Review | Ghostwritten, Isabel Wolff

21416276Writing is generally viewed as a profession that reveals much about the individual. Even fiction writers are asked time and again about parallels of their fiction to their own lives. In Jenni’s case, however, her career as a writer helps her subsume her own memories of a childhood tragedy. She is a ghostwriter, and in exploring other people’s stories and in taking on their own voices, she is able, for the most part, to forget a bit of her own story.

That changes when she agrees to write the memoir of a survivor from a Japanese internment camp in Java. The subject, Klara, lives near the same beach where Jenni’s own childhood tragedy has occurred. Worse, Klara’s story holds some disquieting parallels to Jenni’s own experience, and forces Jenni to reexamine her past.

Isabel Wolff’s Ghostwritten isn’t an easy story to read. Klara’s tale in particular is filled with violence and horror. Wolff doesn’t shy away from depicting some of the more gruesome aspects of these internment camps, and the tale is an eye opener for anyone unfamiliar with the history of the Japanese occupation in Gaza. Especially difficult to read are tales of prisoners who turn on other prisoners, either to escape punishment or to receive some form of special treatment for the guards.

The moment when we learn the decision that has haunted Klara all her life is heartrending, and while Jenni’s response is the right one, it also feels much too inadequate. Klara’s grief over this act is all too real and understandable, and to be fair, no response would likely have been enough to make her fully get over it.

Paling in comparison to Klara’s story is Jenni’s. Her struggle to come to terms with her own childhood tragedy is touching enough, but the parallel to Klara’s story just feels forced. The interweaving of the stories feels orchestrated, which is especially egregious when compared to the depth of emotion in Klara’s story. Jenni does indeed have her own demons to contend with, but I found myself skimming over her sections, and being impatient with her reluctance to open up.

Klara’s story is told ostensibly as a plot device to help the protagonist fulfill her own character arc, but Klara ends up stealing the show. There are some subplots within her tale that I wish I’d learned more about — the story about the neighbourhood bully and his mother, for example, and a star crossed romance between two of Klara’s neighbours — and I wish Wolff had focused more on this part of the novel.


Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Human Remains, Elizabeth Haynes

17349279The cover of Human Remains by Elizabeth Haynes holds the intriguing teaser: How well do you know your neighbours? But the crux of the book is really in the question: How well do your neighbours know you? More to the point, if you were to die when alone at home, how long would it take before someone found your body? How long would it take before anyone even noticed you were missing?

Haynes’ first book Into the Darkest Corner is still one of my favourite books of all time. I read it years ago and can still remember the intense claustrophobia, disgust and fear I felt as I read it. Her second book didn’t quite grab me as much as the first, but I was still intrigued by her characters. Her third, Human Remains, did not affect me as viscerally as Darkest Corner did, yet I believe it just may be her most powerful yet.

Haynes’ brilliance is in her uncanny insight into the human psyche, whether it’s a woman struggling to move on from an abusive relationship or a woman trying to escape her past, as in her first two books. In Human Remains, Haynes plays on our fears of loneliness, an almost ironic condition in today’s hyper connected world, yet it’s this very hyper connectivity that sets into sharp relief how alone some of us really are. The protagonist in this book, Annabel, is a police analyst who notices a trend of deaths in her hometown where the victims’ bodies weren’t discovered for several days. There is nothing to tie the deaths together — all appear to be from natural causes — and Annabel’s colleagues don’t deem it worth an investigation. But Annabel is intrigued by how all these victims had been dead for some time before anyone even noticed their absence, and while she had never really considered herself lonely, the pattern forces her to take a look at her own life and wonder who would notice if she were gone.

It’s a disquieting notion, and one that will haunt the reader as well. Haynes tells the story from multiple points of view — Annabel’s, of course, and also a creepy man named Colin. We also get chapters from some of the victims, and rather than a violent description of an attack that leads to their deaths, these chapters feel almost elegaic. There is no hint about what or who caused the deaths, but there is a glimpse at the person who lived before that moment. In a story where you know these characters will be forgotten, there is both comfort and a touch of despair in these all too brief tributes to their memory.

The drive to keep turning the page isn’t so much to find out how the people are dying. There is a great sense of mystery, with almost a locked room feel because the answer is hard to figure out. The answer, once revealed, is chilling, and not because of its inhumanity, but because it is all too human. The villain is probably even more reprehensible than the one in Into the Darkest Corner, because this one preys on the very weakest in society — and on weaknesses that likely everyone can relate to.

Human Remains isn’t the page turner Into the Darkest Corner is, nor will it be counted among my absolute favourite books ever as Darkest Corner is, but the issues Human Remains raises will stay with you long after you finish reading. Haynes taps right into our darkest fears, and lays bare our deepest vulnerabilities — that we are, in the end, truly alone, and that no one will care when we’re gone. We support Annabel’s fight for these victims, and we rage against the murderer’s predation, because ultimately, the idea behind this story hits far too close to home.


Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Review | Tampa, Alissa Nutting

9780062280541Alissa Nutting’s Tampa is a brave exploration of an uncomfortable subject, and the author’s brazen treatment will cause even the most inured reader to stop and think. Celeste Price is an eighth grade English teacher with a sexual preference for fourteen year old boys. Similar to Lolita in theme, it is starkly different in its approach. Unlike Humbert Humbert, Celeste pulls no punches in her description. She is unapologetically sexual.  The language is forthright and highly charged. As I posted on Goodreads: “Holy hell, Tampa. Powerful, intense, and I’m only 7 pages in.” And Nutting never lets up.

Female pedophiles aren’t as often discussed in popular culture as their male counterparts. Films like The Graduate for example even romanticize the adult female/teenage male sexual relationship. Nutting takes this trope head on by making her protagonist be only in her 20s — she’s young, beautiful, certainly an object of fantasy herself for many of her students. She is also hyper aware of her age, and understands that seducing these young boys may no longer be as easy when she starts getting wrinkles. Yet she is also, unmistakably, a sexual predator, unapologetic and despite the boys’ own fantasies, abusive of her power.

Nutting uses lurid sexual detail with purpose. At times, the scene reads almost like erotica, until you remember that the object of Celeste’s fantasies is a fourteen year old boy. The story is especially horrifying because of Celeste’s job as a teacher, a profession she chose precisely because it puts her in close proximity to the boys she wants. She sets her sights on one of her students in particular, selecting him because he is just shy enough to keep her secret, but bold enough to risk pursuing a sexual relationship with her. Her schemes to seduce the boy are horrific, particularly because her openness as a narrator implicates the reader in her plot. As an adult, we see how she is manipulating the boy and we want to rescue him, yet as readers, all we can do is watch.

Here, the sensual prose also implicates the reader by forcing us into Celeste’s psyche, without even the buffer of Humbert Humbert’s coyly seductive language. Either you are hyperaware the entire time about the boy being only fourteen, in which case the very act of reading feels disgusting, or worse, you forget for a time, and find yourself drawn into the eroticism of the scene, only to recoil with even more disgust when a detail (smooth skin, hairless legs) reminds you of what exactly is happening in the scene. Nutting employs a more brazen form of seductiveness than Nabokov in her prose, and in doing so creates a different type of discomfort. The book design itself plays into this approach; the jacket of the hardcover edition is made of velour, providing a velvety soft surface that invites stroking and that provides the reader with a highly tactile experience.

Celeste is too unapologetic about her proclivities to be an anti-hero, or anyone the reader can ever really cheer for. However, she is certainly a compelling, memorable character. Her utter lack of remorse, and total disregard for the need to sugarcoat her desires for the reader make her in some ways even more reprehensible than Humbert Humbert. Still, when she describes her disgust for the adult male form, you understand why sex with an adult male isn’t an option at all for her. Her horror at the thought of sex with her husband, or with any adult male, is palpable. You do not cheer her on, yet when things come crashing down, you can’t help but feel for her. It’s a difficult balancing act, yet Nutting manages it well.

Tampa is not an easy book to read, but it is powerful. Nutting uses shock value to a purpose, and creates a memorable protagonist in Celeste. The ending somewhat falters because it feels rushed, and the final page in particular feels unresolved. Still, overall a compelling book that demands attention.