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The Less Dead by Denise Mina — book review

The Less Dead is a gripping, if bleak, piece of tartan noir. When sex workers, drug addicts, migrant workers, and otherwise marginalised groups are victims of murder, they are called the ‘less dead’. Their deaths are less important, not as ‘impactful’. Denise Mina’s novel, in a similar vein to recent releases such as Long Bright River, is less interested in its ‘serial killer’ storyline and more concerned with depicting the realities and experiences of women whose lives have been punctuated by sexual abuse, violence, and addiction.
Set in Glasgow, the novel introduces to thirty-something Margot Dunlop, a doctor still grieving the recent death of her mother. Margot is struggling to cope, with her break up from Joe, her longterm boyfriend, and with her pregnancy. She finds herself wanting to learn more about her birth mother, Susan, only to learn that she was brutally killed years before. Susan’s was one of the nine victims of a serial killer who preyed on sex workers. Since Susan’s death Nikki, Susan’s older sister, has received a string of menacing letters who could only have been written by the murderer. While Nikki seems eager to get to know her niece, a disbelieving Margot is hesitant to venture into a ‘world’ she thinks little of. When Margot also starts to receive crude letters, she’s forced to reconsider.
As Margot learns more of Susan, a young woman who refused to labelled as a victim, and her birth family, she finds herself challenging her own biases.
Mina presents her readers with a thought-provoking interrogation of class. The women she writes of, their struggles and traumas, are rendered with striking empathy. Margot, however, comes across as a far less nuanced character. Her remoteness seemed unwarranted and unexplained. She’s curt to the point of being brusque, she makes a few decision that aren’t truly delved into, making her seem out of character for the sake of the plot. Nikki, by comparison, not only felt truly real, but she’s really admirable. Margot’s relationship with her ‘problematic’ best friend and her ex detracted from the overall the story. These two characters didn’t seem all that believable.
While the third person present tense narration did add a sense of immediacy, or urgency if you will, to the novel, it did occasionally did frustrate me. There are certain conversations that don’t have quotations marks and they also became a bit gimmicky (it made sense in certain scenes, but the more this happened the less ‘meaningful’ it became). Another pet peeve of mine were the sections from the ‘culprits’ perspective. These were brief and struck me as salacious, as in ‘glimpse the thoughts of a deviant mind’ (as if this individual’s letters didn’t convey their state of mind).
Mina’s story is certainly evocative and gritty. The scenes focused on Nikki were easily my favourite. Margot’s ‘personal’ struggles, on the other hand, just didn’t grab my interest. Perhaps this is because I didn’t particularly warm to her character, whose wooden personality reminded me of the narrator of Long Bright River.
Nevertheless, I did find Mina’s examination of the way in which women such as Nikki and Susan are treated by their society to be both incisive and affecting. While Mina doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities and daily horrors of addiction and prostitution, she doesn’t make her characters into ‘pitiable’ stereotypes. The thriller elements give the narrative an element of suspense, and the tension between Margot and those connected to Susan did gave the story a certain ‘edge’.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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A Man by Keiichirō Hirano – book review

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“It’s unbearable to have your identity summed up by one thing and one thing only and for other people to have control over what that is.”

Keiichirō Hirano has spun an intriguing psychological tale. A Man presents its readers with an in-depth and carefully paced mystery revolving around identity theft.
Hirano novel’s opening is rather metafictional as it is narrated by an unmanned novelist who after bumping into a man called Akira Kido becomes fascinated by Kido’s own obsession with another man (the narrator goes on to compare the story he’s about to tell to a painting by René Magritte entitled ‘Not to Be Reproduced’):

“With all the unique characters that make an appearance, some of you might wonder why on earth I didn’t pick one of the bit players to be the protagonist. While Kido-san will in fact obsessed with the life of a man, it is in Kido-san, viewed from behind as he chases this man, that I sensed something to be seen.”

Kido is a divorce attorney who has become detached from his wife. She, in turn, shows little interest in him or his job and is rather unsympathetic when it comes to his Zainichi background (that is ethnically Korean residents of Japan). Kido’s practical and reserved nature frustrate his wife (who often mistakes impassiveness for callousness) While Kido disapproves of his wife’s strict parenting style, she mistakes his reserved disposition as a sign of callousness. When a growingly disillusioned Kido is contacted by Rié Takemoto, a former client of his, he finds himself drawn into the life of another man. After Rié’s second husband dies in a work-related accident, she discovers that his name and past are that of another man. Throughout the course of his investigation Kido questions X’s motives. What could make someone want to conceal their true name or background? And what constitutes an identity?
As Kido comes in contact with the various individuals and families connected to X, and as his relationship with his own wife becomes further strained, he grows fond of this unknown X and starts to see the appeal of ‘starting’ over.
Although Kido’s investigation is the running thread that connects together these seemingly disparate characters and events, it sometimes seems more of a background. The narrative provides a panoramic view of the characters Kido comes into contact during the course of his investigation. While many of Kido’s thoughts are dedicated to X and issues of identity, he’s an erudite and his mind will often wonder down philosophical paths. He makes many literary allusions (he compares his stance towards other Zainichi as being similar to the way in which Levin—from Anna Karenina—views ‘peasants’). Kido’s precarious relationship to his ethnicity is one of the novel’s main motifs:

“Since he had grown up almost entirely as a “Japanese person” even before he naturalized, he was profoundly uneasy with the idea that he was either a direct victim or perpetuator of the troubles the best Korean enclaves.”

Kido passes most of his time in contemplation. He muses on the myth of Narcissus, the nature vs. nurture debate, questions his marriage, and those of other people, considers the notion of an identity and broods over his own loneliness:

“Yes, loneliness. He did not shy from this word to express the dark emotion that had been seething in his chest of late. It was a bottomless, middle-aged kind of loneliness that he never could have even conceived when he was younger, a loneliness that saturated him with bone-chilling sentimentality the moment he let down his guard.”

Hirano’s Japan is vividly rendered. From its recent history to its social norms, Hirano’s novel provides plenty of insights into contemporary Japan. There are extensive discussions on Japan’s penal and legal system (given Kido’s line of work there is a lot on divorce and custody laws).
As much as I liked novel (identity concealment makes for a fascinating subject) I was deeply disappointed by the abrupt way it ended. After spending so much time with Kido, I felt cheated by those final chapters. Kido is seemingly discarded, and readers are left wondering what exactly he will do after he makes an important discovery.
Still, I would probably recommend this one, especially to those who are interested in learning about contemporary Japan or for those who prefer more thought-provoking and philosophical mysteries.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Revenge by Yōko Ogawa — book review

12987389.jpgHaving read two novels by Yōko Ogawa, I was curious to read Revenge, a collection of interconnected short stories. Ogawa’s magnifies the sense unease that usually permeates her narratives (even The Housekeeper and the Professor has its unsettling moments), as these stories seem intent on unnerving their readers. The characters within these pages are morbid, obsessive, prone to macabre thoughts and obscure actions.
What drew me the most was to ‘discover’ what linked these various characters together. I believe Ogawa succeeded in creating interesting connections between these different, or perhaps not so different, people. However, truth be told, I found that at times she sacrificed potentially terrifying moments for gratuitously grotesque scenes. Personally, I find that relying too much on obvious sources of ‘discomfort’ (such as detailed descriptions of dead animals or torture methods) is a ‘cheap’ way to repulse your readers. I wasn’t horrified or afraid, merely disgusted. The characters also seemed to have the same excited way of envisioning tortured bodies…which got old fast.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel — book review

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“We can be sad, distraught, confused, pleading, forgiving. But not furious. Fury is reserved for other people. The worst thing you can be is an angry woman, an angry mother.”

Once again I find myself in the minority but I just didn’t find The Familiar Dark to be a very riveting read. From its gratuitous and cliched opening pages (in which two twelve year olds are murdered) to its stagy finale, I had a hard time believing in the story I was reading.

Some of my favourite books, such as Winter’s Bone and Sharp Objects, depict rather bleak realities, but they do so convincingly. Here, Eve Taggert’s narration is so exaggeratedly ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ as to be hard to buy into. Although she says that she has spent all her life in the same small town, she often describes its people’s ways through comparisons (saying things on the lines of ‘in other places people would react differently/here rules are different’). Given how insular her world is, it seems weird that she would so often view her town and her family through an outsider’s lenses.

The many metaphors about darkness and poison also struck me as contrived. Eve’s circumstances spoke for themselves. Abuse, neglect, sexual harassment, rape, poverty, and addiction are the norm in her town, especially for women. Would she really waste her time thinking of allusions or similes for ‘darkness’?
In spite of her truth seeking/no bullshit attitude she conceals certain knowledge from the reader…for what purpose? To ‘shock’ us? It seemed weird that Eve, who is able to see through her community and the dubious intentions of the people around her, would lie to herself and to us about someone’s identity.

Eve’s narration aside, I did find the novel to be evocative. The dialogues where for the most part believable as was Eve’s grief. Her search for the truth behind her daughter’s murder is filled with both tense and sorrowful moments. Her rage was also convincing, as were her reflections regarding the limited options women in her position have.

The Familiar Dark sacrifices realism for the sake of dramatic twists. Moments of poignancy or insight into Eve’s life are often lost beneath the author’s overemphasis on ‘darkness’.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent

The opening lines of this novel are wonderfully theatrical:

“All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin.”

Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent is a gleefully dark novel, filled with mean, selfish, and cruel individuals. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Nugent’s latest novel features one of the most unlikable casts of characters I have ever encountered in a book. And yet, while the Drumm brothers and most of their social circle, are certainly detestable, the satirical tone that pervades Nugent’s narratives makes her characters’ nastiness a lot more ‘digestible’. Also, by exaggerating their worst traits and inflating the behaviours and reactions of nearly every-single character, the author gives her book a darkly humorous quality that keeps the story, and its characters, from being taken too seriously.image (1).jpg

“You see, in our family somebody always had to be the butt of the joke.”

The alternating point of views and the non-linear structure of this novel add some spice to what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill dark family drama. We have three brothers from Dublin:
William, a film producer who believes that his only ‘weakness’ are women and that he is the “most successful and least screwed-up” Drumm brother; Brian, the middle-child, who, as the only non-famous and rather forgettable brother, feels like the underdog of the family (but before readers begin to feel sympathetic towards him we soon see him for the greedy skinflint he really is); lastly, there is Luke, the youngest brother is perhaps the only one who isn’t a wholly repugnant being. He has his moments of dickishness but readers are soon confronted by the troubled state of his mental health. His life is punctuated by unhealthy behaviours: as a boy he went through a zealously religious phase, while years later, once his music career kicks off, he goes in and out of clinics, perpetually plagued by morbid hallucinations and nightmares. Alcoholisms, drugs, paranoia, depression, become the backdrop to his 20s and 30s.
In spite of their different career paths and lifestyles William, Brian, and Luke often find themselves, much to their chagrin, drawn back together. While we initially believe that Luke is the only Drumm brother to demonstrate concerning behaviour, we soon see notice that William and Brian aren’t as clear-headed as they’d like to believe.

“We all knew the experience had scarred him deeply, but it was one of our family’s little cruelties to revisit it, often.”

The story charts their bitter relationship as they try to one-up each other throughout the decades.The three brothers have never been on easy terms. They are—and always have been—rivals. If something good happens to one of them, the other two are envious and feel they themselves are entitled to happiness/success/money. The little ‘cruelties’ that they do to one another can vary from a seemingly childish taunt to a much more perfidious offence. As the narrative progresses we see that most of their interactions have always been either openly hostile or purely transactional.
Whichever brother is narrating will often paint himself as the blameless victim, the only ‘sane/good’ Drumm brother. I enjoyed discovering more about the Drumm’s familial history and found the story to be fairly suspenseful.

However, as much I enjoyed the ongoing melodrama between the Drumm brothers, part of me was ultimately unconvinced by the whole thing. From the first pages we understand that these three have never and will never love each other. Even Luke is far too self-involved to care for his older brothers. If he helps them out, he doesn’t do this out of selflessness.
The Drumm brothers have always resented or outright hated one another. At times it seems that there is some loyalty or affection between them but it is merely a false impression. They pretend to do things out of ‘brotherly’ concern or care but they are just trying to keep face (with their parents/partners/etc.). This made their recurring ‘betrayals’ less duplicitous. These ‘cruelties’ don’t seem all that cruel once we realise that they never shared a bond or connection. A toxic type of love would have been more interesting…but what we have here is three guys pretending—not very hard—that they feel something other than distaste for one another. They don’t seem hurt by the cruel words or slights they receive, rather they seem to think on the lines of ‘how dare he do this to me’.

I don’t know…I just didn’t feel the passion behind their actions. These characters weren’t unreliable as such. They simply recount events in a way that puts them in a good-light. And when they are describing some of their questionable behaviour they do so in a matter-of-fact way, without any ceremony. They quickly and efficiently justify their actions by saying that it was the only way or that the other brother deserved it.
It would have been a lot more interesting if they had done these ‘cruelties’ to the people they loved rather than to people they did not care for. In fact, they seemed to care for no one but themselves.

For the most part Nugent does a terrific job in rendering certain time periods: from the 70s to the early 2000s. However, when it came to the 2010s she gives us a simplistic vision by portraying this time as little other than ‘the social media/influencer era’. Here we have cliche after cliche. William’s daughter is the embodiment of the millennial (or what individuals of a certain age imagine all millennials to be like): she is attention-seeking, body-insecure, not very bright, bisexual only because it makes her seem alternative, a self-harmer, a fake depressive…in general Nugent’s portrayal of mental illness struck me as little other than showy.

Speaking of female characters, the three main women in this novel came across as flat. Their actions made no sense and it would have been a lot more interesting to have some short sections from their povs. The Drumm’s mother had the potential of being a complex character but she doesn’t get a lot of page-time. William’s wife is a mere plot device.

Also, as much as I was entertained by the sensationalist behaviour of these characters, I did find the latter-half of the novel to be slightly less intriguing than the first. The whole build up to ‘which one of them is dead’ loses a bit of its initial steam and the final reveal struck me as anticlimactic.
The epilogue was laughably cheesy, and I’m unsure if this was intentional or not.

Final verdict:

Our Little Cruelties is best enjoyed as a wickedly fun read rather than a psychological thriller. For the most part it is engaging and chock-full of drama between horrible people. The conversational style of the brothers’ narratives drew me in, so that I almost felt implicated by what they were telling me. Dark moments or serious issues are treated with flippancy, in a soap-opera sort of manner. If you stop to think whether the story or characters make sense…well, it might ruin your reading experience.

“We three brothers all looked, one to the other. We knew it was inevitable.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier — book review

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Rebecca is a work of Gothic suspense that is told in a mesmerising prose and makes for an enthralling and evocative read.

“Colour and scent and sound, rain and the lapping of water, even the mists of autumn and the smell of the flood tide, these are memories of Manderley that will not be denied.”

While reading Rebecca I realised that I was already familiar with its opening lines and some of the novel’s key scenes. This may be because of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca film or thanks to the hilarious sketch by That Mitchell and Webb Look.
In many ways Rebecca—its story, its characters, its use of Gothic elements—is not incredibly original. Yet, rather than relying wholly on its precursors (such as Bluebeard and Jane Eyre) Rebecca presents us with a more self-aware take on these otherwise tired dynamics and scenarios.
While the cast of characters do have attributes that bring to mind Jane Eyre (not only is du Maurier’s narrator a ‘plain Jane’ but one of her few hobbies happens to be ‘drawing’) they also possess qualities that reflect their own period.

The narrator’s namelessness is incredibly effective. It suggests that this novel is indeed not about her, but about Rebecca (after all the novel is titled after her). Her namelessness also reinforces her sense of inadequacy—that is of being less, not enough, simply unequal to Rebecca—and her anxiety regarding herself and others.
Daphne du Maurier untangles the mystery at the heart of her novel in a slow yet utterly compelling way. During the ‘final’ explanation she details in incisive precision the motivations and circumstances that can lead ‘ordinary’ individuals to commit a major crime. More impressive still is that even after this ‘twisty’ revelation the narrative maintains its suspense.
Much of the narrative’s ‘tension’ arises from seemingly ordinary moments. Our narrator seems to find the conventions and traditions of the British upper class to be exhausting. In spite of her often reiterated wish to be a magnetic and socially accomplished woman, she shrinks away from her role as Manderley mistress (during ‘unpleasant’ or simply adult conversations she will lower her gaze and occupy herself with her hands or with petting the dog).
The narrator’s namelessness emphasises her disempowerment. While she refers to herself as Maxim’s wife, and others will address her as Mrs de Winter, our narrator feels unequal to her position and inferior in all aspects to the previous Mrs de Winter.
The narrator’s unwillingness and inability to fulfill Rebecca’s old duties or to partake in the daily runnings of Manderley, render her vulnerable to the creepy Mrs. Danvers (a woman who is as watchful as Madame Beck in Villette).
The second Mrs de Winter struggles to assert herself, so much so that she falls victim to Mrs. Danvers’ psychological attacks. It is because she is constantly undermined by Mrs. Danvers, timid towards Manderley’s staff, and painfully aware of being scrutinised, surveyed, and compared to Rebecca, that our narrator becomes convinced of her own inferiority.
While the premise and dynamics within this novel are far from unique, I enjoyed seeing how things played out. A naive young woman, her distant and secretive husband, his recently deceased achingly-beautiful-and-charming first wife, his Bluebeard-esque estate with its skull-faced servant…these are all exceedingly Gothic elements. Given the popularity of the ‘domestic thriller’ genre, it appears that readers have yet to grow tired of these type of stories. There are few authors however who have du Maurier’s sensual prose. There is a sensuality in the narrator’s obsession and jealousy towards Rebecca. While the second Mrs de Winter never sees a photo or portrait of Rebecca, she becomes familiar with everything about her. From her perfume and clothes to her calligraphy and daily routine. Other people’s impression of Rebecca shape the narrator’s own vision of her. Rebecca comes to embody all the characteristics that the present Mrs de Winter would like to possess. Her fascination is intermingled with a deeply felt hatred.

There is little romance in the love story within Rebecca. In spite of her naïveté, our narrator soon realises that Maxim is far from love-struck. His marriage proposal seems much closer to a business proposal, and later on, not only does he seem disinterested in our narrator but he is quick to dismiss her worries and anxieties (he will tell her not to be a little idiot).
Jealousy and paranoia soon begin to plague the second Mrs de Winter. She desires more than anything to be loved by Maxim, and fears that she will never live up to his first wife Rebecca. As she becomes more and more haunted by Rebecca, the narrator’s susceptible mind often lead her to distort and exaggerate simple conversations, and to observe in her surroundings Rebecca’s imprint (there were many moments in which she reminded me of Jane Austen’s incredibly impressionable heroine Catherine Morland). Through the narrator’s dreams and her moments of dissociation readers begin to see just how deep Rebecca’s presence is within her psyche and life.
The landscape alleviates our heroine’s mystification. The gardens and the sea mirror her state of minds, and allow her to examine and question her own feelings and circumstances. Manderley’s flora and fauna, as well as its weather, capture a sense of the sublime. The idyllic and haunted Manderley plays a central role in the story and constantly occupies the narrator’s mind.
Amidst love, jealousy, and feminine ideals, this beautifully written novel conveys with perfect clarity what it means to be young and inexperienced.

 

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – book review

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“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.”

In recent years Shirley Jackson has experienced a kind of renascence. Perhaps because of Netflix’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House or possibly thanks to contemporary authors (such as Donna Tartt, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King) who have credited Jackson as their inspiration, enhancing her reputation, and prompting a reappraisal of her work. The fact that the Gothic and Horror genres—long regarded as cheap and sensational—are no longer considered ‘lowbrow’ fiction has also contributed to this reassessment of Jackson’s oeuvre. Modern readers now see Jackson as a central figure of the America Gothic as much of her fiction paints a fascinating—if not disturbing—portrait of postwar America . Yet, I find it difficult to pigeonhole Jackson as a Horror writer. Her narratives often feature emotionally disturbed women who are trapped within Kafkaesque worlds. They reality they presents us with seems off. Jackson seems to magnify the way in which traditions and societal expectations threaten one’s individuality and creativity. Most of her stories follow a woman’s ‘quest’ to find or maintain her identify. The ‘horror’ within Jackson’s stories is experienced by her characters. It is because most of her protagonists are labelled as ‘different’ that they are made vulnerable. Yet, readers will often find that all of Jackson’s characters behave with eccentricity (there are whole towns and communities populated by weird people…a bit a la A Series Of Unfortunate Events). In spite of this our protagonists are still singled out, often because they seem more interested in practicing their personal brand of witchcraft than of engaging with the rest of their world.
Madness and evil pervade Jackson’s writing to the extent that even her depictions of everyday occurrences are riddled with human weaknesses, fears, and cruelties. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle evil takes many forms.

The protagonist of We Have Always Lived in the Castle—which happens to be Jackson’s last published novel—has no interest in personal growth. Mary Katherine, who goes by the nickname of Merricat (quite fitting given that she often behaves like her closest companion, a black cat named Jonas), is an untame and defiant tomboy whose apparent ingenuousness hides a razor-alert mind. Six years before the events of the narrative—at the age of twelve—Merricat’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother died after eating sugar laced with arsenic. Constance, Merricat’s older sister, is accused and acquitted of the crime.
Ostracised from their village, Merricat and Constance have become completely estranged from society. At the age of eighteen—free from her parents’ rules—Merricat has fashioned Blackwood Manor into her own private and idyllic world. The two sisters and Uncle Julian—who survived the poisoning but is now wheelchair-bound and increasingly senile—lead a life that is relatively quiet and governed by the daily chores and the ritual of mealtimes. Constance is in charge of the cooking and spends most of her days looking after Uncle Julian and completing household chores with Merricat, whom she treats with loving indulgence, often condoning Merricat’s disturbing behaviour by saying “silly Merricat”. When Constance voices her desire to go outside of the property, Merricat fear of this begins to manifests itself in her surroundings, skewing the way she perceives her reality so that she views ordinary things as ‘omens’ that “spoke of change.” Merricat attempts to regain control of the situation through her witchcraft and by breaking objects but with cousin Charles’ unannounced visit, Merricat is forced to take more drastic approaches to self-preservation.

A third fourth reading of this short and beautifully odd novel has made me even more appreciative of Shirley Jackson’s mastery of words. The first time I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle I was propelled into an increasingly puzzling yet utterly compelling story. During my second reading, I payed more attention to all of the novel’s components, rather than just getting swept along the bizarrely unapologetic storyline. Each time I re-read this novel, I love it even more. Jackson doesn’t feel the need to explain the surreal reality of her novels which makes readers such as me all the more in awe of her craft. Although it is difficult to draw comparisons, I could describe her style as David Lynch meets Tim Burton. Everything and everyone within this novel is peculiar and most scenes and conservations seem to hold a level of absurdity. Merricat’s narrative is also marked by a sense of growing unease (towards change, the future, anything other than her own version of reality) and the tension created by her various anxieties is alleviated by the story’s dark humour.

There are many different layers to We Have Always Lived in the Castle. One the one hand, it is exactly what its reputation promises it to be: an incredibly eerie and compelling short novel. On the other hand, it also delves into many challenging and unsettling subjects, such as paranoia, persecution and violence. Shirley Jackson does not shy away from portraying the darker corners of human nature, in fact, she delves right into the darkest parts of the human psyche.
On the surface, Merricat’s alienation is debilitating yet a closer look suggests that her estrangement from her society is act of self-preservation, one that is both empowering and subversive, allowing them to defy the societal norms and expectations of their time. Throughout the course of her narrative she attempts—for better or worse—to shape and maintain her own identities, refusing the role thrust upon her by her society. In Jackson’s novels, a world of fantasy is preferable to the ‘real’ world, which is populated by people who perform acts of cruelty, physical brutality and or psychological violence against those they perceive as ‘outsiders’. Merricat, who embodies the feared ‘other’ through her unwillingness, if not outright refusal, to adhere to established social conventions, is the ideal scapegoats of her community.

Merricat’s megalomania shows itself through her desire to exact punishments and for designating things and people as either “good” or “bad”. Her dichotomous view of the world causes her to behave in extremes: she varies between acting like a feral child, a sulky adolescent, and a seemingly Cassandra-like individual. Merricat obeys her childish impulses, and readily resorts to violence when not getting her way. Although Merricat sounds much younger than her eighteen years, her naivety is misleading, and her fantasies can easily move between those of a child (“I really only want a winged horse, anyway. We could fly you to the moon and back, my horse and I”) and those of a far more ruthless and dangerous person.
Her sadistic fantasies, her manipulation and subordination of Constance, and her desire to frighten others (“I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village.” ) reveal Merricat’s cunning awareness. Readers might find her charming, yet warped perspective jarring, especially since she avoids explaining her most malevolent deeds.

Merricat’s surreal inner world is conveyed through her first-person narration and readers are granted a unique insight into some of her mental strategies that she uses to feel protected from world around her’. To an outsider like her cousin Charles, many of Merricat’s actions seem to be unwarranted temper tantrums. Readers, on the other hand, know that Merricat always attributes a meaning—however absurd or far-fetched it may appear—to her every action and word. We are aware that she deliberately smashes objects in an effort to regain control over her life.
Merricat’s tendency to let her fantasies dictate her behaviour, turning her imagination into reality, distances herself from the ever-present threat of reality. She attempts to change and control aspects of her life through magical charms and fantasies, with little direct engagement with the outside world. Merricat’s need of control could possibly stems from her ‘fear of change’ which in turn causes her to perceive anything outside her and Constance’s established routine, such as the arrival of uninvited guests, as a threat to their wellbeing. Merricat tries to deflect ‘change’ through her own unique brand of witchcraft, which consists in the performance of various magical rituals, the burying of various ‘safeguards’, unspoken ‘spells’, and even the occasional“‘offering of jewellery out of gratitude”. Merricat draws strength from her belief in magic. What Charles—and presumably the rest of society—would see as childish games, Merricat views as the means to safeguard her future and protect her from the outside.

It is up to Merricat to fashion her home, Blackwood Manor, into a ‘castle’—a stronghold—which she can protect through various magical rituals and wards, and Merricat believes that nothing—and no one—can prevent her from projecting her fantastical and solipsistic view of the world onto her reality.
Shirley Jackson’s style is perfectly attuned to Merricat’s unnerving mind. Her obsessive and impulsive nature is fluidly conveyed by Jackson’s repetitive and rhythmical writing. Jackson also evokes a surrealisms reminiscent of fairy tales through the Merricat’s childlike urges and morbid fascination.
Merricat is a beguiling narrator. Her playful fantasies are juxtaposed against the most violent and bizarre thoughts. Her devotion to her sister borders on the obsessive yet it is through this puzzling relationship that we see a more genuine side to Merricat’s character. In spite of her selfish nature, her palpable fears and unique worldview make her into a fascinating protagonist. Once the stability of the sisters’ purposely reclusive existence is threatened, Merricat survives through her active fantasy. She retreats into the deepest parts of her made-up world. And it is her increasingly desperate attempts to retain control over both Constance’s and her own life that make her into such a brilliant character. Even in those instances where she ‘simply’ observes others, Merricat is always ‘there’, her presence unmissable to the readers.

Her sister Constance also demonstrates worrying behaviour. She too is initially in complete denial over the family’s status. She is in some things, rather controlling, while in other instances, she seemed…on another planet. While Constance remains a cypher of sorts, we see why Merricat needs her.
Uncle Julian ramblings were endearing and his sharp remarks provided much entertainment. Much of the story’s humour springs from his character.
Merricat perceives cousin Charles a threat right from the start. The scenes featuring him are brimming with tension: Merricat’s apprehension is all too real, and I found myself viewing him as an ‘enemy’, just as she does. Merricat’s descriptions of him often present him as something not quite human, a ghost or some such creature. While we can see that some of his criticisms towards Constance and Merricat had some truth, we are always seeing him through Merricat’s eyes.

The underlying suspense, the growing unease, make this uncanny tale hard to put down.The vivid descriptions are simply tantalising, the surreal quality of the characters’ conversations is darkly amusing and the atmospheric setting is almost tangible. We Have Always Lived in the Castle makes for a lush and macabre read, one that will probably strike you as weird yet ultimately compelling. It could be read as a fairy-tale of sorts, an alternative to folklore narratives, or as a story that sets otherness against ‘herd’ mentality.
Recently there has been a film adaptation of this novel (you can watch the trailer for it here) which, in spite of some minor alterations, brings to life Jackson’s story. It conveys the novel’s unapologetic weirdness, its idiosyncrasies, and its black humour. The film Stoker also seems to have drawn inspiration from this novel.
The first page of this novel perfectly encapsulates its style and tone. If you are uncertain whether this is the kind of story for you, I recommend you read its opening paragraph:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie — book review

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I can definitely see why many consider And Then There Were None to be Agatha Christie’s magnum opus. Over the past year I have read—or listened to—approximately 30 works by her. With the exception of one one or two anomalies, her books have never failed to entertain me. And I agree with those who call her the queen of crime fiction. Most of her murder-mystery stories implement literary devices that are now considered to be conventions of this genre, and while readers are duped by red herrings and false leads, her professional, or amateur, detectives always manage to extrapolate the truth. The guilty parties are punished, justice is served, and everything is well in the world.
In And Then There Were None she disrupts her usual form, as she challenges her readers expectations by providing us with a cast of quite likely guilty characters. Justice in And Then There Were None takes a sinister role, as we become invested in the lives of the people it seeks to punish.
A rhyme also acquires a dark and deadly significances as Christie uses the ten little soldiers rhyme to create, maintain, and build tension. As the story progresses, and the number of soldiers dwindles, this seemingly harmless rhyme seems far more terrifying than it first appeared to. Christie almost seems to be making a game out of this rhyme, one that is guaranteed to captivate her readers’ attention.
As per usual Christie demonstrates a shrewd insight into human nature. Cut off from the rest of society, the guests soon realise the direness of their situation…soon they fall prey to suspicion and an ever growing sense of uneasiness. The crimes they may, or may have not, committed will arouse further mistrust among the already divided group. Readers too will find themselves questioning the reliability of these characters, and depending on our feelings towards them, we will hope for their innocence or guilt…
With a few singularly effective descriptions Christie breathes life into her characters and their personalities. The changing dynamics between these various characters also provide us with yet another source of excitement. While their various exchanges and discussions do demonstrate Christie’s wit, I had the distinctive impression that this time around Christie had reined in her humour.

When reading crime fiction we often expect the naming and capturing of a criminal. This is usually followed by a restoration of both a moral and a social order…in And Then There Were None it is not the case.

A note on the audiobook edition:
Dan Stevens is such a charismatic narrator. His performance make for a highly engaging experience.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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The Stories You Tell by Kristen Lepionka — book review

39298457._SX318_.jpgThe Stories You Tell will quite likely by one of my biggest reading disappointments of 2019. This third instalment featuring PI Roxane Weary has made the characters established in book 1 and 2 sketches of their former selves. What is perhaps even worse is that much of The Stories You Tell is a blatant rip-off of (view spoiler).

In many ways The Stories You Tell negates the characters’ dynamics and developments that occurred in The Last Place You Look and What You Want To See. Roxane’s personality, which so strongly dictated the storylines of book 1 and 2, has receded into a mere parody of her former self. While previously she struck me as headstrong and resilient in spite of her troubles, in The Stories You Tell she was annoying, self-centred, and rude. Most of her interactions with the various individuals connected to disappearance of this Mackenzie seemed to follow the same formula: she poses stupid questions, makes poorly veiled accusations, and does not advance the case.
The ‘story’ as such is made up by scenes in which Roxane ‘interrogates’ various people…these dialogues were for the most part boring so much so that you could predict the way the would conclude (spoiler: nothing much would be revealed).
Then we have Roxane whining about her relationship to her deceased father, whining that her girlfriend doesn’t demonstrate her love for her (and yet for Roxane it is okay to keep her gf at a distance…double standards much?), whining some more about this and that. The suspects and persons of interest were so forgettable that I kept confusing them for one another.
Roxane joined the trend of constantly dismissing the men she encounters as ‘ugh those straight men’, ‘ugh those white men’. Let’s keep in mind that I am 1) a woman 2) not straight, and yet, this constant and obvious ‘haha men suck’ banter was really cheap. If the story and the characterisations of these men could have conveyed that they were ‘bad’ good, but being told time and again ‘they suck’ isn’t reason enough why I should dislike them.
Roxane’s girlfriend is dismissed early on in the narrative and, rather predictably, she turns into (view spoiler)
The ‘twist’ was both laughable and unimaginative. There are a few lines that can be found in a lot of ‘domestic thriller’ novels:
(view spoiler)

Roxane is made to seem this iconic woman who takes no shit from anyone but is actually unable to act like an adult or do her job properly.
With great sadness I bid this series goodbye as I won’t be following Roxane’s journey into mediocrity.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue — book review

 

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“I was afraid, really, of being the main character in my own life.”

Promising Young Women is an intelligent and subversive novel that examines the darker and more twisted aspects of a relationship between a female employee and her boss.

There was something about the story and its characters that reminded of Joyce Carol Oates (Zombie, Solstice, A Fair Maiden, and Nemesis) in that Promising Young Women is brimming with an almost palatable darkness so much so that readers will find themselves overwhelmed by it.

From its very opening page the novel juxtaposes the sweet with the grotesque:

[T]he excess of uneaten cake was attracting rats, and when bodies started appearing — bloated and sugar-filled and, more than once, belly-up in the stairwell — they insisted we downsize.”

This sets the tone for the rest of the novel as we follow the protagonist, a young promising woman, in a feverish journey towards self-destruction. When Jane Peters turns 26 she is newly single (her long-term boyfriend has fallen in love with someone else) and painfully aware of what she perceives as being her own unfulfilled existence. She works at Mitchell Advertisement where she is one of the many “young women” who work alongside—and often for—older men. When Clem, her much older boss, begins to show interest in her, she finds herself rapidly falling under his spell.
The story that follows is very much a subversive take on the trope of the young woman/married older man cliché and from the get go we are made aware of how imbalanced their relationship is. An unmoored Jane feels pressured by the skewed power dynamics between her and Clem into continuing their affair. We witness how slowly yet surely Jane’s sense of self is eroded by Clem and by her own growing dissociation with her past self.
The deceptively simple prose (as opposed to Oates’ more eloquent prose) is compelling and offers readers with a direct look into the mind of an alienated woman. Backdrop to Jane’s disintegration is the dangers of workplace competitiveness, the lack of privacy that comes with being an online presence, and the persistency of the more unseen aspects of sexism (a scene where Jane visits a doctor will have you simmering with rage). It is also a satire of certain trends (‘actualisation’, yoga retreats) in a way that doesn’t minimise from Jane’s—frankly horrific—experiences.

The story blurs the line between reality and fantasy, and as Jane’s body and mind become affected by a series of mysterious ailments, so does the prose attain a feverish quality that perfectly captures the Jane’s fears and anxieties.
Unlike other contemporary novels exploring similar themes, O’Donoghue’s debut never romanticises the way Clem degrades Jane, nor does it suggest that Jane’s weight loss makes her more ‘ethereal’ or ‘aesthetically cool’ (there is none of the usual ‘sharp-cheekbones’ crap) but rather it shows us in horrifying, and almost grotesque detail, Jane’s estrangement from her own body. Clem’s presence in Jane’s life has almost the same effect as an infection…
It was also interesting to read about the way Jane’s ambitions regarding her career affects some of her friendships, or causes those around her to reassess their perception of her. In some ways it is Jane’s ‘promising future’ that makes her dissolution all the more affecting.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a pleasant read. Yes, it was gripping, but more than once I felt sickened by what I was reading. O’Donoghue has created a captivating and terrifying modern Gothic tale which depicts the more poisonous aspects of love affairs, sexism (especially at the workplace), and friendships. Although I was surprised by how weird it ended up being, I completely bought into it.
This was a bizarre, compelling, and thought-provoking debut.

I choose to be someone that things happen to, because it was easier than being someone who made things happen.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4 since this is a debut)

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