Boy Parts by Eliza Clark


disclaimer: i did not like this book. the opinions and impressions i will express in this review are entirely subjective and i am not in fact stating ‘irrefutable facts’. it has come to my attention that this author has a history of going on twitter to ‘bemoan’ reviewers who have given her book a negative review…which has never been a win in my books. so i will attempt to write this review with a death of the author approach. please do not confuse my negative review of this book as a personal attack on the author or as an estimation of the author herself as i do not know her in any capacity whatsoever. if you are incensed by reviewers expressing an opinion that differs from your own one, you are better off skipping this review (this includes you too eliza…).

vague and not so vague spoilers below

I am befuddled by the ratings and reviews singing this book’s praises. This is one of those cases where I am forced to ask myself: did I read the same book as everybody else? And before you @ me, no, I did not dislike this book because it is work of satire centred on an (exaggeratedly) intentionally unlikeable main character. Some of my favorite books focus on people who are varying degrees of horrible or ‘messy’ (my year of rest and relaxation, luster, madame bovary, sula, pretend i’m dead, you exist too much, apartment, symptomatic, these violent delights, and a lot of the stuff written by authors such as shirley jackson, danzy senna, and joyce carol oates). I also like characters like Hannibal or Villanelle. I read Lolita and while it did repulse me (as intended) I didn’t hate it because it was from the pov of a pdophile. And I am fond of the ‘she’s not feeling too good’ subgenre, contemporary books that are characterized by a caustic tone and explore the lives of women who are, you guessed it, not feeling too good and are depicted as alienated and self-sabotaging … I also do not have a problem with books combining dark humor with violence, My Sister the Serial Killer is a fave of mine. And a few months ago I was enthralled and disturbed by Titane directed by Julia Ducournau (who actually gets a mention in boy parts). All of this to say is that I can deal with and even appreciate characters who for whatever reason do, think, or say things that are ‘frowned’ upon or downright evil. I would go as far as to say that I prefer flawed characters over flawless/uber-likeable characters (very edgy of me, i know). My only caveat is that I have to find said unlikable characters interesting: Emma Bovary, for instance, is not a particularly clever character, you could say she is quite the opposite. She’s naive, pathetic, obnoxious, solipsistic, cruel, and superficial…but I found her acts of self-dramatization to be both fascinating and a source of great amusement. Ottessa Moshfregh’s narrator in MYORAR is nasty (she is awful to her supposed best friend, callous, narcissistic, morbid, and says/thinks offensive things about many groups of people). Did I condone her actions in the novel? No. Did I find her fcked up sense of humor to be highly addictive? Yes. This is all to say that Irina being a stronza who engages in ‘bad’ behaviour, is not why I didn’t like this book. The reason why I did not like this book has less to do with her being an unlikable cnt and more to do with her being boring as fck. Her internal monologue is repetitive, but not even in a realistic navel-gazey way, like Selin’s narration is in The Idiot, but in an incredibly affected way that just comes across as the book desperately trying to present this character as some counter-culture edgelady, who repeatedly ‘transgresses’ accepted norms of behaviours and—shock horror—flips the ‘male gaze’ on its head by being the one behind the camera. Maybe if this book had come out in the 80s, I would be more inclined to forgive or accept its many shortcomings, but since it was published in 2020 I have a harder time reconciling myself with its unimaginative and superficial exploration of female sexuality, the male gaze, and female rage. There is nothing clever about the way the narrative represents and discusses these themes. The narrative is very much all flash, no substance (tutto fumo e niente arrosto) as it not only mistakes shock value for real horror but it operates under the false assumption that gratuitous or otherwise sensationalistic content is subversive and thought-provoking. If this book had actually been disturbing maybe then I could have overlooked its pulpy and overt storyline…but it isn’t. Funnily enough the story’s numerous floundering attempts at edginess, but these feel dated and painfully affected, on the lines of Awad’s Bunny or Mariana Enríquez who at least do not settle for mid-tier levels of offensive but fcking commit.

Boy Parts reads like a short story that has been stretched beyond its expiry date. The ‘hook’, that of a ‘pervy’ female photographer, had potential for the first 30% of the narrative. Then things just get messy, and not a good kind of messy where I am enthralled by our mc’s unreliable and increasingly disconcerting narrative, but messy in a poorly executed kind of way. The writing changes slightly, but not in a believably organic way that reflects the main character’s spiralling mental health. The book’s satire is devoid of substance or bite. The caricatures populating this narrative are neither amusing nor particularly provocative. Some characters come across as heavy-handed attempts at capturing a certain type of person, while either serve no function other than to exist so the narrator can prove to the readers how nasty she is. The story could have been a lot more effective if the tone had been camped up, so we could have something along the lines of Jennifer’s Body (which is by no means a perfect film but at least it’s entertaining and self-aware). Or maybe if the book had gone for a more elliptical stream-of-consciousness type of storytelling, a la Clarice Lispector, maybe then I would have liked it more. But what we got just did not work for me at all. There was something profoundly simplistic about the way these themes are explored and the narrator is one of the dullest galls I have ever had the misfortune to read about. Being a tall and sexy white Northern who thinks she’s the fcking hardcore because she likes to take kinky photos of men she deems ‘beta’…yeah. The way the book satirizes England’s art scene is banal, we get unfunny lines about identity politics and artists such as Tracey Emin. The narrative doesn’t convey Irina’s creative process in a convincing way, in fact, I was left with the impression that—and here i must briefly break from my death of the author approach and acknowledge the existence of the author—whoever was behind the story was either not particularly familiar with photography or not interested in going into detail about it (as i said this an impression i formed, not a fact). As examinations of female creativity go, this one is derivative and unsatisfying. I mean, compared to We Play Ourselves, Self-Portrait with Boy, and Generation Loss (all of whom happen to focus on queer young women who are not portrayed as exclusively interested in men and in replicating tired dom/sub dynamics) Boy Parts just doesn’t go much into depth when it comes to Irina and her changing relationship to her photography. I didn’t feel that she actually felt passionate about these photos, rather, we are told what she did at a school, and she relates the art she produced in that period in a very meh way, and now she gets horny when she tells men to pose in vanilla sub positions, while she occasionally plays the dom role (stepping on them and sht). Like, wow. How edgy. And you might say that the narrative is less concerned about mapping out the creative process preceding these photos than with over-emphasising what the photos themselves signify. Male gaze who? Uhm. Sure. Thing is, this kind of obvious ‘appropriation’ of the male gaze and the misogyny often underlining said gaze is not new nor thought-provoking. Quite the opposite in fact. I found the logic at play in the narrative to be highly sus: Irina experiences misogyny and is objectified by the male gaze; Irina perpetuates misogyny + misandry and objectifies men, her models in particular. Irina has a sexual encounter where the partner doesn’t listen to her when she says she wants to be on top. He ignores and demands her to scream for him, yanking her hair. She says that since he is going to ignore her he ‘could put his back into it’. He takes this as a confirmation that she ‘likes it rough’. Quelle surprise, she later has sex with someone she deems weak who asks her to slap him she starts hitting him until he starts crying and this leads to the classic ‘victim becomes abuser’ kind of observation that doesn’t really go deeper than that. If anything it is annoying that we get that scene just so the mc can have this dark eureka moment. Early in the story, Irina goes to a party where she is meeting up with a guy who is there to make fun of the ‘I’m a Nice Guy Really’ type of men who claim they are feminists while trying to wrangle themselves out of being accused of SA. Anyway, she goes to this party with her spineless friend who reminds her that even if she acts all hardcore she is a vulnerable woman. Our mc makes a joke about being raped by the guys she’s hanging out with and what later follows is an intentionally unclear scene where it seems that this guy the mc went to see tried to rpe her while she was passed out or was otherwise incapacitated and therefore not being able to give consent. I really hated how timed this whole thing was. It was rather tasteless. I have come across other books that punish female characters who are confident in their sexuality or sexually active by resulting in scenes where they are SA or need a man to ‘save’ them. And here…this whole rpe subplot seems just there for shock value and nothing else. The narrative seems to forget about it, more intent on emphasizing how edgy and obscene the mc is. Fcking hell. Can we not?! I am not saying that I want every story to include rpe or SA to be serious and to exclusively revolve around this. However, the way the narrative meanders about without any real direction or without the kind of piercing commentary that makes up for vacuous storylines…I am left wondering why, why, why did we get this scene? Especially when the narrative seems confused about the kind of character Irina is. It seemed we were meant to perceive her as a vile character. Not quite a Humbert Humbert type of figure but someone who is working their way towards being the female equivalent of Patrick Bateman. She’s apathetic, has an inflated sense of self, experiences moments of dissociation where she observes the people around her with a mixture of superiority and detachment seems to categorize men in a way that is all the rage in the manosphere, and makes no compunction about transgressing accept norms of behaviour, engaging in sadistic behaviour, or deriving pleasure from what her society deems taboo (rpe fantasies etc.). She can also perform certain roles, such as that of the Manic Pixie Girl, to her advantage, for example when she wants to attract the kind of men who would be into that type of girl. Irina, so far, seems a satirical take on the femme fatale. Yet, we also get so many instances that go against what this kind of characterization is trying to establish. For instance, she forgets that she has to perform a certain role and says whatever the fck comes to her because she’s such a girlboss. Sometimes she would make observations or remarks that would be believable if they originated from someone ‘normal’ or who was not shown to have psychopathic traits. For example, after that guy forces himself on her…she wonders about whether she really wanted rough sex and why do women feel that they have to say yes to rough sex etc…which is a valid af point but I did not believe that someone like Irina would even bother to have such thoughts. She should have been annoyed that someone of no consequence had physically overpowered her. Previously her response to being SA at the party was to be annoyed that that non-entity guy had the gall to try to rpe her. But then we are meant to believe that she was in fact traumatized by this so much so that now she herself is subjecting others to the type of trauma she was victim to. Like…what is going on. And don’t get me started on how large chunks of the narrative make her abuse of men seem so fcking transgressive and hardcore when it was anything but. There is a storyline involving, you guessed it, ‘boy parts’ that was just a rip off from American Psycho (in that we are meant to question the veracity of irina’s recollection of these violent events). Anyhow, the man who Irina abuses most happens to be a lot younger than her and, unlike her, despite the story’s initial attempts at painting her as a struggling artist, her name is known in artsy circles and she can afford her living expense and the type of materials required to print out her edgy photos, he works at Tesco. Additionally, he is mixed-race, possibly queer, and was involved with someone abusive (emotional abuse is still abuse fellas). So, did I find Irina’s SA him, gaslighting him, humiliating him, mistreating him, etc, empowering? Not really. Sure, the narrative shows us just how ‘pathetic’ and ‘sad’ he is about his messed up relationship with Irina but his experiences bear no real weight on Irina’s narrative. He serves as a plot device through which Irina, a character who is supposed to be very much beyond caring, can inflict the trauma she herself was subjected to. Also, for someone who goes on scathing takes about ‘white people’ who pretend they are not ‘white’ but dance to The Smiths in this ‘post-racist-Morrissey’ era and expresses frustration about the misogyny and classism rampant in her day-to-day life…it seemed weird that she would think sht like this (“I know I’m white, but there’s just a lot of white people White People-ing in a very small area, like it’s just some very, very densely packed mayo, you know? Densely packed mayo, jiggling about, doesn’t know what to do with its arms, doesn’t know what to do with its feet, undulating loosely, barely in time to the rhythm.”) but actually says sht like this to the mixed-race boy she is toying around with (‘It’s fine for you being out in this heat; you tan. You’re always tan. You look like you’ve just been on holiday or something,’) or this (Japenese/Korean girls being the ‘same thing’). It would have made more sense if she’d said that first thing out loud, to impress her peers with how comfortably she can talk about whiteness and make them feel inadequate and less savvy (after all wasn’t she supposed to enjoy feeling superior to others?), and to ‘merely’ think the other two as to say them out loud in front of someone who is not white, and who she had identified as ‘sensitive’, and risk that he would see her for who she truly was. She, later on, writes a transphobic email to someone trans which again, was just gratuitous yet seemed included for laughs, and made me question why she would do that if this person could use that to prove to others that she is in fact awful. Why bother with all that gaslighting of your acquaintances if you then don’t give a sht about being exposed…? We are previously told that she is manipulative AF. She fools men and has her pathetic bff convinced they are friends to start with. Although she wants to transgress accepted norms of behaviour she knows these norms are there to begin with so in certain spaces she comports herself in a certain way, her art is the only indicator that she is into some smutty kinky stuff. I did not find her inconsistencies to be realistic or to result in a nuanced character. It seemed that the story didn’t really know what kind of character it wanted us to read about so it went all over the place. I wish that the story had committed to paint her as a morally reprehensible character we were meant not to like.
The other characters are one-note and just as unrealistic. They would not be out of place in an episode of Family Guy or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Speaking of Tarantino if you thought that Uma Thurman’s character in that or Kill Bill have some merit…well, you might like Boy Parts after all. This book radiates the kind of feminist energy that Cara Delevingne wearing that ‘peg the patriarchy’ outfit at the met gala gives. Trying to be provoking in a puerile way. And I can forgive a lack of intersectionality and dimension if say this, like Plath’s Bell Jar, had been published in the 1960s. But it wasn’t so…anche no.

Anyway, the side characters are just as boring as Irina herself. Some of them are downright insulting. We have someone who exists to be the transman who is the butt of the joke for many comments made by Irina. He makes two or possibly three appearances where she makes comments about his height, barbs that are meant to make him feel inadequate and not masculine enough, and later on writes that disgusting email to him where she goes on about identity politics and claims that he is solely drawing upon his personal experiences to produce art (when she is doing that very same thing…get it? ah! ). Flo (i had to check her name, that’s how memorable she is) is a rip off of Reva from MYORAR who exists to be the classic female friend in love with our female protagonist who does not and will not ever reciprocate her feelings. I am so f*cking tired of books that make the mc bisexual because it’s edgy and ‘different’ but then proceed to have said character almost exclusively engage in sexual/romantic relationships with men. This character will rarely if ever acknowledge or indicate that she finds people who are not men attractive. She will have a friend who is a lesbian or in this case a bi friend, who is in love with her. The narrative will mention towards the very start or the very end that she did have a relationship with a woman once and call it a day. They don’t even try to explore the mc’s internalised homophobia/biphobia. Here we have a line about Irina preferring men to women and that’s kind of it.

Anyway, don’t even get me started on Flo’s blog posts. What was the point in them? Irina gives us a summary of their contents so why add the blog entries themselves? Their attempts at making fun of cringe people like Flo came across as a joke that has gone on for too long.
And mio dio, the amount of dated references in this book is something else. The film mentions make sense given that Irina is an edgy photographer but the amount of pop culture in these pages is just…it made me feel that I was having to slog through a series of insufferable twitter posts. If avoid that in real life why should I be interested in a fictionalized take on these comments/discussions? The conversations about kim’s bum did not make the dialogues realistic or mumblecoresque. They struck me as stagey and dull.
The exploration of sexual desire that goes on in this novel is painfully and predictably heteronormative, with the ‘twist’ that the woman wants to be the more dominant party. How revolutionary. The more I write about this f*cking book the more I hate it. What an utter waste of time. With the exception of that funny line about Timothée Chalamet, I was not amused. I did not feel anything for our main girl. Her being hot, from the North, and into kinky sh*t do not make for a compelling character (‘Geordie girls are up there with Irish girls and Scottish girls; the black women of white women, you know?’….f*ck off). Maybe if the narrative had committed to portraying her as a menace I would have felt a modicum of interest. The instances where she is offensive are played up for laughs but were anything but. Her Mommy Issues™ and eating disorder are presented in a childish way and the narrative barely scratches the surface beneath these issues. You Exist Too Much deals with these issues in a much more nuanced and compelling way.
Anyway, I don’t need a character’s motivations to think violent thoughts or do violent things to be made ‘transparent’: like I said I was transfixed by Titane, and there we learn virtually nothing about our central character, let alone why she goes on a killing spree. I also really love things like Stoker and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both focus on morbid teens/young women. Or New People by Senna. That book presents us with a believably perturbing portrait of an alienated and alienating woman. But this is eh. Boy Parts reads like something that has been done before and better. It has the same vibe as those ‘that’s literally me’ filmbros who overidentify with the leads from films such as Taxi DriverAmerican PsychoFight ClubDrive, and Joker. Just because the lead here is a woman doesn’t make this wannabe subversive exploration of alienation any less cringe. I swear, Irina just gives Gaslight Gatekeep Girlboss vibes and it could have worked if the narrative had committed more fully to being a campy satire instead of then deciding it wanted to be dark and serious. Also, the way the latter half of the novel goes for this feverish, surrealist tone is just schifo. Even Awad did this better in Bunny. And don’t get me started on Caroline O’Donoghue’s Promising Young Women: the narrative there truly captures the narrator’s bizarre and disturbing dissolution. And if you prefer a more heavy exploration of r*pe I recommend Rosie Price’s What Red Was. And, of course, I May Destroy You: that series is just…spectacular. And its final episode is what Boy Parts wishes it was. Why didn’t the novel go for a subversive take on the ‘r*pe & revenge’ subgenre? I don’t know…it had the chance to but then seems to lose itself in a self-indulgent and puddle-deep exploration of the male gaze.
The prose was derivative and lifeless. Now and again we get lines that are trying so hard to be provocative but failed to inspire a response in me (be it amusement or disgust). The first half of the novel would have Irina try to go for this conversational/confessional tone that just came across as trying to be Fleabag or the narrator from MYORAR (the constant ‘you know’ were annoying).
I doth not understand the hype. Personally, I found this book’s attempt at being edgy and subversive to be rather performative and disappointingly shallow. And to compare this to Moshfegh’s MYORAR..? te piasaria…I was not a fan of the writing, of the plot, or of the way the narrative explores its themes. I am surprised that so many readers did not seem to pick up on this book’s Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss shtick. White feminism at its finest…and if this was intentional it doens’t result in a particularly daring or fascinating narrative. I mean, this book thinks its something by Gaspar Noé (a director who is not my cup of tea but i can’t deny that the man’s films are transgressive and really gratuitous) but it is just rather insipid. Like I said, the offensive bits just gave me Family Guy vibes. Again, I must stress how shallow this felt. And not in an intentional way, like in American Psycho and its critique of capitalism and consumerism. I wish the story could have actually interrogated more Irina’s own privilege, that’s she is white, able-bodied, pretty, and ‘straight’ passing…but it doesn’t. We get a very ostentatious take on a woman perpetuating the ‘male gaze’. It is such a pity. I am a fan of books depicting women capable of monstrosity not because i condone their behaviour but i find the way these narratives engage with their conflicting ideals of femininity and explore their darkest parts of their psyche fascinating.

Not all satire is good satire. And this just ain’t it for me.
Boy Parts was banal. Really painfully banal. The kind of book that makes me wish that I could be able to unread things.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

“Your eyes meet in the silence. The gaze requires no words at all. It is an honest meeting.”

Open Water is an exceedingly lyrical debut. The story, narrated through a second-person perspective (ie ‘you’) is centred on the relationship between two Black British artists (he is a photographer, she is a dancer). Although their relationship is portrayed through a linear timeline, the narrative lingers only on some key scenes/periods between this will-they-won’t-they couple. From their first meeting the photographer (‘you’) is struck by the dancer who at time is going out with a friend of his. The two become friends but their closeness is complicated by their more than platonic feeling for each other.
Caleb Azumah Nelson renders with poignancy their bond. I loved the way he articulates his main character’s vulnerabilities and the role that language itself plays in his narrative. To articulate one’s feelings, desires, and fears is no easy feat. Language, as the author reminds us time and again, fails us. There is an emphasis on this, that is on the difficulty of articulating your thoughts or truths. ‘You’ seems in a perpetual struggle with himself. He’s in love with the dancer but there are things that keep him from expressing himself to her. The narrative also touches upon on the idea of being ‘seen but not seen’. The photographer, a young Black man in London, has experienced time and again the scrutiny of the white gaze. It is because he is viewed as a danger and a threat that he remains in fact unseen. So, when the dancer sees him, as in truly sees him, he feels understood like never before. But it is this bond that complicates their love story.

At times the story resembled a series of snapshots or impressions: these had a moody often cinematic-feel to them that resulted in some great atmosphere (I can definitely see this being adapted to the screen). Nelson’s prose brims with lyricism. With staccato-like sentences he captures those ephemeral feelings which are often so hard to express or pin down. His poetic writing style lends beautifully to the themes he goes on to explore (young love, masculinity and vulnerability, race, creativity).
What didn’t quite work for me was the 2nd pov. I’m just not the biggest fan of this perspective. I also had a hard time familiarising myself with our main characters. Their personalities felt almost lost in the midst of the author’s lyrical language.
Open Water nonetheless struck me as a confident and deeply felt debut.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg — book review

Untitled drawing (3).jpg

“Time after time my mother traded privacy, square footage, countertops, and a decent bathroom for darkroom space.”

While the way in which Feast Your Eyes is framed makes for an undoubtedly interesting technique (telling the story of a fictional photographer Lillian Preston through the catalogue notes for an exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art) Myla Goldberg’s execution left me wanting more (out of her story, her characters, and her style).

The novel’s catalogue structure, however innovating, is limiting: although we have Lillian’s diary entries and letters, for the most part it is her daughter Samantha who tries to describe Lillian’s photos. Her suppositions and observations were monotonous and left me wanting more.
I can’t help but compare this novel to two of favourites of mine, and Self-Portrait with Boy and
generation Loss, both of which also happen to be centred around female photographers. Whereas those two novels gave a clear impression of what the protagonists’ photos looked like and their significance to them, in Feast Your Eyes we get a few lines from Samantha summarising her mother’s photos. Only the photo entitled ‘Mommy is sick’ gets a more detailed description.

Lillian herself remains a puzzle. Although we get to read her letters and diaries, as well as the testimonies of her roommates/sort of friends, her character never really came together. In fact, I would go as far as to say that what we do get is a rather disjointed portrait. T
o begin with Lillian’s was made to seem as this rebel, a pioneer, a feminist, the type of person who wanted to speak out against the oppressive social norms and injustices occurring in her society. As the story progresses however I realised that she was a half-formed & mostly self-absorbed individual who was too interested in her own notions of what is ‘art’ than of helping out her friends (for example I hated the patronising way she would correct one her friends, telling her that she wasn’t a weaver but an artist).
Maybe if Lillian spoke more about her own photos or creative process I could have felt something more towards her…but her passion for photography comes across only when other characters comment on the time Lillian spent developing her photos. We are told that photography was everything for Lillian but it is her daughter Samantha who tries to imbue her photographs with some sort of meaning…and because of that I wasn’t able to buy into this image of Lillian as this passionate photographer.
The various characters speak of Lillian as if she was some sort of philanthropist or activist…but she acts anything but. Heck, she doesn’t even help her closest friend when she’s in need. Speaking of Lillian’s friends…these women sounded far too similar to one another. I understand that they would utilise the same language given that they are around the same age but they also happen to have exactly the same tone. Their names were as forgettable as their personalities and it seemed that they were mere accessories to Lillian’s story.
The mother-daughter relationship that is at the centre of Feast Your Eyes is fairly nuanced. However, given that I wasn’t invested in Lillian or Samantha’s lives, I can’t say that I felt very moved by it. And some of their arguments/misunderstanding struck me as unnecessarily clichéd.

Lastly…I questioned whether catalogue notes from an exhibition would really be as long-winded as the ones for Lillian’s show. These accounts have less to do with Lillian photos than New York in the 1950s-1960s. This focus on this particular time and place did result in a very detailed and vivid setting, so I can’t say that I didn’t find their descriptions about the various neighbourhoods etc. fascinating.

Most of Lillian’s diary entries and letters, as well as Samantha’s notes, have this cheesy obsession with the ‘body’ (“My arms and legs are like so much lunch meat wrapped around drinking straws and covered in waxed paper”), a penchant for unpleasant metaphors and imagery (“ the final word flew out like a broken tooth”), and for transcendental or purely abstract statements and declarations (“I’m reduced to a mote of pure awareness”) which seemed mere navel-gazing.

Although Lillian’s story deals with many different themes and subjects (abortion, ambition, motherhood, being a female artist and a single mother in in the 1950s, the degrading and inhumane conditions in the “Women’s House of Detention”) it does so at a swift pace. Because of this it seemed that many things were left unexplored.

Overall, while the idea behind Feast Your Eyes is undoubtedly creative, I’m unsure of the way in which Myla Goldberg handled this structure.
Perhaps a bit of more variety (such as including interviews, articles, actual photos etc.) would have given Lillian biography’s (her childhood, career, and relationships) more depth and nuance.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Akin by Emma Donoghue — book review

Untitled drawing (2).jpg

“He and this boy were quite alien to each other, he decide. Yet, in an odd way, akin.”

Akin tells the touching story of Noah Selvaggio, a retired seventy-nine year old chemistry professor, and his eleven year old great-nephew, Michael Young. Noah is a widower who has few remaining connections in the world and his fairly quiet existence is thrown out of balance when he is more or less cajoled into becoming Michael’s temporary carer. Michael’s mother is in prison, his father, Noah’s nephew, died of an overdose, and his maternal grandmother has recently passed away. Noah is, quite understandably, reticent to the idea of looking after Michael…he is aware of the limitations that come with his age, and having never had any contact with Michael or his mother, he feels a mixture of guilt and unease at this sudden ‘reunion’.
Yet, given the circumstances, not only does he find himself accepting to briefly take on this role but he is also forced to take Michael with him in a much overdue trip to Nice, Noah’s place of birth.

“And Mr. Selvaggio is your great-uncle, which is another kind of uncle.”
“What’s so great about him?” Micheal wanted to know.
Whether that was ignorance or wit, it did make Noah smile.”

The simple and unadorned narrative takes us alongside Noah and Michael’s in their stay in Nice. We follow them as they walk around Nice, eat a lot, visit museums and other historical sites. All the while Noah is also preoccupied with a mystery of sorts…having come across as some old photos Noah begins to fear that his mother might have been hiding something…his mind begins to formulate different kind of theories regarding his mother’s actions in WWII: was she a collaborator?

“Such convoluted grammar death required: what tense to describe the hypothetical emotions of a woman who didn’t exist anymore?”

Michael’s constant presence however demands Noah’s undivided attention. The child is rude and bratty, and treats Noah with suspicion and contempt. The two are at odds from the very start. Noah, who spend most of his days living in the past, attempts to make some sort of connection with Michael by acting as a tour guide of sorts. He also reiterates his and Michaels’s family history (Noah’s grandfather was a famous photographer) as a way of reinforcing their familial bond. Michael’s attention however seems wholly devoted to his phone. He swears a lot, demands junk food all the time, and is bored by Noah and his ‘lessons’.
There is a dissonance between the two: the things that have shaped Noah’s life seems to be of little relevance to Michael. At the same time Michael has experienced hardships that Noah finds difficulty to comprehend.

“In the pictures Michael looked older, Noah thought; harder. But really, eleven — that was barely formed.”

The two wander about Nice, often a despondent Michael’s following in Noah’s stead. The city seems to stir something within Noah so that he finds himself compelled to discover the truth about his mother.
Interrogating the past brings to light some deeply disturbing facts. Nice’s own history, the Excelsior Hotel (which happens to be the hotel Noah and Michael are staying in), the risks taken by members of the resistance, the torture they could be made to endure…the narrative portrays in sharp clarity one of the darkest periods of human history.

The dynamic between Noah and Michael eases some of the tension from this perusal of the past. The quarrels had a very natural flow to them; at time they seemed to escalate out of nothing, while in other instances they boiled down to nothing. They constantly seemed exasperated by one another, and I soon grew accustomed to the rhythm of their conversations.
I found myself deeply caring for Noah. His attempts to reach Michael could be both sweet and awkward, and Michael too, in spite of his horrible behaviour, slowly grew on me.

“Why don’t you start it now?”
“I’m good.”
Funny how that had come to mean no.

This genuine story offers us with plenty of thoughtful reflections regarding the differences and similarities between Noah and Michael’s generations. While Michael easily navigates the ‘modern’ world, Noah is accustomed to a different one.
The novel also broaches many subjects—topical and non—in a very frank and natural way; commentaries regarding America and France are embedded in a very smooth manner, so that it never feels overdone.

“How could you do your homework if you didn’t even have a home to work in?”

I was moved by Noah’s internal turmoils, by his introspections and examinations that move between past and present. His ‘kinship’ with Michael was rendered slowly and subtly, so that their relationship never blossoms into an unlikely affectionate bond but the story leaves us with possibility of a camaraderie of sorts between the two.
Filled with equal parts humour and heart, Akin is a wonderfully compelling novel, one that I would happily read again.

“He supposed it was always that way with the dead; they slid away before we knew enough to ask them the right questions. All we could do was remember them, as much as we could remember of them, whether it was accurate or not Walk the same streets that they’d walked; take our turn.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon

“Tragedy is insignificant, banal. A falling boy goes largely unnoticed.”

Self-Portrait with Boy is an electrifying debut novel. Within its pages, Rachel Lyon’s paints an unsettling portrait, that of the artist as a young woman, one whose raw hunger for artistic recognition drives her to betray the trust of the person she loves. Self-Portrait with Boy presents us with a thought-provoking and razor-sharp interrogation of ambition, morality, love, and the fraught boundary between art and life.

“It was unexpected. It was raw. It was startling. It was awful. It was beautiful. It was factual. Heartbreaking. Cruel. Fresh. Real.”

Throughout the course of her narrative, Lyon explores the aftermath of a devastating loss, on both those who are directly and indirectly affected by this tragedy. With striking precision and realism, Lyon articulates the loneliness, despair, guilt, and longing experienced by her central character, Lu Rile. This is not a happy tale. Far from it. Some readers will find Lu’s actions to be unforgivable, abhorrent even. And those who find themselves feeling more sympathetic towards her will still read her story with great unease, dreading ‘that moment’. From the start, we know what Lu chooses to do, but even so, to actually witness the consequences of her actions..well, it isn’t easy. Many of the interactions that occur in this novel are underlined by a sense of disquiet, one that reminded me vaguely of the work of Ottessa Moshfegh. The imagery within this novel also brought to mind Moshfegh, in that some of Lyon’s scenes and descriptions verged on the grotesque.

“I never meant for any of it to happen. Or no. Part of me meant for part of it to happen. I was nothing but a kid then. Twenty-six, naive, and ambitious as hell. A skinny friendless woman in thick glasses with a mop of coarse black hair. There were so many people I had not yet become.”

Lyon evokes in vivid detail 1990s New York, the art circles Lu aspires to be in, the building she lives in, and the places she works at. In addition to a brilliant evocation of place and time and searing commentary on ambition and success, Self-Portrait with Boy boasts the kind of unrelenting pacing that usually characterises thrillers. Lu’s riveting storyline is further enhanced by Lyon’s crisp and lucid prose, which conveys with crystal clarity Lu’s everyday realities as well as her innermost desires and fears.

“I’ll tell you how it started. With a simple, tragic accident.”

Lu, our narrator, now an established photographer, looks back to her ‘lucky break’, the photo that made her (in)famous in the art world. The remainder of the narrative takes place in the early 90s New York when Lu was 26, perennially short on money, and juggling her photography with her three minimum wage jobs. In addition to her photography & money-related anxieties, Lu is worried about her ageing father’s deteriorating eyesight. She lives in a converted warehouse in DUMBO, and rumour has it that developers have their sights set on her neighbourhood.

“And then, somewhere among all those larger, major memories, there was this minor but foul little one: the feeling of being in my twenties at a party and looking out at some horribly attractive crowd. The feeling of them glancing at me with barely registered pity: Oh, that thing in the corner. Isn’t that funny. It thinks it’s people.”

Lu is a lonely socially awkward person. She was raised by her father after her mother took off without a word when she was still little and has no actual friends. Despite her social anxiety and her many insecurities, Lu fully believes in her artistic capabilities. She can be ruthlessly single-minded in her pursuit of fame. She’s isn’t content ‘just’ making art, she wants to be successful. Over the last few years, Lu worked on a project that consists of her taking a self-portrait each day, but so far, she doesn’t seem particularly impressed with the results.

“There is nothing more pathetic than being the only person who believes in you.”

One day however her daily self-portrait (titled #400) reveals to have captured a boy falling to his own death. The boy in question was the son of the couple living in the apartment above her. As the people around her mourn his death, Lu is torn between using #400 to make a name for herself and her growing feelings towards the boy’s mother, Kate. The consequences of not only showcasing but making a profit out of this tragedy are not inconsequential.

“Her grief was so much bigger than one meager photograph. That was just art. This was death and life. I felt foolish and thickheaded—and so, so ugly.”

Yet, while Lu knows that she should seek the boy’s parents’ consent before circulating #400, she’s fearful of their reaction. Lu believes that #400 is her masterpiece and she’s determined to share it with the world. Once she befriends Kate Lu’s ambitions collide with her desires: she strives for her ‘shocking’ photo to be recognised but she also desperately yearns not to be alone anymore. And grieving, beautiful, Kate seems to care for her…doesn’t she?

“At the time she was my only friend. She was so dear to me.”

Lu’s story contains plenty of conflicts: art, morality, love, ambition, selfishness. Lu scrutinises her own actions, the moral dilemma in regards to the photo as well as the everyday little decisions that she makes along the way. There is also her father’s failing sight, her steadily worsening living conditions, her various jobs, her tentative relationships with her neighbours and, of course, her bond with Kate. All of this is set against a vibrantly depicted backdrop, one that buzzes with vitality: from the hubbub of the condominium meetings Lu attends to the bustling energy of the street she walks on.
Lyon doesn’t shy away from including the more disturbing aspect of Lu’s life. There is a particularly graphic scene including a rat nest…which was pretty intense (and possibly traumatising). So, be warned.

Nevertheless, I found myself unable to tear myself away. With startling realism, Lyon portrays Lu’s daily experiences, the conversations or arguments that she has with other people, as well as her inner monologue. Lyon’s narrator is a real tour de force: she is capable of being horrible, and of rationalising her own selfishness in the name of ‘art’. Yet, we see just how bloody lonely and alone Lu is. She longs for intimacy and connection but in those instances where she could try to get close to someone else, she retreats inwards, afraid or unwilling to expose herself to others. She has plenty of opportunities to talk to Kate about #400 but doesn’t. Her determination to succeed is simultaneously monstrous and so very human. We see just how dismissive other people within the art sphere are towards ‘no names’ like her. In spite of the uncertainties she has when it comes to forming meaningful relationships when it comes to her photographs, Lu knows her self-worth. Her observations reflect her artistic inclinations: she seems to view the world through a camera lens, she notices the lighting, pays attention to the objects populating her surroundings.

There is also a surprising almost supernatural element woven into Lu’s otherwise realistic story. It worked well since Lyon includes it without overemphasizing it. In fact, one could easily argue that the haunting that occurs within these pages is not a ‘true’ haunting…and maybe that makes it all the more eerie.

“The thing about remembering is that each time you retrieve an event from the past it alters the memory itself. If to tell a story is to repaint the past, to remember is to crumple; to fold, unfold, refold, and inevitably rip. If to tell a story is to renovate, to remember is to destroy.”

Self-Portrait with Boy paints a troubling portrait of a female artist struggling to make it in the art world. It is also a story of a young woman’s day to day life in 90s New York: there are plenty of odd, occasionally amusing, encounters, and on-point descriptions about her tedious jobs. Her anxiety about money, her father, her future, the photo, permeates her narration, resulting in a novel that is not exactly easy or enjoyable to read. There are also many uncomfortable scenes where you either really do feel on Lu’s behalf (most of the exchanges she has with older men, as they tend to be condescending and/or dismissive of her and her work) or you will find yourself frustrated by the choices she’s making or by how cold and selfish she can sometimes be. I found her exceedingly relatable, especially when it came to her often conflicting desires (to be known/to be unknown).

“I didn’t want to talk to them. I didn’t want anyone to talk to me. I hoped a familiar hope, a hope I’d developed years before, in high school: that when they looked back on it no one would remember that I’d been there at all..”

This is a challenging read, one that is bound to make you think of what you would do in Lu’s position. Lyon’s prose is effortlessly expressive and her clipped style gives Lu’s narrative a beautiful rhythm. If you have enjoyed other novels that focus on female artists, such as Jen Silverman’s We Play Ourselves, Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss, and Myla Goldberg’s Feast Your Eyes, well, I would definitely recommend you check this one out.

“It could transform me from the unknown photographer I was into the artist I wanted to be: serious, disciplined, honest, ruthless. I was dizzy with anticipation. I was hungry with ambition. Self-Portrait #400 could change my life.”

ps: this novel as no quotation marks, which is a ‘technique’ I tend to dislike and actively avoid reading books implement it. Here however Lyon makes it quite clear who is talking as well as what is dialogue and what is Lu’s narration.

my rating: ★★★★★

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads