Book Review: THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room begins on a claustrophobic prison bus, but from there, it opens wide to a tableau of prison, poverty, gentrification, stripping, sex work, murder, and references to Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. It’s technically a novel about Romy Hall, a mother who’s facing two consecutive life sentences, but it’s full of other interlinking stories, too: some brutal, some hopeful, most sad. It’s a novel that’s unsettling as much as it is enthralling. It’s not often that I feel I encounter capital-L Literature: a book that will be read and analyzed and loved decades or centuries from now and not just in this year or next year. I think that The Mars Room is that kind of literature.

You can read my full review below.


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The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

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  • publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: May 1, 2018
  • length: 352 pages
  • cover price: $27.00

Do you ever notice that women can seem common while men never do? You won’t ever hear anyone describe a man’s appearance as common. The common man means the average man, a typical man, a decent hardworking person of modest dreams and resources. A common woman is a woman who looks cheap. A woman who looks cheap doesn’t have to be respected, and so she has a certain value, a certain cheap value.

The Mars Room, page 25

Romy Hall’s life is over. Convicted of murdering her stalker, she’s been separated from her 7-year-old son and prickly German mother in order to serve two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a women’s prison. After thirty-seven years, she will see the parole board that will determine if she can start serving the second sentence–requisite on good behavior, of course.

But what motivation possibly exists for good behavior when you know you’re going to be behind bars forever either way? Not much, I imagine, and The Mars Room tells the sometimes sordid, always riveting story of Romy’s bad behaviors past and present, inside and outside the prison.

There are other linked characters whose stories we experience, too, including a former leg model on death row, a dirty L.A. cop with an intriguing moral code, and a well-meaning G.E.D. teacher who gets in over his head with the women at the prison.

The Mars Room excels at casting light on the absurdities, hypocrisies, and desperations that exist in the American criminal justice system (and in our society at large). Its characters seem to exist perpetually at the end of a rope, and in a less-good novel, I might have pitied them. This novel, however, evokes feelings that are much more complex: I wanted to scold, wanted to yell, wanted to embrace, wanted to weep. It’s an emotional symphony that’s unbearably loud but also impossible to walk away from.

Kushner writes characters who are as frustrating as they are compelling. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and fatphobia are intense and constant presences here, and slurs and vicious acts are perpetrated by every character. At first I found it too upsetting to handle and set the book aside. I’m glad I went back, though: Kushner seems to truly understand what people tick, and that includes bigotry. It doesn’t feel like it’s there for shock value; it isn’t malevolent so much as mundane, and somehow that mundanity is even more chilling than a clear-cut villain would be.

The literary community has been buzzing with talk of “unlikeable” female characters lately (most recently in this excellent interview with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects fame), and I think that The Mars Room digs deeper into that idea than any novel I’ve ever read before, and here’s why:

There’s a world of difference between an “unlikeable” protagonist like Amy Dunne of Gone Girl–a wealthy white woman who speaks truth to a power that she also, sort of, possesses–and an unlikeable protagonist like Romy, a sex worker who lives in a hotel in the Tenderloin, who leaves her son with random babysitters, who steals and does drugs and manipulates men into giving her what she wants, whose own lawyer won’t let her take the stand because he knows the jury will hate her.

One kind of unlikeable woman has a go, grrl! cachet (like alleged scammer Anna Delvey, though as far as we know Delvey isn’t a sociopathic murderer like Dunne), and one gets sent to prison for life with no friends, no family, no lovers, and no advocates, like tens of thousands of real women nationwide.

Its virtuoso character development aside, The Mars Room also features some damn good settings. Kushner paints a portrait of a seedy-but-rapidly-gentrifying San Francisco in word-pictures as neon and memorable as strip club lights. The Mars Room is set in the early 2000s, around the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the claustrophobic jingoism of that moment adds immeasurably to the novel. We don’t hear so much about the inside of the prison as we do about the polluted valley where it’s located: a smart decision, I think, since most readers have an ample idea of what a prison looks like. A poisoned, isolated scrap of California eucalyptus and redwood forest was much more frightening and interesting to me than cinderblock walls.

Lastly, Kushner’s prose is simply magic. I can’t decide whether there’s a lot happening in The Mars Room or barely anything; it’s told mostly in flashbacks which are usually a tension-killer for me. Yet in Kushner’s skilled hands, stories that should be foregone conclusions (prisoners facing life, prisoners facing the death penalty) are as gripping as an action movie. Kushner takes the world we see every day and clarifies it into something eerie and hyper-real, something that literally kept me up at night while I was reading.

The Mars Room is a triumph: a novel that is at once sharp and declarative, fuzzy and gray. I could argue a million different things about it and I’m sure you could argue ten million back at me. It’s unforgettable. Don’t miss it. ★★★★★


My copy of The Mars Room came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Mini-Review: SHARP: THE WOMEN WHO MADE AN ART OF HAVING AN OPINION by Michelle Dean

I’m out sick this week and don’t have the energy to put together a full review, so I’m writing out briefer thoughts instead. I loved Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion so much that right now, less than an hour after returning it to the library, I already miss its presence on my bedside table. (It’s at the top of my to-buy list.)

You can check out my mini-review below.


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Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean

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  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 10, 2018
  • length: 384 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

So when I ask in the following pages what made these women who they were, such elegant arguers, both hindered and helped by men, prone to but not defined by mistakes, and above all completely unforgettable, I do it for one simple reason: because even now, even (arguably) after feminism, we still need more women like this.

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, page xiii

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion is a biography-cum-reckoning about the legacy of ten extraordinary women: Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Nora Ephron, Susan Sontag, Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, and Zora Neale Hurston. 

Occasionally Michelle Dean gets off zingers every bit as cool and cutting as those of her subjects, but usually her writing style is warm and nuanced, making Sharp feel like a meaningful conversation about these women rather than a mere tribute. It’s a choice I’m glad she made; the effect is more conversation than biography, which perhaps explains why Sharp is more readable than any biography has rights to be.

While nothing could eclipse the women themselves, cameos from other literary greats–F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, H.G. Wells (along with his open marriage), and others–are charming and add a fun “cocktail party tidbit” touch to a book that is otherwise deep and thoughtful.

As a writer, I also loved this book for selfish reasons: I’ve been going through a rough patch in my own creative writing (i.e., writer’s block), and reading about these incredible women cured it. The fact that they also went through periods of massive output and no output, periods of astonishingly good work and shockingly bad work, made me feel like writing is something I can accomplish after all. If you’re in need of that sort of pep talk, Sharp is just what the doctor ordered. 5/5 stars.


My copy of Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: GUN LOVE by Jennifer Clement

Gun Love, about a mother and daughter who live in their car in a Florida trailer park and the “gun love” and trafficking they get tangled up in, is always dark but never heavy; Jennifer Clement’s prose is so gentle and beautiful that I’m convinced she could write a textbook about the most awful subjects imaginable and it would still be a joy to read. Gun Love has the close-focus, raw feel of an indie movie–in fact, it has a lot in common topically and tonally with 2017’s The Florida Project–but it’s never brutal or tortured. It’s an “issue book” that’s actually enjoyable to read–and what an enormous accomplishment that is, especially when the issue (America’s toxic relationship with guns) is so fraught and urgent.

You can read my full review below.


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Gun Love by Jennifer Clement

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  • publisher: Hogarth Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: March 6, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $25.00

My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her anytime.

My mother was so sweet, her hands were always birthday-party sticky. Her breath held the five flavors of Life Savers candy.

And she knew all the love songs that are a university for love. She knew “Slowly Walk Close to Me,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and all the I’ll-kill-you-if-you-leave-me songs.

But sweetness is always looking for Mr. Bad and Mr. Bad can pick out Miss Sweet in any crowd.

Gun Love, page 1

There’s a corner that stories written in the first person get backed into, and it’s that in the real world, most people don’t articulate their thoughts very well. First person stories need to sound authentic–you can’t sock-puppet haunting, lyrical prose from someone who wouldn’t speak and think in haunting, lyrical ways–but stories also need to be well-written, and those goals are sometimes at odds.

Gun Love is written in the first person from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl, Pearl France, who’s been raised all her life in a car parked in a decaying trailer park. She’s malnourished and tiny for her age; she’s being slowly poisoned by the dump behind the park and the Raid her mother sprays every night to keep the mosquitos down. School is a joke with no bearing on her life, and she doesn’t even have a proper birth certificate. Worst of all, her mother has fallen in love with Eli, a man with a deep undercurrent of trouble that Pearl senses from the start.

Pearl has every right to hate her life and never see the beauty in it. What’s amazing about Gun Love, however, is that it’s a book very deeply concerned with beauty, even in the most difficult of places. Pearl’s voice is as haunting and lyrical as they come, but it somehow rings completely true.

A frequent complaint I have on this blog is that some books revel in darkness and grittiness in ways that are tortuous to read. The events of Gun Love are shocking and horrible–unsurprisingly, it’s thick with gun violence–but Clement’s touch is so light that I never found myself dragged down by it. In one scene, a pair of conjoined alligator twins are found in the river near the trailer park. Reporters and gawkers rush into the trailer park to take in their beauty and strangeness; then, overnight, someone shoots the twins to pieces with a machine gun. It’s a senseless and yet understandable act. In Gun Love, beauty and death entwine in intoxicating and original ways that you can’t look away from–you don’t even want to look away.

It helps that every single character in the novel is fascinating and empathetic, even the murderous ones. My particular favorites were Mr. Brodsky, an aging Jewish foster parent who takes in “shoots,” children whose biological parents have been murdered, and Noelle, an autistic 30-year-old woman who loves Barbie dolls and speaks mostly in fortune cookie quotes. If Clement were less skilled, these people might have come off like pathetic caricatures of poverty and desperation. Instead, they are vibrant, resilient, and full of agency, lovable even when they do unforgivable things.

Over the course of the novel, Pearl hardens and freezes as her mother softens and melts, a testament to how hard it is to grow up at all, much less to grow up in circumstances so literally toxic. (Gun Love definitely has YA crossover appeal.) The mother/daughter relationship in this book reminded me of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, though the mothers in question couldn’t be more different. The through-line of violence traveling through generations is powerful and adds even more depth to the novel.

Another favorite through-line of mine was Selena Quintanilla’s murder. A Mexican couple at the trailer park traffic in guns (as do most of their white neighbors) but they also idolize Selena and mourn her murder daily, especially the wife, Corazón. It’s a taut irony that drives the narrative home without feeling overdone.

In Gun Love, guns are Pandora’s box–its characters can’t live with them yet can’t live without them; they can’t live with the hatred and suffering they dole out yet also can’t live without the power and joy they bring, too. This novel is a nuanced and empathetic gift. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.


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

Book Review: TOO AFRAID TO CRY: MEMOIR OF A STOLEN CHILDHOOD by Ali Cobby Eckermann

From 1910 to 1970, it was official Australian government policy that Aboriginal children should be removed from their families whenever possible in order to assimilate them into white culture. The children harmed by this practice are known as the Stolen Generations, and author Ali Cobby Eckermann is just one of their number. She recounts the vicious racism, sexual abuse, domestic violence, addiction, and physical injury that she has experienced, but this memoir–told in alternating poetry and prose–is as focused on her return to wholeness as it is on her wounds. Too Afraid to Cry is lovely even when the experiences Eckermann recounts are brutal, and I turned the last page feeling calm and hopeful that even in the face of great injustice, it’s never too late for healing.

You can read my full review below.


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Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood by Ali Cobby Eckermann

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  • publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W.W Norton & Company)
  • publication date: March 6, 2018 (first published in Australia in 2012)
  • length: 224 pages
  • cover price: $25.95

I wanted to be by myself and not think about the new school, so I climbed to my favourite place, my old cubby built high in the pine trees, where no one could see me. I watched strips of clouds float through the leaves, and let my thoughts drift with them. Daydreaming had become my new pastime. Mum said daydreaming was an age thing, and that I would hopefully grow out of it soon.

Too Afraid To Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood, page 59

It’s rare that I read a book in one sitting; I’m an easily distracted person with a low threshold for getting overwhelmed and upset, meaning that intense books like this one usually take me a dozen or so attempts to finish. To my pleasant surprise, I finished Too Afraid To Cry over the course of one morning on my couch. It helps that this memoir is short, but that’s not the only reason: Ali Cobby Eckermann is an astonishingly gifted writer who seems to have an abundance of goodwill towards herself and her readers, and though she’s experienced awful things in her life, she grants us all the joys she’s experienced, too.

If you’re not familiar with Australia’s racist assimilationist policies that targeted Aboriginal children (especially “half-caste,” or mixed race children), two good primers come from Australians Together and the New York Times. In short, the policies tried to force Aboriginal culture to “die off” by adopting out these children to white families and forbidding them from speaking and practicing their language and culture. It’s a brutal, white supremacist practice that continues unofficially today, and I was glad that I had researched it a bit before reading Too Afraid To Cry, since Eckermann’s approach to the tragedy is decidedly micro and doesn’t fill in the blanks for the uninformed.

Adopted away from her mother to a white German Lutheran family when she was just a baby, Eckermann grew up ostracized by neighboring white children and warned away from neighboring Aboriginal children, whom her adoptive parents considered a bad influence. Suspended between cultures, Eckermann turned to alcohol and drugs, eventually adopting away the son she had out of wedlock when she was 18–inadvertently continuing the cycle of the Stolen Generations.

The memoir opens with Eckermann recounting the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of a family friend while her mother was in the hospital, and I braced myself for another Very Difficult Book (I’ve read a string of those lately). Instead, Too Afraid To Cry opens like a flower after that first chapter instead of closing like a fist. Eckermann doesn’t shy away from writing about her pain, whether it’s racist taunts she heard in the schoolyard or the broken leg she got when her foster brother ran over her leg with his car. But she pays just as much detail to to the lovely parts of her life: the joy of beach vacations, chasing camels in the desert, her friends in the pub, her barbecue wedding, and her eventual reunion with her Aboriginal family.

If you’re looking for a book to teach you about the big, overarching facts of Australian assimilationist policy and the Stolen Generations, Too Afraid To Cry isn’t it. Instead, it’s something much smaller, more precise, and truer: Eckermann offers up her life in piercing, unaffected prose, her lack of judgment disarming, her ultimate redemption reassuring.

I always admire writers who pick a small task and then do it to the nines. That’s exactly what Eckermann does here, in lyrical, slightly accented prose that reads just like a good storyteller sounds. Even the poems that alternate with the prose chapters–a technique I often find gimmicky–feel exactly right. (It helps that Eckermann is a renowned poet more than she is a prose writer.)

My favorite part of the memoir was the final quarter, where Eckermann recounts meeting her Aboriginal family for the first time and beginning the process of healing with them. It’s such a hopeful thing to read in a world that feels decidedly un-hopeful. It’s so wonderful to think that despite the trauma Eckermann’s been through, it still wasn’t too late for her to find a measure of peace. I think there’s a tendency in literary fiction and memoir to drive home that the world is a terrible place, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read a book that posits that in fact we are all, at our core, resilient.

I can’t recall the last time I’ve read a memoir as cleansing, as purifying, and as hopeful as this one. While reading Too Afraid To Cry, I felt as though Eckermann had extended me a hand, promising me that despite the fear and trauma of the now, we can still build a better tomorrow, one where no child is stolen and everyone belongs. 5/5 stars.


My copy of Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones

About a black man’s wrongful conviction and the shattering effect it has on his wife (and everyone around him), the plot of An American Marriage may feel ripped from the headlines, but Tayari Jones’s gifted and highly personal prose takes it someplace much richer, deeper, and truer. Heartbreaking, unforgettable, and even a little bit hopeful, this novel is something special.

You can read my full review below.


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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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  • publisher: Algonquin Books (an imprint of Workman Publishing)
  • publication date: February 6, 2018
  • isbn: 978-1-6162-0134-0
  • length: 320 pages

Looking back on it, it’s like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. When a spectral voice says GET OUT, you should do it. But in real life, you don’t know that you’re in a scary movie. You think your wife is being overly emotional. You quietly hope that it’s because she’s pregnant, because a baby is what you need to lock this thing in and throw away the key.

An American Marriage, page 14

If good historical fiction is always about the time in which it was written (and not about the time where it’s set), then I think it’s also fair to say good contemporary fiction is often about the future: futures the author and readers want, and ones they hope never come to pass.

An American Marriage is an excellent example of good contemporary fiction. Its characters are nuanced, its plot is ambitious, and Tayari Jones’s prose sings on every page. It’s also a book that reckons with past and present but is, above all, about the future–both the future of the marriage at the novel’s center, and the future of a United States that does not change its course, where terrible and frightening injustices continue to happen with alarming regularity.

Celestial and Roy are black, bourgeois Atlantan newlyweds settling into a passionate marriage that’s not quite on the rocks, but not smooth sailing, either. On an ill-fated trip to Louisiana to visit Roy’s parents, Roy is accused of a rape he didn’t commit and sentenced to thirteen years in prison, shattering both his life and Celestial’s.

An American Marriage is the rare book that I don’t think I could spoil for you if I tried, since all of its tension comes from knowing what will happen and being powerless to stop it: Roy’s arrest and conviction will feel depressingly familiar to anyone who pays attention to the news. I felt an especially sharp pang when Roy admits that he feels grateful that at least the cops didn’t just shoot him.

The fact that nearly every (? in fact, perhaps every) character is black and that none of them are surprised by what happens (even if they’re devastated by it) is refreshing in a climate where most novels that touch on racism are preoccupied with convincing white people that racism exists in the first place and not with actually telling a story. It frees up An American Marriage to be much more than something ripped from the headlines.

Jones doesn’t tidily package the lives of Celestial, Roy, and Andre (Celestial’s childhood best friend who becomes central to the plot) to suit the short memory of a 24-hour news cycle, and every single page feels personal, messy, flawed, funny, sad, helpless, and hopeful all at once, even if the balance of those emotions shifts a lot from chapter to chapter. In Jones’s world, everyone is a sinner and no one is a saint, which only amps the novel’s power: if none of us are saints, then this could happen to any of us, and illusions of “deserved it” or “didn’t deserve it” are out the window.

I wondered, often, if the book would have felt much different if Roy had actually done what he was accused of. Of course it would have, at least somewhat–I do think that rape is a particularly horrible and unforgivable crime, and I would have trouble sympathizing with a protagonist who committed it–but I imagine that the novel’s sense of injustice would have remained.

An American Marriage calls into question whether anyone deserves to experience the horror of prison–much less to experience the incessant, creeping fear that you might go to prison–and it seems to ask us to imagine a future without that horror and fear, which brings me around to the beginning of this review:

An American Marriage is a book that asks us things, and while it is not a work of dystopian science fiction, it draws from the same well. It asks: How did we get here? How do we get out? How do we heal?

Jones doesn’t provide answers, but the radical empathy and virtuoso storytelling of An American Marriage do feel like a start. 5/5 stars.


P.S. If you’re as enraged as I am that wrongful convictions happen, The Innocence Project does great work to free the wrongfully convicted. There are also many nonprofits dedicated to sending books to people who are currently incarcerated to help them pass the time and to prepare them for life beyond bars.

P.P.S. A personal note: I’ve been blindsided with a serious health issue this month and am pulling back from a number of personal and professional commitments while I recover. I will be reading, writing, and blogging less in the meantime, but I promise that I haven’t abandoned this blog! I do plan to return to a regular schedule once I’m feeling better, and hope you’ll stick around till then. (I am still tweeting regularly if that’s your thing.) Thanks!


My copy of An American Marriage came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: A LOVING, FAITHFUL ANIMAL by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe is already a lauded author in Australia, but A Loving, Faithful Animal marks her U.S. debut–and it’s an auspicious one. The novel chronicles one family’s cycle of trauma against the backdrop of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which is already an interesting story; Rowe’s prose, at once precise and dreamy, elevates this arc into fiction so potent and powerful that I want sing its praises from the rooftops, pressing copies into the hands of everyone I know.

You can read my full review below.


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A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

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  • publisher: Catapult (catapult.co)
  • publication date: September 12, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-9367-8757-9
  • length: 176 pages

That was the summer a sperm whale drifted sick into the bay, washed up dead at Mount Martha, and there were many terrible jokes about fertility. It was the summer that all the best cartoons went off the air, swapped for Gulf War broadcasts in infrared snippets, and your mother started saying things like I used to be pretty, you know? Christ, I used to be brave. But you thought brave was not crying when the neighbor girl dug her sharp red fingernails into your arm, until the skin broke and bled, and she cried out herself in disgust. You were still dumb enough to think that was winning.

A Loving, Faithful Animal, page 3

The concept of World Englishes is usually applied to colonized (and neo-colonized) countries and cultures whose variations on English are often considered “broken” and less-than. There’s a growing understanding that these Englishes are no less valid and rich than “standard” British and U.S. English–but World English speakers still find the long arm of U.S. and U.K. cultural dominance difficult to shake.

I define all this because although Australian English is usually considered “standard,” I was struck by how much A Loving, Faithful Animal feels like a work of World English: a working-class, trauma-laden, bitter and acerbic portrait of an Australia that’s impossibly far-flung from its easygoing cultural stereotype.

The Burroughs family is damaged: by domestic abuse, by poverty, by a Vietnam War that Australians wished to be involved in even less than Americans did, and by an intense and painful love for one another that none of them know how to safely express.

Ru quietly seethes, Lani is a rebel on a razor’s edge, and their parents, Evelyn and Jack, are locked in a terrible cycle of abuse. When Jack, a Vietnam War veteran, disappears for what seems to be the last time, Jack’s brother, Les, waits for Evelyn in the wings. The beloved family dog–the eponymous loving, faithful animal–was recently torn to shreds by a wildcat.

Two big questions hang over all of this–Would Jack be an abuser if his draft number had never come up? Would this family still struggle this much? –which Rowe smartly doesn’t answer. Instead, she tells what are effectively linked short stories from the perspective of each family member, all distinct in style but anchored by a single point in time that serves as a dark star at the center of the chaos: New Year’s Eve, 1990.

Rowe’s grasp of language is superhuman, and the act of reading her prose feels rather like watching Mirai Nagasu land that triple axel at the Olympics: jaw dropped in stupefied awe, not quite understanding but certainly feeling. I had to keep my smartphone handy while reading to interpret the Australian slang and cultural references, and this added to the dream-like feeling, as if I were using an interpretation book. (I read the American edition, but Catapult seems not to have made any changes from the Australian one, which is an excellent thing.)

The Burroughs’s dusty, devastated home, full of holes punched in drywall and with redback spiders crawling all over the garage, is nowhere near my world. But in this book, Rowe seems to have pulled up a chair for me, asking if I’d like a glass of water or anything to eat. For a few precious hours, it felt like my home. And though it wasn’t exactly a pleasant place to be, it was still a magical one.

When I’m reading good fiction, I feel infinite, able to explore lives and Englishes far from my own. Josephine Rowe writes prodigiously good fiction–and I hope that A Loving, Faithful Animal is only the start of what U.S. readers will see from her. 5/5 stars.


My copy of A Loving, Faithful Animal came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang

The Vegetarian has already been so thoroughly acclaimed that it hardly needs my help to spread the word, but I felt compelled to write about this chilling, starkly imaginative novel regardless. Yeong-hye has a terrible dream that causes her to become a vegetarian–setting off a harrowing series of events that irrevocably mark everyone around her, but most especially damage Yeong-hye herself.

You can read my full review below.


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The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

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  • publisher: Hogarth Press
  • publication date: February 2, 2016
  • isbn: 978-0-553-44818-4
  • length: 192 pages

For an allegory to work, it must also function on a literal level; the reader must always be able to question whether, in fact, it is an allegory at all. The Vegetarian demonstrates this flawlessly. On one hand, it is a novel about the toxic, suffocating effects of sexism. On the other, it is “merely” a novel about a traumatized schizophrenic woman and the many ways her family attempts to contain her.

Both of these threads are equally valid and vibrant, and it’s the interplay between them that gives The Vegetarian its raw, earthy power.

Of course, Han Kang’s poetic wordplay (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith) also contributes; the imagery here is among the most powerful I’ve ever experienced. In one particularly breathtaking scene, the novel’s protagonist, Yeong-hye, is painted entirely with flowers, basking in the sunshine on an art studio floor as if she is photosynthesizing. I wondered–not for a short amount of time–if she really was.

The Vegetarian is actually series of three novellas, told from the perspective of three people who are not Yeong-hye: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, respectively. In the beginning, Yeong-hye is a homemaker, perhaps dimwitted (in the eyes of her husband, at least) but mostly just quiet, and obedient. Her husband laments that she doesn’t always wear a bra; he rejoices that his mediocre wife will never require anything of him but more mediocrity.

Then comes the dream, which triggers both Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism–a surface problem–and her disobedience, which is by far more disturbing to her husband and family. Yeong-hye will no longer be told what to do; she will no longer be dutiful; she will no longer ignore the link between the violence of meat and the violence of men. And that is unforgivable.

The Vegetarian is a horrifyingly violent novel, and if you are squeamish or easily disturbed, then it may not be for you. I am both, however, and still found it a rewarding read, because Kang has found permutations of violence that I’d never imagined before, and in that novelty there is a sort of numbness. Yeong-hye experiences rape by men and then far worse violations by feeding tube; she recounts the gruesome killing of a dog with a dreamy sort of calm; she stands on her head for hours and prays for her crotch to bloom with flowers.

It’s extraordinary and it’s nauseating, like a spinning theme park ride with its speed cranked up one level past safety.

But for me, at least, the violence was not the most extraordinary part. That honor goes to the empathetic, shrewd, and lingering ways in which the novel addresses mental illness. If you are at all familiar with the symptoms of schizophrenia, you will recognize that Yeong-hye is a classic case, especially in her delusions, odd movements, long silences, and even the age at which her break from reality occurs (schizophrenia most commonly onsets in women during their late 20s).

The word “schizophrenia” means “split brain,” and refers to the way schizophrenics often split from reality, slipping further and further out of touch with the rules that govern our normal world.

And yet–is a woman’s break from a violent and unequal reality that surprising? Might we even consider it a moral and necessary act? The Vegetarian says yes. 5/5 stars.


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

If you enjoyed this review, you might also enjoy translator Deborah Smith’s excellent essay–“What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation“–that was recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.