Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published September 5th 2017 by Scribner

A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest. It is a novel that I’ve been waiting a very long time to read, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. There is so much within these pages—so much angst, so much wonder and so much sorrow—that I am still grappling with it even now. And that’s a wonderful thing, the best feeling and the most lasting impression a writer can ever bestow on their reader.

I read, before reading this novel, that Jesmyn Ward had recently been called the modern-day Faulkner, and I doubted this, I admit, likely because of all the books out there I’ve encountered doing reviews that are buoyed up by their awe-inspiring cover flaps and exalted comparisons to other, greater works, only to fall flat on their faces under the weight of such lofty and inaccurate comparisons. But Sing, Unburied, Sing is the real deal. Its utter humanity and heart bursts forth from every page, particularly leading up to the climax, never shying away from the reality of hard living, always staring it down right in its face, urging us to look it in the face, too. Don’t turn away. I could never turn away.

This is the tale of two Mississippi families, one black and one white, joined by bloodshed and bloodlines. Joined by love and hatred, by death and birth. But this is also a coming-of-age story of one teenaged boy, Jojo, whose life is forever changed. Jojo is the biracial son of the often high, often absent Leonie—who sees her murdered brother, Given, in drug-induced hallucinations—and Michael, whose hostile, racist family will never accept his black girlfriend and half-breed children. Jojo is caught between being a parent to his three-year-old sister, Kayla, and learning to be a man from his grandfather, Pop. But this place he is emotionally sandwiched between is a place he calls home, a place of comfort and togetherness, between Kayla and Pop—until Leonie comes back from a bender and piles them all in the car on the way to Parchman Penitentiary to retrieve Michael from the prison that has changed and ended so many lives connected to theirs. It is on this journey that Jojo sees the naked truth of racial hierarchies and the hatred the South is all too known for, and discovers his gift of sight he never knew he had. And it is also on this journey that Jojo faces who his mother is, what she is capable of and what she will never be.

“When I wake, Michael’s rolled all the windows down. I’ve been dreaming for hours it feels like, dreaming of being marooned on a deflated raft in the middle of the endless reach of the Gulf of Mexico…Jojo and Michaela and Michael with me and we are elbow to elbow. But the raft must have a hole in it, because it deflates. We are all sinking, and there are manta rays gliding beneath us and sharks jostling us. I am trying to keep everyone above water, even as I struggle to stay afloat. I sink below the waves and push Jojo upward so he can stay above the water and breathe, but then Kayla sinks and I push her up, and Michael sinks so I shove him in the air as I sink and struggle, but they won’t stay up: they want to sink like stones…they keep slipping from my hands…I am failing them. We are all drowning.”

If a hallmark of Southern writing is setting, Ward’s novel offers that in spades. Here, in the blazing sun of Mississippi, you can feel the sweat dripping from the characters’ brows, feel their pulse as they confront one another—as they confront themselves. The suffering within these pages was tangible, palpable, like a pulse in the air, a drumbeat at the turn of every page. It marked the characters’ lives just as numbers mark the bottom of each page. But Ward goes beyond that—beyond the quintessential tale of Southern burdens, anguish and racial hate, beyond the stereotypes we can all so readily pluck from our minds to describe the Bible Belt in all its historical wonder and terror. My one note of criticism is that the voices didn’t always sound realistic for the characters. JoJo and Leonie’s chapters after sounded like they were coming from the same voice (the sophisticated voice of the author rather than the rugged voices of folks who have been through some “thangs,” and that rang false to me). But, when I say that Sing, Unburied, Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest, I mean that it binds, bridges and merges every aspect of the genre—social commentary, magical realism, surrealism and grit. Blood, sweat, tears, but, most of all: haunting and poetic soul. That it did in spades despite the hiccup with the voices.

This novel will stay with me for a long time. There were aspects of this book that I did not immediately like, but that all came together in the end. And, quite honestly, I haven’t read such an emotively resonating ending like that since Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” and for that I could only ever give a well-deserved 5 stars. *****

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

Jesmyn WardJesmyn Ward is the author of Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and Men We Reaped. She is a former Stegner Fellow (Stanford University) and Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University.

Her work has appeared in BOMBA Public Space and The Oxford American.

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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.

Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss, Jr.

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published August 2nd 2016 by Simon & Schuster

          “He was a thirty-two-year-old, college-educated father drowning his family in debt but energized by a simple prospect: proving to Phoebe that he alone, not a New York banker or some handsome young physician, was the winning play still.”           

Oh, my God. I can’t remember the last time I was so satisfied with a read and applauding of its ending! It was so well done; the writing was just phenomenal. It never came off as corny or cliché, over-embellished or melodramatic. Just real. Honest and real. Fearless and foreboding, raw and sharp at the edges, McGinniss’ Carousel Court was like staring into a mirror with no makeup, no fluff.

Nick and Phoebe are the everyman: He remembers when they were both fresh out of college, full of ambition, energetic and in love. Now they’re 32—not old at all—but what has happened to them? So they decide to go for it: “…it seemed that everyone had a house or was buying one…young married professional buying and selling houses for six-figure profits. So why not them? Of course them, finally them…they quickly negotiated an interest-only, zero-down, 125 percent renovation mortgage on the house in Serenos.” And so it began.

The first thing I thought when I opened this one was: The Big Short. Carousel Court takes that to a whole other level, to a personal level that you can feel. It reaches inside of the macrocosm that was our economy in 2008 and pulls out a first-hand story of people who could’ve been your neighbors, who could’ve been your friends.

And if we’re going to get one thing straight, it’s this: McGinniss’ voice is unique, his writing style distinctive. It’s filled with a sort of nervous energy—ideas hopping around but somehow all fitting nicely together—that is magnetically kinetic. It was almost like free hand, jumping from topic to topic and scene to scene sometimes frantically, creating a brilliantly fast pace set in the California suburbs. It was a lens punctuated with short, curt lines that hit home right in the gut and blunt observations that rang so true that they could only be that. Honestly, I found it hard to follow in the beginning—until I didn’t. At some point, a few pages in, I relaxed into the writing style and let it carry me away. If you’re resistant to an unconventional voice, one that’s punctuated with terseness and modern-day, suburban grit (think the movie Closer, 2004) this read might take a second to sink into, but that’s okay. You’ll get there. Keep going. Though I had to re-read some of the passages in the beginning to find my footing with them, somehow, I found it intriguingly refreshing and immersive.

My sole qualm was a minute one: I’m still not sure if it was my own misunderstanding, but I found inconsistencies with Phoebe’s character, which nagged at me but didn’t ruin the read or bog me down with the necessity of clarity: is she fair-haired or brunette, 30 or 32 years old? (I feel like I read all of these about her and wasn’t sure which was correct.) But those perceived incongruences didn’t make her any less appealing to watch or any less deserving of my attention.

I rooted for Nick and Phoebe every step of the way, right up to the very last page. Every wrong move, every fight and sharp remark, every scathing text message furiously tapped out on an iPhone and every feeling of self-doubt—I felt it with them, and it felt genuine. They were people I wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with, and I know I’d love every second of it if I could. I was behind them the whole way, and I wanted them to win.

            “Fall, Daddy, fall…”

In Carousel Court, McGinnis truly captured the rhythms and fine grooves of our lives, of college-educated, middle classers right on the line of Gen X and Millennial. He tackles the question, without ever explicitly stating it, that we must all ask ourselves from time to time in this day and age: “How did I go from walking the stage, the world at my feet, full of conquering ambition, to this? How did I get here? Can I get back?” If life has ever dealt you a sobering, swift slap in the face, if you’ve ever asked yourself these questions, pick this one up. And if you haven’t, still pick this one up: you might need a little dose of reality. With that in mind, Carousel grabbed a well-deserved, happily-given 5 stars. *****

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Mass Market Paperback, 491 pages
Published May 1st 2014 by Penguin (first published October 8th 2013)

“We all know we die. We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.”

Wow, what a read! It’s been a little while since I’ve given a read 5 stars, so I’m feeling a bit like:

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I went into this one a little tired from the mild let-downs that some of my more recent reads have been and wanting to take a quick breather from my list of upcoming pre-release 2016 reviews. (This one was released in 2014.) I am delighted to say that this novel, The Circle by Dave Eggers, really blew me away! I felt like it’d been a while since I read a novel that actually lived up to its blurb (and more), so I was thrilled about that, not to mention wholly enamored with this world that Eggers constructed. The Circle is the new-age Animal Farm meets “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a read reminiscent of 1984 where Eggers provides a fresh mirror in which to see ourselves and our culture in a startlingly accurate light, in a kaleidoscope of scenarios that straddle the line between personal rights and rights of commerce, the greed of cultural extravagance and the effect of e-media inundation on our lives. While, at the same time, we watched Mae’s slow and complete decent into some millennial version of madness. I loved it!

First off, let me say that the lack of chapter markers was a smart play. The format threw me off balance, which kept me on my toes, a useful trick in a read like this. Or as one character put it: “I want you on your toes, off-balance, intimidated, handcuffed and willing to prostrate yourself at my command.” It also did an exhilarating job of reeling me in as a reader, making it hard for me to pull back, fully immersing me in the on-campus world through Mae’s eyes. It was like I could feel my own slow inundation with The Circle, which, of course, made the implications as they unfolded a little horrifying, the thought of this utterly realistic and culturally possible phenomenon actually happening. The completely bizarre started to become normal, sounded like it really made sense. Of course everyone should know everything! Of course we should do everything we can to keep children safe! Hmph, must be how cults are formed.

Here, Eggers offered a view of our world like Big Brother on steroids. Imbedded in the fact that the Google-like company mostly employed millennials—and that we millennials are known for our social media voraciousness and oversharing—it comes off as a totally plausible alter-universe that Mae has stumbled upon when she arrives, both to herself and to the reader. If you’re a typical millennial, read it and take pause. If you’re not—especially if you’d classify yourself a Luddite—read it and weep at this completely conceivable, totally creepy, new-age possibility.

       The Circle was comical in its realistic nature, life-like in the way that the interactions between characters were played out. Here you’ll find competition in a survival-of-the-fittest sort of way reflected in passages that unnerve while being so relatable that they’re undeniable. Here Eggers brushes up against classism, caste, struggling to belong and competition, whether healthy or not:

       “Annie still held some particular status. Again Annie’s lineage, her head start, the varied and ancient advantages she enjoyed, were keeping Mae second. Always second, like she was some kind of little sister who never had a chance of succeeding an older, always older sibling.”

Eggers pushed situations to a brink that you might be tempted to label over-the-top, but he did so in a way that was contemporary social commentary at its finest. Even Mae’s interactions with the people around her—all strange in their own way—ring hilariously true, from frustrating reprimands from the boss who’s drank too much of the company Kool-Aid to clumsy sex in a dorm (and even a cave, who hasn’t done that, right)? Mae was a realistic 24-year-old character—still bright-eyed and bushy tailed, initially worried about her student loans and her parents’ health and well-being, feeling weighed down by her responsibility as an only child, and that contributed immensely to the direction that the plot took, as we see her being stripped down to conform to a new mold. I loved watching her and being a part of her world. In fact, Eggers wrote a world that I wished I was a part of, one of the reasons that we read in the first place. He constructed a world where social media reigns supreme, where privacy is the enemy, an awesome looking glass of us all being reduced to screen-scrolling sheep.

       “Here…there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai.”

Imagine a world where e-media and all-encompassing surveillance are the prime forms of communication and interaction across the globe. It’s also how you vote, how you pay your taxes, how you shop online. Your social media profile is how the world—the government, even—sees you. You’re now living in “…the world’s first tyrannical monopoly.” That’s a scary, chilling thought that Eggers executed fluidly, with clarity and intrigue. With mounting anxiety, both on the part of the reader and the main protagonist, Mae, until…until it all seems perfectly normal. And that’s the scary part.

I knew that this one was getting 5 stars from about the mid-way point, and hoped that it wouldn’t disappoint with some hastily done bow-tie ending or weak sort of sputtering out like it was tripping over the marathon finish line. But, it did not. It held up its end of the bargain, so I’ll hold up mine: a well-deserved 5 stars. *****

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hardcover, 720 pages
Published March 10th 2015 by Doubleday

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. *****

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published June 26th 2014 by Penguin Press

“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. *****

 

 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Paperback, Penguin Classics Deluxe, 160 pages
Published October 31st 2006 by Penguin (first published 1962)

      “The least Charles could have done,” Constance said, considering seriously, “was shoot himself through the head in the driveway.”

Have you ever tiptoed down a hall in a dark house late at night, not sure if you really heard that bump in the night? That is what reading this novel was like, in all of the best ways possible. Shirley Jackson is a renowned master at the macabre, the unnerving, the Gothic genre, and this work puts her talents on full display—in HD. Most have read The Lottery, whether forced by the classically inclined high school English teacher or for the pure love of the unusual, and here you will find the same masterful foreshadowing, biting eeriness and haunting cruelties found in a small-town community. As my Grandma used to say, “You can always count on those ole’ townies to hide the most secrets, put on the most airs and turn on ya the quickest,” and Jackson, once again, highlighted those small-town characteristics in a manner that left hairs raised on the arms and resonance echoing at the finish of each chapter.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a novel about two young adult sisters, Mary Katherine and Constance, who have essentially become lepers in their small town after an incident at their family dinner table six years before that left half of their family poisoned to death, one sister on trial for murder and the other in an orphanage. The women go about their lives, hardly ever even leaving their property and being openly hated by the townspeople, kept company by their ailing, eccentric uncle who loves to talk about “what happened” and their loyal cat, until one day a cousin comes a knocking and their lives are forever changed. It slowly becomes apparent that Merricat (Mary Katherine) is not 100% mentally stable, as she believes she has voodoo-like magical powers to protect herself, her family and her home, she has fantasies about how her dead family members should have treated her before they died, and she harbors obviously sadistic and murderous feelings towards the townspeople who tease and abuse them.

“I would have liked to come into the grocery store some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick for Mrs. Donell while she lay there.”

This story had an aspect of urban legend to it, the makings of it and the effect that it has on those who hear it, who believe it. Jackson wove the tale so beautifully that I didn’t even realize how engrossed in their lives—a sign of truly good writing—I’d become until the cousin started changing the sisters’ routine and poking his nose around in that way that is uncomfortable for readers invested in the protagonists, in that way that makes your heart rate quicken just a touch. This story was a peep behind closed doors, both literally and figuratively. It was a look inside the protective bubble of recluse-ness, while simultaneously being an exploration of man’s nature to fear and hate what we do not, ourselves, understand. It was also social commentary in that delicious way that only Southern Gothicism can offer (though this novel has no clear mention of place, it is widely believed to have been set in Vermont, making it technically not Southern Gothic, though every other aspect of it is every bit that genre): it tore back the layers on the small town where everyone knows your name, on the myth of genteelism, courtesy, manners, and community that we all think of from this era of writing (Castle was originally published in 1962). What does it mean to be an outsider in a town like this, in a town where there is no degree of separation between any? In a town that needs a common enemy to unite over in gossip and violence alike? Because, you see, every bully loves a weaker kid, and there’s nothing more cruel than the mob mentality turned against a common enemy. Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t read The Lottery.

Castle was everything I’d hoped it’d be as a lover and writer of this genre. It was the macabre dressed in politesse that made you think twice—a skill extremely difficult to hone and, thus, all the more laudable when it is—the oddity of family unity and where those bonds can take you, for better or for worse; it was the sharp little dagger of lines like the one above and the what really happened there aspect of the dinner-table happening.

“It did happen. I remember that it happened…”

Eerie.

Easily five stars! *****