Another month has come and gone, with nine books read for a total of 90 in 2019. Yay! This month, amongst others, I read four Booker nominees. (I could have finished all six, but I’m waiting on two that aren’t yet out in Canada to arrive from the UK. They’re supposed to get here this week, which will keep me on track to finish the shortlist by the winner announcement on October 14.)
Here’s what I read in September.
Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope
After committing a horrible crime, twenty-six-year-old drug addict Adam leaves New York City for an Israeli kibbutz with the mission of returning his late grandfather’s brooch to its rightful owner. Interesting portrayals of secular Jewish cultural traditions and the exploration of atrocity without atonement and closure ultimately give way to lazy stereotypes and shallow political engagement. Misogyny permeates the portrayal of a young Belarusian kibbutznik; mental illness and addiction are pathologized and treated unrealistically; racism expressed against Palestinians is never challenged by the text; indeed, there is a complete refusal to consider the importance of Palestinian sovereignty. I objected strongly to the politics of this novel, and I found its premise overdone and banal.
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
Nigerian chicken farmer Chinonso falls in love with the wealthy, educated Ndali after rescuing her from suicide. Her family objects to their union, and Chinonso decides to pursue an education in Cyprus in order to win their favour. But when he arrives in Cyprus after selling his modest assets, he realizes that he has been scammed. The story is narrated by Chinonso’s chi, or guardian spirit, and the incorporation of dense Igbo cosmology into the narrative and prose is wonderful. The story is socially-relevant, tackling themes of racism, (post)colonialism, classism, diaspora, and immigration. It’s an ambitious novel with a lot to say, and while I found a lot to like about it, it stopped quite short of perfection for me. Ndali, the driving force behind the narrative progression, is tragically underdeveloped; there is a lot of foreshadowing through heavy-handed metaphor; the pacing felt off. This one is absolutely brimming with potential, and it’s clearly the work of a talented, accomplished author. It just doesn’t quite get there.
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
Rushdie confronts the opioid crisis and modern America through a satirical, absurdist retelling of Don Quixote. In less capable hands, the abundance of big ideas in this novel would have suffered from a lack of synthesis. But Rushdie manages a strong indictment of Big Pharma’s complicity in the opioid epidemic, a touching portrayal of fractured family dynamics, an investigation of racism as part of the American (and British) experience, and a lot of metafictional musing. This book seems to insist that there is something rotten at the core of American culture. This is a novel that is certainly smug and self-impressed at times, but it satisfyingly and thoroughly works through a set of enormous, complex, difficult, interrelated ideas.
Autumn by Ali Smith
Written and set in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016, Ali Smith uses the relationship between thirty-two-year-old precariously-employed art history lecturer Elisabeth and her centenarian former neighbour Daniel as a way of working through sociopolitical uncertainty. As Daniel lays dying, Elisabeth visits him weekly, constantly returning to memories of their touching (though unconventional) relationship as a form of escapism in frustrating and scary times. Smith’s poetic prose moves quickly, and I found myself having to force myself to slow down and linger in the poignant moments she creates. She evocatively captures the atmosphere of a fractured nation as well as the longing to return a simpler past. An interesting novel that is much more complex than it appears on the surface.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Set fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel reads to me as a clear opportunistic attempt to tie the Hulu series and the novel more closely together while expanding on a creative property that has proven very lucrative. Atwood’s prose is always strong, and the world she has built is well-developed, believable, and clever. I remain stuck on the reaction I had when this novel was first announced: that it is extraneous. Nothing in The Handmaid’s Tale indicates that it’s anything but a standalone novel, and if it had been conceived of as the first in a series surely that sequel would have arrived sometime prior to thirty-four years after its publication. But then I have to ask myself it that matters in evaluating its merits.
The narrative framing of verbal testimony is not believable. People do not speak the way Atwood has written them, especially not when giving testimony in court. Much of the novel was predictable; I saw every major twist coming, which is disappointing to say the least. The theme of women’s complicity in their own oppression is interesting, but that thought was not pushed far enough. Can Aunt Lydia be sympathetic if she has also suffered? Can she atone? It’s not that I object to the idea that even people who commit acts of extreme evil are people, with complicated histories and inner lives. (Indeed, villains generally shouldn’t be presented as caricatures.) I just struggle to find any sympathy towards someone who is directly responsible for mass sexual violations of women, as well as torture and death on a large scale. This is especially true when we remember that Gilead is an explicitly white supremacist society, as depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale – an element that the television show does not adopt and which The Testaments certainly glosses over. (In this novel, there doesn’t appear to be any sense of racial difference.) What a missed opportunity for a timely and relevant discussion of the white woman’s perpetuation of racism, the idea that white women will frequently align ourselves politically with whiteness over womanhood. Current right-wing populism adopts overt white supremacy as a political strategy; a novel written in the current era, which is clearly trying to reconfigure the original story of The Handmaid’s Tale to make sense of contemporary society (and to fit into the modern storyworld of the show), should acknowledge this. That said, Atwood is probably not the person to incorporate a nuanced critique of white supremacy into anything she writes, given that she… hasn’t ever broached that topic.
I have major issues with the end which I can’t really articulate here without spoiling it, but safe to say it undermines the reality of oppressive regimes as well as the atmosphere of the original text. Much of the power in The Handmaid’s Tale was its ambiguity, its refusal to give us answers. It was the story of one woman who lacked agency and knowledge, the story of minuscule modes of resistance. We didn’t have answers about where Offred ended up; we didn’t even know her name. While The Testaments leaves something to the imagination, it is richer in information and answers enough questions (either explicitly or through implication and links to the television show) that it diminishes the power of the original text. Answers are not always possible, necessary, or desirable. In the case of The Testaments, they are a liability.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
A fascinating novel that confronts and challenges normative modes of novel consumption, both intellectually and physically. (It’s hard to hold such a large book! It’s hard to know when to stop reading!) Ellmann holds nothing back in her exploration of modern American culture, weaving in ideas of grief, domesticity, the instability and polarization of contemporary America, environmental disaster, gun violence, nostalgia, motherhood, family… The one-sentence, stream-of-consciousness framing, rather than being gimmicky, is a strangely accurate literary approximation of human thought processes, making use of association, digression, and non-linear patterns of thought. There’s a lot of attention paid to the domestic space – as a site of repression, comfort, and even terror. The narrator’s interest in film is fascinating – it can be read as a desire to inject glamour and structured narrative into a repetitive, banal existence. When considering film’s long association with the public domain, it’s an interesting contrast with the domestic setting of the novel. The narrator also has a deep nostalgia for American cultural texts of the past, constantly invoking old Hollywood films and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Here is a longing to return to perceived simpler times, especially in the face of the complexities and anxieties of Trump’s America. (This also reflects the narrator’s constant return to her painful past, particularly to the unresolved loss of her mother.) Our nostalgic, innocent, loving, family-oriented narrator represents a moral compass that has largely been lost. This is a thoroughly modern novel that meticulously captures an era of American (and global) history. It’s a difficult text, but well worth the time, effort, and attention it demands.
Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury by Sigrid Nunez
A fictional biography of the (real) pet marmoset of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Sigrid Nunez reconstructs early twentieth century literary England with immense care and attention to detail. Nunez beautifully articulates the importance of pets in the lives of those who love them. (This is a fascinating theme that she also explores in 2018’s The Friend.) She brings the Woolfs to life, too, tenderly portraying the difficulties and joys of their marriage. Yet there seems to be something in Nunez’s writing that I simply cannot fully connect with. She has a rather spare writing style, and I wonder if that might cause me to feel a distance from the compelling topics that she renders with skill.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Nguyen follows up his Pulitzer-winning fiction debut The Sympathizer with a collection of short stories about Vietnamese immigrants in California. It’s a solid collection for the most part, but it doesn’t wow me the way his novel did. Predictably, some stories are better than others; there are a few that are truly touching, even devastating, and some that feel incomplete. One in particular, about a young gay Vietnamese refugee’s sexual awakening in 1970s San Francisco, has a frustrating amount of potential while ultimately displaying only a surface understanding of the emergence and embodiment of young gay identity. The overarching strength of this collection is in its insistence on the multiplicity of experience. The decision to give each protagonist a common heritage and site of displacement is clever: this feels like a relatively small field of humanity, yet Nguyen brilliantly portrays the diversity of Vietnamese immigrant life. Centring a perspective that is so frequently peripheral is a political act that I can certainly get behind.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Known for years only as Emily Doe, the sexual assault victim of Brock Turner and the writer of a viral victim impact statement, Chanel Miller has stepped out of the shadows with a statement that cannot be ignored. Equal parts hopeful and angry, Miller’s writing is bold, brave, and unapologetic. She describes what it is like to navigate systems that work to retraumatize victims and uphold rape culture. She beautifully elucidates moments of clarity, pain, and optimism. She is a remarkable person; my admiration for her work is immense. During the trial, Brock Turner’s defense lawyer used the gap in Miller’s memory to attempt to rewrite the story of her rape – but here Miller takes charge of the narrative. It is an unspeakable injustice that a sentence of ninety days in county jail constitutes a relatively good outcome for a sexual assault trial – but the recall of Judge Persky, the change in California’s definition of rape, and the amplification of Miller’s voice prove that justice can manifest itself in many ways. Should Turner still be behind bars? Yes. But we live in a world in which everybody knows that he sexually assaulted an unconscious woman, where tens of millions of people have read her victim impact statement and many more will read her book. Brock Turner is a washed-up swimmer and convicted sex offender; Chanel Miller is a force to be reckoned with, and he could not take away her humanity, her intelligence, her compassion, her strength, her resilience – nor could he dilute the love and support of her family, friends, and strangers from all over the world. There were moments where I felt that the text could have benefited from a bit more editing to tighten up the prose, but Miller’s writing, attitude, and approach are enough to reduce anyone to tears. I am so glad I knew her name and her story, and I hope she continues to use her powerful voice.
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