A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende

Ballantine, 2020

A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel: Allende, Isabel, Caistor, Nick ...

I am completely obsessed with Isabel Allende’s writing. I read The House of the Spirits two years ago, and it blew me away. I remember coming away from it thinking, this is what I should have been reading all along. It felt classic and timeless and was written by a woman for women. I didn’t write a review and I truly regret it. I promise to reread it and write a full review in the future, and if you’ve never read Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits is the book I would label as Must Read and would recommend first. That said, we’re here to discuss A Long Petal of the Sea, and it was spectacular. I was nervous to start this book because what if my second ever Allende novel disappointed me! It has been almost 40 years since The House of the Spirits was published. It did not take long, however, for me to get past this initial nervousness and to become fully absorbed in the story of Roser and Victor Dalmau.

In fact, it was on page 8, upon introduction to a semi-minor character, that I felt confident I would love A Long Petal of The Sea. Above all else, it is Allende’s female characters—frequently strong, always strikingly developed, and never simple—that draw me to her writing. This is true for her male characters as well, but that is something that isn’t lacking nearly as often. So, when I encountered Elizabeth Eidenbenz, a nurse that follows war in order to be where she is most needed, I was hooked: “Her character had been toughened by her struggles against military bureaucracy and men’s stupidity; she kept her compassion and kindness for the women and children in her care.”

A Long Petal of the Sea sees the reader through an entire lifetime, beginning in Spain at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1938 and ending in Chile in 1994. I have a soft spot for multi-generational fiction, or fiction that follows characters through their entire lifetimes, which better describes what A Long Petal of the Sea does. Roser and Victor remain the central characters start-to-finish. I always find novels of this sort particularly heart-wrenching; it’s hard to watch the characters you’ve grown attached to get older and eventually die, even when they’ve led long and full lives. I say heart-wrenching, though, because it elicits the good kind of sadness in which acceptance and hope can be found.

While the novel closely follows two fictional characters, it is historical fiction that is very grounded in historical fact—which may seem obvious of a historical fiction novel, but there’s varying degrees to which history can be central to historical fiction, and in A Long Petal of the Sea, the narrative is very much structured around historic moments and historic figures of Spain and Chile. I found myself thinking a lot about the cyclical nature of history while I read, and how frustrating it is that, around the world, people in power manage to make the same mistakes over and over again. And I think that in A Long Petal of the Sea, Allende is making a conscious effort to demonstrate this, and then provide the solution, which is to remember and know and interact with the past.

But also within this historical framework is a fascinating study of love and relationships. The characters of Victor and Roser are a unique starting-off point for contemplating what a loving and successful marriage can look like. Allende so insightfully shows different types of love between people, and demonstrates that having love for one person doesn’t detract from the love one has for another. A Long Petal of the Sea is an astoundingly well-rounded view of what a life encompasses from one’s sense-of-place, relationships, idea of family, and everything else beyond.

Links: isabel allende .com | goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste

W.W. Norton & Company, 2019

Amazon.com: The Shadow King: A Novel (9780393083569): Mengiste ...

For a lot of people, The Shadow King will be a deeply challenging read. To start, it is a story that was to me, and will be to many white/American readers and readers with euro-centric educations, an extremely foreign story. I combatted this by occasionally pausing to orient myself geographically and by reading wikipedia pages as necessary (obviously this is the lowest level of research, but even this small effort helped). Another area in which this novel is challenging is in the morality of its characters. For the most part, Mengiste does not write characters that are fully good or fully bad. And it isn’t just that each character sits somewhere in the middle of the morality spectrum, but that most of the main characters do both very good and very cruel things.

The novel is primarily about two women—Hirut, an orphan and a servant, and Aster, an upper-class woman and wife to the powerful and respected Kidane—and the roles they come to play in Ethiopa’s war with the invading Italian army. There is a much wider cast of characters, however; you will also read from the POV of Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, as well as of Ettore Navarra, a Jewish photographer for the Italian army. You will come to feel a full and extremely complicated range of emotions for many of the characters. Mengiste does not go easy on the likable characters and does not ignore the humanity of the detestable ones. These characterizations make much of the novel difficult to process, but also lend to its greatness.

And since I have not said it outright yet, The Shadow King is a stunningly fantastic novel. Mengiste’s writing is spectacular. I found myself stopping over and over again to jot down sentences that blew me away. Eventually I gave up on writing down quotes and started keeping track of entire pages, and even consecutive pages, that were so stunning that to try and limit my record of them to just one sentence would be both impossible and a crime.

Regarding the pacing of the novel, while there are a lot of big action moments, Mengiste spends far more time with the characters as they deal with the consequences and memories of an event than with the event itself. Similarly, the moments leading up to a battle seem to last far longer than the actual battle. The Shadow King is frequently about memory and different kinds of loss. Mengiste interacts with these themes through Hirut and the loss of her parents, Aster and the loss of her child, Selassie and the loss of his daughter and in many ways his country, and also symbolically through Ettore’s photography. Some of Mengiste’s most beautiful writing is in the way she describes photos that Ettore has taken and in musings on what photos show us and what they cannot. Because the plot follows the POV of characters on different sides of the conflict and with extremely different experiences, the reader sees how different truths can be found in each moment. What Ettore, for example, believes Hirut to be experiencing is almost never what she is experiencing at all:

“He wants to shout to Hirut and ask her how she does it, how she manages to stay in that jail, leaning against that wall as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be trapped.”

Ettore is frequently used to demonstrate the colonizers naïvety and cruelty toward the colonized, even when that cruelty is sort of accidental and nearly well-meaning. The fact that he’s a Jew whose parents are in Italy facing the ramifications of being Jewish in Europe during WWII makes this all the more complicated. The Shadow King, however, is ultimately Hirut’s story and we are called to sympathize with her, or maybe more importantly, accept that she owes no white man, or any man at all, her sympathy.

While much of the The Shadow King is painful and heartbreaking, the female protagonists demonstrate exceptional growth and resilience, and Mengiste offers up moments of pure female empowerment. One of my favorite scenes occurs when Hirut experiences what it is like to feel truly joyful after years of a life in service:

“This is where all the light in the world has settled, she thinks. This is where it has been while she was struggling in such darkness.”

If I have not made it obvious yet, I think The Shadow King is a Must Read novel. It is challenging, but a challenge we owe to ourselves—and to the women that came before us—to take on.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

Knaus, 2006

all for nothing

This book, to me, exemplifies what great writing is capable of. If someone were to ask me what purpose novels serve, I would hand them this one.

I’ll begin with a quote from the introduction:

“January 1945. The Red Army is advancing toward East Prussia. By the end of this icy winter, nearly 750,000 refugees will attempt to escape from the front, fleeing west along the Baltic coast via two narrow strips of land . . . Along the way, 300,000 of these people will perish.”

This is the first sentence of the introduction; the first thing the reader learns upon picking up All for Nothing. It sits like an interesting fact among the countless other interesting facts we know about WWII. Maybe it would cross your mind that 300,000 is nearly half of 750,000. A striking tragedy. You’ll skim through the rest of the introduction, and then the book begins.

The reader is introduced to the members of a small mis-matched family: the 12-year-old son, the beautiful and useless mother, the 60-year-old “auntie” who keeps the mansion clean and its household fed. More characters are introduced each chapter, and through them, more background is uncovered a little at a time. Kempowski distracts the reader from the war with the slow day-to-day happenings of the characters until we are just as vaguely aware of the looming danger as the characters we’re following. And yet, we never quite forget that something terrible is on the horizon. Sentences like, “Who’d have thought it could be so cosy at the Georgenhof? They’d think of that later on,” keep the reader on edge. What is later on?

When Later On comes, it is more sudden than anyone imagined. Anyone including the son, the mother, Auntie, and you: the reader. It’s also more heartbreaking than anyone imagined. And through every page I read I thought of the title: All for Nothing. It’s nearly impossible not to think that it’s true. Every day, every friendship, every struggle, was all for nothing. But instead of reaffirming that it all is, in fact, for nothing, the title comes off more like a challenge, daring us to believe that it isn’t. That even with nothing left, there was meaning in it all anyway.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Granta Books, 2013

luminaries

I came across The Luminaries entirely on accident. The first time I noticed it was on a bookshelf in a hostel in Copenhagen. I mentally noted it as something I thought I’d enjoy and then completely forgot about it. Over a year later, I recognized it at a bookstore in Philly and bought it immediately. I did not come to regret it.

“Moody was silent for a time, wondering how to begin. “I am trying to decide between the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” he said presently. “I am afraid my history is such that I can’t manage both at once.”

“Hi – no need for the truth at all,” said Paddy Ryan. “Who said anything about the truth? You’re a free man in this country, Walter Moody. You tell me any old rubbish you like, and if you string it out until we reach the junction at Kumara, then I shall count it as a very fine tale.”

Defining what it means for something to be true is a central theme in The Luminaries, and I enjoyed this moment at the very end of the novel because Paddy Ryan’s response to Walter Moody feels like Catton explaining herself. The novel contains so many stories from so many characters that you’re often left wondering who was telling the “whole” truth and who wasn’t.

As for Eleanor Catton’s writing, it’s magnificent. The detail and beauty of her descriptions of every little thing from each of the numerous characters appearances, personalities, and fashions to descriptions of the town, the landscape, the streets, and everyday objects is extraordinary. I’m not a reader who typically enjoys overly descriptive writing, but Catton fits it so seamlessly into the novel that I didn’t feel that it bogged down the story or slowed the narrative. The vast descriptions made the story more real. The structure of the novel allows for the plot to unfold at an appropriate pace, something I’ve mentioned before I am very picky about. It is a very long, very dense read. It starts off a little slow at the beginning because of the sheer number of characters that are introduced, but by the time I was a third of the way through, I couldn’t put it down.

A huge element of the novel that I’m sure I mostly missed out on was the influence of the zodiac. I know very little about the zodiac, and there is a lot of symbolism in the The Luminaries based around it. There is numeric symbolism in the number of characters, and each character is affiliated with a different sign of the zodiac. At the start of each chapter, Catton states what house the sun is in. I imagine that this element of the novel would be really fun and exciting for a reader that is interested in astrology and the zodiac, and they would definitely pick up on more instances of it than I did.

The cast is made up mostly of men, as the story takes place during the gold rush in New Zealand, but the few female characters are strong ones. Not all strong women, but strong characters in that they exist because they exist in the story and not ever just as a counterpoint or plot-moving device for the men. The mystery at the heart of The Luminaries kept me on my toes and I found myself truly invested in uncovering the pieces of the puzzle. It is a mystery novel folded up inside a historical fiction with just a hint of the supernatural and is a real joy to read.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Everfair, by Nisi Shawl

Tor 2016

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I came away from Everfair with a huge amount of respect for Nisi Shawl as a writer. Everfair is a novel that must have required extremely extensive research and planning, but even more than that, I was impressed with Shawl’s ability to balance viewpoints. No character’s point-of-view was ignored, overlooked, or presented any less seriously than any other, and there were a lot of different viewpoints. Everfair, set mostly in the Congo at the turn of the 20th century, does an incredible job of demonstrating why race relations and gender relations continue to be so hard to navigate, even by those who are trying their very best to be good, and by all accounts are good. It demonstrates how easy it is to, as a white person, male or female, forget the extent of your privilege and hurt or ignore or invalidate people of color. It reminded me how important it is to constantly question the way I treat others, to always be willing to accept I’m wrong, to always be willing to change, and that when it comes to the rights of people of color, the only voices we should trust are theirs.

The novel is split into two parts. The first part is the story of the colonists of Everfair fighting with the indigenous people of the Congo to end King Leopold III’s cruel reign over the Congo. The second part deals with what happens after King Leopold III is defeated. With their common enemy dealt with and WWI taking shape, how do the white colonists and the indigenous population live harmoniously in one country both feel they hold claim to? It’s this second part of Everfair that truly blew me away. Shawl deals with complicated questions of right and wrong and handles them gracefully and insightfully. The novel is also a powerfully feminist one. There are many important and central characters in Everfair, but the main protagonist is a  woman who throughout the novel greatly inspired me. She is realistic in her flaws but also realistic in her strengths and that believability is what made her character and her story so powerful to me. Everfair presents a fictional, alternative history, but one that offers a lot to learn from.

Links: Nisi Shawl .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Landfalls, by Naomi J. Williams

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015

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Landfalls, by Naomi J. Williams, is one of those strange novels that creep up on you without you realizing. I’ve experienced this before, but with Landfalls, it was particularly striking. I was more than three quarters of the way through before it suddenly hit me that I was reading something remarkable. It’s not that the first half of the book isn’t remarkable, it’s more that Landfalls’ effectiveness is extremely subtle and takes some time to recognize.

Each chapter of Landfalls is told from the point of view of a different character and each chapter could pass as an independent short story. This unique structure worked well for Landfalls because it highlights character development, which to me was the heart of the novel. Williams’ exploration of different characters’ world views, beliefs, and motivations (particularly those of the two captains), and how they evolve and are changed by the course of the voyage, is spectacular. What makes Landfalls so successful is Williams’ ability to portray characters living at the end of the 18th century authentically while still making room for modern thought. Writing historically accurate characters that are both sympathetic and relatable in a time period when racism was the norm and slavery widely accepted, is a real challenge. Often historical fiction can suffer from feeling either too influenced by modern thought or too stuck in the past. Williams gets the balance just right, and this allows for fascinating (and believable!) character development.

Because Landfalls is essentially a series of related short stories, you will likely have a favorite standout chapter, as I did. My personal favorite chapter was “Dispatches,” in which the Russian-speaking crew member of the voyage is dropped off on the eastern coast of Siberia and entrusted with a box of documents detailing the findings of the voyage so far should the crew not successfully return to France (which, of course, they did not). In “Dispatches,” Williams develops a deep and loyal relationship between men relying on each other for survival. This chapter highlights one of the my favorite themes in the novel, which is exploring how relationships functioned in a time before immediate long-distance communication was possible. Today it seems so strange – the inability to speak to someone who isn’t directly in front of you – but for almost all of history that is simply the way it was. At the end of “Dispatches,” two friends who had travelled across Siberia and survived against the odds part ways knowing they’ll never meet again. Landfalls is full of these powerful moments that explore humanity and human relationships.

Landfalls has a way of sneaking up on you, and reminding you of the things that become so easy to forget in the 21st century: the power of nature and its indifference toward the people living in it, how big the world is, and how small our little piece of it, how brief human life is, but how powerful an impact one individual can have on those around them. I’ll end this review with a short and simple but thought-provoking quote that I feel exemplifies Landfalls: 

“The Vanikorans [a small Polynesian island people] understood their island to be one of many that made up the world.” (256)

Links: Naomi J Williams .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Knopf, 2006

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Half of a Yellow Sun is so breathtaking that I feel uncomfortable reviewing it. I’d never heard of Biafra before picking up this novel, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’m in the minority for people my age. And yet, Biafra was, briefly in the late ’60s, a nation that saw human suffering on a scale comparable to the holocaust. Imagine never having heard of the holocaust. Well I’d never heard of Biafra. If that isn’t concrete proof of the extent to which eurocentrism influences what we know about the world, I don’t know what is.

This is a flawless novel. The characters, the plot, the writing style, the pacing, and the structure all work together perfectly to form this masterpiece. One of the great achievements of Half of a Yellow Sun is its ability to depict extreme suffering without alienating the reader. Think about the times when you’ve watched a documentary, or read a book, or seen a photo of starving children in Africa where the suffering seems so detached from your own life that it’s impossible to conceive of it as happening to real human beings. Adichie works around this in Half of a Yellow Sun. First, it’s enjoyable to read. It doesn’t feel masochistic in the way it sometimes does to read about human suffering. It’s relatable and understandable. It’s engaging and page-turning. All of the characters are living full and complex lives. There’s a huge depth of characters and places and storylines. And so, when you realize that these same characters—characters who have careers they worked hard for, have families, attend university, write poetry, have music collections, have access to modern day luxuries—are living as refugees, faced with starvation, and consumed with war, the shock and sadness you feel is real and intimate.

And one of the most striking elements of Half of a Yellow Sun is how subtly the characters suffering increases. It seems to happen both slowly and then all-at-once. You’ll think you’re seeing suffering and then realize the true suffering hasn’t even begun and then realize that over and over and over again. You’ll look back at a scene 100-pages back and be shocked with how much the characters situations have changed and with how much suffering you’ve become accustomed to as the reader. And then you’ll look back 100-pages later with the same shock all over again. For awhile you’ll convince yourself that there’s at least a sense of camaraderie that can be found in a people suffering together, and then you’ll come to realize that some human suffering is so extreme that there’s room for nothing else.

Half of a Yellow Sun had a real impact on me and reminded me how and why literature can be so powerful. It’s a book I’ll never forget and one I’m sure I’ll be reminded of and return to frequently. I would tell anyone and everyone that it’s an absolute Must Read. If you haven’t had a chance to read this novel yet, no matter how long your reading list is, put Half of a Yellow Sun at the very top.

Links: Chimamanda .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Solo, by Rana Dasgupta

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010

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This post will be the first in a series of posts reviewing books that take place, at least partially, in Bulgaria. I’ll be spending a few weeks in April visiting some friends in Bulgaria and thought reading a few books that take place in the country or are written by Bulgarian authors would be a great way to learn a few things about a place I know next to nothing about. The one I’ve started with, Solo by Rana Dasgupta, was not only an amazing introduction to the history and culture of Bulgaria, but was an outstanding book in general.

Solo operates under a premise similar to An Unnecessary Woman; the protagonist, an old man, alone and with nothing to show for his long life, looks back on the different phases of his life. But that is where the similarities end. Solo is broken up into 2 parts, which can almost be seen as two separate books, but are tied together in a way that make both parts more meaningful and complete than if either stood alone. Part 1 is the story of the protagonist’s life, from child to old man. He’s born near the beginning of the 20th century, and through his perspective, the reader sees how Bulgaria changes and evolves with new technologies, through world wars, and the rise and fall of communism. One of my favorite quotes from Solo regarding the history of Bulgaria is the following:

“When Bulgaria became independent, we didn’t even know. It took weeks for the news to reach us that they had made a country for the Bulgarians and our village was not in it. We packed everything up, took all the pigs, crossed into Bulgaria and made a new village.”

Small moments like this that remind you how strange and arbitrary borders are, especially in Eastern Europe.

Part 1 of Solo was exactly the type of story I was looking for to give me some insight into Bulgarian history and culture. When Part 2 began, it took me a few chapters to get my bearings because it begins an entirely different story with brand new characters, but once I got into it, I was completely absorbed. I read it in one sitting. It was fast-paced and exciting and took the story into the 21st century and beyond Bulgaria’s borders. Without Part 2, Part 1 would have felt a little heavy and dark and pessimistic, and without Part 1, Part 2 would have felt a little meandering and directionless, but together, they balanced out perfectly. On top of this, the writing was excellent on every level. I was super impressed by this novel and will be making a point to read other works of Dasgupta’s. I can’t recommend Solo enough, especially if you have any interest in a part of the world you more than likely know very little about.

Links: Rana Dasgupta .comGoodreads

Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Perez

Carolrhoda Lab, 2015

I do my best not to judge people based on abstract categories, and I do my best to understand and to see the best in everyone even when they have fundamentally different beliefs than my own. Everyone has a history and their own unique series of experiences that lead to the building of their world view.

But racists. Racists to even the most casual degree. Those who think we should build literal and figurative walls to prevent immigration. Those who believe there are substantially more black men in jail than white men, not because of a broken system, but because more black men tend to be criminals. Those who feel the shocking number of black people who’ve been murdered by police are justified. Those who see all Muslims as terrorists. And those who don’t really believe any of the above but still find themselves pausing to think that maybe there is some truth to it.

Those people, I can and will not understand. I understand fear of the unknown and fear of change and the desire for security, and I understand how these fears and desires can lend themselves to putting others down and keeping them out. I understand the power of history and the extent of peoples differences and that we all can’t be expected to get along all the time. But despite all of that, no matter what explanation you have, I will always respond with what is to me the most obvious thing in the world: Kindness!!! And compassion!!! Always! The knowledge that life is unfair and that not one of us is ever more deserving of happiness and security than the other.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez is a young adult historical fiction set in East Texas in 1937 featuring a cast of white characters, black characters, and one Mexican girl. Sometimes it takes a narrowing of focus to generate deep compassion. When faced with constant and widespread injustice, it can be impossible to not become hopeless and begin to see injustice as normal and inevitable.  But when it is narrowed down to one place, one tragedy, one family, one girl, you can’t help but burn with compassion.

There’s so much I have to say about Out of Darkness, but when I turned the last page, what I found myself thinking about was this: How would one of those previously mentioned people react if they read this book? What if I found someone who supported the building of a wall, and got them to read it? Would they tell me it was a lie? An exaggeration? That things were never that bad that unfair that unjustified. Would they say, “I would never have done anything like that, but….”? Would they say that things were just different back then and not at all related to how things are now? Would they truly continue to believe that they’re on the right side of history? Or, what if this book was the thing that finally made them understand how real and painful and tragic racism is and how current events are unfolding in the shadows of this cruel, not-at-all distant past? The most important thing I have to say about Out of Darkness is that no matter who you are, you have something to learn from it. Please, do yourself a favor and find out what.

Links: Ashley Perez .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James

Riverhead Books, 2014

I’ll preface by admitting that this book is very hard to read, and for multiple reasons. The first chapter is from the POV of the ghost of a politician who speaks in a flowery/poetic prose. The second chapter is from the POV of a boy born in a  Kingston ghetto who speaks in a Jamaican dialect. And from there, the story gets harder to follow before it gets easier. There’s an extremely steep learning curve for both learning who all of the characters are and for being able to read and understand the Jamaican dialect that the majority of the book is written in. It’s slow going and 700 pages long, but if you feel up to it, A Brief History of Seven Killings is devastating and incredible and sheds light on a world and a history horrifying beyond belief.

If forced to choose the focal point of the novel, it would be the fictional account of the very real assassination attempt on Bob Marley (referred to only as “the singer” in the novel) before his Smile Jamaica concert in 1976. However, do not think this novel is in any way about Bob Marley. It is not about one thing or one individual at all. It, through a cast of 50+ characters all with their own stories, chronicles the political/social unrest and growing drug trade in Jamaica in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Characters include gang members, dons, political leaders, CIA agents, drug dealers, a white journalist, and a middle-class Jamaican woman who wants nothing more than to immigrate to America. Marlon James’ ability to weave and balance so many stories within one narrative is incredible.

There is no moral to the story in Seven Killings. It is full of unimaginable cruelty, ugliness,  and poverty. The depth of the racism, sexism, and homophobia inside and outside of Jamaican society is shocking. Rape, murder, and police brutality are so commonplace that they begin to feel almost normal. While the ghettos see the worst of it, the cruelty and injustice is not contained only within them.The most memorable story-line in the novel for me (possibly because it is the only continuous story-line from the POV of a woman) is that of a middle-class Jamaican girl who faces injustice and judgement from everyone around her – her parents, her sister, her lovers, the police, and complete strangers.

There are a million beautiful, striking, poignant, shocking, or illuminating quotes throughout A Brief History of Seven Killings, but the following is the one I want to leave you with:

“[He] think it an even match, they with power, he with being right.”

Links: Rolling Stone on Marlon James | Goodreads | Buy it on bookshop .org