observations. The few scenes which managed not to make me roll my eyes were the ones which revolved around cooking.

Perhaps I was hoping for a story with a greater focus on the political conflict in 1950s Tehran but The Stationary Shop is first and foremost a love story. This love story features many clichés and banalities which seem more fitting of a soap opera.
Many of the ‘key’ plot points were predictable and demanded a huge suspense of disbelief, such as (view spoiler).
The story follows as Roya spends most of her life pining away for Bahman, and that’s about it. The revolutions, wars, and marriages that occur are merely a prop to this lacklustre love story which was filled by saccharine declarations and obstacles that were frankly laughable.
And I am sick of reading of ‘evil’ mother-in-laws. That the story then tries to use mental illness as the instigator for this character’s evil actions was little more than a cheap trick.
Kamali should have trusted her readers more rather than reiterating the same things time and again. A lot of pages repeat the same information using exactly the same words, and I was frustrated by this constant ‘spoon-feeding’. We get it! There are paragraphs and paragraphs that are just useless or poorly phrased and add little to the narrative.
The story makes completely avoidable, and unnecessary, things happen to its characters as a way of making readers ‘feel bad’ or sympathize with them..which didn’t really work for me. Roya was a boring character whose main characteristic is that she loves Bahman. Bahman is a poorly rendered character whose spotty characterization makes for a really unbelievable love interest. The characters rotating around Roya alternate between being bland and cartoonish.
Overall, this books was frustrating. Not only is everything that happens in this story is predictable but the way in which the narrative reveals major plot points is incredibly grating. I probably won’t be trying other novels by Kamali anytime soon…

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

“All this time, Dad had taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.”

A strong beginning leads the way into an increasingly exasperating storyline.
I’m not going to deny that Hannah is a talented writer, because she is. However, her story and her characters walk the line between being convincible and non. The latter part of this novel is full of scarcely credible scenarios which frustrated me and considerably reduced my overall opinion of the book.

In 1974 thirteen year old Leni and her parents relocate to Alaska. Leni’s father Ernt is a former POW who is now suffering from PTSD and is looking for someplace different, away from the troubles he perceives in the bigger cities. We are immediately made aware of his temper and of his intense relationship with his wife and Leni’s mother Cora.

“She loved her parents, both of them. She had known, without being told, that the darkness in her dad was bad and the things he did were wrong, but she believed her mama’s explanations, too: that Dad was sick and sorry, that if they loved him enough, he would get better and it would be like Before.
Only Leni didn’t believe that anymore.”

Alaska however isn’t as idyllic as Ernt believed. Thankfully, their newfound close-knitted community is more than willing to help Leni’s family survive their first Alaskan winter. Ernt forms a close relationship to Mad Earl. These two men fuel each other’s hatred towards the ‘Other’, that is everything outside of Alaska. Ernt’s mounting paranoia of the ‘outside world’ manifests itself in a series of ‘night drills’ and ‘shooting lessons’ for both Cora and Leni. While hunting comes in handy in the wilderness being forced to endure constant drills and ‘rants’ about how society has become ‘sick’ and that soon TSHTF (or will hit the fan…) isn’t as needed. Ernt’s pride and jealousy cloud his judgement and he would rather refuse his neighbours help than admit that he hadn’t fully prepared for an Alaskan winter.
Leni’s becomes friends with the only other thirteen year old in ‘town’. Sadly, because Matthew – her new friend – is the son of a man despised by Ernt complicates matters. Soon this ‘secretive friendship’ takes a bit of the story’s limelight.
Ernt seemingly grows into a one-dimensional ‘villainous’ figure, Cora remains stuck into the role of ‘submissive’ wife, who will wake up far too late, and Leni’s character is so in love with Matthew that she doesn’t truly really come into her own. The secondary characters too remain painfully ‘flat’…Matthew’s father was barely sketched out…Large Marge seemed the stereotypical ‘headstrong’ and robust woman…Matthew is the nice boy who offers little in way of characterisation that is excused by a conveniently placed absence.
Ernt and Cora become a clichéd portrait of a toxic relationship, well timed ‘accidents’ occur so to make story ‘sadder’ and to make Leni’s struggles even more emotionally difficult. Tragedy for the sake of tragedy…or in this case it seemed that by having a series of ‘unfortunate’ things happen could exempt the writer from writing a more thoughtful and realistic conclusion. It is as if halfway through the book Hannah had no idea how to complete Leni’s story so decided to throw in a bunch of ‘tragic’ plot devices as to bring her story to a close.
Hannah’s writing can beautifully describe landscapes and feelings. However, too often, she resorts to cheesy turns of phrases.

“She turned to Matthew, loving him so much, so desperately, it felt like she was being held underwater and needed oxygen.”

Leni’s relationship with Matthew was from the-get-go far too corny. Their scenes were soppy, their whole relationship was predictable and over-sentimental. It seemed that their ‘love’ was born out of them being the same age and sharing a love for Tolkien…
Hannah’s over-sentimental style combined with the story’s swerve into ‘soap-opera’ territory eroded the initially enjoyment I experienced in reading those first few chapters.
I much preferred Hannah’s The Nightingale which was also somewhat melodramatic but never seemed as sappy as this…

“Up here, in the vastness of Alaska, the words sounded infinitesimal and small. A fist shaken at the gods.”

My rating: 2 stars

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

To say that I was expecting more would be an understatement.
Perhaps, the kinship I initially felt with this novel was caused by my sharing the first name of its title character. I wanted a story that delivered an array of conflicting feelings in its portrayal of illicit liaisons. Sadly, Anna Karenina only delivered a great headache.
I will not blame the translation, for I approached various ones, and they all seem to faithfully convey Tolstoy’s deliberately repetitive style, or as Vladimir Nabokov would say, they capture the ‘robust awkwardness’ that pervades Tolstoy’s writing. The style itself was not one of biggest issues: yes, I did find it to be self-congratulatory, but, at times, it carried across a pleasing rhythm that lightened the overall tone of the novel. In later sections, the narrative mode is reminiscent of Joyce’s ‘stream of consciousness‘. Tolstoy seems to be trying different styles, using various techniques, to complete this labyrinthine novel. He is much too aware of his own skills, and I felt his dictatorial attempts throughout the novel. The realism imparted by the story is sabotaged by many inane coincidences and Tolstoy’s own moral agenda.

Levin becomes Tolstoy’s mouthpiece: the writer’s own views and beliefs are performed by this character. This in itself was not enough to make him unlikable, however, the important issues Levin raises and the interesting self-questioning loose their importance in light of the superficiality of his love: his passion for Kitty is preposterous. Despite the length of the novel, Tolstoy does not waste any words in regards of an actual reason for Levin to have fallen for Kitty – and vice-versa – making us assume that it was nothing more than an irrational and instantaneous attraction. The ludicrous ‘chalk’ scene had me laughing out loud: their sudden ‘telepathic’ conversation is much more unbelievable than the telepathic ‘bond’ between Jane and Mr. Rochester. Also, why should we root for someone whose ‘strong moral compass’ is underlined by hypocrisy? His admiration for the country life loses any credibility after he dismisses his own fantasy of marrying a ‘peasant woman’.
Anna…oh Anna. I had such high hopes for her. I sought out a nuanced complex character conflicted by her desires and her duties. What I got was a predictably self-absorbed and hysterical ‘fallen woman’ whose own obtuse behaviour is downright senseless: I kept asking, why, why was she acting in the way that she did, but I never got any answers. We are shown her irrational and ’emotional’ behaviour but we are not given a true insight of what goes on in her mind…(having finished the novel I would say that nothing is going on in there). Her affair with Vronsky is as unconvincing as the relationship between Levin and Kitty. He is barely more controlled than a dog in heat is, so he pursues Anna and she simply…likes it?

More importantly, is that Anna does not offer any redeeming qualities. She manipulates and uses those around her especially through her body language. Take for example how she shamelessly influences poor Dolly into forgiving Stiva: she gives her reassuring hand squeezes and pretends to identify with her difficult situation. Anna is all too aware of her own magnetism which Tolstoy attributes onto her looks rather than her personality. Her (view spoiler) should be viewed as redemptive but to me it simply professed the author’s zealousness: (view spoiler)
Anna’s brother, who predominately features in the opening chapter, is so irredeemably selfish it is almost entertaining: he does not feel guilty over his own affair but he is remorseful of not having predicted his wife’s reaction. His wife, Dolly, is forgettable and easily manipulated. Her sister, Kitty, lacks is a poorly rendered character.
Discussions about gender heavily feature in this novel but most of the time, this topic is considered by men and even when there are female characters present they either remain silent or only offer acquiescent comments. Levin’s rebuttal of a ‘capitalism’ suffers under Tolstoy’s stressing of the subject.
The story is filled by numerous dull passages that serve little purpose, characters who should be unique or at least, realistically flawed individuals, end being little more than caricatures, and, finally, the novel’s own sense of importance is countered by the laughable coincidences and aimless discussions, making Anna Karenina a drudge to read. Tolstoy…dear Tolstoy…your ideologies should not have featured so strongly in your own book: subtlety is key.
The only part I enjoyed was the first few chapters: there Tolstoy’s style is endearing rather than annoying and the characters haven’t shown their poor characterisation.
The improbable coincidences that occur in the story were not the sole cause of my animosity towards this novel: I love far-fetched and unlikely storylines – often prominent in sensational fiction – but I cannot abide presumptuousness. Tolstoy – time and again – pushes the reader into sharing his own views, and I was not willing to do that. How could I take his intentions seriously when he employs the most ludicrous course of action to deliver his ‘message’?

Side note: Tolstoy compares women to food and creates parallels between his female characters and animals…top marks…really.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

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.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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