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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami

Drawing from her own experiences as a Moroccan immigrant living in the States, in Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America Laila Lalami presents us with an impassioned and thoughtful social commentary. With piercing clarity, she touches upon Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism. She reflects on the many flaws and conditions of citizenship, specifically American citizenship, and on the many ways, it fails people. I truly appreciated the way she discusses topical and oh so important social issues, and the lucidity of her arguments: from discussing the way citizenship is equated with whiteness, white privilege and white fragility, racial profiling, borders, racist rhetorics and the vilification of immigrants, inhumane legislations, the notion of ‘assimilation’, belonging, etc. Throughout this collection of essays, Lalami raises many thought-provoking points and makes many illuminating observations. While Lalami does discuss other people’s experiences, often providing statistics or citing specific incidents/events, her own personal experiences inform much of her writing, which makes it all the more affecting. I admired the way she would attempt to relate to the kind of people I personally would write off as c*nts while also fully acknowledging how frustrating a position she is often made to be in (that of educating bigoted people).
While she does write about subjects that are ‘American’ specific, such as applying for citizenship in America, the issues underlying her essays should not concern exclusively an American readership. Although I did gain insight into processes I am not familiar with, throughout this collection Lalami delves into topics that will undoubtedly resonate with many readers outside of the States.

My only quibble is that some of her essays could have integrated a more intersectional approach. For instance, while Lalami does include ‘asides’ discussing gender inequality and #metoo, she barely acknowledges lgbtq+ related issues.
Curiously enough this is another case where I find myself liking the non-fictional work of an author whose fiction I low-key did not get on with…I would definitely recommend this one and I am determined to read (and hopefully like) Lalami’s The Moor’s Account.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Lightseekers by Femi Kayode

Lightseeker is a propulsive thriller that combines a who/whydunnit with a thought-provoking social commentary. Set in Nigeria, Lightseeker is predominantly narrated by Dr. Philip Taiwo, an investigative psychologist who has recently returned to Nigeria after having spent years in the United States. A husband and a father of two, Philip struggles to readjust to Nigeria’s sociopolitical climate. When he becomes convinced that his wife is cheating on him, he finds himself giving in to his father’s request to investigate the mob killing of three university students that occurred a few years beforehand. Their deaths were linked to their being members of a confraternity, but one of the victims’ fathers, who is connected to Philip’s own father, is adamant in his belief that his son would never join a cult. Philip takes the opportunity to get away from his marriage troubles and finds himself travelling to a village near Port Harcourt. Here he is aided by his driver and guide Chika, who is employed by the victim’s father, and who seems to have many hidden skills. The two soon pick up on the hostility that locals harbor against outsiders, especially those who are seeking to unearth a recent and tragic occurrence. Not only are the local authorities unwilling to help them, but they seem intent on obstructing their investigation. The locals instead see them as a threat, often refusing to talk to them. The students at the university seem more open to discussing the killing but it is only when the rapport between Philip and the locals worsens, to the point where his well being is at stake, that he begins to understand what occurred.
Not only did the story have a strongly rendered setting but the author was able to incorporate diverse and numerous issues within Philip’s investigation. Religious tensions between the town’s Christian and Muslim communities, class and educational disparities, cultism and herd mentality, politics and corruption, as well as the long-lasting consequences of colonialism. Because Philip is not from this town and has yet to fully readjust to Nigeria, we mostly glimpse and understand things through his ‘naive’ eyes, which makes for an immersive experience. The shifting dynamic between Philip and Chika was compelling and I appreciated the way their bond develops.

Now, on the things that didn’t quite convince me. One, well, it’s a crucial one. Once Philip decides to accept this request to investigate the Okriki Three he never seems to really doubt that their deaths were not ‘simply’ the horrific result of a mob killing. And the thing is, he believes this with no substantial proof. The locals’ unwillingness to discuss it or the police’s general shadiness can be understood as a sign of their guilt over their role in the mob killing. Yet, he ‘knows’ that something else is going on…and I didn’t really buy it. Early on he really had nothing to consolidate this belief and yet throughout the course of the narrative, he operates under that assumption. The narrative also shifts to a different point of view, and these chapters are very brief and intentionally ambiguous…and I found them cheap. I have never been a fan of mysteries that provide us with short, and corny usually, chapters from the ‘bad guy’s’ perspective. That the bad guy in question here is clearly experiencing a severe mental disorder was also…dodgy. True, this time around the person is not a psychopath but their (likely) disorder is still routinely stigmatized in the media and popular culture.

My last issue has to do with the female characters in the novel. On his flight to Port Harcourt Philip just happens to be seated near an attractive girlboss who, quelle surprise, is somehow connected to his case. He seems to entertain the possibility of cheating on his wife because this woman is such a girlboss. Fair enough, I don’t particularly mind reading about characters who behave badly or have bad thoughts. However, the language he uses to describe her and refer to her combined with the story’s running gag (Philip declaring that a happy marriage can be achieved by never contradicting your wife in an argument/discussions because “women be like”…especially ‘nagging’ wives who are often mad about nothing…and the thing is, his wife seems far more reasonable and clear-eyed that he is. She barely has any ‘page-time’, but I wondered why Philip would brag about his ‘tactics’ when the only conflict in his marriage seems a result of him having (recently) seen something that has led him to jump to certain conclusions. I hated that he is not quite ‘proven’ right but that what he had seen had escalated into something to be concerned about. Even more frustrating, she blames herself! Like wtf! Also, how could Philip, an investigative psychologist who is shown to be fairly intuitive, be so ready to believe the worst about his wife? Especially given the fairly banal nature of what he’d seen? The woman who helps Philip in the investigation serves the function of a plot device: adding further tension to the troubled marriage subplot and aiding Philip in his investigation when the story needs it.

While the resolution to the mystery was a bit dragged and not particularly satisfying, I did find the majority of this story gripping and I look forward to whatever the author writes next.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Rouge Street: Three Novellas by Shuang Xuetao

Rouge Street presents its readers with three novellas by Shuang Xuetao which have been translated by Jeremy Tiang who once again has done a stellar job. The prose of these novellas is smooth and engaging, contrasting with the sometimes stark realities experienced by the characters populating these stories. The backdrop to most of these stories is Shenyang, which the author renders in gritty realism. The characters struggle to find stable employment and fulfilment as they attempt to navigate a perilous social and economic landscape. Many experiences or are close to people affected by poverty, addiction, and domestic violence. Some find themselves embroiled in murky businesses, while others attempt to make their dreams come true even when the cards are stacked against them. An element of magical realism reminiscent of the work Murakami comes into play in some of these narratives, lending an air of surreality to many of the events and scenes being described. The humor present in many of the character interactions also made me think of Murakami’s books, as Xuetao effectively incorporates humorous asides or funny lines into his otherwise bleak narratives. These moments of levity also add to the surreal, occasionally dreamy, atmosphere of these stories. The author’s insights into contemporary Chinese society also are characterised by an almost rueful tone, one that lends itself to his novellas’ subject matter(s). The family dynamics were lively and I appreciated how the author establishes generational gaps without resorting to the usual clichès.

What I struggled with was the shift in perspectives. I have never been a fan of shifts between 1st and 3rd povs, and here I sometimes had difficulties telling who was speaking and their connection to the other pov. To be fair, this issue I had may have something to do with the fact that I listened to the audiobook version of this collection. I think I would have been able to follow the storylines better if I’d read it for myself. I will probably revisit Rouge Street as I would like to gain a more in-depth understanding of its novellas.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

This is the first story I read by Zadie Smith that I actually didn’t hate. In fact, one could even say that I quite liked The Embassy of Cambodia. Smith’s adroit storytelling is characterised by a razor-sharp social commentary and a trenchant sense of humor. While I was overall able to appreciate this short story, I still do find Smith’s brand of satire to be a bit too mean for my taste. Her portrayal of her characters sometimes strike me as exaggerated, and she does seem to have a propensity for ridiculing the people who populate her works (regardless of the role they play in their story).

The Embassy of Cambodia follows Fatou, a young woman employed by a wealthy family based in Willesden, London. Unbeknownst to her employers, Fatou swims at the health centre that they are members of (using their membership). On her way to the pool, she walks past the embassy of Cambodia and occasionally catches sight of a shuttlecock going back and forward behind the embassy’s walls. We learn of Fatou’s friendship with Andrew, a fellow immigrant who is working a min. wage job despite his education. Together they talk about politics, history, and Christianity. The two for example discuss the possible reasons why in Europe very few people know, let alone speak of, the Rwandan genocide but seem ‘fixated’ on the Shoah. We also learn of how Fatou’s employers treat her, from their racist comments to the fact that they have her passport (meaning that Fatou is not free). While by the end of the story Fatou’s circumstances change, it isn’t sure whether her new path will lead to happiness or safety.
The Embassy of Cambodia was a quick and relatively engaging read. While it didn’t quite succeed in making me a fan of Smith just yet it did make me want to give the rest of her published works a second chance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Noor by Nnedi Okorafor

Earlier this year I read and loved Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control, which is a truly wonderful novella. Because of this, I was looking forward to Noor as I’m a fan of Okorafor’s take on Africanfuturism and of the way she seamlessly fuses folkloresque fantasy elements with sci-fi ones. While Noor certainly delivers on the Africanfuturism front, pairing this with a commentary on biotechnology, on humanity, and on the realities of being ‘other’, its plot and characters, to my disappointment, struck me as extremely derivative. A bare-bones version of Noor would go like this: we have a dystopian setting where the evil capitalist government is after the heroine who is not like other people and has special powers & her man who is also persona non grata and they eventually join a group of rebels where she comes across ex-lover before final ‘battle’ with the baddies. Anwuli Okwudili, who goes by AO, initials that stand for Artificial Organism, lives in a dystopian Nigeria. She was born with various physical disabilities which were later aggravated by a car accident. To her parents and her society’s disapproval, she goes on to have many body augmentations which enable her to be mobile and pain-free for the first time in her life. The opening sequence is rather clumsily executed as we are given vague descriptions about AO’s world (just how far in the future is it?). After splitting up with her partner who is openly repulsed by her ‘machine’ parts (why were they even together in the first place? she already had augmentations by the time they met, and all of a sudden he’s disgusted by her?) she goes to her local market where she’s attacked. AO is forced to flee and comes across DNA, a Fulani herdsman who is at first quite hostile to her (i’m pretty sure he threatens her…how romantic). The two have to survive the desert together and come across very few other characters, and if they do, it just so happens that those characters are just there to play the role of plot devices to further their story. The narrative allegedly takes place over a week but to be entirely honest the passage of time is rather unclear. It seemed to me that the events that transpire within these pages could have all happened in 1 or 2 days. AO and DNA’s bond felt forced and eye-rolling. They just have to fall in love because she’s a woman and he’s a man and they are both on the run from the evil government. While the first half of the novel is rather vague in terms of worldbuilding we, later on, get a ton of exposition that leaves very little room for interpretation (this is something i would expect from a ya novel, not an adult one). Noor has the trappings of a generic dystopian novel. What ‘saves’ this from being an entirely forgettable and uninspired read are the setting and the overall aesthetic which blends together folklore and technology. Okorafor also adopts the story-within-a-story device which works in her novel’s favour. I just found AO to be hard-to-like and at one point there is a scene about choosing your name which just didn’t go down that well with me (that this novel lacks lgbtq+ characters made it even worse tbh). AO’s ideologies were kind of murky and incongruent so that I found it hard to relate to her. The final section introduces a few more characters who are given very little room to shine as they are sidelined in favour of AO and DNA.
All in all, Noor was disappointing, especially considering how much I loved Remote Control. Ao is no Sankofa and in spite of the longer format, well, here the extra pages do more harm than good (they don’t expand the world or flesh out the characters but end up being about a weird romance and a final act that gave me major martyr vibes ).

my rating: ★★½

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Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob’s Good Talk is a small gem of a memoir. Jacob combines different media to discuss a number of issues and topics. Jacob transports to the page the difficult conversations she’s had with her son about race, while also recounting her own experiences growing up as a first-generation Indian-American.

Much of Good Talk takes place against the 2016 election, which doesn’t necessarily make for easy or enjoyable reading material, especially when we discover that her white in-laws are Trump supporters. Jacob struggles to ‘gloss’ over their political stance, especially when her son begins asking difficult questions about Trump and racism. While her husband, who is white, also struggles to make sense of his parents’ behaviour he does at times minimise Jacob’s experiences with discrimination and racism (chalking these episodes to misunderstandings or claiming that supporting someone who is openly racist and misogynistic doesn’t mean you are those things too). While many of the conversations that are depicted in Good Talk have to do with America (or at least view these topics through an American lens) certain, Jacob does also touch upon colorism in India.
In addition to discussing Trump and 9/11, Jacob also gives us insight into her private life, from talking about her family to her experiences moving in predominantly white spaces and to the everyday microaggression that results from that. The dialogues populating this memoir always rang true to life, so much so, that I felt as if I was truly listening to people talking. While Jacob does discuss serious topics, such as racism, sexism, islamophobia, discrimination, colorism, she often injects humor in these discussions. I especially loved her talks with her son and her parents. I’d happily revisit this and I’m looking forward to reading more from Jacob.
Candid, thought-provoking, and ultimately moving Good Talk is a quick read that is a must-read.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray

The Human Zoo will appeal to readers who prefer their books to focus on setting and social commentary more than say plot or character development. Sabina Murray writes with confidence and at first, I found myself quite immersed in her storytelling. The novel is narrated by Tin, a Filipino-American journalist whose marriage is close to collapse. Ting travels to Manila, both to escape her current predicament and to research Timicheg, an Igorot man who in the early 20th century was displayed in one of the last ‘human zoos’ in America. Since her last visit Procopio Gumboc has become the country’s president and his rule is bloody indeed.

Ting returns to her family home where she easily slips back into a comfortable existence with the house staff taking care of her every need and with evenings spent with other socialites. Ting is reunited with her close friends and her former lover Chet, a rich businessman now married to someone else and with ties to Gumboc’s regime.
Ting is also meant to keep an eye on Laird, the American fiance of one of her cousin’s. But when Laird begins showing up at every event and family occasion Ting attends and asking a lot of questions. Ting grows suspicious of Laird and, when he seemingly vanishes, fears the worst.
This novel is certainly informative. Through Ting’s narration, we learn about the Philippines’ history, its fraught political past and present, as well as its contemporary class dynamics. While we do witness just how oppressing its regime is, we also hear the perspective of those who regard it as the lesser evil or even as a solution to the issues affecting their society. Ting is very much opposed and critical of Gumboc’s rein, but not many are willing to listen to her concerns.
Towards the end, the story changes track slightly, in a way that wasn’t entirely seamless. I found some of the events that happen to be rushed and not entirely credible. I also found myself growing bored by how exposition-heavy the narrative was. Ting tells us all of these things about her country and its history and its present but, personally, I would have preferred to have less telling and more showing.

The characters themselves never truly feel like actual people. Ting is a vehicle through which the Philippines can be ‘explained’ to, I’ll hazard, a predominantly non-Filipino audience and she lacked both history and motivations. Her relationship with the characters around them was similarly satisfying and seemed to exist only in order to illustrate a certain type of person who is part of Manila’s upper crust. Her romance with Chet, for instance, was flat and strangely artificial.
I wanted more of Ting’s family and more of her actual research on Timicheg, and less about Gumboc, Laird, or Chet.

Lastly, I found it weird that Ting kept describing Inchoy, her friend, as being gay when he seems to be in a loving relationship with a transwoman. Inchoy, as far as I recall, does not describe himself as lgbtq+. He’s a cis man who is in love with a woman. Yet, because the woman he is in love with is trans Ting claims more than once that he’s gay.

While this novel certainly paints a detailed picture of contemporary Manila, in particular the lifestyle of the upper classes, it failed to leave a strong impression on me. In-depth examination and discussion of politics aside, The Human Zoo doesn’t have much to offer. Ting is a blank page of a protagonist and so are the characters around her. The story ambles on in a fairly predictable and uneventful fashion, but it lacked direction and urgency.
If you are interested in reading this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

She and Mona and I. The three of us: the Sinner, the Believer, the Confused.”

Since I fell in love with Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love back in 2016, I have made my way through her oeuvre, even her more ‘obscure’ titles such as the overlooked gem that is The Saint of Incipient Insanities. Three Daughters of Eve marks the sixth novel that I’ve read of hers and while it certainly showcases many of her wonderful trademarks—there is a touch of magical realism, a non-linear narrative, tension between past and present, East and West, Turkish politics, a nuanced exploration of faith and modern Muslim identity—it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi that made her other books such compelling reads.

The novel opens in Istanbul where Peri, a married and wealthy woman in her late thirties, is mugged while on the way to a fancy dinner party. Following an altercation with the robber, Peri finds herself thinking back to her time at Oxford University and the part that she played in a ‘scandal’ there.
Chapters detailing Peri’s time at this party are interested with ones delving into her childhood and teenage years in the 1980s and 1990s to her time at Oxford. Once at Oxford Peri meets and becomes close to two other girls: Shirin, a free-spirited British-Iranian girl who is bisexual and kind of counterculture, and Mona, who is a Muslim Egyptian American feminist. Peri grows increasingly intrigued by Professor Azur, who teaches divinity and is idolised by many students because and in spite of his ‘allegedly’ unconventional teaching methods.
One of the novel’s main preoccupation is that of reconciliation: Peri grew up in a divided household. While her mother was a staunch believer, her father was more of a sceptic. Peri felt torn between their different temperaments and beliefs. At Oxford Peri is still uncertain about her own relationship to her faith, so her fascination with Professor Azur is somewhat understandable. While I liked those early sections focusing on Peri’s childhood I do wish that the narrative could have reached her time at Oxford more quickly. By the time we get to her first interaction with Professor Azur we are about 60% into the novel. And this drawn-out build-up to his character does him no favours. When ‘we’ meet him I was underwhelmed. He was not particularly charming or controversial, and the few scenes he was in gave me a rather limited glimpse of his character. To be honest, I found most of the novel’s central characters to be somewhat clichéd. Peri was not particularly sympathetic, her main characteristic is that of being in a perpetual state of confusion, Shirin was the classical rebel, her bisexuality another sign of her subversive nature, while Mona is the classic studious and kind girl. In the scenes set in the present, during the dinner party, Shafak lampoons the Turkish upper-class, emphasizing their shallowness and pettiness. We don’t learn much about Peri’s husband nor of Peri’s life. Her daughter is the typical annoying angsty teenager who is all the rage in ‘adult’ novels.

Still, while I never warmed to Peri or her story, I still found Shafak’s prose to be lovely and I always appreciate her dynamic portrayal of Istanbul. While I did find the novel’s forays into theological debates relatively interesting these did not quite make up for the two-dimensional characters. I think sticking to the one perspective limited the story and I for one would have much preferred it if the story could have also followed Shirin and Mona, rather than solely focusing on Peri. I also felt somewhat cheated by the supposed friendship between Shirin, Mona, and Peri…as Shafak barely scratches the surface of their relationship. Lastly, the whole ‘scandal’ was painfully obvious (I mean, I had an idea of what it would be from reading the summary but I hoped Shafak would not be so predictable).
To be honest, I think that The Saint of Incipient Insanities was a lot more successful in its portrayal of the highs and lows of a disparate group of multicultural university students.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy opens with a bang only to come screeching to halt within a few pages. What could have been an intriguing tale of espionage is thwarted by lacklustre execution: painfully slow pacing, watching-paint-dry levels of entertainment, cardboard characters, robotic narration, dry dialogues, heavy on the telling…
Aside from its snazzy cover & title, and that brief mention of Nella Larsen’s Passing, I sadly didn’t like anything about this novel.

In American Spy a Black female former FBI intelligence agent is recounting to her sons—whom she addresses as ‘you’—her experiences growing up in the Queens, working for the FBI—a notoriously white and male ‘club’—and her time as a spy. The storyline is rather meandering. We learn of Marie’s childhood, how her mother left her and her older sister in her father’s care, her beginnings at the FBI….by the time we meet her ‘target’, Thomas Sankara, who was the President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987, we are nearly at the halfway mark, and by then I had grown already bored by Marie monotone narration.

I found Marie, our protagonist, vexing. Her narration is bogged down by exposition. Marie explains things to death. Her detailing of office politics is lifeless. I never gained an impression of how she felt about anything really, especially about her feelings towards the FBI or her work as a spy or even Sankara. She spends most of the story telling her children (and us) how great she was at her job, at reading people’s ‘faces’, and playing mind games. But in actuality, she’s pretty bad at it.
The author’s blending of family drama and a tale of political espionage is unconvincing, uneven, boring. The themes and issues the novel touches upon had potential—race, gender, the Cold War, America meddling in foreign countries—but I just felt extremely removed from all of it. I actively disliked the main character, Sankara does not emerge as a charismatic leader, he is a vague impression of a real-life figure, and the other characters seem to fit too neatly in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories, the lbgtq+ rep, however peripheral to the narrative, was somewhat questionable, and the ending was extremely anticlimactic. In some ways the story cuts off before things actually start happening. This book is all build-up, no pay off.

I read American Spy a few days ago and much about it has already faded from my mind. While I was not expecting this to be an action-driven spy novel, I was nevertheless disappointed by its atrocious pacing and bland storytelling.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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