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Book 54: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (2014)

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9781473619814Location: Red Peppers…on one of the rainiest days in living memory in Birmingham. We practically could have swum there.

Theme: Sci-fi

Chosen by: Lorna

The theme suggestion of sci-fi has been banded around a few times, but this is perhaps the first sci-fi book we’ve actually gone for—in part because we were all given a free copy thanks to World Book Night. A beautiful velvet-feel-cover paperback at that.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet follows the quirky crew of the Wayfarer, a battered spaceship that’s been patched together. The novel kicks off when new crewmate Rosemary arrives, a human from Mars with a secret. The crew are a melting pot of species, from the very affectionate reptilian pilot Sissix to the Sianat pair navigator Ohan, and the centipede/otter-looking Dr Chef. The crew take on wormhole-building missions around the galaxy, including one large and particularly dangerous mission to the far side of space.

So, it’s probably worth mentioning that none of us particularly like sci-fi. Most of our reviews started with “Well I don’t read much sci-fi” or “I avoid sci-fi books like the plague”, so kudos to Becky Chambers for the fact that we all finished reading the book, which believe me doesn’t always happen. What’s more, all but one of us enjoyed it. So while the book has taken some criticism for not being “pure sci-fi”, this may well be the reason that most of us were onboard with it.

At 432-pages long, Chambers does a magnificent job of worldbuilding, or should I say universe building. The descriptions of the universe are incredibly detailed, with possibly too much technical detail at times and that was sometimes hard to imagine. While this slowed down some of the readers, the sequel might be an easier read since the characters and histories are somewhat familiar.

Indeed, there are many planets, species, and histories described in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet —the universe, known as the Galactic Commons, is wide. As such, the novel is very well-written, and it’s clear that Chambers has a brilliant imagination and knows her stuff, possibly thanks to her parents’ jobs in space science. As succinctly summed up by Claire, “Good on her—she’s created a world, a universe, a solar system.”

Overall, not a great deal happens in terms of plot, being more character- and relationship-driven than action-packed. The novel feels more about the characters’ interactions, including inter-species relationships, speciesism, and prejudice, leading to it being donned “a space opera”. The variety of characters were enough to keep us entertained without a strong plot, and it feels like you really get to know the characters and their relationships. Some of the characters are particularly interesting, especially the ship’s AI Lovey and the adorable Kizzy knitting hats for the ship’s robots.

But if you’re expecting the book to suddenly “happen”, you’ll be disappointed. As such, some of us felt that the action-driven elements felt a little formulaic and could be more dynamic. Rosemary’s secret and story could have unravelled in a more momentous way, instead falling a little flat. And the ending was a tad soppy and sentimental.

However, these points are forgivable since Chambers does a fantastic job of delivering commentary on the human race from an “alien” perspective through the characters. Particularly the descriptions of bloodthirsty humans that the rest of the universe feel are pretty stupid having destroyed their own environment—““No good can come from a species at war with itself”. Some of the observations of humankind are profound, hinting at issues such as politics, racism, and gender, but in a subtle way that still feels like fiction.

What makes The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet even more interesting was that Chambers originally self-published the book and gained a cult following that led to a publisher and further book contracts, not to mention being shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016. This is especially poignant considering that Chambers almost gave up on the book, feeling that nobody would want to read it, and eventually finished it thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. What an inspiration to all of us.

I’ll leave you with a few enjoyable quotes from the book:

“All you can do, Rosemary – all any of us can do – is work to be something positive instead. That is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. The universe is what we make of it. It’s up to you to decide what part you will play.”

“Humans’ preoccupation with ‘being happy’ was something he had never been able to figure out. No sapient could sustain happiness all of the time, just as no one could live permanently within anger, or boredom, or grief.”

“She would never, ever understand the idea that a child, especially an infant, was of more value than an adult who had already gained all the skills needed to benefit the community. But a real tragedy was the loss of an adult with friends and lovers and family. The idea that a loss of potential was somehow worse than a loss of achievement and knowledge was something she had never been able to wrap her brain around.”

Score: 7 – well there’s a surprise.

If you’ve read the book, feel free to score it out of 5 with the voting buttons.

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Book 53: Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)

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Location: 1847 – wonderful veggie food, as always.

Theme: Christmas

Chosen by: Ameesha

We always struggle to choose a “Christmas” themed book—it seems like they’ve all been read to death—but Eileen, with its wintry cover, captured our attentions. It wasn’t exactly Christmassy, with its alcoholism and digestive discomfort, and it was as a far a U-turn as we could have made from the previous happy-ever-after Readers of the Broken Wheel Recommend. Yet … it made an impression on us. Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel seemingly made a big impression elsewhere too, being shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and garnering much critical acclaim.

As summarised succinctly by the Washington Post, “You have never read anything remotely like Eileen”. 24-year-old Eileen lives in her rundown Boston home with her alcoholic ex-cop father. She works at a men’s prison and fantasises about one of the guards. She wears her dead mother’s clothes. Nothing much happens. Then mysterious redhead Rebecca starts working at the prison and strikes up an unusual friendship with Eileen. That’s all you really need to know.

Despite the misleading and inaccurate marketing of Eileen as a “taut psychological thriller”, the novel is more a character study of a self-loathing, miserable, half-prudish, half-perverted young women stuck in an unhappy family dynamic. Told from the in-depth and unreliable perspective of Eileen, the reader discovers, in minute detail, Eileen’s base desires, perversions, and digestive ailments.

Described as “gratuitous” by some critics, at times the novel borders on disgusting, and the grubby Eileen is often hard to like. Yet at other times, her honest depiction is relatable, as Eileen tries to fade into the background, and Eileen’s unhappy life elicits the reader’s sympathy. The scene-setting creates a cold, dark atmosphere, and the novel feels enjoyably moody. Despite little happening, Eileen is strangely intriguing, almost like a morbid curiosity keeps you reading.

The novel is certainly polarising, with our reviews ranging from “loved it” to “over-laboured”, “tells it like it is”, and “the opposite of fluffy”, scoring between a 4 and a 9. Some of us wanted more of Rebecca (we also couldn’t help but wonder whether she was inspired by Du Maurier’s Rebecca), others wanted to know more about Eileen’s post-Boston life, some were waiting for something to happen, and Theresa just wanted “to give Eileen a good scrub”.

While the character development is strong, it felt that the ending was rushed after such a lengthy build up. Perhaps the unusual style is because Moshfegh first attempted to write the book in 90 days following The 90-day Novel by Alan Watt—primarily because she felt the notion was a joke. But since Moshfegh described herself as “broke” beforehand, she’s probably laughing all the way to the bank now.

If you’re looking for a slick, fast-paced action thriller, this is not it. But if you’re looking for something different, Eileen is a fascinating read. Let us know what you thought of Eileen using the voting buttons.

Book 52: Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, Katarina Bivald (2013)

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Location: Las Iguanas, Christmas special!

Theme: “Just because”

Chosen by: Lorna

In Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, 28-year-old, Swedish, plain, bookworm Sara takes a chance on an offer to stay with her pen pal, an old lady in small town America, who she has never met but shares a love of books with.

She quickly discovers that the tiny town—“Broken Wheel”—is broken, run down, and in need of inspiration. What follows is Sara’s opening of the town’s first book shop in a town where nobody reads, her gradual revival of the town, and her inspiration of the town’s residents—including getting them to read.

This debut novel contains all the required elements of a “feel good” book, with romance, friendships, humour, and saving a dying town. The plot and ending are pretty predictable, and there’s nothing even vaguely unpleasant to be found here. In fact, it’s overwhelmingly cheerful—if not a little twee.

Not to mention, it’s a book about books. “A book for book lovers” if the reviews are to be believed. (A minor point, but the spoilers of classic books are annoying for readers who haven’t read them yet.) Rather than pitching itself with the classics it describes, it falls dangerously near the genre of “chick lit”.

It’s interesting to see how a perceived “outsider” can impact on a quiet American town, and particularly how Sara already knows so much about the town through her pen pal’s letters. It’s enjoyable to observe the town and the residents’ revival—in a decidedly character- rather than plot-driven novel. That said, the town’s residents are a little 2D, paper cut outs in a paper town. The trouble is, the novel fails to feel real, or at least conceivably believable—it’s too fiction.

Score: 7

Book Club 13: The Anniversary of The Unconventional Book Club

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Discussion location: Las Iguanas, The Arcadian – Latin American cuisine.

In contrast to our previous meetings, we decided to celebrate our anniversary by discussing our favourite and least favourite books, and the reasons we love or loathe them.

First for our favourites


Becki: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy.  In particular, Book 2, The Subtle Knife as I could re-read it forever.

 


Lorna: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I first read it aged 13 and it is one of the few books I still get pleasure from re-reading, it makes me smile and puts me in a good mood.

 


Fiona: Tommy’s Tale by Alan Cummings as it is filthy and hilarious and makes me laugh, is also a short read!

 


Rachael: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende as I found it in Australia under a bed and as it was so battered I thought it must be good, I was blown away by it and didn’t want to leave the hostel for days just so I could read it.

 

Theresa: Little Women by Louisa Alcott, it made me want to grow my hair long enough to be able to cut it short.

 


Ameesha: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as really identified with it as a teenager, felt I could have written it as it articulated my feeling so well.  Probably worrying considering Plath committed suicide.

 


Susan: The L-shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, had a big impact on me, my English teacher in school saw that I was getting disengaged with literature so lead me to their secret cupboard and gave me this book to read, which I loved and made me see faith in literature again.

Now our least favourites


Becki: Anais Nin’s Spy in the House of Love.  I was recommended it by a friend and it was one of the few books I couldn’t finish, I read 20 pages of clumsy metaphors about opening flowers and gave up.

 


Lorna: Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, I was disappointed that I couldn’t give it O stars on Amazon.

 


Fiona: Cracked Up To Be by Courtney Summers – it was awful and diabolical.

 


Rachael: Adrian Mole – I hated it, hated the TV adaptation; domestic, depressing and mundane.

 

Theresa: The Lady’s Maid (I’m not sure which one, there seems to be two!) It had a predictable, happy ending that made me think, I could write this!


Ameesha: Room by Emma Donoghue, I hated the child writing style, it felt contrived.

 

 
Susan: A Clockwork Orange,  as it was tedious and I had to keep checking the dictionary.

 

What are your favourites and least favourites?

Book 10: When God Was a Rabbit, Sarah Winman (2011)

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Discussion location: The Lost & Found (Previously Bennett’s  Hill), now an expensive but pretty ode to a Victorian conservatory/garden.

Chosen by: Zoe

Reason for choice: Despite maintaining that she doesn’t remember choosing it, we recall that she saw a picture of it on an advert, googled it and found it was in the Amazon top 20.

Discussion points: Where were you when Princess Diana died, and on 9/11?

Review:

The debut novel of Sarah Winman, When God Was a Rabbit, has a title and front cover that instantly conjures interest and intrigue.  It earned Winman the accolade of New Writer of the Year, and was described by The Times as “a superb debut” and having received a plethora of glowing reviews from the Guardian, the Observer etc, the expectance levels and potential of this novel were high from the outset.

Indeed, the first half of this novel seems to live up to its great expectations.  Split into two distinct parts, the first half is an exploration of the protagonist, Elly’s childhood, whilst the second half covers her adult life.  Part 1 is innocent, humorous and promising.  The reader is introduced to Elly’s unconventional family dynamic, for example, her father accepting that his sister is in love with his wife; colourful characters such as Ginger, and Arthur who believes his cause of death will be a coconut, and the close, supportive relationship with her older brother, Joe. There are also the interesting interactions with God, the rabbit whom Elly converses with, and the unusual Jenny Penny, Elly’s best friend.

The tone of the first half of the novel is jovial and amusing, with Elly’s identifiable childhood recollections, such as having to wear clothes because somebody had bought them for you.  There are also humorous scenes like the nativity play, which wonderfully capture the naivety of childhood thought and perceptions. The honest writing style reads like a journal and seems to carry well the persona of Elly’s youth, in a refreshingly un-detailed, childlike manner of stating the facts and moving on. At this point, the reader has hope for Elly, and although they might have no idea what the point of the story is, they do not expect the sudden change of Part 2.

The novel recommences when Ellie is a dysfunctional twenty-something with few relationships outside of her own family and is an outsider. Unlike the honest, journalistic style of the younger Elly who is developing her persona, the older Elly is almost absent, narrating her detached observations of her own life through an observer perspective, with little reflective thought or explanation for the events occurring.  For example, having missed the transitional years of Elly’s life and the experiences during it, a sudden gratuitous sex scene is completely out of place and unexplained.

It almost seems that Part 1 and Part 2 are two entirely different books. Whilst the first half is epitomised by innocence and subtle humour, the second half is a bombardment of events and action with little description or reflection. Whilst the first half develops Elly’s character, the second half is devoid of her personality.  Though the novel accurately reflects the innocence and magic of childhood compared to the harsh reality of adulthood, there seems to be an unexplainably large divide between the two halves of the novel, where Elly’s childhood and adulthood characters are entirely unrelated; making the novel disjointed.

Despite the lack of explicit reasons for Elly’s sudden character change (or lack of character), there is the implicit idea that the abuse Elly suffered by neighbour, Mr. Golan, is somehow attributable to her detached adult self; bringing up the almost commonplace issue of child abuse in modern novels. Though the lack of detail and subtlety regarding the child abuse was particularly welcome and better not dwelt upon, it seems all too prevalent as a rationale for “the broken adult” which we see in the second half of this novel, and Winman seems to have fallen into the trap of needing to attribute a cause to the isolation and melancholy of her adult protagonist (remember The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

Like the aforementioned Perks, When God Was a Rabbit has an almost ‘checklist’ approach to content, with Winman attempting to cover too many sensationalist topics, including suicide, child abuse, sexuality, kidnapping, the supernatural, murder, prison, 9/11 and so on. It seems that9/11 is a popular topic for current media, and parts of the novel are reminiscent of 2010 film Remember Me, and although the treatment of 9/11 was tactful, the novel’s appendix reveals the striking similarity between Winman’s own experience of 9/11 and that of Elly’s, which seems lazy of the author.

Covering a timespan of several decades, the political and sociological backdrop of the novel is identifiable for many readers, and the family’s attempts to find Joe when he is missing is highly emotive.  Although the reactions to these events are realistic, they are in unrealistic situations, which are far too unlikely to happen to one family.  Moreover, the ending of the novel is implausibly happy, with Joe regaining his memory and Arthur regaining his sight by a coconut.

Overall, the first half of the novel was promising, amusing and charmingly well written, but was disjointed by a second half which was disappointingly absent of the character we had become interested by in the first half.  The events which occurred were too incredible, too coincidental and the author tried too hard to cover too broad a range of subjects. This was clearly a debut in its lack of refine and editing (and the odd choice of title due to the lack of God or the rabbit compared to other things featured in the novel), but holds promise for Winman’s second novel.

Overall rating: 7/10

An enjoyable read if you can ignore the overwhelming level of content and enjoy the relationships portrayed.

Book 9: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (1963)

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 Discussion location: The Rope Walk (it’s becoming a favourite, good value ham & eggs, lots of space for discussions)

Chosen by: Susan

Reason for choice: Has read it every decade, starting as a teenager (loved it and wanted to be one of Miss Brodie’s girls), interested to see how opinion had changed.

Most members ever attended, 11/12!

Review:

Since its publication in The New Yorker in 1961, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has become a British classic; making Time magazine’s Top 100 English-language novels (1923-present) and earning Spark international fame.  However, when the Chair opened with “It’s a book!”, and somebody (possibly me) stated that it was more of a pamphlet, one could guess what type of discussion was going to ensue.

Set primarily in the 1930s, the novella spans several decades in the lives of an Edinburgh teacher at a girl’s school, Miss Jean Brodie, and her select group of girls, known as the ‘Brodie set’, who are ten years old when the novel commences.  The story focuses on Miss Brodie’s unusual teachings, such as her unconventional view of history; her love affairs with fellow teachers Mr Lowther and Mr Lloyd; and her effect on the lives of the girls, in which one of them eventually betrays Brodie.

Although this sets an interesting premise, any sense of intrigue was destroyed as, within the opening three pages, Spark had told the reader the end of the novel – Brodie’s betrayal. This alone would not have been a complete failure if the purpose of the novel was to elucidate the rationale for the betrayal, but the novel utterly failed to explain Sandy’s reason for betraying Miss Brodie, and why it was Sandy, rather than one of the other girls.

Moreover, the novel included much repetition of lines like “Rose who was famous for sex”, without really explaining the rationale behind such statements. Throughout the novel, Spark merely scratched the surface, creating some interest and then failing to fulfil it by delving deeper. Where there could have been a potential story, such as the character’s motivations and respective stories, this was unfulfilled; one cannot help but think, due to the diminutive length of the novel, which prevented character development and left a frustrating lack of depth.

I hear you thinking that we’ve moaned about length before (no jokes please!) – it’s not that we are necessarily a group of people who prefer a long novel, but that a writer must really be selective and highly focused to enable the reader to get lost in an 127-page novel, which Spark failed to do. Furthermore, by merit of its subject, we could not help but compare it to more recent novels such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, where a similar premise has been expanded so much that one feels the characters are literally part of their own life.

Sadly, the length of the novel only allows for a few of ‘the set’ to be explored in any depth, such as Rose and Sandy, and so there seemed little point including so many girls without really developing their characters. Some theatre adaptations have chosen to condense the cast into fewer characters; adding more depth of character by combining the traits of the girls.

This aside, the novel does take time to fully describe the character of the protagonist, Brodie.  At the outset, the reader, like the girls, is spellbound by Brodie and her avant-garde teachings.  In resisting popular thought, she places herself amongst the forerunners of women’s rights.  However, as the novel progresses, Brodie is exposed as a manipulative, arrogant, self-obsessed woman who lives through her pupils. Moreover, instead of a revolutionary, she is shown to be a fascist, enforcing her opinions on impressionable minds; and at the moment of her betrayal, the pity was for the girls who successfully made it through Brodie’s set, rather than for Brodie herself.

Despite the previous criticisms, the novel did have some redeeming features; the beautiful descriptions of ghostly Edinburgh, the identifiable recollections of school cliques, favourite teachers etc; the enjoyable notion of Brodie making her girls always answer her in full sentences and some subtleties in the reflective writing style.  Moreover, it ‘sparked’ (see what I did there?) some interesting discussions around the notion of one’s “prime” and when exactly that is, if you are aware being in it, and what we would have been ‘famous for’ at school.

Ultimately, the length of the novel and lack of explanation left us with too many unresolved questions and no real understanding of the purpose of the book, other than a romanticised memory; though the highly visual descriptions meant it would be easily imaginable, and probably more enjoyable, as a film or play.  Granted, Spark has paved the way for later ‘unconventional teacher with select group of students’ novels, but aside from its place in history, we failed to see why this ‘classic’ has endured.

Overall rating: 4/10 – Sorry Muriel.

Plot synopsis

In 1930s Edinburgh, Miss Jean Brodie is the teacher of six ten-year old girls, Sandy, Rose, Mary, Monica, Jenny and Eunice; who are selected by her and are known as the “Brodie Set”. Brodie is an unconventional teacher, giving her students lessons in personal life, art history and fascism; leading ‘the set’ to be well known throughout the school.  However, we are aware that one of the set will eventually betray Brodie, leading to her losing her job as a teacher.

Miss Brodie becomes involved in a love triangle with fellow teachers, Mr Gordon Lowther, the music teacher, and Mr Teddy Lloyd, the art teacher and handsome, one-armed war veteran who is married with six children. Both teachers are in love with Miss Brodie, who is in love with Mr Lloyd but does not engage in an affair with him, other than one kiss; and does engage in an affair with Mr Lowther as he is a bachelor.  Sandy becomes obsessed with Brodie’s involvement with Mr Lloyd and Mr Lowther and imagines herself as a police officer seeking evidence regarding their affairs.  Headmistress, Miss Mackay encourages the girls to betray Brodie’s unusual politics so they can dismiss her.

The girls, now aged 12, move on to senior school where Miss Brodie maintains contact with them by inviting them to her house and continuing to mentor them.  The girls also visit Mr Lowther’s house, where Miss Brodie asks them about Mr Lloyd, despite Mr Lowther being present.  Mr Lloyd asks Rose to sit for a portrait, however each of his portraits look like Miss Brodie. On one of these occasions, Mr Lloyd kisses Sandy.  Miss Brodie decides that Sandy will be her confidante as she is the most trustworthy, and that Rose will have an affair with Mr Lloyd as she is the most attractive.  As she neglects Mr Lowther, he marries Miss Lockhart, the science teacher.

Now seventeen, the Brodie set separate; Eunice becomes a nurse, Mary a typist , Monica a scientist and Jenny leaves school to become an actress and Rose marries a handsome man.  Joyce Emily, who attempted to join the Brodie set is encouraged by Miss Brodie to fight for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War and is killed.  Eighteen year old Sandy, fascinated by psychology and Mr Lloyd’s obsession with Miss Brodie, embarks on a five week affair with him whilst his family are on holiday.

Although Sandy is not really interested in Mr Lloyd, she is interested in his love for Miss Brodie and his religion. She leaves him, betrays Miss Brodie as a fascist to Miss Mackay and becomes a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Helena of the Transfiguration and author of a book on psychology.  In her dying minutes, Miss Brodie fathoms that it was Sandy who betrayed her; and Sandy tells a young man asking about her book and her influences, that she was mainly influenced by Miss Brodie.

Book 8: Cereus Blooms at Night, Shani Mootoo (1996)

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 Discussion location: The Coffee Room, Arcadian (that weirdly, does main meals and not just coffee)

Chosen by: Claire

Reason for choice: Studied at University in a Caribbean women’s writing module, stayed with her.

Review:

The first novel of film-maker and artist Shani Mootoo, Cereus Blooms at Night is the story of Mala Ramchandin, an elderly lady who, suspected of insanity and murder, is taken to a nursing home as she is unfit to stand trial.  There, she is looked after by nurse Tyler who relays her story in an attempt to find Mala’s estranged sister Asha. The novel is set along two time narratives – the present day where Tyler becomes acquainted with Mala and encourages her to engage with him, and the past, where Tyler explains the history of Mala’s family and the events that led to her confinement in the nursing home.

Set in the fictional town of Lantanacamara, believed to be Mootoo’s childhood home of Trindad; the novel is highly descriptive and evocative, at times, so easy to visualise that it places the reader in the streets of the novel.  In particular, the depictions of the flowers which permeate the novel are almost redolent. However, the descriptions of some of the characters, for example Mala’s mother Sarah, are lacking, making it difficult for the reader to envision the interactions that occur.

That said, as the initially light hearted and intriguing narrative plunges into Mala’s past, the reader would happily not imagine the events taking place; the revelation that Mala and Asha are sexually abused by their father Ramchandin following his discovery that Sarah and ‘Aunt’ Lavinia (the adopted sister, and unrequited love of Ramchandin) are engaging in a lesbian relationship, and Sarah’s abandonment of her children when she leaves with Lavinia. These scenes are painfully difficult to read, and due to the level of detail they are described with, too easy to suffer along with their victims.

Despite alternating with the present day story of Mala and Tyler’s developing relationship as he encourages her to speak whilst she encourages him to fulfil his desires to become a woman, which are positive and at times, amusing; each delve into the past brings more horror – the bullying endured by other children and the ongoing abuse of Mala as she tries to protect her younger sister from their father.  Moreover, when there appears to be hope for Mala in her secret blossoming relationship with friend Boyie, this culminates in Boyie discovering the sexual abuse by Ramchandin and running away, abandoning her, like the rest of society.  On discovering Mala’s deceit, Ramchandin brutally rapes Mala, in a scene that is unnecessarily gratuitously described (– sometimes subtlety is more powerful).

The remaining visits to Mala’s past depict her physical aging and mental descent; with odd dream-like visions of Mala’s younger self Pohpoh interacting with her older self – the narrative becomes more peculiar and unreliable.  At some point, Ramchandin dies, though it is unclear when and whether Mala murdered him, and his body is left in the house to decompose. The house itself begins to decompose as Mala constructs it into a labyrinth of furniture, plants and dead insects, which by her eventual incarceration; is practically impenetrable and physically disgusting.

The discovery of the decomposed body of Ramchandin is a result of Boyie’s son, Otoh, becoming fascinated by his father’s obsession with Mala. Boyie, now Ambrose; despite abandoning Mala physically, spends much of his life asleep, awakening once a month to have a basket of food sent to Mala’s house, much to his wife’s annoyance; Ambrose’s indecisive slumbering abandonment, a source of annoyance to the reader.

During these expeditions to Mala’s house, Otoh also becomes intrigued Mala and when he eventually makes himself known to her, she mistakes his appearance for Boyie returning to her and allows him into the house where he discovers the decaying body and like his father, runs into the street where he collapses.  Otoh’s collapse and ramblings arouse suspicion, and the police decide to investigate Mala’s house.  However, unlike his indecisive father, Otoh decides to burn down Mala’s house before her secret is uncovered, and thus Mala is taken to the nursing home.

Although Otoh’s actions are redeeming, especially in comparison to his father’s, and the present day Ambrose makes the effort to visit Mala; the novel is overwhelmingly full of negative characters. It is difficult to forgive Sarah, Lavinia, Asha, Boyie and the surrounding society for their abandonment of children who are being abused; particularly when they are deserted by the very people who are supposed to love and protect them.  Moreover, despite some of the characters being somewhat stereotypical and unbelievably coincidental (two cross dressers meeting on a small island), the real frustration is derived from the unfortunate reality that human beings really are like the characters in the novel; indecisive, abandoning, abusive.

Although the surreality of some aspects of the novel, such as Mala’s dreams of Pohpoh, made the painful story less harrowing as they allow the reader to detach themselves; they also confused the issue of narration.  Despite the story being conveyed by Tyler, Mala’s detailed decline into madness could not have been relayed by him. Furthermore, despite being incredibly well written with interesting diction, the odd narrative was permeated with unexplained gaps which the finale failed to properly resolve.

A challenging novel, portraying the painful subject matter of child abuse and sometimes traumatic description of mental illness, set alongside beautiful physical descriptions of nature, and the unconventional relationship between an aging woman and a cross-dressing male nurse, the  novel’s ending does hold some positivity for Mala’s recovery and Tyler’s self-acceptance.

Overall rating: 7/10 – A challenging but traumatising read.

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