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: ★★★★★

Sula by Toni Morrison

They were solitary little girls whose loneliness was so profound it intoxicated them and sent them stumbling into Technicolored visions that always included a presence, a someone, who, quite like the dreamer, shared the delight of the dream.

Toni Morrison’s Sula revolves around the eponymous and fraught character of Sula Peace. Within the novel, Morrison interrogates themes of race, gender and class in the Black neighborhood known as the Bottom, in the fictional town of Medallion. The narrative’s discourse on good and evil, expressed in the Bottom’s demonization of Sula, and its subversion of binary thinking, will force readers to re-evaluate presumptions that arise from labelling people and places as being either good or evil.

The name of the neighborhood at the heart of Sula is an oxymoron since the Bottom is located ‘in the hills above the valley town of Medallion’ (a white farmer tricked his former slave by giving this land and claiming it was ‘fertile bottomland’). The story then introduces Shadrack, who after fighting in WWI returns to the Bottom with PTSD. He creates the ‘National Suicide Day’ and spends his days insulting people on the streets, refusing and or unable to fit in with the people of the Bottom. The narrative then takes us to the 1920s where we are introduced to Nel Wright and Sula Peace, the novel’s central characters.
While Nel is raised to be obedient and polite, Sula is brought up in her grandmother’s hectic boarding house, ‘a house with women who thought all men available’. Nel and Sula become fast friends, an inseparable unit. After one of their stunts goes terribly wrong cracks begin to appear in their relationship but it is Nel’s marriage and Sula leaving for college that ultimately drives the two apart.
Ten years later Sula returns to her hometown, ‘accompanied by a plague of robins’. Because of this bizarre phenomenon, Sula’s arrival is seen as inauspicious by the people of the Bottom. That their mistrust is aggravated by Sula’s physical appearance—which is made striking because of a birthmark over her eye—and her behaviour—her clear disregard of social norms—seals her fate in the eyes of her community.
They demonize Sula, seeing her as an outsider, the ‘other’. Not only do old rumours about Sula resurface, but that she puts her elderly grandmother in a nursing house, sleeps with married men, and is said to have slept with white men, further antagonizes the people of the Bottom against her. Nel seems the only one happy to be reunited with Sula but their friendship is destroyed after one betrays the other.
Sula becomes the scapegoat for Bottom whose inhabitants are convinced that ‘Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another’. They are empowered by Sula’s refusal to behave in accordance with their social norms, banding ‘together against the devil in their midst’. Yet they refuse to ‘destroy’ Sula, since however ‘ungodly’ she may be, to drive her out of town or to ‘mob kill’ would be to them both ‘unnatural’ and ‘undignified’. In creating the ‘evil one’ – Sula – they are creating the ‘good one’ – themselves.

Sula is by no means an easy read. The story is punctuated by poverty, addiction, shame, jealousy, hatred. Characters kill their loved ones or seem unmoved by tragic and horrific events. Yet, Morrison herself never condemns Sula or the inhabitants of the Bottom. She forces her readers to question whether Sula is the way she is because of ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’, and even then she reminds us that although Sula’s actions cause others’ pain, she is not an evil person.
Morrison demonstrates how distorting and transforming someone into a devil or a monster is dangerous: the author, unlike her characters, passes no judgements on Sula’s ‘transgressions’, and makes readers aware of the way in which the people of the Bottom enjoy and profit from condemning Sula as ‘evil’. By contrasting the characters of Sula and Nel, Morrison is also able to question the validity of labels such as ‘evil’ and ‘good’ since the two friends are often described as being one and the same, able to find ‘in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for’, yet Nel is seen as ‘good’ and Sula as ‘bad’. The bond between Sula and Nel remains at the fore of the narrative, and I loved how deep it ran.

Sula makes for a bleak, brutal even, read. Morrison is unflinching in her depictions of racism, violence, abuse, and illness. Her prose is simply terrific as she slips with ease between different point of views, never elevating any one’s character perspective. In spite of its brevity Sula packs a punch. It will upset you, anger you, and possibly depress you….but it is a stunning piece of fiction, one that I find myself often thinking about.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Written in Lahiri’s characteristically understated prose Unaccustomed Earth is a bittersweet and minutely observed collection of short stories. Set in America, India, and even Thailand, these stories focus on relationships between siblings, parents and their children, grandparents and their grandchildren, married couples, and friends. They are also characterized by a strong sense of nostalgia, partly due to their ‘historical’ settings, partly due to the nature of the relationships, Lahiri is writing of. Characters misunderstand each other, they fall out of love, they don’t reciprocate each other’s feelings (be romantic or otherwise), or fail themselves and their loved ones. Lahiri’s characters are often unable or unwilling to make amends, recover, and or forgive the people closest to them. In these stories, Lahiri presents us with vividly rendered scenarios that give us crystal-clear glimpses into the lives of the people she is writing of. As with Lahiri’s other works, in Unaccustomed Earth quotidian spaces and conversations take the foreground, cementing the everyday realities of these characters.

Lahiri’s prose is as elegant and subtle as ever. Without wasting a single word Lahiri conveys the often incongruous feelings and thoughts that people experience, as well as presenting us with some piercing insights into love, loss, family, and belonging. Definitely, a must-read for fans of the short-story medium.

my rating: ★★★¾

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Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Schwab’s aesthetics dominate this novel. There is a focus on how words and phrases sound, which does pay off, in fact, Schwab’s prose is one of the most likeable things of this novel. At times certain turn of phrases or repetitions may come across as pretentious or flowery but I think that for the most part Schwab exerts great control over her words. She measures pauses and words as to instil a rhythm to her narration. So, in some ways, Vicious is more ‘style’ than anything else. What characters say, how they look, how Schwab words things, it all creates a certain ‘look’.
While I did find the story to be engaging (different timelines keep the momentum of the story) I wasn’t completely taken by the characters. They seemed very much ‘sketches’ of existing types: morally grey for the sole purpose of seeming ‘ambiguous’…hopefully the sequel will provide them to be slightly more complex then what they came across as…


MY RATING: 3 of 5 stars

The Dark Days Deceit by Alison Goodman

 

 

To say that I am incredibly disappointed by this final instalment would be pretty accurate.
I enjoyed The Dark Days Club and I thought The Dark Days Pact was the perfect sequel. Goodman’s writing painstakingly depicted the Georgian era, its customs and language. Lady Helen, our main character, was both sensible and diplomatic, and she could also kick some serious ass. The slowest burn of them all, her infatuation with Lord Carlston was thrilling. Throw in some demons, action, and a lot of letters, and you get the perfect ‘Fantasy of Manners‘.
Or so I thought…
After reading The Dark Days Deceit I no longer feel fond of this world. This last novel left me with a bitter taste: nearly everything that I loved in previous instalments…I now sort of hate.

Positives:
Goodman’s writing is still par excellence. She makes the setting come life. Each scene that takes place is described with extreme detail, and the elegant prose resonates with the historical period itself. While there are plenty of dramatic and serious occasion, the style often comes across as satirical, poking fun at traditions and beliefs of that era.

Negatives
Where do I start?
It might be because the previous instalment came out nearly two years ago but it took me quite some time to readjust to this world. There are plenty of characters or things that have happened that I could not remember. The terms used to refer to the ‘supernatural’ elements were easier to remember but I was not a fan of the whole ‘Grand Reclaimer’ bond between Helen and Carlston. All of a sudden they seem able to share telepathic conversions?! And other people sort of notice?! Are they just obviously staring at one another? Subtle. Why even bother with the silent conversations.
Helen acted in such an irritating manner. The whole marriage plot was pointless and a real drag. Why save the world when you need to prepare your wedding? The world can wait. Worst still is that she was such a horrible friend. Carlston ‘s jealousy and short-temper made him just as likeable as Helen. Helen’s friends and the other members of the Dark Days Club seem to fade in the background, only to be (view spoiler)[ killed off (hide spoiler)] to make Helen feel as if ‘she had failed them all’.
The worst thing however is the ‘twist’ which made the whole plot ridiculous.


MY RATING: 2.5 of 5 stars


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Schoolhouse Gothic by Sherry R. Truffin

Schoolhouse Gothic, Sherry R. Truffin’s first monograph, is one of the first studies to address the role of the educational system in twentieth-century Gothic fiction. The work reveals Truffin’s in-depth understanding of the Gothic genre, its origins, methodologies and implications, focussing in particular on a branch of Gothic she terms ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’.
In Schoolhouse Gothic, Truffin examines late-twentieth-century American literature by authors such as Stephen King, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates taking the form of Gothic narratives where the stones of age-old monasteries and castles are replaced by the concrete of school buildings and where classrooms and gyms function as prisons. Truffin focuses on those texts that express and exacerbate the increasingly uneasy relationship that Americans have with the academy and with the educational system as a whole. According to Truffin, ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ depicts the educational system through a Gothic lens with schools reifying old – and often outdated – traditions, and teachers and professors perpetuating an ‘epistemic violence’ that is ‘violence exerted against or through knowledge’ (26). Schools, within this strand of Gothic, provide the setting for race, gender and class inequities, which often result in physical and mental violence against students. Since Gothic is a genre that tends to explore subversive themes, often providing a conflicting view of our culture, it seems almost inevitable that it would turn its gaze to the country’s faltering educational system where high-schools and colleges form the backdrop to gun violence, economic inequalities, and racial and gender discriminations.
Woven throughout Truffin’s narrative are a diverse set of theories, for example, a view of institutional buildings as places designed to control and entrap individuals that echoes Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ and a concept of ‘epistemic violence’ stems from Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘Power/Knowledge’ in which power is simultaneously generated by and generator of knowledge). She calls upon eminent contemporary literary theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and James A. Berlin to support her assertions about educational institutions, and references recent Gothic scholars such as Chris Baldick and David Punter when defining Gothic. Although her erudition emerges quite clearly, her arguments often seem convoluted and there is almost an excess of critical theories, which are sometimes not developed in full.
Truffin repeatedly refers to the ‘academic objectivity’ that ‘blinds scholars and educators to their own prejudices’ and stresses that academy’s ‘prerogative of definition’ is extremely damaging – above all to the students who are its primary victims: are we to assume that she considers herself exempt?
Her opening chapter begins with a personal account set during Truffin’s senior year of high school, when she first heard Pink Floyd’s ‘grim narrative’(2) in ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. Truffin credits this song with inspiring her to embark on her inquiry into the nature and representations of ‘shadowy educators; nightmarish schools; and traumatized students’ (2), that is, the schools and teachers that she associated with that particular song. She goes goes on to explore the ‘forbidding schools and menacing teachers’ (3) within the Gothic canon.
In this introductory chapter she provides a brief definition of Gothic as a counter-Enlightenment discourse that serves as the basis of her inquiry into what she defines as ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’, which is not a genre per se but rather ‘a set of representations that articulates or embodies […] “a structure of feeling”’ (5). One of the defining characteristics of the Gothic is that it is a genre preeminently concerned with the past, yet ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ depicts the contemporary Western education system, albeit using traditional Gothic motifs and conventions to do so. Daunting family mansions and old monasteries are replaced by school buildings and college campuses. Within ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ standardized education is a means of control and indoctrination, schools are the backdrop to power inequalities, a place where students are entrapped, oppressed, and transformed into ‘psychopaths, zombies, and machines’ (5).
Truffin considers the teachers, students, and academic institutions within the ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ as correspondents to the Gothic tropes such as the monster, the curse, and the trap. The paranoia, violence and mental disintegration that takes place in ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ is such that students and teachers alike emerge from their school experience ‘so distorted as to become a kind monster […] no one remains unchanged by school, and no one changes for the better’ (27). Truffin uses the remainder of her introduction to establish the structure of her monograph, the texts she will analyse that focus on literature where the school is ‘the loci of the Gothic experiences’ (26), and the way in which she will approach these texts.
In ‘“I’m out of your filing cabinet now”: Adolescent Angst in the Schoolhouse Gothic of Stephen King’ Truffin focuses on four narratives by Stephen King: Carrie, The Shining, Apt Pupil and Rage. Truffin identifies and addresses the similar themes explored within these stories noting that within King’s ‘rather extensive boy of Schoolhouse Gothic’ schools and their teachers are compared to ‘everything from bad parenting to rape, capitalist brainwashing, and monster-making’ (34). The schools and teachers starring in these stories are sources of ‘paranoia, violence and monstrosity’ (34). What emerges from Truffin’s approach to these texts is that the rage experienced by the students in King’s narratives is a reaction to the way that they have been abused, labelled, and misunderstood by their educators. These unequal power relationships will have deadly consequences – as revealed in Truffin’s close-analysis of these stories – as the victimized students turn against their tormentors.
When discussing Toni Morrison’s Beloved Truffin makes readers aware that the novel is ‘neither set in a school building nor centrally concerned with the victimizations of students at the hands of their teachers’ arguing however that ‘all of the elements of Schoolhouse Gothic find their way into the novel’ (82). While King ‘explores the effects of subjugation and entrapment on students’, Morrison’s novel considers the ‘subjugating effects of conceptualizing human beings as subject matters’ (82). Truffin details the way in which the character of Sethe, a freed slave, is viewed as ‘less than human–as in fact, an object of study’ (82). Truffin’s analysis centers on the way in which racism and slavery are ‘legitimated and perpetuated–given a (pseudo) scientific sanction’ within Beloved. Truffin views the schoolteacher – who is the primary discipliner of the slaves – as the embodiment of post-Enlightenment scientific racism. Truffin argues that his desire to study the ‘animal’ qualities of his slaves, such as when he measures Sethe’s head, instructing his pupils list her human and animal characteristics, is an ‘epistemic violation of his slaves’. His lectures and writings are accountable for the actions of his students who assault Sethe. Sethe herself is haunted by the schoolteacher’s practices. In this chapter Truffin grimly demonstrates that Beloved’s ‘critique of the history racist oppression in America’ revolves around ‘the horrible power of the academic’ (100) where students are programmed to dissect and discard human subject matter.
In her next chapter Truffin jumps from a 19th-century slave plantation to a college campus in New England during the mid-1970s. Truffin examines Joyce Carol Oates’s Beasts using the same rationale as her previous chapters, referring to the ‘monster, curse and trap’ that constitute her definition of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’. Beasts follows Gillian, a student attending a women’s college, who is seduced by her Creative Writing professor Mr Harrow. Mr Harrow pressures Gillian into entering a sexual relationship with himself and his wife, Dorcas. Truffin describes Gillian as being enslaved by this relationship, and alongside her classmates, also implied to be fellow victims of Mr Harrow, becomes increasingly ‘jealous, paranoid, dehumanized and monstrous’ to the point of resembling ‘zombies, cadavers, dogs and […] beasts’ (107). Mr Harrow in turn exploits, humiliates and abuses his victims. Truffin observes the way in which Gillian’s college experience leads her to indulge in self-mutilation and self-flagellation and finally pushes her to kill the professor and his wife, that is, those who made her into a ‘beast’. Truffin highlights the themes and arguments she has touched upon in previous chapters, illustrating the way in which Schoolhouse Gothic narratives expose the inevitable monstrous transformation that students can experience at the hands of their teachers, who are either physically abusive or exercise ‘epistemic violence’ – wielding knowledge as a weapon – against those who are in their care.
Although many sections of Schoolhouse Gothic are highly accessible, to the point of being conversational in style, there are other passages that seem unnecessarily abstruse and fall back on awkward metaphors. The volume would have also benefited from attentive editing since the index contains several errors: the entry for ‘New Criticism’, for example, directs readers to nonexistent pages. Another serious shortcoming in my opinion is the author’s failure to address her role as a scholar and academic in her critique of the academy. Early on she briefly acknowledges the positive effects that the educational system can have but in examining those texts she identifies as being ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’, she often seems critical of the academy and educational system themselves rather than critical of the way in which they are within the texts. And while her ‘monster, curse and trap’ allegory gives consistency to her analysis of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ literature this formula can be limiting since it melds together different readings and stories.
Nevertheless Truffin’s Schoolhouse Gothic proposes an interesting study, and her definition of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ gives expression to an overlooked strand of the Gothic.


MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars

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No Name by Wilkie Collins

I love Wilkie Collins’ humour, the quirkiness and mannerisms of his characters, and the intricate plots of his novels. No Name focuses on a rather unconventional heroine, Magdalen Vanstone, who in a short amount of time finds herself orphaned and – due to an idiotic a legality – penniless. Her rightful inheritance lands in the hands of her cruel uncle who refuses to help his nieces. While Nora Vanstone, the older sister, becomes a governess, Magdalen will resort to all sort of tricks and subterfuges to get her inheritance back. Aided by a distant relation, Captain Wragge, a cunning man who prides himself for his transactions in ‘moral agriculture’ aka all sorts of frauds and schemes, and his wife, Mrs Wragge, a gentle soul in the body of a giantess. Magdalen will use her incredible skills of mimicry and acting to trick those who have robbed her and her sister of their fortune.
For the most part No Name was a fun read. Captain Wragge and his wife offer plenty of funny moments, and secret war between the captain and Mrs Lecount kept me on my toes. However, the latter part of the novel does drag a bit. There were a lot of instances where I think Magdalen should have remained in the limelight, given that she was the protagonist. My favourite part remains the first act, before the tragedy struck the Vanstone family. We get to see the lovely dynamics between the various family members and their routines. I loved those first 100 pages or so.
The ending sort of made up for all that Magdalen endures but…still, part of me wishes (view spoiler)[she had been able to get her fortune back by herself and that she had not fallen ill…I am glad that she ends up with Kirke but it seemed a bit rushed that ending. (hide spoiler)]

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars


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My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

“Ayoola lives in a world where things must always go her way. It’s a law as certain as the law of gravity.”


Having read this novel twice I can safely say that I find it to be an exceptionally riveting read: once I start it, I just want to keep reading.
My Sister, the Serial Killer is a darkly funny and engrossing read about two sisters in Lagos, one of whom is a serial-killer.
The chapters are often only two or three pages long, and not one word—or chapter title—goes to waste. Through these brisk chapters Oyinkan Braithwaite presents her readers with snapshots-like scenes that perfectly capture a particular a moment, conversation, or memory in Korede’s story. While these scenes aren’t extremely detailed, there is always something that really makes them pop to life (it might be a reference to Ayoola’s glossy appearance, or a description of Korede’s workplace).
The novel moves at a swift pace, keeping a focus on the tense dynamic between Korede and Ayoola, maintains its initial momentum: Korede’s alertness and wariness keep us on the lookout, so we too are wondering wherever Ayoola will strike again.
Another aspect that I enjoyed is the ambiguous relationship between the two sisters. Korede was not necessarily jealous of her sister, it was more than she was frustrated by the way others fell under her spell of her beauty. In spite of their differences, and of all the small betrayals, Braithwaite managed to make their bond stand out (those rare moments of affection show readers why Korede would put up with Ayoola). Although Korede, as the older sister, feels like Ayoola’s protector, when Ayoola goes after a man Korede cares for…well, Korede’s own loyalties start to waver.
Interspersed throughout the this sleek and utterly energetic narrative are snippets of the poem’s of one of Ayoola’s victims. While Ayoola shows little remorse for her actions, Korede has a harder time letting go of her guilt.
My Sister, the Serial Killer is a compulsive read that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Sayaka Murata and the recently released Pizza Girl.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

 

“There is no time in our lives when we are so conspicuously without mercy as in adolescence.”

I don’t think I would ever picked up this ‘obscure’ and forgotten novel if it hadn’t been for the ‘crime fiction’ module I took during my second year of uni. Thanks to that module, which was in every other respect a huge waste of time (lecturer on Tom Ripley: “he does bad things because he wants more stuff”…truly illuminating), I was able to ‘discover’ Barbara Vine’s work.
Since then I’ve read a few other novels by Vine (which happens to Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume) and while I can safely say that she is an excellent writer, The House of Stairs remains my favourite of hers. Perhaps it is because of its sapphic undertones, or maybe I’m just a sucker for unrequited love stories.

“It felt like a passion, it felt like being in love, it was being in love, it was the kind of thing you delude yourself that, if all goes well, will last a lifetime. Things, of course, didn’t go well. When do they?”

The House of Stairs tells a dizzying tale of tale of psychological suspense. Like other novels by Vine it employ two timelines and explores the haunting effects of the past on the present. ‘The present’ features characters whose lives have been altered by an often unspecified accident and or crime. The second timeline, narrated from the retrospective, focuses on their past, and in particular on the events leading to that ‘one big event’. Vine does not limit herself to recounting past occurrences, instead she allows her characters to re-examine their own actions, as well as attempting to understand the motivations behind those of others. The past and present flow into each other, and throughout her narratives Vine traces both a crime’s roots and its subsequent ramifications.
Set in London The House of Stairs London opens in 1980s when Elizabeth—protagonist and narrator—glimpses Bell, a woman who has been recently released from prison. Seeing Bell is the catalyst that makes Elizabeth recount her story (transporting us to the late 60s and early 70s) but even if she knows the identity of Bell’s victim she does not share the details of this fateful event with the readers, preferring instead to play her cards close to her chest. This dual storyline creates an apparent juxtaposition of past and present. We can hazard guesses through brief glimpses of her present, her ambiguous remarks, such as ‘Bell’s motive for asking those questions was outside the bounds of my imagings’ and ‘[A]s they wished me to do, I was seeing everything inside-out’, and through her carefully paced recounting of those events.
By re-living that particular time of her life, Elizabeth—alongside the reader—acquires a better understanding of the circumstances that lead Bell to commit murder. Her narration is a far from passive relay of what happened for Elizabeth in the present seems actively involved in this scrutiny of past events.

“It is interesting how such reputations are built. They come about through confusing the two kinds of truth telling: the declaration of opinion and principle and the recounting of history.”

One of Vine’s motifs is in fact to include a house which is the locus of her story, functioning as a Gothic element within her storylines. In this novel the house (nicknamed—you guessed it—’the house of stairs’) is purchased by Cosette—a relation of Elizabeth’s—soon after the death of her husband, and becomes home to a group of bohemians, hippies, and outsiders of sorts. The house become an experimental ground: it is an escape from traditional social norms, a possibility for Cosette to make her own makeshift family.
The house creates an almost disquieting atmosphere: those who live there are exploiting Cosette, and tensions gradually emerge between its tenants. The house can be a place of secrecy—doors shut, people do not leave their rooms, stairs creak—and of jealousy, for Elizabeth comes to view the other guests as depriving her of Cosette’s affection.


Elizabeth, plagued by the possibility of having inherited a family disease, finds comfort in Bell, a beautiful and alluring woman. Elizabeth comes to idolize Bell (comparisons to the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi abound), and finds herself increasingly obsessed by her. Bell’s arrival into the house, however, will have violent consequences.
As Elizabeth is examining this time in her life, she, once again, finds herself falling under Bell’s spell.

“I found her exciting in a disturbing way, a soul-shacking way, without knowing in the least what I wanted of her.”

Like many other Vine novels The House of Stairs is a deeply intertextual work. Henry James, in particular, plays a significant role in Elizabeth’s narration.
Guilt, culpability, love, obsession, desire, greed, past tragedies, and family legacies are recurring themes in Elizabeth’s story. Vine, however, doesn’t offer an easy answer as she problematises notions of normalcy and evil.
There are many reasons why I love this novel so much: Vine’s elegantly discerning prose, her examination of class and gender roles in the 1960s-70s, the way she renders Elizabeth’s yearning for Bell…while I can see that some readers my age may find this novel to be a bit outdated, I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy reading authors such as Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Magda Szabó.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Charioteer by Mary Renault — book review

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“He was filled with a vast sense of the momentous, of unknown mysteries. He did not know what he should demand of himself, nor did it seem to matter, for he had not chosen this music he moved to, it had chosen him.”

This is the fifth time I’ve read The Charioteer and once again I’ve been swept away by it. The Charioteer is quite likely my favourite novel of all time as there are few books that I care as much about.
There is something comforting about The Charioteer, which is strange given that Mary Renault’s impenetrable prose demands her readers’ full attention. There are the coded conversations, thoughts and feelings are often only obliquely hinted at, the pages are full of 40s slang, and there are constant allusions to the ancient classics. Yet, her writing also has a languid quality, perhaps reflective of her protagonist’s convalescence, which I found truly enthralling.
In an almost Bildungsroman fashion The Charioteer introduces us to Laurie as a child. This first chapter recounts a significant moment of his childhood and is followed by a chapter of him at school where he has a memorable encounter with the Head of the School, Ralph Lanyon. The subsequent chapters follow Laurie as he’s recovering from a war injury at a hospital. Here he meets and falls for Andrew, a conscientious objector who is now working as an orderly.
While Laurie is aware of his sexuality, and believes that Andrew reciprocates his feelings, he’s unwilling to reveal to Andrew the true depth of his emotions. By chance Laurie ends up re-connecting with Ralph. As the title of the novel suggests, Laurie’s story can be likened to the myth of the charioteer from Phaedrus.
Now, I know that my summary doesn’t do this novel justice. I don’t wish to reveal too much about the story or its characters. Still, I can say that The Charioteer presents us with a beautiful narrative, one that captures a particular moment in time. The characters’ days are punctuated by Imminent Danger sirens, air raids, shortages. Laurie, alongside other patients, has to obey the hospital’s strict rules. Under Renault’s hand, the war seems almost ‘normal’, and characters will often discuss it as they would any other topic.
Renault’s portrayal of the gay community feels both intimate and compelling. While Laurie himself feels uneasy towards those he deems as ‘flamboyant’ or ‘effeminate’, the narrative doesn’t share his prejudices. Renault’s characters often engage themselves in conversations relating to their role in society, often professing contrasting beliefs. The views they express may ruffle some readers, as they often speak about their sexuality as a limitation or they seem dismissive towards other gay men (partly because both Laurie and Ralph are private individuals and do not wish to be a source of gossip). Their discussion on ethics and morality were riveting, and I soon lost myself in the rhythm of their back and forth.
The novel is as interested in what the characters say as it is with what they don’t say, whether this is due to self-censoring or self-denial. Although Laurie is the story’s protagonist, much of what he feels remains off page. Renault will often only allude to Laurie’s most innermost feelings. Because of this Laurie, and other characters, often seem like unsolvable puzzles. This is quite fitting given that self-knowledge and self-deception are central themes within this narrative.
Laurie’s story is also one that is concerned with connection. Although he becomes fast friends with another patient, he fears being ‘known’. Yet, in spite of this sense of loneliness, he is reticent about ‘embracing’ his community (“He kept telling me I was queer, and I’d never heard it called that before and didn’t like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don’t feel much in common with […]”).
Miscommunications abound in this novel. At times the characters make tentative attempts to form more meaningful relationships but they often betray themselves by not saying what they want to say or by saying the wrong things.

Renault captures with poignancy sadness, anxiety, self-divide, awkwardness, tenderness, longing, ambiguity, confusion, honour, passion, and hope. Her characters reveal her piercing understanding of human nature. Through her expressive and elegant writing Renault demonstrates her inside knowledge of the society she depicted (Renault was both a lesbian and a nurse, which is possibly why she can so conjure up both queer parties and the daily routines of a hospital).
I love everything about this novel. Laurie’s quest for identity, the struggle between his desires and his ideals, is as moving as it is thought-provoking.
A truly complex and multi-layered masterpiece that is both heart-rending and intelligent.
Impenetrable, subtle, beautiful, touching. I can’t recommend this novel strongly enough.
If you are a fan of gay classics (such as MauriceCarolGiovanni’s Room, and the underrated Olivia ), you should definitely give Renault a try. I don’t think I will ever get tired of re-reading this novel. Each time my understanding for the characters, their inner-struggles and relationships, deepens (although i own a copy of this, this time around i read a kindle copy from overdrive…and i ended up making nearly 500 highlights….which, yeah, that’s how much i love this story).

ps: if you have anything negative so say about Ralph, I will fight you
(i’m only half-jesting)

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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