BOOK REVIEWS

Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen

With the exception of the first two stories in this collection, ‘Lulu’ and ‘Hotline Girl’, I wasn’t all that taken by Land of Big Numbers. What I most appreciated is Te-Ping Chen’s ability to vividly render contemporary China. The stories in this collection will certainly give readers insight into Chinese and modern work culture, the everyday realities of young Chinese men and women, as well as shed light on class and generational divides. In the first story, ‘Lulu’, a young man who is into gaming becomes increasingly concerned over his sister’s involvement in protests and activities criticising the Chinese government. In the following story ‘Hotline Girl’ (the title reminds me of a certain song) a young woman who works at a government call centre is contacted by her abusive ex. While these first two stories felt complete and well-realised the remaining 8 easily blur together. One is about an addictive fruit, another one is about an inventor whose creations more often than not flop, we have a few exploring marriages or romantic relationships but in a way that never brought me close to the characters. I wasn’t drawn in by them or, to be perfectly honest, by the author’s writing style. We have some strained metaphors (“She felt the years deep beneath her skin, as thought Shanghai had grafted steel plates in her cheeks”, the layers of a croissant are compared to the “underbelly of a sea creature gently exhaling”). Many of the characters were flat, their conversations uninteresting, their motives unconvincing.
Still, I recognise that many other readers will find this collection to be more satisfying than I did. I guess I have almost 0 interest in stories about stock markets or people who do not care for food or dislike “Mediterranean” food (what can I say, my Italian feathers were ruffled).


ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


my rating: ★★½


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We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan


We Are All Birds of Uganda is a debut novel that inspired rather conflicting feelings in me. At first, I enjoyed Hafsa Zayyan’s ability to render her protagonist’s environment. I was not surprised to discover that Zayyan is like her protagonist Sameer a lawyer based in London. Zayyan captures the stressful atmosphere of Sameer’s office, the toll played by his long hours, the benefits of his high wage (he can afford a studio apartment in London), the ambition driving him. Things take a downturn when Sameer, who is possibly in his late twenties, begins to work under Chris. In spite of having been recognized as one of the most promising lawyers of his practice and that he will be part of the team to set up a new office in Singapore, Chris treats him like poorly. Chris takes issue with Sameer fasting on Ramadan and seems to go out of his way to bully Sameer. When Sameer’s colleague, and until then friend, also begins to make remarks about ‘tokenism’ (implying that Sameer only got the Singapore gig because he is South Asian) Sameer feels justly alienated. When someone close to him is the victim of a racially motivated attack Sammer feels all the more lost. In spite of his success as a lawyer his own family refuse to cheer him on his career, wanting him instead to work for the family business. A confused Sameer makes a spur of the moment decision and flies to Uganda, the country his own father and grandfather were forced to flee during the 1970s expulsion of Asians from Uganda. Between Sameer’s chapters are excerpts from letters written by his grandfather to his deceased first wife.

I actually enjoyed the first section of this novel, when the story is focused on Sameer and his life in London. I liked the dynamic he has with his two friends and his experiences at the office felt realistic and believable. I wish that his relationship with his immediate family (particularly his father) had been explored more. As the child of immigrants, Sameer feels not only the pressure to make his family proud but he also wants to fit in with his British peers. The clash between personal freedom and familial obligations was interesting. Alas, his story takes a downward turn when he makes the sudden and kind of out of character choice to go to Uganda. Here the story turns into one that would have been better suited to a movie. Clichè after clichè. Sameer falls in love (of course) with a woman his parents will never approve of (of course). Maybe I would have believed in their romance more if he hadn’t been so rushed. He sees her…and that’s that. The beauty of insta-love! She’s not like other women, he actually doesn’t want to jump in her pants, he loves talking with her, she’s smart, empathetic, and kind (which begs the question, why ever would she go for Sameer?). We even have a scene where she is wearing white and gets wet and he sees her nipples andio mio! Really? The thing is, as much as I loved the author’s description of Uganda (from its culture to its landscapes) her storyline lost all of its initial originality and authenticity. Sameer’s behavior towards and thoughts about women made my skin crawl. The guy is a creep. And that the narrative has to compound his feelings about this woman by making him decline the flirtations of another one..? And of course, this other girl is portrayed as promiscuous and a flirt. He thinks about fucking her but his feelings for the woman he loves are so pure that he decides not to. Wow. How noble.

The grandfather’s chapters were a wasted opportunity. They gave us information about Uganda and the 1970s expulsion of Asians but this information could have been imparted differently. Later on, Sameer comes across his grandfather’s letters and learns more about Ugandan history, so why not insert here those facts that appeared in the grandfather’s chapters? He certainly did not necessitate so many chapters! I never believed in his voice, and couldn’t really visualize him or his relationship with the other characters. His letters were there only for us to be able to learn more about Uganda, which I appreciate but as I said I think this information could have been presented to us in a different way. I understand that family sagas have to have two timelines, but here one of the timelines was limited by its format (that of a letter to a dead person). Also, the grandfather seems to recount a few months and at times years in the span of one letter…which didn’t really make sense. Does he write a letter to his dead wife every couple of years? Filling her in with all that happened since his last letter? And why would he give her information she would have already known?

The more I read the more my enthusiasm for this novel died out. I ended up hating Sameer and the predictable storyline. The relationship between parents/son and brother/sister were sadly undeveloped, sidetracked in favor of a clichèd romance.
All in all, I am quite disappointed by this one. The ending too was really grating (it reminded me of The Saint of Incipient Insanities and The Secret of the Grain) and made me want to scream: what was the point of it all?!

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Once again, I am in the minority as I did not find Red Pill to be a particularly artful or clever novel. To be clear, I do think that Hari Kunzru can write very well indeed, however, his narrative struck me as all flash and no substance.

I was amused by the first quarter of this novel. Kunzru’s writing didn’t ‘blow’ me away but I did find his narrator’s inner monologue to be mildly entertaining. The more I read however, the more my interest waned. My mounting frustration at the silliness and superficiality of the story soon morphed into an overwhelming feeling of exasperation. Maybe, this is my fault. The summary, cover, and general ‘hype’ surrounding this novel led me to believe that Red Pill would be something more than your average ‘well-educated yet exceedingly average straight man has midlife crisis in Europe’ story but I was wrong.
As per usual, if you enjoyed this novel, well, ben per te. And, at the risk of anticipating righteous Kunzru devotees: No, I did not in fact ‘get’ this novel. There you have it.

I’m all for historical and literary references or philosophical asides but boy, oh boy, Red Pill sure liked to flex. Maybe, one needs a master in Philosophy and Literature to understand the brilliance of the narrator’s endless ramblings on Kleist, the Enlightenment, western philosophers, postmodern theorists, Evil, self-determination, and violence.
This nameless narrator of ours (of course he remains unnamed) is experiencing some existential dread. This may be because the novel is set in 2016 and our protagonist lives in America. His conviction that ‘something’ bad is going to happen soon aren’t unfounded. Suffering writer’s block our narrator is given a ‘golden’ opportunity, a three-months residency at the Deuter Center (located in Wannsee, Berlin). Here he will supposedly be able to crack on his “The Lyric I”.
Our narrator was no however prepared for the Deuter Center’s many rules. The Center is in fact a “experimental community” that promotes, nay insists, on the “public labor of scholarship”. The narrator finds the idea of having to undertake his research in a ‘communal’ space to be abject. His feelings of discomfort and anxiety are exacerbated by a particularly unpleasant and hectoring resident, a man who relishes in making others miserable, using pseudo-intellectual jargon to ‘demolish’ their thesis and beliefs. Cowed, our narrator, who is fully aware of his own inability to speak against this bullying man, hides in his bedroom, watching episode after episode of Blue Lives an America show about cops gone ‘rogue’ and operate under a ‘violence begets violence’ mentality which sees them torturing and killing criminals.
As the narrator’s obsession for this show grows, he starts exhibiting paranoid behaviour. His thoughts too, which are very much convey this sense of ‘being watched’ or controlled (by the Center? The show? Who knows.).
The narrative then switches to the story of Monika, a cleaner who works at the Center. Monika decides for some reason to make our unremarkable, and increasingly unbalanced, narrator into her confidante. She recounts of her time in a punk girl band in East Germany, and of the way she was persecuted by the Stasi. The story exists solely as a poorly veiled allegory. This novel is not really interest in Monika, and why should it be? This is very much a narrative about an average man’s midlife crisis and of his ‘descent’ into madness.
Pure happenstance, our narrator meets Anton, the creator of Blue Lives, at a party in Berlin. Anton is a ‘bad’ guy, our narrator is sure of this. Anton does in fact act like a dick, and doesn’t bother to conceal his alt-right leanings. This encounter upsets our narrator so much that he looses grip of himself.
What follows is a sequence of fevered events in which our protagonist tries to expose Anton to the world, believing that the best way of doing so is to hurtle down the path of insanity. Paranoia and gas-lightening abound in this part of the novel. Much of what happens seems to exist merely to ridicule our narrator, to emphasise his inability to form cohesive counter-arguments to Anton’s Mad Max worldview. He now ‘sees’ the world in all its ugliest glory, he has indeed taken the ‘red pill’ mentioned in the title.

The cartoonish characters (the Center guy and Anton are pompous and blustering finger-wagging caricatures) and awkward interactions could be chalked down to Kunzru’s predilection for hysterical realism. This is satire. Okay. Fair enough. Still, what lies beneath his ‘satire’? An intelligent social commentary? A cautionary tale? Methinks not. The exaggerated characters and outlandish plot did not seem to have anything particularly to say. Beware ‘Antons’? Those who hold extremist views and use scholarly or high-register words to deflect their audience from the true meaning of what they are saying? Paranoia is a sane response to an ‘insane’ reality?
Kunzur’s arguments felt tired, especially in 2020, and serve a merely ornamental function. Take the role of the show Blue Lives in the story. Our narrator watches it with a mix of horror and fascination. He worries that no one has caught on the messages that Anton has peppered in his show, particularly a troubling quote by Joseph de Maistre. Our narrator tries to call out Anton, by criticising his show’s pessimistic worldview, in which the world is an “abattoir”. But that’s it. He doesn’t try to think why viewers of this show condone this kind of vigilante sort of justice. Kunzru has one quick scene in a kebab shop in which he attempts to unpack the psychology of people like Anton, but he does it in such a harried and obvious way (Anton telling our protagonist why his friends dislike immigrants and non-Western cultural influences), to which our inept narrator responds “fuck you”.
Kunzru also tries to show how good intentions can be misunderstood by having our supposedly progressive narrator attempt to help a refugee father and her daughter. Except that his attempt to help them is from the get go dodgy as he wants to prove Anton and his violent worldview wrong.
He’s also, surprise surprise, like Monika, made to seem complicit with Anton (so that he’s mistaken for a Fascist).
I get that we are not meant to like the narrator (he’s kind of a coward, kind of pathetic, kind of a creep when it comes to attractive women), but did the author really have to go out of his way to humiliate him? I already felt little for this man, and the more the story seemed intent on emphasising his many failings, the more I lost interest.
The author seemed more focused on making his narrative as nebulous as possible than of fleshing out or giving some nuance to his characters. Yet, the structure of the novel isn’t all that innovative. The plot too unfolds rather predictably. The narrator’s unreliability and his imminent breakdown are obvious, and I felt no apprehension about his decline or wellbeing. While the author’s prose was exceedingly well-articulated, I failed to grasp the meaning behind his words.
The narrator often recounted the conversations he had with others. Consequently, not only did the plot lack immediacy but the majority of the secondary characters were made to speak only through our narrator recalling the gist of their words (one could say that this is realistic as he is retroactively describing his time in Berlin but why do we get some dialogues then? Am I to believe then he has a sporadic exceptional memory?). The narrator’s inner-monologue is repetitive and appeared to be little other than navel-gazing. Many of his thoughts and feelings aren’t all that complex, and yet the author will dedicate entire paragraphs to them.
Also, while I understand that there times when you can get so flustered as to be unable to form a cohesive sentence or valid counter-argument (just think how many videos there in which ‘liberals/snowflakes/feminists are destroyed with FACTS and LOGIC’) it didn’t ring quite true when at the Center what’s-his-face is offensive towards every single other resident, and no one does anything about it. He wasn’t their boss or a threatening guy, yet, not one of these learned individuals was capable of calling him out. His behaviour, as far as I remember, doesn’t even get reported (which it should be given that he says inappropriate things, and actively works against the Center’s ideology). Speaking of the Center, that felt very much felt like ‘bait’. It seems that it will play some sort of role in the novel but it is totally sidelined in favour of our narrator spiralling out of control.
Another thing I couldn’t quite behind was Anton and his supposed powers of influence over our main character. While I can recognise that the narrator was in a susceptible, if not vulnerable, state I wasn’t convinced by the way Anton comes to dominate his every-thought. The guy may have been able to quote some obscure philosopher but that hardly makes him into almighty persuader.
The ‘writing about writing’ angle was but underwhelming and obnoxious. If anything, the narrator’s reflections on writing seemed to serve as excuses for the actual novel’s failings: “Plot is the artificial reduction of life’s complexity and randomness. It is a way to give aesthetic form to reality” (insert headache inducing eye-roll here). And of course, Chekhov’s gun gets a mention. How very self-aware.
While the protagonist did touch upon interesting subjects and ideas, often using researched vocabulary, he did so superficially, so that ultimately his narration seemed little other than bloviating.

In spite of the novel’s lampoon of the academic world, the narrative struck as being extremely elitist. Red Pill tells a meandering and ultimately inadequate story, attempting perhaps to shock or impress its own importance onto its readers. But I felt mostly annoyed by it all. Meaning and depth are lost in a prolix narrative that meanders maddeningly from one subject to the next without having anything substantial to say. Reading this was a huge waste of time, time I could have spent watching ContraPoints or Philosophy Tube. Did the world need another book dedicated to a self-proclaimed ‘average’ man who is having a ‘midlife’ crisis?

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Man of My Time by Dalia Sofer

“After nearly a decade of delirious revenge, rations, war, and death, we saw the world in shades of blood.”

In Man of My Time Dalia Sofer makes a fascinating and unsettling inquiry into morality. The novel is centred on and narrated by Hamid Mozaffarian. When Hamid, a former interrogator for the Iranian regime, travels to New York he reconnects with his younger brother, Omid, who he hadn’t seen or spoken to since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. As the day passes Hamid finds himself looking back into his past, tracing his history with his family and his country.

“The point is that in the autobiography there is a time-honored tradition of redemption and repentance, which is a concept dear to all: towbeh for Muslims, teshuvah for Jews, penance for Christians—who doesn’t appreciate a good metamorphosis story, a passage from wickedness to virtue? Even the contemporary secular tale, say, of the disillusioned drunk or the wayward hustler, hasn’t escaped this familiar trajectory, of darkness to light, anguish to liberation.”

From the very beginning readers will be aware of Hamid’s dubious morals. To label him as antihero however seems inadequate as Sofer’s protagonist challenges easy definition. He’s capable of betraying and self-betraying, of committing reprehensible acts and of shirking accountability.
As Hamid revisits his childhood we are shown contradictory episodes: at times Hamid seems like a sensitive child who is made to feel ashamed of his own fragility, and then we see the same child becoming obsessed with the “demise” of insects. Hamid’s formative years are shaped by his difficult relationship with his father and by Iran’s growing unrest. As a restless teenager Hamid’s unease towards his father morphs into contempt, and he finds himself projecting his hatred towards his father’s authority towards those who rule the country. He becomes entangled with rebels, agitators, and idealists, and seems eager to prove himself to them. When Hamid’s family flee the country during the revolution, he refuses to go with them.
From mutinous teenager (“there was something consoling about being maligned, having a grievance, and maybe even dying misjudged”) Hamid grows into a deeply alienated man who leads a solitary existence. His wife wants to divorce him, he has become estranged from his daughter, and he has parted ways from the man he considered to be one of his only allies. His cynic worldview and the rancour he feels towards everybody and everything (from every generation to Iranians who live abroad to Western ideologies) give his narrative an unsparing tone.

“We were, all of us, funambulists skywalking between the myth of our ancestral greatness and the reality of our compromised past, between our attempts to govern ourselves and our repeated failures. We were a generation doused in oil and oblivion, the city expanding in steel and glass around us, erasing at dizzying speed the alleys of our grandfathers, hemming us in along the way.”

As Hamid recounts his life-story, his growing disillusionment towards the revolution and his generation becomes apparent. His interrogation into his past doesn’t provide easy answers. There are plenty of instance when Hamid seems to consciously choose to do something he himself considers to be wrong. But we are also shown the sway that one’s family and one’s country have on a man.
Sofer’s erudite writing was a pleasure to read. Hamid’s adroit narration provides us with plenty of shrewd observations about his country and history in general. He analyses his past behaviour and that of others. Hamid offers plenty of interesting, if not downright disconcerting, speculations about a myriad of topics.
Through Hamid’s story Sofer navigates notions of right and wrong, good and evil, judgment and forgiveness. Troubling as it was, Hamid’s narration also provides plenty of incisive observations about human nature. The way he describes the feelings he experiences (love was a sweet interruption in the lonely march toward nonbeing) could also be startlingly poetic.
Yet, while Sofer succeeds in making giving Hamid nuance and authenticity, her secondary characters often verged on the unbelievable. We aren’t given extensive time with any other character, which is expected given our protagonist (Hamid repeatedly pushes others away, from his family to his partners and his daughter: “I heard the sound of my tired breath inside absences I had spent decades collecting, with the same diligence and fervor with which my father once amassed his beloved encyclopedia”). However, the fact that they have few appearances made me all the more watchful of those scenes they do appear in…and I couldn’t help but noticing that the way they spoke at times seemed more suited to a movie. What they said often didn’t really fit in what kind of person they until then seemed to be or their age (Hamid’s daughter speaks in a very contrived way).
I also wish that the story had remained more focused on Hamid’s childhood and that his relationship to his mother could have been explored some more.
Still, this was a nevertheless interesting read. Sofer has created a complex main character and she vividly renders his ‘time’.

“What was to be said? Absence was our country’s chief commodity, and we all had, at one time or another, traded in it.”

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Just Like You by Nick Hornby — book review

Set against the backdrop of the 2016 referendum (Brexit) Just Like You follows two very different individuals who happen to fall in love. Recently divorced Lucy, a forty-one year old white schoolteacher, is look71dpLD1kOUL.jpging to date again so she hires a babysitter for her two sons. The babysitter, Joseph, happens to be a twenty-one year old black man who works part time at a the butcher counter and aspires to be a DJ. In spite of how little in common Lucy and Joseph have, the two become romantically involved. Nick Hornby tackles many different issues: politics (particularly on Brexit), class, race, interracial dating, racial profiling, divorce, drug addiction, and alcoholism.
Throughout the course of their relationship Lucy and Joseph attempt to bridge the gap between their generations and to overcome their drastically different interests and backgrounds. Their friends and relatives are not very approving of their relationship, and their age gap raises a few eyebrows.
While I did enjoy reading the early stages of Lucy and Joseph’s relationship (a lot of which occurs via texting), once they begin sort-of-dating, Hornby seems to gloss over their more positive interactions, focusing instead on scenes in which tensions arise between the two. While their seemingly silly misunderstandings were realistic, in the way they often escalated to actual arguments, they didn’t give a full-picture of their relationship. Their earlier chemistry seems to fizzle out all too quickly, so that we are left with two people who don’t really act like they really like or even love each other. Towards the end in particular I wish that Hornby had articulated Lucy and Joseph’s feelings for each other (it seemed that ‘for reasons’ they wanted to make things work).
I also wish that Joseph hadn’t been painted as being so clueless and disinterested in politics and literature. He has no real passion for music, so his dj aspirations seemed little other than a diversion.
The story too could have been more developed as it comes across as rather directionless. Lucy and Joseph have very few meaningful connections, so that many interactions—in which either of them is sick of talking to whoever they are talking to—felt repetitive. They have awkward dinners and get-togethers, they meet up with ‘friends’ they don’t particularly care for…
And while I understand that Hornby wanted to play the devil’s advocate when he introduces us to ‘likeable’ characters who turn out to be xenophobic Brexiteers…well, the wound is still fresh, and I have 0 sympathy for these characters.
While I appreciated that Hornby wanted the everyday moments that make up a relationship, I found myself wanting a bit more passion or romance between Lucy and Joseph. Most pages however seemed to focus on the more negative aspects of their relationship….and by the end I was just ready to be done with the 2016 referendum. The first time around was hard enough, do I hate myself so much that I want to experience it again? Not really.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Little Family by Ishmael Beah – book review

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“Almost everything in this country is on its way to losing itself.”

Little Family is a deeply felt novel. Set in an unnamed African country, the narrative revolves around five young people whose makeshift home is a derelict airplane.
Ishmael Beah’s paints a sobering landscape: government corruption, extreme social divide, the malignant vestiges of colonialism, colourism, military/police brutality. The ‘little family’ at the heart of his novel do their best to survive, pouring their different skills and strengths into clever swindles. Beah’s illuminating prose gracefully renders their day to day activities.
The first half of the novel follows each member of the family without delving into their pasts. I really loved these early chapters. In spite of the dangers they face, the members of this family are brave beyond belief. Beah clearly has a wonderful ear for the rhythm of children’s conversations: there is silliness and the kind of banter that teeters between playful and not-so-playful. Unlike the adults in his novel Beah never dismisses the voices of his young characters. Although they are painfully aware of being “the ones society had no use for”, and that each day may bring a new form of dehumanization, they unanimously wish for change (for safety, for their poverty to end, for their country to rid itself of corruption and the inequalities brought by colonialism).
Elimane and Khoudi, the older members of this little family, are not only incredibly self-aware (of their role in their society, of their country’s fraught history, of the different degrees of inequality within their community) but often encourage others to question established norms. As we follow them during their daily routines we gain an impression of the dynamics within this family. It was Namsa, the youngest one in the family, who stood out to me in this first half of the novel. She approaches her family’s excursion with a sense of buoyant adventure, and although she worries that she won’t be able to keep up with the others, she’s just as, if not more, quick-witted.
While outside of their home the group often has to keep apart from each other, as not to draw suspicion, the depth of their bond, their mutual ease and trust, is clear.
The tempo in the latter half of the novel is far less absorbing. The story focuses almost exclusively on Khoudi and her ‘awakening’. What follows is rather predictable: she learns the power of her own body, becomes intrigued and eventually entangled with a group of privileged young people, and distances herself from the ‘self’ she is within the ‘little family’. While I can appreciate a ‘coming of age’ tale or a story that charts a quest for one’s identity, I did find Khoudi’s journey to be clichéd and clearly written by a man. There are a few scenes that seem straight out of a boy’s fantasy of a girl who is on the cusps of womanhood (discovering her beauty and sexual desire, becoming close to another beautiful young woman…and of course, although each one of them is interest/infatuated with a man, when they are alone together they kiss…but it means nothing). The tonal shift too, left me wanting. The little family is sidelined in favour of a love story, one that was particularly uninspired (if anything the whole star-crossed lovers thing made Khoudi’s early characterisation somewhat redundant). The ending was abrupt and unsatisfying.
As much as I loved the first half, Khoudi’s half was bland. I also felt annoyed that the characters we grown to know in the early chapters are more or less abandoned by the narrative in favour of a romance.
Still, the author treats his characters and the issues they face with empathy so I would probably recommend this one to those readers who don’t mind when novels change the direction of their story.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach — book review

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“A year or so after my mother died, I received an unexpected inheritance.”

In Confession with Blue Horses Sophie Hardach captures the fraught atmosphere between East and West Germany.

When Ella, a rather aimless thirty-something year old, comes across some of her mother’s diaries, she’s drawn back to her birth city, Berlin, where, assisted by an intern archivist, she will try to uncover who betrayed her parents all those years ago and the fate of her younger brother, Heiko.
Moving between past and contemporary Berlin, Hardach’s contrasts the stifling climate, as well as fear and suspicion, that pervaded the lives of GDR citizens to the bohemian and artistic Berlin of the 2010s. Yet, as Ella discovers on her trip, few people have forgotten the past.

While the ‘daughter finds papers/diaries from a female relative and decides to uncover secrets from the past’ is a rather tired premise, Hardach focuses on a time that has not received enormous attention in fiction (these type of dual narratives usually take place between now and WWII). Hardach excels in depicting Berlin and its different people, showing us that families, like Ella’s, can have divided allegiances. Rather than completely demonising those who worked for or respected the GDR, she gives these characters a chance to express themselves and their views. Her narrative navigates themes such as guilt and culpability with poignancy.
Given the nature of this story’s subject Hardach touches upon some frankly horrific topics, but she does so with an unsentimental approach.

What perhaps kept me from being fully immersed in this novel was the characterisation of certain characters. While those who have only small appearances struck me as believable, Ella and her family lacked…personality. Her parents and Toby in particular seemed somewhat unfinished portraits. While I understood that someone with PTSD could be a difficult character to render, someone like Toby should have had a lot more development. Ella too was very much reduced to her quest to find the truth about her parents failed escape attempt and of what happened to her little brother. Supposedly she is an artist but she never seems to think of her art or artistic process.

Not only does the storyline switch between Ella’s childhood to her present but there are a few chapters from the third perspective that focus on Aaron. These chapters felt somewhat out of place. Aaron remained a bit of a non-entity, whose only purpose is to assist Ella in her quest.

While I really appreciated the way Hardach’s handles difficult subjects matters, the wit and sorrow of her prose, and the mentions of Christa Wolf, part of me was left wanting more. The storyline treads a familiar and fairly predictable path.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — book review

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To simply define Wolf Hall as being a historical narrative seems unfair. The word ‘historical’ conjures a sense of events that happened a long time ago. Wolf Hall, unlike most historical fiction, struck me for the immediacy and urgency of its narrative. While the events Hilary Mantel writes have occurred nearly half a millennium ago, the world she writes of feels far from stale or antiquated. Readers are made to feel as if Mantel had just plucked us from the 21st century and transported us into the political and religious unrest of the Tudor era.

Mantel breathes new life into the drama that unfounded so many centuries ago.
The novel’s present-tense narrative undoubtedly contributed in making me feel as if the events Mantel was writing of were happening right now. The narrative is not an omniscient one, there is no foreshadowing of what is to come. Throughout the course of this novel we are made to feel alongside Thomas Cromwell and his contemporaries that their future is not yet fixed.

The title of this novel conveys the dangerous atmosphere of Henry’s court. Suspicions run high, everyone seems intent on outwitting and outmanoeuvring his or her opponents, there is a great deal of plotting, quite a few betrayals, and a perpetual sense of unease hangs in the air. We read of a divided nation, a divided court, and of the self-division that occurs within every single character. As the characters wage overt and indirect wars for power and position, readers are presented with a panorama of human vices and follies.

Yet, while the world Mantel writes of is certainly a treacherous one, Wolf Hall contains so much beauty. I was moved by the glimpses of genuine love and vulnerability between certain characters. Thomas Cromwell in particular seems to possess plenty of admirable qualities. It is through his eyes that we often see his surroundings and he always seems to pay attention to all the beautiful textures that enrich his world. From the fabrics of people’s clothings to their appearances and expression. His perceptive eye seems often to pick up on other’s true intents and desires. In spite of the tension between the different ‘players’, there are also surprising moments of empathy and understanding.

It is incredibly just how engaging Mantel’s dialogues were. While I sometimes struggled to keep up with what was being said, or left unsaid, I still found myself captivated by the nuances of the characters’ language. While some are observe rules of civility, others let their passion or greed shape what the say. Each sparring of words is fraught with tension. There are so many clever uses of the English language, so many elegantly veiled threats and well-crafted sentiments. Regardless of their role or position, not one character seems to utter a word in vein.

What perhaps took me time to adjust to was the ‘he’ pronoun. The third point of view narrative does not refer to Thomas Cromwell by his name but by ‘he’. When this happened when Cromwell was speaking to other male characters I found it difficult to follow. My non-British education also proved to be a hindrance (it took me quite some time to figure out who was who).

This is a dense novel that demands its readers full attention. There is much to be admired in Wolf Hall. Mantel’s research, her grasp of the English language, her nuanced, and frequently immoral, characters…yet, reading her novel proved to be a laborious experience. There was so much that went over my head, and while I can see that this is due to my lack of knowledge, I also think that some of her stylistic choices (such as the constant use of ‘he’) lessened my enjoyment of her narrative.

Wolf Hall is a well written and exquisitely intelligent novel in which Mantel presents us with a beautifully intricate tapestry of shifting allegiances.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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BOOK REVIEWS

A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen — book review

40535984.jpgA Beautiful Crime is a tantalisingly suspenseful part thriller part romance, one that brilliantly captures the landscape, aesthetics, and politics of Venice.

“The love of the city had killed its people. Quite simply, Venice had been visited to death.”

The opening of the novel has a terrific hook. We know that someone at some point is going to die. But who? And how?

“When you see an opportunity, take it. You can brood over the ethics later.”

Vaguely reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley but starring two much more sympathetic, and empathetic, protagonists, A Beautiful Crime follows a tense cat-and-mouse game in which readers are never sure who is deceiving who.

Nick is a twenty-five year old from Ohio whose move to New York didn’t exactly result in a clearer idea of who he is or what he wants to do. His older boyfriend doesn’t seem to understand Nick’s restlessness. When Nick meets Clay, who is just two years older than him and from New York, sparks fly.
In spite of their different backgrounds, they fall hard and fast for each other. Clay, rumoured to have murdered his best friend after having tricked him into making him his heir, needs a lot of money and fast. Together they decide that the easiest way to get so much money is to con someone who has more money than sense. It just so happens that the person Clay hates most in the world fits the bill.
In order for their plan to succeed they go to Venice since it is where Richard Forsyth West, aka their mark, is currently staying.

Christopher Bollen maintains a taut tension throughout the course of his narrative. Readers, alongside Nick and Clay, will fear that some hitch might reveal and ruin their plans. What may appear as simple conversations will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. And while we know that objectively what Nick and Clay are doing is wrong, we are still rooting for them to succeed.
Time and time again, in both New York and Venice, Nick and Clay wrestle with their morals as well as their greed, desire, love, and any personal vendettas they may or may not harbour.

Bollen’s writing style presents us with some breathtaking and insightful descriptions of Venice. As a former resident of the comune of Venice I am perhaps a bit too critical when I read novels that feature this city. So, I’m happy to say, or write, that Bollen’s depiction of this city is truly true to life. He really does render its beauty and incongruities, providing an interesting commentary on Venice and its inhabitants, of its fatal dependency on tourism, and of the way it is perceived by the rest of the world.
Although both Nick and Clay view Venice through the eyes of an outsider, the Venetians we encounter along the way, from Daniela to Battista, give us an insight of the ‘real’ Venice.

“What would Venice be like without any Venetians living in it? There were only fifty-three thousand of these rare humans left, and the number was shrinking by a thousand each year.”

Venice is much more than the glamorous backdrop to Nick and Clay con as in many ways it plays a central role in the story. It is a city or romance and of ruin. It fills Nick and Clay with equal parts awe and melancholy. The dizzying spell it casts on those who live there is clear. There were moments in which Bollen’s portrayal of Venice brought to mind Thomas Mann’s in Death in Venice. In both of these works Venice appears as a labyrinthine and suggestive city one that might very well bring the worst out of people.

“Nick was hallucinating. Hew was mistaking marble ballrooms and gilt facades and velvet-upholstered gondolas for real life. People went mad in Venice because it lacked the reality check of poverty and ugliness and ordinary struggles. ”

Alongside this high-stakes con we read of Nick and Clay’s relationship. Part of me wanted to see more of them together but in order for their plan to succeed it is vital they are not seen together, so it made sense that they didn’t get share many scenes. Their feelings for one another add a moving note to the story.
Both the secondary characters and the ones who had only small cameos were nuanced and fully fleshed out. At times it was difficult to discern whether someone’s intentions were good or bad which made the story all the more compelling.

“These monsters, Nick thought, and at the same exact moment, These wonderful people.”

Bollen does a terrific job in rendering the ‘artsy’ community of Venice and of giving us an amusing impression of the ‘inglese italianato’ (or perhaps in this case the Americano italianato/the Italianised American) those types of art and cultural enthusiasts who like to play at being intellectual.

I also appreciated the novel’s engagement with issues such as racism (Clay is black), class, and privilege. Wealth, youth, and beauty also make their way into Bollen’s narrative. Both Nick and Clay have to confront their own desire for wealth and of what they would be willing to do for their own safety.

I only spotted two mistakes in Bollon’s Italian which is so refreshing! Usually books set in Italy by non-Italian writers are not only riddled with clichés but with easily avoided mistakes (such as papa instead of papà). Bollon not only captures Venice but he also mentions the Venice-Mestre dynamic.

Bollon’s engaging prose offers plenty of amusing descriptions (“the silent brag of an attractive companion”), easily renders a beautiful landscape, and provides thoughtful character studies.

A Beautiful Crime is an exhilarating novel that will have you flipping pages like there’s no tomorrow. In spite of its dark moments and of the unease the pervades most of its scenes, Bollen’s narrative maintains a beautiful momentum. Through striking depictions of love, friendship, and, of course, Venice A Beautiful Crime is a thrilling read.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

Some of my favourite quotes

“He believed in friendliness the same way he believed in his youth: he thought both could save him. His youth and friendliness were master keys to all future rooms.”

“The world promised Nick nothing at that age but showed him glimpses of its finest possibilities.”

“For him, walking around as a gay man in his hometown was tantamount to being out on bail: he was free to go about his business, but everyone treated him with a heightened suspicion, as if unsure whether he had committed a crime.”

“Nick saw it as a chance to be delivered from the purgatory of mid-twenties aimlessness.”

“In the stronghold of dry, hot days, visitors clotted the streets like human glue, and cruise ships barged into San Marco’s Basin with horns that blasted louder than any church bells.”

“Wheelie suitcases had become the unofficial soundtrack of Venice, a city that had triumphed for millennia on the very absence of wheels.”

“It was a secondhand high to watch a first-timer take in the city.”

“Another person’s idea of normalcy was always a foreign country, just as your borders on that dominion were constantly expanding or shrinking, ejecting proud, long-standing residents while taking in exciting new émigrés that would have been denied entry the year before.”

“In the hush of early evening, Venice changed from past to present. ”

“Nick preferred to think of people as messy whirlpools of wants and desires, as unpredictable bundles of urges even when the appropriate bait was placed in front of them. ”

“Nothing else could touch him, large or small, because he’d filled his quota on pain. But the loss of a parent doesn’t immunize a person from betrayal any more than surviving a shark bite protects its victim from a car crash.”

“Nick found himself impressed by his own bullshit. It was undeniably top-quality bullshit. It sounded so erudite and convincing, even to the one who was spewing it.”

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BOOK REVIEWS

Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski — book review

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“It’s best to start with the beginning—or at least what feels like it. I realise now that we never much talked about our pasts. Maybe it would changed something if we had, maybe we would have understood each other better and everything would have been different. Who can say?”

Swimming in the Dark is a strikingly elegiac novel. The story, in its broadest terms, explores a young man’s identity and sexuality under Communist Poland.
In December 13th 1981 martial law is declared in the Socialist Republic of Poland. Ludwik Glowacki, a young Polish man now living in America, hears of this on the news. This Western ‘acknowledgment’ of his home country’s political unrest triggers a recollection of his past. Rather than reiterating his whole childhood, Ludwik lingers on some of his more meaningful experiences: starting at age nine, when he became infatuated with a Jewish boy, to his longer-lasting relationship to Janusz, a young man he meets while working on an agricultural camp.
Throughout the narrative Ludwik addresses Janusz in the second-person (which will probably elicit comparisons to Call Me By Your Name), giving his reminisce the impression of being an unwritten letter of sorts.

“You listened, really listened, gentle eyes taking me in without judgment, making me feel more heard than I knew I could be.”

But this is only partly a love story. Ludwik’s examination of his time in Poland will make you feel uneasy. We read of Ludwik’s early struggle to reconcile himself with his sexuality, of his self-discovery (aided by a copy of Giovanni’s Room), of his attempts to create a future in a growingly alienating society, and of the way Poland’s tumultuous political and economical landscape affect him and those around him.

“To my own surprise, I was unable to accept the shame he wanted me to feel. It was too familiar to be imposed: I had produced it myself for such a long time that, right then, I found I had no space left for it any more.”

Ludwik’s daily life is permeated by an undercurrent of fear one that forces him into secrecy. Yet as Ludwik struggles to maintain his identity in an increasingly watchful city, he finds himself not only holding but voicing dissident opinions. Because of this, his relationship with Janusz, who is much more complacent, becomes strained.

“Selfish. Growing into yourself is nothing but that.”

Jedrowski’s writing is by turns allusive and explicit. Ludwik’s intimate narration is one that might make readers feel almost uncomfortable, as if we were encroaching upon his privacy. Yet, this intimacy also allows us to experience some of Ludwik’s emotions, to understand the depth of his feelings for Janusz, his apprehension and guilt for having moved away from his grandmother, his growing sense of dislocation.

“I even attempt a smile. But I sense that either way my foreignness somehow absolves me from their judgment. To them, it must explain my strangeness completely.”

Jedrowski renders in an almost painful clarity what it means to live in a country in turmoil, a country whose government and (collapsing) economy worsen its citizens quality of life.
Against this bleak backdrop, Jedrowski’s prose seems almost startlingly luminous. He emphasises the more striking nuances of the English language, and his word choices perfectly lend themselves to conveying the beauty and anguish in Ludwik’s life.

“I was transported into a vision of my life that made me so dizzy my head began to spin. Shame, heavy and alive, had materialised, built from buried fears and desires.”

Jedrowski’s writing also showcases a propensity for metaphors: “‘Perverts’ — the word falling from her lips like a two-limbed snake, dangerous and exciting”. At times these metaphors could be beautiful, and often brought certain moments or images from Ludwik’s memory into the foreground, so that certain scenes are rendered in almost snapshot clarity. In other instances these seemed to accentuate Ludwik’s impression or feelings towards someone or something.

“My life was a tiny narrow corridor with no doors leading of it, a tunnel so narrow it bruised my elbows, with only one way to go. That or the void, I told myself. That or leave.”

Certain metaphors however stood out for the wrong reason, seeming over-written, silly, a bit too impressionistic, and made me wonder whether Jedrowski had an aversion for calling things what they are (for instance: “Tears started to slide down my cheeks like melted butter” / “Warm cave of his mouth” / “your ass was powerful, like two great smooth rocks sculpted by the sea” / “breasts like overripe fruit”).
Still, Jedrowski is a clearly skilled writer. The imagery he creates make his narrative into an almost sensory experience. His prose is acutely lyrical, and there were many instance in which I became lost in his language, in his rich, if occasionally high-flow, expression, and in his arresting juxtapositions.
Jedrowski’s flair for metaphors brought to mind authors such as André Aciman and Ocean Vuong, while the ambivalent tone that shapes much of Ludwik’s retrospective narrative reminded me of L’Arminuta and Lie With Me.
In spite of his novel’s tragic undertones, Jedrowski’s prose remains luminous, and there are some rare moments of true beauty in Ludwik’s deeply personal tale. Still, a sense of disquiet seemed ever present. Perhaps Ludwik’s hindsight distorts some of his memory, turning blissfully happy moments into bittersweet memories.

“One day your country is yours, and the next it isn’t.”

Living in a country that through its laws and policies imposed uniformity on its subjects, Ludwik not only does he hold onto his individuality but he tries to overcome the shame and guilt that seem irrevocably ingrained in him. Ludwik’s psychological turmoil is temporarily alleviated after he comes across an illicit copy of Giovanni’s Room. He begins to draw parallels between himself and its protagonist, and soon he fears that he too will behave in a cowardly way. I too became increasingly afraid for him, especially as he is repeatedly forced into morally distressing situations. Yet, to go against the tide is no easy feat, and there were many challenging occasions where Ludwik has to fight not to stray from his values.

“But like stones thrown into the sky with all one’s might, pieces of that night – the boys and the men who wanted them, the flirtation, the codes of seduction I could only guess at – returned to me with even greater intensity than I had lived. The law of gravity applies to memories too.”

Ludwik’s relationship to Janusz is rendered with poignancy. There are moments of vulnerability, of frailty, of emotional and physical abandon, of weariness, and of grief. Due to the secret nature of their relationship Ludwik seems to be perpetually longing for Janusz. However, Ludwik’s anxiety for his/their future, Janusz’s job and acquaintances, and their contrasting political views, create conflict between them.

“I wondered about your role in all this, what kind of pact you’ve made with yourself. Because we all make one, even the best of us. And it’s rarely immaculate. No matter how hard we try.”

This novel is a deeply intratextual work. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room appears throughout the narrative, at times it alleviates Ludwik’s despair, in other occasions it appears to him almost as a cautionary tale. Baldwin’s novel allows him to read from a perspective he can understand.

“I was paralysed by possibility, caught between the vertigo of fulfillment and the abyss of uncertainty.”

In navigating his past Ludwik demonstrates incredible self-awareness. He acknowledges early on that his recollection of his past is imperfect and possibly biased. Retrospective blurs his memories. Yet, its is his present knowledge that allows him to ‘dig’ deeper, to discern his own motivations and feelings as well as those of others. In fact, as Ludwik ruminates his way through his past, he seems also to be trying to understand or question some of his choices.

“How does one bond with another child, as a child? Maybe it’s simply through common interest. Or maybe it’s something that lies deeper, for which everything you say and do is an unwitting code. ”

Swimming in the Dark presents its readers with an examination of a young love that is filled with passion, misery, contrition, and jealousy. Simultaneously graceful and unrestrained, this novel is brimming with sensitive and penetrating observations about youth, love (of being gay in a society that deems same-sex love unacceptable), family, and freedom. Written in a fluid prose Swimming in the Dark tells a moving story one that struck me for its piercing realism, for its painful subject matter, and for its believable and compelling characters.

“It sounded like an appeal, a right violated and invoked. My hand on the door handle, my back to you, heart pulsing in my temples. I could sense the word throbbing in the air. My name, claiming me. It wrapped its fingers around my shoulders and tried to hold me back.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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