book review: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

MIGRATIONS by Charlotte McConaghy
Flatiron, 2020

I didn’t expect to love this book nearly as much as I did. When I started reading, I was immediately turned off by the writing, which I thought was overwrought and stylized to a frankly annoying degree — but I pushed through and I actually found that the writing mellowed out after the first chapter; the prose does have a distinct lyrical flair throughout, but there was almost an air of desperation to the first chapter that the rest of the book was mercifully lacking. (It reminded me of this phenomenon that you sometimes see where it is very transparent that the author workshopped the hell out of chapter 1 to submit to agents, and then settled into a more organic style after that. I can’t say for sure that that’s what happened here, but that was the impression I got.)

Migrations is set in a version of the near-future where almost all animal life has died out, and it tells the story of Franny, a woman determined to follow a species of bird called the Arctic tern on their final migration from Greenland to Antarctica. Because she doesn’t have any funding for this expedition, the only way to make it is to join a fishing vessel and convince the captain to reroute the boat. Obviously she succeeds, or there wouldn’t be a book, but the novel is less about the journey itself and more about Franny’s past, and the trauma that led her to undertake such a dangerous expedition. 

Large swathes of this book are downright implausible, let’s just get that out of the way. If you have a particular interest in environmentalism specifically through a scientific lens, I cannot in good faith recommend this book. It takes liberties, it gets facts wrong, its worldbuilding is under-developed. Personally, nature writing is one of my very least favorite things and the less time spent on it the better, so this catered to my personal tastes quite nicely, but there’s every chance you’ll find this element silly and distracting. 

Regardless, I ended up loving this. Migrations has been compared a lot to Station Eleven and I found that actually rang true for me — there’s something in the character work that felt really similar and familiar. McConaghy’s characters, like Mandel’s, are brilliantly drawn — even the most minor characters feel like they have an entire story hidden in them. 

It’s honestly challenging to describe this book’s strengths when its weaknesses are so evident and tangible; the strengths are a lot more slippery and understated. I think where this worked for me is in its depiction of a very flawed person searching for atonement in all the wrong places. It’s a deeply human, deeply sad work, and it ended up being one of the most emotionally affecting books I’ve read in a long time. Definitely recommended more from a character-driven angle than a dystopian one.

Thank you to Flatiron for the free copy.

book review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Riverhead, 2020

The Vanishing Half tells the story of identical twins Desiree and Stella, Black girls with very light skin who grow up in a small Louisiana town called Mallard. While they were once inseparable in childhood, as adults they take very different paths — they move away from Mallard at a young age and Desiree has a daughter with a Black man, while Stella passes as white to take a secretary job, then cuts off contact from her family and spends the rest of her life hiding her true heritage from her husband and child (until, of course, a surprise encounter brings everything to a head). 

I think this book does a laudable job at its commentary on racial identity; the problem is, I don’t think it really has anything else going for it. The characters felt underdeveloped, the writing itself was mediocre, huge plot points often hinged on coincidences in a way that didn’t feel sufficiently self-conscious (the coincidences were acknowledged by the narrative, but in a way that felt to me less like ‘I am playing with fate as a deliberate thematic construct’ and more like ‘haha whoops this coincidence is a bit silly, I’m going to comment on how silly it is before anyone else can’), and every time you finally got settled into a particular narrative, the book would lurch ahead in time at nonsensical moments. 

I just got the impression that Bennett was trying to do too much — I think that if you isolate this novel’s core conceit, it could have made for a stunning novella or short story. For a novel, it was juggling too many elements and dropping balls left and right. For example, Desiree’s daughter has a trans partner, and while I assume that this detail was included to frame this story through different axes of oppression, his particular story and identity ultimately felt rather under-examined. When I compare this to something like its fellow Women’s Prize shortlister Transcendent Kingdom which tackles a broad spectrum of topics and coheres them into a single narrative with finesse, The Vanishing Half just feels like a flimsy shadow of what it’s trying to be.

All that said, I think this book absolutely does deserve its large readership, as it examines race through the very specific lens of colorism which I think is largely underrepresented in literature, and I’m glad to have read this. I’m glad that it has touched so many readers. I can’t really bring myself to give it a rating under 3 stars, because I don’t think it deserves that — and I do think its thoughtful approach to racial identity is worth a lot. I just don’t think it’s a particularly well-constructed novel, and I came away from it feeling frustrated and underwhelmed.

book review: The Revolt by Clara Dupont-Monod | #WITmonth2021

THE REVOLT by Clara Dupont-Monod
translated from the French by Ruth Diver
Quercus, 2020

Both epic and intimate, The Revolt tells the stories of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son Richard I — a complex piece of history deftly distilled down to about 200 pages in Clara Dupont-Monod’s novel. A baseline familiarity with the Plantagenets I think is a strong asset in approaching this book — its function isn’t didactic and as such I can imagine it’s easy to get a bit lost in the historical narrative, which is presented coherently, but without much interest in the broader historical context.

But as someone already deeply invested in this particular period of English history, this read like a dream. The characters are all so well-drawn and Ruth Diver’s translation is stunning. Dupont-Monod manages to imbue this period of history with a vibrancy and heightened emotional landscape that does border on the anachronistic, but this isn’t the sort of historical fiction that aims for perfect historical accuracy — these figures are more of a vehicle for Dupont-Monod to explore the bigger ideas that preoccupy us today when we look back at the Plantagenets. The complex and thorny relationships within that family are a never ending source of fascination, and here those relationships are excavated alongside a potent commentary on familial love and power. This won’t be for everyone, but it’s a must-read for anyone who enjoys looking at history through an imaginative, literary lens.

book review: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

Little, Brown and Co, 2021

There’s a lot to admire in How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. It’s a gritty, unapologetic excavation of the wealth divide in a small Caribbean tourist destination, cleverly juxtaposing idyllic tourism with the locals’ reality of violence and poverty. I appreciate what this book was trying to do. But my god, did I hate reading it.

I neglected to highlight any passages and don’t particularly feel like going back to it now, so apologies for the lack of evidence, but I hated the writing style; I tend to struggle with books written in dialect and this was no exception. 

I also quickly grew weary of how relentlessly bleak it was. I don’t usually do this, but I made the mistake of reading my friend Marchpane’s review in the middle of writing this one and I cannot get over how succinctly she summarized my issues with this book, and anything I write in my own words about this would only be a pale imitation, so I am going to take the lazy route and just quote from her review (and I suggest you go read the whole thing):

This book’s traumas are so relentless—incest; viscerally brutal beatings; an incident you might call infanticide via neglect. There is really no light with the shade here, not that you necessarily need light and shade to tell a sad story. The never letting up is precisely the point this novel is making. And I have no doubt this is (tragically) true-to-life for many women out there.

But in a work of fiction, this has the effect of flattening everything about the characters to this aspect of their experience. I was never less than 100% conscious that I was reading about invented people, sketches on a page who only exist in order to show me this violence. It was a barrier between me and the characters that only grew, brick by brick, as each awful, violent incident unfolded.

To me, this is solidly the weakest offering on the Women’s Prize shortlist. It showcases an important cultural commentary, but lacks the literary craft to justify its accolades as a work of fiction. I think it’s a promising debut and hope that Jones will master the finesse needed to weave narrative and social commentary together in future works, but personally, I disliked this book’s style so strongly (a personal hangup, I’ll readily admit) that I’m not sure I’ll be following her career with much interest. 

Trigger warnings for a lot of things, mostly sexual assault and child death.

book review: Ru by Kim Thúy | #WITmonth2021

RU by Kim Thúy
translated by Sheila Fischman
Bloomsbury, 2012

Ru is as easy to read as it is to forget once you finish–sadly! I wish I had a more positive impression of this book overall, but I just think it’s so slim, so focused on its lyrical writing style, that it loses some of its potency. I’ve been meaning to read this for years and ultimately I’m glad I did; I enjoyed spending time with it, but it almost entirely left my brain once I put it down. 

It also gets a bit saccharine for my tastes and it does this very specific thing I don’t like; the narrator will be recalling a very minor event from her childhood and it will be recounted with the same urgency as though it had just happened yesterday; an emotion experienced by a child over a minor incident still being experienced by the adult–and I know that that is actually an effect of trauma, but the thread between trauma and memory felt under-explored to me, so it did fall a bit flat in this regard.

That said, it’s worth a read, and I can see why some people adore this one–I just needed a bit more from it!

book review: Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

SWIMMING IN THE DARK by Tomasz Jedrowski
William Morrow, 2020

I liked everything about this book except for the writing style–this is where the Aciman and Greenwell comparisons do Swimming in the Dark a disadvantage, because Jedrowski’s novel is a much more commercial creation and the caliber of prose isn’t quite there. There are a lot of painfully on the nose declarations throughout, like “It struck me how little my name meant to me, how absurd it was in its attempt to contain me.” It was just lacking the sort of finesse that its comparison authors are able to achieve more effortlessly. 

There’s also Jedrowski’s penchant for similes that started to drive me mad after about five pages:

“I ran and started to shiver all over, like a child who’s broken through ice and fallen into a lake and only just managed to crawl out.” 

“A pair of panties. White and lacy, discarded like someone’s fantasy.” 

“Your ass was powerful, like two great smooth rocks sculpted by the sea.”

“Winter came early that year. Every week pulled us deeper into its gloom, every day shorter than the last, as if time was running out.”

If you don’t mind that sort of thing this obviously won’t be an issue for you, but it wasn’t really for me and was definitely an insurmountable hurdle when it came to loving this book as much as I had hoped to.

Still, I enjoyed my time with it well enough. It’s a fiercely political coming-of-age story about two gay students in 1980s Poland, both educative and entertaining in equal measure. The Giovanni’s Room commentary is well-employed, the historical detail is immersive, the novel’s structure is impeccable. It’s an intimate, sad, moving story; its characters are vibrant and life-like, and the feeling of loss throughout is palpable. It’s just a bit overwritten.

book review: Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

ARIADNE by Jennifer Saint
Flatiron, 2021

Whenever a Greek mythology retelling featuring a female character is published within the next five years, at least, the comparisons to Circe are going to be inevitable, but this is truly a ‘for fans of Circe’ book if I’ve ever read one, so in this instance I’d actually recommend that you heed that comparison, whatever that means for you. (I thought Circe was just okay–definitely not my favorite style Greek myth retelling; I prefer them to be a little more offbeat and literary.)

Though to be fair, I actually enjoyed Ariadne more than Circe; where I felt a distinct lack of tension throughout Circe which made for a somewhat bland reading experience, I felt that Jennifer Saint did an excellent job at maintaining high stakes, even when the characters were living through periods of mundanity. But still, there’s something at the heart of these two books that inextricably links them for me; both novels aim to subvert the original tale, but the execution is done in such a quiet, subtle way that you’re basically following along a well-trodden narrative trajectory, the subversion living more internally for these characters in their narration than externally in events of the plot. 

So this quiet tale of Ariadne falling in love with Theseus before being marooned on a beach in Naxos and meeting the alluring god Dionysus certainly didn’t blow my socks off, but I found it to be an easy, thoughtful read that I ultimately did enjoy spending time with. If you don’t like Greek myth retellings, this won’t be the one to change your mind, but if you do, it’s worth a read.

Thank you to Flatiron for the advanced copy.

book review: Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor | #WITmonth2021

HURRICANE SEASON by Fernanda Melchor
translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
New Directions, 2020

This is a 5 star book that I did not give 5 stars’ worth of attention to; mea culpa. (Though, to be fair to me, I’m not sure I had 5 stars’ worth of attention to give. I tried.)

Chronicling a gruesome series of events in a small and corrupt village in Mexico, Hurricane Season is an absolute tour de force. Intense, violent, graphic, brutal, frantic, frenzied, gritty, bleak. There are also no paragraph breaks and nearly every sentence is a run-on, sometimes going for as long as a page and a half. Melchor’s thematic and stylistic aims dovetail brilliantly–she couldn’t create a more intense, insular atmosphere if she tried–but it’s still hard work. It took me nearly 100 pages (of a 200 page novel) to really sink my teeth into the rhythm. The second half of this book I devoured in a single sitting; the first half took me a week to read as I couldn’t help dragging my feet against Melchor’s style, translated expertly from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes. If you’re interested in reading this, I’d caution you to do as I say and not as I do, and really try to embrace this novel’s slightly chaotic construction from the start. I promise the payoff is worth it. I think I’d like to revisit this one day when I have more intellectual acuity to spare.

book review: Magma by Thóra Hjörleifsdóttir | #WITmonth2021

Magma by Thóra Hjörleifsdóttir
translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich
Grove Press, July 2021

This is one of the most effective books I’ve read that touches on the isolation and depression that results from domestic abuse. Translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich, Magma chronicles in tense, taut prose one girl’s experience with a controlling and manipulative partner. The reader is thrown head-first into Lilja’s reality–this isn’t a slow descent from stability to instability; this is a snapshot of an already-fragile and lonely woman being broken apart more and more at every turn.

I read this book in under an hour in a single sitting, which is pretty much exactly what it demands of the reader; I can imagine that it’s at its most effective when the insularity of the story is amplified by the reading experience. And that’s exactly what I found so intense and moving about this book–I felt like I intimately knew this character by the end of this very slim novella, and I couldn’t get her out of my head for days to follow. Magma is brutal but it’s also incisive and layered and unapologetic. Highly recommended if you find that this kind of narrative really sings when coupled with a pared-down prose style.

Trigger warnings abound for abuse, sexual assault, and self-harm.

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

book review: The Vixen by Francine Prose | BookBrowse

THE VIXEN by Francine Prose
Harper, June 2021

Recent Harvard graduate Simon Putnam has been rejected from grad school and has thus returned to his parents’ place in Coney Island for the foreseeable future. It’s the summer of 1953, and Simon and his parents spend their evenings devotedly watching the news coverage of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s trial — an event that is especially emotionally charged for the Putnam family. Like the Rosenbergs, the Putnams are Jewish, and Ethel Rosenberg is a former classmate of Simon’s mother. Contrary to the predominant social attitude about the Rosenbergs, Simon and his parents watch with horror and disbelief as the execution takes place.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg HERE.