Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Hardcover, 240 pages
Expected publication: February 13th 2018 by Grove Press

An extraordinary debut novel, Freshwater explores the surreal experience of having a fractured self. It centers around a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her as a result of being born “with one foot on the other side.” Unsettling, heartwrenching, dark, and powerful, Freshwater is a sharp evocation of a rare way of experiencing the world, one that illuminates how we all construct our identities.

Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves–now protective, now hedonistic–move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.

Narrated by the various selves within Ada and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater dazzles with ferocious energy and serpentine grace, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.

It’s not easy to persuade a human to end their life – they’re very attached to it, even when it makes them miserable, and Ada was no different. But it’s not the decision to cross back that’s difficult; it’s the crossing itself.

Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is a novel of layers that do not always nicely overlap; in fact, the pieces often seem to not fit together at all. It is a novel born from trauma and emotional paroxysms, a read that erupts with them throughout. You have to peel back the layers to get to what Emezi has laid underneath, to find the gems, to find the hidden well of pain and sentiment offered here, and that may not be a satisfying journey for many readers.

Freshwater is the story of Ada, a young Nigerian woman with a fractured self, or multiple personalities, due to the gods who have mistakenly taken root in her body and mind. It is a dark novel portraying the malevolence within us – that darkness at the very deepest depths of us that we hope to never have to witness of ourselves or in others. It is a novel that portrays the psychological effects of such darkness and emotional violence. When Ada comes into adulthood and leaves her splintered home for a new existence in a Virginia college, a traumatic sexual experience further shatters her mind and her multiple personalities are born. Ada fights a battle between herself, her other selves and her God she left behind, a battle to regain her equilibrium that veers her onto a dangerous course of self-destructive behavior. A path of bloodshed, tears and an equal dose of sexual trauma and exploration. Ada fights with herself, realizing something is wrong. She wants a change but her other personalities refuse to let her go.

Let me tell you now, I loved her because in the moment of her devastation, the moment she lost her mind, that girl reached for me so hard that she went completely mad, and I loved her because when I flooded through, she spread herself open and took me in without hesitation, bawling and broken, she absorbed me fiercely, all the way; she denied me nothing. I loved her because she gave me a name.

Freshwater was a novel that took a lot of patience for me to read. If you’re a reader who clings to continuity, who needs progressive character development to follow the path a protagonist’s life, or a reader who is in the least bit squeamish, this will likely prove to be a difficult read for you. Not an unworthy read – but a difficult one. The narrative leapt back and forth in time with new personalities and overlapping stories already told being retold differently. This book was a collage, a kaleidoscope, a reflection of a splintered self. Given the subject matter, the shattered quality of the narrative is understandable but at times arduous to read.

It was hard for me to fully connect with Freshwater when the moments of truth, heartbreak and the demise of entire relationships in Ada’s life were narrated, not fully shown in action. Emezi’s debut novel is more about the relationship between Ada and her other selves –internally—than it is about her outward experiences in the world. (view spoiler) It wasn’t enough for me, though some parts of the novel were absolutely gripping, and there were some lovely lines scattered throughout.

He wanted to pretend he was somehow better than he knew he was; he wasn’t ready to throw himself into sin. Humans find it easier to just lie and lie to themselves.

However, in those neglected moments (which is probably why the book is relatively short) the novel loses its soul and misses opportunities.

Other qualms:

The quote headings at the start of each chapter made no sense to me in the context of the story. Often, they made no sense to me at all though I got the feeling that they were Nigerian sayings. And I had too many WTF moments here because of the haphazard way life events and realizations were thrown into the narrative, no build-up, just dumped. I found myself reading whole passages and thinking, Where did this come from – outta thin air? That was the main issue I had with this novel: there was no real character development aside from Ada and Ewan, just a series of narrations and events.

I also never understood the title of the book. There was a reference to it at the end of the novel, but I found it to be too cryptic and unclear, so I still have no idea what it was trying to convey, why it was the namesake of the book. Because of this, I had the noteworthy experience of loving and hating Freshwater. There were moments where I couldn’t wait to turn the page and others where I skimmed past the incoherence of the We. Because of that, Freshwater’s dazzling and dreadful moments condensed down into a grade of 3 stars. ***

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

 

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Akwaeke Emezi Akwaeke Emezi

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Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published January 2nd 2018 by Random House

A novel of race and privilege in America that you haven’t seen before: a coming-of-age story about a life-changing friendship, propelled by an exuberant, unforgettable voice.

“This isn’t some Jedi bull****; the force I’m talking about is real, and its energies are everywhere, working on everyone.”

Boston, 1992. David Greenfeld is one of the few white kids at the Martin Luther King Middle School. Everybody clowns him, girls ignore him, and his hippie parents won’t even buy him a pair of Nikes, let alone transfer him to a private school. Unless he tests into the city’s best public high school–which, if practice tests are any indication, isn’t likely–he’ll be friendless for the foreseeable future.

Nobody’s more surprised than Dave when Marlon Wellings sticks up for him in the school cafeteria. Mar’s a loner from the public housing project on the corner of Dave’s own gentrifying block, and he confounds Dave’s assumptions about black culture: He’s nerdy and neurotic, a Celtics obsessive whose favorite player is the gawky, white Larry Bird. Together, the two boys are able to resist the contradictory personas forced on them by the outside world, and before long, Mar’s coming over to Dave’s house every afternoon to watch vintage basketball tapes and plot their hustle to Harvard. But as Dave welcomes his new best friend into his world, he realizes how little he knows about Mar’s. Cracks gradually form in their relationship, and Dave starts to become aware of the breaks he’s been given–and that Mar has not.

Infectiously funny about the highs and lows of adolescence, and sharply honest in the face of injustice, Sam Graham-Felsen’s debut is a wildly original take on the struggle to rise in America.

 

I will be surrounded by dudes like this for the rest of my life. White boys and white girls who grew up behind whitewashed fences, who grew up with no idea, for the rest of my life. The force preordained it: Not only will I be surrounded by them, I will become one of them, the thing I hate and can’t escape. Not a white boy or a whitey or a white b*tch, but a white person.

If you’re looking for a way to start your new year out right, Green is absolutely the way to go. Prepare yourself to be transported by a distinctive voice and a story line that screams with authenticity. More than authentic—it was one that mirrored what middle school was like for me in the 90s: the same cliques, the same typecasts, the same social rules. This novel transported me back to those days, back to those vibrations in the air, to that slang on our tongues, to those priorities in our pre-teen minds and to those questions that plagued our thoughts night and day about the world around us and our place in it.

Picture it (in my Estelle Getty voice): Boston, 1992.

David Greenfeld is one of the only white sixth graders at Martin Luther King Middle School—the “ghetto” school—with no friends, no cool points, and no chance at getting a girl. His Harvard-educated, politically correct, granola parents don’t understand his pleas to be removed from the school, and there seems to be no end to the social torture in sight. Until. He meets Marlon Wellings, an ultra-smart, Boston Celtics-obsessed, black kid from the projects across the street whose street smarts start to rub off on Dave and who’s life in the hood and drive to get out of it spark questions in Dave’s mind he’s never contemplated before.

In Green, Sam Graham-Felsen gives us a fresh look at the merging of two cultures, literally painting it is a physical intersection of neighborhoods as well as of cultural mores and rules. I couldn’t help but remember another book I’ve reviewed recently that was also a coming-of-age story with a jumping off point from the ’92 L.A. riots—and all the while, I marveled at how much better this story was told, at how much more the voice and experiences rang true. Graham-Felsen brought these characters to life on the page. He gave them hopes and made them my hopes. He made them fall, and I felt the blow myself. And he made them fail, as we all do in life sometimes. It is in those moments that this novel’s heart is most evident and that its impact slammed into me the hardest.

Through Dave and Marlon, Graham-Felsen explores the color line through the eyes of adolescents still finding themselves amidst the chaos of race relations. What really set this novel apart for me is that he gave us the perspective of the white side of the fence, while still being true to both stories, to both cultures.

In school the next day, Ms. Ansley shows us another installment of this long, made-for-TV movie we’ve been watching called Roots. When she introduced it, she said we needed to know our history, especially after what happened in L.A…I hear people shifting in their chairs. The violence is one thing: We all know the wounds are just makeup, the whip’s just a prop, the loud crack’s only a sound effect. But the n-word is different. Even if it’s just acting, it’s still the real n-word. I’ve heard it ten thousand times…but always with the soft ending. Hearing it with the hard er …makes my face muscles clench up even thinking about it. All that evil, all that power, packed into two tiny syllables.

Then, we have ‘the force.’

As their school year progresses and confrontations are had, as Dave’s belief in religion is explored and his cross into cultures and upbringings other than his own changes his outlook on his surroundings, he begins to ponder the idea of ‘the force,’ his interpretation of race relations around him. He sees it everywhere. It peppers his every interaction with the world around him, and jolts him out of adolescence and into a more adult mindset:

It seemed like the smoke of those riots spread all across the continent, all the way to Boston, like they were looking for their own Reginald Denny, because as far as I could tell they stepped for no other reason than the fact that I was white. But as I ran away…I began to wonder if maybe I was looking at them the wrong way, the same way I must have stared at the TV screen when those dudes bundled Denny—a shook and boggled look that said, You are predators—and maybe that made them want to treat me like prey. All summer, I tried to deny the force, but I felt it every time I got checked on my way past the Shaw Homes…And I felt ashamed of that…and yeah, I’ve been feeling ashamed that the force has been with me, pretty much nonstop…

Green was an entertaining read and one that provoked thought. There were moments when I laughed out loud and, yes, even a moment when I cried. There’s something for everyone within these pages, because we all know at least one of these characters, from the granola do-gooders to that kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Here’s your chance now to get glimpse into their world. I wouldn’t be saying enough to say that I highly recommend this book for readers of all sizes, colors and creeds who are ready to open their minds and their outlooks. I even recommend it for all ages, because the cultural boundaries explored within Green are real and not to be ignored. The tragedies of everyday life surrounding us are real and not to be downplayed. And the line between the haves and the have nots, the clueless and the culturally aware, the predators and the prey is real and should never, ever be doubted. 4.5 stars. *****

 

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Sam Graham-Felsen Writer based in Brooklyn. Author of the novel, GREEN (Random House, Jan 2018). Former chief blogger for Barack Obama.

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: September 5th 2017 by Random House

When powerful real-estate tycoon Nero Golden immigrates to the States under mysterious circumstances, he and his three adult children assume new identities, taking ‘Roman’ names, and move into a grand mansion in downtown Manhattan. Arriving shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama, he and his sons, each extraordinary in his own right, quickly establish themselves at the apex of New York society.

The story of the powerful Golden family is told from the point of view of their Manhattanite neighbour and confidant, René, an aspiring filmmaker who finds in the Goldens the perfect subject. René chronicles the undoing of the house of Golden: the high life of money, of art and fashion, a sibling quarrel, an unexpected metamorphosis, the arrival of a beautiful woman, betrayal and murder, and far away, in their abandoned homeland, some decent intelligence work.

Invoking literature, pop culture, and the cinema, Rushdie spins the story of the American zeitgeist over the last eight years, hitting every beat: the rise of the birther movement, the Tea Party, Gamergate and identity politics; the backlash against political correctness; the ascendency of the superhero movie, and, of course, the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain wearing make-up and with coloured hair.

In a new world order of alternative truths, Salman Rushdie has written the ultimate novel about identity, truth, terror and lies. A brilliant, heartbreaking realist novel that is not only uncannily prescient but shows one of the world’s greatest storytellers working at the height of his powers.

Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel, The Golden House, plays out as a Shakespearean drama re-imagined in the eyes of a postmodernist and set in the Obama era of ultra-riche Manhattan. (There, how’s that for an elevator pitch?) This novel is full of nostalgic references, ornate erudite descriptions and high-brow prose, as you would expect from the man who brought us Midnight’s Children and holds an esteemed Booker Prize. I was first introduced to Salman Rushdie by Hanif Kureishi, who wrote one of my favorite college reads, The Black Album, in response to the fatwah issued by Islamic fundamentalists intent on killing Salman Rushdie for writing his 4th novel, The Satanic Verses. So, you can imagine the anticipation I felt to finally meet this great novelist and essayist up close and in person for myself—or as up close and in person as one’s words on a page will allow us to get to the true author themselves.

And here you have it. Sit back and imagine this:

The Golden House trots along the Obama era years, from his inauguration on January 20, 2009, through the election that gave us our 45th president. This political period is the mirror against which these characters see their lives unfolding, crumbling and transforming. Nero Golden and his household of three sons, of which he is the god-like patriarch, are expatriates of an unnamed country (which is eventually named) after a terrorist tragedy takes the life of their matriarch and shady financial deals finish them off in their homeland, sending the family to New York to rebuild their lives with the help of their obscene and conspicuous wealth by way of the American Dream. They move into a mega-mansion in an affluent neighborhood in Manhattan, where all 22 homes of the community back into a luxurious garden oasis that the families all communally enjoy. It is in this near-utopian communal setting where lives begin to cross and our narrator, René, meets the leading family. We follow him on his journey to infiltrate, observe and ultimately document the Golden lives in a film he’s been longing to make but isn’t really sure of how to go about doing. Along the way, characters come and go. As the modern-day “Julio-Claudian” drama unfolds, death occurs. Birth occurs. Marriage occurs. The saga of their lives unfolds, shatters, melts down and repairs—never in that order.

If you’re looking for a single word to describe this novel, a good starting place would be dense though I cannot argue that it is unnecessarily so, and the read certainly wouldn’t have been the same without this aspect. Literary allusions—call me Ishmael— abound on every page here and, quite honestly, you might want to have a digital encyclopedia on hand for quick reference through some of these passages— Chinese hexagrams of divination, for example? But I loved that, reveled in it for the most part, in fact, because this enlightened display of narrative talent played with so many forms of storytelling, from conventional narrative formatting to scenes written as screenplays, from the use of quotation marks to the use of not-a-one, and back again. It was a journey, but at least it was a ride too, crossing the lines of contemporary fiction, post-modernism and metafiction.

Here you’ll find wry social commentary that crackles and pops with dry irony, heaped on in healthy doses so that no culture—past or present, Eastern or Western—is safe from the scrutinizing eye—though, with the backdrop of this novel being set specifically against the Obama era, much of the commentary hits hard on American culture, smashing up against it forcefully and knocking down our perception of it, knocking down the barriers around talking about it, from Black Lives Matter to the collapse of the housing market to transgender transformation and everywhere in between:

“Once upon a time…if a boy liked pink and dolls his parents would be afraid he was homosexual and try to interest him in boy stuff…they might have doubts about his orientation but it wouldn’t occur to them to question his gender. Now it seems you go to the other extreme. Instead of saying the kid’s a pansy you start trying to persuade him he’s a girl.”

“What is American culture?” This novel dares to seriously ask—often pokes fun at—and ultimately explores—no, turns inside out—this beloved cliché we and the world over cling to called the American Dream, from the viewpoint of the transplant, from the viewpoint of those ultimately in search of themselves in the whirlwind that is our lives in our culture today.

“…I could feel it, the anger of the unjustly dead, the young men shot for walking in a stairwell while black, the young child shot for playing with a plastic gun in a playground while black, all the daily black death of America, screaming out that they deserved to live, and I could feel, too, the fury of white America at having to put up with a black man in a white house, and the frothing hatred of the homophobes…the blue-collar anger of everyone who had been Fannie Mae’d and Freddie Mac’d by the housing calamity, all the discontent of a furiously divided country, everyone believing they were right…”

Rushdie’s insightful narrative is at times chilling it its acute accuracy about our cultural climate and our 45th president—“…the Joker shrieked…in that bubble…gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American…mass deportations would be a good thing; and women reporters would be seen to be unreliable because they had blood coming out of their whatevers…”— and made The Golden House a complete package, which managed to be both entertaining and at times mildly surreal, with the help of a wink toward a more avant-garde formatting technique and a nod toward the “magically real.”

I navigated this novel with the sense of one at their grandfather’s knee, he with brandy and cigar in hand, hearing a tale that was often fascinating in its baroqueness. The Golden House is chocked full of so many things we love in reads—solid plotting, whimsy and intellectual stimuli—which made the ornate density of this novel worth persevering through in the end—and that both stirred and excited my reader soul, like a hearty helping of literary gumbo you have to close your eyes and smile to enjoy, adding depth to the layers of the pages, of these words. And, that was easily enough for 4.5 stars. ****

**I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Salman RushdieSir Ahmed Salman Rushdie is a novelist and essayist. Much of his early fiction is set at least partly on the Indian subcontinent. His style is often classified as magical realism, while a dominant theme of his work is the story of the many connections, disruptions and migrations between the Eastern and Western world.

His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, led to protests from Muslims in several countries, some of which were violent. Faced with death threats and a fatwa (religious edict) issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, which called for him to be killed, he spent nearly a decade largely underground, appearing in public only sporadically. In June 2007, he was appointed a Knight Bachelor for “services to literature”, which “thrilled and humbled” him. In 2007, he began a five-year term as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University.

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.

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.

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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.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

 

Hardcover, 192 pages
Published February 2nd 2016 by Hogarth (first published October 2007)*

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).

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: August 23rd 2016 by Random House (first published March 15th 2016)

“You think I don’t want to remain in America, too? You think I came to America so that I can leave? I work as a servant to people, driving them all over, the whole day, sometimes the whole week, answering yes sir, yes madam, bowing down even to a little child. For what, Neni? What pride are you talking about? I lower myself more than many men would ever lower themselves. What do you think I do it for? For you, for me. Because I want us to say in America! But if America says they don’t want us in their country, you think I’m going to keep on begging them for the rest of my life?…Never. Not for one day…”

 

Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers had its highs and lows. I’d like to first say that I love that Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon. Rather than telling a story from hearsay and secondhand experiences, she was able to paint a realistic portrait of a modern-day Cameroonian family. The inflection in their tone and dialogue, their traditions, they all came through brilliantly here. Yet this, unfortunately, wasn’t enough for me to give this one high praise.

          Behold the Dreamers was a wonderful title for a work that told a story of exactly that: a family with dreams in their eyes and a determination to fight for a good life in America the Great. The writing was simple; particularly for the first large chunk, 40% or so. It was as simple as a burlap sack, and it was a bit too rudimentary to really pull me in. It definitely didn’t strike me as literary fiction, which some have labeled it as. On the other hand, I will say that it was culturally enlightening to read about the traditions of the Cameroonians, to recognize the cadence in their voices as different from those of their American counterparts. That dialogue between the immigrants read more jauntily, more authentically, than any of the other dialogue in this novel, the only thing that seemed dazzlingly authentic, and that was a let-down for me.

There were assuming plot leaps that lurched the timeline forward in a way that made me feel I’d missed something, where I, as a reader, missed the growth of the characters and how their bonds with one another transpired or were sullied, and that made the read less enthralling. It made me invest less in it. This wasn’t like plot twists that kept you guessing—this isn’t some mystery or thriller—but major life decisions that the reader had no warning were even possible, even a thought process in the characters’ minds, that just tumbled into the plot. That, to me, was a sure sign of the author’s inability to weave a plot with finesse. It felt like I was on a bumpy car trip, feeling every pothole and speed bump. Definitely not a luxury car ride.

And then there was the fact that it took way too long for any meaningful action to transpire. By the time I looked at my counter to see that I was over 40% of the way through this novel, I was shocked at how little I was invested in the characters, at how much valuable space had gone to waste in telling the story thus far. There was a high point, for me, where the action picked up and it looked like character evolution would take place—like Neni would fight the traditions of her upbringing and stand on her own, like she would fight her hardest for her dreams, which is what she came to America to do. But then I landed with a heavy flop at that ending and literally said to myself, “Oh, I’d better not turn this page for this to be it!” (literally, imagine me sitting at my computer, finger poised over the right arrow saying, “Oh, this had better not be it!”) only to find that when I did turn the page, that was it. Without spoiling the plot for anyone, **MINOR SPOILER ALERT** this one ended with the characters not having fully transformed. A bow-tie ending it was not, but it was still a deeply unsatisfying way to go out, my goodness.

Still, there were a few places where the writing dazzled. Where it popped and sizzled and hit the right notes like here:

            “For the first time in a long love affair, she was afraid he would beat her. She was almost certain he would beat her. And if he had, she would have known that it was not her Jende who was beating her but a grotesque being created by the sufferings of an American immigrant life.”

            But if there’s one thing that I hate in a read—that many hate, I’d assume—it’s characters who succumb. I love a realistic read that shows us that life is not always bright, life isn’t just one happy Facebook post after another—but I also want to be able to root for characters even in their short-fallings, and I found that I couldn’t always do that here. So, in the end, the Dreamers only managed to squeak out three stars ***