Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

My disappointment is immeasurable, and my day is ruined.

If you’ve read my review for A Little Life you know how much that novel means to me. Just looking at my hardback copy makes me feel all sorts of intense feelings. So, naturally, my expectations were high for To Paradise. At first, the Cloud Atlas-esque premise did intrigue me. ​​To Paradise is a door-stopper of a book that is divided into three ‘books’. These ‘books’ are united by their shared setting (New York) and themes (freedom, illness, identity, privilege, familial and romantic love, notions of utopia, familial duty vs self, betrayal, desire). On paper, this sounded amazing, and I was looking forward to being once again swept away by Yanagihara’s storytelling…except that it never quite happened.

“Each of them wanted the other to exist only as he was currently experiencing him as if they were both too unimaginative to contemplate each other in a different way.”

The first two books did hold my attention and I even felt emotionally invested in the characters (even if they did pale in comparison to the characters populating A Little Life).
Book I takes place in an alternate America in 1893 where New York is part of the Free States where same-sex couples can marry unlike in the Colonies (ie other US states) and gender equality prevails. The story follows David Bingham who lives with his grandfather on Washington Square. The Binghams are a distinguished and wealthy family and David is accustomed to a life of privilege. While his siblings have married and gone on to have families of their own and/or successful careers, David leads a quiet and sedentary life, keeping himself to himself and mostly interacting with his grandfather. One day a week David teaches art in an orphanage/school and it is here that he comes across the new music teacher, Edward Bishop. David falls fast and hard for Edward in spite of his possible arranged union to Charles Griffith, an older gentleman who his grandfather approves of. David knows that his family would never approve of penniless Edward who has little to no social standing. The two nevertheless become romantically involved and David struggles to keep his dalliance a secret. While he does become more aware of the limitations many citizens of the so-called Free States experience, his naive nature remains relatively unchanged. Readers are made aware that this alternate New York is far from idyllic as class and race play a major role in one’s quality of life. David himself, who is white, expresses prejudiced opinions about POC, and, until Edward, was quite unaware of the realities of having to work for one’s living. Over the course of this section characters or the narrative itself will allude to David’s illness, but Yanagihara refrains from delving into specifics. We see what others think of David’s fragility and solitary lifestyle, and the shame that David himself feels because of his illness. The story, like the following ones, has a very slow pacing. Here it kind of works as we are able to grow accustomed to this alternate America and to the various characters, David in particular. The tension of this story is very much created by David’s hidden relationship with Edward. Various events force David to question whether Edward is genuinely in love with him or whether he’s being played like Millie in Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove. The melancholic setting is well-rendered and perfectly complemented Yanagihara’s formal yet piercing prose. Nevertheless, overall I was able to appreciate this section, even if the ending is somewhat abrupt and left me longing for a clearer resolution/conclusion. For some reason, I thought that the later sections would fill in the gaps left by this 1st tale but I’m afraid they did not. Also, I wish that the author could have envisioned an alternate past without racial discrimination, or at least, that she could have then dedicated more than a throwaway lines on the issue.

The second section is set in 1993 during the AIDS epidemic. David Bingham, a young Hawaiian man, is a paralegal who becomes involved with one of his firm’s senior partners, Charles. Charles is much older and wealthier than David and this often creates friction in their relationship. Charles’ friends, who, like him are white and older than David, do little to include David, often making jabs at his expenses or insinuating that he’s only after Charles’ money. The power dynamic between Charles and David is decidedly skewed. We also learn of David’s parentage and of the weight he carries because of it. There is quite a lot of ambiguity surrounding his difficult relationship with his father who suffers from an undisclosed illness. The AIDS epidemic also forces David to reconcile himself with his own mortality and the failings of the human body. The drama unfolding between David and Charles was compelling. They have led drastically different lives and move in very different circles. David struggles to adapt to Charles’ lifestyle and no matter how hard he tries he feels alienated from Charles’ set. Throughout the course of book II there are some beautiful meditations on life, death, and love that certainly struck a chord with me. Alas, book II is divided into two parts and only the first one follows David (who is the most likeable David of the lot). Part II is structured as a letter/confession of sorts penned by David’s father. Here we move to Hawaii and we learn more about David’s complicated family history and the eventual dissolution of his family.

Book III, which begins around the 50% mark, is what ruined this book for me. It was a mess. It’s 2093 and the world is apparently beset with plagues. We switch to a 1st person narration and our protagonist is living in this generically dystopian New York that is divided into various Zones, some of which have more access to water and food resources. In a move that screams YA dystopia, our female narrator comes across a mysterious man who is dangerously critical of the government. Interspersed throughout her chapters are letters written by her grandfather to one of his closest friends. They provide a blow-by-blow account of the years leading to this dystopian and totalitarian New York and the crucial role he played in it. This part was boring to the extreme. I found that the author’s old-fashioned prose, which really suited Book I & even Book II to be at odds with her dystopian setting. There is also an attempt at mystery by not using the characters’ names (the narrator refers to her grandfather as grandfather and her husband as my husband and this mysterious man as ‘you’). I had no interest in anything that was being said. There were a lot of pandemics, illnesses, plagues, some science lite and I could not bring myself to care for any of it. I kept reading hoping that this Book III would be the bow that ties all of these books together but it never did. We once again have characters sharing the same names but once again the dynamics are slightly different. They do not share the same personality traits as their earlier ‘incarnations’ which left me wondering why did they even have to have the same names to begin with. At one point in Book II David goes on about ‘what ifs’ and parallel universes when thinking about his relationship with Charles.
But that was more or less it. Why do we get the same characters but not really? The many Davids (spoiler: there is more than 3) populating these stories have little in common. They are all male and feel things (to different degrees i might add). Other than that, I didn’t really believe that they were reincarnations of the same David (a la Cloud Atlas). While I was at least able to appreciate the author’s storytelling and themes in the first two books, the last one spoiled things big time. I had to skim read it (something i am not fond of doing). It was a lifeless and unconvincing story narrated by a one-dimensional narrator who sounds like the classic dystopian heroine who has been indoctrinated by whatever evil government. The dystopian setting is stagy, characterised by tired tropes and severely lacking in depth.

I’ll be honest, I did not get the point of this book. Even if I did find book I & II compelling enough, those stories feel ultimately unresolved and lack direction. Book III was a flop.
A Little Life was a tour de force that left me equal parts awestruck and heartbroken. The characters felt real and so did their individual stories. To Paradise instead never fully convinced me. Even the first two books at times came across as affected. And while the themes the author explores in To Paradise have potential, well, she did a much better job with them in A Little Life. Here, both the characters and the relationships they have to one another, well, they are miles behind the ones from A Little Life. Even the ‘earlier’ Davids struck me as relatively bland and forgettable. The supposed love they feel for their families or partners, it didn’t always ring true to life.

If you are interested in this novel I encourage you check out more positive reviews. Maybe I’m just not the right reader for this type of supposedly interconnected narratives…

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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edit: it appears that my opening line has been quoted in an article on the new yorker. i would have not minded if the writer of that article had not proceeded to imply that i did not give Yanighara the ‘benefit of the doubt’. mate, maybe next time don’t just quote the first line of my review, especially given that it was a meme, and take time to read my review. i mean, aren’t you supposed to be a ‘professional’? 1) i went quite in depth in regards to the reasons why this book did not ‘work’ for me, i didn’t just write: tHis SUckS, iT iSN’t LiKE A liTtLe LiFE, 2) i did not dnf this, i may have skim-read the last hundred pages i did read it, so to say that i did not give her the benefit of the doubt is, if you’ll excuse my language, fucking bullshit.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

“He spoke the spell under his breath, still a little uncertain after the agonies he had endured. But magic came, ever his friend—magic answered his call.”

Written in a playful pastiche style Sorcerer to the Crown will certainly appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Wynne Jones. Cho’s bombastic prose, characterized by an Austenesque sense of humor, and madcap fantasy of manners story were a delight to read.
The first time I read this, back in 2015/6, I did, truth be told, struggle to get into Cho’s high register language. But, the more I read, the more I familiarised myself with her lofty and loquacious style. Sorcerer to the Crown was a brilliant read, a real blast!

“In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.”

Set in an alternate Regency England, Sorcerer to the Crown follows Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first Black Sorcerer Royal, who was raised by his recently deceased predecessor, Sir Stephen. While Zacharias clearly respected and was grateful to Sir Stephen, the two didn’t always see eye to eye. Moreover, Zacharias can’t forget that Sir Stephen bought and freed him, separating from his own family. This being Regency England Zacharias is treated with open animosity by most of his colleagues, some of whom are actively attempting to besmirch his name, claiming that he’s responsible for England’s decline of magic and Sir Stephen’s death. Zacharias is an incredibly level-headed individual, a thinker not a fighter. He’s serious, studious, punctilious. He’s also fair, loyal, and endearingly naïve. Yet, even he can’t quite keep his calm when his reputation, and life, are under attack. Attempting to clear his name and to discover the reason behind England’s magic drought, he leaves London.

“Magic was too strong a force for women’s frail bodies—too potent a brew for their weak minds—and so, especially at a time when everyone must be anxious to preserve what magical resource England still possessed, magic must be forbidden to women.”

He visits Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, a place that is meant to snuff any magic from its pupils. In England, the only women who are ‘allowed’ to practice magic are those from the lower classes (and can only use spells to facilitate their daily chores/tasks). Due to her ‘questionable’ parentage (ie her mother was not an Englishwoman) Prunella Gentlemen, similarly to Zachariah, has always been treated as an outsider. Prunella is an orphan who thanks to her ‘generous’ benefactor, Mrs. Daubeney, was, for the most part, treated like the other students. When an incident threatens to change this, Prunella decides to take matters into her own hands and forge her own path to happiness.

“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased.

Zacharias and Prunella cross paths and form a camaraderie of sorts. While Prunella is still very much self-serving, repeatedly going behind Zacharias’ back or eliding important information & discoveries, she does seem to enjoy bantering with Zacharias. Together they face disgruntled magicians, engage in some magical mishaps, attend/crash a ball, confront angry magical creatures, try to reason with a formidable witch, partake in discussions with some rather tedious thaumaturgist, and challenge the Society’s long-established traditions and hierarchies.

““Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

While the witty dialogues and droll characters result in delightfully humourous, within her narrative Cho incorporates a sharp social commentary. From the rampant racism and xenophobia that were typical of this time to addressing gender and class inequalities. Through satire Cho highlights these issues, and, in spite of her story’s fantastical backdrop, Cho doesn’t romanticise this period of time and the England that emerges from these pages feels all too real. The use of historically accurate language and the attention paid to the time’s etiquette and social mores, result in an incredibly well-rendered historical setting.

While this type of narrative won’t appeal to those looking for action-driven stories, Cho’s sparkling storytelling is not to be missed. The follow-up to this book is, dare I say, even better.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

However distressing, I appreciated the realities, issues, and themes Gabriela Garcia explores throughout her novel. Sadly, the author’s execution and writing style lessened my overall reading experience. I know that interconnected narratives can work well, and some of my favourite novels employ this technique (The Travelers and Travellers), but I would have probably preferred for Of Women and Salt to either be a series of short stories or to stick to two or three timelines/perspectives—such as Margaret Wilkerson Sexton does in A Kind of Freed
Take one of the firsts chapters, the one set in Cuba during the 19th-century in a cigar factory. That chapter bears no real weight on the novel, and it would have fitted a lot more in a family saga authored by Isabel Allende. The other chapters are mainly set in the present day and offer readers rushed glimpses into the lives of Latinx women living in America. Some of them are undocumented, and we see how vulnerable a position that leaves them in (there is the risk deportation, being forced to accept jobs that pay badly or are exploitative, no health insurance, racism, prejudice…the list goes on). We read of the horrifying realities and treatments undocumented individuals are exposed to daily. Garcia returns time and again to themes of motherhood and resilience. Garcia also shows us how devastating addiction is, both on the addict and on their loved ones.

A lot of the time I was unable to truly familiarise myself with a character or their situation because I found the author’s prose almost distracting. There were certain staccato sentences or oddly phrased phrases that brought to mind Joyce Carol Oates’ most recent work and I for one am not a fan of this style. I’m sure many other readers will find it a lot more rewarding than I did but I alas found it a bit contrived at times.
I wish the story could have exclusively focused on Jeanette and Carmen. Their fraught relationship was compelling. I could sadly relate to some of Jeanette’s experiences, and I am grateful to Garcia for the way she discusses sexual assault. We do have a tendency of dismissing groping or other forms of sexual assault as ‘minor’ as not ‘as bad as rape’. And at times it is difficult to articulate why someone’s words or behaviour made you feel so violated or uncomfortable.
There is a chapter in which Jeanette is fifteen or so and goes for a night out…and there was something about that chapter that I really did not like. Maybe it was the tone or the way the author described fifteen-year-old Jeanette but something just…rubbed me the wrong way. I also did not particularly care for the direction of her storyline (addicts can never recover etc.).
The few chapters focusing on Jeanette’s neighbour, who is detained by ICE, and her daughter felt a bit harried. I think the author should have expanded their stories more or simply not included them in this novel.

While the topics explored in this novel are important I wish that these could have been presented to us differently. The constant shifting of perspectives made it hard for me to truly immerse myself in what I was reading. It was a bit distracting and maybe it could have worked better if the novel and been longer. Then again, given my feelings towards the author’s prose maybe I would have still felt underwhelmed by it.
I encourage prospective readers to check out some more positive and/or #ownvoices reviews. If you like the work of Patricia Engel, Melissa Rivero’s The Affairs of the Falcóns, or Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford you will probably be able to appreciate Of Women and Salt more than I was able to. If you like me did not find Of Women and Salt to be a riveting read I recommend you read The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio which is a work of nonfiction that explores the realities of undocumented individuals.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

 

 

“I saw my mother raise a man from the dead. It still didn’t help him much, my love, she told me. But I saw her do it all the same. That’s how I knew she was magic.”

 

I was hooked by Libertie’s opening paragraph. Set during and after the American Civil War Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel is narrated by Libertie the daughter of a Black female doctor. As the child of a free-woman Libertie is born free at a time when slavery was yet to be abolished. But whereas Libertie’s mother, who is a light-skinned woman and was able to study medicine by ‘passing’, Libertie herself is dark-skinned, and because of this experiences both racism and the prejudices of those who are ‘colorstruck’. Cathy, although not a demonstrative mother, clearly cares about Libertie and has trained her since a young age in the medical arts. But, as Libertie discovers, some conditions and or people cannot be cured. When one of her mother’s patients, a man Libertie had grown fond of, fails to recover, Libertie begins to question her mother’s abilities and grows increasingly disillusioned by her profession. Sensing her daughter’s detachment, Cathy enrolls Libertie at Cunningham College in Ohio where she will be the only female medical student. Libertie, who by this point had already begun to chafe against her mother’s expectations, is far more drawn by the music department, and in particular, by the voices of Louisa and Experience, also knows as the Graces.

“Music at night, music after dark, music finding its way to you across sweetgrass, can feel almost like magic.”

Libertie longs to belong to them, but, in spite of her attempts to form a friendship with the Graces, the bond between the two women is impenetrable. Greenidge’s articulates Libertie’s loneliness and yearning with lyric precision. It was easy to understand and sympathize with Libertie, her wish to be free of other people’s visions of who she should be. We also understand how complex her relationship with her mother is: having grown without a father or other relatives Cathy is everything to Libertie.

I found this first half of the novel to be but poignant and engaging. Greenidge does not shy away from discussing the realities of slavery, racism, colorism, or sexism. Yet, her narrative does not dwell on pain and suffering. There are many moments of beauty and empathy, and I found Libertie’s voice to be utterly captivating.

The latter half of the novel is where things get a bit messy. Libertie becomes entangled with Emmanuel, a young man from Haiti. While their first interactions had both chemistry and potential, their romance happens way too fast. Libertie’s feelings toward Emmanuel aren’t clearly addressed, which was weird since up to that point readers were privy to her innermost feelings and or thoughts. And then, bam, all of a sudden Libertie is in Haiti with Emmanuel and things there take a vaguely Jane Eyresque turn.
While the descriptions of Haiti, from its history to its physical landscapes, were vivid, and there were many thought-provoking discussions on religion and culture, I remained unconvinced by Libertie’s motivations to move there. I wish the story had kept its focus on her and Cathy or her and the Graces, as I did not really feel the ‘love’ between her and Emmanuel. Their relationship was rushed and once in Haiti it never truly develops or progresses. His family drama steals the limelight, and although it did allow the narrative to touch upon some compelling issues, I just could not bring myself to believe in Libertie or Emmanuel’s motives. Cathy’s presence is relegated once more to letters that Libertie chooses not answer. The finale was both predictable and left a few too many questions unanswered.

Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed Greenidge’s writing. I found that the inclusion of poetry, music, and fragments from Libertie/Cathy’s letters added a layer of depth to the story.
While I wasn’t blown away by the latter half of the novel nor its conclusion I would still recommend this as it is written in lyrical prose and it presents readers with a nuanced mother-daughter relationship while also delving into America’s history, racism, colorism, sexism, grief, and, as the title and heroine’s name suggest, freedom.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.”

First published in 1892 The Yellow Wallpaper is a disquieting short story that has become a seminal piece of feminist literature. Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents her readers with a brief yet evocative narrative that will likely disturb even the most hardened of readers. What struck me the most about this story is that it does not read like something written at the close of the 19th century. Perhaps this is due to the way this story is presented to us. There is an urgency to the unmanned woman’s journal entries that comprise this story, her later entries in particular seem to have been written in haste and secrecy.
John, the husband of our protagonist, is a physician who insists his wife ought to rest in order to recuperate from the classic female illness which consists in “temporary nervous depression” and “a slight hysterical tendency”. John, alongside his sister and other doctors, insist that his wife ought not to overwork or excite herself so he forbids her from writing or performing any chore. He believes that nourishing meals and restorative walks will do wonders for her health. Our narrator however disagrees. Over the summer the couple is residing in a mansion that perturbs her. As the days go by her journal entries express her increasing fixation with her room’s yellow wallpaper. When she voices the wish to leave the mansion or to see others her husband insists that they should remain.
John’s blindness to his wife’s spiralling health exacerbates her illness. Her morbid fixation with her wallpaper leads her to believe that something, or someone, is hiding beneath its pattern.
Gilman’s haunting examination of female madness will definitely leave a mark on her readers. The narrative’s Gothic and oppressive atmosphere emphasise our protagonist’s stultifying existence. Her husband’s dismissal of her worries and his firm instance that she merely needs rests and walks outside to recover force her down a self-destructive path.
The journal entries are extremely effective in that they convey their author’s deteriorating state of mind. Her descriptions of the wallpaper—from its pattern to its colour and smell—are certainly unnerving as they place us alongside her.
John’s ‘cure’ for his wife is far worse that her malaise as he isolates her from the rest of society, confines her person to a room, and cuts her off from her creative pursuits and hobbies. The protagonist’s breakdown is brought about by those who wish to contain and or cure of her more ‘alarming’ emotions (such as sadness and grief) by locking her away.
If you are interested in reading more about this story or the portrayal of ‘female madness’ in Victorian literature I really recommend Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Crime And Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts with Epilogue by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is a favourite of mine so I was expecting Crime And Punishment be right up my street…aaaaand I hated it.

Many consider Crime And Punishment to be one of the most influential books of all time…and I have to wonder…how? The Idiot, although certainly flawed, tells a far more cohesive and compelling narrative. The central figure of Crime And Punishment is an angsty and hypocritical wanker. I do not have to like a character to ‘root’ for them but Dostoyevsky, man, you gotta give me something…anything! Instead we have this appealing main character who for reasons unknown to me manages to captivate everybody’s attention.

Crime And Punishment is divided in six parts. In the first one—which I actually kind of liked—we are introduced to Rodion Raskolnikov an impoverished young man who dropped out of university and is now forced to go to a pawnbroker for funds. He believes that his financial circumstances are the only thing standing in the way of a ‘good’ life so he decides to kill the pawnbroker, telling himself that she is a callous old woman who sort of deserves to meet a violent end. In this first part Raskolnikov has various monologues, in which he argues with himself. A letter from his mother, informing him that his sister is engaged to an older man of affluence, he kind of looses it. He also meets another ‘tormented’ soul, Marmeladov, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who basically tells Raskolnikov his life story (his incoherent ramblings go on for pages and pages and pages).
Raskolnikov uses an axe to kill the pawnbroker but things, predictably, don’t go quite as he had planned.

The follow five parts haven’t all that much to do with this murder or with the detective who is pursuing Raskolnikov. After committing this crime Raskolnikov falls ill, he faints more often than Harry Potter and Frodo combined. Lots of people try to help him but he remains an asshole. Razumíkhin, who was also forced to drop out of university due to his finances, is utterly loyal to him. And…why? Even prior his ‘madness’ it seems that Raskolnikov was a noxious mix of moody and unpleasant. Then these two are joined by Raskolnikov’s sister and mother, and by the two ‘bad’ men who are interested in his sister. And of course, we also get some more of Marmeladov and his family, in particular his daughter, a beautiful prostitute whose childlike appearance (insert puking sounds here) and inherent purity make Raskolnikov besotted with her.

Everyone goes on a tirade, no one makes any bloody sense. Ramblings here, ramblings there, ramblings every fucking where. The dialogues are repetitive, the plot makes no sense (convenient coincidences aside it seems odd that Raskolnikov would not think back to his article on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ criminals just once in part one or two given what he wanted to and what he ended up doing), and I have 0 tolerance for grown ass men finding women attractive because they have ‘childlike’ physiques, temperaments, or features. And of course, here we have women who tremble like leaves.

There were so many over the top moments and whereas I found this fantastical realism amusing in The Idiot here they just annoyed me. Raskolnikov is dumb, he isn’t a brilliant criminal, or a genius, or master manipulator, or even charming…he just is. He makes so many avoidable mistakes, which made me wonder why it took the detective so long to finally confront him. Speaking of the deceive, his scenes with Raskolnikov had this very ‘anime’ feel to them (which works in parodies such as Love is War) and I could not for the life of me take them seriously.

What kind of point was this book trying to make? I have no clue. I did not enjoy the discussions on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ men, which seem to suggest that the reason why the detective is so in awe of Raskolnikov is that he considers him to be an ‘extraordinary’ individual, one who should not be punished as hard as ‘ordinary’ individual should. Yikes.

To quote Nabokov: Dostoyevsky’s “sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment—by this reader anyway”.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

MILD-SPOILERS

At first I thought that The Shape of Darkness was going to be a spoof of Gothic novels. The dialogues were corny, the two main characters are exceedingly frail, and the ‘murder mystery’ storyline struck me as somewhat theatrical (or perhaps I should say more suited to a film than a book). But I was willing to read on, thinking that these exaggerations were intentional and that Laura Purcell was lampooning Victorian ghost stories…but the more I read the more the narrative seemed to try to impress upon me that it was telling a ‘serious’ story. Having now finished this novel I can safely say that it was very clichéd and unimaginative, the setting of Bath is barely rendered, the two main characters sound like the same person, and the big ‘twist’ was extremely predictable (I mean, I can think of two films—one in 1999 and one in 2001—that have a similar reveal). Also, The Shape of Darkness is yet another book that proves my least likely person is the culprit theory.
Anyhow, Agnes seems to believe that she is being targeted after the very first death. Which is…okay. The plot must go on I guess.

Anyway, the story starts with Agnes a silhouette artist. She has yet to fully recover from an illness that struck her a few years prior the start of the novel. She lives in a nondescript house with her orphaned nephew and her elderly mother. Her past is ‘mysterious’ and she’s clearly suffered more than on heartbreak. Her only friend happens to be a doctor who was married to her now deceased evil sister. Her few customers start turning up dead and Agnes worries that someone is after her.
Pearl is a medium who also happens to have an evil sister who forces to host seances. Pearl believes in the ghosts and there are scenes that seem to point to ‘otherworldly’ presences. Pearl is also, like Agnes, kind of sickly. The two characters in fact sound very much like the same person. They lack interiority and are mostly defined by how ‘frail’ and vulnerable they are. For quite awhile I thought that they were more or less the same age but I was surprised to discover that Pearl was 11 and Agnes in her 40s (yet they both sound like teenagers).

Agnes and Pearl end up ‘finding’ one another and Agnes convinces Pearl to help her contact her now deceased customers. We have two or three scenes in which Agnes is actually doing her job and we see Pearl doing two seances at the very beginning but after the 40% mark the narrative no longer focuses on these things.

The story takes a quite a few leaps in logic, there are a few too many convenient coincidences, the plot is dull, the characters uninspired. Although the story is set in Bath there are only a couple descriptions—a few sentences really—describing the city’s architecture. Agnes shows a surprising lack of awareness towards her norms of her time and there were a few inconsistencies. For example, a couple of pages after we are told that Agnes’ hands are swollen (possibly due to a combination of arthritis and chilblains) she does a silhouette for a customer. This requires her to use her fingers and I guarantee you that if her hands had truly been as the ‘swollen lumps’ we were told they were, she would not be able to move them very much, let alone being able to doe painstakingly controlled movements with her fingers. Instead we don’t even get a mention of her hands and fingers during this scene (we could have been told how difficult and painful it was to be using her hands when they were so swollen).

The story tries to be somewhat serious or creepy and yes, descriptions of Pearl’s father—who’s phossy jaw is rotting away—were not pleasant. But the narrative’s ‘supernatural’ undertones and ‘murder mystery’ storyline were bland and galaxies away from being remotely scary (or even atmospheric).

Here are a few examples of why I did not like the author’s writing: ‘But it cannot be, not after all of these years’, ‘her heart flutters its wings inside her chest’, the idea fills her with a sweet glow, ‘in her face are those simmering, witchy eyes’, ‘her slender trunk’ (this to describe a woman’s figure), ‘frightened whispers of her own conscience’.

Towards the end the story becomes so dramatic as to be frankly risible. There were a few scenes that were meant to inspire suspense or whatnot but they way they go down would have suited more a B movie.
If you liked it, fair enough, but I for one am glad I did not have to pay for my copy (the ‘perks’ of being on NetGalley).

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary has become the epitome of desperate housewife, the archetypal unfaithful wife, the ultimate daydreamer whose fantasies lead to a premature self-destruction.

“She wished she could stop living, or sleep all the time.”

Madame Bovary follows the ‘provincial ways’ of the petite bourgeoisie. Charles Bovary is a so-so doctor, married to an older woman, and is ordinary in every which way. Similarly to Prince Myshkin his naïveté and kind-heartedness are perceived by those around him as weaknesses or signs of stupidity. He falls in love with Emma, the daughter of one of his patients, and lucky for him his wife just ups and dies (as she is hanging the wash she exclaims “Oh, my God!” sighs, loses consciousness and dies: “She was dead! How astonishing it was!”). Charles makes the most of this tragedy and asks Emma’s father for her hand in marriage. After an incredibly ornate wedding the two settle into married life. Or Charles does. He is exuberant, he adores Emma, lavishing her with affection. Emma, on the other hand, finds her husband suffocating and grows increasingly resentful towards him. She craves the “passion” and “intoxication” promised to her in her favourite books (in this she reminds me of Catherine from Northanger Abbey who obsesses over Gothic books, so much so that she ends up viewing the world through Gothic-tinted glasses).

In the following chapter (which happens to be my favourite one) the narrative describes Emma’s childhood and education at a convent. It is there that Emma becomes enthralled by the world of popular romances. She feels “an ardent veneration for illustrious or ill-fated women” such as Joan of Arc, Mary Stuart or the nun Héloïse. Emma is captivated by the regalia worn by the hero of a novel rather than by the hero himself. We find this same attitude towards many things in her life: “She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins”. Likewise, while at the convent she seems to more attracted to the trappings of religion rather than feeling a genuine devotion: she focuses on the appearance of the “white-faced” nuns, the rosaries, the copper crucifixes, “the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the fonts, and the glow of the candles”. She does not pay attention to the Mass, gazing instead “in her book at the holy pictures with their azure edges”. Emma Rouault loves “the church for its flowers, music for the words of its songs, and literature for its power to stir the passions”.

Emma Bovary strongly resembles her maiden self. She is disappointed by her marriage, for she considers Charles to be a man who “taught her nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing”. She thinks him dull and unambitious, the very opposite of an ideal husband. Emma is equally let down by her experience of motherhood, which is quite unlike the one she envisioned. Finally, her love affairs—with Rodolphe and Léon—seem to offer merely a pretext for her to exchange keepsakes and letters with another person. Emma goes through the motions of being in love without feeling any real love; it is the opportunity of wearing a new riding habit that causes her to embark upon her first affair. It is unsurprising then that she soon grows weary of both her lovers: “[Emma] was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage”.

As Emma’s appetite for luxurious material goods increases, she grows more disillusioned with her life, and since the happiness those extravagant items give her is merely temporary, she is unable to fight ennui. Her mounting debt to Lheureux, the man who sells her the material goods she so desperately craves, and her failed love affairs contribute to bringing about Emma’s own demise.

Even before marrying Charles, Emma had fallen prey to ennui: soon after leaving the convent “she considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel”. Whereas boredom is a ‘response to the immediate’, ennui ‘belongs to those with a sense of sublime potential, those who feel themselves superior to their environment’. And indeed, Emma feels a sense of superiority to what surrounds her: her dull husband, her mother-in-law, her servants, the uncouth villagers, the “tiresome countryside, the idiotic petits bourgeois, the mediocrity of life”. Emma is adamant that she has been cast in the wrong role, that of a petit-bourgeois woman, believing that she deserves to live as a heroine in a romance does, married to Prince Charming and surrounded by beauty.

A pattern gradually emerges: time and again Emma is disappointed by her attempts to reconstruct the world portrayed in her romantic novels. At the same time, it is almost as if Emma is unconsciously not really interested in satisfying her desire or making her daydreams reality; what she seems to truly enjoy is the act of desiring itself. After all, it is only in her fantasies, and by apotheosizing her past experiences, that Emma can envision herself experiencing a form of pure sensation and heightened emotion. And perhaps it is the very act of fantasizing that enables her to feel something akin to jouissance, which in Lacanian theory is a form of ‘backhanded enjoyment’, an excessive pleasure that ‘[b]egins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The pleasure that Emma feels by longing – by the very act of daydreaming – is similar to the ecstatic feeling experienced by her dream self. Yet, the enjoyment that she derives from yearning is accompanied by a feeling of pain since Emma is only able to long because she is missing something. Paradoxically, then, Emma can find fulfilment in the perpetuation of her non-fulfilment given that ‘every form of fulfilment necessarily brings an end to the desired state of longing, it is only the infinite deferral of satisfaction that keeps desire alive’.

There is the tendency to believe that Emma’s mania, her depression and her subsequent suicide result from her clumsy attempts at upward mobility. Flaubert makes Emma’s desires and her unhappiness quite clear to us: she wishes to live like the heroines in her beloved romances, yearns for an impossible glittery lifestyle but, try as she might, never really succeeds in replicating the feelings or experiences she has read of. Certainly, there are many instances where readers will find Emma’s dissatisfactions to be risible. But, however small-minded and solipsistic Emma Flaubert articulates her sense of entrapment and addiction to longing (for sublimity, love, completion, meaning) in such a way as to challenge easy dismissals of her desires (as being petty or superficial).

There are so many things that made me love this book. Flaubert’s prose (or Lydia Davis’ impeccable), his attention to the minute details that constitute provincial life, his irony, his absurd characters….the list goes on.
Flaubert excels at depicting the contradictory nature of people, the fleeting moments of irritation, boredom, hate, passion…there are many scenes which seem to ridicule his characters’ worries, but he never directly pokes fun at his characters (his readers will do that for him). And while a certain sardonic humor prevails there are also episodes that will certainly elicit our sympathies.
Although this novel is often labelled as a romance or a tragedy, Madame Bovary reads like an anti-romance. We have characters such Emma and Léon, idealists, self-proclaimed romantics, who are trapped in a realist narrative. Yet, Flaubert is also making fun of realism. There are so many descriptions of what the characters are wearing, of the smells or objects, houses, streets, you name it. Then juxtaposing these lavish or picturesque descriptions we have scenes detailing Charles’ operating on the stable boy’s club foot, and these scenes make for some nausea-inducing reading material.
Nevertheless this remains a beautifully crafted novel. Flaubert’s acuity, his striking prose, his vibrant characters, make for an unforgettable read. One should not approach this novel hoping for something in the realms of Anna Karenina. Although one could describe Emma as the ‘heroine’ of this novel, she possesses mostly qualities that will make readers hate her. There were many instances in which I disliked her (just read of the way she treats her servants or her daughter or even Charles). But Flaubert is a deft writer, and Emma cannot be simply be labelled as ‘unlikable’. In many ways she reminds of the alienated women who star in recent fiction such as the narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Emma is like them bored, self-destructive, prone to bouts of depression, and finds pleasure only in daydreams.
The first time I picked up this novel I struggled to make it past the first chapter. I then ended up listening to the audiobook (narrated by Juliet Stevenson who gives an impeccable performance) and, just like that, I was transfixed. This second time around I read it myself (I own a very stylish penguin classics edition) and I was once again enthralled by Flaubert narrative. I was particularly intrigued by the seamless way in which he shifts perspectives. This time I was also able to truly savour Flaubert’s prose as I already knew how the storyline would unfold. Next time I may try reading the Italian translation and maybe who knows, one day I will be able to read the original French (okay, that’s quite unlikely but you never know…). Anyway, I could probably go on and on about this novel. I would not recommend it to those who have a low tolerance for irony and kind of detestable characters.

 

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

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The Dark Days Deceit by Alison Goodman

 

 

To say that I am incredibly disappointed by this final instalment would be pretty accurate.
I enjoyed The Dark Days Club and I thought The Dark Days Pact was the perfect sequel. Goodman’s writing painstakingly depicted the Georgian era, its customs and language. Lady Helen, our main character, was both sensible and diplomatic, and she could also kick some serious ass. The slowest burn of them all, her infatuation with Lord Carlston was thrilling. Throw in some demons, action, and a lot of letters, and you get the perfect ‘Fantasy of Manners‘.
Or so I thought…
After reading The Dark Days Deceit I no longer feel fond of this world. This last novel left me with a bitter taste: nearly everything that I loved in previous instalments…I now sort of hate.

Positives:
Goodman’s writing is still par excellence. She makes the setting come life. Each scene that takes place is described with extreme detail, and the elegant prose resonates with the historical period itself. While there are plenty of dramatic and serious occasion, the style often comes across as satirical, poking fun at traditions and beliefs of that era.

Negatives
Where do I start?
It might be because the previous instalment came out nearly two years ago but it took me quite some time to readjust to this world. There are plenty of characters or things that have happened that I could not remember. The terms used to refer to the ‘supernatural’ elements were easier to remember but I was not a fan of the whole ‘Grand Reclaimer’ bond between Helen and Carlston. All of a sudden they seem able to share telepathic conversions?! And other people sort of notice?! Are they just obviously staring at one another? Subtle. Why even bother with the silent conversations.
Helen acted in such an irritating manner. The whole marriage plot was pointless and a real drag. Why save the world when you need to prepare your wedding? The world can wait. Worst still is that she was such a horrible friend. Carlston ‘s jealousy and short-temper made him just as likeable as Helen. Helen’s friends and the other members of the Dark Days Club seem to fade in the background, only to be (view spoiler)[ killed off (hide spoiler)] to make Helen feel as if ‘she had failed them all’.
The worst thing however is the ‘twist’ which made the whole plot ridiculous.


MY RATING: 2.5 of 5 stars


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