On a Break

I’ve hit a bit of a rough patch in my relationship. They keep calling to me but I wilfully ignore them. Later at night I feel guilty for not having attended to them. They lay beside me, an open book, beckoning me to hold them once again but I pay no heed to their silent appeals. Night passes by us in solitude. They look my way but I am wary of returning empty glances. Nameless faces rise up from their folds and haunt my sleeping hours. We are united in our suffering. I reassure myself of the approaching tomorrow. “Tomorrow is another day,” I say to myself. “Tomorrow I shall tend to you again and all will be well.” My thoughts commit to them time and time again. But, tomorrow comes and tomorrow goes. My thoughts remain unresolved.

“My mind is in shambles,” I whisper to them. “Excuse me, forgive me for neglect.” I try to reason with myself, with them. But the remorse remains, lodged in the depths of my throat, at the pit of my stomach, in the deepest and darkest crevice of my heart.

At times I wish to move on. “I’ll come back to you, I promise.” But an unread book is a half-finished love affair. I do not wish to part but we remain distanced, day in day out. This is not the time for us to be united. Not yet.

“Come hither,” they call upon me once again at dead of night. Shadowy figures, ill-drawn caricatures rise up from the pages once again. I bring them closer to me. A pen is nestled in their tightly wound bosom, a marker of where I last took respite. “Be with us,” they chant together in mellow voices. I run a finger across their spine. They tremble open, baring their secrets. Words upon words spill out, summoning me with their undead voices. “Let us be known to you, Faiza.”

I remain still, unfeeling, callous. I snap them shut.

“I’m not ready to indulge,” I cry out to the inked pages. “I’m too troubled, too preoccupied. Pardon me! Mercy!”

I return them to my side. They are shuddering, pleading to me in muffled tones now. I’m terrified of their loyalty to me as a reader. I have pledged to never abandon them, but now is not an occasion to rejoin. No, not yet.

And darkness dawns on us once again. Words remain unread. We are united in our solitude.

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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

“This,” announced Richard to the world, in direct defiance of the evidence of his senses, “is not happening.”

Very rarely have I been this anxious to finish a book, write a review and get over it once and for all. This was my first read by Gaiman and it saddens me to say that I was gravely disappointed. The beginning caught my intrigue but towards the middle I found it supremely tedious to be attentive to all the details Gaiman pushed my way. By the 15th chapter or so, I had completely lost my patience and lost hope for a redeeming element which might rescue this story for me. The last five chapters were a struggle to get through.

There are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber

“Neverwhere” is a surprisingly boring fantasy novel which follows the protagonist Richard Mayhew who, after an inadvertent act of kindness, is pushed into the realms of London Below – a world cloaked from ordinary eyes where monsters, knights, angels and murderers, earls and noblemen live. Richard along with a bunch of bizarre characters traverse the underground realm, a dimension wholly invisible to those who live in London Above, to acquire a key, exact revenge upon those who killed Lady Door’s family and slay the infamous Beast. Lady Door can magically unlock doors and find doorways where none exist, Hunter is an ancient assassin whose sole purpose of life is to defeat the Beast and the Marquis de Carabas has avowed to protect Lady Door.

Door fixed the earl with her look: there was something more ancient and powerful in that glance than her young years would have seemed to allow

What persistently annoyed me were the shocking off-hand remarks which were casually brushed away or utterly ignored by Richard regarding his ordeal. As a character, Richard was vacuous in his appeal as the protagonist. No heroic value or traces of heroism have been attributed to him, yet by the end he emerges as Warrior of the underground. He wasn’t inquisitive enough to understand what he was experiencing. He remained aloof throughout the adventure which lent him an air of stupidity. Who wouldn’t be more curious as to why they were invisible to residents of London Above once they had been to London Below? He did not inquire after the history of the underground world, how things came to be here, nor did he express more shock at what were clearly surprising, life-altering turn of events.

His mind was too numb to make any sense of where he was, or why he was here, but it was capable of following the rules

I did not care for the trials and tribulations the characters were going through, which by extension implies that I did not care for the characters at all. I wasn’t anxious to find out if Lady Door would be successful in exacting revenge upon the killers, neither did I vouch for Richard to be returned to his previous life. All the characters simply seemed to be caricatures set in a highly fantasised setting. I wasn’t interested in knowing more about the Angel Islington, his history with Atlantis, nor did I find the two mischief makers Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar any more fascinating than a white-washed wall. Had the characters any depth, I might have felt some level of empathy for them in their endeavours. But alas, it was not to be.

He was learning, awkwardly, to trust his instincts, and to realize that the simplest and most likely explanations for what he had seen and experienced recently were the ones that had been offered to him—no matter how unlikely they might seem

The style of imagery was very insipid and even managed to infuriate me at times. Some were positively cringe-worthy. For example “Ruislip, the Fop’s opponent, resembled a bad dream one might have if one fell asleep watching sumo wrestling on the television with a Bob Marley record playing in the background.” And again “The marquis de Carabas tossed the figurine to Mr. Croup, who caught it eagerly, like an addict catching a plastic baggie filled with white powder of dubious legality.” At another instance Gaiman writes “She had a remarkable scream: it could, with no artificial assistance, go through your head like a new power drill with a bone-saw attachment. And amplified . . . It was simply unearthly.” How is a power drill going through one’s skull an “unearthly” experience?

The story left me with too many unanswered questions especially regarding the backstory of how the Underground and all its residents came to be. Why could only Lady Door and her family possess the special powers to unlock doors? Why did the Beasts’ blood give Richard navigational powers? Why was Hunter downed by the beast in one go when throughout the story she was praised for being supremely clever and powerful?

The knowledge was a part of his dreams; it surrounded him, like the darkness. So the day became one of waiting, which was, he knew, a sin: moments were to be experienced; waiting was a sin against both the time that was still to come and the moments one was currently disregarding. Still, he was waiting.

By the end, the book left me completely deflated. The world building wasn’t as evocative as I had hoped for, the villains weren’t half as threatening as they were posed to appear, and many plot points and twists were easily decipherable way before they occurred. A horde of characters were introduced only to never be alluded to again and nothing substantial ever happens for me to feel concerned about. Overall, this was a tremendous disappointment and I can’t wait to move on to a better book.


Some nicely crafted sentences:

  • Afterward he remembered only the feeling that he was about to leave somewhere small and rational—a place that made sense—for somewhere huge and old that didn’t
  • A noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them
  • Richard had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once
  • And then they set foot on Night’s Bridge and Richard began to understand darkness: darkness as something solid and real, so much more than a simple absence of light. He felt it touch his skin, questing, moving, exploring: gliding through his mind. It slipped into his lungs, behind his eyes, into his mouth…
  • Old Bailey remembered when people had actually lived here in the City, not just worked; when they had lived and lusted and laughed
  • Violence was the last refuge of the incompetent, and empty threats the final sanctuary of the terminally inept
  • But the most important thing for you to understand is this: all things want to open. You must feel that need, and use it.
  • He felt odd: detached, and depressed, and horribly, strangely saddened

The Secret Lives of Married Women by Elissa Wald

★★★★☆ (4/5)

And yet this happiness didn’t feel the way I’d always imagined it would. It felt fearful and precarious. As if it might be taken from me at any moment.

Contrary to the cover, this book is not erotic fiction. It is an incredibly thrilling ride into lives of two (or three so to speak) ordinary women, who occupy conventional spaces in their lives as wives, mothers, sisters and friends. They are to perfectly balance inner turmoil with adventurous exploits without losing hold of their sense of reality. The two novellas nestled within this one book deal with marital frustrations, anxieties of motherhood, and undisclosed fantasies which are sweetly attainable but would disrupt the quiet order of their lives. Secret yearnings especially of sexual nature can unravel their entire lives at a moments’ whim.

And suddenly from within me came a white-hot answering flash, like oil flung into a hot pan or the silver of a hooked fish catching the sun

This was my first brush with Hard Case Crime series, and much like the appeal of The Dorothy Project, I’m invested owing to the brilliant narration and story arc which kept me hooked. The book cover and title may appear misleading after having read the two entwined stories, but Hard Case Crime publishes stories of classic noir, dealing with adultery, murder, suspicion and sexual deviation. It is reminiscent of old-school paperback which lends the reading experience a tinge of delightful nostalgia.

Would it ever feel safe to savor these things, or would I always be waiting for that knock at the door, the slow whirl of red and blue lights in our driveway, the flash of a badge that would level our lives?

The Man Under the House

I hadn’t realized how much space this belief had occupied until it was suddenly dismantled

The first story revolves around Leda Reeve, a woman whose life has drastically changed since her marriage and subsequent motherhood. As a former libertine, adjusting to newly acquired roles as a wife and a mother seem slightly oppressive. She admits to having married out of mere necessity since she was getting on in age but also confesses to having eventually fallen in love with her husband Stas, a Russian refugee whose past is as undecipherable as hers.

This was something I never would have noticed. I could be close with someone for years and never notice what they drove, beyond a vague sense of its shape and possibly its color. Whereas Stas kept a vehicular inventory of his every casual acquaintance: the brand, the make, the year, how many miles it would get to the gallon

The story starts off with Leda and Stas moving into a new home in Portland, from New York, to settle into a proper house and start their life as a well-adjusted family. The house is in desperate need of repairs which is when Jack, a handyman working on their neighbours’ house, makes himself readily available to come to their disposal. He is eager to identify Leda from the past and presents himself whenever Leda is home alone. Her surreptitious past is at a threat of being disclosed to those she had long veiled her secret from.

Still, for accuracy’s sake you might say I often stopped, that I rarely went as far as I dreamed.

Jack becomes overbearingly intrusive and Leda decides to divulge her secret to her husband Stas. Soon after, Jack disappears and Leda begins to suspect her own husband of a grievous wrong-doing. Her apprehensions alter the nature of their relationship, from distance to intimacy, as she worries about their future together. Her scandalous misgivings make her question her present and future and can only be placated by knowing the truth of her husband’s action.

But when it happens, when you’re truly forced to revise the meaning of the clues you’ve disregarded, there’s no humor in it, only breathlessness and dread

Abel’s Cane

It’s like we’re one person split in two. I got the wildness, the darkness and the artistry. You got the credentials, the integrity and the sense.

Two stories of two different women are burrowed within this one novella which is narrated by Leda’s twin sister Lillian, a high-profile lawyer. She narrates the story of a client Abel and his working relationship with his personal secretary of sorts Nan. Nan was an orphan and brought up in a Convent amidst the stringy but modest and humble values embodied by nuns. As a young woman she became a professional submissive, offering her body for sexual pleasures for dominant men. Her work entails traits of her personality which have always come naturally to her – that of being of service to a man whom she cherishes secret admiration for.

She often felt hollow, transcendent, as if she were pure spirit and the pain was what weighed her to the earth. Other times, in a way that made no sense even to her, she felt hurt and close to tears. She felt pangs of aftershock, arousal, and bewildered grief all at the same time.

Abel Nathanson is a blind, non-profit industrial developer who hires Nan to read legal documents to him. Their relationship is symbiotic and professional but Nan begins to get much more invested in it than Abel who is a happily married man with an adopted child. Nan not only helps him with official work but also gets involved in assisting the Nathanson’s in their household chores. Soon Abel finds himself cornered by a rival developer and the case is bought to Lillian.

Amidst narrating Nan’s story, Lillian recounts her own experiences of a loveless and sexless marriage with Darren. Their inability to have children have left both reclusive in their associations with each other, and the act of copulation is scheduled and perfunctory, devoid of any pleasures. Here Nan and Leda’s past entwine to give Lillian a sense of sexual liberation which she had long ignored deliberately. Abel’s case takes a dark twist resulting in his acquittal and Lillian is reunited with her husband.

Moments like these come suddenly and without warning, adrenaline-driven and past all decision, where no resistance is possible, no sense of propriety can prevail

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve come to believe that intimacy is available to anyone who’s truly ready to give and receive it.

The two stories deal with women and their repression of desires – yearnings of sexual and psychological intimacy – in a patriarchal world. Two kinds of men exist in Elissa Wald’s world, those who nurture their women through providing order in their otherwise chaotic life and those who seek to upset the order primarily through sexual advances. Rae, a close friend of Leda is involuntarily attracted to a man who has done acts of extreme violence in the past and she is more than willing to forego his criminal actions owing to their wonderful sexual chemistry. Same is the case with Nan who is involved in submissive sexual acts with absolutely no regards for her physical integrity. Her relationship with Abel is beautiful and self-destructive at the same time.

After a while, I realized that the aura—an annoying, new-age word but I couldn’t find a better one—around Leda in the movie was something like the aura around Nan: a force field of whole-hearted focus, devotion, self-abandonment. Rapture.

For the reader, these stories may seem to make unlikely heroes of men who rose to an occasion just in time to rescue their women from adversity. But these tales are as much assertive of women who, despite the appeal of adventure and zeal to experience change, hold their moral and social ground.

But I told myself it was better if I went. I needed a visceral and immediate sense of the place, the better to glean the stray and unexpected details that were often the most effective.

This was a quick read with though-provoking substance as well as high entertainment value. Wald keeps our curiosity at bay, holding on to the final reveal till the very end. We anticipate a tragedy but rejoice at narrow escapes. We empathise with the characters and are uncomfortable with their predicaments. The author playfully tightens the reins around her heroines as well as the reader, sometimes relieving us with their happiness and at other times jostling us with shock. An overall engaging book which has made me want to read more from Hard Case Crime series.


More of my favourite lines

Characterisation

  • So far, I wasn’t afraid as much as jittery, skittish; Jack seemed more off-putting and overbearing than truly menacing
  • Until then, I’d thought that Bryce alone created the frisson in the office, but now I understood that Stas supplied an essential part of it as well
  • He was rootless, he could go anywhere.
  • I was elsewhere, on my way to a party. On arrival, everyone was sure to be carrying a piece of the awful world with him. Not one of us wouldn’t be smiling. There’d be drinks, irony, hidden animosities. Something large would be missing. But most of us would understand something large would always be missing.
  • Had the labored breathing of a smoker and his clothes, too, bore the scent of cigarettes.
  • In all the bewilderment, the vertigo, the upended perspective of a funhouse mirror, one lone conviction was still in place: Stas loved Clara
  • Her dark blonde hair, pulled back into an elegant twist and pinned in place with lacquered chopsticks
  • She read as if an oracle might be divined from the document if only it were rendered with enough care
  • It took stamina to plow through page after page, and stoicism not to betray a flicker of fatigue
  • Nearly every evening at this hour, a nameless sadness would threaten her with suffocation
  • In the social arena, so much physical contact relied on visual cues—intentions signaled in advance, consent sought and granted, as one person leaned in and the other bent in reception. Who would dare such an intimate gesture without implicit permission? Not Erica. So often, amidst these exchanges, Abel was set apart, an island—as if blindness warranted a kind of quarantine.
  • There are things too unbearable to think about, memories you can never let float into focus. Nan could barely bring herself to consider that day, and the terrible stilted awkwardness of the ones that followed, where she was unable to meet his sightless gaze and she knew things would never be the same

Beautifully crafted sentences

  • The kitchen faucet sprayed rivulets in all directions. The bathroom door scraped hard against the floor and the lock refused to catch
  • There was at once no time and nothing but time
  • There are three speeds in construction: slow, dead and reverse.
  • Relieved and restored and unburdened and bereft
  • Slavery made them graceful, light on their feet beneath that floor-length cloth, floating like dark swans in their bridal black
  • To waste the slightest amount was a sin against poverty.
  • Deirdre could always be counted upon to draw these lines, lest Nan start to feel like a part of the household.
  • And then, just as quickly, this dark thrill of recognition was displaced by professional assessment
  • The overriding aromas of disinfectant and leather couldn’t fully mask the more pungent ones just beneath: the musk of sweat, the gamy tang of struggle and tension and intensity.
  • As if its violence might be stayed with a show of passion.