The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura

The Woman in the Purple Skirt is a thing that exists.
Did it elicit any particular reactions, feelings, emotions—be positive or negative—from me? Besides a big fat ‘meh’, not really.

This short novel never truly delivers on its premise. After reading the summary, I was expecting this to be a psychological tale about voyeurism and obsession, something in the vein of Patricia Highsmith/Alfred Hitchcock, but what we get in actuality is…I don’t even know. Something that is surprisingly—and disappointingly—vanilla. The narrative doesn’t play its scenario up like say Oyinkan Braithwaite does in My Sister, the Serial Killer. Nor does it succeed in capturing the mind of someone who is spiralling into obsession, as Danzy Senna does in New People (now that is a disturbing read). I was neither amused nor troubled by The Woman in the Purple Skirt. Yes, the narrator is a creep but her creeping is just so…dull? Predictable?
She refers to herself as ‘the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan’ (whether she actually even wears a yellow cardigan 24/7 is doubtful) and she is obsessed with ‘the Woman in the Purple Skirt’ (what kind of purple shade? what type of skirt? no clue). Our narrator is elusive when it comes to her own identity, and we learn virtually nothing about who she is, what motivates her, or why she is so fixated on this random woman. ‘The Woman in the Purple Skirt’ seems rather unremarkable, one could say even a bit of a nonentity. Maybe our narrator finds this woman’s ‘undefinedness’ inviting or relatable? I don’t know. Anyhow, without making herself seen or known our ‘clever’ protagonist manipulates the Woman in the Purple Skirt into applying for a job as a housekeeper in the very hotel she works at. Once her ‘prey’ begins working there our narrator can watch all the more closely. She observes her progress in the job, whether she gets on or not with their colleagues, what type of worker she is. Our MC spends most of the remaining narrative spying on the Woman in the Purple Skirt (is she allowed to wear a purple skirt at work? seems unlikely) and overhearing her colleagues gossiping about this new recruit. That no one seems to notice that this person—who is possibly wearing a bright yellow jumper—is always lurking about does seem unlikely, but then again it seemed to kind of fit in with the almost-but-not-quite absurdist quality of this story.
Nothing of note really happens. There are no interesting dynamics going on, nor do our main women feel particularly fleshed out. The story trudges on, with most scenes now seeming to take place at this hotel. Towards the end there is this rather anticlimactic scene that is meant to serve as this big moment but…it just felt flat. I wish the narrative had either embraced a sillier, more absurdist, tone or that it had been more fully committed to being a disquieting psychological tale about obsession, jealousy, ‘doubleness’. What we get instead is a fairly formulaic and painfully bland concoction that is neither here nor there. The Woman in the Purple Skirt does not make for a particularly quirky or suspenseful read and I will likely forget all about its existence in the next following days. I am sure that others readers will have more positive thoughts on this novel so I recommend you check their reviews out.

my rating: ½

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Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

In the last few weeks I’ve read two works by Oyeyemi (Peaces and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours) and what I liked most about them was how funny, inventive, and unapologetically queer they were. So, naturally, I was somewhat surprised and saddened to discover that Boy, Snow, Bird lacks any of those qualities. I can’t honestly say that Boy, Snow, Bird has any real strengths. There are far more superior books out there examining race in the 1950s and 1960s America, such as ReginaPorter’s The Travelers, and to call this novel a Snow White retelling seems overarching. While Oyeyemi does incorporate within her narrative certain recognizable fairy tale motifs—mean stepmothers who hate their angelic stepdaughters, magical mirrors and or reflections—the story she recounts struck me as painfully prosaic. We have a vague, and unconvincing, historical setting, cardboard characters, and an uneventful storyline that drags on too long.

The novel is divided into three parts. Part one and three are narrated by Boy. She’s white and the daughter of a pest exterminator who she often refers to as ‘the rat catcher’. In a manner reminiscent of Dickens and She Who Shall Not Be Named, Oyeyemi gives her characters names, or nicknames, that convey their personality or profession. I may sound overly critical here but why do characters whose professions are often openly looked down upon—janitors, cleaners, pest exterminators, etc.—are so frequently cast in the role of sinister and/or obsessive creeps? I mean, just because someone whose job requires them to kill rats doesn’t mean they have to be ‘unstable’ and rat-obsessed (this guy makes rat noises and is apt to go off on anti-rat rants). Anyhow, this rat catcher is horrible through-and-through. He treats Boy in a rather appalling way and understandably she decides to run off once she’s done with high school. She ends up finding a job (what that was i cannot recall) and eventually becomes involved with a man named Arturo who is entirely void of a personality. This man has a daughter called Snow who is biracial, and Boy decides to exile her. Why? I can’t say for sure. It seemed that Boy found Snow’s ‘goodness’ grating or felt threatened by her.
Boy and Arturo have a child together, Bird. Part two is narrated by her and it mostly consists of a series of boring episodes. She exchanged letters with Snow, who she has never met. Whether they got on or not, I have no idea. Their responses to each other’s letters were almost jarring. There is an attempt at exploring doubleness but the story never has anything interesting on this matter.
We then return to Boy who has nothing really interesting to say.

Up to this point, it was safe to say that I did not care for this novel. The characters were dull, poorly developed. Our mains were very one-note and their voices failed to elicit any strong emotions in me. The secondary characters are barely there, and most of the male characters—regardless of their age—blurred together. We also have that one Italian character who just has to say ‘cara’ this and ‘cara’ that. Ffs. Still, I would not have discouraged others from attempting to read it as this could have easily been one of those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ cases but then Oyeyemi drops a rather unpleasant surprise near the end.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Turns out that the ‘rat catcher’, turns out his name is Frank, who up to now has been portrayed as this abusive possibly ‘deranged’ villain, is a trans man. Frank is Boy’s mother. Frank used to be a gay woman who was raped and became pregnant with Boy. After this traumatic experience Frank ‘became’ trans: “You know how Frank says he became Frank? He says he looked in the mirror one morning when he was still Frances, and this man she’d never seen before was just standing there, looking back. ”
Leaving aside the fact that Frank’s ‘story’ is recounted by someone who keeps misgendering and deadnaming them (this story is set in the 50s and 60s after all), I find this whole ‘reveal’ to be a poor choice indeed. Not only does the story imply that victims of sexual abuse cannot ever recover (which, unfortunately, sometimes happens to be true but here it struck me as intentionally sensational) but they will inevitably become abusers themselves. Which, yikes. Can we not? And don’t get me started on the whole ‘woman wanting to escape womanhood by becoming a man + lesbians becoming men because of trauma and the patriarchy’ terfy combo. Fuck sake. And to make your one trans character into an unhinged abuser is decidedly questionable.

To prospective readers of this book: I would like to dissuade you. Give this one a wide berth. Oyeyemi has written far better, and certainly a lot less dubious, things, so I recommend you check those out instead.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Sula by Toni Morrison

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Symptomatic by Danzy Senna

“Every day in this new city I was trying to live in the purity of the present, free from context. Contexts, I knew, were dangerous: Once you put them into the picture, they took over.”

As with her latest novel New People, Symptomatic presents its readers with a claustrophobic and disquieting narrative that becomes increasingly surreal. Both novels are set in the 90s in New York and follow light-skinned biracial women whose white-passing often results in them feeling on the outside of both the white and Black communities. Senna’s razor-sharp commentary on race in America holds no punches as time and again she identifies and dissects everyday slights, aggressions, and hypocrisies. Symptomatic is narrated by an unnamed young woman in her twenties who is interning as a journalist. As she ‘passes’ as white she begins to feel alienated, a feeling that is exacerbated when she witnesses her white boyfriend—who believes she is Hispanic—guffawing at a friend’s racist impersonation. Our narrator is not close to her parents, each of who has embarked on a mystical or religious journey—nor her surfer brother. Senna portrays her feeling of aloneness with incisive precision. The main character feels so severed from her surroundings that she often feels or sees rather disquieting things that may or may not be there. The imagery Senna provides is unpleasant, unsettling, and even grotesque: a “raw chicken wing” lying in the gutter is the narrator’s eyes, however momentarily, a “pink fetus”, a “steak fry” transforms in a “severed finger”, a woman’s “pregnant belly” pokes out “like a tumor”.

A colleague of the protagonist helps her in her hour of need. After breaking up with her boyfriend the narrator needs a new place and this colleague, Greta, hooks her up with an apartment that has been temporarily vacated by its actual rentee. The narrator and Greta become close as they both happen to be light-skinned biracial women. In spite of their age gap, Greta is in her forties, they feel united by their experiences (of others assuming they are white, of being told they are not really Black, of being seen as ‘neither here nor there’). Their thoughts and feelings on race, on white and Black people, can be vicious, full of vitriol, and give us an understanding of them (of the way they have been treated or made to feel). Time and again the narrator is told that there is something about the way she looks, there is an “unsettling” “dissonance” to her that makes others feel uneasy, unable to place her.
As the two women spend more time together it becomes clear to the narrator that Greta is a deeply disturbed and perturbing person. When Greta’s obsession with her forces the narrator to cut ties with her, she soon discovers that the older woman is not willing to let go so easily.

“I felt ill. My symptoms were mild and vague. They roamed my body, like tinkers searching for new temporary homes where they could not be caught.”

Senna’s prose is as always terrific. I was hypnotized by her words, however uneasy they made me feel. Her commentary on race and contemporary culture is both illuminating and provocative, and, weirdly enough, I also appreciate the cynicism of her novels. The world she presents us with is ugly and so are the people inhabiting it. The oppressive atmosphere of her narratives is made all the more stultifying by the perturbing direction of her storylines. Simple interactions between characters are anything but simple as they are often underlined by a sense of anxiety.
Alas, Senna does have an Achille’s heel and that is the final act of her novels. Here there is a reveal which I definitely did not buy into, if anything, it made this one character seem less fleshed out than they were. The character’s spiraling into alienation is halted by witnessing someone who has already embarked on this path of self-destruction. The final confrontation also, as noted by other reviewers on GR, was a bit too reminiscent of Passing. As with New People the ending had a touch of bathos that made me reconsider the novel on the whole.
Still, in spite of this, I do love Senna’s writing. Her prose is mesmerizing and the content of her stories is both disquieting and eye-opening. If you like authors such as Ottessa Moshfegh you should definitely try reading something by Senna.

re-read: a truly disturbing piece of fiction. The mysterious shadows and symptoms haunting our protagonist are truly disturbing.

my rating: ★★

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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is an unflinching and deeply harrowing examination of race, colorism, gender, and trauma. Throughout the course of her narrative Toni Morrison captures with painful lucidity the damage inflicted on a black child by a society that equates whiteness with beauty and goodness, and blackness with ugliness and evil.
In her introduction to her novel Morrison explains her inspiration of the novel. Like Morrison’s own friend, the central character in The Bluest Eye, Pecola, is a black girl who yearns for ‘blue eyes’. Similarly to Sula in the eponymous novel, Pecola becomes her community’s scapegoat, but, whereas Sula embraces who she is, Pecola’s self-hatred is compounded by her community’s demonisation of her. The more people speak of her with contempt, the stronger her desire for blue eyes becomes.

Rather than making us experience Pecola’s anguish first-hand, Morrison makes readers into complicit onlookers. We hear the venomous gossip that is exchanged between the various members of Pecola’s community, we witness the horrifying sexual abuse Pecola’s father inflicts on her—from his point of view, not hers—and the good-hearted, if ultimately inadequate, attempts that two other young girls, Claudia and Frieda, make to try and help Pecola.
The adults in this novel are color-struck and condemn Pecola for her parents’ actions, suggesting that she herself is to blame for the violence committed against her. The story is partly narrated by Claudia, whose childhood naïveté limits her comprehension of Pecola’s experiences. We are also given extensive flashbacks in which we learn more about Pecola’s parents (their youth, their eventual romance, and their extremely fraught marriage). There are also scenes focused on characters that belong to Pecola’s community and who either use or abuse her
.
Throughout the course of the narrative, regardless whose point of view we are following, it is clear that Pecola is suffering, and that her home-life and environment are fuelling her self-loathing.
This is by no means an easy read. There is a nauseatingly graphic rape scene, incest, and domestic violence. Pecola is bullied, maltreated, and abused. The few moments of reprieve are offered by Claudia and Frieda, who unlike Pecola can still cling to their childhood innocence.
Pecola’s story is jarring and sobering, and at times reading The Bluest Eye was ‘too much’. Nevertheless, I was hypnotised by Morrison’s cogent style. She effortlessly switches from voice to voice, vividly rendering the intensity or urgency of her characters’ inner monologues. In her portrayal of Pecola’s descent into madness Morrison is challenging racist ideals of beauty, binary thinking, and the labelling of races and individuals as being either good or evil. Pecola’s family, her community, even the reader, all stand by as Pecola becomes increasingly detached from her reality. This a tragic story, one that is bound to upset readers. Still, the issues Morrison addresses in this novel are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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The Door by Magda Szabó — book review

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“[I]t was as if Emerence turned on her ghostly heel and put two fingers up at our guilty consciences, and our attempts to approach her. Each time it was as if yet another undisclosed facet of her million secrets glittered before us”

One of the most obscurely bizarre books I’ve ever read.

Moving between the 1960s and the 1980s The Door’s narrative is concerned with the narrator’s relationship with her housekeeper Emerence. Throughout the course of the novel our narrator, a Hungarian writer called Magda, combs through her memories in order to revisit her complex relationship with Emerence, in what seems to be an attempt to make some sort of sense out of this enigmatic and perplexing woman.

Although The Door is quite unlike any other novel I’ve read it does share certain elements with Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T. (which is also semi-autobiographical, set in a similar time-period, and narrated by a writer determined to revisit her relationship with her secretive friend), Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (yet another narrator/writer who interrogates her intense relationship with an old friend) and Joyce Carol Oates’ Solstice.
From its opening pages The Door throws us into a dizzying tale that seems to ignore logic or structure. There is little to no plot, but rather a collection of Magda’s memories of Emerence.

The first part of the novel has very little dialogue (a few lines here and there), and relies instead on Magda’s recounting what Emerence said or did. Soon we acquire a surreal impression of this formidable woman, yet Emerence remains an ambivalent figure, impossible to pin down. Magda’s attempts to make sense of her past behaviour towards her and others often results in little more than speculations and suppositions on her part.
However ordinary Emerence and her life may seem, her many peculiarities and her aversion towards God, the Church, the idea of an establishment itself, make her into a potentially disruptive figure. At times Magda’s recounts of Emerence make the latter seem as little more than an unhinged woman prone to childish temper tantrums and liable to bad moods. Her hatred towards ‘cultured’ and intellectual people seems to reveal a deep resentment towards those who unlike her did not have to start working at a young age. And yet, she seems so completely disgusted by them that it seems impossible for her to be secretly envious of them.
Emerence appears as a mercurial individual who, in spite of living in a country which imposed uniformity on its subjects, manages to retain her individuality. She seems the sole governor of her own existence, unbothered by the laws, policies, and societal norms that affect her neighbours.

As this murky narrative progresses, and Emerence slowly emerges from Magda’s memories, we begin to accept Emerence’s multivalency. Not one character seems to have thought of her the same way, whether they feared, hated, admired, or loved her. Her secrecy and control over her own self and her private space, make her seem closer to a sphinx than a mere mortal. She seems to radiate strength seeming to be a force of nature, a solid and unmovable presence in the lives of her neighbours and clients.
Yet, Magda’s memories are comprised of so many gaps and absences that we are constantly aware of the unreliability of what she does or does not remember. The Emerence that surfaces from Magda’s ‘reconstruction’ is a fragment of the actual woman, and Magda, alongside her readers, has to content herself with her imperfect knowledge of her former housekeeper. Ultimately Emerence remains unknowable.

Backdrop to Magda’s retrieval is a quiet sort of violence. We are aware of a potential danger but we cannot pinpoint what shape or form it will take. The unnerving relationship between Magda and Emerence is filled with recriminations, uneasy truces, and bitter exchanges. There are allusions to deaths and destruction but these never lead to a cathartic event or revelation.
In navigating the past the narrator is able to see anew many of the things that she had likely overlooked about her own life. She attributes new significance to certain moments of her life and of the way these shaped her relationship with Emerence. She seems to be both in her past and in her present, obsessed, if not desperate, with truly knowing Emerence, her life, secrets, and motivations.

“The situation had drained my energy. Cheerfulness keeps you fresh, its opposite exhausts. Now I was miserable, but not because I had to look for another help. The problem was simpler. I had finally accepted that it wasn’t just Emerence who was attached to me, with the sort of feelings normally reserved for family, but that I, too, loved her.”

For much of the novel, the two women are engaged in a war of constant surveillance. They are always scrutinising each other, and often criticising their different values and attitudes (more than once they clash over their different attitude towards religion and literature). Emerence’s secretiveness, her ‘closed’ door, mystify Magda who comes to think of Emerence’s apartment as an extension of Emerence herself.
Emerence’s ‘shut door’ allows for an array of interpretations. It is the very fact that this door is shutting out the rest of the world that arouses Magda, and the reader’s, curiosity. My mind formed the most wild of theories regarding Emerence’s past and what lay beyond her door. Yet, as Magda informs us early on, we are aware that we will never truly know Emerence or her motivations. It seemed that the novel emphasised the unknowability of a person, and the freedom that we can experience by presenting a self that isn’t entirely true.

Magda’s narratives describes seemingly mundane scenarios that teether on the edge of becoming something more: miscommunications regarding house routines can cause unforgiving shifts between the two women. The novel imbues the most ordinary of scenes or conversations with a sense of surreality. There were many moments that verged on absurdity (there were many almost Kafkaesque occurrences).
Emerence seemed the antithesis of normal. My mind was never made up about her. Certainly Magda’s recollections of her always left me feeling uneasy, almost queasy. At times she could be quick to anger and unforgiving, while in other instances she could seem so caring and kind. Her erratic behaviour, her naiveté, her small manipulations of those around her…I found myself interrogating everything she said or did, wondering alongside Magda ‘who‘ Emerence really was.

This novel is far from a pleasant read: it is unnerving and confusing, and I was mystified most of time (it left me with more questions than actual answers….) and yet, I felt a horrible sort of fascination towards it…read at your own risk.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson — book review

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“They can’t turn me out or shut me out or laugh at me or hide from me; I won’t go, and Hill House belongs to me.”

The first time I read The Haunting of Hill House I felt confused and vaguely underwhelmed. Having loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I was expecting a similar reading experience…but although The Haunting of Hill House has many of Jackosn’s trademarks (an alienated young woman, a creepy ambience, a house that acts as a character, doubles, a sense of surreality) the narrative was even more confounding than her usual. A third re-read of this novel has allowed me to appreciate the story and its characters much more than I did on my first read.
Jackson has that unique vision that makes her stories immediately recognisable. Her idiosyncratic style is not for everyone and many readers that have watched the Netflix adaptation of this novel will find themselves thrown into a bizarre Tim Burton-ish sort of story that is unlike the tv series.
Still, while this might not be Jackson’s most ‘accessible’ novel it is now widely regarded as one of the greatest haunted-house story ever-written.
Yet, while the haunting—aka the supernatural element—is what this novel is known for, there are many other aspects that make this novel so unnerving. What Eleanor Vance experiences in Hill House is not solely a result of the house’s paranormal activity, and her character both adheres to and transcends the mould of the ‘passive’ Gothic heroine. The “hauntedness” we read of, is not in the actual house but in Eleanor herself.
As soon as we are introduced to her we learn of her unhappy and uneventful existence. Having spent ten year as her mother’s sole caretaker, frozen in a life of servitude, and locked in a relationship ‘built up devotedly around small guilts […] constant weariness, and unending despair’ (25), Eleanor has grown into an emotionally stunted adult. Throughout the course of the novel Jackson depicts the way in which Eleanor’s mind is triggered by the matriarchal presence of Hill House and, ‘haunted’ by her traumatic childhood and her troubled relationship with her mother, she slowly descends into childishness. Her behaviour, and her rejection of adult life, might seem ‘weird’ and sudden but if we pay attention we can see that Jackson early on introduces us to certain images and words that allude to much of what happens to Eleanor in Hill House.
In this novel, Jackson’s interpretation of novels of formation is even more subversive than in Hangsaman, to the extent that Eleanor’s story arc is that of an anti-Bildungsroman sees her absorbed into Hill House.
Jackson’s writing itself is as unique as always. She has that rhythm, that perfect symmetry, that makes many of her paragraphs into tiny masterpieces. And, of course, there is her humour which might often makes her characters seem to be somewhat hysterical. Yet, since everything has this surreal quality, the weirdness of the characters and their world makes sense.
In spite of its moments of humour, and of the many amusing scenes contained in this novel, reading again made me more aware of the anxiety and depression felt by Eleanor…so yes, this novel is not an easy read, yet it has so many interesting layers and quirks that I fully recommend it (especially to established Jackson fans). We see the few options left to someone who has never had the chance to enter the adult world, form adult relationships…Eleanor dreams and daydreams are filled with a yearning to belong…which ultimately leads to her dissolution.

edit: i’ve read this 4 times and wow. Tis’ an unnerving read. Jackson’s prose is magnificent and the foreshadowing so terribly clever.

My rating: ★★★★ 4 stars

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Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson — book review

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“Dearest dearest darling most important dearest darling Natalie—this is me talking, your own priceless own Natalie.”

Alice in Wonderland meets The Bell Jar in Shirley Jackson’s much overlooked Hangsaman.
The first time I read this exceedingly perplexing novel I felt confused. Although Hangsaman shares many similarities with Jackson’s more well known novels (yet again we have a disaffected, hypersensitive, and alienated heroine), this is her most elusive work.
A second and third reading however made me much more appreciative of this peculiar anti-bildungsroman. What I previously thought of as being a confounding narrative with an unclear storyline became a clever take of the three-acts typical of a monomyth.
Hangsaman is focuses on Natalie Waite, a troubling young woman whose intolerance towards others makes her retreat into a series of disturbing fantasies. The narrative chronicles Natalie’s attempts to navigate the murky waters of adulthood. However, Natalie’s journey into adulthood is not only essentially negative but concludes ambiguously. Readers will find Natalie’s self-alienation, which dictates her behaviour and thoughts as well as shaping her worldview and imagination, alienating, as we are left wondering just how unreliable a narrator she is.

At the age of seventeen, Natalie believes that “she had been truly conscious only since she was about fifteen” and lives “in an odd corner of a world of sound and sight past the daily voices of her father and mother and their incomprehensible actions”. Forced into daily tête-à-têtes with her pompous writer-father—who enjoys disparaging Natalie’s creative writing—and made to listen to her neurotic and alcoholic mother’s diatribes against marriage, Natalie’s relationship with herself and others is already mired in ambivalence.
In order to please her father Natalie has spent most of her life pretending to be someone she is not, and her self-alienation partly stems from this forced concealment of her ‘real self’ The disjunction—or split—between Natalie’s “inner” self and her outer “personality” causes her to feel divorced from her own experiences and leads to her self-alienation, forcing her to create a provisional ‘new’ personality.
On campus, Natalie’s only connection to her father is through their correspondence, and in these letters she glamorizes her college experience. In reality, college is not the ‘new start’ Natalie had hoped for. As she is constantly in the presence of other girls, Natalie struggles to maintain a ‘personality’ akin to those whom she regards “trivial people” and “mediocre” . Her self-alienation induces her to view her own personality as ‘alien’, permeating her the way she thinks, perceives, feels, and behaves with a sense of unrealness. No longer under her father’s watchful eye, Natalie’s unease increases and her unfixed personality distorts her worldview, leading her to speculate whether her name is truly Natalie or if she as appropriate another girl’s identity. She is scornful of sororities, rejects offers of friendships, and regards with contempt the books, subjects, and theories that she is meant to be studying.
In an attempt to find and assert her own individuality, she seeks refuge in her own writing, deriving strength from this process, and in her make-believe magic. Although she becomes briefly involved in the domestic life of one of her professors (this particularly rocky marriage seemed rather autobiographical) it is only when she meets the mysterious and alluring Tony that Natalie is able to connect to someone.

The confounding narrative of Hangsaman is peppered by odd interactions and monologues that are often as amusing as they are bizarre. The storyline begins with an extended scene in which Natalie’s parents are hosting a party at their house. The party is not a fun affair, and Natalie is involved in an incident that may or may not have actually happened (yeah, I know). The details around this episode remain blurry, and readers will have to draw their own conclusions. Although at college Natalie becomes increasingly divorced from her self—unsure of her name, qualities, and her very existence—it is this very act of self-doubting which drives Natalie’s quest for a suitable identity. As she grows contemptuous of the people she interacts with—students and professors alike—she attains self-validation through her own writing and imagination where she can contemplate grandiose visions of her self. Since Natalie, similarly to Jackson herself, equates normalcy with a loss of individuality, in her imaginary worlds she examines the depths of her own awareness and identity by endowing herself with magical gifts and powerful personalities (she is a ‘mercenary’, ‘gladiator’ and ‘creator’). The subversive components of her fantasies, which often build upon her fears—such as dying—and desires—such as being revered—enable her to exorcise personalities and futures that do not resonate with her. Natalie’s exploration of her self, and of the different realities that may or may not be attainable, is spurred by her self-alienation. Within these narratives, Natalie confronts the dangerous and alluring world of maturity alternating between being a victim and the perpetrator of violence. By proving to herself—and the readers—that she has the strength to defy, resist and even harm others, Natalie can finally become enfranchised from her controlling father and depressed mother.
Jackson’s narrative, fraught with ambivalence, culminates ominously, leaving readers wondering what was real and what wasn’t. In spite of the many disquieting and or perplexing moments/scenes in this novel, Jackson’s offbeat humour makes for a truly entertaining read.

Note: the first time I read this I gave it 3 stars. This third time around I am giving it 5 stars. While I now consider it an all time favourite, I did not know what to make of it the first time I read it….so perhaps you should approach this novel with caution. Although it has many Jacksonesque motifs (female doubles, themes of alienation and paranoia, dark humour, misanthropic characters, witchcraft) it is a far more slippery creature.

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

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SOLSTICE : BOOK REVIEW

Solstice by Joyce Carol Oates
★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

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“I never change, I simply become more myself.”

At its core this is a dizzying tale of the fraught and destructive relationship between two solipsistic women.
A labyrinthine narrative follows characters that are mired in their own ambivalence.
Until her divorce Monica Jensen was quite comfortable in her role of a confident ‘blonde’, the school’s ‘golden girl‘. Unable to reconcile herself with the status of divorcee she throws herself into her new job as a teacher. By chance she happens to meet her neighbour, a famous artist and recently widowed Sheila Trask. Monica is drawn by Sheila’s mercurial personality, by her reputation, by her art.
Their relationship is hard to define and from the very beginning we see that is something other than a friendship (or a romance for that matter). Monica is attracted and repulsed by her own obsession with Sheila. They push each other’s boundaries and seem to be perpetually in conflict. They try to have the ‘upper hand’ without knowing themselves why it is they want to control—and posses—each other.
In spite of their different temperaments and dispositions they are both single without any particular close friends or family members. Unmoored, they try to assert their identity through their intense bond which often results in a struggle for power. Part of me wished that they could have explored their relationship more (their sentiments and declarations struck me as those of two lovers). Still, it was fascinating to read about the way in which their toxic relationship threatens their individuality and wellbeing. There was something almost vampiristic about the nature of their attachment to each other.

The dense and laborious prose examines in excruciatingly detail Monica’s psyche. Sheila remains more of a mystery but I still found her just as complex and layered. Many of Monica’s inner struggles would seem trifles by today’s standards (she is incredible conventional in certain aspects) and Sheila might not seem as subversive as we are lead to believe but within the narrative their behaviours make sense (although towards the end they both seem to go off the rails but…).
Solstice is far from an easy read. The ‘story’ is not much of a ‘story’ but rather a convoluted depiction of the often perplexing bond between two women.
I enjoyed the way in which Monica and Sheila change one another and the fact that the book is focused entirely on the two of them (family and love interests are merely blips in the course of the narrative).
I also appreciated the role that art (and especially modern art) plays in the book. There is an ongoing commentary on the way characters perceive Sheila’s art and on the language art critics use. Sheila’s creative process was also intriguing and prompted some of the most emotionally intense scenes.
I would have given this novel a higher rating but for the last part. All of a sudden there are a series of dramatic events happening in quick succession and the ending left me wanting more.

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Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Even after a third reading I am still surprised by how much this novel resonates with me. A lot readers will start Villette expecting a rehash of Jane Eyre—a novel which I enjoyed but wasn’t particularly taken by—which is a pity given that the narrative of Villette takes its reader through a much more labyrinthine path that the straightforward Bildungsroman of Jane Eyre.

“No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, ant tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. She is a divine dew which the soul, on certain of its summer mornings, feels dropping upon it from the amaranth bloom and golden fruitage of Paradise.”

From the first few chapters I fell in love with Villette.
Brontë’s writing is so insightful that it is hard not to highlight, or make a note of, every single paragraph. She has a way with words, managing to orchestrate long yet fluid phrases, that beautifully convey the many nuanced feelings and thoughts of her protagonist as well as the different landscapes she navigates. She offers her readers intricate and sharp observations, vivid descriptions, thoughtful asides and complex character studies that struck me for their realism.
Villette‘s plot rests upon its narrator’s interior struggle. In fact, this novel, is all about Lucy Snowe. A study of her psychology and of her shifting sense of self. Yet, even upon a third reading, she remains somewhat unknowable to me as she is careful to keep her feelings in check, and on more than one occasion she refrains from sharing certain knowledge with her readers (speaking of, there is an almost meta aspect to her narrative as she directly address readers and refers to scenes occurred in previous ‘chapters’).
Her self-division

“Oh, my childhood! I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future–such as a future as mine–to be dead.”

Her unreliability seems a natural outcome of her not wanting to reveal herself completely to us and others, and perhaps by lying to her readers, she can also deceive herself. We never know why she has become so alienated from her feelings but given that even as a child she was self-possessed and quiet observer, it seems that it is merely an aspect of who she is.
This divide between duty and self-fulfilment, reason and feeling, is the main focus of the narrative. Brontë’s Lucy, similarly to her more famous literary sister Jane, is a woman living on the social margins of her society: an orphan with few living relations and or friends, she lacks conventional beauty and the wealth necessary to be respected by society.
Lucy minimises the loss of her family, not wanting to dwell on how this affected her nor on the difficulties she experienced as an orphan, dismissing that period of her life as “a long time—of cold, of danger, of contention”. Her hardships go unheard since “to whom could [she] complain?” and so she grows accustomed to solitude believing that “there remained no possibility of dependence on others” .
The narrative that follows will see her confronted with different forms of femininity and womanhood
which are often embodied in the women she meets in England and in Villette.

“When I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who had never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life: in that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah’s gourd.”

One of my favourite scenes sees our narrator rejecting ideals of femininity in a museum. One painting features a Cleopatra-like figure whose sumptuous body makes our protagonist at ill at ease; the other one demonstrates the traditional life of woman: a young and demure bride, a wife and mother, and finally a widow. Lucy, in the course of this maze-like narrative will demonstrate a headstrong will in that in spite of the concealment of her feelings she remains true to her self.
Her character is so real that I was inevitably drawn to feel what she felt: I wanted what she wanted, for I couldn’t stand to see her unhappy.

“My state of mind, and all accompanying circumstances, were just now such as most to favour the adoption of a new, resolute, and daring–perhaps desperate–line of action. I had nothing to lose. Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past, forbade return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer? If I died far away from–home, I was going to say, but I had no home–from England, then, who would weep?”

The ending is ambiguous and somewhat open-ended yet those last bittersweet pages soften the story’s final blow.
The cast of characters is not necessarily likeable but I grew fond of them nonetheless, Lucy’s banter with a certain professor and a rather spoiled pupil made for some truly entraining scenes. I appreciated how imperfect and sometimes idiosyncratic these characters were as these things made them all the more believable.
This novel is a beautifully written character study that plays around with Gothic and Romantic elements. There is great character development, shifting dynamics between friends and acquaintances, a painfully concealed and unrequited first love, and a series of feverous experiences which blur the line between reality and fantasy…Villette is a compelling portrait of a woman’s shifting individuality.

DISCLAIMER: this novel is decidedly of its time so expect a lot of phrenological references (or viewing someone’s physiognomy as indicative of their character), the majority of Catholics in this novel are definitely a wee bit fanatical, many annoying remarks—usually by men, but sometimes by women as well—regarding women (the weaker sex etc…), a major character owns a plantation in Guadeloupe and no one bats an eye about it (I definitely recommend Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy for those interested in postcolonial sort of retelling of Villette, it is a short but truly captivating read), people from France and Spain are often portrayed as ‘other’, even ‘alien’, and a little girl with learning disabilities is referred to as a ‘cretin’ and some other unpleasant terms.