Tag Archives: literary fiction

Review: A Ladder to the Sky

I’ve seen John Boyne’s name on book covers for years, but it wasn’t until so many readers adored The Heart’s Invisible Furies that I felt like I was really missing out by not having picked up any of his titles. Admittedly, I still haven’t gotten around to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, though I do have a copy at the ready. But when his 2018 release, A Ladder to the Sky came out, and when BOTM made it available as a November selection, I could not put off reading some of Boyne’s work any longer. So I read A Ladder to the Sky at the end of November… and I kind of wish I hadn’t.

aladdertotheskyAbout the book: Maurice Swift started his adult life as a waiter in a hotel restaurant, where he had the good fortune of waiting on a prestigious author who graciously (if somewhat selfishly) took Maurice under his literary wing. Maurice has aspirations of his own literary fame, but isn’t having much luck with writing- his style is competent, but he cannot think up any original plots. Thanks to his new mentor, he is able to pick up a trick or two from inside the publishing industry… and he finds his first great plot while mixing with great writers. The problem is that the idea didn’t originate in his own brain, and so his dubious career as an author is built on stolen plots that he passes them off as his own.

“This is what a writer does. Uses his or her imagination. Tries to understand how it feels to be alive in a moment that never existed with a person who never lived, saying words that were never spoken aloud.”

Unfortunately, I think this was a bad case of right-author-wrong-book. Though Boyne’s skill at shaping and narrating a difficult story shone through clearly, A Ladder to the Sky was not a particularly enjoyable reading experience for me. You know those characters people talk about loving to hate? Apparently I just hate them. Maurice is so awful, selfish, and manipulative that instead of appreciating his terribleness I found myself so often uncomfortable with his actions to an extent that I had to put the book down and was reluctant to pick it up again.

One thing that helped me make it through is that this book is divided into three main segments, and between those segments are shorter “interludes.” I liked the interludes better than any of the larger sections- the first one is told from a perspective far enough away from Maurice’s poison that I could observe him more objectively. The second interlude does show Maurice’s perspective, but as a largely powerless child; I did enjoy seeing him discovering his own personality and finding his limits (or lack thereof) at that stage of his life. But the three main sections built up horror after horror.

“I’d only been at their table a few minutes but had already managed to insult them both and make them each feel like shit, so I was beginning to feel that my work there was done.”

Part of my problem with the larger narrative sections is that they’re a bit predictable. All I knew going into this book is that Maurice is an ambitious writer who steals plots. This is not a spoiler; I don’t know why anyone would pick up this book without knowing that part of the premise and feeling intrigued about it (excepting the readers who pick it up because it has Boyne’s name on the cover; perhaps if I was a fan of his previous works I would have had a different reaction to this one, hence regretting picking this one as my first Boyne novel). But by knowing that Maurice is a plot stealer, I spent the entire first section seeing right through his flimsy ruse and spotted the soon-to-be-stolen plot immediately. Then I spent the entire second section knowing he was about to do it again, and seeing exactly where the new plot was coming from. By the time I got to the third section, there was absolutely no mystery in seeing Maurice falling into the trap of a new version of his own game.

The dramatic irony keeps the narration interesting even when the plot seems obvious, though. Maurice is constantly telling hypocritical lies and disturbing half-truths to characters who either don’t understand or can’t do anything to stop him. Maurice’s fate in the final section is so rewarding that I couldn’t look away despite its transparency. This is a book to read for the character study rather than surprise– I just didn’t want to study the character of Maurice.

” ‘You’ve let me down, Maurice, you really have.’ ‘Well, I wouldn’t take it personally,’ he replied. ‘I’ve done that to quite a few people over the years.’ “

But another saving grace was the interesting insight into the publishing industry. Of course this is a work of fiction, but it’s so amusing to see how even fictional writers and editors and publishers pursue their professions and interact with each other inside the small sphere of that world. Anyone interested in writing is probably going to appreciate the literary references. Even if the publishing industry on display here is biased and corrupt.

“The irony was that, in 1939, I had seen something beautiful and told its creator that it was a travesty. And now, almost fifty years later, I had read something terrible and, when asked, would surely praise it. Really, it was unconscionable behavior.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I experienced some extreme ups and downs with this book, but I am absolutely looking forward to picking up another John Boyne novel. I’ve got The Heart’s Invisible Furies on my shelf and it’s calling my name. I think any Boyne book that doesn’t include Maurice Swift is going to be a hit for me and I can’t wait to test that theory.

What’s a book you’ve read that you didn’t like but made you think you’d like the author anyway?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Normal People

I’m finally (and somewhat sadly) reaching the end of the Man Booker longlist: I’m still waiting for Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City to arrive in my mailbox, but in the meantime I finished book #12 (out of 13), Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I saved a couple of titles that I was really looking forward to for last, to end on a high note; Normal People did not disappoint.

normal peopleAbout the book: Connell’s mother works as a cleaner in Marianne’s house. But though Marianne’s family is well-off and Connell’s is just scraping by, Connell is popular at school while Marianne is teased as an outcast. They’ve both accepted the status quo, but the beginnings of a romance between them changes everything. Connell does not want anyone to know what he’s doing with Marianne, and she likes him enough to keep quiet and sneak around. A betrayal changes everything again, but their paths cross again when they’ve both enrolled at the same university. Never quite together and never quite apart, Connell and Marianne navigate their complex relationship as they’re also making choices that will shape the rest of their lives.

“It’s funny the decisions you make because you like someone, he says, and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.”

This book is addicting. I read the entire novel in two sittings, about half one evening and half the next. On the surface, Rooney’s writing is simple and straightforward, describing the minutiae of these two characters’ unique lives and their primary emotions. Readers looking for flashy, fast-paced prose will not find much of interest here, but Rooney brings hidden depth to the ordinary.

I mentioned reading this book in halves because I had very different experiences with each. The first half of the novel read a bit like a Jane Austen romance for me, the opening conversation between Marianne and Connell simultaneously mundane and suggestive of the complicated long-lasting relationship that would clearly follow. There are ups and downs to the friendship/love between them, but in that first half Marianne and Connell are innocent and sweet (even when hurting each other), and their every interaction is laced with destiny.

“He senses a certain receptivity in her expression, like she’s gathering information about his feelings, something they have learned to do to each other over a long time, like speaking a private language.”

The second half takes a darker turn. Marianne and Connell experience individual setbacks, and their relationship founders in a way that made me question for the first time whether they would actually end up together, or be driven apart drastically altered. While it was fun to see bits of myself in the characters’ thoughts and impressions in that first half- even the unpleasant ones, the feelings of being rejected and bullied and the regret for the lasting impact of hasty decisions- the resonance of the second half took me to some bleaker places. I still connected with Marianne and Connell in turns, but their depressions and experiments and general despair removed any semblance of sweetness from the story. My life is nothing like Marianne’s or Connell’s, and yet their thoughts are so accessible- perhaps too accessible. The second half of the novel left me so sad and heartbroken.

“He knew that the secret for which he had sacrificed his own happiness and the happiness of another person had been trivial all along, and worthless.”

Normalcy is a goal people strive for, that they cry about in the dark when it seems unattainable. Normal People shows both that everything is normal, and that nothing is. Every human experience is as valid as the next, and every experience is unique to a specific person. So many of the details are different, and yet so many of the feelings we have about them are the same. It’s a simple and astounding message that seems at once obvious and ground-breaking.

“I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.”

But before I get too philosophical (or maybe I already have), let me end by saying that Rooney is a master of showing-not-telling, that Normal People is one of those gems of a book in which the reader can know so much more than the characters are able to see. Though the detailed descriptions of Marianne and Connell’s actions and reactions may seem boring and long-winded to some, Rooney is clearly in full control of her themes and the unspoken motivations driving her characters. This is a novel of identity that many will relate to, and I for one was completely engrossed in both the specifics and the underlying messages of this story.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Sally Rooney is an incredibly skilled writer, though her style won’t be for everyone. Personally, I loved it, but I just can’t say I had a 5-star experience with a book that made me as sad as this one did. And yet… I am awed by Rooney’s ability to take me through the full spectrum of emotions and keep me engaged throughout. When I finished this book, I felt like I’d been having a conversation with Rooney that had been interrupted by a sudden “The End,” and I knew I had to read more of her work. I’ve got Conversations With Friends on hold at the library and will be reading it in a week or so, and I’ll probably also be picking up whatever Rooney publishes next.

More of my Man Booker reviews: Milkman, Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, The Overstory, Sabrina, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap.

What’s your favorite book that made you sad to read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Overstory

Reading the Man Booker longlist this year has been more rewarding than I could have imagined (I’m almost finished– two left), even though I thought the shortlist was surprisingly underwhelming. The last book from the shortlist that I read this October was Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I picked this one up shortly after the winner announcement, with fairly low expectations but a lot of curiosity.

theoverstoryAbout the book: A diverse array of characters experience life-changing events relating to trees. One man is saved by a tree when he falls out of the sky, but one boy is badly injured when he falls from another. For a few characters, trees are family heirlooms or traditions; for others, trees are neglected until a bad stroke leaves little else of life available. Over their lifetimes, these characters’ lives intersect, joining or clashing with each other. But across each journey, the characters come to realize that humans are dangerous for trees and that something valuable is being lost in the clear-cutting of ancient forests and farming of quick-growing replacements in the name of progress. These characters learn that trees have voices and instincts that most people are unaware of, and there might be a lot more at stake than simple wood.

“Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.”

” ‘My life’s work is listening to trees!’ “

I must admit, I often skim over descriptions of nature and landscape when I’m reading novels. The appearance of the setting is one of the least important parts of a story for me, and I have no problem creating a viable image of a story’s world in my own head– the method I prefer for visualizing, unless there are certain aspects to a setting that I would not invent accurately on my own (as in fantasy or futuristic elements). So when I learned that The Overstory is a long novel all about nature and landscape and trees, I thought, “Oh no, I’ll be tempted to skip over half of the information and then I won’t be able to understand or enjoy the rest of it.” It was the only book on the longlist that I didn’t really want to read, but I knew I would not be able to leave one book unread when I’ve gone to the effort to read all twelve others. Also saving my least-anticipated for last seemed like a depressing way to end what has otherwise been a great list. So I picked up The Overstory.

And I was pleasantly surprised. The human characters are present enough from the start that I had no trouble tolerating all of the trees in their lives. And what’s more, the trees themselves are fascinating. Apparently there are a lot of kinds of trees with unique properties or histories that are actually interesting and largely unknown– at least to me. The Chestnut blight. The clearing of trees even in small parks. The difficulties of living 200 feet above ground-level in an ancient Redwood. The possibility that trees communicate. Interesting stuff, and it’s not all about how green the leaves and how strong the trunks and how many the branches. For about two-thirds of the novel, The Overstory really held my attention.

“We know so little about how trees grow. Almost nothing about how they bloom and branch and shed and heal themselves. We’ve learned a little about a few of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree.”

But as the most enthusiastic characters began to drift away from their tree passion, to question it, or to give up hope that they could do anything to help the situation, my interest waned toward the end. If even the staunchest of these tree huggers are losing their nerve, how can they convince me to stay invested?

I also felt that the resolution was a bit unsatisfactory. Each of the story’s threads do come to some end, but I still had so many questions. The final chapters for each of the characters came as a surprise and left me wondering why there wasn’t more. More importantly, those final chapters upset some of my earlier assumptions, leaving me wondering whether the point of the novel is to raise awareness that we’re going to have a shortage of trees if we keep going at the rate we are,  or move readers toward activism in saving trees, or even just to suggest that humans can do what they will to the world but the world will bounce back and outlast us all.

“She sees it in one great glimpse of flashing gold: trees and humans, at war over the land and water and atmosphere. And she can hear, louder than the quaking leaves, which side will loose by winning.”

There were also a lot of romances (all hetero as well, which was kind of disappointing) that counteracted some of the tree commentary. There were several times I wondered whether this character or that character was truly acting for the trees, or for their partner. Advocating for trees because you love a person does not convey quite the same message as characters advocating out of appreciation for the trees themselves. I didn’t need all of the characters to tie together so neatly that they all needed to be paired off with one another, and found their romances rather unnecessary and frustrating in general.

“You’re worth more to me than all the forests this outfit can slaughter.”

But even though I was left uncertain and somewhat unsatisfied with the ending, I can’t deny that I learned a lot while reading this book and that it made me look at the natural world in a new light. Perhaps most surprisingly, I was never bored. The Overstory is a long book with a high risk for tedium, and I don’t doubt that there will be readers who simply can’t stand all the tree talk. But Powers is an intelligent writer who doesn’t get lost in the scope of such a vast topic, and I think his place on the shortlist was well-deserved.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. For most of the book, I was blown away by how much I cared about the trees and their human advocates/acquaintances, but the ending wasn’t strong enough to maintain that momentum. I am glad that I read it, and for a 500 page book about trees it was a faster and more engrossing read than I expected. If it had come together a little more definitively at the end, this might have been a surprising favorite for me from the longlist. But alas.

More Man Booker reviews in order of descending favoritism: Milkman, Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap. I’ll also have a review of Sabrina coming up next week.

Have you read any books from the shortlist? Which was your favorite?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Milkman

I’ve been reading the Man Booker longlist this year, and had the good fortune to be reading Anna Burns’s Milkman when it was announced as the 2018 winner in mid-October. That was a fun experience that I was not entirely expecting. I still had one book left on the shortlist at that time in addition to half of Milkman, so I wasn’t even ready to make an informed guess about who the winner might be. Now that I’m ready to reflect… I’m so glad this book won.

milkmanAbout the book: Middle Sister prefers avoiding the troubled times she lives in by reading novels from centuries past– reading even while she’s walking, as a distraction from the present world. Unfortunately, the other members of her community do not see her reading-while-walking as a suitable form of self-defense, and as she becomes more difficult for them to understand she also becomes a target of their cruel gossip. Soon everyone is saying that Middle Sister is having an affair with Milkman, and so many are so vehemently on board that Middle Sister seems to have no choice left but to give in to Milkman’s demands. As she learns firsthand how hard it can be to make people listen rather than assume, she also discovers that some of her own assumptions have long been incorrect, and that she is just as much to blame for shutting out the truth as anyone else.

“I’d have lost power, such as was my power, if I’d tried to explain and to win over all those gossiping about me. So I’d kept silent, I said. I’d asked no questions, answered no questions, gave no confirmation, no refutation. That way, I’d said, I’d hoped to maintain a border to keep my mind separate. That way, I’d said, I’d hoped to ground and protect myself.”

Before I talk more about the plot, I want to take a look at the unique writing style Burns uses in this novel because I think that will be the element that makes or breaks this novel for many readers.

The writing is full of placeholder names for places and people, nouns-turned-verbs, and objects that all but become their descriptions. The sentences run on and on in a manner very similar to (though not quite, in my opinion, actual) stream-of-consciousness narration. Paragraphs go on for pages, chapters seem never to end. I am usually a reader drawn to short paragraphs and short chapters myself, but something about the narrator’s voice in Milkman succeeded in pulling me in, and those long sentences made it nearly impossible to let the book go. “Just one more paragraph” turned into an excuse to read a few more pages, and enough was never enough. The ease of distinguishing characters by their relation to the narrator or other inherent characteristics seemed like a convenient way to get right to the meat of the story without bothering with all the fancy window dressing usually required to bring a fictional world to life. For all of Milkman’s long-windedness, it is not a novel stuffed with surplus. Names and world building are important, yes, but not so much in Milkman. Instead of dwelling on what other books set up as required background, it skips over what it doesn’t need to get right to the point.

“Some too, would make mention of the actual word ‘rumour’, as in ‘Rumour says’, before going on to personify rumour, as if it wasn’t they who were launching or perpetuation Rumour themselves.”

The point. Middle Sister’s affair (or not) with Milkman. The way her community forces her hand, though they’re still there to save her when she needs it. This is a book about community, about assumption, and about individual truths. The basics of the plot are given away in the first paragraph; the rest of the novel is spent examining how such a strange and horrible situation could occur, and the escalating sense of Middle Sister’s isolation even while (because) she seems to be the first topic on everybody’s mind. Burns may take the scenic route through this novel, but she never loses track of where she’s going, and the answers she provides is worth the time spent searching for them– but if you’re one of the lucky readers (like me) who can fall completely in love with Milkman‘s style, you’ll enjoy the journey to the answers just as much.

“I wasn’t sure anymore what was plausible, what was exaggeration, what might be reality or delusion or paranoia.”

Let’s not overlook the other characters. Burns does a fantastic job of bringing in each player’s story at just the right time, referencing it ahead of time to pique the reader’s interest, but only giving the details when the scaffolding of the main story is ready for that extra layer. When I think a book is well-written, I often say the writer exercises a great command of language. In this case, though Burns certainly knows her way around words, what she has most command of here is the bundle of threads that make up the main plot, divided into individual strands of smaller character arcs. She weaves the characters in and out of Middle Sister’s story without ever seeming to lose track of any of the filaments that bind them all. I will remember Tablets Girl and Nuclear Boy and Real Milkman and First Brother-in-Law for a long time, to list a few.

And if you are one of the lucky readers who completely jives with Burns’s writing style, there’s the humor to appreciate, too. Most of the themes and morals of this book are ominous and serious, reflecting on the poor ways humans treat one another, especially as part of a larger group. But even so, Burns has an ironic sense of humor that goes to the heart of what people understand but don’t say, and it invariably lightens the mood. This line was my favorite:

“She admonished him, saying ‘I think I hate you,’ which meant she didn’t because ‘I think I hate you’ is the same as ‘probably I hate you’, which is the same as ‘I don’t know if I hate you’, which is the same as ‘I don’t hate you, oh my God, my love, I love you, still love you, always, always have I loved you and never have I stopped loving you’. “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I was immediately hooked in the first pages, but then I wavered for a while on whether or not the style was truly working for me. By 50 pages, I was hooked again, this time for good. The book worked for me, entirely. I cannot list a single flaw. I can, however, see myself rereading Milkman, and I’m certainly more interested in reading backlisted Booker Prize winners after enjoying this one as much as I did.

Other Man Booker reviews (in order of descending favoritism): Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap. I’ve also read The Overstory and Sabrina, and will have reviews for those up soon!

Have you read this year’s Man Booker winner? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Water Cure

Sophia Mackintosh’s The Water Cure is Man Booker title #6 for me, and this is why I’m reading all thirteen nominees this year: because this one didn’t make the shortlist but I absolutely loved it.

thewatercureAbout the book: Three daughters grew up on a sheltered island with only their parents and supposed “damaged women” for company. They’ve been told that the world outside their borders is full of toxins and contaminants that will harm and eventually kill them, and men are the most toxic of all– excepting their father, of course. In their little safe space, the daughters (and the women who come to them for healing) undergo daily exercises and therapies to combat the dangers of the world, including the emotions inside themselves. Young adults now, they have known no other life, but are thrust into the unknown as their family begins to break apart and men from the outside appear on their beach, seeking hospitality.

“Strong feelings weaken you, open up your body like a wound. It takes vigilance and regular therapies to hold them at bay. Over the years we have learned how to dampen them down, how to practice and release emotion under strict conditions only, how to own our pain. I can cough it into muslin, trap it as bubbles under the water, let it from my very blood.”

I did have a few hang-ups with this book, but I was willing to overlook almost anything for the delightfully unsettling atmosphere. Complimentary elements include: otherworldy setting details, questionable narrators, mysterious circumstances, and complex interpersonal dynamics. This place is vivid.

The world outside the girls’ boundaries is less clear; it’s hard to be sure whether this is taking place in present-day, or in a dystopian future, or some other fantastical world. But I was so immersed in the girls’ lives that the unanswered questions didn’t bother me, especially because the girls themselves don’t seem to know anything factual about the outside world either.

“Every time I think I am very lonely, it becomes bleaker and more true. You can think things into being. You can dwell them up from the ground.”

Other small issues include lagged pacing in the middle while everyone in the story is basically waiting for the other shoe to drop, as well as a few surprises in the girls’ knowledge and mannerisms that don’t quite match their sheltered upbringing, and a couple of plot developments that felt a bit rushed/contrived. Any one of these could have been major issues in another book, but Mackintosh’s writing and control of her characters is so smooth and capable that the story moves quickly onward before it snags and sinks. The Water Cure is short, sharp, and to-the-point.

One of the biggest upsides, on the other hand, is the characters. Mackintosh has created this beautiful array of men and women that are not flatly likable or unlikable, but draw the reader in completely. Despite a little initial confusion while figuring out which sister was which, it quickly becomes apparent that each character is unique and built from the specific circumstances that have shaped their lives. And the best part is that it is clear that they know more than they are letting on, that they speak about healing and openness and purity but that they also contain hidden depths, their own dark secrets and an awareness of the obvious cruelty in their “therapies” that they won’t admit out loud.

Which is another plus– the cures and treatments and exercises are presented on a surface level (by the daughters) as helpful in inoculating female emotions from attachments to the men that will inevitably hurt them, but the actual dynamic between men and women, between parents and children, teachers and students is much more intricate than is shown at that surface level. There is wonderful ambiguity here that leaves the reader free to decide whether the men are toxic, whether the daughters have been fortified or damaged by their parents’ efforts, and which acts might have been borne of the very sort of love that is so expressly forbidden.

“There is a fluidity to his movements, despite his size, that tells me he has never had to justify his existence, has never had to fold himself into a hidden thing, and I wonder what that must be like, to know that your body is irreproachable.”

I was also fascinated by the interspersed entries from the Welcome Book that the girls peruse, entries written by the women who come to the island in search of healing and cures. Some are more specific than others, but all speak to the specific hurts of women. These sections do not further the plot, but they do add to the atmosphere and serve as a reminder that much of the girls’ knowledge of the world outside of their home has been gleaned second-hand from people seeking to escape it.

“It’s an old story and I’m so tired of telling it– the oldest story in the world and yet I can’t put it down, I can’t stop it from dragging on my body, so don’t make me tell it again. The story doesn’t end or even begin with me. You can imagine. You can tell it to yourself.”

So darkly dreamy. Brutal, and yet the reader floats through the story.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a wonderful time with this weird little book and can’t wait to see what Sophie Mackintosh writes next. Next for me on the Man Booker list is Washington Black, and from there I’m planning to focus more on the shortlist titles I haven’t read yet before rounding out the longlist.

My Man Booker reviews (listed in order of most to least favorite): Everything Under, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, Warlight, Snap. If you read and loved The Water Cure (or plan to), I also recommend picking up Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, another short, dark, magical novel; this one made the shortlist.

What’s been your favorite Man Booker read this year (from the 2018 longlist or any previous winners/nominees)? Or any others up for awards that have caught your eye?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Mars Room

Man Booker longlist title #5 for me was Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room. I’m still optimistic about making it through the longlist, but I know it will take me some time. I haven’t loved all of the titles I’ve read so far, but it has been overall an enjoyable reading experience. The Mars Room was no exception.

themarsroomAbout the book: Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences for a crime she committed in Los Angeles. As the book opens, she is being moved to the women’s correctional facility in Stanville, where she’ll work toward her goal of locating her young son and making sure he’s being cared for. Gordon Hauser, the continuing education teacher at Stanville, is Romy’s best hope of making contact with someone on the outside who knows anything about her son, so she begins cultivating a friendship with Hauser to win him over. Unbeknownst to Romy, Hauser is interested in her for his own reasons, but he’s already faced consequences for involvement with an imprisoned woman. Romy is running out of options.

“The images were all the same: sour light and custodial formatting offset by the wild eyes and mussed hair of people yanked from life, arrested, numbered, ingested, and exposed.”

Like most systems, the US prison system has its flaws. Mass incarceration has to balance a certain uniformity of punishment without losing sight of the fact that every case is different and every prisoner is human. Romy’s story (and those she learns along the way) show the ways in which the system fails. There are a lot of little disturbing details that showcase how the importance of paperwork and procedures can mean inadequate care or attention on an individual basis– possibly even for a child on the outside who’s being denied a connection with his mother. The book also challenges the argument that “if she wanted to ___ she shouldn’t have gotten herself locked in prison.” Some of the lessons are familiar from the Netflix TV series Orange is the New Black, but these characters are new and distinct, with hardships of their own. The Mars Room manages to be eye-opening even for readers who think they know something about injustice in the prison system.

“A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book.”

With the focus on a female facility, there is also an emphasis on woman-specific experiences. There’s a woman who comes to Stanville pregnant and has her baby in the facility. There’s a character in the prison who identifies as male, and a character coming into the prison who was male and has convinced the state to recognize her as a woman.  Several of the women are imprisoned for crimes against abusive men in their lives. Romy made a living off of lap dancing. She’s a mother. Some of this is offset by the chapters in Doc’s perspective, an imprisoned man in another facility (though he knows someone in Stanville Women’s) who gives readers  some man-specific experiences. I would argue that Doc’s perspective is not necessary to this story, that enough of the differences come across clearly through Romy’s narration alone, but Doc is there as a counterbalance nonetheless.

“If I was a dude I’d be like I am right now. ‘Cept not locked up.”

The Mars Room is narrated mainly from the perspective of Romy Hall, but also from the perspectives of a few people whose stories overlap with hers in some way. While in theory it is interesting to see Romy’s story in juxtaposition with a male prisoner’s, with her teacher’s, with her victim’s, I think there should have been a line drawn between what’s interesting and what’s necessary. “Interesting” is best saved for a Further Recommendations list in the back of the book, in my opinion. For example, there are chapters filled with samples of Hauser’s reading material during the timeline of this novel’s events, and those seem in no way necessary to the story. If Ted Kaczynski has any relation at all to Romy, please, someone explain it to me. By far the strongest chapters are Romy’s, and I think the book could have been stronger as a whole if some of those extra perspective chapters had been condensed or even removed. The only exception being Kurt’s chapter, which shows Romy’s life and choices from a new side that gives the entire story a wider scope and overturns some of the reader’s assumptions.

“They make you form your life around one thing, the thing you did, and you have to grow yourself from what cannot be undone: they want you to make something from nothing. They make you hate them and yourself. They make it seem that they are the world, and you’ve betrayed it, them, but the world is so much bigger.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I really find women’s prison stories engrossing, between this book and Orange is the New Black and Sleeping Beauties I’ve been consuming a lot of them lately .I hope I’m never in a position to learn about women’s prisons firsthand, but I think it’s invaluable to learn about real-world situations and gain awareness of the things that happen to real people, even if my preferred method of learning requires filtering art and lies from grains of truth. Next up on the Man Booker list for me is probably The Water Cure but possibly Sabrina, whichever comes through for me first.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’re okay with sci-fi/dystopian genres and want another women’s prison narrative, check out Stephen King and Owen King’s Sleeping Beautiesa novel set in an Appalachian women’s prison in the midst of a worldwide sleeping phenomenon. Women fall asleep, form a sort of cocoon, and wake up somewhere else without going anywhere at all.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is also a good choice for readers interested in incarceration as a social issue. This novel features a black man wrongfully convicted and the consequences his imprisonment has on his reputation and relationships with family and friends on the outside.
  • If you’re interested in the Man Booker longlist this year, all of the titles look pretty great. Here are my reviews for the other titles I’ve read so far, in order of my personal preference, starting with the best: Everything Under, From a Low and Quiet Sea, Warlight, and Snap.

Have you read The Mars Room or another novel about women’s prisons? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: From a Low and Quiet Sea

I miiiiight try to read the entire Man Booker longlist this year. I know I won’t finish before the winner is announced, and definitely not before the shortlist is announced, but I’ve never read an entire longlist and I really like the looks of this one. I’ve already read and reviewed Snap and Warlight from the 2018 nominees, and today I’m going to talk about my third read from the longlist, Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea.

fromalowandquietseaAbout the book: Farouk and his family attempt to flee their country when trusting a stranger’s plan for illegal travel becomes a better option than complying with strict religious laws. Lampy struggles with his identity as a fatherless child while staying in his family’s home into his twenties and working (sans-degree) with the elderly. John confesses the sins of his past that may stem from difficulty coping with his brother’s early death. All three men have loss in common, and their unique life paths bring them all together on a cold Irish road one winter evening.

“What’s in the past can’t be changed and what’s to come can’t be known and you can’t give your life to worrying. Sure you can’t. All you have to do is be kind and you’ll have lived a good life.”

There are some fantastic quotes in this book, but don’t be fooled by a moment’s uplifting tone: From a Low and Quiet Sea is a devastating story of little redemption, and the only humor you’ll find within is fleeting or bitter. These are characters struck down by tragedy that breaks them, turns them cruel, or leaves them twisting helplessly beneath the weight of pain they can hardly bear. There is no sentimentality, but there is a constant need for healing and forgiveness driving this story that makes this book perfect fodder for binge-reading. The very first section sets the reader on a path of unstoppable destruction that never tears away the hope of resolution, of a better future. The reader wants Farouk to escape– and reads the entire novel searching for a way out, for all of them.

But it’s best to go into this book with as little knowledge of content as possible, so let’s talk more about the format of this “novel.” From a Low and Quiet Sea is divided into four sections, each told from the perspective of a different man (though the previous perspectives do come back into play at the end of the fourth section). The first three parts take up exactly 50 pages each, which is a symmetry that I rarely see in novels and that always impresses me– it takes a poetic skill to fit everything important, and only what is important, into a particular length of writing (though Lampy’s section seemed a bit longer than necessary to me). But as impressive and interesting as this format is, I’m tempted to call From a Low and Quiet Sea a series of connected short stories rather than a novel.

In theory, I do like books with untraditional formats. There’re even interesting structural elements within each of the character sections here– Farouk’s format is very much a plot-heavy chronological timeline, interspersed with a few crucial made-up stories from his life. Lampy’s section alternates between introspection about his past and the events of a single, important day in his present. John’s section focuses entirely on his past, in the form of a sin-by-sin confession. But my struggle with the format of this book was that the very first section was a strong favorite for me– and, I suspect, will be for most; after that section ended, I knew I was just reading the others to get to the end to see how it all came together. I did not care about Lampy and John’s stories as much as I had Farouk’s. Lampy’s was by far the least propulsive for me, though John’s also left me confused– I thought I had found a connection between John and Farouk’s stories that I would have loved, but by the time John’s section ended I still wasn’t entirely sure whether that connection existed in the novel, or only in my mind.

What I did love undisputedly was Ryan’s writing. The prose is beautiful without verging on ornate, every character feels distinct and real, and none of the events feel forced or constructed to fit a flimsy plot. The lack of quotations around dialogue keeps the story flowing smoothly, the past fitting seamlessly with the present, and characters’ thoughts float naturally into actions. Ryan is in full control of his language.

“If you say something enough times, the repetition makes it true. Any notion you like, no matter how mad it seems, can be a fact’s chrysalis. Once you say it loud enough and often enough it becomes debatable. Debates change minds. Debate is the larval stage of truth. Constant, unflagging, loud repetition completes your notion’s metamorphosis to fact. The fact takes wing and flutters from place to place and mind to mind and makes a living, permanent thing of itself.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a fast and beautiful read, and I’ll definitely be reading more from this author, starting with All We Shall Know, which has been waiting on my TBR for quite a while now. I also found that there was an interesting similarity between a detail at the end of From a Low and Quiet Sea and at the end of Warlight, my last Man Booker read, though in Warlight this detail made me incredibly sad and in From a Low and Quiet Sea it delighted me. The only real delight I had while reading this book, actually. This was by far my favorite of the three Man Booker 2018 selections I had read at the time, although now that I’ve read a fourth I have a new favorite. That review will be up tomorrow!

Which titles do you plan to read from the Man Booker longlist this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant