BOOK REVIEW: TENDER by BELINDA McKEON

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Image result for tender belinda mckeon coverMckeon’s Tender is a novel that progresses much like a bruise would: the writing, when it initially hits the page, is sharp and vibrant in its impact, filled with all the excitement of a new, all-engrossing friendship. But as the plot unfolds, the bruise of that initial impact becomes more and more apparent, blooming into increasingly worrying shades of purple and blue, the colours of something gone wrong, something that is so clearly not right happening.

“She laughed. There was a pleasure in hearing him use her name; it was so direct. It was somehow a higher level of attention than she usually got from people; almost cheekily personal. Intimate, that was what it was. And yet pulled clear of intimacy, at the last second, by the reins of irony which seemed to control everything he said, by his constant closeness to mockery. She found herself wanting more of it, and she found, too, that it held a chellenge: to edge him away from that mockery towards something warmer. To make him see that he was wrong in whatever decision he had made about her, about her silliness, about her childishness, about whatever it was he had, by now, set down for her in his mind.”

All of this is to say, McKeon is so good at depicting the gradual collapse of her protagonist, Catherine; the narrowing, over time, of Catherine’s psychological vision. The writing is honest and fluid, almost overflowing in its attempts to catch up with Catherine’s frantic thoughts. Form and content work in parallel, here, the writing becoming more fragmented and divided just as Catherine’s ever-increasing focus on her singular subject becomes more desperate.

(Trying to be vague here so as not to spoil the intrigue. 👀)

More than anything, though, what Tender does that I haven’t seen from a lot of novels is not just depict, but substantially delve into deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions: jealousy, self-pity, possessiveness, clinginess, self-loathing. All of it done, too, in the context of a friendship and a toxic, unrequited love. But McKeon builds her novel’s central dynamic, the fraught friendship between Catherine and James, with such nuance and layers that come what may, I was ready to follow these characters into whatever circumstances they happened to find themselves in. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

4.5-


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BOOK REVIEW: SALT SLOW by JULIA ARMFIELD

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Image result for salt slow julia armfield

Jane Austen once wrote in one of her letters, “Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked”; she might as well have written Salt Slow‘s thesis.

Salt Slow is a short-story collection about problem women. The first line of the book is, after all, “I have my Grandmother’s skin. Problem skin.” Problem skin, problem women. The women of this collection are problem women because they are simply too much: too greedy, too selfish, too obsessive, too dependent. Put another way, they are problem women because they are unruly. And what is so brilliant about Salt Slow is that instead of trying to temper the unruliness of its women, it unabashedly leans into—even celebrates—it. It says, These women are problem women—so what? It never tries to make its women anything less than what they are: ferocious, gross, lazy, needy, careless. Indeed, these are women whose desires and emotions are so extreme they literally push against the bounds of reality: every one of Armfield’s stories contains a surrealist/magical realist element, one seamlessly woven into the fabric of its protagonist’s life.

I mean, look at some of these descriptions:

“Beneath her dressing gown, she is bloody with mosquito bites. Unrazored beneath the arms, unplucked, unmoistured.”

“I had a bad body around that time – creaking joints and difficult digestion, a martyr to mouth ulcers and bleeding gums.”

“Beneath my dress, my skin is churning. My legs feel cracked in half, articulated – a spreading and a shifting, as though my bones are springing out of their intended slots.”

let 👏 women 👏 be 👏 flawed 👏 I didn’t know how much I needed to read about flawed women until I read this book.

Also, Armfield’s writing is MAGNIFICENT. Haunting, dark, beautiful. Truly. Again, I’ll let her writing speak for itself.

“When I was twenty-seven, my Sleep stepped out of me like a passenger from a train carriage, looked around my room for several seconds, then sat down in the chair beside my bed.”

“The jellyfish come with the morning – a great beaching, bodies black on sand. The ocean empties, a thousand dead and dying invertebrates, jungled tentacles and fine, fragile membranes blanketing the shore two miles in each direction. They are translucent, almost spectral, as though the sea has exorcised its ghosts.”

“Nicola watches the gentle pull of outgoing water, the glassy sink and swallow, waves drawing back like lips revealing teeth.”

“The sky is gory with stars, like the insides of a gutted night.”

What more can I say? I fucking loved this. It might be (probably is) my favourite short-story collection ever.

4.5-


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BOOK REVIEW: THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR by AMAL EL-MOHTAR & MAX GLADSTONE

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Image result for This Is How You Lose the Time War COVER“Words can wound—but they’re bridges, too . . . Though maybe a bridge can also be a wound? To paraphrase a prophet: Letters are structures, not events. Yours give me a place to live inside.”

This is How You Love This Book:

You start reading it and it’s this cat-and-mouse back-and-forth between two women from two opposing sides of a time war, of all things. But what begins as an adversarial, albeit playful, show of bravado unfurls into something unexpected: a connection. It is a thread that is tenuous, unsure of its presence, but present nonetheless. And then the adversarial becomes symbiotic; these two women hold each other up in and through their letters. They are each other’s confessionals, writing and ciphering, deciphering and reading. The thread becomes taut, asserts its presence, makes itself known—that is to say, these two women fall in love.

Zoom out from the moving, almost effortless beauty of this story and you remember: oh yeah, we’ve got a time war on our hands. There are pasts to modify, futures to alter, courses of history to reroute, to nudge this way or that. This is not a metaphor; this is the world of these women. There is a war to win, agents to outsmart, rules to follow, secrets to keep.

The thing about This is How You Lose the Time War is that it does both those things simultaneously and masterfully; it is both the forest and the trees. You are so absorbed in the almost intoxicating intimacy of Blue and Red’s correspondence, the way they increasingly skirt closer to truths about themselves and what they mean to each other. But this is not happening in a vacuum: they live, after all, in a world where they weave and up down the course of time at their will, where what is at stake is the future of their respective sides. This is a world with its own terminology, its own tangled history, its own rules and fine print. But you finish this novel having such a complete sense of both the trees and the forest; the searing closeness of its protagonists, but also the backdrop which has at once enshrined and obstructed this closeness. The more the trees of these characters grow taller, the more the forest sprawls like a carpet to ground them in their world. That is to say, this novel draws the contours of its world even as it colours in those contours with characters of vivid, layered interiorities.

Reader, I loved it.

4.5-


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