BOOK REVIEW: THEY’RE GOING TO LOVE YOU by MEG HOWREY


There is so much that I liked about They’re Going to Love You. For one, the prose is lovely: Meg Howrey writes beautifully and with such love about ballet and dance in general, the motifs and images she threads throughout her novel lucid and striking. I also loved the way she crafted Carlisle’s relationship with her father and his partner, James; you feel keenly how much Carlisle loves them, how desperately she wants to be closer to them, to be drawn into their family. Howrey depicts these characters with real sympathy and understanding, and this carries over more broadly to all the other characters in her novel, even the ones who may, at first glance, seem marginal or antagonistic to Carlisle. Through small, tender moments that nevertheless feel significant, she’s able to cultivate a sense of the wholeness of these characters, of the richness of their lives, even if they don’t actually get a lot of time on the page. (I’m thinking here, especially, of the way Howrey writes Carlisle’s relationship with her mother.)

“Balanchine famously said there are no mothers-in-law in ballet. Meaning, it’s not an art form suited for portraying complicated family relationships, or psychological subtleties. It’s a place to get away from them, into a purer realm.

Dance is very good on romantic love. Love is one of its best, easiest, most beautiful and wonderful expressions. The dive, the swoop, the swoon. (Dance is also excellent for anger, pride, and sorrow.)

I love better in my work than I do anywhere else.”

And yet–I just wanted moreThey’re Going to Love You was, to me, a good novel that could’ve been so much better. The foundation is there–the characters, their dynamics, the writing–but it needed fleshing out. Part of why the story felt a little underdeveloped to me is the pacing: as a narrative, They’re Going to Love You moves both too slowly and too quickly. We spend a lot of time on things that we shouldn’t–especially in the beginning, where we focus on Carlisle and her work in the present timeline–and not enough time on the things that we should–namely, the dynamics between Carlisle, her father, and James. That dynamic between those three is the linchpin of the entire novel, and yet I never really felt like its heft and significance was dwelt on enough or written with enough detail.

The other thing is that it just takes too long to get to the thrust of the story: the central conflict that severs Carlisle’s ties to James and her father to such an extent that it leaves her completely estranged from them for over twenty years. Because that conflict unfolds so late into the story, the rest of the narrative is then forced to rush to get to where it needs to go. When we get to the last part of the novel, then, the present timeline where Carlisle reconnects with James and her father, who is now dying, the emotional beats just don’t hit as hard as they should. And it’s such a shame, because I really was invested–I cared about these characters and was moved by them, but I finished the novel feeling a little dazed, like I’d just watched a great movie, but at 2x speed.

In my notes on this novel, I wrote down “good bones but needs more meat”–and that’s pretty much the crux of my feelings on They’re Going to Love You.

Thanks so much to Doubelday Books for providing me with an e-ARC 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.

Trespasses 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, 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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BOOK REVIEW: IF AN EGYPTIAN CANNOT SPEAK ENGLISH by NOOR NAGA


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 grayness 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 not just The Poor 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.

Thank you so much to Graywolf Press for sending me a review copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review!


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