book review: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

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THE TIGER’S WIFE by Téa Obreht
★★★★☆
Random House, 2011

 

What an incredibly pleasant surprise.  Not only did this not sound like my type of book (it has been well documented that I don’t get on with magical realism), I was doing a group buddy read – I started the book last, and by the time I picked it up, only one other person in the group ended up liking it.  So despite all the critical acclaim, I thought it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to hate The Tiger’s Wife.  But I actually have to side with the critics on this one!

This book was enchanting, I can’t think of a better word for it.  I was so impressed with Téa Obreht’s writing; if I hadn’t known that she had written this in her early 20s I never would have believed it.  Her ability to craft atmosphere in this meticulously detailed family saga kept me spellbound, even through sections where the narrative slightly stalled.

However, it didn’t completely work for me.  The Tiger’s Wife is a story within a story – the protagonist Natalia is a young doctor on her way to a remote orphanage in the generalized Balkan country in which she lives, when she receives word that her grandfather has died.  She then weaves together her own story with stories about her grandfather’s life, and the result is a case study in why I hate first-person minor so much.  I found the frame narrative incredibly flimsy, to the point where I’d have gladly done away with it altogether and focused entirely on Natalia’s grandfather.  Those chapters were the shining beacon of light in this book, and I can guarantee that a year from now I’m going to remember those vividly while not recalling a single thing about Natalia.

But all said, I thought this was a really enjoyable and worthwhile read that I’m glad to have finally picked up.


If you’re interested in reading the rest of the reviews from my buddy read group:

★★★★☆ | Naty
★★★☆☆ | Emily, Hannah RTC
★★☆☆☆ | Callum


You can pick up a copy of The Tiger’s Wife here on Book Depository.

book review: Lanny by Max Porter

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LANNY by Max Porter
★★★☆☆
Graywolf Press, 2019

 

This pretty much did nothing for me, but I am inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt as I recognize that I’m in the minority here.  I think I may not quite ‘get’ Max Porter, because I felt similarly about Grief is the Thing with Feathers: I appreciated it from a technical standpoint, but I found it utterly devoid of emotionality, which seems a silly thing to say about a pair of books that are about such heavy topics, and which have touched so many other readers, but I just find his writing technically brilliant and at the same time, curiously unaffecting.

What I admired: Again – Porter’s writing is lyrical and assured.  I think his descriptive imagery is gorgeous and evocative, and his portrait of small town England was beautifully rendered.  And the part of Lanny that did really work for me was the second section, where Lanny goes missing and his search is narrated by a chorus of characters in the town – it’s frantic, tense, and kept me turning pages in a way that I didn’t get from the first or third sections.

What I didn’t: Dead Papa Toothwort dragged this down for me, as I knew he would.  I’ve said it so many times I know you all must be getting tired of it, but I don’t like magical realism; I just find that it obfuscates more often than it augments a text.  I ultimately just didn’t see the point of this book.  I think Porter ruminates on a lot of interesting themes while never really driving any of them home – instead opting for this sort of half-baked mythical angle.

There was a point toward the end where I thought this book was going to ultimately go in a much more sinister direction, which I would have found more thought-provoking and hard-hitting, but the cloyingly sentimental resolution unfortunately made this a rather forgettable read for me.  I didn’t hate it, and there were times I was gripped by it, but this was just not my kind of book. A solid 2.5.


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

book review: The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

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THE FIRE STARTERS by Jan Carson
★★★★★
Doubleday, April 2019 (UK)

 

For whatever reason I never tire of reading about the Troubles, but The Fire Starters is not your average ‘Troubles book.’ Set in modern-day East Belfast, Jan Carson imagines a series of fires that break out throughout the city, initiated by an enigmatic figure referred to as the Fire Starter, who revels in the blood lust that his havoc causes. Amidst this violence we have two fathers, Sammy Agnew, an old man and former paramilitary, and Jonathan Murray, a socially awkward new father, both of whom fear their own children, as Sammy begins to suspect that his son is the cause of the Tall Fires, and Jonathan begins to suspect that his newborn daughter is a Siren.

This is a singular, inventive, tragic, and wildly funny book about the legacy of violence and the lasting scars it leaves on a community. The novel’s central conceit is reminiscent of Milkman, and of other quintessential Northern Irish lit – that terror begins at home, that trust cannot automatically be extended to one’s own family – but Jan Carson’s interpretation of this theme is far more abstract than any I’ve seen before.

I’ll be honest, I’m so relieved that I didn’t know there was going to be a magical realism element to this book before picking it up, because as I’m sure you all know by now, magical realism almost never works for me – but fortunately, Carson shows us how it’s done. This book quite literally mythologizes the Troubles as the threat of Sophie the maybe-Siren looms large over Jonathan, but her narrative role is more ambiguous; is Jonathan merely appropriating the grandiosity of the cultural narrative he was raised into, or is Sophie actually a danger to society? As Jonathan fears for the future, Sammy reminisces on the past and the violent role he played in the conflict in the 1970s; he fears that he can never wash his hands clean, and that his actions have irrevocably damaged his son.

As I’m sure you can tell, I loved this. Jan Carson’s writing is sharp and funny and piercing; the fusion of perspectives works magnificently; the examination of Belfast’s history of violence and the ever-present threat of its resurgence is timely and unapologetic. And this is, frankly, one of the most original things I’ve read in a very long time.


You can pick up a copy of The Fire Starters here on Book Depository.

book review: Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

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BOTTLED GOODS by Sophie van Llewyn
★★★☆☆
Fairlight Books, 2018

 

I think Bottled Goods is an interesting, impressive book in a number of ways, but I can’t help but to feel a bit underwhelmed by it. It tells the story of Alina, a young woman living in 1970s communist Romania, whose family comes under surveillance when her brother-in-law defects to the west. Blending a quotidian story with elements of Romanian folklore, this book is a unique, magical creation that I think will satisfy a lot of readers despite its brevity.

But while I was particularly intrigued by its ‘novella-in-flash’ premise, it turned out that the whole flash thing kind of ruined it for me. Each of these chapters is brief – some are a few sentences, some are two or three pages – and each jumps the narrative ahead several weeks or months with no preamble. I hadn’t realized just how much I appreciate a consistent pace and flow in storytelling, but I guess it makes sense, because I’ve noticed over the years that my reading speed gradually increases the further into a book I get; at the very beginning, before I’ve been pulled into the narrative, my mind wanders easily and I find myself rereading the same passages over and over. That’s what kept happening to me with this book – it’s only 190 pages, and rather tiny pages at that, but it took me probably six or seven sittings to get through it, because the jolting pace made it particularly difficult for me to care about any of it.

But anyway, all of that has more to do with me as a reader than what this book does or does not offer. I think it offers a lot: it’s a perceptive commentary about a young woman living under an oppressive governmental regime, an interesting counterpart to Milkman on the Women’s Prize longlist (though I think Milkman is the stronger novel in just about every conceivable way). And I did find its unique style both paradoxically stimulating and distracting; hopefully it will fall more toward the stimulating end of the spectrum for a lot of readers. Finally, I know that everyone who knows me was worried about my reception to this book as soon as the words ‘magical realism’ entered the summary, but I actually didn’t mind that element – I’m not sure it added anything that couldn’t have been achieved with more literal storytelling, but it was an interesting way to comment on the lengths one goes to in order to escape an oppressive government. So on the whole, not really the book for me, but a solid book nonetheless.


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

book review: The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

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THE THIRD HOTEL by Laura van den Berg
★★☆☆☆
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

 

The Third Hotel follows a newly widowed woman named Clare, trying to come to terms with the death of her husband and the illness of her father, while attending a film festival in Cuba. One day in Havana she thinks she sees her husband standing outside a museum and she decides to follow him. Much surrealism and existential angst ensues.

I think my biggest issue with The Third Hotel was that I did not feel the slightest emotional connection to this story. I really don’t need to feel an emotional pull to every single thing I read – I am happy for something to appeal to me on a more intellectual level if that’s what the author is trying to achieve – but when a book is about something as intensely personal as grief, I want to feel… something? Sad or unsettled or moved in some way? Anything other than bored.

But this book’s darkly sardonic and disaffected tone just left me cold, and didn’t give me enough to chew on that I put it down feeling intellectually stimulated enough to compensate for the emotional hollowness. Laura van den Berg certainly has some interesting ideas, but unfortunately none of them are developed past their infancy. The ruminations on the role of the traveler and the tension between the internal and external selves in particular had the potential to be intriguing – and I also liked the commentary on horror films – but I’m sorry to say that for the most part this was just tedious and lacking in focus.

book review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

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EVERYTHING UNDER by Daisy Johnson
★★★★☆
Jonathan Cape, 2018 (UK)

 

This novel was stunning. Everything Under is a retelling of a Greek myth (more on that in a second), set in the English countryside, which follows Gretel, a lexicographer, who’s recently tracked down her estranged mother Sarah. It’s a tricky plot to summarize as it unfolds with a nonlinear chronology, but it ultimately pieces together the fractured narrative that connects Gretel, Sarah, and a boy named Marcus who stayed with them on their riverboat for a month when Gretel was thirteen, before disappearing.

Daisy Johnson’s prose is accomplished and lyrical; of the Man Booker longlisters I’ve read so far, I’d say she’s only behind Donal Ryan in terms of prose quality, which is an incredible feat. This book is stunningly atmospheric; the water beneath Gretel and Sarah’s riverboat feels like a living, breathing entity, and the whole novel has a tone that’s both vibrant and feral. It can be difficult to rework Greek mythology into a contemporary setting, but I felt that Johnson achieved this with aplomb, turning the ordinary into something almost mythical, which perfectly suited the kind of heightened drama that inevitably must unfold in a story like this.

I’m not really sure what’s going on with the marketing of this novel, because in some promos I’ve seen reference made to the myth it’s retelling, and in others I haven’t. I did know which myth it was going into it, and rather than hampering my experience with the novel I think it enhanced it. But I have seen others say they wished they hadn’t known this information ahead of time as the knowledge does naturally give away quite a few plot points. But I don’t think it’s a novel which endeavors to shock the reader with its twists and turns, and with fate and free-will at its thematic center, I don’t think it’s difficult to figure out where the story is headed, even quite early on. So, I guess it’s up to you whether you want to look up the myth it’s retelling, but if you’re a Greek mythology lover, I think you’ll enjoy knowing ahead of time so you can properly appreciate Johnson’s positively masterful foreshadowing and symbolism.

The reason I’ve dropped it down to 4 stars from 5, which I thought it would be for most of the time I was reading, was that I wasn’t very enamored with certain elements of the ending. I have to quote my friend Hannah’s review where she talks about the last 20% of the novel: “Here Johnson makes quite a lot of the subtext text” – this was my main issue as well. The stunning subtlety that I had so admired about the first three quarters of this book was sacrificed for a very literal manifestation of one of the novel’s themes, adding a sort of fantastical element that I didn’t think was necessary. What can I say, I just don’t like magical realism.

But ultimately I did think this was an incredibly strong debut (!!) novel. Johnson’s prose was incredible, and the amount of thematic depth here really took me by surprise. Johnson provides us with a thorough meditation on fate, agency, breaking and mending familial ties, the role of language in shaping us. I really loved this.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure | The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman

book review: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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THE MERMAID AND MRS. HANCOCK by Imogen Hermes Gowar
★★★☆☆
Harper, September 11, 2018

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, a historical novel set in 1780s London, follows Jonah Hancock, a merchant who finds himself in possession of a mermaid, and Angelica Neal, a courtesan whose protector has recently died. Their narratives intersect rather early on, and the novel mostly follows their relationship over a rather meandering 500 pages.

From the very first page, I wanted to love this book. I was struck instantly by Imogen Hermes Gowar’s prose, which is some of the best I think I’ve ever read in a contemporary novel. It’s poised, elegant, classical and lyrical all at once, with some of the most evocative setting descriptions I’ve ever read. Gowar brings the late 1700s to life in a way that I wouldn’t dare to minimize as I go on to discuss this novel’s flaws.

But I would be remiss not to mention that the pace and plotting were downright maddening. This is one of those books where nothing happens for 450 pages, and then everything happens in the last 50. It’s uneven, and for me, it wasn’t engaging enough to hold my attention throughout. Characters and their motivations also remained at arm’s length, with a questionable third person omniscient point of view which gave absolutely no rhyme or reason for its head hopping, following not only Jonah and Angelica, but a handful of other characters whose narratives were never fully developed. One of these characters in particular was Polly, a black courtesan whose storyline had absolutely no depth or insight or closure or anything remotely satisfying to read.

Again, I don’t want to downplay what an accomplishment Gowar’s writing is. If your main draw to a novel is rich, gorgeous prose, then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this. But if you’re looking for tight plotting and compelling characters, I can’t say that either of those is a real strength of this novel.

Thank you to Harper and Imogen Hermes Gowar for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.