Category Archives: General Fiction

The Bell Jar

Classic literature about a young woman living with depression

Content warning: mental illness, depression, suicide

This is a book that really doesn’t need an introduction. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain where I found my copy. It has no price on it. It’s a 2005 edition so the pages are starting to yellow a little but it’s in good condition. Maybe I found it in my street library, or someone else’s. I’ve had it sitting on my to-read shelf for a long time and, look, I’m not going to lie, I picked it up and put it down a few times, but eventually I managed to settle into it.

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The backdrop of this photo is from Issue 1 of Lost Magazine, unfortunately no longer in print. The photographer of the model is Simon Tubey.

“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath is a novel about Esther, a university student in her late teens who wins a prestigious summer internship in New York with a group of eleven other young women. From a lower middle-class family in Boston, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime for Esther. However, up close, the lifestyle isn’t as glamorous as she anticipated. When her run of winning scholarships and opportunities suddenly runs dry, Esther’s mental state plummets and after attempting suicide she is admitted to a psychiatric ward.

It’s difficult to read this book entirely as fiction given that Plath herself died after committing suicide shortly after its publication. It is beautifully written and over 50 years after publication is still refreshing in its frankness. There is a brilliant scene early in the book where after attending a very fancy function, the entire contingent falls ill with food poisoning. It sounds a bit trite to say, but this book reads like it must have been far ahead of its time. Plath is scathing about how meaningless the work at the magazine is, and depicts the way Esther’s cynicism begins to bleed into everything and how she fails to find meaning in her life in nothing short of a brilliant way. I also thought that Plath’s description of life in a psychiatric ward, and the experimental and harmful treatments from the time that Esther is put through, was both horrifying and very well done.

When reading books that were written long ago, I always get the strange feeling that nothing and everything is different. There were certainly plenty of observations that Plath made about sex, sexism, the commodification of beauty and class that still hold true today. However, one of the most difficult things about reading older books is seeing the way that race – even indirectly – was handled. There are quite a few instances where Esther compares her own appearance unfavourably towards people of different ethnicities or describes a person of colour’s appearance in a stereotyped way, and honestly, it is jarring when it happens. I also wasn’t super happy with how Joan, Esther’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend who is also a lesbian, was handled. And yes, yes, I know that people are a product of their times, but that doesn’t make people intrinsically right and ideas and attitudes, no matter how reflective of the time they were expressed in, can never be immune to criticism.

This is a short, sharp novel that is an illuminating snapshot of the time and still, to this day, has a lot to say about mental health, gender equality and class. It is difficult to separate the book from the author’s own life, but it does stand on its own and remains a cutting and raw exposé of life as a young woman struggling with mental illness and straddling a class divide.

 

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The Strawberry Thief

Fourth installment in the “Chocolat” series

Warning: this review contains spoilers for “Chocolat”, “The Lollypop Shoes” and “Peaches for Monsieur le Curé”

I’m an enormous Joanne Harris fan, and I’ve been reading her books since I came across one in a house my family stayed at in the south of France when I was a teenager. I loved the first book in this series, and it was probably one of my earliest forays into magic realism. As more books in the series have been released sporadically over the years, I’ve religiously bought and read them. I didn’t think there was going to be another one, but as soon as I saw that there was, I rushed to the bookstore to buy it. Unfortunately, I was a couple of days to soon for the release date, so I tried again a few days later and secured myself a copy.

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“The Strawberry Thief” by Joanne Harris is the fourth installment in the “Chocolat” series. In this book, Vianne Rocher is back living in the French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Although she is back working in a chocolate shop, Vianne is going through a transition phase. Her daughter Anouk has moved away to Paris to live with her boyfriend, her other daughter Rosette, isolated by her disability, is spending more and more time alone and Roux seems to be pulling away from her. When a tattoo artist called Morgane moves into the shop across the way, Vianne fears that someone else has come to try to steal her daughters away from her. However, when Rosette inherits a piece of land, the community is thrown into a spin and the unlikely person left to solve the mystery of the recently deceased Narcisse is the local priest Raynaud.

Harris is an exquisite writer, and I love how this series has grown over time. When “Chocolat” was first published, Vianne was strong, feisty and idealistic. She blew into Lansquenet on a wild wind with Anouk with big plans. As time goes on, and she has a daughter with a disability, Vianne changes. She becomes more concerned with fitting in, with being accepted, and somewhere along the line she changes from being a mysterious witch to a small business owner. Even though she loves her daughters more than anything, she is starting to grieve their transition into adulthood and is finding it hard to imagine her life without them. Vianne also experiences a lot of guilt as a mother of a child with disability.  I thought that Harris really captured Vianne’s point of view in a way that would resonate with a lot of people.

This book is also really the first book that has shown Rosette’s perspective as a person with disability. Rosette has cri du chat syndrome, and because of her appearance and difficulties with verbal speech, she struggles to find acceptance. I felt that Harris did a really good job of balancing Rosette’s inner voice with her outer voice, and how she goes through the motions of trying to find her own independent life.

I think that the one thing that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with was the way that Harris connected magic with Rosette’s disability. Without giving too much away, there is a part in the book that suggests that Rosette’s disability is caused by some kind of cantrip and that if the spell can be broken, her disability will, if not cured, be significantly reduced. I completely see what Harris was trying to do and tie in the themes of the series together with the realities of living with and parenting someone with a disability. I think that despite the way Harris approached the rest of the book, it was this part that suggested that Rosette’s problem was her difficulties in communicating, and not the failure of her community to adapt, make adjustments and include her.

This series has changed over time, but at its heart it is a series about motherhood. Harris is a flexible and beautiful writer and each book grows and explores new issues as society grows. This is a perfect pick-me-up over a cup of hot chocolate.

 

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Swing Time

Novel about race, class and fame

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog, and gosh did I take a long time to get around to reading it. I’m not quite sure why, but I picked it up from my to-read pile, thumbed through a page or two, the put it back down more times than I can count. By the time I did read it, it was well past the publication date.

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“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is a novel about an unnamed biracial narrator who grows up in a London housing estate with her mother, who has Jamaican heritage, and her white father. Obsessed with black and white dance musicals, the narrator takes lessons at a community dance class where she meets another biracial girl called Tracey. Despite living in the same disadvantaged area, the narrator’s autodidact mother is scornful of Tracey, her white mother and her absent father. Nevertheless, Tracey and the narrator become fast friends, united by location and a love for dance (although Tracey is far more talented). As the narrator grows up, she gradually loses touch with Tracey and eventually becomes the personal assistant for a white, narcissistic pop star called Aimee. When Aimee decides on a whim to build a school in a West African country, the narrator is the one left to implement the plan. Although growing up black and disadvantaged by British standards, the narrator is initially unprepared for life in West Africa, and struggles to connect with the people that they are trying to help. As time goes on, the narrator’s relationship with her parents, Aimee and Tracey begin to bleed together and become more and more fraught.

This is a complex and ambitious book that tackles issues of race, class, fame and identity. Smith is clever not to ever name the narrator, because I think one of the overwhelming themes in this book is how much she lives her own life and how much is spent in the shadow of Tracey, Aimee and her own mother. Smith effectively uses the contrast between the housing estate and the West African village to explore the extremes of living as a biracial person. I also thought that she brought a unique perspective to what life must be like working for a famous person, and how mercurial a lifestyle that must be. Smith is a strong writer and it is certainly a readable book.

There is no question that Smith covers a range of interesting issues in her book, but I think that as a whole, this book was missing a uniting factor. I get that part of the narrator’s problem is that she is a bit lacking in personality and relies on anchoring to other people to help propel her through life. However, where the narrator should have been the one connecting the experiences of being a friend, a personal assistant and a daughter, she ultimately just wasn’t engaging enough as a character to bring the whole story together. I think if the story had been just about having a troubled best friend, or just an overbearing mother, or just a egocentric boss – it might have been able to firm up and tease out the narrative a bit more. However, as it is, the narrator just feels a bit like a leaf in the breeze and just a little too complacent about where her life goes to be able to find any meaning.

A well-written book that tackles a lot of interesting issues that ultimately doesn’t have the connecting factor to propel the story.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Scottish novel about routine, denial and coping when it all crumbles

Content warning: trauma, childhood trauma, mental illness, substance abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman is an eponymous novel about Eleanor, a 29 year old woman who lives her life completely by routine. Every week she works in her administrative job, reads the newspaper, completes the crossword, listens to public broadcasting, watches television and drinks two bottles of vodka over the weekend. Eleanor has no friends, no family and no social interaction aside from unsolicited marketing calls and jokes at her expense by colleagues. Eleanor tells herself that everything is completely fine, but when she develops a crush on a musician, and inadvertently opens herself to the possibility of change, she may not be ready for everything else that comes flooding in.

This is an extremely readable book. In a style not dissimilar to Graeme Simsion, Honeyman has a real knack for dramatic irony. I’m always very impressed with authors that manage to carry this off, because let’s be honest – it’s always a smug feeling when you feel smarter (or in this case more socially adept) than the character you are reading about. Eleanor’s bumbling is particularly endearing, but I think that Honeyman importantly gets the balance right by allowing for enough character development and conflict so that the story is not just a series of cringeworthy exchanges. I also really enjoyed how she took really mundane, everyday things and made them new with Eleanor’s unique perspective.

A criticism I have made about many, many, many books I have read is the use of trauma, especially childhood trauma, as a plot device – but I’m going to make it in a slightly different way for this book. I feel like a lot of novels use the idea of repressed memories as a means for exploring difficult issues such as childhood trauma. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m a psychologist and give a commentary on the controversy around the idea of repressed memories. However, I do want to note that for an unacceptably high number of people, trauma is something they have to live with everyday. There are already far too many barriers to people disclosing traumatic events as it is, let alone the phenomena of repressed memories, and I think that I’d like to see authors explore some of those issues instead.

However, unlike another book I read, I did really appreciate that Honeyman emphasised the importance of counselling and social support in recovery, and I felt that she did a really good job of depicting Eleanor in crisis.

A well-written, enjoyable read that emphasises the importance of human connection.

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Sweet Bitter Cane

Italian-Australian family saga

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Sweet Bitter Cane” by G S Johnson is a family saga about a young woman called Amelia who, after a wedding with a stand-in for the groom in Italy, moves to Queensland to meet her new husband Italo and support him in growing sugarcane. Although young, Amelia is smart and resilient and soon overcomes her language barriers and finds her place managing the financial side of the farm. However, haunted by a connection she has with her neighbour’s son Fergus and increasingly isolated by her social and political choices, when the war breaks out and Italians are targeted, the secrets and nationalist pride Amelia harboured to keep herself safe suddenly threaten to destroy everything her family has built.

This is an epic story that traces the life of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who leaves everything she knows behind to start a new life in a country that largely doesn’t welcome her. Johnson does an admirable job of setting the geographic and political scene of a seemingly hostile new life and has a particular flair for character development. Amelia hardens as the story progresses, and it’s unusual (and refreshing!) to see such an evolution of a character while still retaining the essence of who she is. Johnson isn’t afraid to explore Amelia’s mistakes to their full consequences and her flaws and poor choices juxtaposed against her successes make her all the more relatable. The internment of Italians during WWII is another forgotten pocket of Australian history, and Johnson written a nuanced account of something that truly happened to people living here.

For the most part, I was impressed at how Johnson told Amelia’s story but one thing that I was perplexed about throughout the book was the appeal of Fergus. While Amelia’s character remained interesting and engaging throughout the novel, I wasn’t always on board with her relationships and how she managed them, and most particularly so the connection she had with Fergus. Although for the most part the pacing of the novel was good, I did feel at times that some of the writing was a little too descriptive and could have been condensed a little more.

Regardless, this is an interesting and important story about the experience of women during a period of Australian history rarely discussed.

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An American Marriage

Domestic drama about institutional racism

Content warning: racism, sexual assault

I first heard about this book when I saw the author speak at the opening event of last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. She told the most amazing story of how her book came to be, and after the event I ran to the foyer to try to get a copy for her to sign. Unfortunately, for reasons unclear to me, they weren’t doing book-signings so I have had to make do with an unsigned copy. With a jolt of inspiration, while I was writing this review, I decided to go on Spotify and see if anyone had made a playlist, and would you believe it? Someone had. Thank you to the Free Black Woman’s Library LA. 

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“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones is an American literary fiction novel about Roy and Celestial, a couple settling into marriage and emerging success. Roy is making a name for himself in business while Celestial’s hand-crafted dolls are starting to sell for a significant amount of money. However, while staying in a motel while visiting Roy’s parents in a small town in Louisiana, Roy is arrested and accused of raping a white woman. Sentenced to 12 years in jail, he and Celestial write to each other while he tries to have his conviction overturned. However, the chemistry and fire that sustained them doesn’t seem to translate in the letters, and it gradually becomes less certain that when Roy gets out, there will be a marriage left waiting for him.

This is a wonderfully subtle book about a very real issue and the devastating impact that incarceration has on individuals and their families. Jones has an incredible sense of empathy, and is utterly convincing in exploring each of her character’s perspectives. For a book that was apparently inspired by an overheard conversation, you can certainly tell that Jones is a people-watcher and perceptively draws from each character their own voice, thoughts, desires, dreams, anxieties and observations about the characters around them. As the book progresses, and an additional layer of complexity is added with Andre’s point of view, Tayari’s flexibility as a writer shines through.

I honestly cannot get enough of books like this. Although Jones certainly does address issues of race in modern America, like “Letting Go” by Maria Thompson Corley, this is not a book about stereotypes and disadvantage but rather about the pursuit of love and excellence – black excellence – and the barriers that still remain in American society regardless of class.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I’m not sure that it will be for everyone. It moves with a quiet intensity that mirrors the way life feels: with some highs, and some lows, but mostly with a relentlessness as things unfurl in ways that you can never guess in advance but can always see in hindsight. This is a book that demands that you put yourself in another’s shoes, and walk these lives yourself. It’s an easy read linguistically, but it is not an easy read emotionally.

This is an excellent book about love, hubris and making the best of the life that you have. I can’t wait to see what else Jones publishes.

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I Do Not Come To You By Chance

Novel about Nigerian email scams

Unlike the title suggests, this book did come to me by chance. I am almost certain that I found it in my street library. As I’ve mentioned many times before, it is an ongoing goal of mine to read more diversely. Nigeria has a very long tradition of literary culture, and this is not actually my first Nigerian novel. However, it has such a unique theme that I was really taken by it when it popped up one day and I decided I’d probably better give it a read.

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“I Do Not Come To You By Chance” by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a novel set in Nigeria by a young university graduate called Kingsley. Known as Kings to his friends and family, he is the oldest son in his family, the opara, and with a brand new engineering degree he expects to walk into a job. However, despite his parents’ insistence that education is the key to success, the job market in Nigeria suggests otherwise. When the family faces financial ruin, Kings is forced to seek help from his wealthy but somewhat morally bankrupt uncle, the flashy Cash Daddy. Despite his parents’ condemnation of Cash Daddy’s business practices, Kings is tempted by the business of email scams.

This was a fascinating book that took something that is often nothing more than the derisive phrase “Nigerian prince scam” and uncovered the humanity behind a real phenomenon. Nwaubani compares the many different classes of Nigeria, both the different levels of wealth as well as the many different levels of poverty. She also goes into compelling detail about the mechanisms of how the 419 scams actually work and the kinds of people who attempt, succeed at and fall prey to. Nwaubani shows great skills in character development and the Kings that we meet at the beginning of the book subtly shifts into a very different Kings by the end. I also really enjoyed watching his siblings grow up and the ripple effect Kings’ decisions have on his family.

I think that although I loved the premise and that Nwaubani’s writing was very strong, the moral dilemma seemed a little drawn out. It seems strange to say this because I’m not that much of a romance fan, but I think that this book could have used a little more romantic intrigue. I completely understand that Kings’ focus is on money and his career, but I felt that he went from childish infatuation to hiring sex workers very quickly and there wasn’t much of a middle ground. Nevertheless, I think that this book could have used a little more emotional drama to balance out the moral drama.

A very interesting book that I enjoyed and look forward to leaving in my street library for someone else to read.

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