Caucasia by Danzy Senna

“It’s funny. When you leave your home and wander really far, you always think, ‘I want to go home.’ But then you come home, and of course it’s not the same. You can’t live with it, you can’t live away from it. And it seems like from then on there’s always this yearning for some place that doesn’t exist. I felt that. Still do. I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how.”

Enthralling and haunting, Caucasia makes for a dazzling coming-of-age story. With piercing and heart-wrenching clarity, Danzy Senna captures on the page the psychological and emotional turmoils experienced by her young protagonist. Similarly to her later novels, Symptomatic and New People, Caucasia is a work that is heavily concerned with race, racial passing, and identity. But whereas Symptomatic and New People present their readers with short and deeply unnerving narratives that blur the lines between reality and the fantastical, Caucasia is a work that is deeply grounded in realism. Its structure takes a far more traditional route, something in the realms of a bildungsroman novel. This larger scope allows for more depth, both in terms of character and themes. Birdie’s world and the people who populate are brought to life in striking detail. Senna’s prose, which is by turns scintillating and stark, makes Birdie’s story truly riveting and impossible to put down.

Caucasia is divided in three sections, each one narrated by Birdie. The novel opens in Boston during the 1970s Civil Rights and Black Power movements when the city’s efforts to desegregate schools was met with white resistance and exacerbated existing racial tensions. Enter Birdie: her father Deck is a Black scholar who is deeply preoccupied with theories about race; her mother, Sandy, is from a blue-blood white woman who has come to reject her Mayflower ancestry and is quite active in the ‘fight’ for Civil Rights. Birdie is incredibly close to her older sister Cole, so much so that the two have created and often communicate in their own invented language. Before their parents’ rather messy break-up the two have been homeschooled, something that has sheltered them somewhat from the realities of the world. Even so, they both have been made aware of their ‘differences’. Whereas Cole resembles her dad, Birdie is paler and has straight hair, something that leads people to assume that she is white or perhaps Hispanic. During their rare visits to their maternal grandmother, Cole is completely ignored while Birdie receives all of her (unwanted quite frankly) attention. Later on, Deck’s new girlfriend is shown to be openly intolerant of Birdie for not being Black enough. When the girls begin attending a Black Power School, Birdie is teased and bullied. While Birdie is in awe of Cole and dreams that she could look like her, she’s also peripherally aware of the privileges afforded to her by her appearance. We also see how Sandy, their mother, for all her talk, treats Birdie and Cole differently (there is a scene in which she implies that unlike Birdie Cole should not be worried about paedophiles/serial killers). Sandy also struggles to help Cole with her hair, and soon their mutual frustration with each other morphs into something more difficult to bridge. When Sandy gets involved in some ‘shady’ activities her relationship with Cole sours further.
Birdie’s life is upended when Sandy, convinced the FBI is after her, flees Boston. In pursuit of racial equality Deck and his girlfriend go to Brazil, taking Cole with them, while Birdie is forced to leave Boston with Sandie.
Sandie believes that the only way to escape the feds is to use Birdie’s ‘ambiguous’ body to their advantage. Not only does Birdie have no choice but to pass but it is her mother who chooses her ‘white’ identity, that of Jesse Goldman.
The two settle in New Hampshire where Birdie struggles to adjust to new life. While the two spend some time in a women’s commune, they eventually move out and into a predominantly white town. Sandy’s paranoia leads her to distrust others, and secretiveness and suspicion become fixtures in their lives. Being forced to pass and being forced to pretend that her sister and father never existed alienate Birdie (from her own self, from Sandy, and from other people). She cannot truly connect to those around her given that she has to pretend that she is a white Jewish girl. She eventually makes friends and in her attempts to fit in emulates the way they speak and act. Because the people around her believe she is white they are quite openly racist, and time and again Birdie finds herself confronted with racist individuals. other people’s racism.
Senna captures with painful clarity the discomfort that many girls experience in their pre and early teens. For a lot of the novel, Birdie doesn’t really know who she is and who she wants to be, and because of this, she looks at the girls and women around her. But by doing this, she is merely imitating them, and not really figuring out her identity. In addition to having to perform whiteness, Birdie denies her own queerness.
As with Symptomatic and New People, Senna provides a razor-sharp commentary on race and identity. While Caucasia is easily the author’s least disquieting work, it still invokes a sense of unease in the reader. On the one hand, we are worried for Birdie, who is clearly unhappy and lost. On the other hand, we encounter quite a few people who are horrible and there are many disquieting scenes. Yet, Senna doesn’t condemn her characters, and in fact, there are quite a few instances where I was touched by the empathy she shows towards them (I’m thinking of Sandy in particular).
It provides a narrative in which its main character is made to feel time and again ‘Other’, which aggravates the disconnect she experiences between her physical appearance and self. The people around her often express a binary view of race, where you are either/or but not both. Because of this Birdie struggles to define herself, especially when she has to pass as white.
Senna subverts the usual passing narrative: unlike other authors, she doesn’t indict her passer by employing the ‘tragic mulatta’ trope. Throughout the narrative, Senna underscores how racial identity is a social construct and not a biological fact. However, she also shows the legacies of slavery and segregation in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ America as well as the concrete realities that race have in everyday life (Deck being questioned by the police, the disparities between the way Cole and Birdie are treated, the racism and prejudice expressed by so many characters, the way Samantha is treated at school).
Throughout the narrative Senna raises many thought-provoking points, opening the space for in-depth and nuanced discussions on identity, performativity, peer pressure, and sexuality.
The realism of Birdie’s experiences was such that I felt that I was reading a memoir (and there are some definite parallels between Birdie and Senna). If you found Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Dog Flowers: A Memoir to be compelling reads I thoroughly recommend you check out Caucasia. I can also see this coming of age appealing to fans of Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. While they do not touch upon the same issues, they both hone in on the alienation experienced by young girls whose fraught path from childhood to adolescence make them aware of painful truths and realizations (that they are not necessarily good or beautiful, that the people around them aren’t either, that adults and parents can be selfish and liars, that not all parents love their children). I would also compare Caucasia to Monkey Beach which is also an emotionally intelligent and thoughtful coming-of-age. And, of course, if you are interested in passing narratives such as Passing and The Vanishing Half you should really check out all of Senna’s books.

The novel’s closing act is extremely rewarding and heart-rendering. Curiously enough the first time I read this I appreciated it but did not love it. This second time around…it won me over. Completely. Birdie is such a realistic character, and I loved, in spite or maybe because, of her flaws. Her story arc is utterly absorbing and I struggled to tear my eyes away from the page (even if I had already read this and therefore knew what would happen next). Senna’s dialogues ring true to life and so do the scenarios she explores. Birdie’s voice is unforgettable and I can’t wait to re-read this again.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★★★

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole.”

The Goldfinch is an emotional rollercoaster spanning 700+ pages and proof that literary lightning can indeed strike twice. Fully deserving of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Goldfinch is a triumph of a novel, one that I will have a hard time reviewing (so bear with me & my ramblings).
Donna Tartt seamlessly weaves together a Dickensian bildungsroman with a suspenseful and thrilling descent into the criminal underbelly of the art world (forgeries & thefts ahoy!) that boasts the same exquisite prose as her debut novel.
This Odyssean coming-of-age is narrated by Theo Decker. At 13 Theo lives alone with his mother after his father, a temperamental alcoholic, decided to take up and leave New York. After Theo gets in trouble at his school he and his mother are required to attend a ‘conference’. On the way there, the two end up in a museum, for what should have been a quick gander. When a bomb explodes in the museum many die, including Theo’s mother. Once Theo awakes from the explosion he comes across a dying old man who urges him to take Carel Fabritius’s ‘The Goldfinch’. Theo, probably suffering from a head concussion & shock, does as he’s bid, takes the painting.

“The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up.”

When Theo is informed of his mother’s death he’s devastated. He has no idea where his deadbeat father is and his grandparents have made it clear that they aren’t keen on having him stay with them. Theo is temporarily placed in the custody of his childhood friend’s family, the Barbours, a hideously wealthy family. Later on, his father re-emerges and whisks away from New York to Las Vegas. Here Theo is left very much to his own devices, his father—who is clearly involved in some dodgy stuff—and his girlfriend do not seem particularly fond or interested in him and his upbringing. Theo becomes friends with Boris who, like him, does not have a stable home life. Together the two experiment with alcohol and drugs and commit petty crimes.
We follow Theo until his late-teens and then we encounter him again as a young(ish) adult who becomes entangled in some dangerous business that force him to fully confront the kind of person that he has become.

What to say? My heart went out to Theo. Yes, later in life he’s a bit of an asshole. That doesn’t cancel out all of his other qualities and complexities. Those sections recounting his boyhood are truly heartbreaking. The despair he feels at his mother’s death, the guilt, grief, longing, self-hatred, and loneliness that seem to punctuate his days are captured with exacting precision. His meditations on life, art, the people around him are striking, and I appreciated how nuanced a person he was. His relationship with Boris was one of the highlights of his narrative. It is incredible just how good Tartt is at making you care for people who are just not that nice. The dynamic between Theo and Boris is intense and messy (possibly more than a friendship?) and despite their different temperaments their similar circumstances and self-destructive tendencies fortify their bond (they are definitely good at enabling each other).

His mother’s death haunts Theo throughout his life, and we see just how his survivor’s guilt affects and influences him. To Theo, the painting of ‘The Goldfinch’ is irrevocably connected to her death, which is why he’s unable to part ways with it. He’s also hopelessly enamoured with Pippa, who he first glimpsed in the museum on that fateful day. She’s one of the few people who understands the guilt that plagues him so. Alas, he comes to idealise in a not so healthy way.
His story is filled with stops-and-starts, addiction and suicidal ideation & tendencies punctuate his life, and as an adult, he seems already to have taken a dubious path.

I loved this novel. Tartt’s writing is divine. Her prose is simultaneously elegant and exhilarating, her characterization, dialogues, descriptions, are all truly exemplary. She brings to life the people, places, and situations she writes of in a way that is almost too real, so that when forces outside of my control (the end of my lunch break or commute.) put an end to my reading time, well, it felt like a rude awakening.

As I said, this novel is long. A brick some would say (the hardback edition could seriously injure someone). Yet, I breezed through this. Not because it was easy reading, quite the contrary. Tartt’s erudite references and elaborate storytelling deserve attention and consideration, one cannot just rush their way through her books. And yet, I had a hard time putting this book down. Theo’s voice won me over so that I too found myself mirroring whatever he was feeling (usually sadness and or anxiety, yay). I didn’t want to let go of him, and I was actually sad once I reached the novel’s conclusion.
While Tartt doesn’t go light on her characters, I could tell just how much she cares for them. The people inhabiting her novels may not necessarily be good or kind but by the end, I always end up loving them (despite or because of their many many flaws). Even characters I want to hate with the whole of my being are not wholly unredeemable.

Tartt’s incisive reflections on human nature, life, grief, love, fate, art, death, struck me for their poignancy and thoughtfulness. The rich cast of characters is just as deserving of attention as Theo himself. Regardless of the part, they play in Theo’s life, whether they are a friend, acquaintance, or a complete stranger, they are depicted in such vivid detail that they do not feel like fictional characters but real people.
And Theo, ragazzo mio! On the one hand, many of his feelings, states of mind, motivations, fears & desires are rendered with clarity, on the other, well, the boy is not only traumatised but incredibly repressed and prone to self-deception. So, there are many moments when we cannot trust entirely his narration. His alcohol consumption and drug use also add a murky quality to certain events or portions of his story. Theo’s intentional and unintentional untrustworthiness, in many ways, added an element of ambiguity to his narration and has us relying, more often than not, on other characters in order to discern the truth about certain people/events.
I was captivated by Theo’s story, the many lows and few highs of his adolescence and adulthood, and by the motifs dotting his narrative. The novel is also full of juxtaposition: the classic vs modern references, the bustling streets of New York, always buzzing with activity, vs the desolate landscapes of Las Vegas, the Barbours’ apartment with Theo’s father house. Like TSH, one of the novel’s main concerns is beauty (the power that beautiful things have on us, the way we feel about that which is beautiful to us, the things we are willing to do for beauty or to have what we think beautiful).

Beautiful, moving, wonderfully chaotic, a work of art. The Goldfinch is all of these things and so much more.

ps: curiously enough the first time I read it I only gave it 3 stars…and I can’t really explain why this time around I loved it so much that even days later I find myself thinking about Theo & Boris.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

“Names have power. This is the fundamental principle of magic everywhere. Call out the name of a supernatural being, and you will have its instant and undivided attention in the same way that your lost toddler will have yours the second it calls your name.”

First published in 2000 Monkey Beach is a deeply evocative and multilayered coming of age. Monkey Beach transports its readers to Northwest British Columbia, to Kitamaat, home to the Haisla people. After her younger brother Jimmy goes missing during a fishing expedition, twenty-year-old Lisamarie Hill is overwhelmed by grief. As she makes her way to the place he was last seen, Lisa looks back to her childhood and teenage years. Lisa recollections ring incredibly true to life. The author captures the way children think and speak, celebrating moments of silliness and happiness that occur between siblings and childhood friends. While there are many moments of lightness in Lisa’s childhood, the author doesn’t shy away from portraying the many injustices and struggles experienced by indigenous people. Lisa’s relationships with her family members—in particular, her loving uncle Mick and her resilient Ma-ma-oo—are as powerful as they are moving.
As a child, Lisa is very much a ‘tomboy’. She doesn’t back down from a fight, has a bit of a temper, enjoys getting into scrapes that frequently land her into trouble. Her uncle is her biggest fan and their interactions are simply a joy to read. I also liked that although Lisa does exhibit some of those ‘Not Like Other Girls’ traits, the narrative ultimately subverts this, introducing us to multiple tough girls and by not dismissing those girls Lisa had a falling out with.
The author depicts the realities of growing up indigenous and female, emphasizing the importance of family ties, however knotty these may be, and Haisla beliefs and customs. The narrative also delves into magical realism territories as throughout her youth Lisa is visited by a strange if ominous figure. Lisa’s premonitions and her ability to see ghosts are a terrible weight as she is often unable to stop tragedies from unfolding.

This novel has easily some of the most realistic dialogues and interactions that I have ever come across in a book. The setting is as vividly rendered as the characters, and there are many stunning descriptions of the landscapes surrounding Lisa.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to lovers of plot or fast-moving narratives, Monkey Beach will definitely resonate with those readers who are looking for a nuanced family portrait. I truly appreciated that while the author manages to convey with crystal-clear clarity Lisa’s childhood, some things in her story retain a sense of ambiguity.
While the first half of this novel is brimming with more light-hearted moments, the latter half is heartbreaking and unexpectedly dark. Lisa’s voice and character arc were truly compelling and I found myself not wanting to reach the end (as that would mean saying goodbye to her).
I came across an interview in which Emily St. John Mandel says that Monkey Read is her favourite book to re-read, and I actually think that this novel would indeed appeal to fans of Mandel (the remote & atmospheric setting, the magical realism). Readers who enjoyed Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley should also consider giving Monkey Beach a shot as the two share a similar ‘feel’.
Monkey Beach was a truly absorbing read, one that I am already looking forward to reading again.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Charioteer by Mary Renault — book review

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“He was filled with a vast sense of the momentous, of unknown mysteries. He did not know what he should demand of himself, nor did it seem to matter, for he had not chosen this music he moved to, it had chosen him.”

This is the fifth time I’ve read The Charioteer and once again I’ve been swept away by it. The Charioteer is quite likely my favourite novel of all time as there are few books that I care as much about.
There is something comforting about The Charioteer, which is strange given that Mary Renault’s impenetrable prose demands her readers’ full attention. There are the coded conversations, thoughts and feelings are often only obliquely hinted at, the pages are full of 40s slang, and there are constant allusions to the ancient classics. Yet, her writing also has a languid quality, perhaps reflective of her protagonist’s convalescence, which I found truly enthralling.
In an almost Bildungsroman fashion The Charioteer introduces us to Laurie as a child. This first chapter recounts a significant moment of his childhood and is followed by a chapter of him at school where he has a memorable encounter with the Head of the School, Ralph Lanyon. The subsequent chapters follow Laurie as he’s recovering from a war injury at a hospital. Here he meets and falls for Andrew, a conscientious objector who is now working as an orderly.
While Laurie is aware of his sexuality, and believes that Andrew reciprocates his feelings, he’s unwilling to reveal to Andrew the true depth of his emotions. By chance Laurie ends up re-connecting with Ralph. As the title of the novel suggests, Laurie’s story can be likened to the myth of the charioteer from Phaedrus.
Now, I know that my summary doesn’t do this novel justice. I don’t wish to reveal too much about the story or its characters. Still, I can say that The Charioteer presents us with a beautiful narrative, one that captures a particular moment in time. The characters’ days are punctuated by Imminent Danger sirens, air raids, shortages. Laurie, alongside other patients, has to obey the hospital’s strict rules. Under Renault’s hand, the war seems almost ‘normal’, and characters will often discuss it as they would any other topic.
Renault’s portrayal of the gay community feels both intimate and compelling. While Laurie himself feels uneasy towards those he deems as ‘flamboyant’ or ‘effeminate’, the narrative doesn’t share his prejudices. Renault’s characters often engage themselves in conversations relating to their role in society, often professing contrasting beliefs. The views they express may ruffle some readers, as they often speak about their sexuality as a limitation or they seem dismissive towards other gay men (partly because both Laurie and Ralph are private individuals and do not wish to be a source of gossip). Their discussion on ethics and morality were riveting, and I soon lost myself in the rhythm of their back and forth.
The novel is as interested in what the characters say as it is with what they don’t say, whether this is due to self-censoring or self-denial. Although Laurie is the story’s protagonist, much of what he feels remains off page. Renault will often only allude to Laurie’s most innermost feelings. Because of this Laurie, and other characters, often seem like unsolvable puzzles. This is quite fitting given that self-knowledge and self-deception are central themes within this narrative.
Laurie’s story is also one that is concerned with connection. Although he becomes fast friends with another patient, he fears being ‘known’. Yet, in spite of this sense of loneliness, he is reticent about ‘embracing’ his community (“He kept telling me I was queer, and I’d never heard it called that before and didn’t like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don’t feel much in common with […]”).
Miscommunications abound in this novel. At times the characters make tentative attempts to form more meaningful relationships but they often betray themselves by not saying what they want to say or by saying the wrong things.

Renault captures with poignancy sadness, anxiety, self-divide, awkwardness, tenderness, longing, ambiguity, confusion, honour, passion, and hope. Her characters reveal her piercing understanding of human nature. Through her expressive and elegant writing Renault demonstrates her inside knowledge of the society she depicted (Renault was both a lesbian and a nurse, which is possibly why she can so conjure up both queer parties and the daily routines of a hospital).
I love everything about this novel. Laurie’s quest for identity, the struggle between his desires and his ideals, is as moving as it is thought-provoking.
A truly complex and multi-layered masterpiece that is both heart-rending and intelligent.
Impenetrable, subtle, beautiful, touching. I can’t recommend this novel strongly enough.
If you are a fan of gay classics (such as MauriceCarolGiovanni’s Room, and the underrated Olivia ), you should definitely give Renault a try. I don’t think I will ever get tired of re-reading this novel. Each time my understanding for the characters, their inner-struggles and relationships, deepens (although i own a copy of this, this time around i read a kindle copy from overdrive…and i ended up making nearly 500 highlights….which, yeah, that’s how much i love this story).

ps: if you have anything negative so say about Ralph, I will fight you
(i’m only half-jesting)

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Maurice by E.M. Forster — book review

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“No tradition overawed the boys. No convention settled what was poetic, what absurd. They were concerned with a passion that few English minds have admitted, and so created untrammelled. Something of exquisite beauty arose in the mind of each at last, something unforgettable and eternal, but built of the humblest scraps of speech and from the simplest emotions.”

There is much to be admired in E.M. Forster’s Maurice. While it saddening to think that although he wrote Maurice in the 1910s he was unable to publish the novel during his lifetime, Forster did at least share it with some of his closest friends.
Maurice follows the titular character of Maurice Hall from boyhood to adulthood. In the opening chapter a teacher, knowing that Maurice’s father was dead, feels the need to educate him on sex. Maurice however doesn’t find this conversation enlightening, if anything it cements his aversion towards women and marriage. It is perhaps this incident that makes Maurice begin to question his sexuality. Although he never does so explicitly, his otherwise privileged existence is marred by self-questioning and doubt. Throughout the narrative Forster depicts the way in which homosexuality was regarded in the early 20th century: Maurice himself doesn’t know what to make of his desire towards other men. The country’s general attitude towards “unspeakables of the Oscar Wilde sort” range from pure denial, so they will dismiss homosexuality as “nonsense”, or “condemn it as being the worst crime in the calendar”.
At university Maurice becomes acquainted with Clive Durham. Clive, unlike Maurice, is a scholar, and lover, of ancient Greek philosopher and is apt to quote their teachings. While Maurice is simply enamoured with Clive, Clive wishes to attain a higher form of ‘love’ (“love passionate but temperate, such as only finer natures can understand,”) and believes that by being with Maurice their “two imperfect souls might touch perfection”. Unlike Maurice, Clive finds the idea of their becoming physical intimate to be distasteful, implying that it would spoil their relationship.
When the two are no longer at university together the two no longer have many opportunities to spend time together. their physical in their relationship, Clive insists on adhering to his ideal of love. Later on, Maurice finds himself pursuing a relationship with Alec, Clive’s gamekeeper.
The first half of the novel brought to mind Brideshead Revisited. This is quite likely to the university setting and the various hierarchies there are at play there. Both Maurice and Clive come from wealthy families. They are fairly pretentious, prone to make snobbish remarks, and are fairly misogynistic. Forster himself points out all of their flaws and is unafraid of poking gentle fun at them. Because of this I felt less disinclined towards them, even if I didn’t strictly like them.
This isn’t a particularly happy novel. There is bigotry, self-loathing, heartbreak, and suicidal contemplation. At one point Maurice is diagnosed with ‘congenital homosexuality’ and even attempts to ‘cure’ himself by way of a hypnotist. Yet, Forster’s prose is full of beauty. There are plenty of stunning passages in which he discusses and contrasts romantic and platonic love (Clive/Apollonian vs. Maurice/Dionysian), physical and intellectual desire, or where he describes beautiful landscapes. Forster adds a poetic touch to negative emotions such anguish and despair, so that even when his narrative never really succumbs to the darkness experienced by Maurice and his moments of introspection carry definite beauty.
Perhaps the thing that kept from loving this as much as Forster’s A Room with a View is the lack of chemistry…Alec appears towards the end and in no time Maurice seems in love with him. Alec’s personality is somewhat reduced to his being of a lower class. Still, while Maurice may not join what I consider to be the holy trinity of classic LGBT literature (for those who are wondering: The Charioteer, Giovanni’s Room, and The Price of Salt/Carol) I still think that it is a brave and illuminating novel (Forster’s afterword alone is worth reading).

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up)

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The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri — book review

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“In so many ways, his family’s life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another.”

In the past few years I’ve read and fallen in love with Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories as well as her book on her relationship with the Italian language In Other Words. Although The Namesake has been sitting on my shelf for the last couple months, when it was chosen as one of the February reads for the ‘Around the World in 80 Books’ group, I was finally spurred into reading it, and I’m so glad I did. The Namesake did not disappoint.

Written in an elegantly sparse prose The Namesake tells the story of the Ganguli family. After their arranged marriage Ashoke and Ashima Ganguili move from Calcutta to America. It is in this new, if not perpetually puzzling, country that their children Gogol and Sonia are born and raised.
As Lahiri recounts the story of this family, she also interrogates concepts of cultural identity, of dislocation and rootlessness, of cultural and generational divides, and of tradition and familial expectation. As the title of the novel suggests, The Namesake focuses on Gogol’s fraught relationship with his own name. As the American-born son of Bengali parents, Gogol struggles to reconcile himself with his Russian name. His uncommon name comes to symbolise his own self-divide and reticence to embrace his parents’ culture.

“He wonders how his parents had done it, leaving their respective families behind, seeing them so seldom, dwelling unconnected, in a perpetual state of expectation, of longing.”

Names and trains are recurring motifs in this long spanning narrative. Time and again we read of the way in which names alter others’ and our perception of ourselves. Train journeys provide characters with life-changing experiences: from near misses with death to startling realisations.
Yet, in spite of these fated moments, Lahiri’s novel possesses an atmosphere that is at once graceful and ordinary. The language she chooses has this quiet quality that makes that which she writes all the more realistic. Her most insightful observations into her characters, or the dynamics between them, often occur when she is recounting seemingly mundane scenes: from food preparations and family meals to phone conversations.
In spite of the gentle rhythm of her narrative Lahiri also articulates the tension between past and present, India and America, parents and children, husband and wife. As Gogol grows we read of his love and sorrows, of his hopes and fears, and of his insecurities and his lifelong quest to belong. There are heartbreaking moments of affection and miscommunication, and Lahiri truly renders both the difficulties of acclimatising to another country and of embracing one’s heritage in a world where to be different is to be other.

By observing a characters’ clothes, appearance, or routine, Lahiri makes even those who are at the margin of the Ganguli’s family history come to life. The Ganguli’s first neighbours in America, Gogol’s teacher, who inadvertently cemented Gogol’s hatred for his name, and even Moushumi’s colleague are all vibrantly rendered.
While what Lahiri’s characters’ experience can be occasionally comic, she never makes them into a ‘joke’. In fact, she reserves judgment, and each character, regardless of their actions, is portrayed with compassion.

“True to the meaning of her name, she will be without borders, without a home of her own, a resident everywhere and nowhere.”

Another thing that makes this novel stand out is how much Lahiri leaves unspoken. There are no melodramatic scenes or confessions. At times it is only hindsight that allows a character to realise the importance of a certain moment.

“Somehow, bad news, however ridden with static, however filled with echoes, always manages to be conveyed.”

There is a naturalness and openness to her characters’ impressions. She writes with such clarity of such complex or ephemeral feelings or thoughts that I often had to stop to re-read a phrase in order to truly savour her words.

“For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.”

Lahiri is a master of the trade and in The Namesake she depicts an exquisitely intricate family portrait.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë — book review

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“Who blames me? Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes.”

Jane Eyre is not only considered a classic (if not the classic) in feminist literature, but an exemplary piece of Romantic Gothic literature. Personally, I view Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman novel, one that wonderfully dramatises a woman’s quest for self-realisation and personal freedom. Throughout the course of the narrative, the eponymous heroine of this novel undergoes an organic growth that allows her to find and develop her own individuality and to become, not only independent, but socially integrated.

If I had to be perfectly honest however I will admit that I enjoyed Jane Eyre more the first time I read it. This second time round I felt vaguely disenchanted by its story and baffled by its romance (which I will discuss further ahead). This may be because in the years between these re-readings I read and fell in love with Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (which happens to be an extremely underrated novel). Jane Eyre feels a lot ‘safer’ by comparison. The storyline is fairly straightforward, whereas Villette has a rather labyrinthine plot, and Jane—unlike the dark horse Lucy Snowe—carries her heart on her sleeve. Nevertheless, there is much to be appreciated in Jane Eyre.
Brontë’s writing is captivating and beautifully eloquent. Readers are likely to become fond of Jane and her many ‘plights’ within the very first pages. Jane is such a genuine character, and Brontë perfectly renders the workings of her mind.
There are also an abundance of insightful passages regarding questions of gender, class, and freedom. Sometimes these subjects are actively spoken about or discussed between the novel’s characters. At times it is Jane who turns these issues over in her mind, questioning her motives, aspirations, and feelings.
The friendship Jane develops with another girl early on in the narrative is quite touching. We can see the way in which this connection enables Jane to self-improve and to survive Lowood.
Jane also finds a constant companion in nature. As a child she escapes her painful existence by reading Bewick’s History of British Birds. Whereas as an adult she finds it soothing to go outside for walks, often projecting her own states of mind onto the landscape surrounding her. Throughout the course of her story the image of the moon takes on an almost maternal role.

“I watched her come—watched with the strangest anticipation; as though some word of doom were to be written on her disk. She broke forth as never moon yet burst from cloud: a hand first penetrated the sable folds and waved them away; then, not a moon, but a white human form shone in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earthward. It gazed and gazed on me. It spoke to my spirit: immeasurably distant was the tone, yet so near, it whispered in my heart—”

Like Villette, Jane Eyre demonstrates Brontë’s awareness to the harsh realities faced by women who lack financial, social, or familial support. As an orphan Jane is incredibly vulnerable as she is entirely responsible for her own survival. As ‘humble’ governess she does not believe that she could ever enter the marital marketplace. Jane occupies an awkward space: she is not a servant or working-class woman, yet she is repeatedly made to feel as socially inferior to her cousins and socialites such as Blanche Ingram.

“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

Jane herself merely wants to escape the oppression and starvation that she experienced at Gateshead and at Lowood. Yet, although Thornfield Hall is presented to us through a fairy-tale lens (early on Jane compares Mr. Rochester’s mansion to “Bluebeard’s castle”), it is by no means a safe haven. Still, Jane can see beyond its gloomy interiors, and in spite of whatever or whoever may roam inside its walls, she falls in love with Thornfield Hall. Its ground have a particularly soothing effect on her.
Jane’s pilgrimage however does not end at Thornfield and the depravations that follow her employment to Mr. Rochester strengthen her resolve to gain true independence.

What I love the most about Jane Eyre is steeped in solitariness. Jane is an outsider, a single woman without any concrete social aspirations (as an orphan Jane is wholly responsible for her own survival and independence), who as an adult is most at ease in the role of impassive observer. Yet, underneath her fixed demeanour lies a passionate soul. Throughout the course of the novel, as Jane grows from a “passionate child” into a solemn governess, she is negotiating contradictory forces: on the one hand she desperately craves independence so that she can positively and freely experience the world, on the other, she does not want to be ‘wicked’ or to stray away from a morally righteous path. She simultaneously fears and desires to be the type of woman that Victorian society would deem ‘unnatural’.
Jane’s self-divide is strikingly rendered by her interior monologue which emphasises the interplay of psychological and social forces have on one’s ‘formation’. The dialogue between Jane’s different selves occurs throughout the course of the narrative. Most of her decision are dictated by her simultaneous and conflicting desire for self-sacrifice and self-dependence.
An aspect of Jane’s personality that is present from her childhood to her adulthood is her integrity (which other characters—such as Mrs. Sarah Reed, St. John Eyre Rivers, and Mr. Rochester—mistake as pride). Jane’s coming of age is the focus of Jane Eyre. Sadly the romance within this novel has often eclipsed its actual heroine. And while I can understand that modern readers may not see think of Jane as rebellious, to focus on her forgiveness of Mr. Rochester would be somewhat dismissive of her her earlier actions.

Whereas in Villette Lucy was fully aware of her romantic interest(s) flaws, Jane is much less critical. She does not seem to resent Mr. Rochester for having repeatedly lied to her and for having manipulated her. To Jane, Mr. Rochester is a victim. To me, Mr. Rochester is literally and figuratively big-headed. He gaslights, threatens, and emotionally manipulates Jane. He is awful. Brooding Byronic hero…as if. Most of what he said frustrated me. His redemption is extremely cheesy.
Jane is also blind to St. John Eyre Rivers’ horrible personality. He is yet another man who tries to coerce Jane into doing something she does not want to do. He also acts as if his own desires have godly origins and therefore must be obeyed.
While I do understand that Jane no longer wished to be separated from the man she loves, part of me wishes that her story could have ended in a more unconventional way…

“Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to four)

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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett — book review

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“I was still at a point in my life when the house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.”

Not Quite a Review, More of an Ode to Ann Patchett:

Usually I tend to post my reviews a couple of days after I’ve finished reading a book. With The Dutch House it took me nearly two weeks to work up the ‘courage’ to review it. The fact is that I loved The Dutch House so much that I find hard to see it as a ‘mere’ work of fiction.
This is the eight novel that I’ve read by Ann Patchett and she has yet to disappoint. It is difficult to ‘pick’ a favourite, even if I can see that throughout the course of her writing career she has really honed her craft. Yet, I wholeheartedly loved her early books (especially her unjustly underrated 1997 novel, The Magician’s Assistant), so to imply that she ‘keeps getting better’ would be doing her a disservice. Regardless of the scope of her stories (whether they take place in a short period of time in a particular city, such as in Run, or move us between two ‘extremes’, in The Magician’s Assistant we move between Los Angeles and Nebraska, or take us on even longer journey, for instance in State of Wonder we follow Dr. Marina Singh’s as she leaves Minnesota for the Amazon Rainforest) Patchett tends to explore the same themes: there is a focus on familial relationships, especially between siblings, and these established dynamics are often changed due to some ‘major’ event (often the death of a loved one/relative/colleague). Although The Dutch House is written in Patchett’s signature prose, which can be described as being deceptively simple it features a first-person perspective, which is a departure from her usual third-person point of view. Being inside Danny Conroy’s head makes for an immersive experience and within the first pages I was captivated by his story.
Through an act of retrospection Danny looks back to the past and what follows is a narrative that could be described as a bildungsroman. Danny’s childhood in the Dutch House—a large, if not incongruous, mansion in a prosperous suburb of Philadelphia—is clouded by the absence of his mother (a woman he cannot clearly recall but whose absence he nonetheless feels) and by his relationship with his remote father. It is Maeve, Danny’s older sister, who takes on the role of ‘parental’ figure, and their relationship is very much the underlying thread of the story.

The Dutch House, weighed down by its history, inspires fascination in Andrea, the woman who will go on to become Danny and Maeve’s step-mother. The novel begins in fact with Danny’s memory of his first meeting with Andrea, one that seems to have almost a fairy-tale-esque quality in that it was the day where ‘everything’ seemed to change.
Throughout Danny’s narrative we will also see the way in which the Conroy siblings remain drawn to the house, a house which seems to acquire an emblematic role in the lives of those who have lived in: it represents their childhoods, their father—his career, his marriage(s)—and the rather unfortunate VanHoebeeks. Patchett renders this house without loosing herself in extensive architectural descriptions, rather she brings to the foreground some of its features (Maeve’s windowseat) and some of its objects. The paintings within the house (Maeve’s portrait and those of the VanHoebeeks) also seem to hold a certain function in Danny’s recollection of his past.

“Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library, and master bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts. The house, complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.”

In his remembrance Danny frequently makes vague, if not downright oblique, allusions to later events or revelations, which in turn creates tension between his past and present. Also framing Danny’s recollection of his youth are a series of scenes in which alongside Maeve, he sits in her car outside the Dutch House.
Danny also questions the veracity of his memories: “But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.” He reassess certain moments and figures of his past, finding hidden complexities in what had at first appeared to be seemingly unremarkable occurrences.

“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”

While the novel is narrated by Danny he never paints himself as the ‘hero’ of his own story. He often wonders whether he should have acted in a different way towards someone or something, trying to understand why things unfurled the way that they did. While the motivations of other characters might escape him, and possibly us, they are never reduced to a certain role/function. The each have a story even if we are not always made privy to it. An although there is an awareness of the limitations provided by Danny’s narration, the story never feels restricted to his experiences and worldview.

“Whatever romantic notions I might have harbored, whatever excuses or allowances my heart had ever made on her behalf, blew out like a match.”

My edition of this novel includes an essay in which Ann Patchett says that “for a long time I had planned to call the book Maeve as it was her story.” The novel, in fact, very much pivots around Maeve but it is her brother who is telling her tale.
We see the way in which their experiences in the Dutch House makes them determined to fulfil their desires or to take a certain path in their life: for Danny that is to become, as his father before him, a real-estate developer, while Maeve wants to carry on working a job she loves even if many consider her to be overqualified to do. While to some degree Danny’s vision of Maeve influences our perception of her, we are always aware that she may have hidden qualities. What is certainly undeniable is her love for her brother. Their bond is portrayed with such frankness and poignancy as to become vividly real in the reader’s mind.
This a story full of beauty and sorrow. There are regrets, wonderful reflections on memory, moments that are brimming with love or sadness…Patchett spins a tale in which families fall apart or come together. It is an intimate depiction of the bond between two siblings. Time and again Danny draws strength from his relationship to his sister, and even when he begins to feel unmoored from his own life, and as he struggles trying to reconcile himself with his past, Maeve provides him with a sense of belonging.
Patchett’s sense of place is as detailed and evocative as ever. She seamlessly renders midcentury America through Danny’s narration, evoking within me a sense of nostalgia for a country I’ve never even been to. And while Danny’s story spans decades, it maintains its focus on the same group of people, painting an intimate portrait of Danny’s friends and family.
…to put it simply I fell in love with it. Patchett’s harmonious prose made the experience all the more beautiful, and I was so enthralled by her story and her characters that to I struggled to think of them as works of fiction.
What more can I say? I think this is a masterpiece.

“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we’d kept it going for so long, not that we had decided to stop.”

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

There is something incredibly endearing about this novel. From the very first line, Dickens draws us in, making us Pip’s confidantes, so that we eagerly follow him on his journey.

The first section of this novel, revolves around Pip’s childhood, and Dickens manages to reflect the young age of his protagonist onto the narrative itself: there is a youthful element despite that Pip is telling us of these events retrospectively, and while he sometimes foreshadows things to come, the element of surprise and discovery is not lost. I particularly enjoyed this first part: the Gargery household is a vivid and somewhat nostalgic portrayal of Pip’s childhood home, however imperfect it may be.

“In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small”

The neighbours and routines add a layer of authenticity to the setting and to the story: the relationships between the various characters were always engaging. Miss Havisham…well, Dickens sure knows how to create a compelling yet eerie character. The feelings she evokes in the reader are further emphasised by her household. There is an almost surreal, magical, element to her.
Pip’s growth of character is…not exactly for the best. But, we do see glimpses of his regret, and we are made to empathise with his situation. His newly found ambition, made possible due to his sudden ‘great expectations’ will cause both us and him sorrow. I was particularly saddened by his rebuttal of Joe.

“As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good. I lived in a state of chronic uneasiness respecting my behavior to Joe. My conscience was not by any means comfortable about Biddy.”

But it isn’t all gloom and doom. Pip does inspire sympathetic feelings, especially through his new friendships such as the ones he has with Herbert and Wemmick. I was pleasantly surprised by Magwitch’s storyline, and I was all too glad to see Pip’s opinion of him change.

I was supportive of Pip’s love for Estella, despite the latter being a cold and unlikable character. Dickens, however, skillfully manages to make such a distant and detached character admirable:

“What?” said Estella, preserving her attitude of indifference as she leaned against the great chimney-piece and only moving her eyes; “do you reproach me for being cold? You?”
“Are you not?” was the fierce retort.
“You should know,” said Estella. “I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success, take all the failure; in short, take me.”

He makes his own characters aware of their reputations and behavior. And Pip too realizes Estella’s difficult personality. He evades falling into the ‘love struck fool’ trope because he is not oblivious to the fact that his feelings for Estella are quite irrational:

“Estella was the inspiration of it, and the heart of it, of course. But, though she had taken such strong possession of me, though my fancy and my hope were so set upon her, though her influence on my boyish life and character had been all-powerful, I did not, even that romantic morning, invest her with any attributes save those she possessed. […] The unqualified truth is, that when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be. Once for all; I loved her none the less because I knew it, and it had no more influence in restraining me than if I had devoutly believed her to be human perfection.”

It is easy to relate and identify with Pip partly due his intrinsically likeable nature: no matter what he does or do, he never causes hatred or contempt. We are made to ‘feel’ for him even in those situations where he himself is to blame. He is at the very chore of this novel: there is an immediate connection made to him due to very nature of his character. Sensitive, somewhat naive, not always thoughtful, but possessing a soulful mind, he is a fully fleshed individual.
The plot, later on, is not quite as engrossing as it initially was, but, overall, it was a compelling tale of friendship and moral values. Touches of humor lighten the topics touched plus, Dickens knew how to phrase things. I appreciated and rooted for the novel’s nuanced protagonist and the memorable cast of characters supporting his tale.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars