Little Family by Ishmael Beah – book review

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“Almost everything in this country is on its way to losing itself.”

Little Family is a deeply felt novel. Set in an unnamed African country, the narrative revolves around five young people whose makeshift home is a derelict airplane.
Ishmael Beah’s paints a sobering landscape: government corruption, extreme social divide, the malignant vestiges of colonialism, colourism, military/police brutality. The ‘little family’ at the heart of his novel do their best to survive, pouring their different skills and strengths into clever swindles. Beah’s illuminating prose gracefully renders their day to day activities.
The first half of the novel follows each member of the family without delving into their pasts. I really loved these early chapters. In spite of the dangers they face, the members of this family are brave beyond belief. Beah clearly has a wonderful ear for the rhythm of children’s conversations: there is silliness and the kind of banter that teeters between playful and not-so-playful. Unlike the adults in his novel Beah never dismisses the voices of his young characters. Although they are painfully aware of being “the ones society had no use for”, and that each day may bring a new form of dehumanization, they unanimously wish for change (for safety, for their poverty to end, for their country to rid itself of corruption and the inequalities brought by colonialism).
Elimane and Khoudi, the older members of this little family, are not only incredibly self-aware (of their role in their society, of their country’s fraught history, of the different degrees of inequality within their community) but often encourage others to question established norms. As we follow them during their daily routines we gain an impression of the dynamics within this family. It was Namsa, the youngest one in the family, who stood out to me in this first half of the novel. She approaches her family’s excursion with a sense of buoyant adventure, and although she worries that she won’t be able to keep up with the others, she’s just as, if not more, quick-witted.
While outside of their home the group often has to keep apart from each other, as not to draw suspicion, the depth of their bond, their mutual ease and trust, is clear.
The tempo in the latter half of the novel is far less absorbing. The story focuses almost exclusively on Khoudi and her ‘awakening’. What follows is rather predictable: she learns the power of her own body, becomes intrigued and eventually entangled with a group of privileged young people, and distances herself from the ‘self’ she is within the ‘little family’. While I can appreciate a ‘coming of age’ tale or a story that charts a quest for one’s identity, I did find Khoudi’s journey to be clichéd and clearly written by a man. There are a few scenes that seem straight out of a boy’s fantasy of a girl who is on the cusps of womanhood (discovering her beauty and sexual desire, becoming close to another beautiful young woman…and of course, although each one of them is interest/infatuated with a man, when they are alone together they kiss…but it means nothing). The tonal shift too, left me wanting. The little family is sidelined in favour of a love story, one that was particularly uninspired (if anything the whole star-crossed lovers thing made Khoudi’s early characterisation somewhat redundant). The ending was abrupt and unsatisfying.
As much as I loved the first half, Khoudi’s half was bland. I also felt annoyed that the characters we grown to know in the early chapters are more or less abandoned by the narrative in favour of a romance.
Still, the author treats his characters and the issues they face with empathy so I would probably recommend this one to those readers who don’t mind when novels change the direction of their story.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner — book review

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“It’s almost religious, that belief, that faith that a piece of silk or denim or cotton jersey could disguise your flaws and amplify your assets and make you both invisible and seen, just another normal woman in the world; a woman who deserves to get what she wants.”

Beach read meets mystery in Jennifer Weiner Big Summer. Daphne Berg is a plus-sized ‘influencer’ (I have a hard time using this word unironically) who after years of being subjected to all sorts of body-shaming (from strangers on the internet to her own friends and relatives) has finally started to become more confident in her body. While in many ways she loves her ‘community’, since it encourages her and others to love themselves and their bodies, the influencer lifestyle isn’t all its cracked up to be.

“The trick of the Internet, I had learned, was not being unapologetically yourself or completely unfiltered; it was mastering the trick of appearing that way.”

The first of the novel focuses in particular on Daphne’s relationship with her body over the years by giving us some snapshots from her childhood (her grandmother is monstrous towards her). There are many painful moments in which readers become intimate with Daphne’s most innermost thoughts and fears. We’re also introduced to her former best friend. Drue is conventionally beautiful and comes from an incredibly wealthy family. Their friendship is not an easy one as Drue toys around with Daphne’s feelings, treating her as her closest confidant one moment and pretending she doesn’t exist the next. Unsurprisingly, after a particularly cruel night, Daphne finally calls out Drue on her behaviour and cuts ties with her.
Years later, when Daphne’s is a successful influencer, Drue shows up again in her life and asks her (begs her really) to be her bridesmaid. In Cape Cod, the wedding location, the novel shifts gears. (view spoiler)
While I appreciated the complexities of Daphne and Drue friendship, and the way in which Drue wasn’t painted in an entirely negative way, as well as the novel’s early discussions around body positivity, I just did not care for the mystery (which was predictable at every turn). The love interest was a very dull character indeed (did we really need him in the story?).

While for the most part I enjoyed Weiner’s prose I did find the constant descriptions of her characters’ physical appearance to be tiring. Even characters who make small cameos are described within an inch of their life (their eyes, teeth, skin, legs, arms, stomachs). While I could accept that Daphne has an eye for other people’s clothes (due to her job), the detailed, and often exaggerated, accounts of random people’s appearances added little to the story.
Still Big Summer is far more thoughtful than other ‘light’ reads.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Maurice by E.M. Forster — book review

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

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

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

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Night Music by Jenn Marie Thorne — book review

30189974.jpgA delightful and thoughtful summer romance meets the classical music world in Jenn Marie Thorne’s criminally underrated Night Music.
Ruby, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the renowned composer Martin Chertok, has always felt the pressure of her name. However, unlike her older siblings, who have all embarked on successful musical careers, Ruby messes up her audition for Amberley School of Music. Having dedicated the last ten years of her life to her piano, Ruby struggles to envision a future outside of the music world. Her mother, a famous piano player, is far more concerned with her tours than Ruby. Her father, who is on Amberley’s faculty, is also far too devoted to his work. Ruby decides to figure out who she is and what she wants to do over the course of the summer…and then she walks in on her father’s new protégé playing her piano. After a viral YouTube video Oscar gained the attention of Martin and Amberley.
While Ruby certainly feels somewhat envious of Oscar’s musical genius, she soon developed feelings for him, and their bond is solidified by their love for music.
Oscar, who is black, knows all too well that his relationship with Ruby might jeopardise this one in a lifetime opportunity. Regardless, the two find themselves falling for each other.
Their relationship struck me as refreshingly ‘grown-up’. There is no ‘will they, won’t they’. Ruby is immediately drawn to Oscar, and their close-living quarters allows them to spend a lot of time together.
In many ways Night Music is a coming of age. Both Ruby and Oscar struggles against social and familial pressures: Ruby’s name may be ‘prestigious’ but it is very much a burden, while Oscar has to reconcile his love for classical music with its institutional racial bias.
I simply love the realistic way in which Thorne interrogates themes of privilege and failure. Being branded a genius or a prodigy is not all its cracked up to be.

One of my favourite shows is Mozart in the Jungle and Night Music provides us with a similar take on the classical music world. Thorne’s setting (New York) too is also wonderfully rendered.
The romance between Ruby and Oscar is incredibly sweet. Ruby’s relationship with her parents was complicated and believable. More than anything I appreciated Ruby’s self-growth, her self-awareness, and her willingness to recognise and call her self out for her own privileged background or for the presumptions she makes about others.
I’ve read this twice and I look forward to reading it a third time.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel — book review

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“But they were citizens of a shadow country that in his previous life he’d only dimly perceived, a country located at the edge of an abyss. ”

Emily St. John Mandel’s prose in The Glass Hotel is certainly striking. She deftly weaves realism with a dreamlike atmosphere, while also adding an elegiac touch to otherwise mundane scenes and observations. Occasionally her style seems intentionally opaque, such as when she keeps her characters’ motivations slightly out of our reach. Nevertheless, her prose retains a compelling and extremely readable quality.

“He feels it’s important to keep the two separate, memory vs. counterlife, but he’s been finding the separation increasingly difficult. It’s a permeable border.”

The Glass Hotel reads like a series of short stories or vignettes that are linked together by certain familiar names and faces as well as some memorable incidents (the “Why don’t you swallow broken glass” graffiti) and life-changing events (a Ponzi scheme).
Most chapters introduce us to a new character: we begin with Paul, Vincent’s troubled half-brother, who has spent most of his life as an addict. We then move to Walter the night manager at the Hotel Caiette where Paul and Vincent also work, respectively as the night houseman and bartender. The following chapters focus in particular on the hotel’s owner, Jonathan Alkaitis, his coworkers, employees, and somewhat peripherally on his victims. Vincent is one of the story’s central characters, as she becomes involved with Alkaitisa.
To say more about these characters or their stories would be giving too much away. Most of them are unhappy, or feel somewhat unfilled, and most of them dream of entering or remaining in ‘the kingdom of money’.

Throughout these entwining narratives Mandel examines themes of guilt and culpability. Characters are often forced to reconcile themselves with the consequences of their own actions. There are those who are willing to use, betray, or manipulate others for their own personal gain, and there also those who feel like they themselves are victims. Through her perceptive prose Mandel creates some rather nuanced portrayals: her characters’ may be selfish, self-seeking, unwilling to change or to admit fault but they also have moments of self-awareness and empathy.
Their conversations and interactions always rang true to life, and there are no enlightening or cathartic moments or encounters. While there are quite a few incredibly wealthy characters, the novel does not glamorise them or their lifestyles. If anything Mandel depicts just how fallible and human people ultimately are, regardless of their finances or social status.

There were certain chapters that felt gimmicky: such as the ‘chorus’ one, narrated by ‘we’, Alkaitis’ employees. Their names and personalities sort of blurred together. Contrast those ‘chorus’ chapters with the novel’s first chapter (which followed Paul) or the ones in which Alkaitis’ is imprisoned…and well, they just seemed lacking. Paul’s chapter was narrated with such clarity and feeling that makes chapters like the ‘chorus’ one seem contrived and unsatisfying.

The thing that kept me from really enjoying this novel, other than its not always satisfying crosscutting narratives, was Vincent. Whereas every other single character is flawed she is presented as inherently different from others. Her art struck me as childish (taking 5 minute videos of the landscape?…) and most of what she says or does seemed to be an attempt at emphasising at her mysterious ‘uniqueness’…and I just really dislike this type of character. She wasn’t fascinating or particularly believable, and it seemed a pity that she is the character who appears almost throughout the course of this novel. It seemed she was good at everything she set out to do (bartending, being Alkaitis’ wife, working as a cook, being an artist). Not only did I find her to be apathetic but she was curiously enough the most unsympathetic of the lot.

Personally, I would have preferred this novel if it had maintained its focus on the Hotel Caiette, rather than delving into the consequences of a Ponzi scheme. Given the novel’s summary and title I also thought that the “Why don’t you swallow broken glass” message would play a bigger role in the various narratives. Paul and Vincent relationship also felt like a missed opportunity…Vincent in particular would have benefited from having some more ‘background’ (for example her relationship with her aunt or her mother). But she seemed so untethered from others, her only defining quality was her lacklustre art.

While The Glass Hotel is certainly well-written and presents its readers with a series of interesting and intersecting narratives, which often feature characters in moral or financial crisis, part of me wished that Mandel had presented us with a more in-depth examination of her characters and their lives. Vincent in particular was an extremely dissatisfying character who seemed to possess only the shadow of a personality. She was too vacant.
The imagery and themes within this novel struck me as characteristic of Mandel: boats, containers, white-collar crimes, discussions on art…I’m sure that fans of Mandel will be able to appreciate The Glass Hotel more than I was.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Real Life by Brandon Taylor — book review

“Is it into this culture that he is to emerge? Into the narrow, dark water of real life?”

It had been awhile since I finished a book in one day or since I read a book that made me cry…but once I started Real Life I simply couldn’t stop, even if what I was reading made me mad, then sad, then mad again, and then sad all over again.
This is one heart-wrenching novel. Reading it was an immersive and all-consuming experience. I felt both secondhand anxiety, embarrassment, and anger, and the more I read the more frustrated I became by my own impotence…still, I kept on reading, desperate to catch a glimpse of hope or happiness…

“People can be unpredictable in their cruelty.”

Taylor’s riveting debut novel chronicles a graduate student’s turbulent weekend. At its heart, this is the Wallace’s story. Wallace is gay, black, painfully aware of his almost debilitating anxiety and of what he perceives as his physical and internal flaws.
As one the few black men in this unnamed Midwestern city, and the only black man in his course, Wallace knows that he is in a ‘different’ position from his white friends. After a childhood disrupted by poverty and many traumatic experiences, he withdraws into studies, dedicating most of his waking hours to lab tests and projects. Yet, even if he works twice as hard as other students, many still imply—directly and non—that he was accepted into this program only because of his skin colour.

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty. Maybe that’s all they’re doing, lacerating each other and expecting kindness back.”

Real Life has all the trappings of a campus novel. From its confined setting of a university city—in which we follow Wallace as he goes to a popular student hangout by the lake, to his uni’s labs, to his or his friends’ apartments—to its focus on the shifting alliances and power dynamics between a group of friends. Yet, Taylor’s novel also subverts some of this genre’s characteristic. The academic world is not as sheltering as one might first imagine. Questioning ‘real life vs. student life’ becomes a leitmotif in the characters’ conversations. Taylor’s novel offers a much more less idyllic and romantic vision of the academic world than most other campus novels. If anything we became aware of the way in which ‘real life’ problems make their way into a student’s realm.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else. As if affection were a kind of cruelty too.”

From the very first pages we see Wallace’s environment and ‘friends’ through his alienated lenses. While most of his friends are queer—gay, bisexual, or an unspecified sexuality—they are white and from far more privileged backgrounds. At the beginning of the novel Wallace ‘gives in’ and agrees to meet them by the lake, after having avoided them for a long period of time.
What unfolds is deeply uncomfortable to read. In spite of their laughter and smiles, these people do not strike as friends. Their banter is cutting, their off-handed comments have sharp edges, and they are all incredibly and irresolutely selfish. Taylor’s quickly establishes the toxic dynamics between these ‘friends’. While they might not be directly aggressive or hostile, they repeatedly hurt, belittle, betray, and undermine one other.
The distance Wallace feels from them is overwhelming. Yet, even if he tries to be on the outskirts of their discussions, he finds himself having to deal with their racist or otherwise hurtful remarks. Worst still, he is confronted with his ‘friends’ cowardice when they feign that they do not say racist or demeaning things. If anything they usually imply that he is the one who is oversensitive.

Over this weekend we see time and again just how horribly solipsistic and cowardly Wallace’s friends are. They mask their racism and elitism under a pretence of wokeness. Similarly, one of Wallace’s fellow students, believes that as a feminist she can be openly homophobic and racist, throwing around words such as misogynistic without thought or consequence in order to masquerade her own bigotry.
Wallace’s friends’ racism is far more surreptitious. For the most part they pretend that race doesn’t matter, and that is Wallace who makes a ‘big deal’ out of nothing. Yet, when someone say something discriminatory out loud, they do nothing.

As he hangs out with his friends he finds himself noticing just how far from perfect they are. A perfect or happy life seems unattainable. Even moments of lightheartedness or contentment give way to arguments and disagreements within this group. Even if what plagues Wallace’s mind is far more disturbing than what his friends’ rather mundane worries (regarding their future careers, current relationship etc) he often chooses to comfort or simply listen to them, rather than pouring his own heart out. Wallace knows that they couldn’t possibly understand his relationship to his family and past.

“He misses, maybe, also, other things, the weight of unnamed feelings moving through him. And those feelings were transmuted into something cruel and mean.
There was an economy to it, even when you couldn’t see it at first, a shadow calculation running underneath all their lives.”

While he may not voice his troubles while he is hanging out with his ‘friends’, Wallace’s mind is often occupied with his own past and future. Taylor does a terrific job in giving us an impression of Wallace’s discordant psyche. Moments of dissociation make him further retread within himself, escaping his uncomfortable surroundings. Like Wallace we begin to see his surroundings as unpleasant and claustrophobic. At times the people around him blur together, blending into a sea of white faces, making him feel all the more isolated.
Wallace’s own insecurities colour most of his thoughts, feelings, and actions. Even when I could not understand him or in his moments of selfishness, I found myself caring for him and deeply affected by his circumstances. What he experiences…is brutal. When his coping mechanism (work/studying) is threatened his mental health spirals out of control.

The halting and recursive dialogue is incredibly realistic. Even when discussing seemingly ordinary things there is an underlying tension. And there is almost a stop-start quality to the characters’ conversations that struck me for its realism. The way in which their arguments spiral into awkward silences, the tentative words that follow more heated ones, the impact of tone and interpretation.

A sense of physicality, of eroticism, pervades Taylor’s narrative. Characters are often compared to animals, close attention is paid to their bodies—from their skin to their limbs—and to the way the move and look by themselves and together as a group. This attentiveness towards the body emphasises Wallace’s own insecurity about the way he looks. In one of his more brooding moments he finds himself questioning whether he wants to be or be with an attractive guy. His contemplations about same-sex attraction definitely resonated with me. Envy and desire are not mutually exclusive.

“This is perhaps why people get together in the first place. The sharing of time. The sharing of the responsibility of anchoring oneself in the world. Life is less terrible when you can just rest for a moment, put everything down and wait without having to worry about being washed away.”

Taylor often contrasts seemingly opposing feelings. For example, sensual moments are underpinned by a current of danger. Wallace seems to find both force and vulnerability erotic.
Taylor’s narrative repeatedly examines the tense boundaries between pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, tenderness and violence. Taylor projects Wallace’s anxiety, depression, and discomfort onto his narrative so that a feeling of unease underlines our reading experience.

“He had considered himself a Midwesterner at heart, that being in the South and being gay were incompatible, that no two parts of a person could be more incompatible. But standing there, among the boats, shyly waiting to discover the people to whom he felt he would belong, he sensed the foolishness in that.”

Taylor’s prose could be in turns thoughtful and jarring. There are disturbingly detailed descriptions about Wallace’s lab-work, unflinching forays into past traumas, and thrilling evocations of sexual desire.

A seemingly ordinary weekend shows us just how inescapable social hierarchies are. The secular world of academia does not entirely succeed in keeping the real world at bay. Depression, anxiety, dysphoria, the lingering effects of abuse all make their way into Wallace’s story. We read of his confusing desires, of his ‘friends’ hypocrisy, of his own appetite for self-destruction…Real Life is not an easy read. There were many horrible moments in which I wanted to jump into the narrative to shake Wallace’s friends. Wallace too, pained me. In spite of his observant nature, he remains detached. He picks up on his friends’ horrible behaviour but with one or two exceptions he does not oppose them. Yet, I could also see why he remained passive. Being in his position is exhausting.

“It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty. It grates him to consider this, the shutting away of the part of him that now throbs and writhes like a new organ that senses so keenly the limitations of his life.”

Even if I craved for a more reassuring ending I still think that this is an impressive debut novel one that strikingly renders what it feels to inhabit a black body in a white-dominated environment. Real Life tackles racism, privilege, cruelty, cultural and power dynamics, and the complexities of sexual desire head on. Wallace’s friends are aggravating if not downright despicable. Which is perhaps why when alongside Wallace we glimpse some kindness in them, it makes us all the more upset.

Reading Real Life made me uncomfortable, angry, sad. Lines like these, “He typically brings crackers or another form of fiber because his friends are all full of shit and need cleaning out from time to time”, even made me laugh out loud.
What I’m trying to say, or write is this: this is a brilliant novel, one you should definitely read (with some caution, of course).
Anyhow, I can’t wait to read more by Taylor.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen — book review

40535984.jpgA Beautiful Crime is a tantalisingly suspenseful part thriller part romance, one that brilliantly captures the landscape, aesthetics, and politics of Venice.

“The love of the city had killed its people. Quite simply, Venice had been visited to death.”

The opening of the novel has a terrific hook. We know that someone at some point is going to die. But who? And how?

“When you see an opportunity, take it. You can brood over the ethics later.”

Vaguely reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley but starring two much more sympathetic, and empathetic, protagonists, A Beautiful Crime follows a tense cat-and-mouse game in which readers are never sure who is deceiving who.

Nick is a twenty-five year old from Ohio whose move to New York didn’t exactly result in a clearer idea of who he is or what he wants to do. His older boyfriend doesn’t seem to understand Nick’s restlessness. When Nick meets Clay, who is just two years older than him and from New York, sparks fly.
In spite of their different backgrounds, they fall hard and fast for each other. Clay, rumoured to have murdered his best friend after having tricked him into making him his heir, needs a lot of money and fast. Together they decide that the easiest way to get so much money is to con someone who has more money than sense. It just so happens that the person Clay hates most in the world fits the bill.
In order for their plan to succeed they go to Venice since it is where Richard Forsyth West, aka their mark, is currently staying.

Christopher Bollen maintains a taut tension throughout the course of his narrative. Readers, alongside Nick and Clay, will fear that some hitch might reveal and ruin their plans. What may appear as simple conversations will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. And while we know that objectively what Nick and Clay are doing is wrong, we are still rooting for them to succeed.
Time and time again, in both New York and Venice, Nick and Clay wrestle with their morals as well as their greed, desire, love, and any personal vendettas they may or may not harbour.

Bollen’s writing style presents us with some breathtaking and insightful descriptions of Venice. As a former resident of the comune of Venice I am perhaps a bit too critical when I read novels that feature this city. So, I’m happy to say, or write, that Bollen’s depiction of this city is truly true to life. He really does render its beauty and incongruities, providing an interesting commentary on Venice and its inhabitants, of its fatal dependency on tourism, and of the way it is perceived by the rest of the world.
Although both Nick and Clay view Venice through the eyes of an outsider, the Venetians we encounter along the way, from Daniela to Battista, give us an insight of the ‘real’ Venice.

“What would Venice be like without any Venetians living in it? There were only fifty-three thousand of these rare humans left, and the number was shrinking by a thousand each year.”

Venice is much more than the glamorous backdrop to Nick and Clay con as in many ways it plays a central role in the story. It is a city or romance and of ruin. It fills Nick and Clay with equal parts awe and melancholy. The dizzying spell it casts on those who live there is clear. There were moments in which Bollen’s portrayal of Venice brought to mind Thomas Mann’s in Death in Venice. In both of these works Venice appears as a labyrinthine and suggestive city one that might very well bring the worst out of people.

“Nick was hallucinating. Hew was mistaking marble ballrooms and gilt facades and velvet-upholstered gondolas for real life. People went mad in Venice because it lacked the reality check of poverty and ugliness and ordinary struggles. ”

Alongside this high-stakes con we read of Nick and Clay’s relationship. Part of me wanted to see more of them together but in order for their plan to succeed it is vital they are not seen together, so it made sense that they didn’t get share many scenes. Their feelings for one another add a moving note to the story.
Both the secondary characters and the ones who had only small cameos were nuanced and fully fleshed out. At times it was difficult to discern whether someone’s intentions were good or bad which made the story all the more compelling.

“These monsters, Nick thought, and at the same exact moment, These wonderful people.”

Bollen does a terrific job in rendering the ‘artsy’ community of Venice and of giving us an amusing impression of the ‘inglese italianato’ (or perhaps in this case the Americano italianato/the Italianised American) those types of art and cultural enthusiasts who like to play at being intellectual.

I also appreciated the novel’s engagement with issues such as racism (Clay is black), class, and privilege. Wealth, youth, and beauty also make their way into Bollen’s narrative. Both Nick and Clay have to confront their own desire for wealth and of what they would be willing to do for their own safety.

I only spotted two mistakes in Bollon’s Italian which is so refreshing! Usually books set in Italy by non-Italian writers are not only riddled with clichés but with easily avoided mistakes (such as papa instead of papà). Bollon not only captures Venice but he also mentions the Venice-Mestre dynamic.

Bollon’s engaging prose offers plenty of amusing descriptions (“the silent brag of an attractive companion”), easily renders a beautiful landscape, and provides thoughtful character studies.

A Beautiful Crime is an exhilarating novel that will have you flipping pages like there’s no tomorrow. In spite of its dark moments and of the unease the pervades most of its scenes, Bollen’s narrative maintains a beautiful momentum. Through striking depictions of love, friendship, and, of course, Venice A Beautiful Crime is a thrilling read.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

Some of my favourite quotes

“He believed in friendliness the same way he believed in his youth: he thought both could save him. His youth and friendliness were master keys to all future rooms.”

“The world promised Nick nothing at that age but showed him glimpses of its finest possibilities.”

“For him, walking around as a gay man in his hometown was tantamount to being out on bail: he was free to go about his business, but everyone treated him with a heightened suspicion, as if unsure whether he had committed a crime.”

“Nick saw it as a chance to be delivered from the purgatory of mid-twenties aimlessness.”

“In the stronghold of dry, hot days, visitors clotted the streets like human glue, and cruise ships barged into San Marco’s Basin with horns that blasted louder than any church bells.”

“Wheelie suitcases had become the unofficial soundtrack of Venice, a city that had triumphed for millennia on the very absence of wheels.”

“It was a secondhand high to watch a first-timer take in the city.”

“Another person’s idea of normalcy was always a foreign country, just as your borders on that dominion were constantly expanding or shrinking, ejecting proud, long-standing residents while taking in exciting new émigrés that would have been denied entry the year before.”

“In the hush of early evening, Venice changed from past to present. ”

“Nick preferred to think of people as messy whirlpools of wants and desires, as unpredictable bundles of urges even when the appropriate bait was placed in front of them. ”

“Nothing else could touch him, large or small, because he’d filled his quota on pain. But the loss of a parent doesn’t immunize a person from betrayal any more than surviving a shark bite protects its victim from a car crash.”

“Nick found himself impressed by his own bullshit. It was undeniably top-quality bullshit. It sounded so erudite and convincing, even to the one who was spewing it.”

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Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

2505972493_e0150cbe1c_b.jpgInvitation to the Waltz is a short novel which was first published in 1932 and written by Rosamond Lehmann, an overlooked yet clearly talented author. The narrative takes place over the course of two days: the day of Olivia Curtis’ seventeenth birthday and the day in which, together with her older sister Kate and a dullish male chaperone, she goes to her first dance.

“And they waltzed together to the music made for joy. She danced with him in love and sorrow. He held her close to him, and he was far away from her, far from the music, buried and indifferent. She danced with his youth and his death.”

This is not the type of novel that has a clear storyline or plot. Lehmann spends a large portion of her narrative conveying Olivia’s various states of mind and detailing the frivolous chit-chat between the people around her on these two separate days (from her family members to her neighbours).
From the start readers will be aware of Olivia’s self-awareness over her own shyness and inexperience. Feeling inferior to the more mature and beautiful Kate, Olivia is desperately looking forward to her first dance as she hopes that something will happen there, even if she does not know exactly what that something should or will be. Lehmann skilfully renders Olivia’s innermost thoughts, emphasising the elusive shape of her desires. Olivia’s character brought to mind the nameless narrator of Rebecca as they are both almost painfully aware of being seen as young and green by the people around them. Olivia comes to mythologize the dance, regarding this event as something more than a rite of passage.

Lehmann’s style possesses an unflagging rhythm that effectively propels readers along. Between Olivia’s inner monologue and the constant—and often empty—chatter between the various characters Lehmann’s narrative almost becomes too much. The way in which she moves from conversation to conversation or from thought to thought gave her style a syncopated energy that was too nervy for my liking (it brought to mind the writing of Muriel Spark and Dorothy Baker).
I can definitely see why many readers compare Lehmann to Virginia Woolf. At the best of times I will find stream of consciousness to be too florid for my taste…so I was slightly put off by Lehmann’s use of this technique.

The long-awaited dance did not strike me as particularly memorable as lot of potentially significant scenes or conversations are absorbed into the noisy and forgettable chatter and general hubbub of the party.

On the one hand, I appreciated how upbeat this novel is and the way Lehmann captured that awkward transition between girlhood and adulthood…on the other, I can’t say that I was particularly engaged by her narrative or her characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë — book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bleak House by Charles Dickens — book review

9780307947192.jpegWhile the first few chapters of Bleak House are rather entertaining, the fifty chapters that follow? Not so much.

There is a lot of ‘jumble and jargon’ going on in Bleak House. Having genuinely loved Great Expectations I am rather disappointment by this novel.
The humour present in Bleak House consists mostly in the narrative painting its characters as utter fools and in the usage and repetition of funny names (such as Boodle, Coodle, Doodle, Goodle, Hoodle, Joodle, Koodle, Loodle, Moodle, Noodle, Poodle, and Quoodle….highly amusing stuff, right?).

This mammoth of a novel presents its readers with a dizzying constellation of subplots that are allegedly unified by the absurd and never-ending court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
The novel intertwines two narratives: one is from the heroine’s, Esther Summerson, perspective, while the other one is the classic omniscient narrative. These two narratives have rather clashing tones: Esther’s chapters convey her ‘kind’ worldview (and alongside her we are supposed to feel pity for everybody she encounters and everything that happens) while the third-person one makes fun of everybody and everything. In one we are meant to take seriously the characters and their dramas, while in the other we are made to see the story’s many players as little more than laughing stocks.
Only one scene truly struck me as bleak. Every single other ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ thing after that? Those scenes were laughable. Character drop dead for no good reason, and their deaths have no emotional impact on other characters or the narrative itself.
Scenes that should be of key-importance are sped through, yet we linger on recursive dialogues and jumbled monologues. The interactions between Dickens’ various characters are extremely formulaic, so much so that one could always predict the way certain discussions or exchanges would end.
Whereas in Great Expectations I came to care for the all the characters—whether they were simple, ambitious, or somewhat removed—Bleak House seems to be populated by impossibly static characters. In spite of the many life-changing events they experience, they seem not to undergo any actual character change or development. They all have their fixed role, and they stick to it. They also one or two catchphrases which they seem to say whenever they make an appearance. They are unfunny caricatures who always behave in a certain silly way or say a certain silly thing. Within their first few appearances readers know that they are parodies, so why constantly repeat their ‘catchphrases’ or clumsily emphasise their vices/hypocrisies?
Rather than finding them amusing or clever, they annoyed me to no end. We have two or three virtuous young women, a lot of incompetent men, a few not-so-charitable charity-obsessed women, one or two cunning men, the ‘I know nothing’ or ‘I’m just a child’ type of characters…they all irked me. Their silly names failed to amuse me and I struggled to keep them straight in my mind as they all played a similarly clown-ish role.
Rather than focusing on parodying the legal system, Dickens’ attention seems to be all over the place Any aside or digression will do. Whether these digressions and ramblings are amusing or relevant…that seems of no concern. I soon came to regard these narratives as little more than words piled on words piled on words (ie. there was no, nil, nada, suspension of disbelief on my part).

The most dislikable thing about Bleak House is its heroine. I’m glad she’s Dickens’ only female narrator as her characterisation is utterly ridiculous (is this really how Dickens’ thinks that women are/were?). I guess this an early example on how to write an unbelievable female lead. Perhaps a third person narrative could have made her less insufferable…
Esther Summerson is a paragon of purity. She is self-effacing, kind-hearted, empathetic, self-sacrificing, forgiving, innocent, a true Mother Teresa.
I know that characters such as her can have a certain function in a narrative…usually however they are not the narrators and they are not to be taken seriously. Here it seemed that readers are not only meant to believe in Esther’s existence but also like her. Personally, I’d rather read from the perspective of an unscrupulous social-climber or an ambivalent dark horse than from this type of demure and saintly young woman. Throughout the narrative Esther appears as the embodiment of perfection. Esther does no wrong and everyone loves her. She spends her narrative saying ‘dear’ this and that or feeling ‘sad’ or ‘pity’ for others. She gave me a massive toothache and I was relieved to see her narrative draw to a close.
Also, this might seem like I’m being unnecessarily picky, variations of the word ‘tremble’ appear 35 times. I probably wouldn’t have minded if the word had been attached to different characters. In Bleak House 99% of the trembling is done by none other than our heroine, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes Esther Summerson.
This book had a potentially intriguing storyline. Sadly the mystery is lost in an ocean of subplots, side-stories, and never-ending digressions. Dickens’ serious themes—such as extreme poverty, child neglect, domestic abuse, class disparity—are diluted and overshadowed by his humour. His satire is all bark and no bite, his heroine is trying, the legions of secondary characters are forgettable and mildly annoying…all in all this was an unnecessarily long and rather forgettable novel.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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