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.

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.