Tag Archives: book review

Review: Pet

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet, a prize-nominated MG/YA future-set fantasy book.

petIn the novel, Jam lives in a futuristic city called Lucille. Following a major revolution, it is now a peaceful place where everyone is treated equally, safety is a certainty, and monsters no longer exist. Or so Jam has been taught. But when a frightening creature comes to life from one of her mother’s paintings, it tells Jam that it has come to hunt a monster; after doing some research Jam learns that monsters can look like any one of us and hide in plain sight. The truth is, there aren’t any known monsters in Lucille, but Jam and Pet (the painting creature) set out to unearth an unknown monster and bring him to justice.

“The creature sighed and rustled its fur a little. If you do not know there are things you do not see, it said, then you will not see them because you do not expect them to be there. You think you see everything, so you think everything you see is all there is to be seen.”

Let’s start with age range. I had a tough time placing this one between Middle Grade and Young Adult; Jam, the MC, is sixteen in this novel, and most of the other characters are around her age or older. This typically indicates to me that a YA audience is the target, and based on the way monsters and angels and major government reform are explained, it seems potentially beyond the grasp of 8-12 year olds who might be reading without adult guidance for real world application. That said, the themes (that humans can do monstrous things unnoticed by society, that bad behavior deserves punishment in a way that is beneficial to society rather than cruel to the individual, that instead of a world full of good vs bad people we live in a world full of regular people who do both good and bad things) seem a bit simpler than the 13-18 year old crowd would be looking for. I’d probably recommend this most to 10-14 year-olds, with an adult to read along and discuss if possible. And ultimately, I think there are beneficial messages in Pet for readers of all ages; this is the sort of YA content that would probably also do well among adults who like teen stories.

Now let’s look more closely at content. I can’t give an own voices opinion, but I really admired the representation in Pet. In the first twenty pages, we have a trans girl with fully supportive parents, friends, and community who don’t question or ridicule her identity and help her get access to the resources she needs to be able to live in her body in a way that suits her. She also uses sign language by choice- she is physically capable of audible speech, but often prefers talking with her hands, which is completely accepted and supported by those around her. Jam is friendly with the local librarian, who uses a wheelchair. Later on, we meet Jam’s best friend’s family, in which there are three parents of equal authority, including a person who uses they/them pronouns that are always used respectfully in dialogue and the narration. There are characters with dark skin who, in this utopian setting, are not marginalized because of it. There is just no prejudice whatsoever, against any character, no matter how they present themselves to the world around them. It’s a beautiful thing.

Another positive is how close the peaceful city of Lucille feels at present- the oft-referenced revolution of Pet in many ways resembles what is happening in the US (and beyond) right now:

“The angels took the laws and changed them, tore down those horrible statues of rich men who’d owned people and fought to keep owning people. The angels believed and the people agreed that there was a good amount of proper and deserved shame in history and some things were just never going to be things to be proud of.”

The best part, I think, is that while the text supports holding people accountable for bad actions, it also suggests that no people are inherently bad. Being labelled a “monster” is a result of hurtful behavior, not a name given lightly to an entire group of enemy people. The “angels” are ordinary people making hard choices that come with their own costs, not perfect choices that please everyone immediately. Despite the apparent symbolic simplicity, there is deeper commentary on how we perceive and respond to criminality, with an end goal of peace among all people.

“Angels aren’t pretty pictures in old holy books, just like monsters aren’t ugly pictures. It’s all just people, doing hard things or doing bad things. But is all just people, our people.”

But there is conflict, and a plot. The introduction of Pet and the possibility of a monster in Lucille is challenging for Jam, who has been told all her life that monsters no longer exist. Her parents encourage her to send Pet away, arguing that Pet must be wrong. When she goes to her friend’s house where this monster is supposedly hiding, she sees only happy people full of love for each other and she doubts. In order to find the monster, she must admit that there are still flaws in her society and among her family and friends. She must choose how much to tell her friend, and decide what to do with the monster. It’s a story of bravery and fighting for what’s right even (especially) when it’s not the easy route, and when it goes against everything that you’ve held as the truth.

For all its positivity, there is indeed a monster in this story. There is an adult who hurts a child, and while details are not given on page it is a difficult topic and astute readers will know what has happened. There’s also a gruesome consequence for the monster that might make an impression on younger readers, as well as occasional mentions of police brutality and untimely deaths when the importance of the revolution is being explained. There are some difficult topics at play here, but I think Emezi lays them out patiently and considerately, using them mainly for educational purposes, and I think that makes this an ideal book for young readers looking to learn about empathy between humans and fairness in society. And it’s a call to action for adults too, to stay vigilant, to believe victims, to look deeper than the surface to spot what is lurking beneath. For a short book aimed primarily at a young audience, Pet accomplishes quite a lot, and I wouldn’t wish to change a single detail about it.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Emezi is fast becoming a favorite author for me- if you haven’t read Freshwater yet, what are you waiting for?! The only reason Pet wasn’t quite a 5 for me is that I just don’t jive with books written for a younger age level as much as I used to. Even so, I found this a worthwhile foray outside of my comfort zone, and highly recommend it to basically everyone.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Nickel Boys

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, but this first one is actually well-known, and for good reason! Today I’m talking about Colson Whitehead’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Nickel Boys.

thenickelboysIn the novel, a teen boy named Elwood is doing everything right in Tallahassee, Florida. He listens to his grandmother, he excels at his after-school job, and he saves his money to pay his way through college. He listens to Martin Luther King’s speeches and wants to fight for civil rights. But he’s Black in 1960’s southern US, and his plan goes awry. Elwood is arrested for a crime he did not know he was involved in, and is sent to Nickel Academy, a reformatory school for boys under 18 who break the law (or are accused of doing so, at least). At Nickel, Elwood makes a friend, but it’s far from a happy time for either of them; it’s a brutal, unfair place, and the boys are lucky if they come out traumatized but alive- some are buried before they can break free.

“Boys arrived banged up in different ways before they got to Nickel and picked up more dents and damage during their term. Often graver missteps and more fierce institutions waited. Nickel boys were fucked before, during, and after their time at the school, if one were to characterize the general trajectory.”

The Nickel Boys is a slim volume with a lot to say. I think the synopsis conveys much of the book’s plot arc, but its strength ultimately lies in the smaller episodes that occur in these boys’ lives underneath the current of the story. I was afraid Elwood’s arrest would feel manipulative after he’s built up as such a positive character, but Whitehead doesn’t paint the boy as a one-dimensional wronged saint to play off the reader’s emotions. He uses incidents in Elwood’s young life to show both how Elwood occasionally puts himself in trouble’s way, and also how society continually throws that trouble into his path in the first place. Rampant racism in the Jim Crow south is presented with nuance and consideration- Nickel has a White campus as well as a Black one (segregated, of course) and cruelty reaches both halves. With this setup, and with Black narrators, Whitehead is able to demonstrate racism without presenting that the problem is “all White people are intentionally and meanly discriminatory toward all Black people.”

As such, I think this is a great piece of fiction to turn to as you’re learning about systemic racism, because The Nickel Boys shows that at work. It’s the “school” (no one is learning much here) and the wider system supporting its continuation that is the villain here, though plenty of individuals are also clearly in the wrong. An incredible balance is struck through which The Nickel Boys can pinpoint specific racists within its narrative without ever losing sight of the fact that the problem of racism goes far beyond the actions or attitudes of any particular individuals.

Because of this, Nickel Academy is (rightly) painted in a horrific light, and unfortunately this school is based on a real place that closed only a few years ago- Whitehead includes an afterword detailing his research and includes sources for the curious reader to follow up with.

“He was as far away from her as the others in her family who’d vanished and he was sitting right in front of her. On visiting day, he told her he was okay but sad, it was difficult but he was hanging in there, when all he wanted to say was, Look at what they did to me, look at what they did to me.”

Beyond the importance of acknowledging such institutions, which makes the book worth reading on its own, I also think Whitehead has really stepped up his writing in this most recent novel. I was impressed with his previous Pulitzer winner, The Underground Railroad, but The Nickel Boys felt like a level-up. I marked 25 quotes I wanted to save, which is about 20 more than my usual. Perhaps this one was always going to be a better fit for me than The Underground Railroad simply for the lack of a fabulist element- instead, The Nickel Boys is a fairly straightforward historical piece, with alternating sections between the boys’ past at the school and the present life of one who made it out- with an interesting twist on perspective toward the end that I loved equally on a narrative level and for its emotional impact. From the sentence level to the structural layout, Whitehead’s writing is just entirely faultless here, in my opinion. It’s accessible and intelligent, clear and convincing, emotionally and technically effective.

While I think it’s always the right time to pick up a book like this, now is a particularly apt time. There’s no mistaking the fact that this is a historical tale, and yet so much of the commentary within it about racism, about cruelty, about the silenced voices of the oppressed and abused, still feels applicable in modern times. It is appalling to read about Jim Crow laws from the 1960s and simultaneously be able to see in today’s news that the methods may have changed a bit but equality across races still cannot be seen in effect in 2020. Elwood is focused on the freedom marches of the 60s, on institutional injustice and systematic racism, and it’s hard (but necessary) to read about those things in today’s climate and see how little has changed. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and I highly recommend picking up a copy if you’re looking to read relevant fiction right now. If I haven’t convinced you yet, let the Pulitzer win speak for itself! It was well-deserved, even so soon after Whitehead’s previous recognition.

“If he wanted things to change, what else was there to do but stand up?”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I underestimated this one, and I shouldn’t have. This will not be my last Whitehead novel, and I won’t be waiting for his next Pulitzer to continue with his work this time! The hype was right with The Nickel Boys.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 9 (Plus Series Ranking!)

This has been a long time coming! If you’re new-ish here, you might not even know that I spent last year reading 29 of the 30 individually bound Faber Stories, a series of collectible short story editions published by Faber & Faber. There have been 30 volumes released between two batches- whether the series will be growing further in the future has not been announced, though I believe the intent was to celebrate their 90th year of publishing, which is now past.

When I reached the end of the first batch (which included 20 stories) I ranked them all here in order of favoritism; now that I’ve finished the rest I figured I might as well update that list! But first, I’ll go over the four stories I haven’t reviewed yet. Three I read back in December, intending to read the last in January… your guess is as good as mine as to why this took me until May!

 

Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver. 3 stars.

An old Cherokee woman who ran from Cherokee lands with a new husband just in time to avoid the US government’s forced relocation of Native American tribes is now a great-grandmother whose ancient culture lives on only in her heart and through the stories she impresses upon her granddaughter. Her oblivious American descendants take her to visit her birthplace, but the modern town they find in her tribe’s old place is no more than an inauthentic tourist trap.

This is a lovely and sad little piece about culture stolen from native peoples, and that culture living on as best it can through memories passed down to further generations. It is also a scathing critique of Americans’ irreverence for native history. That said, between the blurb on the jacket mentioning the disappointing trip to the Cherokee town, and the first two-page “chapter” providing the concept of culture living on as a seed inside living descendants, the reader has the entire formula of the story already within grasp just 5% into the read. I didn’t find much payoff in reading the rest, with the Point and the method of making it laid out so early, even though the writing is propulsive enough. Furthermore, I did have a fair grasp going in on the unfair and atrocious fates forced upon native tribes by US settlers, which made this story feel a bit predictable.  In any case, it’s a worthwhile point that Kingsolver is making, and she makes it well- it just wasn’t new to me at this point, which is no fault of hers.

Upon further inspection, this story was actually first published in 1989, so perhaps the trouble is simply that it’s a bit dated and would’ve had more punch for earlier readers.

” ‘I guess things have changed pretty much since you moved away, huh Great Mam?’ I asked. / She said, ‘I’ve never been here before.’ “

 

The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz. 2 stars.

In this volume, a Dominican-American man is going through a breakup; his girlfriend has discovered he’s been cheating on her (to an extreme extent), and dumped him. His best friend advises that the best way to get over the heartbreak is to find another woman- both struggle to find and maintain healthy relationships with women.

If there is anything positive to be found in this story, it eludes me. The MC and his friend have little respect for women, including those they supposedly love. When their misbehavior does lead to heartbreak (and complicated parenthood), they pity themselves without taking any responsibility for their mistakes or putting real effort into ditching bad habits. Yunior (the MC) does try exercise as a coping mechanism and distraction, but when it leads to injuries the story seems to be suggesting that there is no point in trying to resist cheating and objectifying women, it only leads to further punishment. I kept waiting for this to turn into a commentary on how awful this sort of behavior and mindset is for everyone involved, but right up to the final sentence it seems instead to be a wistful longing for being able to cheat in “monogamous” relationships without facing consequences. The men of the story seem to expect to sleep with whoever they want, when they want to, drop those women whenever it pleases them, and pop in to see any resultant children only when it suits them. I found the humor contemptible, felt no sympathy for these men, and gained nothing from this story.

hope I’m missing something. The only upside was that it was a quick read, at least.

 

Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce. 3 stars.

Only a story in the loosest sense, this little book is full of poetic vignettes about a man (clearly modeled after Joyce) in the midst of an affair with a student he teaches.

I think there’s going to be a very particular audience for this story, and I wasn’t it. There are a lot of references and similarities to other Joyce works, which I wouldn’t have noticed, not having read any others through- but nearly half of this volume is actually dedicated to pointing out and explaining these many ties. As a Joyce novice these didn’t have much meaning for me, though perhaps  someone better versed in Joycean lit would find them more appealing. The prose is beautiful, though very dense and somewhat impenetrable. Poetry connoisseurs might also have better luck.

Ultimately I thought this was lovely, though a terrible place to start with Joyce’s work as a relative beginner. If ever I were to become more knowledgeable and interested in Joyce’s life and work, I’d want to revisit this story to see if it would have more to offer me at that point.

 

Shanti by Vikram Chandra. 3 stars.

Set in India, this is a set of stories within a story within a story, set in the wake of WWII in 1945. The main characters are a man whose identical twin has died, a woman on a futile search for her missing fighter pilot husband, and a couple of their friends.

The jacket copy claims that this is “a spiraling tale of loss, and two wounded people becoming something new.” Without that hint of direction, I’m not sure I would have found the themes of this one out at all; there are so many layers to this tale and so many details given; it felt both elaborate and strangely empty. By which I mean, the biggest obstacle for me here was simply the fact that despite reports of how these people were dealing with their grief, I never felt a hint of emotion. And thus, no matter how each of the individual narratives might have worked for me, it never quite came together to a meaningful point or payoff. I believe the innermost level of narratives is meant to capture some of the characters’ unspoken emotions, but the fact that this is all told through a friend of this man and woman rather than either of them or even a neutral 3rd-person narrator puts the action too far distant to be properly effective.

All in all I found this a rather frustrating read, with moments of beauty overshadowed by my difficulty in sympathizing with the characters at the heart of the tale.

“They would go home, and even if nothing was finished, not ever, they would batten away the memories and find new beginnings.”

 

faberstories9

Concluding thoughts:

Despite high hopes for at least two of these stories (Homeland and Shanti), this has turned out to be perhaps my most disappointing batch of Faber Stories yet. I don’t regret picking these up and rounding out my experience with this series of stories, but I had wished to end on a higher note. From this round, I’d say Homeland has probably been my favorite, and I’d read more from both Kingsolver and perhaps Joyce, based on these offerings.

 

To amp up the fun, my revised ranking of the Faber Stories, in order from most to least favorite! I’ve linked each title to its respective review set in case you’re interested in learning anything further about any of these in particular.

  1. Mostly Hero by Anna Burs – 5 stars
  2. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes by Alan Bennett – 5 stars
  3. The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan – 4 stars
  4. Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro – 4 stars
  5. Mrs. Fox by Sarah Hall – 4 stars
  6. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney – 4 stars
  7. Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera – 4 stars
  8. Paradise by Edna O’Brien – 4 stars
  9. Intruders by Adrian Tomine – 4 stars
  10. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman – 4 stars
  11. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor – 4 stars
  12. The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes – 4 stars
  13. Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin – 4 stars
  14. Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath – 3 stars
  15. The Victim by P. D. James – 3 stars
  16. Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss – 3 stars
  17. Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore – 3 stars
  18. Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett – 3 stars
  19. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah – 3 stars
  20. Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver – 3 stars
  21. My Son the Fanatic by Hanif Kureishi – 3 stars
  22. Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolain – 3 stars
  23. Shanti by Vikram Chandra – 3 stars
  24. The Country Funeral by John McGahern – 3 stars
  25. A River in Egypt by David Means – 3 stars
  26. Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore – 3 stars
  27. Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine by Thom Jones – 3 stars
  28. Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma – 3 stars
  29. Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce – 3 stars
  30. The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz – 2 stars

 

faberstoriescomplete30

Set Reflection:

I would read more of these. I’ve absolutely enjoyed my time with this series overall; it’s nice to come to each story fresh- a new author, a new subject, pretty packaging. My average rating is 3.5, which is a bit low to get excited about but far from terrible. I still think this is a great way to sample authors’ work in bite-sized pieces; I’ve added several of these writers to my TBR as a result of reading this series (though shamefully I’m yet to pick those additional works up) and I just love the look of them. It’s been a good run. I probably wouldn’t recommend reading all of them unless you’re a die-hard completionist (welcome to the club!), but you can hardly go wrong picking up a few of these that appeal!

Who’s your favorite short story writer? (Feel free to mention someone who’s not included in this set!)

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Actress

This is likely my last review from the Women’s Prize longlist before the shortlist announcement coming up on the 21st! I am still planning to post a wrap-up / shortlist prediction prior to the announcement, and I will review the Mantel trilogy (probably all in one go) as soon as I finish it, which likely won’t be before the 21st. I am currently reading (and really liking) Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but 15 books into this list I’m TIRED and Mantel’s books are all so LONG. Anne Enright’s Actress, on the other hand, is of considerably more manageable length!

actressIn the novel, Norah is approached by yet another writer who wants an interview about Norah’s mother; after this encounter, Norah decides it is finally time to write her own book about her famous/infamous mother. And so begins a recounting of the life story of Katherine O’Dell, English-Irish star of screen and stage, known in the end for her eventual madness and for shooting a man in the foot. Mixed with this tale is the story of Norah’s own life; as Katherine’s only child and her “miracle,” the two shared a close relationship, their tales forever intertwined.

“This was my marvellous mother, who told me that I was marvellous too.”

Here we have another little family saga for the 2020 Women’s Prize. With Norah as narrator, hers is the only perspective the reader is given directly, though in describing her mother’s history Norah also delivers to the reader the actress Katherine O’Dell and her parents, for a generational story spanning about the length of a century.

There is very little plot to Actress. Norah mentions her present life a few times: the interview about her mother, a trip to her Katherine’s birthplace, a few exchanges with Norah’s husband. None of it amounts to much. Between these moments, the family history is told unchronologically, lightly working its way toward an explanation for Katherine shooting someone and also toward a revelation about Norah’s father, but for the most part the timeline feels rather meandering and aimless. I found it a bit difficult to stay invested in the underlying story; though I enjoyed episodes from Katherine’s and Norah’s lives, I didn’t feel much cohesive forward motion in the overall narrative.

What held the book together for me instead was its dual sense of character study. Though Norah claims to be writing about her mother, I would argue that Actress is actually more about Norah. Her mother in the focal point because Katherine’s career and fame has irrevocably shaped Norah’s life, evident even after Katherine’s death in the fact that Norah’s books sell because they’re written by “the daughter of Katherine O’Dell.” The fact that the book is addressed to Norah’s husband, a frequent “you” in these pages, indicates that this account of the actress is perhaps a private project not intended to leave the family home. A personal reckoning, an opportunity for reflection and introspection. There are moments that left me wondering about the reliability of Norah’s memory of her mother, and of the way Norah’s biases may have skewed her understanding of what had happened in her mother’s life or what it meant; I took this as an intentional tactic meant to blur the line between where one woman’s story ends and another’s begins, but certainly part of the beauty of Actress’s characterization is that there’s plenty up for debate in the presentation as well as the content; opinions on the book’s point of view and intent are likely to vary.

“Despite her posing, as though for Life magazine, with her new white goods, the truth is that Katherine O’Dell was, at forty-five, finished. Professionally, sexually. In those days, when a woman hit thirty she went home and shut the door.”

Altogether it’s a very nuanced look at a mother-daughter relationship, at the hardships women face when they’re well-known, and when they’re not. Very little of the book is actually about acting and fame, but rather about the personalities of the two women behind their public masks. Both are complex individually, and likewise is their relationship. They love each other AND find each other challenging. Norah is “a miracle” to her mother, but her existence also serves as a reminder of things lost to Katherine O’Dell, or roads that can no longer be taken. Likewise, Norah’s identity has been, throughout her entire life, tied to her mother’s, flaws, crimes, madness, and all. They are two beautiful, remarkable people, revealed away from the stage and public eye to be every bit as ordinary and extraordinary as the rest of us.

“The dress was a costume, it made her look demented, I thought. So there you are. Did I already know she was crazy? Just the way all mothers are crazy to their daughters, all mothers are wrong.”

I was also hooked early on by the writing. Enright’s prose is clever, perhaps a bit too much so in the dialogue, but very well-formed otherwise. She’s got an incredible sense for when to turn an image or idea on its axis, drawing new meaning on the perpendicular instead of following beaten paths or resorting to tired phrases. My favorite line was perhaps this one:

“And the house around me is a puzzle of absences, room by room.”

Though none of the historical moments or bits of social commentary apparent in these characters’ experiences ever felt central enough to be hailed as the focus of the story, I did appreciate the glimpses into WWI and the Troubles, and the remarks about how women were generally treated by society in different eras. For example, I wouldn’t say this book is “about” the challenges Katherine faced as an actress, the expectation that she be always young and beautiful and less powerful than the men around her, though these details are inextricable from her career and indeed crucial to the story. The backdrop of the Troubles in northern Ireland as Katherine’s mental state begins to fluctuate is also crucial, though again there’s much more to the story. Enright manages to fold small so many huge events and weave them all in together, for the reader to unpack at will.

In the end this was quite a mixed experience for me. I enjoyed the book though not necessarily the story. After finishing it I was left mulling and marveling over individual pieces and how they fit together, which I appreciate, though the emotional impact was low for me. While I may not have loved every moment of the read, I do think this will be a book I’ll remember fondly.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is the sort of book I expected to find on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, subtle and literary and packed with food for thought. I didn’t find it as immediately gripping as some of the other titles, but I still overall had a good time. I may be interested in trying more of Enright’s work in the future.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: How We Disappeared

The date for the Women’s Prize shortlist announcement seems to have moved up to the 21st of April! It’s a small change (from the 22nd, originally) but we really are honing in on the last few days now. I’ll have one more review coming up before then (in addition to this one); I’m also planning to read as much of the Mantel trilogy as I can before the announcement, but with one day less to read and review now I doubt you’ll be seeing my thoughts on it before my longlist wrap-up post, though hopefully soon after. In the meantime, here’s a look at another longlister that I have finished reading “on time,” Jing-Jing Lee’s excellent debut novel, How We Disappeared.

howwedisappearedIn the novel, Wang Di is an old woman in the year 2000; her husband has recently passed away, before the two of them managed to finish telling each other the stories of what life was like for them during WWII in Singapore. As Wang Di tries to track down more information about her husband’s past, she also remembers her own horrific experience as a teenage girl in the 1940s. Also in 2000, a boy named Kevin is shaken when his grandmother dies after mumbling a hard-to-hear but shocking secret. He also sets out to find out the truth of what happened to his family during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in WWII.

“The same thing happened to the other girls, their colour and skin and flesh withering away into pale shadows, until they were little more than a collection of cuts and bones and bruises, badly healed. This, I thought, this is how we’re going to disappear.”

This book is told in three alternating perspectives: Wang Di’s past and present, and Kevin’s present. It was impossible for me to resist comparing these characters with a couple of others from this year’s Women’s Prize longlist. First, Kevin acts as boy sleuth, much like Jai from Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. Though I loved Jai’s voice in that story, Kevin’s hunt for clues is more productive, making for a stronger mystery element with no lag in the middle. Second, the primary focus of How We Disappeared is on Wang Di’s past, in which she is forcibly removed from her family’s home and taken to be a comfort woman- essentially a sex slave for the Japanese soldiers occupying her home country. This part of the narrative is very similar to the content of Edna O’Brien’s Girl, which follows Maryam, a Nigerian schoolgirl kidnapped and abused by Boko Haram, a violent religious group. Though the girls’ experiences are similar, again it is Lee’s rendering that stands out as the more successful of the two. She manages a much more considerate and nuanced examination of how a girl in these circumstances might have felt. The thorough research that must have gone into Wang Di’s characterization is clear, without interfering with the story’s emotional effectiveness.

Before I get any farther, let me warn you that there is a lot of disturbing content in this book. A large portion of it takes place in an occupied country during a world war, complete with bombings, soldiers stealing from civilians as well as abusing and killing them at will, and starvation creeping ever nearer for those who escape military notice. There’s the kidnapping of the comfort women, holding them against their will, raping them, and otherwise treating them like invaluable property rather than human beings. There is also a rift between these comfort women and their people- though they’ve been given no choice about what has happened to them, loved ones and strangers alike blame them for shameful actions. The comfort women emerge physically and mentally ill, with little if any support. Even Kevin is being bullied by his peers, this behavior largely ignored or misinterpreted by the adults in his life. Both Kevin and Wang Di are grieving the recent death of a loved one. If you’re not in the market for a bleak book, don’t pick this one up.

” ‘You know what happens to girls who fall sick here? Or who get pregnant?’ She jerked her thumb towards the back of the house, where the rubbish bins were. Into the heap, she meant. Gone.”

Despite the rough content though, there are happy moments. The writing flows wonderfully, and adept characterization keeps each point of view compelling. Wang Di’s past chapters are the clear standout, but I enjoyed all three perspectives and thought every section added something important to the story. It does also help that Wang Di’s later life is presented early enough in the story to assure the reader that she does survive her stint as a comfort woman and forge a tolerable life afterward. The retrospective angle through which the book’s most horrific details are presented lends a sense of remembering the past but also of laying it to rest and moving forward. It’s a tragedy that doesn’t leave a lingering sense of despair.

In fact, I appreciated so much of the telling that my only real criticism is that the piece of story that connects Wang Di’s tale with Kevin’s is delivered all at once at the end of the book in an info dump of messages left behind by absent characters. This disrupts the established pattern and pace, though given the nature of Kevin’s and Wang Di’s investigations into the past it is hard to see how Lee might have navigated this differently. It also puts Kevin in the position of collecting and writing this tale, which is hard to believe for a boy of his age (ten years old), aspirations of journalism aside. Presumably some time would have passed before he was able to write it at this level, but no actual indication of that is given.

“Sometimes all you had to do to get someone to talk was to be silent.”

Even so, this is a topic I’ve not encountered in fiction previously, and I found Lee’s prose very convincing and evocative. I was emotionally invested in Wang Di’s life, hit hard by each new horror she encountered, and remained interested throughout the entire novel in both main characters and the inevitable intersection of their tales. There was not a moment of boredom or of doubt about Lee’s careful handling of this subject. I highly recommend this one, and look forward to seeing what Lee will write next.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was very nearly 5 stars for me, and I can safely say it’s the book I would be most disappointed not to see on the shortlist. I’ll talk more about my wishes and predictions soon, but this one, I think, is likely to advance: well-written and impactful. Soon we’ll know!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Queenie

Today marked the FINAL WEEK in the lead-up to the Women’s Prize shortlist announcement! It was also my birthday, which was very low-key, relaxing, and Women’s Prize focused this year, thanks to this whole lockdown thing. Any day full of books is a good day though, so before I turn in I’m here to talk about another title from the longlist: Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie.

queenieIn the novel, Queenie is a young woman of Jamaican descent living in London. Her boyfriend of three years has just requested a “break,” so Queenie is temporarily moving out of their shared apartment. At the same time, she’s received some shocking news from her gynecologist that she’s keeping to herself. Amid this upheaval, while the boyfriend refuses to answer her calls or texts, Queenie begins having meaningless sex with men who treat her like trash, which also contributes to trouble at work and with her friends. Everything seems to fall apart at once, and the constant casual (and not so casual) racism Queenie faces drags her down to an all-time low. Can she pick up the pieces?

“I just wanted my old life back. I wanted my boyfriend, and I wanted to not be fucking up at work, I wanted to feel good about myself. I was so far from that, so far from being who I was, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself from self-destructing.”

Queenie is a pacey read driven by compelling first-person narration and packed with modern day-to-day dramas. It’s essentially a coming-of-age story; Queenie is in her mid-twenties just trying to figure life out, in a way that’s very relatable as a fellow mid-twenties woman who’s not entirely sure where her life is heading. Though Queenie’s quest for “normalcy” and a happy ending may be familiar, she is also a very specific character with plenty to share about the female Jamaican British experience. Or at least, one example of it. This aspect I could not relate to, though the level of detail with which things are explained suggests that the book was written with a much wider audience than Jamaican British women in mind, and I did close the book feeling as though I’d gained a bit of perspective.

Queenie as a character is easy to love, despite her questionable choices. It’s clear she’s a good person, a mostly positive, optimistic person, even though she’s hit a rough patch and lost her stride. She reaches out. She tries. She doesn’t apologize for who she is or try to become someone she’s not. She’s not great at explaining or even examining her feelings, so it’s possible some readers will feel disconnected from her, though I think her emotions are usually clear enough through her actions, and it does serve the plot for her to untangle her feelings later on. Carty-Williams has crafted a complex, dynamic character in Queenie, and I enjoyed reading from her perspective.

Point of view aside, the writing is plain but adequate; I found myself marking passages for their quotability rather than because I found the style inspiring or noteworthy. Despite the excellent characterization in Queenie, the rest of the book’s cast is rather one-dimensional. There is not a lot of technical skill on display; this is clearly a contemporary book rather than a literary one, by which I mean the words are well-chosen and serve their purpose, but achieve nothing beneath the story’s surface or through the structure of the narration.

Both plot and commentary are transparent. There’s no nuance to Queenie’s choices in the course of this story, no doubt for either her or the reader that she’s making bad choices because the things she won’t talk about are bothering her at a very deep level. These unaddressed things will, of course, be revealed throughout the course of the novel, and it is not difficult to guess what they will turn out the be- the narration has a tendency to conspicuously skip over details that will later become important, leaving a gaping hole where that information should be, a telltale question mark left dangling as the story moves on until it’s ready to address these gaps. Even the commentary on racism is obvious; someone says something laughably ignorant, another character explains why it is Bad. Even lingo is dissected in-text, whole Urban Dictionary entries appearing in dialogue/text messages. There’s no chance of missing anything, though this also means there’s little need to look deeper than the blunt top layer of text. It’s all right there up front.

” ‘All that Black Lives Matter nonsense,’ scoffed an older man I recognized from the review supplement. ‘All lives matter. […] What about the lives of Latinos, of Asians, the lives of- I’m white, does my life not matter?’ he continued. / ‘I’m not…suggesting that the lives of other ethnic groups do not matter,’ I explained, gobsmacked that I had to explain. ‘I don’t think that any part of Black Lives Matter even hints that other lives are disposable?’ / ‘Well, when you put the lives of some and not all on a pedestal, what else are you doing?’ / ‘It’s not putting black lives on a pedestal, I don’t even know what that means,’ I said, my heart beating fast. ‘It’s saying that black lives, at this point, and historically, do not, and have not mattered, and that they should!’ “

Black Lives Matter is, of course, an important topic, as are the other examples of racism and defense against it that appear throughout the book, but I can’t help but feel lectured when these are laid out so blatantly (as in the example above), which is not a preferable reading experience. It pulls the reader out of the fiction layer of the story, rather than working together with it (at least it does for me). I’m certainly no expert on racism or intersectional feminism, both of which I think Queenie is attempting to address, but my personal taste tends toward subtlety over bluntness; I certainly think there’s an audience for this book and I don’t hesitate to recommend it despite the lukewarm temperature of this review, but because of its blunt-edged approach it just wasn’t a perfect fit for me.

Lastly, it wouldn’t be fitting of the 2020 Women’s Prize longlist if we didn’t acknowledge that this is also- to no one’s surprise- a book about motherhood. This becomes apparent through Queenie’s relationship with her mother, her grandmother, her aunt, and her own thoughts on pregnancy. All of these mother figures have their own particular commendations and flaws, as Carty-Williams- like the rest of this year’s longlist authors- unpick the question of what a “good” mother looks like.

“Do you think I sleep, with all of you to worry about? I don’t think I’ve put my head on the pillow and slept a full night since 1950.”

All in all, a solid offering that I am glad to have read and don’t mind seeing on this year’s longlist, though I wasn’t quite as impressed as I’d hoped to be. I’ve saved some of my highest-hopes titles for last, so the competition is getting to be somewhat fiercer at this point. (Finally!) I’ll have at least one more positive review coming before the end of the week!

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m undecided between a 3 and 4 actually, this might change by the time my longlist wrap-up comes up next week. Though the book didn’t do quite as much as I’d hoped it would, I did still have a good time reading it and expect I’ll remember it fondly. I wouldn’t count out reading more of Carty-Wiliams at this point, and I wouldn’t be broken-hearted to see this one make the shortlist, though I think there are stronger contenders I’ll root for ahead of this one.

Have you read Queenie? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Hamnet

We’re in the final stretch with the Women’s Prize longlist! Today’s update is my review of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, a historical fiction novel I absolutely adored.

hamnetIn the novel, William Shakespeare and his wife, who is here referred to as Agnes, have three children- two girls, and a boy, Hamnet, the latter of whom dies of the plague at age eleven, in 1596. Hamnet and his sister Judith, who also falls sick, are twins.

“How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor?”

The book is divided into two parts, the first alternating between the family’s past and the 24 hours leading up to Hamnet’s death, and the second part comprised of one long chapter following the family beyond Hamnet’s death. O’Farrell shares in a note at the beginning of the text both the age at which Hamnet dies, and the fact of his father writing a play titled after him four years later, and thus the story’s major events are not treated as shocking plot twists but instead as the basis for an emotional journey in the lives of one historic family. The dual timelines in the first half of the book help the reader balance the foreboding of this impending event with happier times- William and Agnes meeting for the first time, their marriage, the births of their children. It’s a fairly simple, very effective, structure.

The reason I loved this book was, plain and simple, for the writing. I’ve not read any of O’Farrell’s work before, and though I’ve heard plenty of praise, I was not prepared for how swept away I would be by her style. It is, admittedly, a bit elaborate and overly involved, with lots of imagery and descriptions that aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, so surely this will come down to reader preference. Usually even I prefer sparser prose, but there’s a beautiful sense of rhythm to Hamnet‘s sentences that I found incredibly immersive. Reader be warned though, that this could potentially be a difficult read in our current global state, with the incurable “black death” plague being a main feature.

” ‘He wears the mask because he thinks it will protect him,’ she says. / ‘From the pestilence?’ / His mother nods. / ‘And will it?’ / Her mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so. Not coming into the house, however, refusing to see or examine the patient, might,’ she mutters.”

Aside from the prose, pros and cons are mixed. I liked the way O’Farrell leaves Shakespeare unnamed through the entire novel, giving his family a rare chance at the forefront, although the attempt to sideline him even partially is rather undermined by the fact that one of the book’s main purposes seems to be displaying the grief that leads Shakespeare to write one of his best-known plays. However, if the intent of the novel is indeed to explore the reasoning behind Shakespeare’s writing of Hamlet, I think the narration does not explore the connections between the play and the circumstances of Hamnet’s death closely enough for it to succeed in that regard. There are threads pointing in every direction, enough so that it is actually a bit unclear where exactly O’Farrell is trying to lead the reader.

Despite being the most prominent character, Agnes is not quite isolated enough in the narration for this to feel like her story, and nor is Hamnet given enough personality for it to feel like his, however central his role. Rather, this book is a wider examination of family, (which should come as no surprise to anyone reading along with the 2020 longlist at this point). Like many of this year’s longlisted books, Hamnet asks the reader to reconsider what we expect good parents to look like by presenting unique and imperfect people who, despite appearances, are trying their best with what they’ve been given. We see Agnes, an unconventional woman with a penchant for nature and an abusive stepmother; she’s a strong woman who won’t change her personality despite the ridicule she (and thus her family) faces from her community. Shakespeare, though flawed, for his part does at least value his wife and her eccentricities. His love for her and for their children provides a counterweight to his long and frequent absences from the family home. Other members of the family are present on the page, though given less depth. Even though the approach, as with many of the other longlisted books I’ve read, lacks nuance, it does at least make for an engaging story.

“They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was.”

But the book isn’t entirely a thematic dud. Emotion is very much at the story’s center, and I think the book excels as an examination of love and grief. The unchronological structure serves as a reminder of the ways in which the two emotions can be delicately linked, and likewise can bind the people who experience them together. The narration traverses both the delights and devastations of marriage and family life, braiding them all into one all-encompassing strand. I felt everything.

The best part: you do not need to have read Hamlet to enjoy/appreciate this novel. I’ve actually read very few Shakespeare plays thus far, and that list does not include Hamlet. I have since ordered a copy though, because O’Farrell left me curious.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would’ve preferred this book to present a bit more commentary or takeaway beneath the surface, but can’t deny that I loved every moment of the read regardless. Though I’m not sure whether this title will appear on my shortlist wishlist (I wanted it to accomplish a bit more than emotion) I am confident it will feature at or near the top of my longlist favorites list. This may have been my first O’Farrell book, but it certainly won’t be my last!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Thousand Ships

You guessed it: another Women’s Prize longlist review. Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships is the last book that I finished reading, so this is me caught up on reviews! And I did mostly like this one!

athousandshipsIn the novel, Greek muse Calliope brings the voices of women together to retell the story of the Trojan War from exclusively female perspectives. This includes everything from the origins of the war (the gods’ decisions to meddle with the order of things on earth, a squabble over a golden apple, and Helen leaving her husband to sail to Troy), to the aftermath (the fates of the conquered Trojans, husband warriors returning to their wives in Greece, and much-awaited vengeance), as well as everything in between.

“When the war was ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else. And victory had made the Greeks no kinder.”

The book is divided into 40-some chapters, each told from the perspective of a different woman connected to the Trojan War in some way. These vignettes are not presented in chronological order, but rather flow between related characters, plot points, or themes. I actually found this quite effective; it’s easy enough to keep track of the overall timeline at least in broad strokes- before, during, and after the war, and this structuring method also keeps the focus on the characters rather than the already-familiar plot. Most of the characters are given only one chapter each, just enough space to explain their roles. The language is also reminiscent of what can be found in the epic poetry already associated with these myths- it reads a bit like a translation from original Greek, which lends a sense of atmosphere and history.

Though I did enjoy the read from start to finish, I had a few specific hang-ups. The largest is that while A Thousand Ships aims to be a Trojan War story focused on women, I did ultimately find it to be the same male-focused tale, simply told from different mouths. In the book’s list of key characters, nearly as many men feature as do women. Though the women’s deaths and sufferings are highlighted, most of their tales still revolve around the famous men. These women tell of their husbands, their sons, their owners (in the case that they’ve been captured as slaves), etc. It would of course be unrealistic to expect that none of these women’s stories would include men at all, but I did wish the women would have been given a bit more space to stand firm on their own.

The clearest example of the male focus can be seen in Penelope, who recounts all of Odysseus’s trials on his ten year journey home (through letters addressed to him, nonetheless!); her exasperation and annoyance with him for leaving her alone so long is the only sense in which her own voice shines through what is essentially her husband’s story, though she is given more chapters than any other character.

“Who but you [Odysseus] would assume that the gods had nothing better to do than assist you with whatever impossible scheme you had embroiled yourself in? And who but you would be right?”

There’s also Helen, who is uniformly hated by the rest of the book’s women, which perhaps isn’t out of the question given her role in their suffering, but should have been explored more fully so as not to come across as victim- or slut-shaming. I actually thought her dialogue in response to the accusations against her was very interesting and went some way toward pointing out the complexities of her character and situation, but it is sparse and more coverage was needed. Helen is not given a perspective chapter.

In the end I think Haynes’s biggest mistake was not using these women’s perspectives to add anything new to the Trojan War narrative. I think a little creative license with events and motives (perhaps even to pad the story if not to change canon material) might have saved the book from continuing to place men at the center of this tale. As it is, A Thousand Ships may be a fair alternative to reading Homer, but anyone with working knowledge of Greek mythology is unlikely to find anything truly revelatory in these pages. It’s a wonderfully woven recap that relative newcomers to Greek mythology (and veterans who just never tire of hearing the same tales over and over) may appreciate, but as someone who’s read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Silence of the Girls, Circe, and The Song of Achilles all in the last two or three years, I found Haynes’s take a readable and adept account that brings absolutely nothing novel to an old story. Calliope (the muse) certainly tries to steer this narrative in a new direction, but being spoon fed the book’s feminist intents through a clear author mouthpiece does not have the same effect that more powerful female narratives would have provided.

“She isn’t a footnote, she’s a person. And she- all the Trojan women- should be memorialized as much as any other person. Their Greek counterparts too. War is not a sport, to be decided in a quick bout on a strip of contested land. It is a web which stretches out to the furthest parts of the world, drawing everyone into itself.”

Where A Thousand Ships shines, in my opinion is it’s ability to demonstrate the far reaches of a devastating event such as war. Haynes is able to convey that the effects of a conflict like this spread far wider than the number of dead and injured, altering entire communities, including the victors. She acknowledges on the page some of the female horrors of ancient Greece that Homer doesn’t- the way women are appropriated as slaves and even as wives, against their will, the psychological affects of seeing their families and community members killed, their almost complete lack of agency. It is also a story that reminds the reader that there is more to every story than the winner’s tale of triumph.

“In any war, the victors may be destroyed as completely as the vanquished. They still have their lives, but they have given up everything else in order to keep them. They sacrifice what they do not realize they have until they have lost it. And so the man who can win the war can only rarely survive the peace.”

For the right reader this will be a fantastic experience. It’s not a story that requires prior knowledge, though part of the pleasure for me was recognizing familiar faces. If this book had been published before Miller’s and Barker’s recent retellings, if I had read it when I was first learning Greek mythology, I could have loved this book. It’s a perfectly fine narrative that could have stood a few changes but ultimately does nothing wrong. I just came to it at the wrong time in my reading life, and I suspect that most who’ve read the two Greek retellings on last year’s Women’s Prize longlist will end up feeling the same.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars.  I have absolutely nothing against Haynes or this book, but hope not to see it shortlisted. I’m not in a hurry to search out more of this author’s work, but I wouldn’t consider it out of the question based on this experience.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

The Women’s Prize shortlist announcement is now only two weeks away! I’ve read *almost* 11 of the 16 longlisted books so far and am on track to finish everything but Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light on time. I’ll keep trying, but it would take a miracle for me to finish 7 books (plus the last few pages of my current read) in fourteen days, especially given the size of the Mantel trilogy. But I digress- all this was to say that as I near the end, I have a surprisingly clear idea of which books I would be happy to see on the upcoming shortlist. The most recent read addition to this list is Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.

djinnpatrolonthepurplelineIn the novel, 9 year-old Jai and two of his friends are disturbed by the news that one of their classmates has vanished. Jai is fascinated with an investigation show called Police Patrol and is eager to soothe his parents’ worries (thus freeing himself from the strict rules they’re laying down)- and so the three children set out to discover what has happened to the missing boy, in hopes of setting their community (an Indian slum) back to rights. As they struggle to find the pieces of the puzzle and fit them together in a realistic way, more children disappear and life in the basti becomes increasingly fraught.

“The headmaster won’t open the main gate fully because he thinks strangers will run into the school along with us. He likes to tell us that 180 children go missing across India every single day. He says Stranger is Danger, which is a line he has stolen from a Hindi film song. But if he were really worried about strangers, he wouldn’t keep sending the watchman away.”

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a mystery of sorts- the question of what has happened to these children keeps the novel moving, though this isn’t a book to pick up for its whodunnit clues and plot twists. (This is reinforced by the fact that Jai’s favorite theory is that evil djinns have spirited the children away, rather than a human criminal.) Instead, at the heart of the novel is the revelation of a greater metropolitan problem- missing children who go unfound and even unlooked for, mainly because of their poverty. Through a series of child narrators- primarily Jai, interspersed with brief chapters about each of the missing children- the reader is given an interesting blend of the worries and delights of youth, who notice the adults’ fears but can’t quite understand them.

“The good and bad thing about living in a basti is that news flies into your ears whether you want it to or not.”

The choice of utilizing a nine year-old as the story’s main narrator is both clever and somewhat frustrating- Jai’s investigations accomplish very little, and among his group of friends he seems to contribute the least to solving the case of their missing classmate; I wouldn’t rate him highly as a sleuth, and his scant role in the unraveling mystery is my greatest criticism of this book. On the other hand, he does have a particular vivacity that’s compelling amidst the book’s grim subject matter. He befriends a stray dog, compares himself to detectives he likes on TV, and makes an adventure of it when his detecting takes him to new places. His innocence buoys the novel’s pace and makes this a surprisingly addictive read despite the dark commentary packed between the lines.

Speaking of commentary, this seems to be Djinn Patrol‘s main focus- the narration digs into many challenges that city children can face in India: the need to care for themselves and sometimes even younger children, the difficulty of getting a quality education, the prospect of working (perhaps even multiple jobs at a time) before the legal employment age. Jai and his friends are often hungry, their families living together in one room, their few belongings used over and over until they are worn beyond repair. The book conveys the difference in expectations and opportunities for Indian boys and girls beginning even before their teen years, the tension of opposing religions leading to bullying and even violence that doesn’t exclude children, and the thick smog that cannot be escaped even when it is cause for canceling school. All this before the novel even touches on the things that can happen to snatched children.

The writing itself is solid, if simplistic- it’s elegance lies in things implied but not said, rather than poignant prose. This worked well for me because it fit the young narrator in a way a more ornate style wouldn’t have. There’s also a good mix of cultural vocab mixed into the story (there is a helpful glossary at the end of the book, though I didn’t realize it and managed to glean almost everything from context, always a plus). The sentences are quick and straightforward, the tone generally light, and the chapters flow easily from one to the next- a bingeable read. But don’t be mistaken- it’s sad as well. This is not a book that ties up neatly with happy endings for everyone involved, which is exactly how it makes such a powerful statement about the ongoing problem of missing children cases in India. There’s certainly a depth of tragedy here, which is essentially why Jai’s perspective works so well. Anappara mentions in her afterword speaking with real Indian children and wanting to capture their “resilience, cheerfulness, and swagger,” and “their determination to survive in a society that often willfully neglected them.” In this reader’s opinion, she delivers with aplomb.

“What is a whole life? If you die when you’re still a child, is your life whole or half or zero?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This one wasn’t quite as strong for me as a couple of other commentary novels disguised as mysteries that I’ve read this year, like Long Bright River or Disappearing Earth, but after a string of mediocre Women’s Prize reads I really did have a lot of fun reading this one and it stands out as one of the stronger longlisted titles I’ve read thus far. I feel like I’ve learned a bit about India, and I was entertained at the same time. I’m still working on a ranked list and my shortlist predictions, but you shouldn’t be surprised to see this one feature. 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Dutch House

I’ve been meaning to read some Ann Patchett for a while, so seeing her latest novel, The Dutch House, on the Women’s Prize longlist this year was the final nudge I needed to pick up some of her work. While I’m glad I finally gave it a chance, I’m hoping I’ll fare better in the future with some of Patchett’s other titles, because this one didn’t quite hit the mark.

thedutchhouseIn the novel, Danny and his older sister Maeve spend most of their childhood in the Dutch House, an excessively fancy home that their father loved and their mother hated. When their mother leaves for the last time and a selfish stepmother enters their lives in her place, it is only a matter of time before Danny and Maeve lose the house, their rich lifestyle, and all semblance of family beyond each other. They spend the rest of their lives trying to pick up the pieces, returning frequently to sit in a parked car outside of the Dutch House to ruminate on all they’ve lost.

“We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside. “

The Dutch House begins as a beautifully written, fairy tale-esque account of strangely fortunate and unfortunate children in the 1960’s-70’s. They are well off in some ways, with cooks and housekeepers to make them feel at home in their ridiculously extravagant house. In other ways, they suffer- the missing mother, the cold stepmother, the father who can’t be bothered to express affection or emotion or spend any time with them. It is interesting to see how the house becomes a symbol even while they are living in it for everything that they have and could have had, and at the same time serves as a substitute for the things they are missing. But when Danny is fifteen and Maeve twenty-two, their eviction from the house changes the shape of the story, and the book becomes increasingly frustrating.

What starts as a tale of lonely children in a beautiful house turns into an adult quest of grudges and revenge, in which every character seems frozen in a state of childish emotion, committed to spending decades reacting to a single perceived slight. Instead of unfolding depth and meaning from the monumental event of these characters’ lives, the novel narrows further, spinning in circles and buckling down to defend simplistic characterization that hardly makes sense. There is no backstory or nuance utilized to explain the stepmother’s cruelty toward her husband’s children. The mother is exonerated for abandoning her family with the explanation that she wanted to help the less fortunate. Danny and Maeve, instead of building lives of their own and adding further chapters to their own stories, make their choices based on how best to get back at the woman who hurt them, even though these choices perpetuate their unhappiness- for example, Danny spends years struggling through medical school to use up as much as he can of an educational trust that would benefit his stepsisters despite having no interest or intent in becoming a practicing doctor.

“Norma said that childhood wasn’t something she could imagine inflicting on another person, especially not a person she loved. I imagined pediatric oncology only reinforced her position.”

My least favorite aspect of the book however, is Danny’s narration. Not the prose style in which his story is told, which I actually quite liked, but the simple placement of Danny at the novel’s center. In a story packed with women who must all have more knowledgeable and interesting points of view regarding the Dutch House, we are instead given an oblivious man who seems to expect a pat on the back for realizing years later how difficult a time the women in his life have had while also taking care of him.

Perhaps the point of this maneuver is to demonstrate a disparity in expectations placed upon men and women- Danny free to follow an expensive education to its conclusion and then essentially throw it away (and in doing so providing more unpaid work for his sister), while Maeve spends her entire life sans mother taking care of her brother in lieu of chasing her own dreams (like furthering her own education). Danny also has the Dutch House’s servants and eventually his wife bolstering him up while he continues to focus on himself. But if Patchett is trying to capitalize on the ease of opportunity for men at the cost of stifled women, wouldn’t any of the women involved in the story be able to convey to the reader Danny’s spoiled self-interest, while also providing a more engaging and direct narrative? It is, after all, Maeve rather than Danny who fixates on the Dutch House; Danny’s relative uselessness and the symbolism of the Dutch House do not seem to be making the same point, which further muddies the water of what this book is trying to accomplish.

The novel also seems intent on pointing out that men can get away with abandoning their children much more easily than women, but again, is Maeve not best situated to make this point, as she is the one who actually remembers their mother and takes on responsibility for her brother’s upbringing from a young age? And if this imbalance of what is expected from mothers vs fathers is the Point, the fact that neither Danny nor Maeve, after acknowledging it, can quite forgive their mother in the end while also lauding their father for loving them more than they knew at the time seems to negate this argument. Ultimately, I think Patchett was either trying to do too much or too little with the novel’s narration and purpose, failing to land either effectively. In my opinion, choosing a different narrator (Maeve seems the obvious choice) might have lent the story an entirely different- and more successful- effect.

” ‘I look at Kevin and May and I think, who would do that to them? What kind of person leaves their kids?’ […] ‘Men!’ Maeve said, nearly shouting. ‘Men leave their children all the time and the world celebrates them for it.’ “

This is turning into a very negative review, and I only have the smallest of positive to notes to end it on (which is making me rethink my rating, actually). While I have nothing but complaints for the characterization and technical choices of storytelling in The Dutch House, I did love the tragic/elegant aura of the house itself, and the sumptuous prose. Despite finding much of the content frustrating, I did appreciate Patchett’s writing style and occasional moments of insight. I think there was a brilliant and beautiful novel in here somewhere, and up to about the halfway point I had a good time reading it.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. A low 3, and not a book I’m hoping to see on the shortlist later this month. But because I liked Patchett’s writing, I am still hopeful that this simply wasn’t the right book of hers for me, and am curious to try more of her work. I’d really like to give Bel Canto a go before the vote for the Women’s Prize winner of winners this fall.

 

The Literary Elephant