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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

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

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

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

The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould

“Ghosts are death, but maybe death can mean different things.”

Spooky, sapphic, summery, The Dead and the Dark delivers on all of these. Fans of YA paranormal YA novels like Beware the Wild or Stiefvater’s TRC or even graphic-novels such as The Low, Low Woods, should definitely consider giving Courtney Gould’s debut a shot. The Dead and the Dark = eerie atmosphere + oppressive summer heat + f/f romance + dysfunctional families + not-so-idyllic-small-town with secrets.

“In Snakebite, you were either fleeting or permanent. People who came to town always left, and people who left didn’t come back.”

The Dead and the Dark follows Logan Ortiz-Woodley, the long-suffering daughter of the duo behind ParaSpectors, a ghost-hunting type of ‘documentary’ TV show. Due to her dads’ work, Logan has grown up all over the US, never staying in one place for long. Her dads, Alejo and Brandon, often seem to prioritise their filming schedule over her. While she has a good relationship with Alejo, Brandon has always been a distant figure, to the point of being cold towards her. After her final year of high school, Logan finds herself tagging along with Alejo to join Brandon who has been staying in Snakebite, Oregon for the past few months. Snakebite happens to be her dads’ hometown but Logan knows next to nothing about that time in their lives. Her dads claim that they are there to work on their latest season but Logan suspects some ulterior motives behind their decision to return to this clearly hostile small-town.
Once in Snakebite Logan learns that the town’s golden boy went missing soon after Brandon moved back, and many of its inhabitants seem to believe that he was responsible. Logan teams up with Ashley Barton, the girlfriend of the golden boy and a golden girl in her own right as she’s the daughter of the most powerful family in Snakebite. Despite their differences, Logan and Ashley decide to investigate her boyfriend’s disappearance, and soon enough realize that Snakebite may be haunted in more ways than one.

“If pain is the measure, I promise Snakebite is full of ghosts.”

Their thrilling investigation (which sees them uncovering years-old secrets, come to terms with hard truths, suspect their loved ones, see this town and its people through new eyes, and come across ghosts and a ‘dark’ evil entity) was certainly engrossing. I liked their dynamic and how by spending time together they slowly start catching feelings for each other. The setting of Snakebite was really well done. The town’s hostility towards the Ortiz-Woodley family adds extra urgency to the girls’ investigation.

“At the end of all of this, Snakebite would never be the same.”

Now on what didn’t quite work for me: all that supposed evidence incriminating Brandon. That a lot of his scenes or flashbacks involving him in the first half of the novel corroborate this view of him as being a potentially bad guy. It got a bit silly as I already knew who the culprit was. And yes, that ‘twist’…I saw it coming a mile away. Maybe I’ve just read too many mystery novels or maybe I should have not spent a few years of my life watching all 70 episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot but it just so happens that most of the time I guess who is behind a certain crime and or even their motivations. This doesn’t always ruin the story for me but here it sort of made the whole reveal and explanation anticlimactic. Towards the end I also found myself feeling more engaged in Alejo and Brandon than Logan and Ashley which is weird as I’m closer in age to the girls & I’m a lesbian woman. But there was something about Ashley that I just found a wee bit boring and not very engaging. She was very sheltered and compared to Logan I found her character somewhat flat.
The ‘missing boy’ plays a similar function as the dead girls that populate so many crime shows and fiction. We never really learn anything much about him other than he was an actual golden boy and he’s merely a plot device.
Ashley’s mother seemed a poor rip-off of the mother from Sharp Object (a novel that, surprise surprise, the author mentions in the acknowledgements). We never learn much about Ashley’s family which seemed like a wasted opportunity.

The secrecy also got to me. The girls repeatedly ask the ‘adults’ what went on in Snakebite all those years ago or why there is such animosity between Ashely’s mother and Logan’s dads…but they all say dismissive things like ‘soon we’ll tell you/not now/when all of this is over’. It’s one of my least favourite tropes and I wish that it hadn’t been so overused in this story. The time skips (sometimes one or two weeks go by after a certain scene) did not always seem necessary as they clearly served a buffering function.

Still, this was an absorbing and quick read. The relationship between Logan and her dads, specifically Brandon, was one of the most compelling aspects of the storyline. All in all, I’m glad I read this and I look forward to whatever Gould writes next.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Door by Magda Szabó — book review

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“[I]t was as if Emerence turned on her ghostly heel and put two fingers up at our guilty consciences, and our attempts to approach her. Each time it was as if yet another undisclosed facet of her million secrets glittered before us”

One of the most obscurely bizarre books I’ve ever read.

Moving between the 1960s and the 1980s The Door’s narrative is concerned with the narrator’s relationship with her housekeeper Emerence. Throughout the course of the novel our narrator, a Hungarian writer called Magda, combs through her memories in order to revisit her complex relationship with Emerence, in what seems to be an attempt to make some sort of sense out of this enigmatic and perplexing woman.

Although The Door is quite unlike any other novel I’ve read it does share certain elements with Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T. (which is also semi-autobiographical, set in a similar time-period, and narrated by a writer determined to revisit her relationship with her secretive friend), Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (yet another narrator/writer who interrogates her intense relationship with an old friend) and Joyce Carol Oates’ Solstice.
From its opening pages The Door throws us into a dizzying tale that seems to ignore logic or structure. There is little to no plot, but rather a collection of Magda’s memories of Emerence.

The first part of the novel has very little dialogue (a few lines here and there), and relies instead on Magda’s recounting what Emerence said or did. Soon we acquire a surreal impression of this formidable woman, yet Emerence remains an ambivalent figure, impossible to pin down. Magda’s attempts to make sense of her past behaviour towards her and others often results in little more than speculations and suppositions on her part.
However ordinary Emerence and her life may seem, her many peculiarities and her aversion towards God, the Church, the idea of an establishment itself, make her into a potentially disruptive figure. At times Magda’s recounts of Emerence make the latter seem as little more than an unhinged woman prone to childish temper tantrums and liable to bad moods. Her hatred towards ‘cultured’ and intellectual people seems to reveal a deep resentment towards those who unlike her did not have to start working at a young age. And yet, she seems so completely disgusted by them that it seems impossible for her to be secretly envious of them.
Emerence appears as a mercurial individual who, in spite of living in a country which imposed uniformity on its subjects, manages to retain her individuality. She seems the sole governor of her own existence, unbothered by the laws, policies, and societal norms that affect her neighbours.

As this murky narrative progresses, and Emerence slowly emerges from Magda’s memories, we begin to accept Emerence’s multivalency. Not one character seems to have thought of her the same way, whether they feared, hated, admired, or loved her. Her secrecy and control over her own self and her private space, make her seem closer to a sphinx than a mere mortal. She seems to radiate strength seeming to be a force of nature, a solid and unmovable presence in the lives of her neighbours and clients.
Yet, Magda’s memories are comprised of so many gaps and absences that we are constantly aware of the unreliability of what she does or does not remember. The Emerence that surfaces from Magda’s ‘reconstruction’ is a fragment of the actual woman, and Magda, alongside her readers, has to content herself with her imperfect knowledge of her former housekeeper. Ultimately Emerence remains unknowable.

Backdrop to Magda’s retrieval is a quiet sort of violence. We are aware of a potential danger but we cannot pinpoint what shape or form it will take. The unnerving relationship between Magda and Emerence is filled with recriminations, uneasy truces, and bitter exchanges. There are allusions to deaths and destruction but these never lead to a cathartic event or revelation.
In navigating the past the narrator is able to see anew many of the things that she had likely overlooked about her own life. She attributes new significance to certain moments of her life and of the way these shaped her relationship with Emerence. She seems to be both in her past and in her present, obsessed, if not desperate, with truly knowing Emerence, her life, secrets, and motivations.

“The situation had drained my energy. Cheerfulness keeps you fresh, its opposite exhausts. Now I was miserable, but not because I had to look for another help. The problem was simpler. I had finally accepted that it wasn’t just Emerence who was attached to me, with the sort of feelings normally reserved for family, but that I, too, loved her.”

For much of the novel, the two women are engaged in a war of constant surveillance. They are always scrutinising each other, and often criticising their different values and attitudes (more than once they clash over their different attitude towards religion and literature). Emerence’s secretiveness, her ‘closed’ door, mystify Magda who comes to think of Emerence’s apartment as an extension of Emerence herself.
Emerence’s ‘shut door’ allows for an array of interpretations. It is the very fact that this door is shutting out the rest of the world that arouses Magda, and the reader’s, curiosity. My mind formed the most wild of theories regarding Emerence’s past and what lay beyond her door. Yet, as Magda informs us early on, we are aware that we will never truly know Emerence or her motivations. It seemed that the novel emphasised the unknowability of a person, and the freedom that we can experience by presenting a self that isn’t entirely true.

Magda’s narratives describes seemingly mundane scenarios that teether on the edge of becoming something more: miscommunications regarding house routines can cause unforgiving shifts between the two women. The novel imbues the most ordinary of scenes or conversations with a sense of surreality. There were many moments that verged on absurdity (there were many almost Kafkaesque occurrences).
Emerence seemed the antithesis of normal. My mind was never made up about her. Certainly Magda’s recollections of her always left me feeling uneasy, almost queasy. At times she could be quick to anger and unforgiving, while in other instances she could seem so caring and kind. Her erratic behaviour, her naiveté, her small manipulations of those around her…I found myself interrogating everything she said or did, wondering alongside Magda ‘who‘ Emerence really was.

This novel is far from a pleasant read: it is unnerving and confusing, and I was mystified most of time (it left me with more questions than actual answers….) and yet, I felt a horrible sort of fascination towards it…read at your own risk.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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