My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

“Horror’s not a symptom, it’s a love affair.”

My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a magnificently chaotic ode to slasher, one that demonstrates an unparalleled knowledge of the genre, its logic & tropes. I saw quite a lot of reviews describing this as a slow burner, and sì, in some ways Stephen Graham Jones withholds a lot of the chaos & gore for the finale however, Jade’s antics and internal monologue are very much adrenaline-fueled, so much so that I struggled to keep with up with her. Jade’s awareness of and excitement at being in a slasher gives the narrative a strong meta angle, one that results in a surprisingly playful tone, one that belies the gruesome nature of these killings.

Jade Daniels, a teenage girl of Blackfoot descent who lives in Proofrock, Idaho, is in her senior year of high school but has no real plans or aspirations besides obsessing over slashers. She’s the town’s resident loner goth, who lives with her dad, an abusive alcoholic. Jade is angry: at her ne’er-do-well dad, at his friend(s), for being creeps, at authority figures, who don’t really listen to her, at her mum, for bailing on her, and almost everyone & everything Proofrock-related. The only things keeping her going are slashers, and she dedicates her every waking moment to them, to the point that her recollections of their plots, characters, and tropes, become an inextricable part of who she is. Jade has no friends to speak of and is regarded by most of the townspeople as being a bit of a joke and a total ‘weirdo’. The only people who keep an eye out for her are her history teacher, Mr Holmes, and Sheriff Hardy. Jade spends most of her time lurking in the shadows, dying her hair emo colours, creeping around Indian Lake and Camp Blood, the town’s local haunts.

When some magnates from out of town begin developing a piece of land across the lake, Jade senses a change and is proven correct when a body count begins…what’s more, the daughter of one of these uber-wealthy developers, would make the perfect final girl. Jade knows that a slasher cycle is about to begin. Rather than being alarmed by the realization that her reality is now that of a slasher, Jade is freaking excited. She has no plans to stop the slasher but wants to see the story unfold, so she does a lot more lurking about, hoping to figure out the identity of the slasher and witness the slasher cycle from up close. Her obsession with Letha does lead her to reach out to her, but her ‘you are a final girl’ prep talk doesn’t go down well. As I said, Jade’s exhilarated inner monologue is hard to keep up with, however, I was also so taken by her that I was more than happy to follow in her chaotic steps. Jade makes full use of her encyclopaedic knowledge of the slasher (sub)genre, and provides a myriad of references and asides that link what is happening in her town to existing slasher flicks, comparing the slasher’s modus operandi, speculating about their identity and their next victims. Meanwhile Mr Holmes, Sheriff Hardy, and Letha are quite concerned about her and despite the brutal deaths that are happening don’t believe Jade’s slasher theory. Things of course escalate, and Jade finds herself in the middle of a blood bath…

The plot is very much heavy on Jade’s internal, and often inchoate, musings and ramblings about slashers. Having spent most of her life venerating slashers, and hating everything and everyone around her, she’s positively thrilled by the prospect of a slasher going on a killing spree in Proofrock. Sure, her eagerness at other people’s violent and bloody deaths certainly raises a few questions, and people like Letha & co believe that her obsession with slashers and her conviction that a slasher is responsible for the deaths and freaky occurrences that are happening in Proofrock is just a deflection…while they are not wrong Jade isn’t ready to go there, throwing herself into her analysis of ‘her’ slasher.

There were so many elements that I loved in this novel. Despite my almost perpetual confusion at Jade’s references (I went through a horror movie phase aeons ago but have grown out of it since and never really delved into the slasher subgenre) and the breakneck speed of her internal monologue, I was utterly engrossed by her voice. Sure, she’s not what I would call a good or likeable person, however, her penchant for morbidity and her unrelenting slasher enthusiasm made for an endearingly offbeat character. She very much makes the novel. This is how you execute the Not Like Other Girls trope. Readers are made aware of Jade’s striving to be different: her botched hair-dyeing, her trying-hard-to-be-edgy-but-is-actually-just-grubby look, her commitment to playing the town’s goth girl, her sometimes willful and sometimes unintentional disregard of social niceties and norms…Jade really seems to make an effort to be perceived this way, to be seen as the slasher-obsessed girl and a ‘weirdo’. The end result is that Jade is different, not better than others, just different. Now, for all her self-dramatizing we can also clearly see that Jade’s edgy girl persona has become an inextricable aspect of who she is. Whether she became this way due to trauma, or whether her commitment to the role was such that she eventually became that person, it’s up to the readers’ interpretation. I for one read Jade as being a mix of those things. She grew up in a very unstable environment, with no support system to speak of, one of her parental figures is an abusive drunkard, the other was not only complicit in said abuse but eventually left Jade to fend for herself. Understandably, given her lack of control in her life, the violent logic that operates in slashers would appeal to her. However, similarly to Shirley Jackson’s alienated and alienating (anti)-heroines I wonder whether different circumstances would really have made a difference for Jade…
Anyway, her very presence in the story is fantastic for a number of reasons. She knows that her ‘existing’ in this slasher is an ‘aberration’: not only does she know too much about slashers but people like her do not usually feature in these movies. She flits between wanting to see sh*t hit the fan and wanting the slasher to well…slash her. One way or another, she’s hyped for it and not quite the screaming and scared side character that usually gets killed off in these films. Also, Jade’s intensity and morbidity reminded me of Merricat and Wednesday Addams, and similarly to them, she finds that other people are put out by what they perceive to be her strange behaviour and demeanour. When Jade begins talking or thinking about slashers and revisiting local horror lore, she seems wholly unaware of other people and the world around her. Yet, the other characters react in a very realistic wtf is her deal way that results in many surprisingly funny scenes. Jade’s zealousness over slashers also brought to mind, I kid you not, Patrick Bateman, specifically that scene with the card (where his overreaction is so extreme that he begins to sweat) and his music monologues. The conversational tone of the narrative adds a level of immediacy to the story and really work in capturing Jade’s wry voice. There were elements of absurdism that brought to mind The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher.

As things get bloodier and bloodier we do see a shift in Jade, but I appreciated that her character development ultimately remains very subtle and she remains her slasher-obsessed self. Learning more about her past and her trauma does ‘contextualize’ some of her behaviours, however, but we can’t quite reason away her slasher-mania as being the inevitable result of that trauma. Her ambiguousness made her all the more interesting to read about. While we learn all about what she thinks of slashers—its precursors & incarnations, its hits and flops, its tropes—much about her remains inaccessible to us. I didn’t understand her most of the time, and incongruently enough that made me like her even more.

The writing and atmosphere in My Heart Is a Chainsaw super solid. The writing has this snappy, energetic quality to it that not only really amplifies Jade’s slasher-obsession but it really adds to the action & otherwise murder-y sequences. The prose was also very effective when it came to pacing, as Jones’ rapid sentences really add fuel to the storyline. The atmosphere too is great. The narrative’s self-referential nature actually ends up adding to the story’s slasher ambience, as Jones’ is able to not only pay homage to slashers through his storyline (through’s jade’s non-stop references and asides about slashers to the actual implementation of the genre’s conventions) but he also makes this slasher his own, repeatedly subverting our expectations.

My Heart Is a Chainsaw was a riot. We have a gritty storyline, plenty of humour (from those ah-ah-that’s-funny moments to humor that is more on the lines of that’s-kind-of-fcked-up-so-why-am-i-laughing), and a protagonist whose flabbergasting antics I was equal parts obsessed and appalled by. Jones’ really captures Jade’s loneliness and anger, the long-lasting consequences of abuse, the complex ways trauma manifests into one’s behavior & personality…and of course, given the book’s focus on slashers and on being a slasher, Jade’s story heavily deals with revenge and violence…
I’m really looking forward to the next instalments…(am i the only one who read jade as queer-coded?)

ps the first time i tried reading this i wasn’t feeling it and dnfed it early on so i can see why the book’s overall ratings aren’t sky high…still, if you are in the mood to read extensively about slashers or don’t mind a morbid and chaotic af protagonist, i think you should definitely give this one a chance.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

Sweet Days of Discipline is a slim dagger of a novel.

Written in a prose so sharp it will cut you, Sweet Days of Discipline is a work of startling and enigmatic beauty, a study in contradictions: order and chaos, sublimity and abjection, clarity and obfuscation, illusion and reality.

Fleur Jaeggy is in absolute command of her craft so that not a word is wasted or out-of-place. Jaeggy exercises formidable control over her language, which is restrained to the point of severity. By turns glacial and melancholic, Jaeggy’s epigrammatic style is dauntingly ascetic. Yet, her direct and crisp prose belies the complexity of her subject. I struggle to pinpoint what this book is even about. Our narrator is consumed by desire but the way she expresses and articulates said desire is certainly atypical. Even upon a second reading, I find myself enthralled by her mysterious and perplexing relationship with Frédérique. Ultimately, it is the obscure nature of their bond that makes me all the more eager to revisit this novel once more.

Our unnamed narrator’s recounting of her schooldays is pervaded by a dream-like quality. Torpor seems to reign supreme at Bausler Institut, an all-girls boarding school in the Appenzell. While the girls’ days are in fact dictated by routine, a sense of idleness prevails. Our narrator, who has spent most of her youth in boarding school, coldly observes the people around her. Her detachment and contempt towards her peers and the rarefied world she’s part of perfectly complement the staccato rhythm of Jaeggy’s prose. When Frédérique is enrolled in her school, she finds herself captivated by her. Her infatuation with Frédérique however doesn’t lead to happiness. Our narrator wants to best Frédérique, to ‘conquer’ her. She is both in awe and jealous of Frédérique’s apathy towards the students, the teachers, and their surroundings. The two eventually begin spending time together but our narrator cannot or is unwilling to express her feelings.
What follows is a taut tale of juxtaposition. The orderly world of the school is contrasted with the inner turmoil of youth. The narrator’s clipped commentary is at once hyperreal and unearthly. While the narrator does try to control her feelings, she’s at times overcome by their sheer intensity. Her love for Frédérique is also inexorably entwined with hatred, as she finds the idea of being bested, of being under anyone’s thumb, unbearable. Our narrator is unforgiving in her detailed recollection, her harshness and cruelty did at times take me by surprise. Yet, her longing for Frédérique and her unwillingness to bend for that love made her into a compelling character. As the narrative progresses she and Frédérique begin to lose sight of one another, and as adolescence gives way to adulthood one of them spirals out of control.
The English translation is superb. I’ve read this both in the original Italian and in English and I have to say that I don’t prefer one over the other. If anything Tim Parks, the translator, got rid of some rather outdated and insensitive terms in the original. The prose in the Italian version is also, to my ears at least, even more, stringent and stark than its English counterpart (maybe this is due to a combination of the slightly old-fashioned italian + my being so used to reading in english that books in italian will inevitably make for a more exacting reading experience).

Sweet Days of Discipline makes for a lethal read. Jaeggy’s austere prose is a study in perfectionism. Yet, despite her unyielding language and her aloof, occasionally menacing, narrator, Sweet Days of Discipline is by no means a boring or emotionless read. The intensity of our narrator’s, often unexpressed, feelings and desires result in a thrilling and evocative read.

my rating: ★★★★★

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

And so my latest TRC re-read has come to an end. What an outstanding series. Truly. I cannot even begin to articulate how much this series means to me and how much I love it.

In this finale, the stakes are higher than ever and a lot of things Stiefvater has hinted at in the previous instalments come to the fore. The Raven King makes for a bittersweet read. While Stiefvater’s delightful humor is still present, there are several scenes that are just brimming with sadness & melancholy. In a way, this mirrors the shift in tone and reflects how far the characters have come since their early days in TRC. That is not to say that they still don’t make mistakes or say the wrong things, but they have at least learnt how to communicate more with one another. Their experiences have made them more mature, and witnessing this ‘growth’ makes for such a rewarding experience.

With the exception of The Dream Thieves, which is pure gasoline, the other volumes in this series are characterised by a calmer pace. In The Raven King this too changes as the narrative is very much action-driven. Stuff just keeps happening and at times I missed the more tranquil pacing of TRC or BLLB. Still, I was very much hooked on the story. We get some great reveals and character development. Stiefvater’s storytelling is always on point, from the atmosphere she creates through the use of repetition to the vividly rendered setting of Henrietta (and Cabeswater, Monmouth Manufacturing, 300 Fox Way, the Barns)
As per usual, I adore the Gangsey. Gansey is going through a lot. While he’s certainly good at pretending that he’s control, there are various things that happen here that threaten his ‘everything is going swell act’. Adam is still learning more about his abilities but without Persephone there to guide him, he has to learn to trust his friends and himself. Blue’s reunion with her long-absent father is not particularly ideal as he refuses to talk to anyone. Ronan…my poor boy.
These characters truly are the heart of this series. I did find myself wanting more scenes of them together, and part of me resented that we get less of them in favour of introducing Henry. I like him, I do. I can tell Stiefvater cares for him and wants us to feel the same. The thing is, I would have preferred it if he’d been introduced earlier on in the series or if he’d played a more minor role. His presence in the narrative makes it so that we get less of Noah and less of Adam&Gansey or Ronan&Gansey…I also found myself missing the OG quest. In the previous books, Glendower is very much the goal and Gansey often talks about history and myths…here instead Glendower seemed an afterthought almost that only comes into play towards the end. But these things were fairly minor things.

A lot happens in The Raven King, so much so that we don’t really have the time to process some of the more heart-wrenching scenes (if you’ve read this you know). As I was reluctant to say goodbye to these characters part of me wishes that we could have had a longer epilogue…still, I’m extremely grateful to Stiefvater for what she has accomplished with TRC.
While TRK isn’t my favourite book in this series I still found it to be a fantastic read. I am in awe of this series.
I’m so happy that Stiefvater went on to write Call Down the Hawk and Mister Impossible. While the tonal shift may not appeal to all, personally, I think it really works in its favour.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

aaaand Cosby’s done it again!

“Tears ran from his eyes and stung his cheeks. Tears for his son. Tears for his wife. Tears for the little girl they had to raise. Tears for who they were and what they all had lost. Each drop felt like it was slicing his face open like a razorblade.”

S. A. Cosby’s sophomore novel is just as gritty and gripping as his adrenaline-fueled debut, Blacktop Wasteland. Once again Cosby pairs unrelenting action with a razor-sharp social commentary, but instead of heists and drag races, this time around he presents his readers with an unputdownable tale of revenge.
In Razorblade Tears we follow ex-cons Ike and Buddy Lee. After their sons, a married couple, are murdered and the police’s investigation leads to no arrests or even suspects, these two fathers decide to take justice into their own hands. Ike, who is Black, has worked hard to leave his criminal past behind him, however, the grief and guilt he feels at his son’s murder push him to take up those ways again. Ike’s strained relationship with his son intensifies his need to make things right, or in this case, to find and kill those responsible for his murder. Buddy Lee, who is white and a wildcard, also had a difficult relationship with his boy, Derek. Despite their differences, Ike and Buddy Lee are united by this. Both men refused to accept their sons’ sexualities, and while they did not entirely break contact with them they refused to see them or when they did resorted to homophobic slurs or remarks.
It is certainly impressive that Cosby can make you care for and root for Ike and Buddy Lee. These two men have blood on their hands and a body count. In trying to ascertain who knows what about their sons’ deaths, they readily resort to violence and threats. Ike’s homophobia seems deeply ingrained and the way he thinks about his son’s ‘gayness’ is alarming indeed. Buddy Lee at times seems very much a ‘red-neck’, whose vocabulary is offensive indeed. And yet Cosby succeeded in making me feel 100% invested in them and their quest for vengeance. Part of it is that they are nuanced. They are not reduced to their negative characteristics, nor are their actions idealised or condoned.
Their dynamic was truly entertaining. To begin with, they don’t get on all that much but the closer they come to discovering the truth behind their sons’ murders, the more they grow accustomed to each other. While their banter is certainly amusing I found their more sombre exchanges to be even more compelling. For different reasons, they both pushed their sons away, and their shared guilt creates a sense of camaraderie between the two.

Brutal, raw, ultimately heart-rendering Razorblade Tears presents its readers with a tale that is propelled by grief, guilt, and revenge. In their pursuit for retribution, this unlikely duo comes head-to-head with a biker gang made up of white supremacists who may be involved in their sons’ murders.
Their investigation, which starts mildly enough before taking a sharp turn into edge-of-your-seat territory is punctuated by bullet-riddled showdowns and tense confrontations. Along the way, the two fathers are repeatedly made to confront their past—and current—actions, in an impossible attempt to reconcile themselves with their dead sons. I appreciated how unflinching Cosby is when addressing Ike and Buddy Lee homophobia and that their sons’ sudden deaths doesn’t immediately result in them saying ‘mea culpa I did wrong’. When questioning the people close to their sons or scouting their local hangouts, the duo comes face-to-face with lgbtq+ people and culture, which forces them to further interrogate their relationships with their sons, specifically the harm brought about by their own prejudices and unwillingness to accept them.

Cosby’s writing is phenomenal. His dialogues are snappy, his metaphors slick (and often surprisingly funny in a fucked up kind of way), his descriptions on point. The sense of place and atmosphere too are incredibly strong and perfectly complement the narrative’s gritty tone.

The one thing that kept this from a 5-star rating was the on-the-page presence of lgbtq+ characters. The boys are dead, the people our pair interrogates early on do not appear later on in the narrative, and the one character who could have had more of an actual role, well, when she finally does make an appearance this is a rushed one and she’s soon sidelined (with a cis character speaking on her behalf). Still I thought that his commentary and portrayal of marginalised people was spot on.

Razorblade Tears has consolidated my already high opinion of this author. His debut was no fluke and Cosby delivers an exhilarating tale that on one hand is violent and brutal, and on the other, well, it will break your heart. Cosby highlights so, if you are looking for a thriller with a bite, look no more.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole.”

The Goldfinch is an emotional rollercoaster spanning 700+ pages and proof that literary lightning can indeed strike twice. Fully deserving of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Goldfinch is a triumph of a novel, one that I will have a hard time reviewing (so bear with me & my ramblings).
Donna Tartt seamlessly weaves together a Dickensian bildungsroman with a suspenseful and thrilling descent into the criminal underbelly of the art world (forgeries & thefts ahoy!) that boasts the same exquisite prose as her debut novel.
This Odyssean coming-of-age is narrated by Theo Decker. At 13 Theo lives alone with his mother after his father, a temperamental alcoholic, decided to take up and leave New York. After Theo gets in trouble at his school he and his mother are required to attend a ‘conference’. On the way there, the two end up in a museum, for what should have been a quick gander. When a bomb explodes in the museum many die, including Theo’s mother. Once Theo awakes from the explosion he comes across a dying old man who urges him to take Carel Fabritius’s ‘The Goldfinch’. Theo, probably suffering from a head concussion & shock, does as he’s bid, takes the painting.

“The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up.”

When Theo is informed of his mother’s death he’s devastated. He has no idea where his deadbeat father is and his grandparents have made it clear that they aren’t keen on having him stay with them. Theo is temporarily placed in the custody of his childhood friend’s family, the Barbours, a hideously wealthy family. Later on, his father re-emerges and whisks away from New York to Las Vegas. Here Theo is left very much to his own devices, his father—who is clearly involved in some dodgy stuff—and his girlfriend do not seem particularly fond or interested in him and his upbringing. Theo becomes friends with Boris who, like him, does not have a stable home life. Together the two experiment with alcohol and drugs and commit petty crimes.
We follow Theo until his late-teens and then we encounter him again as a young(ish) adult who becomes entangled in some dangerous business that force him to fully confront the kind of person that he has become.

What to say? My heart went out to Theo. Yes, later in life he’s a bit of an asshole. That doesn’t cancel out all of his other qualities and complexities. Those sections recounting his boyhood are truly heartbreaking. The despair he feels at his mother’s death, the guilt, grief, longing, self-hatred, and loneliness that seem to punctuate his days are captured with exacting precision. His meditations on life, art, the people around him are striking, and I appreciated how nuanced a person he was. His relationship with Boris was one of the highlights of his narrative. It is incredible just how good Tartt is at making you care for people who are just not that nice. The dynamic between Theo and Boris is intense and messy (possibly more than a friendship?) and despite their different temperaments their similar circumstances and self-destructive tendencies fortify their bond (they are definitely good at enabling each other).

His mother’s death haunts Theo throughout his life, and we see just how his survivor’s guilt affects and influences him. To Theo, the painting of ‘The Goldfinch’ is irrevocably connected to her death, which is why he’s unable to part ways with it. He’s also hopelessly enamoured with Pippa, who he first glimpsed in the museum on that fateful day. She’s one of the few people who understands the guilt that plagues him so. Alas, he comes to idealise in a not so healthy way.
His story is filled with stops-and-starts, addiction and suicidal ideation & tendencies punctuate his life, and as an adult, he seems already to have taken a dubious path.

I loved this novel. Tartt’s writing is divine. Her prose is simultaneously elegant and exhilarating, her characterization, dialogues, descriptions, are all truly exemplary. She brings to life the people, places, and situations she writes of in a way that is almost too real, so that when forces outside of my control (the end of my lunch break or commute.) put an end to my reading time, well, it felt like a rude awakening.

As I said, this novel is long. A brick some would say (the hardback edition could seriously injure someone). Yet, I breezed through this. Not because it was easy reading, quite the contrary. Tartt’s erudite references and elaborate storytelling deserve attention and consideration, one cannot just rush their way through her books. And yet, I had a hard time putting this book down. Theo’s voice won me over so that I too found myself mirroring whatever he was feeling (usually sadness and or anxiety, yay). I didn’t want to let go of him, and I was actually sad once I reached the novel’s conclusion.
While Tartt doesn’t go light on her characters, I could tell just how much she cares for them. The people inhabiting her novels may not necessarily be good or kind but by the end, I always end up loving them (despite or because of their many many flaws). Even characters I want to hate with the whole of my being are not wholly unredeemable.

Tartt’s incisive reflections on human nature, life, grief, love, fate, art, death, struck me for their poignancy and thoughtfulness. The rich cast of characters is just as deserving of attention as Theo himself. Regardless of the part, they play in Theo’s life, whether they are a friend, acquaintance, or a complete stranger, they are depicted in such vivid detail that they do not feel like fictional characters but real people.
And Theo, ragazzo mio! On the one hand, many of his feelings, states of mind, motivations, fears & desires are rendered with clarity, on the other, well, the boy is not only traumatised but incredibly repressed and prone to self-deception. So, there are many moments when we cannot trust entirely his narration. His alcohol consumption and drug use also add a murky quality to certain events or portions of his story. Theo’s intentional and unintentional untrustworthiness, in many ways, added an element of ambiguity to his narration and has us relying, more often than not, on other characters in order to discern the truth about certain people/events.
I was captivated by Theo’s story, the many lows and few highs of his adolescence and adulthood, and by the motifs dotting his narrative. The novel is also full of juxtaposition: the classic vs modern references, the bustling streets of New York, always buzzing with activity, vs the desolate landscapes of Las Vegas, the Barbours’ apartment with Theo’s father house. Like TSH, one of the novel’s main concerns is beauty (the power that beautiful things have on us, the way we feel about that which is beautiful to us, the things we are willing to do for beauty or to have what we think beautiful).

Beautiful, moving, wonderfully chaotic, a work of art. The Goldfinch is all of these things and so much more.

ps: curiously enough the first time I read it I only gave it 3 stars…and I can’t really explain why this time around I loved it so much that even days later I find myself thinking about Theo & Boris.

my rating: ★★★★★

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History lives rent free in my head. It is a masterpiece. A thing of rare beauty. A tour de force. A literary triumph.

“One likes to think there’s something in it, that old platitude amor vincit omnia. But if I’ve learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.”

Written in an incandescent prose The Secret History is a ferociously erudite and delightfully mischievous work of staggering genius. I have read it twice now and each time it has blown me away. Reading this novel makes for an all-consuming, almost feverish, experience.
It is impossible for me to precisely articulate or express what The Secret History means to me. To speak of it as a work of fiction almost pains me. But, as I have chosen to review all of the novels that I read, I will give it a shot. Bear with me (and my ramblings).

“Four boys and a girl, they were nothing so unusual at a distance. At close range, though, they were an arresting party—at least to me, who had never seen anything like them, and to whom they suggested a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities.”

The Secret History begins with a murder. Richard Papen, our narrator, looks back to the events that lead him and four other students to murder Bunny, a fellow student and ‘friend’ of theirs. That Tartt’s prologue reveals the identity of the victim and perpetrators of the murder. As Richard looks back into this defining period of his life (the only ‘story’ he “will ever be able to tell”) Tartt slowly unravels the events and motivations that led five people to murder as well as the ramifications that this murder has on their lives and their relationship with each other and themselves.
In Plano, California, alienated from his parents and his peers, twenty-year-old Richard yearns to leave behind the trappings of his working-class existence. One day he comes across a prospectus for a liberal arts college in Vermont and, against his parents’ wishes, goes on to enrol himself there. At Hampden College, a painfully class-conscious Richard lies. A lot. He fabricates a ‘better’ kind of past and identity for himself, hoping that people will perceive him as he wishes to be perceived. It almost seems inevitable that a romantic like him would fall under the spell of a certain ‘clique’. These five students are the only ones to be enrolled in professor Julian Morrow’s classes, who mainly teaches classical studies. Richard is intrigued by their shared air of mystery. They don’t tend to mingle with other students and seem to belong to an entirely separate world. And Richard wants in on it. When he eventually gets accepted into Julian’s classes he becomes further intoxicated by this clique.
In this first section of Richard’s story, the narrative has this almost fairytale-esque quality. Julian appears to Richard as a mythical sort of creature, the kind of mentor-like figure that would not be out of place in a monomyth. Soon Tartt however subverts our expectations by revealing just how fatal Richard’s misperception of his new reality is. The rarefied world Henry, Francis, the twins, and Bunny belong to may not be as the Elysium Richard envisioned it to be. The college itself is not the ‘enlightened’ haven he’d thought it would be. The more time he spends with his new acquaintances the more he becomes aware of just how dangerously disconnected they are from their everyday modern world (they certainly seem to belong to another time).
As the narrative progresses, we learn just how disillusioned all of these characters are by their realities. This disillusionment leads them to apotheosize bygone eras, and, in the case of Richard, idealise their surroundings.
Fraying alliances, secrets, and betrayals increase the tension between the characters, heightening the drama.
As we learn of the circumstances that led to Bunny’s murder our view of Henry & Co. will begin to change. Their hunger for the inaccessible and desire to transcend their reality, perhaps to access sublimity or a higher plane of existence, leads them to cross—jump over even—quite a few lines. Yet, however flawed they reveal themselves to be (let us say, they seem to have more vices than virtues), I remained transfixed by them.
Their lifestyles, while certainly extravagant, are not all that desirable. Considering their poor diets, their heavy drinking and smoking, and, at least in the case of Richard, that they are sleep deprived, it is a miracle that they don’t get scurvy or worse.
Tartt doesn’t glamorise their actions and Bunny’s murder takes its toll on them. Between the anxiety of being discovered and the guilt that they (some of them) experience it seems inevitable that things take a turn for the worst. The disintegration of their friendship is hard to read but I was unable to tear my eyes away.

That Richard remains on the outskirts of this group makes Henry & Co. all the more intriguing. Henry and Camilla make for extremely ambivalent figures. Because we know as much as Richard does, we often don’t know what truly motivates these characters, yet, despite how ambiguous they could be, Tartt is capable of capturing those idiosyncrasies that make them who they are. We learn more about Francis, Charles, and even Bunny, because Richard spends more time with them. While Richard’s relationship with them is far from straightforward I found their interactions to be utterly engrossing. I definitely have a bias when it comes to Francis and I could probably spend hours talking about how much I love him. Really. Just thinking about him makes me emotional (i am aware that he is far from perfect but that is also why i like him so much).


Richard, unreliable narrator par par excellence, is an interesting character in his own right. He reminded me ever so slightly of the narrator from Tobias Wolff’s Old School and he even seems to have a touch of the ‘dreaded’ Emma Bovary (longing 24/7).
Tartt demonstrates extreme acuity in the way she conveys Richard’s inner turmoil, his loneliness and his desires. He, like the others, has his fair share of flaws but I found his voice utterly relatable. The boy really has very few people that care about him. His parents seem to act as if he doesn’t exist, his professors ignore or are wholly unaware that he is teetering on the very brink of mental and physical collapse (think of his hellish winter break). Another reason why I find him so compelling is that he’s surprisingly supportive of those who have made him feel like an outsider (i am an extremely petty person so, kudos to him). Given the ‘otherness’ he feels—and is made to feel—I thought it quite fitting that after he cuts his hair he compares himself to Arthur Rimbaud (“Je est un autre” & all that jazz).
The love he believes he feels for Camilla seemed very much a result of his “fatal flaw”. That she remains a mystery to him enables him to project his own vision of ‘Camilla’ onto her. Richard seems to regard her as an Estella of sorts, the kind of ethereal beauty that so frequently appears in Victorian novels. Also, is this boy in denial about his sexuality (he’s attracted to her androgynous appearance, her “boy-feet”, her “slightly masculine grace of posture”). In many ways, Camilla is the classic object of unattainable desire (or as our boy lacan would have it “objet petit a”). As long as his love remains unrequited Richard can remain in a perpetual state of longing. Weirdly enough, he finds fulfilment in the perpetuation of his non-fulfilment.

This novel is populated by morally dubious characters who frequently transgress social norms. Not everyone is happy to do so and much of the narrative is about the guilt, anguish, anxiety, and sorrow that result from these ‘bad’ choices.
The dialogues are by turns sharp, funny, illuminating, and obscure. Many of the exchanges that occur within this narrative filled me with unease, apprehension. Thanks to Richard’s foreshadowing we often know that someone is hiding something or that things are going to take a turn for the worst.
The unflagging tension created by the ongoing drama between them kept me at the edge-of-my-seat (even during my re-read). Their chemistry is off-the-charts. From their moments of kinship to their devastating fights. Witnessing the slow dissolution of this group filled me with dread. But how real these ‘characters’ feel to me! Just thinking about them makes my heart ache.

Tartt enriches Richard’s story with plenty of literary and mythical allusions. From the narrative’s underlying Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy to those beguiling descriptions of the ancient world. The constant blurring of reality and dreams and of truth and illusion makes this novel all the more enigmatic and the kind of book that can be read time and again (i already want to re-read it).
The Secret History is a sharp and achingly beautiful novel. Tartt presents her readers with an unforgettable examination of morality, self-knowledge, loneliness, and privilege. The Secret History is a propulsive psychological thriller, a piercing examination of the folly of youth, a cautionary tale against falling for Beauty, for splendid illusions.
Tartt’s scintillating style, which is at once elegant and playful, is truly hypnotising. I love how detailed she is in describing Richard’s states of mind as well as her vivid descriptions of his surroundings. She often hones in on seemingly small details that end up making a certain scene or moment seem all the more real. But I also loved those moments of almost surreal humor, those brief reprieve in an otherwise unrelentingly intense narrative.
What makes this novel all the more intoxicating is that readers end up falling for what the narrative is warning us against. We idealise the characters and their circumstances, we are distracted by the sharp imagery and dazzling aesthetics, so much so that we end up overlooking just how prosaic and depressing certain portions of the story are (pretty sure richard snorts “an awful lot of cocaine in the parking lot of burger king”…yeah).
Anyway, as you may have guessed if you are reading this review, I fucking love this novel. Tartt spent 9 years writing it and it sure paid off.
I am, and likely always be, in awe of it.

SMALL ASIDE:
It was my mother who first spoke to me about Donna Tart. Her rather battered paperback copy of The Secret History was a fixture on her bookshelves. She first read it in 1994 (since then she has read it many many many times) when she was about to give birth to my older brother (to quote her: “it got me through labour”) who is exactly the kind of person you imagine him to be. Case in point: he is currently reading the Bāburnāmathe, the memoirs of Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muhammad Bābur (naturally, i asked what she was reading while she was pregnant with me and it turns out it would have likely been a children’s book…which explains a lot).
A few months before I read The Secret History for the first time I recall overhearing my mum and brother talking about it with such reverence as to suggest that what they were discussing was not ‘merely’ a work of fiction but real people and events. I was intrigued, of course, but it was only after I was suffering from an acute case of book hangover (i’d just finished the raven cycle) that my mother recommended The Secret History to me.
I won’t lie, I was worried that it would go way over my head. At that time, I did not have a degree. After dropping out of my Italian high school at age 16 I had managed to complete a rather slapdash qualification in an art and design course, which was based in Swindon—a place described in this novel as being the ‘arsehole’ of the UK—and mostly consisted in us—the students—being left to our devices in order to create whatever art or non-art we wanted to create. Unlike my brother, who spent his childhood and teens reading historical tomes or learning about historical figures or ancient cultures, I never had much interest in those things. All of this is to say that I had very little knowledge of ancient history or the western literary canon, let alone anything related to philosophy. So, I was amazed by how little my lack of knowledge in these things proved to be a hindrance in my reading experience of The Secret History.
1.5 degree and 5 years later I am able to understand certain passages or motifs better but to be honest I can’t say that this has affected the way I feel about this novel. I also used google a lot because I don’t know latin and while I may know more about Nietzsche that 20-year-old me did I still know next-to-nothing about Plato and the other Greek lads and zilch about Buddhist traditions.

SECOND ASIDE:
Look, I like a lot of books and films that fall into the dark academia subgenre but I have come to despise the whole ‘dark academia aesthetics’ trend. If you read this novel and all you get out of it is tweed jackets and libraries…you are as bad—if not worse—than Richard (let’s glamorise this extremely elitist world…yay).
This was made by lucy and boy if it isn’t spot on:

my rating: ★★★★★

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Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin


That I choose to re-read this confirms that I do indeed have masochistic tendencies.

“I did not want him to know me. I did not want anyone to know me.”

In a striking prose, James Baldwin unfurls a disquieting tale of cowardice and self-deception. In many ways, Giovanni’s Room reads as a confession of sorts, even if our narrator does like to deny his own culpability.
This short novel is set in 1950s Paris when David, an American ex-pat, is idling away his time, drinking and partying with people he generally looks down upon, in an effort not to keep at bay thoughts about his past or future. The girl he is sort of seeing is away in Spain so an unsupervised and penniless David begins to frequent an acquaintance of his, Jaques, an older gay man who he finds somewhat repulsive but is happy to exploit. One day the two find themselves in a local haunt bar where they meet Giovanni, the new barman. While David seems initially unwilling to act on his impulses, he becomes involved with Giovanni and the two begin living together in Giovanni’s grubby apartment. Within these walls, David feels oppressed and constricted by an identity he is unwilling and or unable to accept. The American vision of masculinity and normalcy his father and his upbringing have inculcated in David an uncompromising notion of manhood. While he clearly desires Giovanni he cannot articulate his feelings towards him, as to do so would be to embark on a path of no return. When Hella, his sort-of girlfriend, returns to Paris, David is desperate to leave behind Giovanni and the kind of lifestyle he associates with Jaques and his circle, even if it means denying himself the person he actually desires.

While the narrative does deal with love, it is not a love story. This novel is as romantic as say Madame Bovary (that is to say, not at all). More often than not David seems to resent Giovanni and is repulsed when glimpsing his vulnerabilities. Most of the characters inhabiting this story are either unlikable or straight-up grotesque. In a way, this novel reminded me of Death In Venice. We have a main character who seems to perceive his surroundings as being sinister, alienating. David’s vitriol towards those who frequent Guillaume’s bar certainly points to his internalised homo/biphobia. In order to conform to his heteronormative society, David finds himself turning away from someone in need. Or that’s how David justifies his own cowardice. It will be up to readers to decide just how culpable he is. While I did not not sympathize with David, I did despise him. Similarly, I disliked Jaques, Guillaume, and almost everybody else really. Giovanni is, unsurprisingly, the one I felt for the most, which is saying something given his less than poor taste remarks on women (after claiming that he respects them he says that wives do need knocking about now and again, and implies that women are inferior to men). Yet, it is because Baldwin captures Giovanni’s anguish and desperation in such excruciating detail that I was unable to write him off as a misogynist asshole.

David’s story seems permeated by physical and moral squalor. Even emotions like desire and love acquire an unpleasant quality, as they are often twinned with their counterparts (repugnance, hatred). The atmosphere of Paris itself once again recalls that of Venice in Mann’s novel, and even George Orwell’s memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London. Its beauty is spoilt by the ugliness of its people and by the squalidness of places such as Giovanni’s apartment.
To call this story depressing or bleak seems an understatement. Yet, Baldwin’s superb prose manages to belie David’s internal abjection.

Now, as much as I am blown away by this novel, I do have to address Giovanni’s often hilarious ‘Italianess’. Dio mio. This is the kind of Italian character that I often see in fiction by English authors. He is the classic passionate Mediterranean who sometimes speaks of himself in the third person, makes remarks about beating women because that’s how Italian men are (a few months ago i worked with someone who claimed, to my face, that all italian men are sexist, and that italy is as ‘bad’ as india…to say that her statement was problematic on multiple fronts would be an understatement), and when reminiscing about his village he says that he wanted to stay there forever and “eat much spaghetti and drink much wine” (it’s a me, giovanni!). Still, despite these cartoonish aspects of his character, I did find myself buying into him.

This is a terrific piece of fiction, one that is guaranteed to make you anxious, sad, and uneasy (possibly even queasy). Yet, Baldwin’s fantastic prose and his tremendous psychological insight are bound to enthral.

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Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

“I used to believe the house was haunted. Really, it was the other way around; the house haunted me.”

Turns out I actually love this now…?!

The first time I read this I was not impressed but this second time around…well, I loved it. It isn’t an easy book and I can sort of see why it could come across as frustrating…but if you are in the mood for a dreamy and ambiguous Gothic-y read you should consider giving Catherine House a go. If you are a fan of authors such as Shirley Jackson and Helen Oyeyemi, you will probably ‘vibe’ with this book. Speaking of vibes, I saw someone describe this as a book all about vibes and I have to agree. There is a strong focus on the atmosphere of Catherine House and Thomas pays particular attention to the smells and flavours Ines encounters in its walls. Throughout the narrative Thomas juxtaposes beauty with decay, and there were plenty of lush descriptions contrasting the two. Nature too has a role in this story and I loved how Ines describes the seasons.
I loved Ines and her ‘sideways’ perspective. Thomas beautifully articulates Ines’ conflicting feelings about Catherine House and I truly felt for her. I also loved her friendship group, often their scenes together eased some of the tension from the narrative.
Basically, this second time I loved everything about this novel: the eerie setting, the ominous nature of plasm, Ines, her friends, the beautiful writing, the dreamlike atmosphere…
I can’t wait to read this again (and maybe write a more cohesive review).

old review:

without its merits Catherine House is an ultimately predictable piece of Gothic fiction that tries to be the next Vita Nostra but doesn’t quite succeed. The novel is bogged down by slow pacing, an overly elusive story, populated by cast of barely fleshed out characters, and a painfully conventional dark academia type of ‘heroine’ (who is Not Like Other Girls & has a ‘dark’ secret related to her ‘mysterious’ past). It’s a pity as there were quite a few elements that I actually appreciated. Thomas writing is, for the most part, lush and she truly excels at Gothic atmosphere. She conveys the unease that pervades Ines’ stay at Catherine House and there are many passages that linger on her senses of smell and taste suggestive of the House’s ‘wrongness’. I particularly liked the use of repetition, be it through language or imagery.

Through a 1st pov, Catherine House follows Ines Murillo and her three years at Catherine House, a private university shrouded in mystery. We learn almost nothing about who she—or any other character for the matter—was before CH and this is due to the place’s strict rules about leaving one past behind. We are told that students have very few privileges and can earn more freedom through ‘points’ but Thomas never really expands on how these works, in fact, they matter very little. I would have preferred more descriptions about CH, its architecture and history, or anything really. By giving us very little information the place does acquire an air of ambiguity that does accentuate the narrative enigmatic tone. Condensing three years in one novel took away from the overall narrative. Ines’ time at CH was fairly repetitive and not particularly sinister. There is one ‘turning point’ of sorts towards the end of her first year but after that the narrative hits a plateau. Knowing more about the teachers and the lessons Ines attends would have made her time there more interesting. Instead, most of the story seems intent on setting up its Gothic aesthetics (beauty is terror and all that). Ines makes for a dull narrator. Everyone tells us she’s special and different (I did love the “my little sideways girl” line) but she’s anything but. She’s confused 24/7 and although she tells us that she wants to do this (learn CH’s secrets) or feels that (for a boy) it just didn’t reach me. Thomas tells us what her protagonist feels or wants to do but she fails to back this up by showing us that yes Ines feels sad, happy, or whatever else.
The novel implements Gothic tropes and many dark academia conventions. While I understand that the Gothic genre is derivative by its very nature (Pet Sematary > Frankenstein > Milton’s Paradise Lost + Promethean myth; The Historian > Interview with a Vampire > Dracula > Transylvanian folklore) I would expect a contemporary Gothic novel to be more subversive than Catherine House. There was no point in which I felt scared, surprised or apprehensive on Ines’ behalf. That is partly because I cared zilch about her or her supposed ‘friends’ (who seem a mere caricature of the typical academia clique of beautiful & languid people). I don’t think it’s a good sign when you care more about a secondary character’s pet snail than say any of the human characters.
It also struck me that novel was trying too hard to be something by Shirley Jackson. Hangsaman in particular came to mind. But, where I was intrigued by how obscure & unreliable a narrative Hangsaman is, I was unimpressed by Thomas’ novel directionless. It pulls the classic ‘confusing for the sake of being confusing’ shtick (whereas the ambiguity of Hangsaman struck me as a result of its mc’s dissociation from reality).
Yet, there were lines that I really liked (“I am in the house, we chanted. The house is in the woods. My hands are on the table. The table is in the woods.” did bring to mind Merricat’s “I put my hands quietly in my lap. I am living on the moon, I told myself, I have a little house all by myself on the moon.”). The dreamy quality that permeates Ines’ narration could also be effective in that it makes her more unreliable and it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy.
The ‘plasm’ was a big letdown. That and ‘the tower’ are meant to be the narrative’s main sources of tension but when Ines sees more of them…it just felt bathetic.
As debuts go Catherine House is a rather mediocre one. Thomas can clearly write well but story and character-wise her novel has little to offer. Catherine House itself needed more page time (rather than having so many paragraphs about Ines’ specialness, what she eats or smells). Thomas overplays how ‘sinister’ it is. Does weird shit go down in it? Sure but sometimes subtlety does the trick (the institutions in Magda Szabó’s Abigail and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go felt far more oppressive & forbidding without them being exaggeratedly spooky a la CH). Ultimately Catherine House is a novel that choose style over substance. It delivers a perfectly Gothic atmosphere and some terrific lines but fails to provide anything more substantial. What was the point? Was this a story about wanting to belong? Of otherness? I don’t know and unlike with Hansgaman, I don’t care to revisit it in order to maybe find out. Still, I am curious to see what Thomas writes next. If you are the type of reader who exclusively—or almost exclusively—cares about aesthetics and ambience, well, you might be the right reader for Catherine House.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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