BOOK REVIEW: THE WESTERN WIND by SAMANTHA HARVEY

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The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

I feel like I liked this book more than a 3-star rating would have you believe, but I also didn’t like it enough to give it more than a 3 stars?

First thing’s first: Samantha Harvey can write. I read the The Shapeless Unease by her earlier this year and was so impressed by her sharp, affecting writing. That same writing is definitely present in The Western Wind, though more pared down so as to better service its story.

I’m not sure what to say about this novel, to be honest. The story starts out as an ostensibly simple one: a man has died, and a community must reckon with that death. But the narrative structure with which Harvey chooses to tell her story turns it into something much more complex. In particular, The Western Wind is preoccupied with time, with its linearity and circularity, the ways in which it is at once perishable yet continually recurring.

The atmosphere Harvey creates is especially memorable. The more you read this novel, the more you feel as though everything in this community hangs on a precipice, as if something monumental is about to happen. And yet the monumental has already happened: a man has died. But Harvey doesn’t let up the tension. The fact that the narrative is told in reverse chronological order–so that in the beginning of the novel you already know how it’s going to end–and yet still manages to surprise you with revelations the further on you read is truly impressive.

Yet as much as I praise this novel, like I said, I can’t give it more than a 3 stars. It was a little too slow for me, and I just wanted a bit more substance to its characters. Nevertheless, this is a finely honed novel and I can’t wait to see what Samantha Harvey writes next.

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BOOK REVIEW: TENDER by SOFIA SAMATAR

How to describe the stories of Sofia Samatar’s Tender? They’re all beautifully written, for one. Samatar’s language is economical and powerful, powerful because it is economical. In every one of these stories there is a line that makes you stop because it is so moving, so devastating, so poignant, so true-to-life. The short story lives and dies by its writer’s ability to deliver substance within a bounded span of pages, and it is exactly for this reason that Samatar’s stories hit their mark so precisely. Her language is just as a short story should be: sleek, compact, and clearsighted.

“I once heard a beautiful story. I suppose that’s why I write: because once somebody told me something beautiful.”

As for what the stories themselves are about, there is so much ground covered in terms of both depth and breadth. The collection is split into two parts, “Tender Bodies” and “Tender Landscapes,” which is just so apt (and beautifully put). Tenderness is a potent concept undergirding all these stories, and in every story it bears different resonances, from the hopeful to the melancholy, from the playful to the grieving. And as for scope, these narratives are as wide-ranging as their styles. “Walkdog” is a story delivered as a footnote-laden essay written by a high schooler, spelling mistakes and all; “Olimpia’s Ghost” is an epistolary story whose protagonist receives no response to her letters; “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle” is a story-within-a-story-within-a-story (-within-a-story?). The more I list these stories off the more I realize that really, every one of them is so distinctly its own entity, suffused with a particular tone or flavour or atmosphere.

What are these stories about, then? So much, they are about so much: diasporic identities, imperialism, language, storytelling, myths, grief, alienation, technology, dystopic futures–and all explored with such nuance and insight. There was not a single story that I disliked, but my favourites were “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” (a gorgeous story to start off the collection), “Walkdog” (it made me cry), “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle” (wry and playful yet profound at the same time), “Honey Bear” (one word: haunting), and “How to Get Back to the Forest” (an ode to the sheer force and vitality that female friendships can have).

One last thing: what distinguishes this collection from many other that I’ve read is, I think, that Tender‘s short stories don’t just benefit from, but indeed ask for multiple readings. This is not to say that they’re confusing or convoluted, but rather that after having read them for the first time, you get a sense that there’s so much material to be mined beneath the surface of their words, if only you look again and look carefully.

If you like short stories, if you don’t like short stories: read Tender. It’s a luminous collection.

(Thanks so much to Small Beer Press for sending me a copy of Tender in exchange for an honest review!)


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BOOK REVIEW: WHERE THE WILD LADIES ARE by AOKO MATSUDA (trans by POLLY BARTON)

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51168664An absolute delight of a short story collection.

The stories of Where the Wild Ladies Are are filled with all sorts of fantastical things: ghosts, frog guardians, and hauntings aplenty. And yet no matter how seemingly discordant these things may be, they come together beautifully in Matsuda’s hands.

Each of these stories comprises a small part of a bigger picture, and the more you read the collection, the more insight you gain into the threads connecting one to the other, the ways in which themes or characters or myths reverberate throughout their narratives.

And what narratives they are. Matsuda’s stories are playful yet tender, invested in moments of personal importance to their characters. The plots of these stories may be far-flung–what with all the ghosts and various other fantastical goings-on–but Matsuda always maintains her focus on a compassionate and sympathetic treatment of her characters. Oh, and the writing is just delightful: like a bubble, almost as if it conjures something out of nothing. It’s simple but affecting, clean and precise.

Where the Wild Ladies Are is a breath of fresh air. I cannot recommend this one highly enough, especially if you love Japanese fiction and/or short story collections.

(Thanks so much to Soft Skull Press for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!)

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