Book Review: Ghosts by Dolly Alderton (2020)

Nina is a 32-year-old food writer who’s at a point in her life where everything is slowly changing around her. She’s one of the last in her friendship group to be single whilst her best friend is married and expecting a second child. Her mother is getting really involved with various trends and her father is suffering from dementia. On the night of her 32nd birthday, Nina sets up a profile on an online dating website and starts talking with Max. At the end of their first date Max tells Nina that he will marry her (YES, I know, that’s what we commonly call a big old red flag 🚩). They date for a few months and gradually Max disappears from Nina’s life…

Like most millennial women, I love The High Low podcast (which sadly ended last week) and its two host, Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton. I think they’re both funny and I like the way they think. I read Dolly’s memoir Everything I Know About Love a couple of years ago, but I did not like it. To be honest, I never finished it and ended up donating it to my local charity shop so that someone could give it some love. I know this has been very popular and many women could relate to Dolly’s early life, but I really could not bear to read it further. I liked the writing style but Alderton’s experience is too far remote from my own experience, and I really do struggle reading about people who stubbornly choose to do the wrong thing – and there was also way too much drinking, which is fair enough for her but a personal trigger for me. This book made me so angry, I thought it’d be wiser to stop reading it. Nonetheless, I really like Dolly Alderton and her writing so I was really excited to read her debut novel, Ghosts, which focuses on modern dating and ghosting – this phenomenon where someone suddenly stops replying to your messages and calls. This is something I have experienced and it’s so strange and confusing… you never know what actually happened to the person – they could be dead for all you know – but they’re still very present in your head.

Of course, since the title hints at several ghosts, Nina is haunted by much more than the absence of Max. There is first her dad and the ghost of who he used to be, then there is her best friend and the ghost of their friendship, and finally the ghost of Nina’s past when everything seemed easier and sweeter. I am a little younger than Nina but I could really relate to this period of confusion she experiences, feeling apart from her friends, and at a loss when it comes to her family. I think that her relationship with her mum was especially interesting because you can tell that they do love each other, but they have an extremely complicated relationship and deal with the crisis in completely different ways. Their relationship felt very real and strong, it’s not often that I read about a beautifully nuanced mother/daughter relationship.

To me Ghosts is like one of those romcoms from the 80s/90s that can be very funny and romantic, but have more depth than you would first expect. We really needed a 21st century version, so thank you Dolly Alderton! This is a very modern novel in the fact that it portrays a realistic version of online dating. It’s not too exaggerated and over the top as you can sometimes see, but technology and texts are an essential element of Nina’s life – as it is for most of us. I was a little scared that online dating would be represented in a silly, exaggerated way but it really is well depicted – the strangeness of it all and the magic that happens when you finally click with someone. Obviously, this is all the more traumatising when the person you are dating stops responding altogether and you have no idea whether they’re still alive. I experienced something similar in a friendship and the way Nina feels was so vividly portrayed, I felt I was back a few years ago wondering what I could have possibly done wrong to hurt this friend who suddenly stopped talking to me. Like Nina, you feel at a loss as to why Max decided to disappear from her life because he was about to meet her parents and had just told her that he loved her. And then suddenly, nothing.

Since Ghosts is a modern take on the traditional romcom, the ending might not necessarily be satisfying for everyone. I thought Alderton’s message was very uplifting but there were a few things at the end that made me frown a little, I think we could’ve easily done without those… and I’m pretty sure that anyone who’s read this book will know what I’m talking about. Overall I liked Nina’s story but as I would like watching a feel-good film on a rainy afternoon, and I’m not sure I will remember much from it in a few months. I still would recommend reading this novel, you’ll spend a nice time in its company but don’t expect too much from it, just take it as it is – a pleasant read about modern dating and friendship.

Have you read this book? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Book Review: The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

The Lying Life of Adults is the much awaited latest book written by Elena Ferrante – the first one after the last volume of Neapolitan quartet. It tackles similar issues to her previous works, for instance class, beauty, adolescence, studying, etc. This is not a plot-driven novel and Ferrante focuses more on the evolution of the heroine, Giovanna, as she goes through turbulent changes in her teenage years.

When the novel starts, Giovanna is an adult who is looking back at her 12-year-old self hearing her dad referring to her as ugly, and comparing her to his estranged sister who he thinks is as nasty as her looks might suggest. This comment leads Giovanna to become interested in this aunt, Vittoria, whom she is supposed to look like. Raised in a middle-class neighbourhood of Naples, she goes to meet her aunt down in the working-class area of the city and meets people who are completely different from her wealthy, quiet, and educated friends. It’s tricky to sum up this novel because it’s not so much about what the characters do but rather how they interact and evolve.

It took me a while to write this review because if I’m honest, I have been clueless about this book. It’s haunted me for a while after reading it, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I think I felt very frustrated only having access to Giovanna’s growth on such a short period of time. I really hope that there will be a sequel to this book, because I feel like Ferrante is the best at creating character development over the course of a few books – she needs space to say all the things that she has to say.

Even though Giovanna is recalling what happened during her teenage years, she still conveys the feelings of adolescence vividly. Everything is changing around her – her body, the way people look at her, her family… and all her emotions are heightened, especially anger. That makes her sometimes really annoying, but that’s what you get when following a teenage heroine. It is such a strange time of life and I think Ferrante is excellent at portraying this. She’s especially good at depicting the changing body of a girl and how it impacts everything, and also the fear of looking like an older relative because she feels so ugly and awkward. There is also this new way that men have to look at you, and it creates more discomfort but also an ambivalence between hating this new body and using it to gain a certain power over men. Being a teenage girl is to feel a constant angst towards your body and to wish you were anyone but yourself. It might not be the same for everyone, but it certainly was for me and I think this ambivalence of the changing body is beautifully portrayed in The Lying Life of Adults.

And of course, adolescence is the time of first love interests. I won’t go into too much detail, just because I wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s pleasure in discovering this story, but love in this book is very reminiscent of the Neapolitan series. There is a clear distinction between the interest Giovanna receives from most boys and men, who are all like animals in the sense that they only expect sex from her. On the other hand, there is the educated young man who transcended his class through studies; he is more spiritual, and pushes Giovanna to better herself on an intellectual level. This figure resembles Nino in Ferrante’s previous series, but we also know later that Nino was in fact not much better than other men in that regard. In this novel, Giovanna falls in love with the idea of this man, his goodness and his kindness – almost like a religious idol. I thought that this was very relevant with the theme of adolescence because we all have this one person that we are obsessed with when we grow up to the point of adoration (whether an actual person or a celebrity).

I would love to be able to read Italian and read Elena Ferrante’s words as she thought them. Ann Goldstein does an amazing job at translating these beautiful novels, but I also know that you always lose something in translation. I remember when I first read Jane Eyre in French and then read it in English – it was like a completely different work and the writing flowed much more beautifully in English. It would be interesting to know what someone who read both the Italian and English versions thinks of The Lying Life of Adults (but that’s also because I’m a bit of language nerd).

If you’re already a Ferrante fan, you can just go ahead and read The Lying Life of Adults; you will find everything you love about about this author’s books. If you’ve never read Ferrante before, it might be a good place to start because it’s rather short and involves a little bit less commitment than My Brilliant Friend and its three following instalments. It’s a fantastic book that will get you hooked on Giovanna’s thoughts, but please be aware that you too will cry for a sequel at the end of your reading. PLEASE, give us another book – I beg!

Have you read this book already? What did you think of it? And as usual, happy reading!

Book Review: Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys

Elwood is a boy who’s raised by his grandmother and likes to listen on repeat to Dr King’s speeches. He works rather hard at school because he deeply believes that he can contribute to changing things for Black people in the US. He lives in Florida in the 1960s, and the Jim Crow laws are in full swing which fuels Elwood’s will to be part of the change. He’s championed by one of his teacher who’s an activist, too, and thanks to him, the boy manages to secure a place in the local college to learn English. However, after an unfortunate turn of events Elwood is sent to the Nickel Academy – a sort of education centre for young offenders. The school is segregated and the children are beaten by the staff to points of extreme violence. Everyone dreams of escaping but no one has ever managed to do so. Sometimes, when a boy is especially ‘tough’, he’s taken to a shed in the school yard called the White House, never to be seen again. Faced with this cruel system where education doesn’t matter because black boys don’t matter, Elwood remember King’s speech and fight to see the end of this oppression.

This novel is easy to read in the sense that Whitehead writes with an ease that is engrossing and makes you dive deep into Elwood’s world. But everything said is also so heavy and difficult because as you read about Elwood’s struggles, you can’t help but wonder if this is really set in the 1960s or right now. The Nickel Academy counts both white and black inmates, but you never really hear about the white boys because they’re held far apart from their black counterparts. It’s in the black school that there isn’t any education, it’s also there that the White House is and that boys disappear. I really don’t want to spoil this novel, but if you know a thing or two about American history then I’m pretty sure you can guess what’s really going on in that school. Whitehead was inspired by a true story to write this novel, so it’s all the more poignant.

He hadn’t marched on the Florida Theatre in defense of his rights or those of the black race of which he was a part; he had marched for everyone’s rights, even those who shouted him down. My struggle is your struggle, your burden is my burden.

I wrote this review before the results of the American election and I felt truly scared – afraid that still so many black children wouldbe deprived of education and a life because they’re growing up in a system that refuses to give them space to exist. Now we all know the outcome of the election, and we can breathe. But we still need to be aware of everything that’s going on around us and never forget that Black Lives Matter. This is a book that deals with it because so many black boys’ lives were neglected and still are to this day.

In the end, there isn’t so much to say about this book other than: READ IT. It’s one of the best things I’ve read this year and the ending left me speechless. I’ve read it a little while ago and it’s still vivid in my mind… I can’t wait to read the rest of Colson Whitehead’s works, I fell in love with his writing!

Book Review: Lana Grace Riva, The Existence of Amy

First of all, I would like to thank the author for sending me a free copy of the book in exchange of an honest review. It’s actually the first time I was sent a book to review, so I really appreciate it. Second of all, I would like to warn you that this review will mainly deal with mental health, which I know can be a triggering topic to some, but I’m not going into much details when mentioning anxiety/depression/OCD.

Amy is a young woman with a nice job and nice friends, but she struggles with mental illness which is slowly taking over her life. Amy doesn’t name the illnesses she suffers from, but we quickly understand that there is some form of OCD, anxiety and depression. As someone who has struggled with the last two for many years now, I found Amy’s story very moving and impactful.

 She is always tired because every little thing causes her to overthink all possibilities and dangers a situation could bring. For example, taking the bus is an actual ordeal because of the germs everywhere (we can all particularly understand this one at the moment, I guess) and people’s looks, the possibility that maybe one of them would sit next to her, etc. Or the panic that overtakes her when she needs to go somewhere new where she won’t be familiar with the people or facilities… it is exhausting to read her worries but it’s exactly how anxiety feels.

 I don’t know if Lana Grace Riva went through similar things in her life, or if she has got good knowledge of psychology but the way mental illness is represented in her book is extremely accurate. I think that this is an important book for everyone to read, even if you’ve never struggled with your mental health. This little novel can help you to understand what it feels like to have your whole life dictated by a nasty little voice in your head seeing the negative side of everything. And of course, if you suffer from some form of mental illness, I think this book can be beneficial in understanding that you are not alone and with some professional help, you will be fine. Amy refers to her mental illness as the ‘crazy’ but that’s because she’s not aware of anyone suffering from the same aches. It’s important to know that these do not make someone crazy.

One thing that is important to note is that the book is stripped bare of any references to a specific time or place (apart from a trip the characters take), and the characters also feel very ‘bare’. Now, I think this will be a problem to some readers who need to feel very invested in the characters’ lives but I also reckon it brings something special to the book. Because Amy doesn’t have anything really special about her, it’s very easy to put yourself – as a reader – in her shoes and imagine how it feels or relate to her behaviours if you’ve experienced similar struggles. So I really liked that everything in the book was very basic in this sense as I felt it was easier for me to add my own feelings and experiences to the story. The only thing I do regret is that Amy’s language was too formal, I think I would have felt even closer to her if her language was a little more colloquial.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Existence of Amy because it made me feel less alone and that I was on the right way to recovery. However, this is not a plot-driven book so do not expect to be hooked by the events in the novel. To me, this is more of an educational book that I believe should be put in all hands! 

Book Review: Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (2020)

The Vanishing Half is the story of the Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella. They grew up in the small village of Mallard, which is solely inhabited by light-skinned black people who suffer from discrimination from white people, whilst refusing to mix up with darker-skinned people. Desiree and Stella witness their father’s being lynched by a group of white men when they were little girls, and it traumatised them. They grew to hate the village and eventually fled from it one morning when they were sixteen. They escaped to New Orleans where they both found a job, but soon went their separate ways. Stella leaves her sister without a word, passing as a white woman and enjoying all the possibilities that it entails. Meanwhile Desiree marries a man with darker skin and with whom she has a child, but her husband is abusive and she manages to run away from him and goes back to Mallard with her daughter, who has to suffer from the discrimination from the other villagers due to her dark skin.

This novel tackles a lot of different issues and one that I found the most impactful was that of identity, especially finding your identity within or outside of race. In the end, this novel compares the ‘standard’ lives of a black woman and a white woman. Desiree had to escape from her violent husband and had no choice but to go live with her mother. In Washington, she would work for the FBI and compare fingerprints – an important office job. But back in Louisiana, all that she is able to do (as in, all society accepts her to do) is waitressing at the local diner. It doesn’t mean that this is not a job that can’t make her happy, it just illustrates the fact that society deprives her from the right to elevate herself socially; she is stuck in her hometown with no way out. Stella on the other hand, as she passes as a white woman, can become a secretary and marries her boss. She gets to have a beautiful house, expensive jewellery, and host sumptuous dinner parties. These are traditional symbol of success for a woman in the 1970s-80s, but they do not necessarily make her happy as she is stuck in her lies and cannot show her true self to anyone. In fact, the only moment where she is herself is when she becomes friend with her black neighbour. But what matters here is that Stella was free to go up in the world, whereas Desiree was maintained right down.

This difference between going through life as a black woman vs a white woman is illustrated by Desiree’s daughter when she meets a young white woman her age and realises how ‘inscrutable’ their lives are and how everything will always be easier for the blonde white woman than for her.

Of course, this leads to the question of colourism within the black community. It’s something that needs to be mentioned in this review, but these are not words for me to speak so instead, I would recommend watching this quick video to understand what colourism is and how it impacts women of colour in their daily lives:

I also found that The Vanishing Half was a beautiful lesson in love, in all its forms. To show the importance of respecting the other’s privacy and boundaries; to accept the unconventional aspect of a relationship to be happy because being married is not always synonymous with bliss.

Brit Bennett wrote such a beautiful book, and really managed to depict the complexities of love, identity and race. Her writing is quite simple, which turned her book into an absolute page-turner, and I think a simple language is always the best way to convey complex ideas. I would definitely recommend reading The Vanishing Half, I’m actually quite surprised it was not longlisted for the Booker Prize this year as it’s a very impactful and masterly written novel!

Book Review: Saltwater, Jessica Andrews (2019)

Winner of the Portico Prize this year, Salwater tells in vignettes the story of Lucy who grew up in Sunderland, moved to London for her studies, and ended up in Ireland after the death of her grandfather, living in his cottage in county Donegal. Every vignette is written as a diary entry, as if Lucy had just jotted down some memories that constitute the beginning of her life and made her who she is, now.

As you can guess there isn’t really a plot as such in Saltwater, it is more about Lucy navigating life and her relationship with her mother. The latter is a common thread throughout the book – from the unbearable physical distance between their two bodies to the desire of being like her, and reproducing her behaviour in the only way Lucy understands. Mother-daughter relationships are always fascinating and complex, and I think it is perfectly encapsulated in this novel.

In my life in Donegal, I am learning how to take what I want. There are unfulfilled desires, curdled inside of me. I have buried things; swallowed them down and turned off the light. I must learn how to listen to my body again. I must learn how to need, how to ask, how to want.

I briefly mentioned this book when I was reading it in this article, and as I said, it moved me deeply. From the way Andrews writes about her shifting class when she arrives in London and her alcoholic dad, I’m guessing that Saltwater is highly autobiographical. It felt so real and powerful, because I have felt and lived the same things. Seeing adults behave strangely and never being sure of what you’ll find when you get home, running after someone who disappeared… these felt like scenes I have lived and Andrews put words on these feelings of utter despair and shock in such a beautiful way, it was absolutely devastating.

It was also interesting to see Lucy arrives at university in London and being faced with people who had grown up in more privileged backgrounds. Those people have grown up to be who they are and had the space to be so, but Lucy is still figuring herself out because she never had the opportunity to expand on her tastes and desires. In her teenage bedroom, she romanticised a life in London with drunk poets and musicians, but once with them she realised that it wasn’t what she needed but a teenage dream.

I was too full. I was brimming with the possibility of everything. Other people’s lives were carefully curated whereas I was a tangled knot of all the people and places I had ever wanted to be. I was distracted by every bright thing and enamoured with every person I met who promised a more solid version of myself.

She truly finds herself in the loneliness of her Irish cottage and, although I found this part of the novel a little to idealised and romantic, she can start her life from there. Everything leading up to her standing on the beach was a necessary step in her journey to be herself, and not her mother. This is what I think anyway, as this is a coming-of-age story, many things can happen in Lucy’s life after the time of the novel – possibilities are endless, and that’s why I love that kind of stories!

I absolutely loved Saltwater and cannot recommend it enough. Going through the passages I highlighted for this review made me very emotional again, there is both power and calm in this text – it’s just overwhelming. It might not be for everyone as it is told in vignettes, but the structure of the book enables Andrews to be lyrical and dive deep into her memories. I’m not sure she would have had such freedom with a more traditional form. I think it’s a very promising debut, and I’m looking forward to reading whatever Jessica Andrews writes next.

Book Review: Kiley Reid, Such a Fun Age (2019)

Such a Fun Age is Kiley Reid’s debut novel that was released with a loud bang at the end of last year. I’ve heard a lot of about this novel, and even more since it was longlisted for the Booker Prize a few weeks ago. I decided to get the audiobook as it’s the kind of book that’s really nice to listen to. It is read by Nicole Lewis on Audible, and I think she did a wonderful job narrating this story as she really gave life to the characters and really engrossed me with the novel.

Emira is a young black woman who’s still trying to figure out what she wants from life so she’s working two jobs, including babysitting the Chamberlains’ eldest daughter, Briar. The mum, Alix, became famous online for writing letters asking for free gifts (I think? I didn’t really get what exactly she was doing with those letters, but you get the gist of it) and is now writing a book about it. Her husband is a news anchor who experienced some backlash for making a very borderline racist comment on TV. For this reason, some teenagers threw eggs at the Chamberlains’s house one night and broke a window. Panicked, they called the police and asked Emira in emergency to take three-year-old Briar away from the house. Emira, who was about to go out and looks like she’s going to a party, takes the little girl to a supermarket to keep her busy for a little while. Unfortunately, a young black woman in a white middle class neighbourhood doesn’t go unnoticed and a middle-aged woman reports Emira to the store’s security – implying that she might have kidnapped the white little girl. Ensues a scandalous scene where Emira has to justify herself by finally calling Briar’s dad to come and explain the situation. The scene was filmed by a man called Kelley who encourages Emira to post the video online and get some justice for herself, but she refuses and has him to delete the video.

It sounds like an interesting premise, doesn’t it? I thought the whole book would be about this incident, but actually it’s more of a prop for the author to tackle topics such as performative allyship and the nanny/employer dynamic.

I especially like the latter aspect, which reminded a lot of Leila Slimani’s Lullaby which also portrays the struggle of a middle class woman to appear as normal and relatable to her employee. In both novels, the mother goes to incredible extents to hide her poshness and is constantly worried her nanny will judge her expenses as frivolous and ridiculous. I think it’s always a great dynamic to explore as a nanny is like a part of the family, except that she’s paid to be so.

And of course, with the class struggle comes the racial difference in Such a Fun Age, which really reminded me of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. There’s also a question of monetary transaction in this book as well, and like Mrs Richardson for Mia, Alix has a strange fascination for Emira and she’s desperate to be friends with her to prove that she’s just like everyone else, that she’s a good person.

And what better way to show that you’re a good person than proving that you are not racist? If Kelley, the guy who filmed the supermarket scene, shows his support to black people by fighting alongside them and befriending them, Alix prefers to see herself as a generous employer whose duty is to protect her black employees from harm. If Alix’s behaviour is very obviously wrong, I don’t think Kelley’s is necessarily great either. He does seem to have a sort of fetish for black people and it doesn’t sound ok to me.

In this review so far, I’ve only talked about the white characters of the book. This is not me purposely ignoring Emira and the other black characters of the book, it is just that their voices are not as loud as Alix’s for instance. I really wish Emira’s presence had been amplified and that we had followed her more on her journey to figuring herself out. It’s something that’s very important to talk about because when you don’t come from the most privileged of backgrounds but are lucky enough to go to university, you have to do some extra work to know yourself and what you want out of life. I would have preferred to read about this, rather than Alix’s teenage problems and her privileged life. I would have loved to read about Emira’s vision of performative allyship, but she just felt flat and empty. I couldn’t see her personality shine through the text, apart from the last couple of chapters.

I think that so much more could have been done with this story, so I felt a little disappointed. However, I think Reid’s way of writing children is absolutely fantastic! Three-year old Briar is always interrupting conversations with strange and funny comments, as only children do, and she’s so lovely. She was my favourite character by far, and it’s so strange to think because she’s a toddler after all! Overall, I would recommend reading Such a Fun Age, but lower your expectations – I think mines were quite high, unfortunately.

Édouard Louis, The End of Eddy (En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, 2014)

In this autobiographical novel, Édouard Louis retells his troubled childhood as a gay boy growing up in a rural working class family. In the first part of the book, he sets the background by relaying the daily life of the village and his family – a milieu he grew in opposition to. In the second part, he focuses on his sexual awakening and his attempt at escaping the village.

Before I delve into the content of the book, I think it’s important to note that I’ve read this novel in its original language – French. It was first published in France in 2014 and was translated into English two years later by Michael Lucey (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux). I haven’t read the English translation but heard that it didn’t quite convey the subtleties of language of the original version. I can see why this would be, as there is a constant opposition between the narrator’s elegant prose in a perfect written French, and his family’s mundane and vulgar spoken words. I also read that it was pretty much a best-seller in the US, although it was criticised in France for its coarse language and crude representation of the working class poor. 

Mais d’abord, on ne pense pas spontanément à la fuite parce qu’on ignore qu’il existe un ailleurs. On ne sait pas que la fuite est une possibilité. On essaye dans un premier temps d’être comme les autres, et j’ai essayé d’être comme tout le monde.

But first, we do not naturally think of running away because we do not know that there is an elsewhere. We do not know that an escape is possible. At first, we try to be like the others, and I have tried to be like everyone else. (Translation my own)

There’s no denying it is a very coarse and raw book. I don’t think this is a book for everyone, as I can think of one scene in particular which involves children experimenting with sex, and it was just very hard to read. It is a violent book – and quite graphic at times. But it feels real – I’d say sometimes too real for me. It very much felt like reading Elena Ferrante, if she made her characters speak as rudely as they would in real life. Of course, this is an autobiographical novel so the point is not to know whether such and such happened exactly as they are told. Rather, the idea is to translate the feelings and the essence of a little boy’s life in a working class family in the North of France – the shameful trips to the food bank, or the humiliation of asking the shopkeeper to keep a tab.

Louis went on to do prestigious studies and he knows his Bourdieu and sociological theories very well – he edited a collection of Bourdieu’s works in 2016 and you can read this interview from the Paris Review about it, which is really interesting. Yet, what really struck me in his writing is his political defence of the working class, but also his dire need to distance himself from his family’s ways to the point of complete rejection of his origins – illustrated by his throwing his Airness hoodie – a prized posession in his vilage but a tacky piece of clothing in the city – in a public bin. (That being said, I was shocked that he would get rid of an Airness jumper because I remember how cool it was to wear one in school – which tells you a little bit more about my background I guess) Although I believe that he needs to reject completely the values of his relatives in order to be himself, because he could never fit into the mould of toxic masculinity often encouraged where he is from.

I don’t read a lot of modern books about life as a working class poor, but I’m not sure if there are so many on the market anyway. It’s nice to read a different kind of voice, someone who isn’t from the Parisian middle-class elite, someone who knows what they’re talking about and doesn’t try to paint people from unprivileged backgrounds in a (un)flattering light, but just expose things as they are. That’s why I’m so excited by the creation of Harper North, the northern sister of Harper Collins! I am really fascinated by the North of England (no, it has nothing to do with Brontës…) and I cannot wait to read the new voices they discover.

In summary, The End of Eddy is a book I would highly recommend to anyone who would like to see a different side of France than the one usually portrayed on this side of the channel. I talked a lot of about class, but I also think this book is about masculinity and how dangerous a certain branch of it can be – to women of course, but to men themselves as well. I have talked about childhood here and the vicious circle that comes with being from a certain background here, so I won’t talk about that in too much details. But this book is the kind of book that you read in a couple of days (or even less if your attention span is better than mine) and that will stay with you for a lot more. A political novel that will give you food for thought, for sure!

My Sister, the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

sister killer

What an eye-catching cover! I had seen this book absolutely everywhere this year and had been drawn to its memorable cover design with this beautiful yet intriguing face on a black background and neon green font. I finally decided to pick it up and yield to the temptation.

The beginning of the novel was just as gripping: Korede is pondering on different techniques to scrub off blood whilst she is cleaning around the corpse of her sister’s third victim. After reading the first couple of chapters, you would think it’s all in the title; the sister, Ayoola, is a serial killer and this novel is a classic thriller – except it really isn’t.

In my opinion, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a novel about sisterhood and what it means to be the older sister. My sister is much younger than me and I know I would do everything it takes to protect her and make her life easier. Would I cover her every time she murders a boyfriend ? Definitely not. But Ayoola and Korede grew up with a violent father and ‘witnessed’ the death of the latter, which has to damage one’s vision of righteousness as well as strongly increase solidarity between sisters. I say ‘witness’ because I am not sure whether Korede is the most reliable narrator and I am sure there are many voluntary omissions in her story… as you might expect from a serial killer’s accomplice!

This novel has been described as a comedy, but I don’t remember smiling once whilst reading it… I did enjoy the depiction of sisterly help, although Korede’s way of loving Ayoola is rather strange as she is cold and distant, even though she is always here for her in case of trouble. I also found it quite refreshing to read a story set in Nigeria but which is not solely about that setting. Although Korede mentions the corruption that pervades in institutions like the Police and Government, this is not a story about Nigeria. Of course, we need to read and learn about the terrible conditions in which people live in certain parts of the world, but it’s also very nice to have an African country as a regular setting of a story – it normalises such a setting and creates more diversity, I think. Yet, I don’t think I will remember My Sister, the Serial Killer in a year from now. I did not laugh, I did not feel for any character, and I found the writing rather bland. There were many hints at great story lines but they were all given up on very quickly. However, I will keep an eye on what Oyinkan Braithwaite comes up with in the future as I am sure my problems with her writing comes from the fact that she may not have completely found her voice yet.

Frances Burney, Evelina (1778)

Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, is an epistemological novel retelling the young Evelina’s adventures in Georgian London. Evelina was raised in the countryside by a minister, in relative solitude. Her mother had married a certain Sir John Belmont who abandoned his wife shortly after she was pregnant with their daughter; she died whilst giving birth to Evelina. The young girl is thus an orphan at the beginning of the novel because, although she knows who her father is, she has never met him and he has never acknowledged her existence. One Spring, Evelina goes to London with her friend, Maria Mirvan, to welcome home the latter’s father, referred to as ‘The Captain’. In London, Evelina discovers the life of theatre and opera-going, of balls, and polite society; but because she grew up away from all this, she is not too aware of the manners she should adopt. Yet, because she is extremely beautiful, her entrance into society doesn’t go unnoticed and many men admire her, even if some have suspicious intentions towards her. Evelina is a sort of Bildungsroman in which a young woman has to come to terms with the ways of the world, and is rewarded for her exemplary conduct in the end with a marriage to the man she loves.

Evelina

What interested me the most whilst reading this novel was to see how French people were seen and treated by the other characters. Evelina finds her grandmother, Madame Duval, in London, who also happens to be French. She is always escorted by Monsieur Dubois – another French man. From the moment Evelina and her party meet them, the Captain’s favourite occupation is to tyrannise them. There is a certain disgust for the French that transpires through Burney’s words. The way they are described contrasts with the opinion English artists might have of their French counterparts later in the nineteenth century – a view that is more familiar to a twenty-first century reader, in my opinion. Here, France is not the country of refinement and astounding poets, but of singularly repulsive individuals. Although Madame Duval is supposed to be a rather well-off French lady, she is portrayed in the same unflattering light as her impoverished English relatives. Evelina is ashamed of her, and is embarrassed when people within the higher ranks of society see her with such company. Actually, Madame Duval reminded me of the French governess in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864) who is one of the most ridiculous characters I have ever read.

Of course, Franco-English rivalry is not a new thing and I think it will always be there. I remember when I was little and my grandfather – who was probably the French-est man that has ever been – would mock the English with their Queen and their silly cuisine. I wonder what he would think now that I live in London! I especially like this mutual ‘hatred’ in the late Georgian and Victorian period because with the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the fact that these two countries ended up being the most powerful European countries by the end of the century, there’s just so many sources for rivalry and mockery – which almost always hide a certain degree of fear or admiration. (I’d like to note that I talk about England, and not Britain, because there’s nothing of that kind with Welsh, Scottish or Irish people) It’s just something I particularly enjoy, because it’s not a toxic rivalry, and it’s not really harmful to any one; like two siblings who keep on teasing each other but are bored on their own. Here is an extract of a conversation between Madame Duval and the Captain that I think illustrates well what I’m trying to say:

Pardi, Monsieur,’ returned she, ‘and so I shall; for, I promise you, I think the English a parcel of brutes; and I’ll go back to France as fast as I can, for I would not live among none of you.’

‘Who wants you?’ cried the Captain; ‘do you suppose, Madam French, we have not enough of other nations to pick our pockets already? I’ll warrant you, there’s no need for you for to put in your oar.’

‘Pick your pockets, Sir! I wish nobody wanted to pick your pockets no more than I do; and I’ll promise you, you’d be safe enough. But there’s no nation under the sun can beat the English for ill-politeness; for my part, I hate the very sight of them, and so I shall only just visit a person of quality or two, of my particular acquaintance, and then I shall go back again to France.’

‘Ay, do,’ cried he, ‘and then go to the devil together, for that’s the fittest voyage for the French and the quality.’

‘We’ll take care, however,’ cried the stranger, with great vehemence, ‘not to admit none of your vulgar, unmannered English among us.’

‘O never fear,’ returned he coolly, ‘we sha’n’t dispute the point with you; you and the quality may have the devil all to yourselves.’

Evelina, p. 58.

To go back to Evelina itself, it’s a very amusing satirical novel about the roles of women in society, and it looks at fatherly duties with a very sharp eye. I found it wonderful to read about a very old – and much smaller – London and I think it is the perfect book for a Jane Austen fan who would like to broaden their horizon. Highly recommend!

Featured image: Thomas Gainsborough, The Mall in St. Jame’s Park (1783)