BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat — book review

81cgsiBkf-L

“It is a bizarre and unsettling feeling, to exist in a liminal state between two realms, unable to attain full access to one or the other.”

Although I’d intended to read You Exist Too Much I nearly didn’t after reading a really negative review for it, one that was very critical of Zaina Arafat’s depiction of bisexuality. Luckily, my mother read this first and recommended it to me. While I believe that the gender and sexual orientation of a reviewer should not bias their opinion of a book, and I generally don’t refer to my own sexuality, in this case I’ll make an exception. For what is worth, I’m bisexual and I was not in the least offended by the novel’s representation of bisexuality. When an author writes about a character—and even more so when they draw upon their own personal experiences to do so—they are presenting a unique point of view and they are not making generalisations for entire groups of people. The protagonist of this novel is a “love addict” not because of her bisexuality but because of her distorted relationship with her parents—in particular with her mother—and her belief that she’s not worthy of love. Arafat never implies that bisexual people can’t be faithful nor does she suggests that her protagonist’s “love addiction” is caused by her bisexuality (it seems to stem instead from her fraught relationship to her narcissistic mother).
Arafat portrayal of mental illness also struck me as incredibly realistic and deeply resonated with my own personal experiences (having had an eating disorder and having lived with a parent who struggled with their mental health and substance abuse issues).
All of this to say that while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, Arafat’s treatment of mental and physical health conditions struck me as both informed and believable (feel free to disagree).
I will say that while I found this to be a deeply compelling read, I’m aware that it may not appeal to readers who dislike reading about self-destructive characters. If you hated Madame Bovary for the selfish behaviour of its eponymous heroine, well, chances are you won’t like this one either (curiously enough Arafat’s protagonist thinks rather harshly of Emma Bovary for “her childish fantasies and for cheating on Charles”).

“All along I knew what I was doing was wrong, that I was dangerously close to a precipice. But still, I need to fall in order to stop.”

You Exist Too Much presents its readers with an intimate and in-depth character study. While there are many new novels featuring self-loathing protagonists whose alienation interferes with their ability to form—and sustain—meaningful connections with others, You Exist Too Much feels like a fresh take on this ‘genre’.
After yet another breakup the unnamed main character of You Exist Too Much tries to break free from this vicious cycle of self-sabotaging. She’s unable, and at times unwilling, to maintain healthy relationships with others and frequently becomes drawn to unattainable people, infatuation which soon morph into toxic obsessions. Arafat’s protagonist mistakes attention for affection and she repeatedly harms those who actually care for her in order to pursue her objet petit a (what can I say, Lacan comes in handy now and again).
When the main character’s girlfriend finds out about her latest “inappropriate emotional connection”, she breaks up with her, telling her to “sift through your issues and face them” so that “maybe one day you’ll learn you can’t treat people with such disregard. Even yourself”. Our narrator attempts to do just that.

The narrative moves between past and present, from the Middle East to New York City and from Italy and Egypt. Readers are given a glimpse into the protagonist’s childhood—her emotionally distant father, her overbearing narcissistic mother—where we see the way these early years skew her self-perception. Her mother tells her she’s unlovable and that she “exists too much”. The narrator is aware that her attraction towards women is a problem for her mother, yet, even if she knows that she would be more accepted if she were to become exclusively romantically involved with men, she pursues relationships with women. So, while our protagonist clearly seeks her mother’s approval, she’s unwilling to deny her sexuality.
Throughout the course of the novel readers will realise that the narrator is perpetuating the same self-destructive behaviour. Regardless of how her relationships start, they always seem to come to disastrous ends because of her unfaithfulness (emotional and physical) and her “love addiction”, her solipsism and self-loathing, and her underlining unresolved issues with herself and her mother.

Now, I know that I’m making this novel sound rather depressing. And, to be fair, it has quite a few bleak moments. The protagonist makes a lot of awful choices, and she does some really terrible things. She’s also pretty much aware that her actions are wrong, and she does try to improve (for example she goes to rehab her “love addiction”).
There are more downs than ups as time and again we witness her repeating the same damaging behaviour (becoming attached to unavailable or toxic people). It certainly isn’t easy to unlearn habits, especially ones that are instilled in us during our upbringing. Our narrator messes up a lot, she hurts people who genuinely love her—breaking their trust, keeping them at arm’s length—and readers will probably want to shake her quite a few times. Still, I found myself growing attached to her. I really liked her cutting sense of humour, which also lightens the overall tone, and her introspectiveness. Her longing for happiness, for love, for acceptance, are rendered with clarity. Regardless of when or where she is—New York or the West Bank—the narrator is deeply aware of her own ‘otherness’. Although she grew up outside of the Middle East she remains strongly attached to her Arab roots, yet, she notes that “it’s the idiosyncrasies of culture that keep me an outsider, and leave me with a persistent and pervasive sense of otherness, of non-belonging”. In the U. S. too she’s “just as much of an outsider” and she’s made “starkly aware of [her] nonconformity”.

Arafat introduces her readers to flawed, yet ultimately compelling, characters. Regardless of their role in the narrator’s story, these characters—who are all contending with their own issues and desires— felt incredibly nuanced.
While this novel focuses a lot on the narrator failing to connect to others, there are moments of genuine understanding and love between the protagonist and her acquaintances/friends/partners. The narrator’s quest for love isn’t a happy one and her self-divide—between family obligation and desire, between her homelands, between the kind of person she is and the person she wants to be—don’t make for easy reading material. Still, the directness of Arafat’s narrator can at times make her into a rather charming individual.
You Exist Too Much is an impressive debut novel, one that is poignant, thoughtful, and bold and will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay.

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Abigail by Magda Szabó — book review

19261779_1200819_3f9f4334d115d7e0555d117d26d52f73_wm.jpg

“In later years, whenever she dreamed of the fortress and the city the wind would always be present, moving restlessly among human figures obscurely glimpsed in the haze.”

Abigail follows fourteen-year-old Gina Vitay’s time as a Matula student in the months leading to the German occupation of Hungary. First published fifty years ago, its English translation has only just come out (Len Rix’s translation does not disappoint). Last year I read, and was perturbed by, Magda Szabó’s The Door. While I was enthralled by Szabó’s prose, I was ultimately left feeling rather mystified by the whole ordeal. Abigail, on the other hand, is deceptively simple in that it may at first strike readers as a conventional coming-of-age. Szabó however permeates this tale of youthful innocence and friendships with an air of unease. Similarly to The Door, Abigail presents its readers with a narrative that is fraught with a quiet suspense. Our heroine is initially oblivious to the threat looming over her country and she’s far more concerned with the various dramas that make up her everyday life at her exclusive all-girls school. After she’s made privy to a secret that if known could wreak havoc, she will have to learn “dignity and self-discipline”.
Although the narrative obliquely hints at this possibility of danger and violence, an atmosphere of apprehension prevails.

“From this moment onwards, Gina, your childhood is over. You are now an adult, and you will never again live as other children do. I am going to place my life, and yours, and that of many other people, in your hands. What can you swear on that you will never betray us?”

61W2x8+3CJLIn the autumn of 1943 (when Hungary was still a member of the Axis powers), the pampered daughter of a widowed General is abruptly sent away from her beloved home in Budapest and enrolled in a remote all-girls boarding school. Located in Árkod, Bishop Matula Academy is an exceedingly puritanical institution, a place that our heroine quite fittingly describes, more than once, as a “fortress” and a “world of black and white”. The General refuses to disclose the reason for this ‘exile’ and an uncomprehending Gina is unable to discern her father’s true motivations.

“In the past she had been able to persuade him to do almost anything; now he seemed deaf to all her pleadings. He had decided on her fate without discussing a single detail and had merely informed her what would happen.”

At Matula Gina feels constricted by the school’s “strictly regimented life, with every minute accounted for”. Worse still, after her catastrophic first day at Matula she becomes persona non grata with the rest of the fifth year. To begin with Gina views the other girls and their traditions through her ‘big-city’ lenses. She’s contemptuous of their childish games believing that her flirtations with a young lieutenant (which took place at her Auntie Mimó’s tea dances) make her far more worldly than the other girls. Being ostracised from the other girls soon takes its toll and Gina is left feeling profoundly alone and miserable. Most days, her classmates (who share her living quarters with) refuse to interact with her, and when they aren’t ignoring her they insult or bully her.
Gina is also forbidden from interacting with the outside world, and her letters and weekly phone calls to her father are monitored, and if need be censored, by members of staff (since the general should only hear “cheerful, positive things from [her]”).
Gina’s difficult beggings at Matula are alleviated by the presence of a statue known as Abigail. According to school legend, Abigail aids and protects Matula’s students. Gina’s initial skepticism dissolves when she herself receives Abigail’s protection. The mystery of Abigail’s identity underlines Gina’s story, even after Gina reconciles herself with life at Matula.

“Everything that had been boring, childish and indeed hateful the day before now seemed wonderful, reassuring and comforting.”

szabo.1_2048x2048.jpgWhile there are moments of idyllic happiness, these are far and few between. Gina’s prickly, and impulsive, nature are rendered with great empathy. Szabó’s narrative reflects Gina’s ‘limited’ worldview. She misunderstands and misinterprets the adults around her, in particular the dynamics between two of her teachers and Sister Susanna, the fifth year’s prefect. Gina, like most of the other girls, views her class tutor Kalmár as a contemporary “St. George, a knight in shining armor”. Her feelings towards her Latin teacher, Kőnig are far from amicable. She mistakes his kindness and compassion for cowardice and stupidity (another reviewer quite aptly compared him to Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin).

“Once again she had the feeling of being caught up in a play, a play in which she had a totally insignificant role and whose plot was impossible to follow.”

After Gina’s adolescent worries are replaced with far greater ones (ones that serious social implications), she tries to become a responsible adult. She soon learns that even good actions can backfire. Similarly to The Door, the characters in Abigail often cause the most harm to each other when they are trying to do good.

“All my life I have been a wild thing, Gina reflected. I am impatient and impulsive, and I have never learned to love people who annoy me or try to hurt me. Now I shall try to learn these virtues, and I shall do so for the sake of my father: for him I shall seek to be gentle and patient.”

In spite of her best efforts, Gina cannot pacify herself with her school’s authorities nor does she feel less stifled by its suffocating rules. Still, readers will be able to witness Gina’s incredible, and admirable, character growth. I deeply sympathised with Gina, especially since I too found Matula to be a repressive institution, more interested in assigning blame and punishment than actually encouraging students to learn and grow from their mistakes.

“She was oppressed by a consciousness of living in a world of strangers, subject to rules that constantly disrupted the rhythm of her life, and where everything that belonged to her, everything that was part of her, seemed far away.”

In many ways Abigail has all the trappings of a coming-of-age. While Abigail’s identity is not a mystery to the reader, there are plenty of smaller mysteries peppered throughout Gina’s story. Harrowing moments are made all the more powerful by the fact that they often occur off-page. Gina’s troubled relationship with her classmates feels far from childish, and the friendships that she will later develop with some of the other girls are rendered with surprising tenderness.

“When they were at last in bed she lay there, wide awake, thinking about the strange and unexpected way important events in our lives come about—never as we imagine them beforehand, always in quite other ways, in very different circumstances and seemingly by chance”

Szabó’s sinuous and beguiling storytelling gripped me from the very first pages. Abigail provides us with an intimate glimpse into the life of a girl burdened with a dangerous secret. Szabó captures the fraught climate of a country at war.

“She tried to imagine what it would be like if every window in the country could be left open and every street flooded with light, and there was no war and none of this dying, no burdensome secrets, no danger or destruction. ”

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro — book review

000219247Never Let Me Go is a bleak novel, that is made ever bleaker by the way in which our narrator normalises her horrifying reality. Although this is a work of speculative fiction, Kathy’s world does not seem all that different from our own one (there were many moments which struck me as quintessentially British). Although Kathy’s recollection of her childhood is incredibly evocative, Kazuo Ishiguro keeps his cards close to his chest, so Hailsham School’s true purpose remains out of our reach. Yet, the more we learn about the guardians and the various rules imposed on Hailsham students, the more we grow uneasy, and suspicious, of Hailsham.
Kathy’s rather remote narration deepens the novel’s ambivalent atmosphere. We know that in the present, years after Hailsham, she works as a carer but we don’t really know what that entails.
Although Kathy doesn’t mythologising Hailsham, or her time there, her narration possesses a nostalgic quality. Ishiguro captures the intense, and ever-shifting, friendships we form as children. Kathy feels a certain pull to the brazen Ruth. Their fraught relationship frequently takes the centre-stage in the novel. There are misunderstandings, petty behaviours, jealousies, and all sorts of little cruelties. Ruth’s is an awful friend, yet I could see how important her presence was in Kathy’s life. By comparison Tommy seems a far simpler person, and I could definitely sympathise with his various struggles at Hailsham.
Ishiguro excels when he writes about ‘memory’. At times Kathy questions the accuracy of her memories, wondering whether what she has just relayed actually happened or not. There is regret too over her past actions or words she’d left unspoken. She also tries to see a scene through someone else’s eyes, hoping perhaps to gain some insight into others.
The novel poses plenty of complex questions and challenges definitions of ‘humanity’ and ‘freedom’. It definitely provided a lot food for thought.
As provoking as Never Let Me Go was, I can’t say that it moved it me as much as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads