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L I L Y 

by Lily Evans

Are all Classics students this creepy?

The Secret History - 

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s international bestseller, The Secret History (1992), is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. Maybe ever. I’ll try to summarise it but I doubt I’ll be able to do this novel justice:

Steeped in ancient Greek allegory, The Secret History is a murder mystery in reverse. Someone is dead, though the how’s and why’s are unclear. As Richard Papen reveals little by little the details of his year studying Greek at Hampden College, his absorption into a cult-like group of Classics students sees the boundaries of morality pushed to the very limit.

The Secret History and I have been attached at the hip for the past week. I’ve literally been desperate to find out what happens to Bunny, old Richard and weird Henry, so I’ve carried it around with me everywhere. Hats off to Donna Tartt. I’ve never read her work before, but I feel like there’s a lot to be said for an author that literally reveals exactly what’s going to happen on the first page of the prologue and still keeps you guessing until the very last moment. Tartt is a master of suspense; I genuinely had no idea how this book was going to evolve and I LOVED IT.

'It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely?'

Prior to reading this, my knowledge of Ancient Greece extended to owning Disney’s Hercules on DVD when I was little. While this is undoubtedly a banger of a film, the limited info it provided meant that I spent a lot of my time wikipedia-ing all the references made. I didn’t mind doing this, as with my new-found knowledge of the ancient world, I can confidently say that though the Greeks did a lot of messed up things, the kids in The Secret History are on another level. We’re talking creepy, bacchanal rituals (I had to google it), weird sexual relations (I won’t say who, but it’s not cute) and a gruesome murder looming over the plot. This a group of very clever people doing very bad things.

“It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together–my future, my past, the whole of my life–and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!”

Our protagonist is Richard, a regular boy from California who apparently gets involved with the wrong crowd. I thought I knew who he was, but having finished the novel, I’m puzzled. While the story is told entirely from his perspective, we never really get a sense of who he is or what his motives are. From what I can remember, I don’t think Tartt ever gives us a description of Richard, so leaving him as kind of a blank canvas makes me wonder what I would have done had I been in his position (sorry this is so vague, I don’t want to give the plot away). In contrast to the other characters, who were easy to read and just seemed like big weirdos, who is the real Richard? What does he want? Is he a good person? Your guess is as good as mine.

The only other thing I can say about The Secret History without spoiling the plot is that it is honestly an incredible novel and I could not recommend it more. You must read it for yourself. Please. Pop it in your Amazon basket and thank me later.

No-one sums up Bernardine Evaristo’s novel quite like the author herself: ‘this is about being together’

It’s my first five-star review! I would like to begin by requesting that if you have not yet read this book, please go and put it on your list right now. Please.

Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is the story of our times, though it spans multi-generations of women throughout the diaspora. Sitting somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, this is a story of blackness in Britain told in a way that is entirely unique unto itself. Connected by Amma’s theatre performance, Evaristo takes us into the minds of twelve completely different women, though it becomes clear than many are united in more ways than it appears.

‘she will stride up to the client, shake his hand firmly (yet femininely), while looking him warmly (yet confidently) in the eye and smiling innocently, and delivering her name unto him with perfectly clipped Received Pronunciation’

Evaristo’s women really are from all walks of life. From a farm in the North East to a maisonette in Camberwell, however, they are united by a shared black British experience. Race and gender discrimination are the central themes of the novel and its through these themes that Evaristo raises questions as to where feminism gets it right, and where there is significant work to be done.

With this, she tackles difficult topics like colourism and exoticism alongside teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse and sexuality. I found one of the standout stories was one of domestic violence between two women, as the abuser manipulates and weaponises an idea of ‘true feminism’ to be used as a means of control. It was the kind of relationship that I’ve never really seen anyone write about prior to this.

‘On Our Own Terms

or Not At All.’

While Evaristo tackles heavy themes, she does so in a way that strikes the balance between being captivating and …joyous? Each woman experiences struggle – this is certainly not an idealised world – but along with the dry wit found in the voice of every character, there’s definitely a sense of togetherness and something celebratory in the way she writes.

Evaristo’s stories are intricately told and each character has their own distinct voice and idiosyncrasies. As the women delicately weave in and out of each others lives, their connections are often subtle and they don’t feel forced. In terms of the writing itself, this isn’t a conventional third-person narrative. Instead, if you look at it as one continuous tale rather than a collection of short stories, I feel like it reads a bit like an epic poem (sounds weird but it’s not, I promise).

In summary, if Evaristo announced that she was releasing twelve individual novels for each of her twelve characters, you best believe I would buy them all.

@BillClinton – I’d give this one a miss if I were you.

One word: Unputdownable.

When I heard that Curtis Sittenfeld had written an alternate version of the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton -minus the Clinton, obviously- my first thought was that it was a really ballsy novel to try and pull off. Did she succeed?

A little bit, I guess?

If you’re unfamiliar with Hillary, she was a law professor who then became US secretary of state. Most notably, she was the lesser of two evils in the 2016 US presidential election, losing to old Donny himself (who makes some interesting cameos in the novel). She’s also the wife of former US President and sexual predator, Bill Clinton. In Rodham, Sittenfeld decided to omit that tiny detail, telling a fictionalised version of events where Hillary says ‘no thanks’.

“The margin between staying and leaving was so thin; really, it could have gone either way.” 

First of all, it must be so bizarre to be Hillary Clinton – a living, breathing, still active politician – and have an author rewrite your entire life minus your husband. I’d like to point out that while I’m not necessarily a Hillary fan, it’s still a really weird reading experience.

I listened to a podcast where Sittenfeld was adamant that Rodham is literally a work of fiction, which it is – but only up to a point. So while the idea for the novel is really interesting and I’ve never read anything like it, I felt like I was invading someone’s privacy by reading an account of her sex life; a sex life that while technically ‘fictionalised’, is still grounded in reality. Weirdness aside though, people have always been very quick to criticise the real Hillary for staying with Bill, so Sittenfeld does a great job at giving us her side – even if it is imagined.

“You know when true equality will be achieved? When a woman with…skeletons in her closet has the nerve to run for office.” 

Sittenfeld’s Hillary definitely does real Hillary justice. Hillary Rodham is as brilliant, clever and ambitious as Hillary Clinton; she just doesn’t have a big creep of a husband dragging her down. She’s also super raunchy; a clear attempt to destabilise misogynist perceptions of Hillary as uptight, boring and a ‘prude’ – and it works. I think Sittenfeld succeeds in breathing some life into a woman that has been vilified by both the right and the left for the majority of her adult life. Sittenfeld’s America remains realistic, though. She’s careful not to create some alternate universe where if Bill wasn’t on the scene, Hillary would have been American’s sweetheart, loved by all.

A lot of the novel is focused on Bill’s infidelities, the real-life accusations of multiple sexual assaults and the subsequent effect this has on Hillary. I’m glad that Sittenfeld dedicates so much of the book to the assaults because in the real world, Bill Clinton still gets away with it. But what I didn’t like was that even in a novel that claims to focus on what could have happened to Hillary without Bill, he remains at the centre of her universe anyway. It’s depressing. What’s that saying again? Something about living rent free…?

“I was mostly correct about the impeachment inquiry: It was often fascinating, though also sometimes boring as we pored over every word in a document or on the tapes Nixon had made of himself in the Oval Office.”

Isn’t this sentence poorly written? Surely it’s not just me.

One of the things I couldn’t ignore, though, was that this is a badly edited (or written??) book. A lot of the time, Sittenfeld’s grammar and sentence structure just didn’t work for me at all. It’s really clunky and I was struggling to understand where she was going with it half the time because her sentences were arranged in such a way that it’s hard to keep track. It’s baffling that with a novel with this much publicity surrounding it, mistakes still slip through the net.

She also has this passage where she talks about her different ‘selves’; her ‘self’ with Bill, her ‘self’ before, her ‘self’ with her parents. This seems like a small thing to flag but I hate it. I’ve never read a piece where a writer talks about ‘selves’ and does it well. It cringes me out! It doesn’t sound good! It never works and sounds pretentious! My critic ‘self’ will die on this hill!

Anyway, Rodham gets three stars; it’s a fun idea but I think it could have been executed better.

Hillary should still dump him though.

Oooh we have another 5 star review, this time for Dominicana!! After loving Girl, Woman, Other, I decided to make it my mission to read all the books shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’m excited to see so many incredible women writers getting the recognition they deserve! Men could never xx

I’m joking, but this novel by Dominican-American writer, Angie Cruz, really is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

It’s the mid-60s, and when 15-year-old Ana Cancion is forced to marry a much older man and move from the Dominican Republic to New York, a question is raised: how much are you willing to sacrifice for the sake of your family?

“The first time Juan Ruiz proposes, I’m eleven years old, skinny and flat-chested.” (p. 1)

What a way to start a novel. I was gripped. From the get-go, this is a story of a woman (or really, a child) who is confused, overwhelmed and frightened by the prospect of being thrown into adulthood so soon. Juan Ruiz effectively snatches Ana’s childhood away, forcing her to grow up knowing that at some point in the very near future, they will be man and wife. However, Ana’s bravery and strength of character is one of the novel’s greatest achievements. Even when her situation feels hopeless, she doesn’t dwell. Instead, she pulls herself together and finds the things that make her happy. A bad bitch, if you ask me.

“I glance over the newspaper, looking for familiar words. Dominican Republic splattered all over it like confetti. Our little country makes the news a lot.”

Not only does Ana face a tumultuous new life as an undocumented immigrant in New York, but tensions are also high back home. Cruz sets the novel at the height of both the Dominican Civil War and the Cold War, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis. At a time when the Dominican Republic was under constant threat from civilian militias as well as intervention from the United States, Ana fears for her family’s safety. Cruz skilfully builds tension both in New York and in Los Guayancanes, allowing the reader to really understand the war in Ana’s mind as the happiness of her family depends solely on her.

Don’t get me wrong, Dominicana is not the happiest novel I’ve read. However, Angie Cruz writes with such vitality that it’s impossible not to be enthralled by her work, even when the subject matter is painful. I also loved the structure of the novel; short, snappy chapters give a great pace to the story.

Dominicana‘s importance cannot not be underestimated. To be honest, it should be a must-read for literally every person in America. Acknowledging the United States as a country built and sustained by immigrants would perhaps spark some much-needed empathy for those who choose not to recognise the part that immigrants have played in making America ‘great’.

Overall, Cruz’s novel is clearly deserving of its place on the Women’s Prize shortlist. I am in love.

Reaching the end of Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982, I wanted to lob Cho Nam-Joo’s 2016 novel across my room.

That’s not because I didn’t love it, but because I found it frustrating. Cho’s story of the life of an ordinary Korean woman, from birth to grave, will resonate with women of all ages, of every nationality. Kim Ji-Young is indeed ‘every woman’. 

Don’t expect something light-hearted. This is not Bridget Jones’ Diary. Mr Darcy and a pack of fags are nowhere to be found. 

If I had to describe this novel in one word, though, it would be ‘important’. 

‘Checking the sex of the foetus and aborting females was common practice, as if ‘daughter’ was a medical problem’ (p. 19)

When Ji-Young starts to act strangely, imitating the personalities of women she knows – her mother, an old college friend – her husband takes it upon himself to book her an appointment with a psychiatrist. Here begins the story of Kim Ji-Young, born 1982, brought into the world with prejudice already looming over her: Ji-Young is a daughter in a society that values the son above all else. 

In providing a snapshot of life as a woman in Korea, Cho backs up the systematic oppression with cold hard facts and statistics, even going as far as to cite her sources.

I didn’t find this to be overkill, though. Instead, Kim Ji-Young is more than a character in a novel, her experiences are essentially ‘real’. Cho’s use of stats and facts brings a sense of truth to her narrative that warns the reader “don’t you even dare argue with what I have to say”. 

‘Help out? What is it with you and “helping out”? You’re going to “help out” with chores. “Help out” with raising our baby. “Help out” with finding me a new job. Isn’t this your house, too? Your home? Your child? And if I work, don’t you spend my pay, too?’ (p. 131)

Though the novel is about the Korean female experience, Ji-Young’s story is universal. Gender inequality is not a South Korean issue, it’s a global issue. From being warned that coming across too ‘smart’ is ‘taxing’, fending off unwanted advances in work/school/anywhere/everywhere or having to choose between a job and a family are issues that every woman could face in their lifetime. The odds are stacked against women from birth.

This isn’t a man-hating novel though, before anyone starts saying “not all men are like that”. There are plenty of men in the novel that are allies. Cho’s focus, however, is on the systematic oppression of women, the cultural practices that are so engrained that even when Kim Ji-Young’s husband does finally show her some support, it barely scratches the surface. It is not something that can be changed at the hands of a few people, but instead needs to be confronted on a worldwide scale. 

Kim Ji-Young gets four stars. A powerful read, but loses a star for the chronological order in which its told – sometimes a strict timeline is a little monotonous. 

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