Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: My Cousin Rachel

It’s been almost TWO YEARS since I read and loved Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a book that left me suspecting I’d found a new (to me) favorite author, so it was beyond time to try another of her books and seal the deal. This month, I picked up my second-ever du Maurier novel, My Cousin Rachel, in a lovely buddy read with Melanie (@ Grab the Lapels). Fortunately, we both loved it! I’ve linked to her review.

mycousinrachelIn the novel, Philip resides on his uncle’s estate, of which he is the sole heir. When he was orphaned as a baby, this uncle took him in; they are each other’s closest family, and remarkably similar in appearance, opinion, and habit. For his health, the uncle has recently begun wintering away from the property at Cornwall, where much to his surprise Philip one day receives a letter stating that his uncle has married their cousin Rachel and will not be returning home as early as planned. Before long more letters start to arrive- mysterious, accusatory letters, begging Philip to come quickly- which he does, but not before his uncle is pronounced dead. Angry and disbelieving of the supposed cause of death, Philip invites Rachel to stay with him in Cornwall, intending to punish her for whatever role she may have played in his uncle’s demise. But when she arrives, nothing goes quite the way he thought it would.

My Cousin Rachel is a gothic novel with an air of mystery, though ultimately it’s du Maurier’s insightful characterization and atmosphere that drive the reader onward. The ever-present question of whether Rachel had anything to do with her husband’s sudden death is never far from the reader’s mind, though so much else is happening in the foreground that it’s impossible to call this novel anything other than a masterful, layered work.

The entire novel is narrated from Philip’s perspective, which I found immensely interesting as there’s also quite a bit of commentary on- or at least implication surrounding-  the unfairness of traditional gender roles and stereotypes. It seems to have been written with a female audience in mind, as the criticisms lie mainly in understood but unspoken motivations and undercurrents in dialogue, rather than bold statements. Nevertheless, the hint of feminism is no less exciting for its subtlety. Perhaps moreso for the fact that it is apparent through the lens of a self-entitled young man.

” ‘Louise isn’t a woman,’ I said, ‘she’s younger than myself, and I have known her since she ran around in petticoats.’ “

Of course, Philip isn’t the only interesting character; the framing of the novel around his perspective is apparent even in the title, but he is not the titular character. Rachel herself is vibrant and enigmatic; she’s polite, ladylike, and impeccably behaved on the surface, but it’s clear from the start that she’s intelligent and secretive, and won’t take anyone else’s word for who she should be and what she should do. She is entirely worthy of the mystery revolving around her. Additionally, the handful of secondary characters each have their own unique angle into the story, each a necessary cog that keeps the central wheel spinning.

As for the mystery, it plays out perfectly. A slow setup of the situation in the opening chapters allows readers a chance to meet all of the key players and acquaint themselves with the central conflict- the debate over whether or not Rachel is guilty of murder- which begins to wind ever tighter as soon as Rachel arrives on the page. From there, the tension and pacing gradually increase as these disparate personalities bounce off of one another in lieu of much real plot; relationships become increasingly nuanced and disaster looms. The final clues aren’t distributed until the very end of the novel, keeping the reader hooked and questing for answers up to the very last page- and beyond. This is a book that stays with the reader, that keeps asking questions after the cover is closed, and that promises a rich reread as well.

But, despite everything that I loved about this reading experience, there were a couple of elements to it that didn’t quite win me over. (I believe they worked better for Melanie, so be sure to check out her review for another opinion!)

The first is Philip. I’ve already mentioned being impressed with some of what was accomplished with his characterization, so clearly he was a double-edged sword for me. He’s an engaging and readable narrator, and the perfect perspective from which to view this series of tragedies as a mystery, but he’s also not the most likeable character; in itself, that wouldn’t bother me as long as his characterization serves a narrative purpose, but I’m not convinced Philip’s mildly selfish, spoiled personality ever does. It’s not strong enough for me to hate him, nor for me to pity him. He’s single and childless, and his uncle is already dead, so the reader must care about Philip for his own sake, which I never quite did. I found the matter of Rachel’s potential crimes against his family an intellectual curiosity at most, and unfortunately was never emotionally invested in Philip’s fate.

” ‘You have grown up ignorant of women, and if you ever marry it will be hard on your wife. I was saying so to Louise at breakfast.’ / He broke off then, looking – if my godfather could look such a thing – a little uncomfortable, as if he said more than he meant. / ‘That’s all right,’ I said, ‘my wife can take care of all the difficulties when the time comes.’ “

I also found myself frustrated over the murkiness of a few of the characters’ loyalties, especially those of Rachel’s friend/lawyer, and those of Philip’s godfather. I was never quite clear on whether their actions stemmed from genuine feelings, or whether they were merely following the letter of the law and came across as a bit suspicious only because it fed into the pull of the main mystery. I don’t think a bit more clarity on their motives would have hurt the story at all, and so I was disappointed not to have it.

And last but not least, though I did find plenty of surprises in the plot, I also found some aspects very predictable, which is not necessarily a fault of the book but probably inevitable 70 years after a mystery publication with the level of popularity du Maurier’s work has always seen. Though I enjoyed all of it, I saw through some of it, which made me impatient at points. Not a big deal at all, and I can’t be more specific without spoiling things, but I wanted to mention a bit of potential predictability for mystery fans.

” ‘Sometimes,’ she said slowly, ‘you are so like him that I become afraid. I see your eyes, with that same expression, turned upon me; and it is as though, after all, he had not died, and everything that was endured must be endured once more.’ “

Ultimately, My Cousin Rachel lacked for me that sense of everything falling perfectly into place (such as I found in Rebecca), though I did appreciate most of the lingering ambiguity. At the end of the story, there’s still a major choice of belief left up to the reader, narrowed down to a simple yes or no question that even a strong opinion one way or the other will not banish uncertainty from. It’s cleverly crafted and fun from start to finish, entirely worth the read.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was really close to a 5 star rating, and even though it didn’t quite make it for me, the experience has cemented du Maurier as one of my favorite authors, and leaves me determined to read the rest of her work. Next up for me (though I’m not sure when I’ll get to it) will probably be The House on the Strand. I’ll also be watching the film adaptation for My Cousin Rachel as soon as possible.

Have you read or seen this one?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: Trust Exercise

CW: abuse of mentorship roles, molestation, statutory rape

For my first read of the year, I chose the 2019 National Book Award winner, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise. Though it didn’t go at all the way I was expecting, it really impressed me by the end!

trustexerciseIn the novel, a group of teens attends an exclusive performing arts school in Texas, in the 1980’s. Two of them, a girl and a boy, skirt around each other in an angst-filled battle of wills in which they both want a relationship but express themselves in different ways, ultimately getting their wires crossed. The whole school, of course, is privy to the dramas of their unrequited love. In the midst of this emotional turmoil, the cool theater teacher, the one who was on Broadway, the one all the kids want to be friends with, makes a game of their stubborn pride. For good measure, a few British theater students with two infamous teachers of their own are thrown into the mix, and so proceeds a chaotic tale of inappropriate relationships built around inappropriate art. Years later, the students- now adults- settle into their lives, still fixated the mess of their high school experience.

The book is divided into three parts, each labelled simply, “Trust Exercise.” They’re very different pieces and each, in their own way, requires some trust from the reader.

The first section, which takes up about half of the novel, is set in the 80’s art school. We mainly follow the teen girl, but the perspective is 3rd person and reveals a bit of each of the main characters. The one thing that I thought I knew about this book going in- that it features a pervy teacher breaking up a teen relationship and possibly molesting the girl- isn’t really what I found here, which really threw me off. Instead, it’s a plotless slog about two teens who desperately want to be together and can’t seem to make it happen. The teacher does seem questionable, but he spends little time alone with the girl, and most of that she spends crying in front of him as he asks invasive questions. On top of that, he’s gay, meaning that any apparent manipulations seem like a mental game rather than anything sexual.

” ‘You wanted me to go after her and make her feel better, and tell her we were still best friends. And I did, even though I was lying. And now I have to keep lying because she thinks that we’re best friends again.’ / ‘What makes you think that’s what I wanted?’ / ‘Because you told me to go after her!’ / ‘Yes, but that’s all I told you to do. I didn’t tell you to make her feel better. I didn’t tell you to lie, and say the two of you were still friends.’ “

But there’s clearly plenty of unacceptable behavior taking place and it’s intellectually interesting, seeing all the ways in which these students don’t understand they’re being manipulated or taken advantage of. The people they see as mentors treat them not as children to respect as such, but as inexperienced adults who can sort through the fallout of their uninformed decisions in their own time. It should be a fascinating power study, but it’s diluted by the focus on the failed teen romance and ultimately, the whole section seems to go nowhere anyway, ending rather arbitrarily with nothing resolved or concluded. Add to this the fact that I didn’t care about any of the characters at this point and had no interest in the theater aspect, and you can begin to understand why wasn’t enjoying myself.

Then comes the second section. Here, years later, we follow a woman who previously seemed like a minor character as she turns the entire narrative on its head. We find out that she’s been reading a novel written by one of her old classmates, that the first part of Trust Exercise is actually the first part of this novel, and then we find out that many of the events and details from this fiction-within-fiction are clues or coverups hiding the truth of what really happened. Our narrator in this section speaks in the first person, but also speaks about herself in the 3rd person, going by the fake name given to her by the novelist classmate. This tactic gives us a bit of duality, showing two sides of a much more interesting character who shines a light on what’s already been read and paints it over in an entirely different color.

The meta elements here and the addition of some darker plot twists really turned things around for me. The use of 1st and 3rd person from the same character as well as the introduction of a play brings the acting aspect together. It truly becomes a story not of power imbalance alone but of sexual abuse, of long-term trauma, and of the men in high places who for so many years have gotten away with too much.

” ‘We were never children,’ he said.”

The third section, the shortest of all, gives the reader an interaction between two  characters, both clearly recognizable despite the fact that one has not been named up to this point, and the other bears a new name. There’s not much new information to be found here, and nothing that happens between them is particularly surprising, and yet it is a necessary ending that ties the rest of the story together. The perfect garnish that puts the right tone on the book’s content and makes its purpose apparent.

My time with this book was a roller coaster experience, from a slow, seemingly straightforward, uninteresting start, to an utterly engaging and emotionally taxing middle, to the smooth leveling off of the end. This should probably have rounded off to a 4-star book for me. It took me three days to get through the first half and I didn’t like it. The framework of the story felt unbalanced. Choi has a tendency of overwriting in places, belaboring the point and drawing out an idea into a page-long paragraph when a single sentence would have sufficed. One character’s excellent memory means we occasionally get full dictionary definitions (this is not an exaggeration) for individual words, including commentary on how each possible interpretation of the word applies. It’s easy to see how readers who find the writing more grating, or who aren’t as enraptured as I was with the shift in the second part of the book, might have a more disappointing experience.

And yet, despite its flaws, I was completely caught up in the ride. I loved the book’s examination of power and abuse, and how far it pursued these themes. I loved the artistry involved in the narrative style and structure. I loved the misdirection that left me doubting what should have been obvious. I loved how quickly and completely Choi was able to change my mind about what I had read. She took my sky-high expectations and dropped them low, then lifted them right back up again. I’m actually looking forward to rereading that boring first section with my fresh knowledge. For this, I’m marking Trust Exercise as a 5-star read. It’s a brutal little book that isn’t as it first appears and requires a bit of mental reconstruction to piece together. I didn’t love every moment of the experience, but when I closed the book and set it aside, the story remained stuck in my head and I’ve been carrying it around with me for days.

“Your life outside school isn’t any of his goddamn business. You know that, don’t you?”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I chose this book from my 2019 books I missed list, and I’m so glad I finally picked it up. It took a while to convince me, but it got there in the end. Despite the rocky start, this one is setting a high bar for my 2020 reading!

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: One Day in December, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Institute

First off, apologies to anyone who wanted to share a comment on my last post and wasn’t able to, thanks to a WordPress glitch. I’ve corrected the post settings and the comment box is back now, so I’ll link it here just in case: Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question. (No worries if you don’t want to comment, of course.)

For today, I’ve got another set of short reviews. These don’t have anything in common except for the time period in which I read them, so feel free to skip around if you prefer.

onedayindecemberJosie Silver’s One Day in December is a popular romance novel that I received last Christmas and waited all year for the right time to pick it up! In the end, reading this between Christmas and New Year’s was really the highlight of my experience. It’s formatted as a set of New Year’s resolutions followed by snippets from the year, over the course of a decade.

Other than the perfect timing, a lot of this story just didn’t work for me. First, it’s the least romantic romance I’ve ever read. The main couple “meet” in the first five pages of the book by glimpsing each other through a bus window. This moment was supposedly important enough that neither of them are able to fully love anyone else afterward. Through ten years of narration, we follow both of them as they date various other people; the romance we’re unarguably supposed to be rooting for through nearly 400 pages doesn’t come together until the LAST PAGE of the book. So, no steamy scenes between the two of them, and for most of the interim they can’t even be honest or open with each other. (Where’s the romance?!)

To some extent, I appreciate the longer timeline and the messy relationships, but I didn’t feel that the author used this setup to develop much of a rapport between the two main characters. Both the man and the woman find excellent partners in these 10 years that I would have rather seen them with than each other, which is partially due to the fact that the reader simply spends more time with those couples than the main ship. Even with 390+ pages and ten years’ worth of plot, we don’t really get to know any of the main characters well enough. The writing is so much telling rather than showing, to the point where the characters remain completely unpredictable because they don’t exhibit clear personalities or motives. They seem more like vehicles to push us through this story rather than just, you know, being the story. This made it impossible to invest emotionally, a crucial flaw in a romance.

“Despite the fairy-tale snowstorm out there, this isn’t Narnia. This is London, real life, where hearts get kicked and bruised and broken, but somehow they still keep beating.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Full disclosure, I think I’ll end up lowering this rating after some time has passed. I had low expectations going in and picked it up at a time when I wanted something light and inconsequential so I didn’t hate the read, but I think it will be the complaints that stick with me most.

thekingdomofcopperI read S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass, the first book in her Daevabad trilogy, almost an entire year ago, and I don’t think I did it justice in my (3-star) review. I remember my expectations not quite fitting what I actually knew about the book (that it’s the first in a Muslim, Middle Eastern high fantasy series), so that’s on me. I also remember feeling a bit disappointed in the use of a few tropes, which seemed to be driving the story in a predictable direction. Long story short, my expectations for The Kingdom of Copper were a bit wonky when I picked it up soon after, and I am now relieved that I set it aside in March and finished it in December. This was the better time for it in my reading life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot since this is a sequel, but in this second volume Chakraborty leaves the cliches behind and gives us three well-developed characters who are growing and changing in interesting ways, who are all brought together into the same conflict, on different sides of the issue. The magic and politics are intriguing, the world-building is excellent, and the characterization is absolutely superb- I found all three POVs equally engaging, which is rare and didn’t happen for me even in the first book of this series. If you enjoy adult high fantasy, this is really a stellar trilogy so far. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in The Empire of Gold (out in June 2020).

“I know what it’s like to have ambitions, to be the cleverest in the room- and have those ambitions crushed. To have men who are less than you bully and threaten you into a place you know you don’t belong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s my own fault, but it was definitely a bit jarring trying to jump back into this right in the middle. I think my ratings could definitely change (for the better) in a proper reread of all three books together.

theinstituteMuch to my surprise, after this buddy read went off the rails in early December, my friend and I suddenly decided to try finishing Stephen King’s The Institute in the last three days of the year (while also wrapping up other books)- and succeeded! Aside from that rewarding victory, this was a mixed bag for me.

On one hand, this started out so promisingly with an interesting ex-cop on an unhurried adventure, picking up an old-timey job in a random small town when struck with a whim. As soon as he’s settled in what is foreshadowed to be an important location to the overall plot, the narration switches to a genius boy of twelve who’s taking his SATs (as a formality) in preparation of beginning his college education at two elite schools- at the same time. But something happens that he doesn’t see coming- he’s kidnapped and taken to a secret facility in Maine where children with light psychic abilities are tested, used, and abused. Of course if anyone can figure out a way to stop what’s happening there, it’s the genius kid, and so a large turn of events is set in motion as soon as he arrives. Looks good, right? Unfortunately, it started unraveling for me about right at that point.

My biggest issue was simply that I didn’t buy it. The secret place where thousands of kids have been held captive over the course of 50+ years and used as psychic tools by conspiratorial adults could have been fantastic if it had been a bit more grounded and developed, but instead it feels like a quick sketch of an idea that’s not entirely thought out. There’s no nuance to the adults at this facility, they’re absurdly cruel and apathetic without reasonable explanations. The tests sound cool and retro (“shots for dots”) or provide a vivid image (the immersion tank), but they don’t make much sense. The plot is riddled with holes (it definitely shouldn’t have taken a genius to escape this place), the Stranger Things and even Miss Peregrine’s vibes are weak and doesn’t carry the story, the characters begin to feel less like people and more like plot devices the longer the book goes on. I also kept having to double check that this is set in modern day because the kids don’t speak and behave like modern day kids.

That’s a lot of complaining, but the worst part is King’s tone deafness. In The Institute he commonly refers to a group of kids as “gorks.” These are kids who’ve been kidnapped and abused to the point of essentially losing their minds, and it feels incredibly unfair of him to lump them together with such a thoughtless, hurtful term. Near the end of the book, there’s one character who tries to urge the others not to say “gorks” because its rude, but within two pages she admits it’s too hard not to, and everyone goes on using this term without another thought. This seems to indicate that King knew he would be called out for insensitivity, but either didn’t understand why or didn’t care enough to remove the offensive comments. (And I haven’t even started on how the one woman on the small town police force was “never cut out to be a cop.”)

I’ll leave The Institute at this: I like the core idea and the first third of the book was a 4- or even 5-star read for me, but the execution fell apart in the latter half. I hope King will continue to publish future novels, because I’d really like to see him do better, for old times’ sake.

“It was so simple, but it was a revelation: what you did for yourself was what gave you the power.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed bits and pieces, I enjoyed the buddy read experience (as always), but this one is going nowhere near my favorites list.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question

I’ve already read a book in January that I’m very excited to review, but I SUPPOSE it would make more sense to catch up on my December reviews first. I am going to try implementing my “shorter reviews” goal for 2020 right away here and cram them all into a couple of posts before the end of the week- not because I disliked these books, but because I just don’t have time to do full reviews for all 6 books (plus short stories) if I want to get around to January reviews within the month. So, we’ll see how this goes! For today, I’m looking at Know My Name by Chanel Miller, one of my favorite books of 2019, and at The Body in Question by Jill Ciment. Let’s dive in!

knowmynameIn Chanel Miller’s nonfiction memoir, she shares what happened on the night she was sexually assaulted, how her life changed leading up to the trial, and the ways in which the US legal system proved to be a hostile place for victims.

You may have heard of Emily Doe, the girl sexually assaulted by a talented swimmer on the Standford campus in 2015 whose victim impact statement went viral the following year. That statement is published in Know My Name, along with the rest of Miller’s story. There is certainly difficult content here, including the details of the assault, Miller’s mental struggle in reassembling her life and surviving the trial, and some of the terrible things people have said to and about her as the case began making headlines. And yet, it is absolutely worth the read.

This book looks closely at one case, but with incredible insight and understanding, Miller uses this single experience to explore the ways in which society allows these tragedies to continue to occur. She’s not here to blame her attacker, but to hold him accountable, and to hold accountable every part of the system that makes it so easy for a man with a little money and talent to walk away from a life he’s permanently marred, without ever realizing that what he’s done is wrong. Miller describes her emotions and the challenges she’s faced not because she’s seeking pity, but as a means to explaining why the system in place needs to change- or at least be improved upon.

Miller’s writing is perfectly suited to her task, and every bit as worth reading as this topic. She’s clear and straightforward, explains the legal process in an easily understandable way, and has a natural knack for pacing and balancing events, info, and opinions. She also takes the time at the end of her own narrative to mention how other well-known cases and the #metoo movement are affecting the way the US sees and deals with these cases. Despite the darkness she’s been through and the fury she inspires, Miller’s tone is ultimately hopeful that people will come together over this and ensure a better future. I sincerely hope she’s right.

“It had never occurred to me that the system itself could be wrong, could be changed or improved. Victims could ask for more. We could be treated better. Which meant my onerous experiences were not useless, they were illuminating. Being inside the system would give me insight; the more I encountered issues, the more I’d be able to see what needed to be fixed. I could convert my pain into ideas, could begin brainstorming alternate futures for victims.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is as close to perfect as a book gets, in my opinion. If you haven’t yet, I urge you to pick it up.

thebodyinquestionI wanted to segue back into fiction after Know My Name with another trial book, so I picked up this little volume next, Jill Ciment’s The Body in Question.

In this short novel, a woman is summoned for jury duty. Before going in, she jokes with a summoned man about how they might get out of serving; neither follows through, and they end up watching the case unfold together. The trial, at which a teen girl is accused of setting a fire that killed her infant brother, is a sensational one, and the jury is sequestered. During the weeks of the trial, the man (young, single) and the woman (older, married) strike up a clandestine affair.

This is really intriguing in concept, as it primarily examines whether the jury can remain impartial as relationships and opinions are formed (the other jurors, of course, sensing that something is going on among them). Perhaps if I hadn’t picked this up immediately after a 5-star all-time favorite I might have had a slightly better time reading it, but despite both this one and Know My Name exploring the failings of the US legal system in fascinating ways, this book did not work as well for me as I’d hoped, for two main reasons.

The first is that I found most of the characters unpleasant, and the main woman in particular I found abrasively judgmental. I suspect the author wanted her to seem a bit sharp-edged and rebellious so that the reader wouldn’t question this married woman starting an affair at the drop of a hat, but instead it alienated me from the main character. There’s nothing “wrong” with the other characters, but the book is so short and sticks faithfully to the first woman so the reader is never given enough opportunity to warm to them. My apathy made it nearly impossible to invest in any part of the story.

The second is that the book is so divided between the trial and the affair that the two pieces never came together appreciably for me. We see the trial in bits and pieces; new information is still being conveyed as the jury votes. I could never form an opinion on whether the girl accused of arson was actually guilty or not, which made it hard to form an opinion on whether the jurors having an affair were actually messing up the trial. The main character’s opinion is clear, and her reasoning is clear, but it’s also clear that she’s not giving the reader all of the evidence. On the other hand, if we try to look past the insufficient trial details and focus only on the affair, what is the message? Is it to avoid sleeping with other jury members while on jury duty? (Is that a common problem?!) Or is the point a broader one, that the justice system has plenty of room for error? In which case, is it advocating for stricter observation of jury members under sequestration? For removal of jury from the justice system? Or just stating that human error happens in all sorts of places? I’m really not sure. As intriguing as I found the concept, the two halves of this story just didn’t quite sum up what it had started for me, even though the main character seems certain in the end about what has happened.

“She hardly remembers Tim’s testimony- only that he clenched his molars and ranked Stephana over Jesus. Would she have remembered more of what Tim said if she hadn’t been distracted by the notes her lover had written to her in his jury notebook and then angled the page so she could read the words from one row back, two chairs over?”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was entertaining and quick, but never quite convinced me. If the concept intrigues you I’d definitely still recommend giving it a go, I think it’s one of those books that could have very different effects on different readers!

What’s your favorite court/legal story?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

CW: rape (off page), child molestation

I had such good intentions of wrapping up with the 2019 Booker longlist before the end of the year, but it’s not quite going to happen. Whoever had The Man Who Saw Everything checked out from my library kept it long past the due date, so I’ll save that read and my final Booker thoughts for 2020. But in the meantime, I did manage to finish Elif Shafak’s shortlisted 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, my 11th longlist read. Fortunately, I liked the story better than the (US) cover design!

10minutes38secondsinthisstrangeworldIn the novel, Tequila Leila finds herself dead in an Instanbul dumpster one fine morning. Her body is already decaying and she’s definitely dead, but for 10 minutes and 38 seconds her brain continues to function on the last dregs of oxygen left in her system. In those final moments of thought, she recalls her troubled childhood, her found family of eclectic friends in Istanbul, and the string of events on the night of her death. Later, when her body has been found and her fate reported in local news, her friends come together at the morgue in hopes of giving her a proper burial- something her family won’t do after she ran away from home and an arranged marriage, landing instead (not by choice) in a career of prostitution.

“She had heard all kinds of stories about brides who, on their wedding nights, had turned out not to be virgins- how their husbands marched them to hospitals for intimate examinations, their footsteps echoing emptily behind them across dark streets, neighbours peering out from behind lace curtains; how they were delivered back to their fathers’ houses, where they were punished in whatever way their families saw fit; how they could never fully become part of society again, humiliated and disgraced, a hollow cast to their youthful features…”

This book is divided into three parts. The first and longest is filled with alternating sections of Leila’s memories with family and friends, and of their personal histories. These chapters take up about 2/3 of the book. The second part focuses on present rather than past, told from the perspectives of each of Leila’s friends; it takes up most of the remaining page count. The final section, which describes Leila’s spirit leaving her body, needs only a few pages.

As many readers seem to, I vastly preferred the first section to either of the others. I was worried in the first pages that I wasn’t going to gel with the writing style (it tends toward overly extravagant prose, especially in those first pages), but once I fell into the rhythm after the opening scene I grew to appreciate Shafak’s skill with language and storytelling. Each of her characters is unique and fully imagined, thanks to the sidebar pieces about how they each came to live in Istanbul, and the descriptions of their respective relationships with Leila. There’s some wonderful LGBTQ+ rep among the cast, who are all outcasts of one sort or another. Shafak uses each character’s experience to paint a general picture of Turkish life, pinpointing on the marginalized outskirts of Turkish society. Through these men and women, we see how the country’s politics and customs have made life (and even death) unusually hard and unfair, for some more than others.

” ‘It’s like breaking horses,’ said one of the women. ‘That’s what they are doing to us. Once our spirits are broken, they know we won’t go anywhere.’ “

I picked up this book immediately after reading Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, the latter of which is set in the Balkans. It was such a challenge for me while reading Obreht’s book to gain a clear picture of the political atmosphere there, the historical and cultural details feeling vague and hard for me to pin down in context within the novel. Interestingly, Shafak actually cleared up a lot of my lingering confusion from Obreht’s book; with northwest Turkey (including Istanbul) being very near the Balkans, some traditions and cultural details- especially relating to death- overlapped. In this way, Shafak managed to to resolve a lot of the lingering confusion from my previous read, as well as to provide an incredibly detailed picture of everyday life in Turkey; she captures the feel and tone of her setting in a way that no other book I’ve read in months has managed to accomplish. If you’re looking for fiction that depicts this part of the world in all its gritty detail, look no further.

“The Istanbul Leila had known was not the Istanbul that the Ministry of Tourism would have wanted foreigners to see.”

I also complained recently about how the separate plots in the vignettes of Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other didn’t entirely work for me as part of a larger whole, but somehow Shafak’s similar structure in the first portion of 10 Minutes seemed significantly more effective. The reader is told rather than shown how Leila’s thoughts are deteriorating as her final ten minutes pass, and there’s not much overarching plot in this portion of the novel- each chapter shows another piece of Leila’s life, though her life is firmly in the past and we see very little of what happens to her from her own perspective after she’s placed in the dumpster. And yet there’s a constant sense that the narration is building up to something (Leila’s death), bringing it closer with every turn of the story, which gives the book plenty of momentum before we even come close to Leila’s final moments.

Unfortunately, the plottier second part of the book actually looses some of the earlier magic. The focus shifts away from Leila’s consciousness and toward her physical body, as her friends try to give her a proper burial. Though the Cemetery of the Companionless is a dismal, fascinating place to read about and Leila’s friends embark on an (illegal) adventure in their effort to do right by her, I found this part of the book far less gripping. The focus narrows from a broad view of Istanbul’s social issues to the treatment of its dead- especially its unclaimed and/or disrespected dead. Though an interesting topic indeed, it feels much more drawn-out and transparent in intent than Leila’s flashbacks. To me, Leila’s friends are more interesting for the glimpses they provide into greater Turkish strife than they are as actual characters- seeing them cry and drink over their friend’s death simply does not evoke as great an emotional response as seeing them worn down by harsh laws and prejudices.

“In just a few months’ time, with no marker or stone, the woman’s grave would fully blend in with its surroundings. In less than a decade, no one would be able to locate her whereabouts. She would become yet another number in the Cemetery of the Companionless, yet another pitiable soul whose life echoes the opening of every Anatolian tale: Once there was, once there wasn’t…”

The final section, though it provides some beautiful imagery and essentially ties the other two parts of the book together, adds little of import to the story and feels more like a pretty afterthought to tie loose ends than an impactful conclusion.

If the entire book had been written as in the first section, especially with a bit more stylistic liberty to express Leila’s deteriorating mental state, this would easily have been a 5-star read for me. Fortunately the last two sections are small enough that even though they detracted from the earlier experience for me, I finished with them before I could forget how captivated I had been with the first part of the novel. Though the story is not without its flaws, there are some great lines throughout this book, important themes of equality and justice, and a cultural education for those (like me) who aren’t very familiar with Turkey. It’s a brave exploration of the ways in which people have been overlooked and shunted aside in a society that isn’t willing to bend, and an attempt to honor those  fated to be forgotten.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. The mixed reviews and unfortunate US cover almost convinced me to skip this one, but I am glad I picked it up in the end. It wasn’t my favorite title from the shortlist, but I one I appreciated nevertheless. I might pick up more of Shafak’s work at some point, and I’ll be wrapping up with the 2019 Booker longlist soon.

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 8

I’ve been reading my way through Faber’s new collection of individually bound short stories this year, and am nearing the end of the titles published so far! Today I’ll feature the three stories I’ve read most recently, which will leave me with one more batch of four coming up around the end of the year. In case you missed them, here are the links to my previous Faber Stories mini-reviews: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Now let’s dive in.

My Son the Fanatic by Hanif Kureishi. 3 out of 5 stars.

In this story from 1996, a father watches his teenage son’s changing behavior with growing concern. Both are Pakistani Muslims living in England. The father is becoming, to an extent, “Westernized,” even as his son is learning about his cultural heritage and becoming more staunchly Islamic. The two cannot agree on a compromise between their religion and the Western ways of life, finding themselves at irreconcilable odds.

This is a straightforward piece with themes of assimilation and loyalty- to family, religion, and nation. The main focus is on the relationship between the father and his son. It’s an interesting glimpse into a clash of cultures, of how adapting to a new country can alter people in different ways, and even create rifts in families.

What didn’t work for me was the humor. The blurb in the front flap of the book calls this story a “comedy of assimilation,” claiming that it is “both uproariously funny and so prescient it’s barely funny at all.” Perhaps when the story was first published it came across differently, but I found the attempts at humor bothersome rather than amusing. First is the father’s fear that his son is selling his possessions to buy drugs. Rightfully he’s concerned, but his response is to tell his colleagues and spy on his son, and then makes light of it when it turns out to be religion-related instead, as though drug abuse is anything to joke about. There’s another detail about a friend of the father’s who is a prostitute, whose final scene in the story revolves around her being insulted for her profession and the father failing to defend her or their friendship. I didn’t find any of the writing outright offensive, and I don’t think it’s exactly meant to have the reader rolling in laughter anyway, but even so the tone just seemed a bit unpalatable to me.

“There was more to the world than the West, though the West always thought it was best.”

Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera. 4 stars.

In this story, originally written in Czech in 1969 (oddly there is no mention anywhere in this little volume of the identity of the translator), an aging woman returns to the city where her husband was buried to attempt to renew the lease on his grave. After receiving some bad news on that front, she runs into a man with whom she had a brief affair years previously. In thirteen tiny chapters, they spend the afternoon together, remembering their past encounter and wondering whether they are too old to change the way they left things.

There’s not much plot to this story; the unfortunate situation with the grave (and the meaning of the title) are revealed within the first five pages, and the rest of the story is spent in a will-they-or-won’t-they exchange between the two old lovers. Most of these pages are spent simply ruminating on how age changes things, no matter how much we might want to deny it. The constant presence of death as a theme in the background, combined with the beautiful writing, also lends the story a delightfully morbid air and the impression of a ticking clock.

This has got to be one of my favorite pieces about an affair written by a male author, ever. The woman seems like a real person, and isn’t objectified even though much of the story revolves around whether or not these people are going to sleep together again. The man is equally well-sketched. Both are concerned about how age has changed their physical bodies, and yet the details reflect their mental states and maturity rather than a shallow interest in appearance. Though this is on the surface a sort of romance, the reason it works so well is that ultimately it’s about the passage of time and the things that give life meaning. Is it better to remember a good experience and close the door on it, or to keep experiencing new things, even if they might tarnish the memories of the old things? This is the question that will decide these characters’ fates. Not much happens in these pages, but I thoroughly enjoyed the read all the same.

“Just as she could not have prevented her husband’s death, so also she was defenseless against his second death, this death of an old dead who is now forbidden to exist even as dead.”

Mostly Hero by Anna Burns. 5 stars.

At 144 pages, this is by far the longest of any of the Faber Stories published so far, but I did not want it any shorter. Having already loved Burns’ Booker Prize-winning Milkman last year, this was one of the Faber Stories volumes I was most excited to read, and even though my expectations were high going in, it didn’t disappoint.

In this story, which is a sort of spoof on sci-fi superhero narratives, our main characters are femme fatale, superhero, and Great Aunt. There are also assorted supervillains and a misguided cousin. Burns draws on what the reader expects from these “types” of characters to create interesting personas that both conform and defy conventional norms. The plot is fun, fast-paced, and continually surprising, beginning with a secret spell designed to make femme kill her boyfriend (superhero) without knowing what she’s doing, complicated by a backstory involving superhero’s tragic family past, and progressing into a plot for temporary world domination. No one is quite who they seem at first, and every revelation both takes the story a step farther and leaves the reader questioning what we typically expect from superhero narratives. It’s a captivating romp with deeper themes of expectation vs perception, of the blurry line between good and evil, of the messiness of love.

Similar in style to Milkman, with long sentences and paragraphs, a convoluted doubling-back of plotting and backstory, and the use of simple qualifiers in place of actual names,  the brevity of Mostly Hero makes it a bit more accessible though I think ultimately the writing will appeal to a similar audience. The topic is very different though, which means a reader who loved Milkman for its Irish focus might not get on with this one quite as well, while sci-fi fans might fare considerably better. Mostly Hero is still a literary story at heart, which is most apparent toward the end of the story when the plot begins to drag in favor of introspection. That was really the only downside to the reading experience for me, and the only reason I might have considered lowering my rating, but in the end I had such a fantastic time that a shift in focus at the end of the story couldn’t impact my overall impression. I absolutely loved this one.

“This was just the twist of fate and of incestuous Greek playacting to be expected in the dark, umbrous world hero lived in.”

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Concluding thoughts: this batch just kept getting better and better. I appreciated the commentary in My Son the Fanatic, though otherwise felt lukewarm about it, only to love the writing in Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead and to find myself overjoyed with every single detail of Mostly Hero. I can’t believe I haven’t gotten around to reading more of Burns’s work yet, but this story has reminded me of how much I love her writing, and I’ll definitely be trying harder to pick up the titles from her backlist going forward. It’s hard to imagine any of the Faber Stories I have left to read topping Mostly Hero for me, but I’m certainly hoping to find another gem!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Tiger’s Wife

The 2011 winner of the Women’s Prize, The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, was my most recent buddy read. Reactions to it have been quite mixed (both in the buddy read and in general), so definitely check out more reviews if it’s a title that interest you. (I’ll add the reviews from my reading buddies for this title here as they appear: Callum, Naty, Rachel…)

thetigerswifeIn the novel, Natalia and her friend, both doctors in the Balkans, are traveling to an orphanage across the border of their country to deliver medicine to children on the other side. Still trying to reconcile her feelings over the newly divided country and the aftermath of war, Natalia also learns that her grandfather, a beloved mentor and revered member of the community- has died, supposedly on his way to visit her. While she helps distribute the medicine and tries to persuade the travelers in town (who are digging for a body left behind 12 years ago) to allow their children to be treated as well, she must now also attempt to retrieve her grandfather’s things from the morgue. Interwoven with this series of events, she also recounts two stories she’s heard about her grandfather’s past, both involving death, and both featuring a bit of magic.

“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life […] One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.”

Unfortunately, at a little over 300 pages The Tiger’s Wife somehow felt excessively long and drawn-out to me- probably because despite including plenty of individual moments that I adored, several larger aspects were ineffective for me. My reading experience was filled with pros and cons, landing me somewhere in the middle of the wide range of opinions surrounding this book.

At heart, The Tiger’s Wife is a story of superstition and belief, of what people tell themselves to cope with what is happening to or around them. Both of the stories from Natalia’s grandfather’s past include a magical realism element that may or may not be taken at face value, a choice that allows the reader to see how these characters might have accepted such outlandish stories to begin with. Though I’m not always a fan of magical realism, I thoroughly enjoyed those elements in this novel. I thought the magical chapters were the most engaging to read, and they gave me something deeper to think about than the surface details of the story. But after so much attention is given to these magical tales throughout the book, the payoff for them seems too rushed and insufficient for them to warrant so much page time. Pro, meet con.

The two largest pieces that didn’t work for me were 1) the structure, and 2) the narrator, who provides the framework for the story.

The book alternates between three story lines: that of the Deathless Man, that of the Tiger’s Wife, and that of the narrator’s experience with the orphanage. The relationship between Natalia and her grandfather is also explored piecemeal through historical anecdotes sprinkled throughout, which touch on the political conflict in the Balkans from the time of the world wars onward. Though the stories (historical, political, personal, magical) do tie together at the end, I found the constant switching between such disparate narratives to be disorienting, and not conducive to compulsive reading. Even within each chapter, our narrator jumps through time to explore not only the narratives themselves, but also the histories of each of the main players. Though each chapter eventually drew me in with one plot point or another, having to switch back to another story line in the next chapter, and then not necessarily from the point at which the last relevant chapter left off, made it easy to set the novel down at every break and harder to pick back up. Every chapter takes patience and an effort to adjust.

Additionally, and also damaging to my reading experience, I thought the narrator felt like an unnecessary addendum to the story. Until her trek up the mountain on the heels of a mysterious figure (at the very end of the book), she contributes very little- no personality, no opinions, no actions beyond what is necessary to move the plot along. Primarily, I felt The Tiger’s Wife to be the grandfather’s story, and including a granddaughter at all seemed only a convenient way to frame the story after his death, since death is so crucial to the two biggest stories of his life. Even from a logistical standpoint though, it seems an awkward narrative choice; only one of these two major stories is actually given to Natalia by her grandfather, the other she must collect from various sources while visiting the village of his youth, and she does this several years after her trip to the orphanage; this means that the entire narrative is actually told from a futuristic viewpoint, when the narrator finally holds all of the stories together, though I found no further insight or reflection as usually accompanies a story told retrospectively. The events surrounding the orphanage visit seem like they’ve happened just yesterday, just a moment ago, not from some future point of clarity. Even setting the strange timing aside, Natalia doesn’t express much emotion about any of the book’s events, which makes her feel like a third party in someone else’s show rather than an active participant in her own. Ultimately, I just didn’t find her voice useful or engaging.

“Slightly younger, we had been unable to ration our enthusiasm for living under the yoke of war; now, we couldn’t regulate our inability to part with it.”

And now that I’ve complained my way through several paragraphs, it’s time for the upside: the writing. I suppose opinions will be divided on this as well, but I loved Obreht’s style in this book. The prose is sumptuous and evocative, full of imagery and deep characterization (aside from Natalia). The details didn’t all feel necessary, as I’ve outlined above, and in the end the story didn’t quite pull together as strongly as I’d been hoping it would, but something about the writing of this book felt so promising, so hopeful, that even when I found myself disappointed in other aspects, I wouldn’t have considered giving up on the book. She’s clearly a talented writer, and The Tiger’s Wife is all the more impressive for the fact that it’s Obreht’s debut. It examines timeless and fascinating concepts: grief, death, political upheaval, superstition- and ties them all to a specific time and place. For the right reader,  I imagine this book can be a great success. A reader more interested in historical fiction, magical realism, and beautiful prose, with a clearer picture of the Balkans’ political history. Sadly, that didn’t quite seem to be me.

” ‘People become very upset,’ Gavo tells me, ‘when they find out they are going to die. […] They behave very strangely,’ he says. ‘They are suddenly filled with life. Suddenly they want to fight for things, ask questions. They want to throw hot water in your face, or beat you senseless with an umbrella, or hit you in the head with a rock. Suddenly they remember things they have to do, people they have forgotten. All that refusal, all that resistance. Such a luxury.’ “

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think this has been my least favorite of the Women’s Prize winners I’ve read thus far, though I don’t regret the read. I’m certainly not discouraged from trying more titles from the list of Women’s Prize winners, and I might still pick up Obreht’s 2019 release, Inland, at some point as well, though I would appreciate anyone who’s read it (or read both, preferably) weighing in on whether I might get along with it any better?

 

The Literary Elephant