book review: Purge by Sofi Oksanen

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PURGE by Sofi Oksanen
translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers
★★★★☆
Grove Press, 2010

 

Purge was my introduction to Sofi Oksanen and, in fact, my introduction to Finnish lit in general (Oksanen herself is Finnish-Estonian). I think this is a fascinating, flawed, and surprising book; it both delivers what it claims to on the blurb, and also takes the story in a direction that I was not at all expecting. Set in twentieth century Estonia, Purge follows the lives of two women, Aliide and Zara; Aliide is an older woman living alone in a remote Estonian village, and Zara is a young sex trafficking victim who shows up on her doorstep one day. The novel explores the relationship and the secret connection between the two women – this much I was expecting from the summary – but their relationship is almost backdrop to Oksanen’s unflinching examination of Soviet occupation.

If Purge has one major flaw, it has to be its momentum, or lack thereof. The first hundred pages which chronicle Aliide discovering Zara on her doorstep are almost entirely unnecessary (and I found the coda rather excessive as well). It’s only in Part 2 when the story makes a radical time jump backward to Aliide’s childhood do the wheels really start turning. But even then, a rather baffling and almost Victor Hugo-esque inclusion of chapter titles insists on neutering the impact of several key moments by announcing their arrival before you even begin the chapter. I won’t include examples so as to not spoil anything, but while I appreciated the effect at first, it grew wearisome. I do wonder if this is a convention of Finnish publishing or an offbeat choice on Oksanen’s part.

But all that said, once you get into the meat of this book, it has a lot to offer. Aliide is a brilliantly crafted character – shades of Atonement litter her narrative, though Purge is an altogether messier affair – and the relentless description of Soviet occupation in Estonia strongly evokes a time and a place that I previously knew almost nothing of. And it’s less a story about these two women – Aliide and Zara – coming together, than a commentary on the unending injustices faced by women in modern history. It’s a stark, bleak book that won’t have much to offer to anyone who needs levity or a protagonist to root for, but I found it very striking – I doubt it’s a book I will be forgetting in a hurry.


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

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book review: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

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NOTES OF A CROCODILE by Qiu Miaojin
translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie
★★★☆☆
NYRB Classics 2017
originally published in 1994

 

An occasional pitfall of reading literature from a country other than your own is that you aren’t approaching it with the necessary cultural framework to make it comprehensible. This isn’t always the case, of course; some stories are more universal than others, and some books do a better job of contextualizing the relevant sociopolitical elements. But in Notes of a Crocodile, a book about a group of queer students in Taiwan in the late 80s, I felt desperately out of my depth, and I felt like so many of my attempts to engage with this book were met with stony silence on Qiu Miaojin’s part. But I want to stress that this isn’t a fault of the book itself. I can imagine for the right reader that a book like this would be sensational. Personally I felt like I was missing references and subtleties that a Taiwanese reader (and especially a queer Taiwanese reader) would easily pick up on. I’m glad to have read this book and grappled with it as best I could, but this wasn’t the easiest or most comfortable reading experience for me.

Narrated by a nameless protagonist, nicknamed Lazi, Notes of a Crocodile chronicles the trials of a group of queer students living in late 1980s Taipei. It’s also punctuated by a series of interludes which imagine that the country have been invaded by humanlike crocodiles; a clear metaphor for a society that sees queerness as an epidemic. (The homophobic obsession of early 1990s Taiwanese media with homosexuality is explained in a little more detail in this LA Review of Books review by Ari Larissa Heinrich, who has translated Miaojin in the past.)

This book is light on plot, and whatever plot does happen usually happens off-page and is narrated to the reader much later; instead the focus is on the internal. To me Lazi felt more like an embodiment of what it means to be queer in Taiwan than an established character in her own right – while we learn almost nothing about her past or her personhood, pages and pages are devoted to philosophizing about what it means to be a woman who loves other women; what it means for your sexuality to be interpreted as a political statement. To me the philosophy ranged from stimulating to repetitive, occasionally too mired in intertextuality to drive any particular point home. This result is a rather rambling meditation that again, I tried to engage with – occasionally successfully, occasionally not.

My other main takeaway from this is is that I think I would have appreciated this book more if I’d read it in my early twenties; I hate to sound callous but the sheer amount of self-destruction in these pages did become tiresome after a while. This book never lets up from its relentless angst and self-absorption, and the whole thing is of course shadowed by the tragedy of Qiu Miaojin’s suicide at age 26. I ultimately think this is worth a read, but I think I find Qiu Miaojin herself more intriguing than this particular book.


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

book review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

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THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa
translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
★★★★★
Picador, 2009

 

My only experience with Yoko Ogawa before now was her terrific short story collection Revenge, and though I’d heard that all of her books are drastically different from one another, I think I still expected to see a bit of Revenge‘s dark and macabre tone here. Instead, The Housekeeper and the Professor is utterly and unapologetically charming.

It focuses on the relationship between a housekeeper, her son, and a man whose house she’s assigned to by her agency, who she refers to only as ‘the Professor.’ The Professor has a condition which prevents him from creating new memories – his memory lasts only 80 minutes. He is nevertheless a brilliant man, and the likewise unnamed protagonist becomes increasingly spellbound by his unsolicited mathematical lectures.

There are any number of reasons why this book shouldn’t have worked for me; it’s sweet in tone, it’s about math, it’s about baseball. I don’t like any of these things. However, this book’s passion is positively infectious; this was like listening to a friend tell a story about something they love which you don’t particularly care about – sometimes regardless of the content, the enthusiasm itself is contagious. Also, I will say that this book helped me understand the sentiment that ‘math is like poetry,’ that I’ve heard a few times throughout my life, better than anything else ever has. No matter how many times I’ve witnessed an individual’s passion for math, it’s always seemed to me like this cold and rigid thing, but The Professor’s perspective on the relationship between numbers, and the solace he takes in their familiarity, really moved me.

But beyond the math and baseball, what makes this quirky book near-universally appealing is the unconventional, infinitely touching relationship between the two titular characters. The Housekeeper and the Professor is about empathy; it’s a testament to the unexpected possibilities of human connection. I just found this book to be a joy to read – quiet and subtle and nostalgic and affecting. Very highly recommended.


You can pick up a copy of The Housekeeper and the Professor here on Book Depository.

book review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

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THE DRAGON REPUBLIC by R.F. Kuang
(The Poppy War #2)
★★★☆☆
Harper Voyager, August 6, 2019

 

I was never going to love The Dragon Republic as much as The Poppy War, so let’s get that out of the way; The Poppy War is a book of two halves, and I preferred the first. However, it was still a 5 star read for me (review here), and with Kuang’s assertions on Twitter that The Dragon Republic was an objectively superior book, I was still cautiously optimistic about the sequel. And I didn’t hate it, but I’m disappointed.

Pacing is an issue in both of these books; in The Poppy War, things happen too fast; it feels like two books crammed into one. But I really didn’t mind that – I read a lot of literary fiction, so when I venture into genre fiction it’s with entirely different expectations and needs to be met – I like a bit of nonstop action in my fantasy as long as it doesn’t get too overwhelming, which I don’t think it did. But with The Dragon Republic the issue is the exact opposite. Nothing – and I cannot stress this enough – happens for the first three quarters of this book. Where The Poppy War feels like two books for the price of one, The Dragon Republic feels like a novella stretched out thin across 500 pages. Things of course do happen, technically, but there is so much filler. Stakes feel low (a problem that The Poppy War certainly did not have), because for the major part of this book, it feels like you’re spinning your wheels and still waiting for the main players to enter the ring.

But let’s talk about what I did like: the characters and the setting are some of my favorites from any fantasy series that I have ever read. The returning characters are as complex, endearing, and frustrating as ever, and the new characters shine as well – Vaisra in particular is a brilliant creation. And if The Dragon Republic has one thing that’s superior to The Poppy War, it’s the world building and the magic system, which is infinitely more fleshed out here with some truly fascinating developments.

It took me three months to read this, but I want to stress that every time I did pick it up, I enjoyed it. The issue is that I just seldom reached for it. I really hope this is just second book syndrome, and I do think one thing that Kuang was able to achieve with this book was laying a really solid foundation for whatever is to come next (and with that ending, I can promise you that the third book is going to destroy me). But even though I would still recommend this series wholeheartedly, this just wasn’t as good as The Poppy War, much as it pains me to say it.

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


You can pick up a copy of The Poppy War here on Book Depository, and The Dragon Republic here.

book review: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

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THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn
translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger
★★★★★
Orenda Books, 2016

 

What a bizarre, enchanting, darkly chilling little book. I am not in the habit of quoting others’ reviews in my own, but there’s a blurb from crime writer Rod Reynolds on the book that says ‘A masterclass in suspense and delayed terror, reading it felt like I was driving at top speed towards a cliff edge – and not once did I want to take my foot off the pedal’ – and I think that sums it up better than I could.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, and I can’t remember where or how I first heard about it, but I think I had it in my head that it was going to be a fairly standard thriller, which I had been in the mood for. But it was no disappointment to me when it turned out to be a different beast entirely. The Bird Tribunal felt to me like a modern-day Scandinavian Rebecca, following a young woman living in the shadow of her enigmatic employer’s first wife, but with all the dreary atmosphere and profound social isolation of Wuthering Heights. But though I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as a thriller, and I think it might disappoint readers who are specifically seeking out twists and turns, the tension and sense of growing dread I experienced while reading this were palpable.

The relationship between Allis and Sigurd is a tender, terrifying thing; this is the hook that gets its claws in you from the offset. Through Allis’s first person narration we’re drawn into her obsession with Sigurd, a distant, surly man who employs Allis as a kind of housekeeper while he awaits his wife’s return. Though Allis is blind to so many of the warning signs that the reader has access to, her obsession with Sigurd doesn’t feel unnatural or unrealistic or frustrating – reading this book isn’t like watching a train wreck so much as feeling like you’re the one steering the train. I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this as the sense of discomfort I felt while reading it was pretty significant, but the fact that I stayed up until 1 am finishing this after taking Benadryl two hours earlier since I couldn’t tear myself away kind of says it all.


You can pick up a copy of The Bird Tribunal here on Book Depository.

book review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

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A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride
★★★★★
Coffee House Press, 2014

Having already read Eimear McBride’s sophomore novel, The Lesser Bohemians, I thought I was prepared for A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. And indeed, I was prepared for McBride’s signature and singular prose style, a terse, choppy sort of stream of consciousness that mimics the incompleteness of thought. It’s a difficult style to warm up to: I’ve heard that listening to this book on audio can help, but personally I tried that and as I’m not an auditory learner at all, I found it much more comprehensible in print. So I think it does depend on your personal preferences, but once you settle into the rhythm of her words, it’s not as daunting as you might expect.

“Him anxious. Not at all like. But I am happy. Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin. He’s on the shoreline getting small.”

What I was not prepared for was how utterly gutting this book ended up being. This has to be one of the most intense, visceral, excruciating things I have read in my life – second only to A Little Life, perhaps? Just, don’t pick this up lightly. Trigger warnings for everything. Seriously, everything.

But it’s not just brutal; it’s good. Form, style, and content all dovetail here for one of the most perceptive examinations of the psychological toll of sexual assault that I have ever read. But more than that, this book is a raw and unfiltered look at sex, isolation, terminal illness, and sibling bonds, and though it’s relentlessly internal in its construction, a commentary on growing up as a young woman in Ireland beautifully underscores the entire thing. The protagonist remains nameless, something that I often find gimmicky and unnecessary, but here it works perfectly as a constant reminder of the narrator’s fractured sense of identity as she finds herself defined by the horrifying things that happen to her and around her as a young girl. This is a hard book to recommend as it’s so impenetrable at a glance, and so harrowing once you do get into it, but I think this is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time.


You can pick up a copy of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing here on Book Depository.

book review: Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

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LOCK EVERY DOOR by Riley Sager
★★★★☆
Dutton, July 2019

 

I can’t think of another contemporary thriller writer that does the page-turner as well as Riley Sager, and here he’s come up with yet another brilliant premise: a young woman answers an ad to be an apartment sitter in a swanky building in the Upper West Side – and she’s being paid $12,000 to do it, so what’s the catch? (I think the less you know going into this book the better, so I’ll just leave it there.) I imagine that Lock Every Door‘s pace will be the main drawback for some – our protagonist Jules does play amateur detective to no avail for about half the book – but with the way Sager writes, she probably could have been playing a game of chess and I’d have been equally as thrilled.

And no spoilers, but I loved that ending. I imagine it’s also going to divide opinions, as it’s not the most… conventional thriller resolution, but I thought it hit that perfect sweet spot of ‘I really should have thought of that, but I never would have thought of that.’ In my opinion this isn’t as strong as Sager’s debut Final Girls (which is pretty hard to beat), but I liked it a lot better than his follow-up effort The Last Time I Lied. I found Lock Every Door to be creepier and more original, and its protagonist more convincing. I do think Final Girls and The Last Time I Lied are more traditional crowd-pleasers, so maybe stick to one of those for an introduction to Sager, but I loved this; this is the most fun I’ve had with a thriller in ages.


You can pick up a copy of Lock Every Door here on Book Depository.