A cult classic that lives up to the hype: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides ★★★★

In 1970’s American Suburbia, the Lisbon sisters start to kill themselves.

This won’t be of any great shock based on the title, but trigger warnings abound.

It starts with thirteen-year-old Cecilia, who after a failed attempt at slitting her wrists in the bath, succeeds in ending her life by throwing herself out of a window and impaling herself on an iron fence. It leaves her sisters – Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Therese, ‘stranded in life’, in a home full of the ‘effluvia of so many young girls becoming women together in the same cramped space.’

They are coming of age in middle America at a time of tumult. Cecilia’s death is deemed too prosaic for the local news – it is a time when ‘hardly a day passed without some despairing soul sinking beneath the tide of the recession, men found in garages with cars running, or twisted in the shower, still wearing work clothes.’ We are in a country grappling with an existential crisis.

The sisters assume a mythical existence in the town, for none more so than a group of teenage boys who become the book’s Greek chorus, narrating the horrifying events of that summer in the collective ‘we’ from a distance of twenty years into the future. These boys – now men approaching middle-age – are obsessed with the sisters, obsessed with watching them, talking about them, cataloging the minutiae of their lives. They consider themselves to be ‘custodians of the girls’ lives’, forced to ‘wander endlessly down the paths of hypothesis and memory’ in an attempt to piece together what happened.

So although this book is ostensibly about the girls, it’s far more about the boys. If the fact that it’s written by a man and narrated by boys while being about the tragic deaths of young women puts you off (I understand), suspend your skepticism. The male gaze is kind of the point. The mythological rendering and obsessive reconstructing of a narrative about these girls is ultimately futile. Nothing really makes sense, the boys are no closer to knowing the girls or understanding their motivations, and neither is the reader. They remain at arm’s reach.

Eugenides’ writing is utterly transfixing. He evokes a time and a place in such an exacting and poetical way, the headiness and utter misery of teenagerhood, what it means to come of age in American suburbia in the seventies, what’s waiting on the ‘other side’ of childhood. He’s a master of atmosphere –  we can vividly imagine the ‘creeping desolation’ that takes over the house in the wake of Cecilia’s death, can smell the pungent odors of the ‘partly bad breath, cheese, milk, tongue film, but also the singed smell of drilled teeth’ – the suffocating decay, a house become a coffin.

It’s spellbinding and horrifying in equal measure, and well deserving of its cult classic status.

‘In the end we had the pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name.’

P.S. I decided to pick this one up after hearing Pandora Sykes and Bobby Palmer discuss it on their new podcast, Book Chat. I’d recommend giving it a listen – especially if you’re interested in rediscovering some older books.

The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi: a translator discovers a sinister shortcut ★★★½

‘Translation…is highly mathematical. It’s about retaining the feeling, the thing underneath.’

Anisa spends her days adding subtitles to Bollywood movies, when what she really wants to be doing is translating great works of literature. Her Urdu – her mother tongue – isn’t quite good enough, and other than English, she doesn’t speak other languages. That is, until she meets Adam, a polyglot who can converse a dazzling array of tongues like a native speaker. He’s also a white guy, making this particularly unusual.

He’s mediocre in most other ways, poor Adam, but his aptitude for languages is certainly quite the draw for Anisa. After they begin dating, he reveals that his impressive skills weren’t exactly acquired by years of dedicated study. Rather, he tells her, there’s a cutting-edge retreat that promises fluency in a couple of weeks – with a hefty price tag, and a scary-looking NDA that promises jail time for anyone who discloses a word about their experience to anyone else, ever.

It’s a bizarre, cultish experience – the details of which I won’t spoil – but, sure enough, Anisa emerges a fluent speaker of German, suddenly able to digest Goethe and Freud and Nietzsche in the original with ease. The critical acclaim and profile she’s always longed for begins to fall into her lap.

‘Being taken seriously felt nice. I felt that people were listening to me the way they listened to men, carefully, attentively, as if something of great value might drop out of my mouth at any moment.’

But once the novelty wears off, she’s back to feeling a general malaise. And she finds herself increasingly worrying about what really goes on at The Center, and how exactly she was able to absorb a new language at such rapid speed.

I loved the punchy writing and the darkly comedic moments, like when Anisa contemplates how best to protect herself when returning to The Centre: ‘I considered arming myself with pepper spray and a penknife but only thought of it the day before leaving and by then, even off Amazon Prime, they wouldn’t arrive in time.’

This is a deliciously moreish novel. It explores race, privilege and colonialism, the acts of assimilation and appropriation, and takes us on a journey from London to Karachi and New Delhi, noting the rifts between developed and developing worlds.

‘A sense of utility seeps in when you’re exposed, so closely, to the way the world is. In the West, they keep it all at a distance. The old, the poor, the dead – outsourced, deported and dismissed, hospitalized and imprisoned, or else bombed via remote control.’

This book started off as a solid four stars, but there were a couple of things that ultimately held it back for me: the pacing is a little uneven, veering from recounting play-by-play conversations in detail to broad brush strokes where months or years pass. I felt this could have been slightly better controlled so as not to throw the reader off. The next problem is that it overall feels like a brilliant premise that hasn’t been fully developed: we’re left with a lot of unanswered questions and ambiguity, with the sense of the ending having been wrapped up in a hurry and leaving a question mark over what it was really saying. It was trying to do a lot, particularly in the second half, which meant it lost some of the focus and zest it had started with, and wasn’t able to reconcile and tie the themes up in a satisfying way by the end. Nevertheless, it was still a fun and read-in-one-sitting kind of book.

With thanks to Picador via Netgalley for the advanced copy. The Centre will be published in the UK on 6th July 2023. Quoted material subject to change prior to publication.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Illuminating stories of tragedy and tenderness: Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty ★★★★

The interconnected stories in Night of the Living Rez document in equal parts the bleakness and tenderness of life on the Penobscot Indian reservation in Maine, told through the eyes of our protagonist David.

In a nonlinear structure, we meet David as a young boy, a teenager, and a middle-aged man, navigating a complex heritage while addiction, death, and poverty envelope and at times threaten to suffocate him. These are raw and unflinching stories that would be relentlessly harrowing if it weren’t for the compassionate storytelling and occasional wry humour.

As a child, David is already learning that happiness is just out of reach. ‘A week went by, a week in which happiness seemed to course through our veins like blood,’ he reflects. ‘But since then I’ve come to think that it wasn’t happiness but instead numbness.’ Numbness becomes a recurrent theme as he approaches adulthood. In an attempt to self-medicate the pain away, his life becomes about procuring and consuming an endless supply of pills and making endless trips to the methadone clinic with his friend Fellis.

There’s an oppressive claustrophobia to the stories which so rarely take us anywhere other than the confines of the reservation, a place that is by definition an enclosed, limited space – itself ‘a burial ground’. And our characters’ lives are narrower still – there is no escaping the kind of future they have inherited, the intergenerational trauma that haunts them. Even as they come of age, there’s no real getting out or going anywhere. David and Fellis while away their days taking drugs, smoking, watching Netflix, stealing money. There is a sense that nothing else is waiting for them on the other side of childhood.

‘When I sat down, my grandmother was smiling at me, smirking almost, like she knew the totality of my life, knew where I came from, where I was presently, and where I was going.’

Human connection, though, offers a glimmer of hope. David is loved by his mother, sister, and grandmother – despite, in her ailing mental state, mistaking him as her late younger brother. They make it through as best they can, even when their best isn’t much. They’re fighting an uphill battle against the forces of history, economic disparity, disenfranchisement – but Talty is careful never to hit the reader over the head with these broader themes, instead weaving them into a rich and illuminating narrative.

‘On the side of the road we stood, staring into a path that could bring you about anywhere. The last glimmers of day covered the rez roads, but the trees shrouded the path in darkness, a tunnel of never-ending light.’

His writing about the reservation itself is brilliantly evocative and haunting. The environment is often wet, cold, fecund, inviting, hostile. Hair gets trapped in frozen snow, a carpet of caterpillars is squashed underfoot, dark pines carry branches that sway ‘like smoke.’ It’s a place rendered mythical and that also brings us sharply back to reality: when David and his friends seemingly catch sight of a legendary monster in the woods, it turns out to be David’s inebriated older sister.

We root for our characters, wanting them to want something more for themselves. It’s a poignant and powerful book, keenly observed and compassionately told.

‘Maybe the right question is How do we get out of here? Maybe that’s the only question that matters.’

Illicit love and inescapable violence: Trespasses by Louise Kennedy ★★★★

It’s the mid-seventies in Northern Ireland, and sectarian violence is invading the lives of everyday people in a garrison town outside Belfast, home to our protagonist Cushla Lavery. A Catholic primary school teacher, Cusha lives a humdrum life at home with her alcoholic mother (reminiscent of the mother in Shuggie Bain).

Cushla’s students know words no child should: “Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a 7-year-old child now.” Every morning, they are instructed (per the headmaster) to stand up and share news. The personal is political – what is refracted through the TV screen is reflected in their lives. On one morning, her student Davy McGeown’s father is beaten and left for dead. As a mixed-marriage family living in a Protestant neighbourhood, they are frequent targets for persecution. Cushla comes alive as a character in her compassion for the McGeowns, taking Davy under her wing, bringing books to his older brother, Tommy, who is thinking of dropping out of school, pleading with the headmaster to provide them with free school meals.

‘It was hard to convince the children the stories were nonsense when murder was so commonplace.’

In the evenings, Cushla pulls pints at her brother Eamonn’s pub, where she is frequently subjected to lewd behaviour from the stationed British servicemen. One night, Michael walks in. An older, married Protestant man, he is building a name for himself defending Catholics for crimes against the state. A brief flirtation turns into an affair, under the auspices of her teaching him and his sophisticated friends the Irish language.

There’s a self-awareness that nothing will end well in a narrative about a married Protestant man embarking on an affair with a much younger Catholic woman in 1970’s Belfast. ‘We’re doomed,’ Cushla recognises. ‘Apart from that we’re grand.’ Everything happens in sequestered spaces, an illicit love doomed from the start.

I initially struggled to really connect with the characters, feeling removed in the third-person perspective – but as the story progressed my investment grew. In the final third of the novel the pace begins to pick up, heading in a direction that really, we all should have been prepared for – we know how history goes. And yet we are swept up in Cushla’s infatuation (despite her best judgement), can forgive her for being at Michael’s beck and call, even as it inspires self-loathing. Perhaps a part of her thinks it might just work out, her first great love affair.

Kennedy constructs a vivid moment in place and time, with a keen eye for detail. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and we are ensconced in the era: ABBA posters, beige food, Jimmy Saville – transporting us to a not-so-distant past where ordinary people are swept up, powerless, in the forces of history. The inevitable backdrop of everyday life involves checking the underside of your car for bombs, being stopped at checkpoints by soldiers, and a casual military interruption of a wedding.

The writing is melancholy and intense, but also restrained and sharply-observed and multi-layered. A worthy addition to the Women’s Prize longlist this year.

‘He clinked his drink against hers. Wherever you end up, think of the rest of us poor bastards, stuck in this hellhole.’

The Office of Historical Corrections Danielle Evans Book Review

The haunting of history in modern America: The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans ★★★½

TW: domestic violence

Two months into the new year, and I’m on my second short story collection. As with all short story collections, this one is somewhat uneven – but when it works, it really works.

The back cover copy refers to how history ‘haunts us’ in this book, and that hits the nail on the head. These character-driven stories explore racial injustice, sexism, the inescapability of history, and how to reconcile all of these in contemporary America, through the lenses of mostly Black, female protagonists.

Grief is everywhere we turn, and yet Evans’s meticulously controlled and precise writing prevents the narrative from ever feeling bogged-down or emotionally congested. There is the generational trauma of a wrongful conviction of a great-grandfather a century before (Alcatraz), a woman at a wedding who ends up on a road trip with the bride in the direction of the house where her sister was shot by her husband (Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain), a drug mule who boards an interstate bus alone and leaves with a toddler, raising him until it’s no longer tenable (Anything Could Disappear).

‘For a week before the wedding, her sister had been terrified of rain, and Rena had lied about the weather report to comfort her, and the weather had turned out to be beautiful, and her sister turned out to be beautiful, and Connor turned out to be the man who, a year later, suspected Elizabeth of cheating because he’d seen a repairman leave the house and she’d forgotten to tell him anyone was coming that day, and so he put a bullet through her head.’

The writing coolly sweeps you along and then punches you in the gut.

The titular novella, The Office of Historical Corrections, is built on a brilliant premise: a government funded project, the Institute for Public History: a ‘solution for decades of bad information and bad faith use of it.’ Cassie’s job is to correct the public record – souvenirs with the dates wrong, an off-colour poster about Juneteenth in a cake shop. And it’s all the menial bureaucratic work of a lowly government employee until she’s embroiled in the case of a historical lynching in a small Wisconsin town and a colleague who has gone to set the record straight, igniting the ire of local far-right racists.

‘White people love their history right up until it’s true.’

The premise is superb, as I said, but the rhythm felt off in this one: the short stories packed a bigger punch in their economical word count than a novella that takes up about a third of the book’s page count. It felt simultaneously over-long and under-explored, and even though it was a deft conclusion to the themes in the short stories that preceded it, I didn’t feel it was strong enough to be the axis of the book. Nevertheless, there are some really powerful, incisive stories in here, by an assured and refreshing voice.

The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn: A sweeping wartime saga ★★★★

These are the years between the wars, and young Cristabel Seagrave plays out her days in the stately Chilcombe manor on the Dorset coast; ‘a many-gabled, many-chimneyed, ivy-covered manor house with an elephantine air of weary grandeur’. She’s an orphan, and a plucky heroine to boot, the natural ringleader of her half-sister Flossie (nicknamed the Veg) and her much-longed-for cousin, Digby, who she considers a brother.

There’s a delightful and expansive cast of characters that play a role in Cristabel, Flossie and Digby’s idiosyncratic childhood; the lady of the manor, Rosalind, who delights in frittering away the family fortunes on décor and parties and not much else. Willoughby, her husband, has roguish but undeniable charm, and a penchant for fast cars and planes. They are joined by bohemian types – an American poetess, a Russian avant-garde artist (and his lovers and semi-feral children). There are also the many staff employed to keep the house running – from the inquisitive maid Maudie Kitcat to the disinterested governess Mademoiselle Aubert. And the Dorset landscape is itself a character alongside the rest of them, personified and alive with the changing seasons.

‘April is blown away by another round of storms, thunder rolling about the bay like a wooden skittle ball, then May steps in with a curtsey, and Dorset blooms with a giddy enthusiasm, like a young girl at her first county ball spun about the dance floor by a strong-handed farmer. The hedgerows take up motion, cow parsley quivering delightedly every time Willoughby roars past in his Daimler.’

Within the first half of the novel we follow this whimsical childhood. A seminal event is the discovery of a whale, washed up on the shores in the summer of 1928. Cristabel declares the carcass her own, and once there has been no sign of the King’s men arriving to stake their claim, the bones of the whale are transported up to the manor, where they become the stage for the titular Whalebone Theatre. From that point onwards, their imaginations can run wild – each summer of their childhood the Seagrave children enlist a troupe and perform to local crowds – Shakespeare, Homer – and delight in the rising star of their amateur productions.

And then, of course, years pass – the war arrives, and everything changes. The plot at this point is driven not by the will of the characters but by the force of history: Cristabel becomes an undercover agent who is parachuted into France, hoping to be reunited with Digby, and Flossie joins the Women’s Land Army. As is the nature of war, other characters disappear and die as the story is propelled forward. Chilcombe manor briefly plays host to evacuees from London, puts on musical evenings to build morale of nearby stationed American servicemen, and slowly falls into a state of disrepair, as England itself slips into yet another year, another Christmas, of this seemingly never-ending conflict.

‘The beach appears very far away, in the same way that their bodies seem distant when seen underwater. How easy it is to separate, from the land, from the shape of yourself. England is an unprepossessing layer of beige and green; it hardly seems worth fighting over.’

Quinn’s writing is gorgeous and evocative, and I particularly enjoyed the textual excursions – lists or diary entries or inventive formatting. Chilcombe is a magnetic force in the novel; I kept wanting to go back there. The first half of the book, set entirely against the Seagrave childhood on the Dorset coast, is dazzling. But this is a book of two halves: once the war begins and we are in occupied France, I found it harder to sustain interest. The plot moves a lot faster, of course, and there is life-or-death peril – but it lost some of the sheen from the first half, and began to feel more generic and, dare I say, predictable.

However, it’s the powerful bonds of love that drive forward the second half when it begins to get bogged down with history – particularly that between Cristabel and Digby, the sensitive boy who always preferred poetry to rugby, over whom Cristabel has always felt fiercely protective.

‘If he were still a boy, she would put her arm around him, but he is twenty-one years old now, a young man who has spent nearly all his adult life at war, and the hunch in his shoulders tells her he does not want to be calmed or comforted, however much she wants to comfort him.’

These later scenes are emotional and affecting, reminding us all of the horrors of war and what humanity is capable of – the bad and the good. A brilliant start that would have benefited from a different approach to the second half, but with a suitably satisfying conclusion ultimately makes this a story well told.

Beating the backlist in 2023, AKA working my way through an out-of-control bookcase

Surveying my stacks of books that have now spilled out from the bookshelves and into piles, I decided it was time to participate in the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge. As per the challenge, it is: ‘designed to help you tackle all the books you keep meaning to read and still haven’t’.

The guidelines are simple:

  1. The book must be published in the previous year or earlier (for the 2023 challenge, anything published in 2022 or earlier counts).
  2. You have to start and finish the book in 2023.
  3. I’m adding a third guideline that I have to own a physical copy of the book, as this is the real impetus behind reading these

Any format, any genre. Re-reads count, and you don’t have to own the book. It’s open for the entire year so whenever you feel like jumping in, you can!

Prompt: meant to read it last year (and every year for the past 6 years)

Do Not Say We Have Nothing
by Madeleine Thien (2016)

Prompt: multiple points of view

Of Women and Salt
by Gabriela Garcia (2021)

Prompt: recommended by a bookseller

The Hierarchies
by Ros Anderson (2020)

Prompt: more than 450 pages

The Warmth of Other Suns
by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)

Prompt: featuring travel (time optional)

I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories
by Kim Bo-Young (2021)

Prompt: set on a continent you don’t live on

The Republic of False Truths
by Alaa Al Aswany (2018)

Honestly, I’ll be very happy if I get to these 6 this year without getting distracted by shiny new books!

Bliss Montage by Ling Ma

Subversive and surreal short stories: Bliss Montage by Ling Ma ★★★★½

After reading Ling Ma’s Severance, one of my favourite books of 2020 (and I’ll be so bold as to say this decade), I was going to read whatever she published next.

Bliss Montage is a surrealist collection of short stories narrated by Chinese-American women. One lives in a house with 100 of their ex-boyfriends, but only two who matter: the one she was in love with and the one who beat her. A twenty-something aspiring PhD takes a banned drug (for old time’s sake) that turns her invisible. A professor finds a liminal space in another dimension in the back of her office closet.

The stories are bizarre and unsettling at times, but despite the weirdness, they never stop feeling real: whether we’re living in our 2023 or a near-future world order where microplastics wreak havoc on our bodies and America has fallen spectacularly from grace (see: Tomorrow), the rhythm of human life follows the same patterns. We fall in and out of love. We make and lose friends. We wonder what to do with our lives. We grapple with who we are and want to be.

‘When I think about Y now, I think less about the beginning than about the end, which is where all my feelings have now pooled, having rolled downward towards the inevitable outcome.’

It is our shifting identities that are at the centre of the book: the way we perceive ourselves and the way others perceive us, the way we write and rewrite our own histories and the histories of others. This is particularly poignant in ‘Peking Duck’, a metafictional narrative where a woman on an MFA program shares the story of her immigrant mother’s unpleasant encounter with a door-to-door salesman. When her story is published, she shares it with her mother, whose response is indignant. “How would you even know what happened? It happened to me, not to us.” In the workshop, the story is derided as “stereotypical” and “a kind of Asian minstrelsy“.

Ma resists giving us tidy conclusions. The stories often take us on an unpredictable path and then end without a full resolution. This sounds like it would be frustrating, but it feels the most honest approach in a book about the complexities of our modern condition. The writing is cool and restrained but also wryly funny at times (like the financier husband who speaks only in dollar signs) and I could have read 10 more stories in the same volume and still be enchanted and haunted by them all.

TW: domestic abuse

2022 round-up: the best books of the year

2022, another year over. This was a pretty good reading year – 28 books in total, under my initial (and overly ambitious) reading goal of 40 but over my revised goal of 25. I am always in awe at readers who can manage 52+ (the only time I got close to that, other than when studying for my Literature degree 10+ years ago, was 2020).

Before I get on to my favourites, here’s a quick wrap up:

Of these 28:

  • 17% were non-fiction, 83% fiction
  • All but one were written by women
  • 57% of authors were American, 37% British, with the remaining being Irish and Australian. This is less geographically diverse than previous years and something I want to improve on in 2023!

I love these wrap-ups because they remind of how much joy there is in reading a book you adore. Here are my top reads of 2022…

True Biz
by Sara Nović

Genre: contemporary fiction

In a sentence: an incredibly eye-opening read that introduced me to Deaf culture in all its exuberance.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

How High We Go In The Dark
by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Genre: lit fic/sci-fi/speculative

In a sentence: deeply imaginative, illuminating and original stories from a plague-ridden world that transcend the boundaries of genre.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Hop
By Diana Clarke

Genre: contemporary fiction

In a sentence: refreshing and empowering perspective on the sex work industry with whip-smart commentary on contemporary culture.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

by R. F. Kuang

Genre: lit fic

My one 5-star read of the year. In a sentence: a biting and deliciously dark story, satirizing the publishing world and the creative process in a very on-the-nose way. Publishing 2023!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Nobody Told Me
by Holly McNish

Genre: poetry

In a sentence: poetry and prose that is candid and funny, playful yet serious, and unflinchingly honest on the realities of motherhood.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

by Katie Kitamura

Genre: lit fic

In a sentence: a translator navigates language and power in this brilliant, incisive novel where the writing is a joy to behold.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Fight Night
by Miriam Toews

Genre: memoir

In a sentence: an irrepressibly energetic book told through the eyes of a nine-year-old – a hilarious and moving rallying cry.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Happy new year – let’s hope it’s a good one!

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