Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Katherine Boo

“Only in detention had it occurred to him that drudge labor in an urban armpit like Annawadi might be considered freedom.”

I sat in front of a blank screen trying to write this review for several days before realizing that this is really the kind of book you just have to read for yourself. This book is the most complex portrayal of poverty I have ever experienced.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a work of non-fiction but it reads like a novel. I found myself repeatedly forgetting that the characters and events in this book are real. This book follows the entwined lives of several families living in a large slum in Mumbai, called Annawadi. As the narrative develops, one family’s desire for a better life leads to ruin and destitute when a kitchen renovation escalates into disaster.

This book is based on Katherine Boo’s careful and thorough research but the people are individuals in a narrative rather than interviewees. The individuals in this book are so likeable it is incredibly painful to remember that this story is their reality. More than anything I want an update on the individuals we meet in this book: what has happened to them? Have they prospered? Are they still alive?

Katherine Boo often introduces the individuals in an offhand and judgmental way through the eyes of other people from Annawadi. Then, in later chapters, the characters we judge and dismiss become the narrator and we are pulled into their world to realize just how wrong we were about their situations. This is a very thwarting experience and it has made me much more conscious of the snap-judgments I might make about individuals I see in my own neighbourhood in Toronto.

Boo’s book is crowded with characters and seems loud, unruly and sometimes downright chaotic, just like the slum in which it takes place. This book is also dense with information about Mumbai’s political, economic and social situation but the material is presented in such a readable way that I almost didn’t realize how much I was learning while reading. What is most striking to me is the amount of loss, hopelessness and despair among the young people in Annawadi who see the new modern, technological world but have no means to enter it and instead are left behind. I am also interested in Boo’s apparent priority of sharing the experience of women and children over that of adult men.

Another fascinating aspect of this book is its focus on sewage. In the literal sense, Boo’s narrators often speak of the sewage lake that borders Annawadi and the effects this lake has on the garbage collection that is central to the slum’s “economy.” I also saw Katherine Boo’s frequent return to this image as an emphasis on a more figurative moral sewage. The corruption and dishonesty both inside and around Annawadi showed not only the rich damning the poor but the poor damning their own neighbours for any chance to put food on their own tables. Katherine Boo’s book displays a corruption so inherent in every-day life that it feels casual and unproblematic. Boo unflinchingly shows the ways this corruption tears apart those individuals who are already in the deepest grips of poverty and hardship.

As I’m sure you have noticed by now this review has jumped around quite a bit. I think this is a book I will need to read again to have anything more intelligent to say about it. The story Katherine Boo brings us in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers is so jarring that it is maybe too much to process all at once. What has stuck with me most of all is the way nothing worked to lift these individuals out of poverty – not education, not ambition, not existing skills and knowledge, not even corruption or crime. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a book about poverty that is incredibly rich – in detail, in insight and in heart. This is an incredibly important story and Katherine Boo has presented it in such a way that I cannot believe Behind the Beautiful Forevers hasn’t become required reading.

Writing: 10/10

The Bookshop on the Corner

The Bookshop on the Corner

Jenny Colgan

“Just do something. You might make a mistake, then you can fix it. But if you do nothing, you can’t fix anything. And your life might turn out full of regrets.”

As soon as I heard about this book I knew I had to read it. It is about a book-loving girl who loses her job at a library and decides to open her own mobile bookshop in rural Scotland. How lovely does that sound? I read this novel in one sitting, on a plane home from Mexico to Toronto, and I found it utterly charming and endearing.

I know it might not generally be a good thing when your favourite part of a novel is its introduction but that was the case for this book. I usually skip authors’ notes but, for whatever reason, I felt inclined to read this one and it was like a warm hug from one reader to another. I immediately felt like Jenny Colgan understood me and it made the story she was about to tell even more personal. This was a very nice touch.

Reading this novel was a bit like catching up with an old friend. Maybe it was because I read it all at once while I was trapped on a plane coming home from a tropical paradise to a snow-covered suburb, but the story was like a warm hug. Sure, there were aspects of the plot that I found a bit outlandish and over the top (I promise not to give them away here), but Nina was so relatable that it didn’t bother me at all.

I loved seeing the characters start to love reading thanks to Nina’s mobile bookshop. As a book lover, I know how much books can help us understand ourselves and those around us a little bit better so it was nice to see this portrayed so lovingly in this novel. I also loved the intertwining relationships between Nina, her best friend Surinder and her old coworker Griffin, and the contrast they had to Nina’s relationships with the people she meets in Kirrinfief: especially the sexist and grumpy man Wullie, from whom Nina purchases her van, Alisdair, Edwin and Hugh from down at the pub, her moody landlord Lennox and the charming pair of train conductors Joe and Marek.

One thing I didn’t really like about this story was the plot of Ainslee and Ben. I thought that the entire thread was a bit out of place in the novel, but the ending felt especially abrupt and unfitting. I didn’t like that the entire novel ended with this subplot rather than with Nina.

One of my favourite aspects of this novel was its descriptions of the parties Nina attended while she was in Scotland. The portrayals were so detailed it felt like I was there dancing and I was a bit sad when I realized I was actually just sitting on an airplane. Any story that can make me forget I am in a tiny seat with no leg room is a welcomed story! I also appreciated the way Colgan contrasted these parties with Nina’s experience when she goes back to visit her old home, Birmingham, and goes out for the night with her friends Surinder and Griffin. The way Nina comes alive and has a blast in Scotland made her night out in the city seem even more cringe-worthy than it normally is to me as someone who would almost always rather be at home curled up with Netflix, or a really great book.

Although I have only spent one day in Scotland (and it was Edinburgh, not the countryside), this novel made me want to get off the plane from Mexico and immediately hop on the next one to Scotland. It is a pretty big feat for a novel to make you miss a place you have never even visited, but Jenny Colgan succeeded with The Bookshop on the Corner.

Story: 7/10

Writing: 7/10

Carry Me

Carry Me

Peter Behrens

“Of course there really is no country of dreams that also exists outside the dreams.”

I read Peter Behrens’ Law of Dreams several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the story and the writing. When The O’Briens was published I was excited to read another of Behrens’ novels but the story fell short for me and I ended up abandoning it before finishing. When I read about Carry Me I was tentative to try it but I am so glad I did. This novel has such a nice pace to both the writing and to the story. This story also has an exceptionally satisfying ending – something that I find to be incredibly rare in the novels I choose to read.

With a narrative that moves back and forth in time, Carry Me follows Billy, his parents and Karin, the daughter of close family friends and employers, through Europe during the two World Wars. Throughout the story Billy and Karin both dream of escaping their war-torn lives to freedom, space and open air in El Llano; a place they believe to exist only in the American novels they read. One of the most striking aspects of this story is the way the narrative moves seamlessly between the First and Second World Wars. Because Billy narrates the entire story as it happened it the past, it is not always immediately evident which era he is describing and it gives the story a bit of a disorienting and dream-like state at several points where I was unsure how old the characters were or where the story was taking place. I really enjoyed the effect this had on the narrative.

I also really appreciated Billy’s narrative style. Like I said, Billy was re-telling the story of his childhood and young adulthood. Frequently throughout the story, Billy directly addresses the readers, for example, when he tells us that he won’t explain the nitty-gritty family details because he doesn’t want to bore us with genealogy, when he promises to be honest, or when he explains his choice to incorporate letters, telegrams and diary entries because he wants us to be able to hear the real voices of the characters. Perhaps most interesting is the way Billy readily admits his own unreliability as a narrator – something I can’t remember ever having come across in other novels I have read.

The plot of this novel is unusual to me in the way that it takes place during the Wars but it is not a story about the wars. I loved the human aspect of this story: the development of Billy from childhood through to adulthood, his descriptions of Karin as a character and the various writings pulled from Karin’s journal. Through Billy and Karin we see a very interesting development in the perception and experience of the wars at two different points in their lives.

While the novel is not really about the wars themselves, the story does take place during the first half of the twentieth century in Europe, so the wars are central to the lives of this story’s characters. Behrens paints an absolutely gut-wrenching portrait of characters – who have long been friends and allies to Billy and Karin – turning to Nazism and causing a wave of fear and disbelief to sweep through these two families. The novel also shows Billy struggle with his own guilt about being a cowardly bystander when he witnesses terrible acts in his own city. These underlying currents of fear, paranoia, guilt, grief and worry created a beautiful tension in this story that brought me right into the minds of these characters.

In all, Carry Me feels vast while simultaneously seeming like very little happens. The calmness and precision of Behrens’ writing allow an incredibly tumultuous time to be brought to life in a way that is not anxiety-provoking, but that instead allows readers into the thoughts and choices of characters who are trying to make their way in a world ravaged by war. In this novel Behrens also illuminates the complex nature of love by exploring not only the ways our families and closest friends can support and protect us but also the ways that, despite their best intentions, they can trap and endanger us.

 

Story: 7/10

Writing: 8/10

The Muse

The Muse

Jessie Burton

“I would have preferred not to have to choose between writing and loving; because for me, they were often the same thing.”

Jessie Burton is an incredible storyteller. The Muse enchanted me from the very beginning and I could not stop reading. It is fast paced and interesting from start to finish and I would recommend it highly.

The Muse follows two stories: that of Odelle Bastien in 1967 London and that of Olive Schloss in 1936 Arazuelo, Spain. Odelle is an immigrant from Trinidad who is trying to make her way as a writer and Olive is an artist – the daughter of a prominent art dealer – who knows that being a woman holds her back from realizing her full potential. Slowly, these stories come closer and closer together in an invigorating narrative of love, ambition, secrecy and vengeance.

The plot of this novel is ingenious. The narrative moves at the perfect pace to give enough detail while still pushing forward into the lives of the characters and their stories. Burton adds little twists that you completely anticipate to make you feel like you’re a part of the story, only to write a sentence two pages later that causes a completely gut-wrenching realization of the real twist. This doesn’t just happen once; Burton is relentless in her originality and surprise and I could not get enough.

I was fascinated by the portrayal of language in this novel. For one thing, Odelle’s narration and conversations with employers are in perfect British English, but her conversations with her best friend Cynthia are often in a vernacular that presumably comes from her Trinidadian heritage. More often than not, I find that when characters both narrate and speak in a novel, the language used is usually congruent. I thought this choice was an interesting and subtle way to show the way Odelle maintains her own native dialect while still trying to fit into the prejudiced world to which she moved. Similarly, at the beginning of Olive’s story, there is an emphasis on which language the characters are speaking: Olive’s native English or Isaac and Teresa’s native Spanish. I found myself wondering why Burton chose to specify whether these characters were speaking their first or second language and why this was important to the story or to the words they were saying.

I was also very interested in the historical aspect of this novel, especially in Olive’s story, which takes place in 1936 during the Spanish Revolution. This is a point of history about which I had heard little before I read this novel and I found myself Googling extensively for information about what was going on around these characters (especially Isaac and Teresa). I always enjoy novels that lead me to learn more about other times and places, so this was a welcomed piece of the story.

If you have seen or heard about this book and weren’t sure whether it was for you, I would urge you to give it a try. Burton’s plot is one of the most original and exciting I have come across in a long time. With undercurrents of race, politics and gender, I found so much in this story to think about and to enjoy. The characters are intricate, stimulating and extremely vivid. They tell a story that surprised me at every single turn. My only regret about this book is how long it sat on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.

 

Story: 10/10

Writing: 10/10

Behind the Blog: Meet the Blogger Series- Katie from Chickadee Book Reviews

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being a featured book blogger on Sam’s incredible blog, Clues and Reviews (cluesandreviews@wordpress.com). Thanks so much for welcoming me into this community!

Clues and Reviews

Ever wonder about the person behind the blog?  I mentioned back in January (here) that I would be starting a Meet the Blogger series.  This series will feature some of my favourite bloggers as we go behind the scenes and have them answer the questions!

Next up is Katie from Chickadee Book Reviews!

Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 10.29.56 PM.png

Katie is a fellow Canadian book blogger who is new to the scene!  You know that I feel strongly about Canadian content coming to my blog so I was so excited to find another Canadian blogger to feature in this series!

Keep reading to find out what Katie had to say when she took her turn in the ‘hot seat”!

View original post 374 more words

A Far Cry from Kensington

A Far Cry from Kensington

Muriel Spark

“I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong regardless of what I might actually do.”

I read Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington over the course of a day at the beach and it was a perfect beach read. This is not a story that is likely to stay with me for very long but it was entertaining and charming all the same.

A Far Cry from Kensington is the story of Mrs. Hawkins, a young literary editor who describes a prominent colleague and aspiring novelist as a “pisseur de copie” who “urinates frightful prose.” When she refuses to retract her opinion, she suffers the loss of two jobs and a dear friend.

This novel struck me as being the literary equivalent of a British television sitcom. Spark’s writing is clever, witty, poised and at times deeply funny. This story of Mrs. Hawkins reads the way a good friend might share a story with you. It is conversational, unassuming and intimate in style, which was enjoyable.

Based on the blurb from the back of the book I was a bit surprised by the plot of the story. There was definitely a movement towards the mystery genre and Mrs. Hawkins and her housemates find themselves navigating the fragile lines of friendship, trust, suspicion and intrigue. I thought this was quite an interesting side to the story and definitely added more depth to the narrative. One of my issues with this novel is the way the story was resolved. I saw a lot of hinting towards the truth but I don’t think I really grasped the conclusion of the episode and was a bit confused as to the exact roles each of the characters played in the tragedy that strikes Mrs. Hawkins and her housemates.

I really enjoyed the characters in this book. It felt to me that these were all people I had met before or might bump into on the street. Mrs. Hawkins enemy, Hector Bartlett (the “pisseur de copie”) is an egotistical, manipulative bully who uses those around him for his own personal gain. There is Milly, the landlord of Mrs. Hawkins’ flat, who is a devout Catholic and a close friend to all of her borders. There is the always-fighting couple who lives next door, there is young and spoiled Isobel, who calls her father every single day. There is the medical student William, Kate, the young nurse, the young couple Basil and Eva, and the Polish seamstress Wanda. There are also numerous characters from Mrs. Hawkins’ workplaces but my favourite is Patrick, whose wife is somehow convinced that Mrs. Hawkins is seducing and stealing her husband away. These characters are not novel or complex, but they are familiar and homey in a way that creates a sense of family and comfort.

Overall, I enjoyed this book as a quick read to entertain me in the sunshine on a noisy and distracting beach. I wouldn’t recommend it if you are looking for something with a lot of substance but, as a quick and amusing read, this won’t disappoint.

 

Story: 6/10

Writing: 7/10

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer

“It was getting hard to keep all the things I didn’t know inside me.”

Nothing I can say about this novel will do it justice but since I have promised this review I will give it a shot anyway. I avoided this novel for many years due to the subject matter but I am glad to have finally read it. It is an incredibly important novel.

This story follows nine-year-old Oskar Schell, who is dealing with the intense emotional repercussions of his father’s death in the September 11th attack on the World Trade Centre. In attempting to find some closure, Oskar embarks on a search for the lock opened by a mysterious key found in his father’s possessions after his death. This search finds him travelling all across New York City and learning as much about himself as he does about the strangers he encounters along the way. Alongside Oskar’s story there are two other narrators who slowly share their own stories: Oskar’s grandmother and his grandfather, Thomas, both of whom are survivors the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War.

The first thing I will say is that I did not expect to be laughing very often in a book about a child whose father was just killed, but I was laughing out loud by the second page of this story. Oskar is nine years old and his narration is bizarre and endearing. With quick subject changes, beautifully immature views, and a wonderful imagination (think of buildings in which elevators stay still and the floors move to meet you, limousines so long there is no need for a driver – you just walk through to your destination, or a set of wedding rings that flash each time your partner’s heart beats), Oskar’s voice is the perfect choice for telling such a difficult story. I appreciate the way that using Oskar as the story’s main narrator removes some of the political underpinnings of the events of September 11th and makes it a more human story. Another interesting aspect of Oskar’s narration is the way the conversations are presented. Foer doesn’t break up the conversations with indications of who is speaking and instead just separates comments in a single paragraph with new quotation marks. I found it difficult at times to know which character was speaking, which really emphasized Oskar’s intelligence and resourcefulness as he was often speaking to individuals much older than he was.

While this novel didn’t go into much depth about the events of September 11th, Foer did include vivid and disturbing depictions of the bombing of Dresden and the bombing of Hiroshima. By incorporating these two other massive tragedies in the story Foer provided a very compelling contrast to the events in New York City in 2001. In both of these controversial attacks the United States was the attacker rather than the victim. Foer presents all three events without casting blame or passing judgment and instead uses them to show the complicated nature of these events and the repercussions that political movement has on individual lives.

In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Foer does an unexpectedly good job of exploring the complicated emotions surrounding traumatic events. This novel is extremely visual – a parallel, I think, to how visual the attacks were for people all around the world as the result of news outlets playing and replaying footage of the attacks. For example, this novel incorporates excerpts from letters that are heavily censored, overlapping text, blank pages and a mute character, all of which helped to portray the idea of unspeakable stories. Foer also uses phone calls that get cut off and increased spaces between sentences to help show the fragmented nature of traumatic memories. Foer’s experimental style of writing is extremely effective for helping to depict the complexities of remembering, forgetting, hiding and sharing difficult pasts with family as well as with strangers. This novel also incorporates many full-page photographs from a scrapbook Oskar keeps, but the photos themselves are not depictions of the story being told. Instead, the photos are only important in the larger context which is often not given until several pages after the picture appears. This seemed odd to me at first but in the end the photos seemed to underscore material that can’t be captured in a photo.

This novel places a heavy emphasis on human connection and interaction. Oskar’s quest for the lock seems to be an active opposition to the division, fright, isolation and suspicion of neighbours that was caused by the attacks on 9/11. By going out and speaking to strangers from all over the city, Oskar’s quest contrasts the letters his grandparents write. In these letters there is no back-and-forth interaction and often the letter does not make it to its intended recipient. Oskar’s insistence at asking personal questions result in people opening up to him with secrets they might not have told even their closest friends. His ability to probe for information and create intimacy, compared with the isolated letters from his grandparents, struck me as being an interesting play on the concept of “close.” The word close can mean either being near or being shut, depending on use. When I think about it quickly, I would say that a letter could create more intimacy between strangers than awkward questions being asked in person, but here the opposite is true. Highlighting the irreplaceable nature of genuine human interaction in times of trauma and pain, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a beautiful telling of a story that I never thought could be anything but horrific.

 

Story: 9/10

Writing: 9/10

Angels in America

Angels in America

Tony Kushner

“An angel is a belief. With wings and arms that can carry you. If it lets you down, reject it.”

I am a bit ashamed to say that Angels in America is the first play I have read since the days of painful Shakespeare classes in high school. I will also say that reading this play changed the way I think about drama and about literature. Tony Kushner’s plays (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) are critically acclaimed and considered to be absolute masterpieces. They have earned a special place on my bookshelf.

The plays follow the lives of various characters who become increasingly intertwined as the story progresses. There are Louis and Prior, who try to navigate their way through a relationship in the midst of serious illness; there is Belize, an often intentionally “campy” nurse by day and an ex- ex-drag queen by night; there are Joseph and Harper Pitt, two Mormons who struggle through marital strain and psychological anguish when homosexuality comes into play; there is Hannah Pitt  (Joe’s mother), a “runaway” Mormon who moves from Salt Lake City to New York; there is Roy Cohn, an immoral lawyer who falls ill and is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg; and there is the Angel, who arrives to present Prior with a prophecy. Together, these characters give us an incredibly complicated and intricate depiction of New York City in the mid-1980s through early 1990.

One of the most intriguing aspects of these plays is the way they challenge the notion that we can make major assumptions about people’s identities based on their race, political or religious affiliations, gender or sexual orientation. Throughout these plays, characters repeatedly set up expectations about their identities and then shatter them. These complexities are compounded by the way the actors in this play each play several different roles. For example, the actor who plays Hannah Pitt also plays Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, Henry (Roy Cohn’s doctor), Ethel Rosenberg, Aleskii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov (the oldest living Bolshevik) and one of the angels. Because of these varied roles, we see the same actor portraying diverse characters who each have different beliefs and responses to the same issues throughout the play.

I also liked the effect of the various shared scenes in these plays. In the shared scenes, two conversations happen simultaneously on separate areas of the stage, without pause when switching back and forth. For example, you might see Louis and Prior speaking in the hospital and Joe and Harper in their apartment. They are having separate conversations, but they meld into one because the subject matter is shared (for example, trying to justify leaving a romantic partner) and the characters experience similar emotions and reactions. When reading these scenes, you can often read through without paying attention to the character names and it seems cohesive; like it could all be one conversation between two characters. I thought this was a very interesting way of showing universal human experiences with several characters from very different backgrounds.

These plays are subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” and they definitely live up to that promise. Addressing issues from 1980s politics and the Reagan administration to communism and the Cold War, to religious beliefs, to homosexuality, to queer activism, to the AIDS crisis, to race, to technological innovation – the list goes on and on. The plays also emphasize varied notions of freedom, justice, responsibility, guilt and truth and the effects disagreements on these concepts have for the characters. I really enjoyed the way Kushner explores these issues critically while still maintaining a fast-moving plot and characters who grow and develop in every single scene. I have had so many thought-provoking conversations with friends who have also read these plays that I think they should be required reading (or better, performing) for every single high school and university student.

Honestly, I cannot recommend these plays highly enough. While plays are obviously meant to be performed – and I would absolutely jump at the chance to see these plays live – this book is beautiful in itself for the attention to detail Kushner exhibits. From the line breaks to the stage directions, to the capitalization and punctuation – every detail is intentional and there are layers and layers of meaning in the words of this story. This is a play that is universal in its appeal. There is something for the literary critic, for the English professor, for the university student, for the plumber, for the doctor, for the lawyer, for the physicist, for the artist, for the theatre enthusiast and for the student like me who has never enjoyed drama but was immediately swept away in the lyricism of the lines and the depth of the characters Kushner gives us in Angels in America.

Story: 10/10

Writing: 10/10

Soucouyant

Soucouyant

David Chariandy

“During our lives, we struggle to forget. And it’s foolish to assume that forgetting is altogether a bad thing. Memory is a bruise still tender. History is a rusted pile of blades and manacles. And forgetting can sometimes be the most creative and life-sustaining thing that we can ever hope to accomplish. The problem happens when we get too good at forgetting.”

I am somewhat undecided about this book. David Chariandy’s Soucouyant is a beautifully poetic narrative of a young man from Scarborough and his mother, who is suffering from dementia. There are absolutely stunning moments in this novel, but overall I did not really get into the story.

In this novel, the young man (whose name we do not learn) returns home after several years to find his mother, Adele, in the grips of severe dementia. He is surprised to find a young woman – a complete stranger – living in his home and caring for his mother in his absence. As the story unravels, we learn about the boy’s past and that of his mother and father, both of whom emigrated from Trinidad to Canada in the early 1960s. We also learn about the mysterious young woman, Meera, who has inhabited the narrator’s childhood home, and the complicated ways in which her own history in connected to that of the narrator’s family.

The most striking thing about this novel is the writing. Chariandy writes with such lyricism and rhythm that I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and then being able, in good conscience, to declare that they do not like it. I especially enjoyed the way Chariandy managed to mimic the disorientation that we might imagine Adele is feeling as a result of her dementia. At the very start of this novel, the reader arrives suddenly, like the narrator, in a confusing and unexplained situation. This technique is used again and again throughout this story to reflect the experience of losing the ability to remember where you are, who is around you and even who you are. Similarly, Chariandy uses a largely fragmented narrative to depict the disjointed nature of memories – even those we are still able to recover. Small bits and pieces lead to larger revelations, and while we might begin with only a small a hint of something past, we eventually unravel the story of Adele and the Soucouyant (popular in Caribbean folklore, she is a female, vampire-like spirit who disguises herself as an old woman).

This novel also places a heavy focus on stories of immigration that do not match that of the “ideal” or “model” immigrant. Intentionally discussing often forgotten histories – such as the 1955 West Indian Domestic Scheme, which allowed Adele to travel to Canada, or Canada’s 1988 Multiculturalism Act – Chariandy addresses the experiences of the “other” in my native Toronto, which is a place so often praised for its multiculturalism. One of the most poignant moments of this entire novel for me was Adele’s experience with lemon meringue pie. Without giving away the plot, I will only say that Adele describes her first taste of the pie as a “twoness”: both sweet and sharp. Chariandy continually returns to this metaphor to discuss the feelings of tension often felt by immigrants who simultaneously feel grateful for the opportunity they have been given and lonely or angered as the result of the unfriendly responses they routinely receive from natives of the country to which they travel.

Overall, I thought this was a beautifully written novel, but it was a bit slow moving to suit my own taste. I liked the mysterious aspects of the book with Meera, the narrator’s brother and the story of the Soucouyant but, otherwise, I found the plot to be a bit stagnant at times. In terms of the characters, while I did not feel particularly warm to the narrator, I did like some of the other characters in this novel much more. I was unsure about Meera at first, but she did grow on me (somewhat) over the course of the story. The characters that made the book more enjoyable for me were Roger and Adele, and the librarian, Mrs. Cameron. The story of how Adele and Roger met brings a smile to my face every time I think of it and the kind, caring librarian whose friendship touches the narrator so profoundly remains absolutely beautiful to me.

My few minor quibbles aside, Soucouyant is an eerie and haunting – but precisely told – story of family, memory and love. Most of all, I love the way the story portrays the things we remember and those we forget and the implications this can have not only on our personal lives but also on the collective histories of our cultures and countries.
Story: 7/10

Writing: 10/10

A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles

“When all was said and done, the endeavors that most modern men saw as urgent (such as appointments with bankers and the catching of trains) probably could have waited, while those deemed frivolous (such as cups of tea and friendly chats) had deserved their immediate attention.”

Please, read this book. Amor Towles’ beautiful, simple writing evokes a feeling of sentimentality right from the start. I fell in love with the Count in the first 10 pages of this story. Following the life of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who has been placed under house-arrest in the luxurious Metropol hotel, this novel is at times serious and dark while at others laugh-out-loud funny. Often, these contrasting moments come together in deeply touching ways, such as the moment when an attempt at suicide is thwarted by a swarm of bees and an enthusiastic handyman.

Because it takes place inside the hotel over the course of three decades, this novel is driven mainly by the characters that work at and live in the hotel. Nina, the serious 9-year old who befriends the Count, is a lovely character. A strong, intelligent and imaginative girl, Nina gives the Count an entirely new way of looking at his surroundings in the way that only a child can. She returns to the hotel at several points in her life but remains a passionate, single-minded woman who is sure of her cause. There is Marina, the hotel seamstress, who saves the Count in many ways on various occasions, and who teaches him to sew. Then there is is Anna Urbanov, a movie star who seduces the Count. Anna later returns to find friendship with Alexander due to a mutual fall from fame and fortune to the “Confederacy of the Humbled.” There is the talented but deeply sarcastic and pessimistic chef, Emile and the Maître d’, Andrey, who was previously a juggler in the travelling circus. There is Osip, an army colonel who enlists the Count to help him improve his language and diplomacy skills to France and Britain, and there is the Count’s oldest and perhaps dearest friend Mishka, who is so prone to pacing he frequently wears through the soles of his shoes and the carpets on which he walks. An early scene in which Mishka is distraught over having to remove one sentence of a collection of letters he is collating (because it mentions bread) later comes back in a deeply moving scene that left me in tears.

The Count himself is an incredibly endearing character. His many quirks, such as a bizarre fascination with the weather and the ways in which it affects the events of his life or the way he converses with the birds outside his window, the one-eyed lobby cat and a pair of escaped hunting hounds, have made him one of my favourite characters of all time. He also gently and humorously mocks the etiquette and precise manners of his time, especially when he is eating in or working as a waiter in the restaurants at the hotel. I liked the way Towles portrays Alexander’s ageing through the gradual reduction in the number of exercises he performs in his room each morning. It was sometimes difficult to remember how much time has passed, so this small detail was welcome throughout the novel as a reminder of his advancing age.

Towles is a master of metaphor. The passages in which he describes the passage of time as the turning of a kaleidoscope, or chefs as orchestra conductors, or a dropped bag of oranges moving the way convicts do during a prison break, bring the hotel to life in an intriguing and original way.

Another aspect of this novel that I really appreciated was the footnotes. Throughout the book, Towles includes helpful footnotes such as those indicating which of the many Russian names will be important to memorize for later on in the story, or which acronyms for the secret police need to be distinguished from one another. I found these little notes to be quite charming and very useful to a reader easily confused by similar names and phrases.

Reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse’s Code of the Woosters, A Gentleman in Moscow is perceptive and deeply funny. More than anything, this story is a heartfelt exploration of what it means to lead a full, meaningful life. After reading (and loving!) Towles’ earlier novel, Rules of Civility, last fall, this novel has cemented Towles as one of my favourite authors. The story culminates in a plot just as endearing as one would expect from the Count and, without giving anything away, I will say that the simultaneous ringing of all 30 telephones in the lobby of the hotel at midnight had me grinning from ear to ear. I finished this story and immediately ached for more, wanting to turn back to the beginning and read the entire novel again.

Story: 10/10

Writing: 10/10