BOOK REVIEWS

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

“Your eyes meet in the silence. The gaze requires no words at all. It is an honest meeting.”

Open Water is an exceedingly lyrical debut. The story, narrated through a second-person perspective (ie ‘you’) is centred on the relationship between two Black British artists (he is a photographer, she is a dancer). Although their relationship is portrayed through a linear timeline, the narrative lingers only on some key scenes/periods between this will-they-won’t-they couple. From their first meeting the photographer (‘you’) is struck by the dancer who at time is going out with a friend of his. The two become friends but their closeness is complicated by their more than platonic feeling for each other.
Caleb Azumah Nelson renders with poignancy their bond. I loved the way he articulates his main character’s vulnerabilities and the role that language itself plays in his narrative. To articulate one’s feelings, desires, and fears is no easy feat. Language, as the author reminds us time and again, fails us. There is an emphasis on this, that is on the difficulty of articulating your thoughts or truths. ‘You’ seems in a perpetual struggle with himself. He’s in love with the dancer but there are things that keep him from expressing himself to her. The narrative also touches upon on the idea of being ‘seen but not seen’. The photographer, a young Black man in London, has experienced time and again the scrutiny of the white gaze. It is because he is viewed as a danger and a threat that he remains in fact unseen. So, when the dancer sees him, as in truly sees him, he feels understood like never before. But it is this bond that complicates their love story.

At times the story resembled a series of snapshots or impressions: these had a moody often cinematic-feel to them that resulted in some great atmosphere (I can definitely see this being adapted to the screen). Nelson’s prose brims with lyricism. With staccato-like sentences he captures those ephemeral feelings which are often so hard to express or pin down. His poetic writing style lends beautifully to the themes he goes on to explore (young love, masculinity and vulnerability, race, creativity).
What didn’t quite work for me was the 2nd pov. I’m just not the biggest fan of this perspective. I also had a hard time familiarising myself with our main characters. Their personalities felt almost lost in the midst of the author’s lyrical language.
Open Water nonetheless struck me as a confident and deeply felt debut.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

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

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

“Our relationship has always struggled against our twinness.”

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

(heads up: this review contains mentions of eating disorders and body dysmorphia as well as explicit language)

While I doubt that Milk Fed will win many awards, I sure hope that it wins the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. It 100% deserves to.

“Was it real freedom? Unlikely. But my rituals kept me skinny, and if happiness could be relegated to one thing alone, skinniness, then one might say I was, in a way, happy.”

Milk Fed follows in the steps of novels such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation (or to name a few others: Pizza Girl, Luster, Exciting Times, Severance, Hysteria, The New Me…and no, this is by no means a comprehensive list). As I’ve said before in my review for Luster, these books are a hit or miss for me. And at first I thought that Milk Fed was a definite hit but after the 30% mark the novel became increasingly repetitive, annoyingly self-indulgent, and ludicrously sensationalistic. To me, Milk Fed reads like a less compelling version of You Exist Too Much. Both novels focus on young bisexual women who have a rather toxic relationship with their mother. They both suffer at one point or another from an eating disorder. They are self-destructive and directionless. Their attempts to seek therapeutic help do not go all that well. The narrator of You Exist Too Much does some fucked up things but ultimately I cared for and sympathised with her. It helped that I found her caustic wit to be genuinely funny. Milk Fed is all style and no substance. Perhaps those who can enjoy this kind of turgid prose may be able to find this novel amusing or insightful but it just reminded of all the reasons why I did not like Susan Choi’s My Education.
Also, fyi, I had an eating disorder. However, I would never describe myself as a ‘survivor’ nor do I believe that you can’t write a dark comedy about eating disorders. I like satire and cringe comedy (Succession and Fleabag are favourites of mine) but I am certainly not a fan of narratives that are solely intent on being as garish and gratuitous as possible.

Our narrator, Rachel, is an aimless twenty-something who in the very opening of the novel informs us that “It didn’t matter where I worked: one Hollywood bullshit factory was equal to any other. All that mattered was what I ate, when I ate, and how I ate it”. Rachel thinks about food 24/7. She obsesses about calories, follows seemingly arbitrary eating rituals, exercises everyday not in order to get stronger or leaner but to burn as many calories as possible. She seems to view her troubling relationship to food and her body as preferable to ‘the alternative’ (not being ‘skinny’). She goes to therapy, “hoping to alleviate the suffering related to both my food issues and my mother, but without having to make any actual life changes in either area”. During one of these sessions her therapist recommends that Rachel should take a “communication detox” from her mother (suggesting at least 90 days of no contact).

“Do you want to be chubby or do you want boys to like you?”

We learn through brief flashbacks and Rachel’s recounting that one of the reasons why developed an eating disorder is her mother. As a child Rachel’s mother would shame her for eating things she believed were ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ and imposed strict diets on Rachel. Rachel began to binge-eat (in secret), which made her gain weight. To ‘make up’ for it Rachel begins to eat less and less, which sees her becoming anorexic (when she confesses to her mother that she thinks she may be anorexic her mother dismiss this by saying something on the lines of her not being ‘skinny enough’ to be truly anorexic). Rachel’s mother is horrible and she gives the mother from You Exist Too Much a run for her money…but, unlike You Exist Too Much, here we only told bad things about Rachel’s mother. Because of Rachel’s ‘detoxing’ from her, she never makes an appearance in the actual story. Her presence certainly haunts Rachel but I wish she had not been portrayed in such a skewed way. Making someone embody only negative traits is a very easy way of making them unlikable or into the ‘bad guy’.

Rachel doesn’t care about her job ( I cannot precisely remember what she does other than it has to do with ‘Hollywood’) nor does she have any friends or hobbies (unless you count obsessing about food as a hobby). She is desperate for validation, which is perhaps why once a week she does stand up comedy for a night show called ‘This Show Sucks’. This thread of her life often felt unexplored and out of place. You could probably cut out the scenes she spends at this show and the story would be much the same (by the end this show’s main purpose seems to be that of a meeting place).
At work she has sort of bonded with an older woman who she sees both as a mother-figure of sorts and as an object of desire. This leads to some predictably gross incestuous fantasies that have a very Freudian feel to them as they exist mainly to indicate Rachel’s state of mind (and they have the added bonus of grossing the reader out). During one of these sexual fantasies, which goes on and on for quite a few pages, Rachel imagines being ‘mothered’ by this older female colleague. Later, when she begins bingeing again, she imagines having sex with this same colleague, only this time she is the one who is in doing the ‘dominating’.
Rachel’s first meets Miriam at the frozen yogurt shop where she usually gets a plain yogurt from (part of her eating routine). Miriam, who works at this shop, insists on giving Rachel a bigger portion of yogurt. Because of this Rachel is annoyed by Miriam. Added to that is Rachel repulsion towards Miriam’s body (she describes Miriam as being “medically obese”). However, Miriam’s nonchalance towards food and her body soon catch Rachel’s attention. Her initial repulsion gives way to lust, and the two women seem to ‘bond’ over the fact that they are both Jewish (Miriam however, unlike Rachel who does not seem to practice any Jewish rituals and does not believe in God, is Orthodox).
Miriam invites Rachel to her house and Rachel idealises her family and home-life. They all enjoy eating and cooking food, and their meals together are happy occasions.
Rachel believes that Miriam reciprocates her feelings and the two being a very one-way sexual relationship. Things, of course, do not go as planned. Rachel’s ups and downs with food, her self-hatred, her unresolved mummy issues, they all contribute to her self-destructive behaviour.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the book’s switch of focus (from Rachel’s ED to Rachel feelings for Miriam) if the relationship between Rachel and Miriam had not been wholly superficial. Miriam is reduced to the role of sex object. There are many instances were Rachel, and the readers, could have learnt more of her—what kind of person she is, her feelings towards Rachel, the way she sees herself, her future & desires, etc.—but we do not. What we get instead are many scenes about Rachel wanting to have sex with Miriam, obsessing over Miriam’s body, masturbating while thinking of Miriam or that her colleague, having sex with Miriam…the list goes on. The way Rachel’s thinks about Miriam’s body raised a few red flags and her attraction towards her sometimes verged on fetishising. She doesn’t think of Miriam but merely of Miriam’s body. Many of the metaphors used when the two are having sex or when Rachel is fantasising about her are food related (Rachel describes Miriam’s moles as “chocolate drops”, her tongue as a “fat piece of liver she was king enough to feed me”). She also loves watching her eat and is aroused when Miriam “slurp[s] dumplings”. Miriam’s “rolls of fat” are like “pussies” to Rachel. I don’t know…these descriptions were probably meant to be funny and weird but they mostly struck me as affected and cheap.
Most of the sex scenes in this novel were awful. They tried hard to be gritty and real but ended being the opposite: when watching a film with Audrey Hepburn Rachel imagines Audrey’s “concave thighs” and sticking her “mouth in her little pussy”; when she is holding Miriam’s hand she views this as an act of sexual intercourse, her finger is a “a cock, a penetrating object”; some of her fantasies included phrases such as “I activated Frankencock” or “It was like nipples were two clits”; when she is having sex with Miriam she smells “the faintest waft of shit coming up from underneath her. It smelled like fertile heaven: peat moss, soil, sod, loam”. Later in the novel she brags about fingering a guy to that older female colleague in order to impress her, feeling remorse in doing so. She never confronts her mother or this colleague, nor does she feel challenged or inspired by her relationship with Miriam. Yes, the more time she spends with Miriam, the less she restricts but throughout the course of the narrative she maintains an obsessive relationship with food and keeps assigning moralistic values to food. I never believed that she cared for Miriam, nor do I think that the relationship helped her somehow. Miriam…she did not strike me as a fully fleshed character. While her body is described in minute detail, her personality remains largely absent. Often, it seemed that Rachel viewed Miriam’s body as representing her ‘essence’. She likes going to the cinema, she’s Jewish, she seems to care for her family…other than that? Who knows!
Because this is a satire most of the characters exist in order to make fun of a certain type of person: we have Rachel’s manager, a woke ‘dude bro’, her older female colleague who is thin, mean, and enjoys belittling other people’s appearance etc., the famous actor who is kind of full of himself, the not very helpful therapist who sees fake deep things…
The narrative also had a thread involving a golem (Rachel creates it out of putty during one of her therapy sessions) and a series of dreams with Judah Loew ben Bezalel, and, to be perfectly honest, these were my favourite elements of Rachel’s story. Sadly however they do not play a huge role in the plot, and most of the narrative is dedicated to Rachel having sex or thinking about her ‘pussy’. Seriously, there were times when this book brought to mind WAP cause there are a few situations in which Rachel and Miriam would benefit from using a mop.

I would not recommend this to those who have been affected by an ED. Although the author initially seemed to have captured many sentiments that resonated with me, Rachel’s ED is ultimately used as a source of humour. There are many grotesque scenes that serve very little purpose other than ridiculing her. And I’m very over books or films that feature characters who offhandedly remark ‘I tried to go bulimic once but like it didn’t work’ (then again, I had bulimia so I am a bit touchy on that particular front).
Anyway, this novel tries to be outrageous and subversive but it succeeds only in being gratuitous. This is the kind of satire that is all bark, no bite. The author’s commentary on modern work culture, eating disorders, contemporary society, religion, the Palestinian-Israel conflict …is lacking.
Also, I find it hard to believe that Rachel, our supposedly shrewd girl, and this famous actor would get Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s creature confused.

Nevertheless, just because I found Melissa Broder’s story to be superficial and ultimately unfunny, does not mean that you should not give this novel a try (bear in mind however that this books has some pretty yucky and incest-y content).
Here is a snippet which I did not enjoy but might very well appeal to other types of readers:

“Her hair was the color of cream soda, or papyrus scrolls streaked with night light. Her eyebrows were the color of lions, lazy ones, dozing in sunlight or eating butter at night with their paws by lantern. Her eyes: icebergs for shipwrecking. Lashes: smoke and platinum. Her skin was the Virgin Mary, also very baby. Her nose: adorable, breathing. Upper lip: pink peony. Lower lip: rose. The teeth were trickier, but her inner mouth was easy–Valentine hearts and hell.”

my rating: ★★½

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Zikora: A Short Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once again showcases her beautiful in Zikora. The story begins with the titular character, Zikora, who is about to give birth. The father of her soon to be born child is not there with he left her months prior, after she hinted at the possibility of being pregnant. As Zikora goes into labour her mind goes back to this relationship, and we learn that she’s a lawyer who grew up in Nigeria. Her father married a second wife, something that has made her somewhat resentful towards her own mother (his first wife). Adichie conveys Zikora’s various state of minds as well as the uneasy relationship she has with her mother. Her love story with Kwame was particularly sad and Adichie succeeds in giving a nuanced picture of their relationship.
However much I liked Adichie’s calibrated and beautifully insightful prose, I have never been a fan of narratives that focus on giving birth or the early days of motherhood. I would definitely recommend this story to those who unlike me do not have qualms reading about these subjects.

edit 24/11: I am not a fan of cancel culture however I also do not want to support public figures who use their positions of influence to spread hate or under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’ discriminate against the trans community. So no, I am not about encourage others to ‘cancel’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie but I do think that she should be held accountable for her comments. Until then…I am not sure I will be able to enjoy her work as I did before.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

On paper A Lover’s Discourse is the type of book that I generally like: we have an unmanned who recounts her relationship to her unmanned ‘lover’—a man she addresses as ‘you’. Our narrator met ‘you’ after moving from China to Britain in 2016. Recently orphaned and feeling somewhat alienated by her new environment the protagonist of A Lover’s Discourse enters into a relationship with a German-Australian man. They begin living together in a houseboat, but while ‘you’ finds freedom in this kind of ‘unmoored’ lifestyle, our narrator would much rather live in an actual house or apartment. While ‘you’ earns money as a landscaper, our protagonist works on her PhD.

The structure of this novel is what initially caught my attention. The narrative is comprised of a series of dialogues in which the protagonist and her partner discuss an array of subjects: British-related issues, love, sex, nationality, identity, landscaping, architecture…sadly their conversations aren’t particularly deep or compelling. Maybe I write this because I found both characters to be different shades of obnoxious: our mc isn’t particularly passionate or interested in anything. While I should have found her efforts to understand British customs and culture, as well as trying to master the English language, to be relatable, given that I am in a similar position, I disliked profoundly the way she was portrayed. She was acerbic nag. She makes generalisation after generalisation about other countries, her own country, and about men. Not only does she repeatedly use the word ‘peasants’ to refer to the residents of her hometown, but her tone, when using this word, left a lot to be desired. She comes out with obsolete comments that make me question why she would ever want to be in a relationship, especially with man, given that she considers sex to be a violent and invasive act that she doesn’t enjoy. Her navel-gazing was far from thought-provoking. She laments her boyfriend having to work, seeming to forget that he is their sole provider as she’s busy completing this PhD she doesn’t even particularly care for (she kind of forgets about her studies once she starts her relationship with ‘you’). Her PhD actually sounded quite interesting, and I wish that it had played more of a role in the narrative.
‘You’ is a condescending man who is kind of dull. He ‘explains’ things to our narrator, and he does so in an exceedingly donnish way.
Attempts are made to connect their ‘discourse’ to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and I wonder…why? These two characters didn’t strike me as the types who would care about Barthes’s writings.
Bland, uninspired, and repetitive, A Lover’s Discourse was a deeply disappointing read. Thankfully it was a relatively slim book.

MY RATING: 2 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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Luster by Raven Leilani

“I think to myself, You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing.

Luster is a deliriously enthralling and boldly subversive debut novel. I was dazzled by the author’s prose, which is by turns dense and supple, by Edie’s sardonic and penetrating narration, and by the story’s caustic yet searing commentary on race, class, gender, and sexuality.

“It is that it is 8:15 a.a. and I feel happy. I am not on the L, smelling someone’s lukewarm pickles, wishing I were dead.”

Luster follows in the steps of recent releases starring perpetually alienated young women prone to bouts of ennui, numbness, morbidity, lethargy, and self-loathing. They are misanthropic, they often engage in some sort of masochistic behaviour, and a few of them inevitably spiral into self-destructiveness. In short, they are millennial Esther Greenwoods.
Luster, however, is by no means a carbon copy of these novels, and Edie’s distinctive voice sets her apart from other eternally dissatisfied protagonists. From the very first pages I found myself mesmerised by Edie’s perplexing and hyper-alert mind.

“I want to be uncomplicated and undemanding. I want no friction between his fantasy and the person I actually am. I want all that and I want none of it.”

Edie is a recently orphaned 23-year-old black woman who leads a directionless and unfulfilling existence. She’s unenthusiastic about her desk job and with no friends to speak of she tries to allay her loneliness through sex (think Fleabag). After a series of ill-advised sexual encounters, Edie lands herself in trouble and finds herself staying in the home of Eric, her latest date. Eric is a white, forty-something archivist who is in an open marriage with Rebecca. The two live in a very white neighbourhood with their adoptive daughter, Akila, who is black.

“There is the potent drug of a keen power imbalance. Of being caught in the excruciating limbo between their disinterest and expertise. Their panic at the world’s growing indifference.”

Eric, who is clearly in the midst of a mid-life crisis, isn’t a particularly attractive or charming man. Yet, Edie is desperate for intimacy. Although she’s aware of her own self-destructive behaviour, she’s unwilling or unable to form healthy relationships, romantic or not, with others. Although Rebecca is suspicious of Edie, she wants someone to help Akila, someone who can show her how to look after her hair, and seems to adjust to Edie’s presence.
Edie’s hunger for love, desire, acceptance, recognition, and self-worth dominate her narrative. Her fascination—part desire, part repulsion—with Eric and Rebecca sees her crossing quite a few lines. The couple, in their turn, treat Edie in a very hot-or-cold way or use her as if she was little more than a pawn in their marriage game.

“He wants me to be myself like a leopard might be herself in a city zoo. Inert, waiting to be fed. Not out in the wild, with tendon in her teeth.”

Edie’s voice makes Luster the crackling read it is. While Edie often entertains rather ridiculous notions, she’s quite capable of making incisive observations about privilege, race, sexism, and modern dating. Throughout the course of the novel Edie makes a lot of discomforting decisions, and more than once I found myself wanting to shake her. But I also really understood her inability to break free of the vicious cycle she’s in (which sees her seeking affirmation and self-love in the wrong places), and of feeling tired by just existing. I loved her unabashedly weird inner monologue and her wry humour (“She tells us the specials in such a way that we know our sole responsibility as patrons in her section is to just go right ahead and fuck ourselves”). Those few glimpses we get of her childhood and her relationship with her mother and father, deepen our understanding of why she is the way she is.

“I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad. It is almost.”

Luster explores the thoughts and experiences of a messy black young woman, without judgement. Like recent shows such as Insecure, Chewing Gum and I Will Destroy You, Luster presents its audience with a narrative that challenges the myth of the ‘strong black woman’ and other existing stereotypes of black womanhood (checkout Amanda’s video on ‘the quirky/awkward black girl’ ). There are times when Edie is awkward, selfish, and angry. Her identity isn’t confined to one character trait. And that’s that.

Luster charts Edie’s sobering yet mischievous, kind-of-sexy, kind-of-weird, sad but funny search for everything and nothing. She both wants and doesn’t want to form meaningful connections with others, she both wants and doesn’t want to be alone, she wants to be used by others, she wants love. Her art is perhaps one of the few pillars in her life. She describes her paintings, the colours she uses, and the artists she likes (Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ gets a mention) in a very vivid manner.
I liked the bond that Edie forms with Akila, one that isn’t uncomplicated but feels like one of the few genuine relationships that appear in this novel (although there were times I liked Rebecca, her intentions towards Edie were ultimately questionable). This is the kind of novel that thrives off uncomfortable truths, awkward interactions, and surreal conversations (that scene at the clown academy was gold). Edie is exhausted by the deluge of microaggressions thrown her way. She tries to be what others want her to be, which is why so many people use her. Even with Eric and Rebecca, Edie is fully aware of being a guest, that she can stay as long as her being there is convenient to them.

To be perfectly honest I find these ‘young women afflicted by the malaise of modernity’ type of novels to be very hit-or-miss (Exciting Times was a definite miss for me). Jean Kyoung Frazier’s Pizza Girl (a hit in my books), shares quite a lot in common with Luster. Both books centred on self-sabotaging young women who become increasingly obsessed with someone who is married (this someone leads a seemingly happy white suburban life), although in Pizza Girl our narrator is far more interested in the wife than the husband. Chances are that if you liked the deadpan humour in Pizza Girl you will like Luster. If you are the type of reader who prefers conventionally nice or quirky characters, maybe Luster won’t be the read for you. Lucky for me, I can sympathise and care for characters who make terrible choices or do horrible things (see Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much, Rachel Lyon’s Self-Portrait with Boy).
Anyway, I’m rambling. I loved Luster, I loved Edie, and I loved Leilani’s prose and her punctuation (that scene that just goes on and on…wow). There were a few references or words that I’m not sure I entirely understood, and I have a feeling this is due to my not being American/native-English speaker.
Huge thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an arc. I will definitely be purchasing my own copy once it’s available in the UK. Leilani, please, keep writing.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

Three by D.A. Mishani

Three wasn’t quite the “dark psychological thriller with a killer twist” I was anticipating. The blurb and cover suggests a far more suspenseful and possibly subversive tale that the one D. A. Mishani actually delivers. The novel’s tripartite structure didn’t feel particularly original as it has become quite popular in novels that fall under the ‘domestic thriller’ genre (more than once I was reminded of Erin Kelly’s Stone Mothers). The summary available for Three is really inaccurate. Yes, Three follows three women who live in Israel and meet the same man, Gil, who works as an immigration lawyer. One of them is a divorced single-mother, the other one is a Latvian immigrant who works as a caregiver, and the third one is a married woman who is working on her thesis. While the summary truthfully states that Gil “won’t tell them the whole truth about himself”, it is kind of stretching things when it says that these three women won’t “tell him everything either”. And that last bit about this novel being”a declaration of war against the normalisation of death and violence” is ludicrous.

MILD-SPOILERS BELOW

The first woman begins to date Gil even if she isn’t all that enamoured by him. The second one is under the misapprehension that Gil is an okay guy. The third doesn’t seem to want to take things further with him but then is somehow disarmed by Gil’s nonexistent power of persuasion. The three women don’t meet, and their narrative succeed each other chronologically. The first one is saturated by the woman angst-ing over her ex and her son. The second one portrays an immigrant woman as not all that bright and goes for the stereotype of the ‘foreign caregiver steals’. The third one has slightly more momentum than the previous two, as things by then have kind of escalated, but it didn’t offer any surprisings twists or a satisfyingly cathartic denouement.
Two of the women are painfully naive, prone to hysterics and self-pitying. Gil was portrayed in a vaguely ambiguous manner, but mostly he remains off-page and maybe that’s why I didn’t find his character to be credible.
I could have put up with the novel’s many clichés if it hadn’t been for the author’s writing style: all telling, no showing. There are very few dialogues, and most of the conversations are simply recounted to us. This passive re-telling of what the characters said to each other did little to add immediacy to the story. The third-perspective merely described what the characters do without ever delving under their surface, which had the effect of making these three women rather one-dimensional.
Although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this novel—especially to those who were intrigued by this novel’s misleading summary—I’m sure that there will be readers who find this kind of storytelling to be entertaining.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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BOOK REVIEWS

Severance by Ling Ma

“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

Severance is an engrossing and, given the current pandemic, timely read. Through the use of a dual timeline Ling Ma’s novel encompasses many genres: we have chapters set in the past, pre-apocalypse, when the Shen Fever is a mere afterthought in the daily lives of New Yorkers, and the ones post-apocalypse, in which our protagonist joins a cultish group of survivors who seem to be immune to the fever.

Kmart realism meets millennial malaise in Candace Chen’s first-person narration.
Candace’s sardonic observations lightened the mood of the story. Her drone-like work attitude brought to mind novels such Convenience Store Woman and Temporary. The chapters set in the past detail Candace’s daily routine, in which we see that other than her half-hearted interest in photography, Candace is resigned to her position as Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, and isn’t too disturbed by her role in the exploitation of workers outside of America. She’s yet another disaffected, somewhat directionless, twenty-something female protagonist who has become all the rage in contemporary fiction. Thankfully Ma makes Candace her own unique creation, one who, as the fever starts spreading in America, actually undergoes some character growth (making Severance a coming-of-age of sorts). Although Candace operates very much on auto-pilot, her listless routine is soon interrupted by the pandemic.

In the chapters focusing on ‘after’, once New Yorkers have either fled the city or become infected, Candace joins a group led by the rather bullying Bob, a man who isn’t particularly charming or clever but has somehow successfully convinced others that they will be safe if they follow him to the Facility (a ‘mysterious’ but safe location). Along the way, they raid the houses of those who are infected, and Candace finds herself becoming increasingly disenchanted towards her so-called leader.

In Ma’s novel the fevered repeat “banal activities” on an infinite loop: they will spend the rest of their days performing the same activity (such as washing dishes, opening a door, dressing , trying different clothes). Ma’s fever works as an allegory, one which reduces humans to the humdrum activities—getting dressed, preparing food—that constitute their lives.
Tense or even brutal scenes are alleviated by Candace’s caustic narration. And there are even moments and dialogues that are so absurd as to verge on the hysterical realism. Ma makes it work, and unlike her characters, or the circumstances they face, her language remains restrained.
Underneath the novel’s hyperbolic scenarios lies a shrewd critique of capitalism, consumerism, globalism, modern work culture, and the American Dream. Through flashbacks we learn of Candace’s parents’ arrival in America and of how their diverging desires—Candace’s mother wishes to return to China while the father believes that will lead more successful lives in America—created a rift in their marriage.

Ma covers a myriad of topics in a seemingly offhand manner: adulthood, loneliness, connectedness, dislocation. Candace’s deadpan narration takes her readers alongside a journey that is as surreal as it is chilling. Ma, far more successfully than Mona Awad with Bunny, switches with ease between the first and third person, showing her readers just how easily one can lose sight of their identity.
My only criticism is towards Ma’s use of the dual timeline. At times there wasn’t a clear balance between past and present, and some sections detailing Candace’s work at Spectra were overlong. Still, I really enjoyed Severance, it is an impressive debut and I can’t wait to read more from Ma.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars of 5 stars

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