BOOK REVIEWS

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
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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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These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

“They could only stitch themselves back together if they did something irreversible.”

Heavenly Creatures by way of Patricia Highsmith, plus a sprinkle of Like Minds, and with the kind of teenage morbidity one could find in Hangsaman or Stoker.

Adroit and gripping, These Violent Delights is a superlative debut novel. Being the self-proclaimed connoisseur of academia fiction, I was drawn by the comparisons to The Secret History and I was amazed to discover that unlike other releases (not naming any names) These Violent Delights definitely had some TSH vibes. But whereas most academia books focus on a ‘clique’, Micah Nemerever’s novel is very much centred on the obsessive relationship between two seventeen-year olds.
If you’ve read or watched anything that revolves around a toxic relationship, you know what to expect from These Violent Delights. The prologue itself reveals to us that all will not be well for these two boys, and that at some point will embark on a path of no return.

“He couldn’t remember ever being the person he’d decided to become.”

The narrative takes us back to their first meeting. Paul, our protagonist, is a university freshman in Pittsburgh during the early 1970s. His father has recently committed suicide and his mother has yet to recover. Paul suffers from an almost debilitating insecurity, and shows a propensity for virulent self-recriminations. His inward-looking nature brings him no joy, as his mind is often consumed by his many ‘shortcomings’, and those of others. He feels misunderstood by his working-class family, and without his father, his grandfather, a man whose good-natured attempts to connect with Paul inevitably miss the mark, has become his closest male figure. His family fails to accept that Paul isn’t the type to ‘loosen’ up with his peers or have ‘fun’ with some girl.
When a discussion on experimental ethics in class gets Paul hot under the collar, Julian Fromme comes to his defence. On the surface Julian is the antithesis of Paul: he comes from wealth, he’s self-assured, easy-going, and charismatic. Yet, Paul is enthralled by him, especially when he realises that Julian carries within him a darkness not unlike his own. Their mutual understanding and their interest in one another results in instantaneous connection. They can have erudite talks, challenging each other’s stance on subjects related to ethics and morals, and revel in the superiority they feel towards their classmates. Within hours of their meeting their bond has solidified, becoming something impenetrable to outsiders. It soon becomes apparent that neither of them is in control in their relationship, and things are further complicated when their platonic friendship gives way to a more sexual one.
Their symbiotic bond is of concern to others (to be queer—in both senses—is no walk in the park, especially in the 70s), and attempts are made to separate the two. But Paul and Julian are determined to stay together, and more than once they tell each other that the idea of life without the other would be unbearable.

“[H]e wasn’t afraid anymore. After a lifetime of yearning and trying not to yearn, he imagined the relief of surrendering.”

Even if we suspect that Paul and Julian’s intoxicating liaison will have internecine consequences, we are desperate for a moment of reprieve. But Nemerever’s narrative does not let up, not once. Readers will read with increasing anxiety as Paul and Julian embark on an ‘irreversible’ path, alienating those around them. Dread and anguish became my constant companions while I was reading this novel and I’m glad that I choose to read this when I was off work (I devoured this novel in less than 24h) since These Violent Delights is a riveting edge-of-your-seat kind of read.
A sense of unease pervades this story as even the early stages of Paul and Julian’s relationship are fraught. Julian is almost secretive when it comes to his family, and disapproves of the contempt Paul harbours towards his own mother. Their love for each other often veers into dislike, if not hatred, and they are quite capable of being extremely cruel to each other. Even so we can see why they have become so entangled together, and why they oppose anyone who threatens to separate them. But as they enable one other, their teenage angst morphs into a more perturbing sort of behaviour. Time and again we are left wondering who, if anyone, is in control.

“All they were—all they had ever been—was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun.”

My summary of this novel won’t do it justice as I fear I’m making it sound like any other ‘dark’ tale of obsessive friendships (in this case a romantic one but still). It is Nemerever’s writing that elevates his story from ‘interesting’ to exhilarating (and downright distressing). He evokes the claustrophobic and oppressive nature of Paul and Julian’s bond, making us feel as if we too are caught in their all-consuming relationship. Nemerever’s also acutely renders Paul’s discomforts, the intensity of his love for Julian, of his self-loathing, and of his conflicting desires (to be known, to be unknowable). He wants his family to understand him, but in those instances when they prove that they may understand him more than he thinks, he does not hear them out.

“All I want to do is make you happy, and you’re the unhappiest person I’ve ever met.”

Similarly to The Secret History, the narrative is very much examining the way we can fail to truly see the people closest to us. Paul’s low self-esteem makes him constantly doubt everyone around, Julian included. He perceives slights where there are none, and even seems to find a sort of twisted pleasure (or as Lacan would have it, jouissance) in second-guessing Julian’s feelings towards him or in assuming the worst of others. He projects a preconceived image of Julian onto him (someone who is cruel and deceitful, someone who, unlike Paul himself, can easily adapt or pretend to be normal), and this prevents him from seeing him as he truly is.
The love Paul feels for Julian is almost fanatical, doomed to be destructive. This is the type of relationship that would not be out of place in a Magda Szabó (The Door), Joyce Carol Oates (Solstice) or a Barbara Vine novel (The House of Stairs, No Night is Too Long, A Fatal Inversion) or as the subject of a song by Placebo (I’m thinking of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’).

“They were wild and delirious and invincible, and it was strange that no one else could see it.”

Nemerever’s writing style is exquisite and mature. I was struck by the confidence of his prose (it does read like a debut novel). Not one word is wasted, every sentence demands your attention (which is difficult when the story has you flipping pages like no tomorrow). Nemerever brings to life every scene and character he writes of, capturing, for example, with painful precision the crushing disquiet Paul feels (24/7), his loneliness (exacerbated by his queerness and intelligence) and his deep-seated insecurity. Nemerever doesn’t always explicitly states what Paul is feeling, or thinking, and the ambiguity this creates reminded me very much of Shirley Jackson, in particular of Hangsaman (a scene towards the end was particularly reminiscent of that novel). Readers will have to fill the gaps or try to read the subtext of certain scenes or exchanges between P and J.

Not only did this book leave me with a huge book-hangover but it also left me emotionally exhausted (when I tried picking up other books my mind kept going back to Paul and Julian). Paul is one of the most miserable characters I’ve ever read of. And while he is no angel, I found myself, alongside his family, wanting to help him. But I could also understand him as he strongly reminded of my own teenage experiences, and of how ‘wretched’ and alone I felt (woe is me), as well as the fierce, and at times detrimental, friendships I formed during those vulnerable years.
In spite of what Paul and Julian do, I cared deeply for them. I wanted to ‘shake’ them, but I also desperately wanted them to be happy.
I’m sure I could blather on some more, but I will try and stop myself here. Reading These Violent Delights is akin to watching a slow-motion video of a car accident or some other disaster. You know what will happen but you cannot tear your eyes away. Read this at your own peril!

MY RATING: 5 / 5 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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Passing by Nella Larsen — book review

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“It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

At once alluring and disquieting Nella Larsen’s Passing presents its readers with a piercing examination of the interplay of race, gender, and class in 1920s New York.
Clare and Irene, the women at the centre of this novel, are childhood friends who grew up in the same black neighborhood. Both are light-skinned and can ‘pass’ for white but whereas Irene now lives with her husband, who is a doctor, and two sons in Harlem, and seems to enjoy a respectable middle-class existence, Clare has left their community and now passes for white. Irene has never paid much attention to the rumours surrounding Clare’s ‘disappearance’ from their circle. A chance encounter reunites the two women. Clare, who has married a white supremacist, views Irene has a link bank to the black community she abandoned. While she’s clearly made the most of the privileges that come with being ‘white’, Clare seems tired of her new identity. Irene too may be more dissatisfied than she’d like to believe and begrudgingly rekindles her friendship with Clare.
The fraught dynamic between Clare and Irene brought to mind that between Sula Peace and Nel Wright (from Toni Morrison’s Sula). Both sets of women used to be childhood friends, Clare and Sula leave their community only to return years later. Their beauty and insouciant attitude arouses jealousy and envy in their old friends.
While Clare is using Irene as her ticket to re-enter and re-connect with the black community and culture, she seems to be genuinely be happy to be spending time with Irene. Irene, on the other hand, grows resentful of Clare’s careless vacillation between a ‘white’ and a ‘black’ identity. When Irene perceives a decline in her relationship with her husband she will attribute this to the ‘change’ brought by Clare reappearance in her life.

“There were things that she wanted to ask Clare Kendry. She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly. What, for example, one did about background, how one accounted for oneself.”

Desire and jealousy cloud Irene and Clare judgments. They seem drawn to each other, perhaps because they are in many ways polar opposites. Yet, underlining this mutual attraction is something closer to animosity. Irene judges Clare for ‘passing’ and for being with a boastfully racist man, while Clare’s remain much more inexplicable (as the narrative favours Irene’s perspective).
Larsen’s naturalist approach to her characters’ behaviours and feelings (“Brought to the edge of distasteful reality, her fastidious nature did not recoil. Better, far better, to share him than to lose him completely. Oh, she could close her eyes, if need be. She could bear it. She could bear anything.”) reminded me of Edith Wharton. Larsen, similarly to Wharton, can be incredibly perceptive—in her social commentaries, in her honing on the subtleties of certain feelings, impressions, and thoughts—while also allowing for a certain opaqueness to surround her characters, their motivations and actions. This sense of ambiguity, although present from the novel’s opening scene, soon seems to dominate the narrative, so that the more I read, the more uneasy I felt towards the characters. Larsen’s disillusioned portrayal of marriage and domesticity also made me think of Wharton’s (the two also have a penchant for tragedies).
Larsen doesn’t loose herself in the ethics of passing, rather she renders the system of white supremacy which seeks to control and undermine people of colour (regardless of their class).
As Larsen navigates themes of race, gender, and identity, she brings to life 1920s New York from its norms to its social hierarchies. Larsen’s commentary on race feels modern and all-too relevant to today’s society.

“The social, psychological, and economic motivations for passing, they also perform acts of literary trespass in exposing the cultural and legal fiction of race.”

Through her elegant and contemplative writing Larsen captures the discordance between self and society. The tension between Irene and Clare results in an uneasy atmosphere, one that makes Passing into a work of suspense. This a novel of transformation, liberation, jealousy, and betrayal.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan — book review

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“When I closed my eyes, I could still hear her sharp, stubborn voice and surprisingly unbridled laugh.”

With grace and clarity Clarissa Goenawan’s The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida tells a tragic yet tender tale, one that begins with an ending: Miwako Sumida, a university student, has committed suicide.

“I hadn’t thought I would use my mourning suit again anytime soon. Apart from my sister, I had no living family or relatives. My friends were around my age, and we were all approaching the first peaks of our lives. Graduating, finding a job, getting married, having kids. But Miwako Sumida wouldn’t be among us.”

The novel is divided in three sections, each one following a person who cared for Miwako: there is Ryusei Yanagi (the only first-person narrative) who was in love with her, Chie Ohno, her best friend since high school, and Fumi Yanagi, Ryusei’s older sister. Miwako’s death leaves them reeling, from shock, grief, and guilt, and forces them to question how well they knew her and whether they could have some intervened or prevented Miwako from committing suicide.
Through their different perspectives readers will slowly come to know Miwako. While we may guess what she might have been ‘hiding’ from her loved ones, Miwako retains an air of unknowability. In each section the characters find themselves revisiting their memories of her, giving many scenes a bittersweet quality. Perhaps the setting too contributes to this sense of nostalgia (most of the story takes place in the mid-to-late 80s).
Through her luminous prose Goenawan sheds light on a painful subject matter. Like her characters, she doesn’t romanticise nor condemns Miwako’s actions, rendering instead with empathy the pain that drove her to commit suicide. Goenawan demonstrates the same delicacy when touching upon subjects such as sexual abuse and bullying.
I felt lulled by gentle pace of this novel, even as the story explored distressing realities. Friendships, family history, gender, and sexuality play an important role in each narrative, and I found Goenawan’s portrayal of these to be extremely compelling.

“Her bold strokes gave off a sense of alienation and desperation, but her choice of muted colors conveyed a hidden loneliness. My sister had mastered the application of intricate details to her pieces. At the same time, she took extra care to make sure nothing was overwhelming. I recognized a delicate balance, a sense of equilibrium in all her pieces. What my sister couldn’t tell anyone, she whispered into her work.”

As much as I loved Goenawan’s evocative prose and her well-drawn characters, I was underwhelmed by the overarching storyline. The last section, which followed one of the characters I liked the most, seems far more meandering than the previous ones as it seems to move away from Miwako. And while I do count myself as a fan of magical realism, here it felt a bit sudden.
The ending was rushed and left me wanting more. Still, I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoy literary fiction.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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After Elias by Eddy Boudel Tan — book review

49218727.jpgFrom its heartbreaking first pages, to its lump-in-your-throat epilogue, After Elias is an emotionally charged novel.

“People can bring you pain, but nothing will hurt more than the pain you inflict on yourself.”

Grief, guilt, regret, and fear dominate Tan’s narrative. Coen Caraway and Elias Santos are meant to have a fairy-tale wedding and live happily ever after. One week before their big day, the airplane piloted by Elias crashes into the Arctic Ocean, leaving Coen, who had just arrived on the idyllic Mexican island that was meant to host their wedding, bereft.
When the authorities begin speculating whether the crash wasn’t accidental, Elias becomes a prime suspect. His cryptic final words, “Pronto dios” (“soon god”) disconcert an already grieving Coen.
While his family and friends plead for him to return home, to Vancouver, Coen refuses. His stay on the island however does not keep his doubts at bay. In spite of his insisting that “he is fine”, Coen finds himself spiralling. In the passing days he tries to make sense of this unimaginable tragedy and of his own relationship with Elias.
As the narrative moves from past to present, readers begin to gain a picture of both Coen and Elias.

“Life is nothing more than an elaborate house. It starts out small, a simple shelter. Then we build upon it, room by room, believing in the necessity of every expansion, every renovation. By the time we realize it is no longer a shelter but a tomb, it’s too late.”

Coen’s grief, confusion, and uncertainties feel strikingly authentic.Tan allows his readers to witness and understand the depth and magnitude of Coen’s discordant feelings. Coen’s thoughts, emotions, and impressions are articulated in a subtle yet lyrical language.
I was often surprised, and spellbound, by Tan’s arresting imagery.

“The only sounds in the room are my pounding heart and fitful breathing. I am Lazarus returning from the land of the dead, a corpse trapped by life.”

Tan renders Coen’s pain with exceptional compassion, without sensationalising Coen’s—and other characters’—grief and desperation. What particularly struck me was how ‘real’ Coen felt. His fears and anxieties are depicted with incredible authenticity. The way he simultaneously wants and doesn’t want to confront the darkest aspects of his relationship with Elias, his dormant yet inherent conviction that he will never be happy, his inability to express how he feels…everything about him felt real.
Other characters, such as his two best friends, Vivi and Decker, his brother, Clark, the hotel’s bartender, Gabriel, are just as believable. Decker in particular has a complex relationship with Coen, one that will undoubtedly make some readers tear up (I certainly did). These characters are flawed yet capable of change. While readers may not come to know them as well as they do Coen, they will get an impression of what kind of person they are (or want to be).

Although Tan doesn’t provide lots of descriptions when it comes to the appearance of his characters or the island itself, his narrative is remarkably atmospheric. Tan’s discerning prose relays the mood or quality of a certain conversation or moment.
The distinctive and deceptively dream-like setting of the island, as well as Coen’s own dreams, reminded me of certain novels by Ann Patchett, in particular State of Wonder and The Magician’s Assistant. The way in which Tan approaches painful themes bear resemblance to Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s own approach in his more adult novels, such Last Night I Sang to the Monster and In Perfect Light.

Through his prose, which is in turns lucid and opaque, Tan showcases his capacity for empathy and compassion. He offers insights into grief, loneliness, abuse, mental illness, and trauma.
After Elias is an artful and heart-wrenching novel. Although it doesn’t make for ‘easy’ reading material, its cathartic narrative and underlying message of hope are guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.

PS: I’m so grateful to NetGalley for having accepted my request to read After Elias. I’m not sure I would have ever read this novel if I hadn’t spotted on NetGalley’s ‘recently added’ page.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars (rounded up to 5)

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Real Life by Brandon Taylor — book review

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“Is it into this culture that he is to emerge? Into the narrow, dark water of real life?”

It had been awhile since I finished a book in one day or since I read a book that made me cry…but once I started Real Life I simply couldn’t stop, even if what I was reading made me mad, then sad, then mad again, and then sad all over again.
This is one heart-wrenching novel. Reading it was an immersive and all-consuming experience. I felt both secondhand anxiety, embarrassment, and anger, and the more I read the more frustrated I became by my own impotence…still, I kept on reading, desperate to catch a glimpse of hope or happiness…

“People can be unpredictable in their cruelty.”

Taylor’s riveting debut novel chronicles a graduate student’s turbulent weekend. At its heart, this is the Wallace’s story. Wallace is gay, black, painfully aware of his almost debilitating anxiety and of what he perceives as his physical and internal flaws.
As one the few black men in this unnamed Midwestern city, and the only black man in his course, Wallace knows that he is in a ‘different’ position from his white friends. After a childhood disrupted by poverty and many traumatic experiences, he withdraws into studies, dedicating most of his waking hours to lab tests and projects. Yet, even if he works twice as hard as other students, many still imply—directly and non—that he was accepted into this program only because of his skin colour.

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty. Maybe that’s all they’re doing, lacerating each other and expecting kindness back.”

Real Life has all the trappings of a campus novel. From its confined setting of a university city—in which we follow Wallace as he goes to a popular student hangout by the lake, to his uni’s labs, to his or his friends’ apartments—to its focus on the shifting alliances and power dynamics between a group of friends. Yet, Taylor’s novel also subverts some of this genre’s characteristic. The academic world is not as sheltering as one might first imagine. Questioning ‘real life vs. student life’ becomes a leitmotif in the characters’ conversations. Taylor’s novel offers a much more less idyllic and romantic vision of the academic world than most other campus novels. If anything we became aware of the way in which ‘real life’ problems make their way into a student’s realm.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else. As if affection were a kind of cruelty too.”

From the very first pages we see Wallace’s environment and ‘friends’ through his alienated lenses. While most of his friends are queer—gay, bisexual, or an unspecified sexuality—they are white and from far more privileged backgrounds. At the beginning of the novel Wallace ‘gives in’ and agrees to meet them by the lake, after having avoided them for a long period of time.
What unfolds is deeply uncomfortable to read. In spite of their laughter and smiles, these people do not strike as friends. Their banter is cutting, their off-handed comments have sharp edges, and they are all incredibly and irresolutely selfish. Taylor’s quickly establishes the toxic dynamics between these ‘friends’. While they might not be directly aggressive or hostile, they repeatedly hurt, belittle, betray, and undermine one other.
The distance Wallace feels from them is overwhelming. Yet, even if he tries to be on the outskirts of their discussions, he finds himself having to deal with their racist or otherwise hurtful remarks. Worst still, he is confronted with his ‘friends’ cowardice when they feign that they do not say racist or demeaning things. If anything they usually imply that he is the one who is oversensitive.

Over this weekend we see time and again just how horribly solipsistic and cowardly Wallace’s friends are. They mask their racism and elitism under a pretence of wokeness. Similarly, one of Wallace’s fellow students, believes that as a feminist she can be openly homophobic and racist, throwing around words such as misogynistic without thought or consequence in order to masquerade her own bigotry.
Wallace’s friends’ racism is far more surreptitious. For the most part they pretend that race doesn’t matter, and that is Wallace who makes a ‘big deal’ out of nothing. Yet, when someone say something discriminatory out loud, they do nothing.

As he hangs out with his friends he finds himself noticing just how far from perfect they are. A perfect or happy life seems unattainable. Even moments of lightheartedness or contentment give way to arguments and disagreements within this group. Even if what plagues Wallace’s mind is far more disturbing than what his friends’ rather mundane worries (regarding their future careers, current relationship etc) he often chooses to comfort or simply listen to them, rather than pouring his own heart out. Wallace knows that they couldn’t possibly understand his relationship to his family and past.

“He misses, maybe, also, other things, the weight of unnamed feelings moving through him. And those feelings were transmuted into something cruel and mean.
There was an economy to it, even when you couldn’t see it at first, a shadow calculation running underneath all their lives.”

While he may not voice his troubles while he is hanging out with his ‘friends’, Wallace’s mind is often occupied with his own past and future. Taylor does a terrific job in giving us an impression of Wallace’s discordant psyche. Moments of dissociation make him further retread within himself, escaping his uncomfortable surroundings. Like Wallace we begin to see his surroundings as unpleasant and claustrophobic. At times the people around him blur together, blending into a sea of white faces, making him feel all the more isolated.
Wallace’s own insecurities colour most of his thoughts, feelings, and actions. Even when I could not understand him or in his moments of selfishness, I found myself caring for him and deeply affected by his circumstances. What he experiences…is brutal. When his coping mechanism (work/studying) is threatened his mental health spirals out of control.

The halting and recursive dialogue is incredibly realistic. Even when discussing seemingly ordinary things there is an underlying tension. And there is almost a stop-start quality to the characters’ conversations that struck me for its realism. The way in which their arguments spiral into awkward silences, the tentative words that follow more heated ones, the impact of tone and interpretation.

A sense of physicality, of eroticism, pervades Taylor’s narrative. Characters are often compared to animals, close attention is paid to their bodies—from their skin to their limbs—and to the way the move and look by themselves and together as a group. This attentiveness towards the body emphasises Wallace’s own insecurity about the way he looks. In one of his more brooding moments he finds himself questioning whether he wants to be or be with an attractive guy. His contemplations about same-sex attraction definitely resonated with me. Envy and desire are not mutually exclusive.

“This is perhaps why people get together in the first place. The sharing of time. The sharing of the responsibility of anchoring oneself in the world. Life is less terrible when you can just rest for a moment, put everything down and wait without having to worry about being washed away.”

Taylor often contrasts seemingly opposing feelings. For example, sensual moments are underpinned by a current of danger. Wallace seems to find both force and vulnerability erotic.
Taylor’s narrative repeatedly examines the tense boundaries between pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, tenderness and violence. Taylor projects Wallace’s anxiety, depression, and discomfort onto his narrative so that a feeling of unease underlines our reading experience.

“He had considered himself a Midwesterner at heart, that being in the South and being gay were incompatible, that no two parts of a person could be more incompatible. But standing there, among the boats, shyly waiting to discover the people to whom he felt he would belong, he sensed the foolishness in that.”

Taylor’s prose could be in turns thoughtful and jarring. There are disturbingly detailed descriptions about Wallace’s lab-work, unflinching forays into past traumas, and thrilling evocations of sexual desire.

A seemingly ordinary weekend shows us just how inescapable social hierarchies are. The secular world of academia does not entirely succeed in keeping the real world at bay. Depression, anxiety, dysphoria, the lingering effects of abuse all make their way into Wallace’s story. We read of his confusing desires, of his ‘friends’ hypocrisy, of his own appetite for self-destruction…Real Life is not an easy read. There were many horrible moments in which I wanted to jump into the narrative to shake Wallace’s friends. Wallace too, pained me. In spite of his observant nature, he remains detached. He picks up on his friends’ horrible behaviour but with one or two exceptions he does not oppose them. Yet, I could also see why he remained passive. Being in his position is exhausting.

“It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty. It grates him to consider this, the shutting away of the part of him that now throbs and writhes like a new organ that senses so keenly the limitations of his life.”

Even if I craved for a more reassuring ending I still think that this is an impressive debut novel one that strikingly renders what it feels to inhabit a black body in a white-dominated environment. Real Life tackles racism, privilege, cruelty, cultural and power dynamics, and the complexities of sexual desire head on. Wallace’s friends are aggravating if not downright despicable. Which is perhaps why when alongside Wallace we glimpse some kindness in them, it makes us all the more upset.

Reading Real Life made me uncomfortable, angry, sad. Lines like these, “He typically brings crackers or another form of fiber because his friends are all full of shit and need cleaning out from time to time”, even made me laugh out loud.
What I’m trying to say, or write is this: this is a brilliant novel, one you should definitely read (with some caution, of course).
Anyhow, I can’t wait to read more by Taylor.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano — book review

45294613.jpgDear Edward presents its readers with a moving coming of age that deals with themes of grief, loss, and death. Throughout the course of Edward’s narrative Ann Napolitano depicts the important role that friends and family play in a person’s recovery process.
While I was certainly felt invested in Edward’s story, I found the structure of Napolitano’s novel to be distracting and counterproductive.

Napolitano’s detailed yet slightly cold writing style may not appeal to some readers (it brought to mind Mira T. Lee and Ann Patchett). For the most part I appreciated her exact prose as it presents us with scenes that are both vivid and realistic.
Ordinary moments or motions were often the backdrop to emotionally charged scenes or realisations.
Napolitano also successfully renders the character of Edward, a 12-year old boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash. Having lost his parents and his brothers, and with the heavy weight of the guilt that comes when you are only one to survive a crash that killed 183 other people, Edward becomes untethered. His ‘new’ life with his aunt and uncle isn’t easy. Suffering from physical wounds, PTSD, and increasingly detached from his own existence, Edward is struggling to find a place in a world that no longer makes sense to him. While he wasn’t the only one to be affected by the crash, the knowledge that he is the ‘sole survivor’ haunts him. Edward no longer feels the drive to do anything: he loses weight, he no longer feels hungry, and he has difficulties sleeping.

Edward’s story was compelling and heart-rendering. There were quite a few jarring scenes, and it wasn’t easy not to feel protective on his behalf as he the adults and kids around him try to make him ‘better’. The idea that anyone can move past something like a plane crash which killed the three people you loved the most in the whole world as well as many others…is madness. Yet, as the years pass, Edward fears that he is the only one who remembers this horrific tragedy.
The presence of his therapist, his aunt and uncle, his neighbours, and later on his school’s president help on his journey of self-recovery. Nevertheless he remains plagued by his sense of guilt and it is only when he comes across some letters addressed to him (as per the title of the novel: ‘Dear Edward’) from the friends, families, and loved ones of those who died on Flight 2977 that Edward begins to believe and envision a future in which he can help others and subsequently himself.

As heart-wrenching as Edward’s story was, the presence of Shay in his life was frustrating. From the first she treats Edward as some sort of oddity. She starts feeding him stories of his being ‘chosen’ by drawing parallels to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Way to make him feel normal or not to blame…
She also often sounded a lot younger than her actual age. The stuff she comes up with was idiotic. I really didn’t see why Edward finds her presence to be so necessary to him. She wasn’t very bright or kind, she mostly tells Edward that she has it worse than him because he is a white and she isn’t and because her mom wants her to wear dresses and behave in an old-fashioned ‘girly’ manner.
The worst thing she says is that he is LUCKY. Like, what-the-actual-fuck.
Here we have this young boy who is detached from his reality, haunted by the deaths of his loved ones, and she tells him he is LUCKY. Because he “can get away with stuff”.
Part of believed that she would be cut out of his life since she is basically poison…but no. She remains a constant, for some bizarre reason I cannot grasp. She was toxic, and it seemed weird that her character would be made to seem as a positive presence in his life. She finds Edward fascinating because of his being a sole survivor. Years later she sort of grows tired of him being still ‘not over it’….young or not she sort of ruined the story for me.
She has one brief redeeming moment at the end of the novel which didn’t make up for her prior behaviour and attitude.

I would have liked this novel a lot more if the narrative had remained focused on Edward rather than jumping back to the Flight 2977. Here we have a very gimmicky jumping into the passenger’s lives, and they all seem to be having a mid-life-crisis or a long moment of introspection/self-analysis on this flight. How likely is it that so many people are reliving their past mistakes and present wants on a flight?
Sadly these characters were mere clichés.
We have the rich-business man with a drug problem, a cranky big-shot who is wheelchair bound and suffering from some form of dementia, the spiritual woman who wears bells on her skirts and exudes mystic vibes, the young woman who just found out she is pregnant, the soldier questioning his sexuality, and the most eye-roll-worthy of the lot: the flight attendant who is pure sex appeal and spends her time sashaying up and down the plane (view spoiler).

As Edward grows into a young adult who is trying to overcome or at least reconcile himself with his trauma, readers are constantly being pulled back into the past.
Given that I felt that Edward was a much more nuanced character than those on the plane, I found these switches to be annoying breaks in his narrative. Maybe they couldn’t have seemed so one-dimensional if we’d seen them prior the flight (so rather than having chapters jumping back to these characters on the plane we could have had chapters showing us a ‘day’ in their lives). Their confinement to this space however didn’t allow for a lot of variation to their thought patterns etc. They sit there and they think of what has led them to this flight. They comment on other passengers, they chat with one another. And in the end they all die.
To me it seemed unnecessary to prolong their deaths…and I would have found it much more impactful if the flight ‘scenes’ had ended at the start of the novel.

While I certainly appreciated the way in which Napolitano’s handles this difficult if not frankly horrific subject manner, I wasn’t very taken by the structure of her novel or by Shay’s characterisation and the role she plays in Edward’s story.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton — book review

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“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

As many readers have already pointed out, there is little mirth to be found in The House of Mirth (and I thought that The Age of Innocence and Summer had despairing endings…what a misguided fool).
As with the majority of her works, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is chiefly concerned with depicting the conflict between social and individual fulfilment, and it focuses on the experiences of American’s upper social class during the turn of the last century.
Wharton demonstrates incredible social nuance in her almost anthropological-like study of New York’s elite society. Her commentary regarding the prevailing behaviours found within this group of people is insightful, satirical, and witty. Her portrayal of this privileged class emphasises its pettiness, giving us the impression that beneath their refined appearances and manners lies hatred, envy, and hypocrisy. Wharton throws light upon the discordance between their behaviour and their values. They are little more than jealous gossips, ready to temporarily forget their strict sense of propriety if it means to tarnish someone else’s reputation. It’s very much an every person for themselves type of world (or as I like to call it, a shark eat shark kind of world). Someone’s ruin or misfortune might not result directly to your advantage but it’s guaranteed to entertain (and possibly detract attention from your own ongoings).
This group of selfish and wealthy individuals make for a rather unhealthy environment. Yet, socialite Lily Bart, strives to belong to it. While this is a story that follow’s a woman’s unsuccessful attempts at social climbing to define it simply as such doesn’t do it justice. Throughout the course of the narrative Wharton constructs and deconstructs Lily’s character, making her into much more than a social climber. Lily’s story provides a keenly observed social commentary, and Wharton does so without employing a heavily didactic or moralistic tone.
Throughout the course of her novel Wharton interrogates themes of gender and class. The narrative’s discourse of personal vs. social identity is epitomised by its main character, Lily Bart, and by her eventual downward path (view spoiler). Alongside her satire of New York’s high society, with its oppressive customs and its pretence at niceties, Wharton criticises binary thinking. Unlike her characters, Wharton does not pass judgement on Lily’s transgressions, rather she makes her protagonist’s changing circumstances make her aware of the way in which her values have brought about her own ruin. Although Lily is not painted as the story’s victim, the narrative informs readers of the limited options available to women in Lily’s position.9780140187298.jpg

Lily Bart is one of the many tragic heroines who is ruined by her own materialism and romanticism. These fictional women are often frivolous (Rosamond Vincy), selfish (Emma Bovary), inclined to transgress social norms (Sula Peace), mostly concerned with their own economic elevation (Becky Sharp), and often branded as evil or regarded unsympathetically. Yet, Lily’s character subverts notions of good and bad, as Wharton does not seem to equate her protagonist’s self-interest with vice. While other characters within this novel are quick to label and condemn Lily, we read of her various internal struggles (whom she wants to be vs. who others want her to be) and of her many ill-fated attempts at love and happiness.
Lily very much plays a role in many of her relationships, making herself into what others want her to be. Above all she is an actress, a performer. Yet, her self-fashioning aggravates the disconnect between who she is and who she pretends to be (and often results in problematic situations in which others expect her to do or act in a way that goes against her wishes).
Lily’s solipsistic nature did not make her into an unlikable character. Even when she seems to exhibit the same hypocrisy as those she criticises, I still found her to be a beguiling individual. While her debts are certainly a consequence of her own materialistic desires, if not opulent impulses, we come to understand the significance that appearances (such as one’s dresses) play in one’s fortune and reputation. Lily can charm those in her circle as long as she continues to live a certain lifestyle, she has to keep up with their expensive tastes and habits.
Lily often falls prey to ennui, a boredom that is tied to a sense of sublime potential, one that makes her feel superior to her environment. Lily is frequently unsatisfied by those paths that are open to her: to Lily, marrying a dull man would inevitably result in a life of ‘mediocrity’ and, more important still, in a restriction of her freedom.
So Lily remains adamant in her certainty that she been cast into the wrong role (or life), believing instead that she deserves to live as freely as she pleases, possibly married a man who is both sophisticated and wealthy, and more importantly surrounded by riches. While she certainly longs to and works toward belonging to this upper crust, she finds them to be both petty and shallow, and is often repulsed by their bad tastes, appearance, and behaviour.
This sense of self-importance allows her to manipulate those around her. Lily is a schemer, prone to self-pitying, and not very emphatic. Yet it is her very cleverness and charm that make into a formidable figure.
The novel mostly focuses on Lily’s attempts to find wealth (whether this is through a husband or fortune, she initially doesn’t seem to mind), and the way in which her plans often backfire. As her reputation is shredded beyond all repair, Lily slowly begins to reconsider herself, her values, and her past actions. Her character’s development is realised through extensive acts of introspection, and Wharton’s narration lends itself beautifully to Lily’s self-analysing.

What more can I say write? This story is populated by gamblers and gossips, who are eager to use and walk over Lily (and I hated them, how I hated them), but there are those who show compassion and love towards her. And yes, I am a sucker for a doomed romance (not sure if that makes me a romantic or a bit of masochist).
In spite of its satirical tone, this novel tells tragic story. (view spoiler)

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón — book review

410JhN2DNoLLast summer I read and loved Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. It was a fun romp filled with melodrama which owed much to 19th century sensationalism (in that it implemented puzzles, Gothic and Romantic elements, clever twists towards an overarching quest of sorts). Reading that book was a fun experience. Although The Angel’s Game has similar themes to those explored in the first instalment of this series, these are embedded in a much more labyrinthine narrative that offers its readers few moments of respite.
In an interview Zafón described The Angel’s Game as a story of damnation and indeed it is. Unlike the conventional and likeable hero of The Shadow of the Wind Daniel, this second book is narrated and focuses on David Martin a figure that has much in common with the archetypical tragic hero of a faustian tale.
The storyline is intentionally confounding and we are soon forced to question David’s experiences. Both in his writing career and in his love ‘life’ there is a sense of impeding doom. The mysterious French editor, Andreas Corelli, and David’s new home offer the story plenty of intrigue yet at times this was counteracted by an unclear story. A lot of what happens or what David discovers was lost to me as I struggled to make head or tail of the bizarre events that he allegedly experienced.
Backdrop to David’s damnation is a city in turmoil and Zafón really does a compelling job in describing Barcelona during and post Spanish civil war. Paranoia and violence abound within his work.
As its predecessor The Angel’s Game is a deeply intertextual text that references directly and obliquely the writers and books it echoes (from sensationalist such as Dickens and Collins to 18th century Gothic works) incorporating and subverting established elements of these genres.
Perhaps I missed the humour and the characters of the first book as I was never able to really connect to David as he kept much of himself out of his own narrative. Still, reading this made me want to read the sequels, so that I may be able to understand what really went on in this book.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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