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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Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage

“Desire places people in dangerous positions. This was a fact I’d yet to learn and something Richard knew all too well.”

Dio mio, this book was so stressful.
Equal parts gripping and horrifyingYes, Daddy is one hell of a debut novel. This is not the kind of book one enjoys reading. In fact, most of the things that happen in this novel are horrific. Yet, thanks to Jonathan Parks-Ramage’s superb writing skills, Yes, Daddy is the definition of unputdownable. The more alarming and distressing the story gets, the more impossible it was for me to tear my eyes away. Given the novel’s explicit nature and painful subject matter, I would recommend it only to those who are willing/prepared to be disturbed by what they will read.

In the novel’s prologue Jonah Keller, our protagonist, is a witness at a high-profile trial. One of the accused is Richard Shriver, a celebrated playwright and former boyfriend of Jonah. The story takes us back to 2009 and recounts the events that lead to that courtroom. Jonah is a twenty-five-year in badly of a break. He’s an aspiring playwright who works as a waiter at a horrible restaurant where he is routinely bullied and groped by his boss. Jonah’s relationship with his mother is strained, understandably given that his parents sent him to conversion therapy. In an attempt to improve his circumstances Jonah orchestrates a meeting with Richard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright in his fifties. Their relationship is intense, and soon Jonah becomes acquainted with the more disturbing aspects of Richard’s nature.
When Richard invites Jonah to spend the summer with him in his Hampton estate, Jonah jumps at the opportunity. Richard’s estate however proves to be the opposite of haven. Not only is Jonah forced to spend time with Richard’s horrible friends who take any opportunity to toy with him (expect many painful dinner scenes) but Richard begins to exhibit some alarming behaviours.
Soon, Jonah begins to feel that something sinister is going on. Why does Richard’s staff entirely consists of young and handsome men? Why do some have them have bruises? And what this all this talk about a basement? …..aaaaaaand here the story takes a nightmarish turn.

I will not say much else about the novel’s plot as I do not wish to spoil other readers’ experiences. Suffice to say: ‘bad stuff’ goes down but you will be unable to tear your eyes away from the page.
The novel ruthlessly explores the realities of being a victim of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Jonah’s time at the estate irrevocably changes him. And yes, he, later on, makes some selfish choices, terrible even. But why should we expect victims to be paragons of virtue? If their trauma manifests itself in ugly or disturbing ways, what, they are no longer deserving of empathy?
Through Jonah’s story Parks-Ramage challenges this kind of thinking and I really admire him for it. He also shows that movements like #metoo have their limits/flaws and how easy it is for anyone to play judge, jury and executioner on social media.

If I had to rate the first 40% of the novel it would have probably been close to a 5 star however a major character in this novel (who Jonah addresses as ‘you’) really didn’t ring true to life (his character seemed to serve the role of a plot-device). And I also found certain other characters a bit OTT, so much so that they would have been at home in an episode of American Horror Story. There was also a son-mother relationship in this book that was a bit too a la Psycho and I can’t say that I believed in that much either. Lastly, towards the end, the narrative takes a direction that I wasn’t too enthused with. By then I had grown a bit wary of seeing Jonah suffer and I just wanted him to be left alone.

All in all, I found this to be an edge-of-your-seat kind of read. I was immediately drawn in by the narrative’s gothic undertones and won over by the story’s nods to The Talented Mr. Ripley and Rebecca. The more I read the more perturbed I became. In spite of its cover this novel is dark, disquieting, upsetting, and by no means an easy or enjoyable read. Still, I found Parks-Ramage’s prose captivating and I appreciated the way he combined an electrifying narrative with a thought-provoking commentary (on trauma, power, abuse, class, forgiveness, #metoo, the way the media treats victims of sexual violence). As debuts go this is an impressive one and I can’t wait to see what Parks-Ramage has in store next.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun

Last year I read Hye-Young Pyun’s The Law of Lines and in spite of a few reservations, I did find it to be an absorbing read. Yes, it was bleak, dark, and even grotesque at times but her tone never struck me as cruel or gratuitous. Given that The Hole won ‘Shirley Jackson Award for Novel’ in 2017 I actually expected it to be as or even more accomplished than The Law of Lines (especially given that she published it a year after The Law of Lines). But, boy oh boy, was I wrong. Usually, when I write for a review I did not think much of, I like to put a lil’ disclaimer suggesting GR users check out more positive reviews and or not to take my review too seriously…which I will not be doing this time around with The Hole, a novel that I found to be abhorrent. I gave it the benefit of doubt, I kept on reading, hoping for the story to be anything other than torture-porn….and it did not happen.

There is so much wrong with this novel. It was not horror, it didn’t inspire feelings of fear or anxiety in me, only disgust. It was vulgur, sadistic, lurid, and ableist. The novel has been compared to Misery as it also happens to portray a man being held captive by an ‘insane’ woman but I doubt that King’s novel was as gratuitously sensationalist as this piece of garbage.

After surviving a car accident which his wife did not, Ogi wakes up at a hospital, paralyzed and disfigured. Ogi is an orphan with no close relatives so it is his widowed mother-in-law who takes the role of his caretaker. Ogi is presented as a rather misogynistic individual, who does not seem to be drowning in grief over the death of his wife. We get flashbacks into his married life that show us how not nice he was, he wasn’t a great man or good husband.
In the present, his mother-in-law is shown to be neglectful, cruel, and abusive towards him. She repeatedly humiliates him in front of others, for example, by changing him in front of them, ridiculing him for being disabled, touching him inappropriately. I am so sick of this type of ‘horror’. The bodies of those who fat, deformed, and or disabled, are treated with morbid fascination, described in a way that is meant to elicit feelings of disgust and or discomfort in the reader. Maybe that was okay in the 1980s but today? It is just fucking offensive. A fat woman’s body is a “sagging bloated thickened meat”. Wtf?
And the novel seems to imply that Ogi deserves his mother-in-law, that being disabled is his ‘comeuppance’ for his not-so-great behavior. Ma da quando in quando!

If you think that The Human Centipede is a brilliant work of horror then you may find The Hole to be a riveting read. I, for one, wish I could wipe it from my memory. I found it so tacky and revolting and perverted that I doubt I will ever pick up anything by this author ever again. That this trashy novel went on to win an award named after one of my favourite authors who excelled in creating atmospheres of quiet uneasy…well, that just adds insult to injury.

my rating: ★☆☆☆☆

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Consent: A Memoir by Vanessa Springora

Written in spare yet unflinching prose Consent, as the title would suggest, is a memoir that examines its author’s relationship’ to a renowned French author, Gabriel Matzneff. At the time Springora was 14 and Matzneff was 50. Springora looks back to that time in her life, evoking the feelings and emotions her teenage self was experiencing, and observes the way in which most of the adults around her did not bat an eye at her relationships with Matzneff. Her father no longer lived with her and her mother seemed under the delusion that her daughter was mature enough to be in love, and loved by, a man 30 years her senior. Springora describes in shuddering detail Matzneff’s behavior towards her and I would not recommend this memoir to those readers who cannot stomach explicit scene (there were many instances that nauseated me). It was horrifying to read of how Matzneff preyed on Springora, alienating her from her peers, controlling the way she dressed, who could she spend time with, separating her from her own mother. Matzneff would also talk extensively to her about his many ‘sexual exploits’, presenting himself as a cavalier who rescues young girls like her from the rough clutches of inexperienced boys. He also wrote and talked openly about his perverse inclinations without any serious backlash. French literary circles seemed to find his pedophilia almost amusing, a sign of his being a really Casanova. Springora questions why literary men such as Matzneff were able to get away with things other men couldn’t. Was it because he produced ‘art’? Springora also discusses the impact of the sexual revolution on French culture and of how many French intellectuals encouraged or agreed with Matzneff belief that having sexual intercourse with a minor should not be a crime.

Springora offers snapshots from her time with Matzneff, most of which made me feel queasy. While I did appreciate the sentiment behind her narrative (before it was Matzneff who wrote about her and their relationship in his books, now she is finally able to take control of her own story) but I did find some parts of her memoir to be a bit heavy on the self-dramatization. While I understand that she wanted to evoke her teenage mind, at times this was a bit heavy-handed. The imagery too was clichèd, such as that passage in which with “blood” running down her thighs she has finally become a “woman”. And I do wish that Springora could have provided some more interactions or thoughts on her mother. Her behavior in the whole ‘affair’ is abominable and part of me just could not wrap my head around how she could believe that her daughter was ‘mature’ enough to be with a man old enough to be her father.
Consent is a short but brutal read. It shines a light on sexual abuse and exploration, and a country’s worrying attitude towards a pedophile.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

edit: it hasn’t even been a year and I have already re-read this. This book slaps.

Ninth House can be best described as: “talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before…”

Leigh Bardugo sure showed me. I went in to this expecting the worst (most of my GR friends panned this book, and their less-than-impressed reviews are hilarious) and soon found myself amazed by how much I was vibing with it.
Ninth House‘s campus setting brought to mind urban fantasy series such as Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines and Rachel Caine’s The Morganville Vampires but with the kind of magical elements and aesthetics from The Raven Cycle, or even Holly Black ‘s Modern Faerie Tales, and the dark tone of Vita Nostra. In brief, Ninth House was 100% up my lane.

“There were always excuses for why girls died.”

It took me a few chapters to familiarise myself with the story and its protagonist as when we are first introduced to Yale student Galaxy “Alex” Stern its early spring and shit has already hit the fan (ie she has clearly been through a lot). Thankfully the narrative takes us back to the autumn and winter terms, and we get to read of the events that lead to that prologue.
Alex’s ability to see ghosts (called ‘grays’) has caught the attention of Lethe (aka the Ninth House) a secret society that keeps in check the occult activities of the Yale’s eight secret societies (if you are wondering, yes, they do exist in real-world Yale…). She’s offered a place at Yale, for a price: Alex is to be Lethe’s ‘Dante’, who under the guidance of ‘Virgil’, ensures that the eight houses are obeying Yale’s rules. Each house practices a different kind of ‘magic’, but, it becomes quite apparent that magic, of whatever form or type, in this novel is not an easy or strictly ethical endeavour.
Alex, is just trying to survive. She run away from home as a teenager, started using downers to suppress her ability, lived with a man who abused her, and was the sole survivor of a multiple homicide. The girl is dealing with a lot of trauma and she’s kind of mess. Her mentor, Darlington, comes from a drastically different background. He’s white, wealthy, educated. Yet, in a manner very reminiscent to Gansey from TRC, he feels mundane and wants more. The two had a great chemistry (not in the romantic sense, at least, not in this first novel) and I appreciated the way in which Bardugo doesn’t present any of them as being ‘good’ or ‘heroes’ of some sort. If it wasn’t hard enough to adapt to Yale and Lethe, the societies may have had something to do with the murder of a ‘townie’. While almost every person she encounters tries to wave away her suspicions, Alex knows that the societies had something to do with it.

“I’m in danger, she wanted to say. Someone hurt me and I don’t think they’re finished. Help me. But what good had that ever done?”

If you ever craved a dark academia novel with a paranormal twist, this is it. But, as pointed out in many other reviews, this novel is Dark with a capital D. There are explicit scenes depicting sexual assault, rape, abuse, death, and other unpleasant, if not downright gory, things. It never struck me as gratuitous, anymore than I would call a novel by Stephen King gratuitous. The mystery kept me on the edge of my seat, the different timelines piqued my interest, the setting—of New Haven and Yale—was vividly rendered, the tone was gritty and real, the atmosphere was ‘edgy’ (in the best possible way), and the paranormal elements were hella innovative. I loved the descriptions of Alex’s environment, the attention paid to the architecture, the tension between her and the other characters, the momentum of her investigation. Yale is a haunted place, in more than one way. Bardugo combines fantasy elements with a sharp commentary on privilege, corruption, accountability. The story’s is an indictment against abuse of power and against violence (towards women, minorities, those deemed ‘expandable’). Trauma is not pretty, and Bardugo does not romanticise it in Alex. Speaking of Alex, she was a memorable character. I loved her for her strength and her vulnerability. Her cutting humour provided a few moments of respite from the novel’s otherwise dark tone.

Prior reading this novel I wouldn’t have called myself a ‘fan’ of Bardugo. I liked her YA stuff but I was never ‘blown’ away by it. Her foray into adult fiction has changed that.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

(heads up: this review contains mentions of eating disorders and body dysmorphia as well as explicit language)

While I doubt that Milk Fed will win many awards, I sure hope that it wins the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. It 100% deserves to.

“Was it real freedom? Unlikely. But my rituals kept me skinny, and if happiness could be relegated to one thing alone, skinniness, then one might say I was, in a way, happy.”

Milk Fed follows in the steps of novels such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation (or to name a few others: Pizza Girl, Luster, Exciting Times, Severance, Hysteria, The New Me…and no, this is by no means a comprehensive list). As I’ve said before in my review for Luster, these books are a hit or miss for me. And at first I thought that Milk Fed was a definite hit but after the 30% mark the novel became increasingly repetitive, annoyingly self-indulgent, and ludicrously sensationalistic. To me, Milk Fed reads like a less compelling version of You Exist Too Much. Both novels focus on young bisexual women who have a rather toxic relationship with their mother. They both suffer at one point or another from an eating disorder. They are self-destructive and directionless. Their attempts to seek therapeutic help do not go all that well. The narrator of You Exist Too Much does some fucked up things but ultimately I cared for and sympathised with her. It helped that I found her caustic wit to be genuinely funny. Milk Fed is all style and no substance. Perhaps those who can enjoy this kind of turgid prose may be able to find this novel amusing or insightful but it just reminded of all the reasons why I did not like Susan Choi’s My Education.
Also, fyi, I had an eating disorder. However, I would never describe myself as a ‘survivor’ nor do I believe that you can’t write a dark comedy about eating disorders. I like satire and cringe comedy (Succession and Fleabag are favourites of mine) but I am certainly not a fan of narratives that are solely intent on being as garish and gratuitous as possible.

Our narrator, Rachel, is an aimless twenty-something who in the very opening of the novel informs us that “It didn’t matter where I worked: one Hollywood bullshit factory was equal to any other. All that mattered was what I ate, when I ate, and how I ate it”. Rachel thinks about food 24/7. She obsesses about calories, follows seemingly arbitrary eating rituals, exercises everyday not in order to get stronger or leaner but to burn as many calories as possible. She seems to view her troubling relationship to food and her body as preferable to ‘the alternative’ (not being ‘skinny’). She goes to therapy, “hoping to alleviate the suffering related to both my food issues and my mother, but without having to make any actual life changes in either area”. During one of these sessions her therapist recommends that Rachel should take a “communication detox” from her mother (suggesting at least 90 days of no contact).

“Do you want to be chubby or do you want boys to like you?”

We learn through brief flashbacks and Rachel’s recounting that one of the reasons why developed an eating disorder is her mother. As a child Rachel’s mother would shame her for eating things she believed were ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ and imposed strict diets on Rachel. Rachel began to binge-eat (in secret), which made her gain weight. To ‘make up’ for it Rachel begins to eat less and less, which sees her becoming anorexic (when she confesses to her mother that she thinks she may be anorexic her mother dismiss this by saying something on the lines of her not being ‘skinny enough’ to be truly anorexic). Rachel’s mother is horrible and she gives the mother from You Exist Too Much a run for her money…but, unlike You Exist Too Much, here we only told bad things about Rachel’s mother. Because of Rachel’s ‘detoxing’ from her, she never makes an appearance in the actual story. Her presence certainly haunts Rachel but I wish she had not been portrayed in such a skewed way. Making someone embody only negative traits is a very easy way of making them unlikable or into the ‘bad guy’.

Rachel doesn’t care about her job ( I cannot precisely remember what she does other than it has to do with ‘Hollywood’) nor does she have any friends or hobbies (unless you count obsessing about food as a hobby). She is desperate for validation, which is perhaps why once a week she does stand up comedy for a night show called ‘This Show Sucks’. This thread of her life often felt unexplored and out of place. You could probably cut out the scenes she spends at this show and the story would be much the same (by the end this show’s main purpose seems to be that of a meeting place).
At work she has sort of bonded with an older woman who she sees both as a mother-figure of sorts and as an object of desire. This leads to some predictably gross incestuous fantasies that have a very Freudian feel to them as they exist mainly to indicate Rachel’s state of mind (and they have the added bonus of grossing the reader out). During one of these sexual fantasies, which goes on and on for quite a few pages, Rachel imagines being ‘mothered’ by this older female colleague. Later, when she begins bingeing again, she imagines having sex with this same colleague, only this time she is the one who is in doing the ‘dominating’.
Rachel’s first meets Miriam at the frozen yogurt shop where she usually gets a plain yogurt from (part of her eating routine). Miriam, who works at this shop, insists on giving Rachel a bigger portion of yogurt. Because of this Rachel is annoyed by Miriam. Added to that is Rachel repulsion towards Miriam’s body (she describes Miriam as being “medically obese”). However, Miriam’s nonchalance towards food and her body soon catch Rachel’s attention. Her initial repulsion gives way to lust, and the two women seem to ‘bond’ over the fact that they are both Jewish (Miriam however, unlike Rachel who does not seem to practice any Jewish rituals and does not believe in God, is Orthodox).
Miriam invites Rachel to her house and Rachel idealises her family and home-life. They all enjoy eating and cooking food, and their meals together are happy occasions.
Rachel believes that Miriam reciprocates her feelings and the two being a very one-way sexual relationship. Things, of course, do not go as planned. Rachel’s ups and downs with food, her self-hatred, her unresolved mummy issues, they all contribute to her self-destructive behaviour.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the book’s switch of focus (from Rachel’s ED to Rachel feelings for Miriam) if the relationship between Rachel and Miriam had not been wholly superficial. Miriam is reduced to the role of sex object. There are many instances were Rachel, and the readers, could have learnt more of her—what kind of person she is, her feelings towards Rachel, the way she sees herself, her future & desires, etc.—but we do not. What we get instead are many scenes about Rachel wanting to have sex with Miriam, obsessing over Miriam’s body, masturbating while thinking of Miriam or that her colleague, having sex with Miriam…the list goes on. The way Rachel’s thinks about Miriam’s body raised a few red flags and her attraction towards her sometimes verged on fetishising. She doesn’t think of Miriam but merely of Miriam’s body. Many of the metaphors used when the two are having sex or when Rachel is fantasising about her are food related (Rachel describes Miriam’s moles as “chocolate drops”, her tongue as a “fat piece of liver she was king enough to feed me”). She also loves watching her eat and is aroused when Miriam “slurp[s] dumplings”. Miriam’s “rolls of fat” are like “pussies” to Rachel. I don’t know…these descriptions were probably meant to be funny and weird but they mostly struck me as affected and cheap.
Most of the sex scenes in this novel were awful. They tried hard to be gritty and real but ended being the opposite: when watching a film with Audrey Hepburn Rachel imagines Audrey’s “concave thighs” and sticking her “mouth in her little pussy”; when she is holding Miriam’s hand she views this as an act of sexual intercourse, her finger is a “a cock, a penetrating object”; some of her fantasies included phrases such as “I activated Frankencock” or “It was like nipples were two clits”; when she is having sex with Miriam she smells “the faintest waft of shit coming up from underneath her. It smelled like fertile heaven: peat moss, soil, sod, loam”. Later in the novel she brags about fingering a guy to that older female colleague in order to impress her, feeling remorse in doing so. She never confronts her mother or this colleague, nor does she feel challenged or inspired by her relationship with Miriam. Yes, the more time she spends with Miriam, the less she restricts but throughout the course of the narrative she maintains an obsessive relationship with food and keeps assigning moralistic values to food. I never believed that she cared for Miriam, nor do I think that the relationship helped her somehow. Miriam…she did not strike me as a fully fleshed character. While her body is described in minute detail, her personality remains largely absent. Often, it seemed that Rachel viewed Miriam’s body as representing her ‘essence’. She likes going to the cinema, she’s Jewish, she seems to care for her family…other than that? Who knows!
Because this is a satire most of the characters exist in order to make fun of a certain type of person: we have Rachel’s manager, a woke ‘dude bro’, her older female colleague who is thin, mean, and enjoys belittling other people’s appearance etc., the famous actor who is kind of full of himself, the not very helpful therapist who sees fake deep things…
The narrative also had a thread involving a golem (Rachel creates it out of putty during one of her therapy sessions) and a series of dreams with Judah Loew ben Bezalel, and, to be perfectly honest, these were my favourite elements of Rachel’s story. Sadly however they do not play a huge role in the plot, and most of the narrative is dedicated to Rachel having sex or thinking about her ‘pussy’. Seriously, there were times when this book brought to mind WAP cause there are a few situations in which Rachel and Miriam would benefit from using a mop.

I would not recommend this to those who have been affected by an ED. Although the author initially seemed to have captured many sentiments that resonated with me, Rachel’s ED is ultimately used as a source of humour. There are many grotesque scenes that serve very little purpose other than ridiculing her. And I’m very over books or films that feature characters who offhandedly remark ‘I tried to go bulimic once but like it didn’t work’ (then again, I had bulimia so I am a bit touchy on that particular front).
Anyway, this novel tries to be outrageous and subversive but it succeeds only in being gratuitous. This is the kind of satire that is all bark, no bite. The author’s commentary on modern work culture, eating disorders, contemporary society, religion, the Palestinian-Israel conflict …is lacking.
Also, I find it hard to believe that Rachel, our supposedly shrewd girl, and this famous actor would get Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s creature confused.

Nevertheless, just because I found Melissa Broder’s story to be superficial and ultimately unfunny, does not mean that you should not give this novel a try (bear in mind however that this books has some pretty yucky and incest-y content).
Here is a snippet which I did not enjoy but might very well appeal to other types of readers:

“Her hair was the color of cream soda, or papyrus scrolls streaked with night light. Her eyebrows were the color of lions, lazy ones, dozing in sunlight or eating butter at night with their paws by lantern. Her eyes: icebergs for shipwrecking. Lashes: smoke and platinum. Her skin was the Virgin Mary, also very baby. Her nose: adorable, breathing. Upper lip: pink peony. Lower lip: rose. The teeth were trickier, but her inner mouth was easy–Valentine hearts and hell.”

my rating: ★★½

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Not My Time to Die by Yolande Mukagasana

In this powerful and gut-wrenching testimony, which has only been recently translated in English, Yolande Mukagasana writes of the Rwandan genocide. In a striking and incisive prose Mukagasana recounts the horrific three months in which Hutus massacred hundred of thousands of Tutsis. Mukagasana, a Tutsi, worked was a nurse/doctor in Kigali. She was married with three children. When Hutus begin persecuting and killing Tutsis Mukagasana and her loved ones attempt to flee away from Rwanda. Their attempts are unsuccessful as the people who they had once considered their friends turn against them. Mukagasana narrates these events through a first-person perspective and using the present tense. These two modes lend immediacy to her experiences.

There are many distressing if not downright nauseating scenes in this novel. Mukagasana doesn’t gloss over the truly horrific realities of a genocide. These pages are dripping with violence, grief and despair. Before reading this memoir I knew next nothing about Rwanda or its history. Mukagasana provides many illuminating insights into her country’s past and present, emphasising the role that the West played in the fraught relationship between Hulus and Tutsis. Mukagasana challenges Western views of her country and of genocides (the West dismissing the “genocidal violence” that broke out in 1963 as “the usual tribal infighting”) as well as the hypocrisy of organizations such as the United Nations (“expressing platitudes but not acting”). Mukagasana also addresses the causes and consequences of genocidal violence. The author regards violence from numerous standpoints: from a global, national, and individual level.
While Mukagasana conveys with painful clarity the shock and agony that she experiences her audience’s understanding of her grief and pain will be infinitesimal.
However challenging and upsetting this memoir is I encourage others to pick this one up.

MY RATING: 4 of 5 stars

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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is an unflinching and deeply harrowing examination of race, colorism, gender, and trauma. Throughout the course of her narrative Toni Morrison captures with painful lucidity the damage inflicted on a black child by a society that equates whiteness with beauty and goodness, and blackness with ugliness and evil.
In her introduction to her novel Morrison explains her inspiration of the novel. Like Morrison’s own friend, the central character in The Bluest Eye, Pecola, is a black girl who yearns for ‘blue eyes’. Similarly to Sula in the eponymous novel, Pecola becomes her community’s scapegoat, but, whereas Sula embraces who she is, Pecola’s self-hatred is compounded by her community’s demonisation of her. The more people speak of her with contempt, the stronger her desire for blue eyes becomes.

Rather than making us experience Pecola’s anguish first-hand, Morrison makes readers into complicit onlookers. We hear the venomous gossip that is exchanged between the various members of Pecola’s community, we witness the horrifying sexual abuse Pecola’s father inflicts on her—from his point of view, not hers—and the good-hearted, if ultimately inadequate, attempts that two other young girls, Claudia and Frieda, make to try and help Pecola.
The adults in this novel are color-struck and condemn Pecola for her parents’ actions, suggesting that she herself is to blame for the violence committed against her. The story is partly narrated by Claudia, whose childhood naïveté limits her comprehension of Pecola’s experiences. We are also given extensive flashbacks in which we learn more about Pecola’s parents (their youth, their eventual romance, and their extremely fraught marriage). There are also scenes focused on characters that belong to Pecola’s community and who either use or abuse her
.
Throughout the course of the narrative, regardless whose point of view we are following, it is clear that Pecola is suffering, and that her home-life and environment are fuelling her self-loathing.
This is by no means an easy read. There is a nauseatingly graphic rape scene, incest, and domestic violence. Pecola is bullied, maltreated, and abused. The few moments of reprieve are offered by Claudia and Frieda, who unlike Pecola can still cling to their childhood innocence.
Pecola’s story is jarring and sobering, and at times reading The Bluest Eye was ‘too much’. Nevertheless, I was hypnotised by Morrison’s cogent style. She effortlessly switches from voice to voice, vividly rendering the intensity or urgency of her characters’ inner monologues. In her portrayal of Pecola’s descent into madness Morrison is challenging racist ideals of beauty, binary thinking, and the labelling of races and individuals as being either good or evil. Pecola’s family, her community, even the reader, all stand by as Pecola becomes increasingly detached from her reality. This a tragic story, one that is bound to upset readers. Still, the issues Morrison addresses in this novel are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell — book review

“I think we’re very similar, Nessa,” he whispers. “From the way you write, I can tell you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things.”

Recently I read a nonfiction book which claimed that when reading a book “However you get it, you’ve got it right”. When I read those words I found them vaguely equivocal…case in point, in My Dark Vanessa the misreading of a novel has disastrous consequences.
When fifteen year old Vanessa is given a copy of Lolita by her forty-five year old teacher, Jacob Strane, she becomes obsessed with it and comes to regard it as a tragic love story. In her eyes Humbert Humbert is not a degenerate pedophile but an unlucky man who happens to fall in love with a twelve-year old girl.

“That seems the likely ending to this love story: me dropping everything and doing anything, devoted as a dog, as he takes and takes and takes.”

Short review
On the one hand I believe that this novel presents its readers with a horrifyingly realistic character study of a sexual predator (a pedophile, a rapist, a molester). It tells an uneasy story, one in which a man creeps his way into the mind and life of a vulnerable young girl, that is bound to make some readers uncomfortable.
On the other, I found the narrator’s introspection to be monotonous, and the secondary characters are mere plot devices.
Although Kate Elizabeth Russell’s writing could be striking, she sometimes resorts to edgy observations which are a bit cringe-y. Some of her descriptions were trying (eg: “dishwater blonde hair and granola clothes”) and I was frustrated by the blatant yet limited way in which she would convey Vanessa’s distress (she bites her cheeks a lot).
There are some great discussions in here (on abuse, guilt, desire, power, literature) and while this is ultimately a story of an uneasy self-reconciliation, it is one that is as uplifting as a work Joyce Carol Oates (ie: pretty fucking depressing).

An extremely meandering and longwinded review
Narrated by Vanessa, Russell’s novel opens up in 2017 when the #MeToo movement became viral. Vanessa, a disillusioned thirty-something concierge, is forced to re-evaluate her relationship to Strane after one of his former students, Taylor Birch, writes a Facebook post accusing him of assault. Although Vanessa is still in touch with Strane, the two are no longer ‘involved’, and she thinks that Taylor is lying. Yet, even as she tells herself this, there is a niggling doubt at the back of her mind. When Taylor messages her asking her to share her own experience with Strane, Vanessa is compelled to comb through her memories of her relationship with Strane.
Vanessa regards her relationship to Strane as a consensual love story hindered by an age-gap. The only reason why she entertains the possibility of it having unethical is because he was her teacher. Yet, when Vanessa revisits her past, she is not always able to romanticise Strane and his actions.

“I know what he thinks, what anyone would think. That I’m an apologist, an enabler, but I’m defending myself just as much as I am Strane. Because even if sometimes I use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else’s mouth, the word turns ugly and absolute. It swallows up everything that happened.”

In 2000 fifteen-year old Vanessa returns to her second year at Browick, a private school in Norumbega, Maine (although according to Google this town does not exist, Russell’s vivid depiction of this fictional place makes it seem all too real). Vanessa is all too aware of her distinctive red hair, of her lack of friends, and of her penchant for morose observations.
It isn’t all surprising then that Vanessa initially ‘responds’ positively to Strane’s attentions. He compliments her appearance and her writing, and soon enough Vanessa comes to believe that he is attentive because he thinks that she is “special”.

In spite of the superficial charm that Strane uses in order to make his abhorrent actions appear ‘darkly romantic’ readers are aware of his true nature. He is a perverted manipulator who masks his inclination for young girls under the guise of being a hopeless romantic, as if he is a blameless victim of love. He instills in Vanessa his own skewed perception of their relationship, he uses her own insecurity against her, and makes her feel complicit. He makes her believe that it is ‘them’ against the world.
What becomes apparent through Vanessa’s recollection is that Strane would use any means necessary in order to gain her trust. For instance he uses Vanessa’s poetry against her as he attributes to her poems mature and inappropriate meanings (for instance he calls one of her poems “sexy”…) making her once again feel ‘seen’ (something he knows she craves).
Strane also implements Lolita in order to introduce to Vanessa the possibility of an adult-child ‘relationship’, and while he often compares Vanessa to Lolita, as the self-denying hypocrite that he is, he refuses to cast himself as Humbert (“Is that what you think I am?” He asks. “A pedophile?”).

The novel does a terrific job in portraying the power-imbalance between a grown man and a teenager girl. Strane uses his age and experience to manipulate Vanessa, often leading her to believe that she is the “boss”. His disgusting behaviour is rendered in minute detail as the author does not shy away from portraying him at his most repugnant.
Rather than ‘empowering’ Vanessa however he is disenfranchising her. He convinces her that she is ‘precocious’ and far more mature and independent that other girls.

“Every first step was taken by him. I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.”

While we are made to see how Strane manages to convince Vanessa that they are mutually complicit, two ‘dark romantics’, his charm never reached me. Everything he says and does felt wrong and illicit. While Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert admits to himself that he likes little girls, Strane seems to actually believe that he has fallen in love with Vanessa not because of her age but in spite of it. Yet, as present-Vanessa grudgingly realises, he would find it arousing to infantilise her and his attraction for her diminishes as she grows ‘older’.

“Like I was crazy. A stupid, crazy little girl. I get why you did that. It was an easy way to protect yourself, right? Teenage girls are crazy. Everyone knows that.”

While I think that this novel does an exceptional job at depicting Vanessa’s horrifying story of abuse (she would dislike my using this word but I call it what it is) I did not feel incredibly affected by it and for the most part I was simply disgusted.
Strane was the only character who struck me as believable…and he was a monster. Vanessa however remains more blurred. While this is likely to be somewhat intentional (the trauma caused by Strane has had horrific repercussions on her life and her sense of self) it also made it harder for me to believe in her as a character. Her dissociation and alienation are a result of her ‘relationship’ with Strane and his presence in her life is toxic , that much is clear. Still, she often makes out-of-character choices or big decisions without any distinct reason. There are two instances were she makes potentially life-changing decisions without articulating the reason behind her actions. Much was made of her ‘darkness’ but I could only see it as a consequence of Strane’s gaslighting her. Part of me wished that we could have seen her before him, perhaps during her first year at Browick. That way we could have gotten to know her on her own terms, and not as Strane’s victim (not that Vanessa labels herself as victim or survivor, in fact she hates these terms: “But that word, with its cloying empathy, that patronizing, flattening word that makes my whole body cringe no matter the context”).

There were moments when more could have been made of her personality. Yes, she has been manipulated into assuming the role of ‘Lolita’, but she could still have had traces of her own distinctive personality. Her job sadly seems merely to recount in an almost detached way Strane’s repulsive actions towards her. And if she is totally disconnected from her own self then I wish we could have been at least made privy to what she was thinking when she makes those potentially life-altering impulsive decisions (usually she just describes her movements or surroundings in these instances).
There are many other characters but they all blurred together. Once again this may be deliberate, given that Vanessa herself knows that she struggles keeping people straight in her mind. However, even during those scenes set in her past, I found that the characters to be lacking: there were a few named J-something and I could barely distinguish them from one another. Most of them seem to have been included only to say or do something to hurt Vanessa. Their motivations were sketchy and given that their personalities remain off-page, I had difficulties believing them.
Vanessa’s parents are incongruously depicted. Her mother seems to undergo three or four changes of character in the course of the novel. The father is totally expendable. Maybe if they had more page-time, we could have seen glimpses of their personalities/thoughts/motivations (we never know how they felt about their daughter’s time at Browick). Even in the few scenes where they actually appear, they remain vague un-active presences.

“So if someone doesn’t want to come forward and tell the world every bad thing that’s happened to her, then she’s what? Weak, selfish?”

While I appreciated the way the novel unflinchingly discusses sexual and emotional abuse, its praise and critique of certain aspects of the #MeToo movement, as well as its incorporation of texts (Lolita and Ethan Frome) and historical figures/anecdotes (which Strane used to normalise or romanticise ‘relationships’ between under age girls and middle aged men), I found that much of the narrative relied on explicit content. The first few times, as I already mentioned, I thought that however revolting these scenes were necessary. Needless to say, these scenes were not easy to read. Strane eroticises his fifteen-yearl old student and makes Vanessa believe that, like Lolita, she is ‘precociously seductive’. Although Vanessa tells herself that she enjoys this feeling of making a grown man sexually desire her, readers will have a less rose-tinted view of things. While their first encounters are graphic, I did not see these as being included for shock value. However, as these scenes increased, I found their frequency almost distasteful. To be repeatedly exposed to them seemed unnecessary. If anything they made the first explicit scenes less impactful.
Sometimes keeping certain things off the page isn’t a sign of ‘cowardice’ or ‘sensibleness’. If anything it requires even more effort to make your audience aware of certain ‘transgressions’ without having to actually to include them. For instance, in a recent episode of one of my favourite tv shows, a character is forced into the realisation that he was abused as a child. Rather than cutting to a tasteless flashback of this, the camera remains trained on his face, and viewers can see the incalculable hurt that this abuse caused him. His trauma, anguish, and despair are conveyed without the episode having to actually show this abuse happening.
Another example I can give is by the great Stephen King (who happens to have appreciated My Dark Vanessa more than I did, given that he described it as a ‘package of dynamite’) who in his latest novel avoids depicting in horrific detail a scene in which a child is tortured, cutting instead to the before and the after. Even if he doesn’t include e the ‘during’ scene, his readers can clearly see the harmful effects that this maltreatment has had on the child in question.

Sadly, I found that once I was 30% into My Dark Vanessa the graphic scenes lost some of their significance. They were so lurid that I could not see why there had to be so many of them. I get that some were meant to show us why present-Vanessa has such as distorted perception of her sexuality but when a story relies on numerous revolting sex scenes…I loose interest. I don’t think ‘splatter’ films are good horror films, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that I wasn’t all that impressed with My Dark Vanessa.

Additionally this year I read two other books that deal with similar topics. What Red Was is a stark novel that depicts the lasting effects of rape on a young woman’s mind, body, and life. I found that novel poignant and heart-wrenching. Promising Young Women instead tells an imaginative and subversive story of a relationship between a female employee and her boss. Those two novels resonated with me a lot more than My Dark Vanessa did. In Russell’s novel, the only character that was truly believable happens to be one of the most disgustingly perverse characters I’ve read of in a while. For all her self-fashioning, Vanessa did not strike me as ‘dark’ or even ‘precocious’. For the most part she is passive and apathetic towards other people. In one scene she willingly stands by as one of her young colleagues is harassed by a patron. In those instances where she is spurred into action, I still could not understand her or her motivations. More could have been made of her inner monologue, her sense of loneliness/emptiness, and of her fraught relationship with her mother.
The novel takes its time discussing the guilt she feels, and by the end I just wanted this novel to end.

“But it’s the truth, even if no one believes it. Driven towards it, towards him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: eager to hurl herself into the swamp.”

Nevertheless, future readers should not be deterred by my not so positive review. So far, most of the reviews are singing this book’s praises. Heck, even King liked it…so maybe I’m just not the right reader for it.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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