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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett — book review

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“At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it. But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

Brit Bennett’s second novel is a tour de force. The Vanishing Half gripped me from the very pages as I was instantly transfixed by Bennett’s subtle yet penetrating prose.
Bennett is a brilliant storyteller. Not one word is wasted, or so it seemed as I had the distinct impression that her writing was simultaneously concise and striking. Bennett’s prose effortlessly moves from present to past, as her story traverses decades (from the 60s to the 80s) and transports us from the small-town of Mallard in Louisiana to LA or New York. Bennett maps the lives of many characters, who inhabit markedly different worlds, focusing in particular on the lives and voices of the Vignes women.

“The Vignes twins left without saying good-bye, so like any sudden disappearance, their departure became loaded with meaning.”

Most people regard twins, particularly identical twins, as a source of fascination. Bennett, fully aware of this, adds a layer of depth to the mystique of twins by making the Vignes embark on drastically different paths. After witnessing their father’s lynching at the hands of white men, the Vignes have little love for their small-town, and aged sixteen they flee to New Orleans. Things don’t go as planned however and the twins become irrevocably separated. While Stella returns with a daughter to the hometown she so longed to escape, Desiree passes for white and marries a wealthy white man. In spite of this, their bond keeps them tethered together and even as the years go by the Vignes twins struggle to reconcile themselves with the loneliness of their ‘twinless’ existence. Their respective daughters share little in common. While Stella’s daughter Kennedy enjoys a life of privilege, Desiree’s daughter Jude is discriminated for her dark skin by her peers and the adults of her community.

“The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.”

The Vanishing Half tells a heartbreaking and relevant intergenerational tale. While Bennett does not condone the decisions and behaviour of certain characters, mainly Jude and Kennedy, she never condemns them either, revealing instead how viciously deep-rooted racism is. While Stella can enjoy the freedoms that come with being white (and wealthy), her fear of discovery causes her to adopt racist attitudes towards other people of colour and to inculcate racist beliefs in her own daughter.
Like her mother at her age, Jude is eager to leave the confines of the ‘narrow-minded’ Mallard. In college she tries to overcome the insecurities and self-hatred instilled in her after years of being othered.
While the Vignes twins and their daughters may occupy opposing realities, they grapple with similar questions of identity. Stella, Desiree, and Jude, who are alienated by their society because of their race and class, long to belong. Yet, they often sabotage their own attempts to connect to others (Stella’s attempt to bond with her black neighbour ends catastrophically).

“It scared her, how badly she wanted to belong to somebody.”

Bennett navigates the way in which race and class shape the way in which we are seen and treated by others. Her characters are vividly drawn, and it is their contradictory feelings and desires that make them all the more real. Bennett’s narrative doesn’t favor any one perspective, and in doing so allows her readers to form their own opinion of a character’s actions.
The relationships the characters have with each other are fraught. While most Stella, Desiree, Jude, and even Kennedy to a certain extent, all desire to fit in or to form meaningful connections, miscommunications abound as they are unwilling or unable to expose themselves to others.

“He was always doing that, trying to coax her further outside herself. But she felt safe like this, locked away.”

In Bennett’s novel love isn’t neat or easy and identity is an evolving process, her observations on race, class, and family are truly compelling. She touches upon a myriad of topics (poverty, abuse, trauma, unknowability) with thoughtfulness and clarity. To white people like me (I grew up in a really homogenous and racist country) the America Bennett depicts is both disturbing and illuminating. While there are many horrific scenes in The Vanishing Half, I encourage readers to read this novel. Characters such as Reese, Jude, and Early alone are worth knowing. Interspersed in the various narratives there are tender moments of genuine affection and understanding (Jude’s relationship to her mother and Reese are truly heart-rendering).

“You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Long Bright River by Liz Moore — book review

Untitled drawing (4).jpgSet against the opioid crisis in Philadelphia Liz Moore’s thought-provoking novel portrays the long-lasting and devastating effects that addiction have on an individual, on a family, and on an entire neighbourhood.

“These girls, he says. He looks at me and puts one finger to his right temple, taps it twice. Stupid, is what he means. No sense.”

In Long Bright River Moore focuses her narrative on the fraught relationship between two sisters, showing the circumstances that can lead to or result in addiction, parental negligence, and crime. Sadly, what had the potential of being a captivating tale is somewhat let down by an uneven structure and an undeveloped murder storyline.

The Good
The setting of this novel is strikingly rendered. Moore has done an amazing job in depicting both Philadelphia. The neighbourhood of Kensington, the area in which much of the story’s action takes place, comes alive on Moore’s pages. Kensington is reputed has having the highest rates of heroin use in the United States. On its streets there is crime, addiction, and prostitution. While Moore does capture its desperation, she also introduces us to some of its compassionate inhabitants. Readers get a nuanced yet unflinching look at this neighbourhood. There are entire families that fall into drugs. One’s parents, one’s uncles and aunts, and one’s cousin. We understand how difficult it is to break this cycle. Nature and nurture are both to blame for the way in which many children follow the same pattern as their parents and lead a life of crime and addiction. Rather than just presenting us with a Hollywood version of an addict or a prostitute, Moore digs deeper. The people who Mickey encounters on her patrol come across as real people. So much so that readers are bound to feel a mixture of heartbreak and horror over them. Unsurprisingly Dennis Lehane has praised this novel. In many ways Moore’s strong sense of place reminded me of his novels.
Another refreshing thing about Long Bright River is that it subverts the ‘good sister/bad sister0 trope that has been oh-so-popular in recent years. The dynamic between Mickey and Kacey was complex and painfully believable. I certainly felt invested in their relationship and its outcome. The choices they make aren’t always easy to understand but we are fully aware of the circumstances that have shaped them in such a way. Through flashbacks we see the way in which they slowly yet irrevocably drift apart and their past closeness becomes a thing of the past. Yet, in spite of their painful history, the two are bound to each other.
Having a family in Long Bright River is not an easy thing. Mickey’s career path in the police department has made her into a persona non grata to most of her blood relatives. But, as readers soon will realise, this familial uneasiness runs both ways. Connections can be formed with unexpected people, such as Mickey does with her elderly neighbour (who was perhaps my favourite character in the entire novel).
I liked the ambivalence of Moore’s story. There are no easy answers or solutions. People capable of violence or malice can also be capable of kindness.

The Could-Have-Been-Better Things
Mickey’s staccato narration takes some getting used to. While I do understand that if her internal monologue or descriptions occasionally sounded robotic it was because she is a somewhat aloof and logical individual, I wish her narrative hadn’t been so wooden. The ‘then’ sections—aka the flashbacks—would have had a much more emotional impact if they’d been narrated by Kacey. Mickey’s perspective has its limitation. The story would benefitted from having her as the narrator as it would have allowed a more balanced portrayal of their relationship. Kacey was a much more interesting and compelling character, and I do think that having her as a narrator would have made me care more for her.
The pacing isn’t great. There are many instances in which the plot loose itself and doesn’t really advance Mickey’s investigation. Mickey herself makes a lot of dumb decisions, and some of them do seem a bit outlandish. For me, the murder investigation was the novel’s weakest point. While it does show the way in which vulnerable people are used or disregarded by the system that is supposed to help them, it also resorts to cheap, and occasionally predictable, ‘twists’. At times this murder-storyline seems forgotten, only to be later picked up at a too convenient moment.

Overall thoughts
Long Bright River is a mournful novel as Mickey’s search for her sister is not an easy one. The story shows the in interplay between addiction, poverty, and crime in a stark manner without resorting to pulpy stereotypes. It presents with the devastating reality of the opioid crisis, the way in which can destroy entire families and neighbourhoods, by focusing on the individual rather than the statistics.
Although it has its flaws (the pacing, structure, and protagonist had their weaknesses) I would still recommend it as I could see how much work Moore has put into it.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen — book review

Untitled drawing (1)It isn’t surprising that Pride and Prejudice has become such a classic, one that inspired thousands of adaptations and re-tellings. Many of the story’s components have become conventions…and to dismiss this novel as a ‘girl’s book’ is not only incredibly superficial but it negates Jane Austen’s clever social commentary.
While many of its characters are satirical personifications of certain types of people (the solipsistic and frivolous mother, the disinterested father, the silly sister(s), the intellectual one, and so on) it does so in a compelling way that makes them all the more vivid in the reader’s mind. Austen’s witty narrative might not appeal to all readers but it is undeniable that her story presents us with sharp-witted portraits.
In spite of her ‘prejudices’ Liz was an admirable heroine whose loyalty to her family, and in particular to her sister Jane, made her all the more likeable. Her ‘romance’ with Darcy is but one of the many strands of this rich story that deals with class and gender. What happens between the characters is conveyed in a subtle manner, through carefully selected words…yet the narrative is always buzzing with a vibrant energy.
An entertaining read that definitely lived up to its fame.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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We Came Here to Forget by Andrea Dunlop — book review

42202020.jpgFor the most part We Came Here to Forget was a somewhat inconsistent read. Perhaps this is due to the two timelines, one which follows Katie Cleary as she grows up, and the other one focuses on the aftermath a personal tragedy. In order to escape from her unbearable existent (one in which she has just lost her friends, boyfriend, and career) Katie ‘reinvents’ herself as Liz Sullivan and travels to Buenos Aires.
Although we know that something bad has happened between Katie/Liz and her older sister, we don’t know the details until the very end. This choice, rather than creating suspense, frustrated me since I predicted what had happened (there are a few things that could make a whole family so infamous)…the timeline focused on the past provided little insight in Katie’s relationship with her sister and her parents. It was mostly telling rather than showing. The parents are only occasionally mentioned, and Katie’s sister, who should have been the focal point of this timeline, is rendered through vague descriptions and observations that usually allude to her later ‘crime’.
The present timeline provided a more nuanced and interesting story. Liz’s struggle to reconcile herself with that ‘bad thing’ and her own ‘fallout’ gave her character an emotional arc. Again, I think that revealing earlier on what happened with her sister would have allowed for even more depth but alas…this narrative was for the most part enjoyable. Although Liz initially struggles to adapt to her new surroundings, she soon falls in with a group of people similar to her: they have all left their ‘baggage’ in other countries. Perhaps the male characters came across as less nuanced than the female characters and their personalities too were somewhat same-y.
Kate/Liz’s love interests added little to the story. Luke had scarcely any lines, and remained off page for the majority of the story. Blair was also a character who remained in the sidelines until he makes a predictable appearance later on…Gianluca could have been an interesting character but he ended up being merely a plot device for Kate/Liz’s character development…throw in an oddly detailed and unnecessary sex scenes and there you have it: a mixed bag. Is the novel about family? Not really. Mental illness? A bit. Love? Occasionally.
It was just too inconsistent for my taste and I will be approaching Dunlop’s future work with caution…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal — book review

x510.jpgMy rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

An absorbing start gives way to an increasingly frustrating reiteration of the same arguments which provided little character development.

“Grief came to her like a series of aftershocks—every time she thought she had moved on, something new reminded her of Mum.”

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters started well enough. We are introduced to three sisters who are leading different lives and are not particularly close to one another. There is the serious older sister Rajni (married and with an eighteen year old son), the loud middle sister (whose career as an actress is having more downs than ups), and Shirina the youngest and most subdued of the sisters (who currently lives with her husband and his husband in Australia). The three embark on a pilgrimage-of-sorts after their mother’s death (who in her last letter to them lists the places they should visit during their journey).
The unfriendly dynamics between the sisters are apparent from before they reach India. Resentment, jealousy, and misunderstandings abound. All three sisters happen to have a big secret that they are keeping from the others and from the narrators…however obvious this secret was the narrative would only allude to it in an attempt to create some sort of mystery (which ultimately failed as it built 0 suspense ).
In spite of the tile and front cover (which is lovely) the story delves into serious topics such abortion, sexism, and abuse. The India portrayed by Jaswal is beautiful but dangerous. For instance, although Delhi is a city that bustles with energy and holds many attractions, it is also full of leering men who can quite readily resort to violence. Yet, Jaswal does not let her depiction of India be submerged by darkness and there are instances in which the sisters are assisted and helped by the locals.
Sadly, the sisters frustrated me to no end. They thought the same thoughts throughout the majority of their travels (ex: I can’t tell them; they don’t know how it is; she is careless, she is mean, yadda yadda). Their arguments were tiring and repetitive, which although is realistic, it also made a lot of scenes somewhat redundant as they added little to the characters or their relationships. The sisters were also somewhat stereotypes of certain personalities which never bodes well…
The moments of humour were occasionally jarring or forced. For instance, the characters walk into a laser eye surgery instead of an (view spoiler) clinic. A lot of the jokes stemmed from misunderstandings which made for many unnecessarily goofy scenes. These oddly contrived moments of humour undermined the serious tone of the story. Some of the characters seemed cartoonish (the evil mother-in-law, the spineless husband, the you-don’t-understand 18 year old). And I was vaguely annoyed by the implications that all the sisters are better off by being more ‘chilled’ (for example being okay that your son is marrying a woman 18 years older than him when he himself has just become a ‘legal’ adult…).
<b>The story had few adventures, and the pacing felt rather slow, lagging especially in the middle part. A lot of the things that happen seemed predictable (and avoidable), and soon I grew tired of the sisters.
Still, I might try Jaswal’s future works…

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The Missing Years : Book Review

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The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott

★★★✰✰ 3 stars 

The story had some potential, which is why I was very frustrated by the way the storyline developed.
To begin with, I was absorbed by the setting of the novel: a creepy manor in Scotlandwhere the main character, Ailsa, lived as child. After her father’s mysterious disappearance she and her mother moved away. Years later a ‘grown-up’ Ailsa is preoccupied by her missing father, and between each chapter we get a ‘what if’ scenario where she imagines that he is either dead, happily re-married, or after an accident has become an amnesiac and lives abroad. These tidbits were creative and made the otherwise boring Ailsa into an interesting character.
I also enjoyed the way the setting was portrayed: the accents and mannerism of Ailsa’s new acquaintances give the impression that Elliott has an ear for language and speech inflections. The manor too had a foreboding aura which was well depicted.
The slow burn mystery mostly consisted in Ailsa doubting and interrogating the people around her. ‘Someone’ is not happy of her presence in the manor and is leaving rather undesirable gifts…
Ailsa was an ‘okay’ character. I wish she had a bit more of a backbone or at least a bit more character. Her ‘half-sister’ was a rather useless character. The typical ‘younger, more attractive/charming’ sister type who was ready to abandon Ailsa for someone she had met once…the men were sort of interchangeable. I was disappointed to see how little importance some of them had in the overall storyline (given that so much time was spent on them).
A lot of suspense stemmed from what I can best describe as being jump-scares….the whole ‘reveal’ was somewhat ridiculous and off-beat.
Overall, this was a forgetful and rather cliched read. If you are looking for a quick ‘light-suspense’ read, this might be for you.

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Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker : review

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In spite of its intriguing premise Cassandra at the Wedding is a novel that is obscured by an impenetrable and confounding narration.
The story is divided in three sections, two of which are from the point of view of Cassandra. Her narrative reflects her state of mind and she reports things with a puzzling intense yet unfocused perspective. Her mind jumps from thought to thought, and she often provides no context—or reason—for what she thinks or observes which leaves readers trying to navigate her increasingly mystifying thought-pattern .
The novel is very much focused on Cassandra and her identity. Characters describe her personality in a way that suggests that she is much more alluring and passionate than she actually is. Cassandra spends way too much time exploring her sense of self, providing little information or motivation in the situations that would actually benefit from more clarity on her part.
She is depressed, unhappy, unfixed. Her life seems to have spiralled out of control after her sister moved away from their shared apartment. While the confusing style does reflect her skewed perceptions it also distances readers from her experiences. So much is unsaid that it was hard to find reasons to sympathise with her or her struggles.
Her sexuality is only vaguely hinted at which given the time the book was written in, it does ‘make sense’ but then…why include this aspect of her character if you will barely acknowledge it? Moreover, Cassandra’s obsession with her twin sister seemed far too undeveloped and unexplained. Her fixation seems the drive of this narrative, yet there seemed little substance to her relationship with her sister.
In conclusion, I was hoping that this novel would be far more innovative and entertaining than it actually was.

 

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Everything Here is Beautiful: Book Review


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Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

★★★★✰ 4 stars

  “Where are you? Where the fuck are you, Lucia?”

Being punched in the stomach would have been less painful than this.

Lee’s depiction of mental illness is both incredibly vivid and deeply disturbing. Lucia is the focal point of the narrative: she is a free-spirit, full-of-life, a romantic with a big heart. However in her early twenties, something changes. Miranda is in many ways the opposite of her younger sister Lucia and after their mother’s death, Miranda struggles to understand what exactly is happening to her once so happy sister.
Not only does Lee masterfully utilises different point of views in order to give all of her characters an ‘equal’ voice but she also gives us a glimpse of what an ‘outsider’ thinks of Lucia’s situation and of her friends and family. After a particularly severe episode Lucia is hospitalised and we see what the nurses and doctors think of Lucia herself, and of her loved ones (Miranda, Manny—Lucia’s boyfriend— and Yonah, Lucia’s husband).
Each point of view brilliantly renders the individuality of a certain character. The chapters from Lucia’s perspective (which could be both in 1st and 3rd person) were incredibly jarring. A series of staccato sentences, broken up thoughts and impressions, really made me feel what Lucia was experiencing. In spite of how disturbing this feeling was, it was hard to take my eyes away from Lee’s vivid prose.
Another thing that stood out to me was the way in which Lee describes different places and cultures. Each of the main characters has a rich and multi-layered background. And the people that orbit around the main ‘cast’ were just as distinctive. With only a few words Lee is able to imbue her characters with history, personality and realism.

“There’s a word for this in Portuguese: saudade. It’s not exactly nostalgia, there’s more of a longing in it, for a feeling or way of life that may be impossible to recapture—that may or may not have even existed in the first place. An indolent dreaming wistfulness is how I’ve seen one writer describe it. Now that’s a great word.”

The narrative traces Lucia’s life, and the way in which she attempts to escape from her diagnosis. Fearing the loss of her individuality, Lucia tries to reject labels and or diagnosis, which are presented to her as inescapable sentence. Those she cares for try in different way, and with different—if not terrible—results, to help her. More than once the characters and their narratives confront the increasingly blurred line between Lucia and her mental illness. Would Lucia still be herself if it wasn’t for mental illness? Is her personality a result of her schizophrenia? Where does Lucia begin and where does her disorder ends?

“Later, in hindsight, they would come together on this: to wonder when it had become impossible to distinguish which parts of Lucia fell under her own juridistinction and which belonged to her illness.”

Lee does not provides with an answer. In her portrayal of Lucia—and of mental health in general—she never resorts to a didactic or dogmatic explanations, but rather she lets her narrative—which follows different characters during different periods of Lucia’s life—relate how Lucia’s illness is perceived by her and those around her.

 “I’m human first, aren’t I? Aren’t we all?”

We could clearly see that Miranda has the best intentions and tries her best to help Lucia, yet, we can also see how Lucia and others might find Miranda ‘controlling’.
We could also see how Lucia begins to disconnect from her everyday reality and those around her. For example, she is unable to recognise Manny’s terror at being deported or Miranda’s own concern about trying to have a child of her own.
The relationships between the various characters are all too realistic. Misunderstandings can foster resentment and tensions. In spite of all of this pain and hurt, there are some truly beautiful moments of tenderness and compassion that convey the underlying love and affection between these characters.

“You could say: This is the way tow people drift apart.”

Equally harrowing and evocative, Everything Here Is Beautiful is a heart-rendering debut that really that really packs a punch.

“I try not to think about it. I don’t take it personally. People say things, people do things, these two are not the same, I know that. I hope she’s happy, that’s all.”

There are a lot of ‘disturbing’ and painful things: Lucia’s mental illness, how her diagnosis alienates her from her sister, what Lucia experiences during one of her psychotic episodes, what others feel in witnessing Lucia’s dangerous behaviour. And perhaps all of these distressing moments make those rare moments of calm and or peace all the more beautiful.

“When she wakes, she feels something inside her like a venom, a flare in her chest, a burning sensation just beneath her skin. The serpents. A thought flickers. She extinguishes it. When she slows her breath to listen, the air is quiet. It is only her.”

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