‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 stars

To describe a book as a page-turner is usually a compliment. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood has that gripping power of highly compelling reads, but it lacks emotion, details and character exploration. Set in the same fictional world as The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s nowhere near as affecting as its predecessor. Although it offers interesting insights about the inception and disintegration of Gilead, the prose is not poignant enough and the plot is too predictable.

The story is told from three different points of view – Aunt Lydia, Agnes Jemima and Daisy. Secretly, at the Ardua Hall’s library, Aunt Lydia, who was introduced in The Handmaid’s Tale, decided to write about her role within Gilead and her memories concerning the inception of the regime. Before the establishment of Gilead, she had been a family court judge. She recalled how her life quickly changed afterwards. What she had to endure was brutal. But now she was a crucial element within that repressive and puritanical state, which divided society into very defined roles. Her importance was such that nine years before, she had been given a statue.

Agnes Jemima is a girl who grew up in Gilead. The man whom she believed to be her father was a Commander. Readers are aware from the very beginning that he is not her biological father, though, since the woman whom she thought was her mother, Tabitha, used to say that she chose her as her daughter. After Tabitha’s death, when Agnes was around nine years old, her father married another woman, Paula, and a Handmaid was brought into the house, which meant that they wanted to have a child. This was when Agnes discovered that the people she had always called mother and father weren’t really her parents. Her real mother had tried to take her across the border to Canada, but they were caught. Continue reading

‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Brontë

My rating: 4 stars

The Brontë family wasn’t short of talent. The epistolary novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by the youngest of the Brontë sisters, Anne, is a story about how women cannot hope to change men’s behaviour after marriage and how a mother will always try to protect her son. Offering two complementary perspectives, this book comprises various fleshed out characters. But the pacing is not always perfect.

Gilbert Markham decides to write a long letter to his old friend J. Halford to reveal to him significant moments from his life. In the autumn of 1827, Gilbert’s mother and sister paid a visit to the new inhabitant of Wildfell Hall, a young widowed woman called Mrs Helen Graham. Only later did he make her acquaintance. As he was once passing by Wildfell Hall, he saw Mrs Graham’s son, Arthur, on the top of a wall and helped him climb out of it. This was only the first time that he had the opportunity to speak with her.

A few days later, Mrs Graham also paid a visit to the family at Linden-Car. They discussed her son’s education. It wasn’t part of her plans to send him to school, since she wanted to prepare him for the challenges of life herself. She believed that there was no need for boys and girls to have different types of education. Gilbert’s mother disagreed with her views and considered her to be too obstinate. Continue reading

‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan

My rating: 5 stars

It is novels such as Atonement by Ian McEwan that attest to the magic of the written word. I first read this fully immersive book in Portuguese more than a decade ago and have now (re)read it in the original. This story about how the imagination of a clueless girl has devastating consequences on the lives of others is a literary feast, which is written in an engaging prose and is full of unforgettable moments between the characters.

Briony had been writing stories since she was very young. On a day in the summer of 1935, at the age of thirteen, she decided to write and stage a play, ‘The Trials of Arabella’, to welcome home her brother Leon. Her decision to embrace a new format was inspired by the presence of her cousins, whose parents were getting divorced. The twins Jackson and Pierrot were nine years old, and Lola, who liked to act as a grown-up, was fifteen. Although her cousins were not too excited to act in the play at first, they ended up assenting to.

Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, had also recently returned home from Cambridge. After picking some wild flowers to put in the room where a friend of Leon’s, the chocolate magnate Paul Marshall, was going to stay, she decided to arrange them in an expensive vase. Nearby was Robbie Turner who tried to help her fill the vase with water on the fountain in the garden. The lip of the vase broke, though, and two pieces fell in the water. Cecilia stripped off her clothes and plunged into the fountain to get them back. Continue reading

‘The Confession’ by Jessie Burton

My rating: 4 stars

A story about motherhood and the distress that it may cause, The Confession by Jessie Burton promises to solve a mystery – what happened to Rose’s mother? But that truly isn’t the focus of this novel, which is set in two different time periods. Readers are introduced to Rose as she tries to understand herself and figure out what she aspires to do in life. For that reason, the characters are the main allure of this book, which is neither as enthralling nor bewitching as The Miniaturist and The Muse. Although it is a competent work of fiction, it lacks the magnetism of Burton’s previous novels.

On a winter afternoon in 1980, 23-year-old Elise Morceau went to Hampstead Heath in London to meet a man on the advice of her landlord. He didn’t appear, though. Instead, she ended up crossing paths with Constance Holden, whom she later discovered was a writer. Soon after they met, Elise moved in with Connie. She was deeply infatuated and treated her almost with reverence. Two years later, they both moved to Los Angeles, as one of Connie’s books was to be adapted to film. While in LA, Connie became colder and more distant.

In 2017, 34-year-old Rose recalls in the first person what it was like growing up without knowing where her mother was. Elise disappeared without a trace before she was one year old, leaving her with her father. As a little child, Rose used to always tell her friends that her mother was travelling. At 14, she started telling them that she had died. In her twenties, as some of her friends had really experienced losing their parents, saying the truth felt like the only humane option. Continue reading

‘The Blood Miracles’ by Lisa McInerney

My rating: 3 stars

Lisa McInerney’s first novel, The Glorious Heresies, is told from the perspectives of five characters. One of them, Ryan Cusack, is the sole protagonist of The Blood Miracles. This isn’t the only difference between the two novels, though. Her latest isn’t, unfortunately, as enthralling as I hoped, since the plot focuses almost merely on drug dealing and the characters are not as fleshed out as they could have been.

Ryan’s life is in turmoil. Although he was born and grew up in Cork, he is fluent in Italian, thanks to his dual heritage. His boss, Dan, wants to make use of his language skills in a new drug route from Italy to Ireland. At the same time, Colm expects Ryan to be his partner at a music venue he is planning to open. But, now that they are in their early twenties, his girlfriend, Karine, wants him to change his ways and leave the world of drugs behind. Amid all of this, he meets Natalie, who brings additional trouble, and reunites with Maureen, who helped him before, despite him not remembering the details.

Sadly, the book focuses too much on the issues concerning drug dealing and night clubs to the point that it gets tiresome. That is a problem particularly because some of the characters who are part of Ryan’s life, such as Natalie and Dan, are too cardboard, and even Ryan is not as fleshed out and complex as in The Glorious Heresies. He is on a self-destructive path, but there isn’t enough exploration of it. The writing style has, overall, a very fast and turbulent rhythm, as if to mimic the torrent of events surrounding Ryan. His feelings, though, are only occasionally explored. Continue reading

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

My rating: 5 stars

Human beings can cause each other unimaginable suffering, not only physically, but also psychologically. Despite its title, The Vegetarian by Han Kang is not a book about vegetarianism. It delves into the consequences of abuse, mental health problems, rebellion against social conventions and desire, achieving an unsettling, affecting and remarkable tale, which encapsulates a myriad of believable emotions and tribulations.

Yeong-hye had always been a dutiful wife. She cooked dinner, washed her husband’s clothes, prepared everything he needed in the mornings. One day, after having a strange and disquieting dream, she threw away all of the meat that they had in the fridge and became a vegetarian. Why did that dream affect her so much? The book is not told from Yeong-hye’s point of view. So, in order to understand her decision, readers have to piece together the perspectives of three other characters, and an answer can only be inferred after her sister’s memories are presented.

Han Kang split the narrative into three parts. The first one is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband, a patently despicable man. The way in which he speaks about his wife is revolting, and his actions even more so. He was concerned that she had stopped sleeping and had started to progressively lose weight for what were only selfish reasons. He recalls her parents being also appalled at her becoming a vegetarian and having ceased to cook meat for him, as that was completely out of the norm. His contempt for Yeong-hye is obvious from the very beginning. Continue reading

‘Ghost Wall’ by Sarah Moss

My rating: 4 stars

Fiction books that focus on relevant social issues can sometimes feel merely like a lecture. That is, fortunately, not the case with Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. It is an atmospheric and convincing character study that denounces extremism, xenophobia, violence against women and misogyny. These themes are perfectly incorporated into the plot and clearly combined with the personalities of the characters.

It was summer. Silvie, who is the narrator of the story, and her parents joined an encampment in rural Northumberland organised by the archaeology professor Jim Slade, whose aim was to recreate life during the Iron Age. Her father, a bus driver, was obsessed with discovering more about the way of life in Ancient Britain. He also seemed to give excessive importance to English purity. In the past, he hadn’t let Silvie eat traditional food from other countries. Her mother subjugated herself to all of his needs and whims.

As Silvie intersperses the recalling of the events at the camping site with other memories from her life, her personality becomes fully understandable. She didn’t know what she wanted to do in the future, but she aspired to some sort of freedom, in order to escape from her domineering and aggressive father. That is probably the reason why she listened with interest as the professor’s students spoke about travelling around Europe and seeing the recently fallen Berlin Wall. Continue reading

‘História de Quem Vai e de Quem Fica’ (‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’) by Elena Ferrante

My rating: 4 stars

Elena and Lila’s friendship is at the forefront of the first two books in the Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name (about which there will be spoilers), despite both also featuring various social considerations. In História de Quem Vai e de Quem Fica (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay in the English translation), on the other hand, Elena Ferrante chose to focus mainly on Elena’s personal tribulations and on various political issues. Nevertheless, for the most part, it is still as engaging as the previous novels.

The book starts with Elena remembering the last time that she saw Lila before her disappearance. She hopes that Lila will somehow discover that she is writing their story and will reappear, since she has forbidden Elena to ever write about her. She then turns her attention to the last event from the previous book, more than 40 years beforehand. After encountering Nino Sarratore at the presentation of her book, they went out for dinner with other two companions. She started doubting her capabilities again. She didn’t know enough about the topics that they were discussing – the political situation in Greece, the prominence of the students’ movement throughout Europe – which led her to feel inadequate.

Although she was not particularly attached to Naples anymore, she returned there for a while to stay with her family. She spent her time gathering information about what was happening around the world, while dealing with both the positive and the negative reviews of her book. People from the neighbourhood were only interested in asking her about the spicy parts, which vexed her. Continue reading

‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker

My rating: 4 stars

An engrossing retelling of Homer’s Iliad, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker explores how the women who became slaves during the Trojan War struggled to overcome their grief inconspicuously, while men had the freedom to display it openly and seek revenge. This contrast is achieved by offering readers different perspectives. The majority of the story is narrated in the first person by Briseis, but we are also presented the points of view of Achilles and Patroclus in the third person. Most important of all, the characters are believably intricate.

Briseis intersperses the recount of the attack on Lyrnessus by Achilles with memories from her past. She married very young and didn’t feel any support from her mother-in-law, Queen Maire. During the war, which started nine years previously, she saw her husband and her brothers be killed by Achilles. Afterwards, Greek soldiers looted the buildings and raped the women, starting with the slaves on the basement and ending with the noblewomen on the roof. They were then taken to the Greek encampment, where Briseis was chosen as Achilles’s bed-slave.

Sometime later, a plague took over the camp and caused the death of many soldiers. They believed that this was a punishment by Apollo, since Agamemnon, who had taken Chryseis as his bed-slave, refused to accept the offer from her father, a priest, to pay for her freedom. The following developments and the fact that bed-slaves were perceived as possessions led to a feud between Achilles and Agamemnon, involving Briseis. Continue reading

‘Lanny’ by Max Porter

My rating: 4 stars

The connection of three people with a child and the power of nature are brought to life in Lanny by Max Porter. Set in a small village near London, this novella, which is written in stream of consciousness and is filled with meaningful design tricks, mixes a myriad of human reactions with magical elements. Despite being fragmented and consisting mainly of memories of certain moments, it is surprisingly engaging.

Dead Papa Toothwort, some sort of mythical entity that is used to scare children, wanders around the village and listens to all the sounds. He waits until he hears his favourite one – the sound of a boy named Lanny. What he listens to is presented in a graphically different way. Words become waves. They don’t form full sentences, though. They are just fragments of longer conversations by random people, which, nevertheless, help to shed some light on what is going on in society.

Lanny is also presented to readers in the first part through the perspectives of his mother, his father and Pete, who muse on their lives in the first person. Lanny’s mum is an out-of-work actress and aspiring crime writer. She convinces Pete, an older artist, to teach Lanny how to paint. Pete and Lanny form an endearing bond. On the other hand, Lanny’s dad, who works in the financial sector in the City, seems embarrassed of his son, because he behaves differently from his expectations. On occasion, even Lanny’s mum starts to ponder on some of his behaviours, despite loving him dearly. Continue reading