Lakewood by Megan Giddings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

You Are Free by Danzy Senna

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Rouge Street: Three Novellas by Shuang Xuetao

Rouge Street presents its readers with three novellas by Shuang Xuetao which have been translated by Jeremy Tiang who once again has done a stellar job. The prose of these novellas is smooth and engaging, contrasting with the sometimes stark realities experienced by the characters populating these stories. The backdrop to most of these stories is Shenyang, which the author renders in gritty realism. The characters struggle to find stable employment and fulfilment as they attempt to navigate a perilous social and economic landscape. Many experiences or are close to people affected by poverty, addiction, and domestic violence. Some find themselves embroiled in murky businesses, while others attempt to make their dreams come true even when the cards are stacked against them. An element of magical realism reminiscent of the work Murakami comes into play in some of these narratives, lending an air of surreality to many of the events and scenes being described. The humor present in many of the character interactions also made me think of Murakami’s books, as Xuetao effectively incorporates humorous asides or funny lines into his otherwise bleak narratives. These moments of levity also add to the surreal, occasionally dreamy, atmosphere of these stories. The author’s insights into contemporary Chinese society also are characterised by an almost rueful tone, one that lends itself to his novellas’ subject matter(s). The family dynamics were lively and I appreciated how the author establishes generational gaps without resorting to the usual clichès.

What I struggled with was the shift in perspectives. I have never been a fan of shifts between 1st and 3rd povs, and here I sometimes had difficulties telling who was speaking and their connection to the other pov. To be fair, this issue I had may have something to do with the fact that I listened to the audiobook version of this collection. I think I would have been able to follow the storylines better if I’d read it for myself. I will probably revisit Rouge Street as I would like to gain a more in-depth understanding of its novellas.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

It would be safe to say that I do have a bit of an uneasy relationship with Murakami’s work. I read and was not blown away by it. Over the last couple of months, I have picked up several of his short story collections but never felt compelled to finish them. The main reason why I do not get on with his work is that, well, his women are on a league of their own when it comes to female characters written by male authors. I cringed many times while reading Sputnik Sweetheart: his portrayal of the romantic/sexual relationship between Sumire and Miu, the two women at the centre of the narrative, was yikes. It often went from being slightly ridiculous to straight-up ludicrous. That he chooses to tell their story through ‘K’, our male straight narrator, is also somewhat iffy. While K acknowledges that it may be unusual for him to tell Sumire’s love story, he doesn’t provide a particularly satisfying answer. I mean, I honestly think this could have been a much stronger novel if the narrative had alternated between Sumire and Miu. Anyway, we are stuck with K and his creepy male gaze. When we first meet him he is a college student who has fallen in love with Sumire, who is very much the classic Murakami female character, in that she’s Not Like Other Girls. She’s messy and in the throes of an existentialist crisis. She often confides in K about her fears and desire, and he takes on the role of listener, never revealing anything particularly substantial about himself, keeping readers and Sumire at arm’s length. He often recounts Sumire’s experiences from her point of view, which obviously necessitates our suspension of disbelief, given that he would really have no way of being able to provide such detailed descriptions of her experiences, let alone her inner feelings. Anyway, K gives us an impression of what kind of person Sumire is, her somewhat skewed worldview, and speaks of her writerly aspirations. Eventually, Sumire reveals to him that for the first time in her life she has fallen in love. K is disappointed to learn that he is not the person in question and that Sumire has fallen for Miu, an older businesswoman of Korean heritage. Sumire begins to act in a way that Miu approves of, changing her style etc. to earn Miu’s favor. As Sumire begins to work for Miu, her feelings intensify to the point where she is no longer able to contain her emotions. During a work trip to an island on the coast of Greece Sumire disappears. Miu contacts K and he travels there. Although Miu tells him of the events that led to Sumire’s ‘vanishing’, the two struggle to make sense of what led Sumire to just disappear. Here in classic Murakami fashion things take a surreal route, as the line between dreams and reality becomes increasingly blurry. There are feverish visions that lead to life-altering consequences, hypnotic dreams, and, of course, inexplicable disappearances. The ‘intimate’ cast of characters does result in fairly charged dynamics between Sumire, Miu, and K. K, of course, did serve a somewhat unnecessary role but by the end, I could see why someone as lonely as Sumire would find comfort in his continued presence. They have bizarre conversations about human nature, love, sex, and so forth, and some of these were fairly engaging. Overall, Murakami certainly succeeds in creating and maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere and a melancholy mood. The late 90s setting casts a nostalgic haze over the events being recounted by K. I just wish that Murakami’s depiction of women and lesbians wasn’t so corny. From the way he describes women’s pubic hair to his strongly held belief that women are obsessed by their breasts (particularly nipples), to his dubious comments and takes on same-sex love….well, it was not for me. I found his language turgid in these instances, either funny in a that’s-idiotic-kind-of-way or just plain gross.

There are other classic Murakami elements: characters who love talking about literature, jazz bars, and classical music. While K is more mysterious than his usual male characters he was not exactly an improvement model. He has some rapey thoughts and instincts that were definitely off-putting. Miu’s strange ‘affliction’ is also quite out there and I found Sumire’s attempts at a ‘declaration’ to be problematic indeed as it bordered on sexual assault. But if you can put up with dated and frequently icky content Sputnik Sweetheart does present readers with an immersive tale of yearning and loneliness. I appreciated the storyline’s unresolved nature and the sense of surreality that permeates it. I will probably read more by Murakami but I will do so when I am in the right state of mind to put up with his peculiar sexism.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu

Like most other collections of short stories, Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is a bit of a mixed bag. Out of the 12 stories, only 2 really stood out to me while the rest blended together somewhat. The author uses fantastical elements to explore familiar themes and dynamics. I liked her use of magical realism and found that it suited her story’s subject matter. In the second story for example a girl on the cusps of adolescence sprouts wings. There is a story about an insomniac who receives visits from the Sandman. Another one features a haunted doll. Grief, guilt, and mortality are the running motifs in this collection. The author’s use of the absurd permeates her realistic scenarios with a sense of surreality. Her prose was not only compelling but interspersed throughout there were some beautiful descriptions and clever observations. Despite this, I did not find her collection particularly memorable. While I did find the first two stories to be touching and creative, the ones that followed played around with vaguely formulaic concepts that are very much staples of the magical realism genre. Additionally, some of these stories just came across as writing exercises (and they stuck too closely to the ‘how to write a short story’ formula). Still, even if I wasn’t blown away by this collection it was far from an unpleasant read and I will probably check out more by this author.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Life Ceremony: Stories by Sayaka Murata

This collection was both disappointing and unnecessarily disgusting. Not a great start to my reading year…

“What could be more normal than making people into clothes or furniture after they die?”

A lot of things…

As Life Ceremony happened to be one of my most anticipated 2022 releases, I was very happy to learn that my request for an arc was approved by its publisher. Sadly, it turns out that Life Ceremony was not the offbeat collection I was expecting it’d be. If you enjoyed Murata’s Convenience Store Woman but found Earthlings too grotesque, well, my advice is that you steer clear from her short stories. I loved the former and found the latter to be, if not enjoyable, certainly a striking read. Life Ceremony, on the other hand, feels like a rather forgettable collection of stories designed to disgust & shock its readers. Even the scenarios they explore are certainly weird, their weirdness was almost too predictable and samey. While the disturbing elements that made Earthlings into such a memorable read felt ‘earned’, and did not take precedence over the story’s characters & themes, here those elements feel obvious and as if they were the whole point of the story. As with her two novels, Murata’s short stories explore alienation, loneliness, humanity, and contemporary Japanese society. But, to be perfectly honest, Murata’s insights into these topics here feel banal and entirely derivative of her full length works.
Most of the stories in this collection are set in the near-future or in an alternate reality where certain characters, often the narrator, finds themselves questioning the social mores so readily accepted by others. Because of this they feel alienated from other people and don’t feel that they truly fit into their particular society. Most of the stories question the notion of right and wrong by challenging the characters ethical and moral ideologies (why do they really think that x is bad? is it because they are told that is what they should think? etc etc). In the first story for example our protagonist lives in a society that uses human skin to produce all sorts of objects. While this use of human skin is completely normalized now the protagonist remembers vaguely a time where this was not the case. Her partner, to everyone’s bewilderment, is openly against this practice and refuses to have items that are made of human skin. When his father dies and his skin repurposed, the partner reconsiders his stance. In another story, the main character has a sister who, in a similar fashion to a character from Earthlings, believes she is not a human. This causes others to bully and make fun of her. In the title story, Murata envisions a world where the deceased are made into food for the living in a ceremony of sorts. This ceremony apparently makes people really horny and they tend to have sex after consuming the ‘flesh’ of their loved one. People attach no shame to the act of sex and apparently it is perfectly normal to walk down a street and see pools of semen all over the pavement. Our main character initially claims that she is not keen on the practice but when a colleague she cares for dies suddenly she relishes the meal his relatives make him into. She comes across a man who says he’s gay and decides to give her his sperm. Amongst other things, I found myself wondering how gay people fit in in a society where you only have sex to procreate. I found this scenario particularly illogical. Not so much the eating of the deceased, I mean, endocannibalism was (is?) practised by certain communities, but the whole sex on the streets thing?! Uncomfortable much! Anyhow, we also have a story about a woman who observes other people and describes them as human beings, which kind of implies she is not one. She is particularly obsessed with things such as blood, bile, and other bodily fluids. At one point she observes someone she’s just had a meal with and this happens:

“Sanae quietly gripped the plastic bag in her hand, thinking of all the excrement filling Emiko’s body.”

Which, ugh, let me gouge my eyes out. I didn’t find this funny or shocking, just low-key gross. Gross is actually the perfect word to describe this collection. Alongside garish, vulgar, perverse, trite, and gratuitous. At times I felt that I was reading the writing of a teenager trying to be edgy and writing about edgy things like shit, sex, blood, and cannibalism. There were also lines such as “I felt so happy at the thought that I was among his innards” that just…why?! Then an orgasm is described as “it’s kind of like your body becomes innocent, like a child”…which. Yeah. Something about that does not sit right with me.
Contrary to what one might believe reading this review, I don’t mind gore, body horror, or works that are fascinated with what is abject. I recently watched and was blown away by Titane which definitely delivers on the body horror and the body is abject front. But this collection prioritizes these aspects in an ineffective way. They were far from subversive, and in fact, I found it predictable how almost every story features a society where something we consider taboo has been normalized.
While I was deeply dissatisfied by this collection, and I will certainly be avoiding her short-form work from now on, I do consider Murata to be a remarkable storyteller (even if this collection was, in my opinion of course, a dud). If you are interested in reading this and you are not put-off my intentionally & ott gross content, well, go for it.

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All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami

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

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

my rating: ★★

The Houseguest: And Other Stories by Amparo Dávila

Whenever an author is compared to Shirley Jackson, I feel compelled to check their work out. More often than not, upon reading their stuff, I end up rather perplexed by the comparisons to Jackson. In the case of Amparo Dávila, well, this comparison isn’t wholly unearned. Jackson and Dávila’s approach to the horror genre certainly share similarities. Their stories are imbued by a surreal, almost fantastical, quality that seems to blur the line between reality and fantasy. Their characters are paranoid to the point of being delusional, but there are times when their fears are not wholly unfounded and that the people, places, and situations that cause them to feel such anxiety and terror are not wholly normal. I appreciated that Dávila sets many of her stories within a household or building, rarely venturing beyond their thresholds. This ‘restricted’ setting augments the oppressive atmosphere of her stories and often worsens her characters’ paranoia. Dávila upsets normal family dynamics and every day activities by introducing sinister guests and entities within her characters’ homes. Alienation, loneliness, madness, and despair are running motifs throughout this collection. Sadly, the stories ended up blurring together somewhat. The characters are thinly rendered and often interchangeable with one another. The writing was at times repetitive and there were instances in which certain descriptions & dialogues came across as stilted (i read the eng. translation so that may be why). There was also an overuse of ellipsis which made many scenes rather dramatic. I found myself wishing for Jackson’s humor as I found myself completely unamused by Dávila’s stories. Compared to contemporary horror authors such as Samanta Schweblin, well The Houseguest doesn’t quite come on top.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

“The deep sea is a haunted house: a place in which things that ought not to exist move about in the darkness.”

The cover, title, premise, and early hype around this novel made me think that I was going to love it. Alas, as it often seems to be the case, Our Wives Under The Sea did not work for me. If you are interested in this novel I recommend that you check out more positive reviews.
At first, I gave this novel the benefit of the doubt, but with each chapter, my expectations sunk (ah-ah) lower and lower. This is one of those novels that prioritises language over say characters or story, which is something that I’m sure will work for many types of readers, it just so happens that I am not one of them. Through alternating chapters, Our Wives Under The Sea follows wives Miri and Leah. Their marriage and relationship are very much in limbo after Leah returns from a deep-sea mission gone awry. The experience has clearly altered Leah and Miri struggles to reconcile herself to the fact that the woman she married is no more. In Miri’s chapter, we read of Leah’s strange behaviours: she takes long baths, avoids leaving the house, has frequent nose-bleeds, and seems wholly disassociated from her surroundings. Miri’s chapters also give us some insight into their relationship prior to this disastrous mission (how they met, how they were as a couple, etc.). In Leah’s chapters, which are far shorter, and are meant to highlight her alienated state of mind, we mostly learn about what went on in that mission.

“Every couple, I think, enjoys its own mythology, recollections like notecards to guide you round an exhibition.”

In spite of the intimacy achieved by focusing solely on Miri and Leah (secondary characters are very much at the margins of the narrative), I found the novel’s overall tone cold. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I like plenty of authors who write in this slightly ‘distancing’ way (Jhumpa Lahiri and Brandon Taylor come to mind). However, I have to care or be interested in the people they write about. Here, surprisingly enough, I found myself feeling nothing for either Miri or Leah. Their voices were too similar, something that I found rather frustrating. Their inner-monologues and their observations (about others, the past, themselves) were eerily alike. Which made it difficult for me to see them as individuals, but rather they merged into this one water-obsessed figure. And speaking of water, gesù. We have water metaphors and imagery, water-related speculations, and conversations on water/sea/ocean/sea creatures. I understand that the water & the sea are central themes of this novel (if not the theme) however it got repetitive and, worse still, contrived. The author’s language was impressionistic, trying too hard to be direct and gritty (“red mouth in the morning, red chin, red spill into the sink” / “Miri bit at her skin of her lip so often that kissing tasted bloody; metallic zip of a licked battery”). Her prose was too dramatic, full of flashy metaphors (“beneath her shirt, the bones of her shoulder swing the way a hanger will when knocked inside a wardrobe”). There were paragraphs or reflections that I liked or that struck me as insightful and sharp but I wish that I’d felt more attached or emotionally invested in the story. I had a hard time ‘believing’ in our two main characters, perhaps due to a combination of their voices sounding too much alike and they were both so…water obsessed? Their personalities were vague and the author seemed more intent on evoking a certain atmosphere than on providing us with fully dimensional and nuanced characters.
All in all, this novel was a big disappointment. I went in thinking that I would love it, realised a few pages in that the writing was going for this simultaneously dreamlike and raw sort of vibe (which did nothing for me here) and found myself bored by most of the narrative. It didn’t elicit any particular feelings or reactions in me. This is the kind of novel that screams MFA. It wants to be stylish and edgy but (and here i remind you that i am merely expressing my own entirely subjective opinion so please don’t @ me) but feels contrived and unconvincing. A lot of the dialogues didn’t ring true to life, characters’ reactions were slightly off, and the narrators’ voices were much to similar (that occasionally they address the reader or say things like ‘you see’ made it all more gimmicky).

my rating: ★★½

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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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