Spellbreaker was an excellent vacation read for me, and I liked it enough that I’m planning to read the sequel right away: this is definitely NOT a standalone novel and I want to know how everything works out. The book opens in England in 1885 with a workhouse on fire and a young girl, Elsie, having accidentally erased a rune that was keeping the building safe from the flames. A cloaked figure beckons Elsie, who’s eleven years old at this point, to come with them: “I need your help to make the world a better place,” the person says. Elsie realizes that she’s a “spellbreaker, born with one kind of magic instead of taught a hundred.”

Flash forward to London, ten years later: Elsie has been doing the bidding of that cloaked figure and/or whatever group they’re part of for a decade; she also does non-magical work for an artist/stonemason. In this world people who make spells, known as aspectors, specialize in one of the “four alignments”—magic that is “rational”, “spiritual”, “temporal”, or “physical”. (Rational spells can be illusions, or anything else affecting the mind; spiritual magic consists of “blessings and curses”; temporal magic changes “time’s effects”; physical magic, as you might guess, changes the physical properties of objects: Elsie’s artist employer uses it to change white paint into colored paint, for example.) Meanwhile, spellbreakers, like Elsie, can unravel spells. Both aspectors and spellbreakers are meant to be registered with the government, and Elsie isn’t, which means all her spellbreaking work is renegade, and dangerous. She’s proud of what she does, though: all her assignments are described to her as things that right a wrong, or help keep the poor from being oppressed by the rich.

Next plot strand: Bacchus Kelsey, who’s in his late twenties, has just come back to England from his home in Barbados. He’s a physical aspector hoping to take the test to become a master physical aspector—and hoping to be approved to use a particular spell that will “allow him to move an object—any object—without touching it.” As you might guess, Elsie’s path and Bacchus’s path cross, and keep crossing. And in another plot strand, which affects both of them, it seems that someone might be murdering master aspectors and stealing their “opuses”, which is what their bodies turn into when they die—rather than corpses, master aspectors leave behind “spellbooks of all the enchantments they had learned in life,” which let “anyone”, magical or not, cast one of those spells (but only one time per spell).

This book is heavy on plot and well-plotted; I wanted to keep reading to find out what was going to happen next—and I find both Elsie and Bacchus to be appealing characters. I also like the world-building and how the magic in this world works/is explained, like in passages like this: “Who had penned the first spell was as shrouded in enigma as who had penned the last. None of the authors were known, and spells across all four disciplines were set. Many had studied the language and style of spellmaking enchantments in an effort to expound upon them, or create one anew, and not one had ever been successful.”

The prologue of this novel sets up what’s to come: it’s 1838 in Gundagai, Australia, and we’re with Wagadhaany, who is four years old, as she listens to her father telling a white settler that he shouldn’t build a house on the land by the river: it’s too flat; there’s a risk of floods. The white settler “mumbles something about Blacks not being smart enough to understand”; Wagadhaany soon thereafter hears her uncle say that the settlers “don’t understand the land, they just keep chopping down trees.” And we see Wagadhaany with her extended family by the river, where they camp and prepare food together: we see how connected Wagadhaany is to her uncles and aunts and cousins, not just to her parents and siblings.

Flash forward to 1852: Wagadhaany is working as a servant for that man from the prologue, who has built his house where he wanted to build it, and the rain comes down hard and harder. The river floods; the Bradley family and Wagadhaany move to the attic and then to the roof. Houses are swept away, leaving people clinging to tree branches, and Wagadhaany’s father, Yarri, rescues townspeople with his bark canoe, as do other men from the Wiradyuri camp by the river. The flood changes things for the Bradleys, and for Wagadhaany too. One of the Bradley brothers, James, meets and marries a Quaker woman, Louisa, who lost her husband and her parents in the flood; Louisa wants to befriend Wagadhaany, both because she needs companionship and because of “the desire of the Quaker family to see equality for the Aborigines of Australia.” And when James decides to move himself and his brother David and Louisa to Wagga Wagga, where he thinks the land will be better for cattle, Wagadhaany is taken along too, though she just wants to be with her family at Gundagai.

The book’s narration mostly stays close to Wagadhaany, though there are sections focused on other characters as well. Wagadhaany is smart and full of questions, and through her we see the large and small ways that the Bradleys and other white people mistreat Aboriginal Australians and the land. The Bradleys have always called Wagadhaany “Wilma”; after the flood one of the Bradley brothers starts trying to use her actual name, and Louisa calls her Wagadhaany from the day she meets her, but James keeps calling her Wilma, when he talks to her at all. And even though Louisa talks about equality and wanting to learn from Wagadhaany, her ideals aren’t always reflected in her behavior. At one point she tells Wagadhaany she thinks the town of Wagga Wagga would be better if there were more Quakers there; Wagadhaany wonders silently if things wouldn’t actually be better still if the settlers had the Wiradyuri values of community and respect for the land/living lightly on the land. (Even the children, we learn, know this: we read about them gathering “some small branches of eucalyptus leaves, which they have pulled carefully from low-hanging branches, knowing that they are only ever to take what comes easily to them, what the land wants them to have.”)

This book has a lot of heart and I was totally caught up in the story, with wanting to know how things would turn out for Wagadhaany. And I like how Heiss brings in various aspects of Australian history, and also how she uses words from the Wiradyuri language.

My husband and I moved to a new apartment just over two weeks ago and I feel like there is still so much to do, from updating my address in all the places it needs to be updated to unpacking clothes and books (which we can’t actually do until our new bookcases arrive and storage unit arrive, which will be … who knows when, based on my phone call today with IKEA). All of which is to say, I was in the mood for an “easier” read, by which I mean something plot-driven and engaging. I think in other moods I might have been not so into this novel’s prose style (present-tense first-person narration, very straightforward/not a whole lot of descriptive paragraphs) but in my current mood I was happy to just immerse myself in the story, which is a coming-out/figuring-stuff-out story whose protagonist is Amar, who’s 28 and newly-engaged at the start of the book. We learn a little about Amar’s background—how he used to work in advertising but was fired after he couldn’t cope with his grief after his mom’s death, how he met his fiancé, Joshua, at the bookshop where he started working after that—and then we see him coming out to his family (his older sister, his two older brothers, all of their spouses, and his younger sister) via WhatsApp message. Well—the wife of one of his brothers already knows that Amar is gay, but he’s never talked about it with the rest of his siblings and in-laws, who are all “second-generation Bangladeshi Muslims in East London.” They don’t respond particularly well, and Amar wonders if his relationship with Joshua means he’ll be permanently estranged from his family. Meanwhile, Joshua’s mom is getting perhaps too excited about their wedding, and the bookshop where Amar works might have to close, and Amar finds himself having doubts about whether he and Joshua can even make their relationship work, given their cultural differences. Amar has a lot to deal with, and his history of being partly closeted and scared and therefore not super-communicative doesn’t help. Though I tend to like more lyrical narrative voices, I was rooting for Amar as a character and engrossed in the various subplots. And there were moments I was charmed by his narrative voice, like this moment, after Joshua tells him not to worry about people staring when they’re visiting Joshua’s family in Dorset and Amar is the only non-white person in sight: “I am not worried – but, I mean, I’d be a lot more not-worried if I saw more melanin.” Or this, when Amar is explaining what he likes about working at the bookshop: “I love the quiet in the mornings and just listening to the hum of the lights. I love burly men surprising me by buying Margaret Atwood novels. I love that people like Joshua can walk in here and discover a new favourite book.”

Luster by Raven Leilani

June 13th, 2022

Near the end of Luster the narrator, Edie, is thinking about art and what it does, what it’s for: “A way is always made to document how we manage to survive, or in some cases, how we don’t.” She’s a painter, and how she finds her way back to painting is maybe the most satisfying arc of this story—which isn’t to say the rest of it, in which Edie finds herself unexpectedly living in a guest room in New Jersey for a time, isn’t satisfying too. At the start of the book, we learn about the start of Edie’s relationship with Eric: she’s 23 and Black; he’s twice her age and white and in an open marriage with his wife of 13 years, though the open marriage part seems to be new. He and his wife, Rebecca, have an adopted Black daughter named Akila, though Eric doesn’t mention her/we don’t learn about her for a while. We get date scenes with Edie and Eric, and scenes of Edie’s meh office job in publishing, and then, after Eric brings Edie home one night (though this is not allowed, per the list of rules Rebecca wrote up) and proceeds to ghost her, we get Edie, accidentally crashing Eric and Rebecca’s 14th anniversary party. Further events ensue, and when Eric gets home from a work trip he’s surprised to see Edie, who by now is living in that aforementioned guest room.

I was expecting this book to be more about Eric and Edie’s relationship than it actually is, which isn’t a criticism: the dynamics between Edie and Rebecca and Edie and Akila are really interesting, and each relationship lets Leilani explore issues of race and class and power. And Leilani’s writing is really really good—there are funny moments and dark moments and occasional paragraph-long sentences that are perfect, with phrases like this: “the city rises around me in a bouquet of dust, industrial soot, and overripe squash, insisting upon its own enormity like some big-dick postmodernist fiction and still beautiful despite its knowledge of itself, even as the last merciless days of July leave large swaths of the city wilted and blank.” Or sentences like this: “When Eric was away, the house was filled with sound, Akila’s and Rebecca’s routines textured and discordant, water and glass, sticky sounds of trash and sparring gear and doorjambs swollen with heat, the mailman and the democratic socialist at the door, all the toilets at the mercy of a houseful of women, the sensory meridian of tangled jewelry, of bobby pins and linoleum, of dubbed anime and the neighbor’s dog. Otherwise a soft cosine of electricity and digital noise.” And I like the way we get pieces of Edie’s past and family history amidst the present-tense action: stories about her parents, and about her Seventh-day Adventist upbringing.

Somehow the back cover blurb for this one had me expecting something more concrete and less philosophical, but I nevertheless enjoyed this novella made of linked vignettes that are mostly “about” the narrator’s passion for Artforum magazine but are also about the human condition: about being a person and having quirks and hobbies and routines and worries and desires, about time and passing/filling/wasting it, about superstition and art and how we assign meaning to chance events, and how we shape life into stories. The unnamed narrator lives in Buenos Aires and has been reading Artforum for a long time, and the fact that it’s difficult to get his hands on a copy of it in the city where he lives is maybe part of the appeal: when he does find one, it’s a moment of sheer delight. Eventually, he subscribes—but thanks to the unpredictable nature of international mail, the joy of happening upon an issue of Artforum is replaced by the agony of waiting for the next issue, which surely should have arrived already but somehow is always late, if it comes at all.

Sections I particularly loved: “Subscription” (first line: “When I made the transcendent decision to take out a subscription, I thought that all my problems were over”), “Twenty-four Issues of Artforum” (best lines from this one: “Isn’t it dangerous to be too happy? Wouldn’t it have to be paid back afterwards? Wouldn’t it be a better idea to save something for later? The answer is: No.”), and “My Very Own Artforum” (the narrator’s excellent idea: “I would paint the cover, gallery advertisements, illustrations accompanying the articles”).

I heard about An I-Novel thanks to Rebecca Hussey’s Reading Indie email newsletter, in which Rebecca described this as “an autobiographical, autofictional novel that takes place in one day and is thinky, contemplative, and formally innovative” – which a) is a great description of this book and b) really made me want to read it. Though the novel is narrated over the course of a single day (in which the narrator doesn’t even leave her apartment building), it feels more expansive than that might imply. The book is very interior and introspective while also talking about a whole lot of memories and experiences in a way that feels very natural to the story but is clearly very well-constructed. Early in the book we learn that it’s twenty years to the day since the main character, Minae, came to the US with her sister Nanae and their mom (their dad was already there). That realization, along with the combination of snow falling outside and a sense of stasis and avoidance in her life in general, prompts Minae to reflect on her time in the US and the time she’s spent in Japan—both as a younger child before coming to the US and as a young adult going back to visit. Interspersed with the text are full-page black & white photos of scenes/places relevant to the story—Rockefeller Center at Christmas, say, or Great Neck High School on Long Island.

Minae doesn’t do much over the course of the day, but the book covers a lot of ground: she reflects on her experiences in junior high before she was fluent in English, and on her relationship with her sister, and on their family in general; she thinks about her experiences as a Japanese person in the US (“Where we lived, being Asian never caused us any particular difficulty, but neither could we ever forget that that’s what we were”) and remembers everything from summer camp to junior high art class to a day spent in Manhattan with Nanae in adulthood, having lunch and looking at art. She thinks about wanting to go back to Japan, and about not wanting to go back to Japan, and about realizing (after having long loved Japanese literature) that she wants to write in Japanese, rather than in English or in French (though she’s in grad school in the French department). There’s a lot about identity and memory and family history and family ties and language and loneliness, and I found it all to be a really compelling read.

In the first chapter of The Psychology of Time Travel, we’re introduced to “four young scientists” (Margaret, Lucille, Grace, and Barbara) who have been working in an isolated laboratory and who manage, in 1967, to build a working time machine. The technology can’t take people back to any point prior to its own invention, but time travelers from the future can go back as far as 1967, and time travelers from 1967 can travel into the future (though only 300 years into the future, for reasons that are not fully explained). In the second chapter, which is set in 2017, we meet Ruby, a psychologist who happens to be Barbara’s granddaughter. (Barbara, we learn in the first chapter, had an episode of what was then called “manic depression” after her first forays into the future, and was forced out of the lab as a result.) And then in chapter three we meet Odette, who (in January 2018) discover’s a woman’s body in the basement of the toy museum where she’s just started volunteering. The book takes up the mystery of who the woman is and how she died, with chapters jumping around in time and focus: some chapters are about Margaret and Lucille and Grace and Barbara; others focus on Ruby or Odette; still others focus on other time travelers, or people who are relatives of other time travelers. (Time travel, we learn, is governed by the Time Travel Conclave, an organization that Margaret founded and that she still directs as of 2017—Lucille and Grace still work at the Conclave as well.)

I like how fast-paced the story is, and how the different timelines and plot threads all come together. Early in the book, Barbara (or Bee, as she’s often called) gets a note from the future, which turns out to be a “notice of an inquest” for “the death of a woman in her eighties.” Ruby worries that the dead woman is Bee herself, and wants to figure out the mystery of the death so she can prevent it, if so. Bee, meanwhile, just wants to see if she can time travel again. And Odette, who finds the body, has her own reasons for wanting to solve the mystery. This isn’t just a mystery story, though: it’s a time travel story with a bit of queer romance, and it’s a whole lot of fun. I picked this up for LGBTQ book club at work and am glad I did—and it’s reminded me that I should really also read The Box of Delights (which I first heard mentioned in Fire and Hemlock).

I didn’t realize until the end that Scattered All Over the Earth is the first volume of a trilogy, but now I am very excited at the prospect of seeing where the story will go next and what the structure of the next two books will be. This one is told in alternating first-person narration by six different characters: two characters (Knut and Hiruko) get three chapters each; the others (Akash, Nora, Tenzo, and Susanoo) get one chapter each.

The book starts with Knut, who we learn is a Dane interested in linguistics. He’s watching a local news show where a moderator speaks to a series of “people whose countries no longer exist” (e.g. the former Yugoslavia) when someone on the show catches his attention. There’s a woman “from an archipelago somewhere between China and Polynesia, she’d come as a foreign student, planning to stay for just a year but then a couple of months before she was supposed to go home, her country disappeared.” What interests him is less the mystery of the disappearance of the woman’s country than “the language she was speaking,” which he understands, but can’t place. The moderator asks about the language too and the woman, Hiruko, explains how she came up with it after moving from Sweden to Norway to Denmark: “no time to learn three different languages. might mix up. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language most scandinavian people understand.” Knut is so excited he phones the TV station to ask if Hiruko will agree to meet him. She agrees, but she doesn’t really have time: she’s going to an umami festival in Trier the next day, hoping to meet someone there who is from her country and speaks her native language.

After they have dinner together, Knut ends up going to Trier too, which is where they start to meet the rest of our narrators. Akash is an Indian trans woman studying in Trier (who is frustratingly misgendered by all the other characters); Nora is actually the organizer of the umami festival, at which Tenzo, who’s meant to be on his way back from Norway, is meant to be teaching people how to make dashi. Susanoo, who comes later, is another person from what the book calls “the land of sushi.”

I don’t want to say too much about the various plot twists, some of which are surprises and some of which are telegraphed quite clearly in the book (which has a Shakespearean sort of feel in that way, that sense of a comedy of miscommunication and mistaken identity that we know will get untangled in the end, where we know the truth about some things before some of the characters do). But I found the plot to be a delight, and there is so much good stuff about language and culture and identity, too. I expect my enjoyment would have been even greater if I had been familiar ahead of time with Japanese fairy tales like the one about Urashima Tarō. This also definitely makes me want to read more by Tawada: I’ve been aware of her since I heard about The Memoirs of a Polar Bear in 2017, but I hadn’t actually read anything by her until this.

Side note, I love this, which Hiruko ponders at her job helping “immigrant children to learn about Europe through fairy tales”: first she thinks about how “drawing isn’t an everyday thing here the way writing is” and then there’s this: “Europeans must think of handwriting and drawing as two completely separate things. If not, why are they so ashamed of a lousy picture when their terrible handwriting doesn’t bother them at all?” I also love this, when Akash is thinking about Germans and walking: “My German friends all love to go for a walk and often ask me to come along. Not just for fifteen or twenty minutes, either. They’ll keep going for an hour at least, and in good weather as long as two without a rest. What’s more, about forty minutes into our walk a friend will finally open his heart to me and confess, “I broke up with my girlfriend”: without strong legs, you can’t even make friends in this country.”

This is the second book by Modiano I’ve read, and I liked this one more than The Black Notebook, though maybe I’m just more in the mood for this kind of atmospheric novel at the moment. The themes (and plots) of the two books are similar, and I get the impression this Modiano’s thing: a mystery that is as much about the larger mysteries of life (the workings of memory, the passage of time, how a near-stranger can take on importance to someone, how different periods blur together or are subsumed or changed, in our minds, by subsequent periods or events) as about the specifics of the plot (in this case: a man who briefly worked at a detective agency reflects on the case of a missing woman). As with The Black Notebook, I feel like I would have loved this book even more if I had a better knowledge of Paris and its different neighborhoods, but even so I enjoyed the descriptions of the streets and cafés and the ways places change (“They had knocked down the buildings facing the river and, in their place, all that remained were empty lots and heaps of rubble. It was as if there had been a bombardment on this no-man’s-land that they would later baptize the Front de Seine. And it hadn’t spared the first building on the quay after the bridge, of which all that remained was the concrete façade.”)

At the start of the book, our narrator notes that “There are blanks in this life, white spaces you can detect.” These blanks are literal in the mostly-empty datebook he finds, a datebook that belonged to Noëlle Lefebvre, the woman who’s gone missing, the woman his employer has tasked him with investigating. There are blanks in narratives, too: blanks in what someone tells you or doesn’t, and maybe blanks in what someone remembers. Jean Eyben, the former detective who narrates most of the book, thinks about how “present and past blend together in a kind of transparency.” Time can be compressed by perspective: I love this description of Noëlle’s time in Paris: “That stay, which had lasted only a few months, had gradually faded from her memory. The few months had become a few hours, as if she had spent them in a waiting room between two trains.”

I’m curious to read more by Modiano, and might eventually try to read something by him in the original French.

Assembly by Natasha Brown

April 12th, 2022

My experience of reading Assembly felt a bit like my experience of reading little scratch last year, in that I picked it up because I’d heard it was inventive in form/structure, but didn’t realize ahead of time that it was also going to be pretty bleak. This, from page 3 of Assembly, gives a sense, as we see our unnamed protagonist at work: “He could see her at her desk from his office and regularly dialled her extension to comment on what he saw (and what he made of it): her hair (wild), her skin (exotic), her blouse (barely containing those breasts).” Yeah. Oof. The protagonist/narrator of Assembly (after a brief opening section, the book switches from third-person to first-person narration) is a Black British woman who works at a bank; we see her at work, and giving a talk to schoolgirls, and on her way to her white boyfriend’s family’s country estate for a party (and at that country estate, before the party starts), but the book is more about voice and mood than setting or plot, per se. The narrator is having not just a crisis of identity, but an existential crisis: she knows “the things to want, the right things to reach for,” and she’s pursued those things (a good education, a lucrative job, a wealthy boyfriend) but it’s all hollow: whatever she achieves, people think she’s “given” things because of her race, e.g. given a promotion because it looks good for the bank to have a Black woman in a managerial position. And what she truly wants, or might truly want if she had more space to be herself, isn’t even something she can ask herself. Other people’s assumptions get in the way: “Born here, parents born here, always lived here – still, never from here,” she thinks. And she describes the bind she’s been in her whole life like this: “Be the best. Work harder, work smarter. Exceed every expectation. But also, be invisible, imperceptible. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t inconvenience.” She thinks of experiences where other people’s racist assumptions have become apparent: a security guard following her in a store, an airline employee directing her to the economy check-in rather than business-class. In an interview on the Penguin website, Brown says she “was interested in how language manages to appear neutral, even when it’s not,” and that comes through at various points in the book, perhaps most when the narrator considers what she could say to improve things, and feels stuck: “My only tool of expression is the language of this place. Its bias and assumptions permeate all reason I could construct from it”—and then comes a page of dictionary definitions of “black” and “white”, proving the point.