The Other Mother by Rachel M. Harper

“Yes, of course. It is always him they want to know about—the father, not the other mother.”

The Other Mother is an affecting and nuanced multigenerational tale unearthing long-buried family histories. The author’s interrogation of motherhood challenges the heteronormative archetype of the nuclear family, as she focuses on the experiences, choices, and parenting of single-women and same-gender couples. Throughout the course of the novel, readers will witness how parental love is not dictated by blood and the complexities that arise from that. Within these pages, motherhood is a multivalent term, one that changes from mother to mother. The two mothers that are at the chore of the story are flawed and imperfect individuals, who make mistakes believing that they are doing what’s best for their child. The author however is never not sympathetic towards them, nor does she condone their behaviour, allowing instead her other characters within her narrative, and readers as well, to reach their own conclusion about some of their choices. We are made to understand their states of mind, the events leading to them making those choices or the circumstances that aggravated certain ‘bad’ habits. The ‘democratic’ structure of the novel allows for all of the people connected to Jenry Castillo to be given a perspective, to give their side of the story and the rift between his two families, the Pattersons’ and the Castillos’.

“What Jenry does know is that he doesn’t belong here, which is how he’s felt about almost every place he’s been. Call it the mark of illegitimacy. But somehow this campus feels different. He’s come here to find something; more specifically, to find someone, which alone gives his presence a purpose. He has come to find his father.”

The narrative opens with Jenry starting his 1st year at Brown University after earning a music scholarship. Jenry was raised by his mother, Marisa, a nurse. While thanks to his grandparents he feels a connection to his Cuban heritage, neither they nor Marisa can fully understand his experiences as the only Black kid in his neighbourhood or fill the absence of his father, Jasper, who died when he was two. He has learnt that his paternal grandfather, Winston Patterson, is none other than a renowned professor of African American history at Brown, so once on campus Jenry sets out to find him, wanting to know more about the kind of person Jasper was. When he does speak to Winston, the encounter is far from the bittersweet reunion between two estranged family members. Winston seems not particularly interested or surprised by his estranged grandchild’s existence, and is unwilling to reveal more about Jasper. In fact, he asks why Jenry is so focused on Jasper when it was his sister, Juliet, who was involved with Marisa. Upon learning this Jenry is shocked and confused, angry at Marisa for having hidden the truth from him, and unsure what it even means that at one point in his life he had two mothers. The following sections, focusing on Marisa, Juliet, Jasper, Winston, and Victor, Jenry’s maternal grandfather, give us a retrospective of what occurred between Marisa and Juliet, their love story and the eventual dissolution of their relationship. We know from the start that Marisa took Jenry away from Juliet without any warning, leaving her with no way of contacting them. Since then Juliet has struggled with addiction and has only in recent years been able to find a stable relationship and job. Her career as a musician seems to have gone astray soon after Marisa left, leaving Juliet bereft and alone. And what role did Winston and Victor play in their daughters’ stories? Both men disapproved of their relationship and their ‘unconventional’ family, but, did they eventually try to do what’s right by them and Jenry?
I really appreciated the uneasy questions this narrative raises in terms of doing right by others and yourself. If you do something terrible (whether it is taking them away from a parent, pressuring them academically, or forcing them to deny who they are) but you have convinced yourself it is the best thing for your child, can you and should you be forgiven?
The narrative shows the many ways in which parents hurt their children out of ‘love’ or because they are unable to accept them and their choices, without exonerating them or villainizing them. Other characters may blame them but thanks to the book’s structure we can’t really favour one perspective over another. If anything, the author is able to show the justifications and fabrications some of the characters make in order to justify to themselves, and others, their actions. I appreciated how imperfect and messy the characters were and the different forms of love we see in this story. The author captures the longing, heartache, and regret experienced by her characters in a melodious prose.

“The loss of him fills her body, courses through her veins. And now, as her memories replay over and over, she can’t help but feel it all—the sadness, the loss, the love she had and perhaps still has for him—flowing into her limbs, making her skin twitch, her fingers ache, till it spills from her eyes as tears.”

The uneasy character dynamics that are at play within the story were deeply compelling and enabled the author to incorporate larger discussions on gender, sexuality, race, class, motherhood, cultural and generational differences. Additionally, grief underlines much of the narrative. It may be grief at the death of a loved one (Jasper) or grief resulting from physical and emotional separation (Jenry being taken away from Juliet, the unbridgeable rift between Marisa and her mother, the distance between Juliet and Winston and eventually Jenry and Marisa). I loved much of the story and found myself particularly moved by Juliet’s portion. The author beautifully articulates her sorrow, without romanticizing her struggles or painful experiences. Initially, I found myself also feeling sympathetic towards Marisa, despite her choice to take Jenry away from Juliet. We see how unrequited love and rejection can eventually alienate you from the ‘object’ of your desire. But then in the latter portion of the book, any affection I held for Marisa perished when she behaves in a really crappy and unfair way to her son. Jenry, upon learning that she had lied to him for years, is obviously angry and upset. She is initially shown to be desperate to make amends, and I really felt for her especially given what she is going through. But then when she eventually reaches Jenry she tries to force him into forgiving her by threatening to make him leave Brown, saying that this place had clearly ‘changed’ him and he’s clearly not ready or something…and cristo dio. Wtf?! What a fcking stronza. Really. When she said that sht and the narrative glosses over it I just could not move past it. It infuriated me beyond measure and soured the remainder of my reading experience. Additionally, there was a predictable soap-opera reveal that was hinted at earlier on that just made me roll my eyes. The ending sequence was tonally a lot different from the narrative so far and struck me as mawkish and really jarring.

But hey ho, I did love most of the book so I would still recommend it to others. If you are a fan of multigenerational sagas, such as the ones penned by Brit Bennett, Ann Patchett, and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, or authors such as Hala Alyan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Danielle Evans, and Francesca Ekwuyasi, you should definitely not miss The Other Mother.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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The Break by Katherena Vermette

The Break is a harrowing yet lucidly written intergenerational family saga that examines the repercussions of a horrific act of violence.
The book opens with Stella, a young Métis mother, witnessing a violent attack on some land near her house. Although torn, Stella doesn’t rush to the victim’s rescue and calls the police instead. When they show up the senior officer is quick to dismiss her, as there is no ‘body’, just some blood, and believes that she merely saw some ‘gang violence’. Scott, the younger officer, who is of Métis heritage, is not so sure. We eventually learn that the victim’s identity and that she happens to be related to Stella. The girl, a self-identifying ‘good’ girl who is an all-around good egg, is hospitalized and both physically and psychologically traumatized. Her mother, aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother are all deeply affected by her attack. They question who would do it and how to best help her in her recovery. Some want answers, others believe that finding the people who did this to her will not solve matters. We are also given the perspective of Scott who is hellbent on ‘solving’ this case, to the point where he disregards the magnitude of what the girl has experienced (pushing her to talk even if she shows signs of distress etc.). We learn of his struggle over his identity, from his colleague’s microaggressions to his own partner’s unfunny remarks about indigenous people. Although we are given insight into his experiences I had a hard time sympathizing with him as his voice stood out (and not in a good way) from the rest. I would have much preferred if the narrative hadn’t included his perspective and had focused on the women making up the girl’s family. There was something gimmicky about his chapters and it seemed to me that the author couldn’t’ choose between making him into a flawed yet ultimately empathetic guy or an unscrupulous ambitious dick. Another pov that felt unnecessary was Phoenix’s. She is an older teen who has severe mental health issues (from body dysmorphia and disordered eating to extreme anger and violent episodes). There were aspects of her character that struck me as gratuitous and sensationalistic. Also, having her pov didn’t really make her into a more nuanced character. While I understand that often abuse breeds abuse (so we have someone who was abused becoming an abuser) I am tired of how often this is ‘used’ in fiction as a way of not quite condoning but of making ‘sense’ of an abusive character’s actions. I also found it frustrating that her pov featured more in the story than the girl (i have forgotten her name, even though she is meant to be the figure tying all of these narratives together) who was attacked. She and her friend have a chapter now and again but I found them somewhat simplistic compared to the others. That the first time that they sneak out and ‘lie’ to their mothers ends in such a horrifying way also struck me as a wee bit much.

Still, this book certainly packs a punch or two. Katherena Vermette doesn’t soften the brutality of what the victim experiences nor are she quick to condemn characters like Stella. Throughout these perspectives, Vermette also explores the discrimination, violence, and abuse directed at indigenous women. Some of the characters are trapped in a stark cycle of violence, addiction, and or abuse and Vermette doesn’t shy away from portraying the harsh realities that many of them live in. The story also dabbles with magical realism as there are chapters from the perspective of a character who is no longer alive. Their identity isn’t quite a mystery but I appreciated that Vermette didn’t feel the need to over-explain their presence in the overarching narrative.
I would definitely read more by this author and I would encourage readers who can tolerate graphic descriptions of violent/sexual assault(s) to give The Break a chance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique

A week or so before reading Monster in the Middle I read Tiphanie Yanique’s debut short story collection, Land of Love and Drowning, which I rather enjoyed. I remember being struck by Yanique ’s atmospheric storytelling, by her subtle use of irony, and by her thoughtful meditations on death, love, and everything in between. So, given that I have been known to have a soft spot for intergenerational dramas/interconnected storylines (The Vanishing Half, Commonwealth, The Travelers) I was fully convinced that I would love Monster in the Middle.
Albeit confusing, the opening chapter intrigued me. But with each subsequent point of view, I become increasingly aware of just how disjointed and directionless this book was.
Monster in the Middle tells the love story between Fly and Stela, he’s American and a musician, she’s a science teacher from the Caribbean. Yanique jazzes things up by making their romance, not the starting point of the novel but the very end goal. The storylines leading to their romance give us a glimpse into their parents’ lives and later on Fly and Stela’s own experiences as teenagers and young adults.

The novel opens with a chapter on Fly’s father. He and a white girl are running away together, or so it seems. She comes from a deeply religious family and he too is religious. Fly’s father also suffers from schizophrenia but at this point in his life, he believes that the voices he hears are from God. A chapter from Fly’s mother follows, and here we don’t really gain much insight into what had happened to Fly’s father or that girl. She tells us a bit of their marriage but in a way that didn’t come across as engaging or particularly realistic. The following chapters are about Fly as a teen and his college experiences. I hated that the author focuses so much on Fly feeling horny and whatnot. He eventually comes across a sex tape starring his father and that girl he was briefly with. This tape becomes a guilt secret, as he is ashamed of being turned on by it. He masturbates a lot, which, good for him I guess but I personally could have also done without those scenes (it reminded me of What’s Mine and Yours, where the sections focusing on the teenage boy character are all about him having boners). Fly’s character in these chapters is reduced to his sexuality.
In college, he gets involved with a really religious girl and this character made no sense whatsoever. I found it corny that she was singing or praying while they were being intimate with each other and that she has such a disconcerting approach to sex (it is implied that she ‘uses’ her body to make people straight…?!). Because of course, she would be like that.

Then we get to know about Stela’s mother. Again, there was something off-putting about the characters and the relationships they formed with each other. Same thing for Stela’s father, who is not her biological father (other than that i can’t recall anything about him). Stela eventually comes to the fore and surprise surprise even if her chapters also hone in on her teen years, she isn’t made into a one-dimensional horny adolescent. She grows up in Saint Thomas and eventually goes to study abroad in Ghana where she is the victim of a sexual assault. Years later she marries this blandish guy and then they both, unbeknown to each other, become involved with the same woman. I absolutely hated this storyline. It feeds into existing cliches about bisexual women and it made no bloody sense. I had a hard time believing that this ‘other’ woman would be so deceitful. Then again, the story implies that she is deceitful by nature as she also lies about her background to them. Anyway, at long last Fly and Stela meet and I felt absolutely nothing. I didn’t feel for either character and found them very much devoid of fleshed-out personalities. They merely served as plot propellers, enabling the author to give us some superficial love stories and some observations on multicultural and/or interracial relationships. These brief glimpses into the mc’s parents lives did not make them into particularly well-developed characters, quite the opposite. They felt a bit all over the place, as some chapters, such as the 1st one, hone in on a very specific episode, while others have a vaguer timeline.
While the story addresses important issues, it did so rather superficially. Towards the end, the narrative includes covid and the BLM movement but it does so in a rather rushed way. I would have liked less focus on the characters’ sex lives and more moments of introspection.

The writing could also be rather off-putting with cringey lines like: “When he put his hand to her there at the center, she pressed herself hard against him, and she was slick. It made him think of candy gone sticky in the sun.”; “his penis hard and curved, her vagina sticky and warm. They presented these things to each other like treasures: “So smooth,” she said to his; “So sweet,” he said to hers.”; “The primary thing in his life was the ocean of this woman’s insides.”.

Additionally, I did not particularly care for the way the author ‘dealt’ with the rape storyline. And we get some problematic lines such as: “Jerome was flirting, she knew, but he was seventeen and she, frankly, was susceptible at twenty-three.” and “Stela looked around and saw an empty easel erect in a corner. She wished she had a dick. She wanted to be inside this bitch of a woman.”.

Overall, I could not bring myself to like this book. This novel lacked the strongly rendered setting of Land of Love and Drowning and, moreover, the author’s style was too florid for me. I couldn’t take a lot of what I was reading seriously.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

“People always say time stands still, and it really is that, you know. You find the thing you love the most, and time will stop for you to love it.”

A few months ago I read and loved Mira Jacob’s Good Talk so I was quite looking forward to The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing as I happen to have a penchant for family dramas. And, at first, I was actually quite taken by it. The family dynamics Jacob sets up were complex & compelling and the ‘mystery’ surrounding Akhil’s death, Amina’s career change, and Thomas’ ‘weird’ behaviour, well, they moved the narrative forward.
The story alternates between chapters set in the 90s where we become acquainted with Amina, a wedding photographer who receives a worrying call from her mother, Kamala, about Thomas, Amina’s father. According to Kamala, Thomas is unwell. An anxious Amina flyers to her hometown where she learns that Thomas seems in perfect health. As days go by and after speaking to some of his father’s colleagues Amina is forced to recognise that her mother may not have been exaggerating after all. The other chapters instead give us insight into Amina’s childhood from a holiday gone awry that she took with her parents and brother to India to visit relatives to her experiences growing up in New Mexico. In these chapters, we see a lot of Akhil and come to learn of the events that led to his death.
As I says, initially I found Jacob’s storytelling engaging. Amina was a flawed but sympathetic main character and the various secrets related to her family added a layer of intrigue to her narrative. Things sadly fell apart midway through. I found the story much too repetitive. By then I’d already guessed what had happened to Akhil and what was going on with Thomas but the story keeps delaying these ‘reveals’. Large chunks of the story were just filler, often consisting of the same two or three characters having the same type of conversation or, more often than not, argument. Boy, do the characters in this story like to squabble. It just so happens that their fights did very little for me as it seemed to serve no purpose (we don’t gain much insight into those characters, nor does the fight further or add to the plot, nor does it drastically change things for anyone). Amina’s ‘photographer’ storyline was quite disappointing as Jacob doesn’t really delve into her photography that much. We learn of two ‘pivotal’ photos she’s taken and that’s it. I wanted more passion, more sections detailing her technique or what she feels towards photography (as Rachel Lyon does in her magnificent Self-Portrait with Boy, which also involves the photo of someone falling to their death…but unlike Jacob’s novel, it has depth). I didn’t understand why the characters behaved the way they did, nor did I really get the point of all the ‘sleepwalking’ and possible ‘hauntings’. Amina spends the majority of the whole novel wondering if her father is sick, when she has an answer the focus goes to her romance with a generic white man she knew during her teens, before presenting us with a rushed ending that is meant to provide some sort of answer/resolution for her dad’s situation…but doesn’t really.
I grew to dislike Amina, especially when she comes out with stuff like this: “Why does everyone think I dress like a man?” “Like a sandal. Or a flat.” “I just don’t like dresses. It’s not like I’m some transvestite.” (her response here makes no sense); or this “The blue button-down made her look like a high school lesbian” (this is the kind of remark that if its made by someone who like in amina’s case is not part of the lesbian nor lgbtq+ community…well); or this: “she remembered their first kiss, how strange and eager they had both been, like two mutes trying to describe a freak storm” (ugh).
After she shows up at her love interest’s place and they have sex initiated by her he comes up with this, “I think,” Jamie said that evening, his heart thundering under her ear, “you just raped me.”
to which she replies something along the lines of “you seemed into it”. Yikes.
The comments Amina makes about ‘lesbians’, ‘transvestites’, and ‘mutes’, well, they were completely unnecessary. Amina is presented to us as the ‘modern’ counterpart to her parents, someone who is relatable and isn’t necessarily interested in getting married. Except that she actually wants to but ‘trauma’ has made her believe she isn’t worthy and yadda yadda. What a clichè.
I didn’t care for the story’s melodramatic overtones. The whole thing surrounding Akhil’s death was just too OTT for me. He just wasn’t a particularly believable character and came across more like a caricature than anything else. Amina went from being a relatable character to someone I could not get behind. Later in the narrative, her cousin and alleged bff breaches her privacy and trust. Instead of calling her out, the narrative makes her actions seem good because Amina’s ‘true work’ can finally be celebrated. Instead of giving her hell Amina just lets her friend manipulate her into going along with this.
Amina’s parents were portrayed as very volatile, and their constant sniping, wild mood swings, and erratic behaviour made it hard for me to get to grips with them. Especially when what they said or did was played up for laughs.
I’m sure other readers won’t be as offended as I was by some of the content in this novel so I recommend you read more positive reviews before making your mind up. Given how much I liked Good Talk, it is safe to say that I am deeply disappointed by Jacob’s debut novel.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova


When she left Ecuador for good, she learned how to leave pieces of herself behind. Pieces that her descendants would one day try to collect to put her back together.

In The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, Zoraida Córdova combines an intergenerational family drama with magical realism, and the end result will certainly appeal to fans of Alice Hoffman and Isabel Allende. Not only does Córdova’s dazzling storytelling complement the fantastical elements within her story but her prose often brought to mind the language you encounter in fairy tales.

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina follows a dual timeline. The one in the present opens with the formidable matriarch Orquídea Divina Montoya inviting her progeny to her funeral. Over the years her children and grandchildren have left her house in Four Rivers, and many of them have not returned since their departure. When they flock back to her home they find out that Orquídea has undergone a drastic change. In this part we are introduced to a lot of characters, many of them don’t even get a speaking line. The house is very crowded and arguments and disagreements inevitably come to pass. No one knows about Orquídea’s past, and some have come to resent her for it. Odd and inexplicable things have always happened to the Montoyas, and maybe, now, on her ‘deathbed’ Orquídea will finally reveal some of her secrets…except that she doesn’t. The narrative jumps seven years ahead where we learn that many of the Montoyas have been dying sudden and bizarre deaths. Someone, or something, maybe after them, but why?
The other timeline gives a glimpse into Orquídea’s Cinderellaesque childhood in Ecuador. Told from birth that she would have bad luck Orquídea finds herself growing apart from her mother once she remarries. Her stepsiblings bully her, her stepfather shows her no kindness. Additionally, Orquídea is tasked with various house chores and with looking after her youngest sibling. One day she goes to the circus and finds herself falling in love. The following chapters of her story follow her ill-fated romance.

I liked the first chapters, in which we are introduced to the various Montoyas (some more in-depth than others) and see their reactions to Orquídea’s ‘transformation’. The prose is gorgeous, the magical realism on point, and the mystery around Orquídea’s past intriguing. We then get a time-skip of 7+ and I’m afraid that I wasn’t particularly keen on it. We never get to properly know the majority of the Montoyas nor do we truly delve into the experiences of Marimar and Rey, our main characters. I think that much of this novel, especially once we’ve passed Orquídea’s death, relied too much on telling. Marimar was a bit of a generic lead while Rey very much existed for comic relief and many of his lines did seem to make him sound a bit like a stereotype (‘bitchy’, man-obsessed, etc.). He’s basically the gay best friend. The chapters set in the past were somewhat disappointing as I thought they would give us an overview of Orquídea’s life, as opposed to just focusing on her late teens/early 20s. I think her journey and early years in America had the potential of being quite interesting. I mean, she had several husbands and they barely get mentioned. Orquídea herself was hard to like. Having a Cinderella-like sob backstory doesn’t necessarily make you into a sympathetic or complex character. Still, I did find her intriguing and by the end, I did feel on her behalf (kind of). As I said, I wish that more of the Montoyas had been fleshed out. There were some deaths in the story and they had little to no impact because we didn’t know that characters who die all that much (they basically were included to be killed off). The ‘big bad’ was disappointing and at times the story gave me Disney vibes. At one point Córdova describes curls as ‘worm-like’ and that gets a minus from me.
In spite of these things (story+characters being kind of meh) I still thought that this was a good novel. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to those who are looking for character-driven stories or nuanced family sagas, however, if you happen to be a fan of the authors I mentioned above or of the magical realism genre, well, you should definitely consider giving this novel a go. The story is fairly compelling, the author’s prose is lovely, and the fantasy elements were great. Atmospheric and spellbinding The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is an engaging story about love, family, heartache, and fate.

ps: while the cover is by no means ugly I do think that it doesn’t really suit the tone of the story. Additionally, it is the kind of cover that would be better suited to YA novel, not an adult one.

my rating: ★★★½

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Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen

“How unrecognizable America had made them, she was thinking, all of them.”

Subtle yet deeply evocative Things We Lost to the Water is a novel about belonging and displacement. In a similar fashion to Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Eric Nguyen’s novel does not adopt the traditional structure that characterises family sagas (which usually offer an all-encompassing view of a family), honing in instead on specific periods of her characters’ lives. These moments do not always reveal crucial aspects of their identities and or experiences but they do succeed in giving us a crystal-clear snapshot of a particular moment in their lives.

“How much could they remember? There must have been a limit, a moment of transition when they were more American than Vietnamese, and there was no going back.”

The narrative, which spans three decades, from 1978 to 2005, and alternates between Hương, a young woman who was forced to leave Vietnam, and her two sons, Tuấn, aged 6, and Bình, who was born at a refugee camp in Singapore and is just a baby by the time they relocate to New Orleans. Công, Hương’s husband and the children’s father is still in Vietnam with the plan that he will join them at a later date. In New Orleans, Hương not only has to adapt to a new culture and language, but she has to provide for her two sons.

“The world was cold and wild. A country could collapse. A father could disappear. She would have to protect her sons, she was thinking, protect them from all the cruelties of the world.”

Although Hương moves to a Vietnamese neighbourhood in New Orleans she feels deeply isolated. She attempts to keep loneliness at bay by sending tape recordings to Công. Soon these tapes become a lifeline, a connection to her husband and to Vietnam itself. As time passes however Hương is forced to confront the possibility that Công will not be joining her in New Orleans after all. Later on, and to her sons’ chagrin, she begins dating a car salesman, who is also Vietnamese.
Meanwhile at school Tuấn experiences racism, from being bullied for his accent to being treated as if he were ‘slower’ than his peers. Unlike his younger brother, Tuấn has memories of their father, he can speak Vietnamese, even if in time he loses his fluency, and during their early years in America he does seem to yearn to return ‘home’, that is Vietnam. He eventually begins dating a Vietnamese girl who soon pressures him into joining a gang.
Bình decides to go by Ben, a name more or less thrust upon him by his teachers/peers, and unlike his older brother and mother is quick to embrace American culture and values. His storyline, sadly, was the most predictable of the three as it seems a step-by-step queer coming of age/sexual awakening.
Over the years the three begin to drift apart as they embark on incrementally diverging paths. Yet, they are united in their longing for something (be it the roads not taken or Vietnam or Công or to feel like they belong).

“Wanting—what a strange feeling, what a queer idea to have toward another person! You could want food, you could want rest, you could want safety, and—it dawned on him—you could want a person, too.”

Each chapter presents us with a different period in these characters’ lives. At times these glimpses felt too brief or inclusive. We may witness an argument or some other conflict, and we never really see how those fights/disagreements are resolved. The next chapter will jump ahead in time and to a different character without providing us with an explanation/summary of what has happened since the last chapter. This gave their storylines a rather elusive and fragmented quality. We never truly gain a full picture of their lives or of who they are. Consequently, this made me feel at a remove from the characters. I wanted more from them but before I could get invested in what they were experiencing the narrative would march onwards, leaving so many things up in the air.

For the most part, I really liked the author’s prose. In its apparent simplicity, it brought to mind authors like Anne Tyler and Jhumpa Lahiri. I also appreciated the author’s focus on the quotidian; the snatches of conversations and or interactions we get are far from monumental but they provide us with an insight into the characters’ everyday realities.
The dialogues were a hit or miss sometimes. Some brought to mind Benjamin Alire Sáenz (a favourite of mine), so that we have characters echoing each other, or speaking about nothing in particular. I found these to be extremely effective in conjuring specific moments as they really rang true to life. But, when it comes to exchanges of a more argumentative nature, these came across as somewhat forced, their rhythm was slightly off.

Still, this novel has a lot to offer. There is some beautiful recurring water imagery (which seem to serve a similar function to the trains in The Namesake) and plenty of atmospheric descriptions of New Orleans and Vietnam (alas I found the author’s portrayal of France to be a bit too quaint: the wine, the bread, the man riding a bicycle). The novel is also characterised by an almost palpable sense of longing and offers a thought-provoking exploration of identity and family. Longer chapters would have probably made me feel more invested in the characters. By the time I began warming up to them or to gain a fuller impression of who they were the novel had come to a close.
As debuts go this is nevertheless a solid one and I look forward to reading more by this author.

my rating: ★★★¼

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The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan

Moving through space (America, Lebanon, Syria) and time (from the 1960s to 2019) The Arsonists’ City tells a sprawling yet engrossing tale about the Nasr, a Syrian-Lebanese-American family. Written with the same subtlety and beauty as her debut novel, The Arsonists’ City presents readers with a cast of fully-fleshed out characters, however flawed or frustrating they may be, a rich exploration of the Nasrs’ personal and cultural identities, and a glimpse into Lebanon and Syria’s complex pasts and presents.
The prologue opens up with the death of a young man. The narrative then introduces us to the Nasrs’ ‘children’. There is Ava, the eldest, the only one in the family who is not driven by ambition or particularly cares to be in the spotlight. Although she’s quite content with her job as a microbiology teacher, her marriage is undergoing a rough patch. her relationship with Nate, her husband, is undergoing a rough patch. We then have Mimi, their mother’s golden boy, whose musical career never truly kicked off. As Mimi’s bandmates get younger and younger, and his peers are getting married and having children, he feels stuck. Naj, the youngest and the only one who lives outside America, is part of a successful musical duo. In Beirut, she feels free to do as she wishes. Her family don’t know she’s gay and Naj isn’t keen on abandoning her party lifestyle.
Over the years the siblings have drifted away from each other. Seemingly out of the blue their father, Iris, a heart surgeon, decides to sell his family home in Beirut. After this sudden decision, the Nasr are reunited in Beirut. Close proximity reignites deep-rooted jealousies and brings to the light old family secrets and betrayals. Their feelings towards each other, and themselves, are complicated, messy. They bicker a lot, snitch on each other (often to their mother), and, in general, don’t have the easiest time together. However, as Alyan so brilliantly demonstrates, family bonds, however thorny or challenging, can be a true source of happiness or comfort.

Their reunion in Beirut happens quite later on in the narrative. Before that, we delve into Ava, Mimi, and Naj’s everyday realities. From their romantic relationships to their sex lives and careers. Alyan also provides us with glimpses into the lives of the people around them—their partners, colleagues, friends, bandmates—so that we end up with a rich cast of characters.
Each of the children reacts differently to their father’s decision. Ava and Mimi are initially unwilling to go to Beirut but are ultimately worn down by their mother’s unrelenting recriminations. Naj isn’t particularly happy at the news either as she feels quite possessive of her life in Beirut.
The narrative then transports us to Damascus, in the 1960s. Their mother, Mazna, falls in love with the theatre and begins to dream about a future as a renowned actor. The Lebanese Civil War is the background to Mazna’s chapters which heavily focus on her acting experiences. She befriends Idris, aka her future husband, who is Syrian and his close friend Zakaria, who is Palestinian and lives in a refugee camp.
The remainder of the novel moves between the present, with the family reunited in Beirut, and the past, where we read of Mazna and Idris’ early days of marriage and of their eventual migration to California.

Most of the characters make bad choices, they hurt the ones they love, they are unsatisfied by the direction their lives are taking (both Mazna and Mimi’s careers never truly resemble what they’d envisioned), and they either cheat or are cheated on. I appreciated how each character has to deal with failure or heartbreak, either as a direct consequence of their actions or due to circumstances out of their control. I also liked how realistic the children’s relationship with one another was. Alyan gives her characters both individual and shared history, which makes them feel all the more authentic. Alyan also brings her settings to life, for better or worse.
What felt a tad unnecessary was the extensive forays into Mazna’s past. She wasn’t a particularly likeable or sympathetic character (my favourite was probably Harper, Mimi’s Texan girlfriend). For their flaws, I found myself much more interested in the lives of her children.
The story at times felt a tad too melodramatic, especially in regards to certain ‘revelations and all that cheating. I swear the Nasrs’ are a family of cheaters. It got kind of repetitive (wow, quelle surprise, someone is cheating/being cheated on, yet again). There was an odd line sexualising a child which felt a bit…yuckish? And one that gave me incest-y vibes, which was also pretty unecessary.
Despite all that, I remained enthralled by Alyan’s storytelling and piercing observations. Her dialogues ring true to life and the character dynamics are very compelling.
With the tone of Elif Shafak The Saint of Incipient Insanities and the scope of Roopa Farooki’s The Good Children, The Arsonists’ City offers its readers a captivating and intricate family saga populated by nuanced characters and deeply rooted in Lebanon and Syria’s histories and cultures. In spite of its length (the audiobook is over 19 hours) The Arsonists’ City proved to be a gripping read one that I might even re-read.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

For a work that was first published in 1998 Daughter of Fortune strikes me as something more suited to the 1970s. Don’t get me wrong, I love Isabel Allende’s work and she is one of my favourite authors, however, at the risk of coming across as an oversensitive zillennial, her mystification of China struck me as rather old-fashioned. The way Allende portrays other cultures and groups relies on clichés. Yes, some of these characters were, for the most part, ‘harmless’ stereotypes, but nonetheless, they did induce an eye-roll or two on my part (for instance, every indigenous woman from Chile is cuvacious and passionate).

As with many other novels by Allende Daughter of Fortune is very heavy on the telling. There are very few, if any, dialogues, which did occasionally distance me from the events Allende narrated. Still, her storytelling, for the most part, kept me engaged in the characters and their stories.
The novel begins in Chile during the 1840s. Eliza Sommers, a Chilean girl and the novel’s central character, is adopted by Rose Sommers, an unmarried Briton. Rose lives with her strict older brother and tries to raise Eliza as a ‘proper’ Victorian lady. Eliza, however, goes on to fall head-over-heels in love with a Chilean man of ‘dubious’ character. When her beloved is struck by gold fever and leaves for California, a bereft Eliza will risk her own life to be reunited with him.
The story definitely takes its time, and, the first few chapters are less focused on Eliza than a tertiary character, a certain Jacob Todd who travels to Chile after making a bet. He falls for Rose but she clearly does return his affection. We also read about his friends, Feliciano Rodriguez de Santa Cruz and his wife, whose role in the novel feels rather superfluous. During Part I we also learn more about Rose and her brothers and of Eliza’s childhood with them.
The remainder of the novel details Eliza’s epic journey to find the man she loves. During this time Eliza becomes acquainted with Tao Chi’en, a shanghaied physician who for a time worked as a cook on a ship captained by Rose’s other brother, John. Across two lengthy chapters, Allende recounts Tao’s life, from his early days to his marriage and, after his wife’s death, of his eventual disillusionment. Once in California Eliza and Tao grow closer and it is their bond that truly makes this novel. Allende, quite clearly, shows that Eliza’s feelings towards her paramour lead her to idealize this poco di buono man. Yet, her devotion towards him is such that she is willing to spend years of her life in search of him, passing as a young man in order to travel with more freedom.
The novel is certainly full of drama and Allende frequently falls prey to sappy platitudes (about love, destiny, desire, womanhood).
But whereas I could easily overlook Allende’s tendency towards the melodramatic, I had a harder time looking past her clichéd portrayal of China, its culture, and people. When the narrative is relating Tao’s youth, Allende, quite out of the blue, feels the obligation of using a metaphor involving rice (when describing a Chinese mother’s grief: “the little girl’s accident was like the grain of rice that makes the bowl overflow.”). Tao, who is in his thirties, is described looking as sometimes looking like a teenager, and, “ancient as a turtle”, so that “it was easy then to believe that he had lived many centuries”. Whyyyyyy do we have to compare the one Chinese character to a turtle?! And of course, because he is an East Asian man he has to have “delicate ” hands.
Allende includes many other stereotypes about China, and I just have very little patience for this sort of stuff. It didn’t help that Allende includes a plethora of clichés (such as prostitutes with hearts of gold, or Eliza ‘rescuing’ a Native American boy….come on Allende!).
Yes, there were many beautiful descriptions and Allende clearly researched this period of history but I had a hard time getting to like or care for her characters (who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, judgemental, anti-abortion). While it made sense, given that the story takes place during the 1840s, it made it difficult for me to actually relate or sympathize with the characters. Eliza was beautiful (in an unconventional way, of course), kind, and clever. The classic heroine. Her love for this guy was definitely of the insta-love variety, and while the narrative does point this out, I struggled to understand what possessed her to follow this guy whose blandness is such that I cannot recollect his name.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the development between Tao and Eliza, and it was refreshing to see a Chinese man be not only one of the main characters but the heroine’s love interest. I wish the novel had focused exclusively on them, with less of the ‘will they won’t they’ subplot.
Overall, the novel is kind of cheesy and rather dated. Still, fans of Allende who are less ‘sensitive’ than I am will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

 

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

“That was the thing about people on the outside. They thought it cheered him up to see their faces, but it just reminded him too much of freedom when everybody knew it was better to adjust to the kind of freedom available on the inside.”

Heartbreaking yet luminous A Kind of Freedom is a truly impressive debut. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s prose struck me as assured and lucid. Sexton entwines three narratives, each following a different generation of the same family. In 1944 we follow Evelyn who lives in New Orleans with her family. Her pale skin and her father’s profession give her certain privilege in the city’s black community so when she falls in love with Renard, a boy who aspires to be a doctor but is looked down upon for being working class, Evelyn is forced to contend between responsibility—towards her parents—and freedom—to love who she wants. WWII and segregation pose a further threat to the couple.
In 1986 we follow their daughter, Jackie, as she tries to juggle single motherhood with work and house chores. Her husband, Terry, disappeared from her life after he became addicted to crack. After months without a word from him, he reappears, claiming that he’s clean and is actively trying to keep it that away. Knowing that to let Terry back into her life will not only earn the disapproval of her loved ones but might eventually result in more hurt, Jackie is torn between hope and fear.
We then have chapters set in 2010. T.C., Jackie’s son, has just been released from a four-month stint in prison. His girlfriend is pregnant and in spite of him being less than faithful he now wants to make things right with her. However, he immediately falls back into bad habits when he reconnects with his friend Tiger. Here we see the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, specifically on T.C.’s community.
Regardless of the period Sexton is depicting, the setting and time are rendered in vivid detail. She evokes the atmosphere of the places she writes of as well as the changing vernacular. Sexton also emphasises the way in which racial inequality has morphed over the decades and the way this in turn affects and shapes Evelyn and her descendants. In her portrayals of addiction and poverty Sexton writes with empathy and insight, conveying the despair, fatigue, and anguish of those who like Jackie love someone who is abusing dangerous substances. Much of Jackie’s story hit close to home so I found her chapters to be painful reading material. There are moments of beauty and communion, made even more poignant by how rare they are. Although Sexton reveals the eventual outcome of Evelyn and Jackie’s narratives in T.C.’s chapters, when we returned to them I still found myself engrossed in their stories, hoping against hope that things would not unfold the way I know they will.
Sexton captures three generations of an African-American family who is trying to navigate a less than civil landscape. The characters have to contend with a society that is rife with injustices (racial disparity, classism, colorism, sexism, environmental disasters, drug epidemics, crime) and their attempts balance familial or societal duties with their personal desires. As the title itself suggests, the narratives are very much about freedom. Each character is trying their hardest to be free.
A Kind of Freedom filled me with sorrow. Sexton has written a heartbreaking debut novel, one that gripped me not for its plot but for its beautifully complex character studies.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Travelers by Regina Porter

The cast of characters and locations at the start of Regina Porter’s The Travelers is a tiny bit daunting as they promise to cover a far wider scope than your usual family saga. The Travelers explores the lives of characters who are either related, sometimes distantly, or connected in less obvious ways. Porter’s switches between perspectives and modes of writing, always maintaining authority over her prose and subjects. The Traveler provides its readers with a captivating look into Americans lives, chronicling the discrimination black Americans were subjected during the Jim Crow era, the experiences of black soldiers and female operators in the Vietnam war, the civil rights protests in the 1960s, and America under Obama. Porter combines the nation’s history with the personal history of her characters, who we see at different times in their lives. Sometimes we read directly of their experiences, at times they are related through the eyes of their parents, their children, or their lovers. Rather than presenting us with a neat and linear version of her characters’ lives, Porter gives us glimpses into specific moments of their lives. At times what she recounts has clearly shaped a character’s life (such as with an early scene featuring two white policemen), at times she provides details that may seem insignificant, but these still contribute to the larger picture.
Porter provides insights into racial inequality, discrimination, domestic abuse, parental neglect, PTSD, and many other subjects. Although she never succumbs to a saccharine tone, she’s always empathetic, even in her portrayal of characters who are not extremely ‘likeable’ in a conventional way. Sprinkles of humour balance out the more somber scenes, and her dialogues crackle with energy and realism. The settings too were rendered in vivid detail, regardless of when or where a chapter was taking place.
Porter’s sprawling narrative achieves many things. While it certainly is not ‘plot’ oriented, I was definitely invested in her characters. Within moments of her introducing use to a new character I found myself drawn to them and I cared to read more of them. Part of me wishes that the novel could have been even longer, so that it could provide us with even more perspectives. I appreciated how Porter brings seemingly periphery characters into the foreground, giving a voice to those who would usually be sidelined.
Her sharp commentary (on race, class, gender) and observations (on love, freedom, dignity) were a pleasure to read. I loved the way in which in spite of the many tragedies and injustices she chronicles in her narrative moments that emphasise human connection or show compassion appear time and again.
An intelligent and ambitious novel, one that at times brought to mind authors such as Ann Patchett (in particular, Commonwealth) and one I would definitely recommend to my fellow readers.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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