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The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee — book review

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“Their words comforted me on many a lonely night and made me feel like part of a family. ”

The Downstairs Girl is a compelling and poignant novel that follows seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan, a Chinese American living in 1890s Atlanta.

The story explores the way in which Jo, alongside other Chinese Americans, are virtually unseen by their society, a society which sees only in terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’. Jo is constantly reminded by the people around her that she isn’t a real American. Being a girl further complicates matters, as her future seems to offer few possibilities that don’t involve becoming a wife.
Jo’s upfront narration make her into an immediately sympathetic character. I admired her resilience and wisdom. Time and again she is forced to adapt to the hard reality around her: the people around exclude her, mistreat her, and worse still. After being unjustly fired from her hat maker position she is forced to work for an old childhood acquaintance, a girl who has grown from a child bully (who enjoyed tormenting Jo) into a cruel young woman with a vicious streak (I kept thinking of her as Charlotte LaBouff’s evil twin).
Jo, together with Old Gin—an elderly man who has taken care of her ever since she was abandoned as a baby by her parents—secretly lives below the house of a newspaper family. Over the course of her life she has longed to belong to a family such as theirs but so far has contented herself to observing them. Luckily for Jo, the family is in need of an ‘agony aunt’ and she believes, quite rightly, that she has the skills for the job. By assuming the identity of Miss Sweetie, Jo can address issues regarding race and gender. Her columns of course aren’t well received by all…

There are various interesting plot-lines that make The Downstairs Girl into an engrossing read. Jo is an interesting main character, which makes a change from most YA releases which usually star rather insipid protagonists. Here we have a narrator who you can really root for and truly admire. Her passion for words and great empathy made her all the more compelling.
The cast of characters is as complex as the protagonist herself. I must commend Stacey Lee for making each character into a nuanced one. Rather than condoning the behaviour or qualities of her characters, she allows Jo—and by extension the readers—to see that something or someone might have influenced their actions. She doesn’t excuse their awfulness but rather she allows us to see the many different sides that make up a person’s character.
The setting was almost frightfully realistic (racism and sexism are sadly an every-day reality). There are many western elements which balanced some of the heavier themes explored by the story, and I enjoyed the use of certain conventions of the historical fiction genre (for example, Jo dresses as a man). The novel portrays a particular type of American experience, one that focus on the individuals who are rejected by their own society (for example, Jo’s friends are excluded by Atlanta’s white feminists so form a group of their own). Jo is able to connect with those who similarly to her are marginalised by mainstream society.
Running alongside various other side-plots is the one of Jo’s identity. While I wasn’t necessarily surprised by certain revelations I was still completely captivated by the story and by Jo’s quest for the truth.
The sweet and genuine romance between Jo and another character was a minor aspect of this novel, one that made for some lovely and heartfelt scenes, moments of repose for both Jo and her readers.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this one, especially to those looking for a YA take on western or for those who are looking for a thought-provoking story that explores the intersection between identity, family, and society.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Six-Gun Snow White : Book Review

Untitled drawing (9)Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

“She named me cruel and smirking, she named me not for beauty or for cleverness or for sweetness. She named me a thing I could aspire to but never become, the one thing I was not and could never be: Snow White.”

Valent has given a Western spin to an old European tale. I enjoyed the way in which Valente juxtaposes a gritty setting against her lush writing style, and it is almost unnerving the way she can describe horrible things in such a beautiful way. At times, I did find some scenes and metaphors to be gratuitously graphic.
The first part of this novella was really strong. It is narrated by Snow White herself and she recounts how her father married by force a Crow woman (her mother). The way he fetishes her beauty and appearance was truly sickening, and Snow White is always made to feel ‘other’ and ‘alien’ by her father and his servants .
Snow White’s mother dies and her father (Mr. H) marries again. His new wife (known as Mrs. H) begins abusing Snow White, pretending that she is ‘teaching her the ways to become a woman’. Altering physical abuse with a torrent of dehumanising insults and actions (she bathes Snow White in milk in order to make her skin paler) all of the things that Snow White is made to endure were hard to stomach.
The narrative switches to a third perspective which created a distance between the events of the story and the reader (me). There was almost a joke-y tone which went at odds with the Snow White’s serious narration.
The last part was really…pointless? The story comes across as meandering and unfocused. Characters have few (if any) layers, they share the same bland and unfixed personality, and our main protagonist, Snow White, seems quick to forget Mrs. H’s abuse and acts merely under the command of the narrative. What of her will? She is an accessory to her own story, an object rather than a subject.
All in all, this is the type of novella that carelessly tosses characters about, throwing one too many pointlessly extravagant (or occasionally grotesque) observations that have little impact on the overall story but only serve to distract me from the story’s action. The narrative favours the language over its plot or characters. The beautiful phrases soon become overindulgent and repetitive.
Great concept, poor execution.

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The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

A compelling heartfelt story that delivers a solid emotional punch.
Focusing on the dynamics between Hawley and Loo, a father and her daugher, this novel brings to life both everyday instances and more charged scenes, such as the ones given in Hawley’s ‘bullets’ chapters.
The writing itself reads smoothly, and is perhaps reminiscent of the one of Ann Patchett and/or Alice Hoffman. Tinti describers seemingly mundane scenes in a way that is incredibly compelling: by focusing on the details she is able to craft a vivid picture.
Loo’s relationship with her father is depicted with incredible honesty; their earnest relationship is what the story is built on. Hawley’s past is also relevant to the story, serving as to explain some of his actions and behaviours with Loo later in his life. The violence of his past is at times juxtaposed with Loo’s – less intense – experiences.
Bittersweet, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, is a sweeping and deeply felt tale recommended for people who have enjoyed the film Léon: The Professional or even True Grit.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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