Quartet by Jean Rhys

“There she was and there she stayed. Gradually passivity replaced her early adventurousness. She learned, after long and painstaking effort, to talk like a chorus girl, to dress like a chorus girl and to think like a chorus girl – up to a point. Beyond that point she remained apart, lonely, frightened of her loneliness, resenting it passionately. She grew thin. She began to live her hard and monotonous life very mechanically and listlessly.”

An unsparing and piercing interrogation of passivity and victimhood, Quartet is a hypotonic work of fiction. Jean Rhys’ prose is immaculate. Her writing, although exquisitely crisp, has this deeply evocative quality to it that resulted in a truly immersive reading experience. I could picture with ease Marya’s various environments: from the hotel bedrooms she stays in, to the streets she walks down on. I admired Rhys’ ability to articulate Marya’s various states of mind with such clarity and finesse as to lend elegance to even her most petty thoughts. Although the setting has this subtle bygone, almost gilded age quality to it, one that brought to mind the work of Edith Wharton, Rhys also employs noir aesthetics that result in a backdrop that is at once beautiful and disenchanted.
Although the title suggests that the narrative will be concerned with the complex dynamic between four individuals, the story presents us with an all too familiar triangle: a young woman becomes involved with an older married man of means. His wife claims that she is ‘happy’ with this ‘arrangement’. But, as Marya becomes further enmeshed in the lives of the Heidlers, she becomes all too aware that the wife resents her presence. In order not to alienate her husband she pretends otherwise, and Marya finds herself cast in the role of villainess and homewrecker.

The novel opens in Paris during the 1920s. Marya, our heroine, is a young woman married to Stephan, a Polish man whose dodgy art dealings eventually land him in jail. The two were leaving from hotel room to hotel room, and once Stephan is imprisoned Marya finds herself on the verge of destitution. An orphan with no assets to speak of, Marya was wholly dependent on Stephan’s income. A socialite married couple, the Heidlers, come to her ‘rescue’, insisting that she stay with them. Marya does, even if she expresses some uneasiness at this arrangement. Mr Heidler, who goes by H. J., had previously made a pass at her and once she’s staying with them, he declares that he has feelings for her. According to him, his wife, Lois, is content with this. Marya learns that she’s not the ‘first’, and as the weeks go by and her feelings for H. J. deepened, she became wary of the Heidlers’ ‘games’. While Marya doesn’t have today’s vocabulary, contemporary readers will be able to recognise the Heidlers’ ‘tactics’: they manipulate and gaslight Marya. Passive Marya finds herself playing into this role that they’ve thrust on her, doing what they want, and keeping silent about this whole affair. Cleverly, Rhys doesn’t quite paint Marya as a hopeless and hapless victim of her sex and her circumstances. There are numerous instances that indicate that Marya performs this role of ‘victim’. But does her self-victimization make her any less of a victim? Especially when others uphold this view of herself?
While Rhys mines the psychological depths of her heroine, cataloguing her ennui, misery, loneliness, and disorientation, she maintains a certain distance from her characters, Marya included. These characters retain a certain inscrutable quality: some of their actions may strike as bizarre, while their words often are full ambivalence. The characters retain this air of mystery that really complements the shadowy atmosphere of their world: from their soirées to their clandestine encounters in hotel rooms. There were many striking passages describing Marya’s environment. Her internal dialogue too is rendered in arresting detail, and however frustrating her naivete and passivity were I found sympathetic towards her ‘plight’. Her feelings towards H. J. are somewhat inexplicable, as she seems to fall in love with him just like that. While Marya thinks herself in love with him, I thought differently. Her infatuation reeked of desperation, and I too found myself viewing her as a victim of the Heidlers’, specifically H. J., deceptions. Time and again we are told that what Marya craves is happiness and safety, and after Stephan is in prison, she is so desperate that she is willing to believe that those things may come if she becomes H. J.’s ‘mistress’.
The novel also has a roman a la clef dimension as Marya’s embroilment with the Hedlers’ mirrors Rhys’ one with Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella Bowen . While there were many sentiments that struck me for their presence and timelessness, particularly in relation to Marya’s ‘female malaise’, a few passages stuck out for the wrong reasons. An example would be a scene where Marya observes “a little flat-faced Japanese” drawing “elongated and gracefully perverse little women”…which…le sigh.

Initially, I was planning on giving this a high rating but the bathetic denouement left a lot to be desired. While I can appreciate how certain authors are able to continue their narratives after the central character has ‘exited’ the scenes, here the last few pages struck me as callous and unsatisfying. I would have almost found it more satisfying if Rhys had gone the Madame Bovary or The House of Mirth route, but there is a soap-opera worthy heated confrontation that did not feel particularly satisfying or convincing. While I appreciated how Rhys, similarly to Flaubert and Wharton, is not afraid to focus on how pathetic or silly or petty her characters are, that finale just didn’t do it for me.
Still, I can see myself re-reading this and giving it a higher rating in the future. I am definitely planning on reading more by Rhys as her writing is simply superb and I am always interested in narratives centered on alienated and perpetually perplexed young women.

Marya is a fascinating character who carries an air of impermanence, one that makes her all the more intriguing. Her impermanence also deepens the dreamlike quality of the narrative. There are many instances where her dreams seem to seep into her reality, making us wonder how reliable a character she is. As things take a downward turn, her moments dissociation intensify, her sadness and anxiety so overwhelming as to make her reality unendurable.


Some of my fave passages:

“She began to argue that there was something unreal about most English people.”

“Still, there were moments when she realized that her existence, though delightful, was haphazard. It lacked, as it were, solidity; it lacked the necessary fixed background. A bedroom, balcony and cabinet de toilette in a cheap Montmartre hotel cannot possibly be called a solid background”

“Marya, you must understand, had not been suddenly and ruthlessly transplanted from solid comfort to the hazards of Montmartre. Nothing like that. Truth to say, she was used to a lack of solidity and of fixed backgrounds.”

“[S]he felt a sudden, devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence. She thought again: people are very rum. With all their little arrangements, prisons and drains and things, tucked away where nobody can see.”

“She would have agreed to anything to quieten him and make him happier, and she was still full of the sense of the utter futility of all things.”

“Words thatshe longed to shout, to scream, crowded into her mind:‘You talk and you talk and you don’t understand. Notanything. It’s all false, all second-hand. You say what you’ve read and what other people tell you. You think you’re very brave and sensible, but one flick of pain to yourself and you’d crumple”

“It was a beautiful street. The street of homeless cats, she often thought. She never came into it without seeing several of them, prowling, thin vagabonds, furtive, aloof, but strangely proud. Sympathetic creatures, after all. There was a smell of spring in the air. She felt unhappy, excited, strangely expectant.”

“‘You’re a victim. There’s no endurance in your face. Victims are necessary so that the strong may exercise their will and become more strong. ’ ‘I shall have to go away,’ she decided. ‘Of course. Naturally. ’ Sleep was like falling into a black hole.”

“‘I’ve been wasting my life,’ she thought.‘How have I stood it for so long?’”

“She felt hypnotized as she listened to him, impotent. As she lay in bed she longed for her life with Stephan as one longs for vanished youth. A gay life, a carefree life just wiped off the slate as it were. Gone! A horrible nostalgia, an ache for the past seized her. Nous n’irons plus au bois; Les lauriers sont coupes. . . . Gone, and she was caught in this appalling muddle. Life was like that. Here you are, it said, and then immediately afterwards. Where are you? Her life, at any rate, had always been like that.”

“There they were. And there Marya was; haggard, tor-tured by jealousy, burnt up by longing.”

“Marya thought: ‘Oh, Lord! what a fool I am.’ Her heart felt as if it were being pinched between somebody’s fingers. Cocktails, the ridiculous rabbits on the wallpaper. All the fun and sweetness of life hurt so abominably when it was always just out of your reach. “

“Of course, there they were: inscrutable people, invulnerable people, and she simply hadn’t a chance against them, naive sinner that she was.”

“The Boulevard Arago, like everything else, seemed unreal, fantastic, but also extraordinarily familiar, and she was trying to account for this mysterious impression of familiarity.”

“‘My darling child,’ said Heidler with calmness, ‘your whole point of view and your whole attitude to life is impossible and wrong and you’ve got to change it for everybody’s sake.’ He went on to explain that one had to keep up appearances. That everybody had to. Everybody had for everybody’s sake to keep up appearances. It was everybody’s duty, it was in fact what they were there for. ‘You’ve got to play the game.’”

“She made a great effort to stop it and was able to keep her mind a blank for, say, ten seconds. Then her obsession gripped her, arid, torturing, gigantic, possessing her as utterly as the longing for water possesses someone who is dying of thirst. She had made an utter mess of her love affair, and that was that. She had made an utter mess of her existence. And that was that, too. But of course it wasn’t a love affair. It was a fight. A ruthless, merciless, three-cornered fight. And from the first Marya, as was right and proper, had no chance of victory. For she fought wildly, with tears, with futile rages, with extravagant abandon – all bad weapons. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ she would ask herself. ‘Why are you like this? Why can’t you be clever? Pull yourself together!’ Uselessly.”
​​
“A petite femme. It was, of course, part of his mania for classification. But he did it with such conviction that she, miserable weakling that she was,found herself trying to live up to his idea of her. She lived up to it. And she had her reward. ‘. . . You pretty thing – you pretty, pretty thing. Oh,you darling.”

“As she walked back to the hotel after her meal Marya would have the strange sensation that she was walking under water. The people passing were like the wavering reflections seen in water, the sound of water was in her ears. Or sometimes she would feel sure that her life was a dream – that all life was a dream. ‘It’s a dream,’ she would think; ‘it isn’t real’ – and be strangely comforted. A dream. A dream.”

“But when she tried to argue reasonably with herself it seemed to her that she had forgotten the beginnings of the affair, when she had still reacted and he had reconquered her painstakingly. She never reacted now. She was a thing. Quite dead. Not a kick left in her.”

‘You’ve smashed me up, you two,’ she was saying. That was pitiful because it was so obviously true. It was also in an obscure way rather flattering. She put her hands up to her face and began to cry.

“The next few days passed like a dream. Lovely days, fresh, and washed and clean. And the knowledge that this was the irrevocable end of their life in Paris made every moment vivid, clearly cut and very sweet. Those were strange days, detached from everything that had gone before or would follow after.”

“Heidler was saying in a low voice: ‘I have a horror of you. When I think of you I feel sick.’ He was large, invulnerable, perfectly respectable. Funny to think that she had lain in his arms and shut her eyes because she dared no longer look into his so terribly and wonderfully close. She began to laugh. After all, what did you do when the man you loved said a thing like that? You laughed, obviously.”

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin


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.

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What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster

Riding the coattails of Little Fires Everywhere and The Vanishing Half, What’s Mine and Yours not only tells a blow-by-blow predictable tale but one that failed to entertain or elicit any feeling other than frustration in this particular reader. What’s Mine and Yours, ya basic.

To call the writing in this novel ‘prose’ seems misleading as this is some of the most lifeless writing that I have ever come across. That is not to say that it is bad or terrible but dio mio, does it lack heart (if someone had told me that this book was written by an ai i would have believed them). Anyway, as you might have already guessed, I did not like this book. In fact, it really really really irritated me. The only reason why I persevered was that I listened to the audiobook which is superbly narrated by the one and only Bahni Turpin (had it not been for her i would have dnfed this).

As with any other of my negative reviews, I encourage those who want to read this book to check out some more positive opinions. Do keep in mind that the summary is extremely misleading. The school integration is not the focus of the novel, merely a plot device to further the drama between the characters and create some tension for our star-crossed lovers.

SPOILERS BELOW

Positives
✓The opening chapter. It has the most fleshed-out character in the whole novel who for reasons does not make a single appearance after that.

Negatives
✕ Story & Structure
This novel gives a halfhearted attempt at a non-linear/multiple perspectives kind of narrative but unlike The Travellers it clearly favours certain povs and timelines over others. So while the summary will have you think that the story pivots around in particular on the school integration, well it does not. The chapters set in 2018, years after the integration has taken place, are the real focus of this novel, and jeez, how dull they were. There present readers with some dull family drama, three cardboard cut sisters (the gay one, the wannabe celebrity one, and the one who is having marriage problems and wants children). There is an attempt to make a character’s identity into a big reveal but it was obvious who they were from the very start. So, structure-wise, this novel sucks. Why implement multiperspectives’ if you are mainly sticking with two characters? The non-linear timeline adds nothing to the story, as it fails to build suspense or give a sense of mystery to certain events. The story attempts to touch upon topical & serious issues but it ultimately fails to deliver a substantial exploration of race, class, identity, and motherhood, opting instead for a very superficial social commentary that is chock full of platitudes.

✕ Characters
The characters were either lazy caricatures or reduced to one single characteristic. While I was reading I asked someone what they envisioned when I said ‘Lacey May’ and they made a face. And that’s basically it. Lacey May is the kind of character you are not meant to like. Fair enough, as I am more than able to enjoy books with dislikable characters….as long as they are given some nuance or depth. Lacey May…is portrayed as a shrill, bigoted, ‘i’m not a racist but’, self-centred white woman who is so OTT she gave me a bloody headache. Do people like her exist? Probably yes. Do I want to read pages and pages from her perspective that kind of try to humanise her but not really? No. Fuck no. How about no fucking thanks. I found Noelle to be just as unsympathetic (so you have a deadbeat father, boohoo, join the club). She has no real personality and is mainly defined by the fact that she is Lacey May’s daughter. Gee, who is Black and one of the students who ends up at Noelle’s mostly white fancy high school, is very much sidelined in favour of drama between Noelle and her mother.

✕ Sex scenes
There was an odd amount of sex scenes that…why? They were either incredibly cheesy or just plain wtf: “He was still her husband, she his wife. They moved together for a short time. It was all liquid and soft muscle, a warm mess. ” Give me a break. We even get a scene in which Gee is masturbating and…what did that add to his story? The guy already doesn’t get enough page time and you are wasting what little he has on a scene where he masturbates? Because of course, that’s what teen boys do!

✕ Low-key problematic
I am so sick of stories that punish characters who have abortions. Here that character later in life has a miscarriage and wants children but can’t have them. She eventually does have a child but with another man and after a period of cheesy self-reflection in which she confronts the ‘ghosts’ from her past.
I was also not a fan of the gay rep in this book. It had a vague hint of ‘the token gay’.

This is the book equivalent of a soap opera. It was full of clichés (married man goes to france eats croissants and has an affair with a younger woman), unnecessary melodrama involving Lacey May and her daughters, and it felt vaguely moralistic (especially the way the abortion/miscarriage were handled). The uber generic writing, as previously mentioned, was not to my taste.
This is the kind of novel that seems to have been ‘made’ with book clubs in mind. So, if you are a fan of Jojo Moyes and Kristin Hannah, chances are you’ll like it more than I did.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆


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The Red Scrolls of Magic by Cassandra Clare & Wesley Chu — book review

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“Romance was a lot of work.”

The Red Scrolls of Magic is a fun throwback to Cassandra Clare’s TMI in which Magnus and Alec finally get the stage for themselves. After the Mortal War the couple takes a well-earned romantic getaway in Europe. Once in Paris however an ‘old friend’ of Magnus breaks some bad news to him: a demon-worshipping cult called the Crimson Hand, which Magnus himself may have founded as a ‘joke’, is killing downworlders. From then on Magnus and Alec go from France to Italy, trying to find and stop the cult and leaving mayhem in their wake. Getting to know each other isn’t easy, getting to know each other when demons are trying to kill you…well that complicates things.
There is plenty of action and wit in The Red Scrolls of Magic. Even in the most deadly of situations Magnus remains a joker. By contrast Alec finds himself mingling with Magnus’ downworlder acquaintances, most of whom are suspicion or hostile towards Shadowhunters.
This was a very entertaining read. It has plenty of amusing dialogues, it gives some insight into the early stages of Magnus and Alec’s relationship (bonus: we read of Aline and Helen’s first meeting), and it has plenty of romance.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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Walking on the Ceiling : Book Review

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Walking on the Ceiling
by Aysegül Savas
★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

I don’t mind plotless novels or meandering stories but there has to be something that holds my attention. Some of my favourite books feature characters with little to no backstory, and simply focus on a time of their life or certain feelings that they experience throughout the course of their life. What I am ‘getting at’ is that I started Walking on the Ceiling knowing that I wasn’t going to get a straightforward story. However, even if I was prepared for a more ‘metaphysical’ type of novel, I wasn’t expecting such a pointlessly self-indulgent narrative.
The nonlinear timeline makes the story all the more irritating. There is this narrator who could as well be nameless given how boring she is. Her only characteristic is that she lies or acts in obscure ways for no reason whats-over. Although she is presented as this deep and complex character who is grappling with her past, she is a self-pitying and a singularly uninteresting individual. A few months ago I read The Far Field which featured a very ‘remote’ main character, but there her self-restraint worked well. I believed her and why she was unable to express herself to others characters and the readers. But here….the protagonist comes across as detestably obnoxious whilst claiming that she is a selfless and ‘lost’ person. To top it all off she is extremely judgemental towards others and provides no explanation for her ‘remoteness’. The advantages she had in life are swept aside to focus on her ‘sad’ parents. Boo-hoo.
The different timelines are confounding and all this background adds little emotion to the narrative.
The chapters tended to end rather abruptly, often cutting through the flow of the story or interrupting the narrator’s contemplation or thoughts.
The thing I did enjoy was the way Istanbul was portrayed. The city seemed far more nuanced than anything else in this novel.
Overall, this was trying too hard to be something abstract and introspective. It would have worked with a compelling narrator; regardless if this character had likeable or dislikable attributes…as long as they were believable and fleshed out their story would have been a cohesive and thoughtful cogitation, rather than this patently elusive mess.

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