The overwhelming word that comes to mind with Emma Donoghue’s Akin is ‘lukewarm,’ which as someone who tries to write down how I feel about the books I’ve read feels unsatisfying. Declare a position! But really, I could neither urge you to read or not read this one. It’s fine. If your book club picks it? Fine. If someone gifts it to you because it was on the bestseller table at the book store? Fine. If you pass over it at the used bookstore because there are seven copies and you’d rather take home [insert anything else] [except Girl on the Train] Fine.
I read it out of curiosity. I’d enjoyed Room and Akin was getting lots of hype and I’m nothing if not easily persuaded by best-of lists and recommendations. And Akin does have reasons for recommendations: (1) it’s a tight plot – taking place in a little over ten days, it follows octogenarian Noah as he must unexpectedly take over the care for his grand-nephew, Michael, and still journey to his birthplace of Nice to discover the truth about his mother (Noah does, I mean). The focused plot gives the novel a short story-esque feel, and a relative certainty early on for the reader on how things between Michael and Noah are going to turn out. (Cue every plot ever about a troubled teenager and an equally-troubled-but-pretending-to-have-it-all-sorted adult like every teacher-disturbed class movie ever). (2) Michael is a well done character, and the questions he asks and his reactions feel sensible and in line with what his character would say or do.
And then there’s the reasons you could pass this one by: (1) The aforementioned obviousness of the outcome of the Noah-Michael dynamic and the somewhat alarming way in which having children is roughly inserted towards the end of the novel as a prime Purpose for living – an insult to folks who don’t have kids and an unreasonable burden to place on children (2) The entire plot line of investigating the backstory of Noah’s mother reads as both impossibly far-fetched and like a poorly grafted limb onto the main body of the story. Every time the two of them set out to investigate another piece of her backstory I was surprised again to find that the novel seemed to think Noah’s mother and Nazi history was the point of the book or the thematic center. Not so, novel. Figure out what you’re about and be about that. (Curious minds want to know? Themes of judgement, justice and redemption).
Taken together I remain… lukewarm. Convince me otherwise? Or don’t. With this one I really don’t care.
Olga Tokarcquk’s Flights won the Booker and the National Book Award and so I figured it had to be good. And it is? No, it is. But it’s strange. In form, mostly. It’s written as a series of fragmented chapters – some no more than a paragraph, others stretching for 20 or 30 pages – all circling one another thematically, but not necessarily, or usually, by plot or character. It’s an exercise in immersion and floating, I’d say, to let go of the usual anchors of the novel and to suspend yourself in something like a mass collection of postcards that you’ve been tasked with assembling into a cogent archive. Continue reading
Man. Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth is so good. And I’m so annoyed by it because it’s effectively a collection of short stories. I’m not going to revise my opinion that short stories are impossible to love because I continue to be frustrated by getting attached to characters and then having to give them up 30 pages later, HOWEVER, this book is probably a novel? Yeah, it must be – just with really focused chapters on very different characters.
The book opens with a chapter following two young girls in a Russian sea-side town as they are kidnapped. In the following chapters, each a subsequent month in the year, the narrative microscopes on a character touching the life and investigation of the kidnapping. Together they offer a portrait of a town fractured by racial divisions between the indigenous population and those of more recent settlers, between those committed to Soviet ideals and those aiming for something different. Threads of corruption and patriarchal control weave through, but with nuanced explorations and substantial counter portraits.
If anything the ‘novel’ is an argument for community, and how we have come to imagine ourselves and live our lives in isolation from the necessary communities that surround us. (Ah – that’s an argument for the form of discrete chapters, too!) It’s incredibly strong writing and a pleasure to be immersed in.
My complaint – and I’m reluctant to call it even a complaint – is the ending. I don’t want to say too much lest I spoil, but I did find it dissatisfying. Maybe it was a lack of foreshadowing? Or probability? Or that I’m simply opposed to pat resolutions. Anyway, you read it and let me know what you think of the ending.
Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is formally fun in that it plays around with narration and point of view, with authorial perspective, with time in ways that are surprising, and so, sort-of engaging. The trouble is, the plot and character aren’t compelling enough to stand behind the formal play, and so this reader was left debating whether it was worth marching on through another teenage dramatic scene (literally – the protagonists are teenagers in a drama program at a fancy arts high school; and figuratively – they are also in love and thwarted by pride and ego) in order to get to the next quirky formal element.
I decided two thirds of the way in that, no, it was not. So I can’t tell you if it has a sudden turnaround where all the hours of hand wringing longing for the lost lover is satisfied. I can tell you that there are some strange sex scenes (if that’s your thing), and uncomfortable moments of power imbalance between adults and children, and a pretty good adult recollection of how painful feeling are when you’re a teenager (which, being an adult recalling this period, I must say I am poorly equipped to comment on whether this is an accurate picture of how proper teenagers feel). So I don’t know, if your thing is weird formal elements and a kind of engaging, but not really, romance/gender plot, then… have at it.