The Maid by Nita Prose

edit: after some reflection i have decided to lower my rating as i am frustrated by the way autistic-coded Nina is presented as so exaggeratedly ‘quirky’ & ‘naive’, someone who we will inevitably find ‘endearing’

The Maid could have been a solid escapist read. This is less of a cozy whodunnit than a ‘trying hard too hard to be quirky’ character-driven tale about Molly Gray, a neurodivergent 25-year-old woman who works as a maid for a prestigious hotel. Molly’s grandmother, who was her sole carer and companion, died a few months before the novel’s events take place, and Molly is struggling to navigate the world without her.
Its many flaws ultimately soured my relationship with The Maid: there were some very cheesy/ridiculous moments, the author’s decision not to mention neurodivergency was frustrating, especially given the way she portrays Nina, and a character who is undocumented is depicted in an exceedingly clichéd way (of course, he is ‘rescued’ by the white characters).

While Molly does find her work as a maid deeply fulfilling, she’s very lonely without her Gran. Growing up she was always made to feel like a ‘weirdo’ and a ‘freak’, and even now her colleagues at the hotel regard her with a mixture of bemusement and condescension and are generally quite mean towards her. Because Molly struggles to read people’s body language, to ‘read’ their emotions, and to pick up on things like sarcasm etc, social interactions can become quite difficult, especially when others (mis)perceive her behaviour or responses as ‘odd’, ‘off’, and ‘not normal’.

Her life is upended when during a shift she comes across a guest’s dead body. The deceased, Mr. Black, was a wealthy man of dubious manners who died in dubious circumstances. His now widowed wife, Giselle, was one of the few people who made Molly feel seen, in a good way that is. Having watched a lot of Columbo Molly knows that Giselle will be the prime suspect for her husband’s murder, so she decides to help her out. It is Molly however who becomes suspect in the police’s eyes, as the people around her are quick to pile on her, painting her as being ‘antisocial’ and ‘standoffish’, someone who wouldn’t have a problem killing someone. Molly ends up trusting in the wrong people, and while most readers will be able to see beyond their ‘nice’ act, Molly herself doesn’t (and this is sort-of played up for laugh). She eventually becomes deeply embroiled in this murder case, and the lead detective seems determined to see Molly as the culprit. Thankfully for Molly, she does come across people who have her best interest at heart, and with their aid, she decides to take down those who had manipulated her.

While there are stakes, such as Molly being arrested for a crime she did not commit, the narrative maintains a very lighthearted tone.

I will say that I didn’t like how no one, as far as I can recall, mentions words such as autism, neurodivergent, or neuroatypical. Almost every character mentions that Molly is ‘different’, or ‘odd’, or ‘weird’, or a ‘freak’. But no one ever acknowledges that she’s on the spectrum. Molly, herself doesn’t. Given that this novel has a contemporary setting this seemed a bit unlikely. I mean, maybe I would have believed it if this book was set during the 90s in a country like the one where I was brought up in, but 21st century North America? I also think that the way the author portrayed Molly was fairly stereotypical as she does seem to exhibit all the classic signs associated with autism & is kind of infantilised.
Juan’s character was also depicted in a questionable way. The man is made to seem gullible and somewhat childlike. I didn’t care for the way the author infantilised him (i guess she wanted to stress that undocumented men do not pose a threat…but making him come across as ‘simple’ is not great). Additionally, the other maids were portrayed in a way that verged on the offensive.

The mystery storyline did have a few predictable twists & turns, not only when it came to the people who were clearly scheming against Molly, but the identity of the murderer and Molly’s ‘unreliability/evasions’.
This could have made for a quick, entertaining, and rather charming read, but I cannot in good faith describe it as such…The Maid may have had a well-meaning message, but the author portrays autism in such a clichéd way (without ever acknowledging it) that I feel very uneasy about recommending it to other readers…

my rating: ★ ★

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

“It was the kind of giggling they themselves did as kids. Now, that kind of giggle seemed foolish for them to do. It was like a far distant thing, a thing that happened only to other people. All they could do now was be close to it, and remain out of sight.”

While How to Pronounce Knife does fall prey to the short story collection syndrome (kind of a mixed bag, we have some good stories and some forgettable one, many of which are just too short and lack character/story development) it is nevertheless a promising debut. Souvankham Thammavongsa’s spare and unadorned prose brought to mind Jhumpa Lahiri so did her focus on the everyday minutiae that characterise her characters’ lives. Thammavongsa centres her stories on immigrants and refugees from Laos and their experiences in an English-speaking country (presumably Canada?), highlighting the myriad of ways in which they are exploited and othered, the difficulties they face in trying to assimilate to a new culture, and how language barriers further exacerbate their sense of alienation (and how often native English-speakers equate their lack of fluency in English with stupidity). Thammavongsa reveals how diversely different generations adapt to their new and often confounding environments, how insidious discrimination is, and how holding onto one’s heritage is perceived as a ‘failure’ to integrate or a source of shame (in a few stories children are embarrassed by their parents’ ‘foreignness’).
In this collection there are 14 brief stories, most of them lasting just over 10 pages, many of which take place in the characters’ workplaces (a nail salon, a chicken plant, a farm) and star two or three characters at most. Thammavongsa’s unsentimental tone greatly complements her crisp very matter-of-fact storytelling, which details the routine of her characters or recounts a particular episode of their lives. The stories that affected me the most were ‘Mani Pedi’ (in which a boxer begins working at his sister’s nail salon), ‘Chick-A-Chee!’ (which is set on Halloween), and ‘You Are So Embarrassing’ (a short yet piercing mother/daughter tale). Many of the other stories didn’t really leave a long-lasting impression on me, their scenarios too samey, their ‘run-time’ too short. Their endings too feel somewhat anticlimactic, and I can’t say that I found them particularly eye-opening or moving. Having fewer but longer stories would have probably increased my appreciation of this collection.
While yeah, out of 14 stories sonly 3 really stood out to me, I did like Thammavongsa’s clear style and I would happily read more by her.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

 

Klara and the Sun presents its readers with a quiet yet touching meditation on life. In a similar fashion as Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro’s foray into the speculative realm is deeply grounded in the mundane. Yet, in spite of its ordinary trappings, Klara and the Sun is a work that is brimming with ambiguities. Ishiguro excels at this type of narrative, ones in which ordinary scenes and interactions are interrupted by moments of unquiet. The near future of Klara and the Sun comes to us slowly, and even in the end, much of it remains unknown to us.
Our narrator Klara, an Artificial Friend, an android whose primary function is that of providing companionship to children. From the confines of her store, Klara has but a limited view of the outside world. Through the store window, she watches passersby, taking notice of their behaviors, appearances, the emotions they seem to manifest. Klara reveres the Sun, which every day provides her with ‘nourishment’.

Klara is purchased as an AF for Josie, a girl afflicted by an unnamed illness. In her new home, Klara learns more about people and their incongruities. Klara’s purpose is to be there for Josie, but, even she cannot seem to be of any help when it comes to Josie’s illness. Josie, who lives with her mother (who Klara refers to as ‘the mother’) and their somewhat brusque housekeeper (‘Melania housekeeper’). As time goes by, through Klara, we learn more about this near future. There are communities of post-employed, there are lifted and unlifted children, and both Josie and ‘the mother’ seem to have mysterious ‘plans’ up their sleeves.

Klara’s child-like narration belies her unsettling reality. From the way children treat their companions, to the lengths parents will go to provide their children with the best chance at succeeding in life, the world Klara witnesses is far from reassuring.
In spite of its domestic setting, which takes us from the kitchen to the living room, and with the occasional foray into the outside, Ishiguro explores questions of love, freedom, and memory. And, of course, humanity. What makes us human? What makes me, me?

Ishiguro provides no easy answers or solutions, depicting instead the different ways Klara and those around react to the same worries and fears. Klara is often a witness to crucial exchanges. Yet, her passive role does not mean that she is unable to understand a certain situation/conversation or the motivations and emotions of those involved.
The simplicity, one could even say purity, of her voice might annoy some readers, especially those who are looking for more complex or ambivalent narrators. Still, I grew quite fond of her, and there were many instances in which she struck me as more human than the actual humans.
One thing that I am unsure of is why Klara—who usually does not describe the physical appearance of others—noticed, in two different instances, that one of the people in her vicinity was Black. As far as I can remember, she does not comment on anyone else’s race or ethnicity (we learn that Melania is European through her accented English and another mother making a comment about European housekeepers). Klara guesses Josie’s friend’s accent but only after talking to him. So why would an android who usually does not describe those around her as white or would notice that someone is Black? Was this Ishiguro pointing to this:
<a is="" href="https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/aug/08/rise-of-the-racist-robots-how-ai-is-learning-all-our-worst-impulses
? Or that Klara was designed after a white person or to have a white person’s perspective? Otherwise it just seems odd.

There were also certain plot points that felt a bit too neat, especially towards the end. And while I am always appreciative of Ishiguro’s prose, of his ability to capture ephemeral emotions and thoughts, of the ambiguous nature of his stories, I found myself wishing for more. Josie, alongside her mother and neighbors, never earned their way into my heart. That is to say, I felt at a distance from them. The tension between them was certainly palpable and well rendered but, ultimately, I found them somewhat dull.
Although I wasn’t blown away by this novel I did overall enjoy it. Klara is the novel’s star, and I found her to be a deeply compelling protagonist who challenged my notions of ‘human’.
Readers who prefer faster-paced narratives may want to give this one a large berth but if you were a fan of Never Let Me Go you might find this to be just as gripping (I, for one, finished in less than 24 hours).

re-read: ishiguro’s surreal realism is lulling indeed. some of the dialogues may sound slightly off but, given the dystopianesque setting, i didn’t particularly mind. josie was annoying as fck, and i get that she’s sick however that doesn’t entirely exonerate her from her shtty behaviour. melania teetered on being rather stereotypical, and i am a bit tired of british/american authors (or authors who write in english) who throw into their story mix a character, often in the form of a brusque older woman, from an unspecified ‘eastern european’ country as a source of humor because their english is (supposedly) ‘funny’ and their un-english ways are (supposedly) just as ‘funny’.
this aside, i still found this to be a thought-provoking read that gives way to questions about human nature, freedom, and altruism. ishiguro also incorporates many discussions and scenarios about the difficulties of parenting and of being parented (with the children having often no choice in decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives, or being kept in the dark about matters that directly concern them).

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

“Everything I could see looked unreal to me; everything I could see made me feel I would never be part of it, never penetrate to the inside, never be taken in.”

From the very first page, I was enthralled by Lucy’s deceptively simple narration. To begin with, I was struck by the clarity of her observations and the directness of her statements. As I kept reading, however, I came to realise just how enigmatic a character she was.

“Oh, I had imagined that with my one swift act—leaving home and coming to this new place—I could leave behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again, my sad thoughts, my sad feelings, and my discontent with life in general as it presented itself to me.”

After leaving her homeland, an unnamed island in the West Indies, Lucy becomes an au pair for a white and wealthy couple in North America. Although Lucy wants to leave her past behind, her alienating new surroundings make her homesick. Lucy tries to acclimatise to the colder climate, to American’s strange customs, to her new role. As she tries to adjust to her new home, she becomes closer to her employer, Mariah. Her obliviousness, however, frustrates Lucy as Mariah seems incapable or unwilling to acknowledge her privilege or their cultural differences, seeming content to live in a bubble.
Lucy strikes a friendship with Peggy, a young woman from Ireland. While the two share a sense of otherness (“From the moment we met we had recognized in each other the same restlessness, the same dissatisfaction with our surroundings, the same skin-doesn’t-fit-ness.”), Peggy is far more of a bohemian. Lucy’s relationship with Mariah begins to fray, partly because of Peggy’s influence, partly due to Lucy’s growing disillusionment towards her employers and their after all not-so-perfect marriage.
As Lucy recounts her time as an au pair, her mind often drifts towards her childhood. We know that her strained relationship with her mother had an enormous impact on her, but we are only given glimpses of their time together. As Lucy attempts to navigate her new life, we come to learn why she has become so unwilling to be truly known by others. Through what we learn of her past, and through the things she leaves unspoken, we begin to understand Lucy’s obliqueness, her remoteness, her alienation, her self-division (which she describes as a “two-facedness: that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true”), her attitude towards others and her sexuality.
Lucy is an unremittingly ambiguous and fascinating character-study. Kincaid’s polished prose is deeply alluring: from the evocative descriptions of the weather to Lucy’s penetrating deliberations.
I was also drawn by the parallels Kincaid makes between Lucy and Villette (which happens to be one of my favourite novels of all time). Kincaid’s Lucy leaves her homeland to become an au pair, while Brontë’s Lucy leaves England to become a teacher in a small town in Belgium. Both women are ambivalent towards their past and disinclined to let others know who they are or what they ‘feel’. They both experience a sense of displacement and have to adapt to another culture. They also both become ‘involved’ with men who are called Paul (Brontë’s Paul owns a slave plantation). In many ways, Lucy functions as a reworking of Villette, as it subverts its colonial narrative (more than once Lucy’s informs us of the inadequacy of her British colonial education) and provides a more modern exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and sexual repression.

“I had begun to see the past like this: there is a line; you can draw it yourself, or sometimes it gets drawn for you; either way, there it is, your past, a collection of people you used to be and things you used to do. Your past is the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in.”

Throughout the course of Lucy’s tale Kincaid examines the way in which one’s family can affect an individual’s self-perception and the damage that parental favouritism has on a child’s self-worth.
Kincaid’s Lucy is an incessantly intriguing novel. I was mesmerised by her prose, by her inscrutable main character, and by the opaqueness and lucidity of her narrative.
Kincaid beautifully articulates Lucy’s feelings—her desire, contempt, guilt, despair—without ever revealing too much. Lucy retains an air of unknowability. Similarly, the mother-daughter bond that is at the heart of the novel remains shrouded in mystery.

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

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The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi — book review

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The Eighth Detective is not quite the “thrilling, wildly inventive nesting doll of a mystery” it’d be promised to be. I approached this novel hoping for something in the realms of Anthony Horowitz. Sadly, The Eighth Detective seems closer to The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, in that both novels are hellbent on ‘confusing’ the reader with ‘shocking’ reveals. Similarly to Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, The Eighth Detective introduces to a the work of fictions writer of detective fiction. In Alex Pavesi’s novel the writer of a collection of short stories (all whodunnits) has relocated to an unmanned island. He’s approached by an editor interested in re-publishing this collection. She decides for theatrical reasons to read his own stories to him, all of these stories build on a paper he wrote “examining the mathematical structure of murder mysteries” called ‘The Permutations of Detective Fiction’ (very a la Ronald Knox). The editor notices discrepancies in his stories (continuity errors, incongruous descriptions etc.).

The novel is ¾ made up by these short stories…and dare I say, or write, that they are at best mediocre?
After reading the opening story (one in which a character called Henry may have murdered a character called Bunny…was this a nod to the The Secret History), I hoped that the following ones could offer a bit more variety in terms of structure, style, and atmosphere…sadly, they are very same-y.
Most of them seem like Agatha Christie rip-offs (the most ostentatious of which is acknowledged by the fictions author as a ‘homage’ to his favourite crime novel). Each short story is followed by sections titled ‘Conversations’ in which the editor grills the author about his stories. The author seems to have little recollection of the intentional discrepancies he peppered into his stories, but the editor is unyielding and tries to learn more about his private life (which made certain later reveals less ‘shocking’). Each time she finishes reading a short story the final line appears twice (once at end of the short story and once at the beginning of the following ‘Conversation’). This did not help in making the novel feel less repetitive.
The writing style doesn’t seem to vary so that the short stories and the ‘Conversations’ seem to have been written by the same person (which they have, but it kind of ruins the illusion of the stories having been written by a character). The characters were mere names on a page, their personalities inexistent or irrelevant.
The Eighth Detective will offer little to readers who are fans of detective fiction and/or whodunnits. The short stories were populated by boorish caricatures, relied on predictable twists, and failed to amuse or surprise.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Little Family by Ishmael Beah – book review

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“Almost everything in this country is on its way to losing itself.”

Little Family is a deeply felt novel. Set in an unnamed African country, the narrative revolves around five young people whose makeshift home is a derelict airplane.
Ishmael Beah’s paints a sobering landscape: government corruption, extreme social divide, the malignant vestiges of colonialism, colourism, military/police brutality. The ‘little family’ at the heart of his novel do their best to survive, pouring their different skills and strengths into clever swindles. Beah’s illuminating prose gracefully renders their day to day activities.
The first half of the novel follows each member of the family without delving into their pasts. I really loved these early chapters. In spite of the dangers they face, the members of this family are brave beyond belief. Beah clearly has a wonderful ear for the rhythm of children’s conversations: there is silliness and the kind of banter that teeters between playful and not-so-playful. Unlike the adults in his novel Beah never dismisses the voices of his young characters. Although they are painfully aware of being “the ones society had no use for”, and that each day may bring a new form of dehumanization, they unanimously wish for change (for safety, for their poverty to end, for their country to rid itself of corruption and the inequalities brought by colonialism).
Elimane and Khoudi, the older members of this little family, are not only incredibly self-aware (of their role in their society, of their country’s fraught history, of the different degrees of inequality within their community) but often encourage others to question established norms. As we follow them during their daily routines we gain an impression of the dynamics within this family. It was Namsa, the youngest one in the family, who stood out to me in this first half of the novel. She approaches her family’s excursion with a sense of buoyant adventure, and although she worries that she won’t be able to keep up with the others, she’s just as, if not more, quick-witted.
While outside of their home the group often has to keep apart from each other, as not to draw suspicion, the depth of their bond, their mutual ease and trust, is clear.
The tempo in the latter half of the novel is far less absorbing. The story focuses almost exclusively on Khoudi and her ‘awakening’. What follows is rather predictable: she learns the power of her own body, becomes intrigued and eventually entangled with a group of privileged young people, and distances herself from the ‘self’ she is within the ‘little family’. While I can appreciate a ‘coming of age’ tale or a story that charts a quest for one’s identity, I did find Khoudi’s journey to be clichéd and clearly written by a man. There are a few scenes that seem straight out of a boy’s fantasy of a girl who is on the cusps of womanhood (discovering her beauty and sexual desire, becoming close to another beautiful young woman…and of course, although each one of them is interest/infatuated with a man, when they are alone together they kiss…but it means nothing). The tonal shift too, left me wanting. The little family is sidelined in favour of a love story, one that was particularly uninspired (if anything the whole star-crossed lovers thing made Khoudi’s early characterisation somewhat redundant). The ending was abrupt and unsatisfying.
As much as I loved the first half, Khoudi’s half was bland. I also felt annoyed that the characters we grown to know in the early chapters are more or less abandoned by the narrative in favour of a romance.
Still, the author treats his characters and the issues they face with empathy so I would probably recommend this one to those readers who don’t mind when novels change the direction of their story.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht — book review

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“He was alone and hungry, and that hunger, coupled with the thunderous noise of bombardment, had burned in him a kind of awareness of his own death, an imminent and innate knowledge he could neither dismiss nor succumb to.”

To begin with I was intrigued by Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht’s writing is both intelligent and beautifully oblique. Her descriptions of the moral and physical landscape of the Balkans are evocatively rendered. Although Obreht avoids naming countries, alluding merely to ‘my side’ and ‘their side’, she does give her readers a strong impression of the communities she writes of. Whether she is describing them before or after this ‘unnamed’ war, her prose is piercing. She easily disentangles the feelings that different generations have during a war.

Populated with folkloric characters and examining themes such as cultural memory and death, I was prepared to be mesmerised by The Tiger’s Wife. The tale within tale structure of her novel brought to mind some personal favourites (such as books by Elif Shafak and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land) but I soon found myself wanting the narrative to focus and develop our protagonist more. Natalia Stefanovi’s personality remains off-stage, and she often seemed to function as a mere mouthpiece for her grandfather. The few scenes which gave us an impression of their relationship were far more poignant than those countless ones focusing on Galina’s residents. Ultimately Natalia’s narrative feels meaningless. She doesn’t embark on a quest nor does she come to re-asses her grandfather or his stories, she seems merely to be reiterating these tales, and she offers few personal insights.
The tiger, Gavran Gailé (the deathless man who Natalia’s grandfather encountered years before), and the deaf-mute woman know as the tiger’s wife were the figures to which the various tales stories returning to. While the tiger was painted in a fascinating and mythical light, the tiger’s wife struck me as a passive and one-dimensional character.
While Obreht’s depictions of death, illness, and war are haunting, and her story does reveal the desperation and exhaustion experienced by those in war-torn countries, I did find her story to be ultimately inconclusive. If Natalia had played a more active role in the novel I would probably enjoyed this novel more.
Still, Obreht’s prose does merit attention, and I will certainly be reading her next novels.

“It was another thing they never talked about, a fact I knew somehow without knowing how I’d ever heard about it, something buried so long ago, in such absolute silence, that I could go for years without remembering it. When I did, I was always stunned by the fact that they had survived it, this thing that sat between them, barricaded from everyone else, despite which they had been able to cling together, and raise my mother, and take trips, and laugh, and raise me.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Everything Inside: Stories by Edwidge Danticat

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“The difference between her and them was as stark as the gulf between those who’d escaped a catastrophe unscathed and others who’d been forever mutilated by it.”

This was such a wonderful and poignant collection of short stories.
In a interview on LitHub Edwige Danticat said that one of the reasons why she loves the short story form is that it allows her “to magnify smaller moments and to linger on these small epiphanies in the smaller interactions that mean so much”, and indeed each one of her stories seems to prolong a particular moment in her characters’ lives.
Given the brevity of her stories Danticat doesn’t wast any words. And yet, while her writing could be described as both economic and simple, her prose also demonstrated a richness of expression that resonated with the feelings and scenarios experienced by her characters.

Through the wide range of her narratives Danticat examines similar themes in very different ways. Within her stories Danticat navigates the way in which bonds are tested, broken, or strengthened in times of crisis. Most of Danticat’s narratives are concerned in particular with the diasporic experiences of Haitians in America, and she emphasises the feelings of longing, loneliness, and displacement experienced by those who are forced to adapt to a new country and a different culture with poignancy and clarity. They are never reduced to the status of ‘outsider’, and while their shared heritage does mean that they may have had similar experiences, each one of them has a distinctive voice and a particular relationships with the countries they currently inhabit.
With seeming ease Danticat imbues her characters with their own history and personalities, so that within a few pages we would feel as if we’d know them personally, so much so that to define them as characters seems almost an injustice.
Within these narratives the ordinary moments that make up everyday life can carry both enlightening and tragic overtones. These stories centre on the characters’ anxieties, hopes, and fears they may harbour for themselves or their loved ones.
In “Dosas” Elsie, a nurse’s assistant, is betrayed by her husband and her own best friend. Months later her now ex-husband calls her and begs her to help pay the ransom for his kidnapped girlfriend, who happens to be Elsie’s former friend. His increasingly desperate calls threaten to disrupt the course of her life.
In “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” a woman who has returned to Haiti to run a hotel with her husband is confronted with her own privilege when her young nanny is diagnosed with AIDS; the woman has to reconcile herself with her own misjudgement regarding her nanny’s mother and with her preference for a white doctor over a local one.
In “Hot-Air Balloons” we observe the bond between two young women, one of which has started to work for Leve a women’s organisation in which she witnesses the most brutal aspects of humanity. Still, even when we are presented with these stark accounts of abuse or suffering the story maintains a sense of hope in the genuine relationship between these two women.
Another story that examines the bond between two women is “Seven Stories”. After publishing a short story a writer is contacted by her childhood friend Callie, the daughter of the prime minister of an unnamed island. After her father’s assassination Callie was forced to flee from the island and years later our narrator is invited by her friend who has by now married the island’s new prime minister.

“I didn’t have to think too much about this. I already knew. I am the girl—the woman—who is always going to be looking for stability, a safe harbor. I am never going to forget that I can easily lose everything I have, including my life, in one instant. But this is not what I told her. I told her that I was going to be the kind of friend she could always count on.”

The characters in Danticat’s stories are often confronted with impossible choices. Within their realities they are forced to contend against betrayal, illnesses, the devastating earthquake of 2010, medical malpractice, kidnappings, and the risks that come with being ‘undocumented’. They are made vulnerable by their status or haunted by the knowledge that the world can be a terrible place. Still, while there were many moments of unease, the stories always maintain a vibrancy that made them hard to put down. Her characters demonstrated empathy, love, and compassion so that her stories never felt bleak or hopeless.

I can’t recommend this collection enough. These stories were both upsetting and moving, and within each narrative we follow how a certain ‘change’ forces each character to reassess their own existence. The crisis they experience are depicted with subtlety and consideration. Danticat interrogates serious themes (identity, mortality, grief) whilst focusing on ordinary moments. Phone conversations and dinners become the backdrop for larger debates. Her narratives illuminate the complexities faced by those who are born, or raised, in a country that is now in crisis.
A heart-rendering collection of stories that provided me with a lot food for thought and which I will be definitely reading again.

2nd reading:
I have now read it again and I found as compelling as the first time. This may be the first collection of short stories I’ve ever re-read and it surprised by how many details had stayed with me from the first reading.

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars

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The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

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“But our memories were diminishing day by day, for when something disappeared from the island, all memory of it vanished, too.”

The Memory Police reminded me of a book I recently read, called Amatka. Given that the former was first published in 1994 and the latter is a fairly recent release I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Karin Tidbeck had read Yōko Ogawa’s novel. Similarities to Amatka aside, I still felt an odd sense of familiarity while I was being first introduced to the weird world of The Memory Police. Perhaps this recognition is due to having read another book by Ogawa called The Housekeeper and the Professor. On the surface these two books do not share much in common given that The Memory Police has been classified as a work of speculative-fiction while The Housekeeper and the Professor could be easily described as a heartwarming slice of life. And yet—in no small part thanks to Stephen Snyder, the translator—these works were obviously written by the same person. They both focus on ordinary moments—such a meal times, stroll around the neighbourhood, the sensation of a particular object in one’s hands—paying specific attention to the seemingly mundane feelings and thoughts that can cross our minds during our every-day lives. And of course, both books provide in-depth examinations of the role and significance of ‘memory’ . The two narratives approach this exploration of this faculty in very differentiating manner and with widely different results.

Ogawa, similarly to Kafka and Beckett before her, doesn’t really provide a reason for the way the world in The Memory Police is the way it is. Readers, alongside the narrator, are to accept that the inhabitants of this mysterious island ‘forget’ things and beings. Once they collectively forget something, that something looses its significance and, as they no longer have a memory of it, the people can no longer recall what it is, or whether it had a particular significance to them. They cannot name it or struggle to reconcile themselves with it. They are unable to prevent this process, their passive acceptance of their circumstance is weighed by a sense of inevitability. The protagonist of this novel is also unable, and unwilling, to counteract this processes of forgetting as to question the ‘system’ would undoubtedly attract the scrutiny of the memory police, individuals tasked with ensuring that the islanders obey the rules.

Unlike many other dystopias out there, the narrative is not concerned with creating a tale of change, rebellion or of a future hope. Rather, the story is very much an analysis of how difficult it is to understand or trace the repercussions of forgetting something as vital as a photo. As the narrative progresses our protagonist, alongside the majority of the islanders, forgets most of the things and beings that had until then had a meaning and role in their lives. The protagonist’s relationship with everything and everyone is frail as there is always the threat that she might forget someone or something dear to her next.
The story left me with the impression that the more these characters forgot and the less humane they seem to become.

The narrative of this book is deceptively sedate. The majority of the characters are conditioned to this frankly frightful scenario, and because of this we often see them as they speak of everyday-things or just trying to get by.
The storyline posses this unhurried and indefinite quality that suits the increasingly grey and meaningless world the novel’s protagonist lives in.

In a certain way it is the very fact that the book focuses on a steadily aimless world that limited the range of its tone and subject matter. Although it’s understandable that the protagonist is so resigned to forgetting this also created distance between the reader and her character.
Other characters are often addressed by nicknames—such as ‘old man’ and ‘R’—furthering this feeling of distance between us and the story. While this is intentional, and it does convey the slow corrosion of individuality and personality occurring with each new disappearance, it also forces readers into a role of impassive observants, watching silently as the characters are stripped of their human qualities.
Nevertheless, I do think that this book deserves plenty of praise and I’m looking forward to read more by Ogawa.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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SWING TIME: BOOK REVIEW

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Swing Time
by Zadie Smith

★★✰✰✰ 2 of 5 stars

I feel cheated.
The beginning of this sprawling and pointless narrative promised something. It gave me certain expectations. So, when I found myself questioning the direction of this novel, I told myself that surely, by the end, this would all make sense. Turns out I was hoping against hope.
Maybe, my expectations lie in Zadie Smith’s writing. Among the many peculiar passages I caught glimpses of just how beautiful and poignant her writing could be. Now, however, while I do believe that Smith can write well, I think that Swing Time does not showcase her writing ability but rather it seems an example of good writing turned bad.

This is not a novel about friendship. It isn’t a coming of age, nor is it a portrait of ambition. This novel consists in a series of grotesque caricatures. All of the characters are in turn false, unprincipled and or bitter. These ‘characters’ not only came across as being stereotypes, and Smith seems to ridicule all kinds of people. Fair enough, the narratives spares no one and every single character becomes little more than an unfunny joke.
Her unsympathetic nameless narrator seemed a poor attempt to write from the point of view of an ambiguous and possibly apathetic individual.
Tracey, her supposed best friend, is over-sexualised and is the typical friend who is better looking and more talented than the protagonist is (when will we ever get to read about a more nuanced female friendship?). The narrative uses Tracey time and again, throwing her in as to confuse and irritate both the main character and the readers. She is so illogical and incoherent that I had a very hard time taking anything she did or said seriously. Every-time she appeared I find myself thinking ‘of course, there she goes again‘.
The protagonist is worse than a shadow. She isn’t merely the type who prefers to observe rather than be observed. She is completely feckless. Her stupidity and her naïveté were jarringly unbelievable. I didn’t so much care for her lacking a name but her lack of an actual personality was harder to ignore. Her narrative is needlessly confounding. The time jumps were handled poorly, it seems that Smith wanted to do more than the classic then & now timeline, and in doing so ended up with a lot of odd transitions. The obvious retaining of certain information from the reader was both unnecessary and annoying (these instances rather than generating suspense just come across as being stilted). Also, are we to believe that someone so nonexistent would describe certain random acts in a completely exaggerated manner? Because our narrator loves giving random dramatic descriptions…and has a penchant for the word ‘gold’ .
As much as I personally dislike this narrator, I dislike her because we see from her point of view. Other characters don’t know just how irksome she is and yet….every single person she encounter seems to give her a sermon which consist in slightly varying versions ofyou have no idea/you are so privileged/you don’t nothing bout anything/listen to what I know/I know what’s what/listen to my life story/yadda yadda‘. Very likely…
Smith occasionally does turn her writing skills to do ‘good’, and she offers observations that don’t seem to come from the narrator’s point of view, and therefore did not seem theatrical or irritating. Sadly, she also comes up with things such as:

“I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her […] I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

What the actual…am I to believe that our ‘woke‘ protagonist would think this? A ‘broken’ girl?! And that cheesy line about ‘a secret she can’t tell’?!

This novel is indeed ambitious…it tries to include as many topical and relevant things but it all just comes across as overreaching. Rather than offering a nuanced cast of characters and believable scenarios, Smith seems to go out of her way to portray grotesque impressions of people (for example when the narrator is on a plane she is seated next to two truck-drivers with ‘bleeding gums’, ‘yellow teeth’ and seem to be rather crass…) and all for the sake of what? I wanted a story about ambition, I wanted a complex depiction of the dangers that words such as ‘potential’ and ‘talent’ can have, and above all, I thought there would be a friendship between two passionate girls...what I got was a series of cruel and degrading lampoons with a few ‘in’ terms & topics.
Massive let down.

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