Quartet by Jean Rhys

“There she was and there she stayed. Gradually passivity replaced her early adventurousness. She learned, after long and painstaking effort, to talk like a chorus girl, to dress like a chorus girl and to think like a chorus girl – up to a point. Beyond that point she remained apart, lonely, frightened of her loneliness, resenting it passionately. She grew thin. She began to live her hard and monotonous life very mechanically and listlessly.”

An unsparing and piercing interrogation of passivity and victimhood, Quartet is a hypotonic work of fiction. Jean Rhys’ prose is immaculate. Her writing, although exquisitely crisp, has this deeply evocative quality to it that resulted in a truly immersive reading experience. I could picture with ease Marya’s various environments: from the hotel bedrooms she stays in, to the streets she walks down on. I admired Rhys’ ability to articulate Marya’s various states of mind with such clarity and finesse as to lend elegance to even her most petty thoughts. Although the setting has this subtle bygone, almost gilded age quality to it, one that brought to mind the work of Edith Wharton, Rhys also employs noir aesthetics that result in a backdrop that is at once beautiful and disenchanted.
Although the title suggests that the narrative will be concerned with the complex dynamic between four individuals, the story presents us with an all too familiar triangle: a young woman becomes involved with an older married man of means. His wife claims that she is ‘happy’ with this ‘arrangement’. But, as Marya becomes further enmeshed in the lives of the Heidlers, she becomes all too aware that the wife resents her presence. In order not to alienate her husband she pretends otherwise, and Marya finds herself cast in the role of villainess and homewrecker.

The novel opens in Paris during the 1920s. Marya, our heroine, is a young woman married to Stephan, a Polish man whose dodgy art dealings eventually land him in jail. The two were leaving from hotel room to hotel room, and once Stephan is imprisoned Marya finds herself on the verge of destitution. An orphan with no assets to speak of, Marya was wholly dependent on Stephan’s income. A socialite married couple, the Heidlers, come to her ‘rescue’, insisting that she stay with them. Marya does, even if she expresses some uneasiness at this arrangement. Mr Heidler, who goes by H. J., had previously made a pass at her and once she’s staying with them, he declares that he has feelings for her. According to him, his wife, Lois, is content with this. Marya learns that she’s not the ‘first’, and as the weeks go by and her feelings for H. J. deepened, she became wary of the Heidlers’ ‘games’. While Marya doesn’t have today’s vocabulary, contemporary readers will be able to recognise the Heidlers’ ‘tactics’: they manipulate and gaslight Marya. Passive Marya finds herself playing into this role that they’ve thrust on her, doing what they want, and keeping silent about this whole affair. Cleverly, Rhys doesn’t quite paint Marya as a hopeless and hapless victim of her sex and her circumstances. There are numerous instances that indicate that Marya performs this role of ‘victim’. But does her self-victimization make her any less of a victim? Especially when others uphold this view of herself?
While Rhys mines the psychological depths of her heroine, cataloguing her ennui, misery, loneliness, and disorientation, she maintains a certain distance from her characters, Marya included. These characters retain a certain inscrutable quality: some of their actions may strike as bizarre, while their words often are full ambivalence. The characters retain this air of mystery that really complements the shadowy atmosphere of their world: from their soirées to their clandestine encounters in hotel rooms. There were many striking passages describing Marya’s environment. Her internal dialogue too is rendered in arresting detail, and however frustrating her naivete and passivity were I found sympathetic towards her ‘plight’. Her feelings towards H. J. are somewhat inexplicable, as she seems to fall in love with him just like that. While Marya thinks herself in love with him, I thought differently. Her infatuation reeked of desperation, and I too found myself viewing her as a victim of the Heidlers’, specifically H. J., deceptions. Time and again we are told that what Marya craves is happiness and safety, and after Stephan is in prison, she is so desperate that she is willing to believe that those things may come if she becomes H. J.’s ‘mistress’.
The novel also has a roman a la clef dimension as Marya’s embroilment with the Hedlers’ mirrors Rhys’ one with Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella Bowen . While there were many sentiments that struck me for their presence and timelessness, particularly in relation to Marya’s ‘female malaise’, a few passages stuck out for the wrong reasons. An example would be a scene where Marya observes “a little flat-faced Japanese” drawing “elongated and gracefully perverse little women”…which…le sigh.

Initially, I was planning on giving this a high rating but the bathetic denouement left a lot to be desired. While I can appreciate how certain authors are able to continue their narratives after the central character has ‘exited’ the scenes, here the last few pages struck me as callous and unsatisfying. I would have almost found it more satisfying if Rhys had gone the Madame Bovary or The House of Mirth route, but there is a soap-opera worthy heated confrontation that did not feel particularly satisfying or convincing. While I appreciated how Rhys, similarly to Flaubert and Wharton, is not afraid to focus on how pathetic or silly or petty her characters are, that finale just didn’t do it for me.
Still, I can see myself re-reading this and giving it a higher rating in the future. I am definitely planning on reading more by Rhys as her writing is simply superb and I am always interested in narratives centered on alienated and perpetually perplexed young women.

Marya is a fascinating character who carries an air of impermanence, one that makes her all the more intriguing. Her impermanence also deepens the dreamlike quality of the narrative. There are many instances where her dreams seem to seep into her reality, making us wonder how reliable a character she is. As things take a downward turn, her moments dissociation intensify, her sadness and anxiety so overwhelming as to make her reality unendurable.


Some of my fave passages:

“She began to argue that there was something unreal about most English people.”

“Still, there were moments when she realized that her existence, though delightful, was haphazard. It lacked, as it were, solidity; it lacked the necessary fixed background. A bedroom, balcony and cabinet de toilette in a cheap Montmartre hotel cannot possibly be called a solid background”

“Marya, you must understand, had not been suddenly and ruthlessly transplanted from solid comfort to the hazards of Montmartre. Nothing like that. Truth to say, she was used to a lack of solidity and of fixed backgrounds.”

“[S]he felt a sudden, devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence. She thought again: people are very rum. With all their little arrangements, prisons and drains and things, tucked away where nobody can see.”

“She would have agreed to anything to quieten him and make him happier, and she was still full of the sense of the utter futility of all things.”

“Words thatshe longed to shout, to scream, crowded into her mind:‘You talk and you talk and you don’t understand. Notanything. It’s all false, all second-hand. You say what you’ve read and what other people tell you. You think you’re very brave and sensible, but one flick of pain to yourself and you’d crumple”

“It was a beautiful street. The street of homeless cats, she often thought. She never came into it without seeing several of them, prowling, thin vagabonds, furtive, aloof, but strangely proud. Sympathetic creatures, after all. There was a smell of spring in the air. She felt unhappy, excited, strangely expectant.”

“‘You’re a victim. There’s no endurance in your face. Victims are necessary so that the strong may exercise their will and become more strong. ’ ‘I shall have to go away,’ she decided. ‘Of course. Naturally. ’ Sleep was like falling into a black hole.”

“‘I’ve been wasting my life,’ she thought.‘How have I stood it for so long?’”

“She felt hypnotized as she listened to him, impotent. As she lay in bed she longed for her life with Stephan as one longs for vanished youth. A gay life, a carefree life just wiped off the slate as it were. Gone! A horrible nostalgia, an ache for the past seized her. Nous n’irons plus au bois; Les lauriers sont coupes. . . . Gone, and she was caught in this appalling muddle. Life was like that. Here you are, it said, and then immediately afterwards. Where are you? Her life, at any rate, had always been like that.”

“There they were. And there Marya was; haggard, tor-tured by jealousy, burnt up by longing.”

“Marya thought: ‘Oh, Lord! what a fool I am.’ Her heart felt as if it were being pinched between somebody’s fingers. Cocktails, the ridiculous rabbits on the wallpaper. All the fun and sweetness of life hurt so abominably when it was always just out of your reach. “

“Of course, there they were: inscrutable people, invulnerable people, and she simply hadn’t a chance against them, naive sinner that she was.”

“The Boulevard Arago, like everything else, seemed unreal, fantastic, but also extraordinarily familiar, and she was trying to account for this mysterious impression of familiarity.”

“‘My darling child,’ said Heidler with calmness, ‘your whole point of view and your whole attitude to life is impossible and wrong and you’ve got to change it for everybody’s sake.’ He went on to explain that one had to keep up appearances. That everybody had to. Everybody had for everybody’s sake to keep up appearances. It was everybody’s duty, it was in fact what they were there for. ‘You’ve got to play the game.’”

“She made a great effort to stop it and was able to keep her mind a blank for, say, ten seconds. Then her obsession gripped her, arid, torturing, gigantic, possessing her as utterly as the longing for water possesses someone who is dying of thirst. She had made an utter mess of her love affair, and that was that. She had made an utter mess of her existence. And that was that, too. But of course it wasn’t a love affair. It was a fight. A ruthless, merciless, three-cornered fight. And from the first Marya, as was right and proper, had no chance of victory. For she fought wildly, with tears, with futile rages, with extravagant abandon – all bad weapons. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ she would ask herself. ‘Why are you like this? Why can’t you be clever? Pull yourself together!’ Uselessly.”
​​
“A petite femme. It was, of course, part of his mania for classification. But he did it with such conviction that she, miserable weakling that she was,found herself trying to live up to his idea of her. She lived up to it. And she had her reward. ‘. . . You pretty thing – you pretty, pretty thing. Oh,you darling.”

“As she walked back to the hotel after her meal Marya would have the strange sensation that she was walking under water. The people passing were like the wavering reflections seen in water, the sound of water was in her ears. Or sometimes she would feel sure that her life was a dream – that all life was a dream. ‘It’s a dream,’ she would think; ‘it isn’t real’ – and be strangely comforted. A dream. A dream.”

“But when she tried to argue reasonably with herself it seemed to her that she had forgotten the beginnings of the affair, when she had still reacted and he had reconquered her painstakingly. She never reacted now. She was a thing. Quite dead. Not a kick left in her.”

‘You’ve smashed me up, you two,’ she was saying. That was pitiful because it was so obviously true. It was also in an obscure way rather flattering. She put her hands up to her face and began to cry.

“The next few days passed like a dream. Lovely days, fresh, and washed and clean. And the knowledge that this was the irrevocable end of their life in Paris made every moment vivid, clearly cut and very sweet. Those were strange days, detached from everything that had gone before or would follow after.”

“Heidler was saying in a low voice: ‘I have a horror of you. When I think of you I feel sick.’ He was large, invulnerable, perfectly respectable. Funny to think that she had lain in his arms and shut her eyes because she dared no longer look into his so terribly and wonderfully close. She began to laugh. After all, what did you do when the man you loved said a thing like that? You laughed, obviously.”

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love by Huma Qureshi

With the exception of the first story, I just did not buy into the stories collected in Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love. These stories struck me as early exercises from a creative writing class. We have a few stories that try to have ‘ambiguous’ endings and a few attempts at using the 2nd pov or having a character address someone as ‘you’. The prose didn’t really match the direction of the stories, and the characters didn’t show much consistency. They all seem to be on the verge of a crisis and tend to overreact to normal family disputes (going so far as to commit matricide). Not only were the characters different shades of unlikeable but they just did not ring true to life. They were caricatures of sorts: the women often painted as hysterical, the husbands distant and unaware, their mothers hyper-critical and unsympathetic. It’s a pity as the author’s prose was far from bad, it just so happens that the characters and scenarios she wrote of, to be brutally honest, left me wanting. At times the author tries to go for this realism reminiscent of authors such as Jhumpa Lahiri, but then we also get stories that try to be creepy or fairytalesque but fall short of being either of those things and when compared to the stories of Shirley Jackson or Helen Oyeyemi, well, they didn’t strike me as particularly original or fantastical.
The relationships explored in these stories were very one-note and ultimately unpleasant. Nearly all of the daughters hated or were reproachful of their mothers, they are married to bland white men who lack critical thinking and seem wholly unaware of their privilege, the daughters/wives themselves are portrayed as hysterical, moody, and spiteful. Additionally, although I read this collection last week, these stories failed to leave their mark on me. I can vaguely remember that a few of the stories take place abroad and include scenes set during awkward dinners or whatnot. That’s about it. Ultimately, they just did not leave a long-lasting impression on me as a reader.

I’m sure many others will be able to appreciate them in a way that I was unable to. As things stand I will approach the author’s future work with caution.


my rating: ★★☆☆☆

| | goodreads | tumblr | ko-fi | |

All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui

In the past week or so I’ve picked up three books I’d previously DNFed in the hopes that I would like them better now…turns out instead that I shouldn’t have given them a second chance and that instead, I should have just trusted my gut-instinct. Lesson learned.

All Men Want to Know is an incredibly affected and stylised memoir that doesn’t ring particularly true to life. The author and narrator of All Men Want to Know is very much into navel-gazing and has a penchant for making edgy comments. The few ‘characters’ who are given lines of dialogue do not sound like particularly believable individuals, rather they sounded like the narrator masquerading as different people. They use the same type of metaphorical and flashy language, and similarly to her have a propensity for making fake-deep statements about human nature, society, queerness etc.
The narrative is divided into sections called Remembering, Becoming, and Knowing. These last one or two pages and present us with what amounts to an underdeveloped and fragmented snapshot of the author’s life. This technique is sadly all the rage and if you enjoyed Pik-Shuen Fung’s Ghost Forest you might actually be able to appreciate All Men Want to Know in a way that I was unable to. In the Remembering segments, Bouraoui writes about her childhood, specifically about growing up in Algeria to an Algerian father and a French mother. In Becoming and Knowing Bouraoui is living in Paris in the 80s and going to lesbian bars and clubs, unsure whether she actually wants to find someone or not. I should have found these sections somewhat relatable as they are seemingly intent on exploring her internalised homophobia but the way she articulates her anxieties, fears, and desires struck me as laboured and showy.
Nothing about her childhood or her time in Paris is rendered clearly to us. The studied language takes the centre-stage. Which would have been bearable if say her prose was anything like Ocean Vuong or Caleb Azumah Nelson. But her style just isn’t as lyrical and readable as theirs These impressionistic snapshots of her life left no lasting impressions on me as they failed to capture the scenes they were supposedly meant to capture. They begin randomly and end abruptly so that I was left wondering what function they served in the overall narrative. I also found the way the author writes about things such as sexual abuse and suicide to be tasteless and sensationalistic. She seemed more intent on using a certain type of language than on showing any sensitivity towards these topics. Much of the imagery included in this novel was clichéd (we have the classic scene featuring ‘blood’ on ‘sheets’). There was nothing subversive or thought-provoking about this memoir. I found myself disliking Bouraoui and I was vexed in particular by her endless self-dramatizing. Her queer friends all blur together, they are given barely any lines and serve the role of filler. We don’t really gain any insight into Bouraoui’s family dynamics nor are her mother or father particularly fleshed out. Bouraoui also has the habit of speaking on behalf of other characters, so that she will write about the thoughts and feelings someone else is allegedly experiencing as if these are true (rather than her speculations). Although this book is desperately trying to be sensual and deep, it is neither of these things. I found it boring, unconvincing, and sensationalistic. The best thing about this book is the cover. A truly banal excuse of a book.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

| | goodreads | tumblr | ko-fi | |

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

“She had appeared so glorious to me that I had assumed she had everything she wanted. I wanted to cry for her, and for myself.”



Superbly written The Inseparables is a novella that pairs an enthralling depiction of female friendship with a razor-sharp commentary on gender and religion This is the kind of work of fiction that reads like real life, unsurprising perhaps given that Beauvoir created Sylvie and Andrée after herself and her real-life friend Zaza Lacoin.

Written in a controlled and polished style The Inseparables presents us with a beguiling tale in which Sylvie, our narrator, recounts the enigmatic nature of her bond with Andrée. The two first meet as young girls while enrolled at a private Catholic school and, in spite of the divergence between their religious beliefs, they become, as the title itself suggests, inseparable. Due to the conventions of their time and society—the French bourgeois of the early 20th cent.—they cannot be too close and so have to refrain from being too intimate with one another, for example by addressing each other with the formal you.Still, they keep up a correspondence and talk at length to each other, earning themselves the disapproval of Andrée’s mother who frowns upon their, God forbid, long and possibly intimate conversations.

Sylvie is fascinated by Andrée, in particular, she seems hyperaware, intrigued even, by her self-divide. On the one hand Andrée, a devout Catholic, expresses conservative ideas and opinions, which make her appear particularly naive. On the other Andrée possesses a clever mind and a propensity for expressing surprisingly subversive thoughts. Andrée is a magnetic individual who oscillates between irreverence and conformity. Sylvie, who did not grow up to be a staunchly religious individual (apropos, in a diary entry beauvoir wrote: “i have no other god but myself”), cannot always reconcile herself to Andrée’s way of thinking and struggles to understand the loyalty that Andrée has for her family, which Sylvie herself views as suffocating.

As the two grow up we see how Andrée continues to struggle with understanding her own emotions, trying and failing to contain her fiercer self. We also see how her mother’s constant reprimand have affected her self-worth and distorted her view of herself. When she falls for Pascal, a puritanical young man who seriously considered being a priest, Andrée’s resolve to lead the kind of life that her family, as well as her society, is tested. She desperately wants to escape her present circumstances but this desperation ultimately results in self-sabotage. We witness her unravelling through Sylvie’s eyes, who, as much as she yearns to be of help, cannot ultimately save her.

Beauviour’s piercing commentary on gender, class, and religion was profoundly insightful. She addresses these things with clarity and exactness, illustrating how fatal oppression and repression are on a person’s psyche. What I found particularly touching, and relatable, in this novel was the unrequited nature of Sylve’s love for Andrée. Regardless of whether the love she feels for Andrée is a platonic one or a romantic one, we know that Andrée doesn’t feel the same passion for Sylve. Whether she’s unwilling or unable to reciprocate the iSylve’s feelings, we do not know for certain, however, we can see how deeply this realization cuts Sylvie. Sylvie is shown to be both jealous and resentful of Andrée’s family, holding them responsible for her friend’s unhappiness.

This novella’s subject did bring to mind Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, which also explores an intense female friendship, Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia
(which is far more flowery and sentimental than this but also capture a youth’s unrequited love and longing for another) as well as novel such as Abigail and Frost In May (which are both set in all-girl schools and touch on female friendships and religion).
While Sylvie is both attuned and attentive to Andrée, her moods and beliefs, she does, like we all tend to do, idealise her given that she is her object of desire (whether this is desire is platonic or sexual, it’s up to the reader to decide, i, to no one’s surprise, felt that it was the latter).
This was a riveting read. The prose is sublime, the story an equal parts evocative and tragic exploration of young & unrequited love, heartache, independence, kinship and intimacy.

I will say that as much as I loved this I couldn’t help but the publisher’s short bio of Beauvoir, as well as Levy’s and the translator’s mentions of her, felt very incomplete. As far as I can recall they all omit to mention Beauvoir’s more ‘unethical’ behaviour. As a teacher, she had ‘relationships’ with her underage pupils and went on to sign a petition seeking to abrogate the age of consent in France (because of course age is just a number!). Here you might argue that those things have nothing to do with this novella or her friendship with Zaza (discussed by both Levy and the translator). But I maintain that they do. You can’t just mention the fact that she’s a feminist and try to analyse her real-life friendship with another woman or her commentary on female sexuality while at the same time omitting that in her lifetime she (‘allegedly’) groomed her underage female students and seemed in favour of pedophilia. That she did those things did not detract from my reading experience however it certainly made me a little bit more critical of our narrator’s obsession towards her friend.


Some of my favourite quotes:

“Secretly I thought to myself that Andrée was one of those prodigies about whom, later on, books would be written.”

“No, our friendship was not as important to Andrée as it was to me, but I admired her too much to suffer from it.”

“What would I have daydreamed about? I loved Andrée above all else, and she was right next to me.”

“I thought to myself, distressed, that in books there are people who make declarations of love, or hate, who dare to say whatever comes into their mind, or heart—why is it so impossible to do the same thing in real life?”

“The errors I admitted were those of the soul above all: I had lacked fervour, too long forsaken the divine presence, prayed inattentively, regarded myself too complacently.”

“Andrée was unhappy and the idea of it was unbearable. But her unhappiness was so foreign to me; the kind of love where your kiss had no truth from me.”

“Never. The word had never fallen with such weight upon my heart. I repeated it within myself, under the never-ending sky, and I wanted to cry. ”

“No doubt she loved Andrée in her way, but what way was that? That was the question. We all loved her, only differently. ”

“Happiness suits her so well, I thought.”

““Don’t be sad,” she said. “In every family there’s a bit of rubbish. I was the rubbish.”

“For Andrée, there was a passageway between the heart and the body that remained a mystery to me. ”

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★☆

| | goodreads | tumblr | ko-fi | |

Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost by David Hoon Kim

While I can recognise that Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost is far from a terrible novel, I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about it. Personally, I don’t think the world needed yet another novel about a modern-day (wannabe) flâneur (who happens to be, you guessed it, an intellectual cis straight man whose personality is akin to a slice of soggy toast) having a metaphysical existential crisis in Paris (where of course he falls for an elusive woman).

This is the kind of novel that cares little about the plot or characters. Instead, the narrative seems very much intent on being incohesive, presenting us with scenes and or reflections that blur the line between reality and dreams. While I usually quite like novels that manage to create and sustain a surrealist mood, here, from the very get-go, I found the narrative, its structure in particular, to be little other than artificial.
This novel seems to be desperately striving for this peculiar absurdist tone but, in the case of this reader at least, it just fell flat. Sacrificing style over substance also results in a cast of barely sketched out characters, figments really, that do not manage to hold one’s attention. The weakest aspect of the novel lies in Henrik, our main narrator and major character. His voice was très insipid, to the point that I would often have to make an effort to follow his train of thoughts. His seemingly interminable inner monologues were dull indeed. He often recounts the exchanges that he has with others so that I felt all the more distanced from the story’s events. The guy also behaved in a rather inconsistent way so that I sometimes had the impression that the story was being told by numerous narrators, instead of the one guy.

In the first section, we learn a little about Henrik, a Japanese adoptee to Danish parents. He’s completing some sort of thesis or dissertation on Samuel Beckett while living in Paris. He speaks three languages, Danish, English, and French and is an aspiring translator who wants to do English/French translations (not an easy endeavour given that neither language is technically his ‘mother tongue’, which is danish). He’s dating Fumiko, a Japanese woman who for reasons unknown to him (let alone us) has locked herself in her dorm room. We never meet Fumiko, as after days of confinement she commits suicide.
We then switch to a ‘you’ type of narrative where we are introduced to a group of young medical students who are dissecting (i think?) Fumiko’s body. What purpose did this part have? Go figure.
Then back to Henrik and his seemingly unending monologues. He tells us about the random people he sees on the street, and about trailing Asian women who remind him of Fumiko, of meeting and talking to other people (i cannot recall who they were or how they met, that’s how memorable these encounters/friendships were). I had no idea how much time was passing, days, weeks, years? There was no clear passage of time, so I was unsure how long ago Fumiko had committed suicide or how old our mc was. He gives us very little insight into his relationship with Fumiko and because of this lack of information I had a hard time 1) believing in Fumiko (especially since we never really see her ‘alive’ in the present and 2) believing in their dalliance.

Occasionally he does come up with interesting observations regarding Paris, the ‘intellectual’ circles Henrik moves in, and on his identity. Attention is paid in particular to the disconnect he feels between who he is (he feels very danish) and his appearance (which is not ‘typically’ danish). But these speculations (on identity & belonging, the divide between one’s inner and one’s outer self) were drowned out by Henrik’s other thoughts, which often made little sense or struck me as entirely too affected.

Then, all of a sudden, the last section of the narrative goes on about his relationship with his goddaughter. This seemed very out of the blue and has little to do with what had come beforehand. This goddaughter did not sound like a genuine child and her dad was way OTT (at one point he shits in a plastic bag…why? couldn’t he have asked to use his neighbours’ toilet if his own toilet was broken or whatnot?). Here there is a bit of pretending to be what you are not, as in this case, Henrik often acts like his goddaughter’s father.
Nothing truly interesting or new is said on the subject. The story then briefly moves from Paris to Rome and here Henrik seems all of a sudden to remember about Fumiko.

The novel tried very hard to impress its intelligence and artistry on us. I don’t mind erudite asides or creative ramblings but only if they either serve some sort of purpose (in relation to characters or plot) or if they serve as springboards for more interesting discussions/conversations. Here, it seemed they were just trying to create a certain atmosphere. The novel as a whole struck me as being very much influenced by the New Wave. And while it was in a way experimental and clearly postmodernist, it lacked bite, flavour. It was all flash, no substance. At least Beckett is amusing! Here the weirdness was studied, worst still, where was the humor?

Maybe a more engaging or intriguing narrator would have made me more inclined to pay attention to what was going on (then again, was anything really going on?) or what the author was writing about…but Henrik was painfully bland. His voice put me to sleep.

I recommend you check out more positive reviews before you decide whether to give this one a shot or not.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★½

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

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin


That I choose to re-read this confirms that I do indeed have masochistic tendencies.

“I did not want him to know me. I did not want anyone to know me.”

In a striking prose, James Baldwin unfurls a disquieting tale of cowardice and self-deception. In many ways, Giovanni’s Room reads as a confession of sorts, even if our narrator does like to deny his own culpability.
This short novel is set in 1950s Paris when David, an American ex-pat, is idling away his time, drinking and partying with people he generally looks down upon, in an effort not to keep at bay thoughts about his past or future. The girl he is sort of seeing is away in Spain so an unsupervised and penniless David begins to frequent an acquaintance of his, Jaques, an older gay man who he finds somewhat repulsive but is happy to exploit. One day the two find themselves in a local haunt bar where they meet Giovanni, the new barman. While David seems initially unwilling to act on his impulses, he becomes involved with Giovanni and the two begin living together in Giovanni’s grubby apartment. Within these walls, David feels oppressed and constricted by an identity he is unwilling and or unable to accept. The American vision of masculinity and normalcy his father and his upbringing have inculcated in David an uncompromising notion of manhood. While he clearly desires Giovanni he cannot articulate his feelings towards him, as to do so would be to embark on a path of no return. When Hella, his sort-of girlfriend, returns to Paris, David is desperate to leave behind Giovanni and the kind of lifestyle he associates with Jaques and his circle, even if it means denying himself the person he actually desires.

While the narrative does deal with love, it is not a love story. This novel is as romantic as say Madame Bovary (that is to say, not at all). More often than not David seems to resent Giovanni and is repulsed when glimpsing his vulnerabilities. Most of the characters inhabiting this story are either unlikable or straight-up grotesque. In a way, this novel reminded me of Death In Venice. We have a main character who seems to perceive his surroundings as being sinister, alienating. David’s vitriol towards those who frequent Guillaume’s bar certainly points to his internalised homo/biphobia. In order to conform to his heteronormative society, David finds himself turning away from someone in need. Or that’s how David justifies his own cowardice. It will be up to readers to decide just how culpable he is. While I did not not sympathize with David, I did despise him. Similarly, I disliked Jaques, Guillaume, and almost everybody else really. Giovanni is, unsurprisingly, the one I felt for the most, which is saying something given his less than poor taste remarks on women (after claiming that he respects them he says that wives do need knocking about now and again, and implies that women are inferior to men). Yet, it is because Baldwin captures Giovanni’s anguish and desperation in such excruciating detail that I was unable to write him off as a misogynist asshole.

David’s story seems permeated by physical and moral squalor. Even emotions like desire and love acquire an unpleasant quality, as they are often twinned with their counterparts (repugnance, hatred). The atmosphere of Paris itself once again recalls that of Venice in Mann’s novel, and even George Orwell’s memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London. Its beauty is spoilt by the ugliness of its people and by the squalidness of places such as Giovanni’s apartment.
To call this story depressing or bleak seems an understatement. Yet, Baldwin’s superb prose manages to belie David’s internal abjection.

Now, as much as I am blown away by this novel, I do have to address Giovanni’s often hilarious ‘Italianess’. Dio mio. This is the kind of Italian character that I often see in fiction by English authors. He is the classic passionate Mediterranean who sometimes speaks of himself in the third person, makes remarks about beating women because that’s how Italian men are (a few months ago i worked with someone who claimed, to my face, that all italian men are sexist, and that italy is as ‘bad’ as india…to say that her statement was problematic on multiple fronts would be an understatement), and when reminiscing about his village he says that he wanted to stay there forever and “eat much spaghetti and drink much wine” (it’s a me, giovanni!). Still, despite these cartoonish aspects of his character, I did find myself buying into him.

This is a terrific piece of fiction, one that is guaranteed to make you anxious, sad, and uneasy (possibly even queasy). Yet, Baldwin’s fantastic prose and his tremendous psychological insight are bound to enthral.

View all my reviews

What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster

Riding the coattails of Little Fires Everywhere and The Vanishing Half, What’s Mine and Yours not only tells a blow-by-blow predictable tale but one that failed to entertain or elicit any feeling other than frustration in this particular reader. What’s Mine and Yours, ya basic.

To call the writing in this novel ‘prose’ seems misleading as this is some of the most lifeless writing that I have ever come across. That is not to say that it is bad or terrible but dio mio, does it lack heart (if someone had told me that this book was written by an ai i would have believed them). Anyway, as you might have already guessed, I did not like this book. In fact, it really really really irritated me. The only reason why I persevered was that I listened to the audiobook which is superbly narrated by the one and only Bahni Turpin (had it not been for her i would have dnfed this).

As with any other of my negative reviews, I encourage those who want to read this book to check out some more positive opinions. Do keep in mind that the summary is extremely misleading. The school integration is not the focus of the novel, merely a plot device to further the drama between the characters and create some tension for our star-crossed lovers.

SPOILERS BELOW

Positives
✓The opening chapter. It has the most fleshed-out character in the whole novel who for reasons does not make a single appearance after that.

Negatives
✕ Story & Structure
This novel gives a halfhearted attempt at a non-linear/multiple perspectives kind of narrative but unlike The Travellers it clearly favours certain povs and timelines over others. So while the summary will have you think that the story pivots around in particular on the school integration, well it does not. The chapters set in 2018, years after the integration has taken place, are the real focus of this novel, and jeez, how dull they were. There present readers with some dull family drama, three cardboard cut sisters (the gay one, the wannabe celebrity one, and the one who is having marriage problems and wants children). There is an attempt to make a character’s identity into a big reveal but it was obvious who they were from the very start. So, structure-wise, this novel sucks. Why implement multiperspectives’ if you are mainly sticking with two characters? The non-linear timeline adds nothing to the story, as it fails to build suspense or give a sense of mystery to certain events. The story attempts to touch upon topical & serious issues but it ultimately fails to deliver a substantial exploration of race, class, identity, and motherhood, opting instead for a very superficial social commentary that is chock full of platitudes.

✕ Characters
The characters were either lazy caricatures or reduced to one single characteristic. While I was reading I asked someone what they envisioned when I said ‘Lacey May’ and they made a face. And that’s basically it. Lacey May is the kind of character you are not meant to like. Fair enough, as I am more than able to enjoy books with dislikable characters….as long as they are given some nuance or depth. Lacey May…is portrayed as a shrill, bigoted, ‘i’m not a racist but’, self-centred white woman who is so OTT she gave me a bloody headache. Do people like her exist? Probably yes. Do I want to read pages and pages from her perspective that kind of try to humanise her but not really? No. Fuck no. How about no fucking thanks. I found Noelle to be just as unsympathetic (so you have a deadbeat father, boohoo, join the club). She has no real personality and is mainly defined by the fact that she is Lacey May’s daughter. Gee, who is Black and one of the students who ends up at Noelle’s mostly white fancy high school, is very much sidelined in favour of drama between Noelle and her mother.

✕ Sex scenes
There was an odd amount of sex scenes that…why? They were either incredibly cheesy or just plain wtf: “He was still her husband, she his wife. They moved together for a short time. It was all liquid and soft muscle, a warm mess. ” Give me a break. We even get a scene in which Gee is masturbating and…what did that add to his story? The guy already doesn’t get enough page time and you are wasting what little he has on a scene where he masturbates? Because of course, that’s what teen boys do!

✕ Low-key problematic
I am so sick of stories that punish characters who have abortions. Here that character later in life has a miscarriage and wants children but can’t have them. She eventually does have a child but with another man and after a period of cheesy self-reflection in which she confronts the ‘ghosts’ from her past.
I was also not a fan of the gay rep in this book. It had a vague hint of ‘the token gay’.

This is the book equivalent of a soap opera. It was full of clichés (married man goes to france eats croissants and has an affair with a younger woman), unnecessary melodrama involving Lacey May and her daughters, and it felt vaguely moralistic (especially the way the abortion/miscarriage were handled). The uber generic writing, as previously mentioned, was not to my taste.
This is the kind of novel that seems to have been ‘made’ with book clubs in mind. So, if you are a fan of Jojo Moyes and Kristin Hannah, chances are you’ll like it more than I did.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆


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

Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★¼

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

If This Gets Out by Sophie Gonzales & Cale Dietrich

“It’s been so hard for me to believe that being adored doesn’t mean I’m one mistake away from being despised.”

If you are looking for an escapist read, look on further. If This Gets Out is a cute and ultimately uplifting YA romance. It does have the sort of tropes and scenarios that you would get from fanfic but I happened to be in the mood for something cheesy and fun.
I have never been a fan of boybands nor am I into ‘shipping’ real-life people so I read If This Gets Out on its own merit (ie without drawing comparison to that boyband). Our dual narrators, Ruben Montez and Zach Knight, are members of a famous American boyband, Saturday. While Ruben, Zach, Angel, and Jon all love being in a band together and enjoy the perks that come with their job, they have little freedom (creative or otherwise). Their management has forced them into adopting a certain personality (for example Angel and Jon’s ‘personas’ are shaped by racial stereotypes) and the boys are beginning to resent this. Ruben is gay and is tired of being forced to keep his sexuality a secret. Zach is not too happy with his lyrics always being turned down for not being ‘pop’ enough. Angel, who is very energetic and loud, turns do drugs and partying. Jon, who happens to be the son of their manager, is clearly not comfortable with being the band’s ‘sex’ symbol.
On a tour to Britain and Europe, things get worse. Their management controls their every move and the boys feel increasingly under pressure. They aren’t allowed to do any of the touristy things and their management are constantly monitoring them (often criticising them). Ruben and Zach become particularly close during this time and their feelings are definitely less than platonic. Zach, however, is unsure of his sexuality or what he wants and briefly, things between them don’t go too well. Thankfully the story doesn’t dwell on their disagreement for too long and the two get together. But as you might guess their management isn’t too keen on their romance (given that their audience consists mostly of young girls they have to remain ‘available’).

The story is certainly entertaining. While most of the adult characters are rather one-dimensional I did like the dynamics within the band. Some of the disagreements between Ruben and Zach did not make much sense (especially towards the end, it seemed like the plotline needed an argument so an argument happened). The narrative mostly focuses on showing how controlling, manipulative, and downright shitty the adults around the boys are (Ruben’s mother being the worst of the lot, even if she was not entirely convincing) and the downsides of fame (creepy/stalkery fans etc.). The story is clearly about the freedom to be yourself and being allowed to figure yourself out without others pressuring you into being someone you are not. I appreciated these messages and I did find the novel to be engaging. The writing was decent, but I did find myself preferring Ruben’s chapters. At times Ruben and Zach seemed a bit undefined but I didn’t really go into this expecting nuanced character studies. If you are looking for an easy read (kind of silly, lil bit angsty) that manages to lightly touch upon some important issues, If This Gets Out may be the right read for you.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★¼

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

At the End of the Matinee by Keiichirō Hirano

Although At the End of the Matinee shares stylistic and thematic similarities with Keiichirō Hirano’s A Man, it makes for a far less intriguing read. At the End of the Matinee lacks the psychological edge that made A Man into such a compelling read. The story and characters of At the End of the Matinee have little depth, and, as the narrative progresses and the storyline veers into melodrama, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by what I was reading (and disappointed too, considering that—abrupt ending aside—I found A Man to be a well-written and engaging read).

The opening pages of At the End of the Matinee are very reminiscent of the ones from A Man. Readers are informed that the story they are about to read is real and that to “protected their privacy” this unnamed author has “altered” certain details (such as their names). Yet, whereas this ‘fiction posing as true story’ device fitted A Man (given that the novel adopts a story within a story structure) here it just seemed a half-hearted attempt to make Satoshi and Yoko’s story more interesting to the reader. This prologue, after all, has no real impact on the remainder of the narrative.

Set in the mid to late 2000s At the End of the Matinee recounts the love story between Makino, a classic guitarist who as of late has become a wee bit disillusioned by his playing and performances, and Yoko, a journalist daughter of a Japanese mother and a Croatian father, who happens to be a renowned film director. The two are introduced after one of Makino’s performances through a friend of Yoko and immediately hit it off. Yoko is however engaged to a generic American man.
Despite the distance between them—Makino is in Japan or on tours that take him all over the world while Yoko, who is based in France, is for a period reporting from Iraq— the two begin an email correspondence. Their connection to and feelings for one another are intensified by their virtual exchanges. Makino believes they are meant to be together so decides to visit Yoko once she is back in France. Their reunion is ‘complicated’ by Jalila, who was forced to leave Baghdad and is now staying with Yoko. Yoko, who is also dealing with PTSD from her experiences in Iraq, is unwilling to leave Jalila by herself so her relationship with Makino is postponed. It became quite clear that Yoko cared very little for her American fiancée, and he merely functions as a plot device to make Yoko ‘unavailable. Makino is also going through a musical crisis of sorts, he feels like he is no longer a musical prodigy and that he does not compare to up-and-coming young musicians. The guy was bland, he is the kind of male protagonist you could expect in a work by Murakami. Yoko, instead, is the kind of female character that was clearly written by a man. Her love for Makino makes her all the “more beautiful” and she “ached to give herself to [him] with total abandon, to dissolve in his arms”. After Makino declares himself to her she immediately wants “to marry him and have his child”. And we are supposed to believe that a female journalist in the 2000s has never been confronted by an arrogant and or condescending man. Yeah, two days ago a British man, who knew full well that I am Italian, felt the need to tell me about how the rest of Italy views Rome.

Half-way through the novel reaches sky-high levels of miscommunication and I hated how things unfolded. I just did not buy into any of it. It also seemed far too easy to make certain characters into ‘bad’ eggs make Yoko and Makino’s behaviour seem just. And, I am so sick of this kind of clichéd portrayal of women (Yoko with her “unself-conscious beauty”, the ‘other woman’ is vapid and big breasted—a trollop clearly—and the ‘jealous’ woman whose jealousy knows no bounds).
The story is brimming with platitudes (“Happiness was having someone with whom to share all the everyday experiences”) and spirals into soap-opera levels of melodrama. There are attempts to make Makino and Yoko Not Like Other People™ because they talk extensively of literature but I found their comparison to Death In Venice to be both contrived and ill-fitting (also, they do not seem to feel the need to point out that Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio is…problematic to say the least).
At the End of the Matinee was a vexing read. The story is clichéd, the characters lack depth, the obstacles that keep Yoko and Makino apart were overdone, and I found myself annoyed by almost every single thing I was reading (like having Yoko and Makino be Jalila’s ‘saviours’….bah!). If you have not read anything by this author I suggest you pick up A Man instead.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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