books, Debut Novel, Reading, Women Writers

“Neon in Daylight” by Hermione Hoby

“It occurred to Kate that all the definitive images of New York City she’d unnamed-9accumulated were views from a distance. That it was a place best seen from bridges and water and sky. How might you do that with a person? Specifically: yourself. To find an aerial view of your own being. To reach the kind of vantage from with you might properly survey what had been built, what was under construction, to gain a sense of the contours of the thing. To see where the damn bridges went. The lie of the land, they said, and yes, it was a kind of lie. Because this view, she knew, this lovely hazy morning vision, denied all the bloodstreams of traffic down there. It couldn’t tell you the way cabs’ side mirrors flashed reflections of fast-walking bodies and street crossings, the way the image of those bodies was doubled again in the mirrored planes of buildings. This was being, too, all the quick currents and charges, synapse flares, unmappable.”

 

Hermione Hoby’s debut novel is peopled by the type of fierce individuals we come to
expect and often romanticize when pondering the “big city.” Kate is a graduate student from England taking a vacation of undetermined length from her life, cat-sitting in New York City and to trying to figure out what’s next, alternately embracing and eschewing the flotsam and flow of the city around her.

“As a kid she’d had nightmares of witches. She would wake up and smell them on her pillow, a sour yellow reek. Loneliness, too, had a smell, she thought, and it was almost the same, that witchy reek. As she walked out into the world she feared she was trailing it behind her.”

“People talked about how perfect Manhattan was for walking. The grid system! they said. Its simplicity! But it was the simplicity that stymied her, the rigid right angles that quashed the art of wandering by demanding of you the exactitude, the confidence and conviction, of knowing when to turn right and when to keep going.”

Then there is Inez, a try-everything, fear-nothing teenager with a firm grip on New York City and her sense of self, a young woman whose beauty and sense of indestructibility have her operating in her own reality.

“When Inez was twelve or thirteen, he had begun to hope the hope of most fathers of daughters: that she might be beautiful enough for the world to smooth her way, but not so beautiful that her beauty might become a morally compromising force. Her cheekbones began to sharpen, her limbs to lengthen, and he’d felt an inadmissible dread.”

Finally there is Bill, a bit of a has-been writer sailing along on the winds of his one and only novel from decades before, utterly lost and adrift, unable to deal with his, or anyone else’s, emotions.

          “‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
          The question was so stupid, but what else do you say? As she nodded, her face crumpled with the lie of it and she shrank into a chair. For a moment, he thought she was having some kind of seizure, and his mind scrambled. Epilepsy? Peanut allergy? Am I meant to have one of those insulin pens? And then, ah, it was only this: emotion. Not a thing you stabbed and stopped with a pen.
          He drew out the chair beside her very gently, and sat down very slowly, like she was a wild animal.
          ‘I’ve just smoked my last cigarette,’ he said, very quietly, ‘or I’d offer you one.’
          She shook her head, a sobbing half laugh escaping.”

“Neon in Daylight” is a crisp character novel, full of sharp edges, barbed wit, and lacerating choices. Hoby’s characters are a little bit tragic, quite a bit flawed, and deeply mesmerizing. Their loneliness, their chaos, and their self-destruction are irresistible. Hermione Hoby writes with confidence and charisma, and her debut is a quirky treasure, a glorious, unapologetic snapshot of one slice of today’s city life.

 

Thank you to Catapult for providing a complimentary Advance Reader Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “Neon in Daylight” will be published in the US by Catapult on January 9, 2018. 

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books, Debut Novel, Reading, Women Writers

Displacement, Discomfort, and Dysphoria: Brief Reviews of Two Recently Released Novels

IMG-0063“Mother of All Pigs” by Malu Halasa

          “‘Such a party last night.’ The words come out long and heavy like a sigh, but the inflection rises. She is soliciting his opinion.
          Hussein sits utterly still. He knows she would appreciate a conversation about the party, about Muna, about anything, but he needs to save the already depleted energy he has for the long day ahead.
          When she receives absolutely no acknowledgment Mother Fadhma’s small eyes narrow. She wants to scold him for eating too little and drinking too much; however, her silence was secured long ago. Even when he makes a fool of himself, as he did last night, she forgives him. On the rare occasion that she does summon the courage to rebuke him, her admonitions are gentle and consoling.”

In this debut novel from an American writer of Jordanian and Filipina descent, the reader gets a glimpse of life in a small, conflict-ridden, rural, border town in modern Jordan, a town in which Christian residents and the growing Muslim population of long-time residents and recent refugees are often at odds. The Sabas family, headed by three generations of fearsome women, does its best to coexist and get by.

“Although Laila harbors many doubts about the society in which she lives, she meticulously stays within conventional boundaries, and she expects those she lives with to do the same. Samira, her husband’s unmarried half sister, is particularly vulnerable since relatively little is needed -perhaps only a rumor of a girl’s indiscretion – for the entire town to become inflamed and a family ostracized forever. In a culture where a woman’s virtue is paramount, any defense of it is a sign of its erosion. Better to avoid scrutiny. The women of the Sabas family have to protect one another because no one else will.”

Hussein, the only man of the house, has returned from a somewhat secret military past and has become the town butcher. Led by his devious, black-market savvy uncle Abu Za’atar, Hussein becomes the areas only not-so-secret pig butcher, and his dealings of pork products puts his family on edge and often under threat from angry neighbors.

Halasa’s is an interesting look at religious and nationalist tensions from within the “Arab world”, a view not only of the clear challenges and dangers of political dissent and repression, but also of the not uncommon discontent of residents who feel displaced and disgruntled by “others”.

          “‘I just don’t know when the country will return to normal and our town will belong to us.’
          Hussein finds Mrs. Habash’s memory highly selective. The town has never been theirs. When their grandfathers and uncles and fathers – then small boys – first settled, they fought side by side against local nomads over a watering hold. Go back a few generations and someone somewhere is always fleeing or seeking sanctuary with strangers. The entire region has a long history of forced migration. The Syrians are not the first refugees, nor will they be the last.”

Though there were, sprinkled throughout “Mother of All Pigs”, moments of awkward dialogue where characters over explain facts and motives, clearly intended for the reader and not the audience, the story itself had compelling characters and was a promising start. With more editorial input and polish, I think Halasa’s voice could be more resonant and her narrative something special.

Thank you to Unnamed Press for providing an Advance Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “Mother of All Pigs” was released in the US on November 14, 2017.


“Improvement” by Joan Silber

“Everyone knows this can happen. People travel and they find places they like so much they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand. They take up with beautiful locals of the opposite sex, they settle in, they get used to how everything works, they make homes. But maybe not forever.”

In “Improvement”, Joan Silber conducts some experiments with form that made me grin when I first caught wind of what was happening and now, a few weeks after having read the book, still bring an appreciative smile for the innovation. For a majority of the book, each chapter features a different protagonist. Though all part of one larger narrative, these characters play varied roles across time and space – from 1970s Turkey to divided Germany and to today’s New York. Each chapter’s main character is simultaneously a minor player in previous chapters – often merely an “extra” barely given a speaking part, but in her chapter, just like each of us in our own lives, she is the center, the heroine. It is the literary equivalent of that game one sometimes plays while idling in traffic, trying to guess the stories taking place in the cars all around. It is the motif so brilliantly applied in the “I Love New York” episode of “Master of None” (if you haven’t seen it, DO!).

With characters young and old from various backgrounds and cultures, “Improvement” is tough to summarize. As its title might suggest, it is potentially about striving to better oneself and situation. The characters are often witty, more often self-destructive, and hopefully learning from their pasts.

Where “Mother of All Pigs” seemed a bit raw, its writing needing a bit more editorial polish, “Improvement” was perhaps a bit too polished, losing its edge and dulling its impact. Even with the truncated stories necessitated by a shift in protagonist at each chapter’s end, characters often felt a little too known, plastic, flat. The innovative construct was this book’s shining star and what made it a memorable and enjoyable read. Recommend for a vacation or beach read, when charming structure and engaging plot just the ticket.

Thank you to Counterpoint for providing an Advance Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “Improvement” was released in the US on November 14, 2017.