Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

Midnight at Malabar House presents its readers with a fairly promising start to a new sleuthing series. As you may or may not know I am a big fan of whodunnits and golden detective fiction and ever since finishing Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries I have been on the lookout for a historical mystery with a female lead. Midnight at Malabar House starts off in Bombay on New Year’s Eve, 1949. Inspector Persis Wadia, our main character, happens to be India’s first female inspector. Persis is fairly ‘fresh’ on the force and is keen to prove her worth. Yet, her passionate and driven attitude seems to have only antagonized her peers who are quick to dismiss her on the basis of her gender and her age. It just so happens that she’s the first on the scene of Sir James Herriot, a ‘distinguished’ English diplomat. Persis knows that his death is not a result of a robbery gone wrong and is prepared to pursue avenues that might make her a persona non grata in the force as the wealthy and well-connected guests of Herriot’s party are not happy to be seen as suspects. Her superior too seems to show little concern over the apprehension of the true killer, seemingly satisfied with attributing his death to the most convenient and ‘expandable’ person. As Persis investigates Herriot’s not-so-straight-and-narrow affairs and the various members of his household she is forced to reassess her idea of justice. Persis is assisted by Archie Blackfinch, a Scotland Yard criminalist who becomes her unlikely ally.
The aspect I enjoyed the most was the historical setting. Vaseem Khan demonstrates an admirable ability to render specific time periods and places: from his dialogues to the way the characters comport themselves, Khan shows an understanding of the social mores existing in this period of time. Because of this many characters express unsavoury opinions, and Persis is often at the sharp end of these remarks. I appreciated that Persis was portrayed as a very determined individual. Her characterization does fall a bit into the clichèd territory as she’s the ‘green’ young investigator keen to prove herself and the, allegedly, ‘stubborn’ woman in a male-dominated field. Her stubbornness is made out to be her ‘main’ flaw, something that frustrated me a little. At times this aspect of her character was a tad overdone as if the author wanted to stress that she wasn’t a perfect lead and/or to explain how she has ‘made it’ onto the force. It just so happens that before reading this I’d read another male-authored book with a ‘headstrong’ female investigator/agent/whatever and part of me realizes that may very well be realistic but I’d like more complexity in their characterization. The male investigators are battling inner demons/recovering from traumas/clever-yet-super-flawed or whatever else and the women are ‘stubborn’ and ‘spunky’….then again, this is only the first instalment in a series that will probably go on to make Persis into a more rounded character, so I look forward to that (khan, do not disappoint me pls).
The case is fairly engaging and I liked the plot’s momentum. We have red herrings, some false leads, some interesting dialogues with possible suspects etc. Backdropping this investigation are some thought-provoking discussions on the long-lasting consequences of colonialism, the partition, class-based inequalities, and corruption. This landscape of political and social turmoil adds a layer of tension and urgency to Persis’ investigation, and overall I liked the author’s nuanced approach to these topics. I particularly appreciated how he challenges simplistic ‘good/evil’ binaries. Persis does undergo some promising character growth, as she learns that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes and that her ambition sometimes clouds her judgment. While she does show empathy for others, there are instances where she is so focused on the big picture, in this case, the identity of the killer, that she can come across as callous. There is a hint of a romance subplot which I am not wholly sold on yet…but maybe the follow-up will make said romance a bit more credible.

While this whodunnit doesn’t quite fall into the cozy mystery genre it ultimately had a feel-good vibe to it. It was very rewarding to see Persis challenge the people who oppose her or who proudly & loudly share their misogynistic views. If you are an Agatha Christie fan you should definitely check this one out.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“‘How do you feel?’ ‘All right.’ But I didn’t. I felt terrible.”

I feel incredibly conflicted over Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. On the one hand, I found it to be an ingenious and striking read, one that immortalizes in exacting detail a young woman’s slow descent into psychosis and offers a piercing commentary on 1950s American society, specifically its oppressive gender norms. On the other hand, I could not look past how racist it was.

Set in 1953 The Bell Jar is narrated by Esther Greenwood, a misanthropic 19-year-old from the suburbs of Boston who wins a summer internship working for a New York fashion magazine. For the most part, Esther’s voice is a winning combination of acerbic and witty. She often entertains morbid thoughts, she offers scathing assessments of those around, and, as the days go by, she seems to be steadily sinking into torpor. Although Esther tries to make the most of New York, she quickly becomes disenchanted by its supposedly glamorous scene. She is at once repulsed and appreciative of the girls who are interning with her. While Esther is drawn to Doreen, who is one of the livelier of the girls, and Betsy, a pious goody-two-shoes, she ultimately feels very much apart from them, and often seems to view them and the rest of New York through a glass darkly. What follows is Esther’s unsettling descent into depression. As her contempt towards others and life in general grows, she begins to engage in self-destructive behaviour and acts in increasingly irrational ways. Later on, Esther attempts to write a novel but her deteriorating mental health becomes a concern to her mother who forces her to see a psychiatrist who goes on to prescribe her electroconvulsive therapy. This ‘treatment’ goes awry and Esther worsens. Eventually, Esther is committed to a hospital where she is reunited with an old acquaintance. While the novel does end on a hopeful note, it is by no means an easy ride. It is brutal and unsparing. Throughout the course of this novel, Plath captures with razor-sharp precision the mind of an alienated young woman. She articulates Esther’s ugliest thoughts and fears. As Esther tries and fails to navigate adulthood in New York she becomes more and more withdrawn. She’s apathetic, pessimistic, and derisive of others. Her experiences fail to match her expectations and Esther struggles to make sense of who she is, who she wants to be, and who she ought to be. She’s suffocated by the limitations of her gender and seems to reject the visions of womanhood, of marriage, and of motherhood that American society presents her with: “when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”

Not only does Plath render the stultifying atmosphere of the city and of the circles Esther moves in, but she conveys the lethal ennui experienced by her protagonist. In New York Esther struggles to traverse from adolescence to adulthood. Her alienation from others, her self-estrangement, and her disconnection from her contemporary society pave the way to her eventual breakdown. When others attempt to ‘help’ and/or ‘cure’ Esther they cause more harm than good. They either treat her in an inhumane way or dismiss the severity of her condition.
Esther is certainly not a likeable heroine. She’s a mean snob who often views other people as grotesque and beneath her. But, as I read on, I came to pity her. In spite of her solipsisms and general nastiness, Esther is clearly suffering. Esther’s mother seems to care more about appearances than her daughter’s wellbeing. The men around seem unable to truly see her. Her former sweetheart doesn’t really know her, while the men she meets in New York seem all too eager to use her. As Esther’s desperation grows her view of the world becomes steadily more distorted, her imagination even more ghoulish.
I appreciated how effective Plath’s style is in rendering Esther’s mental state. At times a scene or one of Esther’s thoughts are depicted in such vivid detail as to be overwhelming. But, the story also plays around with linear storytelling, presenting us with fragmented conversations or scenes that we are able to understand only as we read on. At times her prose acquires a sticky quality that fits perfectly with the story’s initial summer backdrop.
So what could possibly cause me to give this novel 3 stars instead of say 4 or 5? Well, while I recognise that this is a seminal feminist work, I could not look past how racist Esther, Plath’s ‘alter ego’, was. While I can usually look past classics’ books using dated/non-pc language, Esther’s racist remarks/attitudes did not strike me as merely being symptomatic of ‘the times’. It’s total ‘okay’ if our college-educated and intellectual protagonist, who is critical of the accepted social norms of her time when it comes to gender-based inequalities, uses racial slurs. Sure. She’s white and it’s the 1950s. But then we have these instances where Esther is not feeling good and mistakes her reflection as belonging to somebody else, specifically someone who is Asian: “I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.” and “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.”.
When a girl says she’s meeting up with a Peruvian guy Esther says the following: “They’re squat,” I said. “They’re ugly as Aztecs.”….And then we have that scene at the hospital involving a Black orderly. After establishing that he is indeed Black she keeps referring to him as “the negro” rather than say “the orderly” or “the man”. This orderly say things like “Mah, mah!” or “Oh Miz, oh Miz […] You shouldn’t of done that, you shouldn’t, you reely shouldn’t.”. Before this (as far as i can recall of course) Plath did not lay much (or any really) emphasis on her characters’ accents. Yet, all of a sudden she just has to establish the specific way in which this man talks. And of course, because he’s an orderly and Black the way he talks has to be ridiculed. Anyway, Esther believes that the orderly is toying with her and the other patients so she “drew my foot back and gave him a sharp, hard kick on the calf of the leg”. Great stuff.
Plath’s description of non-American characters also left a sour taste in my mouth: “She was six feet tall, with huge, slanted, green eyes and thick red lips and a vacant, Slavic expression.” and “A large, bosomy Slavic lady”. Wtf is that even supposed to mean? How fucking lazy is this type of description? Why are all ‘Slavic-looking’ women large?

While Esther uses unflattering terms to describe white Americans, describing someone’s neck as “spam-coloured”, these descriptions, which poking fun at their physical appearance, are ultimately humorous. The ones referring to Black or Asian characters, not so much. Esther’s repugnance is even more pronounced in the instances I mentioned above, and the language she uses is often dehumanising or at least seems to suggest that she does view them as inferior to white people. Every few chapters I would come across a racist remark/line that simply prevented me from becoming invested in Esther’s story. That this is a highly autobiographical novel makes me feel all the more uneasy at Esther’s racism.
While this is certainly an important novel and one of the first books to depict in such uncompromising terms a young woman’s descent into depression, its white American brand of feminism is dated at best.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

Sweet Days of Discipline is a slim dagger of a novel.

Written in a prose so sharp it will cut you, Sweet Days of Discipline is a work of startling and enigmatic beauty, a study in contradictions: order and chaos, sublimity and abjection, clarity and obfuscation, illusion and reality.

Fleur Jaeggy is in absolute command of her craft so that not a word is wasted or out-of-place. Jaeggy exercises formidable control over her language, which is restrained to the point of severity. By turns glacial and melancholic, Jaeggy’s epigrammatic style is dauntingly ascetic. Yet, her direct and crisp prose belies the complexity of her subject. I struggle to pinpoint what this book is even about. Our narrator is consumed by desire but the way she expresses and articulates said desire is certainly atypical. Even upon a second reading, I find myself enthralled by her mysterious and perplexing relationship with Frédérique. Ultimately, it is the obscure nature of their bond that makes me all the more eager to revisit this novel once more.

Our unnamed narrator’s recounting of her schooldays is pervaded by a dream-like quality. Torpor seems to reign supreme at Bausler Institut, an all-girls boarding school in the Appenzell. While the girls’ days are in fact dictated by routine, a sense of idleness prevails. Our narrator, who has spent most of her youth in boarding school, coldly observes the people around her. Her detachment and contempt towards her peers and the rarefied world she’s part of perfectly complement the staccato rhythm of Jaeggy’s prose. When Frédérique is enrolled in her school, she finds herself captivated by her. Her infatuation with Frédérique however doesn’t lead to happiness. Our narrator wants to best Frédérique, to ‘conquer’ her. She is both in awe and jealous of Frédérique’s apathy towards the students, the teachers, and their surroundings. The two eventually begin spending time together but our narrator cannot or is unwilling to express her feelings.
What follows is a taut tale of juxtaposition. The orderly world of the school is contrasted with the inner turmoil of youth. The narrator’s clipped commentary is at once hyperreal and unearthly. While the narrator does try to control her feelings, she’s at times overcome by their sheer intensity. Her love for Frédérique is also inexorably entwined with hatred, as she finds the idea of being bested, of being under anyone’s thumb, unbearable. Our narrator is unforgiving in her detailed recollection, her harshness and cruelty did at times take me by surprise. Yet, her longing for Frédérique and her unwillingness to bend for that love made her into a compelling character. As the narrative progresses she and Frédérique begin to lose sight of one another, and as adolescence gives way to adulthood one of them spirals out of control.
The English translation is superb. I’ve read this both in the original Italian and in English and I have to say that I don’t prefer one over the other. If anything Tim Parks, the translator, got rid of some rather outdated and insensitive terms in the original. The prose in the Italian version is also, to my ears at least, even more, stringent and stark than its English counterpart (maybe this is due to a combination of the slightly old-fashioned italian + my being so used to reading in english that books in italian will inevitably make for a more exacting reading experience).

Sweet Days of Discipline makes for a lethal read. Jaeggy’s austere prose is a study in perfectionism. Yet, despite her unyielding language and her aloof, occasionally menacing, narrator, Sweet Days of Discipline is by no means a boring or emotionless read. The intensity of our narrator’s, often unexpressed, feelings and desires result in a thrilling and evocative read.

my rating: ★★★★★

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

If I was feeling in a generous mood I could say that A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel, proves just how much Ishiguro has matured as an author. If I had to be completely honest, however, I would say that I am fairly mystified by A Pale View of Hills. How can this novel share the same author as The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go? Its narrative is tedious, its structure incoherent, its characterisation non-existent, and its protagonist dull. Its worst ‘sin’ however lies in its dialogues. They were, I kid you not, atrocious.
But let’s take a step back. What is this novel even about? What is even this book?

The narrative opens in England. Etsuko’s daughter Niki has come to visit her and the two mention the recent(ish) suicide of Keiko, Etsuko’s eldest daughter. Already here I was struck by the inauthentic way the characters spoke and behaved.
In a typical Ishiguro fashion, the narrative then delves into Etsuko’s recollections of her first marriage and her experiences as a married young woman in Japan. She meets a single mother called Sachiko who is not particularly kind or likeable but spends most of her time complaining or talking about herself. She happens to have a daughter who is a brat. Nothing seems to happen. The story occasionally jumps forward to Etsuko in England and I found these jumps rather jarring. They provided no true glimpse into their dynamic let alone their shared history. Niki and Etsuko said nothing of note so I didn’t entirely understand why we had to have these sections set in the ‘present’.

I guess the narrative does succeed in identifying and underlining generational differences. First between those of Etsuko’s age and her father-in-law then between Etsuko and her daughter. It also gives us some insight into the shift occurring in Japan post-WWII (western influences, a ‘loss’ of tradition). Other than that…yeah. This novel doesn’t do much. It doesn’t delve into motherhood, nor does it address Keiko’s suicide. It has a few obvious scenes showing how Etsuko’s husband and father-in-law view women as ‘lesser’, or as not entitled to the same autonomy as them…and that’s it, folks.

And now to the dreaded dialogue. What the fuck. Nothing sounded credible. No one spoke like an actual person and worst still the amount of repetition within these dialogues was laughable. It didn’t make these conversations more realistic (in a mumblecore sort of way) it just made it seem as if the characters couldn’t hear each other or thought that they were speaking to someone who isn’t ‘quick’ on the uptake so they had to reiterate everything at least 3 or 4 times (which maybe could have worked if this had been a play by beckett). And even the way the characters responded to their environment and or the situations they were in struck me as disingenuous. For example, at one point Sachiko’s daughter tells Etsuko that some kids killed her cat. And Etsuko response is along the lines ‘I wonder why they did that’. She then tells off Sachiko’s daughter because she threw rocks at these horrid little children. Later, Etsuko is watching over Sachiko’s daughter, who then runs off. Etsuko eventually locates her and instead of reprimanding her or asking why she ran off, she’s like ‘why are you making that face? you are making a weird face! why? I must know!’ (or something to that extent). Who, who even talks like that? The characters’ responses were way off. If I started repeating myself as they did people would think I’m glitching or something.
There was also something profoundly English about the way the characters behaved and spoke that made it even harder for me to ‘immerse’ myself in what was to be a post-WWII Japan setting.
This was a bad novel and compared to many other debut novels…tis’ a weak one. I’m still having a hard time believing that Ishiguro wrote this. If I had to sum up this novel in one word it would be yikes.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

This is the second work that I’ve read by Yukio Mishima and I’m afraid to say that, unlike Star, I found an unappealing read. I was expecting the story to focus on Noboru Kuroda and the gang of boys he hangs out with but most of the narrative is dedicated to the romantic & sexual relationship between Fusako, Noboru’s mother, and Ryuji, a sailor who has so far lead a rather untethered lifestyle (happiest at sea, keeping his fellow crew members at arms’ length, not settling down, etc.). Noboru meets Ryuji and seems to instantly dislike him, he also spies him and his mother having sex through a peephole. His animosity melts somewhat when Ryuji returns to the sea. Noboru, like the rest of his ‘clique’, seems to appreciate apathy, lack of feeling, a refusal to sentimentally, so, Ryuji leaving his mother behind seems to resonate with Noboru’s ‘feelings=being weak’ mentality. Alas, Ryuji returns and after one unintentionally hilarious encounter between him and Noboru involving a wet shirt, well, Noboru decides Ryuji is persona non grata and seems to view him as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with his contemporary Japanese society (just because this man was being nice to him…). When Ryuji decides to change his lifestyle and settle down with Fusako, Noboru and his gang decide to take matters into their own hands
First things first: there is an explicit scene depicting the killing of an animal that could have been made shorter and seem to exist only in order to shock. Shock it did not but annoy it did. These kinds of gratuitous descriptions do nothing for this particular reader. Second: the ideology of this boy gang. It seems on the same level as the ‘we live in a society’. They are as angsty and self-righteous as Light Yagami. Which, I might have found compelling had I been aged 14 or so but I’m not. Joker stans maybe into their brand of ‘fuck society’ but I was not. Their detachment and contempt of social norms are exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness. Like, the whole Ryuji thing? I did not really believe that Noboru admired him in the first place so I couldn’t get behind his feeling betrayed by being ‘confronted’ with what he perceives to be ‘moral’ weakness (being friendly towards him and lying about how he got his shirt wet? wtf). Also, if he and the boy were truly apathetic they wouldn’t have cared about Ryuji in the first place, let alone be so angered by him not fitting into their ideal of ‘man’.
The elements of eroticism within this narrative were incredibly yucky and made me want to scratch my eyes out.

In short, I did not get this but not in a good-way that would inspire me to reread it in order to better understand it. Quite the opposite in fact. If I could unread it, I probably would.

I’m almost disappointed in myself for not liking or appreciating this novel as I do find the author to be an interesting figure (i mean, cosplaying Saint Sebastian? now that’s something) and I did find Star to be a thought-provoking and surprisingly relevant read. While I probably will read more of his work, I can only hope that I will find it more absorbing than this.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

In the last few weeks I’ve read two works by Oyeyemi (Peaces and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours) and what I liked most about them was how funny, inventive, and unapologetically queer they were. So, naturally, I was somewhat surprised and saddened to discover that Boy, Snow, Bird lacks any of those qualities. I can’t honestly say that Boy, Snow, Bird has any real strengths. There are far more superior books out there examining race in the 1950s and 1960s America, such as ReginaPorter’s The Travelers, and to call this novel a Snow White retelling seems overarching. While Oyeyemi does incorporate within her narrative certain recognizable fairy tale motifs—mean stepmothers who hate their angelic stepdaughters, magical mirrors and or reflections—the story she recounts struck me as painfully prosaic. We have a vague, and unconvincing, historical setting, cardboard characters, and an uneventful storyline that drags on too long.

The novel is divided into three parts. Part one and three are narrated by Boy. She’s white and the daughter of a pest exterminator who she often refers to as ‘the rat catcher’. In a manner reminiscent of Dickens and She Who Shall Not Be Named, Oyeyemi gives her characters names, or nicknames, that convey their personality or profession. I may sound overly critical here but why do characters whose professions are often openly looked down upon—janitors, cleaners, pest exterminators, etc.—are so frequently cast in the role of sinister and/or obsessive creeps? I mean, just because someone whose job requires them to kill rats doesn’t mean they have to be ‘unstable’ and rat-obsessed (this guy makes rat noises and is apt to go off on anti-rat rants). Anyhow, this rat catcher is horrible through-and-through. He treats Boy in a rather appalling way and understandably she decides to run off once she’s done with high school. She ends up finding a job (what that was i cannot recall) and eventually becomes involved with a man named Arturo who is entirely void of a personality. This man has a daughter called Snow who is biracial, and Boy decides to exile her. Why? I can’t say for sure. It seemed that Boy found Snow’s ‘goodness’ grating or felt threatened by her.
Boy and Arturo have a child together, Bird. Part two is narrated by her and it mostly consists of a series of boring episodes. She exchanged letters with Snow, who she has never met. Whether they got on or not, I have no idea. Their responses to each other’s letters were almost jarring. There is an attempt at exploring doubleness but the story never has anything interesting on this matter.
We then return to Boy who has nothing really interesting to say.

Up to this point, it was safe to say that I did not care for this novel. The characters were dull, poorly developed. Our mains were very one-note and their voices failed to elicit any strong emotions in me. The secondary characters are barely there, and most of the male characters—regardless of their age—blurred together. We also have that one Italian character who just has to say ‘cara’ this and ‘cara’ that. Ffs. Still, I would not have discouraged others from attempting to read it as this could have easily been one of those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ cases but then Oyeyemi drops a rather unpleasant surprise near the end.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Turns out that the ‘rat catcher’, turns out his name is Frank, who up to now has been portrayed as this abusive possibly ‘deranged’ villain, is a trans man. Frank is Boy’s mother. Frank used to be a gay woman who was raped and became pregnant with Boy. After this traumatic experience Frank ‘became’ trans: “You know how Frank says he became Frank? He says he looked in the mirror one morning when he was still Frances, and this man she’d never seen before was just standing there, looking back. ”
Leaving aside the fact that Frank’s ‘story’ is recounted by someone who keeps misgendering and deadnaming them (this story is set in the 50s and 60s after all), I find this whole ‘reveal’ to be a poor choice indeed. Not only does the story imply that victims of sexual abuse cannot ever recover (which, unfortunately, sometimes happens to be true but here it struck me as intentionally sensational) but they will inevitably become abusers themselves. Which, yikes. Can we not? And don’t get me started on the whole ‘woman wanting to escape womanhood by becoming a man + lesbians becoming men because of trauma and the patriarchy’ terfy combo. Fuck sake. And to make your one trans character into an unhinged abuser is decidedly questionable.

To prospective readers of this book: I would like to dissuade you. Give this one a wide berth. Oyeyemi has written far better, and certainly a lot less dubious, things, so I recommend you check those out instead.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

Compared to Ishiguro’s other works An Artist of the Floating World is somewhat slight, both in terms of characterisation and plot. As with other novels by Ishiguro we have a narrator reminiscing about their past, attention is paid to the act of recollecting, and the unreliability of one’s memory. Set in post-World War II Japan An Artist of the Floating World is narrated by Masuji Ono, an ageing artist, looks back to his career, in particular, to the role he played in creating imperialist propaganda. Through Masuji’s act of introspection Ishiguro highlights this period of unrest in Japan, the friction between old and new values, the effect that Western influences had on Japanese (both its society and culture). Ishiguro also discusses at length the role that art ought to have: should it serve a ‘higher’ purpose? Can it influence others? There are also some interesting conversations about the mentor/mentee dynamic and the responsibility we owe to those within our community.

While certainly well-written, An Artist of the Floating World ultimately feels rather vanilla. Masuji’s voice did not capture me in the way that Ishiguro’s other protagonist did, and his walk down memory lane felt closer to a meandering. Secondary characters are barely there and they almost blurred together. The only character that stood out was Masuji’s grandson, who, albeit annoying, was at least fleshed out.
If you haven’t read anything by this author I recommend you start with The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin


That I choose to re-read this confirms that I do indeed have masochistic tendencies.

“I did not want him to know me. I did not want anyone to know me.”

In a striking prose, James Baldwin unfurls a disquieting tale of cowardice and self-deception. In many ways, Giovanni’s Room reads as a confession of sorts, even if our narrator does like to deny his own culpability.
This short novel is set in 1950s Paris when David, an American ex-pat, is idling away his time, drinking and partying with people he generally looks down upon, in an effort not to keep at bay thoughts about his past or future. The girl he is sort of seeing is away in Spain so an unsupervised and penniless David begins to frequent an acquaintance of his, Jaques, an older gay man who he finds somewhat repulsive but is happy to exploit. One day the two find themselves in a local haunt bar where they meet Giovanni, the new barman. While David seems initially unwilling to act on his impulses, he becomes involved with Giovanni and the two begin living together in Giovanni’s grubby apartment. Within these walls, David feels oppressed and constricted by an identity he is unwilling and or unable to accept. The American vision of masculinity and normalcy his father and his upbringing have inculcated in David an uncompromising notion of manhood. While he clearly desires Giovanni he cannot articulate his feelings towards him, as to do so would be to embark on a path of no return. When Hella, his sort-of girlfriend, returns to Paris, David is desperate to leave behind Giovanni and the kind of lifestyle he associates with Jaques and his circle, even if it means denying himself the person he actually desires.

While the narrative does deal with love, it is not a love story. This novel is as romantic as say Madame Bovary (that is to say, not at all). More often than not David seems to resent Giovanni and is repulsed when glimpsing his vulnerabilities. Most of the characters inhabiting this story are either unlikable or straight-up grotesque. In a way, this novel reminded me of Death In Venice. We have a main character who seems to perceive his surroundings as being sinister, alienating. David’s vitriol towards those who frequent Guillaume’s bar certainly points to his internalised homo/biphobia. In order to conform to his heteronormative society, David finds himself turning away from someone in need. Or that’s how David justifies his own cowardice. It will be up to readers to decide just how culpable he is. While I did not not sympathize with David, I did despise him. Similarly, I disliked Jaques, Guillaume, and almost everybody else really. Giovanni is, unsurprisingly, the one I felt for the most, which is saying something given his less than poor taste remarks on women (after claiming that he respects them he says that wives do need knocking about now and again, and implies that women are inferior to men). Yet, it is because Baldwin captures Giovanni’s anguish and desperation in such excruciating detail that I was unable to write him off as a misogynist asshole.

David’s story seems permeated by physical and moral squalor. Even emotions like desire and love acquire an unpleasant quality, as they are often twinned with their counterparts (repugnance, hatred). The atmosphere of Paris itself once again recalls that of Venice in Mann’s novel, and even George Orwell’s memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London. Its beauty is spoilt by the ugliness of its people and by the squalidness of places such as Giovanni’s apartment.
To call this story depressing or bleak seems an understatement. Yet, Baldwin’s superb prose manages to belie David’s internal abjection.

Now, as much as I am blown away by this novel, I do have to address Giovanni’s often hilarious ‘Italianess’. Dio mio. This is the kind of Italian character that I often see in fiction by English authors. He is the classic passionate Mediterranean who sometimes speaks of himself in the third person, makes remarks about beating women because that’s how Italian men are (a few months ago i worked with someone who claimed, to my face, that all italian men are sexist, and that italy is as ‘bad’ as india…to say that her statement was problematic on multiple fronts would be an understatement), and when reminiscing about his village he says that he wanted to stay there forever and “eat much spaghetti and drink much wine” (it’s a me, giovanni!). Still, despite these cartoonish aspects of his character, I did find myself buying into him.

This is a terrific piece of fiction, one that is guaranteed to make you anxious, sad, and uneasy (possibly even queasy). Yet, Baldwin’s fantastic prose and his tremendous psychological insight are bound to enthral.

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Carol by patricia highsmith

“My Angel,” Carol said. “Flung out of space.”

Fans of the film adaptation of Carol may find the novel to be not quite as polished or romantic. I, for one, find the novel’s elusiveness and opaqueness to be entrancing. Unlike other books by Highsmith Carol is not a thriller or a crime novel, however, it has plenty of moments of unease (dare I say even of ugliness?) that brought to mind The Talented Mr. Ripley. Therese is a somewhat disaffected young woman who wants to become a theatre set designer but in the meanwhile she works in the toy section of a department store in New York. She observes the world and people around her with a mixture of apathy and ambivalence, the only feelings she experiences seem negative (her repulsion towards her coworkers, her disinterest towards her beau, her dread at the idea of being stuck at the department store ).

“Had all her life been nothing but a dream, and was this real? It was the terror of this hopelessness that made her want to shed the dress and flee before it was too late, before the chains fell around her and locked.”

Estranged from her mother Therese longs for her boyfriend’s family more than the man himself. And then she sees Carol: “Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and caught by them, Therese could not look away.”
Therese’s infatuation is immediate, and the two women—in spite of their age gap, their differences in background and circumstances—begin to spend more and more time together. Highsmith’s captures the intensity of first love, as Therese’s thoughts become increasingly preoccupied by Carol. There is a lot of longing in this novel and Highsmith expresses it beautifully, rendering the nuances of Therese’s uncertainty, jealousy, and yearning. Therese’s naïveté and Carol’s rocky marriage create friction between the two women, but the attraction and affection they feel for each other is palpable. Even if Carol remains a bit of a cypher, I too like Therese found myself drawn to her.
Some may find Therese’s narration to be too dry or cold, but I have always felt the most for characters such as her. I appreciated how Therese reflects upon the smallest of things, and there are times where she entertains rather cruel or disquieting. Nevertheless, I found her to be a sympathetic and interesting character, and I certainly admired her determination to follow her own heart.
The languid pace and alluring language make this into an unforgettable slow burner. I love the dreamlike quality of the narrative, the chemistry between Therese and Carol, the nostalgic atmosphere, the realistic rhythms of the dialogue, the winter setting…I don’t know what more to say other than this novel just does it for me.

my rating: ★★★★½

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The Travelers by Regina Porter

The cast of characters and locations at the start of Regina Porter’s The Travelers is a tiny bit daunting as they promise to cover a far wider scope than your usual family saga. The Travelers explores the lives of characters who are either related, sometimes distantly, or connected in less obvious ways. Porter’s switches between perspectives and modes of writing, always maintaining authority over her prose and subjects. The Traveler provides its readers with a captivating look into Americans lives, chronicling the discrimination black Americans were subjected during the Jim Crow era, the experiences of black soldiers and female operators in the Vietnam war, the civil rights protests in the 1960s, and America under Obama. Porter combines the nation’s history with the personal history of her characters, who we see at different times in their lives. Sometimes we read directly of their experiences, at times they are related through the eyes of their parents, their children, or their lovers. Rather than presenting us with a neat and linear version of her characters’ lives, Porter gives us glimpses into specific moments of their lives. At times what she recounts has clearly shaped a character’s life (such as with an early scene featuring two white policemen), at times she provides details that may seem insignificant, but these still contribute to the larger picture.
Porter provides insights into racial inequality, discrimination, domestic abuse, parental neglect, PTSD, and many other subjects. Although she never succumbs to a saccharine tone, she’s always empathetic, even in her portrayal of characters who are not extremely ‘likeable’ in a conventional way. Sprinkles of humour balance out the more somber scenes, and her dialogues crackle with energy and realism. The settings too were rendered in vivid detail, regardless of when or where a chapter was taking place.
Porter’s sprawling narrative achieves many things. While it certainly is not ‘plot’ oriented, I was definitely invested in her characters. Within moments of her introducing use to a new character I found myself drawn to them and I cared to read more of them. Part of me wishes that the novel could have been even longer, so that it could provide us with even more perspectives. I appreciated how Porter brings seemingly periphery characters into the foreground, giving a voice to those who would usually be sidelined.
Her sharp commentary (on race, class, gender) and observations (on love, freedom, dignity) were a pleasure to read. I loved the way in which in spite of the many tragedies and injustices she chronicles in her narrative moments that emphasise human connection or show compassion appear time and again.
An intelligent and ambitious novel, one that at times brought to mind authors such as Ann Patchett (in particular, Commonwealth) and one I would definitely recommend to my fellow readers.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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