BOOK REVIEW: PARIS SYNDROME by LUCY SWEENEY BYRNE

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Image result for Paris Syndrome by Lucy Sweeney ByrneParis Syndrome is a collection of interconnected short stories that follows its principal character, Lucy, as she finds herself flitting from one place to the next, forced to confront who she is inside and outside different millieux, alternately surprised by what she is capable of doing and disillusioned by a sense of inherent sameness in her self across all these places.

In all the stories in Paris Syndrome there is a through line of psychological and emotional fluctuation. And this is exactly what makes this collection so lend itself to the “millennial” label. Lucy is a character burdened by an overwhelming emotional sensitivity and yet, at the same time, often witness to her own feelings of passivity and emptiness. At times she strains to manufacture emotion to perform in what she believes is the context that requires it. At others she is almost incapacitated by a hyperawareness of everything within and without her: an all-too-sudden sense of the uncontrollability of her experience in an already precarious, uncontrollable world.

“And this realization of yet again feeling absolutely nothing when there ought to have been something caused a slicing of sharp, reddish-pink heat to rise in my chest. I flexed my fingers and worked hard on remaining calm. Not to shout out, to howl, to start banging my chest or pulling out my hair or scratching my nails deep into the soft, well-moisturized skin of my very kind, very good friend or – even better – to lie down right there on the white dusty path; to curl up and stop altogether.

Luckily, in a matter of seconds . . . this feeling too passed. And I was left with my familiar, easy nothing.”

This “nothing” emotional state is perhaps most emblematic of Sweeney Byrne’s whole collection. There are, in these stories, nothings with different emotional inflections: the “easy nothing” in “Montparnasse” that so disturbs Lucy; the desperate, self-imposed nothing of “Zeno’s Paradox,” one borne out of an instinct to suppress and protect the self from pain; and the lost nothing in “La Rêve” that is acted upon because…why not? All of this is to say, at different points throughout her travels, Lucy is constantly in the throes of the push and pull of her own self, indulging in her emotions so extremely so as to obscure them, or else refusing to engage in them at all.

“. . . she was deafened, overwhelmed by the din of all that unspoken silence . . . all the endless stories, forgotten, wordless stories . . All the lives lost and ruined right here, lives like hers, measly and nothing and everything too”

When we travel, we expect the places we go to to give us something: an answer, a feeling, an insight. What Lucy wants from the cities she travels to is unclear, and that is exactly what defines her experiences in Paris Syndrome. She wants something from these cities, but she doesn’t know what it is. And so she keeps moving, travelling, hoping that, at some point, it will all click for her. There is no feeling more millennial than that. (I would know.)

Thematic discussion aside, the best story in this collection is by far “Zeno’s Paradox.” Heartbreaking and beautifully written, with a perfect title to boot. My other favourites included “And We Continue to Live” and “Montparnasse.”

There were some aspects here that I didn’t love, namely the language used to describe fatness (I felt that a lot of it bordered on, or was, fatphobic), and the way that some of these cities and their natives were described, especially Mexico. I’m not from any of the cities mentioned in this book, so I can’t exactly tell to what extent these descriptions were appropriate, but some of them definitely didn’t feel right to me.

Paris Syndrome is, I think, a collection that is most invested in exploring how a kind of psychological restlessness manifests itself in a geographical restlessness. There aren’t exactly answers to be found in these stories, but there is always an effort to question, unsettle, negotiate.

(Thank you so much to Banshee Lit for sending me a review copy of this in exchange for an honest review!)

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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: THE LANGUAGE OF THORNS BY LEIGH BARDUGO

An absolute treasure trove of wonderfully wicked and unflinchingly honest stories. These stories are not in the business of wish fulfillment—not to say that some of them don’t have “happy endings,” but rather that those endings always come at a cost. If these tales are dark, it is only because they refuse to pretend that the dark doesn’t exist. And let me tell you, Bardugo’s writing is just exquisite.

from the ones I liked most to the ones I liked least: (though really all of these were top notch—there wasn’t a single story I even slightly disliked)

“Ayama and the Thorn Wood” – 4.5/5 stars (by far my favourite)

“You see, some people are born with a piece of night inside, and that hollow place can never be filled—not with all the good food or sunshine in the world. That emptiness cannot be banished, and so some days we wake with the feeling of the wind blowing through, and we must simply endure it as the boy did.”

“The Witch of Duva” – 4.5/5 stars

“So shut the window tight and make sure the latch is fastened. Dark things have a way of slipping in through narrow spaces.”

“The Solider Prince” – 4.25/5 stars

“Wanting is why people get up in the morning. It gives them something to dream of at night. The more I wanted, the more I became like them, the more real I became.”

“When Water Sang Fire” – 4/5 stars

“Song was all she had and so she clung to it, honed and perfected it, as though if she could only sharpen her skill to a fine enough point, she might carve a true place for herself in the world.”

“Little Knife” – 3.5/5 stars

“Remember that to use a thing is not to own it. And should you ever take a bride, listen closely to her questions. In them you may hear her true name like the thunder of a lost river, like the sighing of the sea.”

“The Too Clever Fox” – 3.5/5 stars

“The trap is loneliness, and none of us escapes it. Not even me.”