My Life As A Rat by Joyce Carol Oates

It wasn’t until I began reading My Life as a Rat that I remembered I hadn’t taken to Oates’ previous novel, Hazards of Time Travel. I had that sinking feeling that perhaps this novel would fail to capture my imagination too, but in fact what I uncovered was a character, Vi’let Rue, the youngest in a Irish-Catholic American family, that really did stay with me. It reminded me of something I read a long time ago about Oates’ method of writing. Though I can’t find the reference to it now (this is my disclaimer here), I remember her saying that certain stories came from a character and wrote themselves without planning. She was talking about short stories, but still, there is this feeling, as you read her work, of discovery; that the story literally unfolds in the writing. She finds the character and they tell her their story. Continue reading

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

You Will Be Safe Here is an exceedingly powerful book with a narrative that weaves and twists in exciting ways. It might be tempting to say that the book is really about one person, Willem, a young boy sent to a camp in the outback where he can be reeducated into behaving in ways white South African Boer society would like, but in actuality the novel is threaded with multiple stories and perspectives. Continue reading

Childhood: Two Novellas by Gerard Rose trans. by Sam Garrett

Both novellas in the collection, Werther Nieland and The Fall of the Boslowits Family, have a strange air of directness to them. Set in Amsterdam in the Nazi occupation, the voice of the child in each instance has a self-absorbed air that distances the narrator, shows them to be too busy with the anxieties of youth to clearly see the wider implications of the situations unfolding around them. Continue reading

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

When I began describing the plot of this novel to a friend, they said, ‘Oh, that sounds like that series I saw on Netflix, you know, where not many women could conceive anymore and they were getting the fertile ones to be surrogates.’ Before he helpfully pointed it out, I hadn’t thought about the links to Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale because The Farm doesn’t need any change in regime, or depletion in fertility, for its surrogacy plans to flourish. It wouldn’t even surprise me if such a place already existed.

By mentioning The Handmaid’s Tale there is a sense in which The Farm can be downplayed as a bandwagon book, but what is pleasing about The Farm is that, regardless of its compelling narrative, it plays out the various sides of the argument for the existence of an expensive, surrogacy service that takes young, poor, mostly ill-educated and often immigrant women, and uses their bodies – monitoring them intensely, providing all their nutritional and physical needs – to give the babies they carry the best chance of healthy delivery. Continue reading

Small Country by Gaël Faye trans. by Sarah Ardizzone

Gabriel, or Gaby, is a half-French, half-Rwandan boy living in Burundi. His mother fled Rwanda in the last Rwandan war. She is Tutsi. The tribal, ethnical, and national divisions seem distant from Gaby at the beginning of the novel, but as Small Country develops, the young boy is forced to take sides. From the safety of his street he is forced into the bloodshed.

I thought I would love this story. I felt moved by its outlines, ensnared by its promises of what might unfold, of the awkward dissonance of belonging and difference. In many ways I did get what I was expecting. I was taken into Burundi. I could dip my toes into Lake Tanganyika. I was made to understand what it might feel like to hide on cold tile corridors, bolstered by multiple concrete walls far from windows. And yet…

In Chapter 23, Gaby writes about his friend who wins an argument by expressing his grief. He says, ‘Suffering is a wildcard in the game of debate, it wipes the floor with all other arguments’. In a sense any lack of appreciation I feel towards the book sits on this difficult boundary especially as there was so much to admire in Small Country. I particularly enjoyed the ending. It leaves a challenging, bitter taste in the mouth, questioning foreign interaction and interference in Africa, making Gaby’s mother a symbol of what is left after the fighting is done. And yet I still feel somehow at the same distance from events as Gaby appears to be, despite what he was forced to do. 

I’m sure many will enjoy Small Country – it has beauty, poise and shows just how oddly politics can transmute into children’s lives – but I didn’t fall in love with it.

Next week I’m reading The Farm by Joanne Ramos.

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