BOOK REVIEWS

Crime And Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts with Epilogue by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is a favourite of mine so I was expecting Crime And Punishment be right up my street…aaaaand I hated it.

Many consider Crime And Punishment to be one of the most influential books of all time…and I have to wonder…how? The Idiot, although certainly flawed, tells a far more cohesive and compelling narrative. The central figure of Crime And Punishment is an angsty and hypocritical wanker. I do not have to like a character to ‘root’ for them but Dostoyevsky, man, you gotta give me something…anything! Instead we have this appealing main character who for reasons unknown to me manages to captivate everybody’s attention.

Crime And Punishment is divided in six parts. In the first one—which I actually kind of liked—we are introduced to Rodion Raskolnikov an impoverished young man who dropped out of university and is now forced to go to a pawnbroker for funds. He believes that his financial circumstances are the only thing standing in the way of a ‘good’ life so he decides to kill the pawnbroker, telling himself that she is a callous old woman who sort of deserves to meet a violent end. In this first part Raskolnikov has various monologues, in which he argues with himself. A letter from his mother, informing him that his sister is engaged to an older man of affluence, he kind of looses it. He also meets another ‘tormented’ soul, Marmeladov, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who basically tells Raskolnikov his life story (his incoherent ramblings go on for pages and pages and pages).
Raskolnikov uses an axe to kill the pawnbroker but things, predictably, don’t go quite as he had planned.

The follow five parts haven’t all that much to do with this murder or with the detective who is pursuing Raskolnikov. After committing this crime Raskolnikov falls ill, he faints more often than Harry Potter and Frodo combined. Lots of people try to help him but he remains an asshole. Razumíkhin, who was also forced to drop out of university due to his finances, is utterly loyal to him. And…why? Even prior his ‘madness’ it seems that Raskolnikov was a noxious mix of moody and unpleasant. Then these two are joined by Raskolnikov’s sister and mother, and by the two ‘bad’ men who are interested in his sister. And of course, we also get some more of Marmeladov and his family, in particular his daughter, a beautiful prostitute whose childlike appearance (insert puking sounds here) and inherent purity make Raskolnikov besotted with her.

Everyone goes on a tirade, no one makes any bloody sense. Ramblings here, ramblings there, ramblings every fucking where. The dialogues are repetitive, the plot makes no sense (convenient coincidences aside it seems odd that Raskolnikov would not think back to his article on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ criminals just once in part one or two given what he wanted to and what he ended up doing), and I have 0 tolerance for grown ass men finding women attractive because they have ‘childlike’ physiques, temperaments, or features. And of course, here we have women who tremble like leaves.

There were so many over the top moments and whereas I found this fantastical realism amusing in The Idiot here they just annoyed me. Raskolnikov is dumb, he isn’t a brilliant criminal, or a genius, or master manipulator, or even charming…he just is. He makes so many avoidable mistakes, which made me wonder why it took the detective so long to finally confront him. Speaking of the deceive, his scenes with Raskolnikov had this very ‘anime’ feel to them (which works in parodies such as Love is War) and I could not for the life of me take them seriously.

What kind of point was this book trying to make? I have no clue. I did not enjoy the discussions on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ men, which seem to suggest that the reason why the detective is so in awe of Raskolnikov is that he considers him to be an ‘extraordinary’ individual, one who should not be punished as hard as ‘ordinary’ individual should. Yikes.

To quote Nabokov: Dostoyevsky’s “sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment—by this reader anyway”.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Like most collections of short stories Mouthful of Birds has some stories that are hits and ones that are misses. I think the collection definitely showcases Samanta Schweblin’s creativity and versatility. While most of the stories are permeated by the surreal they differ in tone and subject.

Schweblin makes the familiar feel unfamiliar. Many of the stories examine recognisable scenarios from an unexpected angle and it often takes a little time to catch up to what is going on.
One of my favourite stories, ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’, had some very strong Kafkaesque vibes and the creepy yet bizarre atmosphere I would except in a story by Shirley Jackson. Another favourite of mine was ‘The Merman’, an unapologetically offbeat tale involving, you guessed it, a merman and that reminded me of Kevin Wilson.

As much as I appreciated Schweblin’s dark humour and the weirdness of her stories, there were a few unmemorable ones. The title story was a bit of a letdown (I didn’t find it all that ‘shocking’ or subversive) and the really short ones were rather, if not completely, forgettable. I also did not care for that story that relied on animal cruelty. Not only did I not find it to be ‘horrific’ but it just came across as gratuitous and voyeuristic (gore and violence are cheap ways to ‘inspire’ fear).
Nevertheless I would probably pick up more of Schweblin work as this collection did show some promise.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is an unflinching and deeply harrowing examination of race, colorism, gender, and trauma. Throughout the course of her narrative Toni Morrison captures with painful lucidity the damage inflicted on a black child by a society that equates whiteness with beauty and goodness, and blackness with ugliness and evil.
In her introduction to her novel Morrison explains her inspiration of the novel. Like Morrison’s own friend, the central character in The Bluest Eye, Pecola, is a black girl who yearns for ‘blue eyes’. Similarly to Sula in the eponymous novel, Pecola becomes her community’s scapegoat, but, whereas Sula embraces who she is, Pecola’s self-hatred is compounded by her community’s demonisation of her. The more people speak of her with contempt, the stronger her desire for blue eyes becomes.

Rather than making us experience Pecola’s anguish first-hand, Morrison makes readers into complicit onlookers. We hear the venomous gossip that is exchanged between the various members of Pecola’s community, we witness the horrifying sexual abuse Pecola’s father inflicts on her—from his point of view, not hers—and the good-hearted, if ultimately inadequate, attempts that two other young girls, Claudia and Frieda, make to try and help Pecola.
The adults in this novel are color-struck and condemn Pecola for her parents’ actions, suggesting that she herself is to blame for the violence committed against her. The story is partly narrated by Claudia, whose childhood naïveté limits her comprehension of Pecola’s experiences. We are also given extensive flashbacks in which we learn more about Pecola’s parents (their youth, their eventual romance, and their extremely fraught marriage). There are also scenes focused on characters that belong to Pecola’s community and who either use or abuse her
.
Throughout the course of the narrative, regardless whose point of view we are following, it is clear that Pecola is suffering, and that her home-life and environment are fuelling her self-loathing.
This is by no means an easy read. There is a nauseatingly graphic rape scene, incest, and domestic violence. Pecola is bullied, maltreated, and abused. The few moments of reprieve are offered by Claudia and Frieda, who unlike Pecola can still cling to their childhood innocence.
Pecola’s story is jarring and sobering, and at times reading The Bluest Eye was ‘too much’. Nevertheless, I was hypnotised by Morrison’s cogent style. She effortlessly switches from voice to voice, vividly rendering the intensity or urgency of her characters’ inner monologues. In her portrayal of Pecola’s descent into madness Morrison is challenging racist ideals of beauty, binary thinking, and the labelling of races and individuals as being either good or evil. Pecola’s family, her community, even the reader, all stand by as Pecola becomes increasingly detached from her reality. This a tragic story, one that is bound to upset readers. Still, the issues Morrison addresses in this novel are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson — book review

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“Dearest dearest darling most important dearest darling Natalie—this is me talking, your own priceless own Natalie.”

Alice in Wonderland meets The Bell Jar in Shirley Jackson’s much overlooked Hangsaman.
The first time I read this exceedingly perplexing novel I felt confused. Although Hangsaman shares many similarities with Jackson’s more well known novels (yet again we have a disaffected, hypersensitive, and alienated heroine), this is her most elusive work.
A second and third reading however made me much more appreciative of this peculiar anti-bildungsroman. What I previously thought of as being a confounding narrative with an unclear storyline became a clever take of the three-acts typical of a monomyth.
Hangsaman is focuses on Natalie Waite, a troubling young woman whose intolerance towards others makes her retreat into a series of disturbing fantasies. The narrative chronicles Natalie’s attempts to navigate the murky waters of adulthood. However, Natalie’s journey into adulthood is not only essentially negative but concludes ambiguously. Readers will find Natalie’s self-alienation, which dictates her behaviour and thoughts as well as shaping her worldview and imagination, alienating, as we are left wondering just how unreliable a narrator she is.

At the age of seventeen, Natalie believes that “she had been truly conscious only since she was about fifteen” and lives “in an odd corner of a world of sound and sight past the daily voices of her father and mother and their incomprehensible actions”. Forced into daily tête-à-têtes with her pompous writer-father—who enjoys disparaging Natalie’s creative writing—and made to listen to her neurotic and alcoholic mother’s diatribes against marriage, Natalie’s relationship with herself and others is already mired in ambivalence.
In order to please her father Natalie has spent most of her life pretending to be someone she is not, and her self-alienation partly stems from this forced concealment of her ‘real self’ The disjunction—or split—between Natalie’s “inner” self and her outer “personality” causes her to feel divorced from her own experiences and leads to her self-alienation, forcing her to create a provisional ‘new’ personality.
On campus, Natalie’s only connection to her father is through their correspondence, and in these letters she glamorizes her college experience. In reality, college is not the ‘new start’ Natalie had hoped for. As she is constantly in the presence of other girls, Natalie struggles to maintain a ‘personality’ akin to those whom she regards “trivial people” and “mediocre” . Her self-alienation induces her to view her own personality as ‘alien’, permeating her the way she thinks, perceives, feels, and behaves with a sense of unrealness. No longer under her father’s watchful eye, Natalie’s unease increases and her unfixed personality distorts her worldview, leading her to speculate whether her name is truly Natalie or if she as appropriate another girl’s identity. She is scornful of sororities, rejects offers of friendships, and regards with contempt the books, subjects, and theories that she is meant to be studying.
In an attempt to find and assert her own individuality, she seeks refuge in her own writing, deriving strength from this process, and in her make-believe magic. Although she becomes briefly involved in the domestic life of one of her professors (this particularly rocky marriage seemed rather autobiographical) it is only when she meets the mysterious and alluring Tony that Natalie is able to connect to someone.

The confounding narrative of Hangsaman is peppered by odd interactions and monologues that are often as amusing as they are bizarre. The storyline begins with an extended scene in which Natalie’s parents are hosting a party at their house. The party is not a fun affair, and Natalie is involved in an incident that may or may not have actually happened (yeah, I know). The details around this episode remain blurry, and readers will have to draw their own conclusions. Although at college Natalie becomes increasingly divorced from her self—unsure of her name, qualities, and her very existence—it is this very act of self-doubting which drives Natalie’s quest for a suitable identity. As she grows contemptuous of the people she interacts with—students and professors alike—she attains self-validation through her own writing and imagination where she can contemplate grandiose visions of her self. Since Natalie, similarly to Jackson herself, equates normalcy with a loss of individuality, in her imaginary worlds she examines the depths of her own awareness and identity by endowing herself with magical gifts and powerful personalities (she is a ‘mercenary’, ‘gladiator’ and ‘creator’). The subversive components of her fantasies, which often build upon her fears—such as dying—and desires—such as being revered—enable her to exorcise personalities and futures that do not resonate with her. Natalie’s exploration of her self, and of the different realities that may or may not be attainable, is spurred by her self-alienation. Within these narratives, Natalie confronts the dangerous and alluring world of maturity alternating between being a victim and the perpetrator of violence. By proving to herself—and the readers—that she has the strength to defy, resist and even harm others, Natalie can finally become enfranchised from her controlling father and depressed mother.
Jackson’s narrative, fraught with ambivalence, culminates ominously, leaving readers wondering what was real and what wasn’t. In spite of the many disquieting and or perplexing moments/scenes in this novel, Jackson’s offbeat humour makes for a truly entertaining read.

Note: the first time I read this I gave it 3 stars. This third time around I am giving it 5 stars. While I now consider it an all time favourite, I did not know what to make of it the first time I read it….so perhaps you should approach this novel with caution. Although it has many Jacksonesque motifs (female doubles, themes of alienation and paranoia, dark humour, misanthropic characters, witchcraft) it is a far more slippery creature.

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

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THE LOST MAN: BOOK REVIEW

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The Lost Man
by Jane Harper
★★★★★ 5 of 5 stars

“What happened to him?”
“Usual story out here.” Nathan made himself keep his voice even. “Wandered the wrong way and got lost.”

To call The Lost Man a crime/mystery novel seems somewhat reductive. I guess that at its heart this is a story about a family, but even writing that doesn’t do this novel justice.
From its opening pages until the very last line we are made aware of—what seemed to me—the characters’ surreal surroundings: the sheer scope their land is mind-boggling. Living in the Australian outbacks is a real challenge, even if you were grown&bred there.
Harper gives her setting an almost palpable quality: the red sand, the unforgiving and oppressing heat, the treacherous terrain. All of these elements affect the story, making each scene all the more evocative.

It was the stillness that scared him. They did not see another car or person the whole drive home, Nathan remembered clearly. That wasn’t unusual, but that day he had noticed. There was no-one else around.

I would go as far as to say write that the setting functions as one of the players in the story.
For Nathan survival is hard enough, given the unyielding nature of his land, and his troubled relationship with his former community. After the death of one of his brothers, Nathan finds himself staying in his childhood home. The fraught relationship he has with his remaining family is apparent and the reasons behind his isolation are given to us…eventually. Piece by piece we start to gain the picture of Nathan’s past and of his current circumstances. There isn’t a big and unbelievable twist (hurray!), but rather Harper slowly provides us with the right information at the right time.

Nathan felt an unpleasant sensation creep through him and he had the sudden urge to check over his shoulder. There was nothing there but cattle and stubby grass and the horizon. All was quiet.

Soon enough I found myself almost moved to tears by Nathan’s past and present experiences. His uneasy reconciliation with his actions and behaviours was painfully believable. The other characters are just as nuanced and realistically ambivalent as Nathan. His relationship to his youngest brother, Bub, his son, Xander, and his dead brother’s wife, Ilse, are truly compelling. Kudos to Harper who, unlike other authors, is able to 1) depict abuse without recurring to cliched banalities and attributing this abusive behaviour to cartoonishly villainous characters 2) create believable teenagers and children.

Lo gave him a look that could kill a cow. “Not Santa.” She left the dickhead implied.

There is a perpetual sense of suspense, given by the unknowns in our characters’ past, the outbacks, and the legends surrounding the stockman’s grave.
Nathan, as well as some of the other characters, finds himself wanting to know exactly what made his brother, Cameron, abandon his car and wander to his death. Nathan’s unease is increased by his estrangement from his family (and others in general).

“I’m afraid, all right? That the property, and all this—” he gestured at the void outside the window,—all this bloody outback—is going to get to you”

I could easily go on and on about how fantastic this book is…but I will stop. The less you known, the better.
ps: Jackaroo is my favourite new word.
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THE SILENT PATIENT: BOOK REVIEW


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The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
★★✰✰✰ 1.5 of 5 stars  (rounded up because this is a debut so…)

“Please don’t let’s get dramatic.”

    

I’ve been a bit hesitant about writing this review since the majority of readers really enjoyed this debut. However, since Goodreads allows us to express and respect our different opinions I don’t see any harm in being honest. I didn’t hate The Silent Patient but I did find this novel both ridiculous and incompetent.

Just because The Silent Patient has a “twist” that doesn’t mean it should be labelled as being a psychological thriller. There is no suspense, no mystery, no tension, none whatsoever, zilch! The psychology in this one is…well, the depiction of psychiatrist and psychotherapists is at best, laughable, at worst, ignorant.
The book hinges completely on its “twist”, a twist that (view spoiler)
This book seems to me yet another weak attempt of jumping on the domestic thriller bandwagon.

In short: Calling this a novel seems somewhat misleading. This reads more like a incredibly unbelievable script.

LONG RANT REVIEW AHEAD:

The Silent Patient is a really flawed piece of work. I will try to tackle what I personally thought were the major problems this book had (for me, personally):

THE WRITING (idiotic dialogues + inane monologues + ham-handed metamorphoses + a complete lack of a sense of place)

✖ I like Agatha Christie and she has what I would call a ‘dry’ style of writing. Her mysteries are heavy on dialogue. The many conversations that her characters have are witty, amusing and or entertaining. The descriptions she provides perfectly render the characters’ mannerisms and surroundings. Michaelides’ writing mostly consisted in a series of dialogues between two characters and it reads like a script. It would work if what they spoke like actual people rather than this:

~“Perhaps I’m imagining it. But I’m sensing something… Keep an eye on it. Any aggression or competitiveness interferes with the work. You two need to work with each other, not against each other.
~“But remember, with greater feeling comes greater danger.

The dialogues/monologues came across as being incredibly silly and they make the characters sound like children.
✖ These characters do not sound British. They talk like Americans (or what Americans sound like in a CSI episode). There are no British cultural references and or British expressions. This book could be set anywhere.
✖ There were plenty of dramatic and over-the-top statements and or phrases that really ruined potentially significant scenes and or somber moments of contemplation:

~“Her silence was like a mirror—reflecting yourself back at you.”
~“Now I saw the truth. [She] hadn’t saved me—she wasn’t capable of saving anyone. She was no heroines to be admired—just a frightened, fucked-up girl, a cheating liar. This whole mythology of us that I had built up […] now collapsed in seconds—like a house of cards in a gust of wind.”
~“How was this possible? Had she been acting the whole time? Had she ever loved me?”;
~“Why did she do it? How could she?”

Jeez. Talk about melodramatic angst.


✖ Theo’s narrative was filled with painfully overdone monologues that have little purpose since they don’t make Theo into a realistic and nuanced character and most of the time they do not even further the plot. Alicia’s narrative (that is, her diary) makes no sense but more on that when I tackle her character. It’s safe to say that, given that her diary entries included things such as “It took me a moment to speak. I was so taken aback I didn’t know what to say” and “I feel joyous. I feel full of hope”, I had a hard time ‘immersing’ myself or ‘buying’ into her narrative.
Since this book is a ‘domestic thriller’ both Theo and Alicia don’t have sex they ‘fuck’. Because writing ‘we fucked’ makes the story gritty and ‘dark’ [insert laughter here].
The Greek ‘connection’. Done properly, I usually love it when contemporary books draw parallels from Greek myths and or classics. Done properly. Comparing people to Greek statues and having your main characters referring to themselves as being a ‘Greek hero/heroine’ is the opposite of subtle:

~“She was a statue; a Greek goddess come to life in my hands.” ~“He looked like a Greek statue” ~“the actress playing Alcestis looked like a Greek statue” ~“my fate was already decided—like in a Greek tragedy” ~“Casting herself as a tragic heroine”.

We have Diomedes who comes from “a long line of Greek shepherds” (and tells Theo that “every Greek knows his tragedies”). And finally we have Alicia’s painting which is entitled Alcestis. Both the painting and Euripides play had potential. They would have been enough. We didn’t need the constant reminder that The Silent Patient wants to be a ‘tragic play’. Like many other things in this book, the blatant symbolism managed to ruin a potentially good analogy.
✖ The story is set supposedly in the UK. But really, there is 0 sense of place. Who cares about giving your characters a backdrop? Why bother rendering a neighbourhood or an area of London? Who gives a fork about what a room or place looks like? Let’s remember: this story could be set anywhere (or nowhere given how realistic it is).

✖ You could say that the focus on dialogues and flat scenery are reminiscent of a play…which is fine but it doesn’t come across as such. This book just reminds me of a ‘B-movie’ script. There is no tragedy, no pathos , no wit. A 2nd grade play is closer to a ‘classic’ play than this book is.
There is this attempt to make the two ‘main’ women ethereal which did provides a few laughs:

~“Her white dress glowed ghostlike in the torchlight” ~ “I remember so much white everywhere: […] the white of her eyes, her teeth, her skin. I’d never known that skin could be so luminous, so translucent ; ivory white with occasional blue veins visible just beneath the surface, like threads of color in white marble. She was a statue.” ~ “strands of long red hair falling across bony shoulders, blue veins beneath the translucent skin”.

THE CHARACTERS
✖ Theo. Our wannabe (view spoiler). Within a few pages we know that he is obsessed with Alicia (which makes him incredibly unprofessional) and he for the most part he is just soooo dull and whiny. He moans about his childhood, (view spoiler), and his attempt(s) to self-fashion himself as some sort of tragic hero fail epically. After (view spoiler)
His dramatic monologues, constant whinging, and complete lack of awareness (I’ve said it before this man is thick) reminded me a bit of Derek Zoolander:


Alicia…she is beautiful. She loves having sex with her husband and painting. That’s about it. We are told that she was ‘charming’…but how can she have gained this reputation since she has 0 friends and her only real relationship is the one she has with Gabriel (her partner or whatever). Jean-Felix is the owner of a gallery but they don’t spend time together or are on friendly terms. Who is she charming to? She is a complete recluse! She lives in London and is good enough painter and yet…she has managed to make 0 connections. Her diary entries make her sound at best guileless and at worst like a demented child. Her character is just an object. She is there to look beautiful and tragic. She has a few basic reactions (she just “looks up” or “looks down”) or she does the good ol’ ‘banshee’ act, flinging herself in a sudden ‘rage’ towards Theo or another patient. Wow. Such a deep and complex portrait of a (view spoiler).

The cast of characters consists in cardboard cutouts. Going back to Christie, sometimes exaggerated character can be entertaining. Especially if they are a parodying a certain type of person (the writer, the artist, the gossipy old lady and so forth). Here we have mere ‘sketches’ of people.
We have Christian, who doesn’t like Theo because he is a massive bellend bully: “Christian glared at me.” “Christian looked irritated.” “Christian rolled his eyes at me.” “Christian laughed that annoying laugh of his.
We have Professor Diomedes who is Greek and is “an unorthodox man’that’s it folks. That’s his character. Also, (view spoiler) Yuri is another pointless and unbelievable addition to the story. He is the head psychiatric nurse and comes from Latvia so he obviously has to be weird about women. Makes perfect sense. Then we have Stephanie who has very little page time or importance Theo having never even know of her existence knows immediately, before she even speaks, that she is Caribbean). We also have the “jolly Caribbean dinner ladies” (who, surprise surprise, are only mentioned once).

We have a few ‘ugly’ characters who are either ‘mad’ and or violent (Elif, a ‘massive’ Turkish woman, who spends her time shouting or grunting because she is a patient and that’s how ‘ugly’ and mentally ill people behave. Lydia, Alicia’s mean aunt. She is grotesquely ‘fat’ and has lots of cats. She basically just glares, scorns, and spits at people). Paul, Alicia’s cousin, still lives with his mother so he looks like ‘virgin’ and in spite his size he seems ‘stunted’. Kathy and Gabriel are the antithesis of credible (actors and fashion photographers manage to be self-engrossed and 1 dimensional). We have Gabriel’s brother…who is the typical chip-on-my-shoulder character (he has acne, he is balding, he is just a ‘lawyer’, boohoo). Jean-Felix owns a gallery so he is the embodiment of some sort of art-vampire.

THE NONSENSICAL PLOT
✖ Nothing much happens. It’s quite clear that the words that exist before the ‘twist’ serve as filler. Theo moans about this and that. That’s about 70% of the novel.
✖ There are a series of stupid things happening for no apparent reason. (view spoiler)
✖ The Grove is not a forensic unit. I am sure that Theo should be doing a bit of paperwork to cover his 1 to 1s with Alicia. And everything that (view spoiler)
✖ The ‘big twist’ (view spoiler)

IN CONCLUSION

The Silent Patient might not be the worst novel I’ve read but—in my humble opinion— it’s a badly written, poorly developed book. Worse still, The Silent Patient comes across as being ‘soulless’.
A ‘twist’ needs—demands—a story. I want to read characters who vaguely resemble or talk like real people. If you want to play with stereotypes (a la Christie) don’t make your characters take themselves so seriously. A parody of a certain ‘personality’ should at least be funny and or amusing. Adding a strong setting and a coherent storyline wouldn’t do any harm either. The Silent Patient is a messy, flat, painfully dull, ‘Hollywood-type’ of book.

Pre-review:
I’m not sure what’s up with these hyped so-called thrillers but…

If you liked Verity, An Anonymous Girl, The Last Time I Lied or the unintentionally hilarious Jane Doe…chances are you will like The Silent Patient.

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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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Night Film by Marisha Pessl

 

Review of Night Film by Marisha Pessl
★★★★★  5 of 5 starsnightfilm

“As much as some people would like to believe, for their own peace of mind, that the appearance of evil in this world had a clean cause, the truth was never that simple.”

Sometimes, if we are lucky enough, we ‘bump’ into one of those novels. Those novels that make us stay up late, be late for work, and ignore our friends. Night Film is one of those novels (for me at least). I didn’t merely ‘read’ this book, I lived it. I was thrust into an increasingly alluring and almost labyrinthine storyline, and the more I read the more I forgot my own surroundings. I was desperate to know the truth behind Cordova but I was also weary of what this truth was. I could hardly hazard guesses of my own because I was so swept away by the narrative . The closer I came to the end the more nervous I became.
This is the type of book that tests the boundaries between real and unreal, providing an incredibly atmospheric setting and a breath-taking plot. The use of different medias (journal articles, police reports, interviews, websites, photos) makes the reading experience all the richer.

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The premise of the story is intriguing enough: the apparent suicide of the young daughter of a reclusive and mysterious film director sets in motion the investigation of a disgraced journalist. Did Ashley Cordova really kill herself? And if so, why?
Scott McGrath and Ashley’s father have some history. So, Scott’s search is initially sparked by a vindictive desire to shed some truth on Cordova. But what this truth is, it is hard to say.
Joining his investigation – and to his own displeasure – are Hopper, a drug-dealer who’d met Ashley years before, and Nora, a wannabe actress who ends up in possession of Ashley’s distinctive red coat.
The friendship between Scott and Nora is perhaps one of only wholly uplifting things of this novel. They have starkly different views and come from incredibly different places but they simply had that spark that made each of their interactions so entertaining and affective.
The people they encounter are rendered vividly trough both their dialogue and Marisha Pessl’s striking descriptions..
Another aspect of this novel that I really appreciated is its protagonist. Scott is hardly an all-round-good-guy. He is obsessed on Cordova, tends to disregard other’s opinions, and often considers others in rather stereotypical terms but, I think he does so because he is a writer, so he enjoys dramatizing what he see and observes. While his motivations are not selfless, he shows that he can be caring and capable of questioning his own assumptions.
The last section of this novel is almost delirious trip (to where nightmares are made). There is a crescendo of confusion and strangeness that is stressed by the narration itself. While I found the ending infuriatingly abrupt I also feel that it was the only way this novel could end. As much as I craved for a neat ending that would tie all loose ends, it was inevitable that Night Film would end the way it did.

A stunning novel that will remain with me for a long time (hopefully Cordova won’t make a cameo in my dreams…)

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The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

★★★★✰ 4 of 5 stars

“I actually had the idea, when you asked me for a subject for a painting, of giving you a subject: to paint the face of a condemned man a minute before the guillotine falls, while he is still standing on the scaffold and before he lies down on the plank.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky is often remembered in terms of his illness, his gambling, his radicalism – which would lead to his Siberian exile – as well as of his near-death experience, which intensified his already devout religious belief. All these themes can be found in his labyrinthine epic The Idiot which focuses on Prince Myshkin, a Christ-like holy fool who suffers from epilepsy, and on the secondary characters surrounding him.

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This often mystifying novel delves into complex political and philosophical issues, without offering any direct approach or reaching a simple solution. Arguments, misunderstandings, and disputes abound within these pages.

Dostoyevski’s characters offer contradictory yet wholly believable portrayals of different types of people. His ideas of guilt and punishment are very interesting, and I enjoyed the fact that most of his characters are the embodiment of a ‘grey morality’. And of course, Myshkin. The Prince is naive to a fault yet he can be particularly perceptive about others (eg. usually by reading their faces), he seems to understand the nature and character of others, even if he often finds himself at a loss for words. I read a review stating that he was useless and selfish. I couldn’t disagree more. His incredible empathy is the driving force his character. His ability to identify himself in others, and his immediate forgiveness of others make him anything but pathetic. Yes, he was too kind, and his kindness doesn’t not do him favour, but, others are also to blame for the events that lead to his ‘unbecoming’: they use him or don’t understand him, and when they call him an ‘idiot’, he believes them.

A flawed masterpiece that often looses itself along the way (eg. a character reading his ‘will’ takes up 40 pages). In spite of the byzantine plot, Dostoyevsky has an eye for people, and Freud was quite right in calling Dostoyevsky a psychologist.

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The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy by Barbara Vine

“I want to be in love. I want to be possessed and obsessed by it, I want the sky to change colour and the sun to shine all the time. I want to long for the phone to ring and pace the room when it doesn’t. I want to be breathless at the sound of her voice and tongue-tied when I first see her.”

A layered and complex character driven novel, one that from start to finish thrums with suspense.
Guilt, lost chances, secretive relationships and desires are explored throughout this novel.

After the death of her husband, renown writer Gerald Candless, Ursula considers her loveless marriage and the freedom she has gained as a widow. Her daughters, unlike her, loved Gerald. It is hinted, from the very beginning, that Gerald marries solely to become a father: his desire, during the 60s and the 70s is made to make him unusual, different. Yet, he takes control of his daughters, pushing Ursula out of the family picture. Sarah, the eldest daughter, is charged with writing a memoir in his memory. Grief stricken, she agrees, only to then discover than her mythical father is not who he claimed to be.
A perusal of the past brings to life Ursula’s unhappy marriage as well as the lives of the families surrounding the mystery of Gerald’s true identity. Identity, love, freedom, all play a large role in the story’s narrative. The richly detailed backdrop provides a wistful portrayal of 20th century (from the 40s to the 90s) England. Characters who actively challenge themselves and one another make the narrative utterly engaging. Barbara Vine doesn’t shy away from depicting the most unnerving and uncomfortable aspects of her society: personal vices, poverty, depression, repression, and various injustices abound.
Also, Vine doesn’t provide clear cut answers or universal truths. Her story and her characters do no fit in neat little boxes. She explores the actions of different types of people without any sentimentalist moral lessons.
Vine allows us to know what is coming – that is the ‘mystery’ at the core of this novel – however she doesn’t let the details, the particulars, of that mystery known to us: she keeps us guessing, even when we are fairly certain of what exactly happened, we are only provided with fragmented glimpses of the fuller ‘picture’.
With a beautiful and richly descriptive prose, characters who are both sensual and finicky, a plot that relies on the art of writing itself (so many books are mentioned!) , well, The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy is a truly remarkable read.

My rating: 5 stars

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