Next up in catch-up reviews are two titles I picked up in late September: Daisy Johnson’s spooky 2020 release: Sisters, and Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut for young adults, the award-winning contemporary The Poet X. These books have little in common aside from my reading them back to back; I suppose both main characters are sisters, both are teenage girls, and both narratives focus on careful use of language in one way or another. And I loved both books, which means this is also a nice break from all of my 3-star reviews of late!
In Sisters, we follow two girls and their mother moving to an old family property near the sea after an incident at the girls’ school in Oxford. September and July, less than a year apart in age, share a bond so incredibly close that even their mother, their only remaining parent, cannot find space for herself in their relationship. The two girls, both teens, have a history of playing dangerous games, and in the course of this story we see just how far out of control they’ve spun.
“It would have surprised neither of us to have found, slit open, that we shared organs, that one’s lungs breathed for the both, that a single heart beat a doubling, feverish pulse.”
With characters that are obviously keeping secrets and antagonizing each other from the start and the atmospheric old house they’re returning to after many years, there are some excellent gothic and horror elements to this book that make it a creepy read even before anything of note is happening. The family has known abuse in the past, and even the close and loyal bond between the two sisters is expanded upon to feel less like a relationship of mutual love (though there is some) and more like barely-contained manipulation and violence. The girls behave like twins, though they do not look alike, and the exploration of their connection and the family history before we learn what happened at the school does well to hold the reader’s interest.
“It was only when September was around that color returned and I could experience pain or smell the lunch cooking in the school kitchens. She tethered me. Not to the world but to her.”
The plot itself is rather scant, and slow to start. The reader knows right away that something has happened at school, that there’s another layer to the story that we’re not immediately privy to, and that somehow this will come to a head as tensions rise in the secluded house. Johnson drops small clues and a big red herring, all the while slowly expanding our awareness of this family so that it doesn’t quite feel like a waiting game though we are certainly expecting a big reveal. Is it the most original twist? Perhaps not, but it’s one I particularly like, and one I guessed incorrectly, which made it land particularly well for me when the truth did hit. Johnson’s writing is so admirably graceful and calculated, and there’s some appealing commentary here on sisterhood, revenge and guilt, abuse and independence, so that I think even a reader who guesses where the plot is headed would find something to appreciate. That said, it’s really best to go into Sisters knowing as little as possible, and so I’ll leave you here, with a simple recommendation to pick this one up if literary horror sounds like your style.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I was struggling somewhat with reading when I picked this one up, so what might have ordinarily been a 4-star read for me just felt utterly perfect at the time. I will definitely remember this one fondly and am eager to pick up whatever Johnson publishes next. I’ve already enjoyed both of her previous works, Fen (short stories), and Everything Under (a fabulist Greek retelling that earned Johnson the title of youngest author ever shortlisted for the Booker), so Johnson is quickly becoming a favorite for me!
In The Poet X, Xiomara is half of a set of Dominican American twins living in Harlem. She does her best to listen to her parents and stay out of trouble, but this is no easy task with a mother so strict. When she’s prodded into confirmation class, it seems no one will give her a straight answer about why it seems like God doesn’t pay attention to girls like her, and why men staring at her body is considered the fault of her “sinful” behavior. The one place she can be open and share all of her thoughts is in her journal, where she hones her poetry; but this talent too is seen as an unholy distraction.
Told in verse (though not the stuffy rhyming sort, so don’t run yet if you’re already thinking poetry isn’t your taste!), The Poet X is basically everything I want in a YA novel: there’s the adorable bloom of first love, emotional conflict as a teen grapples with how far to follow her parents and where to give her own self room to grow, and meaningful commentary: in this case touching on what it means to be Dominican in America.
Half of the conflict here revolves around religion; I imagine this could be a little challenging for some Christian readers to sit with, but ultimately I think it’s handled well and the questions it raises about how Christianity doesn’t always seem to accept certain people as they are, are probably worth thinking about even (especially) for staunch believers who might initially reject criticism. Xiomara’s questioning of God and religion are based in the unfair ways she is treated, and that does deserve an honest answer; she isn’t blindly denouncing her faith, just trying to figure out why the role she’s told to fill isn’t one that seems to fit.
“Just seems as I got older/ I began to really see / the way that church / treats a girl like me differently. / Sometimes it feels / all I’m worth is under my skirt / and not between my ears. / Sometimes I feel / that turning the other cheek / could get someone like my brother killed. / Sometimes I feel my life would be easier / if I didn’t feel like such a debt / to a God / that don’t really seem / to be out here checking for me.”
The other half of the novel’s conflict has to do with Xiomara’s personal relationships. She’s met this cute boy she likes, but she’s not allowed to date. Her brother is keeping a major secret, one her parents will have just as much trouble accepting as Xiomara’s prospective boyfriend. There’s a teacher Xiomara admires at school who runs a poetry club, but Xiomara doesn’t feel free to pursue it. Most of these problems stem from her mother’s unwillingness to bend her plans for her children, though Xiomara knows that her mother’s strictness came as a product of her Domincan upbringing and her own past unhappiness- she wants the best for her children, and after all she’s been through she doesn’t want them to let her down either. Motives on both sides are clear and organic, and all of the emotion feels very real and raw.
“I will never / let anyone / see my full heart / and destroy it.”
Xiomara is ordinary, and she’s brave. She’s strong, and she’s broken. She’s not perfect, but she’s doing her best, and isn’t that what makes for the best YA protagonists? This girl has something to say, and once she begins to speak it’s hard not to listen. The Poet X is a captivating and inspiring story that both wears you down and lifts you up; I learned about an experience different from my own, but I also found pieces to relate to, and I think with the book’s focus on words, language, and finding one’s voice, almost anyone who loves books (and probably some who don’t) will grow and find a place to belong in this book as well. It’s a quick, impactful, and intelligent read that’s easy to recommend to just about everyone.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I devoured this book. Parts of it hurt, parts of it made me smile, all of it was completely effective. I now understand the hype around Acevedo’s work, and I’ll surely be reading more of it.
The Literary Elephant