Tag Archives: speculative

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

Review: The Dreamers

I have always loved reading about intangible things: reincarnation, fate, dreams… so of course Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers caught my eye.

thedreamersIn the novel, a picturesque Californian town becomes a news sensation when the perplexing case of one girl who can’t be woken turns into an epidemic of sleeping citizens. At first the “sickness” is confined to a single dormitory floor at the local college, but the dreams (and the students) defy containment. One by one, the young and the old drop off to sleep and are essentially lost to the living.

“But isn’t every sleep a kind of isolation? When else are we so alone?”

The narration hops between a large cast of characters, some of whom become stuck in the sleeping sickness and some of whom never do. Thompson Walker does a superb job of keeping the reader invested enough in each character’s situation for every facet of the story to remain interesting even as it becomes obvious that the focus of the book lies in the sickness itself and the community it sweeps through, rather than any of the individuals who experience it. Though some readers will likely feel a disconnect with the narration because of the quick switches, this tactic leaves room for beautiful and disturbing commentary about dreams and epidemics. My only disappointment with the characters is that some of them seem more like ideas of characters than like actual characters; each fits a “type” that leaves them very two-dimensional.

By far the most compelling aspect of the novel for me, it was the alarming (non)reaction to the sleeping sickness that propelled me through these 300 pages. As more and more people fall irretrievably into this mysterious sleep, the sickness devolves into a game of “everyone for themselves.” Some barricade their families in their homes, others fight for dwindling supplies at the local stores, and everyone wants to skip town, unrealistically denying the fact that they may already be carrying the disease. Legality takes precedence over safety, and increasingly cautious “protocols” are viewed as inconvenient formalities that come too little and too late. Meanwhile, the narration shows the many ways that the sickness ravages the careless population.

“But whoever shares her lipstick that day, whoever borrows her eyeliner, whoever kisses her cheek that night or dances too close or clinks her flute of champagne, whoever touches her hand to admire the ring, whoever catches the bouquet at the end of the night- all of them, every one, is exposed.”

The prose itself is dreamy and evocative, and the level of research evident throughout brings the premise to frightening life. Of course no one can choose to stop sleeping, no matter the danger it might bring. I don’t believe it’s possible to close your eyes at night without at least a little misgiving while reading this book, so close does this story seem our real world.

But for all of its dark beauty, the downfall of the novel is that it doesn’t seem to be making much of a point beyond convincing the reader that dreams remain an unknown. Much about the sickness and the consequences the dreamers face in the aftermath remains unanswered at the end of the book. The Dreamers never lost my attention or interest, but instead of following any of the questions it presents to a solid conclusion, the plot fizzles out after a convenient change upturns the status quo.

“Not everything that happens in a life can be digested. Some events stay forever whole. Some images never leave the mind.”

And that, essentially, is how I felt upon closing this book. I will be thinking about some of the suggestions and implications of this novel for a long time, though I also think that the story ended somewhat incomplete.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. The Dreamers was gorgeous to read, though the ending didn’t quite deliver as much as I’d hoped. Nevertheless, I do feel that the scare the novel invokes about our potential modern response to a new epidemic does leave the reader with fodder for contemplation. I did think Karen Thompson Walker did a much better job with this premise than Stephen and Owen King managed with Sleeping Beauties, though I found the Kings’ characters more compelling. I think Ling Ma’s Severance with its satirical zombies is a more fitting comparison in tone for The Dreamers, and I highly recommend both.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Water Cure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Blinds

When I came came across Adam Sternbergh’s new release, The Blinds (via BOTM), I was hesitant. It’s described as a speculative Western thriller, which sounded both chaotically fun but also a bit wackier than my normal reading material. The prospect of futuristic cowboys threw me off, but Sheriff Calvin Cooper does not disappoint– considering he’s one of the biggest criminals in town.

theblindsAbout the book: Caesura, Texas– aka The Blinds– is an experiment. 48 convicted criminals have signed on to have their past crimes and traumas wiped from their memories so that they can live in the “safe” environment of Caesura, under new names. 100 miles from civilization, with only a weekly supply truck and a police-use fax machine for contact with the outside world, Caesura has been constructed specifically for this experiment. But eight years after its inception, the experiment may be falling apart. There are deaths. Fires. Vandals. Liaison officers are coming in to investigate, and the outside world is clashing with the closed-off Caesura community. What happens when 48 of the nation’s most notorious criminals who remember their criminality but not their crimes are nudged out of their comfort zone?

“This may not be a prison, and it may not be purgatory, but it’s sure as hell not a paradise, either. This is the Blinds.”

About the format: The book is divided into sections by day, Monday through Friday of one eventful week in western Texas. These sections are further divided into chapters, and the chapters are further divided into smaller sections within. The narration flows smoothly from one character’s perspective to another, sometimes between sections, sometimes between paragraphs with no clear division of where one character’s experience stops and another begins. In this way, the reader is given a sense of the Blinds on a wider scale, which also makes it harder (and more fun) to guess who’s involved in what.

Now let’s talk about the premise. The implications of the memory wipe alone is highly intriguing, but the town… a whole town of convicted criminals fenced in together who may or may not remember key details of their past activities is the perfect literary recipe for disaster. They’re even allowed to leave whenever they want– with the caveat that no one who leaves is allowed to come back. That’s what hooked me. The idea of those 48 criminals, strangers living together by choice, suddenly provoked by the outside world. But Sternbergh is not an author who wins readers with a strong premise and then leaves them dissatisfied with a boring plot– the town is a constant mystery, between the unexplained deaths inside it and the unexpected attention from its outside connections. The characters are a ceaseless surprise with how far they are willing to go, and for what, or for whom. And just when you think you’ve got it down, there’s another level of conspiracy revealed. And none of it would be possible without this unique cast of fogged villains.

“It’s hard enough to live with what you’ve done. It’s immeasurably harder to live with knowing you’ve done something, but not knowing what exactly it is you did.”

The characters are excellent. The writing style, and the present mysterious situation in Caesura, reminds the reader of each character’s humanity, vulnerability, and the promises that have been made to them about their quality of life in Caesura. No matter what crimes they’ve committed in the past, they are all (slightly muddled) citizens of a small town– neighbors, friends, assistants. They work together: the town has a nurse, a librarian, a repairman, a bartender, a commissary man… They’re all just people, looking for a break from the real world, and a fresh start. Some of them will turn out to be surprisingly evil. Some surprisingly good. They are all morally gray (at best), and yet the reader can sympathize with so many of them because at heart, they’re all just fighting to survive.

“The minds of the innocent are simple and so easily explained. The minds of the guilty, however– they are endlessly fascinating, once you really roll up your sleeves.”

I would not call this a thriller, exactly. A mystery, certainly, but the pacing is not as break-neck suspenseful as I usually expect from a thriller. There’s an interesting style used for the reveals in this book though– a little hint that someone knows more than they should about some crime or other, and then the next section of their perspective proceeds as though the reader knows about that crime and that character’s involvement, but then something further happens. The surprise is rarely ever a dramatic whodunnit moment; the surprise comes in the fact that the murder everyone’s concerned about is only the beginning– and that the characters who thinks they’re in charge are just players in someone else’s plot. The surprise comes from the “wait, there’s more?” moments, which happen repeatedly and never disappoint.

It’s not the kind of horror book that will give you nightmares, but be prepared for some criminal details that boggle the mind. There’s not much gore or senseless maliciousness described, but keep in mind that there are at least 48 criminals in this book that even the prisons didn’t want to hold on to.

“Some stories are probably better lost forever, never remembered, never told.”

But The Blinds is not one of them.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a great read. It’s the kind of well-plotted, well-characterized book that anyone who appreciates adult literature should pick up, regardless of genre preference. I wasn’t sure about this one when I looked up its genres, but I’m immensely glad I stepped out of my normal reading zone to give The Blinds a chance. I’ll be keeping an eye on this author in the future, but more immediately I will use this experience to try stepping out of my normal reading zone more often. There are some gems out there in the rarely-reached-for genres. (Who even knew Speculative Western Thriller was a genre?)

Further recommendations:

  1. Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is another speculative fiction tale with a unique sort of “prison.” In this book, the failing U.S. economy drives whole communities into experimental towns in which the population spends six months in prison voluntarily (half at a time), which creates enough employment and resource for the other half of the town to live on. And every six months, the citizens switch, until things start to go awry…

What’s next: I’m picking up The Bane Chronicles next, a collection of short stories written by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Maureen Johnson. It’s the next stop on my tour through the Shadowhunter books, now that I’ve finished The Mortal Instruments. It’s all about Magnus Bane and his warlock exploits.

Have you dabbled in any unusual genres lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant