Bibliolepsy by Gina Apostol

April 11th, 2022

Bibliolepsy is one of those novels where I loved the beginning and loved the end, but found my attention flagging a bit in the middle—which I think is probably more due to my life/schedule in general right now than to any flaws of the book itself—though maybe it was also because I paused a lot to look up cultural references or words I didn’t know (Estrella Alfon, lechon manok, retoke, ibagsak, ophidian). A brief review in the New Yorker prompted me to pick this up, because of course I wanted to read a book described as a “hypnotic coming-of-age novel” about “a young Filipina who becomes obsessed with literature, to the point of illness.” I was won over by the quirkiness of the narration and the playfulness of the language: at one point the narrator talks about the “semi-feudal, slightly futile system of education” of the Philippines; earlier, she talks about how the Oxford English Dictionary “wrote down sisters and fathers and cousins of words: it treated words like people with a personal history, the sentences like mysterious pasts you did not have to understand.”

I like the narrator, Primi, and the glimpses we get of her family—her cartoonist father, her taxidermist mother, her older sister, their rich grandmother. I like how we see Primi at age eight, at age twelve, and then in college at sixteen, at twenty. And I like how Primi, in telling her story, tells the story of Manila in the 1980s too, most notably in the descriptions of the People Power Revolution near the novel’s end. Primi seems more interested in poetry than in politics, but even so she finds herself with the crowds on EDSA, wondering: “Would it eliminate the days’ strange glory if it turned out to be a mere piece in the puzzle, a blip in a more difficult history?”

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