The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – review

I read lots of books that I’d be happy to call great. I read loads of books that I’d go on to recommend to friends and family. But every now and then one comes along that blows everything else out of the water and takes its place on the pedestal reserved for the absolute zenith of quality writing. You can undoubtedly see where I’m going with this; The Vanishing Half is one such book and I suspect it will be a long time before I read anything that comes close to achieving what this novel managed to do. In fact, I’ve been sitting indecisively at the laptop for some time now, wondering where an earth to start – and how to convey the sheer perfection of its emotional heft, sublime writing and arresting story.

Well, let’s start with a plot summary. The novel follows the lives of a pair of twins – Desiree and Stella – who are born in the small American town of Mallard in the 1940s. It’s an unusual place; its founder, Alphonse Decuir, was a freed slave (and the twins’ ancestor) whose dream was to build a town populated by a black community, one which “refused to be treated like Negroes”. Yet his ideal vision was one of “lightness”; we are told how:

"...he imagined his children's children's children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream.  A more perfect Negro.  Each generation lighter than the one before." 

And it’s skin colour that ultimately drives the twins in very different directions. Desiree lives out her life as the black woman she is, but once the adolescent Stella realises she can pass for white, her life is set on a trajectory that sees her leave her family, and hometown and her identity behind to forge a new persona – a persona that is white. The women’s choices have consequences that last a lifetime, ones that are borne not only by themselves but by their children, who become the ultimate victims of a life defined by lies, evasion and subterfuge.

What drew me into the novel straight away was the evocative depiction of small-town America as it was in the mid twentieth century. The descriptions of the mundane – the familiar and unchanging clientele at the local diner, the twins watching Audrey Hepburn movies at the local picture house, their mother in her rocking chair shelling beans – are made to seem at once inconsequential and loaded with meaning, nostalgic and yet utterly authentic. The writing carries with it a real sense of affection on the part of the author towards not only her characters but the world they inhabit, flawed and brutal though it may be.

This brutality, when it appears, is a real shock, a flash of horror incongruous against the seemingly gentle, benign setting; it marks the beginning of what will be a tragically common thread through the twins’ lives – racism and the violence that all too often comes with it. At times it takes the form of social discrimination, ironically by members of the community who consider themselves

"fine people, good people, who donated to charities and winced at newsreels of southern sheriffs swinging clubs at colored college students.  They thought [Martin Luther] King was an impressive speaker - they might even have cried at his funeral, that poor young family - but they still wouldn't have allowed the man to move into their neighbourhood."

At other times, when the white community’s sense of their inherent privilege is threatened, social exclusion turns to violent action – sometimes under the cover of darkness, at other times in metaphorical and literal daylight, invading the very places where people believe they can feel safe and secure. These parts of the book are hard to read, but crucial to the painful truth that Brit Bennett is exposing through her novel: racism is everywhere, from the thugs that do their fatal damage with a crowbar to the white-collar workers of affluent suburbia who inflict theirs through petitions, gossip, bullying and harassment.

Ultimately, I’d say this was a novel about belonging, and it asks the question of its characters again and again. Stella, by passing as white, gains access to a section of society who would never allow her to belong if they knew the truth of her ethnicity. Desiree, returning to Mallard as an adult, has to face up to the reality of belonging in a place she always promised herself she’d leave behind her. And when the twins’ children take over the baton of the story, the novel’s tack changes again, charting the struggle of finding your place in the world when there are so many unanswered questions about your family’s past hanging over your head. It was at this point, when Desiree’s daughter Jude leaves Mallard for the other side of the country, hoping to fulfil her potential at college, that the story went off in a direction I didn’t expect. It’s difficult to say much more at this point without giving away too many spoilers so I’ll leave you (hopefully) to read the book and discover for yourself where the story goes. What works so well, though, is that even as the novel branches out, the author keeps bringing all her threads back together at just the right point to keep the tapestry holding together and to remind us as readers how and why things got to where they are.

I could go on writing about The Vanishing Half for days and still not have covered everything I want to say; I can’t remember the last time there was so much to love crammed into one book. The evocation of time and place is spot on; the characters live, breathe and exist without ever striking an inauthentic note; every description, every line of dialogue, every tiny incident is treated with exquisite care and attention. It’s a story about race, yes, but it succeeds as such because it’s also a story about real people – their frustrated ambitions, failed relationships, lies, loves, hopes and regrets. It is without doubt THE best book I’ve read in 2020 and I can’t imagine anyone not falling in love with it. Is it a sad book? In many ways yes, and yet for all the heartbreak there are glimmers of hope that keep pushing resolutely through the grief and the pain, meaning that when we come to the end, despite everything we’ve gone through in the company of these characters, we don’t feel any sense of despair.

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’re lucky enough to have experienced this book for yourself! Thanks for reading.

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki – review

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If you’ve visited This Girl’s Book Room recently, you’ll definitely recognise this book as it’s been on my CR list for quite a while!  Well, I’m pleased to announced I’ve finally finished it, meaning I can stop tantalising you all with comments about how great it is and get stuck into a full review.

Or can I?!  I’ve had this sense of hesitation a few times now after finishing a book: more often than not I’m keen to dive straight into writing about something as soon as I’ve closed the last page, but occasionally I have a sense of needing to gather my thoughts and emotions for a while before committing anything to paper.  This was one of those times.  The ending left me with an unexpectedly blank feeling; not because the book was lacking in emotional depth – quite the opposite – but because there was just so much left to process.  Where were these characters’ journeys going to take them next?  How would some of them recover, if ever, from the traumatic events that had touched their lives?  What would the relationships, some strained and others strengthened throughout the course of the novel, look like as the subsequent years went by?  In The Makioka Sisters we are allowed to be part of the family for a limited period of time before being snatched cruelly away again, and left to imagine how the saga could continue.

It’s late 1930s Osaka where we meet the Makiokas.  The two eldest of the four sisters – Tsuruko and Sachiko – are settled with husbands and children, and the big issue facing the family is how to bring about a marriage for the third oldest sister, Yukiko.  Shy, reserved and serious, Yukiko doesn’t have the kind of sparkling personality that tends to win over a man on first meeting, and her sisters are smarting from previous failed attempts at making a match for her.  Japanese convention being what it is, moreover, the youngest sister, Taeko, cannot marry until her older sister has found a husband.  Taeko is everything her sisters are not – forward, unabashedly independent and already with a scandalous liaison behind her; what is more, the complications in her love life show no sign of going away, leaving the family in a state of anxiety lest any impropriety brings shame upon the Makioka name.

Yukiko’s marriage quest provides the backbone of the book.  The story covers a number of years (never precisely specified, but it starts in the run up to Japan’s entry into the Second World War and ends while the war is still going on), and other momentous events – a flood, a family illness, an affair – provide regular pulses of action and interest that keep things moving forward, but it’s the painful lack of a prospective husband for Yukiko that haunts both the family and the novel.  One of the things I enjoyed most was that it opened a window onto long-forgotten social conventions that seem completely alien to us now; at this time, for a relatively high-status family like the Makiokas, marriages are decided in large part by the rest of a woman’s family, in particular the male members – even those who are only part of the family through marriage.  Tatsuo and Teinosuke, as husbands of the two oldest sisters, are expected to have the final say on whether a suitor is appropriate to marry Yukiko. Throughout the novel, various well-meaning friends and acquaintances suggest potential husbands, and each time both parties “investigate” the other, sending mutual contacts to dig into the opposite number’s financial and romantic history, social standing and character traits.  It’s utterly fascinating to read, not least because something that on the surface seems underhand is simply accepted by everyone concerned as part of the marriage-brokering process, common practice as it was at this point in Japan’s history.

The synopsis so far may sound unappealing to anyone who can imagine themselves becoming angry and frustrated by the depiction of such a patriarchal society; I would have considered myself firmly in your camp too, but I’d urge you to read it nonetheless.  Yes, there are many instances when the extent to which men play an unfairly dominant role in the lives of their female relatives is teeth-clenching in its outdatedness; however, on closer reading the will and power wielded by the Makioka sisters is greater than it first appears.  Taeko, despite the consternation of her relatives, finds ways to lead the life she wants rather than the one others would prefer she had.  Yukiko has a calm and quiet determination to get her own way in the numerous marriage negotiations: when she says no, she means it, and her brother-in-laws’ desire to see her with a husband never crosses the line into trying to force her into a union with someone she is adamant she does not want to marry.  In fact, there are a few mentions in the novel of an incident prior to the story’s timeframe when she was so forthright in confronting Tatsuo, the head of the Makioka family, that he has been very wary of going against her wishes since.  As the novel progresses it becomes more and more clear that times are changing; Western culture is starting to exert its influence over some of the sisters and society at large, and the Makiokas, although still an important family, don’t have anywhere near the standing they had in previous generations.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Japan itself, which provides a vivid backdrop to the story.  The action moves between the tranquil gardens of suburbia, cherry blossom festivals and imposing mountains, and the bustle of a rapidly modernising Tokyo, which grates harshly against Sachiko in particular, who loves her more traditional hometown.  It’s been a while since a novel sucked me into its world so completely, and I’m going to miss it now I’ve had to take my leave.

Thank you for reading as always!  Do let me know if you’ve read it and what you thought.

Related posts: Japanese Journeys                                                                                                                                  A Day Out with Hokusai

 

 

The Planets by Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox – review

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Being a bookseller certainly has its perks.  A few years ago I was lucky enough to go and help run the bookstall for one of Brian Cox’s lectures on his national tour; there were unfortunately a couple of complete fangirling moments when it’s fair to say I didn’t cover myself in glory (I could feel my IQ slipping away before my eyes in the presence of the Great Man), but his talk was absolutely mesmerising, and his ability to captivate an audience incredible.  This latest book ties in with the TV series on the planets that he presented not long ago.  Although he’s listed prominently on the cover (understandably), in fact he only wrote the introduction and one of the chapters, but I found it didn’t matter at all as the entire book is very engaging in style and completely readable for the space science layman such as myself.

Out of all Brian Cox’s TV series, I actually found The Planets my least favourite, I think because mind-blowing though the special effects were, I found they distracted me from the scientific content, and it seemed as though most of the emphasis was on the visual impact rather than how thoroughly the science was explained.  The book totally redresses that balance, giving as it does a detailed, but completely comprehensible, explanation to go alongside the images that are still, it has to be said, very vivid in my mind.  As someone with no science background beyond a very general interest, it’s always a bit disappointing to pick up a book on a subject you’re keen to find out more about, only to find it way beyond your capability or stuffed full of equations only comprehensible to someone with an advanced degree.  Happily, this book is extremely informative but also accessible to just about everybody, both describing the wondrous and utterly alien worlds that make up our solar system, and also doing a fantastic job of drilling down into why and how they have evolved over billions of years to be so different to our home planet.  As well as the physics and chemistry, it also covers many of the exploratory missions that have been launched over the decades to further our understanding of these mysterious worlds; the human ingenuity these represent is almost as fascinating as the planets themselves.

You can tell that both Cohen and Cox are supremely passionate about their area of interest, and their desire to share this enthusiasm really brings the science to life.  For anyone who has even a passing interest in space science, or found the TV series left them wanting to know more, then this great introduction to the subject comes highly recommended.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield review

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Although my return to blogging was meant to be a guided tour of the books I was reading during these weeks of lockdown, I have to confess that for my first review I’ve cheated a bit and gone back to a book I read a few months ago.  Since I waved goodbye to Girl, Reading and launched This Girl’s Book Room, I’ve come across some amazing books that have made their way onto my list of favourites, so it seemed to make sense to share them here by way of recommendation for anyone finding themselves at a loss as to what to read next!

“Once Upon a River” is the first of these.  I loved “The Thirteenth Tale” by the same author, and one look at the cover made me pretty confident I was going to fall in love with this one too.  If you enjoyed “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry or “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue, then this is in a similar vein in the sense that the main plot device is a mysterious event that may or may not be supernatural, and that it features a cast of characters whose opinion is divided as to whether the weird goings on can be explained by science, faith or superstition.  The story starts with the shocking appearance in a rural inn of a stranger carrying what appears to be the corpse of a girl found drowned in the nearby river.  None of the onlookers can be left in any doubt that the child is dead; however, after some hours have passed, the body miraculously stirs…

From that point onwards, the mystery piles on thick and fast.  The girl becomes the focus of a missing child case that sees different parties vying for her custody and claiming her as their own, and in the midst of it all, local nurse Rita is trying to uncover the truth of the strange evening that apparently saw a body rise from the dead.  Many of the locals are convinced that it’s all the doing of Quietly, the otherworldly ferryman, who appears to those in trouble on the river and chooses either to return them to the safety of dry land or carry them off to the next world.  Not everyone is convinced, Rita, included, but a more logical explanation seems just as elusive.

In this nineteenth century setting, society is at a something of a crossroads, with ancient superstitions still keeping a firm foothold in people’s minds even as the new sciences of biology and psychology are becoming ever more prevalent.  The result is a melting pot of ideas and beliefs old and new that rub up against each other and battle it out for supremacy, and it’s this mix of the magical and the rational that Diane Setterfield evokes so beautifully.  As readers we’re also asked to contemplate what it is that makes something true or untrue, and to reflect on the nature of storytelling itself.  As the events of the mysterious resurrection spread through the community and get repeated over time they take on a life of their own, and each newly moulded tale becomes the established truth every time it’s told.  Is any listener, then, ever in a position to judge with any certainty where reality lies?  For all the characters in this novel, their version of the truth is also dependent on their own pre-established beliefs:  Rita in science, Joe the innkeeper in the powerful myths of the river and its ghostly guardian.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel; Rita is a likeable and engaging heroine, and the balance of a realistic setting with hints of the supernatural was perfect for me.  If you’ve visited my blog before, you’ll know I love historical fiction anyway, but the folklore element was what really made this novel stand out for me.  If you’ve read it let me know what you thought!

“His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnet – review

On a summer’s day in 1869, Lachlan Mackenzie is found brutally murdered at his home in the tiny Highland community of Culduie.  The perpetrator, 17 year old Roderick Macrae, confesses to the crime within minutes, but although there is never any question or who, there is still the all-important question of why.  This clever novel takes the form of a compilation of documents – medical reports, journalists’ articles and so on – that are brought together with the aim of finding an answer.  And the answer matters, because if he is found to be insane, Roderick will be spared the death penalty; if it can be proved that he was in full possession of his mental faculties he will hang.

Right from the start, the author gives us a very clear indication that this will not be a straightforward case with a selection of witness statements that variously describe Roddy as a wicked boy, an amenable and polite young man and a strange loner.  Then comes what we would imagine to be the most valuable testimony: that of the murderer himself.  Roddy’s story, as he tells it, is quite a sorrowful one.  Following the death of his mother his already morose father becomes even more emotionally inaccessible, alternating between brooding gloom and flashes of violent rage, ruling over his children in their tiny crofter’s cottage with an iron fist.  Life in the hamlet of Culduie is pretty insular and the prospect of pursuing a life elsewhere is practically non-existent, with the crofters’ lifestyle being passed down through the generations.  The local schoolmaster spots a sharp intellect in Roddy that is missing from his provincial classmates, but the boy is unable to imagine any future other than taking on his father’s trade.   Life goes on and the monotonous days blend into one another without major incident, until something happens that turns life in Culduie upside down for everyone: Lachlan Mackenzie becomes constable of the community.  The constable is responsible for enforcing order and maintaining standards on behalf of the laird on whose land the crofters live and work, and it’s a system that has always been regarded by the inhabitants as reasonable and fair.  Lachlan, however, is power-hungry; a combination of intimidating physical strength and a calculating mind, and the Macrae family – for various reasons that have accumulated during a lifetime of living side by side in Culduie – become the target of a vicious campaign of oppression.  When Roddy develops an attraction to Lachlan’s daughter it proves to be the final step on a steady climb towards the inevitable: the confrontation between the two men that results in the constable’s death.

There are brief but significant flashes of disquieting behaviour during Roddy’s narrative that set momentary alarm bells ringing in our minds – his eerie detachment during the mercy killing of an injured sheep, the unsettling coolness with which he listens to his sister’s suicidal thoughts – but by and large, the overwhelming feeling I was left with as this section of the book drew to a close was one of pity.  Lachlan’s bullying campaign was, I felt, an incredibly astute piece of writing in that it succeeded in stirring up genuine physical feelings of anger on my part towards the character such as I haven’t felt for a very long time.  The author pinned down with uncanny accuracy the way in which so many bullies go about their business; when Roddy and his father try to describe to a superior official the things that have been said and done to them, out of context they sound feeble and no cause for complaint at all.  Lachlan is smart enough to operate in a way that ensures his victims know precisely what is being done to them while those looking on would never see the malicious intent behind his actions.  To be brutally honest, I couldn’t wait for Roddy to kill his tormentor – until the murder itself, which I won’t spoil but which didn’t unfold in quite the way I’d imagined.  At the moment of the killing, an unanticipated shockwave of doubt explodes out of the book, and in the space of a couple of pages you’re suddenly left wondering whether your judgement has been skewed all along.

Fittingly, Roddy’s account ends as he is still standing over the body of his nemesis, and the (deliberately) jarring insertion of a glossary of Scottish dialect creates a much-needed pause as we come down from the fraught heights of intense emotion back to the detached practicality of deciphering the linguistic quirks of his testimony.  This marks the start of the second part of the novel, and a brisk change in tone as we move from a first person narrative to series of professional documents pertaining to the case.  We will hear from the doctors who examined the bodies of the murder victims, the surgeon who was called in to psychoanalyse Roddy following his arrest and finally the witnesses who took part in the trial, their words recorded in various newspapers at the time.  Not everyone I’ve spoken to has appreciated the changes in style throughout the book, with some finding the format off-putting, but I actually felt a sense of relief as I embarked on the latter half, which is more impersonal and less emotive, after the more visceral nature of Roddy’s story.

If I thought that these new points of view were going to lead to certainty and closure, however, I was wrong.  If there’s a message to be taken away from this book it’s that it is almost impossible to claim there is any such thing as absolute truth where the actions of human beings are concerned.  There are revelations in the second section that come as a shock, and cause you to start re-evaluating everything you thought you knew from Roddy’s confessional account – but is that the same as saying he was lying?  Could those making statements about him be lying too, or at least fabricating a version of events that fits in with their preconceived ideas about the people involved?  It’s quite a philosophical novel in many ways; once the author starts playing with our sense of right and wrong, truth and untruth, the questions spiral.  The conclusion I came to is that humans are not for the most part calculating liars: we genuinely believe that our interpretation of events is accurate.  We create our own life story in our head, and that’s the one to which we hold fast.  And that being the case, is it ever possible for anyone else to tell us unequivocally that we are wrong?  If a madman believes that his motives, even for the most vicious crimes, were pure, is that not true in the sense that it’s his truth?  Given all this, the idea of one man presiding as judge over another becomes ever more uncomfortable.

I think it’s fair to say I was disturbed, gripped and given an intellectual workout by this novel in equal measure.  Every now and then a book comes along that messes with your head a bit, and “His Bloody Project” is definitely one of those.  And just when you think you may have made up your mind about what has occurred, the last few lines will plant a seed of doubt in your head once more.  Hats off to the author – this novel is very special indeed, and a striking achievement.

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“The Haunted Hotel” by Wilkie Collins – review

I was so excited when I came across this book; “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone” are two of my favourite novels and it seemed like the perfect read for a gloomy winter afternoon.  I am definitely not a fan of horror novels or supernatural stories and I’m quite happy to admit that I scare very easily, but this being the well-loved Wilkie Collins I was reassured there’d be nothing here I couldn’t handle.

I was right about that.  If you’re after a terrifying ghost story that will keep you awake at night then this isn’t it.  It’s really more of a mystery whose supernatural overtones don’t feature until quite late on.  We are, however, treated to a pretty sinister lead character: the enigmatic and occasionally vicious Countess Narona.  With her black eyes and “corpse-like pallor” this repulsive yet magnetic woman has caused a stir across Victorian society by her association with undesirable individuals and most recently her seduction of the aristocrat Lord Montbarry.  In spite of her widespread notoriety, when we first meet her it is in the humble surroundings of a doctor’s surgery, where she arrives in a curious state of desperation mixed with defiance, demanding to know whether the doctor would diagnose her as being purely evil, or insane.  He doesn’t give her a satisfactory answer – and so the mystery begins.  What exactly has happened to drive the Countess to this neurotic state?

The tale that unfolds is one of unexplained disappearances, mysterious letters and untimely deaths, all centred on a Venetian palace that later becomes the hotel of the title.  There’s even an obsessive scientist conducting experiments deep in the palace vaults: how much more of the Gothic could you want?  And through it all, the Countess constantly disappears then reappears, slipping in and out of the action but always with the suggestion of impending horror whenever she shows herself.  Even when the spooky goings on really get underway, I still found Countess Narona to be the novel’s most frightening creation.  What makes her so unnerving is her ability to bend others to her will, even when they realise it goes against their better judgement.  As a reader you’re inwardly screaming for everyone to get out of her path as quickly as possible, and yet all who meet her are drawn in like moths to a flame.  Is this woman evil, or is she simply deranged?  The author never tells us for sure.  By the end of the book, various different characters have arrived at their own interpretations of the unpleasant events that have taken place and we too get to decide on which side of the fence we sit.

I very much enjoyed this book; it’s an undemanding piece of Gothic fun with a dark enough edge to keep it just the right side of melodramatic.  Some of the plotting is a bit contrived, but that’s all in the name of getting everyone in the right place for the denouement.  Creepy but by no means terrifying, this is my ideal level of horror!