BOOK REVIEW: THE ART OF LOSING by ALICE ZENITER (tr. Frank Wynne)


The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter

“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 Parisian failed 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.


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BOOK REVIEW: A MARVELLOUS LIGHT by FREYA MARSKE


A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

When I first heard about A Marvellous Light, it sounded like it was pretty much written for me: tropey! romantic! historical! magical! And reader, it did not disappoint.

Gotta say, I love this new trend of bringing fanfiction sensibilities into traditionally published fiction, because at its heart, fanfiction really embodies everything I love reading about: there’s the romance, yes, but also the dialogue, the focus on relationships and relationship dynamics, the exploration of tropes. And ultimately I think that’s why A Marvellous Light worked so well for me. For one, it was just a genuinely fun book: there’s sentient houses and magical games and libraries, and the characters are given the space to explore all those things without everything necessarily having to be about Moving the Plot Forward. It’s a well-paced and well-written book, too, deftly balancing plot with character development, and giving us some really moving and poignant character moments as well as some more high stakes, action-packed ones. Of course, this book doesn’t work without its delightful duo: Edwin and Robin. They had such a lovely dynamic, and not to get too emo or anything, but there’s just something so heartwarming about watching two people get to know about and care for each other. The tenderness! The yearning! The tentativeness that develops into something more sturdy, more steady! It really is all about the Mortifying Ordeal Of Being Known.

All in all, this was a confidently and assuredly written debut, and I’m so excited to see where Edwin and Robin’s story goes next (the second book is going to be set on the Titanic ?!!!?!?!).

Thanks so much to Tor for providing me with an e-ARC of this via Netgalley!


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NYRB BOOKS: SPOTLIGHT + TBR


today I’m talking about some books by the amazing New York Review of Books, a publisher that focuses on books that have gone under the radar, or have been forgotten over the years. a lot of their fiction and nonfiction is translated, which I love, and their book design is just top notch (the book covers always feature beautiful art pieces and I love how simple and effective the designs are!! their spines line up so nicely!!).


The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (tr. by Barbara Bray)

The Bridge of Beyond : Schwarz-Bart, Simone, Kincaid, Jamaica, Bray,  Barbara: Amazon.ca: Books

This is an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. Here long-suffering Telumee tells her life story and tells us about the proud line of Lougandor women she continues to draw strength from. Time flows unevenly during the long hot blue days as the madness of the island swirls around the villages, and Telumee, raised in the shelter of wide skirts, must learn how to navigate the adversities of a peasant community, the ecstasies of love, and domestic realities while arriving at her own precious happiness. In the words of Toussine, the wise, tender grandmother who raises her, “Behind one pain there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”

A masterpiece of Caribbean literature, The Bridge of Beyond relates the triumph of a generous and hopeful spirit, while offering a gorgeously lush, imaginative depiction of the flora, landscape, and customs of Gua­deloupe. Simone Schwarz-Bart’s incantatory prose, interwoven with Creole proverbs and lore, appears here in a remarkable translation by Barbara Bray. 

this has been on my TBR for ages — it sounds so good, and I’ve loved the few pages of it that I’ve read. I’ve also seen really rave reviews of this on Goodreads, so I’m definitely planning to get to it soon.


Katalin Street by Magda Szabó (tr. by Len Rix)

Katalin Street : Szabo, Magda, Rix, Len: Amazon.ca: Books

In prewar Budapest three families live side by side on gracious Katalin Street, their lives closely intertwined. A game is played by the four children in which Bálint, the promising son of the major, invariably chooses Irén Elekes, the headmaster’s dutiful elder daughter, over her younger sister, the scatterbrained Blanka, and little Henriette Held, the daughter of the Jewish dentist.

Their lives are torn apart in 1944 by the German occupation, which only the Elekes family survives intact. The postwar regime relocates them to a cramped Soviet-style apartment and they struggle to come to terms with social and political change, personal loss, and unstated feelings of guilt over the deportation of the Held parents and the death of little Henriette, who had been left in their protection. But the girl survives in a miasmal afterlife, and reappears at key moments as a mute witness to the inescapable power of past events.

As in The Door and Iza’s Ballad, Magda Szabó conducts a clear-eyed investigation into the ways in which we inflict suffering on those we love. Katalin Street, which won the 2007 Prix Cévennes for Best European novel, is a poignant, somber, at times harrowing novel, but beautifully conceived and truly unforgettable.

Ever since I read and adored Magda Szabó’s Abigail, I knew that I wanted to read the rest of her books. Her writing is just mesmerizing, and her stories are always so compact and cutting. I can’t wait to get to Katalin Street, which will be the third book by her that I’ve read, and I also plan on getting to Iza’s Ballad after this.


Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

August 2015 – Page 2 – mirabile dictu

Cassandra Edwards is a graduate student at Berkeley: gay, brilliant, nerve-wracked, miserable. At the beginning of this novel, she drives back to her family ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to attend the wedding of her identical twin, Judith, to a nice young doctor from Connecticut. Cassandra, however, is hell-bent on sabotaging the wedding. 

Dorothy Baker’s entrancing tragicomic novella follows an unpredictable course of events in which her heroine appears variously as conniving, self-aware, pitiful, frenzied, absurd, and heartbroken—at once utterly impossible and tremendously sympathetic. Cassandra reckons with her complicated feelings about the sister who she feels owes it to her to be her alter ego; with her father, a brandy-soaked retired professor of philosophy; and with the ghost of her dead mother, as she struggles to come to terms with the only life she has.

First published in 1962, Cassandra at the Wedding is a book of enduring freshness, insight, and verve. Like the fiction of Jeffrey Eugenides and Jhumpa Lahiri, it is the work of a master stylist with a profound understanding of the complexities of the heart and mind.

Not gonna lie: I’m not sure if I’m gonna like this, but it does sound very promising. I feel like this is the kind of book I’ll either love or DNF, so we’ll have to see lol. Regardless, the synopsis sounds great and I do love reading stories that focus on a single character and their fraught relationship with their family.


Troubles by J. G. Farrell

Amazon.com: Troubles (Empire Trilogy): 9781590170182: Farrell, J.G.,  Banville, John: Books

1919: After surviving the Great War, Major Brendan Archer makes his way to Ireland, hoping to discover whether he is indeed betrothed to Angela Spencer, whose Anglo-Irish family owns the once-aptly-named Majestic Hotel in Kilnalough. But his fiancée is strangely altered and her family’s fortunes have suffered a spectacular decline. The hotel’s hundreds of rooms are disintegrating on a grand scale; its few remaining guests thrive on rumors and games of whist; herds of cats have taken over the Imperial Bar and the upper stories; bamboo shoots threaten the foundations; and piglets frolic in the squash court. Meanwhile, the Major is captivated by the beautiful and bitter Sarah Devlin. As housekeeping disasters force him from room to room, outside the order of the British Empire also totters: there is unrest in the East, and in Ireland itself the mounting violence of “the troubles.”

Troubles is a hilarious and heartbreaking work by a modern master of the historical novel. 

This one comes recommended by Rachel, so I have high hopes for it!! 👀 I’m a sucker for Irish fiction, and I love that this one has a historical bent to it as well.


The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne eBook by Mary Gordon - 9781590174203 |  Rakuten Kobo United States

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an unflinching and deeply sympathetic portrait of a woman destroyed by self and circumstance. First published in 1955, it marked Brian Moore as a major figure in English literature (he would go on to be short-listed three times for the Booker Prize) and established him as an astute chronicler of the human soul.

Judith Hearne is an unmarried woman of a certain age who has come down in society. She has few skills and is full of the prejudices and pieties of her genteel Belfast upbringing. But Judith has a secret life. And she is just one heartbreak away from revealing it to the world. 

Another Irish pick! I found out about this one from Cathy, and it sounds like it’s right up my alley.


Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes – New York Review Books

In Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner tells of an aging spinster’s struggle to break way from her controlling family—a classic story that she treats with cool feminist intelligence, while adding a dimension of the supernatural and strange. Warner is one of the outstanding and indispensable mavericks of twentieth-century literature, a writer to set beside Djuna Barnes and Jane Bowles, with a subversive genius that anticipates the fantastic flights of such contemporaries as Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson.

Again, I feel like this one could go either way–I could hate it or love it–but it does sound like something I’d like to read. I love stories about women, especially unmarried women trying to navigate life during a time when marriage was pretty much their only option.


The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (tr. by Thomas Teal)

The Summer Book: Tove Jansson: 9781590172681: Books - Amazon.ca

In The Summer Book Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer—its sunlight and storms—into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature Venice, write a fanciful study of local bugs. They discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love. “On an island,” thinks the grandmother, “everything is complete.” In The Summer Book, Jansson creates her own complete world, full of the varied joys and sorrows of life.

Tove Jansson, whose Moomintroll comic strip and books brought her international acclaim, lived for much of her life on an island like the one described in The Summer Book, and the work can be enjoyed as her closely observed journal of the sounds, sights, and feel of a summer spent in intimate contact with the natural world.

The Summer Book is translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

I’ve heard that this is a very wholesome read, and that does seem to be the vibe that I’m getting from it. I love the focus on a grandmother and her granddaughter, and I love that this is set on an island. It sounds lovely, and I’m hoping that it works for me when I get around to reading it.


that’s all I’ve got for today, but please let me know if there are other NYRB books that you’d recommend!!! I’m always looking for recommendations of books from them, especially because there are so many and I have no idea where to start.


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