The Starless Sea

When Zachary Rawlins stumbles across a strange book hidden in his university library it leads him on a quest unlike any other. Its pages entrance him with their tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities and nameless acolytes, but they also contain something impossible: a recollection from his own childhood.

Determined to solve the puzzle of the book, Zachary follows the clues he finds on the cover – a bee, a key and a sword. They guide him to a masquerade ball, to a dangerous secret club, and finally through a magical doorway created by the fierce and mysterious Mirabel. The door leads to a subterranean labyrinth filled with stories, hidden far beneath the surface of the earth.

When the labyrinth is threatened, Zachary must race with Mirabel and Dorian, a handsome barefoot man with shifting alliances, through its twisting tunnels and crowded ballrooms, searching for the end of his story.


I’m kind of afraid to summarise my thoughts about The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. For one, this book is seriously beloved in the bookish community and, well, unfortunately that was not my experience. Also, my first thought on finishing (and throughout, tbh), was: what did I just read?

I was really disappointed, because I absolutely loved The Night Circus. The way the different threads of that novel wound themselves together into a tale spinning across decades totally took my breath away. Aside from Erin’s language choices, which are as gorgeous as everyone says, what I adored about The Night Circus was the feeling that nothing was wasted – every conversation, practically every sideways glance of that novel was building toward the finale. I never wanted to put that book down because through every chapter I had the unwavering belief that the author was building something.

I suppose it might have been to the detriment of my own reading experience that I carried that belief with me into The Starless Sea.

In terms of the pure building blocks of the almost 500-page narrative, it isn’t all that different from The Night Circus, I guess. Much as it was in her debut, time is very much up for manipulation. A story about stories, as it has been endlessly described, the book is largely divided between the narrative of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a college student in New York who is plunged into a magical world after checking out a book from the library he is stunned to discover himself a character in; and the chapters of that book, Sweet Sorrows, an ancient tome of myths about time, fate and love haunted by The Owl King who might be an owl king or might be a metaphor – to be honest I was never really sure.

This numbered one of my many frustrations.

Rather than that gradual stitching together I so loved during her debut, reading The Starless Sea, I felt I was forever grabbing for threads only to have them slip straight through my fingers. Zachary’s story had stakes – there is a group known as the Collector’s Club trying to destroy the Starless Sea forever – but the why of it all felt so hazy to me that even in its most dramatic moments I always felt apart from the action, like I was constantly playing catch up.

Ultimately I felt like The Starless Sea got so caught up in its own mythology it totally sacrificed plot. I think perhaps my confusion lay in the genre, which felt like it had one foot in the a literary world shrouded in metaphor, and the other very much grounded in that of plot-driven fantasy and the jumbled elements of both really wound up serving neither. I can read a beautiful book of metaphor with no plot and fall in love. I can ready an epic fantasy and be thrilled at every twist. Somehow though, this combination of both just didn’t work for me.

Despite my issues with the narrative, such as it was, the writing was as beautiful as ever – even if I couldn’t feel it in my bones like I wanted to. I felt throughout like I had a vague sense of what she was trying to say – that all stories are connected, that every ending is a new beginning and while that’s still sad, it’s hopeful, too – somehow none of it really meant anything to me.

The Starless Sea was one of those strange books I walked away from with a sense of failure. We’ve all had that, right? That perhaps there is this profound message somewhere in there that I just couldn’t uncover, that somehow, some way, I read it ‘wrong’.

Maybe. Or maybe it just wasn’t my type of book.

Perhaps I’ll let myself off the hook, and decide to believe in the latter.

Every ending is a new beginning after all. Now I’m finally through this book (it took me a while), I can go read something else.

Girl, Woman, Other

This is Britain as you’ve never read it.

This is Britain as it has never been told.

From the top of the country to the bottom, across more than a century of change and growth and struggle and life, Girl, Woman, Other follows twelve characters on an entwined journey of discovery.

It is future, it is past. It is fiction, it is history.

It is a novel about who we are now.


It is fair to say I’ve never read anything quite like Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. The winner of the Booker prize last year and the subject of endless praise, it’s one of those books I fear I don’t have much to add to the conversation about. But, despite that, I’m writing today to confirm holy shit this is good.

Girl, Woman, Other is a subversive piece of writing comprised of 12 interconnected stories of mostly Black, mostly female characters and their experiences of Britishness over maybe a century. Queer people, married and unmarried, mothers and the child free, bohemians and traditionalists, female and non-binary, middle and working class; each character in the novel is complex, embodied and leaps from the page – however long you get to spend with them. It is so easy to fall into the narrative of this book, which consumed me from the first page, that you forget to step back for a moment and consider the revolutionary act of writing it. In a publishing world still falling woefully short in its diversity of representation, perhaps most especially here in the UK, to have a book filled with stories of fully realised Black women in all their complexity, different sexualities, politics and relationships – with themselves and others – is an act of total and complete triumph.

The form of this book is probably like nothing you’ve ever read before. Written in an utterly experimental style (which is something I am always up for – I know not everybody feels that way, but I would urge you not to be put off if you’re the type to get upset about missing punctuation. Maybe, just maybe, punctuation is overrated) Bernadine has referred to as ‘fusion-fiction’, it’s poetic, free and subversive. And the style totally serves the story that Bernadine has set out to tell.

There is a feeling of timelessness to Girl, Woman, Other – and I don’t mean that in the traditional sense – but instead that it’s as if time is the rabbit hole and you’re Alice falling through it, as the focus of the authorial gaze shifts fluidly from decade to decade. Once you’ve fallen for long enough, gravity stops existing and you realise that maybe there’s no such thing as up and down anyway. There’s nowhere left to look but around –to see the story in its entirety.

That’s what reading this felt like for me, anyway.

The lack of (rejection of?) punctuation and time’s resultant flow state builds this intense sense of connection between these women’s stories, strung together in a sprawling, endlessly diverse picture of Black British womanhood through the centuries and further on into the horizons we haven’t met yet. It’s a version of the UK we haven’t seen a lot of, to put it mildly.

Another aspect of the writing that I loved was that Evaristo somehow managed to balance nuance with a healthy dose of scepticism toward her characters. She didn’t shy away from elements of the ridiculous where they were present – whether that’s the maybe slightly too intense political expression of the young when they’re coming to it all for the first time (written as if I don’t 100% fall into this group), or the determined bohemian expression of the old even as they veer farther and farther into the mainstream. This was funny, but it also served to hook me in even faster I think. You can only send up a character well if you understand the heart of them through and through, and in Girl, Woman, Other I always felt like Bernadine did. There was not a single person in this book I did not believe in entirely.

I now have to read my way through her back catalogue, which thankfully/shamefully due to my complete ignorance of her work pre-Booker prize, there is lots of. I’ve heard her say she needs every book she writes to challenge her, and I’m excited to see how her books will challenge me too.

Little Fires Everywhere

In the placid, progressive suburb of Shaker Heights everything is meticulously planned, from the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson.

Mia Warren, an enigmatic artist and single mother, arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter, Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants; all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs Richardson on opposing sides. Mrs Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.


I had been meaning to read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng forever, obviously. Everyone said it was amazing, then the Amazon adaptation was coming starring none other than Olivia Pope herself, AKA Kerry Washington, who I would watch doing pretty much anything, to be honest – and somehow I still had not gotten around to it. So it was very fortuitous that back in the early days of lockdown when I was making my weekly 7am trip up to the Co-Op, one of my neighbours had kindly included it in the box of ‘free – please take’ books placed their gateway.

Don’t mind if I do.

I read the book and then watched the show (which I loved), so the two are a little intertwined in my head, but I will do my best to stick to the Ng-only version for the purposes of this review. (Though if you did watch the show, how good was Reese Witherspoon!? I never thought I could be revolted by Reese but she pulled it off).

Set in 1990s America but with a feel that is utterly contemporary, Little Fires Everywhere is, as the title suggests, a tinder box of a book. Dual tensions of race in so-called liberal white suburbia rub up against issues of class and bohemian verses traditional lifestyles to produce a novel that is simmering – with resentment, tension, sex and rage. Though they don’t speak of such things in a place like Shaker Heights, of course.

Celeste Ng captures so much in this novel, casting a merciless eye over the failings of the liberal middle class who consider ‘colour blindess’ a virtue. She examines the unacknowledged white privilege driving the Shaker Heights community with the heart-rending tale of Bebe Chow, a Chinese woman fighting for custody of her child, who was adopted by a local couple after Bebe abandoned her in a moment of poverty-driven despair. The custody battle splits the community down the middle, with Elena and Mia at the heart of the conflict. The case raises many questions the residents of Shaker are entirely unprepared to face: does motherhood lie in the love or in the blood? Does the race matter in adoption (why did her adoptive parents change her name from May Ling to Mirabelle?)? Are we setting up certain mothers – single mothers, mothers who aren’t white, aren’t American, aren’t wealthy, perhaps aren’t legal citizens – to fail? Ng leaves us to draw our own conclusions.

At the same time as all this, the complex entanglement of Elena and Mia’s families shows the sometimes destabilizing effect of confronting a lifestyle entirely different from one’s own. Shaker has always been Elena’s plan. The husband, the house, the brood of photogenic children was what she was working toward, but the sudden arrival of Mia, a nomad, an artist, the apparent embodiment of freedom from all those things women are socialised to strive for, throws it all off balance. How do you respond when faced with an individual living all of the decisions you chose not to pursue? Elena opts for rejection and suspicion – and Mia returns it in kind. For their children however, it’s an entirely different story. It’s funny how when you’re a kid it’s much easier to see a different lifestyle as a possibility rather than a threat – it’s a feeling we should all work harder to hold onto as we grow up, I think. Little Fires Everywhere evoked more than anything I’ve ever read that feeling from childhood of that one friend’s house that feels like stepping into another world – their family so fun, so pretty, so lacking in all of the complexities and frustrations that make your own so annoying. The family you want to join, at whose house sleepovers are elevated to exploratory missions, data gathering for previously unknown possibilities. Both Pearl, Mia’s daughter, and Elena’s kids feel this way about each other. It’s a feeling I’d forgotten, and revisiting it was a nostalgic joy.

Little Fires Everywhere is complex and utterly gripping. Read it. Then watch the show. They are both challenging, nuanced and truly excellent experiences.

Circe

Trigger warning for rape

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. Circe is strange – not powerful and terrible, like her father, nor gorgeous and mercenary like her mother. But she has a dark power of her own: witchcraft. When Circe’s gift threatens the gods, she is banished to the island of Aiaia where she hones her occult craft, casting spells, gathering strange herbs and taming wild beasts. Yet a woman who stands alone cannot live in peace for long – and among her island’s guests is an unexpected visitor: the mortal Odysseus, for whom Circe will risk everything.

Circe’s tale is a vivid epic of family rivalry, love and loss – the inextinguishable song of woman burning hot and bright in the darkness of a man’s world.


I do not know a lot about Greek mythology, and I have definitely never read the Odyssey, but as I understand it, originally Circe appeared in Odysseus’s story during a year-long stopover he took on her island, Aiaia. Homer told the tale of her and Odysseus’s relationship, which began when Circe, a powerful witch, turned all of Odysseus’s sailing buddies into pigs. Odysseus himself was only saved from this terrible fate because he had some anti-magic herb called moly that protected him from this very scenario (convenient). Odysseus – in all his manliness – persuades Circe to turn the men back and despite getting off to something of a shaky start, I assume they all become friends.

As I said, I haven’t read it.

In Homer’s version, it seems that Circe is a feature in Odysseus’s story. In Circe, Madeline Miller dispenses with that idea (Homer, we are over you) and weaves a rich and episodic tale entirely of Circe’s own.

In a similar fashion to City of Girls, which I talked about last week, I really loved the sprawling timeline of this novel. We get to grow up with this character and see her through so many phases of her life – Circe as a young person, getting her heart broken for the first time, being exiled from her home, recovering from rape, and eventually her journey into motherhood and everything that happens after the birth of her son – though I can’t get too much into that, cause spoilers. Her character development is rich, with glimpses of the woman she would one day go on to be evident even during her childhood of neglect at the hands of her parents, Helios (as in the sun god) and Perse, a nymph.

Circe is an outcast from the beginning. From the moment of her birth when Helios declares her not good enough to marry to a god because she isn’t beautiful enough (to which her mother’s response is “let’s go make a better one”), Circe is considered the runt of the litter and treated accordingly. As such, it’s hardly surprising that Circe grows up feeling inferior.

Weirdly, having something of an inferiority complex seems to be a common problem among the gods. The toxicity and rivalry apparent in Circe’s own family spills out into the wider community as well, which is driven by men who all have one thing in common: they want power, and more of it, all the time. Even the literal gods feel like what they have isn’t enough. The gods are made up of two communities, Titans and Olympians – basically old gods and new gods. After a devastating war there have been many years of peace, but threat to that peace looms over Circe’s entire childhood, as her father and his friends agitate always for more, more, more.

This idea of power, who has it and what it means is central to the novel. Circe’s entire life has been defined by the unforgiving hand of her father, and she is years into her adulthood and her exile before she really understands how she can reclaim some of that power for herself – and keep reclaiming it, even as men continue to try and take it from her.

It’s a gorgeously written novel of survival, and of carving space for yourself even when you have to do that without the love and the support of those supposedly closest to you. Loss runs through its pages – a side effect of being immortal, I guess – but not all those losses are bad. Changing your life involves a lot of loss, after all. But Circe will tell you more about that.

Beloved

It is the mid-1800s. At Sweet Home in Kentucky, an era is ending as slavery comes under attack from the abolitionists. The worlds of Halle and Paul D are to be destroyed in a cataclysm of torment and agony. The world of Sethe, however, is to turn from one of love to one of violence and death – the death of Sethe’s baby daughter, Beloved, whose name is the single word on the tombstone, who died at her mother’s hands, and who will return to claim retribution.


“I decided that the single most uncontroversial thing one can say about the institution of slavery vis-à-vis contemporary time, is that it haunts us all. That in so many ways all our lives are entangled with the past – its manipulations and, fearful of its grasp, ignoring or dismissing or distorting it to suit ourselves, but always unable to erase it.”
– From The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations by Toni Morrison

The first thing you should know about Beloved, the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner by Toni Morrison is that it is a ghost story. Number 124 is a ‘spiteful’ house, ‘full of a baby’s venom’ where Denver and her mother Sethe spend their days isolated – their other family lost to death or driven out by the baby ghost that shatters mirrors, ruins food and tortures the dog, and whose death at Sethe’s own hands has alienated the family from the rest of the community.

The second thing to know about Beloved is that it is a story about motherhood. In her discussion of the novel in The Source of Self Regard, Toni writes that part of what inspired Beloved was the conversations about reproductive freedom happening at the time, but rather than focusing on a woman’s right to be child-free, she was instead interested in writing about those women to whom the choice to have children “was the supreme act of freedom, not its opposite”. And so we step into the story of Sethe, and the vastness of her love for her children – a love so vast it drove her to kill one of them.

So, let’s talk a bit more about what the freedom of motherhood looks like for Sethe. As a slave, her children legally did not belong to her. They could be sold separately from her. Under such circumstances, for Sethe to choose to have her children and to claim them as hers was an act of revolution. And once she had them, she knew she had to save them from the life she and her predecessors had endured. So she does – taking a harrowing journey with them to freedom.

Freedom was hard to come by. During the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, owners went after escaped slaves like Sethe – their bodies, and their children still considered claimable property under the law. That’s what happens – Sethe and her children make it almost a month into their escape from their owners at Sweet Home when the slave master comes for them, and so Sethe takes her children out to the back of the house to kill them, starting with the newborn Beloved. To Sethe, to kill them is the only way she can save them. Ultimately, she only kills Beloved before she is stopped and arrested.

“If I hadn’t killed her, she would have died.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is an intensely complicated and painful read. And I haven’t even got to what happens when Beloved returns to 124 (maybe? We don’t really know. It might just be some random lady who also happens to be called Beloved). From Sethe’s act of violence, to the all-consuming intensity of her relationship with the returned Beloved, to Sethe’s boyfriend Paul D’s subsequent deeply uncomfortable sexual relationship with that very same Beloved – all of the characters in this book resist the classifications of noble victimhood that modern discourse so often projects onto slaves, and what we imagine their survival to have looked like. They are survivors, yes, but survival is a messy thing, and it is that mess that Toni explores in Beloved.

Though Sethe and Paul D are physically free from slavery, they both remain imprisoned by their trauma. Sethe’s literally haunts the house, keeping her trapped inside of it and away from the outside world where she might find a means to start moving on. Paul D, meanwhile is afraid to really love, because to love would be to feel everything, and to feel everything would, he believes, destroy him. Denver, Sethe’s daughter, meanwhile did not grow up a slave, and yet the generations of trauma that her family has endured keep her as locked inside the walls of 124 as everyone else.

“Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realise that worse than that – far worse – was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a deeply sad book, but it is not without hope. The ghosts probably won’t ever leave, but that doesn’t mean Sethe can’t ever step outside of her haunting.  

For a book named after her I know I haven’t written much about Beloved herself. She’s a tricky character to grasp, intentionally so. She might be a ghost or she might not – we’ll never really know – but what we do know is, she is a symbol for the 60 million and more lives lost in the slave trade whose names and stories we will never know. And even Beloved, in the end, is forgotten.

Yeah so, if it wasn’t clear, I adored this book. I know there’s nothing new about recognising Toni Morrison’s brilliance, but I am adding to the clamour to let you know if you haven’t picked up one of her books yet, you must.

Station Eleven (and, um. Hi.)

Well, that was an unscheduled hiatus.

Let’s get back to it, shall we?

(By ‘get back to it’ I mean posting at random intervals and vanishing for long periods without explanation. Mm’kay?)

When your jumper matches your book…

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.

Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.

If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?

Pretty much as soon as I started reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel it became clear that this was going to make it onto my favourites list. A gripping, multi-linear masterpiece about life after the end of the world, it’s a novel that is poetic, bittersweet and haunting in all of the best ways.

The narrative seamlessly weaves between characters, times and locations to piece together an expansive tale of a group of people, all connected by interactions big and small with a once famous actor called Arthur Leander – who might have been remembered most for his dramatic on-stage death had it not coincided with the night that the apocalypse began in earnest.

The ex-wife, the ex-best friend, the child actress and the former paparazzo turned paramedic who tried and failed to save his life populate Mandel’s beautiful and brutal world filled with Shakespeare and music in the form of the Travelling Symphony, a group of cut-throat actors and musicians walking what remains of North America performing for the people left; two issues of a comic called Dr. Eleven about a physicist who lives on a space station; a prophet – or, at least, a man who believes himself to be one; and the Museum of Civilisation in an airport at the end of the world.

It’s not very often while reading that I find myself thinking I really haven’t read anything quite like this before, but I was astounded by the uniqueness of Station Eleven throughout.

Mandel crafts moments of total beauty and frailty that constantly push up against abject horror – like the Museum of Civilisation, a beacon of hope, really, but within sight of an aeroplane that landed but never opened its doors. The people living at the Museum know that is filled with corpses, people killed by the same virus that took down most of the rest of the world. The question of what their last moments must have been – and whoever made the decision not to open the doors of the plane – hangs heavy over the entire enterprise.

At the same time though, far from a vision of the end of the world driven by the breakdown of decency – the idea that the loss of the basic structure of society would see the end of kindness and human decency – the end of the world Mandel paints is driven by community. From the Travelling Symphony to the Museum of Civilization, far from wanting to destroy the little of the world that’s left, Mandel’s characters want to come together, to build. At least, most of them do.

I’ve moved into a period of my life where I don’t make as much time for reading as I used to. I want to make more, but there are only so many hours in the day, so I’m trying not to beat myself up about it. In the moments I did make time – on trains, on those long Sundays where I had no plans – it was so easy to instantly lose myself in the world of Station Eleven. The past few months I’ve been finding that harder, too, to bury myself in an imaginary thing like I always used to. Reading Station Eleven was like reclaiming a quiet part of myself and I am so, so grateful for it.

The Girls

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault/coercion

Evie Boyd is fourteen and desperate to be noticed. It’s the summer of 1969 and restless, empty days stretch ahead of her. Until she sees them. The girls. Hair long and uncombed, jewellery catching the sun. And at their centre, Suzanne, black-haired and beautiful.

If not for Suzanne, she might not have gone. But, intoxicated by her and the life she promises, Evie follows the girls back to the decaying ranch where they live.

Was there a warning? A sign of what was coming? Or did Evie know already that there was no way back?

I know I need to find another space to take a photo, but I’m short on options in my new house

I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with The Girls by Emma Cline.

It was about 100 foreboding pages in. I was waiting for a late-running train back to Devon for the weekend. I had resentfully purchased a £5 pasty from Bristol Temple Meads train station because my just under two-hour journey had suddenly become much longer – so long that there wasn’t even a projected arrival time – and I was hungry. The signs read only: delayed.

But me and my pasty-greasy fingers were utterly absorbed in this creepy, gut-wrenching, cult-joining, sexuality-exploring, absolutely gripping read.

I wouldn’t recommend reading The Girls if you want to feel comfortable.

“’You ever hear anything about Russell?’
The question didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t understand that she was trying to gauge how many of the rumours I’d heard: about orgies, about frenzied acid trips and teen runaways forced to service older men. Dogs scarified on moonlit beaches, goat heads rotting in the sand. If I’d had friends besides Connie, I might’ve heard chatter of Russell at parties, some hushed gossip in the kitchen. Might’ve known to be wary.
But I shook my head. I hadn’t heard anything.”

The Girls is about bored teen Evie Boyd. Apathetic about her friends, her upcoming transfer to boarding school, her parents’ recent divorce and well… just about everything. She mostly hangs out by herself, masturbating and thinking about all of the sex and excitement – though to her those things are one and the same – that are yet to come into her life.

Despite the madness of the scenario – charismatic cult leader, Manson family-style murder – everything that happens in The Girls feels grounded in reality. For however crazy her situation becomes – and it really does – Evie’s experiences and her thoughts about them never felt anything short of authentic.

Cline takes a razor sharp (read: painful) look at emerging sexuality and how it is so often experienced by teenage girls. A whole mess of influences like patriarchy, gender roles, coercion and the drive to always be pleasing play out in upsetting ways as Evie begins her sexual life. There is a sense that she is passive in her sexual experiences, manipulated by older men and complicit women in ways she isn’t yet able to understand. Won’t understand, in fact, until years later, when she is in her middle age and forced see the toxic patterns playing out again for another young girl. A tale as old as time – and a super fucking depressing one.

As so many cult reads (by that I mean literal cult), The Girls is a book preoccupied with power. Who has it – but more, really, about who doesn’t. It looks at the way masculinity can be wielded like a weapon – men who want to take advantage, men who think they know best, men who just want you to feel uncomfortable in the world, for no reason other than it makes them feel good. Men who really don’t care whether you want to have sex with them or not, so long as they get to have sex.

Watching Evie navigate that, from her teen girl summer to the snatches of her life as an adult we’re offered hurt to read, because it felt so familiar.

But this book isn’t all about men – it’s called The Girls, after all. Ultimately, though he is the sun around which everyone else orbits, cult reader Russell doesn’t really do it for Evie. He never did. What brought Evie into the fold was the unreachable Suzanne, who Evie wants in complex and ever-changing ways. From the beginning where she wants to be her – or at least the thing that she appears to be – Evie falls hard for a woman so deep in the cult that she is unable to love her back. Suzanne is too far gone, and watching Evie come to terms with that is a heart-breaking tale of unrequited love as cringe-inducingly familiar as everything else Cline writes in this novel.

“I was happy to twist the meanings, wilfully misread the symbols. Doing what Suzanne asked seemed like the best gift I could give her, a way to unlock her own reciprocal feelings. And she was trapped, in her way, just like I was, but I never saw that, shifting easily in the directions she prompted me for.”

Evie enters a bad world from one where the word’s previous definition came with an air of unreality. She says it herself at various points in the book: nothing bad ever really happens. That’s why she waltzes oddly thoughtlessly on in this never-ending investigating-the-noise-in-the-cellar book. We spend the entire time waiting for a monster, as yet invisible, to appear – and consume her.

It’s hard to get this one out of your head.

All The Light We Cannot See

TW: rape

For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth.

In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

I’m going to be honest up front, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is not a book for the faint of heart. It’s long, it’s brutal and it will hit you hard.

It’s a story uniquely told, with Doerr using concurrent timelines and perspectives with a deftness I haven’t experienced in a long time. The narrative moves between Werner and Marie-Laure in August 1944, a little over a year before the end of the Second World War, and their lives in the years leading up to that day – which, it isn’t a spoiler to say, is something of a fateful one. While the format has of course been done before, the way Doerr masterfully handled the many – many – different strands of this story kept me on absolute tenterhooks, even when I couldn’t be sure where it was all going.

In many ways, Marie-Laure and Werner are two sides of the same coin. They both grow up curious, clever children dealing with some adverse circumstances – Werner, being in an orphanage and destined for the mines where his father lost his life, and Marie-Laure with the loss of her sight when she is six years old. But Werner lives in Germany during the rise of Nazism, and his talent with radios soon means he’s swept into the brutality, abuse and horrors of training with the Nazi Youth, and subsequently serving in the German army.

But does hating the horrors in which you are a participant make you a good person?

Of course it doesn’t.

While Werner does what he must to survive with the Hitler Youth, Marie-Laure and her great-uncle Etienne, a mentally ill veteran of the First World War, dive head first into the resistance movement. From their little French town of Saint Malo they send and receive covert messages for the resistance that would see them killed by the Nazis should they ever be discovered.

In addition to his use of time and perspective, Doerr also weaves magical elements into the novel in a way that felt seamless. The entire story is haunted by a cursed diamond known as the Sea of Flames, placed in the care of Marie-Laure’s father by the museum he works at when the war breaks out. The stone makes its owner impossible to kill – but at a cost. The holder is safe, but around them their loved ones drop like flies.

At least that’s how the legend goes.

It doesn’t help that the damned rock is being chased by a dying Nazi general, determined to track the thing down before his rapidly spreading cancer finally kills him. I suppose it’s hardly surprising a Nazi wouldn’t mind the caveats that come with possession of the cursed diamond.

The story moves constantly between these flights of whimsy – a cursed diamond, the to-scale model cities Marie-Laure’s father builds for her to help her navigate without her sight – and the grim realities of Nazi life. The shocking acts of violence perpetrated by German soldiers are detailed with a blunt detachedness that demonstrate Werner’s attempts at disassociation from the war crimes he is complicit in perpetrating, regardless of whether or not he pulled the trigger.

I think What All The Light We Cannot See does better than I’ve ever read before is narration of the everyday of a country at war. The peculiar mundanity in the descriptions of violence, paired with the endless boredom (because you can be bored even as you are terrified) Marie-Laure experiences, confined in her great-uncle’s house so she doesn’t cross paths with any German soldiers, show the absolutely relentlessness of it.

It’s not hard to see why people break.

As the story progresses and I finally found myself hurtling toward 1944, all the disparate elements of the novel came together in a horrifying, utterly absorbing crescendo.

There are moments while reading that you do start to wonder where it’s all going. At 530 pages, it’s a pretty hefty read, and there are times where it seems as if the plot is meandering.

It’s not. Keep reading. If there’s one thing I knew by the end of this book it’s that Anthony Doerr knows exactly what he’s doing.

The Incendiaries

Trigger warning: sexual assault

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet during their first month at a prestigious university. Phoebe doesn’t tell anyone that she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy transferring in from Bible college, waiting tables to make ends meet. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Haunted by her loss, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group – a secretive cult tied to North Korea – founded by a charismatic former student with an enigmatic past involving Phoebe’s Korean American family. Will struggles to confront the obsession consuming the one he loves and the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape. When the extremist group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a powerful love story and a brilliant examination of what can happen to people when they lose what they love most.

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The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon is a vivid and deeply unsettling novel about loss. I enjoyed it in the way you enjoy every story you know will end badly – through half-closed eyes, ready to look away at any moment but never quite able to.

Kwon’s writing is gorgeous, at once poetic and deeply specific as her characters spiral slowly further out of reach. Though the novel is theoretically split into three perspectives: Will’s, Phoebe’s and cult leader John Leal’s, all commentary really comes from Will as he tries to get into the minds of his girlfriend and the cult leader he believes took her from him. This leant the entire novel a layer of unreliability that really spoke to the subject matter – ultimately sometimes we will never understand the events that lead people we love to leave us. Often we are left with only theories and that’s what The Incendiaries feels like – Will’s theory.

The summary describes the book as a “powerful love story” but I wouldn’t call it that so much as a searing break up novel. Will is not a good boyfriend. He arrives at the university having recently transferred from bible college after losing his faith, and, thus unmoored, attaches himself to Phoebe like she’s his new religion. He’s grieving the loss of the God who kept him going through poverty and an unstable childhood – until one day, He didn’t – and deeply inadequate, a scholarship student in a school full of rich legacy kids. He hides his part time job and his proselytising past and revels in his own shame even as he lies to Phoebe about it. In the end it makes sense that Will would recognise John Leal as a fraud – it takes one to know one, I guess.

Ironic then, that the ex-born again would fall in love with a girl about to fall herself into the clutches of another fundamentalist belief system. Phoebe is also grieving and unmoored by the loss of her mother. She clings to partying, then Will and finally, newfound religion. She comes off so desperate to belong again to something that she’ll give herself to anything, which mostly means men who manipulate and abuse her trust in a range of violent and upsetting ways. Perhaps worst of all is that she isn’t even allowed to tell her story herself – we get it second hand, half imagined by the ex-boyfriend she clearly wanted nothing more than to escape.

Which isn’t to say she is not responsible for her actions, as much as Will tries to push that narrative after the devastating bombings Phoebe is implicated in hit the news, but that ultimately Phoebe remains to us throughout what she is to Will: mysterious, hard to reach. Probably dead.

The Incendiaries is a novel of dark foreboding perfect for fans of The Secret History. Kwon’s beautiful writing hooks you in and demands your attention if not your sympathy as she explores the disturbing tale of that which inspires people to acts of evil.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Trigger warning: sexual violence, child abuse

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled existence. Except, sometimes, everything…

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I know there are still three months of it left, but I think I can say now with some confidence that Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is going to be my favourite book of 2018. It’s not entirely surprising. Since it was published last year, Eleanor Oliphant has been a pretty Big Deal – number one Sunday Times bestseller, Costa Book Award-winner, Reese Witherspoon movie option. But, weirdly, none of that prepared me for quite how wonderful this tragic, strange, horrifying, funny and hopeful little book turned out to be.

You know that kid you went to school with that everyone bullied? The one nobody wanted to sit with at lunch, not even the nice kids? I’m talking about the kind of kid who, even when as a nice kid yourself, you tried to connect with them, made it really, really difficult for you? That’s Eleanor Oliphant. The perpetual outsider – sad to be alone but equally combative, to say the least, toward any potential friends.

I think that’s what made me like her so much.

Eleanor, at least before you get to know her a little, is not a likeable lady. Her co-workers are morons, her doctor inept and her social worker a complete waste of space – according to her. On the rare occasion she finds herself at the pub if she buys you a drink she expects her money back, in full, by the next morning at the latest. When she and her new co-worker, Raymond, see an elderly man collapse in the street, Eleanor is not particularly inclined to help him – though they do, an action that turns out to be the right decision for so many reasons.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the story of a traumatised and disconnected person gradually finding her way out of the darkness. You know from very early on in the novel – the first few pages, so no spoilers I promise – that something truly terrible happened to Eleanor Oliphant when she was a child, so terrible that she has erased it from her memory. So terrible that during every annual visit, when her social worker offers her the opportunity to read her own file, she declines.

But Eleanor Oliphant is no victim. Her story is of the life-changing impact small acts of kindness can have on a person. Eleanor has been so closed off from the world, when people successfully connect with her and treat her with compassion, it shows her that connection and compassion are possibilities. Shen she comes to face her trauma – as she, and we all, must – she finds strength in her own survival of the kind of horror most people will, thankfully, never experience.

Eleanor is not the most likeable lady. She doesn’t read social cues well, she can be judgemental and even ungrateful at times. But she’s also very funny, utterly vulnerable and doing the hard work of piecing herself back together – which doesn’t feel adequate to describe the way she really creates herself, building a woman from the ground up.

Rising from the ashes.

Life is hard. The news is relentless. Personal lives are complicated. Sometimes you need a boost, and in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman created a story of hope that brought me so much joy. I can’t recommend it enough.