BOOK REVIEWS

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

On paper A Lover’s Discourse is the type of book that I generally like: we have an unmanned who recounts her relationship to her unmanned ‘lover’—a man she addresses as ‘you’. Our narrator met ‘you’ after moving from China to Britain in 2016. Recently orphaned and feeling somewhat alienated by her new environment the protagonist of A Lover’s Discourse enters into a relationship with a German-Australian man. They begin living together in a houseboat, but while ‘you’ finds freedom in this kind of ‘unmoored’ lifestyle, our narrator would much rather live in an actual house or apartment. While ‘you’ earns money as a landscaper, our protagonist works on her PhD.

The structure of this novel is what initially caught my attention. The narrative is comprised of a series of dialogues in which the protagonist and her partner discuss an array of subjects: British-related issues, love, sex, nationality, identity, landscaping, architecture…sadly their conversations aren’t particularly deep or compelling. Maybe I write this because I found both characters to be different shades of obnoxious: our mc isn’t particularly passionate or interested in anything. While I should have found her efforts to understand British customs and culture, as well as trying to master the English language, to be relatable, given that I am in a similar position, I disliked profoundly the way she was portrayed. She was acerbic nag. She makes generalisation after generalisation about other countries, her own country, and about men. Not only does she repeatedly use the word ‘peasants’ to refer to the residents of her hometown, but her tone, when using this word, left a lot to be desired. She comes out with obsolete comments that make me question why she would ever want to be in a relationship, especially with man, given that she considers sex to be a violent and invasive act that she doesn’t enjoy. Her navel-gazing was far from thought-provoking. She laments her boyfriend having to work, seeming to forget that he is their sole provider as she’s busy completing this PhD she doesn’t even particularly care for (she kind of forgets about her studies once she starts her relationship with ‘you’). Her PhD actually sounded quite interesting, and I wish that it had played more of a role in the narrative.
‘You’ is a condescending man who is kind of dull. He ‘explains’ things to our narrator, and he does so in an exceedingly donnish way.
Attempts are made to connect their ‘discourse’ to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and I wonder…why? These two characters didn’t strike me as the types who would care about Barthes’s writings.
Bland, uninspired, and repetitive, A Lover’s Discourse was a deeply disappointing read. Thankfully it was a relatively slim book.

MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars

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Dove mi trovo (Whereabouts) by Jhumpa Lahiri

Dove mi trovo, which will be published in English as Whereabouts next spring, is the first novel Jhumpa Lahiri’s has written in Italian. Having read, and deeply empathised with, Lahiri’s In Other Words—a nonfiction work in which she interrogates her love for and struggles with the Italian language—I was looking forward to Dove mi trovo. Although I bought this book more than a year ago, during my last trip to Italy, part of me wasn’t ready to read it just yet. A teensy-weensy part me feared that I would find her Italian to be stilted. As it turns out, I should have not second-guessed Lahiri.

This novel consists in a series of short chapters, between 2 to 6 pages long, in which we follow a nameless narrator as she occupies different spaces. The titles of these chapters in fact refer to the place—not always a ‘physical’ one such as in the case of the recurring ‘Tra sé e sé’ chapters (an expression that for the life of me I cannot translate in English)—she is in or thinking of. She’s on the street, in a bar, a restaurant, a museum, her apartment, by the seaside…you get the gist. The novel takes place during a single year, and our narrator will often remark on the current season. She’s a solitary woman, and although she’s deeply aware of her loneliness, she’s not burdened by it. It is perhaps because she’s alone that she can get lost in her surroundings or in her thoughts. Even in those occasions where she interacts with others—who also remain unmanned and are referred to as her former lover, her friend, a professor, etc—she remains a lonely person. By seeing the way she interacts or navigates certain spaces, we learn more about her. Ultimately, however, she retains an air of mystery.
One should not approach this novel hoping for a plot-driven novel. Dove mi trovo is very much about language. Lahiri’s Italian is crisp and deceptively simple. There are observations or conversations that are rendered with clarity, and there are passages that convey a sense of disquiet. While I can’t say whether Lahiri always articulated phrases like an Italian would, I didn’t notice any Englishism on her part. I loved the way Lahiri articulated her phrases and the correct if démodé terms she used.
While Lahiri’s ‘Italian voice’ differs from the one in her English works, Dove mi trovo is the kind of quietly reflective and deeply nostalgic novel that I would happily revisit time and again.


MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars


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Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Once again, I am in the minority as I did not find Red Pill to be a particularly artful or clever novel. To be clear, I do think that Hari Kunzru can write very well indeed, however, his narrative struck me as all flash and no substance.

I was amused by the first quarter of this novel. Kunzru’s writing didn’t ‘blow’ me away but I did find his narrator’s inner monologue to be mildly entertaining. The more I read however, the more my interest waned. My mounting frustration at the silliness and superficiality of the story soon morphed into an overwhelming feeling of exasperation. Maybe, this is my fault. The summary, cover, and general ‘hype’ surrounding this novel led me to believe that Red Pill would be something more than your average ‘well-educated yet exceedingly average straight man has midlife crisis in Europe’ story but I was wrong.
As per usual, if you enjoyed this novel, well, ben per te. And, at the risk of anticipating righteous Kunzru devotees: No, I did not in fact ‘get’ this novel. There you have it.

I’m all for historical and literary references or philosophical asides but boy, oh boy, Red Pill sure liked to flex. Maybe, one needs a master in Philosophy and Literature to understand the brilliance of the narrator’s endless ramblings on Kleist, the Enlightenment, western philosophers, postmodern theorists, Evil, self-determination, and violence.
This nameless narrator of ours (of course he remains unnamed) is experiencing some existential dread. This may be because the novel is set in 2016 and our protagonist lives in America. His conviction that ‘something’ bad is going to happen soon aren’t unfounded. Suffering writer’s block our narrator is given a ‘golden’ opportunity, a three-months residency at the Deuter Center (located in Wannsee, Berlin). Here he will supposedly be able to crack on his “The Lyric I”.
Our narrator was no however prepared for the Deuter Center’s many rules. The Center is in fact a “experimental community” that promotes, nay insists, on the “public labor of scholarship”. The narrator finds the idea of having to undertake his research in a ‘communal’ space to be abject. His feelings of discomfort and anxiety are exacerbated by a particularly unpleasant and hectoring resident, a man who relishes in making others miserable, using pseudo-intellectual jargon to ‘demolish’ their thesis and beliefs. Cowed, our narrator, who is fully aware of his own inability to speak against this bullying man, hides in his bedroom, watching episode after episode of Blue Lives an America show about cops gone ‘rogue’ and operate under a ‘violence begets violence’ mentality which sees them torturing and killing criminals.
As the narrator’s obsession for this show grows, he starts exhibiting paranoid behaviour. His thoughts too, which are very much convey this sense of ‘being watched’ or controlled (by the Center? The show? Who knows.).
The narrative then switches to the story of Monika, a cleaner who works at the Center. Monika decides for some reason to make our unremarkable, and increasingly unbalanced, narrator into her confidante. She recounts of her time in a punk girl band in East Germany, and of the way she was persecuted by the Stasi. The story exists solely as a poorly veiled allegory. This novel is not really interest in Monika, and why should it be? This is very much a narrative about an average man’s midlife crisis and of his ‘descent’ into madness.
Pure happenstance, our narrator meets Anton, the creator of Blue Lives, at a party in Berlin. Anton is a ‘bad’ guy, our narrator is sure of this. Anton does in fact act like a dick, and doesn’t bother to conceal his alt-right leanings. This encounter upsets our narrator so much that he looses grip of himself.
What follows is a sequence of fevered events in which our protagonist tries to expose Anton to the world, believing that the best way of doing so is to hurtle down the path of insanity. Paranoia and gas-lightening abound in this part of the novel. Much of what happens seems to exist merely to ridicule our narrator, to emphasise his inability to form cohesive counter-arguments to Anton’s Mad Max worldview. He now ‘sees’ the world in all its ugliest glory, he has indeed taken the ‘red pill’ mentioned in the title.

The cartoonish characters (the Center guy and Anton are pompous and blustering finger-wagging caricatures) and awkward interactions could be chalked down to Kunzru’s predilection for hysterical realism. This is satire. Okay. Fair enough. Still, what lies beneath his ‘satire’? An intelligent social commentary? A cautionary tale? Methinks not. The exaggerated characters and outlandish plot did not seem to have anything particularly to say. Beware ‘Antons’? Those who hold extremist views and use scholarly or high-register words to deflect their audience from the true meaning of what they are saying? Paranoia is a sane response to an ‘insane’ reality?
Kunzur’s arguments felt tired, especially in 2020, and serve a merely ornamental function. Take the role of the show Blue Lives in the story. Our narrator watches it with a mix of horror and fascination. He worries that no one has caught on the messages that Anton has peppered in his show, particularly a troubling quote by Joseph de Maistre. Our narrator tries to call out Anton, by criticising his show’s pessimistic worldview, in which the world is an “abattoir”. But that’s it. He doesn’t try to think why viewers of this show condone this kind of vigilante sort of justice. Kunzru has one quick scene in a kebab shop in which he attempts to unpack the psychology of people like Anton, but he does it in such a harried and obvious way (Anton telling our protagonist why his friends dislike immigrants and non-Western cultural influences), to which our inept narrator responds “fuck you”.
Kunzru also tries to show how good intentions can be misunderstood by having our supposedly progressive narrator attempt to help a refugee father and her daughter. Except that his attempt to help them is from the get go dodgy as he wants to prove Anton and his violent worldview wrong.
He’s also, surprise surprise, like Monika, made to seem complicit with Anton (so that he’s mistaken for a Fascist).
I get that we are not meant to like the narrator (he’s kind of a coward, kind of pathetic, kind of a creep when it comes to attractive women), but did the author really have to go out of his way to humiliate him? I already felt little for this man, and the more the story seemed intent on emphasising his many failings, the more I lost interest.
The author seemed more focused on making his narrative as nebulous as possible than of fleshing out or giving some nuance to his characters. Yet, the structure of the novel isn’t all that innovative. The plot too unfolds rather predictably. The narrator’s unreliability and his imminent breakdown are obvious, and I felt no apprehension about his decline or wellbeing. While the author’s prose was exceedingly well-articulated, I failed to grasp the meaning behind his words.
The narrator often recounted the conversations he had with others. Consequently, not only did the plot lack immediacy but the majority of the secondary characters were made to speak only through our narrator recalling the gist of their words (one could say that this is realistic as he is retroactively describing his time in Berlin but why do we get some dialogues then? Am I to believe then he has a sporadic exceptional memory?). The narrator’s inner-monologue is repetitive and appeared to be little other than navel-gazing. Many of his thoughts and feelings aren’t all that complex, and yet the author will dedicate entire paragraphs to them.
Also, while I understand that there times when you can get so flustered as to be unable to form a cohesive sentence or valid counter-argument (just think how many videos there in which ‘liberals/snowflakes/feminists are destroyed with FACTS and LOGIC’) it didn’t ring quite true when at the Center what’s-his-face is offensive towards every single other resident, and no one does anything about it. He wasn’t their boss or a threatening guy, yet, not one of these learned individuals was capable of calling him out. His behaviour, as far as I remember, doesn’t even get reported (which it should be given that he says inappropriate things, and actively works against the Center’s ideology). Speaking of the Center, that felt very much felt like ‘bait’. It seems that it will play some sort of role in the novel but it is totally sidelined in favour of our narrator spiralling out of control.
Another thing I couldn’t quite behind was Anton and his supposed powers of influence over our main character. While I can recognise that the narrator was in a susceptible, if not vulnerable, state I wasn’t convinced by the way Anton comes to dominate his every-thought. The guy may have been able to quote some obscure philosopher but that hardly makes him into almighty persuader.
The ‘writing about writing’ angle was but underwhelming and obnoxious. If anything, the narrator’s reflections on writing seemed to serve as excuses for the actual novel’s failings: “Plot is the artificial reduction of life’s complexity and randomness. It is a way to give aesthetic form to reality” (insert headache inducing eye-roll here). And of course, Chekhov’s gun gets a mention. How very self-aware.
While the protagonist did touch upon interesting subjects and ideas, often using researched vocabulary, he did so superficially, so that ultimately his narration seemed little other than bloviating.

In spite of the novel’s lampoon of the academic world, the narrative struck as being extremely elitist. Red Pill tells a meandering and ultimately inadequate story, attempting perhaps to shock or impress its own importance onto its readers. But I felt mostly annoyed by it all. Meaning and depth are lost in a prolix narrative that meanders maddeningly from one subject to the next without having anything substantial to say. Reading this was a huge waste of time, time I could have spent watching ContraPoints or Philosophy Tube. Did the world need another book dedicated to a self-proclaimed ‘average’ man who is having a ‘midlife’ crisis?

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura

Comparing this novel to the work of Ottessa Moshfegh or Sayaka Murata seems somewhat misleading, if a bit lazy.
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job has elements that may bring to mind certain aspects of Convenience Store Woman but it has almost nothing in common with My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Still, I could have enjoyed Kikuko Tsumura’s novel if it had something interesting to say or if it was written in a particularly inventive or catchy way. Sadly, I found There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job to be an exceedingly boring story that is written in an exceedingly boring way. Some of the issues I had may be due the translation (more on that later) but for the most part Tsumura’s prose is kind of dull. Her protagonist, the classic unnamed narrator, lacks the deadpan tone of Murata’s mc, nor does she have the same upbeat voice as the lead in Temporary (a novel that explores modern workplace in an absurdist fashion).
Tsumura’s book is divided in five sections, each one focusing on a different job: in the first one our mc works a surveillance job (this happened to be the only section I enjoyed), in the second one she records ads for a bus company (advertising the shops that are on the route of that bus), in the third one she has to come up with ‘fun/useful facts’ for a packet of crackers, in the third one she puts posters up, and in the final job she works at a park maintenance office. We never gain any real insight into her private life (I’m fairly sure she lives alone and her parents are still alive) and we never learn anything about her past (other than she left her job because of burnout syndrome).
The jobs she are peculiar and yet they never held my interest. I liked Temporary much more because the jobs the mc does there are really weird. Yet, I think I could have tolerated reading about a relatively ordinary workplace if the dialogues or mc’s inner monologue had been amusing, as they are in Murata’s novel (which managed to make tedious tasks entertaining).
Even if I where to judge Tsumura’s novel without drawing comparison to other novels, I still can’t think of anything positive to say about it. The narration lacked zest, oomph. She recounts her routine in a very prosaic way, and she offers no real insights into why ‘modern’ work culture makes her feel so uninspired.
Usually when I read a translated book I don’t really notice that the prose was not originally written in the language I’m reading but here the writing had this stilted quality that made me kind of aware that I was indeed reading a translation. Certain word choices struck me as awkward. There are many instances in which the narrator’s colloquial style is interrupted by high-register and or antiquated words (such as nigh!). Maybe this was simply reflecting the original Japanese but I can’t say for sure as I’m afraid my knowledge of Japanese is abysmal. And yes, I understand that translation is not an easy chore (in the past I tried my hand at translating) but that doesn’t change that the prose There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job offers some eyebrow-raising phrases/passages.

Usually I read books of this length in two or three days but it took me five days to finish this novel (and I nearly fell asleep while reading it…which is new for me).

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

“When I think back on that it’s always with a sense of having lost something fragile and fleeting, something I can’t quite name.”

I loved every single page of The Great Godden. This is one of those rare novels that is simultaneously simple and mesmerising: an unmanned narrator recounts the summer in which they fell in love.
Within this slim volume Meg Rosoff conjures up the feelings of summer, with mornings of idleness giving way to nights charged with possibilities.

“The actors assembled, the summer begins.”

During the summer holidays a family is staying in their house by the sea. Here they reconnect with the young couple—soon to be wed—who live close by. Their dynamics change with the arrival of the Godden siblings, the sons of an American actress. The narrator, alongside their gorgeous sister, falls for Kit Godden, who is as beautiful as he is charismatic. Kit’s sullen younger brother, Hugo, is largely ignored by the narrator’s family.
As the young couple’s wedding approaches, allegiances shift, and more than one person will be left heartbroken.

Although at its core this is a love story, one should not approach this novel expecting a romance. The love Rosoff depicts is deeply ambivalent. The narrator, alongside others, is blinded by their feelings.
Rosoff’s writes of a summer that is heady with change, love, and yearning. This is a deeply atmospheric read, one that captivated me from the opening page. The narrator’s voice lured me in, and I found myself absorbed by their observations about the people around them.
I just really loved reading this novel and I already want to re-read.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

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“Over time, I told myself, I would try to deserve them all. […] I had chosen this place, these people, this life, with its secrets and its violence, its hardness and its beauty, and even thought I was not yet worthy, even thought I would never belong, I would not leave.I would stay and try.”

The Far Field is a striking debut novel. Madhuri Vijay has written a remarkably taught and exceedingly incisive slow-burner, one that will likely make the reader experience many unpleasant feelings, such as uncertainty, frustration, and unease.

After her mother’s death Shalini, a young woman from Bangalore, becomes detached from her daily existence. Increasingly alienated from others she makes the impulsive decision to travel to a remote Himalayan village in Kashmir where Bashir Ahmed—an old friend of her mother’s— lives.
In an interview Vijay describes Shalini as being “remote and closed-off, so hamstrung by doubt and suspicion, that even [she], as the writer, occasionally felt suffocated by her voice”. Well, I agree 100% with her. Shalini can be overwhelming. Her arrested development makes it hard to totally condone her for her behaviour but she has plenty of cruel and selfish moments that will make it really hard for readers to forgive or sympathise with her. Her vulnerabilities certainly come through, for example, she is hesitant to demonstrate her feelings or to simply share her thoughts with the people who could potentially become her friends. Vijay has depicted her in this way quite intentionally. To me, Shalini’s inability to act was yes deeply frustrating but it was also believable and it augmented the friction between her and other characters. Time and again readers will wonder if this time around she would be able to really live in the present and connect with others.

Her journey does not follow the classic ‘coming of age’ that often occurs in similar novels (where a character travels somewhere to ‘find themselves’ or to come ‘to terms with their past). Shalini’s experiences in Kashmir are far more realistic. An ingrained distrust still dictates a lot of what she does. I was really saddened and angered by her half-hearted attempt at a friendship with Zoya and Amina. Shalini seems desperate to fill in the hole left by her mother’s death but she is also very reticent about revealing her innermost self. Then again, the two women, however likeable, also do not make things easier.

Shalini was deeply naive and self-centred, blind to her privilege and often does more harm than good. The few times she actually ‘acts’ or says something important she usually ends up doing or saying the wrong thing. She seems unable to read other people or to take in account what they too might be hiding/protecting their true emotions. Having lived a life of comfort Shalini doesn’t seem to realise that not everyone knows those same comforts (which she has taken for granted).
Given that Shalini is recounting her journey to Kashmir years after it, she often expresses the wish to have acted differently, and there are a lot of ‘if onlys‘ which furthered the tension of her story.

There are chapters that focus on Shalini’s childhood and on her intense relationship with her fiery mother. It is perhaps because she is so young (and sheltered) that Shalini does not notice how trapped and unhappy her seemingly strong mother was. Their strained relationship takes its toll on both mother and daughter.

This novel depicts Shalini’s desperate attempts to belong and to reconcile herself with the way in which she treated (and was in turn treated by) her mother. Sadly, Shalini often acts under the wrong impression, and she either misunderstands others and or ends up being misunderstood by the ones she claims she cares for.

Vijay renders the way in which language can betray one’s intention or the way in which words often are inadequate and cannot express or convey what we truly think or feel.
This novel has a lot to wrestle with but it does so in a paced manner. This story is one of ambivalence and dissolution; the plot rests on the novel’s setting(s) and on Shalini’s interactions with mainly two other families. While the author does not shy away from portraying the religious conflict occurring in Kashmir, she focuses more on the experiences of various individual characters — the way in which they themselves are affected by dispute between India and Pakistan — rather than offering a dumbed down ‘overview’ of Kashmir’s long history of violence. Having Shalini as the narrator allows readers to glimpse Kashmir through the eyes of an ‘outsider’.

This is a story about privilege, guilt, grief, cowardice, and failed connections. Amidst the novel’s bleak realism there are some heart-rendering moments, and Vijay’s lyrical writing allowed me to briefly forget of the discomfort created by her story. I kept hoping against hope that the ending would provide some sort of not quite magical solution but that it could at least give me some closure…but I’m afraid to say that the ending is what makes this a 4 star read rather than a 5 one.

Anyhow, I will definitely keep my eyes open for more of Vijay’s stunning and heartbreaking writing.

my rating: ★★★★✰

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SWING TIME: BOOK REVIEW

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Swing Time
by Zadie Smith

★★✰✰✰ 2 of 5 stars

I feel cheated.
The beginning of this sprawling and pointless narrative promised something. It gave me certain expectations. So, when I found myself questioning the direction of this novel, I told myself that surely, by the end, this would all make sense. Turns out I was hoping against hope.
Maybe, my expectations lie in Zadie Smith’s writing. Among the many peculiar passages I caught glimpses of just how beautiful and poignant her writing could be. Now, however, while I do believe that Smith can write well, I think that Swing Time does not showcase her writing ability but rather it seems an example of good writing turned bad.

This is not a novel about friendship. It isn’t a coming of age, nor is it a portrait of ambition. This novel consists in a series of grotesque caricatures. All of the characters are in turn false, unprincipled and or bitter. These ‘characters’ not only came across as being stereotypes, and Smith seems to ridicule all kinds of people. Fair enough, the narratives spares no one and every single character becomes little more than an unfunny joke.
Her unsympathetic nameless narrator seemed a poor attempt to write from the point of view of an ambiguous and possibly apathetic individual.
Tracey, her supposed best friend, is over-sexualised and is the typical friend who is better looking and more talented than the protagonist is (when will we ever get to read about a more nuanced female friendship?). The narrative uses Tracey time and again, throwing her in as to confuse and irritate both the main character and the readers. She is so illogical and incoherent that I had a very hard time taking anything she did or said seriously. Every-time she appeared I find myself thinking ‘of course, there she goes again‘.
The protagonist is worse than a shadow. She isn’t merely the type who prefers to observe rather than be observed. She is completely feckless. Her stupidity and her naïveté were jarringly unbelievable. I didn’t so much care for her lacking a name but her lack of an actual personality was harder to ignore. Her narrative is needlessly confounding. The time jumps were handled poorly, it seems that Smith wanted to do more than the classic then & now timeline, and in doing so ended up with a lot of odd transitions. The obvious retaining of certain information from the reader was both unnecessary and annoying (these instances rather than generating suspense just come across as being stilted). Also, are we to believe that someone so nonexistent would describe certain random acts in a completely exaggerated manner? Because our narrator loves giving random dramatic descriptions…and has a penchant for the word ‘gold’ .
As much as I personally dislike this narrator, I dislike her because we see from her point of view. Other characters don’t know just how irksome she is and yet….every single person she encounter seems to give her a sermon which consist in slightly varying versions ofyou have no idea/you are so privileged/you don’t nothing bout anything/listen to what I know/I know what’s what/listen to my life story/yadda yadda‘. Very likely…
Smith occasionally does turn her writing skills to do ‘good’, and she offers observations that don’t seem to come from the narrator’s point of view, and therefore did not seem theatrical or irritating. Sadly, she also comes up with things such as:

“I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her […] I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

What the actual…am I to believe that our ‘woke‘ protagonist would think this? A ‘broken’ girl?! And that cheesy line about ‘a secret she can’t tell’?!

This novel is indeed ambitious…it tries to include as many topical and relevant things but it all just comes across as overreaching. Rather than offering a nuanced cast of characters and believable scenarios, Smith seems to go out of her way to portray grotesque impressions of people (for example when the narrator is on a plane she is seated next to two truck-drivers with ‘bleeding gums’, ‘yellow teeth’ and seem to be rather crass…) and all for the sake of what? I wanted a story about ambition, I wanted a complex depiction of the dangers that words such as ‘potential’ and ‘talent’ can have, and above all, I thought there would be a friendship between two passionate girls...what I got was a series of cruel and degrading lampoons with a few ‘in’ terms & topics.
Massive let down.

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