Here Again Now by Okechukwu Nzelu

The first few pages of Here Again Now brought to mind the opening scene from my much beloved A Little Life so, naturally, I cranked up my expectations. As I kept on reading however my initial excitement over the story incrementally decreased to the point that I no longer looked forward to picking it up. This is by no means a bad novel but it certainly bore the signs of an ‘unseasoned’ writer. The prose was weighed down by repetition and overdone metaphors. Some of the dialogues struck me as odd, unconvincing, and I found that the narrative relied too much on rhetorical questions. Additionally, sections of the text consisted of a barrage of ‘what if x’ or ‘why is y’ or ‘how is xy’ questions that were really unnecessary. At one point there is a whole paragraph that just consists of these very, dare I write, basic questions that were far less effective than actually discussing the subject matter at hand (rather than circling around it).

The novel follows three characters, with very few if any secondary characters. This does lend a certain intimacy to the narration and the drama unfolding between these three characters. After his acting career takes off Achike Okoro acquires a swanky flat in Peckham. Staying with him is Ekene, his best friend of twenty years. Despite their different temperaments and careers, the two share a very close bond. Both have had less than ideal upbringings and they found solace in one another. It is hinted that the two had a ‘moment’ in Berlin and back in their twenties. Achike has proclaimed his love for Ekene but the latter seems reluctant to take their relationship down that path. While Achike is presented as this patient sort of figure, he does seem to have grown restless and feels slightly bitter about Ekene always choosing someone over him. When Chibuike, Achike’s father, who is in the process of recovering from his alcohol addiction, moves in with them, tensions rise.
There is the very long opening scene, in which we learn all of this, that takes place over the course of a day (possibly two?) and ends around the 30% mark. In between, we get some flashbacks that take us to Achike and Ekene’s early days as friends and Chibuike’s own childhood. The narrative explores the bonds between father & sons and friends & lovers as well as provides some thought-provoking conversation on masculinity, queerness, and Blackness. After a certain event, the story changes track so that in addition to these themes the narrative touches upon grief, guilt, and forgiveness.
I wanted to love this, I really did, but I found the writing to be a bit too…Ocean Vuong-esque for my liking? Eg. “Maybe fathers could explain sons?”
The first half of the novel is bogged down by this ‘will they won’t they’ storyline that seems to take priority over characterization. Because I didn’t really feel as if I knew these characters I was not particularly invested in their friendship/romance. The father/son dynamics occurring within this novel also struck me as corny. There were instances where I felt that I was reading the script for a soap opera or something. There were lines describing how beautiful the characters are, which at times went on too long or were a bit too much. But I digress. This was not a terribly written novel. At times the writing was a bit clumsy, and in other instances, lyrical passages or observations give way to purple metaphors. The three major characters were at times too fixed in their role and I’m always fond of tragic events being used as plot devices or to ‘help’ other characters ‘grow’. There were a couple of scenes that I found well-executed but there were far too many instances where I wasn’t sure where the characters were or if this scene was taking place on the same day as the previous one, etc. etc. While I would not call myself a fan of this I am grateful to the publisher for having sent me an arc and I urge prospective readers to check out more positive reviews out.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

Ponti, Ponti, Ponti…what a vexing read. This is one of those books that was ceaselessly frustrating and, dare I say, ultimately pointless. What was this book even about? There is no story, not really. We don’t even get satisfying character studies to make up for the plotlessness of Ponti. The characters are thinly-rendered and unfunny caricatures that for 99.99% of the novel remain unchanged in their behaviours & attitudes. Given the comparison to authors such as Elena Ferrante and Emma Cline, I went into this hoping for a story about fraught and complex female friendships and found myself bitterly disappointed as the one friendship we get is not really a friendship, not at all.
I will try to give an impression of what this novel is about but you will have to bear with me as, as I stated above, this novel doesn’t really have a plot. The narrative is set in Singapore and the chapters alternate between Szu, Circe, and Amisa. Szu’s chapters take place in 2003 when she’s sixteen, Circe’s in 2020, and Amisa’s take us from the late 60s to the 80s. Amisa once starred in an indie horror trilogy called Ponti. After that, her acting career never took off and she goes on to live a rather miserable life. Her daughter, Szu, both reveres and is discomfited by her. Because of her ‘horror’ past, Szu becomes obsessed with the genre and the Ponti trilogy in particular. Szu is alienated from other girls and spends most of her school days creeping her classmates out. She eventually falls in with Circe, who is from a wealthy and fairly stable family. The two allegedly become friends but in adulthood, they no longer are in touch. I guess the reason for their falling out is what is meant to propel the storyline but my god did it drag. I felt no interest in seeing how their falling out would unfold as I never bought into their friendship. The two are horrible people. Szu’s personality revolves around her supposedly ‘macabre’ love for horror and gory stuff. That’s it. If you were to strip off that, she would have no discernible traits. Circe is an acerbic bitch who spends most of the time being a selfish little brat. As an adult, she manages to be even more grating. Amisa’s chapters, which are told in the 3rd person, do not give us much insight into her or her past. What we learn about her life there, well, we’d already learnt about it in Szu’s chapters. The ‘humor’ involves a lot of girls being catty about other girls, more often than not Szu thinking mean things about Circe & Circe saying bitchy things to Szu. The way they describe other women/girls is fairly vile.
This kind of toxic dynamic does work when say done by authors such as Ottessa…but here, it just fell flat. The characters were so one-note and often sounded very much like the same person. The dark humor promised by the summary doesn’t really come through. The narrative tries to be edgy and gritty by having passages dedicated to Circe talking about her tapeworm or our various characters taking shits. Wow, how s u b v e r s i v e. I’m shook. Most of the chapters came across as repetitive as they give us time and again the same glimpses into these women’s lives. Their inner-monologues added no depth to them, if anything, they made all the more unbelievable and indistinguishable from each other. Everything is abject: one’s body, other people and their bodies, Singapore, womanhood. Every character has greasy hair and oily skin, which is fair enough, but these are often regarded with repulsion by our mcs. Again, if the author had managed to pull off’s Ottessa’s biting humor, maybe this could have worked but as things stand it just felt forced.
I kept on reading hoping that at some point the story would take off but it never does. Nothing major happens nor do we gain more insight into the characters and their various dynamics. This was a waste of my time. The only thing this book succeed in was in establishing the setting of Singapore. That’s about it.

The characters are 1 dimensional & vile, the non-existent story goes nowhere, and the prose tries & fails to be edgy/gritty.
If you are interested in this novel and not put off by its overall low rating here on gr I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel

“Speaking can be a terrifying action. Our words—even when spoken from a position so powerless that all that’s produced is a moth-like squeak—can be loud enough to wake the house: a house that is often sleeping peacefully and does not want to be disturbed; a house in which perhaps you’ve found a home.

I’m very much in awe of Michaela Coel. While I liked Chewing Gum well enough, I May Destroy You blew my mind. It made me cry, it made me laugh, it gave me friggin goosebumps. If you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favour, and do it ASAP.

I would recommend Misfits to those who haven’t watched Coel’s MacTaggart Lecture. That talk, transcribed here in Misfits, is powerful indeed. Honest and incisive, this talk is definitely a must-listen/read. Coel recounts growing up Black in London, from the racism she experienced at school (from both the students and the staff) to her time at drama school. She describes a few specific episodes that highlight her love for theatre and creativity. Coel also discusses how racist, sexist, and toxic the filming industry is. Later on, Coel also speaks of being sexually assaulted, and while she doesn’t go into too much detail, this part is particularly brutal. Additionally, Coel expands on her idea of being a misfit and exploring notions of belonging and identity.

As much as I loved Coel’s words, I’m not entirely sure why her talk was published as a book. The talk is sandwiched between two short new pieces, the first one preceding said talk where she writes about having anosmia, moths, and recalls a peculiar dream she had some years ago (it felt a bit disjointed). The latter bit is a short afterword. I would have probably appreciated this release more if it had included some more essays by Coel but I nevertheless was grateful to re-experience her lecture.

my rating: ★★★½

Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah

“Objects, matter itself, were softly disintegrating. All identity became ambiguous, semi-opaque.”



As the fickle creature that I am what drew me to Untold Night and Day was its cover. The first few pages intrigued me as they focus on Kim Ayami a former actor who now works at an audio theatre for the blind. The narrative that follows is rather metaphysical in nature, most of the discussions that occur within these pages are abstract and or relating to sensory experience, with, as the title suggests, special attention paid to night and day, darkness and lightness. This slim tome repeatedly obfuscates the line between dreams and reality, so that everything we read of is tinged by an air of surreality. At one point we read of a character who seems to be stalking Ayami before returning to her and a foreign poet nicknamed Wolfi. The novel was certainly disorienting, and in that, it evokes one of the story’s earlier episodes when Ayami meets with ‘the director’ in an exclusive ‘blackout restaurant’. We can’t really discern a story nor do we become familiar with the characters, and familiar settings and conversations are made unfamiliar. Alas, the discussion they have about art, poetry, performance, life, did not strike me as particularly profound or clever, in fact, they expressed rather tired ideas.
I can safely say that I did not get this novel. While I usually like surrealist narratives but here…well, I just did not care. If you are looking for an experimental read and you have a higher tolerance for novels that are confusing for the sake of being confusing, well, you should give this one a try.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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All’s Well by Mona Awad

“I thought tests led to something. A diagnosis led to a plan, a cure. But tests, I know now, never lead us anywhere. Tests are dark roads with no destinations, just leading to more dark.”

All’s Well makes for an entertaining if somewhat flawed romp. The novel is narrated by Miranda, a theatre professor in her later thirties, who is not doing so well. After falling off a stage during her early acting career Miranda has been left in a state of perpetual pain. Bad surgeries, failed recoveries, inept physiotherapists have all left their mark on her body and Miranda now struggles to even move her right leg and suffers from chronic pain (her back, hip). She’s divorced and has no friends left.

“I was always busy. Doing what? Grace would ask. Getting divorced. Seeing another surgeon, another wellness charlatan. Gazing into the void of my life.”

Not only are her colleagues disbelieving of her pain but even her doctors treat Miranda’s ‘failed’ attempts to improve as something she ought to be blamed for. She decides that her class should stage Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well since not only did she herself act in that play years previously (giving a brilliant performance) but elements within its story (such as helena’s ‘cure’) appeal to her. Alas, her students are not so keen, wanting instead to stage Macbeth. Briana, who always gets parts not because she is talented but because her parents’ generous donations to the college, seems particularly intent on making Miranda’s life difficult. When Briana ‘mutiny’ succeeds Miranda is equal parts furious and despairing. Not only does she have to deal with her body being in constant pain but now she feels that her life has reached its lowest point, with no one believing her about her chronic pain or even respecting her.
At the local pub, she comes across three mysterious men in suits who not only know all about her professional and personal life but they also seem eager to help her. One golden drink later and Miranda blacks out. Wondering whether she is really losing it Miranda goes to rehearsals where after an ‘altercation’ with Briana she finds herself feeling increasingly better. Not only is her pain gone but she can once again move her body with ease. And, it just so happens that she can stage All’s Well That Ends Well after all. So what if Briana has fallen gravely ill? Not all gifts have to come at a price….right?

“Still sick, so we hear. So sad. We are all terribly sad about it, turly. Truly, truly.”

In a similar fashion to Bunny, All’s Well present its readers with an increasingly surreal narrative. From the start, Miranda’s voice is characterised by a note of hysteria, and as the story’s events unfold, her narration becomes increasingly frenzied. She’s paranoid and obsessive, one could even say unhinged. Yet, even after she’s crossed, leapt over even, the line I found myself still rooting for Miranda. I loved that detail about her ‘asides’ being overheard by others.
The latter half of the novel does fall into the same pitfalls as Bunny. The language gets repetitive, the weirdness feels contrived, and we get this surreal sequence that could have been cut short (a joke that goes on for too long ends up being not all that funny).

The narrative’s dark, sometimes offensive, humor brought to mind Ottessa Moshfegh, Jen Beagin, and Melissa Broder. The side characters were a bit unmemorable, Miranda’s colleagues in particular, and I wish more time had spent on getting to know the students (we only learn a bit about three of them) or to see them rehearsing the play. My favourite scenes were the ones with the three suited men, I really loved the way they are presented to us. They gave some serious David Lynch and Shirley Jackson vibes.
I wish that Miranda’s visit to that sadistic doctor could have been left out of the novel as they felt a bit heavy-handed. Then again, this not a nuanced or complex novel. It is absurd, occasionally funny, and mostly entertaining. The novel’s exploration of chronic pain did not feel particularly thought-provoking but there were instances that I could relate to (i happen to suffer from a seasonal autoimmune disease and i’ve had to put up with patronising doctors dismissing the severity of my symptoms). It seemed a bit weird that no one believed Miranda (or that crutches and walking sticks do not exist in this universe so characters are constantly ‘hobbling’ with their leg dragging behind them). Still, we do get spot-on passages like this:

“But not too much pain, am I right? Not too much, never too much. If it was too much, you wouldn’t know what to do with me, would you? Too much would make you uncomfortable. Bored. My crying would leave a bad taste. That would just be bad theatre, wouldn’t it? A bad show. You want a good show. They all do. A few pretty tears on my cheeks that you can brush away. Just a delicate little bit of ouch so you know there’s someone in there. So you don’t get too scared of me, am I right? So you know I’m still a vulnerable thing. That I can be brought down if I need be.”

I appreciate Miranda’s journey, from being the who is wronged to being the one who wrongs others, and I liked her hectic OTT narration. Yes, Awad’s style has this sticky extra quality to it that I am still not 100% fond of but here I found myself buying into it more. If unlike me, you were a fan ofBunny you will probably find All’s Well to be a pretty entertaining read. Those who weren’t keen on Bunny may be better off sampling a few pages before committing to All’s Well (some may find it irritating or unpleasant: “all of them gazing up at my body, lump foul of deformity”). Personally, I found All’s Well to be far more well-executed than Bunny and Miranda makes for a fascinating protagonist.

Side note: I don’t want to nitpick but Italians use ‘primavera’ to say ‘spring’ (if you want to argue about the etymology of ‘primavera’ ‘first spring’ would not be incorrect but Awad does not make that distinction so…).

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

my rating: ★★★¼

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“Fear and hatred, fear and hatred: often, it seemed that those were the only two qualities he possessed. Fear of everyone else; hatred of himself.”

A Little Life is a heart-wrenching tour de force. Dark, all-consuming, devastating, moving, stunning, brutal, dazzling, beautiful, disturbing, A Little Life is all of these and so much more. This is the kind of novel that haunts.

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”

The first fifty pages or so may give one the illusion that the story they are about to read is the usual tale of a group of friends trying to make it in the big city. Which in some ways, it is. Friendship is one of the novel’s underlying motifs. But, A Little Life is first and foremost a novel about pain, suffering, and trauma. And as highly as I think of this novel I could not in good conscience bring myself to recommend it to anyone else. Large portions of this 800-page novel are dedicated to depicting, in minute detail, a man’s past and present physical, emotional, and psychological suffering. We also have to read paragraph after paragraph in which adults inflict all kinds of horrific abuse on a child. What saves this novel from being yet another sensationalistic or gratuitous take on sexual abuse are Hanya Yanagihara’s clear and realist style and the many moments of beauty, kindness, love, empathy that are interjected throughout the narrative. Still, even so, I can see why some may find A Little Life to be too much. Hell, there were many instances where I found myself thinking ‘I can’t it, this is too much’. But who was I kidding? Once I started this novel I knew that I had to finish it and in fact I devoured it over the course of three days.

“Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”

The novel recounts, decade-by-decade, the lives of four friends in New York City from their early 20s to their 50s. There is JB, a gay painter, Malcolm, who still lives at home and dreams of becoming an architect, Willem, an orphan who is pursuing an acting career, and Jude, also an orphan, who is a lawyer. Jude’s is reticent about his past and his friends know to leave it well alone. He has a limp and suffers from many health-related issues, which were caused by a car injury. As the story progresses the narrative shifts its focus on Jude and his many ongoing struggles. Jude’s horrific childhood and teenage years are revealed to us slowly over the course of the story. To cope with his traumatic experiences Jude self-harms, something that definitely hit close to home so I appreciate the authenticity with which Yanagihara portrays Jude’s self-harming. Similarly, his self-hatred and self-blaming are rendered with painful realism, without any judgment on the author’s part. While there were many—and I mean many—horrifying and painful scenes, there are moments of beauty, lightness, and tenderness. As an adult Jude is surrounded by people who love him, there are his friends, colleagues, neighbours, mentors, and it is here that the novel is at its most moving.
This is a novel about sexual abuse, pain, grief, friendship, love, intimacy, hope, and silences. The characters (it feels wrong to even call them that) are fully-formed individuals, imperfect, at times incongruent, yet nonetheless lovable. Oh, how my heart ached for them.
Yanagihara foreshadows certain events but even so, I found myself hoping against hope that the story would not be a tragic one. Yet, this unwillingness on Yanagihara’s part to provide a happy ending or to give her characters sort of closure that makes her novel simultaneously subversive and all the more realistic. Things don’t always get better, people can’t always overcome or reconcile themselves with their trauma, love doesn’t ‘fix’ people, you can’t magic away someone else’s pain. I have never sobbed while reading a book but I was sobbing intermittently throughout my reading of A Little Life. At times reading about Jude’s pain was brought me to tears, at times it was when coming across a scene that is brimming with kindness and love (basically anything with Jude and Harold or Jude and Willem).

“I want to be alone,” he told him.
“I understand,” Willem said.
“We’ll be alone together.”

This novel made me feel exposed, naked, vulnerable, seen in a way I wasn’t ready to be seen. It broke my fucking heart. It disturbed me, it made me ugly-cry, it made me want to find Yanagihara so I could shout at her. To describe A Little Life as a piece of fiction seems sacrilegious. I experienced A Little Life. From the first pages, I found myself immersed in Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm’s lives. When I reached the end I felt bereft, exhausted, numb so much so that even now I’m finding it difficult to to articulate why I loved this so much (then again my favourite band is Radiohead so I clearly like things that depress me). I doubt I will ever be brave enough to read it again but I also know that I will be thinking about A Little Life for years to come.
Adroit, superbly written, and populated by a richly drawn A Little Life is a novel unlike any other, one that you should read at your own risk.

my rating: ★★★★★

ps: the bond between Jude and Willem brought to mind a certain exchange from Anne Carson’s translation of Orestes:
PYLADES: I’ll take care of you.
ORESTES: It’s rotten work.
PYLADES: Not to me. Not if it’s you.

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We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

“Worse than being evil, you have been made embarrassing. A punch line, again and again, for a joke that just keeps telling itself. The joke is success. And the punch line—every single time—is you.”

We Play Ourselves is a surprisingly gratifying and shrewdly observed debut novel. Jen Silverman presents her readers with a resonant character study and a mordant exploration of the highs and lows of the entertainment industry. We Play Ourselves centres on Cass, a queer playwright in her early thirties who finds herself fleeing from scandal and a crumbling career after she does something ‘bad’. Leaving New York behind Cass seeks refuge in LA with an old friend of hers. Her agent won’t pick up her calls and she has become persona non grata online. ‘Lucky’ for Cass she discovers that her neighbour Caroline, a filmmaker working on a ‘feminist’ pseudo-documentary starring a group of teenage girls who have created their own all-female Fight Club. Cass, who is still clinging to the idea of a career in this fickle industry, finds herself assisting Caroline. While this Fight Club subplot is not the narrative’s focus it is a stepping stone of sorts. Cass becomes aware of how artificial Caroline’s project is and finds herself bonding with one of the girls B.B. (their friendships is one of the novel’s highlights).
As we see Cass struggling to reconcile with the direction her life has taken we delve into her time in New York and the choices that have led her flight to L.A.

“If you’re wondering what it feels like to want two completely opposite things to the same degree, at the same time, for entirely different reasons—it feels insane. But then again, maybe it’s hard to be alive on this planet and not know how that feels.”

I could really relate to Cass, for better or worse. First, in terms of her sexuality (“There is always a moment with straight girls in which I wonder if they think I’m checking them out. And then, especially if I wasn’t, I start acting weird, because I’m trying to make it clear that I’m not, but the more you try and act as if you aren’t doing something, the more you seem like you are.”), her relationship to failure, the way she responds to other people’s success, her chaotic feelings towards the ones she is jealous of (“I want to protect her, and i want to escape her, and I want to kill her and wear her skin, all that the same time and to the same degree.”) or how she sometimes confuses different types of love and intimacy.

Her narration is wry, honest, and playfully self-deprecating. For her self-sabotaging, her many stumbles and falls, Cass is ultimately able to acknowledge and learn from her mistakes. I found her character arc really satisfying and realistic.
We also have a rich cast of secondary characters who could be entertaining, frustrating, absurd, and even heart-rendering. The dialogues all rang true to life, Silverman renders the tentative way in which we speak through the frequent usage of question marks and words such as ‘like’. I found that Silverman dialogues had a very realistic rhythm and managed to capture the individual way we all express ourselves. Silverman also pokes gentle fun at a certain type of artsy and pretentious speak which is all the rage in artists/creative fields (people who speak about the death of authenticity or the performativity of the self) .

“I have started giving myself permission to be really, really ugly. I don’t know if anyone here has ever done that? But it’s incredibly freeing, actually.”

In addition to Cass’ bond with B.B, I loved Cass’ phone calls with Josephine and her friendship with Dylan (who is bi and in the midst of relationship troubles). I also appreciated that characters other than Cass are given their own struggles and arcs. Although some readers may be disappointed by the story’s direction (read: it doesn’t focus on the Fight Club documentary all that much) or by how unresolved other characters’ storylines are, I thought that these things made the novel all the more realistic. The book is, after all, about Cass so it seemed natural for the narrative to focus on her storyline.

Through Cass’ story, Silverman explores fame, failure, ambition, contentment, creativity, jealousy, rejection, sexuality, different types of love, as well as good and the not-so-good choices people make along the way. In her portrayal of the theatre world, the realities of writers/artists, and the fickle nature of fame Silverman demonstrates both a delightful sense of humor and an impressive capacity for insight.
We Play Ourselves is a promising debut novel, one that struck me for its sharp humor, its compelling character dynamics, and its realism.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan

Moving through space (America, Lebanon, Syria) and time (from the 1960s to 2019) The Arsonists’ City tells a sprawling yet engrossing tale about the Nasr, a Syrian-Lebanese-American family. Written with the same subtlety and beauty as her debut novel, The Arsonists’ City presents readers with a cast of fully-fleshed out characters, however flawed or frustrating they may be, a rich exploration of the Nasrs’ personal and cultural identities, and a glimpse into Lebanon and Syria’s complex pasts and presents.
The prologue opens up with the death of a young man. The narrative then introduces us to the Nasrs’ ‘children’. There is Ava, the eldest, the only one in the family who is not driven by ambition or particularly cares to be in the spotlight. Although she’s quite content with her job as a microbiology teacher, her marriage is undergoing a rough patch. her relationship with Nate, her husband, is undergoing a rough patch. We then have Mimi, their mother’s golden boy, whose musical career never truly kicked off. As Mimi’s bandmates get younger and younger, and his peers are getting married and having children, he feels stuck. Naj, the youngest and the only one who lives outside America, is part of a successful musical duo. In Beirut, she feels free to do as she wishes. Her family don’t know she’s gay and Naj isn’t keen on abandoning her party lifestyle.
Over the years the siblings have drifted away from each other. Seemingly out of the blue their father, Iris, a heart surgeon, decides to sell his family home in Beirut. After this sudden decision, the Nasr are reunited in Beirut. Close proximity reignites deep-rooted jealousies and brings to the light old family secrets and betrayals. Their feelings towards each other, and themselves, are complicated, messy. They bicker a lot, snitch on each other (often to their mother), and, in general, don’t have the easiest time together. However, as Alyan so brilliantly demonstrates, family bonds, however thorny or challenging, can be a true source of happiness or comfort.

Their reunion in Beirut happens quite later on in the narrative. Before that, we delve into Ava, Mimi, and Naj’s everyday realities. From their romantic relationships to their sex lives and careers. Alyan also provides us with glimpses into the lives of the people around them—their partners, colleagues, friends, bandmates—so that we end up with a rich cast of characters.
Each of the children reacts differently to their father’s decision. Ava and Mimi are initially unwilling to go to Beirut but are ultimately worn down by their mother’s unrelenting recriminations. Naj isn’t particularly happy at the news either as she feels quite possessive of her life in Beirut.
The narrative then transports us to Damascus, in the 1960s. Their mother, Mazna, falls in love with the theatre and begins to dream about a future as a renowned actor. The Lebanese Civil War is the background to Mazna’s chapters which heavily focus on her acting experiences. She befriends Idris, aka her future husband, who is Syrian and his close friend Zakaria, who is Palestinian and lives in a refugee camp.
The remainder of the novel moves between the present, with the family reunited in Beirut, and the past, where we read of Mazna and Idris’ early days of marriage and of their eventual migration to California.

Most of the characters make bad choices, they hurt the ones they love, they are unsatisfied by the direction their lives are taking (both Mazna and Mimi’s careers never truly resemble what they’d envisioned), and they either cheat or are cheated on. I appreciated how each character has to deal with failure or heartbreak, either as a direct consequence of their actions or due to circumstances out of their control. I also liked how realistic the children’s relationship with one another was. Alyan gives her characters both individual and shared history, which makes them feel all the more authentic. Alyan also brings her settings to life, for better or worse.
What felt a tad unnecessary was the extensive forays into Mazna’s past. She wasn’t a particularly likeable or sympathetic character (my favourite was probably Harper, Mimi’s Texan girlfriend). For their flaws, I found myself much more interested in the lives of her children.
The story at times felt a tad too melodramatic, especially in regards to certain ‘revelations and all that cheating. I swear the Nasrs’ are a family of cheaters. It got kind of repetitive (wow, quelle surprise, someone is cheating/being cheated on, yet again). There was an odd line sexualising a child which felt a bit…yuckish? And one that gave me incest-y vibes, which was also pretty unecessary.
Despite all that, I remained enthralled by Alyan’s storytelling and piercing observations. Her dialogues ring true to life and the character dynamics are very compelling.
With the tone of Elif Shafak The Saint of Incipient Insanities and the scope of Roopa Farooki’s The Good Children, The Arsonists’ City offers its readers a captivating and intricate family saga populated by nuanced characters and deeply rooted in Lebanon and Syria’s histories and cultures. In spite of its length (the audiobook is over 19 hours) The Arsonists’ City proved to be a gripping read one that I might even re-read.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

“When I think back on that it’s always with a sense of having lost something fragile and fleeting, something I can’t quite name.”

I loved every single page of The Great Godden. This is one of those rare novels that is simultaneously simple and mesmerising: an unmanned narrator recounts the summer in which they fell in love.
Within this slim volume, Meg Rosoff conjures up that holiday feeling, with mornings of idleness giving way to nights charged with possibilities.

“This year is going to be the best ever—the best weather, the best food, the best fun. The actors assembled, the summer begins.”

During the summer holidays, a family is staying in their house by the sea. Here they reconnect with the young couple—soon to be wed—who live close by. Their dynamics change with the arrival of the Godden siblings, the sons of an American actress. The narrator, alongside their gorgeous sister, falls for Kit Godden, who is as beautiful as he is charismatic. Kit’s sullen younger brother, Hugo, is largely ignored by the narrator’s family.
As the young couple’s wedding approaches, allegiances shift, and more than one person will be left heartbroken.

Although this does include a love story, one should not approach this novel expecting a romance. If anything, this is an anti-romance, showing us how devastating, all-consuming, and deceptive love can be. The love Rosoff depicts is deeply ambivalent. The narrator, alongside others, is blinded by their feelings. Kit, the seemingly golden boy, is no angel, and yet, like the narrator, we wind up falling for his act.

“In my memory he seems to glow. I can shut my eyes and see how he looked to us then, skin lit from within as if he’d spent hours absorbing sunlight only to slow-release it back into the world.”

Rosoff’s writes of a summer that is heady with change, love, and yearning. This is a deeply atmospheric read, one that captivated me from the opening page. The narrator’s voice lured me in, and I found myself absorbed by their observations about the people around them. I liked the author’s sly sense of humor, their ability to convey the chaotic energy of holidaying with your family. Rosoff also succeeds in capturing how powerful first love is as well as the confusing thoughts & emotions that overtake us when we are in that particular period of transition between adolescence and adulthood.

“Tempted? Me? That was like asking if I was tempted to get wet in a rainstorm. By the time you finished the question I was already soaked.”

my rating: ★★★★★

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson — book review

“I understand that art is a necessary component of a civilized society, but you cannot just go around shooting people. That’s going to be a problem.”

Having recently read and loved Nothing to See Here I wanted to check out Kevin Wilson’s earlier work. While The Family Fang has the same whimsical tone as his latest novel, its story has a broader scope and feels slightly more impersonal (perhaps this is due to the third person point of view).
Nevertheless the opening chapters of this novel are highly entertaining. Throughout the narrative there are sections from Annie and Buster’s childhood recounting the way in which their parents would rope them into being part of their ‘performances’ (which usually aimed to cause as much havoc as possible). Unsurprisingly, as adults Annie and Buster have little to do with their parents. Annie is an actress whose career is about to hit a rough spot, while Buster is a writer whose last novel wasn’t very well received. After a series of unfortunate yet oddly funny, events the two Fang siblings find themselves back into their parents’ home.
Although I liked the satire on contemporary art, as well as art criticism, I didn’t find Caleb and Camille to be all that interesting. They remain rather one-sided and did not strike me as being as compelling as they were made to be. Their over-the-top self-belief and art talk could be amusing but it didn’t render their personalities. Even when the narrative was focused on them, their motivations and behaviour remained off page. Although Annie and Buster were far more engaging, I still found their character arcs to be rather erratic.
Although for the most part he eccentric cast of characters did keep me interested in the story, I would have preferred a more focused and less meandering storyline. The pacing too seemed to be slightly off kilter.

Funnily enough some of my favourite scenes in this novel were the ones revolved around a film Annie’s working on (a film in which a woman looks after children who catch fire? Sounds familiar…).
While I appreciated Wilson’s motifs, imagery, and themes (once again we have questionable parents who do a questionable job raising their children), and I enjoyed the overall humour and eccentricity of his narrative, I did not feel particularly involved by his story nor his characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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