Boy Parts by Eliza Clark


disclaimer: i did not like this book. the opinions and impressions i will express in this review are entirely subjective and i am not in fact stating ‘irrefutable facts’. it has come to my attention that this author has a history of going on twitter to ‘bemoan’ reviewers who have given her book a negative review…which has never been a win in my books. so i will attempt to write this review with a death of the author approach. please do not confuse my negative review of this book as a personal attack on the author or as an estimation of the author herself as i do not know her in any capacity whatsoever. if you are incensed by reviewers expressing an opinion that differs from your own one, you are better off skipping this review (this includes you too eliza…).

vague and not so vague spoilers below

I am befuddled by the ratings and reviews singing this book’s praises. This is one of those cases where I am forced to ask myself: did I read the same book as everybody else? And before you @ me, no, I did not dislike this book because it is work of satire centred on an (exaggeratedly) intentionally unlikeable main character. Some of my favorite books focus on people who are varying degrees of horrible or ‘messy’ (my year of rest and relaxation, luster, madame bovary, sula, pretend i’m dead, you exist too much, apartment, symptomatic, these violent delights, and a lot of the stuff written by authors such as shirley jackson, danzy senna, and joyce carol oates). I also like characters like Hannibal or Villanelle. I read Lolita and while it did repulse me (as intended) I didn’t hate it because it was from the pov of a pdophile. And I am fond of the ‘she’s not feeling too good’ subgenre, contemporary books that are characterized by a caustic tone and explore the lives of women who are, you guessed it, not feeling too good and are depicted as alienated and self-sabotaging … I also do not have a problem with books combining dark humor with violence, My Sister the Serial Killer is a fave of mine. And a few months ago I was enthralled and disturbed by Titane directed by Julia Ducournau (who actually gets a mention in boy parts). All of this to say is that I can deal with and even appreciate characters who for whatever reason do, think, or say things that are ‘frowned’ upon or downright evil. I would go as far as to say that I prefer flawed characters over flawless/uber-likeable characters (very edgy of me, i know). My only caveat is that I have to find said unlikable characters interesting: Emma Bovary, for instance, is not a particularly clever character, you could say she is quite the opposite. She’s naive, pathetic, obnoxious, solipsistic, cruel, and superficial…but I found her acts of self-dramatization to be both fascinating and a source of great amusement. Ottessa Moshfregh’s narrator in MYORAR is nasty (she is awful to her supposed best friend, callous, narcissistic, morbid, and says/thinks offensive things about many groups of people). Did I condone her actions in the novel? No. Did I find her fcked up sense of humor to be highly addictive? Yes. This is all to say that Irina being a stronza who engages in ‘bad’ behaviour, is not why I didn’t like this book. The reason why I did not like this book has less to do with her being an unlikable cnt and more to do with her being boring as fck. Her internal monologue is repetitive, but not even in a realistic navel-gazey way, like Selin’s narration is in The Idiot, but in an incredibly affected way that just comes across as the book desperately trying to present this character as some counter-culture edgelady, who repeatedly ‘transgresses’ accepted norms of behaviours and—shock horror—flips the ‘male gaze’ on its head by being the one behind the camera. Maybe if this book had come out in the 80s, I would be more inclined to forgive or accept its many shortcomings, but since it was published in 2020 I have a harder time reconciling myself with its unimaginative and superficial exploration of female sexuality, the male gaze, and female rage. There is nothing clever about the way the narrative represents and discusses these themes. The narrative is very much all flash, no substance (tutto fumo e niente arrosto) as it not only mistakes shock value for real horror but it operates under the false assumption that gratuitous or otherwise sensationalistic content is subversive and thought-provoking. If this book had actually been disturbing maybe then I could have overlooked its pulpy and overt storyline…but it isn’t. Funnily enough the story’s numerous floundering attempts at edginess, but these feel dated and painfully affected, on the lines of Awad’s Bunny or Mariana Enríquez who at least do not settle for mid-tier levels of offensive but fcking commit.

Boy Parts reads like a short story that has been stretched beyond its expiry date. The ‘hook’, that of a ‘pervy’ female photographer, had potential for the first 30% of the narrative. Then things just get messy, and not a good kind of messy where I am enthralled by our mc’s unreliable and increasingly disconcerting narrative, but messy in a poorly executed kind of way. The writing changes slightly, but not in a believably organic way that reflects the main character’s spiralling mental health. The book’s satire is devoid of substance or bite. The caricatures populating this narrative are neither amusing nor particularly provocative. Some characters come across as heavy-handed attempts at capturing a certain type of person, while either serve no function other than to exist so the narrator can prove to the readers how nasty she is. The story could have been a lot more effective if the tone had been camped up, so we could have something along the lines of Jennifer’s Body (which is by no means a perfect film but at least it’s entertaining and self-aware). Or maybe if the book had gone for a more elliptical stream-of-consciousness type of storytelling, a la Clarice Lispector, maybe then I would have liked it more. But what we got just did not work for me at all. There was something profoundly simplistic about the way these themes are explored and the narrator is one of the dullest galls I have ever had the misfortune to read about. Being a tall and sexy white Northern who thinks she’s the fcking hardcore because she likes to take kinky photos of men she deems ‘beta’…yeah. The way the book satirizes England’s art scene is banal, we get unfunny lines about identity politics and artists such as Tracey Emin. The narrative doesn’t convey Irina’s creative process in a convincing way, in fact, I was left with the impression that—and here i must briefly break from my death of the author approach and acknowledge the existence of the author—whoever was behind the story was either not particularly familiar with photography or not interested in going into detail about it (as i said this an impression i formed, not a fact). As examinations of female creativity go, this one is derivative and unsatisfying. I mean, compared to We Play Ourselves, Self-Portrait with Boy, and Generation Loss (all of whom happen to focus on queer young women who are not portrayed as exclusively interested in men and in replicating tired dom/sub dynamics) Boy Parts just doesn’t go much into depth when it comes to Irina and her changing relationship to her photography. I didn’t feel that she actually felt passionate about these photos, rather, we are told what she did at a school, and she relates the art she produced in that period in a very meh way, and now she gets horny when she tells men to pose in vanilla sub positions, while she occasionally plays the dom role (stepping on them and sht). Like, wow. How edgy. And you might say that the narrative is less concerned about mapping out the creative process preceding these photos than with over-emphasising what the photos themselves signify. Male gaze who? Uhm. Sure. Thing is, this kind of obvious ‘appropriation’ of the male gaze and the misogyny often underlining said gaze is not new nor thought-provoking. Quite the opposite in fact. I found the logic at play in the narrative to be highly sus: Irina experiences misogyny and is objectified by the male gaze; Irina perpetuates misogyny + misandry and objectifies men, her models in particular. Irina has a sexual encounter where the partner doesn’t listen to her when she says she wants to be on top. He ignores and demands her to scream for him, yanking her hair. She says that since he is going to ignore her he ‘could put his back into it’. He takes this as a confirmation that she ‘likes it rough’. Quelle surprise, she later has sex with someone she deems weak who asks her to slap him she starts hitting him until he starts crying and this leads to the classic ‘victim becomes abuser’ kind of observation that doesn’t really go deeper than that. If anything it is annoying that we get that scene just so the mc can have this dark eureka moment. Early in the story, Irina goes to a party where she is meeting up with a guy who is there to make fun of the ‘I’m a Nice Guy Really’ type of men who claim they are feminists while trying to wrangle themselves out of being accused of SA. Anyway, she goes to this party with her spineless friend who reminds her that even if she acts all hardcore she is a vulnerable woman. Our mc makes a joke about being raped by the guys she’s hanging out with and what later follows is an intentionally unclear scene where it seems that this guy the mc went to see tried to rpe her while she was passed out or was otherwise incapacitated and therefore not being able to give consent. I really hated how timed this whole thing was. It was rather tasteless. I have come across other books that punish female characters who are confident in their sexuality or sexually active by resulting in scenes where they are SA or need a man to ‘save’ them. And here…this whole rpe subplot seems just there for shock value and nothing else. The narrative seems to forget about it, more intent on emphasizing how edgy and obscene the mc is. Fcking hell. Can we not?! I am not saying that I want every story to include rpe or SA to be serious and to exclusively revolve around this. However, the way the narrative meanders about without any real direction or without the kind of piercing commentary that makes up for vacuous storylines…I am left wondering why, why, why did we get this scene? Especially when the narrative seems confused about the kind of character Irina is. It seemed we were meant to perceive her as a vile character. Not quite a Humbert Humbert type of figure but someone who is working their way towards being the female equivalent of Patrick Bateman. She’s apathetic, has an inflated sense of self, experiences moments of dissociation where she observes the people around her with a mixture of superiority and detachment seems to categorize men in a way that is all the rage in the manosphere, and makes no compunction about transgressing accept norms of behaviour, engaging in sadistic behaviour, or deriving pleasure from what her society deems taboo (rpe fantasies etc.). She can also perform certain roles, such as that of the Manic Pixie Girl, to her advantage, for example when she wants to attract the kind of men who would be into that type of girl. Irina, so far, seems a satirical take on the femme fatale. Yet, we also get so many instances that go against what this kind of characterization is trying to establish. For instance, she forgets that she has to perform a certain role and says whatever the fck comes to her because she’s such a girlboss. Sometimes she would make observations or remarks that would be believable if they originated from someone ‘normal’ or who was not shown to have psychopathic traits. For example, after that guy forces himself on her…she wonders about whether she really wanted rough sex and why do women feel that they have to say yes to rough sex etc…which is a valid af point but I did not believe that someone like Irina would even bother to have such thoughts. She should have been annoyed that someone of no consequence had physically overpowered her. Previously her response to being SA at the party was to be annoyed that that non-entity guy had the gall to try to rpe her. But then we are meant to believe that she was in fact traumatized by this so much so that now she herself is subjecting others to the type of trauma she was victim to. Like…what is going on. And don’t get me started on how large chunks of the narrative make her abuse of men seem so fcking transgressive and hardcore when it was anything but. There is a storyline involving, you guessed it, ‘boy parts’ that was just a rip off from American Psycho (in that we are meant to question the veracity of irina’s recollection of these violent events). Anyhow, the man who Irina abuses most happens to be a lot younger than her and, unlike her, despite the story’s initial attempts at painting her as a struggling artist, her name is known in artsy circles and she can afford her living expense and the type of materials required to print out her edgy photos, he works at Tesco. Additionally, he is mixed-race, possibly queer, and was involved with someone abusive (emotional abuse is still abuse fellas). So, did I find Irina’s SA him, gaslighting him, humiliating him, mistreating him, etc, empowering? Not really. Sure, the narrative shows us just how ‘pathetic’ and ‘sad’ he is about his messed up relationship with Irina but his experiences bear no real weight on Irina’s narrative. He serves as a plot device through which Irina, a character who is supposed to be very much beyond caring, can inflict the trauma she herself was subjected to. Also, for someone who goes on scathing takes about ‘white people’ who pretend they are not ‘white’ but dance to The Smiths in this ‘post-racist-Morrissey’ era and expresses frustration about the misogyny and classism rampant in her day-to-day life…it seemed weird that she would think sht like this (“I know I’m white, but there’s just a lot of white people White People-ing in a very small area, like it’s just some very, very densely packed mayo, you know? Densely packed mayo, jiggling about, doesn’t know what to do with its arms, doesn’t know what to do with its feet, undulating loosely, barely in time to the rhythm.”) but actually says sht like this to the mixed-race boy she is toying around with (‘It’s fine for you being out in this heat; you tan. You’re always tan. You look like you’ve just been on holiday or something,’) or this (Japenese/Korean girls being the ‘same thing’). It would have made more sense if she’d said that first thing out loud, to impress her peers with how comfortably she can talk about whiteness and make them feel inadequate and less savvy (after all wasn’t she supposed to enjoy feeling superior to others?), and to ‘merely’ think the other two as to say them out loud in front of someone who is not white, and who she had identified as ‘sensitive’, and risk that he would see her for who she truly was. She, later on, writes a transphobic email to someone trans which again, was just gratuitous yet seemed included for laughs, and made me question why she would do that if this person could use that to prove to others that she is in fact awful. Why bother with all that gaslighting of your acquaintances if you then don’t give a sht about being exposed…? We are previously told that she is manipulative AF. She fools men and has her pathetic bff convinced they are friends to start with. Although she wants to transgress accepted norms of behaviour she knows these norms are there to begin with so in certain spaces she comports herself in a certain way, her art is the only indicator that she is into some smutty kinky stuff. I did not find her inconsistencies to be realistic or to result in a nuanced character. It seemed that the story didn’t really know what kind of character it wanted us to read about so it went all over the place. I wish that the story had committed to paint her as a morally reprehensible character we were meant not to like.
The other characters are one-note and just as unrealistic. They would not be out of place in an episode of Family Guy or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Speaking of Tarantino if you thought that Uma Thurman’s character in that or Kill Bill have some merit…well, you might like Boy Parts after all. This book radiates the kind of feminist energy that Cara Delevingne wearing that ‘peg the patriarchy’ outfit at the met gala gives. Trying to be provoking in a puerile way. And I can forgive a lack of intersectionality and dimension if say this, like Plath’s Bell Jar, had been published in the 1960s. But it wasn’t so…anche no.

Anyway, the side characters are just as boring as Irina herself. Some of them are downright insulting. We have someone who exists to be the transman who is the butt of the joke for many comments made by Irina. He makes two or possibly three appearances where she makes comments about his height, barbs that are meant to make him feel inadequate and not masculine enough, and later on writes that disgusting email to him where she goes on about identity politics and claims that he is solely drawing upon his personal experiences to produce art (when she is doing that very same thing…get it? ah! ). Flo (i had to check her name, that’s how memorable she is) is a rip off of Reva from MYORAR who exists to be the classic female friend in love with our female protagonist who does not and will not ever reciprocate her feelings. I am so f*cking tired of books that make the mc bisexual because it’s edgy and ‘different’ but then proceed to have said character almost exclusively engage in sexual/romantic relationships with men. This character will rarely if ever acknowledge or indicate that she finds people who are not men attractive. She will have a friend who is a lesbian or in this case a bi friend, who is in love with her. The narrative will mention towards the very start or the very end that she did have a relationship with a woman once and call it a day. They don’t even try to explore the mc’s internalised homophobia/biphobia. Here we have a line about Irina preferring men to women and that’s kind of it.

Anyway, don’t even get me started on Flo’s blog posts. What was the point in them? Irina gives us a summary of their contents so why add the blog entries themselves? Their attempts at making fun of cringe people like Flo came across as a joke that has gone on for too long.
And mio dio, the amount of dated references in this book is something else. The film mentions make sense given that Irina is an edgy photographer but the amount of pop culture in these pages is just…it made me feel that I was having to slog through a series of insufferable twitter posts. If avoid that in real life why should I be interested in a fictionalized take on these comments/discussions? The conversations about kim’s bum did not make the dialogues realistic or mumblecoresque. They struck me as stagey and dull.
The exploration of sexual desire that goes on in this novel is painfully and predictably heteronormative, with the ‘twist’ that the woman wants to be the more dominant party. How revolutionary. The more I write about this f*cking book the more I hate it. What an utter waste of time. With the exception of that funny line about Timothée Chalamet, I was not amused. I did not feel anything for our main girl. Her being hot, from the North, and into kinky sh*t do not make for a compelling character (‘Geordie girls are up there with Irish girls and Scottish girls; the black women of white women, you know?’….f*ck off). Maybe if the narrative had committed to portraying her as a menace I would have felt a modicum of interest. The instances where she is offensive are played up for laughs but were anything but. Her Mommy Issues™ and eating disorder are presented in a childish way and the narrative barely scratches the surface beneath these issues. You Exist Too Much deals with these issues in a much more nuanced and compelling way.
Anyway, I don’t need a character’s motivations to think violent thoughts or do violent things to be made ‘transparent’: like I said I was transfixed by Titane, and there we learn virtually nothing about our central character, let alone why she goes on a killing spree. I also really love things like Stoker and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both focus on morbid teens/young women. Or New People by Senna. That book presents us with a believably perturbing portrait of an alienated and alienating woman. But this is eh. Boy Parts reads like something that has been done before and better. It has the same vibe as those ‘that’s literally me’ filmbros who overidentify with the leads from films such as Taxi DriverAmerican PsychoFight ClubDrive, and Joker. Just because the lead here is a woman doesn’t make this wannabe subversive exploration of alienation any less cringe. I swear, Irina just gives Gaslight Gatekeep Girlboss vibes and it could have worked if the narrative had committed more fully to being a campy satire instead of then deciding it wanted to be dark and serious. Also, the way the latter half of the novel goes for this feverish, surrealist tone is just schifo. Even Awad did this better in Bunny. And don’t get me started on Caroline O’Donoghue’s Promising Young Women: the narrative there truly captures the narrator’s bizarre and disturbing dissolution. And if you prefer a more heavy exploration of r*pe I recommend Rosie Price’s What Red Was. And, of course, I May Destroy You: that series is just…spectacular. And its final episode is what Boy Parts wishes it was. Why didn’t the novel go for a subversive take on the ‘r*pe & revenge’ subgenre? I don’t know…it had the chance to but then seems to lose itself in a self-indulgent and puddle-deep exploration of the male gaze.
The prose was derivative and lifeless. Now and again we get lines that are trying so hard to be provocative but failed to inspire a response in me (be it amusement or disgust). The first half of the novel would have Irina try to go for this conversational/confessional tone that just came across as trying to be Fleabag or the narrator from MYORAR (the constant ‘you know’ were annoying).
I doth not understand the hype. Personally, I found this book’s attempt at being edgy and subversive to be rather performative and disappointingly shallow. And to compare this to Moshfegh’s MYORAR..? te piasaria…I was not a fan of the writing, of the plot, or of the way the narrative explores its themes. I am surprised that so many readers did not seem to pick up on this book’s Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss shtick. White feminism at its finest…and if this was intentional it doens’t result in a particularly daring or fascinating narrative. I mean, this book thinks its something by Gaspar Noé (a director who is not my cup of tea but i can’t deny that the man’s films are transgressive and really gratuitous) but it is just rather insipid. Like I said, the offensive bits just gave me Family Guy vibes. Again, I must stress how shallow this felt. And not in an intentional way, like in American Psycho and its critique of capitalism and consumerism. I wish the story could have actually interrogated more Irina’s own privilege, that’s she is white, able-bodied, pretty, and ‘straight’ passing…but it doesn’t. We get a very ostentatious take on a woman perpetuating the ‘male gaze’. It is such a pity. I am a fan of books depicting women capable of monstrosity not because i condone their behaviour but i find the way these narratives engage with their conflicting ideals of femininity and explore their darkest parts of their psyche fascinating.

Not all satire is good satire. And this just ain’t it for me.
Boy Parts was banal. Really painfully banal. The kind of book that makes me wish that I could be able to unread things.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

You Are Free by Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna has a knack for unsettling her readers. The stories collected in You Are Free are a testament to her ability to create and maintain an atmosphere of disquiet, one that adds to the ambiguous characters populating her stories. The people Senna centres her stories around seem perpetually uneasy and their behaviour—which ranges from being slightly worrisome to downright perturbing—is often a source of confusion to other characters and readers themselves. Like in her full-length novels, Senna hones in on race, racism, and racial identity. Her caustic social commentary is as piercing as it is unstinting. Senna spares no one and this adds to the murky tone of her narratives. As much as I love Senna’s writing, her short stories pale in comparison to her novels. The stories here are not as disturbing as Maria’s spiralling into obsession in New People, or as disconcerting as the narrator’s experiences in Symptomatic, or as compelling as Birdie’s story in Caucasia.

The first story is probably the most accomplished one, as we are introduced to a young couple who, as a ‘joke’, apply for their son to attend one of the country’s most distinguished private schools. When their son is actually offered a spot, the mother finds herself giving the school some serious consideration, while the father is adamantly opposed to it and wants his son to attend a local public school. What makes this story so effective is the increasingly creepy behaviour of the school’s member of staff. The other stories are less memorable, and many of them focus on new parents. I made the mistake of listening to the audiobook version of this collection and I can tell you that there are few things as irritating as an adult mimicking the voice of a whiny child crying for their ‘mama/mummy’. Anyway, the people within these narratives are varying degrees of terrible. Which was expected, but they did seem to share many of the same unlikeable traits, which made them rather samey. The short format also didn’t give Senna much time to flesh them out or to give them some nuance. I also could have done without the animal cruelty which seemed thrown in as an afterthought, or worse, for mere shock value. At times the character descriptions here verged on being lazy, which is quite unlike Senna (a character’s eyes are described as ‘asian’…). The focus on the parent-child and wife-husband dynamics had potential but ultimately the author prioritizes ambience over characterisation (also the lack of queer characters…). Senna is a fantastic author but this collection isn’t quite it…

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Quartet by Jean Rhys

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

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

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

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

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


Some of my fave passages:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Nobody’s Magic by Destiny O. Birdsong

Nobody’s Magic is a promising debut novel by a clearly talented author. Destiny Birdsong’s compelling and vibrant storytelling is certainly immersive. She also has a knack for rendering a strong sense of place as Shreveport, Louisiana almost functions as a character itself. The dialogues too flow easily and ring true to life. The novel is divided into a triptych structure, each one revolving around Black women with albinism. While they do share similar experiences, they each had their own distinguishing voice. We begin with Suzette, a sheltered 20 something who begins to bristle against her father’s domineering rule. She wants to learn to drive, go to college, work and do all of the things her peers are doing. Her father however is unwilling to let her grow into herself and goes out of his way to control her. Her mother is on her side but she too ultimately has no choice but to comply with her husband’s demands. When Suzette begins to experiment with her sexuality things come to head and she is forced to confront what she is willing to do for her own independence. I liked the author’s non-judgemental approach to Suzette’s sexuality and her desire for self-fulfilment (which could have easily been depicted as selfishness). While the author does underline the privileged existence that Suzette has led so far, she also includes scenes in which Suzette is discriminated against and or treated as other. Is she to blame for her own naivete when her father has kept her away from the world? The following narrative follows Maple who comes from a very different background than Suzette’s. Maple’s mother has recently been murdered and Maple is still reeling from this loss. Her grandmother is unwilling to accept that her mother was very much a ‘free-spirited’ individual who would go on to lead a ‘risqué’ lifestyle. Maple eventually gets to know Chad, someone who is also grieving a loved one. The last narrative is about Agnes, an older woman who becomes involved with a security guard. After a failed interview Agnes makes a dangerous choice that will lead her on the run with this security guard. She seems to be using him to protect herself from the consequences of her actions, he seems to believe that because she has albinism she is ‘magic’. I didn’t really get this last narrative nor did I find Agnes a particularly sympathetic character. I thought her behaviour somewhat irrational and didn’t find her to be a fully fleshed-out character. Still, out of these three stories I really liked the first two. They were engaging and thought-provoking and I appreciated how realistically imperfect the main characters were. But the third one tonally was just eeh…and had a rather meandering narrative. While the first two stories do follow a coming-of-age type of narrative this last one was just stale-ish. Still, Birdsong is certainly an author you should keep your eye on and I look forward to reading whatever she writes next.

my rating: ★ ★ ★½

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

“And none of that mattered. No matter how nice the suit, no matter how educated his speech or how strong the handshake, no matter how much muscle he packed on, no matter how friendly or how smart he was, none of it mattered at all. He was just a Black person. That’s all they saw and that’s all he was.”

While I did find The Violin Conspiracy to be a bit all over the place the author’s acknowledgements hit hard. The book opens in medias res with Ray McMillian, our main character, discovering that his Stradivarius has been stolen. Ray is preparing for the international Tchaikovsky Competition and without his fiddle, he feels unmoored. The narrative then jumps back in time where we meet Ray in his teens and learn more about his family situation. His mother wants him to drop school so he can work full time and so she can buy a new tv. When Ray begins to earn good money by playing at various events she quietens down somewhat but she still clearly disapproves of his violin playing and often ridicules him and his belief that he could pursue a career as a violinist. The only supportive member of his family is Ray’s beloved grandmother who loves him to bits. She also wants him to play and gifts him her grandpa’s fiddle. Ray eventually ends up getting a scholarship for a prestigious college. His mother doesn’t want him to go but Ray is determined to follow his path. He eventually learns that his violin is a Stradivarius. His family wants him to sell it and claim that it was never his, to begin with. To keep them at bay Ray begins to send them large sums of money but they never seem satisfied. He also begins to receive thinly threatening letters from a family that claims to be the righteous owners of the violin, and it turns out that they are descendants of the people who had once enslaved Ray’s great-grandfather. Eventually, the narrative reaches the beginning, where Ray’s beloved violin has been stolen and the competition is just around the corner.
Throughout the narrative, the author highlights just how racist and elitist the classical music world is. From when he played as a teenager at venues to his time as a teacher and a professional violinist, Ray experiences racism. Classical music is something that is often associated with whiteness and because of this Ray has to fight to be accepted into this world. No matter how hard he proves himself he will be confronted with people dismissing his skills, claiming that he is a ‘diversity token’ or diminishing his talent. There are many harrowing scenes where Ray is mistreated and abused, and the realism of these scenes made it clear that these episodes had likely been experienced by the author himself (such as the wedding one early on). From outright racist remarks to more ‘veiled’ ones, Ray has to fight tooth and nail to claim a space in this extremely white elitist world. That he has no support from his family certainly doesn’t help as with the exception of his grandmother and an aunt, they are all keen on him selling his violin.
The novel tries to combine a Bildungsroman novel with a more suspenseful storyline but the two don’t quite mesh together. The flashbacks into Ray’s teenage years do add context to his life and the violin but they fail to make him into a more rounded character. I found him rather flat, at times a little more than a vehicle to move the story forward. I would have liked for him to have a more defined personality and a more developed characterisation. Other characters were similarly one-dimensional, Ray’s mother in particular. She’s portrayed as a horrible person: every scene she is in she says something awful. She has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and I could not understand why Ray would bother with her at all. He also has siblings but we never see him interact with them. His other relatives, with the exception of that one aunt, are all greedy and nasty to him. The bad characters in this book are also extremely one-note. This is fair enough, a simplistic approach could have worked but I found it annoying that the author would describe these characters as physically ‘ugly’ and are often ‘fat’. The woman who claims that the violin belongs to her family for instance has ‘jowls’ covered by ‘downy hair’. All of the policemen are of the doughnut-eating variety, but this, I didn’t mind as much given my less than warm feelings towards them.
Anyway, the story suggests that either Ray’s family or this white family are behind his missing violin. The novel then takes a weird turn by making someone else responsible and forgetting almost entirely of Ray’s family or that other one. It just seemed an odd choice and a predictable one at that.
I also did not care for the way Ray spoke about or describes women (“the tawny-haired woman with the tight dress running her fingers suggestively around her wineglass”; “The attractive women who seemed to take an interest in him were mostly in the look-but-don’t-touch category”; “A young athletic woman was crossing in front of them, her toned ass bouncing with every step in her black leggings.”).
The writing too could be quite cheesy, especially in its efforts to tie everything back to classical music (“He tried to breathe but his ribs had been wrapped in piano wire”; “Why was he so terrible at talking to this woman? She was violin-shaped, right? So why was this so hard?”).
Still, while I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing or the characters, the story was relatively engaging. If you are interested in this novel I recommend that you check it out yourself.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Red Palace by June Hur

“I wanted to love and be loved. I wanted to be known. I wanted to be understood and accepted.”

The Red Palace makes for a fairly suspenseful read, one that will definitely appeal to fans of YA mysteries where the lead girl goes all Nancy Drew trying to figure out who the culprit is. And of course, given the setting, Korea in 1758, The Red Palace will likely appeal to fans of historical K-dramas. Personally, I think The Red Palace is the kind of book I would have loved 10 years or so ago. Now, I am a bit more nitpicky and there are a few things that prevented me from being fully immersed in Hyeon’s story.

“We are women,” she continued, “and nothing short of death stops us from doing precisely what we wish to do. That is what the laws and restrictions binding our lives breed: determination and cunning. The likes of you will not obey me. You will tell me that you intend to be as still as a rock, and yet I know you will dart from shadow to shadow like a fish.”

Hyeon is the illegitimate daughter of Lord Shin, who refuses to acknowledge her as his daughter. In their kingdom, Hyeon is seen as ‘belonging’ only to her mother, one of Lord Shin’s concubines, and therefore belongs to the ‘cheonmin class’ which she describes as ‘the lowest of the low’. Hyeon refuses to grow up into her mother however and dedicates herself to the study of medicine, eventually earning the coveted position of palace nurse. Hyeon hopes that her hard-work and ambition will result in her father’s approval but he continues to largely ignore her existence.
Hyeon’s life is upended when four women are murdered at the palace, most of whom were nurses like her. After her beloved mentor is accused and arrested for these murders Hyeon is determined to clear her name. Concerning rumours around the city claim that the Crown Prince is the killer, and Hyeon has no choice but to pursue this lead, even if doing so could potentially result in her ruin. Thankfully, Hyeon doesn’t have to navigate this world of dangerous court intrigues alone as she is aided by Eojin, an actual police officer. Eojin has some personal reasons for wanting to find the real killer so the two decide to combine their efforts. As they confront various people of interest they slowly begin to untangle the truth…of course, not everyone is happy with that and Hyeon risks losing what she’s worked so hard for.

The stakes were certainly high in this novel so I found myself reading this in quite a short amount of time, wanting to find out how our leads would manage to bring the real killer to justice.
The historical setting is the most well-developed aspect of the narrative. While there were some interactions that had slightly ‘modern’ dynamics (especially between the two leads), overall I liked the amount of detail that went into the setting. The author does use Hyeon as an ‘intermediary’ to the Joseon period (she sometimes forget certain key factors of her society, and asks someone to fill her in, other times she explains about Confucianism or other things that she would not really need to ‘explain’ to herself) but it kind of works as Hyeon does function as an extension of the reader. Her Daddy Issues™ and her role as a nurse are her main defining characteristic, which didn’t make for a truly fleshed out and fully dimensional character. All of the characters, in general, were fairly one-note, even Eojin. The story was more interested in establishing and exploring the setting and the mystery than in developing its characters. I am the type of reader who prefers character-driven stories (rather than plot-driven) so I wasn’t quite able to love this as much as I hoped I would. The mystery itself was a bit predictable, but that’s probably because I have read a ton of thrillers and whodunnits…(and watched one too many scooby-doo episodes/movies). Still, even if the storyline was vaguely formulaic I liked learning more about the Joseon era and I appreciated that the story isn’t romance heavy. Hyeong struggle for self-worth and self-actualization in a society that sees her as ‘less than’ was compelling, and the author also does a good job in regards to her conflicted feelings towards her father (wanting his love and respect while at the same time resenting what he stands for and the way he has treated her and his mother). The writing was at times a bit too dramatic and cheesy for my tastes (“silence fell, as chilling as the shadows enveloping us”, “a thought lurked in the far shadows of my mind”, “we seemed to have, in that moment, merged into one mind with one purpose: find the killer, find the truth”, “revenge begets revenge […] we become the monsters we are trying to punish”, “[her] mouth parted as though in a silent scream”). Still, I recognize that this type of style may very well work for other readers.
The romance was surprisingly cute. In fact, the ‘partnership’ between our leads was one of the most enjoyable things about the story. During their shared scenes Hyeon character became a bit more rounded and interesting.

All in all, I liked The Red Palace well enough! I would definitely recommend you check this one out for yourself and make up your own mind about it.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Having recently enjoyed reading Kevin Kwan’s A Room With A View re-telling, I was seriously expecting to love Crazy Rich Asians. I went into it hoping for a light-hearted and fun read but was instead met with a snooze-inducing story, a horrid cast of poorly developed characters, and an abundance of crass humor. I grew to hate all of the characters as well as the so-called plot and the tacky dialogues. Whereas I found Sex & Vanity to be a funny comedy of manners, Crazy Rich Asians struck me as garish and grating.
Rachel Chu, our supposed heroine, joins her boyfriend Nicholas Young as he travels to Singapore to be the best man at his best friend’s wedding. Nicholas has not informed Rachel of his family, who happen to be ‘crazy rich’. Because of this Rachel isn’t prepared to contend with his relatives’ opulent lifestyles nor is she expecting to encounter such cut-throat people, whose weapon of choice is malicious gossip. Although Rachel was raised in America her mother is from mainland China. Both of these things make her ‘undesirable’ to the older people in Nicholas’ family. His mother and grandmother in particular are set against her, so much so that they are willing to sabotage their relationship by any means necessary.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the story as much if it had focused on the conflict between Rachel and Nicholas’ mother. But, alas, hundreds of pages are dedicated to Nicholas’ horrid relations: there is Astrid, a spoiled yet self-pitying woman who will spend hundred of thousands on jewellery only to then bemoan how extravagant young people are. Her husband has a huge chip on his shoulder because he feels that her family treats him like a servant. She eventually comes across her first love who materializes from nowhere only to play the role of self-sacrificing cupid and gives Astrid some ‘advice’ on how to salvage her marriage, because he ‘knows’ men. There is Eddie, who is even more spoiled and obnoxious than Astrid. The narrative goes out of its way to paint him as a vulgar idiot who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There are plenty of additional characters who seem to share the same personality: they are mean, wasteful, vain, stupid, back-stabbing…the list goes on. I don’t have a problem with unlikeable characters. Some of my favourite novels, such as Madame Bovary or White Ivy, focus on less-than-likeable characters. However, the ones in Crazy Rich Asians are so painfully one-dimensional as to be utterly ridiculous. This slapdash satire is lazy and worst of all, painfully unfunny. All the husbands were dicks in the same way: they are cowards, weak, and possible cheaters. The women were divided into four categories: Rachel, who is Not Like Other Women, in that she uses her brain, she’s intelligent, she has a job, she (allegedly) doesn’t know or care about fashion or money; the ‘not so bad’ rich women such as Astrid and Rachel’s friend whose characters nevertheless revolve around what they wear or the fact that they like to spend money; the nasty set, which includes almost all of the women invited to the wedding, and these ones, well, they are Mean Girls who bully Rachel because they are jealous, and for all their love of fashion they do not possess Rachel’s innate simple yet elegant fashion sense; and the older women, which includes Nicholas’ mother, his aunts, and his grandmother who are also horrible and scheming (but are meant to be more ‘classy’ than the Mean Girls).

The plot goes in a circle forever. We see no meaningful interactions between Nicholas and his family, in fact, he gets less page time than most characters. He is Not Like Other Men in that he doesn’t care about money or status. Puh-lease. I found his denial of his wealth truly off-putting. I get that he was (somehow) the only one to be raised to be modest about the family fortune but the man has lived abroad and on his own, surely he must have gained some sort of perspective when it comes to his family’s wealth. But no! Time and again he denies that his family is rich, and I hated that. It made me want to reach into the page and slap him. This fake modesty is not pretty. I feel a similar type of rage when I think of those celebrities making videos where they say things along the lines ‘we are all in this pandemic together’. Bleargh. Fuck off, really. And Rachel, what a disappointing character. She was bland, painfully so. She never stands up to anyone, which, fair enough, given that maybe she doesn’t want to be disrespectful or aggravate certain situations but I found her passivity infuriating in the long run. Especially when it came to those Mean Girls. She also lacked ‘history’. It seemed that before her name appeared on the page she did not exist. With the exception of that one friend and her bf she has formed no other meaningful relationship…which is saying something given that she’s not a child.
Characters keep saying offensive things and no one really challenges their comments or views. If anything, the story goes to prove them ‘right’. Take the whole Kitty thing for example. At one point one of the female characters says that shopping can solve any problem a woman is having and I wanted to gouge my eyes out. The amount of girl-hate also drove me up the walls. I hate when male authors do this. It is as if they are compelled to write women as ‘catty’ and ‘competitive’ (whereas their male characters aren’t).
The book consists of characters gossiping, bicker, and bitching about one another. He said that she said that they said…etc. The one gay-coded character is portrayed as a snake (kwan, wtf? what is this, downton abbey?). The book exalts the characters’ extravagant lifestyles without anything meaningful to say about it. In fact, it just glorifies the ways of rich people. The constant name-dropping of fashion brands threatened to turn my brain to slush.
Anyway, this book has no redeeming qualities (for me of course). Rachel and Nicholas’ relationship felt like an afterthought almost. I never believed that they cared for each other and I think that Rachel should have not forgiven a man who lied by omission (about his past, his family, etc.). The last act was pure soap-opera. To use a possibly problematic term, that ‘twist’ was demented. Seriously so. That we don’t get any real scenes between Nicholas and his mother or even Rachel and his mother made their whole conflict bathetic.
This was meant to be an entertaining and escapist read but I was certainly not diverted. Maybe if you like shows like Gossip Girl you will find this more rewarding than I did. I, for one, do not care for this mindless glorification of the rich. Their ‘antics’, such as xenophobic, classist, and sexist comments as well as their ostentatious tastes and their constant need to travel by jet (who cares about the global carbon emissions!), are played up for laughs. This kind of mindless and gaudy satire achieves nothing. Bah. Maybe the film is more tolerable but this book is the definition of banal.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Honor by Thrity Umrigar

Previously to reading Thrity Umrigar’s Honor I’d read another novel with the same title and subject matter. Both books make for harrowing reads, however, whereas I found Elif Shafak’s more thoughtful tone to be more appropriate to the subject fitting, here, well, Umrigar’s undermines her social commentary by throwing into the mix a rushed romantic subplot, a series of blatant plot points and coincidences, an abundance of mawkish metaphors, and one too many cartoonish side characters.

At first, I found Umrigar’s Honor to be a rather gripping read as it promised to be an unflinching story tackling honor killings, Islamophobia, discrimination, and misogyny. The novel switches between two perspectives: Smita, an Indian American journalist who left India at a young age after a traumatic experience, and Meena, a Hindu woman who married a Muslim man. Meena has survived an attack that her husband did not. Her brothers, alongside other men from their community, tried to burn her alive. Now Meena and her newborn live with her mother-in-law who is resentful of her, blaming her for her son’s horrific death. Smita is given this story after her colleague is hospitalized. Initially, Smita isn’t too keen on this as she’s very uneasy about returning to India. A friend of her colleague becomes her travel companion. While she’s initially reluctant about his presence she quickly discovers that travelling alone is inadvisable.
Smita interviews Meena and learns the details of her vicious attack. She later on also interviews her brothers and a powerful man in their Hindu community. While they deny their involvement it is clear that they were not only responsible but have no remorse about having murdered their sister’s husband and disfigured her. Smita’s feelings towards India are repeatedly challenged by her companion who forces her not to dismiss a whole country on the basis of the actions of some. As Smita witnesses how Meena is treated by her mother-in-law and learns of how she was treated by her brothers, she becomes aware of her the privilege she carries being Indian American. Still, as a woman, she’s also exposed to the misogyny that is rampant in Meena’s community. Umrigar doesn’t paint Smita as a hero and I appreciated that sometimes, even when she’s trying to help someone, her actions do not have the desired consequences. In this way, I was reminded of The Far Field, another novel that is very much about privilege and guilt.
I did find Meena’s chapters to be a bit…condescending of her? Her vocabulary also struck me as inconsistent. Her chapters are in English for our eyes only, in reality, she’s speaking a dialect of Marathi, right? So why do her chapters occasionally seem to play up that she’s not well-spoken? Only for then to use complex sentences or allegories that really stood out in comparison to the rest of her narration? I don’t know…it seemed to me that the author was going to great lengths to portray Meena as this ‘simple’ village girl and it kind of annoyed me.
Smita also had her fair share of incongruities. For one, she claims to be good at her job yet she behaves really unprofessional. She tells off her companion, Mohan, for getting ‘emotional’ during one interview but she repeatedly does the same thing. She makes some really poor decisions and her line of questioning struck me ineffective.
For the majority of the narrative, the author does demonstrate her knowledge and insight into her story’s various subject matters (honor killings, religious conflicts, cultural and class divides). However, I did find her execution soap-operasish. At times her language, as well as her imagery, struck me as hackneyed, for example, “Smita could see the awful, irregular geometry of Meena’s face as past and present, normalcy and deformity, beauty and monstrosity, collided.” I also found it a bit predictable that Smita’s ‘past’, which has made her feel so conflicted about India, echoes in some ways Meena’s situation.
The pacing is fairly slow and I did not entirely understand why Meena’s chapters were even included given that, if anything, they made her relationship with her husband seem very rushed and random. The guy basically sees her once or twice while they are working and declares his undying love for her. His naivete about the fact that she’s Hindu and he is Muslim also struck me as a bit…unconvincing. I mean, he isn’t a child nor a hermit who is wholly unaware of his country’s political or social climate.
While the hearing’s result did strike me as sadly believable, I did find that section of the narrative somewhat rushed and illogical. Smita’s decision not to do something seemed a clear choice on the author’s part to force her character to feel guilty and haunted, indebted to stay in India. Smita’s relationship with Mohan also rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed a bit insensitive to have it so soon after yet another horrific plot point. The whole finale was corny, extremely so, and I hated how illogical it all was. Even if you have the character point out how ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ they are by believing that they have just been given a ‘sign’ from above, it still doesn’t make it believable to have that character uphold their lives because of that random sign. The secondary characters were very one-note, the majority of them are horrible, ignorant, or a combination of the two things. Most of the Indian female characters, with the exception of Meena, are really nasty to Smita for no good reason. I didn’t understand the point of her American colleague, Shannon, either. Her translator, Nandini, also served no purpose other than having scenes where Smita thinks her devotion to Shannon is’ weird’, and in a very childish manner wonders whether she’s in love with her. Grow up Smita, ffs.
Sadly, while I appreciate that the author has tackled such important issues, I found her storytelling to be too…shall I say, ‘book-clubby’ for my taste. I did like that at the end she makes a point of stating how absurd it is that ‘honor’ killings are referred to as such when there is truly nothing honorable about them.

my rating: ★★½