Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

37539457Verdict: Rooney is a genius.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years.

This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us – blazingly – about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney’s second novel breathes fiction with new life.

I am such a fan of Sally Rooney’s writing and I cannot imagine this changing, ever. The way she constructs her characters is something extraordinary and I am so very glad this book is on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I needed a brilliant book after some of other nominated books just did not work for me at all. I really hope she’ll make the shortlist.

Told in alternating viewpoints and skipping forward in time, this book chronicles Connell’s and Marianne’s friendship/relationship from their final year in school until shortly after their undergraduate degree. It is both fast-paced and intimate in a way that nearly perfectly catered to my reading preferences. For me the intimacy of her story worked exceedingly well; she narrows her gaze into those two characters in a way that made them near unbearably real for me. Rooney’s prose is readable and without frills but still expertly done to keep me engaged but for me, Rooney’s biggest strength are her characters; they are fully realized and flawed people who I cannot help but root for. Even more so than in her debut novel, she expertly broke my heart. I felt for these two people who keep on missing each other, who just for the life of them cannot communicate effectively, and who still cannot be without each other.

While I think that Conversations With Friends is the stronger of her two novels, both of them are ridiculously well-done and I am glad Rooney gets all the praise she deserves. She is such an exciting voice and I just cannot wait to see what she does next.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Normal People by Sally Rooney
  4. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  5. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  6. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  7. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
  8. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)
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Review: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

36203384Verdict: Indulgent.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction.

Published by Hutchinson, June 2018.

Find it on Goodreads.

They told him everything.

He told everyone else.

Over countless martini-soaked Manhattan lunches, they shared their deepest secrets and greatest fears. On exclusive yachts sailing the Mediterranean, on private jets streaming towards Jamaica, on Yucatán beaches in secluded bays, they gossiped about sex, power, money, love and fame. They never imagined he would betray them so absolutely.

In the autumn of 1975, after two decades of intimate friendships, Truman Capote detonated a literary grenade, forever rupturing the elite circle he’d worked so hard to infiltrate. Why did he do it, knowing what he stood to lose? Was it to punish them? To make them pay for their manners, money and celebrated names? Or did he simply refuse to believe that they could ever stop loving him? Whatever the motive, one thing remains indisputable: nine years after achieving wild success with In Cold Blood, Capote committed an act of professional and social suicide with his most lethal of weapons . . . Words.

A dazzling debut about the line between gossip and slander, self-creation and self-preservation, SWAN SONG is the tragic story of the literary icon of his age and the beautiful, wealthy, vulnerable women he called his Swans.

‘Writers write. And one can’t be surprised if they write what they know.’

I am in two minds about this book: while I thought there were moments of brilliance, overall I found it indulgent, tedious, and way too long. Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcotts sets out to retell Truman Capote’s final years from the perspectives of his ‘Swans’, high society ladies he first befriended and then betrayed.

The strength of this book for me was hands-down the narrative choice to tell the story from a we-perspective, reminiscent of Greek choruses. As such she creates a cacophony of voices and competing narrative strands that I enjoyed. Listening to the audiobook worked really well for this facet of the story. I found some of these stories, especially Slim’s and Babe’s compelling and interesting to follow – but there were some women I just could not tell apart; they blended together in a picture of overwhelming privilege. I think Greenberg-Jephcott set out to make these women sympathetic victims of Capote’s scheming – but for this to work they have to be just that: sympathetic. But it is difficult to feel for people whose whole lives seem to revolve around gossip (who wore the wrong dress to whose party on a yacht is also not particularly interesting gossip).

The book would have been altogether a lot better had it been a lot shorter; as I said, I really enjoyed the narration and for the first two hours I found the glib narrative voice charming and interesting. But once it got old, it got really old and then I had to spent hours upon hours listening to what read for vast stretches like a gossip column. Had the book been 200 pages shorter and more focused on the compelling Swans (yes, Babe and Slim but also CZ and Gloria), I could have really loved this book.

By biggest problem, however, was Capote’s characterization. Come to think about it, cutting his parts nearly completely would have made for a much more interesting reading experience. While I know next to nothing about the man and he might very well have been awful, I found the gleeful hatefulness in which he is described both uncomfortable and uninteresting. He is referred to throughout the book as “the boy”, we are constantly hit on the head about his height (or rather, lack of height) to in a way that just felt unnecessary and steeped in deeply disturbing ideas about masculinity, and calling him repeatedly “the fag” or “the kobold” or variations thereof is offensive and pointless.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  5. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  6. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
  7. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

 

Review: Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

38720267Verdict: Weirdly not for me.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Short Stories

Published by Fairlight Books, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

When Alina’s brother-in-law defects to the West, she and her husband become persons of interest to the secret services, causing both of their careers to come grinding to a halt.

As the strain takes its toll on their marriage, Alina turns to her aunt for help – the wife of a communist leader and a secret practitioner of the old folk ways.

Set in 1970s communist Romania, this novella-in-flash draws upon magic realism to weave a tale of everyday troubles, that can’t be put down.

This book was really not for me – and this is weird because I really thought it would be. I love novels told in short stories and I love books inspired by Eastern European fairy tales. But I really failed to connect to this book. Part of this has to do with the fact that I read so many similar books that this felt derivative in a way that feels mean to communicate (drawing on real life atrocities as it is).

Told in short, flash fiction like chapters, this is Alina’s story, as she is navigating an increasingly cold marriage while living in a dictatorship that threatens everything about her life. It is similar in themes to the (much better) Milkman and maybe the closeness in which I read these books were to its detriment. Alina is incapable of communicating effectively with those closest to her and van Llewyn shows how the climate of the time suffocates any possible feeling between Alina and the others. The insidiousness of her dealings with the secret police is explored, but it mostly stayed on the surface. Scenes were strikingly similar to other books in a way that seems like it might have been intentional (the obvious comparison for me was The Zsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, a book also told in short stories and dealing with atrocities but also a book I adore beyond measure). I guess what I am trying to communicate is that I found this book lacking in comparison to other novels, a critique that is not particularly helpful, I know.

For me, the book worked best in the stories that were more magical in nature, here I thought van Llewyn really added something to the canon. Her exploration of fairy tales in dictatorships was lovely and interesting. It helped that my favourite character (the wonderful Aunt Theresa) was front and centre of these fairytalesque stories. This is not a bad book by any means but one that I found not quite exciting and not as well written as I would have hoped it would be.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  5. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn
  6. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

Review: Doggerland by Ben Smith

42363317Verdict: Bleak, but beautiful.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Speculative Fiction

Published by HarperCollins UK/ 4th Estate, April 4th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Doggerland is brilliantly inventive, beautifully-crafted and superbly gripping debut novel about loneliness and hope, nature and survival – set on an off-shore windfarm in the not-so-distant future.
‘His father’s breath had been loud in the small room. It had smelled smoky, or maybe more like dust. ‘I’ll get out,’ he’d said. ‘I’ll come back for you, ok?’ The boy remembered that; had always remembered it. And, for a time, he’d believed it too.’
In the North Sea, far from what remains of the coastline, a wind farm stretches for thousands of acres.
The Boy, who is no longer really a boy, and the Old Man, whose age is unguessable, are charged with its maintenance. They carry out their never-ending work as the waves roll, dragging strange shoals of flotsam through the turbine fields. Land is only a memory.
So too is the Boy’s father, who worked on the turbines before him, and disappeared.
The boy has been sent by the Company to take his place, but the question of where he went and why is one for which the Old Man will give no answer.
As the Old Man dredges the sea for lost things, the Boy sifts for the truth of his missing father. Until one day, from the limitless water, a plan for escape emerges…
Doggerland is a haunting and beautifully compelling story of loneliness and hope, nature and survival.

This book is possibly a definite contender for the bleakest book I have read in years. Set in the future on a slowly breaking down wind farm maintained as much as possible by the Old Man and the Boy whose names remain a mystery for most of the book. To say that not much is happening would be unfair (there is actually a lot of action here) but everything crumbles in slow motion and there is not much either person can do against it. The comparisons to The Road are spot-on; this future is bleak and narrow in the way th world can be seen by the protagonists. The atmosphere is equally distressing and overwhelming while the language remains a sharp edge that can dazzle the reader.

That this book was written by an author who also writes poetry, is impossible to overlook – the sentences are beautiful and unusual and by far my favourite thing about this book. The way Ben Smith’s prose flows reminded me of the ocean – something that has to be intentional given that the North Sea is as much of a protagonist as the three other people in this novel.

But I don’t particularly like The Road and I feel a lot of the same feelings towards that book as I do towards this book: I can see how it is very well done, impressive even, but for me the bleakness became overwhelming and I had to force myself to keep reading. But this has everything to do with the kind of reader I am and nothing to do with this book. It is a book I can see many people loving and I hope many people will pick it up – because it is so very well done and so interestingly told.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and HarperCollins UK/ 4th Estate in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

33368868Verdict: At least it was short.

My rating: 1,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Published by Jacaranda Books 2018.

Find it on Goodreads.

Abeo Kata lives a comfortable, happy life in West Africa as the privileged nine-year-old daughter of a government employee and stay-at-home mother. But when the Katas’ idyllic lifestyle takes a turn for the worse, Abeo’s father, following his mother’s advice, places the girl in a religious shrine, hoping that the sacrifice of his daughter will serve as atonement for the crimes of his ancestors. Unspeakable acts befall Abeo for the 15 years she is held in the shrine. When she is finally rescued, broken and battered, she must struggle to overcome her past, endure the revelation of family secrets, and learn to trust and love again.

In the tradition of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, this novel is a contemporary story that offers an eye-opening account of the practice of ritual servitude in West Africa. Spanning decades and two continents, Praise Song for the Butterflies will break your heart and then heal it.

Of all the books on the Women’s Prize longlist, this one I feared reading the most. And it pains me to say that I was absolutely correct in not looking forward to reading this. I struggled with this book and not in a “it was at least intellectually stimulating”-way. I found it clumsy and painful and the characters unbearable.

The book starts promising, with a fairly intriguing look into Abeo’s life in New York, and a superficial but assured introduction into the family and their dynamics. But as soon as Abeo’s grandmother moved in with them, the book lost me and I never recovered. I found her character irritating in her complete lack of redeeming qualities (she might as well have been an evil queen in a Grimm’s fairy tale for all the nuance) and the way she was allowed to be awful just drove me up the walls. I think part of my problem was the fast-moving narration that never really took the time to just stay with any given moment long enough for the characters to come to life for me. Simultaneously, McFadden gets hung up on weird little details that for me added nothing to the story and felt like padding. For example, she describes characters smoking in a way that made it seem like it was supposed to be meaningful but did nothing for me.

The language is without any frills, nothing offensive but also not interesting enough to save the book from its godawful characters and plot for me. I hated pretty much every single character and found them one-dimensional in their exagerated awfulness. Their behaviour did not strike me as true (or at least I optimistically hope people this awful are an exception rather than the norm) and I did never really understand anybody’s motivations enough for them to become compelling.

Now, I know that this is super outside my wheelhouse and a lot of my dislike might be simple genre preference but I really hated vast stretches of it. It is not quite abysmal enough to warrant a one star rating (a rating I really hardly ever give) but only by a hair’s breadth. I am very glad to have gotten this out of the way early in my longlist reading because honestly? It can only get better from here.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  5. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

36047860Verdict: Hard work.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

I did not enjoy my reading (or rather listening) experience. This book combines many things I dislike in fiction: unfairness and characters that drove me up the walls being the most important factors here but also a fairly non-existent plot. But I cannot deny the genius of this book either. Anna Burns has a brilliant way with words and the atmosphere she created here is breathtaking in its claustrophobic intensity.

Told in conversational stream-of-consciousness, the language is the obvious draw here. Anna Burns has crafted sentences so wonderful, I was in awe. Listening to the audiobook worked exceedingly well for me because the conversational and circular narration could shine this way without me skipping whole sentences (as I would surely have done had I read this on paper). Burns works with thoughtful repetition here, making this a stylistically interesting book. Intellectually, I found this stimulating and I absolutely appreciate how she slowly but surely expands on her insular narrative in a way that felt highly rewarding, with themes flowing together and building a cohesive whole.

Ultimately, while I can admire the craft, I really did not enjoy myself. In the middle, I was very close to frustrated tears and wanted to shake the narrator. While I understand what Burns was doing, I would have prefered to follow a different narrator. She really drove me up the walls with her incapability of talking to anybody in any meaningful way. While nobody is ever referred to by their name but rather by descriptors such as “maybe-boyfriend” or “first brother-in-law”, some of these characters became more real than others and the narrator sadly remained a mystery to me until near the end. I might have enjoyed this more otherwise.

So, yes, it’s brilliant, yes, it probably deserves all the accolades it got, but it is very much not the book for me. Writing this review nearly changed my mind, because there really is so much to admire here, but fact is, if I hadn’t read this for the longlist, I would not finished it.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  4. Milkman by Anna Burns

Review: Conversation With Friends by Sally Rooney

36136386Verdict: This book is everything.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed, and darkly observant. A college student and aspiring writer, she devotes herself to a life of the mind–and to the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi, her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa’s orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and tall, handsome husband. Private property, Frances believes, is a cultural evil–and Nick, a bored actor who never quite lived up to his potential, looks like patriarchy made flesh. But however amusing their flirtation seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them expect. As Frances tries to keep her life in check, her relationships increasingly resist her control: with Nick, with her difficult and unhappy father, and finally even with Bobbi. Desperate to reconcile herself to the desires and vulnerabilities of her body, Frances’s intellectual certainties begin to yield to something new: a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment.

I have spent the last days periodically exclaiming “God, what a book” (or more correctly, because I do speak German in my real life, “Gott, was ein Buch!” or “Dieses Buch!”). I am feeling vaguely guilty for having given other books five stars because this book is just so much more than most of those. I am in no way objective in my absolute adoration and I don’t think I can adequately articulate how very brilliant I thought this was, so stick with me while I squeal and talk in superlatives.

I dragged my feet reading this book because the reviews are all over the place and it could have been so obnoxious (and some people think it is!): I mean, a book focussing on four fairly privileged young people making themselves miserable? A book where a thirty-something married man starts an affair with a 20-year-old college student? But this book hit me in all the right places. Rooney expertly weaves her tale, her characterization is sharp enough to cut, and her protagonist is a flawed piece of brilliance. Frances grounds this story in a way that worked exceedingly well for me and I found her, while infuriating, insanely relatable and incredibly true to life. Other reviewers have characterized her as unlikable – but I could not disagree more. She behaves stupidly, sure, but she is also lost and sad and sharply book smart while lacking emotional intelligence and I found her so very compelling. She is both the more active part of the relationship while also letting things just happen without taking action. She is incapable of communicating effectively while still being observant.

Rooney also manages something incredible here: she made me feel for the thirty-year-old man sleeping with a much younger woman and lying to his wife. Nick could have been a walking cliché, but Rooney made him so much more well-rounded while never flinching away from the fact that he behaves atrociously. Every single one of the four main characters felt real in a way that fictional characters so rarely do, precisely because Rooney lets them be contradictory and, yes, sometimes unpleasant. But for me this unpleasantness never overshadowed the sympathy I felt for all of them.

I cannot see this book not topping my best of the year list, which on the one hand is great, on the other hand it is only March and I have a whole lot Women’s Prize reading ahead of me. I will read everything Rooney had ever written or will ever write, starting with Normal People when it’ll arrive this weekend.