Look I read this about a month ago. Still trying to catch my breath. Someone should make this compulsory reading for coloured, black and Indian South Africans, especially the woke ones who don’t want to or don’t know how to talk about the social engineering that we glibly dismiss as colorism. It’s so much more than that.
Like, someone on Twitter was talking about people in Joburg are so slick about judging your whole life via a seemingly innocuous question about where you went to school. We also do that thing of asking where someone is from to (spatially) suss out their whole life story.
Now imagine a fictional town in Jim Crow society so invested in light skin that they strive toward genetically engineering their population to get lighter with every generation (uh, every SA town in history). Then imagine identical twins from that town, who have diametrically opposed experiences in and outside of that weird ass liminal racial space.
Please understand that twins really boggle my brain. I am equal parts in awe and afraid of their magical realism. This book is no fantasy but having the town and the twins as a premise felt like a double helix that really showed how colorism isn’t just interpersonal (a grandmother who wants to keep you out of the sun) or systemic (pretty fair girls landing pearly jobs much easier). It’s entangled in such intimate ways, like how we think about our bodies and who we choose to marry and why.
It was also interesting to see white characters be pretty clueless in their ignorance of the nuance of all this race shit (especially now that I am in the heart of European darkness). It’s a relieving reminder in the midst of all this BLM allyship that there are things that are nearly impossible to understand unless you physically experience them. Thinking about performing whiteness (intentionally, through passing and unconsciously, through privilege) through this book is also a great opportunity to think about performances of blackness, wokeness.
Anyway, I could go on and on. The story is wild, the characters are full and the more existential questions about aspirational performing are really brave. It’s brilliant.
Death in Her Hands
"It was good to have a few secrets here and there. It kept one interested in herself."
Yikes this was a weird one. I finished it a few weeks ago, but the experience has been rattling around in my chest, refusing to relax.
The story follows Vesta Gul, a 72-year-old widow who moves to a secluded cabin in the woods with her dog. On one of their morning walks, she stumbles upon a cryptic handwritten note and so unfolds a slow-build meta-mystery. As Vesta plays detective, piecing together scraps of stories, the reader does too, piecing together Vesta.
I’ve seen Moshfegh’s style described as a kick in the crotch, but there’s no pleasure in that metaphor. The best thing about her writing is how funny it is, despite (because of?) the pain of the kick. Keeping company with her protagonists is what’s weird, and fun. They’re always female, mordant, hyper-alienated.
Moshfegh describes this one as “a loneliness story” but it’s more like a deep dive into what happens without human contact, the ways in which an ornate inner-life can take shape and flourish dangerously, subsuming reality. But there’s so much romance to the idea of an sprightly old woman taking control of herself and her life by opting out of (disempowering) community!
Moshfegh’s magic is keeping us intrigued in the claustrophobia of Vesta’s mind, rooting for her as she reclaims her past by staring solitude in the eye without looking away, even when it’s scary.
Breasts and Eggs
“If you want a kid, there’s no need to get wrapped up in a man’s desire. There’s no need to involve women’s desire either.”
I’ve been banging on about this book to anyone and everyone for weeks. The first part is about a fractured family of three women, the second part about a novelist in her late 30s, debating with herself and everyone around her about whether to have a baby alone. At the core, it’s a book about the value of life: different takes on what makes a good life, what bringing life into this (often awful) world means, who gets to do it and how.
It’s set in Japan and addresses a lot of social pressures that resonate in South Africa too, like misogynistic expectations of who would make a good parent and why and perceptions of what’s selfish and what isn’t.
The stream of consciousness literary style is so great, super evocative, like changing channels between thoughts and feelings instead of a linear plot. Very Murakami. Incidentally, Kawakami is well-known for her literary relationship with Murakami (jealous down!) and has published a book of interviews with him where she confronts him about the sexist portrayals of women in his work.
This novel has none of the baggage I’ve come to associate with Japanese literature (my fault for only reading middle-aged men). It’s like an astonishing spritz of social commentary, driven by solo working class characters that are so normal, no strong/sexy women nonsense. Grimy apartments, breast enhancements, menstrual pads and misery, artificial insemination, and so so much hope.