Tag Archives: literary 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

talking about things on the internet

Review: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Women’s Prize progress: 7/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, an unnamed woman of viral tweet fame reflects on life as a minor internet celebrity- the highs and lows of being plugged in to social media sites all the time. This rumination is interrupted, however, when a real life family issue claims our protagonist’s attention. As she learns about the genetic disorder Proteus Syndrome and spends more time logged off to lend support, she realizes that there are some important aspects of human experience that are not encapsulated in the digital archive- at least, not inside the circle of popular trends she’s familiar with- and she’s forced to reevaluate the time she spends online.

“What did we have a right to expect from this life? What were the terms of the contract? What had the politician promised us? The realtor, walking us through being’s beautiful house? Could we sue? We would sue! Could we blow it all open? We would blow it all open! Could we…could we post about it?”

No One is Talking About This is a short novel constructed with brief, fragmented paragraphs. They’re not all of individual tweet-length, and as far as I remember Twitter is never mentioned by name, but the comparison in style is obvious and suits the content. This is a book full of direct references to social media trends and usage habits; to some extent, it’s appeal is going to be proportional to the amount of time the reader spends online. Personally, I am not Online in the way that this protagonist is, so there were some references that I sensed probably had a deeper relevance that was going over my head, though I still understood and enjoyed most of the read- being online 24/7 is not necessarily a prerequisite here. To be honest, the reason I don’t spend more time on Twitter and other social media sites is because I know I have a hard time breaking out of the urge to keep scrolling indefinitely and it becomes a huge time suck; even from that perspective, there’s a lot to relate to in this book, as our protagonist knows perfectly well how ridiculous it all can be. Nevertheless, there’s that irresistible drive to feel more connected to the people of our time.

“When she set the portal down, the Thread tugged her back toward it. She could not help following it. This might be the one that connected everything, that would knit her to an indestructible coherence.”

But while I found a lot of individual statements about the internet spot-on, this wasn’t a novel that worked for me as a whole. No matter how directly some of the one-liners spoke to me, I never felt engaged in the underlying plot. Part of the reasoning for that may lie in the fact that our protagonist isn’t a very active agent throughout this story; she’s commenting on what has become for her a routine, daily existence, and next on something that is happening to a family member, something that she is witnessing but has no control over. It’s all observational. Another downfall is that this is a book in two parts: one about excessive internet (“portal”) engagement, one about Proteus Syndrome, and the connection between the two feels tenuous at best. Both are happening to the same person, essentially, and at that someone who is struggling to contain both experiences in her mind at the same time even while she is living them.

Furthermore, I felt the central message here- that being online is useless in the face of Proteus Syndrome- to be simplistic and somewhat unhelpful. To claim that no one is talking about Proteus is… probably not true. That it’s not a mainstream topic probably is true, but as an extremely rare disorder currently without a cure, I’m not convinced that more people worrying about it out loud on the internet (or elsewhere) would be particularly productive in the first place (which is not to say that no one should talk about it). Furthermore, though viral posts can indeed be shockingly arbitrary, the implication that there is no value to social media while “real things” are happening in the tangible world also feels like an unconsidered, extreme viewpoint. For this particular protagonist, yes, being online all the time and endeavoring to find fame through shitposts like “can dogs be twins” probably is unhealthy, but this is not necessarily the default experience. In fact, I would argue relatively few of us, even those who are Incredibly Online, are unhealthily ignoring real world problems in favor of crafting infamous tweets in the name of digital fame.

“‘I can do something for her,’ she tried to explain to her husband, when he asked why she kept flying back to Ohio on those rickety $98 flights that had recently been exposed as dangerous by Nightline. ‘A minute means something to her, more than it means to us. We don’t know how long she has- I can give them to her, I can give her my minutes.’ Then, almost angrily, ‘What was I doing with them before?'”

But aside from the fact that No One is Talking About This speaks about a very specific experience in a way that seems- perhaps a bit awkwardly- meant for the masses to find relatable, it is arguably an important story. Maybe more people should be talking about Proteus Syndrome, and about the myriad effects (both negative and positive) of modern social media use. Reading this book as an example of reality vs. internet conflict rather than the example allows room for some interesting consideration regarding modern life. If the reason you’re online is to feel yourself a part of the moment, why not read a new book that’s trending thanks to its Women’s Prize nomination and which focuses very intently on the state of our (digital) world at present? Though I felt I should’ve had more of an emotional reaction to the sad content here than I actually did, this read certainly sparked some thought for me about how I use my time online and how I balance internet and tangible-world time; it may do the same for you.

CW: death of a child

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This book certainly had its ups and downs for me, and it’s so current that if you’re going to read it I’d suggest doing it asap (already a few of the references feel dated), but it’s a book I’m glad I took a chance on. I related, I learned, I reconsidered. Though I don’t think this is presented well enough to be a literary masterpiece, it’s one of the most experimental and “of our time” books I’ve encountered so far on the Women’s Prize longlist, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it advance to the shortlist, and while I’m not especially rooting for that outcome I suppose I wouldn’t mind it.

The Literary Elephant

a modern love triangle

Review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Women’s Prize progress: 5/16 (though not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, Ava has moved from Dublin to Hong Kong post-university, and is teaching English as a foreign language to local children while she tries to sort out what to do with her life. At a bar she meets Julian, a British investment banker, who likes keeping her around even though he insists she is not his girlfriend. They use each other, and Ava continues living in his apartment while he takes a months-long work trip to London. In his absence, she meets someone else, a Chinese lawyer named Edith, a woman who wants a real relationship and is kind to Ava. But Ava is living in Julian’s apartment and part of her feels the toxic relationship she has with him is what she deserves. Of course, he won’t be away forever, so she won’t be able to hide them from each other for long.

“I told myself: This is why you’re single. This is how you can be having sex with two people, tell neither about the other, be living with one of them, and still be single.”

While Exciting Times focuses on two (very different) romances, it is much more of a literary character study than a romance novel. Ava’s relationships with Julian and Edith represent two sides of herself at a moment when her life is at a crossroads. Her TEFL job is temporary, and she’s landed in Hong Kong not because she has any personal connection to it but rather out of a strong desire to leave Dublin, where she’d felt the need to hide her bisexuality. And despite how easy it may sound to choose the loving relationship over the toxic one, part of Dolan’s brilliance here is showcasing how complex it can be for someone to choose something that might ultimately be good for them- Ava enjoys the detached banter she and Julian have perfected to an art form, feels like she understands him, and, for all his rich male flaws, Julian is easier to talk to her mother about, whereas she’s wary of how her Irish Catholic family would react to being told about her girlfriend.

The book is divided into three sections. The first follows Ava’s developing relationship with Julian, showing the reader how they met, why they seem to tolerate and loathe each other simultaneously, and how Ava comes to be living full time in the guest room of his apartment. The next section takes place while Julian is away on business, focusing on Ava’s budding romance with Edith from those awkward early days of obsessing over the meaning of every little thing she does to how Ava balances this new relationship with her already-established tie to Julian, and how even a good thing can make one feel boxed in and afraid. Finally, in the last section, the inevitable conflict sparked by Julian’s return arises and Ava must face up to the mess she’s made of juggling them both, and decide which path forward she should take.

“At least Julian was honest. He’d never experienced anything but permission, I hated him for it, but all the same I was glad he knew he had it. Most men with permission never realized.”

“Edith was calm about things she couldn’t change. Her firm was full or horrible men and she had to be nice to them. You did in every job, and at least hers paid well.”

Though each section has its own merits, Exciting Times‘s greatest fault may be that it tries to present each portion of the book as though it bears equal weight. While each of the three sections is necessary to advancing Ava’s predicament, the segments looking at Ava’s individual relationships with Julian and Edith feel introductory, and introductory chapters have no business taking up two thirds of a book. The final segment of the novel that brings the three main characters all into the same space at last and pits Edith and Julian against each other is by far the most interesting, though it’s slightly shorter than either of the two earlier segments. The friction between Ava and Julian helps move the first part of the book along, though I didn’t need as many pages as were provided to get the gist of their dynamic, and Ava’s comparatively healthy relationship with Edith in the middle of the book, the longest segment, is so devoid of conflict and surprise that it borders on downright boring. The only tension in this portion of the book is the looming awareness that Ava is lying to both Julian and Edith about what’s going on and will have to face the consequences in the near future- I spent most of these pages just waiting for the expected drama of the final piece.

But despite finding the novel unbalanced, it was overall a fantastic read. Though Ava’s life is nothing like mine, though she can be contrary and cold, I found Ava’s narration surprisingly relatable. Don’t we all feel the urge to self-sabotage sometimes, and get in our own way? I found it easy to sympathize with Ava for getting into a relationship with someone she knew was bad for her, and just as easily understood the craze of finding someone who excites you, stalking their social media (but being careful not to like anything, especially not anything old) and then pretending indifference in front of them so as not to give yourself away. And it’s not only the romances that felt fitting here: Ava is a modern young-twenties woman concerned with feminism, the pitfalls of capitalism, the worsening climate crisis, etc.; she toggles between presenting these views outwardly as part of her identity and realizing inwardly that actually she might be bad at acting out her ideals. And she’s got that familiar 21st century internet-era malaise:

“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”

Throughout the book, the reader also takes a pleasant dive into Ava’s TEFL classes, which prompt her to consider the differences between the English she learned growing up in Ireland, “proper” British English, and the the students’ Hong Kong English, small grammar tics she’s supposed to correct lest they give these children away as non-native speakers. There are English language sounds that she can’t make with her Irish accent and formal grammar rules she’s required to teach that go against what she’s learned as a native speaker. It’s an exploration of language that digs into class, privilege, and communicability in a way I found immensely appealing. Though Ava’s teaching work is more or less routine and has little bearing on the more prominent love triangle plot, the commentary around her language usage does provide further insight into Ava’s societal views and how she relates to (or doesn’t) the people and cultures around her.

And perhaps best of all, this entangled romance is probably the most convincing case for polyamory I’ve ever read, though ultimately it won’t work here. The three main characters make an odd trio and it’s not an entirely healthy relationship for anyone while Ava is seeing both Julian and Edith, but these two relationships fulfill different needs for her such that it’s hard not to imagine a world where she might manage to balance them both. I absolutely loved the excitement and tension of seeing the three of them trying to function together (brief though that portion of the novel is), and found myself frustrated when Ava is eventually forced to make a choice due to logistics and the preferences of her partners.

But this is more of a story about our messy, modern way of connecting to others than about right and wrong, so even when I disliked these characters or their actions I found them believable and had great fun following along.

CW: toxic relationship

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had been wanting to read this book for months and was glad the Women’s Prize nomination gave me that extra nudge to finally pick it up. Though it wasn’t always a smooth read, I thought it encapsulated a bit of the messy drama of exploring one’s social identity, and explored character dynamics in a memorable way. I’d be happy to see this one advance to the shortlist.

The Literary Elephant

long live disaster women

Review: Luster by Raven Leilani

Women’s Prize longlist progress: 4/16 (I am not planning to read all 16 longlisted titles this year but am not sure yet how many I will read.)

Book Cover

In this novel, Edie is a young artist working for a publishing company that won’t put her in the art department. In return, Edie refuses to be the Black hire who works twice as hard and sucks up to her colleagues as though to apologize that she isn’t as white as the rest of them. But anyone could do her job, and Eidie knows it’s only a matter of time before the new Black girl, who is willing to play by white rules, gets her spot. And who can Edie turn to when the going gets rough? The guy she’s seeing is an older white man in an open marriage, and while even Edie knows this is a bad idea she can’t resist. Luckily his wife is willing to hold out a helping hand- such as it is- in Edie’s hour of need, in exchange for Edie’s guidance with the white couple’s Black daughter.

” ‘You noticed our daughter. When you came to the house,’ she finally says, and in this moment it becomes clear to me that despite this evening-long conspiracy, she is moving toward her most natural conclusion, which is to engage me not as a person who has just watched her dissect a man but as a person who is black, and who is, because of that, available for her support.”

I’ve been struggling with this review, because I did not enjoy the read nearly as much as I expected even though on paper Luster is pretty much perfect for my reading taste. It’s one of those messy/disaster woman books in which a young millennial seems to be deliberately tanking her life; in this case, Edie is sleeping around with everyone at the office who catches her eye, putting no effort into staying ahead of the new hire who’s clearly working her way up the office hierarchy. And then there’s Eric, the white guy whose biggest attraction seems to be that he’s significantly older than Edie. She knows he won’t be leaving his wife, and his relationship with Edie is selfish and unhealthy, but maybe Edie is looking to be used. On top of all this are the rejections of her art, the rent increase she can’t afford, the end of her health insurance coverage, a series of increasingly ill-fitting job interviews, and lingering grief over the death of her mother. Edie is down on her luck, a bit lost on her journey of self-discovery, and all she wants is to make bad decisions like the rest of us and scrape by until she stumbles upon something better. Why shouldn’t she have that?

I never tire of this sort of book, and the fact that Leilani is offering a captivating Black protagonist amid a predominantly white category of literature is appealing in itself. Many disaster women books by nature engage in a feminist commentary that challenges the societal expectations regularly placed upon women and the harsh consequences of failing to live up to that model standard; Leilani takes this commentary a step farther by reminding the reader of how much higher that bar of expectation is for women of color, and how any period of complacency- even one justifiably fueled by grief and job frustration- can tear everything she’s built down in a moment and leave her with barely a foothold for finding a next step. It’s a timely and important theme, and for me at least, always a pleasure seeing women be women, in all their flawed complexity.

In addition, Leilani is simply an incredible writer. Her prose is perceptive and bold, making skillful and relatable connections between the tangible, modern world and Edie’s emotions. Even though my circumstances are nothing like any of these characters’, I marked so many lines that reflected a true feeling I’d had and never known how to articulate, which is exactly the sort of sharp, intellectual narration that impresses me most.

“It’s not that I want exactly this, to have a husband or home security system that, for the length of our marriage, never goes off. It’s that there are gray, anonymous hours like this. Hours when I am desperate, when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void.”

And yet, for all of these positives, Luster focuses so heavily on its main character and themes that I found the overall story to be missing a necessary hook. Surprisingly for a book just over 200 pages, I set Luster down so many times and always had to talk myself into picking it back up. I think the reasons for this are twofold:

First, there’s so little plot to this novel. Such is the case with many character studies, and in Edie’s case in particular I think it’s fair to say that the whole point of the book is the derailment of Edie’s life. She doesn’t know what to do next or how to go about it, so of course her narration wanders uncertainly from one encounter to the next, just waiting for something to happen to give her a sense of direction again. She spends the entire novel trying to rediscover who she is as a person and as an artist. It makes sense , and yet the meandering story line can make for a challenging investment.

“I wake up in the morning and think for a moment that I am someone happier and then I remember where I am.”

Another disappointment for me was Edie’s relationship with Rebecca, Eric’s wife, and this disappointment stems largely from having read too many reviews before picking up this book myself, I think. I knew based on others’ reactions not to expect much from Eric- and indeed, he’s more interesting for the role he plays in Edie’s life than as a character in his own right. He really is just another white guy who doesn’t have much going for him beyond the privilege he’s lived with for so long. In contrast, may reviewers seem to have liked the relationships that develop between Edie and Eric’s wife and daughter. The daughter is a pre-teen, and her relationship with Edie is a bit rocky as the two are thrown together with little more than skin color as a commonality. Even as they eventually grow closer, this is clearly an adult/minor relationship in which Edie cannot voice her woes, and thus I was looking to Rebecca as someone I hoped would be a little closer to a friend for her, a peer.

Many other readers have called Edie and Rebecca’s relationship a friendship, but unfortunately I never saw it as such. Instead, even while they occasionally do nice things for each other, I saw them more as rivals circling each other out of curiosity and a need for validation. It is always an unbalanced relationship in which Rebecca has the upper hand and does not hesitate to exercise the power of that position. Even offering Edie a place to stay at a time when Edie is considering the legality of sleeping in her rental storage unit seems to be a way for Rebecca to show Edie what she, Edie, doesn’t have with Eric, and what Rebecca does. Their actions around each other feel like a performance- even scenes when the two seem to be comfortably spending time alone together feel like a demonstration of tolerance, just two people proving their humanity to each other in resistance of the natural rivalry they feel. It strikes me as no healthier than Eric’s affair with Edie. And while it may seem unfair to criticize Luster for failing to present something it never promised to, something that I only latched on to from others’ (equally valid) impressions, I think one positive relationship in this story might have been enough to draw me back into the plotless wallowing. If not Rebecca, then someone else. I needed something to hold on to while Edie was stumbling around, waist-deep in injustice and negativity. Unfortunately, Luster didn’t deliver that.

“If I’m honest, all my relationships have been like this, parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head. Like, is he kidding, or is he hungry? In other words, all of it, even the love, is a violence.”

Nevertheless, with its examinations of race, grief, artistry, capitalism, and modern relationships, this is absolutely a worthwhile addition to the disaster women category (long may it reign) and to the Women’s Prize longlist this year. It’s a strong debut that’s leaving me eager to pick up whatever Leilani will write next.

CWs: racism, police brutality, miscarriage, death of pet (mentioned with the implication that someone has harmed it, but this is not detailed explicitly), physical abuse, grief (relating to death of a parent)

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t particularly expect to see Luster on the WP shortlist in a couple of weeks, but I’m glad to have read it and to see so many others doing the same. Leilani is certainly an author to watch.

The Literary Elephant

into the labyrinth

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Women’s Prize Longlist 2021 Progress: 3/16

Piranesi

In this novel, a man called Piranesi (though this is not his name) lives in a labyrinthine House that consists entirely of elaborate classical Halls that are filled with Statues and washed by the Sea. For Piranesi, this is the entire World. He keeps an extensive Journal, recording both scientific observations and any notable occurrences or day to day thoughts. Through these entries, we learn about his movements through the Halls and his immense Knowledge of them, as well as the Events that begin to unravel his understanding of this World and his place in it.

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

This is a difficult book to talk about, because despite everything I’d like to say, the less you know going in the better. And yet, how do you know if you want to go in unless you have some idea of what the book’s about?

There is a fantasy/sci-fi aspect to Piranesi, which probably narrows the field of readership a bit, but I’d argue that the otherworldly details are more of an intriguing background that won’t necessarily make or break the experience, while the deeper theme of coping with trauma and the driving forces of logic and mystery will more likely be the determining factors for reader appreciation.

At it’s core, Piranesi is a puzzle of a novel; it is a book for those who love inventive (though still very accessible!) structuring and clues. A great fan of mysteries and puzzles myself, I wholeheartedly loved the slow unveiling of subtle hints. Everything we learn about this World opens a door to further questions, many of which are answered through Piranesi’s observations and exchanges with the Other in ways that Piranesi himself does not seem to grasp. The Other is the only other living Person that Piranesi typically interacts with in the House. For a time, the Other and various features of the House itself are the only things Piranesi comes into contact with to provide context of what he is like outside of his own Head.

Because we are learning about our MC through his Journal, it is a very internal story in some ways; luckily Piranesi shares dialogue, movements, and entire thought processes- he places great weight on data, logic, and records. But the reader can learn as much about Piranesi’s circumstances by looking beneath the surface of the stated to note what is and isn’t important to him in these recordings: aided by his tendency to capitalize every significant noun, and his avoidance of certain seemingly obvious questions (if Piranesi meets with the Other twice a week in one specific Room, knows the Other doesn’t venture further into the House, and never sees him in the central Rooms outside of that appointed meeting hour, where does the Other go?).

The downside to this narrative approach is that it is immediately clear that Piranesi’s World is not our world; there is an imbalance of knowledge between character and reader. Thus, certain revelations about Piranesi’s past and present circumstances come as monumental shocks to him when the curious reader has already been able to guess the truth, somewhat lessening the impact of big reveals after all the careful clue-dropping has worked it’s magic. However, the gradual realization that Piranesi’s ignorance is in large part a coping mechanism makes it easy to forgive the novel for occasionally making clear the same point twice. Piranesi’s thoughts, actions, and narrative style are so directly linked and speak so well toward the ways in which a person might react to trauma that it’s hard to ignore the brilliance at work here even when things feel a little too spelled out.

But I’m brushing up against spoiler territory and don’t want to get too close, so let’s turn away from the mystery now and look toward the fantasy/sci-fi element: Piranesi’s World. I want to call it fantasy, because that’s generally what you do with an entire world that is an unending House throughout which Tides and Statues are abundant. It’s an extraordinary place. Beautiful, but also brutal, in a potentially deadly way that makes one respect it all the more. Some of the Halls are derelict, some Tides violent, and classical architecture is not much protection against the elements of the Seasons.

“There is a thing that I know but always forget: Winter is hard. The cold goes on and on and it is only with difficulty and effort that a person keeps himself warm. Every year, as Winter approaches, I congratulate myself on having a plentiful supply of dry seaweed to use as fuel, but as the days, weeks and months stretch out I become less certain that I have sufficient. I wear as many of the clothes as I can cram onto my body. Every Friday I take stock of my fuel and I calculate how much I can permit Myself each day in order to make it last until Spring.”

But this World and… how it works, for want of a better phrase… functions scientifically and logically within the novel, so calling it sci-fi or speculative is just as valid a choice. Classification is up to the reader, really. Whatever you want to call it, this World is lovingly rendered and evocative in such a way that it makes Piranesi a delight to read even when the themes turn dark or the mystery feels too obvious. If you’re looking for escapism, what better than a labyrinth built right on the sea?

If it hasn’t been clear, the only thing that would have improved this read for me further would’ve been a bit more surprise in watching the mystery unfold, but timing with solving the mystery will probably vary reader to reader and in any case there is enough else here to appreciate in depth and detail to make this novel worth recommending. I suspect it will be a polarizing read, but I hope more readers will take a chance on it. I think this is the sort of fantasy/sci-fi that could appeal to readers who don’t normally reach for those genres, because the science isn’t too technical and this world does not involve any supernatural creatures or spells. It’s ambiguous enough that the otherworldly element could be explained away by an alternative explanation, if one really doesn’t like magic as an answer. The mystery is layered and intelligent, but the gaps in Piranesi’s knowledge make it a fair choice even for readers who won’t want to do the heavy lifting of sifting through his clues before Piranesi understands what has happened. You can engage as much or as little as you like- the House has something to offer for all.

CWs: kidnapping, imprisonment, gaslighting, gun violence, death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. A very strong 4- I loved reading this. Unfortunately it’s too early to say whether I would predict or want this book to advance to the Women’s Prize shortlist, but barring the possibility that there might end up being 6 other longlisters I’m even more attached to, I can safely say I wouldn’t be disappointed to see this one stay in the running!

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

murder and magic in Mexico

Review: Hurricane Season by Fernanada Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes

I wanted to read more translations this year, and starting out with a gutpunch like this has been both validation of that goal and further encouragement. Melchor’s first novel to appear in the English language and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, Hurricane Season brings a whole lot to the table.

In the novel, the witch of La Matosa is dead. Evidence on the body points toward murder, prompting an investigation that reveals at every turn another layer of violence and trauma. The desperation of marginalized people in this small and unforgiving community breeds a self-perpetuating cycle of pain received and pain dealt- in this case, culminating in the untimely death of a social outcast who is, nonetheless, one of their own.

Trigger warnings are needed here for basically everything, from homophobia to bestiality to drug abuse to corporal punishment. If you can imagine it, it’s probably in this book. This is not a feel-good tale in any way, instead cloaked in horror and tragedy at every turn. But it is short- just over 200 pages- and if you can stomach the content, it’s well worth the read.

Divided into eight chapters that each bring a new perspective related in some way to the witch’s demise, the entire book is written in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style with sentences that go on and on and paragraphs that seem never to end. But the first chapter, just two pages long, gives the reader an easy introduction to the style and proves just how effectively Melchor (and Hughes) can pull the reader into this tale; it’s fast paced and sharp, the run-ons coming across not as a slog to wade through but rather as a headfirst pitch down a steep slope, a motion that once started cannot be stopped until the inevitable crash at the bottom. Here’s a passage I liked, to give you a better feel for the narrative voice than I could ever possibly articulate:

“The fucking cat didn’t move an inch when Brando raised a leg as if to kick him; it didn’t even bat an eyelid, although from its closed mouth came a vicious hiss that made Brando step back and glance over at the table for another knife. And just then the lights in the kitchen and all over the house went out, and it dawned on Brando that this furious creature, this beast hissing in the darkness was the devil himself, the devil incarnate, the devil who’d been following him all those years, the devil who had finally come to carry him to hell, and he understood too that if he didn’t run, if he didn’t escape from the house that very instant he’d be trapped with that grim beast in the darkness forever, and he leaped toward the door, pulled aside the bar, and pushed with all his might, falling flat on his face on the hard ground in the yard with the demon still growling in his ears.”

There’s an air of mystery to it all as the narrative unearths the witch’s fate a kernel at a time from each of the tangential characters, but this is not a whodunnit. Rather, the community’s tendency toward superstition (evidenced in the quote above) and the novel’s very balanced use of rumor and magic both as a cultural tradition and a mechanism for social critique is what fans the flame of mysteriousness here and drives the story forward. The village really does seem to see the witch and her plants and potions as a source of magic- it is not entirely metaphor, though the fear of the unknown and uncontrollable that typically drives such superstitions is also at the root of other issues explored here- sexism, homophobia, poverty, mental illness. It all comes together to perfect effect, the setting intricately intertwined with these characters and the plot that plays out between them.

It’s masterfully done, each character as interesting as the last and none of them what you’d first assume; Melchor has an impressive talent for laying her characters out first as others see them, then peeling back the veil of bias to provide a fuller view. The narrative circles the witch’s death by opening each new perspective in medias res, circling through their pertinent backstory before coming back to the witch. For such a clever, convoluted structure it’s shockingly easy to follow the flow, and hard to put down at any point- this is a book best read in as few sittings as possible, and because it is so layered, I imagine it would make for great rereads as well. I know I’ll certainly want to pick it up again.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Hurricane Season felt to me simultaneously like a window to another world and a mirror through which I can glimpse a few dark truths that hit closer to home, all packed into one small package of searing prose. This is exactly how I wanted to start my reading year.

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Fire Starters and Call Down the Hawk

I’m approaching the end of the Women’s Prize Squad longlist! I have one title left to read, Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock. I am finally next up in the library queue but it is unclear whether my turn will come up before the end of the year, so I’ll likely be wrapping up this longlist in 2021. But in the meantime, I do have some thoughts on two more titles I read recently from our alternate prize list: Jan Carson’s modern Troubles novel, The Fire Starters, and Maggie Stiefvater’s YA dream-quest Call Down the Hawk. Both involve their own brand of magic.

In The Fire Starters, Belfast is burning. A dangerous tradition of cathartic but destructive fires in July have been legally banned- or, at least, shrunk to an infuriatingly reasonable size. Citizens rebel, under the instruction of the anonymous Fire Starter, who fans the flames of simmering anger and unrest by goading them into a summer-long fire fest. One man sweats over the likelihood that his secretive adult son is the mastermind behind the Tall Fires. Another man fears the day his infant daughter will begin to speak, believing her mother to have been an actual siren. To the backdrop of a parched, smoke-filled, and still traumatized post-Troubles Belfast, these two men grapple with parental love against the safeguarding of their homes and city.

“No one wants to be the first stone-caster. No one wants to be last. The trick is to raise your voice at exactly the same moment as everyone else. In this, and other matters, the politicians are not unlike teenage children.”

This is a stunning novel merging magic, fatherhood, and the long shadow of trauma upon a community. It’s comical and sharp, reflecting on the ways that the violence and subversiveness of the Troubles have, instead of fading away, melded into everyday life. Belfast presents as a character in its own right- the tension ruling its streets irresistibly palpable. Carson’s political and emotional commentary is astute and memorable, but the magical element turns what could be a dauntingly heavy read into something playful, evocative, and immediately gripping. I found it impossible to put down.

“In the city centre the pavements are the same gunmetal grey as the sky, as the shop windows, as the lake quickly forming outside the markets. Everywhere is grey and sliding. People are pale pink thumbprints smudging behind the rain. Most stay indoors, only leaving the house when strictly necessary: work, groceries, elderly relatives, who may require anchoring down.

I think it’s best to discover these fraught characters and their blazing summer for oneself, but rest assured that the two alternating perspectives and Belfast’s fate dovetail quite nicely. The magical element serves to further the themes of violence and its consequences, the way monumental events are, in time, absorbed into the minutiae of regular city life. And for those who like their literary fiction more on the realistic side, never fear- while the magic is unavoidable in this story, it’s also cloaked in an uncertainty that ties back to the book’s themes: is the infant really a dangerous siren? Or is her father’s fear the result of ingrained paranoia and mistrust? Only the reader can decide.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I adored this book. I found it immensely readable, but also full of staying power; the best combination. I think it’ll appeal most to those already interested in Troubles books- fans of Anna Burns’s Milkman might fare particularly well here, though the styles are very different. This book really should have the wider reach of the two, being far less difficult overall, but it seems woefully unread… If you need further convincing, let me direct you to Rachel’s stellar review, which was all it took for me!

In Call Down the Hawk, Ronan Lynch is adrift. His boyfriend is hours away, where Ronan can’t go. His brothers have their own lives, and Ronan can’t stay with them for long either- it’s not safe for him to dream away from his secluded childhood home; when he dreams, Ronan tends to bring things back to the waking world with him; sometimes he brings back things that he doesn’t want to. Now that Ronan is eighteen and alone, he needs a project to occupy his time and utilize his unique skill. Luckily, he finds it, in the mysterious voice of a faceless but powerful stranger and a quest to save a notorious art forger. Meanwhile, an army of visionaries decides to rid the world of dreamers in the name of saving the world.

First off, be warned: though Call Down the Hawk is the first book in a trilogy, it’s a spinoff following Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle books. I do think you can start with this volume if you want to, though most of these characters and the magical dreams will have more context for those who’ve started at the very beginning. The plot is entirely new here, but Call Down the Hawk builds off of previous characterization and world-building.

I did read and enjoy all four books of the Raven Cycle a few years ago, but was not sure these books would still align with my reading taste (and also was not particularly interested in the dreaming aspect of that original series) and so I wasn’t initially planning to pick up this trilogy. In the end, I’m glad I did. Stiefvater’s writing just works for me. She’s great with details, and with making unexpected connections and comparisons. Every now and then there’s a line that doesn’t quite land for me, but on the whole I’m always entertained and surprised by her writing at the sentence level, something I appreciate, especially in YA. (Though it is worth noting that Call Down the Hawk lands at the upper edge of YA, with most of its characters 18 or slightly above.)

Speaking of characters: these are great. It’s a delight to follow Ronan and Adam’s relationship (though unfortunately they’re not together much on-page), to see the three wildly different Lynch brothers interact, to discover the quirks and mysteries of the dreamers. The art forger is a kickass woman with dark skin and six identical copies of herself also walking the world and turning forgery into an art of self-expression. There’s something in each to relate to, and some great commentary throughout the book on individuality, self-identity, and strength.

“He would not let this world kill him slowly.

He deserved a place here, too.

He woke.”

The plot is what didn’t quite work for me. In theory, a magical mystery that walks the line between reality and imagination, especially once you involve sightings of dead persons, paintings of dubious legality, a team of self-appointed assassins, and seven people who all look exactly the same, should’ve been a win. But there are two things that turned me off here. One, as I feared, was the dream element. I’m picky about how magic operates in fiction, and the dreams here are enough of an obstacle to these characters that it almost fell into place, but there are a few places in the story where the dream magic feels like a narrative crutch, a get-out-of-jail free card where it’s not quite earned. But I expected that going in, so it didn’t bother me too much. What did was the deliberate withholding of information for the sake of ~mystery.~ There are at least three characters here who refuse to tell each other (or the reader) what they know, in order to advance the plot when Stiefvater is ready for it. The book limps along as these characters in the know drop crumbs to those who need them- it feels artificial and frustrating to be fed a story in pieces when the characters clearly know more than they’re letting on. Telling the reader that they’re secretive or powerful people is not sufficient excuse, in my opinion.

Nevertheless, I love all of these people (except Bryde, but we’ll table that for now) and their slow-burn relationships, their loyalty. I love the unique and interesting skill sets, the constant threat of danger, the magical black market, the art, the themes. I wished the presentation had been a little less forced, but I was hooked regardless.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I suspect that if more information had been provided up front instead of making the reader wait for it, a single novel might have been enough space for the story this trilogy is telling, and that length might have made it a tighter tale all around. But there is plenty to like here and I’m invested now, so I will be continuing the series, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to Raven Cycle fans.

The Literary Elephant

Booker Prize 2020: Wrap-Up, Ranking, and Winner Prediction

The winner announcement for the 2020 Booker Prize will be upon us in a matter of hours, and as I’m mostly finished with what I wanted to read in relation to this prize, I want to share some concluding thoughts. I still have Mantel’s longlisted The Mirror and the Light on my schedule for next month, but am planning to include any Booker or Women’s Prize thoughts about it along with my review, so I’ll forge ahead here. There are also two other longlisted books this year that I’ve skipped entirely and don’t currently have any plans to read, so this round-up is slightly incomplete but I’ll do my best.

For more info on this year’s Booker Prize and my thoughts on the books, I’ll link here the official Booker website, my initial longlist reaction and shortlist reaction, and my reviews for each of the individual titles will be included below.

The shortlist, ranked in order of personal favoritism:

  1. Real Life by Brandon Taylor – 5 stars. A gay Black man in a Midwestern biochemistry grad program wrestles with the choice of leaving an area of study he enjoys in order to escape the pervasive racism that plagues his experience at the school. Over the course of a single weekend, the main character’s interactions with fellow students and friends take a large toll and expose numerous injustices.
  2. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – 4 stars. One woman’s troubling experience with alcoholism in (recent) historical Scotland affects the lives of everyone around her. Hit hardest by her inability to hold onto sobriety and also by the harsh judgment of their surrounding society, her youngest son Shuggie clings to innocent love for his mother while trying to keep her afloat and battle bullies of his own. An exceedingly tragic read.
  3. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste – 3 stars. This historical fiction tale depicts the Italian invasion of Ethiopia just prior to WWII; with sometimes brilliant and sometimes beautiful prose, Mengiste brings the plight of a nation to life, highlighting individual experiences. Though feminist in intent (and indeed featuring particularly strong female characters) the book’s tendency to focus as well on male experiences diluted the woman warrior theme for me.
  4. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga – 3 stars. A suitable end to an impactful trilogy, this volume follows the same Zimbabwean main character as the trilogy’s previous installments, this time as she approaches middle age. This woman is struggling to find meaningful work and a reasonable home for herself in the wake of a postcolonial education which has negatively shaped her life view and sense of self. A heavy and important read (just as the rest of the trilogy), I simply did not appreciate this volume as much as Dangarembga’s first, and felt that the similar themes addressed here had by this point become somewhat repetitive.
  5. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook – 3 stars. A woman and her young daughter leave the City to live in the Wilderness as part of an experiment to determine whether humans can live in raw nature without harming it. An engaging if unsurprising dystopian, this book compensates for a lack of social commentary and fast plot with indulgent landscapes and detailed world-building of its Wilderness.
  6. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi – 3 stars. An Indian artist reflects on her past and sense of morality as she must provide increasing care for her carefree mother, who is losing her memory. The two women share a complicated relationship filled as much with judgment and disappointment as with love, and struggle to help each other even as they are also desperate to save themselves.

As you can see, this wasn’t my year for high shortlist ratings. The only real favorite for me was the title I’d read prior to the longlist announcement. Most of my Booker reading after that point failed to excite me, though I didn’t have any strong dislikes either, which may be a first.

All in all, though I was initially happy with the shortlist, now that I’ve read all of the books I find it a bit…stagnant and stuffy. While I think the themes and concepts on display here are worthwhile and interesting, and all of these writers succeed in laying out stories that are engaging and coherent, there seems to be a lack of innovation here, of playful inventiveness, of inspiring form and wording. Real Life is the exception for me, in that I think it manages to convey quite a lot without saying any of it directly; Taylor tells his story on a slant, where the surface level reads like an eyebrow-raising drama while a lot of powerful implications and emotions ride underneath. The rest, however, struck me as straightforward, long, wandering, and perhaps just a bit too focused on being called Literature to accomplish enjoyability. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on a collection of books that are indeed admirable each in their own way and simply don’t cater to my reading taste. I prefer my literary fiction a bit more raw and biting, which is not what I found here, and while that’s unfortunate for me it does not mean these are necessarily bad books or that anyone who finds more to enjoy in them than I did is wrong to do so- I do hope someone’s having a better time of it than I did.

With that in mind, if I were to pick a winner, I’d say my favorite for that slot all along has been Taylor’s Real Life. It’s a bit disappointing to have read nine other books from the longlist now and still feel that my top choice is the only title I read independently beforehand, but here we are. I think Taylor and his intelligent, emotional writing would make for a deserving Booker win this year, but in all honesty, I don’t think the judges will lean in this direction. Real Life doesn’t quite seem to match the rest of this shortlist for tone, and though its themes are just as heavy and important as any of the others highlighted on this year’s Booker list, there’s a lightness to the delivery that I suspect doesn’t appeal to the judges as strongly as it does to me, if the rest of this list is anything to go by.

Thus, my actual winner prediction is instead Mengiste’s The Shadow King which, while not quite fitting my expectations based on the synopsis and jacket copy, is a commendable piece of fiction that reveals an overlooked piece of history and whose corrections of that historical record feel timely and important. The judging panel this year is wonderfully diverse, and I suspect those judges will lean toward supporting an author, a country, and a story of a sort that has been underrepresented with the Booker in the past, which makes Mengiste’s Ethiopian epic an appealing choice.

Here is a not-quite-accurate shortlist photo, excluding two titles I didn’t have on hand at the time- Burnt Sugar and The Shadow King and instead including the one longlist title whose absence on the shortlist hurts me most- How Much of These Hills is Gold.

For a bit more fun, here is my current longlist ranking, along with brief recaps for the titles that missed the shortlist.

  1. Real Life by Brandon Taylor – 5 stars.
  2. How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang – 4 stars. In the dying days of the American gold rush and westward expansion, two Chinese-American children are orphaned after the death of their prospector father. Instilled with a love of the natural land from him and with Chinese traditions from their mother, the siblings set off to build lives of their own, rooted in their pasts and dreaming of better futures, all while facing rampant racial discrimination. It’s beautifully told with an interesting chronology, and Zhang is expert at playing on readers’ assumptions about character. An astute and heart-wrenching read.
  3. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid – 4 stars. An overly dramatic and not entirely believable soap opera of a novel about modern racism and performative allyship. It revolves around a young Black woman accused of kidnapping a white child that she’s babysitting, and the harmful ways that the people closest to her try to “help” with the situation. I wouldn’t call this a literary masterpiece, but I found it great fun to read. I appreciate that it brings timely and important topics to a wide audience in an accessible way.
  4. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – 4 stars.
  5. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste – 3 stars.
  6. Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward – 3 stars. An incredibly intriguing format and plot centered around an ant that may or may not have crawled into a sleeping woman’s eye. The book, a cross between a short story set and a novel, is a sort of philosophical thought experiment in itself. UnfortunatelyI found it far too emotionless for a story rooted in love that’s meant to be strong enough to save humanity, despite loving the book’s structure and unpredictability.
  7. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga – 3 stars.
  8. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook – 3 stars.
  9. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi – 3 stars.
  10. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler – 3 stars. This was just too incredibly benign for my reading taste. It’s the story of a man going on middle-aged who’s a bit misunderstood, and must change his solitary ways for the sake of important relationships in his life. It’s a brief and competent contemporary story that I’m sure will please readers who enjoy slice-of-life character studies.

Additionally, at this point I have not read these titles from the longlist:

  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. This book is still on my TBR; I’ve read the first book in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy and have fit books two and three into my December reading schedule, so my reviews will still be forthcoming. I’m determined to read this before the end of the year and expect it would rank in the top half of this year’s Booker list for me, based on my experience with that initial Cromwell novel.
  • Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze. I was not particularly drawn to the synopsis of this book from the start, and it was too challenging for me to get a copy in time for the winner announcement at a price that I was willing to pay for my interest level. I’ve not seen any reviews thus far convincing enough for me to add this book to my TBR, and now that I’ve missed the optimal timing to read it I doubt I will ever get around to picking it up.
  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann. I have no interest in reading this one, and have actually made plans to read a different book with a similar setting as an alternative read (Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa). McCann has been accused of sexual assault and so I do not want to read or support this book or author even though I have heard positive things about the story itself.

Though I can’t give reliable stats for the titles I didn’t read, over half of the longlist titles that I did complete ranked only 3 stars for me. Which is not a bad rating, but it can be a frustrating one, especially when beginning with high expectations (which seems reasonable when approaching a prestigious prize list). 3-star reads are often difficult for me to review, and difficult for me to care about their advancement within the prize ranks or lack thereof. 3-star reads can also (regrettably) be forgettable, which is not a reaction I want to have for top literary reads of the year.

And so, my overall experience has been somewhat subpar. Even the books I rated higher, like Such a Fun Age and Shuggie Bain, I would not have minded leaving behind on the longlist, which is not a great sign. But despite this Booker season turning out to be an off year for me, it was not such a negative experience that I regret following along, nor do I plan to abandon reading along in the future. But I have learned along the way this year that it can be helpful to trust my first impressions, and that neither the world nor my blog will end if I don’t manage to complete the entire list- and so going forward I think I will be making an effort to be choosier about which Booker titles I will pick up instead of pushing myself through titles I’m less intrigued about for the sake of greater completion.

As usual, the best part of this prize season has been following along with other readers, comparing thoughts, making guesses about the upcoming announcements, and finding a sense of (virtual) community in discussing topical titles. I’ve very much enjoyed chatting with everyone who’s commented along my 2020 Booker journey whether having read the books or not- being able to share the experience is the part that makes sticking with sometimes difficult reads worth the effort.

Have you read any of this year’s Booker longlist, or have thoughts about the winner announcement?

The Literary Elephant