Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

Despite the many moments of poignancy that appear throughout the course of Searching for Sylvie Lee, the novel is ultimately diminished by unnecessary melodrama and convoluted (yet predictable) soap-opera-ish twists.

At its heart Searching for Sylvie Lee is a family drama about long-held family secrets. The narrative switches between three points of view: a mother and her two daughters. On the surface, Sylvie Lee, the eldest daughter, is the more successful and accomplished of the two Lee daughters. She’s married to a wealthy man and has a solid career. Unlike her younger sister, Sylvie did not spend her first years with her parents and in fact, grew up in the Netherlands with her grandmother and some cousins of her mother. At age nine she finally joins her parents and younger sister in America. While Sylvie shows open affection towards Amy, not seeming to resent her for being the one who got to stay with their parents, she is unable and or unwilling to grow closer to either her mother or her father, in fact, her relationship with her father is fraught indeed. When news that her beloved grandmother is dying reaches her Sylvie rushes to the Netherlands. Weeks after Amy receives a worrying call from the son of her mother’s cousins (the people who Sylvie was raised by). Sylvie has vanished.
Overcome by anxiety Amy too flies to the Netherlands where she stays with her cousins. Here she picks up on the weird atmosphere that suggests that not everyone was as in awe of Sylvie as she was. Her mother’s cousin is hostile and contemptuous about anything concerning Sylvie and her husband is rather creepy. Their son, Sylvie’s best friend, is also being somewhat cagey.
As time goes by Amy’s image of Sylvie as this perfectly put-together adult begins to shatter as more of her secrets come to the light. Apparently, both her marriage and her work life were far from idyllic.

Sylvie’s chapters reveal her month in the Netherlands and give us insight into her childhood there. Her bond with her cousin and another man also play way too much of a role in the story. There is a quasi-love triangle that feels kind of icky and unconvincing. The reveals we get at the end were entirely too predictable and yet the way these are disclosed struck me as profoundly anticlimactic. There is also way too much time spent on Sylvie’s trip to Venice alongside these two men and a friend of theirs (Sylvie is not much a friend to her tbh given that she goes behind her back and shows little remorse about doing so). Here the author goes out of her way to describe the classic lightning trip to Venice, name-checking the various sites etc. Yet, here she also makes a big gaffe by writing in cursive what she must have thought was orange juice in Italian but it was in fact, French. This small detail irked me as to why then spend so much time showcasing how ‘knowledged’ you are about Venice? And then you just try to make the setting more ‘vivid’ by throwing unnecessary untranslated terms in italic? And getting them wrong? Orange juice is also not really a Venetian speciality. This is the North of Italy…not exactly orangeville. Anyway, this whole trip lacked tension and the argument(s) between the male characters felt very rehearsed. I also did not appreciate how the one gay character is portrayed (unhappily married and in love with his straight possibly homophobic friend who will never reciprocate his feelings and is willing to sabotage his friend’s relationship because of jealousy).
I would have liked less time spent on the shitty men orbiting Sylvie’s life and more time on her bond with Amy and her relationship with her mother. I also could have done without the over the top dodgy cousins. It would have been nice if Amy had been given more of her own personal arc. Nevertheless, the author does incorporate compelling themes within her narrative: she describes the experiences of immigrant families both in America and in the Netherlands, and how class plays into it, emphasizing the fallacy of the American dream. Another key aspect of the novel is how appearances can be deceptive and how one’s image of someone (for example Amy seeing her sister as perfect) can stop you from truly seeing that person.
All in all, this was a rather mixed bag. If there had been less melodrama and more moments of introspection I would have probably liked this one better. Still, I would probably read more by this author.

Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Studying so much had its consequences. It caused me to wonder, for instance, if I might be a genius.

Bursting with wry humor and insight Joan Is Okay makes for a quick and quirky read about a woman who doesn’t want to change to fit in with society’s standards.

In spite of what the people around her may think, Joan is okay…isn’t she? On paper Joan has achieved the American Dream, hasn’t she? She’s in her thirties and works as an ICU doctor at a New York City hospital, a job she finds deeply full-filling. Joan’s hard work ethic has earned her respect at the hospital and she’s even due a pay rise. When Joan’s father dies, she flies to China to attend his funeral but, unlike her older brother who stays for a longer visit, she immediately returns back to New York. Her colleagues seem puzzled by her refusal to take time off. Her now widowed mother is staying for a while with Joan’s brother and his family. They keep insisting that Joan should be around more. Her brother, who leads a fairly extravagant lifestyle, nags her about moving away from New York and opening her own practice where he lives. But Joan doesn’t seem to care about money, not in the way her brother does. She also shows no interest in finding a partner or starting a family. She’s content dedicating herself to her work and doesn’t seem to understand why other people may find her choices so baffling. As the narrative progresses Joan begins to feel overwhelmed by others. Her workplace forces her to take her time off to ‘grieve’, one of her colleagues is resentful of her raise and paints himself as somehow having been wrong by the hospital, and her new neighbour keeps encroaching on her private space, inviting himself over and offloading her with things he no longer wants. Then, towards the latter half of the novel, Joan is further troubled by the news of a virus…(you guessed it…covid cameo).

Joan’s idiosyncratic narration is certainly amusing and engaging. She finds social interactions difficult and often takes what other people say too literally. Because she keeps to herself others see her as standoffish and weird. Her approach to her work and the way she process/understand/see the the world around her brought to mind Keiko from Convenience Store Woman and Molly from The Maid. As with those characters, it could be argued that the reason why people view Joan as ‘different’ is that she’s neuroatypical. Yet, no one alludes to this possibility, even if Joan consistently exhibits neurodivergent traits…I understand that women and racial minorities ‘slip’ under the radar when it comes to being diagnosed (and are often misdiagnosed) but given Joan’s profession and the country she lives in…I would have excepted someone to mention this or keep this in mind rather than make Joan feel like an ‘alien’ because she doesn’t react or express herself in a neurotypical way. Anyway, aside from that Wang certainly brings to life the character of Joan. Her interior monologue is characterized by a dry yet witty tone. Joan’s acts of introspection are punctuated by sillier asides having to do with sitcoms and social niceties. When coming across other people she does have the habit of listing their height and weight which rubbed me the wrong way. No one can just look at someone and know their exact height, let alone their weight. It also seemed like an added ‘quirk’ that is a bit stereotypical (of a character who is heavily implied to be neuroatypical and is into a medical/science related field).
We also gain insight into her everyday life working at the ICU. Her father’s death and her mother’s temporary move into Fang’s house makes her reflect on their experiences in America, the linguistic and cultural barriers they faced. Joan also considers how her experiences differ from her brother’s ones; unlike her, Fang was born in China and while their parents moved to America he was left in the care of some relatives. Does he resent Joan because of this? Is his fixation with wealth and status an attempt to prove himself?

Wang is able to articulate complex and often hard to pin down feelings and thoughts. I also appreciated that there were instances where the author was able to point to what state of mind Joan was in without being explicit about it. We can see that Joan is numb without her telling us. Her deflection and minimisation of her own grief were also very convincing and felt consistent with her character.
There are moments where Joan is interacting with her superior, her colleague, or her neighbour, that really convey how uncomfortable she is. Often nothing overtly ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ has been said but their tones or line of questioning feels invasive or somewhat condescending. Wang also captures the realities of working in a predominantly male workplace. I was reminded of Severance, Edge Case, Days of Distraction, which also explore the experiences of young(ish) Asian American women who have jobs in typically white & male spaces. Wang emphasizes how often (supposedly) ‘well-meaning’ liberals such as her neighbour succeed only in making one feel even more ‘other’. The realism of Joan’s everyday life and inner monologue are contrasted with moments and scenes that verge on the absurd. Some of the secondary characters (such as this random girl who introduces herself as a ‘post-millennial’) came across as cartoonish, and their presence in Joan’s story felt jarring almost.
As the narrative progresses my interest waned. There was a lot of repetition, and some of the situations Joan ends up in felt a bit…trying too hard to be quirky? Kind of a la Fleabag. The inclusion of covid also affected my reading experience. It just stresses me out reading about the pandemic given that we are still in it and no, I don’t care to ‘relive’ those first few months back in 2020. I would have liked fewer scenes with the neighbour or random characters and more page time spent on Joan and her mom, or Joan and her brother. Still, I did find her point of view insightful, particularly when she considers how growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants has shaped her and her sense of self. I did find it slightly implausible that she was unfamiliar with so many American things, given that she was born and lived her whole life there…but I guess if you are a truly introverted or asocial person you would have less exposure to popular culture. Still, I could definitely relate to feeling lost or a step behind as there are instances where my English friends and or colleagues say things or refer to things I just don’t ‘get’.

While reading this I was reminded of Mieko Kawakami’s All the Lovers in the Night. Both novels focus on women in their 30s who lead rather solitary lives. They do not seem interested in pursuing romantic relationships nor do they care about ‘moulding’ themselves into their respective society’s ideal of a woman (who is often a wife & mother). I appreciated that story-wise Joan is Okay doesn’t follow a conventional route, which would have ended with Joan ‘finding’ someone or ‘changing’ because of love. Still, I did find the finale kind of anticlimactic. And again, by then, covid had kind of stolen the scene so I’d lost interest somewhat. If you liked Wang’s Chemistry and you can cope with ‘covid books’ I would definitely recommend you check out Joan Is Okay.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼ stars

picture from the new york times.

Chemistry by Weike Wang

“Chemistry, while powerful, is sometimes unpredictable.”

Chemistry makes for a quick yet compelling read. While the narrative tries a bit too hard to be quirky, I did find certain scenes and or sections to be fairly amusing. Chemistry implements those ‘in’ literary devices such as an unnamed narrator and a lack of speech marks that I find somewhat predictable. Still, the story focuses on a Chinese American woman in her thirties who is studying for a PhD in chemistry. She’s in a relationship with a seemingly ‘good’ white guy who seems ready to take their relationship to the next stage (marriage). But, like a lot of contemporary female narrators, our mc is not feeling sure of anything. She’s struggling to keep up with the demanding hours of her PhD, overwhelmed by the pressure of other people’s expectations, and confused by her own feelings and emotions (she feels too much, nothing at all). While our narrator is initially able to go through the motions of her everyday life, she eventually slips behind her PhD. Her partner begins to grow restless at our narrator’s perpetual ambivalence towards the future, and soon enough our protagonist’s life begins falling apart. As we read of her present tribulations we are given insight into her experiences growing up. Her focus on academic success was instilled in her by her parents who always seemed dissatisfied with her, even when she studies what they want her to. In examining her relationship with her parents and the way they brought her up the narrator discusses the stereotypes about Asian parents. She also talks about the everyday microaggressions she experiences, particularly working as a woc in a field that is predominantly male. The author also captures those quarter-life crisis uncertainties that make you question whether the ‘path’ you are on is leading somewhere and if it is, whether you really want to reach that destination. The narrator’s growing discontent over her studies certainly resonated with me as I’m currently in my final year of my masters and I feel academically exhausted to the point where I considered (and still am) dropping out. It is particularly frustrating to see that no matter how hard you work or try, you don’t get the results/grades you hope for. On top of that, the narrator also has a dissolving relationship to cope with. While her partner is presented as this supportive nice guy he repeatedly fails to understand where she’s coming from, seems unable to understand her point of view, and remains blissfully unaware of his own privilege (as a cis straight white man from a financially and emotionally stable family).
Our main character’s best friend, who is also nameless and referred to as ‘the best friend’, is also having troubles of her own as soon after giving birth discovers that her husband is betraying her.
While these may all sound like heavy topics the tone of this story is very much light and comical. As I mentioned above, the narrative goes for this offbeat kind of tone that at times comes across as contrived. There were numerous instances where I did not find the narrator funny. There is a running-gag of sorts where she explains a joke to someone because her sense of humor is just so quirky that people don’t always get it. I did find her somewhat endearing. For example, in this scene, where her best friend is once again venting about her cheating husband: “This is all your fault, she says to one of the posters. You did this to him, you and your female wiles. Then she moves on to next poster. I follow and apologize to each woman in turn.”. Or when she imagines what her best friend’s baby is thinking: “The baby has become sentient. When we walk, she screams across the street at other babies, baby expletives, we think. Something along the line of Goddamn it, other baby, don’t try to out-cute me. To make matters worse, she is very cute, so we have a hard time correcting her.”. The writing could certainly be effective and I appreciated the way the author articulates these difficult to pin down feelings & fears. The narrator’s inner monologue is punctuated by scientific anecdotes that certainly fitted her background. While some of her jokes were misses, and her never-ending silly witticism did detract from her actual story, there were a couple of times where I found her genuinely funny.

“It is a double-edged sword.
To be smart and beautiful, says the best friend, and this is probably very close to what every woman wants. I too had high hopes of growing up into both a genius and a bombshell.
To be Marie Curie but then to also look like Grace Kelly.”

While the dialogue often rang true to life (in a mumblecore sort of way), some of the characters struck me as thinly rendered. The boyfriend for example is incredibly generic and exceedingly dull to the point where I did not feel at all affected by his departure. And, while I believed that the narrator is lonely, I wasn’t at all convinced that she loved him. Similarly, I didn’t buy into her bond with the math student she’s tutoring. I would have liked to see more of her parents or that they had not been painted in a negative light for 80% of the story. Still, overall, I liked Chemistry. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Julia Whelan, who, bear in mind is one of my favorite narrators, wasn’t the best ‘voice’ for this. That is to say that there are plenty of talented Asian American female narrators who could have narrated Chemistry.
If you are looking for a humorous take on failure, self-fulfilment, parental and self-pressure, loneliness and connection, Chemistry might be your perfect next read. I can see this novel
appealing to fans of Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu, Edge Case by YZ Chin, and Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang, all which also focus on young(ish) alienated Asian American women who feel stuck or caught in a directionless spiral. If you are a fan of the contemporary literary trend which is disaffected/directionless female protagonists who don’t feel so good, well, this title may a great addition to your tbr. I look forward to reading whatever Wang publishes next!

my rating: ★★★¼

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu

Weirdly enough, at first, I rather disliked this book but, the more I read, the more I found myself warming up to its protagonist Willa Chen.
I initially picked this book up because of its ‘nanny’ premise as Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid and Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson are all-time favourites of mine. After reading the first few pages I was reminded of Luster by Raven Leilani but here I found the narrator quite irritating. The prose too tries too hard to be snappy and edgy, both through its imagery and its, often flowery, metaphors. I am not too keen on narrators who present themselves as wronged on all fronts, and, for quite some time, Willa struck me as self-victimising, especially when it came to her parents. Her passivity too was a source of frustration but, as I continued to read, this unwillingness and inability to act on her part endeared to me. She’s so used to minimising or straight up dismissing her experiences and encounters with racism and sexism that her immediate response to someone saying something offensive is to doubt herself (is she overreacting? is she misperceiving their words/actions? are they just being ignorant or malicious?).

Willa is one of those main characters who is in her early twenties and leading a rather directionless life. Her divorced parents have gone on to have ‘new’ families and she rarely is in touch with them. Willa feels conflicted about her Chinese American identity. She often doesn’t feel or is made to feel, neither Chinese nor American enough. Willa’s sense of otherness and aloneness are further exacerbated by her disconnection from her parents, in particular her father.
After a lukewarm college experience, Willa ends up working for the Adriens, who are a wealthy white family based in Tribeca. Willa looks after their only daughter, Bijou. Similarly to the narrators of Luster and Lucy, Willa feels drawn to Nathalie, Bijou’s mother. Willa tries to act as the nanny the Adriens’ want but tries as she might to fit in with them she cannot reconcile herself to their extremely privileged lifestyle. They, in turn, seem wholly unaware of Willa’s true family history, partly because Willa herself omitted and or lied about quite a few details, partly because they are rather self-absorbed. They also make unfortunate remarks about Willa, at times patronising her or making her feel small and obscure. The novel strings together many every-day moments from Willa’s life as Bijou’s nanny so we get quite a lot of scenes revolving around cooking or that take place during mealtimes. I liked the tensions that the author is able to create in these seemingly ordinary environments (such as the kitchen). There are many instances where Willa messes up or makes some (sometimes downright idiotic) mistake that make me feel both embarrassed on her behalf and rather sympathetic towards her. The author captures the confusion and anxiety many people feel in their twenties. Time and again Willa is made to feel as if her job as a nanny is not a ‘real’ job or that she has yet to become a fully-grown adult. While the Adriens’ are often oblivious of Willa’s real feelings and when with them Willa does put a front, she does become infatuated with their family. Her routine as a nanny offers comfort, in fact, it shields her away from actually confronting her parents and or her future.
Of course, as I said, the Adriens’ home is not a perfect refuge. Willa is often confused by Nathalie’s confiding in her, only to, later on, treat her like ‘house staff’. She also comes into contact with their relatives, and they turn out to be pretty vile. She endures humiliating jabs and or dismissals at her expense and has to put up with looking after sexually inappropriate young boys. The worst of the bunch is Nathalie’s younger brother whose microaggressions make Willa feel understandably ill at ease.
I can see how many readers will find Willa infuriating. She rarely acts or speaks up for herself. Her fear of rejection and abandonment are such that she retreats inward, keeping her true self hidden from others. Her general confusion about her identity is exacerbated by her Chinese American heritage. Time and again she’s asked questions on the lines of ‘what are you’, which serve only to alienate her further from others. Willa makes plenty of stupid choices along the way (do not read if you can’t stand second-hand embarrassment) and rarely thinks things through. Even so, I ultimately found her to be an endearing character. She’s so lonely and alone that you can’t quite bring yourself to judge her as you would someone with a ‘solid’ support system. And, boy oh boy, the discomfort she feels around others, especially Nathalie’s brother was so well-conveyed. His looks plus the way he accompanies his offensive comments with plenty of ‘I’m just joking’ smiles and laughs, well, they succeed in making Willa doubt herself.
Willa’s story arc was truly compelling and I appreciated just how self-critical she comes to be by the end. I did find myself wishing for her to confront certain people but I guess that we don’t always have the opportunity to do that in real life.
I will say that not all of the characters were as nuanced as Willa. Bijou’s father is more or less a non-presence. Bijou, well, she didn’t strike me as a, particularly believable child. I get that the author was being satirical, but she sacrifices authenticity in her attempts to poke fun at this type of wealthy, white, & wannabe-sophisticated American family. Quite a few chapters take place during Willa’s childhood and they struck me as a bit artificial. This type of narrative structure (alternating between now and then) is a bit overdone and here it wasn’t wholly necessary.
I think that readers who enjoyed YZ Chin’s Edge Case and Alexandra Chang’s Days of Distractions and are looking to read more books exploring the realities of being a young Asian American woman in contemporary America should definitely check this one out. Additionally I can see this book appealing to fans of Brandon Taylor, Rachel Lyon, and even Lily King.

re-read: as I suspected re-reading this made me like it a lot more. I loved Willa’s introspective nature, the way she articulates her loneliness and sense of otherness, and the remote yet intimate quality of her voice. I also appreciated the flashbacks a lot more this time around and I found the moments they explored to be quite fitted to whatever was just happening in the ‘now’. The ending was both believable and satisfying although part of me still wishes that we could have seen Willa become less passive.

my rating: ★★

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Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

“Who knows. I could change my mind. It is changing all the time.”

Days of Distraction should have been right up my street. Alas, it turned out not to be the ‘wry’, ‘tender’, and ‘offbeat coming-of-adulthood tale’ its blurb promised it’d be. Our quasi-unnamed narrator is a Chinese American woman in her early twenties who works at a tech publication. Her boyfriend is this generic white guy, who’s aptly enough referred to by just the one letter, J. The prose is plain & dry, the characters are as flat and thin as paper, the storyline is slow and repetitive. The narrator decides to follow J to Ithaca, an upstate New York town, where he will be completing his degree. She works a bit from home but soon finds herself growing bored by her new life. She invests most of her time delving into American history and interracial relationships. Great chunks of text read as if belonging to a textbook, and in fact, I’d go as far as to say that the author should have either committed to writing a work of fiction or gone for an essay on this subject matter.
The narrative does highlight the sexism and racism our protagonist encounters at work and during her everyday life. In her old job, her managers are unwilling to give her a raise, confuse her with the other Asian American employee, or say inappropriate/racist/sexist things. Our protagonist doesn’t have a personality as such. She’s very much a generic millennial who expresses the typical woes and worries that are bound to arise during a person’s twenties. Her quarter-mid life crisis is a very subdued one. Nothing much happens. She has some awkward encounters or conversations, her boyfriend seems to minimise her experiences with racism (implying that she’s taken something ‘the wrong way’ or that that person ‘meant well’ and other yike-ey stuff like this). She eventually goes to visit her father who lives in China and here the story finally felt a bit more engaging, but sadly this section is rather short and that epilogue killed what little enthusiasm I had for this novel.
The dynamic between her and J was so boring and flat. They are together for reasons beyond me. Our narrator is not particularly likeable, which, if you know my book tastes, is not a problem. However, I do want some sort of personality. And this gal had none. I found her unfunny, uninteresting, and unpleasant. Is she entirely unsympathetic? No. However, she never struck me as a fully-realised person. J is even worse. He’s a white male straight American. That’s more or less his whole character. He was painfully bland. I did not care for him in the least nor was I at any point convinced by his relationship with our mc. I guess they were both boring?
This novel had potential but it very much lacked zing. The author’s sparse prose combined with her insipid character results in a rather underwhelming affair. Add to that those large portions of text that read as if straight from a textbook and there you have it, a snoozefest. The one aspect I did enjoy was our mc’s phone calls to her parents. I ended up rather liking her parents and I found myself wishing that they would play a bigger role in the narrative (the mc also has siblings but they have 0 impact on the story and her character). There were paragraphs or lines now and again that sort of struck a chord with me but they did not make up for the mc’s waffling and self-pitying outweighed those few insightful moments.
While I won’t be dissuading anyone from reading this I do feel the need to recommend Edge Case as an alternative. While not perfect it did delve a bit more deeply into the realities of being a woc working in the tech industry. And if you are looking for more books following alienated women in their 20s I have made a list over here.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng

“After all, wasn’t it true that to love someone is to figure out how to tell yourself their story?”

With understated lyricism, Feng charts the experiences of a family divided by physical and emotional borders that are nevertheless united in their pursuit of a more ‘promising’ future, for themselves and each other. The narrative intertwines the trajectories of various characters: Momo and Cassia, a married couple whose relocation to America results in their estrangement, their daughter Junie, born with a congenital amputation, who is in China and being raised in a small village in the countryside by her beloved grandparents, and Dawn, a talented violinist who knew Momo in their college days. Moving from the 1960s to the 1980s, from Communist China to San Francisco, Feng spins a tale of grief and resilience. Throughout their adulthood Momo, Cassia, and Dawn experience loss, heartbreak, and time and again are forced to reconcile their own personal desires with the ones of others.

“The incandescent cocoon of music was pure rapture, and it said to him; Stay. It was a powerful beckoning, to be held in thrall, to be consumed, annihilated even.”

Classical music plays a crucial role in Dawn and Momo’s narratives and Feng beautifully articulates their relationship to it. When writing about music Feng’s writing acquires an almost luminous quality, one that—if you excuse my unintentional pun—is assured to strike a chord with her readers. I particularly liked the discussions surrounding the way other countries tend to stereotype musicians from East Asian countries (conflating attributes they associate with those countries—’conformity’, ‘rigidity’—with the music they produce).

“We learn so much more about things when they are broken or unmade, he thought.”

There is a particular episode early on in the narrative when something happens to a violin and well, I was almost in tears. In spite of these moments of tension and of Feng’s candid portrayal of the Red Guards, the narrative retains a quiet atmosphere, one that is pervaded by a sense of longing.

“He was impatient for time to pass, so that in his life, there would be less yearning and more having, less becoming and more being.”

While Feng’s writing is indisputably beautiful (I have dozens of highlights that will attest as much) I did find myself at a remove from her characters. That is not to say that I failed to sympathise with them. Their interactions—especially the ones between Junie and her grandad—could certainly be affecting. However, there was a veil between me and the characters that I was unable to penetrate. While this ‘distance’ did bring to mind the work Jhumpa Lahiri (a favourite of mine), here the slightness of the novel (just over 200 pages) meant that years of their lives would be condensed in a few pages, giving me little time to adapt to their new environments and circumstances. At times their personalities were too inscrutable so that I found myself confusing characters (especially the secondary ones that prop up in the America section of the novel). I also wanted more of Junie. She is very much sidelined for much of the narrative and I would have loved to read more about her childhood.

“In order for Junie to exist, two people had to come together during the Cultural Revolution under circumstances that one of them would later describe as inevitable, and the other, as coincidental.”

Feng’s exquisite prose and her meditation on art, culture, love, grief, exceptionalism, and dislocation result in a poignant and thought-provoking read. If you are a fan of authors such as Lahiri you should definitely not pass this up.

my rating: ★★★½

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White Ivy by Susie Yang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★★½

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Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen

With the exception of the first two stories in this collection, ‘Lulu’ and ‘Hotline Girl’, I wasn’t all that taken by Land of Big Numbers. What I most appreciated is Te-Ping Chen’s ability to vividly render contemporary China. The stories in this collection will certainly give readers insight into Chinese and modern work culture, the everyday realities of young Chinese men and women, as well as shed light on class and generational divides. In the first story, ‘Lulu’, a young man who is into gaming becomes increasingly concerned over his sister’s involvement in protests and activities criticising the Chinese government. In the following story ‘Hotline Girl’ (the title reminds me of a certain song) a young woman who works at a government call centre is contacted by her abusive ex. While these first two stories felt complete and well-realised the remaining 8 easily blur together. One is about an addictive fruit, another one is about an inventor whose creations more often than not flop, we have a few exploring marriages or romantic relationships but in a way that never brought me close to the characters. I wasn’t drawn in by them or, to be perfectly honest, by the author’s writing style. We have some strained metaphors (“She felt the years deep beneath her skin, as thought Shanghai had grafted steel plates in her cheeks”, the layers of a croissant are compared to the “underbelly of a sea creature gently exhaling”). Many of the characters were flat, their conversations uninteresting, their motives unconvincing.
Still, I recognise that many other readers will find this collection to be more satisfying than I did. I guess I have almost 0 interest in stories about stock markets.


ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


my rating: ★★½


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The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

For a book published in the 90s The Kitchen God’s Wife comes across as strangely outdated. And I guess in spite of Tan’s writing—which is far from mediocre or incompetent—I could not look past the fact that her story was the antithesis of female solidarity.

At first I was taken by Tan’s storytelling. The first 40 pages or so, those that take place in the ‘present’, were enjoyable. We learn that Pearl, a woman in her thirties, has always had a difficult relationship with Winnie, her mother. Some of this is due to generational and cultural differences but, as we soon learn, both mother and daughter have kept secrets from each other. When Winnie’s sister-in-law Helen/Hulan announces that she can no longer keep silent about their past, Winnie is forced to recount her many trials and hardships to her daughter. This is where the novel lost me. I find this kind of cheesy melodrama meets misery porn to be exceedingly frustrating. Winnie is basically Cinderella or the classic Mary Sue: 99% of people around her use her and abuse her. Every female character, with the exception of Grand Auntie Du, is cruel, vain, stupid, ugly, and or ungrateful. Winnie, on the other hand, is an angel. She is not like other girls. She endures and she suffers because she has aspirations to martyrdom.
Given that she is recounting past experiences directly—ie we get a 1st pov—you would think that at one point or another Winnie could express uncertainty over the accuracy of her memories or wonder if others recall things differently. But no! She keeps insisting that ‘this is what happened’ and that Helen is a liar who remembers things wrong. And, speaking of Helen, rather than painting a complex and fraught friendship, Tan presents us with the goody two shoes Winnie and the ugly, stupid, and venal Helen who is not only a horrible friend to Winnie but a lousy human being.
Anyway, Winnie recounts her tragic past: her mother abandons her, she is shunned by her wealthy father and raised by cartoonishly wicked relatives. In relating these experiences Winnie alway makes a point of emphasising her inherent goodness and beauty, often by making little digs about women’s failings. Winnie ends up marrying a horrible man who possess only vices. Her reminded me of the ‘bad’ men from The Giver of Stars and novels by Kristin Hannah. Personally, I prefer more nuanced characters. Tan also often conflates a characters’ physical appearance with their personality—so if one has an ugly character they will be indeed ‘ugly’ on the outside—which feels a tad…old-fashioned? Maybe it would be more suited to a novel dated from the 19th century than the 1990s.
The only sections that were somewhat interesting and whinging-free were the ones that stuck to facts. For example, when Tan writes details statics and about the Sino-Japanese War (as opposed to Winnie’s own experiences in it). When she writes of Nanking I felt much more horrified and moved than I was by anything related to Winnie.
Sadly, Winnie’s narrative is more intent on dissing on Helen than anything else. Here are some the lovely things she says/thinks about Helen: “Her mouth dropped open to let this thought come in and nourish her brain. I was thinking, Good, even though she is uneducated, she is quick to learn something new.” / “She was plump, but not in that classical way of a peach whose pink skin is nearly bursting with sweetness. Her plumpness was round and overflowing in uneven spots, more like a steamed dumpling with too much filling leaking out of the sides. She had thick ankles and large hands, and feet as broad as boat paddles. ” / her hair was “lumpy” / she had no sense of fashion, none at all.” / “a simple country girl”.
And Winnie goes on to tell Pearl that: “I am not being critical in remembering her features just because I am angry with her now”. Sure hon, go on and keep lying to yourself. Winnie never takes any responsibility. Everything is and or always was all Helen’s fault. Helen is ugly inside and out, “she broke harmony between us. I tell you, that day Hulan showed me her true character. She was not the soft melon head she made everyone believe she was. That girl could throw out sharp words, slicing fast as any knife”. And of course, “She’s the complaining one, not I”. I’m not so sure about that one Winnie…the story ended up being less about domestic abuse, war, and survival, then a woman going on and on about how her ‘supposed’ friend is a trash human being.
I swear, every few pages, Winnie would say something such as: “Who is the better cook? You see! I am not boasting. It’s true. ” / “You know what I think? When Jiaguo got his promotion, Hulan gave herself a promotion too! In her mind, she was more important than I was. ” / “She was always unhappy until I was the same level of unhappy as she was.” / “You would think Hulan would remember those hard little cakes, and then put a few coins, or maybe some food, into the beggar girl’s bowl, which is what I did. I’m not saying I did this all the time. But Hulan did not do this even once. Instead she put more food into her own mouth. She added fat onto her body the same way a person saves gold or puts money into a bank account, something she could use if worse came to worst.” / “So you see, I think it was some little river crabs Hulan wanted to eat in Changsha. That’s what made us sick. It stayed in our bodies and broke out one day.” / “She will probably tell you it was instant true love. Maybe for him. But I think she was being practical”….and I cannot stand this lousy portrayal of female ‘friendship’. Women, with the exception of Winnie, are catty and fake. Men, with the exception of Winnie’s Chinese-American second husband—are stupid, cowardly, or abusive sadists.
Other girls Winnie encounters also receive a similar treatment to Helen’s one. Winnie sometimes pretends to be nice (claiming that she didn’t hate a woman before stressing how selfish or unkind that woman was) but, in actuality, she is anything but. She describes a girl she dismisses as “stuck-up” as having “red as a demon’s” eyes. Her first husband’s new wife is not only “bossy” in both attitude and appearance but “stupid” (“You see how stupid his new wife was?”). Winnie also makes some weird comments about Burmese and Cantonese people, seems to relish the idea that Peanut, yet another cruel/vain girl, “who used to pride herself on the paleness of her skin. And now she was almost as dark as a Cantonese!”.
And yes, sure, Winnie suffers. Her husband is a monster with no redeeming qualities and with the exception of Grand Auntie Du and her American-born husband…well, everyone else is bad news.
I dislike this kind of ‘girl-on-girl hate’ and the whole Winnie=Cinderella thing was hella annoying.
Thankfully, I bought my copy of this book in a second-hand shop (then again, I will never get back the hours I spent reading this). While I wouldn’t recommend this novel to anyone in particular I’m aware that Tan is an extremely popular writer so….maybe it’s just me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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