So sorry, I couldn’t even finish this one before putting it down, which is extremely extremely rare for me!, because the word that kept popping into my head was overwrought, Overwrought, OVERWROUGHT! It seemed like NDiaye was trying way too hard to be deep or profound, and I just couldn’t get into her writing style. It seemed…melodramatic, but not in a way that I could appreciate. Just couldn’t do it, so, sadly, this will be the first novel EVER to make it onto my “Could Not Even Finish” shelf. But, to be fair, I’ll refrain from rating this one since I couldn’t even get halfway.
*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Doubleday, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
I was really looking forward to this read! I had an interesting relationship with The Intuitionist, having read it in college and not quite grasped it then came back to it later and enjoyed it more. I love everything that Colson Whitehead is about (and I hope to read Zone One soon), but this particular foray into his work turned out to be a little less than a love affair for me.
The Underground Railroad starts on the Randall plantation in Georgia around 1812. This plantation is an amalgamation of every horror and tragedy you’ve ever heard of about slavery. Slaves are beaten and raped for amusement, even on display for the entertainment of guests sipping lemonade; attempts at fleeing from bondage or bucking the system are (often arbitrarily) met with public displays of execution, from being strung up and castrated to a good ole-fashioned tarring and feathering. Life on the plantation is as rough for women—who are used as breeders for more slaves, hence more money, and are constantly at the mercy of male appetites, both from those in the ivory tower and those in the fields—as it is for the laboring men. In the midst of it all, Cora, a stray who’s gained a bit of a scarlet letter because her mother fled the plantation and left her behind years back, starts her long journey to freedom one quiet night with nothing but a sack of unripe turnips, two companions and the North Star as their guide. But the untold horrors that she will face ahead of her on this trek will sometimes rival those that she left behind. With a bounty on her head and dreams of education and freedom beckoning her forward, she will stop through a slew of Southern states—all with their own systems of Southern
justice and oppression—and find herself on Whitehead’s re-envisaged Underground Railroad.
Within these pages, you’ll embark on a re-imagined historical truth that could only be a creation of Colson Whitehead. Here, the Underground Railroad is—get this—an actual train (or a single, rickety locomotive, but you get the point), complete with a conductor. At times that term is more allegorical than actual, but even the conductors have their own pasts that, at times, ensnare Cora in their trap-like grasp. Human sterilization to control the growth of the Negro population (which, in some states, “problematically” rivals the numbers of the white population), blackface, and the Tuskegee Project are all touched on here, are all experienced by our heroine in some periphery of her journey.
Those are the goodie takeaways.
Now for my qualms. This novel would’ve been better served being written in first person, for Cora’s chapters at the very least. This is a harrowing journey, a terrifying trek into the unknown for a young woman who has never been outside of the confines of the Randall Plantation for her entire life. She’s never worked for her own wages, never bought her own new dress, never even been to see a doctor. We want to see, touch and taste every moment of what she feels. We want to quiver when she quivers and scream when she hurts. We want to experience these truths re-imagined for ourselves, because this is a remarkable journey set in a harrowing past that our country would rather keep hushed and obscured. To truly break us out of this—to truly immerse us in this and better make the point that he sought to make—we should’ve been squarely in Cora’s shoes, not watching her from above in a slightly removed, vaguely clinical 3rd person.
While Whitehead’s intellectualism serves his plots well, it doesn’t do the greatest wonders for soulful and immersive execution. Perhaps that comes down to being a matter of personal preference. I found his writing style, as was the case in his The Intuitionist as well, to be talented but, yes, just a tad by the way of clinician. And finesse—oh, finesse, thou art an allusive thing! Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of it here, and by that I mean that this was quite the bull-ride read: jerky and rough. I had to re-read several passages, because segues from one event to the next were often non-existent. Suddenly, you were in a saloon, or in the middle of an attack by rogue outlaws, then learning letters in a schoolhouse. Literally, a person could go from alive to dead in a single, four-sentence paragraph! Um, what?? (Shaking head vigorously.) What just happened now?
Also, I could’ve done without the backstory chapters of the minor characters. Every single one of those “let-me-elaborate-on-this-(minor)-character’s-past-life” chapters could’ve been gutted from this manuscript—all except for one. And that one you’ll know when you read it.
Still, Colson Whitehead managed to touch on the justifications and absolutions that the antebellum South whispered to themselves at night to justify their actions, biblical references that laid the way for Manifest Destiny and all the other gluttonous rationalizations that makes slavery possible, in any land, in any era. And for that, I applauded him.
The story itself was great—a truly epic adventure—but the pace at which it jerked, sometimes lullingly slow and others at whiplash-inducing speeds, turned me off. And, I have to say, any novel where I feel even the slightest urge to skim and skip ahead can never get 4 stars from me. But his work is definitely unique in its own right, and for that I would absolutely recommend this novel to anyone who has read the blurb and marked it as to-read, to anyone who’s already familiar with Whitehead’s talents and appreciated them, and for those who have yet to become familiar with them. I have a deep respect for this author; the style just didn’t work for me the way I’d hoped this time, and for that I award 3.5 stars ***
“Though the ostensible reason for her not wanting Yeong-hye to be discharged, the reason that she gave the doctor, was this worry about a possible relapse, now she was able to admit to herself what had really been going on. She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there…”
Wow, what can I say about this one except “wow.”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang was everything that we love about Korean and Japanese literature and art—and that’s exactly what this work was: art. Here you will find what we have come to know, to love and to expect from authors in this genre who write in this vein: the vibrancy, the subtle magical realism, the commanding usage of words and the elusive, sinister nature that is unique to these works—all embedded within an established culture of history and mores that has survived and developed for millennia longer than most others.
The Vegetarian read with a delicious ominousness that was as subtle as a shadow, like a breath at your neck. It was that subtly that made the read so taunt and disquieting, and there was a strange, magical realism to it that almost read like Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (no shock there, as they both seem to have been influenced by Kafka). As a work of short literary form (it’s under 200 pages), it was unusual, among other reasons, in that it was told from three different perspectives with almost no perspective from the novel’s subject, Yeong-hye. We see how her vegetarianism, which later leads into a kind of manic catatonia, affects first her callous and at times sexually abusive husband, then her brother-in-law who becomes completely enthralled with her sexually because of her Mongolian mark, and her sister who is the last one standing when Yeong-hye’s psyche begins to peel away.
In addition to the serious topics that The Vegetarian brushed up against: the effect of cultural mores on women, body image, conformism, familial ties and abuse, and, of course, mental illness that ultimately culminated in a way that I could never reveal without spoiling it for you—this was also a tale of family dysfunction. It was a tale of familial ties that were severed painfully, of violent confrontations and realizations, of physical and emotional starvation, and a parable about the woman, the vegetarian, at the center of it all.
The Vegetarian was sensual, and it meandered toward its climax in a way that was both unsettling and prophetic. It was allegory elevated to the highest level of art, raised to the level of surrealism. The change in tenses and POVs worked well. And even this technique, this simple process of sentence-writing that we learn in grade school, was elevated: the tenses of sentences shifted noticeably, particularly the closer that it came to dénouement, a jolting but brilliant allusion to this descent into mental illness and personal violence, which added to the mystical element of this novel.
Han Kang produced a work, his first to be seen here in the U.S., that was so unhinged, so mystifying, that at times it would slither from your grasp. I had to sit and reflect on several of the passages for a few minutes—not because they were ill-written, but because they were both profound and often just outside of my immediate mental grasp, and that was a wonderful thing. It was an effect that I look for in modern-day writing—that disquietingly ungraspable moment.
“Yeong-hye’s voice, which came to her while she was suspended in that halfway state between sleep and wakefulness, was low and warm at first, then innocent like that of a young child, but the last part was mangled, a distorted animal sound. Her eyes snapped open in fright, and she was stung by a waking hatred the likes of which she’d never felt before, before being thrown back into sleep. This time she was standing in from of the bathroom mirror. In the reflection, blood was trickling from her left eye. She quickly reached up to wipe the blood away, but somehow her reflection in the mirror didn’t move an inch, only stood there, blood running from a staring eye.”
The Vegetarian was unconventional. It broke away from the molds that we find ourselves encumbered in with typical fiction. Here you will not find the typical “rising action, climax, falling action” formula that we’ve become so accustomed to, that we’ve grown to expect and to lean into, though we know how it’ll all end in the end. Honestly, this read left me a little speechless, so you’ll have to excuse the less-than-customary word count here. Definitely, take that as a compliment in the highest sense. 5 stars. *****
*The cover used here is not the cover that was released in the U.S., but it is one of the most BEAUTIFUL examples of cover art that I have ever seen, AND it more accurately portrays some of the themes in this novel (much better than the U.S.-released cover art).
“How do you know you didn’t ruin my life forty years ago?”
“From what I can see, you never looked back.”
“I looked back, believe me,” she says.
“That makes two of us.”
Firstly, let me say to those who have read this novel, I have no idea why the Goodreads summary made me think I was going to be getting this:
For those of you who haven’t read it and are considering it, it’s not that. 🙂
**CAUTION, this review contains (mild) spoilers**
In 1631, Sara de Vos is a painter ahead of her time who is plagued with debts and personal losses. Centuries after her death, her last known attributed work hangs on the bedroom wall of a wealthy lawyer, Marty de Groot, in 1950s Manhattan, until one day, it doesn’t. Marty discovers that the painting, which has been in his family for generations, has been stolen and replaced with a brilliantly executed fake. So brilliant, in fact, that it took him months to even notice the switch. It is Ellie Shipley, a graduate student from Australia with a talented eye for art and a desire to push her artistic capabilities, who is hired to forge the painting, forever joining their lives in a complex weave of events and emotions. 40 years later, Ellie is a celebrated art historian and curator who is putting on an exhibition on the topic that has compelled her and her work for her entire adult life: the Dutch Golden Age. The last known painting of Sara de Vos, At the Edge of a Wood, still haunts them both, for the forgery that Ellie painted decades before will now resurface at the same exhibit that she’s curating, threatening to end her career and tarnish her name forever.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a novel that straddles the line between contemporary and historical fiction. Let me take this opportunity to say that I was truly on board with this one at the start, but then it lost me a little about midway, maybe a little before, and then picked me up again in the last quarter or so. This novel was a good combination of fiction and research. Not brilliant, not mind-blowing, but good. Strap yourself in and get ready to be fully immersed in a painter’s world, from a how-to on mixing rabbit hides for paint to entire narrative passages how to deconstruct a 400-year-old canvas. I’m on the fence on how I feel about how the research was displayed, leaning towards positive but not all the way there. On the one hand, it allowed me to trust the narration, made the world that Smith painted (no pun intended) far more believable, and I learned a few things from this read, which is always a plus.
BUT on the other hand, I definitely felt that I didn’t need allof it. It wasn’t quite info dump, but it was a bit much at times. For example, reading pages of 17th century minutiae such as making “apothecary blends of Ceylon loose leaf.” Honestly, I don’t even know what that passage was about. Possibly 17th century teas? Maybe? These were nice touches in and of themselves, but too many of them began to weigh me down a little. That can be a problem with fiction based heavily on research—or research-based non-fiction that tries to read like fiction—the author doesn’t know when tolay off of the research and dive into the plot; they want to include every. little. piece. of information that they found in an effort to set the setting (which was my main gripe withThe Witches as well, by the way—at times the 17th century chapters here read similarly to those).
What I can say is that I never felt that any of the story lines suffered, though there were at least three in play at once, occurring in different time periods and on various continents. The Last Painting was almost Brontë-esque, which I can see a lot of people really enjoying. The settings were meticulously set; the story line seemed to meander on leisurely, as if on a stroll through Central Park, reminiscent of those good ole’ days—pre television—of classical writing, which left me, in a way, nostalgic.
There were times when the writing was tender, but it always stopped just shy of being emotive, often somewhere between clinical and touching. I felt I was an onlooker, a 3rd party staring in through a window on tip-toe, seeing and feeling it all second-hand, perhaps even slightly removed from that. I wasn’t made to sympathize with these characters, though I loved the fundamentals of Ellie’s narrative. She didn’t grab me, but most of the time, I didn’t mind watching her. I couldn’t tell if Smith was writing in this fashion deliberately or if he was just inexperienced with handling emotions as a writer. (I suppose a deeper foray into his works would answer this question for me definitively.) I realize that this novel was not meant to be the next great love saga—Marty and Ellie are not Rhett and Scarlett by any means—but their love affair, or rather their reactions to it, came off as unrealistic, not quite believable and definitely not emotive, possibly because that side of them was underdeveloped. Intellectual, I think is the word that I’m looking for. Their story line and the handling of it was intellectual, even when it wasn’t meant to be, and that didn’t grab me.
However, I must say that I am content with how this one ended. At various points in the novel, I hovered between giving de Vos 3.5 and 4 stars. Ultimately, I’m going with 3.5 because many of the novels I’ve given 4 or 5 stars truly moved me—or educated me in a way that will always stay with me—and this one was just shy of that. 3.5 stars ***
First of all, let me say that A Little Life was exactly what I’ve been looking for. This novel was so rich in raw, uninhibited emotion, in the true unveiling of life’s effervescence, horrors and humanity, that I didn’t feel that I was trudging through a thick read—though, believe me, it’s thick!—I felt that I was on a 40-year Hajj with these characters, a journey that, like real life, takes you over lofty and decadent highs then drags you through trough-like lows. It was the lows in A Little Life that made me literally cringe and turn away, re-read at times and stop reading at others just long enough to question what really is humanity?
The theme of lifelong friendship is obviously central to the novel, and I loved that the four focal characters were all male. To get the male perspective on contemporary brotherhood and solidarity was a breath of fresh air; I hardly ever get to experience a literary piece from the viewpoint of modern-day (non-white) men, so if that appeals to you, then this read will be a real treat. Likewise, on that note, I was greatly impressed with the way that Yanagihara handled race in this work, because she flipped the stereotype completely on its head. I remember a feeling of unanticipated surprise, of true and pure admiration of the author’s hand and voice for flipping the script on the typical literary formula.
A Little Life was brilliant in the way that it portrayed the capriciousness and uncertainty of college life through middle-age: the discovery and exploration of their sexuality, life goals, insecurities and the precariousness of their own self-images and the pursuit—often slow and unsure—of their own personal ambitions and aspirations. It all rang so true, so genuine.
“These were days of self-fullment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble…surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.”
Yanagihara’s exploration of religion (Ambition and atheism…only here did you have to apologize for having faith in something other than yourself) and race (Race has always been a challenge for Malcolm, but their sophomore year, he hit upon what he considered a brilliant cop-out: he wasn’t black’ he was post-black…unfortunately, no one was convinced by this explanation, least of all JB, whom Malcom had begun to think of as not so much black but pre-black, as if blackness, like nirvana, was an idealized state that he was constantly striving to erupt into) was modern, realistic and enlightened. This work was full of eloquent, thoughtful and introspective narrative prose, but at the same time, Yanagihara did not hesitate to push the reader beyond their comfort level. Her descriptions of abuse and cruelty, suffering, addiction, fear, and the toll these all take on the human psyche—the way that they impact the human experience—were so vivid, so intensely thought-provoking and emotive.
However, I must admit that I did take a few issues with this one. For one, I was disappointed to not see a single chapter from Malcolm’s sole perspective in the entire piece. With this massive word count, there was certainly ample opportunity to do so. He started off being just as interesting a character as the others, questioning his future and his sexuality, feeling inferior to his sister and entitled while simultaneously, perhaps, feeling a bit embarrassed by his upbringing and entitlement. The groundwork was set for a rich character portrayal of him that could have easily rivaled JB’s and Willem’s, but in all 700+ pages we never heard a peep from his own voice. I also wished that Yanagihara had explored JB more. The chapter that was 100% from his perspective honestly resonates with me louder than any of the other chapters, even those rather disturbing chapters on Jude that are the talk of literary chats everywhere at the moment. I was truly gripped by his sense of terror and self-loathing, his sincere lack of control and, finally, that heart-wrenching scene towards the end of his chapter.
Honestly, I felt that Jude had too many chapters, that the entire novel revolved around him—and I get why it would—but there were several opportunities lost that could have been capitalized on better by the author. Also—gulp, I’m sorry to say—A Little Life could have stood up to a bit of a haircut too. Not a big chop, mind you, but a trim of at least 50 pages would’ve made the novel a less cumbersome read, particularly towards the end, the last few chapters. Chopping some of those arguably useless narrative passages away would have allowed for a feeling of truly running towards something, towards a climax deserving of these wonderful characters. Instead, the novel felt more like it sputtered out (no less heart-breakingly) quietly. In a way, I feel the Fabulous Four deserved better.
Even with all of this, I am truly changed having read this one and thankful that I took the time to sit down and really enjoy it. A Little Life has raised the bar so high for me, I can only hope that my next reads will stand up to the shadow that this tall order may cast over them. Yanagihara has gained herself a lifelong reader and an easy 5 stars. *****
“How suffocating it is to be loved that much.”
Everything I Never Told You centers around the Lee family: James, the Chinese-American professor who lectures on the epitome of what was never attainable for him—true Americanism, Marilyn, the blond wife who’d always dreamed of being a doctor when female doctors were a rare phenomenon only to turn out just what her mother had hoped and what Marilyn had always wished to avoid, and their three children, Nathan, Lydia and Hannah. James and Marilyn focus all of their attention on Lydia who they are determined to mold into everything that they were never able to achieve themselves, creating a crushing pressure for her that comes from both sides. When she dies unexpectedly, the glue that holds them all together is no longer able to hold. As they try to learn what happened to her—and why—they come to realize that she was not the girl they thought she was. The reader is allowed to learn this before the family does, which creates a beautiful inside glimpse of a family crumbling.
Everything I Never Told You is about just that: the subtle nuances and emotions that go unsaid, the familial tension behind closed doors that goes unnoticed, unexplored, and the way that our lineage and upbringing shape our lives, for better or for worse. Gripping in its portrayal of dreams deferred and hopes crushed, of coming of age in the 60s and 70s, of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) cruelties of the world and of the ignorance of those who would rather mock than understand, Everything was an exploration of the overwhelming pressure of a family’s love and expectations—both for themselves and for their children. Despite the fact that this one had a few moments of lethargy at the start, it all came together beautifully, and the last half or so of the novel I finished in one sitting. This novel, all told, was a bold and shattering glimpse into reality for all of the characters involved. It was the historical and ancestral short-fallings, misgivings and dreams unrealized that brought this one to a head in the most lovely way. It was chilling in its honest and straight-forward depiction of challenges with fitting in, with being oneself, all wrapped into beautiful little metaphors that were easy to hold…and easy to crush: a Betty Crocker cookbook, a white doctor’s coat, cowboys, a silver locket.
“Different” was the connective tissue here. The characters’ differences from those of the outside world and in the incongruousness of their perception of themselves versus what others saw were so well developed that the feeling of discomfort (both in their lives and in their minds) was palpable within these pages, creating a need to continue turning the pages. Ng portrayed their longing here brilliantly—longing to be someone else, to be free.
“Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn’t look like everyone else…you saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers—Chinese—Japanese—look at these—and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear…and tried to forget about it. And you did, until it happened again.”
Ng was not forceful with her hand, but allowed those things unsaid, undone, unnoticed, to tell the story in its way of delicate nuances. The snatching off of a locket here, the touching of ones finger to tongue there. It was those subtleties that the reader had to catch, or they’d miss something integral. Characterized by lovely narrative prose, Ng’s MFA background stood out and was on full display in a way that showed spirit and depth. Mellifluous, introspective and refined, it dug into the very soul of what it means, what it must feel like, to be different. 5 stars. *****
“Chili’s basic understanding was that people were weak and lazy. He didn’t think they were stupid; he wasn’t going to make that mistake. He saw, though, that people resisted change, even if it would improve their lives; they were afraid, complacent, lacking courage. This gave the advantage to someone with initiative and will.”
The Black Album, originally published in ‘95 then republished by Scribner in 1996, is the tale of Shahid, a Pakistani Muslim young man living in a contemporary British society. As he grapples with the line between fundamentalism and liberalism—his love of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll versus his traditional familial and community expectations—he finds himself coming of age and into his own in London after the death of his father, exploring and often crossing the line between the accepted and the taboo, his insight into the world around him growing ever more poignant as he does. Here you find two combatting worlds that do not, by definition, co-exist well: the ideology of the liberal neo thinker who is entranced by Prince, Baldwin and the idea of the Black Panther movement versus the radical fundamentalists, portrayed through Shahid’s friend, Riaz, and his clique. And in the middle is a cast of characters who are fully realized, led by an older brother who has followed drugs down their rabbit hole. The sequence of events and clash of cultures eventually lead to violence, fittingly in a controversy over The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.
Hanif Kureishi has never been an author to write to placate the masses, and he didn’t attempt so here either. This novel didn’t please everyone—in fact, it might have offended some—but if you’re looking for a single word to describe this pick, I’ve got one for you: soul. Pure soul on a page. Keep in mind that this novel was Kureishi’s response to the fatwah intent on killing Salmon Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses that was issued by Islamic fundamentalists. The grittiness and reality in this work left me breathless, and it was refreshing to find a work that so brilliantly mixed comedy, intellect and satire. I first read this pick while doing my M.A. in London. I remember chatting about it with my diss. advisor, Bobby Nayyar, over some beverage in some mostly-empty coffee nook, then the conversation continuing as we strolled to the tube in typical London drizzly weather. The Black Album was insightful and dared to go inside of the crannies that make us uncomfortable, into the room where drugs are being done, into the bed of the professor sleeping with her student. This novel was loud, as it had to be to compete with all of the background noise of London and to find its place within it, both for the characters internally and for the novel itself. Here you’ll find insightful little nuggets like the one above and you’ll follow Shahid in his modern-day journey, in a journey that both Baby Boomers and Millennials alike can relate to, because this world described within the pages of The Black Album has always existed though it isn’t often written about—that is, not so often as runaway chick lit bestsellers and formulaic thrillers. There was no formula to this one, only the free hand of a confident author not afraid to cross a few lines.
The industry needs more words—more books—from those who truly have something to say, and this one, this writer, does. As an agent, I fought for authors who had a true voice, passion, soul. But often they were turned down as too this or too that, while other writers, some of whom I have and likely will in the future review here, continued being offered contracts to write about…nothing. But reads like this let me know that some truly talented voices do still get through “the gatekeepers,” and for that we should all be both encouraged and grateful. More please. Five stars all day. *****