Category Archives: General Fiction

My Brilliant Friend

I first really heard about this book when there was a media storm about the author’s real identity being revealed. The series had received a lot of acclaim, either in spite of or because of the author’s use of a pseudonym, and I was eager to see what all the fuss was about.

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“My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante is a historical novel set in a poor, post-war neighbourhood in Naples, Italy in the 1950s. Playing and going to school in this grim era, blonde Elena meets the naughty and sullen Lila who dazzles the teachers with her intelligence. After a cautious beginning to their friendship, Elena finds in Lila the inspiration and competition to succeed at school. However, as the two girls become teenagers, their lives begin to take increasingly different paths.

I think this is one of those books where my expectations just didn’t match up to my experience. It’s translated from Italian, and the translation seemed perfectly fluid. Ferrante manages to convey a tense, sepia tone to the novel that evolves as the economic situation in Naples improves. Ferrente’s real strength however is shining a light on the gender inequality of the time. Elena has to be consistently excellent at school to be allowed to share the same opportunities as boys the same age who are simply mediocre. I also thought that Ferrente handled Elena’s developing sexuality as a young woman very convincingly.

The uneasy but intense relationship between Elena and Lila is presented as the highlight of the book. The author spends a lot of time making many pointed observations about Lila and her life from the perspective of Elena, who is constantly comparing herself to her friend. However, I felt like a large proportion of the novel is laying groundwork for something that ultimately doesn’t even happen in this book. Although the focus of the novel appears to be Lila and how her upbringing shapes her life, I actually found the protagonist and narrator Elena far more interesting.

“My Brilliant Friend” is one of a series of four novels, and while I enjoyed this one, I’m not sure I’m compelled to read any more of the books. Ultimately, this book is fine, good even, but I just didn’t find it brilliant.

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A Little Life

Content warning: basically everything but especially self-harm, trauma, abuse, child abuse, suicide ideation

I had this book recommended to me as a book that will “change your life”. That’s a pretty big statement, so I added it to my list of eBooks that I loaded up onto my Kobo before I left. When I was sitting in the aeroplane seat, deciding what to read on my trip home, I remembered this book and felt that I wanted to read something profound. I decided I would make this my tenth and final book on my five weeks of American literature.

“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara is a novel about four close friends: Malcolm who is an architect, JB an artist, Willem an actor and Jude a lawyer. At the beginning of the story, set in New York after the four have graduated university, the reader spends a relatively equal amount of time with each character learning about their backstory. However, when Jude’s turn comes, it becomes apparent that his friends know almost nothing about his life before he started university. Even to Willem, who is closest to Jude and shares a one-bedroom apartment with him, Jude’s background largely remains a mystery; including how he sustained a car injury that resulted in a noticeable limp and chronic pain. As the story progresses, the narrative becomes less about the group of four and more and more about Jude’s past life and his struggle to overcome it.

This is a really difficult book to review. On one hand, Yanagihara is a beautiful writer who brings to life four complex characters by detailing the idiosyncrasies of each of their personalities. I think this book is a very powerful exploration of love, trust and relationships and Yanagihara focuses particularly on male relationships: parent/child, lover/lover and wholesome/toxic. I think she also tackled the issues of disability, chronic pain, self-harm and suicide ideation excellently and captures the helplessness that can be felt both by the individuals who are suffering and their loved ones who don’t know how best to support them.

However, as this book becomes more and more about Jude, as engrossing as it is, it does start to feel a lot like misery lit. After a while the suffering inflicted on Jude begins to feel utterly incessant as Yanagihara both gradually reveals the litany of abuses he has suffered over his lifetime and introduces new struggles as he ages. This book actually reminded me a bit of a much better written, much darker adult version of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” with Jude like a much more traumatised, adult version of Charlie. It’s a long book, and after awhile, especially when the other three characters start to fade into the background a little, it’s hard to see where exactly Yanagihara is going with it.

There were also couple of things that were a bit confusing to me. Firstly was the almost complete absence of meaningful female relationships in Jude’s life. Although there were some peripheral women, they all took secondary roles. I understand that the point of the book was to explore male relationships in all their forms. However, given Jude’s many negative experiences with men over his lifetime, I found it a little hard to suspend my disbelief that he wouldn’t form any kind of relationship with women. Another thing that wasn’t really very clear is how exactly the four friends all end up becoming extremely successful in their chosen fields. They sort of weren’t, and then they were, without any clear path between and the reader just has to take it as a given.

Finally, I felt a bit like the efforts of Willem and Jude’s doctor to get Jude to see a psychiatrist were at best inaccurate and at worst potentially deeply harmful. Jude doesn’t connect with the psychiatrist he’s referred to, and instead of finding him a psychiatrist he does connect with, his friends just keep trying to get him to go back to the same one. Having worked in mental health, I just question the impact that this might have on readers for whom the takeaway message seems to be that counselling is futile. I understand that survivors of child abuse and child sexual abuse can take decades to disclose, but that doesn’t mean that seeing someone is pointless. Yet I think there’s a tension here, similar to the one I discussed in “13 Reasons Why“, between raising awareness about mental illness by depicting it dramatically and potentially having a negative impact on readers who may themselves be struggling with their mental health.

I can see why this book was a Man Booker Prize finalist. It’s well-written, gripping and, particularly with respect to disability and chronic pain, groundbreaking. However, I did feel a bit like Yanagihara subjected Jude to basically every single negative experience a person could conceivably live through and ultimately it just felt relentless.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call or chat online to someone at Lifeline on 13 11 14 or at www.lifeline.org.au.

If you want to learn what to say to someone who is struggling with their mental health, how to pick up the signs and where to refer them, I highly, highly recommend ASIST suicide intervention training and mental health first aid training.

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Of Mice and Men

After finding out that despite being dead for nearly 50 years that this author’s books are still in copyright (something I talk about on my latest podcast episode), I had decided not to buy any of his books for my five weeks of American literature. However, while visiting friends in California, they actually had a copy of this book on their shelf. When I saw how short it was, I thought I’d better give this classic a go and I managed to read it in an afternoon.

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“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck is a novella set in California during the Great Depression in the mid-1930s. The story follows two men, George and Lennie, who are travelling workers trying to save money to buy their own piece of land one day. Lennie is incredibly big and strong, however has an intellectual disability that means he struggles considerably. George serves as his somewhat reluctant guardian who has managed to line up a new job for them both after things went badly at the last one. To keep Lennie focused, George tells and retells him about the house they will own together one day and the animals they will keep. However, when they arrive at the new farm they are faced with lots of new men and the Boss’ aggressive son Curly. With all the new distractions, George struggles to keep Lennie in check.

This isn’t going to be a long review because while this wasn’t a long book, it was an excellent book. Steinbeck has crafted the perfect novella. He lays the foundation to create a story at once unforeseeable and inevitable. He touches on lots of themes in a very short time including friendship, disability and poverty. Even though we are only with the characters for a very short time, I was left with a real sense of wanting to know much more about them.

A real highlight during my five weeks of American literature and a book I’m extremely glad I got the opportunity to read this classic.

 

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Bastard out of Carolina

Content warning: child abuse.

My bestie lent me this book ages ago, and knowing that I was travelling to America, I thought I would take the opportunity to add it to my five weeks of American literature. Again, I completely forgot to take any photos of the book while actually in America, but I was reading it while I was in south California, so have a photo of a cactus to set the mood.

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“Bastard out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison is a novel about a young girl called Ruth Anne Boatwright, known to everyone as Bone, who is born to an unmarried teenage mother Anney in South Carolina. Due to South Carolina’s laws about legitimacy, Bone’s birth certificate is stamped with the word ‘bastard’, despite her mother’s multiple attempts to change it. When Bone is still small, mother marries, has another daughter and is widowed in short order – now a single mother with two small girls. Despite the circumstances of her birth, and becoming increasingly aware of her ‘white trash’ status in the community, Bone cherishes her Boatwright family, including her grandmother, aunts, wild uncles and cousins. Devastated by the loss of her husband, Anney eventually agrees to marry her long-time suitor Glen who promises a life of financial stability. However, Glen’s quick temper and inferiority complex result in him losing job after job, and the family constantly moving home. Glen begins to lash out at Bone and as she gets older, the physical (and later sexual) abuse against her escalates.

This was a book that was both easy and hard to read. Allison is a beautiful writer and captures Bone’s internal voice perfectly. I read the 20th anniversary edition of this novel which includes Allison’s thoughts about the impact her story has had on survivors of child abuse and child sexual abuse, especially as a survivor herself, and some of the history of the book being banned in schools. Although Bone is a fictional character, Allison was able to draw on lived experience to explore the same issues of abuse, poverty, class, faith, gender roles and the body.

Allison’s biggest strength is in her ability to translate emotions onto the page. The hate that Bone begins to feel both for herself and her tormentor is absolutely visceral. The depiction of Bone’s fraught friendship with Shannon who suffers from albinism. The increasing distance and betrayal from Anney. Bone’s relationships with her aunties who have their own struggles with sexuality and health.The brutality of Daddy Glen’s abuse. Allison captures them all. This isn’t a particularly long book, but Allison has managed to fill it with so much humanity that it is impossible to walk away unmoved or unscathed.

An excellently crafted but heart-rending story.

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The Sellout

This book was just what the doctor ordered. I started reading it while I was stuck in a car line to get into a festival in Oregon for 12 hours (no, I am not exaggerating) to help keep myself from losing my mind. I had heard about it after the author was last year named the first American ever to win the Man Booker prize. I was blown away by the novel’s beginning and I have a keen memory of sitting in that car seat shrieking every few pages. Then, after we finally made it into the festival and wasted a day moving campsites, the following night I became very ill and was tent-bound for two days. This book was my absolute solace. I needed an excellent book to get me through and when my eReader froze just as started getting better, I almost lost it.

The Sellout

“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty is a satirical novel about race relations in the USA. The narrator, who is never given a first name, is a quiet young African American man who lives in a fictional Los Angeles town called Dickens. Despite wanting to live an understated life as a farmer, after he loses his father, an experimental sociologist who used his son own as a test subject, the narrator finally finds himself faced with the racial discrimination his father always lectured him about. However it is the final straw of Dickens’ erasure from the map that sets off a chain of events resulting in the narrator appearing before the USA Supreme Court accused of crimes against humanity.

This book, without a doubt, is the best book I have read this year so far. Beatty is an absolute master of the craft and every sentence in this book is full of double entendres, socio-political references and neologisms. I think my eyes were almost falling out of my head the entire time I was reading this, and it is definitely not a book that you can skim through. This book demands your full attention and the rewards are instantaneous. I don’t really want to say too much more about the plot because I really think it’s best to go cold, but it is really is exquisite in its audacity. However as outrageous as the premise is, as a modern social commentary it is bang on the mark and blistering in its honesty.

Although it has been some weeks since I finished it, I am still thinking about this book. It’s hard work, and I think that you have to be pretty up to date to get all the references (there were a couple that went over my head as a non-American), but it is a brilliant read. I truly think this is going to become a modern classic and I can’t wait until I can read it again for a second time.

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Homegoing

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog bookshop, and I was very keen to read it. This is the third book I read on my five weeks of American literature, and I read it while I was travelling through California and managed to finish it just on my last day in San Francisco – a city that features in one of the chapters. I took this photo while I was staying in a friend’s apartment in one of the beautiful old San Francisco buildings.

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“Homegoing” is the debut novel of Yaa Gyasi. The story is a two-pronged family saga on either side of the ugly history of slavery in what now is Ghana. Each chapter is dedicated to a member of the respective families of Effia, a Fante woman who is married to an English governor and whose descendants remain in Ghana, and Esi, an Asante teenager who is captured and sold as a slave to the Americas. Joined both by their past and their future, Effia and Esi’s story unfolds over successive generations.

This novel is a really interesting exploration of the role of African nations and state warfare in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in particular during the 1700s, a role that I really did not know about at all. Gyasi uses her novel to contrast the lasting impacts of slavery against the lasting impacts of European colonisation in Ghana: two very different sides of the same coin. While Effia’s descendants grapple with their role in perpetuating slavery and later in overcoming British rule, Esi’s descendants must survive slavery and later segregation and institutionalised racism.

Gyasi is a very tactile writer and this book has a strong focus on the senses and the body. The African chapters in particular give a very keen sense of place, time and people. This is part of the reason why I felt that the African chapters are much stronger than the American chapters. I also felt that despite some of them living in extreme poverty, Effia’s descendants seem to have rather more self-determination than their American counterparts and I felt like their personalities were far more nuanced and individualised. In contrast, Esi’s family line seem a little more like caricatures and, although character development within a single chapter is understandably a difficult feat, they seem much more rigid. I think if you were after a more engrossing family saga just about race in America and moving through slavery to segregation to today, I would probably recommend “Cane River” over this one.

However, the historical importance of the story as a whole and the contrast between the two family lines does work quite well. Although the changing chapters can be a bit jarring at times, it is nevertheless a fascinating story and Gyasi is a strong enough writer to link all the complex threads together by the end.

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The Heart to Kill

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

The Heart to Kill

“The Heart to Kill” by Dorothy M. Place is a crime novel about young law student Sarah. After receiving phone messages on the same day that she has not been successful in her application for a coveted law internship, and that her childhood friend has been jailed for the murder of her two children, she returns to her South Carolina hometown. When she arrives, she finds her father as overbearing as ever and quickly gets a job with the firm representing JoBeth in her murder trial. However, the more research she does on the matter, the more Sarah uncovers a darker side to the town she grew up in.

Parts of this book really resonated with me, especially Sarah’s disappointment and anxiety around her legal career when she didn’t get the internship she applied for. Other parts I thought were done well like Sarah’s relationship with her parents and the banter between her and the partners at the law firm representing JoBeth. I think there were parts (which might have been the point) about JoBeth’s story and defense lawyer Al that I found a bit abrasive. I think this story is more about Sarah’s journey as an adult rather than about the development of secondary characters though, and for that purpose it is a strong narrative.

A deeply personal novel about a young woman letting go of her past to forge her own future.

 

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