BOOK REVIEWS

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

The Disaster Tourist doesn’t tell a very memorable or engrossing story. If you’ve read the summary you know exactly what to expect from this book. We are introduced to Yona who is thirty-three and works as trip coordinator at Jungle, a travel company that specialises in organising disaster themed vacations. Yona is sexually harassed by her boss and seems like she would rather leave the company. She then agrees to go on a paid vacation in which she will have to determine whether Jungle should cancel this package. This vacation takes her to Mui, a fictional island not far from Vietnam. The disaster tourists that are travelling alongside Yona don’t seem all the impressed or shocked by Mui’s desert sinkhole. Yona then is left stranded to Mui and finds herself agreeing to take part in a morally questionable enterprise.
As a critique of disaster tourism this book doesn’t really offer anything truly compelling or thought-provoking. Most readers will be aware of the voyeuristic and exploitative nature of this brand of tourism and of the motivations of those who wish to participate in it (wanting to raise awareness, witness sites of devastation in order to understand them).
The author’s style does very little showing. Unlike with books like Temporary or Convenience Store Woman readers will never gain an insight into Yona’s job or her mind. She remains a surface character whose actions are either obscure or unbelievable. The tone of this book was also kind of a miss for me (definitely not as darkly funny or insightful as it wanted to be).
What could have been an irreverent look at tourism ended up being a forcibly surreal tale that wasn’t half as clever or inventive as it tried to be.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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Severance by Ling Ma

“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

Severance is an engrossing and, given the current pandemic, timely read. Through the use of a dual timeline Ling Ma’s novel encompasses many genres: we have chapters set in the past, pre-apocalypse, when the Shen Fever is a mere afterthought in the daily lives of New Yorkers, and the ones post-apocalypse, in which our protagonist joins a cultish group of survivors who seem to be immune to the fever.

Kmart realism meets millennial malaise in Candace Chen’s first-person narration.
Candace’s sardonic observations lightened the mood of the story. Her drone-like work attitude brought to mind novels such Convenience Store Woman and Temporary. The chapters set in the past detail Candace’s daily routine, in which we see that other than her half-hearted interest in photography, Candace is resigned to her position as Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, and isn’t too disturbed by her role in the exploitation of workers outside of America. She’s yet another disaffected, somewhat directionless, twenty-something female protagonist who has become all the rage in contemporary fiction. Thankfully Ma makes Candace her own unique creation, one who, as the fever starts spreading in America, actually undergoes some character growth (making Severance a coming-of-age of sorts). Although Candace operates very much on auto-pilot, her listless routine is soon interrupted by the pandemic.

In the chapters focusing on ‘after’, once New Yorkers have either fled the city or become infected, Candace joins a group led by the rather bullying Bob, a man who isn’t particularly charming or clever but has somehow successfully convinced others that they will be safe if they follow him to the Facility (a ‘mysterious’ but safe location). Along the way, they raid the houses of those who are infected, and Candace finds herself becoming increasingly disenchanted towards her so-called leader.

In Ma’s novel the fevered repeat “banal activities” on an infinite loop: they will spend the rest of their days performing the same activity (such as washing dishes, opening a door, dressing , trying different clothes). Ma’s fever works as an allegory, one which reduces humans to the humdrum activities—getting dressed, preparing food—that constitute their lives.
Tense or even brutal scenes are alleviated by Candace’s caustic narration. And there are even moments and dialogues that are so absurd as to verge on the hysterical realism. Ma makes it work, and unlike her characters, or the circumstances they face, her language remains restrained.
Underneath the novel’s hyperbolic scenarios lies a shrewd critique of capitalism, consumerism, globalism, modern work culture, and the American Dream. Through flashbacks we learn of Candace’s parents’ arrival in America and of how their diverging desires—Candace’s mother wishes to return to China while the father believes that will lead more successful lives in America—created a rift in their marriage.

Ma covers a myriad of topics in a seemingly offhand manner: adulthood, loneliness, connectedness, dislocation. Candace’s deadpan narration takes her readers alongside a journey that is as surreal as it is chilling. Ma, far more successfully than Mona Awad with Bunny, switches with ease between the first and third person, showing her readers just how easily one can lose sight of their identity.
My only criticism is towards Ma’s use of the dual timeline. At times there wasn’t a clear balance between past and present, and some sections detailing Candace’s work at Spectra were overlong. Still, I really enjoyed Severance, it is an impressive debut and I can’t wait to read more from Ma.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars of 5 stars

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The Sundial by Shirley Jackson — book review

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“I mean, why should I figure I’m so special, the world is going to end while I’m around?”

In The Sundial, perhaps Shirley Jackson’s most comical novel, twelve rather disagreeable individuals are cooped together in a mansion waiting for the end of the world.

“The house would be guarded during the night of destruction and at its end they would emerge safe and pure. They were charged with the future of humanity; when they came forth from the house it would be into a world clean and silent, their inheritance.”

When Aunt Fanny, a rather ditsy spinster whose passive aggressive martyr act brought to mind E. M. Forster’s Miss Bartlett, is threatened out of her family home by her megalomaniac sister-in-law, she is quite rightfully distressed. Lucky for Aunt Fanny, on that very same day she happens to hear the disembodied voice of her deceased father. He warns Aunt Fanny of an impending apocalypse, and tells her not to leave the Halloran estate: “Tell them in the house that they will be saved. Do not let them leave the house.”
When Aunt Fanny reports her father’s warning, her brother’s wife, Orianna, although not entirely convinced, decides that if there is to be a new world, she wants in. More people join their ranks, some by chance, such as Orianna’s friend and her two daughters, while others, such as a random stranger, are more or less coerced into remaining.
Aunt Fanny is perhaps the only character who actively tries to prepare for ‘life’ after doomsday: she buys a Boy Scout handbook and other books that have “practical information on primitive living”, as well as stocking up the house with food and other essentials (her bulk-buying puts to shame today’s panic buyers). In the meantime the solipsistic and conniving Orianna ensures her authority, punishing those who dare to defy her and her rules.

The Sundial offers its readers some brilliantly absurd scenes. For instance, when Aunt Fanny picks up a stranger in the village and decides to name him “Captain Scarabombardon”, or when the residents of Halloran house come into contact with the True Believers. The dialogues in this novel demonstrate Jackson’s wicked sense of humour, as she’s unafraid of ridiculing her own characters.
Make no mistake though, this darkly comedic novel has its disturbing moments, and a sense of unease pervades much of the narrative.

In some ways this novel is decidedly Jackson-esque. First of all, we have the setting:

“The character of the house is perhaps of interest. It stood upon a small rise in ground, and all the land it surveyed belonged to the Halloran family. The Halloran land was distinguished from the rest of the world by a stone wall, which went completely around the estate, so that all inside the wall was Halloran, all outside was not.”

This is yet another novel by Jackson explores the double function of houses: the Halloran mansion is both a fortress—a place of safety—and a prison.
We also have tensions between an aristocratic family and the ‘small minded’ villagers (who are often described as belonging to an inferior species), toxic and possibly murderous relatives, creepy young girls (who are far more perceptive than others think), and mind-wandering wheelchair bound old men.

Jackson’s writing is as clever as always. Not a word is out of place. From her scintillating descriptions (“a lady of indeterminate shape, but vigorous presence,”) to the careful yet impactful way in which she arranges her phrases. And of course, her dialogues are a pure delight to read:

“Humanity, as an experiment, has failed.”
“Well, I’m sure I did the best I could,” Maryjane said.
“Do you understand that this world will be destroyed? Soon?”
“I just couldn’t care less,” Maryjane said.

This being a novel by Jackson, most of the characters hate other people and the rest of the world. Aunt Fanny’s ‘prophecy’ gives them the possibility of entertaining a future in which they are different. Yet, they are so occupied with their future as to completely ignore the people around them, so that meaningful heart-to-hearts inevitably fail.

“But there aren’t any good people,” Gloria said helplessly. “No one is anything but tired and ugly and mean.”

The ambiguous nature of Jackson’s story and her characters may not appeal to those who dislike when things happen off-stage. Personally, I love that Jackson doesn’t always provide answers to the mysteries within her stories.
I would definitely recommend this to fans of Jackson, or to those are interested in a satirical ‘pre-doomsday’ story populated by an Addams type of family.

Some of my favourite quotes:

“Now, she thought; I may go mad, but at least I look like a lady.”

“You, sir,” the man said, addressing Essex. “Do you atone?”
“Daily,” said Essex.
“Sin?”
“When I can,” said Essex manfully.”

“I will not have space ships landing on my lawn. Those people are perfectly capable of sending their saucers just anywhere, with no respect for private property.”

“Can you cook?”
“Admirably.”
“You would have to cook poorly, to meet my ideal. I want the kind of dismal future only possible in this world. ”

“I personally deplore this evidence of frayed nerves; we do not have much longer to wait, after all, and perhaps if we cannot contain ourselves we had better remain decently apart.”

“If my lunacy takes the form of desiring to wear a crown, will you deny me? May I not look foolish in tolerant peace? ”

“There’s no denying, for instance, that my clever Julia is a fool and my lovely Arabella is a—”
“Flirt,” Mrs. Halloran said.
“Well, I was going to say tart, but it’s your house, after all.”

“We must try to think of ourselves,” Mrs. Halloran went on, “as absolutely isolated. We are on a tiny island in a raging sea; we are a point of safety in a world of ruin.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Temporary by Hilary Leichter — book review

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“The gods created the First Temporary so they could take a break.”

Temporary is a wonderfully bizarre novel. Readers who prefer to read stories that are grounded in reality or that are ruled by logic and reason may be better off steering clear from the sheer absurdity that is Temporary.

“She noted the fallacy of permanence in a world where everything ends and desired that kind of permanence all the same.”

Within this novel Hilary Leichter takes to the extreme the role of a temporary worker and the world which she writes of only vaguely resemble our own. In her hyperbolic vision of a capitalistic society generations of temporaries spend their lives in pursuit of ‘the steadiness’ (gainful employment/permanency) The temporary positions which one can be assigned to have a Kafkaesque quality to them: opening and closing doors in a house, filling in for a parrot on a pirate ship, assisting a murderer, working as a body scanner that detects emotion, pushing random buttons…each temporary role is dictated by arbitrary rules and nonsensical tasks, or characterised by confounding hierarchies and even sexual harassment.
The narrator, like her mother and her grandmother before her, goes from temporary position to temporary position with an upbeat can-do attitude. To ‘work’, to do her job, is everything to her, regardless of what the job actually entails. She has several boyfriends, whom she distinguishes by referring to their physical attributes, such as ‘the tall boyfriend’, or their profession, such as ‘the culinary boyfriend, rather than their names.

Throughout the course of the narrative the narrator finds herself doing increasingly outlandish gigs.
The story is ridiculous, and so are the characters and their interactions. But it is also hilariously absurd. Having worked as a temp, and being too aware of the way in which temporary workers are often regarded as little more than disposable cutlery, I deeply enjoyed Leichter’s critique of modern society, particularly the gig economy.

The effervescent writing style brought to mind novels by Japanese authors such as Yōko Ogawa, Sayaka Murata, and Hiromi Kawakami while the protagonist’s fanciful narration, as well as the peculiar people she encounters, echoed Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Temporary is just endearingly unapologetic in its weirdness.

“We drink some water side by side, our bodies full of fluids, of blood and acid and methods of hydration, caffeination, intoxication.”

Through addition of purply metaphors, frequent rapid-firing of words (so that phrases seem to have been breathlessly blurted out), and ping-pong dialogues, Leichter’s magnifies the weird atmosphere of her story.

“What were you thinking?”
“I was just thinking differently.”
“Who said you get to think differently?”
“No one.”

Underneath this novel’s layer of surreality lies an all too relevant tale. Clever, funny, nonsensical, Leichter’s debut novel is a fable for the modern age.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro — book review

91JENwjsWpL.jpgLike many collections of short stories Naomi Ishiguro’s Escape Routes is a bit of a mixed bag.
The stories collected in Escape Routes are centred around individuals who feel ‘trapped’. Throughout the course of these narratives Ishiguro’s characters seem to undergo some sort of existentialist crisis. Most are mystified by their present and deeply uncertain of their future. Some crave to break free from what they perceive to be an unfulfilling or somehow undesirable existence. Others believe that there is something deeply wrong with them, physically or psychologically. There are also those who feel pressured by their parents, partners, or friends, to be someone they are not.
At times it is the possibility of the fantastic that changes their circumstances. On other occasions an encounter, with other people or with nature, might lead them to a path of self-acceptance or self-reconciliation.

In theory I appreciated the themes that Ishiguro explores in her narratives. Given the economical nature of the short story Ishiguro doesn’t waste her words as she often begins her stories by emphasising or addressing what troubles her characters’ minds. Ishiguro also demonstrates an intelligent and efficient use of the English language. Frequently she articulates her characters’ unease in an amusing manner. Ishiguro’s dialogues also demonstrate her ability to render the different ways in which people speak or express themselves as well as giving an impression of those pauses and inflections that characterise most conversations.

For the most part I enjoyed the humour with which she imbues her stories. Her characters are not to be taken too seriously and in depicting their predicaments she often adapts an ironic and vaguely self-aware tone. While she doesn’t make light of her characters’ various troubles, she does hint towards a self-dramatisation on their part.

Sadly, as much as I liked her writing style and the themes at the core of her stories I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed any of her stories. Most of these narratives are characterised by a studied weirdness, one that comes across as artificial. Whereas through her characters’ inner monologues and their conversations with others Ishiguro creates and maintains a sense of almost Wes Andersonesque absurdity, these more blatantly bizarre elements lessened the ‘ordinary yet surreal’ quality of her stories.
While the start of her stories are promising enough, they soon seemed to fall into a rather predictable ‘this-is-how-you-write-a-short-story’ structure. Rather than suffusing her narratives with a natural sense of ambiguity, Ishiguro mostly relies on her endings in order to ‘subvert’ our expectations. The perplexing and open-ended way in which her stories culminate in seemed more contrived than enigmatic.

The first two stories—‘Wizards’ and ‘Bears’—were perhaps the most successful ones in this collection. One follows a young boy and a rather child-like man in their quest for ‘more’. The boy hopes for magic while the man seems on the lookout for some sort of sign. Both of them feel that their parents’ would not accept or understand their true selves. The other is a quirky tale in which a man becomes paranoid over a stuffed bear.
Stories such as ‘Heart Problems’ and ‘Accelerate!’ were okay…if almost entirely forgettable. They played around with perspective, which kept me somewhat engaged but their endings were somewhat uninspiring.
This collection also includes a story that is divided in three parts: ‘The Rat Catcher I, II, and III’. This was the only story I actively disliked. It had this unsuccessful grotesque tone, a gimmicky and unconvincing ‘historical’ setting, and an incredibly derivative storyline. It’s never a good sign when you want to skim or skip a short story.

Perhaps I’ve read too many short stories by Shirley Jackson or watched too much stuff by David Lynch to be truly troubled or intrigued by Ishiguro’s work. While I can recognise that she a clearly talented writer (I wish I had her command of the English language) her storylines seemed to be held back by this conventional type of weirdness and a general lack of subtlety.
Rather than developing or expanding on the themes of entrapment and alienation, Ishiguro’s narratives are hampered by these attempts to ‘startle’ the reader with enigmatic—and incredibly formulaic—elements and endings.
Most of her stories rely perhaps a bit too much on capturing a character’s meandering line-of-thoughts. Their moments of introspection or self-analysis are interrupted by abstract contemplations which did little to add some emotional depth. If anything the characters’ zigzagging thoughts lessened my interest in them and their stories.

Overall, while I can’t deny that Ishiguro is more than a capable writer, Escape Routes wasn’t a memorable read.
I wasn’t enchanted, mesmerised, or surprised by her narratives, and for the most part I was too aware of the fictionality of her stories to be able to suspend my disbelief or to truly ‘immerse’ myself into what I was reading.
Nevertheless, just because I wasn’t able to form an emotional attachment to Ishiguro’s characters and their stories doesn’t mean that other readers won’t like them, in fact, I hope that other people will appreciate Ishiguro’s work more than I did.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson — book review

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“I understand that art is a necessary component of a civilized society, but you cannot just go around shooting people. That’s going to be a problem.”

Having recently read and loved Nothing to See Here I wanted to check out Kevin Wilson’s earlier work. While The Family Fang has the same whimsical tone as his latest novel, its story has a broader scope and feels slightly more impersonal (perhaps this is due to the third person point of view).
Nevertheless the opening chapters of this novel are highly entertaining. Throughout the narrative there are sections from Annie and Buster’s childhood recounting the way in which their parents would rope them into being part of their ‘performances’ (which usually aimed to cause as much havoc as possible). Unsurprisingly, as adults Annie and Buster have little to do with their parents. Annie is an actress whose career is about to hit a rough spot, while Buster is a writer whose last novel wasn’t very well received. After a series of unfortunate yet oddly funny, events the two Fang siblings find themselves back into their parents’ home.
Although I liked the satire on contemporary art, as well as art criticism, I didn’t find Caleb and Camille to be all that interesting. They remain rather one-sided and did not strike me as being as compelling as they were made to be. Their over-the-top self-belief and art talk could be amusing but it didn’t render their personalities. Even when the narrative was focused on them, their motivations and behaviour remained off page. Although Annie and Buster were far more engaging, I still found their character arcs to be rather erratic.
Although for the most part he eccentric cast of characters did keep me interested in the story, I would have preferred a more focused and less meandering storyline. The pacing too seemed to be slightly off kilter.

Funnily enough some of my favourite scenes in this novel were the ones revolved around a film Annie’s working on (a film in which a woman looks after children who catch fire? Sounds familiar…).
While I appreciated Wilson’s motifs, imagery, and themes (once again we have questionable parents who do a questionable job raising their children), and I enjoyed the overall humour and eccentricity of his narrative, I did not feel particularly involved by his story nor his characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson — book review

42519313.jpgMy rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

“I had the children. They caught on fire. I had to keep them from catching on fire.”

As soon as I read Kevin Wilson’s dedication (“for Ann Patchett”) I had a feeling that I was in for a treat (and I was right).
There was something about Wilson’s surrealism that reminded me a bit of Charlie Kaufman’s films (in Synecdoche, New York a character moves into a house that is permanently on fire). Comparisons to Wes Anderson would also not be amiss (dysfunctional families + parental abandonment + quirky protagonist). Also, in its unapologetic eccentricity it reminded me of The Sundial by Shirley Jackson. Yet, Nothing to See Here also struck me as being a wholly original tale.
Equal parts funny and heart-warming , Wilson’s touching novel can be read as an oddly realistic fairy-tale in which children catch fire.

Wilson injects a plausible scenario with a dose of the surreal: in the late spring of 1995 Lillian Breaker, a rather aimless twenty-eight year old, receives a letter from Madison Roberts, her former boarding school roommate. Madison, now married to a senator, has a job opportunity for Lillian: for the course of the summer she is to move into their estate to look after the senator’s ten-year old twins (from his previous marriage). The catch? Having recently lost their mother the twins are going through a bit of rough patch…and when angry or upset they burst into flames.
Like any good fable, Nothing to See Here has plenty layers. The children’s spontaneous combustions can be seen as a metaphor for ‘undesirability’, since due to their propensity to catch fire they are regarded by their father, and by Madison too, as unfit for the public, a source of embarrassment, and as potential dangerous (as their fire may not harm them, but it can burn the people and objects around them). In order to avoid a scandal, one that could put an end to the senator’s promising career, the twins are to stay under Lillian’s constant supervision.
In spite of her complicated feelings towards Madison, Lillian agrees.

The driving force of this novel is its brilliantly matter-of-fact narrator. Lillian is uninhibited, she says what she wants, doesn’t seem to care much about most things (whatever is one of her favourite words), some of her actions make her come across as a bit thick, and she leads a rather aimless existence. She isn’t all that concerned about her future or interested in taking care of herself. Yet, once she becomes responsible for the senator’s twins, she finds herself wanting to do good by them. There was something gratifying about her frankness…I immediately liked her and both understood and sympathised with some of her hang ups (about money, her education, her parents, Madison).

“I don’t know why, but I had just assumed that the kids would one day appear at the estate, maybe stuffed inside a giant wooden crate, packing peanuts pressed against their rickety bodies. I thought I’d just take them in my arms and place them in our new home like dolls in a dollhouse. ”

In spite of their bizarre condition Bessie and Roland are just like any other children: they are funny, easily bored, and perpetually hungry. After experiencing a tragic loss however the twins find themselves struggling to trust others. Realising that their father is ashamed of them only cements their mistrust of adults. Quite naturally then hey experience some difficulties acclimatising to their new circumstances.

“We were a world unto ourselves, even though I knew it was temporary. Eventually we would have to figure something out, a way to integrate the children into the real world. I imagined a time when they sat at that huge dining room table in the mansion, eating eggs Benedict or whatever the fuck while their father read the paper and told them scores from the Braves game the day before.”

I could ‘easily’ summarise the novel as: Lillian looks after the twins, together they spend time in the pool, they eat a few soggy sandwiches, and meditate. Yet, the uneventfulness of the story is somewhat misleading. We get to know Lillian and the children, and we see the way they slowly grow used to each other. We also read of how American aristocrats will try to pass make their selfish behaviour seem as a sacrifice on their part. In spite of their ‘friendship’ there is a clear divide between Madison and Lillian. Lillian’s acceptance, over her past and future, and of the bond she forms with the twins, never seemed forced or cheesy as the novel makes us aware of how imperfect families are.
Within the very first pages I became fascinated with the story’s peculiar characters and their entertaining conversations. While this novel is definitely brimming with humour, it also offers us many surprisingly tender, if not touching, moments. I soon came to love Lillian, for her witty observations and unfiltered narration, and her charges, who could be both chaotic and charming. The dynamics between the various characters are absorbing, the dialogue is engaging, and the characters are wonderfully dysfunctional.
Wilson is an ingenuous storyteller who makes the supernatural seem plausible, so much so that in spite of the children’s condition, this novel feels deeply rooted in realism. Lillian’s satire is funny but never cutting, while the story, in spite of how outlandish it might sound, remains deeply realistic.
It’s a brilliant novel about the imperfect nature of parenting, of how odd caring for others can be (especially if you are unaccustomed to having friends or a family), that has plenty of humour.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – book review

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“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.”

In recent years Shirley Jackson has experienced a kind of renascence. Perhaps because of Netflix’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House or possibly thanks to contemporary authors (such as Donna Tartt, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King) who have credited Jackson as their inspiration, enhancing her reputation, and prompting a reappraisal of her work. The fact that the Gothic and Horror genres—long regarded as cheap and sensational—are no longer considered ‘lowbrow’ fiction has also contributed to this reassessment of Jackson’s oeuvre. Modern readers now see Jackson as a central figure of the America Gothic as much of her fiction paints a fascinating—if not disturbing—portrait of postwar America . Yet, I find it difficult to pigeonhole Jackson as a Horror writer. Her narratives often feature emotionally disturbed women who are trapped within Kafkaesque worlds. They reality they presents us with seems off. Jackson seems to magnify the way in which traditions and societal expectations threaten one’s individuality and creativity. Most of her stories follow a woman’s ‘quest’ to find or maintain her identify. The ‘horror’ within Jackson’s stories is experienced by her characters. It is because most of her protagonists are labelled as ‘different’ that they are made vulnerable. Yet, readers will often find that all of Jackson’s characters behave with eccentricity (there are whole towns and communities populated by weird people…a bit a la A Series Of Unfortunate Events). In spite of this our protagonists are still singled out, often because they seem more interested in practicing their personal brand of witchcraft than of engaging with the rest of their world.
Madness and evil pervade Jackson’s writing to the extent that even her depictions of everyday occurrences are riddled with human weaknesses, fears, and cruelties. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle evil takes many forms.

The protagonist of We Have Always Lived in the Castle—which happens to be Jackson’s last published novel—has no interest in personal growth. Mary Katherine, who goes by the nickname of Merricat (quite fitting given that she often behaves like her closest companion, a black cat named Jonas), is an untame and defiant tomboy whose apparent ingenuousness hides a razor-alert mind. Six years before the events of the narrative—at the age of twelve—Merricat’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother died after eating sugar laced with arsenic. Constance, Merricat’s older sister, is accused and acquitted of the crime.
Ostracised from their village, Merricat and Constance have become completely estranged from society. At the age of eighteen—free from her parents’ rules—Merricat has fashioned Blackwood Manor into her own private and idyllic world. The two sisters and Uncle Julian—who survived the poisoning but is now wheelchair-bound and increasingly senile—lead a life that is relatively quiet and governed by the daily chores and the ritual of mealtimes. Constance is in charge of the cooking and spends most of her days looking after Uncle Julian and completing household chores with Merricat, whom she treats with loving indulgence, often condoning Merricat’s disturbing behaviour by saying “silly Merricat”. When Constance voices her desire to go outside of the property, Merricat fear of this begins to manifests itself in her surroundings, skewing the way she perceives her reality so that she views ordinary things as ‘omens’ that “spoke of change.” Merricat attempts to regain control of the situation through her witchcraft and by breaking objects but with cousin Charles’ unannounced visit, Merricat is forced to take more drastic approaches to self-preservation.

A third fourth reading of this short and beautifully odd novel has made me even more appreciative of Shirley Jackson’s mastery of words. The first time I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle I was propelled into an increasingly puzzling yet utterly compelling story. During my second reading, I payed more attention to all of the novel’s components, rather than just getting swept along the bizarrely unapologetic storyline. Each time I re-read this novel, I love it even more. Jackson doesn’t feel the need to explain the surreal reality of her novels which makes readers such as me all the more in awe of her craft. Although it is difficult to draw comparisons, I could describe her style as David Lynch meets Tim Burton. Everything and everyone within this novel is peculiar and most scenes and conservations seem to hold a level of absurdity. Merricat’s narrative is also marked by a sense of growing unease (towards change, the future, anything other than her own version of reality) and the tension created by her various anxieties is alleviated by the story’s dark humour.

There are many different layers to We Have Always Lived in the Castle. One the one hand, it is exactly what its reputation promises it to be: an incredibly eerie and compelling short novel. On the other hand, it also delves into many challenging and unsettling subjects, such as paranoia, persecution and violence. Shirley Jackson does not shy away from portraying the darker corners of human nature, in fact, she delves right into the darkest parts of the human psyche.
On the surface, Merricat’s alienation is debilitating yet a closer look suggests that her estrangement from her society is act of self-preservation, one that is both empowering and subversive, allowing them to defy the societal norms and expectations of their time. Throughout the course of her narrative she attempts—for better or worse—to shape and maintain her own identities, refusing the role thrust upon her by her society. In Jackson’s novels, a world of fantasy is preferable to the ‘real’ world, which is populated by people who perform acts of cruelty, physical brutality and or psychological violence against those they perceive as ‘outsiders’. Merricat, who embodies the feared ‘other’ through her unwillingness, if not outright refusal, to adhere to established social conventions, is the ideal scapegoats of her community.

Merricat’s megalomania shows itself through her desire to exact punishments and for designating things and people as either “good” or “bad”. Her dichotomous view of the world causes her to behave in extremes: she varies between acting like a feral child, a sulky adolescent, and a seemingly Cassandra-like individual. Merricat obeys her childish impulses, and readily resorts to violence when not getting her way. Although Merricat sounds much younger than her eighteen years, her naivety is misleading, and her fantasies can easily move between those of a child (“I really only want a winged horse, anyway. We could fly you to the moon and back, my horse and I”) and those of a far more ruthless and dangerous person.
Her sadistic fantasies, her manipulation and subordination of Constance, and her desire to frighten others (“I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village.” ) reveal Merricat’s cunning awareness. Readers might find her charming, yet warped perspective jarring, especially since she avoids explaining her most malevolent deeds.

Merricat’s surreal inner world is conveyed through her first-person narration and readers are granted a unique insight into some of her mental strategies that she uses to feel protected from world around her’. To an outsider like her cousin Charles, many of Merricat’s actions seem to be unwarranted temper tantrums. Readers, on the other hand, know that Merricat always attributes a meaning—however absurd or far-fetched it may appear—to her every action and word. We are aware that she deliberately smashes objects in an effort to regain control over her life.
Merricat’s tendency to let her fantasies dictate her behaviour, turning her imagination into reality, distances herself from the ever-present threat of reality. She attempts to change and control aspects of her life through magical charms and fantasies, with little direct engagement with the outside world. Merricat’s need of control could possibly stems from her ‘fear of change’ which in turn causes her to perceive anything outside her and Constance’s established routine, such as the arrival of uninvited guests, as a threat to their wellbeing. Merricat tries to deflect ‘change’ through her own unique brand of witchcraft, which consists in the performance of various magical rituals, the burying of various ‘safeguards’, unspoken ‘spells’, and even the occasional“‘offering of jewellery out of gratitude”. Merricat draws strength from her belief in magic. What Charles—and presumably the rest of society—would see as childish games, Merricat views as the means to safeguard her future and protect her from the outside.

It is up to Merricat to fashion her home, Blackwood Manor, into a ‘castle’—a stronghold—which she can protect through various magical rituals and wards, and Merricat believes that nothing—and no one—can prevent her from projecting her fantastical and solipsistic view of the world onto her reality.
Shirley Jackson’s style is perfectly attuned to Merricat’s unnerving mind. Her obsessive and impulsive nature is fluidly conveyed by Jackson’s repetitive and rhythmical writing. Jackson also evokes a surrealisms reminiscent of fairy tales through the Merricat’s childlike urges and morbid fascination.
Merricat is a beguiling narrator. Her playful fantasies are juxtaposed against the most violent and bizarre thoughts. Her devotion to her sister borders on the obsessive yet it is through this puzzling relationship that we see a more genuine side to Merricat’s character. In spite of her selfish nature, her palpable fears and unique worldview make her into a fascinating protagonist. Once the stability of the sisters’ purposely reclusive existence is threatened, Merricat survives through her active fantasy. She retreats into the deepest parts of her made-up world. And it is her increasingly desperate attempts to retain control over both Constance’s and her own life that make her into such a brilliant character. Even in those instances where she ‘simply’ observes others, Merricat is always ‘there’, her presence unmissable to the readers.

Her sister Constance also demonstrates worrying behaviour. She too is initially in complete denial over the family’s status. She is in some things, rather controlling, while in other instances, she seemed…on another planet. While Constance remains a cypher of sorts, we see why Merricat needs her.
Uncle Julian ramblings were endearing and his sharp remarks provided much entertainment. Much of the story’s humour springs from his character.
Merricat perceives cousin Charles a threat right from the start. The scenes featuring him are brimming with tension: Merricat’s apprehension is all too real, and I found myself viewing him as an ‘enemy’, just as she does. Merricat’s descriptions of him often present him as something not quite human, a ghost or some such creature. While we can see that some of his criticisms towards Constance and Merricat had some truth, we are always seeing him through Merricat’s eyes.

The underlying suspense, the growing unease, make this uncanny tale hard to put down.The vivid descriptions are simply tantalising, the surreal quality of the characters’ conversations is darkly amusing and the atmospheric setting is almost tangible. We Have Always Lived in the Castle makes for a lush and macabre read, one that will probably strike you as weird yet ultimately compelling. It could be read as a fairy-tale of sorts, an alternative to folklore narratives, or as a story that sets otherness against ‘herd’ mentality.
Recently there has been a film adaptation of this novel (you can watch the trailer for it here) which, in spite of some minor alterations, brings to life Jackson’s story. It conveys the novel’s unapologetic weirdness, its idiosyncrasies, and its black humour. The film Stoker also seems to have drawn inspiration from this novel.
The first page of this novel perfectly encapsulates its style and tone. If you are uncertain whether this is the kind of story for you, I recommend you read its opening paragraph:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy — book review

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For readers in want of an incisive and creative account of life in East Germany, I strongly recommend picking up something by Christa Wolf.
I think that from now on I might stick to Deborah Levy‘s non-fiction.

While I’m glad to see that many of my friends and other readers were able to enjoy this latest release by Deborah Levy, I found it to be yet another example of all flash no substance.

There is little to no depth or feeling in the story and characters of this relatively short book, but rather an intentionally oblique narrative that time and again chooses style over substance.

To me, it seemed that the way the story was being told was all that mattered. And I admit that occasionally I found Levy’s use of repetition to be clever; these recurring word-plays, dialogues, and images did give a rhythm to the narrative and could occasionally serve as comedic relief. In those instances the novel reminded me of the verbose and sardonic style of Muriel Spark but for the most part I was irked by the novel’s own self-awareness at its own irony. This short novel could have benefited from being even shorter…but I guess then it wouldn’t have been longlisted for the booker prize.

In spite of what its title may suggest, the protagonist of The Man Who Saw Everything presents readers with a myopic narrative that deliberately misinterprets the people and events in his own life. The author has created an intentionally disjointed, and occasionally feverish, narrative at the expenses of its own main character whose role is soon apparent as being that of the Fool. His poor judgement and general lack of direction result in a series of would-be-humorous incidents in which he often embarrasses, and even mortifies, himself to others. Later on the paranoia pervading Saul Adler’s mind skewers his view of others so that potentially emotional scenes are negated by his fragmented narrative.
What is also of notice is that the structure of this novel disregards time’s linearity. In Beckett-like-fashion the author neglects to explain the construction of her novel or to clarify why certain events unfold in such a particular way. Although readers are not as in the dark as Saul Adler, we still have to puzzle out why the story is arranged in such a manner.
To begin with, I tried to extrapolate some sort of meaning or reason for this increasingly bizarre narrative but I soon gave up. One could easily attribute any sort of meaning for the idiosyncratic arrangement of this narrative without reaching any real conclusion.
Much of the weirdness of The Man Who Saw Everything seemed calculated to me, weird merely for the sake of being weird. Perhaps other readers will be able to immerse themselves in the narrative, but I, in all honesty, mostly perceived a degree of artificiality in the way the story was being told that exasperated me.
Because of this I never believed in the story or its characters. Our main character seemed so conveniently blind-sighted as to seem a mere caricature of the type of vain and solipsistic man who self-fashions himself as the wronged and alienated hero of his own story. His unreliability is apparent from the very first page, which is the likely reason why I wasn’t all that surprised by the revelation that we should not take for granted his descriptions and recollections of others.
The Man Who Saw Everything struck me more as a clever performance on the part of the writer, a studied demonstration of her writing’s skill, of her ability to ‘trick’ her readers, then an actual book with a story worth telling.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 all bark no bite stars

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Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue — book review

 

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“I was afraid, really, of being the main character in my own life.”

Promising Young Women is an intelligent and subversive novel that examines the darker and more twisted aspects of a relationship between a female employee and her boss.

There was something about the story and its characters that reminded of Joyce Carol Oates (Zombie, Solstice, A Fair Maiden, and Nemesis) in that Promising Young Women is brimming with an almost palatable darkness so much so that readers will find themselves overwhelmed by it.

From its very opening page the novel juxtaposes the sweet with the grotesque:

[T]he excess of uneaten cake was attracting rats, and when bodies started appearing — bloated and sugar-filled and, more than once, belly-up in the stairwell — they insisted we downsize.”

This sets the tone for the rest of the novel as we follow the protagonist, a young promising woman, in a feverish journey towards self-destruction. When Jane Peters turns 26 she is newly single (her long-term boyfriend has fallen in love with someone else) and painfully aware of what she perceives as being her own unfulfilled existence. She works at Mitchell Advertisement where she is one of the many “young women” who work alongside—and often for—older men. When Clem, her much older boss, begins to show interest in her, she finds herself rapidly falling under his spell.
The story that follows is very much a subversive take on the trope of the young woman/married older man cliché and from the get go we are made aware of how imbalanced their relationship is. An unmoored Jane feels pressured by the skewed power dynamics between her and Clem into continuing their affair. We witness how slowly yet surely Jane’s sense of self is eroded by Clem and by her own growing dissociation with her past self.
The deceptively simple prose (as opposed to Oates’ more eloquent prose) is compelling and offers readers with a direct look into the mind of an alienated woman. Backdrop to Jane’s disintegration is the dangers of workplace competitiveness, the lack of privacy that comes with being an online presence, and the persistency of the more unseen aspects of sexism (a scene where Jane visits a doctor will have you simmering with rage). It is also a satire of certain trends (‘actualisation’, yoga retreats) in a way that doesn’t minimise from Jane’s—frankly horrific—experiences.

The story blurs the line between reality and fantasy, and as Jane’s body and mind become affected by a series of mysterious ailments, so does the prose attain a feverish quality that perfectly captures the Jane’s fears and anxieties.
Unlike other contemporary novels exploring similar themes, O’Donoghue’s debut never romanticises the way Clem degrades Jane, nor does it suggest that Jane’s weight loss makes her more ‘ethereal’ or ‘aesthetically cool’ (there is none of the usual ‘sharp-cheekbones’ crap) but rather it shows us in horrifying, and almost grotesque detail, Jane’s estrangement from her own body. Clem’s presence in Jane’s life has almost the same effect as an infection…
It was also interesting to read about the way Jane’s ambitions regarding her career affects some of her friendships, or causes those around her to reassess their perception of her. In some ways it is Jane’s ‘promising future’ that makes her dissolution all the more affecting.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a pleasant read. Yes, it was gripping, but more than once I felt sickened by what I was reading. O’Donoghue has created a captivating and terrifying modern Gothic tale which depicts the more poisonous aspects of love affairs, sexism (especially at the workplace), and friendships. Although I was surprised by how weird it ended up being, I completely bought into it.
This was a bizarre, compelling, and thought-provoking debut.

I choose to be someone that things happen to, because it was easier than being someone who made things happen.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4 since this is a debut)

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