BOOK REVIEW: PARIS SYNDROME by LUCY SWEENEY BYRNE

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Image result for Paris Syndrome by Lucy Sweeney ByrneParis Syndrome is a collection of interconnected short stories that follows its principal character, Lucy, as she finds herself flitting from one place to the next, forced to confront who she is inside and outside different millieux, alternately surprised by what she is capable of doing and disillusioned by a sense of inherent sameness in her self across all these places.

In all the stories in Paris Syndrome there is a through line of psychological and emotional fluctuation. And this is exactly what makes this collection so lend itself to the “millennial” label. Lucy is a character burdened by an overwhelming emotional sensitivity and yet, at the same time, often witness to her own feelings of passivity and emptiness. At times she strains to manufacture emotion to perform in what she believes is the context that requires it. At others she is almost incapacitated by a hyperawareness of everything within and without her: an all-too-sudden sense of the uncontrollability of her experience in an already precarious, uncontrollable world.

“And this realization of yet again feeling absolutely nothing when there ought to have been something caused a slicing of sharp, reddish-pink heat to rise in my chest. I flexed my fingers and worked hard on remaining calm. Not to shout out, to howl, to start banging my chest or pulling out my hair or scratching my nails deep into the soft, well-moisturized skin of my very kind, very good friend or – even better – to lie down right there on the white dusty path; to curl up and stop altogether.

Luckily, in a matter of seconds . . . this feeling too passed. And I was left with my familiar, easy nothing.”

This “nothing” emotional state is perhaps most emblematic of Sweeney Byrne’s whole collection. There are, in these stories, nothings with different emotional inflections: the “easy nothing” in “Montparnasse” that so disturbs Lucy; the desperate, self-imposed nothing of “Zeno’s Paradox,” one borne out of an instinct to suppress and protect the self from pain; and the lost nothing in “La Rêve” that is acted upon because…why not? All of this is to say, at different points throughout her travels, Lucy is constantly in the throes of the push and pull of her own self, indulging in her emotions so extremely so as to obscure them, or else refusing to engage in them at all.

“. . . she was deafened, overwhelmed by the din of all that unspoken silence . . . all the endless stories, forgotten, wordless stories . . All the lives lost and ruined right here, lives like hers, measly and nothing and everything too”

When we travel, we expect the places we go to to give us something: an answer, a feeling, an insight. What Lucy wants from the cities she travels to is unclear, and that is exactly what defines her experiences in Paris Syndrome. She wants something from these cities, but she doesn’t know what it is. And so she keeps moving, travelling, hoping that, at some point, it will all click for her. There is no feeling more millennial than that. (I would know.)

Thematic discussion aside, the best story in this collection is by far “Zeno’s Paradox.” Heartbreaking and beautifully written, with a perfect title to boot. My other favourites included “And We Continue to Live” and “Montparnasse.”

There were some aspects here that I didn’t love, namely the language used to describe fatness (I felt that a lot of it bordered on, or was, fatphobic), and the way that some of these cities and their natives were described, especially Mexico. I’m not from any of the cities mentioned in this book, so I can’t exactly tell to what extent these descriptions were appropriate, but some of them definitely didn’t feel right to me.

Paris Syndrome is, I think, a collection that is most invested in exploring how a kind of psychological restlessness manifests itself in a geographical restlessness. There aren’t exactly answers to be found in these stories, but there is always an effort to question, unsettle, negotiate.

(Thank you so much to Banshee Lit for sending me a review copy of this in exchange for an honest review!)

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BOOK REVIEW: TENDER by BELINDA McKEON

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Image result for tender belinda mckeon coverMckeon’s Tender is a novel that progresses much like a bruise would: the writing, when it initially hits the page, is sharp and vibrant in its impact, filled with all the excitement of a new, all-engrossing friendship. But as the plot unfolds, the bruise of that initial impact becomes more and more apparent, blooming into increasingly worrying shades of purple and blue, the colours of something gone wrong, something that is so clearly not right happening.

“She laughed. There was a pleasure in hearing him use her name; it was so direct. It was somehow a higher level of attention than she usually got from people; almost cheekily personal. Intimate, that was what it was. And yet pulled clear of intimacy, at the last second, by the reins of irony which seemed to control everything he said, by his constant closeness to mockery. She found herself wanting more of it, and she found, too, that it held a chellenge: to edge him away from that mockery towards something warmer. To make him see that he was wrong in whatever decision he had made about her, about her silliness, about her childishness, about whatever it was he had, by now, set down for her in his mind.”

All of this is to say, McKeon is so good at depicting the gradual collapse of her protagonist, Catherine; the narrowing, over time, of Catherine’s psychological vision. The writing is honest and fluid, almost overflowing in its attempts to catch up with Catherine’s frantic thoughts. Form and content work in parallel, here, the writing becoming more fragmented and divided just as Catherine’s ever-increasing focus on her singular subject becomes more desperate.

(Trying to be vague here so as not to spoil the intrigue. 👀)

More than anything, though, what Tender does that I haven’t seen from a lot of novels is not just depict, but substantially delve into deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions: jealousy, self-pity, possessiveness, clinginess, self-loathing. All of it done, too, in the context of a friendship and a toxic, unrequited love. But McKeon builds her novel’s central dynamic, the fraught friendship between Catherine and James, with such nuance and layers that come what may, I was ready to follow these characters into whatever circumstances they happened to find themselves in. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

4.5-


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BOOK REVIEW: TOPICS OF CONVERSATION by MIRANDA POPKEY

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Image result for topics of conversation by miranda popkeyThank you to Random House for providing me with an eARC of this via Edelweiss! This novel comes out on January 7.

Topics of Conversation is another in a string of books I’ve come across lately that center on and explore what I’m going to call the problematic woman. The problematic woman is not problematic because she is Bad—whatever that means—but because she is “full of problems or difficulties.” By “problematic,” here, I mean women who feel too much or too little, are too passive or too foolhardy, judge their decisions too harshly or not enough. Women who, in one way or another, struggle to calibrate their actions, thoughts, and emotions to their environments. (This struggle isn’t necessarily pathological, though it sometimes is.)

Topics of Conversation follows in the wake of novels like Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation or Julia Armfeld’s Salt Slow novels that find women experiencing a whole spectrum of unappealing/undesirable/uncomfortable emotional states. I think the synopsis of Popkey’s novel is exactly right; it is indeed a novel about “desire, disgust, motherhood, loneliness, art, pain, feminism, anger, envy, guilt.” It doesn’t make you root for its protagonist, exactly, but it does make you understand her.

And honestly, I’m glad that I’m seeing more and more novels like Popkey’s and Moshfegh’s and Armfeld’s. I love seeing women being hypocritical and selfish and callous. I love seeing authors write women who have the capacity to experience all these emotions, even the so-called “negative” ones.

Bring on the problematic women.

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