Karen M. McManus – The Cousins

Karen M. McManus – The Cousins

Twenty-five years ago, their parents were disowned by their grandmother Mildred. The four Story children Adam, Allison, Archer and Anders only got a letter saying that they knew what they had done. Unfortunately, they didn’t and haven’t been in contact with their mother who still lives on the family estate Catmint House on Gull Cove Island off the coast of Massachusetts which has been turned into a successful vacation destination for the rich. Unexpectedly, Milly, Aubrey and Jonah, Mildred’s grandchildren who have not seen each other for years, are invited to spend the summer there and to get to know their granny. Has the old lady finally changed her mind? Not really, but this is only one of the many, well buried family secrets of the Storys.

I liked Karen McManus’ former young adult novels a lot since she knows how to create suspense without being actually violent and because her characters are often teenagers one can easily identify with since they show the same fears and insecurities every knows. “The Cousins” offers an interesting setting and much more twists and turns than expected and thus was an enjoyable read.

The story is told alternatingly from the three teenagers’ point of view thus giving insight not only in their thoughts but also in the secrets they hide from each other. It also adds to the fast pace and at times gives you an advance since you already know what’s coming when the characters in the novel are still in the dark.

There are also flashbacks in which we meet their parents when they were teenagers which is quite an interesting comparison and also provides the necessary background to understand the behaviour of the characters on the island.

Overall, I totally enjoyed the novel which had an unforeseeable ending and some fascinating characters.

Sayaka Murata – Earthlings

Sayaka Murata – Earthlings

Natsuki has never really fit in, her mother favours her sister and tells her constantly that she is a nuisance and good for nothing. When her teacher first touches her inappropriately, her mother does not only not believe her but accuses her of falsely allege misconduct. Thus, she keeps quiet, even when she is assaulted. Her way of coping with the situation is getting mentally detached, she has the impression of leaving her body which helps her to cope. Only her cousin Yuu can understand her, just like she herself, he lives in a complicated family and is convinced not to be an earthling since all the people around him behave strangely and don’t understand him. An incident forces this relationship to break up and to isolate Natsuki and Yuu, only after more than two decades will they meet again and their childhood experiences clearly left their marks on them.

“It’s handy having a dumpster in the house. In this house, that’s my role. When Dad and Mom and Kise get so fed up they can’t bear it any longer, they dump everything onto me.”

Reading Sayaka Murata’s novel really brought me to my emotional limits. Even before the actual abuse by her teacher, seeing the dysfunctional family and the mother’s inhuman behaviour towards her daughter is hard to endure. Also her sister who not only does not show any empathy but quite the contrary, actively contributes to Natsuki’s poor state. She is the typical vulnerable child highly at risk of falling prey to molesters. Being beaten by her parents, not experiencing any love or physical attachment, the fact that she is not believed and does not get any help when in need, sadly fits perfectly into the picture.

“Before I knew it, I had turned thirty-four, (…) Even after all the time, I still wasn’t living my life so much as simply surviving.”

It might seem strange that Natsuki as well as Yuu come to believe that they must be aliens and that they increasingly estrange from the humans around them. However, this is just a psychological trick played by their brain to help them to cope and quite understandable. From a psychological point of view, this is extremely authentically narrated.

“It was the out-of-body power. Before I knew what was happening, I had left my body the way I had the day of the summer festival and was watching myself.”

There is no relief when they grow up. The society they live in does not allow individuals to live according to their own conception but expects them to function for the majority’s benefit and not to step out of line. Finding a matching partner first bring Natsuki the possibility of fleeing her family, yet, it was to be expected that their small bubble was not meant to last.

An extremely sad read which definitely is not suitable for everyone. Nevertheless, I’d highly recommend it due to the authentic portray of the effect such experiences can have and to show that quite often victims do not find any help but are even blamed for what happens to them.

Avni Doshi – Burnt Sugar

Avni Doshi – Burnt Sugar

Artist Antara has just been married when her mother Tara shows first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. With her mother losing her memory gradually, the daughter starts to remember what they both went through. The time when her father still lived with them, then, the time at an ashram where kids where more or less left to themselves while Tara was deeply in love with a guru, her time at a Christian, yet not so very philanthropic and humane, boarding school. As an adult, Antara learns that there are rules she is not aware of but which are highly important to others e.g. for her mother-in-law and which she better adhered to.

„I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.“

Avni Doshi’s debut novel has been shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, the first draft was written during a stay India and won the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize, all in all, it took her seven years to complete the book. The relationship between mother and daughter always remains the main focus of Antara’s thinking and her art since she is under a constant emotional pressure. Even though it is highly toxic, she cannot – of course – get rid of it.

The author’s observation and especially the way she describes the mother’s gradual memory loss are particularly striking. The contrast between tradition and a modern way of life, obviously present everywhere in India, is also powerfully depicted.

Having heard so much praise of the novel I really was looking forward to read it, yet, I struggled with the negativity. The relationship between mother and daughter, the mother’s neglect of her small child, the injustice Antara experiences again and again – it is not easy to endure. Maybe it just wasn’t the best time to read it – 2020 has offered by far enough negative news and after months of pandemic, who doesn’t slowly become depressed?

Claire McGowan – The Push

Claire McGowan – The Push

What do good parents do before the baby arrives? They prepare. And what could be better than a prenatal baby group? This is how six very different couples meet. Monica and Ed are already a bit older, but obviously they have everything under control and quickly take over the lead. Kelly is by far the youngest, insecure while her boyfriend and the baby’s father, Ryan, is mainly absent. Anita and Jeremy cannot have a baby but have planned an adoption, whereas Hazel and Cathy opted for a donor. Aisha and Rahul keep mainly to themselves while Jax feels judged since she is more than ten years the senior of her partner Aaron. Nina is leading the group and preparing the future parents for the upcoming events. Yet, what they a not prepared for is a fatality at their baby welcoming barbecue.

I have been a huge fan of Claire McGowan’s novels for quite some time and also her latest mystery did not disappoint me. A very diverse set of characters who all have their secrets they try to hide from the others but who, ultimately, have to give up and face reality. Narrated alternatingly between the time of the prenatal course and the eventful barbecue, we get to know the characters at two different points of time which is especially interesting because so much happens in between and, as a reader, you have to put together the single bits and pieces. Plus, it takes some time just to figure out what exactly happened during the barbecue and who the victim actually is.

What I admired most was how the characters were created and how each becomes a lively and authentic individual. Even though the number is quite high, they all get some specific traits and secrets which make them not only interesting but add to the overall suspense. There is a murder case but much more interestingly is to figure out the characters‘ little white or big fat lies.

At the same time, the author shows all the fears and insecurities which come with becoming a parent for the first time. A constant feeling of not being good enough and not caring enough accompanies the future mothers. The group pressure in the supposedly help group also plays an important role, some just seem to always be at the head of the class while others always fail. Much more than supportive, the group becomes highly competitive.

I thoroughly enjoyed the read, a perfect page-turner for me which brilliantly combines suspense with sarcastic humour and also serious moments.

Ali Smith – Summer

Ali Smith – Summer

The seasonal quartet comes to a conclusion with “Summer” which is set in the troubling spring of 2020. Teenagers Sacha and Robert know about the problems the planet faces, not just the virus which locks them down, but climate change, the refugee crisis, Brexit and the unreliability of media and the political class make them ponder about the times they are living in. But it is not only the big issues that trouble the siblings, also the typical quarrels of brother and sister and their parents’ separation occupy their minds. But other times, too, challenged people and nevertheless lead to great outcomes.

Once more, just like in her former novels, not only the ones belonging to the quartet, there is so much in it which makes it really difficult to review. Many aspects mentioned are worth commenting on, in the first place, Ali Smith’s writing, again, is simply marvellous, the way she uses language in this specific novel also moves to a metalevel discussing words and the ability to express oneself also without using oral language. In a times when words are misused to blind and mislead people – some doing this even quite overtly – you have to become even more careful with what you say and easily realise that maybe the language as we know and use it is not enough anymore.

I really adored her characters in this novel, first and foremost Robert, even though he also behaves, quite typical for his age, nasty at times. He is on the brink of losing his childish innocence, clever as he is, he asks questions and investigates and even though only 13 years old, can brilliantly analyse the politicians’ deceit. When investigating Einstein, a mastermind he admires for his scientific achievement, he also becomes aware of the fact that sometimes, people can have two sides at the same time which might be difficult to bring together.

Topics which were addressed in the former parts are now picked up again and thus, “Summer” forms a perfect conclusion. Even with the sheer mass of big problems, Smith’s novel provides hope, especially with the young generation portrayed here. They are heroes and have the capacity of making a change. For Sacha, climate activists, NHS workers and Black Lives Matter protesters are heroes according to her definition:

“I have a vision that the modern sense of being a hero is like shining a bright light on things that need to be seen. I guess that if someone does this it brings its own consequences.”

In her understanding, everybody can become a hero, we only have to start.

Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji

akwaeke emezi the death of vivek oji
Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji

When they hear some noise outside, Kavita opens the door and finds her son Vivek dead on the porch. There was some commotion at the local market and Vivek had wanted to go there where he obviously was killed. But who would ever want to do something to her beloved son? Yes, he had always been different, a bit strange which also made it hard for his cousin and childhood best friend Osita who witnessed strange occurrences such as Vivek’s mind wandering away and making him believe being a different person. And that’s just what he was, secretly, without his parents’ knowledge. But Osita, too, has some secrets he keeps from his and Vivek’s family, some just because they do not fit in their village’s idea of a young man’s life, others because they would be impossible to endure for anybody.

Just like in her novel “Freshwater”, “The Death of Vivek Oji” centres around a young protagonist who differs, whose mind works in a very singular way, yet, Vivek’s is less extraordinary than Ada’s. Nevertheless, the main conflict is placed between the individual and society: a person who does not comply with general expectations and cannot really reveal his emotions and most certainly cannot live the way he would prefer since this simply does not work in the place he lives.

“We can’t keep insisting he was who we thought he was, when he wanted to be someone else and he died being that person, Chicka. We failed, don’t you see?”

The story is told in flashbacks to describe the long road that lead to Vivek’s death. Alternately, Vivek and Osita narrate from their point of view what they experienced and how they felt. Both are trapped somehow since there are things they cannot talk about to anybody except for each other, at the same time, it is difficult for Osita to support Vivek’s otherness. The struggles they go through are very well established and easy to relate to. From a western perspective, it is incredible what is done to Vivek, especially the exorcism performed on him, but there are still places where binary thinking is the rule.

There is some mystery to solve, yet, it is much more about young people who are trying to figure out who they are and how they can live in a place where fixed rules and high expectations do not go well together with who they are. Even though it is, in the end, a rather sad story in many ways, I’d consider it a great and noteworthy read.

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.

Cristina Alger – The Darlings

cristina alger the darlings
Cristina Alger – The Darlings

The Darlings are one of new York’s most famous families. Carter Darling’s investment company makes tons of money, mother Ines is still the most stunning woman at all gala events and their two daughters Merrill and Lily have found perfectly fitting husbands and fulfil their roles of the clever and the beautiful also impeccably. When one of Carter’s business partners commits suicide, the family has to face a crisis they have never seen before and, first and foremost, they have to admit that some things are just not what they pretended them to be: Carter is not the honest businessman, Ines is not the wife who still loves him after all those decades together, and family does not come first, when they feel threatened. What starts with one man taking his life, ends in one of the biggest finance scandals New York has ever seen and the Darlings are at the very centre of it.

Cristina Alger’s novel is a combination of a highly complex financial fraud thriller and a very personal family drama in which almost all characters are put to a test: what are their values, how far are they willing to go to protect their loved ones, how much more important can money be than the lives of people? The mechanics of both, the financial world and a family with their closest friends, are laid open and show the darkest corners of human nature.

Admittedly, “The Darlings” is not a fast paced thriller which keeps you alert all the time. Even though the plot covers just a couple of days and actually moves quite quickly, the author chose to rather go into depths with her characters which I liked a lot since it gives a lot more insight in their thoughts and makes their decision-making a great deal more comprehensible. The sheer number of characters wasn’t easy to manage at the beginning and understanding the connection between them took some time, but in the end, it was all very cleverly connected and set up and no questions was left unanswered. This might be difficult for some readers who prefer a speedy thrill, yet, for those who like stories about human beings and their nature, it is a great read.