BOOK REVIEWS

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

“As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable.”

Similarly to Passing, Quicksand is a study of ambivalence. But whereas Passing centered on the complex dynamic—which ranges from enmity to a kinship of sorts—between two light-skinned Black women in 1920s New York, Quicksand follows the experiences of one woman, Helga Crane, whose restlessness sees her moving from Chicago to Harlems before venturing out to Copenhagen. Helga, daughter to a white Danish mother and an African-American father, has always felt like an outsider. By the time the narrative begins, Helga’s mother is long dead and her father is MIA. Helga’s white relations refuse or are unwilling to acknowledge her existence. Her lack of ‘people’ leads her to feel a degree of alienation, even resentment, towards the Black community.

“She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity.”

At the beginning of Quicksand Helga is a schoolteacher in Naxos but feels increasingly dissatisfied by her environment. She makes the impulsive decision to break things off with her beau, who also teaches at her school, and quit her job in pursuit of a more fulfilling life and perhaps a place in which she could ‘belong’ (“No family. That was the crux of the whole matter. […] If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t ‘belong’.”) Although in Harlem she makes new acquaintances and friends, Helga’s loneliness and restlessness do not dissipate. She decides to once again leave her life behind by traveling to Copenhagen to live with an Aunt.
This is more of a slow-burner than Passing. Helga is a very inward-looking character, and her narrative is light on dialogue or action. Her reflections on her identity, race, America, her unshakable unhappiness will definitely resonate with contemporary readers. Yet, Helga herself remains in many ways a bit of a cipher. This is undoubtedly intentional, as the narrative underlines other characters’ impression of her (that she is elusive, frigid, standoffish). The story perhaps would have benefited from less telling and more showing (there were quite a few scenes that are summarized in a rather speedy fashion and I wish we had gotten to read witness them ‘first hand’).
Still, I love the way Nella Larsen writes. Her writing is phenomenal, her prose ranging from being elegantly perceptive (a la Edith Wharton) to searingly direct (a la Toni Morrison). The longing and ennui experienced by Helga also brought to mind the titular heroine in Madame Bovary (even in the desire they both feel towards material goods).
It is saddening that Larsen published only these two novels. Quicksand is a fascinating character study, one that manages to capture the time and places in which Helga lives. The narrative is at once opaque, never quite revealing Helga’s true feelings, and startlingly lucid, especially when it comes to conveying Helga’s self-divide.

“Life became for her only a hateful place where one lived in intimacy with people one would not have chosen had one been given choice. It was, too, an excruciating agony.”

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Crossings by Alex Landragin

Alex Landragin has written an ambitious tale, one that begins with the following line: “I didn’t write this book. I stole it.”
This prologue, written by a bookbinder, tells us of how this manuscript has come to be in his hands. The manuscript in question comprises three seemingly separate books: ‘The Education of a Monster’ written and narrated by Charles Baudelaire, ‘City of Ghosts’ which consists in diary entries from Walter Benjamin, and ‘Tales of the Albatross’ which follows Alula, who lives on Oaeetee, a remote island in the Pacific.

Crossings can be read in the conventional way or the Baroness way (which gives page particular page numbers one has to jump to at the end of a chapter). I read it the Baroness way, and I believe I made the ‘right’ choice. The Baroness sequence, unlike the traditional one, intertwines chapters from each section (Alula’s, Charles’, Benjamin’s), making the connection between these three narratives much more clear.
To give more information on the plot (or maybe, I should say, many plots) would risk giving the novel away. I will try to be as vague as possible: the novel will take readers across time and space, combing genres and playing with tone and style.

As much as I enjoyed the labyrinthine and story-within-story structure of this novel, I was ultimately disappointed by its characters and the ‘star-crossed lovers’ theme that unifies these seemingly disparate narratives. Alula, someone I wanted to root for, commits a particularly heinous act, one that she quickly absolves herself of, reassuring herself that she did what she did ‘for the greater good’.
The personality of the two supposed main characters never truly came across. While it made sort of sense, given the conditions they are in, I wanted some more interiority on their part. Additionally, Alula sounded very much like a Western woman. This could be excused away, given the direction that her story takes her in, but her voice still lacked authenticity.
While the author renders in minute detail aspects of the time he writes of, I wonder why he brought two real-life figures into the folds of his story. After all, Baudelaire’s work isn’t exestively discussed, nor does it actually play a significant role in the story (a Baudelaire society appears now and again but it seemed more a prop than anything else). It seemed that by making Baudelaire and Benjamin into his protagonists the author was trying to spruce up his otherwise boring narrators.
The villain, who comes out with things ‘we are not so different you and I’, was painfully clichéd and not at all intimidating.
This novel will definitely appeal to fans of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or even Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A novel that reads like a puzzle, one that combines different styles and genres.
While I did enjoy the adventure-aspect of this novel, and its structure is certainly impressive, I can’t say that it left an impression on me.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius the Great Is Not Okay is an okay YA coming of age, one that focuses on Darius’ relationship with himself (which isn’t great given his poor self-esteem), with his father, and with his first real friend.


Readers expecting this novel to have LGBT+ themes or a romance subplot read may have to readjust their expectations as Darius’ grandmothers (on his father side) are barely mentioned and there is no romance whatsoever. Which is itself kind of refreshing, given how many YA books end up neglecting familial and platonic relationships in favour of romantic ones.
The writing is simple and readable, at times it struck me as a bit too juvenile but I’m fairly sure that younger teens will find Adib Khorram’s style to be entertaining. I did find Darius’ narration to be a bit repetitive. He has these catchphrases that he repeats throughout the novel (“Soulless Minions of Orthdoxy” appears x, “That’s normal./Right?” appears x, and calling his dad “Stephen Kellner/the Übermensch”) and I could have done with fewer of them (especially as I didn’t find them particularly funny).
The first few chapter of this book give us an idea of who Darius is and how he’s treated by his peers. He has depression, he’s kind of awkward, he has no close friends, he isn’t particularly good at anything, and his only passions seem to be tea, Star Trek, and Tolkien. His bully is the embodiment of bully in that being a jerk is his only character trait, which is fine, as seeing him in action makes Darius into a more sympathetic character. In this first section, which is set in America, we learn of how Darius doesn’t feel American or Persian ‘enough’. He believes that his father is disappointed and ashamed by him, and he wishes he could speak Farsi in order to talk on skype to Mamou and Babou (his mother’s parents). While his sister learnt Farsi at a young age, he never did (why he didn’t try later in life…we don’t know).
Because of Babou’s deteriorating health (he has a terminal brain tumour), Darius, alongside his family, travel to Iran. Here Darius meets Sohrab, and the two seem to immediately hit it off (which wasn’t entirely convincing but whatever). Darius interactions with Babou aren’t great and remind him of how he feels with his dad (who he refers to as Stephen Kellner 80% of the time…which was so annoying and childish. I call my father by his first name but I don’t go for the whole ‘name and surname’). The plot unfolds in a predictable way. Darius learns more about Iran and Persian customs, he seemed surprised to learn that it isn’t as ‘antiquated’ as he was led to believe living in the West, yet there were far to few scenes about Darius+family taking day trips to nearby areas or exploring Yazd.
We get instead a lot of scenes featuring Darius and his dad being awkward together, or a few scenes in which Darius and Sohrab play “soccer/non-American football” (he keeps calling it that even once we established that he is indeed playing “soccer/non-American football”).
As previously mentioned, I wasn’t enamoured by Khorram’s prose. His dialogues were painfully simple (and gave the idea that the characters don’t have a lot of interesting things to say) and his word-choice for certain descriptions left me wanting (Darius voice ‘squeaks’ one too many times for my liking, couldn’t it tremble? Falter? Or something else?).
There is a predictable and avoidable disagreement in the novel’s final act, one that is thankfully resolved quite swiftly.
While this was an okay read, I wonder why Khorram went out of his way to include scenes in which Darius feels embarrassed or humiliated. There were at least two instances when Darius could have avoided feeling embarrassed by simply not disclosing certain details but he does (when his bike wheels are stolen the bully left some rubber balls on his bike, Darius calls his dad asking him to pick him up and instead of just saying that someone stole his wheels, he tells him about the balls—all the while he is mortified by having to say the word ‘balls’ to his father, when he could have just thrown the balls away—which he actually does only after his phone call to his dad him. At the airport someone thinks that his pimple is a bindi, and Darius could have just said ‘it isn’t’ but no, he tells this security person that it’s just a gigantic pimple).
While I didn’t find Darius or his story to be very poignant or realistic, this may be because I’m not exactly this book’s intended audience.

My rating: 2 ½ of 5 stars
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A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen — book review

40535984.jpgA Beautiful Crime is a tantalisingly suspenseful part thriller part romance, one that brilliantly captures the landscape, aesthetics, and politics of Venice.

“The love of the city had killed its people. Quite simply, Venice had been visited to death.”

The opening of the novel has a terrific hook. We know that someone at some point is going to die. But who? And how?

“When you see an opportunity, take it. You can brood over the ethics later.”

Vaguely reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley but starring two much more sympathetic, and empathetic, protagonists, A Beautiful Crime follows a tense cat-and-mouse game in which readers are never sure who is deceiving who.

Nick is a twenty-five year old from Ohio whose move to New York didn’t exactly result in a clearer idea of who he is or what he wants to do. His older boyfriend doesn’t seem to understand Nick’s restlessness. When Nick meets Clay, who is just two years older than him and from New York, sparks fly.
In spite of their different backgrounds, they fall hard and fast for each other. Clay, rumoured to have murdered his best friend after having tricked him into making him his heir, needs a lot of money and fast. Together they decide that the easiest way to get so much money is to con someone who has more money than sense. It just so happens that the person Clay hates most in the world fits the bill.
In order for their plan to succeed they go to Venice since it is where Richard Forsyth West, aka their mark, is currently staying.

Christopher Bollen maintains a taut tension throughout the course of his narrative. Readers, alongside Nick and Clay, will fear that some hitch might reveal and ruin their plans. What may appear as simple conversations will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. And while we know that objectively what Nick and Clay are doing is wrong, we are still rooting for them to succeed.
Time and time again, in both New York and Venice, Nick and Clay wrestle with their morals as well as their greed, desire, love, and any personal vendettas they may or may not harbour.

Bollen’s writing style presents us with some breathtaking and insightful descriptions of Venice. As a former resident of the comune of Venice I am perhaps a bit too critical when I read novels that feature this city. So, I’m happy to say, or write, that Bollen’s depiction of this city is truly true to life. He really does render its beauty and incongruities, providing an interesting commentary on Venice and its inhabitants, of its fatal dependency on tourism, and of the way it is perceived by the rest of the world.
Although both Nick and Clay view Venice through the eyes of an outsider, the Venetians we encounter along the way, from Daniela to Battista, give us an insight of the ‘real’ Venice.

“What would Venice be like without any Venetians living in it? There were only fifty-three thousand of these rare humans left, and the number was shrinking by a thousand each year.”

Venice is much more than the glamorous backdrop to Nick and Clay con as in many ways it plays a central role in the story. It is a city or romance and of ruin. It fills Nick and Clay with equal parts awe and melancholy. The dizzying spell it casts on those who live there is clear. There were moments in which Bollen’s portrayal of Venice brought to mind Thomas Mann’s in Death in Venice. In both of these works Venice appears as a labyrinthine and suggestive city one that might very well bring the worst out of people.

“Nick was hallucinating. Hew was mistaking marble ballrooms and gilt facades and velvet-upholstered gondolas for real life. People went mad in Venice because it lacked the reality check of poverty and ugliness and ordinary struggles. ”

Alongside this high-stakes con we read of Nick and Clay’s relationship. Part of me wanted to see more of them together but in order for their plan to succeed it is vital they are not seen together, so it made sense that they didn’t get share many scenes. Their feelings for one another add a moving note to the story.
Both the secondary characters and the ones who had only small cameos were nuanced and fully fleshed out. At times it was difficult to discern whether someone’s intentions were good or bad which made the story all the more compelling.

“These monsters, Nick thought, and at the same exact moment, These wonderful people.”

Bollen does a terrific job in rendering the ‘artsy’ community of Venice and of giving us an amusing impression of the ‘inglese italianato’ (or perhaps in this case the Americano italianato/the Italianised American) those types of art and cultural enthusiasts who like to play at being intellectual.

I also appreciated the novel’s engagement with issues such as racism (Clay is black), class, and privilege. Wealth, youth, and beauty also make their way into Bollen’s narrative. Both Nick and Clay have to confront their own desire for wealth and of what they would be willing to do for their own safety.

I only spotted two mistakes in Bollon’s Italian which is so refreshing! Usually books set in Italy by non-Italian writers are not only riddled with clichés but with easily avoided mistakes (such as papa instead of papà). Bollon not only captures Venice but he also mentions the Venice-Mestre dynamic.

Bollon’s engaging prose offers plenty of amusing descriptions (“the silent brag of an attractive companion”), easily renders a beautiful landscape, and provides thoughtful character studies.

A Beautiful Crime is an exhilarating novel that will have you flipping pages like there’s no tomorrow. In spite of its dark moments and of the unease the pervades most of its scenes, Bollen’s narrative maintains a beautiful momentum. Through striking depictions of love, friendship, and, of course, Venice A Beautiful Crime is a thrilling read.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

Some of my favourite quotes

“He believed in friendliness the same way he believed in his youth: he thought both could save him. His youth and friendliness were master keys to all future rooms.”

“The world promised Nick nothing at that age but showed him glimpses of its finest possibilities.”

“For him, walking around as a gay man in his hometown was tantamount to being out on bail: he was free to go about his business, but everyone treated him with a heightened suspicion, as if unsure whether he had committed a crime.”

“Nick saw it as a chance to be delivered from the purgatory of mid-twenties aimlessness.”

“In the stronghold of dry, hot days, visitors clotted the streets like human glue, and cruise ships barged into San Marco’s Basin with horns that blasted louder than any church bells.”

“Wheelie suitcases had become the unofficial soundtrack of Venice, a city that had triumphed for millennia on the very absence of wheels.”

“It was a secondhand high to watch a first-timer take in the city.”

“Another person’s idea of normalcy was always a foreign country, just as your borders on that dominion were constantly expanding or shrinking, ejecting proud, long-standing residents while taking in exciting new émigrés that would have been denied entry the year before.”

“In the hush of early evening, Venice changed from past to present. ”

“Nick preferred to think of people as messy whirlpools of wants and desires, as unpredictable bundles of urges even when the appropriate bait was placed in front of them. ”

“Nothing else could touch him, large or small, because he’d filled his quota on pain. But the loss of a parent doesn’t immunize a person from betrayal any more than surviving a shark bite protects its victim from a car crash.”

“Nick found himself impressed by his own bullshit. It was undeniably top-quality bullshit. It sounded so erudite and convincing, even to the one who was spewing it.”

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The Offing by Benjamin Myers — book review

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“That distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge. It’s called the offing.”

Written in a verdant prose Benjamin Myers’ novel is an ode to nature. The Offing is narrated by the son of a miner from Durham, Robert Appleyard, who, in his old age, finds himself looking back to the summer which shaped the rest of his life. In the aftermath of the Second World War a sixteen year old Robert is restless for change.
Afflicted by a restless desire to lose himself and both to leave behind the constraints of his normal life and to postpone his future as a miner, Robert takes up and travels across the northern countryside.

“I was sixteen and free, and hungry. Hungry for food, as we all were – the shortage continued for many years – yet my appetite was for more than the merely edible.”

Nature, with its flora and fauna, provides Robert with a respite from his impoverished reality. The landscapes around him fills him with a renewed sense of hope. As he observes the trees and flowers around him, and glimpses the wildlife roaming free, his mind drifts away from his worries and from the repercussions of war.

“To those blessed with the gift of living, it seemed as if the present moment was a precious empty vessel waiting to be filled with experience.”

One day he comes across an old lady named Dulcie whose direct no-nonsense manner is almost alien to him. Yet, it is by spending time in her company, doing the odd repair job for her, that Robert experiences a life very different to his old one.
Dulcie is quick to voice her distaste for nationalism and for idealising one’s country. Until this encounter Robert’s fairly ingenuous view of the world resulted in him having rather dichotomous view of war. Dulcie however, in her refreshingly brazen manner, makes him challenge his own binary thinking. She also introduces him to authors and poets whose stories and verses further inspire a young Robert.
During their meals Dulcie almost retrains Robert’s relationship to food. Growing up with food shortages Robert had never developed an appetite. Yet, with Dulcie he discovers that food can be sublime. From the inviting smells and appearances of a dish to its delicious taste.
In the course of this pivotal summer Robert’s mind and body develop. Dulcie encourages him not to limit himself, not to view his future as preordained.
As time passes we also see the way in which Robert’s presence alleviates Dulcie’s loneliness. It is because of Robert that Dulcie decides to revisit of her own past, and so she shares the most wonderful and heartbreaking moments of her life with him.

Benjamin Myers’ novel is a richly rendered coming of age. Without limiting his language he evokes this fraught period of time in a vibrant manner. Much of the narrative revolves around the narrator’s relationship to his environment. Myers’ writing style emphasises Robert’s senses and makes for a vivid reading experience.
There is also a timelessness to Robert and Dulcie’s discussions. I was completely mesmerised by Dulcie’s story and admired the frank way in which she would speak about her society. War, freedom, nature, creativity, love, language. These are some of the things which occupy the minds and conversations of Robert and Dulcie.

A relevant and nostalgic tale of an unlikely friendship and of the different ways one can connect to another person as well as to nature. Robert’s reminiscences of his youth and the past present us with seemingly quiet moments that are as moving as they are beautiful.
Brimming with luscious descriptions and a poetic language Myers’ The Offing is a spellbinding and thoughtful novel, one that will definitely appeal to nature lovers.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The King of Crows by Libba Bray — book review

unnamed.jpgI hate to say it, or write it, but The King of Crows wasn’t a very satisfying conclusion to The Diviners series.

“Who got to decide what made somebody an American? America, the ideal of it at least, was its own form of elusive magic.”

While it isn’t as drawn-out as the finale to the Gemma Doyle series (which was around 800 pages) it struck me as being similarly anticlimactic.
In The King of Crows the pacing of the story is all over the place and the characters have very rushed and unsatisfying arcs.

Nearly three years have gone by since the release of Before the Devil Breaks You. Given that this series started back in 2012, it isn’t all that surprising that I’d forgotten a quite a few major plot-points. Still, I remembered the diviners, their personalities and powers, as well as their group dynamics. Libba Bray doesn’t spend too much time recapitulating old events, and once I caught up or remembered what was going on I found the first few chapters of this novel to be promising enough.
Once the diviners are scattered across America however the story’s upbeat pace comes to a halt. What follows over the course of the next three-hundred pages is a tedious repetition of similar scenarios.
The diviners encounter good folk, who are willing to help them or understand what it means to be different (such as the members of a circus), as well as horrible individuals and groups of people (the most noticeable being the KKK). They all come to terms with their simultaneously beautiful and terrible country/world. All the while we get random chapters showing us that ghosts are coming (phrases such as ‘ghosts are coming’ and ‘this country is full of ghosts’ are repeated so many times as to loose the initial sense of danger and urgency that they carried). The confusing showdown between our good guys (aka the diviners) and the baddies is crammed in the last hundred pages.
The narrative in The King of Crows lacked the mystery-factor that made the other volumes in this series intriguing.

In short: the story is just padding.

Characters behave as flimsy versions of their former selves (Evie and Ling, both of whom I previously really liked, were simply irritating) and had very rushed storylines that seemed to add very little to their overall arc.
Take Henry. Most of his scenes revolve around the way in which his sexuality is deemed abnormal by his society. That’s pretty much it. Ling’s sections also often emphasise her sexuality. Whereas those scenes that focus on characters such as Memphis and Theta seem to focus on other aspects of their lives (their general desires and fears, etc). Jericho has the most eye-roll worthy storyline which sees him (view spoiler).
Even the banter between the various diviners felt unimaginative. At times their conversations and discussions seem to rely on their catchphrases (Evie says something ‘scandalous’, Sam says something flirty, Jericho doesn’t get whatever is going on, Ling is disapproving…).
None of the romances were interesting. They mostly revolved around cute nicknames (such as baby vamp) and on scenes featuring some very uninspired flirting.

The King of Crows is a Disney type of villain. I remember that the first instalments of this series presented us with creepy or fascinating antagonists…but this guy is just dull. He has a few cameos here and there, scares our protagonists, does some mayhem, and is very much the novel’s boogeyman.

The setting too seemed to lack its usual spark and vibrancy. Previously I loved the way in which Bray brought 1920s New York to life. In this volume however most of the ‘action’ is outside of New York, and we read of a series of small and forgettable towns…which do not make very intriguing backdrops.

The plot was full of convenient coincidences. What frustrated me the most was a ‘revelation’ towards the end, which came as no surprise whatsoever (view spoiler)

Bray draws an unsubtle parallel between the rampant racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, othering, and other forms of bigotry of the 1920s and today’s political climate (there are phrases such as ‘get out of our country’). Her approaches to some of these topics came across as rather on the nose. For example when Theta learns that someone she likes was raised by slave-owners she has such an unbelievably naive ‘how could she?’ reaction.

The epilogue struck me as predictable….(view spoiler)

All in all…this was an incredibly disappointing followup to Before the Devil Breaks You.
While Bray is an undoubtedly good writer The King of Crows simply lacks the glamour and electricity that made the other instalments so much more engaging and atmospheric. It had a meandering narrative, with lots of repetition regarding the importance of storytelling and stories, a passage from Nietzsche which felt rather out of place, some lacklustre cosmic horror, and a cast of one-dimensional characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars 

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The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James — book review

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“A large fortune means freedom, and I’m afraid of that. It’s such a fine thing, and one should make such a good use of it. If one shouldn’t one would be ashamed. And one must keep thinking; it’s a constant effort. I’m not sure it’s not a greater happiness to be powerless.”

The Portrait of a Lady focuses on a young American woman, Isabel Archer, who comes into a large inheritance. Even before Isabel becomes financially independent she was unwilling to fulfil the responsibilities and obligations her gender thrusts on her. To restrict herself to the role of wife would not only be oppressive but it could hinder her journey of self-discovery. It is because Isabel craves to experience the world—free of wifely and motherly constraints and duties—that she declines some rather promising marriage proposals.
Ralph Touchett, Isabel’s newly acquainted not-quite-American cousin, perceives in Isabel a latent potential for greatness. Believing that his cousin is meant to “rise above the ground”, Ralph decides to provide Isabel with the means to do so: a lot of money. It just so happens that Ralph’s father, Mr. Touchett, possess a vast fortune. Ralph convinces his sick father to bestow on Isabel a large part of his estate. During their conversation Mr. Touchett asks his son the following question:
“Tell me this first. Doesn’t it occur to you that a young lady with sixty thousand pounds may fall a victim to the fortune-hunters?”
As with Chekhov’s Gun, the fact that ‘fortune-hunters’ are mentioned pretty much insures their appearance. The story that follows sees Isabel predictably falling into the path of two wannabe Machiavellian American expats.
Set against a European backdrop, the narrative contrasts the values and customs of the New World against the ones of the Old. This juxtaposition of New vs. Old, America vs. England, English-speaking countries vs. the rest of Europe, serves as a backdrop to the exploration of themes such as personal freedom, duty, ambition, wealth, art, self-sacrifice, and morality.

“She lost herself in a maze of visions; the fine things to be done by a rich, independent, generous girl who took a large human view of occasions and obligations were sublime in the mass. Her fortune therefore became to her mind a part of her better self; it gave her importance, gave her even, to her own imagination, a certain ideal beauty. What it did for her in the imagination of others is another affair.”

The first ‘volume’ of this novel introduces us to the various players of the story. The narrative, which occasionally slips into a first-person point of view, presents Isabel Archer as its central figure, often affectionately referring to her as “our heroine”. This switch between perspectives and seeming self-awareness, brought to mind Middlemarch. Contrary to popular belief, James’ writing is far from stale. While it would not be wholly inaccurate to describe his prose as being the antithesis of concise, the fact that he seems to lose himself in long-winded observations and digressions does not mean a lack of clarity on his part. In fact, his narrative has a really nice flow to it. His refined use of the English language gives his prose an almost polished quality.
While James’ narrative is not as effervescent as the one of Edith Wharton in
The Age of Innocence (which also happens to have an Archer as its protagonist), he is nevertheless able to inject his portrayal of this upper society with a subtly oppressive, and very Whartonesque atmosphere.
Money and class do not necessarily provide his characters with happiness or love…if anything they seem to make them all the more miserable. In spite of her attempts to carve her own path Isabel is still a woman, one whose financial independence does not result in actual personal freedom.
I really enjoyed the character dynamics that were explored in this novel’s first volume. The characters were nuanced and compelling and it was interesting to hear their views on America, England, and Europe. Given their contrasting beliefs, they are all eager to influence Isabel one way or another. Isabel’s resolve, admiringly enough, does not waver. Even if she unsure what she is ambitious for, she remains firm in her desire not to marry, opting instead to travel and to gain some life experiences.

The second volume of this novel was tepid at best. Our heroine is pushed to the sidelines, with the narrative focusing instead on Gilbert Osmond, his “attractive yet so virginal” daughter Pansy, and her self-pitying suitor, Edward Rosier. These three characters were annoying and uninteresting. Gilbert was presented as some sort of clever manipulator but he struck me as a half-unfinished caricature of the fastidious and cold husband (Casaubon’s less convincing descendant).
Isabel’s sudden character change was almost jarring, especially if we consider until that point James had taken his sweet time exploring her sense of self and her various ideas. Worst still, Ralph and Isabel suddenly became martyrs of sorts. Isabel in particular spends the remaining narrative doing Mea culpa…which struck me as quite out of character.
Gilbert and Madame Merle are presented as this morally-devious duo, the typical fox and cat who try—and often succeed in—tricking our hapless and helpless protagonist. Which…fair enough. I have been known to enjoy villainous duos (such as Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde in
The Woman in White)…Gilbert and Madame Merle however seemed to lack purpose. Their characters do not seem to be as important or as profound as they are made to be. Later on other characters (who have no reason to defend them or forgive Gilbert and Madame Merle) make it seem as if these two have their own valid feelings, of tortured variety, so it would be unfair for us to judge or dislike them or their actions.
I was so irritated by the story’s direction and by Isabel’s character regression that I was unable to enjoy the remainder of this novel.
My interest was sparked only when the characters discussed their cultural differences. As an Italian I always find it vaguely amusing to read of the weirdly incongruent way Italy is portrayed by non-Italians during the 19th century. James’ clearly appreciated Italy’s history and its landscapes, but throughout his narrative a distaste for Italy’s ‘present’ state (Italians are regarded as lazy and somewhat primitive). I also appreciated the way in which James’ depiction of masculinity and femininity challenges and questions established norms (such as the qualities that the ‘ideal’ man and woman should posses). However cynic, his depictions of love and marriage could be deeply perceptive.

“The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his—attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would rake the soil gently and water the flowers; he would weed the beds and gather an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching.”

Having now read one of James’ novels, I’m not at all surprised that his work has gained him a reputation for wordiness and digression. Yet, his logorrhoea aside, I’m puzzled by the dislike his work seem to entice, especially in other writers (Mark Twain, Jonathan Franzen, Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett, Jorge Luis Borges…you can read some of their comments here:
Writers on Henry James).
One of my favourite ‘harsh’ comments was made by Lawrence Durrell: “Would you rather read Henry James or be crushed to death by a great weight?”. Although many of these writers/readers make rather exaggeratedly disparaging observation about James and his writing, some of them hit the nail on the head. Oscar Wilde, for instance, wrote that: “Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible ‘points of view’ his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire.”
I, for one, was not annoyed or deterred by Henry James’ prolixity. However, as noted by Wilde, I do think that James occasionally overworked certain passages and that his story/characters never seem to reach their full potential. And while I am not entirely sure why Vladimir Nabokov called Henry James a “pale porpoise” (alliteration?), I do agree with him when he says that James’ writing has “charm . . . but that’s about all”.

Why did I read a book that was authored by someone who has gained such an unappealing reputation? Curiously enough, part of me wanted to ‘read for myself’ whether James’ style was as frustrating as some made it out to be. What finally convinced me however was that his name kept popping up in the introductions to Edith Wharton’s novels. Having now read a novel by James’ I find myself wondering why his name needs to feature in so many reviews and articles discussing Wharton’s works…yes, he could certainly write well, and they do explore similar themes, but his work is far less insightful, engaging, and memorable than Wharton’s.
Sadly the clarity and nuances demonstrated by James’ narrative in the first half of The Portrait of a Lady are then obscured by a predictable storyline. With the exception of busybody Henrietta Stackpole (easily my favourite character), the characters become shadows of their former selves (I could not see why Isabel fell for Gilbert) and I no longer felt invested in their stories.
Given that this novel is considered one of James’ best, I’m unsure whether to try reading more of his work…perhaps I will give his novella The Turn of the Screw a try.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton — book review

Untitled drawing.jpgStep aside, Becky Sharp. Move over, Scarlett O’Hara…make way for Undine Spragg, the most unscrupulous anti-heroine I have ever encountered.

“[S]he could not conceive that any one could tire of her of whom she had not first tired.”

Wharton once again focuses her narrative on a young woman’s unrelenting attempts at social climbing. While Wharton does inject her depiction of Undine Spragg’s ‘trials’ with a dose of satire she nevertheless is able to carry out an incisive commentary regarding New York’s ‘high society’. Through her piercing insights into privilege Wharton is able to render a detailed and engaging examination of the intricate customs that prevailed among America’s ‘elite’ society, exemplifying the discordance between their values and their behaviour. Wharton emphasises their sense of entitlement and their idleness. While they often believe themselves to possess the most impeccable manners, readers know just how cut-throat they truly are.
Armed with gossip or ready to form conniving schemes, most of them will hesitate at nothing in order to augment their wealth and reputation (ideally ruining someone’s life in the process). Marriages are business manoeuvres and one makes friends on the basis of whether they might be later on be put to good use (‘networking’ is everything for these people).
By bringing together these different themes and subjects—marriage, divorce, class, wealth—Wharton is able to present her readers with a nuanced and in-depth examination of New York’s upper crust.

As a character in the novel observes, Undine Spragg is the “monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph”. Undine, who was raised by two loving parents who spoiled her from a young age, possesses a solipsistic worldview and her values are exceedingly materialistic.
Undine is an appalling protagonist. She is Lily Bart’s monstrous little sister. We first ‘meet’ Undine when she still seems to be a simple, if pampered, ‘country’ girl. Soon however we begin to see that in spite of her simplicity (she definitely lacks Miss Bart’s charisma and acumen) Undine Spragg is entirely egocentric and lacks both self-awareness and empathy.

“It never occurred to her that other people’s lives went on when they were out of her range of vision.”

As noted by the narrative and the various characters, Undine’s conceitedness, as well as her perpetual sense of boredom, may be the likely result of her upbringing. Her parents’ leniency definitely played its role in making Undine feel as if she should only be concerned with her own happiness, and to be truly happy she has to marry well.
Undine believes that as long as can enjoy an extravagant lifestyle and be favoured within certain circles, she won’t be bored. As much as I loathed Undine—for her selfishness, her lack of creativity, and for her frivolous tastes—I was always aware that she did grow up in a society that values appearances.
Undine was never made to feel as if she needed to cultivate any real interest. Her main concern are her own beauty and reputation, the two means through which she will be able to find a satisfactory match.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that Undine becomes a woman who is thoroughly disinterested in the lives of others. She sees no reason why she should be preoccupied with her husband’s ‘menial’ work. She is unable to see why she should be held accountable for other people’s misery.
There was something oddly compelling about Undine’s determination not to allow her desires to be comprised by anyone or anything. She is more than willing to have affairs, lie, drive her husband(s) and family into debt, and blackmail and manipulate others.
While the narrative definitely accentuates Undine’s cherubic appearance (from her creamy complexion to her beautiful golden locks) readers are made aware of what lies beneath her rosy surface: Undine’s vision of happiness is rather limited. She lacks imagination, so much so that she often merely tries to emulate the women around her.

“Her entrances were always triumphs; but they had no sequel.”

And while I certainly thought her to be a horrible person (her behaviour is reprehensible) there was a part of me that found her egocentrism and cruelty to be strangely compelling. Whether she is merely a product of environment or innately selfish, her total self-absorption was transfixing.
Wharton portrays a scathing picture of her society: were “the average American looks down on his wife”, were women’s sense of self is dictated by a cult of aspiration, were marriages are entirely transactional, and were young individuals are trapped by old traditions and customs.
In spite of Undine’s many romances, there is little if any love to be found within the pages of The Custom of the Country. And maybe that’s for the best given that Undine is no heroine.
While I certainly didn’t find this novel to be as moving as Wharton’s
The Age of Innocence, and Undine’s misadventures lack the poignancy of Lily’s ones in The House of Mirth, I would still recommend this. Wharton’s percipient prose, her sophisticated use of satire, vividly renders the customs and values of New York’s high class.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova — book review

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What could have been the perfect historical mystery for bibliophiles ended up being an unnecessarily long-winded and frequently dull novel.

“Looking up from my work, I suddenly realized that someone had left a book whose spine I had never seen before among my own textbooks, which sat on a shelf above my desk. The spine of this new book showed an elegant little dragon, green on pale leather.”

The Historian alludes to a variety of works, sometimes by means of subtle allusions, while in other cases Elizabeth Kostova seems to be emphasising her own novel’s intertextuality, such as its ostensible intertextual relationship to Stoker’s Dracula.
While Dracula has come to represent a turning point in vampire literature, hailing it as the ‘original vampire novel’ means disregarding the earlier encounters with vampires of other writers such as Goethe, Byron, Le Fanu, and Polidori. Although the ‘romantic’ and ‘seductive’ vampires populating today’s media don’t seem to owe much to Bram Stoker’s hairy-palmed Dracula, he has become an intrinsic part of vampire culture (if not a synonym of vampirism itself). While vampires are inherently intertextual beings (readers know more or less what to expect when reading a vampire novel) I was hoping that Elizabeth Kostova would not relegate her version of Dracula to the sidelines of her story…which sadly seems to be the case. Kostova, even more than Stoker, pushes Dracula, otherwise known as Vlad Țepeș, to the margins of her narrative.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Historian is its supernatural ambience and the stylistic strength of Kostova’s writing as she deftly weaves together folklore and history in what is neither a carbon-copy of nor a sequel to Dracula. Kostova’s story is an amalgamation of genres: a work of Gothic that largely relies on the epistolary form, a detective novel that is equal parts adventure, travelogue, and history lesson. Through these various styles Kostova examines the often conflictual relationship between Christian West and the Islamic East.
Kostova’s re-elaboration of the myths and stories established by works such as Dracula reflects a divided Europe. She examines themes of immortality, monstrosity, and otherness, against a backdrop of quiet social upheaval. Paul and Helen’s quest to find Dracula/Vlad’s tomb is often impeded by the political atmosphere of the countries they visit. Paul in particular, being American, is regarded with suspicion by these countries’ socialist regimes. This added another layer of secretiveness to their ‘adventures’, one that forces them to carry out their true research under a guise.

While we do get an overall biography of Vlad Țepeș, the ‘man’ himself does not recount his own experiences, we don’t see from his own point of view. His potential victims inform us of his misdeeds and history…which serve to make Vlad into a rather one-sided character. He is ‘evil’, and that seems to be that. I was expecting a far more nuanced portrayal of vampires and of this infamous historical figure. Terrible people/creatures can still be compelling subjects. Kostova’s novel however does not really allow this vilified figure the chance to speak his truth. I could have understood his motivations without necessarily agreeing with them. Sadly, Vlad seems evil for the sake of being evil. We learn of his monstrous actions but we never truly glimpse the mind behind those brutal deeds. Vlad is evil because of his transgression of the natural order…and that’s it. Vampirism aside Kostova’s depiction of Vlad does not really propose any new ‘reading’ of his rule.

While I really appreciated the use of different timelines in Kostova’s latest novel, The Shadow Land, here the various storylines were rather uneven: in the 1970s our narrator is a sixteen-year old girl who remains unnamed throughout the course of the novel, her father Paul (his story takes place in the 1950s), and Paul’s former mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi (most of his letters are dated from the 1930s). Initially I thought that the narrative would mainly switch between Paul and his daughter…so I was rather disappointed to discover that the daughter’s story is non-existent. She appears at the beginning of this bulky book and has a few chapters here and there…and that’s it. Paul’s story is the main focus of the narrative, and sadly I just wasn’t all that taken by him or his adventures. Him and Helen definitely travel through interesting cities and places (Turkey, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, France) and I did appreciate Kostova’s use of the sublime in these ‘travelogue’ sections: the way in which the landscapes inspires fear and awe in Paul (these sections reminded me of Ann Radcliffe).
Sadly Paul and Helen’s journey soon grew rather repetitive and predictable. They always seemed to encounter the right people and the right time which definitely struck me as a too coincidental. While I certainly enjoyed reading of the history of the cities they travel through, I wasn’t all that invested in them or their ‘quest’.
Perhaps I was hoping for a more emotionally involving story (such as the one in The Shadow Land) but here the characters were largely secondary, if not downright passive, and while there were plenty of opportunities to flesh them out, to give us an impression of their personalities, their ‘quest’ has far more importance.
The ‘quest’ largely relies on their finding documents or people who know something about Dracula’s existence. They gather information slowly, over the course of hundred and hundred of pages. A lot of what they ‘discover’ wasn’t all that surprising…the ending felt anti-climatic to the extreme.
Nevertheless, in spite of my not so great opinion of this novel, I did appreciate Kostova’s subject matter and her confluence of classicism and romanticism, of logic and emotion, of mysticism and faith. Last but not least, I have always loved descriptions of books and libraries…

“Besides, you can tell a great deal from a historian’s books.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Akin by Emma Donoghue — book review

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“He and this boy were quite alien to each other, he decide. Yet, in an odd way, akin.”

Akin tells the touching story of Noah Selvaggio, a retired seventy-nine year old chemistry professor, and his eleven year old great-nephew, Michael Young. Noah is a widower who has few remaining connections in the world and his fairly quiet existence is thrown out of balance when he is more or less cajoled into becoming Michael’s temporary carer. Michael’s mother is in prison, his father, Noah’s nephew, died of an overdose, and his maternal grandmother has recently passed away. Noah is, quite understandably, reticent to the idea of looking after Michael…he is aware of the limitations that come with his age, and having never had any contact with Michael or his mother, he feels a mixture of guilt and unease at this sudden ‘reunion’.
Yet, given the circumstances, not only does he find himself accepting to briefly take on this role but he is also forced to take Michael with him in a much overdue trip to Nice, Noah’s place of birth.

“And Mr. Selvaggio is your great-uncle, which is another kind of uncle.”
“What’s so great about him?” Micheal wanted to know.
Whether that was ignorance or wit, it did make Noah smile.”

The simple and unadorned narrative takes us alongside Noah and Michael’s in their stay in Nice. We follow them as they walk around Nice, eat a lot, visit museums and other historical sites. All the while Noah is also preoccupied with a mystery of sorts…having come across as some old photos Noah begins to fear that his mother might have been hiding something…his mind begins to formulate different kind of theories regarding his mother’s actions in WWII: was she a collaborator?

“Such convoluted grammar death required: what tense to describe the hypothetical emotions of a woman who didn’t exist anymore?”

Michael’s constant presence however demands Noah’s undivided attention. The child is rude and bratty, and treats Noah with suspicion and contempt. The two are at odds from the very start. Noah, who spend most of his days living in the past, attempts to make some sort of connection with Michael by acting as a tour guide of sorts. He also reiterates his and Michaels’s family history (Noah’s grandfather was a famous photographer) as a way of reinforcing their familial bond. Michael’s attention however seems wholly devoted to his phone. He swears a lot, demands junk food all the time, and is bored by Noah and his ‘lessons’.
There is a dissonance between the two: the things that have shaped Noah’s life seems to be of little relevance to Michael. At the same time Michael has experienced hardships that Noah finds difficulty to comprehend.

“In the pictures Michael looked older, Noah thought; harder. But really, eleven — that was barely formed.”

The two wander about Nice, often a despondent Michael’s following in Noah’s stead. The city seems to stir something within Noah so that he finds himself compelled to discover the truth about his mother.
Interrogating the past brings to light some deeply disturbing facts. Nice’s own history, the Excelsior Hotel (which happens to be the hotel Noah and Michael are staying in), the risks taken by members of the resistance, the torture they could be made to endure…the narrative portrays in sharp clarity one of the darkest periods of human history.

The dynamic between Noah and Michael eases some of the tension from this perusal of the past. The quarrels had a very natural flow to them; at time they seemed to escalate out of nothing, while in other instances they boiled down to nothing. They constantly seemed exasperated by one another, and I soon grew accustomed to the rhythm of their conversations.
I found myself deeply caring for Noah. His attempts to reach Michael could be both sweet and awkward, and Michael too, in spite of his horrible behaviour, slowly grew on me.

“Why don’t you start it now?”
“I’m good.”
Funny how that had come to mean no.

This genuine story offers us with plenty of thoughtful reflections regarding the differences and similarities between Noah and Michael’s generations. While Michael easily navigates the ‘modern’ world, Noah is accustomed to a different one.
The novel also broaches many subjects—topical and non—in a very frank and natural way; commentaries regarding America and France are embedded in a very smooth manner, so that it never feels overdone.

“How could you do your homework if you didn’t even have a home to work in?”

I was moved by Noah’s internal turmoils, by his introspections and examinations that move between past and present. His ‘kinship’ with Michael was rendered slowly and subtly, so that their relationship never blossoms into an unlikely affectionate bond but the story leaves us with possibility of a camaraderie of sorts between the two.
Filled with equal parts humour and heart, Akin is a wonderfully compelling novel, one that I would happily read again.

“He supposed it was always that way with the dead; they slid away before we knew enough to ask them the right questions. All we could do was remember them, as much as we could remember of them, whether it was accurate or not Walk the same streets that they’d walked; take our turn.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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