The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon (2018)
I have had an absolutely brilliant month of reading this month, and it kicked off with this understated and intelligently slantwise examination of a cult group named ‘Jejah’ in a fictional East Coast college town. The protagonist, Will, watches helplessly as his ex-girlfriend is drawn in by a former missionary, John Leal, a mysterious figure who drifts around campus barefoot and tells stories of dubious reliability about his past.
There is so much that is well done here, but what I enjoyed the most was the fact that we see Phoebe’s entrance into the cult from the same point of view as Will – like him, we are unable to enter fully into the world of the group. We are on the periphery, watching her disappear into it. Will’s frustration at being ‘left behind’ is echoed in the reader’s own feelings – we see glimpses of what goes on in Jejah but nothing more than that. Will himself is a slippery character, too – he lies about his lack of wealth and shape-shifts to fit in according to the people he is with. His relationship with Phoebe is not some grand love story, and the novel is stronger for it. This is confident, layered writing that manages to be both restrained and highly detailed. I look forward to reading more work by Kwon.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (2018)
I am going to find it hard to write a coherent review of this novel, because I loved it so much, but I will try. It tells the story of Ada, a girl born to a Nigerian father and a Malaysian mother, who starts life in her father’s homeland and then leaves home at sixteen to attend college in Virginia. Ada was born with gods inside her, and if that isn’t the most perfect, blisteringly fierce premise for a novel, I don’t know what is. She is an ogbanje, a spirit child who would not normally have survived childhood. The novel starts with the collective ‘we’ of the gods inside her, lyrical and almost gentle, but other voices join in: a traumatic event releases Asughara, who seeks out sexual pleasure through Ada’s body, but loves and defends her as she does so.
There is so much I enjoyed about this book, but one thing that stood out was the way that the author tackles head-on the notion that this might be a clever metaphor for mental illness. Ada herself wonders if she is mad, until she meets another character who also has a god inside her, and she realises that her experience cannot be explained in terms of schizophrenia or a similar condition. I could practically hear Emezi shouting: “No, she ACTUALLY has gods inside her!” and I loved it. This is a book that grabbed me by the heart and squeezed tight, until I began to wonder if this could be true. I wish I could read it again for the first time and experience afresh its painful, funny, modern-and-yet-ancient beauty. I will be rereading this A LOT.
Motherhood by Sheila Heti (2018)
Normally, when I hear a book described as Important with a capital letter, I tend to shy away a little. However, Heti’s book had such an impact on my thoughts for days after I finished it that I am very glad I gave it a go. In basic terms, it is a kind of auto-fiction, in which the narrator is trying to decide whether or not she wants a child. She goes on a three year journey, and the writing of the book itself becomes a crucial part of the process. She uses a form of divination involving coins, constructing a kind of Platonic questioning process where she herself provides the answers.
I had some challenges to overcome with this book: the narrator is not exactly likeable, which was a struggle for me at the beginning, but then I realised that this was actually a crucial aspect of the novel – like My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a brilliant book I read last year, the unlikeable female protagonist performs an important role in questioning our assumptions about women. As I mentioned when reviewing Moshfegh’s book, literature is chock-full of absolutely despicable men that we read about with glee – unpleasant women are far rarer. And the narrator of Motherhood isn’t exactly horrible – I just found it hard to empathise with her, and that is absolutely fine in this case. I am sure part of this is due to finding the subject matter confronting: as a mother of two, I probably have to confess that I did not give the question of whether or not to have children very much thought at all, and I suppose it reminded me of how blindly we stumble along doing what is expected of us. (Disclaimer: I do not regret having children, they are my sun, moon and stars, and may also some day read this. Love you, darlings). This was the first of two very different books I read with motherhood at their centre this month, and it is well worth the discomfort I felt at certain points.
Tin Man by Sarah Winman (2017)
In any other month of reading, this beautiful novel would have been an absolute standout. As it is, it was yet another gem in a month of gems. The first narrator, Ellis, a widower who works in a car plant in Oxford smoothing out dents, is a hugely sympathetic, well-drawn character, whose ‘what-might-have-been’ list is tragically long. Memories of his childhood friend, Michael, and his wife, Annie, form a delicate tracery around his mundane existence, ghosts weaving a gossamer pattern that is both beautiful and haunting. When the novel switches to Michael’s point of view, I was reminded at times of Makkai’s The Great Believers, though the mentions of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s are not as central here.
The relationship between Ellis, Michael and Annie emerges as a rare and gorgeous thing, tragic and tender, fragile as butterfly wings. This is a complex novel that is emotional but never overly sentimental, and I certainly want to read more from this author.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry (2018)
Yet another hit for February, this is a carefully constructed novel that uses ‘found’ texts to add extra layers to a complicated story that has the same mythic stature as Perry’s The Essex Serpent. Melmoth is doomed to wander the earth, seeking out atrocities and bearing witness to the worst actions of mankind. In modern-day Prague, Helen, a woman who denies herself life’s small pleasures as penance for past sins, is living in self-imposed exile when she comes across the story of Melmoth. The book, like Melmoth herself, wanders far and wide, from Czechoslovakia in World War II to Manila to England to Turkey.
Full of fantastic characters, gothic settings and a sense of past and present jostling for prime position, this book possibly contained one or two too many sub-narratives for me, but only because I loved each story so much I wanted to spend more time there. The sub-plot set in Turkey towards the end of the book was beautiful and moving, but by that stage I was slightly resentful about being torn away from the main narrative yet again. On the whole, though, I thoroughly recommend this book – Perry is fast becoming a firm favourite of mine.
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling (2018)
The second book this month which focuses on motherhood – it was really interesting to read this not long after reading Heti’s novel. It is quite different, having more of a conventional narrative and a more relatable, sympathetic protagonist. Daphne walks out of her job in San Francisco, takes her toddler Honey and heads off to her family’s mobile home in Northern California, drawn by an unknown longing and the scent of juniper bushes.
I have never read such a vivid and accurate (by which I mean commensurate with my own experience!) portrayal of motherhood in fiction. The way in which Kiesling uses run-on sentences and harried, breathless prose to list the endless small tasks of caring for a baby/toddler felt almost painfully real to me. The mundane, tedious nature of this phase of parenting is probably rarely depicted in fiction because it just is so dull, but here the author skillfully manages to convey its swerving highs and lows, and the tedium in between, while maintaining the pace of the story. It is quite a feat. Alongside this is ‘real life’: Daphne’s husband is stuck in Turkey because of a green card issue; there are radicals in Altavista who want to secede from California; she befriends Alice, a great character, elderly and fierce and full of stories that reveal themselves piece by piece. I just loved the way that the thread of caring for Honey is carried through every dramatic event, every plot twist and turn – it really highlights how this job of motherhood cannot be put aside, even when things seem to be falling apart. The ending was ever so slightly overdone, for me, but all in all I thought this book was brilliant.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras (2018)
This novel had me at the title. Based on events from the author’s own life, this stunningly written book relates the story of the Santiagos, a middle-class family who live in Bogota during the narco-terrorism reign of Pablo Escobar. I have to admit, I’ve had a bit of a fascination with Escobar since watching the excellent series Narcos, and it was really interesting to see the story from a completely different perspective. Escobar is a shadowy but ever-present figure who looms large in seven-year-old Chula’s imagination, and the violent events caused by his dominance shatter the family’s delicate equilibrium more than once.
The book is narrated in turns by Chula and by Petrona, the Santiago’s maid, who lives in the poverty-stricken invasiones. The story opens with Chula in the States, contemplating a photograph sent to her by Petrona, setting up the connection between these two characters. Chula is a fantastic narrator, and the author uses her childish naivety to explore the terrible events of the novel from a more innocent perspective. Petrona is given fewer, shorter chapters as a first-person narrator, and this worked really well for me – it subtly highlighted that this is Chula’s story, and that she is in some way trying to ‘give voice’ to Petrona, who cannot speak as freely. There are strong memoir-ish overtones, which reminded me at times of the excellent Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre, but Rojas Contreras is also a beautiful prose-writer, and the images, particularly those involving the ‘Drunken Tree’ itself, are poetic and tinged with just a gilding of magical realism in this very realistic story.
It has been the most wonderful month of reading, and I hope I’ve managed to convey how much I have enjoyed all of these books. Do let me know if you have read or plan to read any of them in the comments, and of course, reading recommendations are always welcome!