Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Studying so much had its consequences. It caused me to wonder, for instance, if I might be a genius.

Bursting with wry humor and insight Joan Is Okay makes for a quick and quirky read about a woman who doesn’t want to change to fit in with society’s standards.

In spite of what the people around her may think, Joan is okay…isn’t she? On paper Joan has achieved the American Dream, hasn’t she? She’s in her thirties and works as an ICU doctor at a New York City hospital, a job she finds deeply full-filling. Joan’s hard work ethic has earned her respect at the hospital and she’s even due a pay rise. When Joan’s father dies, she flies to China to attend his funeral but, unlike her older brother who stays for a longer visit, she immediately returns back to New York. Her colleagues seem puzzled by her refusal to take time off. Her now widowed mother is staying for a while with Joan’s brother and his family. They keep insisting that Joan should be around more. Her brother, who leads a fairly extravagant lifestyle, nags her about moving away from New York and opening her own practice where he lives. But Joan doesn’t seem to care about money, not in the way her brother does. She also shows no interest in finding a partner or starting a family. She’s content dedicating herself to her work and doesn’t seem to understand why other people may find her choices so baffling. As the narrative progresses Joan begins to feel overwhelmed by others. Her workplace forces her to take her time off to ‘grieve’, one of her colleagues is resentful of her raise and paints himself as somehow having been wrong by the hospital, and her new neighbour keeps encroaching on her private space, inviting himself over and offloading her with things he no longer wants. Then, towards the latter half of the novel, Joan is further troubled by the news of a virus…(you guessed it…covid cameo).

Joan’s idiosyncratic narration is certainly amusing and engaging. She finds social interactions difficult and often takes what other people say too literally. Because she keeps to herself others see her as standoffish and weird. Her approach to her work and the way she process/understand/see the the world around her brought to mind Keiko from Convenience Store Woman and Molly from The Maid. As with those characters, it could be argued that the reason why people view Joan as ‘different’ is that she’s neuroatypical. Yet, no one alludes to this possibility, even if Joan consistently exhibits neurodivergent traits…I understand that women and racial minorities ‘slip’ under the radar when it comes to being diagnosed (and are often misdiagnosed) but given Joan’s profession and the country she lives in…I would have excepted someone to mention this or keep this in mind rather than make Joan feel like an ‘alien’ because she doesn’t react or express herself in a neurotypical way. Anyway, aside from that Wang certainly brings to life the character of Joan. Her interior monologue is characterized by a dry yet witty tone. Joan’s acts of introspection are punctuated by sillier asides having to do with sitcoms and social niceties. When coming across other people she does have the habit of listing their height and weight which rubbed me the wrong way. No one can just look at someone and know their exact height, let alone their weight. It also seemed like an added ‘quirk’ that is a bit stereotypical (of a character who is heavily implied to be neuroatypical and is into a medical/science related field).
We also gain insight into her everyday life working at the ICU. Her father’s death and her mother’s temporary move into Fang’s house makes her reflect on their experiences in America, the linguistic and cultural barriers they faced. Joan also considers how her experiences differ from her brother’s ones; unlike her, Fang was born in China and while their parents moved to America he was left in the care of some relatives. Does he resent Joan because of this? Is his fixation with wealth and status an attempt to prove himself?

Wang is able to articulate complex and often hard to pin down feelings and thoughts. I also appreciated that there were instances where the author was able to point to what state of mind Joan was in without being explicit about it. We can see that Joan is numb without her telling us. Her deflection and minimisation of her own grief were also very convincing and felt consistent with her character.
There are moments where Joan is interacting with her superior, her colleague, or her neighbour, that really convey how uncomfortable she is. Often nothing overtly ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ has been said but their tones or line of questioning feels invasive or somewhat condescending. Wang also captures the realities of working in a predominantly male workplace. I was reminded of Severance, Edge Case, Days of Distraction, which also explore the experiences of young(ish) Asian American women who have jobs in typically white & male spaces. Wang emphasizes how often (supposedly) ‘well-meaning’ liberals such as her neighbour succeed only in making one feel even more ‘other’. The realism of Joan’s everyday life and inner monologue are contrasted with moments and scenes that verge on the absurd. Some of the secondary characters (such as this random girl who introduces herself as a ‘post-millennial’) came across as cartoonish, and their presence in Joan’s story felt jarring almost.
As the narrative progresses my interest waned. There was a lot of repetition, and some of the situations Joan ends up in felt a bit…trying too hard to be quirky? Kind of a la Fleabag. The inclusion of covid also affected my reading experience. It just stresses me out reading about the pandemic given that we are still in it and no, I don’t care to ‘relive’ those first few months back in 2020. I would have liked fewer scenes with the neighbour or random characters and more page time spent on Joan and her mom, or Joan and her brother. Still, I did find her point of view insightful, particularly when she considers how growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants has shaped her and her sense of self. I did find it slightly implausible that she was unfamiliar with so many American things, given that she was born and lived her whole life there…but I guess if you are a truly introverted or asocial person you would have less exposure to popular culture. Still, I could definitely relate to feeling lost or a step behind as there are instances where my English friends and or colleagues say things or refer to things I just don’t ‘get’.

While reading this I was reminded of Mieko Kawakami’s All the Lovers in the Night. Both novels focus on women in their 30s who lead rather solitary lives. They do not seem interested in pursuing romantic relationships nor do they care about ‘moulding’ themselves into their respective society’s ideal of a woman (who is often a wife & mother). I appreciated that story-wise Joan is Okay doesn’t follow a conventional route, which would have ended with Joan ‘finding’ someone or ‘changing’ because of love. Still, I did find the finale kind of anticlimactic. And again, by then, covid had kind of stolen the scene so I’d lost interest somewhat. If you liked Wang’s Chemistry and you can cope with ‘covid books’ I would definitely recommend you check out Joan Is Okay.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼ stars

picture from the new york times.

The Maid by Nita Prose

edit: after some reflection i have decided to lower my rating as i am frustrated by the way autistic-coded Nina is presented as so exaggeratedly ‘quirky’ & ‘naive’, someone who we will inevitably find ‘endearing’

The Maid could have been a solid escapist read. This is less of a cozy whodunnit than a ‘trying hard too hard to be quirky’ character-driven tale about Molly Gray, a neurodivergent 25-year-old woman who works as a maid for a prestigious hotel. Molly’s grandmother, who was her sole carer and companion, died a few months before the novel’s events take place, and Molly is struggling to navigate the world without her.
Its many flaws ultimately soured my relationship with The Maid: there were some very cheesy/ridiculous moments, the author’s decision not to mention neurodivergency was frustrating, especially given the way she portrays Nina, and a character who is undocumented is depicted in an exceedingly clichéd way (of course, he is ‘rescued’ by the white characters).

While Molly does find her work as a maid deeply fulfilling, she’s very lonely without her Gran. Growing up she was always made to feel like a ‘weirdo’ and a ‘freak’, and even now her colleagues at the hotel regard her with a mixture of bemusement and condescension and are generally quite mean towards her. Because Molly struggles to read people’s body language, to ‘read’ their emotions, and to pick up on things like sarcasm etc, social interactions can become quite difficult, especially when others (mis)perceive her behaviour or responses as ‘odd’, ‘off’, and ‘not normal’.

Her life is upended when during a shift she comes across a guest’s dead body. The deceased, Mr. Black, was a wealthy man of dubious manners who died in dubious circumstances. His now widowed wife, Giselle, was one of the few people who made Molly feel seen, in a good way that is. Having watched a lot of Columbo Molly knows that Giselle will be the prime suspect for her husband’s murder, so she decides to help her out. It is Molly however who becomes suspect in the police’s eyes, as the people around her are quick to pile on her, painting her as being ‘antisocial’ and ‘standoffish’, someone who wouldn’t have a problem killing someone. Molly ends up trusting in the wrong people, and while most readers will be able to see beyond their ‘nice’ act, Molly herself doesn’t (and this is sort-of played up for laugh). She eventually becomes deeply embroiled in this murder case, and the lead detective seems determined to see Molly as the culprit. Thankfully for Molly, she does come across people who have her best interest at heart, and with their aid, she decides to take down those who had manipulated her.

While there are stakes, such as Molly being arrested for a crime she did not commit, the narrative maintains a very lighthearted tone.

I will say that I didn’t like how no one, as far as I can recall, mentions words such as autism, neurodivergent, or neuroatypical. Almost every character mentions that Molly is ‘different’, or ‘odd’, or ‘weird’, or a ‘freak’. But no one ever acknowledges that she’s on the spectrum. Molly, herself doesn’t. Given that this novel has a contemporary setting this seemed a bit unlikely. I mean, maybe I would have believed it if this book was set during the 90s in a country like the one where I was brought up in, but 21st century North America? I also think that the way the author portrayed Molly was fairly stereotypical as she does seem to exhibit all the classic signs associated with autism & is kind of infantilised.
Juan’s character was also depicted in a questionable way. The man is made to seem gullible and somewhat childlike. I didn’t care for the way the author infantilised him (i guess she wanted to stress that undocumented men do not pose a threat…but making him come across as ‘simple’ is not great). Additionally, the other maids were portrayed in a way that verged on the offensive.

The mystery storyline did have a few predictable twists & turns, not only when it came to the people who were clearly scheming against Molly, but the identity of the murderer and Molly’s ‘unreliability/evasions’.
This could have made for a quick, entertaining, and rather charming read, but I cannot in good faith describe it as such…The Maid may have had a well-meaning message, but the author portrays autism in such a clichéd way (without ever acknowledging it) that I feel very uneasy about recommending it to other readers…

my rating: ★ ★

Life Ceremony: Stories by Sayaka Murata

This collection was both disappointing and unnecessarily disgusting. Not a great start to my reading year…

“What could be more normal than making people into clothes or furniture after they die?”

A lot of things…

As Life Ceremony happened to be one of my most anticipated 2022 releases, I was very happy to learn that my request for an arc was approved by its publisher. Sadly, it turns out that Life Ceremony was not the offbeat collection I was expecting it’d be. If you enjoyed Murata’s Convenience Store Woman but found Earthlings too grotesque, well, my advice is that you steer clear from her short stories. I loved the former and found the latter to be, if not enjoyable, certainly a striking read. Life Ceremony, on the other hand, feels like a rather forgettable collection of stories designed to disgust & shock its readers. Even the scenarios they explore are certainly weird, their weirdness was almost too predictable and samey. While the disturbing elements that made Earthlings into such a memorable read felt ‘earned’, and did not take precedence over the story’s characters & themes, here those elements feel obvious and as if they were the whole point of the story. As with her two novels, Murata’s short stories explore alienation, loneliness, humanity, and contemporary Japanese society. But, to be perfectly honest, Murata’s insights into these topics here feel banal and entirely derivative of her full length works.
Most of the stories in this collection are set in the near-future or in an alternate reality where certain characters, often the narrator, finds themselves questioning the social mores so readily accepted by others. Because of this they feel alienated from other people and don’t feel that they truly fit into their particular society. Most of the stories question the notion of right and wrong by challenging the characters ethical and moral ideologies (why do they really think that x is bad? is it because they are told that is what they should think? etc etc). In the first story for example our protagonist lives in a society that uses human skin to produce all sorts of objects. While this use of human skin is completely normalized now the protagonist remembers vaguely a time where this was not the case. Her partner, to everyone’s bewilderment, is openly against this practice and refuses to have items that are made of human skin. When his father dies and his skin repurposed, the partner reconsiders his stance. In another story, the main character has a sister who, in a similar fashion to a character from Earthlings, believes she is not a human. This causes others to bully and make fun of her. In the title story, Murata envisions a world where the deceased are made into food for the living in a ceremony of sorts. This ceremony apparently makes people really horny and they tend to have sex after consuming the ‘flesh’ of their loved one. People attach no shame to the act of sex and apparently it is perfectly normal to walk down a street and see pools of semen all over the pavement. Our main character initially claims that she is not keen on the practice but when a colleague she cares for dies suddenly she relishes the meal his relatives make him into. She comes across a man who says he’s gay and decides to give her his sperm. Amongst other things, I found myself wondering how gay people fit in in a society where you only have sex to procreate. I found this scenario particularly illogical. Not so much the eating of the deceased, I mean, endocannibalism was (is?) practised by certain communities, but the whole sex on the streets thing?! Uncomfortable much! Anyhow, we also have a story about a woman who observes other people and describes them as human beings, which kind of implies she is not one. She is particularly obsessed with things such as blood, bile, and other bodily fluids. At one point she observes someone she’s just had a meal with and this happens:

“Sanae quietly gripped the plastic bag in her hand, thinking of all the excrement filling Emiko’s body.”

Which, ugh, let me gouge my eyes out. I didn’t find this funny or shocking, just low-key gross. Gross is actually the perfect word to describe this collection. Alongside garish, vulgar, perverse, trite, and gratuitous. At times I felt that I was reading the writing of a teenager trying to be edgy and writing about edgy things like shit, sex, blood, and cannibalism. There were also lines such as “I felt so happy at the thought that I was among his innards” that just…why?! Then an orgasm is described as “it’s kind of like your body becomes innocent, like a child”…which. Yeah. Something about that does not sit right with me.
Contrary to what one might believe reading this review, I don’t mind gore, body horror, or works that are fascinated with what is abject. I recently watched and was blown away by Titane which definitely delivers on the body horror and the body is abject front. But this collection prioritizes these aspects in an ineffective way. They were far from subversive, and in fact, I found it predictable how almost every story features a society where something we consider taboo has been normalized.
While I was deeply dissatisfied by this collection, and I will certainly be avoiding her short-form work from now on, I do consider Murata to be a remarkable storyteller (even if this collection was, in my opinion of course, a dud). If you are interested in reading this and you are not put-off my intentionally & ott gross content, well, go for it.

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How to Find a Princess by Alyssa Cole

“A princess and her lady knight—the kind of fairy tale she’d always wanted, if she had to be a princess.”

Perhaps I hyped myself so much so that disappointment was inevitable. How to Find a Princess was one of my most anticipated 2021 releases and I can’t say that I loved it. It had its entertaining moments and some funny lines but the pacing was all over the place. Also, tone-wise this felt less like an Anastasia retelling and more like something in the realm of a Netflix princess movie. I guess it makes for a decent escapist read.

After being let go from her job working at a store and being dumped by her girlfriend Makeda Hicks feels that she needs to change her attitude. The people around her either exploit her kindness or feel suffocated by it so she decides that she will start standing up for herself more. When an investigator from the World Federation of Monarchies shows up at her grandmother’s hotel Makeda is for one in her life quite vocal about not wanting to do what other people tell her to do. This investigator, Beznaria Chetchevaliere, is convinced that Makeda is her country’s missing heir and despite Makeda’s protestations, she is determined to follow the job through as to do so would reinstate her family’s honour (her grandmother was accused of betraying their now long lost Queen). The narrative doesn’t really provide much background for these characters other than vague impressions of their lives so far. They both seem to have no friends nor do we really delve into their relationship with their family members. Makeda’s strained relationship with her mother felt very surface level and seemed to exist only to complicate Makeda feelings towards the whole royal thing (her mother was obsessed with the possibility of Makeda being a princess and pretty much ridiculed in front of her own school turning Makeda into a pariah). Understandably Makeda isn’t keen to go to Ibarania.
The first 30% of the narrative feels very rushed and the chemistry between Beznaria and Makeda came across as somewhat rushed. The two bicker for a good 80% of the novel and I would be lying if I said that it didn’t get repetitive (because it sure did). Much of the humor stems from the cultural difference between Beznaria and Makeda and sometimes it felt rather forced. Beznaria is neurodivergent and this is sometimes used as a source of humor as she is often portrayed as taking things literally or is shown to be unaware of many social norms. 30% in, their relationship and the plot hit a plateau. The two make their way to Ibarania on a ship posing as a married couple because of reasons where they spend most of their days bickering. It is only around the 70% mark that their relationship moves on from this childish stalemate. But, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel the chemistry between them. Beznaria lies so much (lying by omission is still lying) and never properly apologises for the way she basically manipulates/bullies Makeda into going along.
We also never learn much about Ibarania other than it being a (fictional) island in the Mediterranean. A very small section of the novel actually takes place there and we don’t really glimpse its customs/traditions/peoples/landscapes. Also, while we know this place is missing an heir the narrative doesn’t really provide much information in regards to why they did not look for them before.

I loved how casual the queer rep was and there was the odd moment that made me smile or that I found cute. Overall however the world, characters, and story within this novel felt very undefined. There were too few secondary characters and the ones that were mentioned now and again (on the ship for example) blurred together. Bez and Makeda as leads were a bit confined in their roles (Bez being this offbeat investigator and Makeda a nice girl who doesn’t want to be a princess). The whole ‘watering can’ metaphor to describe Makeda’s feelings was kind of forced and lasted way longer than it should have.
The narrative plays around with popular fanfic tropes (fake dating, only one bed) and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you are in the mood for an easy sapphic read, this may very well hit the spot. I for one hoped would have preferred for Bez and Makeda not to spend most of the novel pretending they are not into each other.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little

Action, cut, action, cut, action, cut, action, cut. These aren’t commands, not for me. They’re more like everyday punctuation. A capital letter. A period. An indication that I should pay attention to what’s going on in the middle.”

Pretty as a Picture tells a slow-burn type of suspenseful story, one that I would definitely recommend to movie aficionados as this novel shines a light on the realities of the film industry: from the demanding, if not downright tyrannical, directors and agents to the power dynamics and hierarchies that are at play in a film crew. This behind-the-scenes setting is perhaps the most interesting and dazzling aspect of this book.

Although there are certain elements within the narrative that would not be out of place in a thriller, Pretty as a Picture is above all a character-driver story. Marissa, our protagonist and narrator, makes this novel. While she may initially strike readers as yet another introverted ‘not like other people’ character—who is later on reassured by others about her looks and personality—Marissa not only experience things differently but others are aware of this and often make the point of commenting on it. Her poor social skills, her ‘ticks’, her struggle to read or understand other people’s tone of voice or body language, her dislike of physical contact….these all contribute to making small everyday things—such any type of social interaction—much harder for her.
Films help her navigate the world. When she doesn’t know what to do or say she turns to the films she’s watched. Sometimes she simply draws strength from the characters of her favourite movies, while on other occasions someone, something, or someplace might remind her of a certain film.

When her best friend, and former creative partner, moves out of their apartment and with her douche-y boyfriend, Marissa finds herself in need of an editing gig. Her agent pushes into accepting an offer for a film based on a true murder case. Marissa is told that the previous editor suddenly left so the director, Tony Rees, is desperate for someone to replace him. Marissa is taken to a remote island where she unearths more than one mystery: from the dismissal of various members of staff to the growing tension between the people working on the film…something is afoot. Marissa, alongside some new acquaintances, plays detective in order to find just what is going on this set.

The murder aspect of the story kicks starts around the half-way mark. Before then we are introduced to the story’s many characters and we get a chance to truly get to know Marissa. The slow yet atmospheric start gives way to an increasingly urgent storyline. There are some twists that are somewhat predictable but I still enjoyed seeing the way in which things unfolded.
Marissa is a distinctive narrator. Her interactions with others could be either funny, awkward, or tense, and I appreciated the way in which Elizabeth Little depicted her. We read about her vulnerabilities, her strengths, and her quirks.
The chemistry between Marissa and Isaiah adds a nice touch to the story.

Interspersed throughout Marissa’s narrative are snippets from her a true-crime podcast, ‘Dead Ringer’, run by two teenage girls who, like Marissa, are sleuths of sorts. These sections give us glimpses of what is to come, without ever revealing too much.
Filled with cinematic references Pretty as a Picture offers a sharp commentary about the film industry, the dead-girl trope, the way in which true-crime glamorises death, as well as insight into someone who is labelled as ‘different’ by their society.
Overall, Pretty as a Picture was a thoroughly entertaining novel and I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoyed The Lost Night, books by Riley Sager, or Still Lives.

my rating: ★★★½

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Almond by Won-pyung Sohn

Written in a simple and crisp prose Almond is a slim novel that is primarily concerned with empathy and human connection. Yunjae, the narrator of this story, was born with underdeveloped amygdalae, which are two-almond shaped nuclei that process our emotional responses (prior this book I had no idea of what they were…). Because of this condition, alexithymia, he cannot recognise and or is unaware of feeling emotions (be it anger happiness or fear). Knowing that this will make him ‘odd’ in the eyes of society, and will inevitably make him the target of other people’s cruelty, Yunjae’s mother, alongside his grandmother, try to ‘coach’ him, so that he can at least feign certain emotions. Yunjae obliges, as he’s unbothered by his own lack of emotional responses, as he cares, in his own way, for his family. Once he’s sixteen Yunjae’s existence is irrevocably changed by two tragic events. Without his relatives Yunjae retreats in himself.
The arrival of Gon at his school complicates Yunjae’s life. Gon, who feels everything strongly, seems intent on punishing Yunjae, but Yunjae is seemingly unperturbed by Gon’s escalating bullying. After a series of not so friendly encounters outside of school, they find themselves growing accustomed to each other’s presence. When a girl catches the attention of Yunjae he finds himself wanting to ‘feel’.

While I overall enjoyed this novel, I did think that the first section was a bit too heavy on exposition. The violent incidents that leave Yunjae alone were kind of over-the-top, as was the finale. The girl, who appears very late in the story, felt like an unwelcome addition to the story as it suggested that ‘love’ is some magical cure. Still, I did like that seeing the ways in which Gon and Yunjae try to better each other.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata — book review

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“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”

Convenience Store Woman delights in its own absurdity. In spite of its slender size and its deceptively deadpan style, Sayaka Murata’s novel is surprisingly subversive.
Keiko Furukura’s clipped yet enthusiastic narration manages to both amuse and bewilder. In the very first pages she recounts a childhood episode in which she asks her mother whether they could grill and eat a dead bird. Yet, in spite of these macabre instances, Keiko’s narration has this effervescent energy, this ceaseless optimism, enlivens the more depressing, ambivalent, or unsettling moments.

Keiko is a thirty-six-year old who has been working part-time at the same convenience store for the past eighteen years. While her peers are married and/or have ‘proper’ careers, Keiko is quite content to remain at her convenience store. While other employees have moved on to other jobs, Keiko has no desire to change (herself and her job). She appeases her school acquaintances and colleagues by mimicking their language and behaviours, but she does so not because she actually wants to fit in or due to peer pressure but because she doesn’t want others to question her or the lifestyle she leads (for example that she has never been, nor does she wish to be, in a relationship).
We follow Keiko as she performs the ordinary tasks that make up a shift at the convenience store: welcoming customers, filling shelves, store cleanliness, serving customers at the till…while I personally hate doing these kind of things (and I work as a customer assistant) Keiko seems to genuinely like and be actually good at her job. That she is happy to be a ‘cog’ in the capitalist machine is certainly disquieting but readers will have a hard time envisioning a future in which Keiko is content not to be a convenience store worker (since being a store worker seems an integral part of her identity).

Through Keiko’s unique mind ordinary moments and conversations are tinged with surreality. Although she’s unerringly logical, a lot of her thoughts are frankly bizarre or plain outlandish. Even her most sober observations (on Japanese social and gender norms, notions of normalcy) are injected with a dose of peculiarity.
Through Keiko’s uninhibited narration, Murata emphasises the absurdities of our modern age (particularly about work culture, social conformism, the expectations society places on single women in their 30s, alienation).
Playful, funny, thought-provoking, and occasionally disturbing, Convenience Store Woman is a deeply engrossing novel and Keiko’s slightly off-kilter reality is bound to appeal to readers who enjoyed Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, books by Hiromi Kawakami, or the recently released Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan — book review

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“I felt I had hitherto woefully misdirected my energies in attempting to cultivate a personality. If you didn’t have one then that left more room for everyone else’s.”

With so many professional reviewers hailing Exciting Times as one of the best debut novels of 2020, praising Naoise Dolan for her wit and her razor-sharp social commentary, or describing her book as being “droll, shrewd and unafraid”, this promised to be an intelligent and compelling read. Sadly, as with a lot of hyped new releases, Exciting Times wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

While part of me rejoiced at the sight of quotations marks (yes, I’m looking at you Sally Rooney), I soon found myself wondering where the ‘wit’ I was promised was (in case you are wondering, largely MIA).
Exciting Times is an innocuous debut novel. It follows the tradition of the alienated young woman, which has regained traction over the past years, in no small part thanks to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The women who populate these novels have a lot in common with Esther Greenwood, who is perhaps the supreme example of the alienated female narrator (then again I think this title should go to Natalie Waite from Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman). Ava, the protagonist of Dolan’s novel, is far less morbid than Plath’s or Moshfegh’s narrators. Her alienation comes across as a phase of sorts, something she was experiencing merely for the sake of the aesthetics. Still, Ava’s millennial despondency does seem to make her prone to bouts of lethargy and ennui.

“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”

At 22 Ava decides to leave Dublin behind and move to Hong Kong where she ends up teaching English grammar. Because she didn’t like herself in Ireland she believes that a change of scenery will either improve her personality or the way she sees herself. In Hong Kong Ava makes few attempts at socialising with her colleagues or her roommates, and it is only when she meets Julian, a banker, that she begins to be interested in someone other than herself. The two form a bond of sorts, which sees them occasionally sparring about the fraught history between Britain and Ireland, while for the most part they seem content with being cynical together. Soon enough Ava moves into Julian’s guest bedroom. While he’s back in England Ava meets and ‘falls’ for Edith who, unlike Julian, openly reciprocates her feelings.

“Keeping up with both of them took work, but their similarities lent the enterprise a certain economy of scale.”

The plot as such sees Ava obsessing about either Julian or Edith, checking their Instagram accounts, over-analysing their texts, and attributing a special meaning to everything they say or do.
In passing she talks with others about class, race, abortion. But these topics are briefly mentioned, and for the most part Exciting Times is about Ava’s detachment from others. In a certain way I can see why this novel could appeal to fans of Rooney as the narrative is very much focused on creating and maintaining an aesthetic of detachment. Ava is all about the ‘conceal don’t feel’. She feels ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, ‘damaged’, ‘messed up’, ‘different from other people’…you get the gist. While this is in part intentional, and both Julian and Edith call her out on the ‘woe is me’ act, the novel perpetuates this ‘she’s different’ by casually reminding us that she has a right to feel ostracised given that once a girl in school was homophobic towards her. Personally I don’t think that just because she spends large portions of her time daydreaming, envisioning what ifs scenarios, or wondering how others see her, she’s actually ‘different’.
The novel is so focused on being clever that it ends up not having anything substantial to offer.
Ava’s alleged ‘aloofness’ seemed an excuse for her character not to have a personality. One of my favourite literary characters is Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe, someone who is aloof, distant, occasionally manipulative, and who hides her feelings from the reader. In spite of this we do see glimpses of her emotions. Ava instead just tells us that she ‘loves/hates’ someone…and I just didn’t feel it. If anything she was infatuated with the idea of love…which brings me to the ending. Are we meant to believe that there was any character growth on her part? Cause I don’t…
Much was made of the power dynamics between her and Julian. Ava plays her own violin insisting that if she were to end things with Julian she would have to find a ‘crammy’ room…and I’m meant to feel sorry for the circumstances she’s in? She is employed, and earns far more than others, and has enough savings to leave Julian’s apartment (or make a small contribution). Yet, her ‘dilemma’ is made into this ‘big thing’.
Lastly, in the novel Hong Kong is a mere cardboard backdrop for Ava’s existentialist crisis. The story could have been set in any city outside of Ireland and it would barely need changing. Mentioning Hong Kong’s political unrest now and again was not enough.

Some positives
Julian and Edith, although not strictly likeable, felt much more like well-rounded people. I couldn’t see why they were both interested in Ava given how self-involved she was.
Dolan has a knack for dialogues. They are extremely realistic: at times the characters talk about nothing, misunderstand each other, use the wrong words to express what they feel…her back-and-forths, or banter, between certain characters was fairly engaging.
Most of all I loved the way Dolan writes about the English language. Ava is attentive when it comes to English. She often questions people’s word choices (“We discussed whether the word ‘quite’ magnified or diminished a compliment. I sketched a cline on a napkin and put ‘quite’ between ‘a little’ and ‘very’.”) and, given her teaching position, she also reprimands herself for using ‘bad English’.
Dolan rendition of different intonations and accents is evocative:

“Her accent was churchy, high-up, with all the cathedral drops of English intonation. Button, water, Tuesday – anything with two syllables zipped up then down like a Gothic steeple.”

My favourite passages were the ones that focused on language and the ones describing a person’s pronunciation or words choices.
Ava does share some genuinely clever insights about the English language or modern methods of communications. For example I particularly liked the way she describes texts:

“We chose what to share. Through composition I reduced my life, burned fat, filed edges. The editing process let me veto post-hoc the painful, boring or irrelevant moments I lived through.”

Overall
As I’ve said before, this was an inoffensive novel. It wasn’t thought-provoking or half as witty as it tried to be but it isn’t badly written. I was hoping perhaps for a less glib take on alienation or a more complex interrogation of power dynamics and gender.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

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The King of Crows by Libba Bray — book review

unnamed.jpgI hate to say it, or write it, but The King of Crows wasn’t a very satisfying conclusion to The Diviners series.

“Who got to decide what made somebody an American? America, the ideal of it at least, was its own form of elusive magic.”

While it isn’t as drawn-out as the finale to the Gemma Doyle series (which was around 800 pages) it struck me as being similarly anticlimactic.
In The King of Crows the pacing of the story is all over the place and the characters have very rushed and unsatisfying arcs.

Nearly three years have gone by since the release of Before the Devil Breaks You. Given that this series started back in 2012, it isn’t all that surprising that I’d forgotten a quite a few major plot-points. Still, I remembered the diviners, their personalities and powers, as well as their group dynamics. Libba Bray doesn’t spend too much time recapitulating old events, and once I caught up or remembered what was going on I found the first few chapters of this novel to be promising enough.
Once the diviners are scattered across America however the story’s upbeat pace comes to a halt. What follows over the course of the next three-hundred pages is a tedious repetition of similar scenarios.
The diviners encounter good folk, who are willing to help them or understand what it means to be different (such as the members of a circus), as well as horrible individuals and groups of people (the most noticeable being the KKK). They all come to terms with their simultaneously beautiful and terrible country/world. All the while we get random chapters showing us that ghosts are coming (phrases such as ‘ghosts are coming’ and ‘this country is full of ghosts’ are repeated so many times as to loose the initial sense of danger and urgency that they carried). The confusing showdown between our good guys (aka the diviners) and the baddies is crammed in the last hundred pages.
The narrative in The King of Crows lacked the mystery-factor that made the other volumes in this series intriguing.

In short: the story is just padding.

Characters behave as flimsy versions of their former selves (Evie and Ling, both of whom I previously really liked, were simply irritating) and had very rushed storylines that seemed to add very little to their overall arc.
Take Henry. Most of his scenes revolve around the way in which his sexuality is deemed abnormal by his society. That’s pretty much it. Ling’s sections also often emphasise her sexuality. Whereas those scenes that focus on characters such as Memphis and Theta seem to focus on other aspects of their lives (their general desires and fears, etc). Jericho has the most eye-roll worthy storyline which sees him (view spoiler).
Even the banter between the various diviners felt unimaginative. At times their conversations and discussions seem to rely on their catchphrases (Evie says something ‘scandalous’, Sam says something flirty, Jericho doesn’t get whatever is going on, Ling is disapproving…).
None of the romances were interesting. They mostly revolved around cute nicknames (such as baby vamp) and on scenes featuring some very uninspired flirting.

The King of Crows is a Disney type of villain. I remember that the first instalments of this series presented us with creepy or fascinating antagonists…but this guy is just dull. He has a few cameos here and there, scares our protagonists, does some mayhem, and is very much the novel’s boogeyman.

The setting too seemed to lack its usual spark and vibrancy. Previously I loved the way in which Bray brought 1920s New York to life. In this volume however most of the ‘action’ is outside of New York, and we read of a series of small and forgettable towns…which do not make very intriguing backdrops.

The plot was full of convenient coincidences. What frustrated me the most was a ‘revelation’ towards the end, which came as no surprise whatsoever (view spoiler)

Bray draws an unsubtle parallel between the rampant racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, othering, and other forms of bigotry of the 1920s and today’s political climate (there are phrases such as ‘get out of our country’). Her approaches to some of these topics came across as rather on the nose. For example when Theta learns that someone she likes was raised by slave-owners she has such an unbelievably naive ‘how could she?’ reaction.

The epilogue struck me as predictable….(view spoiler)

All in all…this was an incredibly disappointing followup to Before the Devil Breaks You.
While Bray is an undoubtedly good writer The King of Crows simply lacks the glamour and electricity that made the other instalments so much more engaging and atmospheric. It had a meandering narrative, with lots of repetition regarding the importance of storytelling and stories, a passage from Nietzsche which felt rather out of place, some lacklustre cosmic horror, and a cast of one-dimensional characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars 

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