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Weike Wang – Chemistry

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In all its forms.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 209
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-60367-5
First Published: 23rd May 2017; 31st May 2018 by Text Publishing
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Our unnamed narrator has been proposed to by her fairly long-term boyfriend Eric. She enjoys her time with him but isn’t sure about saying yes, and she’s not sure why. As the days after an answer was requested continue to roll by, she muses over their relationship, her childhood and present relationship with her parents, and her situation as a PhD chemistry student, trying to work out what she should do in life in general.

Chemistry is a deceptively complex novel awash with superb characterisation.

It seems so simple – formatted in a medium-sized type face, with large margins and many scene breaks that are effectively vignettes, Chemistry presents itself as an easy and quick read; and in many ways it is, the text itself fun and straight forward, winsome. But once you look beyond the surface, which you’ll find happens naturally as you continue reading, the depth and complexity of the novel starts to pour from the spine.

And there really is a lot to this short novel. The first-person narrative, which flips about in time to slowly uncover for both the reader and also the narrator herself why she feels as she does, is told in a slightly broken English that reflects her situation as a Chinese American who, whilst having been in the country since early childhood, has struggled with her parent’s expectations, school bullying, and what is presented as gentle teasing by Eric (which of course you slowly see has had quite an adverse effect).

The writing also allows Wang to develop a strong comedic streak to the book, which, whilst not often commented on, it’s revealed the character is ‘in’ on herself.

At the gate, he goes through his repertoire of tricks – sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five, sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five. I ask him to please be dignified about this, but I have not yet taught him that command.

You might expect that, given the sense of distance – somewhat literal – that can occur between reader and text due to the nature of vignettes, the characters would feel distant, but that is far from the case here. Despite the lack of a name for the narrator, and despite the fact that everything you hear about others is told solely through her in a report-like manner, there is an incredible strength to the characterisation of everyone, even the dog. (The dog is marvelous.) Wang has created a fully-realised cast of characters that are fantastic to read about and the lack of a name for the narrator becomes a very good argument for time spent developing characters – in this case, the lack of a name is of no importance; she didn’t need one. It could be argued you get a better sense of who the person is without it, because without a name to fall back on in order to reference her (though of course you can say ‘unnamed narrator’ as the blurb says and I’ve repeated) you are even more aware of her personality. And Wang takes this concept further – the only people who are named are Eric, and the narrator’s parents. Even the dog is called ‘dog’.

There just might be a point to that separation between the named and unnamed. Something the narrator has struggled with, that you come to feel she’s starting to realise but can’t quite grasp due to her upbringing and family culture, is the emotional and somewhat intellectual neglect she’s suffered from her parents, who at once want her to be great like her father but don’t offer the more subtle things she needs in order to reach her considered potential, a potential that she receives a lot of pressure to fulfill. One of the repeated situations in the book is that of the narrator’s visits to a counselor – shrink, she calls them, pointedly – who questions how she feels in the context of her background, trying to help her see that where she feels like a complete failure at life in general, these things have largely happened as a result of what she didn’t and still hasn’t received from her various relationships.

Let’s not forget the science and the industry – Chemistry is teaming with scientific facts made easy to understand. The narrator’s knowledge and Wang’s background in the subject make for a wonderful element that is both a backdrop for the rest of the story and a huge factor in itself. The facts are woven into the narrator’s feelings and experiences, a point here, an atom of knowledge there, so that you’re always learning (or revising!), never taking a break from the rest of the story.

Refraction is why I am not invisible. It is also why things in water, like fish, appear farther and bigger than you think, and once that fish gets pulled out of the water, you are vastly disappointed.

And yes, of course, ‘chemistry’ here is also romantic.

At its heart, then, Chemistry is a story about identity, which won’t surprise you if you consider other unnamed narrators, such as the second Mrs de Winter. It’s a story of indecision, the discovery of identity and personhood in general needing to happen before the decisions can follow. And it’s a story that will grip you until the final page, where Wang both ties things up in a beautiful, contextually reflective bow, and leaves you with the ribbon hanging loosely so that you can come to a bit of a conclusion and pulls the ends tightly by yourself.

Catalysts make reactions go faster. They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path.

This book is better than a whole lab of experiments.

I received this book for review.

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Manu Joseph – Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous

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Or is she?

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 211
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-912-40810-8
First Published: 19th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 16th May 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

The day Hindu nationalists win the elections, a building collapses; Akhila arrives as teams are trying to find survivors and she offers to crawl through a tunnel to help a man who is still alive. The man is muttering about a person on his way to commit a terror attack. A member of the two groups chasing the man and the girl sat in the passenger seat next to him, Mukundan isn’t sure what they’re doing is right, and is sure there’s a better way of extracting the girl, but his boss bids him to wait.

Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous is a work of fiction which switches back and forth between a number of narratives as the author seeks to explore social injustice in its various forms.

This is a book that is at once an easy read, an uncomfortable read, and a hard-hitting read that requires your attention. Joseph’s use of satire and general slight humour often lures you into thinking it’s a fun novel. That may be part of the point – Joseph gets his thoughts across through via an easy writing style that’s nevertheless full of report-like phrasing.

Sometimes, the style and structure makes the book hard to follow – Joseph, a journalist away from his novel writing, has chosen to write his book in a similar style, and adds to it many different points of view. As an example, you might think that Akhila Iyer, the medical student and social media prankster who targets people in or close to the political sphere, will be moonlighting as this Miss Laila, and it takes a while for Joseph to get to Miss Laila herself wherein you have to get your head around the fact they are two different people.

Joseph’s major commentary apart from the controversies surrounding Mukundan’s story is the difference between rich and poor, high caste and low caste, Hindu and Muslim, and in the context of politics, and due to the basis of fact underlining the book. There is lots to consider here, with Joseph’s bold dialogue looking at both past and near present, holding nothing back. One person named outright is the author Arundhati Roy, who Joseph speaks of in the context of the female author’s visit to the house of a very wealthy person and her views about how much money this person had compared to those nearby; Joseph takes his Akhila Iyer to Roy’s own apartment building where she conducts an interview with a woman who says similarly of Roy’s house. (Whether this is truth or fiction this reviewer cannot say.)

So, to the narratives, you have the man trapped inside a fallen building. You have the narrative of Akhila Iyer, often told in the chapters focused on Professor Vaid as her own narrative is taken up by the collapsed building; occasionally you hear from Akhila about her family, the mother that was often away helping other people as an activist, leaving her daughter to grow up without her. (A lot of Joseph’s commentary is about activism and the way it can simply just switch people’s situations until another wave of activism is required, the once powerful becoming the powerless and then powerful again.) You have the narrative of Mukundan, who tails Laila and Jamal, and the narrative Laila’s sister tells of the days before Laila left with Jamal. And you have the narrative of election winner, Damodarhabi.

A revelation comes towards the end that may lessen the impact of what you’ve read. It’s a good idea going into this book, to consider that the non-linear timeline might expand.

Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous is a difficult book to make a call on. Some of it is excellent – compelling points, good writing – but it does come across more as an essay or piece of reporting rather than a story or study.

I received this book for review.

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Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing

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Homegoing was on the British Book Award shortlist for the Debut Book of the Year 2018.

History is not always confined.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 298
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97523-7
First Published: 7th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Effia’s mother tells her to keep the beginning of her menstruation a secret. It’s long been known that Effia would marry the man next in line to be Chief but Baaba has something else in mind and Effia is traded in marriage to the white governor of the Castle. As she moves away with James, Baaba tells her daughter that she is not related to her and that her mother abandoned them. As Effia’s new life begins, her unknown half-sister is taken prisoner, held with hundreds of other women, about to be sold into slavery overseas. The sisters’ situations will reverberate down the ages.

Homegoing is a superb mainly-historical novel that starts in 1700s Ghana and continues into our present century. Spanning many generations, it spends a number of pages on each character in turn, nevertheless retaining the sense that it is a novel of one story.

Gyasi has created something rather remarkable. Within moments she sucks you into the story, her use of history in all contexts – the writing of it, the knowledge included, the bringing to life – starts it off, and then her masterful characterisation ensures you don’t let go. In terms of the history, there’s a fair amount of information that often gets looked over, as well as the horrors that continue.

The writing is wonderfully descriptive and Gyasi creates the perfect balance of narrative and dialogue. It flows very well; indeed the only negative aspect of the book is the use of ‘off of’, the only thing that stunts the flow.

But at its heart, beyond the subject matter that we’ll go on to in a minute, is that characterisation. There are few books in which multiple narratives are considered to be equally fine. Gyasi’s is one of those few. No matter how invested you are in any one story (which read almost as vignettes despite the time they span; there are no complete endings within a character’s chapter, the only closure is in the descendant’s chapter) you never once feel that sense of loss so often caused by other multi-narrative novels. Would it be nice if there was more of each character’s story? Of course. But the novel does not suffer for the lack of it. The progression is natural and easy to follow; Gyasi includes hints early on and you soon get used to the flicking back and forth between bloodlines. If you do fall behind – and you will when it comes to working out which generation you’re on to – there’s a family tree in the opening pages.

As it’s pretty obvious from the start – or at least from the moment you realise how Gyasi has plotted the book – that somewhere it’s highly likely the two bloodlines will meet in some way, it’s pertinent here to say that the book isn’t predictable on that count. This isn’t your usual ‘and magic happened and they found out who each other was’. There is indeed ‘magic’ in the book – to use the phrase that people down the ages start to refer to traditional spirituality as – and yes there is a meeting of the bloodlines, but there are no unbelieveable discoveries.

On the subject of symbolism is Gyasi’s use of fire and water, with fire particularly pronounced because water is more obviously associated with the beginning. It’s a gentle, weaving sort of symbolism, that takes you through the various generations, creating an impact – the history of a people on their descendants – as well as a sort of coming-of-age, cycling, taking back ownership.

Apart from symbolism, Gyasi explores the slave trade, particularly, as said, in terms of the beginnings and early impact in Ghana. She explores the affects of the difference between the Northern and Southern states and the impact of Southern laws on free men of the North. She explores segregation, the concept of passing, and tensions and social and political problems still occurring today. These explorations are interlaced with the chapters so that black history in America as a whole is explored in depth. Again, Gyasi’s writing makes everything flow together, showing how they are both separate subjects and part of a whole, and as with everything else the author does it with aplomb.

Homegoing is the sort of novel that stays with you, that you want to return to. In the second to last chapter, Marjorie is asked by her teacher if she feels the book she is reading inside of her. I think we all know that feeling, the one that makes reading so worth it.

You may well find it in this book.

I received this book for review.

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Claire Fuller – Swimming Lessons

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Only go with the flow to a certain extent.

Publisher: Fig Tree (Penguin)
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-25215-4
First Published: 26th January 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st May 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Gil sees his wife standing outside the bookshop, he runs after her, causing himself a fair injury in the process. Daughter Nan isn’t amused – Ingrid disappeared many years ago when she and her sister were children – and she’s very likely dead. But Flora sides with his father and as Gil returns home from hospital the sisters look after him, together with Richard, the man Flora had been sleeping with but had split up with, in not so many words, before she left to meet Nan. The family house is full of books which are stacked on every surface, a few layers deep – Gil has an obsession with finding secondhand books that hold receipts, letters, and marginalia. Mixed in with this story is that of Ingrid’s version of her marriage to Gil, told in letters, that she had slipped in between the pages of various relevant titles.

Swimming Lessons is an utterly sensational novel of truths and lies, mystery and a spot of magical realism, and regret, all held together by the theme of literature and writing. Ingrid’s tale begins at university where she studied English and met Gil, her lecturer. Their story moves on from there, with Gil’s friends warning Ingrid about Gil’s personality and the university putting its foot down. The chapters set in the present abound with literary ideas, criticism, and general conversation.

“Writing does not exist unless there is someone to read it, and each reader will take something different from a novel, from a chapter, from a line. A book becomes a living thing only when it interacts with a reader.”

“…often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind. All these words… are about the reader. The specific individual – man, woman, or child – who left something of themselves behind.”

This means that whilst the subject of the book, or, rather, subjects, can get pretty dark, the wonders of the text keep you in a positive state. The darker side of the novel – Ingrid’s revelations, which are effectively revelations to the reader, and the question as to what happened to Ingrid – are written superbly; Fuller’s writing style, plotting, and subsequent literary execution are absolutely marvelous to the point that the book is just as good to read for its prose as it is for the way it unravels its subjects. A good use of the present day setting and decades past round out the writing.

As for the characters they are very well drawn and feel far from fictional. Fuller references I Capture The Castle, and there are, in Ingrid’s love of the beach and writing of it, potential allusions to The Awakening (‘potential’ due to the book not being referenced). In the idea of Ingrid having been lost to the sea there is a minor reference to Virginia Woolf. The inter-textual nature of the book enhances both the atmosphere and the characterisation and also leading you to think that situations may match those in the older novels (which can be the case but not always). Gil has a writing room to which no one else is allowed entry. Flora is often naked. Ingrid found her changed life difficult. Like Fuller’s previous book, Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons looks a little at neglectful parenting and favouritism.

This book pairs joyous reader escapism with some uncomfortable subjects. It is a good idea to go in prepared for a blunt look at what can be hidden under the surface, of parenting, of marriage, and then give your all to it. Because it’s a triumph; not the sort of characters you might want to spend real time with but the book itself, everything about it, oh heck yes.

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Claire Fuller – Our Endless Numbered Days

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Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, nor any idea of when it falls.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 292
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-00394-7
First Published: 16th February 2015
Date Reviewed: 25th April 2018
Rating: 5/5

In 1976, when Peggy was nine years old, her pianist mother travelled for work and her father abducted her (Peggy) and took her to a remote hut in Germany. Telling her her mother had died and the world had been destroyed except for the patch of land she could see from the hut, the two attempted to build a life in a tumbledown shack, the few preparations her father having made being not enough for the years ahead. Several years later – 1985 – and newly returned to her mother, Peggy recounts the years she lost as those around her try to work out the mystery of the person she calls Reuben.

Our Endless Numbered Days is a fine novel of survivalism, and the mental effects of extreme physical and emotional neglect and abuse. Set in decades past, the novel sports a particular beauty despite its often horrific contents, making for a book that packs quite a punch.

As Peggy is reporting on her past with the benefit of – albeit hampered – maturity (she’s now 17), the book has an interesting blend of things written with knowledge, and things that are left for the reader to see the reality of. (The characterisation in this book is excellent.) This is where the writing also makes its mark, mixing with the story-telling style and emphasising the horror – consider a scene in which the beauty of the writing somewhat obscures the madness of the father who comes back with the news that the world is gone, before the choice of his daughter to stir the fire means that she sees her passport burning, which she understands the meaning of but perhaps not as much as the reader does. Young Peggy is at times quite mature but the things she does not argue against are things that from the perspective of someone a few years older, or even some more mature nine-year-olds, are very obviously lies, which has an incredible impact.

And so the novel looks at manipulation and parental neglect, the extreme circumstances ever emphasising the situation. It is never said outright whether Peggy’s father is ‘simply’ manipulative or whether during his time he takes a turn for the worse, mentally, and it is partly this that makes the end of the book so full of impact, the semblance of the questions remaining adding to the gut-punch that is the final few pages; but there is also neglect by Peggy’s mother, Ute, that is almost ushered in, revealed incredibly slowly to the point that you see where obvious problems can obscure less obvious but no less problematic others.

Peggy’s mother is sometimes away and there is the issue of the family hosting the father’s survivalist friends. But more so there are issues in the way that Ute, a famous pianist, does not teach Peggy the piano – nor her mother tongue – and in fact actively dissuades Peggy from playing the instrument. Had Ute been more hands on, would she have seen just how far her husband’s ideas and practices had gone? (One thing the father does is make Peggy pack a rucksack within a certain amount of time and make her way down to the mock bunker basement.) Peggy’s dedication to learning how to play on a soundless, rudimentary, ‘piano’ brings to the foreground her strength to survive.

To go back to the writing, it can at times be magical despite its subject matter. The way seasons are used; the heatwave summer when Peggy plays in the garden and visits the overgrown and no longer used cemetery call to mind Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and the use of winter creates a beauty not unlike that found in Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child. There is indeed a slight feeling of magical realism not unlike that both earlier novels.

The only thing possibly missing is a little more time spent on the intervening years of Peggy’s time away; whilst it makes absolute sense that there isn’t all that much – it would be very mundane – there is a bit of a feeling of the narrative being sped up which has an effect on how much the time away seems to be when reading it, the 300 pages being spread over the before, during, and afterward. However as the narrative has a lot to do with the overall effect of the experience on Peggy’s development, it is far more niggle than active drawback.

Our Endless Numbered Days is a special experience, its themes and the ‘takeaway’ making for something, not necessarily the story itself, that will stay with you for a long period of time. The prose keeps you going through the difficult times and the few questions you will have at the end provide the opportunity to explore the story yourself and fill in the gaps left by the trauma Peggy goes through. It’s a fantastic feat of writing.

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