BOOK REVIEWS

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 Girl in The Tower by Katherine Arden

A very underwhelming follow up to the both magical and interesting The Bear and the Nightingale. The Girl in the Tower shares little with its predecessor. Yes, Arden’s writing style in undoubtedly gorgeous, made up by pretty phrases and vibrant descriptions. But, it didn’t make up for a slow story, one that involves a silly and overused plot-line as well as offering one-dimensional characters. What happened to the complex themes of the first novel? The tension between different believes? And Vasya’s own inner struggle? This sequel just abandons those elements which made the original story so intriguing. The plot revolves around the ‘gender-bender’ trope: Vasya dresses as a boy, many pages are wasted on her fearing to be discovered, as well as ‘near-discoveries’, and the final ‘reveal’. And Vasya…well. She was a rebel for the sake of being a rebel. There was nothing deep to her and or her behaviour. She becomes an exaggerated version of herself: certain aspects of her character take over completely and rendering her somewhat ridiculous. She was irksome and forgetful. Her ‘sort of romance’ with Morozko felt forced and ended up seeming like any other YA romance. Their scenes were eye-roll worthy. Vasya’s siblings act in such a predictable way that made most of their interactions forgetful.
The magic from The Bear and the Nightingale. The Girl in the Tower might be written in an enchanting style but it only offers an array of clichés. The uniqueness is gone. We are left with a dull novel that is set in an oversimplified Russia. Vasya’s ‘specialness’ is the limelight of the story and I did not care for it.
I was hoping that Arden had written something as compelling as The Bear and the Nightingale but…not in this case.

My rating: 3 stars

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

To say that I was expecting more would be an understatement.
Perhaps, the kinship I initially felt with this novel was caused by my sharing the first name of its title character. I wanted a story that delivered an array of conflicting feelings in its portrayal of illicit liaisons. Sadly, Anna Karenina only delivered a great headache.
I will not blame the translation, for I approached various ones, and they all seem to faithfully convey Tolstoy’s deliberately repetitive style, or as Vladimir Nabokov would say, they capture the ‘robust awkwardness’ that pervades Tolstoy’s writing. The style itself was not one of biggest issues: yes, I did find it to be self-congratulatory, but, at times, it carried across a pleasing rhythm that lightened the overall tone of the novel. In later sections, the narrative mode is reminiscent of Joyce’s ‘stream of consciousness‘. Tolstoy seems to be trying different styles, using various techniques, to complete this labyrinthine novel. He is much too aware of his own skills, and I felt his dictatorial attempts throughout the novel. The realism imparted by the story is sabotaged by many inane coincidences and Tolstoy’s own moral agenda.

Levin becomes Tolstoy’s mouthpiece: the writer’s own views and beliefs are performed by this character. This in itself was not enough to make him unlikable, however, the important issues Levin raises and the interesting self-questioning loose their importance in light of the superficiality of his love: his passion for Kitty is preposterous. Despite the length of the novel, Tolstoy does not waste any words in regards of an actual reason for Levin to have fallen for Kitty – and vice-versa – making us assume that it was nothing more than an irrational and instantaneous attraction. The ludicrous ‘chalk’ scene had me laughing out loud: their sudden ‘telepathic’ conversation is much more unbelievable than the telepathic ‘bond’ between Jane and Mr. Rochester. Also, why should we root for someone whose ‘strong moral compass’ is underlined by hypocrisy? His admiration for the country life loses any credibility after he dismisses his own fantasy of marrying a ‘peasant woman’.
Anna…oh Anna. I had such high hopes for her. I sought out a nuanced complex character conflicted by her desires and her duties. What I got was a predictably self-absorbed and hysterical ‘fallen woman’ whose own obtuse behaviour is downright senseless: I kept asking, why, why was she acting in the way that she did, but I never got any answers. We are shown her irrational and ’emotional’ behaviour but we are not given a true insight of what goes on in her mind…(having finished the novel I would say that nothing is going on in there). Her affair with Vronsky is as unconvincing as the relationship between Levin and Kitty. He is barely more controlled than a dog in heat is, so he pursues Anna and she simply…likes it?

More importantly, is that Anna does not offer any redeeming qualities. She manipulates and uses those around her especially through her body language. Take for example how she shamelessly influences poor Dolly into forgiving Stiva: she gives her reassuring hand squeezes and pretends to identify with her difficult situation. Anna is all too aware of her own magnetism which Tolstoy attributes onto her looks rather than her personality. Her (view spoiler) should be viewed as redemptive but to me it simply professed the author’s zealousness: (view spoiler)
Anna’s brother, who predominately features in the opening chapter, is so irredeemably selfish it is almost entertaining: he does not feel guilty over his own affair but he is remorseful of not having predicted his wife’s reaction. His wife, Dolly, is forgettable and easily manipulated. Her sister, Kitty, lacks is a poorly rendered character.
Discussions about gender heavily feature in this novel but most of the time, this topic is considered by men and even when there are female characters present they either remain silent or only offer acquiescent comments. Levin’s rebuttal of a ‘capitalism’ suffers under Tolstoy’s stressing of the subject.
The story is filled by numerous dull passages that serve little purpose, characters who should be unique or at least, realistically flawed individuals, end being little more than caricatures, and, finally, the novel’s own sense of importance is countered by the laughable coincidences and aimless discussions, making Anna Karenina a drudge to read. Tolstoy…dear Tolstoy…your ideologies should not have featured so strongly in your own book: subtlety is key.
The only part I enjoyed was the first few chapters: there Tolstoy’s style is endearing rather than annoying and the characters haven’t shown their poor characterisation.
The improbable coincidences that occur in the story were not the sole cause of my animosity towards this novel: I love far-fetched and unlikely storylines – often prominent in sensational fiction – but I cannot abide presumptuousness. Tolstoy – time and again – pushes the reader into sharing his own views, and I was not willing to do that. How could I take his intentions seriously when he employs the most ludicrous course of action to deliver his ‘message’?

Side note: Tolstoy compares women to food and creates parallels between his female characters and animals…top marks…really.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

“They dare not follow, thought Vasya. They fear the forest after dark. And then, darkly: They are wise.”

The Bear and The Nightingale is an enchanting tale imbued with Russian folklore and traditions. Arden has crafted a story that abounds with fantastical creatures and mystical prophecies that will entice the reader from the very first pages:

“In Russian, Frost was called Morozko, the demon of winter. But long ago, the people called him Karachun, the death-god. Under that name, he was king of black midwinter who came for bad children and froze them in night. It was an ill-omened word, and unlucky to speak it while he still held the land in his grip.”

Set in a vividly rendered feudal Russia, The Bear and The Nightingale follows Vasilisa Petrovna the youngest child of a wealthy boyar, Pyotr Vladimirovich, in the north of Russia, who is predestined to be the heir of old magic. Vasilisa, who can see the spirits and creatures that crowd her house and neighbouring forest, grows into an untamed and fierce child feared by the villagers and loathed by her step-mother Anna, who is also able to see magical beings. Unlike her step-daughter, however, Anna fears these creatures and it is her religious zeal that will bring a new priest into the Vladimirovich household, Father Konstantin, who sees it as his duty to eradicate the locals paganistic customs. The strain generated by the clash of these diverse beliefs soon spirals out of control forcing Vasilisa into action.

Arden has created an endearing protagonist: Vasilisa’s resilience and bravery are shown throughout the novel. She will fight for her own freedom and to protect the ones around her. There is a focus on her struggle against the restrictions given by her gender, as well as, on the tension between duty and choice. Her relationship with her family is another vital aspect of her story, especially the bond she shares with her older brother Alyosha and her younger half-sister Irina. Arden depicts a realistic family portrait which sees a well-meaning father, a brusque yet kind grandmotherly nurse and a few protective older brothers who like teasing each other.

These interesting and relatable characters feature in a tangible medieval setting that is enriched by Arden’s graceful descriptions. Her expressive and poetical rendition of an unforgiving yet tantalizing landscape bring into being an incredibly atmospheric tale. Her lyrical prose and beautiful allegories, such as “the years slipped by like leaves,” and “the clouds lay like wet wool above trees”, are in resonance with her richly evocative world. The author has painted an immersive and magical tale redolent of old lore and populated by poignant characters. The Bear and The Nightingale is a lavishly written and alluring fairytale that entwines traditional motifs of the genre with an original and fascinating storyline.

I would definitely recommend this to fans of The Night Circus or The Golem and the Jinni which also combine accurate historical setting with the otherworldly. Or if you particularly enjoy fairy-tale-esque stories I would suggest writers such as Catherynne M. Valente – author of Deathless and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – and Kate Forsyth. The clash between pagan traditions and non reminded me of The Witches of New York.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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