BOOK REVIEW: LUCKENBOOTH by JENNI FAGAN


Luckenbooth was not a perfect book, but it was a very humane one–and for that I loved it.

To start, I think Luckenbooth is a novel that is, at its heart, about how fucked up the world can be. Not in a trite or hackneyed way, but in a way that simply calls attention to that reality. The story is split into three parts, each with three point-of-view characters, all of which are inevitably tied in one way or another to the titular, larger-than-life tenement that is No. 10 Luckenbooth. Beyond that one common thread, though, the characters that Fagan gives us here are distinct and varied: we have male and female characters, old and young characters, queer characters; there are demon girls and mediums and gangsters and poets. And despite their diverse backgrounds and experiences, what Fagan is really interested in is exploring the particular ways in which they are marginalized: by their class, or gender, or sexuality, or mental illness. To put it simply, then, Luckenbooth is a novel about power and how it manifests in the lives of those who fall outside it.

“There is the Edinburgh that is presented to tourists. Then the other one, which is considered to be the real Edinburgh, to the people who live here. There are the fancy hotels and shops and motorcars and trams and places of work, then are the slums, starvation, disease, addiction, prostitution, crime, little or no infrastructure, no plumbing, no clean water, no rights . . . if the council want to go and take their homes down, they do. This is all on streets just ten minutes’ walk from the fancy city center. When will these things change? Everywhere? When? All fur coat and nae knickers. That’s a phrase the postman told me. It embodies this city.

This is not to say, though, that Luckenbooth is a completely bleak or nihilistic novel, because it’s decidedly not. I said I loved this book because it’s humane, and what I mean by that is that it refuses to let its characters’ marginalization overtake their humanity. Each and every point-of-view character in this novel is drawn so tenderly, and despite getting a relatively limited amount of time with them, you really get a feel for who these characters are–their thoughts, their feelings, their relationships, their heartbreaks. For me, this was one of the things that made this novel stand out: Fagan’s ability to so deftly give each of her characters a distinct and authentic narrative voice. Every point of view in this book evokes its corresponding character, and that is no easy feat considering how many characters (nine) we meet over the course of this novel. That being said, there were definitely POVs that I enjoyed more than others: I think Part I was easily the strongest one of the three–I especially loved Jessie and Flora’s chapters–and there were a few POVs that for me didn’t quite fit in with the others, namely William’s and Queen Bee’s; the former I found too rambly, the latter out of place with the novel’s larger narrative.

Characters aside, I’d also be remiss not to mention the role that Edinburgh as a city plays in this novel. Cliche as it is to say that “[insert city name here] is a character in the novel,” it’s trueEdinburgh really is one of the main characters of this story, and many of Luckenbooth‘s chapters conjure it up for us in vivid detail: the streets, the people, the atmosphere, the corruption.

“I have this feeling, Edinburgh will dispose of each of us once she has had her use – drank all the energy and talent and money and vitality and then she spits out the bones. Hungry city!
Subsists on human souls.”

So far, so good, but there are also some things that I didn’t love about Luckenbooth. I think the point-of-view chapters got weaker after Part I, which was so well done that it inadvertently set a high standard for the novel’s subsequent parts–a standard which, in my opinion, they just didn’t live up to (though they certainly weren’t bad). Another issue I had, which is more technical, was with the dialogue. Fagan includes very little speech tags (“he said,” “she said”) in her writing, which means that you have to really pay attention to the dialogue to keep track of who said what. The way Fagan sets up her dialogue on the page, though, made this really difficult to do. She tries to address this issue by making the characters constantly refer to each other in their speech: so, for example, Ivy and Morag will be talking and the dialogue will just be like “what are you doing, Ivy?” and then Ivy responds “Nothing, Morag,” and then a few lines later we’ll get “Ivy, why are you doing that?” and “No reason, Morag,” etc. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s one of my pet peeves when characters do this, and it becomes very glaring once you notice it. People don’t usually refer to each other by name like this during conversations, so it oftentimes made the dialogue feel stilted and jolted me out of the characters’ conversations.

The issues I had were minor, though, and certainly didn’t overtake my enjoyment of the novel. Luckenbooth is a compelling novel in its structure, characters, and themes, but more than that, it’s a really sympathetic novel, one with a lot of heart. I will definitely be watching out for whatever Jenni Fagan releases next.

Thanks so much for Simon & Schuster for providing me with an e-ARC of this via Edelweiss!


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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: PEOPLE WANT TO LIVE by FARAH ALI


People Want to Live by Farah Ali

“Sometimes a new underpass or a flyover or a shiny mall distracts me and that is good, but then I see a piece of wall I often passed when I was little and I am again pulled thinly, painfully, through that narrow corridor between the past and the future, between that which we can never change and that which gives us a chance to escape.”

People Want to Live is a collection that’s defined, I think, by its psychological acuity. Farah Ali writes about all manner of characters–bereaved, estranged, alienated, unsettled–in a sparse, measured way, her style deftly communicating a sense that every word in these stories has been carefully considered and chosen, is purposeful in what it is meant to convey and how it is meant to convey it.

It’s always hard to find a common thread that runs through all the stories of a collection, but I think what ties together Ali’s is her interest in the dissonance between and within characters: in “Heroes,” a bereaved mother tries to reconcile the media’s depictions of her dead son with the reality of what her son was like; in “Believers,” a young man grapples with the push and pull between faith and self-sufficiency; in “An Act of Charity,” a dissatisfied couple intervenes in the life of their friends’ maid. In all of these stories there is a sense of disquietude, and though a few do skew more dramatic in terms of their plot, Ali depicts them all in her keen-eyed, carefully controlled way. They are not “quiet” stories so much as they are precise, honed because they have been sharpened to their most essential parts, lean because any excess has been trimmed out.

As for which stories were my favourites, I think the absolute standout of this collection is “Present Tense,” a remarkably unsettling story about the often traumatic ways in which family impresses itself upon the past, and so also the present and the future. Here’s a quote that stuck with me,

It’s just the kind of short story that I love, the kind that tells you a lot without actually telling you a lot, the kind that is able to use its narrative surface to gesture at an immense depth. Another favourite was “Foreigners,” a story where a couple is interviewed (read: interrogated) by a man at the American Consulate in Pakistan. And oof, this one is just cutthroat in its depiction of how otherness becomes instated in a context like that, and the almost tangible sense of power that those doing the othering wield in those situations. (Other favourites also include “Believers” and “An Act of Charity,” which I’ve already mentioned.)

Though I loved a lot of this collection’s stories, though, there were a few that didn’t quite work for me: namely, “Tourism,” “The Effect of Heat on Poor People,” “Together,” and “What’s Fair?” (especially sad I didn’t like that last one because it was the one that ended the collection, and I wanted the collection to end with a bang). These are the stories I just didn’t “get”–not in the sense that they were challenging or confusing to understand, but rather that I just had no idea what they were narratively trying to do.

Overall, though, this was a really enjoyable and deftly written short story collection, with a lot of standouts, and with a psychological focus that I especially appreciated. If you love literary fiction and you love short stories, then you really can’t go wrong with this collection.

Thank you so much to McSweeney’s for sending me a review copy of this in exchange for an honest review!


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