Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

Piranesi – published by Bloomsbury, September 15th 2020

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

For readers of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and fans of Madeline Miller’s Circe, Piranesi introduces an astonishing new world, an infinite labyrinth, full of startling images and surreal beauty, haunted by the tides and the clouds.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an intoxicating, hypnotic new novel set in a dreamlike alternative reality.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Near perfect.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this but talking about why I loved this is proving difficult. Normally, I do care about spoilers at all – but this time I genuinely think not knowing too much helps with appreciating the book, as then the reader’s experience mirrors the main character’s. While the mystery at the heart of this book is not the most important part, I enjoyed being able to guess and look for clues. One of the levels this book works as is as a puzzle box and I had so much fun.

I adored Clarke’s debut Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but I might actually prefer her second novel. The books could not be more different: the former is a sprawling, long, and dense historical novel with Austenesque wit (plus, you know, fairies), the latter is a short, vague, interior novel focused on a very small cast of characters. Written in the form of diary entries, we never leave the main character’s head – and what a wonderful head to be in it was. Piranesi is fascinating: he is kind but set in his ways, he believes the House knows best but is still able to keep looking for answers once he wants them; I do not know that I have read about a character like him often and I adored the fact that before everything, he wants to do what is right.

Pretty much all of this worked for me, from the characters to the peculiar prose to the structure; especially the first half was near perfect for me. I do admit that this just hits a lot of my pleasure buttons and I can see where it might not work for other readers but I am glad that many people are taking a chance on this.

Ultimately, on a metaphor-level I think this is a book about loneliness and about the structures we impose to deal with it. Clarke is chronically ill and you can tell she knows what she is writing about here. For me, this hit particularly hard given the slowly becoming unbearable pandamic and the intrinsic loneliness of new motherhood. I will treasure this book.

Content warnings: murder, cult-like behaviour

I am not reading the complete longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year but I will attempt to review the books I do get to. I also cannot help myself and will rank the ones I read.

  1. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  2. Luster by Raven Leilani (review)
  3. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Review: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Kim Jiyoung is a girl born to a mother whose in-laws wanted a boy. She is a sister made to share a room while her brother gets one of his own. A female preyed upon by male teachers at school. A daughter whose father blames her when she is harassed late at night. A good student who doesn’t get put forward for internships. A model employee but gets overlooked for promotion. A wife who gives up her career and independence for a life of domesticity.

Kim Jiyoung has started acting strangely. She ]is depressed. She is mad. She is her own woman. Kim Jiyoung is every woman.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is the life story of one young woman born at the end of the twentieth century raises questions about endemic misogyny and institutional oppression that are relevant to us all..

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Depressing, infuriating, relevant, disappointing prose.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I don’t have all that much to say about this book. I find its impact more interesting than the book itself: this is one of the most successful Korean books of the last decade and reading it became a political statement. The book itself is an unflinching depiction of everyday sexism, many of the scenes will be familiar to most women, and very successful at that. It was just that for me I found the prose distinctly underwhelming. The author chose a matter-of-fact kind of language that, while effective, did not align with my personal taste.

My favourite part was the framing device which I thought was really clever and the final chapter really packed a punch in a way the rest of the book didn’t for me. The first and the last chapter sound like a fairly different book while the middle felt like an endless parade of sexism without much story around it. While this might very well be true to life (and rumours are, the book is at least in part biographical), I did not always enjoy my time with the book.

Ultimately, I think this was let down by its comparison to The Vegetarian which is a way more literary book as opposed to this more matter-of-fact novel and as such something that worked a lot better for my personal taste than this one did. As a companion piece it works well though because it illustrates the points The Vegetarian makes in a more straight-forward manner.

Content warnings: depiction of sexism, bullying

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quotations are taken from an unfinished copy and are subject to change.

Published by Scribner, March 1st 2020

Review: Pew by Catherine Lacey

“I nodded, but I was still thinking about Nelson’s dream, and wondering why it was that anyone believed the human body needed to be any particular way, or what was so important about the human body. Was it possible for a human’s mind and memory and ideas to live inside the body of a horse, and if it was, did that make being a human or a horse? What difference did it make, one life or another.”

Pew – published by Granta Publications, May 14th 2020

Fleeing a past they can no longer remember, Pew wakes on a church bench, surrounded by curious strangers.

Pew doesn’t have a name, they’ve forgotten it. Pew doesn’t know if they’re a girl or a boy, a child or an almost-adult. Is Pew an orphan, or something worse? And what terrible trouble are they running from?

Pew won’t speak, but the men and women of this small, god-fearing town are full of questions. As the days pass, their insistent clamour will build from a murmur to a roar, as both the innocent and the guilty come undone in the face of Pew’s silence.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Allusion-rich prose and vague story that I adored until I didn’t.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

For the first half – I was in love. I adored the prose and thought the structure of the book worked wonderfully to invoke a sense of mounting dread. Catherine Lacey constructs a story that feels more like an extended fable than like a novel – in the best possible way. The story begins when a person is found sleeping in a church’s pew. The people in this small town take them in but as the person is not speaking (and nobody seems to be able to agree what they look like, how old they, what gender they are), it does not take very long for the others to turn on them. The book is infused with a growing sense of dread, as Pew (as they are called by the people who took them in) meets different people who all start telling them their darkest secrets, filling the silence the only way they know how. In the background are preparations for an ominous festival, the purpose of which remains cloaked in secrecy for Pew.

The first few chapters really worked for me, I thought the introductions of the different people and their backstories were intriguing, the prose was incredible, and Pew a sympathetic main character that I could not help but deeply root for. I also appreciated how the people were more archetypes than proper characters (unlike Pew who feels real if vague). I thought this worked really well for the fable-like mood. As this pattern kept repeating (Pew is sent to some person, that person assumes to have knowledge of Pew and then starts telling Pew their story), the sense of dread kept ratchetting up. However, as soon as Lacey started showing her hands and actually filling in the blanks a bit, the story lost its appeal to me.

Additionally, I thought the commentary on gender worked a lot better and was smoother integrated than the commentary on race where the fable-like prose felt ill-fitted. I think, ultimately, the prose was not quite strong enough for me to distract from the problems I had with the book. But when it worked for me, it worked so brilliantly that I am very glad to have read this.

Content warnings: Racism, description of lynchings, police corruption, religious fundamentalism, trans racial adoption

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quotations are taken from an unfinished copy and are subject to change.

Review: Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam

“Three flamingos lifted out off the pool’s surface with a masculine flaunting of wings. Any flamingo, seeing this, would have wanted to incubate their issue. These were flamingos, the best of flamingos, hale and powerful. They rose into the air, a simple trick, and above the trees. The flamingos on the grass followed, seven human-sized pink birds, twisty and strange, ascending into the Long Island night, beautiful and terrifying in equal measures.”

Leave The World Behind – published by Bloomsbury Publishing, October 6th 2020

A magnetic novel about two families, strangers to each other, who are forced together on a long weekend gone terribly wrong

Amanda and Clay head out to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a vacation: a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their teenage son and daughter, and a taste of the good life in the luxurious home they’ve rented for the week. But a late-night knock on the door breaks the spell. Ruth and G. H. are an older black couple—it’s their house, and they’ve arrived in a panic. They bring the news that a sudden blackout has swept the city. But in this rural area—with the TV and internet now down, and no cell phone service—it’s hard to know what to believe.

Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple—and vice versa? What happened back in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another? 

Suspenseful and provocative, Rumaan Alam’s third novel is keenly attuned to the complexities of parenthood, race, and class. Leave the World Behind explores how our closest bonds are reshaped—and unexpected new ones are forged—in moments of crisis.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Very much not for me.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Sometimes I am so in the minority with a book that I am starting to question whether I read the same book as everybody else. This is one of those cases (partly at least, because an abundance of DNF-reviews agrees with me). I did not get on with this. Maybe I should have called it quits when at 15% in, Alam had managed to reference the genitalia of three of the four family members. Snark aside, I was very much the wrong reader for this – where other people read scenes as tense, I found them satirical – and I do not particularly like satire. I found the tone impossible to pin down and as such the reading experience was more frustrating than anything else. Additionally, there were mainly three things that did not work for me: uneven perspective, disdainful characterisation, and a lack of trust in the reader’s intelligence.

Alam chose a omniscient narrator for his story, flitting between his characters’ heads, often within the same paragraph. While this might have worked had the tone been different, here I found this led to a lack of tension and an immense amount of frustration on my end because he chose to keep things artificially hidden from the reader. I would have prefered the narration to be either closer to the two couples or further away, as it was, the sprinkled-in sentences about the outside world took the little bit of tension I felt completely away.

I do not mind unlikable characters (at all, especially when they are women) but I need to feel like the author cares for their characters. Here I felt like I could basically see Alam sneering at his characters and I found that approach unkind – and again leading to my lack of interest in what was going on. He is also weirdly focussed on genitalia in a way that I found frankly baffling – I do not know what purpose the masturbation and sex scenes played for the story and I would have rather not spent this much time reading about a teenager’s penis.

It felt like Alam did not trust his readers to understand subtext or character development. Everything is spelt out, excrutiatingly. So much that I started to wonder if something really obvious was flying over my head. By the time I finished this book, all goodwill I had towards this book based on the incredible premise was lost.

Content warnings: depiction of racism, vomit, loss of teeth, disease on unknown origin, alcohol abuse, spiders

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quotations are taken from an unfinished copy and are subject to change.

Review: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

“Why did it feel so much safer to be wanted or needed than to be the one who wanted or needed?

I was terrified of being rejected. I didn’t want to be a loser. That was the word that came into my head whenever I ran the risk of caring about someone: loser. I couldn’t remember my mother ever saying it to me. It was something I must have come up with all by myself.”

Milk Fed – Published by Scribner, February 2nd, 2021

Rachel is twenty-four, a lapsed Jew who has made calorie restriction her religion. By day, she maintains an illusion of existential control, by way of obsessive food rituals, while working as an underling at a Los Angeles talent management agency. At night, she pedals nowhere on the elliptical machine. Rachel is content to carry on subsisting—until her therapist encourages her to take a ninety-day communication detox from her mother, who raised her in the tradition of calorie counting.

Early in the detox, Rachel meets Miriam, a zaftig young Orthodox Jewish woman who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop and is intent upon feeding her. Rachel is suddenly and powerfully entranced by Miriam—by her sundaes and her body, her faith and her family—and as the two grow closer, Rachel embarks on a journey marked by mirrors, mysticism, mothers, milk, and honey.

Pairing superlative emotional insight with unabashed vivid fantasy, Broder tells a tale of appetites: physical hunger, sexual desire, spiritual longing, and the ways that we as humans can compartmentalize these so often interdependent instincts. Milk Fed is a tender and riotously funny meditation on love, certitude, and the question of what we are all being fed, from one of our major writers on the psyche—both sacred and profane.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Sharp prose, brilliant characterization, very very awkward.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This hurts a bit. I was so very sure I would love this (The Pisces is one of my all-time favourite books and I had been anticipating Broder’s second novel for what felt like ages) and while Broder’s writing is as sharp as ever and there is much to love, ultimately this did not always work for me. Where Lucy (the main character in The Pisces) is deeply unpleasant and unhappy but so witty and sharp that I could not help but root for her, here the main character, Rachel, is also prickly but before anything else deeply, deeply unhappy. She looks for acceptance in all the wrong places, trying to be somebody she is not in the hopes of finally finding somebody who unconditionally (or even conditionally) loves her.

For me, Broder’s biggest strength lies in drawing these women that feel real, with internal voices that are consistent and believable. Rachel feels like a complete person – and I felt for her. Her every moment is taken over by her eating disorder, her calorie counting, and her obsessive tendencies – and her aforementioned need to be loved by somebody. Her inner monologue is claustrophobic to the extreme, especially in the very first chapter when she outlines her daily routine. Rachel is without a plan for her life, except to stay as thin as humanly possible by any means necessary, and when she latches on to Miriam, an orthodox Jewish woman who works in the frozen joghurt shop Rachel frequents, the crush quickly becomes unhealthy and obsessive as well. The book was hard on my second hand embarassment and took me a lot longer to finish than it might have otherwise taken me.

All these are not objective criticisms of this book but rather reasons why I did not always enjoy my time with it. Ultimately, this is good and it seems unfair to measure any book against Broder’s debut which kickstarted my love affair with books about disaster women, but I could not help doing so and thus couldn’t love it the way I wanted to love it.

Content warnings: disordered eating, calorie counting, vomit, binge eating, homophobia, self harm, addiction, suicidal ideation, parental abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Machine by Susan Steinberg

“at times you want to ask for forgiveness; but you don’t know forgiveness from what; and you don’t know who you’re asking it from; but at times you feel like you’ve done something wrong; you feel the need to be absolved;”

Machine – published by Pushkin Press ONE, August 6th 2020

A haunting story of guilt and blame in the wake of a drowning, the first novel by the author of Spectacle

Susan Steinberg’s first novel, Machine, is a dazzling and innovative leap forward for a writer whose most recent book, Spectacle, gained her a rapturous following. Machine revolves around a group of teenagers—both locals and wealthy out-of-towners—during a single summer at the shore. Steinberg captures the pressures and demands of this world in a voice that effortlessly slides from collective to singular, as one girl recounts a night on which another girl drowned. Hoping to assuage her guilt and evade a similar fate, she pieces together the details of this tragedy, as well as the breakdown of her own family, and learns that no one, not even she, is blameless.

A daring stylist, Steinberg contrasts semicolon-studded sentences with short lines that race down the page. This restless approach gains focus and power through a sharply drawn narrative that ferociously interrogates gender, class, privilege, and the disintegration of identity in the shadow of trauma. Machine is the kind of novel—relentless and bold—that only Susan Steinberg could have written.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Incredible prose, wonderful structure, slightly too vague maybe..

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A girl is dead. She died by drowning at night while the rich kids kept partying on around her. This event is one of many that make the main character’s summer one that chances everything about her life. Still, the dead girl is incidental to the central narrative, even though it grounds the book as main character cannot seem to see outside her own head. Set during the summer in a coastal town, this book deals with trauma and privilege and guilt and toxic masculinity.

The book is told mostly in short, fragmented sentences, seperated from each other by semi-colons – and for me this prose choice made the book compulsively readable and stronger than it would have otherwise been. I am a sucker for interesting stylistic choices and for books told unchronologically – which this was, going backward and forward in time, talking about things that happened or that could have happened or that might still happen. This is not a book for everyone – but it was very much my kind of thing. The characters are all deeply, deeply unlikable and as we stay closely in the unnamed narrator’s head, nobody except for her is fully fleshed out. The book remains vague but purposefully so – for me this worked because I always felt like the author knew what she was doing. I trusted her to lead me through the labyrinthian narrative and I thought she stuck the landing in a way that made this a very satisfying reading experience.

Content warnings: death by drowning, drug abuse, underage drinking, sexual assault, domestic abuse, psychological abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

“It wasn’t crazy to me. Being her daughter was all I’d ever known.”

Crooked Hallelujah – published by Grove Altantic, July 14th 2020

It’s 1974 in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and fifteen-year-old Justine grows up in a family of tough, complicated, and loyal women, presided over by her mother, Lula, and Granny. After Justine’s father abandoned the family, Lula became a devout member of the Holiness Church – a community that Justine at times finds stifling and terrifying. But Justine does her best as a devoted daughter, until an act of violence sends her on a different path forever. Crooked Hallelujah tells the stories of Justine–a mixed-blood Cherokee woman– and her daughter, Reney, as they move from Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country in the hopes of starting a new, more stable life in Texas amid the oil bust of the 1980s. However, life in Texas isn’t easy, and Reney feels unmoored from her family in Indian Country. Against the vivid backdrop of the Red River, we see their struggle to survive in a world–of unreliable men and near-Biblical natural forces, like wildfires and tornados–intent on stripping away their connections to one another and their very ideas of home.

In lush and empathic prose, Kelli Jo Ford depicts what this family of proud, stubborn, Cherokee women sacrifice for those they love, amid larger forces of history, religion, class, and culture. This is a big-hearted and ambitious novel of the powerful bonds between mothers and daughters by an exquisite and rare new talent.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Brilliant, heartbreaking, let down by the ending.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This is a book about family, or rather a book about mother-daughter-relationships. Following four generations of Cherokee women in their attempts to live their lives and to make better choices possible for their daughters, this book is focussed on the peculiar relationships women can have with their mothers. The story is told chronologically but jumping forward in time, sometimes in first person, sometimes in close third person, and as such fairly introspective. Kelli Jo Ford chose to tell every chapter from the perspective of the daughter in the relationship she focusses for this moment – and I adored that choice.

I thought this was excellent – especially when Ford focussed the difficult relationship between Lula (hyper religious and often harsh) and her daughter Justine (who has her own daughter at 16). I loved the parallels between these two women who seem at first glance very different but who both try their very best to change their daughters’ trajectories for the better. Both make the best of the limited choices they have – and this limitation of choices due to poverty is at the core of this book. Justine who is prickly, difficult, lonely, strong remained my favourite until the end.

There were two things that did not completely work for me. There is a chapter in the middle of the book that is only tangentially related to the rest of the book and that I found gratuitous in its depiction of homophobic violence. I also thought that the final chapter taking place in the near future in a climate change ravaged Texas, did not completely work. I understand the thematic relevance and I loved the mirroring Ford achieved here, I just would have liked to not have it take place in the future. But even if I have slight problems, this book was for many pages absolutely brilliant and I love the tenderness Ford’s writing has for her characters. Even when the women fight, they always, obviously love each other and only want to help each other.

Content warnings: rape, miscarriage, tubal pregnancy, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, Christian fundamentalism, death of loved ones, death of animals (horse), teenaged pregnancy, robbery, homophobia, epilepsy

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

“Later, we all remembered the party differently, either because of the open bar or because of course memories are always bent in retrospect to fit individual narratives.”

The Glass Hotel – published by Pan MacMillan, August 6th 2020

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the award-winning author of Station Eleven, a captivating novel of money, beauty, white-collar crime, ghosts, and moral compromise in which a woman disappears from a container ship off the coast of Mauritania and a massive Ponzi scheme implodes in New York, dragging countless fortunes with it.

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star glass and cedar palace on an island in British Columbia. Jonathan Alkaitis works in finance and owns the hotel. When he passes Vincent his card with a tip, it’s the beginning of their life together. That same day, Vincent’s half-brother, Paul, scrawls a note on the windowed wall of the hotel: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for a company called Neptune Logistics, sees the note from the hotel bar and is shaken to his core. Thirteen years later Vincent mysteriously disappears from the deck of the Neptune Cumberland. Weaving together the lives of these characters, The Glass Hotel moves between the ship, the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the wilderness of northern Vancouver Island, painting a breathtaking picture of greed and guilt, fantasy and delusion, art and the ghosts of our pasts.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: I loved this so.

I am having a difficult time putting into words why I loved this so. A book prominently featuring a Ponzi scheme and its fall out is on paper not something that should work for me – but this is Emily St. John Mandel we are talking about here, author of one of my all-time favourite books whose next work I had been eagerly awaiting for literal years. And underneath the premise, there are so very many things that I adore in fiction: told unchronologically from a variety of points of views, featuring difficult characters that I nevertheless rooted for (especially Vincent who I just adored), with hints of the supernatural as manifestation of guilt, scenes that would recontextualize what came before, and above all the author’s incredible way with words.

This is not a book concerned with closure or with satisfying conclusions and I thought it was that much stronger because of this. Emily St. John Mandel deals with human emotions and human faults without shying away from the fact that often in life, things do not end with a neat bow around them. Her characters make irreversible mistakes, they hurt each other and themselves, and they just have to live with that. Many of them reminisce about how their lives could have turned out differently if they had chosen different paths, imagining a sort of parallel universe where their mistakes were not this grave – and I loved this. The whole book has a lovely sense of melancholy but it is not hopeless which is a difficult to achieve balance.

I really do hope I won’t have to wait as long as last time for a new book by Emily St. John Mandel.

Content warnings: drug abuse, death of a loved one, ghosts

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Luster by Raven Leilani

“This was the contradiction that would define me for years, my attempt to secure undiluted solitude and my swift betrayal of this effort once in the spotlight of an interested man.”

Luster – published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, August 4th 2020

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sharp, comic, disruptive, tender, Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, sees a young black woman fall into art and someone else’s open marriage

Edie is stumbling her way through her twenties—sharing a subpar apartment in Bushwick, clocking in and out of her admin job, making a series of inappropriate sexual choices. She’s also, secretly, haltingly figuring her way into life as an artist. And then she meets Eric, a digital archivist with a family in New Jersey, including an autopsist wife who has agreed to an open marriage—with rules. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscapes of contemporary sexual manners and racial politics weren’t hard enough, Edie finds herself unemployed and falling into Eric’s family life, his home. She becomes hesitant friend to his wife and a de facto role model to his adopted daughter. Edie is the only black woman young Akila may know.

Razor sharp, darkly comic, sexually charged, socially disruptive, Luster is a portrait of a young woman trying to make her sense of her life in a tumultuous era. It is also a haunting, aching description of how hard it is to believe in your own talent and the unexpected influences that bring us into ourselves along the way.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: I do love difficult women.

It is no secret that I adore books with a difficult female main character, so it’s no surprise that I was beyond excited to get to this book – and I adored (seriously adored) the first thirty percent: Edie is wonderfully flawed and interesting and her narration is pitch-perfect. I adored the mix between long run-on sentences and shorter, punchier ones. I was certain this would be my favourite book of the year. I am not quite sure what happened then but by the end I was not quite as enamored and ultimately I was glad to be done with it. Maybe it was the endless parade of humiliations (I get a very bad case of secondhand embarrassment that makes reading something like this very difficult), maybe it was the way in which the narrative became unfocussed – but even if I didn’t love it the whole way through; what an impressive debut. As my thoughts are all over the place, so will be my review, but please bear with me as I am trying to figure out my exact feelings (and rating).

The biggest draw of a book like this is always the main character and Edie fits wonderfully in the canon of what Rachel has called “disaster women” – or rather, she expands on it. Because as a Black woman, her decisions have more far reaching consequences, more dangerous implications. And for this alone, I loved this book. I loved how Edie is unflinchingly aware of what being a Black woman in the middle of a difficult personal time entails. Unflinchingly aware is a good way to describe Edie in general; she is always aware of what her decisions might mean and then she does stupid things anyways – I appreciated that facet of her personality.

Ultimately, this is a book about loneliness; unbearable, all-encompassing loneliness is what defines all four of the book’s main characters, but most of all Edie who has lost her (difficult) parents young and does not know what she wants out of her life. Her loneliness is most obvious when she chooses to remain in situations that are humiliating beyond measure just to avoid being alone. But the married couple she gets entangled with is also lonely, even in their coupledom, and their adopted daughter seems to have accepted her own loneliness in a way that made my heart hurt.

Overall, an incredibly impressive debut that thankfully is getting the accolades it deserves. I will for sure be reading whatever Raven Leilani publishes next because this mix of incredible prose and interesting characters is my literary fiction catnip.

Content warnings: violent sex, vomit, miscarriage, asphyxiation, loss of a loved one (backstory), racism, police brutality, cheating, alcohol abuse, drug abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Sisters by Daisy Johnson

50186889._sx318_sy475_Verdict: Creepy, tense, unsettling – let down by the ending.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Psychological Horror/ Literary Fiction

Published by Jonathan Cape, August 13th 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

After a serious case of school bullying becomes too much to bear, sisters July and September move across the country with their mother to a long-abandoned family home.

In their new and unsettling surroundings, July finds that the deep bond she has always had with September – a closeness that not even their mother is allowed to penetrate – is starting to change in ways she cannot entirely understand.

Inside the house the tension among the three women builds, while outside the sisters meet a boy who tests the limits of their shared experiences.

With its roots in psychological horror, Sisters is a taut, powerful and deeply moving account of sibling love that cements Daisy Johnson’s place as one of the most inventive and exciting young writers at work today.

I read this mostly on the strength of Johnson’s debut novel and did not really know what to expect from it. The blurb is intentionally vague and I was unprepared for how creepy this book was. I was hooked from the very beginning though, racing through this book breathlessly, torn between wanting to keep reading and dreading what was to come – that something is not quite right with September and July is obvious from the beginning. Johnson skillfully leads the reader through her labyrinthian narrative told from the perspective of July, the younger of the two sisters and the more quiet and withdrawn one, always in the shadow of her slightly older and domineering sister September. The sibling relationship is at the core of this novel (and I am always a fan of well-told sibling stories) and that it feels so real is one of the big strengths. Their relationship is creepy and obsessive, they are so close to each other that even their mother has no place in their vincinity. Parts told in third person from their mother’s perspective underscore how weirdly codependent the two sisters are. September often treats July abysmally, and Johnson leans into the inherent creepiness of children’s games when she has her teenaged main characters play them with an increasing escalation of violence.

After some tragedy the family leaves Oxford for a house by the ocean owned by their dead father’s sister; here the mother takes to her room and leaves her daughters to roam Settle House, which is just as unsettling as the name indicates. The tragedy in the wake of July being bullied at school is one of the central mysteries of the book as July does not seem to remember what exactly happened that made her mother abruptly leave Oxford and decide to live in a house she hates as it brings only bad memories of the abusive father of her children. July’s narration is often unclear and I early began wondering how reliable she was, as her mind seems to be fragmenting. The novel works best when Johnson plays with this unreality she invokes, when it isn’t at all clear what is happening. Her fragmented, allusion-rich prose coupled with her vivid and unsettling imagery mirror’s July’s mental state excellently. As such the ending, when things became more clear again, did not work for me as well as the parts that preceeded it. But even so, the pitch perfect prose and an impressively oppressive atmosphere made this a rewarding reading experience that I was nevertheless ultimately glad to be done with – this book gave me nightmares.

Content warnings: bullying, assault, revenge porn, vomit, underage drinking, blackouts, depression, spousal abuse, death of a loved one

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.