in The Dove in the Belly, it’s all about the 𝔂𝓮𝓪𝓻𝓷𝓲𝓷𝓰
“A moment of happiness could feel almost like a wound.”
The Dove in the Belly is a work of startling beauty that presents its readers with a piercing exploration of male intimacy and a mesmerizing study of queer desire that beautifully elaborates the many gradations of love. Jim Grimsley captures the pain of longing, articulating with exacting precision love’s double-edged nature, from its capacity to hurt and anguish us, to its ability to transfigure and revive us. The Dove in the Belly is a romance that is equal parts tender and brutal, one that is permeated by ambivalence and angst, but also affinity and ardor. As my boy Lacan would say, it’s all about the jouissance, that ‘backhanded enjoyment’ that ‘begins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The love story that is at the heart of this narrative, which is as tender as it is fraught, is characterized by an exhilarating sense of impermanence. It is admirable that the author is able to breathe new life into what could easily be seen as a tired dynamic, that between the ‘straight’ jock and the more introverted intellectual. Perhaps the setting, mid-1970s, made me more amenable to become invested in these characters, despite their behaviour and attitudes, or maybe it is thanks to Grimsley’s unrelentingly gorgeous prose. Fact is, I fell in love with this book.
Most of the narrative takes place on the campus of the University of North Carolina, where both Ronny and Ben are enrolled. Ronny is studying English literature and journalism whereas Ben is there on a football scholarship. In many ways two are very much opposites, however, they form an unlikely camaraderie one that eventually sparks into a more meaningful friendship. Ronny’s attraction to Ben soon leads to a harder to shake infatuation, one that Ben is not only aware of but he seems to relish the power he has over Ronny. Of course, this kind of dynamic is not a healthy one, and Grimsley renders the confusing and contradictory jumble of emotions experienced by Ronny, the anguish and titillation he feels at being ‘seen’. While Ben’s unsparing words often hurt Ronny, we also see how often his cruelty is undercut by genuine affection. We also glimpse in his actions an ache that hints at something ‘more’…
Over the course of the summer holidays, their relationship transforms into something more charged, and the moments of playfulness and banter give way to a more (in)tense if tentative connection, one that is made all the more fragile by Ben’s deep-seated homophobia and by having to cope with his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health. Ronny, who is becoming more comfortable with his sexuality, struggles to maintain their relationship afloat, especially with Ben’s unwieldy temper. While the possibility of violence threatens many of their moments together, we also see the comfort they can give one another. Although I don’t like the word ‘frisson’ (i can’t explain it, it just makes me wanna exit the chat) it is a rather apt word to describe the current underlining many of Ben and Ronny’s interactions.
My heart went out to Ronny. While some may find his fixation and devotion to Ben strange or frustrating, I understood it all too well. I loved how quiet, sensitive, and contemplative he was, as well as the way he observes the people and environments around him. While initially Ben stands in stark contrast against Ronny, as more of his character is ‘unveiled’ to us, I found myself softening to him. Make no mistake, Ben was still capable of upsetting me (he has a temper on him, he’s possessive, and when confronting things he doesn’t want to he goes into fight/flight mode) but, and this is a testament to Grimsley’s storytelling, I found myself unable and or unwilling to dismiss him as ‘toxic’ or ‘bad’.
Grimsley populates his novel with fully-formed individuals, who have lives, fears, and wishes, of their own (as opposed to serving as mere background ‘props’ to our main characters). I loved the rhythm of his dialogues, which reveal moments of discordance, whether a pause in the conversation is a sign of unease or contentment, the difficulties in expressing feelings that are ‘off limits’, and the feelings of desperation that sometimes motivate us to speak with seeming cruelty or indifference. I appreciated how empathic the author was, in not condemning his characters for their mistakes, and in his compassionate treatment of characters outside of Ronny and Ben. The prose is something to behold. It had the capacity to move me to tears, surprise me with its delicate touch, inspire me with its elegantly turned phrases, and lacerate me with its fiercely observed insights into love, grief, desire, and heartache. Grimsley’s prose brought to mind An Ocean Without a Shore by Scott Spencer, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and authors such as John Boyne. The all-consuming relationship between Ronny and Ben brought to mind These Violent Delights, Apartment, Carol, and especially the work of Brandon Taylor, who simply excels at portraying uneasy relationships and unclear feelings.
2022 has not been a great reading year for me. With the exception of re-reads, I have only given a single 5 star rating (to Elif Batuman’s Either/Or) so I am so thankful to have come across this unforgettable book. It may have singlehandedly saved my reading year. The Dove in the Belly explores a messy love story between two young people who are by turns the ones being hurt and the ones doing the hurting as well as rendering the nuanced connections between family members, friends, and acquaintances. This is a remarkable and layered novel, one that struck me for its prose, its sense of place and time, its characters, and its themes. The Dove in the Belly is a heart-wrenching yet ultimately luminous novel, one that I can’t wait to re-experience.
ɴʙ if I had to use one word to describe this book it would be ‘struggente’, which can be translated as 1. entailing or revealing an inner torment; melting, tender, moving, aching, painful, heart-rending. Or if I had to describe this book with a quote I would turn to Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia: “And so that was what love led to. To wound and be wounded ”
“Yes, of course. It is always him they want to know about—the father, not the other mother.”
The Other Mother is an affecting and nuanced multigenerational tale unearthing long-buried family histories. The author’s interrogation of motherhood challenges the heteronormative archetype of the nuclear family, as she focuses on the experiences, choices, and parenting of single-women and same-gender couples. Throughout the course of the novel, readers will witness how parental love is not dictated by blood and the complexities that arise from that. Within these pages, motherhood is a multivalent term, one that changes from mother to mother. The two mothers that are at the chore of the story are flawed and imperfect individuals, who make mistakes believing that they are doing what’s best for their child. The author however is never not sympathetic towards them, nor does she condone their behaviour, allowing instead her other characters within her narrative, and readers as well, to reach their own conclusion about some of their choices. We are made to understand their states of mind, the events leading to them making those choices or the circumstances that aggravated certain ‘bad’ habits. The ‘democratic’ structure of the novel allows for all of the people connected to Jenry Castillo to be given a perspective, to give their side of the story and the rift between his two families, the Pattersons’ and the Castillos’.
“What Jenry does know is that he doesn’t belong here, which is how he’s felt about almost every place he’s been. Call it the mark of illegitimacy. But somehow this campus feels different. He’s come here to find something; more specifically, to find someone, which alone gives his presence a purpose. He has come to find his father.”
The narrative opens with Jenry starting his 1st year at Brown University after earning a music scholarship. Jenry was raised by his mother, Marisa, a nurse. While thanks to his grandparents he feels a connection to his Cuban heritage, neither they nor Marisa can fully understand his experiences as the only Black kid in his neighbourhood or fill the absence of his father, Jasper, who died when he was two. He has learnt that his paternal grandfather, Winston Patterson, is none other than a renowned professor of African American history at Brown, so once on campus Jenry sets out to find him, wanting to know more about the kind of person Jasper was. When he does speak to Winston, the encounter is far from the bittersweet reunion between two estranged family members. Winston seems not particularly interested or surprised by his estranged grandchild’s existence, and is unwilling to reveal more about Jasper. In fact, he asks why Jenry is so focused on Jasper when it was his sister, Juliet, who was involved with Marisa. Upon learning this Jenry is shocked and confused, angry at Marisa for having hidden the truth from him, and unsure what it even means that at one point in his life he had two mothers. The following sections, focusing on Marisa, Juliet, Jasper, Winston, and Victor, Jenry’s maternal grandfather, give us a retrospective of what occurred between Marisa and Juliet, their love story and the eventual dissolution of their relationship. We know from the start that Marisa took Jenry away from Juliet without any warning, leaving her with no way of contacting them. Since then Juliet has struggled with addiction and has only in recent years been able to find a stable relationship and job. Her career as a musician seems to have gone astray soon after Marisa left, leaving Juliet bereft and alone. And what role did Winston and Victor play in their daughters’ stories? Both men disapproved of their relationship and their ‘unconventional’ family, but, did they eventually try to do what’s right by them and Jenry? I really appreciated the uneasy questions this narrative raises in terms of doing right by others and yourself. If you do something terrible (whether it is taking them away from a parent, pressuring them academically, or forcing them to deny who they are) but you have convinced yourself it is the best thing for your child, can you and should you be forgiven? The narrative shows the many ways in which parents hurt their children out of ‘love’ or because they are unable to accept them and their choices, without exonerating them or villainizing them. Other characters may blame them but thanks to the book’s structure we can’t really favour one perspective over another. If anything, the author is able to show the justifications and fabrications some of the characters make in order to justify to themselves, and others, their actions. I appreciated how imperfect and messy the characters were and the different forms of love we see in this story. The author captures the longing, heartache, and regret experienced by her characters in a melodious prose.
“The loss of him fills her body, courses through her veins. And now, as her memories replay over and over, she can’t help but feel it all—the sadness, the loss, the love she had and perhaps still has for him—flowing into her limbs, making her skin twitch, her fingers ache, till it spills from her eyes as tears.”
The uneasy character dynamics that are at play within the story were deeply compelling and enabled the author to incorporate larger discussions on gender, sexuality, race, class, motherhood, cultural and generational differences. Additionally, grief underlines much of the narrative. It may be grief at the death of a loved one (Jasper) or grief resulting from physical and emotional separation (Jenry being taken away from Juliet, the unbridgeable rift between Marisa and her mother, the distance between Juliet and Winston and eventually Jenry and Marisa). I loved much of the story and found myself particularly moved by Juliet’s portion. The author beautifully articulates her sorrow, without romanticizing her struggles or painful experiences. Initially, I found myself also feeling sympathetic towards Marisa, despite her choice to take Jenry away from Juliet. We see how unrequited love and rejection can eventually alienate you from the ‘object’ of your desire. But then in the latter portion of the book, any affection I held for Marisa perished when she behaves in a really crappy and unfair way to her son. Jenry, upon learning that she had lied to him for years, is obviously angry and upset. She is initially shown to be desperate to make amends, and I really felt for her especially given what she is going through. But then when she eventually reaches Jenry she tries to force him into forgiving her by threatening to make him leave Brown, saying that this place had clearly ‘changed’ him and he’s clearly not ready or something…and cristo dio. Wtf?! What a fcking stronza. Really. When she said that sht and the narrative glosses over it I just could not move past it. It infuriated me beyond measure and soured the remainder of my reading experience. Additionally, there was a predictable soap-opera reveal that was hinted at earlier on that just made me roll my eyes. The ending sequence was tonally a lot different from the narrative so far and struck me as mawkish and really jarring.
But hey ho, I did love most of the book so I would still recommend it to others. If you are a fan of multigenerational sagas, such as the ones penned by Brit Bennett, Ann Patchett, and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, or authors such as Hala Alyan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Danielle Evans, and Francesca Ekwuyasi, you should definitely not miss The Other Mother.
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.
The Secret History lives rent free in my head. It is a masterpiece. A thing of rare beauty. A tour de force. A literary triumph.
“One likes to think there’s something in it, that old platitude amor vincit omnia. But if I’ve learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.”
Written in an incandescent prose The Secret History is a ferociously erudite and delightfully mischievous work of staggering genius. I have read it twice now and each time it has blown me away. Reading this novel makes for an all-consuming, almost feverish, experience. It is impossible for me to precisely articulate or express what The Secret History means to me. To speak of it as a work of fiction almost pains me. But, as I have chosen to review all of the novels that I read, I will give it a shot. Bear with me (and my ramblings).
“Four boys and a girl, they were nothing so unusual at a distance. At close range, though, they were an arresting party—at least to me, who had never seen anything like them, and to whom they suggested a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities.”
The Secret History begins with a murder. Richard Papen, our narrator, looks back to the events that lead him and four other students to murder Bunny, a fellow student and ‘friend’ of theirs. That Tartt’s prologue reveals the identity of the victim and perpetrators of the murder. As Richard looks back into this defining period of his life (the only ‘story’ he “will ever be able to tell”) Tartt slowly unravels the events and motivations that led five people to murder as well as the ramifications that this murder has on their lives and their relationship with each other and themselves. In Plano, California, alienated from his parents and his peers, twenty-year-old Richard yearns to leave behind the trappings of his working-class existence. One day he comes across a prospectus for a liberal arts college in Vermont and, against his parents’ wishes, goes on to enrol himself there. At Hampden College, a painfully class-conscious Richard lies. A lot. He fabricates a ‘better’ kind of past and identity for himself, hoping that people will perceive him as he wishes to be perceived. It almost seems inevitable that a romantic like him would fall under the spell of a certain ‘clique’. These five students are the only ones to be enrolled in professor Julian Morrow’s classes, who mainly teaches classical studies. Richard is intrigued by their shared air of mystery. They don’t tend to mingle with other students and seem to belong to an entirely separate world. And Richard wants in on it. When he eventually gets accepted into Julian’s classes he becomes further intoxicated by this clique. In this first section of Richard’s story, the narrative has this almost fairytale-esque quality. Julian appears to Richard as a mythical sort of creature, the kind of mentor-like figure that would not be out of place in a monomyth. Soon Tartt however subverts our expectations by revealing just how fatal Richard’s misperception of his new reality is. The rarefied world Henry, Francis, the twins, and Bunny belong to may not be as the Elysium Richard envisioned it to be. The college itself is not the ‘enlightened’ haven he’d thought it would be. The more time he spends with his new acquaintances the more he becomes aware of just how dangerously disconnected they are from their everyday modern world (they certainly seem to belong to another time). As the narrative progresses, we learn just how disillusioned all of these characters are by their realities. This disillusionment leads them to apotheosize bygone eras, and, in the case of Richard, idealise their surroundings. Fraying alliances, secrets, and betrayals increase the tension between the characters, heightening the drama. As we learn of the circumstances that led to Bunny’s murder our view of Henry & Co. will begin to change. Their hunger for the inaccessible and desire to transcend their reality, perhaps to access sublimity or a higher plane of existence, leads them to cross—jump over even—quite a few lines. Yet, however flawed they reveal themselves to be (let us say, they seem to have more vices than virtues), I remained transfixed by them. Their lifestyles, while certainly extravagant, are not all that desirable. Considering their poor diets, their heavy drinking and smoking, and, at least in the case of Richard, that they are sleep deprived, it is a miracle that they don’t get scurvy or worse. Tartt doesn’t glamorise their actions and Bunny’s murder takes its toll on them. Between the anxiety of being discovered and the guilt that they (some of them) experience it seems inevitable that things take a turn for the worst. The disintegration of their friendship is hard to read but I was unable to tear my eyes away.
That Richard remains on the outskirts of this group makes Henry & Co. all the more intriguing. Henry and Camilla make for extremely ambivalent figures. Because we know as much as Richard does, we often don’t know what truly motivates these characters, yet, despite how ambiguous they could be, Tartt is capable of capturing those idiosyncrasies that make them who they are. We learn more about Francis, Charles, and even Bunny, because Richard spends more time with them. While Richard’s relationship with them is far from straightforward I found their interactions to be utterly engrossing. I definitely have a bias when it comes to Francis and I could probably spend hours talking about how much I love him. Really. Just thinking about him makes me emotional (i am aware that he is far from perfect but that is also why i like him so much).
Richard, unreliable narrator par par excellence, is an interesting character in his own right. He reminded me ever so slightly of the narrator from Tobias Wolff’s Old School and he even seems to have a touch of the ‘dreaded’ Emma Bovary (longing 24/7). Tartt demonstrates extreme acuity in the way she conveys Richard’s inner turmoil, his loneliness and his desires. He, like the others, has his fair share of flaws but I found his voice utterly relatable. The boy really has very few people that care about him. His parents seem to act as if he doesn’t exist, his professors ignore or are wholly unaware that he is teetering on the very brink of mental and physical collapse (think of his hellish winter break). Another reason why I find him so compelling is that he’s surprisingly supportive of those who have made him feel like an outsider (i am an extremely petty person so, kudos to him). Given the ‘otherness’ he feels—and is made to feel—I thought it quite fitting that after he cuts his hair he compares himself to Arthur Rimbaud (“Je est un autre” & all that jazz). The love he believes he feels for Camilla seemed very much a result of his “fatal flaw”. That she remains a mystery to him enables him to project his own vision of ‘Camilla’ onto her. Richard seems to regard her as an Estella of sorts, the kind of ethereal beauty that so frequently appears in Victorian novels. Also, is this boy in denial about his sexuality (he’s attracted to her androgynous appearance, her “boy-feet”, her “slightly masculine grace of posture”). In many ways, Camilla is the classic object of unattainable desire (or as our boy lacan would have it “objet petit a”). As long as his love remains unrequited Richard can remain in a perpetual state of longing. Weirdly enough, he finds fulfilment in the perpetuation of his non-fulfilment.
This novel is populated by morally dubious characters who frequently transgress social norms. Not everyone is happy to do so and much of the narrative is about the guilt, anguish, anxiety, and sorrow that result from these ‘bad’ choices. The dialogues are by turns sharp, funny, illuminating, and obscure. Many of the exchanges that occur within this narrative filled me with unease, apprehension. Thanks to Richard’s foreshadowing we often know that someone is hiding something or that things are going to take a turn for the worst. The unflagging tension created by the ongoing drama between them kept me at the edge-of-my-seat (even during my re-read). Their chemistry is off-the-charts. From their moments of kinship to their devastating fights. Witnessing the slow dissolution of this group filled me with dread. But how real these ‘characters’ feel to me! Just thinking about them makes my heart ache.
Tartt enriches Richard’s story with plenty of literary and mythical allusions. From the narrative’s underlying Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy to those beguiling descriptions of the ancient world. The constant blurring of reality and dreams and of truth and illusion makes this novel all the more enigmatic and the kind of book that can be read time and again (i already want to re-read it). The Secret History is a sharp and achingly beautiful novel. Tartt presents her readers with an unforgettable examination of morality, self-knowledge, loneliness, and privilege. The Secret History is a propulsive psychological thriller, a piercing examination of the folly of youth, a cautionary tale against falling for Beauty, for splendid illusions. Tartt’s scintillating style, which is at once elegant and playful, is truly hypnotising. I love how detailed she is in describing Richard’s states of mind as well as her vivid descriptions of his surroundings. She often hones in on seemingly small details that end up making a certain scene or moment seem all the more real. But I also loved those moments of almost surreal humor, those brief reprieve in an otherwise unrelentingly intense narrative. What makes this novel all the more intoxicating is that readers end up falling for what the narrative is warning us against. We idealise the characters and their circumstances, we are distracted by the sharp imagery and dazzling aesthetics, so much so that we end up overlooking just how prosaic and depressing certain portions of the story are (pretty sure richard snorts “an awful lot of cocaine in the parking lot of burger king”…yeah). Anyway, as you may have guessed if you are reading this review, I fucking love this novel. Tartt spent 9 years writing it and it sure paid off. I am, and likely always be, in awe of it.
SMALL ASIDE: It was my mother who first spoke to me about Donna Tart. Her rather battered paperback copy of The Secret History was a fixture on her bookshelves. She first read it in 1994 (since then she has read it many many many times) when she was about to give birth to my older brother (to quote her: “it got me through labour”) who is exactly the kind of person you imagine him to be. Case in point: he is currently reading the Bāburnāmathe, the memoirs of Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muhammad Bābur (naturally, i asked what she was reading while she was pregnant with me and it turns out it would have likely been a children’s book…which explains a lot). A few months before I read The Secret History for the first time I recall overhearing my mum and brother talking about it with such reverence as to suggest that what they were discussing was not ‘merely’ a work of fiction but real people and events. I was intrigued, of course, but it was only after I was suffering from an acute case of book hangover (i’d just finished the raven cycle) that my mother recommended The Secret History to me. I won’t lie, I was worried that it would go way over my head. At that time, I did not have a degree. After dropping out of my Italian high school at age 16 I had managed to complete a rather slapdash qualification in an art and design course, which was based in Swindon—a place described in this novel as being the ‘arsehole’ of the UK—and mostly consisted in us—the students—being left to our devices in order to create whatever art or non-art we wanted to create. Unlike my brother, who spent his childhood and teens reading historical tomes or learning about historical figures or ancient cultures, I never had much interest in those things. All of this is to say that I had very little knowledge of ancient history or the western literary canon, let alone anything related to philosophy. So, I was amazed by how little my lack of knowledge in these things proved to be a hindrance in my reading experience of The Secret History. 1.5 degree and 5 years later I am able to understand certain passages or motifs better but to be honest I can’t say that this has affected the way I feel about this novel. I also used google a lot because I don’t know latin and while I may know more about Nietzsche that 20-year-old me did I still know next-to-nothing about Plato and the other Greek lads and zilch about Buddhist traditions.
SECOND ASIDE: Look, I like a lot of books and films that fall into the dark academia subgenre but I have come to despise the whole ‘dark academia aesthetics’ trend. If you read this novel and all you get out of it is tweed jackets and libraries…you are as bad—if not worse—than Richard (let’s glamorise this extremely elitist world…yay). This was made by lucy and boy if it isn’t spot on:
When you heard -miş, you knew that you had been invoked in your absence—not just you but your hypocrisy, cowardice, and lack of generosity. Every time I heard it, I felt caught out.
Equal parts cerebral and droll, The Idiot relates the humdrum tribulations of a Turkish-American Harvard freshman. Set in the mid-nineties The Idiot provides an incredibly immersive reading experience that will not appeal to those looking for a more story-driven read. Selin’s narrative lacks momentum, her daily interactions, however peculiar, often serve no real plot function, adding little to her story. Yet, the author’s commitment to commit even the most prosaic of Selin’s thoughts or encounters adds a dimension of realism to her novel. The Idiot is very much characterised by seemingly endless digressions. Selin’s inner monologue often verges on being a stream-of-consciousness, as her mind flutters from thought to thought, often losing herself in asides or navel-gazing. While Selin is certainly naive, she does possess a certain awareness of her own limitations and shortcomings. The first half of the novel recounts her first year at university. Like many other disoriented heroines, aside from her vague aspirations of becoming a writer, Selin is unsure of what she wants to study, let alone who she is or wants to be. At Harvard, she takes classes on literature but seems dissatisfied by the way her professor teaches this subject (her criticism towards academia certainly resonated with me here) and seems to find her Russian class far more interesting. This is partly due to Ivan. He’s Hungarian, a few years older than her, and a mathematics student. Rather by chance, the two begin an email correspondence, one that is full of existential angst or studenty speculations about the meaning of x or y. Their virtual rapport doesn’t translate well in real life and when in the proximity of one another they often are unable to clearly express their ideas or feelings. Selin’s narrative is very much concerned with (mis)communication. Her mind grows increasingly preoccupied with language from its limitations to its potential. In the latter half of the novel Selin, persuaded by Ivan, spends her summer teaching ESL classes in Hungary. Here she has to confront the possibility that she may have been idealising her and Ivan’s will-they-won’t-they relationship. The dialogues within this novel ring incredibly true to life. They have this mumblecoreesque quality—awkward pauses, recursiveness, mishearing—that made those scenes come to life. The characters populating the narrative—Ivan, Svetlana, Selin’s roommates and the other ESL teachers—also came across as realistic. While some of their idiosyncrasies are certainly played up for laughs, that the author was able to capture in such minute detail the particular way in which they express themselves made them all the more vivid. At times Selin’s interactions with others do stray into absurdist territories but I found that more often than not I could definitely relate to her more eccentric conversations. Selin’s narrative is certainly adroit. Interspersed throughout her narration are many literary references as well as detailed descriptions or accounts of whatever other subject she is discussing or thinking about. I found the conversations around West/East to be particularly entertaining. In spite of her supposed ‘idiocy’ Selin makes for a sharp-eyed narrator. Her insights into human behaviour and the academic world, as well as her exploration of the possibilities and failures of language, struck me as being both shrewd and funny. While we do read of Selin’s innermost feelings Elif Batuman keeps us at a remove from her. In this way, she emphasises the alienation, loneliness, unease, Selin herself experiences throughout the novel. While the title does seem to be a nod at Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, Selin has little in common with Prince Myshkin. If anything, Batuman seems to have a Flaubertian preoccupation with failure. In a manner not too dissimilar from Emma Bovary, Selin’s longing to be with Ivan seemed to be less a result of love than her desire to experience that which she has read in so many books. Under different hands The Idiot could have been a dull affair. It is Batuman’s deadpan humor and naturalistic storytelling that make The Idiot into a worthwhile read. The novel’s latter half was slightly less enjoyable than the first but I was still for the most part absorbed by Selin’s voice. Her passivity may rub people the wrong way but I found the myriad of uncertainties plaguing her to make all the more believable. If you liked Susan Choi’s My Education you might want to give this a shot.
“I used to believe the house was haunted. Really, it was the other way around; the house haunted me.”
Turns out I actually love this now…?!
The first time I read this I was not impressed but this second time around…well, I loved it. It isn’t an easy book and I can sort of see why it could come across as frustrating…but if you are in the mood for a dreamy and ambiguous Gothic-y read you should consider giving Catherine House a go. If you are a fan of authors such as Shirley Jackson and Helen Oyeyemi, you will probably ‘vibe’ with this book. Speaking of vibes, I saw someone describe this as a book all about vibes and I have to agree. There is a strong focus on the atmosphere of Catherine House and Thomas pays particular attention to the smells and flavours Ines encounters in its walls. Throughout the narrative Thomas juxtaposes beauty with decay, and there were plenty of lush descriptions contrasting the two. Nature too has a role in this story and I loved how Ines describes the seasons. I loved Ines and her ‘sideways’ perspective. Thomas beautifully articulates Ines’ conflicting feelings about Catherine House and I truly felt for her. I also loved her friendship group, often their scenes together eased some of the tension from the narrative. Basically, this second time I loved everything about this novel: the eerie setting, the ominous nature of plasm, Ines, her friends, the beautiful writing, the dreamlike atmosphere… I can’t wait to read this again (and maybe write a more cohesive review).
without its merits Catherine House is an ultimately predictable piece of Gothic fiction that tries to be the next Vita Nostra but doesn’t quite succeed. The novel is bogged down by slow pacing, an overly elusive story, populated by cast of barely fleshed out characters, and a painfully conventional dark academia type of ‘heroine’ (who is Not Like Other Girls & has a ‘dark’ secret related to her ‘mysterious’ past). It’s a pity as there were quite a few elements that I actually appreciated. Thomas writing is, for the most part, lush and she truly excels at Gothic atmosphere. She conveys the unease that pervades Ines’ stay at Catherine House and there are many passages that linger on her senses of smell and taste suggestive of the House’s ‘wrongness’. I particularly liked the use of repetition, be it through language or imagery.
Through a 1st pov, Catherine House follows Ines Murillo and her three years at Catherine House, a private university shrouded in mystery. We learn almost nothing about who she—or any other character for the matter—was before CH and this is due to the place’s strict rules about leaving one past behind. We are told that students have very few privileges and can earn more freedom through ‘points’ but Thomas never really expands on how these works, in fact, they matter very little. I would have preferred more descriptions about CH, its architecture and history, or anything really. By giving us very little information the place does acquire an air of ambiguity that does accentuate the narrative enigmatic tone. Condensing three years in one novel took away from the overall narrative. Ines’ time at CH was fairly repetitive and not particularly sinister. There is one ‘turning point’ of sorts towards the end of her first year but after that the narrative hits a plateau. Knowing more about the teachers and the lessons Ines attends would have made her time there more interesting. Instead, most of the story seems intent on setting up its Gothic aesthetics (beauty is terror and all that). Ines makes for a dull narrator. Everyone tells us she’s special and different (I did love the “my little sideways girl” line) but she’s anything but. She’s confused 24/7 and although she tells us that she wants to do this (learn CH’s secrets) or feels that (for a boy) it just didn’t reach me. Thomas tells us what her protagonist feels or wants to do but she fails to back this up by showing us that yes Ines feels sad, happy, or whatever else. The novel implements Gothic tropes and many dark academia conventions. While I understand that the Gothic genre is derivative by its very nature (Pet Sematary > Frankenstein > Milton’s Paradise Lost + Promethean myth; The Historian > Interview with a Vampire > Dracula > Transylvanian folklore) I would expect a contemporary Gothic novel to be more subversive than Catherine House. There was no point in which I felt scared, surprised or apprehensive on Ines’ behalf. That is partly because I cared zilch about her or her supposed ‘friends’ (who seem a mere caricature of the typical academia clique of beautiful & languid people). I don’t think it’s a good sign when you care more about a secondary character’s pet snail than say any of the human characters. It also struck me that novel was trying too hard to be something by Shirley Jackson. Hangsaman in particular came to mind. But, where I was intrigued by how obscure & unreliable a narrative Hangsaman is, I was unimpressed by Thomas’ novel directionless. It pulls the classic ‘confusing for the sake of being confusing’ shtick (whereas the ambiguity of Hangsaman struck me as a result of its mc’s dissociation from reality). Yet, there were lines that I really liked (“I am in the house, we chanted. The house is in the woods. My hands are on the table. The table is in the woods.” did bring to mind Merricat’s “I put my hands quietly in my lap. I am living on the moon, I told myself, I have a little house all by myself on the moon.”). The dreamy quality that permeates Ines’ narration could also be effective in that it makes her more unreliable and it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. The ‘plasm’ was a big letdown. That and ‘the tower’ are meant to be the narrative’s main sources of tension but when Ines sees more of them…it just felt bathetic. As debuts go Catherine House is a rather mediocre one. Thomas can clearly write well but story and character-wise her novel has little to offer. Catherine House itself needed more page time (rather than having so many paragraphs about Ines’ specialness, what she eats or smells). Thomas overplays how ‘sinister’ it is. Does weird shit go down in it? Sure but sometimes subtlety does the trick (the institutions in Magda Szabó’s Abigail and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go felt far more oppressive & forbidding without them being exaggeratedly spooky a la CH). Ultimately Catherine House is a novel that choose style over substance. It delivers a perfectly Gothic atmosphere and some terrific lines but fails to provide anything more substantial. What was the point? Was this a story about wanting to belong? Of otherness? I don’t know and unlike with Hansgaman, I don’t care to revisit it in order to maybe find out. Still, I am curious to see what Thomas writes next. If you are the type of reader who exclusively—or almost exclusively—cares about aesthetics and ambience, well, you might be the right reader for Catherine House.
She wondered if the rest of early adulthood would be like this—avoiding roommates, getting ripped off for bad fusion food, and the peculiar loneliness of being smothered by people she didn’t want to spend time with.
Having recently fallen in love with Choi’s most recent novel, Yolk, I was eager to read more by her. As debut novels go Emergency Contact is certainly a pretty solid one. It boasts the same sharp humor that made Yolk such a winsome read (for me) and it similarly focuses on somewhat messy ‘older’ young adults (ie college-aged).
Penny Lee is a college freshman who would like to leave her unremarkable hometown and high school experience behind. Penny was raised by her mother whose parenting style could be described as very casual. Celeste often acted more like a friend than a mother and Penny has grown increasingly resentful of this, having had to worry about/look after her since a young age. Penny wants to be a writer but in her creative writing assignments struggles to get ‘close’ to her characters. Her roommate, who comes from wealth and is fairly outgoing, tries to be friends with Penny but our girl has a habit of pushing people away. Sam works (and lives) at a café and he isn’t coping all that well. He had an intense relationship with his ex and he still not over her. His mom is an alcoholic, his estranged father is the quintessential deadbeat dad, and he had dropped out of college because he couldn’t afford it. Sam is broke and heartbroken. As fate would have it Penny and Sam meet each other. They begin texting each other assiduously, getting to know each other, offering words of comfort or advice, being ‘there’ for the other. Most of the book focuses on their struggles, be it at college, with their mothers, or their exes. Despite the lack of ‘shared’ scenes the author convincingly develops their relationship. Their dynamic was so sweet and authentic. Their banter and flirting are a delight to read. Penny and Sam are far from well behaved or perfect. They are petty, make assumptions about other people, they hurt the people they care about, they aren’t always able to forgive others or to consider other people’s perspectives…all these things made them all the more believable and I appreciated that the narrative, other characters, if not they themselves, call them out on their behaviour. The narrative also doesn’t depict certain characters as wholly mean or cartoonishly horrible which made me like the story all the more. Choi captures the worries, fears, and anxieties that come when you leave home or set off to college. Enjoyable, funny, and not without its touching moments Emergency Contact will definitely appeal to those who are looking for a more realistic and frank YA romance/coming-of-age. If you’ve already read this book I thoroughly recommend you check out Yolk.
Alas, campus novels are my achilles heel (when will i learn?).
“Perhaps this not knowing was the thrill of it: the mystery, the risk.”
Leda and the Swan is an ambitious debut novel that sadly misses the mark. From its tired premise to its one-note characters, Leda and the Swan feels like a wasted opportunity. Not only does the novel sacrifice character and plot in favour of subject matter but the author’s commentary on sexual assault feels at best simplified, at worst, well, let me just say that it does it no favours. If you are looking for some thought-provoking, nuanced and unflinching accounts of sexual assault I would recommend you give this novel a pass and try instead Lacy Crawford’s memoir on her experiences of sexual assault at an elite boarding school in New Hampshire or Michaela Coel’s heart-wrenching series, I May Destroy You (words cannot describe how i feel about this series). If you are instead happy to read a frustratingly patronizing narrative that succeeds in evoking and criticising the sorority lifestyle, well, you might be able to appreciate Leda and the Swan more than I did (be warned, the book is basically all filler and no, i would not describe this as dark academia).
Leda and the Swan opens with a long party-sequence. It’s Halloween and Leda, a third-year student and member of the Psi Delta sorority, is off to a party. She’s kind of looking forward to seeing her new crush Ian but a few drinks in finds herself just going with the flow of the party. She talks with strangers, feels kind of sick, and ends up having what seems like a ‘moment’ with a girl wearing a swan costume (get it? Leda and the swan? Ah.) who claims to know her from somewhere. When Leda wakes up on Monday she can’t recall how the night ended: did she sleep with Ian? Why is her lip busted? Then Leda learns that the girl she spoke to has gone missing and (as these missing-girls stories tend to go) she becomes increasingly obsessed by her ‘disappearance’.
In spite of this missing person angle, this novel is by no means suspenseful or even captivating. First things firsts: this kind of missing girl storyline has been done to death (A Prayer for Travelers, Please See Us, Restoration Heights, All the Missing Girls and many more;here you can read an interesting article on this trend). While I don’t think that this trope is bad per se I am not keen on books that do nothing new with it. And Leda and the Swan repeatedly failed to subvert my expectations. This is the classic story that is less about the girl gone missing than about our main character projecting whatever is going on with her onto that missing girl. And I wouldn’t have minded if Leda had actually come out of this novel feeling like a multi-dimensional person rather than say a sounding board. She’s so woefully naive that any kind of doubt or idea that goes through her head has to be inspected, dissected, examined, and reexamined because she just doesn’t know things. And rather than presenting us with piercing observations, we get a series of simplified quasi-rhetorical questions (“Had Charlotte sensed it happening? Had Charlotte known?” or “Who was she expecting? Mary, shaking her head? Carly, making some lewd hand gesture? Was she expecting Ian to be there, rushing up the stairs after her?” or “Why shouldn’t she have made a scene? she thought. If she didn’t like something, why shouldn’t she scream?” or “Was it possible? Leda asked herself.”). Not only did I find this pattern of questions repetitive but the kind of questions they pose are very basic. It gave me the impression that the author was addressing the kind of audience that needed to be gently convinced that Leda’s reactions & fears are valid. I also grew tired by the huge quantiles of ‘maybes’ and ‘perhapses’ that are implemented by the narrative (“Maybe she had been wrong. Wrong to assume that all her friends wanted was gossip. Maybe they would face the monster with her.” or “Maybe knowing yourself wasn’t as easy as it sounded.” or “Perhaps her “true” voice was so low that even she couldn’t hear it.”). Certain ‘important’ phrases are also repeated ad nauseam (the author doesn’t go for subtlety nor does she trust her readers to actually remember what was said a few pages prior). The author also has to repeatedly remind us that her ringtone is ‘Dancing Queen’.
The narrative uses Leda’s blackout as a source of tension. Did she have sex with Ian or did he force himself on her? Which, is not exactly great. Especially when we eventually learn what happened. Even if it takes Leda forever to bring herself to ask Ian what went down between them, I, and probably many other readers, already know. Which made much of her narrative moot. She remains a one-dimensional character, a generic stand-in for a ‘regular gal’ who just wants to fit in. She’s given a Sad Backstory™ which is really poorly developed. Her mother died, and she is still grieving her loss. Yet, we never really learn anything substantial about Leda’s mother or the bond they shared. The narrative portrays Leda as this ‘lost’ and complex character but she is just one of those things. She doesn’t know what she wants, she gives really mixed signals, and she does some straight-up questionable things. Something about the way she behaved towards her sisters was particularly grating as she whines that they don’t care enough about her to check on her but she doesn’t really check on them either. Pot kettle much?
Her misreading of the people around her, Ian especially, was so fucking frustrating. Speaking of Ian, the guy was also severely lacking in depth. He is a mere plot device in Leda’s narrative. His characterization was both vague and inconsistent. Going back to Leda, the only interesting thing about her, well, that would be her name. That’s it. Other than that she is just a vehicle through which the author can address serious topics in an oversimplified & condescending manner. Her supposed ‘connection’ with the missing girl is bollocks. Charlotte never emerges as a fully realised being either, but her disappearance allows Leda to ‘realise’ how easy it is for girls to be assaulted and or killed (because you need someone actually disappearing to understand that).
The story doesn’t really present us with a nuanced discussion about sexual assault and consent, let alone victim-blaming or slut-shaming, focusing instead on depicting these very long scenes in which Leda interacts with her horrible ‘sisters’, or angsts over Ian, or talks to rando college students who aren’t particularly memorable or realistic but convey a certain type of ‘personality (so we have the mean girls, the hippy lot, the alternative girls, the frat bros).
Leda’s navel-gazing (she spend much of the narrative wondering whether the word ‘disappeared’ should be used to describe Charlotte’s, you guessed it, ‘disappearance’). The novel ends up also doing the classic ‘girls like Leda’ are just more genuine than say her Barbie sisters. Case in point, the only ‘sister’ who is portrayed in a favourable light is Mary, who is deemed ‘weird’ by the others. Puh-lease. Not this Not Like Other Girls bullshit again. I am so done with this kind of narrative. While Leda’s ‘concern’ for Charlotte is made to seem as ‘genuine’, her sisters’ activism is far more performative in nature. The story is not even particularly satisfying in showing how herd mentality works, or why Leda is so eager to be part of this collective.
The story is possibly set in the late 2000s but I can’t be too sure. I only suppose so because of the way they spoke (a lot of non-pc stuff), the music they listen to (eminem, amy winehouse), and someone has a flip phone. The novel doesn’t really address how privileged Leda and most of her sisters are. At the beginning the narrative offhandedly remarks that Leda’s sorority favours white girls, but the story doesn’t really go into this. It also bugged me that one of two of the characters of color, who happens to be Pakistani, is portrayed as basically a ‘princess’ (her life outside school is described as ‘regal’ and she once wore a bikini made of actual gold…). Also, this character dismisses the fact that Charlotte is Chinese-American, saying that “Charlotte’s white, basically” and no one (Leda nor any characters in the narrative) challenges this. Anyway, Leda is made to seem as if she is this walking tragedy but I really really really wanted her to once acknowledge her privilege (she’s white, straight, cis, and has at least more than one person who clearly cares for her).
The whole mystery storyline is obsolete and I really hated how Leda is made into the person who figures it out (when in reality someone just explains things to her). The postcards she steals early on from Charlotte’s home (yeah, talk about crossing the line) were ludicrous and sounded as if they were generated by a Tumblr bot and we also get an obvious Chekhov’s gun…
I can safely say that this novel could have been easily cut in half. The ‘best’ thing about this novel is that it has a strong sense of place and that it does capture college culture (the parties & drinking, the pressure to belong to a group & or to be a fun person). But other than that, yeah…I don’t have many positive things to say about it. The author’s storytelling is flat and I think that those long sequences would have suited a tv series/film more. I was actually tempted to DNF this early on and I wish I’d trusted my instincts.
“She and Mona and I. The three of us: the Sinner, the Believer, the Confused.”
Since I fell in love with Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love back in 2016, I have made my way through her oeuvre, even her more ‘obscure’ titles such as the overlooked gem that is The Saint of Incipient Insanities. Three Daughters of Eve marks the sixth novel that I’ve read of hers and while it certainly showcases many of her wonderful trademarks—there is a touch of magical realism, a non-linear narrative, tension between past and present, East and West, Turkish politics, a nuanced exploration of faith and modern Muslim identity—it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi that made her other books such compelling reads.
The novel opens in Istanbul where Peri, a married and wealthy woman in her late thirties, is mugged while on the way to a fancy dinner party. Following an altercation with the robber, Peri finds herself thinking back to her time at Oxford University and the part that she played in a ‘scandal’ there. Chapters detailing Peri’s time at this party are interested with ones delving into her childhood and teenage years in the 1980s and 1990s to her time at Oxford. Once at Oxford Peri meets and becomes close to two other girls: Shirin, a free-spirited British-Iranian girl who is bisexual and kind of counterculture, and Mona, who is a Muslim Egyptian American feminist. Peri grows increasingly intrigued by Professor Azur, who teaches divinity and is idolised by many students because and in spite of his ‘allegedly’ unconventional teaching methods. One of the novel’s main preoccupation is that of reconciliation: Peri grew up in a divided household. While her mother was a staunch believer, her father was more of a sceptic. Peri felt torn between their different temperaments and beliefs. At Oxford Peri is still uncertain about her own relationship to her faith, so her fascination with Professor Azur is somewhat understandable. While I liked those early sections focusing on Peri’s childhood I do wish that the narrative could have reached her time at Oxford more quickly. By the time we get to her first interaction with Professor Azur we are about 60% into the novel. And this drawn-out build-up to his character does him no favours. When ‘we’ meet him I was underwhelmed. He was not particularly charming or controversial, and the few scenes he was in gave me a rather limited glimpse of his character. To be honest, I found most of the novel’s central characters to be somewhat clichéd. Peri was not particularly sympathetic, her main characteristic is that of being in a perpetual state of confusion, Shirin was the classical rebel, her bisexuality another sign of her subversive nature, while Mona is the classic studious and kind girl. In the scenes set in the present, during the dinner party, Shafak lampoons the Turkish upper-class, emphasizing their shallowness and pettiness. We don’t learn much about Peri’s husband nor of Peri’s life. Her daughter is the typical annoying angsty teenager who is all the rage in ‘adult’ novels.
Still, while I never warmed to Peri or her story, I still found Shafak’s prose to be lovely and I always appreciate her dynamic portrayal of Istanbul. While I did find the novel’s forays into theological debates relatively interesting these did not quite make up for the two-dimensional characters. I think sticking to the one perspective limited the story and I for one would have much preferred it if the story could have also followed Shirin and Mona, rather than solely focusing on Peri. I also felt somewhat cheated by the supposed friendship between Shirin, Mona, and Peri…as Shafak barely scratches the surface of their relationship. Lastly, the whole ‘scandal’ was painfully obvious (I mean, I had an idea of what it would be from reading the summary but I hoped Shafak would not be so predictable). To be honest, I think that The Saint of Incipient Insanities was a lot more successful in its portrayal of the highs and lows of a disparate group of multicultural university students.
edit: it hasn’t even been a year and I have already re-read this. This book slaps.
Ninth House can be best described as: “talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before…”
Leigh Bardugo sure showed me. I went in to this expecting the worst (most of my GR friends panned this book, and their less-than-impressed reviews are hilarious) and soon found myself amazed by how much I was vibing with it. Ninth House‘s campus setting brought to mind urban fantasy series such as Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines and Rachel Caine’s The Morganville Vampires but with the kind of magical elements and aesthetics from The Raven Cycle, or even Holly Black ‘s Modern Faerie Tales, and the dark tone of Vita Nostra. In brief, Ninth House was 100% up my lane.
“There were always excuses for why girls died.”
It took me a few chapters to familiarise myself with the story and its protagonist as when we are first introduced to Yale student Galaxy “Alex” Stern its early spring and shit has already hit the fan (ie she has clearly been through a lot). Thankfully the narrative takes us back to the autumn and winter terms, and we get to read of the events that lead to that prologue. Alex’s ability to see ghosts (called ‘grays’) has caught the attention of Lethe (aka the Ninth House) a secret society that keeps in check the occult activities of the Yale’s eight secret societies (if you are wondering, yes, they do exist in real-world Yale…). She’s offered a place at Yale, for a price: Alex is to be Lethe’s ‘Dante’, who under the guidance of ‘Virgil’, ensures that the eight houses are obeying Yale’s rules. Each house practices a different kind of ‘magic’, but, it becomes quite apparent that magic, of whatever form or type, in this novel is not an easy or strictly ethical endeavour. Alex, is just trying to survive. She run away from home as a teenager, started using downers to suppress her ability, lived with a man who abused her, and was the sole survivor of a multiple homicide. The girl is dealing with a lot of trauma and she’s kind of mess. Her mentor, Darlington, comes from a drastically different background. He’s white, wealthy, educated. Yet, in a manner very reminiscent to Gansey from TRC, he feels mundane and wants more. The two had a great chemistry (not in the romantic sense, at least, not in this first novel) and I appreciated the way in which Bardugo doesn’t present any of them as being ‘good’ or ‘heroes’ of some sort. If it wasn’t hard enough to adapt to Yale and Lethe, the societies may have had something to do with the murder of a ‘townie’. While almost every person she encounters tries to wave away her suspicions, Alex knows that the societies had something to do with it.
“I’m in danger, she wanted to say. Someone hurt me and I don’t think they’re finished. Help me. But what good had that ever done?”
If you ever craved a dark academia novel with a paranormal twist, this is it. But, as pointed out in many other reviews, this novel is Dark with a capital D. There are explicit scenes depicting sexual assault, rape, abuse, death, and other unpleasant, if not downright gory, things. It never struck me as gratuitous, anymore than I would call a novel by Stephen King gratuitous. The mystery kept me on the edge of my seat, the different timelines piqued my interest, the setting—of New Haven and Yale—was vividly rendered, the tone was gritty and real, the atmosphere was ‘edgy’ (in the best possible way), and the paranormal elements were hella innovative. I loved the descriptions of Alex’s environment, the attention paid to the architecture, the tension between her and the other characters, the momentum of her investigation. Yale is a haunted place, in more than one way. Bardugo combines fantasy elements with a sharp commentary on privilege, corruption, accountability. The story’s is an indictment against abuse of power and against violence (towards women, minorities, those deemed ‘expandable’). Trauma is not pretty, and Bardugo does not romanticise it in Alex. Speaking of Alex, she was a memorable character. I loved her for her strength and her vulnerability. Her cutting humour provided a few moments of respite from the novel’s otherwise dark tone.
Prior reading this novel I wouldn’t have called myself a ‘fan’ of Bardugo. I liked her YA stuff but I was never ‘blown’ away by it. Her foray into adult fiction has changed that.