“It’s my belief that everything in this world has its own language. We have the ability to open up our ears and minds to anything and everything. That could be someone walking down the street, or it could be the sunshine or the wind.”
Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste is a gentle and life-affirming novel (novella?). The book’s central figures are discriminated against because of their pasts: Sentaro is a middle aged man who works at a dorayaki shop has a criminal record; Tokue, an elderly woman, had leprosy as a teen and was subsequently forced into exile in a leprosarium. Sentaro is unenthusiastic about his job and future, seeming resigned to a life of despondency. This changes when Tokue begins working alongside him. Although Sentaro is initially reluctant to let Tokue work with him he changes his mind once he tastes her delicious bean paste. Tokue’s dedication to this culinary process earns his respect and loyalty but the shop sees an increase in customers. However, gossip about Tokue’s disfigured hands threatens Sentaro’s newfound happiness. As the cover and title suggest this was a very sweet read. While the tone of the story was by no means schmaltzy, there were times in which the narrative struck me as a bit too fluffy (i.e. not particularly deep). Sentaro is a fairly simple character and to be honest I didn’t find him nearly as half compelling as Tokue. The narrative does shed light on how harmful stigmas can be as well as providing information relating to the history of leprosy in Japan. I do wish that Tokue had remained the focus of the narrative as Sentaro and the schoolgirl (who was an entirely forgettable character) were very dull by comparison. Still, even if this isn’t a particularly complex or thought-provoking story I do think that it will appeal to fans of The Housekeeper and the Professor as it has a similarly tranquil atmosphere.
“Love bestows such a dangerous sense of entitlement.”
Sometimes books really deserve their average rating…and this is one of those cases. As I am writing this the majority of readers have given My Education three stars, and more reviewers have given it 2 stars than 5. I know that at the end of the day ‘ratings’ are insubstantial, not reliable gauges, yadda yadda but readers who are considering picking up My Education should bear its score in mind….it’s low for a reason. I for one can’t say whether I disliked it or not. There were many elements I did not appreciate but I could also see what the novel was trying to do. For the most part, it was a rather funny novel and there were many passages and scenes that were almost endearingly offbeat. Susan Cho’s satire—of academia, of ‘affairs’ between a younger & naive person and an older married one, and of all sorts of people—did occasionally hit the mark, and the narrator’s caustic commentary did amused me. But, and it’s a big but, Cho’s hyperbolic and bombastic language made for a dense and ultimately not very rewarding reading experience. She has a Joycean approach to syntax, with baffling backwards-sounding sentences that go on forever and are punctuated by highfalutin words that more often than not do not fit the context they are in. Also, I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this novel with two others I’ve read in 2020, Pizza Girl and Luster, both of which explore dynamics similar to the ones My Education . Whereas I found those books to be highly absorbing and I enjoyed their ‘effervescent’ prose, My Education is bogged down by its author’s circumlocutory and turgid style. At times it seemed that I had to find my way through a discombobulating and never-ending warren of florid sentences, with little success. I was perplexed by Cho’s writing, especially since it did ‘sound’ like the authentic ‘voice’ of her main character. Would Regina really make such ostentatious metaphors and penetrating if convoluted observations and assessments? At times her comments seemed to originate from a perspective outside of her own one.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. While this is by no means a plot-driven narrative, it does have a storyline, however feeble, and it unfolds as follows: Regina, the type of protagonist who should have and could have remained unnamed, is a directionless graduate student who upon hearing about Professor Nicholas Brodeur’s ill repute decides to join his class and attract his attention. For reasons that are never truly disclosed to the readers Regina is attracted to Nicholas because of the allegations against him… her excitement at his sexual misconduct was certainly bewildering. Was she aroused by the idea of his illicit behaviour? Who knows! Her true feelings and motivations are lost in her pleonastic inner-monologue. Which, as I’ve mentioned above, just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of her persona. She’s naïve, childish, inward-looking (yet, her act of introspections added little to her characterisation), impulsive, and socially myopic. The author tries to emphasise her ‘youth’, and in the process she made her seem closer to a teenager than a twenty-one-year-old (time and again we are reminded of her ignorance, and lack of interest or understanding, of what being a mother entails…is she 12?). Anyway, Regina, for obscurely perverse reasons, ‘pursues’ Nicholas, who isn’t as alluring a man as she’d hoped. Cho, in fact, subverts the trope of the young ingénue student who begins an affair with an older charismatic professor as Regina’s liaison is not with Nicholas but his wife. She falls in love within a few pages, lusts after this wife, Martha, for reasons that aren’t that clear (which is the norm in this book). More perplexing still is that Martha reciprocates, to a certain degree at least, Regina’s infatuation. The sex between these two women is awfully over the top, and I don’t I’ve ever come across such bad sex scenes (this book was nominated, and should have won, for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award). Regina lusting for Martha makes for 40% of this novel. They either have petty squabbles or convoluted sex (“I would have liked a single rope to bind us together, with tightly stacked coils, so that we formed a sort of Siamese mummy”) . Readers will probably not root for them as they are unlikable or unsympathetic as each other. The male characters, however flawed and problematic, at least had discernible personalities and could even be quite amusing.
The narrative then takes us away from the 1990s and into the late 2000s where we witness how Regina’s life has come to look similar to Martha’s own one. I didn’t particularly like the message here: the three main women in this novel are all at one point or another mothers and wives. While the male characters had character arcs, Regina and Martha…I could not for the life of me understand what compelled them to act they way they did. Given that this novel popped up in ‘best campus/academia’ novels I was hoping that Regina’s studies would play more of a role in her story, but they don’t. Even when we see her as a ‘proper’ grown-up, her work and interests remain off page. While I liked the idea of this novel, the execution was not my cup of tea. Cho’s lampooning style could be amusing, but then we would get things like: “It was deep winter now, the season when suicides rained down like apples from the limbs of the gorge-spanning bridges” or “something in her bearing, an extremely compressed capability, suggested to me that she might be a butcher, or a construction foreperson, as well as a lesbian”. I just don’t know what to make of this book. It had the right ingredients for a funny yet cutting read but Cho’s overplays her already intentionally exaggerated style. Then we have two boring and undefined main characters, many failed attempts at subversiveness, and a repetitive and ultimately skin-deep story…and you kind of lost me. What pissed me off the most was a scene towards the end where Cho makes a character who was sexually abused have a cameo appearance where she discloses this to Regina for no real reason other than for some shock-value content. The tone in this scene was so off, it was almost gleeful…which, yikes. That’s fucked up. When Regina tells us “Reader, I grew up”, I wanted to call out bullshit because Regina, darling, you did no such fucking thing. The ending really wants to paint her as being more mature and sensible, but it doesn’t work as we only glimpse these traits in the very last few pages. Why was Martha interested in Regina anyway? Why would anyone be in love with someone like Martha ? Search me! Last, but not least, because of Cho’s extravagant and syntax-averse writing this 300-page novel read like a 600-page tome. Still, I did manage to finish it, and it was probably thanks to Nicholas, Dutra, and Laurence who kept me interested in the story. Also, to be fair, Cho’s commentary and her observations could be spot on…then again, more often than not, a good point would be lost in a sea of gaudy and seemingly never-ending asides.
Schwab’s aesthetics dominate this novel. There is a focus on how words and phrases sound, which does pay off, in fact, Schwab’s prose is one of the most likeable things of this novel. At times certain turn of phrases or repetitions may come across as pretentious or flowery but I think that for the most part Schwab exerts great control over her words. She measures pauses and words as to instil a rhythm to her narration. So, in some ways, Vicious is more ‘style’ than anything else. What characters say, how they look, how Schwab words things, it all creates a certain ‘look’. While I did find the story to be engaging (different timelines keep the momentum of the story) I wasn’t completely taken by the characters. They seemed very much ‘sketches’ of existing types: morally grey for the sole purpose of seeming ‘ambiguous’…hopefully the sequel will provide them to be slightly more complex then what they came across as…
“A person’s fortune always changes in the telling of it.”
Turns out that reading The Luminaries was a phenomenal waste of my time. Eleanor Catton writes well, and the concept behind her novel had the potential of being interesting, but on the whole The Luminaries seems to be little more than a dull rehash of Wilkie Collins’ Sensation novels. What is worse is tat Catton treats her characters as if they were disposable accessories, seeming far more focused on weaving into her storyline vague allusion to astrological signs rather than of creating memorable characters or an intriguing mystery.
At the end of the day a polished prose—which seems to merely mimic the language of nineteenth century fiction—doesn’t make up for the fact that over the course of nearly 900 pages Catton tells a story that isn’t worth reading.
The novel’s astrology-based structure—which is made apparent from the character chart and the various charts which are interspersed throughout this tome of a book—amounts to little more than a clever gimmick. The all-knowing narrator tries to inject the many events recounted by the narrative with some sort of mystical meaning which came across as being both contrived and banal.
The story’s opening chapters are promising enough.On a stormy January night in 1866 Walter Moody, one of the book’s central figures, takes shelter in the Crown Hotel (Hokitika, New Zealand) and, unbeknownst to him, interrupts a secret meeting between twelve men. Over the course of the next 400 pages or so each man gives his account (directly and not) regarding the suspicious death of a hermit named Crosbie Wells, the possible suicide of Anna Wetherell (a prostitute often referred by 90% of the characters as ‘the whore’), and Francis Carver, a captain of ill-repute. Each has played a different role in these strange events, and naturally they all have an incomplete picture of these odd occurrences and coincidences. With the help of Moody they try to put the various pieces of this puzzle together. So far…so good, right?
Sadly, I soon realised that these characters were of secondary importance to the very structure of the novel. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much if these characters weren’t so easily forgotten and swept aside by the narrative which around at the 70% mark ends up focusing on two of the most weakly drawn characters of the entire novel. One was largely MIA, the other one possessed a personality that was defined by her profession…and all of a sudden I’m 1) supposed to care for these two, 2) take them seriously. S-u-r-e thing.
The twelve men were stereotypes but they had the potential of being interesting. Yet the narrative doesn’t really do anything with them (I was particularly frustrated by Ah Sook’s character arc).
In spite of the emphasis that our omniscient narrator puts on faith and the converging paths of these various characters, it all seemed so random and inconsequential. Hundreds and hundreds of pages and there is no pay off.
The setting of the story lacks ambience. The narrative does ‘tells’ a lot and ‘shows’ very little. While Eleanor Catton’s writing does accurately convey the historical period in which her story is set, it also struck me as cold.
Her prose lacks Wilkie Collins’ humour. Her story and structure seem far too dull and contrived to be part of the Sensation genre. There may be certain elements (stolen identities, secret marriages, forged documents, an evil woman) but there is no passion, no spark. The characters are unfunny stereotypes that have no real impact on the narrative. If the story doesn’t care for its characters, why should I?
There are so many descriptions about their behaviours and values that don’t really amount to anything. Their personalities are almost interchangeable. At times these descriptions of their beliefs and conducts seemed to be little more than results of Catton’s logorrhoea. They sounded clever but they didn’t really go towards making that character (and his motivations) more vivid or realistic.
There is a lot of repetition. Some was intentional (given that these men are discussing the same events time and again) a lot was empty prattle. Much of the dialogue consisted in characters asking the same question twice or three times, giving the same reply twice or three times, or not understanding each other (and having to repeated themselves twice or thee times).
While I can’t deny that Catton can write very eloquently indeed, I was only able to enjoy the first 200 pages or so of her novel.
In Things I Don’t Want to Know Deborah Levy revists her childhood in South Africa in order to better understand her place in the present. She herself admits that her writing favours form > matter and so in this short book she focuses more on the sound of certain phrases rather than providing a more clear cut depiction of her personal life. Levy conveys the kind of thoughts that children have but her writing jumps too quickly between different subjects that I often lost the trail of her discussion or reflection.
Nothing groundbreaking or deeply affecting but in such a short format Levy had a ‘restricted’ space for all those topics she wanted to handle.
This House is Haunted is written in a way that recalls the period in which the story takes places using some of that time’s turn of phrases and other expressions. Both the dialogue and the narration seem over-the-top, punctuated by exaggerations as to keep in faith with the period of the story making the whole novel surprisingly amusing. Boyne focuses on the action rather than observing the main character’s surroundings: but he does so in a way that is far more telling than showing. Most of the things that take place in the novel is crammed in a few small sentences, rushing us through all of the parts that could have added some layer and complexity to the overall story. He doesn’t spend enough time describing the house and he also skims over the ‘mysterious’ happenings that make Eliza realize that there is something afoot. The characters too felt rather thinly depicted; they make such little impact on the story that it renders them completely forgettable. Boyne resorts to cheap horror tropes but I wouldn’t call this novel scary at all. More than anything it can be seen as a pastiche, something rather superficial that is however entertaining enough in its exaggerations.