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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami

Previously to reading All the Lovers in the Night, I’d read Breasts and Eggs, Heaven, and Ms. Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami. While I was not ‘fond’ of Breasts and Eggs, I did find her other books to be compelling. As the premise for All the Lovers in the Night did bring to mind Breasts and Eggs, I was worried that I would have a similarly ‘negative’ reading experience. Thankfully, I found All the Lovers in the Night to be insightful and moving. Even more so than Kawakami’s other works, All the Lovers in the Night adheres to a slice-of-life narrative. Yet, in spite of this, the story is by no means light-hearted or superficial. Kawakami approaches difficult topics with this deceptively simple storytelling. She renders the loneliness and anxiety of her central character with clarity and even empathy. Thirty-something Fuyuko Irie leads a solitary life working from home as a freelance copy editor. Her inward nature led her former colleagues to single her out, and she was made to feel increasingly uncomfortable at her workplace. Working from home Fuyuko is able to avoid interacting with others, and seems content with her quiet existence. Fuyuko receives much of her work from Hijiri, an editor who is the same age as her but is very extroverted and possesses a forceful personality. Hijiri, for reasons unknown to Fuyuko, regularly keeps in touch with her and seems to consider her a friend. Perhaps their differences cause Fuyuko to begin questioning her lifestyle. Compared to her glamorous friend, Fuyuko sees herself, to borrow Jane Eyre’s words, as “obscure, plain and little”. But venturing outside the comfort of her home has become difficult for Fuyuko. To work up the courage she begins drinking alcohol, even if her body doesn’t respond well to it. She eventually begins going to a cafe with an older man. While the two speak of nothing much, they seem happy to exchange tentative words with one another.
I can see that this is not the type of novel that will appeal to those readers who are keen on plot-driven stories. However, if you are looking for an affecting character study, look no further. Through Fuyuko’s story, the author addresses how Japanese society sees and treats women who are deemed no longer ‘young’. Marriage, motherhood, and a career seem to be the requirements for many Japanese women. Those like Fuyuko are considered outside of the norm and because of this, they find themselves alienated from others. Fuyuko’s self-esteem is badly affected by this to the point where she feels that she has to go outside her comfort zone, even if the only way to do so is through inebriation. At a certain point, I was worried that Kawakami would make Hijiri into the classic fake/mean female character who is portrayed as aggressive, promiscuous, and a woman-hater to boot. Thankfully that was not the case. While Hijiri is not necessarily a likeable person Kawakami doesn’t paint her as a one-dimensional bitch and her relationship with Fuyuko isn’t sidetracked in favour of the romantic subplot. And yes, on the ‘romance’…I will say that this man wasn’t as nuanced as Fuyuko. I found him slightly boring and generic. I did like that the relationship between the two forms has a very slow build-up to it and the ending will certainly subvert many readers’ expectations.
Anyway, overall I rather enjoyed this. I liked the melancholic mood permeating Fuyuko’s story, the descriptions of Tokyo, the mumblecore dialogues, the way Kawakami articulates Fuyuko’s discomfort, anxiety, etc. Now and again there were even moments of humour and absurdity that alleviated Fuyuko’s more depressing experiences. I also appreciated the novel’s open-ended nature, which added an extra layer of realism to Fuyuko’s story. While some of Fuyuko’s actions aren’t given a ‘why’ or closely inspected, as we read on we begin to understand more fully her various state of mind and how these affect her behaviour.
While the dialogues did have a realistic rhythm, the secondary characters (who usually did most of the talking given that our main character isn’t a talker) did tend to go on very long and weirdly specific monologues that seemed at times incredibly random or oddly revealing. This is something I noticed in other works by Kawakami. Secondary characters go on endless rants or whatnot while our main character gives little to no input. It seems a bit unusual that Fuyumu would come across so many people who are willing to go on these very long monologues that reveal personal stuff. Even so, I did find the majority of the dialogues to be effective.
All the Lovers in the Night is a work of subtle beauty and I look forward to revisiting it again in the future.

re-read: the narrative possess a quality of impermanence that is truly rare in literature. i love the attention that the author gives to Fuyuko’s various environments and the incredibly tactile descriptions. the way the author writes about light reminded me of Yūko Tsushima. i loved re-reading this and i really appreciated how the author prioritises female relationships in this narrative. the relationships and interactions between the various women within this narrative are by no means positive or easy but they speak of the kind of images and norms that their families, communities, and society have inculcated into them. additionally, the author shows how women can perpetuate misogynistic views and attitudes (casting judgement on how other women dress, their sex lives, their marital status) as well how all-consuming and toxic female friendships can be. Fuyuko’s unwillingness to conform to widely accepted ideals of womanhood and her (partly) self-imposed isolation brought to mind Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe. additionally, the way kawakami navigates her loneliness and creativity reminded me of Lily King’s Writers & Lovers.
despite the issues addressed within the narrative—sexual assault, alcoholism, misogyny, alienation—Fuyuko’s voice has this lulling rhythm that made it easy for me to become immersed by what i was reading. while in my original review i criticised the novel for its ‘monologues’ this second time around i actually found these far more credible as it was easy to see why people would open up to Fuyuko. sad and wistful, All the Lovers in the Night ultimately struck me as luminous character analysis that captures with bittersweet accuracy the realities of leading a lonely existence, missed connections, and the long-lasting repercussions of traumatic experiences.

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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Faithful by Alice Hoffman

“You rescue something and you’re responsible for it. But maybe that’s what love is. Maybe it’s like a hit-and-run accident; it smashes you before you can think. You do it no matter the cost and you keep on running”

While not without its flaws, Faithful is a gem of a book. Alice Hoffman has crafted a heartfelt and ultimately uplifting coming-of-age. Faithful revolves around After being involved in a car crash that leaves her best friend comatose, Shelby Richmond, a teen from Long Island, is left bereft. Reeling from this loss Shelby is unable to resume her ‘ordinary’ life. After a suicide attempt and a stay in a mental institution where she experiences further trauma, she segregates herself into her parent’s basement. She shaves her head, ignores others, and spends most of her time getting high in an attempt to numb the guilt that gnaws at her. Her mother tries to reach out to her but Shelby has become convinced that she’s worthless and undeserving of love and forgiveness. She eventually becomes involved with Ben, a nerdy pot dealer who used to go to high school with her, who unlike others seems to accept this new version of her. Ben convinces Shelby to move with him to New York. In spite of her new surroundings and the distance between her and her best friend, Shelby cannot shake the by now deeply-ingrained belief that she’s undeserving of happiness. Her self-sabotaging is not easy to read about, but thanks to the clarity of Hoffman’s prose, I could always understand where Shelby was coming from and I did not feel frustrated by her low-self esteem and self-hatred. Shelby begins working at a pet store where she befriends one of her co-workers, Maravelle. Over the years she also grows close to Maravelle’s three kids, who experience struggles of their own. In New York Shelby also starts taking in rescued dogs which later on paves the way to her decision to become a vet. Shelby’s love life is complicated as she finds herself growing away from Ben and falling instead for a married man who is a walking talking red flag.

While the premise itself may not sound very original, Hoffman’s unembellished style is devoid of unnecessary sentimentalists, which makes those poignant moments and/or scenes all the more powerful. That the story takes place over the course of seven years or so makes Shelby’s character arc all the more authentic. She never completely gets over the accident nor does she completely forgive herself, however, she does, in time, stop punishing herself.
While readers are told—on more than one occasion—that Shelby hates herself, we soon realize that does not define her character. She certainly dislikes herself, but, she can be surprisingly tenacious and her dry humor is certainly amusing. The mistakes she makes along the way make her into a very relatable and realistic character. I loved Shelby’s snarky charm and her well-hidden kindness.

One of the book’s greatest strengths lies in its characters and Shelby’s various relationships with them. She forges new friendships and begins to see her parents and their marriage in a different light. The fragile bond she shares with her mother is touching and heartwarming. It is with the help of an unlikely cast of characters that Shelby is able to overcome her self-hatred. Slowly we see the connections she makes influence her: she becomes strong in order to help the ones she loves.
In her clear yet graceful prose, Hoffman depicts simple everyday life scenarios that can be at once moving and funny, from capturing silly moments between two ‘stoned’ friends to focusing on more emotional scenes such as a mother-daughter heart-to-heart. While Faithful begins with a terrible loss, Shelby’s past tragedies do not dominate her story. Yes, forgiveness and guilt play a big role in the novel, but, Faithful is also about hope and love (familial, platonic, romantic).

I do have a few minor criticisms. Shelby steals quite a few dogs. Yes, she steals them from people who were not abusing/neglecting them and no the narrative doesn’t demonise those responsible, however, it seemed a bit weird that she would keep coming across dogs in need of rescuing from bad owners. There are a few lines related to suicide, depression, mental disorders, that were a bit…icky, I guess. We then have this random guy who works at the hospital and refuses to help Shelby unless she promises to grow out her hair…which she does. And wow, now she’s pretty again. This had the same energy as a man telling you to smile more and you do and lo-and-behold your depression is cured. Great. Throughout the course of the novel, Shelby receives letters/messages from an unknown person. These messages at times seemed straight out of a self-help book. At other times they just puzzled me. They basically try to make Shelby ‘better’. Towards the end of the narrative, we meet the person behind these and I will say I did not approve of any of it. I would be wary of someone like that.

Nevertheless, despite these ‘flaws’, I was still able to fall in love with Hoffman’s storytelling. While it may not appeal to those who are looking for plot-driven stories or who aren’t keen on stories that are heavy on the telling, I found this to be a bittersweet noel about survivor’s guilt, trauma, forgiveness, and hope.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu

Weirdly enough, at first, I rather disliked this book but, the more I read, the more I found myself warming up to its protagonist Willa Chen.
I initially picked this book up because of its ‘nanny’ premise as Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid and Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson are all-time favourites of mine. After reading the first few pages I was reminded of Luster by Raven Leilani but here I found the narrator quite irritating. The prose too tries too hard to be snappy and edgy, both through its imagery and its, often flowery, metaphors. I am not too keen on narrators who present themselves as wronged on all fronts, and, for quite some time, Willa struck me as self-victimising, especially when it came to her parents. Her passivity too was a source of frustration but, as I continued to read, this unwillingness and inability to act on her part endeared to me. She’s so used to minimising or straight up dismissing her experiences and encounters with racism and sexism that her immediate response to someone saying something offensive is to doubt herself (is she overreacting? is she misperceiving their words/actions? are they just being ignorant or malicious?).

Willa is one of those main characters who is in her early twenties and leading a rather directionless life. Her divorced parents have gone on to have ‘new’ families and she rarely is in touch with them. Willa feels conflicted about her Chinese American identity. She often doesn’t feel or is made to feel, neither Chinese nor American enough. Willa’s sense of otherness and aloneness are further exacerbated by her disconnection from her parents, in particular her father.
After a lukewarm college experience, Willa ends up working for the Adriens, who are a wealthy white family based in Tribeca. Willa looks after their only daughter, Bijou. Similarly to the narrators of Luster and Lucy, Willa feels drawn to Nathalie, Bijou’s mother. Willa tries to act as the nanny the Adriens’ want but tries as she might to fit in with them she cannot reconcile herself to their extremely privileged lifestyle. They, in turn, seem wholly unaware of Willa’s true family history, partly because Willa herself omitted and or lied about quite a few details, partly because they are rather self-absorbed. They also make unfortunate remarks about Willa, at times patronising her or making her feel small and obscure. The novel strings together many every-day moments from Willa’s life as Bijou’s nanny so we get quite a lot of scenes revolving around cooking or that take place during mealtimes. I liked the tensions that the author is able to create in these seemingly ordinary environments (such as the kitchen). There are many instances where Willa messes up or makes some (sometimes downright idiotic) mistake that make me feel both embarrassed on her behalf and rather sympathetic towards her. The author captures the confusion and anxiety many people feel in their twenties. Time and again Willa is made to feel as if her job as a nanny is not a ‘real’ job or that she has yet to become a fully-grown adult. While the Adriens’ are often oblivious of Willa’s real feelings and when with them Willa does put a front, she does become infatuated with their family. Her routine as a nanny offers comfort, in fact, it shields her away from actually confronting her parents and or her future.
Of course, as I said, the Adriens’ home is not a perfect refuge. Willa is often confused by Nathalie’s confiding in her, only to, later on, treat her like ‘house staff’. She also comes into contact with their relatives, and they turn out to be pretty vile. She endures humiliating jabs and or dismissals at her expense and has to put up with looking after sexually inappropriate young boys. The worst of the bunch is Nathalie’s younger brother whose microaggressions make Willa feel understandably ill at ease.
I can see how many readers will find Willa infuriating. She rarely acts or speaks up for herself. Her fear of rejection and abandonment are such that she retreats inward, keeping her true self hidden from others. Her general confusion about her identity is exacerbated by her Chinese American heritage. Time and again she’s asked questions on the lines of ‘what are you’, which serve only to alienate her further from others. Willa makes plenty of stupid choices along the way (do not read if you can’t stand second-hand embarrassment) and rarely thinks things through. Even so, I ultimately found her to be an endearing character. She’s so lonely and alone that you can’t quite bring yourself to judge her as you would someone with a ‘solid’ support system. And, boy oh boy, the discomfort she feels around others, especially Nathalie’s brother was so well-conveyed. His looks plus the way he accompanies his offensive comments with plenty of ‘I’m just joking’ smiles and laughs, well, they succeed in making Willa doubt herself.
Willa’s story arc was truly compelling and I appreciated just how self-critical she comes to be by the end. I did find myself wishing for her to confront certain people but I guess that we don’t always have the opportunity to do that in real life.
I will say that not all of the characters were as nuanced as Willa. Bijou’s father is more or less a non-presence. Bijou, well, she didn’t strike me as a, particularly believable child. I get that the author was being satirical, but she sacrifices authenticity in her attempts to poke fun at this type of wealthy, white, & wannabe-sophisticated American family. Quite a few chapters take place during Willa’s childhood and they struck me as a bit artificial. This type of narrative structure (alternating between now and then) is a bit overdone and here it wasn’t wholly necessary.
I think that readers who enjoyed YZ Chin’s Edge Case and Alexandra Chang’s Days of Distractions and are looking to read more books exploring the realities of being a young Asian American woman in contemporary America should definitely check this one out. Additionally I can see this book appealing to fans of Brandon Taylor, Rachel Lyon, and even Lily King.

re-read: as I suspected re-reading this made me like it a lot more. I loved Willa’s introspective nature, the way she articulates her loneliness and sense of otherness, and the remote yet intimate quality of her voice. I also appreciated the flashbacks a lot more this time around and I found the moments they explored to be quite fitted to whatever was just happening in the ‘now’. The ending was both believable and satisfying although part of me still wishes that we could have seen Willa become less passive.

my rating: ★★

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

The first time I read Coraline I was 10 or so and I won’t lie, it scared the bejesus out of me. I mean, the Other Mother has buttons for eyes. Buttons. And she wants to sew buttons into Coraline’s eyes. Wtf.
Anyway, this is a great piece of fiction. The story revolves around Coraline, a young girl who, alongside her distracted and workaholic parents, has recently moved into a big house divided into flats. As Coraline is out of school at the moment she grows increasingly bored and restless. After visiting her neighbours, who are rather peculiar, she ends up exploring her home and coming across a small locked door. The door, once unlocked, reveals a bricked wall.

One day, after a sort of argument with her mother, Coraline finds herself alone at home and decides to open the door once again. This time it leads into a corridor that takes her into a flat that is almost identical to her own. Here we meet Coraline’s Other Mother and Other Father who seem eager to bestow their love and attention on her. While Coraline is momentarily swept away by the delicious food she’s being served and by this ‘other’ version of her parents, she can’t help but feel slightly put-off by their appearance. Her Other Parents happen to have black buttons for her eyes. As the story continues we see just how terrifying the Other Mother is.
As I said, this is a creepy, even unsettling book. Coraline is such a likeable and sympathetic character that I found myself immediately invested in her and her wellbeing. I’m also a sucker for dark fairy tales, and while this book isn’t quite as dark as say Pan’s Labyrinth, the two definitely share their similarities. Coraline is tempted into accepting a seemingly perfect vision of her life and family. But, she can’t quite make herself forget and or stop loving her real parents, however imperfect they may be. The Other Mother’s love is not love, not really, and her behaviour towards Coraline, and her other ‘subjects’, can be seen as echoing the ones of an emotionally abusive parent. Ultimately the story takes a cat-and-mouse turn where Coraline has to outsmart the Other Mother.
I absolutely love Gaiman’s storytelling, and here he really outdoes himself. He has written something that is accessible to younger readers without sacrificing depth or dumbing down his narrative. And of course, the cat steals the show.
The film adaptation is great too. A favourite of mine even if does add Wybie into the story (he’s very much a comedic-relief type of character). If you have time I also recommend you check out The Eldritch Horror of Coraline by CJ The X (it’s a chaotic & funny analysis of the character of the Other Mother).

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Skim by Mariko Tamaki

Who knew that I would come across something that would make me feel nostalgia for the mid-2000s? Skim is a compelling coming-of-age story that is bound to make you feel nostalgic for the mid-2000s (even if you, like me, didn’t strictly ‘come of age’ in that time). Skim captures the angst, confusion, heartache, and loneliness experienced by its titular character with empathy and insight. Kimberly Keiko Cameron, who goes by the nickname of ‘Skim’, is an aspiring Wiccan goth enrolled at a private girls school. She has a best friend who is very much vocal about her dislike and contempt for the ‘popular’ girls or anything she deems mainstream. When Katie Matthews, one of said popular girls, is dumped by her boyfriend who then goes on to commit suicide, well, the school is thrown into chaos. Some students are very much into performing their grief, exaggerating their connection to the boy and the impact that his death has had on them. Others cluster around Katie, their attempts at comforting her bordering on the oppressive. The staff is made newly aware of the importance of their students’ mental health and identify Skim, a quiet Goth, as someone to keep their eye on. Skim herself sinks further into depression as her only friend becomes increasingly toxic. When Skim develops an infatuation with one of her teachers, well, things get even more complicated for her.
I liked how this graphic novel avoids the usual teen coming-of-age tropes. Skim may be a bit of an outsider but, as we see, the social hierarchies within her school aren’t wholly inflexible (not all of the popular girls hate her or are portrayed as boy-crazed & vapid). Additionally, just because you aren’t part of the popular clique, does not mean you are necessarily a nice person (take Skim’s BFF for example). At times you can grow apart from a friend without any real ‘reason’. Much of the story reads like a slice-of-live dealing with suicide, depression, alternative culture, sexuality, and first love. The narrative never felt moralistic or contrived and I loved the pacing of the story. Skim was a likeable and relatable character who is dealing with a lot of different emotions and can’t quite make sense of what she wants or who she wants to be.
In addition to loving Mariko Tamaki’s storytelling, I adored Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations. Her style has a sketchy edge to it that goes hand in hand with Mariko’s narrative.

I loved how at the ending two characters come together and it is left open to interpretation whether their relationship is platonic or romantic. I did wish for a slightly longer conclusion, but then again, that just may be because I did not want to leave Skim and her world behind. The teacher-student relationship could also have been addressed a bit more. Still, these are minor things and I would happily read this graphic novel again & again.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

Sweet Days of Discipline is a slim dagger of a novel.

Written in a prose so sharp it will cut you, Sweet Days of Discipline is a work of startling and enigmatic beauty, a study in contradictions: order and chaos, sublimity and abjection, clarity and obfuscation, illusion and reality.

Fleur Jaeggy is in absolute command of her craft so that not a word is wasted or out-of-place. Jaeggy exercises formidable control over her language, which is restrained to the point of severity. By turns glacial and melancholic, Jaeggy’s epigrammatic style is dauntingly ascetic. Yet, her direct and crisp prose belies the complexity of her subject. I struggle to pinpoint what this book is even about. Our narrator is consumed by desire but the way she expresses and articulates said desire is certainly atypical. Even upon a second reading, I find myself enthralled by her mysterious and perplexing relationship with Frédérique. Ultimately, it is the obscure nature of their bond that makes me all the more eager to revisit this novel once more.

Our unnamed narrator’s recounting of her schooldays is pervaded by a dream-like quality. Torpor seems to reign supreme at Bausler Institut, an all-girls boarding school in the Appenzell. While the girls’ days are in fact dictated by routine, a sense of idleness prevails. Our narrator, who has spent most of her youth in boarding school, coldly observes the people around her. Her detachment and contempt towards her peers and the rarefied world she’s part of perfectly complement the staccato rhythm of Jaeggy’s prose. When Frédérique is enrolled in her school, she finds herself captivated by her. Her infatuation with Frédérique however doesn’t lead to happiness. Our narrator wants to best Frédérique, to ‘conquer’ her. She is both in awe and jealous of Frédérique’s apathy towards the students, the teachers, and their surroundings. The two eventually begin spending time together but our narrator cannot or is unwilling to express her feelings.
What follows is a taut tale of juxtaposition. The orderly world of the school is contrasted with the inner turmoil of youth. The narrator’s clipped commentary is at once hyperreal and unearthly. While the narrator does try to control her feelings, she’s at times overcome by their sheer intensity. Her love for Frédérique is also inexorably entwined with hatred, as she finds the idea of being bested, of being under anyone’s thumb, unbearable. Our narrator is unforgiving in her detailed recollection, her harshness and cruelty did at times take me by surprise. Yet, her longing for Frédérique and her unwillingness to bend for that love made her into a compelling character. As the narrative progresses she and Frédérique begin to lose sight of one another, and as adolescence gives way to adulthood one of them spirals out of control.
The English translation is superb. I’ve read this both in the original Italian and in English and I have to say that I don’t prefer one over the other. If anything Tim Parks, the translator, got rid of some rather outdated and insensitive terms in the original. The prose in the Italian version is also, to my ears at least, even more, stringent and stark than its English counterpart (maybe this is due to a combination of the slightly old-fashioned italian + my being so used to reading in english that books in italian will inevitably make for a more exacting reading experience).

Sweet Days of Discipline makes for a lethal read. Jaeggy’s austere prose is a study in perfectionism. Yet, despite her unyielding language and her aloof, occasionally menacing, narrator, Sweet Days of Discipline is by no means a boring or emotionless read. The intensity of our narrator’s, often unexpressed, feelings and desires result in a thrilling and evocative read.

my rating: ★★★★★

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

“He spoke the spell under his breath, still a little uncertain after the agonies he had endured. But magic came, ever his friend—magic answered his call.”

Written in a playful pastiche style Sorcerer to the Crown will certainly appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Wynne Jones. Cho’s bombastic prose, characterized by an Austenesque sense of humor, and madcap fantasy of manners story were a delight to read.
The first time I read this, back in 2015/6, I did, truth be told, struggle to get into Cho’s high register language. But, the more I read, the more I familiarised myself with her lofty and loquacious style. Sorcerer to the Crown was a brilliant read, a real blast!

“In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.”

Set in an alternate Regency England, Sorcerer to the Crown follows Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first Black Sorcerer Royal, who was raised by his recently deceased predecessor, Sir Stephen. While Zacharias clearly respected and was grateful to Sir Stephen, the two didn’t always see eye to eye. Moreover, Zacharias can’t forget that Sir Stephen bought and freed him, separating from his own family. This being Regency England Zacharias is treated with open animosity by most of his colleagues, some of whom are actively attempting to besmirch his name, claiming that he’s responsible for England’s decline of magic and Sir Stephen’s death. Zacharias is an incredibly level-headed individual, a thinker not a fighter. He’s serious, studious, punctilious. He’s also fair, loyal, and endearingly naïve. Yet, even he can’t quite keep his calm when his reputation, and life, are under attack. Attempting to clear his name and to discover the reason behind England’s magic drought, he leaves London.

“Magic was too strong a force for women’s frail bodies—too potent a brew for their weak minds—and so, especially at a time when everyone must be anxious to preserve what magical resource England still possessed, magic must be forbidden to women.”

He visits Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, a place that is meant to snuff any magic from its pupils. In England, the only women who are ‘allowed’ to practice magic are those from the lower classes (and can only use spells to facilitate their daily chores/tasks). Due to her ‘questionable’ parentage (ie her mother was not an Englishwoman) Prunella Gentlemen, similarly to Zachariah, has always been treated as an outsider. Prunella is an orphan who thanks to her ‘generous’ benefactor, Mrs. Daubeney, was, for the most part, treated like the other students. When an incident threatens to change this, Prunella decides to take matters into her own hands and forge her own path to happiness.

“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased.

Zacharias and Prunella cross paths and form a camaraderie of sorts. While Prunella is still very much self-serving, repeatedly going behind Zacharias’ back or eliding important information & discoveries, she does seem to enjoy bantering with Zacharias. Together they face disgruntled magicians, engage in some magical mishaps, attend/crash a ball, confront angry magical creatures, try to reason with a formidable witch, partake in discussions with some rather tedious thaumaturgist, and challenge the Society’s long-established traditions and hierarchies.

““Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

While the witty dialogues and droll characters result in delightfully humourous, within her narrative Cho incorporates a sharp social commentary. From the rampant racism and xenophobia that were typical of this time to addressing gender and class inequalities. Through satire Cho highlights these issues, and, in spite of her story’s fantastical backdrop, Cho doesn’t romanticise this period of time and the England that emerges from these pages feels all too real. The use of historically accurate language and the attention paid to the time’s etiquette and social mores, result in an incredibly well-rendered historical setting.

While this type of narrative won’t appeal to those looking for action-driven stories, Cho’s sparkling storytelling is not to be missed. The follow-up to this book is, dare I say, even better.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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海のふた [Umi no futa] by Banana Yoshimoto

海のふた (The Sea’s Lid?) is very much a typical Banana Yoshimoto​​ novel. We have the quintessentially Yoshimoto-esque narrator (usually a quiet young woman who is grieving someone or longing for something), a slice-of-life storyline and a small-town setting. This novel takes place during the summer months and Mari has just moved back to her hometown by the sea. Here she opens a kiosk selling shaved ice, opting for more natural flavours and less artificial colours. She observes how her town has changed, from the increase in the elderly population to how young people tend to leave as soon as they are of age. Yoshimoto is particularly attuned to the natural world and there are plenty of lovely descriptions of the sea and other nearby landscapes. Mari eventually is joined by Hajime, who is the young daughter of one of her mother’s friends. Hajime, who is grieving her grandmother, begins working alongside Mari and the two, over the course of summer, forge a tentative friendship.
The pacing is very gentle. Nothing of note truly happens, we are simply lulled by Mari’s narration. A sweet and quick read, this is one of Yoshimoto’s best novels. Mari’s melancholy is catchy and makes for a particularly nostalgic read. Her feelings towards her hometown, her kiosk, and Hajime, are all rendered with clarity and it was all too easy to understand and empathize with her.
Once again, Yoshimoto’s subtle prose perfectly complements the dreamlike atmosphere of her story.

海のふた was a perfectly bittersweet summer read that I would definitely recommend to fans of Yoshimoto or slice of life novels.

my rating: ★★★½

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