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.

book review: A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

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A BOY IN WINTER by Rachel Seiffert
★★★☆☆
2017, Pantheon Books

This is one of those books that didn’t inspire much of a reaction in me in either direction. There’s certainly not enough here to love, but there’s not much to strongly dislike, either. This felt to me like a bloated short story, whose subtleties would have perhaps been more effective in a shorter, more concise format.

A Boy in Winter‘s greatest strength is that it effectively downplays the grandiosity of the events it’s portraying. Though it is a World War II novel (and I know most people’s reactions to its inclusion on the Women’s Prize longlist was ‘oh no, another World War II novel’), it really doesn’t feel like one. It takes place over the course of three days toward the beginning of the German occupation of Ukraine in 1941. Seiffert deftly captures the sense of confusion and uncertainty for these characters who are unknowingly on the precipice of this massive historical event.

This is a quiet novel whose sparse, economical writing style suits its tone well. But the characters are forgettable and paper thin, the plot is nonexistent, the thematic resonance falls short, and the setting is rarely utilized to its full potential. I just don’t quite understand what Rachel Seiffert was attempting with this. There’s nothing terribly striking or unique or innovative or timely about this particular story that would recommend it over the sundry other Holocaust novels out there, or the exciting contemporary fiction that’s being published every day. This isn’t a bad book, but my experience reading it was a mostly hollow one. I’m a fan of quietly moving books, but there needs to be something that resonates for them to be effective, and that was just missing here.

book review: When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

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WHEN I HIT YOU: OR, A PORTRAIT OF THE WRITER AS A YOUNG WIFE by Meena Kandasamy
★★★★★
Atlantic Books, March 2018

When I Hit You is a brutal and uncompromising look at one woman’s abusive marriage in India. I’m at a complete loss for words with this book – I just want to shove it into everyone’s hands who has ever asked ‘if the relationship is abusive, why doesn’t she just leave?’ Kandasamy answers that question with unapologetic candor, in this semi-autobiographical novel that fuses lyricism with forthrightness in a way that’s utterly striking.

The narrator in When I Hit You is an aspiring writer and a self-proclaimed feminist, who falls in love with a university professor who, to all outward appearances, is intelligent and charming. Not far into their marriage he begins to show his true colors, physically and verbally abusing in an effort to bully her into submission. She eventually escapes – we know this from the first page – and the book flits back and forth between before and after, though not necessarily in a linear chronology that alternates the two. Past and present coexist for this character in a way she endeavors to reconcile, the two bleeding into each other as she tells her story.

Of all the Women’s Prize shortlisted titles I’ve read so far (I only have one more left, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock), I think there’s some seriously fierce competition, but When I Hit You still stands held and shoulders above the rest for me. It’s the most unflinching look at the psychology of those who endure domestic violence that I’ve ever read. But it’s also politically charged, and keen to examine the broader role of women in contemporary society, and it also critically examines any kind of ‘feminist’ discourse that places blame upon those who are unable to escape abusive relationships. Ultimately, this is thought-provoking, incisive, and beautifully written, and I think it would be a most deserving winner.

book review: The Idiot by Elif Batuman

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THE IDIOT by Elif Batuman
★★★★★
Penguin Press, 2017

The Idiot is a book you either click with or you don’t. I absolutely understand why some readers have found it maddening. I can’t recall the last book I read where less happened than it did here, which, considering that it’s nearly a five-hundred page book, is kind of a triumph in its own right. But I got along with The Idiot splendidly.

This is a quiet, sparse, cerebral, philosophical, surprisingly humorous account of a Turkish-American girl’s first year at Harvard. In one of her Russian classes she meets Ivan, an older Hungarian student, and she becomes inexorably drawn to him. This isn’t a romantic book, necessarily, but it is one that ruminates on the nature of love. Selin’s pursuit of love and pursuit of intellectualism run parallel, both stemming from a desire to understand and be understood, and this is something that Batuman explores deftly in these pages.

The most noteworthy thing about this book is the brilliant protagonist that Batuman has created in Selin, and her striking narrative voice. Selin is first and foremost an observer. That’s not to say that she isn’t an active participant in her life, or that she doesn’t make decisions, because she does, but often these decisions come more as reactions to the people and situations around her rather than from within herself. Selin observes the world in order to gain a deeper understanding of herself and where exactly she fits into the cosmic puzzle – and that’s something I really connected with. I lost track of how many lines I highlighted because yes, that is me, that is my entire college experience encapsulated in a single phrase – but this one in particular stood out to me:

Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.

I will admit to flinching at this and some of the other truths that The Idiot elucidated for me.

My only complaint is that it overstays its welcome by about a hundred pages… but I’m actually struggling to make up my mind about whether I think that’s an objective fault, or if this feeling is due to the fact that I traveled halfway across the country halfway through reading this book and had to take a break for several days due to work things and eventually came back to it in a different (and more tired) frame of mind.

Anyway, I can’t think of many people I’d recommend this to, and I can think of several I would specifically not recommend this to (hi, Hadeer), but I thought it was brilliant. It’s an easy, smooth read in some ways, but a difficult, dense read in others – Batuman doesn’t rely on a flashy vocabulary to show off her intelligence, but it’s on display on every single page. This isn’t a book you read for escapism as much as one you read in order to gain a clearer picture of your own reality. For me, it was a resounding success in that regard.

book review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman
★★★☆☆
Viking, 2017

I’m very conflicted about Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, and I think that’s largely because the context in which you read a book can be a significant factor in the relationship you end up having with it (at least for me). I first heard of this book when it was one of Book of the Month’s options for December, and when I think about Book of the Month, I usually think: commercial, will appeal to a wide audience, best-seller potential (lest I come across as a literary snob, these aren’t bad things! I love Book of the Month.) Anyway, I think if I’d have read this then, I may have been more forgiving. But reading it as a part of the Women’s Prize longlist, I had other elements in mind: is this book going to be ‘literary,’ does it have a strong artistic vision, does it break barriers and push the envelope and give us something truly original? Reading it in this context, I found it hard not to be slightly more critical.

This book has two real strengths for me – the examination of the importance of friendship, trite as it may sound, is actually incredibly touching, and Eleanor’s narrative voice is fresh and unique. Eleanor’s budding friendship with Raymond was a huge strength; I found their interactions to be genuine and rather heartwarming. And Honeyman’s prose is excellent, it’s smart and witty, and Eleanor herself is particularly noteworthy for how unlikable she is (you guys know this is something I love). This isn’t a manic pixie dream girl situation where a protagonist waxes lyrical about how shy and awkward and ‘different’ they are, but the most alternative thing about them is that they have brown hair. Eleanor is authentically an outcast, and the fact that she’s gone her whole life without any friends is a fact which is absolutely supported by her behavior throughout the book.

However. There were certain elements that didn’t work for me: namely, Eleanor’s character development over the span of this novel (which takes place over the course of a few months) to me felt hackneyed and unrealistic. When she and her coworker Raymond help and elderly man who’s fallen over in the street, this sets into motion a chain of events for Eleanor, and suddenly she finds herself in unprecedented social situations: going to bars and parties and other people’s houses. I think the problem for me is that there’s an emotionally manipulative undercurrent here – it’s constantly shoved in the reader’s faces how alien these experiences are to Eleanor, which for me at least left little room for my own emotional reaction, when I was being told exactly what to think. I don’t necessarily object to this novel’s treatment of trauma, but I do think it was somewhat lazy the way every single one of Eleanor’s idiosyncrasies were narratively pardoned by this traumatic event in her past, and how, with the introduction of Raymond into her life, she’s not only willing to quickly uproot so many of her routines which had been firmly in place for years as coping mechanisms, but also confront her past in a way she never had before. It was just too much too soon.

For the most part I enjoyed the humor in this novel, but there were so many moments which felt like they were being played for cheap laughs and didn’t ring true for me. I get that Eleanor has had a very difficult and unconventional life, but am I really supposed to believe that a thirty-year-old woman who’s lived her entire life in the UK doesn’t know what McDonald’s is, or refuses to give her name to a Starbucks employee because she thinks it’s a breach of her privacy, or doesn’t recognize a high-five? There were a lot of moments like this which I felt sort of compromised the realism of Eleanor’s character, which is a shame, as she is someone that I believe a lot of readers will be able to relate to.

Who knows what I’m trying to say. I liked this and I didn’t. I get the hype and I don’t. Maybe I read this at the wrong time, or maybe I’m just the wrong reader for it. Who knows. I’m being critical, because I didn’t love this book, but I actually did enjoy reading it and got through it rather quickly. I’ve just got too many nagging criticisms, and I don’t think this will stay with me in any sort of significant way.

book review: Sight by Jessie Greengrass

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SIGHT by Jessie Greengrass
★★★☆☆
Hogarth Press, August 21, 2018

Sight is an ambitious and introspective novel in which our unnamed narrator recounts her experience with new motherhood, while at the same time coming to terms with the death of her own mother and grandmother. To say that I have conflicting feelings about this novel would be an understatement; it’s like every singular element of this novel draws two completely contradictory reactions from me. I both admire it and find it insufferable at the exact same time.

Let’s start with the prose, which is what everyone is going to be talking about when they talk about Sight, and rightfully so. It feels like Jessie Greengrass’s sentences go on for days, each one carefully crafted to show very evident technical skill. Some of these sentences are striking, with poignant, meaningful commentary on the human condition:

“I want only what I think we all must want: to come off as better than I ought, more generous, more sure–kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused. I can’t have both.”

Some, not so much:

“All morning, caught up in the business of appointments, I had forgotten to feel sick, but now it returned, the constant queasy ostinato over which rose exhaustion’s disharmonious cadence, a progression paused before the point of resolution, aching forwards.”

I mean, ‘I had morning sickness’ would have sufficed, but okay.

After a while of immersing yourself in this prose, what first feels lush and fresh begins to feel methodical and calculated – even the variances of syntax have a very distinct rhythm to them. At times I would get lulled into it, and at others, it would feel like it was written by a particularly verbose robot. The interesting thing about Sight is that while it endeavors to reflect on the human condition, it does so in such a measured way it’s almost as if it’s devoid of all humanity. This is a book and a character that wants to be able to reduce the human experience to a series of elements which can be scientifically categorized, made evident by the heavy integration of medical history into the narrative.

That brings me to my next point, which is that Sight is very light on the narrative. This entire book is driven by the narrator’s fixation on her relationship with her mother, on whether or not she wants to have a child, on her ownership of her own body – and while I’d take character-driven novels over plot-driven novels any day, I hesitate to even call this character-driven, because by the end of it, we still know hardly anything about this person. For all the navel-gazing in this novel, we don’t even know where this character works. Does she even have a job? No, this isn’t the point, but it also makes it harder to fully immerse yourself in this character’s world.

There’s another line, “but the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment” which I think not only sums up this character’s introspective journey, but also, for me sort of characterizes the book as a whole. This is a book which dives into themes which I ordinarily find interesting – how well can we truly know other people, how well can we know ourselves – and examines them so thoroughly, it leaves almost no room for the reader to actively engage. I feel like this is one of those novels which attempts to ask questions of its readers without being particularly interested in their answers, because you can find all of the answers in its pages. I mean, maybe that’s not even a bad thing. It just doesn’t get me particularly excited.

I admire the technical skill that went into this novel, but it ultimately didn’t leave as strong of an impression on me as I had hoped it would. But there’s a lot of thoughtful commentary in these pages, and it’s worth a read if you like your books heavy on the philosophy.

Thank you to Netgalley, Hogarth Press, and Jessie Greengrass for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

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HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie
★★★★☆
Riverhead Books, 2017

 

I don’t know why I’d been under the impression that Home Fire was going to be a kind of loose, ‘blink and you miss it’ retelling of Antigone, but I’m almost glad that that had been my expectation, because the reality of this book completely caught me off guard. And I loved it. In this novel Kamila Shamsie gives us a fearless adaptation set in present-day London, following two Muslim families both grappling with family legacy and national identity.

I hesitate to say that you won’t get anything out of this book if you aren’t familiar with Antigone, but just in terms of my own experience, my reading of it was almost entirely informed by the parallels. Just consider that this reads more like a Greek tragedy than it does a contemporary novel – not in terms of prose quality, certainly, but in terms of themes and narrative structure.

There is nothing subtle about the way in which Shamsie riffs off Sophocles, but the hidden depths in Home Fire makes it a rewarding and necessary retelling, as does Shamsie’s choice to reframe the story around an all-Muslim host of characters. The main theme at the heart of Antigone – measuring the power of the individual against the power of a corrupt state – is also the main theme of Home Fire. But it’s complicated here by the fact that the protagonists and antagonists alike are all a part of the same minority group; all striving to live as best they can in a society which continues to alienate and dehumanize them.

The main criticism which I’ve seen leveled against this book – that its characters are flat – is valid, and I agree to an extent, but I also find myself forgiving this more here than I might in another novel. The characters are ‘flat’ as such because they’re deliberately constructed archetypes, and this is where I’m wondering if this would be a less rewarding reading experience for those not already familiar with the original story and characters. The Creon figure here I thought was particularly fascinating for the way Shamsie subverted certain elements of his narrative.

Anyway, I thought this novel was stimulating; the way in which Shamsie uses a classical narrative to give voice to a minority group is one of the best reasons I can think of to adapt a story that’s already been told to death. Home Fire is topical and classical all at once, and an engaging, dramatic tragedy from start to finish.

book review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

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ELMET by Fiona Mozley
★★★★★
Algonquin Books, December 2017

It was hard not to be curious about Elmet, this year’s wild card on the Man Booker shortlist that didn’t even have a U.S. release date until after the winner (Lincoln in the Bardo) was announced. I didn’t know what to expect from this novel, but maybe that was for the best, because what started as a rather unassuming story really crept up on me, and I’m finding this review particularly difficult to write, because I’m so in awe of the scope and composition of this novel.

Elmet (in terms of theme more than style of prose) is All We Shall Know meets All the Birds, Singing, meets Wuthering Heights – a gothic-inspired novel set in the lawless outskirts of British society. The story’s setting, an unnamed rural town, is located on a site once known as Elmet, a Celtic kingdom now a part of west Yorkshire. Fiona Mozley’s sensory descriptions are so vivid, I felt like I was transported straight into the heart of this rustic setting. The novel is narrated by 14-year-old Daniel, an effeminate boy who lives in a cabin in the woods with his tomboy sister Cathy and his father John, an almost paradoxically sensitive and brutal bare-knuckle fighter referred to only as ‘Daddy.’ Throughout the book their peaceful existence is threatened by a local landowner and his family, and the conflict between the two parties crescendos into an inevitable and harrowing conclusion.

Though Elmet is a quiet and subtle pastoral tale, it’s also an absolute powerhouse meditation on violence, gender, familial ties, and societal views on morality. There’s an anger and a restlessness simmering beneath the surface of this positively humorless novel, but it’s not actually as bleak of a read as you might think. There’s a sort of innocence to Daniel’s narration that doesn’t evoke pity as much as demand reflection on the lifestyle of this novel’s unlikely heroes. Mozley’s prose is lyrical and incisive – there’s nothing to do while you’re reading this book but give it your full attention.

I understand why Elmet doesn’t work for certain readers. It’s light on plot and heavy on backstory and its pace is slow, so if you aren’t sustained by its themes and characters, I can see where the word ‘boring’ may be leveled against it. But if you’re the sort of reader who loves a subtle and atmospheric story, this is well worth checking out. This is a solid 4.5, but the more I think about it, the more I like it, so 5 it is.

Thank you to Netgalley, Algonquin Books, and Fiona Mozley for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward
★★★☆☆
Scribner, September 5, 2017

Hmm. Still processing my thoughts, here. I’ll be honest: I didn’t love this. I just can’t quite put my finger on why.

Jesmyn Ward is a brilliant writer. Her prose is gorgeous and immersive. The comparisons to Faulkner and Morrison are not unwarranted at all; to Morrison especially. This is an important story about one African American family navigating the systematic discrimination that they have endured for years. It’s moving, disheartening, tragic, and lyrical. It’s exactly the kind of book that I usually love.

It seems a bit callous to say that I didn’t really care about these characters, and I’m not sure that’s even true… I did care about Jojo, the thirteen year old son of drug addict Leonie who’s more of a parent to his younger sister, Kayla, than their mother is. But it just wasn’t enough to hold my interest. So much is attempted in these pages, right down to the inclusion of actual ghosts, but I can’t help but to feel like there was a certain lack of subtlety to the themes Ward was addressing. I didn’t feel like there was a lot of depth buried beneath the surface – I thought it was all spelled out in a sort of obvious way. Perhaps if the novel had been longer, Ward could have given herself more space to develop this narrative and its themes in a more challenging and compelling way. The bottom line is, this book tried to engage me on both an emotional and intellectual level, but it failed to really do either. But I can’t help but to feel like that’s more on me than the author.

Read this book*. This is a timely and important novel that will hopefully infuriate and inspire you. It didn’t work for me, but for once I’m glad to be in the minority. I’m glad that so many people are loving this book the way I had hoped to.

*Unless you have emetophobia. Literally half the novel is a child vomiting in a car. It got to be a bit much for me.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Netgalley, Scribner, and Jesmyn Ward for the opportunity.

book review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

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SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE by Sarah Schmidt
★☆☆☆☆
Grove Atlantic, August 1, 2017

Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks; when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one. In Fall River Massachusetts, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were gruesomely murdered, and Lizzie (daughter of Andrew; stepdaughter of Abby) was charged with the crime before eventually being acquitted. In See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt gives a fictionalized account of the Borden murders, one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in American history.

I love true crime, I love fictionalizations of real people and real historical events… all things considered I was really excited for this book.

Unfortunately I didn’t like a single thing about it.

This isn’t eerie and twisted and sinister like I was hoping it would be… it’s mainly gross? And I mean, really, really gross. I think the author uses a lot of these disgusting descriptions to try to shock a visceral reaction out of the reader, and I don’t have a lot of patience for that. What’s so shocking about vomit or pieces of mutton in some man’s beard? Nothing, really, it just creates an atmosphere I have no interest spending any time in. It was such a struggle to pick this book back up every time I put it down. I very seriously considered DNFing this book at 85% because I just couldn’t gather the motivation to push through. I ended up skimming through to the end.

I thought See What I Have Done read like a first draft – a very rough, underdeveloped first draft. The structure of this novel is confusing and hard to follow; the prose is jarring and the pace is odd and uneven. It was kind of like trying to walk through a path in the forest that hasn’t been manicured, and constantly tripping over roots and branches, i.e., frustrating, painful, and more time consuming than it needs to be. The prose gets rather experimental at times, especially in the chapters told from Lizzie’s point of view; e.g., “the clock ticked ticked,” which I think was meant to be evocative and unsettling, but for me it served only to irritate. Here’s another example:

“I thought of Father, my stomach growled hunger and I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip.”

I’m sorry but this just did not work for me.

All of the characters were rather loathsome, but not in a particularly intriguing way. This is a book about truly repulsive people who act a fraction of their age, and it gets old fast. I didn’t care about Lizzie, I didn’t care about Andrew and Abby Borden, I didn’t really care about Lizzie’s sister Emma… the only character who was even remotely sympathetic to me was the maid, Bridget, but her few point of view chapters (complete with dialogue that includes a truly horrendous transcription of the Irish accent) weren’t enough to hold my interest.

One star seems harsh, especially given that I am clearly in the minority here, but I just… didn’t like this book. At all. I really wish I could have seen in this book what so many other people seem to. All I can say is that if you’re interested in the premise (and have a strong stomach) I encourage you to give it a shot, because you never know. No two people ever read the same book, I guess!

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Netgalley, Grove Atlantic, and Sarah Schmidt for the opportunity. Quotes taken from an ARC and may be edited before publication.