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The Street by Ann Petry

“A woman living alone didn’t stand much chance.”

Ann Petry is a terrific writer. The precise way in which she articulates the thoughts and various state of minds of her characters brought to my mind the writing of Nella Larsen and Edith Wharton. But whereas I could stand the cynicism and tragic finales of Wharton’s novels (in which usually horrible things happen to privileged, and often horrible, individuals) I had a hard time stomaching the ending in The Street.

Set in 1940s The Street follows Lutie Johnson, a single black mother, who moves on 116th Street in Harlem. Lutie is a resilient woman who has come to believe that through hard-work and self-sacrifice she can attain a level of happiness and prosperity. She also happens to be beautiful: white and black men treat like a sexual object, white women regard her with open contempt, and other black women tend to be jealous or suspicious of her.
Lutie’s daily existence is punctuated by racism, sexism, and classism. Witnessing the violence, desperation, and death around her reinforces her desire to escape her neighbourhood and the growingly inappropriate behaviour of her building’s super, an unstable man named Jones.

Through flashbacks we learn more of the characters’ history, such as the dissolution of Lutie’s marriage and Jones’ time in the navy. Scenes take their time to unfold as the narrative is focused less on action and more on character interiority. Petry allows her readers to view the world through their eyes and at times this can be quite jarring. Jones’ disturbed thoughts are troubling indeed and his growing obsession with Lutie is guaranteed to make readers as uncomfortable as reading from Humbert Humbert’s perspective. Petry demonstrates how gifted a writer she is by outlining his skewed worldview and disordered thinking, so much so that I was afraid of being inside his head.
Petry also gives two other women in Lutie’s building a voice: there is the watchful—and formidable—Mrs. Hedges who runs a brothel and Min, a seemingly docile woman who lives with—and is abused by—Jones. There are also portions of the narrative centred around Boots, yet another man who wants Lutie for himself. Petry once again showcases her skill by making us sympathise, however briefly, with a character such as Boots (who happens to be a rather reprehensible human being).
Throughout the course of the narrative Lutie tries to overcome obstacles and hardships. Her dignity and strength made her into an admirable character. As a single black mother Lutie is subjected to a myriad of injustices, and as her preoccupation with money—and leaving ‘the street’—grows, she unwittingly pushes her son towards Jones.

Petry brings to life—more for worse than better—the city in which her characters move in. She renders the cacophony on the streets as well as the atmosphere within closed spaces (like the charged and suffocating atmosphere in Jones’ apartment).
I really liked the rhythm of Petry prose, created in part thanks to the repetition of certain specific words, phrases, and ideas. While I loved how perceptive Petry was in registering the nuances of her characters’ different moods and thoughts, I was exhausted by how relentlessly depressing her story was (throughout the narrative women are slapped around, threatened with physical assault, intimidated, or are treated as if belonging to a lesser species).
Given Petry’s disenchanted portrayal of the American dream, I wasn’t expecting a rosy finale. Still, I was quite bitter about the way she ends things. While I understand that it is a realistic ending, I didn’t find the Bub/Jones situation to be all that credible.

Readers who prefer fast-paced or plot-driven novel may want to skip this one but those who are interested in a meticulous character study should definitely consider picking this long-overlooked classic up.
While I’m not necessarily ‘happy’ to have read this book (I’m not a sadist), Petry’s adroit social commentary and captivating prose are worth reading.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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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

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LET ME TELL YOU: BOOK REVIEW

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Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson
★★★★✰ 4 of 5 stars

I thought I was insane, and would write about how the only sane people are the ones who are condemned as mad, and how the whole world is cruel and foolish and afraid of people who are different. That was when I was still in high school.

Shirley Jackson is such a fantastic writer and Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings showcases the wide range of her writing: from domestic —and relatively fictionalised— accounts of her daily life with her four children to unnerving short stories that are imbued with anxiety and paranoia.
Her sense of humour and her particular brand of surreality make their way in each one of her stories, regardless of the genre. Jackson handles ordinary occurrences in an extraordinary manner. It is often this fantastic mode that allows her to examine the darker side of human nature. Jackson exposes those vicious and malicious sentiments that hide beneath the surface of ‘respectability’; it is often those conservative and upright individuals that are capable of evil and violence. Jackson’s portrayal of violence is all the more disturbing because it often is so sedate: individuals can be ostracised and erased on the basis of a few whispered words or a look.
The short stories might not be Jackson’s best but they do explore those themes and images that appear in her full novels.
Jackson’s essays on writing are very insightful, especially when Jackson discusses certain techniques she uses in The Haunting of Hill House. Two of Jackson’s children provide a moving afterword.

My review of: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson 

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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

How can I have ‘enjoyed’ or ‘liked’ this novel?
Well…I did find myself flinching away from it a few times…

Well, what can be said about Lolita that hasn’t been said? Who hasn’t heard of it? The influence this work has had on modern culture is astounding: just think that the meaning of the name Lolita has changed because of this novel. The reputation this novel has gained however doesn’t really do it justice. It is almost viewed as a perverse work of fiction. And in some ways, it is that. Humbert Humbert is sick. His fantasies, his romanticising his own inclination and actions, well…there can be no doubt that Humber is indeed a perverse individual. Yet, the novel is so much more than this. Humbert’s role as a narrator makes us question ourselves. How can someone so monstrous be amusing? How can he be anything other than a pedophile?
Vladimir Nabokov achieves wonders in this novel. I ‘might have been disgusted and repulsed, but I was also completely taken by Nabokov’s style. The way he plays with different languages (English, Russian, French), the incredible attention he pays to someone’s intonation, the cadence of certain words or the rhythm created by others. I was so in awe of the way in which Nabokov’s works with words that I almost didn’t take in the horrific things that make up the majority of Humbert’s narrative.
I do understand why some readers might be read this and feel nothing but disgust, but, lets remember that Nabokov is not Humbert. Nor is he condemning Humbert. What Nabokov seemed to be doing was to create a narrative that reflects Humbert’s distorted mind. Nabokov is clever, so very clever. The self-aware and dynamic narrative is filled by vivid imagery: sounds, colours, smells, textures…Nabokov offers all.
My only ‘con’ is that the storyline lost a bit of its drive towards the end of the novel. Lolita is an uneasy read that will – no doubt – make you feel uncomfortable. However, the subject itself shouldn’t hide the Nabokov’s prolific style.

My rating: 3.5 stars

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Stoner by John Williams

Initially I found the seemingly unassuming prose of Stoner to be full of insight. The very first page coldly announces the eponymous protagonist’s death, and I was drawn in by the unromantic story.
The novel focuses on William Stoner’s life: his rather miserable marriage to Edith as well as his studies and his academic career. Urged by his father to enrol to agriculture school, Stoner begins studying at the University of Missouri were his simple and lacklustre existence is changed by a the introduction of literature into his life. His passion is such that he decides not to return to his parents farm, opting instead to continue his studies. He meets and marries Edith, and this ‘happy union’ soon reveals to be a deeply unhappy one, which shouldn’t be that surprising since from the very start Edith was a bit of cypher. She passively accepts Stoner’s offer of marriage. As time goes by her motivations and her cruelties seemed – for the most part – irrational. John Williams paints a depressing yet somehow realistic portrait of marriage. Petty arguments, vendettas, annoyances, all abound in the relationship between Stoner and his wife.
Stoner’s decision to remain at the University during WWI rises interesting question. His reputation suffers but we are told clearly that his actions were not the ones of a coward. His love for literature and teaching is such that Stoner needs to stay at the University. Stoner acts in a similar manner when he approaches the age of retirement.
I enjoy reading about Stoner’s love for his profession. However, I found the whole situation with Professor Hollis Lomax and Charles Walker to be almost unbearable. I was frustrated at the entire situation and I was uninterested in this prolonged animosity. Both Stoner’s wife and his daughter were incredibly dreary. Not only I did not warm up to their temperaments, but I felt dubious about the reasoning behind their actions. They walked the line between seeming realistic and being stereotypes of a neurotic woman…
The initial chapters, when Stoner starts his studies, promised so much more that this. While I enjoy John Williams’ plain style, I did not feel involved by the storyline or the characters. I might have appreciated the down to earth look at a regular man’s life but I read about Stoner’s life with growing disenchantment.

My rating: 3 stars

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Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

‘You’re gambling. Hell, you’re gambling against history.’

Kindred is a riveting story. Octavia Butler has created a tale in which a young woman is thrust into a violent past that forces her to into a relentlessly dangerous position.
Kindred is an incredibly gripping read. From its prologue to its epilogue, the story demands attention. Butler convincingly depicts deeply complex and believable characters in a unthinkably brutal world.

I had thought my feelings were complicated because he and I had such a strange relationship. But then, slavery of any kind fostered strange relationship.

Butler does not shy away from describing the terrible abuse and violence slaves were forced to endure in the 19th century. Dana herself is initially incapable of comprehending the horror she witnesses during her journeys back in time. Dana’s own resolves and belief are tested beyond measure again and again throughout the course of the book.

Slavery is a long slow process of dulling.

Dana is a very relatable and likable main character. Despite the shock caused by being flung back in time, she does not lose her wits: she faces her situation with as much practicality as possible. She does not waste time panicking deciding instead that the best way of surviving this terrifying experience is to prepare herself as best as she can: first by reading about the period in which she is transported to and then by trying to discern a pattern in the causes of these leaps back in time. Both she and her husband, Kevin, show admirable self-control in a situation in which they have little grasp of.
All of the characters Butler introduces are vividly realistic. Despite the scenario, there are no clear good guys or bad guys. Instead there are characters that could be both cruel and pitiful, kind yet bitter. Their complexity made them all the more believable.

Strangely, they seemed to like him, hold him in contempt, and fear him all at the same time. This confused me because I felt just about the same mixture of emotions for him myself.

Each page of Kindred contains poignant reflections and important examinations on human behaviour/nature. The grave topics it tackles are combined with a constant feeling of dread for Dana’s wellbeing; in fact, Kindred reads with a strong sense of urgency: throughout the story Dana’s life and freedom are constantly at stake.
So despite the graphic portrayal of the unimaginably inhumane and brutal reality slaves experienced, Dana’s willfulness make this journey through this particularly horrifying moment of history much easier to read. The complicated relationship she has make Kindred a deeply complex and well-crafted novel.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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