Monthly Archives: July 2014

Book Review: The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

An old woman comes to the door, wearing a dress the color of young leaves.

She knows my cowrie-shell mouth.

She puts her hand on the little girl’s shoulder and closes her eyes and I know I’ve found who I’m looking for, and so the act is done and can’t be taken back, so I say nothing, and just wait and listen to the surf, the calls of men, the cries of children, the laughter of women, course up and down the waterways.

Then she opens her eyes and nods to me and says to the little girl,

HASSANIYYA: You must invite our guest in, Saha.

These are the final words of The Girl in the Road, but they could very easily be the first. There is a strongly cyclical feel to Monica Byrne’s debut novel; the narrative retreats further into the past even as the characters move forward in time, motifs appear and reappear in slightly altered form, and events repeat themselves in dreamlike fashion. At one point we learn that India is known as the “Land of Experience” because “in India, everything that could happen under the sun had already happened.” The Girl in the Road resounds with echoes of a similar infinity. It is an ambitious novel, and one that is unlikely to prove universally palatable. For me, though, it worked against all odds. Continue reading

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Thoughts on Thyrza by George Gissing (or: What Happens When an Author Reduces a Dynamic Character to a Symbol)

I once came across a Neil Gaiman quote that rang incredibly true to me: “People tend to find books when they are ready for them.” It’s actually a rather uncanny experience to pick up a book and find that it entirely jibes with—or even mirrors—your current state of mind, but that’s the experience I had recently when I read Thyrza by George Gissing and encountered passages like this:

Mrs. Ormonde had determined that, if her exertion would accomplish it, Thyrza should yet have as large a share of happiness as a sober hope may claim for a girl of passionate instincts…To be sure, such claim cannot be extravagant. The happy people of the world are the dull, unimaginative beings from whom the gods, in their kindness, have veiled all vision of the rising and the setting day, of sea-limits, and of the stars of the night, whose ears are thickened against the hungry cry of music, where thought finds nowhere mystery.

Now, there’s an obvious elitism here that I don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. That said, Gissing gets something about the nature of desire really right, and it struck a chord with me. Continue reading

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Book Review: Dreaming for Freud by Sheila Kohler

It takes guts to begin a novel about Freud as Sheila Kohler does, with the bland pronouncement that “he sits at his desk in his study, sucking on a cigar.” The joke is almost too obvious, and in the hands of another author would likely come across as desperate. That I was smiling by the time I finished reading the punchline is a testament to Kohler’s consistent ability to transform the stuff of erotic melodrama into something with a good deal more verve and intelligence.

And yet, in some ways, Dreaming for Freud flips Kohler’s usual formula on its head. Erotic secrets abound, but Kohler steadfastly refuses to position any of them as central—the key to unlocking Freud, Dora, or the narrative itself. If this sounds antithetical to Freud’s own theories, it should; this tension forms the backbone of the novel. Freud is a man in search of origins. Office lined with Egyptian figurines, he goes about his work like an archaeologist or, in his own words, a “hunter”: “He is an adventurer, a conquistador, Pisarro, a searcher of gold! He is hunting down the truth of the heart, and this girl must be made to give it to him, whether she wishes to or not.” Continue reading

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