Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: August 15th 2017 by Doubleday Books
Welcome to LA? Nineties’ Hollywood gets an Italian makeover in this poignant and ruefully funny coming-of-age novel featuring a teenage girl who’s on shaky ground in more ways than one.
Mere weeks after the 1992 riots that laid waste to Los Angeles, Eugenia, a typical Italian teenager, is rudely yanked from her privileged Roman milieu by her hippie-ish filmmaker parents and transplanted to the strange suburban world of the San Fernando Valley. With only the Virgin Mary to call on for guidance as her parents struggle to make it big, Hollywood fashion, she must navigate her huge new public high school, complete with Crips and Bloods and Persian gang members, and a car-based environment of 99-cent stores and obscure fast-food franchises and all-night raves. She forges friendships with Henry, who runs his mother’s movie memorabilia store, and the bewitching Deva, who introduces her to the alternate cultural universe that is Topanga Canyon. And then the 1994 earthquake rocks the foundations not only of Eugenia’s home but of the future she’d been imagining for herself.”

Chiara Barzini’s Things That Happened Before the Earthquake was a novel built on a plausible premise, an exploration of assimilation into American culture through the eyes of an Italian teenager coming of age. I neither loved nor hated this novel, but I could see where the author was trying to go, and there did exist moments where I appreciated the bravery of her writing.

Eugenia’s parents come to the U.S. with stars in their eyes, hoping to make it big as filmmakers in L.A. They’re free-spirited in a truly European way, being shocked at the citations they receive for sunbathing topless on the beach and bewildered by things like private healthcare. They buy a Cadillac to fit in and change their wardrobe upon arrival, not wanting to be typecast as Italian gringos, wanting to fit in and instantly conform into their new surroundings.

Eugenia, is a typical teenager in a lot of ways. Aside from the fact that she has to worry about whether or not she’ll be threatened with deportation in American customs at the airport—and the fact that L.A. natives keep confusing her Italian heritage with French, which acutely annoys her—she searches for her own identity in much the same way as many teenage girls raised in the dazzling lights of a big city. She’s needy, clingy to people who often have little interest in her, exploring her surroundings and individuality through her newfound sexuality, the occasional recreational drug and a pretty consistent series of adventures brought on by risky, naïve behavior. She’s hungry for positive attention, desperate to find herself and fit in, from the “pump up” sneakers she thought would be cool to wear her first day of school (the other girls, she finds, have already graduated to wearing heels) to the slew of sexual trysts and arguably degrading positions she finds herself in. There are times when I questioned whether Eugenia was fearless or stupid, brave or simply naïve—but that is what coming of age is, isn’t it? A combination of all these things in its own right. Several of the scenes came off as memories of my own high-school experiences, of the other students around me all struggling to fit in and claim our places in the hierarchy that exists in every American school. Still, there were times where some of the scenes came off as uncomfortable and strange to me—but those were the moments when Barzini’s own fearlessness as a writer was on full display.

A key note to consider about this novel is that Things That Happened Before the Earthquake is exactly what this book felt like: things that happened.

The plot was pretty loose, and, for the most part, simply read like a series of events—misadventures if you will—that happened to a teenage girl after moving from her native Rome to the scorching Los Angeles, California, just after the riots brought on by the beating of Rodney King in ’92. With that in mind, the setting was rich, the landscape described down to the detail so that you could feel the grit in the Valley air, smell the salt of the sea on the shores of Italy. This novel was punctuated by pop culture events, like milestones that moved the story along on a timeline. The earthquake of 94’, the election of Silvo Berlusconi, O.J. Simpson and the white Bronco, gun to his head. It’s all seen through the eyes of Eugenia, commented on by a voice still trying to find itself. And that did have its own appeal, for sure.

Here you’ll find a slow read driven by finding oneself in the midst of chaos, rather than being heavily driven by plotting, irony, or plot twists. That will appeal to a lot of readers. It was a book that read at a lulling pace but that still had its share of shocking, difficult and awkward moments that pierced through the lull. The characters were flawed in a way that seemed real, authentic, unaffected and devoid of pretenses, and for that readers can be grateful, because that can be hard to find. Fiction is littered with unthought-out stereotypes masquerading as engaging characters, but you won’t find a graveyard of those typecast bones here.

Things That Happened had a sort of hippie-ish soul to it, exploring the crevices of Italian culture and how they made assimilation into American society both difficult and noteworthy at the same time. Barzini was at times bold in her depictions of what unaffected thinking sounds like, what authentic living looks like, from “making out” with your grandmother, to rave parties in the middle of the desert to an inside glimpse of commune life. And, the cover art is phenomenal! (5 stars for that!) But, the slowness of the read couldn’t always hold my attention, and the loose plotting failed to grab me the way I wanted to be held by this story within these pages. For that, I award a solid 3 stars. ***

Chiara BarziniChiara Barzini is an Italian screen and fiction writer. She has lived and studied in the United States where she collaborated with Italian Vanity Fair, GQ, XL Repubblica, Rolling Stone Italy, Flair, and Marie Claire while publishing essays in American magazines such as the Village Voice, Harper’s, Vogue, Interview Magazine, Vice, and Rolling Stone. Her fiction has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Coffin Factory, Noon, The NY Tyrant, Vice, and Dazed & Confused. She is the author of the story collection Sister Stop Breathing(Calamari Press, 2012) and has written a variety screenplays for both television and film. Her most recent film work, Arianna, the coming of age story of an intersex adolescent, won numerous awards at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for Best Screenplay at the Italian Golden Globes, 2016. Upcoming movie projects include the film adaptation of “Wonder When You’ll Miss Me” based on the novel by Amanda Davis.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

Hardcover, 192 pages
Expected publication: May 11th 2017 by Hogarth

From the New York Times bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring comes the fifth installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a modern retelling of Othello set in a suburban schoolyard

Arriving at his fifth school in as many years, a diplomat’s son, Osei Kokote, knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970’s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi, Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.

This review contains spoilers.

Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy is a bravely re-imagined work of Hogarth Shakespearean fiction. Reset in the 1970s on an elementary school playground, Othello’s racial tensions and treachery are re-imagined here in a unique new format.

When Osei arrives at his fourth school in as many cities, he is squarely familiar with not only the sensation of being the “new boy” but of being the only black boy as well. A product of an educated, diplomatic Guyanese family, he is bright and sharply intelligent. He knows what to expect in this all-white atmosphere that he has once again been implanted into, but, to his surprise, becomes friends with the Golden Girl of the sixth-grade class on his very first day. Yet, when jealousies and tempers flare, the prejudice toward the school’s lone black student propelling hateful words and malicious deeds forward, the students’ lives are forever changed in this one day at school.

Admittedly, this is a highly imaginative setting for these characters, yet I can’t really imagine this novel as an adult read. With that being said, I am grading it as (high-brow) YA, in the similar vein of vocabulary and maturity as Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children series. Here, I enjoyed the witty wink toward the original with Chevalier’s use of derivatives of the original characters’ names: Othello became Osei; Desdemona became Dee; Iago became Ian, and so forth.

William Shakespeare’s Othello has long been one of my absolute favorites of his works—what can I say? I’m more partial to his tragedies. Tracy Chevalier’s adaptation of it is a work of short literary form—under 200 pages—that read quickly but not necessarily immersively. For the majority of the read, I felt that I was sitting on the surface of it all, the contrived situations and melodramatic plot fitting for YA, I suppose, but wasn’t immersive for me as an adult reader until the last fifth or so of the novel. There, the plot picked up speed and the threads of action began to pull together.

As a YA read, Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy functions as a relatable, lesson-teaching book with easily identifiable characters—the new kid, the mean kid, the popular boy, the skanky girl, the sidekick, and the “weird” girl. All of the typical players you’d need for a playground drama exist here, and that makes this a great read for middle schoolers and early high schoolers. Also, the subject matter, and the way that Chevalier tackles it here, is also expertly handled for that age group, where it will read as not only relatable but shocking simultaneously.

However.

I definitely had some issues with this read, which is part of the reason why I just can’t label it as adult fiction and why I could not give it a higher rating:

**SPOILER START**

1) The drama turned to melodrama pretty quickly, because of the unlikeliness of this plot line. Of course, we can argue that Shakespeare often gravitated toward the melodramatic—his plays were for theater, after all—but New Boy was often delivered as a string of events that all culminated into the ending, rather than a plausible story line that I could get behind.

2) One of Osei’s (the re-imagined Othello’s) main characteristics at the start of the novel was that he was experienced in not only being new, but in being the only black student as well. His older sister is a “rebellious” teenager who holds her fist in the air, a Afro proudly atop her head and ends all of her correspondences with the phrase Black is Beautiful. From the perspective of an African American, I would argue that Osei’s reactions to what happened on that day at school are highly unlikely and poorly imagined. In short, they read as if they were written by someone who has no experience themselves with such feelings, which left me feeling that there were several practical elements of New Boy that were poorly handled, certainly too poorly handled to pass or function as an adult read.

**SPOILER END**

Chevalier’s New Boy tried to take us there—to that place at the crossroads of “coming of age” and “discovering oneself.” At times, it worked and rang true, and at other times it failed and crumbled flatly to the floor. While I applaud her attempt at re-imagining this classic work, at giving a voice to that little black boy in the 70s in his bewildering surroundings faced with confusing decisions, it didn’t always work for me, and I’ve seen Hogarth Shakespeare done better. So, Chevalier pulled away from this one with a solid 3 stars. ***

Also, I thought I’d go ahead and throw in that I give 2 big thumbs up for all of the COVER ART done for this novel! That’ll get you to pick this one up if a review won’t!

*I received this ARC from the publisher, Hogarth, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Goodreads   Twitter

In her own words, Tracy Chevalier, “Talked a lot about becoming a writer as a kid, but actual pen to paper contact was minimal. Started writing short stories in my 20s, then began first novel, The Virgin Blue, during the MA year. With Girl With a Pearl Earring (written in 1998), I became a full-time writer, and have since juggled it with motherhood.”

Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma

Hardcover, 240 pages
Published February 23rd 2017 by Viking

Brazilian-born doctor André Cabral is living in London when one day he receives a letter from his home country, which he left nearly thirty years ago. A letter he keeps in his pocket for weeks, but tells no one about.

The letter prompts André to remember the days of his youth – torrid afternoons on Ipanema beach with his listless teenage friends, parties in elegant Rio apartments, his after-school job at his father’s plastic surgery practice – and, above all, his secret infatuation with the daughter of his family’s maid, the intoxicating Luana. Unable to resist the pull of the letter, André embarks on a journey back to Brazil to rediscover his past.

Luiza Sauma’s Flesh and Bone and Water read like a primitive high school essay that could possibly have be entitled: “My Memories of Growing Up and How I Ended Up Here.” Honestly, that title makes it sound a bit more interesting than it was for most of the novel. While there were a few glimmering moments of promise, this horse never truly broke out into a run for me—there were times when it never even left the stable.

While this novel is, at its core, a novel about race in class—the line between the rich and the poor, the light-skinned and the dark-skinned in Brazil—it didn’t come with a lot of depth. The storyline was basic; Andre is the quintessential rich boy who’s bored of the parties around him and is surprised that his maid has a life of her own outside of washing his clothes and cooking his meals. He’s the kind of teenager who’s spoiled and curious and sheltered, the kind who plans to raise his children the same way he was raised: by a black woman who sleeps in a small room behind the kitchen. In short, he was pretty annoying and flat for pretty much all of the novel. (view spoiler)

The dialogue was so basic and one-dimensional that it was practically elementary and definitely added nothing whatsoever to the plot, tension or emotion of the novel as a whole. In fact, I found myself thinking more times than is even acceptable, “Is this a novel in translation?” because at least that would explain the lack of…anything present here. Perhaps it was, quite literally, just lost in translation. (Because I can find no evidence to the contrary, I’ve come to believe that this is not, actually, a translation.) Flesh and Bone and Water instead was delivered like a pretty lackluster, definitely watered-down version of a Hanif Kureishi novel, and I was ready to put it down before I got one-fifth of the way through it. Really, nothing truly happened in this novel until over halfway through it. The storyline from there could have been truly heartwarming if handled differently. Instead, it read as rushed at times and stale pretty much throughout, aside from a few more-polished moments.

Luiza Sauma’s Flesh and Bone and Water was tangible proof that a great idea does not a great novel make. It takes more than that; it takes finesse and heart and skill, which this novel didn’t display an extraordinary level of dexterity with. If you’re looking for a simple novel—the kind to make you say aaawwww when two teenagers kiss behind hanging laundry, then this may very well be a novel of interest for you. However, if you’re a reader who is looking to sink their teeth into something—to follow and love and root for your characters with the same passion for them that they exude as characters on the pages—then I bid you think twice about this one. It’s about as bare bones (no pun intended) as a burlap sack. 2 stars **

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Viking, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Twitter  Goodreads

Luiza Sauma was born in Rio de Janeiro and raised in London. She has an MA in Creative & Life Writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, where she was awarded the Pat Kavanagh Award in 2014, and she has also been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Flesh and Bone and Water is her first novel.

Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor

Paperback, 320 pages
Published March 4th 1986 by Penguin Books (first published 1985)

A world away from Brewster Place, yet intimately connected to it, lies Linden Hills. With its showcase homes, elegant lawns, and other trappings of wealth, Linden Hills is not unlike other affluent black communities. But residence in this community is indisputable evidence of “making it.” Although no one knows what the precise qualifications are, everyone knows that only certain people get to live there—and that they want to be among them.

Once people get to Linden Hills, the quest continues, more subtle, but equally fierce: the goal is a house on Tupelo Drive, the epitome of achievement and visible success. No one notices that the property on Tupelo Drive goes back on sale quickly; no one questions why there are always vacancies at Linden Hills.

In a resonant novel that takes as its model Dante’s Inferno, Gloria Naylor reveals the truth about the American dream—that the price of success may very well be a journey down to the lowest circle of hell.

“Fences…Even at the university: big, stone fences – and why? The gates are open, so it’s not to keep anybody out or in. Why fences?…To get you used to the idea that what they have in there is different, special. Something to be separated from the rest of the world. They get you thinking fences, man, don’t you see it? Then when they’ve fenced you in from six years old till you’re twenty-six, they can let you out because you’re ready to believe that what they’ve given you up here, their version of life, is special. And you fence your own self in after that, protecting it from everybody else out there…”

Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills is a truly sharp and discerning glimpse into the modern-day class hierarchy embedded within black culture. Within the exploration of this quest for upward mobility and affluence, this novel featured some of the most true-to-life dialogue since Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and biting social commentary that rang so insightfully and authentically that it could only be true (not to mention witty enough to make me laugh out loud at the sheer truth and reality in it).

Written and set in the mid-1980s, the societal reflections here were absolutely superb, truly bordering on Southern Gothicism in the way that each explored the mores and values of this society—at times even based in the South. This element honestly made this novel and was the foundation from which the rest of the plot was built. I wasn’t expecting the Gothic elements at play here, so that was definitely an added delight. In fact, Linden Hills models itself as a play off of the classic Dante’s Inferno, with each street further and further down the hill of the neighborhood being more and more sought after, and also more and more corrupt. That was a truly clever play on Naylor’s part and lent so many added dimensions to this novel as the main characters “descended” further and further into the neighborhood.

For me, reading Linden Hills was often like sitting back at home in our old kitchen 20 years ago, listening to the “grown folk” shoot the breeze and discuss their woes over Bundt cake; it felt like home, and the authenticity of the subject matter, and characters’ reactions to it, felt like warm arms surrounding me as I “descended” into Naylor’s version of Dante’s hellish Inferno with them.

Here, our main protagonists are Willie Mason and Lester Tilson, two 20-year-old poets and best friends—one from the “wrong side of the street” and the other just barely inside the gates of Linden Hills himself, who get a lesson in what class lines mean to people in this neighborhood. Over the few days leading up to Christmas, Willie and Lester stare into the various faces of agony the people in Linden Hills try to hide. Watching them as they go about their lives, they begin to understand the motivations that keep them all in the rat race that is “keeping up with the Joneses.” Lester, who lives in Linden Hills, has already seen the inner workings of the neighborhood, the attitudes of its residents and the lies they cloak themselves in, thus he takes these lessons that Willie is busy learning for granted—in fact, he teeters throughout the book with being bored with such observations to, as the novel progresses, railing against them, because those very motivations that drive the Lindenites are also what keep him on the periphery of it all, neither fitting into their molds nor residing on the “right street” within Linden Hills. It is in this way that Gloria Naylor illustrates not only the racial lines but the class prejudices between us all, using the literal analogy of who’s from the right side of the street and who’s not, making the class lines drawn throughout this neighborhood both topographically and societally based. As they tear back the mask of Linden Hills, Willie and Lester begin to formulate their own theories on what shapes the world around them:

“You know, my grandmother called it selling the mirror in your soul…I guess she meant giving up that part of you that lets you know who you are…So you keep that mirror and when it’s crazy outside, you look inside and you’ll always know exactly where you are and wat you are. And you call that peace…These people have lost that, Willie. They’ve lost all touch with what it is to be them. Because there’s not a damned thing inside anymore to let them know.”

In tackling these major themes, Naylor also elegantly delves into social issues from the often-fragile bonds of marriage, to the separation of college-educated black women from their counterparts, to the line between “acting white” and “acting black,” among other themes:

“He would have found the comments that he was trying to be white totally bizarre. Being white was the furthest thing from his mind, since he spent every waking moment trying to be no color at all.”

I’ll admit that the writing style vexed me at times, usually at a crescendo of activity near the end of a chapter. My one note of criticism here is that it read as if Naylor was trying too hard to be lyrical, and it didn’t flow effortlessly. In fact, those moments in the novel often read as disjointed and convoluted, and I had to reread several of those passages for comprehension.

**SPOILER** I also thought that the ultimate climax of the novel—the fire that really brought the theme of Dante’s Inferno to the foreground was rushed and wasn’t leant nearly the amount of time and care as passages of far lesser importance earlier in the novel. That was absolutely a missed opportunity, because the ending is what resonates with readers—not to mention, this particular ending would have been the cherry on top of otherwise beautifully Gothic undertones in Linden Hills. **END SPOILER**

All in all, Gloria Naylor showed poetic lyricism and incisor-like insight in her execution of this novel, and it is a book that I would happily read again. It is because of the narrative undercurrents that I place this novel in the Southern Gothic arena (and I’ll give it that pass since part of it was based in Georgia), and it’s because of the bumbling “crescendo prose” that I deduct 1 star. BUT, despite that deduction, Linden Hills has absolutely earned its spot in my “Oh Where Have You Been All My Life” collection, because very rarely indeed will you come across a novel with such poise and bite as this one. 4 stars ****

 

*To see more reviews, follow The Navi Review on Goodreads @ Navidad Thelamour and on Twitter @thenavireview

 

Gloria Naylor was an African-American novelist whose most popular work, The Women of Brewster Place, was made into a 1984 film starring Oprah Winfrey.

Naylor won the National Book Award for first fiction in 1983 for The Women of Brewster Place. Her subsequent novels included Linden Hills, Mama Day and Bailey’s Cafe. In addition to her novels, Naylor wrote essays and screenplays, as well as the stage adaptation of Bailey’s Cafe. Naylor also founded One Way Productions, an independent film company, and was involved in a literacy program in the Bronx.

A native New Yorker, Gloria Naylor was a graduate of Brooklyn College and Yale University. She was distinguished with numerous honors, including Scholar-in-Residence, the University of Pennsylvania; Senior Fellow, The Society for the Humanities, Cornell University; the President’s Medal, Brooklyn College; and Visiting Professor, University of Kent, Canterbury, England. Naylor was the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for her novels and the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for screenwriting.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

Hardcover, 352 pages
Published March 14th 2017 by Simon & Schuster

Susan Perabo’s The Fall of Lisa Bellow is very on trend at the moment. By this, I mean that she joins the ranks of so many other (novel debut) authors writing their version of the same topic: What happens to an otherwise normal family after a child abduction? The past few months have yielded so many of these novels—the recently reviewed The Trophy Child included—that you can only stop to wonder how long this wave of like novels will continue—and who’ll do it better.

But, let’s turn our attention specifically to Lisa Bellow, shall we?

Perabo started this novel at a walk and never really picked up a lot of speed. In fact, this novel started off with a lull that bordered on boring. Though Meredith’s chapters were believable from a middle schooler’s POV, they were just sort of blah. Essentially, uninteresting chapters describing an “unremarkable” kid, as she claimed of herself early on. Perhaps this was a stylistic tool, but it bored me to skimming. The only thing about those first few chapters that I appreciated was the mother’s outlook on marriage and motherhood. Though it came from a place of cookie-cutter middle-class suburbia—and read as such, with family breakfasts, family games and singalongs described—her reaction to her life, in the context, read as real, and that DID interest me.

However, this novel’s 3-point shots—you know, those pivotal scenes that make a reader gasp for more, desperately turning the pages to become so engrossed in the story that they can’t bear to put it down; yep, those scenes—were not brilliantly handled by a long shot. And those, of course, are the ones that HAVE to be handled well. In the interest of *no spoilers*, I won’t point out specific scenes, but I will say that they weren’t presented with the drama or tension that they needed, that they deserved. It was almost like, “Oh, by the way, that just happened.” I actually had to re-read at least one of the scenes, thinking, “Surely, that’s not how we’re leaving it! Really?”

In all honesty, it’s difficult to really react to this novel, because it was kind of like cardboard—sturdy but bland. There was a unique idea here, but there wasn’t much by the way of thrilling—or even engrossing—about it. It was yet another cozy family thriller—The Trophy Child meets The Most Dangerous Place on Earth + a mug of Earl Grey tea and some fuzzy socks. If that’s what you’re looking for in your next read, CHOOSE THIS NOVEL! But, it didn’t work for me.

Was The Fall of Lisa Bellow deficient in its display of actual writing skill? No, not really. Did Lisa Bellow attempt to put a spin on an inside look at a typical family and what happens when tragedy strikes? Yes, it did. But I never particularly felt anything for these characters or the outcome of their lives. But, by a little over halfway through, I was screaming, “Can we get on with it already?”

***SPOILER*** And, the one person’s life that I did care about was NEVER resolved!***

Picture this: You’re presented with a plate beautifully smeared with a delicate pea purée—BUT that’s it. There’s no meat, no potatoes, nothing to really sink into to feel satisfied by the end of it (excuse the Southerner in me, if you will). I love a delicate purée, but not when there’s nothing else holding it up. And that’s what I got from Lisa Bellow. What am I going to do with all of these details–subtle little details that could have meant so much–if I don’t care about the people experiencing them? I didn’t need the attempted nuances of learning about Meredith’s favorite place to sit in the family car or the mother, Claire’s, perspective on watching her son grow up. Why? Because all of this was just fodder for filling and really amounted to nothing by way of an actual plot.

***SPOILER*** (Fingers to nose bridge) And I really can’t even discuss how this novel was resolved. Just can’t. Just…sigh…the novel just sort of slipped away into oblivion, so much so that I literally kept turning the pages, as if there would be something more there at the end—like that bonus scene at the end of the movie after the credits roll.***

Susan Perabo’s The Fall of Lisa Bellow did nothing for me and, unfortunately, earned little more than a ‘Meh, I coulda done without this one.’ **

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

**To see more reviews, follow the blog here, on Twitter @thenavireview and at Goodreads @ Navidad Thelamour

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Paperback, 216 pages
Published September 6th 2005 by Plume (first published June 1st 1970)

…his mother did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud…The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.

While I was not the biggest fan of Morrison’s style in this novel, I did fully appreciate the dagger-sharp insight that she brought to the color caste system that is so prevalent in African-American culture, even today. Her dialogue rang so true, I could hear it coming directly out of my mother’s mouth, my grandmother’s mouth, and those of all of the women who’ve ever filled our kitchens with raucous communal fun and glum communal tragedy alike. Her use of the Dick & Jane children’s books, used for decades to teach children to read (SEEMOTHERMOTHERISVERYNICEMOTHERWILLYOUPLAYWITHJANEMOTHERLAUGHS  LAUGHMOTHERLAUGHLA) created a chilling, ironic and staggering contrast between the lives of the whites and those of the blacks in this novel. Shirley Temple, Mary Jane candies, and Jean Harlow hairstyles – you’ll find the delicacy of all of them here, both in these characters’ reality and in metaphor. While the truth and injustices here were often sobering to read, they were filled with too much truth to rightfully deny or turn away from.

I could spend hours discussing this novel. I could quote from it all day, but I won’t do that, because the entire read was poignant and so crisply aware of the color line – the how and the why – that there is no one point that can overshadow another in the message that these words aimed to send. This novel is older than I am, and yet it still rings with such verity, with such biting truth and reality. With The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison cut open the existence of both internalized and externalized racism in America and laid it bare and exposed at our feet. For that, she deserves nothing but reverence and applause, so she will always have that from me.

Anyone who’s ever been in doubt of a color line in Black America should read this book. Anyone who’s ever questioned, “But why can’t I say those words when you say them all the time? But why do you still believe that racism exists? Why can’t you just get over it – the past is the past?” should read this book. In fact, just read this book anyway – how about that? 🙂 *****

*To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads @Navidad Thelamour.

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

Kindle Edition, 432 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Other Press (first published 2016)

“No one asked if I wanted to save Sebastian, but you all blame me for failing…”

I was truly excited to read and review this novel, Quicksand, by Swedish author Malin Persson Giolito. I first heard about it when it was just a deal to be translated—just another deal that happens every week in the publishing world. Yet, already I was intrigued by the premise and kept an eye out for it. So, you can imagine that when it happened across my path as an advance-read copy, wrapped in an unobtrusive (and probably at the time, incomplete) front cover, I leapt at it.

Maja Norberg is an eighteen-year-old last-year student at an expensive prep school in the center of a wealthy Swedish suburb. When she meets Sebastian, the son of billionaire Claes Fagerman, she’s immediately swept up in the ultra-cool image he’s always exuded, the weeks spent on his father’s luxurious boats and in all of the perks and toys, drugs and sex, emotional angst and obsession that their relationship evolves into. During this last year in school, the unthinkable happens, and Maja is left holding the smoking gun, literally, tearing her away from her comfy existence in the ‘burbs and placing her right in the middle of the media sensation court case of the century.

This novel started slowly, and in a tone that irritated me at first. Rather, Maja irritated me at first. But I pressed on, and I was very soon rewarded for it. For, all of the pieces of this narrative (this novel is told in interchanging sections) that seemed scattered at first, all moved together to complete the picture as a whole at a brilliant pace, pulling me in with it. This was a superb modern-day characterization of rich teens. Not a single character came off as a caricature or stereotype; they all filled the page, as if they were real people—flaws and all. Imagine Steig Larsson meets The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, and you’ve got a great idea of the sharp insight and cunningly skilled writing that you’re in for here, for this novel was everything that Dangerous Place was trying to be.

One of my favorite goodie takeaways from this novel was those thoughtful yet significant nuggets of truth and awareness here, which I so welcomed and respected. I love a sharp narrator, one who can pick apart the people around them. And that’s who Giolito gave her reader in Maja Norberg. Because, what you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find within these pages is that Quicksand features class tensions, the privilege of wealth and what happens when those taut lines cross one time too many.

“…you are wrong if you think a good story isn’t necessary. All you have to do is watch Idol or X Factor…to understand that the backstory is half the point. You all want to be surprised when the fatty sings like a star, you want to feel gratified when he made it ‘despite the odds,’ and you want to believe that it’s just bad luck that my parents don’t also live in Djursholm and work as doctors and lawyers, that it’s an injustice you are definitely not complicit in, but you can say it’s wrong and feel bad that we don’t take better care of our immigrants, if they would only be a little more Swedish, learn their new language faster, study a little harder, then the American dream would be just within reach. You love the American dream…”

In Quicksand, Malin Persson Giolito not only weaves an incredibly incisive and pulsating story, but she also manages to tackle serious social and economic issues with stunning clarity that made me sit up and re-read her passages. And, her socioeconomic commentary was presented in all of the best ways, so integrated into the actual story line that the latter would have seemed incomplete without the former, so dramatically illustrated by the sharp angles and trajectories at which these teenage lives crossed that it becomes a major undertone of the novel—a foundation of the plot rather than an accessory. Lines like, “Our problem isn’t immigrants, it’s this one percent with too much money,” cut deeply within the narrative and provoke thought all the more, because their brilliant placement within the narrative makes the reader feel that they’ve stumbled across a rare, half-hidden jewel, so that they long to find and pick up another.

I became so fully engrossed in Maja’s story, that I, too, gasped at turns of events in the courtroom and I, too, along with the judge and jury, weighed the evidence against her, trying to decide if I felt that she was guilty or not. Giolito was very skilled with the way that she handled this novel, because all parts of it—the courtroom, the jail/solitary confinement, and the backstory leading up to it—were all truly gripping, once the novel fully took off. Even the small annoyances at the beginning came together and re-presented themselves in a new light in the end, which I could only stand back and appreciate.

Giolito made me question my own instincts as to whether Maja was guilty or innocent, and I loved every minute of it. I was compelled to turn each and every page, to live these characters’ lives out with them until the very end, and for that I award the rarely given and always coveted 5 stars. *****

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Other Press, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

*To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads @ Navidad Thelamour!