My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

“Horror’s not a symptom, it’s a love affair.”

My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a magnificently chaotic ode to slasher, one that demonstrates an unparalleled knowledge of the genre, its logic & tropes. I saw quite a lot of reviews describing this as a slow burner, and sì, in some ways Stephen Graham Jones withholds a lot of the chaos & gore for the finale however, Jade’s antics and internal monologue are very much adrenaline-fueled, so much so that I struggled to keep with up with her. Jade’s awareness of and excitement at being in a slasher gives the narrative a strong meta angle, one that results in a surprisingly playful tone, one that belies the gruesome nature of these killings.

Jade Daniels, a teenage girl of Blackfoot descent who lives in Proofrock, Idaho, is in her senior year of high school but has no real plans or aspirations besides obsessing over slashers. She’s the town’s resident loner goth, who lives with her dad, an abusive alcoholic. Jade is angry: at her ne’er-do-well dad, at his friend(s), for being creeps, at authority figures, who don’t really listen to her, at her mum, for bailing on her, and almost everyone & everything Proofrock-related. The only things keeping her going are slashers, and she dedicates her every waking moment to them, to the point that her recollections of their plots, characters, and tropes, become an inextricable part of who she is. Jade has no friends to speak of and is regarded by most of the townspeople as being a bit of a joke and a total ‘weirdo’. The only people who keep an eye out for her are her history teacher, Mr Holmes, and Sheriff Hardy. Jade spends most of her time lurking in the shadows, dying her hair emo colours, creeping around Indian Lake and Camp Blood, the town’s local haunts.

When some magnates from out of town begin developing a piece of land across the lake, Jade senses a change and is proven correct when a body count begins…what’s more, the daughter of one of these uber-wealthy developers, would make the perfect final girl. Jade knows that a slasher cycle is about to begin. Rather than being alarmed by the realization that her reality is now that of a slasher, Jade is freaking excited. She has no plans to stop the slasher but wants to see the story unfold, so she does a lot more lurking about, hoping to figure out the identity of the slasher and witness the slasher cycle from up close. Her obsession with Letha does lead her to reach out to her, but her ‘you are a final girl’ prep talk doesn’t go down well. As I said, Jade’s exhilarated inner monologue is hard to keep up with, however, I was also so taken by her that I was more than happy to follow in her chaotic steps. Jade makes full use of her encyclopaedic knowledge of the slasher (sub)genre, and provides a myriad of references and asides that link what is happening in her town to existing slasher flicks, comparing the slasher’s modus operandi, speculating about their identity and their next victims. Meanwhile Mr Holmes, Sheriff Hardy, and Letha are quite concerned about her and despite the brutal deaths that are happening don’t believe Jade’s slasher theory. Things of course escalate, and Jade finds herself in the middle of a blood bath…

The plot is very much heavy on Jade’s internal, and often inchoate, musings and ramblings about slashers. Having spent most of her life venerating slashers, and hating everything and everyone around her, she’s positively thrilled by the prospect of a slasher going on a killing spree in Proofrock. Sure, her eagerness at other people’s violent and bloody deaths certainly raises a few questions, and people like Letha & co believe that her obsession with slashers and her conviction that a slasher is responsible for the deaths and freaky occurrences that are happening in Proofrock is just a deflection…while they are not wrong Jade isn’t ready to go there, throwing herself into her analysis of ‘her’ slasher.

There were so many elements that I loved in this novel. Despite my almost perpetual confusion at Jade’s references (I went through a horror movie phase aeons ago but have grown out of it since and never really delved into the slasher subgenre) and the breakneck speed of her internal monologue, I was utterly engrossed by her voice. Sure, she’s not what I would call a good or likeable person, however, her penchant for morbidity and her unrelenting slasher enthusiasm made for an endearingly offbeat character. She very much makes the novel. This is how you execute the Not Like Other Girls trope. Readers are made aware of Jade’s striving to be different: her botched hair-dyeing, her trying-hard-to-be-edgy-but-is-actually-just-grubby look, her commitment to playing the town’s goth girl, her sometimes willful and sometimes unintentional disregard of social niceties and norms…Jade really seems to make an effort to be perceived this way, to be seen as the slasher-obsessed girl and a ‘weirdo’. The end result is that Jade is different, not better than others, just different. Now, for all her self-dramatizing we can also clearly see that Jade’s edgy girl persona has become an inextricable aspect of who she is. Whether she became this way due to trauma, or whether her commitment to the role was such that she eventually became that person, it’s up to the readers’ interpretation. I for one read Jade as being a mix of those things. She grew up in a very unstable environment, with no support system to speak of, one of her parental figures is an abusive drunkard, the other was not only complicit in said abuse but eventually left Jade to fend for herself. Understandably, given her lack of control in her life, the violent logic that operates in slashers would appeal to her. However, similarly to Shirley Jackson’s alienated and alienating (anti)-heroines I wonder whether different circumstances would really have made a difference for Jade…
Anyway, her very presence in the story is fantastic for a number of reasons. She knows that her ‘existing’ in this slasher is an ‘aberration’: not only does she know too much about slashers but people like her do not usually feature in these movies. She flits between wanting to see sh*t hit the fan and wanting the slasher to well…slash her. One way or another, she’s hyped for it and not quite the screaming and scared side character that usually gets killed off in these films. Also, Jade’s intensity and morbidity reminded me of Merricat and Wednesday Addams, and similarly to them, she finds that other people are put out by what they perceive to be her strange behaviour and demeanour. When Jade begins talking or thinking about slashers and revisiting local horror lore, she seems wholly unaware of other people and the world around her. Yet, the other characters react in a very realistic wtf is her deal way that results in many surprisingly funny scenes. Jade’s zealousness over slashers also brought to mind, I kid you not, Patrick Bateman, specifically that scene with the card (where his overreaction is so extreme that he begins to sweat) and his music monologues. The conversational tone of the narrative adds a level of immediacy to the story and really work in capturing Jade’s wry voice. There were elements of absurdism that brought to mind The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher.

As things get bloodier and bloodier we do see a shift in Jade, but I appreciated that her character development ultimately remains very subtle and she remains her slasher-obsessed self. Learning more about her past and her trauma does ‘contextualize’ some of her behaviours, however, but we can’t quite reason away her slasher-mania as being the inevitable result of that trauma. Her ambiguousness made her all the more interesting to read about. While we learn all about what she thinks of slashers—its precursors & incarnations, its hits and flops, its tropes—much about her remains inaccessible to us. I didn’t understand her most of the time, and incongruently enough that made me like her even more.

The writing and atmosphere in My Heart Is a Chainsaw super solid. The writing has this snappy, energetic quality to it that not only really amplifies Jade’s slasher-obsession but it really adds to the action & otherwise murder-y sequences. The prose was also very effective when it came to pacing, as Jones’ rapid sentences really add fuel to the storyline. The atmosphere too is great. The narrative’s self-referential nature actually ends up adding to the story’s slasher ambience, as Jones’ is able to not only pay homage to slashers through his storyline (through’s jade’s non-stop references and asides about slashers to the actual implementation of the genre’s conventions) but he also makes this slasher his own, repeatedly subverting our expectations.

My Heart Is a Chainsaw was a riot. We have a gritty storyline, plenty of humour (from those ah-ah-that’s-funny moments to humor that is more on the lines of that’s-kind-of-fcked-up-so-why-am-i-laughing), and a protagonist whose flabbergasting antics I was equal parts obsessed and appalled by. Jones’ really captures Jade’s loneliness and anger, the long-lasting consequences of abuse, the complex ways trauma manifests into one’s behavior & personality…and of course, given the book’s focus on slashers and on being a slasher, Jade’s story heavily deals with revenge and violence…
I’m really looking forward to the next instalments…(am i the only one who read jade as queer-coded?)

ps the first time i tried reading this i wasn’t feeling it and dnfed it early on so i can see why the book’s overall ratings aren’t sky high…still, if you are in the mood to read extensively about slashers or don’t mind a morbid and chaotic af protagonist, i think you should definitely give this one a chance.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

“It’s funny. When you leave your home and wander really far, you always think, ‘I want to go home.’ But then you come home, and of course it’s not the same. You can’t live with it, you can’t live away from it. And it seems like from then on there’s always this yearning for some place that doesn’t exist. I felt that. Still do. I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how.”

Enthralling and haunting, Caucasia makes for a dazzling coming-of-age story. With piercing and heart-wrenching clarity, Danzy Senna captures on the page the psychological and emotional turmoils experienced by her young protagonist. Similarly to her later novels, Symptomatic and New People, Caucasia is a work that is heavily concerned with race, racial passing, and identity. But whereas Symptomatic and New People present their readers with short and deeply unnerving narratives that blur the lines between reality and the fantastical, Caucasia is a work that is deeply grounded in realism. Its structure takes a far more traditional route, something in the realms of a bildungsroman novel. This larger scope allows for more depth, both in terms of character and themes. Birdie’s world and the people who populate are brought to life in striking detail. Senna’s prose, which is by turns scintillating and stark, makes Birdie’s story truly riveting and impossible to put down.

Caucasia is divided in three sections, each one narrated by Birdie. The novel opens in Boston during the 1970s Civil Rights and Black Power movements when the city’s efforts to desegregate schools was met with white resistance and exacerbated existing racial tensions. Enter Birdie: her father Deck is a Black scholar who is deeply preoccupied with theories about race; her mother, Sandy, is from a blue-blood white woman who has come to reject her Mayflower ancestry and is quite active in the ‘fight’ for Civil Rights. Birdie is incredibly close to her older sister Cole, so much so that the two have created and often communicate in their own invented language. Before their parents’ rather messy break-up the two have been homeschooled, something that has sheltered them somewhat from the realities of the world. Even so, they both have been made aware of their ‘differences’. Whereas Cole resembles her dad, Birdie is paler and has straight hair, something that leads people to assume that she is white or perhaps Hispanic. During their rare visits to their maternal grandmother, Cole is completely ignored while Birdie receives all of her (unwanted quite frankly) attention. Later on, Deck’s new girlfriend is shown to be openly intolerant of Birdie for not being Black enough. When the girls begin attending a Black Power School, Birdie is teased and bullied. While Birdie is in awe of Cole and dreams that she could look like her, she’s also peripherally aware of the privileges afforded to her by her appearance. We also see how Sandy, their mother, for all her talk, treats Birdie and Cole differently (there is a scene in which she implies that unlike Birdie Cole should not be worried about paedophiles/serial killers). Sandy also struggles to help Cole with her hair, and soon their mutual frustration with each other morphs into something more difficult to bridge. When Sandy gets involved in some ‘shady’ activities her relationship with Cole sours further.
Birdie’s life is upended when Sandy, convinced the FBI is after her, flees Boston. In pursuit of racial equality Deck and his girlfriend go to Brazil, taking Cole with them, while Birdie is forced to leave Boston with Sandie.
Sandie believes that the only way to escape the feds is to use Birdie’s ‘ambiguous’ body to their advantage. Not only does Birdie have no choice but to pass but it is her mother who chooses her ‘white’ identity, that of Jesse Goldman.
The two settle in New Hampshire where Birdie struggles to adjust to new life. While the two spend some time in a women’s commune, they eventually move out and into a predominantly white town. Sandy’s paranoia leads her to distrust others, and secretiveness and suspicion become fixtures in their lives. Being forced to pass and being forced to pretend that her sister and father never existed alienate Birdie (from her own self, from Sandy, and from other people). She cannot truly connect to those around her given that she has to pretend that she is a white Jewish girl. She eventually makes friends and in her attempts to fit in emulates the way they speak and act. Because the people around her believe she is white they are quite openly racist, and time and again Birdie finds herself confronted with racist individuals. other people’s racism.
Senna captures with painful clarity the discomfort that many girls experience in their pre and early teens. For a lot of the novel, Birdie doesn’t really know who she is and who she wants to be, and because of this, she looks at the girls and women around her. But by doing this, she is merely imitating them, and not really figuring out her identity. In addition to having to perform whiteness, Birdie denies her own queerness.
As with Symptomatic and New People, Senna provides a razor-sharp commentary on race and identity. While Caucasia is easily the author’s least disquieting work, it still invokes a sense of unease in the reader. On the one hand, we are worried for Birdie, who is clearly unhappy and lost. On the other hand, we encounter quite a few people who are horrible and there are many disquieting scenes. Yet, Senna doesn’t condemn her characters, and in fact, there are quite a few instances where I was touched by the empathy she shows towards them (I’m thinking of Sandy in particular).
It provides a narrative in which its main character is made to feel time and again ‘Other’, which aggravates the disconnect she experiences between her physical appearance and self. The people around her often express a binary view of race, where you are either/or but not both. Because of this Birdie struggles to define herself, especially when she has to pass as white.
Senna subverts the usual passing narrative: unlike other authors, she doesn’t indict her passer by employing the ‘tragic mulatta’ trope. Throughout the narrative, Senna underscores how racial identity is a social construct and not a biological fact. However, she also shows the legacies of slavery and segregation in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ America as well as the concrete realities that race have in everyday life (Deck being questioned by the police, the disparities between the way Cole and Birdie are treated, the racism and prejudice expressed by so many characters, the way Samantha is treated at school).
Throughout the narrative Senna raises many thought-provoking points, opening the space for in-depth and nuanced discussions on identity, performativity, peer pressure, and sexuality.
The realism of Birdie’s experiences was such that I felt that I was reading a memoir (and there are some definite parallels between Birdie and Senna). If you found Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Dog Flowers: A Memoir to be compelling reads I thoroughly recommend you check out Caucasia. I can also see this coming of age appealing to fans of Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. While they do not touch upon the same issues, they both hone in on the alienation experienced by young girls whose fraught path from childhood to adolescence make them aware of painful truths and realizations (that they are not necessarily good or beautiful, that the people around them aren’t either, that adults and parents can be selfish and liars, that not all parents love their children). I would also compare Caucasia to Monkey Beach which is also an emotionally intelligent and thoughtful coming-of-age. And, of course, if you are interested in passing narratives such as Passing and The Vanishing Half you should really check out all of Senna’s books.

The novel’s closing act is extremely rewarding and heart-rendering. Curiously enough the first time I read this I appreciated it but did not love it. This second time around…it won me over. Completely. Birdie is such a realistic character, and I loved, in spite or maybe because, of her flaws. Her story arc is utterly absorbing and I struggled to tear my eyes away from the page (even if I had already read this and therefore knew what would happen next). Senna’s dialogues ring true to life and so do the scenarios she explores. Birdie’s voice is unforgettable and I can’t wait to re-read this again.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Compared to My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Eileen just ain’t it.

“I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life—the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There’s no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.”

Vile, vulgar, grotesque, sensationalistic, morbid, dismal, gratuitous, self-indulgent. These are some of the words that come to mind when I think of Eileen. The first I read it was back in 2018 I wasn’t particularly impressed by it, and in my original review I wrote that I found many elements within its story ‘excessive’ and that overall I found the narrative ‘flat’. I picked Eileen up again hoping that, as was the case with other novels that I originally ‘didn’t really get’ (an example would be hangsaman, a book i consider to be an all-time fave now), a re-read would improve my opinion of it. Alas, in this instance, a re-read failed to make me a fan of Eileen. Maybe it’s because I can’t help but compare this unfavourably to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest of Relaxation. Now that one slaps. Eileen, does not. Here Moshfegh is much too heavy-handed when it comes to the ‘gross’ stuff, and every paragraph, or so it seemed, tried to be as repulsive and ‘shocking’ as possible. But I did not find Eileen’s obsession with bodily fluids, her abject view of her body (and those around her), her stalking and OTT creepiness to be that disturbing. Sure, her abhorrent behaviour and thoughts are ‘subversive’ because she’s a woman. How very refreshing. I’m sure gross girls are feeling very seen by this novel. While I found the dark humor in My Year of Rest and Relaxation to be funny, here, it seems non-existent. Is Eileen’s insanity supposed to amuse me? Her narration, compared to that of the nameless protagonist of MYORAR, drags. She’s so bloody repetitive and her various speculations, which quite clearly point to her solipsistic view of the world and paranoia, seemed not only predictable and uninteresting but very derivative of the ones had by Shirley Jackson’s heroines (they usually begin describing a what-if scenario that is wholly ridiculous in minute detail, seem to believe that the people around them are very interested in them, perform puzzling ‘little’ every-day rituals, equate normalcy with dullness, and have a hard time interacting with others). The novel’s inciting incident, Eileen’s meeting of Rebecca, happens far too late in the narrative, around the 35% mark. Before that it’s just Eileen being her gross-ass self, peeping on underage boy encroached at the prison where she works, perving on a prison guard, and enabling her alcoholic father who is as repulsive as she is. Most of the narrative is dedicated to Eileen’s navel-gazing. Her dysmorphic view of her body has led her to severe food restriction and the use of laxatives. While the story is set in winter in 1964 Massachusetts, the setting feels more often than not generically historical. The use of certain old-fashioned words seemed to be the author’s greatest attempt at rendering her setting That and the way the prison is run. Eileen begins her tale a week before her last Christmas in her hometown, before she ‘disappeared’. Now, as she often likes to remind us, she’s an ‘old’ woman. ‘Back then’ she repeats time and again, things were different. Anyway, the narrative is all about how gross and disgusting and alienated Eileen is. Her house is dank too and her father is a mean alcoholic. Is it nurture or nature that has made Eileen into such a myopic & maladaptive individual? I for one, do not care. As I said, Eileen struck me as a far less compelling character than MYORAR or, for that matter, Jackson’s anti-heroine. She eventually meets Rebecca who is, of course, beautiful but a cypher. The two supposedly feel a connection, or Eileen is made to feel as if they are connected, and then the event that finally pushes Eileen into driving off from her life & hometown happens. And boy did it lack oomph. It seemed as if Moshfegh had thought of this ‘incident’ on the spot. Which made it rather anticlimactic and not at all convincing.

Other than the occasionally effective line (that is just the right amount of fucked up), I found Eileen a chore to re-read. Eileen was a simplistic character whose horrid inner-monologue wasn’t particularly captivating or ultimately subversive, the language was often repetitive (“back then”/”old woman”/”you see”), side characters were one-note caricatures (the portrayal of eileen’s “drunken” father left a lot to be desired…), and the relationship between Eileen & Rebecca was a flop.
If you are interested in reading something by Moshfegh I recommend you bypass Eileen in favour of MYORAR.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto

N.P. is textbook Banana Yoshimoto: we have a cheerful, occasionally off-beat, young woman, as our narrator, Daddy Issues, sucide(s), a bizarre love story, and… incest?!

I will say that N.P. does seem to attempt to include a mystery subplot (which doesn’t really go anywhere but still…). In this novel a writer published a collection of short stories called, you guessed it, N.P.. This collection has never been successfully translated into Japanese as every translator who attempted to do so died. Our narrator was the girlfriend of one of these translators and she finds herself becoming entangled with the writer’s children and their incest-y dynamics. In spite of this premise, the novel follows in the usual slice-of-life steps as Yoshimoto’s other works, and much of the narrative revolves around the narrator’s everyday experiences, focusing in particular on her conversations and encounters with the writer’s offsprings. The narrative explores grief and love, but it does so in typical Yoshimoto fashion so that the observations and conclusions our narrator makes or reaches seem at times a tad corny or just plain weird. I liked the queer undercurrents between the narrator and one of the author’s children, and part of me wishes that rather than going on about the taboo topic of incest and making the incesty couple a central part of the story, Yoshimoto had focused on the narrator’s attraction to this other woman, who happens to be an ex of the mc’s now dead bf (basically they dated the same guy who tried to translate N.P.). But no, it had to be about incest. The romanticisation of incest spoiled much of the story sadly and I didn’t find this as enjoyable or lighthearted as other works by Yoshimoto…which is a pity as the story had potential. The mystery surrounding this author and his collection is sadly sidelined in favour of the drama between his children.
The ending annoyed me a lot. It was profoundly cheesy & heteronormative (insta-love ahoy).
If you are curious about this author I suggest you try something else by them (such as Kitchen or Goodbye Tsugumi).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

“She had appeared so glorious to me that I had assumed she had everything she wanted. I wanted to cry for her, and for myself.”



Superbly written The Inseparables is a novella that pairs an enthralling depiction of female friendship with a razor-sharp commentary on gender and religion This is the kind of work of fiction that reads like real life, unsurprising perhaps given that Beauvoir created Sylvie and Andrée after herself and her real-life friend Zaza Lacoin.

Written in a controlled and polished style The Inseparables presents us with a beguiling tale in which Sylvie, our narrator, recounts the enigmatic nature of her bond with Andrée. The two first meet as young girls while enrolled at a private Catholic school and, in spite of the divergence between their religious beliefs, they become, as the title itself suggests, inseparable. Due to the conventions of their time and society—the French bourgeois of the early 20th cent.—they cannot be too close and so have to refrain from being too intimate with one another, for example by addressing each other with the formal you.Still, they keep up a correspondence and talk at length to each other, earning themselves the disapproval of Andrée’s mother who frowns upon their, God forbid, long and possibly intimate conversations.

Sylvie is fascinated by Andrée, in particular, she seems hyperaware, intrigued even, by her self-divide. On the one hand Andrée, a devout Catholic, expresses conservative ideas and opinions, which make her appear particularly naive. On the other Andrée possesses a clever mind and a propensity for expressing surprisingly subversive thoughts. Andrée is a magnetic individual who oscillates between irreverence and conformity. Sylvie, who did not grow up to be a staunchly religious individual (apropos, in a diary entry beauvoir wrote: “i have no other god but myself”), cannot always reconcile herself to Andrée’s way of thinking and struggles to understand the loyalty that Andrée has for her family, which Sylvie herself views as suffocating.

As the two grow up we see how Andrée continues to struggle with understanding her own emotions, trying and failing to contain her fiercer self. We also see how her mother’s constant reprimand have affected her self-worth and distorted her view of herself. When she falls for Pascal, a puritanical young man who seriously considered being a priest, Andrée’s resolve to lead the kind of life that her family, as well as her society, is tested. She desperately wants to escape her present circumstances but this desperation ultimately results in self-sabotage. We witness her unravelling through Sylvie’s eyes, who, as much as she yearns to be of help, cannot ultimately save her.

Beauviour’s piercing commentary on gender, class, and religion was profoundly insightful. She addresses these things with clarity and exactness, illustrating how fatal oppression and repression are on a person’s psyche. What I found particularly touching, and relatable, in this novel was the unrequited nature of Sylve’s love for Andrée. Regardless of whether the love she feels for Andrée is a platonic one or a romantic one, we know that Andrée doesn’t feel the same passion for Sylve. Whether she’s unwilling or unable to reciprocate the iSylve’s feelings, we do not know for certain, however, we can see how deeply this realization cuts Sylvie. Sylvie is shown to be both jealous and resentful of Andrée’s family, holding them responsible for her friend’s unhappiness.

This novella’s subject did bring to mind Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, which also explores an intense female friendship, Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia
(which is far more flowery and sentimental than this but also capture a youth’s unrequited love and longing for another) as well as novel such as Abigail and Frost In May (which are both set in all-girl schools and touch on female friendships and religion).
While Sylvie is both attuned and attentive to Andrée, her moods and beliefs, she does, like we all tend to do, idealise her given that she is her object of desire (whether this is desire is platonic or sexual, it’s up to the reader to decide, i, to no one’s surprise, felt that it was the latter).
This was a riveting read. The prose is sublime, the story an equal parts evocative and tragic exploration of young & unrequited love, heartache, independence, kinship and intimacy.

I will say that as much as I loved this I couldn’t help but the publisher’s short bio of Beauvoir, as well as Levy’s and the translator’s mentions of her, felt very incomplete. As far as I can recall they all omit to mention Beauvoir’s more ‘unethical’ behaviour. As a teacher, she had ‘relationships’ with her underage pupils and went on to sign a petition seeking to abrogate the age of consent in France (because of course age is just a number!). Here you might argue that those things have nothing to do with this novella or her friendship with Zaza (discussed by both Levy and the translator). But I maintain that they do. You can’t just mention the fact that she’s a feminist and try to analyse her real-life friendship with another woman or her commentary on female sexuality while at the same time omitting that in her lifetime she (‘allegedly’) groomed her underage female students and seemed in favour of pedophilia. That she did those things did not detract from my reading experience however it certainly made me a little bit more critical of our narrator’s obsession towards her friend.


Some of my favourite quotes:

“Secretly I thought to myself that Andrée was one of those prodigies about whom, later on, books would be written.”

“No, our friendship was not as important to Andrée as it was to me, but I admired her too much to suffer from it.”

“What would I have daydreamed about? I loved Andrée above all else, and she was right next to me.”

“I thought to myself, distressed, that in books there are people who make declarations of love, or hate, who dare to say whatever comes into their mind, or heart—why is it so impossible to do the same thing in real life?”

“The errors I admitted were those of the soul above all: I had lacked fervour, too long forsaken the divine presence, prayed inattentively, regarded myself too complacently.”

“Andrée was unhappy and the idea of it was unbearable. But her unhappiness was so foreign to me; the kind of love where your kiss had no truth from me.”

“Never. The word had never fallen with such weight upon my heart. I repeated it within myself, under the never-ending sky, and I wanted to cry. ”

“No doubt she loved Andrée in her way, but what way was that? That was the question. We all loved her, only differently. ”

“Happiness suits her so well, I thought.”

““Don’t be sad,” she said. “In every family there’s a bit of rubbish. I was the rubbish.”

“For Andrée, there was a passageway between the heart and the body that remained a mystery to me. ”

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

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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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History lives rent free in my head. It is a masterpiece. A thing of rare beauty. A tour de force. A literary triumph.

“One likes to think there’s something in it, that old platitude amor vincit omnia. But if I’ve learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.”

Written in an incandescent prose The Secret History is a ferociously erudite and delightfully mischievous work of staggering genius. I have read it twice now and each time it has blown me away. Reading this novel makes for an all-consuming, almost feverish, experience.
It is impossible for me to precisely articulate or express what The Secret History means to me. To speak of it as a work of fiction almost pains me. But, as I have chosen to review all of the novels that I read, I will give it a shot. Bear with me (and my ramblings).

“Four boys and a girl, they were nothing so unusual at a distance. At close range, though, they were an arresting party—at least to me, who had never seen anything like them, and to whom they suggested a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities.”

The Secret History begins with a murder. Richard Papen, our narrator, looks back to the events that lead him and four other students to murder Bunny, a fellow student and ‘friend’ of theirs. That Tartt’s prologue reveals the identity of the victim and perpetrators of the murder. As Richard looks back into this defining period of his life (the only ‘story’ he “will ever be able to tell”) Tartt slowly unravels the events and motivations that led five people to murder as well as the ramifications that this murder has on their lives and their relationship with each other and themselves.
In Plano, California, alienated from his parents and his peers, twenty-year-old Richard yearns to leave behind the trappings of his working-class existence. One day he comes across a prospectus for a liberal arts college in Vermont and, against his parents’ wishes, goes on to enrol himself there. At Hampden College, a painfully class-conscious Richard lies. A lot. He fabricates a ‘better’ kind of past and identity for himself, hoping that people will perceive him as he wishes to be perceived. It almost seems inevitable that a romantic like him would fall under the spell of a certain ‘clique’. These five students are the only ones to be enrolled in professor Julian Morrow’s classes, who mainly teaches classical studies. Richard is intrigued by their shared air of mystery. They don’t tend to mingle with other students and seem to belong to an entirely separate world. And Richard wants in on it. When he eventually gets accepted into Julian’s classes he becomes further intoxicated by this clique.
In this first section of Richard’s story, the narrative has this almost fairytale-esque quality. Julian appears to Richard as a mythical sort of creature, the kind of mentor-like figure that would not be out of place in a monomyth. Soon Tartt however subverts our expectations by revealing just how fatal Richard’s misperception of his new reality is. The rarefied world Henry, Francis, the twins, and Bunny belong to may not be as the Elysium Richard envisioned it to be. The college itself is not the ‘enlightened’ haven he’d thought it would be. The more time he spends with his new acquaintances the more he becomes aware of just how dangerously disconnected they are from their everyday modern world (they certainly seem to belong to another time).
As the narrative progresses, we learn just how disillusioned all of these characters are by their realities. This disillusionment leads them to apotheosize bygone eras, and, in the case of Richard, idealise their surroundings.
Fraying alliances, secrets, and betrayals increase the tension between the characters, heightening the drama.
As we learn of the circumstances that led to Bunny’s murder our view of Henry & Co. will begin to change. Their hunger for the inaccessible and desire to transcend their reality, perhaps to access sublimity or a higher plane of existence, leads them to cross—jump over even—quite a few lines. Yet, however flawed they reveal themselves to be (let us say, they seem to have more vices than virtues), I remained transfixed by them.
Their lifestyles, while certainly extravagant, are not all that desirable. Considering their poor diets, their heavy drinking and smoking, and, at least in the case of Richard, that they are sleep deprived, it is a miracle that they don’t get scurvy or worse.
Tartt doesn’t glamorise their actions and Bunny’s murder takes its toll on them. Between the anxiety of being discovered and the guilt that they (some of them) experience it seems inevitable that things take a turn for the worst. The disintegration of their friendship is hard to read but I was unable to tear my eyes away.

That Richard remains on the outskirts of this group makes Henry & Co. all the more intriguing. Henry and Camilla make for extremely ambivalent figures. Because we know as much as Richard does, we often don’t know what truly motivates these characters, yet, despite how ambiguous they could be, Tartt is capable of capturing those idiosyncrasies that make them who they are. We learn more about Francis, Charles, and even Bunny, because Richard spends more time with them. While Richard’s relationship with them is far from straightforward I found their interactions to be utterly engrossing. I definitely have a bias when it comes to Francis and I could probably spend hours talking about how much I love him. Really. Just thinking about him makes me emotional (i am aware that he is far from perfect but that is also why i like him so much).


Richard, unreliable narrator par par excellence, is an interesting character in his own right. He reminded me ever so slightly of the narrator from Tobias Wolff’s Old School and he even seems to have a touch of the ‘dreaded’ Emma Bovary (longing 24/7).
Tartt demonstrates extreme acuity in the way she conveys Richard’s inner turmoil, his loneliness and his desires. He, like the others, has his fair share of flaws but I found his voice utterly relatable. The boy really has very few people that care about him. His parents seem to act as if he doesn’t exist, his professors ignore or are wholly unaware that he is teetering on the very brink of mental and physical collapse (think of his hellish winter break). Another reason why I find him so compelling is that he’s surprisingly supportive of those who have made him feel like an outsider (i am an extremely petty person so, kudos to him). Given the ‘otherness’ he feels—and is made to feel—I thought it quite fitting that after he cuts his hair he compares himself to Arthur Rimbaud (“Je est un autre” & all that jazz).
The love he believes he feels for Camilla seemed very much a result of his “fatal flaw”. That she remains a mystery to him enables him to project his own vision of ‘Camilla’ onto her. Richard seems to regard her as an Estella of sorts, the kind of ethereal beauty that so frequently appears in Victorian novels. Also, is this boy in denial about his sexuality (he’s attracted to her androgynous appearance, her “boy-feet”, her “slightly masculine grace of posture”). In many ways, Camilla is the classic object of unattainable desire (or as our boy lacan would have it “objet petit a”). As long as his love remains unrequited Richard can remain in a perpetual state of longing. Weirdly enough, he finds fulfilment in the perpetuation of his non-fulfilment.

This novel is populated by morally dubious characters who frequently transgress social norms. Not everyone is happy to do so and much of the narrative is about the guilt, anguish, anxiety, and sorrow that result from these ‘bad’ choices.
The dialogues are by turns sharp, funny, illuminating, and obscure. Many of the exchanges that occur within this narrative filled me with unease, apprehension. Thanks to Richard’s foreshadowing we often know that someone is hiding something or that things are going to take a turn for the worst.
The unflagging tension created by the ongoing drama between them kept me at the edge-of-my-seat (even during my re-read). Their chemistry is off-the-charts. From their moments of kinship to their devastating fights. Witnessing the slow dissolution of this group filled me with dread. But how real these ‘characters’ feel to me! Just thinking about them makes my heart ache.

Tartt enriches Richard’s story with plenty of literary and mythical allusions. From the narrative’s underlying Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy to those beguiling descriptions of the ancient world. The constant blurring of reality and dreams and of truth and illusion makes this novel all the more enigmatic and the kind of book that can be read time and again (i already want to re-read it).
The Secret History is a sharp and achingly beautiful novel. Tartt presents her readers with an unforgettable examination of morality, self-knowledge, loneliness, and privilege. The Secret History is a propulsive psychological thriller, a piercing examination of the folly of youth, a cautionary tale against falling for Beauty, for splendid illusions.
Tartt’s scintillating style, which is at once elegant and playful, is truly hypnotising. I love how detailed she is in describing Richard’s states of mind as well as her vivid descriptions of his surroundings. She often hones in on seemingly small details that end up making a certain scene or moment seem all the more real. But I also loved those moments of almost surreal humor, those brief reprieve in an otherwise unrelentingly intense narrative.
What makes this novel all the more intoxicating is that readers end up falling for what the narrative is warning us against. We idealise the characters and their circumstances, we are distracted by the sharp imagery and dazzling aesthetics, so much so that we end up overlooking just how prosaic and depressing certain portions of the story are (pretty sure richard snorts “an awful lot of cocaine in the parking lot of burger king”…yeah).
Anyway, as you may have guessed if you are reading this review, I fucking love this novel. Tartt spent 9 years writing it and it sure paid off.
I am, and likely always be, in awe of it.

SMALL ASIDE:
It was my mother who first spoke to me about Donna Tart. Her rather battered paperback copy of The Secret History was a fixture on her bookshelves. She first read it in 1994 (since then she has read it many many many times) when she was about to give birth to my older brother (to quote her: “it got me through labour”) who is exactly the kind of person you imagine him to be. Case in point: he is currently reading the Bāburnāmathe, the memoirs of Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muhammad Bābur (naturally, i asked what she was reading while she was pregnant with me and it turns out it would have likely been a children’s book…which explains a lot).
A few months before I read The Secret History for the first time I recall overhearing my mum and brother talking about it with such reverence as to suggest that what they were discussing was not ‘merely’ a work of fiction but real people and events. I was intrigued, of course, but it was only after I was suffering from an acute case of book hangover (i’d just finished the raven cycle) that my mother recommended The Secret History to me.
I won’t lie, I was worried that it would go way over my head. At that time, I did not have a degree. After dropping out of my Italian high school at age 16 I had managed to complete a rather slapdash qualification in an art and design course, which was based in Swindon—a place described in this novel as being the ‘arsehole’ of the UK—and mostly consisted in us—the students—being left to our devices in order to create whatever art or non-art we wanted to create. Unlike my brother, who spent his childhood and teens reading historical tomes or learning about historical figures or ancient cultures, I never had much interest in those things. All of this is to say that I had very little knowledge of ancient history or the western literary canon, let alone anything related to philosophy. So, I was amazed by how little my lack of knowledge in these things proved to be a hindrance in my reading experience of The Secret History.
1.5 degree and 5 years later I am able to understand certain passages or motifs better but to be honest I can’t say that this has affected the way I feel about this novel. I also used google a lot because I don’t know latin and while I may know more about Nietzsche that 20-year-old me did I still know next-to-nothing about Plato and the other Greek lads and zilch about Buddhist traditions.

SECOND ASIDE:
Look, I like a lot of books and films that fall into the dark academia subgenre but I have come to despise the whole ‘dark academia aesthetics’ trend. If you read this novel and all you get out of it is tweed jackets and libraries…you are as bad—if not worse—than Richard (let’s glamorise this extremely elitist world…yay).
This was made by lucy and boy if it isn’t spot on:

my rating: ★★★★★

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Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

“Everything I could see looked unreal to me; everything I could see made me feel I would never be part of it, never penetrate to the inside, never be taken in.”

From the very first page, I was enthralled by Lucy’s deceptively simple narration. To begin with, I was struck by the clarity of her observations and the directness of her statements. As I kept reading, however, I came to realise just how enigmatic a character she was.

“Oh, I had imagined that with my one swift act—leaving home and coming to this new place—I could leave behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again, my sad thoughts, my sad feelings, and my discontent with life in general as it presented itself to me.”

After leaving her homeland, an unnamed island in the West Indies, Lucy becomes an au pair for a white and wealthy couple in North America. Although Lucy wants to leave her past behind, her alienating new surroundings make her homesick. Lucy tries to acclimatise to the colder climate, to American’s strange customs, to her new role. As she tries to adjust to her new home, she becomes closer to her employer, Mariah. Her obliviousness, however, frustrates Lucy as Mariah seems incapable or unwilling to acknowledge her privilege or their cultural differences, seeming content to live in a bubble.
Lucy strikes a friendship with Peggy, a young woman from Ireland. While the two share a sense of otherness (“From the moment we met we had recognized in each other the same restlessness, the same dissatisfaction with our surroundings, the same skin-doesn’t-fit-ness.”), Peggy is far more of a bohemian. Lucy’s relationship with Mariah begins to fray, partly because of Peggy’s influence, partly due to Lucy’s growing disillusionment towards her employers and their after all not-so-perfect marriage.
As Lucy recounts her time as an au pair, her mind often drifts towards her childhood. We know that her strained relationship with her mother had an enormous impact on her, but we are only given glimpses of their time together. As Lucy attempts to navigate her new life, we come to learn why she has become so unwilling to be truly known by others. Through what we learn of her past, and through the things she leaves unspoken, we begin to understand Lucy’s obliqueness, her remoteness, her alienation, her self-division (which she describes as a “two-facedness: that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true”), her attitude towards others and her sexuality.
Lucy is an unremittingly ambiguous and fascinating character-study. Kincaid’s polished prose is deeply alluring: from the evocative descriptions of the weather to Lucy’s penetrating deliberations.
I was also drawn by the parallels Kincaid makes between Lucy and Villette (which happens to be one of my favourite novels of all time). Kincaid’s Lucy leaves her homeland to become an au pair, while Brontë’s Lucy leaves England to become a teacher in a small town in Belgium. Both women are ambivalent towards their past and disinclined to let others know who they are or what they ‘feel’. They both experience a sense of displacement and have to adapt to another culture. They also both become ‘involved’ with men who are called Paul (Brontë’s Paul owns a slave plantation). In many ways, Lucy functions as a reworking of Villette, as it subverts its colonial narrative (more than once Lucy’s informs us of the inadequacy of her British colonial education) and provides a more modern exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and sexual repression.

“I had begun to see the past like this: there is a line; you can draw it yourself, or sometimes it gets drawn for you; either way, there it is, your past, a collection of people you used to be and things you used to do. Your past is the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in.”

Throughout the course of Lucy’s tale Kincaid examines the way in which one’s family can affect an individual’s self-perception and the damage that parental favouritism has on a child’s self-worth.
Kincaid’s Lucy is an incessantly intriguing novel. I was mesmerised by her prose, by her inscrutable main character, and by the opaqueness and lucidity of her narrative.
Kincaid beautifully articulates Lucy’s feelings—her desire, contempt, guilt, despair—without ever revealing too much. Lucy retains an air of unknowability. Similarly, the mother-daughter bond that is at the heart of the novel remains shrouded in mystery.

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

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Passing by Nella Larsen — book review

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“It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

At once alluring and disquieting Nella Larsen’s Passing presents its readers with a piercing examination of the interplay of race, gender, and class in 1920s New York.
Clare and Irene, the women at the centre of this novel, grew up in the same Black neighborhood. Both are light-skinned and can ‘pass’ for white but whereas Irene now lives with her husband, who is a doctor, and two sons in Harlem, and seems to enjoy a respectable middle-class existence, Clare left their community and rumour has it that she is now passing for white.
Irene has never paid much attention to the talk surrounding Clare’s ‘disappearance’ from their neighbourhood. A chance encounter in Chicago reunites the two women. Clare, now living as a white woman and married to a white supremacist, views Irene as a link bank to the Black community and culture that she abandoned. While she’s clearly made the most of the privileges that come with being white, Clare feels a lure towards her ‘old’ identity. Irene too may be more dissatisfied than she’d liked to believe and begrudgingly rekindles her friendship with Clare.

The fraught dynamic between Clare and Irene brought to mind that between Sula Peace and Nel Wright (from Toni Morrison’s Sula). Both sets of women used to be childhood friends, Clare and Sula leave their community only to return years later. Their beauty and insouciant attitude arouse jealousy and envy in their old friends.
While Clare is using Irene as her ticket to re-enter and re-connect with her Black community, she does seem to be genuinely happy to be spending time with Irene. Irene, on the other hand, grows resentful of Clare’s careless vacillation between a white and Black identity. When Irene perceives a new strain in her relationship with her husband she attributes this to the ‘change’ brought by Clare reappearance in her life.

“There were things that she wanted to ask Clare Kendry. She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly. What, for example, one did about background, how one accounted for oneself.”

Desire and jealousy cloud Irene and Clare judgments. They seem drawn to each other, perhaps because they are in many ways polar opposites. There is an intensity to how Irene thinks about Clare and to how Clare looks at Irene that seemed almost sexual (or maybe that’s just me).
Yet, underlining this mutual attraction is something closer to animosity. Irene judges Clare for passing and for being with a boastfully racist man, while Clare, in her unrelenting efforts to latch onto Irene and her lifestyle, is much harder to pin down. Much about her remains a mystery to us. Irene’s growing hostility towards Clare could also be seen as a defence mechanism, as in this instance aversion may be preferable to attraction.

Larsen’s naturalist approach to her characters’ behaviours and feelings reminded me of Edith Wharton (“Brought to the edge of distasteful reality, her fastidious nature did not recoil. Better, far better, to share him than to lose him completely. Oh, she could close her eyes, if need be. She could bear it. She could bear anything.”) . Larsen, similarly to Wharton, can be incredibly perceptive—in her social commentaries, in her honing on the subtleties of certain feelings, impressions, and thoughts—while also allowing for a certain opaqueness to surround her characters, their motivations and actions. This sense of ambiguity, although present from the novel’s opening scene, soon seems to dominate the narrative, so that the more I read, the more uneasy I felt towards the characters. Larsen’s disillusioned portrayal of marriage and domesticity also made me think of Wharton’s (the two also have a penchant for tragedies). The oppressive unease permeating Irene’s story called to mind authors such as Patricia Highsmith and Danzy Senna.

Larsen doesn’t lose herself in the ethics of passing, rather she portrays the system of white supremacy which seeks to control and undermine people of colour (regardless of their class).
As Larsen navigates themes of race, gender, and identity, she brings to life 1920s New York from its norms to its social hierarchies. Larsen’s commentary on race feels modern and all-too relevant to today’s society.

“The social, psychological, and economic motivations for passing, they also perform acts of literary trespass in exposing the cultural and legal fiction of race.”

Through her elegant and contemplative writing, Larsen captures the discordance between self and society. The tension between Irene and Clare results in a fraught atmosphere, one that makes Passing into a work of psychological suspense. If you are looking for a novel about transformation, liberation, jealousy, and betrayal, you need not look further.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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