I had a surprisingly productive month of reading. I didn’t set myself any goals, other than I needed to get through my increasingly lofty tbr pile, and I wanted to start with The Testaments as I had just finished reading The Handmaids Tale at the end of 2020. I managed to read 7 books and listen to one audiobook, below I’ve done a short write up of each of the books and what I thought of them. Some of the books I already written a review for so I will link them with my previous posts. I don’t plan to write longer reviews for the rest of these books, but if you’d like any more information on them, then just drop me a comment below.
‘The Testaments’ is the much anticipated sequel to the classic so many of us grew up reading, ‘The Handmaids Tale’. It consists of Aunt Lydia’s diary and two witness testimonies: Daisy, a feisty Canadian Teenager and Agnus, a young woman who has grown up in Gilead and knows no other way of life. The two young women give contrasting experiences of their youth whilst Aunt Lydia fills in some of the missing history of the formation of Gilead, including her induction to the regime. The Handmaids Tale, published in 1985, was a seismic novel. It was disturbing because it felt very possible and the issues at the heart of the story, oppression, racism, and farming women’s bodies, were, and continue to be, ones that we struggle with all over the world. The Testaments on the other hand doesn’t have grit of its predecessor or the loaded gun implications. If anything its much more optimistic, something ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ wasn’t in any way. It attempts to neatly wrap up all that came before while trying to explain the how and why that allowed Gilead to rise in the first place.
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
My second book of the year was this beautiful novel, written as a series of letters by a young man to his mother. The book is an exploration of the past, his family surviving the devastation of the Vietnam war and fleeing to America. The experience of growing up as a poor immigrant in a country with a deeply rooted history of intolerance to race. His relationship with his maternal grandmother contrasting with that of his mother as well as his subsequent relationships with men and the devastation of drug addiction on his life and those around him. It’s a beautifully written book, and Vuongs skills as a poet leap off every page. It is a work of fiction, but it is rooted in reality and therefore extremely moving and powerful. The devastating experiences of war have a long lasting impact on generations and that trauma lingers throughout this book.
The Vanishing Half is the story of the Vignes sisters, light skinned Identical twins who run away from the small town they grow up in to pursue a life in the city. Unfurling over five decades life takes the sisters, Desree and Stella, down very different paths. One sister reluctantly returns “home” while the other pursues a life “passing” as a white woman. This novel is about race, identity and family and the reader gets a birds-eye view on the lives of the characters over two generations. The characters are cleverly constructed, as expected from the likes of Bennett and the story, although certainly not unique, is told in a way that makes it entirely relevant to a contemporary audience.
- The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Vegetarian is a haunting story about a young woman who decides to give up meat and the consequences this has on her relationships and her life. The first reaction comes from her husband and when his attempts, including violence, don’t elicit the required response he enlists the help of her family. Outraged at their daughters obstinance Yeong Hye is subjected to even more violence, this time by the hand of her father. The situation snowballs from here and Yeong is admitted into hospital initially and then into a mental health institution. The narration of the story changes to each character as they interact with Yeong, and what results is a powerful, beautiful and extremely disturbing unravelling of a life filled with abuse, violence and fear. The book is set in Korea, where customs and traditions dictate how women behave publicly and privately. Han Kang does a wonderful job of highlighting the dichotomy between personal (sexual) frustrations and cultural conservative expectations. The Vegetarian is not an easy book to read but it is definitely worth the investment and the time as it is a truly unique experience.
- The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam
Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel is set over the last few days of the Sri Lankan civil war. From the very beginning, when our protagonist carries the limp injured body of a child into the makeshift hospital, we get a sense of his detachment to the situation and are instantly reminded of our own apathy and desensitization to the suffering of others. The story is told through Dinesh and written in a style that involves no speech marks, thus giving the impression of memory. He is introduced to Ganga through her father, who is worried that his daughter will not survive the war alone if anything should happen to him. As Dinesh continues with his duties around the camp, he considers the proposal and we, the reader, find out more about his life and losses during the long years of war Intermittently with details of his daily routine. The wedding takes place and the young couple, surrounded by shelling, injured bodies and various camp companions share their first meal together as Dinesh considers what’s to come next, their first night together. The story is both warm and despairing, its about human connections in the most inhumane of settings and certainly one I would encourage you to read.
- Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola
Bolu Babalola celebrates love. She unapologetically basks in its glory and in this debut collection of short stories she turns what might once have been problematic tales about violence and misogyny on their heads to celebrate not only love, but empowered women. The 13 stories that make up this collection are based loosely around myths and legends from Ancient Greece, to Nigeria and the Far East. There are also three original short stories and one, the very last one, based on Bolu’s parents love story. Bolu describes herself as a “romconnoisseur”, which is fitting as these stories are certainly some of the finest love stories for a modern audience. If, like me, you usually avoid the romance section of the library or your local bookshop, please give this collection a go, I felt so uplifted and hopeful after reading this book. Love really can feel magical and transformative and this genre in the right hands is undeniably one I’ll be exploring further.
- Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Leave the World behind is an incredibly timely novel, which feels as though it was written for 2020. Its about a family who set off for their annual holiday, this year to a remote Long Island holiday home which promises the residents an opportunity to “leave the world behind”. The secluded location offers beautiful scenery and hardly any internet connection. The couple, Clay and Amanda, start to feel at home in their luxury abode, until one night there is a knock on the door. This is an extraordinary novel, it explores race, fear and human behaviour in exceptional circumstances, much like those we find ourselves in with Coronavirus. It manages to explore a myriad of emotions with its small cast of players and leaves the reader unable to stop turning the pages for what comes next.
- Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand (nonfiction audiobook)
I really appreciate a good nonfiction and I’m especially partial to some history so this book was a real treat to listen to last month. It follows the life of Princess Sophia, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, who was effectively kidnapped by the British crown in order to keep control over the British Raj. Sophia, who became a staple of British society during her time and went on to be a key figure in the women’s Suffrage movement has effectively been written out of history. Thankfully Anita Anand has compiled this fascinating look at her life and those of her siblings, who were all notable figures in the Victorian era, and complied it in this easy to read, informative and thoroughly researched book. I was genuinely immersed into this world, there were so many interesting insights into the Royal Family, about their control and cruelty as well as their attitudes towards their colonies. The book covers a period in history which includes Queen Victoria’s rule, the beginnings of the suffragettes and both great wars. Its astonishing that so much of this history has been white washed and therefore it’s imperative that we all take the time to read or listen to this book and others like it to really learn about our shared history.
There you have it, my January wrap up. I must admit I didn’t set out to read this many books and I certainly didn’t intent to consume so many “heavy” reads back-to-back. I’m taking it really easy in February and only setting myself a goal of 4 books, including one mystery read, which I’m all kinds of excited about.
Do let me know if you’ve read any of the above books and what you thought, I love hearing about your reading adventures and your book recommendations.