Women's Prize for Fiction 2020: Winner Announcement & Concluding Thoughts

Remember the Women’s Prize for Fiction?! So much time has passed since the longlist announcement back in March that the prize hasn’t been on my mind as much in the past couple months. But the winner was announced today, and it is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell! While I hadn’t been rooting for Hamnet to win, I can appreciate that it is a gorgeously written and thoughtful work of historical fiction. You can read my full review of Hamnet here, but the tl;dr of it is that, while beautifully written and quite moving at times, the book spends over 200 pages leading up to an event that the reader already knows is going to happen (based on the synopsis). For other takes on Hamnet, check out Callum, Emily, Naty, Beth, Rachel, and Fatma’s reviews!

The book that I was rooting for to win was Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I became a (slightly) harsher reviewer after reading it, because Girl, Woman, Other showed me that one book really can do it all: profound social commentary that feels completely organic in the context of the story, excellent characters, beautifully poetic writing, and a fresh premise. Even though a couple of the stories in the collection weren’t as compelling as the rest, I was astounded by the book as a whole. I also would have loved to see Evaristo, and her alone, take the prize after having to share the 2019 Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood.

I also would have been very happy to see How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee win the prize, but unfortunately it didn’t even make the shortlist (I have already ranted about this once, and won’t rehash that again here). Despite being such a powerful and evocative novel, How We Disappeared has NOT gotten the attention it deserves! On Goodreads, How We Disappeared has 2,748 ratings and 475 reviews, compared to Hamnet’s 9,042 ratings and 1,547 reviews. Winning the Women’s Prize could have brought so much well-deserved attention to Jing-Jing Lee and How We Disappeared.

Looking back on my experience reading through the Women’s Prize longlist this year, I have to say that it was a bit disappointing. I made the decision to read the list in (almost) its entirety this year, because of how much I loved the WP books I read last year. Last year, I read eight books from the WP longlist, and gave them an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. This year, I read thirteen longlisted books, and rated them 3.7 stars out of 5, on average. Obviously, I can’t make statistically meaningful comparisons here, and I know that 3.7 stars out of 5 isn’t that bad. But 1) I am the type of reader who rates most books as 4 stars out of 5, and 2) I just didn’t have that deep connection with many of the books on this year’s longlist, even ones that I thought were well-written.

Part of my problem with this year’s longlist might have been the huge thematic focus on motherhood. While I’m not actively opposed to books about motherhood, I’m also not really interested in reading a dozen books about motherhood in the span of three months. I wonder why the judges centered the longlist around this theme, when surely they recognize that women have so much to contribute to the world besides motherhood? I also wonder what WP-eligible books were omitted from the longlist because they didn’t fit the theme?

Other themes that came up throughout the longlist were family sagas and family secrets; mental health, trauma, and grief; reimaginations and retellings of history; and “rich people problems.” I was particularly surprised that the longlist included three “rich people problems” novels, especially when only one of those novels (Fleishman is in Trouble) offered any type of meaningful social commentary.

I’m getting a bit ranty here, so I want to make sure that I also acknowledge the positives that came out of reading this year’s WP longlist. The best thing was connecting with other bloggers. I loved having reading buddies to exchange opinions and (especially in the case of Dominicana and The Most Fun We Ever Had) commiserate with! Also, I did rate quite a few books as 4-stars or higher. I most likely wouldn’t have read all of these books – especially Weather, Red at the Bone, How We Disappeared, and Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line – if it weren’t for the Women’s Prize.

tl;dr Although I was rooting for Girl, Woman, Other, I’m not mad about Hamnet winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I was a bit disappointed with the longlist on the whole, but loved connecting with other book bloggers over the Women’s Prize, and ended up reading some great novels that I otherwise might not have. I will most likely do it again next year 🙂

my Rankings of the wp-longlisted books

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – 5 stars out of 5
  2. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – 4.5 stars out of 5
  3. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – 4 stars out of 5
  4. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – 4 stars out of 5
  5. Queenie by Candace Carty-Williams – 4 stars out of 5
  6. Weather by Jenny Offill – 4 stars out of 5
  7. Actress by Anne Enright – 4 stars out of 5
  8. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – 3.5 stars out of 5
  9. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – 3.5 stars out of 5
  10. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – 3.5 stars out of 5
  11. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – 3 stars out of 5
  12. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – 3 stars out of 5
  13. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – 2 stars out of 5
  14. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie – didn’t read (because I read many negative reviews that made me suspect I would dislike this book)
  15. Girl by Edna O’Brien – didn’t read (because it sounds like trauma porn, and also if I want to read about Boko Haram I’ll read something by an ownvoices author)
  16. The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel – didn’t read (because I didn’t have the motivation to start the Wolf Hall series this summer)

Book Review: The Death of Vivek Oji

The Death of Vivek Oji opens with the title character’s corpse being dropped off on his mother’s doorstep in Nigeria. The story that follows is a non-linear exploration of Vivek’s life leading up to his death, and the impact of his death on his friends and family.

The book: The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I started The Death of Vivek Oji with lukewarm feelings, but the book grew on me over time. One aspect of the book that initially underwhelmed me was the writing. Perhaps the breathtakingly beautiful, lyrical prose of Freshwater (Emezi’s debut novel) unfairly heightened my expectations, but I felt that the writing in this novel (especially the dialogue) left a lot to be desired. As I read on and let go of my expectations, however, I found things to appreciate about the writing: there were some beautifully evocative passages that pulled at my heartstrings, and Emezi’s infusion of Igbo language into the dialogue helped to keep me immersed in the setting of Nigeria.

The novel’s structure is another area that I disliked at first but came to appreciate. At first, I felt like the book’s focus on many characters’ perspectives came at a detriment to nuanced development of any individual character. But the benefit to having so many different main characters is revealed when their stories come together to paint a beautifully complex portrait of the title character, Vivek, and of Nigerian society as a whole. While I do still think that a couple of the side stories could have been omitted, I loved the way Emezi weaved disparate narrative threads together to reveal a powerful bigger picture.

On the note of threads being woven together, I loved this novel’s imagery and symbolism. There were many references to plaiting (i.e. braiding) throughout the novel, which I appreciated given the novel’s braid-like narrative structure. I also really liked the theme of pictures: the novel opens and ends with references to photographs, and pictures end up playing an important role in the novel’s plot.

And speaking of the plot, I found the story itself to be compelling. The novel opens with Vivek’s corpse being dropped off at his parents’ house, so it is no secret that he is going to die, but the circumstances surrounding his death are unknown. As the novel progresses and the pieces of the story come together, Emezi drops hints and signs about how Vivek is going to die, but they keep the true story behind his death a mystery until the very end. For me, Emezi’s storytelling successfully built intrigue, dread, and suspense – which is definitely what I want from a novel with mystery elements.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend The Death of Vivek Oji. While I had some issues with the dialogue and character development, I feel that Emezi’s conclusion to the novel made the entire read worth it. And to those who read and loved Freshwater, just keep in mind that this is a very different novel!

Book Review: Nervous Conditions

Both a coming-of-age novel and cultural criticism, Nervous Conditions examines the effects of “post-colonialism” on young African women. The novel features Tambu, a young girl who gets the opportunity to be educated at a Christian missionary school after her brother dies. Initially, Tambu believes that eduction is her path to a better, brighter future; but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the white man’s education has devastating effects on Tambu, her cousin Nyasha, and society as a whole.

The book: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Nervous Conditions is an incredibly smart and thought-provoking novel. While the story starts off a bit slow, it picks up nicely after Tambu gets sent to school in her late brother’s place. What makes the novel interesting isn’t the plot, but Tambu’s analysis of the world around her. During a scene where her wealthy and educated uncle Babamukuru lashes out at his daughter (Tambu’s cousin) for coming home late, Tambu realizes that toxic masculinity isn’t unique to poor families like hers: The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem.”

While much of the social commentary is told rather than shown, I think it works well in the context of this coming-of-age novel. From a young age, Tambu has been led to believe that education is the solution to all of her family’s problems – that education will lift her out of poverty and make her more worldly and civilized. The longer Tambu spends in school, however, the more she sees that the education she so desperately wanted is problematic. Not only is the sexism that Tambu resents still prevalent in school, but education at a missionary school revolves around the idea that African lifestyles and traditions are inferior to Western ideals – an idea which many of the students internalize, leading them to look down upon their own culture. As a young woman who is slowly realizing that education is not the panacea she was promised, I think it makes sense for Tambu to explicitly articulate those thoughts.

Like the social commentary, the characters in Nervous Conditions are brilliant and nuanced. Not only are they complex, but they act as vehicles for further social commentary, as they are each the product of their unique upbringing. Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru, for example sees himself as superior to his family members because he is more educated and financially successful than they are – but it’s clear that this belief is the result of being raised and practically brainwashed by white missionaries. Nyasha’s outspoken nature and unwillingness to be seen as inferior to her male peers is the result of spending some of her formative years abroad, which gave her the unique opportunity to observe and question cultural differences at a young age. It’s hard to see any main character in this novel as better or worse than one another, when they are all trying to survive the effects of colonialism.

Overall, I really enjoyed and appreciated Nervous Conditions. The beginning was a bit slow, and the ending a bit abrupt – but I can give the abrupt ending a pass knowing that there are two sequels to this novel. Nervous Conditions is a cutting and compelling critique on colonialism, and I think it should be required reading for high-school or college students. I highly recommend this novel, and can’t wait to read The Book of Not and This Mournable Body.

Book Review: Real Life

Another read from the Booker longlist! Real Life follows Wallace, a gay, Black 4th-year PhD student in a rigorous and predominantly white biochemistry program at the University of Wisconsin. Taking place over a particularly eventful summer weekend, Real Life illustrates the pain of trying to fit into white spaces as a person of color.

The book: Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Real Life is a novel that somehow manages to be compulsively readable, incredibly moving, and full of brilliant social commentary. The story takes place over a single summer weekend, dissecting the way each event – from failed laboratory experiments, to microaggressions by his well-intentioned white friends – contributes to Wallace’s frustration and mental fatigue. Because the emotional impact of Wallace’s experience is so deeply explored, Wallace is a very well-developed character despite the novel covering such a short timespan.

In addition to being beautifully written and intimate, Real Life is also full of excellent social commentary. Taylor shows how Wallace is subjected to dozens of microaggressions on a daily basis, how his white friends make him carry their white guilt, and how even his non-white friends make conversations about Wallace’s struggles about how they are struggling too, stop being so selfish! These dynamics play out in Wallace’s friend group, with his lab-mates and graduate advisor, and even in his most intimate relationship. Taylor demonstrates the massive mental and emotional toll this all takes on Wallace: Wallace is aware of the casual racism in the spaces he occupies, and he recognizes the behavior of his peers as unfair, but he doesn’t stand up for himself because having to experience that casual racism on a daily basis is already exhausting enough.

Real Life also provides great commentary on how racial trauma compounds other traumas. Wallace finds the casual racism in his friend-group and graduate program emotionally exhausting, but he is dealing with other stresses too: unresolved childhood traumas, the death of his father, and the pressures of his demanding graduate program. When Wallace talks to his white friends about his problems, though, they respond by sharing the ways in which they relate to him, implying that their experiences are the same (which of course, they aren’t). This point – that being a graduate student or healing from trauma isn’t stressful for Wallace’s white classmates in the same way that is for him, because Wallace has to deal with racism on top of everything else – was something that I really appreciated, and I thought that Taylor did an excellent job of clearly showing this without explicitly stating it.

I took one main issue with Real Life, and that was the single chapter of the book that is told from Wallace in the 1st-person (the rest of the book is written in the 3rd-person). In this chapter, Wallace is telling the story of a traumatic childhood event to the guy he is hooking up with. It is a beautifully written chapter, but as a story that Wallace is supposed to be telling to someone he doesn’t know that well, it just wasn’t believable for me.

*Minor spoiler in the next paragraph – read at your own risk!*

I also want to mention that one of the relationships portrayed in this novel is extremely unhealthy. The scenes involving this relationship were particularly painful to read, and because Taylor’s commentary is shown rather than told, Wallace never explicitly grapples with the fact that the relationship is abusive. While frustrating and heartbreaking to read about, I do think this relationship brilliantly (and horrifyingly) illustrates the way Wallace has been conditioned to endure pain. In So You Want To Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo says that being Black in America is like being in an abusive relationship, but the abuser is society as a whole – Wallace’s unhealthy relationship in Real Life definitely brings this point to mind.

Overall, I thought Real Life was phenomenal. The writing was strong, the main character was complex and well-developed, and the social commentary was incredibly moving. Although I had a couple minor issues with it, I am so glad that I read Real Life, and am excited to check out whatever Taylor publishes next. I highly recommend this novel.

Trigger warnings: sexual violence, racial slurs.

Book Review: How Much of These Hills is Gold

I’m continuing my way through the Booker Prize longlist with How Much of These Hills is Gold. The story centers around two young Chinese-American siblings, Sam and Lucy, who become orphans during the peak of the American Gold Rush. After their Ba dies, the siblings set on a journey to bury him, and to find a home for themselves beyond their poor mining town.

The book: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

I have mixed feelings on this novel, but I’ll start with what worked for me. Structurally, How Much of These Hills is Gold was very interesting: the novel is divided into four sections, which are non-linear and not all narrated by the same person. Non-linear timelines can be so hit or miss for me, but Zhang executed this one beautifully; I particularly liked that the family’s history prior to Ba’s death wasn’t described until after Ba’s passing. Things are going well for the family in the second part of the book, but it is clear (to the reader) from the first section that their luck is going to turn – this dramatic irony left me with a sense of suspense, dread, and impending doom.

I also really enjoyed Zhang’s writing voice, which manages to pack subtle, yet powerful, commentary into seemingly simple sentences. Through Sam and Lucy’s experiences, Zhang depicts the complexity of family dynamics, as well as the intense racism that Chinese Americans faced in the 19th-century. Some of the prejudices that Lucy and Sam experience – particularly the way they are fetishized and exoticized, and the way their teacher talks about “domesticating” them – felt like they could have been written about contemporary times, rather than 170 years ago.

The character development is where I start to have mixed feelings. Lucy, who I consider to be the main character of the novel, is portrayed as lacking agency and a strong sense of self, while her sibling Sam is full of swagger and personality. Surprisingly, I thought Lucy was more well-developed than Sam: the driving forces behind Lucy’s reserved nature are deeply explored, whereas Sam is portrayed as bold but somewhat hard-to-understand. I would have loved to see more of the novel from Sam’s perspective! At the same time, I can appreciate that Zhang decided to focus more on the internal workings of someone reserved and insecure, who in real life might be overlooked next to their spunky sibling (or maybe I’m just projecting my middle-child baggage onto a fictional character).

I feel even more conflicted about the portrayal of Sam and Lucy’s Ba, who for the first two sections is characterized as an intimidating, prideful, and at times violent alcoholic. Then, the third section of the book is narrated by Ba himself, and Zhang shows the family history from his perspective, as well as the pain and trauma behind his abusive behavior. While this chapter was incredibly moving, and added layers of nuance to the story, I also found it troubling. Yes, the abusive character in this novel is obviously struggling with his own trauma, but why should that mean that he gets to be the most complex and well-explored character in the novel? When authors do this, it almost feels like they are excusing abusive characters for their atrocious behavior.

Where I took the most issue with the book, though, was the ending. Without spoiling anything, How Much of These Hills is Gold ends with a character making a huge sacrifice that (to me) felt completely unnecessary. The emotional impact of that sacrifice wasn’t well-explored, either, so the ending felt abrupt and unsettling. On top of that, the last sentence of the book leaves things open-ended, so the novel’s ending is not only jarring, but also vague.

As you can probably tell, How Much of These Hills is Gold was a rather mixed bag for me. Although this review focuses more on what I didn’t enjoy, I really liked the majority of this novel. I found the prose and main characters complex and compelling, and the commentary intensely powerful. But the aspects of this novel that didn’t work for me really didn’t work for me. With a different ending, this book would have been a 4-star read, but because of the vague and abrupt ending, I’m rating it 3.5 stars out of 5.

Book Review: Death in Her Hands

Death in Her Hands is about an elderly widow named Vesta, whose mundane life is disrupted by a note that she finds while walking her dog in the woods. The note says “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Vesta’s curiosity about this note slowly begins to consume her, and she starts spending the majority of her time trying to solve the murder mystery with what limited information she has.

The book: Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

If you’re looking for a fast-paced mystery novel, you won’t find it in Death in Her Hands. Although the novel has some elements of mystery, the real focus of this story is the narrator’s mental and emotional state. Vesta is elderly and lonely, and without much factual information about the mysterious note she found in the woods, she spends most of her time pondering hypothetical situations that could have led to Magda’s death. As she becomes increasingly obsessed with Magda’s death, Vesta’s grip on reality – and therefore the events of the novel as described by Vesta – becomes hazy.

Conceptually, I think what Moshfegh did with Death in Her Hands was clever and interesting. Humans are extremely good at telling stories, and we are especially prone to telling ourselves stories to make sense of situations that don’t have an obvious explanation. When we do this without enough factual information, however, we can get lost in spiraling thoughts that are no longer based on reality. I find the stories that people tell themselves fascinating, and I can appreciate the ideas behind Moshfegh’s detailed exploration of an elderly widow getting lost in her own mind.

While I appreciate what Moshfegh was trying to explore in Death in Her Hands, I didn’t actually enjoy reading it. This 270-page novel takes place over the course of a couple days, and most of that time is spent inside Vesta’s unreliable mind. The combination of slow pacing and an unreliable narrator who may or may not be losing her mind just didn’t work for me – especially since I had expected the book to be more of a mystery than it turned out to be. I kept waiting for the mystery to pick up, but it never really did.

Although Death in Her Hands didn’t work for me, I still recommend checking it out if you were previously interested, or if it sounds interesting to you based on this review. Many of my issues with the book are the result of my own expectations, so if you go into this book knowing that it is not a typical mystery novel, you will likely have a better time with it.

Trigger warnings: fatphobic narrator and an animal abuse scene that I wish I could unread.

Book Review: Freshwater

Black lives matter. Black voices matter. Black stories matter. Freshwater is the first book that I read for my black lit challenge, which is a lifelong commitment to listen to and amplify black voices in literature. Freshwater tells the story of a volatile Nigerian woman, Ada, who is trying to make sense of her multiple personalities. After a traumatic experience in college, two of Ada’s personalities materialize and become more dominant, leading Ada to get lost in her mind and make increasingly risky decisions.

The book: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

It’s hard for me to review Freshwater because it was such a unique reading experience that nothing I say could possibly do it justice. The first part of the novel is told from the perspective of Nigerian ogbanje, or the spirits in Ada’s mind that cause her pain and grief. After Ada experiences a major trauma in college, two of these spirits materialize in Ada’s mind, and become distinct personalities that she calls Asughara and Saint Vincent. The remainder of the novel is mostly told from the perspective of Asughara. I absolutely loved this narrative style, because it resulted in a very nuanced, layered story. Every event that Ada experienced could be viewed from the perspective of Igbo folklore in which spirits manipulate the physical world, and through the lens of Western psychology in which one’s sense of self can fracture in response to trauma.

In addition to being wonderfully nuanced, Freshwater is beautifully written. Emezi’s prose is powerful, lyrical, and engrossing. It is also quite introspective, which results in Ada being portrayed in an immensely compassionate light. Sometimes it’s hard to empathize with characters who behave in startling and self-destructive ways, but Ada’s psyche is explored so deeply that it’s impossible to feel anything but compassion for her – all of her behavior makes sense in light of her complex psychological underpinnings.

This is a short review, but I don’t have much more to say about Freshwater. The combination of Igbo folklore with psychological introspection was so beautiful and fresh, resulting in one of the most striking and captivating novels I’ve ever read. I highly recommend this book, and can’t wait to read more of Emezi’s works.

Book Review: Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a historical fiction novel centered around the life of William Shakespeare’s family. Told largely from the perspective of William’s wife, Agnes, the novel covers Agnes and William’s romance, the birth of their three children, their long-distance relationship, and the grief of the Shakespeare family after the death of their son Hamnet.

The book: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Hamnet was an enjoyable read for me, but I definitely went into the novel with the wrong expectations. For some reason, I was under the impression that the book focused entirely on the death of William and Agnes’ son Hamnet, and how their grief inspired William Shakespeare to write the play Hamlet. In actuality, Hamnet is a book in two parts. The first part alternates between chapters telling William and Agnes’ love story, and chapters focusing on the days leading up to Hamnet’s death. The second part of the book, which is written as one long chapter, shows the family in their grief after Hamnet has passed. This format would have worked so much better for me if I hadn’t expected the entire novel to focus on the grieving of Hamnet’s death, but because I did have that expectation, I found myself getting pretty impatient with the first part of the book.

Although Hamnet wasn’t what I expected, I still found it compelling. Maggie O’Farrell does an excellent job of making the reader feel connected to 16th-century England by drawing upon relatable emotions and experiences, like the stigma and shame of being a social outcast, and the overwhelming burden of grief. And with the novel’s release in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the passages depicting societal anxiety surrounding the Plague were eerily familiar. But at the same time, O’Farrell juxtaposes those relatable elements against historical details that unquestionably place the novel in the 16th century. Children die frequently, mothers die frequently, cruel parenting methods are common, and medical knowledge is so limited. That balance between timeless human experiences and very specific historical details was the most striking part of the novel for me.

I also appreciated how much the novel focuses on Agnes, as opposed to her very famous husband. William Shakespeare’s works are incredible, and he is famous for good reason – but part of what allowed him to become so successful was the invisible labor of Agnes. By centering so much of the novel around Agnes and the work she put into running her household and taking care of her family, O’Farrell demonstrates that Shakespeare probably couldn’t have become so successful without major sacrifices and support from Agnes.

Hamnet is also beautifully written, and Maggie O’Farrell is the master of showing, not telling. In this scene, for example, where young William Shakespeare defends himself against his abusive father, O’Farrell writes: “The sight of the mark seemed to enrage the father further because he lifted his arm again, for a second blow, but the son reached up. He seized his father’s arm. He pushed, with all his might, against him and found, to his surprise, that his father’s body yielded under his. He could push this man, this leviathan, this monster of his childhood, back against the wall with very little effort. He did so.” O’Farrell could have just said that William hit his father back, but instead she turns a small action into an immersive scene. With that being said, there were definitely some instances where the flowery language was too much for me, and where I thought a succinct description would have been just fine.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Hamnet. My expectations of the novel did affect my enjoyment of it, though, so I would recommend that other readers not go into this novel expecting it to focus entirely around one specific event.

Book Review: How We Disappeared

Alternating between timelines in 1942 and 2000, How We Disappeared follows Wang-Di, who is taken from her Singaporean village during WWII and forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers. Nearly 60 years later, while Wang-Di is still reckoning with her trauma from the war, 12-year-old Kevin overhears a shocking confession from his grandmother’s deathbed, leading him to uncover secrets about what she lived through during WWII.

The book: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The prose in this novel is absolutely lovely. Lee tells her story in three distinct sections: young Wang Di when she is captured during WWII, old Wang Di trying to overcome the trauma that still haunts her in the year 2000, and Kevin investigating his grandmother’s history in 2000. All three sections are beautifully and convincingly written, with the historical scenes set during WWII especially immersive. There are some passages where Kevin uses language that seems too advanced for his age, but he sees the world in a very curious and childlike way, so he was still believable as a 12-year-old to me.

How We Disappeared isn’t just well-written; it is also written with immense compassion. The horrific details of Wang Di’s sexual slavery are never told more graphically than they need to be, so the book never enters trauma-porn territory. Lee does describe the horrors that the comfort women endured (rape, violence, near-starvation, and unsanitary living conditions, to name a few), but she spends just as much time focusing on the psychological effects and aftermath of sexual slavery. What broke my heart the most wasn’t the violence that the comfort women endured (although it was certainly harrowing), but the stigma and shame that followed them for the rest of their lives after the war.

I also enjoyed the way the various timelines eventually weaved together. Before the connection between Wang Di and Kevin’s stories became clear, the transitions between the two sometimes felt a bit disjointed, but I felt that the slightly discontinuous storytelling was worth it for the way the two stories eventually connected. Also – minor spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read it! – I’m not sure how realistic it was for Kevin to figure out the connection between his story and Wang Di’s, but it was such a satisfying conclusion to the novel that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

All in all, I really enjoyed How We Disappeared. Almost all of my WWII education was focused on Europe and the Holocaust, so it was very eye-opening to read this well-researched and beautifully written story about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. The novel was challenging and heartbreaking at times, but it was absolutely worth the read. I highly recommend this book!

Book Review: A Thousand Ships

“This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of them all.” A Thousand Ships is an all-female retelling of the Trojan War, with each chapter told from the perspective of a different woman.

The book: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Hayes
Genre: Historical fiction/fantasy
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

A Thousand Ships was an uneven reading experience for me: some sections were incredibly compelling, while others felt dry and repetitive. For example, the Penthesilea and Laodamia chapters were short, and the respective protagonists of those chapters barely reappeared in the novel, so those chapters didn’t add much to the story for me. On the other hand, the longer chapters (like the Clytemnestra chapter) and the characters that reappeared throughout the story (like Cassandra) were well-developed and compelling.

Even if not all the individual characters in A Thousand Ships were well-developed, the role of women as a whole in the Trojan War was well-explored. With great detail and compassion, Haynes demonstrated that the women of the Trojan War were more than just wives and daughters of the warriors who normally take the center stage in Trojan War stories: they were complex women who experienced loss, anger, grief, and devastation. I did wish at times that Haynes had been more subtle with this message, though: there were points when it felt like she was beating the reader over the head with the message that the Trojan War was also a woman’s war. The message is important, but it would have been effectively communicated without repeated statements like: “But no one sings of the courage required by those of us who were left behind” or “he needs to accept that the casualties of war aren’t just the ones who die” or “When a war ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else.”

Something that surprised me (in a good way) was the familiarity of some of the novel’s themes and characters’ behaviors. From overpopulation stressing the Earth’s resources, to egomaniac leaders who are power-hungry yet incompetent, to women attacking other women when their real issue is with the men who hold unfair amounts of power over them — I appreciated how Haynes presented an ancient story in a way that felt somewhat relatable.

Although I normally don’t enjoy “uneven” reading experiences, A Thousand Ships was an overall enjoyable read for me. Even when the story got dull or repetitive, the prose was lovely. And certain chapters (like Clytemnestra’s chapter, which explores her emotions and motives in a beautifully written and moving way) were so powerful that they made it easy for me to overlook some of the novel’s shortcomings. I liked this all-female retelling of the Trojan War, and would certainly read more of Haynes’ work in the future (especially if she ever wrote an entire Cassandra or Clytemnestra book).