BOOK REVIEWS

Cardiff, by the Sea: Four Novellas of Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates

As I highly rate Joyce Carol Oates I was quite looking forward to Cardiff, by the Sea, a collection of four novellas ‘of suspense’. While I have only read a few of Oates’ works Patricide, a novella of hers, is a favourite of mine. The novellas collected in Cardiff, by the Sea have more in common with Oates’ The Pursuit as they are not only just as depressing but they are also written in a similar ‘stop and start’ type of prose. We have staccato sentences that often elide their subjects (such as “Chewing, trying to swallow but can’t.” or “Seeing the apprehension in the child’s face.”). While this style worked in the first novella, the longest in the collection, it felt a bit repetitive and overall less convincing in the following ones. In the first one we follow a deeply traumatised young woman and because of this the prose perfectly conveyed her ‘disturbed’ psyche. There were scenes where Oates’ choppy prose worked well, especially in terms of visuals and pacing: “Mia felt a stab of excitement. Following the flashlight beam. Shining light on ugly gouged tire tracks. Broken and shredded trees.”. As I’ve said however I do wish that this collection could have showcased Oates’ impressive stylistic range.
These novellas also share many other similarities outside of the way the are written. They feature women who are traumatised, abused, sexually assaulted, and/or gaslighted/manipulated. All of the male characters in these novellas are awful human being. They are pedophiles, rapists, murders, opportunists….the lists goes on. The women in these stories lack agency. There are one or two incidents that suggest otherwise but throughout the course of their narratives they are very much confined to the role of victims.

‘Cardiff, by the Sea’: 4 stars
As I’ve said the best story in this collection is the very first one: ‘Cardiff, by the Sea’. This novella was creepy and atmospheric. We follow Clare a woman who receives a call informing her that her grandmother has died…except that Clare has never met or know of her having been raised by adoptive parents. When she visits her newfound ‘blood relatives’ in Cardiff she becomes increasingly obsessed with the death of her birth parents. She stays with her two great-aunts, who very much reminded me of April Spink and Miriam Forcible from Coraline (except they are far more sinister). They are perpetually arguing and interrupting one another. Perhaps their creepiness is due to Clare’s susceptible state of mind, perhaps not. Clare’s uncle also lives with them and soon enough Clare becomes convinced that he played some sort of role in her family’s demise.
This story is pure Gothic. Unease reigns supreme. Clare’s fragmented and unreliable memories contribute to this unsettling atmosphere. Oates’ prose her works really well as it reflects Clare’s psyche. Her trauma and shock definitely give her an alienated view of things. If you enjoy Shirley Jackson’s work or macabre stories such as the ones penned by Mariana Enríquez chances are you will appreciate this novella which is equal parts suspenseful and disturbing.

‘Miao Dao’: 3 stars
This story had potential. I mean: cats killing pervy men? I’m sold. We follow Mia who has just turned thirteen. Her father recently separated from her mother and she now rarely sees him. Her male classmates begin to harass her and her female peers are not all that supportive (if anything they perceive as either a loser or a potential ‘threat’). As Mia is ‘shamed’ for body she begins to feel deeply alienated. Mia finds momentary solace when she is among a group of feral cats that has taken residence in her neighbourhood.
When her mother gets together with a seemingly ‘good’ guy things take a turn for the worse. Mia ends up taking in a kitten, whom she names Miao Dao, and weird things start happening.
This story was kind of miserable. Even more so that ‘Cardiff, by the Sea’ as it focuses on sexual abuse. It also reminded me of my own adolescent, a period of my life I never wish to relive again. The ‘leering’, the comments, the physical harassment. The way all of these make the victim feel ashamed and embarrassed (as she perceives herself guilty since it is her body that is making these boys and men act this way). So, given all the horrible things that happen to Mia, I was hoping for the story to present us with a satisfying revenge storyline…and it kind of doesn’t. The ‘cat’ element was definitely underused, and I think that the story would have benefitted from venturing more into the paranormal. Still, the ending does kind of make up for some of my initial frustration towards this story.

‘Phantomwise: 1972’ : 2 ½ stars
This seemed a rehash of the previous two stories. We have a nondescript young woman—who similarly to Clare and Mia is mostly defined by the fact that she is being ill-treated/abused as opposed to having a discernible personality. The story follows a student who becomes involved with a professor (yes, this is that kind of story). As things sour between the two of them, the young woman becomes close to an older man who likes to talk about Lewis Carroll and his ‘Alice’. This isn’t a gripping or even suspenseful tale. Oates doesn’t really subvert this tired female student/male professor dynamic, if anything she goes full on misery porn. Misery and more misery. Women are helpless and men are predators. Great stuff.

‘The Surviving Child’ : 2 ½ stars
This last novella seemed a mix between Rebecca and Verity. We follow the new wife of a man whose previous wife not only committed suicide but she killed their daughter too. She spared the son and the new wife wonders what could have driven her to do so. The prose is once again full of Yoda-like sentences which didn’t really add anything to my reading experience. Kind of predictable but not as miserable as the previous novella.

With the exception of the titular novella I didn’t particularly care for stories in this collection. Oates can certainly write but her style here could have been more varied. Her female characters are passive, even pathetic at times, and I found myself wanting these stories to be more subversive.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

I should have ended things with this book as soon as I grew irritated by our narrator’s navel-gazing. But, I persevered, hoping against hope that at some point, ideally before reaching the book’s finish line, I would find what I was reading to be even remotely intriguing.

At the beginning we have a young woman who is in a car with her relatively new boyfriend. She’s thinking of ending things—by ‘things’ we are led to assume that she’s referring to said relationship with bf—and in doing so she finds herself looking back on her first meeting with Jake. Flashbacks inform us of the kind of person Jake is, their early days together, and their overall ‘dynamic’. Our protagonist—who is so remarkable that I have forgotten her name and I am too lazy to look it up—likes Jake but sometimes she doesn’t. The thoughts that pass through her head are just like ours: she’s worried about sharing her life with him, of having to commit herself to this one person, of being stuck with someone who has quirks that annoy her…as she’s weighing the pros and cons of her relationship with Jake he keeps driving. Their destination is his parents’ place. She pities him for not knowing that she’s thinking of ending things while seeming to want to take things to the next ‘level’. She inundates him with questions, and sometimes he seems weirdly unresponsive.
Relationship dilemma aside, weighing on her mind is the Caller. This person keeps calling her during the night, leaving sinister messages. What truly rattles our MC is that this person is calling from her own number (cue creepy music).
When this couple finally reachers Jake’s parents’ farm, things get ‘spookier’. The parents are odd, the house is ominous, and Jake is acting strange. MC doesn’t mind her business or the warnings that are thrown her way. She goes where she shouldn’t, listens in to other people’s conversations. Mystery Caller keeps calling. MC tells us she’s anxious about the whole situation yet she doesn’t even bother switching off her phone.
We then have a scene in a Dairy Queen, followed by a drawn-out sequence in a high school, and, at long last, an exceedingly unsatisfying end.

The protagonist’s narration is occasionally interrupted by segments focusing on people gossiping about some violently horrific crime. Readers are meant to wonder or care who is the person these people are discussing, what they did, how they are connected to Jake and GF.

As you can tell by the tone of my review, I was not very taken by this novel. The car-drive was boring. Here we have two people having a very ‘normal’ and ‘realistically’ choppy conversation about nothing in particular. Here we have a woman who is rethinking her relationship with her boyfriend, for no reason in particular. Which, yeah, as relatable as these things are, the author seemed so intent on creating this ‘eerie’ atmosphere that I just never got into the story. That conversation that appears now and again about this unknown person who did something bad sounded so stilted and unbelievable that it had the opposite effect of scaring me. That the narrative itself smugly proclaims that what truly is terrifying is the not knowing what’s real and what isn’t did not make me realise that ‘wow, that must be why I feel so afraid! Genius!’ Reid relies on creepy figures and descriptions about maggots feasting on pigs in order to unsettle his readers. To me that isn’t the same thing as blurring the line between ‘real/unreal’.

The ending made little sense but then again that fits with the rest of the novel. Maybe I’m to blame (for keeping my nerve when reading allegedly unnerving books) but even leaving aside the ‘horror’ storyline…what are we left with? An unremarkable narrator whose mediations on the highs and love of dating & love had a deeply soporific effect on me? Not only did the ‘realness’ of her inner-monologue seemed contrived, but her reflections or assertions never truly conveyed any actual feelings on her part. Which maybe it was intentional, given the novel’s supposed twist but I still had to put up with her. And, my god, was she annoying. She kept asking Jake inane questions about his childhood. And of course, when we get to the farm, she receives a Bluebeard kind of warning…and what does she do? Se la va a cercà!
I probably would have ended things with novel sooner if it hadn’t been for the fact that I listened to the audiobook version and the narrator was really good.

MY RATING: 2 out of 5 stars

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White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Readers who enjoy the works of Zadie Smith or Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar may find White Dancing Elephants to have some merit. If you are thinking of reading this collection I recommend you read some of the more positives reviews as my one is alas a negative one. For those who liked or loved it, I hope you will not feel the need to leave comments on the lines of ‘your opinion are invalid because I disagree with you’.

Anyhow, moving onto my actual review: this is, in my opinion, an execrable collection of short stories. These stories are poorly written, populated by boilerplate characters, deeply vitriolic and exceedingly vexing.
White Dancing Elephants follows the usual ‘short stories collection’ formula, so that we have a few stories experimenting, with not so great results, with perspective (of course, a story is told through a 2nd pov because that is what every other collection out there is doing so might as well follow their lead), a story about miscarriage (bursting with metaphors about ‘brokeness’), a story about a character grappling with mental illness, and a story that earns this collection the LGBTQ+ badge (ahem not all queer representation is good representation). If you’ve read any collections of short stories published in the last 3 years, you have already read stories like these ones.

There was nothing subversive or unique about White Dancing Elephants. Attempts at ‘edginess’ came across as insensitive, for example, the author’s treatment of mental health was, to use a trendy word, deeply problematic.
What irked me the most however was how unclear these stories were. The author seemed unable or unwilling to stick to a certain perspective, so that it would be unclear who was telling the story. And, these stories managed to be confusing, which is impressive given how short they were. This is probably due to the nebulous povs and the amount of info-dumping we would at the start of each story (informing us of a character’s heritage, their parents backgrounds, their friends’ genetic makeup or whatnot). Knowing who these characters were related to, most of the time at least, added absolutely nothing to each respective story as ‘family’ never seemed to be the plot’s real focus. Instead, each story seemed set on being as impressionistic as possible, so that we have ripe metaphors are intent on being ‘visceral’ but seem like mere writing exercises, and a plethora of ‘shock-value’ scenes. Personally I was unimpressed by the author’s language. We have oddly phrased things, such as
“it gave her flickers of amusement” (while I get that you can observe on someone’s face a ‘flicker of amusement’ the ‘gave her’ in that sentence brings me pause), clichés such as “smiling the smile”, “smiling her gorgeous smile”, “my father a stranger until his death”, “ Nothing has changed since. Everything has changed.” (UGH! Give me a break). A lot of the stories start with very eye-grabbing statements, that tease some dramatic event that once explained or explored will feel deeply anticlimactic. Also, I could not help but be offended by the author’s garish depictions of rape and its aftereffects. And don’t even get me started on the role that same-sex attraction has in two of these stories. Puh-lease. There is a lot of women-hating-women, which can happen…but in nearly every story? (and WHY do we always have to get women making snidey remarks about other women’s stomachs?). Last but not least, I did not appreciate that the one story where a black man actually plays some sort of role, ends up portraying him as a racist and a predator.
The author’s prose (if we can call it such), the derogatory tone, the detestable and showy characters, the uninspired stories…they all did nothing for me.
To be perfectly frank the only thing that surprised about this collection was that it managed to get published in the first place.

Collections I can recommend that explore similar themes: Milk Blood Heat and Sarbina & Corina: Stories<a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3452687849
.

MY RATING: 1 out of 5 stars<a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3452687849

<a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3452687849

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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is an unflinching and deeply harrowing examination of race, colorism, gender, and trauma. Throughout the course of her narrative Toni Morrison captures with painful lucidity the damage inflicted on a black child by a society that equates whiteness with beauty and goodness, and blackness with ugliness and evil.
In her introduction to her novel Morrison explains her inspiration of the novel. Like Morrison’s own friend, the central character in The Bluest Eye, Pecola, is a black girl who yearns for ‘blue eyes’. Similarly to Sula in the eponymous novel, Pecola becomes her community’s scapegoat, but, whereas Sula embraces who she is, Pecola’s self-hatred is compounded by her community’s demonisation of her. The more people speak of her with contempt, the stronger her desire for blue eyes becomes.

Rather than making us experience Pecola’s anguish first-hand, Morrison makes readers into complicit onlookers. We hear the venomous gossip that is exchanged between the various members of Pecola’s community, we witness the horrifying sexual abuse Pecola’s father inflicts on her—from his point of view, not hers—and the good-hearted, if ultimately inadequate, attempts that two other young girls, Claudia and Frieda, make to try and help Pecola.
The adults in this novel are color-struck and condemn Pecola for her parents’ actions, suggesting that she herself is to blame for the violence committed against her. The story is partly narrated by Claudia, whose childhood naïveté limits her comprehension of Pecola’s experiences. We are also given extensive flashbacks in which we learn more about Pecola’s parents (their youth, their eventual romance, and their extremely fraught marriage). There are also scenes focused on characters that belong to Pecola’s community and who either use or abuse her
.
Throughout the course of the narrative, regardless whose point of view we are following, it is clear that Pecola is suffering, and that her home-life and environment are fuelling her self-loathing.
This is by no means an easy read. There is a nauseatingly graphic rape scene, incest, and domestic violence. Pecola is bullied, maltreated, and abused. The few moments of reprieve are offered by Claudia and Frieda, who unlike Pecola can still cling to their childhood innocence.
Pecola’s story is jarring and sobering, and at times reading The Bluest Eye was ‘too much’. Nevertheless, I was hypnotised by Morrison’s cogent style. She effortlessly switches from voice to voice, vividly rendering the intensity or urgency of her characters’ inner monologues. In her portrayal of Pecola’s descent into madness Morrison is challenging racist ideals of beauty, binary thinking, and the labelling of races and individuals as being either good or evil. Pecola’s family, her community, even the reader, all stand by as Pecola becomes increasingly detached from her reality. This a tragic story, one that is bound to upset readers. Still, the issues Morrison addresses in this novel are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

“Loving a country besides the one you lived in was a recipe for disaster.”

The Star Side of Bird Hill is an enjoyable coming-of-age novel about two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, who are sent off by their mother to spend their summer with their grandmother, Hyacinth, in a small town in Barbados. The girls’ aren’t too happy to leave Brooklyn, even if their homelife hasn’t been great given that their mother, who is suffering from depression and no longer works, can’t look after them (or herself for the matter). In Bird Hill they are forced to acclimatise to a different culture, and are often treated as foreign by their grandmother’s community. Although Phaedra, who is 10, misses her mum, she soon grows attached to Hyacinth, especially once she learns how vital a role she plays in the community. Fifteen-year-old Dionne on the other hand, repeatedly clashes with Hyacinth and her rules. Even if she resents her mother, for having sent her away and for forcing her to take care of both her and Phaedra, she’s clearly hurting.
As the summer goes by the two sisters adapt to life in Bird Hill. Phaedra, who is made fun of by other young girls for being a bit of a tomboy, finds fulfilment in learning more of her family’s history and of her grandmother’s job as a midwife. Dionne takes far longer to adjust to Bird Hill and their grandmother’s presence. She flaunts her rules and seems intent on being as difficult as possible. After certain events happen, she too begins to reconcile herself with her life in Bird Hill and Hyacinth.
Throughout the course of the novel we are given flashbacks into the girls’ childhood as well as the start and end of their mother’s relationship with their father.

“You practice being one kind of thing too long, and soon enough that’s who you become.”

While the storyline is somewhat conventional of this ‘coming-of-age’ genre, the author injects vitality into her story thanks to the character of Hyacinth and the vividly rendered setting of Bird Hill. Hyacinth was a force of nature (and funny too: “Oh Lord, please deliver me from these Yankee children”). I loved her no-nonsense attitude and the many wisdoms she imparts on her granddaughters. Phaedra too was a likeable character (who likes reading Jamaica Kincaid, always a plus in my books), who had a clear personality from the get-go. Dionne, in comparison, was a far weaker character. She’s very much the epitome of rebellious and angsty teenager who spends most of her time disrespecting her elders and thinking about sex. Which is fair enough, but because Hyacinth and Phaedra weren’t relegated to their ‘grandmother’ or ‘young child’ role, Dionne’s poor characterisation—which hinges on her being a teenager—stood out.
The writing was heavy on the ‘telling’ and light on the ‘showing’. Conversations are summarised rather than being ‘played’ on the page, and because the third-person narrative switches from character-to-charcater the same events or information would be repeated over the course of a few pages. The flashbacks could have been better integrated within the narrative, as they often broke the flow of the story, and gave us chunks of backstory that could have been portioned out more uniformly.
Still, I liked reading about Bird Hill, Hyacinth, and Phaedra. And even if the story touches on topics such as mental illnesses, it did so without delving too deep in them, so that it maintained an overall lighthearted, if bittersweet, tone.
I would probably recommend it to readers who enjoyed Frying Plantain or other novel that focus on family relationships between women (mother/daughters, granddaughters/grandmothers).

MY RATING 3 / 5 stars

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These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

“They could only stitch themselves back together if they did something irreversible.”

Heavenly Creatures by way of Patricia Highsmith, plus a sprinkle of Like Minds, and with the kind of teenage morbidity one could find in Hangsaman or Stoker.

Adroit and gripping, These Violent Delights is a superlative debut novel. Being the self-proclaimed connoisseur of academia fiction, I was drawn by the comparisons to The Secret History and I was amazed to discover that unlike other releases (not naming any names) These Violent Delights definitely had some TSH vibes. But whereas most academia books focus on a ‘clique’, Micah Nemerever’s novel is very much centred on the obsessive relationship between two seventeen-year olds.
If you’ve read or watched anything that revolves around a toxic relationship, you know what to expect from These Violent Delights. The prologue itself reveals to us that all will not be well for these two boys, and that at some point will embark on a path of no return.

“He couldn’t remember ever being the person he’d decided to become.”

The narrative takes us back to their first meeting. Paul, our protagonist, is a university freshman in Pittsburgh during the early 1970s. His father has recently committed suicide and his mother has yet to recover. Paul suffers from an almost debilitating insecurity, and shows a propensity for virulent self-recriminations. His inward-looking nature brings him no joy, as his mind is often consumed by his many ‘shortcomings’, and those of others. He feels misunderstood by his working-class family, and without his father, his grandfather, a man whose good-natured attempts to connect with Paul inevitably miss the mark, has become his closest male figure. His family fails to accept that Paul isn’t the type to ‘loosen’ up with his peers or have ‘fun’ with some girl.
When a discussion on experimental ethics in class gets Paul hot under the collar, Julian Fromme comes to his defence. On the surface Julian is the antithesis of Paul: he comes from wealth, he’s self-assured, easy-going, and charismatic. Yet, Paul is enthralled by him, especially when he realises that Julian carries within him a darkness not unlike his own. Their mutual understanding and their interest in one another results in instantaneous connection. They can have erudite talks, challenging each other’s stance on subjects related to ethics and morals, and revel in the superiority they feel towards their classmates. Within hours of their meeting their bond has solidified, becoming something impenetrable to outsiders. It soon becomes apparent that neither of them is in control in their relationship, and things are further complicated when their platonic friendship gives way to a more sexual one.
Their symbiotic bond is of concern to others (to be queer—in both senses—is no walk in the park, especially in the 70s), and attempts are made to separate the two. But Paul and Julian are determined to stay together, and more than once they tell each other that the idea of life without the other would be unbearable.

“[H]e wasn’t afraid anymore. After a lifetime of yearning and trying not to yearn, he imagined the relief of surrendering.”

Even if we suspect that Paul and Julian’s intoxicating liaison will have internecine consequences, we are desperate for a moment of reprieve. But Nemerever’s narrative does not let up, not once. Readers will read with increasing anxiety as Paul and Julian embark on an ‘irreversible’ path, alienating those around them. Dread and anguish became my constant companions while I was reading this novel and I’m glad that I choose to read this when I was off work (I devoured this novel in less than 24h) since These Violent Delights is a riveting edge-of-your-seat kind of read.
A sense of unease pervades this story as even the early stages of Paul and Julian’s relationship are fraught. Julian is almost secretive when it comes to his family, and disapproves of the contempt Paul harbours towards his own mother. Their love for each other often veers into dislike, if not hatred, and they are quite capable of being extremely cruel to each other. Even so we can see why they have become so entangled together, and why they oppose anyone who threatens to separate them. But as they enable one other, their teenage angst morphs into a more perturbing sort of behaviour. Time and again we are left wondering who, if anyone, is in control.

“All they were—all they had ever been—was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun.”

My summary of this novel won’t do it justice as I fear I’m making it sound like any other ‘dark’ tale of obsessive friendships (in this case a romantic one but still). It is Nemerever’s writing that elevates his story from ‘interesting’ to exhilarating (and downright distressing). He evokes the claustrophobic and oppressive nature of Paul and Julian’s bond, making us feel as if we too are caught in their all-consuming relationship. Nemerever’s also acutely renders Paul’s discomforts, the intensity of his love for Julian, of his self-loathing, and of his conflicting desires (to be known, to be unknowable). He wants his family to understand him, but in those instances when they prove that they may understand him more than he thinks, he does not hear them out.

“All I want to do is make you happy, and you’re the unhappiest person I’ve ever met.”

Similarly to The Secret History, the narrative is very much examining the way we can fail to truly see the people closest to us. Paul’s low self-esteem makes him constantly doubt everyone around, Julian included. He perceives slights where there are none, and even seems to find a sort of twisted pleasure (or as Lacan would have it, jouissance) in second-guessing Julian’s feelings towards him or in assuming the worst of others. He projects a preconceived image of Julian onto him (someone who is cruel and deceitful, someone who, unlike Paul himself, can easily adapt or pretend to be normal), and this prevents him from seeing him as he truly is.
The love Paul feels for Julian is almost fanatical, doomed to be destructive. This is the type of relationship that would not be out of place in a Magda Szabó (The Door), Joyce Carol Oates (Solstice) or a Barbara Vine novel (The House of Stairs, No Night is Too Long, A Fatal Inversion) or as the subject of a song by Placebo (I’m thinking of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’).

“They were wild and delirious and invincible, and it was strange that no one else could see it.”

Nemerever’s writing style is exquisite and mature. I was struck by the confidence of his prose (it does read like a debut novel). Not one word is wasted, every sentence demands your attention (which is difficult when the story has you flipping pages like no tomorrow). Nemerever brings to life every scene and character he writes of, capturing, for example, with painful precision the crushing disquiet Paul feels (24/7), his loneliness (exacerbated by his queerness and intelligence) and his deep-seated insecurity. Nemerever doesn’t always explicitly states what Paul is feeling, or thinking, and the ambiguity this creates reminded me very much of Shirley Jackson, in particular of Hangsaman (a scene towards the end was particularly reminiscent of that novel). Readers will have to fill the gaps or try to read the subtext of certain scenes or exchanges between P and J.

Not only did this book leave me with a huge book-hangover but it also left me emotionally exhausted (when I tried picking up other books my mind kept going back to Paul and Julian). Paul is one of the most miserable characters I’ve ever read of. And while he is no angel, I found myself, alongside his family, wanting to help him. But I could also understand him as he strongly reminded of my own teenage experiences, and of how ‘wretched’ and alone I felt (woe is me), as well as the fierce, and at times detrimental, friendships I formed during those vulnerable years.
In spite of what Paul and Julian do, I cared deeply for them. I wanted to ‘shake’ them, but I also desperately wanted them to be happy.
I’m sure I could blather on some more, but I will try and stop myself here. Reading These Violent Delights is akin to watching a slow-motion video of a car accident or some other disaster. You know what will happen but you cannot tear your eyes away. Read this at your own peril!

MY RATING: 5 / 5 stars

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Almond by Won-pyung Sohn

Written in a simple and crisp prose Almond is a slim novel that is primarily concerned with empathy and human connection. Yunjae, the narrator of this story, was born with underdeveloped amygdalae, which are two-almond shaped nuclei that process our emotional responses (prior this book I had no idea of what they were…). Because of this condition, alexithymia, he cannot recognise and or is unaware of feeling emotions (be it anger happiness or fear). Knowing that this will make him ‘odd’ in the eyes of society, and will inevitably make him the target of other people’s cruelty, Yunjae’s mother, alongside his grandmother, try to ‘coach’ him, so that he can at least feign certain emotions. Yunjae obliges, as he’s unbothered by his own lack of emotional responses, as he cares, in his own way, for his family. Once he’s sixteen Yunjae’s existence is irrevocably changed by two tragic events. Without his relatives Yunjae retreats in himself.
The arrival of Gon at his school complicates Yunjae’s life. Gon, who feels everything strongly, seems intent on punishing Yunjae, but Yunjae is seemingly unperturbed by Gon’s escalating bullying. After a series of not so friendly encounters outside of school, they find themselves growing accustomed to each other’s presence. When a girl catches the attention of Yunjae he finds himself wanting to ‘feel’.

While I overall enjoyed this novel, I did think that the first section was a bit too heavy on exposition. The violent incidents that leave Yunjae alone were kind of over-the-top, as was the finale. The girl, who appears very late in the story, felt like an unwelcome addition to the story as it suggested that ‘love’ is some magical cure. Still, I did like that seeing the ways in which Gon and Yunjae try to better each other.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

“That was the thing that was at the heart of my reluctance and my resentment. Some people make it out of their stories unscathed, thriving. Some people don’t.”

In an eloquent and precise prose Yaa Gyasi interrogates a young woman’s relationship to her family, her faith, her past, and her self. Her brother’s addiction and her mother’s depression have irrevocably shaped Gifty, the protagonist and narrator of Transcendent Kingdom, who is now a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford. Her quiet and controlled existence is disrupted by the arrival of her mother, who has once again succumbed to a depressive state, barely responding to the world around her, let alone taking notice of her daughter. Gifty, who spends most of her time in her lab, where she’s researching the neural circuits of reward seeking behaviour (by experimenting on mice) finds herself looking back to her childhood, her college years and her first years at Stanford.
Throughout the course of the novel Gyasi weaves together Gifty’s past and present, delineating her self-divide and her fragile relationship to her mother.
Gifty’s recollection of her childhood is free of sentimentality, and she’s very much matter-of-fact when it comes to recounting her brother’s addiction to OxyContin, the racism she and her family are exposed to in America, the lack of support they receive (“They just watched us with some curiosity. We were three black people in distress. Nothing to see.”), especially from the members of their church.
We also learn of her parents’ immigration from Ghana to Alabama, her father’s disconnect from his new home, her mother’s desire to fit in and adapt, the rift caused by their opposing stances (wanting to return to Ghana/wanting to remain in America). After her father’s return to Ghana, Gifty’s mother spends most of her time working in order to keep the family afloat, so it is Nana who becomes the central figure in her life. In spite of their age gap and their sibling spats, the two are very close, and Gifty looks up to her brother. An injury occurred while playing basketball lands Nana in hospital where a doctor prescribes him OxyContin for the pain. In the following years Gifty witnesses her brother’s spiralling further into addiction, while her mother desperately tries to ‘save’ him.
While these experiences have affected Gifty’s relationship to her faith, and she’s somewhat embarrassed when reading her old diary entries, in which she pleads for divine intervention, as an adult Gifty finds herself craving that ardor.
In college she struggles between wanting to be alone and wanting to connect with others. Her background causes some of her science peers to make scoffing remarks or prejudiced presumptions, and the few people who try to get close to her are inevitably pushed away.

Throughout the course of the narrative Gyasi shows how time and again Gifty is made to feel as if she cannot possibly find comfort in both science and religion. Yet, for Gifty, the two are not in opposition: “[T]his tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
Given that her childhood was disrupted by her father’s departure, her brother’s addiction, and her mother’s depression, isn’t it natural for Gifty to wonder ‘why?’. Why did her brother become an addict? Why is her mother depressed? Her search for answers, for a reason, for the ability to discern cause and effect, fuels her studies and in many ways her faith. Once she finds herself once again with her mother however her resolve not to talk or reveal her past is tested.
This novel tells an emotionally devastating tale about love, forgiveness, guilt, pain, and identity. Reading this novel made my heart ache. Addiction and depression have left their mark on my family, and Gifty’s experiences hit too close to home. And yet, however upsetting it was to read about the insidiousness of addiction and depression, Gyasi incisive observations and wisdoms assuage my uneasiness.
Gyasi exerts perfect control of her prose as she navigates Gifty’s childhood and adulthood. Her restrained style perfectly reflects Gifty’s self-restraint. She offers piercing meditations on family, philosophy, science, and faith, and Gifty’s quiet meditations on these subjects are articulated in a meticulous yet striking way.
I’m not sure what else I can add other than I was (am) in awe of this book. It made me feel seen and understood.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Some of my favourite quotes:

“Nana was the first miracle, the true miracle, and the glory of his birth cast a long shadow. I was born into the darkness that shadow left behind. I understood that, even as a child.”

“I wanted, above all else, to be good. And I wanted the path to that goodness to be clear. I suspected that this is why I excelled at math and science, where the rules are laid out step by step, where if you did something exactly the way it was supposed to be done, the result would be exactly as it was expected to be.”


“It would have been kinder to lie, but I wasn’t kind anymore. Maybe I never had been. I vaguely remember a childhood kindness, but maybe I was conflating innocence and kindness. I felt so little continuity between who I was as a young child and who I was now that it seemed pointless to even consider showing my mother something like mercy. Would have I been merciful when I was a child?”

“The two of us back then, mother and daughter, we were ourselves an experiment. The question was, and has remained: Are we going to be okay?”

“My memories of him, though few, are mostly pleasant, but memories of people you hardly know are often permitted a kind of pleasantness in their absence. It’s those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”

“I remember what it was like to be that age, so aware of yourself and of the theater of your private little shames.”

“It was boring, but I preferred this familiar boredom to the kind I found at home. There, boredom was paired with the hope of its relief, and so it took on a more menacing tint.”

““What’s the point of all of this?” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this question is “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don’t know,” or worse still, “Nothing”?”

“Thought I had never been an addict, addiction, and the avoidance of it, had been running my life”

“I didn’t grow up with a language for, a way to explain, to parse out, my self-loathing.”

“I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”

“I like you best when you’re feeling holy. You make me feel holy too.”

BOOK REVIEWS

The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg

The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg took me by surprise. While I did enjoy reading two of Konigsberg’s previous novels, Openly Straight and The Music of What Happens, they certainly didn’t affect me as The Bridge. This is the kind of novel I wish had been around when I was sixteen and contemplating suicide.
While there are quite a few novels that expand on ‘what if’ scenarios, Konigsberg’s diverging timelines are far from gimmicky. The first scene in The Bridge, regardless of its different outcome, plays a pivotal role in each section of the novel. Within the first pages of this novel we are transported to George Washington Bridge where two teens, Aaron and Tillie, strangers to each other, are planning to jump. In the first section, titled ‘A’, Tillie jumps, while a traumatised Aaron returns to his home, unable to forget what happened. As we become acquainted with Aaron, reading of his relationship to his extremely supportive father, and of the anxiety and depression that made him go on the bridge, we also read of the repercussions that Tillie’s suicide has on her adoptive parents and younger sister, as well as the guilt felt by those who in their own way contributed to her decision to end her life.
In ‘B’ it is Aaron who jumps and Tillie who survives. Aaron’s suicide destroys his father, leaving him bereft, while Tillie confronts the people who have hurt her the most—a former best friend, her ex-boyfriend, and her emotionally distant father. In ‘C’ they both die, and Konigsberg doesn’t repeat himself, offering his readers instead with just how everlasting is the grief and guilt experienced by the relatives and loved ones of suicide victims. He goes as far as envisioning the people Aaron and Tillie would have met, loved and helped, had they stayed alive.
‘C’, which for obvious reasons was my favourite, depicts a world in which they don’t jump, forming an unlikely bond, and finding comfort in each other’s despair.
I can’t stress enough how well-written and structured this novel is. However heartbreaking the various narratives were, I loved reading them. Konigsberg injects plenty of humour in his novel, alleviating somber scenes without making light of any of the subjects he writes of. Trough his portrayal of mental health Konigsberg demonstrates extreme empathy and sensitivity, never offering one-sided arguments or easy definitions. Both his adult and his teen characters are given their own distinctive voices, and regardless of what they say or do, they aren’t demonised or easily labelled as ‘bad’. Some of the parents in this novel are terrible. They are extremely unsupportive or blind to the pain their actions or words cause to their children. Our protagonists too are more than capable of making mistakes and or of jumping to conclusions.
Konigsberg is particularly perceptive when it comes to the effect that offhanded remarks can have on vulnerable young people. He doesn’t offer magical cures for Aaron and Tillie’s depression, and in the narratives where they do not jump, their lives aren’t depression or suicidal-thought free.
Konigsberg dialogues and his characters felt strikingly real. While each narrative navigates painful realities, The Bridge doesn’t succumb to the dark thoughts or difficult circumstances of its characters. Aaron’s relationship with his father and the bond between him and Tillie truly made the novel.
Unlike the other books I’ve read by this author The Bridge is a novel that will stay with me (as clichéd as that may sound) and I can’t wait to re-read this. If you are looking for a piercing and emotional YA contemporary read, look no further.

My rating: 4 ½ stars of 5 stars
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BOOK REVIEWS

Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz

“She was of that special age where she knew both nothing and everything, and no matter where or at whom she looked, she saw her own reflecting glimmering back like a skim of oil. She could be anyone, still.”

Milk Blood Heat is a promising debut, one that I’m sure will be well-received by readers who enjoy lyrical proses. While I personally found Moniz’s style to be occasionally a bit too flowery and/or impressionistic (“she’s Frankenstein’s monster. She is vampire queen. She is newly thirteen, hollowed out and filled back up with venom and dust-cloud dreams” / “my mouth a black cave, ugly and squared” / “I want to swallow my mouth—to fold in my lips and chew until they burst” / “my body felt made of stars”), I was nevertheless absorbed by her rather mesmerising storytelling.
Like most collections of short stories, some aren’t as memorable or well-executed as others, but even in the stories that I didn’t find particularly affecting there were moments or scenes that stood out (in a good way).

Most of these stories seem to possess an ambiguous quality, offering little resolution or at times clarity on the characters’ feelings and/or futures. With the exception of two stories, most seem to be centred on either a young girl or woman whose lives are about to change or are in the process of changing. In the first one, ‘Milk Blood Heat’, follows a young girl, Ava, who spends her days playing with her white best friend, Kiera and begins to question their differences: This year she’s become obsessed with dualities, at looking at one thing in two ways. Although Ava’s mother disapproves of Kiera and her wild ways, the two girls are inseparable, or they are until tragedy strikes.
The second story, ‘Feast’, a woman is the deep thralls of depressions after having a miscarriage. She begins to resent her partner, as he seems not as affected by their loss. Moniz renders the uneasiness and sadness that have become backdrop to the woman’s every thought and action, revealing how deeply her miscarriage has altered her state of being. Her grief, the disturbing visions she has, her numbness are hauntingly conveyed through Moniz’s sharp yet poetic language (which in this instance worked perfectly with the kind of story she was telling).
Most of the other stories explore similar themes (grief, identity, motherhood, friendship) without ever seeming repetitive. Two stories seem centred on a girl’s passage from youth to adulthood, one that forces them reconsider their worldview and notions of good and bad (especially in terms of their sexuality), and each one gives us a different take on ‘growing up’.
My favourite stories were probably ‘The Heart of Our Enemies’ (which focuses on a fraught mother-daughter relationship) and ‘Snow (in which a young woman is having second thoughts about her marriage). The two I liked the least were ‘The Loss of Heaven’ and ‘Exotics’ (which was short and employed a first-person plural perspective, ‘we’, that came across as an exercise for a creative writing class).
Even if Moniz’s prose was a bit too sticky and snappy at times (a la ‘girls are daggers/my eyes are full of stars’), I still was able to appreciate the majority of her stories and I look forward to what she will write next.

My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars

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