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?

Livia Franchini – Shelf Life

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Livia Franchini – Shelf Life

After ten years together, Ruth finds herself suddenly alone. Neil has left and all that her life consists of now is her work as a nurse in an old people’s home and shopping groceries at the small Tesco close to her flat. How did she get here? First, the escape of her ill-willed mother, then her friend Alanna whom she met in nursery school and with whom she still works together, the different patients and their respective needs, and Neil whom she despite all the time together seems to have hardly known.

Shelf Life – a. the period during which a good remains effective and free from deterioration. B. the period for which an idea or piece of information is considered an advantage over the competitor.

Still after having finished reading the novel, I wonder about the link between the title and the plot. Yes, the groceries Ruth buys somehow play a prominent role since they provide the titles for the different chapters. But beyond this? So what else could the title refer to? The time the main character is considered young – might be, but Ruth is beyond this discussion and her age is of no importance. Even as a young girl she wasn’t actually judged pretty or attractive. An innovative idea or piece of information is also something I didn’t find.

Thus, just as the titles leaves me a bit perplex, the whole story only slightly touched me. There is some red thread, basically between Alanna and Ruth, which is a bit strange since her relationship and breakup with Neil somehow nevertheless make up the centre of the plot around which everything revolves.

I liked Livia Fanchini’s style of writing and I am sure she can tell an interesting story, but somehow “Shelf Life” confused me much more than it made sense. Her characters are definitely interesting in their very peculiar manners, but somehow it all seemed not fully developed to me.

Annie Ward – Beautiful Bad

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Annie Ward – Beautiful Bad

When the police is called to a crime scene, they are prepared for the worst: a child’s voice could be heard during the 911 call. Flashback to a time fifteen years before. Maddie works as a teacher in Bulgaria while her best friend Jo is based with a NGO in Macedonia. During one of her visits, Maddie gets to know Jo’s British friends, among them Ian to whom she feels immediately attracted. Times are hard for the two young women abroad and not everything runs smoothly, misunderstandings, too much alcohol and words that better had not been said. Their friendship does not last in contrast to Maddie’s love for Ian, but their love was not meant to be immediately and now the big question if it ever was meant to be looms over them.

Annie Ward’s is a psychological thriller in which nothing is what it seems, in which you have to re-assess all relationships, all events narrated and all characters again and again to get a complete picture which differs a lot from the first impression you had. The fact that different characters’ perspectives are given alternately and that the story is told at different points in time, all mixed up so that you spring forward and backward and sometimes get the same event two times, does not make it always easy to keep an overview. Even though this to a certain extent supports the suspense that is created, for me it also contributed to some lengthiness.

There are two strong aspects in the novel that I found quite remarkable and authentic. First of all, it clearly shows how detrimental bad relationships can be. Being literally addicted to a person never is a good basis for a partnership since it easy opens the door for abuse and oppression. Second, the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder should never be underestimated. There are experiences that you will never forget and you never really come to terms with. They shape your personality if you want or not and have an impact on your behaviour, relationships and whole life.

“Beautiful Bad” could certainly surprise me with all the twists and turns and was cleverly crafted to lead you in a lot of wrong directions.

Lindsay Stern – The Study of Animal Languages

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Lindsay Stern – The Study of Animal Languages

Ivan and Prue both live for their careers, Ivan in philosophy and Prue as an ornithologist. For some time already, things have not run very smoothly between them, yet, it is not very clear why this is so. Maybe the fact that Prue is a lot more successful than Ivan and close to getting a tenure, or it is the arrival of one of Prue’s favourite authors who joins their circle of friends. When Prue is to give a public lecture which might finalise her post at the college, her father Frank joins them against his daughter’s wish. Frank has been struggling with his bipolar disorder and Prue fears the worst. Just a couple of days and nothing is like it was before anymore in their life.

Lindsay Stern’s debut novel leaves me a bit pondering. On the one hand, she addresses so many important topics that are worth mentioning and thinking about, on the other hand, when I finished it, I had to ask myself: and now? So what? It is a snap-shot of her characters’ life without a clear aim, I just didn’t get her intention for narrating this story.

As said before, there are interesting aspects such as the father’s way of coping with his mental issues, but also what the bipolar disorder does to him. I always find it worth writing and reading about these kinds of issues simply to raise awareness, but also to foster understanding and knowledge and I think literature can be a big help here. I also appreciated the way Stern shows the slight imbalances in the relationship between Ivan and Prue. They are professionals in different fields and certainly should not compete with each other, nevertheless, this is one of their main issues: how can a husband cope with a wife being more successful? In general, Ivan’s behaviour is worth taking a closer look at: he only starts to pay real attention to Prue when he becomes aware of other men’s attraction to her. The war they start is nasty, but I guess this is quite authentic in their situation.

There is a whole lot of theory about languages and especially bird communication. Even though I am a linguist, this did not really grab my attention since I already found the idea behind so strange that I didn’t want to go any deeper in this weird theory. Her style of writing though is quite promising and I surely would try another novel of the author.

Katharine Smyth – All the Lives We Ever Lived

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Katharine Smyth – All the Lives We Ever Lived. Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf

The death of her father has left Katharine pondering about her life and the people playing major roles in it. Amongst them is not only her family but also Virginia Woolf whose works deeply impressed her when she was a student at Oxford. The parallels between “To the Lighthouse” and her own life are stunning, especially when it comes to the impact that places have on the people. It is her family’s summer house in Rhode Island that first and foremost underlines this impression. Re-reading Virginia Woolf gives her the opportunity to understand her grief as well as her family relationships and to finally cope with her father’s passing.

Katharine Smyth makes it easy for the reader to follow her thoughts. Even though it is some years since I last read “To the Lighthouse”, I could effortlessly find my way back into the novel and see the thread that Smyth also saw. I found it an interesting approach for a memoir or biography and I liked it a lot.

There are two major aspects that I’d like to mention. First of all, Katharine Smyth cleverly shows how literature can help to overcome hard situations and to find solace in reading. It has been a concept since the ancient times, the classic Greek drama with its purgatory function and the possibility of a katharsis which helps you to sort out your feelings and opens the way to go on in life. Second, I also appreciated the author’s frankness. It is certainly not easy to write about the own father’s addiction and his slow deterioration, yet, the process of writing might have helped her, too, and embellishing things would have been counterproductive here.

An interesting memoir which was also beautifully written that made me think about which novel I would pick as a parallel to my own life.

Adib Khorram – Darius the Great is not Okay

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Adib Khorram – Darius the Great is not Okay

Darius Kellner has never really fit in into Chapel Hill High-School, not just because he is half-Persian but also because of his depression which makes it hard for him to make friends. When is grandfather gets seriously ill, his whole family is flying to Yazd for the first time: his father, whom he considers an “Übermensch” because he is perfect in every respect, his beloved mother and his 8-year-old sister Laleh. Even though Iran is much less different from his home than expected, Darius, or Darioush as he is called there, makes masses of new experiences. He finds a good friend in Sohrab, plays football successfully and with fun, he tries out great Persian food and the family relationships somehow shift and allow him another look at how things are between himself and the rest of his family. When he returns, he is not the Darius he was before anymore, a bit of Darioush the Great has come with him to the US and he accepts that at times it is ok just not to be okay.

Adib Khoram’s novel presents a very different perspective on many things we know from novels. First of all, it is not an immigrant who comes to the US and has to adjust, but vice versa, an American boy, who even though he has a Persian mother is not speaking any Farsi, who discovers a country and its people of the Middle East. Khoram doesn’t play on clichés here, luckily, Darius does not come with too many ideas about his mother’s native country and enters it rather open-mindedly. Additionally, Darius is at the age where he could have his first girl-friend, but it is not a girl he meets and falls for, but a boy with whom he makes friends. And thirdly, the novel does not present a happy-end where everything is cured and everyone is fine. Darius still suffers from depression and has to fight for every little step in his life. Just travelling to Iran and back does not change everything.

I really enjoyed reading to book. Most of all because it gave a lot of interesting insight in the life in Iran, but also because it doesn’t pretend that life is easy and that everything can be fixed. None of the characters is perfect, they all make mistakes and they all feel awkward at times. In this respect, it is very authentic and convincing. I think it is great for teenagers who struggle with fitting in since the main message for me was that we all at times feel like outsiders and it is absolutely ok, not to fit in and to feel sad at times.

Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Looking at her from the outside, she has everything one could wish for: she is blond, pretty, thin, a Columbia graduate, stylish without effort and she has a job at a gallery. Due to her inheritance, she can afford an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But that’s just one side of the medal, her relationship with Trevor has been all but healthy, her parents never showed any affection and thus losing them both when she was in college was a minor affair. What she is lacking is an aim in life, something that gives her a reason for being alive. She feels exhausted and just wants to sleep until everything is over. She slowly extends her time in bed, she even falls asleep at work and then, finally, she decides to hibernate. A crazy therapist provides her with medication that allows more and more hours of sleep at a time. She hopes that after a year of rest, she will awake as somebody new.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a US-American writer who earned a degree in Creative Writing from Brown University and whose short stories were received with positive reviews. After her novella “McGLue”, her first novel “Eileen” was published in 2015 and made it on the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Having chosen a mostly unsympathetic protagonist for her former novel, I found it much easier so sympathise with her narrator in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”.

The young woman who is portrayed is quite typical in a certain way. She is the modern New Yorker who takes part in the glittery art circus, is a part of a subculture of believes itself to be highly reflective and innovative. At a certain point, the superficiality becomes exhausting and the aimless tittle-tattle and prattle don’t provide any deeper insight.

“The art at Ducat was supposed to be subversive irreverent, shocking, but was all just canned counterculture crap, “punk, but with money”.

Also her relationship does not go beyond superficial sex and one-night-stands that lead to nothing. Added to this is the easy availability of all kinds of drugs, of therapists who themselves are too crazy to detect any serious illness in their clients and therefore just fill in any prescription they are asked for. Even though the plot starts in 2000, the characters are quite typical for the 1990s and they need a major event to wake them up and bring them back to real life.

The narrator tries to flee the world and takes more and more pills mixed with each other, as a result she is sleepwalking, even gets a new haircuts and orders masses of lingerie without knowing. Her radius is limited to her blog, her only human contacts are the Egyptians at the bodega at the corner where she buys coffee, the doorman of her apartment house and Reva, her best friend who still cares about her. Even though she is bothered by the things she does when she is not awake, she has become that addicted that she cannot let go anymore.

Even though the protagonist is highly depressive and seeing how badly she copes with her life is hard to endure in a way, the novel is also hilarious. I especially liked her meetings with her therapist since Dr. Tuttle is riotous in her eccentric ways and their dialogues are highly comical – despite the earnestness of their actual topics. Ottessa Moshfegh most certainly earns a place among to most relevant authors of today.

James Wood – Upstate

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James Wood – Upstate

Alan Querry lives a modest life in Northumberland, he is moderately successful as a developer and after the hard time of the divorce and death of his first wife, he found a new love. When his daughter Helen informs him that her sister Vanessa obviously has another depressive episode, Alan makes his way from England to Saratoga Springs upstate New York where Vanessa lives with her boyfriend Josh and where she teaches philosophy. Alan has never visited her, too many things kept him from crossing the ocean.  Helen joins him and thus, the family is united in a wintry small town and faced with the uncomfortable truths they have avoided for years.

James Wood is best known for being a literary critic for The Guardian and The New Yorker Magazine and teaching literature at Harvard. “Upstate” is his latest novel which focusses on philosophical dilemmas and the bonds of a family.

Clearly, the incident that triggers the family reunion was Vanessa’s accident during which she broke her arm. Yet, this was only the sad climax of a depressive period – something she has known all her life. How come that her younger sister Helen, who had to go through the same hardships as a child and is also struggling with her career, does not know these moody periods and can embrace happiness much easier? Why are some people just stronger, more resilient than others?

It has never been easy for the family members to openly talk about their feelings. Thus, they need to find other topics to layer what they want to say and to make it expressible. For Helen it is music, for Vanessa it has always been philosophy and for Alan, nature seems to be the clue.  At the end, the wintry ice is melting, after it was a cause for a minor road accident of Alan, that also the ice between father and daughter finally melts and gives way for a new spring, a new beginning.

What I enjoyed about the novel is the gentle pace at which it moves and the tenderness with which Wood talks about his characters. The impressive American landscape contrasts with the critical look at the people and especially American politics – we are around 2007 immediately before Obama announced his candidacy. Where nature is a lot more extreme, everything created by man is poorer there than the European counterpart, which more conservative but also more reliable. Such as the people – in the end, the family bonds are stronger and more dependable than the love bonds.

Liam Callanan – Paris by the Book

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Liam Callanan – Paris by the Book

The sudden disappearance of her husband is nothing new to Leah Eady, he has done it again and again in the almost two decades they have spent together. He needs some time-out for his writing, to gather his ideas. But this time, things are different. She cannot find his “away-note”. He never leaves without a short letting them know that he’d be back again soon. When Robert does not show up again after weeks, Leah and her two daughters are devastated. Some clues lead her to believe that he could be in Paris and thus the three of them head for the French capital. Sometimes things just happen and later you cannot recollect what exactly was the decisive moment, so Leah finally finds herself in Europe owning a lovely bookshop. The longer they stay there, the more they adapt to their new life, a life without Robert. But every now and then, he shows up again. They see him in a picture, they imagine having crossed him in the streets. But: is he even still alive?

The book sounded so lovely that I had to read it. A bookstore in Paris, a kind of extraordinary love story, the frequent allusion to Albert Lampoisse’s short film “The Red Balloon” – these are the perfect ingredients for a great feel-good bitter-sweet story. Yet, it did not completely catch me.

Somehow there were too many breaks in the story, I never knew exactly where it was going too and thus it turned a bit lengthy at times. The characters unfortunately lived too much in the books they read and films they watched to ever find themselves really in Paris and therefore the charm of the town got completely lost.

I liked the way the protagonist and her struggle with the situation are portrayed. Even though I think the construction of their relationship is too awkward to be authentic, the moment of not knowing what happened to her husband and being responsible for two teenagers while coping with your own emotions – that’s all but easy. Figuring out how to survive might lead to extreme decision like going to Paris and starting anew.

All in all, there were lovely passages, but to sum it up: it is too long for the story that’s been told.

Diana Evans – Ordinary People

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Diana Evans – Ordinary People

Melissa was always happy on her own, she never needed a man to feel complete. Maybe this was due to her father who was everything but a good husband and when her mother had finally left him, things got a lot better. But now she is with Michael and with their two kids they moved into a new house. She already had a bad feeling when she first visited it. Somehow she feels haunted in there and it is obvious that the kids are getting ill and that their relationship is slowly breaking apart. Their friends Damian and Stephanie are troubled, too, Damian is convinced that he is not leading the life he wants to lead whereas his wife is in constant fear of not being the perfect mother. Should all of them maybe just leave London which also seems to become a constant threat?

Diana Evans wrote a novel about “Ordinary People”, people who are caught between the dreams they once had – leading an independent life, having a career, writing a novel, enjoying themselves – and the reality which is full of demands and everyday nuisances that keep them from doing what they would like to do. Apart from daydreaming about the lives they could have, they start questioning if they have chosen the right partner for them. They don’t even know anymore what is more annoying: daily routines or the person next to them.

While Melissa sees more and more ghosts who have a negative influence on her family, Michael turns to his attractive colleague. Stephanie becomes more and more severe in her manners and Damian phantasises about Melissa. None of these options is a way out of their dilemma and when they spend the holidays together and get a closer look at the other couple’s struggles, they realise that they are not alone with their thoughts and fears.

I really liked the author’s way of describing how the characters feel, for example, their not wanting to grow up and consider themselves serious and responsible adults:

They were insisting on their youth. They were carrying it with both hands.

They feel somehow outside themselves in their lives and at some point, even their meant to be significant other cannot make them feel complete since they just don’t understand each other anymore. But, Diana Evans is not too pessimistic, there is some hope:

Sometimes, in the lives of ordinary people, there is a great halt, a revelation, a moment of change. It occurs under low metal skies, never when one is happy.

There will be better times and the sun will also shine again for you. A wonderful novel about most ordinary people and their ordinary lives.