I read very few books in 2022, disappointingly, and wrote about even less. In retrospect however, I felt like I had a lot to say about some of these books and share them with whoever reads my little blog.
In a first, I’ve combined three reviews in one post, but fear not, they’re short and hopefully a fun read. Why, you ask, am I writing about books I read last year, in February of the new year? I procrastinated, that’s all.
Mad Honey – Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan
I didn’t know what sort of reading experience I wanted out of Mad Honey. Jodi Picoult’s last two novels, Wish You Were Here and The Book of Two Ways weren’t memorable to say the least, so naturally, I was expecting nothing and everything from Mad Honey. And my, oh my, did it take my breath away.
Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan joined forces for Mad Honey in the most bizarre way – via their Twitter DMs – and gave new depth to what means to be a woman in the 21st Century and the distances we go and the risks we take to protect our secrets.
Lily Campanello is dead (this is not a spoiler) and her too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, Asher Fields has been arrested for her murder. Asher is also the glue that holds his mother, Olivia’s peace and sanity together, and his trial is also Olivia’s trial – and everything she’s ever held dear about her son.
Olivia, written by Picoult, narrates the story forwards, from the day Lily is found dead, through Asher’s court battle and what comes after. Lily, written by Boylan, narrates backward, from the moment she (unknowingly) looks into the eyes of her murderer, through the tender moments she shared with Asher when they first started going out and the life she had before she and her mother Ava moved to Adams, New Hampshire, in the hopes of leaving behind all their scars and brokenness in California.
Between these timelines, a lot is said and misunderstood, and unsaid and understood.
The ending is haunting; the feeling of the sudden uncertainty that upends Asher and Olivia’s life, the knowledge that a kind, effervescent and emotional soul such as Lily’s will never tread the earth again, and that Asher and Lily will never get to live out their relationship on their own terms – all of it settles into you as you turn over the final page and firmly shut the book, because that’s the only way to keep Lily alive.
Unsettled Ground – Claire Fuller
When I bought Unsettled Ground from an extremely cosy independent bookshop in my neighbourhood, I did it because I adored its cover art. There was something eerie and inviting about the floral pattern against the black backdrop, like there was something awful scampering around beneath the flowers – and never have I ever read a book that captures its essence so accurately on the cover.
Twins Julius and Jeanie are in their mid-fifties and have never lived on their own, away from the humble cottage they were born in. Their mother, Dot, has shielded them from just about everything their entire lives, on the edge of the world where no man has ventured for a very long time. But when Dot dies without a sound one morning, Julius and Jeanie find themselves exposed to threats they never knew existed and unable to navigate the curveballs that come their way.
Unsettled Ground is a quiet novel that unravels more and more darkness as you make progress, much like the twins themselves. Literally and metaphorically, Julius and Jeanie go about their lives silently, doing what they’ve been taught to do and nothing more, except for when they sing together and momentarily set aside their suffering and shortcomings. Technology fails them, and bureaucracy makes no sense. Underneath the surface however, they harbour secrets that could destroy everything that holds them together.
Fuller writes delicately but with great impact. In the beginning, I felt infuriated at Julius and Jeanie’s incapacity to accept and adapt to the world outside their farm but with each new secret that sheds more light on why the twins were afraid of what the modern century had to offer, I sympathised with them a little more. We truly do not understand what every day would be like without the most basic appliance or the inability to communicate within seconds – and Fuller leverages this lack of understanding to display just how complicated our relationship with the natural world and our own instincts have become.
Fuller peels back the toughest layers of each character as they try to steer their way through the obstacles that litter their path, and shows that in the face of every gruesome and unfair thing that happens to us, our compassion for one another is what matters the most.
Klara and the Sun – Kazou Ishiguro
Klara and the Sun was on my to-read list for longer than I can remember, and the wait for the paperback version was long and painful (the hardcover book was too expensive, sorry!). And in all honesty, I’m not entirely sure it was worth it – controversial take, I know.
In a utopian world, Klara is an artificial friend (AF) and she’s chosen by a young girl named Josie who happens to be terminally ill and is in need of a friend-turned-carer. Klara accompanies Josie and her mother to their bungalow outside of town and prepares for a life of being everything Josie needs. Over time, Klara unearths family secrets and learns about human nature – our wasteful habits, how we make promises we don’t keep, how we often pretend to be something we’re not, and the lengths we go for those we love. Klara serves her purpose to the best of her ability, often attempting highly dangerous tasks to ensure Josie’s health and well-being. And then we move on.
Any and all questions you might have as you read Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro doesn’t answer. What does an AF look like? What illness afflicts Josie? What does it mean to be lifted? Is Josie a genetically designed child? And most importantly, how did we get here?
While the lack of context for the setting of Ishiguro’s latest novel is rather frustrating, through Klara, he has done what he does best: build a protagonist that wields great power and draws you into their world, unlike any other character.
Klara is calm, empathetic and fiercely loyal. She thinks deeply and tries to make sense of everything around her, even when it doesn’t make any sense. Her acumen as artificial intelligence doesn’t shroud her compassion or her sensibility. As she narrates the story of how she met, acquainted with and loved Josie, we see an unbiased and unique view of the world.
By the end, although I had about a thousand burning questions and was truly itching for answers (everyone will), I knew I wasn’t going to get any because that was not the point. In experiencing our broken ways of life and our fatal flaws through Klara’s cohesive and clear thoughts, Ishiguro has created a bold, intricate yet realistic map of where we’re inevitably headed.