Review: “Beartown” by Fredrik Backman

Beartown

I have always taken pride in the fact that I’m a pretty fast reader. As a kid, when I used to drag my parents to bookstores, I would often finish a book in the time it took them to buy me more books. A pitfall of my speedy reading is that I sometimes miss the small pleasures that come from the “non-important” parts of the story. Ever since I started blogging, I would like to believe that I have become a more mindful reader. Thankfully, that didn’t manage to put a significant dent in my reading speed. Till I put my hands on Beartown.

Today, I’m participating in my third Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon. My first time around, I stayed up for the entire duration and finished 7 books. The next time, I was overconfident and fell asleep around Hour 4. This time, I was all set with a list of nine books. But 10 hours in, I just finished my first book and I am not feeling the slightest twinge of regret. Because Beartown is so brilliant that I wanted to savor every single sentence of it, competitive reading be damned.

As an author, Fredrik Backman has this talent of crafting an intricate novel about human nature revolving around characters that might otherwise come across as mundane. I read A Man Called Ove before it was a New York Times bestseller and the source material of an Oscar-winning film. The protagonist was this gnarly, antisocial curmudgeon that people went out of their way to avoid. But by the time I finished the book, I was completely in love with him. I mourned the passing of his beloved wife and I cheered when he found a new “family” in an evolving Sweden.

Anybody who reads Beartown will also find themselves rooting for its characters, a hard feat to achieve since the book has over ten protagonists. Mr Backman has surpassed himself because he manages to get the reader to care not just for its characters, but the entire town as well. Of course, this doesn’t mean every single character is likable. But the reader comes away with an in-depth understanding of what motivates every single person in Beartown. Though much darker than Mr Backman’s other works, Beartown is undoubtedly his magnum opus.

Beartown is the story of an isolated Swedish town at the edge of the woods that is slowly but surely dying. The residents believe that there is only way to save their home: a national victory for their local ice hockey team, that will bring much-needed investment  and publicity to revitalize the area.

To that end, the entire community pins their hopes and dreams on Kevin, the star player. But when a rape accusation by one of their own, on the day of their big game, leaves the team floundering, things take a dark and menacing turn. The book is full of scenes that bring a tear to one’s eye, or make the reader scream with outrage or chuckle at Mr Backman’s sharp and darkly comic insights. The events that unfold are told from the perspective of different characters, adding layer upon layer to this maze of a novel.

There is another noteworthy and unusual technique used by Backman: repetition, but not for repetition’s sake. Various phrases, sayings, even sounds, when repeated skillfully offer new, dazzling interpretations at different points in the story. The character that’s speaking at that particular moment or the sequence of events unfolding then and there are what colour these phrases, thus creating a looping narrative that continually draws the readers in and makes them feel the full implications of what’s going on. The narrative continually emboldens the heavy, darker tone of the novel which, while not as light as his previous novels (though none of Mr Backman’s works can truly be considered light), still preserves its basic human-ness and even persevering, uplifting spirit.

Lastly, for me, Beartown was an outstanding story for its shrewd observations on how society deals with rape allegations, especially in the context of sportsmen and teenagers. I wish I could pepper this entire review with the quotes I highlighted while reading the book, but that would result in around half of the book being reproduced here. Beartown is a must-read for anyone who loves a good, smart and yet touching story.

 I was provided an Advance Reading Copy by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: “Left at the Altar” (A Match Made in Texas #1) by Margaret Brownley

Left at the Altar
Feuds don’t need no reason. Or at least none that matter.”
The year is 1880. The place, Two-Time, Texas, a town filled with gun-toting opinionated people with short fuses. In best-selling author Margaret Brownley’s opening book in her A Match Made in Texas series, Romeo and Juliet gets turned on its head and thoroughly (and delightfully) “western”-ized.
Meg Lockwood and Tommy Farrell have been friends all their life. Children of feuding jewelers who seek to control the town by imposing their own time zones, their wedding was supposed to broker a much sought temporal compromise that goes up in flames when Tommy jilts Meg at the altar.
The sole witness to her humiliation, Grant Garrison, an East Coast lawyer who has recently moved to Two-Time after the tragic death of his sister. Enchanted by Meg’s beauty and courage, Grant nonetheless agrees to represent Tommy in a breach of promise suit filed by meg’s furious father.
Despite their constant run-ins and instant mutual attraction, Grant stays away from Meg and is the perfect foil to the crazy Texans he’s surrounded by. Despite his staid demeanour, there are flashes of wit and a wicked sense of humour. Meg, on the other hand, was a romance heroine I had difficulty warming up to. At first, her thinking seemed provincial and mired in outdated societal mores like propriety and obedience. However, as the story progressed, however, and Meg herself started questioning the roles women are required to play throughout their lifetime (and the alternate ways they can wield power in the absence of political rights) gave the novel a much appreciated proto-feminist bent.
I haven’t read a lot of “clean” romances and it took me over 150 pages to realize that Left at the Altar was one of them. Ms Brownley managed to adequately convey the chemistry between the protagonists, though it is my personal belief that romance could have been developed a tad better. There were a lot of parallel story-lines which left little room for the romance to blossom independently.
The breach of promise suit proves to be a very interesting plot device and also ends up being quite educational through the nuanced arguments made in court and the author’s note at the end of the story. The feud angle felt a bit contrived to me in the beginning but the twisted revolution towards the end proved to be a satisfying explanation. Ms Brownley does a marvelous job of fleshing out her secondary characters and many remain memorable.
Ms Brownley’s Left at the Altar is a fun opener for her A Match Made in Texas series, incorporating socially conscious historical fiction with good, clean romance.   

Review: “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty

big-little-lies

When I picked up my first Liane Moriarty at an airport a couple of years ago, I had to choose between an exploding rose and an exploding lollipop. From what little I could gather from the cover, The Husband’s Secret, my alternative, was about women with ethical and emotional issues, men with possibly criminal ones, and contentious goings-on at a school. If you’ve read Big Little Lies, or seen the Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman-Shailene Woodley drama now on HBO, you’ll know it has more of the same.

I have always found Ms. Moriarty’s books to be long and gossipy as if she’s using stalling as a literary device. She introduces several sets of major characters, cutting back and forth among them, and scatters the narrative with foreshadowing about the terrible, terrible night — on which something terrible happened. The book is peppered with parents’ voices commenting cryptically and amusingly about whatever it was. Was the root cause a French nanny? An erotic book club? Head lice? Seeing how its predecessor was a #1 New York Times bestseller, Ms. Moriarty seems assured that her readers will happily plow through countless minor incidents to find out.

After a calamity has been established, we jump back to a chapter called “Six Months Before the Trivia Night.” And the book establishes what a power-crazed group parents of kindergarteners can be. The book is set on a scenic peninsula outside Sydney, Australia, near a beautiful beach, where there is only one school, which must accommodate children of very different backgrounds. So there are rich, bossy power moms and mousy stay-at-home types. One of the mice is the literally plain Jane, a single mother trying to make ends meet. New to the area, she gets into trouble before school has even started. At the end of orientation day, a hotshot mother with a high-powered job accuses Jane’s son, Ziggy, of having tried to hurt her daughter. Ziggy becomes a pariah, and Jane becomes a victim.

Two other moms come to Jane’s rescue. One is Celeste, who is impossibly perfect and beautiful — impossibly because, in Ms. Moriarty’s literary universe, everybody is hiding something awful. The other is Madeline Martha Mackenzie, for whom the wearing of spike heels is a main character trait and who tends to get outraged at the drop of a hat. Despite her apparent bubbly nature, Madeline was abandoned by a husband who now has a New Age-y wife and a young daughter who is in the same class with Madeline’s daughter with her second husband. And on and on it goes.

As the book proceeds and the schadenfreude kicks in, we discover just how secretly miserable these women are. Suffice it to say that bullying and cruelty were major themes throughout, with some well-researched parts about domestic violence thrown in. As for the question of whether Ziggy, who turns out to be the product of a one-night stand, really is a vicious boy at heart, the book traces a long strand of DNA right into one of the other kindergarten families.

Ms. Moriarty writes all this in an easy, girlfriend-y style that occasionally sounds flat. And a low-level bitchiness thrums throughout the narrative, becoming one of its indispensable pleasures. The witnesses’ descriptions of whatever happened are usually comically distorted, as in a game of telephone, so that everyone’s understanding of what happened at Trivia Night is at best half-wrong. The Australian busybody is a type very much in evidence here, and if there’s one trait all the mothers share, it’s wanting to bad-mouth all the other ones.

Ms. Moriarty also sends up the kinds of crises that rise to epic proportions in the hothouse of a contentious kindergarten. Woe betide the mother who loses Harry the Hippo, the official class toy. Here’s what she gets for trying to make reparations: “That cheap synthetic toy she replaced it with smelled just terrible. Made in China. The hippo’s face wasn’t even friendly.” Then there are the opposing forces that face off over a petition to ban birthday cupcakes. (“It’s so adversarial. Why can’t you just make a suggestion?”) But by the time the teacher insists that the kids make posters illustrating their family trees, real harm is being done over a supposedly innocent matter. Ziggy doesn’t even know his father’s name. And all hell will break loose if Jane reveals it.

The ferocity that Ms. Moriarty brings to scenes of masculine sadism really is shocking. A seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality, in ways that gives Big Little Lies a definite edge over her earlier works. She’s done her homework well in describing the uh-oh moments, the tiny slights, the faint changes in the atmosphere around a charming, loving Dr. Jekyll who is about to turn into Mr. Hyde, and the battered woman who has learned to live with this and make excuses for it. Big Little Lies isn’t likely to attract much of a male readership, aside from the demographic of guys who enjoy being demonized. But it champions its women with a handy, all-purpose rationale: Sometimes doing the wrong thing is also right.

Review: “A Window Opens” by Elisabeth Egan

a-window-opens

There was this article in The New York Times a couple of years ago about Amazon, which sparked a larger debate about work culture at tech companies, that kept flashing in my head as I read Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens. Although the debut novelist sends her protagonist to work at a company called Scroll, the similarities between the two retail giants are fairly obvious. Both start off selling books and quickly expand to include anything a customer might want. Both make use of computer-generated data for a laser-like focus on commercial success. And both, apparently–if the Times report is to be believed–expect nothing less than complete, servile allegiance from their employees.

As A Window Opens begins, Alice is a part-time books columnist and a full-time mother of three. A New Jersey suburbanite, she enjoys spending time with her best friend, who owns an independent bookstore, her lawyer husband, and their extended family. The only disruption in her merry life is her father’s cancer, which has robbed him of his voice but appears to be in remission. All that changes when her husband’s career goes off the rails, and Alice is forced to seek a full-time job.

At first, the position at Scroll sounds ideal. Although Alice doesn’t understand much of the jargon of her new workplace, she is thrilled to be “Content Manager-slash-Industry Liaison,” or, as she is told by her chummy supervisor Genevieve, “an arbiter of impeccable taste,” collecting titles to sell in upscale Scroll “lounges.” She learns to call printed books “carbon based” and to mouth tenets like “we don’t sell merchandise, we sell the future.”

Although the job quickly becomes more than full-time and Alice misses “the kindergarten ice cream social, the first day of school, a PTA meeting,” she is content. Only just as Alice is almost accustomed to both the new grind and the loss of family time, her father’s health takes a turn for the worse. And then her bosses begin to ask for more, pushing Alice into a new position that targets her sensitivities both as a longtime bibliophile and as a mother.

That’s where Ms Egan, currently the books editor at Glamour magazine after a brief stint at Amazon Publishing, falters. Although the “pivot,” to use a Scroll word, isn’t that far-fetched, it is one step too far. It’s all a little too perfectly horrid, just as Genevieve is a little too duplicitous, bonding with Alice over House Hunters before firing off denigrating emails to Alice’s work account.

Likewise, her colleagues–all younger and apparently childless–are a little too clueless. Not one seems to have any understanding of how cancer affects a family, as if illness were only confined to the over-35 crowd, and when, on a visit to corporate headquarters, Alice overhears the line “What can I say? She’s a mom,” she recognizes it as an insult.

 With its sharp, perceptive humour, this novel plays like The Devil Wears Prada for the online giant, poking fun at the kind of ridiculous situations that anyone who has worked with a start-up will recognize. But A Window Opens lacks The Devil Wears Prada‘s moment of realization–that is, any revelation about the awful boss’s humanity. While we do get to see the toll of the stress on Genevieve–“her nails were dull, bitten to the quick. There was a greenish cast to her skin“–we never learn what motivated her. Without more understanding of how she became the “befriend then berate” leader who so disappointed Alice, Genevieve remains one-dimensional, as do too many of the supporting characters in this book.

Ms Egan obviously tapped into the zeitgeist with her debut, capturing not only the craziness of an Amazon-like company but also the debate over the “Lean In” philosophy that would have women, even mothers of three, commit to their jobs at any cost. She does so with wit, weaving the family stories into the workplace saga. But at almost-400 pages, A Window Opens is a little too long for what is simply a humourous, topical novel. The Scroll jargon must have been great fun to write, but replacing some of that with more fully realized characters would have made this book better.

Review: “Eligible” by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible

Jane Austen hasn’t written a new book in 200 years, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying to resurrect, recast and reimagine her old ones. Pride and Prejudice, in particular, has enjoyed a full and occasionally wacko afterlife. It’s been a Bollywood extravaganza (Bride & Pre­judice), an undead-themed novelty novel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), a frothy homage (Bridget Jones’s Diary) and, best of all, a BBC mini-series that established the universal truth that a billowy poet’s blouse is one hot garment on a man, if the blouse is wet and the man is Colin Firth.

Now comes Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which moves the story to that roiling hotbed of societal intrigue, the Cincinnati suburbs, with a scene that will feel charmingly familiar to anyone who knows Pride and Prejudice. There’s Mrs Bennet calculating the availability of Mr Bingley, who has recently arrived in town looking for a wife. There’s Mr Bennet barely suppressing his irritation. And Lizzy is still the bright second daughter — although now almost twice as old as her Austen original — wittily observing all these personalities while navigating the cross-currents of her own heart.

But in this reiteration, Chip Bingley isn’t just a handsome gentleman; he’s a handsome doctor, and a former contestant on the reality TV dating show Eligible. His proud friend Mr Darcy is a brain surgeon. Such updates continue down the cast of characters, from Lizzy, now a magazine writer, to Jasper Wick, just as dangerous as Mr Wickham, but with a new and more odious secret past.

The essential elements of Austen’s plot have been neatly rehabbed, too. Mr Bennet, you’ll recall, had no sons to inherit his estate, which threatens his family with the eventual loss of their home. Sittenfeld’s Mr Bennet faces crushing medical bills, which will just as surely leave his family homeless. Other translations to our modern times are as creative: Artificial insemination and sex reassignment surgery add complications inconceivable to a society once determined by primogeniture laws.

As a long game of literary Mad Libs, Eligible is undeniably delightful. Aeroplanes for horses! Texts for letters! Tedious Cousin William is now a tedious Web programmer. And Darcy’s notorious marriage proposal sounds hilariously rude in the sterile language of his medical mind: “It’s probably an illusion caused by the release of oxytocin during sex,” he tells Lizzy, “but I feel as if I’m in love with you.” Who could resist that?

Sittenfeld’s cleverest move may be working a reality-TV dating show into her story. What might seem like a bit of pandering to pop taste is really a feat of metafictional satire. After all, just as the Austen Project recasts Regency romance in the 21st century so “The Bachelor” recasts modern dating in terms of Regency courtship. In either direction, the mashup is just as awkward and hypnotically bizarre.

Unfortunately, though, Sittenfeld pulls back far too soon, and her novel grows sentimental when it should develop real bite. No matter how up-to-date Eligible might be, anachronisms lie around the story like lace doilies at McDonald’s. The Bennet sisters are thoroughly liberated women weirdly corseted by old-fashioned attitudes about marriage. And Sittenfeld’s dialogue, usually so contemporary, can suddenly grow arthritic with costume-drama formality, as when Mr Bingley says to Mrs Bennet, “I wouldn’t want to offend your sense of propriety.” That, madam, offends my sense of reality.

It helps tremendously that Eligible moves along so breezily, but changing the scenery and the props aren’t sufficient to modernise Pride and Prejudice, even if such a thing could (or should) be done. We crave a witty vision of our culture commensurate with Austen’s of hers. Too often Eligible delivers humour that’s merely glib or crude. In the middle of the novel, Liz interviews a Gloria Steinem-esque character, and their encounter promises a sharper feminist perspective, but once again the scene never delivers the social insight that could push this story beyond merely a diverting lark. And watching Liz straddle Darcy in bed for a rousing session of what they call “hate sex” won’t get us there either.

Modern-day Mrs Bennet is a snob, a homophobe, a racist and an anti-Semite, but she’s got the right idea when she says, “I’ve always far preferred a good book.”

We already have that book. We’ve had it for 200 years. And it’s worth rereading.

Review: “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea

Girls of Riyadh 2

I don’t know much about life in Saudi Arabia. It’s not very often that I have come across a novel, or indeed any other literary production from Saudi Arabia. The few times that I have, they are more often than not written by women, whom I invariably assume are covered up to the eyebrows and confined in their houses by tyrannical husbands, traditional-minded fathers or miserable Islamic religious authorities of one kind or another. My friend, who has read a lot more on the region than I have, informs me the cliches rarely live up to the true horrors these women suffer.

Even in the western imagination, as Rajaa Alsanea correctly says in her novel Girls of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is made up of oil wells, terrorists and “women dressed in black from head to toe“. Giving the problematic first two a wide berth, she sets out to redress this injustice by proving that “women here fall deeply in and out of love just like women everywhere else“. More specifically, Girls of Riyadh is a self-confessed Saudi Sex and the City, tracing the lives of four twentysomethings from the capital’s wealthy “velvet class” – clever Sadeem, dumpy Gamrah, sassy Lamees and the rebellious half-American Michelle – in a series of weekly emails sent out by a sharp-tongued and “shamelessly” red-lipsticked narrator, reminding me of Gossip Girl.

Her fictional disclosures – illicit drinking, women posing as men in order to drive cars, homosexuality, premarital sex and clandestine dating – made Girls of Riyadh an instant bestseller in Arabic. It was banned by the Saudi authorities, who, with Alice in Wonderland logic, guaranteed Alsanea a rare book deal in the West. But while the girls’ love of shopping, makeup and checking their boyfriends’ star signs is instantly familiar, I found the English edition heavily edited and footnoted. This is not just chick-lit, Alsanea hints, but a primer to an alien society “riddled with hypocrisy, drugged with contradictions“.

And the trials faced by her alternately designer- and burqa-clad heroines are gruesome. Forbidden by law from driving or meeting unrelated men in public, the girls are denied a free choice in education, career or marriage by either overbearing parents or the baroque Saudi obsession with tribe and tradition. “Is her blood pure?” croaks an evil mother-in-law, about to scupper Michelle’s chances of marrying her aristocratic sweetheart Faisal. Gamrah is married off to, then divorced by, an abusive businessman; Sadeem’s fiance dumps her for “giving herself” to him before their official wedding day. But the proscriptions that fence their lives provide the novel’s rare moments of satire. In online chatrooms, Saudi men use one of two stock pictures: “a guy sitting behind his desk in a nice office with a Saudi flag behind him” or “a guy making himself out to be a big strutting Bedouin” – and of poignancy – marriage, the unhappy Gamrah’s family warns her, is like “the watermelon on the knife“: either “extra-sweet” or a “dried-out, empty gourd“.

Like the youthful majority of Saudi Arabia’s population, the girls are squeezed between homegrown tradition and global modernity. Alsanea’s prose pieces together classical Koranic Arabic with slangy, roman-script “internet language“, colloquial Lebanese and Emirati, song lyrics and scraps of English – a patchwork that enraged Saudi proprieties almost as much as the “racy” content. Though many of the nuances are lost to non-Arabic readers like me, the off-key Americanisms of her own translation are equally revealing. Between syrupy meditations on men or makeup (“light pink blush, a little mascara and a swipe of lip gloss“), the girls exchange lines such as “you’ll never pass Gossip 101” and, my favourite, “I’ll be giving myself the best closure ever“.

The clumsiness is significant: despite its American borrowings, it is obvious that Girls of Riyadh deals with a profoundly different world. The love affairs provide occasions for some inimitably Saudi kitsch: Sadeem’s boyfriend tenderly chauffeurs over “her favourite Burger King double meal” on Valentine’s Day, Faisal presents Michelle with a Barry Manilow musical teddy bear doused in “his elegant Bulgari scent” and wearing giant diamond earrings; after her divorce, Gamrah’s family send her to Lebanon for a restorative nose job.

But the details of day-to-day life in Riyadh are weirder, and more fascinating, still. Men still wear the traditional shimagh (headcloth) and thobe (robe), but they are now designed by Gucci, Christian Dior, Givenchy and Valentino. Boys “number” girls in shopping malls and on the highways, throwing business cards or scraps of paper into car windows. On international flights, people queue for the bathrooms to change into or out of prescribed Saudi dress.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel for its style of writing. Some of the sentences are extremely clunky (eg, “Is there an inverse relationship between one’s social and economic status, on the one hand, and good humour and a merry personality, on the other?“). There’s also an uneasy tension between the breathless narration and some of the unhappier plot twists. Girls of Riyadh is unromantic – bad things happen to its heroines – but Alsanea is clearly on the side of romance, and her exploration of whether it can exist in Saudi Arabia is brave and surprisingly informative.

Despite official paranoia, Girls of Riyadh is more conservative than crusading. Alsanea, like her heroines, barely touches on the fraught context of their reversals in love. “Why was it that young people had no interest in politics?” muses broken-hearted Sadeem.”If only she had a particular cause to defend or one to oppose! Then she would have something to keep her occupied and to turn her away from thinking about Waleed the beast … ” The girls’ final, rousing gesture of defiance is to set up a party-planning business importing Belgian chocolates. After Alsanea’s promises, the novel’s collapse into the frothiness of its TV blueprint is telling – in the end, Girls of Riyadh is more a love letter to America than a poison pen to the Saudi establishment.

Review: “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects

If you have read Gone Girl or even seen the movie, you know Gillian Flynn is a genius. Or maybe absolutely disturbed. Either way, the products of her mind continue to fascinate me. Gone Girl was the perfect story for those of us who are somewhat put off by the extreme sappiness that is Nicholas Sparks, yet aren’t quite ready for the horror of Stephen King. While tying in an unconventional yet sexy relationship with a shocking mystery, it went from a random grab off the shelf to a favorite book. When I picked up Sharp Objects a few years later, I knew it wouldn’t disappoint.

Camille Preaker, our sardonic anti-heroine, is a journalist for the Daily Post , the “fourth-largest in Chicago,”  a newspaper with its head barely above water, and whose editor, Frank Curry, mines the cold-case files for the next human interest tale sure to snag a Pulitzer. When the disappearance of a second girl occurs in the town of Wind Gap, Missouri, he dispatches the reluctant Camille at once to get the scoop.

There’s only one problem: Wind Gap is Camille’s hometown. Wind Gap hasn’t been good to Camille, a place she has shunned for eight years. A place she describes as “one of those crummy towns prone to misery.” She says this not from dread, but from a quietly haunting intimacy with torment. At the start of the novel, we learn that Camille’s been freshly released into the world after spending several months under psychiatric care. She’s a cutter. Her body is a monument to insecurity and anger, starting at the age of thirteen with Wicked carved into her left hip, and stopping at twenty-nine with Vanish. The only unmarred spot on her body is a circle of perfect skin the size of a fist, on the small of her back which she could never reach.

As with most self-mutilation, it’s but the physical manifestation of deeper emotional traumas, in Camille’s case prompted by the death of her younger sister, Marian, from an ambiguous illness. The tension surrounding this mysterious passing serves as a lynchpin for her strained relationship with her mother, Adora, Wind Gap’s unspoken matriarch and Amma, her sexually hyper-developed thirteen-year-old half-sister who heads a clique of equally spiteful girls, and who in many ways is her mother’s equal in cruelty and malice.

Rattling between the warring factions of her mother and sister, Camille attempts to investigate the abduction-murders in Wind Gap. When the missing girl, Ann Nash, turns up dead not long after her arrival in town—found strangled within a cleft between two buildings, her teeth yanked out (a virtual carbon-copy of the first victim, Natalie Keene)—Camille finds little help from the male authorities. Men view her as suspicious, an outsider with a dubious agenda, yet the scorn doesn’t surprise or upset Camille. She’s used to it. Other than her boss, Frank, who’s a well-meaning but scattershot father-figure, men are often portrayed as dichotomies rather than with any subtlety or depth. They’re afterthoughts, fleeting, a part of the scenery. This isn’t a detriment to the book; they are as Camille sees them based on her experiences.

It isn’t long though before Camille realizes that her best chance to secure clues or leads resides within the secretive cliques of female enmity prevalent in Wind Gap. It is a private world where women hurt each other both overtly and passively, even at funerals. Where gossip is both weapon and shield, wielded for social advancement. This antagonism lies at the core of Sharp Objects. The book is less murder mystery and more an exploration of the cruelty that women inflict upon one another, be it a friend to another friend, classmate to classmate, sister to sister, or mother to daughter—all of which play a role, often spanning multiple generations.

This book is not an easy read. The prose is well written, although not quite yet developed to Flynn’s later flawless standard, and the pace is good, but the subject matter quite simply makes you squirm. That is, however, the intention. This book was not written to be enjoyed. It is about some deeply serious psychoses and the ways in which mental illness affects not only the people who suffer from a condition but also those around them. Camille, we discover early on, is a cutter (hence the title). Yet Flynn is not simply portraying this aspect of her character as it has so often been seen in the past – an almost childish cry for attention, or a result of extreme depression – she has truly explored the root causes of Camille’s condition and fully demonstrated just how destructive it is to every aspect of her life.

The plot may not be scintillating, in places it is downright predictable, the prose might not be perfect, the characters may be inordinately unpleasant, and the topic may be brutal, but the story is brave. It is a subject that many skirt and most will balk at; Flynn, however, has explored it to its outer reaches and revealed not only the ugly truth of it but also the depths to which most people remain ignorant of that truth.

Although I would love to enthusiastically recommend this novel to every single person I meet, unfortunately, I can’t do this – for quite a few reasons. The most obvious of these reasons is there are certain people who just won’t be able to digest the kind of darkness and gore that the author adds in generous helpings to her work. Many murder mystery and thriller novels have perfectly normal, well-functioning people who are thrust into not–so–normal situations as a result of a psychopathic antagonist or a villain along those lines. Here, the protagonist herself is enough of a mess before this even messier, more frightening series of events begins to occur.

There are vivid descriptions of self-harm, substance overdose and animal abuse. Death and terror are elements of the novel discussed in a nonchalant, matter of fact tone. The relationships between people are satirical, almost as if happy, well–settled people were being made fun of. For these reasons, readers who want happy endings and a story that ends in hope and the promise of a better future for the protagonists, this isn’t one for you. However, if you do decide to take the plunge, you’re in for a journey like no other – icy, eye-opening and unforgettable.

Review: “Tiger, Tiger” by Margaux Fragoso

Tiger Tiger

Who might know a paedophile better than the child on whom he (it’s usually a he) has lavished his attention, sometimes for years? Who has studied him as intimately, allowing him his humanity as most of us refuse to do?

Child molesters, reviled even within prison caste systems, receive little sympathy from the adult world–so little it’s hard for most of us to imagine how long-term sexual abuse can not only be facilitated but also perpetuated by a victim’s loyalty to his or her abuser. Children on whom paedophiles prey, often neglected and needy, advertise hearts as well as bodies to be plundered; for the child who loves his or her abuser, the sexual price exacted for what is offered as affection represents a betrayal from which not every child recovers. The lesson learned–that to be loved one must endure violation–sows a lasting tolerance, even desire, for injury and subjugation.

Spending time with a paedophile can be like a drug high,” Margaux Fragoso observes in her first book, Tiger, Tiger, a memoir of her 15-year relationship with Peter Curran, whom she met at a public pool in Union City, New Jersey, when she was 7 and he was 51. He “can make the child’s world…ecstatic somehow.” Fragoso’s response to Curran, whose genuinely inventive distractions tear her away from the protection of other adults, will continue to mimic the course of addiction, inevitably delivering her to a desperate, entrenched craving for what threatens to destroy her life.

It begins innocently, almost. Under-supervised by her guileless, mentally-ill mother and lacking the well-loved child’s reflexive suspicion of strangers, Fragoso finds a playmate with “bowl-cut, sandy-silver hair,” who “didn’t even seem adult in the sense of that natural separateness adults have from children.” Once she’s crossed the length of the pool to approach him, she asks if she can join him in splashing with his two stepsons. Seven, eight (“the most beautiful age” in Curran’s estimation), twelve, fifteen–as a girl, Fragoso never perceives Curran as he appears to those outside the magic circle he draws around the two of them, can’t see the man her adult self exposes to her readers: by turns pathetic and repellent.

Having binge-watched hundreds of episodes of Law & Order SVU in the past six months, it was incredibly creepy to see how Curran outfitted his home with purple-painted shingles; year-round Christmas decorations; an indoor swing; and a menagerie of reptiles, rodents and birds flying (and excreting) freely inside to demonstrate that in his private Neverland the usual rules don’t apply. Invited to his home with her mother–who, having been sexually abused herself, cannot even in her lucid moments recognise the danger her daughter is in–Fragoso is instantly smitten by the endlessly indulgent Curran. “I want you,” she tells him at the end of their first visit, “to make a schedule of days when we can visit your house.”

It’s testimony to Fragoso’s narrative ability that she can render both her own and Curran’s points of view convincingly, as different–opposed–as they are. Written without self-pity, rancour or even judgement, Tiger, Tiger forces readers to experience Curran simultaneously as the object of a little girl’s love and fascination and as a calculated sex offender who cultivates her dependence on him while contriving to separate her from anyone who might prevent his molesting her. Balanced uncomfortably between these antipodes, Tiger, Tiger is the portrait of a man who will disgust and alienated readers by a writer too honest to repudiate her love for him. There’s little suspense, as we know from the first sentence that Curran has committed suicide and that Fragoso remains sufficiently intact to explain what–who–destroyed her childhood. And while some readers whose appetite for a memoir may excuse the inaccuracies inherent to so subjective a genre, others may require a leap of faith to accept that a detailed account of early youth, including lengthy adult dialogue, could be reconstructed accurately.

So who–other than voyeurs looking for a sustained close-up of a paedophile in action–will want to read this book? To bear witness to a numbingly long series of violations of a child by a man who has honed his wickedness for decades is not more pleasant than it sounds. As a society we energetically oppose sexual abuse; as individuals most of us shy away from investigating a relationship characterised by creepy kisses and inappropriate fondling. Worse, we defend cowardice by calling it discretion–minding our own business. Maybe a book like Tiger, Tiger can help us be a little braver. Certainly, it took courage to write.

WARNING: These extended observations contains spoilers and sexually graphic descriptions.

What begins with mutual intoxication follows a slippery trajectory familiar to victims of long-term abuse: orgies of tickling, hide-and-seek played in the nude, pretending to be “real” and therefore necessarily naked “animals in the jungle,” “Bazooka Joe” kisses requiring two tongues to pass a chewed wad of gum back and forth. An experienced hunter, Curran knows when to watch, when to make a move and what to say. “Only if you want to, sweetheart. No pressure.”

There’s no need to apply any. As Curran well knows, Fragoso’s home life is so punishing she’ll do anything to secure the love and protection of the man her mother has decided “was Jesus in another life.” Once he’s lured Fragoso into his basement lair, Curran explains it is her “great power” that summons the erection of his “magic wand.”  Is it instinct or practice that suggests the perfect words to seduce a child whose father’s alcoholic rages and mother’s frequent institutionalisations have made her feel helpless, without any agency to alter her circumstances? As it happens, the act of fellatio that Fragoso offers Curran as a birthday present inspires her with dissociation rather than sense of potency.

Soon, what appeared a child’s paradise becomes claustrophobic. He can’t live without her, Curran tells Fragoso; if separation didn’t kill him outright, he’d take his own life. When she resists his tightening embrace, he cries. Tears are his currency, as well as praise, gifts and adventures: Curran tries to give Fragoso whatever she demands, telling her nothing can adequately demonstrate a love so absolute it makes its own laws. How can he help doing what love drives him to do? Fragoso, already the victim of her parents’ instability, doesn’t understand that love doesn’t excuse Curran’s molesting her because love would never permit, let alone inspire, such an act.

Nor would love insist she use a razor to remove her pubic hair, or say her vagina began to smell when she started to menstruate. Love wouldn’t work to undermine Fragoso’s connection to her family and friends, cultivating the conceit of an us-against-the-world romance to escape culpability for brutally violating her.

The real cost of a broken taboo is that the revulsion it awakens allows predators freedom to claim one victim after another: because we glance away from crimes–abominations–prevented only by vigilance, the most disheartening aspect of this story is sickeningly familiar. Years before meeting Fragoso, Curran forged papers to marry a 15-year-old; he “hurt” his daughters from a second marriage by “being sexual with” them; during the two years Fragoso’s parents were sufficiently responsible to keep their daughter separated from him, Curran was accused of molesting one of the children he fostered for the state of New Jersey. Tiger, Tiger is an opportunity for its readers to open their eyes and redeem themselves.

Review: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

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The Paying Guests opens in 1922, in a genteel suburb of London called Champion Hill. The 26-year old Frances and her mother, Mrs Wray, have suffered grievous losses during World War I. All the men of the family are dead–two sons in battle, a feckless, irresponsible father from a stroke, leaving them in debt. The gracious Edwardian life the women had known is finished.

Frances, once a frequenter of political meetings with an interesting female lover, is now forced by circumstances to engage with tiny economies and household dirt, leaving no time for an intellectual or personal life. She resents the “dishonesty” of the house that imprisoned her–“the scuffs and tears she had patched and disguised; the gap where the long-case clock had stood…the dinner gong, bright with polish, that hadn’t been rung in years“–but nevertheless washes the hall floor with vinegar, rakes out the ashes of the stove, struggles to render breast of lamb edible, dusts the “barley twist curves of wonky table legs and the scrolls and lozenges of rough-hewn lawn chairs“–all the useless, pretentious furniture that belonged to the lost family life. Frances would happily have the damn things carted away, but her mother–an excellent study of a distressed gentlewoman–can not let go of the past.

To make ends meet, mother and daughter decide to take in lodgers or, as the contemporary euphemism has it, “paying guests“. Enter the jaunty aspirational clerk Leonard Barber and his short-skirted, lipsticked wife, Lillian, bringing bric-a-brac and gin into the upstanding Wray home. From the moment the colourful, curvaceous Lillian Barber enters the house it’s obvious which way things will go. She slips off her shoes, not wanting to mark the floor so energetically polished by Frances, and her sweet little feet in their fancy stockings leave “small damp prints on the wax“. The very next day she takes an extravagant and semi-public morning bath. Mrs Wray is scandalised by the timing and the cost, but Frances pictures “that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat“. The passionate love affair that ensues between landlady and lodger turns both lives inside out. The sex is blazingly descriptive, rarely found in literary fiction.

Set during the last years that gay marriage was illegal in Britain, The Paying Guests offers a window into a period when marriage between women seemed unthinkable to most and yet tantalisingly possible to a few: Chrissie, the girl Frances left in order to take care of her mother, now shares a flat with Stevie, a new female lover, and supports herself as a typist. Can Frances leave her mother for paid work and a shot at Chrissie and Stevie’s happiness? Can Lillian leave her husband for Francis? This question torments their affair from its first moments, when, just after they’ve made love, Lillian sets down her left hand “to steady herself against Frances’ embrace, and there was the muted tap of her wedding band, a small, chill sound in the darkness.” And it’s central to the rollercoaster plunge the book takes next when the only straight character to whom Frances and Lillian declare their love for each other dies.

Will the lovers’ dream of marriage (or its approximation) end in accusations of murder, trials and hangings? Maintaining uncertainty with a virtuosity that makes a short read of a long novel, The Paying Guests frequently references Anna Karenina, casting Frances and Lillian alternatively as Kitty and Levin, openly skating their way to domestic bliss, and as Anna and Vronsky, doomed to play out a secret passion that can end only in death.

Waters holds a doctorate in English literature, and she brings a cultural historian’s gift for research to her work. Sometimes, it’s easy to fault Waters’s scholarly background for the all-too-realistic pace of the police investigation and courtroom drama that take up the last third of the novel. But the grinding wheels of justice serve to refocus our attention onto Frances and Lillian themselves, resulting in a third act no less gripping than the first. Will the lovers, separated by Lillian’s family and subjected to the uncertainty of a long trial, crack? In The Paying Guests, Waters tilts a mirror towards the decades of gay and lesbian struggle that preceded 2014’s landmark decision to legalise same-sex marriage in England. Still, at the novel’s end, after its dramatic plot resolution, Waters allows us the faintest hope that a changing world filled with social upheaval may have a tiny corner for Frances after all.

Review: “The Antelope Wife” by Louise Erdrich

Family stories repeat themselves in patterns in waves, generation to generation, across blood and time.

In 1998, Louise Erdrich published The Antelope Wife to high praise from readers and from critical reviewers.  But in 2009, Erdrich reread the novel and started to think about the characters. The result was a complete reworking of the book, published in 2012. I was very intrigued by the idea that an author would return to a well-received work and drastically change it. In an interview published in the P.S. section of the Harper Collins edition, Erdrich says that only “the beginning is the same, and then the book changes utterly“. I haven’t read the original, but I’m going to have to find a copy so I can make a comparison.

As the revised version of The Antelope Wife opens, a cavalry soldier pursues a dog with a Ojibwa baby strapped to its back. For days, he follows them through “the vast carcass of the world west of the Otter Tail River” until finally the dog allows him to approach and handle the child–a girl, not yet weaned, who latches onto his nipples until, miraculously, they begin to lactate. In another kind of novel, this might be a metaphor. But this is the fictional world of Louise Erdrich, where myth is woven deeply into the fabric of everyday life. A famous cake tastes of grief, joy, and the secret ingredient: fear. The tie that binds the antelope wife to her husband is, literally, the strip of sweetheart calico he used to yoke her hand to his. Legendary characters sew beads into colorful patterns, and the patterns become the design of the novel itself.

The Antelope Wife centers on the Roys and the Shawanos, two closely related Ojibwa (or Chippewa) families living in modern-day Gakahbekong, or Minneapolis. Urban Native Americans of mixed blood, they are “scattered like beads off a necklace and put back together in new patterns, new strings,” and Erdrich follows them through two failed marriages, a “kamikaze” wedding, and several tragic deaths. But the plot also loops and circles back, drawing in a 100-year old murder, a burned Ojibwa village, a lost baby, and several generations of twins.

Though the saga is animated by obsessive love, mysterious disappearances, mythic legends and personal frailties, Erdrich also works in a comic vein. There’s a dog who tells dirty jokes and a naked wife whose birthday surprise has an audience. Throughout, Erdrich emphasizes the paradoxes of everyday life: braided grandmas who follow traditional ways and speak the old language also wear eyeliner and sneakers. In each generation, men and women are bewitched by love, lust, and longing; they are slaves to drink, to carefully guarded secrets or to the mesmerizing power of hope.

The book is full of familiar themes–love, family, history, and the complex ways these forces both bind and separate generations, stitching them into patterns as complex as beadwork. At least initially, this swirl of characters, narratives, timelines, and connections can take a little getting used to (Erdrich now draws family trees in the beginning); the plot sometimes bogs down with an overload of emotional complications, the novel ultimately celebrates the courage of following one’s ordained path in the universe and meeting the challenges of fate. In the end, Erdrich’s lovely, lyrical language prevails, and I felt like I had succumbed to the book’s own dreamlike logic.