Elaine Feeney – As You Were

elaine feeney as you were
Elaine Feeney – As You Were

Sinéad Hynes is in hospital, her family believes it is nothing serious, maybe the property developer just worked too much. But she knows better and has kept it a secret for quite some time: the cancer is terminal and now it is too late for a treatment.  Suffering severely, she shares the ward with Margaret Rose who welcomes all her family daily and thus creates an almost intolerable fuss. There is also Jane who is often confused, but at times, she remembers, e.g. that she had known the mother of another patient who shares the ward. Strangers become intimate, enclosed in such a tight environment and thus, they necessarily take part of the others’ fate and get to know their secrets.

Elaine Feeney’s debut is like a theatre play: a limited place with a limited number of characters who cannot escape the narrowness of the situation they are in and who are forced into an involuntary community where they have to support each other and also, reluctantly, share intimate details of their lives. At times funny, at others very melancholy, and always showing characters exposed to this small world without any protection where also no sensitive politeness is required anymore.

What troubled me most was to which extent I could identify with Sinéad and her situation. Luckily, I have never been close to such extreme circumstances but I can completely understand why she keeps her secret from her family and prefers to consult Google and tell it to a magpie instead of seeking help and compassion from her beloved ones. As readers, we follow her thoughts and only get her point of view of the events in the ward which is limited and biased, of course, but also reveals the discrepancy between what we see and understand what really goes on behind the facade of a person.

The plot also touches a very serious topic in two very different ways: double standards and honesty. Sinéad is not really frank with her husband, they do have some topics they need to talk about and which they obviously have avoided for years. Yet, for her, it is difficult to believe that somebody could just love her unconditionally and whom she can tell anything. On the other hand, the Irish catholic church’s handling with pregnant unmarried women becomes a topic – and institution which calls itself caring and welcoming everybody unconditionally played a major role in the destruction of lives.

Surely, “As You Were” is not the light-hearted summer beach read, but a through-provoking insight in a character’s thinking and struggles which touched me deeply.

Raven Leilani – Luster

raven leilani luster
Raven Leilani – Luster

Edie, a 23-year-old artist, is somehow stumbling through her life. She does not have a stable partnership and the men she encounters are certainly not the ones to plan a future together, well she does not even know if that is what she wants. When she meets Eric, again, this does not seem to go beyond sex since he is twice her age, married and without the least intention of leaving his wife and daughter. When Edie finds herself suddenly unemployed without money or place to stay, something quite extraordinary happens: Eric’s wife invites her to live with them. However, it is clear who sets the rules: Rebecca.

Raven Leilani’s novel “Luster” has been named among the most anticipated novels of 2020, thus, I was quite curious to read it. The constellation of inviting the young mistress of one’s husband to live in the same house seemed quite promising for an interesting battle between two women. However, I struggled a bit with it, maybe this is due to the fact that the author quickly moves away from the central conflict and the protagonist remains a bit too bland for my liking.

When moving to the Walker family’s house, Eric is away on a business trip. Instead of having two grown-up women who have to negotiate their respective place in the household, Edie turns into another kid who is bossed around by Rebecca and forced into the role of a nanny and tutor for Akila, Rebecca and Eric’s daughter. She herself does not appear to actually dislike this arrangement and easily gives in to it. Rebecca, on the other hand, is not the self-confident and successful women, her behaviour towards Edie is quite harsh but only because she is weak and in this way wants to secure her place.

There are some minor aspects which I found quite interesting but which did not really blend into the story such as Akila and the fact that she is black and adopted. She and Edie become the victim of police brutality – a brief scene which is not pursued on a psychological, societal or political level and of which, there, the function remains unclear to me. This happens at several points where the characters find themselves in a crucial emotional situation which is not elaborated and makes them all appear a bit inanimate, like actors on a stage who perform a role in which they feel awkward and which they cannot really identify with.

Edie is neither a representative of a lost generation who does not know what to expect from a highly uncertain future, nor is she a special individual who struggles after some major life event. She also does not really develop throughout the novel which, all in all, makes her shallow and admittedly quite uninteresting. Maybe the plot might have been much more appealing from Rebecca’s or Akila’s point of view.

Inès Bayard – This Little Family

ines bayard this little family
Inès Bayard – This Little Family

A woman kills herself, her husband and their small son. What has led her to poison their dinner? They are a well-off Parisian family with a successful husband and lovely kid living in a beautiful apartment. What people cannot see is the inside, the inside of the family home and especially the inside of Marie who has been struggling for years to keep her secret well shut behind a friendly facade: she was raped by her CEO after work one evening and is convinced that Thomas is the result of the assault and not her husband’s son. Every day, she has to look in the eye of the small boy and is confronted again with what happened and what she cannot share with anybody. It is not the tragic story of a family, but the heart-breaking story of a woman not just suffering once from the humiliation and attack, but suffering every single day of her life.

Inès Bayard’s novel is one of the most moving and highly disturbing books I have ever read. She starts with the final step of Marie’s desolate and lonely voyage, no surprise where it all will end up, but the way there could hardly be more painful, more emotionally challenging and nevertheless easy to understand and follow.

Marie feels ashamed for what has happened to her, for her body after giving birth, for her behaviour towards her husband. She does not see herself as the victim she is, immediately, after the assault, she has taken the decision to comply with her assailant’s threat not to tell anybody and thinks she now has to stick to it. Her mental state is gradually deteriorating and Bayard meticulously narrates the downwards spiral. Looking at her from the outside, you can see that she is trapped in an unhealthy mental state that she has established and which is completely wrong but yet, it is so understandable how she comes to those conclusions and this almost paranoid view of her situation.

She does not get help or support, nobody even seems to notice her suffering, only when the signs become too obvious is suspicion raised. There might have been ways out of her depression and misery, but she cannot take these roads and thus needs to face her ultimate fate which does not entail living an option.

Without any doubt, Marie is a victim in several respects. But so is her son Thomas and he is the poor boy without any chance to escape or change his fate, he is exposed helplessly to his mother’s hatred which seems unfair, but I think it is not difficult to understand what she sees in him. Is her husband Laurent to blame? Hard to say, the same accounts for Marie’s mother who didn’t do anything other than just cover the traces of her daughter’s state when she becomes aware of it, she does not offer help when it was most needed.

The novel is a wonderful example for what such an event can do to people, how they struggle to survive and hide what has happened. It is deeply moving and frightening to observe which is also due to the author’s style of writing.

Salman Rushdie – Quichotte

salman rushdie quichotte
Salman Rushdie – Quichotte

Sam DuChamp, author of spy novels still waiting for any to succeed, attempts to write the book that has never been written before and which centres around Ismail Smile, sales executive with Smile Pharmaceuticals Inc. When Smile discovers Salma R, a highly popular TV show host – surely some pun must be intended here -, he immediately falls for her and decides to make her fall in love with him, too. First, he writes letters, then, he goes on the long journey to New York, accompanied by his teenage son Sancho, whom he only imagines. Just like Cervantes’ Quichotte, he has a quest in front of him that he is willing to complete. Sam DuChamp also has to travel, however, not to find love but to find answers for questions concerning his very own family.

“Maybe this was the human condition, to live inside fictions created by untruths or the withholding of actual truths. Maybe human life was truly fictional (…)”

In his 14th novel, Salman Rushdie is playing with fact and fiction within a fictional novel and cleverly demonstrates what we do in our so called real life to re-narrate reality, to shape it according to our needs and longings to make it take the form we would like it to have. Especially when it comes to the author’s family, we get a typical example of a family history which is told in a certain way and shaped by omission and half-truths, something that is all but unusual. Pop-culture in the form of TV has for many years created another variety of reality, everybody knows how easy it is to edit film material to get a certain message across and how easily nowadays pictures can be photoshoped to have somebody appear in a desired way. Fake news and alternative news have become a widely accepted accessory phenomenon of factual news, thus, our assumed reality is full of fiction and we are simply a part of it.

It is not just this intelligent and highly entertaining interplay between fact and fiction that makes the novel an outstanding read, it is also the masses of references to classic literature, pup culture, film, music, current issues like racism or the opioid crisis that turn the read into a roller coaster ride. His letter writing protagonist on his quest through seven valleys compulsorily seems to have fallen out of time completely – yet, that’s exactly what makes Salma R become interested in him.

Rushdie does not show the slightest respect for any limits of genre, his Quichotte is a road novel as well as a chivalric romance, popular literature and documentary of current America, philosophical essay and modern version of a great classic novel. He is most certainly known for finding literary ways of criticising the world around him in which he also succeeds with his latest novel. Apart from the plot, his witty and playful narrator adds to the humorous tone and earned him a well-deserved place on the shortlist of the 2019 Man Booker Prize.

Anne Tyler – Redhead by the Side of the Road

anne tyler redhead by the side of the road
Anne Tyler – Redhead by the Side of the Road

Everything in Micah Mortimer’s life is in the best order imaginable. He has developed his routines of the house chores, of running every morning at exactly the same time before having a shower and eating breakfast. His company “Tech Hermit” provides enough for himself to survive and he is independent in every way. But then one day, his life somehow runs out of control. First, an 18-year-old boy shows up at his door claiming to be his son and then, his girlfriend Cass leaves him unexpectedly. He is not well equipped to deal with this interruption of his routines and certainly not when everybody suddenly seems to be meddling with his love life.

Anne Tyler is a wonderful narrator and thus, also in her most recent novel I got exactly what I had expected. “Redhead by the Side of the Road” is the story of a very peculiar man who seems somehow to go unnoticed when you cross him in the street, who is totally reliable, but also quite predictable. In his Baltimore apartment block, he takes care of everything that needs to be tended to and he seems to be totally ok with his life as he has established it. He shows little interest in matters outside his cocoon and would go on in this way forever if he weren’t interrupted. The author shows that crucial moment, when suddenly everything is put to a test, is questioned and what seems to be perfectly fine turns out to be quite the opposite. He is confronted with the decisions he has made, has to take others’ perspectives and question himself and his habits.

Micah’s obsession with tidiness and order is well explained by the contrast with his chaotic sisters. What the reader sees immediately is that not only are they quite messy and tumultuous in certain ways, but they also seem to be alive. In comparison, Micah is well organised but somehow also lifeless. Nevertheless, they love and support him and would like him to have a fulfilled partnership, their teasing is their way of showing fondness, however, he is not yet at the point of recognising this. It needs another confrontation with his past to fully understand what goes wrong.

He is not a character you immediately sympathise with, but I adored his direct and somehow naive way of addressing people, especially when Brink appears and maybe it is exactly this somehow innocent straightforwardness that makes the boy open up to him.

It is not a novel that goes totally deep with hidden meanings and messages, but without any doubt, it advocates for those nondescript, unimposing characters who have to say much more than you’d expect and it also holds the mirror up to the reader to question what is important in life, where to set the priorities and most of all, to ask yourself if you’re really happy. A moving story that I totally adored to read.

Frances Macken – You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here

frances macken you have to make your own fun around here
Frances Macken – You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here

Since their childhood, Katie, Maeve and Evelyn have been friends and it was never a question who was the leader of their gang. Admired by the other two girls, Evelyn decided on what and who to like or dislike. When a new girl moves to their small Irish community, she immediately knows that Pamela is arrogant and stupid. Due to her mother’s interference, Katie is prone to become Pamela’s friend, but before they could really get to know each other, the girl vanishes and is never to be seen again. Rumours go from her being killed by one of the trio’s friends, over being abducted to her having run away. When school is over, Katie and Evelyn plan to move to Dublin together, but when her friend is not accepted at university, Katie for the first time is on her own and cannot rely on her friend anymore.

What a great beginning of a novel. I totally adored to careless and adventurous kids who then developed into typical teenagers. Unfortunately, the novel lost a bit of its spirit when the three separate. Even though this is necessary for Katie’s development, from this point on I struggled a bit with the reading, first and foremost because I found it hard to endure Katie’s naivety and her inability to become an independent person, to develop her own ideas and tastes, she is totally dependent on others and their opinion, thus just bounces somehow in her life without goal. Her return to her small hometown is a logic consequence which even makes things worse for her.

In my opinion, the protagonist is well developed and throughout her life, the decisions made are well motivated by her personality and point of view, yet, she is certainly not a character to sympathise with or to take as a role model. In spite of that, I found it quite realistic to see how she struggles with her future, not having really developed but play but only a mere vague dream, she cannot succeed and must end up being totally disappointed. Similarly, her blindness when it comes to her friend Evelyn is well portrayed, she ignores all warnings and other views and is thus left to learn it the hard way.

A wonderful first part and some great aspects, nevertheless, I was a bit disappointed in the end, as I think the author could have made more of her plot and character.

Lucy Atkins – Magpie Lane

Lucy-atkins-magpie-lane
Lucy Atkins – Magpie Lane

When Dee returns from an overnight trip to London, the Oxford College Master’s Lodging is a mess: Felicity, the girl she nannies and who suffers from selective mutism has vanished. Her Danish stepmother Mariah never bonded with the girl and since she has given to her own boy, she is totally exhausted and incapable of taking care of this extraordinary 8-year-old. Felicity must have sleepwalked, something she frequently does during her nightmares which have intensified since they moved to the old spooky house. For the police, Dee is one of the prime suspects because Nick Law, Felicity’s father, is convinced of her guilt. So they interview her over several days to get an understanding of the girl’s special situation and the relationship she had with her loving nanny who could never do her any harm, could she?

Lucy Atkins’s “Magpie Lane” is a very clever and creepy novel which brilliantly conveys the atmosphere of an old, dark house where you immediately believe ghosts could wander and haunt the inhabitants. Apart from this, she has created lovely characters who are not only very peculiar but with whom you bond straightaway even though some doubt about Dee’s involvement in Felicity’s vanishing is looming over the story.

I totally adored how Atkins uses the old university town in her novel. First of all, the house itself which provides a long and spine-chilling history, but also the cemeteries and walk ways which have a lot to tell. Apart from the surrounding, the people there also seem to live in the past which is especially tricky for a modern woman like Mariah. Even though she, on the one hand, is kind of “evil stepmother”, things are not that simple. I can understand how frustrating her situation is there: she is just “the wife of”, ignored for not being a real part of the Oxford community and everything with which she normally can charm people does not work here. Additionally, the situation with Felicity is undoubtedly highly challenging for her and then, things become even more dire with her own child crying day in, day out from colic.

Even though Dee is telling the story through the police interviews, Felicity is at the centre. This girl is surely a challenge for everybody but due to Dee’s sensibility you come to love and understand her increasingly. Her nightmares and obsession with death is somehow bizarre and unnerving yet understandable when you get to know her story. My personal highlight was the character of Linklater. The eccentric historian who seems to be completely unaware of the world outside his head fits perfectly in a place like Oxford and plays an important part in creating the somehow Gothic atmosphere.

Atkins’s way of foreshadowing adds to the suspenseful atmosphere and makes it a wonderful read that I enjoyed thoroughly.

Deepa Anappara – Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

deepa anappara djinn patrol on the purple line
Deepa Anappara – Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

When Bahadur, one of his classmates, goes missing, nine-year-old Jai is determined to solve this case. He has watched so many episodes of Police Patrol that he knows exactly how such a problem is to be treated. Together with his friends Pari and Faiz, he starts to investigate around Purple Line and Bhoot Bazaar. Yet, more and more children and teenagers disappear from their basti and quite obviously, the police are not willing to do anything about it. The parents get either more and more afraid of their children being the next or angry as they feel helpless and powerless.

Deepa Anappara’s novel is a brilliant mixture of an oftentimes very funny plot and an absolutely serious topic. Daily, children go missing on Delhi’s streets without anybody taking notice of it. The life of a child, especially if she or he belongs to a minority, is worth next to nothing, not even the effort to take a note on it. Diverse cultures and religious racism play an important role in this, too. Boys and girls are treated differently and offered different chances in life. Born into the wrong family, you can only count on superstition for a better life since the boundaries are clearly set.

At the beginning of the novel, I totally adored Jai and his friends. They are vividly and wonderfully portrayed. Determined to find out what happened to their friend and equipped with their knowledge from true crime TV series, they start their investigation ignoring all warnings against the dangers that lurk around the bazaar. They take their job very serious and at the same time, just as kids do, ignore the facts that they live in the same slum but come from very different backgrounds.

With the number of children who disappear rising, the novel becomes increasingly serious and loses the light-heartedness of the beginning. The way a slum works becomes gradually more visible and thus, the novel grants insight in a world which is totally unknown to me.

The whole novel is sparkling with life, the characters are quite unique and lovable and it is totally understandable why the novel has been nominated on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.

Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

kate elizabeth russell my dark vanessa
Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

A big dream becomes true when 15-year-old Vanessa Wye is accepted at Browick, an expensive boarding school with an excellent educational programme. Immediately she is hooked by her literature teacher, Jacob Strane, who opens the world of books to her. But this is not the only world he introduces her to. It all starts with some glances, some minutes he makes her linger after class, a careless and random touch until it is what it should not be: sexual abuse of a minor and a student. However, this is just one view, for Vanessa, it is her first love, the first time somebody pays attention to her, tells her she is pretty, appreciates her mind and opinion. Of course, a secret relationship like this will not go unnoticed and when Strane and Vanessa are confronted with the accusations, it is her who is expelled. More than 15 years later, she still wonders how all this could have gone so wrong, they were only in love, that’s all.

Kate Elizabeth Russell’s novel really is a hell of a read. Using the first person narrator perspective, you climb into Vanessa’s head and get her thinking without any filter. More than once I was stunned, abhorred, terrified or just could shake my head in disbelieve. This girl – even as a grown up woman – is totally captured in her construction of the world, her oftentimes limited capacities of assessing a situation and the naivety with which she confronts her treacherous teacher is one of the best and highly authentic characters I have read about in a while. Even though I could hardly be farther away in my own thinking, I can easily imagine that her state of mind can be found in many girls who are insecure and a bit detached from her classmates.

This novel certainly is not for the highly sensitive. Child abuse and sexual harassment have been topics I have been faced with in my job and in my opinion, “My Dark Vanessa” is a superb example of how a molester gets closer to his victim and which techniques of manipulation he can use to make a girl or woman comply with his wishes. Blaming the victim for what has happened is one of the most loathsome strategies but quite typical and more than once I cringed while reading. Several times, Vanessa senses that something is not right, she feels maybe not abused but her wishes and needs are not respected but she does not possess the mental force or the words to express her position. Even when she is older, it takes some time for her to say it out loud what all that happened has to be called. Possibly her own understanding helped her to cope with the situation better than others, nevertheless, at 32, she is a total mess and far from mentally stable.

A wonderful novel in many respects. Not an easy topic to write about, but an exceptional development of the characters and by using flashbacks also an excellent way of presenting two interpretations of the same incident, the younger and the older Vanessa are not the same anymore. “My Dark Vanessa” was highly praised as one of the most remarkable and important debuts of 2020 – I could hardly agree more with this.

Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

clarissa goenawan the perfect world of miwako sumida
Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

When his friends ask him out for a date to have equal numbers of boys and girls, Ryusei is not too keen. But then he meets Miwako and immediately falls for the peculiar girl who is not stunningly attractive and even overtly harsh. They soon find out that they actually have a lot in common, they spend more and more time together and Miwako befriends Ryusei’s older sister Fumi-nee. Even though they become inseparable, they are not a couple, there is something holding Miwako back from really getting attached to the student who adores her. The secret lies in her past but she isn’t ready to tell it. Yet, the moment of confession never comes, she commits suicide before she can explain herself and thus leaves Ryusei and her friends behind wondering what lead her to this drastic step.

“The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida” is a complex study of characters who carry secrets they never want to come out, but which have a deep impact on their personality and behaviour. The main plot centres around the question what lead Miwako to this drastic decision of ending her life. Ryusei, their common friend Chie and also Fumi-nee all have some bits and pieces of knowledge of her, but they cannot put them together to understand the girl. All their perspectives are presented only for the reader to get the whole picture of a deeply disturbed and suffering character.

It is not only Miwako who is interesting in her way of coping with grief and life’s strokes of fate. Ryusei and his sister became orphans at a young age leaving the older girl in charge of her brother and renouncing her own dreams to take care of him. However, the fact that she herself struggled with life and the question of her identity made Miwako open up to her and revealing her secret because she sensed that both their stories were none to be told easily.

Even though a lot of very dire topics are addressed and all the characters have to endure much from the world around them, it is all but a depressing read. For quite some time, they try to cope with their respective situation alone, but just by opening their eyes and having a bit of trust, they could see that there are people around them who are sensitive and emphatic.

Just as the characters, the novel also takes some time to fully unfold and display its strength.