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: 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.

2019 – A Year in Reading

As I have done for the past two years, I want to take the time to reflect on the books I have read this year thanks to the Year in Books page on Goodreads. Here are my previous posts:

2018 Year in Reading

2017 Year in Reading

I wanted to read 40 books this year and I ended up reading 42 so that’s pretty cool. I have not read so many whole books during a good chunk of the year since I was researching and writing my dissertation. I did reread Villette and Jane Eyre for the occasion as I was working on the portrayal of men in these two novels. I have published an excerpt on here, a paper that I presented to a conference and which is a summary of a chapter of my dissertation. You can find it here: Charlotte Brontë’s Rochester as A Hero of Romance. From April to August, I think I mostly read journal articles so of course, that does not count in a reading challenge but really, I have never read so much in my whole life as I have in 2019. At one point, my eyes got so tired I thought I was going to need glasses! Thankfully, that was not necessary, I just had to calm down and set myself a proper reading schedule – especially of Victorian texts, the font is always too tiny! After my Master, I took a month to completely relax and recover from the stress (and anxiety) which allowed me to read great books I had been waiting to read for a while. Now, I am unemployed so of course, I have time to read but I’ve recently found it hard to focus because I have not been feeling so good in my head. This will be for another post though, so let’s get cracking with the books.

bartleby

The shortest book I have read this year was Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) with 80 pages. I doubt this result as I have just finished The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892) but as I intend to write a post on it later, I’ll stick with Bartleby. I first read it during my undergraduate degree when we were studying Antebellum American Literature. I hated it. I absolutely hated it and told anyone who would listen that that was the most boring story I had ever read. I found it so boring I could not focus on a paper copy so I downloaded an audiobook which would make me fall asleep very quickly. I can still hear the voice of the narrator saying ‘I prefer not to’… But this time around, I actually really enjoyed it. Bartleby is the new clerk at a law firm and just refuses to do any work. In the 1850s, in a time of industrial revolution and intense activity where the utmost sin was idleness, that could not go down very well. I actually read this novella because I read the Vegetarian by Han Kang (2007) for a class and was reminded so much of Bartleby (he too refuses to eat and speak whilst everyone around him gets angry and even violent with him) that I thought I would write an essay on it. I think I could but it was way too ambitious a project for a 4,000 words MA essay! In that context, I really liked Bartleby’s silent and peaceful revolution against the capitalist obsession with productivity and I find it still quite relevant to this day.

The longest book I read was 922 pages and a combination of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor (1857) and Shirley (1849) as I have that Everyman’s edition:

shirley and prof

I definitely want to write more extensively on these two novels as I love Charlotte Brontë so much and could talk about her work all day long. To make it short, I loved The Professor and think it deserved more interest as it is such a beautiful way to see the evolution of her writing and storytelling. Shirley however, not such a fan. I would definitely need to read it again but I found it very bland and banal unlike all her other novels. It’s a good book, but there’s no power in it – I think.

friendship

The least popular book I read this year was Friendship: a History, edited by Barbara Caine (2010) and I really wanted to mention it here because it was that good. I used it for research as I wrote an essay on Rousseau’s views on friendship (fell in love with Rousseau btw… only took me to cross the Channel to do that!) and ended up reading most of it out of sheer pleasure and interest. Even though it’s an academic book, it’s very accessible and so fascinating as friendship is a fundamental part of being a human being. Highly recommend if it’s in your library or if you can find it second-hand as I know scholarly books can be very expensive.

I read lots of different varied things this year, and overall it was all quite good apart from two which I can remember not liking at all. Both are going to be controversial because they are well-loved works of literary fiction. The first one is Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) because, in spite of getting the message of the book, enjoying the Spanglish, and loving to learn about Dominican history, it really didn’t work for me. It was too much for me, too rough, too vulgar and I just could not deal with it. It made me angry. I would read it and then violently close the book to throw it at the other end of the bed. I see the point of the book, but I just don’t like that kind of literature.

oscar wao

Second one is, I know, very controversial as it Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018) aka the book that everyone loved this year. I have very little patience with people who relish in self-destruction and I don’t like to read about unromantic and messy relationships as something good or even okay. I did not find an ounce of love in Marianne’s and Connell’s story, they’re just having sex. Marianne is messed up because of her unfunctional family and she needs help that I don’t think Connell brings her at all. By the middle of the novel, he doesn’t love her, he is used to her; she is familiar and that’s why he feels attracted to her (that’s how I read it anyway). Marianne’s confession that she’s a masochist read for me as a confession that she is definitely not, but does not know how to deal with tenderness because she’s never encountered it. I think it was all too messy for me, and I couldn’t deal with the mess for personal reasons, maybe. I loved the writing, though, so I will try to read Rooney’s other works (past and future) in the hope there is less sex and more actual feelings.

normal people

So as I said, I read lots of good things this year and it’s been tricky to just pick a few of my favourites so here is my top 5 (in no particular order):

  • Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2011)

my brilliant friend

Someone had told me this book was not what it seemed and that it was quite bad. They were certainly right in that it is the opposite of what it is marketed as, but immensely wrong with regard to the content of the book. What a powerful story! It is so complex and addictive, I haven’t read many things like that. From the cover, I imagined a romance which would make me travel to Italy. Rather, I was transported to a popular neighbourhood of Naples where everyone is unhappy and violent and where there is very little room for romantic dreams. Instead, the relationship at the centre of the story is Lila’s and Elena’s friendship, which you see grow from childhood. It is a beautiful, awful thing of attraction and repulsion, something very real and very difficult to come to terms with, I think. There are not any really likeable characters in this novel, but somehow, they gripped me and stay with me once the book is closed. This is the first volume of the Neapolitan series and I have read the second one, The Story of a New Name (2012), this Summer and loved it just as much. I really want to read the two other tomes of the series next year.

  • Leïla Slimani’s Chanson douce (Lullaby) (2016)

lullaby

I should start by saying that this is not a book for everyone. The novel begins with a nanny murdering the child and the baby she is in charge of. I don’t think I could read that if I were a mother, and I hope I won’t think of this story too much when that time comes! After this intense beginning, we go back in time to try and uncover the reason for such a terrible crime. The sense of superiority of a middle-class Parisian couple, the isolation of a working-class nanny, a naughty little girl… these do not explain why the nanny did what she did, but Slimani draws a great portrait of different categories of people whilst keeping you on the edge of your chair. The author was interviewed on the High Low last year, which you can listen here (all in English) and I found this podcast really interesting.

  • Ian McEwan’s Nutshell (2016)

nutshell

I was quite interested by abuse on babies this year apparently… But Nutshell is lot funnier. McEwan rewrote Macbeth from the perspective of an unborn baby. His mother and uncle are having an affair and plot to kill his father. It is incredibly funny because the foetus sounds like a middle-aged man rambling about wine and the state of the world, all the while seeing his parents as semi-Gods. In reality, the adults are mediocre at best and none of them seem to actually care about the baby to come. His mother rarely mentions him, she drinks – a lot – and she is just terrible. Her lover never acknowledges the fact that she is pregnant. The father is bad poet who lets his wife basically steal his family home. A strange family portrait but such a great book!

  • Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1869)

little women

It was obvious I would love this novel. Nineteenth century, women, writing, sisterhood and just sheer kindness all throughout – that sounds a lot like me. Yet, I had never really wanted to read it because I remember the TV adaptation being shown every Christmas and my mum complaining about it, saying it was too corny and boring. I can see why some people would say it’s cheesy, but it is also such a cute story of sisterhood! I cannot say too much as I got my copy from a Church book sale and didn’t realise it was just the first part of the story. I got a beautiful edition with the whole thing in it for Christmas so I will start reading it straightaway, and watch the film adaptation by Greta Gerwig which looks quite exciting.

  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Le guetteur (The Eye) (1930)

the eye

Finally, I read Nabokov for the first time, and absolutely loved it. The narrator is a Russian emigrant in Berlin in the 1920s (I think) and after a failed attempt of committing suicide, he thinks he might be a ghost but lives a very normal life nonetheless, amongst other Russians living in Berlin. Up until the end, this novel seems to have no meaning, the narrator lives like a ghost because nothing ever happens to him and he only describes what others do. At the close of the book, you realise you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator and that this is a story about identity, finding who you are and where you belong. I found it all very poetic, beautifully written and as someone who lives in another country and struggled for a while to find myself, this novel really resonated with me.

I hope you too had a great year in books! x

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)

Villette, Charlotte Brontë, 1853

Largely based on what Charlotte Brontë lived during her time in Brussels, Villette recounts Lucy Snowe’s journey, from her godmother’s house in England to a boarding school for girls in the fictional kingdom of Labassecour (but Belgium, really). Lucy is a very secretive and passive girl of fourteen when we first meet her, and she’s staying with her godmother at Bretton. The latter has a son who goes to school so he’s not always at home, but even when he is, Lucy doesn’t have any particular link with him. One day, little Polly comes to stay at Bretton as well, her mother is gone and her father needs to go to the continent for business so he leaves his daughter with Mrs Bretton. The six-year-old Polly quickly becomes infatuated with Graham Bretton, who’s on holiday from school. Lucy mainly observes this funny little girl in her relationship with sixteen-year-old Graham, who merely amuses himself. When her dad comes to get her home, Polly is devastated to leave although thrilled to see her beloved father again. Shortly, Lucy too leaves Bretton and since she has no relatives whatsoever – apart from her godmother, of course – she has to work. She becomes a caretaker for a dying old lady, and when the latter dies, she finds herself without purpose. She decides to use her small amount of money to go abroad and hopefully, find new perspectives on the continent. Somehow, she manages to get hired by Madame Beck in her pensionnat for girls, in the town of Villette, where she becomes an English teacher. In Villette, she will meet M. Paul, a strange man who teaches literature, and people from her past.

Villette book cover

When you start reading Villette, it is very hard to see what is so appealing about it. Lucy Snowe is so passive and odd, you actually wonder why she’s the narrator and how this could become interesting. But then, you get caught up in her story and finish the book wondering what actually happened to you during your reading. I did not think the story of this novel was peculiarly gripping or rich, but when I first started to sum it up here, I realised that it was quite the opposite. There are so many things to say! So many things to be told!

However, I would like to focus especially on the strength of Villette and how incredibly powerful this book is.

‘Descending, I went wandering whither chance might lead, in a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment; and I got – I know not how – I got into the heart of city life. i saw and felt London at last: I got into the Strand; I went up Cornhill; I mixed with the life passing along; I dared the perils of crossings. To do this, and to do it utterly alone, gave me, perhaps an irrational, but a real pleasure. (chap. 6, p. 54)

First of all, it seems to me that the passion Charlotte Brontë put in her fourth novel is nowhere to be found in the rest of her works – even in Jane Eyre. And that’s something to say! Like Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe has to come to terms with the fact that she will probably never marry because she has no situation and no family.  Both women are incredibly strong in their research for a life of their own. However, in Villette, there is a more personal dimension that changes radically from Jane Eyre. I don’t know exactly to what extent this story is autobiographical but it is clear that some characters and events are real. Charlotte and her sister Emily spent several months at Pensionnat Heger, in Brussels to improve their skills as teachers, in 1842. A year later, Charlotte returned on her own and spent a year there. We don’t know for sure what happened in Belgium, but when she came back to England, Charlotte started to write love letters to her former professor, Constantin Heger. Her letters remained unanswered, and we can only but guess that this was a traumatic experience for Charlotte; a heartbreak that she struggled to part with since she first wrote The Professor in link to her experience in Belgium, and then Villette. We suppose that M. Paul is a depiction of Constantin Heger, and that Madame Beck is actually a representation of Mrs Heger. With this novel, Brontë manages to rewrite history and face her female rival to end up with the man she loves… or does she ? The ending of the novel is very blurry and open, the reader is free to choose the ending he/she pleases. Unfortunately, I am not of the optimistic kind but in any case, because this story resonates so much with the author’s life, there is a great strength added to it when you read the novel.

Moreover, there is a fantastic cast of characters which has a true richness to it – each different and embodying a myriad of aspects of society. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar argued in The Mad Woman in the Attic, the women of Villette are representations of all the dimensions that constitute Lucy’s inner-self. I quite argue with that reading, of course, but even if we consider these female characters on their own, they are absolutely convincing. Even a 21st-century reader can see similarities between the women in the book and some women in real life. It is the same for the male characters. Charlotte Brontë had a remarkable eye for her characters’ psyche, and Villette is no exception. However, what is really significant is how these characters behave with our narrator, and main character. Some barely speak to Lucy throughout the whole novel or are quite cold to her (although not distant, in the case of Mrs Bretton); some have negative comments and attitudes towards Lucy (I think of the very blunt description Ginevra makes of Lucy, ‘you have no relations; you can’t call yourself young at twenty-three; you have no attractive accomplishments – no beauty.’, chap.14, p.169). Only two characters stand out of the crowd for their relatively warm appreciation of Lucy: Polly and M. Paul. It is quite interesting to consider that, if we consider that Polly is nothing else than the externalisation of Lucy’s repressed need for love and Paul is what we could define as a ‘love-interest’ (although, their relationship is a bit more complex than a simple crush, or romantic interest). Talking about these characters and their relationships with Lucy Snowe leads me to the core of the novel, and its main source of power – Lucy’s inner-self.

Indeed, the restraint that she shows is incredibly strong, she refrains herself from living and becomes her own prisoner, in a sense. Only the reader knows her true self, and we can still doubt about this fact since she holds information back. At first, Lucy appears incredibly passive, she observes people and lives through their experiences. During her trip to Labassecour, she becomes a little more active but keeps her voyeuristic habits once at Madame Beck’s school – just like the latter, who is described always observing others. Lucy is secretive, and even her reader wonders whether he or she actually knows her. She never explains what happened to her family, and we cannot help but to feel that she is in the waiting, she does not know what for but her life has yet to start. This is a depiction of the plight of many Victorian women considered as ‘redundant’ because they could not marry, and being a wife and mother was the only purpose of woman’s life. This is illustrated in the following quote :

‘I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years, as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbour still as glass – the steersman stretched on the little deck, his face up to heaven, his eyes closed: buried, if you will, in a long prayer. A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion: why not I with the rest?’ (chap. 4, p.38)

Lucy has thus no choice but to refrain from expressing herself and keep her true self for the evening, when she is free to wander in the garden of the school. Unlike Polly or Ginevra, Lucy cannot rely on the sweet love or admiration of a man to grow up. She has to manage and do that on her own, because as Ginevra says, she has nothing – not even beauty. However the repression of her needs will lead her to a terrible nervous breakdown, when she is absolutely alone in the world with no one to care about her. This passage is strikingly powerful because Lucy is at a complete loss and the reader can but feel her utter suffering. Her strength also comes from her will, but also from her acute knowledge of her situation. She is a young woman and if she might start dreaming at one point, she quickly realises that she is not made to be the heroine of a novel (in the traditional sense of the term, for a romantic story, especially), although she wishes she could be:

‘The love, born of beauty was not mine; I had nothing to do with it: I could not dare to meddle with it, but another love, venturing diffidently into life after long acquaintance, furnace-tried by pain, stamped by constancy, consolidated by affection’s pure and durable alloy, submitted by intellect to intellect’s own tests, and finally wrought up, by his own process, to his own unflawed completeness, this Love that laughed at Passion, his fast frenzies and his hot and hurried extinction, in this Love I had a vested interest; and whatever tended either to its culture or its destruction, I could not view impassibly.’ (chap.39, p.555)

Villette is not a happy love story, and there is a dark pessimism that cannot be found in Jane Eyre, or not to the same extent at least. It is, however a book that overpowered me and swept me off my feet. It is so very powerful in the strength of its feelings! I first started to read it  year ago, but was definitely not in the right place for that. I relate to Lucy, a lot, so I have to feel alright to read her story or I am the one having a mental breakdown. Also, I sometimes felt a bit insulted because Charlotte Brontë did not like Catholics, and French people. Here is a quote about the inhabitants of Villette, ‘The natives, you know, are intensely stupid and vulgar; but there are some nice English families.’ (chap.6, p.61)

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress, 1846

The featured image is Richard Redgraves’s The Sempstress (1846). Although Lucy is not a seamstress, this painting is Lucy Snowe. The woman is wearing a pink dress, like the new dress Lucy wears to go to the opera with the Brettons. She seems to be a prisoner of the room, whilst people seem to be starting to live outside. Maybe this house in the background is La Terrasse? The way her face is lit is rather dramatic and reminds me of more religious paintings. She appears as a martyr, a representation of the many Victorian women who could not be themselves and did not really belong anywhere, because of the impossibility of them getting married.