Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: The Turn of the Key

I’ve always had such fun with Ruth Ware’s thrillers (I think I’ve read all of them!) so of course I picked up her 2019 release, The Turn of the Key. I really liked this one, though I think I’m becoming a bit too familiar with Ware’s style… I saw through some of the mystery, though I still found it an engaging read!

theturnofthekeyIn the novel, Rowan answers a nannying ad that sounds like a perfect fit for her; in addition to great pay, she’d have a room in a private home in exchange for looking after 3 or 4 children (the eldest being away at school for part of the story) in a remote Scottish smart house while the parents are away for work. The catch is that between leaving her old job and moving from London for the new one, she has no time to familiarize herself with the house or the children before her new job begins. The smart system that runs the house seems to be acting up, and the children are fighting the presence of yet another new nanny- apparently the last few have been scared away by the house’s tragic history. Can Rowan brazen it out and find her footing in what could be a dream job, or will the house and the girls get the best of her?

“Maddie’s expression was very different, harder to read, but I thought I could tell what it was. Triumph. She had wanted me to get into trouble, and I had.”

In case you haven’t picked up on it by now, let me mention again that I love classic retellings. Ware’s The Turn of the Key is a loose retelling of Henry James’s eerie The Turn of the Screw, which I read and appreciated for its atmosphere and strangeness earlier this summer. The reader does not need to know anything at all about James’s original story to enjoy this thriller, which is more similar in setup than in plot, but I found the small connections quite amusing.

The Turn of the Key is formatted as a series of letters to a lawyer that the incarcerated nanny hopes will help her case; as the story opens, she has already been arrested for the death of one of the children. This structure, which assumes the lawyer already knows the basic facts of the sensationalized case (such as the nanny’s ulterior motive for applying to this particular job, and the identity of the dead child) allow our narrator to hint at but largely withhold key details from the reader and thus frame her tale as a mystery. Some of the nanny’s direct pleas to the lawyer and guesses at his reactions to the most controversial moments of her narrative felt overdone and pulled me out of the main story, but overall I found it an effective framing technique. There is some extra significance given to these letters at the end of the book that lends purpose to the structure. Once it gets going, the mystery flows well and it’s easy to retreat into Rowan’s experience with the children and the house until the letters become more essential to the story.

“It sounded… well… as if there was someone pacing in the room above my head. But that made no sense either. Because there was no room up there. There was not so much as a loft hatch.”

For readers new to Ware’s work, I think The Turn of the Key would be an excellent place to start. As usual, she gives us a remote location, a house that feels almost like a character in itself, a handful of side characters that are difficult to decide whether to trust, and a narrator with a secret up her sleeve. Intriguing  questions are introduced immediately. Some things seem “off” pretty early on- Rowan is a qualified nanny who does seem to care about children, but we know right away that she had another reason to apply for this particular job, and little details in the story she gives her new employers don’t quite add up. Then there’s the malfunctioning smart system in the house, which seems in perfect working order except that it seems to be following orders no one in the house is authorized to access in the control menu. But though some aspects may be a bit transparent, Ware still manages to hold the reader’s attention and offers a movingly human solution to the mystery of the unpredictable smart house. I was thrilled to discover this isn’t just another reiteration of technology going rouge with the belief that it knows better than the humans.

Though I did think the source of the novel’s suspense and ultimate solution seemed unique enough, this isn’t a ground-breaking thriller. I haven’t read any of the other titles from the recent nanny-thriller trend, but still found notable similarities to other recent thrillers I’ve read- the strain from lack of sleep, the too-good-to-be-true ad, the certainty that the culprit must be inside (or very near) the house, etc. It’s a fairly standard representative of its genre, though undeniably solid for its lack of flare.

My only real hold-up here is that I think I’m becoming too familiar with Ware’s style. I’ve read all five of her books now, with a bit less enthusiasm for each volume, though I think that trend comes down to my knowing Ware’s style well enough by now that she can’t quite shock me anymore, rather than a decline in Ware’s capability as a writer. I believe that if I had read her books in any other order, I would feel the same after finishing them as I do now- that the mysteries are becoming a bit too transparent to truly surprise me. And yet, even so, I always enjoy the creepy atmosphere Ware provides, the realistically flawed protagonists, the uneasiness over knowing that every strange occurrence is not a supernatural terror but the work of a malicious (or at least misguided) human hand. Though I saw through some of Ware’s slight-of-hand tactics here straightaway, I was nonetheless drawn in by the creepy noises and touchy technology, the difficult children, the dynamic between Rowan and the family/staff at Heatherbrae. I found this a quick, easy, and mostly satisfying read, despite its failure to stand out from the thriller crowd, and I would highly recommend it to the right reader.

“I did hate them- in that moment. But I saw myself, too. A prickly little girl, full of emotions too big for her small frame, emotions she could not understand or contain.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. There’s just something about Ware’s writing that keeps me coming back, and I did have a good time with this one just as all the others. I’ll probably pick up her next book, as well. But I’m also content to put the thriller genre aside for a little while- at least until I need something spooky to pick up in October.

What’s your favorite Ruth Ware novel?

 

The Literary Elephant

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Mini-reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 6 (plus full series ranking)

Almost 9 full months after I read my first volume from the Faber Stories collection, I have finally succeeded in finishing off the set of the first twenty volumes! And just in time, as Faber has recently announced another batch of 10 stories to be added to the collection in October. I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience with these little books so far, and do plan to continue with the collection. But for today, I’ll be reviewing the last three stories I read, and then having a bit of fun ranking my favorites!

If you’re interested in seeing my thoughts on more of the stories, you can check out the rest of my mini-reviews here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5. And without further ado…

 

Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolin. 3 stars.

In this story, a woman on a hunger strike in an Irish prison recounts the events that have led her there. In doing so, she also examines her relationship with a friend, and their involvement with the IRA.

Though every aspect of this synopsis intrigued me (hunger strike! prison! Irish! delving into f/f relationships!), somehow none of them managed to satisfy me on the page. I didn’t feel any emotional investment because O’Faolin tries to use the meatiest bits of the story as concluding surprises rather than mining them for the thematic depth I was searching for. Instead of giving me an interesting lens to reflect back on the story with, those late revelations felt more like the beginning of the story I had expected to find here.

Ultimately, an adequate plot with plenty of potential that just utterly failed to engage me.

Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss. 3 stars.

Much as the title suggests, in this volume we are given three short vignettes that feature entirely different characters and scenarios that each ruminate on solitude. Each main character is in some way alone, though others are affected by his choices. Two of the stories feature a sci-fi element.

The first story of this set was my favorite- a judge writes to his wife about a case he claims to be reviewing, in which a man relocates to an uninhabited island with his ventriloquist dummy, to disastrous effect. The epistolary set-up added an extra layer of intrigue, and I found the whole story immensely bizarre and enjoyable. The second story features a celebrity artist on the outs with the public; this one I found a bit slower paced and somewhat boring without a sci-fi element, but I did enjoy its irony, even if a bit overt. The third piece included another interesting sci-fi element: little electronic cubes that appear to converse with each other. The “lesson” of the story isn’t the most original, though I did appreciate the uneasy character dynamic between the couple at the heart of the story.

I flew through this book, found it very entertaining and readable, but didn’t rate it any higher because I’m sure the messages and even the simple plots themselves will fade quickly for me.

” The dummy broke the silence. ‘So what’s this “sad” business mean anyway? I mean, how often do you feel like doing it?’ / ‘Sad? Oh, sadness is just happiness in reverse. We humans have to put up with it. Just being human is an awful burden to bear.’ “

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. 4 stars.

My last Faber Story (from this first set, at least) also turned out to be one of my favorites! I might have read this one in high school because it seemed vaguely familiar, but that didn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying the reread.

In this story, three generations- and one cat- pile into the family car for a road trip. What seems at first a satire- a rude family expecting great service and loudly complaining when anything fails to that meet their expectations- takes an even more interesting turn when their stubbornness leads them to encounter a dangerous wanted criminal.

The narration makes no attempt to tell the reader what sort of conclusion to draw from this family’s experience, though the main event of this trip is so momentous that there are plenty of conclusions available for the reader to draw. For me it was a story of two people (enemies, perhaps, or at least opposites) realizing that society is flawed, from opposite ends of the spectrum- one has faced injustice and been slighted by the strong voice of the law, the other has held herself up as righteous and lawful, only to realize that her own sense of morality won’t be enough to save her, either. For such a collection of unpleasant characters, this made for a very amusing and engaging read, and one that I think will only grow richer upon further visits.

faberstories6

 

Concluding thoughts:

Though Daughters of Passion went a bit unrealized, these last two stories were entertaining both in content and style, and I’d happily read both again. I do have Flannery O’connor’s complete story collection sitting on my shelf, and after this positive experience I’m looking forward to reading more of her work!

And for fun, a full ranking of the Faber Stories I’ve read so far, from most to least favorite. This list is completely based on personal preference; I’ve just reread all of my earlier reviews and considered also how well different elements of the stories have stuck with me in the months since I’ve begun reading them. The order is:

  1. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes by Alan Bennett
  2. The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan
  3. Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. Mrs. Fox by Sarah Hall
  5. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
  6. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney
  7. Paradise by Edna O’Brien
  8. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman
  9. The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes
  10. Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath
  11. The Victim by P. D. James
  12. Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss
  13. Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett
  14. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
  15. Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolain
  16. A River in Egypt by David Means
  17. Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore
  18. The Country Funeral by John McGahern
  19. Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine by Thom Jones
  20. Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma

 

faberstoriescompleteset

(The complete set, pictured in the order I read them.)

It’s worth noting that none of these stories rated below 3-stars for me, that the lowest on the list were simply the most forgettable and none struck me as problematic in any way. Almost all of them either delighted me or encouraged me to consider something from a new perspective, so the set was entirely worth the read for me! I’m eager to check out the next additions to the collection.

Have you read any of these stories, or other works by these authors?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Wall

I’m sure that with its recent exclusion from the Booker Prize shortlist interest in John Lanchester’s The Wall may already be decreasing, but I didn’t quite finish reading in time to review it beforehand, so here we are. In any case, this review is more likely to make you feel relieved you didn’t get to this one before the shortlist announcement rather than persuade you to pick it up- I don’t have many positive things to say.

thewallIn the novel, Joseph “Chewy” Kavanagh reports for duty on the Wall (or, the National Coastal Defense Structure); it’s a two-year post of rotating shifts for training, defending the country’s border, and resting the eyes- the glare of the sun off the water makes watching the Wall surprisingly difficult. As the result of a major environmental and climate Change, beaches no longer exist and countries have closed their borders to outsiders- in this case, by conscripting all new adults into active service on the Wall, where they are tasked with shooting any Others who approach. As conditions worsen elsewhere in the world, contact becomes more frequent, and more dangerous for everyone involved- for every Other who crosses the Wall, a Defender is “put to sea.”

“I wanted this time to be over, yet when I tried to think hard about what would be next, there was a blank.”

I should start by admitting that nothing about this novel struck me as overtly problematic. Though I didn’t enjoy the read, I didn’t find anything about it infuriating or alarming- it just didn’t deliver.

Right from the beginning of the novel, the first sentences about Lanchester’s Wall are very reminiscent of George R. R. Martin‘s descriptions of another popular Wall; not in style, but in imagery and sensory detail, as well as purpose (holding back the Others). Though it certainly helps to plant a visual in the reader’s mind, the author’s choice to piggyback off of existing content indicated a level of laziness and lack or originality that sadly persisted throughout the rest of the novel. (Is it possible Lanchester didn’t know about Westeros and the Night’s Watch? Perhaps, but wouldn’t an editor or early reader have made the connection?)

“It’s cold on the Wall. That’s the first thing everybody tells you, and the first thing you notice when you’re sent there, and it’s the thing you think about all the time you’re on it, and it’s the thing you remember when you’re not there anymore. It’s cold on the Wall.”

The repetition and sluggishness to make a point persist as well.

In the second chapter, we begin to see small poems about the Wall (and one about a Christmas tree, completely unrelated to the story at hand) that are offered only as further descriptors of life on the Wall and then are abruptly dropped from the novel; these are the book’s only claim to an interesting structure or experimental style.

“cold:::concrete:::wind:::sky:::water”

The rest is so straightforward that I wonder if it might fare better with a YA audience. If there’s one good thing I can say about The Wall, it’s that I flew through it because of the fast-paced and easy-to-read prose. The catch is that it’s so quick to digest because its parallels to current social and political issues are obvious, but the narration fails to take them a step further by making any new observations or giving a fresh perspective to the real-world events it riffs off of. To me, the setting and basic scenario felt like a well-built home that no one had moved into yet; it lacks life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot, because that’s really all The Wall has going for it, and despite this ranty review, I don’t mean to turn anyone away from reading this book or spoiling it for anyone who is interested- it is a perfectly adequate read. I’m not sure it’s an adequate Booker Prize nominee, but I don’t doubt that readers will be entertained or will be able to find worthwhile messages between the lines. The author does none of the heavy lifting in conveying worthwhile themes here, but a determined reader could make just about anything from the bare bones of this story that they wanted to. Personally, I found the foreshadowing made the events of the novel predictable and the morals overly simplistic, but this isn’t to disparage anyone who takes more from the reading experience than I have. It simply didn’t work for me.

“I’d been brought up not to think about the Others in terms of where they came from or who they were, to ignore all that- they were just Others. But maybe, now that I was one of them, they weren’t Others anymore? If I was an Other and they were Others perhaps none of us were Others but instead we were a new Us. It was confusing.”

In spite of all of my complaints thus far, I might still have chosen a higher rating if the ending wasn’t such a non-ending. Again, I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll say only that it seemed to me like a convenient and temporary fix that offered no real substance to the storyline. It has nothing to say about the Wall or the Others, no lesson seems to have been learned or advantage gained, none of the core conflicts are in any way likely to be resolved by the main characters’ concluding decisions. They seem as devoid of emotion and opinion as they had through the rest of the novel’s events, and their lack of investment in any sort of future plan makes the derailment of their lives a cold reading experience with incredibly low stakes. “Chewy” doesn’t use his new circumstances to reflect on what he’s been through or the state of  his world. And perhaps this is a statement in itself, though it proved ineffectual for me.

Unfortunately, this title was another low point of the Booker Prize longlist for me.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I’d seen some disappointing reviews before I got around to picking this one up, but I do enjoy a good sci-fi/dystopian tale now and then and hoped at least to be entertained. Instead, I found myself counting pages until the end, even thought the experience was not particularly difficult or time-consuming. This was just… not at all what I expected from a literary prize nominee.

Have you read this one, or anything else from John Lanchester? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Frankissstein

CW: homophobia, transphobia, rape (on the page, plus other instances mentioned), misogyny, deaths of children (due to illness), unauthorized appropriation of severed body parts.

My Booker Prize adventure continues with a standout: Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein. This was my sixth read from this year’s longlist, and my favorite so far!

frankisssteinIn the novel, Mary Shelley waits out a rainstorm with her friends in 1816, participating in a challenge to create the most monstrous tale- the historical conception of her famed novel, Frankenstein. Alternatively, in Brexit Britain, Ry Shelley becomes acquainted with a couple of prominent men in robotics and AI. Victor is a scientist who believes artificial intelligence will become the next species at the top of the food chain- soon, and to the world’s benefit; meanwhile, Ron Lord is a businessman who’s found a lucrative career in selling sex bots to men. Each character’s career and personal interests circle around existential questions and also brush against matters of gender and identity.

“In some ways machines are easier to deal with. If I had just told machine intelligence that I am now a man, although I was born a woman, it wouldn’t slow up its processing speed.”

I might as well say up front that I loved everything about this novel, and that my existing love for Shelley’s original Frankenstein probably predisposed me toward complete enjoyment of Winterson’s homage. Though I do not think one necessarily needs to have read or really known anything about Shelley’s classic to enjoy Frankissstein, appreciation for the former will certainly improve your chances of appreciating the latter. The reason for this is that Winterson is not simply recreating or retelling Shelley’s gruesome story, but expanding upon it and paying tribute. Enough details from the original story and Shelley’s own background are provided alongside Winterson’s modern storyline that any casual reader should be able to pick up on the similarities, but the experience is likely richer for those entering Frankissstein with some prior knowledge. I certainly found it so.

The format of the book is a mishmash of pieces that are not divided neatly into chapters. The timeline bounces between a fictionalization of Mary Shelley’s real past (the sections I preferred) and Ry’s present romance with Victor. There is also a smattering of related-but-detached quotes that crop up between sections of the story. It is a rather confusing format that can seem a bit arbitrarily divided at times, but the effect fits the topic- monsters built from real humans (in this case, Shelley’s bio) and a spark of creation. The parallels are obvious, but seem stitched together in fragments rather than sculpted neatly as a whole- instead of a gripping plot, it’s a series of vignettes that study characters and themes. Nonetheless, every single narrative shift had me excited to see what would come next.

One of the biggest changes between Frankenstein and Frankissstein is the new novel’s focus on gender. Winterson further blurs the line between life and death that Shelley grays in her original work, but then takes matters a step further by using characters that represent and support non-binary gender identity and sexuality to further her narrative speculation on the possibility of uploading the human brain to extend life through computers; the central question being: to what extent is our “life,” our consciousness, connected to our physical bodies? If we could project ourselves into any body or machine, would we choose the forms we were born with, alter our bodies, or abandon biology altogether? I’m not trans, so I can’t speak personally about the accuracy of the coverage in Ry’s character, but I thought his identity as a trans person was considerately handled in a way that showed Winterson had done her research. I loved the gender commentary running through this novel, especially from the unique mortality angle that Winterson tackles it from. I’ve seen some criticism for Frankissstein‘s political commentary hitting a bit too on-the-nose, but I thought the way everything tied to Shelley’s original exploration of recreating life after death kept it fresh and morbidly engrossing. I have never felt more aware of my physical body and its doomed fate.

“Medically and legally, death is deemed to occur at heart failure. Your heart stops. You take your last breath. Your brain, though, is not dead, and will not die for another five minutes or so. Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes in extreme cases. The brain dies because it is deprived of oxygen. It is living tissue like the rest of the body. It is possible that our brain knows we are dead before we die.”

The writing itself is excellent throughout- readable and engaging, and packed full of one-liners. I even laughed a fair amount. The future counterparts Winterson has provided for Lord Byron, Claire, and Polidori are hilarious and apt, and I loved seeing Victor as a part of this tale, right alongside his creator. Mary Shelley does seem slightly modernized (though it is worth remembering that her mother was a well-known advocate for women’s rights back in the late 1700s), but I think any liberties taken are clear and beneficial, a way of emphasizing how challenging Shelley’s life must have been and how the creation of Frankenstein, her own monster, might have haunted her. The account of her life depicted here is quite moving, as we see a young woman full of dreams weighted down with societal rules, responsibilities, and tragedies that would have been difficult for any person to cope with. The recap of her trials and tribulations provided in a first-person perspective brings Frankissstein to life.

Though I preferred the historical timeline right from the atmospheric beginning, I also appreciated the ways in which Ry’s conversations and experiences bring current political matters from the modern world into the text. Just as the scientific developments of Shelley’s time must have played a role in the creation and reception of her story (I’m flashing back to a college research paper, yikes), so too are the details of our time stamped upon Winterson’s.

“What is sanity? he said. Can you tell me? Poverty, disease, global warming, terrorism, despotism, nuclear weapons, gross inequality, misogyny, hatred of the stranger.”

Obviously, I don’t know Mary Shelley’s mind, but I really think this is a response to her work that Shelley would have been delighted to see. In any case, I know I am.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I want to reread this. I want to reread Frankenstein. I want to read so much more of Winterson’s work (how have I never read anything else from this author? I have been aware of her work and somehow just never picked anything up?!). I haven’t read enough of the longlist yet for a serious opinion of the whole or accurate ranking of my favorites, but I can confidently say that I will not be disappointed if this one wins. I certainly hope to see it shortlisted.

More of my Booker nominee reviews: My Sister, the Serial Killer, Lost Children Archive, Lanny, Night Boat to Tangier, and An Orchestra of Minorities.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Human Acts

Last year I read The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, which I found quite powerful and have been returning to often in thought ever since. This year (and just in time for the end of WIT month!) I picked up my second novel from this author/translator duo, Human Acts. Though quite a different work, I found it equally brilliant.

humanacts2In the novel, the events and impact of the Gwangju uprising in 1980 South Korea unfold in a sequence of interconnected vignettes. Dong-ho, a fifteen year-old boy, is the link that connects them all. After being caught in a violent government-sanctioned attack on civilians, the boy tries to take a more active stance in aiding the victims and fighting for justice. From here, the story leaps through the next three decades in an examination of the aftereffects of the riots.

“Why would you sing the national anthem for people who’d been killed by soldiers? Why cover the coffin with the Taegukgi? As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them.”

This book is absolutely brutal. Though I found The Vegetarian psychologically disturbing (in the best way), Human Acts is a very different beast because it tackles a historic event. There is no way to dismiss the horrors that these characters describe- though the characters themselves are fictional- because these horrors are born not from the imagination but from reality. I knew nothing about Gwangju before reading this book, but now I am positive I will never forget about it.

“What had proved most incomprehensible was that this bloodshed had been committed again and again, and with no attempt to bring the perpetrators before the authorities. Acts of violence committed in broad daylight, without hesitation and without regret. Commanding officers who would have encouraged, no, even demanded such displays of brutality.”

What impressed me most about Human Acts is the way that Kang focuses the narration not on the grisly details of the uprising itself, but on the physical and mental affects that result from them. We are told about deaths and torture tactics, but instead of wasting space trying to convince readers of how awful these experiences are, she focuses instead on how the characters try or fail to cope with what they’ve been through- which somehow makes it all the more awful. For example, one chapter follows an ex- factory girl; a few sentences sum up the worst of the trauma she experienced after being arrested as part of a labor union, but the chapter revolves mainly around her attempts to visit an old factory friend and her incapability of sharing her own story. This was the section I found most moving, though each contains at least one gut-wrenching moment that leaves an impression.

Throughout the novel, there is much focus on the body, though Kang never lets the reader forget that the villains here are human too- there is an incredible and unsettling message evident that cruelty is as much a part of human nature as suffering. We hurt, and we are hurt. It’s devastating to think that this might be the human norm.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered- is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?”

Something I liked a bit less is the use of frequent perspective shifts. Each chapter highlights a different character’s experience, and many of them are referenced in different ways, depending on the chapter. In the first section, we follow Dong-ho, who is addressed in the second person, as “you.” In the next section, we follow Dong-ho’s best friend, who is an “I” telling his story to Dong-ho’s “you.” The factory girl is also a “you” in her section, though other characters use the first person “I” or the third person “she/he.” I thought some of these POVs were more effective than others, and found the constant changes a bit tedious and confusing. Ultimately, I am not sure the effect was worth the effort.

But that’s a small complaint. Overall, I found this an engaging read full of unrelenting pain and haunting beauty. It’s a piece of world history worth knowing about; I’m sure I’ll remember the lesson, but I don’t think it will stay with me in quite the same manner that The Vgetarian will; while Human Acts opened my eyes to a real event and a deep level of human suffering, it seems to me a  self-contained story, speculations on human nature aside. The Vegetarian, though less grounded in history, struck me as an inventive masterpiece of fiction with more widely applicable themes. It’s difficult to say I “liked” either one better than the other, or would recommend one more highly than the other, as I think they are quite opposite pieces of work. Both entirely worth the read.

” ‘The soldiers are the scary ones,’ you said with a half-smile. ‘What’s frightening about the dead?’ “

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I should have picked this book up sooner. I believe there is only one more Han Kang book translated into English so far, The White Book, which I’ve already added to my TBR. I want to read it right away, but also I’ll be sad to run out of new works to read from her- at least for now. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll get to my other WIT reads before the end of the month either, though I’m still planning to pick them up soon anyway; I need more translations in my life.

Have you read any of Han Kang’s work? Do you have a favorite?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: An Orchestra of Minorities

My sampling of the Booker Prize longlist continues with Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities. This one sounded so grandiose in concept that I was expecting either a major hit or a total miss, and sadly it did end up being a miss for me.

anorchestraofminoritiesIn the novel, Chinonso lives on a Nigerian poultry farm, alone with his beloved fowls. His immediate family is dead or estranged, so when an uncle suggests to him that a wife would give him some companionship, Chinonso doesn’t need much persuading. His first few attempts at love are rather naive and don’t pan out, but then he encounters a woman staring over the side of a bridge, apparently preparing to throw herself over and die. Neither of them are considering romance during this encounter, but a fledgling bond takes root all the same. Unfortunately, her family disapproves of him. As the lovers navigate their new relationship, they are thrown into increasingly difficult circumstances that teach them just how far they are willing (or not) to go for each other.

“All who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilizations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, raped, shamed, and killed. With all these people, he’d come to share a common fate. They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.”

First off, An Orchestra of Minorities is a book that purports (in its jacket copy! in the text itself!) to be a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey. This claim was one of the biggest draws for me, so the fact that I didn’t think Obioma’s novel compared well to The Odyssey is probably my greatest disappointment here. This story is divided into three “incantations,” but it is not until the second of these that the connection to Homer’s epic begins to surface, and not until the third part (over 300 pages into the novel!) that Chinonso becomes a man stuck abroad, struggling to return to his home and the woman he loves. Plot-wise, the comparison ends there. Without the narration’s insistence on blatantly drawing a link between Chinonso and Odysseus, I suspect any narrative similarity would have gone largely unnoticed; but that’s just one reader’s opinion.

“And I must say, humbly- Chukwu- that I may have helped save my host’s life! For my words- What if she still loves you like Odysseus’s wife?- filled him with sudden hope.”

My love for The Odyssey is 50% appreciation for the tragedy, 50% appreciation for Odysseus’s craftiness in circumnavigating each of the obstacles placed in his path. Though Chinonso’s story certainly includes plenty of tragedy, he responds to his hardships with more crying and wailing than attempts to outsmart his enemies. Though Chinonso’s inability to fight back against his oppressors makes a powerful statement about how hard it must be to escape injustices like those that he faces in Nigeria (and in Cyprus, likened to “Africa in Europe”), it also leaves An Orchestra of Minorities feeling like an overly long and uneventful book in which things only happen to the main character. The format of Chinonso’s “chi” giving this story as testimony to the Igbo gods grounds the reader in Nigerian culture and harks back to the Greek’s singing muses, though the prose’s tendency to philosophize (which admittedly fits the myth comparison) also contributes to the sense of longwindedness.

“A word spoken stands as truth, firm, unless it is revealed to be a lie. Truth is a fixed, unchangeable state. It is that which resists any touching, any fiddling. It cannot be adorned, nor can it be garnished. It cannot be bent, rearranged, or moved about. […] Speak only what you know. If a fact is thin, do not feed it to make it fat. If a fact is rich, do not take from it to make it lowly. If a fact is short, do not stretch it to make it long. Truth resists the hand that creates it, so that it is not bound by the hand. It must exist in the state in which it was first created.”

Some readers will find these moralizing moments more endearing than I did, surely. To me they seemed tangential and gimmicky. I liked that the dialogue is written in dialect, but the frequent untranslated phrases of Igbo were a step too far for me. There are also many names mentioned, of places and deities and such, whose significance I had a hard time understanding because they are not always explained clearly for the layperson. In many ways I thought An Orchestra of Minorities a brilliant snapshot of a place and culture, but there are certainly details that went over my head, as well. I think someone more familiar with Igbo and Nigeria might best comprehend everything Obioma is doing with language and structure in this novel, but I also think the content and themes are aimed more at those who are unfamiliar, in a way that is meant to raise awareness of some of the gross racial injustice still evident in the world today. I’m not sure who the happy middle audience might be.

“I know what they did to you was not good. They disgraced you. But, you see, these things happen. This is Nigeria. This is Alaigbo. A poor man is a poor man. Onye ogbenye, he is not respected in the society.”

Another major barrier for me in this book is Chinonso himself. I do think a case can be made that the toxic masculinity on display in his character is an intentional, calculated writing choice meant to reflect the poor environment Chinonso has been raised in and the increase of struggles piled upon him. In the end, the narration’s failure to address this possibility even in the most subtle way made it hard to see this element in any sort of constructive light, and I found myself more annoyed with its inclusion than sympathetic- it could definitely have been handled better. So could a few other sensitive topics that come up in the story: prostitution, depression and suicidal thoughts, alcoholism… Chinonso meets a string of characters with problems of their own,  but never sees these issues as more than plot points in his own narrative. As a consequence, Chinonso is the only character that feels fully fleshed out. This bothered me with Ndali in particular, as she plays such a vital role; Chinonso meets her a real low point in her life, as a failed relationship leads her to that bridge- even when her relationship with Chinonso must appear to her to be headed down the same path, we see only Chinonso worrying that she’ll let another man touch her breasts.

But for all my complaints, I do need to say that I admire the concept behind this story. Though the execution fell entirely flat for me, I think this book was born from a strong and worthwhile idea (which I’ve mostly avoided talking about to spare you from any spoilers- it’s best not to know what’s coming). Because he is Nigerian, because the lessons life has taught Chinonso are not the same lessons people learn in other countries, he is vulnerable in particular ways. Because he is Nigerian, his word does not matter when someone accuses him. Because he is Nigerian, assumptions are made about him, lies are spread, and his life is less his own. Though this is not a new theme in literature, I think Obioma frames and addresses the issue in a new and interesting way. For a reader who enjoys Obioma’s writing, I think this story leave a much better impression. Personally, I’m left with a few aspects to appreciate from a reading experience that was just not at all enjoyable for me.

“Look at our economy; see our cities. No light. No jobs. No clean water. No security. No nothing. Everything, price of everything is double-double. Nothing is working. You go to school suppose take you for four years, you finish after six or seven, if God help you even. Then when you finish you find job so tey you will grow gray hair and even if you find it, you will work-work-workn and still not be paid.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I think this was my low point in this year’s Booker longlist- a 2-star rating is unusual for me in any circumstance, and particularly frustrating with a prize nominee. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who gets on with this one better than I did, but this is the title I least want to see advance, at the moment. If more of the longlist had been available to me, I’m not sure I would have finished this one. I don’t think I’ll be reading further from this author.

But to end on a brighter note, I’m really loving the next longlist title I’ve picked up- Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein!

Links to my previous Booker longlist reviews: My Sister, the Serial Killer, Lost Children Archive, Lanny, and Night Boat to Tangier.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Night Boat to Tangier

I’m back to the Booker Prize longlist with Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier. The synopsis of this one sounded excellent to me, but my expectations may have been a bit too high- the book didn’t quite live up.

nightboattotangierIn the novel, two Irish gangsters- Maurice “Moss” and Charlie- wait at a ferry terminal for a boat carrying the estranged daughter of one of the men. Whether she is coming or going from Tangier is unclear to them, but they are confident about recognizing her or encountering (and successfully intimidating) someone who knows her. While they wait, they recount lives of violence, loss and betrayal- events that have both pushed them apart and bound them together.

“They look into the distance. They send up their sighs. Their talk is a shield against feeling. They pick up the flyers and rise again. They offer them to passersby- few are accepted. Sympathy is offered in the soft downturn of glances. The missing here make a silent army.”

I must say that Barry’s prose in this novel is exquisite. It’s lyrical, peppered with Spanish and Irish lingo, and brimming with metaphors that almost always hit the mark. The narration is a third person omniscient, which allows the reader to see into both men’s lives (though the focus is clearly on Moss) but also gauge others’ perceptions of them. The timeline bounces between the wait at the port and some of the earlier events that have led our characters to this day.

The story itself is where things started to go a bit downhill for me. Quality writing is a huge determining factor in whether I’ll appreciate a book, but it’s not the only factor. And sadly, neither plot nor characters quite matched the perfection of the prose for me.

To begin with, almost all of the action occurs in the past timeline- the present is reserved for reflection and… waiting. Though Charlie and Moss do have a few encounters at the port station, the fact that they are waiting for someone specific makes those early conversations with other characters feel superfluous. I might still not have minded that Night Boat to Tangier is slow on action if the action hadn’t been so very expected. I think Barry does a great job of circling around the drug trafficking aspect that lies at the heart of this story and instead focusing on its myriad affects in the lives of those involved- the relationships that are formed, the lifestyles required, the attitudes adopted. But I expected a pair of aging Irish gangsters to make for a grittier read, and instead found the usual drug use, infidelity, bad parenting, etc. presented with such a lack of nuance and originality.

“It was a fucking joke life. It was fucking beautiful. They never caught us- that was the important thing.”

In the end, I think my biggest impediment came in the form of the characters; though Moss and Charlie are criminals who’ve made plenty of bad choices, they are clearly supposed to draw on the reader’s heart. They’ve had a rough time of it, and perhaps had less choice about the careers they began than they can admit, and in any case are now trying to do The Right Thing. The book’s focus on love and attempts to mend important relationships seems an encouragement for the reader to overlook Moss and Charlie’s criminality and see only their emotions. In almost every review I’ve seen for this book, readers have been prepared to forgive just about anything that didn’t quite work for them because they became so attached to Charlie and Moss. I’m clearly in the minority- but I thought these two men seemed like such cardboard cutouts of gangsters that I really could never bring myself to care about them at all. Though their fascinating friendship should be the highlight of the novel, my lack of belief and interest in them as people barred me from making as much of their dynamic as other readers seem to do. Dilly was the only character I found very convincing, and Barry doesn’t give us much of her.

“She can see her mother, in the hotel bed […] turning again and again in a hot, awful soak, and she can feel the heat off her, it radiates, she’s like a brick oven, and Maurice sits by the window, it’s very late, it’s summer and such a humid night, and he’s looking out to the car park, smoking a number, and very lowly, under his breath, he’s going / fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck / and she knew then that they were definitely not like other families.”

None of this is to say that I was bored while reading. The chapters are short, and the scenes switch often enough that even where it is predictable the story is never a slog. I’ve already mentioned that I adored the writing style- I marked so many stunning passages that I could have filled this review just with quotes and not lost any length. There’s one superb scene that will surely stick with me, in which Charlie and Moss are having a public confrontation narrated entirely through the eyes of other patrons in the bar who become aware of the tension in the room and wait expectantly for something to happen. Something does, of course. The dynamic between Charlie and Moss is certainly fascinating; though they’ve been in competition with each other for so long and have so many reasons to see each other as enemies, still they have maintained a friendship stronger than anything else that has come and gone for them in the intervening years. I would’ve loved to see this story explored further in every direction.

“He wanted to leave the place again but was rooted to it now. Fucking Ireland. Its smiling fiends. Its speaking rocks. Its haunted fields. Its sea memory. Its wildness and strife. Is haunt of melancholy. The way that it closes in.”

Though this was a fun read, I didn’t feel that it left me with any new perspective of the world or food for further thought. If I had picked the book up on my own for a quick escapist read, it might have fared better, but as  part of the Booker Prize longlist I had hoped for more thematic depth than “smuggling illegal goods can ruin your family.” But Night Boat to Tangier is a good time at the very least, and many readers seem to be finding more to praise it for than I have, so if the synopsis interests you don’t let my mediocre review steer you away from giving it a chance.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m really disappointed I didn’t like this one more. Maybe I’m missing something, as it seems to be receiving a lot of love from other reviewers. In any case, a reread (even just for that wonderful writing) isn’t out of the question, and I am curious to check out more of Barry’s work based on the strength of his prose alone. I don’t really see this one making the shortlist despite its crowd popularity, but I’ve been wrong before. In any case, flaws and all, I had a better time with Night Boat to Tangier from start to finish than I’m having with my current Booker Prize read, Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities.

Links to my previous Booker Prize longlist reviews: My Sister, the Serial Killer, Lost Children Archive, and Lanny.

How is the Booker Prize longlist going for you so far?

 

The Literary Elephant