Honor by Thrity Umrigar

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

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

my rating: ★★½

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

“How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?”

Devastating, heart-wrenching, and full of love and sorrow, Men We Reaped is an unforgettable memoir. Jesmyn Ward recounts her experiences growing up poor, female, and Black in the rural South during the late 80s and 90s. Ward interweaves her personal account with a brutal social commentary that highlights what it means to be poor and Black, and of how racism, specifically in the South, remains an insidious and widespread phenomenon with tragic consequences. Interrupting those chapters in which Ward recounts her childhood and teenage years are chapters focusing on the lives of five Black men, all of whom died young as a result of addictions, suicide, and accidents. Some of these men, we learn, were her friends growing up. We see how the school system either pegged them as problem students or ignored them, which inevitably would make them feel ‘less than’ and worthless. Ward’s younger brother, Joshua, is one of these young men, which makes these chapters all the more hard-hitting.
Ward shows how deep-rooted institutionalised racism is and how it results in social and economic disparities. In looking back to the past, Ward tries to understand the motivations behind the actions and behaviours of the adults around her, in particular, her mother and her father, a serial cheater who would eventually leave them behind. In discussing the lives of these men she cared for, Ward considered the high mortality rate among young Black men, and of the way in which their community is affected by generational trauma, drug addiction, etc. Ward ultimately feels conflicted about the South, a place that has played a fatal role in the deaths of the people she loved. Yet, even after moving away to pursue higher education, she finds herself longing to return to it. Ward, in some ways, appears to be haunted by it and by the role it played in the deaths of so many men she knew and loved.
With heartbreaking clarity and piercing insight, Ward writes of her childhood, of the lives of those young men who died such violent and sudden deaths, of her own family and her relationship to her parents, of her community, and of social inequality. More impressive still than Ward’s talent for vividly portraying a specific time and place is her ability to articulate her grief over the death of her brother and her friends.
While this memoir is by no means an easy read, it did in fact distress me, ultimately, I think it’s a necessary read. Ward’s lyrical prose reads like an elegy, both to the men that died at such a young age and to the South. Men We Reaped is a powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking read. While this memoir is mired in pain and grief, Ward’s elegiac prose and empathy balanced out its bleaker aspects. With admirable lucidity Ward attempts to reconcile herself with the confusion and anger brought about by the inequalities experienced by her community and by her loved one deaths.

Some quotes that will haunt me:

“[T]he message was always the same: You’re Black. You’re less than White. And then, at the heart of it: You’re less than human.

“We inherit these things that breed despair and self-hatred, and tragedy multiplies. For years I carried the weight of that despair with me;”

“But this grief, for all its awful weight, insists that he matters. What we carry of Roger and Demond and C. J. and Ronald says that they matter. I have written only the nuggets of my friends’ lives. This story is only a hint of what my brother’s life was worth, more than the nineteen years he lived, more than the thirteen years he’s been dead. It is worth more than I can say. And there’s my dilemma, because all I can do in the end is say.”

“We who still live do what we must. Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.”

“I thought being unwanted and abandoned and persecuted was the legacy of the poor southern Black woman. But as an adult, I see my mother’s legacy anew. I see how all the burdens she bore, the burdens of her history and identity and of our country’s history and identity, enabled her to manifest her greatest gifts.”

my rating: ★★★★☆

Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

Dog Flowers is a relentlessly unsparing and depressing account of a dysfunctional family grappling with addiction, trauma, mental illness, and abuse. This memoir opens with Danielle Geller’s mothers’ death. Geller’s mother was homeless when she died of withdrawal from alcohol, and Geller is forced to return to Florida to sift through her mother’s possessions. Using her archivist skills she ends up reaching out to her mother’s side of the family, aside she’s been estranged from, and visits them in their home in the Navajo Nation, where she learns more about her mother’s history and her Navajo heritage.
Alongside these sections that follow Geller as an adult, there are chapters delving into her disrupted childhood, which often honed in on a particular episode.
After her parents, both addicts split up, Geller and her sister go on to stay with their father. Their father, who is white, is an alcoholic whose emotional abuse of his children goes on to become physical when he assaults Geller’s sister. Geller recounts with disturbing clarity his erratic behaviour, for example of the way he would harangue them, telling them the same tired stories from his own childhood and adulthood, fixating on the wrongdoings he’s been subjected to. Although it’s been years since I’ve shared a roof with my father, reading Dog Flowers was an uncomfortable reminder of just how overwhelming it can be to have (and live with) a parent with substance abuse issues. And boy, does Danielle Geller capture how devastating it is on a young person to be exposed to this kind of chaotic and vitriolic presence. It was distressing just how much of my father I recognised in Geller’s own one so reading these sections was by no means an easy activity. Geller and her sister eventually end up in the custody of their grandmother but things take a downward turn as Geller’s sister begins to ‘act out’.
Geller’s prose is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, even when discussing traumatic episodes. In many ways, this memoir reads like a long list of tragedies. Geller’s mother, father, and sister all struggle with addiction and mental illness. Geller is exposed from an early age to emotional, physical, and self-abuse. Neither of her parents is capable or willing to look after her and her sister, and their attempts at sobriety and lucidity are short-lived. If anything, their attempts at a ‘normal’, or at least ‘stable’, life just give Geller (and us the readers) false hopes as they inevitably fall off the wagon. Time and again Geller has to look after them, often with little choice on her part as they emotionally manipulate her into helping them out. All of this sadly hit too close to home. When I saw some reviewers expressing surprise or shock that Geller would not cut ties with her ‘toxic’ family, well, I can’t help but think that their family situation may not be as dysfunctional as Geller’s. There are people out there who are able to cut off ties with their abusive parents or siblings. But, more often than not, you are unable or unwilling to cut someone off. Especially if you start questioning whether many of their ‘vices’ stem from trauma or mental illness. And again, hope. You hope that they will get clean, get a steady job, or lead a ‘normal’ life. And, in Geller’s case, well, all of her closest relatives have struggled with addiction. Is she going to cut them all off?!
It was saddening to see that Geller’s relationship with her Navajo side of the family is far from idyllic or rosy. While her connection to her cousin struck me as moving, her relationship with her aunt was saddening indeed as she is revealed to be a woman who is full of anger and sadly seems to turn this anger towards her relatives.
There is a lot of pain in this memoir. Geller captures with gut-wrenching clarity the realities and aftermath of a childhood marred by neglect, abuse, addiction, and trauma. Geller’s forays into her own past are brutally honest and are not accompanied by ‘moral’ lessons or ‘wise’ insights into human nature. I appreciated Geller’s honest depiction of her family and, more importantly, herself.
While Dog Flowers deeply resonated with me, I did find its execution early on a bit clumsy. The author introduces too much too soon, and I wasn’t sure what had happened when. The ending too seemed a bit abrupt, and I would have appreciated more insight into Geller’s life (her friends, partners, work, etc..).
Nevertheless, I found this a powerful and piercing read. It is by no means an easy read and I did find much of what Geller recounted to be extremely distressing, then again, I was also able to relate to many of her experiences. I appreciated that she neither villainizes nor condone her parents nor her sister and that in delving into her past she tries to understand their motivations or states of mind, even if ultimately, much about their identities remains a mystery or incomprehensible to her.
Geller’s memoir is a haunting account of a family mired in pain. If you are looking for a challenging read, well, buckle up because Dog Flowers is it. Geller’s portrayal of her family disrupts the myth of the happy family and the widely held belief that parents love their children. While there is love in this memoir it is often obfuscated by years of self-destructing behaviour and or by hatred, sadness, and weakness.

my rating: ★★★½

| | goodreads | tumblr | ko-fi | |

Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“I’m thinking I could spend the rest of my life becoming an expert at forgetting.”

Heartbreaking, moving, and ultimately uplifting Last Night I Sang to the Monster is my favourite novel by Sáenz. While this novel explores themes and issues that are recurrent in Sáenz’s oeuvre, Last Night I Sang to the Monster is much darker and, quite frankly, more depressing than his other books. But, if you’ve read anything by Sáenz you know that he never sensationalises ‘difficult’ subject matters nor is he superficial in the way he handles ‘hard’ topics. Sáenz’s empathy and understanding of his characters always shine through. This compassion, tenderness even, that he shows towards them is catching so that within a couple of pages I find myself growing just as attached to his characters as he is.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster follows Zach, an alcoholic eighteen-year-old Mexican-American boy who is in rehab. We don’t know exactly the events that led to his being there but as the narrative progresses, the picture that emerges of his family life is certainly not a happy one (his father, an alcoholic, his mother, severely depressed, his older brother, abusive).

At first, Zach is unwilling and unable to discuss his past, and he finds it difficult to open up to his therapist or his fellow patients. He eventually grows close to Rafael, an older man who understands Zach’s sorrow.
I always admire how Sáenz writes dysfunctional families without vilifying or condoning neglectful parents. Here, like in many other novels by him, father-like figures play a central role in the main character’s arc. With Rafael’s support, Zach’s is able to begin his slow healing process which will see him confronting the events that led to him being in rehab. While his silences initially protected him from being hurt further, eventually, they became debilitating, alienating him from others and his causing him to retreat inward.
Zach’s damaged sense of self-worth, which results in a lot of self-loathing, is not easy to read. Yet, Sáenz’s conversational prose is really easy to read. This style also lends authenticity to Zach’s voice, making it seem as if we truly are in his head. Sáenz has a great ear and his dialogues reflect that. The realistic rhythm of the characters’ conversations makes their interactions all the more vivid and ‘real’.

Throughout the course of the narrative, Sáenz navigates loneliness, trauma, grief, acceptance, and belonging. Zach’s struggles are rendered with clarity and kindness, and so are those of the people around him.
There is no denying that Last Night I Sang to the Monster is a difficult and sad read. Yet, the relationships Zach forms with the other patients, as well as his personal arc, resulting in an incredibly rewarding reading experience.

my rating: ★★★★★

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Gut-wrenching and haunting Indian Horse depicts the horrific realities of residential schools, as well as racism and discrimination in 1960s Ontario. This is the third novel that I’ve read by Richard Wagamese and, while Medicine Walk and Ragged Company were no walks in the parks, Indian Horse’s unsparing bleakness and distressing content make those two seem like light reading material. In spite of how upsetting and chilling this story was, Wagamese never sensationalises his characters’ suffering nor does he include graphic and or painful scenes as a cheap way to ‘shock’ his readers. He writes with such empathy and compassion that I found myself unable to tear myself away from Saul’s story.

Indian Horse opens with Saul Indian Horse, who is Ojibwe, being in a treatment centre for his alcoholism. He then begins recounting his childhood, of the early years he spent with his family ‘on the lam’ back in the early 1960s in the wilderness of Northern Ontario after his siblings were taken, kidnapped really, by the so-called ‘authorities’. His parents are heartbroken and survival is difficult, but, compared to what is to come this part of his life seems like a vacation almost. Eventually, Saul is also stolen and taken to a residential school. Wagamese is unflinching in his depiction of the horrors that occur in residential schools such as the one ‘attended’ by Sault. Words like horrifying or brutal do not succeed in conveying the monstrous actions and behaviours of the people in charge of these schools (mostly nuns and priests). The corporal and psychological violence they inflict on their ‘charges’ are abhorrent, stomach-churning, horrific. Their anti-indigenous teachings see them ‘punishing’ (read: abusing) children for speaking in their native tongue, or for expressing non-Christian beliefs or for merely acknowledging their reality (that of having been forcibly taken from their families and communities).

Saul finds solace in hockey. When Father Leboutilier notices how skilled Saul is on the ice he encourages him to keep on playing, tutoring him along the way. Saul temporarily plays with a ‘midget hockey team’ but resentful white parents and their children are unwilling to see him ‘take’ the spotlight and soon enough he’s out of the team.
Eventually, Saul leaves the residential school and goes to live with the Kellys, an Ojibway foster family who wants him to join their community’s junior hockey team. Over the following years, Saul and the rest of his teammates are subjected to many forms of discrimination, from the racist slurs other teams and their fans throw their way to the everyday discriminations and ‘roughing’ up they are subjected to. Saul initially refuses to retaliate when opposing players pull dirty tricks which actually earns him the contempt of his own teammates, who view his decision not to respond to violence with violence as passive, cowardly even. Later on, Saul is scouted by the Toronto Marlboros where he’s yet again a victim of discrimination. As time passes Saul decides to abandon hockey and develops a taste for drinking.

Whereas Medicine Walk and Ragged Company were very dialogue-heavy and in many ways read like long conversations (between the characters, between humans and the natural world, between past and present), Indian Horse is a more quiet work that is far more introspective in nature. Saul’s recollection of his childhood and teenage years is permeated by a sense of sorrow and loss. From the traumatic experience of being separated from his family to the horrifying realities of residential school and the later abuse he was subjected to once he began playing hockey professionally….this is not a fun or nostalgic foray into the good olden days. Wagamese captures in painful clarity how much Saul struggled with the abuse, violence, and racism he experienced growing up. He conveys these experiences through his younger eyes, so that we too, feel as confused, hurt, and lost as he did. The loneliness he feels is truly heart-breaking and there were times that I struggled to keep on reading. But, as I said earlier on, Wagamese never makes a spectacle of his characters’ suffering. He’s matter-of-fact when it comes to recounting Saul’s difficult life, making his experiences seem all the more real.

As with Wagamese’s other novels, the narrative incorporates various Ojibway teachings, and here we see just how powerful they are in that they tether Saul to the culture he was so violently ripped away from. Much about the tone of the novel brought to mind one of my all-time-favourite novels, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. While they do portray very different realities, prose and tone-wise the two share a similar quality. Self-forgiveness is a crucial part of both of these novels, and both authors demonstrate extreme empathy in the way they handle trauma, loss, and addiction.
If you are a fan of Wagamese, or Sáenz, and you are prepared to have your heart broken (and possibly stitched back together), you should seriously consider reading Indian Horse.

my rating: ★★★★☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Sula by Toni Morrison

They were solitary little girls whose loneliness was so profound it intoxicated them and sent them stumbling into Technicolored visions that always included a presence, a someone, who, quite like the dreamer, shared the delight of the dream.

Toni Morrison’s Sula revolves around the eponymous and fraught character of Sula Peace. Within the novel, Morrison interrogates themes of race, gender and class in the Black neighborhood known as the Bottom, in the fictional town of Medallion. The narrative’s discourse on good and evil, expressed in the Bottom’s demonization of Sula, and its subversion of binary thinking, will force readers to re-evaluate presumptions that arise from labelling people and places as being either good or evil.

The name of the neighborhood at the heart of Sula is an oxymoron since the Bottom is located ‘in the hills above the valley town of Medallion’ (a white farmer tricked his former slave by giving this land and claiming it was ‘fertile bottomland’). The story then introduces Shadrack, who after fighting in WWI returns to the Bottom with PTSD. He creates the ‘National Suicide Day’ and spends his days insulting people on the streets, refusing and or unable to fit in with the people of the Bottom. The narrative then takes us to the 1920s where we are introduced to Nel Wright and Sula Peace, the novel’s central characters.
While Nel is raised to be obedient and polite, Sula is brought up in her grandmother’s hectic boarding house, ‘a house with women who thought all men available’. Nel and Sula become fast friends, an inseparable unit. After one of their stunts goes terribly wrong cracks begin to appear in their relationship but it is Nel’s marriage and Sula leaving for college that ultimately drives the two apart.
Ten years later Sula returns to her hometown, ‘accompanied by a plague of robins’. Because of this bizarre phenomenon, Sula’s arrival is seen as inauspicious by the people of the Bottom. That their mistrust is aggravated by Sula’s physical appearance—which is made striking because of a birthmark over her eye—and her behaviour—her clear disregard of social norms—seals her fate in the eyes of her community.
They demonize Sula, seeing her as an outsider, the ‘other’. Not only do old rumours about Sula resurface, but that she puts her elderly grandmother in a nursing house, sleeps with married men, and is said to have slept with white men, further antagonizes the people of the Bottom against her. Nel seems the only one happy to be reunited with Sula but their friendship is destroyed after one betrays the other.
Sula becomes the scapegoat for Bottom whose inhabitants are convinced that ‘Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another’. They are empowered by Sula’s refusal to behave in accordance with their social norms, banding ‘together against the devil in their midst’. Yet they refuse to ‘destroy’ Sula, since however ‘ungodly’ she may be, to drive her out of town or to ‘mob kill’ would be to them both ‘unnatural’ and ‘undignified’. In creating the ‘evil one’ – Sula – they are creating the ‘good one’ – themselves.

Sula is by no means an easy read. The story is punctuated by poverty, addiction, shame, jealousy, hatred. Characters kill their loved ones or seem unmoved by tragic and horrific events. Yet, Morrison herself never condemns Sula or the inhabitants of the Bottom. She forces her readers to question whether Sula is the way she is because of ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’, and even then she reminds us that although Sula’s actions cause others’ pain, she is not an evil person.
Morrison demonstrates how distorting and transforming someone into a devil or a monster is dangerous: the author, unlike her characters, passes no judgements on Sula’s ‘transgressions’, and makes readers aware of the way in which the people of the Bottom enjoy and profit from condemning Sula as ‘evil’. By contrasting the characters of Sula and Nel, Morrison is also able to question the validity of labels such as ‘evil’ and ‘good’ since the two friends are often described as being one and the same, able to find ‘in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for’, yet Nel is seen as ‘good’ and Sula as ‘bad’. The bond between Sula and Nel remains at the fore of the narrative, and I loved how deep it ran.

Sula makes for a bleak, brutal even, read. Morrison is unflinching in her depictions of racism, violence, abuse, and illness. Her prose is simply terrific as she slips with ease between different point of views, never elevating any one’s character perspective. In spite of its brevity Sula packs a punch. It will upset you, anger you, and possibly depress you….but it is a stunning piece of fiction, one that I find myself often thinking about.

my rating: ★★★★☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“Fear and hatred, fear and hatred: often, it seemed that those were the only two qualities he possessed. Fear of everyone else; hatred of himself.”

A Little Life is a heart-wrenching tour de force. Dark, all-consuming, devastating, moving, stunning, brutal, dazzling, beautiful, disturbing, A Little Life is all of these and so much more. This is the kind of novel that haunts.

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”

The first fifty pages or so may give one the illusion that the story they are about to read is the usual tale of a group of friends trying to make it in the big city. Which in some ways, it is. Friendship is one of the novel’s underlying motifs. But, A Little Life is first and foremost a novel about pain, suffering, and trauma. And as highly as I think of this novel I could not in good conscience bring myself to recommend it to anyone else. Large portions of this 800-page novel are dedicated to depicting, in minute detail, a man’s past and present physical, emotional, and psychological suffering. We also have to read paragraph after paragraph in which adults inflict all kinds of horrific abuse on a child. What saves this novel from being yet another sensationalistic or gratuitous take on sexual abuse are Hanya Yanagihara’s clear and realist style and the many moments of beauty, kindness, love, empathy that are interjected throughout the narrative. Still, even so, I can see why some may find A Little Life to be too much. Hell, there were many instances where I found myself thinking ‘I can’t it, this is too much’. But who was I kidding? Once I started this novel I knew that I had to finish it and in fact I devoured it over the course of three days.

“Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”

The novel recounts, decade-by-decade, the lives of four friends in New York City from their early 20s to their 50s. There is JB, a gay painter, Malcolm, who still lives at home and dreams of becoming an architect, Willem, an orphan who is pursuing an acting career, and Jude, also an orphan, who is a lawyer. Jude’s is reticent about his past and his friends know to leave it well alone. He has a limp and suffers from many health-related issues, which were caused by a car injury. As the story progresses the narrative shifts its focus on Jude and his many ongoing struggles. Jude’s horrific childhood and teenage years are revealed to us slowly over the course of the story. To cope with his traumatic experiences Jude self-harms, something that definitely hit close to home so I appreciate the authenticity with which Yanagihara portrays Jude’s self-harming. Similarly, his self-hatred and self-blaming are rendered with painful realism, without any judgment on the author’s part. While there were many—and I mean many—horrifying and painful scenes, there are moments of beauty, lightness, and tenderness. As an adult Jude is surrounded by people who love him, there are his friends, colleagues, neighbours, mentors, and it is here that the novel is at its most moving.
This is a novel about sexual abuse, pain, grief, friendship, love, intimacy, hope, and silences. The characters (it feels wrong to even call them that) are fully-formed individuals, imperfect, at times incongruent, yet nonetheless lovable. Oh, how my heart ached for them.
Yanagihara foreshadows certain events but even so, I found myself hoping against hope that the story would not be a tragic one. Yet, this unwillingness on Yanagihara’s part to provide a happy ending or to give her characters sort of closure that makes her novel simultaneously subversive and all the more realistic. Things don’t always get better, people can’t always overcome or reconcile themselves with their trauma, love doesn’t ‘fix’ people, you can’t magic away someone else’s pain. I have never sobbed while reading a book but I was sobbing intermittently throughout my reading of A Little Life. At times reading about Jude’s pain was brought me to tears, at times it was when coming across a scene that is brimming with kindness and love (basically anything with Jude and Harold or Jude and Willem).

“I want to be alone,” he told him.
“I understand,” Willem said.
“We’ll be alone together.”

This novel made me feel exposed, naked, vulnerable, seen in a way I wasn’t ready to be seen. It broke my fucking heart. It disturbed me, it made me ugly-cry, it made me want to find Yanagihara so I could shout at her. To describe A Little Life as a piece of fiction seems sacrilegious. I experienced A Little Life. From the first pages, I found myself immersed in Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm’s lives. When I reached the end I felt bereft, exhausted, numb so much so that even now I’m finding it difficult to to articulate why I loved this so much (then again my favourite band is Radiohead so I clearly like things that depress me). I doubt I will ever be brave enough to read it again but I also know that I will be thinking about A Little Life for years to come.
Adroit, superbly written, and populated by a richly drawn A Little Life is a novel unlike any other, one that you should read at your own risk.

my rating: ★★★★★

ps: the bond between Jude and Willem brought to mind a certain exchange from Anne Carson’s translation of Orestes:
PYLADES: I’ll take care of you.
ORESTES: It’s rotten work.
PYLADES: Not to me. Not if it’s you.

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

As the title itself suggests this book is about undocumented Americans. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio never treats the people she is writing of as passive ‘subjects’, or worst still ‘objects’, her gaze is neither voyeuristic nor impersonal. She does not give the impression that she is filtering their experiences and stories, even if she admits early on that due to privacy she may or may not have altered names and specific/recognisable details. In the interactions she has with those who are undocumented she isn’t a stoic journalist or interviewer, she doesn’t only ask questions. She shares her own thoughts, feelings, and circumstances with them, and often seems to form a bond with them. Which is what sets apart The Undocumented Americans from other works that wish to elevate the voices of those who are so often silenced.

Cornejo Villavicencio isn’t interested in relating stories of those deemed ‘exceptions’, as exceptionalism ignores narratives that are not deemed ‘extraordinary’. Throughout the course of 6 chapters, moving across America—Staten Island, Miami, Cleveland, Flint, New Haven—Cornejo Villavicencio reveals the complex lives, identities, and histories of undocumented immigrants. The voices she ‘collects’ in these chapters belong to day labourers, housekeepers, family members who have been separated from their loved ones, those who have lost loved ones because they do not have medical insurance, those who have been or are still being affected by the Flint water crisis, and the first responders to 9/11.
The people Cornejo Villavicencio connects with do not want our sympathy or pity. They share their experiences with her hoping perhaps that their stories will reach those in need, those who perhaps like them are being or have been exploited by a country that treats them as ‘illegal’ and ‘aliens’. Even in the UK there is this stereotype of immigrants as lazy when the exact opposite is true. Chances are they work harder and for much less than the ‘natives’, whilst being subjected to all sorts of injustices. Cornejo Villavicencio challenges this view of immigrants as criminals, lazy, welfare cheats, ‘less than’. She also confronts the myth of the ‘American Dream’ as she comes across people who do nothing but work, yet, no matter their hard work they risk being deported or are forced to turn to ineffective herbal remedies in order to cure serious illnesses or health problems they probably have developed while working physically and emotionally draining jobs and/or in dangerous environments.

Cornejo Villavicencio speaks frankly and readers will feel her anger and sadness. She confronts the realities of being an immigrant, of working unfathomable hours for little or no money, of being treated unfairly, of experiencing health issues and being unable to seek treatment. However sobering their stories are, the people she writes demonstrate commendable qualities. They are multi-faceted individuals and their stories will undoubtedly resonate with many.
Cornejo Villavicencio is an empathetic writer, who shares her own experiences and feelings throughout the course of this work. While this is a read that will both incense and depress you, it will also (hopefully) make you want to do something about it.

Although I live outside of America, immigrants do not face an easier life here in Europe. There are “immigration removal centres” (who thought that the word ‘removal’ would be okay when speaking of HUMAN BEINGS?), governments which are willing to let people drown rather than reach their shores (and at times orchestrate these shipwrecks), collude with other governments in order to stop people from leaving their countries….the list of horrors go on. I urge you, if you are in a position to donate to charities such as ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’ (these are UK based) to do so.

The Undocumented Americans is a heart-breaking, urgent, thoughtful work. Cornejo Villavicencio is a talented writer whose prose is both eloquent and raw. I will definitely read whatever she publishes next.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Not My Time to Die by Yolande Mukagasana

In this powerful and gut-wrenching testimony, which has only been recently translated in English, Yolande Mukagasana writes of the Rwandan genocide. In a striking and incisive prose Mukagasana recounts the horrific three months in which Hutus massacred hundred of thousands of Tutsis. Mukagasana, a Tutsi, worked was a nurse/doctor in Kigali. She was married with three children. When Hutus begin persecuting and killing Tutsis Mukagasana and her loved ones attempt to flee away from Rwanda. Their attempts are unsuccessful as the people who they had once considered their friends turn against them. Mukagasana narrates these events through a first-person perspective and using the present tense. These two modes lend immediacy to her experiences.

There are many distressing if not downright nauseating scenes in this novel. Mukagasana doesn’t gloss over the truly horrific realities of a genocide. These pages are dripping with violence, grief and despair. Before reading this memoir I knew next nothing about Rwanda or its history. Mukagasana provides many illuminating insights into her country’s past and present, emphasising the role that the West played in the fraught relationship between Hulus and Tutsis. Mukagasana challenges Western views of her country and of genocides (the West dismissing the “genocidal violence” that broke out in 1963 as “the usual tribal infighting”) as well as the hypocrisy of organizations such as the United Nations (“expressing platitudes but not acting”). Mukagasana also addresses the causes and consequences of genocidal violence. The author regards violence from numerous standpoints: from a global, national, and individual level.
While Mukagasana conveys with painful clarity the shock and agony that she experiences her audience’s understanding of her grief and pain will be infinitesimal.
However challenging and upsetting this memoir is I encourage others to pick this one up.

MY RATING: 4 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell — book review

“I think we’re very similar, Nessa,” he whispers. “From the way you write, I can tell you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things.”

Recently I read a nonfiction book which claimed that when reading a book “However you get it, you’ve got it right”. When I read those words I found them vaguely equivocal…case in point, in My Dark Vanessa the misreading of a novel has disastrous consequences.
When fifteen year old Vanessa is given a copy of Lolita by her forty-five year old teacher, Jacob Strane, she becomes obsessed with it and comes to regard it as a tragic love story. In her eyes Humbert Humbert is not a degenerate pedophile but an unlucky man who happens to fall in love with a twelve-year old girl.

“That seems the likely ending to this love story: me dropping everything and doing anything, devoted as a dog, as he takes and takes and takes.”

Short review
On the one hand I believe that this novel presents its readers with a horrifyingly realistic character study of a sexual predator (a pedophile, a rapist, a molester). It tells an uneasy story, one in which a man creeps his way into the mind and life of a vulnerable young girl, that is bound to make some readers uncomfortable.
On the other, I found the narrator’s introspection to be monotonous, and the secondary characters are mere plot devices.
Although Kate Elizabeth Russell’s writing could be striking, she sometimes resorts to edgy observations which are a bit cringe-y. Some of her descriptions were trying (eg: “dishwater blonde hair and granola clothes”) and I was frustrated by the blatant yet limited way in which she would convey Vanessa’s distress (she bites her cheeks a lot).
There are some great discussions in here (on abuse, guilt, desire, power, literature) and while this is ultimately a story of an uneasy self-reconciliation, it is one that is as uplifting as a work Joyce Carol Oates (ie: pretty fucking depressing).

An extremely meandering and longwinded review
Narrated by Vanessa, Russell’s novel opens up in 2017 when the #MeToo movement became viral. Vanessa, a disillusioned thirty-something concierge, is forced to re-evaluate her relationship to Strane after one of his former students, Taylor Birch, writes a Facebook post accusing him of assault. Although Vanessa is still in touch with Strane, the two are no longer ‘involved’, and she thinks that Taylor is lying. Yet, even as she tells herself this, there is a niggling doubt at the back of her mind. When Taylor messages her asking her to share her own experience with Strane, Vanessa is compelled to comb through her memories of her relationship with Strane.
Vanessa regards her relationship to Strane as a consensual love story hindered by an age-gap. The only reason why she entertains the possibility of it having unethical is because he was her teacher. Yet, when Vanessa revisits her past, she is not always able to romanticise Strane and his actions.

“I know what he thinks, what anyone would think. That I’m an apologist, an enabler, but I’m defending myself just as much as I am Strane. Because even if sometimes I use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else’s mouth, the word turns ugly and absolute. It swallows up everything that happened.”

In 2000 fifteen-year old Vanessa returns to her second year at Browick, a private school in Norumbega, Maine (although according to Google this town does not exist, Russell’s vivid depiction of this fictional place makes it seem all too real). Vanessa is all too aware of her distinctive red hair, of her lack of friends, and of her penchant for morose observations.
It isn’t all surprising then that Vanessa initially ‘responds’ positively to Strane’s attentions. He compliments her appearance and her writing, and soon enough Vanessa comes to believe that he is attentive because he thinks that she is “special”.

In spite of the superficial charm that Strane uses in order to make his abhorrent actions appear ‘darkly romantic’ readers are aware of his true nature. He is a perverted manipulator who masks his inclination for young girls under the guise of being a hopeless romantic, as if he is a blameless victim of love. He instills in Vanessa his own skewed perception of their relationship, he uses her own insecurity against her, and makes her feel complicit. He makes her believe that it is ‘them’ against the world.
What becomes apparent through Vanessa’s recollection is that Strane would use any means necessary in order to gain her trust. For instance he uses Vanessa’s poetry against her as he attributes to her poems mature and inappropriate meanings (for instance he calls one of her poems “sexy”…) making her once again feel ‘seen’ (something he knows she craves).
Strane also implements Lolita in order to introduce to Vanessa the possibility of an adult-child ‘relationship’, and while he often compares Vanessa to Lolita, as the self-denying hypocrite that he is, he refuses to cast himself as Humbert (“Is that what you think I am?” He asks. “A pedophile?”).

The novel does a terrific job in portraying the power-imbalance between a grown man and a teenager girl. Strane uses his age and experience to manipulate Vanessa, often leading her to believe that she is the “boss”. His disgusting behaviour is rendered in minute detail as the author does not shy away from portraying him at his most repugnant.
Rather than ‘empowering’ Vanessa however he is disenfranchising her. He convinces her that she is ‘precocious’ and far more mature and independent that other girls.

“Every first step was taken by him. I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.”

While we are made to see how Strane manages to convince Vanessa that they are mutually complicit, two ‘dark romantics’, his charm never reached me. Everything he says and does felt wrong and illicit. While Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert admits to himself that he likes little girls, Strane seems to actually believe that he has fallen in love with Vanessa not because of her age but in spite of it. Yet, as present-Vanessa grudgingly realises, he would find it arousing to infantilise her and his attraction for her diminishes as she grows ‘older’.

“Like I was crazy. A stupid, crazy little girl. I get why you did that. It was an easy way to protect yourself, right? Teenage girls are crazy. Everyone knows that.”

While I think that this novel does an exceptional job at depicting Vanessa’s horrifying story of abuse (she would dislike my using this word but I call it what it is) I did not feel incredibly affected by it and for the most part I was simply disgusted.
Strane was the only character who struck me as believable…and he was a monster. Vanessa however remains more blurred. While this is likely to be somewhat intentional (the trauma caused by Strane has had horrific repercussions on her life and her sense of self) it also made it harder for me to believe in her as a character. Her dissociation and alienation are a result of her ‘relationship’ with Strane and his presence in her life is toxic , that much is clear. Still, she often makes out-of-character choices or big decisions without any distinct reason. There are two instances were she makes potentially life-changing decisions without articulating the reason behind her actions. Much was made of her ‘darkness’ but I could only see it as a consequence of Strane’s gaslighting her. Part of me wished that we could have seen her before him, perhaps during her first year at Browick. That way we could have gotten to know her on her own terms, and not as Strane’s victim (not that Vanessa labels herself as victim or survivor, in fact she hates these terms: “But that word, with its cloying empathy, that patronizing, flattening word that makes my whole body cringe no matter the context”).

There were moments when more could have been made of her personality. Yes, she has been manipulated into assuming the role of ‘Lolita’, but she could still have had traces of her own distinctive personality. Her job sadly seems merely to recount in an almost detached way Strane’s repulsive actions towards her. And if she is totally disconnected from her own self then I wish we could have been at least made privy to what she was thinking when she makes those potentially life-altering impulsive decisions (usually she just describes her movements or surroundings in these instances).
There are many other characters but they all blurred together. Once again this may be deliberate, given that Vanessa herself knows that she struggles keeping people straight in her mind. However, even during those scenes set in her past, I found that the characters to be lacking: there were a few named J-something and I could barely distinguish them from one another. Most of them seem to have been included only to say or do something to hurt Vanessa. Their motivations were sketchy and given that their personalities remain off-page, I had difficulties believing them.
Vanessa’s parents are incongruously depicted. Her mother seems to undergo three or four changes of character in the course of the novel. The father is totally expendable. Maybe if they had more page-time, we could have seen glimpses of their personalities/thoughts/motivations (we never know how they felt about their daughter’s time at Browick). Even in the few scenes where they actually appear, they remain vague un-active presences.

“So if someone doesn’t want to come forward and tell the world every bad thing that’s happened to her, then she’s what? Weak, selfish?”

While I appreciated the way the novel unflinchingly discusses sexual and emotional abuse, its praise and critique of certain aspects of the #MeToo movement, as well as its incorporation of texts (Lolita and Ethan Frome) and historical figures/anecdotes (which Strane used to normalise or romanticise ‘relationships’ between under age girls and middle aged men), I found that much of the narrative relied on explicit content. The first few times, as I already mentioned, I thought that however revolting these scenes were necessary. Needless to say, these scenes were not easy to read. Strane eroticises his fifteen-yearl old student and makes Vanessa believe that, like Lolita, she is ‘precociously seductive’. Although Vanessa tells herself that she enjoys this feeling of making a grown man sexually desire her, readers will have a less rose-tinted view of things. While their first encounters are graphic, I did not see these as being included for shock value. However, as these scenes increased, I found their frequency almost distasteful. To be repeatedly exposed to them seemed unnecessary. If anything they made the first explicit scenes less impactful.
Sometimes keeping certain things off the page isn’t a sign of ‘cowardice’ or ‘sensibleness’. If anything it requires even more effort to make your audience aware of certain ‘transgressions’ without having to actually to include them. For instance, in a recent episode of one of my favourite tv shows, a character is forced into the realisation that he was abused as a child. Rather than cutting to a tasteless flashback of this, the camera remains trained on his face, and viewers can see the incalculable hurt that this abuse caused him. His trauma, anguish, and despair are conveyed without the episode having to actually show this abuse happening.
Another example I can give is by the great Stephen King (who happens to have appreciated My Dark Vanessa more than I did, given that he described it as a ‘package of dynamite’) who in his latest novel avoids depicting in horrific detail a scene in which a child is tortured, cutting instead to the before and the after. Even if he doesn’t include e the ‘during’ scene, his readers can clearly see the harmful effects that this maltreatment has had on the child in question.

Sadly, I found that once I was 30% into My Dark Vanessa the graphic scenes lost some of their significance. They were so lurid that I could not see why there had to be so many of them. I get that some were meant to show us why present-Vanessa has such as distorted perception of her sexuality but when a story relies on numerous revolting sex scenes…I loose interest. I don’t think ‘splatter’ films are good horror films, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that I wasn’t all that impressed with My Dark Vanessa.

Additionally this year I read two other books that deal with similar topics. What Red Was is a stark novel that depicts the lasting effects of rape on a young woman’s mind, body, and life. I found that novel poignant and heart-wrenching. Promising Young Women instead tells an imaginative and subversive story of a relationship between a female employee and her boss. Those two novels resonated with me a lot more than My Dark Vanessa did. In Russell’s novel, the only character that was truly believable happens to be one of the most disgustingly perverse characters I’ve read of in a while. For all her self-fashioning, Vanessa did not strike me as ‘dark’ or even ‘precocious’. For the most part she is passive and apathetic towards other people. In one scene she willingly stands by as one of her young colleagues is harassed by a patron. In those instances where she is spurred into action, I still could not understand her or her motivations. More could have been made of her inner monologue, her sense of loneliness/emptiness, and of her fraught relationship with her mother.
The novel takes its time discussing the guilt she feels, and by the end I just wanted this novel to end.

“But it’s the truth, even if no one believes it. Driven towards it, towards him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: eager to hurl herself into the swamp.”

Nevertheless, future readers should not be deterred by my not so positive review. So far, most of the reviews are singing this book’s praises. Heck, even King liked it…so maybe I’m just not the right reader for it.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

View all my reviews