Goodbye, Vitamin – Rachel Khong
The story of this novel is a 30 year old woman returns home to care for his father’s debilitation into Alzheimer’s immediately after her engagement falls through. It is written as a series of diary entries and this format often creates a lot of the problems the novel has.
For the most part the novel is well-written and interesting, and it’s generally heartfelt, but it’s also pretty flawed in a couple of ways that I think relate to its connection MFA type writing.
In terms of plot, there’s almost none. Fine. That’s not always a problem. But when the novel also has a pretty well-worn subject matter…college professor has dementia…daughter takes care of him…childhood is lost, there might need to be something there to hold up the novel otherwise. Liz Moore’s books The Known World did this brilliantly with plot and character and form. This novel relies very heavily on voice to do the lifting, and the issue there is that the voice here is fine, but goes to lazy MFA tricks to make up the difference. For example, too many times throughout the novel there are little digressions that do not fit in this novel and are attempts to be clever: oh, your thinks it’s weird that someone at the library named their kids Sandy and Katrina? Yes, that is weird. Does it belong in this novel or did you, the writer, think of that or meet those kids and want to bring this up? There are several other of these kinds of false notes. So ultimately these mar what is already a merely good book.
Krik? Krak? – Edwidge Danticat
I know, it’s weird to review a 20 year old collection of short stories that might have only ever existed to propel a novel-writing career. But several of Danticat’s stories are quite good. Several are also fine, but otherwise forgettable.
I think this collection kind of proves that she should be writing novels. I don’t mean that in a mean way, but her long piece in the end of this collection “Caroline’s Wedding” is by far the strongest piece in the collection. This is a book that is written for an American audience…it’s in English…it has trans-Atlantic kinds of attention (focusing on immigrant experiences in a kind of teaching way) and so the short pieces sometimes rely on a knowingness that the audience just doesn’t have, and the artifact of the book itself doesn’t fully allow us to know. So having the space to build context and understanding and connections between the culture and history that is informing these characters in their new element (almost none of the stories take place in Haiti) is all necessary for the stories to work. Otherwise it’s hard to connect to them and this would be reduced to a kind of regional fiction, which I don’t think it is or is intended to be. Obviously in a novel these kinds of connections can be made. The last piece is very good and I liked the whole of this collection better than I did her first novel Breath Eyes Memory because it felt like a more fully developed book. Otherwise, it’s clever when it wants to be, and never quite profound.
Home Fire Kamila Shamsie
I was reading reviews for this one and a lot of people seemed to think this book lives and dies on its ending. I agree for the most part, and like a smaller percentage of the reviewers, I thought the ending felt a little too tied up. I will come back to it.
The premise of this novel is three siblings of Pakistani origin live in London and now that they are grown and cared for, the oldest of the three accepts a position to study sociology in Boston. She feels a lot of guilt and nervousness about her move and her move to a pretty alien place, but quickly meets up with a British student and they fall in love. Back home her younger twin siblings are searching for their own kinds of meaning. Parvais, the brother, is desperately seeking connection to their absent father, an Islamist militant who left them at a younger age. While Aneeka, his sister digs into her sense of family.
As the story progresses, the novel places them further along the narrative and thematic structure of the Sophocles play Antigone. Because going too much into that place reveals a lot about the story in this novel, I will leave it at that.
The ending makes it or breaks and I think it entirely goes back to whether or not you really buy into the literary connections the author goes for here. If you see the ending as a kind of literary catharsis, it could work. If you don’t, it definitely doesn’t. Over all, I thought the writing was stronger than the cleverness and so it almost works for me, but doesn’t ultimately.