Review: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

36332136Verdict: Breathtakingly beautiful.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Retelling, Fantasy(ish)

Published by Macmillan Audio, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Two mothers—a suburban housewife and a battle-hardened veteran—struggle to protect those they love in this modern retelling of Beowulf

From the perspective of those who live in Herot Hall, the suburb is a paradise. Picket fences divide buildings—high and gabled—and the community is entirely self-sustaining. Each house has its own fireplace, each fireplace is fitted with a container of lighter fluid, and outside—in lawns and on playgrounds—wildflowers seed themselves in neat rows. But for those who live surreptitiously along Herot Hall’s periphery, the subdivision is a fortress guarded by an intense network of gates, surveillance cameras, and motion-activated lights.

For Willa, the wife of Roger Herot (heir of Herot Hall), life moves at a charmingly slow pace. She flits between mommy groups, playdates, cocktail hour, and dinner parties, always with her son, Dylan, in tow. Meanwhile, in a cave in the mountains just beyond the limits of Herot Hall lives Gren, short for Grendel, as well as his mother, Dana, a former soldier who gave birth as if by chance. Dana didn’t want Gren, didn’t plan Gren, and doesn’t know how she got Gren, but when she returned from war, there he was. When Gren, unaware of the borders erected to keep him at bay, ventures into Herot Hall and runs off with Dylan, Dana’s and Willa’s worlds collide.

A retelling of Beowulf set in the suburbs, Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife turns the epic on its head, recasting the classic tale of monstrosity and loss from the perspective of those presumed to be on the attack.

This was absolutely breathtaking. Again I am finding myself in the situation that a book is so very custom-made for me that my review will definitely not be objective in the least. There was very little chance of me not loving this – and I knew this after the first chapter. Maria Dahvana Headley had me hooked. This was incredible, so as usual in such cases, this will be a review filled with superlatives.

Maria Dahvana Headley loosely retells Beowolf but in the best possible way: setting it in today’s suburbia against the backdrop of an unnamed war abroad; I found it worked brilliantly but as I haven’t read Beowolf (although I did read the wikipedia summary in preparation for this book) I cannot speak to its success as a retelling. The fantastical elements are rendered in a way which makes in unclear what is real and what isn’t. I found the reading experience disorienting and claustrophobic (I mean this as an absolute positive).

The book mainly focuses on two women: Dana, a traumatized ex-soldier living off the grid with her son Gren, and Willa who is aiming to be the perfect suburban wife to her plastic surgeon husband and her son Dylan. These two women are one of the high points of this altogether impressive book. They are both flawed but compelling in the best possible way. They rage against the unfairness of their lives while simultaneously inflicting unfairness onto their sons. Willa especially was just my favourite kind of character: she is awful but has her reasons, she is believable while still being interesting, and her voice was impeccably done.

The way in which the Maria Dahvana Headley plays with voices and perspectives was another part that worked as if it had been written with me in mind. She mixes first person (for Dana) with close third person (for Willa) and passages rendered in a we-perspective (the mothers), always making careful use of repetition and imagery. Her sentences are breathtaking and the way her language flows just made my heart hurt while never sacrificing the emotional core of her work. I might have found a new favourite author.

Content warning: PTSD, war, loss of limbs and eyes, death (of children and spouses), animal hunting, miscarriage, abortion; (I am more unsure than usual if I mentioned everything, so if you have a specific trigger, please let me know so I can tell you)

This was the first book I read for my five star predictions.

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Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

37134404Verdict: Beautifully written, but dull.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: fiction, myth retelling

Published by Bloomsbury, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and Perse, a beautiful naiad. Yet from the moment of her birth, she is an outsider in her father’s halls, where the laughter of gossiping gods resounds. Named after a hawk for her yellow eyes and strange voice, she is mocked by her siblings – until her beloved brother Aeëtes is born.

Yet after her sister Pasiphae marries King Midas of Crete, Aeëtes is whisked away to rule his own island. More isolated than ever, Circe, who has never been divine enough for her family, becomes increasingly drawn to mortals – and when she meets Glaucus, a handsome young fisherman, she is captivated. Yet gods mingle with humans, and meddle with fate, at their peril.

In Circe, Madeline Miller breathes life once more into the ancient world, with the story of an outcast who overcomes scorn and banishment to transform herself into a formidable witch. Unfolding on Circe’s wild, abundant island of Aiaia, where the hillsides are aromatic with herbs, this is a magical, intoxicating epic of family rivalry, power struggles, love and loss – and a celebration of female strength in a man’s world.

This book is, when considering the writing on a sentence-by-sentence perspective, incredibly beautiful. The language is wonderfully evocative and the imagery is stunning. But for me at least, beautiful writing is not enough to distract me from the fact that I found it dull. I am also having problems divorcing my experience of this book from the way it has been discussed in the book community and while this is not the book’s fault, it did influence my enjoyment. This book has been praised left and right as a feminist retelling of Circe’s life – a life that in mythology is at the periphery (both literally as she is living on her own, exiled on an island and figuratively as she is an antagonist without much agency). I am having trouble seeing that supposed feminist angle and it made me pretty cross while reading. I thought the book was much more the story of the men in Circe’s life than her own story. And I am fairly certain this was on purpose (something something role of women, something something limitation of expression) but for the life of me I cannot find a reason that makes this narrative choice palatable for me. To be clear: I am not blaming the book for this, I am sure this has more to do with who I am as a reader with pretty distinct tastes and preferences, but I struggled.

On the opposite spectrum of this, I found Circe most compelling when she was facing off with another woman (her sister or her grandmother or Medea or Penelope) – I wish the book had been populated with more women and less men, I would have enjoyed it more for it. As it stands, the ending did go a long way towards redeeming this book for me. If the middle hadn’t been as rambling and bland this could have worked better for me. Circe was not always an exciting narrator even if I have to grudgingly agree that her characterization makes sense but I wished for her to have more edges and to be allowed to be more unpleasant; she was the first witch after all. Her blandness was in the end my biggest problem with a book that took me ages to finish and left me wanting something else entirely.

Content warning: Rape, Caesarian sections (brutal ones!)

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. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (review)
  4. Normal People by Sally Rooney (review)
  5. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  6. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (review)
  7. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  8. Circe by Madeline Miller
  9. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (review)
  10. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  11. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
  12. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li (review)
  13. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

DNF:

  • Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
  • Ordinary People by Diana Evans

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: Milkman by Anna Burns

36047860Verdict: Hard work.

My rating: 4 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 always 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: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

38922230Verdict: This was a mixed bag.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Granta, September 20th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Teenage Silvie is living in a remote Northumberland camp as an exercise in experimental archaeology. Her father is an abusive man, obsessed with recreating the discomfort, brutality and harshness of Iron Age life. Behind and ahead of Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a sacrifice, a woman killed by those closest to her, and as the hot summer builds to a terrifying climax, Silvie and the Bog girl are in ever more terrifying proximity.

Sarah Moss is one of those authors I have wanted to get to for what feels like ages because I had this feeling that I would adore her work. But sometimes that feeling of a potential favourite author makes me to anxious to actually pick up a book (this is irrational, I know), so I finally jumped at the chance to read and review her newest novel, because it sounds brilliant and it is quite short (I love short books). And I still think that Sarah Moss might be a potential favourite author, even if this book did not quite blow me away.

This book is set over a period of a couple of days, days Silvie and her family are spending in a experimental archeological setting, together with a professor and a few of his students. While the students can sleep in tents, Silvie’s controlling and obsessive father forces his family to sleep in what he deems “authentic” huts. Silvie latches onto the sole female student, while trying not to make her father angry (and obviously failing, because he always finds something to be angry about). Moss uses this setting to showcast a variety of awful things: abuse and dysfunctional family dynamics, misogyny and sexism, classism and racism. She does so adeptly and impressively, but it does make for a rather grim reading experience.

The setting and the atmosphere are the biggest strength of this book. Told in long, run-on sentences (a style I particularly enjoy), Sarah Moss plays with the limited variation of their everyday life. The atmosphere becomes ever more oppressive and instilled with a sense of foreboding that made me very scared for Silvie. Moss is in perfect command of her language in a way that made me savour the words and excited for more of her books.

In the end, this book is more a collection of clever observations and vivid scenes than a cohesive whole – it is extremely well-done but did not always work for me. It felt longer than its less than 200 pages because spending time in Silvie’s life is suffocating and repetitive, and while I know that this was on purpose and done exceedingly well, I did not always enjoy my reading experience.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Granta in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

40739734Verdict: Ambitious, impeccably written, frustrating plot.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Virago, September 6th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most. who lose what they love most.

I have many thoughts about this book and I am very conflicted about my feelings and my rating. As is customary in such cases, here are my thoughts, first in list form than more elaborated:

Pros:

  • prose
  • the interesting way R. O. Kwon plays with perspective
  • the subversion of tropes

Cons:

  • plot
  • characters

This book is told from three perspectives: Will, who has lost his faith in god and his plan for his life, his girlfriend Phoebe, who lost her faith in her piano talent and her mother, and John, the enigmatic cult leader whose cult Phoebe starts following. Or, more exactly, the story is told from these perspectives as Will imagines them. I loved the way this worked out and I love the extra layer of interpretation this opened up. Phoebe is for all intents and purposes Will’s manic pixie dream girl – but R. O. Kwon never lets the reader forget that he construct her in a way that suits himself, without much regard to the person she really is. I cannot help but wonder if this construction of Phoebe and the subsequent unfolding of events isn’t a direct reaction to a plethora of novels who treat their female characters only as a foil for the male character to develop.

There is something mesmerizing in the way R. O. Kwon’s language flows. She has a way of structuring her sentences that enthralled me. I was hooked with her writing style from the very first chapters. Whatever problems I had with this book, her language is incredibly strong in a way that I found unique.

But even though the novels hits many high points for me and I am so very glad to have read it (and cannot wait for more people to read it so we can talk about my more spoilery thoughts), ultimately it did not quite work for me. I found the plot and the character development to be fairly weak as well as not that original. Especially the last part of the book made me mostly impatient with Will and made me question if his characterisation was all that successful. His obsession with Phoebe (obviously meant to be a replacement for his lost faith), while believable in the beginning, became less so as time went on.

I also think that the book would have worked better without the added perspective of John (or more, what Will imagined John to think like), for me these chapters, while short, always took me right out of the flow. But nevertheless, R. O. Kwon is a major talent and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Virago (Little, Brown Book Group UK) in exchange for an honest review.