Luckenbooth was not a perfect book, but it was a very humane one–and for that I loved it.
To start, I think Luckenbooth is a novel that is, at its heart, about how fucked up the world can be. Not in a trite or hackneyed way, but in a way that simply calls attention to that reality. The story is split into three parts, each with three point-of-view characters, all of which are inevitably tied in one way or another to the titular, larger-than-life tenement that is No. 10 Luckenbooth. Beyond that one common thread, though, the characters that Fagan gives us here are distinct and varied: we have male and female characters, old and young characters, queer characters; there are demon girls and mediums and gangsters and poets. And despite their diverse backgrounds and experiences, what Fagan is really interested in is exploring the particular ways in which they are marginalized: by their class, or gender, or sexuality, or mental illness. To put it simply, then, Luckenbooth is a novel about power and how it manifests in the lives of those who fall outside it.
“There is the Edinburgh that is presented to tourists. Then the other one, which is considered to be the real Edinburgh, to the people who live here. There are the fancy hotels and shops and motorcars and trams and places of work, then are the slums, starvation, disease, addiction, prostitution, crime, little or no infrastructure, no plumbing, no clean water, no rights . . . if the council want to go and take their homes down, they do. This is all on streets just ten minutes’ walk from the fancy city center. When will these things change? Everywhere? When? All fur coat and nae knickers. That’s a phrase the postman told me. It embodies this city.“
This is not to say, though, that Luckenbooth is a completely bleak or nihilistic novel, because it’s decidedly not. I said I loved this book because it’s humane, and what I mean by that is that it refuses to let its characters’ marginalization overtake their humanity. Each and every point-of-view character in this novel is drawn so tenderly, and despite getting a relatively limited amount of time with them, you really get a feel for who these characters are–their thoughts, their feelings, their relationships, their heartbreaks. For me, this was one of the things that made this novel stand out: Fagan’s ability to so deftly give each of her characters a distinct and authentic narrative voice. Every point of view in this book evokes its corresponding character, and that is no easy feat considering how many characters (nine) we meet over the course of this novel. That being said, there were definitely POVs that I enjoyed more than others: I think Part I was easily the strongest one of the three–I especially loved Jessie and Flora’s chapters–and there were a few POVs that for me didn’t quite fit in with the others, namely William’s and Queen Bee’s; the former I found too rambly, the latter out of place with the novel’s larger narrative.
Characters aside, I’d also be remiss not to mention the role that Edinburgh as a city plays in this novel. Cliche as it is to say that “[insert city name here] is a character in the novel,” it’s true. Edinburgh really is one of the main characters of this story, and many of Luckenbooth‘s chapters conjure it up for us in vivid detail: the streets, the people, the atmosphere, the corruption.
“I have this feeling, Edinburgh will dispose of each of us once she has had her use – drank all the energy and talent and money and vitality and then she spits out the bones. Hungry city! Subsists on human souls.”
So far, so good, but there are also some things that I didn’t love about Luckenbooth. I think the point-of-view chapters got weaker after Part I, which was so well done that it inadvertently set a high standard for the novel’s subsequent parts–a standard which, in my opinion, they just didn’t live up to (though they certainly weren’t bad). Another issue I had, which is more technical, was with the dialogue. Fagan includes very little speech tags (“he said,” “she said”) in her writing, which means that you have to really pay attention to the dialogue to keep track of who said what. The way Fagan sets up her dialogue on the page, though, made this really difficult to do. She tries to address this issue by making the characters constantly refer to each other in their speech: so, for example, Ivy and Morag will be talking and the dialogue will just be like “what are you doing, Ivy?” and then Ivy responds “Nothing, Morag,” and then a few lines later we’ll get “Ivy, why are you doing that?” and “No reason, Morag,” etc. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s one of my pet peeves when characters do this, and it becomes very glaring once you notice it. People don’t usually refer to each other by name like this during conversations, so it oftentimes made the dialogue feel stilted and jolted me out of the characters’ conversations.
The issues I had were minor, though, and certainly didn’t overtake my enjoyment of the novel. Luckenbooth is a compelling novel in its structure, characters, and themes, but more than that, it’s a really sympathetic novel, one with a lot of heart. I will definitely be watching out for whatever Jenni Fagan releases next.
Thanks so much for Simon & Schuster for providing me with an e-ARC of this via Edelweiss!
“How is a country born? And who brings it into the world?
In certain parts of Kabylia, there is a folk tradition some call ‘the sleeping child.’ It explains how a woman can give birth even though her husband has been gone for years: according to tradition, having been fathered by the husband, the child then dozes off in the womb and does not emerge until much later.
Algeria is like that sleeping child: it was conceived long ago, so long ago that no one can agree on a date, and for years it slept, until the spring of 1962.”
The Art of Losing is a multigenerational family saga done right.
What is immediately apparent about Zeniter’s novel is just how extraordinarily well-written it is. Its writing is not flowery or ornate, but it is so refreshingly and psychologically perceptive. More than anything, I think it really speaks to the level of insight that Zeniter has when it comes to her characters and the way they view their respective worlds. That is to say, Zeniter’s writing is striking because she is able to recognize and home in on what it is that’s striking about her characters and their milieux: the ways in which these milieux inform each other, refracted and reflected over the generations. Beyond this, Zeniter just has a remarkable facility with figurative language; her language is economic yet poetic, direct yet evocative.
“This is the reason why – to Naïma and to me – this part of the story seems like a series of quaint photographs (the oil press, the donkey, the mountain ridge, the burnouses, the olive groves, the floodwaters, the white houses clinging like ticks to steep slopes dotted with rocks and cedar trees) punctuated by proverbs; like picture postcards of Algeria that the old man might have slipped, here and there, into his infrequent accounts, which his children then retold, changing a few words here and there, and which his grandchildren’s imaginations later embroidered, extrapolated and redrew, so they could create a country and a history for their family.”
More than the writing, I think the biggest strength of The Art of Losing is not just the way it presents three complex and interesting characters representing three different generations of a family, but also the way that it is able to interweave insights and experiences from those generations throughout the novel. We get three different sections in this novel, pertaining to these three different generations: there is Ali, who is the patriarch of his family in Algeria; then Hamid, who is Ali’s eldest son, and who comes of age in France after spending his childhood in Algeria; and then Naïma, who is Hamid’s daughter, and who was born and raised in France. Each of these characters is nuanced and compelling in their own right, and each presents different issues pertaining to their own particular social and political environments.
As a patriarch who bears responsibility for his immediate and extended family, Ali is under immense pressure, and this means that he has to make some very difficult decisions to protect his family during the Algerian war for independence. In his perspective, we learn about his relationship to and feelings towards the French colonialists in Algeria, as well as the ways in which his sense of self becomes threatened when his position as a patriarch becomes destabilized and ultimately undermined. At the forefront of this section is a portrayal of French colonialism in Algeria, of the violence of war, and of the difficulty of “picking a side” when neither side can ever guarantee you safety or prosperity or, indeed, anything at all.
“For his part, Ali believes History has already been written, and, as it advances, is simply unfurled and revealed. All the actions her performs are not opportunities for change, but for revelation. Mektoub: ‘it is written.’ He does not know quite where: in the clouds, perhaps, in the lines on his hand, in miniscule characters inside his body, perhaps in the eye of God.”
Then we get Hamid’s perspective, which I personally found the most interesting. Having been traumatized from his childhood experiences during the Algerian war, Hamid arrives in France with no knowledge of how to speak, read, or write the French language. Through him, we explore what it’s like to bear two (seemingly contradictory) cultural identities–to be both Algerian and French–and to try to navigate these identities in his familial, social, academic, and romantic lives. We also become increasingly aware of the rift that grows between him and his family, the amount of pressure he is under as the eldest son for whom the family has sacrificed a lot, and from whom a lot is expected.
Finally, we have Naïma, a character who, though she “has roots” in Algeria, struggles to understand what that exactly means to her. Naïma wants to understand her heritage, but she is constantly shut out from it; it is not something her father, Hamid, wants to discuss. And so in her perspective we delve into how she comes to terms with this: how she must do her own research to learn more about Algeria, how she tries to reconcile fragmented and scattered accounts of her family with the history she is able to gather through various secondary sources. We also get a lot about how Naïma ‘s Algerian heritage relates to her identity, how the way her identity is perceived and the way she herself perceives it both force her to continually interrogate her place in French society.
“From this point there will be no more vignettes, no more brightly colored images that have faded over time to the sepia of nostalgia. From here on, they have been replaced by the twisted shards that have resurfaced in Hamid’s memory, refashioned by years of silence and turbulent dreams, by snippets of information Ali has let slip only to contradict, when asked, what he has said, by snatches of stories that no one can have witnessed and which sound like images from war movies. And between these slivers – like caulk, like plaster oozing between the cracks, like the silver coins melted in the mountains to create settings for coral trinkets, some as large as a palm – there is Naïma’s research, begun more than sixty years after they have left Algeria, which attempts to give some shape, some structure to something that has none, that perhaps never had.”
Zeniter is so precise in the way that she unravels all these characters’ experiences for us, and so what we get in the end is a novel that feels so richly populated by its characters’ inner lives. It’s a novel about the generations of a family, and it really feels like what Zeniter has portrayed here is a family, one whose members are interconnected in many ways yet broken apart in others; one with a history that feels substantial and real, with all the gaps and fragments and myths that constitute any family’s cumulative and growing history. It’s a very self-aware novel in this way: it calls attention to gaps in the story, to dramatic ironies, to knowledge that the characters are not privy to but that the narrator nevertheless knows and weaves into the story.
That being said, I think the reason why this novel didn’t get a higher rating from me is that its writing relies more on narration and less on letting us see events unfold as they’re happening. It wasn’t so much a matter of telling rather than showing, but moreso that because we spend a lot of time learning about what happened through these characters’ retrospective accounts, we don’t get as many scenes that just feature characters talking to each other and, by extension, highlighting the dynamics they have with other characters.
Regardless, The Art of Losing was just an excellent novel. To me, it did what The Parisianfailed to do: it combined the personal and the historical such that neither one undermined the other, and it did so in a way that really resonated with me. (If you enjoyed this novel, I also highly recommend Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental, another novel that’s very similar to this one except that it focuses on Iran instead of Algeria.) I honestly haven’t heard many people talk about this book, so if you love multigenerational family sagas, I can’t recommend this one enough.
THE TIME HAS COME!!!!!! TIS TIME FOR MY FAVOURITE (fiction) BOOKS OF 2021 LIST!!! and this year the list is REALLY LONG–18 books to be precise. a) because i loved all these books a lot and i refuse to edit down my list and b) because this year i got a lot better at picking up the kinds of books I thought I knew I’d enjoy.
without further ado: HERE IS THE LIST. The list is kind of in order, though I’d say that the first 7 are the crème de la crème best books ever literary perfection 10/10 would read again and again and again.
One chapter into this book and I already knew it was going to be a favourite. What I didn’t know was that it would be MY FAVOURITE BOOK OF THE YEAR. The King of Infinite Space put me through the ringer, and I fucking loved every single second of it. The character work is impeccable, and the writing is just gorgeous. The relationships in this book are so beautiful they make me want to scream (especially THE ROMANCE). I truly feel like I experienced every single emotion reading this book. Anyway, I LOVED IT IMMENSELY. If you like character-focused stories and yearning, read The King of Infinite Space.
Devotion by Hannah Kent
Oh my god this book. Just thinking about it makes me want to weep. I know “beautiful” is a really easy word to throw around when it comes to describing books, but Devotion is one of the few novels that truly deserves it. Hannah Kent’s writing is mesmerizing: her imagery is unreal, and the way she writes atmosphere and details and characters is just brilliant. Honestly I’m frustrated because I don’t know how to convey to you how good this book was. It’s the kind of novel that feels so raw: you feel every single emotion these characters feel, and you feel them SO keenly. Devotion is truly a novel that’s in a league of its own.
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
I just ADORE this book; it’s officially joined my list of all time favourite books this year. First of all, Lisa McInerney is one of the best writers working today; she writes narrative voice like no other author I’ve read. The Glorious Heresies is funny and devastating by turns, and it was such a visceral novel for me, too: I honestly felt like I was in physical pain reading it because I felt SO strongly for the main character, Ryan, and what he was going through. Plot, character, writing: The Glorious Heresies is brilliant on every single level.
(The Glorious Heresies is part of a trilogy of books focusing on a group of characters–to that end, I want to give a special mention to The Rules of Revelation, the third book in the trilogy, which I also loved and found such a poignant ending to these characters’ stories.)
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Is anyone surprised!!!!! I don’t know guys maybe Sally Rooney is so popular because her books are actually really good… And god was Beautiful World, Where Are You GOOD. I remember so distinctly reading this book like my life depended on it at the end of the summer, so engrossed was I in it. Rooney does an incredible job with her characters, as per usual, and I loved the fact that in this novel we’re given this outsider perspective to the characters and asked to judge their actions and words for ourselves. So much Rooney discourse is invested in intellectualizing her novels–and like, of course, Rooney’s books are very intellectually engaging–but I feel like a lot of it forgets the fact that Sally Rooney writes such moving character relationships. She’s always been an author whose focus lies in these relationships, and I loved how she portrayed them here through a quartet of interconnected characters.
Euphoria by Lily King
It honestly feels like this book was designed for me. It has every single thing I love reading about: a secluded setting, a focus on a very limited group of characters, engaging ideas, romance, and gorgeous writing. I INHALED Euphoria over a day and a half and emerged from it feeling like I’d experienced the emotional equivalent of being run over by a car. The character dynamics here are some of the best I’ve ever read.
Tipping the Velvet Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters is officially one of my favourite authors ever. I read four of her books this year–Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, The Night Watch, and Affinity–and honestly any of them could’ve made this list–they’re all that good. What can I say about Sarah Waters that hasn’t already been said? She is a master of historical fiction. There’s just no one else that does it like her. Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet have been my favs of her so far, though I think Tipping the Velvet edges out Fingersmith by just a bit. It’s a coming of age novel, and it’s about performance and gender and sexuality and identity and I felt like I lived 12 lifetimes just reading this book. If you haven’t read a Sarah Waters novel yet, you are missing out on some absolute historical fiction excellence.
One of the most precisely written and poignant books I’ve read this year. Abigail is the kind of book whose every word feels like it was carefully thought over; there is not a single word in this novel that feels out of place. It starts slow, and initially seems like a slice-of-life story, but then slowly but surely it builds up to such an incredible and affecting climax. And there are so many lovely elements about this book, too: it’s set in a boarding school, it’s about female friendships, it’s a coming of age story, it’s about father-daughter relationships–all elements that are impeccably and beautifully rendered by Szabó.
What a gorgeous novel. Elmet is a slow novel, but where it dwells on things, it dwells on them with such beauty and insight. It’s a novel about nature and family and gender and violence, and where all of these things might’ve been very clumsily handled, Mozley presents them to us with such a deft, subtle hand. It’s the kind of book you have to sit with for a bit to let it settle, but it’s also the kind that really lingers with you over time.
Hello incredible fantasy!!!! Tasha Suri has quickly become one of my favourite fantasy authors, and The Jasmine Throne is a very clear example of why. This is an incredibly propulsive novel: I couldn’t stop reading it. But it’s also such a well-executed one. What I am always interested in is characters, and Suri gives us some really compelling characters here. The world is so cool–I love the magic that’s based in nature–and the romance is a lovely touch. I thought I felt lukewarm about this book and then by its end I was crying my little heart out.
Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
Another Tasha Suri!!! Sorry but I couldn’t choose just one, and I just loved this book so much. Empire of Sand is, in one word, ANGST. This book gave me so much angst and I was living for it. There’s just something really moving about seeing characters who’ve gone through so much pain and trauma find and support each other.
People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry
Friends to lovers excellence!!! I read a lot of romance this year, and I enjoyed, even loved, a lot of it, but People We Meet on Vacation is one of the few ones that I think really earned it’s place on this list. I loved it so much I read it twice. Again, so much delicious angst here, and the way that Emily Henry structures this story is really clever and well done. I loved seeing Poppy and Alex’s relationship grow over time, and I can’t wait to see what Henry has in store for us next.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
Every time I think about this novel I just go, wow, I really loved that book. If I Had Your Face is just a really, really good novel. My review of this book on Goodreads just says “[saoirse ronan voice] women–” and I stand by that review. At its heart this is a novel about women and their relationships with each other, and I ate it up. So many interesting themes, too, about beauty and class and work in South Korea. I will read literally anything that Frances Cha comes out with next.
One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun (tr. Jung Yewon)
This was such an unexpected favourite of mine this year. It’s both an incredibly grounded story and a story that feels larger than life; both realistic and allegorical. I finished it and gave it 4 stars, and then it just haunted me for days and next thing I knew I was bumping it up to a full 5 stars. There are are so many little details from this little novel (novella?) that I’ve thought about often since I finished it, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. (it is criminally underhyped!!!!)
Alligator by Dima Alzayat
The best short story collection I’ve read this year. Alligator is a collection that’s just, like, objectively perfect in my opinion. I’m working on a full review of this, but for now I’ll just say that these stories are written with such precision and craft on Alzayat’s part. You might prefer some of her stories over others, but I feel like not a single story in this collection is anything less than stellar.
Another Lily King book!!! Lily King has become one of my favourite authors this year. This is a collection of tender, moving stories about characters just…living their lives, I guess. It’s not a very flashy collection in terms of its subject matter, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it is boring in any way, because it’s really, really not. King’s stories are so humane, always interested in the small moments that build character dynamics over time–whether those dynamics are between romantic partners, family members, friends. And I think the key characteristic of her writing for me is how sympathetic she is towards her characters, how human they always feel. I will pretty much read anything that Lily King writes at this point.
Unsettling, creepy, twisted short stories. Reading a Bora Chung story is basically just a process of internally screaming what the fuck as you continue to keep reading because her stories are impossible to put down. These stories do not pull any punches, in the absolute best way possible.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
So much of the fantasy that I’ve tried to read hasn’t worked for me because I always feel like it lacks flavour. (Granted I’ve read very little fantasy so take this with a grain of salt but) I find the worlds and characters really self-serious a lot of the time. And that’s not always a bad thing, but it would be nice to get some levity on occasion. Enter Gideon the Ninth. This book has so much PERSONALITY. It’s funny and chaotic and it doesn’t take itself too seriously–except when it does. Tamsyn Muir is so good at balancing serious, high-stakes stuff with the chaotic humour of her characters. I can’t wait to see where this series goes (though I desperately need to reread the first two books because I missed out on a lot of the details the first time around) (who am I kidding I’ll probably miss out on the details the second time around too, but a girl can dream).
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Finally, a novel that, like If I Had Your Face, I just really loved. It’s one of those novels where not much really happens, but also a lot happens. It’s slow and very psychological and circumscribed in its setting–most of the action takes place in a pregnancy ward–but the way that Donoghue writes the small (and big) dramas of this setting was very affecting and memorable.