Lakewood by Megan Giddings

“America is only routinely good to women, especially Black women, when it wants something from them.”

Having recently read Megan Giddings’ intriguing sophomore novel, The Women Could Fly, I decided to revisit Lakewood, a book that I have picked up and put back down on and off since August 2020. Each reading attempt saw me lose interest during Lena’s first ‘interactions’ with Lakewood. Whereas The Women Could Fly drew me in from the very first pages, I had a much harder time becoming invested in Lena’s story. The writing was solid enough but lacked the polish of the prose that I encountered in The Women Could Fly. Still, this time around I was determined to finish what I’d started, and so I persevered reading, despite my waning interest. Now that I have finally ‘made it’, I can definitely pinpoint why this book didn’t really grab me like The Women Could Fly: whereas in that novel Giddings maintains a delicate balance between her subject matters (authoritarian & patriarchal regimes, female bodily autonomy) and her character development, here Lena never comes into her own, she sadly remains fairly one-dimensional, and her character often struck me as a vehicle through which the author could explore a horrifyingly unethical human experimentation.

I will begin with the positives: I think Giddings excels at atmosphere, and most of the narrative is permeated by a subtle yet unshakeable sense of unease, one that morphs from a feeling of not-rightness into downright horror. Lena’s story also retains an ambiguous quality, one that blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not. Many of her experiences at Lakewood appear to us as fragments, with no clear chronological order, certain events or memories are distorted. The people involved with the Lakewood project and the people of Lakewood themselves remain opaque figures, their names and faces a blur. Their perturbing vagueness exacerbated the narrative’s eerie atmosphere, their perpetual unfamiliarity a source of unease and potential danger. So, in terms of ambience, Lakewood certainly succeeds in making for an alienating and murky read. There were also some very clever descriptions (“Inside, a white woman with a haircut that looked as if she had shown her stylist an image of a motorcycle helmet and said, “That’s the look,” was waiting.”), and I appreciated the narrative’s discourse on sacrifice & freedom.

“Maybe the hypothesis is how much do people value money over themselves?

Where this book lets me down however was the way the Lakewood project is presented to us. Much of the narrative, most of the narrative it seemed, consists of the questions Lena has to answer as part of this experiment. And these questions were by turns weird, seemingly arbitrary, and intrusive. Yet, they bored me. I would have preferred the narrative to be heavier on introspection, as Lena was in much need of, well, a personality (besides being a dutiful daughter). She responds to her environments as you would expect: at first she’s perturbed, then disturbed, and finally horrified. But her responding to the questions and the experiments at Lakewood in this manner did not make her come across as a rounded character. The third-person perspective makes her feel further at a remote, which lessened the impact of her narrative. While we do understand the circumstances that lead Lena to ‘participate’ in this project, I did find her initial compliance odd. I would have liked to see more of an internal monologue on her part, rather than having to see her function as a mere plot device through which the author can show how dehumanizing medical experimentation can be. I mean, you could read an article discussing actual unethical medical experimentations, if I have to read about a fictional take on these, I would like for these to be explored through nuanced characters (or a compelling main character at least). Still, the author is able to address the type of circumstances that might lead someone to take part in medical experimentation, and the difficulties in extracting oneself from it. Lena is never quite certain of what is happening to her, and is very much restricted by nda she has signed. She does now and again ask why certain questions are being asked to her, the point behind her answers, but she receives no replies or unsatisfying ones. With the exception of one person, we don’t learn much about the other people in the experiment, and the time Lena spends at Lakewood acquires a blurry, almost feverish quality, one that makes it often difficult to grasp how much time has passed from one scene to the next and determine Lena’s reactions to what she is subjected to and witnesses there. There is a lot f*cked up stuff that happens there that is just glossed over, and in a way, I get that the author was showing that the participants in this experiment had been desensitized to the weirdness of the questions and rules there, but I would have wanted the author to expand some more on Lena’s feelings about a lot of stuff, to be honest.
There seemed to be neither a lot of telling nor showing bizarrely enough. What we do get is a lot of question-and-answer scenes which are profoundly repetitive and dull. I would have liked for the narrative to incorporate more portions of Lena’s life prior to Lakewood, as I believe that her relationship with her now-deceased grandmother, her chronically ill mother, and her best friend, would have added an emotional layer to the story. Again, maybe the cold, detached, somewhat clinical tone was intentional given the focus on Lakewood, however, I personally would have preferred some more depth from Lena.
Still, the author does focus on the way racial minorities, in particular Black people, and disadvantaged groups, such as poor and/or disabled individuals, are often the targets of these experiments, and how they are lied to, abused, and ultimately treated as ‘disposable’. The author also shows the hypocrisy of institutions and corporations that perpetuate physical and psychological violence in the name of ‘progress’.
The denouement was anticlimactic and in some ways predictable. That whole last section, which is presented as a letter if I recall correctly, in some ways ruined the surreal atmosphere so far established by the narrative.

I would have liked more. More from the story, the plot, and especially Lena. The premise was certainly intriguing but the execution left a lot to be desired. I went into this excepting something along the lines of Yorgos Lanthimos or Get Out, and while the book does have Black Mirror and even some Severance vibes, the storyline ultimately feels incomplete and it severely lacked in oomph.

Still, just because I didn’t find this to be as gripping a read as I’d hoped does not mean it was a bad book. If you are interested in it I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

You Are Free by Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna has a knack for unsettling her readers. The stories collected in You Are Free are a testament to her ability to create and maintain an atmosphere of disquiet, one that adds to the ambiguous characters populating her stories. The people Senna centres her stories around seem perpetually uneasy and their behaviour—which ranges from being slightly worrisome to downright perturbing—is often a source of confusion to other characters and readers themselves. Like in her full-length novels, Senna hones in on race, racism, and racial identity. Her caustic social commentary is as piercing as it is unstinting. Senna spares no one and this adds to the murky tone of her narratives. As much as I love Senna’s writing, her short stories pale in comparison to her novels. The stories here are not as disturbing as Maria’s spiralling into obsession in New People, or as disconcerting as the narrator’s experiences in Symptomatic, or as compelling as Birdie’s story in Caucasia.

The first story is probably the most accomplished one, as we are introduced to a young couple who, as a ‘joke’, apply for their son to attend one of the country’s most distinguished private schools. When their son is actually offered a spot, the mother finds herself giving the school some serious consideration, while the father is adamantly opposed to it and wants his son to attend a local public school. What makes this story so effective is the increasingly creepy behaviour of the school’s member of staff. The other stories are less memorable, and many of them focus on new parents. I made the mistake of listening to the audiobook version of this collection and I can tell you that there are few things as irritating as an adult mimicking the voice of a whiny child crying for their ‘mama/mummy’. Anyway, the people within these narratives are varying degrees of terrible. Which was expected, but they did seem to share many of the same unlikeable traits, which made them rather samey. The short format also didn’t give Senna much time to flesh them out or to give them some nuance. I also could have done without the animal cruelty which seemed thrown in as an afterthought, or worse, for mere shock value. At times the character descriptions here verged on being lazy, which is quite unlike Senna (a character’s eyes are described as ‘asian’…). The focus on the parent-child and wife-husband dynamics had potential but ultimately the author prioritizes ambience over characterisation (also the lack of queer characters…). Senna is a fantastic author but this collection isn’t quite it…

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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The Trees by Percival Everett

“Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.”


Percival Everett is an author that has been on my radar for a while now. And in many ways, The Trees does showcase the hand of a talented writer, as the book showcases plenty of quick-witted dialogues and clever descriptions, all topped by an unsparing yet humorous social commentary. It did take me a while to adjust to the tone and direction of his story as I thought that The Trees would be something in the realms of something by Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley, or S.A. Cosby. I was surprised when I was confronted by an almost absurdist tone, one that brought to mind certain films by the Coen brothers, which usually abound with minor yet memorable side characters. The satirical way in which Everett depicts small towns and small-town ‘mentalities’ reminded me of certain books by Stephen King, as they both succeed in bringing to life—often more for the worse than the better—those who inhabit smaller communities in rural America. For the first few pages in fact I believed that The Trees had a historical setting, given the opinions and behaviours voiced and showcased by the family appearing in that opening sequence. It is only when more modern things are mentioned or make an appearance that I realized that the story had a contemporary setting.
Everett effectively renders how insular, bigoted, and reactionary the people of Money, Mississippi are. They are a rural community, one that is teeming with poorly educated racist white-nationalist who struggle to find employement and fulfilment. Their bubble of insularity is burst when their town becomes the setting for a series of mind-boggling murders. The white murdered men appear to share an ‘unpleasant’ (this is an understatement of course) connection and at each crime scene, there is also another body, that of a Black man who eerily resembles Emmett Till, the victim of a lynching. Another odd detail is that the white men are castrated (which of course gives way to a repetitive verging on the homophobic gag which i frankly could have done without).
Two detectives from the Bureau of Investigation and the local authorities, who are both inept and racist, attempt to get in their way. As more men die in the same peculiar circumstances the detectives find themselves looking for answers in the past. Are these murders an act of retribution? If so, by the hands of whom? The disappearing body of Emmett Till adds a dimension of surreality to the murders, so much so that I started to wonder whether Everett would go the route King did in The Outsider.
Everett favours no perspective and throughout the book, he switches between the townspeople of Money to the detectives. I, like other readers, of course, preferred those sections that focused on the detectives and their investigation. They had a good if slightly cliched dynamic but their banter was entertaining and they play off each other quite well. If anything I found myself wanting to spend more time with them and less with the often cartoonish people of Money. That is not me saying or suggesting that people such as the ones we encounter in Money do not exist. I have come across Jordan Klepper’s videos (where he interviews trump supporters) and boy oh boy…still, Everett is quite heavy-handed in his use of satire, so much so that most of the characters populating his novel are closer to caricatures than fully-dimensional individuals. There were many instances where I found the humour crass and distracting as it took away from otherwise poignant or important scenes where characters discuss lynching, racism, and police brutality. I also did not like how the author writes about fat people, it reminded me of Family Guy tbh. So not my kind of ‘humor’. I could have also done without the very cliched female characters we get in this novel, in particular, the detectives’ no-nonsense strong-willed ‘ally’. This is the type of character often penned by male authors, with good intentions I’m sure, but I just find this type of characterisation lazy.
The pacing was somewhat uneven. There were several instances where I found my attention drifting away or where I found myself growing weary of the unrelenting satire, especially in those instances where it takes on a sillier tone. There are several storylines that do eventually come together but in a not quite satisfying manner. There are some loose ends or certain parts that just did not feel that convincing or well-executed. The ending in particular didn’t really work for me. Maybe if we’d been given insight into that part of the story from the get-go I could have adjusted more to it but we don’t so I was really sold on it. Still, I can recognise that just because I thought that the content of the story was at odds with the narrative tone does not mean that you will feel the same way so if you are curious about this book I recommend you also check out some 4 or 5-star reviews. This was less of a crime/thriller than a dark occasionally OTT satire which I wasn’t quite in the mood for. Still, I’ll definitely check out more books by this author. I appreciated the issues he tackles in The Trees, in particular on addressing racist violence both in the past and in the present. Ultimately however the tone of his narration eroded much of my interest in his story so that I found myself reading less out of a desire to do so and more so out of a sense of misplaced duty (on the lines of, i am already halfway there, might as well finish this).

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Recitatif by Toni Morrison

A skilful and incisive short story by the masterful Toni Morrison Recitatif is the type of short story that seems made to be studied at school/college or discussed in a book club. The ambiguous nature of the central characters’ racial identities will lead readers to analyze every passage, trying to ‘find out’ the answers to a puzzle Morrison leaves intentionally unsolved. Our eagerness to understand this short story plays into Morrison’s social commentary. The reading experience of Recitatif is almost a prelude to the real story, the one that occurs outside of its borders, in which we study, examine, and argue, with others or with ourselves about the characters’ identities and the meaning behind Morrison’s choice not to reveal them to us. Long rambling short, this is the type of story that delivers more substance and depth once it’s actually over. Whereas I found the two full-length works that I have read by Morrison to be riveting and all-consuming, I found myself less immersed in Recitatif. I was more interested in the conception and execution of this idea than in the actual story. The story and characters, curiously enough, felt secondary to the literary device employed by Morrison. The alleged fraught friendship between these two women, one of them Black, the other white, pales in comparison to the fiercely complicated bond between Sula and Nel in Morrison’s Sula. We are given a glimpse into their childhood, where we learn they both have experienced some form of hardship and we later see them encountering one another as adults, except that they now find themselves on opposing sides.
Their complicity in the violence that other girls at the orphanage where they first met perpetrated against an older woman binds them together. While they both harbour guilt over this they disagree on whether the woman in question was Black or white. This will lead readers to wonder why that is. Which of them is right? And does that change anything? As I said, this is the type of story that is the ideal vehicle for generating discussions on race and racism in America. While I admired Morrison’s skill, I found that I was too aware of her presence in this story. That is, while with her novels her voice reeled me into her stories, here I felt more keenly her ‘hand’. As I was reading I knew that she was the architect behind the words on those pages.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that I read this as I did find this to be a thought-provoking short story. Zadie Smith’s introduction adds another dimension to the story and I highly recommend you do not give it a miss.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Last Suspicious Holdout: Stories by Ladee Hubbard

The Last Suspicious Holdout and Other Stories is a prescient and timely collection capturing the everyday experiences of Black Americans from the 1990s to the mid-2000s. Ladee Hubbard hones in on family dynamics and I appreciated all the different familial relationships we get to see in these stories: from the classic ones focusing on the bond between parents and their children to ones between grandparents and grandkids. Many of these stories delve examine the criminal justice system, focusing in particular on the criminalization of young Black men.

Through different perspectives and contexts, these narratives explore systemic discrimination of minorities, the realities of those who are affected by social inequality, and the shifting landscape of American politics. In many of these stories, characters are faced with choices that blur the line between right and wrong, good and bad. I appreciated the author’s nuanced approach to difficult topics and her empathetic portrayal of characters who embody both flaws and virtues. Some stories stood out more than the rest and overall, although I found this a compelling read, as collections of short stories go this feels rather run-of-the-mill. The storytelling is solid but I can’t say that I remember specifics about the characters and or their arcs. Still, I am aware that I am quite picky when it comes to short story collections so this is by no means a negative review. Also, I will definitely be checking out more by Hubbard, perhaps I will find her full-length work to be more memorable.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

“And none of that mattered. No matter how nice the suit, no matter how educated his speech or how strong the handshake, no matter how much muscle he packed on, no matter how friendly or how smart he was, none of it mattered at all. He was just a Black person. That’s all they saw and that’s all he was.”

While I did find The Violin Conspiracy to be a bit all over the place the author’s acknowledgements hit hard. The book opens in medias res with Ray McMillian, our main character, discovering that his Stradivarius has been stolen. Ray is preparing for the international Tchaikovsky Competition and without his fiddle, he feels unmoored. The narrative then jumps back in time where we meet Ray in his teens and learn more about his family situation. His mother wants him to drop school so he can work full time and so she can buy a new tv. When Ray begins to earn good money by playing at various events she quietens down somewhat but she still clearly disapproves of his violin playing and often ridicules him and his belief that he could pursue a career as a violinist. The only supportive member of his family is Ray’s beloved grandmother who loves him to bits. She also wants him to play and gifts him her grandpa’s fiddle. Ray eventually ends up getting a scholarship for a prestigious college. His mother doesn’t want him to go but Ray is determined to follow his path. He eventually learns that his violin is a Stradivarius. His family wants him to sell it and claim that it was never his, to begin with. To keep them at bay Ray begins to send them large sums of money but they never seem satisfied. He also begins to receive thinly threatening letters from a family that claims to be the righteous owners of the violin, and it turns out that they are descendants of the people who had once enslaved Ray’s great-grandfather. Eventually, the narrative reaches the beginning, where Ray’s beloved violin has been stolen and the competition is just around the corner.
Throughout the narrative, the author highlights just how racist and elitist the classical music world is. From when he played as a teenager at venues to his time as a teacher and a professional violinist, Ray experiences racism. Classical music is something that is often associated with whiteness and because of this Ray has to fight to be accepted into this world. No matter how hard he proves himself he will be confronted with people dismissing his skills, claiming that he is a ‘diversity token’ or diminishing his talent. There are many harrowing scenes where Ray is mistreated and abused, and the realism of these scenes made it clear that these episodes had likely been experienced by the author himself (such as the wedding one early on). From outright racist remarks to more ‘veiled’ ones, Ray has to fight tooth and nail to claim a space in this extremely white elitist world. That he has no support from his family certainly doesn’t help as with the exception of his grandmother and an aunt, they are all keen on him selling his violin.
The novel tries to combine a Bildungsroman novel with a more suspenseful storyline but the two don’t quite mesh together. The flashbacks into Ray’s teenage years do add context to his life and the violin but they fail to make him into a more rounded character. I found him rather flat, at times a little more than a vehicle to move the story forward. I would have liked for him to have a more defined personality and a more developed characterisation. Other characters were similarly one-dimensional, Ray’s mother in particular. She’s portrayed as a horrible person: every scene she is in she says something awful. She has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and I could not understand why Ray would bother with her at all. He also has siblings but we never see him interact with them. His other relatives, with the exception of that one aunt, are all greedy and nasty to him. The bad characters in this book are also extremely one-note. This is fair enough, a simplistic approach could have worked but I found it annoying that the author would describe these characters as physically ‘ugly’ and are often ‘fat’. The woman who claims that the violin belongs to her family for instance has ‘jowls’ covered by ‘downy hair’. All of the policemen are of the doughnut-eating variety, but this, I didn’t mind as much given my less than warm feelings towards them.
Anyway, the story suggests that either Ray’s family or this white family are behind his missing violin. The novel then takes a weird turn by making someone else responsible and forgetting almost entirely of Ray’s family or that other one. It just seemed an odd choice and a predictable one at that.
I also did not care for the way Ray spoke about or describes women (“the tawny-haired woman with the tight dress running her fingers suggestively around her wineglass”; “The attractive women who seemed to take an interest in him were mostly in the look-but-don’t-touch category”; “A young athletic woman was crossing in front of them, her toned ass bouncing with every step in her black leggings.”).
The writing too could be quite cheesy, especially in its efforts to tie everything back to classical music (“He tried to breathe but his ribs had been wrapped in piano wire”; “Why was he so terrible at talking to this woman? She was violin-shaped, right? So why was this so hard?”).
Still, while I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing or the characters, the story was relatively engaging. If you are interested in this novel I recommend that you check it out yourself.

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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans

“A woman stretched her body for me, and I have no words to describe her in wholeness, but without shame, I want you to know her. My mother.”

I have said (or ‘written’) it before but I don’t feel particularly qualified to review poetry collections. This is why I am planning on reading more poetry in 2022. Hopefully, by the end of the year, I will figure out what kind of poetry I like and why. The last poetry collection I read, Time is a Mother, was, in my inexpert eyes, very much all flash and no substance. Black Girl, Call Home manages to have both. The poems included, which vary in length, structure, and style, present readers with a hybrid and vibrant collection. I know descriptors such as raw, powerful, and timely are somewhat clichèd, especially when used the describe the work authored by poc or lgbtq+ ppl, but at this point in time, I cannot think of better words to use for Black Girl, Call Home. Girlhood, queerness, Blackness, daughterhood, belonging, are the recurring subject matters in Jasmine Mans’ poems. She writes candidly of complex mother-daughter relationships, of her sexuality, of her coming of age, of growing up Black, female, and queer in America, of reconciliation, of identity, of grief, of love. Many of her poems also read like indictments to the systemic and institutional racism that are still very much prevalent in the 21st century. She writes about the physical and emotional violence experienced by Black ppl, about the fear mothers feel over their children growing up Black and/or queer in America, about violence against women, about Black hair, about missing girls, about Michelle Obama and Serana, about social media, about God, and about being a lesbian (“1,000 Questions on Gender Roles for a Lesbian” certainly hit close too home). Some of the poems last a few lines, others a few pages. Some have a staccato-quality to them, others adopt a more narrative approach, for example when she gives us a glimpse into her childhood. We also get lists and crosswords, that are not exactly poetry but are nevertheless striking in that they confront us with the names of girls who have gone missing or the names of women who have been sterilized without their consent. The only one that didn’t work for me was the one on periods. I just don’t ‘vibe’ with how periods are more or less mythologised, especially since not all women have them.

Some of the poems in this collection gave me goosebumps, and I believe that is a sign that Black Girl, Call Home is a truly hard-hitting collection. While much of what Mans writes about is equal parts saddening and maddening, her poems retained a lightness and lucidity that made it impossible for me to leave them unfinished. Whenever I started one of her poems I was unable to look away. Her voice demanded to be heard, so I listened.

I thoroughly recommend this collection, especially to those who, unlike me, are more passionate about poetry.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½