A skilful and incisive short story by the masterful Toni Morrison Recitatif is the type of short story that seems made to be studied at school/college or discussed in a book club. The ambiguous nature of the central characters’ racial identities will lead readers to analyze every passage, trying to ‘find out’ the answers to a puzzle Morrison leaves intentionally unsolved. Our eagerness to understand this short story plays into Morrison’s social commentary. The reading experience of Recitatif is almost a prelude to the real story, the one that occurs outside of its borders, in which we study, examine, and argue, with others or with ourselves about the characters’ identities and the meaning behind Morrison’s choice not to reveal them to us. Long rambling short, this is the type of story that delivers more substance and depth once it’s actually over. Whereas I found the two full-length works that I have read by Morrison to be riveting and all-consuming, I found myself less immersed in Recitatif. I was more interested in the conception and execution of this idea than in the actual story. The story and characters, curiously enough, felt secondary to the literary device employed by Morrison. The alleged fraught friendship between these two women, one of them Black, the other white, pales in comparison to the fiercely complicated bond between Sula and Nel in Morrison’s Sula. We are given a glimpse into their childhood, where we learn they both have experienced some form of hardship and we later see them encountering one another as adults, except that they now find themselves on opposing sides. Their complicity in the violence that other girls at the orphanage where they first met perpetrated against an older woman binds them together. While they both harbour guilt over this they disagree on whether the woman in question was Black or white. This will lead readers to wonder why that is. Which of them is right? And does that change anything? As I said, this is the type of story that is the ideal vehicle for generating discussions on race and racism in America. While I admired Morrison’s skill, I found that I was too aware of her presence in this story. That is, while with her novels her voice reeled me into her stories, here I felt more keenly her ‘hand’. As I was reading I knew that she was the architect behind the words on those pages.
Nevertheless, I’m glad that I read this as I did find this to be a thought-provoking short story. Zadie Smith’s introduction adds another dimension to the story and I highly recommend you do not give it a miss.
This is my second novel by Yūko Tsushima and I’m happy to I appreciated it a lot more than Territory of Light. While both works explore single-motherhood in 1970s Japan, Woman Running in the Mountains struck me as far more accomplished. This is a very introspective narrative that examines the repercussions of motherhood on a young woman named Takiko. From detailing the changes her body experiences during her pregnancy to interrogating how her sense of self has been irrevocably changed after she’s given birth to her son, Takiko engages in a long act of self-examination. We see how her shifting self-perception is affected by her being a mother and the numbness, exhaustion, and anxiety that overcome her as she tries to raise her son in a very conservative country. The father of her child is a married man and has no idea Takiko has given birth to their child. Takiko’s parents are deeply ashamed of her and physically and emotionally mistreat her. During the last months of her pregnancy, her mother insists that she should either get an abortion or give her baby up for adoption. Her father, who after a work injury stays all day at home drinking, who even prior to her pregnancy was verbally and physically abusive towards her, becomes increasingly hostile towards Takiko. Her younger brother is perhaps the only member of her family who doesn’t seek to shame and or punish Takiko but he also seems unwilling to involve himself in her ongoing fight with their parents. After she’s given birth Takiko struggles to find a daycare and is often forced to act as if she’s married in order not to face discrimination. She eventually finds a job and attempts to save enough money to leave her parents’ house. Despite the heavy themes Woman Running in the Mountains is marked by a lulling rhythm, one that lends an idyllic quality to the narrative. Takiko is particularly attuned to her environment and she describes in vivid detail the changing seasons and the sceneries of her city (from the maternity ward to her cramped family house, to the neighbourhoods she crosses). Her ability to recollect her dreams also adds to the evocative atmosphere of her narrative. Towards the end, the story lost me a little and I did grow tired of the lists detailing Takiko’s baby routine (i have no interest in newborns or small children). Still, I found this a deeply atmospheric read and there were many gorgeous descriptions of Takiko’s various environments. The motif of light was particularly striking and it really complimented Takiko’s narrative. Not a happy book but certainly an arresting one. The dreamlike vibe was certainly hypnotic and the scenes capturing Takiko’s every day gave the narrative a slice-of-life feel.
“‘How do you feel?’ ‘All right.’ But I didn’t. I felt terrible.”
I feel incredibly conflicted over Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. On the one hand, I found it to be an ingenious and striking read, one that immortalizes in exacting detail a young woman’s slow descent into psychosis and offers a piercing commentary on 1950s American society, specifically its oppressive gender norms. On the other hand, I could not look past how racist it was.
Set in 1953 The Bell Jar is narrated by Esther Greenwood, a misanthropic 19-year-old from the suburbs of Boston who wins a summer internship working for a New York fashion magazine. For the most part, Esther’s voice is a winning combination of acerbic and witty. She often entertains morbid thoughts, she offers scathing assessments of those around, and, as the days go by, she seems to be steadily sinking into torpor. Although Esther tries to make the most of New York, she quickly becomes disenchanted by its supposedly glamorous scene. She is at once repulsed and appreciative of the girls who are interning with her. While Esther is drawn to Doreen, who is one of the livelier of the girls, and Betsy, a pious goody-two-shoes, she ultimately feels very much apart from them, and often seems to view them and the rest of New York through a glass darkly. What follows is Esther’s unsettling descent into depression. As her contempt towards others and life in general grows, she begins to engage in self-destructive behaviour and acts in increasingly irrational ways. Later on, Esther attempts to write a novel but her deteriorating mental health becomes a concern to her mother who forces her to see a psychiatrist who goes on to prescribe her electroconvulsive therapy. This ‘treatment’ goes awry and Esther worsens. Eventually, Esther is committed to a hospital where she is reunited with an old acquaintance. While the novel does end on a hopeful note, it is by no means an easy ride. It is brutal and unsparing. Throughout the course of this novel, Plath captures with razor-sharp precision the mind of an alienated young woman. She articulates Esther’s ugliest thoughts and fears. As Esther tries and fails to navigate adulthood in New York she becomes more and more withdrawn. She’s apathetic, pessimistic, and derisive of others. Her experiences fail to match her expectations and Esther struggles to make sense of who she is, who she wants to be, and who she ought to be. She’s suffocated by the limitations of her gender and seems to reject the visions of womanhood, of marriage, and of motherhood that American society presents her with: “when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”
Not only does Plath render the stultifying atmosphere of the city and of the circles Esther moves in, but she conveys the lethal ennui experienced by her protagonist. In New York Esther struggles to traverse from adolescence to adulthood. Her alienation from others, her self-estrangement, and her disconnection from her contemporary society pave the way to her eventual breakdown. When others attempt to ‘help’ and/or ‘cure’ Esther they cause more harm than good. They either treat her in an inhumane way or dismiss the severity of her condition. Esther is certainly not a likeable heroine. She’s a mean snob who often views other people as grotesque and beneath her. But, as I read on, I came to pity her. In spite of her solipsisms and general nastiness, Esther is clearly suffering. Esther’s mother seems to care more about appearances than her daughter’s wellbeing. The men around seem unable to truly see her. Her former sweetheart doesn’t really know her, while the men she meets in New York seem all too eager to use her. As Esther’s desperation grows her view of the world becomes steadily more distorted, her imagination even more ghoulish. I appreciated how effective Plath’s style is in rendering Esther’s mental state. At times a scene or one of Esther’s thoughts are depicted in such vivid detail as to be overwhelming. But, the story also plays around with linear storytelling, presenting us with fragmented conversations or scenes that we are able to understand only as we read on. At times her prose acquires a sticky quality that fits perfectly with the story’s initial summer backdrop. So what could possibly cause me to give this novel 3 stars instead of say 4 or 5? Well, while I recognise that this is a seminal feminist work, I could not look past how racist Esther, Plath’s ‘alter ego’, was. While I can usually look past classics’ books using dated/non-pc language, Esther’s racist remarks/attitudes did not strike me as merely being symptomatic of ‘the times’. It’s total ‘okay’ if our college-educated and intellectual protagonist, who is critical of the accepted social norms of her time when it comes to gender-based inequalities, uses racial slurs. Sure. She’s white and it’s the 1950s. But then we have these instances where Esther is not feeling good and mistakes her reflection as belonging to somebody else, specifically someone who is Asian: “I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.” and “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.”. When a girl says she’s meeting up with a Peruvian guy Esther says the following: “They’re squat,” I said. “They’re ugly as Aztecs.”….And then we have that scene at the hospital involving a Black orderly. After establishing that he is indeed Black she keeps referring to him as “the negro” rather than say “the orderly” or “the man”. This orderly say things like “Mah, mah!” or “Oh Miz, oh Miz […] You shouldn’t of done that, you shouldn’t, you reely shouldn’t.”. Before this (as far as i can recall of course) Plath did not lay much (or any really) emphasis on her characters’ accents. Yet, all of a sudden she just has to establish the specific way in which this man talks. And of course, because he’s an orderly and Black the way he talks has to be ridiculed. Anyway, Esther believes that the orderly is toying with her and the other patients so she “drew my foot back and gave him a sharp, hard kick on the calf of the leg”. Great stuff. Plath’s description of non-American characters also left a sour taste in my mouth: “She was six feet tall, with huge, slanted, green eyes and thick red lips and a vacant, Slavic expression.” and “A large, bosomy Slavic lady”. Wtf is that even supposed to mean? How fucking lazy is this type of description? Why are all ‘Slavic-looking’ women large?
While Esther uses unflattering terms to describe white Americans, describing someone’s neck as “spam-coloured”, these descriptions, which poking fun at their physical appearance, are ultimately humorous. The ones referring to Black or Asian characters, not so much. Esther’s repugnance is even more pronounced in the instances I mentioned above, and the language she uses is often dehumanising or at least seems to suggest that she does view them as inferior to white people. Every few chapters I would come across a racist remark/line that simply prevented me from becoming invested in Esther’s story. That this is a highly autobiographical novel makes me feel all the more uneasy at Esther’s racism. While this is certainly an important novel and one of the first books to depict in such uncompromising terms a young woman’s descent into depression, its white American brand of feminism is dated at best.
Sweet Days of Discipline is a slim dagger of a novel.
Written in a prose so sharp it will cut you, Sweet Days of Discipline is a work of startling and enigmatic beauty, a study in contradictions: order and chaos, sublimity and abjection, clarity and obfuscation, illusion and reality.
Fleur Jaeggy is in absolute command of her craft so that not a word is wasted or out-of-place. Jaeggy exercises formidable control over her language, which is restrained to the point of severity. By turns glacial and melancholic, Jaeggy’s epigrammatic style is dauntingly ascetic. Yet, her direct and crisp prose belies the complexity of her subject. I struggle to pinpoint what this book is even about. Our narrator is consumed by desire but the way she expresses and articulates said desire is certainly atypical. Even upon a second reading, I find myself enthralled by her mysterious and perplexing relationship with Frédérique. Ultimately, it is the obscure nature of their bond that makes me all the more eager to revisit this novel once more.
Our unnamed narrator’s recounting of her schooldays is pervaded by a dream-like quality. Torpor seems to reign supreme at Bausler Institut, an all-girls boarding school in the Appenzell. While the girls’ days are in fact dictated by routine, a sense of idleness prevails. Our narrator, who has spent most of her youth in boarding school, coldly observes the people around her. Her detachment and contempt towards her peers and the rarefied world she’s part of perfectly complement the staccato rhythm of Jaeggy’s prose. When Frédérique is enrolled in her school, she finds herself captivated by her. Her infatuation with Frédérique however doesn’t lead to happiness. Our narrator wants to best Frédérique, to ‘conquer’ her. She is both in awe and jealous of Frédérique’s apathy towards the students, the teachers, and their surroundings. The two eventually begin spending time together but our narrator cannot or is unwilling to express her feelings. What follows is a taut tale of juxtaposition. The orderly world of the school is contrasted with the inner turmoil of youth. The narrator’s clipped commentary is at once hyperreal and unearthly. While the narrator does try to control her feelings, she’s at times overcome by their sheer intensity. Her love for Frédérique is also inexorably entwined with hatred, as she finds the idea of being bested, of being under anyone’s thumb, unbearable. Our narrator is unforgiving in her detailed recollection, her harshness and cruelty did at times take me by surprise. Yet, her longing for Frédérique and her unwillingness to bend for that love made her into a compelling character. As the narrative progresses she and Frédérique begin to lose sight of one another, and as adolescence gives way to adulthood one of them spirals out of control. The English translation is superb. I’ve read this both in the original Italian and in English and I have to say that I don’t prefer one over the other. If anything Tim Parks, the translator, got rid of some rather outdated and insensitive terms in the original. The prose in the Italian version is also, to my ears at least, even more, stringent and stark than its English counterpart (maybe this is due to a combination of the slightly old-fashioned italian + my being so used to reading in english that books in italian will inevitably make for a more exacting reading experience).
Sweet Days of Discipline makes for a lethal read. Jaeggy’s austere prose is a study in perfectionism. Yet, despite her unyielding language and her aloof, occasionally menacing, narrator, Sweet Days of Discipline is by no means a boring or emotionless read. The intensity of our narrator’s, often unexpressed, feelings and desires result in a thrilling and evocative read.
“She had appeared so glorious to me that I had assumed she had everything she wanted. I wanted to cry for her, and for myself.”
Superbly written The Inseparables is a novella that pairs an enthralling depiction of female friendship with a razor-sharp commentary on gender and religion This is the kind of work of fiction that reads like real life, unsurprising perhaps given that Beauvoir created Sylvie and Andrée after herself and her real-life friend Zaza Lacoin.
Written in a controlled and polished style The Inseparables presents us with a beguiling tale in which Sylvie, our narrator, recounts the enigmatic nature of her bond with Andrée. The two first meet as young girls while enrolled at a private Catholic school and, in spite of the divergence between their religious beliefs, they become, as the title itself suggests, inseparable. Due to the conventions of their time and society—the French bourgeois of the early 20th cent.—they cannot be too close and so have to refrain from being too intimate with one another, for example by addressing each other with the formal you.Still, they keep up a correspondence and talk at length to each other, earning themselves the disapproval of Andrée’s mother who frowns upon their, God forbid, long and possibly intimate conversations.
Sylvie is fascinated by Andrée, in particular, she seems hyperaware, intrigued even, by her self-divide. On the one hand Andrée, a devout Catholic, expresses conservative ideas and opinions, which make her appear particularly naive. On the other Andrée possesses a clever mind and a propensity for expressing surprisingly subversive thoughts. Andrée is a magnetic individual who oscillates between irreverence and conformity. Sylvie, who did not grow up to be a staunchly religious individual (apropos, in a diary entry beauvoir wrote: “i have no other god but myself”), cannot always reconcile herself to Andrée’s way of thinking and struggles to understand the loyalty that Andrée has for her family, which Sylvie herself views as suffocating.
As the two grow up we see how Andrée continues to struggle with understanding her own emotions, trying and failing to contain her fiercer self. We also see how her mother’s constant reprimand have affected her self-worth and distorted her view of herself. When she falls for Pascal, a puritanical young man who seriously considered being a priest, Andrée’s resolve to lead the kind of life that her family, as well as her society, is tested. She desperately wants to escape her present circumstances but this desperation ultimately results in self-sabotage. We witness her unravelling through Sylvie’s eyes, who, as much as she yearns to be of help, cannot ultimately save her.
Beauviour’s piercing commentary on gender, class, and religion was profoundly insightful. She addresses these things with clarity and exactness, illustrating how fatal oppression and repression are on a person’s psyche. What I found particularly touching, and relatable, in this novel was the unrequited nature of Sylve’s love for Andrée. Regardless of whether the love she feels for Andrée is a platonic one or a romantic one, we know that Andrée doesn’t feel the same passion for Sylve. Whether she’s unwilling or unable to reciprocate the iSylve’s feelings, we do not know for certain, however, we can see how deeply this realization cuts Sylvie. Sylvie is shown to be both jealous and resentful of Andrée’s family, holding them responsible for her friend’s unhappiness.
This novella’s subject did bring to mind Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, which also explores an intense female friendship, Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia (which is far more flowery and sentimental than this but also capture a youth’s unrequited love and longing for another) as well as novel such as Abigail and Frost In May (which are both set in all-girl schools and touch on female friendships and religion). While Sylvie is both attuned and attentive to Andrée, her moods and beliefs, she does, like we all tend to do, idealise her given that she is her object of desire (whether this is desire is platonic or sexual, it’s up to the reader to decide, i, to no one’s surprise, felt that it was the latter). This was a riveting read. The prose is sublime, the story an equal parts evocative and tragic exploration of young & unrequited love, heartache, independence, kinship and intimacy.
I will say that as much as I loved this I couldn’t help but the publisher’s short bio of Beauvoir, as well as Levy’s and the translator’s mentions of her, felt very incomplete. As far as I can recall they all omit to mention Beauvoir’s more ‘unethical’ behaviour. As a teacher, she had ‘relationships’ with her underage pupils and went on to sign a petition seeking to abrogate the age of consent in France (because of course age is just a number!). Here you might argue that those things have nothing to do with this novella or her friendship with Zaza (discussed by both Levy and the translator). But I maintain that they do. You can’t just mention the fact that she’s a feminist and try to analyse her real-life friendship with another woman or her commentary on female sexuality while at the same time omitting that in her lifetime she (‘allegedly’) groomed her underage female students and seemed in favour of pedophilia. That she did those things did not detract from my reading experience however it certainly made me a little bit more critical of our narrator’s obsession towards her friend.
Some of my favourite quotes:
“Secretly I thought to myself that Andrée was one of those prodigies about whom, later on, books would be written.”
“No, our friendship was not as important to Andrée as it was to me, but I admired her too much to suffer from it.”
“What would I have daydreamed about? I loved Andrée above all else, and she was right next to me.”
“I thought to myself, distressed, that in books there are people who make declarations of love, or hate, who dare to say whatever comes into their mind, or heart—why is it so impossible to do the same thing in real life?”
“The errors I admitted were those of the soul above all: I had lacked fervour, too long forsaken the divine presence, prayed inattentively, regarded myself too complacently.”
“Andrée was unhappy and the idea of it was unbearable. But her unhappiness was so foreign to me; the kind of love where your kiss had no truth from me.”
“Never. The word had never fallen with such weight upon my heart. I repeated it within myself, under the never-ending sky, and I wanted to cry. ”
“No doubt she loved Andrée in her way, but what way was that? That was the question. We all loved her, only differently. ”
“Happiness suits her so well, I thought.”
““Don’t be sad,” she said. “In every family there’s a bit of rubbish. I was the rubbish.”
“For Andrée, there was a passageway between the heart and the body that remained a mystery to me. ”
ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
“Cruelty and mercy are one and the same. Existence in this world relegates good and evil to the exact same status. Cruelty and evil are only natural, and together they are endowed with half the power and half the utility in this world. It seems I’m going to have to learn to be crueler if I’m to become the master of my own fate.”
On the one hand, this was certainly ahead of its time, on the other, I found Qiu Miaojin’s brand of angsty nihilism somewhat trite.
Originally published in 1994, Notes of a Crocodile is now considered by many a ‘cult classic’. I was certainly surprised and struck by Miaojin’s modernist style and by how on point her discussions surrounding gender, identity, and sexuality were. In many ways the narrator’s inner conflict regarding her sexuality, desire, and otherness brought to mind Giovanni’s Room, but Miaojin’s storytelling is far more experimental and uneven than James Baldwin’s one. Notes of a Crocodile‘s unconventional structure, while certainly unique, does come at the expense of its characters, plot, and story. While I was reading this I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs, a novel of hers I did not particularly care for (heaven is so much better in my humble opinion). Similarly to Breasts and Eggs, Notes of a Crocodile, which is set in 1980s Taipei, seems to be made up of vignettes, many of them featuring one-note secondary characters going on long tangents or monologues in which they vent or harp on about their vices, how existing in a society sucks, how love will inevitably end in pain and violence. Their voices, more often than not, struck me as exceedingly self-dramatising. They try really hard to paint themselves as these edgy, grungy, tragic figures who are more cottoned on than the rest on the ills of the world. I just found their neverending speeches to be angsty, puerile even. I also kept mixing up some of the characters as they do seem to express themselves very similarly to one another, which was weird given that our narrator when reflecting on her ‘friends’, would attribute to them distinctive characteristics (which they themselves never show). Speaking of, these ‘interactions’, which make up most of the narrative, are very repetitive. They usually feature our main character and one other person, and, personally, I would like for the characters to interact more with each other (as opposed to having all of these 1-to-1). It didn’t help that I found them all extremely unlikeable and inconsistent (and not in the, they are human, of course they have incongruent, kind of way). The main narrator, nicknamed Lazi, is horrible. While I could definitely sympathise with her struggles (although it is not clearly stated, she likely suffers from depression, often finding the idea of performing everyday activities overwhelming), I just hated the way she treated the woman she was supposedly in love with. Talk about being manipulative! And, at the risk of using an overused word, nearly every single character in this was toxic af (on the lines of: i will beat the shit out of you because i hate that i love you’…).
Lazi’s pessimistic monologues did little for me. They don’t really add anything to her character that we didn’t already know, nor do they offer any particularly challenging or transgressive ideas. What did keep me interested was the author’s exploration of her characters’ sexualities and gender identities. Lazi is frustrated by how binary gender identity and expression are made to be in her society. She’s also aware that, unlike more ‘feminine’ presenting lesbians, she will have a harder time ‘passing’. In recounting Lazi’s experiences as a young lesbian woman in 1980s Taipei Miaojin also touches upon themes of normalcy, alterity, alienation, and loneliness.
Throughout the course of the novel, we hear of these ‘crocodiles’. The media seems obsessed with ‘crocodiles’, who occasionally hide themselves by wearing ‘human’ suits. These crocodiles are a metaphor for queerness, and while I appreciated Miaojin’s commentary on how queer people were perceived and treated in 1980s/90s Taiwan, by the end, this whole crocodile business did feel somewhat overdone. Overall I have rather mixed feelings towards Notes of a Crocodile. Stylistically, well, I found this novel to be too experimental and abstract for my taste. The wannabe-anarchistic characters got on my nerves and the narrative’s tortured and fatalist tone was rather affected. Yet, I was interested in the author’s social commentary and insights into Taiwan’s lgbtq+ community during the 80s. I could also definitely relate to many of her observations, speculations, and struggles with queerness. One day I may as well revisit this and find myself reassessing my estimation of this work but for the moment, yeah, I can’t say that I was particularly impressed or moved by Notes of a Crocodile.
The Secret History lives rent free in my head. It is a masterpiece. A thing of rare beauty. A tour de force. A literary triumph.
“One likes to think there’s something in it, that old platitude amor vincit omnia. But if I’ve learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.”
Written in an incandescent prose The Secret History is a ferociously erudite and delightfully mischievous work of staggering genius. I have read it twice now and each time it has blown me away. Reading this novel makes for an all-consuming, almost feverish, experience. It is impossible for me to precisely articulate or express what The Secret History means to me. To speak of it as a work of fiction almost pains me. But, as I have chosen to review all of the novels that I read, I will give it a shot. Bear with me (and my ramblings).
“Four boys and a girl, they were nothing so unusual at a distance. At close range, though, they were an arresting party—at least to me, who had never seen anything like them, and to whom they suggested a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities.”
The Secret History begins with a murder. Richard Papen, our narrator, looks back to the events that lead him and four other students to murder Bunny, a fellow student and ‘friend’ of theirs. That Tartt’s prologue reveals the identity of the victim and perpetrators of the murder. As Richard looks back into this defining period of his life (the only ‘story’ he “will ever be able to tell”) Tartt slowly unravels the events and motivations that led five people to murder as well as the ramifications that this murder has on their lives and their relationship with each other and themselves. In Plano, California, alienated from his parents and his peers, twenty-year-old Richard yearns to leave behind the trappings of his working-class existence. One day he comes across a prospectus for a liberal arts college in Vermont and, against his parents’ wishes, goes on to enrol himself there. At Hampden College, a painfully class-conscious Richard lies. A lot. He fabricates a ‘better’ kind of past and identity for himself, hoping that people will perceive him as he wishes to be perceived. It almost seems inevitable that a romantic like him would fall under the spell of a certain ‘clique’. These five students are the only ones to be enrolled in professor Julian Morrow’s classes, who mainly teaches classical studies. Richard is intrigued by their shared air of mystery. They don’t tend to mingle with other students and seem to belong to an entirely separate world. And Richard wants in on it. When he eventually gets accepted into Julian’s classes he becomes further intoxicated by this clique. In this first section of Richard’s story, the narrative has this almost fairytale-esque quality. Julian appears to Richard as a mythical sort of creature, the kind of mentor-like figure that would not be out of place in a monomyth. Soon Tartt however subverts our expectations by revealing just how fatal Richard’s misperception of his new reality is. The rarefied world Henry, Francis, the twins, and Bunny belong to may not be as the Elysium Richard envisioned it to be. The college itself is not the ‘enlightened’ haven he’d thought it would be. The more time he spends with his new acquaintances the more he becomes aware of just how dangerously disconnected they are from their everyday modern world (they certainly seem to belong to another time). As the narrative progresses, we learn just how disillusioned all of these characters are by their realities. This disillusionment leads them to apotheosize bygone eras, and, in the case of Richard, idealise their surroundings. Fraying alliances, secrets, and betrayals increase the tension between the characters, heightening the drama. As we learn of the circumstances that led to Bunny’s murder our view of Henry & Co. will begin to change. Their hunger for the inaccessible and desire to transcend their reality, perhaps to access sublimity or a higher plane of existence, leads them to cross—jump over even—quite a few lines. Yet, however flawed they reveal themselves to be (let us say, they seem to have more vices than virtues), I remained transfixed by them. Their lifestyles, while certainly extravagant, are not all that desirable. Considering their poor diets, their heavy drinking and smoking, and, at least in the case of Richard, that they are sleep deprived, it is a miracle that they don’t get scurvy or worse. Tartt doesn’t glamorise their actions and Bunny’s murder takes its toll on them. Between the anxiety of being discovered and the guilt that they (some of them) experience it seems inevitable that things take a turn for the worst. The disintegration of their friendship is hard to read but I was unable to tear my eyes away.
That Richard remains on the outskirts of this group makes Henry & Co. all the more intriguing. Henry and Camilla make for extremely ambivalent figures. Because we know as much as Richard does, we often don’t know what truly motivates these characters, yet, despite how ambiguous they could be, Tartt is capable of capturing those idiosyncrasies that make them who they are. We learn more about Francis, Charles, and even Bunny, because Richard spends more time with them. While Richard’s relationship with them is far from straightforward I found their interactions to be utterly engrossing. I definitely have a bias when it comes to Francis and I could probably spend hours talking about how much I love him. Really. Just thinking about him makes me emotional (i am aware that he is far from perfect but that is also why i like him so much).
Richard, unreliable narrator par par excellence, is an interesting character in his own right. He reminded me ever so slightly of the narrator from Tobias Wolff’s Old School and he even seems to have a touch of the ‘dreaded’ Emma Bovary (longing 24/7). Tartt demonstrates extreme acuity in the way she conveys Richard’s inner turmoil, his loneliness and his desires. He, like the others, has his fair share of flaws but I found his voice utterly relatable. The boy really has very few people that care about him. His parents seem to act as if he doesn’t exist, his professors ignore or are wholly unaware that he is teetering on the very brink of mental and physical collapse (think of his hellish winter break). Another reason why I find him so compelling is that he’s surprisingly supportive of those who have made him feel like an outsider (i am an extremely petty person so, kudos to him). Given the ‘otherness’ he feels—and is made to feel—I thought it quite fitting that after he cuts his hair he compares himself to Arthur Rimbaud (“Je est un autre” & all that jazz). The love he believes he feels for Camilla seemed very much a result of his “fatal flaw”. That she remains a mystery to him enables him to project his own vision of ‘Camilla’ onto her. Richard seems to regard her as an Estella of sorts, the kind of ethereal beauty that so frequently appears in Victorian novels. Also, is this boy in denial about his sexuality (he’s attracted to her androgynous appearance, her “boy-feet”, her “slightly masculine grace of posture”). In many ways, Camilla is the classic object of unattainable desire (or as our boy lacan would have it “objet petit a”). As long as his love remains unrequited Richard can remain in a perpetual state of longing. Weirdly enough, he finds fulfilment in the perpetuation of his non-fulfilment.
This novel is populated by morally dubious characters who frequently transgress social norms. Not everyone is happy to do so and much of the narrative is about the guilt, anguish, anxiety, and sorrow that result from these ‘bad’ choices. The dialogues are by turns sharp, funny, illuminating, and obscure. Many of the exchanges that occur within this narrative filled me with unease, apprehension. Thanks to Richard’s foreshadowing we often know that someone is hiding something or that things are going to take a turn for the worst. The unflagging tension created by the ongoing drama between them kept me at the edge-of-my-seat (even during my re-read). Their chemistry is off-the-charts. From their moments of kinship to their devastating fights. Witnessing the slow dissolution of this group filled me with dread. But how real these ‘characters’ feel to me! Just thinking about them makes my heart ache.
Tartt enriches Richard’s story with plenty of literary and mythical allusions. From the narrative’s underlying Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy to those beguiling descriptions of the ancient world. The constant blurring of reality and dreams and of truth and illusion makes this novel all the more enigmatic and the kind of book that can be read time and again (i already want to re-read it). The Secret History is a sharp and achingly beautiful novel. Tartt presents her readers with an unforgettable examination of morality, self-knowledge, loneliness, and privilege. The Secret History is a propulsive psychological thriller, a piercing examination of the folly of youth, a cautionary tale against falling for Beauty, for splendid illusions. Tartt’s scintillating style, which is at once elegant and playful, is truly hypnotising. I love how detailed she is in describing Richard’s states of mind as well as her vivid descriptions of his surroundings. She often hones in on seemingly small details that end up making a certain scene or moment seem all the more real. But I also loved those moments of almost surreal humor, those brief reprieve in an otherwise unrelentingly intense narrative. What makes this novel all the more intoxicating is that readers end up falling for what the narrative is warning us against. We idealise the characters and their circumstances, we are distracted by the sharp imagery and dazzling aesthetics, so much so that we end up overlooking just how prosaic and depressing certain portions of the story are (pretty sure richard snorts “an awful lot of cocaine in the parking lot of burger king”…yeah). Anyway, as you may have guessed if you are reading this review, I fucking love this novel. Tartt spent 9 years writing it and it sure paid off. I am, and likely always be, in awe of it.
SMALL ASIDE: It was my mother who first spoke to me about Donna Tart. Her rather battered paperback copy of The Secret History was a fixture on her bookshelves. She first read it in 1994 (since then she has read it many many many times) when she was about to give birth to my older brother (to quote her: “it got me through labour”) who is exactly the kind of person you imagine him to be. Case in point: he is currently reading the Bāburnāmathe, the memoirs of Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muhammad Bābur (naturally, i asked what she was reading while she was pregnant with me and it turns out it would have likely been a children’s book…which explains a lot). A few months before I read The Secret History for the first time I recall overhearing my mum and brother talking about it with such reverence as to suggest that what they were discussing was not ‘merely’ a work of fiction but real people and events. I was intrigued, of course, but it was only after I was suffering from an acute case of book hangover (i’d just finished the raven cycle) that my mother recommended The Secret History to me. I won’t lie, I was worried that it would go way over my head. At that time, I did not have a degree. After dropping out of my Italian high school at age 16 I had managed to complete a rather slapdash qualification in an art and design course, which was based in Swindon—a place described in this novel as being the ‘arsehole’ of the UK—and mostly consisted in us—the students—being left to our devices in order to create whatever art or non-art we wanted to create. Unlike my brother, who spent his childhood and teens reading historical tomes or learning about historical figures or ancient cultures, I never had much interest in those things. All of this is to say that I had very little knowledge of ancient history or the western literary canon, let alone anything related to philosophy. So, I was amazed by how little my lack of knowledge in these things proved to be a hindrance in my reading experience of The Secret History. 1.5 degree and 5 years later I am able to understand certain passages or motifs better but to be honest I can’t say that this has affected the way I feel about this novel. I also used google a lot because I don’t know latin and while I may know more about Nietzsche that 20-year-old me did I still know next-to-nothing about Plato and the other Greek lads and zilch about Buddhist traditions.
SECOND ASIDE: Look, I like a lot of books and films that fall into the dark academia subgenre but I have come to despise the whole ‘dark academia aesthetics’ trend. If you read this novel and all you get out of it is tweed jackets and libraries…you are as bad—if not worse—than Richard (let’s glamorise this extremely elitist world…yay). This was made by lucy and boy if it isn’t spot on:
That I choose to re-read this confirms that I do indeed have masochistic tendencies.
“I did not want him to know me. I did not want anyone to know me.”
In a striking prose, James Baldwin unfurls a disquieting tale of cowardice and self-deception. In many ways, Giovanni’s Room reads as a confession of sorts, even if our narrator does like to deny his own culpability. This short novel is set in 1950s Paris when David, an American ex-pat, is idling away his time, drinking and partying with people he generally looks down upon, in an effort not to keep at bay thoughts about his past or future. The girl he is sort of seeing is away in Spain so an unsupervised and penniless David begins to frequent an acquaintance of his, Jaques, an older gay man who he finds somewhat repulsive but is happy to exploit. One day the two find themselves in a local haunt bar where they meet Giovanni, the new barman. While David seems initially unwilling to act on his impulses, he becomes involved with Giovanni and the two begin living together in Giovanni’s grubby apartment. Within these walls, David feels oppressed and constricted by an identity he is unwilling and or unable to accept. The American vision of masculinity and normalcy his father and his upbringing have inculcated in David an uncompromising notion of manhood. While he clearly desires Giovanni he cannot articulate his feelings towards him, as to do so would be to embark on a path of no return. When Hella, his sort-of girlfriend, returns to Paris, David is desperate to leave behind Giovanni and the kind of lifestyle he associates with Jaques and his circle, even if it means denying himself the person he actually desires.
While the narrative does deal with love, it is not a love story. This novel is as romantic as say Madame Bovary (that is to say, not at all). More often than not David seems to resent Giovanni and is repulsed when glimpsing his vulnerabilities. Most of the characters inhabiting this story are either unlikable or straight-up grotesque. In a way, this novel reminded me of Death In Venice. We have a main character who seems to perceive his surroundings as being sinister, alienating. David’s vitriol towards those who frequent Guillaume’s bar certainly points to his internalised homo/biphobia. In order to conform to his heteronormative society, David finds himself turning away from someone in need. Or that’s how David justifies his own cowardice. It will be up to readers to decide just how culpable he is. While I did not not sympathize with David, I did despise him. Similarly, I disliked Jaques, Guillaume, and almost everybody else really. Giovanni is, unsurprisingly, the one I felt for the most, which is saying something given his less than poor taste remarks on women (after claiming that he respects them he says that wives do need knocking about now and again, and implies that women are inferior to men). Yet, it is because Baldwin captures Giovanni’s anguish and desperation in such excruciating detail that I was unable to write him off as a misogynist asshole.
David’s story seems permeated by physical and moral squalor. Even emotions like desire and love acquire an unpleasant quality, as they are often twinned with their counterparts (repugnance, hatred). The atmosphere of Paris itself once again recalls that of Venice in Mann’s novel, and even George Orwell’s memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London. Its beauty is spoilt by the ugliness of its people and by the squalidness of places such as Giovanni’s apartment. To call this story depressing or bleak seems an understatement. Yet, Baldwin’s superb prose manages to belie David’s internal abjection.
Now, as much as I am blown away by this novel, I do have to address Giovanni’s often hilarious ‘Italianess’. Dio mio. This is the kind of Italian character that I often see in fiction by English authors. He is the classic passionate Mediterranean who sometimes speaks of himself in the third person, makes remarks about beating women because that’s how Italian men are (a few months ago i worked with someone who claimed, to my face, that all italian men are sexist, and that italy is as ‘bad’ as india…to say that her statement was problematic on multiple fronts would be an understatement), and when reminiscing about his village he says that he wanted to stay there forever and “eat much spaghetti and drink much wine” (it’s a me, giovanni!). Still, despite these cartoonish aspects of his character, I did find myself buying into him.
This is a terrific piece of fiction, one that is guaranteed to make you anxious, sad, and uneasy (possibly even queasy). Yet, Baldwin’s fantastic prose and his tremendous psychological insight are bound to enthral.
They were solitary little girls whose loneliness was so profound it intoxicated them and sent them stumbling into Technicolored visions that always included a presence, a someone, who, quite like the dreamer, shared the delight of the dream.
Toni Morrison’s Sula revolves around the eponymous and fraught character of Sula Peace. Within the novel, Morrison interrogates themes of race, gender and class in the Black neighborhood known as the Bottom, in the fictional town of Medallion. The narrative’s discourse on good and evil, expressed in the Bottom’s demonization of Sula, and its subversion of binary thinking, will force readers to re-evaluate presumptions that arise from labelling people and places as being either good or evil.
The name of the neighborhood at the heart of Sula is an oxymoron since the Bottom is located ‘in the hills above the valley town of Medallion’ (a white farmer tricked his former slave by giving this land and claiming it was ‘fertile bottomland’). The story then introduces Shadrack, who after fighting in WWI returns to the Bottom with PTSD. He creates the ‘National Suicide Day’ and spends his days insulting people on the streets, refusing and or unable to fit in with the people of the Bottom. The narrative then takes us to the 1920s where we are introduced to Nel Wright and Sula Peace, the novel’s central characters. While Nel is raised to be obedient and polite, Sula is brought up in her grandmother’s hectic boarding house, ‘a house with women who thought all men available’. Nel and Sula become fast friends, an inseparable unit. After one of their stunts goes terribly wrong cracks begin to appear in their relationship but it is Nel’s marriage and Sula leaving for college that ultimately drives the two apart. Ten years later Sula returns to her hometown, ‘accompanied by a plague of robins’. Because of this bizarre phenomenon, Sula’s arrival is seen as inauspicious by the people of the Bottom. That their mistrust is aggravated by Sula’s physical appearance—which is made striking because of a birthmark over her eye—and her behaviour—her clear disregard of social norms—seals her fate in the eyes of her community. They demonize Sula, seeing her as an outsider, the ‘other’. Not only do old rumours about Sula resurface, but that she puts her elderly grandmother in a nursing house, sleeps with married men, and is said to have slept with white men, further antagonizes the people of the Bottom against her. Nel seems the only one happy to be reunited with Sula but their friendship is destroyed after one betrays the other. Sula becomes the scapegoat for Bottom whose inhabitants are convinced that ‘Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another’. They are empowered by Sula’s refusal to behave in accordance with their social norms, banding ‘together against the devil in their midst’. Yet they refuse to ‘destroy’ Sula, since however ‘ungodly’ she may be, to drive her out of town or to ‘mob kill’ would be to them both ‘unnatural’ and ‘undignified’. In creating the ‘evil one’ – Sula – they are creating the ‘good one’ – themselves.
Sula is by no means an easy read. The story is punctuated by poverty, addiction, shame, jealousy, hatred. Characters kill their loved ones or seem unmoved by tragic and horrific events. Yet, Morrison herself never condemns Sula or the inhabitants of the Bottom. She forces her readers to question whether Sula is the way she is because of ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’, and even then she reminds us that although Sula’s actions cause others’ pain, she is not an evil person. Morrison demonstrates how distorting and transforming someone into a devil or a monster is dangerous: the author, unlike her characters, passes no judgements on Sula’s ‘transgressions’, and makes readers aware of the way in which the people of the Bottom enjoy and profit from condemning Sula as ‘evil’. By contrasting the characters of Sula and Nel, Morrison is also able to question the validity of labels such as ‘evil’ and ‘good’ since the two friends are often described as being one and the same, able to find ‘in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for’, yet Nel is seen as ‘good’ and Sula as ‘bad’. The bond between Sula and Nel remains at the fore of the narrative, and I loved how deep it ran.
Sula makes for a bleak, brutal even, read. Morrison is unflinching in her depictions of racism, violence, abuse, and illness. Her prose is simply terrific as she slips with ease between different point of views, never elevating any one’s character perspective. In spite of its brevity Sula packs a punch. It will upset you, anger you, and possibly depress you….but it is a stunning piece of fiction, one that I find myself often thinking about.
Although I have not yet read anything by Bernardine Evaristo I am so grateful to her for bringing about this Black Britain: Writing Back series (which re-issues 6 titles by Black British authors). If it hadn’t been for Evaristo, I doubt I would have come across The Fat Lady Sings, a criminally overlooked modern classic. Jacqueline Roy’s novel provides an eye-opening look into mental health in Britain: set in the 1990s in London the novel is narrated by two Black women who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses and sectioned into a psychiatric hospital. The setting of course brought to mind Girl, Interrupted but style and tone-wise it seemed closer to Everything Here is Beautiful.
The narrators of The Fat Lady Sings have starkly different voices. Born in Jamaica Gloria, the title’s ‘singing lady’, is now in her forties and grieving the death of her partner, Josie. Because she occasionally breaks into a song and or starts skipping instead of walking she is deemed mentally ill and forced into a psychiatric ward. Here, she grows irritated by the inefficient staff and doctors, who resort to overmedicating their patients or shaming them for not making ‘progress’. Yet, despite her circumstances, Gloria is unwilling to be less of herself and I truly loved her for it: she was funny, observant, strong, and empathetic. The other chapters are narrated by Merle. Whereas Gloria’s narrative is full of life and awareness of her circumstances and new environment, Merle’s narrative is far more fragmented, her voice often drowned out by other voices. These voices describe what is happening and what has happened to her, but they do so with vehemence, belittling her, calling her slurs, blaming her for everything little thing. Merle’s chapters once again brought to mind Everything Here is Beautiful as they provide an unflinching glimpse into someone diagnosed with a mental illness. According to the hospital, Merle is in the ward because she suffered a psychotic breakdown. Yet, their attempts to help her seem at times to be more harmful than not. It is Gloria who begins to really see Merle, and the bond between these two women was truly heart-rendering to read. During their time at the ward, they are made to do ‘exercises that require them to talk or write about their past, and through these, we learn more about Gloria’s early life and Merle’s childhood and marriage.
First published in 2000 The Fat Lady Sings is not only stylistically innovative but discusses all too relevant issues (mental health, race, sexuality) and I hope that thanks to Evaristo it will find its audience. In spite of the harrowing depiction of mental health and sexual abuse, The Fat Lady Sings is not without its moment of joy and beauty. Roy renders the vulnerabilities and strengths of her characters with nuance and empathy. Like some of the best novels out there The Fat Lady Sings made me sad, it made me laugh, and, more importantly, it made me think. Not an easy read but a truly wonderful novel that I look forward to re-reading.