Sunday, 30 May 2021

Four Books

I don't read graphic novels much, hardly ever. I kind of bought Michael Deforge's 'Familiar Face' for Monkey, but I do that quite a bit, buy things I think might interest someone else, but utterly fail at it. It was just a weird book, set in a dystopian society where the government controls everything, including the configuration of your body, and can make random changes to any aspect of your life without warning. Our hero joins some kind of protest movement in the face of the absurdity of existence but, as you might imagine, that's not going to make any difference. In some ways such satire serves to highlight the chaotic and random nature of life that is underneath the thin layer of civilization that we all pretend to participate in.

I chose 'In Five Years' by Rebecca Serle, and probably wouldn't have bothered if I'd looked at her website first. It was shallow and cutesie, and I only stuck with it because of 'What Alice Forgot' which I read a decade ago. It was another book about memory and someone trying to change their life, and that one evoked a strong emotional response, so, having said this to Monkey, we agreed that I should give this one a chance. But I did not like the woman in this book, or even feel much sympathy for her rich friend dying of whatever-she-died-of. She did not learn or grow much from her experience and was just self-obsessed. I mean anyone who intends to marry someone because they fit in with some image they have of their future life is just the stuff of the reality TV that I despise. Whatever. No quote, nothing worth quoting.
'Luster' by Raven Leilani on the other hand was a fascinating look at two women's relationship. You start with Edie, this young woman with meaningless promiscuous behaviour who starts a relationship with middle-aged Eric. It's written in first person so all you have is the inside of her head, detailing her thoughts and feelings about the progress of their relationship. You think the book is going to be about them, but Eric is sidelined and it slowly morphs into a book about the relationship between Edie and Rebecca, Eric's wife, and also about her relationship, a beautifully low key one, with their adopted daughter Akila. I found her observations of her situation very engaging, as she tries to make sense of them. Here Rebecca has taken her back to her house after Edie finds herself homeless:

"I'm aware that the room is owned, each square foot considered and likely free of mice. In this room that no one sleeps in, there is still evidence of life. Department store stills of wet cobblestone and pitted fruit, moody Helmut Newtons of smoking women, drapes the same shade of mauve my mom used to paint the kitchen the day she killed herself, furniture with the too-balanced stretch marks of the deliberately distressed, this willingness to pay for degradation something I want to hate but actually relate to, the ficus, wicker, and ornamental glass all cherries on top, a cohesive domesticity that I find weird and a little threatening, but that fills me with the yearning to retrieve my toaster oven from storage and find a place to plug it in." (p.100-101)

Later Edie finds herself an unintentional observer of family life, but when she makes an unwelcome intervention she finds herself put back in her place:

" 'I am her mother,' she says firmly, though there is a hitch in her voice and her face colours. 'You are a guest,' she says before she sweeps out of the room, and I find it very rich, to have been invited here partly on the absurd presumption that I would know what to do with Akila simply because we are both black, and now be rebuffed when I have not performed the role of the Trusty Black Spirit Guide to her taste. I go back up to the guest room and pack my things. I wait for her to put me out. I lie in the dark with my shoes on, wondering if I was wrong to say anything. I compile everything I could have said if I were faster, smarter. By midnight, I have a carefully footnoted Spike Lee joint, an entire treatise on the conspiracy of oppression, though at one o'clock when I have rehearsed my supporting data and reimagined the conversation as one in which I don't let Dr King down, I suddenly feel that she can go fuck herself, that my intellectual labor should be subsidised and the onus is not on the oppressed to consider the oppressor, though in the morning after I take a shower, I look out of the window and see her lugging a bag of mulch across the yard and I feel guilty all over again. Her chunky, tragic sneakers and freaky competence. The way the windows around the cup-de-sac are dark and she is the only person outside, already engaged enough in her task to be making a lot of supremely unsexy noise. It becomes clear to me, how keenly she is alone." (p.120-121)

(I love her long complex sentences.) I am contrite. I give you this last quote because as a white woman it was a whole world of stuff that I know nothing about. I like the fact that although, as in the above quote, Edie feels like things are expected of her regarding Akila that she resents, she also sees value in being able to teach her something important that her mother couldn't:

"Over the last couple of months, we have updated her hair care through careful trial and error, even as we were waylaid by suburban convenience stores stocked exclusively with Caucasian shampoos. Once, in Hoboken, we discovered a single bottom shelf with old pomade and congealed Cantu. There were a few trips to Brooklyn, one for oils and one for butters, the home-made and saran-wrapped, the saditty and petroleum-free, Akila's sopping twist-outs transformed by a half percentage point of fall humidity until we forwent the apple cider vinegar and just cracked a few eggs over her head. Now we have a routine: coconut oil, manuka honey, and two firm Bantu knots before bed. As I go through her hair with a hot comb, I imagine its future iterations - the five-dollar ponies and mangled yaki and rainbow Kanekalon and the certainty of a post-breakup big chop, and I wonder where inside this spectrum she will ultimately land. As we are finishing up, Eric comes down the stairs and comments on the smell, but when he sees the source, he seems to gather that it is Something Black, and he is contrite." (p.196)

So it was a real mixed bag from the post-lockdown library haul. 'The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue' by V.E. Schwab was just pure self-indulgent story telling, and I loved it. In 1714 Adeline is due to get married, sucked into a life that will suck all the life out of her, so she runs to the forest, and against all sage advice prays to the gods of the dark. Her pleas are answered and she makes a deal, as much life as she wants, in exchange for her soul, but no one will remember her. In the present day Addie lives in New York and still lives from hand to mouth, but slightly more comfortably than in the 1700s. She cannot keep anything or leave any mark of her own, but over the years she inveigles herself into numerous works of art as a model and muse. She educates herself and travels, but each time she encounters someone, even a long time lover, she must introduce herself and start afresh. To me it sounded exhausting, never being secure, being lonely, but Addie is resourceful and as the years go by has less struggle and more comfort. Luc, as she names her shadowy 'benefactor', appears and disappears from her life, watching, sometimes helping, but sometimes hindering.  Then, after 300 years, she meets Henry. And he remembers her. The question then becomes, can they outwit the darkness and have a life together. I don't read much fantasy but I love a bit of magical realism. There are always inconsistencies, but to be honest I just let them slide because I enjoyed the adventure. Just a quote to give you a taster; here, ten years into her new life, Addie encounters a young man, and finds someone who is just fascinated by her instead of her anticipated threat, a real conversation for her that highlights how much she craves human connection:

"The man comes out of nowhere.
A shoulder knocks into her arm, and the precious jar slips from her hand and shatters on the cobbled street, and for an instant Addie thinks she is being attacked, or robbed, but the stranger is already stammering out his apologies.
'You fool,' she hisses, attention flickering from the golden syrup, now glittering with glass, to the man who caused her loss. He is young, and fair, and lovely, with high cheeks and hair the colour of her ruined honey.
And he is not alone.
His companions hang back, whooping and cheering at his mistake - they have the happy air of those who began their evening revels back at midday - but the errant youth blushes fiercely, clearly embarrassed.
'My apologies, truly,' he begins, but then a transformation sweeps across his face. First surprise, and then amusement, and she realises, too late, how close they are, how clearly the light has fallen on her face. Realises, too late, that he has seen through her illusion, that his hand is still there, on her sleeve, and for a moment she is afraid he will expose her.
But when his companions call for him to hurry on, he tells them to go ahead, and now they are alone on the cobbled street, and Addie is ready to pull free, to run, but there is no shadow in the young man's face, no menace, only a strange delight.
'Let's go,' she says, lowering her voice a measure when she speaks, which only seems to please him more, even as he frees her arm with all the speed of someone grazing fire.
'Sorry,' he says again, 'I forgot myself.' And then, a mischievous grin. 'It seems you have, too.'
'Not at all,' she says, fingers drifting towards the short blade she's kept inside her basket. 'I have misplaced myself on purpose.' " (p.198-199)

Stay safe; remember hands, face and space as you go about your newly opened life. Enjoy the sunshine.


  1. I struggle with graphic books - never quit get the point, which is probably a little ungenerous on my part. Your reading is impressive

  2. Interesting selection of books. I don't read graphic novels though my partner does.


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