RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson
In Red at the Bone, a quick, engrossing, fairly plotless read, Jacqueline Woodson dissects the anatomy of a family. She’s able to skillfully distill a collection of lives down to their bare essentials, without anything feeling rushed or underdeveloped, a feat in a book that’s scarcely 200 pages. The novel is narrated by a handful of characters and centers on Melody, a teenage girl preparing for her coming of age ceremony in her family’s home in Brooklyn. The narrative then weaves in and out of the past and present, in short, readable chapters, all pervaded by a sense of nostalgia and melancholy.
At times I found Woodson’s writing a tad overwrought (here I will cite the most obvious offender: WHY do authors feel compelled to have characters narrate their own births – has anyone else noticed that this is a growing trend?!). However, on the whole I found that subjects were navigated with deftness and subtlety – the chapter in particular which introduces a major world event I found positively gutting.
The downside of short, punchy books like this is that they never tend to leave much of a lasting impression on me, and I doubt Red at the Bone will be an exception in the long run, but I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with it.
FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Random House, 2019
This book was a bit of a rollercoaster for me: I loved it and I hated it, I found it brilliant and I found it frustrating. I was actually expecting very little from it (books about rich people’s marriages failing just aren’t my thing; see: Fates and Furies) so on the whole I’d categorize it as a pleasant surprise, though I do have a few too many qualms to raise my rating higher than a solid 3 star.
What I found brilliant about this book was the character work. As others have said ad nauseum, every character in this book is deplorable, and if that’s a problem for you, you aren’t going to get anything out of this. I didn’t like Toby and Rachel, I didn’t find them sympathetic, and I found the stakes (how ever will this family survive on Toby’s $200k salary alone!) mind-numbingly low. So I suppose it’s to Brodesser-Akner’s credit that I was invested. I did care about whether these annoying kids would have to be uprooted from their life. I did care about whether Rachel would resume the mantel of motherhood, or whether she had abandoned her family for good. And I think the reason for that is that every major character in this book felt so thoroughly fleshed out and human. This is a book about fallible people failing; it’s a train wreck that you can’t look away from. That’s exactly what it sets out to be, and it succeeds magnificently in that regard.
What I found frustrating about this book was the structure. For one thing, it was overly long: this could have been an intimate, thorough excavation of this marriage, and still been 150 pages shorter. It wasn’t the page-count alone that bothered me: it was the fact that flashbacks were awkwardly woven into the narrative in a way that was like ‘Toby saw a family with three kids get on the subway. He and Rachel used to want to have three kids. [Cue 8 page backstory about that.]’ Incessantly. It felt rather amateurishly constructed in this regard.
My biggest problem though was the book’s choice of narrator. Full disclosure: first person minor rarely ever works for me, and this was not the book to change my mind. It’s not narrated by Toby or Rachel, but rather Libby, one of Toby’s college friends who becomes invested in their marriage. I found this to be such a flimsy framing device that ultimately didn’t add very much, and there were a few painfully on the nose moments where the author aimed for a larger commentary about how Libby’s role in the narrative was being sidelined (middle aged women are invisible, etc), but the fact that it was the author’s own narrative choice to sideline Libby made the whole thing a bit of an eye-roll.
So anyway, a mixed bag, but I certainly got a lot more out of this than I had expected to. I do think it’s a brilliant commentary on marriage and the sort of contradictory societal expectations placed on women, and if that sounds appealing to you and you’re willing to navigate through it with loathsome characters, I would recommend it.
THE SPINNING HEART by Donal Ryan
Doubleday Ireland, 2012
The Spinning Heart is just tremendously, unbelievably good. Set in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, Donal Ryan chronicles the impact of the recession on a close-knit rural community. With about twenty different points of view, the chapters are short, each a couple of pages long, and the novel is bookended by chapters from a married couple, Bobby and Triona. Bobby is the novel’s central character, each of the other characters connected to his story in some way, but it’s hard to give a plot synopsis without giving anything away. Suffice to say it opens with the brilliant lines “My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.”
Though The Spinning Heart is Ryan’s debut, this is my third novel by him, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s cemented him as one of my all-time favorites. His prose is just top-notch, lyrical and evocative, and he has a way of capturing the distinct voice of each of his narrators while still allowing his own style to creep in – I just find it so compelling and pleasurable to read any of his books. The plot isn’t heavy in this one, though there’s a kidnapping and a murder going on in the background, but it was still hard for me to put it down. In fact, I’d recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible, lest you begin to forget the hundred names you’re meant to be keeping track of. Though I’d argue that if you forget who’s who a couple of times, as long as you remember who Bobby is, the impact won’t really be lessened. This ultimately succeeds as a portrait of a community economically depressed, and is more about the overall effect that Ryan achieves with the panoply of voices, rather than the intricacies of the characters’ lives.
Anyway, as I’m sure you can tell, I loved this. Maybe not QUITE as much as I loved All We Shall Know, but it’s close.
Girl is a novel which should have been an essay. I think Edna O’Brien’s conviction and passion for the Nigerian women abducted by Boko Haram does shine through – that was the main thing I was worried about when approaching this book. I still remain unconvinced that Edna O’Brien (a white Irish woman) was the right person to tell this story, but I’m somewhat mollified by the fact that she demonstrably did her homework and put quite a lot of research into this endeavor. However, the result, to me, was something that would have worked better as a long-form essay than a fictional book; it felt like the novel’s central conceit was to show the horrors that these girls went through, which did not translate to particularly believable characters or compelling storytelling – I just kept asking myself why I wasn’t seeing a different version of this project as an essay in the New York Times.
One struggle I was not expecting to have with this book was with O’Brien’s prose, but that actually ended up being one of the main issues for me. Structurally it left a lot to be desired; every time a new character was introduced, Maryam’s first-person narration would be interrupted, and we would switch to an italicized segment, also first-person, where the character would narrate their life story for several pages. It felt like the linguistic equivalent of flashbacks – a storytelling convention that I always find lazy.
What was even odder was the disjointed fusion of past and present tense. As a veteran author I want to credit O’Brien with the benefit of the doubt here and say she was trying to achieve something with this, but to me it just felt like the book hadn’t been proofread. Example:
‘They don’t. They can’t.’ She was trembling so badly she had to hold on to a pillar. She refuses a drink of water.
‘I want to be normal,’ she says, the voice urgent.
‘You are normal,’ I say, although I too am jangled.
‘Maybe we can meet up,’ she said and for the first time, she smiled.
‘I am going home, Rebeka.’ I blurted it out, I had to.
‘They will reject you… They will turn you out,’ her voice ugly and spiteful.
‘I have a baby,’ I said, thinking it wiser to tell her.
‘A baby!’ She was aghast. It was all she wanted.
There’s a lot more that didn’t work for me: the pace of the first half of the novel hurtled by at breakneck speed as if it were running through a checklist of every horror imaginable, and the second half slowed to such a standstill all momentum was lost. I felt emotionally numb reading this, which is particularly noteworthy given how graphic it is (trigger warnings for everything imaginable apply). The exploration of trauma only ever felt surface-level; all I ever really learned about Maryam was about her identity as a mother; the more I read the less I understood O’Brien’s aims with this book.
Ultimately well-intentioned but too unfocused to make a huge impact.
I don’t think this is a bad book at all, I want to make that clear right away. I think Jenny Offill is a talented writer, and that she achieves everything she set out to achieve with this little book, a potent commentary on the impossibility of balancing every day domesticity with encroaching anxiety about the climate crisis.
But with that said… I didn’t particularly like it? I mostly found this book incredibly forgettable. It was a short, breezy read, but for whatever reason I didn’t have time to read it in a single sitting, and every time I put it down and picked it back up, I couldn’t remember where I had left off. I had to constantly remind myself who was who – Ben, Eli, Henry, I think were their names, but even now I couldn’t tell you who was the husband, brother, and son – and there was nothing about Lizzie’s story in particular that justified to me why this was the particular story that Offill chose to tell. I ultimately just needed a bit more from it, but I think that’s on me rather than the author. Maybe I’ve just read a few too many navel-gazing literary novels lately for this to shine through.
THE ILLNESS LESSON by Clare Beams
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 Lessonhere on Book Depository.
At the time the longlist was announced I had only read… 1/4 of one book! A record low for me.
So, initial thoughts were that I was a little disappointed at all the heavy hitters on the list: I do love a good debut-heavy longlist. That said, I’m getting more excited to read it and I cannot wait to discuss the list with you guys in the upcoming months.
I have the following out from the library:
Weather: I’m halfway through this and so far I’m enjoying it but it’s not exactly knocking my socks off like it has done for so many other readers. Full thoughts to come hopefully in a few days.
Dominicana: I started this last night and I’m not at all crazy about the writing style, but I’m also only 20% in.
Girl: I’m a little wary of this one but also a little excited? Will start soon.
How We Disappeared: Possibly my biggest unpopular literary opinion is that I don’t mind a good WWII novel every now and then, so I have high hopes for this!
I have the following on hold:
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line: This does not seem like my kind of book, but I’ve also heard it’s good and a quick read, so I’m fine with giving it a go.
Fleishman is in Trouble: Ugh. This is the one I’m most annoyed about. I have not heard good things and this does not seem like something I will enjoy at all.
Queenie: Ooh, yes! Nearly made my predictions list. I’m excited.
Actress: Never read Anne Enright but I’m really excited for this!
Girl, Woman, Other: FINALLY a concrete excuse to read this. It’s such a shame that I haven’t made time for it before now.
The Most Fun We Ever Had: I must have read this summary four or five times and it has never made any impression on me. It’s also very long. We’ll see how this goes.
Hamnet: Very very very excited to read this.
The Dutch House: Meh? I’ve not had the best history with Ann Patchett – I DNF’d Bel Canto and I 3 starred Commonwealth. I do like the sound of this one though so hopefully it works for me.
Red At the Bone: Another meh. I’ve only read one Woodson and it did absolutely nothing for me.
I ordered the following:
A Thousand Ships: I’d been holding out for a US publisher for over a year, but fuck it. I am SO excited for this book and so happy to finally read it.
Nightingale Point: Never heard of it, didn’t even read the summary, I just placed an order.
The Mirror & The Light: TBD. I’ve not read Wolf Hall so that complicates things for me. I’m going to save this one for last – if I don’t get around to it by the time the winner is announced, oh well; but who knows, maybe I’ll finish the longlist by early May and have ample time to devote to this trilogy. We’ll see!
Finally, I just wanted to talk about some snubs real quick:
The Fire Starters by Jan Carson: My favorite novel of 2019 never got the attention it deserved, and this was really its last chance to show up on a big literary prize list, so I’m a little heartbroken. Just – please read this.
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy: This is a brilliant brilliant BRILLIANT book – I cannot state that enough. It almost definitely deserved a spot over some that made it onto the list.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: ding dong the witch is dead
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman: Mixed feelings about this not showing up; in a way I’d kind of have liked the excuse to read it! But on the other hand, the length is pretty scary when it’s up next to 15 other books I’m also trying to read in a set period of time.