Memoir about a mother trying to explain cancer to her son
Content warning: death, cancer
There has been a lot of loss in my family this year. When looking for my next audiobook to keep me company while running and gardening, I came across this one. Although I read one of this author’s books previously and didn’t love it, I thought that something to help me make sense of grief would be helpful.
“Bedtime Story” by Chloe Hooper and narrated by Lisa McCune is a memoir about Hooper’s partner’s cancer diagnosis. Narrated in the second person to her eldest son, Hooper turns to children’s literature to try to find a way to explain the diagnosis to her children. However, she soon finds that most children’s literature is manifestly inadequate when it comes to explaining death and mortality. As her partner grows more unwell as treatment progresses, Hooper puts off the explanation further. However, she finds that her son picks up more than she thinks and finds his own ways of making sense of what is happening to their family.
This is a thoughtful, gentle book that grapples with how we break terrible news to children. I enjoyed Hooper’s exploration of different examples of children’s literature and they ways in which they do (or do not) deal with death. Second person narratives are a relatively unusual form of storytelling and one that I think worked well for the subject-matter. McCune’s narration captured the tone really well. It is matter of fact but sensitive, soft but clear.
I think this was probably not the right book for me at this time. I think this is a book for someone who is pre-grief; who is dealing with life-shattering news but the axe has not yet fallen. Someone who is dealing with waiting and who is hoping for the best but expecting the worst. I realised too late that this book is actually illustrated and for that reason alone, I do regret listening to the audiobook version because of course they weren’t included.
An introspective story about dealing with difficult news as a family.
Non-fiction book about the beanie baby craze of the mid-1990s
Content warning: mental illness, family violence
I needed a new running book, but I can’t remember exactly why I picked this one except it had something to do with this photograph:
As a 90s kid, but not one who had beanie babies (Pokemon cards, yoyos, Tazos and Tamagotchis on the other hand…), I found myself intrigued about how exactly this craze came about. The book was an ideal length for me (approximately 8 hours) and I was in the mood for some non-fiction.
“The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass delusion and the dark side of cute” by Zac Bissonnette and narrated by P. J. Ochlan is a non-fiction book about Beanie Babies, collectible animal bean bag toys created by billionaire Ty Warner. Bissonnette pieces together the notoriously reclusive Warner’s life through interviews and memoirs of people who knew him and worked with him, and uses economic and business theory, to try to understand the meteoric rise of Warner’s Beanie Babies in the mid-1990s. Bissonnette also looks at the secondary market created by Beanie Babies, inflated prices, the role played by the internet and Warner’s own unique, perfectionist personality.
This was a really interesting book in many ways. I have next to no knowledge when it comes to business and economics and I found Bissonnette’s explanations of the marketing and scarcity tactics used by Warner’s company Ty to be both highly informative and very engaging. Bissonnette goes into lots of detail about the design (and redesign) of Beanie Babies that made them so attractive to consumers and the various factors at play during the time that created the perfect environment for the craze. Bissonnette also spends a considerable amount of time on Warner’s biography, especially through former employers, employees and girlfriends, to try to understand the man, and the salesman, behind the plush toy. For someone not interested in economics in the slightest, I found this book really easy to listen to. Bissonnette skillfully constructed a narrative around the phenomenon, and if he didn’t have all the answers, he certainly had a story.
I think the only thing I found less interesting were some of the superfluous details about Warner’s personal life. While he certainly seems like a very singular character, there were parts of the book that felt almost voyeuristic. I much preferred the parts of the book that, for example, discussed how an intern came up with the idea to create a Beanie Babies website which would regularly crash it was so popular, rather than sad, secondhand information about Warner’s broken family relationships.
A fascinating book about how an affordable plush toy became a worldwide craze.
“The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han and narrated by Lola Tung is the first novel in a young adult trilogy about a teenager called Belly who is on summer vacation. Every summer, she and her family stay with her mother’s best friend Susannah and her family. The four kids grow up together: Belly, her brother Steven and Susannah’s two sons Conrad and Jeremiah. Belly is the youngest and she has always felt like the little kid running after the boys. Nevertheless, she looks forward However, this summer, Belly is determined that things are going to be different. They are, but different in ways that she never could have expected.
This is standard coming of age novel set in the idyllic fictional beachside town of Cousins Beach. Han uses flashbacks to previous summers to build the groundwork for the dynamics between the two families, and Belly’s long-term crush on the handsome, brooding Conrad. This book is beautifully narrated by Lola Tung who also plays Belly in the TV adaptation, and she has a way of bringing all the sweetness, optimism and drama you could want in a young adult novel.
However, I frequently found this book frustrating. Although I suspect that Han was often trying to make a point, in reality Belly came across as extremely superficial. This summer, Belly’s primary currency is attention and she is constantly observing who is giving her attention, who could be giving her attention and who is getting attention instead of her. Belly is so self-involved, she completely misses what is going on with everyone around her. However somehow, despite multiple instances of incredibly selfish, bad behaviour, things do work out for her.
I have to say, this is one of those rare instances where I prefer the TV adaptation to the book. Through the series, all of the characters are much more filled out, especially Belly’s mother, Jeremiah and Belly’s brother Steven. I also felt that the TV show was a lot more diverse. Unlike the book, Belly is clearly cast as Eurasian with her cultural background mentioned more than once. There are queer characters and the debutante ball, not present in the book, was a great backdrop against which to explore ideas of beauty, tradition and class. I also felt like Belly was much more relatable in the show, and had some keen hobbies and interests outside boys.
A really nicely narrated audiobook, but while I think I’ll stick with the TV series, I don’t think I’ll read any more in the series.
Fictional podcast about a death at a mysterious girl’s school
Content warning: bullying, suicide
The time had come to choose my next running audiobook. I was flicking through the options and came across this: a fictional podcast. I really enjoy fictional podcasts and I’ve listened to more over the years than I have reviewed on this blog because I’m never quite sure if they count as books. I actually find fictional podcasts (or radio plays) easier to listen to than audiobooks: I think the extra sound editing and production makes the story more immersive, and the voice actors make the characters more distinct. Anyway, maybe I should review more fictional podcasts but in the meantime, let’s start with this one.
“The Orchard” by Mike Jones and Mike Cowap is a fictional podcast about a detective and single dad called Adam Durwood who is about to resign from the force. His last case is to investigate the unusual death of a teenage boy by the orchard of an exclusive all girls’ school. His superiors are eager to write it off as a suicide but Detective Durwood is not convinced. He questions students and staff but their responses are confounding; hinting at the school’s secret history. As impartial as Detective Durwood thinks he is, something about the case is pulling him in and while he is distracted, something is pulling his daughter away from him.
This was a really eerie, well-scripted story with exceptional voice acting. There was a surprisingly stellar cast of characters, with Eric Bana as Adam Durwood, Magda Szubanski as Barbara and Gary Sweet as DI Simes. Bana in particular was a standout and captured the nuance of dogged detective and struggling dad perfectly. Each episode was only about 20 minutes or so, which was a pretty ideal length for a short run. There was quite a sinister vibe and I found this podcast really quite creepy to listen to when I was running by myself at night after work. The story covered a range of issues, and I thought one of the most compelling elements was the impact something like a catastrophic car crash can have on a family, the way we process grief and what you would do to get your family back.
As enjoyable as the podcast was, the closer I got to the ending the less convinced I was with the plot direction. I thought that there had been some really strong groundwork around the school, secret societies and the way alumni connections can be used to propel students towards success. However, the final reveal in the story took a completely different path that I found less interesting and much less convincing.
An enjoyable story with a great cast that didn’t quite land the ending.
A couple of years ago I listened to a book by this author and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A couple of months ago, I saw a trailer of a TV series adapting another of her novels. So when I was choosing my next audiobook to listen to while running, I thought I would try it out.
“Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel set in contemporary Ireland about a young university student called Frances who is also a poet. She performs her poems together with her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi. After their performance is noticed by renowned writer Melissa, she invites them to her home to be photographed for a feature article. There, they meet Melissa’s husband, an actor called Nick. As the novel progresses, Frances and Nick are drawn to each other, and the interplay between the four characters becomes more and more complicated.
While sometimes it can be difficult to discern pace listening to an audiobook, this is a slow-paced book that explores the power dynamics between emerging and established figures in the literary world. Outwardly quiet and composed, Frances has a tumultuous inner life where she is constantly evaluating and weighing up her complex and fraught relationships. Frances obscures her family life and financial situation from her new community and remains acutely aware of class differences.
I have to say, I did not enjoy this book nearly as much as “Normal People”. The magnetism and impeccable tension between Marianne and Connell was absent in this novel; replaced instead with awkwardness, repressed feelings and many, many things left unsaid. There are a lot of parallels between this story and “Normal People”: isolated young university student, a sexual relationship devoid of commitment, a summer trip to France (replaced with Croatia in the TV show). While the novel is hyperaware of Frances’ inability to confide in others and discomfort navigating all these complex relationships, it does nothing to get the reader onside. Despite McMahon’s excellent narration, there was no humour in this book. I didn’t feel invested in these characters or sympathetic to their lives. I didn’t feel like I learned anything or got a unique perspective. At the end of the novel, I was indifferent to Frances and who she might have a relationship with.
I have tried watching a few episodes of the TV adaptation, and I just couldn’t get into that either. I think, ultimately, this was not as engaging a story and ultimately I was left feeling disappointed.
Romance novels set in the Regency era recently adapted into a TV series
Content warning: spousal rape
Unless you have been living under a rock (no shame if you have!), you will have heard of the hit TV series “Bridgerton“. This lush, colourful TV series reimagines the Regency era of the United Kingdom’s history as racially diverse with characters of colour in leading, powerful roles instead of relegated to servitude or slavery. I was looking for my next running book, and I saw that the book that inspired the series was available as an audiobook. I was really interested to see how the original compared to the adaptation. I didn’t realise at the time that the second season was just about to be released. After binge-watching it (ahem, twice), I had a bit of a family health emergency that involved a lot of driving to and from hospital. With so much stress and time in the car, I decided to listen to the second book as well, so today I’ll review both books.
“The Duke and I” by Julia Quinn and narrated by Rosalyn Landor is the first book in the “Bridgerton” series. The story is about Daphne Bridgerton and her eight siblings Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory and Hyacinth who belong to a wealthy family in England in 1813. The Bridgertons are a tight-knit family and known for their parents’ decision to choose names based on letters of the alphabet corresponding with their birthday. As the sister of a viscount, there is a lot of pressure on Daphne to marry well. However, it is her second season out in society and she has yet to secure interest from any eligible suitors. When she manages to fight off the interest of a very ineligible suitor, she has a chance meeting with Simon, an old friend of her brother Anthony who also happens to be an extremely eligible duke. Simon has sworn never to marry, but the two agree to pretend to be courting to keep the women away from Simon and pique the interest of the bachelors in Daphne. However, once they start spending more time together it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between what is pretend and what is real.
Season 1 of the TV series drew heavily on the main elements of this book, and while not identical, the stories certainly followed a very similar path. I think I actually preferred book Daphne in some ways: the focus was less on her beauty and grace, and rather on her personality and gumption. I felt that apart from his race, the duke’s character was very similar in both the original and the adaptation, and considerable time was spent on his backstory and his ongoing anger and shame about the way he was treated as a small boy. One of the features of the TV series is the ensemble cast and we get to see snippets of many of the Bridgertons and other characters as well as the main romance. In comparison, the book had a much narrower focus, and we barely get a glimpse of the other characters at all. I found the writing of the first book reasonably compelling and Quinn goes into a lot more depth when it comes to some of the more compromising situations the characters find themselves in. I enjoyed Landor’s narration and felt that she did an admirable job distinguishing between the different characters with dynamic voices.
Not to be an English purist, but it became swiftly clear to me that the author, although trying to emulate a Jane Austen-esque tone, is herself an American. Using phrases such as “off of” in place of “off”, saying “spit” in both present and past tense and referring to buttocks as “fanny” (which any Australian is going to raise an eyebrow at” did break the illusion for me a little. The audiobook included a little additional epilogue about the characters much later on, and I’m not entirely sure that it added much to the story.
Without trying to give too much of the plot away, I did want to mention a pretty universal criticism of both the book and the TV series. There is a particular scene in the book where one male character is drunk, and one female character takes advantage of this and has sex with him. It is pretty clear from the story that he was likely unable to give consent and had he been sober would not have consented to the sex. The scene in the book was far less ambiguous than the corresponding scene in the TV series (where the male character is not drunk but is certainly reluctant and feels there has been a considerable betrayal of trust) and it left me feeling very uncomfortable that there was not much remorse or condemnation of this act which fell within the definition of spousal rape. Instead, the reader is left with the sense that the ends justify the means. I felt that had the genders been reversed, it would have been completely unacceptable and while the book was published over 20 years ago, it really isn’t an excuse.
“The Viscount Who Loved Me” by Julia Quinn and narrated by Rosalyn Landor is set in the following year, 1814. This time, the story is about Anthony Bridgerton, a viscount who inherited his father’s title at just 18 years old and notorious rake, who has finally decided to marry. The caveat, however, is that he has decided that the marriage must be business only and that he will absolutely not fall in love. Half-sisters Kate and Edwina Sheffield have come to London to be presented to society in the same year. Dedicated older sister Kate is determined to find her beauty of a younger sister a successful match and Edwina is determined to have Kate’s approval. However, when Edwina catches Anthony’s eye as a sufficiently beautiful and intelligent woman, Kate refuses to consider someone with such a bad reputation as suitable for Edwina, no matter how wealthy and powerful. As Anthony persists in courting Edwina, he and Kate spend more and more time together and soon find that first impressions aren’t always correct.
I found the second book far less engaging. The chemistry between Kate and Anthony was lukewarm at best and what little tension there was resolved very early in the book, with many, many chapters spent on self-realisation rather than any meaningful plot. In fact, the plot was in many ways very similar to the plot of the first book with themes of compromising positions, love growing over time and the man withholding something until he realises his love for the woman. The writing seemed even less inspired, and I lost count of how many times characters “murmured” or “swallowed convulsively”. Quinn goes into absolute minute detail in her scenes, labouring over each character’s thoughts and observations. I felt that she was hamming up the English imitation a little much and wasn’t quite able to capture the humour or irreverence of other American writers writing about England like Connie Willis or Mary Ann Shaffer. Again, there was an extra epilogue in the audiobook that again, didn’t add much.
In contrast, Season 2 of the TV series was absolutely fantastic. Kate was reimagined as Kate Sharma who travels from India with her younger sister to try to find a match in London. The Kate of the TV series, played by Simone Ashley, was haughty, imperious, spirited and stubborn and is as fun as she is frustrating to Anthony. The way culture was woven into the story has attracted a lot of discussion, and questions of authenticity and consistency aside, it certainly added to the richness of the show. Anthony, played by Jonathan Bailey, brought a smouldering intensity to the character that generated white hot sparks against Ashley’s Kate – a testament to his acting skills as he is gay in real life. The pacing of the TV adaptation was exquisite, with the incredible tension between Anthony and Kate maintained throughout the entire series. Similar to the first season, the rest of the characters all have engaging and interactive stories so the romance is not in a vacuum, and I especially enjoyed the Queen’s interactions with Eloise and Edwina.
Although I was looking for something light-hearted during a particularly difficult time and this book certainly met that criteria, I think I will stick to the TV series from now on.
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.
“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.
Dramatic reimagining of Henry Lawson’s short story
Content warning: sexual assault, graphic violence, child removal, racism, family violence
I have been doing quite a lot of running recently, so I am getting through audiobooks a little faster than usual. This has definitely been on my list. We all know the iconic Henry Lawson story about the drover’s wife up against a snake, but I was very interested to try out this gritty retelling.
“The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson” written by and narrated by Leah Purcell is a historical fiction novel that retells Lawson’s famous short story about a drover’s wife left alone with her four children for months at a time in the outback. Molly is pregnant and almost due to give birth, and all she has to protect her and the children is her gun and her dog Alligator. Vulnerable to intruders, natural disasters and poverty, when Aboriginal man Yadaka arrives at her property on the run from the law, she is reluctant to trust him. However, they gradually form a careful bond and Yadaka spends time telling stories to her eldest son Danny who craves a father figure. Meanwhile, Louisa Clintoff has moved from London to the alpine town of Everton with her husband Nate who is to be the new lawman. While they settle in to a completely different lifestyle, Nate’s big task is to solve some local murders. However, what he uncovers is even more shocking than he could ever have expected.
This is a tense, gritty novel that pulls absolutely no punches while re-examining 1800s colonial Australia. While there are plenty of nods to its inspiration, this novel is absolutely its own story and Molly has a voice and a history that shines through more loudly and clearly than ever did in Lawson’s book. Yadaka was a fascinating character as well, with a colourful, complex and painful backstory, he travelled the world while still maintaining a very strong connection with family, country and culture. Purcell’s world is a dangerous one, and in this story snakes are the least of Molly’s problems. The fear and the heartache Molly has for her children’s safety is visceral, and the horrors she encounters as an isolated woman in the bush are all too realistic.
Purcell clearly lives and breathes her story, and she was the perfect choice to narrate it. A seasoned actor herself, she does an excellent job of giving each character a voice and I particularly loved how she portrayed young Danny. While listening to this book, I found myself thinking that it felt like it could have been written for a film. Little did I know that Purcell originally wrote the story for stage and that it has in fact been adapted into a film slated for release next year. This book tackles head-on the treatment of Aboriginal people, and instead of being dismissed as convenient assistants to the white colonial project as Lawson did in his story, Purcell closely examines the many attempts to sever Aboriginal identity and connection to land by settlers. At the end of the audiobook, Purcell shares a bit about the creation of her story and her creative practice as an artist including the consultation with local Aboriginal communities from alpine country in New South Wales as well as her own heritage as a Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman.
One thing I did find a bit challenging was the number of narrative perspectives that were in this book. The prose shifts from first person to third person, and there are several characters who take turns in the spotlight. I did find that listening to the audiobook occasionally made it a bit difficult to keep track of who was whom. It is an action-packed book and full of some truly horrifying scenes, a couple of which I missed (with some relief) while out running.
An excellently research story laden with insight, emotion and commentary, I cannot wait to see the film adaptation with Purcell herself in the leading role.
Queer literary romance about identity and growing up
Content warning: sexual themes, reference to abuse
While looking for audiobooks that fit my strict criteria (9 hours or less), I came across this one. I had heard many, many things about this book because it was adapted into a film starring Timothée Chalamet who everyone is constantly talking about for some reason. I was really keen to see the film, but I decided to listen to the book first.
“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman and narrated by Armie Hammer is a Bildungsromanabout Elio, a 17 year old Jewish Italian-American boy whose parents have a house in Italy. Every summer, Elio must give up his room to a university student invited by his academic father to stay for 6 weeks. This particular summer, in the mid-1980s, the student invited is Oliver. Eminently cool in his seeming indifference, Elio is surprised to find himself extremely attracted to older Oliver. As Elio fantasises more and more vividly about Oliver, he begins to question what this means for his own sexuality and whether the erotic tension between them is truly unrequited.
This is an exquisitely written novel that is as much a love letter to the male form as it is an exploration of a young man’s transition into adulthood. Aciman’s prose is some of the most beautiful and compelling I have come across in a long time. He captures perfectly that teenage obsessiveness, where you get sucked into the vortex of every single detail of every single interaction. Where the time spent thinking about experiences that have or could happen is almost more intoxicating than the reality. The film was a great adaption, but it is a challenge to put on screen prose that takes place largely in the protagonist’s mind – especially when that prose is so captivating in its apparent raw honesty. This book is full of layers and layers of depth, and I found myself wondering whether the names Elio and Oliver were intentionally chosen because of how many letters they shared.
I think this story, in both book and film format, has become iconic. It inspired Lil Nas X’s song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and Sufjan Steven wrote a song specifically for the film that is just magical. The European summer setting is of itself so enticing, where intellectualism and hedonism intertwine in a sublime way. There are some iconic scenes in this book, and one of my favourites is where Elio’s father speaks to him about his friendship with Oliver. That conversation is such a fantastic template for a parent supporting their child’s sexuality, though I found myself wondering if part of the reason Elio’s father had such great empathy was the suggestion that he himself had experienced something similar.
I also have to say something about the narration, which was done by Hammer who actually played Oliver in the film adaptation. He did a phenomenal job narrating this book; and although the book is told from Elio’s perspective, Hammer’s familiarity with the subject matter brings a noticeable intimacy to an already very intimate book. He has a clipped, deep American voice that was very easy to listen to. However, I cannot laude his performance without mentioning the abuse allegations that have been made about him over the past year. I didn’t know about this at the time I listened to the audiobook or watched the film, and in fact it was only in reading more about the actors that I read about the allegations.
While the accusations levelled against the narrator may dissuade you from listening to the audiobook, I cannot recommend Aciman’s novel enough. I understand that he has written a follow up novel called “Find Me” and I am definitely going to read it.
A couple of people had recommended this book to me, and when I saw it was available as an audiobook and less than 9 hours long (and therefore within my attention span), I decided to try it out. I was a little bit skeptical because the title and premise reminded me a lot of Audrey Niffenegger’s excellent graphic novel “The Night Bookmobile“. However, without examining it too closely, I chose it as my next running book.
“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig and narrated by Carey Mulligan is a speculative fiction novel about a woman in her 30s called Nora whose life is falling apart. She’s lonely, she’s just lost her job and her cat has died. All her family are either dead or estranged. All her dreams of success have fallen by the wayside, and she can no longer think of any reasons to live and just wants the pain to end. However, after Nora completes suicide, she finds that things have not, in fact, ended. Instead, she has arrived in an enormous library full of books of all the alternate lives she could have had. Forced to closely examine all of her biggest regrets, are these other lives really better than the life she has chosen to leave behind?
Coincidentally, this is the third relatively new-release book I have read recently that uses speculative fiction to explore what happens after you die. Here is the first and here is the second, and I think this one is probably my favourite of them. This is a compelling book that gives an honest account of mental health, depression and the things that can lead to someone thinking about suicide. Haig skilfully and realistically conjures Nora’s alternative lives; and even her lives of dazzling success, wild adventure and complete contentment are grounded in the realm of possibility.
One of the things I liked the most about this book is how Nora’s mental health struggles were subtly woven into each possible life: emerging in different ways and requiring different treatment but nevertheless one of the constants. Haig uses trauma and grief to highlight how mental health can suddenly deteriorate, and that seeking help when you need it is crucial. While overall uplifting, this book is at no point overly saccharine or unrealistic about recovering from mental illness. Haig is honest with the readers about the work it takes to live with and live through depression. However, I liked that he took the time to write about the small positive ways you impact the world around you and that “success” comes in many forms. Mulligan was an excellent narrator and made Nora relatable and believable. I was a bit shocked however to learn that not everyone pronounces the word lichen the same!
While I enjoyed this book, there were a few points of logic that didn’t quite make sense to me. The first was in relation to the other Noras whose lives Nora stepped into. Via another character, Haig explains that the other Nora is simply absent and then returns with amnesia about what happened. Assuming both Noras are equally real, I think that the ethics of simply erasing someone temporarily, even if it’s another iteration of yourself, weren’t really adequately examined. I thought that Haig could have perhaps suggested something else instead, such as that the replaced Nora went to her own midnight library. I also felt that Haig several times suggested that Nora’s decision to pursue a particular career to extreme success necessarily had a negative impact on someone in her life, like a price that had to be paid, and I wasn’t sure that always had to be the case. I could nit-pick a few other examples, but I doubt anyone else is interested in quantum ethics and the experience of time and memories in a fictional scenario.
A well-written book with well-executed concept, it definitely leaves you thinking and gives you some great conversation starters to ask your friends.