Quartet by Jean Rhys

“There she was and there she stayed. Gradually passivity replaced her early adventurousness. She learned, after long and painstaking effort, to talk like a chorus girl, to dress like a chorus girl and to think like a chorus girl – up to a point. Beyond that point she remained apart, lonely, frightened of her loneliness, resenting it passionately. She grew thin. She began to live her hard and monotonous life very mechanically and listlessly.”

An unsparing and piercing interrogation of passivity and victimhood, Quartet is a hypotonic work of fiction. Jean Rhys’ prose is immaculate. Her writing, although exquisitely crisp, has this deeply evocative quality to it that resulted in a truly immersive reading experience. I could picture with ease Marya’s various environments: from the hotel bedrooms she stays in, to the streets she walks down on. I admired Rhys’ ability to articulate Marya’s various states of mind with such clarity and finesse as to lend elegance to even her most petty thoughts. Although the setting has this subtle bygone, almost gilded age quality to it, one that brought to mind the work of Edith Wharton, Rhys also employs noir aesthetics that result in a backdrop that is at once beautiful and disenchanted.
Although the title suggests that the narrative will be concerned with the complex dynamic between four individuals, the story presents us with an all too familiar triangle: a young woman becomes involved with an older married man of means. His wife claims that she is ‘happy’ with this ‘arrangement’. But, as Marya becomes further enmeshed in the lives of the Heidlers, she becomes all too aware that the wife resents her presence. In order not to alienate her husband she pretends otherwise, and Marya finds herself cast in the role of villainess and homewrecker.

The novel opens in Paris during the 1920s. Marya, our heroine, is a young woman married to Stephan, a Polish man whose dodgy art dealings eventually land him in jail. The two were leaving from hotel room to hotel room, and once Stephan is imprisoned Marya finds herself on the verge of destitution. An orphan with no assets to speak of, Marya was wholly dependent on Stephan’s income. A socialite married couple, the Heidlers, come to her ‘rescue’, insisting that she stay with them. Marya does, even if she expresses some uneasiness at this arrangement. Mr Heidler, who goes by H. J., had previously made a pass at her and once she’s staying with them, he declares that he has feelings for her. According to him, his wife, Lois, is content with this. Marya learns that she’s not the ‘first’, and as the weeks go by and her feelings for H. J. deepened, she became wary of the Heidlers’ ‘games’. While Marya doesn’t have today’s vocabulary, contemporary readers will be able to recognise the Heidlers’ ‘tactics’: they manipulate and gaslight Marya. Passive Marya finds herself playing into this role that they’ve thrust on her, doing what they want, and keeping silent about this whole affair. Cleverly, Rhys doesn’t quite paint Marya as a hopeless and hapless victim of her sex and her circumstances. There are numerous instances that indicate that Marya performs this role of ‘victim’. But does her self-victimization make her any less of a victim? Especially when others uphold this view of herself?
While Rhys mines the psychological depths of her heroine, cataloguing her ennui, misery, loneliness, and disorientation, she maintains a certain distance from her characters, Marya included. These characters retain a certain inscrutable quality: some of their actions may strike as bizarre, while their words often are full ambivalence. The characters retain this air of mystery that really complements the shadowy atmosphere of their world: from their soirées to their clandestine encounters in hotel rooms. There were many striking passages describing Marya’s environment. Her internal dialogue too is rendered in arresting detail, and however frustrating her naivete and passivity were I found sympathetic towards her ‘plight’. Her feelings towards H. J. are somewhat inexplicable, as she seems to fall in love with him just like that. While Marya thinks herself in love with him, I thought differently. Her infatuation reeked of desperation, and I too found myself viewing her as a victim of the Heidlers’, specifically H. J., deceptions. Time and again we are told that what Marya craves is happiness and safety, and after Stephan is in prison, she is so desperate that she is willing to believe that those things may come if she becomes H. J.’s ‘mistress’.
The novel also has a roman a la clef dimension as Marya’s embroilment with the Hedlers’ mirrors Rhys’ one with Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella Bowen . While there were many sentiments that struck me for their presence and timelessness, particularly in relation to Marya’s ‘female malaise’, a few passages stuck out for the wrong reasons. An example would be a scene where Marya observes “a little flat-faced Japanese” drawing “elongated and gracefully perverse little women”…which…le sigh.

Initially, I was planning on giving this a high rating but the bathetic denouement left a lot to be desired. While I can appreciate how certain authors are able to continue their narratives after the central character has ‘exited’ the scenes, here the last few pages struck me as callous and unsatisfying. I would have almost found it more satisfying if Rhys had gone the Madame Bovary or The House of Mirth route, but there is a soap-opera worthy heated confrontation that did not feel particularly satisfying or convincing. While I appreciated how Rhys, similarly to Flaubert and Wharton, is not afraid to focus on how pathetic or silly or petty her characters are, that finale just didn’t do it for me.
Still, I can see myself re-reading this and giving it a higher rating in the future. I am definitely planning on reading more by Rhys as her writing is simply superb and I am always interested in narratives centered on alienated and perpetually perplexed young women.

Marya is a fascinating character who carries an air of impermanence, one that makes her all the more intriguing. Her impermanence also deepens the dreamlike quality of the narrative. There are many instances where her dreams seem to seep into her reality, making us wonder how reliable a character she is. As things take a downward turn, her moments dissociation intensify, her sadness and anxiety so overwhelming as to make her reality unendurable.


Some of my fave passages:

“She began to argue that there was something unreal about most English people.”

“Still, there were moments when she realized that her existence, though delightful, was haphazard. It lacked, as it were, solidity; it lacked the necessary fixed background. A bedroom, balcony and cabinet de toilette in a cheap Montmartre hotel cannot possibly be called a solid background”

“Marya, you must understand, had not been suddenly and ruthlessly transplanted from solid comfort to the hazards of Montmartre. Nothing like that. Truth to say, she was used to a lack of solidity and of fixed backgrounds.”

“[S]he felt a sudden, devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence. She thought again: people are very rum. With all their little arrangements, prisons and drains and things, tucked away where nobody can see.”

“She would have agreed to anything to quieten him and make him happier, and she was still full of the sense of the utter futility of all things.”

“Words thatshe longed to shout, to scream, crowded into her mind:‘You talk and you talk and you don’t understand. Notanything. It’s all false, all second-hand. You say what you’ve read and what other people tell you. You think you’re very brave and sensible, but one flick of pain to yourself and you’d crumple”

“It was a beautiful street. The street of homeless cats, she often thought. She never came into it without seeing several of them, prowling, thin vagabonds, furtive, aloof, but strangely proud. Sympathetic creatures, after all. There was a smell of spring in the air. She felt unhappy, excited, strangely expectant.”

“‘You’re a victim. There’s no endurance in your face. Victims are necessary so that the strong may exercise their will and become more strong. ’ ‘I shall have to go away,’ she decided. ‘Of course. Naturally. ’ Sleep was like falling into a black hole.”

“‘I’ve been wasting my life,’ she thought.‘How have I stood it for so long?’”

“She felt hypnotized as she listened to him, impotent. As she lay in bed she longed for her life with Stephan as one longs for vanished youth. A gay life, a carefree life just wiped off the slate as it were. Gone! A horrible nostalgia, an ache for the past seized her. Nous n’irons plus au bois; Les lauriers sont coupes. . . . Gone, and she was caught in this appalling muddle. Life was like that. Here you are, it said, and then immediately afterwards. Where are you? Her life, at any rate, had always been like that.”

“There they were. And there Marya was; haggard, tor-tured by jealousy, burnt up by longing.”

“Marya thought: ‘Oh, Lord! what a fool I am.’ Her heart felt as if it were being pinched between somebody’s fingers. Cocktails, the ridiculous rabbits on the wallpaper. All the fun and sweetness of life hurt so abominably when it was always just out of your reach. “

“Of course, there they were: inscrutable people, invulnerable people, and she simply hadn’t a chance against them, naive sinner that she was.”

“The Boulevard Arago, like everything else, seemed unreal, fantastic, but also extraordinarily familiar, and she was trying to account for this mysterious impression of familiarity.”

“‘My darling child,’ said Heidler with calmness, ‘your whole point of view and your whole attitude to life is impossible and wrong and you’ve got to change it for everybody’s sake.’ He went on to explain that one had to keep up appearances. That everybody had to. Everybody had for everybody’s sake to keep up appearances. It was everybody’s duty, it was in fact what they were there for. ‘You’ve got to play the game.’”

“She made a great effort to stop it and was able to keep her mind a blank for, say, ten seconds. Then her obsession gripped her, arid, torturing, gigantic, possessing her as utterly as the longing for water possesses someone who is dying of thirst. She had made an utter mess of her love affair, and that was that. She had made an utter mess of her existence. And that was that, too. But of course it wasn’t a love affair. It was a fight. A ruthless, merciless, three-cornered fight. And from the first Marya, as was right and proper, had no chance of victory. For she fought wildly, with tears, with futile rages, with extravagant abandon – all bad weapons. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ she would ask herself. ‘Why are you like this? Why can’t you be clever? Pull yourself together!’ Uselessly.”
​​
“A petite femme. It was, of course, part of his mania for classification. But he did it with such conviction that she, miserable weakling that she was,found herself trying to live up to his idea of her. She lived up to it. And she had her reward. ‘. . . You pretty thing – you pretty, pretty thing. Oh,you darling.”

“As she walked back to the hotel after her meal Marya would have the strange sensation that she was walking under water. The people passing were like the wavering reflections seen in water, the sound of water was in her ears. Or sometimes she would feel sure that her life was a dream – that all life was a dream. ‘It’s a dream,’ she would think; ‘it isn’t real’ – and be strangely comforted. A dream. A dream.”

“But when she tried to argue reasonably with herself it seemed to her that she had forgotten the beginnings of the affair, when she had still reacted and he had reconquered her painstakingly. She never reacted now. She was a thing. Quite dead. Not a kick left in her.”

‘You’ve smashed me up, you two,’ she was saying. That was pitiful because it was so obviously true. It was also in an obscure way rather flattering. She put her hands up to her face and began to cry.

“The next few days passed like a dream. Lovely days, fresh, and washed and clean. And the knowledge that this was the irrevocable end of their life in Paris made every moment vivid, clearly cut and very sweet. Those were strange days, detached from everything that had gone before or would follow after.”

“Heidler was saying in a low voice: ‘I have a horror of you. When I think of you I feel sick.’ He was large, invulnerable, perfectly respectable. Funny to think that she had lain in his arms and shut her eyes because she dared no longer look into his so terribly and wonderfully close. She began to laugh. After all, what did you do when the man you loved said a thing like that? You laughed, obviously.”

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Cheesy, boring, poorly executed. While there is indeed a murder and the identity behind the culprit is, supposedly, a ‘mystery’, The Widows of Malabar Hill struck me as something in the realms of a third-rate period drama. The first part of the novel introduces us to Perveen Mistry, our protagonist, and works to establish the setting, which is 1920s Bombay. While the author succeeds in depicting the realities of colonialism, of being female in India at this time in history, and in providing her readers with some degree of insight into Zoroastrian and Muslim traditions, the setting wasn’t particularly vivid. There are some info-dumpings now and again which read like something straight out of a textbook (aimed at younger audiences due to the dumbing down of certain facts). Anyway, Perveen’s family is Zoroastrian and has begun working at her father’s law firm. Being the only, or one of the first, female lawyers in India comes with many challenges but thanks to her father’s endless belief in her capabilities and her law degree from Oxford Perveen feels ready for what’s in store. She becomes involved with the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a well-off Muslim man who had three wives. As these recently widowed women reside in a purdah, a secluded and strictly, children aside, strictly female space, Perveen is the ideal go-between. Perveen is worried that they are being taken advantage of as they seemed to have signed over their inheritance. We also read of Perveen’s British friend Alice who has returned to India after spending time abroad.
The flat if occasionally ridiculous writing (at one point Perveen is telling someone not to touch her briefcase and instead of having her ‘shout’, to indicate her panic, this happens: “It’s mine!” she bleated. what is she? a goat?!) was bearable but the slow-moving plot was a chore to get through. When the murder finally happens we get a flashback related to Perveen’s past lasting 50+ pages or so that bares little revelance to what had so far happened. The author paints a sloppy picture of an abusive marriage which seemed very much soap opera material. The abusive husband is one of the most one-dimensional characters that I’ve come across in a while, and that’s saying something.

Perveen is portrayed as Not Like Other Girls because she’s smart and interested in the law. The murder mystery is a mere blip in this melodrama-driven narrative. We don’t even get to spend that much time with the widows and their characters suffer because of it. The last scene was pure cheese (“To the power of women!” Alice toasted. “To the power of women” Perveen answered as their glasses clinked.).
I was hoping that this would be something in the realms of Agatha Christie or Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries but this book was anything but. It was more focused on Perveen’s married life and it wasted a lot of page-time in rehashing how it started and how it ended. As I found the author’s general delivery to be dry I had a hard time caring about anything that was happening or that was being recounted. Perveen grated on my nerves as she acted without thinking and did not strike me as particularly clever or caring. Alice’s personality was being English and gay. Perveen’s mother plays barely a role in the story, her father is largely overlooked, and her uni friends we briefly meet in that first flashback, well, they were mere background figures.
If you are interested in reading this I recommend you check out more positive reviews. I, for one, will be giving its sequels a large berth.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

“Every time I was around them, they acted like I was a monster. So I said goddamnit, I’ll be the worst monster you ever saw!”

This novella takes place in 1920s New York. Charles Thomas Tester is a bit of a ‘hustler’ who sings and plays his guitar on the streets even if he isn’t a particularly talented musician. Still, he gives it a go trying to earn some money to support himself and his father. Whenever he ventures outside of Harlem he’s subjected to racist slurs, stared/glared at by white people, and harassed by the cops. He eventually finds himself coming into contact with a mysterious tome, a sorceress, and a wealthy white man who may be dabbling in the occult.

Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.

While the premise did intrigue me I had a hard time following the story. The first few pages are straightforward enough but once Tom comes into contact with that old man (i’ve forgotten his name) I just had a hard time understanding what was going and the characters’ motivations. It didn’t help that the narrative tone is slightly at a remove from the characters, which was a pity as we don’t get to delve into Tom’s character. He makes a few puzzling choices or says a few odd things that just…I’m not sure, I just didn’t fully comprehend what was going with his character. I also disliked that that cop, Malone or whatever his name was, gets so much page time. Towards the end, he seems to have more scenes than Tom himself. The narrative had already established that he’s racist and a genuinely abhorrent human being. So no, I didn’t feel particularly keen on spending time alongside him, especially when that time could have served to make Tom into less of a puzzling character. That wealthy decrypt white guy also…I didn’t buy into him. I get that his attempts to awaken whatever evil supernatural forces he wanted to awaken were meant to be OTP, however, I still found him to be a plot device more than a character (even calling him a caricature seems too generous).
Still, I did for the most part like the author’s style. The story has a strong sense of place and there are some clever descriptions. However, I can’t say that, on the whole, I found this novella particularly gripping or insightful. If you happen to like modern takes on Lovecraftian/cosmic horror this may be the right read for you.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

“She had appeared so glorious to me that I had assumed she had everything she wanted. I wanted to cry for her, and for myself.”



Superbly written The Inseparables is a novella that pairs an enthralling depiction of female friendship with a razor-sharp commentary on gender and religion This is the kind of work of fiction that reads like real life, unsurprising perhaps given that Beauvoir created Sylvie and Andrée after herself and her real-life friend Zaza Lacoin.

Written in a controlled and polished style The Inseparables presents us with a beguiling tale in which Sylvie, our narrator, recounts the enigmatic nature of her bond with Andrée. The two first meet as young girls while enrolled at a private Catholic school and, in spite of the divergence between their religious beliefs, they become, as the title itself suggests, inseparable. Due to the conventions of their time and society—the French bourgeois of the early 20th cent.—they cannot be too close and so have to refrain from being too intimate with one another, for example by addressing each other with the formal you.Still, they keep up a correspondence and talk at length to each other, earning themselves the disapproval of Andrée’s mother who frowns upon their, God forbid, long and possibly intimate conversations.

Sylvie is fascinated by Andrée, in particular, she seems hyperaware, intrigued even, by her self-divide. On the one hand Andrée, a devout Catholic, expresses conservative ideas and opinions, which make her appear particularly naive. On the other Andrée possesses a clever mind and a propensity for expressing surprisingly subversive thoughts. Andrée is a magnetic individual who oscillates between irreverence and conformity. Sylvie, who did not grow up to be a staunchly religious individual (apropos, in a diary entry beauvoir wrote: “i have no other god but myself”), cannot always reconcile herself to Andrée’s way of thinking and struggles to understand the loyalty that Andrée has for her family, which Sylvie herself views as suffocating.

As the two grow up we see how Andrée continues to struggle with understanding her own emotions, trying and failing to contain her fiercer self. We also see how her mother’s constant reprimand have affected her self-worth and distorted her view of herself. When she falls for Pascal, a puritanical young man who seriously considered being a priest, Andrée’s resolve to lead the kind of life that her family, as well as her society, is tested. She desperately wants to escape her present circumstances but this desperation ultimately results in self-sabotage. We witness her unravelling through Sylvie’s eyes, who, as much as she yearns to be of help, cannot ultimately save her.

Beauviour’s piercing commentary on gender, class, and religion was profoundly insightful. She addresses these things with clarity and exactness, illustrating how fatal oppression and repression are on a person’s psyche. What I found particularly touching, and relatable, in this novel was the unrequited nature of Sylve’s love for Andrée. Regardless of whether the love she feels for Andrée is a platonic one or a romantic one, we know that Andrée doesn’t feel the same passion for Sylve. Whether she’s unwilling or unable to reciprocate the iSylve’s feelings, we do not know for certain, however, we can see how deeply this realization cuts Sylvie. Sylvie is shown to be both jealous and resentful of Andrée’s family, holding them responsible for her friend’s unhappiness.

This novella’s subject did bring to mind Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, which also explores an intense female friendship, Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia
(which is far more flowery and sentimental than this but also capture a youth’s unrequited love and longing for another) as well as novel such as Abigail and Frost In May (which are both set in all-girl schools and touch on female friendships and religion).
While Sylvie is both attuned and attentive to Andrée, her moods and beliefs, she does, like we all tend to do, idealise her given that she is her object of desire (whether this is desire is platonic or sexual, it’s up to the reader to decide, i, to no one’s surprise, felt that it was the latter).
This was a riveting read. The prose is sublime, the story an equal parts evocative and tragic exploration of young & unrequited love, heartache, independence, kinship and intimacy.

I will say that as much as I loved this I couldn’t help but the publisher’s short bio of Beauvoir, as well as Levy’s and the translator’s mentions of her, felt very incomplete. As far as I can recall they all omit to mention Beauvoir’s more ‘unethical’ behaviour. As a teacher, she had ‘relationships’ with her underage pupils and went on to sign a petition seeking to abrogate the age of consent in France (because of course age is just a number!). Here you might argue that those things have nothing to do with this novella or her friendship with Zaza (discussed by both Levy and the translator). But I maintain that they do. You can’t just mention the fact that she’s a feminist and try to analyse her real-life friendship with another woman or her commentary on female sexuality while at the same time omitting that in her lifetime she (‘allegedly’) groomed her underage female students and seemed in favour of pedophilia. That she did those things did not detract from my reading experience however it certainly made me a little bit more critical of our narrator’s obsession towards her friend.


Some of my favourite quotes:

“Secretly I thought to myself that Andrée was one of those prodigies about whom, later on, books would be written.”

“No, our friendship was not as important to Andrée as it was to me, but I admired her too much to suffer from it.”

“What would I have daydreamed about? I loved Andrée above all else, and she was right next to me.”

“I thought to myself, distressed, that in books there are people who make declarations of love, or hate, who dare to say whatever comes into their mind, or heart—why is it so impossible to do the same thing in real life?”

“The errors I admitted were those of the soul above all: I had lacked fervour, too long forsaken the divine presence, prayed inattentively, regarded myself too complacently.”

“Andrée was unhappy and the idea of it was unbearable. But her unhappiness was so foreign to me; the kind of love where your kiss had no truth from me.”

“Never. The word had never fallen with such weight upon my heart. I repeated it within myself, under the never-ending sky, and I wanted to cry. ”

“No doubt she loved Andrée in her way, but what way was that? That was the question. We all loved her, only differently. ”

“Happiness suits her so well, I thought.”

““Don’t be sad,” she said. “In every family there’s a bit of rubbish. I was the rubbish.”

“For Andrée, there was a passageway between the heart and the body that remained a mystery to me. ”

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★☆

| | goodreads | tumblr | ko-fi | |

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

“He wanted something agreeable, something sweeter around the edges, but I was never very good at sweet.”

This is one of those rare cases where I ended up preferring a retelling to the original. I’ve only read The Great Gatsby once and at the risk of incurring the wrath & contempt of Fitzgerald aficionados, I did not much care for it. Not only does Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful give new dimensions to Fitzgerald’s characters but she also brings magic into the picture. In Vo’s retelling Jordan Baker is Vietnamese American, queer, and can dabble with magic. While she does move in the same rarefied circles as her friends, she knows that many doors are not open to her. She’s often treated as an ‘exotic’ attraction or made to feel as if she’s one of ‘good ones’. Jordan spends her days partying, drinking, visiting supernatural locales where she can make out with boys and girls alike. As with the original Jordan becomes embroiled in Gatsby and Daisy’s ‘doomed’ love affair.

“He had come to Gatsby’s party, he had eaten the food, he had fallen under Gatsby’s spell. It was already too late.”

While Vo imbues her version of this classic with plenty of original elements (which in my eyes improve the original), the storyline itself does stick to the one from The Great Gatsby. Personally, I wish Vo had strayed away from the original source more as I believe that this could have made the story more surprising (especially for those who are already familiar with this story). While at first, I did enjoy the magical aspect too it felt a bit shoehorned in, at times seeming largely forgotten by the narrative (so that when demons or whatnot are mentioned i would be like, say what now?).
These ‘criticisms’ aside I was dazzled by Vo’s utterly gorgeous writing. Her style reflects the glittering spaces in which these characters move in, but through Jordan’s eyes—someone who only superficially shares the privileges that the people she socialises with take so much for granted—we only glimpse it for what it truly is, a pretty facade. Vo’s descriptions about this society are certainly sumptuous. Readers will be able to picture with ease the dresses, people, and environments that populate Jordan’s world. I loved the almost palpable tension between the various characters, their shifting alliances and small betrayals will make us wonder who is exactly playing who. Vo’s Jordan is far more nuanced than Fitzgerald’s one, and I appreciated her insights into the so-called 1920s American elite.

“What a broken, brittle people, I thought”

I actually found Vo’s Nick and Daisy far more sympathetic in this retelling. While Vo doesn’t sugarcoat their behaviour or attitudes, she’s also willing to be empathetic towards them.
The novel’s biggest strength lies in Vo’s writing. I know I have already said so but it is truly beguiling. There was something really aesthetically pleasing about her prose.
The ending felt a wee bit rushed and I think that this novel could have been easily longer. Anyway, if I ever think of Gatsby & Co. again I won’t be thinking of Fitzgerald’s ones (sorry, not sorry). Vo’s portrayal of obsessive love is truly on point. I can’t wait to read whatever Vo writes next. If you enjoy books by Libba Bray, Catherynne M. Valente, and or Cat Winters, you should definitely give The Chosen and the Beautiful. There is drama, one or two heartbreaks, bedazzling parties, and a sprinkle of magic. Vo’s characters are a perfect blend of charming and unappealing (one second you will find yourself liking them, the next you will want to throttle them) and her writing is next levels of morgeous.

my rating: ★★★½

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Sula by Toni Morrison

They were solitary little girls whose loneliness was so profound it intoxicated them and sent them stumbling into Technicolored visions that always included a presence, a someone, who, quite like the dreamer, shared the delight of the dream.

Toni Morrison’s Sula revolves around the eponymous and fraught character of Sula Peace. Within the novel, Morrison interrogates themes of race, gender and class in the Black neighborhood known as the Bottom, in the fictional town of Medallion. The narrative’s discourse on good and evil, expressed in the Bottom’s demonization of Sula, and its subversion of binary thinking, will force readers to re-evaluate presumptions that arise from labelling people and places as being either good or evil.

The name of the neighborhood at the heart of Sula is an oxymoron since the Bottom is located ‘in the hills above the valley town of Medallion’ (a white farmer tricked his former slave by giving this land and claiming it was ‘fertile bottomland’). The story then introduces Shadrack, who after fighting in WWI returns to the Bottom with PTSD. He creates the ‘National Suicide Day’ and spends his days insulting people on the streets, refusing and or unable to fit in with the people of the Bottom. The narrative then takes us to the 1920s where we are introduced to Nel Wright and Sula Peace, the novel’s central characters.
While Nel is raised to be obedient and polite, Sula is brought up in her grandmother’s hectic boarding house, ‘a house with women who thought all men available’. Nel and Sula become fast friends, an inseparable unit. After one of their stunts goes terribly wrong cracks begin to appear in their relationship but it is Nel’s marriage and Sula leaving for college that ultimately drives the two apart.
Ten years later Sula returns to her hometown, ‘accompanied by a plague of robins’. Because of this bizarre phenomenon, Sula’s arrival is seen as inauspicious by the people of the Bottom. That their mistrust is aggravated by Sula’s physical appearance—which is made striking because of a birthmark over her eye—and her behaviour—her clear disregard of social norms—seals her fate in the eyes of her community.
They demonize Sula, seeing her as an outsider, the ‘other’. Not only do old rumours about Sula resurface, but that she puts her elderly grandmother in a nursing house, sleeps with married men, and is said to have slept with white men, further antagonizes the people of the Bottom against her. Nel seems the only one happy to be reunited with Sula but their friendship is destroyed after one betrays the other.
Sula becomes the scapegoat for Bottom whose inhabitants are convinced that ‘Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another’. They are empowered by Sula’s refusal to behave in accordance with their social norms, banding ‘together against the devil in their midst’. Yet they refuse to ‘destroy’ Sula, since however ‘ungodly’ she may be, to drive her out of town or to ‘mob kill’ would be to them both ‘unnatural’ and ‘undignified’. In creating the ‘evil one’ – Sula – they are creating the ‘good one’ – themselves.

Sula is by no means an easy read. The story is punctuated by poverty, addiction, shame, jealousy, hatred. Characters kill their loved ones or seem unmoved by tragic and horrific events. Yet, Morrison herself never condemns Sula or the inhabitants of the Bottom. She forces her readers to question whether Sula is the way she is because of ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’, and even then she reminds us that although Sula’s actions cause others’ pain, she is not an evil person.
Morrison demonstrates how distorting and transforming someone into a devil or a monster is dangerous: the author, unlike her characters, passes no judgements on Sula’s ‘transgressions’, and makes readers aware of the way in which the people of the Bottom enjoy and profit from condemning Sula as ‘evil’. By contrasting the characters of Sula and Nel, Morrison is also able to question the validity of labels such as ‘evil’ and ‘good’ since the two friends are often described as being one and the same, able to find ‘in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for’, yet Nel is seen as ‘good’ and Sula as ‘bad’. The bond between Sula and Nel remains at the fore of the narrative, and I loved how deep it ran.

Sula makes for a bleak, brutal even, read. Morrison is unflinching in her depictions of racism, violence, abuse, and illness. Her prose is simply terrific as she slips with ease between different point of views, never elevating any one’s character perspective. In spite of its brevity Sula packs a punch. It will upset you, anger you, and possibly depress you….but it is a stunning piece of fiction, one that I find myself often thinking about.

my rating: ★★★★☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

“As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable.”

Similarly to Passing, Quicksand is a study of ambivalence. But whereas Passing centered on the complex dynamic—which ranges from enmity to a kinship of sorts—between two light-skinned Black women in 1920s New York, Quicksand follows the experiences of one woman, Helga Crane, whose restlessness sees her moving from Chicago to Harlems before venturing out to Copenhagen. Helga, daughter to a white Danish mother and an African-American father, has always felt like an outsider. By the time the narrative begins, Helga’s mother is long dead and her father is MIA. Helga’s white relations refuse or are unwilling to acknowledge her existence. Her lack of ‘people’ leads her to feel a degree of alienation, even resentment, towards the Black community.

“She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity.”

At the beginning of Quicksand Helga is a schoolteacher in Naxos but feels increasingly dissatisfied by her environment. She makes the impulsive decision to break things off with her beau, who also teaches at her school, and quit her job in pursuit of a more fulfilling life and perhaps a place in which she could ‘belong’ (“No family. That was the crux of the whole matter. […] If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t ‘belong’.”) Although in Harlem she makes new acquaintances and friends, Helga’s loneliness and restlessness do not dissipate. She decides to once again leave her life behind by traveling to Copenhagen to live with an Aunt.
This is more of a slow-burner than Passing. Helga is a very inward-looking character, and her narrative is light on dialogue or action. Her reflections on her identity, race, America, her unshakable unhappiness will definitely resonate with contemporary readers. Yet, Helga herself remains in many ways a bit of a cipher. This is undoubtedly intentional, as the narrative underlines other characters’ impression of her (that she is elusive, frigid, standoffish). The story perhaps would have benefited from less telling and more showing (there were quite a few scenes that are summarized in a rather speedy fashion and I wish we had gotten to read witness them ‘first hand’).
Still, I love the way Nella Larsen writes. Her writing is phenomenal, her prose ranging from being elegantly perceptive (a la Edith Wharton) to searingly direct (a la Toni Morrison). The longing and ennui experienced by Helga also brought to mind the titular heroine in Madame Bovary (even in the desire they both feel towards material goods).
It is saddening that Larsen published only these two novels. Quicksand is a fascinating character study, one that manages to capture the time and places in which Helga lives. The narrative is at once opaque, never quite revealing Helga’s true feelings, and startlingly lucid, especially when it comes to conveying Helga’s self-divide.

“Life became for her only a hateful place where one lived in intimacy with people one would not have chosen had one been given choice. It was, too, an excruciating agony.”

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Readers, I am disappointed.

Plain Bad Heroines was one of my most anticipated 2020 releases…maybe I should have ‘hyped’ it so much. This is certainly an ambitious novel, one that is a few hundred pages too long. There were elements that I liked, but these were ultimately outweighed by my frustration toward the tone of the narrative, the dual storylines, and the characters.
Plain Bad Heroines begins at Brookhants School in 1902 when two students, Clara and ‘Flo’, who happen to be lovers are swallowed by “a fog of wasps”. Another death soon rocks the school, and all of the girls shared a fascination for Mary MacLane’s work (The Story of Mary Maclane & I Await the Devil’s Coming). The narrator, who playfully reminds us of their presence with plenty of direct addresses, footnotes, and asides. We do not know the identity of the narrator, but they posses an almost omniscient knowledge of the events they are recounting.
In the present three young women—all in their twenties—work on a film adaptation on a book called ‘The Happenings at Brookhants’. The book was written by one of these girls, Merritt (a character whom I lowkey hated) who happens to know Elaine Brookhants. Then we have Harper Harper, an up and coming actress/influencer whose personality revolves around her celebrity status, who will play Flo, and Audrey Wells (I actually had to check out her name as I could not remember it on top of my head…that’s how memorable she was) the daughter of a ‘scream queen’ who so far has an acted in B movies and ads.
The section set in the present doesn’t involve these three girls bonding or finding more about what happened at Brookhants. We are never told very much about Merritt’s book, so we don’t know how much they know about the whole affair. This timeline is also not all that concerned with filmmaking. What this storyline cares about is famous people: how they are followed by journalists or fans, how their lives revolve around instagram, how little privacy they have, and of their self-fashioning ways. The three girls do not really along. Their meeting, which happens quite a good chunk into this slow burner of a novel, reads like something that belongs in the realms ofGossip Girl or Scream Queens. And here I was hoping for an actual horror or at least something in realms of American Horror Story (the first seasons of course).
Our not-as-half-as-amusing-as-they-think-they-are narrator never really delves into these characters. It mostly describes what they are saying or doing. It focuses more on their ‘role’ (Harper=celebrity, Audrey=daughter of an 80s horror actress, Merritt=not like other girls writer). Their personalities are…kind of not there. Merritt is the only one with a semblance of one, and it ain’t a good one. The narrative tries really hard to establish Merritt’s ‘prickly’ personality (in a few occasion Merritt says or asks something generic and we are told “Merrit said like Merritt would” or “Merrit asked like Merritt would”). She’s petty, cruel, and domineering. She’s given a Sad Backstory™, so Readers are meant to let her behaviour slide. Except that this Reader could and would not. She seems blissfully unaware of her own privilege (she’s in her early twenties and has published a book, her mother teaches at a university and she has access to the library there, they are adapting her book and want her to be part of the process). She’s also not ‘plain’ looking. Her hair is pink because she’s Not Like Other Girls™ (a random character tells her she has “great fucking hair”) and she is also called hot by Harper. Yet, throughout the course of the book, Merritt acts like a fifteen-year-old girl who is spending too much time on Tumblr. Her pettiness is unwarranted and uncalled for, her jealousy is also over the top (she’s only just met Harper and she already jealous at the possibility of Audrey working alongside her…yet she knows that Harper is already in an open relationship).
Harper is also not plain. She’s famous, beloved, and uber cool. She has short hair, tattoos, smokes, and rides a bike. And of course, she also has a Sad Backstory™. The story mentions some family-related drama, but this a thread that is never truly resolved. Her motivations, desires, fears…who knows? I sure don’t. Maybe she likes Merritt? Maybe not?
While Audrey may not be plain looking, her personality is definitely plain. She doesn’t seem to possess any discernible traits.
Anyway, these three ‘work’ together (there are actually very few scenes that take place while they are working on the film sadly) and weird things start happening (we have wasps, weird weather, and a general heebie jeebies atmosphere).

The storyline set in the past had much more potential. Sadly, it doesn’t focus on Clara or Flo (their lives prior to their peculiar deaths of course) or Brookhants but rather it follows the headmistress of the school who lives in a house nicknamed ‘Spite Manor’. She lives with her lover, who also teaches at Brookhants. This timeline was definitely more Gothic, and there were scenes that struck me as quite atmospheric and well-executed. Sadly however the relationship between the two women was a let down, as it never struck me as the complex love story I was hoping for. Creepy things begin to happen, and they begin to grow apart. The deaths of three of their pupils forces them to question whether the ‘supernatural’ is to be blamed.

I was hoping for a Gothic love story, with some horror undertones. What we actually get is a work that is extremely meta. Some may find the narrator to be amusing, I mostly didn’t. The mystery is the most disappointing aspect of the whole book. It was very anticlimactic, as we simply get a chapter in which our narrator explains things to us. Flo, Clara, and the other girl are unimportant, they function as the Dead Girl trope. We don’t learn anything more about them after the 20% mark or so nor do we learn more about the book Merritt has written about them.
The storyline set in the present never reaches its apotheosis. Nothing major happens, there is no overlapping between the two timelines.
While I loved to see so many queer women, the relationships they have with one another are…a let down. Mean Girls ahoy. We have Merritt who says things like “Significant eye roll” or scenes in which characters take selfies, duplies, even quadruplies (uuuugh). More attention is paid to their hair and clothes than their actual personalities. Harper and Merritt begin flirting as soon as they meet, and later on, when there are more scenes of them together, they mostly bicker. They are sort of physically attracted to each other, but there is no real connection between them (I craved longing, passion, LOVE).
The creepy elements…aren’t all that creepy? If you have spheksophobia you might find this book scary…I mean, wasps do not inspire any real fear in me (I don’t like them, they strike me as kind of mean, in fact, I love CalebCity’s sketch on them). Mary’s writing is extremely camp and I just found it silly. While I could see why the girls back in the 1900s could be enthralled by it…I had a harder time believing that Merritt or Harper could find it as compelling.

Perhaps I approached this book with the wrong expectations (I saw Sarah Waters’ name on the cover so…) but Plain Bad Heroines was not the Gothic novel I was hoping it to be. The ‘past’ timeline was far from being a satisfying historical tale of paranormal suspense (I was hoping for something on the lines of Picnic at Hanging Rock meets A Great and Terrible Beauty). On the plus side: at least it was hella sapphic. I also liked the illustrations by Sara Lautman (I wish there had been more) and the chapter names could be kind funny.

Anyway, just because I didn’t think that this book was the bees knees (or perhaps I should say wasps knees) doesn’t mean that you won’t love it as it may as well be your cup of tea.

 

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars out of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

“I had always understood, of course, that the task of rooting out evil in its most devious forms, often just when it is about to go unchecked, is a crucial and solemn undertaking.”

As much as it pains me to admit this…I didn’t particularly care for this novel. While it is written in Kazuo Ishiguro’s trademark prose, which is both eloquent and introspective, the more I read and the less invested I felt in the story and in particular in Christopher Banks, our narrator and protagonist. It saddens me not to have enjoyed When We Were Orphans as I consider Ishiguro to be an excellent writer and certainly a favourite of mine. Then again, Ishiguro himself said that “It’s not my best book”. Still, while I wasn’t expecting When We Were Orphans to be as poignant as
The Remains of Day or Never Let Me Go, I hoped that I would at least find it to be an engaging read.
At first I was intrigued by the narrative. Although Christopher is a famous detective his investigations are only alluded to. This itself is very unusual and it subverts the reader’s expectations. Usually, when a book revolves around a detective chances are that whatever case(s) they are working on will be a central part of the story. Here instead Christopher’s job is treated like any other job. It is Christopher himself who is a mystery. Ishiguro introduces us to certain aspects of his life, for example at first we read many scenes in which he is socialising at glitzy parties or events. The story begins in the 1930s England and Christopher is slowly making a name for himself. We learn that he is an orphan and that he grew up in the International Settlement of Shanghai. As with other novels by Ishiguro our narrator finds himself recollecting a certain period of his life, in this case is childhood. He reconsiders figures and scenes from his past, scrutinizing and questioning his own memories, re-experiencing specific episodes both through the uncomprehending eyes of a child and through his newly acquired adult perspective.
Scenes from his past are interspersed throughout Christopher’s narrative. In the present he meets Sarah, a young woman who also happens to be an orphan. Sarah seems intent on upward social mobility or so we can assume given that she expresses a wish to marry someone of importance. We also learn more of Christopher’s circumstances.
Throughout his careful examination of his past Christopher remains a somewhat remote and cautious narrator. Usually I find cold or detached narrators to be right up my street (such as with Brontë and Kincaid’s Lucys) but Christopher’s opaqueness seemed a bit contrived at times. He remains a half-formed thing for much of his narrative. For instance, when he is thinking of childhood it is Akira who steals ‘the sh0w’. Child-Christopher remains an amorphous figure, who possesses no discernible traits.
Still, I appreciated the way he considers the limitations of memory, how certain events are coloured by later ones, how some incidents will always remain unclear.
What seems to drive his remembrance is the loss of his parents (the exact nature of which we learn quite late in the narrative). The second half of the novel sees Christopher back in Shanghai and here things take on a hazy quality. While in the first half there are many time skips, I never felt that I was missing out on any vital scene. Once Christopher is Shanghai however I started to feel mildly annoyed by how many things happened off page. Nothing is explained to us, we are simply made to go along with Christopher and his outlandish plans. He finds himself in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War and kind of loses his marbles. He makes foolish decisions and behaves in an abhorrent fashion. I could not for the life of me believe that he felt any particular strong feelings for Sarah. During his earlier reminiscence I did not feel his grief or anguish when he considered his parents. And yet, all of a sudden, it seems imperative for him to uncover the truth. The more ill-behaved he became the more antipathy I felt for him and the book as a whole. This character change was abrupt and doubtful. While Christopher never struck me as a particularly likeable or kind person he seemed a level-headed and sensible person. And then he just becomes this increasingly tyrannical, inconsiderate, and impudent man.
The mystery was anti-climatic and the story lacked a cohesive structure or at least a rewarding storyline. Christopher remains undeveloped and uninteresting, while the secondary character seemed mere devices. Take Akira for example…his role in the story is disappointing. At the end especially he just ‘puffs’, vanishes, disappears. Christopher doesn’t think of him or their last encounter.
Nevertheless Ishiguro’s prose is certainly refined and, to begin with, thoughtful. His dialogues always ring true, from the words they use to express themselves to the vernaculars they use, even when the motivations of his characters don’t. He certainly succeeds in evoking the society in which Christopher moves, as well as the cultural differences between England and China. While I didn’t particularly enjoy this novel I still consider Ishiguro to be one of the best writers ‘out there’.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

“Like I said already, I hunt monsters. And I got a sword that sings.”

Ring Shout is an action-driven historical novella that combines horror with the kind of anime that have magical swords & monsters-posing-as-humans in them. The story takes place in Georgia during the 1920s and follows a group of black women who hunt monsters who take the form of KKK members. This is neat concept and I would definitely encourage other readers to pick this one up (I particularly recommend the audiobook version as I found Channie Waites’ narration to be spot on). The story did strike me as a rather rushed and somewhat formulaic. Maybe I shouldn’t have read this so soon after finishing another novella by P. Djèlí Clark but Ring Shout shares much in common with his other work. If we leave the setting aside we have a young woman who is the ‘chosen one’ or happens to be the ‘only one’ who can save the world. The stakes, dare I say, are too high for such a short format. If this had been a full-length novel, I wouldn’t have minded as much. Here the side characters have rather one-dimensional personalities (we have the joker, the handsome love interest, the more level-headed in the team, the German who is Marx aficionado, three aunties reminiscent of the Moirai). Still, at least they had personalities. The main character, on the other hand, is very much defined by her ‘chosen one’ role. Nevertheless I obviously rooted for her as she slays KKK monsters.
While it wasn’t a particularly thought-provoking novella (the whole discussion on good & evil was somewhat condensed) it makes for a quick and relatively gripping read starring badass black & queer girls/women. There is gore, some pretty-epic fight sequences, a few moments of respite, and a lot of banter. The author present his readers with some real creepy visuals (the mouths, enough said) and some subversive ideas. Overall, if you are new to his work this is definitely worth checking out (it will make for a solid Halloween read).

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads