Circa by Devi S. Laskar

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Solo Dance by Kotomi Li

“There’s a limit to how much misogyny and heteronomrative bullshit a story can have.”

Solo Dance follows a millennial woman from Taiwan working an office job in Tokyo who feels alienated from her colleagues and their daily conversations about marriage, the economy, and children. Chō, our protagonist, is a lesbian, something she keeps ‘hidden’ from her coworkers. While Chō does hang out with other queer women in lgbtq+ spaces, a traumatic experience causes her to be self-doubting, distrustful of others, and perpetually ashamed. When she opens up to a woman she’s sort of seeing, the latter brutally rejects her, not only blaming Chō for having been attacked but accusing her of having been deceitful (by not having spoken about this before). This leads Chō to spiral further into depression and suicidal ideation, her disconnection further exacerbated by an ‘accident’ that occurs at her workplace. Chō’s arc brought to mind that of Esther Greenwood in <i>Bell Jar</i>, that is to say, things seem to just get worse and worse for her.


As we read of her experiences working and living in Japan as a gay woman, we are also given insight into her teenage years in Taiwan, her slow recognition of her sexuality, her first encounter(s) with women, and that devasting night that resulted in an irrevocable self-disintegration. Chō blames herself for her attack, and not only does she sabotages her relationship with her girlfriend but pushes away one of the few people actively trying to help her. Chō’s uneasy relationship with her sexuality and the physical and emotional violence she experiences over the course of the narrative make for an unrelentingly depressing read.

Throughout the course of her novel, the author links Chō’s experiences to those of Qiu Miaojin and of her fictionalised counterpart, Lazi. Both tonally and thematically Solo Dance shares a lot of similarities with Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile: both works interrogate notions of normalcy and alterity by exploring the experiences of women whose sexuality does not conform to societal norms.
Whereas Miaojin’s writing has a more cynical and satirical edge to it, Solo Dance is mostly just depressing. Immeasurably depressing. I knew going into it that the novel would not be a happy read, but, dio mio, for such a short read this book sure is brimming with queer pain & suffering. Because of this, I’m afraid I found Solo Dance to be a very one-note read. Sure, the realities it explores are sadly realistic, but, the storytelling has this flat quality to it that made it hard for me to become immersed in what I was reading. I can’t pinpoint whether it is the author’s style or the translation at fault, but while reading this I felt not so much transported into the story as merely…well, as if I was ‘just’ reading a text that didn’t quite elicit any strong responses beyond finding r*pe, lesbophobia, and suicidal ideation upsetting to read of. The story never reeled me in, which is a pity as the topics it explores are ones close to my heart (i am a lesbian and grew up in a very catholic and not particularly lgbtq+ friendly country).
The dialogues were a mixture of clumsy and dry and some of Chō’s internal monologues struck me as trying too hard to mimic Lazi’s brand of nihilistic angst. Other times it just sounded off, unnatural (“is the stigmatization of my sexuality the source of all my misfortune? This illogical question had plagued her for a long time”, “her rational thoughts returned to life and began to talk to her”). The narrative also seemed to go way out of its way in order to make Chō suffer, and while I can sometimes buy into the type of story where one character experiences trauma after trauma (a little life), here I didn’t. A lot of the interactions she has with others either struck me as unlikely or just plain unbelievable (from the words spoken by the woman who ‘rejects’ her to her encounter with another suicidal queer woman).

If you are interested in reading this book I still recommend you give it a shot (just bear in mind ‘tis dreary affair).

my rating: ★ ★ ½

Lakewood by Megan Giddings

“America is only routinely good to women, especially Black women, when it wants something from them.”

Having recently read Megan Giddings’ intriguing sophomore novel, The Women Could Fly, I decided to revisit Lakewood, a book that I have picked up and put back down on and off since August 2020. Each reading attempt saw me lose interest during Lena’s first ‘interactions’ with Lakewood. Whereas The Women Could Fly drew me in from the very first pages, I had a much harder time becoming invested in Lena’s story. The writing was solid enough but lacked the polish of the prose that I encountered in The Women Could Fly. Still, this time around I was determined to finish what I’d started, and so I persevered reading, despite my waning interest. Now that I have finally ‘made it’, I can definitely pinpoint why this book didn’t really grab me like The Women Could Fly: whereas in that novel Giddings maintains a delicate balance between her subject matters (authoritarian & patriarchal regimes, female bodily autonomy) and her character development, here Lena never comes into her own, she sadly remains fairly one-dimensional, and her character often struck me as a vehicle through which the author could explore a horrifyingly unethical human experimentation.

I will begin with the positives: I think Giddings excels at atmosphere, and most of the narrative is permeated by a subtle yet unshakeable sense of unease, one that morphs from a feeling of not-rightness into downright horror. Lena’s story also retains an ambiguous quality, one that blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not. Many of her experiences at Lakewood appear to us as fragments, with no clear chronological order, certain events or memories are distorted. The people involved with the Lakewood project and the people of Lakewood themselves remain opaque figures, their names and faces a blur. Their perturbing vagueness exacerbated the narrative’s eerie atmosphere, their perpetual unfamiliarity a source of unease and potential danger. So, in terms of ambience, Lakewood certainly succeeds in making for an alienating and murky read. There were also some very clever descriptions (“Inside, a white woman with a haircut that looked as if she had shown her stylist an image of a motorcycle helmet and said, “That’s the look,” was waiting.”), and I appreciated the narrative’s discourse on sacrifice & freedom.

“Maybe the hypothesis is how much do people value money over themselves?

Where this book lets me down however was the way the Lakewood project is presented to us. Much of the narrative, most of the narrative it seemed, consists of the questions Lena has to answer as part of this experiment. And these questions were by turns weird, seemingly arbitrary, and intrusive. Yet, they bored me. I would have preferred the narrative to be heavier on introspection, as Lena was in much need of, well, a personality (besides being a dutiful daughter). She responds to her environments as you would expect: at first she’s perturbed, then disturbed, and finally horrified. But her responding to the questions and the experiments at Lakewood in this manner did not make her come across as a rounded character. The third-person perspective makes her feel further at a remote, which lessened the impact of her narrative. While we do understand the circumstances that lead Lena to ‘participate’ in this project, I did find her initial compliance odd. I would have liked to see more of an internal monologue on her part, rather than having to see her function as a mere plot device through which the author can show how dehumanizing medical experimentation can be. I mean, you could read an article discussing actual unethical medical experimentations, if I have to read about a fictional take on these, I would like for these to be explored through nuanced characters (or a compelling main character at least). Still, the author is able to address the type of circumstances that might lead someone to take part in medical experimentation, and the difficulties in extracting oneself from it. Lena is never quite certain of what is happening to her, and is very much restricted by nda she has signed. She does now and again ask why certain questions are being asked to her, the point behind her answers, but she receives no replies or unsatisfying ones. With the exception of one person, we don’t learn much about the other people in the experiment, and the time Lena spends at Lakewood acquires a blurry, almost feverish quality, one that makes it often difficult to grasp how much time has passed from one scene to the next and determine Lena’s reactions to what she is subjected to and witnesses there. There is a lot f*cked up stuff that happens there that is just glossed over, and in a way, I get that the author was showing that the participants in this experiment had been desensitized to the weirdness of the questions and rules there, but I would have wanted the author to expand some more on Lena’s feelings about a lot of stuff, to be honest.
There seemed to be neither a lot of telling nor showing bizarrely enough. What we do get is a lot of question-and-answer scenes which are profoundly repetitive and dull. I would have liked for the narrative to incorporate more portions of Lena’s life prior to Lakewood, as I believe that her relationship with her now-deceased grandmother, her chronically ill mother, and her best friend, would have added an emotional layer to the story. Again, maybe the cold, detached, somewhat clinical tone was intentional given the focus on Lakewood, however, I personally would have preferred some more depth from Lena.
Still, the author does focus on the way racial minorities, in particular Black people, and disadvantaged groups, such as poor and/or disabled individuals, are often the targets of these experiments, and how they are lied to, abused, and ultimately treated as ‘disposable’. The author also shows the hypocrisy of institutions and corporations that perpetuate physical and psychological violence in the name of ‘progress’.
The denouement was anticlimactic and in some ways predictable. That whole last section, which is presented as a letter if I recall correctly, in some ways ruined the surreal atmosphere so far established by the narrative.

I would have liked more. More from the story, the plot, and especially Lena. The premise was certainly intriguing but the execution left a lot to be desired. I went into this excepting something along the lines of Yorgos Lanthimos or Get Out, and while the book does have Black Mirror and even some Severance vibes, the storyline ultimately feels incomplete and it severely lacked in oomph.

Still, just because I didn’t find this to be as gripping a read as I’d hoped does not mean it was a bad book. If you are interested in it I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri

“Writing in another language reactivates the grief of being between two worlds, of being on the outside. Of feeling alone and excluded.”

While I can’t quite satisfyingly articulate or express why I find such comfort in Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing, I can certainly make a stab at it. In many ways, Translating Myself and Others reads like a companion piece to In Other Words, as Lahiri once again reflects on her relationship to languages, in particular, English and Italian, and the precarious act of literary translation. These essays are profoundly insightful, eloquently written, and erudite without being inaccessible. Lahiri’s illuminating meditations on writing and translating draw from her own personal experiences and from those of others, as many of the essays included in this collection expand on the works, ideas, and experiences of other authors and historical figures, many of whom Italian. Lahiri’s interrogation of their work, which hones in on their multilingualism and their own efforts with translation and self-translation, added an intratextual dimension to her essays, one that enriched her overall analysis. In many of these essays, Lahiri focuses in particular on her relationship to the Italian language: from the way people have questioned her choice to study this language and the validity of her written Italian, to the feelings brought about by writing in and speaking Italian.

In her speculations and contemplations on languages (who do they belong to? and if they do, to whom and why?), writing & translation Lahiri often refers to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in particular the myth of Echo and Narcissus. In examining the acts of translation and self-translation Lahiri utilizes many apt metaphors, viewing translating as a ‘door’, a form of ‘blindness’ (this one is a bit unahappy comparison to make), a ‘graft’, a ‘traversing’, an act of negotiation and metamorphoses. I also appreciated her contemplations on the function played by writers and translators, the differences and similarities between these two roles and the way their work is perceived or not.
Translating Myself and Others presents its readers with a panoply of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays. Lahiri’s writing struck me for its clarity and gracefulness and I look forward to revisiting the essays here collected in the future.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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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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Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

“But life, like Scrabble, is like that—you get the rack you get, and you just have to figure out how to make do.”

Queen of the Tiles is an entertaining mystery romp that belongs to that subgenre of YA books that combines a whodunnit type of storyline with the kind of teen dynamics at play in Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Similarly to a lot of these books, Queen of the Tiles takes place in a ‘confined’ setting, but rather than going for the usual prep school/high school type of backdrop, Hanna Alkaf freshens things up by having her story take place during the World Warrior Weekend, an annual Scrabble competition. This tournament takes place in a hotel in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, a setting that, you must admit, we don’t get to see often in YA. Additionally, our lead is Muslim, and we also get a very casual non-binary rep with Shuba. The story definitely has some strong The Queen’s Gambit vibes and the author depicts the various Scrabble games in a really fun and dynamic way (so that they are anything but boring) and we can see just how devoted and ambitious some of the competitors are.
Najwa Bakri, our narrator, is taking part in this tournament, the first one she’s done since the very sudden death of her best friend.

“Every player knows that words can be twisted to suit your purpose, if the board allows it, and Trina knows this better than most. She is fantastic; she ignites fantasies. She is spectacular; she attracts spectacle.”

Trina Low died during the previous year’s World Warrior Weekend. Since her death, Najwa has distanced herself from the Scrabble world, but she finds herself going back to claim Trina’s former title, that of the Queen of the Tiles. She knows that people who didn’t like Trina, and who were in turn not liked by her, are also vying for that title, and Najwa isn’t ready to give them the satisfaction of winning. Competing again however proves harder than it used to be now that Najwa is struggling with anxiety and trauma caused by Trina’s premature death. The author is really thoughtful in the way she articulates Najwa’s grieving process, capturing just how suddenly grief can engulf you, regardless of how much time has passed since the person you cared for died. Alkaf also shows how grief manifests differently in different people.

Things get harder when new posts appear on Trina’s long inactive insta. Cryptic posts hinting that her death may have been very much not an accident. Joining a long tradition of kid-turned-detectives such as Nancy Drew and the Scooby-Doo gang (both of which get mentioned in the story), Najwa begins solving the posts’ ominous word puzzles and starts questioning the other competitors, most of whom were foes of Trina. There is the pompous boy she was competing against when she died, who seemed less concerned by her dropping dead than verifying whether her death meant he’d automatically won that final round. There is Trina’s ‘other’ best-friend, an ostensibly nice and obsequious girl whose subservience to Trina definitely gives off sycophantic vibes. There is that girl who was caught in a cheating scandal, and Trina may have been responsible for stoking those cheating rumours. And, of course, Trina’s off-and-on again boyfriend Mark, a possessive type who may have grown tired of Trina’s and what he perceived to be as her ‘blasé’ attitude. While Najwa has always been aware of Trina’s thorny character, and her need to prove herself and to one-up others, during the course of her ‘amateur’ investigation she will be forced to really confront the kind of person Trina was.

“That’s just how she was; she saw something she wanted and she went for it with a laser-sharp intensity that could border on the obsessive. All or nothing, perfection or perish.”

I liked the drama, the secrecy, the rumours and gossip. The Scrabble element was really well delivered and it worked really well for the mystery clues. My only quibbles are 1) throughout the story Najwa links words that are being used or were used in a game to her past or present situation. Sometimes this was effective, but the more this device was used, the less impactful it became, and at times I found the connection between word and situation to be a bit far-fetched 2) Najwa’s ‘tells’ got pretty annoying.
The characters weren’t particularly fleshed out or memorable, some were verged on being rather silly but this subgenre isn’t exactly known for having uber nuanced characters so it didn’t really negatively impact my reading experience. I would have however liked for Trina to have been portrayed in a slightly different light, as she ultimately seems a bit of a mean queen-bee cliché. I liked the lack of romance and Najwa made for a rather endearing protagonist. Their resolution to the mystery was a bit of a letdown, as I found the identity of the person behind those posts far too obvious. It would have been more satisfying to make someone else the culprit. There was also a metaphor about Mark being “a conquistador, trying to impose his will on Trina, colonize her spirit and reap her charms for himself, bend her to his definition of what a girlfriend ought to be” which struck me as a rather unhappy comparison to make.
In general, I did like the references we get, especially when they added a dose of humor and levity to the story’s ongoings (“Honestly. Murder. What do you think this is, an episode of Riverdale?”).
Still, I found this engrossing and fun read. If you are looking for a light-hearted whodunnit that focuses on a group of ambitious and possibly backstabby professional scrabblers, look no further.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


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Boy Parts by Eliza Clark


disclaimer: i did not like this book. the opinions and impressions i will express in this review are entirely subjective and i am not in fact stating ‘irrefutable facts’. it has come to my attention that this author has a history of going on twitter to ‘bemoan’ reviewers who have given her book a negative review…which has never been a win in my books. so i will attempt to write this review with a death of the author approach. please do not confuse my negative review of this book as a personal attack on the author or as an estimation of the author herself as i do not know her in any capacity whatsoever. if you are incensed by reviewers expressing an opinion that differs from your own one, you are better off skipping this review (this includes you too eliza…).

vague and not so vague spoilers below

I am befuddled by the ratings and reviews singing this book’s praises. This is one of those cases where I am forced to ask myself: did I read the same book as everybody else? And before you @ me, no, I did not dislike this book because it is work of satire centred on an (exaggeratedly) intentionally unlikeable main character. Some of my favorite books focus on people who are varying degrees of horrible or ‘messy’ (my year of rest and relaxation, luster, madame bovary, sula, pretend i’m dead, you exist too much, apartment, symptomatic, these violent delights, and a lot of the stuff written by authors such as shirley jackson, danzy senna, and joyce carol oates). I also like characters like Hannibal or Villanelle. I read Lolita and while it did repulse me (as intended) I didn’t hate it because it was from the pov of a pdophile. And I am fond of the ‘she’s not feeling too good’ subgenre, contemporary books that are characterized by a caustic tone and explore the lives of women who are, you guessed it, not feeling too good and are depicted as alienated and self-sabotaging … I also do not have a problem with books combining dark humor with violence, My Sister the Serial Killer is a fave of mine. And a few months ago I was enthralled and disturbed by Titane directed by Julia Ducournau (who actually gets a mention in boy parts). All of this to say is that I can deal with and even appreciate characters who for whatever reason do, think, or say things that are ‘frowned’ upon or downright evil. I would go as far as to say that I prefer flawed characters over flawless/uber-likeable characters (very edgy of me, i know). My only caveat is that I have to find said unlikable characters interesting: Emma Bovary, for instance, is not a particularly clever character, you could say she is quite the opposite. She’s naive, pathetic, obnoxious, solipsistic, cruel, and superficial…but I found her acts of self-dramatization to be both fascinating and a source of great amusement. Ottessa Moshfregh’s narrator in MYORAR is nasty (she is awful to her supposed best friend, callous, narcissistic, morbid, and says/thinks offensive things about many groups of people). Did I condone her actions in the novel? No. Did I find her fcked up sense of humor to be highly addictive? Yes. This is all to say that Irina being a stronza who engages in ‘bad’ behaviour, is not why I didn’t like this book. The reason why I did not like this book has less to do with her being an unlikable cnt and more to do with her being boring as fck. Her internal monologue is repetitive, but not even in a realistic navel-gazey way, like Selin’s narration is in The Idiot, but in an incredibly affected way that just comes across as the book desperately trying to present this character as some counter-culture edgelady, who repeatedly ‘transgresses’ accepted norms of behaviours and—shock horror—flips the ‘male gaze’ on its head by being the one behind the camera. Maybe if this book had come out in the 80s, I would be more inclined to forgive or accept its many shortcomings, but since it was published in 2020 I have a harder time reconciling myself with its unimaginative and superficial exploration of female sexuality, the male gaze, and female rage. There is nothing clever about the way the narrative represents and discusses these themes. The narrative is very much all flash, no substance (tutto fumo e niente arrosto) as it not only mistakes shock value for real horror but it operates under the false assumption that gratuitous or otherwise sensationalistic content is subversive and thought-provoking. If this book had actually been disturbing maybe then I could have overlooked its pulpy and overt storyline…but it isn’t. Funnily enough the story’s numerous floundering attempts at edginess, but these feel dated and painfully affected, on the lines of Awad’s Bunny or Mariana Enríquez who at least do not settle for mid-tier levels of offensive but fcking commit.

Boy Parts reads like a short story that has been stretched beyond its expiry date. The ‘hook’, that of a ‘pervy’ female photographer, had potential for the first 30% of the narrative. Then things just get messy, and not a good kind of messy where I am enthralled by our mc’s unreliable and increasingly disconcerting narrative, but messy in a poorly executed kind of way. The writing changes slightly, but not in a believably organic way that reflects the main character’s spiralling mental health. The book’s satire is devoid of substance or bite. The caricatures populating this narrative are neither amusing nor particularly provocative. Some characters come across as heavy-handed attempts at capturing a certain type of person, while either serve no function other than to exist so the narrator can prove to the readers how nasty she is. The story could have been a lot more effective if the tone had been camped up, so we could have something along the lines of Jennifer’s Body (which is by no means a perfect film but at least it’s entertaining and self-aware). Or maybe if the book had gone for a more elliptical stream-of-consciousness type of storytelling, a la Clarice Lispector, maybe then I would have liked it more. But what we got just did not work for me at all. There was something profoundly simplistic about the way these themes are explored and the narrator is one of the dullest galls I have ever had the misfortune to read about. Being a tall and sexy white Northern who thinks she’s the fcking hardcore because she likes to take kinky photos of men she deems ‘beta’…yeah. The way the book satirizes England’s art scene is banal, we get unfunny lines about identity politics and artists such as Tracey Emin. The narrative doesn’t convey Irina’s creative process in a convincing way, in fact, I was left with the impression that—and here i must briefly break from my death of the author approach and acknowledge the existence of the author—whoever was behind the story was either not particularly familiar with photography or not interested in going into detail about it (as i said this an impression i formed, not a fact). As examinations of female creativity go, this one is derivative and unsatisfying. I mean, compared to We Play Ourselves, Self-Portrait with Boy, and Generation Loss (all of whom happen to focus on queer young women who are not portrayed as exclusively interested in men and in replicating tired dom/sub dynamics) Boy Parts just doesn’t go much into depth when it comes to Irina and her changing relationship to her photography. I didn’t feel that she actually felt passionate about these photos, rather, we are told what she did at a school, and she relates the art she produced in that period in a very meh way, and now she gets horny when she tells men to pose in vanilla sub positions, while she occasionally plays the dom role (stepping on them and sht). Like, wow. How edgy. And you might say that the narrative is less concerned about mapping out the creative process preceding these photos than with over-emphasising what the photos themselves signify. Male gaze who? Uhm. Sure. Thing is, this kind of obvious ‘appropriation’ of the male gaze and the misogyny often underlining said gaze is not new nor thought-provoking. Quite the opposite in fact. I found the logic at play in the narrative to be highly sus: Irina experiences misogyny and is objectified by the male gaze; Irina perpetuates misogyny + misandry and objectifies men, her models in particular. Irina has a sexual encounter where the partner doesn’t listen to her when she says she wants to be on top. He ignores and demands her to scream for him, yanking her hair. She says that since he is going to ignore her he ‘could put his back into it’. He takes this as a confirmation that she ‘likes it rough’. Quelle surprise, she later has sex with someone she deems weak who asks her to slap him she starts hitting him until he starts crying and this leads to the classic ‘victim becomes abuser’ kind of observation that doesn’t really go deeper than that. If anything it is annoying that we get that scene just so the mc can have this dark eureka moment. Early in the story, Irina goes to a party where she is meeting up with a guy who is there to make fun of the ‘I’m a Nice Guy Really’ type of men who claim they are feminists while trying to wrangle themselves out of being accused of SA. Anyway, she goes to this party with her spineless friend who reminds her that even if she acts all hardcore she is a vulnerable woman. Our mc makes a joke about being raped by the guys she’s hanging out with and what later follows is an intentionally unclear scene where it seems that this guy the mc went to see tried to rpe her while she was passed out or was otherwise incapacitated and therefore not being able to give consent. I really hated how timed this whole thing was. It was rather tasteless. I have come across other books that punish female characters who are confident in their sexuality or sexually active by resulting in scenes where they are SA or need a man to ‘save’ them. And here…this whole rpe subplot seems just there for shock value and nothing else. The narrative seems to forget about it, more intent on emphasizing how edgy and obscene the mc is. Fcking hell. Can we not?! I am not saying that I want every story to include rpe or SA to be serious and to exclusively revolve around this. However, the way the narrative meanders about without any real direction or without the kind of piercing commentary that makes up for vacuous storylines…I am left wondering why, why, why did we get this scene? Especially when the narrative seems confused about the kind of character Irina is. It seemed we were meant to perceive her as a vile character. Not quite a Humbert Humbert type of figure but someone who is working their way towards being the female equivalent of Patrick Bateman. She’s apathetic, has an inflated sense of self, experiences moments of dissociation where she observes the people around her with a mixture of superiority and detachment seems to categorize men in a way that is all the rage in the manosphere, and makes no compunction about transgressing accept norms of behaviour, engaging in sadistic behaviour, or deriving pleasure from what her society deems taboo (rpe fantasies etc.). She can also perform certain roles, such as that of the Manic Pixie Girl, to her advantage, for example when she wants to attract the kind of men who would be into that type of girl. Irina, so far, seems a satirical take on the femme fatale. Yet, we also get so many instances that go against what this kind of characterization is trying to establish. For instance, she forgets that she has to perform a certain role and says whatever the fck comes to her because she’s such a girlboss. Sometimes she would make observations or remarks that would be believable if they originated from someone ‘normal’ or who was not shown to have psychopathic traits. For example, after that guy forces himself on her…she wonders about whether she really wanted rough sex and why do women feel that they have to say yes to rough sex etc…which is a valid af point but I did not believe that someone like Irina would even bother to have such thoughts. She should have been annoyed that someone of no consequence had physically overpowered her. Previously her response to being SA at the party was to be annoyed that that non-entity guy had the gall to try to rpe her. But then we are meant to believe that she was in fact traumatized by this so much so that now she herself is subjecting others to the type of trauma she was victim to. Like…what is going on. And don’t get me started on how large chunks of the narrative make her abuse of men seem so fcking transgressive and hardcore when it was anything but. There is a storyline involving, you guessed it, ‘boy parts’ that was just a rip off from American Psycho (in that we are meant to question the veracity of irina’s recollection of these violent events). Anyhow, the man who Irina abuses most happens to be a lot younger than her and, unlike her, despite the story’s initial attempts at painting her as a struggling artist, her name is known in artsy circles and she can afford her living expense and the type of materials required to print out her edgy photos, he works at Tesco. Additionally, he is mixed-race, possibly queer, and was involved with someone abusive (emotional abuse is still abuse fellas). So, did I find Irina’s SA him, gaslighting him, humiliating him, mistreating him, etc, empowering? Not really. Sure, the narrative shows us just how ‘pathetic’ and ‘sad’ he is about his messed up relationship with Irina but his experiences bear no real weight on Irina’s narrative. He serves as a plot device through which Irina, a character who is supposed to be very much beyond caring, can inflict the trauma she herself was subjected to. Also, for someone who goes on scathing takes about ‘white people’ who pretend they are not ‘white’ but dance to The Smiths in this ‘post-racist-Morrissey’ era and expresses frustration about the misogyny and classism rampant in her day-to-day life…it seemed weird that she would think sht like this (“I know I’m white, but there’s just a lot of white people White People-ing in a very small area, like it’s just some very, very densely packed mayo, you know? Densely packed mayo, jiggling about, doesn’t know what to do with its arms, doesn’t know what to do with its feet, undulating loosely, barely in time to the rhythm.”) but actually says sht like this to the mixed-race boy she is toying around with (‘It’s fine for you being out in this heat; you tan. You’re always tan. You look like you’ve just been on holiday or something,’) or this (Japenese/Korean girls being the ‘same thing’). It would have made more sense if she’d said that first thing out loud, to impress her peers with how comfortably she can talk about whiteness and make them feel inadequate and less savvy (after all wasn’t she supposed to enjoy feeling superior to others?), and to ‘merely’ think the other two as to say them out loud in front of someone who is not white, and who she had identified as ‘sensitive’, and risk that he would see her for who she truly was. She, later on, writes a transphobic email to someone trans which again, was just gratuitous yet seemed included for laughs, and made me question why she would do that if this person could use that to prove to others that she is in fact awful. Why bother with all that gaslighting of your acquaintances if you then don’t give a sht about being exposed…? We are previously told that she is manipulative AF. She fools men and has her pathetic bff convinced they are friends to start with. Although she wants to transgress accepted norms of behaviour she knows these norms are there to begin with so in certain spaces she comports herself in a certain way, her art is the only indicator that she is into some smutty kinky stuff. I did not find her inconsistencies to be realistic or to result in a nuanced character. It seemed that the story didn’t really know what kind of character it wanted us to read about so it went all over the place. I wish that the story had committed to paint her as a morally reprehensible character we were meant not to like.
The other characters are one-note and just as unrealistic. They would not be out of place in an episode of Family Guy or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Speaking of Tarantino if you thought that Uma Thurman’s character in that or Kill Bill have some merit…well, you might like Boy Parts after all. This book radiates the kind of feminist energy that Cara Delevingne wearing that ‘peg the patriarchy’ outfit at the met gala gives. Trying to be provoking in a puerile way. And I can forgive a lack of intersectionality and dimension if say this, like Plath’s Bell Jar, had been published in the 1960s. But it wasn’t so…anche no.

Anyway, the side characters are just as boring as Irina herself. Some of them are downright insulting. We have someone who exists to be the transman who is the butt of the joke for many comments made by Irina. He makes two or possibly three appearances where she makes comments about his height, barbs that are meant to make him feel inadequate and not masculine enough, and later on writes that disgusting email to him where she goes on about identity politics and claims that he is solely drawing upon his personal experiences to produce art (when she is doing that very same thing…get it? ah! ). Flo (i had to check her name, that’s how memorable she is) is a rip off of Reva from MYORAR who exists to be the classic female friend in love with our female protagonist who does not and will not ever reciprocate her feelings. I am so f*cking tired of books that make the mc bisexual because it’s edgy and ‘different’ but then proceed to have said character almost exclusively engage in sexual/romantic relationships with men. This character will rarely if ever acknowledge or indicate that she finds people who are not men attractive. She will have a friend who is a lesbian or in this case a bi friend, who is in love with her. The narrative will mention towards the very start or the very end that she did have a relationship with a woman once and call it a day. They don’t even try to explore the mc’s internalised homophobia/biphobia. Here we have a line about Irina preferring men to women and that’s kind of it.

Anyway, don’t even get me started on Flo’s blog posts. What was the point in them? Irina gives us a summary of their contents so why add the blog entries themselves? Their attempts at making fun of cringe people like Flo came across as a joke that has gone on for too long.
And mio dio, the amount of dated references in this book is something else. The film mentions make sense given that Irina is an edgy photographer but the amount of pop culture in these pages is just…it made me feel that I was having to slog through a series of insufferable twitter posts. If avoid that in real life why should I be interested in a fictionalized take on these comments/discussions? The conversations about kim’s bum did not make the dialogues realistic or mumblecoresque. They struck me as stagey and dull.
The exploration of sexual desire that goes on in this novel is painfully and predictably heteronormative, with the ‘twist’ that the woman wants to be the more dominant party. How revolutionary. The more I write about this f*cking book the more I hate it. What an utter waste of time. With the exception of that funny line about Timothée Chalamet, I was not amused. I did not feel anything for our main girl. Her being hot, from the North, and into kinky sh*t do not make for a compelling character (‘Geordie girls are up there with Irish girls and Scottish girls; the black women of white women, you know?’….f*ck off). Maybe if the narrative had committed to portraying her as a menace I would have felt a modicum of interest. The instances where she is offensive are played up for laughs but were anything but. Her Mommy Issues™ and eating disorder are presented in a childish way and the narrative barely scratches the surface beneath these issues. You Exist Too Much deals with these issues in a much more nuanced and compelling way.
Anyway, I don’t need a character’s motivations to think violent thoughts or do violent things to be made ‘transparent’: like I said I was transfixed by Titane, and there we learn virtually nothing about our central character, let alone why she goes on a killing spree. I also really love things like Stoker and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both focus on morbid teens/young women. Or New People by Senna. That book presents us with a believably perturbing portrait of an alienated and alienating woman. But this is eh. Boy Parts reads like something that has been done before and better. It has the same vibe as those ‘that’s literally me’ filmbros who overidentify with the leads from films such as Taxi DriverAmerican PsychoFight ClubDrive, and Joker. Just because the lead here is a woman doesn’t make this wannabe subversive exploration of alienation any less cringe. I swear, Irina just gives Gaslight Gatekeep Girlboss vibes and it could have worked if the narrative had committed more fully to being a campy satire instead of then deciding it wanted to be dark and serious. Also, the way the latter half of the novel goes for this feverish, surrealist tone is just schifo. Even Awad did this better in Bunny. And don’t get me started on Caroline O’Donoghue’s Promising Young Women: the narrative there truly captures the narrator’s bizarre and disturbing dissolution. And if you prefer a more heavy exploration of r*pe I recommend Rosie Price’s What Red Was. And, of course, I May Destroy You: that series is just…spectacular. And its final episode is what Boy Parts wishes it was. Why didn’t the novel go for a subversive take on the ‘r*pe & revenge’ subgenre? I don’t know…it had the chance to but then seems to lose itself in a self-indulgent and puddle-deep exploration of the male gaze.
The prose was derivative and lifeless. Now and again we get lines that are trying so hard to be provocative but failed to inspire a response in me (be it amusement or disgust). The first half of the novel would have Irina try to go for this conversational/confessional tone that just came across as trying to be Fleabag or the narrator from MYORAR (the constant ‘you know’ were annoying).
I doth not understand the hype. Personally, I found this book’s attempt at being edgy and subversive to be rather performative and disappointingly shallow. And to compare this to Moshfegh’s MYORAR..? te piasaria…I was not a fan of the writing, of the plot, or of the way the narrative explores its themes. I am surprised that so many readers did not seem to pick up on this book’s Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss shtick. White feminism at its finest…and if this was intentional it doens’t result in a particularly daring or fascinating narrative. I mean, this book thinks its something by Gaspar Noé (a director who is not my cup of tea but i can’t deny that the man’s films are transgressive and really gratuitous) but it is just rather insipid. Like I said, the offensive bits just gave me Family Guy vibes. Again, I must stress how shallow this felt. And not in an intentional way, like in American Psycho and its critique of capitalism and consumerism. I wish the story could have actually interrogated more Irina’s own privilege, that’s she is white, able-bodied, pretty, and ‘straight’ passing…but it doesn’t. We get a very ostentatious take on a woman perpetuating the ‘male gaze’. It is such a pity. I am a fan of books depicting women capable of monstrosity not because i condone their behaviour but i find the way these narratives engage with their conflicting ideals of femininity and explore their darkest parts of their psyche fascinating.

Not all satire is good satire. And this just ain’t it for me.
Boy Parts was banal. Really painfully banal. The kind of book that makes me wish that I could be able to unread things.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

You Are Free by Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna has a knack for unsettling her readers. The stories collected in You Are Free are a testament to her ability to create and maintain an atmosphere of disquiet, one that adds to the ambiguous characters populating her stories. The people Senna centres her stories around seem perpetually uneasy and their behaviour—which ranges from being slightly worrisome to downright perturbing—is often a source of confusion to other characters and readers themselves. Like in her full-length novels, Senna hones in on race, racism, and racial identity. Her caustic social commentary is as piercing as it is unstinting. Senna spares no one and this adds to the murky tone of her narratives. As much as I love Senna’s writing, her short stories pale in comparison to her novels. The stories here are not as disturbing as Maria’s spiralling into obsession in New People, or as disconcerting as the narrator’s experiences in Symptomatic, or as compelling as Birdie’s story in Caucasia.

The first story is probably the most accomplished one, as we are introduced to a young couple who, as a ‘joke’, apply for their son to attend one of the country’s most distinguished private schools. When their son is actually offered a spot, the mother finds herself giving the school some serious consideration, while the father is adamantly opposed to it and wants his son to attend a local public school. What makes this story so effective is the increasingly creepy behaviour of the school’s member of staff. The other stories are less memorable, and many of them focus on new parents. I made the mistake of listening to the audiobook version of this collection and I can tell you that there are few things as irritating as an adult mimicking the voice of a whiny child crying for their ‘mama/mummy’. Anyway, the people within these narratives are varying degrees of terrible. Which was expected, but they did seem to share many of the same unlikeable traits, which made them rather samey. The short format also didn’t give Senna much time to flesh them out or to give them some nuance. I also could have done without the animal cruelty which seemed thrown in as an afterthought, or worse, for mere shock value. At times the character descriptions here verged on being lazy, which is quite unlike Senna (a character’s eyes are described as ‘asian’…). The focus on the parent-child and wife-husband dynamics had potential but ultimately the author prioritizes ambience over characterisation (also the lack of queer characters…). Senna is a fantastic author but this collection isn’t quite it…

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami

Drawing from her own experiences as a Moroccan immigrant living in the States, in Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America Laila Lalami presents us with an impassioned and thoughtful social commentary. With piercing clarity, she touches upon Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism. She reflects on the many flaws and conditions of citizenship, specifically American citizenship, and on the many ways, it fails people. I truly appreciated the way she discusses topical and oh so important social issues, and the lucidity of her arguments: from discussing the way citizenship is equated with whiteness, white privilege and white fragility, racial profiling, borders, racist rhetorics and the vilification of immigrants, inhumane legislations, the notion of ‘assimilation’, belonging, etc. Throughout this collection of essays, Lalami raises many thought-provoking points and makes many illuminating observations. While Lalami does discuss other people’s experiences, often providing statistics or citing specific incidents/events, her own personal experiences inform much of her writing, which makes it all the more affecting. I admired the way she would attempt to relate to the kind of people I personally would write off as c*nts while also fully acknowledging how frustrating a position she is often made to be in (that of educating bigoted people).
While she does write about subjects that are ‘American’ specific, such as applying for citizenship in America, the issues underlying her essays should not concern exclusively an American readership. Although I did gain insight into processes I am not familiar with, throughout this collection Lalami delves into topics that will undoubtedly resonate with many readers outside of the States.

My only quibble is that some of her essays could have integrated a more intersectional approach. For instance, while Lalami does include ‘asides’ discussing gender inequality and #metoo, she barely acknowledges lgbtq+ related issues.
Curiously enough this is another case where I find myself liking the non-fictional work of an author whose fiction I low-key did not get on with…I would definitely recommend this one and I am determined to read (and hopefully like) Lalami’s The Moor’s Account.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆