The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“‘How do you feel?’ ‘All right.’ But I didn’t. I felt terrible.”

I feel incredibly conflicted over Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. On the one hand, I found it to be an ingenious and striking read, one that immortalizes in exacting detail a young woman’s slow descent into psychosis and offers a piercing commentary on 1950s American society, specifically its oppressive gender norms. On the other hand, I could not look past how racist it was.

Set in 1953 The Bell Jar is narrated by Esther Greenwood, a misanthropic 19-year-old from the suburbs of Boston who wins a summer internship working for a New York fashion magazine. For the most part, Esther’s voice is a winning combination of acerbic and witty. She often entertains morbid thoughts, she offers scathing assessments of those around, and, as the days go by, she seems to be steadily sinking into torpor. Although Esther tries to make the most of New York, she quickly becomes disenchanted by its supposedly glamorous scene. She is at once repulsed and appreciative of the girls who are interning with her. While Esther is drawn to Doreen, who is one of the livelier of the girls, and Betsy, a pious goody-two-shoes, she ultimately feels very much apart from them, and often seems to view them and the rest of New York through a glass darkly. What follows is Esther’s unsettling descent into depression. As her contempt towards others and life in general grows, she begins to engage in self-destructive behaviour and acts in increasingly irrational ways. Later on, Esther attempts to write a novel but her deteriorating mental health becomes a concern to her mother who forces her to see a psychiatrist who goes on to prescribe her electroconvulsive therapy. This ‘treatment’ goes awry and Esther worsens. Eventually, Esther is committed to a hospital where she is reunited with an old acquaintance. While the novel does end on a hopeful note, it is by no means an easy ride. It is brutal and unsparing. Throughout the course of this novel, Plath captures with razor-sharp precision the mind of an alienated young woman. She articulates Esther’s ugliest thoughts and fears. As Esther tries and fails to navigate adulthood in New York she becomes more and more withdrawn. She’s apathetic, pessimistic, and derisive of others. Her experiences fail to match her expectations and Esther struggles to make sense of who she is, who she wants to be, and who she ought to be. She’s suffocated by the limitations of her gender and seems to reject the visions of womanhood, of marriage, and of motherhood that American society presents her with: “when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”

Not only does Plath render the stultifying atmosphere of the city and of the circles Esther moves in, but she conveys the lethal ennui experienced by her protagonist. In New York Esther struggles to traverse from adolescence to adulthood. Her alienation from others, her self-estrangement, and her disconnection from her contemporary society pave the way to her eventual breakdown. When others attempt to ‘help’ and/or ‘cure’ Esther they cause more harm than good. They either treat her in an inhumane way or dismiss the severity of her condition.
Esther is certainly not a likeable heroine. She’s a mean snob who often views other people as grotesque and beneath her. But, as I read on, I came to pity her. In spite of her solipsisms and general nastiness, Esther is clearly suffering. Esther’s mother seems to care more about appearances than her daughter’s wellbeing. The men around seem unable to truly see her. Her former sweetheart doesn’t really know her, while the men she meets in New York seem all too eager to use her. As Esther’s desperation grows her view of the world becomes steadily more distorted, her imagination even more ghoulish.
I appreciated how effective Plath’s style is in rendering Esther’s mental state. At times a scene or one of Esther’s thoughts are depicted in such vivid detail as to be overwhelming. But, the story also plays around with linear storytelling, presenting us with fragmented conversations or scenes that we are able to understand only as we read on. At times her prose acquires a sticky quality that fits perfectly with the story’s initial summer backdrop.
So what could possibly cause me to give this novel 3 stars instead of say 4 or 5? Well, while I recognise that this is a seminal feminist work, I could not look past how racist Esther, Plath’s ‘alter ego’, was. While I can usually look past classics’ books using dated/non-pc language, Esther’s racist remarks/attitudes did not strike me as merely being symptomatic of ‘the times’. It’s total ‘okay’ if our college-educated and intellectual protagonist, who is critical of the accepted social norms of her time when it comes to gender-based inequalities, uses racial slurs. Sure. She’s white and it’s the 1950s. But then we have these instances where Esther is not feeling good and mistakes her reflection as belonging to somebody else, specifically someone who is Asian: “I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.” and “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.”.
When a girl says she’s meeting up with a Peruvian guy Esther says the following: “They’re squat,” I said. “They’re ugly as Aztecs.”….And then we have that scene at the hospital involving a Black orderly. After establishing that he is indeed Black she keeps referring to him as “the negro” rather than say “the orderly” or “the man”. This orderly say things like “Mah, mah!” or “Oh Miz, oh Miz […] You shouldn’t of done that, you shouldn’t, you reely shouldn’t.”. Before this (as far as i can recall of course) Plath did not lay much (or any really) emphasis on her characters’ accents. Yet, all of a sudden she just has to establish the specific way in which this man talks. And of course, because he’s an orderly and Black the way he talks has to be ridiculed. Anyway, Esther believes that the orderly is toying with her and the other patients so she “drew my foot back and gave him a sharp, hard kick on the calf of the leg”. Great stuff.
Plath’s description of non-American characters also left a sour taste in my mouth: “She was six feet tall, with huge, slanted, green eyes and thick red lips and a vacant, Slavic expression.” and “A large, bosomy Slavic lady”. Wtf is that even supposed to mean? How fucking lazy is this type of description? Why are all ‘Slavic-looking’ women large?

While Esther uses unflattering terms to describe white Americans, describing someone’s neck as “spam-coloured”, these descriptions, which poking fun at their physical appearance, are ultimately humorous. The ones referring to Black or Asian characters, not so much. Esther’s repugnance is even more pronounced in the instances I mentioned above, and the language she uses is often dehumanising or at least seems to suggest that she does view them as inferior to white people. Every few chapters I would come across a racist remark/line that simply prevented me from becoming invested in Esther’s story. That this is a highly autobiographical novel makes me feel all the more uneasy at Esther’s racism.
While this is certainly an important novel and one of the first books to depict in such uncompromising terms a young woman’s descent into depression, its white American brand of feminism is dated at best.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

In the last few weeks I’ve read two works by Oyeyemi (Peaces and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours) and what I liked most about them was how funny, inventive, and unapologetically queer they were. So, naturally, I was somewhat surprised and saddened to discover that Boy, Snow, Bird lacks any of those qualities. I can’t honestly say that Boy, Snow, Bird has any real strengths. There are far more superior books out there examining race in the 1950s and 1960s America, such as ReginaPorter’s The Travelers, and to call this novel a Snow White retelling seems overarching. While Oyeyemi does incorporate within her narrative certain recognizable fairy tale motifs—mean stepmothers who hate their angelic stepdaughters, magical mirrors and or reflections—the story she recounts struck me as painfully prosaic. We have a vague, and unconvincing, historical setting, cardboard characters, and an uneventful storyline that drags on too long.

The novel is divided into three parts. Part one and three are narrated by Boy. She’s white and the daughter of a pest exterminator who she often refers to as ‘the rat catcher’. In a manner reminiscent of Dickens and She Who Shall Not Be Named, Oyeyemi gives her characters names, or nicknames, that convey their personality or profession. I may sound overly critical here but why do characters whose professions are often openly looked down upon—janitors, cleaners, pest exterminators, etc.—are so frequently cast in the role of sinister and/or obsessive creeps? I mean, just because someone whose job requires them to kill rats doesn’t mean they have to be ‘unstable’ and rat-obsessed (this guy makes rat noises and is apt to go off on anti-rat rants). Anyhow, this rat catcher is horrible through-and-through. He treats Boy in a rather appalling way and understandably she decides to run off once she’s done with high school. She ends up finding a job (what that was i cannot recall) and eventually becomes involved with a man named Arturo who is entirely void of a personality. This man has a daughter called Snow who is biracial, and Boy decides to exile her. Why? I can’t say for sure. It seemed that Boy found Snow’s ‘goodness’ grating or felt threatened by her.
Boy and Arturo have a child together, Bird. Part two is narrated by her and it mostly consists of a series of boring episodes. She exchanged letters with Snow, who she has never met. Whether they got on or not, I have no idea. Their responses to each other’s letters were almost jarring. There is an attempt at exploring doubleness but the story never has anything interesting on this matter.
We then return to Boy who has nothing really interesting to say.

Up to this point, it was safe to say that I did not care for this novel. The characters were dull, poorly developed. Our mains were very one-note and their voices failed to elicit any strong emotions in me. The secondary characters are barely there, and most of the male characters—regardless of their age—blurred together. We also have that one Italian character who just has to say ‘cara’ this and ‘cara’ that. Ffs. Still, I would not have discouraged others from attempting to read it as this could have easily been one of those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ cases but then Oyeyemi drops a rather unpleasant surprise near the end.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Turns out that the ‘rat catcher’, turns out his name is Frank, who up to now has been portrayed as this abusive possibly ‘deranged’ villain, is a trans man. Frank is Boy’s mother. Frank used to be a gay woman who was raped and became pregnant with Boy. After this traumatic experience Frank ‘became’ trans: “You know how Frank says he became Frank? He says he looked in the mirror one morning when he was still Frances, and this man she’d never seen before was just standing there, looking back. ”
Leaving aside the fact that Frank’s ‘story’ is recounted by someone who keeps misgendering and deadnaming them (this story is set in the 50s and 60s after all), I find this whole ‘reveal’ to be a poor choice indeed. Not only does the story imply that victims of sexual abuse cannot ever recover (which, unfortunately, sometimes happens to be true but here it struck me as intentionally sensational) but they will inevitably become abusers themselves. Which, yikes. Can we not? And don’t get me started on the whole ‘woman wanting to escape womanhood by becoming a man + lesbians becoming men because of trauma and the patriarchy’ terfy combo. Fuck sake. And to make your one trans character into an unhinged abuser is decidedly questionable.

To prospective readers of this book: I would like to dissuade you. Give this one a wide berth. Oyeyemi has written far better, and certainly a lot less dubious, things, so I recommend you check those out instead.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

“Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.”

The first time I picked up The Mothers was back in 2017. After reading a few chapters I set aside thinking that it was not for me. And then came the advent of The Vanishing Half. To say that I like that novel would be an understatement. I’ve read it twice and twice I fell in love with it. After rereading it I found myself wondering whether this time around I would actually be able to appreciate The Mothers so I gave it another shot. If I only had to rate this novel in terms of its literary merits this would easily get a 5 stars. While I wasn’t overly keen the mother’s ‘chorus’, I remain in awe of Brit Bennett’s luminous prose. The reason why I cannot sing this book’s praises lies in its storyline, specifically in the way Nadia’s abortion is handled.

The book is set in a conservative and religious Black community in Southern California. ‘The mothers’ are an older group of church-going women and their Greek chorus is interspersed throughout the narrative. Their traditional values are reflected through the judgments they make about the rest of their community. They seem particularly disapproving of young people and their ‘inhibited’ ways. The actual story follows three people: Nadia Turner, who is seventeen and grieving the death of her mother (who committed suicide); the pastor’s son, Luke Sheppard, who is twenty-one and working in a diner after an injury ended his promising football career came to pastor’s son; Aubrey, a pious girl who is living with her older sister. Nadia and Luke begin sleeping together but their casual relationship is complicated when Nadia becomes pregnant. Nadia, who is desperate to leave her town behind and wants to college, decides to get an abortion and Luke comes up with the money for it. But, when he fails to collect from her after her appointment at the clinic Nadia is deeply hurt. The two no longer spend time together and Nadia becomes close to Aubrey. In spite of their different personalities, the two feel seemingly unmoored. Their bond at the beginning of the story is one of the highlights of the novel. Alas, all good things come to an end and Nadia goes off to college while Aubrey remains in their hometown. Over the next few years Luke and Aubrey fall in love and when Nadia returns home things get complicated.

spoilers below

I was not a fan of this love triangle, which was at best unimaginative. Luke was a lustreless and often cowardly character. I genuinely thought that Nadia and Aubrey had more chemistry then either Luke/Nadia or Luke/Aubrey. But I could have looked past this rather clichèd love triangle (one girl is the wild and beautiful one, the other is the quiet plainer looking one) if it hadn’t been for the way both the characters and the narrative itself punish Nadia for her ‘sin’. Throughout the narrative abortion is associated with being a sin, a crime, an abhorrent act. None of the majors character challenge this view. There is not one voice of reason. Nadia, years later, is haunted by the ‘what if’. She ends her pregnancy early on yet she believes that she knows that the ‘baby’ was a boy and is wracked by guilt envisioning him growing up. I am not about to argue that abortions are not traumatic experiences or that the person who chooses to get an abortion does so lightheartedly but come on, having Nadia be haunted forever seems a tad too much. Who cares that she’s gone to college or soon to be a lawyer? Her life is forever defined by her abortion.
Luke is horrible about the whole thing (piling on the guilt by also going on about ‘our baby boy’). And you might say that of course every person in their community is going to shame Nadia or think her sinful. But, why does the narrative reinforces this? Nadia is ostracised and by the end of the novel it is implied that by she will never be happy or content or able to settle down.
Luke on the other hand is not punished. Nadia is made into the story’s villain as she not only gets an abortion but she also betrays her best friend (again we have the implication that the ‘type’ of woman who gets an abortion has loose morals). So ‘other woman’ and sinful Nadia is given a miserable ending while kind god-fearing Aubrey alongside Luke are blessed with a child. Puh-lease.

The thing is, I may have been more understanding if this novel had been set in the early 20th century. After all, I love Toni Morrison’s Sula which shares quite a few similarities with Bennett’s novel. But, Morrison never condemns Sula herself. She makes it quite clear that she becomes her community’s scapegoat. The complicated friendship between Sula and Nel remains the focus of the narrative, whereas here Luke takes the centre-stage.

In spite of my issues with the characters and their storylines I did find Bennett’s prose to be beautiful. There are some poignant observation on grief, loneliness, and friendship.

While I recognise that Bennett is a fantastic writer this novel’s not to subtle anti-abortion message did not sit well with me and because of this I cannot on a good conscience recommend it. Read Sula instead.

View all my reviews

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

For a work that was first published in 1998 Daughter of Fortune strikes me as something more suited to the 1970s. Don’t get me wrong, I love Isabel Allende’s work and she is one of my favourite authors, however, at the risk of coming across as an oversensitive zillennial, her mystification of China struck me as rather old-fashioned. The way Allende portrays other cultures and groups relies on clichés. Yes, some of these characters were, for the most part, ‘harmless’ stereotypes, but nonetheless, they did induce an eye-roll or two on my part (for instance, every indigenous woman from Chile is cuvacious and passionate).

As with many other novels by Allende Daughter of Fortune is very heavy on the telling. There are very few, if any, dialogues, which did occasionally distance me from the events Allende narrated. Still, her storytelling, for the most part, kept me engaged in the characters and their stories.
The novel begins in Chile during the 1840s. Eliza Sommers, a Chilean girl and the novel’s central character, is adopted by Rose Sommers, an unmarried Briton. Rose lives with her strict older brother and tries to raise Eliza as a ‘proper’ Victorian lady. Eliza, however, goes on to fall head-over-heels in love with a Chilean man of ‘dubious’ character. When her beloved is struck by gold fever and leaves for California, a bereft Eliza will risk her own life to be reunited with him.
The story definitely takes its time, and, the first few chapters are less focused on Eliza than a tertiary character, a certain Jacob Todd who travels to Chile after making a bet. He falls for Rose but she clearly does return his affection. We also read about his friends, Feliciano Rodriguez de Santa Cruz and his wife, whose role in the novel feels rather superfluous. During Part I we also learn more about Rose and her brothers and of Eliza’s childhood with them.
The remainder of the novel details Eliza’s epic journey to find the man she loves. During this time Eliza becomes acquainted with Tao Chi’en, a shanghaied physician who for a time worked as a cook on a ship captained by Rose’s other brother, John. Across two lengthy chapters, Allende recounts Tao’s life, from his early days to his marriage and, after his wife’s death, of his eventual disillusionment. Once in California Eliza and Tao grow closer and it is their bond that truly makes this novel. Allende, quite clearly, shows that Eliza’s feelings towards her paramour lead her to idealize this poco di buono man. Yet, her devotion towards him is such that she is willing to spend years of her life in search of him, passing as a young man in order to travel with more freedom.
The novel is certainly full of drama and Allende frequently falls prey to sappy platitudes (about love, destiny, desire, womanhood).
But whereas I could easily overlook Allende’s tendency towards the melodramatic, I had a harder time looking past her clichéd portrayal of China, its culture, and people. When the narrative is relating Tao’s youth, Allende, quite out of the blue, feels the obligation of using a metaphor involving rice (when describing a Chinese mother’s grief: “the little girl’s accident was like the grain of rice that makes the bowl overflow.”). Tao, who is in his thirties, is described looking as sometimes looking like a teenager, and, “ancient as a turtle”, so that “it was easy then to believe that he had lived many centuries”. Whyyyyyy do we have to compare the one Chinese character to a turtle?! And of course, because he is an East Asian man he has to have “delicate ” hands.
Allende includes many other stereotypes about China, and I just have very little patience for this sort of stuff. It didn’t help that Allende includes a plethora of clichés (such as prostitutes with hearts of gold, or Eliza ‘rescuing’ a Native American boy….come on Allende!).
Yes, there were many beautiful descriptions and Allende clearly researched this period of history but I had a hard time getting to like or care for her characters (who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, judgemental, anti-abortion). While it made sense, given that the story takes place during the 1840s, it made it difficult for me to actually relate or sympathize with the characters. Eliza was beautiful (in an unconventional way, of course), kind, and clever. The classic heroine. Her love for this guy was definitely of the insta-love variety, and while the narrative does point this out, I struggled to understand what possessed her to follow this guy whose blandness is such that I cannot recollect his name.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the development between Tao and Eliza, and it was refreshing to see a Chinese man be not only one of the main characters but the heroine’s love interest. I wish the novel had focused exclusively on them, with less of the ‘will they won’t they’ subplot.
Overall, the novel is kind of cheesy and rather dated. Still, fans of Allende who are less ‘sensitive’ than I am will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

 

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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

The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun

Last year I read Hye-Young Pyun’s The Law of Lines and in spite of a few reservations, I did find it to be an absorbing read. Yes, it was bleak, dark, and even grotesque at times but her tone never struck me as cruel or gratuitous. Given that The Hole won ‘Shirley Jackson Award for Novel’ in 2017 I actually expected it to be as or even more accomplished than The Law of Lines (especially given that she published it a year after The Law of Lines). But, boy oh boy, was I wrong. Usually, when I write for a review I did not think much of, I like to put a lil’ disclaimer suggesting GR users check out more positive reviews and or not to take my review too seriously…which I will not be doing this time around with The Hole, a novel that I found to be abhorrent. I gave it the benefit of doubt, I kept on reading, hoping for the story to be anything other than torture-porn….and it did not happen.

There is so much wrong with this novel. It was not horror, it didn’t inspire feelings of fear or anxiety in me, only disgust. It was vulgur, sadistic, lurid, and ableist. The novel has been compared to Misery as it also happens to portray a man being held captive by an ‘insane’ woman but I doubt that King’s novel was as gratuitously sensationalist as this piece of garbage.

After surviving a car accident which his wife did not, Ogi wakes up at a hospital, paralyzed and disfigured. Ogi is an orphan with no close relatives so it is his widowed mother-in-law who takes the role of his caretaker. Ogi is presented as a rather misogynistic individual, who does not seem to be drowning in grief over the death of his wife. We get flashbacks into his married life that show us how not nice he was, he wasn’t a great man or good husband.
In the present, his mother-in-law is shown to be neglectful, cruel, and abusive towards him. She repeatedly humiliates him in front of others, for example, by changing him in front of them, ridiculing him for being disabled, touching him inappropriately. I am so sick of this type of ‘horror’. The bodies of those who fat, deformed, and or disabled, are treated with morbid fascination, described in a way that is meant to elicit feelings of disgust and or discomfort in the reader. Maybe that was okay in the 1980s but today? It is just fucking offensive. A fat woman’s body is a “sagging bloated thickened meat”. Wtf?
And the novel seems to imply that Ogi deserves his mother-in-law, that being disabled is his ‘comeuppance’ for his not-so-great behavior. Ma da quando in quando!

If you think that The Human Centipede is a brilliant work of horror then you may find The Hole to be a riveting read. I, for one, wish I could wipe it from my memory. I found it so tacky and revolting and perverted that I doubt I will ever pick up anything by this author ever again. That this trashy novel went on to win an award named after one of my favourite authors who excelled in creating atmospheres of quiet uneasy…well, that just adds insult to injury.

my rating: ★☆☆☆☆

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

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Burnt Sugar is one of the worst books I’ve read in 2020. If you were able to appreciate this novel, I’m glad. This may be one of those ‘it’s me, not you’ cases…or maybe I’ve read too many stories exploring a complex mother/daughter relationship. To be perfectly frank, I bloody hated this book. It was painfully intent on nauseating the reader. We get it, the human body is base (Julia Kristeva has been there and done that). Burnt Sugar is ripe with garish descriptions of the abject human body: we have bodily fluids and waste, failing bodies, changing bodies (pregnancies, puberty), body parts compared to food or objects (breasts like dough, buttocks like empty sacks).
The narrator of this novel, someone who was so remarkable I can no longer recall her name, is the classic disaffected woman who is alienated from everyone and everything. A few days before listening to Burnt Sugar I read Luster, a novel that features a similar type of character except that there the author manages to make her protagonist into a nuanced human being, one who isn’t nice or extremely likeable but is nevertheless realistic and capable of moving the read.
But here, dio mio! The narrator comes across as petulant and myopic, understanding nothing about anything and no one. Readers are clearly not meant to like her but there are various scenes that try to elicit some sort of sympathy (the nuns mistreat her, her mother is mercurial, her ‘silly’ Indian-American husband is blind to her anguish) on her behalf. Except that I didn’t.
The MC goes and on about her mother, but we never gain insight into her actual feelings towards her. The MC is happy detailing all the wrongs she has endured, and seems to insinuate that she has become such a stronza because of her mother. The whole thing is incredibly superficial. Here we have another mother who is ‘hysterical’ just because ‘hysterical’ mothers can make for some dramatic scenes.
Indian-Americans are portrayed as foolish and brainwashed. Everybody is nasty and disgusting. Ha-ha! Oh wait, that isn’t quite ‘caustic wit’. There were a few—and when I say a few, I mean two or three—phrases that under certain circumstances (if you are as high as a kite) may come across as slightly amusing, but for the most part the MC’s cutting humour fell flat. Viewing everything as grotesque is hardly funny, and it gets tiring, fast.
I also found the author’s treatment and portrayal of postnatal depression and dementia to be highly insensitive. The mother in question becomes ‘monstrous’, the type of character that one may expect in Victorian literature. Who cares about realism when you can write explicit and ‘subversive’ things for the sake of shock value?
I think this was an awful novel…and it seems that I’m in the minority. Who cares. If you want to read it or loved it, good for you. I’m glad I was able to return this audiobook and I sincerely doubt I will ever try reading anything by this author.

Books with believably fraught mother/daughter relationships featuring alienated, disaffect, or challenging main characters : You Exist Too Much, The Far Field.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Given that this book was described as being in the vein of Isabel AllendeI, I had quite high exceptions. While I did find the opening chapter to be intriguing, to compare Fruit of the Drunken Tree to Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez seems both lazy (a comparison that has less to do with substantial similarities—such as style or genre—that with geographical location….I’m not sure why publishers are still comparing any new authors from Latin America to Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and inadequate. Sadly, I never warmed to Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ writing style nor her characters. While I understand that the author based the story on her personal experiences, I found her storyline to be more intent on creating emotional drama than sense. Worse still, I could not get past the novel’s subtly racist undertones

“War always seemed distant from Bogotà, like niebla descending on the hills and forests of the countryside and jungles. The way it approached us was like a fog as well, without us realizing, until it sat embroiling everything around us.”

First, I’ll start with a few positives. Ingrid Rojas Contreras renders the internecine climate of 1990s. The author details the realities of Colombia during Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror by conveying the day-to-day dread, fear, and violence that prevailed in this period. I appreciated the factual aspects of this novel, such as when Contreras’ recount Escobar’s latest actions by having characters listen to the radio or watch tv. The atmosphere of political uncertainty has a visible influence on the characters—regardless of their age/class. I liked reading about the games Chula and her older sister played (the bond between Chula and Cassandra was the most believable relationship in the whole novel).

Now, for the not so positives. The writing was weighed down by laboured similes (in which red fishes are “gelatinous mice” and headlights seem “traced out of nothingness by the invisible hand of God”). Ineffectual descriptions added little to the narrative, seeming more confusing that evocative (a particularly bad one is: “They looked different, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Other than to say they were thinner, and they no longer looked like children. It reminded me of how Petrona didn’t look her age, but older. Like they were scratched behind their faces.”). Chula and Petrona’s had a too similar way of narrating things, which cast a doubt on their supposed differences in age/class.
Chula’s perspective is incredibly one-dimensional. Chula is looking back to this period of her life. She’s now older and in America. Yet, ‘present’ Chula offers no special insights into what happened in Bogotà. She more or less sticks to the perspective she had of things as a child. She doesn’t understand and is mystified by what’s going on around her. There is 0 foreshadowing, which again felt like a missed opportunity. It would have added much needed suspense and provided a break from child-Chula’s limited pov. I wasn’t expecting a Kazuo Ishiguro level of conversation between past and present but Chula’s perpetual incomprehension grated on me. And Contreras could have done something more similar to what Wayétu Moore does in her memoir (the first section she recounts the Liberian Civil War as she experienced it—that is as a child—while the following ones focus on her as an adult looking back on those same events).
Perpetua’s chapters were brief and intentionally vague. Her feelings towards Gorrión and her employers are never clearly depicted. A lot of what she does or say seemed out of the blue, and ultimately made her into an unconvincingly inconsistent character. Her story also seems to carry a moralistic tone that I didn’t particularly care for (her mother warned her not to frequent that “bestia, animal, atrevido, desgraciado” who is “black like dirt”).
The mothers in this novel are portrayed like the classic ‘hysterical’ mothers, prone to screaming outbursts and fits of violence. 90% of the time Chula’s mother is portrayed as being horrible, irrational, and/or insensitive. Then she has these very out-of-character in which she seems to have had a completely switch of personality. While I know from personal experience that there are parents who can be very erratic (the joys of bipolarity) Chula’s mother was often presented as being some sort of wicked witch (the whole thing with the drunken tree). Her instability existed only to make readers pity Chula (who otherwise would have been too ‘privileged’).
Now….Gorrión. He is the only explicitly black character and he’s a monster with no redeeming qualities. Every scene he’s in is made to feel the reader uneasy. His eyes ‘bore’ into this and that, he uses his body to intimidate women and children, he’s an abusive rapist with no scrupulous. He’s just bad, through and through. Often, he’s described as the ‘black guy’ or the young man with ‘afroed hair’. Other are suspicious of his blackness, and the narrative seems to agree with their racial judgment. He’s the true ‘villain’ of the novel while Escobar remains a background figure. Gorrión doesn’t have a real personality as he only seems to have morally reprehensible character traits. The way the author describes his eyes and nose also worked to give this impression of Gorrión being less-than-human. Which…how about not (before I’m accused of being overly sensitive, there are at least three other reviews on GR who—regardless of whether they ultimately liked or disliked this novel—criticised the author’s portrayal of Gorrión.
The novel’s examination of class divide seemed simplistic and relied on tired stereotypes.
The drawn-out plot is slowed down by the author’s repetitive language. Some of the characters seem to change in the last few chapters, but this change seemed more for effect than anything else.

Overall, I did not like this novel. It was quite moralistic (especially towards Perpetua’s sex life) and the ‘friendship’ between Chula and Perpetua was poorly developed. The author seemed only to have scratched the surface of the reason why Chula was so obsessed with Perpetua. The characters—in particular the adults and Perpetua—acted incongruently throughout the novel, often only to add unneeded drama or angst.
I doubt I will ever feel inclined to read more by this author.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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

The Bright Lands by John Fram

At first, I was intrigued by The Bright Lands: a small town in Texas, missing teen(s), possible evil entities…I kind of expected it to be a modern take on Twin Peaks by way of Stephen King. Sadly, however, The Bright Lands never delivers on its intriguing premise. The writing leaves a lot to be desired, the dialogues are at best clumsy and at worst embarrassingly clichéd, the characterisation is sparse and tends to rely on tired stereotypes, the storyline is unfocused and unnecessarily convoluted, and the supernatural elements felt out of place.
The novel doesn’t really have a protagonist. We jump from character to character, without gaining any insight into who they are, most of whom are indistinguishable from each other. We are first introduced to Joel Whitley, who is in late twenties and lives a nice apartment in New York. He gets a series of texts from his younger brother, Dylan, who happens to be the star of his football team, if not their small town’s golden boy. Worried for him, Joel returns to his hometown of Bentley. Joel is understandably not keen to return to his homophobic community, especially after what happened before he left.
When Dylan disappears Joel reconnects with his ex-girlfriend, Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark who still hasn’t forgiven him for ‘misleading’ her. Dylan’s teammates and his girlfriend are clearly hiding something, and there are rumours about a place called ‘the bright lands’.
Many of the town’s inhabitants begin to have nightmares hinting at some sort of Big Evil.
Joel never felt like an actual person. We know he’s gay and that his brother is missing. Other than that? Not much. His life in New York for example is only vaguely alluded to (only in those instances in which Joel notes that he now has plenty money) and his relationship with his mother is non-existent (for the matter she only has a cameo here and there…weird given that it is her son who is missing). He mostly reacts to things for plot reasons, but he really has 0 interiority.
The football team and cheerleaders are one-dimensional. They speak in clichés and their motivations are lazily unconvincing.
The adult men in this town are a similar shade of rugged bigot, the women and the girls instead are ‘badasses’.
What I’m getting at is that the characters were utterly ridiculous. Which would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that I was supposed to take them seriously.
John Fram tries to incorporate in his story topical themes such homophobia (which reigns supreme in Bentley), racism, police incompetence and corruption…but the way he addresses these is questionable. Suggesting that all homophobes are actually closeted gay or bi-curious men…is yeah, not great. The novel’s portrayal and treatment of queer men leaves a lot to be desired.
There is a lot of not telling, not enough showing. Chapters end in predictable cliffhangers, usually with a character learning or seeing something important, and it takes sometimes a few chapters before we return to that character and we get to read what all the fuss was about.
The latter half of the novel is utterly ludicrous. I can sort of see what Fram wanted to do…but I can’t say that he manages to pull it off. For one, I just didn’t buy into it. Second, the whole supernatural subplot was laughable…and this novel was meant to be a ‘horror’? Mmh..
The Bright Lands lacks emotional weight. The characters seem really unfeeling, or perhaps they just don’t register that they are feelings things such as anger or grief. They merely go from A to B.
This was a bland novel….and I’m not sure I will approach Fram’s future work.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas — book reviews

7190.jpgWhile I understand historical context and I am quite able to appreciate classics without wanting them to reflect ‘modern’ sensibilities, I have 0 patience for books that glorify rapists.

SPOILERS BELOW

I don’t mind reading books about terrible people. I read Nabokov’s infamous Lolita and Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I enjoy books by Agatha Christie and Shirley Jackson, which are often populated by entirely by horrible people. Unlike those authors, however, Alexandre Dumas goes to great lengths in order to establish that his musketeers are the ‘good guys’. Their only flaw is that of being too daring. The omniscient narrator is rooting hard for these guys and most of what they say or do is cast in a favourable light and we are repeatedly reminded of their many positive or admirable character traits. If this book had been narrated by D’Artagnan himself, I could have sort of ‘accepted’ that he wouldn’t think badly of himself or his actions…as things stand, it isn’t. Not only does the omniscient narrator condone and heroicizes his behaviour, but the storyline too reinforces this view of D’Artagnan as honourable hero.

Our not so chivalrous heroes
What soon became apparent (to me) was that the narrator was totally off-the-mark when it came to describing what kind of qualities the musketeers demonstrate in their various adventures. For instance, early on in the narrative we are informed that D’Artagnan “was a very prudent youth”. Prudent? This is the same guy who picks a fight with every person who gives him a ‘bad’ look? And no, he doesn’t back down, even when he knows that his opponent is more experienced than he is.
D’Artagnan is not only a hothead but a dickhead. The guy is aggressive, impetuous, rude to his elders and superiors, and cares nothing for his country. Yet, he’s described as being devout to his King, a true gentleman, a good friend, a great fighter, basically an all-rounder!
I was willing to give D’Artagnan the benefit of the doubt. The story begins with him picking up fights left and right, for the flimsiest reasons. The perceived insults that drive him to ‘duel’ brought to mind
Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, so I was temporarily amused. When I saw that his attitude did not change, he started to get on my nerves. Especially when the narrative kept insisting that he was a ‘prudent’ and ‘smart’ young man.
D’Artagnan’s been in Paris for 5 minutes and he already struts around like the place as if he owned the streets. He hires a servant and soon decides “to thrash Planchet provisionally; which he did with the conscientiousness that D’Artagnan carried into everything. After having well beaten him, he forbade him to leave his service without his permission”. Soon after D’Artagnan is approached by his landlord who asks his help in finding his wife, Constance Bonacieux, who has been kidnapped…and D’Artagnan ends up falling in love at first sight with Constance (way to help your landlord!).
While Constance never gives any clear indication that she might reciprocate his feelings or attraction, as she is embroiled in some subterfuge and has little time for love, D’Artagnan speaks of her as his ‘mistress’. Even when he becomes aware that Constance may be up to no good, as she repeatedly lies to him about her whereabouts and motives, D’Artagnan decides to help her because he has the hots for her. Our ‘loyal’ hero goes behind his King’s back and helps Constance, who is the Queen’s seamstress and confidante, hide the Queen’s liaison with the Duke of Buckingham. Let me recap: D’Artagnan, our hero, who hates the Cardinal and his guards because they are rivals to the King and his musketeers, decides to help the Queen deceive their King and in doing so ends up helping an English Duke. Do I detect a hint of treachery? And make no mistake. D’Artagnan doesn’t help the Queen because he’s worried that knowledge of her disloyalty might ‘hurt’ the King’s feelings nor is he doing this because of compassion for the Queen. He decides to betray his country because he’s lusting after a woman he’s met once or twice. Like, wtf man?
Anyway, he recruits his new friends, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, to help him him out. Their plan involves travelling to England so the Duke can give to D’Artagnan the Queen’s necklace (given to him as a token of her affection). Along the way the musketeers are intercepted by the Cardinal’s minions (the Cardinal wants to expose the Queen’s affair) and Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are either wounded or incapacitated. D’Artagnan completes his mission, he returns to Paris, caring little for his friends’ whereabouts, and becomes once again obsessed by Constance. The Queen shows her gratitude by giving him a flashy ring.
Constance is kidnapped (again) and D’Artagnan remembers that his friends are MIA. He buys them some horses (what a great friend, right?) and rounds them up. He then forgets all about Constance and falls in love with Milady de Winter. He knows that Milady is in cahoots with the Cardinal but he’s willing to ignore this. In order to learn Milady’s secrets, D’Artagnan recruits her maid who—for reasons unknown to me—is in love with him. Our hero forces himself on the maid, and manipulates her into helping him trick Milady. He pretends to be Milady’s lover and visits her room at night, breaking the maid’s heart and putting her life at risk. He later on convinces Milady that her lover has renounced her and visits her once more at night and rapes Milady. D’Artagnan knows that Milady is in love with another man, but idiotically believes that forcing himself on her will have magically changed her feelings. When he reveals that her lover never called things off with her, and it was him who visited her room a few nights prior, well…she obviously goes ballistic. And D’Artagnan, who until that moment was happy to forget that she is a ‘demon’ and ‘evil’, discovers her secret identity.
D’Artagnan remembers that he’s in love with Constance who is then killed off by Milady, just in case we needed to remember that Milady is diabolical…more stuff happens, D’Artagnan wants to save the Duke’s live, just because it is the Cardinal who wants him dead. D’Artagnan, alongside his bros, plays judge, jury, and executioner and corners and condemns to death Milady.
In spite of our hero’s stupidity (he goes to dubious meeting points, ignores other people’s warnings, wears his new ring in front of the Cardinal) he wins. Hurray! Except…that he isn’t a fucking hero. This guy is a menace. He abuses women, emotionally and physically, manipulates them into sleeping with him, forces himself on them, or makes them agree to do his bidding. Women are disposable for D’Artagnan. He uses them and throws them to the side.
But, you might say, the story is set in the 17th century. Things were different then. Women weren’t people. Okay, sure. So let’s have a look at the way in which our young D’Artagnan treats other men. He beats and verbally abuses his servant, he goes behind the King’s back and commits treason, he forgets all about his friends unless he needs help in getting ‘his’ women.
The other musketeers are just as bad. Athos is a psychopath. At the age of 25 he forces himself on a 16-year-old girl, and then marries her because “he was an honorable man”. He later discovers that she has a fleur-de-lis branded on her shoulder, meaning that she was a criminal. Rather than having a conversation with her, asking what her crime was, he decides to hang her himself. Because he’s the master of the land. Athos also treats men rather poorly as he forbids his servant from speaking (not kidding, his servant isn’t allowed to talk). Porthos gaslights an older married woman, forcing her to give him money otherwise he will start seeing other women. Aramis also speaks poorly of women (but at least he isn’t a rapist, so I guess we have a golden boy after all).
The so-called friendship between the musketeers was one of the novel’s most disappointing aspects. These dicks don’t give two shits about each other. D’Artagnan forgets all about his friends, and when he then decides to gift them horses as a ‘sorry I left you for dead’ present, Aramis, Athos, and Porthos end up gambling them or selling them away. What unites them is their idiocy, their arrogance, and their misogyny.

Our diabolical femme fatale and the dignified male villain
Milady is a demon. She’s diabolical. She’s evil. Both the narrative and the various characters corroborate this view of Milady. Much is made of her beauty and her ability to entice men. Sadly, we have very few sections from her perspective, and in those instances she’s made to appear rather pathetic.
Our Cardinal on the other hand appears in a much more forgiving light. He’s the ‘mastermind’, the ‘brains’, and he’s a man, so he gets away with plotting against our heroes.

This book made me mad. I hate it, I hate that people view D’Artagnan & co as ‘heroes’, that the musketeers have become this emblem of friendship, and I absolutely hate the way women are portrayed (victims or vixens). I don’t care if this is considered a classic. Fuck this book.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz — book review

44080488._SY475_.jpg

“Can you tell me what happened on the night of the murder? I asked and even as I uttered the words I felt slightly ridiculous. They sounded so old-fashioned, so clichéd. If I’d seen them in a novel, I’d have edited them out.”

Anthony Horowitz has written yet another labyrinthine whodunnit that pays homage to Golden Age Detective fiction. In Moonflower Murders readers will be reunited with Susan Ryeland, a former editor who now runs a small hotel in Crete with her partner Andreas. Running a hotel is exhausting and Susan, nostalgic about her old life, years for a break. It just so happens that she’s approached by a couple, the Trehearnes, own a five-star hotel, Branlow Hall, in Suffolk. Eight years previously a guest was brutally murdered in his room. Susan just so happens to have edited a book that was inspired by this murder (Alan Conway’s Atticus Pünd Takes the Case). The Trehearnes’ daughter, Cecily, disappeared after telling them that Alan’s novel holds the truth behind the 2008 murder. The Trehearnes hire Susan, hoping that her knowledge of the book and her ties to the now deceased Alan will shed light on Cecily’s disappearance. Similarly to Magpie Murders the novel is divided between Susan’s narrative and Alan’s novel.
While it does take a stretch of the imagination to believe that the Trehearnes would hire Susan and not a private detective to find what happened to their daughter, I soon fell into the flow of story. Susan’s presence at Branlow Hall ruffles quite a few feathers. There is Cecily’s icy sister, the various hotel employees, Cecily’s husband and their nanny…we have quite a large cast. Some of them hold Susan accountable for Alan’s novel, others simply don’t like the idea of her ‘snooping’ around. Yet Susan, who is determined to find out what happened to Cecily, knows that her disappearance is tied up to that fateful night in 2008.
While I did like the story-within-the-story technique in Magpie Murders, in this novel I was far more invested in Susan’s ‘reality’ than Alan’s book. In fact, as much as I like I Horowitz’s writing, I did dislike Alan’s. I found myself agreeing with Susan’s comments about Atticus Pünd Takes the Case: Alan’s narrative is populated by cruel caricatures of the ‘real’ people from Branlow Hall. I just didn’t particularly care for Pünd and his investigation. Alan’s novel seems a clumsy attempt at imitating Agatha Christie. His dialogues lack her wit and his detective is forgettable. I wish that Horowitz had also included a few relevant chapters from Alan’s novel, rather than giving us the whole thing.
While many of the easter eggs and allusions in Alan’s novel went over my head (was all that kerfuffle with the names truly necessary?), I knew the identity of the killer early on…which is perhaps inevitable given that Alan tries so hard to emulate the Queen of Crime (view spoiler). While I do understand that much of what I disliked in Atticus Pünd Takes the Case was intentional (as characters from Susan’s narrative point out its many flaws), I still don’t understand why readers should have to read the whole thing. Also, Alan’s novel takes us away from the more interesting whodunnit.
For the most part I liked Susan’s investigation. There were so many subplots and red-herrings that it was hard to keep all the facts straight but for the most part I was intrigued by the unfolding of her investigation.
Sadly, I couldn’t help but noticing that Horowitz has written yet another book that casts homosexuality in a negative light. This is the third book by him (the other ones being Magpie Murders and The House of Silk) in which gay men are portrayed as morally corrupt (they are sadistic, pedophiles, liars, manipulative). Which…what gives Horowitz? Throughout Moonflower Murders characters make comments about ‘what can and what can’t be said’ nowadays, which suggests some sort of awareness towards ‘modern’ sensibilities’. While I do not except, nor desire, for characters to be models of virtue, it seems odd to make your 3 gay characters either horrible, such as with Alan and Frank, or a former prostitute who leads an unhealthy and unfulfilling existence. Great representation…not. While there aren’t any extremely likeable characters, Alan and Frank are perhaps the worst of the whole lot. When talking about Alan and Frank, other characters conflate their sexual orientation with their morally reprehensible behaviour. They will say ‘I have nothing against gay men’ and go on to say something that equates being gay with perversion. This is the second novel by Horowitz in which his main character doesn’t challenge other characters’ homophobic remarks (Susan…you’ve let me down).
In Horowitz’s novels being gay makes you undesirable.
This whole thing bugged me so much that I was unable to become truly invested in the story. Still, I did like Horowitz’s depiction of the publishing industry, and I was interested in Susan’s observations about the editing process or writing in general.

“Every writer is different,” I said. “But they don’t steal, exactly. They absorb. It’s such a strange profession, really, living in a sort of twilight between the world they belong to and the world they create.”

This was far from a ‘bad’ whodunnit. While I was disappointed by the way gay characters were portrayed, Horowitz’s writing is nevertheless engaging (and his quintessentially British humour gets to me). Atticus Pünd Takes the Case on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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