book review: Young Skins by Colin Barrett

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YOUNG SKINS by Colin Barrett
★★★★☆
Grove, 2015

 

In the vein of authors like Donal Ryan and Lisa McInerney, Colin Barrett has a gift for conjuring quiet scenes from small-town Irish life that bristle with a kind of dormant tension. Young Skins is a collection of seven short stories that all take place in the same town, and often the same pub, with a few overlapping characters, but which mostly stand on their own. Each story focuses on a male protagonist, usually young, all in some way navigating working class life, post-Ireland’s financial collapse.

It’s very rare that I give a short story collection 5 stars; it’s to be expected that in a collection like this, certain stories are going to shine and certain others are going to fade into the background. Though I loved Barrett’s prose throughout, this collection really wasn’t an exception to the rule – there are stories I loved and stories I found to be rather forgettable (though thankfully none I outright disliked).

The Clancy Kid was a strong opening, introducing us to the gritty, bleak backdrop of young love turned to heartbreak that characterizes so many of these stories, as well as the kind of violence that permeates male youth culture. Bait is a tricky one; I’d been loving it, up until the very end where it takes an… incongruously supernatural(?) turn that I still haven’t fully made sense of. (If you’ve read this story, please tell me your thoughts on the ending.)

The Moon didn’t leave much of an impression on me, though this is where Barrett states a lot of the collection’s thematic conceits rather plainly, which makes it a solid addition (a young, flighty woman says to our protagonist at one point “Galway’s not that far[,] but it might as well be the moon for people like you.”) And I thought Stand Your Skin was maybe too thematically similar to The Moon, though Stand Your Skin is the one I preferred.

Calm With Horses, the collection’s magnum opus, is more of a novella than a short story, nearing 100 pages. In my opinion this story stands head and shoulders above the rest, and it’s not just because of its length. I think this is where Barrett is able to really stretch his legs and show us what he’s capable of. Various characters and subplots weave in an out of this one and all dovetail in a satisfying, heart-rending conclusion. I really hope Barrett has a novel in the works.

Diamonds I think is solidly the weakest story that doesn’t offer much that we can’t already find elsewhere. And Kindly Forget My Existence is a fitting ending, where Barrett eschews his young protagonists in favor of two middle aged men who sit down at a pub and discuss their own youth.

So, as with most short story collections, a mixed bag, but it’s worth the price of admission for the stunningly tragic Calm With Horses alone, and the rest of the stories mostly hold their own as well. Dismal and hopeless as this collection is on the whole, there’s an assured beauty to Barrett’s prose that I found very striking, especially for a debut, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

You can pick up a copy of Young Skins here on Book Depository.

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book review: Troubles by JG Farrell

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TROUBLES by JG Farrell

NYRB Classics, 2002
originally published in 1970

Troubles is the first novel in the Anglo-Irish writer JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy: three tangentially connected works that highlight different facets of British colonialism. Farrell died young, as he drowned at the age of 44, but this 1970 book got some semi-recent attention when it won the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010, which was established to retroactively honor a book that missed out on being eligible for the Booker due to a rule change that year. So when you pick up Troubles with all that in mind, as I did, it certainly has a big legacy to live up to, especially when you don’t even know what the book itself is about.

It turns out that it’s about an English man called Brendan, who’s referred to in the third person narration as ‘the Major,’ who, after the end of the war in 1919, journeys to Ireland to figure out whether or not he’s actually engaged to a woman who he’s been exchanging romantic letters with, Angela Spencer. Her home is a crumbling mansion of a hotel called the Majestic, where she lives with her Protestant family as well as several eccentric guests. Upon arrival the Major expects to be greeted by Angela herself, but instead he finds himself swept up instantly into her strange family dynamic, with her aggressively Unionist father’s pervasive fear of Sinn Féin (the political party advocating for an Irish republic) hovering in the background throughout the novel.

Troubles is essentially a sardonic odyssey of the mundane – a reverse Nostos of sorts in which our protagonist journeys away from home and navigates a culture that’s plagued with a completely different social climate than his own. It’s also a kind of Gothic subversion, Farrell giving us a Manderley-like setting that’s meant to symbolize the British Empire, the characters willfully in denial about its crumbling roof as well as the rising insurgency that’s taking place in their country.

It drags and overstays its welcome at times (much like the guests in the hotel), but for the most part Troubles is a riotously funny (and occasionally tragic) satire. While there isn’t much of a plot, Farrell leads the reader with measured prose through a dizzyingly bizarre series of encounters that highlight the absurdity of the Spencers’ myopic view of Irish society. It’s a bit of a project to get through, but it’s worth it for the sharp, incisive writing and commentary on colonialism that still feels relevant half a century later.

You can pick up a copy of Troubles here on Book Depository.

 

The Highest and Lowest Rated Books on my TBR

This is a premise that’s inspired many a booktube video over the years, but I got the idea to do this post in particular when I was watching Lala’s recent video about reading the highest rated books on her TBR.  After I watched that I decided to go through my own Goodreads TBR and sort it by average ratings, and then I thought it would be fun to make a post to show you guys the results of that search.

Note that I’m only going to include books that were published prior to 2019.  Summaries are from Goodreads.

The 5 Highest

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Becoming by Michelle Obama – 4.67

In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African-American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments.

This one isn’t a huge surprise; I’ve heard that if you love Michelle Obama you’re going to love this book, and if you don’t love Michelle Obama you probably aren’t going to pick it up in the first place.  I was planning on listening to this on audio before realizing the audiobook is 18 hours long (I have audiobook commitment issues), but I do have the hardcover and should probably pick this up at some point.  I will say, I’m not terribly enthusiastic about it for some reason?  I mean, I don’t love political memoirs, so that is probably the reason.  But I do love Michelle Obama, so I do want to read this.  At some point.

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War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad by Christopher Logue – 4.61

Logue’s account of Homer’s Iliad is a radical reimagining and reconfiguration of Homer’s tale of warfare, human folly, and the power of the gods in language and verse that is emphatically modern and “possessed of a very terrible beauty” (Slate). Illness prevented him from bringing his version of the Iliad to completion, but enough survives in notebooks and letters to assemble a compilation that includes the previously published volumes War Music, Kings, The Husbands, All Day Permanent Red, and Cold Calls, along with previously unpublished material, in one final illuminating volume arranged by his friend and fellow poet Christopher Reid. The result, War Music, comes as near as possible to representing the poet’s complete vision and confirms what his admirers have long known: that “Logue’s Homer is likely to endure as one of the great long poems of the twentieth century” (The Times Literary Supplement)

Now this is what we’re talking about: I think this is part translation, part adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, and it sounds very experimental.  This kind of thing is very, very much up my alley.  I also have a copy of this and I really need to make time to read it.

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The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler – 4.58

Now, on the 25th anniversary of that Broadway premiere, Isaac Butler and Dan Kois offer the definitive account of Angels in America in the most fitting way possible: through oral history, nearly 200 voices in vibrant conversation and debate. The intimate storytelling of actors (including Streep, Parker, Jeffrey Wright, and Nathan Lane), directors, producers, and Kushner himself reveals the turmoil of the play’s birth-a hard-won miracle in the face of artistic roadblocks, technical disasters, and disputes both legal and creative. And historians and critics help to situate the play in the arc of American culture, from the staunch activism of the AIDS crisis through civil-rights triumphs to our current era, whose politics are a dark echo of the Reagan ’80s. The World Only Spins Forward is both a rollicking theater saga and an uplifting testament to one of the great works of American art of the past century, from its gritty San Francisco premiere to the starry revival that electrified London in 2017.

I am a massive fan of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, which I think is one of the best pieces of theatre from the 20th century, so reading about its behind the scenes history sounds like a fun time to me.

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Sons of Achilles by Nabila Lovelace – 4.56

Sons of Achilles questions what it means to be in and of a linage of violence. In this collection, Nabila Lovelace attempts to examine the liminal space between violence and intimacy. From the mythical characters that depict and pass down a progeny of violence through their canonization, to the witnessing of violence, Lovelace interrogates the ways violence enters and inhabits a life.

I don’t remember where I first heard about this poetry collection but I was undoubtedly drawn to it because of the title.  It sounds absolutely brilliant, and I’d like to get my hands on a copy at some point.

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Indecent by Paula Vogel – 4.55

When Sholem Asch wrote God of Vengeance in 1907, he didn’t imagine the height of controversy the play would eventually reach. Performing at first in Yiddish and German, the play’s subject matter wasn’t deemed contentious until it was produced in English, when the American audiences were scandalized by the onstage depiction of an amorous affair between two women. Paula Vogel’s newest work traces the trajectory of the show’s success through its tour in Europe to its abrupt and explosive demise on Broadway in 1923—including the arrest of the entire production’s cast and crew.

I missed the recent Broadway production of this play, sadly, but hopefully I’ll catch it in Boston this April.  I’ve heard that this is absolutely gut-wrenching and I have no doubt that I will love it.

The 5 Lowest

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Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li – 3.10

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a beloved go-to setting for hunger pangs and celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each character to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay. Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.

Haaa, we meet again.  I already know that I’m going to be reading this in the next couple of months because I’m reading the entire Women’s Prize longlist, and I knew that it had a low average rating, but I don’t think I expected to see it on this list.  But here we are.  I don’t know, you guys, I’ve heard a couple of positive things but the vast majority of reviews that I’ve seen for this book have been lukewarm at best… so we’ll see!

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Come With Me by Helen Schulman – 3.08

Amy Reed works part-time as a PR person for a tech start-up, run by her college roommate’s nineteen-year-old son, in Palo Alto, California. Donny is a baby genius, a junior at Stanford in his spare time. His play for fortune is an algorithm that may allow people access to their “multiverses”—all the planes on which their alternative life choices can be played out simultaneously—to see how the decisions they’ve made have shaped their lives. Donny wants Amy to be his guinea pig. And even as she questions Donny’s theories and motives, Amy finds herself unable to resist the lure of the road(s) not taken. Who would she be if she had made different choices, loved different people? Where would she be now? Amy’s husband, Dan—an unemployed, perhaps unemployable, print journalist—accepts a dare of his own, accompanying a seductive, award-winning photographer named Maryam on a trip to Fukushima, the Japanese city devastated by tsunami and meltdown. Collaborating with Maryam, Dan feels a renewed sense of excitement and possibility he hasn’t felt with his wife in a long time. But when crisis hits at home, the extent of Dan’s betrayal is exposed and, as Amy contemplates alternative lives, the couple must confront whether the distances between them in the here and now are irreconcilable.

I received a finished copy of this book from the publisher, and when I first received it the book had something like a 2.0 rating on Goodreads, which I assumed was down to a couple of negative ARC reviews, but half a year later the rating doesn’t seem to have improved that much.  I may just pass on my copy to someone else.  I honestly can’t even follow what’s going on in this summary, it sounds like there may be too much happening and none of it is sufficiently developed, I’m not sure.

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The Gathering by Anne Enright – 3.06

Anne Enright is a dazzling writer of international stature and one of Ireland’s most singular voices. Now she delivers The Gathering, a moving, evocative portrait of a large Irish family and a shot of fresh blood into the Irish literary tradition, combining the lyricism of the old with the shock of the new. The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan are gathering in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother, Liam, drowned in the sea. His sister, Veronica, collects the body and keeps the dead man company, guarding the secret she shares with him—something that happened in their grandmother’s house in the winter of 1968. As Enright traces the line of betrayal and redemption through three generations her distinctive intelligence twists the world a fraction and gives it back to us in a new and unforgettable light. The Gathering is a daring, witty, and insightful family epic, clarified through Anne Enright’s unblinking eye. It is a novel about love and disappointment, about how memories warp and secrets fester, and how fate is written in the body, not in the stars.

I get the impression that this might be one of those books that people dislike because they go into it expecting a thriller and then it isn’t really a thriller…?  At any rate, it’s Irish, it won the Booker, and I own a copy, so I will definitely be giving this one a try.

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The Shades by Evgenia Citkowitz – 2.98

A year has passed since Catherine and Michael Hall lost their teenage daughter in a car accident, leaving them and their sixteen-year-old son, Rowan, reeling in the aftermath of the tragedy. After Rowan escapes to boarding school, Catherine withdraws from her life as a successful London gallerist to Hamdean, an apartment in a Georgian country manor, where she and Michael had hoped to spend their retirement. When a beguiling young woman, Keira, appears at the house claiming to have once lived there, Catherine is reanimated by the promise of a meaningful connection. However, their relationship soon shifts to one of forbidding uncertainty as the mysteries of the past collide with the truth of the present.

This is partially on my TBR because the cover is a stunner, and partially because I think that summary sounds genius.  The average rating does concern me a little, but I think my curiosity is going to win out with this one.

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Little Constructions by Anna Burns – 2.66

At the centre of Anna Burns’s startling new novel lies the Doe clan, a closely knit family of criminals and victims whose internal conflicts and convoluted relationships propel this simultaneously funny and terrifying story. Bound together by love and loyalty, fear and secrets, the Does and other inhabitants of Tiptoe Floorboard make up an unforgettable cast of characters. In a voice that is by turns chilling and wickedly funny, the narrator documents their struggle to make and maintain connections with each other, and – weaving back and forth in time – examines what transpires when unspeakable realities, long pushed from consciousness, begin to break through.

And, ironically, the book in this entire post that I’m probably the most excited for is the one with the lowest rating.  However, in this case the average rating does not scare me, because I know Anna Burns’ work is not for everyone.  From those who adored Milkman and went back to read her backlist I get the impression that Milkman is probably her most accomplished novel, though No Bones and Little Constructions are still good.  So, I’ll definitely be giving them both a try, and hopefully will be able to contribute to this book’s rating getting a tiny bit higher.


So, that’s that!  Have you guys read any of these books, and if so does your rating fall above or below the average?  Let me know which books I should prioritize off this list!

(NB I’ve scheduled this post and am in New York for another couple of days, so I’ll probably be late in replying to comments.)

short story reviews: Mr Salary & Color and Light by Sally Rooney

MR SALARY by Sally Rooney              |    COLOR AND LIGHT by Sally Rooney
★★★★★ |    ★★★★★
Faber & Faber, 2019    |    The New Yorker, 2019

I want to first say that if you don’t quite ‘get’ the Sally Rooney craze, I don’t blame you – is she really achieving something that other authors are failing to do, or does her writing offer a comfortable familiarity; does her work hold universal appeal or is it uniquely resonant with young people; no one seems to have a very clear answer on any of this – but that said, I think her writing is magic. Normal People took me entirely by surprise, Conversations With Friends is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in years, and now these two short stories have solidified her place as one of my absolute favorite authors.

The thing about Sally Rooney is that while her storytelling is incisive and forthright, she always leaves me wanting more – not in the sense that what she offers is lacking, but in the sense that you can instinctively discern that Rooney understands her characters inside and out, backwards and forwards; they feel like living, breathing entities who continue to exist once you’ve ceased reading.  Rooney writes about people I want to know – not in real life, necessarily, although realism is arguably the great strength of her character work – but all of her characters come to life under her perceptive gaze and she excels both at chronicling the internal and the interpersonal.

While both of her novels beautifully showcase her prowess at character development, these two short stories prove that she still has a lot to offer in just a few short pages.   Color and Light follows a young hotel receptionist Aidan who meets an enigmatic screenwriter named Pauline that he becomes drawn to.  Mr Salary is told from the perspective of a 24-year-old woman named Sukie, who’s in love with a 30-something man named Nathan, a family friend that she’s lived with for years.  Both stories are brief snapshot pieces – we get a bit of background, but we don’t learn these characters’ life stories, nor do we need to.  Each story crackles with sexual tension, although it would be dismissive to reduce them to this one element – Mr Salary is noteworthy for its macabre undertones, as Sukie’s obsession with death mirrors her sexual obsession with Nathan, and Color and Light probably has less of a straightforward romantic trajectory than anything else Rooney has written.  The inevitable romance between Aidan and Pauline isn’t really inevitable at all, as it develops – Aidan’s interest in Pauline isn’t sexual as much as driven by a desire to understand and be understood, a theme that underpins all of Rooney’s work.

If you like stories about flawed, lonely, emotionally distant people, told with honesty and lively, absorbing prose, I’d implore you to give into the Rooney hype.  Everything she writes somehow moves me, saddens me, and delights me all at once.  I will say, I’ve noticed a sort of divide between people who loved Conversations With Friends and found Normal People underwhelming and vice versa (personally, I just love it all), but if you do fall into this dichotomy, I’d recommend Mr Salary to those who preferred Conversations With Friends and Color and Light to those who preferred Normal People.

Read Color and Light on the New Yorker website here, and pick up a copy of Mr Salary from Book Depository here.

Man Booker International 2019 Longlist Reaction

This isn’t going to be as comprehensive of a reaction post as the one I wrote up for the Women’s Prize – while I love following the Man Booker International from a distance, I’m not quite as on top of reading translated fiction as I’d like to be.  So it wasn’t a huge surprise to see that I’d read zero of the thirteen longlisted titles this year when the list was announced last night.  I’d love to change that, but since I’m already reading the Women’s Prize longlist I doubt I’ll be picking any of these books up immediately.  But maybe in a couple of months I can jump on this bandwagon!  I just wanted to give a quick summary of my reactions:

So, I’d already heard of three of the longlisted books: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, and Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli, translated from the French by Sam Taylor.

I own a copy of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (how great is that title) and that book sounds ridiculously up my alley, so even though I still haven’t read Tokarczuk’s International Booker winning Flights, I definitely want to pick this one up soon.  I think I’m going to pass on Mouthful of Birds – I still haven’t read Fever Dream which sounds much more to my taste, and I keep hearing very mixed things about Mouthful of Birds… I’m just not convinced that I would appreciate it.  I haven’t read anything by Mingarelli either but I do own a copy of his novel A Meal in Winter, and I also want to pick up Four Soldiers at some point.

I added these four to my TBR after going through the longlist:

  • Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen: I was getting major Chinese Milkman vibes from this book’s Goodreads summary, and while I’m sure that’s off base, anything described as darkly comedic that explores women’s lives under surveillance is something I need in my life.
  • Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright: I wasn’t initially sold on this one but this excellent post from Books and Bao made me reconsider – I think this could be striking.
  • At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell: I tend to enjoy Korean lit and while I haven’t liked the one book I’ve read translated by Sora Kim-Russell (I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin), I’m inclined to blame that more on the book’s content than the translation.
  • The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner: I’m vaguely interested in Valerie Solanas though I don’t know much about her – I’m not sure how much this fictionalization will rely on research and how much will be invented, but I think this could be fascinating.

So that leaves everything else.  At a glance none of these books appeals to me, but with a couple I’m definitely willing to be swayed if I start to see some overwhelmingly positive reviews.  Because none of these really falls into a ‘no way in hell am I touching that’ category.  I think they all sound fairly interesting, just some more-so than others.

I didn’t make a predictions post for this prize, but the titles I’m most surprised to not see here are Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Matthias Enard (I have a copy of this one so I was really hoping I could use this as an excuse to pick it up!), Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, Codex 1962 by Sjón, and Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami.  Haven’t read any of them so I have no clue what’s good and what isn’t, but they’ve all been getting a lot of attention.  I’m also sad not to see Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata which I think is a quiet little powerhouse of a novel, but I do understand its omission.

Here’s the full longlist with links to Book Depository if you want to read full summaries:

Jokha Alharthi (Arabic / Omani), Marilyn Booth, Celestial Bodies (Sandstone Press Ltd)
Can Xue (Chinese / Chinese), Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Love in the New Millennium (Yale University Press)
Annie Ernaux (French / French), Alison L. Strayer, The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Hwang Sok-yong (Korean / Korean), Sora Kim-Russell, At Dusk (Scribe, UK)
Mazen Maarouf (Arabic / Icelandic and Palestinian), Jonathan Wright, Jokes For The Gunmen (Granta, Portobello Books)
Hubert Mingarelli (French / French), Sam Taylor, Four Soldiers (Granta, Portobello Books)
Marion Poschmann (German / German), Jen Calleja, The Pine Islands (Profile Books, Serpent’s Tail)
Samanta Schweblin (Spanish / Argentine and Italian), Megan McDowell, Mouthful Of Birds (Oneworld)
Sara Stridsberg (Swedish / Swedish), Deborah Bragan-Turner, The Faculty Of Dreams (Quercus, MacLehose Press)
Olga Tokarczuk (Polish / Polish), Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Spanish / Colombian), Anne McLean, The Shape Of The Ruins (Quercus, MacLehose Press)
Tommy Wieringa (Dutch / Dutch), Sam Garrett, The Death Of Murat Idrissi (Scribe, UK)
Alia Trabucco Zeran (Spanish / Chilean and Italian), Sophie Hughes, The Remainder (And Other St)

So, needless to say I will not be reading this longlist as my heart belongs to the Women’s Prize (I hate that they overlap!), and this will probably be the only Man Booker International post I’ll make this year.  But I am so looking forward to following everyone else’s coverage and reviews!

What are everyone’s Man Booker International plans?  Any titles you’re looking forward to reading, or have read already?  Which books were you hoping to see longlisted?  Let’s chat!

book review: The Club by Takis Würger

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THE CLUB by Takis Würger
translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
★☆☆☆☆
Grove, March 12, 2019

 

This has to be one of the most bizarrely terrible things I’ve ever read. So, the reason I requested this book is because its summary reminded me of a film I like, The Riot Club, which is based off a play I like, Posh by Laura Wade. It’s an ugly story, one that examines the kind of privilege and entitlement and classism and toxic masculinity inherent to elite dining clubs. These are all themes that interest me, and I suppose they must also interest Takis Würger, but they couldn’t have been presented in a more shallow or superficial way in this book if he tried. Characters are caricatures, conflict is nonexistent, the writing is dreadful and perfunctory, the point of view shifts are awkward, and the treatment of its subject matter is appalling. So, let’s begin!

The Club follows Hans, a German orphan whose aunt Alex contacts him out of the blue when he turns 18 and promises to secure him a place at Cambridge, where she works as a professor in art history, but in return he has to investigate the Pitt Club, an all-male dining club who have committed some kind of crime. There will be some spoilers in the rest of this review, which I try to avoid but frankly I don’t care because I wouldn’t wish this book on anyone else, but if you don’t want to spoiled, quit this review while you’re ahead.

So, it’s revealed about halfway through that the crime being investigated is rape, and this is handled… about as crudely as humanly possible (also, trigger warnings for the rest of this review as well as for the book). Aside from the fact that Hans’ main source of internal conflict comes from whether he should betray the rapists who have become his friends (my heart goes out to you dude, must be real tough), and culminates in a positively absurd scene where Hans is debating whether or not he should allow a drugged girl to be raped in order to obtain damning evidence of the club before overcoming his moral quandary by scooping her up and running out the door with her (never mind the other girls who have been left behind at that party?!), we also have an utterly senseless relationship between Hans and Charlotte, one of the Pitt Club’s former victims, which is treated with all the nuance and sensitivity that this sentence would suggest: “I couldn’t stop thinking about how wounded she had seemed when she told me about being raped. I wondered what it meant for us.” Yes, seriously. And even if we can look past the fact that the entire premise hinges on a man getting justice for a woman being raped, which is a narrative that just… needs to end, period, the way it’s handled is so clumsy. Like, at one point, Hans grabs Charlotte’s arm and she tells him off because she’d promised herself she’d never let a man touch her without her permission again… good! But then later, she apologizes to him for that?! Würger goes to great pains to remind us that poor orphaned Hans is the real victim in all this.

And aside from all that, it’s just… bad? It’s mostly told from Hans’ perspective, but other POVs are thrown in and not a single one of them furthers the narrative. We hear from other members of the club who talk like… well, like this: “Basically, I was living proof that money, a place at Cambridge, and a big dick don’t make you happy. Fuck.” We hear from Alex, who just… weirdly rehashes conversations that we’d JUST read from Hans’ perspective. We hear from Charlotte, who you’d think had accidentally slammed her finger in a car door for all the impact a traumatic assault had on her. We hear from a Chinese student named Peter who’s obsessed with gaining entry to the club at all costs, and I guess he was also friends with Charlotte at one point but I’m not sure why that detail was included as it’s never mentioned again? None of it amounts to anything – some of these characters have arcs, others do not, but nothing is resolved except for the mystery of who raped Charlotte, which is never really a mystery at all (I’ll give you a hint: he has a big dick and he’s unhappy).

And even Hans is a generic non-entity of a character. This is the kind of insight that Hans would regularly treat us to: “I didn’t listen to music; I jogged without music, boxed without music. There’d been music at my parents’ funeral.” There’d been music at his parents’ funeral so he could never listen to music again????? There’d also been clothes as his parents’ funeral, I’d assume?! (Also, his parents didn’t die at the same time, meaning they would have had multiple funerals, but I’m hoping that was just a typo.) And also: “Charlotte fell asleep on my elbow. After my parents’ death I’d thought I could never love again, because the fear of losing someone was too great. I had grown cold inside. Now here was this woman, lying on my arm.” Cliche after cliche after cliche. This book just… has nothing at all to say. It wants to be edgy and groundbreaking and enlightening but it is just so painfully vapid in every conceivable way.

I mean, it’s quick and readable, I’ll give it that, but my god, at what cost.

Thanks to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: If, Then by Kate Hope Day

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IF, THEN by Kate Hope Day
★★★☆☆
Random House, March 12, 2019

 

If, Then is a quiet, speculative novel about four neighbors living in suburban Oregon. Ginny and Mark are an unhappily married couple, Samara is a young woman coping with the recent death of her mother, and Cass is a young mom who’s had to sacrifice her academic ambitions for motherhood. Gradually the novel introduces the possibility of parallel realities which have begun to overlap, as each character starts to see visions of an alternate version of themselves. Throughout the course of the short novel we study each of these characters and unearth the decisions each of them made which prevented their other self’s reality from coming to fruition.

While I enjoyed this from start to finish and found the ending in particular to be utterly brilliant, I ultimately think I was hoping for more from this novel’s speculative angle. Suburban life is chronicled convincingly, and each character is constructed carefully, but I don’t think this digs deep enough to be the kind of character-driven novel it’s trying to be. This could have been offset by the concept of parallel realities playing a larger role, but instead, that element is more of a vehicle used by the author to explore the novel’s central concept: if I had done this instead of that, then what would have happened as a result? Still, it’s a quick and thought-provoking read, and though it’s underdeveloped in places I think some of the ideas it raises are interesting enough to make up for that. 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of If, Then here on Book Depository.