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The Break

The Break

Katherena Vermette

“This room feels like home, full of silent memories and echoes. They slip in and out of her mind, one by one. Like the pictures on her walls, this is where her memories are housed. Stella doesn’t have to look at them. But, of course, she does. And remembers. All the things here that she’s tried to forget, and all the things that happened just over there that she can’t ever forget.”

The Break is the most draining and emotionally challenging book I have ever read. Katherena Vermette’s novel is an incredibly emotional, powerful story that hinges on the strength and love between women who are attempting to pick up the pieces of their lives following a brutally violent act.

The Break is a gripping novel that follows the story of a young Métis mother, Stella, who witnesses a terrible crime being committed on the barren land behind her home, nicknamed “the Break”. What unravels is a story told by numerous narrators – police officers, family members, friends – each of whom is attached in some way to this moment.

In terms of the plot, the one main complaint I have is the loss of momentum and suspense that follows the first chapter. The initial scene did an excellent job of setting up a literary thriller in which I was very invested. The following chapters, however, were much slower and took a lot of time to introduce layers of characters who were all related and entwined to varying (and sometimes confusing) degrees. This shift in style really dissipated the suspense from the discovery the reader makes in the first chapter.

I found many of the women in this story to be very similar characters – almost interchangeable – so that I had a very difficult time keeping the relationships straight. The family tree helped, but I would have preferred not having to check back so many times to rediscover who was who. On a related note, I think this story had too many narrators. While I like the idea of having various characters telling the story from their own perspectives, the novel had an overwhelming number of shifts in voice. More than once, I began a new chapter and could not remember whether or not this character had yet narrated a chapter. This disorientation made it difficult to read the book over the course of several sittings.

There is an enormous amount of material in this novel. Each chapter is a beautifully developed vignette of its own and each character is slowly developed at a pace that is precise and deliberate. Feeling raw and genuine despite its being fiction, this dark, haunting portrayal of a Métis community is as timely as ever. Referring not only to a field between two groups of houses but also to broken relationships, The Break is a timely and essential depiction of love, underscored by explorations of many of the issues that are prominent in Indigenous communities. Coming through most loudly in the novel, however, is the strength and resilience that embodies this community. The gritty, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful story portrays three generations of incredibly strong women caring for and supporting their families and communities in the darkest of times.

 

Story: 8/10

Writing: 8/10

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Americanah

Americanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“the other guests . . . all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him . . . conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

Americanah is such an important book. Adichie has written a meaningful and beautiful story that begs its reader to partake in a larger, very timely, conversation about race, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. This novel tells the love story between Ifemelu and Obinze – two Nigerian teenagers who attend a university in Nigera but decide to leave because of frequent strikes in the academic system. When Ifemelu arrives in America, she attends a prestigious university, waits for Obinze’s arrival, and, later, begins a popular blog that discusses race issues in America.

Through this story, we see Adichie explore race in all of its intricacies. Right from the first pages, Adichie pointedly calls attention to white American culture: the habits, behaviours and nuances that I never think about, but that are absolutely happening and are uncomfortable to read about when put so plainly. As the narrative continues, Adichie carefully portrays the distinction between being black in Africa and being black in the USA. We see Ifemelu feel “black” for the first time when she arrives in the United States.

These racial complexities are depicted through the relationships in the story as well. I liked seeing Ifemelu date a variety of men: white, privileged Curt, to whom colour is “nothing”; Blaine, a black college professor; and, of course, Obinze from her younger days in Nigeria. The differences between these relationships give a really interesting look at race through the lens of race, age and geography.

Throughout this novel, Adiche’s writing in incredibly nuanced. With skill and impressive style, Adichie highlights the subtleties between the various cultures portrayed in the novel, from Nigeria, to the USA, to England, and between. Adichie is not put off by discussing controversial issues, or those deemed controversial by white Americans who are uncomfortable discussing them. These topics are often addressed in Ifemelu’s blog posts, which are scattered throughout the chapters in the later parts of the novel. I really liked this treatment of the issues because it made the discussion seem less formal while still remaining poignant. These blog posts were very effective at prodding me to think more deeply about some of Ifemelu’s arguments.

When I got to the second half of the novel I started to feel like it was dragging a bit; like the story could have been told in 400 pages instead of almost 600. When I got closer to the end, I realized that the time (and length) that had passed made the moment Ifemelu had been waiting for seem incredibly gripping for me. I felt the tightness in her stomach in my own and I felt her relief that we had, finally, made it to this moment. It was a beautiful moment that proves that, sometimes, longer books have exactly the right number of pages. The beauty of this scene was even greater because of the way Ifemelu took in her experience honestly, reflecting on the ways even those people that are dearest to us change and evolve and have aspects that irk us no matter how much we love them.

Overall, Americanah is completely enchanting while still incredibly enlightening. The narrative’s focus on the loss of cultural identity both when Ifemelu arrives in America and when she moves back to Nigeria so many years later work as a spring board for the larger exploration in the story – what drives us to leave our homes, and what eventually leads us back?

 

Story: 9/10

Writing: 9/10

The Strays

The Strays

Emily Bitto

“It could almost have been comical, slapstick, but instead it was terrifying. Those moments when the adults we have constructed in our minds as invincible are revealed as vulnerable, afraid.”

Emily Bitto’s debut novel, The Strays, is a fascinating story of friendship, love and art through the retrospective eyes of Lily. It was the cover of this book that caught my eye, and I’m glad it did! In this novel, Lily reflects on her childhood and her fierce friendship with a classmate, Eva, whose parents are both artists. As Lily is drawn into this new and interesting world of creative chaos, she becomes closer to Eva’s family. However, the utopian artists’ world becomes more and more complicated before crumbling around the girls, leaving deep repercussions for the family and for Lily.

Thematically, this novel has a lot in common with Emma Cline’s book, The Girls – both stories depict a younger girl being swept away into a mysterious, seductive, world through an intimate friendship with other girls. Lily has had a very sheltered, uninteresting life before meeting Eva and seems very vulnerable throughout her time with Eva’s family. I found it very poignant that Lily’s whole world is at Eva’s house, with Eva’s siblings and parents, but Eva’s parents repeatedly mention that they don’t even notice whether Lily is there or not.

Emily Bitto does a great job of maintaining a sense of tension throughout this novel. Eva’s family (and the artists with whom they live) lives in a quasi-utopian world, but there is always a sense of impending doom. The odd power balances and subtle manipulations between characters add to this effect. This tension is also built by Eva’s youngest sister, Heloise. Heloise (whose name I don’t want to try to pronounce) has a bizarre, almost creepy, presence in the house. We find out early on that she is the first of the three sisters to die, but she seems so peculiar that I was always waiting to find out what happened to her, and whether that was the main reason for Lily and Eva’s fallout. I am a bit baffled by Bitto’s treatment of Heloise as a character. I thought it was very interesting and unusual that she seems to be a secondary (or even tertiary) character when compared with the others and yet a huge amount of the plot centres around her.

This novel is divided into three general sections: the first and third take place in the present day of the story while the middle section is Lily recalling her experiences as a younger girl. My least favourite section was the last of the three. In the final section of the novel I became a bit confused by the timeline. The chapters jumped around from the past to the present and I had trouble figuring out where I was in the overall narrative. This section also became exceedingly dark and brooding. It felt tired: heavy, even. I really did not like the end of this book. Generally, I like to finish the story and then reflect on the story and the characters. Here, Bitto does all of the work for me by imposing her own (or Lily’s own) thoughts about the events of the story right into the narrative. I might have liked the book better overall if the first and last sections of the novel had been cut, only leaving the middle section. If this had been the case, I would have been able to spend a bit more time contemplating the deeper complexity of the characters, relationships and plots in this story.

Overall, I really enjoyed Bitto’s depiction of young girls trying to discover themselves through their relationships with family and friends. I found the world created by the eccentric and inventive characters very absorbing. More than anything else, this story explores what it means to be an adult, a parent, a friend and an artist trying to make their way in the world. While I had some issues with the overall structure of the novel, overall I found it to be charming and well told – The Strays is worth a read!

 

Story: 7/10

Writing: 7/10

To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Connie Willis

“Plans, intentions, reasons . . . A Grand Design involving the entire course of history and all of time and space that, for some unfathomable reason, chose to work out its designs with cats and croquet mallets and penwipers, to say nothing of the dog. And a hideous piece of Victorian artwork. And us.”

Well, Connie Willis has convinced me that time travel is real.

This is the story of Ned Henry and his time-travelling colleagues, who are assigned to recover the bishop’s bird stump for a project to restore Coventry Cathedral, which was decimated during air raids in the Second World War. When one of the time travelers accidentally returns a cat from the past to her present time, the space-time continuum is jeopardized and the only way to fix it is to repair a chain of hilarious events in Victorian England.

I love the little summaries (or timelines) at the beginning of each new chapter. They outline what is about to happen in a way that no sane individual could possibly follow until after having read the chapter, at which point the descriptions become even more humorous. I think it would be a lot of fun to take one of these summaries and try to write your way through from one link to the next to see if you could find a way to make the seemingly random pieces all connect!

To Say Nothing of the Dog is an incredibly complicated plot that features several characters moving through time simultaneously. Somehow, Connie Willis has managed to make this seem completely effortless. The narrative is never confusing or cumbersome, which was a worry for me as someone who is often lost in time-travel or other science-fiction stories. As if the threads of narrative are not enough to keep Willis busy, she also seamlessly weaves in all kinds of literary allusions. Some of these are from books I have read and recognized (like P.G. Wodehouse’s Code of the Woosters, or the repeated shots that were taken at the expense of Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in mediums), some are from books I have heard of but have not read (Three Men in a Boat) and I’m sure there were many I missed completely. What I enjoyed most about this was that the story is thoroughly enjoyable whether or not you understand these references, but Willis adds a greater layer of depth to the novel for a reader who is in on the joke.

By far, my favourite character in this story is Cyril. He is opinionated to the extent that I laughed out loud multiple times, despite him never speaking. I found Verity to be quite bland in comparison to the other characters who are colourful and have much more distinctive personalities. I really enjoyed the not-so-subtle parody of the Victorian era through Mrs. Mering and through Clarence’s comments and thoughts about women throughout the story.

In To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis takes a funny but heavy view of how little it takes to change the entire course of history – whether it is bad weather, a sniffly nose or simple miscommunications that have started or ended wars, or cats who survive unlikely circumstances again and again to cause endless troubles for the characters in this story. At this point, all I can say is that if you haven’t read Connie Willis, it is time.

Story: 10/10

Writing: 10/10

Stoner

Stoner

John Williams

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

John Williams’ novel Stoner is a quiet tour de force. This novel tells the story of William Stoner, who is born into a poor rural family in the late 1800s, Missouri. When he is sent to study agriculture at the University of Missouri, an elective course instills in him a love of literature that changes the course of his life.

Overall, this book feels somber and unassuming. The story itself is not particularly interesting, but I was captivated from start to finish. We see Stoner grow up, attend university and decide to leave his rural family to go on to teach at the university. We also get a glimpse into his personal life with his wife Edith and daughter, Grace. Williams’ writing is plain but rhythmic and the story seems to breathe.

The characters in this story are intricate, precise and deliberate. Stoner is a true academic who faces personal crises, family crises, academic crises and social crises in a genuine and unpretentious manner. His wife, Edith, seems at first a frail, brittle woman but we come to see a vindictive, mean woman who manipulates her husband and daughter throughout their lives. Grace, Stoner’s daughter, shows signs of both parents. Her relationship with Stoner is serious while still incredibly tender.

Academic politics take the forefront in much of this novel. The characters explore the purpose of academia and the ways in which different people try to maintain the integrity of this elite world. When one of Stoner’s colleagues is oblivious to the obvious inability of one student to perform in this environment, Stoner comes face to face with his responsibility to maintain this integrity, no matter what the cost.

The end sequence of this novel is incredibly beautiful. The depiction Williams gives us of the last days of Stoner’s life are like nothing I have ever read. Haunting and deeply moving, these pages are sure to stay with me for a long, long time.

After a life full of disappointments that the reader feels coming but (like Stoner) can do nothing to prevent, literature seems to be the only world that has not betrayed Stoner. This quaint and beautiful novel reminded me of how it feels to be curious, to discover new literature, new voices and new interests and to lose myself in a good book.

 

Story: 8/10

Writing: 10/10

If We Were Villains

If We Were Villains

M.L. Rio

“Actors are by nature volatile – alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotions and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.”

Reading this novel was a very interesting experience. I picked up If We Were Villains while browsing a bookstore and, uncharacteristically, decided to buy it without knowing anything about the author and without having heard anything about the book. From the synopsis on the back it sounded similar to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I really enjoyed, so I thought I would give it a try.

If We Were Villains tells the story of seven drama students at an elite arts college whose on-stage rivalries and temptations slowly pervade their own lives. If I am completely honest, when I started reading this book it seemed like a worse version of The Secret History with characters who were more immature and annoying than those from the similar story. While these two novels do have many things in common and seem at times almost too similar, there are aspects of If We Were Villains that made me continue to read instead of dismissing it as a second version of the same story. Most significantly, I came to be really involved with the characters and their varied relationships.

I was also initially bothered by the narrative style in which M.L. Rio integrates Shakespearean verse into the students’ conversations and also breaks up the dialogue with names and lines rather than with quotation marks. As I got farther into the book I found that this became less and less noticeable and I wasn’t bothered by the flow of sometimes very obscure dialogue. I will say that I sometimes skimmed over the larger sections of dialogue that were written in verse – probably a byproduct of growing to dislike Shakespeare through terrible high school teachers. That being said, within the first 100 pages I was completely pulled into the story and ended up reading the book very quickly.

The sense of claustrophobia that this novel gave me was very chilling. The longer this story developed in the same spaces with the same characters, the smaller the world of the novel began to feel and the more I felt like I needed a breath of fresh air. This was a really remarkable experience where Rio was able to mimic the seclusion these characters must have been feeling as the plot unfolds and allow her readers to feel that same unease and confinement.

The plot of this novel was intriguing to me for the way it always seemed like it was about to end. Right from the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that some tragedy occurred at the college among these seven students and as the story starts to be told by Oliver, the narrator and one of the students, it seems like the action is imminent. This is true, but then there continue to be more twists and turns and I was never quite sure when the big reveal would be made, or whether the last big “aha moment” I had read had in fact been the big reveal. I think this sense of anticipation and suspense was what kept me interested in the story despite the very blunt foreshadowing throughout the novel.

I think, more than anything, this is the story of relationships defined by ambiguity. The students, who are together continually for four years of drama schooling, in which vulnerability is unavoidable, share intense but strange intimacies where lines are blurred and feelings are confused. The emotion Rio depicts these characters feeling is immense, being described in the story as a combination of the emotions of the characters they are playing and their own already complicated emotions. I finished this story with a sense of emotional exhaustion and a love for several characters who I might not otherwise have related to. I started off hating this book, but I made that decision much too quickly and dismissively. I’m glad I continued reading because I ended up thoroughly enjoying the characters and the dark, beautiful, lives that they live.

 

Story: 7/10

Writing: 6/10

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 everyday 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