The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (Review)

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What a delightfully cozy read! After having conveniently forgotten the ending of the movie adaptation (it’s been a while since I watched it), I decided to pick the novel up. It was a much needed respite after some intense books!

Now, if you know anything at all about the synopsis, you’re most likely thinking “Cozy? Respite? It’s a ghost story!” Yes. Books of a gothic nature are right up my alley. I loved how Diane Setterfield referenced classical gothic books in the novel like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Women in White, and Turn of the Screw. The characters in the story are really bookish and I, nodding along, enjoyed every bit of that.

Margaret is a bookseller and amateur biographer. One day she receives a curious letter from a famous author named Vida Winter, who is nearing her deathbed. Margaret is invited to stay with Vida Winter and write her ‘true’ biography, as the author was previously given to inventing various life stories and telling confusing origin tales to the general public. What follows is a story filled with intrigue, suspense, scandal and ghosts! So much yes. 

 

 

Subversive Feminism in Storytelling: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Julia Ducournau’s Raw

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“You are what you eat,” as the saying goes, to which I’d like to add: “or don’t.” As of recent, food has increasingly become a part of identity politics. Anybody on the internet who strongly follows a particular diet has their pitchforks ready for the ‘non-believers’. In this backdrop, Han Kang’s novel [1] about a woman who refuses to eat meat after a nightmarish dream she can’t speak of and Julia Ducournau’s film [2] about a young vegetarian woman who begins to crave meat of all kinds, including human, come across as confusing and shocking pieces of work. The former is set in South Korea and deals with mental illness whereas the latter is set in France and is a coming-of-age drama.

I’d like to argue that the themes of vegetarianism and cannibalism, albeit contradictory, are utilised to serve the same metaphor. These (fictionalised) extremities enable a self-reflection on society that is very, very real. The Vegetarian follows the story of Yeong-hye who lives a passive, domesticated life in Seoul. Her husband, Mr. Cheong works and Yeong-hye does the cooking and cleaning. The story is narrated by three characters, none of who are Yeong-hye. We do not hear her voice, except details from the dream:

“My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood.” 

Yeong-hye swears off meat and radically alters her diet. From what I understand, Korean food culture is centred around banchan or multiple side dishes that are mostly meat-based. Yeong-hye quickly loses a lot of weight, perhaps a little too much. Along with meat she refuses to partake in activities that patriarchy dictates she do like wearing a bra, doing her makeup, and being a dutiful wife. In one brutal scene, Yeong-hye’s father forces her to eat meat which shatters every semblance of normality the family struggles to portray.

In part two, Yeong-hye is the sexual object of her brother-in-law’s gaze, an artist in search for some inspiration. He paints flowers over her naked body, has sex with her and films the process. Art. The last section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s sister. In the mental hospital, Yeong-hye strives to become a tree [3]: “Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…” She stops eating entirely.

And then there’s Raw, which is visually stunning. Justine is a strict vegetarian who enters vet school, where her sister Alexia also studies. At a hazing ritual, Justine is forcibly fed rabbit liver and thus begins her obsession for meat. Her hunger is not satiated until she tastes human meat. Justine’s newfound freedom and desires lend to her agency she never experienced before: sexually and emotionally.

Cannibalism runs in the family. Alexia indulges and encourages her sister’s cravings but Justine decides to control her hunger. This causes a rift between the sisters who literally fight tooth and nail. Justine accepts her dark animalistic side and violence within it, but suppresses her monstrous desires. This caricatures society at large, where the hunger to consume and kill entails unparalleled cruelty and brutality.

Food is a potent device in these stories. Yeong-hye’s refusal to consume meat and ultimately any food, similarly Justine’s taboo desires act as symbols of feminine power and rebellion. They dissent and deviate through their bodies. In my opinion, The Vegetarian and Raw are part of a fresh wave of feminism in art that highlights female sexuality and dynamism [4]. It is uncomfortable to watch. But necessary.

Notes:

[1] Translated from the Korean into English by Deborah Smith in 2015

[2] Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFlXVX2af_Y

[3] Interestingly, there is a Kannada folk tale called The Flowering Tree (translated by A.K. Ramanujan) where a young girl transforms into a beautiful tree when water is poured over her symbolising menstruation and fertility, the  female power of procreation and sexuality. Read here: journal.oraltradition.org/articles/download/12i?article=ramanujan

[4] Movie recommendations: The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, The Neon Demon, Lady Macbeth

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Review)

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(Mild spoilers)

Fates and Furies has been steeping in my mind for a little while now and I don’t know how to feel about it. It was a roller coaster of emotions! The blurb caught my attention right away: “the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets.” The story is about Lotto and Mathilde and their perfectly perfect marriage. It is split into two sections for each character that felt like two separate novels to me in terms of pacing and tone.

Lauren Groff knows how to write delicious sentences. The writing in Lotto’s half is memorably flamboyant. I loved it. Whenever I put the book down I was itching to get back to it. Case in point:“Hurricanes of entitlement, all swirl and noise and destruction, nothing at their centers.” 

In the start of the novel, we are introduced to Lotto and Mathilde honeymooning on a beach. They had met at a college party a few weeks ago. R e d f l a g. There is a seemingly innocuous third narrator who appears within square brackets throughout the novel, who (I believe) is marriage personified.

Lotto is six feet six, an heir to a fortune, an aspiring actor, later a playwright and Mathilde… well, we know nothing about her background until the last 150 pages. And it is seriously messed up: I’m talking Lady Macbeth having a love child with Amy Dunne. The terrifying questions this novel made me think about were a) how well do you really know someone close to you? b) are omissions or silences untruths?

Do I recommend Fates and Furies? I would, but with some caution. It is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

English Animals by Laura Kaye (Spoiler Review)

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⭐⭐⭐

SPOILERS AHEAD!

I wanted to love this. I mean, look at that cover! Before I talk about why English Animals didn’t work for me, here’s a little summary of the plot: Mirka, a 19-year old Slovakian girl, goes to a little English village to work for a couple named Sophie and Richard, presumably as an au pair. We soon learn that she’s to assist Richard in his taxidermy business and other minor jobs helping around the farm. Mirka forms a wonderful bond with Sophie and starts to secretly fall in love with her.

Now, going into spoiler territory, I’ll discuss what worked and what didn’t in the story. The writing… hmm. On one hand it was simplistic and a breeze to get through, but on the other hand, I felt like the author didn’t really have a ‘style,’ if that makes sense. I don’t want to sound too critical right away so here is a list of things I enjoyed about English Animals:

  • Quick, easy read. Took me two days to finish.
  • It’s relevant in a post-Brexit world. Mirka meets some rather conservative folks (they are British AF) who have an issue with her Slovakian heritage.
  • The lesbian relationship between Mirka and Sophie was well written I’d say. I haven’t read anything quite like it yet. I loved how well Mirka got along with Richard as well.
  • TAXIDERMY. The descriptions about taxidermy were creepy and fascinating to say the least. I found it quite funny when Mirka went into pristine detail about her “scenes” like rabbits at an office party or hamsters watching Netflix. She gave them personalities too!

Stuff I didn’t particularly enjoy about the novel:

  • We all know the relationship couldn’t last forever. But at least it could’ve been handled with more sensitivity. Richard finds out about their illicit affair but isn’t pissed off since Mirka is just a girl and not a threat. WTF?
  • THE AMOUNT OF ANIMAL KILLINGS. Okay. I know, taxidermy. But hear me out: I have never read animal shooting scenes in such cringe-inducing detail before.
  • Richard was always drinking and/or high. His taxidermy skills weren’t  the greatest, understandably. I still find it hard to believe that Mirka, in just a matter of months, is a bonafide genius. How?

This review is longer than I expected. I’d like to end by saying that I’d love to read the next book Laura Kaye writes because I can see a glimmer of talent and promise.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Review)


⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

(Mild spoilers ahead)
So, I lost my Neil Gaiman virginity! Do I get literary points for that?

This was a pleasant read. Now, I have to confess, I don’t usually read a lot of fantasy. Correction: I don’t read any fantasy. If it weren’t for my wonderful boyfriend’s suggestion I wouldn’t have picked this up and I’m glad I did.

What is American Gods about? It’s about a man named Shadow caught between two worlds, wittingly and unwittingly. It’s the clash between the Classical gods of a bygone era and the modern gods of the technological present. In a world that increasingly worships television, media and the internet the old gods are pushed into the margins of society: prostitution, roguery, and other odd jobs indulging in alcoholism and in general, leading shitty lives. The premise sucked me in and I couldn’t stop reading. The middle bits were the weakest, though, and kept it from being a solid five stars.

I loved Shadow’s characterisation. He is the calm during the storm. Shadow has this i-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude which becomes more nuanced when you see all of his layers. After his release from prison, he learns about the death of his wife. While he’s half mourning, half wondering what the fuck to do with his life, he meets Mr. Wednesday and is pulled into an adventure. There’s a bit of mythology in there, if that’s your thing, and it’s got many thought-provoking ideas about religion and/or belief-systems. Overall, American Gods is fun. I can’t wait to read more Gaiman. You should check it out it if you haven’t already 💁

A 2017 TBR List

1. American Gods by Neil Gaiman (currently reading)

2. A Streetcar Named Desire by  Tennessee Williams

3. Waiting For Godot by  Samuel Beckett

4. The Clay Girl by Heather Tucker

5. The Colour Purple by Alice Walker

6. Birdie by Tracy Lindberg

7. The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks

8. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

9. The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

10. The Museum of You by Carys Bray

11. English Animals by Laura Kaye

12. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

13. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler