The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings

“This is the story of the witch who refused to burn. Some people said that there was power in her blood, a gift from her ancestors that she could endure.”

Megan Giddings’s sophomore novel is highly evocative of those The Handmaid’s Tale inspired dystopias where readers are presented with a near-future where women—sometimes men—live in authoritarian societies where they have limited rights and freedoms and are under near-constant surveillance. When Women Could Fly does offer a more topical take on this genre, especially with what is going on with abortion laws in the States, and although the reality it presents us with is embedded with fantastical elements, reading this story still sent a chill up my spine. While this has been also compared to Shirley Jackson and Octavia Butler, personally I don’t quite see it. If anything Giddings’ novel was highly reminiscent of those early 2010s YA, where the female protagonists are often forced into marriage (this is not meant as a ‘snub’ as i remember being quite into them). Expect that Giddings’ more mature tone allows for more in-depth conversations about gender and racial discrimination, female bodily autonomy, reproductive justice, surveillance and privacy, and the ye old fear of that which is deemed ‘other’. The imagery and aesthetics did make me think of several horror films produced by A24, and part of me believes that maybe this story would translate better to the screen. That is not to say that it was badly written, far from it. However, several lacunae in the world-building really took me out. Additionally, the pacing was a bit all over the place, particularly in the latter half of the novel.

In this America witch trials are still a thing. To prevent women from becoming witches, the government closely monitors them, watching for any signs of ‘witchy’ stuff. While false allegations are punishable by law, most girls and women live in fear of being accused. The government also requires women over 30 to either marry (a man) or lose almost all forms of autonomy (such as having a job). Some women do choose this option, and are registered as witches, and (if memory serves) under house arrest. Women of color, Black women in particular, are even more heavily scrutinized, especially those like Josephine Thomas, whose own mother is believed to have been a witch after she ‘vanished’ overnight. Josephine, now 28, is ready to accept that her mother will never come back. Josephine has come to resent her mother: for leaving, for leaving without her, and for making her ‘suspect’ in the eyes of the government. With her 30th birthday approaching Jo finds herself forced to consider her options. She doesn’t want to give up her job at the museum, where they are actually somehow allowed to have an exhibition by a verified witch. She is seeing this guy who she kind of likes but feels frustrated by the societal pressure to marry him. Her father, a white guy, is not particularly close to her and he offered little support when Jo was under investigation after the disappearance of his wife.
The narrative opens with Jo having decided to officialize her mother’s death. Her mother’s will includes some specific directions she is to follow in order to then access her inheritance. Jo follows said directions and finds herself coming into contact with a reality that is very different from her own one.

I really liked the writing style, and the ambivalence permeating much of Jo’s narration, in particular in moments when she thinks of her mother or of the way women are treated. I also liked some of the vaguer aspects of this ‘reality’, and I was briefly at times reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘what-ifs’, where he very much focuses on a group of people and is able to capture their experiences without delving into many details about their world and the society they live.
Alas, here the author is inconsistently vague. We will learn that other countries have possibly banned witch-hunts/the monitoring of women but that’s more or less it when it comes to the outside world (“I cry sometimes thinking about how we’re the only developed country to let this still happen.”). Why don’t more women leave the States? Are they banned from doing so? The story may mention this but so briefly that it didn’t really sink in. In addition, we have a registered witch being allowed to have her art in a gallery… which threw me off a little. Why would the government allow her to do that? Her installations and pieces are fairly unsettling and very ‘witchy’…wouldn’t they worry about this being some sort of witch propaganda? The author is also quite inconsistent when it comes to lgbtq+ visibility and rights. In this extremely authoritarian and deeply conformist country, people identify as lgbtq+…Jo included. She’s bi and ‘out’. Her father isn’t keen on it and she knows she will be unable to marry anyone other than a man but I still wasn’t sure of the kind of rights lgbtq+ ppl had. Jo refers to herself as cis and acknowledges that the whole “women=maybe witch” thing her country has going on excludes ppl who identify outside of the gender binary…but we don’t really go into much depth with that other than once Jo mentions that gay men are sometimes suspected of being witches…it also seemed weird that such an oppressive and reactionary government would ‘allow’ ppl to openly identify as lgbtq+. Still, we do get Angie’s perspective on this, who is using a matchmaker who specializes in arranging safe marriages for gay women (for example by choosing gay men as their spouses).
Also, how are YA books with dragons in them being allowed to be published in a country where magic is considered a real threat? Surely the fantasy genre would be banned?!

minor spoilers:
When we reach the halfway point, the story offers us insight into a community that is very different from the one Jo grew up in and once again I found myself having more questions, and the answers we do get didn’t entirely satisfy. The narrative suggests that they have been undetected due to ‘magic’ but I didn’t quite buy that. It also seemed weird that they would not reach out to more ppl. Jo’s motivations in the latter half of the novel were not entirely believable and the ending felt kind of rushed.

Still, despite my issues with the world-building (one too many holes, inconsistent) and plot (which is slow, fast, slow, fast, and with a few situations that clearly just exist to further the plot, even when they are not entirely convincing) I loved the author’s writing style, the parallelism between Jo’s world and our world (“Sometimes, people say Isn’t it lucky to be a woman now?”…kid you not a male colleague of mine said something along these lines and followed with “it is men who have it hard nowadays”), the use of witchcraft as a metaphor for ‘otherness’, the soft magic, the aesthetics, and the friendship between Jo and Angie.
The author does pose some interesting questions about the ‘cost’ of personal freedom, and throughout the narrative she interrogates themes such as love, equality, guilt, and forgiveness. Additionally, I appreciated the nuanced mother-daughter relationship. Part of me was annoyed at the romance subplot, which in my opinion takes away from ‘page time’ from non-romantic relationships. The writing has this hypnotic, remote yet sharp, quality to it that brought to mind Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Giddings is certainly able to articulate thorny and ambiguous thoughts and feelings with clarity, however, she also allows Jo to retain a certain air of impenetrability. Jo’s introspections were compelling and I was thoroughly spellbound by her voice. Like I said, the world-building and plot did get in the way of my totally loving this but to be honest I can see myself re-reading this and not minding as much.

Some quotes:

“But there was always an objectiveness that insulated me, always allowed me to stay cool and defuse the situation. It was better for everyone if I remained at least six inches distant. A space far enough for me to evaluate, assess, and then fix things.”

“But all the magic in these museums is the magic of the dead—corpses and curses and in its own way reminding women that if there is anything inexplicable in the world, it is dangerous.”

“I had expected a tightening as I grew older; I would like what I liked and that was the essence of who I was. But my personality gets easily seeped now with new details. I read something new, I watch something new, I eat something new and the world feels again like a place where I want to stay.”

“Magic was everywhere. It felt like when you’re young and with your best friend in the world and you look at each other and feel as if you’re both the most attractive, interesting, fun people in the entire room. There’s nothing embarrassing about this confidence because it’s the truest thing and it lets you both be your best selves for hours.”

“For years, my mother had been a wound I could never fully stitch, one that when I was being honest with myself, I didn’t ever want to scab over, fade, disappear.”

“[My] mother’s absence had been—I was sure—the source of some of the biggest, ugliest parts of me. And because of all that empty space around her, because of time, because of sadness, I had idealized her, too.”

“What is it about love? Why does it make everything seem so important when most people give their love so carelessly to people, to pets, to objects that will never love them back?”

“What was it like to be loved in a way that felt immutable? To not be told I was loved, but to feel it, to see it most of the time?”

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

“Fear of death is a powerful weapon.”

Remote Control is Afrofuturism at its best. Nnedi Okorafor seamlessly blends folklore elements and aesthetics with sci-fi ones, delivering a unique and intriguing piece of speculative fiction. Set in Ghana, Remote Control opens in medias res: the appearance of Sankofa, a fourteen-year girl, and her companion, a fox, sends the residents of a town into hiding. They shout her name and the following: “Beware of remote control, o! The most powerful of all witchcraft!”. Sankofa chooses a house in which she is treated like a honoured, and feared, guests. The following chapters tell Sankofa’s story and of her strange, and occasionally dangerous, powers. After a terrible tragedy forces her to leave her hometown Sankofa embarks on a journey in pursuit of the peculiar object responsible for her powers. As she is unable to use cars (since her ‘change’ she become a technology ‘repellant’) Sankofa walks, encountering both friendly and hostile people, seeking shelter in nature, finding comfort in the presence of her fury companion. Throughout the years she spends on the road we see the way people view her and her powers. Some see her as a ‘witch’ and seek to harm, while others seek her help. Time and again we see the damage caused by fear and hatred of the other or that which we do not understand. There were many harrowing scenes but thankfully there were also plenty of moments emphasising empathy, connection, and love.
As much as I appreciated the setting and the mélange of sci-fi and fable, what I loved the most about Remote Control was Sankofa herself. I don’t think I have ever warmed up so quickly to a character. Perhaps it is because she is a child but to be honest I tend not to like children (real and fictional alike) but Sankofa immediately won me over. There was something so endearing and wholesome about her that my heart ached for her. I found her level-headedness to be both sweet and amusing (“Being led out of town by an angry mob wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, best to stay calm and let it be done”).
My anxiety over her wellbeing did give the novella a suspenseful edge, so that I finished it as quickly as possible. The only aspect that didn’t quite ‘work’ for me was the ending (which could have been less ambiguous). Nevertheless, I would love to read more novellas set in this world!
I would definitely Remote Control recommend to fans of speculative fiction: the writing is evocative and inventive, the main character is wonderful, and Okorafor raises interesting questions about power and fear.

my rating: ★★★½

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Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones — book review

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“I’m dying of boredom,” Howl said pathetically. “Or maybe just dying.”

Like many, I fell in love with Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of this novel. I consider it a personal favourite and have watched it many times. So once I learnt that it was ‘loosely’ based on a book, I was eager to get my hands on it. For some reason or other however it took me a few years to actually to do so (this was my oldest book on my TBR shelf).
From the first pages I became absorbed by Diana Wynne Jones’ playful writing. The way in which she blends together magic and humour is simply enchanting. Although some of the plot and characters felt familiar, there is a sardonic tone that is entirely missing from Ghibli’s version.
The narrative follows Sophie as she embarks on a fantastical romp. There is comedy, drama, and an abundance of absurdities. Sophie, the oldest of three, believes there is only one path for her…she is proven wrong when she is stripped of her youth. It was fun to see the way in which old age allows her to be ‘more’ of herself. For one, she is a lot more confident…and she happens to be quite headstrong.
The banter between Howl and Sophie was highly entertaining. Their very different personalities clash time and again with often hilarious consequences. Whereas Sophie has a rather serious disposition, Howl’s is one of the most overdramatic characters I’ve read about:

“I feel ill,” he announced. “I’m going to bed, where I may die.”

There is also a metafictional aspect to this novel that adds a layer of amusing self-awareness to the storyline and to its use and subversion of genre conventions, and it brought to mind authors such as Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling.
Towards the end, the weirdness did get to me a little…but perhaps a second reading would make things clearer.
Overall, Howl’s Moving Castle is a delightfully magical read that is lighthearted and fun and makes me want to read more by Diana Wynne Jones.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater — book review

Okay, I loved it even more this second time around.

This book is full of Stiefvaterisms (in the best possible way).

“This is going to be a story about the Lynch brothers.”

The very first line of Call Dawn the Hawk echoes that of a fairy tale and Maggie Stiefvater demonstrates just how impressive a storyteller she is throughout the course of her novel. There are many elements of her writing style that seem to mirror those of a fairy tale: she employs repetition and recurring motifs, ‘truth’ and ‘naming’ shape both the narrative and the characters, the words and images she uses have a certain significance. Stiefvater pays incredible attention to word she uses and to the way that certain phrases sound. Her use of repetition also gives a unique rhythm to her story. Yet her style doesn’t solely emulate that of a traditional fairy tale as she injects her prose with a good dose of modern aesthetics.

“This was stupid. Ronan was no hero, but he knew fucking right from fucking wrong.”

Call Dawn the Hawk stars one of my all time favourite ‘fictional’ characters: Ronan Lynch. Although he has somewhat ‘calmed’ down, most of what he feels and does is still undeniably Ronan-ish. It was tough seeing him struggle so much: he feels left behind by Adam (who is in college) and Gansey (who has taken a year off and is travelling alongside Blue). The ‘nighwash’ limits his movements, so much so that spending a night outside of the Barns can have quite destructive results.

“Ronan, with his dangerous dreams, sleeping some-place other than the Barns or Declan’s town house? Dubious. Moving someplace other than the Barns or Declan’s town house? Never.”

Stiefvater does a brilliant job in fleshing out Declan’s character. He had a rather limited role in The Raven Cycle so it was refreshing to see more of what goes on underneath his deceptively ‘bland’ exterior.

“He just didn’t think. For one second of one minute of the day, he didn’t run the probabilities and worst-case scenarios and possibilities and consequences. For one second of one minute of the day, he just let himself feel.”

I always liked Matthew’s character in the previous books. His innocence and happy-go-lucky attitude make a change from the other characters’ (especially his older brothers) more angsty personal arcs. It would be lovely to see him getting his own chapters in the next instalment of this series.
Scenes featuring the Lynch brothers are guaranteed to entertain. Their relationship is definitely…complicated…but also utterly compelling. Declan and Ronan clash so often but it is clear that they deeply care for one another (even if they have no idea how to expresses their love).
Surprisingly less complicated is Ronan’s relationship with Adam. It’s definitely not all roses and sunshine but we could definitely see how strong and mature their bond has become.

“They hugged, hard. It was shocking to hold him. The truth of him was right there beneath Ronan’s hands, and it still seemed impossible. He smelled like the leather of the thrift store jacket and the woodsmoke he’d ridden through to get here. Things had been the same for so long, and now everything was different, and it was harder to keep up than Ronan had thought.”

Stiefvater also does a great job in introducing us to new characters. It took me a while to warm up to them (this is partly due to the ambiguousness which surrounds them) but I soon became fond of them. Jordan and Hennessy are wonderful addition to this series. They each have their own distinctive personality and their bond was surprisingly complex. Jordan interacts in particular with Declan and I was surprised by how much I liked their banter. Hennessy and Ronan instead share the same mercurial personality so it was equally interesting to see them interact with one another.
The first time I read this Carmen Farooq-Lane’s chapters weren’t my favourite ones, but, upon a second reading I found myself really loving them.

“This was, she told herself, the business of the end of the world.”

Although at its bare bones the plot is rather formulaic (we have chapters following each individual character until slowly their paths converge) Stiefvater shakes this classic storyline up (people with powers + a mysterious government agency that wants to eradicate them + possibly the end of the world). She gives us some incredible sequences, brilliant dialogues, confusing dreamfuckery, the mysterious ‘Bryce’, and, of course, a cast of unforgettable characters.

Stiefvater has really honed her writing style. I loved the way she often mythicises her characters, so that they almost appear as if they are the protagonist of some myth or ballad. I also found the recurring imagery and symbols within this novel to be incredibly effective. They created a unique atmosphere and worked well with the rhythm of her language.
Stiefvater also portrays different types of faith with great realism. Learning of the various character’s beliefs, convictions, and general outlooks made them all the more believable. Interspersed throughout the narrative there are many compelling discussions and observations regarding art (from painting techniques to the lives or works of certain artists).
The pacing of this novel is pretty furious. Lots of things happen, each chapter furthers the plot (characters come across someone or certain information that contributes to their overall storyline).
The first time I read this I gave it 4.5 stars but upon a second reading I found myself 100% invested in everything that was happening. I loved it.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. I felt ‘emotionally’ involved and I found myself simultaneously wanting to read it all in one gulp and also never wanting it to end.

my rating: ★★★★★

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – book review

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“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.”

In recent years Shirley Jackson has experienced a kind of renascence. Perhaps because of Netflix’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House or possibly thanks to contemporary authors (such as Donna Tartt, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King) who have credited Jackson as their inspiration, enhancing her reputation, and prompting a reappraisal of her work. The fact that the Gothic and Horror genres—long regarded as cheap and sensational—are no longer considered ‘lowbrow’ fiction has also contributed to this reassessment of Jackson’s oeuvre. Modern readers now see Jackson as a central figure of the America Gothic as much of her fiction paints a fascinating—if not disturbing—portrait of postwar America . Yet, I find it difficult to pigeonhole Jackson as a Horror writer. Her narratives often feature emotionally disturbed women who are trapped within Kafkaesque worlds. They reality they presents us with seems off. Jackson seems to magnify the way in which traditions and societal expectations threaten one’s individuality and creativity. Most of her stories follow a woman’s ‘quest’ to find or maintain her identify. The ‘horror’ within Jackson’s stories is experienced by her characters. It is because most of her protagonists are labelled as ‘different’ that they are made vulnerable. Yet, readers will often find that all of Jackson’s characters behave with eccentricity (there are whole towns and communities populated by weird people…a bit a la A Series Of Unfortunate Events). In spite of this our protagonists are still singled out, often because they seem more interested in practicing their personal brand of witchcraft than of engaging with the rest of their world.
Madness and evil pervade Jackson’s writing to the extent that even her depictions of everyday occurrences are riddled with human weaknesses, fears, and cruelties. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle evil takes many forms.

The protagonist of We Have Always Lived in the Castle—which happens to be Jackson’s last published novel—has no interest in personal growth. Mary Katherine, who goes by the nickname of Merricat (quite fitting given that she often behaves like her closest companion, a black cat named Jonas), is an untame and defiant tomboy whose apparent ingenuousness hides a razor-alert mind. Six years before the events of the narrative—at the age of twelve—Merricat’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother died after eating sugar laced with arsenic. Constance, Merricat’s older sister, is accused and acquitted of the crime.
Ostracised from their village, Merricat and Constance have become completely estranged from society. At the age of eighteen—free from her parents’ rules—Merricat has fashioned Blackwood Manor into her own private and idyllic world. The two sisters and Uncle Julian—who survived the poisoning but is now wheelchair-bound and increasingly senile—lead a life that is relatively quiet and governed by the daily chores and the ritual of mealtimes. Constance is in charge of the cooking and spends most of her days looking after Uncle Julian and completing household chores with Merricat, whom she treats with loving indulgence, often condoning Merricat’s disturbing behaviour by saying “silly Merricat”. When Constance voices her desire to go outside of the property, Merricat fear of this begins to manifests itself in her surroundings, skewing the way she perceives her reality so that she views ordinary things as ‘omens’ that “spoke of change.” Merricat attempts to regain control of the situation through her witchcraft and by breaking objects but with cousin Charles’ unannounced visit, Merricat is forced to take more drastic approaches to self-preservation.

A third fourth reading of this short and beautifully odd novel has made me even more appreciative of Shirley Jackson’s mastery of words. The first time I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle I was propelled into an increasingly puzzling yet utterly compelling story. During my second reading, I payed more attention to all of the novel’s components, rather than just getting swept along the bizarrely unapologetic storyline. Each time I re-read this novel, I love it even more. Jackson doesn’t feel the need to explain the surreal reality of her novels which makes readers such as me all the more in awe of her craft. Although it is difficult to draw comparisons, I could describe her style as David Lynch meets Tim Burton. Everything and everyone within this novel is peculiar and most scenes and conservations seem to hold a level of absurdity. Merricat’s narrative is also marked by a sense of growing unease (towards change, the future, anything other than her own version of reality) and the tension created by her various anxieties is alleviated by the story’s dark humour.

There are many different layers to We Have Always Lived in the Castle. One the one hand, it is exactly what its reputation promises it to be: an incredibly eerie and compelling short novel. On the other hand, it also delves into many challenging and unsettling subjects, such as paranoia, persecution and violence. Shirley Jackson does not shy away from portraying the darker corners of human nature, in fact, she delves right into the darkest parts of the human psyche.
On the surface, Merricat’s alienation is debilitating yet a closer look suggests that her estrangement from her society is act of self-preservation, one that is both empowering and subversive, allowing them to defy the societal norms and expectations of their time. Throughout the course of her narrative she attempts—for better or worse—to shape and maintain her own identities, refusing the role thrust upon her by her society. In Jackson’s novels, a world of fantasy is preferable to the ‘real’ world, which is populated by people who perform acts of cruelty, physical brutality and or psychological violence against those they perceive as ‘outsiders’. Merricat, who embodies the feared ‘other’ through her unwillingness, if not outright refusal, to adhere to established social conventions, is the ideal scapegoats of her community.

Merricat’s megalomania shows itself through her desire to exact punishments and for designating things and people as either “good” or “bad”. Her dichotomous view of the world causes her to behave in extremes: she varies between acting like a feral child, a sulky adolescent, and a seemingly Cassandra-like individual. Merricat obeys her childish impulses, and readily resorts to violence when not getting her way. Although Merricat sounds much younger than her eighteen years, her naivety is misleading, and her fantasies can easily move between those of a child (“I really only want a winged horse, anyway. We could fly you to the moon and back, my horse and I”) and those of a far more ruthless and dangerous person.
Her sadistic fantasies, her manipulation and subordination of Constance, and her desire to frighten others (“I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village.” ) reveal Merricat’s cunning awareness. Readers might find her charming, yet warped perspective jarring, especially since she avoids explaining her most malevolent deeds.

Merricat’s surreal inner world is conveyed through her first-person narration and readers are granted a unique insight into some of her mental strategies that she uses to feel protected from world around her’. To an outsider like her cousin Charles, many of Merricat’s actions seem to be unwarranted temper tantrums. Readers, on the other hand, know that Merricat always attributes a meaning—however absurd or far-fetched it may appear—to her every action and word. We are aware that she deliberately smashes objects in an effort to regain control over her life.
Merricat’s tendency to let her fantasies dictate her behaviour, turning her imagination into reality, distances herself from the ever-present threat of reality. She attempts to change and control aspects of her life through magical charms and fantasies, with little direct engagement with the outside world. Merricat’s need of control could possibly stems from her ‘fear of change’ which in turn causes her to perceive anything outside her and Constance’s established routine, such as the arrival of uninvited guests, as a threat to their wellbeing. Merricat tries to deflect ‘change’ through her own unique brand of witchcraft, which consists in the performance of various magical rituals, the burying of various ‘safeguards’, unspoken ‘spells’, and even the occasional“‘offering of jewellery out of gratitude”. Merricat draws strength from her belief in magic. What Charles—and presumably the rest of society—would see as childish games, Merricat views as the means to safeguard her future and protect her from the outside.

It is up to Merricat to fashion her home, Blackwood Manor, into a ‘castle’—a stronghold—which she can protect through various magical rituals and wards, and Merricat believes that nothing—and no one—can prevent her from projecting her fantastical and solipsistic view of the world onto her reality.
Shirley Jackson’s style is perfectly attuned to Merricat’s unnerving mind. Her obsessive and impulsive nature is fluidly conveyed by Jackson’s repetitive and rhythmical writing. Jackson also evokes a surrealisms reminiscent of fairy tales through the Merricat’s childlike urges and morbid fascination.
Merricat is a beguiling narrator. Her playful fantasies are juxtaposed against the most violent and bizarre thoughts. Her devotion to her sister borders on the obsessive yet it is through this puzzling relationship that we see a more genuine side to Merricat’s character. In spite of her selfish nature, her palpable fears and unique worldview make her into a fascinating protagonist. Once the stability of the sisters’ purposely reclusive existence is threatened, Merricat survives through her active fantasy. She retreats into the deepest parts of her made-up world. And it is her increasingly desperate attempts to retain control over both Constance’s and her own life that make her into such a brilliant character. Even in those instances where she ‘simply’ observes others, Merricat is always ‘there’, her presence unmissable to the readers.

Her sister Constance also demonstrates worrying behaviour. She too is initially in complete denial over the family’s status. She is in some things, rather controlling, while in other instances, she seemed…on another planet. While Constance remains a cypher of sorts, we see why Merricat needs her.
Uncle Julian ramblings were endearing and his sharp remarks provided much entertainment. Much of the story’s humour springs from his character.
Merricat perceives cousin Charles a threat right from the start. The scenes featuring him are brimming with tension: Merricat’s apprehension is all too real, and I found myself viewing him as an ‘enemy’, just as she does. Merricat’s descriptions of him often present him as something not quite human, a ghost or some such creature. While we can see that some of his criticisms towards Constance and Merricat had some truth, we are always seeing him through Merricat’s eyes.

The underlying suspense, the growing unease, make this uncanny tale hard to put down.The vivid descriptions are simply tantalising, the surreal quality of the characters’ conversations is darkly amusing and the atmospheric setting is almost tangible. We Have Always Lived in the Castle makes for a lush and macabre read, one that will probably strike you as weird yet ultimately compelling. It could be read as a fairy-tale of sorts, an alternative to folklore narratives, or as a story that sets otherness against ‘herd’ mentality.
Recently there has been a film adaptation of this novel (you can watch the trailer for it here) which, in spite of some minor alterations, brings to life Jackson’s story. It conveys the novel’s unapologetic weirdness, its idiosyncrasies, and its black humour. The film Stoker also seems to have drawn inspiration from this novel.
The first page of this novel perfectly encapsulates its style and tone. If you are uncertain whether this is the kind of story for you, I recommend you read its opening paragraph:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

edit: I’ve now read this 6 times and I find myself still in love with it. Jackson is a brilliant storyteller and We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a marvel of a book.

My rating: ★★★★★ stars

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illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

The Oracle of Cumae by Melissa Hardy — book review

“I listened as Sibylla told me for the third or fourth or fifth time, about something that happened to her a thousand years ago and that might have been funny then, but, clearly, you had to have been there.”

The Oracle of Cumae is a humorous tale that might appeal to readers who enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown series, or even books by Rick Riordan. While I enjoyed how witty and playful the narrative could be I was also aware of the various mistakes punctuating the novel.

“Actually, I’m rather hoping for Purgatory.”
“Impossible. Suicides go to Hell. Everyone knows that!”
“I’m hoping to negotiate my position.”

The story is a fun romp that has plenty of comical moments and diverting scenarios. The title character is portrayed in a refreshing way and I do think that the narrative should have focused more on her rather than the people from Mariuccia Umbellino’s youth. There are amusing running gags which create a sense of familiarity between the readers and the story, such as when Mariuccia or her family explain to outsiders that their local pastor is blind, illiterate, and can’t speak Latin:

“He can’t read?” the Prior exclaimed. “How can he say Mass?”
“He acts it out,” said Papa.
“It’s very entertaining,” Mama added. “The children love it.”

The humour is the biggest strength of the story. There are some brilliant back and forths which really complemented the setting and emphasised the characters’ various eccentricities. At times the humour could be quite silly and light:

“Look!” Cesare cried. “He smiled! His very first smile!”
“Actually I am told that babies don’t really smile until about the age of two months,” said Pellicola drily. “It’s probably just gas.”

And in other occasions it could become closer to that of a black comedy:

“Don’t ask me. You know full well that I was an only child. ”
“As was I,” reflected Dr. Pellicola a little dreamily. “No, wait. There was a sister, but she ate something in the garden and died. Belladonna, I believe it was. I think I put her up to it, but, as I was only four at the time, I was forgiven. Even then I was fascinated by medicinal herbs!”

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this zestful narrative style. There was a vivacious energy underlining each of the various characters’ interactions which made the story all the more engaging. It was fun to see how Melissa Hardy applies a modern humour to a historical setting.

“I tell you what. Go commit your sin. Come back next Wednesday at this time. Confess, and I’ll absolve you. That’s the way the system works. Now, if you are quite through…?”

Hardy also makes interesting references to a lot of historical anecdotes and places, incorporating certain historical events and locations into her tale (such as the mummies of the Chiesa dei Morti).
The story itself wouldn’t hold up without this abundance of humour as it is what brings the characters into focus. The storyline could have had been more clear-cut and with a more satisfactory inclusion of the oracle. I would have preferred following Mariuccia during her a larger chunk of her life rather than having the narrative focusing on a year or two when she was a teenager. More could have been made of the story as it had a lot of potentially interesting elements, it seems however that much of the narrative stems from a not fully sketched out idea.

There were also a lot of mistakes and inaccuracies which detracted from my overall enjoyment of this book.
➜ The story opens in Italy during the late 19th century (1896 to be precise) and Mariuccia Umbellino, who has just turned ninety nine, calls a priest in order to confess some of her secrets. Although she says that she worked for Bacigalupo & Sons for fifty years (“The business that I preserved and built upon for fifty years”) implying that she must have started working for this company before the 1850s, the narrative later states that Bacigalupo & Sons was founded in the “early nineteen hundreds”, a period of time that is often used to refer to the early 1900s as opposed to the early 1800s.
➜While I don’t have a problem with writers outside of Italy writing about Italy or setting their book in Italy I do get frustrated by the lack of research that some of these authors pay to the Italian language. Google is quite a handy tool and it isn’t difficult to double check the Italian equivalent to certain English terms. Often English-speaking authors will throw untranslated Italian words into their narratives as a way of making their story more believable and quaint. Time and again these authors will use Mama and Papa when referring to Italian characters’ mothers and fathers. Yet, Mama and Papa have no place in the Italian dictionary. They belong to British shows like Downton Abbey. Italians use Mamma and Papà. In Italian Papa means Pope. Not the same as Papà. I actually looked up online a historical dictionary ( http://www.bdcrusca.it/scaffale.asp ) to double-check the period’s terms for Dad and Mum and it turns out that Mariuccia would have used Mamma for Mum and Babbo or Padre for her father.
➜There other Italian words that are misspelled such as ‘schiffo’ instead of ‘schifo’; ‘respetto’ instead of ‘rispetto’; and ‘fritti mistos’ should have been ‘fritti misti’.

When writing about a different culture to your own writers and their editors should ensure that they are at least using the correct words (if they insist on implementing untranslated terms) and names (many of the names in this story seemed odd but given that this is ‘historical’ I was willing to look past them).

In spite of these irritating mistakes, I was entertained by this novel and I’m looking forward to read more by this author.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson — book review

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“Dearest dearest darling most important dearest darling Natalie—this is me talking, your own priceless own Natalie.”

Alice in Wonderland meets The Bell Jar in Shirley Jackson’s much overlooked Hangsaman.
The first time I read this exceedingly perplexing novel I felt confused. Although Hangsaman shares many similarities with Jackson’s more well known novels (yet again we have a disaffected, hypersensitive, and alienated heroine), this is her most elusive work.
A second and third reading however made me much more appreciative of this peculiar anti-bildungsroman. What I previously thought of as being a confounding narrative with an unclear storyline became a clever take of the three-acts typical of a monomyth.
Hangsaman is focuses on Natalie Waite, a troubling young woman whose intolerance towards others makes her retreat into a series of disturbing fantasies. The narrative chronicles Natalie’s attempts to navigate the murky waters of adulthood. However, Natalie’s journey into adulthood is not only essentially negative but concludes ambiguously. Readers will find Natalie’s self-alienation, which dictates her behaviour and thoughts as well as shaping her worldview and imagination, alienating, as we are left wondering just how unreliable a narrator she is.

At the age of seventeen, Natalie believes that “she had been truly conscious only since she was about fifteen” and lives “in an odd corner of a world of sound and sight past the daily voices of her father and mother and their incomprehensible actions”. Forced into daily tête-à-têtes with her pompous writer-father—who enjoys disparaging Natalie’s creative writing—and made to listen to her neurotic and alcoholic mother’s diatribes against marriage, Natalie’s relationship with herself and others is already mired in ambivalence.
In order to please her father Natalie has spent most of her life pretending to be someone she is not, and her self-alienation partly stems from this forced concealment of her ‘real self’ The disjunction—or split—between Natalie’s “inner” self and her outer “personality” causes her to feel divorced from her own experiences and leads to her self-alienation, forcing her to create a provisional ‘new’ personality.
On campus, Natalie’s only connection to her father is through their correspondence, and in these letters she glamorizes her college experience. In reality, college is not the ‘new start’ Natalie had hoped for. As she is constantly in the presence of other girls, Natalie struggles to maintain a ‘personality’ akin to those whom she regards “trivial people” and “mediocre” . Her self-alienation induces her to view her own personality as ‘alien’, permeating her the way she thinks, perceives, feels, and behaves with a sense of unrealness. No longer under her father’s watchful eye, Natalie’s unease increases and her unfixed personality distorts her worldview, leading her to speculate whether her name is truly Natalie or if she as appropriate another girl’s identity. She is scornful of sororities, rejects offers of friendships, and regards with contempt the books, subjects, and theories that she is meant to be studying.
In an attempt to find and assert her own individuality, she seeks refuge in her own writing, deriving strength from this process, and in her make-believe magic. Although she becomes briefly involved in the domestic life of one of her professors (this particularly rocky marriage seemed rather autobiographical) it is only when she meets the mysterious and alluring Tony that Natalie is able to connect to someone.

The confounding narrative of Hangsaman is peppered by odd interactions and monologues that are often as amusing as they are bizarre. The storyline begins with an extended scene in which Natalie’s parents are hosting a party at their house. The party is not a fun affair, and Natalie is involved in an incident that may or may not have actually happened (yeah, I know). The details around this episode remain blurry, and readers will have to draw their own conclusions. Although at college Natalie becomes increasingly divorced from her self—unsure of her name, qualities, and her very existence—it is this very act of self-doubting which drives Natalie’s quest for a suitable identity. As she grows contemptuous of the people she interacts with—students and professors alike—she attains self-validation through her own writing and imagination where she can contemplate grandiose visions of her self. Since Natalie, similarly to Jackson herself, equates normalcy with a loss of individuality, in her imaginary worlds she examines the depths of her own awareness and identity by endowing herself with magical gifts and powerful personalities (she is a ‘mercenary’, ‘gladiator’ and ‘creator’). The subversive components of her fantasies, which often build upon her fears—such as dying—and desires—such as being revered—enable her to exorcise personalities and futures that do not resonate with her. Natalie’s exploration of her self, and of the different realities that may or may not be attainable, is spurred by her self-alienation. Within these narratives, Natalie confronts the dangerous and alluring world of maturity alternating between being a victim and the perpetrator of violence. By proving to herself—and the readers—that she has the strength to defy, resist and even harm others, Natalie can finally become enfranchised from her controlling father and depressed mother.
Jackson’s narrative, fraught with ambivalence, culminates ominously, leaving readers wondering what was real and what wasn’t. In spite of the many disquieting and or perplexing moments/scenes in this novel, Jackson’s offbeat humour makes for a truly entertaining read.

Note: the first time I read this I gave it 3 stars. This third time around I am giving it 5 stars. While I now consider it an all time favourite, I did not know what to make of it the first time I read it….so perhaps you should approach this novel with caution. Although it has many Jacksonesque motifs (female doubles, themes of alienation and paranoia, dark humour, misanthropic characters, witchcraft) it is a far more slippery creature.

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

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