Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza

“Strange: It has come to me that one doesn’t write to remember, or to forget, or to find relief, or to cure oneself of some pain. One writes to plumb one’s own depths, to understand what’s inside.”

Having found Optic Nerve to be a puzzling yet thoroughly compelling book I was very much eager to sink my teeth into Portrait of an Unknown Lady. Whereas Optic Nerve loosely ties together the unnamed narrator’s meditations on history and art, in Portrait of an Unknown Lady Gainza contains the narrator’s reflections and inquiries into these subjects into what appears to be more of a semblance of a plot. This by no means results in a plot-driven narrative, as there is no urgency to the protagonist’s introspections. Her ruminations are given a freewheeling tempo, one that reminded me of lazy summer days from my childhood. In spite of her philosophical speculations, the narrator’s internal meanderings had a buoyancy to them that saved them from coming across as verbose or laboured.
Set in Buenos Aires the narrator of Portrait of an Unknown Lady is an auction house employee who follows her mentor into the more shady recesses of the art world. When her mentor dies our narrator feels lost, lacking purpose, and direction. She eventually finds solace in rejoining the world she’d left behind, as she begins to search for the identity of a forger, best known for their Mariette Lydis forgeries. In her investigation of this unknown person, the narrator finds herself considering just what a forgery is and whether there is a thing as ‘authenticity’. The first quarter of this slim volume was certainly engrossing as I found the narrator’s recollections of her early days on her job and her relationship with her mentor interesting indeed. As the book progresses however I found myself bored at times. The narrative at times seemed to stray away from its original plot so I found myself forgetting that there was a plot in the first place. I would have probably preferred a more experimental and unconfined narrative, In Optic Nerve, for example, each chapter was very much self-contained, whereas here we have this overarching storyline that never comes to the fore. Still, I always love reading about art, and Gainza demonstrates a vast knowledge of this subject. I liked reading her impressions of certain artists or art movements and the insight she gives into the more administrative aspects of the art world. Gainza is as adroit and insightful as ever but overall Portrait of an Unknown Lady left me wanting more. The snapshot-like stories that make-up Optic Nerve stayed with me longer, as they captured in vivid detail the life of an artist and a moment from the narrator’s own life. The parallelism between her experiences and those of the people she discusses gave the narrative further dimension. Here instead we lack that very specific comparative element, and even if identity, loneliness, and authenticity are central themes, both to the protagonist and her subject, well, it resulted in a far looser comparison.
Still, I can see myself returning to this book as a re-read may result in a newfound appreciation for its story. If you are a fan of Gainza or authors such as Rachel Cusk or Jessica Au, I recommend you check out this one for yourself.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

The Houseguest: And Other Stories by Amparo Dávila

Whenever an author is compared to Shirley Jackson, I feel compelled to check their work out. More often than not, upon reading their stuff, I end up rather perplexed by the comparisons to Jackson. In the case of Amparo Dávila, well, this comparison isn’t wholly unearned. Jackson and Dávila’s approach to the horror genre certainly share similarities. Their stories are imbued by a surreal, almost fantastical, quality that seems to blur the line between reality and fantasy. Their characters are paranoid to the point of being delusional, but there are times when their fears are not wholly unfounded and that the people, places, and situations that cause them to feel such anxiety and terror are not wholly normal. I appreciated that Dávila sets many of her stories within a household or building, rarely venturing beyond their thresholds. This ‘restricted’ setting augments the oppressive atmosphere of her stories and often worsens her characters’ paranoia. Dávila upsets normal family dynamics and every day activities by introducing sinister guests and entities within her characters’ homes. Alienation, loneliness, madness, and despair are running motifs throughout this collection. Sadly, the stories ended up blurring together somewhat. The characters are thinly rendered and often interchangeable with one another. The writing was at times repetitive and there were instances in which certain descriptions & dialogues came across as stilted (i read the eng. translation so that may be why). There was also an overuse of ellipsis which made many scenes rather dramatic. I found myself wishing for Jackson’s humor as I found myself completely unamused by Dávila’s stories. Compared to contemporary horror authors such as Samanta Schweblin, well The Houseguest doesn’t quite come on top.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno

The blurb for This Thing Between Us is somewhat misleading. After reading it, I went into this novel expecting to be a tale about this couple who buy a possibly evil home smart speaker only to discover that said home speaker is a mere speck in the story and that the events described in the blurb don’t really happen on the page but have already come to pass by the start of the novel. This Thing Between Us opens with Vera’s funeral. Her death leaves her husband, and narrator, Thiago bereft. He refers to Vera as ‘you’, a stylistic choice that might as well appeal to other readers, but one that does zilch for me. I find this device gimmicky at the best of times and in this case it contributed nothing to the story or it did not help in making ‘you’ (aka Vera) into a fully dimensional character. Maybe this was intentional, after all, she’s dead by the start of the novel so we never truly ‘meet’ her, however, I would have still preferred it if her character had been fleshed out (flashbacks, for instance, would have helped). Anyhow, Thiago is definitely not doing so well after her death, a death which turns out was very much a public affair. The media and various political parties try to spin her death in their own favour, or try to use it to further their agendas. Thiago couldn’t care less, he just wants to be left alone. Other people’s grief and sympathies alienate him further and he finds himself increasingly aware of a sense of wrongness in his house. He eventually leaves Chicago for a remote cabin where, surprise surprise, things take a turn for the worst. Here the story definitely brought to might The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones.
This is yet another horror novel that did not really affect me all that much. I wasn’t creeped out or horrified or even preoccupied. Part of it is because Thiago as a character bored me. I found him very generic and despite the majority of the narrative constituting his internal monologue, well, I did not feel as if I knew all that well. The guy is grieving for sure, but I would have liked to see more of his personality (other than he’s sort of an introvert). His voice didn’t captivate me nor was I invested in his character. While the author does dedicate a lot of time to Thiago’s grief and grieving process, he seems to lose focus of Vera. She’s very much a blank, and I wish that her death had not happened off-page prior to the beginning of the story.
The horror/paranormal angle of the story was also ultimately a letdown. As I said above, I thought this would be more about Itza, the speaker, but, turns out this was more of a supernatural/cosmic horror kind of tale. At times I was reminded of Pet Sematary (but lite). The lack of secondary characters also made the story harder to get through. So much of the narrative revolves around Thiago, a guy I was not particularly keen on. In the latter half of the novel things pick up somewhat but I found a lot of the events predictable. I was hoping it would subvert certain horror tropes but it ends up dishing out the same tired horror stuff (your protagonist has a dog? guess what happens…). The gore was eeh…not quite as gratuitous as other horror novels but nevertheless unnecessary if you ask me. Having those scenes didn’t upset me, however, they made me roll my eyes once or twice.
If you want to read this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews. If you, like me, added this to your tbr thinking it would be about a knock-off Alexa gone bad, I suggest you look elsewhere because this book has very little to do with technology (but rather it gives us the same ol’ cosmic horror).

my rating: ★★½

It Is Wood, It Is Stone by Gabriella Burnham

Aside from its pretty cover It Is Wood, It Is Stone doesn’t have a lot to offer. It is one of those novels that is very much all style, no substance. Plot and character development are sacrificed in favour of gimmicky narrative devices and flashy metaphors. I finished this less than a week ago and yet I have retained almost nothing about its story or its characters. Not a great sign.

The novel is narrated by Linda, a bland American woman who follows her husband, a professor (?), to São Paulo after he’s given a yearlong teaching position there. Linda refers to Dennis as ‘you’, a gimmick that gets old fast (the kind of literary stunt that is more suited to a creative writing class). Anyhow, Linda isn’t sure if she still loves her bland husband but she nevertheless follows him because why not. In Brazil, Linda has to adjust to having a maid, Marta, an older woman she finds fascinating because of reasons. She then meets a woman in a bar and allegedly falls for her. More navel-gazing ensues with a few sprinkles of a half-hearted social commentary. The narrative doesn’t really provide much insight into issues of class, race, and sexuality. It thinks it does but really, the author is more intent on impressing their vibrant language on us (which often consists in clichéd imagery involving blood or the abject body and fake-deep realizations). The author doesn’t do much with her setting either. Much of the novel takes place indoors, which could have worked if our protagonist Linda had been an interesting narrator but her observations managed to be both dull and predictable. The author’s portrayal of marriage dynamics also failed to engage me. The author doesn’t maximise her story’s domestic setting, and rather than painting a convincing portrait of an increasingly disaffected married woman she presents us with a series of digressions (on the body, dreams, sex) that amount to nothing. The affair she has with this woman was rendered in such a vague manner that I never really bought into it. It seemed a plot-device more than anything.

There is nothing subversive or original about this novel. If you don’t mind affected and purply language, maybe you will find this more rewarding than I did.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Eat the Mouth That Feeds You by Carribean Fragoza

An exceedingly underwhelming collection. The cover and title of Carribean Fragoza’s debut collection succeeded in making me want to read it. After reading the first three stories, however, I found myself feeling rather underwhelmed by Fragoza’s storytelling. I, later on, decided to give this collection another shot, hoping that I would find the other stories in it to be more to my liking but alas no such thing happened. The stories in this collection struck me as the product of a creative writing assignment; they weren’t necessarily bad but the way these scenarios are presented to us struck me as contrived. The language tries hard to impress its importance on us, often through the use of showy metaphors that did not come across as particularly imaginative or clever. The prose has a sticky cloying quality that I find particularly unappealing but may very well appeal to other readers.

Many of these stories have domestic settings and centre on Mexican-American characters. These stories are permeated by an oppressive atmosphere. Characters feel trapped by their home life, the presence of their families and or friends does little to abate their fears and anxieties. Quite the opposite, in fact, these people often pose a threat to their physical and mental well-being. Through these stories, the author explores alienation, loneliness, paranoia, and otherness.

While I appreciated the themes that dominate Fragoza’s storytelling, I was unable to fully ‘immerse’ myself in her stories. Her affected prose irked me and I found the weird and grotesque elements to be predictable and not particularly engaging. Perhaps readers who haven’t read a lot of collections of horror stories be able to appreciate this debut more than I did. These stories weren’t as morbid as Mariana Enríquez’s Things We Lost in the Fireor Brenda Peynado’s The Rock Eaters. They lacked the surreal humor that characterizes Shirley Jackson’s work and the prose wasn’t as solid as say Samanta Schweblin’s in Mouthful of Birds. Some of the imagery succeeded in being grotesque but I did not find any of these stories to be particularly disturbing. This collection basically reads like a lite version of Enríquez’s’s ones.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova


When she left Ecuador for good, she learned how to leave pieces of herself behind. Pieces that her descendants would one day try to collect to put her back together.

In The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, Zoraida Córdova combines an intergenerational family drama with magical realism, and the end result will certainly appeal to fans of Alice Hoffman and Isabel Allende. Not only does Córdova’s dazzling storytelling complement the fantastical elements within her story but her prose often brought to mind the language you encounter in fairy tales.

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina follows a dual timeline. The one in the present opens with the formidable matriarch Orquídea Divina Montoya inviting her progeny to her funeral. Over the years her children and grandchildren have left her house in Four Rivers, and many of them have not returned since their departure. When they flock back to her home they find out that Orquídea has undergone a drastic change. In this part we are introduced to a lot of characters, many of them don’t even get a speaking line. The house is very crowded and arguments and disagreements inevitably come to pass. No one knows about Orquídea’s past, and some have come to resent her for it. Odd and inexplicable things have always happened to the Montoyas, and maybe, now, on her ‘deathbed’ Orquídea will finally reveal some of her secrets…except that she doesn’t. The narrative jumps seven years ahead where we learn that many of the Montoyas have been dying sudden and bizarre deaths. Someone, or something, maybe after them, but why?
The other timeline gives a glimpse into Orquídea’s Cinderellaesque childhood in Ecuador. Told from birth that she would have bad luck Orquídea finds herself growing apart from her mother once she remarries. Her stepsiblings bully her, her stepfather shows her no kindness. Additionally, Orquídea is tasked with various house chores and with looking after her youngest sibling. One day she goes to the circus and finds herself falling in love. The following chapters of her story follow her ill-fated romance.

I liked the first chapters, in which we are introduced to the various Montoyas (some more in-depth than others) and see their reactions to Orquídea’s ‘transformation’. The prose is gorgeous, the magical realism on point, and the mystery around Orquídea’s past intriguing. We then get a time-skip of 7+ and I’m afraid that I wasn’t particularly keen on it. We never get to properly know the majority of the Montoyas nor do we truly delve into the experiences of Marimar and Rey, our main characters. I think that much of this novel, especially once we’ve passed Orquídea’s death, relied too much on telling. Marimar was a bit of a generic lead while Rey very much existed for comic relief and many of his lines did seem to make him sound a bit like a stereotype (‘bitchy’, man-obsessed, etc.). He’s basically the gay best friend. The chapters set in the past were somewhat disappointing as I thought they would give us an overview of Orquídea’s life, as opposed to just focusing on her late teens/early 20s. I think her journey and early years in America had the potential of being quite interesting. I mean, she had several husbands and they barely get mentioned. Orquídea herself was hard to like. Having a Cinderella-like sob backstory doesn’t necessarily make you into a sympathetic or complex character. Still, I did find her intriguing and by the end, I did feel on her behalf (kind of). As I said, I wish that more of the Montoyas had been fleshed out. There were some deaths in the story and they had little to no impact because we didn’t know that characters who die all that much (they basically were included to be killed off). The ‘big bad’ was disappointing and at times the story gave me Disney vibes. At one point Córdova describes curls as ‘worm-like’ and that gets a minus from me.
In spite of these things (story+characters being kind of meh) I still thought that this was a good novel. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to those who are looking for character-driven stories or nuanced family sagas, however, if you happen to be a fan of the authors I mentioned above or of the magical realism genre, well, you should definitely consider giving this novel a go. The story is fairly compelling, the author’s prose is lovely, and the fantasy elements were great. Atmospheric and spellbinding The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is an engaging story about love, family, heartache, and fate.

ps: while the cover is by no means ugly I do think that it doesn’t really suit the tone of the story. Additionally, it is the kind of cover that would be better suited to YA novel, not an adult one.

my rating: ★★★½

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Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

DISCLAIMER: as I did not like Velvet Was the Night my review will be, alas, a negative one. If you are a fan of SMG or you happen to love this novel, congratulazioni. Please, don’t @ me just because I don’t feel the same way as you do, I get it, YMMV. If you are interested in reading this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

I think this novel is confirmation that SMG’s books are not for me. I want to love what she writes but so far, I find her books to be a source of great frustration. Her female characters strike me as an amalgamation of Not Like Other Girls/Mary Sues/Cinderella-like-figures, there tends to be a total lack of female solidarity (in the case of mexican gothic we barely get any scenes featuring the two female characters who are supposedly meant to be close), and, out of the three books I’ve read by her, there have been no queer characters.

After seeing that Velvet Was the Night was going to be a noir novel I found myself actually looking forward to reading it as I happen to enjoy noir books, such as the ones penned by Walter Mosley. The cover, title, and premise of Velvet Was the Night were certainly alluring. I mean, covers like this one are pretty much my Achilles’ heel. My expectations weren’t that high given my history with SMG’s works…and yet, even so, I still ended up being fairly disappointed by Velvet Was the Night.

BRIEF OVERVIEW
In this foray into the noir genre, SMG once again transports her readers to 20th Mexico. This time around the action takes place in Mexico City during the 1970s, aka during Mexico’s ‘Dirty War’, a period of civil unrest, with student demonstrators and civilians clashing against and being persecuted/disappeared/massacred by the government.
30-something Maite is a plain, dowdy, and downtrodden secretary who dreams of adventure and romance. Not only does her family care zilch for her (because , of course, ), but everyone seems to overlook her. Her one joy is reading Secret Romance comics. Through these, she can briefly escape her ‘miserable’ existence. She spends most of her time fantasizing about the kind of romance, passion, drama that fills those stories & playing her own teensy-tiny violin. She occasionally gets a thrill by stealing people’s belongings (such a bad girl), but for the most part, she’s a quiet, bookish, plain jane. When her beautiful neighbour, artsy student Leonora, disappears Maite sets out to find her. Not out of concern, but because she was tasked with cat-sitting Leonora’s cat and she isn’t planning on doing so gratis (this line…“Maite would be damned if she was going to also be paying for meow-meow’s cuisine.” meow-meow? wow, sick burn maite). Her ‘detective’ skills leave a lot to be desired. She spends the remainder of her narrative going on about how plain and pathetic she is, how much she loves Secret Romance, how every other woman has it better than she does (i mean, she can’t afford to get her car repaired!) and imagining herself being with the two guys who happen to have been involved with the missing neighbour. One of them is more handsome than the other. That’s it.
We also get chapters following Elvis, a thug who isn’t like other thugs. You see, whereas his fellow goons enjoy beating people up, he doesn’t. He’s part of an enforcer group with ties to the government. As suggested by his nickname Elvis adores ‘the King’, rock ’n’ roll. He also likes old-timey movies. He’s just a nice guy really. His boss tells him to find Leonora as she may have some incriminating photos. As he’s looking for her, Elvis also observes Maite, and eventually becomes vaguely infatuated with her.

(MINOR SPOILERS BELOW)

Before I move to the reasons why I did not vibe with this, I will try and mention a few positive-ish things:
✓ the cover and title get top marks
✓ I do admire SMG for switching between genres rather than sticking to one and for bringing her own style to said genre
✓ the atmosphere at times was on point (even if it did try too hard to be gritty and edgy)
✓ the music (SMG included a playlist with some really solid choices)
✓ some of the descriptions were actually pretty great and certainly fitted in with the noir aesthetic
✓ the sense of place & time were fairly strong
✓ the political commentary
✓ the ending’s open-ended nature

Now, for the things that were no good to me:

storyline
I’m all for slow-burn narratives but here the pacing never really took off. The plot consists of a series of incredibly repetitive scenes. Maite is with man numero 1 or man numero 2. She’s irritated by him, no, wait, she actually wants him. She comes across activists and grows slightly more aware of the world around her. That’s it. Elvis spends his portion of the story tailing Maite or others and dissing his ‘colleagues’ (who unlike him, a heart of gold do not have). While the author does address how fraught this period of time was in Mexico, I wanted more out of the story. I would have liked more interesting characters and more diverse interactions between them (instead of getting the same two characters speaking to each other).
The narrative is also repetitive when it comes to reiterating the same information about the characters. SMG already established early on what Maite and Elvis are like: Maite is plain and Elvis kind of wants out of the crime life. Yet, time and time again we read the same stuff about them. Maite goes on and on and on about how much she likes Secret Romance and how unsatisfied she is by her lamentably unromantic existence. Elvis just wants someone who shares his musical taste and maybe also a way out of his rather lonely lifestyle. I got this in the very first 20% of the book. Yet, I was confronted with this same info throughout my reading of this novel. I found them to be really insipid. They were, for the most part, passive. Things happen to them. Their arcs were as flat as their personalities.
The missing woman aspect of the storyline was similarly underwhelming. Leonora’s disappearance lacked oomph. I never felt any apprehension on her behalf because Maite doesn’t give two shits about her (so why should i bring myself to care?). She was also portrayed in such a snidey way….
Sadly, overall, I found this story to be dull & predictable. Nothing of note truly happens and I felt little to no suspense. I would have liked it more if the story had had a more tangible air of mystery. The story also felt vaguely vanilla? There is some violence and some swearing but other than that…eh, the tone of the story seemed rather juvenile. The narrative is very much intent on impressing upon us that tis’ noir. Sometimes, this works, but, sometimes it just struck me as a tad overdone and distracting almost.

characters
Maite maite maite….why why why did you have to be such a woe-is-me whinging whiner? Her character actually had potential I believe. I was hoping that the author would subvert this trope of the ‘plain and lonely secretary dreaming of romance’ but she sadly does not. The cover made me think that along the way Maite would slowly or drastically transform into a femme fatale or would become more self-assured and proactive behaviours. She does neither of these things. She remains very much the same by the end. She doesn’t grow or regress. To me, she was still recognisably the same Maite we met on the very first pages (note: emphasis on the ‘to me’). Very early in the narrative SMG establishes that Maite is overlooked by her family with a very ‘subtle’ scene in which her mother bakes or buys a chocolate cake for her birthday even if she knows that Maite doesn’t like chocolate. She’s served for last (if i recall) and given a small slice or something. Her mother also doesn’t care about helping her out with her car repair payments and compares her unfavourably to ‘your sister’ (who is married & with children). These scenes were meant to make us feel sympathetic towards Maite but they just succeeded in irritating me.
Maite isn’t beautiful or charismatic, nor does she have any friends (because of course). She spends most of her time envying other women, making judgy comments about their appearance (often implying that they lead easier lives than she does or have more luck). Other women are sexy, slim, provocative, without a care in the world. Maite isn’t that interested in politics and prefers reading comics or romance books. Someone describes them as syrupy or sappy or whatnot and she gets all flustered saying that they aren’t. Look, I’m all for escapist reads. But, there is no denying that the stuff she reads is sappy. Why pretend otherwise? It would have been more satisfying if in her defence of these comics/books Maite had pointed out how horrible and violent the ‘real’ world is, and why shouldn’t she wish to ‘escape’ it? And so what if she likes sappy love stories?
The fact of the matter is: I disliked her. She was that special brand of annoying that always acts like a victim. Everyone else is mean to her. They are either taking advantage of her (like leonora and her ‘men’) or mistreating her (her family). I would have loved her if she had been explicitly written as unlikeable. She could have been a modern Emma Bovary. Someone who is so determined to make her daydreams into her reality that she’s ready to sabotage her own marriage and reputation to do so. Emma is a bitch, but I love her. The narrative is quite clear in pointing out that she’s selfish and vain. Emma’s nastiness was quite subversive & refreshing. But here, well, Maite is just a crybaby, a nonentity. She claims that she’s pathetic and boring but then we have Elvis pointing out how ‘interesting’ she seems. The narrative seemed intent on making her seem ‘different’ and ‘more relatable’ than other women.
Maite did not strike me (again, emphasis on ‘me’) as a deep or fleshed out character. Yet, she was presented as being this complex woman who is caught in a ‘dangerous’ web. I wish she’d been written as being a wholly superficial and self-serving individual. Someone who is only concerned in making her fantasies into her reality. Or, as I said above, as someone who goes from being a tremulous meek & mousy woman who is unsure of herself, to a femme fatale type of figure. In scenes of ‘tension’ (when she is fighting with that guy) she either makes petulant remarks (which were frankly cringy given that he’s still a student and she’s in her 30s) or acts like the classic ‘fragile’ and ‘hysterical’ woman who can’t defend herself or speak up or use her brain to figure out stuff.
Elvis…I don’t have much to say about him. I could not take him seriously for the most part. Suffice it to say that he struck me as the type of male character female authors write. He isn’t particularly smart or kind, but really, he isn’t all that bad given that, unlike his ‘mates’, he doesn’t love violence. Also, he’s into music…clearly, that makes him deep…right?
The secondary characters are very much cardboard cutouts. The women are all horrible and catty. The men are either thick, douchebags, or fuckbois.

writing
While at times I liked SMG’s prose, her style strikes me as passive. That is to say that when she recounts something I feel very much at a distance from what she’s recounting (even if that thing is happening there and then).

good vs. evil/morality
Clearly bad characters are revealed to be in fact bad. While our good characters have one or two ‘reasonable’ flaws (she steals now and again, he’s working for the ‘baddies’) that are meant to humanise them, said flaws don’t change the fact that they are very much the good ones. Our MCs were not the morally grey characters I’d hoped they’d be (esp. given that the noir genre lends itself well to ambiguous characters).

All in all, this novel was a vexing read. The story was boring and clichéd and the characters thinly rendered caricatures. As mentioned early on, the lack of female solidarity and lgbtq+ characters also frustrated me (can we stop pitting women against each other?).

I give up with SMG’s books. I wish the author nothing but the best and I’m happy to see that many other readers can appreciate her work in a way I’ve so far been unable to. Her novels are just not for me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

“There was no one clear point of loss. It happened over and over again in a thousand small ways and the only truth there was to learn was that there was no getting used to.”

Boasting her signature writing style State of Wonder is a captivating and thought-provoking read. Ann Patchett’s quiet yet graceful prose drew me in from the very opening page and I found myself enthralled by the calm rhythm of her storytelling. As with many of her other novels, State of Wonder portrays the aftermath of the death one, capturing the shock, grief, and sorrow of those affected by loss.
Patchett’s restrained style belies the complexity of her narrative—from the characters to the story. In spite of the unassuming quality of her prose, there are many moving passages to be found in State of Wonder, nuanced characters (who cannot be easily labelled as being either good or bad), realistic dynamics, and thought-provoking reflections (on death, life, love). The realism created by her unadorned prose is counterpoised by a dreamy ambience, one that gives the narrative an almost palpable sense of melancholy. There is also a sense of the fantastical, but, as with anything Patchett, it is not overt, and its subtlety …
The story follows Marina Singh, a 42-year-old scientific researcher. Other than an unremarkable affair with Mr. Fox, her company’s C.E.O, she leads a fairly uneventful and sedated life. However, when her colleague and friend Dr. Anders Eckman dies of a fever in a remote part of Brazil, she reluctantly embarks on a journey to the Amazonian jungle to complete his assignment; she has to find her elusive and former medical-school mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is supposedly creating a new fertility drug that will allow women to bear children well past their seventies.
So we follow Marina deep into the Amazon, on a physical journey that also involves embarking on an emblematic quest: in fact, the repercussion of her friend’s death combined with her ‘task’ raise a series of questions and doubts in someone, who is—from the very start of the novel—in a perpetual state of uncertainty (over a past accident in her medical career, over her future with Dr. Fox).
On top of that, the psychological side effects of the antimalarial medicine Marina must take during her search give her vivid nightmares. While in her sleep Marina faces past fears, when awake she voyages into an unknown future. And it soon becomes apparent that to reach Dr. Annick Swenson, she can no longer rely on past resolutions. More than once she is forced to reassess herself, especially when faced with morally problematic scenarios.
Alongside Marina there are many vibrant and memorable characters, all of whom, regardless of their roles, are incredibly believable: Patchett captures their essence, giving us glimpses into their inner turmoils, their fears and desires, or simply conveying the kind of person they are through the way speak and/or comport themselves. The individuality of her characters is all the more genuine because of their inconsistencies. Each type of relationship that Marina experiences, wherever it is that of a brief exchange with the passenger next to her in her flight to Brazil or with the indigenous child, who is under the care of Dr. Swenson, leaves a mark on her story.

Marina herself is one of the biggest strengths of the novel. And it is precisely because Marina is far from perfect that she feels so genuine, so incredibly real. Her authenticity made it easy to relate and care for her. This just goes to show Pratchett’s brilliant characterization: despite her main character being rather introverted, it was impossible not to connect to her. Although Marina does change in the course of her ‘adventures’, she does so in a subtle, and most importantly, convincing way. Moreover, she is still herself at the end of her journey.

The story carries a sense of the outwordly, of the magical, which is emphasized by both the remote and ‘unfamiliar’ (to marina and me at least) setting and by the artful analogies Pratchett makes with mythological tales. This surrealism is carefully balanced out by the authenticity of her scenarios. Patchett deftly juxtaposes simple concerns against a unique backdrop. Once in the jungle, Marina is forced to confront in person the ethics of Dr. Swenson’s studies, showing that in spite of the woman’s claims, her presence is interfering with the Lakashi, or that under the flag of ‘for the greater good’ other doctors there will readily resort to unethical practices. Marina too sees the Lakashi as ‘other’, and struggles to reconcile herself with their customs and ways of living.
Patchett’s prose is exquisite, both for its clarity and for its ability to transport me alongside Marina on her journey. By honing in on those ordinary moments and interactions, not only did Marina’s story become all the more vivid but we also come to realise how often these ‘small’ everyday instances can and will affect us.
The slow but affecting story, the atmospheric and evocative writing, the author’s careful descriptions and observation make State of Wonder an enthralling tale in which I will gladly lose myself again into.

my rating: ★★★★★

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The Rock Eaters: Stories by Brenda Peynado

The Rock Eaters: Stories will probably appeal to fans of macabre tales, such as the ones authored by Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, and possibly even Yōko Ogawa. This collection of speculative short stories is a highly metaphorical one. Brenda Peynado uses magical realism, aliens, dystopian and fantastic scenarios, to discuss immigration, xenophobia, and class disparity. While I appreciated the issues Peynado tackles within her narratives these stories seemed often allegorical to the point of distraction. Much of the imagery was repetitive and the grotesque elements embedded within these narratives came across as unnecessarily garish and sensationalistic.

Peynado’s fabulist tales are certainly more successful than those stories that venture into the sci-fi/dystopian realm; they either read like knock-off Black Mirror episodes or as incredibly derivative of other works. There is one story, in particular, that seemed to rip off Memory Police, and another one—starring aliens being persecuted and oppressed—seemed a bit too reminiscent of films such as District 9.
While the author certainly plays around with different genres the tone and style of these stories weren’t all that varied. They are incredibly depressing and negative. The characters blur together, seeming to share the same kind of generic personality. The author often uses a choral perspective, ‘we/us’, and this struck me as the classic stylistic device used in creative writing classes (‘experiment’ with ‘perspective’ and all that). It just didn’t work for me. I also found that these stories didn’t have much to say about anything other than underlining how crap everything is. There seems to be not one ray of hope within these tales. The lack of lgbtq+ characters also seemed a bit annoying (one story has a same-sex relationship). I also did not care for the way in which these tales handle mental health and diseases (that one where people fall asleep for years, or the one with the wife in a come).
I can think of many other books that discuss similar topics with much more depth (The Undocumented Americans, works by Patricia Engel and Edwidge Danticat). In this collection, the author seems to sacrifice character and story development to style. This may indeed work for other readers but it did zilch for me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

However distressing, I appreciated the realities, issues, and themes Gabriela Garcia explores throughout her novel. Sadly, the author’s execution and writing style lessened my overall reading experience. I know that interconnected narratives can work well, and some of my favourite novels employ this technique (The Travelers and Travellers), but I would have probably preferred for Of Women and Salt to either be a series of short stories or to stick to two or three timelines/perspectives—such as Margaret Wilkerson Sexton does in A Kind of Freed
Take one of the firsts chapters, the one set in Cuba during the 19th-century in a cigar factory. That chapter bears no real weight on the novel, and it would have fitted a lot more in a family saga authored by Isabel Allende. The other chapters are mainly set in the present day and offer readers rushed glimpses into the lives of Latinx women living in America. Some of them are undocumented, and we see how vulnerable a position that leaves them in (there is the risk deportation, being forced to accept jobs that pay badly or are exploitative, no health insurance, racism, prejudice…the list goes on). We read of the horrifying realities and treatments undocumented individuals are exposed to daily. Garcia returns time and again to themes of motherhood and resilience. Garcia also shows us how devastating addiction is, both on the addict and on their loved ones.

A lot of the time I was unable to truly familiarise myself with a character or their situation because I found the author’s prose almost distracting. There were certain staccato sentences or oddly phrased phrases that brought to mind Joyce Carol Oates’ most recent work and I for one am not a fan of this style. I’m sure many other readers will find it a lot more rewarding than I did but I alas found it a bit contrived at times.
I wish the story could have exclusively focused on Jeanette and Carmen. Their fraught relationship was compelling. I could sadly relate to some of Jeanette’s experiences, and I am grateful to Garcia for the way she discusses sexual assault. We do have a tendency of dismissing groping or other forms of sexual assault as ‘minor’ as not ‘as bad as rape’. And at times it is difficult to articulate why someone’s words or behaviour made you feel so violated or uncomfortable.
There is a chapter in which Jeanette is fifteen or so and goes for a night out…and there was something about that chapter that I really did not like. Maybe it was the tone or the way the author described fifteen-year-old Jeanette but something just…rubbed me the wrong way. I also did not particularly care for the direction of her storyline (addicts can never recover etc.).
The few chapters focusing on Jeanette’s neighbour, who is detained by ICE, and her daughter felt a bit harried. I think the author should have expanded their stories more or simply not included them in this novel.

While the topics explored in this novel are important I wish that these could have been presented to us differently. The constant shifting of perspectives made it hard for me to truly immerse myself in what I was reading. It was a bit distracting and maybe it could have worked better if the novel and been longer. Then again, given my feelings towards the author’s prose maybe I would have still felt underwhelmed by it.
I encourage prospective readers to check out some more positive and/or #ownvoices reviews. If you like the work of Patricia Engel, Melissa Rivero’s The Affairs of the Falcóns, or Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford you will probably be able to appreciate Of Women and Salt more than I was able to. If you like me did not find Of Women and Salt to be a riveting read I recommend you read The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio which is a work of nonfiction that explores the realities of undocumented individuals.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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