Solo Dance by Kotomi Li

“There’s a limit to how much misogyny and heteronomrative bullshit a story can have.”

Solo Dance follows a millennial woman from Taiwan working an office job in Tokyo who feels alienated from her colleagues and their daily conversations about marriage, the economy, and children. Chō, our protagonist, is a lesbian, something she keeps ‘hidden’ from her coworkers. While Chō does hang out with other queer women in lgbtq+ spaces, a traumatic experience causes her to be self-doubting, distrustful of others, and perpetually ashamed. When she opens up to a woman she’s sort of seeing, the latter brutally rejects her, not only blaming Chō for having been attacked but accusing her of having been deceitful (by not having spoken about this before). This leads Chō to spiral further into depression and suicidal ideation, her disconnection further exacerbated by an ‘accident’ that occurs at her workplace. Chō’s arc brought to mind that of Esther Greenwood in <i>Bell Jar</i>, that is to say, things seem to just get worse and worse for her.


As we read of her experiences working and living in Japan as a gay woman, we are also given insight into her teenage years in Taiwan, her slow recognition of her sexuality, her first encounter(s) with women, and that devasting night that resulted in an irrevocable self-disintegration. Chō blames herself for her attack, and not only does she sabotages her relationship with her girlfriend but pushes away one of the few people actively trying to help her. Chō’s uneasy relationship with her sexuality and the physical and emotional violence she experiences over the course of the narrative make for an unrelentingly depressing read.

Throughout the course of her novel, the author links Chō’s experiences to those of Qiu Miaojin and of her fictionalised counterpart, Lazi. Both tonally and thematically Solo Dance shares a lot of similarities with Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile: both works interrogate notions of normalcy and alterity by exploring the experiences of women whose sexuality does not conform to societal norms.
Whereas Miaojin’s writing has a more cynical and satirical edge to it, Solo Dance is mostly just depressing. Immeasurably depressing. I knew going into it that the novel would not be a happy read, but, dio mio, for such a short read this book sure is brimming with queer pain & suffering. Because of this, I’m afraid I found Solo Dance to be a very one-note read. Sure, the realities it explores are sadly realistic, but, the storytelling has this flat quality to it that made it hard for me to become immersed in what I was reading. I can’t pinpoint whether it is the author’s style or the translation at fault, but while reading this I felt not so much transported into the story as merely…well, as if I was ‘just’ reading a text that didn’t quite elicit any strong responses beyond finding r*pe, lesbophobia, and suicidal ideation upsetting to read of. The story never reeled me in, which is a pity as the topics it explores are ones close to my heart (i am a lesbian and grew up in a very catholic and not particularly lgbtq+ friendly country).
The dialogues were a mixture of clumsy and dry and some of Chō’s internal monologues struck me as trying too hard to mimic Lazi’s brand of nihilistic angst. Other times it just sounded off, unnatural (“is the stigmatization of my sexuality the source of all my misfortune? This illogical question had plagued her for a long time”, “her rational thoughts returned to life and began to talk to her”). The narrative also seemed to go way out of its way in order to make Chō suffer, and while I can sometimes buy into the type of story where one character experiences trauma after trauma (a little life), here I didn’t. A lot of the interactions she has with others either struck me as unlikely or just plain unbelievable (from the words spoken by the woman who ‘rejects’ her to her encounter with another suicidal queer woman).

If you are interested in reading this book I still recommend you give it a shot (just bear in mind ‘tis dreary affair).

my rating: ★ ★ ½

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.

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

“How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?”

Devastating, heart-wrenching, and full of love and sorrow, Men We Reaped is an unforgettable memoir. Jesmyn Ward recounts her experiences growing up poor, female, and Black in the rural South during the late 80s and 90s. Ward interweaves her personal account with a brutal social commentary that highlights what it means to be poor and Black, and of how racism, specifically in the South, remains an insidious and widespread phenomenon with tragic consequences. Interrupting those chapters in which Ward recounts her childhood and teenage years are chapters focusing on the lives of five Black men, all of whom died young as a result of addictions, suicide, and accidents. Some of these men, we learn, were her friends growing up. We see how the school system either pegged them as problem students or ignored them, which inevitably would make them feel ‘less than’ and worthless. Ward’s younger brother, Joshua, is one of these young men, which makes these chapters all the more hard-hitting.
Ward shows how deep-rooted institutionalised racism is and how it results in social and economic disparities. In looking back to the past, Ward tries to understand the motivations behind the actions and behaviours of the adults around her, in particular, her mother and her father, a serial cheater who would eventually leave them behind. In discussing the lives of these men she cared for, Ward considered the high mortality rate among young Black men, and of the way in which their community is affected by generational trauma, drug addiction, etc. Ward ultimately feels conflicted about the South, a place that has played a fatal role in the deaths of the people she loved. Yet, even after moving away to pursue higher education, she finds herself longing to return to it. Ward, in some ways, appears to be haunted by it and by the role it played in the deaths of so many men she knew and loved.
With heartbreaking clarity and piercing insight, Ward writes of her childhood, of the lives of those young men who died such violent and sudden deaths, of her own family and her relationship to her parents, of her community, and of social inequality. More impressive still than Ward’s talent for vividly portraying a specific time and place is her ability to articulate her grief over the death of her brother and her friends.
While this memoir is by no means an easy read, it did in fact distress me, ultimately, I think it’s a necessary read. Ward’s lyrical prose reads like an elegy, both to the men that died at such a young age and to the South. Men We Reaped is a powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking read. While this memoir is mired in pain and grief, Ward’s elegiac prose and empathy balanced out its bleaker aspects. With admirable lucidity Ward attempts to reconcile herself with the confusion and anger brought about by the inequalities experienced by her community and by her loved one deaths.

Some quotes that will haunt me:

“[T]he message was always the same: You’re Black. You’re less than White. And then, at the heart of it: You’re less than human.

“We inherit these things that breed despair and self-hatred, and tragedy multiplies. For years I carried the weight of that despair with me;”

“But this grief, for all its awful weight, insists that he matters. What we carry of Roger and Demond and C. J. and Ronald says that they matter. I have written only the nuggets of my friends’ lives. This story is only a hint of what my brother’s life was worth, more than the nineteen years he lived, more than the thirteen years he’s been dead. It is worth more than I can say. And there’s my dilemma, because all I can do in the end is say.”

“We who still live do what we must. Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.”

“I thought being unwanted and abandoned and persecuted was the legacy of the poor southern Black woman. But as an adult, I see my mother’s legacy anew. I see how all the burdens she bore, the burdens of her history and identity and of our country’s history and identity, enabled her to manifest her greatest gifts.”

my rating: ★★★★☆

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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N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto

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

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

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“‘How do you feel?’ ‘All right.’ But I didn’t. I felt terrible.”

I feel incredibly conflicted over Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. On the one hand, I found it to be an ingenious and striking read, one that immortalizes in exacting detail a young woman’s slow descent into psychosis and offers a piercing commentary on 1950s American society, specifically its oppressive gender norms. On the other hand, I could not look past how racist it was.

Set in 1953 The Bell Jar is narrated by Esther Greenwood, a misanthropic 19-year-old from the suburbs of Boston who wins a summer internship working for a New York fashion magazine. For the most part, Esther’s voice is a winning combination of acerbic and witty. She often entertains morbid thoughts, she offers scathing assessments of those around, and, as the days go by, she seems to be steadily sinking into torpor. Although Esther tries to make the most of New York, she quickly becomes disenchanted by its supposedly glamorous scene. She is at once repulsed and appreciative of the girls who are interning with her. While Esther is drawn to Doreen, who is one of the livelier of the girls, and Betsy, a pious goody-two-shoes, she ultimately feels very much apart from them, and often seems to view them and the rest of New York through a glass darkly. What follows is Esther’s unsettling descent into depression. As her contempt towards others and life in general grows, she begins to engage in self-destructive behaviour and acts in increasingly irrational ways. Later on, Esther attempts to write a novel but her deteriorating mental health becomes a concern to her mother who forces her to see a psychiatrist who goes on to prescribe her electroconvulsive therapy. This ‘treatment’ goes awry and Esther worsens. Eventually, Esther is committed to a hospital where she is reunited with an old acquaintance. While the novel does end on a hopeful note, it is by no means an easy ride. It is brutal and unsparing. Throughout the course of this novel, Plath captures with razor-sharp precision the mind of an alienated young woman. She articulates Esther’s ugliest thoughts and fears. As Esther tries and fails to navigate adulthood in New York she becomes more and more withdrawn. She’s apathetic, pessimistic, and derisive of others. Her experiences fail to match her expectations and Esther struggles to make sense of who she is, who she wants to be, and who she ought to be. She’s suffocated by the limitations of her gender and seems to reject the visions of womanhood, of marriage, and of motherhood that American society presents her with: “when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”

Not only does Plath render the stultifying atmosphere of the city and of the circles Esther moves in, but she conveys the lethal ennui experienced by her protagonist. In New York Esther struggles to traverse from adolescence to adulthood. Her alienation from others, her self-estrangement, and her disconnection from her contemporary society pave the way to her eventual breakdown. When others attempt to ‘help’ and/or ‘cure’ Esther they cause more harm than good. They either treat her in an inhumane way or dismiss the severity of her condition.
Esther is certainly not a likeable heroine. She’s a mean snob who often views other people as grotesque and beneath her. But, as I read on, I came to pity her. In spite of her solipsisms and general nastiness, Esther is clearly suffering. Esther’s mother seems to care more about appearances than her daughter’s wellbeing. The men around seem unable to truly see her. Her former sweetheart doesn’t really know her, while the men she meets in New York seem all too eager to use her. As Esther’s desperation grows her view of the world becomes steadily more distorted, her imagination even more ghoulish.
I appreciated how effective Plath’s style is in rendering Esther’s mental state. At times a scene or one of Esther’s thoughts are depicted in such vivid detail as to be overwhelming. But, the story also plays around with linear storytelling, presenting us with fragmented conversations or scenes that we are able to understand only as we read on. At times her prose acquires a sticky quality that fits perfectly with the story’s initial summer backdrop.
So what could possibly cause me to give this novel 3 stars instead of say 4 or 5? Well, while I recognise that this is a seminal feminist work, I could not look past how racist Esther, Plath’s ‘alter ego’, was. While I can usually look past classics’ books using dated/non-pc language, Esther’s racist remarks/attitudes did not strike me as merely being symptomatic of ‘the times’. It’s total ‘okay’ if our college-educated and intellectual protagonist, who is critical of the accepted social norms of her time when it comes to gender-based inequalities, uses racial slurs. Sure. She’s white and it’s the 1950s. But then we have these instances where Esther is not feeling good and mistakes her reflection as belonging to somebody else, specifically someone who is Asian: “I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.” and “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.”.
When a girl says she’s meeting up with a Peruvian guy Esther says the following: “They’re squat,” I said. “They’re ugly as Aztecs.”….And then we have that scene at the hospital involving a Black orderly. After establishing that he is indeed Black she keeps referring to him as “the negro” rather than say “the orderly” or “the man”. This orderly say things like “Mah, mah!” or “Oh Miz, oh Miz […] You shouldn’t of done that, you shouldn’t, you reely shouldn’t.”. Before this (as far as i can recall of course) Plath did not lay much (or any really) emphasis on her characters’ accents. Yet, all of a sudden she just has to establish the specific way in which this man talks. And of course, because he’s an orderly and Black the way he talks has to be ridiculed. Anyway, Esther believes that the orderly is toying with her and the other patients so she “drew my foot back and gave him a sharp, hard kick on the calf of the leg”. Great stuff.
Plath’s description of non-American characters also left a sour taste in my mouth: “She was six feet tall, with huge, slanted, green eyes and thick red lips and a vacant, Slavic expression.” and “A large, bosomy Slavic lady”. Wtf is that even supposed to mean? How fucking lazy is this type of description? Why are all ‘Slavic-looking’ women large?

While Esther uses unflattering terms to describe white Americans, describing someone’s neck as “spam-coloured”, these descriptions, which poking fun at their physical appearance, are ultimately humorous. The ones referring to Black or Asian characters, not so much. Esther’s repugnance is even more pronounced in the instances I mentioned above, and the language she uses is often dehumanising or at least seems to suggest that she does view them as inferior to white people. Every few chapters I would come across a racist remark/line that simply prevented me from becoming invested in Esther’s story. That this is a highly autobiographical novel makes me feel all the more uneasy at Esther’s racism.
While this is certainly an important novel and one of the first books to depict in such uncompromising terms a young woman’s descent into depression, its white American brand of feminism is dated at best.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some of my favourite quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Happiness suits her so well, I thought.”

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge

Strange Beasts of China certainly delivers on the ‘strange’ suggested by its very title and premise. This novel consists of 9 interconnected chapters, each one presenting us with a self-contained story about a certain type of ‘beast’. Strange Beasts of China reads like a contemporary and unique bestiary in which, through the eyes of our nameless narrator who is a cryptozoologist, we learn the origins, appearances and habits of different types of beasts. While Strange Beasts of China will certainly appeal to fans of surrealists authors such as Helen Oyeyemi, Yukiko Motoya, and Hiromi Kawakami, if you are the type of reader who prefers character-driven stories, well, you might be better off skipping this one.

Strange Beasts of China takes place in China in the fictive Yong’an City where humans and beasts cohabit alongside one another. Relations between the two groups are far from amicable and many humans harbour stigma against beasts, who are treated as second-class citizens and have limited rights and freedoms. Our narrator, who studies and attempts to classify beasts, is more open-minded than most and, if anything, is drawn to beasts. Over the course of the novel, she comes into contact with different types of beasts, including sorrowful beasts, joyous beasts, sacrificial beasts, impasse beats, flourishing beasts, thousand league beats, heartsick beasts, prime beasts, and returning beasts. Time and again our narrator has to confront how non-human beasts are, despite their often human-like appearance (some have green bellies or ears shaped differently from humans but more often than not they physically resemble us).
Beasts are exploited, oppressed, feared, and or hated. For some beasts it is in their nature to lead parasitic lifestyles, for example, to ‘feed’ a human’s emotions. Others are doomed to die in a sacrificial fashion.
Over the course of these chapters, the author interrogates her narrator’s notion of humanity which will in turn make us question our ideas of what makes someone a human. I was intrigued by the beasts the author had imagined and I found her matter-of-fact weirdness to make Yong’an all the more believable. I wish the narrator had been more engaging as I found her voice strangely removed, and in those moments where she does experience heightened emotions, she verged on being hysterical. So, I either found her too passive or too melodramatic. There seemed to be no in-between. The men in her life, such as her professor and a peer of hers, well, they too acted in a rather overdramatic fashion, the professor especially. The way they spoke to each other or some of their responses were simply off-key, and perhaps I would have preferred if their interactions had been dialled back a little.
I also wish that Strange Beasts of China could have had more tonal variety as I found most of the chapters to be little other than depressing.

Still, this was an undoubtedly creative novel and I appreciated its dreamlike ambience and general strangeness.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost by David Hoon Kim

While I can recognise that Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost is far from a terrible novel, I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about it. Personally, I don’t think the world needed yet another novel about a modern-day (wannabe) flâneur (who happens to be, you guessed it, an intellectual cis straight man whose personality is akin to a slice of soggy toast) having a metaphysical existential crisis in Paris (where of course he falls for an elusive woman).

This is the kind of novel that cares little about the plot or characters. Instead, the narrative seems very much intent on being incohesive, presenting us with scenes and or reflections that blur the line between reality and dreams. While I usually quite like novels that manage to create and sustain a surrealist mood, here, from the very get-go, I found the narrative, its structure in particular, to be little other than artificial.
This novel seems to be desperately striving for this peculiar absurdist tone but, in the case of this reader at least, it just fell flat. Sacrificing style over substance also results in a cast of barely sketched out characters, figments really, that do not manage to hold one’s attention. The weakest aspect of the novel lies in Henrik, our main narrator and major character. His voice was très insipid, to the point that I would often have to make an effort to follow his train of thoughts. His seemingly interminable inner monologues were dull indeed. He often recounts the exchanges that he has with others so that I felt all the more distanced from the story’s events. The guy also behaved in a rather inconsistent way so that I sometimes had the impression that the story was being told by numerous narrators, instead of the one guy.

In the first section, we learn a little about Henrik, a Japanese adoptee to Danish parents. He’s completing some sort of thesis or dissertation on Samuel Beckett while living in Paris. He speaks three languages, Danish, English, and French and is an aspiring translator who wants to do English/French translations (not an easy endeavour given that neither language is technically his ‘mother tongue’, which is danish). He’s dating Fumiko, a Japanese woman who for reasons unknown to him (let alone us) has locked herself in her dorm room. We never meet Fumiko, as after days of confinement she commits suicide.
We then switch to a ‘you’ type of narrative where we are introduced to a group of young medical students who are dissecting (i think?) Fumiko’s body. What purpose did this part have? Go figure.
Then back to Henrik and his seemingly unending monologues. He tells us about the random people he sees on the street, and about trailing Asian women who remind him of Fumiko, of meeting and talking to other people (i cannot recall who they were or how they met, that’s how memorable these encounters/friendships were). I had no idea how much time was passing, days, weeks, years? There was no clear passage of time, so I was unsure how long ago Fumiko had committed suicide or how old our mc was. He gives us very little insight into his relationship with Fumiko and because of this lack of information I had a hard time 1) believing in Fumiko (especially since we never really see her ‘alive’ in the present and 2) believing in their dalliance.

Occasionally he does come up with interesting observations regarding Paris, the ‘intellectual’ circles Henrik moves in, and on his identity. Attention is paid in particular to the disconnect he feels between who he is (he feels very danish) and his appearance (which is not ‘typically’ danish). But these speculations (on identity & belonging, the divide between one’s inner and one’s outer self) were drowned out by Henrik’s other thoughts, which often made little sense or struck me as entirely too affected.

Then, all of a sudden, the last section of the narrative goes on about his relationship with his goddaughter. This seemed very out of the blue and has little to do with what had come beforehand. This goddaughter did not sound like a genuine child and her dad was way OTT (at one point he shits in a plastic bag…why? couldn’t he have asked to use his neighbours’ toilet if his own toilet was broken or whatnot?). Here there is a bit of pretending to be what you are not, as in this case, Henrik often acts like his goddaughter’s father.
Nothing truly interesting or new is said on the subject. The story then briefly moves from Paris to Rome and here Henrik seems all of a sudden to remember about Fumiko.

The novel tried very hard to impress its intelligence and artistry on us. I don’t mind erudite asides or creative ramblings but only if they either serve some sort of purpose (in relation to characters or plot) or if they serve as springboards for more interesting discussions/conversations. Here, it seemed they were just trying to create a certain atmosphere. The novel as a whole struck me as being very much influenced by the New Wave. And while it was in a way experimental and clearly postmodernist, it lacked bite, flavour. It was all flash, no substance. At least Beckett is amusing! Here the weirdness was studied, worst still, where was the humor?

Maybe a more engaging or intriguing narrator would have made me more inclined to pay attention to what was going on (then again, was anything really going on?) or what the author was writing about…but Henrik was painfully bland. His voice put me to sleep.

I recommend you check out more positive reviews before you decide whether to give this one a shot or not.

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

my rating: ★★½

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A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

If I was feeling in a generous mood I could say that A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel, proves just how much Ishiguro has matured as an author. If I had to be completely honest, however, I would say that I am fairly mystified by A Pale View of Hills. How can this novel share the same author as The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go? Its narrative is tedious, its structure incoherent, its characterisation non-existent, and its protagonist dull. Its worst ‘sin’ however lies in its dialogues. They were, I kid you not, atrocious.
But let’s take a step back. What is this novel even about? What is even this book?

The narrative opens in England. Etsuko’s daughter Niki has come to visit her and the two mention the recent(ish) suicide of Keiko, Etsuko’s eldest daughter. Already here I was struck by the inauthentic way the characters spoke and behaved.
In a typical Ishiguro fashion, the narrative then delves into Etsuko’s recollections of her first marriage and her experiences as a married young woman in Japan. She meets a single mother called Sachiko who is not particularly kind or likeable but spends most of her time complaining or talking about herself. She happens to have a daughter who is a brat. Nothing seems to happen. The story occasionally jumps forward to Etsuko in England and I found these jumps rather jarring. They provided no true glimpse into their dynamic let alone their shared history. Niki and Etsuko said nothing of note so I didn’t entirely understand why we had to have these sections set in the ‘present’.

I guess the narrative does succeed in identifying and underlining generational differences. First between those of Etsuko’s age and her father-in-law then between Etsuko and her daughter. It also gives us some insight into the shift occurring in Japan post-WWII (western influences, a ‘loss’ of tradition). Other than that…yeah. This novel doesn’t do much. It doesn’t delve into motherhood, nor does it address Keiko’s suicide. It has a few obvious scenes showing how Etsuko’s husband and father-in-law view women as ‘lesser’, or as not entitled to the same autonomy as them…and that’s it, folks.

And now to the dreaded dialogue. What the fuck. Nothing sounded credible. No one spoke like an actual person and worst still the amount of repetition within these dialogues was laughable. It didn’t make these conversations more realistic (in a mumblecore sort of way) it just made it seem as if the characters couldn’t hear each other or thought that they were speaking to someone who isn’t ‘quick’ on the uptake so they had to reiterate everything at least 3 or 4 times (which maybe could have worked if this had been a play by beckett). And even the way the characters responded to their environment and or the situations they were in struck me as disingenuous. For example, at one point Sachiko’s daughter tells Etsuko that some kids killed her cat. And Etsuko response is along the lines ‘I wonder why they did that’. She then tells off Sachiko’s daughter because she threw rocks at these horrid little children. Later, Etsuko is watching over Sachiko’s daughter, who then runs off. Etsuko eventually locates her and instead of reprimanding her or asking why she ran off, she’s like ‘why are you making that face? you are making a weird face! why? I must know!’ (or something to that extent). Who, who even talks like that? The characters’ responses were way off. If I started repeating myself as they did people would think I’m glitching or something.
There was also something profoundly English about the way the characters behaved and spoke that made it even harder for me to ‘immerse’ myself in what was to be a post-WWII Japan setting.
This was a bad novel and compared to many other debut novels…tis’ a weak one. I’m still having a hard time believing that Ishiguro wrote this. If I had to sum up this novel in one word it would be yikes.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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