book review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

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HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee
★★★★☆
Hanover Square Press, 2019

 

Set in Singapore, How We Disappeared centers on Wang Di, an elderly woman who survived Japanese occupation during WWII by being forced into serving as a comfort woman.  We follow her present-day narrative as well as seeing flashbacks to the war, which comprise the bulk of this novel.  Meanwhile we also follow Kevin, a teenage boy whose grandmother has just made a shocking confession on her death bed, which propels Kevin to dig into his family history.

I found this to be an occasionally frustrating and messy yet ultimately satisfying read.  Its main strength was Jing-Jing Lee’s skill at immersing the reader, and the chapters set during WWII really came to life.  I do think a bit too much of the narrative focused on Kevin – not to the detriment of Wang Di’s narrative, as I felt that her sections were properly fleshed out – it’s more that Kevin himself added very little as a character.  I tend to prefer historical fiction that doesn’t have a past/present framing, and this was no exception; I kept wishing it would stay in the 1940s.  That said, I do feel that Jing-Jing Lee ultimately justified this narrative decision with the way the story wrapped up, even if it wouldn’t have been my first choice of how to tell it.

But where I felt this book really excelled was Jing-Jing Lee’s descriptions of Wang Di’s life as a comfort woman, but then also in the depiction of the aftermath.  The shame and stigma attached to these young women after they returned home was a heartbreaking thing to reckon with, but I felt the book was strengthened by Lee’s willingness to confront this head-on.  I know that we in the book community collectively feel a bit of fatigue where WWII novels are concerned, but I felt that this one was a worthwhile read – impeccably researched and harrowing while still providing a strong and compelling narrative.  (If you’re going to read one book about sexual slavery off the Women’s Prize longlist, make it this one instead of Girl.)


You can pick up a copy of How We Disappeared here on Book Depository.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | How We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather

book review: Dominicana by Angie Cruz

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DOMINICANA by Angie Cruz
★☆☆☆☆
Flatiron, 2019

 

Dominicana was one of the flattest and most poorly written things I have read in a while.  There was a sort of painful obviousness to the way this entire story was told; if you’ve read even a single historical fiction novel about immigration, this will offer nothing new or fresh or dynamic.  The whole thing unfolded so predictably that I don’t think I experienced a single moment of tension or anxiety while reading.

That’s mostly down to the fact that Angie Cruz never earned my investment, and I didn’t believe any of it; I didn’t believe the story and I didn’t believe the characters.  At one point in this book, Ana, the narrator, has resolved to leave her husband, Juan, and return to the Dominican Republic.  Juan is abusive (a decision which I found frustrating in and of itself – the arranged marriage with an abusive black immigrant husband was chock full of stereotypes, none of them challenged), and Juan has just choked her so hard she passed out.  She wakes up, terrified, puts on all of the clothes she owns, and runs to the bus terminal, where she happens to run into her brother-in-law César.  While reminding you that Ana was AFRAID FOR HER LIFE moments ago, this is how the exchange between Ana and César is written:

“He pulls out a cigarette from his jacket pocket.  You leaving without saying good-bye?

It’s not like you’re ever around, busy with all your girls.  I say it in a voice I don’t recognize.  Why am I flirting?  Now?  And with César!”

Some other choice quotes to illustrate the egregious prose:

“I just wish he would say to me that I’m beautiful, whisper in my ear that I’m his only little bird and mean it.  That he would cover the bed with flowers and look at me like a man in love, like Gabriel looked at me as if my curves were a riddle.”

“Juan is pale, César the color of the crunchy skin off of juicy roast chicken thigh, creamy hot chocolate, buttered toast, dark honey, the broth of slow-cooked sancocho.”

“I love him.  I fucking love him.  His mischievous eyes, his firm ass, his muscular legs.”

Moreover, this book was a structural enigma to me. It felt to me like Angie Cruz was so determined to Capture the Immigrant Experience that she crammed in as many details as possible to further this goal while following through on none of them.  The historical details felt shoehorned in to remind the reader of historical context (Malcolm X is assassinated right outside Ana’s door, conveniently) while lacking sufficient commentary; none of the characters’ motives are really explored outside of Ana’s and therefore everyone feels like a caricature or a plot device; the way Cruz attempted to balance Ana’s first-person narration in New York with updates from back home was… perplexing.  The result is a disjointed mess.

The one thing I thought Angie Cruz did well was capture Ana’s loneliness and alienation in the United States, but even the strength of this element began to wane once Ana met César.  Ultimately I hated reading this, and how it earned its way onto the Women’s Prize longlist is beyond me.


If you think you will fare with it better than I did, you can pick up a copy of Dominicana here on Book Depository.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviews: Dominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | How We Disappeared | Red at the BoneWeather

book review: The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

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THE ILLNESS LESSON by Clare Beams
★★☆☆☆
Doubleday, 2019

 

The thing about The Illness Lesson is that it isn’t enough of anything. It isn’t historical enough, it isn’t weird enough, it isn’t feminist enough.  The premise – girls at a boarding school who fall prey to a mysterious illness – sounds like it’s going to make for a positively entrancing book, but I could not have been more bored while reading this.  It never felt grounded enough in its setting to really provide much commentary about the time period (which historical fiction is wont to do) – not to mention that about a quarter of the way through the book I had to ask a friend who was also reading it if it was set in the U.S. or the U.K.

There’s a recurring motif of red birds throughout the novel – strange red birds have flocked to the school for reasons no one knows.  This was an intriguing thread that proved to be, like everything else in this book, utterly inconsequential; it’s empty symbolism shoehorned in in order to imbue this book with some kind of meaning that wasn’t actually there.

As for the girls falling ill: this plot point is relegated to the latter half of the book (what happens before that, I don’t think I could tell you), and I was frustrated and a little sick at the way their invasive treatment was narratively handled.  This book does contain an element of rape, which is never given the depth or breadth it deserves; instead it seems like it’s there for shock value in the eleventh hour, not offering near enough insight to justify its inclusion.

On the whole, I found this book incredibly anemic and unsatisfying.  I finished this a few weeks ago and I think, at the time, there was a reason I opted for 2 stars instead of 1, but I may need to downgrade my rating because I cannot think of a single thing I liked about this.

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


If you think you will fare with it better than I did, you can pick up a copy of The Illness Lesson here on Book Depository.

book review: On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl

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ON SWIFT HORSES by Shannon Pufahl
★☆☆☆☆
Riverhead, 2019

 

On Swift Horses is a book that seemed like it was going to be tailor-made for me; queer historical fiction and horses are two things I’m always drawn to.  But this unfortunately ended up being a slog, to the point where I forced myself to read the last 200 pages in one sitting because I never wanted to pick this up once I put it down.  (And I would have actually DNF’d this – I know, I never DNF books, but I swear to god I would have made an exception, if I hadn’t been assigned to review this for a publication. Which didn’t end up panning out, because I hated it too much.)

Basically, this book follows two characters, Muriel and Julius – Muriel is a young newlywed who’s recently moved from Kansas to San Diego with her husband, and Julius is her gay brother-in-law – and I’m not going to say any more than that, because apparently this is one of those cases where the dust jacket gives away the entire plot.

This may seem like a weird detail to get hung up on, but to me, this book’s most egregious offense was the author’s decision to write it in the present tense, especially given that she didn’t show much aptitude for it.  I felt like I was being forcibly dragged by the author from one sentence to the next.  Imagine looking at a painting with your nose pressed up against the canvas.  It’s a suffocating view.

I just felt like this book was trying so hard to come across as Literary and Important, and this forced ‘lyrical’ writing style came at the expense of… literally everything else.  Plot, character development, setting.  You may have noticed the incredibly bland words I used to describe Muriel and Julius up above – ‘newlywed,’ ‘gay’ – but I’m afraid that after hundreds of pages I still do not know a single thing about either of these people’s personalities.  I know what they want from life, I guess, but each of their characters felt so clumsily crafted that there was never really anything to latch onto.  I don’t know a single thing about these characters or this narrative that I hadn’t gleaned from the summary.  What a terrific waste of time.

book review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

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A SPELL OF WINTER by Helen Dunmore
★★★★★
Penguin, 2007
originally published in 1995

 

I had such a strange reaction to this book: I loved this more than anything I have read in a long time, but when I started thinking about writing this review, I had the hardest time putting my finger on why.  Its structure is a bit messy and tonally inconsistent; it doesn’t really deliver anything promised on the blurb (not a fault in the book itself – but I think it’s bound to frustrate a lot of readers who go into expecting a mystery or a Shirley Jackson-esque haunted mansion tale); but it really came together for me and gave me one of the most enthralling reading experiences I have had in a while.

A Spell of Winter is a difficult book to categorize and difficult to explain without giving too much away – but it follows siblings Cathy and Rob who have spent their lives in a quasi-abandoned manor in the English countryside which belonged to their parents; their father is now dead and their mother ran off when they were young.  As adults, Cathy and Rob’s relationship begins to develop into something forbidden, and it sets off a tragic chain of events that spread into the years of the First World War.

This was my first Helen Dunmore, which I decided to pick up as it won the inaugural Women’s Prize for Fiction back when it was known as the Orange Prize, and the first thing that struck me about it was how enchanting I found her prose.  Even when you get past the arresting first sentence (‘“I saw an arm fall off a man once,” said Kate‘) the writing itself continued to beguile – her prose is descriptive and evocative without being overly flowery; there was something distinctly reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier there, and indeed the book’s setting and atmosphere called to mind Rebecca (though the comparisons really do stop there).

The other reason this book came alive for me is that Cathy was such a fascinating, sympathetic, well-developed character, and the depth of emotional complexity that Dunmore was able to excavate with this book was staggering.  This book is about sexuality, societal restraints, and female agency, all examined through the lens of one woman’s fraught relationship with her own family inheritance. It all sounds like a rather standard female-centric historical fiction novel, but Cathy’s journey and Dunmore’s psychological insights took on a hard edge that subverted all of my expectations and then some.

I don’t think this is the kind of book that people intensely hate – I think it’s more of a ‘it was fine, nothing special’ for a lot of readers. So again, it’s hard to recommend this enthusiastically knowing that it’s bound to fall flat for a lot of people who find themselves disappointed by the (anticlimactic?) direction it takes. But I was so utterly enchanted and riveted by this book, and I cannot wait to see what else Dunmore has to offer.


You can pick up a copy of A Spell of Winter here on Book Depository.

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.

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.