Circa by Devi S. Laskar

Circa had the potential of being an immersive and compelling read. Sadly, the structure and length of the narrative do the story no favors, as the final product ultimately struck me as formulaic in a-MFA-program type of way. Sure, Devi S. Laskar quite effectively utilizes a 2nd pov, which is no easy feat. Beyond this stylistic choice, the novel doesn’t have a lot to offer. This is the kind of narrative that strikes me as being more interested in presenting its readers with a certain evocative style than introducing us to dimensional characters. The structure of the novel struck me as somewhat inconsistent. At first, it brought to mind books like All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running, Friends & Dark Shapes, and Another Brooklyn, in that it honed in on specific moments of Heera’s youth, but as the story progresses the narrative loses its atmosphere as it switches to a telling mode where it covers large swathes of time with little fanfare so that I felt at a remove by what Heera had experienced.

Circa is centred on Heera, ‘you’, an Indian American teenager who is coming of age in Raleigh, North Carolina during the late 80s. Heera hangs out a lot with siblings Marie and Marco, often in secrecy as her parents do not approve of her friendship with the Grimaldi children. Together they rebel the way some teenagers do, disobeying their parents, and sneaking behind their parents’ backs. Sometimes they steal from their parents or strangers, other times they do edgy eff society type of graffiti. Anyway, Heera is smitten with Marco, kind of. Eventually, something bad happens that changes their dynamic, and Marco reinvents himself as Crash, while Heera finds herself having to grapple between her sense of self-fulfilment and her parents’ desires. Should she go to college? Marry? Can she or does she want to do both? The author does highlight the limited possibilities available to a woman, specifically a woc, at the time, juxtaposing her path to Crash’s one. Sure, the author does provide an all too relevant commentary on the American Dream, stressing its elusiveness, and a poignant enough portrait of a family caught between generational and cultural differences, however, the whole Crash/Heera dynamic really was deeply underwhelming. Marie is very much a plot device, someone who is used as a source of trauma for Heera and Crash, someone who is supposedly meant to make their bond all the more complex…but she was so one-dimensional and served such a disposable function in the story that I really felt like she wasn’t a character, let alone a rounded person. Crash seemed the male version of a pixie girl, not quite as extra ‘that’s literary me’ type of guy (who is thinks he is the narrator from fight club or the joker), more of a vanilla sad-meets-bad boi. Heera in many ways is rather a passive presence, and I was unable to understand her obsession with Crash, let alone believe that the two shared an intimate bond. I think the story is at its best when it hones in on domestic moments, in particular in Heera’s interactions with her parents or when exploring the tension between her family and the Grimaldi. I think I would have liked this story to have solely focused on familial and platonic relationships, rather than going for this wattpad type of romance (‘i can fix him’…come no). The latter half of the novel strays into melodrama, with quite a few characters disappearing because of actual reasons and or no reasons. A whole portion of Heera’s story is delivered in such a rushed and dispassionate way that it really pulled me out of her story.

Given the premise, I was hoping for something with more oomph. The ‘crucial’ event isn’t all that important in the end, as the distance between Crash and Heera could have easily happened without that having to occur. The ‘betrayals’ mentioned in the summary lead me to believe in a story with more conflict, whereas here the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Crash and Heera brought to mind the milquetoast straights-miscommunicating-or-having-0-communication that dominated in much of Normal People. I think it would have been more effective if the author had either opted for a longer and slower-paced storyline (which would have allowed her to expand certain scenes, rather than just relating important moments in a couple of sentences, and made the characters more rounded) or if she had fully committed to a snappier snapshot-like narrative (a la What We Lose or Ghost Forest). I mean, this wasn’t a bad read but it is the type of book I will forget about in a few weeks or so.

If this book is on your radar I suggest you check out more positive reviews out.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Dove in the Belly by Jim Grimsley

in The Dove in the Belly, it’s all about the 𝔂𝓮𝓪𝓻𝓷𝓲𝓷𝓰

“A moment of happiness could feel almost like a wound.”

The Dove in the Belly is a work of startling beauty that presents its readers with a piercing exploration of male intimacy and a mesmerizing study of queer desire that beautifully elaborates the many gradations of love. Jim Grimsley captures the pain of longing, articulating with exacting precision love’s double-edged nature, from its capacity to hurt and anguish us, to its ability to transfigure and revive us. The Dove in the Belly is a romance that is equal parts tender and brutal, one that is permeated by ambivalence and angst, but also affinity and ardor. As my boy Lacan would say, it’s all about the jouissance, that ‘backhanded enjoyment’ that ‘begins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The love story that is at the heart of this narrative, which is as tender as it is fraught, is characterized by an exhilarating sense of impermanence. It is admirable that the author is able to breathe new life into what could easily be seen as a tired dynamic, that between the ‘straight’ jock and the more introverted intellectual. Perhaps the setting, mid-1970s, made me more amenable to become invested in these characters, despite their behaviour and attitudes, or maybe it is thanks to Grimsley’s unrelentingly gorgeous prose. Fact is, I fell in love with this book.

Most of the narrative takes place on the campus of the University of North Carolina, where both Ronny and Ben are enrolled. Ronny is studying English literature and journalism whereas Ben is there on a football scholarship. In many ways two are very much opposites, however, they form an unlikely camaraderie one that eventually sparks into a more meaningful friendship. Ronny’s attraction to Ben soon leads to a harder to shake infatuation, one that Ben is not only aware of but he seems to relish the power he has over Ronny. Of course, this kind of dynamic is not a healthy one, and Grimsley renders the confusing and contradictory jumble of emotions experienced by Ronny, the anguish and titillation he feels at being ‘seen’. While Ben’s unsparing words often hurt Ronny, we also see how often his cruelty is undercut by genuine affection. We also glimpse in his actions an ache that hints at something ‘more’…

Over the course of the summer holidays, their relationship transforms into something more charged, and the moments of playfulness and banter give way to a more (in)tense if tentative connection, one that is made all the more fragile by Ben’s deep-seated homophobia and by having to cope with his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health. Ronny, who is becoming more comfortable with his sexuality, struggles to maintain their relationship afloat, especially with Ben’s unwieldy temper. While the possibility of violence threatens many of their moments together, we also see the comfort they can give one another. Although I don’t like the word ‘frisson’ (i can’t explain it, it just makes me wanna exit the chat) it is a rather apt word to describe the current underlining many of Ben and Ronny’s interactions.

My heart went out to Ronny. While some may find his fixation and devotion to Ben strange or frustrating, I understood it all too well. I loved how quiet, sensitive, and contemplative he was, as well as the way he observes the people and environments around him. While initially Ben stands in stark contrast against Ronny, as more of his character is ‘unveiled’ to us, I found myself softening to him. Make no mistake, Ben was still capable of upsetting me (he has a temper on him, he’s possessive, and when confronting things he doesn’t want to he goes into fight/flight mode) but, and this is a testament to Grimsley’s storytelling, I found myself unable and or unwilling to dismiss him as ‘toxic’ or ‘bad’.

Grimsley populates his novel with fully-formed individuals, who have lives, fears, and wishes, of their own (as opposed to serving as mere background ‘props’ to our main characters). I loved the rhythm of his dialogues, which reveal moments of discordance, whether a pause in the conversation is a sign of unease or contentment, the difficulties in expressing feelings that are ‘off limits’, and the feelings of desperation that sometimes motivate us to speak with seeming cruelty or indifference. I appreciated how empathic the author was, in not condemning his characters for their mistakes, and in his compassionate treatment of characters outside of Ronny and Ben.
The prose is something to behold. It had the capacity to move me to tears, surprise me with its delicate touch, inspire me with its elegantly turned phrases, and lacerate me with its fiercely observed insights into love, grief, desire, and heartache.
Grimsley’s prose brought to mind An Ocean Without a Shore by Scott Spencer, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and authors such as John Boyne. The all-consuming relationship between Ronny and Ben brought to mind These Violent Delights, Apartment, Carol, and especially the work of Brandon Taylor, who simply excels at portraying uneasy relationships and unclear feelings.

2022 has not been a great reading year for me. With the exception of re-reads, I have only given a single 5 star rating (to Elif Batuman’s Either/Or) so I am so thankful to have come across this unforgettable book. It may have singlehandedly saved my reading year. The Dove in the Belly explores a messy love story between two young people who are by turns the ones being hurt and the ones doing the hurting as well as rendering the nuanced connections between family members, friends, and acquaintances. This is a remarkable and layered novel, one that struck me for its prose, its sense of place and time, its characters, and its themes. The Dove in the Belly is a heart-wrenching yet ultimately luminous novel, one that I can’t wait to re-experience.

ɴʙ if I had to use one word to describe this book it would be ‘struggente’, which can be translated as 1. entailing or revealing an inner torment; melting, tender, moving, aching, painful, heart-rending. Or if I had to describe this book with a quote I would turn to Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia: “And so that was what love led to. To wound and be wounded ”

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Lightseekers by Femi Kayode

Lightseeker is a propulsive thriller that combines a who/whydunnit with a thought-provoking social commentary. Set in Nigeria, Lightseeker is predominantly narrated by Dr. Philip Taiwo, an investigative psychologist who has recently returned to Nigeria after having spent years in the United States. A husband and a father of two, Philip struggles to readjust to Nigeria’s sociopolitical climate. When he becomes convinced that his wife is cheating on him, he finds himself giving in to his father’s request to investigate the mob killing of three university students that occurred a few years beforehand. Their deaths were linked to their being members of a confraternity, but one of the victims’ fathers, who is connected to Philip’s own father, is adamant in his belief that his son would never join a cult. Philip takes the opportunity to get away from his marriage troubles and finds himself travelling to a village near Port Harcourt. Here he is aided by his driver and guide Chika, who is employed by the victim’s father, and who seems to have many hidden skills. The two soon pick up on the hostility that locals harbor against outsiders, especially those who are seeking to unearth a recent and tragic occurrence. Not only are the local authorities unwilling to help them, but they seem intent on obstructing their investigation. The locals instead see them as a threat, often refusing to talk to them. The students at the university seem more open to discussing the killing but it is only when the rapport between Philip and the locals worsens, to the point where his well being is at stake, that he begins to understand what occurred.
Not only did the story have a strongly rendered setting but the author was able to incorporate diverse and numerous issues within Philip’s investigation. Religious tensions between the town’s Christian and Muslim communities, class and educational disparities, cultism and herd mentality, politics and corruption, as well as the long-lasting consequences of colonialism. Because Philip is not from this town and has yet to fully readjust to Nigeria, we mostly glimpse and understand things through his ‘naive’ eyes, which makes for an immersive experience. The shifting dynamic between Philip and Chika was compelling and I appreciated the way their bond develops.

Now, on the things that didn’t quite convince me. One, well, it’s a crucial one. Once Philip decides to accept this request to investigate the Okriki Three he never seems to really doubt that their deaths were not ‘simply’ the horrific result of a mob killing. And the thing is, he believes this with no substantial proof. The locals’ unwillingness to discuss it or the police’s general shadiness can be understood as a sign of their guilt over their role in the mob killing. Yet, he ‘knows’ that something else is going on…and I didn’t really buy it. Early on he really had nothing to consolidate this belief and yet throughout the course of the narrative, he operates under that assumption. The narrative also shifts to a different point of view, and these chapters are very brief and intentionally ambiguous…and I found them cheap. I have never been a fan of mysteries that provide us with short, and corny usually, chapters from the ‘bad guy’s’ perspective. That the bad guy in question here is clearly experiencing a severe mental disorder was also…dodgy. True, this time around the person is not a psychopath but their (likely) disorder is still routinely stigmatized in the media and popular culture.

My last issue has to do with the female characters in the novel. On his flight to Port Harcourt Philip just happens to be seated near an attractive girlboss who, quelle surprise, is somehow connected to his case. He seems to entertain the possibility of cheating on his wife because this woman is such a girlboss. Fair enough, I don’t particularly mind reading about characters who behave badly or have bad thoughts. However, the language he uses to describe her and refer to her combined with the story’s running gag (Philip declaring that a happy marriage can be achieved by never contradicting your wife in an argument/discussions because “women be like”…especially ‘nagging’ wives who are often mad about nothing…and the thing is, his wife seems far more reasonable and clear-eyed that he is. She barely has any ‘page-time’, but I wondered why Philip would brag about his ‘tactics’ when the only conflict in his marriage seems a result of him having (recently) seen something that has led him to jump to certain conclusions. I hated that he is not quite ‘proven’ right but that what he had seen had escalated into something to be concerned about. Even more frustrating, she blames herself! Like wtf! Also, how could Philip, an investigative psychologist who is shown to be fairly intuitive, be so ready to believe the worst about his wife? Especially given the fairly banal nature of what he’d seen? The woman who helps Philip in the investigation serves the function of a plot device: adding further tension to the troubled marriage subplot and aiding Philip in his investigation when the story needs it.

While the resolution to the mystery was a bit dragged and not particularly satisfying, I did find the majority of this story gripping and I look forward to whatever the author writes next.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

Summer Sons is very much a vibes-driven novel that would not exist without Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves. From the aesthetics permeating the story to the combative & codependent character dynamics, Summer Sons share a lot of similarities with that book. Lee Mandelo’s older cast of characters however allow for them to employ an edgier tone, one that at times reminded me a bit of Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House (both mcs have spend most of their respective narratives chasing paranormal shit, to the detriment of their academic, getting repeatedly emotionally and physically bruised and pissing off ppl left and right). The first time I approach Summer Sons I ended up dnfing it. While I do agree with some of my initial criticisms I think this second time around I was able to just ignore the few bumps along the way and just let Summer Sons take me for a ride.

Written in snappy prose Summer Sons follows Andrew, who is in his early twenties and is about to begin a graduate program at Vanderbilt where he will be joining his best friend and (adopted) brother Eddie. Their bond is very much of the codependent variety, as the two were irrevocably bound together by a traumatizing childhood experience that has left them with, in the case of Andrew, some unwanted abilities. But then, just before their long-awaited reunion, Eddie commits suicide leaving behind a grief-stricken and confused Andrew. Eddie left everything to him, including a ridiculous amount of money and a house in Nashville (roommate included). Andrew moves there, but he couldn’t really care less about his studies. He is determined to find out what happened to Eddie. He is immediately suspicious of and antagonistic towards Eddie’s former roommate, Riley, and his cousin, Sam. Andrew is jealous of the time they spent with Eddie and is reluctant to reveal anything about his past or his intentions to them.

The first half of the novel has very little if no plot going on. I mean, things are happening but they mostly consist of Andrew feeling unwell, hitting someone, getting hit, getting drunk, getting high, ignoring his uni inbox, and making wild speculations about what happened to Eddie. He does have a few meetings with his advisor and tutor, but for the majority of the first half of the novel it’s more about the very charged dynamics between Andrew and Sam, and to a lesser extent, Andrew and Riley. There is a party or two, some drag races, and buckets of toxic masculinity. The chemistry between the various characters more than makes up for the lack of, shall we say, plot. The author also explores Andrew’s very intense relationship with Eddy, capturing the duo’s power dynamics.
I appreciated how thorny Andrew is. He is so careless about his own well-being that he engages in some pretty self-destructive behaviours. He is also repressed af, and struggles to reconcile himself with the possibility that his love for Eddy may have not been strictly platonic. And of course, his attraction to Sam complicates matters. And yeah, there was something about them that definitely reminded me of Ronan & Kavinsky, except not quite as messed up, as here both Andrew and Sam embody what I can best describe as an exceedingly Ronan-esque chaotic energy. I liked the realistic way Andrew responds to the queerness of this group of friends, and that it takes him time to truly allow himself the possibility of being attracted to men.
To exacerbate his alienation are recurring nightmarish visions of death and rot. Eddie’s phantom is stalking him, resulting in periods of dangerous dissociation. Riley and Sam claim they want to help but Andrew. being the hard-ass he is, is not so sure about letting anyone in.
The latter half of the novel has more to do with his amateurish sleuthing, as Andrew is forced to confront the likely possibility that what occurred to him and Eddie as children has something to do with Eddie’s death.
We have old family curses and blood rituals, eerie visions, and disturbing occurrences. Additionally, Mandelo dedicates time to critiquing how insular colleges are as well as the elitism and racism that pervade the academic world.
I liked the uneasy relationships the characters have with one another, and that Mandelo holds their main characters accountable for their past and present actions without writing them off as ‘bad’.

There were a few things that I wish could have developed differently. The paranormal element had potential but was implemented in an inconsistent and in some places sparse way that ultimately does it a disservice. I liked how it remains largely ambiguous but it could have been amped up in quite a few instances. Also, in the scenes where this paranormal element comes to the fore the descriptions could have been more vivid. It would have been nice to learn more about haunts/revenants or other spooky occurrences that Andrew & Eddie may have experienced after ‘it’ happened. Similarly, it would also have been nice to have more of a background about their childhood and teenage years (their relationship with Andrew’s parents, their high school days, etc..). We know about their tattoo and their ‘shared’ gf (who thankfully speaks up about being used and tossed aside like a toy) but very little about anything else. In some ways it makes sense since they were each other’s worlds, so everything else would barely register, however the complete lack of presence of Andrew’s parents was felt.
The resolution to Eddie’s death was too derivative, especially within the urban fantasy genre. She who shall not be named did that a few times in her series. Maggie Stiefvater subverts this trope by making readers, but not our main characters, aware of who the ‘antagonists’ are. Barudgo also does it in Ninth House, but in a far more twisty way than Mandelo. Here instead that finale seemed vaguely formulaic and entirely too predictable. That the ‘villains’ lacked a certain ‘oomph’ factor also made that last action rather lacklustre. I do think that at the end Andrew gets a bit too much of the blame for how things went down with the villain. The boy is an asshole sure. But he was just trying to find out the truth and how could he have possibly predicted that things would go down that way?!

The writing had a certain fanfiction-y quality but I found myself really enjoying it (so we have a lot of growling, flashing teeth, dangerous expressions, an overuse of ‘the boy’ instead of the characters’ names). The prose was snappy and intentionally edgy which makes for highly engrossing storytelling. I do wish that the author had reigned in on the more anatomical descriptions of his characters. There are whole paragraphs dedicated to describing whose leg is on whose ankle or how someone’s hand is dangling or touching somebody else’s body part). Yeah, in a way these add a certain sensual element that makes these scenes really pop, but there were moments where they ended up sidelining the actual storyline or drawing attention from the dialogue. There were also way too many random highfalutin words dropped in for no reason (such as ‘cadre’) and they had the same energy as me during my first year as an undergraduate student using archaic terms for no reason other than to make what I was writing sound clever (but i just ended up with some seriously jarring phrases).

Despite these criticisms, I did like Summer Sons. Andrew is a tortured and somewhat impenetrable character that is equal parts frustrating and lovable. Mandelo articulates Andrew’s inner conflict without resorting to cliches or moralisms. The interactions between the characters seamlessly alternate from being funny and entertaining banter to more heated and tense confrontations. The friendships and the romance we see develop between Andrew and others really make the book. I loved how the author is able to dedicate a lot of page time to Andrew’s unresolved and complicated relationship with his sexuality but also present us with some very casual lgbtq+ rep (we have a trans character, a positive portrayal of polyamory, and a character who uses they/them pronouns makes has a cameo appearance). The pining and sexual tension between Andrew and Sam were chief’s kiss.

I’d love to read more by this author (maybe something with wlw characters…? or just more girls in general cause i don’t think this book would pass the bechdel test test..at least in trc we have the women of 300 fox way).
If you like spooky summer ya novels, like Beware the Wild, The Wicker King, Wonders of the Invisible World, or the gritty aesthetics of urban fantasy series like Holly Black’s The Modern Faerie Tales, Summer Sons should definitely make it onto your tbr pile. I look forward to whatever Mandelo publishes next and I can definitely see myself re-reading Summer Sons.

ps: i did think it would have been nice for mandelo to mention in their acknowledgements stiefvater as her series clearly inspired this book.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The first two chapters of The Swimmers, ‘The Underground Pool’ and ‘The Crack’ are highly reminiscent of the author’s acclaimed The Buddha in the Attic. Like that novel The Swimmers at first seems to implement a playful choral ‘we’ as our perspective. The ‘we’ in question are the people who regularly swim at a local pool in an unnamed town. Otsuka details the swimmers’ relationship to the pool and swimming, often poking (gentle) fun at them. While she does often differentiate between the swimmers, contrasting their routines etc., they remain a united entity for much of these chapters. The pool becomes a microcosm of the real world and Otsuka’s satire is particularly effective when a mysterious ‘crack’ appears in the pool, causing confusion and uncertainty among the pool-goers. Some panic and flee, some quit swimming altogether, some begin spreading conspiracy theories about who is behind the crack, some keep on swimming and refuse to look at the crack, and so forth.
The tone is definitely the defining characteristic of these two chapters as the characters are beside the point. They serve a comedic function and their personalities are intentionally kept off the page. Repetition is of course a consequence of employing a choral point of view, especially one that at times comes across as a joke that has gone on too long. These two chapters/stories could have easily been condensed into one and I think it would have made for a more effective and engaging read.

The following chapters/stories revolve around one of the swimmers, but once again the author implements more indirect narrative devices (often there is the ‘you’). The character in question is Alice, a Japanese American woman who shows signs of dementia. While the author does give us an overview of her life and background, by referring to her as ‘you’ or by avoiding using her name she effectively makes Alice into a blank-slate, or perhaps, less of a blank-slate and more of the ‘every-elderly-woman’, ie. the epitome of the elderly person experiencing memory loss, confusion, and an increased lack of motor skills. Her daughter, who happens to be a writer, too was very much a non-character, as she is often referred to as ‘you’. There was a lack of intimacy and depth in these characters (and their relationship to one another) that diluted the impact of what could have been a potentially poignant story. There is even one chapter from the point of ‘Belavista’ a ‘memory residence’ where Alice is eventually taken to. Here the author wryly points to the way elderly people who are no longer able to live independently and need more help than what their relatives can provide them with are treated by these places (eg the patronizing language).

The specificity with which Otsuka writes about Alice’s ‘dementia’ definitely rang true to life as I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and boy oh boy it is definitely not a walk in the park watching someone slowly lose their physical and mental capacity. Still, while many moments struck me for their realism, Otsuka’s playful tone became a bit jarring and repetitive. I would have liked for this book to have more emotional depth and for characters (any of the characters really) to be more than names on a page. Nevertheless, I encourage prospective readers to make up their own minds about this one!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

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

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

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

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu

Like most other collections of short stories, Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is a bit of a mixed bag. Out of the 12 stories, only 2 really stood out to me while the rest blended together somewhat. The author uses fantastical elements to explore familiar themes and dynamics. I liked her use of magical realism and found that it suited her story’s subject matter. In the second story for example a girl on the cusps of adolescence sprouts wings. There is a story about an insomniac who receives visits from the Sandman. Another one features a haunted doll. Grief, guilt, and mortality are the running motifs in this collection. The author’s use of the absurd permeates her realistic scenarios with a sense of surreality. Her prose was not only compelling but interspersed throughout there were some beautiful descriptions and clever observations. Despite this, I did not find her collection particularly memorable. While I did find the first two stories to be touching and creative, the ones that followed played around with vaguely formulaic concepts that are very much staples of the magical realism genre. Additionally, some of these stories just came across as writing exercises (and they stuck too closely to the ‘how to write a short story’ formula). Still, even if I wasn’t blown away by this collection it was far from an unpleasant read and I will probably check out more by this author.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Lacklustre and monotonous, not only did How High We Go in the Dark fail to grip my attention but it also failed to elicit an emotional response on my part. It was a bland and repetitive affair, which is a pity given the hype around it. It didn’t help that a few weeks ago I read another ‘Cloud Atlas-esque’ novel. And while I didn’t fall head over heels in love with To Paradise, I cannot deny that Yanagihara’s prose is superb. Here instead…Sequoia Nagamatsu’s prose brings to mind the word turgid (examples: “Moles and freckles dance around your belly button like a Jackson Pollock painting, and I fight the urge to grab a marker and find a way to connect them into a Tibetan mandala, as if that would unlock some secret about who you were and what, if anything, I really meant to you.” and “your ass the shade of a stray plum spoiling behind a produce stand”).
Additionally, to compare this to the work of Emily St. John Mandel seems misleading, as How High We Go in the Dark lacks the atmosphere and subtlety that characterizes her books (and this is coming from someone who isn’t a devoted fan of hers). Anyway, even if I were to consider How High We Go in the Dark on its own merits, well, the verdict isn’t good. While this is by no means the worst novel I’ve read, it has been a while since I’ve been confronted with a novel that is so consistently and thoroughly mediocre. I will likely forget about ever having read this in a few days. Already I struggle to remember most of its stories (let alone its characters).
Even if I was tempted early on to DNF this, I kept on reading hoping that the next story/chapter would deliver something more substantial than its predecessor but no such thing happened. I guess I could say that it was ambitious? I mean, it doesn’t pull off what it’d set out to do but at least it had aimed high? Of course, as we know, if you aim too high you end up crashing down (a la Icarus).
Ugh, I’m really trying to think of some positives to say about How High We Go in the Dark but it seems that I have nothing good to say about it other than it has an ambitious premise (whether it actually delivers on its premise is up to debate…). I guess, I like the book cover…not sure if that counts as a ‘positive’…

So, to give prospective readers an idea of what to expect: How High We Go in the Dark takes place during and after 2030. A lot of the population is decimated by the Arctic plague which is unleashed onto the world after some scientists ‘stumble’ upon the thirty-thousand-year-old remains of a girl. Additionally to the plague climate/environmental disasters are causing further chaos. Each chapter reads like a self-contained story. While some characters, we learn, are connected, or even related, to each other, these stories ultimately fail to come truly together. By the end, what we have isn’t a tapestry but a series of samey fragments that don’t really succeed in bringing to life the characters or relationships they are supposedly focused on. Out of 14 stories only 4 are centred on female characters. If the characters we are reading of are shown to be in romantic and or sexual relationships, these will be painfully heteronormative ones. It seems that Nagamatsu’s vision of the future has no place for the gays, let alone for those who do not identify with their assigned sex at birth. That we get so few female voices also pissed me off. Like, come on, 4 out of 14?

Anyhow, the first two stories actually held some promise. In the first one, we follow a scientist whose daughter, also a scientist, died while ‘unearthing’ of the thirty-thousand-year-old human remains. This father goes to Siberia to resume his daughter’s work. Here we hear the first echoes of the plague: after these remains are found the facility goes under quarantine. Like the majority of the stories in this novel, this first one is all about parents & their children. There is the dynamic between the narrator and his now-dead daughter as well as reflections on his daughter’s (non)parenting of his granddaughter.
The following one, ‘City of Laughter’, almost succeeds in being memorable but ends up falling similarly short. The central character is once again a bland and inoffensive man, just an average Joe who is only slightly interesting because of his job. This guy works at a euthanasia park. The plague initially affects children and those with vulnerable immune systems (i think? we never gain an entire picture of this plague so what do i know) so some governor proposes the construction of “an amusement park that could gently end children’s pain—roller coasters capable of lulling their passengers into unconsciousness before stopping their hearts”. The main guy falls in love with a woman who is there with her son. The juxtaposition between the amusement park setting and the true purpose of this ‘park’ does give this story an air of tragicomedy (at one point a distraught and grief-stricken parent hugs our protagonist who is wearing a furry animal costume).
The following stories are harder to set apart from each other. There is one with a scientist/lab-person who has lost his son to the plague. He ends up forming a father-son bond with a talking pig whose organs will be used to save/help those with the plague (once again, i don’t entirely remember because it wasn’t made very clear). You would think that the talking pig storyline would be far from boring but you’d be wrong. That this ‘son-figure’ is a pig is a mere gimmick. The pig could have been a monkey or a doll or a robot. I would have preferred for the pig to be more of a pig. This story has even the gall THE Pig movie (with the scientist telling the pig: ‘that’ll do’). Anyway, once again the author explores this, by now, rather tired parent-child dynamic: what does it mean to be a good parent? Do you protect your child from the harsh realities of their world? Maybe if he would have allowed for more subtlety in his storytelling and character interactions, maybe then I could have felt more connected to the parents and their children. But that wasn’t the case. The conflict is made so obvious, that there is little room for interpretation or even nuance.

We have a couple of stories where boring men fall for boring women and vice-versa (here the writing veers into the overwrought). Some do so online, but the author doesn’t really add anything new or interesting to the VR experience. I mean, if anything, these VR-focused ones read like subpar Black Mirror episodes. Social media goes largely unmentioned…
We then have quite a few that go on about new funerary traditions because apparently so many people have died of the plague and cemeteries cannot contain so many bodies. Here Nagamatsu tries to be inventive but I found the idea of funeral hotels and funerary towers rather, eeh, underwhelming? Even that one chapter that follows a spaceship on its way to make a new Earth failed to be interesting. There are two chapters that try to subvert things: one is intentionally disorientating in that the narrator and some other people are someplace else, another one tries to tie things back to the 1st chapter, to give this novel an overarching story, but t it just came across as jarring.

I don’t understand why the author chose 2030 as his starting point. The future he envisions feels generic and wishy-washy. There are self-driving vehicles (i think?) planet earth is dying, and this plague is decimating the human race. How refreshing. Maybe I’ve read too much speculative fiction but the sci-fi & dystopian elements of How High We Go in the Dark felt tame, vanilla even. Been there, done that kind of thing. While Nagamatsu strives to achieve that quiet realism that characterizes the dystopian novels of authors such as Mandel, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ling Ma, he misses the mark. Tone-wise too these stories seem lacking, especially if I were to compare them with the unsettling work of John Wyndham. In addition, the future he envisions pales in comparison to the ones you can find in the stories penned by N.K. Jemisin. Throughout my reading experience of How High We Go in the Dark I just kept being reminded of better speculative books & films.

Almost all of the narrators sounded exactly like the same dude. Which was odd given that these characters are meant to be at different stages of their lives. Additionally, it seemed sus that all of the characters used the same vocabulary, articulated themselves in identical ways, and they all shared a love for ‘vintage’ music (we have the Beatles, Patti Smith, The Strokes, Smashing Pumpkin, Siouxsie and the Banshees). The story is set in 2030. The characters are in their 20s, 30s, possibly early 40s. Yet, they all came across as belonging to the same generation. While I know that the whole idea of there being different generations is somewhat reductive, you can admit that people who are born in the same time ‘periods’ and in the same countries (the majority of the characters are Japanese American and live in America) share certain experiences/similarities. Here, none of the characters came across as believable older millennials or gen-zers. The popular media that is mentioned too was ‘old’. Why not then set your Artic Plague during the 90s or early 2000s something? It would have been made for a far more convincing setting. At least then the characters (from their worldview to their vernacular) would have not felt so out-of-place (come on, these guys do not sound like they are born in the 2000s).

The parent-child conflict that was at the heart of so many of these stories was cheesy af. We have a parent trying to connect to their child. The child is like, NERD. Okay, I’m joking but still, you get the gist. The children are grieving and confused, the parents are grieving and confused. Yet, what could have been a touching book about human connection reads like a parody, starring difficult children who wear headphones 24/7 and answer back because of teenage angst, and emotionally repressed parents who happen to be scientists and because of this, they are cold and clinical. On that note, there is one character who is not a scientist and is in fact ‘an artist’ and her art was beyond ridiculous (it gave me the impression that the person who had created said character had only a vague and clichéd idea of the kind of person that goes on to become a painter).
This book is full of grieving people, which should elicit some sort of reaction from me but nada. Nothing. My uncle and grandfather died respectively in November and December. I was unable to attend one of the funerals due to travel restrictions. The other died soon after testing positive for covid. Surely a book about losing your loved ones to a pandemic should hit close to home….except that it didn’t. I felt at a remove from the characters who were often defined by their job and or whether they had children.

The world-building, as mentioned above, was full of lacunae. Some of the gaps in the world-building seemed intentional as if to provide us with too much information on the plague and the state of the world during and after it would take away from the ‘human’ relationships and the existential quandaries experienced by the characters….but still, I could not envision this future nor could I bring myself to believe in it. One of the stories seems to suggest a lack of resources but later on, this doesn’t seem the case. I also found it hard to believe that the relatives of those who could easily be seen as culpable of this whole plague (the wife and granddaughter of that first scientist) would be allowed to go off to Earth 2.0 (as far as i can recall of course, maybe the narrative does address this…).

Choppy and repetitive, How High We Go in the Dark is a rather subpar novel. I would have almost preferred it if had just been your bog-standard speculative fiction book but no, this one aims higher and it shows (not in a good way). The dystopian elements are gimmicky and given our current pandemic…derivative (apparently the author wrote this before covid but i am reading it now so..).
The writing vacillated from decent to unintentionally hilarious to plain bad (“Aki still avoided speaking to me when he could avoid it.”…this book had an editor? really?!). We get a few clumsy attempts at the 2nd person which were…the less said about them the better actually. Nagamatsu’s prose was not my cup of tea.

This was not the genre-bending novel I was hoping for. The supposedly interwoven storylines did not feel particularly ‘interwoven’. There are characters who are mentioned in more than one chapter, or we read of someone who is close to a character we previously encountered but that’s about it. These chapters and characters failed to come together in any meaningful way.

Anyway, just because I thought this was an exceedingly bland affair does not mean in any way that you will feel the same way. If you loved this, I am happy for you. At least one of us was able to enjoy this book.
If you are interested in this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.



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