BOOK REVIEWS

Notes on a Silencing: A Memoir by Lacy Crawford

“The teachers, rectors, lawyers, and priests of St. Paul’s School lied to preserve their legacy. It would take decades to learn not to hate the girl they disparaged, and to give her the words she deserved.”

Notes on a Silencing is a profoundly poignant memoir and a deeply moving account of a young girl’s sexual assault and its aftermath. With clarity and precision, Crawford describes her time at St. Paul’s School, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, where, at the age of fifteen, she was sexually assaulted by two older students, both of whom went unpunished and were able to graduate with awards. The physical violence of the assault is followed by a different kind of violence when the school, more concerned with its own reputation than pursuing the matter, silences her.
Crawford revisits the assault, the months that led up to it and what followed. She recreates the atmosphere and toxic culture of St. Paul’s, a place predominantly attended by the children of WASP families. Although Crawford’s vision of this rarefied world is far from idealistic, she also writes about the friendships she formed at St. Paul’s. Yet, after her assault rumours begin spreading and Crawford is labelled a ‘slut’ and ostracised by her friend and fellow students. Crawford exposes the double standards applied to male and female sexuality that enables victim blaming.
With the pace and tension of a psychological thriller, Crawford revisits these events both through the eyes of the fifteen-year-old and with new adult insight. She details the mental and physical anguish of the assault and its traumatic aftereffects. By showing St. Paul’s as a microcosm of society, Crawford reveals the underlining mechanisms that permit systemic abuse of power.
Notes on a Silencing is a gripping and powerful memoir, one that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.

A few quotes:

“The simplest way I can tell the story of my assault is to describe how the boys made me feel I was no longer a person. The first violation was erasure.”

“In bearing witness, we’re trying to correct a theft of power via a story. But power and stories, while deeply interconnected, are not the same things. One is rock, the other is water. Over time, long periods of time, water always wins.”

“If one of the great sources of misery for all high schoolers is the illusion that high school will never end, the reach of power implied (and wielded) by the alumni and trustees of St. Paul’s School threatened that in our particular case, that nightmare was real.”

“We were people on this earth. This life was all we had. It was all we fucking had, and life, my life, could not be determined by cruelty like this. It could not be allowed to stand.”

“If the first violation of the boys who assaulted me was the way they made me feel erased, it was exactly this injury that the school repeated, and magnified, when it created its own story of the assault. This time the erasure was committed by men whose power over me was socially conferred rather than physically wielded, by men who—some of them—had never ever been in a room with me. They still never have.”

“I did not want to write it because it should not matter, but of course it does, because a girl who is attacked will so often assume the fault lies with her. There is no escaping a primal culpability.”

“When the boys did what they did to me, they denied the third person on that bed. I had no humanity. The impact of this violation only sharpened with time. My careful distinctions of injury and responsibility—the difference I imagined between what they did and rape, between terrible things you should put behind you and truly hellish things no one would expect you to bear—allowed me, for many years, to restore that third person in the room in my mind.”

“I recognized the school’s act, of course. Its precise cruelty, the fanged transformation of private pain into public shame, turned a key in me.”

“Why now?’”A typically defensive question, and I could dismiss it for its insinuation that I had some underhanded motive whose tell was my delay in availing myself of the criminal justice system. I’m not sure what motive that would have been—I wasn’t suing, wasn’t pressing charges. But that wasn’t the point of the question. The question tries to portray the victim as the predator, the one with a clever plan. It aims to throw the whole circumstance on its head.”

“The work of telling is essential, and it is not enough. There is always the danger that the energy of the injustice will exhaust itself in the revelation—that we will be horrified but remain unchanged. The reason for this, I suspect, is that these are stories we all already know. A girl was assaulted. A boy was molested. The producer, the judge, the bishop, the boss. To hear these stories spoken aloud is jarring, but not because it causes us to reconsider who we are and how we are organized. It is only when power is threatened that power responds.”

“It’s so simple, what happened at St. Paul’s. It happens all the time.
First, they refused to believe me. Then they shamed me. Then they silenced me. On balance, if this is a girl’s trajectory from dignity to disappearance, I say it is better to be a slut than to be silent. I believe, in fact, that the slur slut carries within it, Trojan-horse style, silence as its true intent. That the opposite of slut is not virtue but voice.”

“ Consequences were not our concern. The school’s rules were not even called rules—they were formally known as expectations. Here the children of the elite were trained not in right or wrong but in projections of belief.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton — book review

Untitled drawing.jpgStep aside, Becky Sharp. Move over, Scarlett O’Hara…make way for Undine Spragg, the most unscrupulous anti-heroine I have ever encountered.

“[S]he could not conceive that any one could tire of her of whom she had not first tired.”

Wharton once again focuses her narrative on a young woman’s unrelenting attempts at social climbing. While Wharton does inject her depiction of Undine Spragg’s ‘trials’ with a dose of satire she nevertheless is able to carry out an incisive commentary regarding New York’s ‘high society’. Through her piercing insights into privilege Wharton is able to render a detailed and engaging examination of the intricate customs that prevailed among America’s ‘elite’ society, exemplifying the discordance between their values and their behaviour. Wharton emphasises their sense of entitlement and their idleness. While they often believe themselves to possess the most impeccable manners, readers know just how cut-throat they truly are.
Armed with gossip or ready to form conniving schemes, most of them will hesitate at nothing in order to augment their wealth and reputation (ideally ruining someone’s life in the process). Marriages are business manoeuvres and one makes friends on the basis of whether they might be later on be put to good use (‘networking’ is everything for these people).
By bringing together these different themes and subjects—marriage, divorce, class, wealth—Wharton is able to present her readers with a nuanced and in-depth examination of New York’s upper crust.

As a character in the novel observes, Undine Spragg is the “monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph”. Undine, who was raised by two loving parents who spoiled her from a young age, possesses a solipsistic worldview and her values are exceedingly materialistic.
Undine is an appalling protagonist. She is Lily Bart’s monstrous little sister. We first ‘meet’ Undine when she still seems to be a simple, if pampered, ‘country’ girl. Soon however we begin to see that in spite of her simplicity (she definitely lacks Miss Bart’s charisma and acumen) Undine Spragg is entirely egocentric and lacks both self-awareness and empathy.

“It never occurred to her that other people’s lives went on when they were out of her range of vision.”

As noted by the narrative and the various characters, Undine’s conceitedness, as well as her perpetual sense of boredom, may be the likely result of her upbringing. Her parents’ leniency definitely played its role in making Undine feel as if she should only be concerned with her own happiness, and to be truly happy she has to marry well.
Undine believes that as long as can enjoy an extravagant lifestyle and be favoured within certain circles, she won’t be bored. As much as I loathed Undine—for her selfishness, her lack of creativity, and for her frivolous tastes—I was always aware that she did grow up in a society that values appearances.
Undine was never made to feel as if she needed to cultivate any real interest. Her main concern are her own beauty and reputation, the two means through which she will be able to find a satisfactory match.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that Undine becomes a woman who is thoroughly disinterested in the lives of others. She sees no reason why she should be preoccupied with her husband’s ‘menial’ work. She is unable to see why she should be held accountable for other people’s misery.
There was something oddly compelling about Undine’s determination not to allow her desires to be comprised by anyone or anything. She is more than willing to have affairs, lie, drive her husband(s) and family into debt, and blackmail and manipulate others.
While the narrative definitely accentuates Undine’s cherubic appearance (from her creamy complexion to her beautiful golden locks) readers are made aware of what lies beneath her rosy surface: Undine’s vision of happiness is rather limited. She lacks imagination, so much so that she often merely tries to emulate the women around her.

“Her entrances were always triumphs; but they had no sequel.”

And while I certainly thought her to be a horrible person (her behaviour is reprehensible) there was a part of me that found her egocentrism and cruelty to be strangely compelling. Whether she is merely a product of environment or innately selfish, her total self-absorption was transfixing.
Wharton portrays a scathing picture of her society: were “the average American looks down on his wife”, were women’s sense of self is dictated by a cult of aspiration, were marriages are entirely transactional, and were young individuals are trapped by old traditions and customs.
In spite of Undine’s many romances, there is little if any love to be found within the pages of The Custom of the Country. And maybe that’s for the best given that Undine is no heroine.
While I certainly didn’t find this novel to be as moving as Wharton’s
The Age of Innocence, and Undine’s misadventures lack the poignancy of Lily’s ones in The House of Mirth, I would still recommend this. Wharton’s percipient prose, her sophisticated use of satire, vividly renders the customs and values of New York’s high class.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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What Red Was by Rosie Price — review


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What Red Was by Rosie Price
★★★★✰ 4 stars

What Red Was is a stark and riveting debut novel that vividly depicts the lasting effects of rape on a young woman’s mind, body, and life. This is not for the ‘faint of heart’, and I am not writing this as some sort of snide but more of a heads-up since this novel portrays rape and trauma in an unflinchingly way. At times I was overwhelmed. The story will make you angry, sad, distressed, all the sort of emotions you should feel when reading about such a horrific act.
Another thing that I appreciated is that the story didn’t reduce its characters to convenient stereotypes. Nor did it glamorise depression, addiction(s), or self-harm. (Unlike a certain other novel out there…)
Kate wasn’t reduced to the abominable violation committed against her. She was a relatable and interesting character, and following her life prior to ‘that day’ really brought her character to life. Her friendship with Max was complex and poignant, and it didn’t fall victim to the friends-to-lovers cliché. The way their relationship changes over the years saddened me, yet it seemed inevitable and far too realistic.
Initially I thought that following the perspectives of Max’s family members detracted attention from Kate’s storyline but it soon becomes apparent that by shifting the focus to them made them into far more fleshed out characters. However uneasy this shift made me feel (especially when we read of the thoughts and general worldview of Max’s cousin) it gave the novel a more ‘democratic’ approach, were everyone, regardless of their likability had page-time.
This story is relevant, raw, and compelling even in its darkest moments. While I wished for a neater ending, I still would recommend this to those interested in reading a novel filled with fraught (and believable) familial relationships and a young woman’s uneasy path towards recovering her sense of self after being raped.

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The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

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“Over time, I told myself, I would try to deserve them all. […] I had chosen this place, these people, this life, with its secrets and its violence, its hardness and its beauty, and even thought I was not yet worthy, even thought I would never belong, I would not leave.I would stay and try.”

The Far Field is a striking debut novel. Madhuri Vijay has written a remarkably taught and exceedingly incisive slow-burner, one that will likely make the reader experience many unpleasant feelings, such as uncertainty, frustration, and unease.

After her mother’s death Shalini, a young woman from Bangalore, becomes detached from her daily existence. Increasingly alienated from others she makes the impulsive decision to travel to a remote Himalayan village in Kashmir where Bashir Ahmed—an old friend of her mother’s— lives.
In an interview Vijay describes Shalini as being “remote and closed-off, so hamstrung by doubt and suspicion, that even [she], as the writer, occasionally felt suffocated by her voice”. Well, I agree 100% with her. Shalini can be overwhelming. Her arrested development makes it hard to totally condone her for her behaviour but she has plenty of cruel and selfish moments that will make it really hard for readers to forgive or sympathise with her. Her vulnerabilities certainly come through, for example, she is hesitant to demonstrate her feelings or to simply share her thoughts with the people who could potentially become her friends. Vijay has depicted her in this way quite intentionally. To me, Shalini’s inability to act was yes deeply frustrating but it was also believable and it augmented the friction between her and other characters. Time and again readers will wonder if this time around she would be able to really live in the present and connect with others.

Her journey does not follow the classic ‘coming of age’ that often occurs in similar novels (where a character travels somewhere to ‘find themselves’ or to come ‘to terms with their past). Shalini’s experiences in Kashmir are far more realistic. An ingrained distrust still dictates a lot of what she does. I was really saddened and angered by her half-hearted attempt at a friendship with Zoya and Amina. Shalini seems desperate to fill in the hole left by her mother’s death but she is also very reticent about revealing her innermost self. Then again, the two women, however likeable, also do not make things easier.

Shalini was deeply naive and self-centred, blind to her privilege and often does more harm than good. The few times she actually ‘acts’ or says something important she usually ends up doing or saying the wrong thing. She seems unable to read other people or to take in account what they too might be hiding/protecting their true emotions. Having lived a life of comfort Shalini doesn’t seem to realise that not everyone knows those same comforts (which she has taken for granted).
Given that Shalini is recounting her journey to Kashmir years after it, she often expresses the wish to have acted differently, and there are a lot of ‘if onlys‘ which furthered the tension of her story.

There are chapters that focus on Shalini’s childhood and on her intense relationship with her fiery mother. It is perhaps because she is so young (and sheltered) that Shalini does not notice how trapped and unhappy her seemingly strong mother was. Their strained relationship takes its toll on both mother and daughter.

This novel depicts Shalini’s desperate attempts to belong and to reconcile herself with the way in which she treated (and was in turn treated by) her mother. Sadly, Shalini often acts under the wrong impression, and she either misunderstands others and or ends up being misunderstood by the ones she claims she cares for.

Vijay renders the way in which language can betray one’s intention or the way in which words often are inadequate and cannot express or convey what we truly think or feel.
This novel has a lot to wrestle with but it does so in a paced manner. This story is one of ambivalence and dissolution; the plot rests on the novel’s setting(s) and on Shalini’s interactions with mainly two other families. While the author does not shy away from portraying the religious conflict occurring in Kashmir, she focuses more on the experiences of various individual characters — the way in which they themselves are affected by dispute between India and Pakistan — rather than offering a dumbed down ‘overview’ of Kashmir’s long history of violence. Having Shalini as the narrator allows readers to glimpse Kashmir through the eyes of an ‘outsider’.

This is a story about privilege, guilt, grief, cowardice, and failed connections. Amidst the novel’s bleak realism there are some heart-rendering moments, and Vijay’s lyrical writing allowed me to briefly forget of the discomfort created by her story. I kept hoping against hope that the ending would provide some sort of not quite magical solution but that it could at least give me some closure…but I’m afraid to say that the ending is what makes this a 4 star read rather than a 5 one.

Anyhow, I will definitely keep my eyes open for more of Vijay’s stunning and heartbreaking writing.

my rating: ★★★★✰

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The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

The premise itself was enough to intrigue me. A close-knit group of friends attending Oxford? Yes please. Naomi Alderman’s style lends itself well for this: it has a ‘polish’ that evokes notions of privilege. However, the characters and plot do not convey the good qualities of Alderman’s style. Throughout, there is a sort of entitlement which feels hollow: Oxford is not the forefront of the story, and it is the annoying attitude of the characters which render this novel so self-important rather than the ‘exclusive’ setting. The Lessons lacks the compelling characters of The Secret History, the atmosphere of The Likeness, and the dramatics of If We Were Villains.

The focus of the novel isn’t as clear-cut as I expected. For such a short novel, I found my interest wavering time and again due to the lack of the story’s focus: Oxford seems forgotten soon after the first few intriguing chapters and Mark’s house also becomes seemingly forgotten. Alderman doesn’t spend enough time maintaining the background of this novel and the characters are not fleshed out enough as to detract from this. I would have been forgiving if I could at least have read about a decent character study, but there was no such thing. This ‘group of friends’ was composed of interchangeable characters who were so poorly developed that even the author is aware of it and tries to excuse her poor rendition of them by having the narrator say things like ‘so and so is still a mystery to me’ and ‘no one ever understood what she/he was about’. Really? That is a cheap trick. Her characters aren’t unknowable as they claim to be, but rather, they simply lack, in all fronts. They are shallows sketches who do not even appear that often in the novel. And I wouldn’t have minded as much if at least the two ‘main’ characters were fully developed. But they weren’t. Their relationship was…questionable. We saw no proof or progress, but we are made to believe that the protagonist falls under the influence of this very charismatic character who is anything but interesting. They all read like copies of the cast of *ahem* The Secret History *ahem*. What was the point of it all?
Lastly, the ‘Italian’ factor of this novel is complete nonsense. At least google real Italian names for Pete’s sake.

My rating: 1 star