Tag Archives: historical fiction

the generational impact of trauma

Review: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

Women’s Prize progress: 8/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, the worlds of wealthy tourists and impoverished locals collide in historical Paradise, a beach-side Barbadian village. When a robbery goes wrong on the night that Lala’s daughter is born, it sets in motion a string of devastating events. …Or does it? As the story unfolds, rippling out from Lala’s perspective to touch on all of those ensnared in the fallout, the reader learns just how deeply ingrained the roots of this problem lie, how easily perpetuated by the wealth gap between the summering tourists and struggling locals, and we begin to understand that Lala’s pain is not new, but rather a fresh iteration of tragedy and misogygny inherited by generation after generation in Paradise, nearly impossible to escape.

“She did not understand that for the women of her lineage, a marriage meant a murder in one form or the other.”

Right off the top, I have to warn you this is a bleak book. Personally, I don’t mind reading bleak fiction, and coming on the tail as this one did for me of an extremely bleak nonfiction read, I had a very positive experience here, though I understand others may want to skip this one for its difficult themes and content. I’ve rounded up some CWs at the bottom of this review, and am mentioning that list now in case anyone wants to check before reading further.

What makes this book so dark and haunting is the relentlessness of the trauma, the Point of the book being (in my view, as you may have surmised from the title of this review) being that in a place with such imbalances of justice and privilege, pain begets pain; that misogyny, abuse, and injustice are a breeding ground for more of the same, internalized by perpetrators and victims alike, to be passed down from one generation to the next to such a point that even a newborn doesn’t seem to stand a chance. Almost every chapter reveals some deeper layer of despair in this story as the narration flits between linked characters, exploring past ghosts that persist as present motivators. Though this book covers a specific incident, in a specific family, it speaks to a much larger societal problem in which trauma is the norm, she who can’t take it with dignity is further punished and ostracized, and there are very few viable avenues for recourse or even exit.

“And she leaves Lala in the cold quiet room on her back with her legs still splayed and no feeling at all at the intersection of her thighs and it is nothing like the bliss on the posters in the clinic or on the TV ads or the faces of the wealthy tourist women who walk with their newborns on Baxter’s Beach. Instead, she realizes that she has now brought another person into the dark, that birth is an injury and having a baby has scarred her and when the nurse asks her if she wants to go with her to see her baby in the ICU she shakes her head No...”

While the painting of this unhappy picture is the book’s strength, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House also meets its primary downfall in this dogged focus on trauma through the ages; the narrative becomes so focused on what seems an exhaustive list of tragedies that the characters have little personality beyond their particular pains. Some characters want to leave Paradise, some want to rise above, some want to come back to experience it with better fortunes, but these longings are all tied to what has happened to the local characters here, reactions rather than innate ideals. They don’t have dreams or quirks that make them unique- they could all be anyone, dropped into the events that happen to them. Only their situations set them apart.

For example, it’s eerie to see that Lala could read exactly like her grandmother does, with only a number of years separating their fates; sure one earns her keep making dresses and the other braiding hair, but neither skill is mined for character depth and both cater in the same way to the tourists- this similarity makes the generational span of the family’s trauma abundantly clear, but it also, regrettably, comes across as though all of these characters exist not to represent people but to be vehicles of pain, suffering, and violence, first and foremost. If I could’ve changed one thing about this book, it actually wouldn’t be any of the tragedy in these pages, brutal though that can be; I would wish rather that the reader be allowed to know these characters a little better as individuals.

But even with this flaw in view, I think How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is still fully worth the read. I was immediately gripped by the writing; for such a tragic tale, Jones delivers a compelling narrative with plenty of momentum, the writing smart and artfully circular, spiralling around its points in a way that builds up dread and anticipation before honing in for the kill. Every twist feels both surprising and inevitable- the perfect combination I’m always looking for in fiction. I also found the use of multiple POVs engaging and well-utilized; Jones allows us to see most of her characters at first from a distance, through someone else’s eyes; she piques our curiosity with circumspection and only then allows us a close glimpse into each new perspective, which expands upon or challenges what we’ve learned from other characters in a way that makes each new piece vital in its own right. The shifting narration gives the book a fluid, communal feel, though Lala is always at the center. Other characters include Lala’s grandmother, mother, husband, friend, the police officer who questions her, and the woman involved in the botched robbery. All of these perspectives add their own flavor to what is clearly a larger societal issue, though they also all feed into that single common thread- Lala.

“Mira Whalen closes her eyes. Just yesterday she had ventured outside, just a little walk on the beach, and had seen the neighbor’s dog die, had seen a woman too terrified to report an assault she had suffered. Mira Whalen did not think she could muster the energy to go outside again. Mira Whalen didn’t think she could muster the energy for anything.”

It’s a heartwrenching tale that offers little hope, though the fact that the main thrust of the story is set in 1984 with occasional flashbacks to even earlier years does seem to suggest that living conditions on Barbados beaches may have somewhat improved up to present day. Despite the time jumps and character switches I never had a hard time following along and personally I didn’t find the trauma too difficult to read. The robbery gone awry and segueing as it does into a difficult birthing scene sets up the book’s tone well, so that additional revelations feel somewhat expected, not intended to shock the reader at every turn. And the writing, the writing. Jones’s prose has such flow and rhythm, and the mechanics of her paragraphs continually impressed me. There’s a bit of dialect in the dialogue that’s easy enough to parse. For those willing to take the leap with the content, there really is so much to appreciate here. This is a book that will stick with me, I think.

CWs: murder, rape (including rape of minors), difficult birth, death of a child (infant), incest, physical (domestic) abuse, gun violence, death of a pet (dog), animal cruelty (cats), infidelity, misogyny

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was halfway through this read when I assembled my Women’s Prize shortlist predictions, and that was enough to (correctly) include it on my list; I think How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is fully deserving of its place on this year’s shortlist and well worth the read, for the right audience.

The Literary Elephant

flashback to the ’50s

Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Women’s Prize progress: 6/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In the novel, Jean typically writes women’s columns for a small newspaper in the London suburbs, but she eagerly takes up a feature project when Gretchen Tilbury writes in claiming her daughter is the result of a virgin birth. Jean takes testimony from the women who were around Gretchen at the time of conception and is surprised to discover that her story holds. Jean enjoys the investigation, but befriending Gretchen’s apparently perfect family is what brings her the most joy and provides a much-needed break from Jean’s normal routine of caring for her elderly- and somewhat difficult- mother.

“‘Do you think it’s possible to hold two contradictory views at the same time?’ / ‘Perfectly. Religious folk do it all the time.’ / ‘So let’s say I think Mrs Tilbury is telling the truth, but I still don’t believe in virgin birth, and I see it as my job to close that gap.'”

Small Pleasures is a book full of potential, and though for me it fell far short of capitalizing on any of it, I can see why readers are loving it. (Or, loving it except for the ending, which I’ll come back to.) Set in 1957, this story follows an unmarried woman nearing 40 who adheres strictly to her duties even while she longs for the more social life she might have had if not for her largely housebound, anxious mother, who relies on Jean’s caretaking. It’s a perspective- especially in this sexist era- often overlooked or stereotyped as pitiable, which makes Jean all the more attractive as a protagonist. And she can be a convincing heroine; Chambers shares Jean’s thoughts and emotions with the reader, making her an easy character to sympathize with.

The plot is also layered and conducive of thought; I suspect this story would make for a great book club discussion. In addition to the virgin birth investigation with its foray into 50s medicine, Small Pleasures is also prominently a domestic drama. In an age when appearances and manners are everything, Gretchen (she of the virgin birth) seems to be the perfect wife, mother, and friend, offering Jean a glimpse into the life she wishes she’d been able to forge for herself. While Howard may not be the most attractive man, he’s impeccably kind and gentle, always does right by his family, and seems to Jean the best husband any woman could ask for. And Margaret, their ten year old daughter, is a sweet, funny girl who wins Jean’s heart immediately. As Jean gains faith in Gretchen’s tale, falls for Howard, and dotes on Margaret, it’s hard to mind the switch from mystery to a quiet exploration of love and longing. It’s all very atmospheric and engaging, a quick, easy read to submerse oneself in if this kind of story appeals.

But though it all seemed off to a promising start, my experience went quickly downhill. I might have fared better with the positives here if I’d warmed to Jean more from the beginning, but Chambers seems to take era authenticity seriously enough that instead of pushing boundaries Jean feels like a true product of her generation, the book’s narration offering no retrospective modern reflection. Small Pleasures feels like it could have been written in 1957, which is a testament to Chambers’ skill with language and setting, though it belies all of the progress women have made in the last six decades. Jean has completely internalized the sexism of her day, letting her boss call her ‘old gal,’ bemoaning (privately) her single, childless state and the burden of caring for her mother. Take this example, for instance, when Jean is visiting her mother during a brief hospitalization; between mentioning that her mother seems to be doing worse that day and clarifying that she means her mother’s mental state seems unstable, she makes this disappointed observation about the hospital staff’s beauty standards:

“When she arrived for evening visiting hours after a long day at work, she found her mother slightly worse. Someone had brushed her hair back off her face, destroying what was left of the curl, and giving her a severe and somewhat masculine appearance, which would have horrified her if she had been able to see it. Looking around, Jean noticed with dismay that the other patients had been treated to a similar grooming regime and now looked like members of the same androgynous tribe.”

Dismay! Over the patients looking androgynous! While they all- including her mother- are suffering from physical and mental ailments! Jean fits the 50s stereotype exactly. She’s just as concerned with keeping up appearances and idealizing that picture-perfect housewife life as every other “proper” 50s woman, even though her circumstances haven’t allowed her to achieve the necessary first step of marriage. Of course it makes sense that someone living in this time period would prescribe to the norms of the time, but in failing to challenge any of these outdated norms through Jean or even indirectly through the 3rd person narration, Small Pleasures comes across more like a misplaced homage than a story worthy of the 21st century.

On top of finding the historical perspective unimaginative, I also had a hard time condoning many of Jean’s personal choices. The trickiness of her budding relationship with Howard aside, there are two particular instances in which I think the narration should have suggested some criticism alongside Jean’s actions. One involves her poor response to the revelation of another woman’s trauma, and the other involves herjudgmental advice to a lesbian woman looking to leave her heterosexual marriage in order to reunite with her lover. In the latter instance Jean shows no consideration for the other women’s feelings and her stance seems to imply her belief that a heterosexual marriage is the only adequate environment in which to raise a child. Jean (and Chambers) does not treat the lesbians well in this story, which might have been used to some advantage had any sort of point been made through the women’s suffering, but instead only Jean’s disapproval comes through in the narration, to no good effect.

Granted, I already disliked Jean by the time these controversial scenes arose, and the situations are more nuanced (I’m trying to keep this review spoiler-free)- Jean means to do well by the person she sees as most vulnerable in both of these cases. Painting herself as the martyr when she really is only tangential to a greater problem here doesn’t come across well either, though. For Jean’s dislike of the lesbian relationship to run unchecked while she also upholds the picture-perfect heterosexual marriage as the ultimate goal seems like a sadly missed opportunity for Chambers to comment on how hard it must have been to live as anything other than heterosexual in this time period, or to acknowledge that marriage to a man is not the be-all and end-all for every woman. As I mentioned above, there is so much potential for reflection and commentary in this book, and yet, in my opinion at least, Chambers has chosen to smile and wave as all of those moments pass unacknowledged right underneath Jean’s nose.

However, many readers seem less perturbed about Jean’s behavior than I have been, and a few fumbled handlings and missed opportunities that seem mostly well-intentioned if a bit tone-deaf are hardly reason to advise avoiding this book like the plague. It is a decent read, if Jean manages not to alienate you. But there’s one more issue with this book that’s been generating some discussion: that ending.

Like many others, I disliked the abrupt left turn in the book’s conclusion. While it turns us toward an interesting topic/event, it just isn’t presented in a way that allows it to mesh with the rest of the book. Though this last big event is actually revealed somewhat sneakily earlier on, the book ends with an ominous, open-ended chapter and then requires an afterword longer than the coverage of this event in the novel to explain what has happened and why Chambers has included it. Even this explanation is not enough to convince me that this ending belongs here; it feels grafted onto a completely unrelated story, and without some stronger sense of unity between the two major parts at play, they only detract from each other, leaving the reader to wonder what the intended takeaway is. Should we be left ruminating on the virgin birth mystery that we’ve spent 300+ pages with, or is this other event that got hardly a mention but railroaded over the rest of the plot actually the larger focus? Furthermore, this ending leaves almost all of the main characters’ fates hanging unsatisfactorily. For these reasons, even while I like the idea of this ending, I wish it had been presented differently or omitted.

“She wondered how many years- if ever- it would be before the monster of awakened longing was subdued and she could return to placid acceptance of a limited life. The journey into love was so effortless and graceful; the journey out such a long and laboured climb.”

CW: rape (off page), infidelity, death (implied), abortion leading to medical complications

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There are some cozy mystery vibes here and a solid attempt at a unique and compelling heroine, so I can see why others are having better experiences with this book, but it was all around Not For Me. Personally I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to pick this one up if you’re picking and choosing from the shortlist, and it’s the only longlisted Women’s Prize book I’ve read so far this year that I actively don’t want to see make the shortlist.

The Literary Elephant

life without bees

…would be bleak, if Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees (translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley) is any indication!

In this novel, an English man in 1852 throws himself into inventing a revolutionary hive for beekeepers, hoping his work will bring fame and fortune to the family he’s struggling to provide for. On another timeline, an American man in 2007 tends to the bee farm that’s been in his family for generations, though his wife would prefer to sell and their son would rather pursue journalism than take up the mantle. Finally, a Chinese woman in 2098 works long hours pollinating fruit trees by hand; she and her husband barely make enough money to keep themselves and their small son fed in a world devastated by food shortages, in the wake of mass bee extinction.

The three threads are linked, on one side a bit more directly than the other; the narration weaves back and forth between each of the main timelines, drawing parallels between the three parents who are all in their own way trying to guide their children into a life of stability. However, the adults all seem to be afflicted by the same parental blindness, believing that what’s best for their sons is to keep them close behind on the paths the parents themselves have forged, using the lessons learned from past mistakes and lost opportunities to show the children how to succeed where others- perhaps even themselves- have failed. Of course, the children have their own dreams and ideas about what’s best for them and nothing goes quite as planned.

“It was as if I’d created a bond between my own childhood and his, between us and the world, between the world and the universe.”

This is actually the part of the novel that worked the least well for me; as someone who has only ever been the child in the “parent knows best” tug of war, I was not especially inclined to feel sympathetic toward the parent narrators trying to reshape their sons’ futures, good as their intentions may have been. The trajectories of these relationships feel drawn out and obvious. I would much rather have seen these three characters more clearly as individuals, with the focus primarily on their bee-related passion projects, than so preoccupied with their familial relationships. Of course parents are often preoccupied with trying to care for their children, but that can be true without also redirecting the entire novel (though perhaps parents who can relate to worrying about their children in this way may find the family focus a more appealing aspect altogether than I did). Giving the reader more than one generation to invest in along each timeline does help bridge the gaps between the centuries covered here, but I think The History of Bees would have stood firm (perhaps even firmer) without losing focus on the relationship between humans and bees over time to a very repetitive sort of family drama replaying itself over and over again.

What interested me most here was, by far, the bees. This is a fiction book, not a source of scientific authority, but there are some fascinating asides detailing how bee colonies function, some of the labor involved in beekeeping, general bee habits, and population changes across a span of decades. I did not know, for instance, but have looked up on my own to confirm, that bee farmers rent their bees to fruit farmers for pollination purpose; apparently apiarists really do pack their hives up on trucks and tour them around to make a little money aiding fruit production. I was also unaware of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which seemingly healthy colonies suddenly abandon their homes and disappear in large numbers, for unknown reasons. I loved seeing how a beekeeper might feel about these parts of the job, how they could affect the work both logistically and emotionally.

“In 1988 the number of hives had been halved. Bee death had afflicted many places, in Sichuan as early as in the 1980s. But only when it struck in the US- and as dramatically as it did precisely in 2006 and 2007, farmers with several thousand hives suffered mass disappearances in the course of a few weeks- only then did The Collapse receive a name. Perhaps because it happened in the US, nothing was really important at that time until it happened in the US: mass death in China didn’t merit a worldwide diagnosis. That’s how it was back then.”

The economic Collapse that occurs in this novel in conjunction with the dying out of the bees is futuristic and built upon speculation, but Lunde’s proposed science provides intriguing food for thought and feels plausible enough. This part of the book, the explanation of Lunde’s dystopia and the weaving together of the three narrative threads, was another strong suit for me. Unfortunately this comes very late in the novel; despite the shortness of the chapters and frequent switches between characters to keep the plot from stagnating at any point, I found the majority of the read to be dull and dry, my time with the book mainly spent waiting for those impending connections as the characters walked slowly into fates that are all too obvious, sometimes even to the characters themselves:

“Perhaps I had known it all along, but couldn’t bear to take it in, because it was too big, too important.”

Ultimately, I do appreciate how all of the pieces of this plot fit together, as well as the environmental themes I’m left with. It’s simply much more pleasing to consider this novel in concept after the fact than it was to read through, and I’m not sure that I have any good ideas about what might have improved it for me. Perhaps if the whole thing had been presented as a heavily bee-detailed dystopian with more expansion on the futuristic timeline given up front, and the historical portions left as more of a footnote? The characters from the past do have their place here, but those old family squabbles carry very little of the book’s weight.

A final nagging complaint: either Lunde or Oatley seems to have had a penchant for placing commas between full sentences, where periods, dashes, semicolons, or just about any other stylistic choice would have made a better fit. I take no issue with the prose itself, but the comma usage gave the whole narrative an awkward flow I could never quite get past.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad I finally read this one, even if I didn’t find it quite as scintillating as I’d hoped. And I’m leaving this experience more interested in learning about bees and how necessary they are to human life than I was when I began, so I’ll chalk this up as a win. Further bee-related recommendations (of any genre) are welcome!

The Literary Elephant

it’s always a good time to read Black History

I wanted to post this review earlier, as a recommendation for Black History Month reading, but since we’re nearing the end of the month I’ll share a reminder instead that Black History is well worth reading year-round; Robert Jones, Jr.’s new historical fiction novel The Prophets was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, and let me assure you that you can believe the hype with this one!

The Prophets

In the novel, Samuel and Isaiah share a close bond after finding each other in childhood and growing into their shared job tending the animals in Empty’s barn (circa 1830’s). Empty is what the Black folk call the Deep South plantation where they live and labor- Empty because it is a heartless place. When one enslaved man decides to ask the master for a favor, he turns to Christianity as a means of convincing the white man of his worthiness and sincerity. The master prides himself on his religion, and through the power of his new disciple’s sermons most of the enslaved are swayed to the side of the Christian gospel, where they begin to see Samuel and Isaiah’s love as a grievous sin, paving the way for further animosity.

“Empty was another thing. It was the deepest. It was the lowest. It was the down and below. It was the bluest depth. It was the grave and the tomb. But briefly, ever so briefly, you could still come up for air. Despite the blood and the screams and the smothering hot, here, too, was where Essie sometimes sang in the field and made the picking less monstrous, if not less grueling.”

The Prophets is a beautiful, nuanced book that addresses many injustices faced by enslaved persons in antebellum US, taking its narrative a step farther than other popular fiction on this topic by centering LGBTQ+ experiences. At the center is, of course, the relationship between the two gay main characters, but they are not the only characters defying heteronormativity in one way or another. Though quite a few of the atrocities doled out to Black people on plantations in this time period are details I’ve come across before, they are used here not as individual shocks but rather as incremental weights steadily increasing the burden of homophobia on the shoulders of our main characters and their allies.

I found the prose style artistic enough to be a little challenging in places- the story itself is easy enough to follow, but Jones’ structure and wording bears enough poetic weight that what you get out of the writing will probably be proportional to the effort you put into parsing it. If you’re here for the plot alone, you’ll be just fine, but the brilliance of Jones’ prose is that it holds up to much closer scrutiny as well. Likely some of the cultural meaning went over my head, but as a white reader and reviewer I didn’t necessarily feel that all The Prophets has to offer was meant for me, which is fair. I’d call The Prophets light literary fiction with a high level of commercial appeal.

“Everyone got a turn, at some point, to be on top or on bottom. It didn’t matter how good you were or how evil you were. All that mattered was that you were alive and, therefore, unsafe. Subject to His will in the here and, likely, the hereafter. And His will was as brutal as it was arbitrary.”

Another key feature here is the examination of religion. The Prophets is structured similarly to the Christian bible, the chapters in roughly chronological order but each exploring a different perspective or facet related in some way to a greater narrative tapestry. Many of the chapter titles directly echo bible chapter titles, playing on and often critiquing how white folk have used various biblical stories and themes for their own benefit, by reframing it all to centralize Black history and culture.

The entire novel is a commentary on religious bigotry and the toxicity of patriarchy, but the best part is that it’s delivered in a measured way that condemns the bigotry without falling into the simplistic maneuver of bashing Christianity as a whole; it also condemns white supremacy, duly calling out those who cause harm, without falling into the simplistic maneuver of labeling all white people as inherently villainous. The white characters are the villains here, of course, and Jones doesn’t go easy on them. But he lays out their actions and motivations in such a way that the reader can see how white supremacy ultimately fails everyone, even those it serves to uplift- a message that retains its value today and proves the continued relevance of the book’s themes and topics in contrast to many modern Americans’ belief that US slavery and all its accoutrements is a thing of the past.

“There was no such thing as monsters. Every travesty that had ever been committed had been committed by plain people and every person had it in them, that fetching, bejeweled thing just beneath the breast that could be removed at will and smashed over another’s head before it was returned to its beating place.”

It’s an ambitious book and there were occasional moments when I wondered whether The Prophets might be taking on a little too much; the cast of characters is large and the list of grievances endured by those enslaved runs the constant risk of feeling like a checklist of horrors, but Jones manages to link every moving piece of this story successfully, using its broad scope to show how very widely and negatively the effects of homophobia and religious bigotry can spread throughout an entire community, reaffirming that the side of acceptance and allyship is worth standing on even for cis-het folks who might want to think themselves safe in the choice of holding on to homophobia or even neutrality.

The only area where The Prophets was a little less successful for me was in its episodic nature, and this is more a reflection of the type of reader I am than any fault with the book. Much like the bible, each chapter of The Prophets is separate enough that it could probably stand alone fairly well, and possibly the pieces could even be read out of order without losing the overall affect. Jones times introductions to character histories brilliantly, but he also gives those characters secondary roles in chapters that highlight other perspectives so that the details are layered together in such a way that it’s impossible to pick up on everything at once- it’s a book that would make for a rich reread, I’m sure. But because the book is something of a patchworked piece, I did find it easy to put the book down at any point and harder to get back into the flow of the story when picking it up again.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can absolutely see why this book has been making waves, and I hope it’ll continue to do so. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it faring well with the book prizes this season. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for future work from this author.

The Literary Elephant

femicide through the ages

Review: The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

In the novel, a woman in the present day is set to the task of preparing for sale her late grandmother’s Scottish house. It’s an old place near the coast, and just a few miles out the little island of Bass Rock overlooks the goings-on of the mainland. It was there in the background as another woman, post-WWII, struggled through a difficult marriage. It was there too when a young woman over two centuries earlier was accused of witchcraft and fled. In the years between, more women, and more violence.

“Men do these things and then they tick on with their lives as though it’s all part and parcel.”

The Bass Rock is a literary fiction book with a gothic tone and an air of mystery. Ghosts and gaslighting help blur the lines of reality, making the already-serious subject of femicide even more tense as the reader constantly wonders what will happen to these women next, even when the threat of death seems less immediately present. It’s laid out in three perspectives, with additional small character vignettes woven in, all tied loosely to the Scottish seaside setting- though it is no secret that the dangers women have faced at the hands of men are not confined to the specific location spotlighted here. Nor is the danger confined only to the women- Wyld makes clear here that under the net of abuse the victims are many; CWs for child abuse, suggested molestation (doesn’t happen on page), and arson, as well as gaslighting, sexual assault, rape, and murder.

The permanence of the rock as the women come and go makes the violence through the years feel relentless, a force akin to the battering waves of the ocean; the methods may change with time, but the core problem, the disregard for women’s bodies and lives stands as firm as the Bass Rock. The rock’s meaning varies for different characters, but none of them are firmly attached to it in any way- it’s simply there, silent and watchful, and that tenuous connection is so much more realistic and appealing to me than any other multi-perspective narrative device I can think of where separate threads end up braiding neatly together. Instead, the story alternates between these three perspectives linked mainly by theme and small personal shifts that echo across time.

“You know how sometimes you can smell it on a man, sometimes you just know- if he got you alone, if he had a rock… you know that thing when you feel it? Like your blood knows it. I try and take note, because it’s all I have in my power, to witness it and store it away.”

It’s subtly done but the three pieces do belong together, and I found each of the narratives interesting, almost equally so. The post-war woman seems to get the most page time and the extra attention given to the development of her character and relationships shows. Her piece of the story is, I think, the most surprising and original of all the women; the witchcraft thread is fairly predictable, though the danger felt most palpable to me in that era and had no trouble holding my attention; the modern woman is an older millennial, mostly single and adrift, whose interior thoughts I found intriguing though her characterization again feels somewhat typical among the glut of difficult millennial women stories readily available in the last few years. But while none of these women alone might have convinced me to pick up The Bass Rock, the themes connecting them and the fascinating details Wyld works into their lives are effective enough that I was never sad to leave one perspective and re-enter another. The only low point for me in characterization came in the form of a secondary character, a bold, non-conforming modern-day sex worker who acts as a sort of guide on female violence to our present-day protagonist, which I simply found a bit too transparent and lazy. Otherwise I managed to stay fully engaged and interested in each protagonist and the minutiae of her life.

It’s a dark and beautiful book about what’s done to women, but also about how women can find strength within themselves and amongst each other, find ways to cope and to overcome and maybe eventually to turn the tide. I am shocked that this missed the Women’s Prize list last year- it may not be a perfect read, but it is certainly thought-provoking and masterful, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes quiet plots and/or gothic literature, with feminist themes.

“Know what people mean by unfuckable? They mean disposable. They mean incineratable.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’d forgotten the synopsis by the time I picked up this book (which is my preferred reading method tbh), so it was off to a slow start for me as I tried to figure out what was going on and where this was all heading. But even in those chapters of mild confusion, I found the prose exciting and the women’s stories very readable, and once I understood what Wyld was doing with this novel I had a hard time putting it down at all. It’s a story that’ll haunt me, in a good way, and this is an author I’ll certainly want to read more from.

The Literary Elephant

on Mantel and Cromwell

Before 2020, the name Thomas Cromwell meant very little to me. My knowledge started and stopped with ‘advisor to Henry VIII,’ and all I knew about Henry VIII was ‘the one with all the wives and beheadings.’ I’ve not been particularly interested in the British monarchy until recently (I’ve also been watching The Crown this year) and I wasn’t following book prizes when Mantel won with the first two books in her Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. But because I followed the prizes in 2020 and because many expected to see Mantel walk away with another win for her Cromwell finale, The Mirror and the Light, I decided to give this sweeping historical saga a go. Everyone seemed to be loving it! But alas, my own experience with these books was not quite as enthusiastic.

If you’re brand new to these books and avoiding all spoilers, you can safely read my thoughts on Wolf Hall; very mild spoilers will be included in discussions of the latter two volumes. However, this series is really more about the journey than the (well-known) historical events, so I don’t think reading all three reviews will ruin the read for anyone. Your choice though, of course! And a last note: it is best to read the books in order if you want to read them all, as they feature the same characters and build off of previous events and character dynamics.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)

In Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell serves Cardinal Wolsey, a powerful Catholic figure in England, a formal advisor and close friend to reigning King Henry VIII; Wolsey is in as high a position as any man other than the king could be, so long as he keeps the fickle ruler happy. Staying in the king’s good graces means bending the rules when they don’t fit Henry’s desires, though the Cardinal’s role within the church limits his ability to bend, particularly in the matter of the divorce Henry seeks from his first wife. Cromwell, Wolsey’s devoted right-hand man, is able to learn from his work with Wolsey how England’s hierarchy of power protects itself, with the help of legal trickery; this understanding makes him a prime candidate to serve the king as Wolsey falls out of favor. And hovering in the background, awaiting the king’s freedom from his marriage: Anne Boleyn.

“Beneath every history, another history.”

Wolf Hall was hard for me to get into. It’s slow, dense, and sprawling, and for someone without much idea of the specific history, the tension of the novel felt uneven to me, without a clear sense of what the threat actually was or where the narrative was headed. The cast is huge, and even Mantel acknowledges that far too many of the characters are named Thomas; instead of delivering nicknames or using distinguishing features or some other narrative trick to help readers differentiate, Mantel seems content to leave the reader to puzzle out who is who with only context to go by. There is a list of characters, but I found the accompanying definitions for each name too sparse to be of much help in remembering who’s been involved in what, and on which side. Furthermore, Mantel often elects to refer to Cromwell often simply as ‘he,’ as though he is god, perhaps; it’s an interesting characterization tactic that forces Cromwell always into the center of the tale, but I found it confusing, having spent my reading life learning that pronouns generally refer to the last person named, which does not hold true here.

“He hears her calling, Thomas, Thomas… It is a name that will bring half the house out, tumbling from their bedside prayers, from their very beds; yes, are you looking for me?”

But despite being a tedious read for me, I’d be lying to say that I found Wolf Hall unimpressive. It is intricately layered and detailed, the harshness and beauty of this world writ large. Cromwell- and most everyone else- feels well enough imagined that it seems he could walk straight out of the pages. It may be a book I appreciated more after closing the cover than while reading, but once I understood its direction and purpose I did appreciate how deftly Mantel illustrated the turning tide, the gradual shift of politics that would end lives and utterly change England. The years of this novel are a portent of what’s to come, and they are milestones in themselves, for the monarchy, for law, for Christianity.

I suppose my main complaint of this book is that Cromwell is not himself much of a key player, this story is in many ways happening to him here rather than at his own hands; these are the events that set his prosperous career with the king in motion, and yet this is largely Wolsey’s story, viewed from a distance. It is nonetheless a story worth reading.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This is not a book I would have bestowed with a literary prize, but it is a very promising start to what is clearly a remarkable series. I can’t even imagine how much research must go into a book like this, and it has my respect for that reason even if I didn’t love the read quite as much as I expected, based on the immense hype.

Bring Up the Bodies

In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry VIII has broken with Wolsey and with the Catholic church. Rather than a cardinal at his side, Henry has instead a lawyer, one who is able to angle the law to give the king what he wants: that man is Thomas Cromwell. Unfortunately, what the king wants continues to change. He grows tired of Anne Boleyn and has his eye instead on a new prospective bride. Can Cromwell succeed where Wolsey failed, finding a way to free Henry from his second marriage to make way for a third?

“He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated, like everything he does. He notes, as he has these many years, the careful deployment of her flashing eyes. He wonders what it would take to make her panic.”

This second installment was an improvement for me. Instead of spanning years, it focuses on about two weeks of Cromwell’s life, and rather than sowing slow seeds of discord it narrows in on one particular problem, which swiftly ends with a dramatic event. The cast shifts a little, but most of the prominent characters are repeated, and Cromwell’s tendency to reflect on his past makes this story easier to sink into from the start.

Furthermore, Cromwell’s characterization soars to new heights here. The entire world and cast is still impeccably detailed, but Cromwell in particular is in fine form. He’s got agency, and he’s on the rise; up and up and up the ranks he goes, and no one is closer to the king. He is crafty and quick, and he is reaping the rewards. But he is also at a moral crossroads. Cromwell is now in a position to destroy the king’s enemies; when backed into the same corner as Wolsey, Cromwell must choose whether to push ahead, damn the consequences. The events of this volume will haunt him, and yet he will gain further favor for them with the king. He is doing both the right thing and the wrong thing at once, and because Cromwell does nothing in halves, he manages to destroy a few of his own enemies along the way.

It’s a complex and horrifying story brimming with death, and perhaps the most unsettling thing about it is that it feels inevitable. It doesn’t matter whether Cromwell is a good or bad person, and indeed it is hard to tell here how black his heart really is- the position that he is in gives him no choice but to dirty his hands for the king, or lose everything. He has already seen Wolsey, his true master, lose. But Wolsey had to listen to the Pope, and Cromwell would rather see religion put into the hands of the people, with the printing of an English Bible, than continue to give Rome that authority. He is, in many ways, a perfect match for the king, though it is necessarily a difficult, delicate relationship.

“‘It was a bad moment for me. How many men can say, as I must, “I am a man whose only friend is the King of England”? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away and I have nothing.'”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This sequel, while slightly shorter and more compact than its predecessor, was still somewhat too long and dense for my personal interest level in Cromwell et al; this seems like a good time to remind readers that I rate based on my own enjoyment/appreciation rather than objective merit (if such a thing can be said to exist in any art form). This is the one I would’ve happily given awards to, if that had in any way been my choice!

The Mirror & The Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3)

In The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell is reaching the end of his rope. The unfortunate demise of Henry’s beloved third wife is a blow for England, and as foreign allegiances shift against Henry and his blatant disregard for Catholicism, it puts Cromwell in the tough position of needing to find Henry a new bride that will bring allies for England. Further complicating matters, rumors against Cromwell inspire civil unrest, several prospects vie for the throne and expect Cromwell’s help to get there, and Cromwell’s own religious and political interests become entangled with his advise to the king, limiting Cromwell’s viable paths forward much as Catholicism limited Wolsey. A misstep is all it will take for everything Cromwell has built to come crumbling down.

“This is what Henry does. He uses people up. He takes all they give him and more. When he is finished with them he is noisier and fatter and they are husks or corpses.”

In case history (and Mantel’s previous work in this series) has not made it clear, even the synopsis tells the reader straight out that The Mirror and the Light will follow Cromwell through his final years- and so we know what is coming at the end of this tale, and if we know anything about Henry VIII at this point, it is that those who lose his favor do not meet pretty ends. The gradual downward slope of things gone wrong builds a wonderful hold-your-breath tension here; as in Wolf Hall I found the wider scope of years and events to be a bit too long and meandering for real cohesion, though having a better sense of what the narrative was working toward this time around did make it a better reading experience for me than Wolf Hall, even if not as tight and sharp as Bring Up the Bodies.

“‘I am in awe of myself,’ he says. ‘I never know what I will do next.'”

For prose, I would probably say that The Mirror and the Light is Mantel at her best. She is in full command here, her writing insightful, poetic, measured. We even get ‘he, Cromwell’ usage here in place of the all-confusing ‘he,’ which is a vast improvement in clarity. But she makes one particular move with language that just didn’t work for me: repetition. Even in the first book, Cromwell was in the habit of recalling his past and reflecting on changes that have come into his life, but here Mantel recounts whole scenes, interrupting the flow of the “present” to remind the reader where Cromwell stood in the past. Perhaps because I read this volume immediately after the second book rather than years after it, as more loyal fans who’ve kept up with her publications will have done, I found the continual dredging up of moments already covered to be too much padding in an overly long tome. I can see the method working better for other readers: the laying of two images side by side for stark comparison, but for me I found the constant reminders insulting to my memory of the character. No one is picking up The Mirror and the Light without having read books one and two, are they? Mantel’s working of small observances into the story that turn out later to have been clues woven subtly into the plot are far more to her credit, showcasing a mastery of detail and timing that Cromwell’s clumsier dips into memory lack. I would also exclude the memories that reveal new insight from this criticism, though I found these to be few.

There was one other choice made in the narration of this story that didn’t quite suit me: the final characterization of Cromwell, the tone that the book’s last chapters end on. What I’ve loved most about this trilogy is the moral complexity, the sense that Cromwell has simply been a cog in a machine ever rolling forward, destined to follow the dark path he is set upon by the royal figure who for all intents and purposes cannot be blamed (at least not by his contemporaries) for the wrongdoing he incites. But The Mirror and the Light, in my opinion, undoes that somewhat, asking the reader to see Cromwell as good, as sympathetic, and sadly lost in the end- drawing on his love for his wife and daughters, his devotion to keeping promises, his penchant for helping poor folk who are down on their luck. There’s an air of martyrdom infused in the way this book approaches the death of Cromwell, accused of a crime that evidence must be invented for in order to secure a conviction; while I don’t know enough about the real history of Cromwell to argue against the authenticity of this bid for pity, and of course he would have been as human as any of the rest of us, this choice of characterization just wasn’t what I was looking for from this read. I was much more drawn into the earlier painting of Cromwell as a sort of necessary villain. The martyr bit has already been done with Wolsey, and I was hoping to see Mantel take Cromwell’s peril to new heights.

“He has lived by the laws he has made and must be content to die by them. But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think Mantel may have fallen victim here to a fear of leaving anything good out, at the cost of including more than necessary. But nevertheless, and in spite of my quibbles, I was rapt from cover to cover, finished the book feeling haunted by Cromwell, and am walking away far more aware of and piqued by this chapter of history than I ever have been, which I have to call a resounding win.

If you’re still with me, thank you; having read over 2,000 pages in order to write this post I’m letting myself indulge a bit (which is perhaps how Mantel felt, having obviously waded through massive amounts of research to bring us this trilogy).

Because I read The Mirror and the Light primarily in relation to the book prizes I followed this year, I’d like to wrap up with some final prize-related thoughts.

As regards the 2020 Women’s Prize: The Mirror and the Light was both longlisted and shortlisted for this year’s prize, and I stand by that. In my longlist wrap-up earlier this year, I ranked the 15 books I’d read; having now read all 16, I’d say that Mantel ranks 6th on the list for me, near the bottom of my 4-star reads from the longlist. In that spot, I don’t have any complaints about how far The Mirror and the Light went with the WP. And, though I know it’ll upset a few of my followers to hear it, I’m still happy with Hamnet taking the win over Mirror even now that I can properly compare the both- Hamnet managed to excite me more. But Mantel does have one major thing going for her with Mirror– this is the only WP nominee from the 2020 longlist that isn’t primarily focused on motherhood and family. Gold star. This year’s list was in desperate need of more variety, and Mantel should be commended for providing that.

Oh, and just for fun, my WP wrap-up included a few quotes from longlisted nominees that felt eerily timely given this year’s pandemic, and I’d like to add a snippet from Mirror to that list:

“But now there are rumors of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.”

As regards the 2020 Booker Prize: Mirror was longlisted but not shortlisted for the Booker prize, much to everyone’s shock after Mantel’s previous Booker wins with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. To be honest I’m also shocked this volume was excluded from this year’s shortlist; it is, in my opinion, a stronger offering than Wolf Hall, and if not quite as impressive for me as Bring Up the Bodies, Mirror did, in my opinion, deserve a spot on this year’s shortlist. It would’ve ranked 3rd on the shortlist for me, and 5th on the longlist. I found this year’s Booker winner, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, more immediately engaging and enjoyable to read, so I don’t begrudge Stuart his win and wouldn’t necessarily have wanted Mantel to take that slot instead, but in all fairness I’m sure Mirror will live on in my memory much longer than Shuggie, so it certainly rates right up there for me.

In conclusion, Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy was a somewhat ponderous and trying reading experience for me, but ultimately a journey I’m glad I’ve taken and would not hesitate to recommend to history buffs and anyone interested in character-driven political dramas. It’s an incredible collection of work, and Mantel’s dedication to doing the subject justice and inciting curiosity in a shady long-dead figure is plain on every page. Though the trilogy requires some patience, it is, truly, a masterpiece.

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Butterfly Garden and The Deep

I’ve been trying to read some horror for an upcoming spotlight post; reading horror while getting ready for Christmas is a new vibe for me but… I like it. Is there such a category as Christmas horror? I may want to try this again in the future. This year I read Dot Hutchison’s The Butterfly Garden and Alma Katsu’s The Deep (not to be confused with River Solomon’s The Deep, which has been getting a lot of attention this year); both fell a little short for me but were highly readable and put me back in the spooky spirit!

The Butterfly Garden  (The Collector, #1)

In The Butterfly Garden, a pair of FBI agents questions a young woman, the leader of a group of kidnapped girls who have recently been freed. Most of the surviving victims are recovering in the hospital, just down the hall from their captor, but none of them will tell their names or stories until they’ve spoken to this woman; this difficulty, along with the fact that she seems to have been instrumental in the escape effort, leaves the FBI suspicious of the nature of her involvement. They need her version of events- but she’ll tell it on her own terms.

I typically prefer going into everything I read as cold as possible, but I would not recommend that approach here unless you’re sure you can handle difficult subject matter. It can be a very intense read if you don’t know what to expect. CWs for kidnapping, captivity, rape (ages 16-21 and, on one occasion, 12), physical violence, gun violence, parental neglect, suicide (mentioned, not on page), suicide ideation, murder, and death.

There’s a bit of a mystery to the plot, but it’s weak; the real driving force of the novel is the journey through a psychologically traumatic experience and the commentary on sexism and crimes against women that it generates. Hutchison turns a light on the deep affects of physical and mental trauma and the danger of trying to choose neutrality; the horror here is the ease with which a man can get away with hurting women for his own pleasure, and the devastation left in his wake even for those who break free.

“I think a trauma doesn’t stop just because you’ve been rescued.”

It’s an incredibly dark book, a quick read despite the slow pace (the woman being questioned is circuitous in her answers) and the low-stakes mystery (the woman does not seem concerned about her fate, and in any case she and the reader both know early on that the girls are no longer captive and that the men involved are injured or dead). I can see that Hutchison is trying to add suspense and foreshadowing to the story by structuring it in a dual past-present way, but the format doesn’t quite achieve the tension or intrigue, in my opinion. The past, the story of captivity, is consistently the more gripping part of the timeline. The present exchanges between the FBI agents and our main character (she has three names, all significant to the story in their own way, so I’ll leave those discoveries to the reader) feel stiff and inauthentic; the possibility that she is a person warranting suspicion seems like an afterthought, a tactical formality to keep the reader believing that a big reveal is coming, though when it does arrive it is disappointing and farfetched.

Despite this clumsiness though, I was hooked- The Butterfly Garden is very much about the horror of the journey rather than reaching a shocking destination. Hutchison challenges sensationalism of trauma here rather than playing into it, and some of the commentary involved is much more widely applicable- emphasizing the harm in a stance of neutrality when someone is actively being hurt, for example. It’s meant to be an uncomfortable read, but the book is not devoid of hope and justice in the face of great pain.

“The trouble with sociopaths, really, is that you never know where they draw their boundaries.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Despite my stylistic/structural quibbles, I was suitably horrified. Some suspension of disbelief is required, but points must be awarded for the compelling read. I’m not sure I’ll be continuing this series (I believe there are 4 books total) but this first volume works well enough as a standalone that even if I stop here I’m leaving satisfied, and with a deeper understanding of psychological trauma.

The Deep

In The Deep, Annie is a nurse aboard the HMHS Britannic in 1916, tending to wounded WWI soldiers. Among the patients she finds a familiar face, a first-class passenger she served as stewardess four years earlier, aboard the RMS Titanic. Seeing him again, and navigating Titanic’s very similar sister ship, throws Annie into memories of that fateful voyage- the possible haunting, the odd behaviors of the first-class passengers, the shockingly cold water after the collision. Worryingly, some of that history seems to be repeating on Britannic– can Annie figure out who the ghost was and what it wants before it is too late?

“For all that was said about the Titanic, how superior it was, how well designed, how glorious and noble- as though it were a person, with a person’s traits- it would do nothing to save them. The Titanic was indifferent to the humans crawling on its decks and would willingly sacrifice them to the sea.”

I picked up The Deep mostly because I’ve had a long history of interest in all things Titanic– my birthday is April 15, and one of the most interesting things to have happened (historically) on that day is the sinking of Titanic. There’s also just something so captivatingly tragic about the opulence of the ship and the extremity of the disaster, as I’m sure many others can attest to. I’m mentioning my personal interest level because I think it’s relevant to my experience here; because I am fairly knowledgeable about the ship and its passengers, I found the fictionalization of real persons and the atmosphere on the ship most intriguing, and the ghost plot attempting to expand on the tragedy much less so. Someone with different interest levels might have a very different experience, though Katsu’s focus on characterization at the expense of the supernatural element is, I think, going to make this a disappointing read for anyone craving a ghost story.

My biggest issue with this book is that I picked it up expecting adult horror, and instead found historical fiction with some light mystery and supernatural elements, all of it very PG-13. Actually, I expect this book will go over better with a YA audience, many of the characters are barely into adulthood and every aspect of the story is very surface-level. There are a few mentions of a malevolent dubheasa, but aside from calling her a beautiful sea monster we get nothing of the lore and know nothing more about this magical creature than one particular character’s connection to it. The “haunting” facet of the tale is presented so benignly that to call this a ghost story would be misleading. Very few of the events and details surrounding Titanic‘s demise actually make it into the story, so this isn’t a good way to learn any genuine history, either. There are some hints toward commentary on early 20th century madness, sexism, occultism, class divides, and poverty, but they’re mere suggestions rather than statements of any significance.

“Was she hysterical? What did that mean- female hysteria? Was it different from when men got upset, yelled and stomped and slammed things about, like her father when he was at his worst? Maybe she was more like her father than she wanted to think.”

Or maybe… this would have been a good chance for Annie to realize that female hysteria is a bogus diagnosis invented for men’s convenience.

In the end, none of the darkness or complexity I was expecting based on the premise actually appears here; The Deep is an iceberg glimpsed through dense fog, dreamlike, with no sharp edges. But even so, I had no difficulty turning pages, I found myself curious about the characters, and I loved being aboard Titanic and Britannic for a few hours. It’s not a bad setup and quite easy to follow even as it skips between years and perspectives; I think the right reader could find a story to love here with its aura of tragedy and fraught relationships. I, however, am not that reader.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. In the end I think the highlight was finding a mention in the acknowledgements of a Titanic book I haven’t read yet, the autobiography of a real woman who survived both Titanic and Britannic. This wasn’t a bad read and it doesn’t do anything egregiously wrong, it just… doesn’t quite deliver what it says on the jacket; don’t be fooled by the Josh Malerman blurb on the cover, The Deep is not a thriller.

Do you read horror around the holidays? Any recommendations?

The Literary Elephant

Review: Shuggie Bain

Another Booker Prize review! I happened to be working my way through Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain at the time the Booker shortlist was announced this month, and finished a week or so after. Even while taking it slow, I found Shuggie Bain immersive and emotional.

In the novel, Agnes Bain sinks deeper into alcoholism following her second marriage; Shuggie, the young product of this union, spends his childhood adoring a mother at odds with the world, and trying to save her from herself. Shuggie finds occasional help from the adults in his mother’s life, though very quickly it is apparent that his older half-siblings are going to look out for themselves first, and most of his mother’s “friends” are only looking to take advantage of her. It’s a rough childhood for Shuggie in many ways, though his love for his mother never wavers; through his affection Agnes’s addiction is revealed as a patient disease wearing her down over decades rather than the character flaw that everyone else around her seems to consider it.

“She was in the dangerous in-between place. Enough drink to feel combative but not enough to be unreasonable yet. A few mouthfuls more and she would become destructive, mean-mouthed, spiteful. He stared at her as if he were reading the weather coming down from the glen. He took hold of her and tried to shift her again, before the great rainclouds inside her burst.”

This book is Scottish through and through. Set is 80s-90s Glasgow and told in dialect, Shuggie Bain is a novel that feels inseparable from its time and location, though there’s certainly a universality and timelessness to alcoholism that becomes more pronounced throughout the book, especially as Shuggie meets others who understand his situation all too well. The dialect comes through mainly in the dialogue, where accented speech is spelled out phonetically; I found this easy enough to decipher, and otherwise there are only a few occasional words in the exposition that differ from what I would use in American English, but seem obvious enough in meaning from context. It’s possible other readers may find the writing more challenging, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone interested in the premise on the basis of its style.

The title and general focus on Shuggie are interesting- in many ways this is Agnes’s story, though Stuart head hops just enough to give the reader a clear impression of all of the main characters and their particular perspectives. Everyone feels very real, their motives fully comprehensible and perhaps even frustratingly familiar. The obvious meaning in pointing the focus toward Shuggie in this tale is, I think, twofold: because we’re focused on a character who loves Agnes despite how difficult she makes things for him, sympathy is easy to come by even as the reader becomes acquainted with Agnes’s antagonism. Additionally, centering Shuggie helps convey how very large a challenge alcoholism can be, not only for the person who’s fallen victim to it but for everyone around them, even those they love and would most like to protect. Shuggie may be Agnes’s golden boy, but even he can’t compete with the draw of alcohol for her, whereas in Shuggie’s life, Agnes is a blazing sun that shapes him and his life experience almost entirely.

“He wondered how long it would be till she passed out, till he could have a rest.”

Less obvious but equally important, I think, is that Shuggie really is the lifeblood of this story. While Agnes may be a constant presence throughout these pages, it is nevertheless Shuggie who drives the novel forward. He is the young innocent with a future of great possibility stretching before him, if he can just survive all that is stacked against him. In addition to his mother’s addiction, he’s also got an absent, mean, and selfish father, siblings who leave him behind, a horde of bullies to contend with at school, and no true friends. He doesn’t seem to fit in with his peers at all, who taunt and torment him for being “poofy” even before he has any sense of his own sexuality. And yet, he is kind and caring and steadfast, willing to tolerate more than he should, and it’s impossible not to root for him. Despite the desperate, fraught situation, this is not a loveless tale. The love may be toxic and/or misguided, but it is very present nonetheless, lending the book an aura of tragedy rather than outright cruelty. Even characters who behave despicably don’t do so out of cold-hearted spite or evilness, but rather out of their own need to survive however they can, amid a lack of understanding for the magnitude of Agnes’s battle.

“It was hard at first to start moving again, to feel the music, to go to that other place in your head where you keep your confidence. It didn’t go together, the shuffling feet and the jangly limbs, but like a slow train it caught speed and soon he was flying again. He tried to tone down the big showy moves, the shaking hips and the big sweeping arms. But it was in him, and as it poured out, he found he was helpless to stop it.”

I’m not convinced we really need the full 430 pages that Shuggie Bain gives us, but there were no sections that I found myself wishing had been thrown out entirely, and no moment when I picked the story back up again that I wasn’t instantly hooked back into the flow of Shuggie’s and Agnes’s lives. Parts of it do feel repetitive, which would have been resolved easily by shrinking the page count, but I think ultimately the repetition speaks to the undifferentiated nature of Agnes’s (and thus Shuggie’s) days. It can feel a bit aimless, but I suspect that’s the point.

I can’t deny enjoying myself- if enjoying is the right word for a story this heartbreakingly sad. Very little good happens to Shuggie or his family in the pages of this book, so if you’re someone who needs a happy ending, I’ll warn you now to look elsewhere.

CW: alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide ideation/threats/attempts, child neglect, homophobia, rape, molestation, physical and verbal bullying, death of a loved one.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I knew what to expect, and it went on rather longer than I really needed it to, and yet I was fully drawn in and moved by the particularities regardless. Aside from the dialect, it’s a straightforward story told in a very straightforward way, and yet despite this I can understand its spot on the shortlist and I think anyone who appreciates a good sad book will likely find what they’re looking for here. I don’t think it’s my top choice for Booker winner this year, but it’s a worthwhile read for those who are interested in the premise and have a bit of time to dedicate to it.

The Literary Elephant

Review: How Much of These Hills Is Gold

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch up on posts or blog hopping before my job got real busy; I’m already in sporadic attendance mode for the rest of fall. I will still be responding to comments and catching up on blog hopping *eventually* and I do have a few posts in the queue, but please excuse me for basically falling off the face of the internet for the next few weeks, and know that as always I’m still very grateful for your likes and comments and look forward to interacting more as soon as I can!

Between work and my killer reading slump, this particular review has been a long time coming, but the book was a pleasure to read so I’ve been hoping to do it justice despite the delay. I picked up C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold as part of my Booker longlist reading; unfortunately since finishing it, this title has missed a spot on the shortlist, which I think is a shame. If you’ve been curious about this one at all, I highly recommend still picking it up regardless!

In the novel, Lucy recounts her experience as the child of a gold prospector / coal miner in mid-1800s America. It’s a dying era throughout Lucy’s childhood, and her family struggles greatly to find work and survive. Complicating an already difficult career choice, they also face extreme prejudice as an immigrant family- Lucy’s ma was born in China and arrived in America as an adult; Lucy’s ba looks like his wife, but he was adopted in America as a baby and knows nothing of the land across the sea that Ma longs for. The lack of gold and the rough conditions around the mines make life difficult for all of them, but this is only the beginning for Lucy and her younger sibling, Sam, when they suddenly find themselves orphaned and alone.

“Point is, there’s always been gold in these hills. You just had to believe.”

How Much of These Hills is Gold is a poignant tale that takes a period often romanticized (or at least white-washed) in Western lit and reveals its dark corners, without tarnishing in the process the simple dreams of prospectors like Ba, who have a love for the natural land and want to see the prettiness the world has to offer without destroying the earth in the process. From her parents Lucy learns both a respect for the land and an abhorrence for the mining lifestyle. Zhang manages to provide the gleam of gold that one expects from a prospecting trail while also uncovering the poverty and hardship faced by those who move west and west and west again, trying to find any patch of earth that hasn’t already been picked clean and ruined by the growing hand of industry. The family’s status as immigrants also gives the story a fresh angle that will appeal to readers who don’t usually go for Westerns; there’s plenty of social commentary to be found here, a pushback against those who have been able to do whatever they please from positions of unjust power.

“What moves in the heads of these people each time they look at us and size us up, what makes them decide on one day to call us chink and the next day to let us pass, and some days to offer charity? I don’t rightly know, Lucy girl. Never figured it out.”

In addition to providing a very moving story, the book also sports an interesting structure. It is divided into four sections, the years presented unchronologically. But more intriguing is the way Zhang plays with reader expectations, especially when it comes to character. With Lucy as our main narrator, we meet most characters through her eyes, in the thick of things. As things progress, the reader is often surprised by central facts that Zhang has hidden only to reveal later when they have greatest impact. For example, the gender and sexual identity of Lucy’s sibling is presented very cleverly, warning the reader early on not to make hasty assumptions about anyone. And yet, even after learning this lesson once, it is easy to be surprised again and again as Zhang reveals more about Lucy, her family, and her acquaintances. It’s a bold and necessary reminder that people aren’t always as they seem, and that beneath their appearance lies someone’s complex, personal history.

“In Lucy’s fondest dream, the one she doesn’t want to wake from, she braves no dragons and tigers. Finds no gold. She sees wonders from a distance, her face unnoticed in the crowd. When she walks down the long street that leads her home, no one pays her any mind at all.”

My only complaint comes from a single section of the book, where Ba comes to Lucy in a dream to explain his side of things, posthumously (this is not a spoiler, Ba’s death is in the synopsis and occurs very early in the book). Though Ba’s backstory is just as incredible as the rest, it is the only part of the book that we don’t see directly through Lucy’s perspective, and the fact that his voice comes to her in a dream to fill in the blanks is a writing tactic that always feels forced and inorganic to me. It’s possible there is a cultural aspect to this section that is lost on me (there is indeed a focus on burial rights that Ma has impressed upon her children from her own homeland, and Ba’s burial is delayed as they try to fulfill these requirements) and if so I can’t criticize the intent, I can only remark on the way that it read for me, a non own voices reader. Furthermore, this section asks the reader to sympathize with a character who has previously been presented as a hard and unbending man, willing to hurt and manipulate those around him; the sympathy feels unearned, no matter how well Ba’s past matches up with his personality.

Others may also feel frustrated over the vague ending. The book ends mid-sentence as Lucy decides what she wants for her future; I must admit to rereading the last couple of pages a time or two to see whether I could puzzle out the meaning, but it remains nebulous for me. If you have an idea of what direction is meant by the ending please leave your theories in the comments! But I find the longer I sit with it, the less I mind not having this final answer. It means enough for Lucy to want something after the horrors she’s been through, and leaving her desire open-ended feels indicative of the sort of wide open dreaming that drove her family to chase gold and an elusive happiness for so many years, though the one thing that seems certain with the final sentence is that Lucy will not be returning to a life of prospecting.

Despite these two small hiccups, I relished Zhang’s sharp writing, her skill with metaphor and her ability to twist the knife at just the right moment to drive this narrative straight into the reader’s heart. This is a fierce story of sibling love and loyalty, the trials faced by an immigrant family, and a fraught chapter of history for many who’ve previously gone unheard. It’s an impressive work by an impressive new writer, one I’ll certainly want to read more from in the future.

CW: racism, child labor, rape, forced prostitution, children orphaned and/or abandoned, near starvation, mass murder (by fire), infant death, parent death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Despite my reading slump, which hit while I was finishing this book last month, I loved the writing and the narrative every time I picked this story up, and my slowness with reading and reviewing it should not be taken as a lack of appreciation for any part of this narrative. It would’ve made a great addition to this year’s Booker shortlist and I think will be one of my most memorable reads of the year.

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Shadow King

I’m back with another Booker review! Today I’m looking at Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, a historical fiction account of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia just prior to the start of WWII.

In the novel, Kidane prepares to defend his country by rounding up local Ethiopian men, training them, and arming as many as possible. This includes taking an old rifle from a slave woman in his house; it is the one thing Hirut has left of her father, and she doesn’t let go of it willingly. While she searches the house determined to take back what is hers, Kidane’s wife begins preparations of her own: to bring the women to war alongside the men, and join the fight for Ethiopia.

“I’ll teach every woman how to make gunpowder. I’ll teach all of you how to shoot a gun. You have to know how to run toward them unafraid.”

I’ve got to admit, I’m having a tough time making up my mind about this book. When I first posted about the 2020 Booker longlist, I mentioned that there’s usually one long, ponderous book that I appreciate having read but do not particularly enjoy reading- I pegged Colum McCann’s Apeirogon as this year’s book fitting that description, but I think actually The Shadow King is that book for me.

First, the pros: I learned a lot. This is a piece of history I wasn’t familiar with, and I now have a better understanding both of Ethiopian culture and history, and the early maneuvers of WWII. The Italians, of course, are the enemy here, but there are also African soldiers standing with Italy, perspective chapters from an Italian photographer of Jewish descent, a runaway Ethiopian emperor and the peasant that takes his place- these help make it clear that good and evil are not black and white in this story. Each character is a complex product of the circumstances that have shaped them. The women who want to fight are constantly hurt, belittled, and ordered about by their own men, slaves are treated cruelly by their masters, and respect is often tinged with hatred and resentment among the Ethiopians. Hirut follows Kidane and Aster to war and plays her role despite the ways both use and abuse her- she carries on for Ethiopia and herself, even if it means standing beside them. Mengiste doesn’t shy away from depicting African violence and unhappiness, and at the same time shows how a flawed system is worth defending, even by those who are made small within it; for any progress to be made it needs to happen from within, starting at the personal level, rather than at the hands of foreigners who don’t understand the country or its people.

The language of the story is occasionally very beautiful, and occasionally very powerful. There are some incredibly moving passages throughout the book. But between these moments of brilliance, I was not caught up in the writing. For me, this is a long book that truly feels like a long book. It’s episodic, which never seems to work for me anymore, and I wasn’t emotionally engaged the way I expected to be based on the story’s premise and content (CW: rape, death, slavery, imprisonment, assorted war violence). The book is divided into digestible chapters of a few pages each, but I found it easy to stop at any given point and harder to pick the story back up.

I think what held me back most was the book’s depiction of women, and the story’s tendency to stray from them despite claiming them as the book’s focus. Mengiste says in her author’s note:

The Shadow King tells the story of those Ethiopian women who fought alongside men, who even today have remained no more than errant lines in faded documents. What I have come to understand is this: The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle. Women have been there, we are here now.”

The book’s greatest flaw may be that in order to tell the story of these women, Mengiste must also tell the oft-overlooked (at least in Western literature) story of this Italian invasion, men and all. Though Hirut, she of the stolen rifle, is always at the center of this tale, even the book’s title highlights one of the men involved in this war. The women fight alongside the men, eventually, but they are not man’s equal here. In fact they have very little agency, despite their determination.

Until about 300 pages in, the women heroes train alone and mostly off page, tending to the men and obeying as ordered when Kidane tells them their place is on the sidelines, not in the battles. In those 300 pages, they are raped, beaten, and otherwise taken advantage of, and the war is primarily fought by the men, at least at the level of direct confrontation. Even after the point when the women are allowed to join in the fray, there are two fantastic battle scenes in which the women are finally able to utilize their own power, but between these they are also imprisoned and left to wait upon the men they expect to save them. It would be wrong to suggest that the trials these women face do not require their own brand of strength and resilience, but it is a learned response, a strength thrust upon them in the name of survival, and I spent most of the novel wondering when they would step out of the shadows and claim something for themselves.

It is, of course, not fair to judge a book about a culture and history I’m new to by saying its characters simply aren’t the “right” sort of heroes. And that’s not exactly what I mean. It is to The Shadow King‘s credit, I think, to display these women as a necessary part of the process of defending Ethiopia, even when they ARE at the sidelines, even when to “earn” their place in the fight they must first battle their own husbands and masters and fathers to get there. Surely even before they enter the fray, the men’s efforts would not have succeeded without the women standing firmly at their backs. It’s a great argument to make, that power lies in endurance and in the silent support that is often invisible in history books. But there’s so much more here as well; in the end I think the celebration of female strength is diluted by the attention spared for other aspects of this fight in both the Ethiopian and Italian camps, and while I appreciated the greater political overview and sympathetic characters, I suspect the story would have felt stronger had it been less divided in focus. Had I not read in Mengiste’s note and the jacket copy that this was meant to be a story of strong women, I’m not confident I would have noticed any emphasis on that theme at all, and that is what I struggled with the most in this read.

“She is a soldier trapped inside a barbed-wire fence, but she is still at war and the battlefield is her own body, and perhaps, she has come to realize as a prisoner, that is where it has always been.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m torn between 3 and 4; I do think this is an incredible story, though I found the premise a bit misleading as to its actual content and was never quite fully hooked. Perhaps I’m a bit biased, having read and loved what seemed to me a stronger story of women at war earlier this year- How We Disappeared. I am glad I read this one, but I simply didn’t find it as effective as I’d hoped.

Up next for me on the Booker list: C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold (which I am loving so far)!

The Literary Elephant