BOOKS

Elise's favourites ... (or not)

A Room Made of Leaves - Kate Grenville


Normally I'd start my review by summarising the plot of the novel. However, A Room Made of Leaves is no ordinary novel and therefore asks for a different approach. I found this book captivating from the beginning right up until the ending. Then, I happened upon the Author's note. "Wait, what?" was my thought.

Author Kate Grenville starts the book by stating these are the memoirs written by Elizabeth Macarthur at the end of the 18th century and recently found concealed on Elizabeth Farm. The only thing Grenville did was transcribe and edit. Well, alright, bring it on.

A Room Made of Leaves tells Elizabeth's story: how she grew up at her grandfather's farm after her mother abandoned her and later as a ward at the parsonage with her good friend Bridie, how she fell for Mr. John Macarthur's (fake) charm, got pregnant and was forced to marry him and how she followed him to the penal colony in New South Wales. It is a book full of beautiful descriptions of the surroundings Elizabeth finds herself in, of the people she meets and the way she finds her path through her sometimes tragic life.

Grenville describes a part of history that I personally do not know much about. It's an enthralling and believable story. Why wouldn't you believe it? The author stated herself that she merely transcribed and edited it...

But then there is the Author's note. Grenville writes: "No, there was no box of secrets found in the roof of Elizabeth Farm. I didn't transcribe and edit what you've just read. I wrote it." That is where I said "wait, what?" Then what did I just read? I thought this book’s purpose was to shed light on what really happened when the English established their penal colony. The reader is led to believe at the beginning of the book that the story is a true historical account. However, it turns out that the author is using narrative license. How can you present an accurate account by inventing a story? I just can't get my head wrapped around that.

My perception of the book’s premise of a true historical account was turned upside down. If these aren't Elizabeth's memoirs, then I did not just read a biography, I read a work of fiction instead. Once I had that in my mind, I could start to appreciate the book. Does it matter if it is true or not? It's a gripping and interesting story about a strong woman being forced to live on the other side of the world just because she made one mistake.

I enjoyed the passages that describe the native people of Australia. Short as they were, the passages gave a nice view of their existence and the trouble the English caused them. I would have liked them to have a bigger role in this book.

Elise Prins-Kleuskens
Department of English Literature
 

My dark Vanessa - Kate Elizabeth Russel


It was a regular weekday. I was a little early for my train and decided to enter the bookstore. That is always a bad idea for the to-be-read pile! My Dark Vanessa caught my eye; I didn't even read the blurb, but just bought it. It was later I found out what this book was about. Child abuse, sexual abuse, by a teacher! Could I handle such a subject? Would I dare to write a review of the book afterwards? I let it lie around for a couple of weeks, until I couldn't resist anymore. I needed to read this book and get it over with! I picked it up and finished it in two sessions.

In this book Kate Elizabeth Russell tells the story of Vanessa Wye, a girl who had an off-on relationship with her English teacher Mr Strane, for about 17 years, from the age of 15. During class Strane singled Vanessa out, carefully grooming her into consenting to everything he proposed. Years later Vanessa was still struggling. Did she lead him on? Was the relationship really what she wanted? Love and hate, need and disgust alternate in her mind. Then, a girl a couple of years younger than Vanessa speaks up and accuses Strane of abusing her. Other girls join her. Vanessa doesn't know what to think or what to do.

"I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that."
"I know," she [the therapist] says.
"Because if it isn't a love story, then what is it?"
I look to her glassy eyes, her face of wide-open empathy.
"It's my life," I say. "This has been my whole life."
She stands over me as I say I'm sad, I'm so sad, small, simple words, the only ones that make sense as I clutch my chest like a child and point to where it hurts.

Above is an example of the struggle Vanessa goes through. You can feel the pain and sadness flow through all of the pages of this book. It keeps you reading, almost obsessively. Three quarters of the way through, I needed a break. On and on it goes. It is a little monotonous in the middle of the novel, very precisely describing what Vanessa's life had been like for the last 10 years. It just keeps on going.

Luckily this book is not only sadness. At the age of 32 Vanessa contacts a therapist, at first to learn to deal with the loss of her father. Then when Strane gets publicly accused, Vanessa finally starts talking to her therapist about him, though never calling it abuse. Towards the end of the novel Vanessa begins to heal, moving onto a healthier lifestyle and letting go of Strane, who still had a great impact on every part of her life. Will Vanessa be alright? I think so, given time. That's how this book leaves you: hopeful. She will be alright. You just know it!

My Dark Vanessa is Russell's debut novel, and quite an impressive one. It takes some courage to write about such a heavy topic as sexual abuse. In her foreword Russell explicitly says that this story was not based on her own experience. I can understand people coming to such a conclusion, as the abuse and the consequences of it are described so intensely and in such detail. Yes, this is a good book, though its main theme is quite horrific. I will certainly keep an eye on this author. Who knows what other interesting topics she might address?

Dit boek is in het Nederlands vertaald als Mijn duistere Vanessa (Prometheus)

Elise Prins-Kleuskens
Department of English Literature


The Shore House – Heidi Hostetter

Three years have passed since the last visit of the Bennett family to their shore house in Dewberry Beach. Chase, father of the family, had suffered a heart attack, needing those three years to revalidate. Now that he's been feeling better his wife Kaye decides it's high time to spend a summer at Dewberry Beach again, together with their grown children and their families. Daughter Stacy arrives with her husband Ryan and their two kids Connor and Sophie. Stacy is a bit hesitant, as her relationship with her mother hasn't been all that good. Although he is late, Stacy's brother Brad is on his way as well.

Unsurprisingly not everything goes according to plan. Kaye is very anxious and afraid her husband will suffer another attack. Chase feels like his wife is suffocating him with all her rules for a healthy lifestyle. Stacy carries an unexplainable fear for the ocean with her, which of course doesn't go well with two little children who want to go to the beach every day. Brad is trying to find a life for himself, but does not want to disappoint his father, who wants Brad to be a businessman like himself. Everything together, this can lead to only one thing: frustration.

However, the summer does offer a chance. A chance for Kaye to forgive herself, a chance for Chase and Brad to determine a new lifestyle for themselves and a chance for Stacy to come to terms with a unresolved childhood trauma. What's a better setting for such progress than at a family shore house in Dewberry Beach?

The Shore House is a lovely book, filled with everyday realities. Who doesn't recognize friction between a mother or father and a daughter or brother? Or meaningless fights with a spouse, only because you're tired and need sleep? Everyday incidents that make the characters come to live, that makes the reader able to imagine what a family vacation in a shore house might really be like. It is a book about the things in life that are the most important: love, friendship and security. A book that puts an end to the illusion that money or a big career are essential. Follow you heart and your dreams.

In the back of the book a letter by author Heidi Hostetter is attached. In the letter Hostetter tells the reader about her youth in a place similar to Dewberry Beach. Writing The Shore House felt like coming home. That is something that is felt in every detail of the book. For instance, the owner of the store Applegate's, where you can get literally anything you need for your summer vacation, where you even find things you did not know you needed before you went there!

In the same letter Hostetter announces a sequel. Not about the same family, but about another family but once again situated in Dewberry Beach. I am looking forward to it!

Elise Prins-Kleuskens
Department of English Literature

 

The Burning Chambers - Kate Mosse

When I visited London some time ago I noticed that a new Kate Mosse novel was to be expected later that month. Previously, I had read other books by this British author, among which the Languedoc trilogy: Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel. Historical novels to lose oneself in, romance combined with some tension and excitement!
The Burning Chambers is set in the same region as the trilogy, the Languedoc, a region in the south of France, at the time of the French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and Huguenots in 1562. In this novel the reader meets 19-year-old Minou Joubert, who runs a bookshop together with her father and takes care of her younger brother and sister. The chaos of the war is not the only thing that disturbs the quiet life of the Joubert family. Blanche, the widow of the late lord of Chateau de Puivert, has heard about the rumor that her husband left behind one living heir, threatening her claim to inherit the castle. Fearing she might lose everything she owns, she sets out to find the will that explains it all, or even beter, the child itself…
This novel introduces the French Wars of Religion, together with an exciting, heroic and romantic quest that is far from over, for do not forget about the prologue of this novel! It is set in the late 19th century in South-Africa. A woman holding a diary and will, attacked from behind by a mysterious man. How does Minou’s story lead to the events in late 19th century South Africa? We’ll probably find out more about this is the next novel that is set to be released in January 2021.

Dit boek is ook vertaald: Tijden van vuur

Elise Kleuskens,
Department of English Literature


The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

Ever wanted to know what happened after the events described in The Handmaid’s Tale? This book is going to answer all of your questions!

The title already gives it away: this story comprises three testaments, one written by an Aunt, one by a girl growing up inside of religious Gilead and one by a girl growing up outside of Gilead. Together they tell a story that is set about 15 years after Offred’s experiences as described in The Handmaid’s Tale. The book mostly provides insight into the role of the Aunts in the rise and fall of Gilead.

It is hard to summarize this book without giving anything away. Is your mind still tormented by questions after reading The Handsmaid’s Tale? Then do read this book! Are you one of those people who have not yet read The Handmaid’s Tale, and think about reading The Testaments? Then I would advise you to read The Handmaid’s Tale first. The information about Gilead is quite necessary to understand The Testaments.

All in all I thought this book a nice read. It’s nice to know what happened after Offred’s flight. However, I, personally, did not necessarily need to know how it all continued. There is nothing wrong with an open ending and the use of your own imagination!

Elise Kleuskens,
Department of English Literature

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid


This story tells about Saeed and Nadia, a young couple, taking a chance at fleeing their country, after hearing rumors of black doors appearing where normal doors used to be. Black doors lead you to different places on earth. To reach one, you have to be quick, because when the army hears about them, it could cause you a lot of trouble. Saeed and Nadia manage to reach a door and start their journey. The book tells about the toll the constant fear and distrust has on their relationship and on the community in its entirety.

Exit West is a fascinating book, even though its characters are a bit flat. I would have liked to learn a bit more about Saeed's and Nadia's motives for the choices they make (or do not make). The black doors make this book about refugees a refreshing one, bringing a new perspective on the refugee problem.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer/Annie Barrows
 

I normally do not trust books with funny names. Usually the books prove to be ridiculous, sometimes even bad. I decided to try this one, because I heard that it consisted solely of letters written by and to the main character of Juliet Ashton, author and journalist. One day about a year after WWII, Juliet receives a letter written by Dawsey Adams, who lives on the island of Guernsey. Dawsey has somehow managed to get hold of one of Juliet's old books written by Charles Lamb containing her address. Being charmed by Lamb’s writing, Dawsey decides to write to Juliet asking for more of his books, since buying them in Guernsey seems impossible.

A lively correspondence leads to Juliet travelling to Guernsey and writing a book about life on the island during the German occupation, which on the one hand gives the reader a very interesting insight into the way of life during the occupation but on the other hand, does not change the fact that the book is and always will be about a romance. Fun to read, but very predictable. The book has been made into a film, which can be seen in Pathé cinemas.

 
 

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

In this beautiful novel Benjamin tells us the story of his family at a time when his father is called away to the city. Benjamin has three older brothers, Ikenna, Boja and Obembe. Left to their own devices the boys decide to go fishing in the forbidden river, calling themselves The Fishermen. It is on one of those days the boys happen upon a local madman. But is he mad, or a prophet? The man predicts that Ikenna will be killed. “Ikenna, you shall die by the hands of a fisherman.” Wondering if this means Ikenna will be killed by one of his own brothers, the bond between the boys breaks. A chain of events follows: tragic, heartbreaking, but also magical and mythical.

This book is set in Nigeria. It is filled with the rich tradition known in this African country. The life and upbringing of the boys is full of magic, folklore and the old religion of the indigenous peoples, mixed with the new Christian religion. A fascinating and compelling story, beautifully written by Chigozie Obioma. (This book is already on our list: E16-08)

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Imagine you are living in Soviet Russia in the 1920s. You are a known poet and you are being sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest in the attic of the Metropol hotel in Moscow. This is how Amor Towles’ book begins. So, what do you think this book is about? That’s right, it is about the life of the poet in question, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. Small bits about his past, but mostly about his life in the Metropol hotel up until the 50s.

What happens in a hotel over a period of 30 years? Not much. The Count is lucky to be staying in a hotel that includes a hairdresser, two restaurants and a bar. He fills his days in an orderly fashion. Every week is the same. This makes the pace of the story slow, but if you think about quitting: don’t! Please, try to wrestle through the parts of the book that drag on and experience the perfect, unexpected ending. In the last 100 pages your whole view of the Count and his orderly life in the Metropol will change drastically. You will most definitely love it! I’ll guarantee that!