Solo Dance by Kotomi Li

“There’s a limit to how much misogyny and heteronomrative bullshit a story can have.”

Solo Dance follows a millennial woman from Taiwan working an office job in Tokyo who feels alienated from her colleagues and their daily conversations about marriage, the economy, and children. Chō, our protagonist, is a lesbian, something she keeps ‘hidden’ from her coworkers. While Chō does hang out with other queer women in lgbtq+ spaces, a traumatic experience causes her to be self-doubting, distrustful of others, and perpetually ashamed. When she opens up to a woman she’s sort of seeing, the latter brutally rejects her, not only blaming Chō for having been attacked but accusing her of having been deceitful (by not having spoken about this before). This leads Chō to spiral further into depression and suicidal ideation, her disconnection further exacerbated by an ‘accident’ that occurs at her workplace. Chō’s arc brought to mind that of Esther Greenwood in <i>Bell Jar</i>, that is to say, things seem to just get worse and worse for her.


As we read of her experiences working and living in Japan as a gay woman, we are also given insight into her teenage years in Taiwan, her slow recognition of her sexuality, her first encounter(s) with women, and that devasting night that resulted in an irrevocable self-disintegration. Chō blames herself for her attack, and not only does she sabotages her relationship with her girlfriend but pushes away one of the few people actively trying to help her. Chō’s uneasy relationship with her sexuality and the physical and emotional violence she experiences over the course of the narrative make for an unrelentingly depressing read.

Throughout the course of her novel, the author links Chō’s experiences to those of Qiu Miaojin and of her fictionalised counterpart, Lazi. Both tonally and thematically Solo Dance shares a lot of similarities with Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile: both works interrogate notions of normalcy and alterity by exploring the experiences of women whose sexuality does not conform to societal norms.
Whereas Miaojin’s writing has a more cynical and satirical edge to it, Solo Dance is mostly just depressing. Immeasurably depressing. I knew going into it that the novel would not be a happy read, but, dio mio, for such a short read this book sure is brimming with queer pain & suffering. Because of this, I’m afraid I found Solo Dance to be a very one-note read. Sure, the realities it explores are sadly realistic, but, the storytelling has this flat quality to it that made it hard for me to become immersed in what I was reading. I can’t pinpoint whether it is the author’s style or the translation at fault, but while reading this I felt not so much transported into the story as merely…well, as if I was ‘just’ reading a text that didn’t quite elicit any strong responses beyond finding r*pe, lesbophobia, and suicidal ideation upsetting to read of. The story never reeled me in, which is a pity as the topics it explores are ones close to my heart (i am a lesbian and grew up in a very catholic and not particularly lgbtq+ friendly country).
The dialogues were a mixture of clumsy and dry and some of Chō’s internal monologues struck me as trying too hard to mimic Lazi’s brand of nihilistic angst. Other times it just sounded off, unnatural (“is the stigmatization of my sexuality the source of all my misfortune? This illogical question had plagued her for a long time”, “her rational thoughts returned to life and began to talk to her”). The narrative also seemed to go way out of its way in order to make Chō suffer, and while I can sometimes buy into the type of story where one character experiences trauma after trauma (a little life), here I didn’t. A lot of the interactions she has with others either struck me as unlikely or just plain unbelievable (from the words spoken by the woman who ‘rejects’ her to her encounter with another suicidal queer woman).

If you are interested in reading this book I still recommend you give it a shot (just bear in mind ‘tis dreary affair).

my rating: ★ ★ ½

Edge Case by YZ Chin

“[I]f I could make Americans laugh, then I would be accepted. I would be embraced and admired.”

Realistic, subtly off-beat, and keenly observed, Edge Case couples an indictment of the rampant misogyny that permeates the tech industry with an unsparing depiction of the everyday inequities and hurdles immigrants face in their pursuit of green cards and citizenship. Our narrator, Edwina, is a Malaysian woman of Chinese origin now living in New York and employed at AInstein, a tech startup working on an AI that can tell jokes. She’s married to Marlin, who is also Malaysian born but is of Chinese and Indian descent (his darker skin combined with him being from a majority Muslim country make him a target to both racism and Islamophobia). After the death of Marlin’s father, he begins to drift away from Edwina, and, much to her surprise, becomes increasingly preoccupied with the spirit world. One day Edwina returns home to discover it empty. Marlin has left her without leaving a note or any explanation.
A confused and hurting Edwina tries to make sense of his actions, compiling a list of the places he might have gone all the while questioning the motives behind his departure. Did he decide to return to Malaysia? Did he fall out of love with her? Or does it have to do with his newfound interest in spirits?

The novel takes place over the course of 10 days or so and we witness Edwina slowly coming apart. She struggles with her body image and food (after years of vegetarianism she begins to eat meat even if this results in her being physically unwell), with her self-esteem, and seems to experience difficulties wherever she is. Her calls with her mother, who has always been quick to criticise her appearance and life choices, are strained. Her best friend Katie seems oblivious to her crisis, encouraging her instead to forget Marlin and find someone else. Edwina is the only woman working at AInstein which results in her feeling understandably isolated. Her clannish male colleagues either ignore her, speaking over her, boohooing her ideas and feedback (for instance, when she points out that, surprise surprise, many of the jokes in their robot’s repertoire are sexist and or otherwise offensive, she’s told that she has no sense of humor because she’s 1) a woman 2) a foreigner). A white colleague of hers repeatedly toys the line between ‘banter’ and harassment, forcing her to proofread his crappy books and implying that she’s sleeping with other male colleagues.
Interspersed through this are flashbacks detailing Edwina and Marlin’s first meeting, their early days together, and their slow dissolution.
I liked and admired Edwina. Despite her situation, she’s determined to find out what happened to Marlin. At work she tries hard to be polite and agreeable but eventually, she’s forced into taking matters into her own hands. Her insecurities related to her body were certainly relatable and I appreciated how frank yet empathetic the author was when discussing this subject. Edwina’s desires, to be accepted by Americans, to be reunited with Marlin, were certainly understandable even if I did find myself questioning her devotion to Marlin. He behaves abhorrent towards and much of its chalked up to ‘he’s grieving’, which, fair enough, but, that doesn’t negate the months of emotional neglect and abuse. He drives Edwina to self-hatred, something I had a hard time glossing over. Having once shared a roof with an incredibly paranoid individual prone to gaslighting those around them, it just hit too close to home. His character never comes fully to life, part of it is because by the time the story begins he’s already gone MIA, and part of it is that even in the flashbacks he appears as a somewhat remote sort of figure, never coming into full focus.
Edwina on the other hand was an all too believable character. From her insecurities to her motivations, Edwina was a multi-faceted character one can easily relate to and root for. This made much of her narrative really hard to read. Many scenes focus on her being mistreated or overlooked. Her mother is constantly undermining her, claiming that in previous lives she was a terrible person. Her best friend is blind to her pain and despair. One of her colleagues is increasingly inappropriate towards her while the others behave like sexist tech-bros. Edwina struggles to navigate her male-dominated workplace, their harmful ‘it’s a boys’ club’ mentality.
Through Edwina’s perspective, we witness how her day-to-day life is punctuated by sexism (both in and outside the workplace), racism, discrimination, and body shaming. Edwina’s estrangement from Marlin affects the way she interacts with the world and she becomes increasingly disconnected from others. Her anxiety and loneliness are exacerbated by the fact that she’s surrounded by Americans. Her apprehension over Marlin’s welfare, her discomfort at work, her anxiety about her immigration status, her sense of inadequacy, all of these things result in a rather heavy-going narrative. While Edwina’s wry and self-deprecating tone does alleviate some of the tension, Edge Case is not a light read. The author’s deceptively simple prose belies the complex nature of Edwina’s story and this might not appeal to those who are looking for an easy-going or plot-driven narrative. Edge Case is a very introspective novel that provides a lot of food for thought.
I did find myself wishing for some more variety when it came to character interactions. Many scenes are just really uncomfortable to read, and, while I understand that they were realistic, it did get the repetitive reading time and again about people mistreating Edwina. Her passivity is understandable given her position, still, it was immensely satisfying to see her in action and I doubt many will condemn her for her actions. Marlin, as I said, remains a rather flimsy sort of figure, which detracted a lot from the story. The exploration of marriage also suffers because of it.
Another thing that detracted from my overall reading experience was the author’s choice to have Edwina recount these events—Marlin’s disappearance as well as their relationship—directly to us, her ‘therapist’, and addressing us as ‘you’. This framing device felt somewhat gimmicky and distracting. At times the prose could be a bit…icky, “ I felt his tongue spread like jam”, and we do get a few lines that were very superfluous, such as: “My belly button itched, and I scratched it”, or scenes that were trying to be ‘out there’ but struck me as contrived, such as that blood clot scene (it worked in I May Destroy You but here…eh).

In spite of these minor criticisms, I found Edge Case to be a thought-provoking and absorbing read. The author captures how it is to feel ‘other’, emphasizing how hard and exhausting it is to try to ‘assimilate’ into a culture different from the one you were born and raised in. Edwina believes that she will find acceptance through comedy, that by making people laugh she will belong but, as she herself realizes, it is all too easy to end up as the object of ridicule.

With acuity, clarity, and empathy, Chin presents us with an unsettling portrait, that of a woman in crisis. Alongside her exploration of Edwina’s identity, her marriage, her attempts at connection, Chin provides us with a candid look at contemporary America, underlining how sexist and toxic the tech industry is and the absurd rules and draconian policies immigrants have to circumnavigate. There are two scenes, in particular, one at an airport and another on the street, that truly emphasize how vulnerable Edwina and Marlin are in the U.S.
Lastly, this novel gets a plus just for mentioning one of my all-time fave books, Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson.
I look forward to reading more by Chin. Bravo!

my rating: ★★★½

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Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

How to describe Queenie? Cringe comedy without the comedy meets misery porn? Unfunny caricatures galore? Low-key offensive towards ethnic minorities?

Look, I knew that Queenie would not be like Bridget Jones, and to be honest, that is a plus in my books (i watched the film adaptation when i first moved to britain and i found it…dated). So when I started Queenie I was hoping for something more on the lines of Chewing Gum or Fleabag….but what we get is an unfunny and not particularly nuanced narrative—starring the typical self-destructive twenty-something millennial—that in trying to be too many things, ends up being a big ol’ mess.

Queenie Jenkins is, our eponymous heroine, a Jamaican British woman living in London. She’s 25 going on 15. She’s just broken up with Tom, her white long-term boyfriend, and is clearly struggling to cope. She spends most of the novel going on about how she misses him, this guy who has the personality of a potato, and seeking validation in all the wrong places. The garbage men Queenie begins sleeping objectify and fetishize her, further damaging Queenie’s mental health. Understandably, Queenie’s obsession over her ex, her recent miscarriage, and her new lifestyle distract her from her work at a national newspaper. Yet Queenie herself remains convinced that she is a hard worker deserving of more important stories than what is currently coming her way. She has three close ‘friends’ to which she vents about her drama and how much sadder her life is compared to them. The narrative mentions that something Bad happened to Queenie when she was younger, but predictably it is not until the very end that we learn what exactly came to pass. The few flashbacks we get prior that big ‘reveal’ are awkwardly embedded in the text, and the scenes they present us felt either unnecessary or contrived (ie the information we learn through flashbacks could have been delivered to us differently, say by having Queenie actually engage in an act of introspection and realize that her boyfriend not only comes from a racist family but that his refusal to call out their racism or to stand by her makes him in many ways worse than they are).

Before I start sharing more of my negative thoughts about this novel I will mention a few things that did kind of work. I think the author does an excellent job in depicting the countless microaggressions that Queenie experiences on a daily basis—from strangers, colleagues, ‘friends’, sex partners. She also shows that in those instances when Queenie does speak up or calls out others on their racism, sexism, ignorance, she’s dismissed as just another ‘angry, loud, Black woman’. I also appreciated that Queenie’s mental health problems are not just magicked away by the power of love or some other crap. And I kind of liked her grandparents, even if they sadly play a very small role in Queenie’s story.

Now, on the not so good stuff:
1. Queenie, who believes she’s the funniest person on this earth, is not funny. The few moments of humor in this novel are provided by Kyazike, one of the few decent people in this novel. Weirdly I found it really hard to empathize with Queenie. I basically had to will myself into feeling a modicum of sympathy towards her. Which is odd given that I usually kind of love, or love-hate, self-sabotaging protagonists (My Year of Rest Relaxation, Luster, to Pizza Girl, Madame Bovary, The House of Mirth). But Queenie…she was exasperating, exhausting. A lack of self-esteem or the fact you experienced emotional abuse in your past does not mean that you should go on to become a solipsistic self-pitying person who spends 90% of her conversations with her ‘friends’ talking about herself. I mean, if that is the case I have some catching up to do. She was not a very good friend nor particularly good to her job (she briefly cares about BLM and wants to write about it but quickly forgets all about it). And she’s not funny. She’s passive, which I understand is due to her trauma but her lack of self-awareness was irritating af. I hated that the narrative paints her as always being the one who is wronged, in any interaction she has. Two awful people actually make some pretty valid criticism about her attitude but these are made moot by the fact they are shits so whatever they have to say about her cannot possibly be true. For the majority of the novel I wanted to either shout or shake Queenie because seriously, ragazza mia, wtf? I had a hard time believing that she was in her 20s as her angsty narration and behaviour seemed more suited to a teenager.

2. All of the men are trash. And they have similar names often consisting of three letters (Ted, Tom, Guy) and they are all similar shades of shitty so I had a hard time remembering who was who. I had no interest in reading scenes in which these one-dimensional shitbags denigrated Queenie.

3. The one male Pakistani character we get is a sleazy and lewd married man who rides a black BMW, uses innit every other sentence, and refers to his penis as ‘the destroyer’. His wife then chases Queenie off in a scene that seemed more suited to Family Guy. We then have Cassandra who is Jewish, judgmental, waiting for a man with the right kind of job, and uses her dad’s money. She lends Queenie money but she makes a point of reminding her of her tab and when the two are no longer friends she asks for it back. How imaginative! Yet another Jewish Princess who is obnoxiously self-involved (at one point she tells Queenie something on the lines of ‘it’s me time’).

4. The story as such consists in scene after scene depicting Queenie being mistreated. Every person she comes across is either racist, offensive, sexist, or a combination of these. And I don’t mind reading dark and depressing books. Heck, I just read and loved A Little Life. But the thing that made A Little Life bearable to read were all of those moments focusing on how Jude—who is even more self-destructive and self-loathing than Queenie—is loved by his friends and colleagues. This novel instead is hell-bent on presenting us with grotesque caricatures who either abuse or are offensive towards Queenie. Cringe comedy ensues (ahah, not).
Not only did it feel gratuitous but I also often did not believe in the author’s characters. They were either thinly rendered stereotypes or unfunny caricatures. I can bear difficult subject matters, in fact, one of my favourite series is I May Destroy You, but you have to give me some nuanced characters, not this Family Guy nonsense.

5. I am a bit tired of sexually active women being portrayed as ‘careless’ (Queenie has unprotected sex with multiple partners) and disempowered.

5. I wish the author could have trusted her readers to interpret things on their own terms.

Given my not so great opinion of this novel, if you are thinking of reading this novel, I recommend you check out some more positive reviews, especially ones from #ownvoices reviewers.

my rating: ★★½

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Symptomatic by Danzy Senna

“Every day in this new city I was trying to live in the purity of the present, free from context. Contexts, I knew, were dangerous: Once you put them into the picture, they took over.”

As with her latest novel New People, Symptomatic presents its readers with a claustrophobic and disquieting narrative that becomes increasingly surreal. Both novels are set in the 90s in New York and follow light-skinned biracial women whose white-passing often results in them feeling on the outside of both the white and Black communities. Senna’s razor-sharp commentary on race in America holds no punches as time and again she identifies and dissects everyday slights, aggressions, and hypocrisies. Symptomatic is narrated by an unnamed young woman in her twenties who is interning as a journalist. As she ‘passes’ as white she begins to feel alienated, a feeling that is exacerbated when she witnesses her white boyfriend—who believes she is Hispanic—guffawing at a friend’s racist impersonation. Our narrator is not close to her parents, each of who has embarked on a mystical or religious journey—nor her surfer brother. Senna portrays her feeling of aloneness with incisive precision. The main character feels so severed from her surroundings that she often feels or sees rather disquieting things that may or may not be there. The imagery Senna provides is unpleasant, unsettling, and even grotesque: a “raw chicken wing” lying in the gutter is the narrator’s eyes, however momentarily, a “pink fetus”, a “steak fry” transforms in a “severed finger”, a woman’s “pregnant belly” pokes out “like a tumor”.

A colleague of the protagonist helps her in her hour of need. After breaking up with her boyfriend the narrator needs a new place and this colleague, Greta, hooks her up with an apartment that has been temporarily vacated by its actual rentee. The narrator and Greta become close as they both happen to be light-skinned biracial women. In spite of their age gap, Greta is in her forties, they feel united by their experiences (of others assuming they are white, of being told they are not really Black, of being seen as ‘neither here nor there’). Their thoughts and feelings on race, on white and Black people, can be vicious, full of vitriol, and give us an understanding of them (of the way they have been treated or made to feel). Time and again the narrator is told that there is something about the way she looks, there is an “unsettling” “dissonance” to her that makes others feel uneasy, unable to place her.
As the two women spend more time together it becomes clear to the narrator that Greta is a deeply disturbed and perturbing person. When Greta’s obsession with her forces the narrator to cut ties with her, she soon discovers that the older woman is not willing to let go so easily.

“I felt ill. My symptoms were mild and vague. They roamed my body, like tinkers searching for new temporary homes where they could not be caught.”

Senna’s prose is as always terrific. I was hypnotized by her words, however uneasy they made me feel. Her commentary on race and contemporary culture is both illuminating and provocative, and, weirdly enough, I also appreciate the cynicism of her novels. The world she presents us with is ugly and so are the people inhabiting it. The oppressive atmosphere of her narratives is made all the more stultifying by the perturbing direction of her storylines. Simple interactions between characters are anything but simple as they are often underlined by a sense of anxiety.
Alas, Senna does have an Achille’s heel and that is the final act of her novels. Here there is a reveal which I definitely did not buy into, if anything, it made this one character seem less fleshed out than they were. The character’s spiraling into alienation is halted by witnessing someone who has already embarked on this path of self-destruction. The final confrontation also, as noted by other reviewers on GR, was a bit too reminiscent of Passing. As with New People the ending had a touch of bathos that made me reconsider the novel on the whole.
Still, in spite of this, I do love Senna’s writing. Her prose is mesmerizing and the content of her stories is both disquieting and eye-opening. If you like authors such as Ottessa Moshfegh you should definitely try reading something by Senna.

re-read: a truly disturbing piece of fiction. The mysterious shadows and symptoms haunting our protagonist are truly disturbing.

my rating: ★★

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The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

The Office of Historical Corrections is a striking collection of short stories, easily the best one to be published this year. Unlike many other collections—which tend to have a few forgettable or ‘weaker’ stories—The Office of Historical Corrections has only hits. There isn’t one story that bored me or wasn’t as good as the rest. This is truly a standout collection. If you happen to be a fan of authors such as Curtis Sittenfeld, Edwidge Danticat, and Brit Bennett you should definitely give The Office of Historical Corrections a shot.

This collection contains 6 short stories and 1 novella. Although each one of these has its own distinctive narrative, they do examine similar themes but they do so through different, and at times opposing, perspectives. With nuance and precision Evans navigates the realities of contemporary America, focusing in particular on the experiences of black people in a country that considers white to be the ‘norm’.
There are so many things to love about this collection. Evans’ prose is superb. Her writing is incisive, evocative, and perfectly renders her characters and the diverse situations they are in without ever being overly descriptive or purply. While short stories and novellas are usually plot-driven, Evans’ narratives spouse a razor-sharp commentary—on race, modern culture, class—with compelling character-studies.

The scenarios and issues Evans explores are certainly topical. In ‘Boys Go to Jupiter’ a white college student, Claire, is labelled racist after her sort-of-boyfriend posts a photo of her wearing a Confederate bikini. Rather than apologising or even acknowledging what this flag truly symbolises Claire decides to make matters worse for herself by ridiculing a black student’s outrage at her bikini and by claiming that the flag is part of her heritage. As this controversy unfolds we learn of her childhood, of how she became close with two siblings who were for a time neighbours of hers, of her mother’s illness and eventual death, and of the part she played in her friend’s death. This story is very much about denial, culpability, and grief. It also brought to mind ‘White Women LOL’ by Sittenfeld and Rebecca Makkai’s ‘Painted Ocean, Painted Ship’.
The titular novella instead follows two black women who have never been on easy terms. This is partly due to their different economic backgrounds and partly due to their different temperaments. Having lost touch after college they both end up working at the Institute for Public History where they are tasked with correcting historical inaccuracies/mistakes. Often their corrections raise awareness about America’s colonial and racist past in order to challenge white historical narratives. Given all discussions about decolonising the curriculum and about historical statues and monuments this novella definitely touches on some relevant topics. The revisions made by the Institute for Public History are often not well met and they are targeted by white ‘preservationists’. As our narrator unearths the true story behind a black shopkeeper’s death back in 1937 she unwillingly joins ‘forces’ with Genevieve, her longtime not-quite-friend. The two women have very different approaches and their search for the truth behind this man’s death soon sparks the anger of the white ‘preservationists’.
All of these stories are worth a read. My personal favourites where ‘Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain’, ‘Alcatraz’, ‘Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want’ (which had some serious Kevin Wilson vibes), and ‘Anything Could Disappear’ (this almost had me in tears).

There are so many things to love about this collection: Evans’ focus on women and the thorny relationships they can have with one another, the wry humour that underlines these stories, Evans’ ability to capture diverse and nuanced emotions. The list goes on.

Evans’ stories are thought-provoking and populated by memorable and fully fleshed out characters. Although she exerts an admirable control over her language, her writing is arresting. Evans does not waste words and she truly packs a punch in this ‘infamous’ medium (short stories are often seen in terms of their limitations) .
Throughout this collection Evans’ touches themes of injustice, forgiveness, history (a character’s personal history as well as a nation’s history), freedom and identity, grief, loss, fear, failed relationships and human connection.
This is a fantastic collection and you should definitely give it a try.

my rating: ★★★★½

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Severance by Ling Ma

 

“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

Severance is an engrossing and, given the current pandemic, timely read. Through the use of a dual timeline Ling Ma’s novel encompasses many genres: we have chapters set in the past, pre-apocalypse, when the Shen Fever is a mere afterthought in the daily lives of New Yorkers, and the ones post-apocalypse, in which our protagonist joins a cultish group of survivors who seem to be immune to the fever.

Kmart realism meets millennial malaise in Candace Chen’s first-person narration.
Candace’s sardonic observations lightened the mood of the story. Her drone-like work attitude brought to mind novels such Convenience Store Woman and Temporary. The chapters set in the past detail Candace’s daily routine, in which we see that other than her half-hearted interest in photography, Candace is resigned to her position as Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, and isn’t too disturbed by her role in the exploitation of workers outside of America. She’s yet another disaffected, somewhat directionless, twenty-something female protagonist who has become all the rage in contemporary fiction. Thankfully Ma makes Candace her own unique creation, one who, as the fever starts spreading in America, actually undergoes some character growth (making Severance a coming-of-age of sorts). Although Candace operates very much on auto-pilot, her listless routine is soon interrupted by the pandemic.

In the chapters focusing on ‘after’, once New Yorkers have either fled the city or become infected, Candace joins a group led by the rather bullying Bob, a man who isn’t particularly charming or clever but has somehow successfully convinced others that they will be safe if they follow him to the Facility (a ‘mysterious’ but safe location). Along the way, they raid the houses of those who are infected, and Candace finds herself becoming increasingly disenchanted towards her so-called leader.

In Ma’s novel the fevered repeat “banal activities” on an infinite loop: they will spend the rest of their days performing the same activity (such as washing dishes, opening a door, dressing , trying different clothes). Ma’s fever works as an allegory, one which reduces humans to the humdrum activities—getting dressed, preparing food—that constitute their lives.
Tense or even brutal scenes are alleviated by Candace’s caustic narration. And there are even moments and dialogues that are so absurd as to verge on the hysterical realism. Ma makes it work, and unlike her characters, or the circumstances they face, her language remains restrained.
Underneath the novel’s hyperbolic scenarios lies a shrewd critique of capitalism, consumerism, globalism, modern work culture, and the American Dream. Through flashbacks we learn of Candace’s parents’ arrival in America and of how their diverging desires—Candace’s mother wishes to return to China while the father believes that will lead more successful lives in America—created a rift in their marriage.

Ma covers a myriad of topics in a seemingly offhand manner: adulthood, loneliness, connectedness, dislocation. Candace’s deadpan narration takes her readers alongside a journey that is as surreal as it is chilling. Ma, far more successfully than Mona Awad with Bunny, switches with ease between the first and third person, showing her readers just how easily one can lose sight of their identity.
My only criticism is towards Ma’s use of the dual timeline. At times there wasn’t a clear balance between past and present, and some sections detailing Candace’s work at Spectra were overlong. Still, I really enjoyed Severance, it is an impressive debut and I can’t wait to read more from Ma.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★☆ stars

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Temporary by Hilary Leichter — book review

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“The gods created the First Temporary so they could take a break.”

Temporary is a wonderfully bizarre novel. Readers who prefer to read stories that are grounded in reality or that are ruled by logic and reason may be better off steering clear from the sheer absurdity that is Temporary.

“She noted the fallacy of permanence in a world where everything ends and desired that kind of permanence all the same.”

Within this novel Hilary Leichter takes to the extreme the role of a temporary worker and the world which she writes of only vaguely resemble our own. In her hyperbolic vision of a capitalistic society generations of temporaries spend their lives in pursuit of ‘the steadiness’ (gainful employment/permanency) The temporary positions which one can be assigned to have a Kafkaesque quality to them: opening and closing doors in a house, filling in for a parrot on a pirate ship, assisting a murderer, working as a body scanner that detects emotion, pushing random buttons…each temporary role is dictated by arbitrary rules and nonsensical tasks, or characterised by confounding hierarchies and even sexual harassment.
The narrator, like her mother and her grandmother before her, goes from temporary position to temporary position with an upbeat can-do attitude. To ‘work’, to do her job, is everything to her, regardless of what the job actually entails. She has several boyfriends, whom she distinguishes by referring to their physical attributes, such as ‘the tall boyfriend’, or their profession, such as ‘the culinary boyfriend, rather than their names.

Throughout the course of the narrative the narrator finds herself doing increasingly outlandish gigs.
The story is ridiculous, and so are the characters and their interactions. But it is also hilariously absurd. Having worked as a temp, and being too aware of the way in which temporary workers are often regarded as little more than disposable cutlery, I deeply enjoyed Leichter’s critique of modern society, particularly the gig economy.

The effervescent writing style brought to mind novels by Japanese authors such as Yōko Ogawa, Sayaka Murata, and Hiromi Kawakami while the protagonist’s fanciful narration, as well as the peculiar people she encounters, echoed Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Temporary is just endearingly unapologetic in its weirdness.

“We drink some water side by side, our bodies full of fluids, of blood and acid and methods of hydration, caffeination, intoxication.”

Through addition of purply metaphors, frequent rapid-firing of words (so that phrases seem to have been breathlessly blurted out), and ping-pong dialogues, Leichter’s magnifies the weird atmosphere of her story.

“What were you thinking?”
“I was just thinking differently.”
“Who said you get to think differently?”
“No one.”

Underneath this novel’s layer of surreality lies an all too relevant tale. Clever, funny, nonsensical, Leichter’s debut novel is a fable for the modern age.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane — book review.


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“The trouble with liars, Laurie had decided from much research in the professional field, is they always thought everyone else was less smart than them.”

If I Never Met You is the fourth novel I’ve read by Mhairi McFarlane and I’m happy to say that it is my favourite book of hers. McFarlane just keeps getting better and better, and this time round she gives a new spin to the tired ‘fake-dating’ trope (which prior to this book I considered to be one of my least favourite romcom tropes).

“This Greek God was prepared to anoint her his Phony Goddess? It did feel like the most longed-for boy in school asking you to prom.”

Once again McFarlane writing combines laugh-out-loud moments with an insightful narrative that taps into deep-seated issues. Blending humour and realism McFarlane’s story is as witty as it is topical.
Our protagonist, and narrator, is Laurie, a thirty-six year old lawyer. Her world collapses when her partner of eighteen years leaves her. Having spent half of her life with Dan, and not knowing why he no longer wants to be with her, Laurie is hurt and confused. Worst still, Dan works at the same firm as Laurie so she is forced to keep up a happy front at work.
Laurie has barely had time to process Dan’s departure when, within weeks of their break up, he announces that he
1) has a new girlfriend (who happens to work at a rival firm)
2) is a father-to-be as said girlfriend is now pregnant.

Laurie soon finds that both her social and work life are affected by her new single status. As a woman in her late thirties she is subject to unwarranted comments regarding her future (such as ‘isn’t she too old now to find a new partner or start a family?’)
A rightfully angry Laurie makes a deal with her firm’s local Casanova, Jamie Carter, in order to put a stop to the fake-pity and gossip that her coworkers and acquaintances are showering over her. And maybe also to get back at Dan.

“If you wanted plumbing done, you hired a plumber. If you wanted your roof fixed you hired a roofer. If you wanted everyone to erroneously believe you were at it like knives, you recruited Jamie Carter.”

As they spend more and more time together, in order to make their fauxmance believable, Laurie and Jamie find themselves forming a bond of sorts. Although Laurie realises they are as different as chalk and cheese, she is surprised to discover that Jamie is far from the superficial all-looks-not-much-else guy he’d pegged him to be.

With dialogues that are simultaneously funny and clever If I Never Met You is hard to put down.
I loved Laurie. After her breakup with Dan she begins an introspective journey as she is forced to find herself in a reality that feels alien. She also experiences first-hand the double-standards of being a single woman rather than a single man. Colleagues and friends who prior to her breakup seemed relatively affable reveal their true colours.
Thankfully her best friend and Jamie provide the narrative with much needed positivity. They are both nuanced characters, with fears and desires of their own, and their relationship to Laurie present us with many tender scenes.
There is a bit of banter, which was a delight to read, and a few disagreements but for the most part Laurie and Jamie’s budding maybe-not-so-fake-romance had me smiling like an idiot.

Laurie’s trials and tribulations are both endearing and entertaining. There are some heart-breaking moments nestled in this otherwise light-hearted narrative. Laurie realises that sometimes it is better to choose carefully who you let into your life, and that perhaps some people aren’t worth forgiving.
From the humour to the romance, this novel simply stole my heart. I would call this type of book escapist fiction as it is sure to satisfy readers’ romcom requirements but to do feels like doing it a disservice. It isn’t all fun and games, and McFarlane doesn’t shy away from portraying the way in which rumours, gossips, and false impression affected both women and men. Laurie in particular goes through quite a few hardships and I felt immensely proud of her character growth.
Jamie too was surprisingly vulnerable, and I appreciated the way they supported each other.

“She’d never been called a survivor. She turned the word over her in mind: she liked how it sounded, applied to her. It wasn’t victimhood and it wasn’t self-aggrandising, it was about coping. And she had definitely done that.”

The only thing that I didn’t like was the predictable and avoidable ‘misunderstanding’ that awlays occurs around the 80/90% mark in romcoms.

I thoroughly recommend this novel to fans of contemporary fiction and I’m really looking forward to reading this again.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue — book review

 

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“I was afraid, really, of being the main character in my own life.”

Promising Young Women is an intelligent and subversive novel that examines the darker and more twisted aspects of a relationship between a female employee and her boss.

There was something about the story and its characters that reminded of Joyce Carol Oates (Zombie, Solstice, A Fair Maiden, and Nemesis) in that Promising Young Women is brimming with an almost palatable darkness so much so that readers will find themselves overwhelmed by it.

From its very opening page the novel juxtaposes the sweet with the grotesque:

[T]he excess of uneaten cake was attracting rats, and when bodies started appearing — bloated and sugar-filled and, more than once, belly-up in the stairwell — they insisted we downsize.”

This sets the tone for the rest of the novel as we follow the protagonist, a young promising woman, in a feverish journey towards self-destruction. When Jane Peters turns 26 she is newly single (her long-term boyfriend has fallen in love with someone else) and painfully aware of what she perceives as being her own unfulfilled existence. She works at Mitchell Advertisement where she is one of the many “young women” who work alongside—and often for—older men. When Clem, her much older boss, begins to show interest in her, she finds herself rapidly falling under his spell.
The story that follows is very much a subversive take on the trope of the young woman/married older man cliché and from the get go we are made aware of how imbalanced their relationship is. An unmoored Jane feels pressured by the skewed power dynamics between her and Clem into continuing their affair. We witness how slowly yet surely Jane’s sense of self is eroded by Clem and by her own growing dissociation with her past self.
The deceptively simple prose (as opposed to Oates’ more eloquent prose) is compelling and offers readers with a direct look into the mind of an alienated woman. Backdrop to Jane’s disintegration is the dangers of workplace competitiveness, the lack of privacy that comes with being an online presence, and the persistency of the more unseen aspects of sexism (a scene where Jane visits a doctor will have you simmering with rage). It is also a satire of certain trends (‘actualisation’, yoga retreats) in a way that doesn’t minimise from Jane’s—frankly horrific—experiences.

The story blurs the line between reality and fantasy, and as Jane’s body and mind become affected by a series of mysterious ailments, so does the prose attain a feverish quality that perfectly captures the Jane’s fears and anxieties.
Unlike other contemporary novels exploring similar themes, O’Donoghue’s debut never romanticises the way Clem degrades Jane, nor does it suggest that Jane’s weight loss makes her more ‘ethereal’ or ‘aesthetically cool’ (there is none of the usual ‘sharp-cheekbones’ crap) but rather it shows us in horrifying, and almost grotesque detail, Jane’s estrangement from her own body. Clem’s presence in Jane’s life has almost the same effect as an infection…
It was also interesting to read about the way Jane’s ambitions regarding her career affects some of her friendships, or causes those around her to reassess their perception of her. In some ways it is Jane’s ‘promising future’ that makes her dissolution all the more affecting.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a pleasant read. Yes, it was gripping, but more than once I felt sickened by what I was reading. O’Donoghue has created a captivating and terrifying modern Gothic tale which depicts the more poisonous aspects of love affairs, sexism (especially at the workplace), and friendships. Although I was surprised by how weird it ended up being, I completely bought into it.
This was a bizarre, compelling, and thought-provoking debut.

I choose to be someone that things happen to, because it was easier than being someone who made things happen.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4 since this is a debut)

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