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Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella — book review


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“It’s supposed to be a time when you’re about to embark on your adult life, but for many young people, that springboard looks more like a precipice.”

Ghosts of Harvard is a patchwork of a novel. While the summary seems to promise more of thriller/academia type of book (I personally would not recommend this to those who enjoy campus novels or dark academia), what we do get is a mishmash of genres and storylines: to start with we have a moving family drama that examines the realities of caring for someone with a mental illness, then we head into the supernatural combined with the type of amateur investigation that is all the rage in domestic thrillers (someone you know has done something bad), before culminating in a melodramatic final act.

Francesca Serritella strikingly renders the setting of Harvard. Sadly however her protagonist’s investigation into her brother’s time there takes the centre-stage, so that Cadence’s studies and interactions with other students receive limited attention only. Nevertheless Serritella certainly knows Harvard, and she demonstrates her knowledge of its history, architecture, and traditions in a very compelling and evocative way.
After her brother’s suicide Cadence is obviously overwhelmed. Eric was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while studying at Harvard so Cadence does feel to a certain extent haunted. Hoping that being at Harvard will somehow bring her closer to her brother, she soon begins to suspect that her brother was hiding something. As she becomes obsessed with her brother’s past, she begins to hear ‘voices’. What follows is a story that has the trappings of most domestic thrillers, the only difference being the academic backdrop.

The third person narration distances us from Cadence, so that much of her personality remains unseen. We know of her troubled relationship with her mother but we never truly delve into Cadence’s sense of self. She makes many nonsensical decisions for ‘plot’ reasons, and I can’t say that she ever did or said anything remotely remarkable or moving. Perhaps I would have sympathised more with her if she had at any point had an introspective moment. She briefly questions herself only when she’s worried that the voices she’s hearing are a figment of her imagination or a sign that she too may suffer from schizophrenia. She forms superficial friendships with her roommates and a guy who shares one of her classes, but for the most part she only comes into contact with individuals who are directly connected to her brother and his secret. Speaking of Eric’s friends, it was weird that Cadence only speaks to his best friend once. Although Cadence grows close to one of her brother’s peers, I never believed that she cared for the ‘living’ people she encounters at Harvard. She becomes somewhat chummy with the three ghosts who keep talking to her in her head, and who unsurprisingly help her in her investigation.
Throughout the course of Cadence’s ‘investigation’ we get snippets from her past that focus on her family life and her bond with Eric. These were easily my favourite parts of the novel. These scenes, although painful, possessed a genuine quality that made them much more poignant that the ones that take place at Harvard.

“Simple narratives were easier to tell, to teach, to understand, to remember. The lie endures for generations, while the truth dies with its victims. But what were the consequences?”

Serritella’s writing was absorbing and I generally enjoyed her reflections on family, mental health, grief, and Harvard’s history.
While part of me was happy that the novel didn’t drag on the ‘are the voice real or not’, ultimately I wasn’t all that taken by the novel’s execution: it veers into exaggerated territories that are punctuated by flashy twists. What could have been a compassionate exploration of grief and of loving someone who suffers from a mental illness is weighed down by unnecessary thriller-esque melodrama. The supernatural element would have been a lot more ‘haunting’ if it hadn’t been so cheesily predictable. While I appreciated the novel’s commentary on academia/educational institutions, and the nuanced portrayal of Eric’s mental illness as well as the realistic depiction of the stigma and discrimination against mental health, I was underwhelmed by the storyline and finale.

Specific plot points/scenes that were unconvincing/clichéd:

➜ The prologue. I’m tired of these prologues that ‘tease’ a possible death that is to come. The novel’s first chapters were compelling enough that they did not require such a gimmicky opening.

➜ Cadence’s first interaction with her roommate was jarring: “I’m Ranjoo, do you hate me already?”
“Only for those abs.” Who says that? Maybe if we had a better grasp of Cadence’s personality I could have believed that she would say something alongs these lines.

(view spoiler)

➜ Nikos. (view spoiler)

➜ The ghosts. (view spoiler)

➜ Prokop. (view spoiler)

➜ Eric. (view spoiler)

➜ The chapters would often end on these would be cliffhangers.(view spoiler)

➜ Lee. (view spoiler)

➜ The epilogue (view spoiler)

All in all I can’t say that I disliked Ghosts of Harvard but there were many elements within the narrative that lessened my overall reading experience and opinion of the book.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Apartment by Teddy Wayne — book review

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“I’d been happy before just to be his classmate, to learn from him osmotically, but now I grew excited at what this might blossom into, the sort of close, symbiotic relationship I’d hoped grad school would offer and the Hemingway-Fitzgerald complementary pairing I’d always thought necessary to one’s artistic development.”

Set in New York between 1996 and 1997 Apartment portrays the making and dissolution of a friendship. Our unnamed narrator, who is attending the MFA writing program at Columbia, is a rather introverted young man. His father is paying for his tuition and his other expenses while he is staying in his aunt’s apartment (in what amounts to an illegal sublet).
His loner existence is shaken up when he begins to hang out with Billy, a talented classmate of his. Billy, who hails from the Midwest, has only recently gotten into writing and reading. Unlike our narrator, Billy struggles to make ends meet and works as a bartender. Out of a combination of guilt and genuine admiration for Billy and his writing, our narrator offers him his spare bedroom.

“A first sleepover, whether it was sexual or platonic, had a way of making you both more and less comfortable around the other person; you’d jumped a fence of intimacy, but now you saw each other in the blunt morning light.”

Living in such close quarters however is not easy. The power imbalance between the two of them (which sees the protagonist becoming Billy’s benefactor), their opposite financial situations, as well as Billy’s writing capabilities, put a strain on their bond. Soon it becomes apparent that they also have differing interests and political outlooks.
The unspooling of their relationship is uncomfortable to read. As their awkward chats give way to tense silences, we read with a mounting sense of dread.
The narrator’s discomfort becomes our own. Yet, his caginess puts us at arm’s length. Early on he confesses to Billy that his biggest fear is that no one will truly know him. While this hints at a certain level of self-awareness, our protagonist remains unknowable. His writing too, according to his classmates’ feedback, reflects his reticence to let others see him.
His self-imposed isolation gives way to a perpetual cycle of loneliness and alienation. As he realises that his friendship with Billy is irrevocably damaged, the narrator does the unthinkable.
In spite of the narrator’s unwillingness to articulate his true feelings, I came to care for him. His observations were rendered in a shrinkingly genuine manner, and even if he does not reveal himself to us, or others, we do become familiar with his solitude and with his feelings of not belonging.

“I would never relate to these people after all, they wouldn’t come to know me and no one ever would, and it wasn’t because I was a misunderstood rebel or suffered from some diagnosable pathology; I was an oddball—but not even a ‘classic’ oddball, no, I was an oddball among self-selecting oddballs who had found community with other oddballs, and to be on the outside of mainstream society i one thing, and admirably heroic struggle, but to be on the fringes of an already marginalized subculture is simply lonely.”

With a narrative that is rife with literary allusions and academic terms, Teddy Wayne’s conveys the sheltered yet claustrophobic atmosphere of an MFA program. The narrator and his classmates seem aware that they are active participants in what they define as ‘real life’. Billy’s less than privileged background is what differentiates him from the rest. Yet, the more time he spends at this program, the more self-assured he becomes. There are some great discussions around talent and ambition.
The narrator’s internal monologue also provides some moments of humour. For example, in contemplating a romantic relationship with another writer he makes the following observation:

“Writers were either histrionic or reserved or oscillated wildly between the two poles, all we’d have to talk about would be what we’d composed that day or how we were depressed that we hadn’t produced anything, the whole thing would be insular and incestuous.”

The novel also delves into themes of masculinity, identity, friendship, creativity, and sexuality. Wayne’s depiction of the mid-90s is simultaneously piercing and nostalgic. New York too is rendered in an evocative way.

Written in a propelling style and possessing all the trappings of a psychological thriller without actually being one, Apartment tells a profoundly poignant tale in which the narrator’s namelessness reflects his withdrawn nature.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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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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The Truants by Kate Weinberg — book review

Untitled drawing (3).jpgThis is the type of non-literary book that has literary aspirations yet its laboured attempts to imbue its story and characters with a certain dose of moral ambiguity and depth ultimately fall flat.
In spite of its intriguing first few chapters The Truants soon followed the well-treaded path of similar campus/college novels: we have a main character who has a secret related to her past, she makes a new female friend who is more attractive and charming than she is, she falls for an alluring man who has secrets of his own, and she also finds herself drawn to her professor, who also happens to have secrets of her own.

I could have looked past the predictable and lacklustre dynamics around which the story pivots if the writing or the characters had revealed, at any point throughout the course of the novel, some depth or any other spark of vitality. Kate Weinberg’s prose was competent enough but as the story is told through an unmemorable main character’s point of view, much of it felt dull.
The Truants reminded me a lot of The Lessons by Naomi Alderman (not a good thing).

A more nuanced or interesting protagonist could have made this into a much more enjoyable novel. Our MC however is the typical forgettable young girl who somehow manages to attract the attention of people who seem a lot more fascinating than her…I write seem as I never quite believed that her guy (that’s how interesting he is) and her teacher were as clever or as alluring as our narrator told us. And that’s where the problem lies: she tells us that these two are such magnetic people. We are never shown exactly why they have such a powerful effect on her. This sort of introspective narrative can work…but here our MC’s examination of this period of her life seemed somewhat artificial.

I found this book engaging only when the characters discuss Agatha Christie. The rest is an overdrawn love triangle that is made to be far more tragic and destructive than what it is (dating for a few months when you are a first year uni student…is it as all-consuming as that?). The college aspect of the novel fades in the background, giving way to the usual melodramatic succession of betrayals and shocking secrets. If the characters had been more than thinly drawn clichés then I would have cared for this type of drama.

While this novel was slightly better than other clique-focused releases (such as the campus novel Tell Me Everything and the artsy Fake Like Me) I would recommend you skip this one…maybe you could try the very entertaining If We Were Villains or Donna Tartt’s seminal The Secret History or even the hugely underrated The House of Stairs.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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Bunny: A Novel by Mona Awad — book review

Untitled drawingThere are those bizarre and experimental books that manage to be entertaining, transgressive, and on occasion even thought-provoking. And then, there are books like Bunny whose weirdness largely rests on overusing the word bunny(which appears approximately 350 times, one time too many).
An intentionally silly story that owes more to Scream Queens and The Babysitter then Heathers or Mean Girls. If you are picking up Bunny thinking that it is some sort of intriguing campus novel, you should reconsider given that this book is the anthesis to The Secret History. If you are hoping for some sort of absurdist black comedy à la Yorgos Lanthimos, think again. The ‘satirical horror’ I was hoping to encounter in Bunny was closer to the ‘comedic horror’ in the Scary Movie franchise…

Writing about writing is never an easy endeavour since there is the high risk that you will remind your readers that they are indeed ‘reading’ a fictitious work. Since the main cast in Bunny is part of a creative writing MFA program…we were constantly reminded of how inane criticism can be. The five girls part of this program are apparently only able to write fiction that reflects their personal life or preferences…funnily enough, a lot of the criticism that these characters throw at each other’s pieces of writing could easily be aimed at Bunny (oh, the irony):

“Um, what the fuck is this, please? This makes no sense. This is coy and this is willfully obscure and no one but [the author] will ever get this […] spoiled, fragmented, lazy, pretentious […] And then I feel like screaming JUST SAY IT. TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED. TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK THIS MEANS AND WHAT YOU DID WITH HIM EXACTLY.”

Four of these girls are part of a clique that is the ultimate parody of cliques. From the first few pages they are presented as some sort of ‘hive-mind’, some sort of multi-conscious entity. Some of their conversations between them—as well as the narrator’s observations about them—could be amusing.
Although the narrator keeps insisting that she is ‘different’ (aka the only ‘big’ difference between her and the bunnies is her finances) she falls prey to this clique. Personally, I don’t think the story provides with a convincing reason for the MC to fall in with these girls. Even when the Mc sees their most secretive activities…it seemed that she stayed with them out of laziness (or merely as a way to further the plot).
The weirdness of this story seems contrived. This whole novel seems (rather ironically) like an exercise for a creative writing class. Many of the ‘bizarre’ elements in this story were predictable and had me rolling my eyes. The whole book is like a joke that goes on for too long. The first few chapters were amusing and the scenes that took place in the creative writing workshop were on point (and reminded me of the creative writing module I took in my first year of uni):

“Samantha, we’re at Warren. The most experimental, groundbreaking writing school in the country. This goes way beyond genre. It subverts the whole concept of genre.”
“And gender narratives.”
“And the patriarchy of language.”
“Not to mention the whole writing medium.”
“It basically fucks the writing medium, Samantha. Which is dead anyway, you know?”
“Exactly. This is about the Body. Performing the Body. The Body performing in all its nuanced viscerality.”

Yet, soon enough the repetitiveness of these exchanges grew tiresome and the style of the narrative became increasingly annoying and unnecessary. The narrative mimics the language—and perhaps vision—of this clique of girls: it is sweet, sticky, and extra. If you like eating candy floss until you feel sick you might be up for it…the narrative—if not the whole story—is a parody that lacks subtlety or real wit:

Here at Mini they have many cupcakes in mini but they should have more. Why don’t they have more? They should have more in mini, more! We tell them how they should have more in mini and they do not seem to make a note of it.

The narrative’s style was so repetitive! All too frequently words were repeated three times in a row in a cheap attempt to give urgency to the story.
The plot (if we can call it that) even in its ‘wtf moments’ is tedious. The characters and story seem merely a backdrop to this sickeningly sweet and repetitive language (hair like feathers, tiny pink-y small-ish hand, glossy this and that, teensy-weensy girls who eat teensy-weensy food).
This book didn’t inspire feelings of panic or fear, which I was expecting given its summary…I was never afraid of these demented girls and their stupid activities. A lot of the things seem to just happen to the MC as if she isn’t capable of these laughable ‘terrible’ things from happening (insert eye roll here). Again, I find it ironic that the MC’s own writing is criticised for this exact reason:

“Although we could hardly call her a heroine, could we? I mean, could we even call her that, Samantha? […] She’s quite passive, Samantha, isn’t she?”

I guess you could argue that this is all ‘intentional’. The stupid characters, the saccharine and repetitive language, the MC’s spinelessness…these things come across this way on purpose…but that seems like a cheap excuse to make the lazy and unfunny elements of your story ‘deliberate’.
The worst ‘sin’ of all is that this book leaves us with a less than favourable opinion about writing and criticism…which isn’t a great message.

 

My rating: ★★✰✰✰  2 of 5 stars

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Just Enough by Flavia Biondi — review

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Many thanks to NetGalley for providing me with the chance to read this stunning work.

Although I’m Italian, before coming across Just Enough on NetGalley, I’d never heard of Flavia Biondi. As soon as I saw her artwork I fell in love.
I can best describe this as a ‘slice of life’ that depicts the ‘what now?’ that might come at the end of your twenties, when you feel the pressure to ‘settle down’ or start a ‘real’ career and become a ‘real’ adult. I liked the realistic dynamics between the various characters, the way their silly conversations could turn serious—and vice versa—and the imperfect and down-to-earth portrayal of love (romantic and platonic). The story captures the dissolution felt by Italy’s younger generations yet there is a sense of hope for happier—or more ‘stable—times that made this into an easy read. The artwork and writing perfectly convey the nostalgic atmosphere of the story. I thoroughly loved this graphic novel and I am already looking forward to reading in again and again and again.

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

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What Red Was by Rosie Price — review


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What Red Was by Rosie Price
★★★★✰ 4 stars

What Red Was is a stark and riveting debut novel that vividly depicts the lasting effects of rape on a young woman’s mind, body, and life. This is not for the ‘faint of heart’, and I am not writing this as some sort of snide but more of a heads-up since this novel portrays rape and trauma in an unflinchingly way. At times I was overwhelmed. The story will make you angry, sad, distressed, all the sort of emotions you should feel when reading about such a horrific act.
Another thing that I appreciated is that the story didn’t reduce its characters to convenient stereotypes. Nor did it glamorise depression, addiction(s), or self-harm. (Unlike a certain other novel out there…)
Kate wasn’t reduced to the abominable violation committed against her. She was a relatable and interesting character, and following her life prior to ‘that day’ really brought her character to life. Her friendship with Max was complex and poignant, and it didn’t fall victim to the friends-to-lovers cliché. The way their relationship changes over the years saddened me, yet it seemed inevitable and far too realistic.
Initially I thought that following the perspectives of Max’s family members detracted attention from Kate’s storyline but it soon becomes apparent that by shifting the focus to them made them into far more fleshed out characters. However uneasy this shift made me feel (especially when we read of the thoughts and general worldview of Max’s cousin) it gave the novel a more ‘democratic’ approach, were everyone, regardless of their likability had page-time.
This story is relevant, raw, and compelling even in its darkest moments. While I wished for a neater ending, I still would recommend this to those interested in reading a novel filled with fraught (and believable) familial relationships and a young woman’s uneasy path towards recovering her sense of self after being raped.

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Walking on the Ceiling : Book Review

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Walking on the Ceiling
by Aysegül Savas
★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

I don’t mind plotless novels or meandering stories but there has to be something that holds my attention. Some of my favourite books feature characters with little to no backstory, and simply focus on a time of their life or certain feelings that they experience throughout the course of their life. What I am ‘getting at’ is that I started Walking on the Ceiling knowing that I wasn’t going to get a straightforward story. However, even if I was prepared for a more ‘metaphysical’ type of novel, I wasn’t expecting such a pointlessly self-indulgent narrative.
The nonlinear timeline makes the story all the more irritating. There is this narrator who could as well be nameless given how boring she is. Her only characteristic is that she lies or acts in obscure ways for no reason whats-over. Although she is presented as this deep and complex character who is grappling with her past, she is a self-pitying and a singularly uninteresting individual. A few months ago I read The Far Field which featured a very ‘remote’ main character, but there her self-restraint worked well. I believed her and why she was unable to express herself to others characters and the readers. But here….the protagonist comes across as detestably obnoxious whilst claiming that she is a selfless and ‘lost’ person. To top it all off she is extremely judgemental towards others and provides no explanation for her ‘remoteness’. The advantages she had in life are swept aside to focus on her ‘sad’ parents. Boo-hoo.
The different timelines are confounding and all this background adds little emotion to the narrative.
The chapters tended to end rather abruptly, often cutting through the flow of the story or interrupting the narrator’s contemplation or thoughts.
The thing I did enjoy was the way Istanbul was portrayed. The city seemed far more nuanced than anything else in this novel.
Overall, this was trying too hard to be something abstract and introspective. It would have worked with a compelling narrator; regardless if this character had likeable or dislikable attributes…as long as they were believable and fleshed out their story would have been a cohesive and thoughtful cogitation, rather than this patently elusive mess.

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The Saint of Incipient Insanities: Book Review

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The Saint of Incipient Insanities
by Elif Shafak

★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4 just for kicks)

“Lovers are pathetically charming, and exceedingly full of themselves, itself more precisely, for one of the plentiful troubles with loving couples is that the minute two autonomous selves develop themselves into a duo, instead of “two” (as in one plus one), they somehow become “zero” (as in one minus one). Likewise, before anyone could follow up, Ömar and Gail had germinated into a totality.”

Established fans of Elif Shafak should be wary of The Saint of Incipient Insanities. This novel is quite un-Shafak-like. Maybe because she wrote this directly in English, or maybe because she wanted to try something different, but the tone and structure of this novel are very ‘unique’ and differ from other works by Shafak.
I think Shafak must have had a lot of fun writing this book. She experiments with her style, the way language itself sounds and works, testing the limits of what a ‘novel’ should be like. Her wide ranging vocabulary makes each page rather a lot to take in. At times she could be beautifully articulate and in others she could digress in wordy tangents. Most of the time however I was entertained by her playful and discursive prose, amused by the long-winded passages on the importance of a character’s surname and or the name of an english textbook.
The novel doesn’t present us with a ‘cohesive’ storyline, each chapter has a quirky name and what follows is usually connected to it. For example, in the first chapter ‘Started Drinking Again’, ex-housemates Ömar and Abed are hanging out in a bar called The Laughing Magpie and talk about the way in which their names and surnames have been mispronounced and changed by Americans; their different relationship towards their shared faith (Abed does not drink, Ömar has just started again); and about Gail, Ömar’s wife.
The rest of the novel focuses on the time when Ömar, who travelled from Turkey to complete his PhD in Boston, was living with Abed—from Morocco—and Piyu—from Spain—two other students. Living under the same roof they might share a sense of ‘foreignness’ but they have rather clashing personalities. Shafak focuses particular on the struggles of Ömar, Abed, Piyu’s girlfriend Alegre, and Gail, Ömar’s future wife. There are plenty of weird conversations, bizarre behaviours, and outlandish monologues. Each character seems to be experiencing some sort of personal crisis, each of them is too wrapped up by their own individual situation to notice that their friends are undergoing similar situations. In spite of the seriousness of some of their difficulties, such as Alegre’s eating disorder, Shafak portrays their plights in a rather humorous manner.
Which brings me to the tone of this novel. As mentioned previously, the narrative is playful. Shafak easily moves from city to city, interweaving different conversations and places in the same sentence, and cities and objects have personalities and a point of view of their own.

“At the same instant as that clack! in Istanbul, a sigh was heaved in Boston as Alegre pushed the door of the first place she found open at this hour.”

While the narrative does tell us the characters’ innermost thoughts and fears it also makes ‘fun’ of them. A lot of the time their actions and or their discussions seem ridiculous. They have these quirky habits, or behave in a peculiar way (Gail initially only eats chocolate and bananas…I swear she rivals Samuel Beckett‘s Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape & Embers and Debra Ellen Thompson insists on being called Debra Ellen Thompson), they might take themselves seriously but the narrative makes light of their troubles and or obsessions. The ironic content also reinforces the humorous tone of the novel. At times, especially when the narrative focused on Alegre and Gail, there is only dark humour. In fact, I would almost call this novel a black comedy.

“It wasn’t the cold that made them frown like that. It was something else. Something less blustery and rheumy, more difficult and hideous…something that, if asked, they might have defined as a sudden sense of sulky solitude, thought probably not in these words, and surely not in this specific order.”

I don’t think this book will appeal to a lot of readers…it’s just so bizarrely unique. I loved the characters’ garrulous discussions, the songs (from the Stooges to Nick Cave) and cultural references (this novel is set in the early 2000s), plus they mention Slavoj Žižek whom I adore so…the characters might seem like satires of certain types of people but Shafak manages to make me believe in them and care for them.
I am far from squirmy but I did find the graphic depiction of Alegre’s eating disorder almost… overwhelming…so approach with caution.
Lastly, that ending was underwhelming. I was fully excepting another chapter and then…nothing!
Still, I might one day re-read this just so I can appreciate once more Shafak’s compendium of words.

“Urban legends are the free citizens of the world. They need no passport to travel, no visas to stay. They are verbal chameleons, absorbing the color of the culture they come into contact with. Whichever shore they reach, they can instantly become a native of it. Urban legends are free souls that belong to no one, and yet are the property of all. ”

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