The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo

The Old Woman with the Knife follows Hornclaw a 65-year-old assassin in South Korea who is noticing that she is no longer as fit as she used to be. She makes a few slips up on the job and wonders when her company is going to force her into retirement. Due to the nature of her job Hornclaw leads a solitary lifestyle, her only companion is an old dog whose presence she endures more than she enjoys. She is shown to be fairly apathetic and efficient even if the people around her are quick to dismiss her based on her gender and age. Not only does Hornclaw have to contend with the possibility of her motor and cognitive skills deteriorating but a young male colleague of hers seems eager to embarrass her, talking down to her and making jabs at her techniques. Although mildly annoyed by this Hornclaw doesn’t seem particularly bothered by him however when it seems that his dislike of her may be deeper than what their superficial colleague-relationship entails, Hornclaw can no longer be passive. When he begins to interfere with her jobs and her private life Hornclaw has no choice but to confront him.
I was hoping for the story to be more about Hornclaw’s profession rather than the cat/mouse game between her and her colleague. That man is fairly one-dimensional and the way he is portrayed often veers into the cartoonish so I never took him as a serious threat. While we do get glimpses into Hornclaw’s past, in particular the circumstances that led to her entering this line of work and her relationship with her mentor, the narrative relies too much on the ‘telling’ of things. I would have preferred to read more scenes actually showing Hornclaw working, either on her first jobs or her most memorable killings. Hornclaw’s characterisation also seemed a tad uneven. It seemed to me that the author couldn’t quite bring themselves to portray Hornclaw as a ruthless and self-serving killer so we end up with a character who demonstrates very inconsistent characteristics that don’t quite add up. Also, we are told that at one point or another she has cared for two individuals but I didn’t quite believe that as the first instance is the cliched mentee has feelings for mentor shebang and the other was just kind of weird. Lastly, while for much of the narrative we are told about how remorseless and cold-hearted Hornclaw is she actually comes across as frustratingly unassertive and not incredibly good at her job. It would have been more refreshing to see a character of her age and gender be outspoken or even aggressive and arrogant. Hornclaw ascribes her ‘softening’ to her ageing but that seemed a bit of a cop-out. I’m sure that frailty or the possibility of frailty could make one feel more vulnerable or more perceptive and sympathetic of the vulnerabilities of others but it does end up making Hornclaw into a rather corny character. Still, I can’t think of another book that is centred on a female assassin in her mid-60s so if you are interested in this kind of premise you should definitely check this one out for yourself.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

The Archer by Shruti Swamy

Throughout the course of reading The Archer, I was painfully aware that I was in fact reading a novel. That is to say, I did not think this was a particularly ‘immersive coming-of-age’ story, quite the contrary. Almost every line I read struck me as contrived and as attempting (and failing) to be eloquent and adroit. This novel reads like something that should have stayed in drafts or that would have been okay if it had been some sort of MFA project. The verbose and trying-too-hard-to-be literary language was distracting and unimaginative. The main character and her environment felt inconsequential, the narrative more intent on showing off its supposedly ‘lyrical’ prose (which, you guessed it, in my eyes, was anything but). Banal, shallow, and repetitive ​​ The Archer was not for me. If you enjoyed this novel please refrain from commenting on things along the lines ‘you are wrong’. If you want to read this novel…eh, I guess I should remind you to check out more positive reviews.

The Archer begins with a 3rd pov that gives us an overview of the childhood of our protagonist. The narrative year tries to make it so that we are seeing things from the pov of a child, but it doesn’t quite pull it off. Vidya lives in Bombay during a generically historical period. There is Father Sir, Brother, The Mother, and briefly Room-Not-Mother. Vidya has to look after Brother and has to be obedient and respectful towards her elders. Nothing much happens other than some lengthy descriptions about objects or feelings that amount to absolutely nothing. Vidya is devoid of personality because we all know children don’t have those…anyway, one day she sees a Kathak class and wants to learn this type of dance. The Mother eventually dies (i think?) and Vidya is given even more responsibilities. Father Sir plays almost no role, his presence relegated to two or three scenes. The narrative begins switching from a 3rd to a 1st pov, in a painfully artificial attempt at mirroring Vidya becoming aware, through dancing, of ‘the self’.
There is a time skip and the story is narrated by Vidya herself, who is now at university. Once again the narrative is very much all telling, no showing. The author will dedicate a paragraph to describe the flesh of a fruit or the shape of a shoe but spend almost no time fleshing out the secondary characters who soon enough end blurring together. Vidya has a predictable half-hearted relationship with another girl, but because neither of these characters struck me as real I could not bring myself that they would care for each other.
Another time skip and Vidya is married to this generic guy. We learn nothing about him, nothing substantial that is but the author will inform us of the smell of his sweat and his cologne. K. Then we get the predictable pregnancy where Vidya learns that the body is abject.
I just found the language so profoundly irritating. As I said, there are very few scenes actually happening in ‘real time’ on the page. Vidya mostly recounts to us stuff that happens, taking away the immediacy of that moment/scene. There is also very little dialogue so that we spend most of our time just listening to Vidya’s voice. Yet, in spite of the pages and pages she spends navel-gazing, I did not feel as if she was a fleshed-out character. She was an impression, a generic girl who grows up to become a generic young woman. She’s often painted as the victim, but I felt no sympathy towards her.
The prose was full of cliched descriptions and platitudes (“ the scars on her skin making her legs more beautiful instead of less”). There were so many unnecessary words. Time and time again Vidya felt the need to say something backwards (on the lines of ‘it was not that I was sad’). Or we get passages like this: “Something else had been lost, many things had been lost, perhaps everything had been lost, the girl I had been felt far away, though I had come to school to be rid of her—the sad, motherless girl with dry ugly knees and a dark ugly face: that girl, I could not remember her as me, I could only remember her as though I watched her from somewhere outside her body;”. Rather than just saying things as they are, the author will refer to things such as Vidya’s ‘true voice’, or lazy descriptors such as ‘tomorrow-feeling’ and later ‘girl feeling’. Time and again Vidya will not say what she thinks or feels directly. She will preface whatever by saying ‘and so’, ‘perhaps’, ‘it seemed to me’, and then go to say ‘it wasn’t y nor was it x but it was z’. All these words end up amounting to nothing. They did not make Vidya into a more credible character nor did they bring to life her surroundings/experiences. Yet the author will sacrifice character development to these prolonged acts of introspection that actually don’t reveal anything about this character.
This was a bland affair. The best thing about this novel is the cover/title combo. Its contents left much to be desired. I’ve read far more compelling novels about fraught mother/daughter relationships (You Exist Too Much and The Far Field) and I wish that Vidya’s Kathak practices and her relationship with her teacher could have been the focus of the narrative.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Originally published in 1946 The Honjin Murders is a locked-room murder mystery. Throughout the course of the novel, the author pays homage to Golden Age detective novels, by alluding directly to authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and their works and by being quite self-aware when it comes to the conventions that characterise this genre. Sadly, despite my being a fan of detective novels and classic whodunits, The Honjin Murders failed to catch my interest nor I was impressed by its intertextuality. The narrative doesn’t really subvert any of the tropes it mentions, in fact, it seemed to me that it follows too closely in the steps of those classic detective novels. The way the whole murder is related to us also distanced me somewhat. The narrative is very heavy on the telling, with the same events being recapitulated one time too many. The narrator, I’ve forgotten what, if any, role he plays in the case, begins by mentioning this very ‘interesting’ case and relates the day of the murders and the subsequent investigation in an almost matter-of-fact manner. He’s somehow able to recount conversations and interactions that he had no way of witnessing and keeps foreshadowing what is to come in a way that didn’t add any intrigue or suspense to the story. The characters were one-note, dull even.

The murder takes place in the village of Okamura during the winter of 1937. The oldest son of the Ichiyanagi, a family of repute, is set to marry a teacher. Many of his family members aren’t keen on his marrying ‘down’, but he refuses to budge. The wedding takes place and on that very same night, the newlywed couple is found dead in a locked room. The evidence seems to point to a stranger who was sighted in the village earlier in the day. A relative of the bride reaches out to Kosuke Kindaichi, a sort-of-kid detective who, much like Poirot and his ‘little grey cells’, uses ‘logic’ to figure out the culprit and their motives.
I figured out the murderer pretty early on in the narrative which definitely decreased my engagement in the murder investigation.
Predictable and kind of dry (maybe this is due to my having read a translation) The Honjin Murders may appeal to those who haven’t read a lot of detective novels or perhaps those who aren’t seeking anything particularly riveting or complex.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy opens with a bang only to come screeching to halt within a few pages. What could have been an intriguing tale of espionage is thwarted by lacklustre execution: painfully slow pacing, watching-paint-dry levels of entertainment, cardboard characters, robotic narration, dry dialogues, heavy on the telling…
Aside from its snazzy cover & title, and that brief mention of Nella Larsen’s Passing, I sadly didn’t like anything about this novel.

In American Spy a Black female former FBI intelligence agent is recounting to her sons—whom she addresses as ‘you’—her experiences growing up in the Queens, working for the FBI—a notoriously white and male ‘club’—and her time as a spy. The storyline is rather meandering. We learn of Marie’s childhood, how her mother left her and her older sister in her father’s care, her beginnings at the FBI….by the time we meet her ‘target’, Thomas Sankara, who was the President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987, we are nearly at the halfway mark, and by then I had grown already bored by Marie monotone narration.

I found Marie, our protagonist, vexing. Her narration is bogged down by exposition. Marie explains things to death. Her detailing of office politics is lifeless. I never gained an impression of how she felt about anything really, especially about her feelings towards the FBI or her work as a spy or even Sankara. She spends most of the story telling her children (and us) how great she was at her job, at reading people’s ‘faces’, and playing mind games. But in actuality, she’s pretty bad at it.
The author’s blending of family drama and a tale of political espionage is unconvincing, uneven, boring. The themes and issues the novel touches upon had potential—race, gender, the Cold War, America meddling in foreign countries—but I just felt extremely removed from all of it. I actively disliked the main character, Sankara does not emerge as a charismatic leader, he is a vague impression of a real-life figure, and the other characters seem to fit too neatly in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories, the lbgtq+ rep, however peripheral to the narrative, was somewhat questionable, and the ending was extremely anticlimactic. In some ways the story cuts off before things actually start happening. This book is all build-up, no pay off.

I read American Spy a few days ago and much about it has already faded from my mind. While I was not expecting this to be an action-driven spy novel, I was nevertheless disappointed by its atrocious pacing and bland storytelling.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

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

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

 

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Before the Ruins by Victoria Gosling

“To sleep on? Or to wake? This was the question facing me. To sleep, or to wake and face the reckoning, to find out what had been lost.”

Although by no means an incompetent debut Before the Ruins does not offer a particularly innovative take on this subgenre (usually we have big houses, a group of friends, something bad happens, years later something happens that makes our protagonist look back to this period of their life). The blurb for Before the Ruins does no favors to the actual contents of the novel. The diamond necklace functions as a MacGuffin, the ‘Game’ happens largely off the page, Andy’s “destructive behavior” does not seem all that destructive, and David is by no means ‘magnetic’. Maybe if I had not read any novels by Barbara Vine I would have been able to enjoy this more but while I was reading it I found myself more than once wishing I was reading Vine instead.

Before the Ruins is narrated by Andy who is her late thirties and works/lives in London. When the mother of her childhood best friend Peter calls her asking about his whereabouts Andy finds herself thinking back to that ‘fateful’ time in her life, when she was eighteen or so and alongisde Peter, and Marcus, Andy’s boyfriend, sneaked into ‘the manor’. Here they play ‘the game’, looking for a diamond necklace reputed to have been lost decades before. The arrival of David changes their group dynamics as both Andy and Peter fall for him. I thought that this would be the focus of the novel but in reality it is not. There two or three scenes depicting this ‘mythical summer’ and soon the focus of the story switches to the present day. We still get a few chapters relating past events, but these are fairly summative in nature.
Which brings me to my biggest criticism towards Before the Ruins : too much telling, not enough showing. Andy gives us recaps of these supposedly pivotal moments of her life. We do not see enough interactions between the members of the group, I wanted more of Peter and David, or at least more of Em and Andy. But what we get is a lot of pages emphasising that Andy was the ‘wild one’ from a difficult home, while everyone else seemed to have wonderful home environments. While Andy concedes that being gay in a small village in the 1990s was not easy for Peter the narrative will often stress Andy’s struggles. Em was portrayed as almost opposite to Andy’s tough-girl personality: she is ‘elfin’, an artist, more feminine, less in your face. Marcus was also painfully one-dimensional, as the not-so-nice-nice-guy. Peter…I really wanted to read more about it. But when Andy revisits the past she often skims over their time together, making their relationship seem not all that complex. He reminded me of other characters from this group of friends/something bad happens’ genre so I found myself almost superimposing my memory of those characters over him.
The setting of Marlborough was familiar to me, so I could easily envision the places that Andy was discussing but for readers who have never been to Marlborough or other villages in Wiltshire, well, they may find that the setting is at times a bit generic ‘countryside’. There are too few descriptions of Andy and her surroundings, especially once we get to the present. And, I would have loved to have more detailed descriptions of the manor (we get some at the start but I would have liked some more…I don’t expect Vine levels of architectural details but…).
Still, I did eventually warm up to the characters and story in the latter half of the novel. There are some beautiful and insightful observations about accountability, trauma, love, and grief. While the revelations towards the end did not come as surprise that is largely due to the fact that I have come across a lot of books that tread similar grounds (most of Vine’s novel, The Truants, The Secret History, The Lessons, If We Were Villains, The Likeness, The Sisters Mortland, Tell Me Everything….).
It frustrated me that Gosling either kept the most interesting encounters or exchanges off-page or simply rushed them. Expanding that ‘mythical summer’ would have given the overall story more tension (we could have seen with more clarity how David’s presence disrupted the group’s established dynamics). The story about the missing diamonds is delivered in a somewhat clumsy way, and I wish that the whole ‘game’ had been depicted in a different way. The novel is still engaging and suspenseful but I was often aware of where the story would go next.

Nevertheless, for all my criticism, I recognize that Gosling can write well, and even if Andy was not my kind of protagonist, I appreciated her character arc. Gosling is talented, of this there is no doubt, but I do wish that she had written a more original story.

my rating: ★★★¼

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Infinite Country by Patricia Engel

“What was it about this country that kept everyone hostage to its fantasy?”

Infinite Country shares much in common with two of other novels by Patricia Engel, The Veins of the Ocean and Vida. While I do enjoy certain aspects of her storytelling—which at times reminds me of authors such as Alice Hoffman and Isabel Allende—I do think that her work is much too heavy on the telling. As with The Veins of the Ocean, this latest novel is very light on dialogues and mostly relies on recounting the various histories of various characters. Still, interspersed in their experiences are some lovely descriptions and observations. I particularly liked the role that myths play in the narrative.

“When the world was new, the creatures that ruled were the jaguar, the snake, and the condor.”

I loved the first chapter, which mostly focused on Talia, the youngest child of Elena and Mauro. Although she was born in America she was raised by her father and maternal grandmother in Bogotá. After an act of violence she is sent to a correctional facility run by nuns in the mountains of Colombia. Talia, however, is determined to leave as she has a flight to the U.S. to catch. As Talia journeys across Colombia, hitching rides here and there, readers learn of her parents first meeting and subsequent relationship. The two lived for awhile with Elena’s mother but after the birth of their first daughter they relocate to America. After they ‘overstay’ their tourist visa they are forced to accept unfair wages and live in precarious places. Throughout their relationship Mauro struggles with alcoholism and depression, which drives them apart.

“Emigration was a peeling away of the skin. An undoing. You wake each morning and forget where you are, who you are, and when the world outside shows you your reflection, it’s ugly and distorted; you’ve become a scorned, unwanted creature.”

Similarly to The Veins of the Ocean and Vida this novel shows the hard choices immigrant parents have to make: to live in a country which deems them ‘alien’ and in perpetual fear of being deported, or to return to their home country, knowing that there they will face a different struggle.
In the last section of the novel the narrative includes chapters from the first point of view (until then the novel was told through a 3rd pov), specifically those of Talia’s American-based siblings. These chapters did not add a lot to the narrative, and they didn’t make these characters as fleshed out as Talia. Although Elena and Mauro’s relationship and struggles are certainly poignant, that their stories were being ‘recounted’ in a rather passive way distanced me from them. The switch to a 1st person narration was somewhat jarring, and I did not care for the clichéd address to the reader (on the lines of: “You already know me. I’m the author of these pages”).
The storyline would have benefited from focusing more on Talia. Although at first it seems to be hinted that she will play a big role in the story, she is pushed to the sidelines.
While I appreciated the message of this novel, I was not as taken by its execution. If you enjoyed Crooked Hallelujah or you happen to have loved Engel’s previous work, you should definitely consider picking this one up.

“Leaving is a kind of death. You may find yourself with much less than you had before.”

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Three by D.A. Mishani

Three wasn’t quite the “dark psychological thriller with a killer twist” I was anticipating. The blurb and cover suggests a far more suspenseful and possibly subversive tale that the one D. A. Mishani actually delivers. The novel’s tripartite structure didn’t feel particularly original as it has become quite popular in novels that fall under the ‘domestic thriller’ genre (more than once I was reminded of Erin Kelly’s Stone Mothers). The summary available for Three is really inaccurate. Yes, Three follows three women who live in Israel and meet the same man, Gil, who works as an immigration lawyer. One of them is a divorced single-mother, the other one is a Latvian immigrant who works as a caregiver, and the third one is a married woman who is working on her thesis. While the summary truthfully states that Gil “won’t tell them the whole truth about himself”, it is kind of stretching things when it says that these three women won’t “tell him everything either”. And that last bit about this novel being”a declaration of war against the normalisation of death and violence” is ludicrous.

MILD-SPOILERS BELOW

The first woman begins to date Gil even if she isn’t all that enamoured by him. The second one is under the misapprehension that Gil is an okay guy. The third doesn’t seem to want to take things further with him but then is somehow disarmed by Gil’s nonexistent power of persuasion. The three women don’t meet, and their narrative succeed each other chronologically. The first one is saturated by the woman angst-ing over her ex and her son. The second one portrays an immigrant woman as not all that bright and goes for the stereotype of the ‘foreign caregiver steals’. The third one has slightly more momentum than the previous two, as things by then have kind of escalated, but it didn’t offer any surprisings twists or a satisfyingly cathartic denouement.
Two of the women are painfully naive, prone to hysterics and self-pitying. Gil was portrayed in a vaguely ambiguous manner, but mostly he remains off-page and maybe that’s why I didn’t find his character to be credible.
I could have put up with the novel’s many clichés if it hadn’t been for the author’s writing style: all telling, no showing. There are very few dialogues, and most of the conversations are simply recounted to us. This passive re-telling of what the characters said to each other did little to add immediacy to the story. The third-perspective merely described what the characters do without ever delving under their surface, which had the effect of making these three women rather one-dimensional.
Although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this novel—especially to those who were intrigued by this novel’s misleading summary—I’m sure that there will be readers who find this kind of storytelling to be entertaining.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

The Disaster Tourist doesn’t tell a very memorable or engrossing story. If you’ve read the summary you know exactly what to expect from this book. We are introduced to Yona who is thirty-three and works as trip coordinator at Jungle, a travel company that specialises in organising disaster themed vacations. Yona is sexually harassed by her boss and seems like she would rather leave the company. She then agrees to go on a paid vacation in which she will have to determine whether Jungle should cancel this package. This vacation takes her to Mui, a fictional island not far from Vietnam. The disaster tourists that are travelling alongside Yona don’t seem all the impressed or shocked by Mui’s desert sinkhole. Yona then is left stranded to Mui and finds herself agreeing to take part in a morally questionable enterprise.
As a critique of disaster tourism this book doesn’t really offer anything truly compelling or thought-provoking. Most readers will be aware of the voyeuristic and exploitative nature of this brand of tourism and of the motivations of those who wish to participate in it (wanting to raise awareness, witness sites of devastation in order to understand them).
The author’s style does very little showing. Unlike with books like Temporary or Convenience Store Woman readers will never gain an insight into Yona’s job or her mind. She remains a surface character whose actions are either obscure or unbelievable. The tone of this book was also kind of a miss for me (definitely not as darkly funny or insightful as it wanted to be).
What could have been an irreverent look at tourism ended up being a forcibly surreal tale that wasn’t half as clever or inventive as it tried to be.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel

 

“I want to be forgotten. I want it to feel as if I’ve never existed. I want to be a stranger. Rootless.”

A few days before reading The Veins of the Ocean I read, and enjoyed reading, Patricia Engel’s Vida, a collection of short stories centred on a Colombian-American woman. I was intrigued by the premise of The Veins of the Ocean and the first chapters were deeply affecting. I was captivated by the understated lyricism of Engel’s prose, by Reina’s interiority and the reflections she makes by revisiting her past and her relationship with her difficult older brother.
After her brother is sentenced to death, Reina puts her life on hold. She works during the week and spends her weekends in a depressing motel close to Carlito’s prison. In spite of her brother’s heinous crime, Reina, unlike her mother, can’t cut him loose. During her visits, Carlito reveals to her the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement. After his death, Reina struggles to adjust to a life without him. She moves to a small community in Florida Keys and seems resigned to live a lonely existence until she comes across Nesto, an exiled Cuban who longs to be reunited with his children.
The narrative moves between past and present, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes a little more clumsily. As Reina tries to adapt to her new life, she’s forced to confront her own role in Carlito’s crime. As she reconciles herself with her own failures, and those of her loved ones, Reina finds the courage to truly live.
I loved the atmosphere, tone, and setting of this novel. The narrative had an almost lulling dreamlike quality that brought to mind the works of Ann Patchett. Reina too, could easily belong to a Patchett novel. Although she may appear to be a rather directionless individual, her sensitivity make her into an affecting character.
Sadly, I wasn’t all that enamoured with the men in this novel, in particular Reina’s love interest(s). Reina would often only belatedly introduce us to these characters, making their presence in the story feel rather sudden. These characters often are not given any direct dialogue, and their experiences and words are re-elaborated by Reina herself (she will say ‘he told me this’ or ‘he said this and that’). They often don’t appear in scenes as such, and Reina is merely thinking of what they told her. They felt kind of uninspired and forgettable. I also didn’t see the point in Dr. Joe. He has a very small role at the beginning of the novel, and yet Reina will often think back to his words in order to make sense of something (she will think ‘according to Dr. Joe Carlito did this because x’). And maybe it could have worked if his character had been a bit more fleshed out…but he had a hurried appearance which didn’t cast him in a very positive light.
Then we have Nesto…the main love interest. And I kind of hated him for 95% of the novel. He is condescending, quick to minimise Reina’s feelings or experiences (saying ‘you’re not Cuban, you grew up in America, you can’t understand’). He seems very uninterested in Reina’s painful past, flat out telling her that he doesn’t want to hear about it, and that for him she came into being that night they first met (“for me, you were born the day I met you. Nothing before that counts”). And yet he excepts her to listen to his own past, the difficulties he overcame, and his present struggles. The only times he didn’t make me roll my eyes, and want to strangle him, were when he spoke about the Orishas. His nuggets of wisdom however were banal at best: “To be human is to be imperfect”, the secret to life is “love”.
Later in the narrative he also tells Reina that she has “a debt to pay to Yemayá for your family”. Which, is king of crap thing to say. I just found him obnoxious and unsupportive.

What could have been a moving and incisive tale is let down by too much telling and not a lot of showing and by an extremely irritating love interest (curiously enough I found the love interests in Vida to be just as tiresome) who made me want to wish for a different ending for Reina (her happiness seems to completely hinge on their relationship…which yikes).

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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