Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Cloud-Atlas-esque novels seem to be all the rage in 2022…

“This place is precarious, that’s the only word for it. It’s the lightest sketch of civilizations, caught between the forest and the sea. He doesn’t belong here”

This is my third novel by Mandel and once again I have rather conflicting thoughts and feelings about her work. On the one hand, I recognize how talented a writer she is. Her prose has this cool yet delicate quality to it that brought to mind authors such as Hanya Yanagihara and Ann Patchett . I always found myself appreciating her subtle storytelling and her ability to make her characters retain a certain unknowability. I also find her use of imagery to be highly effective in that these motifs add a certain nostalgic atmosphere to her settings. So much so that I often read of her characters and or the landscapes which she writes of with a strong sense of Deja Vu. Maybe because Mandel often returns to the same issues or even goes so far as to refer to the same characters in seemingly unconnected/stand-alone books (a la mandel-multiverse). Here this sense of familiarity with her characters and their struggles is very fitting indeed given the story’s ‘crucial’ theme.

“[T]hese moments that had arisen one after another after another, worlds fading out so gradually that their loss was apparent only in retrospect.”

The book opens in 1912. Edwin St. Andrew is but a young English lad who after angering his father for the last time has been banished to the ‘new world’. His attempts at making a go of things in Canada don’t quite go as smoothly as he’d hoped. There are some stunning descriptions of the landscapes here and there was something about Edwin that appealed to me. There was almost an otherworldly feel to this section, partly due to the remoteness and vastness of Edwin’s new ‘home’ (i am not at all familiar with that type of environment hence my finding it surreal). This section comes to a close with Edwin witnessing something quite Other.
We then are reunited with a side character from The Glass Hotel. It’s corona-time and Mirella (Vincent’s ‘friend’) has yet to fully recover from the death of her partner and the whole Ponzi fallout. She has a girlfriend but we learn virtually nothing about her or their relationship as this section is more of an ode to Vincent. FYI, I hated Vincent in The Glass Hotel. She was the reason why I didn’t really love that book, and, understandably then, I was not particularly enthusiastic when I realized that she would play a role here as well. Even if she is not on the ‘page’, her presence saturates much of Mirella’s narrative, to the point where it struck me as a bit unfair to Mirella herself. She’s an interesting character in her own right and yet we don’t really get to focus on her. Paul, Vincent’s brother, makes an appearance but his character here didn’t strike me as particularly nuanced. It turns out that Vincent too is connected to the bizarre phenomenon witnessed by Edwin and once again the narrative makes much of her ‘art’ (coughbanal-as-it-is). That the narrative includes Mirella unfavourably comparing her gf to Vincent was kind of a joke. It really cemented why I did not like Vincent, to begin with. I am sick of Not Like Other People type of characters.
The following section is set in the 2200s. Here we learn that some people now live on colonies on the moon, one of them is this famous author named Olive Llewellyn. She’s now on a book tour on Earth where she discusses her hit book which is, surprise surprise, about a pandemic. During her tour however Olive becomes preoccupied with the news about an actual pandemic…Olive struck me as a self-insert. There were so many lines that just came across as if they were coming from Mandel herself. Particularly the questions about what it feels like to have written a pandemic novel when there is an actual pandemic etc…I find this sort of stuff cringe and there was something slightly self-congratulatory and ‘special about Olive that just made it really hard for me to even believe in her (she was a bit of Vincent 2.0). Additionally, this section is set in the 2200s and I did not buy into it. Moon colonies aside the future envisioned here was not particularly thought out. Many inconsistencies have to do with the tech available (people still have devices?) and the way the characters spoke was just too contemporary, almost old-fashioned even (i could all too easily imagine someone saying ‘old chap’). This worked for the sections before but here it was just prevented me from fully immersing myself in the events being narrated. The discussions about pandemics, epidemics, and writing about these things, were rather contrived, which again, pulled me out of the story. It turns out that Olive also is connected to the bizarre phenomenon witnessed by Edwin and Vincent.

The final section is set in the 2400s and once again the world described here did not feel particularly ‘futuristic’. While the author does include one or two details that remind us that the people from this century write and speak differently to say now, these were not enough to establish a believable setting. Anyhow, here we follow Gaspery-Jacques Roberts who is a fairly bland character. The most interesting about him is of course his name. His sister is yet another Not Like Other People type of character (there is something about Mandel’s female characters that really annoys me…). She works for this ‘mysterious’ institution and eventually, Gaspery finds himself joining her ranks. He is assigned a mission: to find out more about the anomaly connecting Edwin, Vincent, and Olive. I was hoping that we would return to the previous perspectives, such as Edwin and Mirella, but the narrative from this point onward favours Gaspery. There was a very funny lil scene about his cat, but for the most part, his story struck me as vaguely predictable. The man was bland and the moral dilemma he faces was handled in a rather simplistic and hurried way.

It would have been nice for the timelines set in the 2200s and the 2400s to be less heteronormative and gender-normative. We get a queer character and a sapphic side character but that’s kind of it (if memory serves). There were some interesting themes at play in the book such as human connection and loneliness, empathy and choice. I appreciated the motifs that were interspersed throughout these interconnected narratives, as they consolidated the connection between these seemingly unconnected people. The conversations around pandemics were rather been-there-done-that kind of thing. I actually believe that they would have suited to an article more than this type of piece of fiction. I did find the execution to be ultimately disappointing. While the truth behind this anomaly wasn’t ‘shocking’ I did like the way it was played out. I do wish however that we could have spent more time with the characters we were introduced to early on in the book (rather than sticking to mr. boring and the cringy self-insert).
As you can probably tell by my somewhat incoherent review I feel rather conflicted about this book. Mandel’s prose is chief’s kiss. Her characters and her story however were a bit of a flop. I would have liked for the ‘anomaly’ to retain a certain mystery rather than it being explained away. I think I preferred the subtle magical realism of The Glass Hotel than the more sci-fi elements that were at play here, which were 1) not really convincing and 2) a bit sci-fi 101.

I would definitely recommend it to Mandel fans (my mother among them). If you are, like me, not entirely ‘sold’ on her work well, it seems unlikely that this will be the one to win you over (then again, i might be wrong here).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

It would be safe to say that I do have a bit of an uneasy relationship with Murakami’s work. I read and was not blown away by it. Over the last couple of months, I have picked up several of his short story collections but never felt compelled to finish them. The main reason why I do not get on with his work is that, well, his women are on a league of their own when it comes to female characters written by male authors. I cringed many times while reading Sputnik Sweetheart: his portrayal of the romantic/sexual relationship between Sumire and Miu, the two women at the centre of the narrative, was yikes. It often went from being slightly ridiculous to straight-up ludicrous. That he chooses to tell their story through ‘K’, our male straight narrator, is also somewhat iffy. While K acknowledges that it may be unusual for him to tell Sumire’s love story, he doesn’t provide a particularly satisfying answer. I mean, I honestly think this could have been a much stronger novel if the narrative had alternated between Sumire and Miu. Anyway, we are stuck with K and his creepy male gaze. When we first meet him he is a college student who has fallen in love with Sumire, who is very much the classic Murakami female character, in that she’s Not Like Other Girls. She’s messy and in the throes of an existentialist crisis. She often confides in K about her fears and desire, and he takes on the role of listener, never revealing anything particularly substantial about himself, keeping readers and Sumire at arm’s length. He often recounts Sumire’s experiences from her point of view, which obviously necessitates our suspension of disbelief, given that he would really have no way of being able to provide such detailed descriptions of her experiences, let alone her inner feelings. Anyway, K gives us an impression of what kind of person Sumire is, her somewhat skewed worldview, and speaks of her writerly aspirations. Eventually, Sumire reveals to him that for the first time in her life she has fallen in love. K is disappointed to learn that he is not the person in question and that Sumire has fallen for Miu, an older businesswoman of Korean heritage. Sumire begins to act in a way that Miu approves of, changing her style etc. to earn Miu’s favor. As Sumire begins to work for Miu, her feelings intensify to the point where she is no longer able to contain her emotions. During a work trip to an island on the coast of Greece Sumire disappears. Miu contacts K and he travels there. Although Miu tells him of the events that led to Sumire’s ‘vanishing’, the two struggle to make sense of what led Sumire to just disappear. Here in classic Murakami fashion things take a surreal route, as the line between dreams and reality becomes increasingly blurry. There are feverish visions that lead to life-altering consequences, hypnotic dreams, and, of course, inexplicable disappearances. The ‘intimate’ cast of characters does result in fairly charged dynamics between Sumire, Miu, and K. K, of course, did serve a somewhat unnecessary role but by the end, I could see why someone as lonely as Sumire would find comfort in his continued presence. They have bizarre conversations about human nature, love, sex, and so forth, and some of these were fairly engaging. Overall, Murakami certainly succeeds in creating and maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere and a melancholy mood. The late 90s setting casts a nostalgic haze over the events being recounted by K. I just wish that Murakami’s depiction of women and lesbians wasn’t so corny. From the way he describes women’s pubic hair to his strongly held belief that women are obsessed by their breasts (particularly nipples), to his dubious comments and takes on same-sex love….well, it was not for me. I found his language turgid in these instances, either funny in a that’s-idiotic-kind-of-way or just plain gross.

There are other classic Murakami elements: characters who love talking about literature, jazz bars, and classical music. While K is more mysterious than his usual male characters he was not exactly an improvement model. He has some rapey thoughts and instincts that were definitely off-putting. Miu’s strange ‘affliction’ is also quite out there and I found Sumire’s attempts at a ‘declaration’ to be problematic indeed as it bordered on sexual assault. But if you can put up with dated and frequently icky content Sputnik Sweetheart does present readers with an immersive tale of yearning and loneliness. I appreciated the storyline’s unresolved nature and the sense of surreality that permeates it. I will probably read more by Murakami but I will do so when I am in the right state of mind to put up with his peculiar sexism.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton

this is my fault. i should know by now that titles claiming to have dark academia or sapphic vibes should be approached with extreme caution.

DISCLAIMER: I did not like this book and my review reflects of that. I will be brutally honest about my thoughts on this novel so if you want to read this or if this book happens to be on your ‘radar’ I recommend you check out more positive reviews. If you loved this book, I am happy for you but please don’t tell me I’m wrong for disagreeing with you.


Affected and self-important The World Cannot Give makes for a singularly insipid read. Its biggest ‘sin’ is that it tries to be the dark academia equivalent of Not Like Other Girls. For all its attempts at being ‘not like’ other dark academia books, The World Cannot Give was one of the most generic books I’ve read in a very long time. From its poorly rendered setting to its wafer-thin characters, The World Cannot Give reads like a been-there-done-that boarding school novel. This is the kind of novel that thinks it is a lot smarter than it is (in reality it is as intellectually deep as a puddle, of the shallow variety). For all its attempts at intertextuality and self-awareness (we have few throwaway lines on the dangers of romanticizing elitist institutions and idealizing the past and historical figures), it has nothing substantial or new to say. The author’s writing style and the tone of her narrative brought to mind two novels that I am not fond of, The Silent Patient and An Anonymous Girl. If you liked them chances are you will have a more positive reading experience with The World Cannot Give than I was.
If you like cheesy shows such as Riverdale or self-dramatizing books such as Plain Bad Heroines ,Belladonna, A Lesson in Vengeance, Vicious Little Darlings, Good Girls Lie (where characters are prone to angsty theatricals) you may be able to actually enjoy The World Cannot Give.
As I warned above, this review is going to be harsh so if you aren’t keen on reading negative reviews you should really give this review a miss.

minor spoilers below

STORY/PLOT
Contrary to what the blurb says, The World Cannot Give is no ‘The Girls meets Fight Club’. Nor is it a satisfying ‘coming-of-age novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence. And the only ‘shocking’ thing about it is that it is shockingly bad. On the lines of, how was this even published?
The first page is misleadingly promising. I liked the opening line and that whole first paragraph. Alas, with each new page, my high hopes dwindled.
Laura is on her way to St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine. She’s ecstatic about attending this school because she hero-worships Sebastian Webster who used to go there in the 1930s. Angsty Webster wrote this book about the “sclerotic modern world” and the “shipwreck of the soul” and goes on and on about wanting to be “World-Historical”. Webster died at 19 fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Anyway, our sensitive Laura is enthralled by his writings and his fake-deep ideas so of course, she wants to study where he did. She gets to St. Dunstan goes to her room and meets two girls who from this scene onwards will not change. That is, this one scene establishes their one-note characters. There is Freddy who is a tertiary sort of character who just glares, snorts, scowls, and grimaces because that’s the kind of mean-ish one-dimensional sidekick she is. Then there is Bonnie who is all about her followers and using her boarding school as a prop for her dark academia inspired videos & photos. Laura eventually goes to the school’s chapel (Webster is buried there and there is a statue in his honour in that area) and she hears the choir. Her spirit is so moved by what she experiences at the chapel that she feels lifted to a higher plane of existence or something. But wait, the choir is rudely interrupted by a girl with a shaved head who is a queer feminist who is just like so done with the institution and wants to abolish mandatory church attendance. Laura, our innocent, is shooketh by her actions and somehow, despite her wishy-washy personality, ingratiates herself with the choir president, Virginia. We learn virtually nothing more about the school, nor do we get any real insight into how Laura’s classes are going, what she’s studying, her teachers, their methods…Laura joins the choir and what follows is a lot of scenes that are just filler leading up to the real ‘conflict’. The choir, this ‘clique’, did not make for interesting people, consequently, I was bored by the limited banter that didn’t reveal anything significant about them or their surroundings. Laura is Virginia’s lapdog, so she starts emulating whatever Virginia does (comparing herself to other literary sidekicks), Virginia spends her time ranting about the ‘sclerotic world’, her aversion towards matters of the flesh, and bemoaning the ye olden days and is mad that she has to be in the proximity of so many sinners. She also doesn’t want Brad, who is also in the choir, and Bonnie to be together. Brad is loyal to Virginia so he is conflicted. Bonnie is in love with Brad for reasons. And why the hell not at this point. The only ones in the choir who came across as devoted to Webster, his ‘insights’ into the ills of the modern world, were Laura and Virginia. But they just have the same conversations about this guy. They don’t expand on his views, they merely reiterate the term ‘World-Historical’ and his other catchphrases. Anyway, time goes by and eventually things come to head when Bonnie decides to encroach on Virginia’s territory (the chapel) as retaliation for her interfering in her love life (instead of taking issue with Brad…ugh). Isobel, the queer feminist, comes into play but her presence is very much kept off-page. Virginia becomes increasingly fanatical and decides to go all Old Testament God on the people who have betrayed her or revealed that they are not ‘virtuous’ (quelle surprise…).

TONE/WRITING
You see the cover, you read the blurb, you come across someone comparing this to Donna Tartt (comparing book such as this to the secret history should be made into a punishable offence…ahem, i’m jesting of course), you think, this is going to be DEEP and possibly even intellectual and emotionally stimulating. You are, of course, dead wrong. This book reads like a spoof. But not a fully committed one. It actually reminded me of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. There the narrative makes fun of the heroine for wanting to be in a Gothic novel and seeing the world through Gothic-tinted lenses and overdramatising everything. This is exactly it. Except, it also takes itself seriously…kind of? The writing and tone try to mirror the way Laura sees the world. She yearns for Webster and, like Virginia, finds the present-day intolerable. So the writing uses this exaggerated and self-dramatizing language reminiscent of historical novels. Some of these are actually decent. But then we get a lot of short sentences and exclamations marks. This kind of style can work. For instance, in Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia, which actually happens to be a far superior boarding-school book exploring queer desire. The language there is very high-flown but it worked because Strachey could write some truly beautiful and playful passages.
Here the writing verges on the ridiculous and more often than not it comes across as just plain bad. We had clumsy, inharmonious, and even cheesy sentences: “Barry Ng blushes at this. Virginia glares at him. Brad sighs a long and heavy sigh.”; “She looks from Brad to Bonnie and back again. Brad sighs a long and exhausted sigh.”; “Shame floods Laura’s face; she curdles it into fury.” (lol); ““One choir. One family.” Her smile twitches.” (twitching smiles? what is this? fanfic i wrote at 15?); “Her smile glints.” (ugh); “Virginia didn’t know. Virginia couldn’t have known. Virginia would never. Virginia always would. Of course, of course, Virginia would.”; “Isobel is wrong, Laura tells herself. Isobel has to be wrong. Isobel’s just jealous; Isobel has no sense of transcendence;”. And these are just a few examples…the writing & tone did nothing for me. Very few writers can make third person present tense work and Burton isn’t one of them I’m afraid…
I struggled to take it seriously and even if it was intentionally trying to be satirical, well, even then I would have found it ridiculous.

THEMES/ ‘IDEOLOGY’
Like I said above this book tries to be different from other boarding schools/dark academia books by referencing the rise in popularity that dark academia aesthetics & media have had in the last few years…but that doesn’t result automatically in a thought-provoking commentary on the dangers of romanticism elitist institutions such as universities and or private schools. One of the two only poc characters in the story has a few lines that highlight how institutions like St. Duncan are built on inequality and that we should be more critical about those Old White Men who likely committed Bad Things and should not be therefore uncritically revered. Yeah fair enough. But that’s it. Laura and Virginia spend the whole bloody book going on about the ‘sclerotic modern world’ and are contemptuous of anyone who isn’t in awe of Webster. They believe in God..sort of? For all their talk about sins and transcendence, I was not at all convinced that they even had a strong relationship to their faith. Virginia wants to be baptized, but her decision to do so is made sus because she’s portrayed as sort of unhinged so she truly isn’t ‘genuine’. Laura instead is more mellow about her faith so I don’t understand why she would Virginia’s fanatical rants to be of any appeal. You do you babe and all that but come on…Virginia wasn’t even a charismatic orator. Their ideology actually brought to mind the kids from The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Like those lil creeps, Virginia and Laura find the modern world to be disgusting. They particularly don’t get why people are obsessed with sex. They merely want to transcend their bodies and reach a higher, more enlightened plane of existence. I think the author was trying to do her own version of “Beauty is terror” but yikes. It just came across as stagy. Additionally, I found it annoying that characters who could have been on the aroace spectrum are actually just ‘repressed’.
Anyway, this book had nothing interesting to say about faith, romanticizing the past, or the dangers of idealizing the ones you care for.
The story towards the end takes a weird route in that it becomes all about how boys/men exploit women and betray their trusts by sharing explicit photos and videos of their gf or sex partners with their male friends and this plotline worsened the already existing disconnect between the tone and the content of the book.

CHARACTERS/RELATIONSHIPS
I understand that people are incongruent but these characters did not make bloody sense. They were extremely one-note and then for plot-reasons they would do something really random. Laura is boring and annoying. I can cope with characters who are obsessed with a friend or who are introverted or even naive. But Laura was just embarrassing. Her devotion to Virginia lacked substance. Their dynamic was uneventful. Bonnie was depicted in a purposely grating way and grated my nerves. Isobel was gay and a feminist and stands against the bullshit Virginia and Laura believe in. That’s it. The boys are either milquetoast assholes who don’t see the problem in sharing nudes or doing whatever Virginia says because why not. There is this one guy in the choir who exists just to say ‘that’s cringe’ or ‘that’s completely cringe’.
Virginia was the worst offender. She had no redeeming qualities but we were meant to feel some degree of sympathy towards her. Come on. She wasn’t a convincing or compelling character. I didn’t find her an intriguing or cryptic mystery. She was nasty and I didn’t like that everything she does or says is basically chalked up to her being a total religious zealot. All of her reactions are so extreme as to make her into a caricature more than a person. I didn’t like the way her eating disorder was portrayed as it
The obsession and desire promised by the blurb were just not really there. I mean, yeah, the girl was obsessed but there was something perfunctory about it. The sapphic yearning I was hoping to find in these pages was largely absent. There is a f/f couple, but they had barely any scenes and they had 0 chemistry whatsoever. They came across as friends or sisters even. Then we are meant to believe that someone like Isobel would fall for Virginia because they shared a past? Surely Isobel, who is supposedly clever, would be a bit sus about Virginia’s sudden change of heart. Also, shouldn’t Virginia’s decline in her physical and mental health be a red flag of sorts? Shouldn’t Isobel have shown more concern over Virginia’s state of mind?

SETTING
0 sense of place. There are barely any descriptions of the school and very few passages detailing the nearby landscapes. The novel takes place nowadays I guess but there were barely any contemporary references. This could have worked if then we didn’t have a plotline involving Bonnie’s online following, sexting, or even certain terms (such as cringe) being used. It just took me out of the story as the majority of the narrative and dialogues were trying to conjure an ‘old’ timeless vibe. I think if the novel had had a historical setting it would have actually worked in its favour. Its modern social commentary after all is very half-arsed and had a vague tokenistic vibe to it (isobel existing just to oppose the establishment etc.).

I’m going to recommend a few books that in my opinion do what this book tries to do a lot better: Frost in May (coming of age, all-girl school, Catholicism), Abigail (coming of age, WWII Hungary, all-girl school, fraught friendships), Old School (all-boys schools, jealousy, ambition, privilege, self-knowledge), Sweet Days of Discipline (queer desire, obsession, order vs. chaos, all-girl school), The Inseparables (all-girl school, obsession, queer desire, Catholicism),These Violent Delights (college, obsession, toxic relationships, queer desire), Olivia (all-girl school, France 1890s, unrequited love, queer desire), A Great and Terrible Beauty (fantasy, fraught friendships, all-girl schools, f/f side), Passing (jealousy, race, queer repressed desire), Ninth House (dark academia, Yale, urban fantasy, tackles privilege, corruption, misogyny), The Wicker King (dark academia vibes, queer desire, obsession, toxic relationships).

Maybe if this novel had gone truly committed to being a parody, and upped the camp factor, maybe then I would have found it a little bit amusing. But it didn’t so nope, this novel did not work for me at all. The story was stupid, the characters were either bland or neurotic (in a really exaggerated, possibly problematic, way), the themes were poorly developed and relied on the usage of a few certain key terms (without delving into what this term truly means), the sapphic element was largely absent…you get the gist by now. I actually wish I’d dnfed but I hoped that it would improve along the way. When will I learn the lesson? A beautiful cover doth not make for a good book.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Either/Or by Elif Batuman

This sequel needs a sequel.

“Was this the decisive moment of my life? It felt as if the gap that had dogged me all my days was knitting together before my eyes—so that, from this point on, my life would be as coherent and meaningful as my favorite books. At the same time, I had a powerful sense of having escaped something: of having finally stepped outside the script.”

In Either/Or we are reunited with Selin as she continues to navigate the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Now a sophomore student at Harvard, Selin has plenty to keep her occupied: her studies inspire her to question the choices she and others have made, the direction of her life, the meaning of love, sex, and connection, the limitations of language, and, of course, her relationship with Ivan, the Hungarian student whose mind remains to Selin, and by extension us, as unreadable as ever. Did she care for her at all?

There was something abstract and gentle about the experience of being ignored—a feeling of being spared, a known impossibility of anything happening—that was consonant with my understanding of love.

Selin’s propensity for long asides is as present as ever and I loved losing myself in her inner monologue. Her long acts of introspections do often come across as navel-gazing (curiously enough the narrative itself mentions navel-gazing), but I never felt bored or annoyed by it. If anything, Selin’s solipsistic inclination for self-interrogation made her all the more realistic. That she refers to books, music, films, and authors to make sense of herself and others results in a deeply intratextual narrative that will definitely appeal to literary students. While Selin isn’t wholly enamoured by academia, we can see how her studies and the books she reads inform the way she understands her world and those who populate it. She often draws parallels between her own life and those of historical and fictional figures. Some of the authors/artists/etc. she mentions include: Kazuo Ishiguro, Fiona Apple, Charles Baudelaire, Pushkin, Shakespeare, André Breton, and of course, Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

“There was something about crying so much, the way it made my body so limp and hot and shuddering, that made me feel closer to sex. Maybe there was a line where sex and total sadness touched—one of those surprising borders that turned out to exist, like the one between Italy and Slovenia. Music, too, was adjacent. It was like Trieste, which was Italian and Slovenian and also somehow Austrian.”

Of course, at times these books and figures only add further confusion, so Selin is unsure whether she’s idealizing herself and others so that her life can resemble those she encounters in fiction. More often than not knowledge fails her, so she’s unable to decipher not only the motivations of others but her own true feelings.
Her writerly aspirations too preoccupy her and so do the changes that come about in her life. Selin’s intense friendship and rivalry with ​​Svetlana is threatened when the latter finds a boyfriend. Her roommates too have plenty of things that keep them occupied so Selin finds herself going to parties where she meets less than ideal men. Yet even as Selin forms sexual relationships with them, she longs for Ivan and obsesses over what his infrequent emails leave unsaid.

“It seemed to me that the elements whirling around me in my own life were also somehow held in place by Ivan’s absence, or were there because of him—to counterbalance a void.”

Either/Or shares the same structure with The Idiot so we follow Selin month by month during her academic year before tagging alongside her as she once again goes abroad for the summer. In Turkey she finds herself forming unexpected connections but remains somewhat remote to them.

Sardonic and adroit Either/Or makes for a fantastic read. While Selin does change over the course of her sophomore year, she also remains very much herself. She can be reserved and slightly baffling at times, and yet she’s also capable of making some very insightful or relatable comments. She’s intelligent, somewhat naive, and has a penchant for overthinking and obsessing over minor things. Her deadpan sense of humor and little idiosyncrasies make her character really pop out of the page. I could definitely relate to her many many uncertainties, as well as her fixation with understanding the person who never seemed to reciprocate her feelings.

The one that started “Days like this, I don’t know what to do with myself” made me feel certain that I had spent my whole life not knowing what to do with myself—all day, and all night. “I wander the halls . . .” That was exactly it: not the streets, like a flâneur, but the halls. Oh, I knew just which halls.

As I mentioned already over the course of her second year at Harvard Selin grows into a more self-assured person while also remaining strangely static. Her mental meanderings often included reflections on things such as desirability, belonging, love, heartbreak, self-fulfilment, choice & chance, and I found her perspective on these things deeply compelling. At times her mind is preoccupied with mundane thoughts, at times she loses herself in philosophical and existentialist questions about human nature.
Batuman’s inclusion of the minutiae of her protagonist’s life (such as inserting a tampon: “I tried again to put in a tampon. ABSOLUTELY NO FUCKING WAY.”) made Selin’s reality at Harvard all the more vivid. I could easily envision the different environments she occupies, as well as the people who inhabit those places. This combined with the mumblecore dialogues and Selin’s recursive inner monologue, which borders on being a stream of consciousness, give Either/Or quality of hyperrealism. That is, even when confronted with moments of surreality or scenes of a comedic nature, I believed completely in what I was reading. A sense of 90s nostalgia permeates her story which adds to the narrative’s overall atmosphere and aesthetic.

“It was the golden time of year. Every day the leaves grew brighter, the air sharper, the grass more brilliant. The sunsets seemed to expand and melt and stretch for hours, and the brick façades glowed pink, and everything blue got bluer. How many perfect autumns did a person get? Why did I seem always to be in the wrong place, listening to the wrong music?”

I loved this novel so thoroughly that I was sad to reach its inevitable conclusion. I hope with all my heart that Batuman will write a third instalment where we will follow Selin during her third year at Harvard.
If you enjoyed The Idiot chances us you will, like me, love this even more (perhaps because batuman is expanding on the ‘universe’ she already established). If you are a fan of the young-alienated-women subgenre you should definitely consider picking these series up.

My eternal gratitude to the publisher for providing me with an arc.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami

Previously to reading All the Lovers in the Night, I’d read Breasts and Eggs, Heaven, and Ms. Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami. While I was not ‘fond’ of Breasts and Eggs, I did find her other books to be compelling. As the premise for All the Lovers in the Night did bring to mind Breasts and Eggs, I was worried that I would have a similarly ‘negative’ reading experience. Thankfully, I found All the Lovers in the Night to be insightful and moving. Even more so than Kawakami’s other works, All the Lovers in the Night adheres to a slice-of-life narrative. Yet, in spite of this, the story is by no means light-hearted or superficial. Kawakami approaches difficult topics with this deceptively simple storytelling. She renders the loneliness and anxiety of her central character with clarity and even empathy. Thirty-something Fuyuko Irie leads a solitary life working from home as a freelance copy editor. Her inward nature led her former colleagues to single her out, and she was made to feel increasingly uncomfortable at her workplace. Working from home Fuyuko is able to avoid interacting with others, and seems content with her quiet existence. Fuyuko receives much of her work from Hijiri, an editor who is the same age as her but is very extroverted and possesses a forceful personality. Hijiri, for reasons unknown to Fuyuko, regularly keeps in touch with her and seems to consider her a friend. Perhaps their differences cause Fuyuko to begin questioning her lifestyle. Compared to her glamorous friend, Fuyuko sees herself, to borrow Jane Eyre’s words, as “obscure, plain and little”. But venturing outside the comfort of her home has become difficult for Fuyuko. To work up the courage she begins drinking alcohol, even if her body doesn’t respond well to it. She eventually begins going to a cafe with an older man. While the two speak of nothing much, they seem happy to exchange tentative words with one another.
I can see that this is not the type of novel that will appeal to those readers who are keen on plot-driven stories. However, if you are looking for an affecting character study, look no further. Through Fuyuko’s story, the author addresses how Japanese society sees and treats women who are deemed no longer ‘young’. Marriage, motherhood, and a career seem to be the requirements for many Japanese women. Those like Fuyuko are considered outside of the norm and because of this, they find themselves alienated from others. Fuyuko’s self-esteem is badly affected by this to the point where she feels that she has to go outside her comfort zone, even if the only way to do so is through inebriation. At a certain point, I was worried that Kawakami would make Hijiri into the classic fake/mean female character who is portrayed as aggressive, promiscuous, and a woman-hater to boot. Thankfully that was not the case. While Hijiri is not necessarily a likeable person Kawakami doesn’t paint her as a one-dimensional bitch and her relationship with Fuyuko isn’t sidetracked in favour of the romantic subplot. And yes, on the ‘romance’…I will say that this man wasn’t as nuanced as Fuyuko. I found him slightly boring and generic. I did like that the relationship between the two forms has a very slow build-up to it and the ending will certainly subvert many readers’ expectations.
Anyway, overall I rather enjoyed this. I liked the melancholic mood permeating Fuyuko’s story, the descriptions of Tokyo, the mumblecore dialogues, the way Kawakami articulates Fuyuko’s discomfort, anxiety, etc. Now and again there were even moments of humour and absurdity that alleviated Fuyuko’s more depressing experiences. I also appreciated the novel’s open-ended nature, which added an extra layer of realism to Fuyuko’s story. While some of Fuyuko’s actions aren’t given a ‘why’ or closely inspected, as we read on we begin to understand more fully her various state of mind and how these affect her behaviour.
While the dialogues did have a realistic rhythm, the secondary characters (who usually did most of the talking given that our main character isn’t a talker) did tend to go on very long and weirdly specific monologues that seemed at times incredibly random or oddly revealing. This is something I noticed in other works by Kawakami. Secondary characters go on endless rants or whatnot while our main character gives little to no input. It seems a bit unusual that Fuyumu would come across so many people who are willing to go on these very long monologues that reveal personal stuff. Even so, I did find the majority of the dialogues to be effective.
All the Lovers in the Night is a work of subtle beauty and I look forward to revisiting it again in the future.

re-read: the narrative possess a quality of impermanence that is truly rare in literature. i love the attention that the author gives to Fuyuko’s various environments and the incredibly tactile descriptions. the way the author writes about light reminded me of Yūko Tsushima. i loved re-reading this and i really appreciated how the author prioritises female relationships in this narrative. the relationships and interactions between the various women within this narrative are by no means positive or easy but they speak of the kind of images and norms that their families, communities, and society have inculcated into them. additionally, the author shows how women can perpetuate misogynistic views and attitudes (casting judgement on how other women dress, their sex lives, their marital status) as well how all-consuming and toxic female friendships can be. Fuyuko’s unwillingness to conform to widely accepted ideals of womanhood and her (partly) self-imposed isolation brought to mind Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe. additionally, the way kawakami navigates her loneliness and creativity reminded me of Lily King’s Writers & Lovers.
despite the issues addressed within the narrative—sexual assault, alcoholism, misogyny, alienation—Fuyuko’s voice has this lulling rhythm that made it easy for me to become immersed by what i was reading. while in my original review i criticised the novel for its ‘monologues’ this second time around i actually found these far more credible as it was easy to see why people would open up to Fuyuko. sad and wistful, All the Lovers in the Night ultimately struck me as luminous character analysis that captures with bittersweet accuracy the realities of leading a lonely existence, missed connections, and the long-lasting repercussions of traumatic experiences.

my rating: ★★

The Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa

The Cat and The Travelling Cat Chronicles makes for a quick and wholesome read that will definitely appeal to bibliophiles. Like other fantasy coming-of-age tales, this novel features a talking animal who enlists our human protagonists in an adventure and acts as a guide of sorts into the magical world. Rintaro Natsuki, our protagonist, is a particularly introverted boy who sees himself as a hikikomori. When his grandfather, who was his primary carer, dies, Rintaro inherits his secondhand bookstore. Rintaro struggles to articulate his grief and is unable to truly express how much this loss has affected him. Rintaro stops going to school, staying instead at the bookstore. Here he meets Tiger, a talking cat who makes him join in a quest of sorts. According to Tiger, there are books in need of rescuing and Rintaro is the only one who can save him. Together they travel to four different mazes where they come across bad book owners who have lost sight of what caring & loving books truly means. One owner no longer reads for pleasure but because he wants to read the most books possible in his lifetime. Another one thinks that because people no longer make time to read, the only way to keep these stories alive is to literally ‘cut’ them. The third one cares nothing for old books and is interested in books that sell well. While the last one will truly force Rintaro to question what literature and books in general truly mean. The nature of Rintaro’s quest definitely brought to mind the structure of fairy tales. The lessons Rintaro teaches the owners instead reminded me of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. Like the ghosts in Dickens’ novel Rintaro shows them the error of their ways. While at first these bad book owners seem unbending in their ways, Rintaro is always able to make them reevaluate their attitude towards their books by challenging their behaviour (hoarding books, reading books simply for the sake of ‘reading’ them, without actually connecting to the story, trying to condense books to short summaries, or caring only about the books that sell, well, this is not how someone who professes they love books should act).

Rintaro is the classic guileless male protagonist. More than once we are reminded that he is a nobody, no one of interest. And yet for some reason, Tiger chose him as his companion in his book-saving adventures. There is also the classic female character who is a bit of a busybody and for some bizarre reason kind of likes our male mc. There is also a popular guy whose function in this story is somewhat bizarre. He really served no purpose other than to remind us that Rintaro is not one of the cool guys. Tiger, the most interesting character of the lot, is largely underused.
The moralistic nature of the mazes also struck me as fairly simplistic. Still, the author does ask some thought-provoking questions about what books/reading mean, whether one should prioritize discovering new voices or deepening their relationship to books they love by re-reading them. Also, in one of the “baddies” says that now-days books don’t stand a chance as a source of ‘entertainment’ as one can’t read and multitask. Clearly this guy has never heard of audiobooks (i know it technically isn’t ‘reading’ but you nevertheless can ‘absorb’ a book). I also didn’t like that the final villain, who is portrayed as cold and slightly ‘off’ (in a not-human kind of way), is a woman.
I can see this book appealing to fans of Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura and Colorful by Eto Mori. Similarly to those novels The Cat Who Saved Books focuses on a Japanese teen who doesn’t really fit in at school but over the course of the narrative, and thanks to the aid of some fantastical elements, begins to connect with other people his age. Overall this was a fairly engaging read even if it was a bit too vanilla for my taste.

my rating: ★★★½

Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge

Strange Beasts of China certainly delivers on the ‘strange’ suggested by its very title and premise. This novel consists of 9 interconnected chapters, each one presenting us with a self-contained story about a certain type of ‘beast’. Strange Beasts of China reads like a contemporary and unique bestiary in which, through the eyes of our nameless narrator who is a cryptozoologist, we learn the origins, appearances and habits of different types of beasts. While Strange Beasts of China will certainly appeal to fans of surrealists authors such as Helen Oyeyemi, Yukiko Motoya, and Hiromi Kawakami, if you are the type of reader who prefers character-driven stories, well, you might be better off skipping this one.

Strange Beasts of China takes place in China in the fictive Yong’an City where humans and beasts cohabit alongside one another. Relations between the two groups are far from amicable and many humans harbour stigma against beasts, who are treated as second-class citizens and have limited rights and freedoms. Our narrator, who studies and attempts to classify beasts, is more open-minded than most and, if anything, is drawn to beasts. Over the course of the novel, she comes into contact with different types of beasts, including sorrowful beasts, joyous beasts, sacrificial beasts, impasse beats, flourishing beasts, thousand league beats, heartsick beasts, prime beasts, and returning beasts. Time and again our narrator has to confront how non-human beasts are, despite their often human-like appearance (some have green bellies or ears shaped differently from humans but more often than not they physically resemble us).
Beasts are exploited, oppressed, feared, and or hated. For some beasts it is in their nature to lead parasitic lifestyles, for example, to ‘feed’ a human’s emotions. Others are doomed to die in a sacrificial fashion.
Over the course of these chapters, the author interrogates her narrator’s notion of humanity which will in turn make us question our ideas of what makes someone a human. I was intrigued by the beasts the author had imagined and I found her matter-of-fact weirdness to make Yong’an all the more believable. I wish the narrator had been more engaging as I found her voice strangely removed, and in those moments where she does experience heightened emotions, she verged on being hysterical. So, I either found her too passive or too melodramatic. There seemed to be no in-between. The men in her life, such as her professor and a peer of hers, well, they too acted in a rather overdramatic fashion, the professor especially. The way they spoke to each other or some of their responses were simply off-key, and perhaps I would have preferred if their interactions had been dialled back a little.
I also wish that Strange Beasts of China could have had more tonal variety as I found most of the chapters to be little other than depressing.

Still, this was an undoubtedly creative novel and I appreciated its dreamlike ambience and general strangeness.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost by David Hoon Kim

While I can recognise that Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost is far from a terrible novel, I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about it. Personally, I don’t think the world needed yet another novel about a modern-day (wannabe) flâneur (who happens to be, you guessed it, an intellectual cis straight man whose personality is akin to a slice of soggy toast) having a metaphysical existential crisis in Paris (where of course he falls for an elusive woman).

This is the kind of novel that cares little about the plot or characters. Instead, the narrative seems very much intent on being incohesive, presenting us with scenes and or reflections that blur the line between reality and dreams. While I usually quite like novels that manage to create and sustain a surrealist mood, here, from the very get-go, I found the narrative, its structure in particular, to be little other than artificial.
This novel seems to be desperately striving for this peculiar absurdist tone but, in the case of this reader at least, it just fell flat. Sacrificing style over substance also results in a cast of barely sketched out characters, figments really, that do not manage to hold one’s attention. The weakest aspect of the novel lies in Henrik, our main narrator and major character. His voice was très insipid, to the point that I would often have to make an effort to follow his train of thoughts. His seemingly interminable inner monologues were dull indeed. He often recounts the exchanges that he has with others so that I felt all the more distanced from the story’s events. The guy also behaved in a rather inconsistent way so that I sometimes had the impression that the story was being told by numerous narrators, instead of the one guy.

In the first section, we learn a little about Henrik, a Japanese adoptee to Danish parents. He’s completing some sort of thesis or dissertation on Samuel Beckett while living in Paris. He speaks three languages, Danish, English, and French and is an aspiring translator who wants to do English/French translations (not an easy endeavour given that neither language is technically his ‘mother tongue’, which is danish). He’s dating Fumiko, a Japanese woman who for reasons unknown to him (let alone us) has locked herself in her dorm room. We never meet Fumiko, as after days of confinement she commits suicide.
We then switch to a ‘you’ type of narrative where we are introduced to a group of young medical students who are dissecting (i think?) Fumiko’s body. What purpose did this part have? Go figure.
Then back to Henrik and his seemingly unending monologues. He tells us about the random people he sees on the street, and about trailing Asian women who remind him of Fumiko, of meeting and talking to other people (i cannot recall who they were or how they met, that’s how memorable these encounters/friendships were). I had no idea how much time was passing, days, weeks, years? There was no clear passage of time, so I was unsure how long ago Fumiko had committed suicide or how old our mc was. He gives us very little insight into his relationship with Fumiko and because of this lack of information I had a hard time 1) believing in Fumiko (especially since we never really see her ‘alive’ in the present and 2) believing in their dalliance.

Occasionally he does come up with interesting observations regarding Paris, the ‘intellectual’ circles Henrik moves in, and on his identity. Attention is paid in particular to the disconnect he feels between who he is (he feels very danish) and his appearance (which is not ‘typically’ danish). But these speculations (on identity & belonging, the divide between one’s inner and one’s outer self) were drowned out by Henrik’s other thoughts, which often made little sense or struck me as entirely too affected.

Then, all of a sudden, the last section of the narrative goes on about his relationship with his goddaughter. This seemed very out of the blue and has little to do with what had come beforehand. This goddaughter did not sound like a genuine child and her dad was way OTT (at one point he shits in a plastic bag…why? couldn’t he have asked to use his neighbours’ toilet if his own toilet was broken or whatnot?). Here there is a bit of pretending to be what you are not, as in this case, Henrik often acts like his goddaughter’s father.
Nothing truly interesting or new is said on the subject. The story then briefly moves from Paris to Rome and here Henrik seems all of a sudden to remember about Fumiko.

The novel tried very hard to impress its intelligence and artistry on us. I don’t mind erudite asides or creative ramblings but only if they either serve some sort of purpose (in relation to characters or plot) or if they serve as springboards for more interesting discussions/conversations. Here, it seemed they were just trying to create a certain atmosphere. The novel as a whole struck me as being very much influenced by the New Wave. And while it was in a way experimental and clearly postmodernist, it lacked bite, flavour. It was all flash, no substance. At least Beckett is amusing! Here the weirdness was studied, worst still, where was the humor?

Maybe a more engaging or intriguing narrator would have made me more inclined to pay attention to what was going on (then again, was anything really going on?) or what the author was writing about…but Henrik was painfully bland. His voice put me to sleep.

I recommend you check out more positive reviews before you decide whether to give this one a shot or not.

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

my rating: ★★½

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole.”

The Goldfinch is an emotional rollercoaster spanning 700+ pages and proof that literary lightning can indeed strike twice. Fully deserving of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Goldfinch is a triumph of a novel, one that I will have a hard time reviewing (so bear with me & my ramblings).
Donna Tartt seamlessly weaves together a Dickensian bildungsroman with a suspenseful and thrilling descent into the criminal underbelly of the art world (forgeries & thefts ahoy!) that boasts the same exquisite prose as her debut novel.
This Odyssean coming-of-age is narrated by Theo Decker. At 13 Theo lives alone with his mother after his father, a temperamental alcoholic, decided to take up and leave New York. After Theo gets in trouble at his school he and his mother are required to attend a ‘conference’. On the way there, the two end up in a museum, for what should have been a quick gander. When a bomb explodes in the museum many die, including Theo’s mother. Once Theo awakes from the explosion he comes across a dying old man who urges him to take Carel Fabritius’s ‘The Goldfinch’. Theo, probably suffering from a head concussion & shock, does as he’s bid, takes the painting.

“The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up.”

When Theo is informed of his mother’s death he’s devastated. He has no idea where his deadbeat father is and his grandparents have made it clear that they aren’t keen on having him stay with them. Theo is temporarily placed in the custody of his childhood friend’s family, the Barbours, a hideously wealthy family. Later on, his father re-emerges and whisks away from New York to Las Vegas. Here Theo is left very much to his own devices, his father—who is clearly involved in some dodgy stuff—and his girlfriend do not seem particularly fond or interested in him and his upbringing. Theo becomes friends with Boris who, like him, does not have a stable home life. Together the two experiment with alcohol and drugs and commit petty crimes.
We follow Theo until his late-teens and then we encounter him again as a young(ish) adult who becomes entangled in some dangerous business that force him to fully confront the kind of person that he has become.

What to say? My heart went out to Theo. Yes, later in life he’s a bit of an asshole. That doesn’t cancel out all of his other qualities and complexities. Those sections recounting his boyhood are truly heartbreaking. The despair he feels at his mother’s death, the guilt, grief, longing, self-hatred, and loneliness that seem to punctuate his days are captured with exacting precision. His meditations on life, art, the people around him are striking, and I appreciated how nuanced a person he was. His relationship with Boris was one of the highlights of his narrative. It is incredible just how good Tartt is at making you care for people who are just not that nice. The dynamic between Theo and Boris is intense and messy (possibly more than a friendship?) and despite their different temperaments their similar circumstances and self-destructive tendencies fortify their bond (they are definitely good at enabling each other).

His mother’s death haunts Theo throughout his life, and we see just how his survivor’s guilt affects and influences him. To Theo, the painting of ‘The Goldfinch’ is irrevocably connected to her death, which is why he’s unable to part ways with it. He’s also hopelessly enamoured with Pippa, who he first glimpsed in the museum on that fateful day. She’s one of the few people who understands the guilt that plagues him so. Alas, he comes to idealise in a not so healthy way.
His story is filled with stops-and-starts, addiction and suicidal ideation & tendencies punctuate his life, and as an adult, he seems already to have taken a dubious path.

I loved this novel. Tartt’s writing is divine. Her prose is simultaneously elegant and exhilarating, her characterization, dialogues, descriptions, are all truly exemplary. She brings to life the people, places, and situations she writes of in a way that is almost too real, so that when forces outside of my control (the end of my lunch break or commute.) put an end to my reading time, well, it felt like a rude awakening.

As I said, this novel is long. A brick some would say (the hardback edition could seriously injure someone). Yet, I breezed through this. Not because it was easy reading, quite the contrary. Tartt’s erudite references and elaborate storytelling deserve attention and consideration, one cannot just rush their way through her books. And yet, I had a hard time putting this book down. Theo’s voice won me over so that I too found myself mirroring whatever he was feeling (usually sadness and or anxiety, yay). I didn’t want to let go of him, and I was actually sad once I reached the novel’s conclusion.
While Tartt doesn’t go light on her characters, I could tell just how much she cares for them. The people inhabiting her novels may not necessarily be good or kind but by the end, I always end up loving them (despite or because of their many many flaws). Even characters I want to hate with the whole of my being are not wholly unredeemable.

Tartt’s incisive reflections on human nature, life, grief, love, fate, art, death, struck me for their poignancy and thoughtfulness. The rich cast of characters is just as deserving of attention as Theo himself. Regardless of the part, they play in Theo’s life, whether they are a friend, acquaintance, or a complete stranger, they are depicted in such vivid detail that they do not feel like fictional characters but real people.
And Theo, ragazzo mio! On the one hand, many of his feelings, states of mind, motivations, fears & desires are rendered with clarity, on the other, well, the boy is not only traumatised but incredibly repressed and prone to self-deception. So, there are many moments when we cannot trust entirely his narration. His alcohol consumption and drug use also add a murky quality to certain events or portions of his story. Theo’s intentional and unintentional untrustworthiness, in many ways, added an element of ambiguity to his narration and has us relying, more often than not, on other characters in order to discern the truth about certain people/events.
I was captivated by Theo’s story, the many lows and few highs of his adolescence and adulthood, and by the motifs dotting his narrative. The novel is also full of juxtaposition: the classic vs modern references, the bustling streets of New York, always buzzing with activity, vs the desolate landscapes of Las Vegas, the Barbours’ apartment with Theo’s father house. Like TSH, one of the novel’s main concerns is beauty (the power that beautiful things have on us, the way we feel about that which is beautiful to us, the things we are willing to do for beauty or to have what we think beautiful).

Beautiful, moving, wonderfully chaotic, a work of art. The Goldfinch is all of these things and so much more.

ps: curiously enough the first time I read it I only gave it 3 stars…and I can’t really explain why this time around I loved it so much that even days later I find myself thinking about Theo & Boris.

my rating: ★★★★★

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