Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

Despite the many moments of poignancy that appear throughout the course of Searching for Sylvie Lee, the novel is ultimately diminished by unnecessary melodrama and convoluted (yet predictable) soap-opera-ish twists.

At its heart Searching for Sylvie Lee is a family drama about long-held family secrets. The narrative switches between three points of view: a mother and her two daughters. On the surface, Sylvie Lee, the eldest daughter, is the more successful and accomplished of the two Lee daughters. She’s married to a wealthy man and has a solid career. Unlike her younger sister, Sylvie did not spend her first years with her parents and in fact, grew up in the Netherlands with her grandmother and some cousins of her mother. At age nine she finally joins her parents and younger sister in America. While Sylvie shows open affection towards Amy, not seeming to resent her for being the one who got to stay with their parents, she is unable and or unwilling to grow closer to either her mother or her father, in fact, her relationship with her father is fraught indeed. When news that her beloved grandmother is dying reaches her Sylvie rushes to the Netherlands. Weeks after Amy receives a worrying call from the son of her mother’s cousins (the people who Sylvie was raised by). Sylvie has vanished.
Overcome by anxiety Amy too flies to the Netherlands where she stays with her cousins. Here she picks up on the weird atmosphere that suggests that not everyone was as in awe of Sylvie as she was. Her mother’s cousin is hostile and contemptuous about anything concerning Sylvie and her husband is rather creepy. Their son, Sylvie’s best friend, is also being somewhat cagey.
As time goes by Amy’s image of Sylvie as this perfectly put-together adult begins to shatter as more of her secrets come to the light. Apparently, both her marriage and her work life were far from idyllic.

Sylvie’s chapters reveal her month in the Netherlands and give us insight into her childhood there. Her bond with her cousin and another man also play way too much of a role in the story. There is a quasi-love triangle that feels kind of icky and unconvincing. The reveals we get at the end were entirely too predictable and yet the way these are disclosed struck me as profoundly anticlimactic. There is also way too much time spent on Sylvie’s trip to Venice alongside these two men and a friend of theirs (Sylvie is not much a friend to her tbh given that she goes behind her back and shows little remorse about doing so). Here the author goes out of her way to describe the classic lightning trip to Venice, name-checking the various sites etc. Yet, here she also makes a big gaffe by writing in cursive what she must have thought was orange juice in Italian but it was in fact, French. This small detail irked me as to why then spend so much time showcasing how ‘knowledged’ you are about Venice? And then you just try to make the setting more ‘vivid’ by throwing unnecessary untranslated terms in italic? And getting them wrong? Orange juice is also not really a Venetian speciality. This is the North of Italy…not exactly orangeville. Anyway, this whole trip lacked tension and the argument(s) between the male characters felt very rehearsed. I also did not appreciate how the one gay character is portrayed (unhappily married and in love with his straight possibly homophobic friend who will never reciprocate his feelings and is willing to sabotage his friend’s relationship because of jealousy).
I would have liked less time spent on the shitty men orbiting Sylvie’s life and more time on her bond with Amy and her relationship with her mother. I also could have done without the over the top dodgy cousins. It would have been nice if Amy had been given more of her own personal arc. Nevertheless, the author does incorporate compelling themes within her narrative: she describes the experiences of immigrant families both in America and in the Netherlands, and how class plays into it, emphasizing the fallacy of the American dream. Another key aspect of the novel is how appearances can be deceptive and how one’s image of someone (for example Amy seeing her sister as perfect) can stop you from truly seeing that person.
All in all, this was a rather mixed bag. If there had been less melodrama and more moments of introspection I would have probably liked this one better. Still, I would probably read more by this author.

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

“I wanted to be the diametric opposite of who I was; am. To get gone.”

T Kira Madden’s bold and unsparing storytelling makes for a brutal yet ultimately kaleidoscopic coming of age. This is easily one of the best memoirs I’ve read this year. Madden’s memoir makes for a bittersweet read, one that I look forward to revisiting again.

“Did I want to die? Not really, no. I wanted the beauty of the doomed. Missing girls are never forgotten, I thought, so long as they don’t show up dead. So long as they stay missing.”

The chapters within this memoir have an almost episodic quality to them as they transport us to a specific time and or period of Madden’s childhood and later on teenage years. I appreciated the often unresolved nature of these chapters, as Madden doesn’t try to extract moral lessons from her experiences growing ups. During the very first chapter, we understand just how unconventional Madden’s upbringing was. Both of her parents struggled with substance addictions and were possibly involved in something shady. While her parents had plenty of money to spare their parenting style leaves a lot to be desired. Their unstable relationship too sometimes seemed to take priority over Madden’s wellbeing. Madden paints an unflattering picture of herself as a child, as she seemed to have adopted a horse-girl persona that made other children tease or avoid her. Also, growing up biracial in the nineties and Y2K came with a whole lot of racism, bullying, and confusion. Madden grew up in Boca Raton, Florida, a white-majority city. While her mother tethers her to her Chinese Hawaiian heritage, Madden is often made to feel other. Her family situation also makes her feel somewhat separate from her peers. But alongside this pain (over her loneliness, her parents’ addictions and toxicity), Madden’s gritty humor shines through, reminding me at times of other media focused on dysfunctional families (such as Shameless). Madden’s recollections of her past and her childhood are incredibly vivid, so much so that I could picture with ease the scenes which she was describing. At times this resulted in me feeling quite uncomfortable given the nature of what was happening (at one point madden decides to remove one of her ). Also, there was quite a lot of second-hand embarrassment which is rather expected given that Madden details those awkward years of transition between childhood and adulthood. Adolescence is hell. Seriously. Madden’s meditations on her changing body were certainly relatable. Madden’s observations on girlhood are piercingly clear. While what Madden is writing about is clearly deeply personal, readers can easily identify themselves with her. Madden’s recollects her first sexual experiences as well as the confusing feelings brought about by her own desire. Madden also details how she was sexually assaulted with unflinching clarity. Her longing to belong, to be loved, to be herself, well, it broke my heart. While she does forge friendships with other ‘fatherless’ girls, they also seem to take advantage of Madden (here i was reminded of the movie Thirteen).

“Sometimes I miss them most when we’re all together, when we’re already looking back at the moment, wondering how it will ossify with time, how much more we will know and unknow about each other.”

Madden’s shifting relationship to her sexuality certainly struck a chord with me. I loved the way she articulates that knowing-but-not-knowing. It was distressing to read of how misattribution leads her to confuse fear with love and of the shame she feels over her sexual desires. Madden is also frank when it comes to portraying the difficulties and intricacies of girlhood. From the all-consuming friendships to the desperate need to be seen as older, mature, adult.
In revisiting her childhood and adolescence we inevitably gain a picture of Madden’s rocky home-life. Her parents’ volatile relationship and their struggles with addiction weigh on Madden. But, rather than just reducing her parents to their addictions, Madden makes sure that we see their virtues alongside their vices. While the individuals that emerge are certainly not perfect, they come across as real people. They make mistakes, they fall into bad habits, and their personal crises and dramas often cause them to lose sight of Madden. However, we also see just how deeply they love her, even if their way of expressing this love is somewhat eccentric.
Within this memoir Madden explores her shifting identity growing up, letting us in on some pivotal moments in her childhood and teens. In doing so Madden examines the way American society treats young girls and their sexuality, the many ways in which girls are over-sexualised, the way porn normalizes abuse, and the invisibility and fetishization experienced by Asian American women. Additionally, Madden tackles grief, trauma, belonging, and queerness, in a frank yet poignant way. Her prose is truly illuminating, and I was captivated by her voice within the very first few sentences.
As the daughter of an addict myself this memoir certainly resonated a lot with me.

“These hushed years. These secrets of the body. To whom did they belong first? I want to find where it began and say, I’m here now, listening. I want to reach through the years and tell the women I’ve been lonely.”

This memoir was a real banger. While Madden is not afraid to discuss serious and or ‘uncomfortable’ topics, her writing is so compelling that I found myself tearing through this. Sad, funny, and sharp, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is a lyrical and hard-hitting memoir. I would definitely recommend this to fans of coming-of-ages such as Monkey Beach and hard-hitting memoirs such as Dog Flowers and Crying in H Mart.

my rating: ★★★★☆

Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park

Brimming with humor and life, Love in the Big City makes for an ​​entertaining read. I found its protagonist’s lighthearted narration to be deeply compulsive and I was hooked to his story from the very first pages. Similarly to Frying Plantain and The Nakano Thrift Shop Love in the Big City is divided into self-contained parts/chapters, each one focusing on a specific period of our main character’s life. In most of these Young, our mc, is a writer in his early thirties living in Seoul. The gritty realism of his daily life, as well as his love & sex life, brought to mind authors such as Bryan Washington. While this book does touch upon things like homophobia, abortion, STDs, suicidal ideation, it does so in a very casual way that never struck me as offensive or careless. Young is easily the star of the show as he makes for an incredibly funny and relatable character. From his failed relationships to his day-to-day mishaps. Young makes for a carefree and admirably resilient character whose inner monologue and running commentary never failed to entertain me. Love in the Big City also provides readers with a glimpse into the realities of being queer in contemporary Korean society. Yet, while the stigma, shame, and or lack of visibility Young experiences (or is made to experience) are sobering, his voice remains upbeat and easy to follow. Additionally, the author’s vibrant depiction of Seoul makes for a vivid setting. My favourite section was probably the first one, which focuses on Young’s friendship with Jaehee, who for a time is his roommate. Things get complicated when Jaehee begins to lie about Young’s gender to the boy she’s currently seeing. The sections that centre more on Young’s partners, well, they did seem a bit repetitive. Perhaps because most of the men he dates or frequents share a similar kind of dull and off-putting personality. Still, I appreciated how unsentimental the author when portraying and or discussing love and sex.
Although I have read a few books by Korean authors that are set in Korea this is the first time I’ve come across one that is so wonderfully unapologetically queer and sex-positive. More of this, please!
Love in the Big City makes for a candid, insightful, and above all witty read exploring the life of a young(ish) gay man in Seoul.

my rating: ★★★ ¼


Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

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

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Lemon by Kwon Yeo-Sun

I read Lemon only a few days ago and yet I can barely recall what it was about. Which isn’t a good sign. According to the summary, this was meant to be a suspenseful work exploring trauma, grief, and guilt but to be perfectly honest, it was anything but suspenseful and its themes felt barely touched upon. This short narrative consists of various chapters narrated by different characters connected to Kim Hae-on, a beautiful young girl killed during the summer of 2002. The story opens with Hae-on being interrogated by a detective in what seems to be a poor take on a police procedural. The remainder of Lemon consists of other characters talking about this murder. They all seem to have way too much information about the investigation and other events (events they did not witness first-hand) and that resulted in me feeling relatively disengaged and disbelieving of their words/accounts. We don’t know who’s speaking as each chapter doesn’t specify who’s pov we are reading and that quickly became annoying, especially since their voices sounded suspiciously similarly. There were two chapters that are meant to be one side of a phone conversation and these ones were so over the top. The way the person we were ‘hearing’ just happens to repeat the questions of the person at the end of the line (“Pardon me? What did you say, Doctor? What am I doing right now? Talking to you, of course.”)…why just not include both ends of this conversation?

I’m afraid I found this novel’s execution lacking. The characters, if we can call them such, are barely there, the narrative more intent on impressing readers through the way these various accounts are structured than on presenting us with an intriguing mystery.
Many of the phrases struck as me clichèd (here the translation may be to blame) and/or banal “Life begins without reason and ends without reason”, “her beauty seemed not of this world”, “What kind of life is this? Is this living?”. Then there were the odd phrases that I found really annoying in that they”. Some of the descriptions also rubbed me the wrong way because they were going for an edgy tone (“the hairy black patch between my legs”) or were simply a bit antiquated (call me a snowflake or whatever but i wish this expression ceased existing: “joined together like a set of Siamese twins”).
If you are interested in Lemon I recommend you check out more positive reviews as I have 0 positive things to say about this.

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

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

“Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.”

Ocean Vuong’s strikingly lyrical debut novel is a work of transient beauty. Within On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous there are many arresting passages that are, quite frankly, beautiful. At times this beauty derives from Vuong’s subject matter, at times it is wholly due to his language. And, at first, when I came across these passages, well, I was in awe. The more I read, however, the more I found that however beautiful Vuong’s prose could be, many of these insights and descriptions failed to leave a long-lasting impression on me. I would forge onwards and find myself confronted with more beautiful words, often very reminiscent of his earlier ones. And once I became aware of this I found myself scrutinising Vuong’s poetical storytelling more closely, and, alas, I found it wanting. His writing occasionally seems affected, as if desperately striving to be beautiful. There were also many passages and phrases that seemed to veer into purple prose territory so that we have swollen metaphors and contrived adages that end up devaluing Vuong’s earlier unmannered yet exquisite uses of the English language.

The first half seems to promise a mother-son narrative, in which Vuong explores the way in which grief, generational differences, inherited trauma, cultural and language barriers, shape and affect the relationship between his narrator, nicknamed Little Dog, and his mother. The narrator often wonders about his mother’s own fraught identity (born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and an unknown white American father) and their shared experiences due to this. While some of the childhood episodes he recounts feature his mother being abusive towards him—hitting him repeatedly, being verbally abusive, at times even kicking him out of the house—he doesn’t reduce her to the role of abuser. By revealing her own traumatic history he contextualises many of her angry outbursts towards him. This first half was probably my favourite. Little Dog is writing to his mother, even if he knows that she will not be able to read his words. His style has this almost intimate and confessional quality to it, one that seems to blur the lines between fiction and autobiography (autofiction perhaps?). Vuong’s exacting portrayal of Little Dog’s childhood is certainly poignant. He’s an exceptional observer who can convey poetically the depth and different shades of Little Dog’s loneliness, yearning, sorrow, and otherness.
The second half brought to mind Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me, as the narrative seems to switch gears so that no longer we are reading about a mother-son relationship but a Little Dog’s young & ‘doomed’ first love who he meets during the summer when he works in a tobacco field. Here the story seemed less focused, and we get quite a few sections that seem to have little relevance to Little Dog’s story. Here the language struck me as less effective, more hackneyed, especially when it came to love and sex. Vuong’s depiction of addiction seemed to me somewhat cinematic.

Ultimately, it seemed to me that much of the beauty to be found within these pages is, like the title itself suggests, ‘brief’. While Vuong’s prose could be incisive, emotionally resonant, and, quite frankly, dazzling, it could also be repetitive, sacrificing meaning to showy displays of language that try hard to impress their gorgeousness on us, and yet, more often than not, these beautiful and lyrical turn of phrases are of little substance.
The shifts in tone and subject matter were almost jarring and made me feel less engaged by Little Dog’s story. There are some forced comparisons, such as many unnecessary pages spent on Tiger Woods’ ‘complicated’ ancestry. But, despite the issues, I had with this novel I can’t deny that at its best, it truly is a work of beauty. Given this novel’s success, it is also safe to say that you should not let my mixed impression of it deter you from giving this a shot (if anything else, it’s very short). I will definitely read whatever Vuong writes next as he’s certainly talented.

my rating: ★★★¼

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The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura

The Woman in the Purple Skirt is a thing that exists.
Did it elicit any particular reactions, feelings, emotions—be positive or negative—from me? Besides a big fat ‘meh’, not really.

This short novel never truly delivers on its premise. After reading the summary, I was expecting this to be a psychological tale about voyeurism and obsession, something in the vein of Patricia Highsmith/Alfred Hitchcock, but what we get in actuality is…I don’t even know. Something that is surprisingly—and disappointingly—vanilla. The narrative doesn’t play its scenario up like say Oyinkan Braithwaite does in My Sister, the Serial Killer. Nor does it succeed in capturing the mind of someone who is spiralling into obsession, as Danzy Senna does in New People (now that is a disturbing read). I was neither amused nor troubled by The Woman in the Purple Skirt. Yes, the narrator is a creep but her creeping is just so…dull? Predictable?
She refers to herself as ‘the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan’ (whether she actually even wears a yellow cardigan 24/7 is doubtful) and she is obsessed with ‘the Woman in the Purple Skirt’ (what kind of purple shade? what type of skirt? no clue). Our narrator is elusive when it comes to her own identity, and we learn virtually nothing about who she is, what motivates her, or why she is so fixated on this random woman. ‘The Woman in the Purple Skirt’ seems rather unremarkable, one could say even a bit of a nonentity. Maybe our narrator finds this woman’s ‘undefinedness’ inviting or relatable? I don’t know. Anyhow, without making herself seen or known our ‘clever’ protagonist manipulates the Woman in the Purple Skirt into applying for a job as a housekeeper in the very hotel she works at. Once her ‘prey’ begins working there our narrator can watch all the more closely. She observes her progress in the job, whether she gets on or not with their colleagues, what type of worker she is. Our MC spends most of the remaining narrative spying on the Woman in the Purple Skirt (is she allowed to wear a purple skirt at work? seems unlikely) and overhearing her colleagues gossiping about this new recruit. That no one seems to notice that this person—who is possibly wearing a bright yellow jumper—is always lurking about does seem unlikely, but then again it seemed to kind of fit in with the almost-but-not-quite absurdist quality of this story.
Nothing of note really happens. There are no interesting dynamics going on, nor do our main women feel particularly fleshed out. The story trudges on, with most scenes now seeming to take place at this hotel. Towards the end there is this rather anticlimactic scene that is meant to serve as this big moment but…it just felt flat. I wish the narrative had either embraced a sillier, more absurdist, tone or that it had been more fully committed to being a disquieting psychological tale about obsession, jealousy, ‘doubleness’. What we get instead is a fairly formulaic and painfully bland concoction that is neither here nor there. The Woman in the Purple Skirt does not make for a particularly quirky or suspenseful read and I will likely forget all about its existence in the next following days. I am sure that others readers will have more positive thoughts on this novel so I recommend you check their reviews out.

my rating: ½

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American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

How to describe Queenie? Cringe comedy without the comedy meets misery porn? Unfunny caricatures galore? Low-key offensive towards ethnic minorities?

Look, I knew that Queenie would not be like Bridget Jones, and to be honest, that is a plus in my books (i watched the film adaptation when i first moved to britain and i found it…dated). So when I started Queenie I was hoping for something more on the lines of Chewing Gum or Fleabag….but what we get is an unfunny and not particularly nuanced narrative—starring the typical self-destructive twenty-something millennial—that in trying to be too many things, ends up being a big ol’ mess.

Queenie Jenkins is, our eponymous heroine, a Jamaican British woman living in London. She’s 25 going on 15. She’s just broken up with Tom, her white long-term boyfriend, and is clearly struggling to cope. She spends most of the novel going on about how she misses him, this guy who has the personality of a potato, and seeking validation in all the wrong places. The garbage men Queenie begins sleeping objectify and fetishize her, further damaging Queenie’s mental health. Understandably, Queenie’s obsession over her ex, her recent miscarriage, and her new lifestyle distract her from her work at a national newspaper. Yet Queenie herself remains convinced that she is a hard worker deserving of more important stories than what is currently coming her way. She has three close ‘friends’ to which she vents about her drama and how much sadder her life is compared to them. The narrative mentions that something Bad happened to Queenie when she was younger, but predictably it is not until the very end that we learn what exactly came to pass. The few flashbacks we get prior that big ‘reveal’ are awkwardly embedded in the text, and the scenes they present us felt either unnecessary or contrived (ie the information we learn through flashbacks could have been delivered to us differently, say by having Queenie actually engage in an act of introspection and realize that her boyfriend not only comes from a racist family but that his refusal to call out their racism or to stand by her makes him in many ways worse than they are).

Before I start sharing more of my negative thoughts about this novel I will mention a few things that did kind of work. I think the author does an excellent job in depicting the countless microaggressions that Queenie experiences on a daily basis—from strangers, colleagues, ‘friends’, sex partners. She also shows that in those instances when Queenie does speak up or calls out others on their racism, sexism, ignorance, she’s dismissed as just another ‘angry, loud, Black woman’. I also appreciated that Queenie’s mental health problems are not just magicked away by the power of love or some other crap. And I kind of liked her grandparents, even if they sadly play a very small role in Queenie’s story.

Now, on the not so good stuff:
1. Queenie, who believes she’s the funniest person on this earth, is not funny. The few moments of humor in this novel are provided by Kyazike, one of the few decent people in this novel. Weirdly I found it really hard to empathize with Queenie. I basically had to will myself into feeling a modicum of sympathy towards her. Which is odd given that I usually kind of love, or love-hate, self-sabotaging protagonists (My Year of Rest Relaxation, Luster, to Pizza Girl, Madame Bovary, The House of Mirth). But Queenie…she was exasperating, exhausting. A lack of self-esteem or the fact you experienced emotional abuse in your past does not mean that you should go on to become a solipsistic self-pitying person who spends 90% of her conversations with her ‘friends’ talking about herself. I mean, if that is the case I have some catching up to do. She was not a very good friend nor particularly good to her job (she briefly cares about BLM and wants to write about it but quickly forgets all about it). And she’s not funny. She’s passive, which I understand is due to her trauma but her lack of self-awareness was irritating af. I hated that the narrative paints her as always being the one who is wronged, in any interaction she has. Two awful people actually make some pretty valid criticism about her attitude but these are made moot by the fact they are shits so whatever they have to say about her cannot possibly be true. For the majority of the novel I wanted to either shout or shake Queenie because seriously, ragazza mia, wtf? I had a hard time believing that she was in her 20s as her angsty narration and behaviour seemed more suited to a teenager.

2. All of the men are trash. And they have similar names often consisting of three letters (Ted, Tom, Guy) and they are all similar shades of shitty so I had a hard time remembering who was who. I had no interest in reading scenes in which these one-dimensional shitbags denigrated Queenie.

3. The one male Pakistani character we get is a sleazy and lewd married man who rides a black BMW, uses innit every other sentence, and refers to his penis as ‘the destroyer’. His wife then chases Queenie off in a scene that seemed more suited to Family Guy. We then have Cassandra who is Jewish, judgmental, waiting for a man with the right kind of job, and uses her dad’s money. She lends Queenie money but she makes a point of reminding her of her tab and when the two are no longer friends she asks for it back. How imaginative! Yet another Jewish Princess who is obnoxiously self-involved (at one point she tells Queenie something on the lines of ‘it’s me time’).

4. The story as such consists in scene after scene depicting Queenie being mistreated. Every person she comes across is either racist, offensive, sexist, or a combination of these. And I don’t mind reading dark and depressing books. Heck, I just read and loved A Little Life. But the thing that made A Little Life bearable to read were all of those moments focusing on how Jude—who is even more self-destructive and self-loathing than Queenie—is loved by his friends and colleagues. This novel instead is hell-bent on presenting us with grotesque caricatures who either abuse or are offensive towards Queenie. Cringe comedy ensues (ahah, not).
Not only did it feel gratuitous but I also often did not believe in the author’s characters. They were either thinly rendered stereotypes or unfunny caricatures. I can bear difficult subject matters, in fact, one of my favourite series is I May Destroy You, but you have to give me some nuanced characters, not this Family Guy nonsense.

5. I am a bit tired of sexually active women being portrayed as ‘careless’ (Queenie has unprotected sex with multiple partners) and disempowered.

5. I wish the author could have trusted her readers to interpret things on their own terms.

Given my not so great opinion of this novel, if you are thinking of reading this novel, I recommend you check out some more positive reviews, especially ones from #ownvoices reviewers.

my rating: ★★½

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A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar

“How do you explain the unique physiology of girlhood friendships, the telepathy formed fast and fierce between hometown strangers?”

In A Prayer for Travelers Ruchika Tomar disrupts the traditional coming-of-age story by rearranging the chronological order of her narrative, so that the novel’s opening chapter is actually chapter number 31. The non-chronological chapter order takes some getting used to, and there were times when I struggled to keep track of ‘when’ we were or the context of a certain scene. But, this structure, which swings readers back and forth in time, propels A Prayer for Travelers, adding a layer of tension to Cale’s story.

A Prayer for Travelers transports readers to a small and isolated town in Nevada. After being abandoned by her mother Cale lives with her grandfather Lamb and grows up to become a solitary girl who spends most of her time reading. Rather than making friends, she watches from afar others, in particular, three other girls who are a year or so older than her. At times Cale seems to yearn to be part of their clique, but more often than not seems satisfied in observing them at a distance. It is magnetic and freewheeling Penélope Reyes who Cale is fascinated by the most.

After Lamb, Cale’s only point of reference, is diagnosed with cancer Cale feels lost. It is Penny who Cale clings to. The two form a tentative friendship while waitressing at the same diner. Over the course of the summer, the two spend most of their time together, yet Penny remains a cypher of sorts. After one of their escapades ends in act of horrific violence, the bond between the two is tested. The morning after, Penny goes missing and no one but Cale seems interested in knowing what happened to her.

Each chapter takes readers to a different period in Cale’s life so that it is only by the end of the novel that we gain a full picture of her childhood, her time with Penny, and the events leading to and after Penny’s disappearance. This unorthodox structure lends an air of mystery both to Cale’s life and to the people around her. Early on we are given hints of what is to come or what has gone before, but it is only around the halfway mark that readers will be able to really catch up with Cale’s story.
In addition to this clever structure, Tomar succeeds in bringing to life Cale’s stultifying environment. From the desert that surrounding her dead-end town to the heat that makes people take cover indoors. It is no place for young people, as there are few if any jobs going and one is always under scrutiny. Things are done a certain way and anyone who tries to ‘upset’ the system incurs the risk of angering the wrong kind of people. As Cale is quick to discover, the police are of little help.
Cale’s interactions with others, from the detectives to Penny’s old friends and a classmate of theirs, are underlined by a sense of unease. This adds to the story’s already atmospheric setting, as we see just how isolating and brutal Cale’s town is, especially for girls like her and Penny.
Although the relationship between Cale and Penny is the undoubted core of the novel, their feelings towards each other are not always easy to discern. In many ways, their bond remains elusive just like the girls themselves. Both Cale and Penny are difficult to pin down yet Tomar captivates many of their anxieties and desires.
Their experiences are not easy to read. Cale’s secluded childhood with her grandfather leaves her in many ways unprepared for ‘life’. Most of the time she doesn’t know what she wants from the future and spends her time obsessing over Penny.
Both Cale and Penny go through traumatic experiences, each reacting in a different way. Tomar shows how the victim of a sexual assault will often blame themselves and how blind others can be to someone’s despair and trauma.
The ‘resolution’ to the mystery felt almost anticlimactic. Then, perhaps I was so focused on keeping track of ‘when’ I was that I may not have been able to fully appreciate those chapters.
Other than the ‘ending’ and the inclusion of visuals chapters (which just had an image or one/two words) I found this novel be truly engrossing. A teensy part of me wished that Cale’s feelings towards Penny had been explored in more depth (her fixation on Penny is quite something).

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as this kind of structure will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But, if you are looking for a coming-of-age/suspense story in a similar vein to Winter’s Bone and A Crooked Tree, you might want to give A Prayer for Travelers a try. I will be definitely re-reading this as I loved Tomar’s piercing writing and seesaw storyline as well as her story’s focus on female friendships, trauma, and survival.

my rating: ★★★¾

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