BOOK REVIEWS

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

disclaimer: this is less a review that a cathartic rant. If you want to read this book I recommend you check out other reviews instead.

Breasts and Eggs was an exceedingly frustrating and overlong novel. My interest in this novel was piqued by its title and the buzz around it. While the first three or four chapters were relatively entertaining, I soon became wary of its critique of gender. If you find it fulfilling to write poems about your menstrual blood maybe you will appreciate Kawakami’s brand of feminism.
The first half of Breasts and Eggs is concerned with ‘breasts’. The novel is narrated by Natsuko, a woman in her thirties who lives in Tokyo and who aspires to be a writer. In this first section of the novel Natsuko’s 1st person narration is interrupted now and again by her niece’s diary entries. Midoriko is twelve (possibly thirteen? who knows) and she is feeling very angsty about puberty. She has stopped talking to her mother Makiko, Natsuko’s sister, who works as a hostess and is determined to get breast enhancement surgery. Midoriko and Makiko visit Natsuko in Tokyo, and they spend a few days together.
Around the 40% mark the story jumps in time. Natsuko, now in her late thirties, is a respectable author who is considering artificial insemination in order to have a child. Midoriko and Makiko have short cameos towards the end of the novel but for the most part this section of the novel focuses on Natsuko wanting to have a child, interacting with colleagues and friends, attending events (related to her work and or to parenting/artificial insemination).
I do not have many positives things to say (or write) about this book. What I did appreciate was the novel’s sense of place. It was especially interesting to read about the differences between Osaka and Tokyo (the dialect etc.). There was also an a scene that was pure absurd humour (when Natsuko meets that sperm donor).
I kept reading hoping that the story (if we can call it such) wouldn’t unfold the way it did…but I was sadly proven right. Here is a list of things that I did not like about Breasts and Eggs:

1) Sort of feminist…?
Maybe if your name happens to be J. K. Rowling you will find Kawakami’s feminist vision to be to your liking. I really thought that the title was challenging the idea that women are ‘breast and eggs’. But…it doesn’t. The first section makes it seem as if Natsuko, who makes it clear she does not like sex, does not want a partner or a child. Good for her, right? No. Of course not. When the biological clock strikes Natsuko decides that she wants a child because ‘reasons’ (she keeps insisting that she wants a child so she can ‘meet’ them…wtf?). While there are many single-mothers in this book, who are shown to do their best for their child, women over the age of 30 who do not have children are either A) miserable or B) traumatised. Type A chose her career over marriage and children, now she’s lonely and sad. When Natsuko tells her that she is planning to have a child A is bitter because she feels ‘betrayed’. Type B is the classic type who was sexually abused and believes that “life is pain” (that is an actual quote) and that being born is traumatic, and that the world is hell, and that you should not bring more children into it. To say that I am tired of these kinds of caricatures would be an understatement. The story implies that if you are a woman and you choose not to have children you will be lonely (as if not having children means that you cannot have friends or you can only be friends with people who are childless) and pathetic or traumatised.
I really thought that the story would eventually introduce us to a woman who is happy and does not have children but nay.
Midoriko’s diary entries were so ridiculous. She goes on about periods and vaginas…was this necessary? Her entries were far from revelatory, unless you happen to be someone who knows nothing about those things. And, can I say, it really annoyed me by the way the narrative would go on and on about menstruations. Not all women have them. Due to an ED I had a few period-free years. Did that make me less of a woman? By the way the author seems to elevate menstruations and I did not care for it.
Midoriko’s diary was banal, it seemed a clumsy attempt to convey the hormonal mind of a soon to be teenage girl…in the second half of the novel Midoriko is no longer the focus of the story (thank God) but Natsuko informs of the following: “Midoriko was cute, but she didn’t care much for makeup or fashion. She was not your average girl, as if that wasn’t clear enough from her strong personality.” Pfft. In other words, Midoriko is Not Like Other Girls.™
Now onto more dodgy things…There is a scene in which our MC misgenders someone. And you might argue that my feathers were ruffled because I do not understand that not all cultures are as woke as Britain or the US…but hey, I actually come from a not very LGBTQ+ friendly country so I could have looked past this scene…but one thing is using the wrong pronouns, one thing is having your protagonist be fascinated with the genitals of the person she misgenders (“I tried seeing what the tomboy had between her legs”). Was this whole scene necessary? No. And the whole policing bathrooms just stinks of J. K. Rowling.
The story is also very on the nose when it comes to the imbalance between wife and husband. An unhappy friend of Natsuko describes being a wife as “Free labor with a pussy.” Such feminism!

2) The story = Fake deep navel-gazing
Every person Natsuko encounters tells her their life story or philosophy. Apparently this is because Natsuko worked in a bar and people just naturally confide in her. Okay, whatever, I’ll believe that. But, the things the people speak to her about are so…unbelievable? They will say fake deep shit and then the narrative will go along with it? Rather than pointing out how trite they are being. A lot of the characters will say things along the lines of ‘What is the point in life? / What does it mean to be alive? / Is love a human construct?’. Painful stuff I tell you. I rolled my eyes one too many times.
Natsuko’s inner monologue was mostly navel-gazing. Yet, her thoughts are presented in a way that suggests they ought to be taken seriously (“ Life is hard, no matter the circumstances.” Geez. Wow. Such insight into human existence. So deep. Much wow). Her observations about marriage and parenting are also puddle-deep: “Think of all the husbands and wives trying to have kids, and all the couples having sex who could wind up having a baby. Could all of them look each other in the eye and say they really, truly knew each other?” Can anyone claim they know anyone? Mind-blowing. When Natsuko is thinking of the reason why she wants to have a child she thinks the following: “What did it even mean to “meet” someone? I”. Uuuuugh.

3) Repetition / Boring
Breasts and Eggs was originally published in 2008 as a novella, and only later on did Kawakami expand it to a length novel. This is maybe the reason why she repeats the same information again and again. Trust your readers for goodness’ sake! Natsuko repeats the same information in the same way time and again (she tells us that she hasn’t published a book in awhile, and then, a few pages later, she tells us that she hasn’t published a book in awhile). This novel could have easily been 100 even 200 pages shorter. All those scenes about Natsuko meeting up with inconsequential people or looking stuff up about artificial insemination…they could have been cut down.

4) The body is abject
We get it the human body sucks (“My complexion was horrendous, and my face was lifeless. I reminded myself of pickled eggplant. Not the skin, but the greenish flesh inside”) and ugly (I swear the book was obsessed with uberly skinny women: “Her legs stuck out from her coat like poles,” / “her collarbones were so pronounced you could’ve hooked your finger on them.”). Being alive is painful, occupying a body is painful, yadda yadda yadda. Existence is agony.
It seems that the author had to make a point of reminding us of every aspect of the human body and bodily fluids (we are told about Natsuko’s yeballs, lungs, throat, spit, bile, oily skin, and pee)…and I just did not care for any of it.

5) What was the point?
Really, what was the point? The book equates women to breast and eggs. The feminism in this novel is dusty, the story drags, the characters are caricatures, our main character is a self-pitying wishy-washy forgettable narrator…the half-hearted examination of parenthood/motherhood hardly makes up for the rest.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

Once upon a time…
The Magic Fish is quite possibly one of the most beautiful, poignant, and awe-inspiring graphic novels I have ever read. The story takes places in 90s America and we follow Tiến, a young boy, who loves reading fairy tales with his parents. Tiến’s parents are refugees from Vietnam and cannot speak English as fluidly as he does. This language barrier makes it hard for Tiến to confide in them that he is queer.
The mother/son relationship in The Magic Fish is complex and moving. The bond between mother and son is rendered with empathy and sensitivity. The three fairy tales Tiến reads in the course of the narrative allow him to connect with his parents, in particular his mother.
Although each story is inspired by an existing fairy tale, Trung Le Nguyen presents us with three unique takes which perfectly complement Tiến and his mother’s stories. The first two tales are based on variants of ‘Cinderella’ (the German ‘Allerleirauh’ and the Vietnamese ‘Tấm Cám’) while the last one is a reworking of ‘The Little Mermaid’. I loved the different aesthetics of these tales: the first one has a Europeanesque setting, the second one seems to take place in 1950s Vietnam, and the last, this according to the author, juxtaposes the mermaid’s realm, which has elements from Hong Kong wuxia films, with the human one, 1980s San Francisco.
Trung Le Nguyen’s illustrations are stunning (they reminded me of Moto Hagio and Daisuke Igarashi). I loved the way in which each narrative had a distinctive colour palette.
Trung Le Nguyen set out to tell a specific story and he definitely succeeded in doing so. The Magic Fish is simply stunning and I will definitely pick up whatever Trung Le Nguyen writes/draws next.


my rating: ★★★★★

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Carol by Claire Morgan

“My Angel,” Carol said. “Flung out of space.”

Fans of the film adaptation of Carol may find the novel to be not quite as polished or romantic. I, for one, find the novel’s elusiveness and opaqueness to be entrancing. Unlike other books by Highsmith Carol is not a thriller or a crime novel, however, it has plenty of moments of unease (dare I say even of ugliness?) that brought to mind The Talented Mr. Ripley. Therese is a somewhat disaffected young woman who wants to become a theatre set designer but in the meanwhile she works in the toy section of a department store in New York. She observes the world and people around her with a mixture of apathy and ambivalence, the only feelings she experiences seem negative (her repulsion towards her coworkers, her disinterest towards her beau, her dread at the idea of being stuck at the department store ).

“Had all her life been nothing but a dream, and was this real? It was the terror of this hopelessness that made her want to shed the dress and flee before it was too late, before the chains fell around her and locked.”

Estranged from her mother Therese longs for her boyfriend’s family more than the man himself. And then she sees Carol: “Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and caught by them, Therese could not look away.”
Therese’s infatuation is immediate, and the two women—in spite of their age gap, their differences in background and circumstances—begin to spend more and more time together. Highsmith’s captures the intensity of first love, as Therese’s thoughts become increasingly preoccupied by Carol. There is a lot of longing in this novel and Highsmith expresses it beautifully, rendering the nuances of Therese’s uncertainty, jealousy, and yearning. Therese’s naïveté and Carol’s rocky marriage create friction between the two women, but the attraction and affection they feel for each other is palpable. Even if Carol remains a bit of a cypher, I too like Therese found myself drawn to her.
Some may find Therese’s narration to be too dry or cold, but I have always felt the most for characters such as her. I appreciated how Therese reflects upon the smallest of things, and there are times where she entertains rather cruel or disquieting. Nevertheless, I found her to be a sympathetic and interesting character, and I certainly admired her determination to follow her own heart.
The languid pace and alluring language make this into an unforgettable slow burner. I love the dreamlike quality of the narrative, the chemistry between Therese and Carol, the nostalgic atmosphere, the realistic rhythms of the dialogue, the winter setting…I don’t know what more to say other than this novel just does it for me.

my rating: ★★★★½

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Luster by Raven Leilani

“I think to myself, You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing.

Luster is a deliriously enthralling and boldly subversive debut novel. I was dazzled by the author’s prose, which is by turns dense and supple, by Edie’s sardonic and penetrating narration, and by the story’s caustic yet searing commentary on race, class, gender, and sexuality.

“It is that it is 8:15 a.a. and I feel happy. I am not on the L, smelling someone’s lukewarm pickles, wishing I were dead.”

Luster follows in the steps of recent releases starring perpetually alienated young women prone to bouts of ennui, numbness, morbidity, lethargy, and self-loathing. They are misanthropic, they often engage in some sort of masochistic behaviour, and a few of them inevitably spiral into self-destructiveness. In short, they are millennial Esther Greenwoods.
Luster, however, is by no means a carbon copy of these novels, and Edie’s distinctive voice sets her apart from other eternally dissatisfied protagonists. From the very first pages I found myself mesmerised by Edie’s perplexing and hyper-alert mind.

“I want to be uncomplicated and undemanding. I want no friction between his fantasy and the person I actually am. I want all that and I want none of it.”

Edie is a recently orphaned 23-year-old black woman who leads a directionless and unfulfilling existence. She’s unenthusiastic about her desk job and with no friends to speak of she tries to allay her loneliness through sex (think Fleabag). After a series of ill-advised sexual encounters, Edie lands herself in trouble and finds herself staying in the home of Eric, her latest date. Eric is a white, forty-something archivist who is in an open marriage with Rebecca. The two live in a very white neighbourhood with their adoptive daughter, Akila, who is black.

“There is the potent drug of a keen power imbalance. Of being caught in the excruciating limbo between their disinterest and expertise. Their panic at the world’s growing indifference.”

Eric, who is clearly in the midst of a mid-life crisis, isn’t a particularly attractive or charming man. Yet, Edie is desperate for intimacy. Although she’s aware of her own self-destructive behaviour, she’s unwilling or unable to form healthy relationships, romantic or not, with others. Although Rebecca is suspicious of Edie, she wants someone to help Akila, someone who can show her how to look after her hair, and seems to adjust to Edie’s presence.
Edie’s hunger for love, desire, acceptance, recognition, and self-worth dominate her narrative. Her fascination—part desire, part repulsion—with Eric and Rebecca sees her crossing quite a few lines. The couple, in their turn, treat Edie in a very hot-or-cold way or use her as if she was little more than a pawn in their marriage game.

“He wants me to be myself like a leopard might be herself in a city zoo. Inert, waiting to be fed. Not out in the wild, with tendon in her teeth.”

Edie’s voice makes Luster the crackling read it is. While Edie often entertains rather ridiculous notions, she’s quite capable of making incisive observations about privilege, race, sexism, and modern dating. Throughout the course of the novel Edie makes a lot of discomforting decisions, and more than once I found myself wanting to shake her. But I also really understood her inability to break free of the vicious cycle she’s in (which sees her seeking affirmation and self-love in the wrong places), and of feeling tired by just existing. I loved her unabashedly weird inner monologue and her wry humour (“She tells us the specials in such a way that we know our sole responsibility as patrons in her section is to just go right ahead and fuck ourselves”). Those few glimpses we get of her childhood and her relationship with her mother and father, deepen our understanding of why she is the way she is.

“I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad. It is almost.”

Luster explores the thoughts and experiences of a messy black young woman, without judgement. Like recent shows such as Insecure, Chewing Gum and I Will Destroy You, Luster presents its audience with a narrative that challenges the myth of the ‘strong black woman’ and other existing stereotypes of black womanhood (checkout Amanda’s video on ‘the quirky/awkward black girl’ ). There are times when Edie is awkward, selfish, and angry. Her identity isn’t confined to one character trait. And that’s that.

Luster charts Edie’s sobering yet mischievous, kind-of-sexy, kind-of-weird, sad but funny search for everything and nothing. She both wants and doesn’t want to form meaningful connections with others, she both wants and doesn’t want to be alone, she wants to be used by others, she wants love. Her art is perhaps one of the few pillars in her life. She describes her paintings, the colours she uses, and the artists she likes (Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ gets a mention) in a very vivid manner.
I liked the bond that Edie forms with Akila, one that isn’t uncomplicated but feels like one of the few genuine relationships that appear in this novel (although there were times I liked Rebecca, her intentions towards Edie were ultimately questionable). This is the kind of novel that thrives off uncomfortable truths, awkward interactions, and surreal conversations (that scene at the clown academy was gold). Edie is exhausted by the deluge of microaggressions thrown her way. She tries to be what others want her to be, which is why so many people use her. Even with Eric and Rebecca, Edie is fully aware of being a guest, that she can stay as long as her being there is convenient to them.

To be perfectly honest I find these ‘young women afflicted by the malaise of modernity’ type of novels to be very hit-or-miss (Exciting Times was a definite miss for me). Jean Kyoung Frazier’s Pizza Girl (a hit in my books), shares quite a lot in common with Luster. Both books centred on self-sabotaging young women who become increasingly obsessed with someone who is married (this someone leads a seemingly happy white suburban life), although in Pizza Girl our narrator is far more interested in the wife than the husband. Chances are that if you liked the deadpan humour in Pizza Girl you will like Luster. If you are the type of reader who prefers conventionally nice or quirky characters, maybe Luster won’t be the read for you. Lucky for me, I can sympathise and care for characters who make terrible choices or do horrible things (see Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much, Rachel Lyon’s Self-Portrait with Boy).
Anyway, I’m rambling. I loved Luster, I loved Edie, and I loved Leilani’s prose and her punctuation (that scene that just goes on and on…wow). There were a few references or words that I’m not sure I entirely understood, and I have a feeling this is due to my not being American/native-English speaker.
Huge thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an arc. I will definitely be purchasing my own copy once it’s available in the UK. Leilani, please, keep writing.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

“We all lived in an unwalled city, that was it. I saw lines scored across the map of Ireland; carved all over the globe. Train tracks, roads, shipping channels, a web of human traffic that connected all all nations into one great suffer body.”


This is the third novel I’ve read by Emma Donoghue and I’m afraid to say that it just didn’t quite work for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have approached The Pull of the Stars with such high expectations. Or maybe these kind of historical novels are just not my ‘thing’ (I was similarly underwhelmed by
A Long Petal of the Sea and The Night Watchman).
Given the current pandemic The Pull of the Stars, set in a maternity ward in Dublin during the 1918 influenza and the close of WWI, makes for an eerily pertinent read. This is a meticulously researched novel, from the blow by blow descriptions of medical procedures to the grimly evocative depiction of the environment in which our narrator, a nurse, works. Although the novel is set over the course of three days, Donoghue renders all too vividly the stark circumstances of the various women under Julia’s care. We witness the physical and emotional toll that result from too many pregnancies, the stigma attached to unmarried mothers and the mistreatment of their children, and the extreme abuse that ‘fallen women’ experienced in the Magdalene laundries. The lives of these women and children are shaped by injustices—such as sexual/physical abuse, poverty, illness, being forced into labour, being separated from your child—and Donoghue is unflinching in revealing just how horrific their realities are.
In spite of this, I just couldn’t help but to find the bluntness of her prose to be detrimental to my reading experience. While her unvarnished style does suit both the setting and the subject matter, it also distanced me, especially from Julia. She felt like a barely delineated character, often seeming to exist in order to explain things or provide ‘modern’ readers with context (especially one of her later discussions about the ‘homes’ and Magdalene laundries with Birdie). She was a very undefined character, a generic take on a good ‘nurse’. Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a far more interesting figure, sadly plays only a minor role in the story. Birdie was okay, although at times I had a hard time believing in her. The romance sprung from nowhere and didn’t really convince me either (and this is coming from someone who sees everything through sapphic-tinted glasses). If anything the ‘love’ story seemed to exist only to add an unnecessary layer of drama, unnecessary especially considering that the novel was quite tragic without it. The ending, more suited to a historical melodrama, was painfully clichéd.
The thin plot too did little to engage me. Although the lives and stories of the women in the ward were both compelling and distressing, I just didn’t particularly care for Julia’s narrative. Perhaps if this had been a work of nonfiction, I would have appreciated it more.
I don’t consider myself squeamish but The Pull of the Stars was almost relentless in the way it detailed EVERYTHING. Maybe readers who watch One Born Every Minute will be able to cope with it but I just could have done without it.
Another thing I could have done without is the lack of quotations mark. When will this trend stop?

Although The Pull of the Stars wasn’t my cup of tea, I’m sure that plenty of other readers will find this more riveting than I did.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

“There is no time in our lives when we are so conspicuously without mercy as in adolescence.”

I don’t think I would ever picked up this ‘obscure’ and forgotten novel if it hadn’t been for the ‘crime fiction’ module I took during my second year of uni. Thanks to that module, which was in every other respect a huge waste of time (lecturer on Tom Ripley: “he does bad things because he wants more stuff”…truly illuminating), I was able to ‘discover’ Barbara Vine’s work.
Since then I’ve read a few other novels by Vine (which happens to Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume) and while I can safely say that she is an excellent writer, The House of Stairs remains my favourite of hers. Perhaps it is because of its sapphic undertones, or maybe I’m just a sucker for unrequited love stories.

“It felt like a passion, it felt like being in love, it was being in love, it was the kind of thing you delude yourself that, if all goes well, will last a lifetime. Things, of course, didn’t go well. When do they?”

The House of Stairs tells a dizzying tale of tale of psychological suspense. Like other novels by Vine it employ two timelines and explores the haunting effects of the past on the present. ‘The present’ features characters whose lives have been altered by an often unspecified accident and or crime. The second timeline, narrated from the retrospective, focuses on their past, and in particular on the events leading to that ‘one big event’. Vine does not limit herself to recounting past occurrences, instead she allows her characters to re-examine their own actions, as well as attempting to understand the motivations behind those of others. The past and present flow into each other, and throughout her narratives Vine traces both a crime’s roots and its subsequent ramifications.
Set in London The House of Stairs London opens in 1980s when Elizabeth—protagonist and narrator—glimpses Bell, a woman who has been recently released from prison. Seeing Bell is the catalyst that makes Elizabeth recount her story (transporting us to the late 60s and early 70s) but even if she knows the identity of Bell’s victim she does not share the details of this fateful event with the readers, preferring instead to play her cards close to her chest. This dual storyline creates an apparent juxtaposition of past and present. We can hazard guesses through brief glimpses of her present, her ambiguous remarks, such as ‘Bell’s motive for asking those questions was outside the bounds of my imagings’ and ‘[A]s they wished me to do, I was seeing everything inside-out’, and through her carefully paced recounting of those events.
By re-living that particular time of her life, Elizabeth—alongside the reader—acquires a better understanding of the circumstances that lead Bell to commit murder. Her narration is a far from passive relay of what happened for Elizabeth in the present seems actively involved in this scrutiny of past events.

“It is interesting how such reputations are built. They come about through confusing the two kinds of truth telling: the declaration of opinion and principle and the recounting of history.”

One of Vine’s motifs is in fact to include a house which is the locus of her story, functioning as a Gothic element within her storylines. In this novel the house (nicknamed—you guessed it—’the house of stairs’) is purchased by Cosette—a relation of Elizabeth’s—soon after the death of her husband, and becomes home to a group of bohemians, hippies, and outsiders of sorts. The house become an experimental ground: it is an escape from traditional social norms, a possibility for Cosette to make her own makeshift family.
The house creates an almost disquieting atmosphere: those who live there are exploiting Cosette, and tensions gradually emerge between its tenants. The house can be a place of secrecy—doors shut, people do not leave their rooms, stairs creak—and of jealousy, for Elizabeth comes to view the other guests as depriving her of Cosette’s affection.


Elizabeth, plagued by the possibility of having inherited a family disease, finds comfort in Bell, a beautiful and alluring woman. Elizabeth comes to idolize Bell (comparisons to the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi abound), and finds herself increasingly obsessed by her. Bell’s arrival into the house, however, will have violent consequences.
As Elizabeth is examining this time in her life, she, once again, finds herself falling under Bell’s spell.

“I found her exciting in a disturbing way, a soul-shacking way, without knowing in the least what I wanted of her.”

Like many other Vine novels The House of Stairs is a deeply intertextual work. Henry James, in particular, plays a significant role in Elizabeth’s narration.
Guilt, culpability, love, obsession, desire, greed, past tragedies, and family legacies are recurring themes in Elizabeth’s story. Vine, however, doesn’t offer an easy answer as she problematises notions of normalcy and evil.
There are many reasons why I love this novel so much: Vine’s elegantly discerning prose, her examination of class and gender roles in the 1960s-70s, the way she renders Elizabeth’s yearning for Bell…while I can see that some readers my age may find this novel to be a bit outdated, I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy reading authors such as Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Magda Szabó.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Felix Ever After is a refreshing, relevant, validating and super-inclusive YA novel. This also happens to be one of the few YA books (the only other one I can think of is Camp by Lev A.C. Rosen) that focuses exclusively on queer teens (there a few straight parents in the background). Kacen Callender’s portrayal of adolescence is strikingly realistic: there is a lot of angst, pressure to succeed, confusion about your identity and your place in the world, jealousy towards other people your age, one or two crushes…and things are kind of messy.
As a Black, trans, and queer teen Felix understandably feels like the odd are stacked against him. He’s seventeen and hopes that signing up to his school’s summer program will increase his chances of getting into Brown University. Although he loves art, lately he’s been feeling a bit stuck, and he’s hasn’t been working on his portfolio. His feelings of anxiety and guilty over this really resonated with my own experiences. His relationship with his father is strained and his mother is no longer in touch with either of them, and Felix feels like it’s all too much.
Because of this Felix spends a lot of his time at his best friend’s house, who unlike him comes from an incredibly wealthy family. Felix and Ezra are incredibly close, and they both are on the summer program. Alongside them are a lot of other queer students, some of whom act like they are woke when in actuality they are incredibly transphobic and bigoted.
Things take a turn for the worst when someone exhibits photo of Felix pre-transition, captioning these photos with his deadname (kudos to Callender for never actually using Felix’s deadname on the page). Felix is crushed. Thinking that he knows who is behind this awful act, and the offensive messages he’s been receiving, he wants to get back at them.
Felix, however, finds himself growing fond of this person…which kind of complicates his plan.

To begin with Felix got on my nerves. While I wholeheartedly felt on his behalf, he acts in a pretty self-centred way. He thinks that because every other student has it ‘easier’ than he does, they can’t complain about anything. When Ezra, Felix’s incredibly supportive best friend, tries to voice his own fears and anxieties, Felix is totally dismissive of them. His whole cat-fishing too was kind of cringe. I’m no longer a fan of these kind of deceptions although I understand the appeal of getting revenge (when I was fourteen I actually helped my best friend briefly catfish his bully…something I’m not very proud of, but alas, the youth). I also thought that Felix wasn’t really trying to connect to his father. While I get that Felix is totally right to feel frustrated by his father’s remarks and deadnaming, I did think that he never gave him a chance to explain himself or really apologise.
Thankfully, Callender does an amazing job in terms of Felix’s characterisation. Over the course of the novel, Felix begins to reassess his past behaviour. During the summer he does a lot of growing up, and while certain scenes were quite painful, Felix’s humour and his friendships often uplifted the mood of the narrative.
Callender depicts believable teens who are as capable of getting high or drunk as they are of discussing morality, art, and the pros and cons of labels. I also appreciated the way in which Callender allows their main character to question and explore his gender identity.
Plus, it was so nice to read so many scenes set in LGBTQ+ spaces (such as the LGBT Center Felix attends or Pride).
Felix Ever After is a coming of age that is guaranteed to give you ‘the feels’. We have a nuanced protagonist, a super cute romance subplot, drama, and a story that touches upon serious issues with tact and understanding. I will definitely be checking out Callender’s future work!

My rating: 3 ¾ stars (rounded up to 4)

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Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

“Everything I could see looked unreal to me; everything I could see made me feel I would never be part of it, never penetrate to the inside, never be taken in.”

From the very first page, I was enthralled by Lucy’s deceptively simple narration. To begin with, I was struck by the clarity of her observations and the directness of her statements. As I kept reading, however, I came to realise just how enigmatic a character she was.

“Oh, I had imagined that with my one swift act—leaving home and coming to this new place—I could leave behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again, my sad thoughts, my sad feelings, and my discontent with life in general as it presented itself to me.”

After leaving her homeland, an unnamed island in the West Indies, Lucy becomes an au pair for a white and wealthy couple in North America. Although Lucy wants to leave her past behind, her alienating new surroundings make her homesick. Lucy tries to acclimatise to the colder climate, to American’s strange customs, to her new role. As she tries to adjust to her new home, she becomes closer to her employer, Mariah. Her obliviousness, however, frustrates Lucy as Mariah seems incapable or unwilling to acknowledge her privilege or their cultural differences, seeming content to live in a bubble.
Lucy strikes a friendship with Peggy, a young woman from Ireland. While the two share a sense of otherness (“From the moment we met we had recognized in each other the same restlessness, the same dissatisfaction with our surroundings, the same skin-doesn’t-fit-ness.”), Peggy is far more of a bohemian. Lucy’s relationship with Mariah begins to fray, partly because of Peggy’s influence, partly due to Lucy’s growing disillusionment towards her employers and their after all not-so-perfect marriage.
As Lucy recounts her time as an au pair, her mind often drifts towards her childhood. We know that her strained relationship with her mother had an enormous impact on her, but we are only given glimpses of their time together. As Lucy attempts to navigate her new life, we come to learn why she has become so unwilling to be truly known by others. Through what we learn of her past, and through the things she leaves unspoken, we begin to understand Lucy’s obliqueness, her remoteness, her alienation, her self-division (which she describes as a “two-facedness: that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true”), her attitude towards others and her sexuality.
Lucy is an unremittingly ambiguous and fascinating character-study. Kincaid’s polished prose is deeply alluring: from the evocative descriptions of the weather to Lucy’s penetrating deliberations.
I was also drawn by the parallels Kincaid makes between Lucy and Villette (which happens to be one of my favourite novels of all time). Kincaid’s Lucy leaves her homeland to become an au pair, while Brontë’s Lucy leaves England to become a teacher in a small town in Belgium. Both women are ambivalent towards their past and disinclined to let others know who they are or what they ‘feel’. They both experience a sense of displacement and have to adapt to another culture. They also both become ‘involved’ with men who are called Paul (Brontë’s Paul owns a slave plantation). In many ways, Lucy functions as a reworking of Villette, as it subverts its colonial narrative (more than once Lucy’s informs us of the inadequacy of her British colonial education) and provides a more modern exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and sexual repression.

“I had begun to see the past like this: there is a line; you can draw it yourself, or sometimes it gets drawn for you; either way, there it is, your past, a collection of people you used to be and things you used to do. Your past is the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in.”

Throughout the course of Lucy’s tale Kincaid examines the way in which one’s family can affect an individual’s self-perception and the damage that parental favouritism has on a child’s self-worth.
Kincaid’s Lucy is an incessantly intriguing novel. I was mesmerised by her prose, by her inscrutable main character, and by the opaqueness and lucidity of her narrative.
Kincaid beautifully articulates Lucy’s feelings—her desire, contempt, guilt, despair—without ever revealing too much. Lucy retains an air of unknowability. Similarly, the mother-daughter bond that is at the heart of the novel remains shrouded in mystery.

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

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The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi — book review

718ueoaymll_custom-1871d31e9581dd75468c9026b282ff89ad688693-s800-c85.jpgThe Death of Vivek Oji is an enthralling novel. Akwaeke Emezi’s lyrical prose is by turns evocative, sensual, and heart-wrenching. With empathy and understanding Emezi writes about characters who are grappling with grief and otherness, as well as with their gender identity and sexuality.

“Did it feel like terror? More like horror, actually. Terrible sounded like it had a bit of acceptance in it, like an unthinkable thing had happened but you’d found space in your brain to acknowledge it, perhaps even begin to accept it. Then again, horrible sounded the same way. The words had departed from their origins. They were diluted, denatured.”

The first line of The Death of Vivek Oji informs us of Vivek Oji’s death. When Chika and Kavita discover the body of their only child outside of their home, their lives are shattered. While Chika retreats inside himself, Kavita is desperate to find out what happened to Vivek. She urges Vivek’s friends to speak out, but they seem unwilling to discuss Vivek with her. While the narrative mostly focuses on Osita—who is Vivek’s cousin—and Kavita’s perspectives, we are also given glimpses into the lives and minds of Vivek’s friends.
While The Death of Vivek Oji follows a formula that isn’t entirely original (a novel that revolves around the death of story’s central character is dead) Emezi’s use of a non-linear narrative and the skilful way in which they inhabit different perspectives (switching between first and third povs) makes this novel stand out.

Nigeria is the backdrop to Vivek’s story and Emezi vividly renders its traditions, its idiosyncrasies, its contemporary culture (90s). Emezi’s narratives is centred on those who feel, or are made to feel, different. Kavita belongs to the Nigerwives, foreign women married to Nigerian men. As this group of women help each other to navigate their married lives, their children come to form a deep bond.
Emezi recounts Vivek’s childhood through Osita’s perspective. When one of Vivek’s blackouts causes Osita to feel greatly embarrassed, the two become estranged. Over the next few years Osita hears of Vivek only through his parent.
Vivek becomes increasingly disinterred with the rest of the world, hides at home, stops going to university, and Kavita, understandably, is worried. She tries to understand her child but seems unable to accept who Vivek is.
Thankfully, Vivek finds solace in the daughters of the Nigerwives. Osita too re-enters Vivek’s life, and the two become closer than ever.

While I found both the sections set in the past and in the present to be deeply affecting, I particularly loved to read of Vivek’s relationship with the Nigerwives’ daughters. Reading about Osita and Kavita’s lives after Vivek’s death was truly heart-wrenching as Emezi truly captures the depths of their grief.
I did find myself wishing to read more from Vivek’s perspective. It seemed that Vivek’s story was being told by people who did not have a clear image of Vivek. There was also a section focused on a character of no importance to Vivek’s story (like, seriously, what was the point in him? it felt really out of place). The mystery surrounding Vivek’s death was unnecessarily prolonged.
But these are minor grievances. I loved the way Emezi articulated the feelings, thoughts, and impressions of their characters with grace and clarity. Emezi’s novel is a real stunner, and if you enjoy books that explore complex familial relationship, such as Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful, chances are you will love The Death of Vivek Oji.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat — book review

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“It is a bizarre and unsettling feeling, to exist in a liminal state between two realms, unable to attain full access to one or the other.”

Although I’d intended to read You Exist Too Much I nearly didn’t after reading a really negative review for it, one that was very critical of Zaina Arafat’s depiction of bisexuality. Luckily, my mother read this first and recommended it to me. While I believe that the gender and sexual orientation of a reviewer should not bias their opinion of a book, and I generally don’t refer to my own sexuality, in this case I’ll make an exception. For what is worth, I’m bisexual and I was not in the least offended by the novel’s representation of bisexuality. When an author writes about a character—and even more so when they draw upon their own personal experiences to do so—they are presenting a unique point of view and they are not making generalisations for entire groups of people. The protagonist of this novel is a “love addict” not because of her bisexuality but because of her distorted relationship with her parents—in particular with her mother—and her belief that she’s not worthy of love. Arafat never implies that bisexual people can’t be faithful nor does she suggests that her protagonist’s “love addiction” is caused by her bisexuality (it seems to stem instead from her fraught relationship to her narcissistic mother).
Arafat portrayal of mental illness also struck me as incredibly realistic and deeply resonated with my own personal experiences (having had an eating disorder and having lived with a parent who struggled with their mental health and substance abuse issues).
All of this to say that while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, Arafat’s treatment of mental and physical health conditions struck me as both informed and believable (feel free to disagree).
I will say that while I found this to be a deeply compelling read, I’m aware that it may not appeal to readers who dislike reading about self-destructive characters. If you hated Madame Bovary for the selfish behaviour of its eponymous heroine, well, chances are you won’t like this one either (curiously enough Arafat’s protagonist thinks rather harshly of Emma Bovary for “her childish fantasies and for cheating on Charles”).

“All along I knew what I was doing was wrong, that I was dangerously close to a precipice. But still, I need to fall in order to stop.”

You Exist Too Much presents its readers with an intimate and in-depth character study. While there are many new novels featuring self-loathing protagonists whose alienation interferes with their ability to form—and sustain—meaningful connections with others, You Exist Too Much feels like a fresh take on this ‘genre’.
After yet another breakup the unnamed main character of You Exist Too Much tries to break free from this vicious cycle of self-sabotaging. She’s unable, and at times unwilling, to maintain healthy relationships with others and frequently becomes drawn to unattainable people, infatuation which soon morph into toxic obsessions. Arafat’s protagonist mistakes attention for affection and she repeatedly harms those who actually care for her in order to pursue her objet petit a (what can I say, Lacan comes in handy now and again).
When the main character’s girlfriend finds out about her latest “inappropriate emotional connection”, she breaks up with her, telling her to “sift through your issues and face them” so that “maybe one day you’ll learn you can’t treat people with such disregard. Even yourself”. Our narrator attempts to do just that.

The narrative moves between past and present, from the Middle East to New York City and from Italy and Egypt. Readers are given a glimpse into the protagonist’s childhood—her emotionally distant father, her overbearing narcissistic mother—where we see the way these early years skew her self-perception. Her mother tells her she’s unlovable and that she “exists too much”. The narrator is aware that her attraction towards women is a problem for her mother, yet, even if she knows that she would be more accepted if she were to become exclusively romantically involved with men, she pursues relationships with women. So, while our protagonist clearly seeks her mother’s approval, she’s unwilling to deny her sexuality.
Throughout the course of the novel readers will realise that the narrator is perpetuating the same self-destructive behaviour. Regardless of how her relationships start, they always seem to come to disastrous ends because of her unfaithfulness (emotional and physical) and her “love addiction”, her solipsism and self-loathing, and her underlining unresolved issues with herself and her mother.

Now, I know that I’m making this novel sound rather depressing. And, to be fair, it has quite a few bleak moments. The protagonist makes a lot of awful choices, and she does some really terrible things. She’s also pretty much aware that her actions are wrong, and she does try to improve (for example she goes to rehab her “love addiction”).
There are more downs than ups as time and again we witness her repeating the same damaging behaviour (becoming attached to unavailable or toxic people). It certainly isn’t easy to unlearn habits, especially ones that are instilled in us during our upbringing. Our narrator messes up a lot, she hurts people who genuinely love her—breaking their trust, keeping them at arm’s length—and readers will probably want to shake her quite a few times. Still, I found myself growing attached to her. I really liked her cutting sense of humour, which also lightens the overall tone, and her introspectiveness. Her longing for happiness, for love, for acceptance, are rendered with clarity. Regardless of when or where she is—New York or the West Bank—the narrator is deeply aware of her own ‘otherness’. Although she grew up outside of the Middle East she remains strongly attached to her Arab roots, yet, she notes that “it’s the idiosyncrasies of culture that keep me an outsider, and leave me with a persistent and pervasive sense of otherness, of non-belonging”. In the U. S. too she’s “just as much of an outsider” and she’s made “starkly aware of [her] nonconformity”.

Arafat introduces her readers to flawed, yet ultimately compelling, characters. Regardless of their role in the narrator’s story, these characters—who are all contending with their own issues and desires— felt incredibly nuanced.
While this novel focuses a lot on the narrator failing to connect to others, there are moments of genuine understanding and love between the protagonist and her acquaintances/friends/partners. The narrator’s quest for love isn’t a happy one and her self-divide—between family obligation and desire, between her homelands, between the kind of person she is and the person she wants to be—don’t make for easy reading material. Still, the directness of Arafat’s narrator can at times make her into a rather charming individual.
You Exist Too Much is an impressive debut novel, one that is poignant, thoughtful, and bold and will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay.

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

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