Maybe I just have overly rosy memories of Winter in Sokcho, but this was really…underwhelming. Lots of interesting themes and moments here (I especially loved the ending), but the story was missing those important interstitial bits that make a narrative feel cohesive. I understand that Elisa Shua Dusapin’s writing is like this: that what distinguishes it is precisely that stop-and-start quality that makes every sentence or sentence fragment feel very punctuated and striking. I get that, and at times that quality does work; I don’t need every novel I read to have flowery, lyrical prose. At the same time, though, I feel like where Dusapin’s writing worked for me in Winter in Sokcho, it didn’t quite work for me here. I wanted more from the story, but the writing style seemed to constantly hold me at arm’s length.

Thanks to Restless Books for providing me with an eARC of this via Edelweiss!

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I honestly have no idea how to write this review because I didn’t really “get” this book, or like it. I understand it’s a story about grief and identity and race, but beyond that, I can’t really tell you much. It’s an experimental novel, but I’m not sure that its experimentation with form is successful. The story is split into two parts, and none of those parts really work: the first is quite repetitive, and then the second feels so different that it doesn’t end up feeling connected to the first part at all. I don’t categorically hate experimental novels, and I don’t need to fully “get” a novel in order to appreciate what it’s doing, or to even like it, but I’m just so lost when it comes to The Furrows. On a more fundamental level, I just did not get along with the writing in this book. The first couple of pages led me to believe that it was going to be lyrical and moving, but really the more you read the more the writing becomes stiff and tonally jarring. Sometimes it’s nice, but other times it’s weirdly grandiose and philosophizing. At one point during a sex scene where the narrator is taking her clothes off the text reads, “the absurdity of this drapery we all wear, the slapstick comedy of removing it.” Little lines like that where the book’s attempts to be Deep end up feeling forced and especially cliched.

I can only speculate, but The Furrows felt to me like a novel that shaped the story around its ideas rather than the other way around, more invested in the ideas it was trying to communicate instead of the story it was using to convey those ideas. All of this is to say, the characters were more a tool for the story’s themes and not actual developed characters. I love novels that have at their heart certain themes/ideas that they’re trying to explore, but when those themes/ideas aren’t actually grounded in the characters and their stories, then chances are I won’t be invested. And I wasn’t: The Furrows went completely over my head, both in the sense that I didn’t get it, but even more in the sense that it was utterly forgettable to me.

Thanks to Hogarth Press for providing me with an eARC of this via NetGalley!

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Five Tuesdays in Winter

A lot of the time when I read slice-of-life short stories, I feel underwhelmed more than anything else. It’s not that I dislike these stories, exactly, but rather that they often end up feeling ungrounded, “slices” that don’t evoke any underlying sense of the totality that they’ve presumably been “sliced” from. That is, the characters and their stories feel like props on a stage, a tableau contrived for the sake of the short story but that falls apart as soon as that story is over.

I bring this up because you will find none of that in Lily King’s excellent collection. King’s stories are slice-of-life, yes, but far from feeling flimsy or ungrounded, they are substantial and, more remarkably, moving. The stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter find their characters–children, teenagers, young adults, mothers, fathers–in singular moments in their lives, times during which their ways of thinking–and living–have been called into question, brought into the light, disrupted, shifted. All these moments hinge on the interpersonal, on a growing relationship or a severed one, or else on a relationship that a character must now renegotiate on different terms: a mother trying to connect with her daughter in the wake of her husband’s death, a boy learning to see his life differently in the absence of his parents, a man reuniting with the college roommate he used to be infatuated with. To say that these moments are singular, though, is not to say that they entail some kind of monumental upheaval; they are small moments, but just because they are small does not mean that they register as any less important to the characters who experience them.

More to the point, what I love about King’s stories is that they feel meaningful without being dramatic; they convey a real sense of impact without resorting to overblown scenes or language. The writing is measured and graceful, the stories pared down in a way that feels compelling rather than plain: you want to know more, but you are only given enough to know that you want more. Nowhere is this more evident than in this collection’s characters: the characters in Five Tuesdays in Winter feel fleshed out not because we’re given some perfunctory background on them in each story, but rather because we are allowed illuminating little glimpses into the lives they lead.

(My favourite story was by far “Five Tuesdays in Winter,” but I also especially loved “When in the Dordogne,” “North Sea,” “Creature,” and “South.”)

The stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter are by turns affirming and unsettling, hopeful and melancholy, but regardless of tone I thought this was just an all around lovely collection.

Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!

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