Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq

I can’t really enlarge upon our life in the forest. It’s a matter of security. 

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Edition: Text Publishing, 2018, 192 pages.

Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq, translated from the French by Penny Hueston, is a science fiction novel that’s been compared to Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Set in a near future surveillance state with advanced robot technology and human clones (called “halves”) that are kept in a comatose state in specialized medical centres and harvested for organs, Our life in the Forest follows a woman, who is living with a group of people in a forest as a form of protest against the unethical practices of this future society. Over the course of the book, we learn what were the circumstances that motivated her to abandon her city life and settle in the forest. The book is written in the form of an intimate confession by the protagonist as a way for her to explain her decisions and keep her story alive for future generations.

Before her life in the forest, she was working as a psychologist and treating patients who had experienced some kind of trauma. One of her regulars was patient zero, the so-called clicker, who visits her to complain about the constant tedium of his dead-end job, which is to teach robots mental associations in order to make them appear more human, so that they could eventually replace humans in the jobs that require empathy.

You’re endlessly performing a task the mind can do but which discombobulates a robot. And which is nevertheless difficult to conceptualise. The only solution is to multiply the links, click, click, click, until the robot has been supplied with everything we could possibly have thought up until now, everything we could have felt, everything humanity could have experienced. 

Blue = sky = melancholy = music = bruising = blue blood = nobility = beheading.

We soon learn that, outside of her job, the narrator spends most of her free time visiting her clone, named Marie, who is kept in one of the vast medical centres. Despite the fact that the narrator has already received several transplants and is in need of more due to her declining health, she begins to feel repelled by the idea of harvesting Marie’s organs.

It’s difficult to talk about this book without giving too much away since the themes of the novel are closely linked to some of the major plot points. All I will say is that the book explores identity and the ethical questions concerning organ-harvesting. In this near-future scenario, the wealthiest people are able to significantly prolong their lives and their youth by replacing any of their organs with those of their “halves”, while the less rich only have jars with the most vital organs, and those, who can’t afford even the jars, receive no help at all, so one of the major topics of this book is how this kind of medical advancement might affect people from different socio-economic positions in society.

While the science fiction concept itself might not be that new, Out Life in the Forest felt like a well-crafted story with a clear message that challenges us to think about how such potential technological and medical advancements might affect the future.

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The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

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Edition: MacLehose Press, 2018, 512 pages.

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, was one of my most anticipated reads of the year since I thoroughly enjoyed his novel The Sound of Things Falling, and something about the way Vásquez writes makes me eager to return to his fiction.

The Shape of the Ruins brings you on a journey through the violent history of 20th-century Colombia. It’s one of those books that is difficult to categorise. Part political thriller, part courtroom drama, part reportage, part conspiracy theory, and part personal memoir, the novel focuses on two defining murders of Liberal politicians and charismatic orators in Bogotá – the assassination of General Rafael Uribe Uribe on October 15, 1914, and the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948. The book examines the conspiracy theories that exist connecting these two murders and seems to provide a space for the unwritten, hidden, or “fragile” truths that exist in places that are not within the reach of journalists and historians.

“There are truths that are no less true due to the fact that nobody knows them. Maybe they happened in a strange place where journalists and historians can’t go. And what do we do with them? Where can we give them space to exist? Do we let them rot in inexistence, only because they weren’t able to be born into life correctly, or because they let bigger forces win? There are weak truths, Vásquez, truths that can’t be defended in the world of proven facts, newspapers and history books.”

The two catalysts of the story are Doctor Benevides, who becomes obsessed with the medical artefacts collected by his father, a very talented forensic scientist, and Carlos Carballo, a fanatic, who has organised his entire life around conspiracy theories surrounding the two famous assassinations. The author gradually gets pulled into their world and tries to sift through the conspiracies and evidence connected to “the Bogotazo”, the violent riots that broke out in Bogotá following the assassination of Gaitán (hailed as the Colombian JFK), to arrive at some historical truth of the events. The novel also includes quotes from other authors and photographs of some of the pieces of evidence that are relevant to the investigation.

Vásquez plays with the concept of “autofiction”, as he presents himself as the narrator of the story, and blurs the lines between reality and fiction. He contemplates the different ways it is possible to view history and suggests that our capacity of chronicling the past is limited to our interpretation of the events, therefore, history is merely an artificially constructed story.

There are two ways to view or contemplate what we call history: one is the accidental vision, for which history is the fateful product of an infinite chain of irrational acts, unpredictable contingencies and random events (life as unremitting chaos which we human beings try desperately to order); and the other is the conspiratorial vision, a scenario of shadows and invisible hands and eyes that spy and voices that whisper in corners, a theatre in which everything happens for a reason, accidents don’t exist and much less coincidences, and where the causes of events are silenced for reasons nobody knows.

Vásquez ruminates on the inheritance of violence that is passed on from generation to generation of Colombians. The novel illustrates the deep political divide in Colombian society that is responsible for these repeated cycles of violence.

At first, the middle section of the book feels like a long digression from the central storyline, however, as more information is revealed, you start to realise that this section is actually an integral part of the overall narrative, and, in the final section, Vásquez manages to wrap up the story in a very moving and satisfying way.

The Shape of the Ruins is an intelligent, multi-layered, and engrossing journey through key moments in 20th-century Colombian history, and it’s also one of my favourite reads of the year so far.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong

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Edition: Little, Brown, 2018, 322 pages.

The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim, is a psychological thriller that has been compared to American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, Misery by Stephen King and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and, since two of these novels are among my favourite books of all time, I was very intrigued to read it. Moreover, it’s a work in translation, and You-jeong Jeong is described as one of the leading psychological crime fiction authors in South Korea.

I don’t read a lot of thrillers, and, in those rare cases that I do, I find it hard to review them without giving away major plot points. I find that, in most cases, there is not much to talk about in terms of themes and symbolism, so I can only judge these books based on whether they succeed at what they essentially set out to do – to tell a thrilling and suspenseful story that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The Good Son is narrated in the first person by Yu-jin, a 25-year old college student and former swimming champion, who lives with his widowed mother and adopted brother Hae-jin, who in many ways resembles Yu-jin’s deceased older brother. The book opens with Yu-jin waking up one day, covered in blood, and finding the body of his mother, who clearly has been murdered. We soon learn that Yu-jin suffers from a condition that requires him to use medication to prevent seizures an blackouts, but a side effect of the pills is that they make him lethargic, so he sometimes secretly goes for days without taking them. When he finds his murdered mother’s body, he quickly realizes that he will become the prime suspect of the murder investigation, so he struggles to piece together what actually happened from the fragments of his memories and his mother’s diary entries.

I think that, even if you’re not a crime fiction enthusiast, you might be able to guess, fairly accurately, how this story is going to unfold, based on just a few pieces of information provided in the synopsis. Despite the fact that this is a thriller, I found the pacing of the book to be very slow, and, apart from some truly intense and chilling moments, I felt that the narrative was going in circles between each point when some new and exciting piece of information is revealed. I must admit that I wasn’t particularly surprised by the revelations. The hints that are left throughout the book made it pretty obvious, however, I found the character of Yu-jin quite fascinating and convincing. From the very start, you get the sense that he might be an unreliable narrator, and I was intrigued to find out how he will react and deal with the unfolding situation. The story is set over the course of just a few days, and it feels like you are stuck in Yu-jin mind that gives the book a rather claustrophobic atmosphere. While I found the overall plot to be quite predictable, the book really succeeds as a dark character study.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson

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Edition: Picador, 2018, 208 pages.

Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel, follows Ester Nillson, a writer and poet, who gets involved in an affair with a married actor, Olof Sten, in the hopes that he will get divorced, and their affair will eventually turn into a long-term relationship, even though, right from the start, Olof admits to Ester that he’s not planning on ever leaving his wife. At the same time, he does not object to Ester’s advances. The novel unfolds as a detailed account of the relationship dynamic between these two delusional people that continues on for several years.

Both main characters come off as incredibly selfish and callous people, and it’s hard to sympathize with either of them. At first glance, it’s easy to label Ester as the villain of the story. You, as the reader, may initially catch yourself starting to blame Ester for the affair and wanting to shake some sense into her. Although she knows from the start that Olof is married, Ester is quite aggressive in pursuing a relationship with him anyway, and even tells him, very early on, that she wants to spend the rest of her life with him, not caring about the consequences. She seems very naive for her age and wears her heart on her sleeve, believing in true love that will eventually overcome any obstacle. It’s very frustrating to be constantly subjected to her thought processes and to read about a person, who so stubbornly doesn’t want to acknowledge the reality of the situation until you become aware of how cleverly the author has just played you. As I read on, I realized that the author intended to illustrate how we are conditioned to almost automatically assign blame to the woman in these situations, even though Ester, despite her obvious character flaws, isn’t the one who is lying and betraying her spouse. We see how the cheating husband, at the same time, tries to shrug off any responsibility for the affair, even going as far as constantly repeating that he and Ester are not in any kind of relationship, which is just plainly absurd.

Eventually, Ester is forced to realize that she has been relegated to the role of the mistress and the book examines the dichotomy between the categories of Wife – Mistress, that is often applied to women. It points out the double standard that exists here, where women often get defined and redefined in terms of these categories, while there are no such equivalent categories for men.

The mistress as an idea constitutes a third counterpoint between the complimentary woman/man. Her anatomy is woman’s but her autonomy is man’s. She is a third, the most frightening and most alluring, that which in the end must be pushed out of life’s bid for dualistic order.

I couldn’t help thinking that, if their roles were reversed, this situation would probably be portrayed as romantic – the passionate hero, who believes in true love, stubbornly trying to win over a married woman. Ultimately, this is a smart, darkly comic and feminist look at cheating, and this whole saga between Ester and Olof concludes with a very satisfying ending.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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I Still Dream by James Smythe

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Edition: The Borough Press, 2018, 400 pages.

I Still Dream by James Smythe is an engaging and intellectually stimulating science fiction novel exploring the impact of Artificial Intelligence and the border between human and machine, reminiscent of some of the great science fiction classics.

I was gripped from the very first pages of the novel that opens in 1997 when we meet Laura Bow, a very intelligent and tech-savvy 17-year old teenager with a passion for computers and coding. We learn that she has created a primitive AI system that she has named Organon, after the song Cloudbusting by Kate Bush from her album The Hounds of Love (1985). Laura’s nerdy enthusiasm for music and making mix tapes made me immediately connect with Laura and love the book even more. Organon serves as Laura’s confidant and a sort of therapist to help her deal with the mysterious disappearance of her father, a pioneering computer programmer. I thought the author did a great job at capturing the voice of a teenage girl and evoking the atmosphere of the 1990’s.

Her AI system soon gets into the hands of people who see the potential of it, and, as a result, Laura is suddenly propelled into the world of Silicon Valley. From there, the novel is divided into chapters, each of them jumping a decade into the future – 2007, 2017, 2027, 2037, 2047 – and following Laura’s life journey from her own or someone else’s perspective. The sudden jumps in time sometimes felt a bit jarring, mostly because I was left wanting more from some of the sections. I particularly enjoyed the author’s exploration of the culture of Silicon Valley – the personalities of the people, who work in the tech industry, the long working hours, and constant rivalry.

On a more personal level, some sections of the novel give us a glimpse into Laura’s personal life, her marriage, and the difficult life decisions that she needs to make. We also see the development of Organon that remains a constant companion to Laura throughout her life.

The novel also deals with some big questions concerning the development and future use of AI, our increasing reliance on technology, and the very topical subject of the collection and use of our personal data, and our right to privacy. I thought the author succeeded in creating a very vivid and believable scenario of our potential future. This was my introduction to James Smythe’s writing, and I will definitely be reading more of this work.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells

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Edition: Sceptre, 2018, 240 pages.

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, winner of the 2016 European Prize for Literature, follows siblings Marty, Liz and Jules, who, in the wake of the tragic death of their parents in a car crash, are forced to grow up very quickly and adapt to their new lives. It’s a moving story about family ties, love, memory, grief, loneliness and the long shadow cast by childhood trauma.

I really loved the first half of this novel that describes the family dynamic before the tragic car accident. Their father was a timid and emotionally fragile artist and their mother was a teacher, a graceful and incredibly charming woman, described as a mixture of Grace Kelley and Ingrid Bergman. The three siblings had an idyllic childhood that was often spent vacationing in France. At the same time, the author was very successful at building tension in this section of the book. Despite the picturesque descriptions, there was a constant sense that something dark is lurking just around the corner.

Following the death of their parents, the siblings are sent to a bleak boarding school, and from that point on, the novel explores how each of them adapts to this new situation, and the different paths that they take later in their adult lives. We see how their relationship dynamic changes during the course of their lives. They are all very flawed individuals, but that’s what makes them believable.

Another strength of the novel is how the author examines the theme of loneliness that seems to follow the characters throughout their lives, and we see how each of them, in their own way, try to alleviate the “burden” of loneliness.

I was hoping that the book would spend an equal amount of time following the life story of each sibling (I was particularly interested to hear more about Liz), but in the later part of the novel, the author chose to mainly focus on the life of the younger brother, Jules, who was only 11 when their parents died, and who comes across as the most introspective of the three siblings. He often ruminates on the past and imagines the alternative lives that he and his siblings might have had if they had not gone through the trauma of losing their parents at such a young age.

A major theme of the book is how our memories might sometimes get distorted in order to protect us. At certain points throughout the book, Jules realises how he unintentionally or, in some cases, deliberately, misremembered certain events or conversations. I think this book would appeal to fans of Julian Barnes whose books often deal with the unreliable nature of memory. Certain parts of this novel particularly brought to mind Barnes’s novel The Sense of An Ending.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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