BOOK REVIEWS

The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai

In The Setting Sun Osamu Dazai captures a nation in transition. Set during the early postwar years Japan this novella is centred on an aristocratic family fallen on hard times. Kazuko, our narrator, and her fragile mother who are forced to move to the countryside and give up their family home. Gentile Kazuko has no options left but work in the fields. She slowly begins to fear that this menial labour will make her spiritually and physically ‘coarse’. Kazuko laments what she perceives as a decline in moral standards, which she attributes to the rapid industrialisation and Westernisation of her country.
Kazuko’s brother return to Japan causes further distress. Naoji is now addicted to opiodis and his presence in the household upsets Kazuko. His cynicism and cruelty do little to assuage their mother.
As the narrative progresses we are introduced to Mr. Uehara, a writer and an acquaintance of Naoji.
While I was interested in Dazai’s mediations on class, nobility, and the right to die, as well as his navigating the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, I was ultimately underwhelmed by The Setting Sun. Perhaps this is because Kazuko and Naoji’s voices at times were almost interchangeable, or maybe I was never convinced by the character of Kazuko (especially when it came to the man she loves). At times Dazai seemed more interested in rendering the aesthetics of existentialism than of truly delving beneath his character’s surface.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

Parade by Hiromi Kawakami

In this short volume readers will be reunited with Tsukiko and Sensei, from Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. After sharing a meal together, Sensei asks Tsukiko to “tell me a story from long ago”. Tsukiko obliges. When she was a child two tengu started following her around. Other children in her class age were also being followed by spirits and creatures from folklore. Kawakami’s sparse prose has lulling quality. She combines quotidian moments or reflections with surreal elements. Tsukiko is regretful about her behaviour towards one of her classmates, so that some of what she recounts is given a bittersweet note.
Throughout this short story there are two-colour illustrations by Takako Yoshitomi (geometric shapes and patterns as well as anthropomorphised figures).
I love Kawakami’s prose, the timelessness of her stories, the vague sense of nostalgia that permeates her narratives. Parade felt just a bit too short.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

“Everything I could see looked unreal to me; everything I could see made me feel I would never be part of it, never penetrate to the inside, never be taken in.”

From the very first page, I was enthralled by Lucy’s deceptively simple narration. To begin with, I was struck by the clarity of her observations and the directness of her statements. As I kept reading, however, I came to realise just how enigmatic a character she was.

“Oh, I had imagined that with my one swift act—leaving home and coming to this new place—I could leave behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again, my sad thoughts, my sad feelings, and my discontent with life in general as it presented itself to me.”

After leaving her homeland, an unnamed island in the West Indies, Lucy becomes an au pair for a white and wealthy couple in North America. Although Lucy wants to leave her past behind, her alienating new surroundings make her homesick. Lucy tries to acclimatise to the colder climate, to American’s strange customs, to her new role. As she tries to adjust to her new home, she becomes closer to her employer, Mariah. Her obliviousness, however, frustrates Lucy as Mariah seems incapable or unwilling to acknowledge her privilege or their cultural differences, seeming content to live in a bubble.
Lucy strikes a friendship with Peggy, a young woman from Ireland. While the two share a sense of otherness (“From the moment we met we had recognized in each other the same restlessness, the same dissatisfaction with our surroundings, the same skin-doesn’t-fit-ness.”), Peggy is far more of a bohemian. Lucy’s relationship with Mariah begins to fray, partly because of Peggy’s influence, partly due to Lucy’s growing disillusionment towards her employers and their after all not-so-perfect marriage.
As Lucy recounts her time as an au pair, her mind often drifts towards her childhood. We know that her strained relationship with her mother had an enormous impact on her, but we are only given glimpses of their time together. As Lucy attempts to navigate her new life, we come to learn why she has become so unwilling to be truly known by others. Through what we learn of her past, and through the things she leaves unspoken, we begin to understand Lucy’s obliqueness, her remoteness, her alienation, her self-division (which she describes as a “two-facedness: that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true”), her attitude towards others and her sexuality.
Lucy is an unremittingly ambiguous and fascinating character-study. Kincaid’s polished prose is deeply alluring: from the evocative descriptions of the weather to Lucy’s penetrating deliberations.
I was also drawn by the parallels Kincaid makes between Lucy and Villette (which happens to be one of my favourite novels of all time). Kincaid’s Lucy leaves her homeland to become an au pair, while Brontë’s Lucy leaves England to become a teacher in a small town in Belgium. Both women are ambivalent towards their past and disinclined to let others know who they are or what they ‘feel’. They both experience a sense of displacement and have to adapt to another culture. They also both become ‘involved’ with men who are called Paul (Brontë’s Paul owns a slave plantation). In many ways, Lucy functions as a reworking of Villette, as it subverts its colonial narrative (more than once Lucy’s informs us of the inadequacy of her British colonial education) and provides a more modern exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and sexual repression.

“I had begun to see the past like this: there is a line; you can draw it yourself, or sometimes it gets drawn for you; either way, there it is, your past, a collection of people you used to be and things you used to do. Your past is the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in.”

Throughout the course of Lucy’s tale Kincaid examines the way in which one’s family can affect an individual’s self-perception and the damage that parental favouritism has on a child’s self-worth.
Kincaid’s Lucy is an incessantly intriguing novel. I was mesmerised by her prose, by her inscrutable main character, and by the opaqueness and lucidity of her narrative.
Kincaid beautifully articulates Lucy’s feelings—her desire, contempt, guilt, despair—without ever revealing too much. Lucy retains an air of unknowability. Similarly, the mother-daughter bond that is at the heart of the novel remains shrouded in mystery.

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

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

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

The Touchstone by Edith Wharton — review

Having read a few works by Edith Wharton, I’ve become familiar with her beautifully articulated style. Still, I was nonetheless impressed by just how accomplished The Touchstone is considering that it is Wharton’s first published novella.
The story revolves around Stephen Glennard, a New York lawyer, who doesn’t have enough money to marry his sweetheart, Alexa Trent. It just so happens that Glennard comes across an advertisement seeking information relating to a figure from his past, the famous and recently deceased novelist Margaret Aubyn. Because Margaret was once in love with Glennard, and the two kept a correspondence, he’s accumulated hundreds of her letters. Although Glennard is fully aware that to sell these private letters would be to betrayal to Margaret, he worries that Alexa won’t wait for him much longer. After editing his name out of the letters and with the help of an acquaintance of his, who happens to be a rich collector, Glennard sells them. The money from the publisher, and from Glennard’s own subsequent investments, enables him to marry Alexa.
This being a work by Wharton however we know that marriage does not equal happiness. Guilt, shame, and endless waves of remorse mar Glennard’s days. Unable to reconcile himself with his actions, knowing that his wife, and the rest of his social circle, would condemn him for the sale, Glennard finds uneasy solace in his memory of Margaret.
Through her elegantly precise prose Wharton renders all the nuances of Glennard’s disillusionment—with himself, his wife, his marriage—as well as evincing his inner turmoil. Wharton complements this character study with a piercing social commentary (focusing on the customs and niceties of the so called ‘polite’ society’). I particularly appreciated the narrative’s engagement with notions of privacy. Why should an author’s private life be made ‘public’? Can one retain a degree of privacy or autonomy over one’s life if they are considered ‘public’ figures? Glennard’s story seems a cautionary tale. He infringes Margaret’s privacy, exposing her personal letters—which were written for the audience of one—to the world. When he comes across people, mostly women, discussing Margaret’s letters, he’s sickened, as much by them as by himself.
Wharton is a master of the trade and The Touchstone is as sophisticated as her later and more celebrated works. In spite of its historical setting The Touchstone is also a strikingly relevant novella (a public figure’s right to privacy vs. the public’s interest) one that explores the ethical and moral repercussions of Glennard’s violation of Margaret privacy and trust.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings — book review

46184288._SY475_While Kathleen Jennings is an undeniably wonderful illustrator, I’m afraid that I wasn’t particularly impressed by her novella. What first struck me as somewhat discordant in Flyaway was the prose itself. At times the writing was clunky and there were passages that seemed as if they were trying to echo someone else’s style. The way Flyaway started was also incredibly reminiscent of my favourite novel by Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. While in Jackson’s novel the ambiguity felt almost ‘natural’, Flyway seems to be blaring its own mysteriousness. Our narrator, Bettina (I had to check her name, that’s how ‘unforgettable’ she is) has this excessively creepy monologue which consists in her repeating to herself her mother’s ladylike beliefs/rules. Bettina cannot remember why her father disappeared. She isn’t concerned by her hazy memories until she receives a letter that for plot reasons convinces her to embark on a road-trip with her former best friends. Quite a few people have disappeared in their small town, and these three decide to figure out what’s going on. Interspersed in this already short story are chapters about minor characters who are connected to the town and its mystery.
The characters were mere names and lacked personality. Bettina’s narration isn’t nearly as ambivalent as it believes, the various stories were both boring and predictable, and I simply could not get into the flow of Jennings dissonant writing style.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire — book review

Untitled drawing (3).jpg

Although occasionally entertaining, Come Tumbling Down struck me as a rather unnecessary and insubstantial addition to the Wayward Children series.

“Once a wayward child, always a wayward child.”

Don’t get me wrong: Seanan McGuire’s writing style is as lush as ever. Her prose, with its use rhythm and repetition, echoes that of fairy-tale, lending a certain allure to her narrative. As with the previous instalments McGuire weaves real issues into her fantastical setting (such as body dysmorphia, gender dysphoria, anxiety, OCD, trauma) however in this case not all of them were seamlessly woven into her story. Some—such as body dysmorphia—were just rushed through and consequently seemed to lack depth.

“No one should have to sit and suffer and pretend to be someone they’re not because it’s easier, or because no one wants to help them fix it.”

The story sadly feels like a rehash of the previous volumes. Part of me doesn’t think that we needed another chapter that focused on Jack and Jill…the dynamics between Jack and Miss West’s students—old and new—weren’t all that compelling. I wish we could have had more of Christopher or Kade instead. The exchanges between the characters felt repetitive and aimless.
The humour felt forced. Sumi was very much the ‘clown’ character who eased the tension of a scene by saying something silly/absurd. The quest itself felt unfocused and made Jill into a rather one-sided character.
On the one hand I really love McGuire’s writing…but here her storyline and characters lacked depth.There were some clever phrases and some ‘aesthetic’ character descriptions but they never amounted to anything truly substantial. Pretty words aside, Come Tumbling Down doesn’t really add anything new to this series.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Summer by Edith Wharton — book review

Untitled drawing (4).jpg

Although short Summer is an interesting read.
Feelings and actions are obliquely revealed or hinted at, so much so that many of the decisive events that our ‘heroine’ Charity experiences are only alluded to or described in an indirect fashion.

Because of this, the changing dynamics between the various characters can at times be hard to follow or understand. Yet, Wharton’s narration does render, withan almost painful accuracy, those emotions and thoughts that can align the reader to Charity’s state of mind.

There is a sense of sadness and growing unease that makes this novella into a rather distressing reading experience. While the story examines class, gender, and desire in an intriguing manner it also presents us with many unhappy scenarios and characters who are selfish, greedy, and snobbish.
Wharton deftly illustrates how Charity’s background (the fact that she comes from “up the mountain” ) not only negatively affects her reputation—that is the way she is perceived by others—but it is also the cause of her own sense of inferiority. Almost incongruously to this deeply ingrained feeling of shame, and the fear that she is like her mother (a poor woman of ill reputation), Charity holds the fervent belief that she is superior to others and deserving of an exciting and self-fulfilling life.
These contrasting beliefs are the likely reason why Charity denies herself happiness and in self-denial she bottles up her love for Lucius Harney.
The story is not a happy one, and as Charity mirrors her mother’s path, readers will find the turn of events to be almost inevitable ones. Perhaps a slower narrative could have examined with even more depth Charity and her story, as the narrative in Summer quickly moves from scene to scene without much room to digest the causes and consequences of Charity’s actions…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment — book review

45415035.jpg

“A flirtation would make the sequestered nights more interesting. ”

This was an interesting novella that reminded me of some short stories by Joyce Carol Oates. There is this sense of unease which permeates the narrative as well as a growing sense of foreboding. The writing style is intentionally detached, for instance addressing two of the main character as C-2 and F-17, and the other jurors by nicknames (deriving from their profession or appearance). The story was an intriguing take on the usual whodunnit as it is up to the jurors to decide wherever the accused, a teenage girl, murdered her toddler brother. The focus of the story shifts from this case to the affair between C-2 and F-17. Both the case, the “romance”, and the various dynamics between the jurors were rendered in a realistic and captivating way.

“To pay attention to something you don’t understand when there is such an alluring narrative waiting to take over your thoughts proves undoable. ”

The less you know about this story the better. It is a compelling work with a strong vision and plenty of atmosphere. The narrative addresses many interesting things (such as the complicated marriage between a fifty-two-year-old and someone in their eighties) in a quietly observant way. I particularly enjoyed references to Madame Bovary and Forman’s Amadeus (two favourites of mine) as well as the cold yet evocative writing style.

“C-2 has never had the patience to listen to someone else’s story and not try to guess the ending. But guessing the ending is different than calcifying into certitude. She would be willing to switch sides if persuaded, but that wouldn’t stop her from speculating. Who honestly imagines themselves to be that neutral and fair?”

The only reason why I am not giving this a full 4 stars is that towards the end it seemed that the narrative lost some of its original momentum and my interest waned. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to reading something else by Climent and, if you are looking for an engaging read that provides plenty of food for thought, you should consider picking this up.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

Read more reviews on my blog or View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss : review

★★★✰✰ 3 STARSUntitled drawing (5).jpg

I feel vaguely disappointed by this novella. While I can see that the majority of reviewers found this to be a moving and harrowing portrayal of abuse, I thought that—for the most past—this was a rather simplistic portrayal of an abusive parent.

The characters came across as very one-dimensional and yes, while I felt angry at Silvie’s father I also found him somewhat cartoonish. He seemed almost a caricature: misogynistic, racist, abusive. Everything he says and does corroborates to the image of a ‘bad man’. While I know that there are many people who fit all of those labels it seemed a bit easy for him to possess only negative qualities.
The mother seemed to belong to the 50s rather than the 90s. Again, she seemed the caricature of the victimised and self-effacing wife who does not bat an eyelash when her daughter (view spoiler). Yes, there are individuals who stand by and let their partners abuse their children but Silvie’s mother seemed conveniently stereotypical.
The other men were almost as bad. Stupid or blatantly blind to Silvie’s fathers disturbing behaviour.
While Silvie’s repression makes sense—given the way in which she was raised—it also made her very uninteresting and frustrating.
While the writing rendered some beautiful—and at times disturbing—landscapes, I found some metaphors to be a bit ‘trying’ and repetitive. I’m not sure why narratives of this kind are obsessed by pubic hair.
Overall, I think I might have preferred a shorter version of this story and while I wasn’t a ‘fan’ of this I look forward to trying something else by Moss.

Read more reviews on my blog or View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Star by Yukio Mishima : Review

imgonline-com-ua-FrameBlurred-IcqMZ42x5RmNEjD

Although first published in 1961 this feverish novella explores themes that are still being explored today such as celebrity fandom. The protagonist of the story is a ‘star’ and we soon see that he struggles with maintaining the persona of famous and beloved actor. Although Rikio enjoys his fame he also begins to feel disconnected from his own self, almost loosing himself in the roles he takes and, as his story progresses, his identity seems to disintegrate.
Because of his cynic outlook Rikio sounds much older than he is. There are moments in which he seems a passive participant in his own life, observing with mild distaste what other people do and criticising his contemporary Japanese society. The only person that seems ‘visible’ to him is his make-up artist, a woman who is older than him. The two seem to poke fun at the way the film-industry works and at Rikio’s adoring fans.
Much of what Rikio experiences and thinks comes across as being somewhat surreal or even as being part of a larger hallucination. As Rikio narrative becomes increasingly affected by his anxiousness over his career and life, I found myself feeling almost paranoid alongside him.

Overall, although this was far from ‘enjoyable’ it was an interesting and short piece of writing that might appeal those readers who have watched and appreciated Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue.

★★★✰✰ 3 stars

Read more reviews on my blog or View all my reviews