Award-winning science fiction novel about cross-cultural alien communication
Content warning: war, addiction, mental illness
I picked up a copy of this book many Lifeline Bookfairs ago for one very obvious reason: the book’s tinted edges. While possibly originally black, the edges have since faded to a purplish colour. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a very long time and I was inspired to read it when it came up in the category of “7th most read genre in your all-time stats” of the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge 2022.
“Embassytown” by China Mieville is a science fiction novel about a young woman called Avice who comes from the eponymous city on a planet at the edge of the known universe. The city serves as a trading post and protected place of diplomacy with the endemic alien species the Ariekei, referred to as the Hosts. After becoming one of the few people born in Embassytown who manage to leave and travel through space, Avice returns to her childhood home with her partner: a passionate linguist who has a keen interest in the Hosts’ unique form of language. Diplomatic relations with the Hosts are conducted by a very select few humans called Ambassadors and while mutual understanding between humans and Ariekei is limited, Embassytown has enjoyed peace, stability and exchange of technologies for some time. That is, however, until a new Ambassador arrives from the Out.
This was an extremely clever and well-constructed novel and it is not a surprise in the slightest that it won a plethora of awards when it was published. Mieville’s premise is highly original and is an incredibly creative exploration of language, communication and diplomacy and how small misunderstandings can have catastrophic effects. Without giving too much away and detracting from the enjoyment of letting the reader’s understanding of the novel unfold, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding such as the expression of names as linguistic fractions, the buildings made from biomatter and the almost indecipherable concept of humans as similies that left me puzzling long after the book was over. Mieville leaves no stone unturned when it comes to exploring the implications of Embassytown’s establishment and each decision thereafter, but manages to do so without ever being boring. In some way, as the reader, we are required to empathise with the difficulties in understanding another culture by initially being faced with an unfathomable society and gradually gaining understanding and context as the book progresses.
I think the only very slight disadvantage to this book is that while Mieville’s pacing is very carefully done so as not to either overwhelm or underwhelm the reader with information, some readers may feel the time it takes to find your fitting a bit too long.
An exceptionally intelligent piece of science fiction, I am really looking forward to reading more of Mieville’s work.
Psychological thriller about unsolved murders and a suppressed past
Content warning: self-harm, child abuse
I am still trying to make some headway in my reading challenges for the year, so I have been trying to double up a little bit and combine both the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge into one. This was apparently a book that fits all of the criteria of my reading profile: a fiction book that is mysterious, dark, tense, fast-paced and 300-499 pages long. Specific! I actually have read a book by this author previously, and I had picked up another of hers from the Lifeline Bookfair some time a go and was keen to see what it was like.
Photo is of “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn. The paperback book is sitting inside a dolls house between a doll’s chair and a doll’s bed with a blue and white floral bedcover. There is a wooden table with a basket and a miniature bread roll inside. The cover is plain black with embossed dark blue text.
“Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn is a crime thriller novel about a journalist called Camille who is asked to investigate a disappearance in her home town. Reluctantly, Camille takes on the assignment to cover the story of the second missing girl in a short period of time. When she arrives, she braces herself to see her estranged family while she interviews local police and the victim’s family. However, the longer she is in town, the clearer it becomes that despite the wealth and splendour of her family home, there are some very dark secrets that she thought she left behind. Despite seeming relatively stable if uninspired in her job, as the book progresses we start to see just how much of a toll Camille’s childhood has taken on her. Camille also has the opportunity to get to know her much younger, precocious teenage sister and becomes determined to protect her. The question is: who really needs protecting?
This is a compelling, disturbing story that examines the way trauma can ripple through families regardless of class with devastating effects. Flynn juxtaposes Camille’s mother’s pursuit of beauty and perfection with the emotional and physical scars Camille bears from growing up in that environment. Flynn is a very good at building and maintaining tension, and just like in “Gone Girl”, no matter how challenging the subject matter becomes, it is almost impossible to look away. There is a TV adaptation which is just as good with excellent acting.
I think the only thing about this book is that at times it feels almost provocative for the sake of it, kind of the same way that Camille’s little sister Amma is provocative for the sake of it. There were parts of this book that left me deeply uncomfortable; not just the fallout from terrible crimes, but the ethics of Camille’s own decisions.
It is starting to get rather late in the year, and it occurred to me that I really haven’t been making much of a dent in any of the reading challenges I started at the beginning of the year. So I’m trying to at least tackle the StoryGraph‘s onboarding reading challenge. This book was from the “Popular this Week” when I was adding my books from the challenge, and happily I already had a copy that I had picked up from the Lifeline Bookfair some time ago. The cover is very eye catching, with embossed text, black and white silhouettes and a dash of colour with a red scarf.
“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern is a historical fantasy novel set in Victorian England. The book is about a travelling circus known as Le Cirque desRêves that arrives in towns around the world with no warning. It opens at nightfall, it closes at dawn, and the tents inside contain wonders that its visitors have never seen the like before. However, there is much more to the circus than meets the eye. At its heart is a contest, and the players nominated are Celia, the daughter of an enchanter, and Marco, chosen by a mysterious sorcerer as an apprentice. However, the masters did not reckon on the desires of their players, and the players did not reckon on the community that would grow around the circus.
This is a sweet, intricate novel that leans into the romance, whimsy and transience of circuses. Morgenstern creates layers and layers of magical spaces, exploring the limits of magic and imagination. As the circus grows more and more intricate, we begin to see the toll on Celia and Marco, and those around them. I think my favourite part of the book was Bailey’s story, a young boy who falls in love with the circus, and I felt that Morgenstern handled his arc so delicately and so satisfyingly.
While I liked the writing and I enjoyed the premise, I think I found the overarching plot less compelling. The romance seemed to rely on predestination rather than real chemistry. There were things that I wanted to know more about, like the nature of the man in the grey suit, and there were things that I probably could have taken less of, like the listing of the various experiences in the circus which, while creative and beautifully described, did not necessarily contribute much to the plot.
A captivating book with an appealing premise that was a little light on with story.
Mystery novel set in Botswana about love, independence and humanity
Content warning: family violence, child labour
There are a lot of people in my family who enjoy detective and mystery novels, and I have had this book recommended to me several times. In fact, I have had a copy on my bookshelf for so long, I can’t remember where I got it from. This year, I have migrated from Goodreads to StoryGraph to keep track of the books I read. One of the things that StoryGraph offers is its new members is its onboarding challenge with six different challenge prompts to complete in your first year of membership. The second challenge prompt is “Read a book from the Five-Star section of someone from Similar Users”, and this book came up.
“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith is a mystery novel about Precious, a woman who opens a detective agency in Botswana with her inheritance from her father. Despite a slow start and some raised eyebrows from other citizens, Precious eventually receives her first clients. Although she does not have much experience or formal training, her unorthodox style, tenacity, powers of observation and empathy generate results. However, some of the mysteries prove to be challenging and solving them may prove dangerous. Meanwhile, Precious has to contend with advances from eligible men. However, with a history of heartbreak and a business to run, she is reluctant to think about romance again.
This was a fun and surprisingly complex book that tackled a range of social issues. I was particularly impressed at how sensitively McCall Smith handled family violence, and how a strong, independent woman can nevertheless experience violence and become a survivor. It is impossible to read this book and not empathise completely with Precious, and admire her resilience to begin her life again on her own terms. I also enjoyed a lot of the peripheral characters, most especially Mr JLB Matekoni, whose quiet sweetness is a delightful counterpart to Precious’ own style.
Although McCall Smith has clearly spent a lot of time in Botswana, and writes generously about the country, as he is a white man of Scottish heritage I did find myself wondering about the book’s authenticity (having never been to Botswana myself). I have read books by authors from other African nations including Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and South Africa but none yet by an author from Botswana. There is a really interesting, detailed article on Medium about some of the barriers to novels being published in Botswana and shared with the rest of the world. McCall Smith’s book has also been adapted into a TV series which was one of the first major film productions in Botswana and has a talented cast that bring this off-beat mystery story to life.
An enjoyable, original story that subverts the detective fiction genre.
Walaupun saya tinggal di Indonesia untuk jumlah enam tahun, dan belajar Bahasa Indonesia di SD, SMP, SMU dan Universitas, sebelum ini saya belum pernah membaca buku novel dalam Bahasa Indonesia. Waktu saya masih remaja, bapak saya kasih kepada saya “Harry Potter dan Batu Bertuah”. Saya coba membacanya, tetapi kosa katanya terlalu susah dan saya tidak mebaca lebih dari si kembar Weasley yg ditemu pertama kali oleh Harry Potter di kereta api Hogwarts Express. Saya pernah dengar tentang buku ini dari teman-teman dan penulis lain (khususnya tentang hal realisme magis). Walaupun ada terjemahan Bahasa Inggris, saya punya keinginan untuk membaca buku ini dalam Bahasa Indonesia. Saya sekarang membaca beberapa buku untuk proyek tulisan dan buku ini ada tema relevan. Oleh karena itu, saya pesan edisi Indonesia.
“Cantik Itu Luka” ditulis oleh Eka Kurniawan adalah sebuah novel tentang seorang perempuan bernama Dewi Ayu yang tinggal lagi sesudah dua puluh satu tahun kematian. Novel ini menjelaskan kenapa Dewi Ayu menutuskan untuk mati sesudah anak perempuan keempatnya lahir. Berbeda dari kakak-kakaknya, anak perempuan ini sangat jelek dan sebelum mati, Dewi Ayu kasih satu hadiah: nama Cantik. Terus, kita membaca tentang hidup Dewi Ayu sebagai orang Indo di kota Halimunda. Halimunda diokupasi oleh tentara Jepang pada Perang Dunia II dan Dewi Ayu terpaksa menjadi pelacur. Sesudah perang, Dewi Ayu menjadi pelacur yang paling terkenal dan dicintai di Halimunda. Dia punya tiga anak dari tiga bapak berbeda dan setiap anak lebih cantik dari pada yang lain. Akan tetapi, masa sesudah perang merupakan kesempatan untuk mendapat kemerdekaan dari Belanda dan membayang negeri baru. Ada tiga cowok yang menjadi sangat berkuasa pada waktu ini: Shodancho, Kamerad Kliwon dan Maman Gendeng. Siapa yang menang perang untuk jiwa Indonesia dan menikah anak perempuan cantik Dewi Ayu?
Novel ini mencerita sejarah Indonesia dari perspektif unik. Dengan pergunaan realisme magis dan tema yang mengerikan, Eka Kurniawan menunjukkan peristiwa yang paling jelek pada periode Perang Dunia II, Revolusi Nasional Indonesia, Penumpasan PKI dan mungkin juga Petrus. Tokoh-tokoh Dewi Ayu, anaknya dan suaminya mengalamkan peristiwa ini dengan berbeda dan jelas bahwa orang perempuan sangat mudah diserang oleh tentara, preman dan bahkan keluarganya. Dewi Ayu sangat praktis, dan tanpa emosi dia menderita dan mengambil tindakan untuk memastikan dia dan anaknya aman. Kadang-kadang ada peristiwa yang tidak bisa dijelaskan seperti orang yang hidup lagi, cium yang berapi, babi yang menjadi manusia dan kutukan yang tidak bisa dipatahkan. Eka Kurniawan menggunakan hal ini untuk membuat emosi Halimunda semakin keras. Gaya menulisnya sering seperti dogeng.
Akan tetapi, buku ini tidak mudah dibaca. Walaupun memang ada banyak kosa kata yang saya belum tahu (sesudah selesai buku ini, saya mengisi tiga buku catatan dengan kosa kata Bahasa Indonesia!), itu bukan masalahnya. Masalanya sebetulnya tema. Ada banyak kekerasan, banyak perkosaan dan banyak hal yang didaftarkan di atas yang sulit dibaca. Walaupun saya paham ada hal yang harus didiskusikan, Eka Kurniawan menulis tentang hal jelek dengan terlalu banyak perincian, dan saya merasa tidak nyaman membaca buku ini.
Walaupun ini buku yang penting dan menarik, itu juga buku sulit dan sering mengerikan.
Literary novel about an Indo woman, her family and the soul of Indonesia through 19th century history
Although I lived in Indonesia for a total of six years, and studied Indonesian in primary school, high school and university, before now I have never read a book in Bahasa Indonesia. When I was still a teenager, my dad gave me a copy of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. I tried to read it, but the vocabulary was too difficult and I didn’t read further than the Weasley twins met for the first time by Harry Potter on the Hogwarts Express train. I had heard about this book from friends and other writers (especially about the issue of magic realism) Although there is an English translation, I wanted to read it in Bahasa Indonesia. I’m currently reading several books for a writing project and this book has relevant themes. As a result, I ordered an Indonesian edition.
“Beauty is a Wound” by Eka Kurniawan is a novel about a woman called Dewi Ayu who lives again after twenty one years of being dead. This novel explains why Dewi Ayu decided to die after her fourth child was born. Unlike her sisters, this girl is extremely ugly and before dying, Dewi Ayu gives her one gift: the name Beauty. Next, we read about Dewi Ayu’s life as an Indo person in the city of Halimunda. Halimunda was occupied by the Japanese army during World War II and Dewi Ayu is forced to become a sex worker. After the war, Dewi Ayu becomes the most famous and beloved sex worker in Halimunda. She has three children from three different fathers and each child is more beautiful than the next. However, the time after the war is an opportunity to achieve independence from the Netherlands and imagine a new nation. There are three men who become very influential during this time: Shodancho, Kamerad Kliwon and Maman Gendeng. Who will win the war for the soul of Indonesia and marry Dewi Ayu’s beautiful daughters?
This novel depicts Indonesia’s history from a unique perspective. With the use of magic realism and horrifying themes, Kurniawan whos the most ugly events during World War II, the Indonesian National Revolution, the Indonesian Communist Purge and perhaps even the Petrus Killings. The characters of Dewi Ayu, her children and their husbands experiences these events differently and it is clear that women are especially vulnerable to the army, thugs and even their own families. Dewi Ayu is very practical, and without emotion she endures and takes action to ensure that she and her children are safe. Sometimes there are events than cannot be explained like people coming back to life, fiery kisses, pigs who become people and curses that cannot be cursed. Eka Kurniawan uses these elements to make Halimunda’s emotions even more intense. His writing style is often like fables.
However, this book is difficult to read. Although there is plenty of vocabulary that I didn’t know yet (after finishing this book, I had filled three notebooks with Indonesian vocabulary!), that wasn’t the problem. The problem was actually the themes. There is lots of violence, lots of rape and lots of the things listed above that are difficult to read. Although I understand there are things that need to be discussed, Eka Kurniawan writes about gross things with far too much detail, and I felt really uncomfortable reading this book.
Although this is an interesting and important book, it is also a difficult book that is often horrifying.
As I have mentioned several times on this blog, I have been a fan of this author for a long time. I adored the “Chocolat” series and have really enjoyed most of her original folklore and fairy tales. I also realy liked her psychological thrillers. However, this book has been on my shelf for years and years and I have not managed to read it. I really enjoy runes, and I really enjoy fantasy, but for some reason every time I have tried to start this book I just haven’t been able to get into it. It probably isn’t helped by this cover design which, despite the embossing and gold foil, remains, tragically, quite ugly. The illustrator has actually designed some pretty iconic book covers so I am not sure what happened here. Anyway, I am trying really hard to get through my to-read pile as part of the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and when I actually made my own set of runestones recently, I figured it was finally time to tackle this book once and for all.
“Runemarks” by Joanne Harris is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Maddy Smith who has always been an outcast in her small village Malbry. Maddy has a strange birthmark on her hand, a dark orange ruinmark in the shape of a rune. With the mark comes something else: an ability to wield magic. While the townsfolk discourage anything that requires any amount of imagination, when Maddy was small she met a travelling man called One-Eye. Every season, near a large hill with a red horse carved into it, One-Eye teaches her more about runes, lore, and cantrips from old times. When he is away, Maddy practises her magic in small ways such as chasing away goblins. However, when One-Eye finally returns, he has a special request: to open a way beneath Red Horse Hill and retrieve something that will change the world.
This book draws heavily on Norse mythology, especially the gods and realms that make up the Nine Worlds. While drawing on similar motifs and themes to many of her other stories, in this one, Harris explores a different style of writing. This book is action-packed with a focus on battles for overt power and the fate of the world rather than the subtler themes often touched on in her other work. I think my favourite parts of the book were actually the Examiners, their distorted morality and struggles for control over themselves and each other. Harris explores how fanaticism can breed intolerance and hate, echoing similar messages in some of her other work. Of all the characters in the book, I think perhaps my favourite was Ethelberta who underwent the most character development and was perhaps the most relatable character in the book.
However, in finally finishing this book I was reminded why I had so much trouble with it the other times I have read it. I’m not sure if I am just not very inspired by Norse mythology or if there just wasn’t the same kind of balance between the wonder of magic and horror or danger that you find in some other fantasy novels. Maddie’s time in the oppressive, stale tunnels of Red Horse Hill just felt relentless, and each setting after the next was more and more grim. I appreciate it is a dark story, but there was no respite; no Rivendell-equivalent where we could catch our breath, get to know the characters and understand what was to come next. I think ultimately Maddie’s world didn’t really seem like one that deserved to be saved. Her town was awful, the tunnels were awful, the Examiners and whatever was in the Outlands was awful, the realms they visited were awful and all the people and gods: also pretty awful. I didn’t come away from this book feeling inspired by humanity, I came away feeling like Maddie left a bad place for several that were arguably worse.
While the use of runes to cast spells was a fun way to conceive magic, so much time was spent explaining how the magic was limited that when it came down to it, it did seem quite implausible that the Good Guys (difficult at any time to ascertain due to constantly shifting alliances and morally grey and ambivalent gods) would even be strong enough to fight the final battle. I get that the gods are meant to be fickle and fallible, but I just wasn’t cheering for any of them.
Ultimately not my style of fantasy and I think perhaps Norse mythology is not for me.
Quite some time ago I started collecting these beautiful Penguin by Hand editions. There were six books written by women published with embossed covers inspired by different types of craft. I have three in my collection (so far) but have only reviewed “The Help” and “The Postmistress“. This book is just as beautiful as the others with a gorgeous tactile embossed design inspired by cross-stitch. I actually can’t believe it has been over five years since I last reviewed a book in this series. I feel like I have picked this one up and put it with a handful of books to read on several trips, but it has never made it to the top of the pile until now.
“The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak is a novel within a novel. The first story is about a mother called Ella who lives with her husband and three children. Her days are mostly spent on housework and preparing elaborate meals for her family. Despite being in the family home day in, day out, her family seem to be drifting away from her and her life feels meaningless. However, when she gets a part-time job reading for a literary agency, suddenly everything changes. The first book she is asked to read, the novel within this novel, is called Sweet Blasphemy by an author called A. Z. Zahara. This, on the other hand, is a historical fiction story set in today’s Iran in the mid-1200s about a Persian poet called Shams who befriends and becomes the spiritual instructor of an Islamic scholar known as Rumi. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Shams had a pivotal impact on Rumi’s poetry and that he was murdered. As Ella reads the story of Shams and Rumi, she begins to feel more and more inspired by love and decides to email the author.
I am no expert in poetry, but this book has just reaffirmed to me the strength of Iran and Persia‘s poetry tradition. My favourite parts of the books were by far the Sweet Blasphemy chapters. Shafak uses a range of characters to examine different parts of Persian society: a novice, a beggar, an alcoholic, a sex worker, Rumi, members of his household and even the person who killed Shams. There was an incredible magnetism between Shams and Rumi and even if their relationship was strictly platonic, it certainly felt very romantic. I also really enjoyed Shams’ rules and how each rule tied into the theme of each chapter. It was also a fascinating history of the origin of whirling dervishes.
I did find, however, that I was much less invested in Ella’s story. Somehow compared to the historical significance of Shams and Rumi and the mark they made on poetry and religion, Ella’s difficulties with her family, love life and career just weren’t as engaging. I could see that her story did serve to bring modern relevance to Shams and Rumi, but I’m not sure it was enough to keep me compelled.
A beautifully written novel, especially Shams and Rumi’s story, but a little unevenly paced.
Historical fiction novel set in Russia about a fallen aristocrat detained in a hotel
After recently moving house and being faced with the equal parts exciting and horrifying task of arranging my bookshelves, it has occurred to me (again) that I have too many unread books. I have committed to the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, but to be honest, it hasn’t been going especially well! With quite of lot of life stuff happening recently I’m just very far behind. However, with my bookshelf freshly organised, I decided to make a genuine start on tackling some of those piles. This book I bought some time ago after several people recommended it to me. It is a beautiful hardcover edition with gold foil which is simply radiant when the light catches it just so. Now, this book is set in historical Russia and given the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, I did initially feel uncomfortable about the prospect of reading it. However, I looked up the the author and discovered he is American and decided to go ahead.
“A Gentleman in Mosco” by Amor Towles is a historical fiction novel set in Moscow, Russia in 1922. The story is about Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat in his early 30s, who is being interrogated in the Kremlin. Shortly afterwards he is escorted to the hotel he is residing in, the Hotel Metropol, but instead of returning to his suite, he is moved into a tiny attic room and advised that he is not to leave the hotel. Ever. Irreverent and charming, the Count initially makes the most of things and tries to follow his typical routine: fancy meals, frequent haircuts, scintillating conversation. However, as the years pass by, holding on to the past begins to weight the Count down. If he is to survive life in the hotel, the Count realises that he must work hard to find new meaning in his life.
This was a beautifully written and elegantly structured book. Towles shows a real knack for keeping on top of the many threads woven through this story, bringing certain threads back to the forefront with exception timing. However, even stronger than this was the character development. Towles manages to capture a lifetime within a relatively short number of pages, showing the high points and the low points of a unusual life lived. I really enjoyed the relationships that the Count develops with staff and guests at the hotel over time. Rather than being static, the hotel changes over time and the people change with it. I especially liked the Triumvirate and how as the Count grows closer to his friends Andrey and Emile, they are shown to the reader in more and more close detail. It is interesting that this book was published in 2016 because I think it would have been a very relatable book to read during lockdown.
I thought it was admirable that Towles titled each chapter with a word or phrase beginning with the letter A, but the very last chapter, An Anon, I actually felt was superfluous. I had been along for the ride the entire way, almost every chapter had hit the mark, but the little coda just didn’t quite land. I think I would have preferred a little more ambiguity at the end. Also (and this is me being utterly pedantic against American English) I was a little annoyed that so much care was taken with describing dining etiquette, yet Towles used the term entrée to refer to the main course of a meal, rather than the French (and rest of the English-speaking world’s) usage to refer to starters. This could well have been an American publication choice, but it still irritated me.
Nevertheless, this is a deeply emotional and well-considered book that asks us how, when our world becomes very small, we can fill it with little yet meaningful things.
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.
“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.
Content warning: post-traumatic stress disorder, war, self-harm, paranormal themes
I saw a trailer for the film adaptation of this book a few years ago, and saw that the novel was by Sarah Waters who I have never read, but who is quite well-known for her lesbian fiction. It looked really well shot with beautiful filmography and an eerie vibe. I tend to prefer to read the book before watching the film, and kept an eye out for the book in second-hand bookstores. However, it wasn’t until a couple of years later I finally saw the book at the Lifeline Bookfair. Hilariously, the film doesn’t appear to be available to stream anywhere online in Australia at the moment, so I still haven’t seen it, but I did finally get a chance to read the book.
“The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is a gothic novel about Dr Faraday, a general practitioner in his mid-30s who lives in Warwickshire in the West-Midlands, England. Growing up poor, a pivotal memory for Dr Faraday is visiting Hundreds Hall, a grand Georgian house, as a small boy. Now grown, he is called out to Hundreds to attend to a young maid. Although the house has withered since the war, Dr Faraday is just as mesmerised as he was as a boy, and he soon forms a friendship with Mrs Ayres and her adult children Caroline and Roderick. However, it is more than the house that has changed at Hundreds. Initially concerned that the family members are experiencing mental health symptoms, even a rationalist like Dr Faraday begins to find it harder and harder to explain the things that are happening in the house. Increasingly involved, Dr Faraday must ask himself who, or what, is the catalyst.
This is a deeply unsettling book that really seeps into your bones. Waters maintains an exquisite amount of tension throughout the book by giving the reader just enough to spark imagination but not enough to ever result in a satisfying resolution. As the house slowly crumbles so too does the Ayres family. With one misfortune after another, I found myself looking for the culprit. Was it one person, was it another, or was it an inexplicable, sinister force? In the end, nobody seemed trustworthy, not even the narrator Dr Faraday. After the book was finished, I felt like that math lady meme, trying in vain to put all the pieces together. I always feel that a sign of a good book is that you keep thinking about it once it is done, and I definitely kept thinking about this one. Also, even though nothing too overt happens, I found this book genuinely eerie to the point of being actually frightening. At one point, I was reading the book at night while my husband was in the same room playing computer games, and he shouted at something happening on screen, and I just about jumped out of my skin, I was that on edge. I had to abandon reading it that evening and try again the next day during daylight because it was too stressful.
It was such a well-written and well-paced book that there wasn’t really anything negative to say about it except that given it was published in 2009, there were some things that perhaps may not have made it past editors today. One example being Caroline’s elderly Labrador retriever dog, who shares a name with a slur used to refer to Romani people.
A lingering and haunted book that is just the thing if you’re looking for a gothic winter novel.