The Midnight Library

The Midnight LibraryThe Midnight Library by Matt Haig (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: contemporary lit

Setting: modern England/ something like the bardo

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Carey Mulligan

Source: my own collection 

Length: 8:50:00

Published by: Penguin Audio (29 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

When Nora Seed decides to die, she winds up in the midnight library. There, she has a Big Book of Regrets and an infinite number of books, each containing different lives she could have lived if she had made various different choices. The rules are that she can try on as many lives as she wants but can never go back to a life once she’s left it, she can choose one to stay in, she can go back to her original life, or she can die. 

I think everyone can appreciate the idea of living a different life, making different decisions. It’s the ultimate “What If?” It would be fun to try a new life just to see, but I wish Nora was a more likeable character so following along in her journey would be more interesting. I found her to be quite weak and needy and as a result, I really didn’t care what life she chose for herself, or whether she chose a life at all.

I didn’t hate this book at all. I also found little in it that I truly liked. The sheer volume of 5 star reviews confuses me because it struck me as solidly mediocre and really not at all memorable. I think sucking readers in with the idea of a library between life and death is kind of gimmicky. Of course readers will be interested in the magic library. We already know the life changing, transformative power of books. So I think a story needs to have more to it than a magic library to carry it. 

I do think it is good that depression and anxiety are addressed here. It’s a real problem that millions of people are suffering. Showing that people who have depression aren’t abnormal or victims of abuse or whatever reason people think causes depression is an important discussion to have. Doing so in a book via a character with chronic depression can help people learn to empathize with others who have these conditions. It’s no more a person’s fault that they are depressed or anxious than it is if someone has cancer. So in that regard, this book did well. Sometimes people are just depressed or anxious and there doesn’t have to be some deep, dark trauma in the past to explain it.

I mostly felt that this book was like a Groundhog’s Day life buffet for a person who has completely failed to launch. Didn’t suck but wasn’t that good, either. I’m indifferent to it.

Where the Crawdads Sing

Where the Crawdads SingWhere the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: literary fiction

Setting: North Carolina marsh/swamp

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: public library 

Length: 370 pp

Published by: Putnam (2018)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Beginning in the early 1950s, Kya Clark is known as the Marsh Girl in her tiny hometown of Barkley Cove, NC. Her family are dirt poor and live in a shack in the swamp, four kids and their parents all crammed into a tiny space. Kya’s father is an abusive drunk and, one by one, everyone starts leaving. First it was Kya’s two eldest siblings. Then her mother. Finally, her brother, Jodie, who was closest to her in age. Kya is about six at the time and she learns to keep the abusive drunk at bay, though eventually he, too, abandons her. Alone and penniless, Kya learns how to care for herself. Through the kindness of one Black family, Kya usually has enough to get by. A friend of Jodie’s teaches her how to read. Eventually, Kya blossoms into a beautiful woman, though her isolation and abandonment issues have made her exceedingly shy and eccentric. 

When Chase Andrews, a well known young man in town, is found dead at the bottom of a lookout tower, the sheriff decides it looks like foul play and eventually arrests Kya, now in her early 20s, for his murder. What follows is a beautifully written story that weaves between the “present” 1969/1970 and the past, starting in 1952. Slowly, the two times merge, bringing Kya’s story into crisp focus.

I don’t usually read books that are wildly popular. I find the hype surrounding them is too often overreaction and the book itself falls flat. But! I. Fucking. Loved. This. Book! It was so, sooooooooooo good! I loved that Kya had a way to educate herself, having avoided school after the one day she attended and was mercilessly bullied. She was an uneducated hick – literally one of the swamp people – at first but learned to read with the help of Jodie’s friend, Tate. She closely studies the ecosystem of the marsh and becomes an expert in the field. And there is no sappy plot that has her turning suddenly into a sophisticated woman who moves to the big city where she is super popular and happy in society or any such tripe. She never loses her connection to her land. She never gets comfortable with people, and certainly not with crowds. It is sad only because she could have become an expert in the marsh ecosystem AND been a more chic person if the vast majority of the people in her life hadn’t walked out on her or had welcomed her into their community. 

The underlying theme was one of tolerance and prejudice. It can be no coincidence that the only two people who truly loved and accepted Kya for herself, aside from Jodie, were Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel, a Black couple from the outskirts of town. They helped her as they were able and as Kya allowed them. They stood by her during the worst times. They were never ashamed to be friendly or to be seen with her. Most of the other people in the book treated her with disdain and rejection, calling her swamp trash or telling their children not to go near her because she was dirty. So much for their vaunted Christian charity. 

There were bright points throughout Kya’s life and the people she encountered. Tate was arguably the most important person in her life. Because he taught her how to read, she was able eventually to support herself with her deep knowledge of the marshes. Jumpin’ and Mabel helped her survive and always made sure she knew she could stay with them if she wanted to. The clerk at the store, who Kya thought was nosy, was actually helping her in ways Kya never knew. These kindnesses made the rejection and isolation Kya faced that much more painful. 

More than anything, I think this book was a reflection on acceptance, hypocrisy, and redemption. I’m sure we all know a person who says they are accepting of everyone, but when faced with a challenge to that, shows they are anything but accepting at all. The people of Barkley Cove like to think they are kind and helpful but they are all quick to make assumptions about Kya based solely on the fact that she is poor. As if it were her fault every single person in her family took off and never seemed to give a thought about her afterwards. Kya made do, and she would have loved to have a friend or someone to care for her like a parent, but she was taught from a young age not to trust people because they will just hurt and abandon her. Kya is able to redeem herself in more ways than one over the course of the novel, from learning to read at the age of 14 to supporting herself through her painting and scientific observations, she shows those around her she is far more than just the Marsh Girl if they care to look deeper. The townsfolk also redeem themselves in an unexpected way, though by the time they figure things out, it is far too late to have a useful impact on Kya. 

Overall, I thought this was a lovely novel and count myself among those who loved it. Seems like the feeling about this are black and white, which, strangely, is appropriate.

Jonny Appleseed

Jonny AppleseedJonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead (Twitter, Insta)

Genre: contemporary/literary fiction

Setting: Manitoba/Peguis First Nation

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 224 pp

Published by: Arsenal Press (15 May 2018)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Jonny Appleseed is about a First Nations boy who is gay and trying to figure out how to be his best self. His mother wants him to come back to the Reservation for his stepfather’s funeral. Getting there requires more cash than he has on hand and so he works extra at his job, which is as an online sex worker. During the few days it takes him to save enough cash to get home, Jonny reflects on the experiences from his past that have helped to make him who he is right now, with a fever-dream kind of feel to the memories.

I am honestly not sure how to write a review of this book that really encompasses my thoughts without making me sound like either an idiot or an asshole. I loved this book, though, and loved learning more about the Cree Nation, where Jonny as well as author Joshua Whitehead are from. Truly, it isn’t possible for me to have known less about the Cree before beginning this book, so it was an interesting reading and learning experience. 

I enjoyed learning some Cree words, though I absolutely have no idea how to say them. At first, I wanted a glossary because not all of the words used in the book were explained by context (or maybe I just didn’t get it), but then I decided that I liked that there was no glossary. It felt more real for the words just to be there, slipped into the narrative as they probably would be in normal conversation, and it is my job as a reader to figure them out. I always like learning about a culture that isn’t familiar to me and I appreciated the richness that was imparted through this story.

Many parts of this were heartbreaking. Not just because of how people treated Jonny as a Two-Spirit indigiqueer person, as he calls himself. But also because of how poor he and most of his acquaintances are, how hard they have to work to scrape together enough to buy something like a six-pack, or that they work hard just SO they can buy a six-pack or spirits. 

I think this is a book everyone should read. It will make you laugh, cry, and most importantly, think and empathise. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Home isn’t a space, it’s a feeling. … And it isn’t always comfortable – at least, not an NDN home. In fact, quite often, it’s uncomfortable. But it’s home because the bannock is still browning in the oven and your kokum is still making tea and eating Arrowroot biscuits. … And, given time, it becomes mobile – you can take those rituals with you, uproot your home as if it were a flower.
  • But I just laughed and I think he got mad – I wish he knew that when an NDN laughs, it’s because they’re applying a fresh layer of medicine on an open wound.
  • Don’t be thinking I don’t know who this is for – you like that Walker boy. I’m fine with that, son, Creator, he made you for a reason – you girl and you boy and that’s fine with me, but what’s not fine is you selling yourself short. You gotta leave if you wanna survive, and when you do you’re gonna need the steadiness of those hands, m’boy. You’re gonna need a rock and a whole lotta medicine. 
  • I am my own best medicine.
  • But the way he told stories was so sincere that I couldn’t help but become enamoured. That was when I learned just how much power there is in stories …
  • “Howa, he’s just snapped,” someone said, which made Jordan laugh. “Oh heck, that guy’s feeling no pain,” she said. That saying is weird, “feeling no pain.” I used to laugh at it too, but nowadays I think that they’re drunk because they’re feeling all kinds of pain.
  • My kokum had always told me that sleep was not a waste of time, that it was a time for healing, so I slept long and hard, waiting for my blood to leech out its memories and for my body to rejuvenate.
  • “But you – you my everything, m’boy, all this time you been my rock.”  “No, Momma,” I replied, “you’re my rock. I’m just the one who broke you.”  “Maybe,” she said, biting her lip. “But then you also the one who ground me. Ground me up into a medicine.”
  • …a good story is always a healing ceremony, we recuperate, re-member, and rejuvenate those we storytell into the world…

 

Such a Fun Age

Such a Fun AgeSuch a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: literary fiction

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 310 pp

Published by: Putnam (pub date)

 

Emira Tucker is a 25 year old black woman who is struggling to find her path in life. She’s about to get kicked off her parents’ insurance and is juggling two jobs, having a hard time paying rent, and really wants to find a full time job with benefits. In the meantime, she is a part-time babysitter to Alix Chamberlain’s eldest daughter, Briar. Alix is a blogger and something of a social media influencer, and she thinks she knows what is best for Emira. When an incident occurs at a local fancypants grocery store and Emira is accused of kidnapping Briar, events transpire to alter the course Emira thought she was on. The confrontation at the grocery is caught on video and the man who filmed it, called Kelley, also thinks he knows what is best for Emira. Eventually, the various relationships and power dynamics shift and Emira does what is best for herself.

This was a really fast and easy read, though I think it fell apart at the end. It was too easy and wrapped up all the loose threads too neatly. The characters, except for Emira and Briar, seemed kind of like they were being pushed into a stereotype. But this was a novel making a social commentary about ‘woke’ culture and how so many people are trying so hard to be woke and not racist that they end up being racist for lack of self-awareness. It was a commentary on the white savior mentality and how what one person thinks is best may not actually be best for another person. 

Reid did a good job making Alix and Kelley into unreliable narrators. I really didn’t know who was telling the truth and who wasn’t, or what their motives were for a while. Emira’s voice is strong throughout and she develops a lot as a woman throughout the story. Everyone thinks people who have finished college and are in their mid-20s must know what they want to do in life, but so often that is not the case. I thought it was nicely done to show some of the real life struggles new adults face in their daily lives. 

The part that I felt was the most well written was the actual event at the grocery store. Yes, I know things like this happen all the time and it is awful. But Reid is adept at making readers feel the anger, fear, and humiliation that goes along with someone else assuming you are breaking the law simply because of the color of your skin or what you are wearing. That’s a bunch of racist fuckery and it should have no place in civilized society. It infuriates me when I see news reports of incidents like this, and books like Reid’s that make you more strongly empathize with victims of racism are vitally important. I am not a black woman; I will never know what it feels like to have someone assume I’m breaking the law just by being there. But hopefully, one day soon, racism won’t happen and it will be viewed with the disgust and contempt it deserves from everyone. 

Though I thought there were some plot holes and structural flaws, Such a Fun Age was a terrific read and I strongly recommend it. 

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the BonesSalvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (Website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: literary fiction

I read it as an: hardback

Source: library

Length: 261 pp

Published by: Bloomsbury (30 Aug 2011)

Salvage the Bones is technically a story about Hurricane Katrina. Really, though, it is about one family, the Batistes, living in extreme poverty in southern Mississippi. Narrated by Esch, the pregnant 15 year old only daughter in a family of boys, the 12 days of the story leading up to Katrina making landfall explore the family dynamics and dramas of Esch’s life. 

****All the spoilers below!****Read More »

The Reckless Oath We Made

The Reckless Oath We Made coverThe Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood            (WEBSITE, TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: literary fiction

I read it as a: hardback

Source: BOTM Club

Length: 436 pp

Published by: Putnam (20 Aug 2019)

Zhorzha ‘Zee’ Trego means well but still destroys everything she touches. She is a wreck, works menial jobs, and runs dope on occasion to make some extra cash. While in PT from a previous motorcycle wreck, she meets Gentry Frank. Gentry is on the spectrum and is convinced that he is a knight who is sworn to champion Zee. Together, they get swept up in a tragedy of events revolving around Zee’s sister and nephew, and choices they make will alter the rest of their lives.

This novel was a little like Gone Girl in that, with the exception of Gentry, there really wasn’t one likable character in the lot. But it was a terrific story and I couldn’t put it down. Zee is nothing but a hot mess and it is really frustrating to read. She is smart and could do so many better things with her life than wait tables and do the occasional drug run. Not that there is anything wrong with waiting tables, but I still feel bad for her and frustrated that she isn’t really trying to do something better when she has the talent / intelligence to do so. Maybe that is my own privilege talking but I just don’t get why someone in her position wouldn’t want to at least try to do something like go to college and get into a better socioeconomic status. She is really her own worst enemy and seems determined to make many of the same mistakes over and over. 

I loved Gentry. He is on the spectrum, speaks only in a quasi-Middle English dialect he learned from the SCA and medieval texts he reads, and is utterly convinced he is a knight whose purpose is to serve ‘Lady Zhorzha.’ He is well read and so imaginative. It was so sad to hear that people wanted to make him take meds to force him to talk ‘normally’, whatever that is, and to silence the voices he had. Hearing voices sounds scary to a lot of people but Gentry’s are harmless, as is he, and I am willing to bet a lot more people hear voices than will admit to it and do just fine. Maybe it’s because I am a medievalist, but I just had a big soft spot for Gentry and frankly think it would be fine by me if more men acted chivalrously. 

I loved the way Gentry spoke and I don’t think it would be difficult for other readers to get used to it quickly. It’s not like it’s Linear A or anything, it’s just a little antiquated. Frankly, some of the ways Gentry speaks is easier to read than Shakespeare, and he wrote in early modern English. I would imagine it is even easier to listen to on audio than to eyeball read it, especially if one isn’t familiar with Middle English. Just let yourself skim over it or listen with half an ear and don’t worry about it too much, then it will be easy. 

Overall, while this was a frustrating read for many reasons, it was because Greenwood crafted an excellent story with realistic characters. All of them, even the ones I hated, were like actual people I have known. It was very nicely done, easy to read, and I highly recommend it.

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Gentry singing a medieval version of ‘Roxanne’ – Roxanne! Thou needst not hang that lantern tonight. Roxanne! Ne wearen that cotehardie tonight.
  • Gentry trying to make friends with Uncle Alva’s guard dog: When I came up behind him, I could hear him doing the medieval version of Who’s a good boy. “Thou art a noble beast. ‘Tis right thou shouldst bristle, for thou knowest me not. But I bring thee meat that we might make amity twixt us.”

All This I Will Give to You

43267676All This I Will Give to You* by Dolores Redondo (trans. Michael Meigs)

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Timothy Andres Pabon

Source: My own collection

Length: 18:10:00

Publisher: Brilliance Audio

Year: 2018

Manuel Ortigosa is a writer  living in Madrid. He is hard at work on his next novel, waiting for his husband Alvaro to return from a business trip to Barcelona, when he receives word from police that Alvaro has been killed in a car accident. In Galicia, the opposite side of the country from Barcelona. Manuel travels to the town in Galicia where Alvaro died and learns that his husband was the Marquis of an ancient aristocratic family and Galicia is their ancestral home. Alvaro had hidden all this from Manuel because it seems he felt that his family was toxic and he wanted to shield Manuel from them. Upon his death, however, Manuel learns that Alvaro had saved his family from deep debt, using his own considerable funds to pay back loans and renovate the family homes, which put them in Alvaro’s personal possession, and thus he bequeathed everything to Manuel. Manuel is trying to come to terms with the fact that his husband hid who he was from him for the 15 years of their marriage, deal with the family who is indeed toxic, and find out what truly happened to Alvaro because he hadn’t died in an accident – he was murdered. Manuel meets two allies – a recently retired cop and a childhood friend of Alvaro’s, now a priest and Alvaro’s confessor – who aid him in finding out the truth.

This was a nicely complex book and I enjoyed not only the mystery plot but the travel element as well. I’ve never been to Spain, so the descriptions of the settings were some of my favorite parts, irrespective of the rest of the story.

The characters were generally complex and multifaceted. Manuel, the cop, and the priest were the ones I thought were the most multidimensional and complex people, though many of the other secondary characters, such as the family’s nanny, also seemed to have rich personalities.

There were many points of conflict – between Manuel and his husband’s family, between more progressive ideals and traditional Catholic practices, between the newer social order and the ancient traditions of nobility. There were also rivalries and intrigues between the family members as well, dark secrets and infighting. Alvaro was right – his family is toxic and he did well to keep Manuel from them. It would be exhausting to have to deal with a family like that.

I listened to this on audio book, so I have no idea how to spell some of the names, like the name of the cop friend, or the name of Alvaro’s family home. In any case, I think I would have preferred to eyeball read this one. I had picked up the audio book because it was a daily deal on Audible, but I didn’t care for the narrator. He did all right but I didn’t think he did a great job differentiating between characters. I had a hard time telling when it was supposed to be Manuel speaking and the cop, for example. His reading of women’s voices was pretty awful, though at least he didn’t make them sound like vapid cows like some male narrators do.

I loved the last line of the book SO MUCH. It is one of my favorite last lines ever now.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

32075853Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 295 pp

Publisher: William Morrow

Year: 2017

London-born Nikki utterly rejects her Punjabi culture’s traditional views, especially arranged marriage. So she is naturally horrified when her older sister, Mindi, actually decides she wants an arranged marriage and asks Nikki to post a marriage profile on the temple’s announcements board for her. Nikki does, grudgingly, and while there, discovers a notice for a job teaching writing at the local Punjabi community center. She takes the job and quickly learns it is not a creative writing class, as the flier had implied, but a basic adult literacy class given to mostly older widows who had never been educated in their native language, let alone in English. Understandably, they are uninterested in learning to read and write using the texts for kindergarteners, which is all that is available to them. What they are interested in is storytelling. Specifically, telling romantic and generally filthy dirty erotic stories. So Nikki uses that to help empower the women, many of whom had never been encouraged to speak up or felt loved in their marriages, going against her culture and customs to do so. At the same time, she inadvertently stumbles across some evidence from the death of a young woman that may prove she hadn’t died in the way everyone had been told, placing Nikki and the widows in danger with the local gang of self-appointed “morality police.”

I loved every word of this novel. I thought it was so interesting to see the differences in the younger and older generations in this very traditional culture. I know next to nothing about Punjabi traditions, and so it was kind of shocking to me to know that arranged marriages are still a thing for many of them even living in Western countries. I am a bit confused by some things that I read when getting ready to write this review as compared to what was written in this book. For example, multiple sites indicate that Sikhs value gender equality, and yet it seems that some of them, at least the very traditional people, get bent if a girl is not a virgin when she gets married. Honor killings were a thing in this book. Of course, wayward sons didn’t seem to get anything worse than ignored/cut off from family, but girls get murdered. So I don’t get that at all. Not sure if that’s just typical religious hypocrisy or patriarchal bullshit or what, but there it is. Then there were The Brothers, the self-appointed bunch of moral police/thugs who try to reign in the widows from telling their stories. Word to the wise, little boys: don’t fuck with the grannies. It will not go well for you.

Aside from me being confused by religious contradictions and hypocrisy, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who knows me even a little bit, I just loved this story. I think it was interesting that Nikki got so involved with the widows. At first, it could seem like it was self-serving on her part, that she simply wanted a job, but I think she quickly realized that she could make a difference to the women and to the community as a whole. Also, when she tells the widows that some people don’t even know about Southall, the London Punjabi community, and that they should change that, I do think it is because she sees a lot of potential in the women themselves, and has tapped into her own latent desire to do social justice, even if she herself wasn’t aware of it yet. The widows are able to help her, and themselves, accomplish something new and daring in part because of their almost invisible role in the community. As one of the women stated, no one ever listens to old women talking because it’s like white noise. They used their low position in society to effect change, because no one knew what they were up to until it was too late to stop them or contain it. That’s fucking phenomenal.

This invisibility also shows just how much younger generations disregard the lives and experiences of their elders. No one ever thinks about how our parents or grandparents have lives and individual identities that have nothing to do with us. They have and had desires and fantasies just the same as our own generation, whatever generation that may be. Sometimes, I suppose that realization comes as a surprise to people. Having the widows write their fantasies is such a delightful way to show the young’uns that they were not, in fact, the first ones to discover stuff to do in the bedroom, or anywhere else.

Overall, I just loved this book and definitely recommend it. It would make a great book club selection.

A Man Called Ove

18774964A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 337 pp

Publisher: Washington Square Press

Year: 2012

Ove is a stereotypical curmudgeon, which is a terrific word anyway, isn’t it. He is cranky, he feuds with his neighbors for not following the posted signs or the rules of the neighborhood association, and he just wants to be left alone. Really, what he wants is to die, and he has his own reasons for wanting that which are no one else’s business. But things keep happening that piss him off just enough to keep him engaged and living, and he knows from long experience that if he doesn’t handle it, it will never get done right. Such as teaching the new neighbor how to back up a trailer so he doesn’t run over his mailbox. Again. Or teaching the neighbor’s wife how to drive because the neighbor fell off a ladder and broke himself and needs someone to drive him around. Or teaching the local barista how to fix a bike so he can give it to his girlfriend. Or do battle with a corrupt White Shirt (Ove’s version of two by two, hands of blue) determined to forcibly remove a neighbor with Alzheimer’s to a nursing home against the wishes of the family. Along the way, even though Ove is a cranky old sod (he really isn’t), it becomes clear that he has a deep and painful past and that it’s always the quiet ones who are the most interesting, the ones you have to keep your eye on, and who care the deepest even if they don’t make a spectacle about it.

This was such a touching book. People who say nothing much happened didn’t pay attention. The people who disliked it just because Ove didn’t like the cat (or Jimmy, or the kid who couldn’t repair his own bike, etc) totally missed the point. I feel bad for those people. Ove looked past the exterior of people and saw the good in them, despite not being able to do things he thought they should be able to do for themselves. If they didn’t know something, he taught them. He was rough on the outside, but at heart he was a true teacher and went out of his way to help people when he didn’t have to. In the end, the community realized they were the ones who had been wrong about Ove all along.

Also, this book made me miss my grandad, even though he wasn’t a curmudgeon. But in a lot of ways, Ove reminds me of him anyway.

Some of my favorite lines (behind the cut in case of spoilers):Read More »

Small Country

36750086Small Country by Gaël Faye

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection (BOTM selection)

Length: 192 pp

Publisher: Hogarth

Year: 2018

Small Country is Gaël Faye’s debut novel, and it is a gutpunch. The novel is told through the eyes of a ten year old boy, Gaby, who is the child of a French father and Rwandan mother. He and his younger sister, Ama, live a fairly privileged life in a neighborhood of ex-pats, relatively sheltered from much of the political instability and poverty that the rest of the country is subject to. Gaby’s father actively discourages him from listening to or learning about politics and doesn’t believe children should join in adult conversations, so for the first half of the book, most of the political events are filtered through the lens of a child who doesn’t really understand what is going on. Gaby’s main sources of concern are his parents’ fracturing relationship and maintaining his friendships with Gino and the other children in his neighborhood. When the war touches his family, though, Gaby grows up faster than any child should ever have to.

This was a difficult read, obviously. The topic alone would make it so, but seeing it through a child’s eyes made it worse. It was obvious that Gaby had no real idea what was happening and that his life was a lot more sheltered than the lives of many of those around him, including his household staff. Gaby’s home was in a fairly exclusive, guarded, safe-ish area. The cook and gardener who worked at his house everyday lived in a different area and were in danger every time they set foot in their homes. I don’t think Gaby ever fully realized that. It was just that one day, he noticed Donatien and Prothe were not there anymore and he wondered where they were. The political events were similarly vague until near the end of the book. They were all filtered through Gaby’s childish ignorance, which wasn’t all his fault. His father kept his children ignorant of politics, whether for their own safety or for some other reason, we never really know. Clearly, it didn’t work to keep them safe or clear from war. It came to them anyway. It stripped Gaby of his childhood, brutally. The writing reflects the way Gaby tried to cling to his childhood, wanting to keep things the way they were, just wanting to play with his friends and not worry about protecting his street or neighborhood. One of the most poignant lines of the book was when Gaby told his friends Gino and Francis, “You’re my friends because I love you, not because you’re from one ethnic group or another. I don’t want anything to do with all that!” (153). He is clinging to a childhood that has already deserted him, but he has not yet realized it, and it is heartbreaking.

How much of Gaby’s childhood was taken from him is really highlighted in the letters he exchanges with his French pen pal, a ten year old girl named Laure. In one of his letters, Gaby told Laure about the elections held in Burundi and how the people turned out in their droves to vote, told her about the political parties in the country, the candidates, and who ultimately won the election and why it was such a big deal to the people. In return, Laure sent a three-line letter, telling him she was having a fun vacation at the beach and that what he had written to her was funny. What Gaby wrote didn’t even register to Laure as an actual event, or that another child the same age as her could be living through something as impactful as a democratic election, as horrific as a genocide. It makes me think of this when he is thinking to himself, years later, “I used to think I was exiled from my country. But, in retracing the steps of my past, I have understood that I was exiled from my childhood. Which seems so much crueler.” (179).

This is a book that I will be thinking about for a long time.