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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

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

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

Some quotes that will haunt me:

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

Here Again Now by Okechukwu Nzelu

The first few pages of Here Again Now brought to mind the opening scene from my much beloved A Little Life so, naturally, I cranked up my expectations. As I kept on reading however my initial excitement over the story incrementally decreased to the point that I no longer looked forward to picking it up. This is by no means a bad novel but it certainly bore the signs of an ‘unseasoned’ writer. The prose was weighed down by repetition and overdone metaphors. Some of the dialogues struck me as odd, unconvincing, and I found that the narrative relied too much on rhetorical questions. Additionally, sections of the text consisted of a barrage of ‘what if x’ or ‘why is y’ or ‘how is xy’ questions that were really unnecessary. At one point there is a whole paragraph that just consists of these very, dare I write, basic questions that were far less effective than actually discussing the subject matter at hand (rather than circling around it).

The novel follows three characters, with very few if any secondary characters. This does lend a certain intimacy to the narration and the drama unfolding between these three characters. After his acting career takes off Achike Okoro acquires a swanky flat in Peckham. Staying with him is Ekene, his best friend of twenty years. Despite their different temperaments and careers, the two share a very close bond. Both have had less than ideal upbringings and they found solace in one another. It is hinted that the two had a ‘moment’ in Berlin and back in their twenties. Achike has proclaimed his love for Ekene but the latter seems reluctant to take their relationship down that path. While Achike is presented as this patient sort of figure, he does seem to have grown restless and feels slightly bitter about Ekene always choosing someone over him. When Chibuike, Achike’s father, who is in the process of recovering from his alcohol addiction, moves in with them, tensions rise.
There is the very long opening scene, in which we learn all of this, that takes place over the course of a day (possibly two?) and ends around the 30% mark. In between, we get some flashbacks that take us to Achike and Ekene’s early days as friends and Chibuike’s own childhood. The narrative explores the bonds between father & sons and friends & lovers as well as provides some thought-provoking conversation on masculinity, queerness, and Blackness. After a certain event, the story changes track so that in addition to these themes the narrative touches upon grief, guilt, and forgiveness.
I wanted to love this, I really did, but I found the writing to be a bit too…Ocean Vuong-esque for my liking? Eg. “Maybe fathers could explain sons?”
The first half of the novel is bogged down by this ‘will they won’t they’ storyline that seems to take priority over characterization. Because I didn’t really feel as if I knew these characters I was not particularly invested in their friendship/romance. The father/son dynamics occurring within this novel also struck me as corny. There were instances where I felt that I was reading the script for a soap opera or something. There were lines describing how beautiful the characters are, which at times went on too long or were a bit too much. But I digress. This was not a terribly written novel. At times the writing was a bit clumsy, and in other instances, lyrical passages or observations give way to purple metaphors. The three major characters were at times too fixed in their role and I’m always fond of tragic events being used as plot devices or to ‘help’ other characters ‘grow’. There were a couple of scenes that I found well-executed but there were far too many instances where I wasn’t sure where the characters were or if this scene was taking place on the same day as the previous one, etc. etc. While I would not call myself a fan of this I am grateful to the publisher for having sent me an arc and I urge prospective readers to check out more positive reviews out.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

Dog Flowers is a relentlessly unsparing and depressing account of a dysfunctional family grappling with addiction, trauma, mental illness, and abuse. This memoir opens with Danielle Geller’s mothers’ death. Geller’s mother was homeless when she died of withdrawal from alcohol, and Geller is forced to return to Florida to sift through her mother’s possessions. Using her archivist skills she ends up reaching out to her mother’s side of the family, aside she’s been estranged from, and visits them in their home in the Navajo Nation, where she learns more about her mother’s history and her Navajo heritage.
Alongside these sections that follow Geller as an adult, there are chapters delving into her disrupted childhood, which often honed in on a particular episode.
After her parents, both addicts split up, Geller and her sister go on to stay with their father. Their father, who is white, is an alcoholic whose emotional abuse of his children goes on to become physical when he assaults Geller’s sister. Geller recounts with disturbing clarity his erratic behaviour, for example of the way he would harangue them, telling them the same tired stories from his own childhood and adulthood, fixating on the wrongdoings he’s been subjected to. Although it’s been years since I’ve shared a roof with my father, reading Dog Flowers was an uncomfortable reminder of just how overwhelming it can be to have (and live with) a parent with substance abuse issues. And boy, does Danielle Geller capture how devastating it is on a young person to be exposed to this kind of chaotic and vitriolic presence. It was distressing just how much of my father I recognised in Geller’s own one so reading these sections was by no means an easy activity. Geller and her sister eventually end up in the custody of their grandmother but things take a downward turn as Geller’s sister begins to ‘act out’.
Geller’s prose is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, even when discussing traumatic episodes. In many ways, this memoir reads like a long list of tragedies. Geller’s mother, father, and sister all struggle with addiction and mental illness. Geller is exposed from an early age to emotional, physical, and self-abuse. Neither of her parents is capable or willing to look after her and her sister, and their attempts at sobriety and lucidity are short-lived. If anything, their attempts at a ‘normal’, or at least ‘stable’, life just give Geller (and us the readers) false hopes as they inevitably fall off the wagon. Time and again Geller has to look after them, often with little choice on her part as they emotionally manipulate her into helping them out. All of this sadly hit too close to home. When I saw some reviewers expressing surprise or shock that Geller would not cut ties with her ‘toxic’ family, well, I can’t help but think that their family situation may not be as dysfunctional as Geller’s. There are people out there who are able to cut off ties with their abusive parents or siblings. But, more often than not, you are unable or unwilling to cut someone off. Especially if you start questioning whether many of their ‘vices’ stem from trauma or mental illness. And again, hope. You hope that they will get clean, get a steady job, or lead a ‘normal’ life. And, in Geller’s case, well, all of her closest relatives have struggled with addiction. Is she going to cut them all off?!
It was saddening to see that Geller’s relationship with her Navajo side of the family is far from idyllic or rosy. While her connection to her cousin struck me as moving, her relationship with her aunt was saddening indeed as she is revealed to be a woman who is full of anger and sadly seems to turn this anger towards her relatives.
There is a lot of pain in this memoir. Geller captures with gut-wrenching clarity the realities and aftermath of a childhood marred by neglect, abuse, addiction, and trauma. Geller’s forays into her own past are brutally honest and are not accompanied by ‘moral’ lessons or ‘wise’ insights into human nature. I appreciated Geller’s honest depiction of her family and, more importantly, herself.
While Dog Flowers deeply resonated with me, I did find its execution early on a bit clumsy. The author introduces too much too soon, and I wasn’t sure what had happened when. The ending too seemed a bit abrupt, and I would have appreciated more insight into Geller’s life (her friends, partners, work, etc..).
Nevertheless, I found this a powerful and piercing read. It is by no means an easy read and I did find much of what Geller recounted to be extremely distressing, then again, I was also able to relate to many of her experiences. I appreciated that she neither villainizes nor condone her parents nor her sister and that in delving into her past she tries to understand their motivations or states of mind, even if ultimately, much about their identities remains a mystery or incomprehensible to her.
Geller’s memoir is a haunting account of a family mired in pain. If you are looking for a challenging read, well, buckle up because Dog Flowers is it. Geller’s portrayal of her family disrupts the myth of the happy family and the widely held belief that parents love their children. While there is love in this memoir it is often obfuscated by years of self-destructing behaviour and or by hatred, sadness, and weakness.

my rating: ★★★½

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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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Sula by Toni Morrison

They were solitary little girls whose loneliness was so profound it intoxicated them and sent them stumbling into Technicolored visions that always included a presence, a someone, who, quite like the dreamer, shared the delight of the dream.

Toni Morrison’s Sula revolves around the eponymous and fraught character of Sula Peace. Within the novel, Morrison interrogates themes of race, gender and class in the Black neighborhood known as the Bottom, in the fictional town of Medallion. The narrative’s discourse on good and evil, expressed in the Bottom’s demonization of Sula, and its subversion of binary thinking, will force readers to re-evaluate presumptions that arise from labelling people and places as being either good or evil.

The name of the neighborhood at the heart of Sula is an oxymoron since the Bottom is located ‘in the hills above the valley town of Medallion’ (a white farmer tricked his former slave by giving this land and claiming it was ‘fertile bottomland’). The story then introduces Shadrack, who after fighting in WWI returns to the Bottom with PTSD. He creates the ‘National Suicide Day’ and spends his days insulting people on the streets, refusing and or unable to fit in with the people of the Bottom. The narrative then takes us to the 1920s where we are introduced to Nel Wright and Sula Peace, the novel’s central characters.
While Nel is raised to be obedient and polite, Sula is brought up in her grandmother’s hectic boarding house, ‘a house with women who thought all men available’. Nel and Sula become fast friends, an inseparable unit. After one of their stunts goes terribly wrong cracks begin to appear in their relationship but it is Nel’s marriage and Sula leaving for college that ultimately drives the two apart.
Ten years later Sula returns to her hometown, ‘accompanied by a plague of robins’. Because of this bizarre phenomenon, Sula’s arrival is seen as inauspicious by the people of the Bottom. That their mistrust is aggravated by Sula’s physical appearance—which is made striking because of a birthmark over her eye—and her behaviour—her clear disregard of social norms—seals her fate in the eyes of her community.
They demonize Sula, seeing her as an outsider, the ‘other’. Not only do old rumours about Sula resurface, but that she puts her elderly grandmother in a nursing house, sleeps with married men, and is said to have slept with white men, further antagonizes the people of the Bottom against her. Nel seems the only one happy to be reunited with Sula but their friendship is destroyed after one betrays the other.
Sula becomes the scapegoat for Bottom whose inhabitants are convinced that ‘Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another’. They are empowered by Sula’s refusal to behave in accordance with their social norms, banding ‘together against the devil in their midst’. Yet they refuse to ‘destroy’ Sula, since however ‘ungodly’ she may be, to drive her out of town or to ‘mob kill’ would be to them both ‘unnatural’ and ‘undignified’. In creating the ‘evil one’ – Sula – they are creating the ‘good one’ – themselves.

Sula is by no means an easy read. The story is punctuated by poverty, addiction, shame, jealousy, hatred. Characters kill their loved ones or seem unmoved by tragic and horrific events. Yet, Morrison herself never condemns Sula or the inhabitants of the Bottom. She forces her readers to question whether Sula is the way she is because of ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’, and even then she reminds us that although Sula’s actions cause others’ pain, she is not an evil person.
Morrison demonstrates how distorting and transforming someone into a devil or a monster is dangerous: the author, unlike her characters, passes no judgements on Sula’s ‘transgressions’, and makes readers aware of the way in which the people of the Bottom enjoy and profit from condemning Sula as ‘evil’. By contrasting the characters of Sula and Nel, Morrison is also able to question the validity of labels such as ‘evil’ and ‘good’ since the two friends are often described as being one and the same, able to find ‘in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for’, yet Nel is seen as ‘good’ and Sula as ‘bad’. The bond between Sula and Nel remains at the fore of the narrative, and I loved how deep it ran.

Sula makes for a bleak, brutal even, read. Morrison is unflinching in her depictions of racism, violence, abuse, and illness. Her prose is simply terrific as she slips with ease between different point of views, never elevating any one’s character perspective. In spite of its brevity Sula packs a punch. It will upset you, anger you, and possibly depress you….but it is a stunning piece of fiction, one that I find myself often thinking about.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“Fear and hatred, fear and hatred: often, it seemed that those were the only two qualities he possessed. Fear of everyone else; hatred of himself.”

A Little Life is a heart-wrenching tour de force. Dark, all-consuming, devastating, moving, stunning, brutal, dazzling, beautiful, disturbing, A Little Life is all of these and so much more. This is the kind of novel that haunts.

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”

The first fifty pages or so may give one the illusion that the story they are about to read is the usual tale of a group of friends trying to make it in the big city. Which in some ways, it is. Friendship is one of the novel’s underlying motifs. But, A Little Life is first and foremost a novel about pain, suffering, and trauma. And as highly as I think of this novel I could not in good conscience bring myself to recommend it to anyone else. Large portions of this 800-page novel are dedicated to depicting, in minute detail, a man’s past and present physical, emotional, and psychological suffering. We also have to read paragraph after paragraph in which adults inflict all kinds of horrific abuse on a child. What saves this novel from being yet another sensationalistic or gratuitous take on sexual abuse are Hanya Yanagihara’s clear and realist style and the many moments of beauty, kindness, love, empathy that are interjected throughout the narrative. Still, even so, I can see why some may find A Little Life to be too much. Hell, there were many instances where I found myself thinking ‘I can’t it, this is too much’. But who was I kidding? Once I started this novel I knew that I had to finish it and in fact I devoured it over the course of three days.

“Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”

The novel recounts, decade-by-decade, the lives of four friends in New York City from their early 20s to their 50s. There is JB, a gay painter, Malcolm, who still lives at home and dreams of becoming an architect, Willem, an orphan who is pursuing an acting career, and Jude, also an orphan, who is a lawyer. Jude’s is reticent about his past and his friends know to leave it well alone. He has a limp and suffers from many health-related issues, which were caused by a car injury. As the story progresses the narrative shifts its focus on Jude and his many ongoing struggles. Jude’s horrific childhood and teenage years are revealed to us slowly over the course of the story. To cope with his traumatic experiences Jude self-harms, something that definitely hit close to home so I appreciate the authenticity with which Yanagihara portrays Jude’s self-harming. Similarly, his self-hatred and self-blaming are rendered with painful realism, without any judgment on the author’s part. While there were many—and I mean many—horrifying and painful scenes, there are moments of beauty, lightness, and tenderness. As an adult Jude is surrounded by people who love him, there are his friends, colleagues, neighbours, mentors, and it is here that the novel is at its most moving.
This is a novel about sexual abuse, pain, grief, friendship, love, intimacy, hope, and silences. The characters (it feels wrong to even call them that) are fully-formed individuals, imperfect, at times incongruent, yet nonetheless lovable. Oh, how my heart ached for them.
Yanagihara foreshadows certain events but even so, I found myself hoping against hope that the story would not be a tragic one. Yet, this unwillingness on Yanagihara’s part to provide a happy ending or to give her characters sort of closure that makes her novel simultaneously subversive and all the more realistic. Things don’t always get better, people can’t always overcome or reconcile themselves with their trauma, love doesn’t ‘fix’ people, you can’t magic away someone else’s pain. I have never sobbed while reading a book but I was sobbing intermittently throughout my reading of A Little Life. At times reading about Jude’s pain was brought me to tears, at times it was when coming across a scene that is brimming with kindness and love (basically anything with Jude and Harold or Jude and Willem).

“I want to be alone,” he told him.
“I understand,” Willem said.
“We’ll be alone together.”

This novel made me feel exposed, naked, vulnerable, seen in a way I wasn’t ready to be seen. It broke my fucking heart. It disturbed me, it made me ugly-cry, it made me want to find Yanagihara so I could shout at her. To describe A Little Life as a piece of fiction seems sacrilegious. I experienced A Little Life. From the first pages, I found myself immersed in Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm’s lives. When I reached the end I felt bereft, exhausted, numb so much so that even now I’m finding it difficult to to articulate why I loved this so much (then again my favourite band is Radiohead so I clearly like things that depress me). I doubt I will ever be brave enough to read it again but I also know that I will be thinking about A Little Life for years to come.
Adroit, superbly written, and populated by a richly drawn A Little Life is a novel unlike any other, one that you should read at your own risk.

my rating: ★★★★★

ps: the bond between Jude and Willem brought to mind a certain exchange from Anne Carson’s translation of Orestes:
PYLADES: I’ll take care of you.
ORESTES: It’s rotten work.
PYLADES: Not to me. Not if it’s you.

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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is an unflinching and deeply harrowing examination of race, colorism, gender, and trauma. Throughout the course of her narrative Toni Morrison captures with painful lucidity the damage inflicted on a black child by a society that equates whiteness with beauty and goodness, and blackness with ugliness and evil.
In her introduction to her novel Morrison explains her inspiration of the novel. Like Morrison’s own friend, the central character in The Bluest Eye, Pecola, is a black girl who yearns for ‘blue eyes’. Similarly to Sula in the eponymous novel, Pecola becomes her community’s scapegoat, but, whereas Sula embraces who she is, Pecola’s self-hatred is compounded by her community’s demonisation of her. The more people speak of her with contempt, the stronger her desire for blue eyes becomes.

Rather than making us experience Pecola’s anguish first-hand, Morrison makes readers into complicit onlookers. We hear the venomous gossip that is exchanged between the various members of Pecola’s community, we witness the horrifying sexual abuse Pecola’s father inflicts on her—from his point of view, not hers—and the good-hearted, if ultimately inadequate, attempts that two other young girls, Claudia and Frieda, make to try and help Pecola.
The adults in this novel are color-struck and condemn Pecola for her parents’ actions, suggesting that she herself is to blame for the violence committed against her. The story is partly narrated by Claudia, whose childhood naïveté limits her comprehension of Pecola’s experiences. We are also given extensive flashbacks in which we learn more about Pecola’s parents (their youth, their eventual romance, and their extremely fraught marriage). There are also scenes focused on characters that belong to Pecola’s community and who either use or abuse her
.
Throughout the course of the narrative, regardless whose point of view we are following, it is clear that Pecola is suffering, and that her home-life and environment are fuelling her self-loathing.
This is by no means an easy read. There is a nauseatingly graphic rape scene, incest, and domestic violence. Pecola is bullied, maltreated, and abused. The few moments of reprieve are offered by Claudia and Frieda, who unlike Pecola can still cling to their childhood innocence.
Pecola’s story is jarring and sobering, and at times reading The Bluest Eye was ‘too much’. Nevertheless, I was hypnotised by Morrison’s cogent style. She effortlessly switches from voice to voice, vividly rendering the intensity or urgency of her characters’ inner monologues. In her portrayal of Pecola’s descent into madness Morrison is challenging racist ideals of beauty, binary thinking, and the labelling of races and individuals as being either good or evil. Pecola’s family, her community, even the reader, all stand by as Pecola becomes increasingly detached from her reality. This a tragic story, one that is bound to upset readers. Still, the issues Morrison addresses in this novel are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

Heavenly Creatures by way of Patricia Highsmith, plus a sprinkle of Like Minds, and with the kind of teenage morbidity one could find in Hangsaman or Stoker.

Adroit and gripping, These Violent Delights is a superlative debut novel. Being the self-proclaimed connoisseur of academia fiction that I am, I was drawn by the comparisons to The Secret History and I was amazed to discover that unlike other releases (not naming any names) These Violent Delights definitely had some TSH vibes. But whereas most academia books focus on a ‘clique’, Micah Nemerever’s novel is very much centred on the obsessive relationship between two seventeen-year-olds.
If you’ve read or watched anything that revolves around a toxic relationship, you know what to expect from These Violent Delights. The prologue itself reveals to us that all will not be well for these two boys and that at some point will embark on a path of no return.

“He couldn’t remember ever being the person he’d decided to become.”

The narrative takes us back to their first meeting. Paul, our protagonist, is a university freshman in Pittsburgh during the early 1970s. His father has recently committed suicide and his mother has yet to recover. Paul suffers from an almost debilitating insecurity and shows a propensity for virulent self-recriminations. His inward-looking nature brings him no joy, as his mind is often consumed by his many ‘shortcomings’, and those of others. He feels misunderstood by his working-class family, and without his father, his grandfather, a man whose good-natured attempts to connect with Paul inevitably miss the mark, has become his closest male figure. His family fails to accept that Paul isn’t the type to ‘loosen’ up with his peers or have ‘fun’ with some girl.
When a discussion on experimental ethics in class gets Paul hot under the collar, Julian Fromme comes to his defence. On the surface Julian is the antithesis of Paul: he comes from wealth, he’s self-assured, easy-going, and charismatic. Yet, Paul is enthralled by him, especially when he realises that Julian carries within him a darkness not unlike his own. Their mutual understanding and their interest in one another result in an instantaneous connection. They can have erudite talks, challenging each other’s stance on subjects related to ethics and morals, and revel in the superiority they feel towards their classmates. Within hours of their meeting, their bond has solidified, becoming something impenetrable to outsiders. It soon becomes apparent that neither of them is in control in their relationship, and things are further complicated when their platonic friendship gives way to a more sexual one.
Their symbiotic bond is of concern to others (to be queer—in both senses—is no walk in the park, especially in the 70s), and attempts are made to separate the two. But Paul and Julian are determined to stay together, and more than once they tell each other that the idea of life without the other would be unbearable.

“[H]e wasn’t afraid anymore. After a lifetime of yearning and trying not to yearn, he imagined the relief of surrendering.”

Even if we suspect that Paul and Julian’s intoxicating liaison will have internecine consequences, we are desperate for a moment of reprieve. But Nemerever’s narrative does not let up, not once. Readers will read with increasing anxiety as Paul and Julian embark on an ‘irreversible’ path, alienating those around them. Dread and anguish became my constant companions while I was reading this novel and I’m glad that I choose to read this when I was off work (I devoured this novel in less than 24h) since These Violent Delights is a riveting edge-of-your-seat kind of read.
A sense of unease pervades this story as even the early stages of Paul and Julian’s relationship are fraught. Julian is almost secretive when it comes to his family, and disapproves of the contempt Paul harbours towards his own mother. Their love for each other often veers into dislike, if not hatred, and they are quite capable of being extremely cruel to each other. Even so, we can see why they have become so entangled together, and why they oppose anyone who threatens to separate them. But as they enable one other, their teenage angst morphs into a more perturbing sort of behaviour. Time and again we are left wondering who, if anyone, is in control.

“All they were—all they had ever been—was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun.”

My summary of this novel won’t do it justice as I fear I’m making it sound like any other ‘dark’ tale of obsessive friendships (in this case a romantic one but still). It is Nemerever’s writing that elevates his story from ‘interesting’ to exhilarating (and downright distressing). He evokes the claustrophobic and oppressive nature of Paul and Julian’s bond, making us feel as if we too are caught in their all-consuming relationship. Nemerever also acutely renders Paul’s discomforts, the intensity of his love for Julian, his self-loathing, and of his conflicting desires (to be known, to be unknowable). He wants his family to understand him, but in those instances when they prove that they may understand him more than he thinks, he does not hear them out.

“All I want to do is make you happy, and you’re the unhappiest person I’ve ever met.”

Similarly to The Secret History, the narrative is very much examining the way we can fail to truly see the people closest to us. Paul’s low self-esteem makes him constantly doubt everyone around, Julian included. He perceives slights where there are none and even seems to find a sort of twisted pleasure (or as Lacan would have it, jouissance) in second-guessing Julian’s feelings towards him or in assuming the worst of others. He projects a preconceived image of Julian onto him (someone who is cruel and deceitful, someone who, unlike Paul himself, can easily adapt or pretend to be normal), and this prevents him from seeing him as he truly is.
The love Paul feels for Julian is almost fanatical, doomed to be destructive. This is the type of relationship that would not be out of place in the work of Magda Szabó (The Door), Joyce Carol Oates (Solstice) or a Barbara Vine novel (The House of Stairs, No Night is Too Long, A Fatal Inversion) or as the subject of a song by Placebo (I’m thinking of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’).

“They were wild and delirious and invincible, and it was strange that no one else could see it.”

Nemerever’s writing style is exquisite and mature. I was struck by the confidence of his prose (it does not read like a debut novel). Not one word is wasted, every sentence demands your attention (which is difficult when the story has you flipping pages like no tomorrow). Nemerever brings to life every scene and character he writes of, capturing, for example, with painful precision the crushing disquiet Paul feels (24/7), his loneliness (exacerbated by his queerness and intelligence) and his deep-seated insecurity. Nemerever doesn’t always explicitly states what Paul is feeling, or thinking, and the ambiguity this creates reminded me very much of Shirley Jackson, in particular of Hangsaman (a scene towards the end was particularly reminiscent of that novel). Readers will have to fill the gaps or try to read the subtext of certain scenes or exchanges between P and J.

Not only did this book leave me with a huge book hangover but it also left me emotionally exhausted (when I tried picking up other books my mind kept going back to Paul and Julian). Paul is one of the most miserable characters I’ve ever read of. And while he is no angel, I found myself, alongside his family, wanting to help him. But I could also understand him as he strongly reminded me of my own teenage experiences, and of how ‘wretched’ and angsty and alone I felt (woe is me), as well as the fierce, and at times destructive, friendships I formed during those vulnerable years.
In spite of what Paul and Julian do, I cared deeply for them. I wanted to ‘shake’ them, but I also desperately wanted them to be happy.
I’m sure I could blather on some more, but I will try and stop myself here. Reading These Violent Delights is akin to watching a slow-motion video of a car accident or some other disaster. You know what will happen but you cannot tear your eyes away. Read this at your own peril!

re-read: yes, I am indeed a masochist. I knew that reading this again would hurt but even so, I am once again left devastated by this. The act of reading this book is not dissimilar to riding some diabolical, guts-twisting, puke-inducing rollercoaster where you are anticipating/dreading/exhilarated by the prospect of the encroaching and inevitable drop.
Paul and Julian are very damaged individuals and seeing how they hurt themselves, each other, and the people around them, well it was incredibly upsetting (even more so knowing that their behaviour will just get worse over the course of the narrative). Their relationship is simultaneously impenetrable to us and rendered in painful clarity. Time and again we are left wondering who needs who, who wants who, and the differences between these two desires. Rereading this also allowed me to pay attention to Nemerever’s skilful use of foreshadowing.
Anyway in the interim years since first reading this I have come across books/other media that has similar vibes. Nemerever’s ability to capture with unsparing and clear-cut precision Paul’s discomfort, self-hatred, and alienation brought to mind Brandon Taylor’s Real Life and Filthy Animals. The ambiguous nature of his characters and his razor-sharp examination of privilege reminded me of Susie Yang’s psychological thriller, White Ivy. The codependent relationship between Paul and Julian instead reminded me of manga like Let Dai (the angst in that series is wow) or j-dramas like Utsukushii Kare, or books such If We Were Villains, Summer Sons, Belladonna, The Wicker King or Apartment.
Will I ever be brave or foolish enough to read this novel a third time?
(spoilers: she was an idiot so…)

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Travellers by Helon Habila

“Are you traveling in Europe?” he asked. I caught the odd phrasing. Of course I was traveling in Europe, but I understood he meant something else; he wanted to know the nature of my relationship to Europe, if I was passing through or if I had a more permanent and legal claim to Europe. A black person’s relationship with Europe would always need qualification—he or she couldn’t simply be native European, there had to be an origin explanation.

Helon Habila’s Travellers is a searing and heart-wrenching novel that recounts the stories of those who are forced to, or choose to, migrate to Europe. Readers learn of how their lives have been disrupted by conflict, war strife, war, persecution, and famine. They embark on dangerous journeys, alone or with their loved ones, only to end up in countries which will deem them criminals, illegal, and aliens.

“As far as they were concerned, all of Africa was one huge Gulag archipelago, and every African poet or writer living outside Africa has to be in exile from dictatorship.”

Travellers can be read a series of interconnected stories. One of the novel’s main characters is nameless Nigerian graduate student who follows Gina, his wife, to Berlin where she has been granted an arts fellowship. Here Gina works on the ‘Travelers’, a series of portraits of “real migrants” whom she pays fifty euros a session. Gina shows little interests in those who sit for her, seeming more focused on displaying the pain etched on their faces (turning down those whose faces seem too “smooth” or untouched by tragedy). In spite of her self-interest and hypocrisy, Habila never condemns her actions. Our nameless protagonist however becomes close to Mark, a film student whose visa has just expired, who goes to protests and believes that “the point of art” is to resist. We then read of a Libyan doctor who is now working as a bouncer in Berlin, a Somalian shopkeeper who alongside his son was detained in a prison reserved for refugees in Bulgaria, a young woman from Lusaka who meets for the first time her brother’s wife, an Italian man who volunteers at a refugee center, and of a Nigerian asylum seeker who is being persecuted by British nativists. Their stories are interconnected, and Habila seamlessly moves switches from character to character. He renders their experiences with clarity and empathy, allowing each voice the chance to tell their story on their own terms. Habila shows the huge impact that their different statuses have (whether they are migrants, immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers) and of the xenophobia, racism, and violence they face in the West. Habila never shies away from delving into the horrifying realities faced by ‘travellers’. Yet, each story contains a moment of hope, connection, and of humanity.
Habila writes beautifully. From Germany to Italy he breathes life in the places he writes of. Although we view them through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, Habila’s vivid descriptions and striking imagery convey the atmosphere, landscape, and culture of each country.
Habila also uses plenty of adroit literary references, many of which perfectly convey a particular moment or a character’s state of mind.
Travellers is as illuminating as it is devastating. Habila presents his readers with a chorus of voices. In spite of their differences in age and gender, they are all trying to survive. They are faced with hostile environments, labelled as ‘aliens’, dehumanised, detained, and persecuted. They have to adjust to another culture and a new language. Yet, as Habila so lucidly illustrates, they have no other choice.
Haunting, urgent, and ultimately life-affirming, Travellers is a must read, one that gripped from the first page until the very last one.
If you’ve read the news lately you will know that the current pandemic is having devastating consequences for migrants and refugees (here is a article published a few days ago: ‘Taking Hard Line, Greece Turns Back Migrants by Abandoning Them’). I know that we are not all in the position to donate but I would still urge you to learn how to support local charities (here are two UK-based charities: ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’. A few days ago I listened with disbelief and disgust as a man on the radio said that allowing the children of immigrants and refugees into British school would somehow be detrimental to the education of ‘genuine children’. Maybe that person wouldn’t have said such an ignorant thing if he had read this book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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