The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

 

“We all lived in an unwalled city, that was it. I saw lines scored across the map of Ireland; carved all over the globe. Train tracks, roads, shipping channels, a web of human traffic that connected all all nations into one great suffer body.”


This is the third novel I’ve read by Emma Donoghue and I’m afraid to say that it just didn’t quite work for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have approached The Pull of the Stars with such high expectations. Or maybe these kind of historical novels are just not my ‘thing’ (I was similarly underwhelmed by
A Long Petal of the Sea and The Night Watchman).
Given the current pandemic The Pull of the Stars, set in a maternity ward in Dublin during the 1918 influenza and the close of WWI, makes for an eerily pertinent read. This is a meticulously researched novel, from the blow by blow descriptions of medical procedures to the grimly evocative depiction of the environment in which our narrator, a nurse, works. Although the novel is set over the course of three days, Donoghue renders all too vividly the stark circumstances of the various women under Julia’s care. We witness the physical and emotional toll that result from too many pregnancies, the stigma attached to unmarried mothers and the mistreatment of their children, and the extreme abuse that ‘fallen women’ experienced in the Magdalene laundries. The lives of these women and children are shaped by injustices—such as sexual/physical abuse, poverty, illness, being forced into labour, being separated from your child—and Donoghue is unflinching in revealing just how horrific their realities are.
In spite of this, I just couldn’t help but to find the bluntness of her prose to be detrimental to my reading experience. While her unvarnished style does suit both the setting and the subject matter, it also distanced me, especially from Julia. She felt like a barely delineated character, often seeming to exist in order to explain things or provide ‘modern’ readers with context (especially one of her later discussions about the ‘homes’ and Magdalene laundries with Birdie). She was a very undefined character, a generic take on a good ‘nurse’. Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a far more interesting figure, sadly plays only a minor role in the story. Birdie was okay, although at times I had a hard time believing in her. The romance sprung from nowhere and didn’t really convince me either (and this is coming from someone who sees everything through sapphic-tinted glasses). If anything the ‘love’ story seemed to exist only to add an unnecessary layer of drama, unnecessary especially considering that the novel was quite tragic without it. The ending, more suited to a historical melodrama, was painfully clichéd.
The thin plot too did little to engage me. Although the lives and stories of the women in the ward were both compelling and distressing, I just didn’t particularly care for Julia’s narrative. Perhaps if this had been a work of nonfiction, I would have appreciated it more.
I don’t consider myself squeamish but The Pull of the Stars was almost relentless in the way it detailed EVERYTHING. Maybe readers who watch One Born Every Minute will be able to cope with it but I just could have done without it.
Another thing I could have done without is the lack of quotations mark. When will this trend stop?

Although The Pull of the Stars wasn’t my cup of tea, I’m sure that plenty of other readers will find this more riveting than I did.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan — book review

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“I felt I had hitherto woefully misdirected my energies in attempting to cultivate a personality. If you didn’t have one then that left more room for everyone else’s.”

With so many professional reviewers hailing Exciting Times as one of the best debut novels of 2020, praising Naoise Dolan for her wit and her razor-sharp social commentary, or describing her book as being “droll, shrewd and unafraid”, this promised to be an intelligent and compelling read. Sadly, as with a lot of hyped new releases, Exciting Times wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

While part of me rejoiced at the sight of quotations marks (yes, I’m looking at you Sally Rooney), I soon found myself wondering where the ‘wit’ I was promised was (in case you are wondering, largely MIA).
Exciting Times is an innocuous debut novel. It follows the tradition of the alienated young woman, which has regained traction over the past years, in no small part thanks to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The women who populate these novels have a lot in common with Esther Greenwood, who is perhaps the supreme example of the alienated female narrator (then again I think this title should go to Natalie Waite from Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman). Ava, the protagonist of Dolan’s novel, is far less morbid than Plath’s or Moshfegh’s narrators. Her alienation comes across as a phase of sorts, something she was experiencing merely for the sake of the aesthetics. Still, Ava’s millennial despondency does seem to make her prone to bouts of lethargy and ennui.

“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”

At 22 Ava decides to leave Dublin behind and move to Hong Kong where she ends up teaching English grammar. Because she didn’t like herself in Ireland she believes that a change of scenery will either improve her personality or the way she sees herself. In Hong Kong Ava makes few attempts at socialising with her colleagues or her roommates, and it is only when she meets Julian, a banker, that she begins to be interested in someone other than herself. The two form a bond of sorts, which sees them occasionally sparring about the fraught history between Britain and Ireland, while for the most part they seem content with being cynical together. Soon enough Ava moves into Julian’s guest bedroom. While he’s back in England Ava meets and ‘falls’ for Edith who, unlike Julian, openly reciprocates her feelings.

“Keeping up with both of them took work, but their similarities lent the enterprise a certain economy of scale.”

The plot as such sees Ava obsessing about either Julian or Edith, checking their Instagram accounts, over-analysing their texts, and attributing a special meaning to everything they say or do.
In passing she talks with others about class, race, abortion. But these topics are briefly mentioned, and for the most part Exciting Times is about Ava’s detachment from others. In a certain way I can see why this novel could appeal to fans of Rooney as the narrative is very much focused on creating and maintaining an aesthetic of detachment. Ava is all about the ‘conceal don’t feel’. She feels ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, ‘damaged’, ‘messed up’, ‘different from other people’…you get the gist. While this is in part intentional, and both Julian and Edith call her out on the ‘woe is me’ act, the novel perpetuates this ‘she’s different’ by casually reminding us that she has a right to feel ostracised given that once a girl in school was homophobic towards her. Personally I don’t think that just because she spends large portions of her time daydreaming, envisioning what ifs scenarios, or wondering how others see her, she’s actually ‘different’.
The novel is so focused on being clever that it ends up not having anything substantial to offer.
Ava’s alleged ‘aloofness’ seemed an excuse for her character not to have a personality. One of my favourite literary characters is Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe, someone who is aloof, distant, occasionally manipulative, and who hides her feelings from the reader. In spite of this we do see glimpses of her emotions. Ava instead just tells us that she ‘loves/hates’ someone…and I just didn’t feel it. If anything she was infatuated with the idea of love…which brings me to the ending. Are we meant to believe that there was any character growth on her part? Cause I don’t…
Much was made of the power dynamics between her and Julian. Ava plays her own violin insisting that if she were to end things with Julian she would have to find a ‘crammy’ room…and I’m meant to feel sorry for the circumstances she’s in? She is employed, and earns far more than others, and has enough savings to leave Julian’s apartment (or make a small contribution). Yet, her ‘dilemma’ is made into this ‘big thing’.
Lastly, in the novel Hong Kong is a mere cardboard backdrop for Ava’s existentialist crisis. The story could have been set in any city outside of Ireland and it would barely need changing. Mentioning Hong Kong’s political unrest now and again was not enough.

Some positives
Julian and Edith, although not strictly likeable, felt much more like well-rounded people. I couldn’t see why they were both interested in Ava given how self-involved she was.
Dolan has a knack for dialogues. They are extremely realistic: at times the characters talk about nothing, misunderstand each other, use the wrong words to express what they feel…her back-and-forths, or banter, between certain characters was fairly engaging.
Most of all I loved the way Dolan writes about the English language. Ava is attentive when it comes to English. She often questions people’s word choices (“We discussed whether the word ‘quite’ magnified or diminished a compliment. I sketched a cline on a napkin and put ‘quite’ between ‘a little’ and ‘very’.”) and, given her teaching position, she also reprimands herself for using ‘bad English’.
Dolan rendition of different intonations and accents is evocative:

“Her accent was churchy, high-up, with all the cathedral drops of English intonation. Button, water, Tuesday – anything with two syllables zipped up then down like a Gothic steeple.”

My favourite passages were the ones that focused on language and the ones describing a person’s pronunciation or words choices.
Ava does share some genuinely clever insights about the English language or modern methods of communications. For example I particularly liked the way she describes texts:

“We chose what to share. Through composition I reduced my life, burned fat, filed edges. The editing process let me veto post-hoc the painful, boring or irrelevant moments I lived through.”

Overall
As I’ve said before, this was an inoffensive novel. It wasn’t thought-provoking or half as witty as it tried to be but it isn’t badly written. I was hoping perhaps for a less glib take on alienation or a more complex interrogation of power dynamics and gender.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

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Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent

The opening lines of this novel are wonderfully theatrical:

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“All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin.”

Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent is a gleefully dark novel, filled with mean, selfish, and cruel individuals. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Nugent’s latest novel features one of the most unlikable casts of character

s I have ever encountered in a book. And yet, while the Drumm brothers and most of their social circle, are certainly detestable, the satirical tone that pervades Nugent’s narratives makes her characters’ nastiness a lot more ‘digestible’. Also, by exaggerating their worst traits and inflating the behaviours and reactions of nearly every-single character, the author gives her book a darkly humorous quality that keeps the story, and its characters, from being taken too seriously.

“You see, in our family somebody always had to be the butt of the joke.”

The alternating point of views and the non-linear structure of this novel add some spice to what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill dark family drama. We have three brothers from Dublin:
William, a film producer who believes that his only ‘weakness’ are women and that he is the “most successful and least screwed-up” Drumm brother; Brian, the middle-child, who, as the only non-famous and rather forgettable brother, feels like the underdog of the family (but before readers begin to feel sympathetic towards him we soon see him for the greedy skinflint he really is); lastly, there is Luke, the youngest brother is perhaps the only one who isn’t a wholly repugnant being. He has his moments of dickishness but readers are soon confronted by the troubled state of his mental health. His life is punctuated by unhealthy behaviours: as a boy he went through a zealously religious phase, while years later, once his music career kicks off, he goes in and out of clinics, perpetually plagued by morbid hallucinations and nightmares. Alcoholisms, drugs, paranoia, depression, become the backdrop to his 20s and 30s.
In spite of their different career paths and lifestyles William, Brian, and Luke often find themselves, much to their chagrin, drawn back together. While we initially believe that Luke is the only Drumm brother to demonstrate concerning behaviour, we soon see notice that William and Brian aren’t as clear-headed as they’d like to believe.

“We all knew the experience had scarred him deeply, but it was one of our family’s little cruelties to revisit it, often.”

The story charts their bitter relationship as they try to one-up each other throughout the decades.The three brothers have never been on easy terms. They are—and always have been—rivals. If something good happens to one of them, the other two are envious and feel they themselves are entitled to happiness/success/money. The little ‘cruelties’ that they do to one another can vary from a seemingly childish taunt to a much more perfidious offence. As the narrative progresses we see that most of their interactions have always been either openly hostile or purely transactional.
Whichever brother is narrating will often paint himself as the blameless victim, the only ‘sane/good’ Drumm brother. I enjoyed discovering more about the Drumm’s familial history and found the story to be fairly suspenseful.

However, as much I enjoyed the ongoing melodrama between the Drumm brothers, part of me was ultimately unconvinced by the whole thing. From the first pages we understand that these three have never and will never love each other. Even Luke is far too self-involved to care for his older brothers. If he helps them out, he doesn’t do this out of selflessness.
The Drumm brothers have always resented or outright hated one another. At times it seems that there is some loyalty or affection between them but it is merely a false impression. They pretend to do things out of ‘brotherly’ concern or care but they are just trying to keep face (with their parents/partners/etc.). This made their recurring ‘betrayals’ less duplicitous. These ‘cruelties’ don’t seem all that cruel once we realise that they never shared a bond or connection. A toxic type of love would have been more interesting…but what we have here is three guys pretending—not very hard—that they feel something other than distaste for one another. They don’t seem hurt by the cruel words or slights they receive, rather they seem to think on the lines of ‘how dare he do this to me’.

I don’t know…I just didn’t feel the passion behind their actions. These characters weren’t unreliable as such. They simply recount events in a way that puts them in a good-light. And when they are describing some of their questionable behaviour they do so in a matter-of-fact way, without any ceremony. They quickly and efficiently justify their actions by saying that it was the only way or that the other brother deserved it.
It would have been a lot more interesting if they had done these ‘cruelties’ to the people they loved rather than to people they did not care for. In fact, they seemed to care for no one but themselves.

For the most part Nugent does a terrific job in rendering certain time periods: from the 70s to the early 2000s. However, when it came to the 2010s she gives us a simplistic vision by portraying this time as little other than ‘the social media/influencer era’. Here we have cliche after cliche. William’s daughter is the embodiment of the millennial (or what individuals of a certain age imagine all millennials to be like): she is attention-seeking, body-insecure, not very bright, bisexual only because it makes her seem alternative, a self-harmer, a fake depressive…in general Nugent’s portrayal of mental illness struck me as little other than showy.

Speaking of female characters, the three main women in this novel came across as flat. Their actions made no sense and it would have been a lot more interesting to have some short sections from their povs. The Drumm’s mother had the potential of being a complex character but she doesn’t get a lot of page-time. William’s wife is a mere plot device.

Also, as much as I was entertained by the sensationalist behaviour of these characters, I did find the latter-half of the novel to be slightly less intriguing than the first. The whole build up to ‘which one of them is dead’ loses a bit of its initial steam and the final reveal struck me as anticlimactic.
The epilogue was laughably cheesy, and I’m unsure if this was intentional or not.

Final verdict:

Our Little Cruelties is best enjoyed as a wickedly fun read rather than a psychological thriller. For the most part it is engaging and chock-full of drama between horrible people. The conversational style of the brothers’ narratives drew me in, so that I almost felt implicated by what they were telling me. Dark moments or serious issues are treated with flippancy, in a soap-opera sort of manner. If you stop to think whether the story or characters make sense…well, it might ruin your reading experience.

“We three brothers all looked, one to the other. We knew it was inevitable.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Normal People by Sally Rooney

Review of Normal People by Sally Rooney

★★✰✰✰  2 of 5 stars

If you believe that characters who dislike themselves, shrug a lot and say “I don’t know” a lot, are very deep and realistic, well this is the perfect read for you.

salluIf you are thinking about reading this novel, I suggest you listen to the following song instead, since it will take you less time and you will get the same story:

Song for a Guilty Sadist by Crywank

While I enjoyed Rooney’s style, that is her interweaving of ordinary moments with emotionally charged ones and the uncertainty that pervades her story, I was also annoyed by how artificial her novel is. I had the impression that Rooney was trying to conjure a certain millennial “vibe” through her characters and their experiences. Connell and Marianne lacked depth and, as stupid as it might sound, character. Their looks were emphasized in a way that made them “different from others”. They are skinny and beautiful, they smoke, they make languid movements, they are smart, they are unlike their peers and they actually care about world politics, basically they are really DIFFERENT and SPECIAL.
Marianne comes from a wealthy and abusive family, Connell was raised by his mother and suffers from bouts of anxiety and depression. That they have issues that they can’t cope with is realistic, but what I didn’t like was the romanticizing of their difficulties. What I didn’t like is that being “alienated” is “cool” and that seeking sadomasochistic relationships is understandable if you come from an abusive family. Marianne and Connell aren’t terrible people but god, they are so self-involved. Their relationship is made to appear fraught but I didn’t always understand why. Drama for the sake of drama? They enter forgettable relationships with other forgettable people but they are fixated on each other. Why? Who knows…
normalSecondary characters and family members are barely sketched out, they have little to no purpose other than creating more “drama” for the main characters. Marianne’s family was so badly written that I had difficulties taking them seriously. Friends from college serve very little purpose, other than making the main characters seem “different” and “real” (special snowflake alert).
What I disliked the most is that by the end neither Marianne or Connell show any sort of character growth.

The reason why I finished this novel is that I listened to the audiobook and the narrator managed to make this otherwise unappetizing storyline sort of okay.

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Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

I won’t deny that –initially– there is an underlying tension that renders some portions of the story to be gripping. The first opening lines propel us into what promises – and fails – to be an intriguing mystery.
My main reservation about this novel is that it switches tones too often: there is an unbalanced – if not jarring – disparity between the seemingly ‘dark’ components and the unbelievably ridiculous moments.
I initially thought the narration and story reminded me of Joanne Harris’ Gentlemen and Players but it never really holds onto its strengths. That book perfectly balances humor and drama. Lying in Wait does not. The narrator who is almost gleefully telling us about their ‘bad’ intentions loses all its appeal. There are scenes and monologues that are just oddly grotesque: they do serve the purpose of unsettling the reader but they lose their desired effect by repulsing us and by making us question the believability of their situation/words. What should be funny is so ridiculously lampooned that it just becomes irksome.
The satirization of ‘class’ is completely overdone. Comments about ‘oh dear, the unemployed’ or ‘we do not mix with them dear’ were more annoying than witty.
The appealing premise leads to a ludicrous series of events which on the whole lead to a pointless finale. Then again, the story serves no real purpose and delivers no real message. The characters are all inept and their naivety is just downright irritating. I know that the story is set in the 80s, but I refuse to believe that people were so gormless.
What could have been a compelling mystery filled with dark humor ends being an exaggerated parody of the genre.

My rating: 1 star

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Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken Harbour is a gripping novel that portrays – with much intensity – complex relationships between friends, partners and family members. French, as per usual, pays close attention to the human psychology rather than focusing solely on the ‘crime’ itself.

Tense and frayed relationships aside, the story is one peppered with doubt: throughout the investigation, we can never be quite sure of what has happened to the Spain family.
French deftly renders feelings of animosity and of a growing sense of unease: there is a constant sense that the truth behind the Spain case is an unpleasant one, and thanks to some foreshadowing, one that will cost Scorcher dearly.
Scorcher is a complex narrator whose method prior the case was ‘by the book. The Spain case however forces him to behave unexpectedly. His own connection to Broken Harbour inevitably turns the case into a personal matter. Alongside for the ‘ride’ is Richie, his rookie partner. Their interactions make us see, in my opinion, Scorcher at his best. Scorcher is a fully rounded character and his investigation makes the story come off the page.
French has also a knack for depicting different types of people. All of her characters offer realistic incongruities and much depth. Both the people involved in the Spain case and Scorcher’s own family make an impact on the storyline.

French’s eye for the smallest details serve to add further layers to the novel as a whole. We reassess the same characters and situations again and again, never quite sure of certain character’s motivations.

Nothing is as it seems, and it is only through Scorcher’s investigation that the truth slowly begins to unravel. Brimming with suspense and filled by all too believable characters, Broken Harbour is an engaging and powerful book, one that makes the reader question their own ideals and perception of right and wrong.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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