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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Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is a fantastic collection of short stories. Having loved Evans’ latest release, The Office of Historical Corrections, I had high hopes for this first collection and it did not disappoint. Each short story delivers, there isn’t one ‘weak’ or boring story. Although they explore similar themes and subjects they offer different perspectives and or they reach contrasting conclusions. Evans’ combines heart-rendering scenes with more light-hearted ones, and delivers her sharp commentary—such on race and girlhood—with a delightful side of humour.
I truly enjoyed this collection and I hope Evans will soon be publishing something new.

my rating: ★★★★½

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The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

The Office of Historical Corrections is a striking collection of short stories, easily the best one to be published this year. Unlike many other collections—which tend to have a few forgettable or ‘weaker’ stories—The Office of Historical Corrections has only hits. There isn’t one story that bored me or wasn’t as good as the rest. This is truly a standout collection. If you happen to be a fan of authors such as Curtis Sittenfeld, Edwidge Danticat, and Brit Bennett you should definitely give The Office of Historical Corrections a shot.

This collection contains 6 short stories and 1 novella. Although each one of these has its own distinctive narrative, they do examine similar themes but they do so through different, and at times opposing, perspectives. With nuance and precision Evans navigates the realities of contemporary America, focusing in particular on the experiences of black people in a country that considers white to be the ‘norm’.
There are so many things to love about this collection. Evans’ prose is superb. Her writing is incisive, evocative, and perfectly renders her characters and the diverse situations they are in without ever being overly descriptive or purply. While short stories and novellas are usually plot-driven, Evans’ narratives spouse a razor-sharp commentary—on race, modern culture, class—with compelling character-studies.

The scenarios and issues Evans explores are certainly topical. In ‘Boys Go to Jupiter’ a white college student, Claire, is labelled racist after her sort-of-boyfriend posts a photo of her wearing a Confederate bikini. Rather than apologising or even acknowledging what this flag truly symbolises Claire decides to make matters worse for herself by ridiculing a black student’s outrage at her bikini and by claiming that the flag is part of her heritage. As this controversy unfolds we learn of her childhood, of how she became close with two siblings who were for a time neighbours of hers, of her mother’s illness and eventual death, and of the part she played in her friend’s death. This story is very much about denial, culpability, and grief. It also brought to mind ‘White Women LOL’ by Sittenfeld and Rebecca Makkai’s ‘Painted Ocean, Painted Ship’.
The titular novella instead follows two black women who have never been on easy terms. This is partly due to their different economic backgrounds and partly due to their different temperaments. Having lost touch after college they both end up working at the Institute for Public History where they are tasked with correcting historical inaccuracies/mistakes. Often their corrections raise awareness about America’s colonial and racist past in order to challenge white historical narratives. Given all discussions about decolonising the curriculum and about historical statues and monuments this novella definitely touches on some relevant topics. The revisions made by the Institute for Public History are often not well met and they are targeted by white ‘preservationists’. As our narrator unearths the true story behind a black shopkeeper’s death back in 1937 she unwillingly joins ‘forces’ with Genevieve, her longtime not-quite-friend. The two women have very different approaches and their search for the truth behind this man’s death soon sparks the anger of the white ‘preservationists’.
All of these stories are worth a read. My personal favourites where ‘Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain’, ‘Alcatraz’, ‘Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want’ (which had some serious Kevin Wilson vibes), and ‘Anything Could Disappear’ (this almost had me in tears).

There are so many things to love about this collection: Evans’ focus on women and the thorny relationships they can have with one another, the wry humour that underlines these stories, Evans’ ability to capture diverse and nuanced emotions. The list goes on.

Evans’ stories are thought-provoking and populated by memorable and fully fleshed out characters. Although she exerts an admirable control over her language, her writing is arresting. Evans does not waste words and she truly packs a punch in this ‘infamous’ medium (short stories are often seen in terms of their limitations) .
Throughout this collection Evans’ touches themes of injustice, forgiveness, history (a character’s personal history as well as a nation’s history), freedom and identity, grief, loss, fear, failed relationships and human connection.
This is a fantastic collection and you should definitely give it a try.

my rating: ★★★★½

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Graceful Burdens by Roxane Gay

Graceful Burdens is a competitively written short story that is very much concerned with reproductive justice. This story presents us with a world in which some women do not meet the necessary ‘requirements’ to be mothers and therefore are not allowed to reproduce. Some ‘unfit mothers’ borrow babies from a ‘baby library’, others are grateful not to have to reproduce. Of course, there are also those who have no choice but to reproduce. The reality Roxane Gay writes of is sadly not wholly unimaginable (I come from a country that makes it nearly impossible to have an abortion, and where an anti-choice group buried the foetuses of women who miscarried or had abortions without their knowledge/consent ).
The thing is Gay doesn’t do anything expectational prose, plot or world-building wise. There are many other novels that explore similar concepts (to name a few: The Handmaid’s Tale, Red Clocks, The Farm) with much more depth.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

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

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

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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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 Street by Ann Petry

“A woman living alone didn’t stand much chance.”

Ann Petry is a terrific writer. The precise way in which she articulates the thoughts and various state of minds of her characters brought to my mind the writing of Nella Larsen and Edith Wharton. But whereas I could stand the cynicism and tragic finales of Wharton’s novels (in which usually horrible things happen to privileged, and often horrible, individuals) I had a hard time stomaching the ending in The Street.

Set in 1940s The Street follows Lutie Johnson, a single black mother, who moves on 116th Street in Harlem. Lutie is a resilient woman who has come to believe that through hard-work and self-sacrifice she can attain a level of happiness and prosperity. She also happens to be beautiful: white and black men treat like a sexual object, white women regard her with open contempt, and other black women tend to be jealous or suspicious of her.
Lutie’s daily existence is punctuated by racism, sexism, and classism. Witnessing the violence, desperation, and death around her reinforces her desire to escape her neighbourhood and the growingly inappropriate behaviour of her building’s super, an unstable man named Jones.

Through flashbacks we learn more of the characters’ history, such as the dissolution of Lutie’s marriage and Jones’ time in the navy. Scenes take their time to unfold as the narrative is focused less on action and more on character interiority. Petry allows her readers to view the world through their eyes and at times this can be quite jarring. Jones’ disturbed thoughts are troubling indeed and his growing obsession with Lutie is guaranteed to make readers as uncomfortable as reading from Humbert Humbert’s perspective. Petry demonstrates how gifted a writer she is by outlining his skewed worldview and disordered thinking, so much so that I was afraid of being inside his head.
Petry also gives two other women in Lutie’s building a voice: there is the watchful—and formidable—Mrs. Hedges who runs a brothel and Min, a seemingly docile woman who lives with—and is abused by—Jones. There are also portions of the narrative centred around Boots, yet another man who wants Lutie for himself. Petry once again showcases her skill by making us sympathise, however briefly, with a character such as Boots (who happens to be a rather reprehensible human being).
Throughout the course of the narrative Lutie tries to overcome obstacles and hardships. Her dignity and strength made her into an admirable character. As a single black mother Lutie is subjected to a myriad of injustices, and as her preoccupation with money—and leaving ‘the street’—grows, she unwittingly pushes her son towards Jones.

Petry brings to life—more for worse than better—the city in which her characters move in. She renders the cacophony on the streets as well as the atmosphere within closed spaces (like the charged and suffocating atmosphere in Jones’ apartment).
I really liked the rhythm of Petry prose, created in part thanks to the repetition of certain specific words, phrases, and ideas. While I loved how perceptive Petry was in registering the nuances of her characters’ different moods and thoughts, I was exhausted by how relentlessly depressing her story was (throughout the narrative women are slapped around, threatened with physical assault, intimidated, or are treated as if belonging to a lesser species).
Given Petry’s disenchanted portrayal of the American dream, I wasn’t expecting a rosy finale. Still, I was quite bitter about the way she ends things. While I understand that it is a realistic ending, I didn’t find the Bub/Jones situation to be all that credible.

Readers who prefer fast-paced or plot-driven novel may want to skip this one but those who are interested in a meticulous character study should definitely consider picking this long-overlooked classic up.
While I’m not necessarily ‘happy’ to have read this book (I’m not a sadist), Petry’s adroit social commentary and captivating prose are worth reading.

My rating: 3 of 5 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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Earthlings by Sayaka Murata — book review

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“The person who had given birth to me said I was a dead loss, so I decided it really must be true.”

A few days before reading Earthlings I read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman and I really loved its humour and eccentric narrator. So, perhaps I approached Earthlings with the wrong expectations. Or maybe I was fooled by its cute cover (I mean, just look at that hedgehog!). Fact is, Earthlings is an altogether different beast to Murata’s previous novel. I can say, without the shadow of a doubt, that Earthlings is the most bizarre novel (and I’ve read a fair amount of books).
If you thought Convenience Store Woman was weird, well, be prepared as Earthlings is on an altogether different level of weird. Narrated by Natsuki, a young girl who is made to feel like an outsider within her own family and is regularly subjected to verbal and physical abuse from her mother and her sensitive older sister. Natsuki seems resilient enough though and finds reassurance in the belief that Piyyut, a plush toy hedgehog, is an alien from the planet Popinpobopia. Natsuki is eager to help Piyyut on his quest, and reveals only his true identity to her cousin Yuu who in turn tells her that he’s an extraterrestrial. Both of them live in difficult households and are made to feel like burdens. Their bond strengthens, so much so that they begin to call each other ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’, keeping their relationship a secret from the rest of the family. Sadly, the two are only able to meet up in the summer during their visits to their grandparents (who have a house in the mountains of Nagano).

“With my eyes closed, drifting in space, it felt as though the spaceship from Planet Popinpobopia really was close by. I was immersed in my love for Yuu and my magical powers. As long as I was here in this space, I was safe and nobody could destroy our happiness.”

Natsuki’s school life takes a turn for the worst when an ‘attractive’ young teacher begins to make sexual advances which will escalate to abuse. These horrific encounters will plague Natsuki into adulthood, as she will find it impossible to form an intimate relationship with another man. Her memories of Nagano and Yuu do lighten her days. However, to keep her family at bay, she forces herself to obey the norms of society and marries…but her married life is far from conventional.
There are many explicit scenes in this books. Some of them were simply vile, and frankly gratuitous, while others were so outlandish as to be funny (in a fucked up sort of way). This novel has quite a few scenes that made me drop my kindle and wonder, out loud, “WTF did I just read?”. Here are some examples (readers’ discretion is advised): (view spoiler)

What started as a dark coming of age soon morphed into a nightmarish and feverish horror show.
The book delves into disturbing subjects in a surreal and occasionally abrupt sort of way. The horrible things that keep happening to Natsuki and her alienation (towards her family, society, reality) are mediated by her unnervingly enthusiastic tone. She’s perfunctory when noting what her parents and sister feels towards her and criticism of society’s fixation on reproduction have a spring to them:

“Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told. They all used their reproductive organs for the Factory and did their jobs for the sake of the Factory.”

Similarly to Convenience Store Woman the narrative of Earthlings interrogates existing notions of normalcy as well as questioning what being a ‘useful member of society’ entails. While Convenience Store Woman was far from subtle, it allowed more room for interpretation, Earthlings, on the other hand, is far more obvious. Natsuki, and two other central characters, use the ‘Factory’ metaphor in most of their discussions concerning their society and lives. It was a bit on the nose for me.
The ending was baffling and made me wonder what the point of this novel was. Certain scenes were so ludicrous as to be amusing and Natsuki’s narration certainly held my attention but even so I wonder whether those really graphic scenes served a purpose other than ‘to shock’ the readers (I don’t think so). Murata’s treatment of emotional and sexual abuse is also rather questionable.
My advice is this: be weary of Earthlings.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata — book review

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“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”

Convenience Store Woman delights in its own absurdity. In spite of its slender size and its deceptively deadpan style, Sayaka Murata’s novel is surprisingly subversive.
Keiko Furukura’s clipped yet enthusiastic narration manages to both amuse and bewilder. In the very first pages she recounts a childhood episode in which she asks her mother whether they could grill and eat a dead bird. Yet, in spite of these macabre instances, Keiko’s narration has this effervescent energy, this ceaseless optimism, enlivens the more depressing, ambivalent, or unsettling moments.

Keiko is a thirty-six-year old who has been working part-time at the same convenience store for the past eighteen years. While her peers are married and/or have ‘proper’ careers, Keiko is quite content to remain at her convenience store. While other employees have moved on to other jobs, Keiko has no desire to change (herself and her job). She appeases her school acquaintances and colleagues by mimicking their language and behaviours, but she does so not because she actually wants to fit in or due to peer pressure but because she doesn’t want others to question her or the lifestyle she leads (for example that she has never been, nor does she wish to be, in a relationship).
We follow Keiko as she performs the ordinary tasks that make up a shift at the convenience store: welcoming customers, filling shelves, store cleanliness, serving customers at the till…while I personally hate doing these kind of things (and I work as a customer assistant) Keiko seems to genuinely like and be actually good at her job. That she is happy to be a ‘cog’ in the capitalist machine is certainly disquieting but readers will have a hard time envisioning a future in which Keiko is content not to be a convenience store worker (since being a store worker seems an integral part of her identity).

Through Keiko’s unique mind ordinary moments and conversations are tinged with surreality. Although she’s unerringly logical, a lot of her thoughts are frankly bizarre or plain outlandish. Even her most sober observations (on Japanese social and gender norms, notions of normalcy) are injected with a dose of peculiarity.
Through Keiko’s uninhibited narration, Murata emphasises the absurdities of our modern age (particularly about work culture, social conformism, the expectations society places on single women in their 30s, alienation).
Playful, funny, thought-provoking, and occasionally disturbing, Convenience Store Woman is a deeply engrossing novel and Keiko’s slightly off-kilter reality is bound to appeal to readers who enjoyed Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, books by Hiromi Kawakami, or the recently released Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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