Category Archives: General Fiction

Bestiary

Surreal novel about a Taiwanese family in the USA

Content warning: family violence, child abuse, racism

I first saw this debut novel being promoted on Twitter back in 2020 when author events were being cancelled left, right and centre. Now that we are starting to resume some in-person events here in Australia, I was very keen to go back to Asia Bookroom’s Book Group. Members can nominate books and volunteer to lead the discussion and I proposed this book. Unfortunately I missed the previous meeting but I was excited to prepare to present the book and facilitate a discussion. There is a lot going on in this book, so I will adapt my presentation to inform the review below to highlight some of the many themes and stylistic choices as well as to share my own thoughts.

Image is of “Bestiary” by K-Ming Chang. The paperback book is resting on muddy ground next a navy blue shovel. The cover is of a yellow stylised tiger that appears to be battling a garden hose that looks like a snake gaainst a navy backdrop with a moon and leaves.

“Bestiary” by K-Ming Chang is about three generations of women in a family: Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. Grandmother moved from Taiwan to Arkansas, USA with her second husband and two youngest daughters (including Mother), leaving her three eldest daughters behind. Years later, Mother has her own children including Daughter and her brother. The book goes back and forth between perspectives and stories of the three, linking them together with their shared history, shared heritage and shared experience as migrants in America. After becoming obsessed with digging holes in her backyard, Daughter begins to receive letters from the ground written by Grandmother to each of her daughters, sharing stories about their family history and revealing what happened to her four aunties.

This is a rich and complex book that is surprising and original at every turn. The book is divided up into chapters, each told from either Grandmother’s, Mother’s and Daughter’s perspective. Some of Grandmother’s chapters are told in the form of translated letters, with annotations by Daughter and her girlfriend Ben. There are parables, poetry, family histories and first person accounts all drawing on oral storytelling traditions and leaning into extreme subjectivity bordering on unreliable narration. I really felt that this book transcended what we would usually consider ‘magic realism’ and arrived squarely in surrealism. Chang certainly drew on plenty of examples of mythology and brought them to life in a literal way. I felt that the style and the structure were both chaotic in a complimentary way, and both served to highlight and obscure what was happening with the family. 

I think one of my favourite parts of the book was Daughter and Ben’s relationship, and how parallels are drawn between that and Grandmother’s Grandfather (the pirate and his lover) and even Grandmother. I really liked how mythology and queerness are woven together, especially with children being created from queer love in quite fantastical ways. Chang said of writing queer relationships in her interview with LitHub

they are transformed by each other, that they are literally alchemizing each other. I wanted their desire to feel fully embodied and sometimes even mythic, world-defining, almost supernatural, completely defying any definitions of what’s real or possible. Everything they want is possible. Their relationship felt like pure potential to me—while I was writing Ben in particular, there was this sense of rebellion and irreverence and redefining the rules she’s been given. Their desire is literally magic, and I wanted to channel that hunger. It felt so liberating to write them into the past and the future, to write them in a way that felt boundless.

I think one of the most striking (and honestly quite shocking) things about this book was the role bodily functions played in the story-telling. In addition to her characters frequently creating water (by spitting and urinating) like they enter water (lakes, rivers, the sea), Chang also writes a lot about digesting. The holes that Daughter and her brother dig in the yard consume offerings and vomit up letters from Grandmother. In an interview with the Rumpus, Chang says that she grew up talking openly about bodily functions and that she likes to balance the beautiful with the grotesque. She said something interesting about deciding what is clean and unclean is often a question of class. She also talked about how stories are told through the mouth, and so too is everything processed by the body. Stylistically, the way Chang engaged with bodily functions reminded me a lot of “The English Class” by Ouyang Yu, which was the first Asia Bookroom Book Group I attended.

Family violence is a significant part of the book and hand-in-hand with this is abandonment. In many ways the family is fractured and at times there are even threats with knives and thoughts of how to best defend oneself from violent family members. I think family violence ties very closely with the intergenerational trauma experienced by the family, not just because of the war and the occupation of Taiwan (set out with far more clarity in “Green Island“!) but also as immigrants in the USA. There were some very compelling moments of Mother and Daughter experiencing racism in schools. I also wondered if the surrealism style was a way to cope with some of the things that happened; treating trauma “irreverently” (like Chang says in an interview) and focusing on seemingly trivial things rather than the bigger, more traumatic memories. 

As you may have extrapolated, this was not an easy book to read. As a reader, you have to put in a lot of time and thought into understanding this book and the things Chang is trying to convey. There are so many layers of metaphor, parable and surrealism that at times it is hard to know what should be taken literally and what should be taken with a grain of salt.

A challenging and at times confusing book full of colourful stories interlaced with beautiful poetic writing.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism

Siracusa

Thriller about marriage and infidelity on an Italian holiday

Content warning: child grooming

After recently moving house, it has come to my attention that my to-read pile is too big. In my heart, I already knew this, but in unpacking and repacking my shelves I have had to face the reality of the situation. In 2020 I had a go at The Quiet Pond’s #StartOnYourShelfathon challenge and managed to get through 21 books languishing on my shelf (which was over a quarter of my books read for the year). This year, I’m trying a new challenge: The Mount TBR Reading Challenge. I am not doing very well so far! It has been a busy and challenging year so far but I have finally had a bit of time to try to get back in the swing of reading. I was looking for some inspiration to help me choose my next book and this book caught my eye after reading about the Siracusa Principles recently for work. I can’t quite remember where this book came from (perhaps an ARC from Harry Hartog?) but it will hopefully be the first of many form my to-read list.

Image is of “Siracusa” by Delia Ephron. The paperback book is resting on a wooden board next to a selection of antipasti including olives, mushrooms, artichokes, bocconcini and stuffed capsicum. Behind the board a wine glass rests on its side with the dregs of red wine still inside.

“Siracusa” by Delia Ephron is a thriller novel about two couples who decide to holiday together in Italy. When Journalist Lizzie and renowned writer Michael find out their friends Finn, Taylor and their daughter Snow are going to be in Europe at the same time, they organise a trip together in Siracusa, Italy. However, as the book progresses it becomes clear that the trip may not have been as innocent as it initially seemed.

This novel was told from the perspective of each of the adult characters, with Lizzie, Michael, Finn and Taylor each offering their take and thoughts on the events of the trip. Ephron is a clear writer and draws on the seascape and architecture of the city to underpin the growing tension in the novel between and among the two couples. Although she didn’t get any point-of-view chapters, by far the most compelling character is Snow. There seems to be an inexplicable discrepancy between how the characters talk about her and the things that she does and this, I believe, is the most interesting thing about the book.

However, ultimately I felt the book frustrating and hard to finish. All four characters are inherently unlikeable, and it is a strange position to be in when you find yourself spitefully hoping that characters cheat on each other. I’m not sure the structure of four points of view worked; even though it is a relatively short book, the chapters seemed to drag the same dirt over and over. I also didn’t find the voices distinct enough from one another to be truly compelling or to provide unique insight into the ill-fated trip. There was something quite uncomfortable about the way Michael and 10-year-old Snow interacted with each other. While all the characters applaud Michael for the “special attention” that he gives to Snow, the way their discussions are described (including, at one point, as a “flirtation”) just felt ick to be honest.

A novel with plenty of the pieces of a compelling story but perhaps not the right.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Bunny

Literary body horror novel about women at university

Content warning: bullying, sex slavery, horror

Ages ago I requested this book on Netgalley not because I love rabbits, but because the description was really intriguing. Unfortunately it was in my early days of the platform and I didn’t realise you had to download books within a certain timeframe and I didn’t get a chance to read and review it. However, I have remained intrigued by this book ever since and eventually I caved and bought a copy for my Kobo.

Image is of “Bunny” by Mona Awad. The eBook cover is orange-red with a monochrome photograph of the back of a rabbit. The ears are pointed towards the reader.

“Bunny” by Mona Awad is a literary body horror novel about a young woman called Samantha Mackey who has won a prestigious scholarship to study creative writing at Warren University in New England, USA. There are four other students in the cohort, a clique who call each other ‘Bunny’ as a term of endearment. She and her only friend Ava privately make fun of the Bunnies, and Samantha has even come up with a special nickname for each: Cupcake, Creepy Doll, Vignette and the Duchess. However, one day the Bunnies invite Samantha to their Smut Salon, and slowly and seemingly despite her better judgment, Samantha is brought into the fold. With Ava all but forgotten, the Bunnies show her how they really use their creativity and Samantha has to decide where she draws the line.

This was an incredibly refreshing book and I am so glad that I went and bought a copy. Awad wrote with an exquisitely twisted clarity, shifting tones easily between Samantha before the Bunnies and Samantha after. Warren University is like an parallel universe where everything is a little darker, a little more dangerous and a little more possible. A big theme of this book is loneliness and isolation, and Samantha’s difficulty connecting with people was cleverly written. The characters are erudite and mysterious, and Awad seamlessly weaves in modern social issues into their conversations. There was a lot of interesting commentary about university culture, and the banality of academic privilege juxtaposed against the surreal events of the book was, in my view, far more captivating than other books set in universities I’ve read recently. There is an excellent twist to this book and I won’t spoil it by saying anything more, but while I had some guesses, I did not come close to appreciating the full story. I also really enjoyed Awad’s commitment to the rabbit theme with subtle references throughout the book.

There was only one very minor thing about this book that I found a bit difficult and that was keeping track of the Bunnies themselves. Of the four Bunnies Creepy Doll (Kira) was probably the most distinct, and while I appreciate that they were supposed to be a bit of an amorphous blur, it was a bit hard at times to tell who was who.

I honestly was so inspired by this book that I went and made a playlist to try to capture its very particular atmosphere. This book has such a unique flavour, it really got under my skin and I am so glad I went out of my way to buy it.

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Song of the Crocodile

Spiritual historical fiction novel about multiple generations of an Aboriginal family

Content warning: racism, segregation, sexual assault

I heard about this book when it was first published in 2020, and it was longlisted for the Stella Prize and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (Indigenous Writing) and the Indie Book Awards (Debut Fiction). I picked up a copy some time back from the National Library of Australia and I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a while.

Image is of “Song of the Crocodile” by Nardi Simpson. The paperback book is standing on an ironing board between a stack of folded clothing on the left and an iron on the right. The cover is of a dead gumtree standing in the middle of a grassy plain with a sunset behind that turns into a starry sky.

“Song of the Crocodile” by Nardi Simpson is a historical fiction novel interwoven with spirituality. The story opens with Margaret, an Aboriginal woman who works at a hospital in a country town called Darmoor laundry for pay and caring for otherwise neglected Aboriginal patients for free. When she loses her job through injustice, it is but one of a long series of injustices that are inflicted upon her family directly and indirectly by the white settlers of Darnmoor including her daughter Celie, her granddaughter Mili and her great-grandsons Paddy and Yarrie. Meanwhile, a sinister and ancient force lurks beneath the town, emboldened by plans to change the course of one of the town’s rivers. It is up to Jakybird, a songman created from a piece of his mother’s hair, to gather together spirits and ancestors to sing the monster Garriya back to where it came from.

This is a beautiful and complex novel that explores the bonds of family, and the violence of colonialism, from every angle. Simpson’s strength is character development and she excels at depicting the irreparable and cumulative damage inflicted upon each generation of the family by white supremacy. The characters themselves were very interesting, and I enjoyed the earthiness of Celie, the otherworldliness of Mili with her reflective eyes and the pain and self-hatred of Paddy counterbalanced by the love of his brother Yarrie. Simpson honours traditional storytelling and it is through Jakybird and the duty he is charged with that we try to make sense of the ongoing and evolving harm perpetuated by colonialism.

A challenging book full of heart and truth-telling and one that stayed with me for quite some time after I finished it.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magic Realism

Burnt Out

Contemporary fiction about bushfires and unexpected fame

I received a copy of this courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “Burnt Out” by Victoria Brookman. The eBook cover is sky blue with a hand holding a match that has a woman’s face wearing sunglasses in the flame.

“Burnt Out” by Victoria Brookman is a novel about a young woman called Cali who is on the brink. She is on the brink of losing her marriage, losing her publisher, losing her cat and losing her home to bushfires. When disaster strikes, Cali’s impassioned plea to the government to take action against climate change goes viral and she finds herself offered the chance of a lifetime: a writer’s retreat at a billionaire’s pool house right on Sydney Harbour. Her patron Arlo is as handsome as he is wealthy, and with a brand new book idea, it seems as though Cali has landed on her feet. However, soon her situation begins to feel like a gilded cage and Cali begins to second-guess her creative decisions and long for for the peace and friendship she left behind in the Blue Mountains.

I obviously did not read the description of this book closely enough because when I first started reading it, I thought it was a non-fiction book about burnout, chronic work-related stress that I can definitely relate to. I was, therefore, a bit surprised to find that it was a general fiction novel with a touch of romance. I went to the Blue Mountains last year to support my husband run an ultramarathon, and the year before to stay with a friend, and I thought that Brookman wrote beautifully and convincingly about the terror of having a bushfire at your doorstep. When I went to visit in winter 2020, it was pretty shocking seeing how close the fires got to my friend’s house and the slightly monstrous sight of gumtrees furred with new leaf growth all over their trunks and branches. I felt that Brookman really captured the altitude and the culture of the Blue Mountains and the juxtaposition between the alpine region and the city of Sydney so nearby.

Image is of a burnt gumtree stump that has new growth with trees in the background furred with leaves all over their branches.

However, this book didn’t have the hot romance of “The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” with its equally unrealistic creative opportunities or or the deep contemplation of “Hare’s Fur” also set in the Blue Mountains. While there were moments in the book that were powerful, I found myself frustrated with Cali’s character. I felt that she made some ethical decisions that I was just not on board with, and her slight guilt wasn’t enough to dissuade her and there ultimately were no consequences for her actions. My favourite character in the book was Cali’s neighbour Spike, but he really got the short end of the stick in my opinion and was way too cool about it. In fact, several of the people within Cali’s orbit got the short end of the stick except for Cali’s whose main talent appeared to be ranting about climate change (without any qualifications whatsoever) after being plied with a couple of glasses of champagne.

An easy to read novel centred on the hard-hitting topic of bushfires and climate change, but that was lacking the kind of morality and characters that I was hoping for.

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Where the Crawdads Sing

Novel about social isolation and finding your place

Content warning: child neglect, family violence, sexual violence

This book had generated quite a bit of hype following its release and I had a few people recommend it to me. The audiobook met my parameters (not too long) and after making a deal with my husband last year to go running 3 times a week, I have had plenty of opportunity to listen to audiobooks. Around the time I bought this audiobook, I stumbled across this rather damning 2019 article that (in addition to containing spoilers about the book) revisits some historic claims about the author’s ex-husband and his son while working as conservationists in Africa.

Image is of “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. The audiobook cover is of a person paddling a kayak on water between two dark trees below a big, apricot sky.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens and narrated by Cassandra Campbell is a historical novel about a young girl called Kya who grows up in marshlands in North Carolina in the 1950s. The novel alternates between Kya’s early life and a murder investigation nearly 20 years later. When she is 6 years old, Kya’s mother leaves her and her siblings to the care of her abusive father. One by one her siblings leave, until it is just Kya and her old man together in the shack on the edge of the marsh. For a time, the two of them begin to form a bond and her father quits drinking and takes an interest in teaching her how to fish in his boat. However, when a letter arrives that illiterate Kya is unable to read, things change for the worse and soon Kya is all alone in the marsh. As the years pass, her few interactions with the people of the nearby town Barkley Cove are cruel and exclusionary, and soon she realises that she can only rely on herself. However, when her brother’s old friend Tate strikes up a friendship with her, she is unsure whether she will be able to open her heart and trust someone again. Meanwhile, in the late 1960s, local police investigate the suspected murder of local star footballer Chase.

This is a compelling book full of the pain and loneliness of a young girl abandoned by her family, and the delicate hope she has that someone might be able to love her. Kya’s repeated rejection by her parents, her siblings, her town and her lovers is heartrending. Owens counteracts Kya’s extreme isolation with the solace she draws from the natural environment around her and the very few friendships she cultivates among the locals. I’m not sure if there is a word for nostalgia for something you’ve never experienced (if there is, please comment!) but there is something quite compelling to me reading about natural sciences in the mid-20th century. I think perhaps the romanticism of going to remote places to observe the world around you and contribute to the knowledge of humanity. Anyway, Owens certainly captures the salve the wilderness can be to the modern world. I also really enjoyed Campbell’s narration. There were elements of her style that actually reminded me of Moira Rose from the TV series “Schitt’s Creek“; something about the vowels and the clipped enunciation.

However, there were a lot of elements of this book that I found either trite or unrealistic. One of them was Kya learning to read. I think having read books like “A Fortunate Life“, and reading the far more realistic depiction of illiteracy in “Unsettled Ground“, I wasn’t quite sold on Kya taking to reading and writing so quickly being taught by Tate. Absolutely people can improve and gain literacy as teenagers and adults, but it is not the breeze that Owens makes it out to be and I cannot recommend enough the SBS TV series “Lost for Words“. I also found the murder mystery/court trial portion of the book far less engaging than Kya’s experiences growing up, and I found myself tuning out until the story jumped back in time. I also wasn’t sure about the Jumpin’ narrative arc: Kya’s friendship with the African-American owner of a petrol store (gas station for American readers). It just felt very tropey to me, and like a lot of these types of stories, Jumpin’ seemed to just be there as a plot device to solve problems for Kya in a very one-sided friendship.

A listenable story with lots of points of interest, but with some parts that were either dull, questionable or both.

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Sula

Literary novella about friendship between two African American girls

Content warning: encouraging suicide, trauma

At the end of last year, I was deep into my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this book was in my pile. I can’t quite work out where it came from. A second-hand bookstore? The Lifeline Book Fair? Borrowed? It doesn’t have any prices on it to give any hints. I’m wondering if perhaps it just arrived in my street library one day. Anyway, I have read a few books by this author, and this one won the 1993 Novel Prize for Literature, so I was keen to check it out.

Image is of "Sula" by Toni Morrison. The paperback book is resting against perforated metal behind a charred piece of wood. The cover is white with a handful of red fabric petals and a pair of scissors.

“Sula” by Toni Morrison is a novella about two African American girls called Sula and Nel who grow up together in a poor black neighbourhood called The Bottom in Ohio, USA. Although inseparable, Sula and Nel have vastly different home lives. Sula lives with her sensual mother Hannah and magnetic grandmother Eva, with a stream of men, boarders and children coming through the house. Nel, on the other hand, has a much more straight-laced upbringing with her mother Helene who was in turn raised by her strict Catholic grandmother. The book starts in 1919 with each chapter a subsequent year, with sometimes one year passing and sometimes several, until 1965.

This is a deeply complex and at times almost surreal book with incredibly strong feminist themes. Morrison explores the intense and fraught relationships that develop between mothers and daughters, between grandmothers and granddaughters and between friends. I really liked how she tested the different types of love with betrayals, resentments and blame on both sides. Sula and Nel’s different approaches to men and relationships proves almost fatal to their friendship and it takes time and understanding before what was lost can even begin to be reconciled. The book has an interesting perspective because despite being set in America and The Bottom developing as a community in the wake of emancipation, the only mention of white America is at the very beginning of the story. Morrison provides some historical context to the segregated community and opens the novella by describing plans to turn the neighbourhood into a golf course.

I found that Eva and Shadrack were the two most fascinating characters, and despite their respective disabilities and trauma serve as the truthtellers of this story. A provocative character with lapses of indecency and his introduction of National Suicide Day which encourages rather than prevents suicide, WWI veteren Shadrack is nevertheless tolerated and accepted by The Bottom. He provides an interesting counterpoint to the main story as well as a unique lens through which to observe Sula who later becomes a similar type of outcast. Eva also appears to see right through Sula and Nel, and despite her own very idiosyncratic life and questionable decisions, passes easy on those around her. She is especially scathing of bystander apathy and those who “watch”. She proves that on the other hand, there is nothing she isn’t willing to do for herself, her home and her children – even if her ethics appear somewhat misguided.

An intricate novella with some very unique characters that still feels fresh nearly 40 years after publication.

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Desperate Spring

Novel about Algerian women navigating life in a newly liberated nation

Content warning: suicide, family violence, sexual harassment, gender inequality, miscarriage, mental illness

I picked up this book at a Lifeline Book Fair some time back. I always like to browse the world literature section because it’s an ongoing goal of mine to read books by authors all around the world. This is the first book I’ve read by an Algerian author. As I was choosing books from my shelf last year for my Short Stack Reading Challenge, this one caught my eye and into the pile it went.

Image is of "Desperate Spring" by Fettouma Touati and translated by Ros Schwartz. The paperback book is resting behind a navy and white scarf. There is a very small blue and white tajine in the foreground. The cover is of a troubled looking young woman sitting at an outside table drinking coffee in a busy urban environment.

“Desperate Spring” by Fettouma Touati and translated by Ros Schwartz is about a number of Algerian women from different generations all connected by family and marriage. In the wake of the Algerian war of liberation, the traumas of past conflict and the tensions of the present create a challenging time for young women who must navigate traditional social values and their ambitions for education and independence. Faced with the choice between pursuing education and the cost of social acceptance, or accepting a marriage proposal and sacrificing independence and in many cases physical safety, the story follows the lives of these young women and how gender inequality undermines all their decisions.

This was a fascinating and heart-breaking book about a difficult era. I really liked Touati’s use of different sisters and cousins to explore and compare the consequences of their choices. When the opportunity arises for Fatiha to pursue further education, she eagerly seizes it, ignoring the pushback from her family in an attempt to distance herself from the horror inflicted by her traumatised father. However, she finds herself adrift and alone in a society not yet ready for independent women and unable to escape the pain of her past. Her cousin Yasmina also doggedly pursues her dreams of becoming a doctor, but her more stable upbringing and concession to tradition creates space for a little more happiness than her cousin. Yasmin’s sister Fatma, after completing some education, decides to marry rather than continuing her studies but her seemingly gentle young husband proves to be as entitled and violent as many other young men. Their cousin Malika, who grew up in Europe with more social freedom but with an extremely controlling mother, struggles to find her place in the world but is bolstered by the connection she makes with her cousins back in Algeria.

An intricate and unflinching book, and although in many ways it filled me with sadness and empathy for these women in impossible situations, this was an excellent introduction to Algerian literature.

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Buxton Spice

Coming of age novella set in Guyana

Content warning: sexual assault, gender violence, family violence

I must have picked up a copy of this book from the Lifeline Book Fair some time back. I love to look at the different books in the literature section and see if I can find books from other countries, and this one clearly caught my eye because of the vibrant cover. I picked it out to read for my Short Stack Reading Challenge in December.

Image is of “Buxton Spice” by Oonya Kempadoo. The paperback book is balancing on a plum tree branch overhanging a brown corrugated fence. The branch has several reddish plums that are almost ripe and there is a large praying mantis next to them. The cover is of a very magnified yellow and red hibiscus flower.

“Buxton Spice” by Oonya Kempadoo is a bildungsroman about Lula, a young girl who lives in a fictional town called Tamarind Grove in Guyana. She and her friends play innocently among the trees, along the river and in the rooms in her family’s sprawling house. However, on the cusp of puberty they are becoming more aware of their sexuality and, at the same time, more aware of the political tensions in their racially diverse town and the types of violence women face in Tamarind Grove.

This was a very readable book and I loved how Kempadoo wove through Guyanese Creole in such a fluid and evocative way. Lula and her friends were a clever lens through with to observe Guyana’s post-independence era in the 1970s. As the book progresses, Lula becomes more and more aware of the ethnic differences between her family and others and Tamarind Grove and her father’s leftist leanings and progressive, vegetarian lifestyle become more and more dangerous. I also thought that Kempadoo explored class in a really interesting way and how it intersected with race and religion. There were some very provocative scenes in this book, and the author finds a captivating balance between illuminating violence and maintaining the Lula’s inherent playfulness.

A lively and spirited story that was as educational as it was enjoyable to read.

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Love & Virtue

Novel about friendship, sex and betrayal living in a university residential college

Content warning: sexual violence, relationship power imbalance, possible suicide

I have been doing significantly more running recently, so I have been getting through audiobooks a little more quickly than usual. I have seen this book being recommended and when I saw it was available as an audiobook, I got a copy without even finding out what it was about.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “Love & Virtue” by Diana Reid. The cover is of a two-headed pink and red dove, designed like a crest, against a forest green background. The dove has a sword and six love hearts on its chest, and above the heads floats a pink love heart with an eye in the centre.

“Love & Virtue” by Diana Reid and narrated by Emma Leonard is a novel set in a university residential college in Sydney. Scholarship student Michaela arrives in Sydney for her first year of university to live at the women-only Fairfax College. From Canberra, Michaela is a little set apart from her much wealthier friends from Sydney private schools. However, she throws herself into O-Week and campus drinking culture and soon makes friends with confident and opinionated Eve who lives in the room next door. They party together and have deep conversations about things like philosophy, misogyny and privilege. However, when their friendship is shattered by betrayals on both sides, Michaela finds herself having to reckon with the events of the past year and the harsh reality of campus life.

This is a fresh and authentic exposé of what it is like in the microcosm of a residential college in prestigious Australian university. Nearly 15 years ago I moved into a residential college myself and I was surprised at how much of the ritual and culture (except, of course, the ubiquitousness of social media now) still rings true. Drawing on her own experiences as a recent graduate, Reid’s story realistically explores the brittle friendships that form in these environments and the competitiveness and elitism among students. Toxic cultures on university campuses has been increasingly the subject of media storms with my alma mater (an elitist term right there) no exception. In her book, Reid explores the events that lead up to Fairfax’s own media storm and how the stripping of Michaela’s agency is almost worse than the trauma she can barely remember. The reader is asked to consider the morality of writing and publishing a story that is not your own, and the inevitable loss of control associated with either remaining anonymous or coming forward in a #MeToo moment.

At the same time, Reid explores the taboo of a student/professor relationship; slowly wearing away the gloss and power of an older man until what is left is just a man, banal in his mediocrity. I liked that Michaela was not a perfect character. She makes some ethically questionable decisions herself in both her studies and her relationship, and Reid captures the complexity of an 18 year old oscillating between extreme youth and mature intelligence very well. Leonard’s narration initially had a bit of a newsreader vibe to it but after only a chapter or two she found her stride and I found her very compelling with a bit of wry humour to her voice.

While I related a lot to Michaela’s shock of an essay mark in the 60s after coming from high school, I didn’t find the parts of the book about her studies, her quest for constructive feedback and her conversations about philosophy with other characters as interesting. I completely understand that the author was drawing on her own studies, but whereas the conversations with Eve about privilege were dissected internally by Michaela as either extremely insightful or downright hypocritical, the musings on philosophy did not really serve to move the plot or character development in the same way and felt more contrived. I found myself tuning out during Michaela’s conversations with the professor, and while her early conversations admitting her ignorance were believable, her intellectual sparring only a matter of weeks or months later seemed less so.

I think the pacing was not quite there either. Michaela puts an enormous amount of significance on a handful of individual events and courses, and seems to have an equally enormous amount of spare time where not a great deal was happening. I felt like either the sense that university is a blur of classes, working, studying, partying and meeting people could have been better captured, or a lot of the long conversations that weren’t contributing much to the overall plot could have been cut back.

I am enjoying reading books about ambition at all costs, and I thought that this book captured modern campus culture, what it means to be a victim and the spectrum of privilege well.

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