Kiley Reid – Such a Fun Age

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Kiley Reid – Such a Fun Age

Even though she is already 25, Emira Tucker still does not really know which career to follow. Her degree does not really lead to anything and that’s why she is currently doing two jobs: transcribing records and babysitting Briar Chamberlain. Briar’s parents are new to Philadelphia and happy to find somebody to take care of their small daughter. When one Friday evening their house is hit by eggs, Briar’s mother Alix can rely on Emira to leave a friend’s birthday party to come immediately to their home to secure little Briar. When Emira is accused of having kidnapped the girl in the middle of the night, a bystander films how the black babysitter is assaulted. After all is sorted out, Emira only wants to forget about this episode, but it will become a decisive moment in her life.

Sometimes you start a novel and get totally immersed in it and practically read it straight from the beginning to the end. Kiley Reid’s “Such a Fun Age” belongs to this type of story. I got hooked from the first page as she quite casually addresses so many topics worth pondering on while creating suspense and offering also much to laugh about. I am still not sure which perspective the novel should be read under, the feminist or the race or if little Briar with her very special way of making sense of the world is the aspect most worth looking at in depth.

What I liked most was actually to see the vulnerability and lack of confidence that both protagonists share. This is wonderfully transported by the author since she uncovers the gap between the outer image and the feelings from inside. Alix is a highly successful woman who appears to be sure of herself and knowing exactly what she wants and what she is doing. When we enter her thoughts, the picture we get of her is totally different, there is hardly any aspect of her life she doesn’t struggle with. Emira also seems to be content with her jobs, but secretly she envies her friends for their ‘real adult’ jobs and feels like the only one who never actually grew-up. Briar is too young to express true self-awareness, yet, she seems to be aware of the fact that she is different somehow and does not easily bond with others. I really adored her sensuous and intense way of approaching the world surrounding her.

I thoroughly enjoyed the read, especially since it highlights the fact that you can never be too sure that what you see is really how the other person feels.

Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

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Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Twelve different women, twelve different fates. Bernardine Evaristo was awarded the Man Booker Prize 2019 for her novel which does not have a real plot with an all-embracing story but for each of the main characters offers a short insight in their life often at crucial turning point. Their stories overlap, are often cleverly intertwined. What they share is the fact that they address fundamental topics: first of all, I’d say “Girl, Woman, Other“ is a feminist novel since the cause of the woman in modern England, mostly the black woman, is the central topic. Apart from this, relationships, sexuality and gender identity are tackled as well as politics and what it means to be successful.

“His bredren and sistren could damned well speak up for themselves. Why should he carry the burden of representation when it will only hold him back? White people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race.”

What does it mean to be different? To be black or brown in a predominantly white community. To be homosexual or gender fluid in a primarily heterosexual society. To be a working woman when women are supposed to stay at home to take care of the children and the household. Even when the point of disdain has been overcome, the problems and strange reactions have not necessarily and quite often, the singular example who enters a new community has to represent a whole group and loses his or her individuality.

What the characters unites is to differ from the mainstream which does not go unnoticed and uncommented. Most of them go through a tough time which leaves them stronger and makes it easy to empathise with them. The characters are complex, their lives are complicated and at the end of their chapter, they are not the same person they were at the beginning. Which also offers the reader the chance to leave their stand point and to change perspective on certain topics.

The novel is full of life and with the award, the spotlight has been turned on to black female and queer literature which have been awfully underrepresented in literary discussion. This is surely one of the strongest novels of 2019 since it contributes to the ongoing public discourse.

Scott Johnston – Campusland

scott-johnston-campusland
Scott Johnston – Campusland

Devon is a small New England campus where things run at their unhurried pace as they always have. Eph Russell has been teaching English literature for quite some time and also this winter’s course seems to like him and his way of addressing the 19th century classics. When a minor incident in his classroom occurs – a student claiming trigger warning as Mark Twain uses offensive language in her view – suddenly, Eph’s world crumbles and things fall totally apart. Before the term is over, minority groups have gotten the upper hand on campus accusing staff of racism, sexism and all other kinds of –isms that can be found. Plus, Eph is at the centre of the revolt accused not only of being a white supremacist due to his reading of books written by white men but also of having assaulted and violated one of his students. This student however, Lulu, sees a chance of gaining her fifteen minutes of fame and she is determined not to let this chance pass by.

Scott Johnston’s debut novel surely will not remain without any effect on the reader, in fact, it provokes strong emotions ranging from aversion to frustration, from laughing out loud to total desperation. It is hilarious at times and oftentimes simply infuriates you, most of all because you can imagine all the plot to be totally true. It is a chain of events set in motion, not even intentionally, but unstoppable and the way the characters react to it is more than authentic.

There are many noteworthy and controversial aspects in this highly entertaining novel. First of all, the debate of “trigger warnings” in university that has been going on for some time. Wrapping students up in cotton wool in order not to confront them with reality has been an attitude that I always struggled with. Especially when it comes to literature which reflects the time of its origin, this is hard to understand. Therefore, the beginning of the novel when Eph Russell is accused of only reading white men – who else was there to be published in this period? – this is merely funny and can be dismissed as stupid somehow. The next step is the discussion of which gender somebody identifies himself/herself – or as in the novel: themselves. It goes without saying that LGBTI rights are a great achievement and that minorities should be respected in the same way as majorities. Yet, accusing somebody of misogyny because he is holding the door open definitely ridicules the earnest cause – unfortunately, this is all too real in a strange understanding of feminism and the like and something one sees quite often.

The most striking point is surely Russell’s accusation of sexual assault. Without any doubt, the way the female characters in the novel act is not only convincing, but seems totally authentic. Putting unrelated aspects in a certain context, interpreting them along one single line of interpretation and thus narrating a coherent story that fits well in the world view one has – this can destroy a perfectly innocent life. When you read what happens to the professor, you cannot believe it, yet, you see how the mechanisms work and how Russell cannot do anything about it.

I am sure some reader might find “Campusland” offensive, yet, in my opinion, the way the author satirizes and exaggerates is necessary to put straight some positions that somehow went a bit too far or have taken questionable developments. For me, it was a fantastic read and I would surely say that this is one of the most relevant literary contributions to a lot of current discussions – and, on top, it is wonderfully narrated.

Anne Tyler – Clock Dance

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Anne Tyler – Clock Dance

Willa Drake is only eleven when her mother suddenly disappears and leaves her two daughters and husband to themselves. Since their father is a good man but incapable of managing the household, Willa has to take over the mother’s role. Ten years later, she has almost finished her studies and dreams of a career in linguistics when her boy-friend proposes and expects her to give up her studies. Another twenty years later, a preventable accident kills her husband and leaves her alone with their two sons. When she is already sixty, again somebody makes a decision which has a deep impact on her life. A neighbour of Denise calls her – the ex-girl-friend of her son has been shot in the leg and now her 9-year-old daughter Cheryl is left to her own devices in Baltimore. Willa decides that she is needed even though she neither knows Denise nor Cheryl and heads to Baltimore accompanied by her second husband Peter. What she finds there is what she has been longing for for years: somebody who is grateful for what she does and a group of people who are, on the one hand, lonesome, but on the other hand, take care of each other.

In the first part of Anne Tyler’s novel, we only get short episodes, decisive moments which will make a change in Willa’s life: the mother’s disappearance, the proposal and the death of her husband. What they have in common is not only the impact on Willa, but first and foremost the fact that she is on a position where she has no power over her own life, it is others who make a decision for her without consulting her and without taking her own opinion into consideration. First her parents, then her husbands and she never openly opposes them, but gives in by far too soon. The second part is quite different since here, we accompany Willa travelling to Baltimore and taking care of Cheryl and Denise. Even though she was always there for her husbands and sons, Willa does not really seem to be loved and appreciated by them. It is those strangers that give her the impression of being important and needed and what she does is not taken for granted.

Willa is not a perfect woman, she also has her flaws and seems to be rather ordinary in many ways: the life she leads is the one many thousands of women of her generation lead, her view of herself and her place in the world is also shared by millions. She regrets the weak bonds she has with her sister and also with her sons when they are grown up and hardly stay in contact with their mother. However, this does not have to be like this and there is always the chance of escape as Anne Tyler shows. It is not the big sudden decision, but a long and slow process which also has some steps backwards and isn’t easy at all. It is hard not to like the protagonist, even though at times I had the strong urge to push her a bit to stand up for herself, but this would have been completely against her character.

“Clock dance” is a novel narrated in a very lively way. The dialogues as well as Willa’s thoughts seem to be absolutely authentic and easy to imagine. The characters are realistic in the way they are modelled, none of them is really outstanding from the crowd, but this makes them this interesting: Anne Tyler captures those particular aspects, the traits easily to be overlooked that make them lovable and important to someone. Her style of writing is smooth and makes you just rush through the novel. It is one of those novel which do not need the big event or outstanding character but captivates the reader through its authenticity which shows that the average person can make a change.

Caroline O’Donoghue – Promising Young Women

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Caroline O’Donoghue – Promising Young Women

Jane Peters is a 16-year-old women working in marketing. She mainly does secretarial tasks, nothing too demanding and far from the fancy marketing stuff she had expected. It is her private website where she provides advice as agony aunt “Jolly Politely” that keeps her mood up since she spilt with her boyfriend. When she attracts the attention of her boss Clem, an unexpected chance opens up and she can win a new and important customer for her company. Yet, Clem is not only interested in her professionally and thus an uncontrollable spiral of dependence is set in motion.

Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut novel promised a new side of the old man-woman, power-dependence topic with a witty and strong minded female protagonist who is capable of breaking through old walls and securing herself a place in a man’s world. However, this isn’t what I found in the novel and admittedly I am a bit disappointed.

First if all, the characters are full of clichés and quite foreseeable. Jane as well as her colleagues are rather naive and slightly stupid when it comes to relationships and interpersonal dynamics. Why don’t they see the obvious thing in front of them and why are they eagerly abused? That you are not full of self-confidence when you are young and new in the job and quickly impressed by male conduct is understandable, but running into the trap in front of you isn’t necessary either. Likewise, the male characters are also rather one-dimensional and predictable in their behaviour.

Thus, the whole story becomes a bit stereotypical and lacks individuality and originality. What I could expect from a really important and ground-breaking novel would also be a completely different ending, this was a quite disappointing, the message cannot actually be to look out for a more female adequate job where you don’t meet those bullying men.

The style of writing, however, is something I really liked, it is funny and often amusing and full of puns. Caroline O’Donoghue is witty and creative and the light-heartedness with which Jane comments on the postings on her website are not just funny but also very clever and true. Sadly, she herself does not act accordingly. All in all, there was more in the story from a feminist point of view, as it is, it is somehow nice, but without the impact it might have had.