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.

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.’

Affecting stories of strength and struggle: Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia ★★★★

TW: addiction, abuse, displacement

These heart-wrenching multi-generational stories are easy to get swept up in, but hard to read. Spanning cigar factories in pre-Independence war Cuba to migrant detention centres in Texas and suburban Floridian homes, these women of Cuban and Salvadoran descent have heavy, harrowing tales to tell.

These stories, loosely connected, are centered on struggle: Carmen struggles to save her daughter Jeanette from an abusive boyfriend and a spiralling addiction. Gloria struggles to build a better life for Ana even as the threat of ICE looms. Jeanette fights against a self-destructive impulse and to leave behind a traumatic childhood. Stretching all the way back to Cuba’s war of independence against Spain, we hear first-hand the pain of fighting to build a life when structural forces – patriarchy, politics, war – constantly erode your sense of safety, personhood, and self-actualisation.

‘She had kept quiet because marveling at what a life could be felt tenuous when death sank its tentacles into everything else.’

The character we spend most time with is Jeanette, a second-generation Cuban immigrant who has no real ties to her heritage or family back in Cuba: on reflecting upon the personal history she cannot access, she reflects that ‘another narrative she couldn’t access had shaped her life’. She’s had an unhappy teenage-hood which has progressed into an addiction-riddled young adulthood.

We are also introduced to Gloria, whose story was searingly moving, and no doubt wearingly familiar to those who fight to protect the basic human rights of those who flee to the U.S. In the Texan detention center, after being picked up by ICE, she observes the wild birds, and remarks that ‘birds fly even if it kills them.’ In the hand that she has been dealt, she has no choice but to try for a better life for her and her child, whatever the cost.

‘I am sorry that I had nothing else to offer, Ana. That there are no real rules that govern why some are born in turmoil and others never know a single day in which the next seems an ill-considered bet. It’s all lottery, Ana, all chance.’

The stories of Jeanette and Gloria intersect due to an accident of geography: Jeanette lives next door to Gloria and her young daughter, Ana, in their Florida home. When Gloria is apprehended by ICE, Jeanette learns no-one is coming for little Ana, and for a few days, takes her in – only to call the immigration authorities a few days later, at a loss for an alternative.

And so the story resists exemplary immigrants or perfect mothers. We see them in all of their messy humanity.

‘If I am being honest, I don’t always want to be a mother. Sometimes I want to be a dancer, at Salsa Rueda on Fridays at my favorite spot, the one by the Miami airport.’

The men in the story are drunks, predators, cruel detention guards, abusers – it is the women who carry the story, and the fight for survival, on their backs. They do not have to be a so-called model minority to be worthy of empathy, and happiness, and a chance at self-determination.

The writing is illuminating, beautiful even as it illustrates horror and trauma. This is a slim novel that packs a real punch, and my only critique would be that there are characters I would liked to have spent more time with, to follow their histories through to a conclusion, for the novel to have felt less like a disjointed short story collection.

But I don’t think anyone can come away from this without an even deeper empathy for those who flee their home countries for a the hope – however slim – of a better life.

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.’

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!

Some recent posts

The beginning of the apocalypse is here: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam ★★★★

Two well-heeled Brooklynites, Amanda and Clay, have rented an Air Bnb in rural Long Island with their two adolescent children. Amanda overbuys at the supermarket, Clay smokes, the children swim in the pool. It’s an idyllic enclave, a place for them to ‘leave the world behind’, switch off from their busy jobs and the mundaneity of everyday life in the city.

Before long, though, there’s a knock on the door.

The detail in the writing is excruciating at times, both to beneficial and detrimental effect. When GH and Ruth knock at the door, the moment – suspended in time – is excruciating in all the right ways. We don’t know what’s wrong, but it’s clear that something very much is.

GH and Ruth are a wealthy Black couple in their sixties who own the vacation home. There is an immediate sizing up of these unwelcome guests (if you can call them that). They’ve clearly done well for themselves, and Amanda bristles. They say there’s been a power outage and all lines of communication in the city are down. The same, it turns out, is true for the vacation home – while the electricity remains, there is no TV, phone reception, or radio – just the same message on repeat: this is the emergency broadcast. GH and Ruth have asked to spend the night until they can all figure out what’s going on.

“Ruth had learned only one thing from the current reality, and it was that everything held together by tacit agreement that it would. All it took to unravel something was one party deciding to do just that. There was no real structure to prevent chaos. There was only a collective faith in order.”

The characters are all granted rich interior lives, and the narration slides between their perspectives as things grow evermore uneasy. The tension is so well crafted, the atmosphere unbearable as they struggle to understand what’s happening, what nameless, terrible thing has occurred. The horror builds, piece by piece: a noise so terrible no-one can express it in words. A sudden flock of flamingos. The teenage son’s teeth falling out, simultaneously, horrifyingly, leaving bloody recesses where they once were.

This book has been around for long enough that I knew we wouldn’t get answers by the end. But Alam instead gives us an omniscient narrator who provides windows into what the future world might look like, hints at who lives and who dies. It’s an ingenious way of giving the reader tantalizing pieces of information about a post-apocalyptic world, without having to give that future shape and name.

I alluded to the purple prose above – I can absolutely see why it isolated and irritated readers (at one point the fridge is described as a ‘cacophony of magnets’) and there are some bodily descriptions that are particularly cringe-making. With more ruthless editing it would be a five-star read.

“They said the ocean was coming for them all. …They didn’t ask what the world would be when their children grew.”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner: A piercing page-turner of obsession and reinvention ★★★★

We’re in London, just before the turn of the millennium. Meggie, a transplant from South Africa, works a ‘media monitoring’ job where she combs through the day’s news to summarize horrible crimes. It’s there that she is drawn into the orbit of her enigmatic colleague Sabine. When Sabine switches to the night shift, Meggie follows her growing obsession for the beautiful Belgian woman and decides to join her. She both desires her – she thinks – and desires to be just like her.

‘Negative space is the lifeblood of obsession. In the late nineties, I felt as I was mostly negative space. Although I wasn’t the daughter my mother wanted, I’d never had the guts to rebel. She said I was like my father: passive, meek, defined more by what I bumped up against than what I chose.’

In Sabine, Meggie sees a window of opportunity: she can reinvent herself in Sabine’s image: glamorous, destructive, mysterious. The nocturnal existence wrecks Meggie in almost every conceivable way: she can’t sleep during the day, so she simply stops sleeping. She breaks up with her steady but boring boyfriend. She quits her further education pursuits.

There’s a hallucinatory feeling to the novel once Meggie begins her nightshifts. She befriends her colleagues Earl, Lizard, Sherry and Prawn, and together they drink and take drugs for lack of anything better to do. I loved the haunting, twilit London of the book, the seedy clubs and bars, the pubs that pour you a pint (or stronger) at 8am, and the oddball crew Meggie spends her days and nights with.

Meggie and Sabine’s friendship – maybe more – takes over Meggie’s life. Sabine both lures her in and lets her go, cruelly ignoring her for weeks, kissing her and then calling her “my cute friend who I kiss”. She’ll send Meggie blank texts on her new phone so she can get her attention without giving her anything in return. Meggie is desperate to know Sabine, but finds it hard to scratch below the surface. And she falls ever deeper into a spiral of self-destructive, dangerous behaviour in a pursuit to escape who she is.

‘Our Cinderella coach had turned into a pumpkin. Sabine would be ever divine whereas I was just Megan again; I couldn’t get beyond the body, the mood, the self. There was a walk, a wait, a train, a bus. As we tenderly parted ways, I tried to think, This is only the beginning – But I knew, even then, it wasn’t true.’

Meggie, despite her very poor decision making, is an empathetic and vulnerable character who encapsulates what it is to be adrift and desperate in your early twenties. We come to realise that the novel is being narrated by Meggie twenty years into the future, which provides interesting perspective and distance from those intoxicating days. It also means we see what ultimately unfolds between the two characters over time. I felt the ending to be a little uneven, not quite as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be. Still, it’s a blistering page-turner of a book.

TW: sexual violence, drug abuse