Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Gut-wrenching and haunting Indian Horse depicts the horrific realities of residential schools, as well as racism and discrimination in 1960s Ontario. This is the third novel that I’ve read by Richard Wagamese and, while Medicine Walk and Ragged Company were no walks in the parks, Indian Horse’s unsparing bleakness and distressing content make those two seem like light reading material. In spite of how upsetting and chilling this story was, Wagamese never sensationalises his characters’ suffering nor does he include graphic and or painful scenes as a cheap way to ‘shock’ his readers. He writes with such empathy and compassion that I found myself unable to tear myself away from Saul’s story.

Indian Horse opens with Saul Indian Horse, who is Ojibwe, being in a treatment centre for his alcoholism. He then begins recounting his childhood, of the early years he spent with his family ‘on the lam’ back in the early 1960s in the wilderness of Northern Ontario after his siblings were taken, kidnapped really, by the so-called ‘authorities’. His parents are heartbroken and survival is difficult, but, compared to what is to come this part of his life seems like a vacation almost. Eventually, Saul is also stolen and taken to a residential school. Wagamese is unflinching in his depiction of the horrors that occur in residential schools such as the one ‘attended’ by Sault. Words like horrifying or brutal do not succeed in conveying the monstrous actions and behaviours of the people in charge of these schools (mostly nuns and priests). The corporal and psychological violence they inflict on their ‘charges’ are abhorrent, stomach-churning, horrific. Their anti-indigenous teachings see them ‘punishing’ (read: abusing) children for speaking in their native tongue, or for expressing non-Christian beliefs or for merely acknowledging their reality (that of having been forcibly taken from their families and communities).

Saul finds solace in hockey. When Father Leboutilier notices how skilled Saul is on the ice he encourages him to keep on playing, tutoring him along the way. Saul temporarily plays with a ‘midget hockey team’ but resentful white parents and their children are unwilling to see him ‘take’ the spotlight and soon enough he’s out of the team.
Eventually, Saul leaves the residential school and goes to live with the Kellys, an Ojibway foster family who wants him to join their community’s junior hockey team. Over the following years, Saul and the rest of his teammates are subjected to many forms of discrimination, from the racist slurs other teams and their fans throw their way to the everyday discriminations and ‘roughing’ up they are subjected to. Saul initially refuses to retaliate when opposing players pull dirty tricks which actually earns him the contempt of his own teammates, who view his decision not to respond to violence with violence as passive, cowardly even. Later on, Saul is scouted by the Toronto Marlboros where he’s yet again a victim of discrimination. As time passes Saul decides to abandon hockey and develops a taste for drinking.

Whereas Medicine Walk and Ragged Company were very dialogue-heavy and in many ways read like long conversations (between the characters, between humans and the natural world, between past and present), Indian Horse is a more quiet work that is far more introspective in nature. Saul’s recollection of his childhood and teenage years is permeated by a sense of sorrow and loss. From the traumatic experience of being separated from his family to the horrifying realities of residential school and the later abuse he was subjected to once he began playing hockey professionally….this is not a fun or nostalgic foray into the good olden days. Wagamese captures in painful clarity how much Saul struggled with the abuse, violence, and racism he experienced growing up. He conveys these experiences through his younger eyes, so that we too, feel as confused, hurt, and lost as he did. The loneliness he feels is truly heart-breaking and there were times that I struggled to keep on reading. But, as I said earlier on, Wagamese never makes a spectacle of his characters’ suffering. He’s matter-of-fact when it comes to recounting Saul’s difficult life, making his experiences seem all the more real.

As with Wagamese’s other novels, the narrative incorporates various Ojibway teachings, and here we see just how powerful they are in that they tether Saul to the culture he was so violently ripped away from. Much about the tone of the novel brought to mind one of my all-time-favourite novels, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. While they do portray very different realities, prose and tone-wise the two share a similar quality. Self-forgiveness is a crucial part of both of these novels, and both authors demonstrate extreme empathy in the way they handle trauma, loss, and addiction.
If you are a fan of Wagamese, or Sáenz, and you are prepared to have your heart broken (and possibly stitched back together), you should seriously consider reading Indian Horse.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“Fear and hatred, fear and hatred: often, it seemed that those were the only two qualities he possessed. Fear of everyone else; hatred of himself.”

A Little Life is a heart-wrenching tour de force. Dark, all-consuming, devastating, moving, stunning, brutal, dazzling, beautiful, disturbing, A Little Life is all of these and so much more. This is the kind of novel that haunts.

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”

The first fifty pages or so may give one the illusion that the story they are about to read is the usual tale of a group of friends trying to make it in the big city. Which in some ways, it is. Friendship is one of the novel’s underlying motifs. But, A Little Life is first and foremost a novel about pain, suffering, and trauma. And as highly as I think of this novel I could not in good conscience bring myself to recommend it to anyone else. Large portions of this 800-page novel are dedicated to depicting, in minute detail, a man’s past and present physical, emotional, and psychological suffering. We also have to read paragraph after paragraph in which adults inflict all kinds of horrific abuse on a child. What saves this novel from being yet another sensationalistic or gratuitous take on sexual abuse are Hanya Yanagihara’s clear and realist style and the many moments of beauty, kindness, love, empathy that are interjected throughout the narrative. Still, even so, I can see why some may find A Little Life to be too much. Hell, there were many instances where I found myself thinking ‘I can’t it, this is too much’. But who was I kidding? Once I started this novel I knew that I had to finish it and in fact I devoured it over the course of three days.

“Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”

The novel recounts, decade-by-decade, the lives of four friends in New York City from their early 20s to their 50s. There is JB, a gay painter, Malcolm, who still lives at home and dreams of becoming an architect, Willem, an orphan who is pursuing an acting career, and Jude, also an orphan, who is a lawyer. Jude’s is reticent about his past and his friends know to leave it well alone. He has a limp and suffers from many health-related issues, which were caused by a car injury. As the story progresses the narrative shifts its focus on Jude and his many ongoing struggles. Jude’s horrific childhood and teenage years are revealed to us slowly over the course of the story. To cope with his traumatic experiences Jude self-harms, something that definitely hit close to home so I appreciate the authenticity with which Yanagihara portrays Jude’s self-harming. Similarly, his self-hatred and self-blaming are rendered with painful realism, without any judgment on the author’s part. While there were many—and I mean many—horrifying and painful scenes, there are moments of beauty, lightness, and tenderness. As an adult Jude is surrounded by people who love him, there are his friends, colleagues, neighbours, mentors, and it is here that the novel is at its most moving.
This is a novel about sexual abuse, pain, grief, friendship, love, intimacy, hope, and silences. The characters (it feels wrong to even call them that) are fully-formed individuals, imperfect, at times incongruent, yet nonetheless lovable. Oh, how my heart ached for them.
Yanagihara foreshadows certain events but even so, I found myself hoping against hope that the story would not be a tragic one. Yet, this unwillingness on Yanagihara’s part to provide a happy ending or to give her characters sort of closure that makes her novel simultaneously subversive and all the more realistic. Things don’t always get better, people can’t always overcome or reconcile themselves with their trauma, love doesn’t ‘fix’ people, you can’t magic away someone else’s pain. I have never sobbed while reading a book but I was sobbing intermittently throughout my reading of A Little Life. At times reading about Jude’s pain was brought me to tears, at times it was when coming across a scene that is brimming with kindness and love (basically anything with Jude and Harold or Jude and Willem).

“I want to be alone,” he told him.
“I understand,” Willem said.
“We’ll be alone together.”

This novel made me feel exposed, naked, vulnerable, seen in a way I wasn’t ready to be seen. It broke my fucking heart. It disturbed me, it made me ugly-cry, it made me want to find Yanagihara so I could shout at her. To describe A Little Life as a piece of fiction seems sacrilegious. I experienced A Little Life. From the first pages, I found myself immersed in Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm’s lives. When I reached the end I felt bereft, exhausted, numb so much so that even now I’m finding it difficult to to articulate why I loved this so much (then again my favourite band is Radiohead so I clearly like things that depress me). I doubt I will ever be brave enough to read it again but I also know that I will be thinking about A Little Life for years to come.
Adroit, superbly written, and populated by a richly drawn A Little Life is a novel unlike any other, one that you should read at your own risk.

my rating: ★★★★★

ps: the bond between Jude and Willem brought to mind a certain exchange from Anne Carson’s translation of Orestes:
PYLADES: I’ll take care of you.
ORESTES: It’s rotten work.
PYLADES: Not to me. Not if it’s you.

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Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage

“Desire places people in dangerous positions. This was a fact I’d yet to learn and something Richard knew all too well.”

Dio mio, this book was so stressful.
Equal parts gripping and horrifyingYes, Daddy is one hell of a debut novel. This is not the kind of book one enjoys reading. In fact, most of the things that happen in this novel are horrific. Yet, thanks to Jonathan Parks-Ramage’s superb writing skills, Yes, Daddy is the definition of unputdownable. The more alarming and distressing the story gets, the more impossible it was for me to tear my eyes away. Given the novel’s explicit nature and painful subject matter, I would recommend it only to those who are willing/prepared to be disturbed by what they will read.

In the novel’s prologue Jonah Keller, our protagonist, is a witness at a high-profile trial. One of the accused is Richard Shriver, a celebrated playwright and former boyfriend of Jonah. The story takes us back to 2009 and recounts the events that lead to that courtroom. Jonah is a twenty-five-year in badly of a break. He’s an aspiring playwright who works as a waiter at a horrible restaurant where he is routinely bullied and groped by his boss. Jonah’s relationship with his mother is strained, understandably given that his parents sent him to conversion therapy. In an attempt to improve his circumstances Jonah orchestrates a meeting with Richard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright in his fifties. Their relationship is intense, and soon Jonah becomes acquainted with the more disturbing aspects of Richard’s nature.
When Richard invites Jonah to spend the summer with him in his Hampton estate, Jonah jumps at the opportunity. Richard’s estate however proves to be the opposite of haven. Not only is Jonah forced to spend time with Richard’s horrible friends who take any opportunity to toy with him (expect many painful dinner scenes) but Richard begins to exhibit some alarming behaviours.
Soon, Jonah begins to feel that something sinister is going on. Why does Richard’s staff entirely consists of young and handsome men? Why do some have them have bruises? And what this all this talk about a basement? …..aaaaaaand here the story takes a nightmarish turn.

I will not say much else about the novel’s plot as I do not wish to spoil other readers’ experiences. Suffice to say: ‘bad stuff’ goes down but you will be unable to tear your eyes away from the page.
The novel ruthlessly explores the realities of being a victim of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Jonah’s time at the estate irrevocably changes him. And yes, he, later on, makes some selfish choices, terrible even. But why should we expect victims to be paragons of virtue? If their trauma manifests itself in ugly or disturbing ways, what, they are no longer deserving of empathy?
Through Jonah’s story Parks-Ramage challenges this kind of thinking and I really admire him for it. He also shows that movements like #metoo have their limits/flaws and how easy it is for anyone to play judge, jury and executioner on social media.

If I had to rate the first 40% of the novel it would have probably been close to a 5 star however a major character in this novel (who Jonah addresses as ‘you’) really didn’t ring true to life (his character seemed to serve the role of a plot-device). And I also found certain other characters a bit OTT, so much so that they would have been at home in an episode of American Horror Story. There was also a son-mother relationship in this book that was a bit too a la Psycho and I can’t say that I believed in that much either. Lastly, towards the end, the narrative takes a direction that I wasn’t too enthused with. By then I had grown a bit wary of seeing Jonah suffer and I just wanted him to be left alone.

All in all, I found this to be an edge-of-your-seat kind of read. I was immediately drawn in by the narrative’s gothic undertones and won over by the story’s nods to The Talented Mr. Ripley and Rebecca. The more I read the more perturbed I became. In spite of its cover this novel is dark, disquieting, upsetting, and by no means an easy or enjoyable read. Still, I found Parks-Ramage’s prose captivating and I appreciated the way he combined an electrifying narrative with a thought-provoking commentary (on trauma, power, abuse, class, forgiveness, #metoo, the way the media treats victims of sexual violence). As debuts go this is an impressive one and I can’t wait to see what Parks-Ramage has in store next.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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Consent: A Memoir by Vanessa Springora

Written in spare yet unflinching prose Consent, as the title would suggest, is a memoir that examines its author’s relationship’ to a renowned French author, Gabriel Matzneff. At the time Springora was 14 and Matzneff was 50. Springora looks back to that time in her life, evoking the feelings and emotions her teenage self was experiencing, and observes the way in which most of the adults around her did not bat an eye at her relationships with Matzneff. Her father no longer lived with her and her mother seemed under the delusion that her daughter was mature enough to be in love, and loved by, a man 30 years her senior. Springora describes in shuddering detail Matzneff’s behavior towards her and I would not recommend this memoir to those readers who cannot stomach explicit scene (there were many instances that nauseated me). It was horrifying to read of how Matzneff preyed on Springora, alienating her from her peers, controlling the way she dressed, who could she spend time with, separating her from her own mother. Matzneff would also talk extensively to her about his many ‘sexual exploits’, presenting himself as a cavalier who rescues young girls like her from the rough clutches of inexperienced boys. He also wrote and talked openly about his perverse inclinations without any serious backlash. French literary circles seemed to find his pedophilia almost amusing, a sign of his being a really Casanova. Springora questions why literary men such as Matzneff were able to get away with things other men couldn’t. Was it because he produced ‘art’? Springora also discusses the impact of the sexual revolution on French culture and of how many French intellectuals encouraged or agreed with Matzneff belief that having sexual intercourse with a minor should not be a crime.

Springora offers snapshots from her time with Matzneff, most of which made me feel queasy. While I did appreciate the sentiment behind her narrative (before it was Matzneff who wrote about her and their relationship in his books, now she is finally able to take control of her own story) but I did find some parts of her memoir to be a bit heavy on the self-dramatization. While I understand that she wanted to evoke her teenage mind, at times this was a bit heavy-handed. The imagery too was clichèd, such as that passage in which with “blood” running down her thighs she has finally become a “woman”. And I do wish that Springora could have provided some more interactions or thoughts on her mother. Her behavior in the whole ‘affair’ is abominable and part of me just could not wrap my head around how she could believe that her daughter was ‘mature’ enough to be with a man old enough to be her father.
Consent is a short but brutal read. It shines a light on sexual abuse and exploration, and a country’s worrying attitude towards a pedophile.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is an unflinching and deeply harrowing examination of race, colorism, gender, and trauma. Throughout the course of her narrative Toni Morrison captures with painful lucidity the damage inflicted on a black child by a society that equates whiteness with beauty and goodness, and blackness with ugliness and evil.
In her introduction to her novel Morrison explains her inspiration of the novel. Like Morrison’s own friend, the central character in The Bluest Eye, Pecola, is a black girl who yearns for ‘blue eyes’. Similarly to Sula in the eponymous novel, Pecola becomes her community’s scapegoat, but, whereas Sula embraces who she is, Pecola’s self-hatred is compounded by her community’s demonisation of her. The more people speak of her with contempt, the stronger her desire for blue eyes becomes.

Rather than making us experience Pecola’s anguish first-hand, Morrison makes readers into complicit onlookers. We hear the venomous gossip that is exchanged between the various members of Pecola’s community, we witness the horrifying sexual abuse Pecola’s father inflicts on her—from his point of view, not hers—and the good-hearted, if ultimately inadequate, attempts that two other young girls, Claudia and Frieda, make to try and help Pecola.
The adults in this novel are color-struck and condemn Pecola for her parents’ actions, suggesting that she herself is to blame for the violence committed against her. The story is partly narrated by Claudia, whose childhood naïveté limits her comprehension of Pecola’s experiences. We are also given extensive flashbacks in which we learn more about Pecola’s parents (their youth, their eventual romance, and their extremely fraught marriage). There are also scenes focused on characters that belong to Pecola’s community and who either use or abuse her
.
Throughout the course of the narrative, regardless whose point of view we are following, it is clear that Pecola is suffering, and that her home-life and environment are fuelling her self-loathing.
This is by no means an easy read. There is a nauseatingly graphic rape scene, incest, and domestic violence. Pecola is bullied, maltreated, and abused. The few moments of reprieve are offered by Claudia and Frieda, who unlike Pecola can still cling to their childhood innocence.
Pecola’s story is jarring and sobering, and at times reading The Bluest Eye was ‘too much’. Nevertheless, I was hypnotised by Morrison’s cogent style. She effortlessly switches from voice to voice, vividly rendering the intensity or urgency of her characters’ inner monologues. In her portrayal of Pecola’s descent into madness Morrison is challenging racist ideals of beauty, binary thinking, and the labelling of races and individuals as being either good or evil. Pecola’s family, her community, even the reader, all stand by as Pecola becomes increasingly detached from her reality. This a tragic story, one that is bound to upset readers. Still, the issues Morrison addresses in this novel are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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Earthlings by Sayaka Murata — book review

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“The person who had given birth to me said I was a dead loss, so I decided it really must be true.”

A few days before reading Earthlings I read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman and I really loved its humour and eccentric narrator. So, perhaps I approached Earthlings with the wrong expectations. Or maybe I was fooled by its cute cover (I mean, just look at that hedgehog!). Fact is, Earthlings is an altogether different beast to Murata’s previous novel. I can say, without the shadow of a doubt, that Earthlings is the most bizarre novel that I have read (and I’ve read a fair amount of books).
If you thought Convenience Store Woman was weird, well, be prepared as Earthlings is on an altogether different level of weird. Narrated by Natsuki, a young girl who is made to feel like an outsider within her own family and is regularly subjected to verbal and physical abuse from her mother and her sensitive older sister. Natsuki seems resilient enough though and finds reassurance in the belief that Piyyut, a plush toy hedgehog, is an alien from the planet Popinpobopia. Natsuki is eager to help Piyyut on his quest, and reveals only his true identity to her cousin Yuu who in turn tells her that he’s an extraterrestrial. Both of them live in difficult households and are made to feel like burdens. Their bond strengthens, so much so that they begin to call each other ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’, keeping their relationship a secret from the rest of the family. Sadly, the two are only able to meet up in the summer during their visits to their grandparents (who have a house in the mountains of Nagano).

“With my eyes closed, drifting in space, it felt as though the spaceship from Planet Popinpobopia really was close by. I was immersed in my love for Yuu and my magical powers. As long as I was here in this space, I was safe and nobody could destroy our happiness.”

Natsuki’s school life takes a turn for the worst when an ‘attractive’ young teacher begins to make sexual advances which will escalate to abuse. These horrific encounters will plague Natsuki into adulthood, as she will find it impossible to form an intimate relationship with another man. Her memories of Nagano and Yuu do lighten her days. However, to keep her family at bay, she forces herself to obey the norms of society and marries…but her married life is far from conventional.
There are many explicit scenes in this books. Some of them were simply vile, and frankly gratuitous, while others were so outlandish as to be funny (in a fucked up sort of way). This novel has quite a few scenes that made me drop my kindle and wonder, out loud, “WTF did I just read?”. Here are some examples (readers’ discretion is advised): (view spoiler)

What started as a dark coming of age soon morphed into a nightmarish and feverish horror show.
The book delves into disturbing subjects in a surreal and occasionally abrupt sort of way. The horrible things that keep happening to Natsuki and her alienation (towards her family, society, reality) are mediated by her unnervingly enthusiastic tone. She’s perfunctory when noting what her parents and sister feels towards her and criticism of society’s fixation on reproduction have a spring to them:

“Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told. They all used their reproductive organs for the Factory and did their jobs for the sake of the Factory.”

Similarly to Convenience Store Woman the narrative of Earthlings interrogates existing notions of normalcy as well as questioning what being a ‘useful member of society’ entails. While Convenience Store Woman was far from subtle, it allowed more room for interpretation, Earthlings, on the other hand, is far more obvious. Natsuki, and two other central characters, use the ‘Factory’ metaphor in most of their discussions concerning their society and lives. It was a bit on the nose for me.
The ending was baffling and made me wonder what the point of this novel was. Certain scenes were so ludicrous as to be amusing and Natsuki’s narration certainly held my attention but even so I wonder whether those really graphic scenes served a purpose other than ‘to shock’ the readers (I don’t think so). Murata’s treatment of emotional and sexual abuse is also rather questionable.
My advice is this: be weary of Earthlings.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Lover by Marguerite Duras — book review

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The Lover strikes me as little more than an exercise in literary masturbation. This novella is overwrought, self-indulgent, and ultimately insubstantial.
Fooled by the promise of its first pages, I soon found myself irked by the narrator’s linguistic burps. With the exception of two or three characters, everyone else is nameless. Alienation is de rigueur.
The narrator revisits her past, engaging herself in a sort of mental seesaw, where she jumps from thought to thought, from image to image. Her fragmented and remote narrative failed to arouse my interest, if anything it merely struck me as disingenuous, a feeble attempt self-fashioning.
One moment she’s old in France, the next line she’s going on about how she looked as a fifteen-year girl, on the cusps of a sexual awakening, predictably burdened by the ‘unstable’ mother, the mean older brothers and the slightly-less-nasty younger brother. They are poor and unhappy. The narrator wears a man’s hat (how riveting). She has sex with an older Chinese man. He loves her, or at least he thinks he does. They have some more sex, he treats her like a doll (putting makeup on her), our protagonist goes with it. Why? I don’t know. He’s portrayed as ‘weak’ and a ‘coward’…great representation (not).

This cast of unnamed characters wallow in their misery. Here and there the story is swept away by a stream of consciousness. Duras tries to be sensual—“The balance between her figure and the way the body bears the breasts, outside itself, as if they were separate. Nothing could be more extraordinary than the outer roundness of these breasts proffered to the hands, this outwardness held out toward them.”—but her purple prose veers into the ridiculous.
There were also these childish attempts at introspection:
“Suddenly I see myself as another, as another would be seen, outside myself, available to all, available to all eyes, in circulation for cities, journeys, desire. I take the hat, and am never parted from it.”
Which seemed a mere echo of Arthur Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” (I is another).

The gists of my review is this: I disliked The Lover. A lot. And to compare this to Lolita is an insult to Nabokov.

My rating: 1 star

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My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell — book review

“I think we’re very similar, Nessa,” he whispers. “From the way you write, I can tell you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things.”

Recently I read a nonfiction book which claimed that when reading a book “However you get it, you’ve got it right”. When I read those words I found them vaguely equivocal…case in point, in My Dark Vanessa the misreading of a novel has disastrous consequences.
When fifteen year old Vanessa is given a copy of Lolita by her forty-five year old teacher, Jacob Strane, she becomes obsessed with it and comes to regard it as a tragic love story. In her eyes Humbert Humbert is not a degenerate pedophile but an unlucky man who happens to fall in love with a twelve-year old girl.

“That seems the likely ending to this love story: me dropping everything and doing anything, devoted as a dog, as he takes and takes and takes.”

Short review
On the one hand I believe that this novel presents its readers with a horrifyingly realistic character study of a sexual predator (a pedophile, a rapist, a molester). It tells an uneasy story, one in which a man creeps his way into the mind and life of a vulnerable young girl, that is bound to make some readers uncomfortable.
On the other, I found the narrator’s introspection to be monotonous, and the secondary characters are mere plot devices.
Although Kate Elizabeth Russell’s writing could be striking, she sometimes resorts to edgy observations which are a bit cringe-y. Some of her descriptions were trying (eg: “dishwater blonde hair and granola clothes”) and I was frustrated by the blatant yet limited way in which she would convey Vanessa’s distress (she bites her cheeks a lot).
There are some great discussions in here (on abuse, guilt, desire, power, literature) and while this is ultimately a story of an uneasy self-reconciliation, it is one that is as uplifting as a work Joyce Carol Oates (ie: pretty fucking depressing).

An extremely meandering and longwinded review
Narrated by Vanessa, Russell’s novel opens up in 2017 when the #MeToo movement became viral. Vanessa, a disillusioned thirty-something concierge, is forced to re-evaluate her relationship to Strane after one of his former students, Taylor Birch, writes a Facebook post accusing him of assault. Although Vanessa is still in touch with Strane, the two are no longer ‘involved’, and she thinks that Taylor is lying. Yet, even as she tells herself this, there is a niggling doubt at the back of her mind. When Taylor messages her asking her to share her own experience with Strane, Vanessa is compelled to comb through her memories of her relationship with Strane.
Vanessa regards her relationship to Strane as a consensual love story hindered by an age-gap. The only reason why she entertains the possibility of it having unethical is because he was her teacher. Yet, when Vanessa revisits her past, she is not always able to romanticise Strane and his actions.

“I know what he thinks, what anyone would think. That I’m an apologist, an enabler, but I’m defending myself just as much as I am Strane. Because even if sometimes I use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else’s mouth, the word turns ugly and absolute. It swallows up everything that happened.”

In 2000 fifteen-year old Vanessa returns to her second year at Browick, a private school in Norumbega, Maine (although according to Google this town does not exist, Russell’s vivid depiction of this fictional place makes it seem all too real). Vanessa is all too aware of her distinctive red hair, of her lack of friends, and of her penchant for morose observations.
It isn’t all surprising then that Vanessa initially ‘responds’ positively to Strane’s attentions. He compliments her appearance and her writing, and soon enough Vanessa comes to believe that he is attentive because he thinks that she is “special”.

In spite of the superficial charm that Strane uses in order to make his abhorrent actions appear ‘darkly romantic’ readers are aware of his true nature. He is a perverted manipulator who masks his inclination for young girls under the guise of being a hopeless romantic, as if he is a blameless victim of love. He instills in Vanessa his own skewed perception of their relationship, he uses her own insecurity against her, and makes her feel complicit. He makes her believe that it is ‘them’ against the world.
What becomes apparent through Vanessa’s recollection is that Strane would use any means necessary in order to gain her trust. For instance he uses Vanessa’s poetry against her as he attributes to her poems mature and inappropriate meanings (for instance he calls one of her poems “sexy”…) making her once again feel ‘seen’ (something he knows she craves).
Strane also implements Lolita in order to introduce to Vanessa the possibility of an adult-child ‘relationship’, and while he often compares Vanessa to Lolita, as the self-denying hypocrite that he is, he refuses to cast himself as Humbert (“Is that what you think I am?” He asks. “A pedophile?”).

The novel does a terrific job in portraying the power-imbalance between a grown man and a teenager girl. Strane uses his age and experience to manipulate Vanessa, often leading her to believe that she is the “boss”. His disgusting behaviour is rendered in minute detail as the author does not shy away from portraying him at his most repugnant.
Rather than ‘empowering’ Vanessa however he is disenfranchising her. He convinces her that she is ‘precocious’ and far more mature and independent that other girls.

“Every first step was taken by him. I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.”

While we are made to see how Strane manages to convince Vanessa that they are mutually complicit, two ‘dark romantics’, his charm never reached me. Everything he says and does felt wrong and illicit. While Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert admits to himself that he likes little girls, Strane seems to actually believe that he has fallen in love with Vanessa not because of her age but in spite of it. Yet, as present-Vanessa grudgingly realises, he would find it arousing to infantilise her and his attraction for her diminishes as she grows ‘older’.

“Like I was crazy. A stupid, crazy little girl. I get why you did that. It was an easy way to protect yourself, right? Teenage girls are crazy. Everyone knows that.”

While I think that this novel does an exceptional job at depicting Vanessa’s horrifying story of abuse (she would dislike my using this word but I call it what it is) I did not feel incredibly affected by it and for the most part I was simply disgusted.
Strane was the only character who struck me as believable…and he was a monster. Vanessa however remains more blurred. While this is likely to be somewhat intentional (the trauma caused by Strane has had horrific repercussions on her life and her sense of self) it also made it harder for me to believe in her as a character. Her dissociation and alienation are a result of her ‘relationship’ with Strane and his presence in her life is toxic , that much is clear. Still, she often makes out-of-character choices or big decisions without any distinct reason. There are two instances were she makes potentially life-changing decisions without articulating the reason behind her actions. Much was made of her ‘darkness’ but I could only see it as a consequence of Strane’s gaslighting her. Part of me wished that we could have seen her before him, perhaps during her first year at Browick. That way we could have gotten to know her on her own terms, and not as Strane’s victim (not that Vanessa labels herself as victim or survivor, in fact she hates these terms: “But that word, with its cloying empathy, that patronizing, flattening word that makes my whole body cringe no matter the context”).

There were moments when more could have been made of her personality. Yes, she has been manipulated into assuming the role of ‘Lolita’, but she could still have had traces of her own distinctive personality. Her job sadly seems merely to recount in an almost detached way Strane’s repulsive actions towards her. And if she is totally disconnected from her own self then I wish we could have been at least made privy to what she was thinking when she makes those potentially life-altering impulsive decisions (usually she just describes her movements or surroundings in these instances).
There are many other characters but they all blurred together. Once again this may be deliberate, given that Vanessa herself knows that she struggles keeping people straight in her mind. However, even during those scenes set in her past, I found that the characters to be lacking: there were a few named J-something and I could barely distinguish them from one another. Most of them seem to have been included only to say or do something to hurt Vanessa. Their motivations were sketchy and given that their personalities remain off-page, I had difficulties believing them.
Vanessa’s parents are incongruously depicted. Her mother seems to undergo three or four changes of character in the course of the novel. The father is totally expendable. Maybe if they had more page-time, we could have seen glimpses of their personalities/thoughts/motivations (we never know how they felt about their daughter’s time at Browick). Even in the few scenes where they actually appear, they remain vague un-active presences.

“So if someone doesn’t want to come forward and tell the world every bad thing that’s happened to her, then she’s what? Weak, selfish?”

While I appreciated the way the novel unflinchingly discusses sexual and emotional abuse, its praise and critique of certain aspects of the #MeToo movement, as well as its incorporation of texts (Lolita and Ethan Frome) and historical figures/anecdotes (which Strane used to normalise or romanticise ‘relationships’ between under age girls and middle aged men), I found that much of the narrative relied on explicit content. The first few times, as I already mentioned, I thought that however revolting these scenes were necessary. Needless to say, these scenes were not easy to read. Strane eroticises his fifteen-yearl old student and makes Vanessa believe that, like Lolita, she is ‘precociously seductive’. Although Vanessa tells herself that she enjoys this feeling of making a grown man sexually desire her, readers will have a less rose-tinted view of things. While their first encounters are graphic, I did not see these as being included for shock value. However, as these scenes increased, I found their frequency almost distasteful. To be repeatedly exposed to them seemed unnecessary. If anything they made the first explicit scenes less impactful.
Sometimes keeping certain things off the page isn’t a sign of ‘cowardice’ or ‘sensibleness’. If anything it requires even more effort to make your audience aware of certain ‘transgressions’ without having to actually to include them. For instance, in a recent episode of one of my favourite tv shows, a character is forced into the realisation that he was abused as a child. Rather than cutting to a tasteless flashback of this, the camera remains trained on his face, and viewers can see the incalculable hurt that this abuse caused him. His trauma, anguish, and despair are conveyed without the episode having to actually show this abuse happening.
Another example I can give is by the great Stephen King (who happens to have appreciated My Dark Vanessa more than I did, given that he described it as a ‘package of dynamite’) who in his latest novel avoids depicting in horrific detail a scene in which a child is tortured, cutting instead to the before and the after. Even if he doesn’t include e the ‘during’ scene, his readers can clearly see the harmful effects that this maltreatment has had on the child in question.

Sadly, I found that once I was 30% into My Dark Vanessa the graphic scenes lost some of their significance. They were so lurid that I could not see why there had to be so many of them. I get that some were meant to show us why present-Vanessa has such as distorted perception of her sexuality but when a story relies on numerous revolting sex scenes…I loose interest. I don’t think ‘splatter’ films are good horror films, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that I wasn’t all that impressed with My Dark Vanessa.

Additionally this year I read two other books that deal with similar topics. What Red Was is a stark novel that depicts the lasting effects of rape on a young woman’s mind, body, and life. I found that novel poignant and heart-wrenching. Promising Young Women instead tells an imaginative and subversive story of a relationship between a female employee and her boss. Those two novels resonated with me a lot more than My Dark Vanessa did. In Russell’s novel, the only character that was truly believable happens to be one of the most disgustingly perverse characters I’ve read of in a while. For all her self-fashioning, Vanessa did not strike me as ‘dark’ or even ‘precocious’. For the most part she is passive and apathetic towards other people. In one scene she willingly stands by as one of her young colleagues is harassed by a patron. In those instances where she is spurred into action, I still could not understand her or her motivations. More could have been made of her inner monologue, her sense of loneliness/emptiness, and of her fraught relationship with her mother.
The novel takes its time discussing the guilt she feels, and by the end I just wanted this novel to end.

“But it’s the truth, even if no one believes it. Driven towards it, towards him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: eager to hurl herself into the swamp.”

Nevertheless, future readers should not be deterred by my not so positive review. So far, most of the reviews are singing this book’s praises. Heck, even King liked it…so maybe I’m just not the right reader for it.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

How can I have ‘enjoyed’ or ‘liked’ this novel?
Well…I did find myself flinching away from it a few times…

Well, what can be said about Lolita that hasn’t been said? Who hasn’t heard of it? The influence this work has had on modern culture is astounding: just think that the meaning of the name Lolita has changed because of this novel. The reputation this novel has gained however doesn’t really do it justice. It is almost viewed as a perverse work of fiction. And in some ways, it is that. Humbert Humbert is sick. His fantasies, his romanticising his own inclination and actions, well…there can be no doubt that Humber is indeed a perverse individual. Yet, the novel is so much more than this. Humbert’s role as a narrator makes us question ourselves. How can someone so monstrous be amusing? How can he be anything other than a pedophile?
Vladimir Nabokov achieves wonders in this novel. I ‘might have been disgusted and repulsed, but I was also completely taken by Nabokov’s style. The way he plays with different languages (English, Russian, French), the incredible attention he pays to someone’s intonation, the cadence of certain words or the rhythm created by others. I was so in awe of the way in which Nabokov’s works with words that I almost didn’t take in the horrific things that make up the majority of Humbert’s narrative.
I do understand why some readers might be read this and feel nothing but disgust, but, lets remember that Nabokov is not Humbert. Nor is he condemning Humbert. What Nabokov seemed to be doing was to create a narrative that reflects Humbert’s distorted mind. Nabokov is clever, so very clever. The self-aware and dynamic narrative is filled by vivid imagery: sounds, colours, smells, textures…Nabokov offers all.
My only ‘con’ is that the storyline lost a bit of its drive towards the end of the novel. Lolita is an uneasy read that will – no doubt – make you feel uncomfortable. However, the subject itself shouldn’t hide the Nabokov’s prolific style.

My rating: 3.5 stars

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