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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.