Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen is a delightful read. One of those tight novels that explores the self-pity of late adolescence and early adulthood. The narrator is an older woman looking back on the girl of her youth. ‘There’s no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.’ (p2)

Eileen is in her early 20s. She gave up college to come home and look after her dying mother. Once her mother was gone she stayed home to keep her drunk ex-cop father in check. It’s a responsibility she bears with exhaustion and invention. To stop him behaving recklessly she locks his shoes in the boot of her car. It keeps him inside for most of the winter at least. Continue reading

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan

I loved this novel. Partly it’s thanks to the beautiful translation by George Miller, but obviously the original comes from Delphine de Vigan, the language sharp with pained interiority. My copy was a promotional ebook and despite the mistakes of formatting (so often the case with these early promotional releases) I knew when each character was speaking and heard their individual worries and concerns in tones particular to each.

Loyalties is about a young boy, Théo, and the people around him. We hear his voice and those of his friend Mathis, his teacher Hélène, and Mathis’s mother Cécile. Unsurprisingly they are all struggling with divided loyalties. Continue reading

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

Set in Victorian London amidst the opening of the Great Exhibition, The Doll Factory follows the lives of three people trying to make their way in the world.

Silas Reed is a taxidermist with a shop of curiosities who began life outside of London in a pottery factory. He likes to collect things: skulls, skeletons, scraps of life he can preserve. It was his collection of skulls that helped him sell his way to freedom, London and his shop. He is a lonely man of great ambition who smells of decay and chemicals.

Albie is a street urchin whose teeth, all but one, were knocked out by a carriage. He finds dead animals for Silas, he sews underskirts for Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium and lives with his sister in the whorehouse. Iris, one of the twins at the Doll Emporium always treats him with such kindness even when snapping the flea eggs on his doll skirts.

Iris, whose collarbone broke at birth and heeled twisted out at an angle, used to be the ugly twin until her sister caught smallpox. Since then they have been lucky enough to find work at Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium, painting the delicate porcelain faces and sewing the outfits for custom ordered dolls, often made in homage and likeness to dead children. Their life is one of drudgery from which Iris secretly wishes to escape. She sneaks out of bed at night and paints using tools it has taken her months to save for. She paints in secret because such longings are improper. Her wild desires threaten the safety of their respectable lives. Continue reading

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

The Dreamers is surreal novel about how little we understand of our minds, especially our dreaming selves. What is the difference between what is real and what is dreamt when we can feel and experience things so clearly in dreams?

It all begins when one college girl, in a small town in California, falls into a sleep from which no one can wake her. Slowly, over time, more and more people fall sick, drifting into sleep at times and places that leave them undiscovered, in danger, or eventually found and hooked up to drips and feeding tubes while people wait and hope for them to wake up. Continue reading

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Korede’s younger sister is very beautiful. Her charms enslave people, even Korede. Such a sweet innocent face could surely never wield her father’s antique knife? One might believe it of ungainly, sensible Korede, but Ayoola? Surely not. She is too small, too delicate, too sweet.

As Korede marks off man number three in her notebook, she recognises that her sister, by definition, is now a serial killer. But what do we do to keep those we love from harm? What are we prepared to sacrifice to keep them from a life of imprisonment? Continue reading

The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

The story begins when Charles travels to Antarctica with Roy Curtius in 1986 to search for signs of alien life. Roy is obsessed with Kant and his certainty that humans define the universe by what they can perceive through the limits of their senses and imaginations, rather than the thing-in-itself, the ding an sich, which exists outside of our ability to perceive it. He doesn’t have friends and therefore receives no letters.

Charles sells him one of his letters for £10 and Roy has an idea. Continue reading

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

I loved this book. Friday Black is a brilliantly provocative collection of stories that weave the worst of our present into a terrifyingly real near future, filled with characters we fear and worry over. The writing is sharp, precise but unfussy. There is definitely a George Saunders influence (I’m thinking some of my favourite stories like ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’), but Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is very much himself. A Nigerian history of story runs within the tales twisting the visions of the future in new ways. Continue reading

99 Nights in Logar by by Jamil Jan Kochai

Set in 2005 on a family holiday home to Afghanistan, Marwand has come all the way from America to visit his family in Logar. Staying predominantly with his mother’s family because his father’s home and family were devastated during previous wars, Marwand is most looking forward to seeing the family dog. Since arriving in America, he has been taught that dogs should be trained with rewards and love and he carries with him guilt over torturing the dog when it was still a puppy.

The first thing he does is rush to the dog to make a amends, but Budabash is a fierce guard dog kept on a chain. Budabash eats off the tip of Marwand’s finger. Continue reading

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

Adriane Strohl, a seventeen-year-old high school student living in the near future in the North American States, a reconstituted United States including Canada and Mexico, expresses her curiosity about the world at the rehearsal of her graduation speech and is arrested for treason against the state and questioning authority.

Her punishment is to be exiled to a university in Zone 9. This turns out to be Wainscotia University in Wisconsin USA in 1959 where she is forbidden to offer any knowledge of the future or to enter into intimate relationships.

The idea of this transportation, of what it might be to exile someone to the past in the hope that their transgressive personalities might be changed through the loss of their family, friends and technology, makes Hazards of Time Travel a compelling idea. In reality, the book has a tendency to meander. It’s hard to grasp how the novel hangs together as its main character has a shifting awareness of her state. There is an experimental feel to the way the novel unfolds, at one point moving from the first person to an alternative group perspective. And whilst this experimental feel is true to the manipulative possibilities of science and governmental control, there is a part of me that longs for the novel to step outside of the confines of romantic obsession, or to form a greater cohesive narrative. In the end, I’m as unsure of what to feel or believe as Adriane and though this may be the point, it leaves a rather empty feeling on the palate of the mind. Continue reading

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

Three sisters, Grace, Lia and Sky live in a large house that used to be a retreat for suffering women seeking to heal themselves from the wrongs of men. The sisters live there with their father and mother. They undergo treatments and cures, they prepare themselves for the fight against the contaminated world outside the parameters of the house. They survive on goods their father brings from the mainland. He sails away for three days, trading talismans that the women sew, wearing a white suit to deflect contamination.

The rituals and treatments, the cures, are cruel, designed to test obedience and strength, to keep their womanly and dangerous feelings in check.

Then their father is gone with one of the boats. A blood stained shoe washes up on the shore. What will they do now he is gone? Continue reading