BOOK REVIEW: IN MEMORIAM by ALICE WINN


WWI is well-trodden territory, narratively speaking, and I didn’t feel like this story really brought anything new or fresh to the table.

To start, where In Memoriam shines is in its depiction of the relationship between Ellwood and Gaunt. They are the most developed characters by far, and I found their dynamic to be so moving and tender. You really feel the intimacy and love between these two, the affection that has grown and bloomed between them over the many years that they’ve known each other. And crucially, just as much as you get the love and the intimacy, you also get the friction and the conflict; the ways they sometimes lash out and misunderstand and hurt each other.

Sadly, beyond the romance between Ellwood and Gaunt, I found that I was not that interested in or compelled by anything in this novel. With the exception of maybe one character (Hayes), all the characters in In Memoriam feel interchangeable because they simply don’t get enough time on the page for them to be distinct or memorable. The fact that they’re on the front means that, more often than not, they’re killed off before they get developed in any kind of capacity. (And maybe that’s the point–that our knowledge of them gets cut short, just as their lives do–but it also doesn’t make for very engaging reading when every character you meet is killed off like a couple of chapters later.) Also, and this is very much a personal preference, I just don’t find narratives about the world wars to be that interesting to read about. In Memoriam is certainly not the first WWI story, nor will it be the last. What I was hoping, then, is that it would somehow set itself apart from the plethora of WWI stories that are out there–and I just don’t think that it did. That’s fine, not every story needs to break the mold, but I also found that in the case of In Memoriam, the execution of the familiar beats of the WWI story was not that impressive either. The novel starts strong and ends nicely, but the middle chunk dragged in a major way, and it felt like the author couldn’t figure out how to connect the beginning and the ending together.

In short: it was fine. I would definitely be interested in reading more from Alice Winn, though, especially if she writes any contemporary stories in the future. I do like her writing, especially her dialogue, so I’d want to see if she’d write something I’d enjoy more if she didn’t have to work within the constraints of a historical narrative as she did with In Memoriam.

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



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BOOK REVIEW: A RESTLESS TRUTH by FREYA MARSKE


I enjoyed A Restless Truth, but nowhere near as much as I’d hoped, or expected, to.

All the things that I loved about A Marvellous Light are present in its sequel, except that they feel smaller somehow, less developed or else more subdued. The writing is still great: Marske has a real knack for charming, playful narration, and her storytelling always feels buoyant and lively, leaning into the chaotic-but-fun-hijinks-ness of it all. The way she crafts character and dialogue are especially impressive: her characters think and act and talk like real people, so it’s no surprise that when they’re all together in a scene, plenty of fun and quippy exchanges ensue.

All of this is to say, a lot of the groundwork underlying Marske’s writing in A Restless Truth–the narration, the character work, the dialogue–is solid, just as it was in the novel’s predecessor. Where I think this novel let me down, then, is in the bigger-picture stuff, namely the plot and the romance. The plot of A Restless Truth, a whodunnit, has a kind of sputtering quality that made it really hard to be invested in; it felt like the narrative equivalent of trying to start a car and having its engine stall over and over again. I like a story that slowly builds up to a crescendo–like A Marvellous Light‘s did–whereas whodunnits, by their nature, tend to have a stop-and-start style of storytelling. You investigate clues, but nothing turns up; you chase down leads, but they turn out to be dead-ends; you get closer to figuring out the mystery, but your attempts are thwarted by something or someone. It was too episodic for me, and the fact of the matter is, I just don’t like that kind of storytelling all that much.

None of this is helped by the fact that the entire novel takes place over 6 days, and in one singular location, too. These two things only work to make the narrative feel too small, too limited. I usually love stories set in some kind of enclosed space or area–most of A Marvellous Light took place on an estate–but A Restless Truth took it too far. For this reason, its story ends up feeling a bit stagnant, not dynamic enough because everything in it is just stewing in this one small space and in this very short time frame.

This issue with the limited setting and time frame affects the characters too, and, by extension, their romance. I pretty much immediately loved Maud: she’s stubborn and a little foolhardy, but she cares so deeply about doing good, and is so earnest and compassionate, trying not to let down the people she cares about, that it’s impossible not to be endeared to her. My problem with the character work, then, isn’t with Maud, but with Violet, the other main lead of this book, and Maud’s love interest. Violet is, like Edwin in A Marvellous Light, emotionally closed off, reticent to reveal any real part of herself to others. And I absolutely love these kinds of characters; the fact that they’re closed off means that they have that much more room to grow, so that when they do open up later on in the novel, it feels so much more rewarding to you as a reader. Thing is, we never really get to see Violet open up in A Restless Truth. Like I said, the novel only takes place over 6 days, so there’s really only so much character development that can happen without straining plausibility. It would’ve felt disingenuous if Violet had done a complete 180 over the course of 6 days and become totally open and emotionally trusting, but at the same time the limited time frame of the book puts it in a bind because we barely get to see Violet open up at all. There is a little development, to be sure, but it feels so paltry. Maud goes through such a strong character arc in this book, but Violet is kind of left in the lurch; her character arc is less arc and more…slight curve. By the end of the novel Violet is only beginning to consider opening up, but it’s too little too late: the novel is over, and we won’t get to read from her POV again.

My problem with Violet’s character development, or lack thereof, carries over to her romance with Maud. Because Violet doesn’t get to have that strong of an arc throughout the novel, the romance also isn’t allowed to grow as much as it could have–or as much as I wanted it to. I mean, I liked the dynamic that Maud and Violet had, but their romance felt incomplete to me. It’s not that it was bad, but that it didn’t go far enough. And that’s really the crux of my issue with the novel as a whole: it develops a lot of things, but it doesn’t develop them enough. I was constantly left wanting more: more honesty from these characters, more intimacy, more time.

I hate to keep comparing this book to A Marvellous Light, but I keep doing it because that first installment did so well all the things that A Restless Truth stumbled on. And that’s what’s disappointing me about A Restless Truth, I think: all the components are there, but the novel as a whole feels like it could’ve been much better than it ended up being.

Thanks so much to Tor for providing me with an eARC of this via NetGalley!



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BOOK REVIEW: TRESPASSES by LOUISE KENNEDY

Trespasses is a book that, quite simply, does not fuck around. It’s such a taut novel, vibrating with tension, and yet so controlled and precise in the way that it manages that tension. Its strength lies as much in what it says as what it doesn’t; Kennedy knows when to give and when to withhold, and this makes for such striking, resonant narrative moments. (There’s this small moment in the last chapter of the book that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about; not gonna lie I get emotional every time I think about it.) A character will say or do something that seems significant–a line, a reaction, a gesture–and then the chapter will just end, or the scene will just move on. It’s tantalizing, yes, but not needlessly so; that it withholds is as much a narrative choice as it is a product of the sociopolitical conditions of the setting that grounds that narrative. It’s a novel that leaves spaces for the unsaid, and that is in fact what it is all about: tensions–sectarian, familial, romantic–that the characters have to navigate largely by way of the unsaid: through subtext, through intimation, through looks or gestures that speak for them when they can’t speak for themselves, or else can’t say what they want to.

“It’s a piece of sculpture, made of resin, fabric, glass fibre. A white figure on a plinth, chalky, sarcophagal, a shrouded look about the face, features indistinct. The body is oddly sexless, though it is male; there is breadth in the torso bulk at the chest. From the waist up he looks peaceful, sleeping head resting near the bend of an arm. There is something not right about the pose, though; his limbs are splayed awkwardly, have not been arranged. [. . .]

The detail is intimate, accurate, even, almost as if the cast had been moulded over his body. The neat ball of fat in his middle. The slight raise of his right shoulder. A doughiness about the jaw. She looks at his face, afraid she will see fear or pain, but he looks just as he did when he was sleeping.”

Trespasses is set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and it does not budge an inch when it comes to its depiction of life during that time. There is the fear, the violence, the animosity, but there is also the way in which those things have become not ordinary, exactly, but subsumed into the everyday. Some chapters will begin by just reeling off a staccato, almost casual list of recent atrocities–shootings, bombs, deaths. We also see this in other chapters where Cushla, a teacher, reflects on the way her seven-year-old students have accepted these atrocities as part of the way things are.

“Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelginite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now.”

But Trespasses is also about a romance, an affair between Cushla and Michael, a married man and a lawyer. Novels about star-crossed affairs are a dime a dozen, but the way Kennedy evokes the relationship between these two here is distinct and memorable, all the more so because it is so carefully rendered. Theirs is a complicated relationship, to say the least: there’s a lot that they don’t know about each other, and their differences–religious, class, age–are significant and consequential. Romance it is, but romanticized it most certainly is not. And yet despite all of this, I was deeply invested in Cushla and Michael’s relationship; it felt believable, not uncomplicated but still evidently and poignantly founded on something real and meaningful to these characters. We get to see their dynamic develop through key scenes–an encounter at a bar, a dinner party, a trip–snapshots that are not long or especially detailed, but that manage to be incredibly evocative of the kind of people these characters are, and of the way that they relate to each other. (I especially loved Cushla: her self-awareness, her emotional sensitivity, her dry sense of humour. She could’ve so easily been a standard Disaster Woman Protagonist, but she thankfully wasn’t.) And again, that give and take that Kennedy is so good at: you get to know these characters, but you also come to understand that you don’t have full access to them (nor will you ever). You don’t get comprehensive backstories or uninhibited self-disclosures, you just get bits and pieces here and there. It’s a real testament to Kennedy’s skill as a writer, then, that those “bits and pieces” feel and are substantial; rather than make her characters distant or inscrutable, they make them interesting. All of this is to say, this is not a sentimental novel, and it is precisely this fact that makes it so compelling. Rather than colour in all the details, it gives you the kind of sharp, precise images that, in the end, create an impression that is all the stronger for its restraint.

Trespassesย begins and ends with a chapter set in 2015, and it is these two chapters that, I think, best sum up the character of this novel–most of all,ย the way it is both about the tender intimacy and the blunt violence, those two things skillfully and movingly woven into each other in Kennedy’s hands.


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