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A Most Unlikely Heroine: ‘The Story of H’ by Marina Perezagua

The Story of HMarina Perezagua’s masterfully written novel The Story of H (281 pages; Ecco/HarperCollins: translated by Valerie Miles) follows the agonizing lifelong journey of an unlikely heroine, H, an intersex woman mutilated in the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima. The bombing is a paradoxical catalyst in H’s life, giving her the freedom to pursue the surgeries she needs to become anatomically a woman; but with this comes the loss of her family, home, and most important to her identity, her ability to conceive a child. H faces ostracization after the bombing and her transition, and leaves Japan to travel the world in search of love, family, and an understanding of the atrocities experienced by survivors like herself.

When she moves to New York City, H meets the love of her life, Jim, a former prisoner of war. Over the course of their partnership she becomes obsessed with helping Jim reunite with his long lost Yoro, a Japanese girl who was left in his care and whom he loves like a daughter. The search takes them across the world, spans decades, and eventually drives H to commit murder. As she relays her life to readers and the police, H experiences the phenomenon of psychological pregnancy, which she occasionally acknowledges as a manifestation of her impossible wish to become a mother and her all encompassing love for Yoro and Jim.

Perezagua’s novel, which was published in Spanish in 2015 as Yoro, tells not just H’s story but the stories of other victims of Hiroshima, as well as that of the slave laborers who built the Burmese Railroad and mined uranium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the victims of the sexual abuse carried out by UN peacekeepers in the Congo so many years later. It is not written for the faint of heart. Perezagua disbars no details in elucidating readers to the terror experienced by people across continents and throughout history. The lesser-known traumas Perezagua revisits, in acknowledgement of the continued suffering caused by World War II, are repulsive, terrifying, but necessary the novel does not relish in these atrocities but rather uses them to demand culpability. In her note to the reader Perezagua describes most eloquently the importance of her work:

“Just as pieces of broken pottery can be put back together by covering their cracks with a varnish of gold dust, so could I both in my day-by-day life and in what I write try to protect the historical and aesthetic value of scars. When I see a wound, I admire it because there, and not in our unbroken flesh, do I find the nature of being human: its vulnerability, but also the enormous energy that it requires to pick up our pieces from the ground, reunite them, and be born again.”

While The Story of H reads as a confession of a murder it could more adequately be described as a fictitious memoir, peppered as it is with historical accounts, supplemental research, and anecdotes. Perezagua’s writing oscillates from pithy and fierce on one page—to swirlingly poetic the next. It is difficult to come up for air when reading the novel because H’s account is so unrelenting, her telling impassioned and coded, full of hidden meaning and etymology that necessitate a second read.

One of the most impressive examples of her mastery of craft is the way Perezagua fills H’s retelling of her journey with amusing narrative, balancing out the horrors we encounter. Also, H often will divertingly expound on an idea she has just happened upon, or a theory she is busy assembling. Her tangents range from painful revelations to fragmented bursts of clarity about herself and others:

“If exorbitant hospital bills left me homeless, I don’t think I’d ever wash up, I’d waltz my stench around all the public places. That’s why I never cover my nose. Of course the smell bothers me, but it’s not offensive, and above all, it opens my sensory canals to a new perception: that smell, whomever it’s coming from, is always the same; it’s a democratic smell. When we’re clean, we all smell different. But when we’re piss-stained and sweaty, we all smell the same. I don’t like our common odor very much, but it nonetheless offers an unusual and mentally satisfying experience. There are things that do make me sick, like seeing some lady hold her nose ostentatiously over a stupid smell. So yes, no question, if I didn’t have a home and lived on the street, I would let layers and layers of stench accumulate too, just to make sure I couldn’t be confused with all those people clutching their noses while kissing any old ass necessary to make the money to buy the perfumes that camouflage their spite.”

Reading Perezagua’s novel (and Valerie Miles hypnotic translation of it) means a traumatic re-visitation of the darker moments of human history, mirrored by H’s own pitfalls. Yet The Story of H is simultaneously a joyful and perceptive recollection of a long and complicated life. Perezagua set out to write a novel that explored the difficulties and triumphs of humanity, and in doing so she wote something equal parts disturbing, visceral, and enchanting.

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Dormant Secrets of a Sleepy Town: ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ by Jon McGregor

The Reservoir TapesIn his newest book, The Reservoir Tapes (167 pages; Catapult), British novelist Jon McGregor (long-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times) returns to the complex world of his acclaimed 2017 novel, Reservoir 13, which was set in a seemingly sleepy English village. McGregor further explores through this story collection the intricate lives within that community as they begin the agonizing search for Becky Shaw, a local girl gone missing. Told from the same fifteen distinct perspectives of Reservoir 13, McGregor’s stories give readers a candid view of the relationships and transgressions of these private townspeople.

The Reservoir Tapes began as a side project to Reservoir 13, appearing first on BBC Radio 4 as fifteen separate episodes. The “perspectives,” as they’re called, addressed the months leading up to Becky’s disappearance (in Reservoir 13, McGregor focused on the passage of time following that), exploring the tensions and fissures long present in the community, and offering readers more information about the characters while leaving the mystery as unresolved as at the end of the original story.

But The Reservoir Tapes also serves as an enjoyable read or listen (they’re available as podcasts on iTunes, BBC, and Audible) for those unfamiliar with McGregor’s novel. The imaginative and nuanced vignettes McGregor creates are less about the particulars of Becky Shaw’s unnerving disappearance and more concerned with the divergences in morality amongst the villagers.

The book begins with a one-sided transcript of an interview with Becky’s mother about her daughter’s disappearance. The introductory chapter is haunting and strained, as an unknown voice attempts to ask questions, peppered with apologies and words of comfort, in response to Charlotte’s unseen and redacted answers. The conversation generates as many doubts about the ensuing events as it attempts to answer.

While not as stylistically unnerving, the following chapters prove equally absorbing, as they follow each character through his or her outwardly mundane life only to reveal the sordid details of their families, marriages, and friendships. McGregor writes from the perspective of insecure teenagers and the unhappily married, creating distinct narratives articulating a pattern of similarly repressed concerns throughout the village as we’re transported to the kitchens and gardens where they spend their misty mornings contemplating their troubles. The vignettes are succinct and impressively subtle, wavering between a mix of reflective and tangential thoughts, offering brief but revealing portraits of the narrators as they see themselves. Occasionally they will deviate from their own self-absorption and off-handedly gossip about the other villagers, fostering the sense that we’re amid a close-knit community. By taking the story of Becky Shaw’s disappearance from its original long form to a more truncated prologue, McGregor has enriched his story that much more, making the mystery at its center that much more compelling.

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A Long Postponed Homecoming: ‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This Mournable BodySet in the wreckage of a devastating war for independence, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s latest novel examines the impacts of race, class, and gender in post-colonial Zimbabwe. This Mournable Body (296 pages; Graywolf Press) returns us to the story of Tambudzai, the protagonist of Dangarembga’s previous two novels –– the critically acclaimed Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not. The novel opens with Tambudzai barely getting by, living off the remains of her savings from an advertising job and desperately looking for accommodations. Her goal is to move out of the ragged youth hostel she’s stuck in (despite being past the hostel’s age limit).

Even with a college degree and the hope of opportunity following Zimbabwe’s newly achieved independence in 1980, Tambudzai struggles to scrape together a living in Harare. Eventually she finds lodging in the boarding house of a widow and work as a high school biology teacher, though none of this is in line with her personal ambitions. After various incidents, Tambudzai takes an opportunity from a former foe that lands her in the blossoming “eco-tourism” industry. Though Tambudzai’s professional ventures serve as an attempt to run away from her village origins, the inadvertent result of these experiences is a long postponed homecoming.

Tambudzai’s story is one of Sisyphean perseverance in the face of obstacle after obstacle. One imagines Tambudzai would be (justifiably) full of resentment: she quit her professional advertising job after her white colleagues constantly took credit for her work, her circumstance as a poor middle-aged black woman do her no favors, and her every success is narrowly achieved and difficult to maintain.

The resultant portrait of Tambudzai and, by extension, Zimbabwe proves both devastating and haunting. Dangarembga’s prose is viscerally arresting, and her scenes are often disturbing. In the first few pages, Dangarembga goes into graphic detail when Tambudzai finds herself part of a crowd harassing a woman (who turns out to be a hostel-mate) as her clothes are ripped off and she becomes the target of rocks and other “missiles”:

“The sight of your beautiful hostel mate fills you with an emptiness that hurts. You do not shrink back as one mind in your head wishes. Instead you obey the other, push forward. You want to see the shape of pain, to trace out its arteries and veins, to rip out the pattern of its capillaries from the body.”

Dangarembga writes in the second person, and though the reader is aligned with Tambudzai in this manner, it doesn’t always engender sympathy, given her harsh pragmatism and bitter nature. The novel is psychologically tense, and Tambudzai frequently faces dark and difficult choices. She is at times a victim of the culture of violence and at others a complicit perpetrator.

To that extent, she questions her own values and that of nascent Zimbabwe, which in late July held its first elections since 1987 without Robert Mugabe already serving as president. Dangarembga examines what it means to be a Zimbabwean, both the positive and the negative. The culture is one that emphasizes strength and tenacity, but the tough exterior also excuses and allows abuse. When Tambudzai sees her cousin’s emotional reaction to finding out that the teacher is hitting her child, she considers it evidence that Nyasha is no longer a true Zimbabwean woman. “Weeping alongside a first grader–even nearly doing so–is a nauseating act of ghastly femininity,” Dangarembga writes. “You have no desire to expend energy on sympathy for a minor matter of corporal punishment. Women in Zimbabwe are undaunted by such things.”

She searingly comments on the still-felt impacts of colonialism and capitalism on a country recovering from immense turmoil, where, though the war is over, injustice remains and prospects are bleak. Amid the ensuing disillusionment and hopelessness is Tambudzai’s single-minded quest for monetary success –– the idea that to be “somebody” requires leaving one’s heritage in favor of a more Westernized identity, and with that “the constant tension from not knowing whether or not you were as you were meant to be, the brutal fighting to answer affirmatively that question, and its damage.”
Ultimately, This Mournable Body is a reflection on the past, and how it can define us. Reckoning with horrific acts she’d rather push away, Tambudzai is caught in a struggle between the deep urge to forget and the stifling inability to do so. The eventual return to her home village will force her to decide what the value of one’s heritage truly is.

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Making Anguish Luminous: ‘Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir’ by Jean Guerrero

CruxJean Guerrero’s first memory is of her father opening the window of a plane and running his hand through a cloud, while giving her courage to do the same. She vividly remembers how airy and empty the cloud felt.

In Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir (320 pages; One World), Guerrero reveals there are still many things she doesn’t know about her father. She doesn’t know when, exactly, he began showing symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. She doesn’t know if his conviction that the CIA was stalking him was entirely delusional, rooted in truth, or indicative of shamanic powers. “What I do know is this,” Guerrero writes with equal parts wonder and grimness, “in my first memory, Papi is making me hallucinate.”

Much like Guerrero’s lingering recollection of touching a cloud, Crux has a surreal, hallucinatory edge to it. Marco Antonio becomes to Guerrero what many emotionally (and oftentimes physically) absent and traumatized immigrant parents become to their children: abstract, mythologized, fundamentally unknowable. Throughout Guerrero’s life, Marco Antonio crossed borders between Mexico and America, between derangement and lucidity, between the mystical and the physical. In her search to understand—and perhaps secretly be more like—her charismatic and capable, yet crack-addicted, father, Guerrero crosses those borders with him. She must, for this compulsion is part of the damage he has done to her. Guerrero explains: “The daughter sees her single mother slaving away, weighed down by love and duties…The absent father’s magnetism lies, in part, in the contrast he represents. He is not tied down by anything.”

As a pimply faced, frizzy haired kid, Guerrero cast spells. (Once she successfully, though temporarily, made a classmate take interest in her.) As a beautiful and much more emotionally unstable student at the University of Southern California, she was so transformed by one Ecstasy-fueled night of raving she wrote a twenty-page manifesto on the drug’s potential to create empathy and peace on a macro and micro level. During her time at college, she also began research on covert CIA and Air Force projects, such as MKUltra and Active Denial System, drawing similarities between their remotely transmitted millimeter waves that inflict unbearable pain on civilians and her father’s “delusions.”

But it is in Mexico, to where Guerrero moves for a job with the Wall Street Journal, that she becomes most entangled with her father’s story. There, she nearly drowns at a beach, an incident rife with metaphorical resonances –– Guerrero frequently compares her father to the tumultuous ocean. One day the dam inside of her breaks: “The more I wept, the more I felt alive again. I was exorcising myself of the sea.” The sea and, finally, after three decades, her father.

Occasionally, Guerrero veers from the engagingly hallucinatory to the hysteric. Two years after her near drowning, Guerrero describes herself as a “ghost unaware of having died,” and her hands as “white, rotting appendages”; every dream she has is starkly recalled; she enters “Hell” on several occasions. When minute details are so charged, described with such intensity and drama, it becomes difficult to locate the “crux” of Crux—indeed, the title is used differently each time it appears.

It is easy, however, to forgive Guerrero—digging into our resilient immigrant parents’ and grandparents’ pasts is a tricky, nasty business. It can be difficult, shameful even, to look directly at their humiliations and failures, yet Guerrero bares it all. She describes a time in her father’s youth when his mother left him alone at home, crying, to go to the theatre with some family. Claustrophobic and still sobbing, Marco Antonio broke a window and sat on a bench outside of his house. Despite having always been uncommonly sensitive and expressive, “Marco stopped crying after that. He started sleepwalking. He remains a sleepwalker as I write this.” Later in Crux, Guerrero reveals how this episode (relatively harmless compared to the physical abuses her father suffered) may have contributed to his illness, citing an expert: “Laing argues that ‘schizoid’ symptoms develop in individuals who seek to eliminate in themselves natural impulses, such as a desire to be touched.” Though such a connection between trauma and repression is tenuous, many children of immigrants have seen how inescapable the past can be.

If Marco Antonio shows Guerrero the power of the past, her mother, Jeannette, shows her the power of re-interpreting it. The past is not static, and the present less so. One moment shines in her childhood, amid her father’s deterioration and reclusiveness: once Guerrero’s mother took her and her sister Michelle to buy ladybugs. When the ladybugs escaped in the car, the sisters were at first frightened then dissolved into laugher inside the storm of ladybugs. “From Mami and Michelle, I was learning the alchemy of interpretation. We could make our anguish luminous.”

Guerrero knows she has a choice in how she interprets her father, concluding, “I prefer to believe in shamans than in lunatics. It is the great gift of my Hispanic heritage.” Just as the constellation Crux has guided countless sailors, at the end of her memoir, Jean Guerrero chooses the option that, however improbably, guides her safely to shore.

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Discovering Warmth Among the Desolation: Bernardo Atxaga’s ‘Nevada Days’

9781555978105In Bernardo Atxaga’s autobiographical novel Nevada Days (352 pages; Graywolf Press), the gaudy emptiness of the Biggest Little City stands as an insufficient guard against the encroaching desolation surrounding it. Upon arriving in Reno, the acclaimed Basque author is struck by the suffocating silence of the place. Often enough, Reno appears just as much a ghost town as the actual ones Atxaga visits. To use the Daniel Sada metaphor he frequently invokes, the city appears as a stage-set version of the desert and, by extension, reality.

Nevada Days (which was first published in 2013, but now sees an English translation by Margaret Jull Costa this month) is a fictionalized account of Atxaga’s nine months from 2007 into 2008 as a writer-in-residence at the University of Nevada’s Center for Basque Studies. Written as a series of dated, journal-like entries, the novel intersperses lived moments, such as haunting excursions into the Nevada desert (“I was keenly aware of the world’s utter indifference to us. This wasn’t just an idea either, but something more physical, more emotional, which troubled me and made me feel like crying.”), with meditations on memories from Atxaga’s homeland, so that Basque country feels as near as the alien landscape and culture in which he finds himself.

Though the harsh isolation of the desert will prove to be tempered by the genuine welcome he finds in Reno, danger looms large during Atxaga’s time there. He palpably conveys the sense of fear around him as a serial rapist continues to attack women near his home on College Drive, where he lives with his two daughters, and a college student next door, Brianna Denison, is kidnapped and murdered.

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Seeing Anything Clearly in This Time and Place: Zachary Lazar’s ‘Vengeance’

Vengeance_cvr_72dpi_web_res_grandePublished earlier this year to respectful notices, Zachary Lazar’s painstakingly crafted novel Vengeance (272 pages; Catapult) takes on the complicated issues of race, the socially constructed questions of guilt or innocence in late stage capitalism, cultural appropriation and redemption. “What ‘Vengeance’ really attempts to unravel is the problem of injustice, although it is not a protest novel,’’ Katy Waldman noted in The New Yorker. Prison reform has been in the air—just ask Kim Kardashian—but news cycles come and go. Regardless, Vengeance merits a more sustained look.

The novel was inspired by the author’s visit to Angola, a Louisiana State Penitentiary (and former slave plantation) where he saw a production of a Passion Play, “The Life of Jesus Christ.” With a friend named Deborah (in real-life, photographer Deborah Luster, whose series “Tooth for an Eye: A Choreography of Violence in Orleans Parish’’ is credited at the end of the book), Lazar’s narrator (and thinly veiled stand-in) attends the rehearsals and ultimate final performance.

More importantly, he befriends a prisoner named Kendrick King, doing life for his alleged role in a drug deal gone murderously wrong. Did he, in fact, do the deed? Or was he paying dues, proudly standing up for his cousin, Mason, who, the narrator finds out through dogged reporting, was most likely the one who was directly involved. But does it matter, ultimately?

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All the News That’s Fit to Be Normalized: Hilary Plum’s ‘Strawberry Fields’

strawberry-fields-cover_origStrawberry Fields (Fence Books; 224 pages), the breathtaking new novel from Hilary Plum, and winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose, opens with what might be the common denominator in humanitarian crises around the world: a nameless American at a refugee camp in a nameless country. “The children’s suffering has been unimaginable,” the American begins—as if we did not already know this.

But soon, one of the children is telling the gathered reporters and NGO representatives at the camp what he learned in school: the towns of his country, the names of its leaders, even the locations of rebel supply camps. “Who is your teacher?” the reporters ask, “is she still alive?” The child does not respond. A camp administrator shakes her head. “You don’t think he made her up,” the Swedish journalist says to her, aside. “No,” the administrator says, “but children are easy to fool.”

Within this short scene Strawberry Fields opens its focus, which is not children but adults—namely, journalists, and the virulent scenes of their information. Each three-to-ten-page chapter takes the perspective of a different person reporting on or investigating or sometimes even participating in some event around the world, from the torture of prisoners of war to the calm interior of an eating-disorder clinic. Many of the scenes are tragic, some viscerally so, but none feel out of place. Together they form one of the most astonishing reading experiences to be had in recent years.

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Hidden in Plain Sight: ‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata

81SsLYe8ZRLThe Japanese word “Irrashaimasse” is an honorific expression used most often as a stock welcome in places of business. The spirit of the word is reflected throughout award-winning author Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori; 176 pages; Grove Press), which invites readers to re-examine contemporary society’s absurdities through the idiosyncratic worldview of its narrator, 36-year-old Keiko Furukura. Murata perfectly portrays this unconventional woman who has been leading a stagnant life working at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart since its opening 18 years ago. In the meantime, her friends are getting married and having children.

Furukura has never even been with a man, until an unlikely solution presents itself in the form of her new co-worker, Shiraha. Unfortunately, Shiraha is viewed as a societal parasite, a close-minded man who believes that the world is still “basically the stone age with a veneer of contemporary society, and only took a job at the convenience store to find a wife. To little surprise, not only does he perform poorly, but he is eventually fired for his stalker-like behavior toward some of the female customers and employees. Furukura crosses paths with him again when she sees him outside the store and realizes he has been evicted from his place and is now homeless. She proposes a convenience marriage, which to Shiraha wasn’t ideal initially, but it is beneficial for both of them; this turns in to a quid-pro-quo situation as Shiraha only agrees to live with her if Furukura allows him to stay in the apartment. She can talk about him all she wants, but he doesn’t wish to be seen in public where he believes society will berate him for his choices.

Their relationship bears positive fruit in Furukura’s life: her co-workers invite her out for drinks, and her friends finally display some excitement instead of judgment toward her. She slowly tries to assimilate into society’s standards of a normal life—for instance, she considers bearing children with Shiraha—but the idea is stopped by a phone conversation with Shiraha’s sister-in-law. “Please don’t even consider it,” she tells her. “You’ll be doing us all a favor by not leaving your genes behind. That’s the best contribution to the human race you could make.”

Muriel Sparks wrote in A Good Comb, “There is nothing like work to calm your emotions,” and Furukura not only turns to work to calm her emotions, but to give her a sense of having some role in society. “I just come in every day,” she declares, “because I am accepted as a well-functioning part of the store.” She believes her very cells exist for the store, and so can never hope to leave her position.

Convenience Store Woman is a novel that proves sylphlike; spare in its contents, with a masterfully deceptive comic veneer that keeps the reader turning the page. Even with peculiar and macabre elements aplenty (as when a young Furukura wants to grill and eat a dead bird she finds on the ground), Murata has penned an unlikely feminist tale that unflinchingly depicts the social constructs of being a single woman.

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Outsiders in Life and Love: ‘Never Anyone But You’ by Rupert Thomson

Never Anyone But YouPublished in a year defined by women’s activism, Rupert Thomson’s new novel, Never Anyone But You (368 pages; Other Press), succeeds in reimagining the lives of two of the most intriguing, elusive, and under-appreciated figures of the Parisian Surrealist movement, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. As lovers, anti-fascist activists, and even step-sisters, the two were an inseparable creative force during their more than forty years of partnership.

Originally born Lucy Schwob (Cahun) and Suzanne Malherbe (Moore), the pair hailed from two affluent and, well educated families that encouraged their artistic pursuits; introduced as teenagers in 1909, they began an artistic partnership that led to romance. The artists’ families became close, resulting in the 1917 marriage of Malherbe’s widowed mother to Schwob’s divorced father. Ironically, the marriage made it easier for the pair to continue their romantic relationship and live together in Paris, helping them navigate their eras barriers around gender and sexuality. It was around this time in their artistic careers, that they adopted the more gender-fluid identities they would become best known for — Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Outside of Cahun’s writing and the pair’s collaborative photography, which captured their avant-garde view of gender and renunciation of the patriarchy, there is little work to substantiate the motivations of Moore and Cahun’s eccentric and electric lives. This is largely because the Nazi’s destroyed their home in Jersey in 1944, when they were arrested and sentenced to death for the creation and distribution of anti-Nazi propaganda. This lack of physical records, coupled with the secrecy necessary to maintain their bohemian and forbidden romance, has left much of Cahun and Moore’s private lives to the imagination.

Interestingly, while the couple’s art and writing have been exhibited and published since the 1920’s, achieving them cult-figure status in gay community and the art world, Cahun continues to receive the majority of praise, despite Moore’s intrinsic involvement in their photography and Cahun’s writing. (David Bowie said of Cahun’s work, “You could call her transgressive or you could call her a cross dressing Man Ray with surrealist tendencies. I find this work really quite mad, in the nicest way.”) Unlike some of their Surrealist contemporaries, Cahun and Moore did not use their work to achieve fame or notoriety. Their artwork was boundary breaking, self explorational, and deeply personal. It was not until decades after their deaths that Moore and Cahun’s photography resurfaced. Nearly a hundred years later, the pair’s androgynous photography continues to be breathtakingly mysterious.

The ingenuity of Thomson’s novel is its focus on the relationship from Moore’s perspective, fleshing out her identity as a person and an artist in her own right. In this way, Never Anyone But You imagines a tender and, at times, volatile love story for Cahun and Moore. He explores the couple’s forty-five-year relationship from beginning to end; twisting and turning through the uncertainties of young love, the security and maturity of lifelong partnership, and the atrocities and violence of two world wars. The book reads as the confessional diary one wishes Marcel Moore had kept. Thomson elucidates Cahun as a prolific artist vacillating between stability and self-destruction, but primarily focuses on the toll this takes on Moore as her life-long confidante and caretaker—a role Moore simultaneously cherishes and fears: “Sometimes the person you’re closest to is the one you understand the least. Sometimes, when you’re that close, everything just blurs.”

As we experience their world, from the extravagant Parisian parties (where they met and befriended Robert Desnos, Henri Michaux, and other Modernists who happened through Paris) to their brutal imprisonment, Thomson’s writing brings into being the secret, profound, and determined love Moore and Cahun shared, asking introspective questions in the process:

“Is physical love bound to decay, just as everything in the physical world decays? Is it natural for love to change and deepen into something that feels almost spiritual? Had I altered or had she?”

And,

 “Can the love somebody has for you be tangible like that, there one moment, gone the next? Does it take up space inside you? And when it evaporates, does it leave a gap where it once was?”

One of the strengths of Never Anyone But You is that it doesn’t shy away from the plentiful uncertainties of Moore’s life and her sorrowful end. The final passages, some of the most striking in the novel, parallel the final scenes of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; exploring the character’s resolved final moments in a haze of tranquil dreams and reflections.

It could very well be that our best attempt at understanding Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun’s love and art is through Thomson’s psychologically mesmerizing re-imagination of their lives, coupled with viewing their art (some of which you can see at SFMOMA’s current exhibit, Selves and Others, on display until September 23).

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Victims and Perpetrators: ‘History of Violence’ by Édouard Louis

History of Violence“I am hidden on the other side of the door, I listen, and she says that several hours after what the copy of the report I keep twice-folded in my drawer calls the attempted homicide, and which I call the same thing for lack of a better word, since no other term is more appropriate for what happened, which means I always have the anxious nagging feeling that my story, whether told by me or whomever else, begins with a falsehood, I left my apartment and went downstairs.”

From this initial winding sentence, the reader is plunged into, then relentlessly yet smoothly propelled through Édouard Louis’s autobiographical novel History of Violence (translated by Lorin Stein; 212 pages; FSG). The entire experience of reading the book is of baited breath, entrancing.

On Christmas Eve night, 2012, Louis meets a man, Reda, and invites him into his apartment. After some consensual sex, Reda becomes violent, attempts to strangle Louis, and rapes him at gunpoint. In the days that follow, Louis develops irrational obsessions and is choked by anger and violent urges, all while navigating a maze of unending legal and medical processes that threaten to finish the job Reda started.

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A Blossom on a Chain Link Fence: ‘Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God’ by Tony Hoagland

Priest Turned TherapistTony Hoagland’s books probably have the most intriguing titles of any contemporary poet. The newest one, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God (74 pages; Graywolf Press) follows hard on Recent Changes in the Vernacular, from Tres Chicas Books, out late last year.

What Hoagland does better than any other poet is select the exact details to throw the cognitive dissonance inherent in contemporary American life into stark relief. Never sentimental, often fond, and always accurate, his lines cut through to the essence of experience. Yet they are leavened by tenderness and longing, a wry acceptance of the human condition. There is an elfin quality that is particular to Hoagland’s work that tempers the sharpness of his vision. And it’s impossible to read a book of his poems without laughing out loud at least once. Humor is his weapon of choice.

It’s hard to capture this in a few lines from a poem, because Hoagland’s technique layers the detail, stanza by stanza, to create the whole. He builds image after image, the furniture of the everyday x-rayed and deconstructed and reassembled, offset with the ever present, fragile beauty of the natural world, like a blossom on a chain link fence. But here are a few examples that can at least give a taste of the unique Hoagland flavor:

In Hollywood, fifty movie stars have pledged
not to use their swimming pools
until world thirst is ended.

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Original Sins: ‘Animals Eat Each Other’ by Elle Nash

Elle NashElle Nash’s first novel, Animals Eat Each Other (121 pages; Dzanc Books), opens with a pair of quotes from Wal-Mart’s Vice President and shock rocker Marilyn Manson, offering readers their first clue as to what kind of milieu Nash is about to immerse them in. It’s one where big box stores encroach uncomfortably on property lines, where meals are more often microwaved than cooked, and teenagers rifle through their parents’ medicine cabinets in search of opioids. The setting is Colorado Springs, a predominantly white town in a county where the majority of voters cast their lot with Donald Trump in the 2016 election; but Animals Eat Each Other’s lens is trained on a different era.

The story opens in 2005 as it’s unnamed nineteen-year-old narrator (who will come to take the name Lilith) feels somewhat adrift in life, sleeping with the manager at her strip mall job, casually partaking in drugs and alcohol, and quietly moving around her trailer at night to avoid her mother, who hasn’t been the same since the death of her husband. “My hobbies included touching myself, drinking cough syrup, and flirting with boys at RadioShack,” she observes. “Could I be anything else?”

Circumstances change when her co-worker Jenny introduces her to a young couple named Matt and Frances, who manage to maintain a hedonistic lifestyle of metal shows and raves despite having an infant at home. The slightly older duo quickly take to our narrator, and dub her Lilith, after the figure in Jewish folklore said to be Adam’s first wife and made from the same dirt as him rather than his rib. Lilith soon learns Matt and Frances are self-professed Satanists, for whom traditional Christian mores hold little significance; Matt declares their beliefs, “A rejection of the puritanical world that is always pulling you outside of yourself and asking you to serve others shamefully. Always asking you to turn the other cheek.”

As Matt and Frances initiate a sexual relationship with Lilith, the trio forms a fragile unit in which jealousy and possession are constantly shifting scales. Though the book is less a coming-of-age tale than a brief and blurry look back at Lilith’s wild teenage days, our narrator nevertheless comes away from this emotionally-charged experience with hard-won observations about intimacy and gender dynamics. She is constantly forced to question if her relationship with Matt and Frances is the liberating middle finger to “family values” it feels like during their headiest moments (“I wonder if in the past, people lived like this,” she muses. “Sometimes it felt tribal to be this way, as if we were a group of degenerates, isolated but entwined”) or if she is merely a pawn the couple has deployed in an attempt to gain dominance over one another. Telling her tale from a place of hindsight, Lilith acknowledges she may have merely represented something new and unspoiled to a pair combating the doldrums of monogamy: “When you don’t live with someone, you don’t get to see their imperfect facets. The mean side of them. The impatient, ungrateful side.”

Along the way, Nash peppers the novel with rich details, from her description of Lilith taking Special K at a party (“I felt like a bag of marshmallows, plastic and all, expanding and melting inside of a safe, hot microwave”) to the catalog of less than nutritious meals comprising Lilith’s diet: pizza Hot Pockets and Hamburger Helper, Doritos, and ranch-flavored sunflower seeds (“After a few dozen, the ranch dust started to taste like vomit”).

The novel’s brevity works in its favor since the narrative’s fleet-footedness reflects Lilith’s lack of deliberation. She often operates on impulse, which tends to create a briar patch of her closest relationships. While Matt and Frances’ Satanist beliefs may be more informed by Marilyn Manson lyrics than any religious text, they nevertheless leave the couple prone to pursuing self-pleasure no matter the emotional cost. “Everyone has this demi urge to destroy and to create…wanting to serve yourself isn’t a bad thing,” Matt advises. Before long, Lilith comes to recognize her own destructive power. “I could feel the manipulative part of myself light up like a highway at dusk,” she declares as she continues to lie and toy with the people closest to her, including Matt’s friend Patrick, who has a newborn of his own.

Lilith’s choices bring an inevitable reckoning, but it is her bond with her best friend, Jenny, that creates a pocket of human warmth amid the wreckage of Lilith’s fizzled hook-ups. “I felt ashamed and jealous that she could know so much about me when I didn’t understand why I was doing what I did at all,” Lilith says when Jenny reads her Tarot cards. Their relationship may have its complications, but it ultimately provides Lilith with an anchor of stability during the fallout of her experience with Matt and Frances. “When she looked at me it was different than how Matt saw me,” Lilith observes. “Jenny seemed to leave herself and move into me.”

Early in Animals Eat Each Other, Nash briefly takes us to what is ostensibly the present moment, to Lilith in front of her computer and scrolling through Matt and Frances’ Facebook feed. The two are now married and smiling in picture after picture. Lilith laughs ruefully, noting it’s “as if nothing I’m about to tell you ever actually happened.” It should be a familiar scene for anyone who’s ever spent a late night basking in the glow of a laptop as they explore an ex-lover’s digital footprint, searching for some indication of where things went wrong. “There is a way people damage you, a way they’ll change the structure of your DNA, the way your brain is wired,” Lilith says. But her story proves that even among the soured memories, we might “retrace the constellation of every event” and find a reminder of our resilience.

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