Grove Atlantic

Based on the short story collections that I’ve read, what I’ve to come to expect from a typical short story is a discrete narrative, a kind of novel in miniature. That is to say, most of the short stories I’ve encountered have been more or less like polished gems, very much self-contained in their little short-story packages. Where such stories are polished gems, though, Barrett’s are like rocks chipped out of some surface, rough and jagged and imperfect in the way that all organic things are. They’re stories that feel ongoing rather than discrete, not always going where you expect them to, and not always giving you what you want, either. In Barrett’s hands, though, that’s not at all a drawback.

Barrett’s stories are not really interested in giving you a nice, clean narrative with a delineated beginning, middle, and end, but rather in dropping you into the lives of their characters and seeing what happens. In “The Ways,” three siblings who have recently lost both their parents to cancer go about their lives; in “Anhedonia, Here I Come,” a struggling poet mired in his work attempts to deal with his various frustrations over it; in “The Alps,” the patrons of a club encounter a young man who walks in with a sword. They’re stories that, for the most part, don’t have any flashy or grandiose moments–in fact a lot of them actively lean towards the mundane–but in every one of them there is a tautness, a dramatic tension that holds the story upright and keeps you wanting to keep reading.

Unlike the typical short story I’m used to reading, Barrett’s don’t all end with a moment that clinches the point of the story, or come with some kind of critical passage that’s the key to unlocking the thematic focus of the story. That’s not to say that these stories are pointless, or that they’re devoid of any important moments–because of course they have a point, and of course they have important moments; it’s just that those are all woven into the various circumstances that these characters find themselves in.

And let me just say, these stories are so propulsive, so intensely readable. I think a big part of this is because they’re very much built around narratives where things happen: people go places, do things, meet other people, talk to them, etc. Characters think about things, but they also do things, and the “doing” part is what really spurs the “thinking” part of these stories on. (I don’t know how to describe this in a way that doesn’t sound trite–don’t literally all stories feature people thinking and doing things?–but IT’S TRUE, OKAY.)

It would be impossible to review this collection without talking about Barrett’s writing, because it’s just stellar. Colin Barrett’s writing feels like a photo with the contrast turned up: everything stark and punchy and evocative. It’s so sensorily rich, all the details just pop. I highlighted a lot of descriptions, but here are some of my favourites:

“At the far end of Lorna’s table an elderly woman was supping on a bowl of vegetable soup the colour and consistency of phlegm. The woman was eating with great involvedness. As she brought each tremulous spoonful to her lips her features contracted in an expression of anticipatory excruciation.”

“Bobby stared at his teeth, which were neatly aligned and all the same, toothpaste-ad hue. He appeared to be nothing more than a nondescriptly handsome wodge of heteronormative generica, tidily styleless in a sweater and chinos.”

“It was only gone two in the afternoon, but the sky was already so grey it was like being on the moon, the light a kind of exhausted residue. To their right coursed the Moy, dark as stout and in murderous spate; to their left high conifers stood like rows of coats on coat racks.”

“Steven Davitt, the lad at the rear of this pack, was such a specimen. A comely six-foot string of piss, faintly stooped, with shale eyes darting beneath a matted heap of curly black fringe. He shied from looking her way, of course. In the middle was one of the Bruitt boys, the scanty lichen of an unthriving moustache clinging to his lip.”

Barrett is funny, too, and his sense of humour shines through in a lot of these stories. Sometimes the humour comes in the form of wry or witty comments, and sometimes in the form of cutting comebacks (sibling dynamics in particular are so well-portrayed here). “The Alps” actually made me laugh out loud at one point, so absurd and absolutely wild it was but still surprisingly moving.

Favourite short story is easily “The Ways.” Other favourites include “The Alps,” “The Low, Shimmering Black Drone,” and “Anhedonia, Here I Come.” I liked all the other ones, too; the only story that I didn’t really get was “The Silver Coast,” though I feel like it would definitely benefit from a reread.

As you’ve probably gathered already, this was a different kind of short story collection than I’m used to reading, but I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!

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If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English | Graywolf Press

“There’s a danger between us, but I’m not always sure who it belongs to. Which of us needs protection and which of us should be afraid?”

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is a novel about an abusive relationship, and a novel about power. Its story is unrelenting in its depiction of the push and pull of power, the ways in which its characters are alternately powerful and powerless, at times wielding power and at others being subjected to it. At its heart it’s a deeply ambivalent novel, not in the sense that it tries to make gray what is black and white, but rather that it is interested in interrogating the dynamics of those gray areas: how things can seem black one way and then white the next, how you can have power in one moment then be robbed of it in the next.

And this gray area of power is explored in so many ways, all intertwined and complex and hard to disentangle from each other. There is the power of nationality, of class, of gender, of culture. The protagonist comes from an Egyptian background, but she is American: as a foreigner in Egypt, she wields power and status, but because she is a foreigner, lacking the know-how to navigate Egypt, she is very much vulnerable–doubly so because she is a woman.

“I tried to tell a taxi driver I wanted to get off on the west side of Zamalek, and it was like he’d never heard of west. No one uses the cardinal points for directions. The Dokki side? he asked and I wasn’t sure, couldn’t say. The maps are all wrong. Where the roads are numbered (rarely), they are not ordered consecutively, and when they are named, no one uses those names. The landmarks are arbitrary—a discontinued post office, a banana-seller. The bridges are referred to by dates. I’ll take the 26th of July to Zamalek and then you point where you want to get off, the driver says politely. It’s as though the city were deliberately designed to resist comprehension and to discipline those who left for daring to return. You have either lived here and you know, or you never have and never will.”

Enter the man the protagonist becomes involved with: an Egyptian, born in a village called Shobrakheit, and now living in Cairo. Unlike the protagonist, he is poor–homeless at one point in the novel–and struggling with a drug addiction. But he also has a kind of power that the protagonist lacks: he is a man, and he knows Cairo well, knows its geography and history and culture in a way that she cannot–and, in many ways, can never–access.

When these two characters come together, these power dynamics come to the fore, and it is just so damn interesting. Just as the American protagonist others the Egyptian man, he also others her in turn. Their relationship is always precarious, balanced on a knife’s edge. And the novel is not so much interested in shrugging off responsibility by depicting both parties as equally guilty, but rather in interrogating the very specific ways in which harm is inflicted, and the particular ways in which it manifests.

That being said, I don’t want to give the impression that these characters are depicted flatly or stereotypically: the protagonist is more than just The Ignorant Westerner, and the man she is involved with is more than just The Poor Uncultured Egyptian. Those ideas are very much interrogated in the novel, and each character grapples with how they may or may not be seen in that way by the other.

“I swear this isn’t who I am. I’m not a violent person, but there is a violence that moves through you like a live current when you hate what someone has made you become. I feel estranged from myself the longer I am with her, made criminal solely because she is afraid, made pathetic because she pities me—a poor boy though I never was.”

And whether about the relationship or not, there are so many insightful and incisive moments in this novel. I highlighted a lot, and found a lot that was both familiar and new to me. Here’s an especially memorable passage,

“I resent [my father] because I recognize him. This desperation to refashion ourselves into the most pleasing form makes fools of us both. We’re pliable and capricious, shed our skin at the slightest threat, and ultimately stick out everywhere we go. We were both more convincing Egyptians in New York than we’d ever be on this side of the Atlantic. There I had enough Arabic to flirt with the Halal Guys and the Yemenis at my deli. At school, identity was simple: my name etched in hieroglyphics on a silver cartouche at my throat. I could say, Back home, we do it like this, pat our bread flat and round, never having patted bread flat or otherwise. But here I keep saying I’m Egyptian and no one believes me. I’m the other kind of other, someone come from abroad who could just as easily return there.”

I don’t want to give too much away, but this is the kind of novel that works only if you read it from start to finish. What it sets out to do in its beginning it clinches by its end, and honestly, I was really impressed. I was ready to give this novel a 3 stars and move on, under the impression that I understood what kind of novel it was and knew exactly what I didn’t like about it–and then it did something I wasn’t expecting: it surprised me. And it surprised me in a way that made me reevaluate everything I’d just read.

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English was a novel that I didn’t think I loved, but then it surprised me, challenged me, demanded that I actively be a part of its narrative. And in doing all of that, impressed me. It’s one of those rare novels that’s interesting in the true sense of the word: filled with the kinds of details and complexities that always draw your interest, even (and especially) if they are not immediately or entirely transparent to you.

PS: for some spoilery discussion of this book check out the spoiler tag under my Goodreads review of it 👀

Thank you so much to Graywolf Press for sending me an e-ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review!

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Well, this was extremely average.

This is a quintessential 3-star read for me: it wasn’t egregiously bad, but it didn’t really impress me in any way either. Reputation is being touted as a mashup of Mean Girls and Bridgerton, and I think this is one of those rare instances where the comparisons are actually accurate. This book is basically Mean Girls, but in the Regency era: there’s the group of popular rich kids, the cattiness, the drama, the parties, and the Normal main character stuck trying to navigate it all.

Does this mashup work? I don’t know. Yes and no. Though it was certainly fun to watch the characters getting up to all sorts of highly illicit (by the standards of the Regency era) antics, at a certain point it just felt like more of the same. Like oh what a surprise ! another scene where the characters are being shitty to each other while also getting drunk and doing drugs ! we definitely haven’t seen one of those scenes before ! 🙂 Lex Croucher attempts to infuse humour throughout their protagonist’s narration to lighten things up, and it’s not that that humour didn’t work at all, but it just ended up feeling like Croucher was trying too hard. Like I could recognize that a sentence or situation was supposed to be funny, and I could recognize that the author was in fact actively trying to make it funny, but it was just never actually funny to me. (Then again humour is very subjective so take this with a grain of salt I guess.)

I did enjoy some of the exchanges in this novel, especially between the main character and her love interest, but overall I felt like it was a bit paint-by-numbers. Not necessarily in the sense that its plot was super predictable (though it is mostly predictable), but in the sense that nothing in Reputation really surprised me in any way. (The audiobook, narrated by Bessie Carter, is great though! She does all the voices so well and acts the hell out of some of the more dramatic scenes in the book.)

Thanks to Macmillan Audio for providing me with an audiobook ARC of this via Netgalley!

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