Category Archives: FSG Originals

A View of the Empire at Sunset by Caryl Phillips

CP Title: A View of the Empire at Sunset
Author: Caryl Phillips
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374283612
Genre: Literary Fiction, Biographical
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

First, read this book. Then read all works by Jean Rhys, besides Wide Sargasso Sea. Or read all works by Jean Rhys and then read this book. Anyway, please do read Jean Rhys. She was a wonderful writer and I am only too glad that we have more of her to read, or even more about her, which Caryl Phillips does a brilliant job of in his book, “A View of the Empire at Sunset”.

And might I also say that this book will not be a happy read. It is dark, sullen and unforgettable (at least to me it was and still is). The book is a fictionalised telling of the life and times of Jean Rhys. Caryl Phillips does a brilliant job of fictionalising the life of Gwen Williams (Jean Rhys’s real name), the Welsh doctor’s daughter, who always wanted to be an insider to an English world, but was never one. The constant theme of home and missing what is home and then the back and forth to find home will keep you hooked and yet there were places where I thought: Wish he had written more about her writing life.

“A View of the Empire at Sunset” is about Gwen’s loves, her failed marriages and what she kept searching in men – and the translation of that in her novels and short stories (that is if you have read works, you can for sure see glimpses of those men and her in them). Her constant disappointments in love, miserable assessment of self and alcoholism loom large through her characters in Voyage in the Dark, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and Good Morning, Midnight.

The place and setting of A View of the Empire at Sunset is for sure atmospheric – set in the waning years of the British Empire – Gwen thus is always an outsider from her West Indies birthplace, to her return now and then. The novel begins and ends in 1936, thirty years after she was sent to school and thirty years before she published Wide Sargasso Sea, which gave her career a boost like no other.

Having said that, Rhys’s travails are painful. At times, I just couldn’t bear to read about them. In all of this though, there are snatches of pure beauty and grace in the book, that Phillips manages to give us quite elegantly. Please do read this book if you want to know more about Gwen Williams the person and lesser about Jean Rhys, the writer.

 

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Miss Subways by David Duchovny

Miss SubwaysTitle: Miss Subways
Author: David Duchovny
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374210403
Genre: Fantasy, Literary Fiction, Humour
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Miss Subways is all about New York. Even if you haven’t been there, reading this book will just make you want to. And if you have been there, then you would want to visit it again and again after reading this love story with an edge, and loads of humour. I absolutely loved Duchovny’s Holy Cow and this one a little more.

Emer is a simple woman living in New York City who takes the subway, buys ice cream from the shop around the corner, aspires to become a writer, and lives with her boyfriend Con. That’s essentially her life, on almost a daily basis. And then it changes completely as one fine day something extraordinary occurs and Emer findself in a world full of mythical figures from around the world – in a New York she cannot seem to recognize.

The book is part fairy tale, part love story, part fantasy, and what does it take really to want to have it all. David Duchnovny, the writer is so imaginative and part of it of course comes from the acting – and it shows in the sub-plots – the inspiration from Irish and global mythical figures and the linking of them to Emer and Con’s lives.

You think the story is going one way, till it goes the other and you are left stunned as a reader, not knowing what is going on, till you do. There is this sense of magic realism, and an irreverent tone to the novel which I enjoyed a lot. There are like I said a lot of fables – from almost every part of the world which makes it even more exciting. Miss Subways is a read that will keep you guessing almost every chapter.

The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

The Third Hotel Title: The Third Hotel
Author: Laura van den Berg
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374168353
Genre: Literary Fiction, Fantastical fiction,
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

“The Third Hotel” is a strange book. A strange and yet, a highly fulfilling, crackling read really. Clare is widowed and decides to go to Havana for a horror movie festival, which she had planned with her husband, a film critic. And when she does end up going to Cuba, strange apparitions and incidents occur that resemble what she is thinking or feeling – sort of the inner life we all carry within ourselves. She suddenly sees her husband alive and follows him into a world, where reality and fiction blur and that in essence is the plot of the story.

Laura van den Berg’s stories and novels have this quality of the fantastical. I think it is a constant as it has been repeated in “The Isle of Youth” (a collection of short stories) and even “Find Me” (a novel) which I have read. Her novel isn’t easy to get into but once you do, there is no stopping you as a reader.

The author takes the gruesome, the horror, the extraordinary and blends it with the everyday loneliness. There is this raw emotional power in the novel that is consistent and cohesive to the entire plot and the way characters behave. It almost reminded me of Murakami, Kafka and Cortazar a lot – the psychological revelation and the mystery surrounding everything – from the places to people.

Havana in itself is such a major character in the book that the book is nothing without it. Also, as you read along, the story takes over – it creeps on you unexpectedly – with multiverses and the undead presence of Clare’s husband that forms the crux of the novel. Berg’s writing is precise, blunt and told in effortless prose that is ambiguous and also thrilling at the same time. It is a challenging read but immensely rewarding. Stay with it.

 

 

So Lucky by Nicola Griffith

So LuckyTitle: So Lucky
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: MCD x FSG Originals
ISBN: 978-0374265922
Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBTQIA
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I had read “Hild” a couple of years ago and loved it. So I was more than happy to read and review this one when it came to me. I was astounded by the writing. Still am. “So Lucky” is almost everything rolled into one concise book – it is literary fiction, a thriller,    a medical thriller at that, political in nature, an LGBTQIA read, and also autobiographical in nature to a very large extent. Nicola Griffith has put it all in and doesn’t lack a punch. It is there in almost every page of the book.

“So Lucky” is about Mara Tagarelli – the head of a multi-million dollar AIDS Foundation is also a committed martial artist. And suddenly, just one fine day she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and doesn’t know how to deal with it, till she does. She just wants to break the pattern of being treated like a victim – even though her body is weighing her down.  There is then the question of social media bullying (which is fascinating in its own way when you get to it). There is also the element of community and what becomes of friends and family when it actually comes down to being there.

It is an angry book, a book of hope and a book of love as well. There is a lot going on that will leave you bereft and raw, however, it is told with intelligence and much honesty. The book bites and stings and also hurts where it must. It doesn’t go gently all the way. I loved that the most about this book. After a very long time, I have read something that is so refreshingly candid and makes no bones about telling things the way they are.

History of Violence by Édouard Louis. Translated from the French by Lorin Stein.

History of Violence by Édouard Louis Title: History of Violence
Author: Édouard Louis
Translated from the French by Lorin Stein
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374170592
Genre: Literary Memoir, LGBT, Biographical
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It came out of the blue. A sudden kick to my stomach, reverberating throughout my body. It felt personal. It couldn’t have been more real than this. The book had been on my radar for a while now, however, I did not imagine that it would trigger so many emotions or that it would leave me more bereft than ever, once I finished reading it. “History of Violence” by Édouard Louis isn’t an easy book to stomach. Well, any book on rape and its aftermath isn’t easy to digest. You are left with that sinking, horrid feeling and you want something good to happen, but that most of the time isn’t possible, because it is life and it takes its time to heal and repair.

“History of Novel” is a meta non-fiction novel. Yes, it is a genre that I just got to know of once I started reading this book. The review isn’t about the genre. The book is about rape and its aftermath. Édouard Louis was raped in December 2012 on Christmas Eve. “History of Violence” charts the incident in the author’s voice, his sister’s voice (in some chapters) and the way life goes on or doesn’t sometime.

The pathos and the indifference in the book are startlingly dichotomous. Indifference mainly because in so many ways Édouard just wants to distance himself from the incident and yet he cannot stop talking about it to anyone who will listen. That is another way to disassociate, by the way. Pathos because literally no one can understand or maybe no one will. The ideas in this book are many: Of being gay, of racism that is deep-seated in Paris (because the novel is set there and in the author’s home village), of anxiety and fears, of the post-trauma and what it truly means to come back home.

“History of Violence” is very disturbing in most places and rightly so. You can sense Édouard blaming himself, of hating what happened, of trying to make sense of it all and in all of it wondering if life will ever be the same. At the same time, places and interactions seem more intense – be it the nurse at the hospital or the homeless man the author meets in the waiting room, or a basic taxi ride, or even a walk that triggers memories. This book has been written in narratives that shift – past and present merge, so it might seem like a difficult read but it isn’t. If anything, it will make you more empathetic to people around you, if a book is capable of doing that.

What it means to be humane. When the author doesn’t feel anger anymore toward the perpetrator Reda, but pities him, also even feels sorry for him if anything. Everything isn’t about just the good or bad. There is the in-between and “History of Violence” quite stunningly manages to convey that. I remember during the novel when the narrator can’t bear people being happy, after the incident. And another time, all he sees is Reda – in almost every face he comes across on the street. Such scenes remain and almost haunt the reader. At least, that’s what happened to me.

The translation shines. Not once did I feel that I was reading a translation. Lorin Stein has encapsulated it all brilliantly from French to English. No emotions are lost. Nothing seems out of place. Stein understands every emotion, every scar, every memory and is able to seamlessly bring us this read in a language we understand.

“History of Violence” is a book that is not for the weak-hearted. I don’t say this to make you shy away from reading it. In fact, if anything I want you to read it. I want you to understand perspectives. More so because Édouard has done a stellar job of putting his heart, body and soul on paper and nothing can beat that.