Tag Archives: literary fiction

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

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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

Review: Nutshell

Earlier this summer I read Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. I loved it, and wanted to read more of McEwan’s work. The other reason I picked up Nutshell this week is that I finally got back to my library. My library is very small. It doesn’t get a lot of new books that I want to read, so I mostly use the interlibrary loan feature to get the books I want. But I feel bad not checking anything out from my own library when I go in to pick up all the books I’ve requested from other libraries, so I always try to find something from my own library as well. This time, I looked up McEwan and picked up Nutshell.

nutshellAbout the book: A fetus has just gained awareness in the womb. He knows by voice his mother (Trudy) and father (John)… and Claude. For unknown reasons, Trudy is living not with John, but with Claude. He wishes this were not the case, but he can’t do much about it. Nor can he do anything about the dreadful scheme he overhears Trudy plotting with Claude. He comes to realize that they’re planning a murder. The more he learns, the more sure he grows that this scheme is not in his (the fetus’s) best interest, and something will have to be done about it. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else for the job.

“So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.”

If I were to judge his book based on concept and plotting alone, it would have been a 5-star read, no question. Narrating a book from the perspective of a fetus is incredibly unique and interesting, and at first glance all of the details seem to line up to reinforce the argument that this is indeed the correct perspective for this story. The fetus definitely has its advantages as a witness to a crime: he’s always present but practically invisible, he’s not the most reliable judge of character or motive, and he has a unique stake in the outcome of his mother’s potential criminality. I can’t think of any better plot for this fetus to narrate, or any better narrator for this murder.

But beyond that perfection is the iffy execution of the fetus’s stream of consciousness narration. Again, in theory, it’s an aspect that seems like it should be a great fit for this story– a sort of unformed style for an unfinished being. In actuality, the narration did not seem to fit the story at all.

This is my third McEwan book, and though the subjects and plots of all three have been vastly different, I thought the one thing I could be sure of was loving his prose style. Unfortunately, the prose was the worst part of this book. The fetus’s stream of consciousness is unbelievably philosophical with an advanced vocabulary. I like to think I have a wide vocabulary myself, probably because it’s my long-standing habit to look up every word I encounter while reading that I don’t know. But it’s been a long time since I’ve had to look up as many words as I did while reading this under-200-page novel. Here’s an example- matutinal: occurring in the morning. Obviously I doubt any fetus is thinking the phrase “in the morning” any more than it’s thinking “matutinal,” but it’s a brief example of how the intelligence level of the fetus is unnecessarily jarring.

“It’s already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence.”

Beyond word choice, the fetus as narrator has another problem: lack of agency. Obviously, the fetus does very little throughout the book. Kicking his mother is his tactic of choice, and essentially his only capability beyond observing. The distance between the fetus and the plot is increased by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much regard between the fetus and his parents. The adults don’t discuss the imminent baby, they don’t seem to want him, and he makes no appearance in their plans. I’m at a loss as to why McEwan chose to create such a disconnect between narrator and story. The confusing part is that the fetus is going to face consequences for the adults’ actions. If his parents divorce, that will affect his life. If they’re dead or imprisoned, that will drastically affect his life. But the fetus’s opinions and desires are constantly changing, which makes it impossible to root for any particular outcome on his behalf.

“We’ll always be troubled by how things are– that’s how it stands with the difficult gift of consciousness.”

Other than finding a murder narrated by a fetus to be an innovatively amusing concept, I think this story would’ve been much better off with a different perspective at the forefront. The scenes in which the fetus faded to the background to highlight the actions and dialogue of the adults were by far my favorite. But there would be losses to the story if any other character narrated it. None of them are who they first appear to be, and placing any of them at the forefront would ruin the twists of betrayal that lend the murder scheme its appeal. So I’m back to the dilemma of being unable to think of any character who could have narrated this story better, and equally unable to think of any story I would’ve rather seen from this narrator. In any case, the pieces just didn’t quite fit together for me here.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad this was a short book because I’m not sure I would’ve made it through otherwise. I absolutely loved the idea at its core, but even though I’ve enjoyed McEwan’s narration in the past it didn’t work for me in Nutshell. I’m still interested in reading more from McEwan, but Nutshell simply did not live up to its potential. I’m not sure which of his titles I’ll reach for next, but I am open to suggestions!

Further recommendations:

  • If you’re interested in reading some of McEwan’s work and have not yet read Atonement or On Chesil Beach, both are much better examples of his incredible writing. Atonement features a young girl who tattles in a situation she doesn’t understand and later learns (and regrets) the dire consequences her actions have caused. On Chesil Beach follows a newly wed couple on their wedding night as the asexual heroine must finally admit to her husband that she’s not interested in the same kind of relationship that he is. Both are intelligent and beautiful.

Is there an author you generally love who has published a book you just didn’t like?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Social Creature

I’ve been on a road trip for the last week, but before I left I read Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature (which sounded a bit like The Great Gatsby meets modern thriller, so of course I was on board for an untamed extravaganza). Before I left I made notes for a review, but at no point during my trip did I have time to round it out. Now that I’m back (I’ll do an overview of the sights we saw and the books I bought tomorrow), and now that I’ve slept, I’m ready to review and return to real life.

About the book:socialcreature Lavinia and Louise meet when Louise is hired to tutor Lavinia’s sister in preparation for her SATs. Lavinia’s sister does not need Louise, but Lavinia does. Lavinia is on the search for a new best friend, and pulls Louise along to elaborate New York parties, expensive bars, and prestigious social events.  It is so different from Louise’s old life of responsibility and loneliness that she can’t let it go. Louise becomes more and more like Lavinia in appearance and behavior, but there’s a moment when it becomes clear that no matter their similarities outwardly, Lavinia is the one with the money and the power to keep Louise afloat, or take her new social life away. This moment ends with Lavinia’s death, which leaves Louise with secret power like a ticking bomb.

(This is not a spoiler. The narrator announces right off the bat that Louise and Lavinia’s friendship will culminate in a fatal end.)

“Now is the part you’ve been waiting for. You and I both know what happens now: Lavinia doesn’t make it. But the thing you have to understand is: why. Now you and I, we’ve been to parties before. We’ve done this a few times before already. But here’s the thing: you’ve never been to a party like this. That’s the whole point.”

Everyone has had a friend who’s “too much,” haven’t they? Lavinia is that friend. She’s over the top in good ways, in bad ways, in ways she’ll admit and ways she won’t. She’s the focal point of any room she enters. She’s utterly unique, and Louise is unique, but there’s something inherently relatable in this friendship-of-a-lifetime.

There were a few things I didn’t like about Burton’s writing, including the way dialogue is presented, which is sometimes clunky and makes it hard to tell who’s talking at times. Also the spaces between paragraphs occasionally make it difficult to tell how much time has passed; the gaps between paragraphs is visually pleasing, but rather unhelpful in conveying chronology.

But there were also several things I particularly liked about the writing style. Burton uses a narrator who knows what is going to happen, and who is willing to address the reader directly. This makes for a comfortably informal style of storytelling that drew me in as easily as my friends do when they have crazy stories to share.

On the surface these seem like very shallow and predictable people; they fit a type. But the more time the reader spends with them, the more distinct and surprising they become. Each of these characters has a secret history, and when the skeletons come out of their closets all manner of chaos breaks out.

“You can dye your hair. You can learn to speak with a very charming mid-Atlantic accent. You can stay up until four in the morning, missing your own deadlines, just to read somebody’s novel and tell them how great it is. But nothing, nothing you do will ever be enough. Even if somebody loves you (or they think they do, or they say they do), it’ll just be because you remind them of someone else, or because you make them feel a little less bad about having lost somebody else, or because somebody else is watching, across the auditorium, in an opera box, and they just want to make them jealous, and you were just an accessory to this.”

The most interesting part of this book, in my opinion, is the second half, when Louise flourishes and flounders after Lavinia dies. There are some interesting parallels where it seems Louise is becoming Lavinia, and their lives fuse into one being. Louise’s actions after Lavinia’s death are completely bizarre and engrossing, and had me on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen next. Surely the murderer is not going to get away with this crime, and it’s only a matter of time before there’s a slip-up and the truth comes out. But when? But how? These are the questions that kept me awake at night until I finished reading this book.

The only thing I would’ve changed about Social Creature is the ending. I don’t want to spoil anything, of course. The thing is, the reader knows right away that Lavinia is going to die. And as soon as she does, the reader also knows, based on how it happens, that the truth about her death can’t possibly stay hidden. But in the end, it’s not a confrontation that ends things, but a confession. An unnecessary (at that moment, anyway) confession, given to someone who has no inkling of it and doesn’t even want to believe. If there’s meaning to the way it plays out, I missed it. I like an ambiguous end, but this one could go absolutely anywhere– it’s so vague that I can’t even imagine what happens next. I don’t even know what Louise wants to happen next, though I spent nearly 300 pages getting to know her. It seemed an arbitrary place to draw the end of the story, after everything Louise had been through.

But I devoured it nonetheless. An ending can make or break a book for me, but even though this one seemed disappointing I flew through the rest of the story and I would still recommend it to fans of the literary thriller.

“There’s a reason people are able to function, in this world, as social creatures, and a good part of that reason is that there are a lot of questions intelligent people don’t ask.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Most of this book was a solid 4-star read for me; even though it’s slow at times and the parties become redundant fast, it’s highly entertaining and I was constantly wondering how things would turn out for Louise. There’s an artfulness to the compare and contrast of the girls’ lives that reveals Burton’s talent and gives the book its ominous tone. Some of my guesses were right, some were wrong, but it was a good balance. A great summer read.

Is there a certain type of book you prefer to read in summer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: On Chesil Beach

July has been a weird month. I’ll be posting my wrap-up a little early (later this week), so I’ll talk more about it there. For now, I’ll just say that I’ve been struggling with finishing things; reading Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was a quick , immersive, and much-needed break from long projects that aren’t going anywhere at the moment. It’s been over ten years since I read and loved McEwan’s Atonement, and my reading tastes have changed so much that I had no idea what to expect from On Chesil Beach, but it was almost perfect.

onchesilbeachAbout the book: After a short but wonderful courtship, Edward and Florence are officially married. They’ve been husband and wife for a few short hours, and are just beginning their honeymoon on Chesil Beach. As they sit down to supper, both are virgins and preoccupied about the main event of the wedding night– for opposite reasons. Edward, after months of making very little progress with Florence physically, is particularly looking forward to freedom from constraint; Florence, after months of trying to coax herself into tolerating physical affection, has absolutely no interest in sex and is trying to convince herself that she can bear it.

“His anger stirred her own and she suddenly thought she understood their problem: they were too polite, too constrained, too timorous, they went around each other on tiptoes, murmuring, whispering, deferring, agreeing. They barely knew each other, and never could because of the blanket of companionable near-silence that smothered their differences and blinded them as much as bound them.”

One of my favorite features of this book is the way it covers time. In just 200 brief pages, On Chesil Beach focuses primarily on a single evening, spanning just a few eventful hours. Of course, Florence’s and Edward’s thoughts take the reader back into their childhoods and the year of their courtship, and the end of the novel shows the future consequences of that evening on Chesil Beach. There is a healthy array of past, present, and future events covered this way, but it all fits into the structure of that one day at Chesil Beach. It’s beautifully symmetric. Technically, the novel is divided into 5 parts, but each sentence leads naturally to the next in a way only great writers can manage. This is a great book to read in a single sitting.

Another compelling aspect is Florence’s introspection regarding sex. She’s hard on herself in a way that can be difficult to read, but it’s clear through McEwan’s prose that what’s “wrong” with her is a social construct, not a personal flaw.

“She could not bear to let Edward down. And she was convinced she was completely in the wrong. If the entire wedding ensemble of guests and close family had been somehow crammed invisibly into the room to watch, these ghosts would all side with Edward and his urgent, reasonable desires. They would assume there was something wrong with her, and they would be right.”

Perhaps the most interesting point of this book rests on the possibility of Florence’s asexuality. I’ve been perusing reviews for this book (something I don’t usually do before writing my own, but I was curious about this) and I’ve discovered that there’s a pretty even split between readers who are sure Florence is asexual and readers who are sure that a sexual trauma in Florence’s past has affected her present attitude toward sex, though not entirely turned her against it. I find both of these options intriguing, and not mutually exclusive. I haven’t decided yet which reading I prefer, though I think both are supported by the text of this novel, a fantastic case of literary ambiguity.

Ultimately, I don’t think it matters especially which way one reads this book. I would love to read more fiction about asexuality, but at its heart I believe the strength of On Chesil Beach comes from the fact that the novel outlines the difficulty of talking about sex at all in this place and time– early 1960’s England. The most important part is simply that Florence doesn’t have the terminology to explain her feelings, and she doesn’t feel that it’s appropriate or even acceptable to try. Though the times have indeed changed, that’s something readers can still understand and learn from.

“She could never have described her array of feelings: a dry physical sensation of tight shrinking, general revulsion at what she might be asked to do, shame at the prospect of disappointing him, and of being revealed as a fraud. She disliked herself, and when she whispered to him, she thought her words hissed in her mouth like those of a stage villain. But it was better to talk of being scared than admit to disgust or shame. She had to do everything she could to begin to lower his expectations.”

There was one rough moment for me on the beach when Florence and Edward start the climactic conversation of the book by simply saying hateful and untrue things to each other. I cannot stand arguing for the sake of arguing. Obviously the tension is set to explode at that point, but for a minute these characters didn’t seem like themselves. Miscommunication in books is one of my biggest pet peeves. There’s a fine line between using it productively and writing hundreds of pages of disagreement for nothing more than emotional turmoil. I can’t stand books whose entire plot hinges on characters whose entire problem would’ve been solved by an honest conversation on page two. Luckily, in the end, I didn’t feel that was the case with On Chesil Beach. The way the argument on the beach began made me worry that the miscommunication aspect was being misused, but it morphs into a much more realistic case of misunderstanding and choosing wrongly rather than obstinate and pointless refusal to speak the truth.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. There were a few pages that worried me about needing to lower my rating despite the beauty of the rest of the book, but in the end McEwan pulled through. I’m not sure whether this will end up a long-lasting favorite– that will probably depend on which way I end up leaning on the asexual/traumatized spectrum, and how well the story stays with me. But I do know that I’m definitely interested in watching the recent On Chesil Beach film soon, and I’m also absolutely interested in reading more from McEwan, possibly starting with Nutshell.

Ian McEwan has published a lot of books– does anyone have any particular recommendations for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing (published in 2016) has been on my TBR for a while, but a recent recommendation from a friend encouraged me to finally pick it up. And wow, do I regret not picking this one up sooner.

homegoingAbout the book: One African family morphs into two in the aftermath of a destructive fire. Two women and the descending generations of their families run parallel to each other as both branches continue to grow–unaware of each other– in the midst of the African slave trade. Some characters spend their entire lives in Africa, others in America– some see both. All are affected by the slave trade, even those who are never claimed as slaves or are born after its abolishment. Homegoing is an exploration of culture on a grand scale, weaving a large story whose ends won’t meet again for about 250 years.

“This was how they lived there, in the bush: eat or be eaten. Capture or be captured. Marry for protection. […] He would not be weak. He was in the business of slavery, and sacrifices had to be made.”

About the structure: each chapter is a vignette of a different character’s life; the two families alternate for narrative prominence, but each chapter is entirely different. Long plot arc lines are visible between the stories, but each chapter is essentially complete in itself, though each character’s story leans on the shoulders of the others. Homegoing is masterfully constructed, and the family tree provided at the start of the novel is an effective tool for navigating it if you can’t read the entire novel at once.

“Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.”

Though many of the facets of African slavery that this book explores are already familiar– the British colonizers instigating tribal wars to turn Africans against each other, the inhumane conditions of the American cotton plantations, the fact that the legal abolition of slavery did not end unjust laws and racist treatment of African Americans, etc.– the focus of the book is not on any of these details individually. It’s about the accumulation of every tragedy and horror, and they way these hardships link Gyasi’s characters.

“…what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, that he, and everyone else, existed in it– not apart from it, but inside of it.”

About the characters: each chapter’s main character (and each important side character) is utterly unique. There are so many perspectives woven into this story, and though I did have favorites, there was not a single character’s chapter that I disliked. I was sadder to see some chapters end than others, but I found Gyasi’s writing so compelling that each new chapter drew my attention as fully as the last.

About Gyasi’s writing: she pinpoints injustice, racism, and unchecked power without a moralizing or sentimental eye toward the consequences. Homegoing is a sort of history, not a blind accusation. Blame falls where it should, but never on the reader, no matter their color. Each character has their own particular flaws and desires, losses and successes. There is no general line drawn between “these people” who are right and “these people” who are wrong; even the villains of these stories are unique individuals with their own motives, and their faults are laid on them individually (or as a group based on their time and social station) rather than the entire white race through eternity. Gyasi does not sensationalize or sentimentalize any detail of this story, and the objective voice that shines through as a result is Homegoing‘s greatest strength.

“When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book from the very first chapter. I am anxiously awaiting whatever Gyasi will publish next, and I will definitely be buying my own copy of this book when I return the borrowed copy to my friend. I don’t need to wait another 5 months to know this book will be on my favorites list this year.

Further recommendations:

  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This is a book that covers some modern social issues of gender and perspective, filtered through a specific aspect of African culture– the ogbanje, evil spirits born into a troubled child, creating a fractured self. If, like me, you finish Homegoing wanting more African literature in your life, this is a great choice that challenges Western perspectives.
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This one features a magical realism twist, and addresses African slavery in America as it has never been done before. If you like Homegoing (or not) and want a fresh perspective on the African slave trade, don’t miss this book.

I haven’t read a lot of African literature, and I feel like I need some more. Any suggestions for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Circe

I went through a mythology obsession in college, a strong enough one that I almost minored in Classics without intending to. I’ve had an interest in the Greek and Roman gods as far back as I can remember. So when Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles was published, I added it to my TBR– but sadly I never got around to reading it. When Miller’s Circe was published earlier this year, I was determined not to let the same thing happen twice. I bought a beautiful edition (let’s be honest, every Circe edition is gorgeous), and this month I read the story.

circeAbout the book: Circe, the eldest daughter of a god (Helios, the sun god) and a nymph (Perse), is trapped between the mortal and immortal worlds of ancient Greece. Though she has the parentage and longevity of a goddess, she has the voice of a mortal, and is much more interested in the human world than the gods’. She learns early that she has little power against the gods and their ways, and that to exist in their realm is to be their plaything. So when Circe is exiled to Aiaia, her banishment is– at least partially– a blessing. On the island of Aiaia, she learns to hone her witching skills and take charge of her own life. She won’t be leaving the same way she came– under someone else’s orders.

“Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods’ pleasure. No matter what I did, how long I lived, at a whim they would be able to reach down and do with me what they wished.”

Ultimately, Circe is a modern expansion of a relatively small chapter in Greek mythology. While Miller does a great job matching up the details so that everything seems technically correct, Circe just doesn’t quite feel like it belongs in the canon. There were certainly times while reading that Circe gave me the impression of fanfiction– an excuse for Miller to play with pre-existing characters. Some references (or entire recaps) of known stories about the gods gave this book an air of tourism through traditional Greek mytholgy.

As far as familiar names go, there are plenty in Circe. I was afraid that my knowledge of the gods had gone a bit rusty in recent years and that references would go over my head. I am not at all an expert– but I did feel that I knew more than Miller assumed her readers would. Many of the side characters that make appearances in Circe’s tale are explained in plenty of detail, even on the occasions where the character’s role in the story seems so slight that it’s hardly necessary. The betrayals, the spurns, the banishments– Circe is so mild-mannered and quiet, so willing to accept whatever fate she is given, that the little secrets she gets away with and the punishments she endures tend to fall flat. Much of the tension of the story revolves around Circe’s introspection, but even when she notices how unjust the gods’ rulings are she does nothing but think about it. So little actually happens that every side arc where Circe’s story brushes with one of the greats seems contrived just to include that great god or goddess. I did find some of Miller’s characters particularly intriguing– Telemachus, Deadalus, Pasiphae, even Glaucos– but for every character I enjoyed, there was another that felt largely irrelevant to Circe’s main plot arc, no matter how often she thought about them afterward– like Prometheus or even Hermes.

“All those years I had spent with them were like a stone tossed in a pool. Already, the ripples were gone.”

Let’s go back to the fact that Circe seems mild-mannered. From my college electives, I remembered only that Circe was a sorceress with the ability to turn men into pigs. We do see that scene in Miller’s Circe, and it does have its place within Miller’s narrative, but to me that felt like the only piece of the story in which Circe was a strong, independent being following her own instincts. I expected to see more of that Circe in this book, but instead I found a woman unhappy with her lot, simply letting things happen and suffering through an uncomfortable eternity before she’s ready to act. Even when she does use agency, her choices follow the path of least resistance. The way she attained the poisonous spear-tip is particularly anti-climactic because it seems she is finally going to fight, but in the end no fight is required. So many of Circe’s choices seem to go this way. So many of her battles are invisible tests of will. So little seems at stake. Where is the strong, dangerous witch?

“I had felt untouchable, filled with teeth and power. I scarcely remembered what that was like.”

I can see why this book is so widely loved: the writing is easy to read and engrossing, the story emotional and beautiful in places (especially at the end), and the references to canon Greek mythology are plentiful and well-explained for the reader who’s maybe heard of Pasiphae and Athena but doesn’t quite recall their stories and personalities. It’s Greek Mythology for the layperson, perhaps. That’s not to say knowledgable fans will necessarily be put off by this story, but Circe seems particularly aimed at readers who want Classics: 2.0– the readers who will delight in the fact that Circe has none of the long chapters completely filled with names that can be found in Homer’s stories.

“Let him be a hero. You are something else.”

This review has been largely negative, and the fact that Circe fits a style of episodic tales that I just haven’t been jiving with lately probably contributed to my low impression of it. As did the huge amount of hype that preceded my reading. But none of this is to say that I hated Circe in any way. Though there were disappointments, it was fun to see some of my favorite Greek mythology characters again, and I appreciated Miller’s command of language. The ending made me want to dive back in all over agin.

circe2My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I did like this book, but that enjoyment took some effort. The gods are still as fascinating as ever, but Circe lacks the sense of history that other mythological tales have provided for me. It’s gorgeous, but… a little empty? I’m still interested in picking up Miller’s The Song of Achilles, and hoping that volume will be a better fit for me.

Have you read either of Miller’s books? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant