Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Studying so much had its consequences. It caused me to wonder, for instance, if I might be a genius.

Bursting with wry humor and insight Joan Is Okay makes for a quick and quirky read about a woman who doesn’t want to change to fit in with society’s standards.

In spite of what the people around her may think, Joan is okay…isn’t she? On paper Joan has achieved the American Dream, hasn’t she? She’s in her thirties and works as an ICU doctor at a New York City hospital, a job she finds deeply full-filling. Joan’s hard work ethic has earned her respect at the hospital and she’s even due a pay rise. When Joan’s father dies, she flies to China to attend his funeral but, unlike her older brother who stays for a longer visit, she immediately returns back to New York. Her colleagues seem puzzled by her refusal to take time off. Her now widowed mother is staying for a while with Joan’s brother and his family. They keep insisting that Joan should be around more. Her brother, who leads a fairly extravagant lifestyle, nags her about moving away from New York and opening her own practice where he lives. But Joan doesn’t seem to care about money, not in the way her brother does. She also shows no interest in finding a partner or starting a family. She’s content dedicating herself to her work and doesn’t seem to understand why other people may find her choices so baffling. As the narrative progresses Joan begins to feel overwhelmed by others. Her workplace forces her to take her time off to ‘grieve’, one of her colleagues is resentful of her raise and paints himself as somehow having been wrong by the hospital, and her new neighbour keeps encroaching on her private space, inviting himself over and offloading her with things he no longer wants. Then, towards the latter half of the novel, Joan is further troubled by the news of a virus…(you guessed it…covid cameo).

Joan’s idiosyncratic narration is certainly amusing and engaging. She finds social interactions difficult and often takes what other people say too literally. Because she keeps to herself others see her as standoffish and weird. Her approach to her work and the way she process/understand/see the the world around her brought to mind Keiko from Convenience Store Woman and Molly from The Maid. As with those characters, it could be argued that the reason why people view Joan as ‘different’ is that she’s neuroatypical. Yet, no one alludes to this possibility, even if Joan consistently exhibits neurodivergent traits…I understand that women and racial minorities ‘slip’ under the radar when it comes to being diagnosed (and are often misdiagnosed) but given Joan’s profession and the country she lives in…I would have excepted someone to mention this or keep this in mind rather than make Joan feel like an ‘alien’ because she doesn’t react or express herself in a neurotypical way. Anyway, aside from that Wang certainly brings to life the character of Joan. Her interior monologue is characterized by a dry yet witty tone. Joan’s acts of introspection are punctuated by sillier asides having to do with sitcoms and social niceties. When coming across other people she does have the habit of listing their height and weight which rubbed me the wrong way. No one can just look at someone and know their exact height, let alone their weight. It also seemed like an added ‘quirk’ that is a bit stereotypical (of a character who is heavily implied to be neuroatypical and is into a medical/science related field).
We also gain insight into her everyday life working at the ICU. Her father’s death and her mother’s temporary move into Fang’s house makes her reflect on their experiences in America, the linguistic and cultural barriers they faced. Joan also considers how her experiences differ from her brother’s ones; unlike her, Fang was born in China and while their parents moved to America he was left in the care of some relatives. Does he resent Joan because of this? Is his fixation with wealth and status an attempt to prove himself?

Wang is able to articulate complex and often hard to pin down feelings and thoughts. I also appreciated that there were instances where the author was able to point to what state of mind Joan was in without being explicit about it. We can see that Joan is numb without her telling us. Her deflection and minimisation of her own grief were also very convincing and felt consistent with her character.
There are moments where Joan is interacting with her superior, her colleague, or her neighbour, that really convey how uncomfortable she is. Often nothing overtly ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ has been said but their tones or line of questioning feels invasive or somewhat condescending. Wang also captures the realities of working in a predominantly male workplace. I was reminded of Severance, Edge Case, Days of Distraction, which also explore the experiences of young(ish) Asian American women who have jobs in typically white & male spaces. Wang emphasizes how often (supposedly) ‘well-meaning’ liberals such as her neighbour succeed only in making one feel even more ‘other’. The realism of Joan’s everyday life and inner monologue are contrasted with moments and scenes that verge on the absurd. Some of the secondary characters (such as this random girl who introduces herself as a ‘post-millennial’) came across as cartoonish, and their presence in Joan’s story felt jarring almost.
As the narrative progresses my interest waned. There was a lot of repetition, and some of the situations Joan ends up in felt a bit…trying too hard to be quirky? Kind of a la Fleabag. The inclusion of covid also affected my reading experience. It just stresses me out reading about the pandemic given that we are still in it and no, I don’t care to ‘relive’ those first few months back in 2020. I would have liked fewer scenes with the neighbour or random characters and more page time spent on Joan and her mom, or Joan and her brother. Still, I did find her point of view insightful, particularly when she considers how growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants has shaped her and her sense of self. I did find it slightly implausible that she was unfamiliar with so many American things, given that she was born and lived her whole life there…but I guess if you are a truly introverted or asocial person you would have less exposure to popular culture. Still, I could definitely relate to feeling lost or a step behind as there are instances where my English friends and or colleagues say things or refer to things I just don’t ‘get’.

While reading this I was reminded of Mieko Kawakami’s All the Lovers in the Night. Both novels focus on women in their 30s who lead rather solitary lives. They do not seem interested in pursuing romantic relationships nor do they care about ‘moulding’ themselves into their respective society’s ideal of a woman (who is often a wife & mother). I appreciated that story-wise Joan is Okay doesn’t follow a conventional route, which would have ended with Joan ‘finding’ someone or ‘changing’ because of love. Still, I did find the finale kind of anticlimactic. And again, by then, covid had kind of stolen the scene so I’d lost interest somewhat. If you liked Wang’s Chemistry and you can cope with ‘covid books’ I would definitely recommend you check out Joan Is Okay.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼ stars

picture from the new york times.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“‘How do you feel?’ ‘All right.’ But I didn’t. I felt terrible.”

I feel incredibly conflicted over Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. On the one hand, I found it to be an ingenious and striking read, one that immortalizes in exacting detail a young woman’s slow descent into psychosis and offers a piercing commentary on 1950s American society, specifically its oppressive gender norms. On the other hand, I could not look past how racist it was.

Set in 1953 The Bell Jar is narrated by Esther Greenwood, a misanthropic 19-year-old from the suburbs of Boston who wins a summer internship working for a New York fashion magazine. For the most part, Esther’s voice is a winning combination of acerbic and witty. She often entertains morbid thoughts, she offers scathing assessments of those around, and, as the days go by, she seems to be steadily sinking into torpor. Although Esther tries to make the most of New York, she quickly becomes disenchanted by its supposedly glamorous scene. She is at once repulsed and appreciative of the girls who are interning with her. While Esther is drawn to Doreen, who is one of the livelier of the girls, and Betsy, a pious goody-two-shoes, she ultimately feels very much apart from them, and often seems to view them and the rest of New York through a glass darkly. What follows is Esther’s unsettling descent into depression. As her contempt towards others and life in general grows, she begins to engage in self-destructive behaviour and acts in increasingly irrational ways. Later on, Esther attempts to write a novel but her deteriorating mental health becomes a concern to her mother who forces her to see a psychiatrist who goes on to prescribe her electroconvulsive therapy. This ‘treatment’ goes awry and Esther worsens. Eventually, Esther is committed to a hospital where she is reunited with an old acquaintance. While the novel does end on a hopeful note, it is by no means an easy ride. It is brutal and unsparing. Throughout the course of this novel, Plath captures with razor-sharp precision the mind of an alienated young woman. She articulates Esther’s ugliest thoughts and fears. As Esther tries and fails to navigate adulthood in New York she becomes more and more withdrawn. She’s apathetic, pessimistic, and derisive of others. Her experiences fail to match her expectations and Esther struggles to make sense of who she is, who she wants to be, and who she ought to be. She’s suffocated by the limitations of her gender and seems to reject the visions of womanhood, of marriage, and of motherhood that American society presents her with: “when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”

Not only does Plath render the stultifying atmosphere of the city and of the circles Esther moves in, but she conveys the lethal ennui experienced by her protagonist. In New York Esther struggles to traverse from adolescence to adulthood. Her alienation from others, her self-estrangement, and her disconnection from her contemporary society pave the way to her eventual breakdown. When others attempt to ‘help’ and/or ‘cure’ Esther they cause more harm than good. They either treat her in an inhumane way or dismiss the severity of her condition.
Esther is certainly not a likeable heroine. She’s a mean snob who often views other people as grotesque and beneath her. But, as I read on, I came to pity her. In spite of her solipsisms and general nastiness, Esther is clearly suffering. Esther’s mother seems to care more about appearances than her daughter’s wellbeing. The men around seem unable to truly see her. Her former sweetheart doesn’t really know her, while the men she meets in New York seem all too eager to use her. As Esther’s desperation grows her view of the world becomes steadily more distorted, her imagination even more ghoulish.
I appreciated how effective Plath’s style is in rendering Esther’s mental state. At times a scene or one of Esther’s thoughts are depicted in such vivid detail as to be overwhelming. But, the story also plays around with linear storytelling, presenting us with fragmented conversations or scenes that we are able to understand only as we read on. At times her prose acquires a sticky quality that fits perfectly with the story’s initial summer backdrop.
So what could possibly cause me to give this novel 3 stars instead of say 4 or 5? Well, while I recognise that this is a seminal feminist work, I could not look past how racist Esther, Plath’s ‘alter ego’, was. While I can usually look past classics’ books using dated/non-pc language, Esther’s racist remarks/attitudes did not strike me as merely being symptomatic of ‘the times’. It’s total ‘okay’ if our college-educated and intellectual protagonist, who is critical of the accepted social norms of her time when it comes to gender-based inequalities, uses racial slurs. Sure. She’s white and it’s the 1950s. But then we have these instances where Esther is not feeling good and mistakes her reflection as belonging to somebody else, specifically someone who is Asian: “I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.” and “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.”.
When a girl says she’s meeting up with a Peruvian guy Esther says the following: “They’re squat,” I said. “They’re ugly as Aztecs.”….And then we have that scene at the hospital involving a Black orderly. After establishing that he is indeed Black she keeps referring to him as “the negro” rather than say “the orderly” or “the man”. This orderly say things like “Mah, mah!” or “Oh Miz, oh Miz […] You shouldn’t of done that, you shouldn’t, you reely shouldn’t.”. Before this (as far as i can recall of course) Plath did not lay much (or any really) emphasis on her characters’ accents. Yet, all of a sudden she just has to establish the specific way in which this man talks. And of course, because he’s an orderly and Black the way he talks has to be ridiculed. Anyway, Esther believes that the orderly is toying with her and the other patients so she “drew my foot back and gave him a sharp, hard kick on the calf of the leg”. Great stuff.
Plath’s description of non-American characters also left a sour taste in my mouth: “She was six feet tall, with huge, slanted, green eyes and thick red lips and a vacant, Slavic expression.” and “A large, bosomy Slavic lady”. Wtf is that even supposed to mean? How fucking lazy is this type of description? Why are all ‘Slavic-looking’ women large?

While Esther uses unflattering terms to describe white Americans, describing someone’s neck as “spam-coloured”, these descriptions, which poking fun at their physical appearance, are ultimately humorous. The ones referring to Black or Asian characters, not so much. Esther’s repugnance is even more pronounced in the instances I mentioned above, and the language she uses is often dehumanising or at least seems to suggest that she does view them as inferior to white people. Every few chapters I would come across a racist remark/line that simply prevented me from becoming invested in Esther’s story. That this is a highly autobiographical novel makes me feel all the more uneasy at Esther’s racism.
While this is certainly an important novel and one of the first books to depict in such uncompromising terms a young woman’s descent into depression, its white American brand of feminism is dated at best.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy

Although I have not yet read anything by Bernardine Evaristo I am so grateful to her for bringing about this Black Britain: Writing Back series (which re-issues 6 titles by Black British authors). If it hadn’t been for Evaristo, I doubt I would have come across The Fat Lady Sings, a criminally overlooked modern classic. Jacqueline Roy’s novel provides an eye-opening look into mental health in Britain: set in the 1990s in London the novel is narrated by two Black women who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses and sectioned into a psychiatric hospital. The setting of course brought to mind Girl, Interrupted but style and tone-wise it seemed closer to Everything Here is Beautiful.

The narrators of The Fat Lady Sings have starkly different voices. Born in Jamaica Gloria, the title’s ‘singing lady’, is now in her forties and grieving the death of her partner, Josie. Because she occasionally breaks into a song and or starts skipping instead of walking she is deemed mentally ill and forced into a psychiatric ward. Here, she grows irritated by the inefficient staff and doctors, who resort to overmedicating their patients or shaming them for not making ‘progress’. Yet, despite her circumstances, Gloria is unwilling to be less of herself and I truly loved her for it: she was funny, observant, strong, and empathetic.
The other chapters are narrated by Merle. Whereas Gloria’s narrative is full of life and awareness of her circumstances and new environment, Merle’s narrative is far more fragmented, her voice often drowned out by other voices. These voices describe what is happening and what has happened to her, but they do so with vehemence, belittling her, calling her slurs, blaming her for everything little thing. Merle’s chapters once again brought to mind Everything Here is Beautiful as they provide an unflinching glimpse into someone diagnosed with a mental illness. According to the hospital, Merle is in the ward because she suffered a psychotic breakdown. Yet, their attempts to help her seem at times to be more harmful than not. It is Gloria who begins to really see Merle, and the bond between these two women was truly heart-rendering to read.
During their time at the ward, they are made to do ‘exercises that require them to talk or write about their past, and through these, we learn more about Gloria’s early life and Merle’s childhood and marriage.

First published in 2000 The Fat Lady Sings is not only stylistically innovative but discusses all too relevant issues (mental health, race, sexuality) and I hope that thanks to Evaristo it will find its audience. In spite of the harrowing depiction of mental health and sexual abuse, The Fat Lady Sings is not without its moment of joy and beauty. Roy renders the vulnerabilities and strengths of her characters with nuance and empathy. Like some of the best novels out there The Fat Lady Sings made me sad, it made me laugh, and, more importantly, it made me think. Not an easy read but a truly wonderful novel that I look forward to re-reading.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

 

“We all lived in an unwalled city, that was it. I saw lines scored across the map of Ireland; carved all over the globe. Train tracks, roads, shipping channels, a web of human traffic that connected all all nations into one great suffer body.”


This is the third novel I’ve read by Emma Donoghue and I’m afraid to say that it just didn’t quite work for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have approached The Pull of the Stars with such high expectations. Or maybe these kind of historical novels are just not my ‘thing’ (I was similarly underwhelmed by
A Long Petal of the Sea and The Night Watchman).
Given the current pandemic The Pull of the Stars, set in a maternity ward in Dublin during the 1918 influenza and the close of WWI, makes for an eerily pertinent read. This is a meticulously researched novel, from the blow by blow descriptions of medical procedures to the grimly evocative depiction of the environment in which our narrator, a nurse, works. Although the novel is set over the course of three days, Donoghue renders all too vividly the stark circumstances of the various women under Julia’s care. We witness the physical and emotional toll that result from too many pregnancies, the stigma attached to unmarried mothers and the mistreatment of their children, and the extreme abuse that ‘fallen women’ experienced in the Magdalene laundries. The lives of these women and children are shaped by injustices—such as sexual/physical abuse, poverty, illness, being forced into labour, being separated from your child—and Donoghue is unflinching in revealing just how horrific their realities are.
In spite of this, I just couldn’t help but to find the bluntness of her prose to be detrimental to my reading experience. While her unvarnished style does suit both the setting and the subject matter, it also distanced me, especially from Julia. She felt like a barely delineated character, often seeming to exist in order to explain things or provide ‘modern’ readers with context (especially one of her later discussions about the ‘homes’ and Magdalene laundries with Birdie). She was a very undefined character, a generic take on a good ‘nurse’. Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a far more interesting figure, sadly plays only a minor role in the story. Birdie was okay, although at times I had a hard time believing in her. The romance sprung from nowhere and didn’t really convince me either (and this is coming from someone who sees everything through sapphic-tinted glasses). If anything the ‘love’ story seemed to exist only to add an unnecessary layer of drama, unnecessary especially considering that the novel was quite tragic without it. The ending, more suited to a historical melodrama, was painfully clichéd.
The thin plot too did little to engage me. Although the lives and stories of the women in the ward were both compelling and distressing, I just didn’t particularly care for Julia’s narrative. Perhaps if this had been a work of nonfiction, I would have appreciated it more.
I don’t consider myself squeamish but The Pull of the Stars was almost relentless in the way it detailed EVERYTHING. Maybe readers who watch One Born Every Minute will be able to cope with it but I just could have done without it.
Another thing I could have done without is the lack of quotations mark. When will this trend stop?

Although The Pull of the Stars wasn’t my cup of tea, I’m sure that plenty of other readers will find this more riveting than I did.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

“Ayoola lives in a world where things must always go her way. It’s a law as certain as the law of gravity.”


Having read this novel twice I can safely say that I find it to be an exceptionally riveting read: once I start it, I just want to keep reading.
My Sister, the Serial Killer is a darkly funny and engrossing read about two sisters in Lagos, one of whom is a serial-killer.
The chapters are often only two or three pages long, and not one word—or chapter title—goes to waste. Through these brisk chapters Oyinkan Braithwaite presents her readers with snapshots-like scenes that perfectly capture a particular a moment, conversation, or memory in Korede’s story. While these scenes aren’t extremely detailed, there is always something that really makes them pop to life (it might be a reference to Ayoola’s glossy appearance, or a description of Korede’s workplace).
The novel moves at a swift pace, keeping a focus on the tense dynamic between Korede and Ayoola, maintains its initial momentum: Korede’s alertness and wariness keep us on the lookout, so we too are wondering wherever Ayoola will strike again.
Another aspect that I enjoyed is the ambiguous relationship between the two sisters. Korede was not necessarily jealous of her sister, it was more than she was frustrated by the way others fell under her spell of her beauty. In spite of their differences, and of all the small betrayals, Braithwaite managed to make their bond stand out (those rare moments of affection show readers why Korede would put up with Ayoola). Although Korede, as the older sister, feels like Ayoola’s protector, when Ayoola goes after a man Korede cares for…well, Korede’s own loyalties start to waver.
Interspersed throughout the this sleek and utterly energetic narrative are snippets of the poem’s of one of Ayoola’s victims. While Ayoola shows little remorse for her actions, Korede has a harder time letting go of her guilt.
My Sister, the Serial Killer is a compulsive read that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Sayaka Murata and the recently released Pizza Girl.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Revenge by Yōko Ogawa — book review

12987389.jpgHaving read two novels by Yōko Ogawa, I was curious to read Revenge, a collection of interconnected short stories. Ogawa’s magnifies the sense unease that usually permeates her narratives (even The Housekeeper and the Professor has its unsettling moments), as these stories seem intent on unnerving their readers. The characters within these pages are morbid, obsessive, prone to macabre thoughts and obscure actions.
What drew me the most was to ‘discover’ what linked these various characters together. I believe Ogawa succeeded in creating interesting connections between these different, or perhaps not so different, people. However, truth be told, I found that at times she sacrificed potentially terrifying moments for gratuitously grotesque scenes. Personally, I find that relying too much on obvious sources of ‘discomfort’ (such as detailed descriptions of dead animals or torture methods) is a ‘cheap’ way to repulse your readers. I wasn’t horrified or afraid, merely disgusted. The characters also seemed to have the same excited way of envisioning tortured bodies…which got old fast.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Charioteer by Mary Renault — book review

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“He was filled with a vast sense of the momentous, of unknown mysteries. He did not know what he should demand of himself, nor did it seem to matter, for he had not chosen this music he moved to, it had chosen him.”

This is the fifth time I’ve read The Charioteer and once again I’ve been swept away by it. The Charioteer is quite likely my favourite novel of all time as there are few books that I care as much about.
There is something comforting about The Charioteer, which is strange given that Mary Renault’s impenetrable prose demands her readers’ full attention. There are the coded conversations, thoughts and feelings are often only obliquely hinted at, the pages are full of 40s slang, and there are constant allusions to the ancient classics. Yet, her writing also has a languid quality, perhaps reflective of her protagonist’s convalescence, which I found truly enthralling.
In an almost Bildungsroman fashion The Charioteer introduces us to Laurie as a child. This first chapter recounts a significant moment of his childhood and is followed by a chapter of him at school where he has a memorable encounter with the Head of the School, Ralph Lanyon. The subsequent chapters follow Laurie as he’s recovering from a war injury at a hospital. Here he meets and falls for Andrew, a conscientious objector who is now working as an orderly.
While Laurie is aware of his sexuality, and believes that Andrew reciprocates his feelings, he’s unwilling to reveal to Andrew the true depth of his emotions. By chance Laurie ends up re-connecting with Ralph. As the title of the novel suggests, Laurie’s story can be likened to the myth of the charioteer from Phaedrus.
Now, I know that my summary doesn’t do this novel justice. I don’t wish to reveal too much about the story or its characters. Still, I can say that The Charioteer presents us with a beautiful narrative, one that captures a particular moment in time. The characters’ days are punctuated by Imminent Danger sirens, air raids, shortages. Laurie, alongside other patients, has to obey the hospital’s strict rules. Under Renault’s hand, the war seems almost ‘normal’, and characters will often discuss it as they would any other topic.
Renault’s portrayal of the gay community feels both intimate and compelling. While Laurie himself feels uneasy towards those he deems as ‘flamboyant’ or ‘effeminate’, the narrative doesn’t share his prejudices. Renault’s characters often engage themselves in conversations relating to their role in society, often professing contrasting beliefs. The views they express may ruffle some readers, as they often speak about their sexuality as a limitation or they seem dismissive towards other gay men (partly because both Laurie and Ralph are private individuals and do not wish to be a source of gossip). Their discussion on ethics and morality were riveting, and I soon lost myself in the rhythm of their back and forth.
The novel is as interested in what the characters say as it is with what they don’t say, whether this is due to self-censoring or self-denial. Although Laurie is the story’s protagonist, much of what he feels remains off page. Renault will often only allude to Laurie’s most innermost feelings. Because of this Laurie, and other characters, often seem like unsolvable puzzles. This is quite fitting given that self-knowledge and self-deception are central themes within this narrative.
Laurie’s story is also one that is concerned with connection. Although he becomes fast friends with another patient, he fears being ‘known’. Yet, in spite of this sense of loneliness, he is reticent about ‘embracing’ his community (“He kept telling me I was queer, and I’d never heard it called that before and didn’t like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don’t feel much in common with […]”).
Miscommunications abound in this novel. At times the characters make tentative attempts to form more meaningful relationships but they often betray themselves by not saying what they want to say or by saying the wrong things.

Renault captures with poignancy sadness, anxiety, self-divide, awkwardness, tenderness, longing, ambiguity, confusion, honour, passion, and hope. Her characters reveal her piercing understanding of human nature. Through her expressive and elegant writing Renault demonstrates her inside knowledge of the society she depicted (Renault was both a lesbian and a nurse, which is possibly why she can so conjure up both queer parties and the daily routines of a hospital).
I love everything about this novel. Laurie’s quest for identity, the struggle between his desires and his ideals, is as moving as it is thought-provoking.
A truly complex and multi-layered masterpiece that is both heart-rending and intelligent.
Impenetrable, subtle, beautiful, touching. I can’t recommend this novel strongly enough.
If you are a fan of gay classics (such as MauriceCarolGiovanni’s Room, and the underrated Olivia ), you should definitely give Renault a try. I don’t think I will ever get tired of re-reading this novel. Each time my understanding for the characters, their inner-struggles and relationships, deepens (although i own a copy of this, this time around i read a kindle copy from overdrive…and i ended up making nearly 500 highlights….which, yeah, that’s how much i love this story).

ps: if you have anything negative so say about Ralph, I will fight you
(i’m only half-jesting)

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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STONE MOTHERS : BOOK REVIEW

 

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Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly
★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars (rounded up to 3)

“People lie to cover their tracks all the time but in the aftermath of true horror, there is a window – minutes, even seconds long – where shock drives out dissemblance and there is only room for a kind of devastated honesty.”

This a novel that never quite reaches its full potential.
First, on what I liked.
I found the discourse on class and money (the way it can change you in ways that you might not be aware) to be very compelling. We see how money can distance you from your own family, your hometown, and even your younger self.
The novel also does a brilliant job in evoking this small English community and of how unemployment can damage a family not only financially but emotionally (there is anger, shame, guilt, and pain).
I also found it incredibly realistic the way in which Marianne’s mother vascular dementia affected her loved ones. She only appeared in a few scenes but these were some of the few moments in which I felt emotionally involved by the story.
Nazareth is a building which emanates unease. It is oppressing and labyrinthine, yet I was fascinated by it. Kelly give this place a horrifying history, one that shapes the protagonist(s). Nazareth seems almost a character, if not the focus of the story. We are often given small details that consolidate this building’s presence:

“When I was at school, we wouldn’t say anyone behaving eccentrically was going round the bend but ‘getting the number six’. Back in the day, the number six bus was the one that, after they closed the railway, ferried workers and patients alike from Nusstead and beyond to Nazareth. I’d assumed it was a universal idiom. It was only when I went to Cromer Hall that I understood that the phrase was something I’d have to censor, along with my history, and my guilt, and the accent I shed like a shell.”

Now on the things that didn’t quite work for me…
Like many other reviewers, I found this book incredibly slow. I don’t think that dividing it into four sections worked in the story’s favour. It just created distance between each narrative (the first one is from Marianne ‘now’, the second is from Marianne as a teenager, the third is from a patient staying at Nazareth in 1958, and the last one is from another character). They seemed like these self-contained condensed stories that didn’t merge well with one another.
The first section stresses this ‘big bad thing’ that Marianne did…and when we actually get the details I felt underwhelmed. Other things happen but they never seem ‘thrilling’ to me. The suspense felt a bit forced (especially the final section when there is this unnecessary vagueness that seemed to exist merely to prolong the narrative).

The characters…they occasionally seemed a bit clichéd but they did have ‘moments’ of credibility.
Marianne was just plain awful. I disliked her not because of the ‘big bad thing’ but because she often sounded like a martyr.She is supposedly ‘clever’ and ‘smart’ (something which other characters, her degree, and her career, seem to imply) but to me she seemed anything but intelligent. She didn’t even convince me in terms of her age. She is supposed to be in her later forties, she has managed to leave her small town behind, made her a new life for herself, etc. etc., and yet, she sounds exactly as experienced and self-aware as her teenage self. She was so naive, so irritatingly self-dramatizing, that she would been a more appropriate protagonist in an 18th cent. novel. I’m thinking something on the lines of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady.
She spends nearly 60% of the book reproaching herself, bemoaning that ‘big bad thing’, her ‘evil’ deed seeps into her vision so that no matter her surroundings she will see a reflection her sins staring back at her (“The eels are back, and this time they’re sliding all over the sky”). Or she gives this dramatic descriptions: “His lips are white, like they’ve got bones in them.”. Jeez. When she spoke she did it with lots of exclamations marks (‘You saw her!’) and italics abounded, so that she often comes across as both juvenile and unrealistic. To begin with I thought that she was being sarcastic or disingenuous but she was turns out…she is just dense.
The other two narrators were less irritating but I did find that one point of view sort of ‘ruined’ what could have been an interesting individual. I was hoping to read from the point of view of a calculating, ruthless, possibly psychopathic woman…but what we get is a sort of vindication where we learn that she isn’t bad but simply (view spoiler). The last point of view is from a character who seemed an odd choice as she only appeared way back when in the first section. I think the book would have been more effective without this last section.
(view spoiler)
The main male characters fell in one of the following categories: stupid, dull, w*nker. There were two male characters who were decent-ish but had brief inconsequential appearances.
Marianne’s relationship with her husband was one of the least convincing things in the story. They acted like they just met each other and I kept thinking that he was her second husband or something. They have no real history, their interactions kept making me question if they really had just met or something (when they have been supposedly married for 20 years or so).
Lastly, I wasn’t a fun of the way in which people experiencing or suffering a mental illness or disorder were presented in such a patronising way. They look ‘broken’ and just feel everything ‘too much’: “she lives life so deeply but everything hurts her, it’s like – she’s got splinters in all of her fingertips and glass in her feet.”

There is this vagueness that tries to make scenes more ‘suspenseful’ by making things appear more sinister than they are…
The storyline is so slow and uneventful that I was temped to abandon it once or twice. There were few moments that I found enjoyable and or entertaining…still, there were some nice descriptions and although I think this would have worked better if all of the narratives had been from the first point of view, I think that Kelly’s writing has the potential to create a much more interesting story.

“My mind trips to doublethink: theories I believe in even as I know they can’t be true. Something was uncovered, something was found during the development of Nazareth. Or someone has spotted me and knows. Someone has seen old records, old names, and put two and two together to make the four that implicates the three – me, Jesse and Helen Greenlaw.”

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Everything Here is Beautiful: Book Review


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Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

★★★★✰ 4 stars

  “Where are you? Where the fuck are you, Lucia?”

Being punched in the stomach would have been less painful than this.

Lee’s depiction of mental illness is both incredibly vivid and deeply disturbing. Lucia is the focal point of the narrative: she is a free-spirit, full-of-life, a romantic with a big heart. However in her early twenties, something changes. Miranda is in many ways the opposite of her younger sister Lucia and after their mother’s death, Miranda struggles to understand what exactly is happening to her once so happy sister.
Not only does Lee masterfully utilises different point of views in order to give all of her characters an ‘equal’ voice but she also gives us a glimpse of what an ‘outsider’ thinks of Lucia’s situation and of her friends and family. After a particularly severe episode Lucia is hospitalised and we see what the nurses and doctors think of Lucia herself, and of her loved ones (Miranda, Manny—Lucia’s boyfriend— and Yonah, Lucia’s husband).
Each point of view brilliantly renders the individuality of a certain character. The chapters from Lucia’s perspective (which could be both in 1st and 3rd person) were incredibly jarring. A series of staccato sentences, broken up thoughts and impressions, really made me feel what Lucia was experiencing. In spite of how disturbing this feeling was, it was hard to take my eyes away from Lee’s vivid prose.
Another thing that stood out to me was the way in which Lee describes different places and cultures. Each of the main characters has a rich and multi-layered background. And the people that orbit around the main ‘cast’ were just as distinctive. With only a few words Lee is able to imbue her characters with history, personality and realism.

“There’s a word for this in Portuguese: saudade. It’s not exactly nostalgia, there’s more of a longing in it, for a feeling or way of life that may be impossible to recapture—that may or may not have even existed in the first place. An indolent dreaming wistfulness is how I’ve seen one writer describe it. Now that’s a great word.”

The narrative traces Lucia’s life, and the way in which she attempts to escape from her diagnosis. Fearing the loss of her individuality, Lucia tries to reject labels and or diagnosis, which are presented to her as inescapable sentence. Those she cares for try in different way, and with different—if not terrible—results, to help her. More than once the characters and their narratives confront the increasingly blurred line between Lucia and her mental illness. Would Lucia still be herself if it wasn’t for mental illness? Is her personality a result of her schizophrenia? Where does Lucia begin and where does her disorder ends?

“Later, in hindsight, they would come together on this: to wonder when it had become impossible to distinguish which parts of Lucia fell under her own juridistinction and which belonged to her illness.”

Lee does not provides with an answer. In her portrayal of Lucia—and of mental health in general—she never resorts to a didactic or dogmatic explanations, but rather she lets her narrative—which follows different characters during different periods of Lucia’s life—relate how Lucia’s illness is perceived by her and those around her.

 “I’m human first, aren’t I? Aren’t we all?”

We could clearly see that Miranda has the best intentions and tries her best to help Lucia, yet, we can also see how Lucia and others might find Miranda ‘controlling’.
We could also see how Lucia begins to disconnect from her everyday reality and those around her. For example, she is unable to recognise Manny’s terror at being deported or Miranda’s own concern about trying to have a child of her own.
The relationships between the various characters are all too realistic. Misunderstandings can foster resentment and tensions. In spite of all of this pain and hurt, there are some truly beautiful moments of tenderness and compassion that convey the underlying love and affection between these characters.

“You could say: This is the way tow people drift apart.”

Equally harrowing and evocative, Everything Here Is Beautiful is a heart-rendering debut that really that really packs a punch.

“I try not to think about it. I don’t take it personally. People say things, people do things, these two are not the same, I know that. I hope she’s happy, that’s all.”

There are a lot of ‘disturbing’ and painful things: Lucia’s mental illness, how her diagnosis alienates her from her sister, what Lucia experiences during one of her psychotic episodes, what others feel in witnessing Lucia’s dangerous behaviour. And perhaps all of these distressing moments make those rare moments of calm and or peace all the more beautiful.

“When she wakes, she feels something inside her like a venom, a flare in her chest, a burning sensation just beneath her skin. The serpents. A thought flickers. She extinguishes it. When she slows her breath to listen, the air is quiet. It is only her.”

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THE NIGHT TIGER: BOOK REVIEW

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The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
★★★✰✰ 2.5 out of 5 stars

“[His] voice was icy. He’s an ass if he can’t tell you’re obviously a virgin.

and they say romance is dead.

On paper The Night Tiger has a lot of potential but there were several things that prevent it from being a really good novel.

Things that I liked
This is the sort of story that slowly intertwines the fates of seemingly disconnected people. Set in the 1930s in Malaya the narrative brims with the promise of magic and legends and folklore underline the story.
Yangsze Choo’s alluring prose complements beautifully the romantic and dreamy quality of her story. She often uses sweet-sounding metaphors that really appeal to the senses. Her descriptions have this rich and smooth sort of flair that make her setting really stand out.
A missing finger links the story of Ji Lin, a young dressmaker apprentice + dancehall girl, and Ren, a houseboy whose master has recently died. Ji Lin finds herself in the possession of a detached finger while Ren was tasked with finding his master’s missing finger and burying it with his now buried body. The promising premise leads way to a slow paced narrative. The mystery behind the fingers and the ‘odd’ deaths were to me the main drive of the story.

Things that I didn’t like
Dual narrative
While I was intrigued I soon found myself disliked the ‘format’ of the dual narrative. The chapters ended almost with abruptness, as to pique the reader’s interest. I wouldn’t have minded but for the switching between 1st and 3rd person. It didn’t really add anything to the narrative, rather it made a lot of chapters clash with one another. One moment I was deep in Ji Lin’s story next thing I was an ‘outsider’ observing Ren, or worse still William.
Because these chapters interrupted each other’s ‘action’ there were a lot of observations and ‘realisations’ that are repeated, and often it seemed that I was getting a ‘recap’ of what had happened previously to that character.
Characters (Ji Lin is not like other girls, and all men are pigs )
I really wanted to like both Ji Lin and Ren. Sadly, I soon found Ji Lin to be insufferable and Ren was both boring and had some very non-child-like moments
Ji Lin is the typical gorgeous and smart girl who doesn’t know how beautiful and charming she is. She wanted to study medicine, like her step-brother Shin, but decides not to disobey her “tyrannical” stepfather. Ji Lin seems to find it unfair that Shin was able to study and that she is only excepted to become a wife…and yet Ji Lin soon reveals herself to be the type of young woman who judges and condemns women in situations similar to her own. She seems to think herself better than the other dancehall girls (and their shock horror promiscuous ways). If she is progressive enough to think that women should be doing the same things as the men do, why does she so quickly condemn those like her? Does she think she is the only one who works as a dancehall girl because she in desperate need of money? Is it not likely that the other girls are going through similar ‘hard times’?
Worse still is that the narrative and the other characters constantly remind us that Ji Lin is not like other girls:
—“Most girls in my position would probably be over the moon”
—“You don’t scream about things like this,”
—“You really are blunt, he said. Don’t you know how to act like a girl?”
—“You don’t talk like most local girls”
So, other girls are flirty, air-headed, and easily scared of spiders. Ji Lin is DIFFERENT, she is SPECIAL, she is NOT LIKE OTHER GIRLS.
Thanks to her new haircut everybody mistakes for Louise Brooks.

“Seen up close, she’s shockingly pretty. Or at least, she is to him, thought some might say her cropped hair and slender frame are too boyish.”

How can I believe that her beauty is ‘particular’ and ‘not to everyone’s taste’ when every single male character tries it on with her? There is only one guy (who makes only a brief appearance and is already married) who doesn’t pine after her. I kid you not.
Her whole character seems reduced to how men behave around her. She spent her time bickering with Shin, and failing to avoid/turn-down perverts. Her motivations and her actions seemed completely random.
Her character is clouded by her infuriating relationship with (view spoiler)
There are plenty of other vulgar men except that they are not as beautiful as Ji Lin’s love interest is…so they are just creeps.
William is this foreign (I think British) doctor who is made to seem like this possibly ‘bad’ man. Yet, his actions are far from monstrous. More than being loathsome, he seems pathetic. It would have been better to cut his POV entirely from the narrative since it just shows us how insubstantial he is. Really, what was the point of him?
All the men are either sexist or violent. They either act like animals, (“They were like two dogs sizing each other up”), look like animals (Koh Beng, who has a ‘porky face’ and is compared to a pig looks up Ji Lin’s skirt), or are compared to beasts(“Men are beasts, aren’t they?”). Their behaviours and actions are dictated by their reproductive organs. They have no brains! They are just there to behave inappropriately towards Ji Lin or mistreat other ‘lesser’ women.
Lastly, Ren did not act like a child. He is too self-aware to pass for a child. Yet, he also has these naive moments that came across as forced. We never get to know him well because his chapters often focus on William, his new master. Ren’s ‘cat sense’ was cringeworthy: his ‘tendrils’ travel here and there and can sense thing…how about n-o.

What could have been a great story focuses on a ‘will they/won’t they’ romance. The mystery of the fingers soon lost its appeal to me. The ‘murder’ storyline managed to be both disappointing and predictable.
I might try other books by Choo but this just didn’t work for me.

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