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Review: Looker

I’ve read two books widely classified as “thrillers” so far this year, and it’s probably telling to admit that the one I liked the most was the one that felt the least like a true thriller. I was drawn to Laura Sims’s debut, titled Looker, for its similar placement on the edge of the genre.

lookerIn the novel, an unnamed woman’s obsession with her neighbor (“the actress”) grows as her life begins to collapse. She hasn’t been able to conceive, her husband has left her, and she’s digging herself into some trouble at work. In an effort to push away all the complications that weigh her down, the actress becomes more and more of a fixation for this woman.

Much like Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer, Sims’s Looker is a captivating little novel (only 180 pages!) with thriller elements, though classifying it as a traditional, full-blooded thriller would be to its detriment. Rather, Looker is a psychologically-driven character study of one unnamed woman’s mental deterioration over the course of a few weeks.

Though much is made of our narrator’s preoccupation with the actress- and indeed this facet of the “plot” bookends the story- it is only a side-effect of the greater issue here: the woman’s frustration with her inability to conceive a child of her own. Years ago, she and her husband moved to this neighborhood full of families-in-the-making, close to a park, with the spare room of their apartment a permanent nursery-in-progress. If at times Looker seems confused about what sort of book it is trying to be, that may come down to the fact that our narrator focuses on the actress in order to avoid what is truly on her mind.

” ‘A kid, do you have a kid?’ She’s looking at me intently now. Careful now, careful. ‘No,’ I say. ‘I don’t.’ I try to say it lightly, breezily, like it doesn’t mean a thing, like it isn’t weighed down with the agony of years of trying, of my lost marriage, of the terrible emptiness of that extra room, but I fail. Sadness and the bitterness of failure lodge in the back of my throat, and I see that she has seen it. Sensed it. I panic.”

Looker brims with potential. There are so many feminist undertones layered into the story with varying degrees of subtlety; the woman notes feeling blamed for her inability to conceive- by her husband, her doctor, her community- as well as for her impending divorce; she feels fiercely the hypocrisy of her boss lecturing her for a transgression he has committed himself. But all of this is tainted by the fact that she is essentially going crazy because she can’t have a child. The kicker is that it’s unclear whether she wants one for any reason other than the fact that she can’t conceive. Unlikeable characters can certainly be compelling in their own way, but this woman seems contrary for the sake of being contrary, always wanting what she doesn’t have and quickly tiring of what is within her grasp. What should have been a moving and tragic situation becomes a bit absurd when the reader realizes how uncomplicated the situation is. We learn early not to trust much that this woman says, even within her own thoughts, though Sims never uses the misdirection that should be possible through such a lack of trust to any advantage.

But disappointments aside, this is a fast-paced stunner of a book that could easily be read in one sitting (though technically I read it in two because I “sampled” about 20 pages the day before I was actually intending to read the book). Sims allows for white space between paragraphs and proper breaks between scene shifts, but there are no chapters. It is hard to stop once you’ve started. The story takes a detour in the middle when an incident at school (our narrator is a professor in a dwindling college English department) pushes the actress out of focus for a time, but Sims does not loose track of where the plot is headed. When the final act spins out on the page, it manages to hit that sweet spot right between surprising and inevitable.

“How does one get to live such a charmed life? How does one get to literally have it all? It strikes me as funny- that billions of us should be schlepping along, some of us barely surviving, while one person gets to be praised and lifted up by eternal light.”

I was left with one major curiosity: how the woman’s relationship with her husband ended. She thinks about him often and he does make a couple of small appearances, but much of their relationship is left mysterious. It is clear that this woman’s take on events is not necessarily a fair depiction of things, but I think Sims missed an opportunity by avoiding showing what the final straw was for this couple, as it seems to have marked the beginning of the narrator’s madness.

Nevertheless, Looker is certainly engrossing and unique as-is, a debut full of promise for what Sims might have in store. Anyone looking for (whether you know it or not) an unusual, thriller-like vignette will find this an intriguing read.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though this one was dark and fun to read, I predict that it will turn out to be rather forgettable. Looker has a lot of potential, but there’s something a bit distasteful to me about a woman going crazy because she can’t have a baby, and being jealous of another woman as a result. But this is Sims’s first novel, and it certainly holds enough promise that I’ll be interested to see where her writing goes next.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Norwegian Wood

I’ve long been meaning to read more globally, so when a friend mentioned Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood as one of her favorite books, it seemed like the time was ripe to cross a well-known Japanese author off of my want-to-read list. Or at least, one of his many intriguing titles; Jay Rubin (Murakami’s English translator) states that Norwegian Wood was the book that established Murakami’s “superstardom,” so it seemed as good a place to start as any.

norwegianwoodIn the novel, thirty-seven year-old Toru Watanabe hears a Beatles song that sends him back in memory to his first two years at college in Tokyo, 1968-1970. In this time, he runs into a girl who shared a close mutual friend with him- a mutual friend who committed suicide a couple of years previously. With this shared grief and confusion between them, Toru and Naoko begin a habit of Sunday walks through the city. An incident on Naoko’s birthday brings the two both closer together and farther apart. In the meantime, he meets another girl from his own classes who slowly invades his life and leaves him wondering whether he can ask for more than to care for a damaged girl who can make him no promises.

“The years nineteen and twenty are a crucial stage in the maturation of character, and if you allow yourself to become warped when you’re that age, it will cause you pain when you’re older.”

Essentially, Norwegian Wood is a romance in which one young man falls into the dilemma of loving two women at the same time. But the novel does so many other things that to dismiss it as a simple story about a love triangle would be an injustice.

This is a book that delves into Japanese culture, evokes a particular moment in time, and perhaps most prominently, focuses on mental health. Though arguably overstuffed with suicides and a mix of sexual content, this novel manages a beautiful and tragic balance of love and grief. Naoko talks about why she thinks their friend ended his life so unexpectedly; she tells Toru a story about her dead older sister; and through Naoko’s letters and Toru’s time with her, the reader steps deeper and deeper into the troubled mind of Naoko herself. The list of complex characters does not end there, however. It seems that every person who finds a place in Toru’s life in these two formative years is battling to overcome some unique personal struggle, and Toru certainly earns his sad place among them.

“No truth can cure the sorrow we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see it through to the end and learn something from it, but what we learn will be no help in facing the next sorrow that comes to us without warning.”

Murakami’s construction of the novel prevents the central deaths from feeling sensationalized; in the first pages, the reader learns how Toru’s relationship with Naoko will end, making this a powerful story about self-discovery and timeless love rather than a shocking plot. In fact, there is very little plot. Norwegian Wood is a dark, slow, self-contained bildungsroman that will appeal especially to fans of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. My only criticism is that the careful way in which the two deaths that most affect Toru are explored is somewhat undercut by several side characters meeting similar fates. Even Storm Trooper, whose departure from the story is left mysterious, leaves the reader with a nagging worry that only the butt of endless jokes in a book brimming with death and depression can.

If you’re thinking by now that Norwegian Wood sounds like a very sad story, punctuated by tragedy after tragedy, you’re correct. When I had finished the novel, I went back to the opening paragraphs to reread the older Toru’s impression of the Beatles song and found myself moved nearly to tears- a rarity for someone usually so adept at compartmentalizing fiction. But the reason all of this sadness is so effective is that Murakami buoys the reader along with all of the promising emotions of Toru’s first loves; it’s a perfect blend that hurts only after it manages to elevate.

The 1960’s is not generally an era I find myself interested in reading about, but Murakami transports and captivates. The sheer number of Beatles songs mentioned in the text made me happy, the commune-like sanatorium kept me intrigued, and the period-appropriate catchphrases amused.

We have both Murakami and Rubin to thank for beautiful, accessible language, and a story that will surely last many times the length of the few decades it already has.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Admittedly, I went into this book with such strong trust in a recommendation that I didn’t even bother reading the synopsis until after I’d finished the book and the back cover was simply the only text left. I’m so glad that I’ve finally read one of Murakami’s novels, and this one impressed me on such a level that I will certainly be picking up another. I’m thinking The Wind-up Bird Chronicle next (though I don’t know when that might be), but I’m certainly open to other recommendations!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

Women’s Prize No. 10/16

Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant was the first title I picked up from the 2019 Women’s Prize longlist titles I haven’t yet read, for the arbitrary reason of it being the first one to arrive in my possession.

numberonechineserestaurantIn the novel, Duck House owner Jimmy Han wants to break free of his father’s shadow and build a legacy of his own. In the eleventh hour of his shady plan to swap his father’s old Chinese restaurant for Jimmy’s own brand new Beijing Glory, he tries to back out of the scheme, to ill affect. Gradually he will learn that his actions have affected every person connected to the old Duck House, and that these friends and family are a more important part of his life than he ever realized.

The familiar saying “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” seems to be a fair sum of the concept behind Number One Chinese Restaurant. The narration follows several characters who’ve played a role in making the Duck House what it is, including staff and other members of the Han family, as well as an influential backer of dubious intent. Each is driven by his or her own dreams and desires, seemingly oblivious to the fact that years of acquaintance and working toward a common purpose have forged an unbreakable bond between them all.

“They were all friends, if one defined friendship as the natural occurrence between people who, after colliding for decades, have finally eroded enough to fit together.”

For me, this book started promisingly; I found each of the characters intriguing and was invested in learning the eventual fate of the Duck House as well as unearthing the secrets behind its precarious state of existence. I loved the restaurant’s dynamic, with its mix of languages and its internal power structure. I wasn’t hooked but I was having a good time with no complaints. This lasted for about the first third of the novel.

Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. Let me preface my issues with the book from this point by noting that there’s not necessarily anything wrong with Number One Chinese Restaurant; it simply alienated me in every conceivable way, thus ruining my experience with it. I found that I cared less about each of the main characters as I learned more about them. Jimmy, an unlikeable man from the beginning, began to grate on me to the point where I dreaded reading his sections at all. I lost interest in both the Duck House and the subsequent Beijing Glory, and with them went any last investment in finding out how Jimmy’s colossal mess would end or wanting it turn out any particular way. The elements that intrigued me most- the origins of the Duck House, as well as Jimmy’s parents and their relationship with the manipulative mafia man Uncle Pang- are left largely mysterious and unexplored. Even the real estate agent on the outskirts of the plot seems to have a more interesting trajectory than most of the characters that the narration does follow, though I thought all of them could have been described much more briefly to perhaps greater effect.

At the very end of the novel, there are a few lines that made me think Li was aiming for a story about immigrant experience, about the difficulty of coming to a new country and succeeding in the restaurant business as a means of survival, and the equal difficulty of later escaping it. I think I would have liked that story. But at no point in Number One Chinese Restaurant did I ever feel that this was a theme the novel was working toward. Jimmy certainly has a complicated relationship with the Duck House, which he both loves and despises for myriad reasons, but his attempt to break free of it and begin his own restaurant from scratch felt more related to his own ambition and familial relationships than any sort of consequence of his immigration. Furthermore, he was just such an asshole that I might have been happier to see his failure than success by the end of the novel.

The writing style struck me as competent and readable, which helped me through even after the novel had lost all sense of enjoyability. I did find occasional attempts at meaningful commentary:

“In China, they would have seemed a strange couple, with Ah-Jack clearly decades older than she was and both of them dressed in stained formal-wear. But in this waiting room, they belonged together if only because they were both Chinese.”

but each such statement seemed only to scratch the surface of its potential (in this case, the cultural ignorance of many Americans and the importance placed on appearances), and the narration would move on before I felt that I had gained any fresh perspective. In the passage above, the narration is more concerned with the development of this pair’s friendship/romance than in the ways they are perceived by the outside world. And I think ultimately that is my main criticism of the novel- the restaurant is such an insular environment that its themes and morals are nearly impossible to transfer to any situations outside of this one fiction; when even that fiction devolved for me, I felt like there was nothing left to gain from the novel.

But I will readily admit that Number One Chinese Restaurant‘s placement on the Women’s Prize longlist- from which I’ve already read and enjoyed nine titles- may have skewed my expectations. Some of the titles I’ve previously loved from the longlist are certainly tough acts to follow, and this is the first book I’ve picked up knowingly from that list. It’s entirely possible that these circumstances have affected my reading experience, and I’m hoping that recognizing it now will prevent future disappointments as I continue through the longlist.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. It’s been a while since I’ve rated anything 2 stars, and I’m still feeling a bit uncertain about it. This has probably been the most challenging book I’ve had to review so far this year. I didn’t hate it- I just don’t have anything pleasant to say about it at this point. As always, it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed something or that key meaning has gone over my head. I’ll be very interested to see what other longlist readers will think of this one, though personally I hope to see other titles with more to offer advancing to the shortlist.

In no particular order (I’m hoping to finish the longlist in time to rank my favorites and predict the shortlist later on), here are the links to my reviews for the other longlisted titles I’ve read:

Freshwater, Milkman, My Sister the Serial Killer, Normal People, Circe, An American Marriage, The Silence of the Girls, The Pisces, and Ghost Wall.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Suspicious Minds

Like many, I’m impatiently waiting for Stranger Things season 3 to drop in July. In the meantime, I was pretty excited to see the release of an official Stranger Things novel: a prequel to the TV series, titled Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds, written by Gwenda Bond.

suspiciousmindsIn the novel, Terry Ives takes her roommate’s place in a mysterious government-run psychology experiment. She wants to be part of something important, and she wants the money they’re offering as compensation. She quickly befriends the other participants. When Terry discovers a strange, young child at the Hawkins National Laboratory, where they are transported for their own experiment, she must work with the others to unearth Dr. Brenner’s secrets and free the child. But the deeper they get, the more they discover that Brenner’s reach extends far beyond the lab.

” ‘You have rights. You’re Americans.’

Gloria smiled wryly. ‘When it’s our government involved, I think you’ll find our rights are often to be determined.’ “

It’s probable that the only readers this book will appeal to are going to be the ones who watch the Stranger Things TV series. It would be entirely possible to read this novel before watching any of the episodes, or at any point in the midst of them (these events take place before the first season, but they overlap with a bit of backstory revealed in the second season) but I would guess that only the most avid of Stranger Things fans who’ve devoured every detail so far borne into the world will be reaching for this volume.

Both the biggest boon and the biggest drawback to the fact that Suspicious Minds‘s readership will be largely comprised of readers who’ve already seen season 2 is that those readers will know the trajectory of this novel before even cracking open the cover, but they’re probably also the exact audience who won’t mind a bit of overlap in the face of new information. This book is in no way necessary to understanding the TV series, though it does offer deeper insight into a time period that’s barely grazed (so far) in the film.

Among the most intriguing elements this novel offers are an exploration of Terry’s character and personal history, as well as a more thorough examination of Brenner’s behavior and early days at the Hawkins National Laboratory. There are several brand-new characters that I don’t believe have been mentioned thus far in the film, though I haven’t yet done a careful rewatch to see whether there are any small connections I missed. The details and characters that readers will recognize (and there are plenty of those) do seem to match up very well- I didn’t find a single flaw or conflict between the information provided in the film and in the novel.

But Bond certainly plays it safe. Though there is mention of subjects 001 – 011, the only children present in any significant way in the novel are the two we are already aware of from the TV series. Brenner is just as cruel and influential, but he doesn’t reveal any more answers about his motives or past than he has in the film. Terry is brought to life in a way she didn’t have a chance at in the film, but all of her actions reveal a sort of inevitability toward the outcome we already know is coming- by which I mean that her personality and the choices that would lead her to Brenner are already in motion at the opening of the novel; we don’t see anything formative but rather the dusting off of the backstory we already know about. In sum, I don’t believe that those who read this novel will have any sort of advantage in understanding or predicting future seasons of the TV series over fans who skip the book and other extras and simply watch the episodes.

Which isn’t to say that Suspicious Minds isn’t entertaining. It throws the reader into the culture of the late 1960’s and early 70’s the same way that the film does for the mid-80’s. There is mystery and experimental science- almost magic; the characters are compelling, their relationships strong and their enemies dangerous. If I found myself unsurprised by the unfolding plot here, I didn’t succumb to boredom.

“She’d never expected her comic books to be training for life, but then she’d never expected to have a friend who wanted to share visions via a homemade electroshock machine. It turned out the comic books had one thing right. Having powers put you in danger. Even being near people that had powers put you in danger. And being discovered by people who wanted to control those powers put you in even more. Of that she was certain.”

I did find the writing a bit bland, perhaps because the main characters here are college students and older adults portrayed in anticipation of younger readers; Bond keeps things as simple and PG as possible for accessibility across a wide range of audience members. Though it might not spark the same excitement as the film, Bond has crafted a novel in all ways acceptable in connection to the pop culture sensation that is Stranger Things.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a fun and quick read, if not quite as engrossing as the TV series. The novel in no way requires a sequel, as the next events are depicted briefly as a flashback in season 2, but there is room for continuation, as well as plenty of other characters that could be explored in the same way. I’d hoped for a little more to be revealed in Suspicious Minds since it is canon, but I was content enough with my reading experience that I would read another Official Stranger Things Novel. In the meantime… bring on season 3!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: No Exit

Taylor Adams’s No Exit is certainly a seasonal thriller, and now that we’re well into March I knew I was cutting it a bit close. But last weekend was blizzard weather for me again, which seemed like the perfect chance to finally pick this one up.

noexitIn the novel, a college student is racing home through the Rockies  to see her mother, who has just been diagnosed with a late-stage cancer and doesn’t have much time left. When she gets caught in a blizzard at high altitude and worries her car won’t make it much farther through the snow, she is forced to pull into a rest stop. She sees three other vehicles in the parking lot and four people inside; and then she finds a child locked in a pet cage in the back of the van next to her car. With the roads closed for the night, no cell service, and no idea which of the strangers inside she can trust, Darby fights to save the kidnapped child as the rest stop environment- both inside and out- grows more dangerous.

“On her way, she chose to circle through the parking lot, around this small collection of trapped cars. No reason, really. She would later look back on this mindless decision many times, and wonder how differently her night might’ve played out if she’d merely retraced Ashley’s footprints instead.”

This was a challenging read for me right from the beginning. It began with a misconception about the premise- I expected Darby’s rescue attempts to parallel a whodunnit mystery; not knowing which of the strangers posed the greatest threat was a big part of No Exit‘s appeal for me. Instead I found the “who” established early on (though not quite as straightforwardly as Darby at first assumes) and the “why” almost completely irrelevant. There is little to no mystery here, though there is plenty of suspense. I wish that distinction had been more clear from the synopsis, but I was willing to adjust.

My next concern was the blizzard. For a storm repeatedly referred to as “Snowmageddon,” I expected the weather to play a major role in this story. Darby realizes that every move made outdoors will leave tracks in the snow, but the few instances where those tracks should have given someone away go unnoticed. The one time that an attempt is made to follow another person’s footprints, the results are inconclusive. Furthermore, though I believe the temperature is noted at 4 degrees early in the night, the cold does not seem to affect any of the characters. Some of them spend a significant amount of time outdoors, apparently with bare hands that retain their dexterity (one of the characters unlaces a shoe and uses it to break into a vehicle) rather than experiencing any numbness. No concern about frostbite or getting lost in the snow makes its way into the narration, both of which should be major concerns for anyone outside in blizzard conditions. Darby does wonder how long the inappropriately-dressed child would last on her own outside, but the adults remain oddly invincible. The weather does absolutely nothing for the plot beyond closing the roads, which seems like lazy writing (at worst) or a missed opportunity (at best).

Speaking of invincibility, the extent to which these characters are able to get back up and keep going also stretches the reader’s suspension of disbelief at times.

Even that, I could have overlooked. What really wore me down in the end was the relish with which near-death experiences and severe injuries are detailed. Usually, I’m a reader who appreciates some grit and gore. I hate reading about rats (thanks, 1984) much more than a bit of blood. But the various ailments and traumas in No Exit are described with the careful specificity I had hoped to see with the weather, and they go way beyond the necessary logistics of noting which characters are out for the count. I understand that the villain here doesn’t empathize with others, but this person takes such excessive delight in causing pain and death that I had to set the book down a few times- rare for me.

In the end, my abhorrence of the villain’s actions turned into a bit of grudging respect for Adams’s craft; if he was looking for a strong reader reaction, he certainly succeeded in my case. I loathed this villain enough to make an addition to my Least Favorite Characters of all time list, population now 3. (The other two are Dolores Umbridge and Jack Randall.)

Fortunately, all of the small details of the story pull together quite nicely in the end. Every little object and conversation and idea comes back into play at just the right moment. Scenes that left me dubious early on turned out to be clues that Darby ignored or overlooked, which I especially appreciated. I was afraid those moments of skepticism were early red flags for plot holes, but Adams is craftier than that. The writing itself may be a bit bland, but the plot is electric.

“Because if saving a nine-year-old from child predators isn’t worth dying for, what the hell is?”

No Exit gets points for decent twists I didn’t see coming, and deft juggling of plot threads. This is one of those rare thrillers that might be worth more than a single read- early scenes and dialogue would reveal more of interest to a reader in the know. Unfortunately, that rereader is not me. I had a hard time stomaching this book once, and was happy to return it to the library as soon as I’d finished. It’s certainly unique, for those who quickly tire of predictable thrillers with the usual tropes, but enter with caution and a strong constitution.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wavered between 3 and 4 for this one because I did appreciate Adams’s craft and the unpredictability of No Exit, but in the end I think the unpleasantness of a few particularly traumatic scenes will stay with me more strongly than my appreciation for the plotting. The middling rating reflects not a mediocre story, but a book full of extremes.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 2

A few weeks ago I talked about the first batch of Faber Stories that I read, and mentioned that I had more on the way. There are 20 volumes in this little collection, which has really been helping with my goal to read more short stories in 2019 (and also feeding my penchant for tiny books). I’ve read 3 more now, so it’s time to update.

faberstories2

The Victim by P. D. James. 3 stars. – I had not read any P. D. James before picking up this story, but she is an author I’ve been wanting to try for a while. This story was originally published in 1973 and it does feel rooted in that time period, as the protagonist sends type-written letters to the man he intends to murder as a key plot point.

The story is expertly crafted, however; the clues to what will happen are carefully sown early in the piece but the inevitable conclusion is not obvious. Since the story starts from a future date that gives the reader an idea of how things will turn out, most of the story focuses on the how and why rather than relying on mystery to keep readers entertained. James does not need shocking twists to make her skill apparent.

I do think this is a strong piece that will be favored by readers who appreciate the careful maneuverings and covering-of-tracks involved in crime fiction, and even days later it is interesting to consider who the actual victim was in this tale. But though I enjoyed the piece, it just didn’t quite keep me intrigued on the same level as the other Faber Stories I’ve read thus far.

“A successful murder depends on knowing your victim, his character, his daily routine, his weaknesses, those unalterable and betraying habits which make up the core of personality.”

Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall. 4 stars. – This story is only a couple of years old, and is a strong contender for my favorite Faber Story so far. I was immediately hooked by the first paragraphs, which reminded me a bit of Sally Rooney’s writing- high praise.

But then there is a magical realism twist that takes the story in a new direction. It’s hinted at though not blatant in the synopsis, so I’ll say only that a transformation takes place, to avoid spoiling anyone who might not be aware of Mrs Fox‘s main event. I actually found the characters’ adjustment period in the middle of the story a bit boring, but worth the time in the end.

What I found most compelling about this story were the themes I drew from it, and honestly those are probably up to every reader’s personal interpretation. For me, this was a story about the difference between loving someone and trying to possess them, and also about how to continue to love someone for who they are even as they undergo a major, life-altering change. These ideas feel both timely and timeless, with the unanswered mystery of the transformation simply an interesting surface layer to deeper meaning beneath.

“To be comfortable inside one’s sadness is not valueless. This too shall pass. All things tend toward transience, mutability. It is in such mindful moments, when everything is both held and released, that revelation comes.”

A River in Egypt by David Means. 3 stars. – And finally, a 2010 piece about a father and his son awaiting a cystic fibrosis diagnosis. This story highlights the anxiety involved with confirming an unideal diagnosis, and the way that anxiety is complicated by the fact that there’s also relief to be found in the moments of not-knowing. There’s a wonderful nuance to the complication of emotion in such a situation.

But unfortunately, though I appreciate the concept, this story just wasn’t for me. I had a bit of difficulty with the writing style, which tends toward interrupting itself and doubling back in ways that had me occasionally rereading passages to decipher what exactly was going on. Then there was the issue of the narration, which focuses entirely on the mind of the father, who projects the thoughts and feelings of other characters. I found it difficult to know whether to trust his assumptions.

But I did feel some of the anxiety described and was convinced to dread the next appointment along with the rest of this family by the story’s end, so I cannot say it was entirely ineffectual.

Concluding Thoughts: The authors I’d be interested in reading more from here are P. D. James and Sarah Hall. (Recommendations welcome!) I’m having a great time reading these, even though two from this batch were only 3-star reads for me. They all leave me with something to think about and I can understand why each one of them made the cut in this collection.

I don’t think I’ll end up reading all 20 of the Faber Stories, but I do have another batch picked out so there will be at least one more set of mini Faber Story reviews.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Night Tiger

My favorite Book of the Month selections are almost always the ones that take me by surprise. In that spirit, I’m trying to choose 2019 selections that seem a little outside of my norm. In January, that meant Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger, a Malaysian historical fiction with magical realism elements.

thenighttigerIn the novel, a dying doctor charges his young houseboy with finding the finger he had amputated many years ago and returning it to his body by burying it in his grave. Meanwhile, a young woman pulled from her education has begun working in a dance hall to help pay off her mother’s debt, and finds a preserved finger. Both characters want to return the item to its rightful place, but the boy does not know where it is and the girl does not know where it needs to go. According to superstition, they have only 49 days to reunite the finger with the body before the doctor’s soul is barred from moving beyond the living world to the one beyond.

“Why did he have the finger? It was like a curse, one of those dark tales when you try to discard something but it always returns to you.”

The story shifts between the houseboy’s life with his new master (who is also a doctor with a connection to the finger) and the girl’s adventures at the dance hall and beyond. To add to the intrigue, both Chinese characters are named after one of the five Confucian virtues; both have a sibling with another Confucian virtue name, but the fifth person remains a mystery to them both. Choo’s beautiful writing makes clear that words and names are important to Chinese- not only literal definitions, but homophones as well. This sort of thoroughness for detail brings the setting- both time (1930’s) and place (colonial Malaysia) to life.

Interestingly, my favorite magical realism elements always seem to involve tigers. From Julio Cortazar’s short story “Bestiary” to Fiona McFarlane’s novel The Night Guest, something about a wild jungle cat roaming where it shouldn’t always seems to work for me. The weretiger superstition in The Night Tiger was no exception. Choo leaves it to the reader to decide whether the tiger lurking around Batu Gajah is the old doctor’s restless spirit, interspersing this recent drama with revelatory flashbacks that reveal either dangerous magic or insanity in the old doctor’s final months.

What didn’t work for me quite as well were the “dreams” that take our main characters to a mysterious train station between worlds, and the boy’s “cat sense” that starts as a connection to his twin but becomes something more. This sort of magic feels like no more than a convenient way for characters to learn things that they haven’t been able to discover without extra help from the author. Even the connection these five characters share through their names felt a bit weak, especially in light of the fact that they do not act as their virtues dictate that they should. Magic is not as effective when used as a crutch.

The other aspect that I didn’t like was the “forbidden romance.” There were times these characters’ affection and anxiety for each other felt wonderfully sweet and angsty (respectively), but it did seem overall like a romance for the sake of including a romance, when one wasn’t particularly needed. I was never quite convinced as to why or how this couple had fallen in love other than the obvious proximity over time. But then again, I could never picture Ji Lin’s mother gambling enough to rack up a high debt, either, so maybe my dislike of the romance was part of a greater problem I had with understanding Choo’s characters. Ji Lin’s modern level of confidence also threw me off a few times, as well as those around her.

” ‘You really are blunt,’ he said. ‘Don’t you know how to act like a girl?’ “

I’m all for strong women, but moments like these were the only times I had to double-check the time period in an otherwise very immersive book.

Fortunately, these issues didn’t begin to nag at me until near the end of the novel. Through most of the book, I was completely hooked on this unique mystery and the historical/cultural insight wrapped within. I found Choo’s writing engaging from the first page through the last; its villains managed to surprise me, its depth kept me guessing, and the tiger in the background of the story kept the action moving and the tension high. Though not without its flaws, I do think this book is worth the read for anyone piqued by its premise.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a solid 4 for me until near the end of the novel, but rating aside I did have a lot of fun reading it. I would absolutely be interested in checking out another book from this author; I see Choo has one previously published novel, which I’m tentatively adding to my TBR though I might be more interested in future publications than The Ghost Bride. In any case, I’m pleased with my first BOTM selection for 2019, and eager to see how my other recent selections will turn out. Fingers crossed.

The Literary Elephant