Frances is an underpaid dressmaker with a terrible boss–until a daring design for a noble client catches the attention of a mysterious royal. That royal turns out to be Prince Sebastian: an ordinary prince by day, secretly the fabulous fashion icon Lady Crystallia by night. Frances and Sebastian become fast friends, but the effort of keeping the secret of Lady Crystallia’s identity begins to take a toll on both of them. Can they find a way to hold onto their dreams and each other, or is this fairy tale doomed to have an unhappy ending?
Well, of course this story has a happy ending, but the journey to it is such a joy that I won’t give away anything more than that. The Prince and the Dressmaker is a gorgeous graphic novel for all ages that swept me off my feet as surely as any Prince(ss) Charming.
One of my favorite things about The Prince and the Dressmaker is the way its queerness defies labels. Is Sebastian a trans girl? Genderfluid? A drag performer? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be. Is Frances straight, bi, or a lesbian for loving all aspects of Sebastian and Lady Crystallia? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be. Are both or either of them aro, ace, or on a gray spectrum? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be! As someone who’s struggled with my own labels quite a bit (understatement of the year), it was such relief to read a book that was joyfully queer but didn’t get bogged down in the details.
Jen Wang’s art is simply terrific. I tend to find comics and graphic novels distracting and hard to read (which is a me problem–my brain just doesn’t seem to work that way), but these illustrations only enriched my experience of the story. Every panel is so colorful, exuberant, distinctive, and all-caps BEAUTIFUL. I wanted to hang them on my wall or get them tattooed on my body or both.
The Prince and the Dressmaker really is a modern-day fairy tale, an instant classic along the lines of Ella Enchanted. It’s a pitch-perfect balance of harrowing and comforting–no matter how bad or sad things got, I always knew I was hurtling toward a happy ending, and the catharsis when I finally got there was so, so sweet. This would be an amazing book for adults and kids to read together for that reason.
If you’re looking for a happily-ever-after to restore your faith in humanity right now (who isn’t?), it would be hard to do better than The Prince and the Dressmaker. I loved this book and I hope you will too. ★★★★★
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
Originally published in February 2018 by First Second (Macmillan).
Once, all the peoples of Ikhara were Paper. Then the heavenly rulers rained colors down upon the earth, blessing some with powerful gifts while others hid in fear and remained human. Now those un-blessed humans make up the Paper caste, subjugated by the demon Moon caste and the part-demon Steel caste. (In Ikhara, demon means animal-featured, e.g. humanoid leopards, foxes, owls, etc. Demons also have supernatural abilities.)
This creation myth is the first thing the reader learns about the world of Girls of Paper and Fire, and right away we’re left questioning whether or not it’s true–and who benefits from telling it.
Our heroine, Lei, is a Paper caste girl whose mother was stolen and possibly killed by the forces of the demon bull king. But Girls of Paper and Fire is never as simple as human vs. demon: the next character we meet is an employee of Lei’s father’s herb shop, Tien, a Steel caste woman who seems kind, thoughtful, and loving toward Lei and her father despite their caste differences.
What is going on here? Who’s good? Who’s bad? Who can we trust? Who can we believe? These questions inform every part of Girls of Paper and Fire, putting me in mind of Katniss Everdeen: another heroine from an oppressed and downtrodden district who suddenly finds herself at the center of unimaginable wealth, power, treachery, and revolution. Ikhara even has a Reaping of sorts: every year, eight Paper girls are chosen to become courtesans of the king, removed from their families forever and thrust into deadly court intrigue. Lei bypasses this process–because of her strange golden eyes, she’s kidnapped by a Moon caste general and presented as a gift to the king instead–so we only hear about the selection in passing. (Which is probably for the better.)
The beginning of Girls of Paper and Fire is a little overwhelming and clumsy: there’s a lot of table-setting and world-building to get through before Lei enters the palace, officially joins the Paper girls, and sets off the events of the story in earnest. But it doesn’t take too long to find its feet, and once it does, it never slows down again.
Girls of Paper and Fire gets shockingly dark at times: as an unwilling courtesan, Lei is dehumanized, tortured, and subject to the constant threat of sexual and physical violence. (This is definitely a YA novel geared toward older teens.) But Lei is also able to find joy and friendship in the most unexpected places. She learns about her own limits and about her own power. And when I realized that Lei was falling in love with another girl at the palace, I literally shrieked aloud with happiness. This novel packs a massive emotional punch, and it was exactly the escape I needed over the past few weeks.
The reason the parallels to The Hunger Games are striking to me isn’t because I think Girls of Paper and Fire is derivative–in fact, I think it’s one of the more imaginative, daring, and original YA novels I’ve ever read. (Ikhara, inspired by the author’s experiences of growing up in multicultural Malaysia, is a truly spectacular fantasy setting that I’m dying to dig into further.) It’s that I didn’t realize how much I’d missed that kind of fast-paced, politically righteous YA until Girls of Paper and Fire served me its near-flawless version of it. The wave of grim YA dystopias that followed the success of The Hunger Games often missed the mark of what made Katniss and her world so appealing: its perfect balance of desperation and hope, trauma and healing. With Girls of Paper and Fire, Natasha Ngan hit the bullseye, almost exactly ten years after The Hunger Games was first released.
My only real complaint about Girls of Paper and Fire is the way it occasionally bounces between extreme poles of Portentous and Anticlimactic. There’s an intense prologue about Lei’s birth pendant that never quite pays off (although I’m open to it being setup for the sequel), and then a final reveal at the very very end that is…hmm. No spoilers, but it made me feel a little tricked, and not in a good way.
But it wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment of the book, and I suspect that Girls of Paper and Fire‘s teenaged target audience will care even less. I used to devour fantasy novels like this by the tote bag-load, anything and everything my local library had on the shelf. The fact that this book has a queer girl at its center makes it even more special and exciting–Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo were (are!) incredibly precious to me, and I’m happy that teens right now have even more options to choose from.
Girls of Paper and Fire is a thrilling YA fight-the-power story, a fiery repudiation of rape culture and misogyny, and a swoony F/F romance all in one. I ate it up with a spoon. I’ll definitely be checking out the sequel, Girls of Storm and Shadow. ★★★★☆
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
Originally published in November 2018 by JIMMY Patterson Books (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers).
Published in March 2020 by TorDotCom (an imprint of Macmillan)
“I have taken everything from you. It is the nature of royalty, I am afraid, what we are bred for and what we are taught. I will not take more unless you tell me it’s all right. Do you understand?”
In-yo, princess of the North, arrives at the southern court of Anh in an opulent dress of white sealskin, the like of which has never been seen in the South before. She brings with her a lavish dowry and the promise of a union between North and South, the Mammoth and the Lion. Though In-yo is crowned Empress of Salt and Fortune, divine made flesh, she finds herself isolated and ostracized by a hostile court, belittled and underestimated at every turn by her husband the emperor and his sneering associates. Her handmaiden and most trustworthy ally is a peasant girl called Rabbit, sold into imperial service as a child for five containers of orange dye. The relationship that follows–not a friendship, not really, for even a disgraced empress in exile wields more power than Rabbit ever could–will change the course of the history of the empire.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a classic high fantasy court intrigue drama, soapy and sexy and at times shockingly violent. But author Nghi Vo’s exhilarating worldbuilding and clear-eyed politics put it head and shoulders above most entries into the genre. It’s a dual consciousness balancing act: a critique of monarchy and empire that’s also an indulgence in every sumptuous trope I love about stories of monarchy and empire. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is full of gorgeous clothes, delicious food, high-stakes card games, stylish secret codes, and just about every other convention of the genre you can think of. It’s not preachy or didactic and it doesn’t shame the reader for enjoying reading about those things. But by showing it all through the eyes of Rabbit, one of the thousands of people on whose back this lifestyle is built, Vo is constantly complicating our loyalties.
My favorite example comes when Rabbit recounts how much work it was to clean and care for that striking white sealskin dress, in which In-yo made her intensely symbolic entrance to court:
“I was thirteen then, and it was my job to look after it. I packaged it so carefully between layers and layers of crisp paper, and every ten days I brought it out to brush away any possible moth eggs of larvae.”
All that work, and In-yo never wears the dress again. I was left savoring the beautiful descriptions of the dress–I’ll admit it, clothing descriptions are one of my favorite parts of fantasy, and this book is a doozy in that regard–but I was also left thinking: what a waste. What a waste of a beautiful dress, to sit in a cedar chest forever. More importantly, what a waste of Rabbit’s life, to have to spend that much time taking care of a wasted dress. It’s not that beauty isn’t worth creating and maintaining in the world. But The Empress of Salt and Fortune pushes readers to engage with the particular kind of waste of resources and lives that’s involved in turning royals into beautiful symbols rather than people. I wasn’t exactly pro-monarchy before, but this book had me considering the cost of it in fascinating and affecting new ways.
I’ll admit that, despite all the warm fuzzy feelings I have now, it did take me awhile to “get” this book. At only 112 pages, The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a novella, not a novel, and this leads to some pacing abnormalities. I won’t call them problems, because it all came together spectacularly at the end, but they were unusual enough that I had to really work to understand what was going on at first.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is framed through the eyes of the cleric Chih (who is genderless and uses they/them pronouns) and their magical bird companion Almost Brilliant. The two arrive at Lake Scarlet–the recently declassified location of the empress’s exile–in search of stories to bring back to their religious order. There they encounter the former handmaiden Rabbit, who is eager to tell her tale.
Vo drops the reader straight into this lushly perilous magical universe with no hand-holding whatsoever. The timeline in particular is slippery–Chih keeps referring to a new empress who’s about to be crowned, and it’s not immediately clear what the relationship is between this newcomer and the titular Empress of Salt and Fortune. The book demands your fullest attention from start to finish: I made the mistake of trying to read it one night when I was sleepy and got so confused that I had to start the whole section over again the next day to make sense of it.
But the work it takes to get there is part of what makes the pay-off at the end of those 112 pages so thrilling. Once I turned the last page I sat with it for a long moment, experiencing its emotional wallops one at a time: surprise, heartbreak, longing, peace. I was put more than a little in mind of the ending of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, a novel that trusts its reader to understand the shattering implications of the slightest details.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is as eerie and uncompromising as the empress of its title. It’s searingly political–ferocious, feminist, and queer as hell–while still retaining all the escapism and stunning aesthetics I want out of high fantasy. I hope this is the first of many, many books set in Anh; I’m enormously excited to hear that a stand-alone sequel, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, is coming later this year. ★★★★★
Originally published in 2017 by Del Rey (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
It has always seemed ironic to me that we use the term “fairy tale” to mean happy and sweet: a “fairy tale” romance, a “fairy tale” wedding. Anyone who’s spent more than a minute or two in the world of fairy tales knows just how hearbreaking and bitter they can be. The Bear and the Nightingale whisks readers off to a place where household spirits require sacrifices of blood, where rusalki might drag you off and drown you in a lake, where the dead rise from their graves and tear horses in two.
The Russian mythology that Katherine Arden draws from was unfamiliar to me, but that sense of delicious fairy tale danger was not. If you’re tired of fantasy novels set in the perilously lovely worlds of Mount Olympus, Asgard, Faerie, or Tír na nÓg, The Bear and the Nightingale might just be the cure for what ails you. It’s original and gorgeous, vivid and haunting. I absolutely loved it.
The protagonist, Vasya, is the youngest daughter of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a boyar in the medieval kingdom of Rus’. Her mother died in childbirth, but not before wishing that Vasya might inherit the powers of her mysterious, witch-like grandmother. In time, Vasya becomes everything her mother dreamed and more: a clever, headstrong girl who has a supernatural ability with horses and talks to spirits no one else can see. But her idyllic life changes forever when Pyotr marries Anna, a frail, devout princess of Moscow who scoffs at the old customs of honoring the spirits of household and forest. When Anna invites a zealous priest to live in the village, fear begins to spread like a contagion, fueling an ancient force that threatens to destroy everything Vasya holds dear.
The Bear and the Nightingale is told in the lilting prose of a fairy tale, using an omniscient third person voice that bounces effortlessly between the perspective of Vasya, Anna, Pyotr, and many other characters. Arden’s writing utterly transported me to the world of medieval Rus’, especially its ominous weather; the real-life forces of nature are written as only slightly less terrifying than the evil spirits, and one of the most memorable (and horrifying) scenes in the book involves a small child freezing to death in his mother’s arms during a particularly harsh winter.
Any modern writer who tries to write a story based on fairy tales runs the risk of creating flat, boring characters. The narrative structure of fairy tales just isn’t designed to allow the growth and development that readers like to see in characters in a full-length novel. But Arden is more than a match for this problem. All the characters are lovable and interesting in their own way, and that’s especially true of Anna, who could have been a mere wicked stepmother but comes across as a much more tragic and nuanced antagonist instead. She and Vasya are perfect foils for one another, and even when Anna is horribly cruel towards Vasya, you can still understand and sympathize with her motivations.
If I might lodge one tiny complaint about The Bear and the Nightingale, it’s that it drags a tad in the middle section, causing the final climactic battle to feel a little rushed. At the same time, there’s some incredible worldbuilding that happens in that section that I’d have been sad to see sacrificed, so I’d say the whole thing’s a net neutral. (And at a tight 336 pages, The Bear and the Nightingale is on the shorter side for a fantasy novel, making that slow middle even easier to take.)
The Bear and the Nightingale is an instant fantasy classic. I can’t wait to pick up the rest of the trilogy, beginning with the second installment, The Girl in the Tower. ★★★★★
Will Kendall is in love with Phoebe Lin. The problem is that Phoebe is becoming ever more enmeshed in a cult: a cult that lashes out in an act of terrifying violence that Will can’t reconcile with his glamorous, aloof, perfect vision of Phoebe. The Incendiaries explores what happens when faith takes over someone’s life, leaving those who love them helplessly trapped on the other side. I loved this novel’s story and characters, but I had trouble following its timeline and stakes until the very end, when the whole thing clicks into place. I found it mostly satisfying; other readers might be disappointed. The Incendiaries is moving and thought-provoking, but I do wish it’d been just a little clearer. Its characters are trapped in a fog of confusion and regret–the reader didn’t have to be.
publication date: hardcover in 2018, paperback in 2019
length: 240 pages
But this is where I start having trouble, Phoebe. Buildings fell. People died. You once told me I hadn’t even tried to understand. So here I am, trying.
–from The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon
Faith, first love, money (and lack of it), alcohol, terrorism, an elite college, suicide, a cult. The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon’s first novel, is made of heady stuff. In it, a young scholarship student who recently lost his evangelical Christian faith, Will, falls in love with a mysterious and beautiful young woman with a complicated past: Phoebe.
It took me a beat too long to understand that the whole book is told from Will’s perspective, although The Incendiaries alternates between chapters labeled Will, Phoebe, and John Leal.
John Leal is a cult leader, a Christian zealot who did a terrifying stint in a North Korean prison after trying to help smuggle people out. He’s a cipher for the entirety of the novel–why go from a righteous cause, like freeing people from a dictatorship, to something as sinister as a murderous cult?
The Incendiaries plays out like a love triangle, except instead of three whole people, it’s more like one person–Will–battling his two contradictory ideals of Phoebe. In one, Phoebe is the love of his life, the first woman he has sex with, a brilliant pianist (who threw it all away because she couldn’t be perfect enough), a social butterfly.
But in the other, Phoebe is the instigator of a horrifying and deadly bombing, a nightmare from which Will cannot wake up.
In The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon writes with a cold, bright intensity, like a strobe light in a dark club. The frozen images we experience are alternately sexy, bloody, predatory, bloodless. It’s an interesting and original way to tell a version of a story I’m endlessly fascinated by: what happens when people get hopelessly caught up in a group that’s bad news. (The Girlsby Emma Cline, History of Wolvesby Emily Fridlund, and The Parking Lot Attendantby Nafkote Tamirat are just a few examples.)
The problem is that The Incendiaries is so alternately full of sharp edges and smooth surfaces that I found it impossible to ever get a proper grasp on it. I was solidly halfway through the novel before I understood what was happening; I was all the way to the end before the chronology made any kind of sense.
You also have to be willing to accept a certain amount of melodrama, which I think is mostly but not entirely effective. Will is wholly, almost religiously consumed by Phoebe, which is the point–in a nutshell, The Incendiaries is about the ways human love and religious devotion mirror each other, each one causing us to commit previously unimaginable acts–but it’s also occasionally grating.
Luckily, I thought Will, Phoebe, and John Leal are interesting enough to justify the obsessive attention Kwon pays them. But if you’re not a fan of this type of hyper-focused, character-driven literary novel, you’re likely to find it to be an awful lot of navel-gazing.
Despite all that, The Incendiaries gets better and better in my memory the farther I am from its electric final chapter. Thematically, Kwon bites off more than almost any author could conceivably chew, and transforms it into a fascinating, enigmatic, eminently memorable story. It reminded me of Yaa Gyasi’s debut, Homegoing, in that way: it wasn’t not always a great experience while I was reading it, but I’m grateful to have read it anyway.
In the end, Phoebe and John Leal’s motives are no clearer to us than they are to Will. Kwon asks us to sit with that discomfort and interrogate it, like tonguing raw gums after a pulled tooth.
If sincere belief can be used to justify such terrible ends, why believe anything at all? Why take the risk of loving anyone at all?
Because, The Incendiaries seems to argue, we can’t help it. Reasons and narrative are merely justifications to be applied afterwards, turned over and over in our minds till we come up with a story we’re satisfied with.
The Incendiaries is an excellent case for writing wildly ambitious, unrealistic novels and trusting that the right readers will love and connect with them anyway. When someone tells me that they didn’t like a novel because it wasn’t realistic, that merely tells me that something more primal has failed, that the wrong fictional buttons were pushed, the wrong hormones engaged. For a truly great story, we will put all objections of realism aside, whether that story is an overt one–a novel, a movie–or the covert one we’re always telling, the one about our own lives and relationships, the one that pushes us to believe, to love, to do something. Anything.
The Incendiaries is a fascinating book. I’m not sure that it’s always successful, but it is always, always great. ★★★★☆
Kathleen Collins was a groundbreaking artist: a playwright, filmmaker, educator, and activist as well as a writer. She died young in 1988 and her work was at risk of fading into obscurity until the publication of this collection in 2016. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, named for one of the standouts of the collection–a bittersweet, sly story about how the politics of the Civil Rights Movement played out on a personal level–is absolutely wonderful. It’s made up of 16 intimate stories that are so short that they border on flash fiction; each one feels simultaneously like an overheard scrap of someone’s life and like a whole, rich meal. This is easily one of my new favorite short story collections. Collins was an extraordinary talent and I wish she had been with us longer.
You can read my full review below.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
I had an uncle who cried himself to sleep. Yes, it’s quite a true story and it ended badly. That is to say, one night he cried himself to death.
–from “The Uncle” in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
How do you get a reader to care about a short story? There’s so much less time to get a short story off the ground than a novel, so much more pressure to find just the right hook to pull us in.
But in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, Kathleen Collins seemed to trust that dialogue was enough, her characters were enough, their problems were enough. This is a short story collection that is bold in its unassumption and I was riveted to every page.
It starts with “Exteriors,” in which a conflict between a couple is set up like a shot for a movie, followed immediately by “Interiors,” made up of two stream-of-consciousness monologues from husband and wife. In “The Uncle,” a woman’s wonderful childhood memories of her aunt and uncle are disrupted by the adult truths of their lives. In “Documentary Style,” a combative Black cameraman resents the woman who will edit his work. And in “Of Poets, Galleries, New York Passages,” two New York artists host a friend from the country, each projecting their fantasies of city and suburban life onto the others.
The title story is as provocative as its name suggests, both mischievously and seriously examining what happens when the personal becomes too political, when the politics of the Civil Rights Movement embedded themselves in romance and sex as well as protests and policy.
Every story in the collection is so good that it’s hard to choose standouts. Collins had one of the best ears for dialogue I’ve ever encountered–right up there with Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God–and a knack for imagery that symbolizes without feeling symbolic. Not a thing about Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is artificial or forced.
Collins wrote as fluidly as most people think, or talk, or breathe. I’m sure it was hard work, but her work is so skillfully hidden from the reader that it’s hard to picture it happening at all, as if it sprung fully formed from her mind onto the pages of the book in my hands.
Sadness lingers around the edges of every story, both because of the heartrending subject matter (most of the stories are about disintegrating relationships, especially romantic ones) and because you know from the lovely foreword by poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander that Collins died at the age of only 46, in 1988, before her work could gain the full acclaim in her lifetime that it deserved.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? works as both a terrific book on its own merits and a fierce rebuttal to the way Black women artists are systematically marginalized and deliberately forgotten. It’s a treasure trove of great writing and fascinating politics. It’s an essential manifesto of Black and female art;it’s also purely delightful, unforgettable, compulsively readable fiction. It’s given me a new vision for what a short story can be, and what a short story collection can be.
What an excellent way to spend an hour or two. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? doesn’t ask much of your time, but in its own quiet way it does command–demand, in fact–your full attention. You will be happy to oblige. ★★★★★
It’s hard to know what City of Ash and Red is really about, until the end, when you realize that the vagueness was the point. In it, an unnamed man works as a rat killer in his home country; when he is transferred to a branch office in District 4 of Country C, his life is plunged into chaos. Country C is consumed by a mysterious disease, its bureaucracy is unraveling, and its streets are full of garbage. Clouds of pesticide and antiseptic poison the air. Meanwhile, in his home country, his ex wife is brutally murdered–and the unnamed man becomes the primary suspect.
You’d think a novel about a man desperately trying to survive murder charges and a plague in a hostile foreign country would be tense, even thrilling. Unfortunately, City of Ash and Red is lethargic and confusing instead, not so much emotionally distant as entirely absent. It’s an admirable literary experiment in detachment and ennui, but ultimately a failed one. I didn’t enjoy this book at all.
You can read my full review below.
City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell)
Danger warnings are more common than actual danger. And yet when danger does finally strike, it does so without warning. That was why the man thought nothing of the quarantine notices and infectious disease prevention regulations posted all around the airport. He knew that the more caution signs there were, the less danger he was in.
–from City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun
Depersonalization, dehumanization, dissociation. Authoritarian governments, guerrilla warfare, gig economies. In a world where full personhood feels more precarious than ever, it’s not hard to see why authors are leaning into namelessness, facelessness, and purposelessness.
The protagonist of City of Ash and Red, Hye-Young Pyun’s second novel published in the U.S. after her award-winning thriller The Hole, is unnamed, referred to as “the man”; most of the people around him are also unnamed, or given only generic first names. Similarly, Pyun eschews place names in favor of placeholders: the unnamed man’s home country is simply called his home country; the country where he goes to work at the beginning of the novel is Country C, the city where he lives merely one of 16 unnamed major cities, his neighborhood known only as District 4.
The man, a rat killer, is transferred to work at an office in Country C. An unnamed, mysterious plague is spreading rapidly when the man arrives; it’s possibly just the common cold, but possibly much worse. Garbage coats the streets. Billowing, opaque clouds of antiseptic are constantly sprayed from trucks, convenient cover for every time the man needs to run away. The man doesn’t speak Country C’s language. (What language? It’s impossible to know.)
The man has a dog in his home country, whom he forgets to make arrangements for, despite knowing that he’s leaving for a 6 month to 5 year stay in Country C. He calls a former coworker and asks him to take the dog somewhere, anywhere; this coworker also happens to have just divorced the man’s ex-wife, also unnamed, and the two men loathe each other and this shared history. When the coworker goes to let out the dog, he finds the ex-wife in the man’s apartment, stabbed to death. The man is the suspect. The man has vague memories of a fight, of holding a dull knife, but he’s certain he didn’t kill his wife before he left for Company C. Or is he certain? And is she even dead?
All of these unknowns are bold and brave choices on the part of Pyun, who is terrific at evoking a sort of banal, bureaucratic dread. But despite its daring, or perhaps because of it, City of Ash and Red simply doesn’t work. It’s overburdened and muddy, so concerned with its own experimental concept that it forgets to tell a real story.
Pyun’s detached writing style (as translated by Sora Kim-Russell) throws up a pane of thickly frosted glass between the reader and the events of the story, making it impossible to fully care about what happens, because it’s nearly impossible to even know what’s really happening.
Tension builds and is abruptly punctured; the best and most vivid part of the novel, in which the man remembers his marriage to his ex-wife, which ended when he raped her, is followed almost immediately by the worst and most deadening part, in which the man lives in a sewer. Or maybe it’s a park? Maybe both? Who knows. I sure don’t.
There’s still plenty of thought-provoking stuff on offer in City of Ash and Red. Pyun writes particularly well about work, marriage, and the ways complacency in both can irrevocably and negatively affect our lives.
But thematic ambition can’t save City of Ash and Red from being a pretty awful reading experience. Even at a relatively short 256 pages, it feels interminable, and painfully bloated.
I don’t recommend City of Ash and Red, but I’m still looking forward to reading The Hole, and I’ll still be seeking out Pyun’s future work. This novel is a failure, but a very, very intriguing one. ★★☆☆☆
Educated is a harrowing memoir of the isolation, abuse, and paranoia Tara Westover experienced at the hands of her fundamentalist family in Idaho. Westover didn’t receive vaccinations or a birth certificate, everyone in her family refused to see doctors even during grave illnesses and injuries, and above all, she and her siblings were forbidden from going to school–which makes Westover’s eventual prestigious academic plaudits (acceptance to Brigham Young, a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, a PhD from Cambridge) all the more extraordinary. Westover has a calm, crisp writing style that turns the excruciating experiences she recounts into a damn good reading experience. It’s not hard to see why this book has been a bestseller for weeks on end: it’s an intoxicating story of redemption, healing, and yes, education in the face of near-unimaginable adversity. I absolutely adored Educated.
Turning toward our house on the hillside, I see movements of a different kind, tall shadows stiffly pushing through the currents. My brothers are awake, testing the weather. I imagine my mother at the stove, hovering over bran pancakes. I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his callused hands into welding gloves. On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping.
I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.
–from Educated by Tara Westover.
Memoirs require either extraordinary writing or extraordinary experience to be worth reading. You don’t actually need both–but when you do have both, you end up with something as dazzling as Educated.
Tara Westover grew up in an extreme fundamentalist family in Idaho. She didn’t receive a birth certificate for years, she didn’t go to school, she never went to the doctor, and her family furiously eschewed mainstream culture, including mainstream Mormons, whom they called “gentiles.” All that makes it all the more extraordinary that Westover eventually taught herself enough math, science, and grammar to take the ACT and attend Brigham Young, later gaining prestigious scholarships to Cambridge and Harvard.
Educated could have easily been a screed: against fundamentalism, against white supremacy in the prepper movement (one memorable chapter details how Westover’s older brother beat her and taunted her with the N-word when he was displeased with her), against unregulated homeschooling, against unsafe home medicine, and much more. In some ways, it is; you certainly won’t leave Educated with a positive impression of any of those things. But I admire that Westover chose to focus on something much more personal: her slow and painful estrangement from her family.
Westover sees so much good in her family, even her father and brother Shawn, who were the ringleaders of the abuse she experienced. The fact that she writes about the good so generously–her father’s love of her singing, Shawn’s fierce protectiveness over her–cut me to the bone, even more so because I’m currently estranged from part of my own family because of abuse.
People have asked me what the worst part of the abuse was; after several years of considering, I’m sure that the worst part is not theworst parts–the screaming, the danger–but the fact that the worst parts poisoned the good parts. I could never let my guard down around my parent again, I could never trust that the good parts of my teens would last, there was never a new leaf turned over that would not eventually be turned back again. “Trust issues” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
I would guess that Westover would agree with me. Educated is full of horrifying moments–life-threatening burns and head injuries not treated in the hospital, beatings and physical torture, murdered animals–but the hardest parts of the book to read by far are its moments of love and tenderness because you know they will not last. No matter how good the good is, it can never fully cure the rot underneath.
With every word of Educated, Westover walks a tightrope of compassion and fury, a tightrope that was very familiar to me and will be familiar to anyone else who’s loved a family who can’t love you back in the way that you deserve.
That’s the extraordinary experience part of this memoir; let’s not forget the extraordinary writing, too.
It took me a few chapters to warm up to Westover’s straight-ahead style until I realized how carefully she was calibrating that style to each experience she recounts. Early in the book, when Westover is writing about things that happened when she was 7-10 years old, Educated’s tone is credulous and matter-of-fact; as she enters her teens and gains a sliver of access to the wider world, her writing breaks wide open into artfulness. Maybe I imagined it, but I could even swear her vocabulary changes as the book goes on.
At minimum, if I’m imagining those differences, then Westover is doing something right. Throughout Educated, I felt I was growing up right alongside her. It’s a really special storytelling experience.
Educated was a balm for me. It reminded me that there are others out there who are living with the consequences of generational trauma and paranoia and managing to make amazing lives for themselves regardless. But even if it’s not quite that personal for you, I guarantee that you’ll still find it a gripping and unforgettable story.
Like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, another memoir so harrowing that it almost defies belief, Educated is a reminder that, while we’ll never find the perfect, uncomplicated happily-ever-afters we were promised in fairy tales, there is such a thing as a happy ending for a true story. Westover has had to make impossible choices, but she’s come out the other side and thrived. That is exactly the thing I needed to be reminded of right now–exactly the thing that many of us who have suffered, or are currently suffering, needed to be reminded of. There is hope.
It’s hard to imagine a memoir more deserving of the celebration Educated has already received from critics and readers. Add my name to the long list of those who adore it. ★★★★★
Originally published in a limited run by Artistically Declined Press well before Roxane Gay was a household name, Ayiti was recently republished by Grove Press. It’s a short story collection about Haiti and the Haitian diaspora; just as she did in her bestselling 2017 short story collection, Difficult Women, Gay excels at breaking apart a big theme into digestible pieces that are at once acrid and vulnerable, bitter and sweet. I didn’t like Ayiti quite as much as Difficult Women–I think Gay has sharpened her craft significantly since Ayiti was first published in 2011–but it’s still a beautiful collection of stories and I’m glad it’s gotten the chance to reach a wider audience this time around.
publication date: first published in 2011; Grove Press edition published in 2018
length: 320 pages
On the first day of school, as he and his classmates introduce themselves, Gérard stands, says his name, quickly sits back down, and stares at his desk, which he hates. “You have such an interesting accent,” the teacher coos. “Where are you from?” He looks up. He is irritated. “Haiti,” he says. The teacher smiles widely. “Say something in French.” Gérard complies. “Je te déteste,” he says. The teacher claps excitedly. She doesn’t speak French.
–from “Motherfuckers” in Ayiti by Roxane Gay
One of my favorite themes in Roxane Gay’s fiction is righteous vengeance. Her characters accumulate tiny humiliations like dust, eventually snapping in fits of satisfying pettiness and rage. When I read one of her stories, I know I will have catharsis; even when I don’t love one of her stories, I’m always entertained and I never regret making the time to read it.
Ayiti, Gay’s 2011 short story collection about Haiti and its diaspora that was republished for a wider audience in 2018, is full of moments like these. In “Motherfucker,” a sullen, bullied immigrant teenager fights insults with cologne, in “Voodoo Child,” a Haitian college student manipulates her ignorant roommate who believes she practices voodoo, in “Gracias, Nicaragua y Lo Sentimos,” a personified Haiti bittersweetly passes the dubious torch of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to Nicaragua, knowing the title will eventually return.
Even when certain stories in the collection falter–the longest story, “Sweet on the Tongue,” is powerful but hard to follow and has at least two too many subplots–Ayiti as a reading experience never loses its momentum.
After reading both Ayiti and Gay’s later collection, Difficult Women, I’m convinced that Gay and her editors are the best in the business when it come to theming short story collections and ordering the stories within them. The stories in Ayiti don’t hammer us over the head with their themes of home and diaspora, but they keep a steady enough rhythm to keep us fully engaged to the last page. (I finished this book in a sitting.)
Gay is my favorite short story writer working today, and the fact that this feels like a slightly lesser work in her catalog speaks to just how terrific her catalog is. Ayiti is wonderful, both on its own merits and as a peek into the ascendancy of such a marvelous writer. ★★★★☆
Instead of writing new book reviews during this U.S. holiday week, I thought I’d re-post a couple of the early reviews I wrote for this site, updating the original (terrible) formatting and getting them to a wider audience than they had the first time around.
Some books, like this one, are magic. They succeed on every level, they hit every emotional sweet spot, they do things with words that remind me why writing is such a unique and incredible art form…and I just can’t explain why. This book struck me dumb with awe and gratitude. I finished it over a week ago, now, and I’m still struggling to articulate how much I loved it, because the truth is that I loved it too much for words.
Bear with me, folks.
Little Fires Everywhere is a story about a lot of things, but it’s especially the story of a place and two families that live there: Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a planned community struggling to cope with the rapidly encroaching mess unpredictability of the outside world; the Richardsons are a big, messy, mostly-happy upper-middle-class white family with deep roots; and mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren are newcomers no one can quite figure out. When Mia instigates an ugly custody battle between a young Chinese American woman, Bebe Chow, and the wealthy white neighbors who attempt to adopt her baby, May Ling, the community is blown open and family secrets laid bare.
The story isn’t told in order, and opens as the Richardsons’ house burns to the ground around them. From that first page, I was hooked. The closest book I can think to compare it to–though they’re not really similar at all–is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But where I found Eugenides’ book to be an arch, unpleasant, and chilly allegory for the folly of suburbia, Ng is deeply, warmly concerned with a real suburban community and characters so lifelike they might as well be real people.
I think “realistic” is a quality that can be overrated in fiction, because it’s fiction–why not take the opportunity to create something intricately, beautifully unreal? As long as an author does it well, I’m onboard. But Little Fires Everywhere did remind me of the magic and power of authors who write about the real world and understand real people: what we think like, what we act like, and what we care about. Ng not only understands people, but values them. She treats her characters–most of whom are painfully clueless, some borderline malicious–as if they are all worthy of love and respect. It’s revelatory, especially because Little Fires Everywhere is literary fiction, which is a genre that I think values coldness overmuch and compassion too little.
Every scene, no matter how slight, benefits from this loving characterization. Characters with only few paragraphs devoted to them are still given actions and dialogue that hints at the rich motivation within; central characters we thought we understood are given shake-ups that reveal new and satisfying depths. I particularly loved the (very) minor character of Mr. Yang, a tenant of the Richardsons and downstairs neighbor of the Warrens, and the more central characters of Trip and Moody, teenage Richardson sons who are tender and emotional and defy every dull and tired stereotype of teenage boys.
But of all these characters to fall in love with, my favorite was Mia Warren, whom we discover is a gifted photographer as well as mother and enigmatic drifter. A powerful theme of the book is the process of creation, punishing and healing by turns, whether it’s art-making or motherhood. I cried several times at this book, and each time it was because of that push and pull: the things mothers give up and the things their children give back; the things the children lose that their mothers want to stop them from losing but can’t; the bravery and vulnerability it takes to put art into the world.
I think most of us have at least some idea of what makes a good mother, but novels about visual artists can be especially hit or miss because we can’t see for ourselves whether a canvas or photograph is good or bad or mediocre–the author has to tell us. Thankfully, Ng has a light touch when describing Mia’s talents, trusting the mind’s eye of the reader to fill in the rest.
In fact, it’s been a long time since my mind’s eye felt so engaged in a novel. I was born in ’95 and thus have no memories of the late ’90s, I know nothing about Ohio, and I certainly knew nothing about Shaker Heights, but every scene is so carefully detailed, as lovingly costume-designed and set-dressed as a Wes Anderson movie (though less twee by half), that I felt there.
This absorbing, transporting quality is especially wonderful because Little Fires Everywhere is told in the omniscient 3rd-person, often hopping from mind-to-mind mid-scene, a technique I associate most with epic, impersonal fantasy novels and not with intimate family dramas. It turns out that–at least in Ng’s skilled hands–that mind-hopping can actually make a book more personal and more intimate. We don’t see one side of an argument, we see all of them: a good quality in a book filled with complicated and unwinnable arguments.
I could write a book-length love letter to this book. (Can you tell?) I could especially go on for hours about its razor-sharp critique of the kind of feel-good, orderly white liberalism that crumbles in the face of honest and difficult questions.
But I won’t go on any longer. I’ll just trust that you’ll read Little Fires Everywhere, and tell all your friends, and tell them to tell all of their friends, too. This book is miraculous. Don’t miss it. ★★★★★