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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The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton

this is my fault. i should know by now that titles claiming to have dark academia or sapphic vibes should be approached with extreme caution.

DISCLAIMER: I did not like this book and my review reflects of that. I will be brutally honest about my thoughts on this novel so if you want to read this or if this book happens to be on your ‘radar’ I recommend you check out more positive reviews. If you loved this book, I am happy for you but please don’t tell me I’m wrong for disagreeing with you.


Affected and self-important The World Cannot Give makes for a singularly insipid read. Its biggest ‘sin’ is that it tries to be the dark academia equivalent of Not Like Other Girls. For all its attempts at being ‘not like’ other dark academia books, The World Cannot Give was one of the most generic books I’ve read in a very long time. From its poorly rendered setting to its wafer-thin characters, The World Cannot Give reads like a been-there-done-that boarding school novel. This is the kind of novel that thinks it is a lot smarter than it is (in reality it is as intellectually deep as a puddle, of the shallow variety). For all its attempts at intertextuality and self-awareness (we have few throwaway lines on the dangers of romanticizing elitist institutions and idealizing the past and historical figures), it has nothing substantial or new to say. The author’s writing style and the tone of her narrative brought to mind two novels that I am not fond of, The Silent Patient and An Anonymous Girl. If you liked them chances are you will have a more positive reading experience with The World Cannot Give than I was.
If you like cheesy shows such as Riverdale or self-dramatizing books such as Plain Bad Heroines ,Belladonna, A Lesson in Vengeance, Vicious Little Darlings, Good Girls Lie (where characters are prone to angsty theatricals) you may be able to actually enjoy The World Cannot Give.
As I warned above, this review is going to be harsh so if you aren’t keen on reading negative reviews you should really give this review a miss.

minor spoilers below

STORY/PLOT
Contrary to what the blurb says, The World Cannot Give is no ‘The Girls meets Fight Club’. Nor is it a satisfying ‘coming-of-age novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence. And the only ‘shocking’ thing about it is that it is shockingly bad. On the lines of, how was this even published?
The first page is misleadingly promising. I liked the opening line and that whole first paragraph. Alas, with each new page, my high hopes dwindled.
Laura is on her way to St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine. She’s ecstatic about attending this school because she hero-worships Sebastian Webster who used to go there in the 1930s. Angsty Webster wrote this book about the “sclerotic modern world” and the “shipwreck of the soul” and goes on and on about wanting to be “World-Historical”. Webster died at 19 fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Anyway, our sensitive Laura is enthralled by his writings and his fake-deep ideas so of course, she wants to study where he did. She gets to St. Dunstan goes to her room and meets two girls who from this scene onwards will not change. That is, this one scene establishes their one-note characters. There is Freddy who is a tertiary sort of character who just glares, snorts, scowls, and grimaces because that’s the kind of mean-ish one-dimensional sidekick she is. Then there is Bonnie who is all about her followers and using her boarding school as a prop for her dark academia inspired videos & photos. Laura eventually goes to the school’s chapel (Webster is buried there and there is a statue in his honour in that area) and she hears the choir. Her spirit is so moved by what she experiences at the chapel that she feels lifted to a higher plane of existence or something. But wait, the choir is rudely interrupted by a girl with a shaved head who is a queer feminist who is just like so done with the institution and wants to abolish mandatory church attendance. Laura, our innocent, is shooketh by her actions and somehow, despite her wishy-washy personality, ingratiates herself with the choir president, Virginia. We learn virtually nothing more about the school, nor do we get any real insight into how Laura’s classes are going, what she’s studying, her teachers, their methods…Laura joins the choir and what follows is a lot of scenes that are just filler leading up to the real ‘conflict’. The choir, this ‘clique’, did not make for interesting people, consequently, I was bored by the limited banter that didn’t reveal anything significant about them or their surroundings. Laura is Virginia’s lapdog, so she starts emulating whatever Virginia does (comparing herself to other literary sidekicks), Virginia spends her time ranting about the ‘sclerotic world’, her aversion towards matters of the flesh, and bemoaning the ye olden days and is mad that she has to be in the proximity of so many sinners. She also doesn’t want Brad, who is also in the choir, and Bonnie to be together. Brad is loyal to Virginia so he is conflicted. Bonnie is in love with Brad for reasons. And why the hell not at this point. The only ones in the choir who came across as devoted to Webster, his ‘insights’ into the ills of the modern world, were Laura and Virginia. But they just have the same conversations about this guy. They don’t expand on his views, they merely reiterate the term ‘World-Historical’ and his other catchphrases. Anyway, time goes by and eventually things come to head when Bonnie decides to encroach on Virginia’s territory (the chapel) as retaliation for her interfering in her love life (instead of taking issue with Brad…ugh). Isobel, the queer feminist, comes into play but her presence is very much kept off-page. Virginia becomes increasingly fanatical and decides to go all Old Testament God on the people who have betrayed her or revealed that they are not ‘virtuous’ (quelle surprise…).

TONE/WRITING
You see the cover, you read the blurb, you come across someone comparing this to Donna Tartt (comparing book such as this to the secret history should be made into a punishable offence…ahem, i’m jesting of course), you think, this is going to be DEEP and possibly even intellectual and emotionally stimulating. You are, of course, dead wrong. This book reads like a spoof. But not a fully committed one. It actually reminded me of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. There the narrative makes fun of the heroine for wanting to be in a Gothic novel and seeing the world through Gothic-tinted lenses and overdramatising everything. This is exactly it. Except, it also takes itself seriously…kind of? The writing and tone try to mirror the way Laura sees the world. She yearns for Webster and, like Virginia, finds the present-day intolerable. So the writing uses this exaggerated and self-dramatizing language reminiscent of historical novels. Some of these are actually decent. But then we get a lot of short sentences and exclamations marks. This kind of style can work. For instance, in Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia, which actually happens to be a far superior boarding-school book exploring queer desire. The language there is very high-flown but it worked because Strachey could write some truly beautiful and playful passages.
Here the writing verges on the ridiculous and more often than not it comes across as just plain bad. We had clumsy, inharmonious, and even cheesy sentences: “Barry Ng blushes at this. Virginia glares at him. Brad sighs a long and heavy sigh.”; “She looks from Brad to Bonnie and back again. Brad sighs a long and exhausted sigh.”; “Shame floods Laura’s face; she curdles it into fury.” (lol); ““One choir. One family.” Her smile twitches.” (twitching smiles? what is this? fanfic i wrote at 15?); “Her smile glints.” (ugh); “Virginia didn’t know. Virginia couldn’t have known. Virginia would never. Virginia always would. Of course, of course, Virginia would.”; “Isobel is wrong, Laura tells herself. Isobel has to be wrong. Isobel’s just jealous; Isobel has no sense of transcendence;”. And these are just a few examples…the writing & tone did nothing for me. Very few writers can make third person present tense work and Burton isn’t one of them I’m afraid…
I struggled to take it seriously and even if it was intentionally trying to be satirical, well, even then I would have found it ridiculous.

THEMES/ ‘IDEOLOGY’
Like I said above this book tries to be different from other boarding schools/dark academia books by referencing the rise in popularity that dark academia aesthetics & media have had in the last few years…but that doesn’t result automatically in a thought-provoking commentary on the dangers of romanticism elitist institutions such as universities and or private schools. One of the two only poc characters in the story has a few lines that highlight how institutions like St. Duncan are built on inequality and that we should be more critical about those Old White Men who likely committed Bad Things and should not be therefore uncritically revered. Yeah fair enough. But that’s it. Laura and Virginia spend the whole bloody book going on about the ‘sclerotic modern world’ and are contemptuous of anyone who isn’t in awe of Webster. They believe in God..sort of? For all their talk about sins and transcendence, I was not at all convinced that they even had a strong relationship to their faith. Virginia wants to be baptized, but her decision to do so is made sus because she’s portrayed as sort of unhinged so she truly isn’t ‘genuine’. Laura instead is more mellow about her faith so I don’t understand why she would Virginia’s fanatical rants to be of any appeal. You do you babe and all that but come on…Virginia wasn’t even a charismatic orator. Their ideology actually brought to mind the kids from The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Like those lil creeps, Virginia and Laura find the modern world to be disgusting. They particularly don’t get why people are obsessed with sex. They merely want to transcend their bodies and reach a higher, more enlightened plane of existence. I think the author was trying to do her own version of “Beauty is terror” but yikes. It just came across as stagy. Additionally, I found it annoying that characters who could have been on the aroace spectrum are actually just ‘repressed’.
Anyway, this book had nothing interesting to say about faith, romanticizing the past, or the dangers of idealizing the ones you care for.
The story towards the end takes a weird route in that it becomes all about how boys/men exploit women and betray their trusts by sharing explicit photos and videos of their gf or sex partners with their male friends and this plotline worsened the already existing disconnect between the tone and the content of the book.

CHARACTERS/RELATIONSHIPS
I understand that people are incongruent but these characters did not make bloody sense. They were extremely one-note and then for plot-reasons they would do something really random. Laura is boring and annoying. I can cope with characters who are obsessed with a friend or who are introverted or even naive. But Laura was just embarrassing. Her devotion to Virginia lacked substance. Their dynamic was uneventful. Bonnie was depicted in a purposely grating way and grated my nerves. Isobel was gay and a feminist and stands against the bullshit Virginia and Laura believe in. That’s it. The boys are either milquetoast assholes who don’t see the problem in sharing nudes or doing whatever Virginia says because why not. There is this one guy in the choir who exists just to say ‘that’s cringe’ or ‘that’s completely cringe’.
Virginia was the worst offender. She had no redeeming qualities but we were meant to feel some degree of sympathy towards her. Come on. She wasn’t a convincing or compelling character. I didn’t find her an intriguing or cryptic mystery. She was nasty and I didn’t like that everything she does or says is basically chalked up to her being a total religious zealot. All of her reactions are so extreme as to make her into a caricature more than a person. I didn’t like the way her eating disorder was portrayed as it
The obsession and desire promised by the blurb were just not really there. I mean, yeah, the girl was obsessed but there was something perfunctory about it. The sapphic yearning I was hoping to find in these pages was largely absent. There is a f/f couple, but they had barely any scenes and they had 0 chemistry whatsoever. They came across as friends or sisters even. Then we are meant to believe that someone like Isobel would fall for Virginia because they shared a past? Surely Isobel, who is supposedly clever, would be a bit sus about Virginia’s sudden change of heart. Also, shouldn’t Virginia’s decline in her physical and mental health be a red flag of sorts? Shouldn’t Isobel have shown more concern over Virginia’s state of mind?

SETTING
0 sense of place. There are barely any descriptions of the school and very few passages detailing the nearby landscapes. The novel takes place nowadays I guess but there were barely any contemporary references. This could have worked if then we didn’t have a plotline involving Bonnie’s online following, sexting, or even certain terms (such as cringe) being used. It just took me out of the story as the majority of the narrative and dialogues were trying to conjure an ‘old’ timeless vibe. I think if the novel had had a historical setting it would have actually worked in its favour. Its modern social commentary after all is very half-arsed and had a vague tokenistic vibe to it (isobel existing just to oppose the establishment etc.).

I’m going to recommend a few books that in my opinion do what this book tries to do a lot better: Frost in May (coming of age, all-girl school, Catholicism), Abigail (coming of age, WWII Hungary, all-girl school, fraught friendships), Old School (all-boys schools, jealousy, ambition, privilege, self-knowledge), Sweet Days of Discipline (queer desire, obsession, order vs. chaos, all-girl school), The Inseparables (all-girl school, obsession, queer desire, Catholicism),These Violent Delights (college, obsession, toxic relationships, queer desire), Olivia (all-girl school, France 1890s, unrequited love, queer desire), A Great and Terrible Beauty (fantasy, fraught friendships, all-girl schools, f/f side), Passing (jealousy, race, queer repressed desire), Ninth House (dark academia, Yale, urban fantasy, tackles privilege, corruption, misogyny), The Wicker King (dark academia vibes, queer desire, obsession, toxic relationships).

Maybe if this novel had gone truly committed to being a parody, and upped the camp factor, maybe then I would have found it a little bit amusing. But it didn’t so nope, this novel did not work for me at all. The story was stupid, the characters were either bland or neurotic (in a really exaggerated, possibly problematic, way), the themes were poorly developed and relied on the usage of a few certain key terms (without delving into what this term truly means), the sapphic element was largely absent…you get the gist by now. I actually wish I’d dnfed but I hoped that it would improve along the way. When will I learn the lesson? A beautiful cover doth not make for a good book.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

“Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.”

Ocean Vuong’s strikingly lyrical debut novel is a work of transient beauty. Within On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous there are many arresting passages that are, quite frankly, beautiful. At times this beauty derives from Vuong’s subject matter, at times it is wholly due to his language. And, at first, when I came across these passages, well, I was in awe. The more I read, however, the more I found that however beautiful Vuong’s prose could be, many of these insights and descriptions failed to leave a long-lasting impression on me. I would forge onwards and find myself confronted with more beautiful words, often very reminiscent of his earlier ones. And once I became aware of this I found myself scrutinising Vuong’s poetical storytelling more closely, and, alas, I found it wanting. His writing occasionally seems affected, as if desperately striving to be beautiful. There were also many passages and phrases that seemed to veer into purple prose territory so that we have swollen metaphors and contrived adages that end up devaluing Vuong’s earlier unmannered yet exquisite uses of the English language.

The first half seems to promise a mother-son narrative, in which Vuong explores the way in which grief, generational differences, inherited trauma, cultural and language barriers, shape and affect the relationship between his narrator, nicknamed Little Dog, and his mother. The narrator often wonders about his mother’s own fraught identity (born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and an unknown white American father) and their shared experiences due to this. While some of the childhood episodes he recounts feature his mother being abusive towards him—hitting him repeatedly, being verbally abusive, at times even kicking him out of the house—he doesn’t reduce her to the role of abuser. By revealing her own traumatic history he contextualises many of her angry outbursts towards him. This first half was probably my favourite. Little Dog is writing to his mother, even if he knows that she will not be able to read his words. His style has this almost intimate and confessional quality to it, one that seems to blur the lines between fiction and autobiography (autofiction perhaps?). Vuong’s exacting portrayal of Little Dog’s childhood is certainly poignant. He’s an exceptional observer who can convey poetically the depth and different shades of Little Dog’s loneliness, yearning, sorrow, and otherness.
The second half brought to mind Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me, as the narrative seems to switch gears so that no longer we are reading about a mother-son relationship but a Little Dog’s young & ‘doomed’ first love who he meets during the summer when he works in a tobacco field. Here the story seemed less focused, and we get quite a few sections that seem to have little relevance to Little Dog’s story. Here the language struck me as less effective, more hackneyed, especially when it came to love and sex. Vuong’s depiction of addiction seemed to me somewhat cinematic.

Ultimately, it seemed to me that much of the beauty to be found within these pages is, like the title itself suggests, ‘brief’. While Vuong’s prose could be incisive, emotionally resonant, and, quite frankly, dazzling, it could also be repetitive, sacrificing meaning to showy displays of language that try hard to impress their gorgeousness on us, and yet, more often than not, these beautiful and lyrical turn of phrases are of little substance.
The shifts in tone and subject matter were almost jarring and made me feel less engaged by Little Dog’s story. There are some forced comparisons, such as many unnecessary pages spent on Tiger Woods’ ‘complicated’ ancestry. But, despite the issues, I had with this novel I can’t deny that at its best, it truly is a work of beauty. Given this novel’s success, it is also safe to say that you should not let my mixed impression of it deter you from giving this a shot (if anything else, it’s very short). I will definitely read whatever Vuong writes next as he’s certainly talented.

my rating: ★★★¼

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Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor

Taylor has gone and done it again. My poor heart can’t take this.

“[S]adness drenched them. Sadness at leaving. Sadness at going back to their lives. The sadness of knowing it would never again be this perfect, this easy.”

This may not sound like a compliment but I believe that Brandon Taylor has a real knack for making his readers feel uncomfortable and complicit by the violence—both physical & emotional—and cruelty that punctuate his narratives. It just so happens that I have a strange, ahem masochistic, fondness for these types of anxiety-inducing stories. Taylor excels at writing about things, people, and situations that are bound to make you feel uneasy, exposed even. Throughout this stunning collection of short stories, Taylor demonstrates time and again just how inexorably intertwined our fears and desires are. Taylor reveals the double-edged nature of desire, showing just how often we want that which we are (or should be) afraid of. Within these stories, Taylor explores and challenges the relationship between violence and intimacy, cruelty and compassion, happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain. Taylor’s characters are painstakingly human, from their murky and unspoken desires/fears to their seemingly perennial indecisiveness. More often than not Taylor’s characters are not ‘nice people’, but, then again, who wants to read exclusively about ‘nice people’? The characters populating Taylor’s stories are messy, confused about what/who they want, unsure of themselves and others. They can be ugly, to themselves, to one another. But, their ability to hurt other people doesn’t make them any less human, if anything, I found that it made them all the more real.

“There were a million tiny ways to make someone feel bad about something that didn’t involve saying anything directly.”

Taylor navigates self-loathing, loneliness, and longing against ordinary backdrops. Yet, while the environments and scenarios that we encounter in these stories are firmly grounded in realism, the ‘mundane’ trappings of Midwestern life that seem to characterise these narratives belie just how complex, emotionally wrought, and exacting these stories truly are.

“He had come up against the thing that felt most frustrating about this—the inability to articulate simply what he felt or what he wanted.”

Taylor’s style is deceptively functional, clinical even. He’s brutally concise when it comes to detailing his characters’ surroundings, appearances, and emotions. Yet, it is because his prose is habitually so unsparing that makes those brief lapses into tranquillity feel all the more precious. However rare, those brief glimpses of hope that we do get are truly touching.

As with Real Life, many of these stories are set in or around the academic world and once again Taylor articulates just how insular it can be. College is no safe haven however and the pressure to succeed often feels like a burden. There are many instances in which characters try to outdo one another, be it through personal or academic achievements, and we witness just how petty and competitive academia is. Most of these stories focus on Black queer characters and Taylor once again examines the intersection between sexuality and race. His characters often struggle to reconcile themselves with their identities and are often caught between opposing urges and desires. They seek to form meaningful connections but they are mostly unsuccessful. The relationships within these stories are hindered by unresolved tensions, veiled insults, hurtful barbs, real and perceived slights. Many of these relationships are unhealthy, seeming to bring more pain and suffering than not. Yet, we see that sometimes that is why certain characters decide to pursue certain people as Taylor repeatedly blurs the line between love and hate, passion and violence.

“There, he thought, was a truly horrifying possibility: that he was nothing more than another bit of local weather for the two of them, and that what felt to Lionel like the edge of some great change, a sign of his reacclimation to people, to the world, to the easiness of friendship, was nothing but another thing to them, one more thing that happened and was now over.”

‘Potluck’, ‘Flesh’, ‘Proctoring’, ‘Apartment’, and ‘Meat’ are interlinked stories revolving around Lionel, a Black grad student who in recent times attempted suicide, and two white dancers, Charles and Sophie, who are in an open relationship. At a party, Lionel and Charles seem to form a connection of sorts. Lionel is clearly ill at ease, especially given that the host of the party seems intent on making a move on him. With painful clarity, Taylor delineates Lionel’s anxieties and insecurities, and we understand why he would find Charles’ attention to be tempting. Lionel finds himself entangled in Charles and Sophie’s fraught relationship, and it is not always clear who is playing who or who wants whom. My heart really went out to Lionel and it was incredibly saddening to read of how this couple is trying to involve him in their ongoing drama.

In one story we read of a babysitter who is exhausted at her young charge, in another a young man’s old wounds are reopened, and in yet another, we witness a boys’ night out that quickly spirals into violence. A running motif, quite fitting given the collection’s title, is that of characters being compared or feeling like ‘beasts’ and ‘animals’. Many seem to struggle with their ‘wilder’ impulses, at times they even attempt to tamp their own desires down. But, as we see over and over again, they are often unsuccessful. Hence the violence and cruelty.

Last but not least, Taylor’s dialogues. They are startlingly realistic. From the tentative quality of certain exchanges to the stop-and-start rhythm animating many of the characters’ conversations.

“That’s so funny,” Lionel said. “People say that, We talked. But I don’t remember a single thing we said to each other.”

Fans of Real Life should definitely get their hands on Filthy Animals as this proved to be just as brilliant. From Taylor’s quietly cinematic style to his nuanced portrayal of human frailty, Filthy Animals is a terrific collection. If I was pressed to choose a favourite, I would probably go with ‘Anne of Cleves’.

As I touched upon earlier on, these stories are far from happy, yet, I was nevertheless enthralled by Taylor’s ability to capture with such authenticity and depth such a wide spectrum of emotions.

my rating: ★★★★¼

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Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin

“Oozing winter and fish, Sokcho waited. That was Sokcho, always waiting, for tourists, boats, men, spring.”

I have once again a bone to pick with the person responsible for the blurb of a novel. Elisa Shua Dusapin is a Franco-Korean female author so that means she will be compared to a French author (Marguerite Duras) and to an author from East Asia (Sayaka Murata). Just like an an author from Latin America will be inevitably be compared to Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez (often regardless of whether they have even written a magical realist work) or an Italian author will be pitched as being the new Elena Ferrante. This is so LAZY. Case in point, stylistically and tone-wise Winter in Sokcho shares little in common Murata and Duras. If anything, the protagonist’s somewhat detached narration brought to mind Sally Rooney and Naoise Dolan. Okay, now that I have gotten that out of my chest…onto the actual review.
As the title suggests Winter in Sokcho takes place during the winter in Sokcho a town in South Korea near the country’s border to North Korea. Our nameless narrator, a listless young woman, works at a guesthouse as a receptionist. She has a boyfriend she does particularly care for and seem to have no ambitions. Other than the fact that he is French, our protagonist knows little about her father’s identity. Her mother, alongside others, thinks that she should go to Seoul and seem to believe that our mc’s life would be easier if she underwent some cosmetic surgery. Our protagonist’s rather unenthusiastic daily-routine is interrupted by the arrival of a French cartoonist who is staying at her guesthouse. The two speak little but our narrator is shown to feel a certain lure towards him.
While I can see that for some this novella will be alluring, I found it boring and clichéd. The story lacked an ‘edge’, be it a biting humour or a more subversive protagonist. Nothing much happens and most pages seem dedicated to our narrator’s navel-gazing. There are also some odd description and word choices, such as when our protagonist notes that her “breasts tightened”. Wtf? And, no, she is not a bodybuilder. If she is aroused, wouldn’t have made more sense for her nipples to harden?
Not only did I find the protagonist to be bland but her rapport with the French guy came across as flat. Yet, I am meant to believe that they ‘share’ a connection…
I found this novella to be very much style over substance, which I am sure works for many other readers, I am just not one of them.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction by Neil Gaiman

 

The Neil Gaiman Reader showcases Gaiman’s range as an author. Gaiman moves between genres and tones like no other. From funny fairy-talesque stories to more ambiguous narratives with dystopian or horror elements. While I have read most of his novels and a few of his novellas I hadn’t really ‘sunk’ my teeth in his short stories. The ones that appear in this collection have been selected by his own fans, and are presented in chronological order. While it was interesting to see the way his writing developed I did not prefer his newer stuff to his older one. In fact, some of my favorite of his stories are the ones from the 80s and 90s. Even then his writing demonstrates both humor and creativity. Some of the stories collected here read like morality tales while others offer more perplexing messages. Many of his stories revolve around the act of storytelling or have a story-within-story structure. At times he retells old classics, such as Sleeping Beauty, while other times he offers his own take on Cthulhu, Sherlock Holmes, and even Doctor Who. A few favorites of mine were: ‘Chivalry’, ‘Murder Mysteries’, ‘The Goldfish and Other Stories’, ‘The Wedding Present’, and ‘October in the Chair’. If you are a Gaiman fan and, like me, have not read many of his short stories you should definitely consider picking this collection up.


my rating:
★★★★☆

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The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

“Creature was a good word for him, Ronan thought. What the hell am I?”

Every time I read this I am

blown

away.

This novel, I swear, is something else.

The Dream Thieves is pure adrenaline. Ronan Lynch is my favourite asshole, which is probably why The Dream Thieves is my favourite book in The Raven Cycle series (and one of my favourite books period). Ronan is such a complex character. On the surface he has this ‘I don’t give a shit’ attitude that often results in him saying or doing rude and or reckless stuff. He’s addicted to trouble and makes no compunction about saying what’s on his mind. In The Raven Boys we don’t get his pov so this novel provides us with our first glimpses of his inner workings. His ability of course is very much a central part of who he is and I love how ‘dreaming’ works in TRC.
I love the shifting dynamics and knowing looks that take place between the various members of the Glendower gang. I also really appreciate how Stiefvater never reveals too much about her characters or their motivations/feelings. She hints at things but always leaves room for ambiguity, and I love her for it. The friendships between the various characters are intense and as complicated as the characters themselves. The fracturing that occurs between Adam and Gansey always gets to me, especially as Stiefvater makes it so that neither boy is exactly to blame.
There are a lot of car chases, many dreamed things, a surprisingly endearing hit man, and so much yearning. The phone calls between Blue and Gansey always succeed in giving me the feels. And don’t even get me started on Ronan and his longing for a certain someone.
Stiefvater’s writing is as phenomenal as always. The rhythm created by her prose always brings to mind that of a fairy tale (there is repetition, names are important).
To say this novel makes for an absorbing is an understatement. Every time I’ve read it I manage to inhale it in the arc of 24 hours. Ronan is my favourite fictional character and this novel is in many ways just like him.

P.S. I’m not a car person, I don’t drive, I know nil about cars…but damn, every time I read this book (or think about this book) I find myself agreeing with Ronan: cars are sexy.

MY RATING: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat — book review

“It is a bizarre and unsettling feeling, to exist in a liminal state between two realms, unable to attain full access to one or the other.”

Although I’d intended to read You Exist Too Much I nearly didn’t after reading a really negative review for it, one that was very critical of Zaina Arafat’s depiction of bisexuality. Luckily, my mother read this first and recommended it to me. When an author writes about a character—and even more so when they draw upon their own personal experiences to do so—they are presenting a unique point of view and they are not making generalisations for entire groups of people. The protagonist of this novel is a “love addict” not because of her bisexuality but because of her distorted relationship with her parents—in particular with her mother—and her belief that she’s not worthy of love. Arafat never implies that bisexual people can’t be faithful nor does she suggests that her protagonist’s “love addiction” is caused by her bisexuality (it seems to stem instead from her fraught relationship with her narcissistic mother).
Arafat portrayal of mental illness also struck me as incredibly realistic and deeply resonated with my own personal experiences (having had an eating disorder and having lived with a parent who was undiagnosed bipolar and had substance abuse issues).
All of this to say that Arafat’s treatment of mental and physical health conditions struck me as both informed and believable (feel free to disagree).
I will say that while I found this to be a deeply compelling read, I’m aware that it may not appeal to readers who dislike reading about self-destructive characters. If you hated Madame Bovary for the selfish behaviour of its eponymous heroine, well, chances are you won’t like this one either (curiously enough Arafat’s protagonist thinks rather harshly of Emma Bovary for “her childish fantasies and for cheating on Charles”).

“All along I knew what I was doing was wrong, that I was dangerously close to a precipice. But still, I need to fall in order to stop.”

You Exist Too Much presents its readers with an intimate and in-depth character study. While there are many new novels featuring self-loathing protagonists whose alienation interferes with their ability to form—and sustain—meaningful connections with others, You Exist Too Much feels like a fresh take on this ‘genre’.
After yet another breakup the unnamed main character of You Exist Too Much tries to break free from this vicious cycle of self-sabotaging. She’s unable, and at times unwilling, to maintain healthy relationships with others and frequently becomes drawn to unattainable people, often women. Her infatuation with them soon morphs into toxic obsessions. Arafat’s protagonist mistakes attention for affection and she repeatedly harms those who actually care for her in order to pursue her objet petit a (what can I say, Lacan comes in handy now and again).
When the main character’s girlfriend finds out about her latest “inappropriate emotional connection”, she breaks up with her, telling her to “sift through your issues and face them” so that “maybe one day you’ll learn you can’t treat people with such disregard. Even yourself”. Our narrator attempts to do just that.

The narrative moves between past and present, from the Middle East to New York City and from Italy and Egypt. Readers are given a glimpse into the protagonist’s childhood—her emotionally distant father, her overbearing narcissistic mother—where we see the way these early years skew her self-perception. Her mother tells her she’s unlovable and that she “exists too much”. The narrator is aware that her attraction towards women is a problem for her mother, yet, even if she knows that she would be more accepted if she were to become exclusively romantically involved with men, she pursues relationships with women. So, while our protagonist clearly seeks her mother’s approval, she’s unwilling to deny her sexuality.
Throughout the course of the novel, readers will realise that the narrator is perpetuating the same self-destructive behaviour. Regardless of how her relationships start, they always seem to come to disastrous ends because of her unfaithfulness (emotional and physical) and her “love addiction”, her solipsism and self-loathing, and her underlining unresolved issues with herself and her mother.

Now, I know that I’m making this novel sound rather depressing. And, to be fair, it has quite a few bleak moments. The protagonist makes a lot of awful choices, and she does some really terrible things. She’s also pretty much aware that her actions are wrong, and she does try to improve (for example she goes to rehab for her “love addiction”).
There are more downs than ups as time and again we witness her repeating the same damaging behaviour (becoming attached to unavailable or toxic people). It certainly isn’t easy to unlearn habits, especially ones that are instilled in us during our upbringing. Our narrator messes up a lot, she hurts people who genuinely love her—breaking their trust, keeping them at arm’s length—and readers will probably want to shake her quite a few times. Still, I found myself growing attached to her. I really liked her cutting sense of humour, which also lightens the overall tone and her introspectiveness. Her longing for happiness, for love, for acceptance, are rendered with clarity. Regardless of when or where she is—New York or the West Bank—the narrator is deeply aware of her own ‘otherness’. Although she grew up outside of the Middle East she remains strongly attached to her Arab roots, yet, she notes that “it’s the idiosyncrasies of culture that keep me an outsider, and leave me with a persistent and pervasive sense of otherness, of non-belonging”. In the U. S. too she’s “just as much of an outsider” and she’s made “starkly aware of [her] nonconformity”.

Arafat introduces her readers to flawed, yet ultimately compelling, characters. Regardless of their role in the narrator’s story, these characters—who are all contending with their own issues and desires— felt incredibly nuanced.
While this novel focuses a lot on the narrator failing to connect to others, there are moments of genuine understanding and love between the protagonist and her acquaintances/friends/partners. The narrator’s quest for love isn’t a happy one and her self-divide—between family obligation and desire, between her homelands, between the kind of person she is and the person she wants to be—don’t make for easy reading material. Still, the directness of Arafat’s narrator can at times make her into a rather charming individual.
You Exist Too Much is an impressive debut novel, one that is poignant, thoughtful, and bold and will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay or books on this list.

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

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Passing by Nella Larsen — book review

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“It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

At once alluring and disquieting Nella Larsen’s Passing presents its readers with a piercing examination of the interplay of race, gender, and class in 1920s New York.
Clare and Irene, the women at the centre of this novel, grew up in the same Black neighborhood. Both are light-skinned and can ‘pass’ for white but whereas Irene now lives with her husband, who is a doctor, and two sons in Harlem, and seems to enjoy a respectable middle-class existence, Clare left their community and rumour has it that she is now passing for white.
Irene has never paid much attention to the talk surrounding Clare’s ‘disappearance’ from their neighbourhood. A chance encounter in Chicago reunites the two women. Clare, now living as a white woman and married to a white supremacist, views Irene as a link bank to the Black community and culture that she abandoned. While she’s clearly made the most of the privileges that come with being white, Clare feels a lure towards her ‘old’ identity. Irene too may be more dissatisfied than she’d liked to believe and begrudgingly rekindles her friendship with Clare.

The fraught dynamic between Clare and Irene brought to mind that between Sula Peace and Nel Wright (from Toni Morrison’s Sula). Both sets of women used to be childhood friends, Clare and Sula leave their community only to return years later. Their beauty and insouciant attitude arouse jealousy and envy in their old friends.
While Clare is using Irene as her ticket to re-enter and re-connect with her Black community, she does seem to be genuinely happy to be spending time with Irene. Irene, on the other hand, grows resentful of Clare’s careless vacillation between a white and Black identity. When Irene perceives a new strain in her relationship with her husband she attributes this to the ‘change’ brought by Clare reappearance in her life.

“There were things that she wanted to ask Clare Kendry. She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly. What, for example, one did about background, how one accounted for oneself.”

Desire and jealousy cloud Irene and Clare judgments. They seem drawn to each other, perhaps because they are in many ways polar opposites. There is an intensity to how Irene thinks about Clare and to how Clare looks at Irene that seemed almost sexual (or maybe that’s just me).
Yet, underlining this mutual attraction is something closer to animosity. Irene judges Clare for passing and for being with a boastfully racist man, while Clare, in her unrelenting efforts to latch onto Irene and her lifestyle, is much harder to pin down. Much about her remains a mystery to us. Irene’s growing hostility towards Clare could also be seen as a defence mechanism, as in this instance aversion may be preferable to attraction.

Larsen’s naturalist approach to her characters’ behaviours and feelings reminded me of Edith Wharton (“Brought to the edge of distasteful reality, her fastidious nature did not recoil. Better, far better, to share him than to lose him completely. Oh, she could close her eyes, if need be. She could bear it. She could bear anything.”) . Larsen, similarly to Wharton, can be incredibly perceptive—in her social commentaries, in her honing on the subtleties of certain feelings, impressions, and thoughts—while also allowing for a certain opaqueness to surround her characters, their motivations and actions. This sense of ambiguity, although present from the novel’s opening scene, soon seems to dominate the narrative, so that the more I read, the more uneasy I felt towards the characters. Larsen’s disillusioned portrayal of marriage and domesticity also made me think of Wharton’s (the two also have a penchant for tragedies). The oppressive unease permeating Irene’s story called to mind authors such as Patricia Highsmith and Danzy Senna.

Larsen doesn’t lose herself in the ethics of passing, rather she portrays the system of white supremacy which seeks to control and undermine people of colour (regardless of their class).
As Larsen navigates themes of race, gender, and identity, she brings to life 1920s New York from its norms to its social hierarchies. Larsen’s commentary on race feels modern and all-too relevant to today’s society.

“The social, psychological, and economic motivations for passing, they also perform acts of literary trespass in exposing the cultural and legal fiction of race.”

Through her elegant and contemplative writing, Larsen captures the discordance between self and society. The tension between Irene and Clare results in a fraught atmosphere, one that makes Passing into a work of psychological suspense. If you are looking for a novel about transformation, liberation, jealousy, and betrayal, you need not look further.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett — book review

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“At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it. But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

Brit Bennett’s second novel is a tour de force. The Vanishing Half gripped me from the very pages as I was instantly transfixed by Bennett’s subtle yet penetrating prose.
Bennett is a brilliant storyteller. Not one word is wasted, or so it seemed as I had the distinct impression that her writing was simultaneously concise and striking. Bennett’s prose effortlessly moves from present to past, as her story traverses decades (from the 60s to the 80s) and transports us from the small-town of Mallard in Louisiana to LA or New York. Bennett maps the lives of many characters, who inhabit markedly different worlds, focusing in particular on the lives and voices of the Vignes women.

“The Vignes twins left without saying good-bye, so like any sudden disappearance, their departure became loaded with meaning.”

Most people regard twins, particularly identical twins, as a source of fascination. Bennett, fully aware of this, adds a layer of depth to the mystique of twins by making the Vignes embark on drastically different paths. After witnessing their father’s lynching at the hands of white men, the Vignes have little love for their small-town, and aged sixteen they flee to New Orleans. Things don’t go as planned however and the twins become irrevocably separated. While Stella returns with a daughter to the hometown she so longed to escape, Desiree passes for white and marries a wealthy white man. In spite of this, their bond keeps them tethered together and even as the years go by the Vignes twins struggle to reconcile themselves with the loneliness of their ‘twinless’ existence. Their respective daughters share little in common. While Stella’s daughter Kennedy enjoys a life of privilege, Desiree’s daughter Jude is discriminated for her dark skin by her peers and the adults of her community.

“The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.”

The Vanishing Half tells a heartbreaking and relevant intergenerational tale. While Bennett does not condone the decisions and behaviour of certain characters, mainly Jude and Kennedy, she never condemns them either, revealing instead how viciously deep-rooted racism is. While Stella can enjoy the freedoms that come with being white (and wealthy), her fear of discovery causes her to adopt racist attitudes towards other people of colour and to inculcate racist beliefs in her own daughter.
Like her mother at her age, Jude is eager to leave the confines of the ‘narrow-minded’ Mallard. In college she tries to overcome the insecurities and self-hatred instilled in her after years of being othered.
While the Vignes twins and their daughters may occupy opposing realities, they grapple with similar questions of identity. Stella, Desiree, and Jude, who are alienated by their society because of their race and class, long to belong. Yet, they often sabotage their own attempts to connect to others (Stella’s attempt to bond with her black neighbour ends catastrophically).

“It scared her, how badly she wanted to belong to somebody.”

Bennett navigates the way in which race and class shape the way in which we are seen and treated by others. Her characters are vividly drawn, and it is their contradictory feelings and desires that make them all the more real. Bennett’s narrative doesn’t favor any one perspective, and in doing so allows her readers to form their own opinion of a character’s actions.
The relationships the characters have with each other are fraught. While most Stella, Desiree, Jude, and even Kennedy to a certain extent, all desire to fit in or to form meaningful connections, miscommunications abound as they are unwilling or unable to expose themselves to others.

“He was always doing that, trying to coax her further outside herself. But she felt safe like this, locked away.”

In Bennett’s novel love isn’t neat or easy and identity is an evolving process, her observations on race, class, and family are truly compelling. She touches upon a myriad of topics (poverty, abuse, trauma, unknowability) with thoughtfulness and clarity. To white people like me (I grew up in a really homogenous and racist country) the America Bennett depicts is both disturbing and illuminating. While there are many horrific scenes in The Vanishing Half, I encourage readers to read this novel. Characters such as Reese, Jude, and Early alone are worth knowing. Interspersed in the various narratives there are tender moments of genuine affection and understanding (Jude’s relationship to her mother and Reese are truly heart-rendering).

“You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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