Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

“That was the thing that was at the heart of my reluctance and my resentment. Some people make it out of their stories unscathed, thriving. Some people don’t.”

In an eloquent and precise prose Yaa Gyasi interrogates a young woman’s relationship to her family, her faith, her past, and her self. Her brother’s addiction and her mother’s depression have irrevocably shaped Gifty, the protagonist and narrator of Transcendent Kingdom, who is now a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford. Her quiet and controlled existence is disrupted by the arrival of her mother, who has once again succumbed to a depressive state, barely responding to the world around her, let alone taking notice of her daughter. Gifty, who spends most of her time in her lab, where she’s researching the neural circuits of reward seeking behaviour (by experimenting on mice) finds herself looking back to her childhood, her college years and her first years at Stanford.
Throughout the course of the novel Gyasi weaves together Gifty’s past and present, delineating her self-divide and her fragile relationship to her mother.
Gifty’s recollection of her childhood is free of sentimentality, and she’s very much matter-of-fact when it comes to recounting her brother’s addiction to OxyContin, the racism she and her family are exposed to in America, the lack of support they receive (“They just watched us with some curiosity. We were three black people in distress. Nothing to see.”), especially from the members of their church.
We also learn of her parents’ immigration from Ghana to Alabama, her father’s disconnect from his new home, her mother’s desire to fit in and adapt, the rift caused by their opposing stances (wanting to return to Ghana/wanting to remain in America). After her father’s return to Ghana, Gifty’s mother spends most of her time working in order to keep the family afloat, so it is Nana who becomes the central figure in her life. In spite of their age gap and their sibling spats, the two are very close, and Gifty looks up to her brother. An injury occurred while playing basketball lands Nana in hospital where a doctor prescribes him OxyContin for the pain. In the following years Gifty witnesses her brother’s spiralling further into addiction, while her mother desperately tries to ‘save’ him.
While these experiences have affected Gifty’s relationship to her faith, and she’s somewhat embarrassed when reading her old diary entries, in which she pleads for divine intervention, as an adult Gifty finds herself craving that ardor.
In college she struggles between wanting to be alone and wanting to connect with others. Her background causes some of her science peers to make scoffing remarks or prejudiced presumptions, and the few people who try to get close to her are inevitably pushed away.

Throughout the course of the narrative Gyasi shows how time and again Gifty is made to feel as if she cannot possibly find comfort in both science and religion. Yet, for Gifty, the two are not in opposition: “[T]his tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
Given that her childhood was disrupted by her father’s departure, her brother’s addiction, and her mother’s depression, isn’t it natural for Gifty to wonder ‘why?’. Why did her brother become an addict? Why is her mother depressed? Her search for answers, for a reason, for the ability to discern cause and effect, fuels her studies and in many ways her faith. Once she finds herself once again with her mother however her resolve not to talk or reveal her past is tested.
This novel tells an emotionally devastating tale about love, forgiveness, guilt, pain, and identity. Reading this novel made my heart ache. Addiction and depression have left their mark on my family, and Gifty’s experiences hit too close to home. And yet, however upsetting it was to read about the insidiousness of addiction and depression, Gyasi incisive observations and wisdoms assuage my uneasiness.
Gyasi exerts perfect control of her prose as she navigates Gifty’s childhood and adulthood. Her restrained style perfectly reflects Gifty’s self-restraint. She offers piercing meditations on family, philosophy, science, and faith, and Gifty’s quiet meditations on these subjects are articulated in a meticulous yet striking way.
I’m not sure what else I can add other than I was (am) in awe of this book. It made me feel seen and understood.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Some of my favourite quotes:

“Nana was the first miracle, the true miracle, and the glory of his birth cast a long shadow. I was born into the darkness that shadow left behind. I understood that, even as a child.”

“I wanted, above all else, to be good. And I wanted the path to that goodness to be clear. I suspected that this is why I excelled at math and science, where the rules are laid out step by step, where if you did something exactly the way it was supposed to be done, the result would be exactly as it was expected to be.”


“It would have been kinder to lie, but I wasn’t kind anymore. Maybe I never had been. I vaguely remember a childhood kindness, but maybe I was conflating innocence and kindness. I felt so little continuity between who I was as a young child and who I was now that it seemed pointless to even consider showing my mother something like mercy. Would have I been merciful when I was a child?”

“The two of us back then, mother and daughter, we were ourselves an experiment. The question was, and has remained: Are we going to be okay?”

“My memories of him, though few, are mostly pleasant, but memories of people you hardly know are often permitted a kind of pleasantness in their absence. It’s those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”

“I remember what it was like to be that age, so aware of yourself and of the theater of your private little shames.”

“It was boring, but I preferred this familiar boredom to the kind I found at home. There, boredom was paired with the hope of its relief, and so it took on a more menacing tint.”

““What’s the point of all of this?” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this question is “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don’t know,” or worse still, “Nothing”?”

“Thought I had never been an addict, addiction, and the avoidance of it, had been running my life”

“I didn’t grow up with a language for, a way to explain, to parse out, my self-loathing.”

“I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”

“I like you best when you’re feeling holy. You make me feel holy too.”

Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Version Control is going to be tough to review as I have never felt so conflicted about a book. There were some scenes in Part I that were pure genius. But once I delved into Part II I was forced to reevaluate my first impressions of this book.
Imagine walking into some art gallery and coming across a piece of art that just blows your mind. Later on, when you walk past it again, you actually stop and read the artist’s statement, which consists in the usual meaningless art-speak. And you look back to that work and think “this is so fucking pretentious”. That’s how I feel about Version Control which is all flash and no substance.
Once I finally slogged my way through this 500+ page book I felt cheated. It had so much potential and Dexter Palmer clearly had some great ideas…sadly these were lost in the midst of inconsistent world-building, poor characterisation (the female characters are atrocious), and a surprisingly uninspiring storyline (I mean, how could you manage to make travelling be boring?).
Palmer took every opportunity to satirise every single one of his characters, in what basically amounted to satire for the sake of satire, which, if you ask me, fell flat as it had nothing smart to say. I’m not sure at what point exactly I became aware of it but Palmer clearly loves taking the piss out of millennials. And he does it in a way that brought to mind those segments on Ellen where she makes fun of millennials because they don’t know how to use a typewriter or a rotary phone (quality humor, not).
At first the dialogue in this novel rang true to life. There were tense or awkward pauses, character misunderstanding someone else’s choice of words, conversations could lead to nothing or suddenly escalate into arguments. But then I couldn’t help but to notice how frequently characters would just have these very long monologues in which they ranted about everything and nothing. Which, yeah, some people do go on (I am doing so right now), or end up having longwinded and heated rants…but every-single character? And that’s when I realised that the characters in this novels were like the characters in a film by Woody Allen (they all speak like Woody Allen regardless of their age/gender/personality). And that kind of killed any enjoyment I had left for this book.
The rant-y to of my review reflects the many rants that are in this book.

The Story
Even if the premise for Version Control reminded me of What If, a novel I didn’t particularly care for, I was intrigued by it. The story is set in the near-future (more on that later) and follows five main characters: we have Rebecca Wright, a recovering alcoholic who is now in her late thirties and works “part-time as a customer service representative for Lovability, the online dating service where, eleven years ago, she’d actually met the man who was now her husband”; Philip, said husband, who is a brilliant scientist devoted to his work on the ‘causality violation device’ (which, in a running gag, and much to the scientists’ annoyance, gets called ‘time machine’); there is Rebecca’s BFF from college, Kate, who is a superficial bimbo (more on that later); Carson, a scientist who works under Philip and is on-and-off again dating Kate; and Alicia, “the only female post-doc in Philip’s lab” who is Not Like Other Women. There are some minor recurring characters, most of whom we get to see only in certain environments (like the two security men working in the lab) so that we never really learn about them.
Rebecca and Philip have lost their son, but they don’t speak of him or how he died. Philip spends most of his time working or talking about the ‘causality violation device’ (CVD) while Rebecca mopes a lot around the house thinking of how much she wants to drink. I was expecting this to be a story that blurred the line between reality and fantasy, one that would make you question whether the ‘strange’ sensation felt by Rebecca was a sign of her spiraling mental health or something of a more fantastical nature. But this wasn’t that kind of novel. And, as I previously mentioned, at first I didn’t mind. The story was more intent on creating some realistically awkward or fraught encounters between the various characters. Rebecca’s marriage is in trouble and her relationship with Philip isn’t great. She doesn’t get particularly along with Alicia while Philip gets into a heated argument with Rebecca’s dad (who is a Unitarian minister). Kate’s derisive comments about ribs and watermelons force Carson, who is black, to question whether she’s racist. Carson is also getting pretty pissed off at one of the security guards, who keeps calling him Carlton (“acting white”). No one gets along with anyone, and the story is very much about that. Palmer seems to delight in putting his characters in the most uncomfortable situations possible. Philip’s work is repeatedly made fun by the media and one snooty potential investor, Rebecca’s knows very little about anything so is frequently made to appear dumb, Kate acts like the Basic White Chick, and Alicia is openly rude to others, especially other women (but it’s okay, cause she’s driven and Not Like Other Girls). Now and again Palmer remembers to mention that some people feel that there is something ‘wrong’ with their reality, but this is a minor thread in a story that is much more concerned with ridiculing its characters and with giving really detailed descriptions or explanations about minor aspects of this ‘near future’. The main ingredients of Palmer’s story are 1) useless millenials 2) women who don’t care or don’t have what it takes to have a career 3) unfunny caricatures.
He had a lot to say on a myriad of other topics, but this often came about when two characters were having a discussion or argument about this (sexism, racism, conflict between religion and science). He dedicates many passages to modern dating, seeming to lose himself in his own ‘hilarious’ vision of the future of dating (which isn’t as original as he seems to be suggesting: “the whole idea of meeting someone in a physical place, to talk to them in real time, was so twentieth century”) or in unnecessarily long digressions about automated ‘autonomous cars’ or of how in schools kids no longer need to interact with teachers but they get taught via tablet (and Palmer spends a chapter on the “Daily Pre-School-Day Diagnostic” kids have to complete each morning).
We are only given a flashback into Rebecac’s life, and rather than reading about her childhood or learning more of her relationship with her parents, we read of a period in her twenties which she aptly describes as ‘Blackout Season’. We never get why she chose to study English or what future she envisioned after her completing degree, what we get instead are scenes featuring Rebecca and her college ‘friends’, all of whom are jobless or doing temporary or part-time jobs they don’t care for, and they spend their time going to bars and clubs, getting drunk and loud, flirting and sleeping with guys that are ‘no good’. After a few years one of them meets the ‘right’ kind of man and soon the girls disband their friendship group (because if a woman is ‘seriously’ dating someone she can’t keep her friends, duh). Rebecca has a few mishaps on online dating sites, meets Philip, and the two get married even if they have nothing in common or no chemistry. Their son dies, and things start going a bit sour between the two of them. And of course, eventually, the CVD does play a role in the story.
As I said, or wrote, Palmer mostly writes scenes in which his characters have awkward encounters and exchanges with each other. And, while I initially liked this aspect of his narrative as I am a fan of hysterical realism, by the halfway mark I was no longer impressed by them, in fact, they struck me as forced and unfunny. Sometimes I like reading scenes that verge on the surreal (I’m very basic, I like Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers) but there were moments in Version Control that were just jarring and poorly written (I’m talking about that scene with Alicia and the magazine…it wasn’t funny, it didn’t make sense, it was out-of-character, the tone was just off).
The second half was very much a rehash of similar scenarios and exchanges, and the ‘wrongness’ felt by Rebecca never amounted to anything substantial. I was expecting a twist at some point or some reveal a la Black Mirror but nada. The story remains concerned with exploring boring and tired dynamics between characters that were little other than dull caricatures.
What was the point in the story? An excuse for Palmer to write about ‘what ifs’ or detail minor aspects of everyday life in a future America ? Did this story require 500+ pages?
Time travelling is picked up now again, but for all Philip’s & co talk about the CVD, they spent far too little time talking concretely about what would happen if their machine were to work. Instead they use a lot of scientific language that seemed more intent on confusing non-sciencey readers.
Maybe I could have overlooked plot-holes and never-ending diversions if Palmer’s narrative had offered us some character interiority, but this third pov remains never delves into character motivations. Giving us a glimpse into Rebecca’s mind would have made her into a far less one-dimensional and incomprehensible character (it was frustrating not knowing why she acted the way she did).
As stories about time travel go, Version Control offers nothing new.

The ‘Future’
Palmer’s near future is really unconvincing. He refers to things that in ten and twenty years will be outdated, he sticks to this running gag of the president interrupting people’s TV viewing or phone calls but we don’t know when he was elected, what kind of president he is, what America’s political landscape looks like. And Palmer seems wholly disinterred in anything remotely non-America (as in we have more or less no clue on what is going on in the rest of the world).
The story takes place in ten or possibly even twenty years and yet his future feels very ‘2010’. Yes, he imagines what shopping for clothes will be like, but what he envisions has already kind of been predicted (having one’s body scanned and being given an item of clothing that will fit you without needing to step in a fitting room). But what about other things? Rebecca is an alcoholic, will the future be able to provide more effective and long-term treatments ? What about cancer? Climate change? Wait, how come Palmer totally skims over climate change?
Palmer’s future offers nothing new. Futurama was far more innovative that this. And I couldn’t help but to notice that in this future one of the security guards who works at the lab was worried that he had to teach his daughter what same-sex love was….which, how likely is that? Unsurprisingly Palmer’s future struck me as very straight and gender normative.
Although Palmer has no qualms about using scientific language at length, I think he glosses over his CVD machine (which is funny considering how often this machine gets mentioned) as he’s more worried with detailing all the ways in which advancements in technology will strip erode any remaining notions of privacy (but millennials being dumb aren’t concerned by that).

The Characters
It’s kind of ironic that although Palmer writes about sexism (by having Alicia point out how hard it is to be treated like her other male colleagues rather than an ‘oddity’) his portrayal of female characters is kind of questionable (and in poor taste).
Rebecca: she’s our main character and is defined by three things. 1) she’s Philip’s wife 2) she was mother 3) she’s an alcoholic. While Philip is allowed to have a personality (not a nice one but still) and goals, Rebecca is made into this pathetic cliché of a woman, who isn’t intelligent or empathetic, she’s isn’t a great mother nor a great daughter not even a great wife or friend. She has 0 drive and 0 interests outside of alcohol and Philip. She doesn’t confront Katy when she notices that she’s being racist, even when Katy later on asks her whether she thought that she’d said anything offensive, she’s jealous of Alicia because women can’t like other women, she doesn’t care for her job (cause married women don’t really want to work and would rather be housewives who spend their time shopping, drinking wine, and trying to stay a size S. Which..yep, Palmer has given us some great representation here.
I didn’t care for Rebecca. We never know why she does the shit she does, she has no concrete history other than her ‘Blackout Season’ and her feelings for Philip just were largely MIA from the page.
Katy: she’s awful. She’s dumb and superficial, is a crappy friend and person, spouts racist shit and is obsessed by the fact that she’s dating a black guy. Why waste any time on her? I really got the feeling that Palmer wanted to show how insincere female friendships were (especially if one of these friends has blonde hair). Katy is just as passionless as Rebecca. She has no interest outside of men, gossip, and alcohol.
Alicia: she’s the kind of character that some (I said some not all) male authors believe to be ’empowering’. She loves what she does, she’s smart, straight-talking, tough. She takes no shit from anyone and most men in this novel are attracter to her. Women, on the other hand, hate her because they are clearly ‘intimidated’ by her. Rather than making Alicia into a likeable or sympathetic character Palmer decides to make her into a truly awful bitch who behaves appallingly and doesn’t understand why other women are not like her. She’s also reduced to who she sleeps with, rather than being allowed to be a character in her own right.
Philip and Carson: these two were stereotypes of the scientific guy who doesn’t understand social etiquette. Philip spoke in this really donnish way that just never rang true (and I happen to know quite a few pedantic men). But the things Philip talks about where just…really? And why did he have to be so socially inept ? Just because you are a scientistic doesn’t mean that you could never speak of something without using scientific jargon.
Other characters: caricatures. They had a static role, perhaps played a part in a running joke or something.

Maybe it’s my fault for expecting a story with more speculative elements but dio mio! The whole dynamic between Rebecca and her genius scientist husband was so cliched and boring. And Palmer’s future would have been passable if it had been rendered in more detail or if it hadn’t been so intent on making fun of millennials. And 500 pages of this? I get it women who are not like Alicia (who of course posses traditionally ‘male’ personality traits) are bimbos who are incapable of forming meaningful relationships or saying meaningful things or having interests outside of men, diets, and gossip. Ah ah. So funny.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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The Dragon Keeper: A novel by Mindy Mejia — book review

The Dragon Keeper tells a very specific type of story. This the third novel I’ve read by Mindy Mejia and it certainly has a unique premise. Mejia’s books differ in style and subject-manner, yet genre distinctions aside, each one of her story is underlined by a tense atmosphere. Most of The Dragon Keeper takes place in the zoo where Meg Yancy works. Meg is the keeper of her zoo’s Komodo dragon, Jata. Having never been close to her parents or her phlegmatic sort-of-boyfriend, Meg finds fulfilment in looking after Jata.51IxZjmAE2L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
When the zoo discovers that has produced viable eggs, without mating, Jata begins to receive attention from the media and the scientific world. It becomes clear that Meg, who is closed-off and often abrasive, isn’t versed in zoo politics. While Meg may be Jata’s keeper, she has little control over the Komodo dragon’s future.
Moving from the time before and after the hatching of Jata’s eggs, The Dragon Keeper depicts Meg’s relationship to Jata. Meg wants the best for Jata yet she finds herself bending rules and ignoring signs that point to Jata’s predatory nature. Meg’s entanglement with a veterinary, who also happens to been her sworn enemy, further clouds her judgment.
There are a lot of interesting discussions in this narrative: on parthenogenesis, on Komodo dragons, on animals who are raised in zoos, on the advantages and disadvantages of zoos, on the way media manipulates facts, on parenting and on abortion.
There is also a sense of unease pervading the story. Meg makes quite a few hasty or questionable decisions and readers are given the impression that her behaviour will get her in trouble.
While I do wish that some of the characters had been more fully fleshed out, I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which certain minor characters were portrayed.
Given the narrow scope of this story, I don’t think that it will appeal to a lot of readers. Still, it is an interesting examination of a woman whose loneliness is assuaged by an animal who is often regarded as a threat. Mejia succeeds in making us care for Jata, without romanticising her or ascribing unrealistic attributes to her.
Poignant moments aside, The Dragon Keeper left me wanting more.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Real Life by Brandon Taylor — book review

“Is it into this culture that he is to emerge? Into the narrow, dark water of real life?”

It had been awhile since I finished a book in one day or since I read a book that made me cry…but once I started Real Life I simply couldn’t stop, even if what I was reading made me mad, then sad, then mad again, and then sad all over again.
This is one heart-wrenching novel. Reading it was an immersive and all-consuming experience. I felt both secondhand anxiety, embarrassment, and anger, and the more I read the more frustrated I became by my own impotence…still, I kept on reading, desperate to catch a glimpse of hope or happiness…

“People can be unpredictable in their cruelty.”

Taylor’s riveting debut novel chronicles a graduate student’s turbulent weekend. At its heart, this is the Wallace’s story. Wallace is gay, black, painfully aware of his almost debilitating anxiety and of what he perceives as his physical and internal flaws.
As one the few black men in this unnamed Midwestern city, and the only black man in his course, Wallace knows that he is in a ‘different’ position from his white friends. After a childhood disrupted by poverty and many traumatic experiences, he withdraws into studies, dedicating most of his waking hours to lab tests and projects. Yet, even if he works twice as hard as other students, many still imply—directly and non—that he was accepted into this program only because of his skin colour.

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty. Maybe that’s all they’re doing, lacerating each other and expecting kindness back.”

Real Life has all the trappings of a campus novel. From its confined setting of a university city—in which we follow Wallace as he goes to a popular student hangout by the lake, to his uni’s labs, to his or his friends’ apartments—to its focus on the shifting alliances and power dynamics between a group of friends. Yet, Taylor’s novel also subverts some of this genre’s characteristic. The academic world is not as sheltering as one might first imagine. Questioning ‘real life vs. student life’ becomes a leitmotif in the characters’ conversations. Taylor’s novel offers a much more less idyllic and romantic vision of the academic world than most other campus novels. If anything we became aware of the way in which ‘real life’ problems make their way into a student’s realm.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else. As if affection were a kind of cruelty too.”

From the very first pages we see Wallace’s environment and ‘friends’ through his alienated lenses. While most of his friends are queer—gay, bisexual, or an unspecified sexuality—they are white and from far more privileged backgrounds. At the beginning of the novel Wallace ‘gives in’ and agrees to meet them by the lake, after having avoided them for a long period of time.
What unfolds is deeply uncomfortable to read. In spite of their laughter and smiles, these people do not strike as friends. Their banter is cutting, their off-handed comments have sharp edges, and they are all incredibly and irresolutely selfish. Taylor’s quickly establishes the toxic dynamics between these ‘friends’. While they might not be directly aggressive or hostile, they repeatedly hurt, belittle, betray, and undermine one other.
The distance Wallace feels from them is overwhelming. Yet, even if he tries to be on the outskirts of their discussions, he finds himself having to deal with their racist or otherwise hurtful remarks. Worst still, he is confronted with his ‘friends’ cowardice when they feign that they do not say racist or demeaning things. If anything they usually imply that he is the one who is oversensitive.

Over this weekend we see time and again just how horribly solipsistic and cowardly Wallace’s friends are. They mask their racism and elitism under a pretence of wokeness. Similarly, one of Wallace’s fellow students, believes that as a feminist she can be openly homophobic and racist, throwing around words such as misogynistic without thought or consequence in order to masquerade her own bigotry.
Wallace’s friends’ racism is far more surreptitious. For the most part they pretend that race doesn’t matter, and that is Wallace who makes a ‘big deal’ out of nothing. Yet, when someone say something discriminatory out loud, they do nothing.

As he hangs out with his friends he finds himself noticing just how far from perfect they are. A perfect or happy life seems unattainable. Even moments of lightheartedness or contentment give way to arguments and disagreements within this group. Even if what plagues Wallace’s mind is far more disturbing than what his friends’ rather mundane worries (regarding their future careers, current relationship etc) he often chooses to comfort or simply listen to them, rather than pouring his own heart out. Wallace knows that they couldn’t possibly understand his relationship to his family and past.

“He misses, maybe, also, other things, the weight of unnamed feelings moving through him. And those feelings were transmuted into something cruel and mean.
There was an economy to it, even when you couldn’t see it at first, a shadow calculation running underneath all their lives.”

While he may not voice his troubles while he is hanging out with his ‘friends’, Wallace’s mind is often occupied with his own past and future. Taylor does a terrific job in giving us an impression of Wallace’s discordant psyche. Moments of dissociation make him further retread within himself, escaping his uncomfortable surroundings. Like Wallace we begin to see his surroundings as unpleasant and claustrophobic. At times the people around him blur together, blending into a sea of white faces, making him feel all the more isolated.
Wallace’s own insecurities colour most of his thoughts, feelings, and actions. Even when I could not understand him or in his moments of selfishness, I found myself caring for him and deeply affected by his circumstances. What he experiences…is brutal. When his coping mechanism (work/studying) is threatened his mental health spirals out of control.

The halting and recursive dialogue is incredibly realistic. Even when discussing seemingly ordinary things there is an underlying tension. And there is almost a stop-start quality to the characters’ conversations that struck me for its realism. The way in which their arguments spiral into awkward silences, the tentative words that follow more heated ones, the impact of tone and interpretation.

A sense of physicality, of eroticism, pervades Taylor’s narrative. Characters are often compared to animals, close attention is paid to their bodies—from their skin to their limbs—and to the way the move and look by themselves and together as a group. This attentiveness towards the body emphasises Wallace’s own insecurity about the way he looks. In one of his more brooding moments he finds himself questioning whether he wants to be or be with an attractive guy. His contemplations about same-sex attraction definitely resonated with me. Envy and desire are not mutually exclusive.

“This is perhaps why people get together in the first place. The sharing of time. The sharing of the responsibility of anchoring oneself in the world. Life is less terrible when you can just rest for a moment, put everything down and wait without having to worry about being washed away.”

Taylor often contrasts seemingly opposing feelings. For example, sensual moments are underpinned by a current of danger. Wallace seems to find both force and vulnerability erotic.
Taylor’s narrative repeatedly examines the tense boundaries between pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, tenderness and violence. Taylor projects Wallace’s anxiety, depression, and discomfort onto his narrative so that a feeling of unease underlines our reading experience.

“He had considered himself a Midwesterner at heart, that being in the South and being gay were incompatible, that no two parts of a person could be more incompatible. But standing there, among the boats, shyly waiting to discover the people to whom he felt he would belong, he sensed the foolishness in that.”

Taylor’s prose could be in turns thoughtful and jarring. There are disturbingly detailed descriptions about Wallace’s lab-work, unflinching forays into past traumas, and thrilling evocations of sexual desire.

A seemingly ordinary weekend shows us just how inescapable social hierarchies are. The secular world of academia does not entirely succeed in keeping the real world at bay. Depression, anxiety, dysphoria, the lingering effects of abuse all make their way into Wallace’s story. We read of his confusing desires, of his ‘friends’ hypocrisy, of his own appetite for self-destruction…Real Life is not an easy read. There were many horrible moments in which I wanted to jump into the narrative to shake Wallace’s friends. Wallace too, pained me. In spite of his observant nature, he remains detached. He picks up on his friends’ horrible behaviour but with one or two exceptions he does not oppose them. Yet, I could also see why he remained passive. Being in his position is exhausting.

“It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty. It grates him to consider this, the shutting away of the part of him that now throbs and writhes like a new organ that senses so keenly the limitations of his life.”

Even if I craved for a more reassuring ending I still think that this is an impressive debut novel one that strikingly renders what it feels to inhabit a black body in a white-dominated environment. Real Life tackles racism, privilege, cruelty, cultural and power dynamics, and the complexities of sexual desire head on. Wallace’s friends are aggravating if not downright despicable. Which is perhaps why when alongside Wallace we glimpse some kindness in them, it makes us all the more upset.

Reading Real Life made me uncomfortable, angry, sad. Lines like these, “He typically brings crackers or another form of fiber because his friends are all full of shit and need cleaning out from time to time”, even made me laugh out loud.
What I’m trying to say, or write is this: this is a brilliant novel, one you should definitely read (with some caution, of course).
Anyhow, I can’t wait to read more by Taylor.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff — book review

Untitled drawing (1).jpgThe History of Living Forever is an ambitious novel. The narrative includes multiple timelines and often switches between 1st and 3rd perspective, weaving together a compelling yet intricate story. Two of the central figures in these various ‘timelines’ are Conrad Aybinder and Sammy Tampari who in spite of their student-teacher relationship, and of Conrad being underage, become involved romantically. Their “liaison” however is soon cut short by Sammy’s death. A grief-struck Conrad finds himself entangled in what was Sammy’s search for immortality. Through Sammy’s diary entries he discovers that for years Sammy had been using himself as a guinea pig. Had Sammy lost his mind? Or was he really onto something?
With this fascinating premise The History of Living Forever details Sammy and Conrad lives, moving from their childhoods to their adulthoods. They are highly intelligent individuals who are feel somewhat isolated by their intellect (both of them are high-school seniors at the age of 16), I like the fact that the narrative never romanticises their worst actions or behaviours and that other characters call them out on their ‘bad antics’. I also enjoyed the way the characters around them were rendered. Wherever they had an important role or not they were engaging and realistic. I was particularly affected by the parents and relatives in this story. While Conrad’s dad is an alcoholic and could have easily been relegated to the role of ‘bad dad’ the narrative offers a nuanced portrayal of him and his addiction.
The plot was in constant movement, shifting from past to present, jumping from one theory to the other. We learn what drives Sammy’s quest for immortality and see that at the age of 40 Conrad still thinks of him.
At times I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information we were given. Don’t get me wrong, it was all fascinating, but science and maths are not my fortes so I think (okay, I know) that many things that went over my head. Nevertheless, I was captivated by this story which is a story about science, love, obsession, and immortality. Immortality makes for an intriguing topic, one that Wolff skilfully explores. Part of me wishes that we could have had more of Conrad and less of Sammy, or that at least we could have known what Sammy felt for Conrad.
Overall, I think this is an incredibly creative novel, one that bridges genre (coming of age, mystery, adventure, speculative fiction). While I wish that some of the characters’ arcs had been handled differently, I am looking forward to reading this again (and perhaps I will have a better grasp of the theories discussed).

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My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.75 stars

 

If, Then : Book Review

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If, Then
by Kate Hope Day
★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

If, Then is yet another example of ‘great concept, poor execution‘. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much if the story had been told in a less uninvolved narrative.
The story features on a group of neighbours who begin seeing “what ifs“. One sees herself romantically involved with a woman who is currently only her colleague/friend, a woman who has just recently lost her mother starts seeing her dead mother, a man sees a version of himself that suggests some imminent catastrophe.
As I said, I liked the idea of these converging realities…however, I just found the writing to be incredibly frustrating. The writing made each character a mere empty vessel who acted under an inexplicable influence and for some unknown (and hardly credible) reason. They move from A to B, they decide to build bunkers or kiss their friend for no apparent reason! They just go on to do these things but we aren’t told what they feel or why the feel like they should replicate these ‘what-ifs’ they seem to see. We know little about what goes on inside these characters which created a huge disconnect between them, their story and the reader (me).
The writing was almost clinically detached from both the characters and their surroundings. There were a lot of pointlessly descriptive phrases which wouldn’t have bothered me if they had been interspersed in a more variegated prose. We are told when the characters are affect by physical things such as sweating or flushing but not if they are anxious, afraid or overwhelmed by an emotion of any sort. We are told that the characters wear ‘gloves’ on their ‘hands’ and ‘flip-flops’ on their ‘feet’, that their cheeks look flushed or red (I swear that ‘cheeks’ are mentioned one too many times…)…which soon grew tiring. There is an abundance of onomatopoeias that added little to the immediacy of the narrative. The story is told in the present tense and yet everything that happens seems so far away…
Their surroundings are also described in the same expository manner: the water that pours out of the tap, the furniture and house of a character who no impact on the story whats-over…the dispassionate way in which things are described would have been more fitting in an IKEA catalogue (for all I know, an IKEA catalogue might offer its readers a bit more enthusiasm).
The summary describes 90% of the storyline…which combined with the dull storytelling makes this relatively short read a slog to get through.

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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

There are so many new releases that are focused on a particular family’s history, and there is a trend for storylines that follow members of a family through the decades (e.g. The Good Children, Commonwealth). The Immortalists might revolve around four siblings, but there was little – if any –interaction between them. This novel focused on each of the Golds individually rather then showing them as being part of a whole. At times, I could almost forget that they were part of the same family, and that is perhaps one of my biggest problems with this novel. Also, that and the fact that there was none of the magical realism promised by its premise, so I found the lack of fantastical elements to be disappointing.

Chloe Benjamin’s novel provides little respite: bad shit happens, time and again. Small issues and arguments are enlarged so much so that each of the Gold sibling – as well as the other characters –seem to be over-reacting almost all of the time.
There is a sense of dread embedded in each of the four narratives, and this unease felt – to me – unneeded. Things that should seem every-day – ‘manageable’ – actions become sources of humongous distress. And the characters act-out, they are so inconsistent, so bloody ambiguous, that I felt little for them. That each of the Gold is confronted by a certain character – a friend or a lover – became predictable: this one character will them that they are selfish, self-absorbed, that they should not think themselves as having faced any tragedies, that they should not use their Jewish heritage as a source of pity. Really?
Here are a few other things that I found annoying (possible mild spoilers ahead):
Simon’s storyline. Now, there is a character who is gay, and he will be rather young during the 70s…we know he will die young…can you guess? Yes. His narrative was also the only narrative to contain multiple explicit sexual scenes…so because he is gay, he has to be sex-crazed? The author tries to make it seem as if it was the knowledge of dying young that pushes Simon to lead an unsafe and pleasure-seeking lifestyle…but to me, his story and the way his story is told was just banal and came across as rather distasteful. Simon never seemed fully-fleshed out. He makes lots of (bad) choices, but doesn’t do a lot of thinking…
➜we see little of the strong bond between Klara and Simon. We only see her missing him, but the few scenes between them did not reflect the affectionate and deep bond that Klara claims they had…
➜Daniel…what the actual heck? His narrative sets him up as being this one type of person and ends by having him do completely out of character…
➜Varya’s story was so deeply uncomfortable. Grotesque…and, dare I say, unbelievable? There is this one scene in which she takes off her socks (after having fallen asleep in her car) and they are drenched with sweat. After one night in a car? Come on!

Moralistic side-characters, ludicrous descriptions, senseless dialogues, sudden lewd observations…what was meant to be edgy seemed plain gross. Unlikable characters are okay, heck I loved Emma Bovary in spite of her many flaws, but the Golds were scarcely credible, so I found it hard to feel much beyond confusion in their regards.

Simon and Klara’s stories were supposed to show how two people, convinced of knowing when they will die, decide to live life at its fullest: they purse what they want, they focus on themselves. Both of their stories unfolded in a predictable way: Simon’s section is focused on his sexuality, the dangers of not being allowed to feel comfortable and accepted by others, while Klara’s journey takes her down a more puzzling path, her own mental health affects large chunks of her narrative. David and Varya’s stories were – not so subtly – meant to contrast with the ones of their younger siblings . While the ‘death date’ pressures Simon and Klara into pleasure-seeking lifestyles (their decision to put aside family duties) David and Varya seem not as convinced by their own death days. They both have chips on their shoulders, and because of that bitterness they have little to do with one another and think little of their younger siblings. Through their careers the author attempts to question the ethics of their practices: David is allowing people to go to war, while Varya’s lab is studying and imposing a restrictive lifestyle on some monkeys. Their narratives focus on a short fraction of their lives: their job is key and at one point or another they are both challenged by that one convenient character….

It wasn’t terrible, there were instances were I actually liked it, but by the end, I felt somewhat cheated. After all of that, all of those embarrassing and sorrowful scenes, those inanely stupid decision and those awkward arguments, after all of that…and then what? What is the message of this novel supposed to be?

My rating: 2.5 stars

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