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What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

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A childless woman resorts to forbidden magic in her quest for a baby. A widow boils with rage at the grudging welcome her daughters receive in her sister’s home. In a devastated, not too distant future, a ‘grief worker’ discovers a miraculous ability to remove emotional pain – at a price.

The characters in What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky are men and women who want things that remain impossible or out of reach. What unites them is the toughness of lives where opportunities are scant, and fortunes can change faster than the flick of a switch.

Conjuring worlds at once familiar and unsettlingly different, What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky showcases the work of a writer of startling promise at the beginning of an exciting literary career.
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I’m not much of a literary fiction reader, as regular followers of this blog will have noticed; however, sometimes, an author crosses my path with enough force and weight behind them from both genre and literary communities that I have to pick them up. Lesley Nneka Arimah is one such author, and her debut collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, seemed like the place to start…

The collection opens with a real firecracker of a story, ‘The Future Looks Good’. The title is a definite misdirect; the story looks at the history of lives that have led to the moment that Bibi is in, the expectations and relationships of her predecessors that went into producing her and the moment she occupies. Arimah beautifully builds misdirects into these histories, and writes with a fascinating grace; which lends the unexpected punch of the last line an incredible power, which makes ‘The Future Looks Good’ take on a very different shape.

‘War Stories’ is more typical of the collection, a slightly longer story, and again a story that is as much about stories as anything else. The focus on parental and familial relationships, and the way the past shapes the present, are again powerfully brought to the fore. This story suffers a bit from not knowing quite where it is going, however; Arimah doesn’t really end it, but instead just stops the narrative, either just before or just after its natural conclusion, leading to a kind of dissatisfaction with what had gone before.

‘Wild’ is a story of immigrant experiences and parallel lives; the lies people tell each other and believe of each other form a key part of this third story. The way Arimah builds up and knocks down expectations is very effective, and her deployment of female friendship and rivalry incredibly powerful. The way that mothers treat their daughters is the central theme, and it is very well conveyed. However, this is another story that drifts to a close; while the last line is powerful, it isn’t an ending, and it feels rather as if Arimah wrote towards that line but didn’t quite know how to use it to wrap up the story.

‘Light’ is less a story than a character study; Arimah looks forward and backwards through the life of a girl and her father, who is parenting her alone while his wife studies in the United States of America. It’s a powerful, moving story about the risks of parenting, about the difficulties of relationships at a distance, and about the struggles to bring up a child in a world that is hostile to them. The circular structure of the story works incredibly well, and the slight unhinging from time is very effective in really giving us a fantastic look across a life.

‘Second Chances’ is less effective, although the central conceit is arguably more so; a mother returned from the dead. This is a plot we’ve read before – it’s almost Orphic in its resonance, and Arimah’s treatment of the conceit definitely has a strong scent of that about it. The way Arimah draws the discontented relationship of one daughter with her mother against the rest of the family feels a little strained; it’s almost excessively differentiated, and the story as a whole feels a little drawn out, although the punch of the end is very powerful.

‘Windfalls’ is one of the least effective stories. Arimah’s use of the second person feels strained, and the lack of focus is a little wearying. It is once again the story of a difficult relationship between mother and daughter, but the way Arimah tells it, we really don’t care about the mother, who comes across incredibly two dimensionally; unusually, the characterisation here is incredibly weak, and the end of the story is spectacularly predictable almost from its start.

‘Who Will Greet You At Home’, one the other hand, is a very effective use of a twist on the common metaphors around making babies from various materials. Arimah’s mingling of a number of fantastical elements is very effective, none of them themselves the focus of the story but rather lens through which to approach human relationships. The way she treats the metaphor she’s using for childbearing is at once very unsubtle and very effective, with a glorious commitment to some of the darkest extensions of the idea. The end of the story is a brilliant close, with a call back right to the beginning that is a clear hallmark of Arimah’s best stories.

‘Buchi’s Girls’ is the exception to that rule. This story is the only one of those about mothers and daughters which centres the mother over the children; her concern for her offspring, and her attempts to give them a good life, are the focus of the story. Arimah never loses sight of the central relationships and the possibility of betrayal in the story, and the layered accidental woundings characters give others never fail to have consequences and all feel horribly real, right up to the open ending.

The titular story of the collection, ‘What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky’, is perhaps the most fantastical, combining sin eaters, a post-climate apocalypse future, and an equation that allows for magical abilities into one narrative. It is also one of the weaker stories; Arimah has gotten a lot of concepts in, but a number of them feel underdeveloped and underexplored, leading to a world which doesn’t quite make sense. The whole narrative is drawn out, and while the foreshadowing of the end is very effective, Arimah has failed to really make the story connect to the reader enough for the ending itself to work.

‘Glory’ is one of the most frustrating stories in the collection, because it just doesn’t work very well. Arimah’s story of Glorybetogod, a woman who always makes the wrong choices, feels somehow off; it doesn’t really have a heart, it feels like a story written because its author had the concept but didn’t really have any characters. Everyone in the story is an archetype, and feels very thin, as do all the relationships; there isn’t really anything to get emotionally hooked into.

‘What Is A Volcano?’ is, from a different angle, almost equally frustrating. A just-so story of the origins of vulcanism, it is also a mythic story of warring gods; but it never really feels like it takes its concepts seriously, and every time a critique of some of the key parts of the tale start to appear, Arimah skips over them and moves on, never engaging. There are hooks to a much more interesting story which problematises its assumptions scattered throughout, but they’re never picked up on, which makes this just another mythic story that doesn’t really do anything.

Finally, ‘Redemption’ closes out the collection with a return to realism. This is a powerful an effective story in many ways, with its themes of rape culture, classism, and the shared reality and oppression of women, but the lack of emotional connection between any of the characters is frustratingly distancing. Arimah emphasises repeatedly the way the narrator creates fictional emotional connections, but meanwhile, the narrator is too flat for us to even connect with her; thus, we fail to have any connection to the story, although the ending retains a lot of power despite that.

What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky is a strong collection in terms of ideas, and Arimah clearly has the ability to write beginnings and middles; but a lot of the stories simply drift off, rather than ending, and there are too many missed emotional connections to call this the masterwork it is being described as. The best stories are brilliant, but there simply aren’t enough of that quality in here.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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In her provocative debut, Carmen Maria Machado demolishes the borders between magical realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Startling narratives map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited on their bodies, both in myth and in practice.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the mysterious green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague spreads across the earth. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery about a store’s dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted house guest.

Bodies become inconsequential, humans become monstrous, and anger becomes erotic. A dark, shimmering slice into womanhood, Her Body and Other Parties is wicked and exquisite.
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Carmen Maria Machado has been publishing stories since 2012, to great acclaim in both literary and genre circles, and in both literary and genre markets, including Granta and Strange Horizons; finally, she has brought out a debut collection of a precise collection of her tales.

Her Body and Other Parties is a collection with a definite theme; it is about the liminal horror, the strangeness that exists around the edges of the world as it is, and it is about women. Every story in this collection also centres on a woman, and in most cases a queer woman; some are unsubtly autobiographically inspired, while others are much less so. Given the constraints of choosing stories to fit a theme, many collections can become rather samey and uniform; Machado’s collection avoids that by taking very different approaches to the same issues.

The collection opens with ‘The Husband Stitch’; this is Machado’s retelling of the traditional story of the girl with the ribbon around her neck. Here, Machado follows the traditional structure, in some regards; every woman has a ribbon somewhere, which cannot be untied. Men are very curious about these ribbons; indeed, the taboo around them is one of the gender differences in this world. Machado subverts the normal story, though, by having the husband push his wife’s wishes, but never actually break them; the analogy for sexual relations and power relations isn’t subtle, but it is powerful. The way Machado invests her characters with personality and a full life is beautiful, making the end of the story all the more tragic, whilst also feeling intensely right.

‘Inventory’ is a shorter story, and a strange one; it’s an episodic story, chronicling a series of encounters of a woman as an apocalypse happens around her. Machado builds up the sense of impending doom to an absolutely fantastic climax, while also investing her central character with life; we see her through meetings with people, which tend to include sexual encounters. These are powerfully and erotically conveyed, whilst not being voyeuristic or pornographic; and the variety of sexual relationship models shown is brilliant, in the different ways people relate to each other.

‘Mothers’ is a weaker story, however. Whilst still emotionally resonant, the story of imagined futures blending into the real world feels a little messy; there are too many things going on, and while Machado portrays the lesbian relationship and the abuse in it powerfully, as well as portraying the single-minded devotion of a single mother beautifully, the way she matches these two together, and then adds a magical element, simply does not connect. The story feels like it’s trying to simply do too much at once.

‘Especially Heinous’ is similarly a little bit messy; told episodically, it’s inspired by Law & Order: SVU. Machado digs into the gendered horror of crime procedurals, and of the treatment of sex and sex workers in particular, through a kind of spectral lens; there are a couple of plot strands which just seem to fizzle out, and the story falls apart slightly as it progresses, but there are some incredibly striking and powerful moments and images in there.

‘Real Women Have Bodies’ moves back to the territory of absolutely heartwrenching stories. Machado’s simple, unexplained premise of women simply fading away from the physical realm is explored beautifully and powerfully, in the context of male attitudes to women but also in the context of women’s ability to take up space. The story is powerful and painful to read, and the love affair that emotionally anchors the climax of the story is truly moving and wrenching.

‘Eight Bites’ takes on similar territory, but more explicitly; it is very much about fatness and one’s attitude to one’s body. There’s some absolutely beautiful imagery in here around food and eating, as well as some fantastic metaphorical work around embracing one’s own body; Machado writes powerfully about familial relationships between women as well as their relationships with their own bodies, and that gives a certain weight and heft to the story that otherwise might have been a little Doctor Who.

‘The Resident’ is the most obviously autobiographically inspired story; Machado has done a number of residences herself, so a story about a writer at a residence feels like it must draw on her own experience. The sense of strangeness and unease that permeates this story is powerful, and the disjointed nature of the experiences of the protagonist are a very effective device in emphasising the weird state of being withdrawn from the world into oneself to Do Art.

Her Body and Other Parties closes on perhaps its darkest story, ‘Difficult at Parties’, which is about a survivor of an unspecified crime. It’s a dark, strange story, with trauma at its centre, and the reaction to that trauma. Machado doesn’t try to make her protagonist especially likable; instead she makes the reader empathise directly with her, get in her head, and experience part of the trauma recovery process. It’s a strange tale, and the way Machado weaves a supernatural element in is both particularly effective and strangely voyeuristic.

Her Body and Other Parties meanders a little in the middle, with a couple of stories that feel like they could be tighter; but on the whole, Machado’s selection of her work is absolutely stunning, and incredibly strong. The themes shine through clearly, and Machado’s facility for language and turn of phrase is absolutely unmissable. The emotional and intellectual impact of the vast majority of stories in this collection is such that I had to stop and pause between each one, an unusual practice for me, to simply let it sit with me for a bit, to let it impact me and to let me think about it. Machado’s debut is a fantastic, and important, collection.

Disclaimer: Her Body and Other Parties is published by Serpent’s Tail in the UK. Serpent’s Tail is owned by Profile Books, whose managing editor is my uncle.

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Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

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America, 1920s. A plague is spreading, and it’s spreading fast, from New Orleans to Chicago to New York.

It’s an epidemic of freedom, joy and self-expression, being spread by Black artists, that makes anyone who catches it desperate to dance, sing, laugh and jive. It’s the outbreak of Jazz, Ragtime and Blues onto the world scene; the spirit of Blackness overtaking America and the world. And it’s threatening to dismantle the whole social order.

Working to root out the plague by any means possible – even murder – are the members of The Wallflower Order, an international conspiracy dedicated to puritanism and control. But, deep in the heart of Harlem, private eye and Vodun priest Papa LaBas is determined to defend his flourishing ancient culture against their insidious plans. And so, he finds himself locked in a race against the Order to find an ancient Egyptian text which might just be the key to keeping the virus of freedom alive.
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I first heard of Mumbo Jumbo through Tor.com, specifically this essay in Nisi Shawl’s fantastic History of Black Science Fiction series. Given Shawl’s recommendation, I picked it up – from the general fiction, not SFF, section – as soon as I saw the new Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Mumbo Jumbo is an odd book; there is a single narrative strain to it, a single plot, but the way Reed tells his story, it feels rather more disjointed, more confused, less cohesive as a single thing. This is clearly an intentional choice, and lends a fascinating kind of puzzle quality to the book; working out how different things, different characters, and different aspects of the novel fit together with each other becomes a harder task, but also a more rewarding one, than in a more traditional Western narrative. Reed rejects these models to combine different forms into a single work, creating a modernist experimental novel.

That novel follows the phenomenon of Jes Grew, a kind of socio-spiritual movement which combines dance, religion, and free decolonised thought; Mumbo Jumbo can be read as (relatively) mimetic if the reader chooses, though Reed’s inclusion of supernatural elements, and a consciousness and intention behind Jes Grew, suggests such a reading would lose something key. The different things Reed draws into the story of Jes Grew include Western global colonialism, Black cultural development and radical Black thought in 1920s America, an internationalist tendency, a resistance to Western patronisation of other cultures, and more.

One of the ways Reed takes on imperialism in Mumbo Jumbo is through the Mu’tafikah, an internationalist and multiracial group dedicated to taking non-Western artifacts from Western museums and returning them to the cultures from which they were plundered. Reed is unabashedly on the side of these liberators, and the novel has, in its occasional moments of focus on them, an absolutely brilliant heist quality and sense of lightness. The characters of the Mu’tafikah are some of the most oddball of the novel, and absolutely wonderfully characterised, with their own prejudices but working together through them against a common enemy.

The other, more central plot of the novel follows the attempts of the Wallflower Order to suppress Jes Grew. Mumbo Jumbo posits an ideological system called Atonism that is upheld across the West, and seems to have its roots in Judaism; there is a somewhat antisemitic undercurrent in the way that Judaism is treated as a (part of) a shadowy force that has constantly attempted to suppress Black thought and art down history. The different ways the Atonists try to control power, and the different Atonist organisations – including the Knights Templar, and the Masons, naturally – are unsurprising and typical of this kind of conspiracy, but the way Reed writes them as barely competent and always on the edge of exposure and total failure is refreshing. Similarly, so is the opposition to the conspiracy; Reed gives us different individuals working at cross-purposes to the same ends of Black liberation, and Mumbo Jumbo draws both comic and tragic power from the factionalism of the resistance to White supremacy and the Wallflower Order.

The actual characters of Mumbo Jumbo are, given how intellectual the underpinnings of the novel are, actually fully fleshed out and interesting characters, far more than just authorial constructs. Reed gives us a broad cast, including Black gangsters and hustlers, White newsmen and bigots, a VouDou priest who also has a sideline in private detection, a Nation of Islam forerunner, and more. They’ve all got pasts, and perspectives on the Jes Grew phenomenon and the state of America; they’ve all got different interests outside the focus of the novel which they attend to from time to time, taking time away from the plot only to appear again, or even being followed while doing something of little immediate bearing. Mumbo Jumbo‘s pages are peopled by characters who are not only fully fleshed out but also familiar; not as tropes, but as people one might know, might have encountered in life, and Reed makes them all feel like old friends.

Mumbo Jumbo is a bit of a jumble of a novel, but it’s also a work of genius; a modernist masterpiece, a patchwork of different elements that arguably ought not to work together, but that Reed brings together with a confidence and style that makes it look almost easy. This is a strange, mind-bending read, like little else I’ve read.

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When The Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

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To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.
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When The Moon Was Ours had come to my attention even before it won the 2016 Tiptree Award, given that Anna-Marie McLemore’s novel features trans characters, immigrant characters, and magical realism; the Tip win just raised its profile for me, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it…

When The Moon Was Ours is one of those books that really speaks to me as a trans reader. McLemore’s narrative isn’t solely concerned with trans narratives, though one of the central characters is an immigrant mixed-race trans boy (a kind of character we see all too rarely in fiction generally and speculative fiction particularly); but it’s the narrative of transness that really spoke to me, so it’s where we’ll start. McLemore threads throughout the novel the way Samir feels about his body, and about his gender; When The Moon Was Ours talks about gender dysphoria and the disconnect trans people can feel from their bodies, as well as the way some embrace theirs. It talks about the social stigma towards trans people, and how we internalise that, and how that shame manifests in our self-image. It talks about trans people’s sexuality, about the conflict or congruence between anatomy and emotion. McLemore really cuts through the normal cliches of a trans story, and instead tells something true, recognisable, and because of it, heartbreaking.

This is a book that is about much more than its trans protagonist, though. When The Moon Was Ours also has a cis female protagonist, marked as different from her community by her origin (falling out of a water tower) and by the roses that grow from her wrist. Miel has a tragic backstory, which is slowly revealed over the course of the book; as well as a present which has both its beauties, like her mother-figure Aracely, and her romance with Samir, and its threats, like the Bonner sisters. These aren’t contradictory, although they are in tension at times; it’s the tension that gives rise to the story, and McLemore plays it perfectly, with the teenage emotionality given free rein to really be extreme and powerful.

Every character in When The Moon Was Ours has their struggle; there are only really eight major characters – Samir, Miel, Samir’s mother, Aracely, and the Bonner sisters – but most of the minor characters, such as the Bonner parents and Miel’s own parents, are fleshed out as well. Those we encounter once tend to be a little more one-dimensional and simplistic, but they are really props for the eight core members of the cast to interact with and around; those eight members are intensely real and human, each with secrets of their own, and with their own different, difficult pasts and mysteries.

If When The Moon Was Ours has a flaw, it’s in the way it deals with its magical realism. While some aspects – the rose, for instance – are beautiful and powerful, others seem more laboured, and drawn out; the glass pumpkins of the Bonner farm are strange and beautiful, but little more than a pretty symbol, and a metaphor that really wasn’t necessary and didn’t add anything – or get meaningfully addressed, leaving McLemore’s idea a little half-baked. This is a tendency throughout the book, where symbolism trumps anything else, just layering it on without consideration for what that would actually mean for the characters, or anything else.

This is slightly undercut by the prose of the novel. McLemore’s style is very poetic and flowing; When The Moon Was Ours isn’t told as mimetic fiction, which means some of the disjoints, and some of the excessively-heavy, underbaked symbolism isn’t too jarring, because the novel as a whole treats itself as a piece of folklore. There are references, which feel at times a little too self-conscious, to the way Miel and Samir have become myth in the village; the novel tends to forget those between times, and while poetic, is essential a straightforward fabulist narrative. The mixed approach weakens the effect of either of these styles a little, although the language is still beautiful and penetrating.

In the end, though, When The Moon Was Ours tore my heart out and handed it to me on a platter as a bare, naked, vulnerable, beautiful thing. If you’re trans, it may well do the same for you. McLemore has written a fantastic, beautiful romance, and one well worthy of her Tiptree win.

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Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime by Mizuku Nomura, trans. Karen McGillicuddy

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High school student Konoha Inoue is a gifted writer who’s lost his passion for his craft. When he meets beautiful upperclassman Tohko Amano, though, he finds someone with a greater hunger for literature than anyone he’s ever met… literally!

Amano is a book-scarfing goblin who satisfies her cravings by munching on the printed works of history’s greatest authors. However, nothing is as delicious as the handwritten stories she bullies Konoha into writing for her.

When a desperate classmate approaches the “literature club” to draft love letters on her behalf, the very thought of it sets Tohko’s mouth watering! But as Konoha will discover, the greatest love stories are often the most tragic…
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Jeannette Ng, of last week’s Under the Pendulum Sun review, some little while ago had a thread of light novel recommendations. I’ve been curious about light novels for a while now, and so took these up…

Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime is an odd little book, which starts off as one thing before slowly morphing into quite a different book. It seems, at first glance, to be quite a frothy little novel, a story about high school romance, subterfuge, and misplaced or unrequited love; Nomura leans heavily into the frilly side of the novel as she kicks proceedings off. It is only as the book continues and developes that a darker theme emerges; Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime isn’t about a love story, it’s an investigation into a death, an investigation Konoha and Tohko have been tricked into by seemingly-chirpy Chia Takeda, a first year.

The slide from one plotline into the other is strangely smooth; Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime builds up the romantic plotline as a standard schoolgirl romance, unrequited and of an older student, before Konoha’s attempts to learn more about this older student turn up the fact that he doesn’t actually exist. Nomura doesn’t lean heavily on supernatural elements, although Konoha assumes they are in play; instead, this is essentially, but for the book-eating girl herself, a dark piece of mimetic fiction, and the plot reflects that, with its plotting that has more than a hint of the Shakespearean to its resolution.

Shakespeare is not the only literary touchstone for Nomura in Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime. Not only does Tohko reference the different way different authors taste repeatedly, and show an incredible engagement in literary criticism and a deep engagement with various texts, but the whole book is built in conversation with Osamu Dazai. Indeed, many of the decisions characters make are heavily influenced by, and structured around, Dazai’s final work, No Longer Human; all the characters have read it, and there is explicit engagement with it in the context of Dazai’s wider ouevre, making literary criticism a key plot point for this novel.

Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime is also a fascinating book for its characterisation; everyone has a full and interesting personality, and the degree to which things like depression and angst are treated sympathetically is incredibly powerful. Indeed, Nomura’s discussion of different presentations of difference and depression, and the coping and deflection methods teenagers may develop to mask it, is moving in its accuracy; characters aren’t flattened by their mental health difficulties, only altered by them, and we have to see people in new lights as we learn more about them. This is a rare nuanced approach, and the way it manifests in the central cast is really well written.

The problem comes in the way Nomura treats the physicality of the female characters; Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime seems almost to become a different novel temporarily at times, as the bodies of the girls in the cast are discussed in pornographic, prurient, male-gaze ways that really intrude on the way the rest of the book is written. By turns deeply thoughtful and whimsically light, Nomura’s occasional succumbing to the pressures of certain conventions of how one describes a girl’s body really jar when they appear.

In the end, Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime isn’t high art, but it is deeply thought and felt art; it’s breezy, and eases you into its darkness, but Nomura really does carry that darkness well. A fascinating read.

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A Small Charred Face by Kazuki Sakuraba, trans. Jocelyne Allen

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What are the Bamboo?
They are from China.
They look just like us.
They live by night.
They drink human lifeblood but otherwise keep their distance.
And every century, they grow white blooming flowers.

A boy name Kyo is saved from the precipice of death by Bamboo, a vampire born of the tall grasses. They start an enjoyable yet strange shared life together, Kyo and the gentle Bamboo. But for Bamboo, communication with a human being is the greatest sin.
~~~~~
Vampires are a mainstay of horror, and have been since before John Polidori wrote The Vampyre in 1819; they’ve also long been a subject for reclamation in fiction, whether in that model or from other cultures. A Small Charred Face caught my eye as another entry in that long tradition of humanising monsters… Kazuki Sakuraba’s book is somewhere between a single novel and three separate, linked novellas collected into one volume; the marketing suggests it be read as one, and so I will review it as such.

A Small Charred Face is fundamentally a wistful, sad set of stories; it is about fading, aging, changing, and memory. The first two parts of the book are very intimate in scale, following single individuals; first, a human child taken in by a pair of Bamboo, who raise him until he becomes an adult; and second, a Bamboo who had befriended him briefly in his childhood, who later took in the child he took in shortly before his own death. They focus in very deeply and intently on the emotional relationships, and the idea of growing up; in the first part, of how a child does not understand the importance of growing up, and in the second, the problem of not growing up while those around one do.

A Small Charred Face is beautiful in both these parts; the characters are so well realised and so deeply, painfully human, in all their flaws, that their fights, their struggles, and their loves are all intensely touching. Watching Kyo age, and realise what he has forgotten, is a profoundly painful experience; while watching Mariko remain a perpetual child, while those around her age and die and maybe even forget her fundamental traumas, is similarly brutal. Sakuraba’s grasp of voice is vital here; the shifting first person narration is not only incredibly individual, but also ages with the characters, and shows their emotional development, in a very real way. Sakuraba’s writing also draws the reader through with great pacing and style, demanding one reads on to find out what happens to these characters, making it a fast book to read, and one hard to put down.

Sakuraba also shows romantic love beautifully; Kyo is raised by Mustah and Yoji, a pair of male Bamboo, and their mutual love and adoration is never shown as a sexual matter, but is shown as utterly pervading everything about them. A Small Charred Face, for half its length, shows some truly beautiful romantic writing; and the confusion of feelings of Kyo towards his adoptive parents is painful and beautiful to behold, as is the way his feelings about his past change and develop.

The third story in A Small Charred Face is rather less strong; it explains how Bamboo society in Japan came to be, in exile from China. Focused on a narrator who is a smart, dedicated, driven member of the royalty of the takezoku (the name the Bamboo called themselves in China), it looks at persecution and at discrimination. Sakuraba takes on a lot of themes across the sixty pages of this story, and tries to grapple with them all; while the despair of a brilliant woman forced into hiding her intelligence because of the needs of society are incredibly moving, other emotional elements don’t ring true, in part because the story is just too rushed, and relies too much on the way it plays on references to events in the future of the story that happened in previous episodes of the book.

In the end, A Small Charred Face reminded me very strongly of Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling; both intensely emotional and beautiful books using vampires to talk about humanity, Sakuraba’s is much more wistfully sad, but, for the most part, just as brilliant.

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Hadriana In All My Dreams by René Depestre, trans. Kaiama L. Glover

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Hadriana in All My Dreams, winner of the prestigious Prix Renaudot, takes place primarily during Carnival in 1938 in the Haitian village of Jacmel. A beautiful young French woman, Hadriana, is about to marry a Haitian boy from a prominent family. But on the morning of the wedding, Hadriana drinks a mysterious potion and collapses at the altar. Transformed into a zombie, her wedding becomes her funeral. She is buried by the town, revived by an evil sorcerer, then disappears into popular legend.

Set against a backdrop of magic and eroticism, and recounted with delirious humor, the novel raises universal questions about race and sexuality. The reader comes away enchanted by the marvelous reality of Haiti’s Vodou culture and convinced of Depestre’s lusty claim that all beings—even the undead ones—have a right to happiness and true love.
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I learned about Hadriana In All My Dreams from the wonderful Bogi Takács; eir monthly Diverse Book Highlights on eir blog and Patreon are incredibly useful, and e brings to my attention all kinds of books I wouldn’t otherwise find out about – including, much earlier this year, this particular Haitian text, translated into English almost thirty years after its original French publication.

Hadriana In All My Dreams is a novel in three parts, and each part has a different narratorial voice and approach, but they combine to a whole. The first part is the story, told by Patrick Altamont from his perspective as a child, of Hadriana’s wedding day and funeral. It has a childlike innocence to it, although there is still an eroticism and sexuality shot through the celebrations; but its the eroticism of a person who hasn’t had sex, who idealises it without really understanding it. Depestre’s use of stories in this section is especially fascinating; as well as telling a chronological story, there are nested stories told by other characters to Patrick and to each other, which explain in mythological terms the events being witnessed or that contextualise things in historical terms. The fact that the stories have a different narrative voice to Patrick’s in this first section is powerful, and really shows them as recounted from the voices of others.

The second, brief section of Hadriana In All My Dreams is of an older Patrick, looking back on the suppressed memory of Hadriana’s death and apparent zombification; this is the most varied section in terms of style. Depestre includes an academic argument, albeit with vulgar language, a newspaper report in the style of a travel puff piece, and an imagined interview with a journalist, as well as more traditional narrative forms; the mingling of these registers serves as a fantastic bridge away from the simple narrative of the first half, centring external perceptions of what happened to Hadriana, even while trying to fit them into theory. This is also the part which is most referential; authorities from Levi-Strauss to Fanon and de Beauvoir are quoted, although there is also a sardonic undercutting of the theoretical, as Depestre’s narrator wonders where the place of an individual is in the midst of theoretical discourse.

The final section is where we see a real shift in Hadriana In All My Dreams, from Patrick’s narrative to Hadriana’s own. Depestre moves us from an external experience of zombification, and of the funereal rites, to an internal one; from a participant and celebrant to an unparticipating focus. This subjective shift is achieved with fantastic style, and comes with a slightly more free-ranging narrative; built into this section are dreams and recollections, telling stories within stories and contradicting the stories others are telling about Hadriana. There is also an interesting shift of sexuality; whereas Patrick’s sexuality in the first two sections is essentially adolescent, Hadriana’s is much more adult, although largely unexpressed apart from gropings and one particular encounter with another woman.

The way Depestre, and in her translation Kaiama L. Glover, use language is incredibly effective. Each section has a slightly different dialect and voice, and they’re consistent with their sections, calling to mind a slightly different image of the narrator; and Hadriana In All My Dreams flows incredibly well, with an attention to important details that really vividly bring Jacmel to life and the characters of the book to a loud reality. The one place where Glover, perhaps reflecting Depestre, hits some strange snags is in the approach to genitalia; this feels clunky in its figurativeness, and the language used trips the mind up rather than flowing as part of the text, in a strange way.

Hadriana In All My Dreams is an interesting novel, and unusually resonant for a zombie novel. Zombies are, of course, famously versatile metaphors, whether for consumerism or faceless foreign immigrants one is allowed to kill; here, though, zombification isn’t a metaphor, but a literal truth, around which other things are thrown into focus. Depestre doesn’t write about zombies with horror but rather with a kind of wistfulness for the impact of the zombification; Jacmel is changed utterly by Hadriana’s story, as social divisions over religion, race, and culture are thrown into stark contrast, and that is where the interest of the narrative lies.

Hadriana In All My Dreams is a beautiful, elegaic novel full of life; a zombie novel, but not like any other zombie novel I’ve read. It’s good to see Depestre’s brilliant book has finally made it into English, and I hope it’ll lead to more translations to come.

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