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Review: Hannibal

Two years ago, I picked up The Silence of the Lambs as my Halloween read, knowing it was a horror classic with a readily available film adaptation, but without realizing that it was actually the second book in a series. I had such a good time with it that last year I followed up by choosing Red Dragon as my Halloween read (the first book in the set), and this year I picked up the third, Hannibal (all three by Thomas Harris). Sadly, with Hannibal I found my first real disappointment of the series, and what a disappointment it was.

hannibalIn the novel, seven years after Hannibal Lecter’s escape from custody, special agent Starling struggles to find her place in the FBI. It’s very much a man’s world, and she’s made enemies high up the chain of command who take pains to knock her back every time she tries to take a step forward. When a tip comes in that Lecter has fled Italy after causing some murderous havoc there, Starling is the one who chases the lead- from a dark basement storage room where no one expects she’ll find anything. Meanwhile, someone else is chasing Lecter as well; one of his earliest victims (who barely survived, aided by a lot of modern technology) is out for revenge. Verger has a lot of money, and was left in such poor physical state that he spends what’s left of his existence just thinking- about how to get Lecter away from the law and into his own hands. Can Starling bring Lecter back into official custody? Will Verger take her down to get to Lecter? Will Lecter escape them both? The answers are here, and they’re disturbing.

“That didn’t mean he wouldn’t kill me any second if he got the chance- one quality in a person doesn’t rule out any other quality. They can exist side by side, good and terrible.”

There seems to be one book every year in my busy work season that seems nearly impossible to finish and puts me in a big reading slump. Last year it was The Bachman Books, a set of four stories which I very much enjoyed, all but one. I was afraid the challenge this year might turn out to be Ducks, Newburyport, but fortunately that was such an excellent read that I didn’t have any trouble getting through its thousand pages. Instead, it was Hannibal I got stuck on.

There are so many things to dislike here. The book starts promisingly enough, with a very film-able shoot-out scene that turns out to be as much about bureau and media politics as about the adrenaline rush. Starling isn’t the same woman she was in The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s been seven years- some character development is to be expected, and there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding her place in the bureau and the future of her career. Soon after, the narration takes us to Italy, where Lecter is enjoying all the fine things in life, and a blacklisted cop there discovers his identity. We are also introduced to the story’s villain, Verger, who likes to make children cry and throw his money around to shape the world into what he wants it to be. But for all these intriguing starts, it doesn’t take long for the book to drag.

Problem number one: the plot trajectory becomes clear early on, and then stagnates while we wait for it to play out. Verger is making arrangements to torture and kill Lecter, and he’s got some powerful helpers, in addition to an endless supply of cash. The FBI (other than Starling) does not have any interest in Lecter. Or at least, no confidence in catching him, and thus they’re eager to look the other way. Starling is the wild card, but even so, any reasonably intelligent reader knows Lecter and Verger will have some sort of confrontation (why else even include Verger in this book?). And so, from the time the major players are introduced, to the time they all meet, hundreds of pages are spent on very little plot movement. There’s no forward momentum.

Problem two: What fills the pages instead is a whole lot of attention paid to Lecter’s superior “taste.” I suppose with the title of the book being what it is, we can expect that this novel is an exploration of Hannibal Lecter’s character, though the extent of it took me completely by surprise. We get lessons on the cars he insists on driving, the food he insists on eating (and cooking), the music he insists on listening to, the silverware he insists on using, the clothes he insists on wearing, etc. Brands and descriptions are numerous. I can’t speak for everyone of course, but I’ve learned the hard way (ahem, Discovery of Witches) that I will simply never care about any character’s list of favorite wines. For me, the surplus of these details quickly crossed the line past productive characterization into what seemed like Harris showing off his expertise on “good culture,” complete with travel details.

Problem three: Relatedly, almost everything about Lecter in this novel felt like Harris simply reveling in his most famous character being in the limelight. Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs certainly contain gruesome details (major trigger warnings in all three books for murder, torture, body horror, cannibalism, etc.), but those scenes featured infrequently, when they served the plot. In Hannibal, most (if not all) of the gory details felt gratuitous. This entire book honestly felt like a celebration of Hannibal the Cannibal, the most perfect murderer. He’s not presented as a villain here. He’s lauded. And it comes across as ridiculous.

“His ego, like his intelligence quota, and the degree of his rationality, is not measurable by conventional means.”

Problem four: The ending. Despite being published in the 1980’s and 90’s, most of the content in these three books hasn’t age too badly. Starling is a pretty great female lead in The Silence of the Lambs, and there’s not much in the way of insensitive commentary that wouldn’t fly today. But this ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but Harris completely ruins Starling’s character. Worse, he does it in a way that taints who she’s been and what her motivations have been since the first time she met Lecter, early in The Silence of the Lambs. In paving the way for Lecter to have a glorious ending, Harris pulls down everything else that was good about this series. His female lead. Excellent detective work. Morality. Ugh.

Problem five: There’s no one to root for anyway. After such disappointment in the ending, I had to go back and ask: what would I rather have happened? And I couldn’t answer it. Though Lecter is a fascinating character, he’s a nonetheless a villain. Verger mixes the tears of children he’s personally antagonized into his cocktails, and Starling, the obvious choice for a heroine, seems a shadow of her former self (especially as we approach the end- if you know you know). There isn’t anyone in this book that I wanted to “win,” or even felt good about. I don’t need to like the characters to like the book, but disliking all of the characters when that doesn’t seem intentional is the worst.

I usually try to soften my negative reviews by ending on some sort of positive note, or at least recommending it to an audience that I think will get on with it better. The best I can say here is that for the first third (or possibly even half), I didn’t hate this story yet, and there are a couple of scenes that I will remember mostly fondly (Krendler’s fate, for one). Also I suppose if you’re in this series for the gore (or for expensive wine recommendations), you might enjoy Hannibal. I think that’s as close as I can get to positivity here, I’m sorry. I sincerely hope that anyone who has already read or is planning to read this one has a better time with it than I did.

“We assign a moment to decision, to dignify the process as a timely result of rational and conscious thought. But decisions are made of kneaded feelings; they are more often a lump than a sum.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I’m on the fence about reading book four, the final book in this series: Hannibal Rising. I believe it’s a prequel about Lecter’s early life and career (both as a doctor and as a cannibalistic murderer). The completionist in me wants to cross it off my list after getting this far in the series. But my lack of enjoyment with this book, and the reasons for it (mainly Lecter’s characterization) leave me thinking that I can’t possibly appreciate that book any more than I did this one. So, it might be time to move on to a new Halloween reading tradition.

What’s the worst book you’ve read lately?


The Literary Elephant

Mini-reviews: Short Nonfiction

A little dip into non-fiction before November reaches its end! Two of the non-fiction pieces I’ve read recently are very short current issues pieces, so I’m going to talk about both of them together here, even though they cover different topics. The first is Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, about the border crisis between the US and Central America, specifically focusing on children seeking asylum in the US. Second will be Greta Thunberg’s No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, a collection of Thunberg’s speeches on the importance of climate change, from events/gatherings she’s attended around the world. Both pieces are meant to raise awareness and advocate for change.

nonficminireviews “Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.” -Luiselli

I read Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive earlier this year, a novel following a family on a road trip that revolves around the US border crisis. Tell Me How it Ends makes for a very apt companion piece to that novel (whether you’ve enjoyed LCA or not), though I imagine it would also be great as a stand-alone essay for anyone interested solely in exploring this topic through non-fiction.

In the essay, Luiselli reveals a bit about her personal life- her fraught experience with trying to get a green card, her own family’s trip toward the southern US border while learning about the crisis on the radio, and her work as a translator in immigration court. The parallels between her life and Lost Children Archive will be clear to anyone reading both pieces, but there’s also more to this essay than appears in her fiction.

Tell Me How it Ends, a slim volume just over 100 pages long, walks the reader through a questionnaire given to Central and South American children upon entry/capture in the US. As Luiselli lists the forty questions she, as a translator, has helped many children to answer, she provides commentary and anecdotal background based on specific encounters with immigrant children, on her knowledge of the immigration system, and on her perspective of where the line for what is moral and acceptable should be drawn. She provides history and statistics, direct quotes, and enough concrete information for the reader to feel grounded even in sections of the piece that are more opinionated. The path is clear from the evidence Luiselli provides to the conclusions she draws, though even those who disagree with her stance (for whatever reason) are likely to learn something worthwhile from the read. Furthermore, she’s a great writer whose skill really shines through when she puts aside (admirable) fictional constructs and simply speaks her mind, from her own perspective. I was certainly impressed with her fiction, but there’s an emotional depth to this essay that brings the topic to life in a whole different way.

” ‘Why did you come to the United States?’ I ask children in immigration court. Their answers vary, but they often point to a single pull factor: reunification with a parent or another close relative who migrated to the U.S. years earlier. Other times, the answers point to push factors- the unthinkable circumstances the children are fleeing: extreme violence, persecution and coercion by gangs, mental and physical abuse, forced labor, neglect, abandonment. It is not even the American Dream they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.” -Luiselli

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars.

Let’s switch gears.

Greta Thunberg is a 16 year-old from Sweden who, over the last year, has become a major voice in the matter of climate change. Completely alone and against the advice of her family, she began a school strike that has grown astronomically to include children and adults around the world, sparking much political and cultural debate.

This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second. They only care about what we actually do. This is a cry for help.” -Thunberg

Thunberg’s speeches (filling about 70 pages in the volume I read, although I know there’s a new expanded edition recently out in the US) are persuasive attention-grabbers with short, punchy sentences that are irresistibly quotable. It’s no wonder she’s received the level of global attention that she has; her words are full of momentum and all but impossible to turn away from. I’ve seen a couple of videos of Thunberg’s speeches, and can vouch for the fact that she’s just as magnetic in audio/visual as on paper.

That said, I did have a few small issues with this book. The first being that this simply isn’t a great place to start if you’re new to the climate issue, because there are very few facts in Thunberg’s speeches. She references specific reports and statistics, but doesn’t incorporate many of those findings and numbers into her prose. She mentions that we need to decrease carbon emissions by so much percent in this many years (the numbers are estimates and do change slightly throughout the course of this volume so I’m refraining from including specifics), but beyond urging that there’s a deadline this is not a scientific text. It’s based on science, but it’s a persuasive text. It reads like the persuasive papers I remember my class having to write in high school, where we could pick any topic that interested us and make an argument. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing- though it’s not quite what I was expecting, it does show how very true the title of this volume is: No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. If this 16 year-old can make a splash this big without a science degree (or even a language/writing one), what can the rest of us do? Thunberg plays up her age, her autism, her ordinariness. And she’s a sensation. To be honest, I was drawn to this book as much for the sensation she’s as for the climate discourse; I am planning to read further on the topic, so I can’t say that Thunberg’s speeches are ineffective, but I do think they would have been strengthened by a few more facts- never underestimate the power of a well-placed statistic.

In the end, I closed the book with a certainty that Thunberg knew what she was talking about, though I didn’t feel I understood the core problem any better than I had going in. I hope she keeps giving speeches and fighting for change, but I also hope that those who hear her speeches will look further and educate themselves on the matter before drawing conclusions.

“Our civilization is so fragile it is almost like a castle built in the sand. The façade is so beautiful but the foundations are far from solid. We have been cutting so many corners.” -Thunberg

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars.

Both of these pieces came to me when I needed something short and thought-provoking in my reading life, and both were perfect fits. Despite my final rating of the Thunberg collection, I did find both of these books gripping and well worth my time. I highly recommend them.


The Literary Elephant


Review: The Silent Companions

It would’ve been ideal to get around to all of my horror reviews before the end of October, but I want to incorporate more horror into my regular reading anyway, so I suppose reviewing out of season is a good warm-up! Whether you’re waiting for next Halloween or ready for more spooks right away, I highly recommend adding Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions to your list!

thesilentcompanionsIn the novel, Elsie is visited by a new doctor in the mental hospital where she’s been living for several months. He reminds her that she arrived at the hospital under questionable circumstances, and announces that the police are asking him to help clear up the mystery of what happened that day. There are only a few ways this new inquest can turn out- in a death sentence for the crime that Elsie might have committed, in a transfer to a more permanent asylum, or in her release from suspicion and medical observation. Elsie doesn’t think the doctor will believe her frightening, supernatural story, and she certainly doesn’t want to recount it, but telling the tale seems like her best option. As the doctor’s investigation progresses, we delve deeper into Elsie’s memories leading up to the tragic night that left several people dead and a grand house in ruins.

“Until then I am stuck with our misbegotten companions. I cover their faces with sheets but I know they are there, watching. As if they know what has happened. As if it amuses them.”

This story is told in three time lines; the “present” moment at St. Joseph’s hospital, the events of 1865 at the familial home called The Bridge (taking place about a year before the hospital scenes), and an account from a diary found at The Bridge from the year 1635. Thus the entire story is historically set, lending The Silent Companions the feel of an old classic, minus the stuffy writing. The narration shifts back and forth between the three chronologies, each fitting neatly into the next as the characters read and discuss the diary in 1865 and then Elsie narrates that history to the doctor.

The 1635 sections appealed to me the least because I found most of the characters in that timeline unpleasant, and there’s not as much forward motion in the plot until the end of that segment. Even so, each of the story lines engaged me and flowed well enough from one to the next that I was never disappointed to reach the end of the chapter and come to the next narrative shift.

The story follows a woman in a mental hospital with a tragic past, yes, but I haven’t even mentioned the horror aspect yet: the silent companions themselves. Silent companions are life-sized art pieces- paintings of people that are not framed, but free-standing, meant to appear as though a real person is present in the room. Elsie finds one when she moves into The Bridge. And then she finds more. They appear in the diary entries from 1635 as well. There seems to be something sinister about them. Perhaps their eyes might follow the characters across the room. Perhaps they tend to be found in places they weren’t left. Perhaps there is something they want from the living.

” ‘We should sleep in the same room from now on. I don’t feel safe alone.’ Elsie nodded. She did not ask what Sarah meant by alone. No one was truly alone. Not ever, not in this house.”

Whether or not you will enjoy this book will probably depend on whether the supernatural element surrounding the silent companions appeals to you at all. I think you’ll know fairly well ahead of time whether you are willing to suspend your disbelief for potentially animated paintings with an agenda of their own. For readers willing to accept this aspect of the story, everything else follows beautifully: the discourse about women’s agency (or lack thereof) in these historical periods; the fine line between madness and experiencing something that cannot be neatly explained; the gothic tone and foreshadowing that give the old house its own sort of presence. Almost everything about this story is unsettling, and the ending- a masterpiece of inevitability and surprise- is particularly haunting in its implications. It’s clear this story was written by a woman, with subtle hints of modern perspective woven throughout- there’s plenty of focus on the challenges women have faced throughout history, in childhood, in marriage, in business, in parenthood, and in running a house. Best of all, Purcell’s writing is clear and vivid, capturing the reader’s attention with astute characterization and dramatic imagery immediately and refusing to let go.

“Did evil have wants and needs? Surely not, surely that would make it too human. No longer a tug from the depths of the abyss, but something sentient that could surface in anyone. In her. ‘Perhaps the evil is seeking something.’ Sarah’s breath came hot against her skin. ‘Seeking… a more permanent host.’ “

It’s best not to know much more going in.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. In case it wasn’t clear, I absolutely adored this book. Not a single complaint. Even though life was busy while I read this one, I sped through it in two days and was sad to reach the end. I’ll absolutely be reading more from this author!

Do you read horror outside of October?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Wilder Girls

CW: body horror, death (suicide, murder, and other), unethical scientific/medical experiments.

I’ve had my eye on Rory Power’s Wilder Girls for months (how could I not, with that stunning cover?!) and finally found the perfect moment for this YA dystopian / horror in October. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, though I found the writing a little inconsistent.

wildergirlsIn the novel, Raxter School for Girls is under quarantine. No one comes or goes from the island ever since the Tox started infecting the girls; over a year later, all of them have experienced the effects firsthand, students and teachers alike. Many have been killed by their bodies’ inability to adapt to sudden biological changes, including gills, morphing bone structure, scales replacing skin, and more. They’ve been told to stay put and wait for a cure, but when her friend goes missing, Hetty starts looking closer at what’s happening on Raxter Island, and finds some unsettling answers.

“We don’t get to choose what hurts us.”

First off, I must say I really like the premise and structure of this book. The mystery of the Tox and the quarantine kept me wondering and engaged from the first chapter to the last; it touches on current issues, it fits into a great setting (secluded island, defunct girls’ school), it allows for an exploration and celebration of female strength. The dual POVs were both essential and engaging. I’ve heard Wilder Girls likened to a feminist Lord of the Flies, which I don’t think is an entirely accurate comparison, nor does it do this story justice- it’s not a book about girls left alone going wild and reforming their own social order, but rather about a group of girls all stuck inside the same crisis and doing their best to help each other survive. There are still teachers present, enforcing structure and discipline into life at the school. As far-fetched as some of the details may seem, Powers does ground her central ideas by tying them to real-world problems- the main one addressed being climate change.

These days I prefer YA that tackles social issues or offers other food for thought relating to the real world that we live in. While I found just enough of this content behind the story to keep me satisfied, Wilder Girls might have made more of an impact if those themes had appeared earlier on; as is, the climate matter is tacked on at the end, leaving little room for the reader to consider the book’s ultimate horror: that a similar future might not be so far off. But I do expect more focus on a pacey plot and dramatic characters in YA than a lot of existential questions, so while perhaps I would have appreciated a bit more page time dedicated to climate change effects, I wasn’t disappointed with the amount provided.

While I enjoyed most of the plot (aside from a couple of convenient coincidences), I did struggle with a couple of other elements. The first was that I had some trouble understanding the characters’ choices- especially the teachers. They are presented as authority figures, but I had a hard time discerning whether the students trusted them, whether they should be trusted, and what the adults’ general attitude toward the students was during this crisis. Part of the problem is that the precarious dynamic between the adults and the teens is caught up in the main mystery of the Tox- character motivations are made clear when the story hits its climax, though I found them confusing up to that point. For one thing, there are only a couple of teachers left, and around 60 students, several of whom are only a couple of years below the age of the youngest teacher. When things start to look grim, I couldn’t understand why so many teens would continue to blindly follow adults they know don’t have all the answers. When food becomes scarce, for instance, what seventeen year-old wouldn’t question the people bringing in supplies and promising that it’s all temporary, that a cure is coming? What seventeen year-old doesn’t wonder whether they are being lied to when the promises don’t come true? And furthermore, Hetty is far from the first girl to see a friend go missing- why does it take over a year for any of these kids to investigate? Power does a fantastic job detailing relationships between the girls- friendships, rivalries, some f/f romance- but leaves a gaping hole in place of any explanation for the odd dynamic between those in authority on Raxter and those who follow.

“…she sounds like somebody’s mother. Patient, and controlled, because someone here has to be, and we’re children, but we stopped being kids a year and a half ago.”

In the end, I might not have even noticed the strange teacher/student interactions if I hadn’t already been having a strange experience with the writing style. I loved the physical and sensory details Power provides throughout this entire novel; every description of a body mutation brought on by the Tox, every description of the island’s natural elements overtaking attempts at civilization, of the living conditions at the school, and of the girls themselves, was vivid and effective for me. But when it came to explanations, I was somewhat lost. I don’t think Power’s logic is poor or lacking, just that it was very clear my brain runs on a different track than this author’s. Here’s an example:

“They teach us to shoot in what Welch calls a bladed stance, with the support shoulder to the target and the trigger shoulder to the back. She says it’s to make sure we hit right the first time, just in case the bullets stop coming on the boat and we have to make them count.”

I had to read this three times to understand that this stance was supposed to increase shooting accuracy, which means less wasted bullets and more saved ammunition. That may seem like only a slight rewording, but somehow the path between point A  (the stance) and point B (the worry of having fewer supplies coming in) felt to me like a winding road I could barely follow. It didn’t make sense to me that a stance was going to “make sure we hit right the first time,” and the link, that accurate shooting means wasting fewer bullets, is implied, not spoken. Fine. That’s not an impossible leap, and obviously I did figure it out in the end. But somehow, the end of this paragraph felt like a total non sequitur to me. Little things like this were tripping me up constantly in this book, though I think most readers won’t have any difficulty. Something about Power’s wording, in this instance and in many others, just did not match with the way that I process language and logic. I don’t think I can explain myself any better than that, so I’ll stop there and let you make of it what you will. If you understood Power’s meaning immediately, you probably won’t have any confusion with the writing style. Unfortunately for me, I had to do a fair amount of careful rereading, which jarred me from the story every time.

All in all, I really did like this book (enough to vote for it in the Goodreads Choice Awards!) and don’t want to scare off potential readers with my middling rating or complaints about the writing style- which, through no fault of the author’s, I just didn’t jive with. This book isn’t going to be a good fit for every reader, but I think the deciding factors are likely to be the body horror and the age range, not Power’s wording. There is some detailed graphic imagery that’s worth being aware of before diving in, especially for younger readers, who are clearly the target audience here, but if that doesn’t bother you I highly recommend giving this one a try. It’s weird, it’s wild, it’s wonderful.

(If you’re still not sure, I thought this one had a similar vibe to Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls, if that helps!)

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I thought this was a solid debut, with unique ideas and promising style. I’ll probably check out Power’s 2020 novel when the time comes, to see whether the slight issues I had with the writing will be hammered out in a second novel, and to enjoy whatever unusual journey Power will take us on next!

Did you read any YA titles for October/Halloween this year? I’d love to hear what worked or didn’t!


The Literary Elephant

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (novel and film)

I’ve enjoyed both The Haunting of Hill House and The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson in the past, but neither could have prepared me for quite how much I loved Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Immediately after finishing, I turned on the 2019 film adaptation, currently available on Netflix (US).

wehavealwayslivedinthecastleIn the novel, 18 year-old “Merricat” lives in Blackwood manor with her older sister, Constance, and their ailing uncle. The rest of the family perished in an event that further ostracized the remaining Blackwoods from the nearby villagers. Merricat is the only one of the three who still ventures into town, and does so as infrequently as possible to avoid the blatant rudeness and derision of the village folk. Isolation suits Merricat well, but Constance is easily charmed by an estranged cousin who appears unexpectedly and she begins to believe that she’s been a coward to lock herself inside the manor and tolerate her family’s eccentricities. Conflict divides what’s left of the family, which incites further tragedy.

” ‘I’ve been hiding here,’ Constance said slowly, as though she were not at all sure of the correct order of the words.”

This is a psychological horror story set in 1960s Vermont. It’s creepy and bizarre from start to finish, and disturbingly human. Though the eeriness comes mainly from the gothic tone, the woodsy, secluded setting, and the violent mob-mentality of the villagers, it’s the characterization that makes this story so utterly convincing. Constance’s unceasing optimism, Uncle Julian’s fixation on the family’s demise, Cousin Charles’s selfishness and obsession with money, Merricat’s whimsy and dark determination. Even though Constance stood accused of murder, the family remains close, expressing no regret or sentimentality over the lost family members or suspicion over those deaths. It’s haunting, and yet each of them are so clear that it’s impossible to dismiss them as mad fictions. (Don’t we all just want our bullies to leave us alone?)

With the focus so heavy on characters, there’s not much plot at the foreground, and what little there is is presented as a mystery. When the story opens, we know only that these sisters and their uncle have been alone in Blackwood manor for six years, and that the villagers have hated them all this time. Gradually, what has happened to the family is revealed, the how and why of it saved for later or left to vague hints. There’s plenty to ponder, and anyone who’s not willing to do the mental work of piecing the puzzle together is likely to find We Have Always Lived in the Castle a confusing bore. But whatever you make of it (there is a bit of ambiguity, even once the main mystery is solved), the themes of otherness and conversely, of unquestioning love, stand out at the forefront of this story.

“The people of the village have always hated us.”

All in all, it’s a disturbing delight to read, perfect for Halloween, and I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates a good psychological puzzle. Bonus points: it’s a quick little read, weighing in at less than 150 pages.

Image result for we have always lived in the castleIn the film, we see a very faithful adaptation that doesn’t contradict the novel in any major way. Some of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book, many of the scenes are the same, there is no difference in cast or characterization.

There are only a few small changes worth noting at all, the main one being that the ending is wrapped up a bit more quickly and definitively in the film, and the book’s biggest “twist” is saved for this final scene, whereas the novel introduces it a bit earlier and then slowly spins to a halt. The other point I want to compare is that the how and why of the first family tragedy is hinted at a bit more directly in the film; this new evidence follows the same direction of the assumptions I made based on the novel’s hints, but there’s less left to the audience’s imagination in the film. If you’re just looking for a quick, spooky diversion and don’t want to do the mental work of sorting out who did what and why, skipping straight to the film would be a great choice.

But, though it’s generally easier to watch a film than read a book, and this one does excellent service to its original text, Jackson’s writing in the novel really is exquisite and compulsively readable. It’s really not to be missed, if you’re a fan of classic horror!

” ‘It used to be a lovely old house, I hear,’ said the woman sitting on our grass. ‘I’ve heard that it was quite a local landmark at one time.’ “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. For both formats. I was hooked within the first paragraph of the novel- nay, the first sentence- and loved every bit of it. The film grabbed my attention instantly as well; I adored its colors and the quality of the light, which, as a words person, isn’t usually something I even notice, but I did here. I can see how readers/watchers who like plotty stories might not get along with this one, but both formats were just a perfect fit for me.

Have you read or watched We Have Always Lived in the Castle? Plan to?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Ducks, Newburyport

Lucy Ellman‘s 1,030-page novel, Ducks, Newburyport, was my 9th read from the Booker longlist, and my 3rd from the shortlist. Sadly, Ducks was not one of this year’s two Booker Prize winners, but I think it’s an incredible book fully worth the read anyway, so with any luck I’ll be able to convince you with this review, despite the length! (Fair warning: this review is long too.)

ducks,newburyportIn the novel, an unnamed woman baking pies and living with her family in Ohio shares her thoughts in a continuous mental outpouring that covers the events of her life over a couple of months. As most people are, she’s both unique and ordinary, set apart by a string of distinct circumstances but also incredibly relatable in many of her observations and opinions. Through this woman, we see what it’s like to be a mother of four, in a second marriage, working from home, worrying about the state of the world and its future, and most importantly, just trying to survive in 2019 America.

“…the fact that I think a lot of people think all I think about is pie, when really it’s my spinal brain doing most of the peeling and caramelizing and baking and flipping, while I just stand there spiraling into a panic about my mom and animal extinctions and the Second Amendment just like everybody else, twinge, bad back,”

The greatest obstacle, I think, in encouraging readers to pick up this masterpiece of a novel, is its size, combined with it’s run-on sentence structure, so I’m going to focus on addressing those aspects.

Ducks, Newburyport contains two alternating parts: one of them is indeed a single run-on sentence that begins on page 2 and does not contain any periods or paragraph breaks until page 988 (the end of the story in my copy- there’s some extra material at the back including a glossary of abbreviations, which is very useful!!). There is a 30-page stretch in the middle of the book where the narrator’s thoughts become verse-like, but even this segment is contained within the same single sentence without a change in voice or tone. Instead of full stops, there are commas aplenty, and the phrase “the fact that” marks the start of a new thought. (This phrase acts like the word “STOP” in old telegrams to mark the end of one sentence and beginning of the next, and once this structure becomes clear, the repeated words themselves fade into the background.) The sentence as a whole, and many of the individual phrases, do not necessarily make grammatical sense, but the style doesn’t leave the reader stumbling over meaning. The effect- that an entire life presents as one unending thought process- is worth it. In this all-encompassing sentence we see: statements, questions, statistics, quotations, lyrics, acronyms, names, individual words, numbers, and more. There are some lengthy movie spoilers in this running commentary (mainly for musicals and black-and-white classics that you’ve probably either already seen or aren’t going to). Additionally, the Little House on the Prairie series is as close as this woman has to a religious text, so you’ll fare well if you have some prior knowledge of Laura Ingalls Wilder, though it’s not essential to be an expert going in. All told, this main sentence is a wide mix of almost every subject and emotion imaginable.

The other component of this novel is a third-person omniscient narrative of a mountain lioness’s adventures and tribulations. These sections are properly punctuated, interrupting the Ohio housewife’s inner chatter every 50 pages or so and lasting no more than 2 pages each. The two storylines eventually overlap in content, and in the meantime often overlap thematically with observations on motherhood, animal nature, human impact upon the environment, etc. I wasn’t expecting to, but ended up loving these segments as much as the human element.

“Through her own extreme caution, she conveyed to the cubs that men are more dangerous than they look. They killed with ease, and didn’t even eat their prey. They plundered, lay waste, then abruptly retreated to their cars. They were not the true inhabitants of the forest, they were usurpers, dangerous visitors who roughly invaded the territory of others. They did not respect lions.”

Between the mountain lioness breaks and the use of “the fact that,” it’s easy to put this book down and pick it back up again without feeling too in-the-midst, though the continuous nature of the stream-of-consciousness narration flows beautifully from one thought to the next. Some thoughts seem to do little in the way of characterization or moving the plot, reading more like free-association lists, but many of these “random” sets of words offer interesting juxtapositions that are a sort of commentary in themselves, and still other groupings seem meaningless at first but are later explained. The narrator’s thoughts circle back to the things that are most important to her, and with time and repetition we gain further insight. For this reason, I think this would be an excellent book to reread, as words and phrases that are at first innocuous pick up significance along the way. It’s a book of many layers. Ellmann spent 7 years assembling this marvelous creation, and it shows.

So what is it about, you’re probably wondering by this point. There is a plot, but it’s best not to know the specifics before they are slowly revealed over the course of the novel. Essentially, it’s a story of motherhood and violence in Trump’s America. This is a mom working to make ends meet, in hopes of being able to afford to send her kids to college when the time comes. Baking has become a rote activity, so she she spends her days worrying about what she sees in the news and wondering whether her own family is safe. Among her thoughts are disturbing headlines and details of American crimes and tragedies, often involving shootings and deaths. Some of these can be hard to read, especially when strung together, and her anxiety honestly gave me a bit of anxiety as well, which leads me to believe this might be a difficult read for anyone who avoids  grisly stories in the news or is actively worrying about their own children’s safety already. There are some real gut-punches here.

“…the fact that I pretend to be coping, like all the other moms do too, but I think we all live in terror that some school shooter will line our kids up one day and make them beg for their lives,”

The political content is certainly timely and engaging, but most of these opinion bits stand independent of the plot and chronology; the parts of the book that gripped me the most were the pages that included specific events that provided an anchor to the narrator’s weaving thoughts. This book is  ingenious for the way that it plays the long game- with such a surplus of detail, the biggest hints of what’s to come hide in plain sight; it’s fascinating on the surface, but you have to wonder if it’s going anywhere. (Let me assure you that it is.) In scenes that play a shorter game, the narration is more immediately focused, with a common thread grounding our narrator’s thoughts. For instance, there’s a scene where the family is stranded at the local mall during a flash flood, and though the narrator’s thoughts continue to wander, the disaster at hand gives her train of thought something to come back to and allows the reader to feel that the story really is moving in some particular direction.

“…the fact that America’s not a safe place for a girl, the fact that nobody’s safe in America,”

And now, let’s look directly at the book’s length. At the end of the day, I think Ellmann wrote Ducks, Newburyport as a thousand-page book because the idea of a book this long primarily featuring one housewife’s thoughts in a single meandering sentence is a highly intriguing one. It catches attention. It says women’s thoughts and experiences are important, even if the woman in question is a stay-at-home mom who bakes pie and rehashes her regrets and frets about the world without acting upon those worries. It’s absolutely stunning, conceptually. In actuality, I think Ellmann could’ve covered the same topics and themes to near or equal effect in about half the length. My biggest hang-up with this book is that it just doesn’t feel necessary for it to be quite this long, though I don’t think it ever could have succeeded as a short book- it does cover a lot of worthwhile ground, and the way it circles around its topics and doubles back at them hundreds of pages later (don’t worry- Ellmann makes sure you’ll remember what you need to) is a big part of what makes this so impressive. So even though I don’t think all 1,030 pages are strictly crucial to the overall story and purpose, somehow they work. I was never bored while reading. I never wished for fewer pages. So little is happening at some points, and yet I loved reading it every time I picked it up. It frustrates me that readers will avoid this book because of its length, when it could easily have been shorter.

Though there’s certainly a bit of fluff (a whole page of creek names that didn’t do anything for me, for example), so many of the words and phrases at play are clearly chosen with care. Ellmann can string two words together (for example, “ducks, Newburyport,”) that hold no meaning for the reader the first three times they appear; hundreds of pages later, we find out why they’re significant to this narrator, and their emotional significance to her then colors each context in which they appear. As many of our thought-tracks likely do, this narrator’s inner chatter is built of its own syntax. But despite the impression of impeccable literary construction, this book read like the most authentic stream of consciousness I’ve ever encountered.

Relatedly, I was able to forgive many of the small complaints I had about this narrator’s quirks because they felt like such organic offshoots of her personality. I didn’t always like reading about this woman’s nonsensical dreams, her constant remembrances of “Mommy,” her embarrassment every time the word “cock” crossed her mind, or her frequent self-corrections; but each of these annoyances felt like the little things that start to bother you when you’re living with someone new, for instance. No one’s perfect, and when you live with someone you get to know their small undesirable traits. Inhabiting this woman’s mind for 988 pages felt like that- nothing worth moving out over, but we’re bound to have our differences. And because I was able to rationalize most of my (very few) dislikes about Ducks, Newburyport in this way, they actually turned out to be additional reasons I thought Ellmann’s writing was effective; she absolutely brings this woman and all of her concerns to life- flaws included.

“…the fact that, personally, I think we underestimate dangers, the fact that we have to maybe, because it’s not practical to think about them all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, it’s just that fear gets in the way when you got stuff to do, when you’re living on the edge,”

In the end, I think the patience required for the length poses the greatest challenge here. The prose is readable and engrossing, the arguments and themes stand fairly obvious, and our narrator really feels like an everywoman, at least in her general attitude. I think readers will know early on whether the style of this novel is going to work for them or not, and if it is, and you have a reasonable amount of stamina, enjoyability and sheer momentum are likely to outweigh the challenge of sticking with it, in my opinion. If you appreciate literary fiction and are interested in the current mental state of America, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

“…the fact that you’ll never know what sort of person you might have been if you’d read different stuff,”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had such a fantastic time reading this novel that it’s turned out to be one of my highlights of the year. Obviously I’ve nitpicked a few things, but they felt like small potatoes compared to my appreciation of the work as a whole. I think this would’ve made an excellent Booker winner, but I haven’t read Girl, Woman, Other yet, and am holding out hope that I’ll find that one worthy of the win when I pick it up soon as well. I’m also curious to try more of Ellmann’s work in the future.

Are you considering reading Ducks?


The Literary Elephant


Review: A Spell of Winter

CW: rape, incest, parental abandonment, animal (horse) injury, death of loved ones, abortion

My journey through the Women’s Prize winners list continued this month with Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, my first Dunmore read and the very first novel to win the Women’s Prize (back when it was called the Orange Prize). I buddy read this one with some amazing bloggers, and suggest you check out their reviews as well! Here are the links for: Callum, Rachel, Naty, Sarah (review pending) and Hannah (review pending – I’ll update these links as reviews appear)!

aspellofwinterIn the novel, Cathy narrates the story of her upbringing in a remote part of England on the cusp of WWI. Her family is falling apart as fast as the manor they live in, leaving Cathy and her brother Rob to parse rumors and secrets for the truth of their missing parents. Raised by an emotionally distant grandfather with particular ideas for their futures and by overly-involved house staff, Cathy and Rob form a close bond- perhaps too close- that causes further emotional fracturing as the two finally reach adulthood and gain a wider sense of the world than they had ever known in the manor. It’s a tragic tale of the lasting effects one person’s actions can have on another, and of coming of age in a rapidly changing world.

“My grandfather had turned my parents into shadows, and, as far as I knew, everybody had agreed to it.”

Despite the word “winter” in the title, this is an excellent book to reach for at the height of spooky season (it would also be great for winter, of course). Much of the book has a very Gothic feel- it’s not a high-tension mystery or supernatural fright fest, so don’t enter this one expecting Daphne du Maurier or Shirley Jackson. Though so many of the details are eerie and unusual, its a fairly straightforward story of one girl’s quest for adulthood. That said, the element that I enjoyed the most was the atmospheric Gothic touch that turns nearly everything from Cathy’s childhood slightly sinister.

” ‘A pity there hasn’t been a death in the family,’ said Kate. ‘With your skin you’d look like a queen in black.’ “

There’s some truly devastating content here, and I had to put the book down a few times to let my emotions catch up with me- usually I’m an embarrassingly cold reader and not particularly affected by fictional details, so this response is a standout; I was completely captivated by these characters and their situation. Cathy’s grandfather comes from no one and nothing, and is focused on building a home and legacy for the future generations of his family. Cathy’s mother doesn’t feel she fits in this dream and runs away- alone. Her father is so distraught that he’s eventually admitted to a sanatorium as a mental patient. Her brother is the only one who really understands what her life has been like, and keeps her close. Her governess takes pity on pretty, almost-orphaned Cathy and loves her nearly to the point of obsession. Kate, the young woman who attends to both children and the house’s upkeep (among other household staff), is dedicated to her duties but longs for a life of her own in which she’s entitled to more than a leaking attic bedroom. No one means Cathy ill, and their own motives are generally good and reasonable, but the girl is deeply hurt by all of them. Dunmore presents the reader with a masterpiece of characterization full of human intrigue and desperation, and this is the area in which she succeeds without question.

“I wonder sometimes, if it’s the people themselves who keep you company, or the idea of the them. The idea you have of them.”

I found myself less enthusiastic about the ending of the novel. Though the entire book was a very quick and engrossing read for me, there’s a definite shift in the last third or so of the novel when the war finally comes into play that made the structure of the book start to fall apart for me. To some degree, this might be down to no more than a pacing issue, but it led to a lot of confusion on my part of what this book was aiming to do. Is it a war story? I’m still not sure, though I think not. It’s hard to relegate such an important world event that clearly impacted these characters immensely to a mere chapter in their lives, but I do wonder whether the backdrop of this particular time period actually adds anything to the story. It certainly adds more tragedy to Cathy’s life, and the time period explains certain habits / ways of life at the manor, but I would argue that it doesn’t change Cathy’s relationships with any of the main characters, which in my opinion is the central focus of this story. Thus, I couldn’t quite appreciate the tonal shift.

I also thought the book’s ending chapter somewhat anticlimactic; the final scenes depict the first time Cathy is able to make reasonably informed decisions in her own interest, and seeing convictions from her younger years overturned is a victory in itself, but I found the ease with which she makes those choices and the apparent lack of conflict in following them through rather bizarre. It also seemed surprisingly emotionless after the string of heart-wrenching tragedies leading up to it. It wasn’t, for me, a satisfactory conclusion, though I felt the book a worthwhile read regardless, and enjoyed engaging with its themes.

“Abandoning, betraying, powerful, she had filled our dreams as she would never have done if we’d had her living presence. They were confused dreams from which I woke with an ache of guilt. I hadn’t loved her enough. If I had loved her more, she would never have gone. I had saved half my bar of nougat for her but then I had eaten it.”

All told, I would say this is an excellent choice of literature if you’re looking for something dark and bleak that examines a childhood without parental guidance and affection, forbidden love, familial obligations, and a life of seclusion. Dunmore’s writing is both flowing and haunting, easy to read but also determined to crawl under the reader’s skin. The synopsis on the cover (and on Goodreads) offers little in the way of what to expect, and I can see where not knowing what you’re getting into here could lead to less than favorable experiences for some readers, though the right audience will find this a gorgeous (if grim) book. It’s a tricky title to recommend, so I won’t be pushing this one on anyone, but I do hope that those interested enough to pick up A Spell of Winter will find as much to appreciate in its pages as I did.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a very difficult book to describe, and a difficult story to explain my reaction to, so I’m not sure I’ve done it any justice. Dunmore is clearly a skilled writer (I look forward to reading more of her work, though I haven’t had a chance to thumb through her backlist yet and pick out a follow-up; feel free to recommend any of her titles!), and I think this was a deserving book to take the first Women’s Prize win. (I look forward to reading more past winners as well!). It’s hard to say I enjoyed the read when most of it was really very sad, but… I absolutely did.


The Literary Elephant