The Stone Sky

The Broken Earth: Book Three

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Normal warnings aside, I am really, really going to spoil this trilogy in here, so if you don’t want to know exactly how ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ ends, don’t read this.

Um, I’m also going to spoil several movies.

You know that theory (we’ve talked about it before) that there are only, like, seven plots in all of literature? They, supposedly, are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

And they’re pretty self-explanatory. The theory goes that all the works of literature are just attempts on these seven basic plots: retellings, new perspectives, embellishments, interpretations. That these are the only stories there are.

OK, well, that may or not be true*, but I do know that, when you read a lot of stories, you notice that there aren’t so many different things to say as there are books. It’s not just plots – characters, premises, dilemmas, it all comes around again and again.

*I’ve never really been satisfied that any of those plots describes ‘Jurassic Park’. Maybe this is just me getting hung up on dinosaurs again, but ‘Jurassic Park’ doesn’t really fit any of those, does it? Which could it be? The Quest [to get out of Jurassic Park]? Overcoming the Monster [actually many little monsters and no one really overcomes them, just runs away]? I’m not buying it. I propose a new list: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth, Jurassic Park.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter whether there are seven plots or seventy, or whether the above list is exhaustive. The fact is, when you read a lot, the landscape of fiction does becomes familiar to you.

Which can be kind of nice. Familiar landmarks help you orient yourself. They signal to you what kind of story you’re reading, what kind of lessons you’re meant to learn, what sort of characters you should expect to meet and what might happen to them. Often, they tell you how the story wants to be evaluated: it doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story. How do you know that it wasn’t that kind of story? It didn’t have any landmarks of the kind of story where zombies and werewolves battle – no weird contagions which make people sort of bitey, no bodies of eviscerated sheep showing up around the village after the full moon, stuff like that.

But surprises are also nice – think how great it would have been if there had been even one zombie in ‘The Notebook’. Surprises make you realize that life isn’t over yet, that the world is still turning, that it’s worth trying new things, or reading new books. That, even if people have exhausted all the basic plots, they haven’t stopped thinking up new things to decorate them with.

And they don’t need to be big surprises, either; they can be small adjustments to old things, as long as you’ve never seen them before.

Which, I think, in the end, is the thing I ended up liking the most about ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘. Yes, the story was quite strong, and it was never badly written (which is about as good as it gets for genre fiction), and it didn’t get soggy at the end, but what I really ended up loving was that it surprised me.

And it surprised me in the most unlikely way: the villain surprised me!

Villains are never really surprising – even “surprise” villains aren’t really surprising, because you know that, according to the Laws of Fiction, you have to have been introduced to them already. And since, in any given story the number of named characters is relatively small, and since you must be prepared, according to the Laws of Fiction, for any character to turn out to be a surprise villain, even if you are surprised by who the villain turns out to be, you aren’t really surprised surprised, because you knew it had to be someone.

Which is why the last time I was really surprised by a villain was when, in the first ‘Saw’ movie, the villain turned out to be the dead body on the floor in the background! Because that dead body wasn’t a character, really – he was scenery. And scenery doesn’t usually turn out to be the villain*.

*Although, now that I think about it, why, then, wasn’t ‘The Happening’, by M. Knight Shamaylan, a movie in which the villain also turned out to be scenery (trees), more surprising? Maybe because, by the reveal, you were too irritated to be surprised.

This same mechanism is at work in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘, but not in a cheap, one-shot reveal sort of way. The villain in ‘The Broken Earth’ is also scenery, but in the most fundamental way that there is: the villain is…the Earth.

I know that this sounds cheesy, but it kind of isn’t. I thought it was going to be cheesy, too: when I started picking up on the hints that the Earth was somehow malevolently set on destroying humankind, I thought for sure I was in for some irritatingly-heavy-handed climate change metaphor, where the Earth wasn’t really alive, but had become so destabilized by hubristic human overreach that it was functionally hostile to human life, yadda yadda yadda, we must all honor Mother Earth, so on and so forth, and I was like, anticipatorily bored.

No, that’s not what happens. In ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘, the Earth is alive. Alive and conscious, and angry. It is a living, thinking, speaking core of molten rock and hot gas in the center of the planet, and it hates us.

It’s..pretty weird, actually. It’s a great surprise, because it’s both functionally impossible to imagine ahead of time and totally easy to imagine afterwards: it’s hard to think of dirt as part of any living thing, but the Earth’s molten core lends itself right away to personification. It’s scary and angry already! All of which makes the premise (that we have failed to notice that the earth was alive this whole time) kind of plausible.

The Earth itself is the slow-reveal antagonist of the entire trilogy, but I didn’t begin to really grok that that until the end of ‘The Obelisk Gate‘. Which meant that ‘The Stone Sky‘ was a fun journey of dawning implication for me, especially as I began to figure out that the pseudo-villains of the first two books, the Guardians, are really just under the control of the Earth, via pieces of the Earth’s core which have been lodged in their brains.

N.K. Jemisin (Picture taken from newyorker.com)

Which, again, sounds super cheesy when I say it like that, but it doesn’t play out that way! It’s actually pretty elegant, the way Jemisin rolls everything out, and lets the five or six separate mysteries she has created inform each other until, piece by piece, you realize that they are all the same mystery.

And it takes a while to knit the whole picture together, a satisfying, leisurely length of time, which wouldn’t happen if ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ weren’t surprising. The only way that mysteries can afford to be leisurely (and ‘The Broken Earth’ is a mystery, at the end of the day) is if they are very, very sure you aren’t going to solve everything before the end and get bored waiting for the text to catch up.

And it worked! I didn’t figure it all out because I didn’t expect the, like, ground beneath everyone’s feet to be the bad guy. Who expects that?!?

As I said at the beginning, there is a lot going right in these books. And there is more to say, I’m sure, about the moral of this story, and about the humane character of the books, about what they mean and about how fun they are. There is a lot to be said for how strongly they are executed, how tight the writing is and how well-paced and well-structured the story is – this is really, really strong world-building.

But I’m mostly just so happy to have been surprised. I’m always grateful for a good story, surprising or not, but a story that shows me something new under the sun? Rarer and rarer, and the more precious for it.

Purity

By Jonathan Franzen

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We were going to have to talk about Jonathan Franzen eventually.

Whether you like him or not, Franzen has earned (by skill or notoriety) consideration as one of the preeminent living American novelists. He keeps churning out novels that keep being taken very seriously by the critical establishment, and, like, Barack Obama.

I have a complicated emotional relationship with Franzen. On the one hand, I suspect Franzen is probably kind of an asshole, and I don’t think he’s the sort of generation-defining novelist he clearly believes that he is. On the other hand, I find his novels bizarrely absorbing. They are almost astonishingly vividly imagined – you get the sense that if you asked him where the aunt of the ex-boyfriend of the main character’s best friend went to college, he would know that.

I’ve read ‘The Corrections‘ and ‘Freedom‘, which are about the normal existential angst of normal people as they normally age (sort of, but essentially). I was therefore surprised to hear that he had written a novel about a young woman who, while, yes, having existential angst, rather non-normally joins a group of anarcho-hackers in Bolivia who are led by a charismatic Julian Assange-like figure. It sounded like of a departure, and I enjoyed his other books enough anyway, so I decided to read it.

Purity‘ turns out to actually be several stories. It is the story of the eponymous Purity “Pip” Tyler, a 23 year old woman who has been raised in Northern California by her lunatic mother Penelope, who will not tell her who her father is or even her own family name.

Pip decides to accept an internship with the Sunshine Project, a possible-cult which collects incriminating documents about governments and corporations from leaks and hacks and then publishes them. The Sunshine Project is lead by Andreas Wolf, who is handsome and charismatic and German and psychotic.

Purity‘ is also the story of Andreas Wolf, and of the one man he ever considered a friend, Tom Aberant, who is now the editor of the Denver Independent. Tom is one of the two people who know Andreas’ darkest secret, that he once killed a man, and so he will send Pip to work at the Denver Independent, to spy on Tom and threaten him.

And it’s also the story of Leila Helou, Tom’s partner, who is married to someone else and who is trying to help Tom get over his catastrophic first marriage to a woman named Anabel Laird. Anabel was a mentally unstable heiress and performance artist who destroyed his life.

Purity‘ is complicated. And, in this way, it’s a departure from Franzen’s novels (at least from the ones I’ve read). His other novels are intricate, but they are realistic. ‘Purity’ is not realistic. It is about absurd people, celebrities, and unlikely, impossible, coincidences. It’s about messianic hacktivists, and secret billionaires, and surprise children.

If this plot sounds furry and outlandish, it is, but in a good way. It’s like Franzen has loosened up, and decided to write about things that actually entertain him (murder), rather than things he thinks are going to earn him awards (midlife crises). And the new, loose look really works on him: ‘Purity‘ is really fun to read. Much funner than ‘The Corrections‘, that’s for sure. It’s got that usual Jonathan Franzen pull, but with way more plot than his other novels.

But there’s a problem, and I’m not quite sure how to express it.

Ok, how about this:

My father once said something about Phillip Roth that really stuck with me.

I’m sure you know this, but many people think quite highly of Phillip Roth. One of those people is my mother, who has all of his books and thinks that he is one of the greatest American novelists.

My family was arguing about Roth one day – someone (I don’t remember who) had ventured the possibility that he is overrated (it was me) – and my mother was outraged. My father listened patiently to her arguments and then, at the end, simply said, “I don’t know. I want to like him, but it makes me feel weird that, in every single one of his novels, the “narrator” has to blow a load on a woman’s face. I don’t want to know that much about Philip Roth.”

My dad was exactly right: sometimes, an author reveals himself a little too intimately for the comfort of the reader. Something about their fiction feels too real, they seem a little too fixated on something, or something is described a little too lovingly, or in a little too much detail. And you know that you have, unwillingly, gotten a little peak into their mind. That they have shown you their own predilections, without your consent.

Jonathan Franzen

That you can never know for sure only makes this feeling creepier. Maybe you’re wrong – maybe Philip Roth doesn’t get off on degrading women, not even a little, not even the slightest tiny bit, and it’s a coincidence that it happens in basically every single one of his novels – and you’ve falsely convicted some innocent author, in your mind, of a preference they do not have. It’s a suspicion you can never prove. But what distinguishes this feeling is a certainty that you have learned something about the author, and not about the book.

What I”m trying to say is, I’m a little creeped out by the emphasis on cunnilingus in ‘Purity‘. Normally, I’m very pro, but I’m getting hung up on how much time Franzen spends talking about how much his adult male characters enjoy going down on young women. Very young women.

Maybe it’s just super necessary for the plot that several middle aged guys get an enormous amount of sexual enjoyment from going down on barely-legal women in their care. Oh, yes, in their care, or employ. So, I suppose I should have said: middle aged guys get an enormous amount of sexual enjoyment from going down on barely-legal women over whom they have power.

It’s a whole skeevy thing, and it’s really tainting my impression of a book that I otherwise enjoyed a lot more than I thought it would. I was glued to ‘Purity’, but I kept being yanked out of my single-minded absorption by the awful feeling that I was spying on some private fantasy of Jonathan Franzen’s. Not a fun, sexy one. A yucky one.

Purity‘ is a fun read, it truly is. It made me want to like Franzen more, it made him seem less pretentious. ‘Purity’ doesn’t read like a novel written by a man desperate to prove he’s serious; it reads like a novel written by someone who loves to write novels, and it’s so much more enjoyable.

If it weren’t for the Humbert Humbert thing, this would be a mild rave review, a sort of rave-by-comparison. But the truth is, I remember a lot more about the cunnilingus than I do about the rest of the plot. And not in a good way. And it’s left me with an uneasy feeling. I want to like Jonathan Franzen, but I didn’t want to know that much about him.

Women Talking

By Miriam Toews

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I think it’s time to have a granular conversation about what it means to ‘like a book’.

The problem is, when someone says that they like a book, they might mean any number of things, alone or in combination.

They might mean that they think that the book represents a technical achievement, that it demonstrates skill or creativity. They might mean that it moved them, that they resonated with something being expressed, or that something of the events being portrayed in the book felt particularly real to them. Or they might have meant that it was super fun, or funny, or exciting, or whatever.

This is why you can “like” Stephen King’s ‘The Stand‘ and “like” Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The Gulag Archipelago‘; those are both true statements that mean totally different things.

And it’s also why we give a sort of extra credit to books that achieve multiple of these ends, books that are fun and humane, or skillful and entertaining. We recognize that we like them in multiple ways, that they have landed points in multiple categories.

But if you can like a book in more than one way at once, it means that it is also possible to like a book in one way and really not like it at the same time, in a totally different way. To like it along one of these axes, and to dislike it, potentially strongly, along another.

Which is how I feel about ‘Women Talking‘.

A little backstory is relevant here.

There is a substantial Mennonite population in Bolivia. In the late aughts, women in the Manitoba Mennonite colony started waking up in the mornings in pain, covered in blood and semen, with rope burns around their wrists. They were told they were imagining it, that they were dreaming, that they were consorting with the devil in their sleep.

Eventually, it was discovered that a group of men in the colony had aerosolized a horse anesthetic and had been spraying it into houses while families were asleep. They were then breaking into the houses and raping the women. Over several years, it is estimated that they raped hundreds of women – eventually, 130 victims were identified, ranging from ages 3 to 60. The men were turned over to the Bolivian authorities, tried, and have been convicted of multiple counts of rape and assault.

This is a true story – these things really happened.

Women Talking‘ is the novelization of one very specific part of this story: the experience of the women.

The men of the Molotschna (a fictional Manitoba) have left the colony to post bail for the rapists. They have done this so that the guilty men can come back to the colony and be forgiven by their victims. Without this forgiveness, neither the men, nor the women they raped, will be able to get into heaven.

Two families of women, three generations each, have gathered in a loft while their men are away in order to discuss what to do. Half of them want to leave, to take their children and flee, run to safety.

The other half want to stay and fight.

Because the women of Molotschna cannot write, they ask August Epp, a former apostate who has returned to teach the children, to write down what they say. August is not a man, not by the standards of the colony, since he has no wife and no children and cannot farm. But he is not a woman, no matter how much he may sympathize with, or love, them. He can only listen, and record, and try to help.

Women Talking‘ is a tough read. It’s kind of a brutal read, actually.

Not in the way you’d expect, or, at least, not in the way I expected. I was prepared to grapple with the horror of what was done to the women (in real life, never forgetting that), but that’s not what ‘Women Talking‘ is about. Not exclusively.

The first thing that the women of Molotschna have to settle among themselves is whether they are people, the way the men are, or whether they are animals, the way the men treat them. It’s a matter of some debate between them, whether they are animals or not. It is not obvious.

This is where the brutality of ‘Women Talking‘ really lies: in the fact that what has happened to the women is the inevitable result of their living in a system which teaches them, and the men around them, that they are not people. That when women are literal objects, the men around them will treat them like objects.

Miriam Toews

It’s hard, as a woman, to read a novel about women trying to see their way to their own personhood. Trying to decide whether it is better to stay in a place where they are raped in their homes at night, where their young daughters will be raped in their beds, or to leave their homes, their husbands, their sons, and set out into a world they don’t understand, where they don’t speak the language. It’s hard, as a woman, to imagine having to make that choice yourself.

It’s a desperate choice, and desperate choices are hard to read about.

It’s also…a little boring to read about.

I know I’m not supposed to say that about a novel about rape. And I know that I’m really not supposed to say that about anything called ‘Women Talking’. And I would like to assure everyone that I feel the appropriate amount of respect and feminist appreciation for ‘Women Talking‘, which is stark and singular and effective and, at moments, really deft and lovely and humane.

But, because of the way that ‘Women Talking’ is written, it’s also sort of…arduous. Let me give you an example:

“Ona speaks: If it has been decided by the elders and the bishop of Molotschna that we women don’t require counseling following these attacks because we weren’t conscious when they happened, then what are we obliged, or even able, to forgive? Something that didn’t happen? Something that we are unable to understand? And what does that mean more broadly? If we don’t know “the world,” we won’t be corrupted by it? If we don’t know that we are imprisoned then we are free?

…Greta Loewan sighs heavily. She says that although we may not be animals we have been treated worse than animals, and that in fact Molotschna animals are safer than Molotschna women, and better cared for.

Agata Friesen reminds Greta that, due to issues of time, we have agreed to abandon the question of whether the women are animals are not.” (p. 39)

It doesn’t exactly zip along, does it?

Look, it’s not supposed to, that’s clear. ‘Women Talking‘ isn’t trying to be the snappy, feel-good book of the year, and I wasn’t expecting it to be. But it did often seem as though ‘Women Talking’ was trying to be deliberately plodding.

Which, OK, I can think of reasons why an author might try to make their book deliberately plodding: she might be trying to show how overwhelmed the women are, disoriented and building a world-view from scratch, for example. To show that, when you must remake your whole self, your progress is slow, is plodding, when you start from nothing. That is a worthy project.

But a project may be worthy and still excruciating to read. And because ‘Women Talking‘ was slightly excruciating to read, I had trouble actually caring about any of the women in it. And it feels as though connecting with what happened to these women (again, can’t say it enough: in real life) was maybe the point? Or at least would have been good?

Women Talking‘ is clearly the work of a capable author, and I’m sure that Toew’s stylistic choices are choices. I appreciated ‘Women Talking’, but I didn’t like it.

Or, rather, I liked it the way you like things which are hard and important, but which you secretly dread having to consume. I liked it in the way of worthy things, not in the way of joyful things. In the way of sheer, awful truths, and not beauty.

But it is true, and for that reason alone, it should be read. A novel needn’t be beautiful, if it’s true.

Gold Bug Variations

By Richard Powers

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So, if you’ve been in a bookstore any time in the past six months, you’ve probably walked past Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory‘ featured prominently on the Best Sellers rack, or the Notable New Fiction table, or the Staff Recommendations shelf. It’s a Big Deal Book at the moment: it won the 2019 Pulitzer for Fiction, and it’s a novel about people whose lives are touched by…trees. Or something like that, I haven’t read it, but the back cover assures me that it’s a powerful story about the destruction of the natural world.

Which, is it just me, or does that not sound super smug? It sounds like a novel that exists to make NPR listeners feel good about themselves. Like a novel specifically designed to end up on the Staff Recommendations tables in liberal enclaves.

In the interests of full disclosure: I’m not super interested in reading ‘The Overstory‘ – I’m perhaps willing to give it a shot, but before I read a smug-sounding five hundred page novel about trees, I’d like to know whether or not I even like the author.

Richard Powers has written eleven other novels, the most famous of which is ‘Gold Bug Variations‘, which is described on its own back cover this way:

“‘The Goldbug Variations’ is a double love story of two young couples separated by a distance of twenty-five years. Stuart Ressler, a brilliant young molecular biologist, sets out in 1975 to crack the genetic code. His efforts are sidetracked by other, more intractable codes – social, moral, musical, spiritual – and he falls in love with a member of his research team. Years later, another young man and woman team up to investigate a different scientific mystery – why did the eminently promising Ressler suddenly disappear from the world of science? Strand by strand, these two love stories twist about each other in a double helix of desire.”

So I decided to read that first. The subject matter appealed to me (not all the love and desire stuff – I don’t so much go in for that), but all the biology. I am here for biology – it’s what I do for a living. I’m not generally wild about love stories, but I’m super down to read a six hundred page novel about the scientific elucidation of the genetic code. I’m a big nerd and I’m excited.

At least in theory.

In practice, I pretty much hated ‘Gold Bug Variations‘. I really hated it, actually. I hated it the way you hate books that you really, really hate: where every increment you read, every chapter, every paragraph, you hate it more, in a curve which grows exponentially, so that by the time you finish it, you hate it miles, miles more than you thought it was possible to hate, more than is reasonable.

Gold Bug Variations‘ was well-reviewed, but I have a sneaking suspicion that critics, some critics at least, don’t know the difference between a good book and a verbose book. Between a book that has something to say and a book that has a lot to say.

Gold Bug Variations‘ has a lot to say, or, rather, it says what it has to say at length. Partly, it accomplishes this by saying the same things over and over and over and over. Powers is…exhausting. His prose is bloated and repetitive and smug. He doesn’t say anything once if he can say 10,000 times. He gets carried away with enthusiasm, yes, for his subject matter but also for his own prose gymnastics, his own powers of prose description.

I feel slightly guilty about faulting Powers for this because a) I am also verbose and b) it clearly stems from a deep love of subject matter. I share his love of this subject matter, and I sympathize, but the love isn’t the problem – the problem is that Powers has an undisciplined need to communicate this love to the reader through what I can only describe as verbal force.

“I would tell Todd, spell it out in a five-thousand-volume letter. I would say how I have seen, close up, what Ressler wanted to crack through to. How I have felt it, sustained the chase in myself. How the urge to strip the noise from the cipher is always the desire to say what it means to be able to say anything, to read some part of what is written here, without resort to intermediaries. To get to the generating spark, to follow the score extracted from the split lark. I would tell him, at least, sparing nothing, just what in the impregnable sum of journal articles sent Ressler quietly away, appalled, stunted with wonder.

I would tell him everything I have found. I would lay my notebooks open to him. How the helix is not a description at all, but just the infolded germ of a scaffolding organism whose function is to promote and preserve the art treasure that erects it. How the four-base language is both more and less than plan. How it comprises secret writing in the fullest sense, possessing all the infinite, extendable, constricting possibilities lying hidden in the parts of speech. How there is always a go-between, a sign between signature and nature.” (p. 515)

This is garbage. It’s purple, overlong, self-indulgent, and it borders on incoherent. It’s also what most of the book is like. I bet I have at least as much love and respect for the workings of heredity as as Richard Powers, and I can tell you that wading through hundreds of pages of this drivel was excruciating.

Richard Powers

I’m sure I’m over-reacting. Maybe it isn’t fair to have such a strong aversion to someone’s writing style that you can’t even make a reasonable evaluation of their story, or their characters. But this writing is arduous. And it’s hard not to resent it for being so arduous when it feels as though the only problem is that Richard Powers, who is clearly a very imaginative and articulate person, just didn’t have the self-discipline to stop repeating himself.

And it makes it impossible to care about the plot, or about the characters, about the love stories or emotional journeys of anyone involved. By page 100, I was just holding on until the end – this was an endurance trial. This is one of those books that I only finished because I have a rule about finishing books that I start.

In my opinion, this is the greatest sin a writer can commit: letting his own pleasure in his verbiage overwhelm what’s best for the story, or the reader. It is unforgivable, letting your own pride come before the needs of the writing. I cannot forgive this in a writer, and I honestly cannot remember another writer who is this badly afflicted.

It is worth remembering that Powers was a youngish-writer when he wrote ‘Gold Bug Variations‘, and I will never hang a writer on one work. Maybe he’s gotten better, calmer, sparer. Maybe he’s employed an editor since 1991. I’m not damning the man – I’m damning the novel.

But I can tell you this: I will need a lot of convincing before read this man’s damn tree novel.

Rusty Brown

By Chris Ware

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I’ve never read a graphic novel before.

This isn’t a principled stance I’ve taken – I know the whole spiel about how graphic novels are novels, and they are High Art now, and they are very sophisticated and deal with adult themes. I’m not disputing any of this – how could I? I’ve never read one.

Art evolves, and I’m completely fine with that. I know that sounds defensive, but that’s only because it’s in print, on the internet: I really am fine with that. I have watched completely open-mindedly as the graphic novel has become mainstream and achieved artistic legitimacy. I think it’s a good thing – I think more inclusive artistic definitions almost always benefit the form, and the culture, over time. They accelerate growth.

But I have never read a graphic novel, again, not because I have a problem with them – not at all! – but because…I don’t like them.

I don’t like reading them, and ‘reading’ is the operative word there. I think they’re often beautiful, visually sumptuous and mesmerizing to look at. But I have been reading for a long time, and I am used to the flow of words on a page. On a page that doesn’t have a ton else on it, a page where, if there are pictures (which there almost never are), the words arrange themselves tidily around the pictures and don’t scatter themselves through it.

I find graphic novels a little difficult to read. That may be the point, right? It might be that the difficulty of finding and ordering the words, visually, is designed to make you slow down and look at the pictures. It may be that this actually makes you take in the words more deliberately, makes you pay more attention.

But I do not, viscerally, enjoy the drag on my mind. I am used to ease when reading, total mental comfort. The ability to immerse myself, mentally, effortlessly, in a text, is one of the things I love about reading. It’s almost meditative. It feels like swimming. So I have found the new proliferation of graphic novels amazingly easy to resist.

But my mother gave me ‘Rusty Brown‘ for Christmas this past year, explaining (sort of apologetically) that it got really good reviews*. And it is gorgeous, with amazing, complex layouts and lush, arresting pictures. So, the other day, when I was totally fried from work and wanted to try something a little different, I sat down and read it.

*My mother was completely correct, by the way: the reviews for ‘Rusty Brown‘ are ecstatic.

And now I have a question: how am I supposed to feel about this book?

I’m not asking what I’m supposed to feel: happy, sad, existentially frantic. I’m asking how I’m supposed to feel: am I supposed to feel the way I feel about books? The way I feel about visual art? The way I feel about movies?

Rusty Brown‘ is a story, it’s a narrative; it has characters and a plot (sort of), a lot of which are communicated through the written word. In this way, ‘Rusty Brown’ is a book. But it’s so visual – the story, plot points and character elements, as well as overall mood, are all communicated visually. In this way, it is like a movie.

And some panels are so stunning that you stop, and stare, and react to them just as pictures. They are moving, desolating, some of them. They almost all involve snow.

I can see why ‘Rusty Brown‘ received such incredible reviews. The pictures are incredible, moving back and forth between schema and detail seamless, laid out so inventively that they are almost mobile. They communicate shock, grief, the grinding passage of time, profound alienation, vast, existential bleakness.

Chris Ware

In fact, most of the emotional content of ‘Rusty Brown‘ is bleak. It is the story of several lives which meet around a middle school in Omaha, Nebraska. This is what I mean when I say it has a plot, sort of: it actually has several plots, or rather, several lives. It’s about an intersection – it doesn’t have a climax. It’s about the rich, complicated human context that lies underneath even the most ordinary moment, in the most ordinary place. It asks you to consider how long the journey has been that has gotten you here, has gotten everyone here, how much everyday time, everyday suffering, has accumulated underneath each and every one of us.

So it doesn’t really have a plot – it has a tone. To quote the New York Times, “Though there are a couple of perverts (and possibly a criminal), his characters aren’t people of wealth, power or energy; they’re self-conscious, often inarticulate, trying to break free of the mundane or anesthetize themselves to it. The characters weave in and out of the 113-page opening sequence, which dissects a single day at a Midwestern school in the 1970s, with its smell of “spilled teacher’s lounge coffee, old milk, formaldehyde and lip gloss and hot lunch.”

Each of the characters is lost, alienated, lonely. The children are awkward, afraid they won’t fit in. The adults are aging, fading, their youthful dreams lost, their bodies unrecognizable. Everyone is miserable. Or, to quote The Guardian, “The remaining narratives display a shared concern with regret and ageing, anxiety and ennui (there’s a lot of repetition and masturbation), the sense of lives being missed for a combination of factors, from parental neglect to racial intolerance. The book poses essential questions about the formation and hardening of character: what limits our chances of happiness or fulfilment? How do behavioural patterns form? And why are they so hard to break?”

It’s kind of a lot: a big book about the grinding alienation of life, hard to read, emotionally bleak. It’s a masterpiece, but, like many masterpieces, it’s impressive rather than fun. I am impressed; I am also really, really glad that the book is over.

It’s a rough thing to think about how hard, how much quiet suffering the people around you are carrying around. Beautiful, bleak pictures make it both easier and harded to connect with material like this, at least for me. Pictures are vivid, yes, but they are less vivid than my imagination, and the pictures relieve me of the need to imagine.

Is the entire genre the same emotional gray of ‘Rusty Brown‘? In my imagination, all graphic novels are beautiful and dismal, and I’m sure that’s not right. I feel contaminated by this novel more than I understand it, laid low and blue. It was really, really good, there’s no way to miss that, but it’s hard, and strange. It’s grand, and sad, and lovely, and cold. It’s pretty magnificent, but in a way that leaves you more lost than when you started.

Ultimately, it’s hard for me to mentally file ‘Rusty Brown‘ as a ‘book’ in my mind. The experience is more like a movie – the parts of it which are the most moving are the visual parts, not the words. It doesn’t elicit book-feelings – it elicits movie-feelings, photograph-feelings.

So, I think I want to read another graphic novel.

Maybe this sounds weird, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I won’t be able to figure out how I feel about this form until I read some more. Different kinds of graphic novels, not just this sad, magnificent one. I’d like to read a funny one, a sweet one, and a violent one. And probably about eight sexy ones.

The Witch Elm

By Tana French

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Things have been going well at work lately.

I had a particularly good week – good stuff with the team, good experimental results. It was a great week, actually, which is why I was surprised when I found myself having what felt like a minor panic attack yesterday.

It was puzzling – I am not prone to them, and I have nothing to be anxious about (or, at least, nothing to be acutely anxious about this week – the world is burning, but it has been for a while, I’ve acclimated). But even though everything was going well, I walked around all week with an uncomfortable tightness between my lungs, as though a balloon had been inflated inside my chest cavity and was pressing against my heart.

Catharsis was achieved on a red line train home from work. I was reading ‘The Witch Elm‘, and Toby, the main character, was starting to really unravel, his perspective, his sanity, was becoming less and less trustworthy. Meanwhile the danger around him was increasing, and I really needed to him to stay calm, keep a cool head, because he being framed for murder for fuck’s sake, and he just needed to open his eyes and figure it out and fucking handle it, and I noticed that I was freaking out on the train. Not about work, or something my mom said, or whether I had forgotten my anniversary again – I wasn’t freaking about my own life at all. I was freaking out about Toby. ‘The Witch Elm’ was so unsettling that it had anxiety-bombed my entire week.

The Witch Elm‘ is Tana French’s latest novel. It is also her first novel which is not a Dublin Murder Squad novel, and so even those of us who love her (which is all of us, right?) viewed it with some slight trepidation. I’ve been very clear about how much I love Tana French. But until ‘The Witch Elm’, it would, technically, have been impossible to say whether it was Tana French I loved, or just the Dublin Murder Squad.

Don’t worry – ‘The Witch Elm‘ is a murder mystery. But it’s an unusual mystery, because it takes as its protagonist not a detective (or a coroner, or a reporter), not a victim, not even a murderer. It takes as its protagonist…a bystander?

There is a reason that most murder mysteries feature detectives – they are the participants in criminal dramas who most closely approximate an omniscient narrator. They are the ones who will eventually know everything, and that’s what we expect in exchange for reading a murder mystery: to eventually know everything, too.

That’s why, despite the fact that every murder mystery detective has crippling demons, they are also brilliant and intuitive and unerring. Despite being tortured, often in the grips of strong PTSD flashbacks, and always, always alcoholic, they approach omniscience. We need to trust them, in order to get what we came for: a solution.

Everyone else involved in a murder mystery is a flawed narrator. The job of a detective is, after all, to assemble complete knowledge. Everyone else has incomplete knowledge, a skewed perspective, their own motives. None of them are trustworthy, and one of them will turn out to be the murderer.

In ‘The Witch Elm‘, French leans into this untrustworthness, hard. Toby Hennessy is, well, a complete tool. He’s a handsome, happy-go-lucky Irishman, a thoughtless optimist who has always gotten his way. He has a good job in PR, good friends, a close family, and a great girlfriend to whom he is thinking about proposing when he surprises some burglars one night robbing his apartment. They beat him nearly to death and leave him with lasting brain damage.

A few weeks after being released from the hospital, Toby learns that his beloved uncle Hugo has been diagnosed with brain cancer, and that his case is terminal. Crippled, fractured, traumatized and spiraling into addiction and depression, Toby moves back to Ivy House.

Ivy House is the Hennessy family home. Purchased by his grandparents, it has been Hugo’s residence since their death. It is a beautiful, secluded old mansion with a long, walled garden. When they were children, Toby and his two cousins, Leon and Susannah, spent their weekends and summers there; it was in this private, lovely estate that they became like siblings.

Toby and his girlfriend move back to Ivy House to care for Hugo in his last days, and to let Toby heal. And so they are there when, one afternoon, Toby’s young nephew finds a skull in the Ivy House garden.

The Witch Elm‘ asks: Are you capable of murder? What if you had recently sustained a serious neurological injury? If your memory was damaged, if you could no longer focus, if you were having sudden, dramatic mood swings? Would you be capable then? And if you might be capable, and there were holes in your memory, would you ever be sure that you hadn’t killed someone?

Really, ‘The Witch Elm‘ is a novel about sanity and home. Specifically, about family homes, about how much the places where we happy as child matter to us, about we much we need them even as they haunt and hold us back. It’s about what we lose when we lose our past, and whether we can ever change unless we leave it.

This is a theme with Tana French: houses, houses that we love, homes (this is basically whatThe Likeness‘ was about). She has a good, visceral understanding of the way in which a beautiful place can became a physical embodiment of love itself, that losing a sense of the sacredness of a beautiful place is heartbreaking, like losing a person.

The Witch Elm‘ is really good. It’s good in all the ways that Tana French is normally good: it’s moody, atmospheric, richly detailed and absorbing. She’s a lovely writer; her prose is miles better than almost any other murder mystery prose (Benjamin Black is the only exception I can think of).

But it’s unsettling in a different way. Toby knows that he is in terrible danger, but he cannot discern whether the danger is from within, or from without. Unable to tell whether his family is trying to frame him, or whether he is, in fact, a murderer, he is excruciatingly vulnerable. This vulnerability will communicate itself to sensitive readers in the form of low-level anxiety and panic attacks on the red line.

For me, this is what sets Tana French apart from other mystery writers. Other authors are strong on plot mechanics, or on atmospherics, or on quiet menace; very few are strong on all of them. Tana French’s novels are so richly detailed that it becomes disturbingly easy to lose yourself in them.

It also makes her difficult to write about. I can’t communicate the anxious dread ‘The Witch Elm‘ made me feel. I felt like I was smothering when I was reading it, like I was in danger. This isn’t merely suspense – this is deep, subconscious identification, and it’s difficult to achieve when you read as much as I do. Tana French is special, and, at this point, I’ll read anything she writes – if she puts out a cookbook, I’ll read that cover to cover.

And, at this rate, it’ll probably scare the shit out of me.

My Sister, the Serial Killer

By Oyinkan Braithwaite

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“All he wants is a pretty face. That’s all they ever want.” (p. 69)

There’s an idea (which I’m not sure that I totally believe but whatever) that you can only write what you know. And even if I don’t totally believe that that’s 100% true, it certainly makes sense that writers will be able to paint a clearer picture of something which they themselves have seen, describe more accurately something which they themselves have felt.

Which means, I’m afraid, that if you want to read about women’s rage, the deep, seething fury of women against men, you really ought to be reading things that women wrote.

I’m not sure that I would have described myself as wanting to read about women’s rage, but I have found that I resonate with books about it, that I recognize them and am interested in them. I resonated withDietland‘, another novel about the violence of male priorities and disproportionate female response to them. I think everyone resonated withThe Power‘, another revenge novel of female violence (actually, there have been kind a lot of these lately, huh?)

Korede and Ayoola are sisters. Korede is older: responsible, cleanly, fanatical about order and planning. She can cook and maintain a household. She is about to be made head nurse at the Lagos hospital where she works. She walks, virtuous and lonely, through her life, taking care of the sick. And she is in love, from afar, with Tade, the handsome doctor she works with. The only person in whom she feels she can confide is a coma patient in her ward.

Ayoola is beautiful. She has the kind of beauty that causes the men around her to behave like complete idiots. She has no job; rather, she designs clothing that she models on Instagram. She is the favorite of their mother, the favorite of every man in the Lagos area, the favorite. She is bright and funny and charming and brave and the world loves her.

She has also murdered her last three boyfriends.

Each time, Korede has helped her hide the body, wash away the evidence. Each time, she has believed Ayoola when her sister told her that the killing was done in self-defense. And though it has become harder to believe each time, she has continued to keep her sister’s secret.

Until, one day, Ayoola comes to visit Korede at the hospital, and snares Tade, the doctor whom Korede has loved for so long. And Korede, with her heart broken, has to decide whether Tade, whom she knows would never hurt a soul, is safe with her sister, or whether her sister might be a much different animal than she has allowed herself to admit.

I spent most of ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘ thinking that the story was pretty fucking obvious. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it – quite the contrary. The book is written in a wry, spare voice and parceled into short chapters with snappy titles (some of which are so short as to almost qualify as brutal prose-poems), the combined effect of which is suspenseful and almost bizarrely readable. This is the writerly voice that Bret Easton Ellis wishes he had.

But I thought I knew exactly what story I was reading, and I was wrong (this happens to me a lot, and I never, ever learn). I thought that this was a story about a woman facing the fact that her sister is a monster, about watching the evidence pile up and trying not to see it, but eventually confronting it when someone innocent, someone else she loves, is threatened. A pretty basic, totally fun story.

“Ayoola is wearing dungarees – she is the only person I know who can still pull those off – and she is licking ice cream, probably from the parlor around the corner. She pauses the licking, not because she is moved by Peju’s words, but because she is aware that it is proper to pause whatever one is doing when in the presence of someone who is grieving. I spent three hours explaining that particular etiquette to her one Sunday afternoon.” (p. 161)

That’s not what this story is. This is one of those stories where there isn’t only one monster, and the question that Korede will eventually have to answer isn’t whether or not her sister is one. It’s whether, in a monstrous system, there are any heroes. Whether men are capable of loving, really loving, a woman for who she is, and, if they aren’t, then whether they are worthy of being loved at all. And if they aren’t, if you cannot love men, who do you love? Whether, in a world where men will always objectify, use, and abandon you, the only real love that exists is the love between women. Whether the only love that lasts is family.

Ayoola is not the monster of ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘, despite the fact that she is a serial killer. The monster is Tade, the kind man who, at the end of the day, can only love a woman for her beauty. Who cannot be turned from beauty even if it means saving his friendships, or his life. Who believes that his love is sincere, premised on deep connection, while it is in fact only a response to how a woman looks in a skimpy dress. Who will forgive anything (literally, anything) in the woman he loves except ugliness.

Oyinkan Braithwaite

I love stories like this, stories where the serial killer ends up not being the bad guy. Although, of course, that’s an over-simplification: Ayoola is a very bad guy. But, at the end of the day, she is all that Korede has. And, Braithwaite seems to ask, what did you expect Ayoola to become? Brutalized by her father, every man she has met since has let her get away with anything she wanted, as long as they got to treat her like a beautiful thing. Why should she treat men as though they were people, when they have never, ever, done the same for her? Just because you worship an object doesn’t mean it’s not an object.

It’s a really good question, actually. I spent most of ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘ rooting against Ayoola. I think I was supposed to: she’s a gorgeous, gold-digging, man-stealing serial killer. It’s pretty breath-taking that Braithwaite can take you from really hating Ayoola (the way you can only hate a man-stealer) to understanding why we will always choose her. Why we, as women, have to always choose her.

It’s especially impressive because Braithwaite accomplishes this emotional allegiance-shifting without ever declaring anything. There are no manifestos here, no pedantic speeches or feminist rah-rahing. All you as her reader experience is the world through the eyes of one woman, Korede, and you and Korede must realize together why she is angry and at whom. Korede is angry because she isn’t beautiful, you both knew that, but you must realize together that being angry at Ayoola because she is doesn’t make any sense. Because the only reason that it matters, Ayoola’s beauty, is because men are too base, too primitive, too shallow, too evil, to see anything else.

At the end of the day, ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘ is about who deserves our care and who doesn’t. And, in a cold, dark world, we cannot afford to extend care to those who do not care for us, who do not honor our essential humanity. And in Braithwaite’s world, men, be they ever so handsome, ever so kind, be they doctors even, do not care for us. They do not honor our essential humanity if we are not beautiful, because they don’t see us. And they don’t see us if we are beautiful, because then our beauty is all they see. And if they cannot care for us, then we should not care for them. We must care then, as sisters, for each other, even if we are beautiful.

The Obelisk Gate

The Broken Earth: Book Two

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

So, now I’ve had some time to think.

Sometimes, when you’re flying through a book, you don’t stop to think about why you’re loving it so much. This is especially true with plotty books – you don’t need to think about why it’s working, you can just lie back and enjoy the ride.

But it’s a worthwhile exercise, once you pause for breath. And I had a busy week at work, and so was forced to spend time NOT reading ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, and so I thought about it.

I want to be clear: this pause was not voluntary. I need to work to eat; otherwise, I would have chewed all the way through the series without washing or sleeping. But, like I said, it was a busy week, so I only just now finished ‘The Obelisk Gate‘, the second book in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ series.

And I know that ‘The Obelisk Gate‘ is technically a separate book, but the entire series really reads like one book, one story, and I am only taking the time to stop and write about this installment for the sake of personal discipline. So, for coherence, I will probably refer to the trilogy as a single work, which it clearly is.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about why the trilogy is so good. And…

I don’t know.

The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is about a world that is ending. And I suspect that, like all stories that are about the world ending, it is really about the evil which people do, which comes out of us naturally, inevitably, like breath. About the primitive, tribal cruelties that we perpetrate, in all times, all places, when we are frightened.

There’s a question I wonder sometimes: do you have to understand a novel to love it?

There are two ways to say what a novel is about. Let’s take an easy one: what is ‘The Scarlet Letter’ about? Well, technically, it’s about a woman being punished for adultery through sartorial intervention.

But, obviously, that’s not what it’s really about about. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is about sin, and guilt, and hypocrisy. It’s about how God is all-knowing and all-loving and we are not, and so when man’s law tries to approximate God’s law, the discrepancy will necessarily result in injustice. It’s about humility.

See what I mean? There’s about, and then there’s about about.

I know what ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is about. Jemisin is a clear, effective writer, much more than most science fiction or fantasy writers. Even when she is describing things which are actually beyond description, she is never hard to follow or understand. She’s really good.

But I am not at all sure that I know what this trilogy is about about.

On the most superficial level, ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is an allegory about racism and xenophobia and otherness. It’s about human cruelty, and about whether we are capable of preserving our humanity, our ability to be kind to the other, when we are desperate, or in danger, or facing extinction. And the fact that this allegory is obvious a) doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valuable metaphor (it isn’t as though we’ve solved this problem, so, by all means, let’s keep working it through in prose) and b) doesn’t mean that it’s all that’s going on in these novels.

I also suspect that it is about about climate change. Bear with me: the premise of ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, tectonically-speaking, is that humans, at the acme of their civilization, committed an act which so permanently destabilized the earth’s crust that it threatens the survival of everything on it. This is understood by all living human inhabitants of the earth as its revenge, that the earth is essentially, permanently, hostile to human life. That seems pretty clear to me.

But the problem with explicating allegory is that it makes the work seem preachy, or academic, or pedantic, and that is emphatically not the case here. In fact, the lack of pedantry is partly why I’m having trouble discerning the allegory.

So, am I allowed to love a story without understanding the allegory?

Obviously, the answer is yes – I can enjoy it any way I want. I can even enjoy it while totally misunderstanding the allegory. But (and honestly, this may be wrong) I think that understanding the allegory makes the experience of the books richer. And I know that this makes me sound like a complete nerd, but I am a complete nerd, and I really do enjoy a book more when I understand not only the story, but also the other stories which the story is referencing, the moral questions it is obliquely pondering, the historical events which it is recapitulating. They make me appreciate the story more, the skill of its writing, the depth of its thought.

And when you know, or suspect, that a story has these extra layers, and you aren’t quite getting them, it’s disorienting, like when you fall asleep in the middle of a movie and miss a whole bunch of plot. You might technically understand the ending, but can you say that you really understood the movie?

Not really, and so I don’t feel like I can say that I understand ‘The Obelisk Gate‘, and it’s making me feel very insecure, because I really, really like it. I want to understand it, and so I’ve been thinking about it.

N. K. Jemisin

One of the most salient threads which runs through the first two novels of ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ is that our fundamental selves are revealed through our treatment of our children. This is true on the level of the society as well as on the level of the individual. Children are a major, major part of ‘The Broken Earth’ books – love for them, grief for the loss of them, rage at the people who hurt them.

And cruelty to children winds through the books. There is an idea which pervades the entire trilogy (so far) that, in health, children are loved and cherished, protected and cared for. It is only in sickness that we allow them to be tortured or mutilated, abandoned or killed.

Earth has become a sick place, and the question which Jemisin is asking is, is it possible to be a healthy person in a sick place? Can you bring children into a sick world, raise them in a sick society, love them healthily when you cannot truly keep them safe? When the society in which they will grow up might abuse or murder them, use them or break them? When the very earth on which they walk might drive them and every one they love to extinction at any moment?

What does parental love even mean in that context? Parents love their children, ideally. Parents will do anything, risk anything, for their health and happiness – what does that mean in a world where health and happiness are impossible? What happens to love in a world like that?

It curdles, turns inward into rage, becomes destructive, deadens. Twists and becomes murderous in its turn. Even love becomes impossible, in a sick world.

Now that I think about it, this is kind of what ‘1984’ is also about. Actually, this is exactly what ‘1984’ is about: the idea that in a totalitarian society, even love, even private, romantic love, is impossible, because there is no private space for a human heart to have something normal and good, like love.

And, in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, that’s true of parents, too: on a hostile earth, where we are threatened at every turn, where constant fear and danger have made us base and mean and vicious, we can’t even love our children. Because loving children is hopeful, and hope requires a future, and in a world with no future there’s no way to love them – it’s too painful.

I know that I’m not making ‘The Obelisk Gate‘ sound fun – I’m probably making it sound like the world’s bleakest book about parenting. It is fun, in a bleak, scary way. It’s one of the most absorbing books I’ve read in years, and, as I mentioned last time, I honestly just resent the time I have to spend here, writing about it, instead of thinking about it. It’s so, so good.

The Monster of Elendhaven

By Jennifer Giesbrecht

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“Florian dipped gingerly, right at the sodden border cut by the tide, and plucked out a stone: perfectly round, an inch in diameter and opalescent in sheen. He held it aloft for Johann’s benefit. “The oldest stories of the North called these rocks Hallandrette’s Roe. She lays her clutch along the beach, and protects them from the destructive hands of mortal beings.” Florian turned on his heel and pitched the stone at the cliff-wall as hard as he could. It bounced off the slate harmlessly. “See? Hard stone. Unbreakable.”

Johann frowned. “How do you crack one open, then?”

Florian smiled, secretive. “A privilege reserved for Hallandrette’s chosen. When a wretched child, one wronged or wounded deep in the soul, throws what they love most in the ocean they may cast a roe against the stone and a hallankind will be born. Keep the stone in their pocket and the Queen sends to them one of her children.:

“A friend for the lonely soul.”

“A companion,” Florian affirmed, “made from the same dark matter that coats the bottom of the Nord Sea. A hallankind will love that wretched child as a brother or sister. They will drag whoever wronged their brother-sister-friend into the sea and wring them through the spines of their mother’s baleen until they are foam and sea particle, forgotten in the cradle of her belly.” (p. 52).

Maybe all stories are love stories.

OK, not ALL of them – it’s difficult to describe, oh, ‘Heart of Darkness’ as a love story – but it’s surprisingly hard to come up with a story that isn’t, in some way, a love story.

The trick of it is to understand that love stories sometimes come hidden in unlikely disguises. All sorts of people have love stories who don’t look like they deserve them. Broken people, evil people, sad people, rude people, angry people, all sorts of morally unphotogenic people who nevertheless occasionally find themselves looking for love, feeling love, or acting out of love.

In some ways, those are our favorite love stories. Maybe it’s because they are more suspenseful, since we aren’t sure that the characters in them will find love. Maybe it’s because they are more ambiguous, since we don’t know whether we really want them to find love. Or maybe it’s because they feel truer, since very few of us feel 100% certain that we deserve love.

The inside jacket cover of ‘The Monster of Elendhaven’

When I saw ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ in a bookstore the other day, I didn’t think it was a love story. It doesn’t look like a love story. I’m not sure why I bought it – I’m not in the habit of purchasing books of unknown provenance. But the cover was creepy and the description was even creepier, and I was on a mini-vacation, so I bought it.

Elendhaven is failing industrial city on the northern edge of the map. A hideous accident generations ago has left the ocean poisoned and black. The ancient noble families of Elendhaven have fallen into poverty and the magic that was the source of their power has been outlawed.

Johann does not know who he is or where he came from. All he knows is that he used to be nameless, unloved, born of darkness, until he decided to call himself Johann. He tends to slide off people’s attention, unremarked and unremembered by anyone who meets him. And he can’t be killed, at least not permanently.

And he knows that he likes to kill people. Johann is an accomplished killer – a monster, in fact – who stalks the streets of Elendhaven taking whatever he wants and killing whomever had it.

One night, Johann chooses to rob Florian Leickenbloom, the last living member of the once-magnificant Leickenbloom family. Florian is a small, beautiful man who also happens to be, as Johann soon learns, a sorcerer. Orphaned as a child when the rest of his family was killed in a plague, Florian lives in hermitish seclusion, planning his revenge. And instead of killing him, Johann will fall in love with Florian, and help him realize his terrible plan.

I don’t know if it’s more or less beautiful when a monster loves another monster. But something I respect about Giesbrecht: her monsters are really monsters. They are ugly and evil; they hurt people and they enjoy it. They even hurt each other, and because they have lived lives characterized by pain, cruelty, and rejection, this is part of their love.

The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is gory, viscerally and explicitly gory. It’s creepy, and sexy, and kind of funny, and sad. It’s also romantic, I think?

Romance is not my strong suit, so I might be wrong. It’s also not my favorite genre – I actually have to leave the room during proposal scenes in movies, because they make me so uncomfortable. But, as far as I understand it, romances are stories in which two elements complement each other in a way which makes each feel as though things about them which had been wrong or missing are, in fact, purposeful and right.

This is why this they are powerful for us. We’re all missing pieces, or rough along an edge or two, crumpled where we should be smooth, and romances provide a reason for those traits: those are things which make us ourselves, so if someone loves us, then the self that we are is the right self, and therefore those things are right, too. Love justifies our pain, and our mistakes – it is the forgiveness from the world we need to forgive ourselves.

Jennifer Giesbrecht

And that’s why the romances of monsters are the most revealing romances of all: they are the far-out test case, the most extreme example. They are interesting, yes, monsters are always interesting, but it’s more than that: they are the limit on the possible. And you know you fit comfortably within their limit, and so you know that your experience, your romance, your love, will fit comfortably within theirs.

I wonder if I am the only person who read ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ and thought about love the whole time. I’m definitely not the only person who noticed it was a romance, but I might be the only person who thought it was a lovely romance (rather than a horrific one). That there is something beautiful about the idea of an abandoned little boy raging at the world, calling a monster forth from the ocean who will love and avenge him and who cannot die the way his family did. Who can therefore never leave him alone. In the idea that, if we are monsters, the world might provide another monster to love us, to make us whole.

Because maybe only a monster can truly love another monster.

It’s like there’s a whole other world, full of weird, creepy people (which I definitely am), and we get a whole different, creepy literature. But just because we’re weird and dark doesn’t mean that we don’t have feelings – it just means that our feelings are creepier and weirder than other peoples. And ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is a romance for us.

Maybe that’s a weird reaction. But such a weird little book deserves a weird little reaction. ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is a book about revenge and hate and gruesome death, and I thought that it was super romantic, but not in the way I hate – in a way I kind of loved. It’s the most romantic murder book I’ve read.

At least this year.