Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

“I used to believe the house was haunted. Really, it was the other way around; the house haunted me.”

Turns out I actually love this now…?!

The first time I read this I was not impressed but this second time around…well, I loved it. It isn’t an easy book and I can sort of see why it could come across as frustrating…but if you are in the mood for a dreamy and ambiguous Gothic-y read you should consider giving Catherine House a go. If you are a fan of authors such as Shirley Jackson and Helen Oyeyemi, you will probably ‘vibe’ with this book. Speaking of vibes, I saw someone describe this as a book all about vibes and I have to agree. There is a strong focus on the atmosphere of Catherine House and Thomas pays particular attention to the smells and flavours Ines encounters in its walls. Throughout the narrative Thomas juxtaposes beauty with decay, and there were plenty of lush descriptions contrasting the two. Nature too has a role in this story and I loved how Ines describes the seasons.
I loved Ines and her ‘sideways’ perspective. Thomas beautifully articulates Ines’ conflicting feelings about Catherine House and I truly felt for her. I also loved her friendship group, often their scenes together eased some of the tension from the narrative.
Basically, this second time I loved everything about this novel: the eerie setting, the ominous nature of plasm, Ines, her friends, the beautiful writing, the dreamlike atmosphere…
I can’t wait to read this again (and maybe write a more cohesive review).

old review:

without its merits Catherine House is an ultimately predictable piece of Gothic fiction that tries to be the next Vita Nostra but doesn’t quite succeed. The novel is bogged down by slow pacing, an overly elusive story, populated by cast of barely fleshed out characters, and a painfully conventional dark academia type of ‘heroine’ (who is Not Like Other Girls & has a ‘dark’ secret related to her ‘mysterious’ past). It’s a pity as there were quite a few elements that I actually appreciated. Thomas writing is, for the most part, lush and she truly excels at Gothic atmosphere. She conveys the unease that pervades Ines’ stay at Catherine House and there are many passages that linger on her senses of smell and taste suggestive of the House’s ‘wrongness’. I particularly liked the use of repetition, be it through language or imagery.

Through a 1st pov, Catherine House follows Ines Murillo and her three years at Catherine House, a private university shrouded in mystery. We learn almost nothing about who she—or any other character for the matter—was before CH and this is due to the place’s strict rules about leaving one past behind. We are told that students have very few privileges and can earn more freedom through ‘points’ but Thomas never really expands on how these works, in fact, they matter very little. I would have preferred more descriptions about CH, its architecture and history, or anything really. By giving us very little information the place does acquire an air of ambiguity that does accentuate the narrative enigmatic tone. Condensing three years in one novel took away from the overall narrative. Ines’ time at CH was fairly repetitive and not particularly sinister. There is one ‘turning point’ of sorts towards the end of her first year but after that the narrative hits a plateau. Knowing more about the teachers and the lessons Ines attends would have made her time there more interesting. Instead, most of the story seems intent on setting up its Gothic aesthetics (beauty is terror and all that). Ines makes for a dull narrator. Everyone tells us she’s special and different (I did love the “my little sideways girl” line) but she’s anything but. She’s confused 24/7 and although she tells us that she wants to do this (learn CH’s secrets) or feels that (for a boy) it just didn’t reach me. Thomas tells us what her protagonist feels or wants to do but she fails to back this up by showing us that yes Ines feels sad, happy, or whatever else.
The novel implements Gothic tropes and many dark academia conventions. While I understand that the Gothic genre is derivative by its very nature (Pet Sematary > Frankenstein > Milton’s Paradise Lost + Promethean myth; The Historian > Interview with a Vampire > Dracula > Transylvanian folklore) I would expect a contemporary Gothic novel to be more subversive than Catherine House. There was no point in which I felt scared, surprised or apprehensive on Ines’ behalf. That is partly because I cared zilch about her or her supposed ‘friends’ (who seem a mere caricature of the typical academia clique of beautiful & languid people). I don’t think it’s a good sign when you care more about a secondary character’s pet snail than say any of the human characters.
It also struck me that novel was trying too hard to be something by Shirley Jackson. Hangsaman in particular came to mind. But, where I was intrigued by how obscure & unreliable a narrative Hangsaman is, I was unimpressed by Thomas’ novel directionless. It pulls the classic ‘confusing for the sake of being confusing’ shtick (whereas the ambiguity of Hangsaman struck me as a result of its mc’s dissociation from reality).
Yet, there were lines that I really liked (“I am in the house, we chanted. The house is in the woods. My hands are on the table. The table is in the woods.” did bring to mind Merricat’s “I put my hands quietly in my lap. I am living on the moon, I told myself, I have a little house all by myself on the moon.”). The dreamy quality that permeates Ines’ narration could also be effective in that it makes her more unreliable and it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy.
The ‘plasm’ was a big letdown. That and ‘the tower’ are meant to be the narrative’s main sources of tension but when Ines sees more of them…it just felt bathetic.
As debuts go Catherine House is a rather mediocre one. Thomas can clearly write well but story and character-wise her novel has little to offer. Catherine House itself needed more page time (rather than having so many paragraphs about Ines’ specialness, what she eats or smells). Thomas overplays how ‘sinister’ it is. Does weird shit go down in it? Sure but sometimes subtlety does the trick (the institutions in Magda Szabó’s Abigail and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go felt far more oppressive & forbidding without them being exaggeratedly spooky a la CH). Ultimately Catherine House is a novel that choose style over substance. It delivers a perfectly Gothic atmosphere and some terrific lines but fails to provide anything more substantial. What was the point? Was this a story about wanting to belong? Of otherness? I don’t know and unlike with Hansgaman, I don’t care to revisit it in order to maybe find out. Still, I am curious to see what Thomas writes next. If you are the type of reader who exclusively—or almost exclusively—cares about aesthetics and ambience, well, you might be the right reader for Catherine House.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon

“There was so much lying all the time, particularly when you got together with people who were not Black. Bland observations about about schools, neighborhoods, and the words “kids” and “safe” and “family” tried to cover up a landscape of volcanos oozing with blood, pus, and shit.”

What drew my attention to The Days of Afrekete was the comparison to Sula, a novel that, even years after reading it, I still think about. Alas, The Days of Afrekete is not quite in the same league as Morrison’s novel. Structure and story-wise The Days of Afrekete shares far more, if not too much, in common with Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve. Like Shafak’s novel The Days of Afrekete alternates between scenes set during the course of a dinner party and scenes exploring our main character’s past, focusing in particular on her college experience. Both works are also characterized by an ironic tone, poking fun at the pretences of the upper/middle classes and highlighting just how hypocritical the characters they are writing of are. Alas, even if I wasn’t a huge fan of Shafak’s novel I still preferred her brand of satire to Asali Solomon’s one.

Liselle Belmont, our novel’s central character, is enjoying a life of relative wealth. She’s married to and has a son with Winn, a white man whose political career has just taken a turn for the worst. An FBI agent has recently reached out to Liselle and implied that he has done something shady and may be prosecuted. Winn, seeming to be unaware that the FBI is onto him, decides to invite some of his friends/supporters over for dinner.
The narrative shows how adjusted Liselle has become to this lifestyle. She is incapable and or unwilling to pronounce correctly the name of her employee, Xochitl, who does things like welcoming the guests, serving the food, and cleaning after them. We also learn that although she had the opportunity to help Jimena, Xochit’s mother who also works for her, she chooses not to.
As this awkward dinner unfolds, the narrative takes us back to Liselle’s college years. At college she started dating women but soon found herself frustrated by the almost-exclusively white dating pool. She repeatedly promises herself that she will stop sleeping or entertaining in relationships with white girls. She then meets Selena, one of the few other Black students, and the two seem to be instantly drawn to each other. Their relationship doesn’t end smoothly as Liselle has a rather crappy attitude and Selena is struggling with her mental health. We later learn of how Liselle met and started dating Winn.

The story portrays Winn and his guests in a rather unfavourable light, but it does so in a way that reduces them to rather one-dimensional caricatures. Lisette was mean, uncharitable, and selfish. Selena’s character, especially her illness, was a tad problematic. She ‘feels’ things too much, so when she reads or sees stories about murder, slavery, cruelty, she is unable to distance herself from those events. Over the course of her adulthood, she is in and out of psychiatric wards and has only in recent times begun to lead a more ‘adjusted’ life.

While I did find the narrative amusing now and again, I felt nothing for Lisette or the other characters. It wasn’t necessarily because they were unlikable. After all, I just read and loved White Ivy, a novel that seems entirely populated by flawed, if not downright terrible, people. But the characters in The Days of Afrekete are just not as nuanced or compelling as the ones from White Ivy. Solomon’s examination of class and privilege too struck me as somewhat banal compared to Susie Yang’s one in White Ivy.
Sula does get a mention in this novel and the narrative does focus on the supposedly complex relationship between two Black women but other than that this novel is galaxies away from Morrison’s one. Lisette and Selena’s relationship feels rushed, so we never gain a picture of how they are together or what they feel for each other. Yet, during the dinner Lisette keeps thinking about her, making it sound as if she was ‘the one’ for her…to me it seemed that she never really liked Winn and that she only married him because of ‘reasons’. Knowing that the guy is about to be arrested she is like ‘well he sucks’ and for ‘reasons’ she misses Selena.

Even if I were to judge this book on its own merit (without comparing it unfavourably to Sula, White Ivy, and Shafak’s novel) I don’t have many good things to say about it. As I wrote above, it was occasionally funny. We get on-point descriptions like: “He had the look of someone who had aged out of playing the rich jerk in an eighties teen movie”.
But the characters were severely lacking in depth. Liselle’s story was boring, I didn’t really feel particularly sympathetic towards her, and I did not really care about the ‘drama’ with Winn or their awful dinner party.
We only get Selena’s side of things towards the end of the story and by then I was ready to be done with this book.
The way Liselle’s sexuality is portrayed frustrated me. She ‘was’ a lesbian but she’s no longer one now because she is with Winn. I also didn’t like the flashbacks that show how Winn pursued her even when he knew she was gay. And instead of turning him down, she decides to roll with it? I just didn’t believe that she cared for him so I had a really hard time understanding why she marries this bland guy. Also, why are the only two sexualities in this novel ‘gay’ or ‘straight’? Sexuality is not binary and I always find it irritating to come across stories in which a character had a ‘gay’ phase or ‘used’ to be gay. Being queer, bisexual, or pansexual is apparently not an option in these novels.

I wouldn’t necessarily not recommend this novel as I recognise that some may find Liselle less irritating than I did. Just don’t let that Sula comparison fool you.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age is a engaging, if ultimately frustrating, read. The premise brought to mind two favorites of mine (Lucy and Luster, both focus on young black women living with white middle-class couples and taking ‘care’ of their child). Given the buzz around Such a Fun Age I had rather high expectations and when I first picked it up I found that opening chapter, in which Emira is stopped by the security guard, to be deeply compelling. The ones that followed however were less so. The story switches its focus on Alix, her husband remains an outlier in the narrative so that he is little other than a name on a page, and her career/mummy drama. Aaaand I just did not care for it. It felt a lot like reading Liane Moriarty but with far less humor. If anything, Alix and her circle of friends just reinforced my preconceptions about Americans (which is not something I necessarily was looking for). She’s white, wealthy, influential (she runs a blog that I never entirely understood), and spends most of the narrative trying to prove to herself and others that she is not racist (often resorting to the classic, ‘well, one of my friends is Black so clearly I cannot possibly be racist’). While I am not saying that I do not believe that people like Alix exist (I have come across a fair share of clips and news starring people like her) I just did not want to have pages and pages dedicated to her.
I have similar feelings towards Kelley who I did not like from the get-go and his first date with Emira just confirmed my suspicions about him.

Much of the narrative is not about the so-called ‘inciting incident’ in which Emira, a young Black babysitter is stopped by a security guard while she is with her three-year-old white charge, Briar. While this episode does obviously have an impact on Emira, the story is more about her deciding whether she wants to continue to work for Alix and Peter. At twenty-five, she feels left behind by her friends, all of who seem to be actively doing the job they want or working towards a certain goal. Emira’s directionless life was understandable if a bit wearisome. I wished that more of her personality could have shone through a little more, as she at times seemed a passive passenger who merely responds to Alix and Kelley’s behavior. Because of Emira’s not-so-strong characterization, Alix’s obsession with her did not ring entirely true. Still, I really loved those scenes in which Emira is hanging out with her three close friends or when she is looking after Briar (finally, a fictional child I liked!). The interactions between Emira and her friends rang particularly true to life, and I found their energy, banter, and group dynamics to be really captivating. Sadly, the story does not center around Emira (I so wanted more of her relationship with her family) but it actually gave Alix way too much backstory which did not make me sympathize with her one bit. While she was not by no means evil incarnate I found her boring and vapid. It was also frustrating that a lot of her behavior is never actually called out, she repeatedly crosses the line with Emira and gets away with it. During that final act, Emira does stand up for herself but it still seemed to me that Alix gets away with a lot of shit. Which, is realistic enough, yet another white wealthy woman getting away with all sorts of things but why dedicate so much of the narrative to her and not Emira?

I also found it a bit annoying that the story proves Emira wrong as with the exception of her the other characters do not change (looking at Kelley in particular).
I don’t know…I guess I am just not interested in characters like Alix and felt that the story could have been executed differently and in a way that could have actually elevated Emira’s voice. Still, Reid’s dialogues came across as authentic, and I appreciated her commentary on race, class, and gender. Her prose at times felt a bit superficial, as it tended to move from character to character within the same scene without really delving beneath their surface, but it also had a nice flow to it.

In spite of my reservations, I do think that Reid is a good writer and I look forward to what she will write next.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

 

 

 

Though mostly comprising of short chapters, some shorter than a page, What We Lose is a poignant novel that succeeds on many different levels: it captures the narrator’s inner feelings, it gives a crystal-clear understanding of her circumstances, and it provides us with insights into questions of love, race, illness, grief, and motherhood. Thandi, our narrator, is a light-skinned Black woman who although raised in America feels both close and not to South Africa, her mother’s country. Clemmons marries a coming-of-age story—self-fulfilment, love, friendships, career, finding a place to which you can fully belong—with a piercing commentary on race, class, cancer (providing sobering evidence showing the disproportionate death rate among Black people, regardless of class), gender, and love. The narrative hones in on Thandi’s grief over the death of her mother. She recalls those excruciating months in which her mother was bedridden and in atrocious pain. There are portions of the narrative that relate to the still ongoing aftermath of apartheid and Clemmons initiates some thoughtful discussion about South Africa’s history and current socioeconomic.
Clemmons prose is restrained yet startling for its preciseness. With just a few words Clemmons manages to explore with authenticity and nuance complex feelings and scenarios. It is not a happy tale, as it brings to the forefront some sad yet real truths. Still, here and there, we are given glimpses of hope and genuine love (especially between Thandi and her best friend). Part of me did wish that the novel could have been a bit longer but I also recognize that the ending did not feel abrupt nor hurried.

my rating: ★★★½

A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

“That summer when I so desperately tried to reel us all in, I didn’t understand the forces spinning us apart.”

The opening of A Crooked Tree is certainly chilling. Libby, our fifteen-year old narrator, is in the car with her siblings. When their squabbling gets too much their mother dumps twelve-year old Ellen on the side of the road. Hours pass, and to Libby’s increasing concern Ellen has yet to arrive. When Ellen finally makes an appearance, something has clearly happened to her.

Sadly, the suspenseful atmosphere that is so palpable at the start of this novel gives way to a slightly more predictable coming-of-age. The premise made me think that A Crooked Tree would be something in the realms of Winter’s Bone (we have the rural setting, the dysfunctional family, the bond between the siblings). But A Crooked Tree tells a far more conventional story: a summer of revelations (from the realisations that the adults around you have their own secrets to the having to say goodbye to the innocence of childhood). While what happened to Ellen certainly has an impact on the storyline, A Crooked Tree is not a mystery or thriller. We follow Libby as she fights and makes peace with her best friend and siblings, we learn of her less than stellar home-life, and, most of all, of her dislike of the neighbourhood’s bad boy (this last tread was pretty annoying). I did appreciate how vivid the setting was, from the references to 80s culture to Libby’s environment (she is particularly attuned to nature). I also really enjoyed the family dynamics and the unease that permeated many of the scenes. The author succeeds particularly in capturing that period of transition, from childhood to adolescence, without being sentimental.

What ultimately did not work for me was Libby herself. She’s hella bland. Love for trees aside there was little to her character. While her siblings, bff, and adults around her were fully fleshed out, Libby’s personality remains largely unexplored. Her obsession with the ‘bad boy’ was also really grating and her refusal to see him as anything but bad news didn’t ring entirely true. A lot of the observations she makes about the people around her seemed to originate from someone far more mature and insightful that she was (as in, they did not really seem to stem from the mind of a particularly naive 15-year old girl). Elle, although younger, would have made for a more convincing and interesting narrator. Libby…is painfully vanilla.

Still, Libby aside, I did find this novel to be engaging, occasionally unsettling, and exceedingly nostalgic.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★ ¼

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The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado


Having only read Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, I wasn’t sure what to except from The Low, Low Woods. The summary promised a creepy tale: we have the classic small town setting (here called Shudder-to-Think), strange creatures (deer-women, skinless men), and an old mystery.
The first issue begins with our two protagonists, El and Octavia, waking up in a movie theatre and not being able to recall the previous hours. Something happened, they know as much, but finding out the truth behind their missing memories might stir up some trouble.
While I appreciated the story’s atmosphere, I didn’t find it very unsettling. We have random monsters that seem to appear only because ‘reasons’. Our two main characters weren’t very interesting or likeable. One of them is secretly dating a popular girl, and that storyline felt very unexplored.
There were many events that had unconvincing explanations. The author seemed intent on making the story as mysterious as possible by leaving loose strands. Each issues ends in a cliffhanger that is often not directly resolved at the beginning of the following issue. And then we have the 5th issue which is basically info-dumping. There was no suspense. The two girls discover the truth behind the town’s past in a very anticlimactic way. The ‘feminist’ angle was…meh? The story doesn’t have anything interesting or insightful to say about men who abuse or control women.
The art I quite liked. I saw other reviewers criticising it for being ‘scratchy’ but I personally thought that it fitted with the story’s aesthetics. Plus, there were some very stunning pages:




While I didn’t particularly like this graphic novel’s writing (we had clichéd quasi-wisdoms such as: “Sometimes, you have to listen to someone else’s story”), its characterization nor its storyline, the art was pretty good and both main characters were queer…so I guess you win some you loose some.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars
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These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

Heavenly Creatures by way of Patricia Highsmith, plus a sprinkle of Like Minds, and with the kind of teenage morbidity one could find in Hangsaman or Stoker.

Adroit and gripping, These Violent Delights is a superlative debut novel. Being the self-proclaimed connoisseur of academia fiction that I am, I was drawn by the comparisons to The Secret History and I was amazed to discover that unlike other releases (not naming any names) These Violent Delights definitely had some TSH vibes. But whereas most academia books focus on a ‘clique’, Micah Nemerever’s novel is very much centred on the obsessive relationship between two seventeen-year-olds.
If you’ve read or watched anything that revolves around a toxic relationship, you know what to expect from These Violent Delights. The prologue itself reveals to us that all will not be well for these two boys and that at some point will embark on a path of no return.

“He couldn’t remember ever being the person he’d decided to become.”

The narrative takes us back to their first meeting. Paul, our protagonist, is a university freshman in Pittsburgh during the early 1970s. His father has recently committed suicide and his mother has yet to recover. Paul suffers from an almost debilitating insecurity and shows a propensity for virulent self-recriminations. His inward-looking nature brings him no joy, as his mind is often consumed by his many ‘shortcomings’, and those of others. He feels misunderstood by his working-class family, and without his father, his grandfather, a man whose good-natured attempts to connect with Paul inevitably miss the mark, has become his closest male figure. His family fails to accept that Paul isn’t the type to ‘loosen’ up with his peers or have ‘fun’ with some girl.
When a discussion on experimental ethics in class gets Paul hot under the collar, Julian Fromme comes to his defence. On the surface Julian is the antithesis of Paul: he comes from wealth, he’s self-assured, easy-going, and charismatic. Yet, Paul is enthralled by him, especially when he realises that Julian carries within him a darkness not unlike his own. Their mutual understanding and their interest in one another result in an instantaneous connection. They can have erudite talks, challenging each other’s stance on subjects related to ethics and morals, and revel in the superiority they feel towards their classmates. Within hours of their meeting, their bond has solidified, becoming something impenetrable to outsiders. It soon becomes apparent that neither of them is in control in their relationship, and things are further complicated when their platonic friendship gives way to a more sexual one.
Their symbiotic bond is of concern to others (to be queer—in both senses—is no walk in the park, especially in the 70s), and attempts are made to separate the two. But Paul and Julian are determined to stay together, and more than once they tell each other that the idea of life without the other would be unbearable.

“[H]e wasn’t afraid anymore. After a lifetime of yearning and trying not to yearn, he imagined the relief of surrendering.”

Even if we suspect that Paul and Julian’s intoxicating liaison will have internecine consequences, we are desperate for a moment of reprieve. But Nemerever’s narrative does not let up, not once. Readers will read with increasing anxiety as Paul and Julian embark on an ‘irreversible’ path, alienating those around them. Dread and anguish became my constant companions while I was reading this novel and I’m glad that I choose to read this when I was off work (I devoured this novel in less than 24h) since These Violent Delights is a riveting edge-of-your-seat kind of read.
A sense of unease pervades this story as even the early stages of Paul and Julian’s relationship are fraught. Julian is almost secretive when it comes to his family, and disapproves of the contempt Paul harbours towards his own mother. Their love for each other often veers into dislike, if not hatred, and they are quite capable of being extremely cruel to each other. Even so, we can see why they have become so entangled together, and why they oppose anyone who threatens to separate them. But as they enable one other, their teenage angst morphs into a more perturbing sort of behaviour. Time and again we are left wondering who, if anyone, is in control.

“All they were—all they had ever been—was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun.”

My summary of this novel won’t do it justice as I fear I’m making it sound like any other ‘dark’ tale of obsessive friendships (in this case a romantic one but still). It is Nemerever’s writing that elevates his story from ‘interesting’ to exhilarating (and downright distressing). He evokes the claustrophobic and oppressive nature of Paul and Julian’s bond, making us feel as if we too are caught in their all-consuming relationship. Nemerever also acutely renders Paul’s discomforts, the intensity of his love for Julian, his self-loathing, and of his conflicting desires (to be known, to be unknowable). He wants his family to understand him, but in those instances when they prove that they may understand him more than he thinks, he does not hear them out.

“All I want to do is make you happy, and you’re the unhappiest person I’ve ever met.”

Similarly to The Secret History, the narrative is very much examining the way we can fail to truly see the people closest to us. Paul’s low self-esteem makes him constantly doubt everyone around, Julian included. He perceives slights where there are none and even seems to find a sort of twisted pleasure (or as Lacan would have it, jouissance) in second-guessing Julian’s feelings towards him or in assuming the worst of others. He projects a preconceived image of Julian onto him (someone who is cruel and deceitful, someone who, unlike Paul himself, can easily adapt or pretend to be normal), and this prevents him from seeing him as he truly is.
The love Paul feels for Julian is almost fanatical, doomed to be destructive. This is the type of relationship that would not be out of place in the work of Magda Szabó (The Door), Joyce Carol Oates (Solstice) or a Barbara Vine novel (The House of Stairs, No Night is Too Long, A Fatal Inversion) or as the subject of a song by Placebo (I’m thinking of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’).

“They were wild and delirious and invincible, and it was strange that no one else could see it.”

Nemerever’s writing style is exquisite and mature. I was struck by the confidence of his prose (it does not read like a debut novel). Not one word is wasted, every sentence demands your attention (which is difficult when the story has you flipping pages like no tomorrow). Nemerever brings to life every scene and character he writes of, capturing, for example, with painful precision the crushing disquiet Paul feels (24/7), his loneliness (exacerbated by his queerness and intelligence) and his deep-seated insecurity. Nemerever doesn’t always explicitly states what Paul is feeling, or thinking, and the ambiguity this creates reminded me very much of Shirley Jackson, in particular of Hangsaman (a scene towards the end was particularly reminiscent of that novel). Readers will have to fill the gaps or try to read the subtext of certain scenes or exchanges between P and J.

Not only did this book leave me with a huge book hangover but it also left me emotionally exhausted (when I tried picking up other books my mind kept going back to Paul and Julian). Paul is one of the most miserable characters I’ve ever read of. And while he is no angel, I found myself, alongside his family, wanting to help him. But I could also understand him as he strongly reminded me of my own teenage experiences, and of how ‘wretched’ and angsty and alone I felt (woe is me), as well as the fierce, and at times destructive, friendships I formed during those vulnerable years.
In spite of what Paul and Julian do, I cared deeply for them. I wanted to ‘shake’ them, but I also desperately wanted them to be happy.
I’m sure I could blather on some more, but I will try and stop myself here. Reading These Violent Delights is akin to watching a slow-motion video of a car accident or some other disaster. You know what will happen but you cannot tear your eyes away. Read this at your own peril!

re-read: yes, I am indeed a masochist. I knew that reading this again would hurt but even so, I am once again left devastated by this. The act of reading this book is not dissimilar to riding some diabolical, guts-twisting, puke-inducing rollercoaster where you are anticipating/dreading/exhilarated by the prospect of the encroaching and inevitable drop.
Paul and Julian are very damaged individuals and seeing how they hurt themselves, each other, and the people around them, well it was incredibly upsetting (even more so knowing that their behaviour will just get worse over the course of the narrative). Their relationship is simultaneously impenetrable to us and rendered in painful clarity. Time and again we are left wondering who needs who, who wants who, and the differences between these two desires. Rereading this also allowed me to pay attention to Nemerever’s skilful use of foreshadowing.
Anyway in the interim years since first reading this I have come across books/other media that has similar vibes. Nemerever’s ability to capture with unsparing and clear-cut precision Paul’s discomfort, self-hatred, and alienation brought to mind Brandon Taylor’s Real Life and Filthy Animals. The ambiguous nature of his characters and his razor-sharp examination of privilege reminded me of Susie Yang’s psychological thriller, White Ivy. The codependent relationship between Paul and Julian instead reminded me of manga like Let Dai (the angst in that series is wow) or j-dramas like Utsukushii Kare, or books such If We Were Villains, Summer Sons, Belladonna, The Wicker King or Apartment.
Will I ever be brave or foolish enough to read this novel a third time?
(spoilers: she was an idiot so…)

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey — book review

25746685.jpgWays to Disappear tries hard to evoke the absurd and surreal atmosphere that is often associated with Latin American magical realism, the end result makes for a rather dismal homage. The lack of quotations marks and the inclusion of word definitions hardly make Ways to Disappear innovative. A nondescript American translator flies to Brazil after Beatriz Yagoda, a ‘brilliant’ writer, disappears having been last spotted climbing into a tree. The translator’s relationship to Beatriz is opaque at best. Their relationship was clearly no ordinary author/translator relationship but I never got an impression that Emma (aka the American) was concerned for Beatriz. She wants a reason to leave her unmemorable fiancée. In Brazil ruffles the feathers of Beatriz’s daughter (who quite rightfully wonders why Emma has inserted herself in her mother’s life) and predictably ends up entangled with the author’s ‘sexy’ son (his one defining quality is that he is ‘smooth’, a ‘lover’….which is kind of stereotypical). The plot goes nowhere, the characters fight amongst themselves, and make skin-deep realisations.
The only redeeming quality of this novel is its short length. Other than that…it offers little (if anything): the characters are unfunny caricatures, Brazil is simplistically painted as being hot and corrupt, and the story, if we can call it such, was a combination of meaningless and slapdash.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett — book review

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“I was still at a point in my life when the house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.”

Not Quite a Review, More of an Ode to Ann Patchett:

Usually I tend to post my reviews a couple of days after I’ve finished reading a book. With The Dutch House it took me nearly two weeks to work up the ‘courage’ to review it. The fact is that I loved The Dutch House so much that I find hard to see it as a ‘mere’ work of fiction.
This is the eight novel that I’ve read by Ann Patchett and she has yet to disappoint. It is difficult to ‘pick’ a favourite, even if I can see that throughout the course of her writing career she has really honed her craft. Yet, I wholeheartedly loved her early books (especially her unjustly underrated 1997 novel, The Magician’s Assistant), so to imply that she ‘keeps getting better’ would be doing her a disservice. Regardless of the scope of her stories (whether they take place in a short period of time in a particular city, such as in Run, or move us between two ‘extremes’, in The Magician’s Assistant we move between Los Angeles and Nebraska, or take us on even longer journey, for instance in State of Wonder we follow Dr. Marina Singh’s as she leaves Minnesota for the Amazon Rainforest) Patchett tends to explore the same themes: there is a focus on familial relationships, especially between siblings, and these established dynamics are often changed due to some ‘major’ event (often the death of a loved one/relative/colleague). Although The Dutch House is written in Patchett’s signature prose, which can be described as being deceptively simple it features a first-person perspective, which is a departure from her usual third-person point of view. Being inside Danny Conroy’s head makes for an immersive experience and within the first pages I was captivated by his story.
Through an act of retrospection Danny looks back to the past and what follows is a narrative that could be described as a bildungsroman. Danny’s childhood in the Dutch House—a large, if not incongruous, mansion in a prosperous suburb of Philadelphia—is clouded by the absence of his mother (a woman he cannot clearly recall but whose absence he nonetheless feels) and by his relationship with his remote father. It is Maeve, Danny’s older sister, who takes on the role of ‘parental’ figure, and their relationship is very much the underlying thread of the story.

The Dutch House, weighed down by its history, inspires fascination in Andrea, the woman who will go on to become Danny and Maeve’s step-mother. The novel begins in fact with Danny’s memory of his first meeting with Andrea, one that seems to have almost a fairy-tale-esque quality in that it was the day where ‘everything’ seemed to change.
Throughout Danny’s narrative we will also see the way in which the Conroy siblings remain drawn to the house, a house which seems to acquire an emblematic role in the lives of those who have lived in: it represents their childhoods, their father—his career, his marriage(s)—and the rather unfortunate VanHoebeeks. Patchett renders this house without loosing herself in extensive architectural descriptions, rather she brings to the foreground some of its features (Maeve’s windowseat) and some of its objects. The paintings within the house (Maeve’s portrait and those of the VanHoebeeks) also seem to hold a certain function in Danny’s recollection of his past.

“Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library, and master bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts. The house, complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.”

In his remembrance Danny frequently makes vague, if not downright oblique, allusions to later events or revelations, which in turn creates tension between his past and present. Also framing Danny’s recollection of his youth are a series of scenes in which alongside Maeve, he sits in her car outside the Dutch House.
Danny also questions the veracity of his memories: “But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.” He reassess certain moments and figures of his past, finding hidden complexities in what had at first appeared to be seemingly unremarkable occurrences.

“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”

While the novel is narrated by Danny he never paints himself as the ‘hero’ of his own story. He often wonders whether he should have acted in a different way towards someone or something, trying to understand why things unfurled the way that they did. While the motivations of other characters might escape him, and possibly us, they are never reduced to a certain role/function. The each have a story even if we are not always made privy to it. An although there is an awareness of the limitations provided by Danny’s narration, the story never feels restricted to his experiences and worldview.

“Whatever romantic notions I might have harbored, whatever excuses or allowances my heart had ever made on her behalf, blew out like a match.”

My edition of this novel includes an essay in which Ann Patchett says that “for a long time I had planned to call the book Maeve as it was her story.” The novel, in fact, very much pivots around Maeve but it is her brother who is telling her tale.
We see the way in which their experiences in the Dutch House makes them determined to fulfil their desires or to take a certain path in their life: for Danny that is to become, as his father before him, a real-estate developer, while Maeve wants to carry on working a job she loves even if many consider her to be overqualified to do. While to some degree Danny’s vision of Maeve influences our perception of her, we are always aware that she may have hidden qualities. What is certainly undeniable is her love for her brother. Their bond is portrayed with such frankness and poignancy as to become vividly real in the reader’s mind.
This a story full of beauty and sorrow. There are regrets, wonderful reflections on memory, moments that are brimming with love or sadness…Patchett spins a tale in which families fall apart or come together. It is an intimate depiction of the bond between two siblings. Time and again Danny draws strength from his relationship to his sister, and even when he begins to feel unmoored from his own life, and as he struggles trying to reconcile himself with his past, Maeve provides him with a sense of belonging.
Patchett’s sense of place is as detailed and evocative as ever. She seamlessly renders midcentury America through Danny’s narration, evoking within me a sense of nostalgia for a country I’ve never even been to. And while Danny’s story spans decades, it maintains its focus on the same group of people, painting an intimate portrait of Danny’s friends and family.
…to put it simply I fell in love with it. Patchett’s harmonious prose made the experience all the more beautiful, and I was so enthralled by her story and her characters that to I struggled to think of them as works of fiction.
What more can I say? I think this is a masterpiece.

“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we’d kept it going for so long, not that we had decided to stop.”

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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