The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The first two chapters of The Swimmers, ‘The Underground Pool’ and ‘The Crack’ are highly reminiscent of the author’s acclaimed The Buddha in the Attic. Like that novel The Swimmers at first seems to implement a playful choral ‘we’ as our perspective. The ‘we’ in question are the people who regularly swim at a local pool in an unnamed town. Otsuka details the swimmers’ relationship to the pool and swimming, often poking (gentle) fun at them. While she does often differentiate between the swimmers, contrasting their routines etc., they remain a united entity for much of these chapters. The pool becomes a microcosm of the real world and Otsuka’s satire is particularly effective when a mysterious ‘crack’ appears in the pool, causing confusion and uncertainty among the pool-goers. Some panic and flee, some quit swimming altogether, some begin spreading conspiracy theories about who is behind the crack, some keep on swimming and refuse to look at the crack, and so forth.
The tone is definitely the defining characteristic of these two chapters as the characters are beside the point. They serve a comedic function and their personalities are intentionally kept off the page. Repetition is of course a consequence of employing a choral point of view, especially one that at times comes across as a joke that has gone on too long. These two chapters/stories could have easily been condensed into one and I think it would have made for a more effective and engaging read.

The following chapters/stories revolve around one of the swimmers, but once again the author implements more indirect narrative devices (often there is the ‘you’). The character in question is Alice, a Japanese American woman who shows signs of dementia. While the author does give us an overview of her life and background, by referring to her as ‘you’ or by avoiding using her name she effectively makes Alice into a blank-slate, or perhaps, less of a blank-slate and more of the ‘every-elderly-woman’, ie. the epitome of the elderly person experiencing memory loss, confusion, and an increased lack of motor skills. Her daughter, who happens to be a writer, too was very much a non-character, as she is often referred to as ‘you’. There was a lack of intimacy and depth in these characters (and their relationship to one another) that diluted the impact of what could have been a potentially poignant story. There is even one chapter from the point of ‘Belavista’ a ‘memory residence’ where Alice is eventually taken to. Here the author wryly points to the way elderly people who are no longer able to live independently and need more help than what their relatives can provide them with are treated by these places (eg the patronizing language).

The specificity with which Otsuka writes about Alice’s ‘dementia’ definitely rang true to life as I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and boy oh boy it is definitely not a walk in the park watching someone slowly lose their physical and mental capacity. Still, while many moments struck me for their realism, Otsuka’s playful tone became a bit jarring and repetitive. I would have liked for this book to have more emotional depth and for characters (any of the characters really) to be more than names on a page. Nevertheless, I encourage prospective readers to make up their own minds about this one!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Given its abysmal overall rating, it should not come as a surprise that A Separation is not the type of novel that will/to have a large appeal. While it bears many of the same elements and stylistic qualities as Intimacies, Katie Kitamura’s latest novel which I happen not to like, here, well, they kind of work. Similarly to Intimacies, A Separation is narrated by a nameless and nondescript female character. We never learn anything substantial about their backstories and their personalities remain blank. For some reason, in A Separation, this narrating choice works. Whereas reading Intimacies felt to me like an utter waste of my time, A Separation proved to be a much more thought-provoking novel.

A Separation follows a woman who is separated from her husband, a serial cheater. They have not officialized their separation and not only are they legally still married but his parents still believe they are together. When he goes missing on a research trip in Greece his mother pressures our narrator to go find him. Our narrator, who is now in a new relationship, acquiesces hoping that she will be able to get her husband to agree to a divorce. Once there however she realizes that he has truly vanished. She obverses the staff in the hotel, speculating on the whereabouts of her husband, wondering how and why he has seemingly disappeared, leaving his possessions behind.
I was transfixed by the descriptions of the landscapes and people encountered by our main character. The uneasy scenario our mc is in resulted in a taut atmosphere. Her ambiguous narration proved hypnotic and I felt transported alongside her to this remote region in Greece. While the uncertain nature of her journey and her husband’s unknown whereabouts resulted in a gripping storyline, this was not a fast-paced or plot-driven story. This is a very introspective and reflective work that explores themes of unity and separation, absence and presence, longing and loss, foreignness and belonging, deception and clarity.
I loved the mood of this story. The drawn-out waiting for our mc does may bore some but I found this wait to be enthralling. The tension between her and the other characters (the employees, the husband, her mother-in-law) captivated me. Her piercing narration was particularly rewarding. Not only does she express herself in such an adroit, articulate, and alert way but I found her speculations and observations to be razor-sharp. The author juxtaposes her clarity of vision with her intrinsic vagueness. We learn virtually nothing about her history or who she is. Her crystal-clear narration is in fact rather deceptive as all the while she keeps herself hidden. This ambivalence certainly complemented the precarious atmosphere of her stay in Greece.
While I did find much to be admired in this novel it is not the type of reading that will leave a long-lasting impression on me. It did succeed in making me a fan of this author even if I did not care for her latest novel. I can see why many gave A Separation a low rating. Nothing much happens and for all her navel-gazing the narrator remains a stranger to us. It is the type of novel that at the end may very well make you say “what was the point of all that?”. But, if you are in the right mood for a more muggy exploration of a fractured marriage and the limits of language, that succeeds in being both elusive and incisive, well, look no further. Subtle, erudite, and meditative, A Separation will certainly appeal to fans of psychological fiction.

my rating: ★★★½

| | goodreads | tumblr | ko-fi | |

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

On paper, Intimacies is my kind of read. In actuality, well, turns out it is anything but. While it ticks all the ‘in’ boxes (an unnamed narrator, ambiguous storyline, no quotation marks), the ‘story’ and characters were dusty, dull, done-to-death. Our narrator is an interpreter who lives and works in The Hague and works for the International Court where her latest assignment sees her interpreting for a former president, much beloved by his people, who stands accused of many atrocious war crimes. She’s in a lukewarm relationship with Adriaan, a man who can be best described as being as interesting as Wonder Bread. The guy’s wife left him but they are still married and that’s about it. Our protagonist thinks about this woman in a wannabe-Rebecca kind of way.

Our narrator has a friend Jana whose characterisation is risible. Nothing she said rang true (to me of course, feel free to disagree and nay at this review), nor did it succeed in being absurd, if that even was what it was going for. Jana mentions to our mc that she saw someone being attacked in her neighbourhood and for some reason, our mc goes on to find this man’s workplace and goes there because of reasons unknown.
Nothing seems to happen. We have stilted interactions between the same two or three characters, some uninspired comments about violence, the judicial system, language, and the tricky nature of interpretation. I was particularly disappointed by the language aspect of this narrative. I am bilingual (and i am taken for a foreigner in both of the languages i speak…go figure) and my mother has been a translator for…well, all my life. So, naturally, I am interested in languages and translation, and I am keen on reading books that explore these fields. Intimacies regurgitates the same tired ideas on these topics, and even the interpretation angle felt poorly explored. The scenes taking place at the Court were odd, particularly for the way they were executed.
There is no plot as such. The mc wastes some time navel-gazing, thinking not so deep thoughts. She has a few repetitive and inauthentic encounters and exchanges with the same group of not so believable characters ….and that’s it. The whole relationship between her and this married man was bah. Who cares? Not me! I am tired of reading this same type of heterosexual sort-of-love-triangle. Jana seemed forgotten by the narrative and sidelined to make space for that man who was attacked. This guy goes on to deliver a stilted monologue that sounded so insincere.
In short, Intimacies was a vexing read. I recommend you check out more positive reviews before you decide whether to read this or not (on the plus size, it’s a short read).

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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

Love and Other Natural Disasters by Misa Sugiura

For the love of Jupiter, Nozomi was such a detestable main character.

It had been a while since I so wholeheartedly hated and rooted against the main character of a novel…but here we go. Love and Other Natural Disasters is the kind of romance YA novel that pretends to critique and be self-aware of the tropes that populate this genre but in actuality offers the same recycled ideas and an avalanche of cliches (we have one character saying something along the lines of “you are in love with the idea of love”…come on).
A quick rundown of the story: Nozomi is our narrator, who supposedly is in her late teens (17?18?) and is sad because her parents have split up and her mother is now with a former teacher of hers (boo-hoo). She and her brother go off to visit their uncle in San Francisco where thanks to his connections—ahem nepotism— she gets an internship working at a museum (do we learn anything about this internship? not really). Her grandmother is homophobic and has only recently ‘rekindled’ her relationship with her son (nozomi’s uncle). Nozomi is gay and understandably she is unhappy about having to keep her sexuality a secret in order to have a ‘good’ relationship with her grandmother. Alas, the plot is less concerned with Nozomi & her family than her love life. Before setting off to San Francisco Nozomi overheard a girl she was crushing on making fun of her and comparing her to grey wallpaper or something along those lines. Nozomi wants a GF real bad, and she falls in insta-love with Willow, who turns out, also works at the museum. Willow is beautiful, well-off, and wears makeup (that’s it. that’s her character). She’s also reeling because her girlfriend just broke up with her and seems now to be already dating someone else. Willow and Nozomi decide to do the fake-dating thing, Willow because she hopes to make her ex so jealous she will want to get back together, and Nozomi because she has watched a lot of rom-com movies and according to those the fake-dating couple always ends up falling in not-so-fake-love. Willow’s ex is maybe dating this girl who, you guessed it, is also at the museum as she is working on an installation for a show or something. This girl and Nozomi do not get along at all. At first, the girl is an asshole to her but then it becomes apparent that Nozomi is actually the brat. And that’s my biggest problem with this novel. Nozomi is a real stronza. The kind of nice person who often talks and thinks about how nice, kind, and selfless she is. She’s also low-key into virtue-signalling (telling off this girl for dismissing someone’s ‘i wish world hunger was no more’ wish, claiming that you never know who could be inspired by those words, maybe a person will come across it and decide to volunteer at the food bank…which, if you are wondering, nozomi does not do). Nozomi has also no growth. Her self-pitying ‘I’m a nice person really and any mistakes I do, I do in trying to be good and kind to others so can you blame me, really? ’ shtick got on my fucking nerves. The story tries to spin it so her only ‘flaw’ is that of being too much of a romantic and of trying to orchestrate a romance with Willow (her whole attitude towards willow is creepy af) . The last few pages make it seem as if being called out on her shit has made her mature in no time but I do not believe it for a second. Even after that ‘showdown’ scene, Nozomi seems still firm in her belief that because she didn’t mean to hurt anyone and that after all someone was mean to her so isn’t understandable that she tried to recreate the kind of romance you see in the movies? She has to be told to give someone space and that even if she apologizes that person can refuse to accept said apology. What is she, 14? And don’t get me started on how awful and pathetic she is when it comes to her mother. At one point puts the phone down on her mom because she can’t stand her ‘self-pitying’….pot kettle much? Her behaviour towards her parents was so childish, from the way she assigns them into good/bad roles to how she demands to be in the know-how of their private affairs. I mean, how is this girl meant to be 17/8? She acts like a child! Worse than a child. And she uses the words monstrous all the time. Her grandmother is a monstrous homophobe. She never seems willing to understand that her grandmother, who is Japanese, elderly, and religious, grew up with different social norms. At the end, Nozomi seems to resign herself to her grandmother being the way she is because she’s showing early signs of dementia. And as Nozomi loves to believe she’s a nice person this (her ‘accepting’ her grandmother’s homophobia) works with that narrative.

The characters were one-dimensional, they lacked substance, history even. Nozomi never talks about her high school or mentions any friends/hobbies. It seems to me that she came to be in that very first page of the novel, and that her life before that was…blank. The story was too focused on the drama between these four girls and I would have much preferred for the narrative to be more of a coming of age than a typical YA love story. There were lots of needlessly cringy scenes in which Nozomi does something incredibly stupid (out of the kindness of her heart) that I could have done without.
All in all, this novel irritated me. I kept reading hoping that Nozomi would grow but no. Her character arc is nonexistent even if the last pages will have you believe that she has become a better person and deserves to be forgiven for playing cupid. Her mistreatment of her parents, her obliviousness to her own rather privileged lifestyle (she’s not as wealthy as willow but come on, also, that internship? she cares nothing for it!), and her binary way of thinking (in which people are either bad or good)…all those remain unaddressed. Nozomi is a ‘nice’ person who’s been fooled by those damn romance movies and someone she liked made fun of her so of course, she gets a—frankly undeserved—happy ending.
The author’s writing was decent enough. It didn’t amuse me nor did it engage me particularly but it’s very much run-of-the-mill YA writing. Her dialogues were awkward, her portrayal of teenagers left a lot to be desired, and her mc was bloody awful.
If you liked this, good for you, I guess? If you have this on your tbr list don’t let my review deter you so you should maybe check out some positive reviews instead.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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

The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr — book review

529493.jpgThe Necessary Hunger, Nina Revoyr’s debut novel first published in 1997, had the potential of being a great YA book. In many ways this novel was ahead of its times. Set in Inglewood, L. A., in the late 1980s The Necessary Hunger is narrated by seventeen-year-old Nancy Takahiro, a Japanese-American all-star high school basketball player. Nancy, who is a lesbian, falls hard for Raina Webber, an African-American all-star guard from a competing school. Raina, who is also a lesbian, is in a relationship with an older girl.
When Raina’s mother and Nancy’s father get together, things get a bit complicated. Nancy, who isn’t used to sharing her home with anyone other than her father, has to get used to the presence of two other people. Her massive crush on Raina further complicates matters.

There were aspects of this novel that I really liked such as Revoyr’s approach to sexuality and race. There are quite a few gay characters, and their sexuality is never made into a big deal. While stories about coming out and/or exploring your sexuality are certainly important, it was refreshing to read a storyline that casually revolves around gay teens. Nancy’s sexuality is never made into an ‘issue’.
The novel also has a great sense of time and place. Revoyr’s Inglewood is vividly rendered. From the graffitis decorating some of the more run down buildings, to the ever-present threat of danger (government neglect results in gang violence, drive-bys, carjackings, burglaries). Acquaintances of Nancy drop out school, get into drugs, go to prison. Life isn’t easy. A sense of solidarity unites Inglewood’s various residents and both Nancy and her father navigate Inglewood with ease. When Raina and her mother move into their house tension arise. Inglewood informs Revoyr’s discussions about class hierarchies and social / race relations (particularly interracial relationships).

Sadly, readers merely ‘overhear’ these more interesting conversations. Nancy is a snoop, and she will often sneakily listen to other people’s conversations. For all her navel-gazing Nancy’s character lacked interiority. She’s defined by her love for basketball and her obsessive feelings for Raina. Although other characters aren’t distinctly three-dimensional, they at least had a semblance of personality. Nancy was a not very profound bore. The narrative tries to emphasise that she’s looking back to these events, by making her reflect on ‘what-ifs’ or the significance of a certain moment, but this technique added little to the narrative.
While I knew that this would be a novel about basketball, I wasn’t expecting pages and pages of basketball games. Perhaps if I had been more interested in the characters or if I had felt that these game had some sort of stake…but readers know from the beginning that unlike her teammates Nancy will have plenty of college offers. Raina is often reduced to the role of ‘object of desire’. Nancy’s feelings for Raina never struck me as genuine. It seemed a classic case of ‘physical attraction + jealousy/awe’.
At times the writing seemed quite dated (for example Nancy uses the word ‘schizophrenic’ to describe her room’s decor).
Nothing remarkable happens. Nancy is often a mere observer in the novel’s more compelling moments. A lot of the narrative is dedicate to Nancy’s ‘yearning’ for Raina….and the ending was incredibly underwhelming. What was all that for?
All in all The Necessary Hunger strikes me as a rather mediocre piece of fiction. It had the potential to be a really thought-provoking read but it just felt flat to me. There were also so many cheesy lines that were probably meant to be taken seriously.

My rating: 2 ½ of 5 stars

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