Review: Girl by Edna O’Brien

43565316._sy475_Verdict: Seriously awful.

My rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

I was a girl once, but not any more.

So begins Girl, Edna O’Brien’s harrowing portrayal of the young women abducted by Boko Haram. Set in the deep countryside of northeast Nigeria, this is a brutal story of incarceration, horror, and hunger; a hair-raising escape into the manifold terrors of the forest; and a descent into the labyrinthine bureaucracy and hostility awaiting a victim who returns home with a child blighted by enemy blood. From one of the century’s greatest living authors, Girl is an unforgettable story of one victim’s astonishing survival, and her unflinching faith in the redemption of the human heart.

I hated this. There is no way around this. I thought this was pretty damn awful and the longer I sit with it, the less I understand how this book was longlisted for the Women’s Prize. I am not touching the “should O’Brien have been the person to write this particular story” controversy with a ten-foot pole except to say it would have been easier to defend that decision if the book that resulted was good in any shape or form.

O’Brien sets out to tell the story of one of the school girls abducted by Boko Haram and she does not shy away from showing just how horrific that ordeal must have been. The book is relentless in its depiction of atrocities; in fact the first third is pretty much comprised of only that. However, weirdly enough, I found the second part of the story, after the protagonist returns home, actually a lot worse. I found the way in which her mother is characterized horrifying (and here having an own voices author would have made this decision feel at lot less voyeuristic and judging).

I do not get on with books that set out to teach me something – while I love the power literature has to broaden my horizon and to let me see lives outside my own, paedagogical books irk me. If I want to learn something, I gravitate towards non fiction – and as a piece of non fiction this might have actually worked for me because then the story told would have been just that: authentically mirroring the reality. As it stands, I questioned a lot of authorial decisions O’Brien made here (why is everybody so uniquely awful? Do we really need to only see awfulness?).

I also do not get on with books that set out to tell a horrifying story just to tell a horrifying story – and this felt like this. While reading it, I actually wondered if O’Brien had decided that trying to write a good book, sentence or style wise, would detract from the horror she was depicting. This is a pretty petty way to say that I was baffled by how bad the prose was. While I do kind of see why she chose to switch between tenses (it does add to the feeling of a fractured state of mind her protagonist has), overall I found this choice clumsy and the writing lacking. And in the end, this was what stuck with me: how can a book be this badly written and nominated for a major award? Even aside from the narrative problems I had with this and the question of authorship, this was just not well written.

Content warning: Rape, stoning, involuntary pregnancy, horrifying birthing scene, humiliation and pretty much everything you can imagine.

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

  1. Actress by Anne Enright (review)
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
  4. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)
  5. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (review)
  6. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie (review)
  7. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (review)
  8. Girl by Edna O’Brien

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

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)

Review: Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

102927My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: November 6th, 2017

Published by Faber and Faber, 2005

Verdict: Precise, clever and so very sad.

Find it on Goodreads.

From the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day comes a devastating new novel of innocence, knowledge, and loss. As children Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.

Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. Suspenseful, moving, beautifully atmospheric, Never Let Me Go is another classic by the author of The Remains of the Day.

This is the second time I have read this book – I could only remember liking it and not much more so I really wanted to reread this now that Kazuo Ishiguro has wone the Nobel Prize for Literature. And I am certainly glad I did.

The novel is speculative fiction but that speculative part is only at the periphery of the meditation on what makes us human, what makes live worth living, what friendship can do for us and how to make the most of the time we have been given. It is a novel about growing up, about friendship and love, about trust and betrayal, and about loss more than anything else. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grow up on what at the beginning sounds like a normal boarding school but as the book progresses turns out to be something else completely. The story is told more or less chronologically by Kathy looking back at her life and greatly influenced by how she sees the world.

This time around Kathy struck me even more so than before as an unreliable narrator. She wants to see the world a certain way and makes everything else fit into that narrative. She puts her head in the sand and refuses to see the horrific reality of her life and those of her friends. But even more so, her relationship with Ruth is what made me think. Ruth sounds awful, do not get me wrong, but then again Kathy always goes out of her way to excuse her own behaviour while only paying lip service to Ruth’s intentions. Kathy’s snide remarks are always in reaction to something Ruth has supposedly done or thought. I liked how Ishiguro made their friendship so ambiguous and how the interactions have different layers to them. It added so much to my reading enjoyment and made me think about narrators in fiction and how we tend to trust them unless they make it clear that they are unreliable.

I adored the way Ishiguro tells his story, thoughtful and slowly and very clever. He builds an atmosphere of both dread and melancholy while creating highly believable characters. It is genre fiction with literary aspects which just is my favourite.