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!
I read Ling Ma’s Severance a couple of years ago and while, admittedly, it was not my favourite book ever, I still remember thinking that it had a lot of potential, and that it boded well for Ma’s future releases. For that reason, I went into Bliss Montage cautiously optimistic, hoping that maybe what didn’t work for me in a novel would work better in a short story collection. Needless to say, my hopes did not pan out.
I’m tempted to say I had two “issues” with Bliss Montage–one with its narrative voice, and one with its storytelling–but really these are less “issues” and more fundamental problems with the collection’s writing as a whole. First, Ma’s stories are all almost tonally identical; there is so little variety in their narrative voices. It feels like every story more or less has the same melancholic, impassive narrator: lost women who are Going Through It to various degrees but whose dry, flat narration makes you feel like they’re all responding to their particular issues in the same way. On principle, I don’t mind more distant or inscrutable narrators, but when every single story feels like it’s a slight variation on one kind of narrator, then the collection starts to feel very one-note, and the stories start to blur together. This type of narrator might work in a novel with one POV because you have no other narrator to compare them to, but when I read a short story collection, I’m evaluating it on different terms than I would a novel: every story needs to distinguish itself, to stand on its own two feet. Narrative voice is one very noticeable way to do this–it’s great when it’s done well, but when it’s not, as was the case here, it becomes very obvious very quickly.
So much for tone; where I run into issues next is in the actual storytelling: I found the stories of Bliss Montage to be opaque and just really unsatisfying. I’ve liked collections with more elusive short stories before (Meng Jin’s Self-Portait with Ghostis one recent example that comes to mind); when done well, I think their opacity makes you gravitate towards them all the more, motivated in your attempts to try to see them more clearly. Bliss Montage‘s stories, though, shut me out rather than drew me in. I just couldn’t for the life of me figure out what these stories were trying to say. I would start a story, and it would feel like it was going somewhere interesting, and then it would just end. The parts were somewhere in there, but the execution of the whole pretty much always fell flat for me.
Thematically, I’m not sure what this collection was going for. The synopsis says these stories are “eight wildly different tales,” and I’m inclined to agree with that, though not really in a positive sense. I don’t need every short story collection I read to be thematically cohesive–in a way, one of the attractions of short story collections is precisely the fact that they don’t need to be thematically cohesive as a novel would; they give you the latitude to dip in and out of very different narratives without the investment that a longer piece of writing would ask from you. But even with all this in mind, the stories of Bliss Montage felt so disparate to me–a fact that was made even worse by the tonal similarity issue. So the stories all read like they’re coming from the same narrator–or same kind of narrator–but the narratives themselves all feel so random. It was like I was reading random stories that were all being filtered through the same subjectivity, so even though the stories themselves were very different, they still ended up feeling very similar. Everything stood out, but also nothing stood out. It was a real lose-lose situation.
One last thing: I was so frustrated by how these stories’ endings almost always left me hanging. Again, I don’t categorically dislike vague or open-ended stories, but when every story ends right in the middle of things, it starts getting very annoying. It felt like these stories ratcheted up the tension, and then just went nowhere with it–the narrative equivalent of going up a rollercoaster without any of the emotional release of the actual going down part.
I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this collection, but I’m also not discounting it as a whole because there were some glimmers here and there of things that I liked, or at least found interesting. The writing, for one, is occasionally sharp and perceptive, and I did end up highlighting a few passages that I thought were well written or insightful. There were also two stories that I think had some compelling themes, specifically “G” (about how women relate to their bodies, especially as those relationships tie into family, friendships, and culture) and “Pecking Duck” (about mother-daughter relationships and how they’re [mis]translated in fiction). That’s about all I have to say in terms of positives, though.
Anyway, I was really looking forward to this. It sounded so cool, and then I read the first story and was like “ok this is weird, but let’s see where the collection is going,” and then…it never went anywhere.
Thanks so much to FSG for providing me with an eARC of this via NetGalley!
First, I just want to say that Isabella Hammad’s writing is beautiful. It has the timeless elegance of a classic: poised, graceful, measured. It’s precise and unsentimental, but in its directness is able to bring a strong and affecting emotional force to the novel’s key moments. I found this to be especially the case in the novel’s more contemplative first section, where nineteen-year-old Midhat, fresh out of school in Constantinople, tries to find his place as both a student and a young man in France. This was the section of the novel I enjoyed the most, and it’s very clear to me why: the story’s scope is much more limited, and so there is a much stronger emphasis on character psyche and dynamics. Many chapters in this section are so impressive in the ways that they give you such keen insight into Midhat’s internal monologue, the minute and increasingly intricate webs of meaning that he creates in order to try to ascertain his place in this new environment he’s found himself in. It’s a section that really homes in on the intricacies of Midhat’s psychology, and for that I loved it.
From the second section onwards, though, the novel just falls apart. The scope of the story gets increasingly larger, and the character work suffers–because the character work is simply not there. Some chapters–and long ones, mind you–follow characters that we literally never hear from again. And as the number of characters increases, the focus of the novel strays from Midhat, the character that the novel has, thus far, invested a significant amount of time in developing. Every time I got to a chapter that followed some seemingly random character who was not Midhat, a part of me just died. I wanted to get back to Midhat’s story because Midhat was, by all accounts, the only developed character in this novel. Increasingly, it felt as though the novel had done all this excellent character-building work in the first section only to invalidate it in its second and third sections; making you invested in Midhat, only to then take the narrative focus away from him (and where we do get Midhat’s story afterwards it’s frankly just kind of boring and stale…).
The presence of these random peripheral characters, though, is symptomatic of a much larger issue with this novel, which is that it wants to be both a novel and a work of nonfiction. I don’t mind reading a novel that takes as its basis a key historical event or events. What I do mind is that novel simply telling me that historical event without weaving it into its narrative. And that is by far my biggest frustration with The Parisian. Large swathes of its story are preoccupied with recounting various developments in the history of the Middle East and its relationship to–and rule by–the colonial powers of Britain and France. Where these developments are incorporated into the story, they are virtually impossible to follow (at least for me they were); the historical scope is just too broad, and despite my attempts to try to understand what was going on, I quickly lost the thread of the story. More often than not, though, we just get paragraphs and paragraphs recounting what we’d missed out on in terms of developments in Nablus, or Beirut, or Damascus. And the paragraphs are so utterly dry to read. If I wanted to read a work of nonfiction, I would’ve read a work of nonfiction. What I wanted, here, was a story, and I felt like so much of what I got was not that.
The Parisian wanted to have both the psychological precision of a character-focused novel and the sweeping scope of a historical novel–what it had, in the end, was neither, because it wasn’t able to successfully execute either of those things. Reading its character-focused parts just highlighted how little I cared for its historical parts by contrast; and reading its historical parts just absolutely marred my enjoyment of its character-focused parts. It was like the worst of both worlds. In addition to all of this, the historical emphasis of the novel made the pace of the novel glacial, which ultimately meant that when you did get to those rare, significant character moments (i.e. the good parts; the parts the Hammad writes really well), you were just frustrated more than anything else because you had to wade through so many dry, bloated chapters to get to them.
My overwhelming feeling about The Parisian is frustration–frustration not because I can write it off as a completely bad novel, but precisely because I can’t. Because this novel had so much potential, and it could’ve been so much better than it was, but it just wasn’t. I feel like I invested so much time and effort into a narrative that didn’t give me much payoff, or any payoff at all in some ways. The more I read this novel, the more I could feel my patience for it running out. And by the end what little I had enjoyed about it in the beginning was just completely snuffed out.
PS: for some spoilery discussion of this novel, check out the spoiler tag in my Goodreads review of it 👀