Boy Parts by Eliza Clark


disclaimer: i did not like this book. the opinions and impressions i will express in this review are entirely subjective and i am not in fact stating ‘irrefutable facts’. it has come to my attention that this author has a history of going on twitter to ‘bemoan’ reviewers who have given her book a negative review…which has never been a win in my books. so i will attempt to write this review with a death of the author approach. please do not confuse my negative review of this book as a personal attack on the author or as an estimation of the author herself as i do not know her in any capacity whatsoever. if you are incensed by reviewers expressing an opinion that differs from your own one, you are better off skipping this review (this includes you too eliza…).

vague and not so vague spoilers below

I am befuddled by the ratings and reviews singing this book’s praises. This is one of those cases where I am forced to ask myself: did I read the same book as everybody else? And before you @ me, no, I did not dislike this book because it is work of satire centred on an (exaggeratedly) intentionally unlikeable main character. Some of my favorite books focus on people who are varying degrees of horrible or ‘messy’ (my year of rest and relaxation, luster, madame bovary, sula, pretend i’m dead, you exist too much, apartment, symptomatic, these violent delights, and a lot of the stuff written by authors such as shirley jackson, danzy senna, and joyce carol oates). I also like characters like Hannibal or Villanelle. I read Lolita and while it did repulse me (as intended) I didn’t hate it because it was from the pov of a pdophile. And I am fond of the ‘she’s not feeling too good’ subgenre, contemporary books that are characterized by a caustic tone and explore the lives of women who are, you guessed it, not feeling too good and are depicted as alienated and self-sabotaging … I also do not have a problem with books combining dark humor with violence, My Sister the Serial Killer is a fave of mine. And a few months ago I was enthralled and disturbed by Titane directed by Julia Ducournau (who actually gets a mention in boy parts). All of this to say is that I can deal with and even appreciate characters who for whatever reason do, think, or say things that are ‘frowned’ upon or downright evil. I would go as far as to say that I prefer flawed characters over flawless/uber-likeable characters (very edgy of me, i know). My only caveat is that I have to find said unlikable characters interesting: Emma Bovary, for instance, is not a particularly clever character, you could say she is quite the opposite. She’s naive, pathetic, obnoxious, solipsistic, cruel, and superficial…but I found her acts of self-dramatization to be both fascinating and a source of great amusement. Ottessa Moshfregh’s narrator in MYORAR is nasty (she is awful to her supposed best friend, callous, narcissistic, morbid, and says/thinks offensive things about many groups of people). Did I condone her actions in the novel? No. Did I find her fcked up sense of humor to be highly addictive? Yes. This is all to say that Irina being a stronza who engages in ‘bad’ behaviour, is not why I didn’t like this book. The reason why I did not like this book has less to do with her being an unlikable cnt and more to do with her being boring as fck. Her internal monologue is repetitive, but not even in a realistic navel-gazey way, like Selin’s narration is in The Idiot, but in an incredibly affected way that just comes across as the book desperately trying to present this character as some counter-culture edgelady, who repeatedly ‘transgresses’ accepted norms of behaviours and—shock horror—flips the ‘male gaze’ on its head by being the one behind the camera. Maybe if this book had come out in the 80s, I would be more inclined to forgive or accept its many shortcomings, but since it was published in 2020 I have a harder time reconciling myself with its unimaginative and superficial exploration of female sexuality, the male gaze, and female rage. There is nothing clever about the way the narrative represents and discusses these themes. The narrative is very much all flash, no substance (tutto fumo e niente arrosto) as it not only mistakes shock value for real horror but it operates under the false assumption that gratuitous or otherwise sensationalistic content is subversive and thought-provoking. If this book had actually been disturbing maybe then I could have overlooked its pulpy and overt storyline…but it isn’t. Funnily enough the story’s numerous floundering attempts at edginess, but these feel dated and painfully affected, on the lines of Awad’s Bunny or Mariana Enríquez who at least do not settle for mid-tier levels of offensive but fcking commit.

Boy Parts reads like a short story that has been stretched beyond its expiry date. The ‘hook’, that of a ‘pervy’ female photographer, had potential for the first 30% of the narrative. Then things just get messy, and not a good kind of messy where I am enthralled by our mc’s unreliable and increasingly disconcerting narrative, but messy in a poorly executed kind of way. The writing changes slightly, but not in a believably organic way that reflects the main character’s spiralling mental health. The book’s satire is devoid of substance or bite. The caricatures populating this narrative are neither amusing nor particularly provocative. Some characters come across as heavy-handed attempts at capturing a certain type of person, while either serve no function other than to exist so the narrator can prove to the readers how nasty she is. The story could have been a lot more effective if the tone had been camped up, so we could have something along the lines of Jennifer’s Body (which is by no means a perfect film but at least it’s entertaining and self-aware). Or maybe if the book had gone for a more elliptical stream-of-consciousness type of storytelling, a la Clarice Lispector, maybe then I would have liked it more. But what we got just did not work for me at all. There was something profoundly simplistic about the way these themes are explored and the narrator is one of the dullest galls I have ever had the misfortune to read about. Being a tall and sexy white Northern who thinks she’s the fcking hardcore because she likes to take kinky photos of men she deems ‘beta’…yeah. The way the book satirizes England’s art scene is banal, we get unfunny lines about identity politics and artists such as Tracey Emin. The narrative doesn’t convey Irina’s creative process in a convincing way, in fact, I was left with the impression that—and here i must briefly break from my death of the author approach and acknowledge the existence of the author—whoever was behind the story was either not particularly familiar with photography or not interested in going into detail about it (as i said this an impression i formed, not a fact). As examinations of female creativity go, this one is derivative and unsatisfying. I mean, compared to We Play Ourselves, Self-Portrait with Boy, and Generation Loss (all of whom happen to focus on queer young women who are not portrayed as exclusively interested in men and in replicating tired dom/sub dynamics) Boy Parts just doesn’t go much into depth when it comes to Irina and her changing relationship to her photography. I didn’t feel that she actually felt passionate about these photos, rather, we are told what she did at a school, and she relates the art she produced in that period in a very meh way, and now she gets horny when she tells men to pose in vanilla sub positions, while she occasionally plays the dom role (stepping on them and sht). Like, wow. How edgy. And you might say that the narrative is less concerned about mapping out the creative process preceding these photos than with over-emphasising what the photos themselves signify. Male gaze who? Uhm. Sure. Thing is, this kind of obvious ‘appropriation’ of the male gaze and the misogyny often underlining said gaze is not new nor thought-provoking. Quite the opposite in fact. I found the logic at play in the narrative to be highly sus: Irina experiences misogyny and is objectified by the male gaze; Irina perpetuates misogyny + misandry and objectifies men, her models in particular. Irina has a sexual encounter where the partner doesn’t listen to her when she says she wants to be on top. He ignores and demands her to scream for him, yanking her hair. She says that since he is going to ignore her he ‘could put his back into it’. He takes this as a confirmation that she ‘likes it rough’. Quelle surprise, she later has sex with someone she deems weak who asks her to slap him she starts hitting him until he starts crying and this leads to the classic ‘victim becomes abuser’ kind of observation that doesn’t really go deeper than that. If anything it is annoying that we get that scene just so the mc can have this dark eureka moment. Early in the story, Irina goes to a party where she is meeting up with a guy who is there to make fun of the ‘I’m a Nice Guy Really’ type of men who claim they are feminists while trying to wrangle themselves out of being accused of SA. Anyway, she goes to this party with her spineless friend who reminds her that even if she acts all hardcore she is a vulnerable woman. Our mc makes a joke about being raped by the guys she’s hanging out with and what later follows is an intentionally unclear scene where it seems that this guy the mc went to see tried to rpe her while she was passed out or was otherwise incapacitated and therefore not being able to give consent. I really hated how timed this whole thing was. It was rather tasteless. I have come across other books that punish female characters who are confident in their sexuality or sexually active by resulting in scenes where they are SA or need a man to ‘save’ them. And here…this whole rpe subplot seems just there for shock value and nothing else. The narrative seems to forget about it, more intent on emphasizing how edgy and obscene the mc is. Fcking hell. Can we not?! I am not saying that I want every story to include rpe or SA to be serious and to exclusively revolve around this. However, the way the narrative meanders about without any real direction or without the kind of piercing commentary that makes up for vacuous storylines…I am left wondering why, why, why did we get this scene? Especially when the narrative seems confused about the kind of character Irina is. It seemed we were meant to perceive her as a vile character. Not quite a Humbert Humbert type of figure but someone who is working their way towards being the female equivalent of Patrick Bateman. She’s apathetic, has an inflated sense of self, experiences moments of dissociation where she observes the people around her with a mixture of superiority and detachment seems to categorize men in a way that is all the rage in the manosphere, and makes no compunction about transgressing accept norms of behaviour, engaging in sadistic behaviour, or deriving pleasure from what her society deems taboo (rpe fantasies etc.). She can also perform certain roles, such as that of the Manic Pixie Girl, to her advantage, for example when she wants to attract the kind of men who would be into that type of girl. Irina, so far, seems a satirical take on the femme fatale. Yet, we also get so many instances that go against what this kind of characterization is trying to establish. For instance, she forgets that she has to perform a certain role and says whatever the fck comes to her because she’s such a girlboss. Sometimes she would make observations or remarks that would be believable if they originated from someone ‘normal’ or who was not shown to have psychopathic traits. For example, after that guy forces himself on her…she wonders about whether she really wanted rough sex and why do women feel that they have to say yes to rough sex etc…which is a valid af point but I did not believe that someone like Irina would even bother to have such thoughts. She should have been annoyed that someone of no consequence had physically overpowered her. Previously her response to being SA at the party was to be annoyed that that non-entity guy had the gall to try to rpe her. But then we are meant to believe that she was in fact traumatized by this so much so that now she herself is subjecting others to the type of trauma she was victim to. Like…what is going on. And don’t get me started on how large chunks of the narrative make her abuse of men seem so fcking transgressive and hardcore when it was anything but. There is a storyline involving, you guessed it, ‘boy parts’ that was just a rip off from American Psycho (in that we are meant to question the veracity of irina’s recollection of these violent events). Anyhow, the man who Irina abuses most happens to be a lot younger than her and, unlike her, despite the story’s initial attempts at painting her as a struggling artist, her name is known in artsy circles and she can afford her living expense and the type of materials required to print out her edgy photos, he works at Tesco. Additionally, he is mixed-race, possibly queer, and was involved with someone abusive (emotional abuse is still abuse fellas). So, did I find Irina’s SA him, gaslighting him, humiliating him, mistreating him, etc, empowering? Not really. Sure, the narrative shows us just how ‘pathetic’ and ‘sad’ he is about his messed up relationship with Irina but his experiences bear no real weight on Irina’s narrative. He serves as a plot device through which Irina, a character who is supposed to be very much beyond caring, can inflict the trauma she herself was subjected to. Also, for someone who goes on scathing takes about ‘white people’ who pretend they are not ‘white’ but dance to The Smiths in this ‘post-racist-Morrissey’ era and expresses frustration about the misogyny and classism rampant in her day-to-day life…it seemed weird that she would think sht like this (“I know I’m white, but there’s just a lot of white people White People-ing in a very small area, like it’s just some very, very densely packed mayo, you know? Densely packed mayo, jiggling about, doesn’t know what to do with its arms, doesn’t know what to do with its feet, undulating loosely, barely in time to the rhythm.”) but actually says sht like this to the mixed-race boy she is toying around with (‘It’s fine for you being out in this heat; you tan. You’re always tan. You look like you’ve just been on holiday or something,’) or this (Japenese/Korean girls being the ‘same thing’). It would have made more sense if she’d said that first thing out loud, to impress her peers with how comfortably she can talk about whiteness and make them feel inadequate and less savvy (after all wasn’t she supposed to enjoy feeling superior to others?), and to ‘merely’ think the other two as to say them out loud in front of someone who is not white, and who she had identified as ‘sensitive’, and risk that he would see her for who she truly was. She, later on, writes a transphobic email to someone trans which again, was just gratuitous yet seemed included for laughs, and made me question why she would do that if this person could use that to prove to others that she is in fact awful. Why bother with all that gaslighting of your acquaintances if you then don’t give a sht about being exposed…? We are previously told that she is manipulative AF. She fools men and has her pathetic bff convinced they are friends to start with. Although she wants to transgress accepted norms of behaviour she knows these norms are there to begin with so in certain spaces she comports herself in a certain way, her art is the only indicator that she is into some smutty kinky stuff. I did not find her inconsistencies to be realistic or to result in a nuanced character. It seemed that the story didn’t really know what kind of character it wanted us to read about so it went all over the place. I wish that the story had committed to paint her as a morally reprehensible character we were meant not to like.
The other characters are one-note and just as unrealistic. They would not be out of place in an episode of Family Guy or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Speaking of Tarantino if you thought that Uma Thurman’s character in that or Kill Bill have some merit…well, you might like Boy Parts after all. This book radiates the kind of feminist energy that Cara Delevingne wearing that ‘peg the patriarchy’ outfit at the met gala gives. Trying to be provoking in a puerile way. And I can forgive a lack of intersectionality and dimension if say this, like Plath’s Bell Jar, had been published in the 1960s. But it wasn’t so…anche no.

Anyway, the side characters are just as boring as Irina herself. Some of them are downright insulting. We have someone who exists to be the transman who is the butt of the joke for many comments made by Irina. He makes two or possibly three appearances where she makes comments about his height, barbs that are meant to make him feel inadequate and not masculine enough, and later on writes that disgusting email to him where she goes on about identity politics and claims that he is solely drawing upon his personal experiences to produce art (when she is doing that very same thing…get it? ah! ). Flo (i had to check her name, that’s how memorable she is) is a rip off of Reva from MYORAR who exists to be the classic female friend in love with our female protagonist who does not and will not ever reciprocate her feelings. I am so f*cking tired of books that make the mc bisexual because it’s edgy and ‘different’ but then proceed to have said character almost exclusively engage in sexual/romantic relationships with men. This character will rarely if ever acknowledge or indicate that she finds people who are not men attractive. She will have a friend who is a lesbian or in this case a bi friend, who is in love with her. The narrative will mention towards the very start or the very end that she did have a relationship with a woman once and call it a day. They don’t even try to explore the mc’s internalised homophobia/biphobia. Here we have a line about Irina preferring men to women and that’s kind of it.

Anyway, don’t even get me started on Flo’s blog posts. What was the point in them? Irina gives us a summary of their contents so why add the blog entries themselves? Their attempts at making fun of cringe people like Flo came across as a joke that has gone on for too long.
And mio dio, the amount of dated references in this book is something else. The film mentions make sense given that Irina is an edgy photographer but the amount of pop culture in these pages is just…it made me feel that I was having to slog through a series of insufferable twitter posts. If avoid that in real life why should I be interested in a fictionalized take on these comments/discussions? The conversations about kim’s bum did not make the dialogues realistic or mumblecoresque. They struck me as stagey and dull.
The exploration of sexual desire that goes on in this novel is painfully and predictably heteronormative, with the ‘twist’ that the woman wants to be the more dominant party. How revolutionary. The more I write about this f*cking book the more I hate it. What an utter waste of time. With the exception of that funny line about Timothée Chalamet, I was not amused. I did not feel anything for our main girl. Her being hot, from the North, and into kinky sh*t do not make for a compelling character (‘Geordie girls are up there with Irish girls and Scottish girls; the black women of white women, you know?’….f*ck off). Maybe if the narrative had committed to portraying her as a menace I would have felt a modicum of interest. The instances where she is offensive are played up for laughs but were anything but. Her Mommy Issues™ and eating disorder are presented in a childish way and the narrative barely scratches the surface beneath these issues. You Exist Too Much deals with these issues in a much more nuanced and compelling way.
Anyway, I don’t need a character’s motivations to think violent thoughts or do violent things to be made ‘transparent’: like I said I was transfixed by Titane, and there we learn virtually nothing about our central character, let alone why she goes on a killing spree. I also really love things like Stoker and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both focus on morbid teens/young women. Or New People by Senna. That book presents us with a believably perturbing portrait of an alienated and alienating woman. But this is eh. Boy Parts reads like something that has been done before and better. It has the same vibe as those ‘that’s literally me’ filmbros who overidentify with the leads from films such as Taxi DriverAmerican PsychoFight ClubDrive, and Joker. Just because the lead here is a woman doesn’t make this wannabe subversive exploration of alienation any less cringe. I swear, Irina just gives Gaslight Gatekeep Girlboss vibes and it could have worked if the narrative had committed more fully to being a campy satire instead of then deciding it wanted to be dark and serious. Also, the way the latter half of the novel goes for this feverish, surrealist tone is just schifo. Even Awad did this better in Bunny. And don’t get me started on Caroline O’Donoghue’s Promising Young Women: the narrative there truly captures the narrator’s bizarre and disturbing dissolution. And if you prefer a more heavy exploration of r*pe I recommend Rosie Price’s What Red Was. And, of course, I May Destroy You: that series is just…spectacular. And its final episode is what Boy Parts wishes it was. Why didn’t the novel go for a subversive take on the ‘r*pe & revenge’ subgenre? I don’t know…it had the chance to but then seems to lose itself in a self-indulgent and puddle-deep exploration of the male gaze.
The prose was derivative and lifeless. Now and again we get lines that are trying so hard to be provocative but failed to inspire a response in me (be it amusement or disgust). The first half of the novel would have Irina try to go for this conversational/confessional tone that just came across as trying to be Fleabag or the narrator from MYORAR (the constant ‘you know’ were annoying).
I doth not understand the hype. Personally, I found this book’s attempt at being edgy and subversive to be rather performative and disappointingly shallow. And to compare this to Moshfegh’s MYORAR..? te piasaria…I was not a fan of the writing, of the plot, or of the way the narrative explores its themes. I am surprised that so many readers did not seem to pick up on this book’s Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss shtick. White feminism at its finest…and if this was intentional it doens’t result in a particularly daring or fascinating narrative. I mean, this book thinks its something by Gaspar Noé (a director who is not my cup of tea but i can’t deny that the man’s films are transgressive and really gratuitous) but it is just rather insipid. Like I said, the offensive bits just gave me Family Guy vibes. Again, I must stress how shallow this felt. And not in an intentional way, like in American Psycho and its critique of capitalism and consumerism. I wish the story could have actually interrogated more Irina’s own privilege, that’s she is white, able-bodied, pretty, and ‘straight’ passing…but it doesn’t. We get a very ostentatious take on a woman perpetuating the ‘male gaze’. It is such a pity. I am a fan of books depicting women capable of monstrosity not because i condone their behaviour but i find the way these narratives engage with their conflicting ideals of femininity and explore their darkest parts of their psyche fascinating.

Not all satire is good satire. And this just ain’t it for me.
Boy Parts was banal. Really painfully banal. The kind of book that makes me wish that I could be able to unread things.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda

“I feel like giving up, lying down on this wall and closing my eyes and just doing nothing – not bothering to try to fit into the human world, not bothering to make friends and art, not bothering to source blood and feed myself.”


Woman, Eating is a great example of a good concept being let down by a rather lacklustre execution…it lacked bite (ba dum tss).

“I realised that demon is a subjective term, and the splitting of my identity between devil and god, between impure and pure, was something that my mum did to me rather than the reality of my existence.”

Woman, Eating is yet another addition to what I have come to think of as the ‘sad, strange, miserable young women’ subgenre. Kohda however does try to spice things up a bit by bringing into the mix vampirism: Lydia, our narrator, is in fact a vampire.

Lydia is not doing so well. Her mother is a Malaysian/British vampire, her father was a human. Lydia grew up with her mother and knows very little about her father (other than that he was Japanese and a famous artist). Her mother hates what they are and has tried to instil this same self-hatred into Lydia. But now her mother is in a hospice and no longer remembers who and what they are.
Lydia, alone for the first time in her life, moves into a studio space for young artists in London and begins working as an intern at an art gallery. In addition to navigating these new spaces and circumstances, Lydia has her hunger to preoccupy her. For some reason, she can’t find a way to get any pig blood and as the days go by she becomes increasingly hungry. She develops a sort of crush on Ben, a fellow artist in her building, but she isn’t sure whether it’s because she’s starved (and wants him as a snack) or whether it’s something more genuine. She can’t seem to bring herself to produce any more art and at the gallery is either mistreated or ignored. Worse still, the director of the gallery, Gideon, is also giving her some serious creepy predatory vibes.
Lydia is fascinated by human food and spends a lot of her time watching mukbangs, reading food recipes, and wondering how different food tastes. She reflects on her nature, if she has any of her father’s humanity or whether her mother is right and they are monsters. Her vampirism, which leads her to be obsessed with and averse towards human food, does read like a metaphor for an eating disorder. And the vampire trope does indeed lend itself to exploring alienation, as well as things such as EDs.

In an interview, Anne Rice described ‘the vampire’ as being ‘outside of life’, thus ‘the greatest metaphor for the outsider in all of us’. And Lydia struggles with her otherness, interrogating her own monstrosity and humanity. Additionally, Lydia is experiencing the fears and doubts that many people in their 20s do: what do you want to do with your life? What kind of job do you want? Where do you want to live? Are the things you want even an option to you? Lydia’s mixed ethnic heritage further exacerbates her sense of being ‘other’. Kohda addresses the kind of stereotypes and assumptions people make about those of whom are of East Asian descent. For example, a fellow artist in her building, and coincidentally Ben’s girlfriend, points out that because she’s Japanese people assume her work is ‘delicate’ (even when it is anything but). I would have actually liked more conversation on art than what we were given but still there are some thoughtful asides on modern art.

Lydia spends most of her narrative in a state of misery. Her self-hatred and hunger occupy her every thought…until she finds something (or something) to eat.
This was a relatable if depressing read. While a lot of other books from this ‘disconnected young women’ literary trend are characterized by a wry sense of humor, Lydia’s narration is devoid of any lightness. Her narration is unrelentingly miserable. This made her interior monologue, which makes up the majority of the novel, a bit of a chore to read through. Her navel-gazing was dreary and I often found myself losing interest in her introspections. The narrative felt oppressive, which in some ways does mirror Lydia’s lonely existence but it also makes her story repetitive. There were only three recognizable side characters, the others being little more than names on a page, and they all felt vague. Lydia’s mother was perhaps the most interesting figure but she mostly appears in flashbacks where she is preaching about their monstrosity and the danger of being discovered. Ben was a generic boy who came across as an only half-formed character (he only said things along the lines of “i don’t know..”). The gallery director…I appreciated how the author is able to articulate that specific type of unease (of an older man, possibly your colleague or superior, being ‘off’ towards you) that I am sure many young women (sadly) know. But then the role he plays was somewhat forgettable? He is there, to begin with, and then fades into the background only to appear at the very end.

The storyline lacked focus. It meandered without any clear direction. And this can work if your narrator is engaging or compelling enough but Lydia wasn’t. She was potable but pitying a character has never made me feel inclined to ‘read’ on to find out what happens to them.
Still, the author’s prose was fairly solid and certain passages even reminded of Hilary Leichter and Sayaka Murata (very matter of fact yet incredibly peculiar, especially when it comes to the ‘body’ or bodily functions: “My mum’s brain, which sits in a body just metres away from me now, must contain the memory of eating whole meals, of the feel of her body processing those meals, of tasting different flavours.” ).
The way vampirism operates in this world is not clear-cut and I think that really suited this type of story. I did question whether pig blood would be truly so hard to get ahold of and why Lydia didn’t try to get ahold of some other source of food sooner…

This novel did not make for a satisfying meal. I never felt quite sure whether I liked what I was being offered and then once it was over I found that I was still hungry. While I liked certain elements and the central idea, the story, plotline, and characters were different shades of average. More than once I found myself thinking that Lydia’s story would have been better suited to a shorter format (as opposed to a full-length novel). Still, even if this novel failed to leave a mark on me I look forward to whatever Kohda writes next).

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Here Again Now by Okechukwu Nzelu

The first few pages of Here Again Now brought to mind the opening scene from my much beloved A Little Life so, naturally, I cranked up my expectations. As I kept on reading however my initial excitement over the story incrementally decreased to the point that I no longer looked forward to picking it up. This is by no means a bad novel but it certainly bore the signs of an ‘unseasoned’ writer. The prose was weighed down by repetition and overdone metaphors. Some of the dialogues struck me as odd, unconvincing, and I found that the narrative relied too much on rhetorical questions. Additionally, sections of the text consisted of a barrage of ‘what if x’ or ‘why is y’ or ‘how is xy’ questions that were really unnecessary. At one point there is a whole paragraph that just consists of these very, dare I write, basic questions that were far less effective than actually discussing the subject matter at hand (rather than circling around it).

The novel follows three characters, with very few if any secondary characters. This does lend a certain intimacy to the narration and the drama unfolding between these three characters. After his acting career takes off Achike Okoro acquires a swanky flat in Peckham. Staying with him is Ekene, his best friend of twenty years. Despite their different temperaments and careers, the two share a very close bond. Both have had less than ideal upbringings and they found solace in one another. It is hinted that the two had a ‘moment’ in Berlin and back in their twenties. Achike has proclaimed his love for Ekene but the latter seems reluctant to take their relationship down that path. While Achike is presented as this patient sort of figure, he does seem to have grown restless and feels slightly bitter about Ekene always choosing someone over him. When Chibuike, Achike’s father, who is in the process of recovering from his alcohol addiction, moves in with them, tensions rise.
There is the very long opening scene, in which we learn all of this, that takes place over the course of a day (possibly two?) and ends around the 30% mark. In between, we get some flashbacks that take us to Achike and Ekene’s early days as friends and Chibuike’s own childhood. The narrative explores the bonds between father & sons and friends & lovers as well as provides some thought-provoking conversation on masculinity, queerness, and Blackness. After a certain event, the story changes track so that in addition to these themes the narrative touches upon grief, guilt, and forgiveness.
I wanted to love this, I really did, but I found the writing to be a bit too…Ocean Vuong-esque for my liking? Eg. “Maybe fathers could explain sons?”
The first half of the novel is bogged down by this ‘will they won’t they’ storyline that seems to take priority over characterization. Because I didn’t really feel as if I knew these characters I was not particularly invested in their friendship/romance. The father/son dynamics occurring within this novel also struck me as corny. There were instances where I felt that I was reading the script for a soap opera or something. There were lines describing how beautiful the characters are, which at times went on too long or were a bit too much. But I digress. This was not a terribly written novel. At times the writing was a bit clumsy, and in other instances, lyrical passages or observations give way to purple metaphors. The three major characters were at times too fixed in their role and I’m always fond of tragic events being used as plot devices or to ‘help’ other characters ‘grow’. There were a couple of scenes that I found well-executed but there were far too many instances where I wasn’t sure where the characters were or if this scene was taking place on the same day as the previous one, etc. etc. While I would not call myself a fan of this I am grateful to the publisher for having sent me an arc and I urge prospective readers to check out more positive reviews out.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

This is the first story I read by Zadie Smith that I actually didn’t hate. In fact, one could even say that I quite liked The Embassy of Cambodia. Smith’s adroit storytelling is characterised by a razor-sharp social commentary and a trenchant sense of humor. While I was overall able to appreciate this short story, I still do find Smith’s brand of satire to be a bit too mean for my taste. Her portrayal of her characters sometimes strike me as exaggerated, and she does seem to have a propensity for ridiculing the people who populate her works (regardless of the role they play in their story).

The Embassy of Cambodia follows Fatou, a young woman employed by a wealthy family based in Willesden, London. Unbeknownst to her employers, Fatou swims at the health centre that they are members of (using their membership). On her way to the pool, she walks past the embassy of Cambodia and occasionally catches sight of a shuttlecock going back and forward behind the embassy’s walls. We learn of Fatou’s friendship with Andrew, a fellow immigrant who is working a min. wage job despite his education. Together they talk about politics, history, and Christianity. The two for example discuss the possible reasons why in Europe very few people know, let alone speak of, the Rwandan genocide but seem ‘fixated’ on the Shoah. We also learn of how Fatou’s employers treat her, from their racist comments to the fact that they have her passport (meaning that Fatou is not free). While by the end of the story Fatou’s circumstances change, it isn’t sure whether her new path will lead to happiness or safety.
The Embassy of Cambodia was a quick and relatively engaging read. While it didn’t quite succeed in making me a fan of Smith just yet it did make me want to give the rest of her published works a second chance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo

“I am first and foremost a writer, the written word is how I process everything—myself, life, society, history, politics. It’s not just a job or a passion, but it is at the very heart of how I exist in the world, and I am addicted to the adventure of storytelling as my most powerful means of communication.”



In Manifesto Bernardine Evaristo presents us with a retrospective of her life: from her childhood and family dynamics to discussing her love life and career. Her candid, often humorous, voice grabbed me from the get-go and I found myself speeding through Manifesto. Not only does Evaristo have a knack for bringing various episodes and periods from her past to life but she always pairs these with a piercing and thought-provoking social commentary.

“You feel hated, even though you have done nothing to deserve it, and so you think there is something wrong with you, rather than something wrong with them.”

Manifesto is divided into several sections, each one exploring a different aspect of Evaristo’s life. In the first one, ‘heritage, childhood, family, origins’, Evaristo recounts her experiences of growing up in England in the 60s with a white mother and a Nigerian father. She describes her early encounters with racism, from witnessing the discrimination aimed at her father to the racism she herself experienced at school and in her neighbourhood. Her mother’s side of the family was openly against Evaristo’s parents’ union, some of them refusing to speak to any of them or treating them with open disdain. While Evaristo is critical of their behaviour she does take into account the social mores that people like her grandmother grew up with, and while she doesn’t condone or minimise their behaviour and actions she does acknowledge how hard it is to free oneself of such a deeply ingrained mindset.

“It was an early lesson for me as a child, witnessing how people who are victims of oppression can turn into oppressors themselves.”

In addition to discussing race and racism Evaristo looks at her relationship with her father, and once again demonstrates admirable self-awareness as she considers how when growing up she saw her father as a strict tyrant, whereas now she recognises that his parenting was simply reflective of a different culture. Additionally, she realises how alienating his life in England was (being more or less out-of-touch with his family, to being deemed a second-class citizen, an ‘undesirable’). Evaristo’s account of her father’s experiences in England highlights the racism and discrimination endured by the Windrush generation. I found her exploration of her relationship with her father to be deeply moving and this section, despite its subject matter, was easily my favourite in Manifesto.
In the following section, ‘houses, flats, rooms, homes’, Evaristo looks back to the various spaces she’s lived in since leaving her home. Many of the episodes she recounts are rather humorous, as they feature eccentric housemates & landlords as well as some bizarre living arrangements. This section reminded me of the tales my mother (who is a few years younger than evaristo) used to tell me about her odd living situations in London and Berlin when she was in her 20s. In describing the various rooms she’s lived in Evaristo considers the meaning of ‘home’.

“Writing became a room of my own; writing became my permanent home.”

In ‘the women and men who came and went’ Evaristo gives us a glimpse into her romantic and sexual exploits. In detailing her various partners she speaks about her own sexuality and power dynamics within a relationship. Once again Evaristo demonstrates a great understanding of human behaviour and is unafraid of challenging her old views/ideas. While I loved how open Evaristo is in examining her sexuality and her past and present relationship, I was frustrated by her binary view of sexuality. On the one hand, she says that sexuality is a spectrum and yet she also compares her sexuality to a sandwich (my lesbian identity was the stuffing in a heterosexual sandwich) and speaks of having had a ‘lesbian period’. The thing is, saying that one had a ‘lesbian era’ carries certain implications ( that this period is over, that it was a phase). After a particularly toxic relationship with an older woman Evaristo only actively seeks relationships with men, ‘rediscovering’ them, so to speak. Which, fair enough…but that does negate her previous interest in women? Why only use labels such as straight and lesbian rather than queer, pan, bi (etc etc)? That Evaristo couples her lesbian era with her discovery of feminism and politics is even more…sus (as if it was simply an accessory in her counterculture outfit). FYI, I’m a lesbian and I’m not a fan of people saying that they have had lesbian periods or phases (or people assuming that my own sexuality is a phase and that i will inevitably ‘revert’ to heterosexuality). And given that Evaristo did initially speak of sexuality as a spectrum, well, it makes it even all the more disappointing that she would go on at length to talk about her queerness as an ‘era’. Still, even when discussing her sexuality Evaristo incorporates other issues & factors into the conversation (class, gender, race, politics, age) so that even this section (in spite of its somewhat dated view of sexuality) has an element of intersectionality.
In ‘drama, community, performance, politics’ writes about theatre. While her love for theatre is apparent she’s once again able to be critical, in this case, she highlights how racist and sexist this particular sphere of the art was and still is (from the roles made available to poc to the few opportunities that woc have in comparison to their white, and often male, peers). Evaristo goes on to discuss performativity and rejection. In the fifth chapter, ‘poetry, fiction, verse fiction, fusion fiction’, Evaristo continues to consider her ever-evolving relationship with her creativity, this time focusing on her writing. She gives us a glimpse into the early stages of her writing and provides us with some insight into her creative process. The way Evaristo talks about her work made me want to read it, a great sign I believe. While she now and again expresses some criticism towards her earlier ideas and stories, you can tell how proud she is of what these have achieved. While her experimental style is not something I usually would go for, the way she discusses her ‘fusion’ style is certainly inspiring and interesting. In ‘influences, sources, language, education’ Evaristo talks about the books and authors that influenced her as a writer. She speaks about the importance of representation, of finding one’s voice, and of resilience (in face of rejection etc.). In the final chapter, ‘the self, ambition, transformation, activism’ Evaristo discusses politics, the publishing industry and the academic world (both of which still are very white) and the various prizes and schemes she created or had a hand in creating that seek to elevate Black and Asian writers. There was one paragraph here that was a bit jarring as it starts with “The impact of Geroge Floyd’s murder in May 2020” and ends with “Many plans are afoot to open up. These are exciting times”.
We then have a concussion in which Evaristo gives us a quick recap of what we’ve so far read and briefly writes of the impact of having won the Booker Prize.
All in all, this was a solid piece of nonfiction. My favourite sections were the first one, which focuses on her childhood and family, and the second one. While I did appreciate the other chapters they at times had a textbook-like quality. I also got tired of frequent ‘back in those days’ refrain (we get it, “there was no internet” back then) and at times she explained things that didn’t really necessitate an explanation (again, just because some of your readers are younger than you does not mean that they are ignorant of what came before them). But apart from her occasionally patronising asides, I did find her voice equal parts compelling and incisive. Her wry wit added a layer of enjoyment to my reading experience. This is a work I would certainly recommend to my fellow book lovers, especially those who loved Evaristo’s fiction. I liked Manifesto so much that I have decided to give her Girl, Woman, Other another go (fingers crossed).

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel

“Speaking can be a terrifying action. Our words—even when spoken from a position so powerless that all that’s produced is a moth-like squeak—can be loud enough to wake the house: a house that is often sleeping peacefully and does not want to be disturbed; a house in which perhaps you’ve found a home.

I’m very much in awe of Michaela Coel. While I liked Chewing Gum well enough, I May Destroy You blew my mind. It made me cry, it made me laugh, it gave me friggin goosebumps. If you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favour, and do it ASAP.

I would recommend Misfits to those who haven’t watched Coel’s MacTaggart Lecture. That talk, transcribed here in Misfits, is powerful indeed. Honest and incisive, this talk is definitely a must-listen/read. Coel recounts growing up Black in London, from the racism she experienced at school (from both the students and the staff) to her time at drama school. She describes a few specific episodes that highlight her love for theatre and creativity. Coel also discusses how racist, sexist, and toxic the filming industry is. Later on, Coel also speaks of being sexually assaulted, and while she doesn’t go into too much detail, this part is particularly brutal. Additionally, Coel expands on her idea of being a misfit and exploring notions of belonging and identity.

As much as I loved Coel’s words, I’m not entirely sure why her talk was published as a book. The talk is sandwiched between two short new pieces, the first one preceding said talk where she writes about having anosmia, moths, and recalls a peculiar dream she had some years ago (it felt a bit disjointed). The latter bit is a short afterword. I would have probably appreciated this release more if it had included some more essays by Coel but I nevertheless was grateful to re-experience her lecture.

my rating: ★★★½

Wahala by Nikki May

The cover and premise for Wahala made me think that this novel would be a beach thriller, something in the realms of Liane Moriarty. While the unfolding drama between a trio of ‘friends’ was fairly amusing to read of, Wahala wasn’t quite the suspenseful domestic thriller I’d hoped it to be. Still, this was, for the most part, an entertaining read and Ronke alone kept me turning pages.

Set in London, Wahala is centred around three mixed-race friends, Ronke, Simi, Boo. They met in Bristol and their shared experiences drew them together. Over the years they have all embarked on different paths but they remain close friends, eating out together or meeting up to vent about their partners or lives. Ronke, a dentist, doesn’t have the greatest dating history but she hopes that her current boyfriend, Kayode, is ‘the one’. Simi, married to Martin who lives and works in New York, is tired of putting up with her boss’ microaggressions. Boo is growingly dissatisfied with her life as a stay-at-home mum. She begins to resent her husband, Didier, and even her four-year-old daughter.
And then Isobel arrives. She’s hideously wealthy and an old acquaintance of Simi. Soon enough she inserts herself in the group, spoiling them with expensive gifts and seems more than willing to let them vent about their lives. While Boo falls completely under Isobel’s wing, and Simi too, finds herself confiding her secrets to her, Ronke remains suspicious of her motivations.

Each chapter switches between Ronke, Simi, Boo, so that we get to see their perspectives equally. We also begin to sense that Isobel is up to no good as she seems intent on stirring trouble, and soon enough cracks begin to form in the bond between Ronke, Simi, and Boo.

I liked the author’s sense of humor as well as her commentary on race, marriage, motherhood as well as her insights into Nigerian culture (her descriptions of Nigerian food are chief’s kiss).
Ronke, Simi, and Boo have very different personalities and, while they do share many similar experiences, backstories. Boo, for example, grew up not knowing her Nigerian father and because of this seems to distrust Black men like Kayode (her friends do call her out on this). Ronke, on the other hand, loved her father, who passed away when she was young and does not see herself dating a man who isn’t Black. Simi doesn’t want children, Ronke wants to start a family, and Boo has a child she seems to hate.

There were things that prevented me from truly loving this book. For one, the story could have benefited from an extra dose of suspense as the ‘thriller’ aspect comes into play at the very end. The narrative seems mostly driven by the miscommunication between the various characters (couples & friends alike) and after a while it became repetitive.
I also hated, and I mean it, Boo and Simi. They were awful, to their partners and Ronke. Ronke, who was honest, kind, funny, I loved. But seeing her remain friends with these two horrible people…? Why would she do this to herself?
Boo’s chapters were a chore to get through. She complains constantly about her husband and daughter, both of whom are actually far more likeable than she is. She’s also really stupid in that she jumps to idiotic conclusions without using any common sense.
Simi was more of a cypher and I did not feel particularly sympathetic towards her.
Isobel was very hard to believe in. Those ‘twists’ towards the end managed to be both predictable and totally OTT. Isobel seemed just to exist as the bad guy and maybe I would have found her more credible had she had her own chapters.
All in all, while Wahala is not exactly a riveting read, it was for the most part an amusing read that doesn’t take itself too seriously (the author pokes fun at her characters’ histrionics). I do think that Ronke deserved better and that Simi and Boo had it too easy…

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Sunset by Jessie Cave

“When I next love someone, they will die suddenly, unfairly, quickly, oddly, suspiciously, horrifyingly, traumatically; they’ll die in the worst way that someone could, and I will have to stand by and watch, take a photo.”

Funny, raw, heartbreaking, Sunset is an exceptional debut novel. Jessie Cave’s unsparing portrayal of grief in all of its complexities is striking for its realism and depth. Cave’s blend of humor and tragedy did bring to mind Fleabag and I would definitely recommend fans of that show, or I May Destroy You for that matter, to pick this up. The novel is narrated by Ruth who is in her mid-20s and leading a rather directionless lifestyle. Her older sister, Hannah, is very much her anchor and the two share an intense bond. Rather than resorting to the classic good/bad sister type of characterisation Cave makes both Ruth and Hannah into multidimensional and entirely authentic people, who have flaws and idiosyncrasies as well as many other qualities. The two love each other to bits, even if they bicker a lot. They are best friends, each other’s worlds, really. The two go on a summer holiday together and a horrific accident happens to leave Ruth bereft. She attempts to shut other people out and begins working at a Costa in Heathrow airport. As time goes by Ruth is forced to confront what happened on that holiday.

There is so much that I loved about this novel. Ruth is a wonderful narrator. Her anger, loneliness, grief, numbness, frustration, and sadness are depicted with such heart and realism as to bring her character to life. Her sense of humor, occasionally dark, always weird, made me laugh out loud and like her almost instantly. Some of her thoughts may very well make you uncomfortable but I appreciated how honest Ruth’s voice was. Her relationship with her sister is the central aspect of her story and their dynamic was wonderful and heart-rending. From their small habits to the way they speak to others or each other, Cave captures everything about them, making Ruth and Hannah feel less like fictional characters than real-life individuals.
I also loved the way Cave portrays and discusses things like depression, death, sex, menstruations, and other things that are usually sensationalised or romanticised or completely glossed over. In addition, Ruth’s narrative is full of piercing observations about other people or her own life. I also found that those references to ‘real’ places (such as Costa, Tesco, WHSmith) made Ruth’s London all the more vivid.
It’s impressive that this is Cave’s debut as it is such an accomplished novel. Her prose is self-assured, her tone is consistent, and her characterisation is phenomenal. Cave’s depiction of grief and sisterhood is moving and believably messy.
At first, I wasn’t sure about the way the dialogue is laid out (it appears in a script-like way) but I soon grew accustomed to it and I commend Cave for her choice (rather than jumping on the no quotation marks bandwagon). Speaking of dialogues, these too are marvellously realistic. The exchanges Ruth has with others could be funny, awkward, and/or tense. Regardless of the nature of the discussion or conversation, Cave’s dialogues rang true-to-life.
Sunset is a bittersweet love story between two sisters that is bound to make you tear up and laugh out loud (often in quick succession). If you happen to like stories that focus on sibling bonds or that follow the experiences of directionless millennials, well, consider giving Sunset a shot.
To sum it up: I loved this review so much one day after reading my netgalley copy I popped into waterstones during my lunch break and bought a hardback edition of it.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★½

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A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

“I am nothing like you, and yet I feel more myself with you.”

Part cute/steamy romance, part historical fantasy romp, A Marvellous Light is a delightful debut novel.

A Marvellous Light is likely one of the best romances to come out in 2021. I really had a blast with this novel! While Freya Marske’s historical setting and the magical system is not quite as detailed & complex as Susanna Clarke’s in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal series, its setting is vibrantly rendered and the fantasy aspect was a lot of fun and gave me some serious Diana Wynne Jones/Ghibli vibes. The main characters make the novel, and I found them incredibly endearing. The plot itself is fairly conventional, and it is Marske’s engaging style and her compelling protagonists that steal the show.

“You woke me up. You’re incredibly brave. You’re not kind, but you care deeply. And I think you know how much I want you, in whatever way I can have you.”

Set in Edwardian England, A Marvellous Light follows Robin Blyth and Edwin Courcey. Recently orphaned Robin is in his late twenties and despite his newly inherited title, he’s in urgent need of an income. A clerical mishap lands him in the position of ‘Assistant in the office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints’, his predecessor, a certain Reginald Gatling having gone suddenly MIA. On his first day on the job, Robin meets Edwin Courcey, who is the special liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly. Robin, baffled by the discovery that magic is indeed real, is sure that someone more suitable should be taking his place. While Robin and Edwin are not keen on working together, after a certain altercation with some dubious individuals, the two decide to join forces in their effort to find out what happened to Reginald. Much of the narrative takes place in Edwin’s family home, where we learn more about how magic works and we see the bond between the two men solidify in something resembling a friendship.

The narrative’s scope remains rather narrow, and the story is very much focused on the blossoming romance between Edwin and Robin. The growing sexual tension between them complicates their ‘mission’, as the two men will be forced to confront the magnitude of their feelings for each other.
The dynamic between Edwin and Robin is truly charming. By switching between their perspectives we learn more about their personal histories, their relationship with their family members, and their previous romantic ‘exploits’. Edwin is a brilliant scholar, and he possesses vast magical knowledge. However, he does not possess much magic, and this has made his family treat him with open contempt. His older brother, who has a lot of magic, is a horrid bully, and his sister and parents have always turned a blind eye to his relentless tormenting of Edwin. Because of this Edwin is slow to trust, guarded to the point of rudeness. While Robin was never particularly close to his parents, who were not nearly as charitable and selfless as they liked to pretend, he is far more open and carefree. Of course, after a certain ‘event’, Robin too begins to have a lot on his mind. At Edwin’s family home the two grow closer, and as they attempt to find the truth behind Reginald’s disappearance they find themselves growing attached to one another.

While we don’t learn much about the Magical Assembly or of the history of magic in England (other than a snippet here and there), the author does a fairly decent job when it comes to world-building, avoiding info-dumps and overly complicated explanations. The mystery storyline is perhaps the novel’s weakest element. There is an attempt at a twist villain but I’m afraid that it was fairly obvious that that person was indeed a ‘baddie’. The last 30% is slightly repetitive, and maybe I would have found it more gripping if the villains had been more fleshed out (we also get the uber cliched line: “Come on board, you’ll have the power you’ve always wanted”). Speaking of secondary characters, they are somewhat one-dimensional. I kept confusing the people at Edwin’s house, as they all have ridiculously posh sounding nicknames and behaved in varying degrees of obnoxiousness.
I did however like Miss Morrisey and her sister, I mean: “And we are but feeble women,” said Miss Morrisey. “Woe.” They were a fun addition and I wish they had played a bigger role in the story (hopefully we will see more of them in the sequel!).

The romance between Edwin and Robin is the cherry on the cake. Their chemistry, banter, and flirting make for some thoroughly enjoyable and surprisingly sweet passages. I wasn’t really expecting the story to be quite this smutty and I have to say that the sex scenes did feel a bit overlong. I don’t mind sex scenes but smut…eeh, it does nothing for me. I either find it unintentionally funny or boring. But this is clearly a ‘me thing’ so I’m sure other readers out there will be ahem more appreciative of these scenes.

While the plotline is somewhat predictable (we have those fairly obvious twists, the usual misunderstanding that occurs around the 70% mark in romances) Marske does have a few tricks up her sleeves and she leaves quite a few questions unanswered (hopefully the sequel will resolve some of these).

Overall this was a very entertaining read. It has humour, mystery, plenty of magical hijinks, and a lively Edwardian backdrop. Robin and Edwin are guaranteed to give you ‘the feels’, and I really liked their character arcs. And, last but not least, their romance. While I could have done with fewer sex scenes and more plot, Robin and Edwin’s relationship was great. The author doesn’t rush it, so we have quite a decent amount of longing/yearning….which I have always been a sucker for (especially in historical fiction). I am super excited to read the sequel and I thoroughly recommend this, especially to those who are looking for a sweet-turned-sexy queer romance + the perfect blend of fantasy and historical fiction.

my rating: ★★★½

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