Tag Archives: novel

fashionistas of dubious morality

Review: Consent by Annabel Lyon

Women’s Prize progress: 9/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Consent

In this novel, two sets of sisters have grown into adulthood in imbalanced sibling relationships. Sara and Saskia both knew from young ages that their respective sisters were not neurotypical, resulting in higher levels of care and consideration- and lower expectations of achievement- from their families. Later in life, Sara and Saskia both find themselves (independently) in caregiving roles of greater primacy, having to attend to and make choices for their sisters in ways that their parents can’t or won’t. Both situations are further complicated as Sara and Saskia each pursue someone she believes to have taken advantage of her sister in some way, all while questioning whether she shares the blame for her sister’s fate. At this point, the two parallel narratives collide.

“‘You were her better self,’ David says. ‘And she was yours.’ / Sara hangs up the phone. I was her punishment, certainly, she thinks, taking the empty suitcase out from under the bed. As she was mine. But remind me again of our crime?

Consent is a juicy little book that delves into various forms of consent through two complicated sister relationships. Lyon beautifully demonstrates how sisters- even twins- can be simultaneously alike and unique, how they can need each other and loathe each other, how they can get things wrong and still remain inextricably bonded together. (I do not have a sister, but Lyon made me feel as though I did.) With this setup, she explores that connection of sisterhood in parallel with the question of mental capacity for consent- what can a neurodivergent person consent to practically, sexually, medically, legally? What if they are not officially diagnosed? Whose word can be trusted when claiming consent was obtained? If consent cannot be given, who then will make the choice? What if that mediator (inevitably) has motives of their own?

We always knew something was wrong, but the doctors wouldn’t diagnose her until she was an adult. They said she might outgrow her symptoms. She never cared about other people, about pleasing them or hurting them. She stole both my high school boyfriends just because she could.

While this book is very focused on two very specific cases of sisterhood and consent, and is more of a multiple-character study than an “issues book” dripping with direct social commentary, there’s clearly plenty of thematic depth to give this story some heft. Lyon’s crisp and direct prose certainly bears weight as well.

What really won me over though, is that on top of the literary strengths of the novel, Lyon also offers a fun mystery/thriller-esque element to the plot for a bonus dose of drama. Readers who like thrills and surprises may appreciate that Consent skews this way, though I wouldn’t recommend this book as a mystery/thriller because the twists are more like icing on top than the main dish here. The thrill also doesn’t quite land perfectly- the pacing is off, especially in the final section of the book when the reader is suddenly excluded from Sara and Saskia’s interiority in a way that belies the rest of the book, and the final events do seem a bit convenient and far-fetched, but (fictional) murder always keeps things interesting.

The other area in which this story faltered for me harks back to the title of this review- where you may have noticed that I have referred to the main characters of this book as “fashionistas,” an aspect of their characterization I’ve not mentioned again thus far. The crux of the matter is that while I found the dialogue and anecdotes around the art of fashion in this book fascinating, I also thought this passion felt completely irrelevant to the rest of this story. It is possible I’m missing something, I know that as a reader I tend to struggle with books about art- especially visual art- so this is something of a blind spot for me. There are certainly a few key moments where the treatment of clothing or perfume tells us something crucial about Sara and/or Saskia and their closest relationships, because fashion is their language, but somehow their love for fashion never feels properly coupled to the rest of this story. They could have been into gaming or artisanal cheese and it would have fit the book just as well, is what I mean- the dedication to clothing specifically struck me as somewhat lifeless and arbitrary, for the sake of shoehorning in some personality. Though the fashion focus never exactly feels insincere, and can be incredibly interesting, I was never fully convinced this book needed it at all, despite the impressive amount of page space Lyon dedicates to it. An interest in reading about art or fashion in particular is going to be a must for prospective readers, I think.

“Anyway, she did not have so many clothes. She curated and edited her collection relentlessly.”

It’s also worth noting there’s some repeated racism against a Korean man throughout this book, from one particular character, which I believe is meant to reflect poorly on the character speaking this way and to demonstrate the effect such a mannerism can have on a neurodivergent character who hears it often and doesn’t have full grasp on the concept of racism, but whether the slurs crop up more often than strictly necessary to make the point is debatable.

CWs: racism (including anti-Asian slurs), murder, death of a loved one, alcoholism

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. There were a few ups and downs here for me, but on the whole I was pleasantly surprised, found the read enjoyable and memorable, and am glad that the Women’s Prize longist nudged me to pick this one up. If you’re a prize reader who tends to like the more literary-leaning options from the lists regardless of how far they advance with the judges, this would probably be a great title to pick up.

The Literary Elephant

flashback to the ’50s

Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

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

Book Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Literary Elephant

a modern love triangle

Review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

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

Book Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CW: toxic relationship

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

The Literary Elephant

long live disaster women

Review: Luster by Raven Leilani

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

Book Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Literary Elephant

into the labyrinth

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Women’s Prize Longlist 2021 Progress: 3/16

Piranesi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Literary Elephant

life without bees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Literary Elephant

it’s always a good time to read Black History

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

The Prophets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Literary Elephant

cowboys, clones: my first brushes with 2021 lit

As usual, I’ve kicked off my reading year mostly with titles I already owned, mainly releases from the year before that I just hadn’t quite gotten around to. But shiny new books are too exciting to resist for long, so I’ve got a couple of 2021 releases to review now!

Outlawed

First up is Anna North’s Outlawed, a January publication that reinvents history. Set in the 1890s west, the US has been torn apart and rebuilt as something new in the wake of the Great Flu, which decimated the population enough to inspire a total societal fixation on reproduction. Women are valued only for their ability to bear children- many children. Ada, our MC, is in her late teens when she faces trouble: she’s been married for a year, tried a second partner in desperation, but her womb remains empty. She joins a convent to escape being hung as a witch, discovers that there’s a whole community of barren women just trying to survive, and joins the Hole in the Wall Gang to reclaim some of what’s been lost to her and to others marginalized by a zealous society with its cornerstone in bigotry.

Outlawed is tricky for me to talk about, because I don’t think it really has anything new to say and yet it has been the most fun read I’ve picked up so far this year. The writing isn’t anything flashy- I marked only three quotations, and all of them were chosen for their ability to capture the story’s essence in various ways, not on the basis of remarkable wording. The format is straightforward, chronological with a single first person narrator in a book that would probably have been served better with a wider range of perspectives- North apparently wants to deliver these characters’ backstories and rationalizations, but doing so through one primary MC means that Ada asks a lot of nosy questions and the reader gets to roll their eyes as her companions just… tell her whatever she wants to know. But there’s such a playful tone to it all that I found it to be an utterly addictive read nonetheless. It’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that spins out a theme in a mildly ridiculous way and just has fun delivering its messages, which are good one even if you’ve heard them before. Not for content, but my experience with Outlawed had a lot in common with my experience of My Sister, the Serial Killer; I loved them both for being theatrical, entertaining, a bit absurd.

It takes two chapters to get past the character introduction and plot setup, but then we’re thrown into a world of women and non-binary characters dressed up like men, running heists and getting into trouble and helping each other out again. The cast is lovable and diverse; I had a slight reservation at first about barrenness being highlighted as The Ultimate Persecuted Thing when there’s still racism and homophobia active in this world as well, but in the end I think North does a fair job of highlighting one issue without belittling others. There are squabbles and particular alliances among the outlaws, but the complicated dynamics between them all adds to the strength and appeal of this diverse found family.

“‘It’s a way of holding us up,’ Elzy said. ‘It’s how the Kid reminds us who we are.’ / ‘And who are we?’ / We heard hoofbeats in the distance. / The Kid appeared at the lip of the gulch then, nose and mouth already covered by a scarf of purple silk. Elzy smilied at me, then removed a checked bandanna from her pocket. / ‘Didn’t you hear?’ she asked. ‘We’re kings.'”

Other slight hangups for me included the brevity of the world building and a glossing over of morality. In the case of the former, small details are scattered throughout the book, leaving the politics of this setting feeling half-finished; we get small hints about the Great Flu and the Independent Townships that formed after America fell and the sheriffs who police them, but it’s bare bones- only enough to understand the logistics of the plot. As for the latter complaint, North delivers here a band of outlaws who are fully willing to kill any man who gets in their way, and there’s very little personal reckoning over this state of affairs. Of course the entire Hole in the Wall Gang has been cast out and persecuted, but it seems there should be a distinction made between recognizing harm from society as a whole and taking individual lives. Especially for a group with prices on their heads who are endeavoring to create a safe haven, I expected some deeper examination into the decision to murder, but instead its taken largely as a matter of course. The whole book, perhaps, could have been served well by an extra 50-100 pages in order to tease things out properly. That I never wanted the book to end probably serves as an indicator that I found it lacking in some ways even while the story engrossed me.

For all my little quibbles, I loved picking this book up every time I had a chance to read, was shocked at some of the twists, and heartbroken over a particular death. Outlawed has great energy. I was invested. I had a good time.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I could see myself potentially bumping this down to 4 in time, as it wasn’t a flawless read, but I was completely hooked all the way through and sad to reach the final page. I’ll absolutely be reading more from this author.

The Echo Wife

Next is Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, which is a February 16 release- I received an eARC via Netgalley and Tor Books in exchange for an honest review. All of my thoughts and reactions come from the advance edition of this book.

This plot follows a renowned woman scientist who learns her husband is having an affair- with a clone he built from his wife’s research, programmed to be docile and accommodating in all of the ways Evelyn is not. At first Evelyn cuts her losses and keeps her distance, but soon the clone has as much reason to hate the man as Evelyn, and the two women bond over an attempt to cover up his murder.

I was under the impression that this book would be a fast-paced, plotty sci-fi, perhaps even a sci-fi thriller, but instead found it to be fairly slow and introspective. Part of what makes it drag is the narration’s tendency to over-explain, pausing each scene to tell the reader outright what each gesture, expression, and comment means, leaving nothing for the reader to decipher or interpret. The careful detailing of minutiae makes it easy to see which direction the book is going at almost every turn, before it gets there. It takes a full quarter of the book for the plot to progress beyond what’s stated directly in the synopsis, and each new piece of information (the affair! the clone! the murder! *gasp*) is presented as a plot twist even though it’s all setup, primarily, for what is in actuality a very character-driven story in which one woman grapples with who she is and who she could have been under other circumstances and who she could never have been at all- as well as an inquiry into that which makes us human.

I mostly agreed with and appreciated the book’s feminist commentary but didn’t feel it pushed any boundaries- that some women desire to reproduce, others do not, and both choices are valid is not new to me, nor is the narrative of a man taking advantage of a smart/successful woman in a quest to secure his own power both personally and professionally, though they’re nice points to see made in mainstream lit and I know there will be other readers newer to the nuances of both who will likely find these themes more exciting than I did.

Ultimately this story just wasn’t quite as punchy and innovative as I expected, though I did enjoy the focus on morality, on personality, on what (if anything) differentiates a human from a highly successful clone. The writing style never managed to win me over, though it’s competent enough and clearly shows that Gailey has put some effort into the science. To be honest most of the scientific details meant nothing to me without much of a background in the field myself, and thus some suspension of disbelief was required, but having them in the story did lend a sense of authenticity to Evelyn’s lab and increase my willingness to follow Gailey through that setting. In the end I’d say this is sci-fi for fans of books like Robin Wasserman’s Mother Daughter Widow Wife and/or Helen Philips’s The Need, both lighter on the actual science and heavier on feminist and woman-centered commentary; I’d recommend it to readers who like attention to detail and no questions left unanswered. Those who already know they like Gailey’s writing will probably fare well here, too.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Unfortunately, my expectations from the synopsis got in the way of fully enjoying what is actually presented here, and I suspect that in the end Gailey’s writing style is just not for me. This was my first time reading their work and I won’t rule out an exciting premise in the future convincing me to give them another go, but I don’t plant to read further for now.

Are either of these books on your radar for 2021?

The Literary Elephant

femicide through the ages

Review: The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Literary Elephant

murder and magic in Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Literary Elephant