When the calendar ticked over to September I had to restrain myself from binging all the atmospheric dark/magical books I’d been saving for autumn. I’ve read one (which is featured below) but the rest I’m keeping for when it’s a bit colder. As with perfume, it turns out my book choices are seasonal.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
“Kneeling before me, he lays his head on my lap and says, ‘I’m going to ruin you.”
I bought this book for Our Bonkers Vanessa when it was first released with quite a stir at the start of lockdown. Its narrator is Vanessa, who is thirty-two at the height of the Me Too movement. Her old schoolteacher has been accused of sexual abuse and the present day plot is interspersed with the story of how, at fifteen, she was groomed by the same teacher. Back then she was an extremely promising student who had gained a scholarship to a private boarding school In the present, she’s working as a hotel concierge and getting through the days in a haze of drink and drugs. She is desperately clinging on to the idea that the ‘relationship’ she had with fortysomething Strane was a romance and not what we see in the re-telling – serious abuse.
I had thought the book would show Vanessa coming to terms with the truth. However this is more of an exploration of the dynamics between the predator and the victim. It shows the extreme manipulation that leads to the victim feeling responsible and protective towards their abuser, no matter what it costs them. This was handled incredibly well and I’ve never felt anger towards a character the way I did towards Strane. If you are very plot-driven or not interested in the subject, you may find it slow. 4.25/5
I didn’t get the satisfaction of Vanessa accepting the reality of what he did to her and speaking out. It ends pretty abruptly, as she is just beginning to face what really happened. However, I still found it compelling and didn’t feel cheated in any way.
The Surrender Experiment by Michael A. Singer
“Each of us actually believes that things should be the way we want them, instead of being the natural result of all the forces of creation.”
I read Singer’s The Untethered Soul at a tough time in my life and it really helped. The Surrender Experiment is more of a memoir exemplifying what living by the principles in that book can look like. Singer has a spiritual awakening in 1972 at the age of 22 and lives the rest of his life surrendering to whatever life brings him. We watch as events flow in such a way that the perfect people and opportunities arise at exactly the right time for the next forty years. This involves him inadvertently becoming a tech multimillionaire (though he ploughs the money back into his spiritual organisation). It is an amazing testament to his dedication to his spiritual path but it is also near impossible to relate to. It’s hard not to feel that he was at least in part, unbelievably lucky and highly predisposed to be able to access a transcendental meditative state. For decades everything falls into place perfectly just by him accepting whatever comes along and not acting on his personal preferences or fears. It’s not until the 2000s that he is tested and even then he never really struggles. Maybe I’m just jealous. 3/5
The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa
“He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world”
This gentle Japanese novel is about a housekeeper who goes to care for an elderly Maths genius whose short-term memory only lasts for eighty minutes. He has notes all over his suit which act as reminders and numbers soothe his anxiety. At first the two of them don’t gel but when her young son starts to come to the house after school, a bond begins to form between the three of them. There was more Maths than I could follow – or wanted to – and a fair bit about baseball. However, overall it’s a short, sweet book about a chosen family. 3/5
Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri
‘Through the lens of hair texture, Dabiri leads us on a historical and cultural investigation of the global history of racism.’
Emma Dabiri is an academic who writes for The Guardian. This is her first book which focuses on the personal and political aspects of Black hair. Dabiri is the daughter of a white Irish mother and a Nigerian father. She grew up in Ireland in a time and place with few other Black people. She was implicitly and explicitly made aware that she was unlucky to be mixed race yet not born with the ‘good hair’ that normally comes with. Her mother first took her to England to get her hair relaxed at the age of 12. The harsh chemicals would cause her scalp to burn and scab over but this made her happy because it meant the process had worked. She now embraces her type 4 coils but this book is much more than a memoir. It goes back into the history of hair-styling in Africa, the effect slavery had on hair grooming, the emergence of relaxing in America and modern day cultural appropriation.
I’ve decided not rate my enjoyment of anti-racism works as it just doesn’t sit right.
The Golem and The Djinni by Helene Wecker
“On a cloudless night, inky dark, with only a rind of a moon above, the Golem and the Jinni went walking together along the Prince Street rooftops.”
This book had my name written all over it: mythical creatures, a historical setting and lyrical writing. A golem – a woman made of clay using Kabbalistic magic – is adrift in the Jewish quarter of New York City, 1899. At the same time, a djinni made of fire is released from a flask in the Little Syria district across the city. The golem, Chava, is taken in by an understanding rabbi while Ahmad is given a job by a local tinsmith. When their paths cross they recognise that the other is also different from the people around them. They strike up an unlikely friendship, with Ahmad being angry at his confinement to human form while Chava has a strong sense of responsibility towards others (whose needs she can sense).
The characters are beautifully rendered and the atmosphere of NYC at the turn of the 19th century is wonderful. If I had to criticise it, it is slow-paced and the two main characters don’t meet until over a third of the way into the book. However, I was in no rush. It won’t be for everyone but it was just my kind of novel. 4.5/5
Are there any books you’re looking forward to reading this autumn?