“It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor. When she told her friends in New York about this curious historical anomaly and the pervasive ethnic bias, they were incredulous at the thought that the friendly, well-mannered Japanese they knew could ever think she was somehow criminal, lazy, filthy, or aggressive—the negative stereotypical traits of Koreans in Japan.”
Upon beginning this novel, I was immediately swept away by the tender, compelling story of the young Sunja, child of Hoonie and Yangjin, and their family's challenges as they worked to make their living by running a boarding house for people in the small village where they lived in Korea. When Sunja found herself in a position of dishonor and shame, I was moved by her resolution and her courage. As she makes the move to Japan, the story shifts into an exploration of Korean life in Japan. The epic novel moves through generations of Koreans in Japan, and Lee highlights the systemic oppression faced by Koreans in Japan, moving from the early 1900s all the way to present day.
I loved the way the novel showed the complexities of identity and the weight of family. I also found the treatment of Koreans in Japan both appalling and a bit surprising -- I found that it was something about which I knew very little. I loved the way that Lee showed the various reactions and feelings toward the Japanese and life in Japan.
I'm kind of thankful that I didn't realize how long the book was or how many generations would be covered -- I might have felt a little intimidated, or I might have put it off for another time. Instead, I knew nothing about it other than what I know about current day pachinko parlors in Japan, and I found myself wrapped up in the complex story of this family and their struggles to understand their identity (both as individuals and as a collective group). It was a phenomenal read.
By tracking the pathways of so many individuals, this novel spans the scope of human experience, and Lee explores the common threads within that experience. “He was suffering, and in a way, he could manage that; but he had caused others to suffer, and he did not know why he had to live now and recall the series of terrible choices that had not looked so terrible at the time. Was that how it was for most people?” Although this thought came from a more minor character, it incapsulates the scope of this powerful narrative and its examination of human experience. Such a profound novel.
This was definitely one of the best reads of 2019 so far for me, and one of the most impactful books I've read in a long time.
Nira lives with her parents and her grandmother in Canada—her family escaped from Guyana in search of safety and security but had to leave without their money. As in many novels about the children of immigrants, Nira walks the line between appreciating her parents’ culture and yearning to blend in with her classmates at her new school. As the only brown girl, Nira feels both incredibly conspicuous and tragically invisible, discounted by everyone but her best friend Emily. Her one escape is her music. Though her parents have decided that she will become a doctor and therefore needs to focus only on her studies, Nira convinced them to buy her a used trumpet, which she taught herself to play via YouTube. When Nira plays, she expresses all of the love, conflict, and confusion that dominate her life.
A brilliant student, Nira vies always to meet the high expectations of her family. She always, however, falls short. After her family emigrated, her father’s brother Raj brought his family to Canada as well, taking advantage of a new loophole that allowed him to escape with his bank account intact. The brothers’ relationship is one of constant comparison: of belongings, of ambition, of their daughters’ academics. Nira’s cousin Farah attends a private school where she blends in with the “Farahbots,” other wealthy girls who share their heritage and culture. Anchoring both girls is Grandma, one of my favorite characters. Grandma is wise, funny, and realistic about the challenges Nira faces as she struggles to find her place. Most of the time, Grandma sits back and lets her family figure things out for themselves, but when she intervenes, she’s a “puppet master” who pulls all the right strings (loc. 664).
Though Nira fights against the superficial judgments of others, she does herself fall prey to judging based on appearances. Much of the novel involves Nira learning to peel back layers, to understand that everyone has secret fears and hopes. Her friendship with Emily changes as they begin to invite others to her group—much to Nira’s chagrin—and Nira must deal with feeling pushed out of the relationships that anchor her. Emily becomes close to McKenzie, a popular girl whose constant misunderstandings about Nira—she’s Hindi, she’s Muslim, she’s from India, and SO many more—and Nira can’t understand how Emily can look past McKenzie’s prejudiced behavior. Nira’s love for music leads her to know Noah, a popular boy in the jazz band. Nira decided early on that Noah is out of her league, so she suppresses her crush in favor of being his friend. Eventually, Farah (despite Nira’s best efforts) joins this friend group, and Nira must strive to figure otu where she fits in this new arrangement of five.
All of these elements are made essential by Deen’s writing: even when, as a reader, I became frustrated with characters, I understood their perspective. Deen crafts characters of such complexity that we understand both why Nira wants new, name-brand clothes and why the entire idea is anathema to her parents. We understand why Grandma insists on making tea in every situation and why her use of sugar in the tea signals the kind of situation she’s dealing with. We understand why Emily is Nira’s best friend, why Nira is jealous of their new friends, and why Emily is insisting that Nira be more understanding. Most of all, we understand both why Nira desires so strongly to please her parents and why she just can’t give up on music. Emily tells Nira early on that her playing reminds her of Neil—not Louis—Armstrong because when Nira plays, “[she] make[s] [Emily] think of moonlight and defying gravity” (loc. 74).
Through the book, Nira becomes a keeper of secrets, both her own and others’, and each secret “steals the stars from the sky and the light from the moon” (loc. 1538). As a reader in on those secrets, I felt every moment of Nira’s story, of her imperfections and her pursuit of growth, of her moments of being an outsider and of belonging, of seeing her path clearly and being pushed off of that path. Watching her figure out herself and those around her is a journey I won’t forget, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Pre-order Natasha Deen’s In the Key of Nira Ghani immediately. You won’t regret it.
"There must have been signs, but we were distracted by the roller coaster of the adventure. Paperwork, looking for a couch for the apartment, ties and shirts for Matthias."
"I used to eat. I used to like to eat, then I grew scared to eat, ceased to eat. Now my stomach hurts; I have been anorexic for so long that I have forgotten how to eat."
"I did not choose anorexia. I did not choose to starve. But every morning, over and over, I choose to fight it, again."
Thank you to Partner NetGalley for the awesome opportunity to read this book before publication. The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib is a powerful, gripping novel written by a commanding, courageous writer who addresses eating disorders and mental health head on. It is a story that needs to be told, and Zgheib tells it in a captivating way that forces the reader to take a good long look at the reality of that situation for everyone involved.
This story is the struggle of Anna Roux, an anorexic twenty-six year old married French woman living in America with her husband of three years, Matthias. As the story unfolds, Anna has been voluntarily placed in care at 17 Swann Street in DC, a residential facility for women with severe anorexia or bulimia. The novel is a powerful examination of everything leading up to that moment side by side with the experience of being in the residential facility itself, trying to find a way back from starvation and into life.
Most notable about this novel is the raw, direct way that Anna's narration depicts how unbelievably difficult it is for someone with anorexia nervosa to overcome it, even when that person desperately wants to be well. Throughout the novel, it is readily apparent that Anna's husband Matthias adores her and that her father and sister in France are still very close to her. However, Zgheib reveals how little the family intervenes, even when they see that Anna is in crisis. Even Matthias does not act:
"They had both become too comfortably settled in the magical kingdom of makebelieve. She
made believe that she was happy and all was fine, and he made believe it was true. It was less
painful than confrontation. Confrontation just led to fights. And so she ate nothing and they
both ate lies through three years of marriage, for peace, at the occasional cost of no more roller
coasters, no more sharing ice cream and French fries."
Matthias, who clearly loves Anna dearly and sees that she is suffering, cannot find a way to reach her. Anna's other family members also do not know what to say; what they do say only leads to brutal fights. And so they go on in silence until it is absolutely impossible to keep going. The pathway back is a long and painful one for all of them, and the end is uncertain.
By tracing the path of Anna's life, Zgheib shows how someone who is seemingly successful, happy, in love, and willing to change and grow spirals down into a husk of a person, unable to look at much less consume food. Zgheib demonstrates how some catastrophic childhood events coupled with dancing ballet, concern over body image, pressure to lose weight, and major life changes in early adulthood result in a profoundly severe situation for Anna as she finds herself starving to death.
I also loved the way that Zgheib incorporates facts and statistics into the narration; those biting details make real for the reader how destructive and deadly both anorexia and bulimia can be. Zgheib lays bare the cruel facts about how anorexia physically destroys the body. As Anna lives at 17 Swann Street, she arms herself with information about the disease that plagues her body. Throughout the novel, Anna notes what she learns, such as what she read in the patient manual: "Only 33% of women with anorexia nervosa maintain full recovery after nine months. Of those, approximately one-third will relapse after the nine-month mark." Some of the information is terribly discouraging, but Anna seems to take comfort in the knowing, even if knowing is painful.
Anna's time at the house is unbelievably difficult for her. The regimes are brutal for the girls there, and the methods can be severe, though the readers comes to understand how vital those methods are for the women. Feeding tubes become a fact of life for anyone who refuses to comply with the meal plans. The required therapy sessions threaten to tear Anna apart. It's clear that the people who work there have seen everything that Anna is experiencing before, and they can sometimes seem callous and even cruel from her perspective. Yet those caretakers are saving the lives of the women there, as Anna comes to understand.
I found Anna's tale captivating, and I believe that Zgheib speaks to many of the misconceptions and biases surrounding anorexia nervosa and bulimia, forcing the reader to take a clear-eyed look at the brutal reality of life for a person living with either of those conditions. Strikingly compelling and full of heartbreak but even fuller of hope, this is a phenomenal novel that will stay with the reader long after finishing.
I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson is a literary work of genius. This is one I read quite a while ago, but it has stayed with me and remains one of my favorites. It's riveting and powerful without seeming forced or contrived in any way. It's the story of twins, Jude and Noah, whose lives are drastically, irreparably altered by a catastrophic event. The entire story shapes itself around that event and their quest to find themselves functioning on the other side.
Let's talk about structure first. Both twins have narrative rights, and they each have a very distinct story to tell. One of the things I loved was how unique the two voices were. Noah talks in images, constantly interpreting the world through colors and visual analysis. When he sees a boy who had been his friend, he thinks: "I spot him following Courtney up a stair case, watch him as he razors through the crowd, nodding his head to guys, returning the smiles of girls, like he belongs. How is it he belongs everywhere? (PORTRAIT: The boy with All the Keys in the World with All the Locks)" (Nelson 126). Noah sees the world in colors and shapes, and his perspective is tender and acutely perceptive: "...then colors start flooding into me: not through my eyes but right through my skin, replacing blood and bone, muscle and sinew, until I am redorangebluegreenpurpleyellowred-orangebluegreenpurpleyellow" (Nelson 202).
Jude is also an artist, but she is much more direct in her thoughts and narration. She is superstitious, but she does not dwell in abstraction as often as Noah. When told that she cannot eat a donut without moaning, she considers her condition: "No time to dwell, though. Guillermo and Oscar are giving the show before them--me--their undivided attention. How did I get into this? Tentatively, I lift the donut to my mouth. I take a small bite and despite the fact that all I want to do is close my eyes and moan a porn soundtrack, I resist" (185). Nelson knows her characters inside and out, and she lets each of them speak with clarity and with distinct perspective. The fact that Jude and Noah each get to work through the grief process through their own lenses and using their own voices makes the entire story more powerful and captivating. The structure also takes on a "before/ after" approach that moves seamlessly between the present and the past, revolving around a critical event that profoundly affects the lives of the twins.
Another thing that I LOVE about this novel is the scope. Nelson takes on some heavy, complex subjects, and she does it with grace and delicacy, never oversimplifying or making things seem binary. Nelson takes on loss, grief, guilt, adultery, sexual assault, and suicide all within a captivating work with an intricate plot line that webs together beautifully. Though the topics are heavy and dramatic, the characters never feel melodramatic or insincere.
Perhaps the best part of the novel (though it's certainly debatable--there are so many awesome parts) is the way that Nelson portrays all of the characters (even the ones we don't get to know well) with tenderness and compassion. They are fully human--they do horrible things sometimes, and they hurt the people they love. They keep secrets and tell lies. They lie to themselves and to each other. And yet, she shows how beautiful they are and how deeply they love. And she shows the power of hope and of forgiveness. She shows how people can, despite all odds, help each other heal.
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
We're pleased to share some of our book reviews with you all here. Note that the title of the post also indicates the author of the review. The books reviewed are linked for purchase.