Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

‘Intimacies’ by Katie Kitamura, where a translator navigates language and power ★★★★½

We don’t know much about our protagonist. All we do know is that she’s somewhat of a rootless individual, who has recently moved to the Hague to translate at the criminal court. Despite the first-person perspective and the intimacy of seeing the world through her lens, we don’t even find out her name.

She’s unsure of the Hague, a place with a shiny veneer that conceals a darker underbelly. But she makes a friend, art curator Jana, and begins an affair with a married (separated) man, Adriaan. There’s something compelling about her, and all we come to know about her is through her emotionally astute observations of the world she inhabits.

As an interpreter, she has a keen awareness of the vagaries and complexities of language. She finds herself interpreting on behalf of a former president on trial, a warlord from an unnamed developing nation responsible for ethnic cleansing and mass murder. As she spends hours each day as the vessel through which his horrifying testimony passes through, it’s as if the horror of what she’s describing is lost in the act of interpreting it.  

‘…Interpretation can be profoundly disorientating, you can be so caught up in the minutiae of the act, in trying to maintain utmost fidelity to the words being spoken…that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: you literally do not know what you are saying. Language loses meaning.’

She keenly feels the responsibility of her role, the necessity of conveying the testimony in a truthful way. As the accused unnervingly tries to build rapport with her, she reflects on her job to ‘make the space between languages as small as possible’. She determines that she will not ‘obfuscate the meaning of what he had done… there would be no escape route between languages.’ It is important that he has his day in court, even as she recognises the disproportionate prosecution of African war criminals as those in the West are overlooked. There is an uneasy, unwanted intimacy between them, as she speaks his words for the court to hear day in and day out.

And in her personal life, there is an absence of closeness. Caught up continuously in her own head, she asks herself whether Adriaan will return from his extended visit to Lisbon, ostensibly to finalise his divorce, as she remains in his apartment, alone. She’s an intriguing, enigmatic character – I hestitate to add that despite this she is not the tortured millennial protagonist of much contemporary lit fic – and much of what we learn about her is through her own churning over of her intimate thoughts.

Not unsurprisingly, for someone who writes in such a highly-attuned way about language, Kitamura’s writing is brilliant – incisive, taut, saying so much without trying too hard. I can’t quite put my finger on why I enjoyed this as much as I did – vaguely plotless novels aren’t really my thing – and I think it has to come down to the writing style, which makes it hard to put down. Her crafting of an atmosphere of unease, her ruminations on the nature of language, her navigation of gendered power dynamics – it all packs a real punch in this slim novel.  

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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Brown Girls A Novel By Daphne Palasi Andreades

A kaleidoscopic portrait of growing up the daughters of immigrants in ‘Brown Girls’ by Daphne Palasi Andreades ★★★★

Welcome to the ‘dregs of queens’, a place where the ‘brown girls’ of the title are born to immigrant families from all over the world, who landed in New York in pursuit of the elusive American Dream. From young girlhood to teenagehood to adulthood and motherhood and beyond, this short, lyrical and impactful novel charts the phases of their lives as they navigate the world as daughters of immigrants.

As girls, they share beds with their younger siblings while their parents are out working 12- and 14-hour shifts. They grow up in a cacophonous, joyful blur of ‘screeching Mariah at the top of their lungs, cackling in the school courtyard, playing handball, talking smack’, even as teachers call them the wrong names and their brothers are penalised by the school system. These particular girls are academically gifted – they win places at the best schools, go on to university, build accomplished careers, get out of Queens for good.

As they reach adulthood, they contend with their histories, return to the places their parents left, grapple with their identities. They are stereotyped as the ‘good immigrant daughters, the oh-so-hard-working ones, the paragons of the American Dream, aren’t we? (But for what? For whom?)’ Set against the backdrop of the fractious political landscape under the leadership of Donald Trump, their identities are politicised; they are asked to speak as the authority on behalf of their race, and yet are mistaken for the wait staff at work soirees.

‘Our families’ legacies, the histories we’ve inherited: grandparents who never learned to read, U.S.-backed dictatorships, bombs, wars, refugee camps, naval bases, canals, gold, diamonds, oil, missionaries, brain drain, the American Dream.’

Queens is a place the girls ‘so desperately dreamt of leaving’, and yet find themselves longing to return to the streets they grew up, haring across the ‘boulevard of death’, inhaling the smells from the street food vendors, hearing the hallways echo with 100 different languages.

It eschews a traditional narrative structure or format; told in the collective first person ‘we’, the voice speaks for the group of brown girls whose families hail from the Philippines, from Haiti, from Jamaica, and many other corners of the world. It’s ambitious to create a choral voice that interweaves these experiences as if interchangeable. I’m not a WOC and can’t speak to whether or not this approach is oversimplifying or inclusive, but from a literary perspective, the novel succeeds in painting in broad brush strokes universal societal pressures and entrenched racist structures that many of these women face.

There’s an accomplished confidence to the stylistically bold writing, and I loved the rich descriptions and kaleidoscopic vignettes that paint the story. I began to wonder how the author would bring it all to a close, where the natural end would fall. It turns out that she took these characters all the way to beyond the grave – the only part of the novel I felt was faltering and off-kilter.

‘Why did we ever believe home could only be one place? When existing in these bodies means holding many worlds within us.’

It’s an accomplished debut, with a lot to say and not quite enough space to say it in. I’ll look forward to seeing what Daphne Palasi Andreades does next.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
The Heights Louise Candlish Book Review

‘The Heights’ by Louise Candlish, a slow-burn domestic noir about motherhood, retribution, and obsession ★★★★

How far would you go to protect your children? To what lengths would you pursue justice for anyone who did them harm? Ellen Saint is less than thrilled when her golden boy, Lucas, is matched as a ‘buddy’ at sixth form with Kieran, whose foster-home upbringing and non-standard English is worlds apart from Ellen’s carefully-cultivated suburban London home and Oxbridge aspirations for her son.

She sounds like a Karen, and yet she’s not an unsympathetic character. Kieran is rude, obnoxious, seemingly untalented in anything other than leading Lucas astray. Before Ellen knows it, they’re out most nights drinking and taking drugs, and Lucas’s university aspirations are rapidly fading. And then the unthinkable happens, and Ellen’s dislike of Kieran turns into a full-blown obsession, consuming her day and night. Unable to forgive or move on, she channels her energy into a campaign to destroy him.

‘Far from getting cold feet, I had begun to feel the fanaticism of someone whose mission is absolutely – almost divinely – right.’

In a clever structure, Ellen’s retelling of the course of events is framed as a writing project for female victims of crime, and is interspersed with extracts from a newspaper article, painting the story in another (more impartial?) light. When the perspective shifts halfway through, to that of Lucas’s father, Vic, we see things from yet another angle.

‘When you write your history, you find that you identify – and scatter – clues you couldn’t possibly have seen when you were living events in the present. Which means what’s blindingly obvious to you reading this now was unfathomable to me at the time.’

It’s funny how there are base instincts that compel even the most respectable amongst us to acts of lunacy. Ellen suffers from ‘l’appel du vide’ – the urge to jump when confronted with a steep drop, such as you might find on a bridge, the edge of a cliff, or the roof of a skyscraper.

I almost finished this in one sitting on a transatlantic flight (and it accompanied me through the jetlag of the following days). In Candlish’s fiction – as in life – there are rarely clear-cut heroes and villains, and her well-plotted domestic noirs don’t want for depth or nuance. The pace is measured rather than frantic, but gut-wrenching in its slow reveals, the truths and untruths that emerge as the story unfolds.

With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy. The Heights will be published in March 2022.

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The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Happy Publication Day | The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Happy publication day to The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan!

I read Jessamine Chan’s debut in May last year. It’s set in a dystopian universe – but one that’s only slightly removed from our own. When protagonist Frida Liu leaves her crying daughter at home alone – just briefly – her life spirals out of control. Determined an unfit mother, she’s sent to a residential program for a year. This program – the school for good mothers – presents the women with AI dolls, designed to resemble their own flesh-and-blood children, and they are placed under 24-hour surveillance. It’s a chilling book, one that simmers with a quiet yet powerful rage. Chan explores the second-generation immigrant experience, and the terrifying possibilities of greater patriarchal control over our lives.

2021 round-up: the best books of the year

So here we are at the end of another pandemic year.

There’s a lot to be thankful for – #1 being the miracle of science that has helped us regain back some semblance of our old lives – hikes and bike rides aplenty, celebrating a wedding in California, holding our goddaughter, a trip to the English seaside with family. I hope that everyone else has kept as healthy and happy as possible, even though it’s been unimaginably difficult at times.

Books are of course on my gratitude list. To be able to escape into other worlds when this one seems insurmountably uncertain is a real blessing. In no particular order, here are my top 6 books of the year…

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

This journalistic tour de force lays bare the real, raw, messy relationships of three real women, drawn with insight and empathy. Taddeo spent years immersed in the lives of her subjects, and the result makes for compelling (if a little voyeuristic) reading.

Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg

This is maybe the best short story collection I’ve ever read. I don’t necessarily gravitate towards short stories, and have no idea how this got on my radar – but it’s just brilliant. It’s full of caustic humour and emotional devastation – and so attuned to the intricacies of love in all of its many incarnations.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

I am unashamed to admit I was very much on this hype train and I enjoyed Sally Rooney’s latest book immensely. She’s a master at depicting modern human interaction and the subtleties of communication, from political sparring to comedic riffing to sex. Her best yet.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Taking us on a devasating journey through Afghan history of the 60s and 70s, The Kite Runner not only encompasses swathes of political and social history, but tells an incredibly moving and intimate story of Amir’s life.

The Divines by Ellie Eaton

This was always going to be right up my street – set at an English boarding school in the 90s, it’s an absorbing, a slow-burn piece of literary fiction that grapples with the nature of memory, history, and selfhood. Ellie Eaton captures the awkwardness of the female teenage experience in such an insightful way, perhaps one of the realest depictions I’ve ever read.

Human Acts by Han Kang

Beginning in South Korea in the 80s with a bloody massacre, Han Kang’s novel does not make for easy reading, but her deft skill with language – particularly when it comes to trauma and corporality – makes it hard to look away.

So, there we have this year’s round-up, and I’ll leave on Grant Snider’s New York Times cartoon from last week, which is painfully accurate:

Grant Snider

Wishing you all a safe and healthy new year, and good things (and books) on the horizon.

Book Review - The No-Show by Beth O'Leary

Beth O’Leary’s ‘The No Show’, a charming and wise contemporary romance with emotional heft ★★★★

Meet three women: Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane – all stood up by the same enigmatic Joseph Carter on Valentine’s Day. These three couldn’t be more different – Siobhan is a seemingly self-assured life coach, extroverted and fashion-conscious. Miranda is a tree surgeon who can more than hold her own amongst a group of lads. And unassuming Jane is rebuilding her life after fleeing London in mysterious circumstances, and volunteering at a charity shop in Winchester.

Joseph seems like the perfect guy. He’s handsome, thoughtful, smart, and a devoted carer to his mum with dementia. But there’s something he’s holding back from all of them – they can’t quite get the full story. Something’s not quite adding up.

‘Beautiful, careful simplicity – that is the life Jane has built for herself. And then there’s Joseph. Certainly beautiful, not at all simple.’

While there are central romances in this story, it’s very much a novel about relationships in all their many forms. Beth O’Leary’s characters are, as always, living and breathing on the page –  a fully-fleshed-out and authentic cast you’re invested in and rooting for. I particularly enjoyed the friendships between the characters – Jane with the exuberant Aggie, Miranda and her insufferable but endearing baby sisters Adele and Frannie, Siobhan’s flatmate and steadfast best friend Fiona. These characters are never wallpaper in her stories – they play essential roles in shaping the narrative.

What I found refreshing and surprising about The No-Show is the way that O’Leary took it in a direction I wasn’t expecting – there’s a big reveal about three-quarters of the way through and things start to fall into place in a satisfying resolution. I wouldn’t profess to be good at spotting these things in advance, but I would never had guessed the cleverly constructed conceit at the heart of the book.

‘It’s not exactly the way she imagined this moment – more livestock, for instance – but here is her chance to tell Joseph how she really feels about him.’

I so enjoy Beth O’Leary’s writing (she’s really the only author of this genre I read), because she’s able to balance emotional heft with moments of levity and humour. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill contemporary romantic fiction – there’s emotional depth and an exploration of hard-hitting and life-altering events. It might be a little darker than you’re expecting, but it’s pulled off with O’Leary’s trademark warmth and compassion.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, get it on your TBR for April 2022!

CW: depression, baby loss

With thanks to Quercus for the advanced copy. The No-Show will be published in April 2022.

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books on my winter tbr

10 books on my winter 2021 TBR

Here’s another overly-optimistic list to see me through the dark winter months.

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness
by Claire Vaye Watkins

‘A darkly funny, soul-rending novel of love in an epoch of collapse–one woman’s furious revisiting of family, marriage, work, sex, and motherhood.’

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
by Anthony Marra

‘A brilliant debut novel that brings to life an abandoned hospital where a tough-minded doctor decides to harbor a hunted young girl, with powerful consequences.’

Bewilderment
by Richard Powers

‘With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, its tantalizing vision of life beyond, and its account of a father and son’s ferocious love, Bewilderment marks Richard Powers’s most intimate and moving novel. At its heart lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperiled planet?’

Exhalation
by Ted Chiang

‘In these nine stunningly original, provocative, and poignant stories, Ted Chiang tackles some of humanity’s oldest questions along with new quandaries only he could imagine.’

Intimacies
by Katie Kitamura

‘A novel from the author of A Separation, a taut and electrifying story about a woman caught between many truths.’

The Promise
by Damon Galgut

The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home. Confident, deft and quietly powerful, The Promise is literary fiction at its finest.’

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria
by Wendy Pearlman

‘Reminiscent of the work of Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, an astonishing collection of intimate wartime testimonies and poetic fragments from a cross-section of Syrians whose lives have been transformed by revolution, war, and flight.’

A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf
by Virginia Woolf

‘Between these points of time unfolds the private world – the anguish, the triumph, the creative vision – of one of the great writers of our century.’

To Paradise
by Hanya Yanagihara

‘From the author of the classic A Little Life, a bold, brilliant novel spanning three centuries and three different versions of the American experiment, about lovers, family, loss and the elusive promise of utopia.’

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
by Caroline Criado Pérez

‘Celebrated feminist advocate Caroline Criado Perez investigates the shocking root cause of gender inequality and research in Invisible Women​, diving into women’s lives at home, the workplace, the public square, the doctor’s office, and more. Built on hundreds of studies in the US, the UK, and around the world, and written with energy, wit, and sparkling intelligence, this is a groundbreaking, unforgettable exposé that will change the way you look at the world.’

Descriptions taken from Goodreads. Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

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Verity by Colleen Hoover - book review

‘Verity’ – a sinister thriller exploring the twisted mind of a writer ★★★★

Verity is an accomplished writer – at least she was. Lowen is a struggling writer facing eviction – at least until the opportunity of a lifetime presents itself.

Verity is involved in a tragic accident that leaves her unable to complete her crime-thriller series, and her husband Jeremy believes that what Verity would have wanted is for another writer to take on the task. That writer happens to be Lowen. And the only practical solution – given the enormous stacks of notes Verity wrote before her accident – is for Lowen to come to the family home and wade through Verity’s office by hand.

While she’s there, she discovers another manuscript. One that paints the picture-perfect family that Verity and Jeremy have built in a rather different light. And the more Lowen reads, the more disturbed she becomes. She starts seeing things, like Verity – ostensibly non-communicative and unable to move independently – moving around the house, talking to her young son and locking doors that were previously open…

“Some families are lucky enough to never experience a single tragedy. But then there are those families that seem to have tragedies waiting on the back burner. What can go wrong, goes wrong. And then gets worse.”

It’s a unputdownable thriller – Colleen Hoover constructs a claustrophobic, menacing setting and a tightly-wound plot. Something is clearly very, very wrong in that house – but who is the villain, and what really happened to Verity’s two young daughters?

“This is the point when other authors would paint themselves in a better light, rather than throw themselves into an X-ray machine. But there is no light where we’re going. This is your final warning.”

I learnt that Colleen Hoover is best known for her romance writing, and she tries to put that to good use here – there were a lot of sex scenes and a central romance that develops throughout the narrative, but not really enough character development for it to be a plausible relationship. I think the novel would have been stronger if Hoover hadn’t been trying to work a romance into a thriller.

Genre-blending pitfalls aside, I really enjoyed Verity. It is propulsive and creepy, and very easy to devour in a few sittings. I like the alternation between passages from Verity’s manuscript and Lowen’s present-day reality, working in tandem to ramp up the tension until the final few scenes.

In a final twist, the real story is left up for grabs – it’s up to the reader to decide on the truth. In some stories it might be frustrating, but here it’s a clever and satisfying denoument.

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‘Shuggie Bain’ – a devastating account of heartbreak and hope in 1980’s Glasgow ★★★★

I wanted to read this book not only because it won the Booker last year, but also because it portrays a world we rarely see in literary fiction. In this intricate, bleak, and at times relentless novel, Douglas Stuart transports us to the post-industrial wasteland of 1980s Glasgow; a city ravaged by Thatcherite policies that have caused mass unemployment, alcoholism and abject poverty.

Shuggie, the young son of Agnes and Shug (Hugh) Bain, is the lens through which we see this desolate world. Agnes is slowly drinking herself to an early grave, and Shuggie assumes the role of her protector and carer from a young age, making sure there’s a warm mug of Special Brew next to a strong cup of tea for when she comes round after a blackout, and hiding the razors when he leaves the house for school. Despite Agnes’s undeniable neglect of young Shuggie, and his elder half-siblings Catherine and Leek, he is devoted to her. Shuggie lives in a perpetual state of dread over his mother’s behaviour and potential fate, while never quite losing the hope that things will be okay in the end, even as degradation and misery swirls around him year after year.  

I suppose what does shine through – even as it serves to make the events of the novel even more painful – is Shuggie’s capacity for love and forgiveness of his mother. He recognises her shortcomings, but admires the unshakeable façade she puts on for the outside world, in her ‘matted mink coat [which] gave her an air of superiority, and her black strappy heels clacked out a slurred beat on the long marble hallway.’ It’s hard to watch, hard to feel empathy for a character so flawed and self-destructive.

‘She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but Shuggie looked at her now and understood this was where she excelled. Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.’

Stuart’s Glasgow is one of ‘colourless daylight…[pouring] through net curtains’, a morning sun which ‘sets the slag hills on fire’, where the dust from the slag heaps is ‘like the inside of a burst Etch A Sketch, like the lead dust from a million shaved pencils.’ Where a drive through the city at night is ‘like a descent into the heart of the Victorian darkness.’ It’s relentlessly bleak but poetically rendered in its bleakness. After I finished the book I found this photography collection by Raymond Depardon and it really brought the reality home.

There’s so much cyclicality in this novel, so many sorry things happening again and again – sexual assault, bullying, violence, hunger, ostracization. Stuart vividly portrays the cycle of addiction and poverty, and how without a strong social fabric and structured, sustained assistance, it’s almost impossible to break free. This is where I struggled a bit with the narrative – the repetitiveness serves an important purpose in conveying the “message” of the novel, but I struggled to keep up the energy to continue reading under the weight of it all. It’s not an enjoyable read, but it is completely unforgettable. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.