I take my foot off the blogging pedal for a moment, and suddenly I’m a squillion reviews behind. Expect some (very) short reviews so that I can catch up.
Luster by Raven Leilani
When I picked it up, all I knew about Luster was that it had had glowing reviews. And I can now see why. It’s essentially a character study, but a handful of twists give the story pace. Leilani tackles big themes – race, sexuality, loyalty, trauma – with the lightest touch. It sneaks up on you, and all of a sudden you realise that you’re immersed in a story about a young black woman who is living with her white lover and his wife (they have an open marriage), and their tween adopted black daughter.
“I’m an open book,” I say, thinking of all the men who have found it illegible. I made mistakes with these men. I dove for their legs as they tried to leave my house. I chased them down the hall … saying, “I can be a beach read, I can get rid of all these clauses, please, I’ll just revise.”
What did I enjoy? The loneliness of each character, beautifully captured by Leilani in many different ways. Equally, I loved the efforts they all made to be liked, and accepted. Even if you can’t identify with living in such a situation (!), the characters’ needs and wants were universal. And it’s delivered with dark humour –
“…I think of all my unfinished business. The quart of pistachio gelato in my freezer, the 1.5 wanks left in my half-dead vibrator, my Mr Rogers box set….”
I am in no position to comment on the theme of race in this book, short of saying it is executed with fresh perspective.
“I think of my parents, not because I miss them, but because sometimes you see a black person above the age of fifty walking down the street, and you just know that they have seen some shit. You know that they are masters of the double consciousness, of the discreet management of fury under the tight surveillance and casual violence of the outside world. You know that they said thank you as they bled, and that despite the roaches and the instant oatmeal and the bruise on your face, you are still luckier than they have ever been, such that losing a bottom-tier job in publishing is not only ridiculous but offensive.”
A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville
To be frank, I wasn’t a fan of the obviously false ‘author’s note’ at the beginning – what was Grenville setting me up for? But I soon became caught in Elizabeth Veale’s impressions of her bullying and domineering husband, John McArthur –
How many wives learn, as I did, how to test the air in a room. To check the tilt of her husband’s head, the set of his feet, his grip on a spoon, his fist beside the plate. To feel in an instant whether it was an hour of sunshine or shadow. The weather in those rooms was as changeable as Devon in May.
Grenville manages to reveal the duplicity of Elizabeth’s life and how her relationship with John is recast in letters to friends and family, as something that is accepted and even admired.
Some have criticised this book for being Grenville ‘paint-by’-numbers’. I haven’t read enough of her novels to be weary of her style, but I did think this flattened in the middle, and despite Elizabeth’s flirtations, and her colonial experiences, there wasn’t enough to leave a deep impression.
The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan
I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why this story completely and wholly captivated me. In some senses, the structure was not original (you can see the different threads of the plot leading to an obvious end point), but Gilligan’s use of Irish folklore was so cleverly incorporated I didn’t know what was true and what was imagined. It left me feeling strangely unsettled.
In essence, the story examines the work of a band of butchers, who travel Ireland blessing cows before they’re slaughtered. Their work is disrupted by the outbreak of mad-cow disease in the nineties and the resulting ‘Celtic beef boom’. The story also includes a mystery; lots of action; two teens trying to determine their place in the world; and the conflict between old world and modern ways. How Gilligan does this, within the context of the Celtic Tiger, Greek mythology, and a beautifully revealed coming-of-age, is quite a feat.
There were days Ireland felt modern, and days it felt anything but.
I don’t use the words ‘riveting’ and ‘gripping’ frequently but they apply to The Butchers. If you’re not convinced (and fair enough, the premise is WEIRD), check out Kim’s review.