book review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

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THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN by Lisa See
★★★☆
Scribner, March 2019

 

It took me over three months to finish this book, and it wasn’t for a lack of interest in the author; this was my seventh Lisa See novel and interestingly, not even my least favorite. I wouldn’t say there’s anything ostensibly wrong with this book, and it’s not exactly a radical departure from the rest of See’s historical fiction: it follows a friendship between two women against the backdrop of a turbulent period in East Asian history (though here the setting is the Korean Jeju Island instead of See’s usual China).

But despite the tried and true blueprint whose familiarity should have been comforting, I really struggled to get invested in The Island of Sea Women. I think my main issue was with the protagonist, Young-sook (whose name I just had to look up even though I finished this book only two days ago, so that’s never a good sign). Young-sook and her best friend Mi-ja are haenyeo – female divers – and See’s exploration of this culture is as thorough as ever. However, Young-sook herself makes no particular impression, and I think it’s mostly down to how anemically drawn her character is: she’s a model haenyeo, so she loves being a haenyeo; she’s meant to desire marriage and children, so she desires marriage and children; she’s meant to honor her family, so she honors her family. She’s a collection of cultural values rather than a distinct person – a pitfall that I think See gracefully avoids with the protagonists of each of her other novels that I’ve read. I don’t ordinarily feel that she needs to sacrifice character development to establish historical context, but sadly I did here.

About 60% through the book, during a scene of a horrifying and brutal massacre, See’s decision to tell this story through Young-sook’s eyes finally, finally made narrative sense to me, but up until that point, I had been wondering why the focus hadn’t been on Mi-ja – an infinitely more interesting character for the ways in which she didn’t fit as neatly into the society in which she was raised. Their friendship is competently portrayed, but it’s missing a spark for me that I felt in so many of her other books, notably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls.

And I think that’s the word I keep coming back to when I think about this book: it’s competent. It’s a great crash course in Jeju history for those of us who weren’t already familiar with the island. It’s an occasionally heart-wrenching story about loss and the inability to forgive. It’s just not spectacular, and it never quite gains the momentum needed for the most brutal scene to make as much of an impact as it should have.

All said, I liked this book but I didn’t love it, but I undoubtedly should have pushed myself through the rocky beginning rather than dragging this reading experience out for three months; and everyone else seems to adore it, so I’d encourage you to give it a shot if it interests you. But if you’re looking for somewhere to start with Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls remain my go-to recommendations.

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


You can pick up a copy of The Island of Sea Women here on Book Depository.

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book review: Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants by Mathias Énard

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TELL THEM OF BATTLES, KINGS & ELEPHANTS by Mathias Énard
translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
★★★★★
New Directions, 2018
originally published in 2010

 

Michelangelo never traveled to Constantinople, but author and scholar Mathias Énard imagines that he did in the richly detailed novella Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants. Énard draws on the historically verified premise that Michelangelo was invited in 1506 to Constantinople by the Sultan Bayezid II, who wished to commission the design for a bridge over the Golden Horn, having already rejected a design proposed by Leonardo da Vinci. Wishing to surpass his elder and seduced by promises of eternal glory, Énard’s Michelangelo makes the excursion, fleeing from Pope Julius II and an unfinished commission in Rome.

What this slim book lacks in word count it makes up for in atmosphere: lush and evocative, Énard’s writing propels the reader into the past with a tonal confidence and authority that blurs the line between fact and fiction – and even after reading Énard’s note at the end, you would be forgiven for still not knowing which is which. Even the physicality of the pages makes you feel like you’re reading a historical document; with sparse, short chapters, occasional sketches, and an abundance of blank space, Énard easily earns his reader’s trust and convincingly brings the past to life.

While I imagine that Énard is a tremendously gifted writer in French, Charlotte Mandell’s translation is stunning and sensual. The novella opens with the following paragraph:

“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn. And its people along with it—the drinkers, the poets, the lovers. We are a people of the banished, of the condemned. I do not know you. I know your Turkish friend; he is one of ours. Little by little he is vanishing from the world, swallowed up by the shadows and their mirages; we are brothers. I don’t know what pain or what pleasure propelled him to us, to stardust, maybe opium, maybe wine, maybe love; maybe some obscure wound of the soul deep-hidden in the folds of memory.”

These words are narrated by an Andalusian singer that Michelangelo spends the night with, whose perspective occasionally resurfaces throughout the book. These chapters were consistently my favorites, but the chapters which focused on Michelangelo’s time in Constantinople and his fraught relationship with the gay poet Mesihi I found almost equally as thrilling.

‘Thrilling’ almost feels like an inappropriate word to use while trying to sell a relatively plotless book, but it feels like an accurate way to describe the constant emotional and intellectual engagement I felt with this story. In only 144 pages, Énard tells a propulsive tale of art, ambition, and a clashing of two cultures that don’t actually meet in a significant artistic way in 1506 – this book instead hinges on the glorious ‘what if?’ It’s also a bracing portrayal of one of history’s greatest artists – genius though he is, Énard’s Michelangelo fears the carnal as much as he reveres the aesthetic of it, and this contradiction is navigated here with grace and tragedy.

Make no mistake: this is very much my kind of book. I’m sure a lot of readers will find it serviceable or even dull, but everything came together for me for the perfectly enchanting and emotionally satisfying read. I can’t recommend it highly enough… but only if the premise intrigues you. This is the kind of book that I wanted to reread immediately upon finishing it, and I can confidently say I will be returning to it in the not too distant future.


You can pick up a copy of Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants here on Book Depository.

book review: Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

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REMEMBERED by Yvonne Battle-Felton
★★☆☆☆
Dialogue Books, 2019 (UK)

 

Well that was… underwhelming. I had been saving this book for last in my Women’s Prize longlist read through, hoping to end the list on a high, but that sure didn’t go as planned. To be honest I don’t even have a great reason for disliking Remembered as much as I did, because objectively, I think this book is perfectly fine, it’s just… not much more than that.

I have to first express my annoyance at this book’s marketing, which I’m certainly not holding against Yvonne Battle-Felton, but it was frustrating nonetheless to be expecting a book about 1910 Philadelphia and ending up with a book about US Civil War era slavery, which isn’t even mentioned in any professional summaries that I’ve read of this book. What begins as a story about an African American man driving a streetcar into a shop window quickly devolves into an extended flashback of the family’s history, and though we return briefly to 1910 a few times, that narrative thread is only really picked back up in the last 5 pages. So, just know what exactly you’re signing up for.

But the fact that this book ended up being about slavery isn’t the problem, at all, it’s just that the execution comes up short of what it’s trying to achieve. At a slim 288 pages, this book is lacking the heft needed to successfully pull off the multi-generational family saga formula. The flashbacks just zip along without landing on any kind of emotional resonance, and the newer generation’s narrative doesn’t really thematically dovetail into the backstory beyond a very bare-bones parallel. Everything about this was disjointed and poorly paced, and I didn’t find myself emotionally affected by any of it in the way I arguably should have. So while this wasn’t a great note to end on, Women’s Prize-wise, it did end up being emblematic of a large part of this list for me: a brilliant set-up whose execution felt more like a first draft than a finished novel.


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

book review: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

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SWAN SONG by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
★★☆☆☆
Hutchinson, 2018 (UK)

 

Much like Swan Song‘s subject, Truman Capote, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel is at times charming, at times vicious, and at times insufferable. Despite the fact that it took me over a month to get through this and I was complaining about it for a lot of that time, Swan Song actually does have a lot to recommend it. Its first person plural narration is particularly well done as Greenberg-Jephcott attempts to reclaim the voices of the women whose social lives Truman Capote effectively destroyed with the publication of his salacious story La Cote Basque 1965 (the first chapter of Answered Prayers, which was eventually published unfinished, posthumously). In stealing the real life stories of his close circle of friends for his planned novel, Capote faced extensive backlash and was unable to repair his lost friendships, which ultimately haunted him until he died. It could have been a gripping tale of betrayal and a searing commentary on the kind of symbiotic relationship with high society that both made and destroyed Capote’s career, but while it had its moments, it sadly falls short.

My first issue with Swan Song is how ungodly long it is, which naturally leads to all of my other criticisms, being that this book overstays its welcome in every conceivable way. All of Greenberg-Jephcott’s party tricks wear thin after not very long, the worst offense probably being Capote’s characterization – he’s constantly infantilized and reduced to a caricature in a way that starts to feel more spiteful than constructive after not very long. He’s referred to as ‘the boy’ even as a grown man, his height and voice are incessantly referenced, he’s described as ‘elfin’ or even more derogatory synonyms on just about every page, and after a while it’s like… what’s the point of any of this? The bottom line is established early: Truman Capote was capable of extreme kindness and extreme cruelty. This book just revels in the latter in a way that never convincingly dovetails with the voices that are purportedly being reclaimed with this retelling.

Because that’s the other issue at the heart of this: I love the concept of reframing a traditionally male-dominated narrative by using women’s voices – it’s a concept that’s carried through many of my favorite Greek mythology retellings quite soundly – but here it falls flat, because Greenberg-Jephcott never makes a convincing case for why this is a story that need reclaiming. A bunch of high society women have affairs and sail around on yachts and they’re betrayed by their close friend but… so what? This books feels like an elaborate revenge fantasy that’s so mired in gossip and cattiness that it loses its thematic heft.

But, like I said, it’s not all bad: Greenberg-Jephcott’s writing is lively and charming, the style is inventive (elements of poetry and screenwriting are incorporated), the research is admirable, and maybe it’ll appeal more to a different kind of reader, but I’m afraid I just struggled to care.


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

book review: Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (spoilers)

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PRAISE SONG FOR THE BUTTERFLIES by Bernice L. McFadden
★★☆☆☆
Akashic Books, 2018

 

The ending rarely makes or breaks a book for me. Obviously I’d prefer my endings on the satisfying and hard-hitting side, but if a book is strong enough, I’m not usually going to fault it for a slightly lackluster conclusion. This is why I rarely write reviews with spoiler tags – I don’t have any problem talking about a book in general terms of what worked for me and what didn’t.

Praise Song for the Butterflies is the exception. Because for the most part, I really, really enjoyed this book. The characters were on the thin side and their motivations were at times difficult to discern, but that was my only note in what was otherwise proving to be a captivating story… maybe a bit simply told, but if anything, I thought McFadden’s pared down prose style suited this story which could have easily veered into melodrama with overly flowery writing. And it certainly was every bit as horrifying as it’s meant to be, but I couldn’t bring myself to look away – granted, it’s short, but I still read the whole thing in two sittings. So all things considered, it was going well.

And then it ended. [SPOILERS] The problem isn’t just the abysmal final scene, but we’ll get to that in a minute. The bigger problem is that what was shaping up to be a moving story of resilience very, very quickly devolved into a narrative about how a traumatized woman finds healing in a man; how having a pleasurable romantic and sexual relationship is the pinnacle of what humankind can achieve. And I get it, I understand that love is validating and even curative at times, I understand that it can be cathartic to read about characters who have suffered finding happiness, but what I don’t understand is the drastic shift from harrowing survival story to soppy, sensationalist drivel. And what I also don’t understand is how anyone could read this utterly vile ”romantic” declaration and find it moving or poignant or comforting or any of the things it’s supposed to be:

“But if that is the road God had you travel in order for our paths to cross, then we have no choice but to accept the purpose it has served and be grateful for it.”

So let me get this straight: Abeo is raped from ages 11 to 21, she gives birth to a child, she watches the child drown, and is so traumatized that she becomes catatonic for months even after she’s rescued… but wait, she finds a guy who doesn’t see her as damaged goods and suddenly she’s supposed to be grateful?! Again, I understand the intent here. But my god did this ever fail in execution.

And then we get to the final scene, the one that completely undoes the entire premise that ensnared the reader to begin with. Because in the prologue, Abeo kills the man who raped and tormented her; it’s a bold, shocking scene, and even knowing that event was coming added a layer of suspense and intrigue to the entire reading experience. But then it turns out to be — wait for it — a dream. And — wait for it — because she was able to kill this man in her dream, she can finally be at peace. Fin. What an utter cop-out. This book could have been an exploration of the lasting impact of trauma, it could have given its heroine a compassionate ending without compromising its exposition, but because of the last few chapters, a solidly captivating and eye-opening novel became a trite and forgettable one. Failing to live up to potential lends itself to a particularly potent kind of disappointment.[/SPOILERS]


You can pick up a copy of Praise Song for the Butterflies here on Book Depository.

book review: Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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DAISY JONES & THE SIX by Taylor Jenkins Reid
★★★★☆
Ballantine Books, March 5, 2019

 

For better or worse Daisy Jones & The Six is a big departure from Taylor Jenkins Reid’s 2017 bestseller The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and though I’m sure this one will do equally well commercially, I’m not convinced that it will win the hearts of quite as many readers. The format takes some getting used to – it’s a series of interviews woven together from members of a Fleetwood Mac-inspired fictional band, and as such the entire novel is essentially told in dialogue. I’m not sure every reader will be able to get over that hurdle and settle into the novel’s rhythm, but I ended up really enjoying this.

I do have a few qualms, so let’s get those out of the way. While I thought the interview format was ultimately the right choice for this story, it led to a few awkward passages, as the only descriptions of setting we got were from the characters themselves, and there were some moments that felt wildly inauthentic to me – someone remembering exactly what a character was wearing 30 years ago, or describing a perfectly ordinary occurrence with a kind of poetic language that didn’t ring true for the circumstances in which the interview was being conducted. I know that Taylor Jenkins Reid probably had to take some poetic license here lest her dialogue come across as flat and stilted, but it didn’t always work for me.

I also wasn’t terribly impressed with the construction of the supporting characters; all of the male characters were essentially interchangeable, and I found myself frustrated with Camila’s portrayal as this utter paragon of goodness (I’m glad Taylor Jenkins Reid didn’t want to pigeonhole her into the ‘jealous wife’ role, but I think she overcompensated too much in the other direction – she was just unrealistically stolid).

Sorry, that was a lot of negativity for a book I ultimately enjoyed. Let’s get to the good stuff. This is a glorious portrayal of the 70s rock scene in LA; not to fall back on a cliche and say that this book is all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but it kind of is, in a way that felt both nuanced and convincing. No one does atmosphere quite like Taylor Jenkins Reid – in both of her novels that I’ve read I’ve just been so immersed into a period of twentieth century history that I didn’t think I cared all that much about, only to be riveted by her ability to evoke time and place, and use the setting to explore such brilliant character dynamics.

Which brings us to the other wonderful thing about this book. The chemistry between the band’s two leads, Daisy and Billy, leaps off the page – if you aren’t forcibly drawn into their thorny dynamic I don’t even know what to tell you. And one last note: Karen! I cannot even explain how delighted I was to see a female character who knows she does not want children and knows her own mind enough that she’s never questioned it. I feel like narratives about women not wanting children are often fraught with self-doubt, and it’s not that I think these narratives are unrealistic, but they don’t speak for every woman who decides to remain childless, and I just have never been happier with a portrayal of this than in this book.

So all in all, a mixed bag, but the good really did outweigh the bad for me, and I ultimately thought this was fun and quietly tragic all at once.

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

Pick up a copy of Daisy Jones & The Six here on Book Depository.

book review: The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino

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THE PARTING GLASS by Gina Marie Guadagnino
★★★★☆
Atria, March 5, 2019

 

What a lush and lovely book. I picked up The Parting Glass partially on a whim, but it captivated me practically from the first page. It tells the story of lady’s maid Maire O’Farren, alias Mary Ballard, an Irish immigrant employed by the beautiful young mistress Charlotte Walden in 19th century New York. Maire is captivated by Charlotte to the point of obsession, but Charlotte is having an affair with the stable groom, who happens to be Maire’s twin brother. Through this awkward love triangle of sorts, The Parting Glass explores passion and obsession and sexuality and corruption and social unrest in a turbulent period of American and Irish history, and it does so with a gripping, pacy story that I could not put down.

One thing I loved about this book was its rich historical detail. In the afterward you can get a sense of the amount of research that Gina Marie Guadagnino put into this novel, and it really does show the whole way through. Though she never pulls the historical context to the forefront in a distracting way, she still firmly establishes the setting, which she could have easily downplayed in favor of the various romantic subplots. Instead, this is actually an impressive piece of historical fiction that focuses on the reception of Irish immigrants to America in the 19th century – not exactly untread territory, but it’s handled in a way that feels relevant and immediate.

The other huge strength of this book for me was Maire’s relationship with her brother Seanin. With a mother who died in childbirth and a father who died when they were young, growing up in Ireland Maire and Seanin were inseparable, and it’s not until they move to the US that cracks in their relationship begin to form, Charlotte only acting as a catalyst for a rift that runs much deeper. I thought it was a fantastic depiction of a close, intense relationship that can easily flip the switch from love to hate. While Maire and Seanin’s characterization was brilliant, I would have liked to have seen a bit more of Charlotte, though I’m wondering if her character was kept deliberately hazy as a reflection of Maire’s idolization.

I will say, to anyone picking this up because of its Fingersmith comparison, don’t expect Sarah Waters’ quality of prose (I haven’t read Fingersmith, but I have read Waters before). Though I do think Guadagnino has a fantastic command of language, this isn’t quite on that same literary level, which I point out only because I imagine that’s going to be the main criticism held against this novel. It almost feels overly dismissive to call this a beach read for Waters fans, but there may be some truth to that; it’s certainly a clever book, but not half as dense as Waters. But I’d recommend you just ignore that comparison and enjoy it for what it is – a gem of lesbian historical fiction with compelling characters and a well-developed political backdrop.

Thank you to Edelweiss and Atria for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of The Parting Glass here on Book Depository.