Ru by Kim Thúy

I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life’s duty was to prolong that of my mother.

Ru is a short read that blurs the line between fiction and autobiography (autofiction..i guess?) and is comprised of very short chapters, most of them consisting of a couple of short paragraphs. These chapters, which often barely last a page, capture an instant or impression experienced by our Vietnamese-Canadian narrator. The feelings, thoughts, images, and anecdotes, that appear on these pages have a snapshot quality, both because the author is able to capture these in a concise yet hauntingly evocative prose. The narrator is now married with two children, one of whom is neurodivergent. While we do gain an understanding of her life in the present, the narrative is mainly preoccupied with her past. The narrator’s recollections of her ‘disrupted’ childhood are unsparingly unsentimental. She remembers her experiences at a refugee camp in Malaysia, the difficulties of trying to assimilate into a culture that sees you as ‘other’, her early years in Vietnam, her beloved Uncle Two, while also reflecting on the limitations of language and of memory, on history and alternate histories, on trauma, and on cultural dissonance.

The vignettes her reminiscences present to us have a fragmented quality, so that much of the narrator’s personal life and past remains shrouded in ambiguity. There is also an aloofness to her narration that made much of what she was recounting feel remote, intentionally so I believe. By distancing herself from her past the narrator is able to approach it with, curiously enough, far more clarity. There is a neutrality to her inner monologue that could easily lead one to believe that she too is like us merely a ‘witness’ as opposed to the person to who these things have happened to. I liked the stark imagery, the narrator’s cool tone, and the ideas and issues weaving her ‘retrospective’.
If you like proses that are so sharp you are liable to cut yourself or have a preference for non-linear narratives composed of a character’s past and present impressions (be it autofiction such as All Men Want to Know and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, or literary fiction like as Ghost Forest) you should definitely add Ru to your tbr pile.

While I understood that many of the things the narrator divulges to ‘us’ are meant to elicit feelings of discomfort and unease, the way she sees her son’s autism gave me pause (she is “waging war against autism, even if I know already that it’s invincible”). While I understand too well that many countries still have a negative view of autism here it struck me that the narrator was creating an unfortunate parallel between her son’s autism and the Vietnam war that rubbed me the wrong way. I’m sure other readers will not be as ‘bothered’ by this but to be perfectly honest this aspect of the narrative detracted from my overall reading experience. Nevertheless I will definitely read more by Thúy.

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: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Woman Running in the Mountains by Yūko Tsushima

This is my second novel by Yūko Tsushima and I’m happy to I appreciated it a lot more than Territory of Light. While both works explore single-motherhood in 1970s Japan, Woman Running in the Mountains struck me as far more accomplished. This is a very introspective narrative that examines the repercussions of motherhood on a young woman named Takiko. From detailing the changes her body experiences during her pregnancy to interrogating how her sense of self has been irrevocably changed after she’s given birth to her son, Takiko engages in a long act of self-examination. We see how her shifting self-perception is affected by her being a mother and the numbness, exhaustion, and anxiety that overcome her as she tries to raise her son in a very conservative country. The father of her child is a married man and has no idea Takiko has given birth to their child. Takiko’s parents are deeply ashamed of her and physically and emotionally mistreat her. During the last months of her pregnancy, her mother insists that she should either get an abortion or give her baby up for adoption. Her father, who after a work injury stays all day at home drinking, who even prior to her pregnancy was verbally and physically abusive towards her, becomes increasingly hostile towards Takiko. Her younger brother is perhaps the only member of her family who doesn’t seek to shame and or punish Takiko but he also seems unwilling to involve himself in her ongoing fight with their parents.
After she’s given birth Takiko struggles to find a daycare and is often forced to act as if she’s married in order not to face discrimination. She eventually finds a job and attempts to save enough money to leave her parents’ house.
Despite the heavy themes Woman Running in the Mountains is marked by a lulling rhythm, one that lends an idyllic quality to the narrative. Takiko is particularly attuned to her environment and she describes in vivid detail the changing seasons and the sceneries of her city (from the maternity ward to her cramped family house, to the neighbourhoods she crosses). Her ability to recollect her dreams also adds to the evocative atmosphere of her narrative.
Towards the end, the story lost me a little and I did grow tired of the lists detailing Takiko’s baby routine (i have no interest in newborns or small children). Still, I found this a deeply atmospheric read and there were many gorgeous descriptions of Takiko’s various environments. The motif of light was particularly striking and it really complimented Takiko’s narrative.
Not a happy book but certainly an arresting one. The dreamlike vibe was certainly hypnotic and the scenes capturing Takiko’s every day gave the narrative a slice-of-life feel.

my rating: ¼

The Four Humors by Mina Seckin

“THE FOUR HUMORS THAT PUMP THROUGH MY BODY DETERMINE my character, temperament, mood. Blood, phlegm, black bile, and choler. The excess or lack of these bodily fluids designates how a person should be.”

The Four Humors is a rather milquetoast addition to the young-alienated-women subgenre that has become all the vogue in the last few years. Like most books that belong to this category, The Four Humors is centred around a 20-something woman leading a rather directionless existence. Sibel is a 26-year-old Turkish American woman who is a bit morbid, somewhat disaffected, and prone to self-sabotage. Similarly to other protagonists of this subgenre such as My Year Of Rest and Relaxation (here we the mc’s believes that a prolonged ‘sleep’ will ‘cure’ her of her ‘malaise’), Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily R. Austin (here the mc is obsessed with death), and Nobody, Somebody, Anybody by Kelly McClorey (here the mc is in reverence of florence nightingale and prescribes herself an outlandish cure in order to pass her exams), the narrator and protagonist of The Four Humors has a quirky obsession: she looks to the four humors theory of ancient medicine to make sense of her recurring and persistent headaches as well as the ‘malaises’ affecting those around her. Like the other disconnected women populating these disaster-women books, Sibel is grieving the death of one of her parents and uses her new obsession as a coping mechanism. Her remoteness, inwardness, and navel-gazing are yet other traits exhibited by these self-destructive women.
The majority of the narrative takes place in Istanbul during the summer. Sibel, alongside her inoffensive ‘all-American’ boyfriend, has gone to Istanbul to, allegedly, visit her father’s grave. Here she stays with her doting grandmother whose declining health is a source of further apprehension for Sibel who finds herself seeking comfort in the idea of blood, bile, choler, and phlegm as being the cause for human beings’ physical and emotional troubles. Meanwhile, she’s unable and or unwilling to visit her father’s grave, but repeatedly claims that she has to her loved ones.
Time and again she will go on about the theory of four humors but rather than making her into an interesting character, her obsession with this ancient physiology resulted in a lot of repetition. Sibel’s narration was boring, and her constant asides on bile, phlegm etc., further bogged down her story. Her narration lacked the wry social commentary and dark sense of humor that make reads such as Luster, You Exist Too Much, and Pizza Girl into such engaging reads.

Nothing much happens. Sibel avoids going to her father’s grave, she lies about it, her boyfriend seems to grow weary of how closed-off she’s become, and we are later introduced to her cousin and sister, both of which are beautiful or possess something Sibel feels she lacks. Her sister is anorexic and this whole subplot irritated me profoundly as I disliked the way her ED is depicted and treated by other characters. The latter half of the novel then is more about old family ‘secrets’. A portion of the book is dedicated to Sibel’s grandmother’s story, but this is related by Sibel whose voice failed to catch my attention.

This novel brought to mind The Idiot, but if I were to compare the two The Four Humors would not come out on top. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Mina Seckin has, in fact, read The Idiot, and both the tone of her story and her mumblecore dialogues seemed a bit too reminiscent of Elif Batuman’s novel.
The Four Humors is not a memorable addition to the alienated young women literary trend. If you’ve read any of the books from this list, well, you won’t be particularly blown away from The Four Humors. While I could have probably forgiven this book for its lack of originality, the narrative had a humorless quality to it that was harder to look past.
Ultimately, the novel’s only strength, or most appealing aspect, lies in the grandmother/granddaughter relationship. There were the occasional passages that stood out to me but for the most part I found the author’s prose, and the content of her story, to be rather forgettable. The novel does have a strong sense of place and I liked the lazy dreamlike summer atmosphere permeating much of Sibel’s story. So, if you are looking for a read set in Turkey or one that tries to articulate complex things such as grief, numbness, and heartbreak, well, The Four Humors might be the right read for you.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

“Maybe it’s good, I said, to stop sometimes and reflect upon the things that have happened, maybe thinking about sadness can actually end up making you happy.”

Cold Enough for Snow is a slight novella narrated and characterized by a crisp prose. Despite the introspective nature of this work (there are no dialogues and the few conversations that occur are summarized by our narrator), I felt a certain distance from the narrator and her musings had a remoteness to them that I was never quite able to immerse myself into her story. That is not to say that this was not an enjoyable read. It brought to mind authors such as and Rachel Cusk as well as María Gainza (Optic Nerve is a personal favourite of mine). These kinds of books are not plot or necessarily character driven but they present us with a series of observations regarding art, travel, places/spaces, memory, connection, and human nature. Similarly to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, the people that our nameless narrator speaks of remain unnamed, and the vagueness surrounding her and others struck me as very much intentional. The narrator, who lives in, you guessed it, an unnamed country, and her mother, who is based in Hong Kong, meet up in Tokyo for a holiday.

“It was strange at once to be so familiar and yet so separated. I wondered how I could feel so at home in a place that was not mine.”

The narrator describes the various landscapes and locales she visits, all the while thinking back to her and her mother’s pasts. We are given brief glimpses into their lives that are often somehow connected to their present journey. This is the kind of novella that is more about creating and sustaining a certain nostalgic mood than of presenting us with a particularly immersive story. While I did appreciate the narrative’s melancholic and reflective atmosphere, I did find my attention wandering away from our protagonist’s contemplations and introspections. Her relationship with her mother often fades into the background, sidelined in favour of eloquent observations that don’t really leave a lasting impression. The title in many ways is rather apt as this novella is in many ways like snow. At first, you are taken in by how beautiful it is but within a couple of hours (or days), well, the snow has melted. That is to say, the beauty of Cold Enough for Snow is of a temporary nature.
Still, if you are a fan of travel journals or the authors I mentioned above you may find this to be your kind of read.

“I had wanted every moment to count for something. I had become addicted to the tearing of my thoughts, that rent in the fabric of the atmosphere. If nothing seemed to be working towards this effect, I grew impatient, bored. Much later, I realised how insufferable this was: the need to make every moment pointed, to read meaning into everything. ”

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Faithful by Alice Hoffman

“You rescue something and you’re responsible for it. But maybe that’s what love is. Maybe it’s like a hit-and-run accident; it smashes you before you can think. You do it no matter the cost and you keep on running”

While not without its flaws, Faithful is a gem of a book. Alice Hoffman has crafted a heartfelt and ultimately uplifting coming-of-age. Faithful revolves around After being involved in a car crash that leaves her best friend comatose, Shelby Richmond, a teen from Long Island, is left bereft. Reeling from this loss Shelby is unable to resume her ‘ordinary’ life. After a suicide attempt and a stay in a mental institution where she experiences further trauma, she segregates herself into her parent’s basement. She shaves her head, ignores others, and spends most of her time getting high in an attempt to numb the guilt that gnaws at her. Her mother tries to reach out to her but Shelby has become convinced that she’s worthless and undeserving of love and forgiveness. She eventually becomes involved with Ben, a nerdy pot dealer who used to go to high school with her, who unlike others seems to accept this new version of her. Ben convinces Shelby to move with him to New York. In spite of her new surroundings and the distance between her and her best friend, Shelby cannot shake the by now deeply-ingrained belief that she’s undeserving of happiness. Her self-sabotaging is not easy to read about, but thanks to the clarity of Hoffman’s prose, I could always understand where Shelby was coming from and I did not feel frustrated by her low-self esteem and self-hatred. Shelby begins working at a pet store where she befriends one of her co-workers, Maravelle. Over the years she also grows close to Maravelle’s three kids, who experience struggles of their own. In New York Shelby also starts taking in rescued dogs which later on paves the way to her decision to become a vet. Shelby’s love life is complicated as she finds herself growing away from Ben and falling instead for a married man who is a walking talking red flag.

While the premise itself may not sound very original, Hoffman’s unembellished style is devoid of unnecessary sentimentalists, which makes those poignant moments and/or scenes all the more powerful. That the story takes place over the course of seven years or so makes Shelby’s character arc all the more authentic. She never completely gets over the accident nor does she completely forgive herself, however, she does, in time, stop punishing herself.
While readers are told—on more than one occasion—that Shelby hates herself, we soon realize that does not define her character. She certainly dislikes herself, but, she can be surprisingly tenacious and her dry humor is certainly amusing. The mistakes she makes along the way make her into a very relatable and realistic character. I loved Shelby’s snarky charm and her well-hidden kindness.

One of the book’s greatest strengths lies in its characters and Shelby’s various relationships with them. She forges new friendships and begins to see her parents and their marriage in a different light. The fragile bond she shares with her mother is touching and heartwarming. It is with the help of an unlikely cast of characters that Shelby is able to overcome her self-hatred. Slowly we see the connections she makes influence her: she becomes strong in order to help the ones she loves.
In her clear yet graceful prose, Hoffman depicts simple everyday life scenarios that can be at once moving and funny, from capturing silly moments between two ‘stoned’ friends to focusing on more emotional scenes such as a mother-daughter heart-to-heart. While Faithful begins with a terrible loss, Shelby’s past tragedies do not dominate her story. Yes, forgiveness and guilt play a big role in the novel, but, Faithful is also about hope and love (familial, platonic, romantic).

I do have a few minor criticisms. Shelby steals quite a few dogs. Yes, she steals them from people who were not abusing/neglecting them and no the narrative doesn’t demonise those responsible, however, it seemed a bit weird that she would keep coming across dogs in need of rescuing from bad owners. There are a few lines related to suicide, depression, mental disorders, that were a bit…icky, I guess. We then have this random guy who works at the hospital and refuses to help Shelby unless she promises to grow out her hair…which she does. And wow, now she’s pretty again. This had the same energy as a man telling you to smile more and you do and lo-and-behold your depression is cured. Great. Throughout the course of the novel, Shelby receives letters/messages from an unknown person. These messages at times seemed straight out of a self-help book. At other times they just puzzled me. They basically try to make Shelby ‘better’. Towards the end of the narrative, we meet the person behind these and I will say I did not approve of any of it. I would be wary of someone like that.

Nevertheless, despite these ‘flaws’, I was still able to fall in love with Hoffman’s storytelling. While it may not appeal to those who are looking for plot-driven stories or who aren’t keen on stories that are heavy on the telling, I found this to be a bittersweet noel about survivor’s guilt, trauma, forgiveness, and hope.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

“The deep sea is a haunted house: a place in which things that ought not to exist move about in the darkness.”

The cover, title, premise, and early hype around this novel made me think that I was going to love it. Alas, as it often seems to be the case, Our Wives Under The Sea did not work for me. If you are interested in this novel I recommend that you check out more positive reviews.
At first, I gave this novel the benefit of the doubt, but with each chapter, my expectations sunk (ah-ah) lower and lower. This is one of those novels that prioritises language over say characters or story, which is something that I’m sure will work for many types of readers, it just so happens that I am not one of them. Through alternating chapters, Our Wives Under The Sea follows wives Miri and Leah. Their marriage and relationship are very much in limbo after Leah returns from a deep-sea mission gone awry. The experience has clearly altered Leah and Miri struggles to reconcile herself to the fact that the woman she married is no more. In Miri’s chapter, we read of Leah’s strange behaviours: she takes long baths, avoids leaving the house, has frequent nose-bleeds, and seems wholly disassociated from her surroundings. Miri’s chapters also give us some insight into their relationship prior to this disastrous mission (how they met, how they were as a couple, etc.). In Leah’s chapters, which are far shorter, and are meant to highlight her alienated state of mind, we mostly learn about what went on in that mission.

“Every couple, I think, enjoys its own mythology, recollections like notecards to guide you round an exhibition.”

In spite of the intimacy achieved by focusing solely on Miri and Leah (secondary characters are very much at the margins of the narrative), I found the novel’s overall tone cold. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I like plenty of authors who write in this slightly ‘distancing’ way (Jhumpa Lahiri and Brandon Taylor come to mind). However, I have to care or be interested in the people they write about. Here, surprisingly enough, I found myself feeling nothing for either Miri or Leah. Their voices were too similar, something that I found rather frustrating. Their inner-monologues and their observations (about others, the past, themselves) were eerily alike. Which made it difficult for me to see them as individuals, but rather they merged into this one water-obsessed figure. And speaking of water, gesù. We have water metaphors and imagery, water-related speculations, and conversations on water/sea/ocean/sea creatures. I understand that the water & the sea are central themes of this novel (if not the theme) however it got repetitive and, worse still, contrived. The author’s language was impressionistic, trying too hard to be direct and gritty (“red mouth in the morning, red chin, red spill into the sink” / “Miri bit at her skin of her lip so often that kissing tasted bloody; metallic zip of a licked battery”). Her prose was too dramatic, full of flashy metaphors (“beneath her shirt, the bones of her shoulder swing the way a hanger will when knocked inside a wardrobe”). There were paragraphs or reflections that I liked or that struck me as insightful and sharp but I wish that I’d felt more attached or emotionally invested in the story. I had a hard time ‘believing’ in our two main characters, perhaps due to a combination of their voices sounding too much alike and they were both so…water obsessed? Their personalities were vague and the author seemed more intent on evoking a certain atmosphere than on providing us with fully dimensional and nuanced characters.
All in all, this novel was a big disappointment. I went in thinking that I would love it, realised a few pages in that the writing was going for this simultaneously dreamlike and raw sort of vibe (which did nothing for me here) and found myself bored by most of the narrative. It didn’t elicit any particular feelings or reactions in me. This is the kind of novel that screams MFA. It wants to be stylish and edgy but (and here i remind you that i am merely expressing my own entirely subjective opinion so please don’t @ me) but feels contrived and unconvincing. A lot of the dialogues didn’t ring true to life, characters’ reactions were slightly off, and the narrators’ voices were much to similar (that occasionally they address the reader or say things like ‘you see’ made it all more gimmicky).

my rating: ★★½

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A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Given its abysmal overall rating, it should not come as a surprise that A Separation is not the type of novel that will/to have a large appeal. While it bears many of the same elements and stylistic qualities as Intimacies, Katie Kitamura’s latest novel which I happen not to like, here, well, they kind of work. Similarly to Intimacies, A Separation is narrated by a nameless and nondescript female character. We never learn anything substantial about their backstories and their personalities remain blank. For some reason, in A Separation, this narrating choice works. Whereas reading Intimacies felt to me like an utter waste of my time, A Separation proved to be a much more thought-provoking novel.

A Separation follows a woman who is separated from her husband, a serial cheater. They have not officialized their separation and not only are they legally still married but his parents still believe they are together. When he goes missing on a research trip in Greece his mother pressures our narrator to go find him. Our narrator, who is now in a new relationship, acquiesces hoping that she will be able to get her husband to agree to a divorce. Once there however she realizes that he has truly vanished. She obverses the staff in the hotel, speculating on the whereabouts of her husband, wondering how and why he has seemingly disappeared, leaving his possessions behind.
I was transfixed by the descriptions of the landscapes and people encountered by our main character. The uneasy scenario our mc is in resulted in a taut atmosphere. Her ambiguous narration proved hypnotic and I felt transported alongside her to this remote region in Greece. While the uncertain nature of her journey and her husband’s unknown whereabouts resulted in a gripping storyline, this was not a fast-paced or plot-driven story. This is a very introspective and reflective work that explores themes of unity and separation, absence and presence, longing and loss, foreignness and belonging, deception and clarity.
I loved the mood of this story. The drawn-out waiting for our mc does may bore some but I found this wait to be enthralling. The tension between her and the other characters (the employees, the husband, her mother-in-law) captivated me. Her piercing narration was particularly rewarding. Not only does she express herself in such an adroit, articulate, and alert way but I found her speculations and observations to be razor-sharp. The author juxtaposes her clarity of vision with her intrinsic vagueness. We learn virtually nothing about her history or who she is. Her crystal-clear narration is in fact rather deceptive as all the while she keeps herself hidden. This ambivalence certainly complemented the precarious atmosphere of her stay in Greece.
While I did find much to be admired in this novel it is not the type of reading that will leave a long-lasting impression on me. It did succeed in making me a fan of this author even if I did not care for her latest novel. I can see why many gave A Separation a low rating. Nothing much happens and for all her navel-gazing the narrator remains a stranger to us. It is the type of novel that at the end may very well make you say “what was the point of all that?”. But, if you are in the right mood for a more muggy exploration of a fractured marriage and the limits of language, that succeeds in being both elusive and incisive, well, look no further. Subtle, erudite, and meditative, A Separation will certainly appeal to fans of psychological fiction.

my rating: ★★★½

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Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

While I appreciated the subject matter (no matter how infuriating & depressing), I could not get into the robotic style.

This book opens with Kim Jiyoune, a housewife and stay-at-home mother, acting in an increasingly concerning manner. Depressive episodes give way to ‘bizarre’ instances in which she emulates the behaviour of other women. Her concerned husband decides to enlist the help of a psychiatrist. The narrative then recounts Kim Jiyoung’s life prior to her marriage. We are given a brief picture of her life at home that highlights the double standards between sons and daughters (which generally see boys having more freedom while girls are expected to be more obsequious and to help around the house). We also ‘overhear’ her father’s victim-blaming rhetoric, which sees him blaming his daughter when harassed by a boy in her school (things on the lines of, ‘you obviously did something to make him think that you were interested in him’). At school male teachers act in highly inappropriate if not downright criminal ways (especially when ‘checking’ the female students’ uniforms). While boys are allowed more casual uniforms, girls have to wear a lot of layers and uncomfortable shoes so that they do not distract male students/teachers (i see red whenever i hear stuff like this), they are discouraged from playing physical activities, and during lunchtime, they are served after the boys and told off for not finishing their food fast enough.
At every stage of her life, Kim Jiyoung is confronted with gender-based discrimination. Once in the ‘workforce’ she quickly realizes that female employees are paid less, have very few chances of advancing, and are often given responsibilities and tasks that should be assigned to the newest employees. Married women are seen as undesirable as ‘likely’ to leave their position due to pregnancy/child-rearing, and very few places offer child-friendly work hours. Additionally, working would earn societal disapproval (because ‘they aren’t taking care of their children and it is ‘unnatural’ for a mother not to want to be with their child 24/7 etc.).
We see how all of these incidents over the years chip away at Kim Jiyoung. Time after time she’s faced with sexist and misogynistic behaviour, from colleagues, strangers, and her loved ones. The more aware she becomes of this, the less able she is to suppress her mounting desperation.
The final chapter brings us back to the present but doesn’t delve too deep into Kim Jiyoung’s mental state.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 reads a lot like a piece of nonfiction. The author’s prose is exceedingly impersonal, clinical even. While I’m not wholly against this type of detached writing style, here it was so unemotional and analytical that I really had a hard time caring and believing in Kim Jiyoung. Did this book elicit some sort of emotional response in me? Yes. But, I’m afraid I cannot credit the authors’ storytelling as being responsible for this. When reading at length about this kind of subject matter (gender inequality, misogyny, sexism) I will inevitably ‘feel’ something (anger, frustration, etc.). While reading Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 I was reminded of my own close encounters with sexism and misogyny, which aren’t even all that bad but whenever I think back to them mi incazzo (from men leering/shouting at me on the street when i was aged 13 or so, to being told that i should pay no mind to men making inappropriate comments, and if anything, i should be grateful/happy that they were making comments about my body/person, or that time when i and my bf worked in a shoddy cafe together and the team leader used go on anti-women tirades and seemed to enjoy groping us female colleagues, to a stranger sticking his tongue down my throat and snapping at me after being pushed away, to being told that i shouldn’t do certain things because i’m a girl, etc. etc. etc.). What I’m saying is, of course, I felt something. I’m sure many other readers can relate to ​​Kim Jiyoung’s experiences. But I also wondered what was the point of making all these things into a ‘story’? The author basically lists the everyday realities of an average woman, specifically a Korean woman born in 1982 into a relatively stable household.
The recounting of these episodes of sexism & co are a matter of fact and often surface level. The characters are one-dimensional and exist only to illustrate a certain point or address a certain type of behaviour. Kim Jiyoung is so generic that she seemed devoid of a personality. The narrative, whether intentionally or not, robs her of a distinctive voice… So, not only is Kim Jiyoung disempowered by her society’s oppressively traditionalist gender roles and by the many injustices she faces growing up female in Korea, but, the narrative itself denies her an identity. And, while I recognise that the last chapter reframes the rest of the story, I still cannot reconcile myself with this narrative choice. If anything, that last chapter reads like a gimmicky twist. Also, I didn’t quite like how Kim Jiyoung’s breakdown is shown to be a direct result of the patriarchy (especially considering that while she does experience gender-based injustices and microaggressions, at the of the day, much of what she experiences is very much your regular every-day sexism).
Maybe cis male readers or readers who have grown up in really progressive countries will be able to gain something from this book that I wasn’t able to.

my rating: ★★½


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Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★★★