Review: HOUSE OF NAMES by Colm Tóibín

Monday Reviews

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Scribner Book Company (imprint of Simon & Schuster)

publication date: May 9, 2017

A disclosure is in order: I didn’t finish this book and don’t plan to. As much as I’d have liked to write a regular Monday Reads review, I can’t do that on only 1/3 of a book, and I’m going to have to give you my bitter and half-baked observations instead. Consider yourself forewarned.

As my not finishing it implies, I really, really did not like this book.

Did. Not. Like.

Since House of Names is a retelling of the Ancient Greek story of Iphigenia, who is sacrificed to the gods by her father Agamemnon (causing her mother Clytemnestra to exact terrible revenge), I knew that horror and dread would be on the menu, but I didn’t anticipate the brutal extreme to which Tóibín steers this already brutal story. He pulls no punches from the original myth and seemingly adds punches of his own. And while I don’t mind books that are difficult to read, there’s a difference between difficult and tortuous. Every moment I spent with these astonishingly cruel characters was torture.

Compounding my discomfort with the material was Tóibín’s prose, the bluntness of which displaced me even further from characters I already despised. Perhaps this prose style would work better in a more familiar (read: modern) context, but because House of Names is set in Ancient Greece–a setting as alien to me as Middle Earth–all the words left unsaid obscured Tóibín’s meaning instead of clarifying it.

The story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is full of interesting questions, the most pressing of which is What motivates a father to kill his own daughter? I imagine that there are a lot of equally interesting answers to be found, from feminist critiques to breathtaking thrillers, but all Tóibín seemed to bring to the table was, well, because humans are terrible and stupid! And that’s not good enough.

So, as much as I wanted to marvel at the ruthless beauty of paragraphs like this (told from the perspective of the furious and grieving Clytemnestra), I was left feeling poisoned by them instead:

I was ready as [Agamemnon] was not, the hero home in glorious victory, the blood of his daughter on his hands, but his hands washed now as though free of all stain, his hands white, his arms outstretched to embrace his friends, his face all smiles, the great soldier who would soon, he believed, hold up a cup in celebration and put rich food into his mouth. His gaping mouth! Relieved that he was home!

Because House of Names contains nothing but horrible people doing horrible things, there isn’t a scrap of hope or interest to hold onto, just suffering that goes on and on and on with no promise of catharsis.

And there are better uses of my time.

No rating / did not finish.

My copy of House of Names came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: ALL THE RIVERS by Dorit Rabinyan

Monday Reviews

All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan (translated by Jessica Cohen)

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Random House

publication date: April 25, 2017

9780375508295There is a difference between stories that end unhappily and stories for which there can be no happy ending. All the Rivers falls in the latter category. It is the story of an Israeli woman, Liat, and the Palestinian man she falls in love with, Hilmi, while both are living in New York City in 2002. If that seems like a simple setup, it’s because it is; charged politics do the heavy lifting here, and Liat and Hilmi aren’t so much characters as sketches.

At first, this grates. I’m not fond of mouthpiece books, and from the beginning this book has all the tell-tale signs. But there’s a subtler undercurrent here too, a promise of the thing that made me pick up the book in the first place: a love story that is at once tender and sweet, visceral and scathing.

Liat narrates, and narrate is the appropriate word here, since we don’t get much of a sense of Liat other than that she’s Israeli, and that she’s telling the story. Ostensibly she’s working in New York as a Hebrew/English translator; I’m not totally sure, since the details are breezed over and somewhat irrelevant. What matters is lust, and love, and being Middle Eastern in New York City in 2002.

All the Rivers is at its best when it is describing sensation. Rabinyan (with the aid of translator Jessica Cohen) seems to have infinite new combinations of words to describe homesickness, good food, and erotic encounters; she adds less fresh fuel to political conversations, which is perhaps the point: the conflict between Israel and Palestine drags on and on without changes or answers. It’s not that I didn’t care about those politics; I did while I was reading, and still do. It’s that every moment between Liat and Hilmi was so searing that  arguments over borders and binational identity–and there are many of these, between Liat and Hilmi, and between Liat and other characters as well–seemed ponderous in comparison.

I’m not sure if All the Rivers left me feeling particularly enlightened, although that’s the book’s marketing angle in the United States. It did leave me deeply sad in a way I can’t fully explain. This book ends (almost) how you’d expect, but Liat’s narrative folds in on itself so often that I found myself second-guessing my conclusions, my dread and disappointment so intense that I felt shaky after turning the last page.

It’s funny how much we love stories about people in love who aren’t supposed to be in love, from Romeo and Juliet to Titanic. It’s also funny how being in love can make reading about love so painful that it’s almost unbearable. I can confidently say that my own partner is nothing like Hilmi, and I am fairly certain I’m nothing like Liat, but I found myself casting my real-life relationship into the mold of this fictional one over and over. Every bitter fight between Liat and Hilmi was a fight I’ve experienced, or fear I will experience. And every threat of loss, of an ending for this couple, felt like it was threatening me, my own ability to love and be loved. It hurt in the way that I go to literature to be hurt: a hurt that expands, purges, and understands.

Rabinyan has accomplished something that, to me, is more complex and powerful than All the Rivers’s Very Important Book marketing can get at. Love is messy, love stories are messy, and attempting to impose politics upon lovers is impossible; it’s not surprising that Rabinyan doesn’t fully succeed. But in a way, that failure is its own success. I set this book down wishing that its unhappiness sprang only from the careless way people sometimes love each other, and not from a terrible political mess bigger than all of us: these characters, this author, and myself as a reader.

“How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful we look to them from that vantage point,” Liat laments. She is describing how the prosperity of Israel looks to Palestinians on the other side of the fence, but I felt something else. How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful, indeed, to love without restriction or complication. Someday we should all be so lucky. 4/5 stars.

 My copy of All the Rivers came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund

Monday Reviews

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

publication date: January 3, 2017

For me, the line between navel-gazing and specificity is drawn (perhaps counterintuitively) between the stories people tell about Ideas, and the stories people tell about People. Fridlund’s debut does not seem overly concerned with nature, or faith, or morality, though it touches on all three; instead, it is wholly preoccupied with its first-person narrator, Linda, and is the better for it. Linda’s story is as hyperreal as a museum, as if each word is cataloged, preserved, and polished, and it’s not a museum of winter, or summer, or Christian Science, or even the history of wolves. It’s something altogether more private and chilling, as functional and sharp as her Swiss Army Knife.

The capital-P People at the center of this novel–Linda especially–are not good, and often not even likable. They are, however, almost hypnotically sympathetic, and it makes the chronicle of the ways in which adults enact terrible harm on children all the more startling.

9780802125873Linda is a quiet, oddball teenager, the kind who could be called queer in the original sense of the word (and maybe the current one, too). She lives in the ruins of a commune with checked-out parents whom she’s not even sure are her parents; her high school history teacher is busted for child pornography and maybe for raping her classmate; a new family that seems mysteriously, intoxicatingly normal moves in across the lake. Linda starts babysitting the young son, Paul, for the young mother, Patra, and for awhile finds herself falling in a kind of love with both. But when it all goes bad, it goes bad fast, pushing Linda further down a path of obsession and isolation.

It’s a setup that seems either like a gritty YA novel or a gritty literary bildungsroman a la Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, but Fridlund skillfully threads the needle with the best of both genres. While the story is not self-consciously told out-of-sequence, it’s not as simple as point A to point B, and we check in frequently with an adult Linda, as if she were telling us her story over coffee or a beer. It keeps the story moving, and keeps it from feeling too awful to be real (something I occasionally felt about White Oleander). It never fully feels like fiction, so we are never fully immunized against its quiet horror.

At first I thought that Fridlund had an axe to grind: against the harshness of the Minnesota northwoods, maybe, or checked-out hippie parents, or pervert teachers, especially after a first chapter about all these things that was as blistering as I’ve ever read. I also thought Fridlund was setting me up for an explosion. What I got was a feeling more akin to locking myself out of my apartment: slow-motion anger and bitterness followed by exhaustion and resolve.

If that makes the book sound unpleasant, let me reframe: for a book that has received as much Important Book buzz as History of Wolves, I was expecting explicit, self-conscious traumas, but Fridlund has accomplished something much more devastating: an expansion of the kind of crazy story you see a few column inches of in a local paper. A teacher busted for child pornography, a former cult that’s rumored to burn children for fun, a completely avoidable family tragedy; I imagine Linda wouldn’t have been interviewed for any of these stories, but she’s been touched–and destroyed–by all of them. You start wondering what sorts of Lindas are behind every headline.

Like Linda, I was raised in the Minnesota northwoods. I spent more time outside than in, more time reading than talking, more time disdaining my peers than trying to understand them. For awhile, I also hopped from odd job to odd job. It’s not hard for me to imagine taking this kind of babysitting gig, and it’s not hard for me to imagine testifying about a family tragedy in court, since I’ve done it. It is hard to imagine a book that could cut me closer to the bone than this one. There is a sense of inevitability, of no escape.

It haunted me because I did escape this sort of life. I’m sure it will find a way to haunt you. History of Wolves is calamitous, and it is not to be missed. 5/5 stars.

My copy of History of Wolves came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.