The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Originally published in 1946 The Honjin Murders is a locked-room murder mystery. Throughout the course of the novel, the author pays homage to Golden Age detective novels, by alluding directly to authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and their works and by being quite self-aware when it comes to the conventions that characterise this genre. Sadly, despite my being a fan of detective novels and classic whodunits, The Honjin Murders failed to catch my interest nor I was impressed by its intertextuality. The narrative doesn’t really subvert any of the tropes it mentions, in fact, it seemed to me that it follows too closely in the steps of those classic detective novels. The way the whole murder is related to us also distanced me somewhat. The narrative is very heavy on the telling, with the same events being recapitulated one time too many. The narrator, I’ve forgotten what, if any, role he plays in the case, begins by mentioning this very ‘interesting’ case and relates the day of the murders and the subsequent investigation in an almost matter-of-fact manner. He’s somehow able to recount conversations and interactions that he had no way of witnessing and keeps foreshadowing what is to come in a way that didn’t add any intrigue or suspense to the story. The characters were one-note, dull even.

The murder takes place in the village of Okamura during the winter of 1937. The oldest son of the Ichiyanagi, a family of repute, is set to marry a teacher. Many of his family members aren’t keen on his marrying ‘down’, but he refuses to budge. The wedding takes place and on that very same night, the newlywed couple is found dead in a locked room. The evidence seems to point to a stranger who was sighted in the village earlier in the day. A relative of the bride reaches out to Kosuke Kindaichi, a sort-of-kid detective who, much like Poirot and his ‘little grey cells’, uses ‘logic’ to figure out the culprit and their motives.
I figured out the murderer pretty early on in the narrative which definitely decreased my engagement in the murder investigation.
Predictable and kind of dry (maybe this is due to my having read a translation) The Honjin Murders may appeal to those who haven’t read a lot of detective novels or perhaps those who aren’t seeking anything particularly riveting or complex.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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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: ★★★★☆

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The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

For a book published in the 90s The Kitchen God’s Wife comes across as strangely outdated. And I guess in spite of Tan’s writing—which is far from mediocre or incompetent—I could not look past the fact that her story was the antithesis of female solidarity.

At first I was taken by Tan’s storytelling. The first 40 pages or so, those that take place in the ‘present’, were enjoyable. We learn that Pearl, a woman in her thirties, has always had a difficult relationship with Winnie, her mother. Some of this is due to generational and cultural differences but, as we soon learn, both mother and daughter have kept secrets from each other. When Winnie’s sister-in-law Helen/Hulan announces that she can no longer keep silent about their past, Winnie is forced to recount her many trials and hardships to her daughter. This is where the novel lost me. I find this kind of cheesy melodrama meets misery porn to be exceedingly frustrating. Winnie is basically Cinderella or the classic Mary Sue: 99% of people around her use her and abuse her. Every female character, with the exception of Grand Auntie Du, is cruel, vain, stupid, ugly, and or ungrateful. Winnie, on the other hand, is an angel. She is not like other girls. She endures and she suffers because she has aspirations to martyrdom.
Given that she is recounting past experiences directly—ie we get a 1st pov—you would think that at one point or another Winnie could express uncertainty over the accuracy of her memories or wonder if others recall things differently. But no! She keeps insisting that ‘this is what happened’ and that Helen is a liar who remembers things wrong. And, speaking of Helen, rather than painting a complex and fraught friendship, Tan presents us with the goody two shoes Winnie and the ugly, stupid, and venal Helen who is not only a horrible friend to Winnie but a lousy human being.
Anyway, Winnie recounts her tragic past: her mother abandons her, she is shunned by her wealthy father and raised by cartoonishly wicked relatives. In relating these experiences Winnie alway makes a point of emphasising her inherent goodness and beauty, often by making little digs about women’s failings. Winnie ends up marrying a horrible man who possess only vices. Her reminded me of the ‘bad’ men from The Giver of Stars and novels by Kristin Hannah. Personally, I prefer more nuanced characters. Tan also often conflates a characters’ physical appearance with their personality—so if one has an ugly character they will be indeed ‘ugly’ on the outside—which feels a tad…old-fashioned? Maybe it would be more suited to a novel dated from the 19th century than the 1990s.
The only sections that were somewhat interesting and whinging-free were the ones that stuck to facts. For example, when Tan writes details statics and about the Sino-Japanese War (as opposed to Winnie’s own experiences in it). When she writes of Nanking I felt much more horrified and moved than I was by anything related to Winnie.
Sadly, Winnie’s narrative is more intent on dissing on Helen than anything else. Here are some the lovely things she says/thinks about Helen: “Her mouth dropped open to let this thought come in and nourish her brain. I was thinking, Good, even though she is uneducated, she is quick to learn something new.” / “She was plump, but not in that classical way of a peach whose pink skin is nearly bursting with sweetness. Her plumpness was round and overflowing in uneven spots, more like a steamed dumpling with too much filling leaking out of the sides. She had thick ankles and large hands, and feet as broad as boat paddles. ” / her hair was “lumpy” / she had no sense of fashion, none at all.” / “a simple country girl”.
And Winnie goes on to tell Pearl that: “I am not being critical in remembering her features just because I am angry with her now”. Sure hon, go on and keep lying to yourself. Winnie never takes any responsibility. Everything is and or always was all Helen’s fault. Helen is ugly inside and out, “she broke harmony between us. I tell you, that day Hulan showed me her true character. She was not the soft melon head she made everyone believe she was. That girl could throw out sharp words, slicing fast as any knife”. And of course, “She’s the complaining one, not I”. I’m not so sure about that one Winnie…the story ended up being less about domestic abuse, war, and survival, then a woman going on and on about how her ‘supposed’ friend is a trash human being.
I swear, every few pages, Winnie would say something such as: “Who is the better cook? You see! I am not boasting. It’s true. ” / “You know what I think? When Jiaguo got his promotion, Hulan gave herself a promotion too! In her mind, she was more important than I was. ” / “She was always unhappy until I was the same level of unhappy as she was.” / “You would think Hulan would remember those hard little cakes, and then put a few coins, or maybe some food, into the beggar girl’s bowl, which is what I did. I’m not saying I did this all the time. But Hulan did not do this even once. Instead she put more food into her own mouth. She added fat onto her body the same way a person saves gold or puts money into a bank account, something she could use if worse came to worst.” / “So you see, I think it was some little river crabs Hulan wanted to eat in Changsha. That’s what made us sick. It stayed in our bodies and broke out one day.” / “She will probably tell you it was instant true love. Maybe for him. But I think she was being practical”….and I cannot stand this lousy portrayal of female ‘friendship’. Women, with the exception of Winnie, are catty and fake. Men, with the exception of Winnie’s Chinese-American second husband—are stupid, cowardly, or abusive sadists.
Other girls Winnie encounters also receive a similar treatment to Helen’s one. Winnie sometimes pretends to be nice (claiming that she didn’t hate a woman before stressing how selfish or unkind that woman was) but, in actuality, she is anything but. She describes a girl she dismisses as “stuck-up” as having “red as a demon’s” eyes. Her first husband’s new wife is not only “bossy” in both attitude and appearance but “stupid” (“You see how stupid his new wife was?”). Winnie also makes some weird comments about Burmese and Cantonese people, seems to relish the idea that Peanut, yet another cruel/vain girl, “who used to pride herself on the paleness of her skin. And now she was almost as dark as a Cantonese!”.
And yes, sure, Winnie suffers. Her husband is a monster with no redeeming qualities and with the exception of Grand Auntie Du and her American-born husband…well, everyone else is bad news.
I dislike this kind of ‘girl-on-girl hate’ and the whole Winnie=Cinderella thing was hella annoying.
Thankfully, I bought my copy of this book in a second-hand shop (then again, I will never get back the hours I spent reading this). While I wouldn’t recommend this novel to anyone in particular I’m aware that Tan is an extremely popular writer so….maybe it’s just me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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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

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Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie — book review

Death on the Nile is one of Agatha Christie’s most ingenious mysteries. While Christie has definitely penned more ‘twisty’ whoddunits, the shifting dynamics between the book’s various players make for a suspenseful story.
With the exception of our wonderfully punctilious Poirot, Death on the Nile is almost entirely populated by unlikable characters (who are either blatantly racist or express misogynistic and classist sentiments). While Christie’s characters are in essence stereotypes—the self-centred socialites, the oppressive mothers, the vociferous communist, the self-effacing plain-Jane, the vengeful scorned woman—to dismiss them as ‘shallow’ or ‘caricatures’ is rather unjustified. Through her sharp-wit, Christie observes how duplicitous her characters are, regardless of their class and gender. The murder victim is initially presented as heroine of sorts: admired for her beauty, wealth, and altruism. But, here and there, we see glimpses of her flippant and selfish nature.
Throughout the course of the novel, Poirot, as per usual, demonstrates the power of his little grey cells. His denouement, however, wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed how enraged the suspects became once Poirot confronts them about their lies (I mean, they had it coming).

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Charioteer by Mary Renault — book review

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“He was filled with a vast sense of the momentous, of unknown mysteries. He did not know what he should demand of himself, nor did it seem to matter, for he had not chosen this music he moved to, it had chosen him.”

This is the fifth time I’ve read The Charioteer and once again I’ve been swept away by it. The Charioteer is quite likely my favourite novel of all time as there are few books that I care as much about.
There is something comforting about The Charioteer, which is strange given that Mary Renault’s impenetrable prose demands her readers’ full attention. There are the coded conversations, thoughts and feelings are often only obliquely hinted at, the pages are full of 40s slang, and there are constant allusions to the ancient classics. Yet, her writing also has a languid quality, perhaps reflective of her protagonist’s convalescence, which I found truly enthralling.
In an almost Bildungsroman fashion The Charioteer introduces us to Laurie as a child. This first chapter recounts a significant moment of his childhood and is followed by a chapter of him at school where he has a memorable encounter with the Head of the School, Ralph Lanyon. The subsequent chapters follow Laurie as he’s recovering from a war injury at a hospital. Here he meets and falls for Andrew, a conscientious objector who is now working as an orderly.
While Laurie is aware of his sexuality, and believes that Andrew reciprocates his feelings, he’s unwilling to reveal to Andrew the true depth of his emotions. By chance Laurie ends up re-connecting with Ralph. As the title of the novel suggests, Laurie’s story can be likened to the myth of the charioteer from Phaedrus.
Now, I know that my summary doesn’t do this novel justice. I don’t wish to reveal too much about the story or its characters. Still, I can say that The Charioteer presents us with a beautiful narrative, one that captures a particular moment in time. The characters’ days are punctuated by Imminent Danger sirens, air raids, shortages. Laurie, alongside other patients, has to obey the hospital’s strict rules. Under Renault’s hand, the war seems almost ‘normal’, and characters will often discuss it as they would any other topic.
Renault’s portrayal of the gay community feels both intimate and compelling. While Laurie himself feels uneasy towards those he deems as ‘flamboyant’ or ‘effeminate’, the narrative doesn’t share his prejudices. Renault’s characters often engage themselves in conversations relating to their role in society, often professing contrasting beliefs. The views they express may ruffle some readers, as they often speak about their sexuality as a limitation or they seem dismissive towards other gay men (partly because both Laurie and Ralph are private individuals and do not wish to be a source of gossip). Their discussion on ethics and morality were riveting, and I soon lost myself in the rhythm of their back and forth.
The novel is as interested in what the characters say as it is with what they don’t say, whether this is due to self-censoring or self-denial. Although Laurie is the story’s protagonist, much of what he feels remains off page. Renault will often only allude to Laurie’s most innermost feelings. Because of this Laurie, and other characters, often seem like unsolvable puzzles. This is quite fitting given that self-knowledge and self-deception are central themes within this narrative.
Laurie’s story is also one that is concerned with connection. Although he becomes fast friends with another patient, he fears being ‘known’. Yet, in spite of this sense of loneliness, he is reticent about ‘embracing’ his community (“He kept telling me I was queer, and I’d never heard it called that before and didn’t like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don’t feel much in common with […]”).
Miscommunications abound in this novel. At times the characters make tentative attempts to form more meaningful relationships but they often betray themselves by not saying what they want to say or by saying the wrong things.

Renault captures with poignancy sadness, anxiety, self-divide, awkwardness, tenderness, longing, ambiguity, confusion, honour, passion, and hope. Her characters reveal her piercing understanding of human nature. Through her expressive and elegant writing Renault demonstrates her inside knowledge of the society she depicted (Renault was both a lesbian and a nurse, which is possibly why she can so conjure up both queer parties and the daily routines of a hospital).
I love everything about this novel. Laurie’s quest for identity, the struggle between his desires and his ideals, is as moving as it is thought-provoking.
A truly complex and multi-layered masterpiece that is both heart-rending and intelligent.
Impenetrable, subtle, beautiful, touching. I can’t recommend this novel strongly enough.
If you are a fan of gay classics (such as MauriceCarolGiovanni’s Room, and the underrated Olivia ), you should definitely give Renault a try. I don’t think I will ever get tired of re-reading this novel. Each time my understanding for the characters, their inner-struggles and relationships, deepens (although i own a copy of this, this time around i read a kindle copy from overdrive…and i ended up making nearly 500 highlights….which, yeah, that’s how much i love this story).

ps: if you have anything negative so say about Ralph, I will fight you
(i’m only half-jesting)

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende — book review

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Isabel Allende is one of my all time favourite writers.
When I was in middle-grade I fell in love with her Eagle and Jaguar series and in the years since I’ve enjoyed other novels by her.
Having loved her memoir of Chile, My Invented Country, I was looking forward to A Long Petal of the Sea as it promised to be an evocative account of Spanish refugees in Chile.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, this novel tells the story of a young doctor, Victor Dalmau, who alongside his sister-in-law and many of their compatriots are forced into exile. The narrative opens in Spain, introducing us to Victor, his family, and Roser. Here Allende spends large sections to detailing the causes and consequences of the Spanish Civil War. We read of the bleak reality of soldiers such as Victor’s brother as well as the dangers faced by civilians. Victor, who is fighting against the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, soon realises that the only way he and his loved ones can survive is by leaving their once beloved but now unrecognisable country.
Enter the poet Pablo Neruda. It is thanks to him and the Winnipeg ship that around 2,000 refugees were able to escape a war torn Europe. In Chile Victor and Roser will have to learn to acclimate to a culture that is different from their own one. Their new status as refugees is not an easy one to embrace and both Victor and Roser will find difficulties in adjusting themselves to their new home.
On paper the story sounded like a tragic yet poignant epic. Sadly, within the first pages I soon picked up on the fact that in this novel Allende’s writing is all-telling and no-showing. There are a few brief dialogues here and there, but for the most part it is an act-by-act account of historical events with a few uninspired soap-operish elements thrown into the mix.
This ‘happened’, and then this ‘happened’, and years later this ‘happened’. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much if the style hadn’t been so very dry. I never grew connected to the people she was writing of because they didn’t really strike me as real people (which is ironic given that there are a few cameos of real-life people).

I managed to make my way through this narrative but only out of a sense of duty (towards Allende, whom I still consider to be an excellent writer and towards NetGalley). Usually it takes me a few days to finish a book…A Long Petal of the Sea took me over a week.

In the acknowledgments section Allende writes that “This book wrote itself, as if it had been dictated to me”. And in some ways it makes sense. This book feels like a blow by blow recital. The story lacks spontaneity and life, the characters are expandable.

While I recognise the vast amount of research that Allende must have carried out in order to write this book, and that she was inspired by the story of someone she personally knew…the writing is this novel far too passive for my taste.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

2505972493_e0150cbe1c_b.jpgInvitation to the Waltz is a short novel which was first published in 1932 and written by Rosamond Lehmann, an overlooked yet clearly talented author. The narrative takes place over the course of two days: the day of Olivia Curtis’ seventeenth birthday and the day in which, together with her older sister Kate and a dullish male chaperone, she goes to her first dance.

“And they waltzed together to the music made for joy. She danced with him in love and sorrow. He held her close to him, and he was far away from her, far from the music, buried and indifferent. She danced with his youth and his death.”

This is not the type of novel that has a clear storyline or plot. Lehmann spends a large portion of her narrative conveying Olivia’s various states of mind and detailing the frivolous chit-chat between the people around her on these two separate days (from her family members to her neighbours).
From the start readers will be aware of Olivia’s self-awareness over her own shyness and inexperience. Feeling inferior to the more mature and beautiful Kate, Olivia is desperately looking forward to her first dance as she hopes that something will happen there, even if she does not know exactly what that something should or will be. Lehmann skilfully renders Olivia’s innermost thoughts, emphasising the elusive shape of her desires. Olivia’s character brought to mind the nameless narrator of Rebecca as they are both almost painfully aware of being seen as young and green by the people around them. Olivia comes to mythologize the dance, regarding this event as something more than a rite of passage.

Lehmann’s style possesses an unflagging rhythm that effectively propels readers along. Between Olivia’s inner monologue and the constant—and often empty—chatter between the various characters Lehmann’s narrative almost becomes too much. The way in which she moves from conversation to conversation or from thought to thought gave her style a syncopated energy that was too nervy for my liking (it brought to mind the writing of Muriel Spark and Dorothy Baker).
I can definitely see why many readers compare Lehmann to Virginia Woolf. At the best of times I will find stream of consciousness to be too florid for my taste…so I was slightly put off by Lehmann’s use of this technique.

The long-awaited dance did not strike me as particularly memorable as lot of potentially significant scenes or conversations are absorbed into the noisy and forgettable chatter and general hubbub of the party.

On the one hand, I appreciated how upbeat this novel is and the way Lehmann captured that awkward transition between girlhood and adulthood…on the other, I can’t say that I was particularly engaged by her narrative or her characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton — book review


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Whodunnits, Agatha Christie, mysteries, and puzzles are all favourites of mine…so I was pretty excited to read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle as it promised to combine all of these things together.

“I suddenly have the sense of taking part in a play in which everybody knows their lines but me.”

With a fascinating premise and unique structure I was expecting The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle to be an amazing read…and while it certainly did succeeded in grabbing my attention, I was ultimately unconvinced by much of its narrative, which struck me as confusing for the sole sake of being confusing.35967101.jpg

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the type of book that will make you want to scratch your head in confusion and start taking notes. The story maintains its momentum through a blend of action and detection. To start with, I enjoyed how complex the story seemed to be. It definitely kept me guessing and wondering what would happen next. After the half-way point however it seemed to me that all of the different threads were becoming knotted together in a rather tangled mess.

A few of my gripes

➜The Groundhog Day scenario would have been interesting enough…and yet Stuart Turton seems to have felt the need to make his story all the more convoluted by adding weird rules (view spoiler) or using the ‘time-loop’ excuse to make things go a certain way.

➜I know that this is the type of novel that requires one to suspend their disbelief…and I was willing to do so for the seven-days-in-one thing but I struggled to believe in the historical setting. The period was chosen as an homage to Agatha Christie…which is fair enough. There are certain 1930s aesthetics that lend themselves quite nicely to a whodunnit. In Turton’s novel however we have a murky image of this period…the dialogue felt gimmicky and the narrative never gave a clear impression of what year the party was actually taking place in. Just a vague ‘after the War’ sort of setting. The guests attending the party acted in a very impolite manner. Customs and conventions are often forgotten in favour of creating some drama between characters. Everybody seems ready to shoot one another (these type of people usually prefer to shoot pigeons and whatnot) and they are so openly aggressive and rude as to seem completely unconvincing. Turton’s portrayal of the class divide is frankly misleading (so that we will have servants act with open hostility towards the guests).
This cast of characters would have been better suited to a story in the Old Wild West.

➜The whodunnit should have been the heart of the novel. Yet, it is often obscured by a series of weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird nonsense that is there only to confuse the reader. If I were to take the whodunnit out of this ‘context’ it would just seem over-the-top. If you’ve read a few novels by Christie—or any other Golden Age Detective novel—you are bound to find the whole thing derivative. The other mystery is rendered in such a backhanded sort of way as not to be all that compelling.

➜The twists were mildly annoying. (view spoiler)

With so much focus on the structure of his story Turton ends up neglecting the characterisations of his characters so that most of them appear as little more than thinly rendered caricatures. Some of Aiden’s hosts possessed similarly unpleasant and interchangeable personalities while a lot of the men at this party acted in the same blustering way. None of the characters affected me on an emotional level as they seemed closer to cardboard cutouts than real people. The footman is such a laughably one-dimensional villain (seriously, he hunts Aiden singing “Run, rabbit, run”) and so is the main culprit.

➜Turton’s writing could occasionally resort to eye-roll worthy descriptions such as “Blakheath shrinks around me, shrivelling like a spider touched to the flame” and “our entire future’s written in the creases around her eyes; that pale white face is a crystal ball with only horrors in the fog”. Phrases such as these made Aiden’s narration seem rather theatrical.

Overall
The story is so focused on eluding its readers as to leave a lot to be desired. From the poorly rendered time period to the cartoonish characters…this novel was a bit of mess. Still, I did stick to it so it was obviously doing at least something right.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier — book review

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Rebecca is a work of Gothic suspense that is told in a mesmerising prose and makes for an enthralling and evocative read.

“Colour and scent and sound, rain and the lapping of water, even the mists of autumn and the smell of the flood tide, these are memories of Manderley that will not be denied.”

While reading Rebecca I realised that I was already familiar with its opening lines and some of the novel’s key scenes. This may be because of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca film or thanks to the hilarious sketch by That Mitchell and Webb Look.
In many ways Rebecca—its story, its characters, its use of Gothic elements—is not incredibly original. Yet, rather than relying wholly on its precursors (such as Bluebeard and Jane Eyre) Rebecca presents us with a more self-aware take on these otherwise tired dynamics and scenarios.
While the cast of characters do have attributes that bring to mind Jane Eyre (not only is du Maurier’s narrator a ‘plain Jane’ but one of her few hobbies happens to be ‘drawing’) they also possess qualities that reflect their own period.

The narrator’s namelessness is incredibly effective. It suggests that this novel is indeed not about her, but about Rebecca (after all the novel is titled after her). Her namelessness also reinforces her sense of inadequacy—that is of being less, not enough, simply unequal to Rebecca—and her anxiety regarding herself and others.
Daphne du Maurier untangles the mystery at the heart of her novel in a slow yet utterly compelling way. During the ‘final’ explanation she details in incisive precision the motivations and circumstances that can lead ‘ordinary’ individuals to commit a major crime. More impressive still is that even after this ‘twisty’ revelation the narrative maintains its suspense.
Much of the narrative’s ‘tension’ arises from seemingly ordinary moments. Our narrator seems to find the conventions and traditions of the British upper class to be exhausting. In spite of her often reiterated wish to be a magnetic and socially accomplished woman, she shrinks away from her role as Manderley mistress (during ‘unpleasant’ or simply adult conversations she will lower her gaze and occupy herself with her hands or with petting the dog).
The narrator’s namelessness emphasises her disempowerment. While she refers to herself as Maxim’s wife, and others will address her as Mrs de Winter, our narrator feels unequal to her position and inferior in all aspects to the previous Mrs de Winter.
The narrator’s unwillingness and inability to fulfill Rebecca’s old duties or to partake in the daily runnings of Manderley, render her vulnerable to the creepy Mrs. Danvers (a woman who is as watchful as Madame Beck in Villette).
The second Mrs de Winter struggles to assert herself, so much so that she falls victim to Mrs. Danvers’ psychological attacks. It is because she is constantly undermined by Mrs. Danvers, timid towards Manderley’s staff, and painfully aware of being scrutinised, surveyed, and compared to Rebecca, that our narrator becomes convinced of her own inferiority.
While the premise and dynamics within this novel are far from unique, I enjoyed seeing how things played out. A naive young woman, her distant and secretive husband, his recently deceased achingly-beautiful-and-charming first wife, his Bluebeard-esque estate with its skull-faced servant…these are all exceedingly Gothic elements. Given the popularity of the ‘domestic thriller’ genre, it appears that readers have yet to grow tired of these type of stories. There are few authors however who have du Maurier’s sensual prose. There is a sensuality in the narrator’s obsession and jealousy towards Rebecca. While the second Mrs de Winter never sees a photo or portrait of Rebecca, she becomes familiar with everything about her. From her perfume and clothes to her calligraphy and daily routine. Other people’s impression of Rebecca shape the narrator’s own vision of her. Rebecca comes to embody all the characteristics that the present Mrs de Winter would like to possess. Her fascination is intermingled with a deeply felt hatred.

There is little romance in the love story within Rebecca. In spite of her naïveté, our narrator soon realises that Maxim is far from love-struck. His marriage proposal seems much closer to a business proposal, and later on, not only does he seem disinterested in our narrator but he is quick to dismiss her worries and anxieties (he will tell her not to be a little idiot).
Jealousy and paranoia soon begin to plague the second Mrs de Winter. She desires more than anything to be loved by Maxim, and fears that she will never live up to his first wife Rebecca. As she becomes more and more haunted by Rebecca, the narrator’s susceptible mind often lead her to distort and exaggerate simple conversations, and to observe in her surroundings Rebecca’s imprint (there were many moments in which she reminded me of Jane Austen’s incredibly impressionable heroine Catherine Morland). Through the narrator’s dreams and her moments of dissociation readers begin to see just how deep Rebecca’s presence is within her psyche and life.
The landscape alleviates our heroine’s mystification. The gardens and the sea mirror her state of minds, and allow her to examine and question her own feelings and circumstances. Manderley’s flora and fauna, as well as its weather, capture a sense of the sublime. The idyllic and haunted Manderley plays a central role in the story and constantly occupies the narrator’s mind.
Amidst love, jealousy, and feminine ideals, this beautifully written novel conveys with perfect clarity what it means to be young and inexperienced.

 

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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