Quartet by Jean Rhys

“There she was and there she stayed. Gradually passivity replaced her early adventurousness. She learned, after long and painstaking effort, to talk like a chorus girl, to dress like a chorus girl and to think like a chorus girl – up to a point. Beyond that point she remained apart, lonely, frightened of her loneliness, resenting it passionately. She grew thin. She began to live her hard and monotonous life very mechanically and listlessly.”

An unsparing and piercing interrogation of passivity and victimhood, Quartet is a hypotonic work of fiction. Jean Rhys’ prose is immaculate. Her writing, although exquisitely crisp, has this deeply evocative quality to it that resulted in a truly immersive reading experience. I could picture with ease Marya’s various environments: from the hotel bedrooms she stays in, to the streets she walks down on. I admired Rhys’ ability to articulate Marya’s various states of mind with such clarity and finesse as to lend elegance to even her most petty thoughts. Although the setting has this subtle bygone, almost gilded age quality to it, one that brought to mind the work of Edith Wharton, Rhys also employs noir aesthetics that result in a backdrop that is at once beautiful and disenchanted.
Although the title suggests that the narrative will be concerned with the complex dynamic between four individuals, the story presents us with an all too familiar triangle: a young woman becomes involved with an older married man of means. His wife claims that she is ‘happy’ with this ‘arrangement’. But, as Marya becomes further enmeshed in the lives of the Heidlers, she becomes all too aware that the wife resents her presence. In order not to alienate her husband she pretends otherwise, and Marya finds herself cast in the role of villainess and homewrecker.

The novel opens in Paris during the 1920s. Marya, our heroine, is a young woman married to Stephan, a Polish man whose dodgy art dealings eventually land him in jail. The two were leaving from hotel room to hotel room, and once Stephan is imprisoned Marya finds herself on the verge of destitution. An orphan with no assets to speak of, Marya was wholly dependent on Stephan’s income. A socialite married couple, the Heidlers, come to her ‘rescue’, insisting that she stay with them. Marya does, even if she expresses some uneasiness at this arrangement. Mr Heidler, who goes by H. J., had previously made a pass at her and once she’s staying with them, he declares that he has feelings for her. According to him, his wife, Lois, is content with this. Marya learns that she’s not the ‘first’, and as the weeks go by and her feelings for H. J. deepened, she became wary of the Heidlers’ ‘games’. While Marya doesn’t have today’s vocabulary, contemporary readers will be able to recognise the Heidlers’ ‘tactics’: they manipulate and gaslight Marya. Passive Marya finds herself playing into this role that they’ve thrust on her, doing what they want, and keeping silent about this whole affair. Cleverly, Rhys doesn’t quite paint Marya as a hopeless and hapless victim of her sex and her circumstances. There are numerous instances that indicate that Marya performs this role of ‘victim’. But does her self-victimization make her any less of a victim? Especially when others uphold this view of herself?
While Rhys mines the psychological depths of her heroine, cataloguing her ennui, misery, loneliness, and disorientation, she maintains a certain distance from her characters, Marya included. These characters retain a certain inscrutable quality: some of their actions may strike as bizarre, while their words often are full ambivalence. The characters retain this air of mystery that really complements the shadowy atmosphere of their world: from their soirées to their clandestine encounters in hotel rooms. There were many striking passages describing Marya’s environment. Her internal dialogue too is rendered in arresting detail, and however frustrating her naivete and passivity were I found sympathetic towards her ‘plight’. Her feelings towards H. J. are somewhat inexplicable, as she seems to fall in love with him just like that. While Marya thinks herself in love with him, I thought differently. Her infatuation reeked of desperation, and I too found myself viewing her as a victim of the Heidlers’, specifically H. J., deceptions. Time and again we are told that what Marya craves is happiness and safety, and after Stephan is in prison, she is so desperate that she is willing to believe that those things may come if she becomes H. J.’s ‘mistress’.
The novel also has a roman a la clef dimension as Marya’s embroilment with the Hedlers’ mirrors Rhys’ one with Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella Bowen . While there were many sentiments that struck me for their presence and timelessness, particularly in relation to Marya’s ‘female malaise’, a few passages stuck out for the wrong reasons. An example would be a scene where Marya observes “a little flat-faced Japanese” drawing “elongated and gracefully perverse little women”…which…le sigh.

Initially, I was planning on giving this a high rating but the bathetic denouement left a lot to be desired. While I can appreciate how certain authors are able to continue their narratives after the central character has ‘exited’ the scenes, here the last few pages struck me as callous and unsatisfying. I would have almost found it more satisfying if Rhys had gone the Madame Bovary or The House of Mirth route, but there is a soap-opera worthy heated confrontation that did not feel particularly satisfying or convincing. While I appreciated how Rhys, similarly to Flaubert and Wharton, is not afraid to focus on how pathetic or silly or petty her characters are, that finale just didn’t do it for me.
Still, I can see myself re-reading this and giving it a higher rating in the future. I am definitely planning on reading more by Rhys as her writing is simply superb and I am always interested in narratives centered on alienated and perpetually perplexed young women.

Marya is a fascinating character who carries an air of impermanence, one that makes her all the more intriguing. Her impermanence also deepens the dreamlike quality of the narrative. There are many instances where her dreams seem to seep into her reality, making us wonder how reliable a character she is. As things take a downward turn, her moments dissociation intensify, her sadness and anxiety so overwhelming as to make her reality unendurable.


Some of my fave passages:

“She began to argue that there was something unreal about most English people.”

“Still, there were moments when she realized that her existence, though delightful, was haphazard. It lacked, as it were, solidity; it lacked the necessary fixed background. A bedroom, balcony and cabinet de toilette in a cheap Montmartre hotel cannot possibly be called a solid background”

“Marya, you must understand, had not been suddenly and ruthlessly transplanted from solid comfort to the hazards of Montmartre. Nothing like that. Truth to say, she was used to a lack of solidity and of fixed backgrounds.”

“[S]he felt a sudden, devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence. She thought again: people are very rum. With all their little arrangements, prisons and drains and things, tucked away where nobody can see.”

“She would have agreed to anything to quieten him and make him happier, and she was still full of the sense of the utter futility of all things.”

“Words thatshe longed to shout, to scream, crowded into her mind:‘You talk and you talk and you don’t understand. Notanything. It’s all false, all second-hand. You say what you’ve read and what other people tell you. You think you’re very brave and sensible, but one flick of pain to yourself and you’d crumple”

“It was a beautiful street. The street of homeless cats, she often thought. She never came into it without seeing several of them, prowling, thin vagabonds, furtive, aloof, but strangely proud. Sympathetic creatures, after all. There was a smell of spring in the air. She felt unhappy, excited, strangely expectant.”

“‘You’re a victim. There’s no endurance in your face. Victims are necessary so that the strong may exercise their will and become more strong. ’ ‘I shall have to go away,’ she decided. ‘Of course. Naturally. ’ Sleep was like falling into a black hole.”

“‘I’ve been wasting my life,’ she thought.‘How have I stood it for so long?’”

“She felt hypnotized as she listened to him, impotent. As she lay in bed she longed for her life with Stephan as one longs for vanished youth. A gay life, a carefree life just wiped off the slate as it were. Gone! A horrible nostalgia, an ache for the past seized her. Nous n’irons plus au bois; Les lauriers sont coupes. . . . Gone, and she was caught in this appalling muddle. Life was like that. Here you are, it said, and then immediately afterwards. Where are you? Her life, at any rate, had always been like that.”

“There they were. And there Marya was; haggard, tor-tured by jealousy, burnt up by longing.”

“Marya thought: ‘Oh, Lord! what a fool I am.’ Her heart felt as if it were being pinched between somebody’s fingers. Cocktails, the ridiculous rabbits on the wallpaper. All the fun and sweetness of life hurt so abominably when it was always just out of your reach. “

“Of course, there they were: inscrutable people, invulnerable people, and she simply hadn’t a chance against them, naive sinner that she was.”

“The Boulevard Arago, like everything else, seemed unreal, fantastic, but also extraordinarily familiar, and she was trying to account for this mysterious impression of familiarity.”

“‘My darling child,’ said Heidler with calmness, ‘your whole point of view and your whole attitude to life is impossible and wrong and you’ve got to change it for everybody’s sake.’ He went on to explain that one had to keep up appearances. That everybody had to. Everybody had for everybody’s sake to keep up appearances. It was everybody’s duty, it was in fact what they were there for. ‘You’ve got to play the game.’”

“She made a great effort to stop it and was able to keep her mind a blank for, say, ten seconds. Then her obsession gripped her, arid, torturing, gigantic, possessing her as utterly as the longing for water possesses someone who is dying of thirst. She had made an utter mess of her love affair, and that was that. She had made an utter mess of her existence. And that was that, too. But of course it wasn’t a love affair. It was a fight. A ruthless, merciless, three-cornered fight. And from the first Marya, as was right and proper, had no chance of victory. For she fought wildly, with tears, with futile rages, with extravagant abandon – all bad weapons. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ she would ask herself. ‘Why are you like this? Why can’t you be clever? Pull yourself together!’ Uselessly.”
​​
“A petite femme. It was, of course, part of his mania for classification. But he did it with such conviction that she, miserable weakling that she was,found herself trying to live up to his idea of her. She lived up to it. And she had her reward. ‘. . . You pretty thing – you pretty, pretty thing. Oh,you darling.”

“As she walked back to the hotel after her meal Marya would have the strange sensation that she was walking under water. The people passing were like the wavering reflections seen in water, the sound of water was in her ears. Or sometimes she would feel sure that her life was a dream – that all life was a dream. ‘It’s a dream,’ she would think; ‘it isn’t real’ – and be strangely comforted. A dream. A dream.”

“But when she tried to argue reasonably with herself it seemed to her that she had forgotten the beginnings of the affair, when she had still reacted and he had reconquered her painstakingly. She never reacted now. She was a thing. Quite dead. Not a kick left in her.”

‘You’ve smashed me up, you two,’ she was saying. That was pitiful because it was so obviously true. It was also in an obscure way rather flattering. She put her hands up to her face and began to cry.

“The next few days passed like a dream. Lovely days, fresh, and washed and clean. And the knowledge that this was the irrevocable end of their life in Paris made every moment vivid, clearly cut and very sweet. Those were strange days, detached from everything that had gone before or would follow after.”

“Heidler was saying in a low voice: ‘I have a horror of you. When I think of you I feel sick.’ He was large, invulnerable, perfectly respectable. Funny to think that she had lain in his arms and shut her eyes because she dared no longer look into his so terribly and wonderfully close. She began to laugh. After all, what did you do when the man you loved said a thing like that? You laughed, obviously.”

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

Dog Flowers is a relentlessly unsparing and depressing account of a dysfunctional family grappling with addiction, trauma, mental illness, and abuse. This memoir opens with Danielle Geller’s mothers’ death. Geller’s mother was homeless when she died of withdrawal from alcohol, and Geller is forced to return to Florida to sift through her mother’s possessions. Using her archivist skills she ends up reaching out to her mother’s side of the family, aside she’s been estranged from, and visits them in their home in the Navajo Nation, where she learns more about her mother’s history and her Navajo heritage.
Alongside these sections that follow Geller as an adult, there are chapters delving into her disrupted childhood, which often honed in on a particular episode.
After her parents, both addicts split up, Geller and her sister go on to stay with their father. Their father, who is white, is an alcoholic whose emotional abuse of his children goes on to become physical when he assaults Geller’s sister. Geller recounts with disturbing clarity his erratic behaviour, for example of the way he would harangue them, telling them the same tired stories from his own childhood and adulthood, fixating on the wrongdoings he’s been subjected to. Although it’s been years since I’ve shared a roof with my father, reading Dog Flowers was an uncomfortable reminder of just how overwhelming it can be to have (and live with) a parent with substance abuse issues. And boy, does Danielle Geller capture how devastating it is on a young person to be exposed to this kind of chaotic and vitriolic presence. It was distressing just how much of my father I recognised in Geller’s own one so reading these sections was by no means an easy activity. Geller and her sister eventually end up in the custody of their grandmother but things take a downward turn as Geller’s sister begins to ‘act out’.
Geller’s prose is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, even when discussing traumatic episodes. In many ways, this memoir reads like a long list of tragedies. Geller’s mother, father, and sister all struggle with addiction and mental illness. Geller is exposed from an early age to emotional, physical, and self-abuse. Neither of her parents is capable or willing to look after her and her sister, and their attempts at sobriety and lucidity are short-lived. If anything, their attempts at a ‘normal’, or at least ‘stable’, life just give Geller (and us the readers) false hopes as they inevitably fall off the wagon. Time and again Geller has to look after them, often with little choice on her part as they emotionally manipulate her into helping them out. All of this sadly hit too close to home. When I saw some reviewers expressing surprise or shock that Geller would not cut ties with her ‘toxic’ family, well, I can’t help but think that their family situation may not be as dysfunctional as Geller’s. There are people out there who are able to cut off ties with their abusive parents or siblings. But, more often than not, you are unable or unwilling to cut someone off. Especially if you start questioning whether many of their ‘vices’ stem from trauma or mental illness. And again, hope. You hope that they will get clean, get a steady job, or lead a ‘normal’ life. And, in Geller’s case, well, all of her closest relatives have struggled with addiction. Is she going to cut them all off?!
It was saddening to see that Geller’s relationship with her Navajo side of the family is far from idyllic or rosy. While her connection to her cousin struck me as moving, her relationship with her aunt was saddening indeed as she is revealed to be a woman who is full of anger and sadly seems to turn this anger towards her relatives.
There is a lot of pain in this memoir. Geller captures with gut-wrenching clarity the realities and aftermath of a childhood marred by neglect, abuse, addiction, and trauma. Geller’s forays into her own past are brutally honest and are not accompanied by ‘moral’ lessons or ‘wise’ insights into human nature. I appreciated Geller’s honest depiction of her family and, more importantly, herself.
While Dog Flowers deeply resonated with me, I did find its execution early on a bit clumsy. The author introduces too much too soon, and I wasn’t sure what had happened when. The ending too seemed a bit abrupt, and I would have appreciated more insight into Geller’s life (her friends, partners, work, etc..).
Nevertheless, I found this a powerful and piercing read. It is by no means an easy read and I did find much of what Geller recounted to be extremely distressing, then again, I was also able to relate to many of her experiences. I appreciated that she neither villainizes nor condone her parents nor her sister and that in delving into her past she tries to understand their motivations or states of mind, even if ultimately, much about their identities remains a mystery or incomprehensible to her.
Geller’s memoir is a haunting account of a family mired in pain. If you are looking for a challenging read, well, buckle up because Dog Flowers is it. Geller’s portrayal of her family disrupts the myth of the happy family and the widely held belief that parents love their children. While there is love in this memoir it is often obfuscated by years of self-destructing behaviour and or by hatred, sadness, and weakness.

my rating: ★★★½

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Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor

Taylor has gone and done it again. My poor heart can’t take this.

“[S]adness drenched them. Sadness at leaving. Sadness at going back to their lives. The sadness of knowing it would never again be this perfect, this easy.”

This may not sound like a compliment but I believe that Brandon Taylor has a real knack for making his readers feel uncomfortable and complicit by the violence—both physical & emotional—and cruelty that punctuate his narratives. It just so happens that I have a strange, ahem masochistic, fondness for these types of anxiety-inducing stories. Taylor excels at writing about things, people, and situations that are bound to make you feel uneasy, exposed even. Throughout this stunning collection of short stories, Taylor demonstrates time and again just how inexorably intertwined our fears and desires are. Taylor reveals the double-edged nature of desire, showing just how often we want that which we are (or should be) afraid of. Within these stories, Taylor explores and challenges the relationship between violence and intimacy, cruelty and compassion, happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain. Taylor’s characters are painstakingly human, from their murky and unspoken desires/fears to their seemingly perennial indecisiveness. More often than not Taylor’s characters are not ‘nice people’, but, then again, who wants to read exclusively about ‘nice people’? The characters populating Taylor’s stories are messy, confused about what/who they want, unsure of themselves and others. They can be ugly, to themselves, to one another. But, their ability to hurt other people doesn’t make them any less human, if anything, I found that it made them all the more real.

“There were a million tiny ways to make someone feel bad about something that didn’t involve saying anything directly.”

Taylor navigates self-loathing, loneliness, and longing against ordinary backdrops. Yet, while the environments and scenarios that we encounter in these stories are firmly grounded in realism, the ‘mundane’ trappings of Midwestern life that seem to characterise these narratives belie just how complex, emotionally wrought, and exacting these stories truly are.

“He had come up against the thing that felt most frustrating about this—the inability to articulate simply what he felt or what he wanted.”

Taylor’s style is deceptively functional, clinical even. He’s brutally concise when it comes to detailing his characters’ surroundings, appearances, and emotions. Yet, it is because his prose is habitually so unsparing that makes those brief lapses into tranquillity feel all the more precious. However rare, those brief glimpses of hope that we do get are truly touching.

As with Real Life, many of these stories are set in or around the academic world and once again Taylor articulates just how insular it can be. College is no safe haven however and the pressure to succeed often feels like a burden. There are many instances in which characters try to outdo one another, be it through personal or academic achievements, and we witness just how petty and competitive academia is. Most of these stories focus on Black queer characters and Taylor once again examines the intersection between sexuality and race. His characters often struggle to reconcile themselves with their identities and are often caught between opposing urges and desires. They seek to form meaningful connections but they are mostly unsuccessful. The relationships within these stories are hindered by unresolved tensions, veiled insults, hurtful barbs, real and perceived slights. Many of these relationships are unhealthy, seeming to bring more pain and suffering than not. Yet, we see that sometimes that is why certain characters decide to pursue certain people as Taylor repeatedly blurs the line between love and hate, passion and violence.

“There, he thought, was a truly horrifying possibility: that he was nothing more than another bit of local weather for the two of them, and that what felt to Lionel like the edge of some great change, a sign of his reacclimation to people, to the world, to the easiness of friendship, was nothing but another thing to them, one more thing that happened and was now over.”

‘Potluck’, ‘Flesh’, ‘Proctoring’, ‘Apartment’, and ‘Meat’ are interlinked stories revolving around Lionel, a Black grad student who in recent times attempted suicide, and two white dancers, Charles and Sophie, who are in an open relationship. At a party, Lionel and Charles seem to form a connection of sorts. Lionel is clearly ill at ease, especially given that the host of the party seems intent on making a move on him. With painful clarity, Taylor delineates Lionel’s anxieties and insecurities, and we understand why he would find Charles’ attention to be tempting. Lionel finds himself entangled in Charles and Sophie’s fraught relationship, and it is not always clear who is playing who or who wants whom. My heart really went out to Lionel and it was incredibly saddening to read of how this couple is trying to involve him in their ongoing drama.

In one story we read of a babysitter who is exhausted at her young charge, in another a young man’s old wounds are reopened, and in yet another, we witness a boys’ night out that quickly spirals into violence. A running motif, quite fitting given the collection’s title, is that of characters being compared or feeling like ‘beasts’ and ‘animals’. Many seem to struggle with their ‘wilder’ impulses, at times they even attempt to tamp their own desires down. But, as we see over and over again, they are often unsuccessful. Hence the violence and cruelty.

Last but not least, Taylor’s dialogues. They are startlingly realistic. From the tentative quality of certain exchanges to the stop-and-start rhythm animating many of the characters’ conversations.

“That’s so funny,” Lionel said. “People say that, We talked. But I don’t remember a single thing we said to each other.”

Fans of Real Life should definitely get their hands on Filthy Animals as this proved to be just as brilliant. From Taylor’s quietly cinematic style to his nuanced portrayal of human frailty, Filthy Animals is a terrific collection. If I was pressed to choose a favourite, I would probably go with ‘Anne of Cleves’.

As I touched upon earlier on, these stories are far from happy, yet, I was nevertheless enthralled by Taylor’s ability to capture with such authenticity and depth such a wide spectrum of emotions.

my rating: ★★★★¼

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White Ivy by Susie Yang

“She never got too greedy. She never got sloppy. And most important, she never got caught.”

Ivy Lin gives characters like Madame Bovary, Becky Sharp, and Lily Bart a run for their money. She’s terrible (and I loved her).

White Ivy is an addictive and razor-sharp debut novel. Susie Yang has spun a deliciously dark and deeply beguiling story, one that presents its readers with a piercing examination of class, gender, and culture. Part coming-of-age part psychological thriller White Ivy makes for a subversive and layered character study. The novel’s adroit commentary on privilege and powers is as unsettling as it is gripping. Yang’s taut storytelling not only amps up the tension between her characters but makes White Ivy into an edge-of-your-seat read. Fans of Patricia Highsmith and Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell should definitely consider picking this up.

The novel’s very first line functions as a warning of sorts: “Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her.”
Ivy is indeed a thief. After spending her early years in the care of her grandmother, who would later provide her with an invaluable (if unorthodox) education in shoplifting, Ivy is reunited with her parents in America. Over the course of her childhood Ivy begins to despise her family and everything they stand for. By the time she’s a teenager, Ivy feels little other than loathing toward them. Her distorted sense of self and dubious worldview has been shaped by the books she read as a child. In a manner very reminiscent of Madame Bovary, Ivy’s attitude towards others and herself is irrevocably shaped by these fictions. While Emma read medieval romances that made her long for poetry-reciting-knights-in-shining-armour, Ivy’s imagination is populated by half-formed images of wealth, beauty, and whiteness. Ivy’s self-loathing, her internalised racism, and her contempt towards the poor and the working class are not easy to read. Yet, for the life of me, I could not bring myself to judge or condemn her. As the story progresses we see just how intent she is on attaining the riches and ‘class’ she so idealizes.
Growing up in suburban Massachusetts Ivy tries to fit in with her American peers. Ivy is ashamed of her Chinese immigrant parents and their low-income, finding them wanting of those ‘all-American’ qualities she has so come to yearn for. Although Ivy forges a temporary friendship of sorts with Roux Roman, a fellow outsider who shares some of her criminal inclinations. Ivy’s object of devotion is Gideon Speyer, the classic ‘golden boy’ who comes from a hideously wealthy family. Ivy longs both to be with Gideon and to have what he has.
After Ivy’s forced vacation in China, she returns to America to discover that her parents have moved so she loses touch with both Roux and Gideon. Years later, after Ivy has moved out and gone to university, Ivy comes across Gideon’s sisters and quickly inserts herself into Gideon’s life. All of a sudden her dreams seem to have been made into her reality. Not only is she socialising with the so-called upper-crust, spending her time in fancy mansions and eating at luxury restaurants but something may be happening between her and Gideon. Her social-climbing is thwarted by a ‘ghost’ from her past, someone who knows that Ivy isn’t the kind and friendly woman she is pretending to be with Gideon and his family.

Ivy shares quite a few similarities with classic anti-heroines who are determined to improve their circumstances, be it through lies or clever manipulations. Ivy also reminded me of Tom Ripley. Like him, Ivy is hungry for something more. She believes that wealth and Gideon will fill the hole within her but nothing seems able to satisfy her hunger. Gideon is not flawless, he is a rather remote and undecipherable figure. Unwilling to upset or break the idealized vision that she has of him, Ivy leaves much of his behaviour unchallenged. Of course, their dynamic had a ‘who’s using who’ angle to it that makes for some captivating reading material. Roux, for better or worst, is far less opaque. Similarly to Ivy herself, I felt rather conflicted towards him, unsure whether I should despise him or root for him. Speaking of rooting, I was rooting for Ivy. She’s vain, selfish, manipulative, and yet, I thought she was a truly fascinating character. As I said, she shares quite a lot in common with Tom Ripley so being on her side sometimes made me question my own judgement. But, given that every character in White Ivy is flawed or downright nasty, it wasn’t all that hard to be on team Ivy.
Yang’s prose is both elegant and astute. Her interrogation of class and privilege, which had some strong The Great Gatsby vibes (especially in contrasting old vs new money), is both unsparing and sophisticated. The world she portrays is as glamorous as it is terrible. Those who have always had money are disconnected from the everyday difficulties and realities experienced by those like Ivy, while those who do not but want to have that glittery lifestyle are almost blindsided by their wants.

I wish the ending could have been different as I found myself wanting more closure from the story and some of the characters. I also probably would have preferred it if Roux hadn’t been Romanian. Hear me out, I come from a country with a strong anti-Romanian attitude so I am quite susceptible when it comes to how Romanian characters are presented (and making them criminals and/or violent risks fuelling already existing harmful stereotypes).

White Ivy is a riveting debut novel. Ivy was a fascinating character, Yang’s prose is truly phenomenal, and the suspense is something else. Yang has spun an exceptional tale about love, obsession, lies, and betrayals. If you don’t mind reading about alienated characters whose moral compass is more than a little off, well look no further.

my rating: ★★★★½

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Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

How to describe Queenie? Cringe comedy without the comedy meets misery porn? Unfunny caricatures galore? Low-key offensive towards ethnic minorities?

Look, I knew that Queenie would not be like Bridget Jones, and to be honest, that is a plus in my books (i watched the film adaptation when i first moved to britain and i found it…dated). So when I started Queenie I was hoping for something more on the lines of Chewing Gum or Fleabag….but what we get is an unfunny and not particularly nuanced narrative—starring the typical self-destructive twenty-something millennial—that in trying to be too many things, ends up being a big ol’ mess.

Queenie Jenkins is, our eponymous heroine, a Jamaican British woman living in London. She’s 25 going on 15. She’s just broken up with Tom, her white long-term boyfriend, and is clearly struggling to cope. She spends most of the novel going on about how she misses him, this guy who has the personality of a potato, and seeking validation in all the wrong places. The garbage men Queenie begins sleeping objectify and fetishize her, further damaging Queenie’s mental health. Understandably, Queenie’s obsession over her ex, her recent miscarriage, and her new lifestyle distract her from her work at a national newspaper. Yet Queenie herself remains convinced that she is a hard worker deserving of more important stories than what is currently coming her way. She has three close ‘friends’ to which she vents about her drama and how much sadder her life is compared to them. The narrative mentions that something Bad happened to Queenie when she was younger, but predictably it is not until the very end that we learn what exactly came to pass. The few flashbacks we get prior that big ‘reveal’ are awkwardly embedded in the text, and the scenes they present us felt either unnecessary or contrived (ie the information we learn through flashbacks could have been delivered to us differently, say by having Queenie actually engage in an act of introspection and realize that her boyfriend not only comes from a racist family but that his refusal to call out their racism or to stand by her makes him in many ways worse than they are).

Before I start sharing more of my negative thoughts about this novel I will mention a few things that did kind of work. I think the author does an excellent job in depicting the countless microaggressions that Queenie experiences on a daily basis—from strangers, colleagues, ‘friends’, sex partners. She also shows that in those instances when Queenie does speak up or calls out others on their racism, sexism, ignorance, she’s dismissed as just another ‘angry, loud, Black woman’. I also appreciated that Queenie’s mental health problems are not just magicked away by the power of love or some other crap. And I kind of liked her grandparents, even if they sadly play a very small role in Queenie’s story.

Now, on the not so good stuff:
1. Queenie, who believes she’s the funniest person on this earth, is not funny. The few moments of humor in this novel are provided by Kyazike, one of the few decent people in this novel. Weirdly I found it really hard to empathize with Queenie. I basically had to will myself into feeling a modicum of sympathy towards her. Which is odd given that I usually kind of love, or love-hate, self-sabotaging protagonists (My Year of Rest Relaxation, Luster, to Pizza Girl, Madame Bovary, The House of Mirth). But Queenie…she was exasperating, exhausting. A lack of self-esteem or the fact you experienced emotional abuse in your past does not mean that you should go on to become a solipsistic self-pitying person who spends 90% of her conversations with her ‘friends’ talking about herself. I mean, if that is the case I have some catching up to do. She was not a very good friend nor particularly good to her job (she briefly cares about BLM and wants to write about it but quickly forgets all about it). And she’s not funny. She’s passive, which I understand is due to her trauma but her lack of self-awareness was irritating af. I hated that the narrative paints her as always being the one who is wronged, in any interaction she has. Two awful people actually make some pretty valid criticism about her attitude but these are made moot by the fact they are shits so whatever they have to say about her cannot possibly be true. For the majority of the novel I wanted to either shout or shake Queenie because seriously, ragazza mia, wtf? I had a hard time believing that she was in her 20s as her angsty narration and behaviour seemed more suited to a teenager.

2. All of the men are trash. And they have similar names often consisting of three letters (Ted, Tom, Guy) and they are all similar shades of shitty so I had a hard time remembering who was who. I had no interest in reading scenes in which these one-dimensional shitbags denigrated Queenie.

3. The one male Pakistani character we get is a sleazy and lewd married man who rides a black BMW, uses innit every other sentence, and refers to his penis as ‘the destroyer’. His wife then chases Queenie off in a scene that seemed more suited to Family Guy. We then have Cassandra who is Jewish, judgmental, waiting for a man with the right kind of job, and uses her dad’s money. She lends Queenie money but she makes a point of reminding her of her tab and when the two are no longer friends she asks for it back. How imaginative! Yet another Jewish Princess who is obnoxiously self-involved (at one point she tells Queenie something on the lines of ‘it’s me time’).

4. The story as such consists in scene after scene depicting Queenie being mistreated. Every person she comes across is either racist, offensive, sexist, or a combination of these. And I don’t mind reading dark and depressing books. Heck, I just read and loved A Little Life. But the thing that made A Little Life bearable to read were all of those moments focusing on how Jude—who is even more self-destructive and self-loathing than Queenie—is loved by his friends and colleagues. This novel instead is hell-bent on presenting us with grotesque caricatures who either abuse or are offensive towards Queenie. Cringe comedy ensues (ahah, not).
Not only did it feel gratuitous but I also often did not believe in the author’s characters. They were either thinly rendered stereotypes or unfunny caricatures. I can bear difficult subject matters, in fact, one of my favourite series is I May Destroy You, but you have to give me some nuanced characters, not this Family Guy nonsense.

5. I am a bit tired of sexually active women being portrayed as ‘careless’ (Queenie has unprotected sex with multiple partners) and disempowered.

5. I wish the author could have trusted her readers to interpret things on their own terms.

Given my not so great opinion of this novel, if you are thinking of reading this novel, I recommend you check out some more positive reviews, especially ones from #ownvoices reviewers.

my rating: ★★½

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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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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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Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age is a engaging, if ultimately frustrating, read. The premise brought to mind two favorites of mine (Lucy and Luster, both focus on young black women living with white middle-class couples and taking ‘care’ of their child). Given the buzz around Such a Fun Age I had rather high expectations and when I first picked it up I found that opening chapter, in which Emira is stopped by the security guard, to be deeply compelling. The ones that followed however were less so. The story switches its focus on Alix, her husband remains an outlier in the narrative so that he is little other than a name on a page, and her career/mummy drama. Aaaand I just did not care for it. It felt a lot like reading Liane Moriarty but with far less humor. If anything, Alix and her circle of friends just reinforced my preconceptions about Americans (which is not something I necessarily was looking for). She’s white, wealthy, influential (she runs a blog that I never entirely understood), and spends most of the narrative trying to prove to herself and others that she is not racist (often resorting to the classic, ‘well, one of my friends is Black so clearly I cannot possibly be racist’). While I am not saying that I do not believe that people like Alix exist (I have come across a fair share of clips and news starring people like her) I just did not want to have pages and pages dedicated to her.
I have similar feelings towards Kelley who I did not like from the get-go and his first date with Emira just confirmed my suspicions about him.

Much of the narrative is not about the so-called ‘inciting incident’ in which Emira, a young Black babysitter is stopped by a security guard while she is with her three-year-old white charge, Briar. While this episode does obviously have an impact on Emira, the story is more about her deciding whether she wants to continue to work for Alix and Peter. At twenty-five, she feels left behind by her friends, all of who seem to be actively doing the job they want or working towards a certain goal. Emira’s directionless life was understandable if a bit wearisome. I wished that more of her personality could have shone through a little more, as she at times seemed a passive passenger who merely responds to Alix and Kelley’s behavior. Because of Emira’s not-so-strong characterization, Alix’s obsession with her did not ring entirely true. Still, I really loved those scenes in which Emira is hanging out with her three close friends or when she is looking after Briar (finally, a fictional child I liked!). The interactions between Emira and her friends rang particularly true to life, and I found their energy, banter, and group dynamics to be really captivating. Sadly, the story does not center around Emira (I so wanted more of her relationship with her family) but it actually gave Alix way too much backstory which did not make me sympathize with her one bit. While she was not by no means evil incarnate I found her boring and vapid. It was also frustrating that a lot of her behavior is never actually called out, she repeatedly crosses the line with Emira and gets away with it. During that final act, Emira does stand up for herself but it still seemed to me that Alix gets away with a lot of shit. Which, is realistic enough, yet another white wealthy woman getting away with all sorts of things but why dedicate so much of the narrative to her and not Emira?

I also found it a bit annoying that the story proves Emira wrong as with the exception of her the other characters do not change (looking at Kelley in particular).
I don’t know…I guess I am just not interested in characters like Alix and felt that the story could have been executed differently and in a way that could have actually elevated Emira’s voice. Still, Reid’s dialogues came across as authentic, and I appreciated her commentary on race, class, and gender. Her prose at times felt a bit superficial, as it tended to move from character to character within the same scene without really delving beneath their surface, but it also had a nice flow to it.

In spite of my reservations, I do think that Reid is a good writer and I look forward to what she will write next.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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As Far as You’ll Take Me by Phil Stamper

“How long does it take to fall in love with someone—hours, days, years?”

This was okay but I was kind of expecting something different. At times As Far as You’ll Take Me follows a bit too closely in the footsteps of other YA coming-of-age books. There also seems to be a rising trend for YA stories featuring American kids who travel/run away to Europe, where they make friends, fall in love, and realize that you cannot run away from your problems. As Far as You’ll Take Me is narrated by Marty who is nearly 18 and gay. Although his parents know they refuse to acknowledge his sexuality as they belong to a deeply conservative Christian sect. He decides that the only way he can be himself is by leaving his small Kentucky town behind and crafts a lie about having been accepted for a music summer program at a prestigious school in order to fly to London. Here he will stay with his cousin, who is also gay, and his aunt (who is largely absent due to work). Marty doesn’t have clear plans, other than wanting to play his oboe. He falls for Pierce, a friend of his cousin, who is also a musician and happens to have a not-so-great reputation when it comes to love. There is a lot of busking, some traveling (to Wales and Italy), and quite a lot of angst. Marty’s social anxiety turns seemingly ordinary exchanges and interactions into unsurmountable hurdles. He also begins to reconsider his relationship with Megan, his American best friend, who has always pushed him around, made fun of his insecurities, and who since his departure from the US has become even crueler towards him.
I appreciated that Stamper portrayed a less than ideal friendship and romance. Those looking for a feel-good YA romance might want to steer clear of this book. In addition to toxic relationships and anxiety, this book also touches on eating disorders. Personally, I think that this subject matter could have been explored with more depth as it came across as being a bit too lightly addressed and resolved. Many of the relationships Marty forms in the UK also struck me as having formed far too quickly. Not only is there the insta-love with Pierce but his friendship with Sophie also felt very rushed. While there was an attempt in making Megan into more than a horrible person, ultimately, she comes off as cartoonishly bad. Similarly to another book featuring a gay teen who runs away to Europe to escape his conservative parents’ disapproval, As Far as You’ll Take Me is not very concerned with addressing Marty’s own relationship to his religion. There are one or two passages that give the impression that he no longer believes due to the fact that his being gay is not compatible with his God but these merely scratched the surface of what could have been a more detailed discussion on self-acceptance and religion.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are some unnecessary snippets from a ‘project diary’ relating Marty’s previous summer in which his parents learned of his sexuality. These sections were totally unnecessary as they are so brief that they do not give us a real glimpse into Marty’s relationship with his parents, who, remain a mystery for the whole of the book. He thinks of them now and again but we never learn much about them or of their life up to that point.
All in all, I can’t say that I particularly liked this book. I appreciate the issues the author touches upon but the narrative felt too rushed and somewhat formulaic. Maybe die-hard fans of YA novels will be able to relate to this more than I was.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin

Pretend I’m Dead was 50 shades of fucked up but boy was it funny.

“When he went to order their drinks, he asked, “What’s your poison?”
“Oven cleaner,” she’d said with a straight face.
Her sense of humor sometimes made people—herself, included—uncomfortable.”

This novel is divided in four chapters, each one focusing on a particular relationship of our protagonist. In the first chapter, ‘Hole’, we are introduced to Mona, our main character, a twenty-something who works as a cleaning lady in Massachusetts and volunteers at a clean-needle exchange. Mona doesn’t have any particular aspirations and she is fine with her job. At the clean-needle exchange she meets a man she nicknames ‘Mr. Disgusting’, “on account of his looks and dirty clothes”. Mr. Disgusting is in his forties and has clearly been through the wringer. The two get involved, and things get weird and messy fast. In the following chapter, ‘Yoko and Yoko’, Mona moves to Taos where she lives in an adobe house. In spite of her reservations, she gets close to her neighbours, Nigel and Shiori, a couple that gives some strong ‘cult’ vibes. Mona understandably ends up nicknaming them Yoko and Yoko. Mona misreads the situation and things also get weird between the three of them. In ‘Henry and Zoe’ Mona becomes convinced that her newest client, Henry, a seemingly nice guy, is a less than decent person. This chapter crosses quite a few lines, and it is bound to make readers’ queasy. The last chapter, ‘Betty’, sees Mona becoming close to another client who happens to be a psychic.
Given that each chapter is more or less self-contained, these end up reading a lot like vignettes, each centring on a different period of Mona’s life. However, is only by reading all of them that we begin to understand Mona and her past. Her fraught relationship with her father is of particular importance in the overall narrative. Mona’s mind often turns to Mr. Disgusting, so that he also becomes a perpetual presence in her story. Through Mona’s ‘misadventures’ the story examines themes of loneliness, connection and belonging.

In spite of its offbeat main character Pretend I’m Dead made for a morbid, grotesque, and occasionally obscene reading experience. Yet, it was also undoubtedly one of the funniest books I have ever read. Mona’s wry sense of humor, her deadpan replies, and her mental meanderings (which lead to some freaky fantasies) were thoroughly entertaining. While none of the characters are strictly likeable, they were certainly fleshed out. With a few selected words Beagin brings her characters to life, rendering the way they look and behave with clearcut precision.
As funny and absurd as Pretend I’m Dead was, the novel touches on quite a lot of serious issues (sexual abuse, drug addiction, depression, suicidal ideation, trauma, incest). It is remarkable that Beagin manages to explore these through Mona’s lenses. Dark humor indeed!
I really liked the way the story was written, which is saying something as I usually don’t care particularly for 3rd person narrations that refer to the main character as ‘she’ (as opposed to her name, in this case Mona). Beagin has an ear for dialogue and a talent for portraying those thornier feelings and emotions.
If you are a fan of Ottessa Moshfegh, Melissa Broder, Raven Leilani, or Jean Kyoung Frazier chances are Pretend I’m Dead will be up your street. Those who aren’t keen on books that examine challenging, if not controversial, topics or cannot stand vulgar or non-PC content might want to give this book a wide breadth.

my rating: ★★★★

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