Circa by Devi S. Laskar

Circa had the potential of being an immersive and compelling read. Sadly, the structure and length of the narrative do the story no favors, as the final product ultimately struck me as formulaic in a-MFA-program type of way. Sure, Devi S. Laskar quite effectively utilizes a 2nd pov, which is no easy feat. Beyond this stylistic choice, the novel doesn’t have a lot to offer. This is the kind of narrative that strikes me as being more interested in presenting its readers with a certain evocative style than introducing us to dimensional characters. The structure of the novel struck me as somewhat inconsistent. At first, it brought to mind books like All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running, Friends & Dark Shapes, and Another Brooklyn, in that it honed in on specific moments of Heera’s youth, but as the story progresses the narrative loses its atmosphere as it switches to a telling mode where it covers large swathes of time with little fanfare so that I felt at a remove by what Heera had experienced.

Circa is centred on Heera, ‘you’, an Indian American teenager who is coming of age in Raleigh, North Carolina during the late 80s. Heera hangs out a lot with siblings Marie and Marco, often in secrecy as her parents do not approve of her friendship with the Grimaldi children. Together they rebel the way some teenagers do, disobeying their parents, and sneaking behind their parents’ backs. Sometimes they steal from their parents or strangers, other times they do edgy eff society type of graffiti. Anyway, Heera is smitten with Marco, kind of. Eventually, something bad happens that changes their dynamic, and Marco reinvents himself as Crash, while Heera finds herself having to grapple between her sense of self-fulfilment and her parents’ desires. Should she go to college? Marry? Can she or does she want to do both? The author does highlight the limited possibilities available to a woman, specifically a woc, at the time, juxtaposing her path to Crash’s one. Sure, the author does provide an all too relevant commentary on the American Dream, stressing its elusiveness, and a poignant enough portrait of a family caught between generational and cultural differences, however, the whole Crash/Heera dynamic really was deeply underwhelming. Marie is very much a plot device, someone who is used as a source of trauma for Heera and Crash, someone who is supposedly meant to make their bond all the more complex…but she was so one-dimensional and served such a disposable function in the story that I really felt like she wasn’t a character, let alone a rounded person. Crash seemed the male version of a pixie girl, not quite as extra ‘that’s literary me’ type of guy (who is thinks he is the narrator from fight club or the joker), more of a vanilla sad-meets-bad boi. Heera in many ways is rather a passive presence, and I was unable to understand her obsession with Crash, let alone believe that the two shared an intimate bond. I think the story is at its best when it hones in on domestic moments, in particular in Heera’s interactions with her parents or when exploring the tension between her family and the Grimaldi. I think I would have liked this story to have solely focused on familial and platonic relationships, rather than going for this wattpad type of romance (‘i can fix him’…come no). The latter half of the novel strays into melodrama, with quite a few characters disappearing because of actual reasons and or no reasons. A whole portion of Heera’s story is delivered in such a rushed and dispassionate way that it really pulled me out of her story.

Given the premise, I was hoping for something with more oomph. The ‘crucial’ event isn’t all that important in the end, as the distance between Crash and Heera could have easily happened without that having to occur. The ‘betrayals’ mentioned in the summary lead me to believe in a story with more conflict, whereas here the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Crash and Heera brought to mind the milquetoast straights-miscommunicating-or-having-0-communication that dominated in much of Normal People. I think it would have been more effective if the author had either opted for a longer and slower-paced storyline (which would have allowed her to expand certain scenes, rather than just relating important moments in a couple of sentences, and made the characters more rounded) or if she had fully committed to a snappier snapshot-like narrative (a la What We Lose or Ghost Forest). I mean, this wasn’t a bad read but it is the type of book I will forget about in a few weeks or so.

If this book is on your radar I suggest you check out more positive reviews out.

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: ★★★☆☆

THE NAKANO THRIFT SHOP: BOOK REVIEW

“I thought about how what I felt for him now and what he felt for me at that moment must be totally and completely out of sync. Trying to imagine it made me dizzy.”

Hiromi Kawakami has an almost uncanny gift when it comes to capturing on the page the most ordinary thoughts and moments of everyday life. Whereas Strange Weather in Tokyo centred around a woman’s evenings at a bar, omitting mentions of her day job, The Nakano Thrift Shop is all about our protagonist’s job. We don’t know much about Hitomi other than that she is employed at the Nakano Thrift shop. This slight novel portrays this particular time in her life, without providing Hitomi or the other characters’ much of a background. This may as well annoy some readers but I found that it made Hitomi’s time at the Nakano shop all the more immersive.

“Ours was a strange world, in which whatever was new and neat and tidy diminished in value.”

In her new job, Hitomi meets plenty of interesting, eccentric, if not downright weird, people: from her old-fashioned yet a bit of an oddball employer, Mr. Nakano, to his sister, Masayo, her colleague, the nervous Takeo, to the many different customers. The novel is divided into twelve chapters, and each one of them reads like a vignette of sorts. Mr. Nakano’s love life becomes almost a running gag uniting these various chapters, as do the rather quirky clients that browse his shop or try to sell him odd objects (we have a set of cursed bowls!).

“It was as if everyone doled themselves out in such small portions. Never completely open, not all at once.”

There are plenty of colourful characters who provide funny anecdotes or go on to have peculiar conversations with Mr. Nakano. While each chapter is self-contained Hitomi’s relationship with Takeo is the thread that binds them together. Their not-quite will they/won’t they romance brought to mind the one from The Idiot. In many ways, Kawakami’s mumblecore dialogues recall those from that novel. The conversations and exchanges that occur in Kawakami’s novel have this stop-and-start quality that makes them all the more realistic. The dialogues can be recursive, sometimes borderline inane. Characters misunderstand each other’s words, parrot one another, or are unable to find the right words to express their feelings/thoughts.
Even when the characters do manage to carry out an actual conversation these can get out of hand, leading to silly/sudden arguments or to childish stalemates.

“This conversation was becoming less and less comprehensible.”

Hiromi’s amusing lapses into navel-gazing too made me think of The Idiot. Her observations and realizations are far from ground-breaking, if anything, they tend to be extremely mundane but her voice has this vitality that makes her inner-monologue anything but dull.

“Whether your voice betrays you, or becomes deliberately calm, in the end it amounts to the same thing, I thought in a corner of my mind.”

Kawakami excels at depicting those tentative, awkward moments that often occur between two people who may be attracted to one another. Hiromi and Takeo’s hesitant flirting really won me over.

“This was what made love so difficult. Or rather, the difficult thing was first determining whether or not love was what I wanted.”

While this novel is very much a slice of life kind of narrative, many of the scenes that occur in this novel are tinged with a sense of surreality.

The only thing that I wasn’t too fond of was the inconsistent use of quotation marks. Some lines have them, some them, often within the same conversation.

Kawakami is not for readers who seek plot, action-driven stories, or layered character studies. If you can do without these things, and if you happen to be looking for an eccentric yet fun read, well, look no further.

my rating: ★★★½

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Review of Normal People by Sally Rooney

★★✰✰✰  2 of 5 stars

If you believe that characters who dislike themselves, shrug a lot and say “I don’t know” a lot, are very deep and realistic, well this is the perfect read for you.

salluIf you are thinking about reading this novel, I suggest you listen to the following song instead, since it will take you less time and you will get the same story:

Song for a Guilty Sadist by Crywank

While I enjoyed Rooney’s style, that is her interweaving of ordinary moments with emotionally charged ones and the uncertainty that pervades her story, I was also annoyed by how artificial her novel is. I had the impression that Rooney was trying to conjure a certain millennial “vibe” through her characters and their experiences. Connell and Marianne lacked depth and, as stupid as it might sound, character. Their looks were emphasized in a way that made them “different from others”. They are skinny and beautiful, they smoke, they make languid movements, they are smart, they are unlike their peers and they actually care about world politics, basically they are really DIFFERENT and SPECIAL.
Marianne comes from a wealthy and abusive family, Connell was raised by his mother and suffers from bouts of anxiety and depression. That they have issues that they can’t cope with is realistic, but what I didn’t like was the romanticizing of their difficulties. What I didn’t like is that being “alienated” is “cool” and that seeking sadomasochistic relationships is understandable if you come from an abusive family. Marianne and Connell aren’t terrible people but god, they are so self-involved. Their relationship is made to appear fraught but I didn’t always understand why. Drama for the sake of drama? They enter forgettable relationships with other forgettable people but they are fixated on each other. Why? Who knows…
normalSecondary characters and family members are barely sketched out, they have little to no purpose other than creating more “drama” for the main characters. Marianne’s family was so badly written that I had difficulties taking them seriously. Friends from college serve very little purpose, other than making the main characters seem “different” and “real” (special snowflake alert).
What I disliked the most is that by the end neither Marianne or Connell show any sort of character growth.

The reason why I finished this novel is that I listened to the audiobook and the narrator managed to make this otherwise unappetizing storyline sort of okay.

View all my reviews