Marie Aubert – Grown Ups

Marie Aubert – Grown Ups

Sisters Ida and Marthe have planned to spend some days together at their cabin close to the sea where they will be joined by their mother and her partner. Ida is reluctant to go there, with her 40th birthday only a couple of weeks ago and still no father for prospective children in view, she knows that her window of becoming a mother is getting closer and closer. This is why she decided to freeze some of her eggs. Yet, it does not hinder her from negative feelings towards Marthe who, now pregnant and stepmother of beautiful 6-year-old Olea, seems – as always – to get everything she wants. Hard feelings accompany Ida and slowly turn their holiday together into a catastrophe.

I totally enjoyed Marie Aubert’s novel as I could easily sympathise with her narrator and protagonist. Additionally, there is some fine irony and humour in the text which make it a great read. The relationship between sisters quite often is all but easy and even as grown-ups, hard feelings and emotional injuries from the childhood can sit deep and hinder them from ever having a healthy bond.

Ida obviously is envious, her sister not only has a living husband but also a lovely stepdaughter and she’s pregnant. Even though Ida is a successful architect, she has never managed to establish a functioning relationship with a partner and feels lonely and somehow failed in life. Always being second, this is how she has grown up, no matter which achievements she reached, there was always Marthe who was ill and thus spoilt those rare moments of joy for Ida. Their mother does not seem to be aware of the difference she makes between the girls – yet, one has also to take into account that we only get Ida’s point of view which quite naturally is not only limited but highly biased.

“It’s not right That it should be so easy for others and so hard for me, I don’t get it, if there’s some sort of formula, a code that others know about, one they’ve known since they were young but which I’ve never quite grasped.”

Ida gets worked up about her sister and is willing to destroy her sister’s life when she is drunk one evening. This is rather tragic to observe and Ida turns into a pitiable character who does not realise that she will be even lonelier if she loses these last persons around her. She is aware of this but cannot act differently.

Marie Aubert’s debut is elegantly narrated, yet, the story leaves you with mixed feelings. It is joyful at times but the dysfunctional family is also an emotional challenge.

Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Rose Christie cannot believe it when she is offered a job at the prestigious boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, set on a recluse peninsula above the Scottish cliffs. They haven’t hired new staff for more than a decade and the Classics teacher is a lot younger than her colleagues, much closer in age to her students. School does not only cater for her, but also for her mother whose health is deteriorating and who thus can get the best medical care. The rules at the institution are strict and not easy for Rose to figure out, too different is her new work place from the schools she worked before. Yet, she soon gets the feeling that what is advertised as tradition is much more an overcome idea of the world in which women are reduced to being pretty and just longing for being married. Only in her classroom can she talk about the female heroines of the ancient world that have always fascinated her – yet, this is not a way of thinking which is tolerated there and soon Rose finds herself deep in trouble.

Phoebe Wynne’s debut novel “Madam” combines the classic boarding school novel with elements of Gothic fiction and also classic literature. She sets the story at the beginning of the 1990s thus offering a world without the world wide web when it was still possible to keep young women secluded from the outside and thus possible to control what they have access to. Free spirits just like Rose, taking feminist standpoints, were not part of the school’s personnel and it becomes quickly obvious why.

At the first glance, Caldonbrae Hall is a highly admired and impressive institution. The girls come from the noblest families and seem to be well-educated in their manners. Yet, Rose soon detects that there is also something lacking, an aspects she considers crucial in her teaching: free thinking. The pupils all seem to follow are a very limited view of the world and do not develop any aspiration for themselves. Most astonishingly, it seems as if they are happy with the choices that are made for them.

The Gothic novel elements – the virginal maidens, the castle like school with its old walls, a threat which is difficult to locate, the gloomy weather with frequent storms, people hiding crucial information, and most of all, the story of some girl’s mysterious death the year before – all contribute to an unsettling atmosphere which can be felt throughout the novel. Rose quickly realises that she needs to flee but is successfully kept from doing so.

Rose’s heroines, the stories of ancient goddesses and nymphs like Daphne, Antigone, Dido or Lucretia, are wonderfully integrated into the novel and a stark contrast to the girls’ views. This is what I liked most about the novel since it nonchalantly underlines that you still can learn something from these old stories and find role models even though times have changed a lot.

A novel I totally enjoyed indulging in which combines classic literature with a bit of mystery.

Simon Han – Nights When Nothing Happened

Simon Han – NIghts When Nothing Happened

The Changs live an inconspicuous life in Plano, Texas, Patty, the mother has a demanding job in the tech industry, Liang, the father looks more after the house and their two kids Jack and Annabel. Despite their Chinese background, they assimilate and fit in quite well until misunderstanding sets in motion a chain of events which throws the already fragile family equilibrium totally out of balance.

Simon Han’s novel “Nights When Nothing Happened” tackle different tricky topics such as moving to another country and trying to fit in, finding your identity when you grow up between different cultures, trying to make a living and having a family at the same time and, most of all, dealing with the fragile psyche of a child. Each chapter provides the reader with the perspective of another family member thus underlining that even though you might belong to the same family, there are always things left unsaid because they are unutterable or because you cannot find the words to express yourself, in the case of the children in the novel: because they are too afraid of saying or doing something wrong.

It wasn’t easy for me to sympathise with the characters, they were too far away from my life and unfortunately the novel, though wonderfully narrated, couldn’t bring them closer. Understanding their individual struggles and fears though was easy due to the insight in the characters’ thoughts. Many noteworthy aspects and without any doubt interesting characters, yet, somehow the novel did not really move me.

Belinda Bauer – Exit

Belinda Bauer – Exit

Felix Pink works as a so called Exiteer which means he accompanies people during their last hours to decently transit from this to another world. Normally, they work in pairs and so far everything has gone quite smoothly. They do not leave any clues about their presence and don’t use their real names even with their colleagues. When Felix is called to his next client, it is his first job together with Amanda who is new to the business. When they have accomplished their task, a bit more demanding since the old man this time seems to have become reluctant to die in the last second, they are about to leave the house. At this moment, somebody shouts for them, obviously, they haven’t been alone in the house as expected, but there was a witness – waiting for them to assist his suicide. Felix and Amanda have made a huge mistake and have to face reality: they have just killed somebody and the police are already on their way.

“He had made a terrible mistake, but hoped there was a good reason why. He just hadn’t found it yet.”

I was first allured by the idea of the Exiteer business since assisted suicide has been fiercely discussed and surely isn’t an easy topic. However, Belinda Bauer’s novel turned out quite differently than expected. From the rather serious and gloomy start, an incredible plot develops which is full of fine irony and humour, wonderful characters who are diligently drawn and all the absurdities life can offer.

“‘Bloody hell,’ said Pete. ‘I did not see that coming.’ Calvin thought that spoke well of Pete, because you’d have to be pretty sick to see that coming.”

Felix Pink is a decent elderly widower who is a bit lonesome but as Exiteer has found a task which gives him the feeling of being helpful. Finding himself suddenly in the middle of a crime is something he absolutely cannot cope with. He is full of pangs of conscience which leads him to worsen the situation even more. Yet, it is not only the Exiteer who is breath-taking to observe but also the dead man’s family – consisting of his son Reggie and his father Skipper – who have quite some story to offer and also the police is a set of extraordinary characters.

A remarkable plot which offers quite some surprises one surely cannot see coming.

Pola Oloixarac – Mona

Pola Oloixarac – Mona

Mona, a Peruvian writer who has been living in California for some years, is invited to Sweden as she has been nominated for the notable Basske-Wortz prize, one of the most renowned literary awards of Europe. Together with other authors from diverse countries, she is to spend a couple of days in a remote resort where they have talks and give presentations. Rivalry starts immediately, some of them Mona has known for years and met at literary festivals before, others she admires for their work. However, the young woman is not too much concerned with the possibility of being awarded a famous prize, it is her life that matters most at the moment. Her body is covered with bruises and she cannot recollect where they stem from. Also her abuse of diverse substances follows her to the Swedish secludedness – travelling to the end of the world does not mean you can escape your demons.

The setting the Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac has chosen for her third novel is perfect for a small community under a magnifying lens. None of them can escape and they have to face each other – as well as themselves. For the protagonist Mona, she herself comes to scrutinise her very own situation: where does she stand as a writer and why does her current novel refuse to advance; where do these bruises come from which hurt and yet do not give a clue of what might have happened; how to people perceive and classify her as a woman of colour who, as a doctoral candidate at one of the most prestigious universities, penetrated into an area which normally is closed to people with her background.

Even though I found the ending rather confusing, I totally enjoyed reading the novel which is remarkable due to its strong protagonist and quite a unique tone of narration with strong images and brilliant use of language.

Danielle McLaughlin – The Art of Falling

Nessa McCormack and her husband Philip have just sorted out their marriage after Philip’s affair when ghosts of the past reappear. Her former best friend’s son Luke and his father Stuart appear out of nowhere after almost two decades without any contact. After Luke’s mother’s suicide they did not stay in touch, not only because times where difficult but also because Nessa and Stuart had a brief affair. Also at work things become complicated when Nessa is curating an exhibition of sculptor Robert Locke and a mysterious woman appears who claims to have created the most impressive piece of the exhibition. Yet, Locke’s widow and daughter claim to have provided all materials and never to have heard of the woman. However, she has set her mind on finally being recognised as an artist.

The most striking about Danielle McLaughlin’s novel is the protagonist and her development throughout the story. Apart from this, the dynamics between the characters is also remarkable, set in motion by the classic sins which you can find almost all in the novel: pride, lust, greed, wrath, sloth – you name it. They have always belonged to mankind, so why not to 21st century characters, too?

At the beginning of the novel, Nessa is on the one hand disappointed and fells devalued by her husband since he not only had an affair but chose a woman who isn’t even the slightest attractive in her opinion. On the other hand, her husband’s misconduct brings her into a morally superior position which she quite unashamedly exploits. She has got a big project in her job which will automatically come with a lot of kudos, undoubtedly, she is good at what she’s doing and an expert of the sculptor she curates. But small lapses leave cracks and with the appearance of the mysterious woman, the cracks start to deepen and threaten her reputation. At the same time, her daughter first seems to be on her husband’s side – the cheater! – and then openly opposes her mother to take sides of the other woman. There is not much left in her life which works according to plan and Nessa becomes increasingly irritable – until a secret, well-kept for many years – suddenly surfaces and threatens to destroy it all.

A lot of moral questions are addressed in the novel without providing simplistic answers or role models. The dramatic structure also creates the suspense that keeps you reading on.  A compelling read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Lauren Oyler – Fake Accounts

Lauren Oyler – Fake Accounts

When the unnamed narrator seizes the chance to snoop through her boyfriend’s phone – which he normally does not let out of his sight – she discovers that he has a large Instagram account on which he spreads conspiracy theories. She is confused but admittedly, she was already thinking about splitting up and now she’s got a good reason. However, her plan – telling him after returning from the women’s march against Trump – fails totally because when she’s still in Washington, his mother informs her of his fatal bike accident. Even though she already was detached emotionally, this hits her hard and literally throws her out of her life. She quits her job and travels to Berlin, the city where they first met and where she hopes to find out what she expects from life and what she actually wants to do professionally.

Lauren Oyler’s novel is a portrait of a somehow lost generation who lives a double life: one in the real world, where many of them are lost and orbiting around aimlessly, and one in the online world, where they can create an idea of themselves, a person they would like to be and play a role according to their likes. Yet, the more followers they generate, the more narcissistic they become and inevitably, the fake life in the world-wide web has an impact on reality, too. Slowly, they also start to create fake personalities there and increasingly lack the necessary authenticity and sincerity it needs to have serious relationship with others.

The narrator lives such a life in both spheres at the same time, her job involves roaming the net for good stories she can re-use and pimp for the magazine she works at. After leaving her old life behind and moving to Europe, she does not even start to create a new life in Berlin, neither does she try to learn German nor does she really make acquaintances. She dates people she gets to know online simply to tell each one a different story about who she is – she successfully transfers the possibility of a fake online account into real life. However, this does not make her any happier.

In a certain way, this is funny and ironic since it is so much over the top that it cannot be real. But is it really? Are people still able to make a distinction between the two? And which consequences does this have for us? We are all aware of how photos can be photoshopped, how information online can be embellished or simply wrong and we pay attention when we are approached by someone online whom we don’t know. In real life however, don’t we expect that people tell us the truth at least to a certain extent? And especially in a relationship, aren’t sincerity and truthfulness necessary foundations to build trust in each other?

An interesting study in how far our online behaviour may fire back – not something we can really wish for. Even though the tone is light and often funny, is leaves you somehow with a bad aftertaste.

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.

Roddy Doyle – Love

Roddy Doyle – Love

A summer evening, two old friends meeting in a Dublin restaurant. They haven’t seen each other for quite some time, Joe still lives in Ireland, David and his family have moved to England. They have grown up with each other, shared all firsts of life and stayed in contact for several decades, now coming close to the age of 60. What starts as a joyful evening of old pals turns into an introspection and questioning of values, of memories which suddenly do seem to differ and of a friendship which after all those years is threatened to break up.

Roddy Doyle’s novel is really astonishing with regard to the liveliness and authenticity with which it is told. The text consists in large parts of dialogue between Joe and David which gives you really the impression of sitting at the table with them, listing to their conversation and taking part in the evening – just without all the drinking. It was all but difficult to imagine the scene and also the way they interact is totally genuine. This is only interrupted by insights in David’s thoughts, while he is talking to his friend, he is reassessing what he hears and, as a reader, you soon get aware that there are things he does not share with Joe albeit the latter is supposedly his best friend.

Even though I liked to learn about the two characters’ points of view, their pondering and wondering, the novel did not really get me hooked. First of all, I guess the imbalance between the two, getting access to one’s thoughts whereas the other is only shown from outside, did not really convince me. Quite naturally, the plot is highly repetitive which is absolutely authentic and believable, yet, not that interesting when you read it. There are funny moments as there is a very strong ending which really made up for a lot in my opinion. In the end, I remain of mixed opinion concerning the novel.

William Boyle – City of Margins

William Boyle – City of Margins

New York in the 1990s isn’t an easy place to live. Several people’s paths cross but fate has decided not to grant them a lucky end. Ex-cop Donnie Parascandolo saves Ava Bifulco when her car breaks down. Ava’s grown-up son and teacher Nick wonders how his mother could so easily trust a stranger when he believed her still to mourn his father’s death. Donnie’s ex-wife, on the contrary, is still mourning since she didn’t get over the suicide of their son Gabe whose suicide note is found by another lost soul, Mikey, a college dropout without any plans or future. Unexpectedly, their lives are linked, yet not only by the encounters, but also by the blood that some of them have on their hands.

“City of Margins” is a perfectly pitched genre mix. On the one hand, Boyle meticulously studies and portrays the inhabitants of Brooklyn, a borough which could hardly have been in a worse state than it was at the beginning of the 1990s. On the other hand, it is a cleverly constructed crime novel which admittedly seems a bit outdated in its style but nevertheless is quite tempting. He creates a lively and gripping atmosphere which makes it easy to enter the plot.

The most fascinating was how Boyle links the different characters. Their stories are narrated alternatingly and only slowly is revealed what connects them. None of them has an easy life, nothing is granted, the need to fight every single day, but they know that this fight will not necessarily end in better times. There is a certain melancholy quite close to a depressive mood, but sometimes, this is just how the world works.

A great read with real depth in the character development.