Book Review | My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Vanessa is fifteen years old, attending a seemingly idyllic and prestigious boarding school set in the rolling mountains of Norumbega, Maine in the early 2000s. Jacob Strane is her English teacher, in his forties. And the two, Vanessa insists, embark on a romantic relationship.

This enthralling, dark, devastating and nuanced novel is difficult to write about. Let’s remember one thing: Vanessa is fifteen. And although Strane calls her ‘mature’ for her age, we are constantly reminded of just how untrue this is – she is, first and foremost, a child. She’s petty, and insecure, and naive, and trusting, and lost, and lonely. All of which make the way that Strane grooms her even more abhorrent. In all the headiness and confusion and complexity of teenagerhood, Vanessa tells herself it’s love. That being with Strane makes her powerful, and womanly. That she has the power to destroy everything for him – but it’s a power she will wield and never exercise.

‘But no, that word isn’t right, never has been. It’s a cop-out, a lie in the way it’s wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I.’

Vanessa is a troubled and troubling narrator. She insists on having control over the narrative, constantly resists the language of rape and abuse, and yet in a way is already allowing her story to be governed by another narrative – that of Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel Strane gives her when she’s fifteen and which she quickly becomes obsessed with, to the extent of muddling up, in adulthood, what happened in the story with what happened between her and Strane.

‘If I tug on any string hard enough, Lolita will emerge from the unravelling.’

Vanessa’s refusal to see herself as a victim, her insistence on her own complicity and willingness is undermined by her own retelling of the story – graphic scenes of abuse that she reimagines as romance. It is painfully obvious to the reader than Strane is a monstrous predator, and yet, as hers is the only narrative perspective we have, I felt at times wondering if we were wrong to deny Vanessa her fiction.

‘I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.’

But the damage that this event has inflicted upon her life as she moves into adulthood is undeniable. We see how the harm reverberates with the dual narratives of Vanessa in 2006 and again in 2017, at the start of the #MeToo movement and an increased pressure and galvanised momentum to speak out against abusers.

There’s a difficulty in a lack of a clear resolution, and the book feels somewhat over long. We spend a considerable amount of time with a very complex and difficult narrator, which is an emotionally draining experience. But it’s also a masterpiece. Complex, deeply uncomfortable, but utterly captivating.

****.5

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Have you read My Dark Vanessa or is it on your TBR? Do you think it was worth the hype? Would love to hear your thoughts!

Book Review | The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

Has there ever been a more famous or sublime opening line in literature than the first line of The Go-Between? ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ It’s a surprise discovery of an old diary in the present day – the 1950s – that transports our narrator, Leo, back to the sultry summer of 1900, spent at his friend Marcus’s Norfolk estate. It’s a fateful summer that set the course for the rest of Leo’s life. What is so accomplished in this novel is the way it draws us into that ‘foreign country,’ painting an intricate and evocative picture of a late Victorian world that seemed far gone in the 1950s – and couldn’t seem more foreign to readers today.

Twelve years old at the time, Leo is haplessly naive and tentatively inquisitive about the world. Educated at a boy’s boarding school, he nonetheless feels conscious of his social inferiority in the midst of the Maudsley’s grandeur. Swept up into the pomp and circumstance of life at the manor, Leo is desperate to make a good impression – and none more so than on Marcus’s sister, Marian Maudsley. So infatuated is he that he agrees to become messenger boy for her and Ted Burgess, a farmer in the village. Sworn to total secrecy, of course. And Leon revels in his secret mission; ‘my place was here,’ he reflects, ‘here I was a planet, albeit a small one, and carried messages for other planets.’

As guileless as he is, he has no reason to suspect anything untoward in the communication between the two parties. Marian is to be engaged to the Viscount Trimingham, an injured soldier just returned from the Boer war. The thought of the stately Marian entering into a union with a lowly farmer is unthinkable to Leo, who has yet to understand the dynamics of adulthood desire.

The turn-of-the-century concerns of class, Englishness and social propriety are never far from our protagonist’s mind, distilled into the afternoon that the family up at the Hall meet with the commoners down in the village for a game of cricket. Leo observes –

‘Dimly I felt that the contrast represented something more than the conflict between Hall and village. It was that, but it was also a struggle between order and lawlessness, between obedience to tradition and defiance of it, between social stability and revolution, between one attitude to life and another.’

The narrative is richly multi-layered, aided in part by the way in which it is refracted through the lens of memory, as the older Leo looks back on the events that came to pass: ‘Those early days were a time of floating impressions… Scenes linger with me – generally in tones of light and dark, but sometimes tinged with colour.’ Immersed into Leo’s inner thoughts and feelings, we feel it all – his nervous yet unshakable devotion to Marian, his painfully self-conscious donning of his new green suit, his incomprehension at that which he cannot understand.

But we all know that the novel will reach a cataclysmic conclusion; that the climbing heat of the languid summer will reach boiling point.

‘I was now dizzily whirling round in a tiny flaming nucleus like a naptha flare in a street-market, impenetrable darkness all around me, my sole prospect my own imminent destruction.’

It is an utterly absorbing read, and a fascinating portrait of a bygone era. It examines psychological conflict, loss of innocence, the nature of memory and the ripple effects of a single event – and much more than I could ever do justice to here. After I finished my degree in English Literature, I took a long break from the classics. This served as a good reminder, six years on, that so much of what I read and love today is inextricable from what came before.

****.5

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Read if you enjoyed: Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro 

Book Review | Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

The narrator of Topics of Conversation is acerbic, witty, dark. In a fragmentary narrative, we are guided – or perhaps pulled – through a 17-year period of her life, as seen through a fragmentary series of conversations. We get the impression that she’s excavating her inner life, in the effort of imposing some kind of narrative meaning to it, refining and honing the prose of her experience. ‘Look,’ as one irate character remarks, ‘you’re all imagining yourselves as people in some kind of story.’

And yet our unnamed protagonist realises – has always realised – that it is a ‘folly’ to settle on the governing narrative of one’s life, especially at the young age of twenty-one, when we first meet her. The particularly powerful parts of the narrative are when she interrogates the self-conscious way in which we tell stories and in which we stack together the moments of our life as if they were part of a story, as if we are winking to an unknown reader.

‘Perhaps sometimes you find yourself doing things because you think the narrative arc calls for it, or because you’ve grown bored with your own plot.’

Despite our narrator’s references to narrative arc and plot, there is none of the traditional narrative trajectory here. All we get are moments. This isn’t a novel for readers who want a clearly defined beginning, middle and end – or even any kind of plot that can be put into words. It’s not always easy to get at the essence of this novel, to articulate clearly what it is ‘about’ – and that almost seems to be the point.

‘Truth didn’t help. Everything that had ever happened could never be integrated into something coherent. The trick was picking the right moments.’

With a startling intimacy, Popkey interrogates modern womanhood and all that comes with it. Our narrator unflinchingly talks to us about sex and power and motherhood – what it means to desire and to be in control and what it means to desire and not be in control. The novel takes us to some complicated and nuanced places. It’s a dark and difficult territory for our narrator, who is steeped in self-loathing.

‘When we thought about sex we thought mostly about ways to defend against what we didn’t want instead of ways to pursue what we did.’

The breathless writing style is circuitous and rambling at times, folding back on itself and bending the conventional rules of grammar – which, if you can get past it (and apparently many readers cannot), is arguably a true reflection of the way that conversations between people happen.

This is an extremely polarising book, if the Goodreads reviews are anything to go by, and it definitely won’t be for everyone. It isn’t the perfect example of an experimental or fragmentary style. The prose is overwrought at times, and some of the passages are more worth investing in than others. And yet, I could hardly stop reading. At one point, our narrator remarks – ‘conversation is flirtation. Tease out enough rope and the listener, she’ll hang on your every word.’ And I did.

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With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. Topics of Conversation was published in January 2020.

Book Review | The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

Yona Ko works at a Korean travel company, where her job is ‘surveying disaster zones and turning them into vacations’ – putting together the most compelling and lucrative packages to inspire the adventurous traveller. Yona and her colleagues do very little to interrogate the ethical nature of their work, instead framing it through a purely transactional lens: there is money to be made in disaster.

‘A package has to be powerful to survive. We’ve got earthquakes, typhoons, volcanoes, avalanches, floods, fires, massacres, wars, radioactivity…The packages Koreans like are those with something exotic, the spirit of adventure.’

After being sexually assaulted by her manager, Yona agrees to go on one of the trips to the remote island Mui, off the coast of Vietnam, where a sinkhole swallowed most of the island’s residents some years ago. It will be Yona’s job to experience the vacation as a tourist and assess whether it’s worth the company renewing their contract. Whilst she’s there, she gets drawn into a dark and twisted plot to sustain the cachet of the island – at any cost.

This short novel packs a punch, showing us a dystopian vision that takes our modern-day voyeurism to the extreme. It implicitly interrogates our consumption the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the never-ending exposure to global tragedy – whilst also recognising the desensitisation that occurs from such consumption. It also is a scary magnification of the kind of exploitative practice of touring sites like Chernobyl or the favelas in Brazil, trips that already happen on a regular basis to tourists clamouring for the ‘authentic’ experience.

‘The disaster has to be on a certain scale for busy people to take the time to sympathise and pay attention. The world is overrun with stimulation, so that’s just how it is.’

It’s an offbeat, quirky narrative, with a chilling nonchalance towards the bounds of behaviour in pursuit of profit – including on the part of our protagonist, who rarely self-reflects on her complicity in a way that I found somewhat frustrating. There is a precision to the language that I’ve seen in other works of translated Korean fiction, and I enjoyed having a non-Western protagonist guide the story. However, it veers off into the nightmarish surreal as the novel reaches its conclusion, and introduces plot points I felt were underdeveloped and rushed (e.g. the love interest). There’s a lot the novel is saying, with a fascinating premise to explore, but more could have been done for it to reach its potential.

***

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With thanks to the publisher, Counterpoint, for the advanced copy. The Disaster Tourist will be published in August 2020.

Book Review | The Body Lies by Jo Baker

A move from clamour of London to the idyll of a university town was the chance for a fresh start for our unnamed narrator. Having survived a sexual assault by a stranger,  she was desperate to leave the city with her toddler son, Sammy, while her husband stayed in London to fulfil his work responsibilities. She takes up a position as a university MA professor in creative writing, having had some limited success with a published novel earlier in her life.

Our narrator is quite quickly out of her depth, having extra responsibilities heaped onto her whilst dealing with the tensions in her MA group between writers of different sensibilities, and the graphic and esoteric writing of one student in particular, Nicholas. Nicholas professes to the group that everything he writes about is true, and that he’s pushing form to its experimental limits, to ‘sound out the depths, map this darkness.’ He’s a character who wouldn’t be out of place with Donna Tartt’s elite clique of students in The Secret History.

Physicality and the writing of the body is also a theme in the novel that I thought was explored well and with a knowing self-consciousness. An early discussion in the MA group devolves into a heated argument over opening with the ‘anonymous dead girl’ trope in crime fiction, and how such scenes can be faithfully rendered without reducing a female body to the sum of its parts. Our narrator questions this responsibility: ‘I was struggling with my own question of whether there was a way to write female without writing body, and whether there was a way to be female without being reduced to body.’ This is, incidentally, the way The Body Lies begins – with a dead body – and so the narrative offers us no answers about the ‘appropriate’ way to write trauma and the female body, only questions.

The gap between an academic critique of bodies and the way bodies behave in real life is also explored by one of the other ‘handsy’ professors in the English department, someone who has ‘such a heightened critical awareness of fictional bodies,’ and yet is –

‘so blissfully unaware of the actual real-world effects of his own. His presence seemed to tentacle its way into every available space, so that one shrank and sidled and crammed oneself into corners to avoid it.’

Existing as a woman in this world, our narrator finds herself ‘reduced to body.’ She is objectified and her agency is robbed from her – both in the act of her sexual assault and in the appropriating of her life through the process of loosely disguised fiction. Because she suddenly becomes a central – and chilling – part of Nicholas’s twisted narrative, finding herself ‘caught in the landscape of his imagination.’ This fascinating premise is what drew me to this novel: the intertextuality and blurring of the lines between reality and fiction.

The writing style in this novel was perfectly pitched for a literary psychological thriller. The atmosphere is well-drawn and transports the reader to the University town, with its ‘very British kind of melancholy,’ pathetic fallacy deftly employed. And yet, while this started off so strong, I felt that the narrative lost steam as we approached the second half, and the story culminated in a stereotypical and cinematic conclusion that felt trite after the originality of the first half, devolving into predictability in a horror-movie-esque showdown.

I also had some issues with the central characters – whilst some peripheral characters were well-drawn – particularly the sleazy head of department and the earnest American student Meryl – I don’t feel like we got a real sense of Nicholas, beyond his writing. Additionally, whilst our narrator is undergoing deeply traumatic experiences, I found her sense of fatalism and lack of agency to be distressing from a character point of view and frustrating from a narrative point of view. The novel explores some fascinating and complex ideas about fact/fiction and sexual politics, I just wish it could have kept going with the intrigue and momentum that is built up so masterfully in the first half of the novel.  A worthwhile read, despite the shortcomings.

***.5

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Read if you enjoyed: The Secret History by Donna TarttBlack Chalk by Christopher Yates

 

Book Review | Weather by Jenny Offill

Weather hums with a persistent, underlying anxiety. The hum is ‘in the air’, Lizzie remarks, a PhD dropout and now librarian who answers doomsday emails from listeners to a climate change podcast.

And it’s the affliction of modern life, the interior and exterior concerns running concurrently, that is at the core of this short, sparse and poetic novel. Offill explores the coexisting unease we have – the fear of the apocalypse, the mundane fears of everyday life – without passing judgement. The domestic and the global simply exist side by side. Lizzie yells at her son for losing his new lunchbox, and plans who she’ll share a bunker with when the apocalypse comes.

‘And then it is another day and another and another but I will not go on about this because no doubt you too have experienced time.’

Told through impressionistic vignettes, the novel nevertheless speaks volumes. It’s a mark of an accomplished writer to be able to say so much while saying so little. And if there’s a plotlessness to the novel, it doesn’t detract from the message – if anything, it amplifies it. There’s the feeling of a steady build to a crescendo, as Lizzie becomes increasingly preoccupied with what will happen. But this is a story about the moments that come before the event: ‘How will the last generation know it is the last generation?’ someone asks. This is the uneasy calm before the storm hits. There’s no denouement, no easy resolution.

‘There is a period after every disaster in which people wander around trying to figure out if it is truly a disaster. Disaster psychologists use the term ‘milling’ to describe most people’s default actions when they find themselves in a frightening new situation.’

There’s a deep malaise and a dread, but it is also peppered with Offill’s light-touch observations, character interactions and moments of wry humour make this a book about human connection as much as about our environment.

It’s a disorienting novel that definitely won’t be for everyone. I started and stopped reading multiple times before I finally sat down and read it all the way through. The best way to experience the novel, in my opinion, is to consume it all at once – letting it wash over you. It’s difficult to look away once you do. An apt read for these strange and troubled times.

‘She gave us a formula: suffering = pain + resistance.’

****

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After writing this review, I listened to the episode featuring Jenny Offill on Literary Friction, and would recommend it for anyone looking for a deeper insight into the background and context of the novel. They also address the notion of ‘hopefulness’ in literature, which I personally appreciated given our current state of the world!

Read if you enjoyed: Severance by Ling Ma, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Book Review | Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

Rose Gold was a sick child. Wheelchair-bound, chronically underweight and unable to go to mainstream school because of a mysterious ‘chromosomal abnormality’. Of course, Rose Gold wasn’t actually sick. Her mother, driven by an obsession with control and misguided devotion, poisoned her daily until she was in her late teens. Such kind of insidious evil is not for the faint of heart – especially as it leaves Rose Gold severely emaciated and stunted in her growth.

Now Rose Gold is in her early twenties, with a young baby, and her mother’s prison term is up. In a decision that leaves the small community of Deadwick, Illinois incredulous, she invites her mother to come and live with them while she gets back on her feet. She’s been manipulated and abused by her mother her whole life – is it possible she’s still under her spell?

‘All I’ve ever wanted, as a mother, is to be needed. The first few years of your child’s life, no one is more important to her than you, not even her father. That biological imperative demands to be satisfied, over and over and over. And then your child turns ten or twelve or eighteen, and suddenly you’re no longer critical. How are we supposed to cope? We mothers give up everything for our children, until they decide they don’t want our everything anymore.’

The narrative flips between the point of view of Rose Gold in the past and her mother Patty in the present, the two narratives working their way towards each other as we discover the depths to which they’ll go to settle a score. Rose Gold isn’t your typical victim – she’s gone through hell, but she’s not the butter-wouldn’t-melt angel that these characters are sometimes portrayed to be. Friendless and decidedly at odds with the rest of society, while we feel compassion because of her traumatic childhood, she isn’t a likeable character. In fact, it’s hard to root for anyone in this book – none of the characters are in the least bit likeable. It’s an interesting take on the victim narrative, but it does run the risk of reader apathy towards the eventual outcome.

There were some interesting secondary narrative threads that added dimension to the story and kept me reading to discover how they would end – Rose Gold’s ‘online boyfriend’ who she’s never met in real life, and the discovery of her long-lost father who abandoned her pregnant mother two decades ago. But there were missed opportunities to explore the psychological causes and consequences of Munchausen by proxy, and the direction of the narrative took a predictable turn when you come to figure out the puzzle pieces and character motivations. A pacy read – I finished it in a couple of days – but ultimately not as satisfying or well developed as it could have been.

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