The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo

The Old Woman with the Knife follows Hornclaw a 65-year-old assassin in South Korea who is noticing that she is no longer as fit as she used to be. She makes a few slips up on the job and wonders when her company is going to force her into retirement. Due to the nature of her job Hornclaw leads a solitary lifestyle, her only companion is an old dog whose presence she endures more than she enjoys. She is shown to be fairly apathetic and efficient even if the people around her are quick to dismiss her based on her gender and age. Not only does Hornclaw have to contend with the possibility of her motor and cognitive skills deteriorating but a young male colleague of hers seems eager to embarrass her, talking down to her and making jabs at her techniques. Although mildly annoyed by this Hornclaw doesn’t seem particularly bothered by him however when it seems that his dislike of her may be deeper than what their superficial colleague-relationship entails, Hornclaw can no longer be passive. When he begins to interfere with her jobs and her private life Hornclaw has no choice but to confront him.
I was hoping for the story to be more about Hornclaw’s profession rather than the cat/mouse game between her and her colleague. That man is fairly one-dimensional and the way he is portrayed often veers into the cartoonish so I never took him as a serious threat. While we do get glimpses into Hornclaw’s past, in particular the circumstances that led to her entering this line of work and her relationship with her mentor, the narrative relies too much on the ‘telling’ of things. I would have preferred to read more scenes actually showing Hornclaw working, either on her first jobs or her most memorable killings. Hornclaw’s characterisation also seemed a tad uneven. It seemed to me that the author couldn’t quite bring themselves to portray Hornclaw as a ruthless and self-serving killer so we end up with a character who demonstrates very inconsistent characteristics that don’t quite add up. Also, we are told that at one point or another she has cared for two individuals but I didn’t quite believe that as the first instance is the cliched mentee has feelings for mentor shebang and the other was just kind of weird. Lastly, while for much of the narrative we are told about how remorseless and cold-hearted Hornclaw is she actually comes across as frustratingly unassertive and not incredibly good at her job. It would have been more refreshing to see a character of her age and gender be outspoken or even aggressive and arrogant. Hornclaw ascribes her ‘softening’ to her ageing but that seemed a bit of a cop-out. I’m sure that frailty or the possibility of frailty could make one feel more vulnerable or more perceptive and sympathetic of the vulnerabilities of others but it does end up making Hornclaw into a rather corny character. Still, I can’t think of another book that is centred on a female assassin in her mid-60s so if you are interested in this kind of premise you should definitely check this one out for yourself.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Having recently enjoyed reading Kevin Kwan’s A Room With A View re-telling, I was seriously expecting to love Crazy Rich Asians. I went into it hoping for a light-hearted and fun read but was instead met with a snooze-inducing story, a horrid cast of poorly developed characters, and an abundance of crass humor. I grew to hate all of the characters as well as the so-called plot and the tacky dialogues. Whereas I found Sex & Vanity to be a funny comedy of manners, Crazy Rich Asians struck me as garish and grating.
Rachel Chu, our supposed heroine, joins her boyfriend Nicholas Young as he travels to Singapore to be the best man at his best friend’s wedding. Nicholas has not informed Rachel of his family, who happen to be ‘crazy rich’. Because of this Rachel isn’t prepared to contend with his relatives’ opulent lifestyles nor is she expecting to encounter such cut-throat people, whose weapon of choice is malicious gossip. Although Rachel was raised in America her mother is from mainland China. Both of these things make her ‘undesirable’ to the older people in Nicholas’ family. His mother and grandmother in particular are set against her, so much so that they are willing to sabotage their relationship by any means necessary.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the story as much if it had focused on the conflict between Rachel and Nicholas’ mother. But, alas, hundreds of pages are dedicated to Nicholas’ horrid relations: there is Astrid, a spoiled yet self-pitying woman who will spend hundred of thousands on jewellery only to then bemoan how extravagant young people are. Her husband has a huge chip on his shoulder because he feels that her family treats him like a servant. She eventually comes across her first love who materializes from nowhere only to play the role of self-sacrificing cupid and gives Astrid some ‘advice’ on how to salvage her marriage, because he ‘knows’ men. There is Eddie, who is even more spoiled and obnoxious than Astrid. The narrative goes out of its way to paint him as a vulgar idiot who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There are plenty of additional characters who seem to share the same personality: they are mean, wasteful, vain, stupid, back-stabbing…the list goes on. I don’t have a problem with unlikeable characters. Some of my favourite novels, such as Madame Bovary or White Ivy, focus on less-than-likeable characters. However, the ones in Crazy Rich Asians are so painfully one-dimensional as to be utterly ridiculous. This slapdash satire is lazy and worst of all, painfully unfunny. All the husbands were dicks in the same way: they are cowards, weak, and possible cheaters. The women were divided into four categories: Rachel, who is Not Like Other Women, in that she uses her brain, she’s intelligent, she has a job, she (allegedly) doesn’t know or care about fashion or money; the ‘not so bad’ rich women such as Astrid and Rachel’s friend whose characters nevertheless revolve around what they wear or the fact that they like to spend money; the nasty set, which includes almost all of the women invited to the wedding, and these ones, well, they are Mean Girls who bully Rachel because they are jealous, and for all their love of fashion they do not possess Rachel’s innate simple yet elegant fashion sense; and the older women, which includes Nicholas’ mother, his aunts, and his grandmother who are also horrible and scheming (but are meant to be more ‘classy’ than the Mean Girls).

The plot goes in a circle forever. We see no meaningful interactions between Nicholas and his family, in fact, he gets less page time than most characters. He is Not Like Other Men in that he doesn’t care about money or status. Puh-lease. I found his denial of his wealth truly off-putting. I get that he was (somehow) the only one to be raised to be modest about the family fortune but the man has lived abroad and on his own, surely he must have gained some sort of perspective when it comes to his family’s wealth. But no! Time and again he denies that his family is rich, and I hated that. It made me want to reach into the page and slap him. This fake modesty is not pretty. I feel a similar type of rage when I think of those celebrities making videos where they say things along the lines ‘we are all in this pandemic together’. Bleargh. Fuck off, really. And Rachel, what a disappointing character. She was bland, painfully so. She never stands up to anyone, which, fair enough, given that maybe she doesn’t want to be disrespectful or aggravate certain situations but I found her passivity infuriating in the long run. Especially when it came to those Mean Girls. She also lacked ‘history’. It seemed that before her name appeared on the page she did not exist. With the exception of that one friend and her bf she has formed no other meaningful relationship…which is saying something given that she’s not a child.
Characters keep saying offensive things and no one really challenges their comments or views. If anything, the story goes to prove them ‘right’. Take the whole Kitty thing for example. At one point one of the female characters says that shopping can solve any problem a woman is having and I wanted to gouge my eyes out. The amount of girl-hate also drove me up the walls. I hate when male authors do this. It is as if they are compelled to write women as ‘catty’ and ‘competitive’ (whereas their male characters aren’t).
The book consists of characters gossiping, bicker, and bitching about one another. He said that she said that they said…etc. The one gay-coded character is portrayed as a snake (kwan, wtf? what is this, downton abbey?). The book exalts the characters’ extravagant lifestyles without anything meaningful to say about it. In fact, it just glorifies the ways of rich people. The constant name-dropping of fashion brands threatened to turn my brain to slush.
Anyway, this book has no redeeming qualities (for me of course). Rachel and Nicholas’ relationship felt like an afterthought almost. I never believed that they cared for each other and I think that Rachel should have not forgiven a man who lied by omission (about his past, his family, etc.). The last act was pure soap-opera. To use a possibly problematic term, that ‘twist’ was demented. Seriously so. That we don’t get any real scenes between Nicholas and his mother or even Rachel and his mother made their whole conflict bathetic.
This was meant to be an entertaining and escapist read but I was certainly not diverted. Maybe if you like shows like Gossip Girl you will find this more rewarding than I did. I, for one, do not care for this mindless glorification of the rich. Their ‘antics’, such as xenophobic, classist, and sexist comments as well as their ostentatious tastes and their constant need to travel by jet (who cares about the global carbon emissions!), are played up for laughs. This kind of mindless and gaudy satire achieves nothing. Bah. Maybe the film is more tolerable but this book is the definition of banal.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

“How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?”

Devastating, heart-wrenching, and full of love and sorrow, Men We Reaped is an unforgettable memoir. Jesmyn Ward recounts her experiences growing up poor, female, and Black in the rural South during the late 80s and 90s. Ward interweaves her personal account with a brutal social commentary that highlights what it means to be poor and Black, and of how racism, specifically in the South, remains an insidious and widespread phenomenon with tragic consequences. Interrupting those chapters in which Ward recounts her childhood and teenage years are chapters focusing on the lives of five Black men, all of whom died young as a result of addictions, suicide, and accidents. Some of these men, we learn, were her friends growing up. We see how the school system either pegged them as problem students or ignored them, which inevitably would make them feel ‘less than’ and worthless. Ward’s younger brother, Joshua, is one of these young men, which makes these chapters all the more hard-hitting.
Ward shows how deep-rooted institutionalised racism is and how it results in social and economic disparities. In looking back to the past, Ward tries to understand the motivations behind the actions and behaviours of the adults around her, in particular, her mother and her father, a serial cheater who would eventually leave them behind. In discussing the lives of these men she cared for, Ward considered the high mortality rate among young Black men, and of the way in which their community is affected by generational trauma, drug addiction, etc. Ward ultimately feels conflicted about the South, a place that has played a fatal role in the deaths of the people she loved. Yet, even after moving away to pursue higher education, she finds herself longing to return to it. Ward, in some ways, appears to be haunted by it and by the role it played in the deaths of so many men she knew and loved.
With heartbreaking clarity and piercing insight, Ward writes of her childhood, of the lives of those young men who died such violent and sudden deaths, of her own family and her relationship to her parents, of her community, and of social inequality. More impressive still than Ward’s talent for vividly portraying a specific time and place is her ability to articulate her grief over the death of her brother and her friends.
While this memoir is by no means an easy read, it did in fact distress me, ultimately, I think it’s a necessary read. Ward’s lyrical prose reads like an elegy, both to the men that died at such a young age and to the South. Men We Reaped is a powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking read. While this memoir is mired in pain and grief, Ward’s elegiac prose and empathy balanced out its bleaker aspects. With admirable lucidity Ward attempts to reconcile herself with the confusion and anger brought about by the inequalities experienced by her community and by her loved one deaths.

Some quotes that will haunt me:

“[T]he message was always the same: You’re Black. You’re less than White. And then, at the heart of it: You’re less than human.

“We inherit these things that breed despair and self-hatred, and tragedy multiplies. For years I carried the weight of that despair with me;”

“But this grief, for all its awful weight, insists that he matters. What we carry of Roger and Demond and C. J. and Ronald says that they matter. I have written only the nuggets of my friends’ lives. This story is only a hint of what my brother’s life was worth, more than the nineteen years he lived, more than the thirteen years he’s been dead. It is worth more than I can say. And there’s my dilemma, because all I can do in the end is say.”

“We who still live do what we must. Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.”

“I thought being unwanted and abandoned and persecuted was the legacy of the poor southern Black woman. But as an adult, I see my mother’s legacy anew. I see how all the burdens she bore, the burdens of her history and identity and of our country’s history and identity, enabled her to manifest her greatest gifts.”

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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The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

While The Factory shares many similarities with The Hole, it lacked the eerie atmosphere that made the latter into such a beguiling read. The Factory switches between three 1st povs, without specifying who is narrating (we usually can guess by the job they do). They all work at ‘the factory, an industrial factory located in an unnamed city that size-wise is close to Disneyland. The factory has a large influence on the city’s inhabitants, kids and adults alike go on field trips there in order to learn more about its inner-workings, and parents are keen for their children to have careers there. One of our narrators is employed to study moss, another shreds paper, and the third is a proofreader. Throughout the course of this novel, the author highlights the nonsensical rules and tasks that characterize modern working environments. Many of the conversations they have with their colleagues verge on the absurd, and much of what happens in their daily working lives will strike us as peculiar. Two years ago I was a temp worker at this company that processed donations and lottery tickets for charities and it made for a very strange working experience. They had bizarre regulations and often gave us temp workers the most random jobs.
This is not the first book that I’ve read that satirizes the gig economy. The Factory wasn’t quite as inventive and engaging as say Temporary. Also, the use of multiple narrators resulted in a less focused storyline. Whether this was intentional or not, I found myself wishing for a more introspective read. The characters populating this book are half-formed caricatures that didn’t quite succeed in capturing a certain type of person/worker. Still, The Factory does read like a contemporary Kafkaesque tale. There is an interview scene very early on in the narrative that felt really spot-on.
While this wasn’t as quite a memorable read as The Hole it does make for a weird and fairly humorous read.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah

“Objects, matter itself, were softly disintegrating. All identity became ambiguous, semi-opaque.”



As the fickle creature that I am what drew me to Untold Night and Day was its cover. The first few pages intrigued me as they focus on Kim Ayami a former actor who now works at an audio theatre for the blind. The narrative that follows is rather metaphysical in nature, most of the discussions that occur within these pages are abstract and or relating to sensory experience, with, as the title suggests, special attention paid to night and day, darkness and lightness. This slim tome repeatedly obfuscates the line between dreams and reality, so that everything we read of is tinged by an air of surreality. At one point we read of a character who seems to be stalking Ayami before returning to her and a foreign poet nicknamed Wolfi. The novel was certainly disorienting, and in that, it evokes one of the story’s earlier episodes when Ayami meets with ‘the director’ in an exclusive ‘blackout restaurant’. We can’t really discern a story nor do we become familiar with the characters, and familiar settings and conversations are made unfamiliar. Alas, the discussion they have about art, poetry, performance, life, did not strike me as particularly profound or clever, in fact, they expressed rather tired ideas.
I can safely say that I did not get this novel. While I usually like surrealist narratives but here…well, I just did not care. If you are looking for an experimental read and you have a higher tolerance for novels that are confusing for the sake of being confusing, well, you should give this one a try.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★★★

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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: ★★☆☆☆

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Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

“It’s my belief that everything in this world has its own language. We have the ability to open up our ears and minds to anything and everything. That could be someone walking down the street, or it could be the sunshine or the wind.”

Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste is a gentle and life-affirming novel (novella?). The book’s central figures are discriminated against because of their pasts: Sentaro is a middle aged man who works at a dorayaki shop has a criminal record; Tokue, an elderly woman, had leprosy as a teen and was subsequently forced into exile in a leprosarium. Sentaro is unenthusiastic about his job and future, seeming resigned to a life of despondency. This changes when Tokue begins working alongside him. Although Sentaro is initially reluctant to let Tokue work with him he changes his mind once he tastes her delicious bean paste. Tokue’s dedication to this culinary process earns his respect and loyalty but the shop sees an increase in customers. However, gossip about Tokue’s disfigured hands threatens Sentaro’s newfound happiness.
As the cover and title suggest this was a very sweet read. While the tone of the story was by no means schmaltzy, there were times in which the narrative struck me as a bit too fluffy (i.e. not particularly deep). Sentaro is a fairly simple character and to be honest I didn’t find him nearly as half compelling as Tokue. The narrative does shed light on how harmful stigmas can be as well as providing information relating to the history of leprosy in Japan.
I do wish that Tokue had remained the focus of the narrative as Sentaro and the schoolgirl (who was an entirely forgettable character) were very dull by comparison.
Still, even if this isn’t a particularly complex or thought-provoking story I do think that it will appeal to fans of The Housekeeper and the Professor as it has a similarly tranquil atmosphere.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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My Education by Susan Choi

“Love bestows such a dangerous sense of entitlement.”

Sometimes books really deserve their average rating…and this is one of those cases. As I am writing this the majority of readers have given My Education three stars, and more reviewers have given it 2 stars than 5. I know that at the end of the day ‘ratings’ are insubstantial, not reliable gauges, yadda yadda but readers who are considering picking up My Education should bear its score in mind….it’s low for a reason.
I for one can’t say whether I disliked it or not. There were many elements I did not appreciate but I could also see what the novel was trying to do. For the most part, it was a rather funny novel and there were many passages and scenes that were almost endearingly offbeat.
Susan Cho’s satire—of academia, of ‘affairs’ between a younger & naive person and an older married one, and of all sorts of people—did occasionally hit the mark, and the narrator’s caustic commentary did amused me. But, and it’s a big but, Cho’s hyperbolic and bombastic language made for a dense and ultimately not very rewarding reading experience. She has a Joycean approach to syntax, with baffling backwards-sounding sentences that go on forever and are punctuated by highfalutin words that more often than not do not fit the context they are in. Also, I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this novel with two others I’ve read in 2020, Pizza Girl and Luster, both of which explore dynamics similar to the ones My Education . Whereas I found those books to be highly absorbing and I enjoyed their ‘effervescent’ prose, My Education is bogged down by its author’s circumlocutory and turgid style. At times it seemed that I had to find my way through a discombobulating and never-ending warren of florid sentences, with little success. I was perplexed by Cho’s writing, especially since it did ‘sound’ like the authentic ‘voice’ of her main character. Would Regina really make such ostentatious metaphors and penetrating if convoluted observations and assessments? At times her comments seemed to originate from a perspective outside of her own one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. While this is by no means a plot-driven narrative, it does have a storyline, however feeble, and it unfolds as follows: Regina, the type of protagonist who should have and could have remained unnamed, is a directionless graduate student who upon hearing about Professor Nicholas Brodeur’s ill repute decides to join his class and attract his attention. For reasons that are never truly disclosed to the readers Regina is attracted to Nicholas because of the allegations against him… her excitement at his sexual misconduct was certainly bewildering. Was she aroused by the idea of his illicit behaviour? Who knows! Her true feelings and motivations are lost in her pleonastic inner-monologue. Which, as I’ve mentioned above, just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of her persona. She’s naïve, childish, inward-looking (yet, her act of introspections added little to her characterisation), impulsive, and socially myopic. The author tries to emphasise her ‘youth’, and in the process she made her seem closer to a teenager than a twenty-one-year-old (time and again we are reminded of her ignorance, and lack of interest or understanding, of what being a mother entails…is she 12?). Anyway, Regina, for obscurely perverse reasons, ‘pursues’ Nicholas, who isn’t as alluring a man as she’d hoped. Cho, in fact, subverts the trope of the young ingénue student who begins an affair with an older charismatic professor as Regina’s liaison is not with Nicholas but his wife. She falls in love within a few pages, lusts after this wife, Martha, for reasons that aren’t that clear (which is the norm in this book). More perplexing still is that Martha reciprocates, to a certain degree at least, Regina’s infatuation. The sex between these two women is awfully over the top, and I don’t I’ve ever come across such bad sex scenes (this book was nominated, and should have won, for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award). Regina lusting for Martha makes for 40% of this novel. They either have petty squabbles or convoluted sex (“I would have liked a single rope to bind us together, with tightly stacked coils, so that we formed a sort of Siamese mummy”) . Readers will probably not root for them as they are unlikable or unsympathetic as each other. The male characters, however flawed and problematic, at least had discernible personalities and could even be quite amusing.

The narrative then takes us away from the 1990s and into the late 2000s where we witness how Regina’s life has come to look similar to Martha’s own one. I didn’t particularly like the message here: the three main women in this novel are all at one point or another mothers and wives. While the male characters had character arcs, Regina and Martha…I could not for the life of me understand what compelled them to act they way they did. Given that this novel popped up in ‘best campus/academia’ novels I was hoping that Regina’s studies would play more of a role in her story, but they don’t. Even when we see her as a ‘proper’ grown-up, her work and interests remain off page.
While I liked the idea of this novel, the execution was not my cup of tea. Cho’s lampooning style could be amusing, but then we would get things like: “It was deep winter now, the season when suicides rained down like apples from the limbs of the gorge-spanning bridges” or “something in her bearing, an extremely compressed capability, suggested to me that she might be a butcher, or a construction foreperson, as well as a lesbian”.
I just don’t know what to make of this book. It had the right ingredients for a funny yet cutting read but Cho’s overplays her already intentionally exaggerated style. Then we have two boring and undefined main characters, many failed attempts at subversiveness, and a repetitive and ultimately skin-deep story…and you kind of lost me. What pissed me off the most was a scene towards the end where Cho makes a character who was sexually abused have a cameo appearance where she discloses this to Regina for no real reason other than for some shock-value content. The tone in this scene was so off, it was almost gleeful…which, yikes. That’s fucked up.
When Regina tells us “Reader, I grew up”, I wanted to call out bullshit because Regina, darling, you did no such fucking thing. The ending really wants to paint her as being more mature and sensible, but it doesn’t work as we only glimpse these traits in the very last few pages. Why was Martha interested in Regina anyway? Why would anyone be in love with someone like Martha ? Search me!
Last, but not least, because of Cho’s extravagant and syntax-averse writing this 300-page novel read like a 600-page tome. Still, I did manage to finish it, and it was probably thanks to Nicholas, Dutra, and Laurence who kept me interested in the story. Also, to be fair, Cho’s commentary and her observations could be spot on…then again, more often than not, a good point would be lost in a sea of gaudy and seemingly never-ending asides.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

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