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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Perhaps I should have not read Goodbye, Vitamin on the heels of finishing Chemistry by Weike Wang, maybe then I would have found Khong’s novel to be more witty and original than I actually did. The scenario too brought to mind another novel I read fairly recently, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which also centres on an Asian American woman in her 30s moving in back temporally with her parents because her father is showing signs of memory loss. Still, even if Goodbye, Vitamin didn’t quite strike me in the way Chemistry or even<a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1682569828
Edge Case by YZ Chin (which is yet another similar read) it was by no means an unpleasant read. The humorous tone was fairly engaging and the complex father-daughter dynamic that is at the heart of this story was certainly poignant. The questions the narrative raises and tries to answer (what we owe to each other? what does it mean to care for someone? is forgiveness always possible?) were certainly thought-provoking and I also appreciated the author’s portrayal of love, break-ups, and illnesses, as well as her depiction of the every-day realities of looking after an ageing parent.

Characterized by an offbeat and occasionally surreal tone, Goodbye, Vitamin is narrated by Ruth, a thirty-something woman reeling from her recent break-up with her longtime partner. Add to that the fact that so far she’s been leading a rather directionless career and Ruth is far from okay. Her mother, who works full time, asks Ruth to move back home so that she can keep an eye on her father, a history professor whose Alzheimer diagnosis has resulted in his ‘temporary’ dismissal from his college. Ruth and her mother try to help him in the only ways they can: they give him supplements and vitamins, design an ideal diet with foods that have plenty of health benefits. Additionally, they try to be ‘stealthy’ about their efforts to look after him as he seems unwilling to admit that he is experiencing any of the symptoms related to Alzheimer. In an effort to make him feel normal again Ruth teams up with her father’s former students and organize unauthorized lessons.
Ruth’s ‘quirky’ narration did at times feel a bit heavy-handed and it seemed a bit of a stretch that all of the various characters would share the same silly & weird sense of humor. The bittersweet nature of the relationship between Ruth and her father was perhaps the strongest aspect of this novel. Her father is not a particularly likeable person to start off with but to see his ‘change’ through his daughter’s eyes definitely made me more sympathetic towards him. Part of me would have liked for Ruth’s mother to be in the picture more as her presence is often relegated off-page.
Despite the subject matter—Alzheimer’s, breakups—Goodbye, Vitamin makes for a breezy read. I look forward to reading more by this author.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette

“We were fixed to one another, like parts of some strange, asymmetrical body: Frances was the mouth; Mary Lucille, the heart; Therese, the legs. And I, Agatha, was the eyes.”

Agatha of Little Neon is a gem of a novel. Claire Luchette’s prose is a delight to read, its deceptive simplicity bringing to mind authors such as Anne Tyler and Ann Patchett. From the very first pages, I was taken by Agatha’s thoughtful introspections—on her sisters, the people around her, her new community, the church—and her quiet wit.
Not only does Luchette demonstrate huge insight into human nature but I was always aware of how much empathy she had towards the people she’s writing of, regardless of who they are. While I was reading Agatha’s story it was clear to me that Luchette cared deeply about her characters, and she showcases both tenderness towards and understanding of her characters ( their struggles, desires, ‘flaws’, regrets).

“No one could understand why I hated talking, why it was so much work to come up with something to say. It was even more work to make it true or funny or smart. And then when you’d come up with it, you had to say it, and live with having said it.”

Agatha’s voice drew me in, so much so, that it seemed almost to me that I had been transported alongside her to Little Neon. After their parish experiences, some financial setbacks Agatha and her three sisters are relocated to Woonsocket where they will be staying at a halfway home, ‘Little Neon’. Over the previous 9 years the four sisters have led a symbiotic existence but once in Woonsocket Agatha finds herself growing apart from them. While her sisters stay at Little Neon, where they are meant to watch over its residents, Agatha teaches geometry at a local all-girl school. Here, for the first time in years, she is alone and unsupervised and this new independence forces her to reconsider who she is and what she wants. These realizations dawn on her slowly and over time, which made her ‘journey’ all the more authentic.
Agatha is a quiet and observant person who was drawn to the Church by her faith in God and by her desire to belong. For years her sisterhood with Frances, Therese, and Mary Lucille fulfilled her longing for connection but once she begins living at Little Neon she finds herself growing attached to its various residents in a way her sisters do not.

“How horrible, how merciful, the ways we are, each of us, oblivious to so much of the hurt in the world.”

Much of the narrative focuses on seemingly mundane, everyday moments. Meals, chores, trips to the local shops, car journeys. Yet, many of these scenes carry a surprising weight. These ‘small’ moments are given significance, Agatha, and by extension, us, may come to know someone else better or she finds her mind drifting to her past, her faith, her sisters.
Throughout the course of Agatha’s story, Luchette shows, without telling, the many ways in which the Church disempowers, exploits, and silences its women. Luchette’s commentary on the Church and its hierarchies and inner workings never struck me as didactic. Agatha’s disapproval of the Church does not result in loss of faith, something that I truly appreciated.
Luchette’s meditations on Christianity, sisterhood, loneliness, longing, belonging were truly illuminating. The author’s prose is graceful without falling into sentimentalism. In fact, some of the imagery within the story is quite stark and much of the narrative is permeated by a gentle but felt melancholy. This made those moments of connection and contentment all the more heartfelt and special.
There was a sense of sadness too, one that often resulted in many bittersweet moments. And, this particular line broke my heart as it reminded me of Jude from A Little Life: “I don’t think I have the constitution for it. For being alive.”

Agatha of Little Neon is an exquisite debut novel. The writing is beautiful, the characters compelling, the narrative moving. While it won’t appeal to those who are interested in plot-driven stories, readers who are seeking rewarding character arcs and/or thematically rich narratives should definitely consider picking this up.

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

my rating: ★★★★½

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ps: illustration from NYT

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

When you heard -miş, you knew that you had been invoked in your absence—not just you but your hypocrisy, cowardice, and lack of generosity. Every time I heard it, I felt caught out.

Equal parts cerebral and droll, The Idiot relates the humdrum tribulations of a Turkish-American Harvard freshman. Set in the mid-nineties The Idiot provides an incredibly immersive reading experience that will not appeal to those looking for a more story-driven read. Selin’s narrative lacks momentum, her daily interactions, however peculiar, often serve no real plot function, adding little to her story. Yet, the author’s commitment to commit even the most prosaic of Selin’s thoughts or encounters adds a dimension of realism to her novel. The Idiot is very much characterised by seemingly endless digressions. Selin’s inner monologue often verges on being a stream-of-consciousness, as her mind flutters from thought to thought, often losing herself in asides or navel-gazing. While Selin is certainly naive, she does possess a certain awareness of her own limitations and shortcomings. The first half of the novel recounts her first year at university. Like many other disoriented heroines, aside from her vague aspirations of becoming a writer, Selin is unsure of what she wants to study, let alone who she is or wants to be. At Harvard, she takes classes on literature but seems dissatisfied by the way her professor teaches this subject (her criticism towards academia certainly resonated with me here) and seems to find her Russian class far more interesting. This is partly due to Ivan. He’s Hungarian, a few years older than her, and a mathematics student. Rather by chance, the two begin an email correspondence, one that is full of existential angst or studenty speculations about the meaning of x or y. Their virtual rapport doesn’t translate well in real life and when in the proximity of one another they often are unable to clearly express their ideas or feelings. Selin’s narrative is very much concerned with (mis)communication. Her mind grows increasingly preoccupied with language from its limitations to its potential.
In the latter half of the novel Selin, persuaded by Ivan, spends her summer teaching ESL classes in Hungary. Here she has to confront the possibility that she may have been idealising her and Ivan’s will-they-won’t-they relationship.
The dialogues within this novel ring incredibly true to life. They have this mumblecoreesque quality—awkward pauses, recursiveness, mishearing—that made those scenes come to life. The characters populating the narrative—Ivan, Svetlana, Selin’s roommates and the other ESL teachers—also came across as realistic. While some of their idiosyncrasies are certainly played up for laughs, that the author was able to capture in such minute detail the particular way in which they express themselves made them all the more vivid. At times Selin’s interactions with others do stray into absurdist territories but I found that more often than not I could definitely relate to her more eccentric conversations.
Selin’s narrative is certainly adroit. Interspersed throughout her narration are many literary references as well as detailed descriptions or accounts of whatever other subject she is discussing or thinking about. I found the conversations around West/East to be particularly entertaining. In spite of her supposed ‘idiocy’ Selin makes for a sharp-eyed narrator. Her insights into human behaviour and the academic world, as well as her exploration of the possibilities and failures of language, struck me as being both shrewd and funny.
While we do read of Selin’s innermost feelings Elif Batuman keeps us at a remove from her. In this way, she emphasises the alienation, loneliness, unease, Selin herself experiences throughout the novel. While the title does seem to be a nod at Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, Selin has little in common with Prince Myshkin. If anything, Batuman seems to have a Flaubertian preoccupation with failure. In a manner not too dissimilar from Emma Bovary, Selin’s longing to be with Ivan seemed to be less a result of love than her desire to experience that which she has read in so many books.
Under different hands The Idiot could have been a dull affair. It is Batuman’s deadpan humor and naturalistic storytelling that make The Idiot into a worthwhile read. The novel’s latter half was slightly less enjoyable than the first but I was still for the most part absorbed by Selin’s voice. Her passivity may rub people the wrong way but I found the myriad of uncertainties plaguing her to make all the more believable. If you liked Susan Choi’s My Education you might want to give this a shot.


my rating: ★★★¾

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Writers & Lovers by Lily King

“I don’t write because I think I have something to say. I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse.”

In Writers & Lovers, Lily King portrays an intimate and profoundly heartfelt slice of life that brims with wry humor and precise observations on grief, loneliness, identity, and creativity. This is truly a gem of a novel, a wonderful display of bravura. King seamlessly blends together realism and romanticism, capturing with humor and tenderness Casey’s everyday experiences and struggles.

“[I] think about how you get trained early on as a woman to perceive how others are perceiving you, at the great expense of what you yourself are feeling about them. Sometimes you mix the two up in a terrible tangle that’s hard to unravel.”

Writers & Lovers transports its readers to Massachusetts in the summer of 1997. Casey Peabody, our narrator, is in her thirties and attempting to navigate life after her mother’s sudden death. A recent heartbreak has made her feel all the more lonely and vulnerable, and Casey clearly longs to feel that she belongs and that she has not wasted the last years of her life writing a book that will never be published. While most of her friends have abandoned their creative pursuits—opting for more sensible careers and or starting their own families—Casey remains devoted to her writing and to the idea of one day becoming a published author. After her mother’s death, Casey feels even more unmoored and unsure of herself. She finds herself observing the customers who eat at the restaurant she works for, yearning for a connection of her own. Eventually, Casey grows close to two men, both of them writers, one is famous and a widowed father of two, the other is around her age.

“I have a problem with that sometimes, getting attached. Other people’s families are a weakness of mine.”

This novel gives us a glimpse into a particular period of Casey’s life. From her day-to-day activities and worries to the sorrow she feels at her mother’s death and the anxiety brought by her writing, her job, her college debt, and health concerns. The wry wit that characterises her inner-monologue mitigate the many trials and misadventures, Casey, experiences throughout the course of the novel. While the romantic relationships she forms along the way does play a role in Casey’s journey, this novel is first and foremost about her writing. From the process of creating a story to how it feels to write, Writers & Lovers is very much a love letter to writing. Casey’s reflections on writing reveal her relationship to this craft as well as the different ways in which the public and publishing industry view male and female authors. King’s meditations on life, grief, and creativity demonstrate extreme acuity and insight.

“What I have had for the past six years, what has been constant and steady in my life is the novel I’ve been writing. This has been my home, the place I could always retreat to. The place I could sometimes even feel powerful, I tell them. The place where I am most myself.”

Casey is the novel’s star and I found her voice to be hugely endearing. Despite her dalliances with melancholy, deep-down she remains hopeful that she will publish her novel. King captures Casey’s idiosyncrasies, her quirks, the way she thinks and expresses herself, in such vivid detail that she felt very much like a real person to me. The characters around her too came across as fully fleshed out individuals whose story doesn’t revolve around Casey herself. They are nuanced and multifaceted, regardless of how often they crop up in Casey’s narrative. The restaurant scenes were so realistic that they reminded me of my unfortunate time in F&D (it truly feels like a microcosm).

Writers & Lovers is a deeply affecting and ultimately hopeful story about a woman’s determination to pursue her dreams, in spite of societal pressure and of other people undermining her capabilities as an author or life choices. The author’s prose, the setting, the characters, the subject matter, all of these spoke to me. While reading Writers & Lovers I was struck by a sense of nostalgia while reading this, perhaps due to it being set in the 90s, which is still lingering over me as I write this. I found myself desperate to see how Casey’s story would conclude and unwilling to part ways with her.

“It’s a particular kind of pleasure, of intimacy, loving a book with someone.”

Inspiring, witty, delightfully intertextual, full of heart Writers & Lovers is a truly luminous novel that I can’t wait to read again and again.

PS: the first time I tried reading this I hated it so I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to everyone. At the time I was in the doldrums and took Casey’s romantic expression too seriously. My apologises to the people or so who liked my original review of this but I now love this book (what can i say, i’m a turncoat 🤡).

Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri

my rating: ★★★★★

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

This was me during the majority of this novel:



Packed with science and humor Project Hail Mary makes for a thoroughly entertaining high-stakes interstellar adventure. I’ve never read anything by this author nor have I watched the film adaptation of The Martian…the reason why is because I thought I would find them boring (yeah yeah, boohoo away). So imagine my surprise when I found myself immediately captivated by Project Hail Mary. One of the novel’s strengths lies in fact in its narrator and protagonist, Ryland Grace. He wakes up on an empty spaceship, with two dead bodies and no memory of who he is and how he got there. As he pieces together the puzzle of his identity he recalls the purpose of his mission: to save humanity (easy peasy right?).
Interspersed throughout the narrative are flashbacks that provide a backstory to Grace and the various stages preceding ‘project hail mary’.
In space, Grace faces a seemingly never-ending series of life-or-death hurdles. But, lucky for him, he may not have to do so alone. What follows is a clever and heart-warming storyline about survival (what one is willing to do for the ‘greater good’) and friendship. Speaking of, my favourite aspect of this story was the friendship between Grace and Rocky.
The narrative is chock-full of science & maths & other stuff that went way way way over my head. To be honest, after the ‘what’s 2+2’ question that occurs in the first few pages, well, I was lost (i am not joking). Still, through Grace’s narration, Andy Weir manages to make all these complicated facts, theories, and scientific terms far from boring. Grace’s enthusiasm for science is catching so I found myself just rolling with whatever he was saying or whatever was happing. Something that I could follow more easily was the language aspect of the story, which I found very ingenious.
I usually would give more details about the story but here one of the narrative’s biggest appeals is that we don’t really know what is going on so I advice prospective readers not to read too much about its plot.
Overall this was a highly enjoyable read. The humor, the ideas, the bond between Grace and Rocky, well, they make Project Hail Mary a book worth reading.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

She and Mona and I. The three of us: the Sinner, the Believer, the Confused.”

Since I fell in love with Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love back in 2016, I have made my way through her oeuvre, even her more ‘obscure’ titles such as the overlooked gem that is The Saint of Incipient Insanities. Three Daughters of Eve marks the sixth novel that I’ve read of hers and while it certainly showcases many of her wonderful trademarks—there is a touch of magical realism, a non-linear narrative, tension between past and present, East and West, Turkish politics, a nuanced exploration of faith and modern Muslim identity—it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi that made her other books such compelling reads.

The novel opens in Istanbul where Peri, a married and wealthy woman in her late thirties, is mugged while on the way to a fancy dinner party. Following an altercation with the robber, Peri finds herself thinking back to her time at Oxford University and the part that she played in a ‘scandal’ there.
Chapters detailing Peri’s time at this party are interested with ones delving into her childhood and teenage years in the 1980s and 1990s to her time at Oxford. Once at Oxford Peri meets and becomes close to two other girls: Shirin, a free-spirited British-Iranian girl who is bisexual and kind of counterculture, and Mona, who is a Muslim Egyptian American feminist. Peri grows increasingly intrigued by Professor Azur, who teaches divinity and is idolised by many students because and in spite of his ‘allegedly’ unconventional teaching methods.
One of the novel’s main preoccupation is that of reconciliation: Peri grew up in a divided household. While her mother was a staunch believer, her father was more of a sceptic. Peri felt torn between their different temperaments and beliefs. At Oxford Peri is still uncertain about her own relationship to her faith, so her fascination with Professor Azur is somewhat understandable. While I liked those early sections focusing on Peri’s childhood I do wish that the narrative could have reached her time at Oxford more quickly. By the time we get to her first interaction with Professor Azur we are about 60% into the novel. And this drawn-out build-up to his character does him no favours. When ‘we’ meet him I was underwhelmed. He was not particularly charming or controversial, and the few scenes he was in gave me a rather limited glimpse of his character. To be honest, I found most of the novel’s central characters to be somewhat clichéd. Peri was not particularly sympathetic, her main characteristic is that of being in a perpetual state of confusion, Shirin was the classical rebel, her bisexuality another sign of her subversive nature, while Mona is the classic studious and kind girl. In the scenes set in the present, during the dinner party, Shafak lampoons the Turkish upper-class, emphasizing their shallowness and pettiness. We don’t learn much about Peri’s husband nor of Peri’s life. Her daughter is the typical annoying angsty teenager who is all the rage in ‘adult’ novels.

Still, while I never warmed to Peri or her story, I still found Shafak’s prose to be lovely and I always appreciate her dynamic portrayal of Istanbul. While I did find the novel’s forays into theological debates relatively interesting these did not quite make up for the two-dimensional characters. I think sticking to the one perspective limited the story and I for one would have much preferred it if the story could have also followed Shirin and Mona, rather than solely focusing on Peri. I also felt somewhat cheated by the supposed friendship between Shirin, Mona, and Peri…as Shafak barely scratches the surface of their relationship. Lastly, the whole ‘scandal’ was painfully obvious (I mean, I had an idea of what it would be from reading the summary but I hoped Shafak would not be so predictable).
To be honest, I think that The Saint of Incipient Insanities was a lot more successful in its portrayal of the highs and lows of a disparate group of multicultural university students.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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All’s Well by Mona Awad

“I thought tests led to something. A diagnosis led to a plan, a cure. But tests, I know now, never lead us anywhere. Tests are dark roads with no destinations, just leading to more dark.”

All’s Well makes for an entertaining if somewhat flawed romp. The novel is narrated by Miranda, a theatre professor in her later thirties, who is not doing so well. After falling off a stage during her early acting career Miranda has been left in a state of perpetual pain. Bad surgeries, failed recoveries, inept physiotherapists have all left their mark on her body and Miranda now struggles to even move her right leg and suffers from chronic pain (her back, hip). She’s divorced and has no friends left.

“I was always busy. Doing what? Grace would ask. Getting divorced. Seeing another surgeon, another wellness charlatan. Gazing into the void of my life.”

Not only are her colleagues disbelieving of her pain but even her doctors treat Miranda’s ‘failed’ attempts to improve as something she ought to be blamed for. She decides that her class should stage Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well since not only did she herself act in that play years previously (giving a brilliant performance) but elements within its story (such as helena’s ‘cure’) appeal to her. Alas, her students are not so keen, wanting instead to stage Macbeth. Briana, who always gets parts not because she is talented but because her parents’ generous donations to the college, seems particularly intent on making Miranda’s life difficult. When Briana ‘mutiny’ succeeds Miranda is equal parts furious and despairing. Not only does she have to deal with her body being in constant pain but now she feels that her life has reached its lowest point, with no one believing her about her chronic pain or even respecting her.
At the local pub, she comes across three mysterious men in suits who not only know all about her professional and personal life but they also seem eager to help her. One golden drink later and Miranda blacks out. Wondering whether she is really losing it Miranda goes to rehearsals where after an ‘altercation’ with Briana she finds herself feeling increasingly better. Not only is her pain gone but she can once again move her body with ease. And, it just so happens that she can stage All’s Well That Ends Well after all. So what if Briana has fallen gravely ill? Not all gifts have to come at a price….right?

“Still sick, so we hear. So sad. We are all terribly sad about it, turly. Truly, truly.”

In a similar fashion to Bunny, All’s Well present its readers with an increasingly surreal narrative. From the start, Miranda’s voice is characterised by a note of hysteria, and as the story’s events unfold, her narration becomes increasingly frenzied. She’s paranoid and obsessive, one could even say unhinged. Yet, even after she’s crossed, leapt over even, the line I found myself still rooting for Miranda. I loved that detail about her ‘asides’ being overheard by others.
The latter half of the novel does fall into the same pitfalls as Bunny. The language gets repetitive, the weirdness feels contrived, and we get this surreal sequence that could have been cut short (a joke that goes on for too long ends up being not all that funny).

The narrative’s dark, sometimes offensive, humor brought to mind Ottessa Moshfegh, Jen Beagin, and Melissa Broder. The side characters were a bit unmemorable, Miranda’s colleagues in particular, and I wish more time had spent on getting to know the students (we only learn a bit about three of them) or to see them rehearsing the play. My favourite scenes were the ones with the three suited men, I really loved the way they are presented to us. They gave some serious David Lynch and Shirley Jackson vibes.
I wish that Miranda’s visit to that sadistic doctor could have been left out of the novel as they felt a bit heavy-handed. Then again, this not a nuanced or complex novel. It is absurd, occasionally funny, and mostly entertaining. The novel’s exploration of chronic pain did not feel particularly thought-provoking but there were instances that I could relate to (i happen to suffer from a seasonal autoimmune disease and i’ve had to put up with patronising doctors dismissing the severity of my symptoms). It seemed a bit weird that no one believed Miranda (or that crutches and walking sticks do not exist in this universe so characters are constantly ‘hobbling’ with their leg dragging behind them). Still, we do get spot-on passages like this:

“But not too much pain, am I right? Not too much, never too much. If it was too much, you wouldn’t know what to do with me, would you? Too much would make you uncomfortable. Bored. My crying would leave a bad taste. That would just be bad theatre, wouldn’t it? A bad show. You want a good show. They all do. A few pretty tears on my cheeks that you can brush away. Just a delicate little bit of ouch so you know there’s someone in there. So you don’t get too scared of me, am I right? So you know I’m still a vulnerable thing. That I can be brought down if I need be.”

I appreciate Miranda’s journey, from being the who is wronged to being the one who wrongs others, and I liked her hectic OTT narration. Yes, Awad’s style has this sticky extra quality to it that I am still not 100% fond of but here I found myself buying into it more. If unlike me, you were a fan ofBunny you will probably find All’s Well to be a pretty entertaining read. Those who weren’t keen on Bunny may be better off sampling a few pages before committing to All’s Well (some may find it irritating or unpleasant: “all of them gazing up at my body, lump foul of deformity”). Personally, I found All’s Well to be far more well-executed than Bunny and Miranda makes for a fascinating protagonist.

Side note: I don’t want to nitpick but Italians use ‘primavera’ to say ‘spring’ (if you want to argue about the etymology of ‘primavera’ ‘first spring’ would not be incorrect but Awad does not make that distinction so…).

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

my rating: ★★★¼

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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Readers, I am disappointed.

Plain Bad Heroines was one of my most anticipated 2020 releases…maybe I should have ‘hyped’ it so much. This is certainly an ambitious novel, one that is a few hundred pages too long. There were elements that I liked, but these were ultimately outweighed by my frustration toward the tone of the narrative, the dual storylines, and the characters.
Plain Bad Heroines begins at Brookhants School in 1902 when two students, Clara and ‘Flo’, who happen to be lovers are swallowed by “a fog of wasps”. Another death soon rocks the school, and all of the girls shared a fascination for Mary MacLane’s work (The Story of Mary Maclane & I Await the Devil’s Coming). The narrator, who playfully reminds us of their presence with plenty of direct addresses, footnotes, and asides. We do not know the identity of the narrator, but they posses an almost omniscient knowledge of the events they are recounting.
In the present three young women—all in their twenties—work on a film adaptation on a book called ‘The Happenings at Brookhants’. The book was written by one of these girls, Merritt (a character whom I lowkey hated) who happens to know Elaine Brookhants. Then we have Harper Harper, an up and coming actress/influencer whose personality revolves around her celebrity status, who will play Flo, and Audrey Wells (I actually had to check out her name as I could not remember it on top of my head…that’s how memorable she was) the daughter of a ‘scream queen’ who so far has an acted in B movies and ads.
The section set in the present doesn’t involve these three girls bonding or finding more about what happened at Brookhants. We are never told very much about Merritt’s book, so we don’t know how much they know about the whole affair. This timeline is also not all that concerned with filmmaking. What this storyline cares about is famous people: how they are followed by journalists or fans, how their lives revolve around instagram, how little privacy they have, and of their self-fashioning ways. The three girls do not really along. Their meeting, which happens quite a good chunk into this slow burner of a novel, reads like something that belongs in the realms ofGossip Girl or Scream Queens. And here I was hoping for an actual horror or at least something in realms of American Horror Story (the first seasons of course).
Our not-as-half-as-amusing-as-they-think-they-are narrator never really delves into these characters. It mostly describes what they are saying or doing. It focuses more on their ‘role’ (Harper=celebrity, Audrey=daughter of an 80s horror actress, Merritt=not like other girls writer). Their personalities are…kind of not there. Merritt is the only one with a semblance of one, and it ain’t a good one. The narrative tries really hard to establish Merritt’s ‘prickly’ personality (in a few occasion Merritt says or asks something generic and we are told “Merrit said like Merritt would” or “Merrit asked like Merritt would”). She’s petty, cruel, and domineering. She’s given a Sad Backstory™, so Readers are meant to let her behaviour slide. Except that this Reader could and would not. She seems blissfully unaware of her own privilege (she’s in her early twenties and has published a book, her mother teaches at a university and she has access to the library there, they are adapting her book and want her to be part of the process). She’s also not ‘plain’ looking. Her hair is pink because she’s Not Like Other Girls™ (a random character tells her she has “great fucking hair”) and she is also called hot by Harper. Yet, throughout the course of the book, Merritt acts like a fifteen-year-old girl who is spending too much time on Tumblr. Her pettiness is unwarranted and uncalled for, her jealousy is also over the top (she’s only just met Harper and she already jealous at the possibility of Audrey working alongside her…yet she knows that Harper is already in an open relationship).
Harper is also not plain. She’s famous, beloved, and uber cool. She has short hair, tattoos, smokes, and rides a bike. And of course, she also has a Sad Backstory™. The story mentions some family-related drama, but this a thread that is never truly resolved. Her motivations, desires, fears…who knows? I sure don’t. Maybe she likes Merritt? Maybe not?
While Audrey may not be plain looking, her personality is definitely plain. She doesn’t seem to possess any discernible traits.
Anyway, these three ‘work’ together (there are actually very few scenes that take place while they are working on the film sadly) and weird things start happening (we have wasps, weird weather, and a general heebie jeebies atmosphere).

The storyline set in the past had much more potential. Sadly, it doesn’t focus on Clara or Flo (their lives prior to their peculiar deaths of course) or Brookhants but rather it follows the headmistress of the school who lives in a house nicknamed ‘Spite Manor’. She lives with her lover, who also teaches at Brookhants. This timeline was definitely more Gothic, and there were scenes that struck me as quite atmospheric and well-executed. Sadly however the relationship between the two women was a let down, as it never struck me as the complex love story I was hoping for. Creepy things begin to happen, and they begin to grow apart. The deaths of three of their pupils forces them to question whether the ‘supernatural’ is to be blamed.

I was hoping for a Gothic love story, with some horror undertones. What we actually get is a work that is extremely meta. Some may find the narrator to be amusing, I mostly didn’t. The mystery is the most disappointing aspect of the whole book. It was very anticlimactic, as we simply get a chapter in which our narrator explains things to us. Flo, Clara, and the other girl are unimportant, they function as the Dead Girl trope. We don’t learn anything more about them after the 20% mark or so nor do we learn more about the book Merritt has written about them.
The storyline set in the present never reaches its apotheosis. Nothing major happens, there is no overlapping between the two timelines.
While I loved to see so many queer women, the relationships they have with one another are…a let down. Mean Girls ahoy. We have Merritt who says things like “Significant eye roll” or scenes in which characters take selfies, duplies, even quadruplies (uuuugh). More attention is paid to their hair and clothes than their actual personalities. Harper and Merritt begin flirting as soon as they meet, and later on, when there are more scenes of them together, they mostly bicker. They are sort of physically attracted to each other, but there is no real connection between them (I craved longing, passion, LOVE).
The creepy elements…aren’t all that creepy? If you have spheksophobia you might find this book scary…I mean, wasps do not inspire any real fear in me (I don’t like them, they strike me as kind of mean, in fact, I love CalebCity’s sketch on them). Mary’s writing is extremely camp and I just found it silly. While I could see why the girls back in the 1900s could be enthralled by it…I had a harder time believing that Merritt or Harper could find it as compelling.

Perhaps I approached this book with the wrong expectations (I saw Sarah Waters’ name on the cover so…) but Plain Bad Heroines was not the Gothic novel I was hoping it to be. The ‘past’ timeline was far from being a satisfying historical tale of paranormal suspense (I was hoping for something on the lines of Picnic at Hanging Rock meets A Great and Terrible Beauty). On the plus side: at least it was hella sapphic. I also liked the illustrations by Sara Lautman (I wish there had been more) and the chapter names could be kind funny.

Anyway, just because I didn’t think that this book was the bees knees (or perhaps I should say wasps knees) doesn’t mean that you won’t love it as it may as well be your cup of tea.

 

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars out of 5 stars

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