Monday, September 30, 2019

BOOKS! (The Gun + Queenie)

It's the last day of September, which means it's time to write this month's book review! Today I've got a Detroit Bookfest find (in additon to Letters to a Young Artist), and an audiobook-turned-physical-purchase. Both novels are about twenty-somethings in crisis.

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura
(translated by Allison Markin Powell)

I bought this book when I saw it at the Detroit Bookfest because I hadn't read a Japanese novel in a while and was intrigued by the logo design with Nakamura's name on the front cover. Plus, the husband and wife couple selling it only charged $10 for it, compared to the original $25.95.  I had never heard of Nakamura or his work before, and apparently The Gun was his award-winning debut novel when it was published in Japan in 2002. But its English translation wasn't published until 2015, years after his subsequent books had already been translated.

Before randomly finding a gun while on a night walk, Nishikawa is a college student who's pretty consistently apathetic about life and doesn't expend too much energy contemplating the morality of anything, including his own actions. Walking along a river one night, he stumbles upon the body of a man who is freshly dead from a gunshot wound to the head, and when Nishikawa leaves the scene he takes the gun with him. The gun swiftly becomes his secret prized possession, which he also starts to feel possessed by. (Although, waxing poetic about the gun's influence is largely a convenient substitute that Nishikawa uses to avoid confronting his conscience.)

Nishikawa gradually becomes bolder and more intentional, going from polishing the gun in the privacy of his apartment to carrying it on his person while in public. From not caring about school and barely tolerating the presence of his classmates, to becoming more engaged socially and juggling two new girlfriends at once. And before long, just polishing the gun and carrying it around aren't enough; in order for the gun to be true to its purpose, Nishikawa wants to try shooting it. Who will be his target? Animals on the street? People he dislikes? When will enough be enough for Nishikawa, now armed with a weapon that no one knows about?

This novel is definitely a slow burn... but those last three pages? Those last three pages?! Such a shocking and intense ending, which I believe fully makes the preceding slowness worth it. And by slow, I don't mean boring. Besides reading Nishikawa's thoughts and feelings about the gun and witnessing those thoughts and feelings evolve, we also learn about his unfortunate family background, which greatly influences his detachment from others and his choice of target practice later on. And as the police start investigating the circumstances behind that dead body by the river and the "missing" gun, Nishikawa's impulsiveness almost does him in. So there's actually a lot going on in this novel, even though it doesn't seem like it at first. If you enjoy reading about quarter-life crises, how obsession evolves, and how people can become murderers, or you just want to read something from a Japanese author you may not have heard of before, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"there were times when, inexplicably, I felt as though the gun hated me... I had the feeling that perhaps I had discovered the sadness that one felt when, out of jealousy or despite your love for someone, the object of your desire turns their back on you. At times, I yearned for the gun to find favor with me, regardless of what might happen" (159-160).

"Losing the gun would turn me into an empty shell of myself, and the prospect of carrying around that lifeless husk for the remaining years of my life seemed like endless torture... humans lived to achieve what they chose to do, and I believed that. Putting one's soul to the flame, in order to experience such fullness, was essential for humans, and I had no reason to think that I was an exception" (162).

Queenie by Candice-Carty Williams
(narrated by Shvorne Marks)

I rarely read the same book twice. Because I read so much, I usually haven't had the time or interest to re-read them unless it was for class, or some years had passed and I was suddenly hit with a pang of nostalgia. A Lesson Before Dying, La vie devant soi, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry are the only repeats that come to mind, though there may be a few others. All of this to say that, I read Queenie twice, and that is significant for me as a reader.

I originally experienced this novel as an audiobook, thanks to an acquaintance who gifted me a free trial of Audible back in August. Set in London in 2018, Queenie was already on my "books to buy" list, and it seemed like it'd be a promising choice in audio form. And maybe it was because I found the title character so relatable (a Black woman who is the same age as me, has hit an unexpected low point, doesn't know where her life is headed, and deals with depression and anxiety). Maybe it was because actress Shvorne Marks was just that good at making the story and all its characters come to life aurally. I don't know. But after listening through the book over a number of days, I got to the final chapter and decided I would buy and read the hard cover, finish that, and then finish the audiobook. (I was charmed enough to want to write about Queenie, but I can't properly write about a book if I can't read it physically and make notes in it as I go along, so to the bookstore I went.) So as a whole, it took me significantly longer to finish this novel than if I'd listened to it only, but I didn't mind.

Young writer Queenie Jenkins's troubles start when she and her boyfriend Tom "take a break", with the flimsy agreement to check back in with each other later floating between them. Tom wasn't much of an ally and failed to defend Queenie from his family's racism on multiple equations (Queenie is Black and comes from a Jamaican family; Tom is white). However, Tom was also the first man to show Queenie what genuine love and care are like, so she spends the next year hanging onto the day when Tom might finally say he wants her back. In the meantime, she has a miscarriage, has self-destructive trysts with casual partners, starts messing up at work, has nightmares and sleep paralysis stoked by her childhood trauma, one of her longest friendships falls apart, and she starts having panic attacks. Suffice it to say that our Queenie is going through it. A final work-related blow ultimately has her retreating to her Jamaican grandparents' house when it all becomes too much. Amidst therapy sessions, abiding by her grandparents rules and particularities, and interacting with her estranged mother, Queenie gradually tries to put her life back together again.

This wasn't a novel that I absolutely loved; like on a Goodreads scale of 1 to 5 starts, I gave it a solid 4 ("really liked it"). But I was willing to go over this story twice in such quick succession because I saw so much of myself in Queenie. I'm sure that was part of Candice Carty-Williams's aim in writing it. At times it's dark, sometimes it gets awkward, a lot of the time it's disarmingly funny, and all of the time it is vulnerable and honest. If you are a Black women, love and care about Black women, have ever passed by a Black woman on the street, or don't know any Black women at all, then read this book!  If you have ever dealt with mental health issues, have a difficult relationship with your parents, have immigrant elders, don't like hugs or intimacy, or are confused about this thing called life, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I smiled at the ground, fiddling with the corner of my book. He was the first man I'd met who seemed not to want to immediately push any weirdness out of me" (31).

"Maybe if all ah we had learned to talk about our troubles, we wouldn't carry so much on our shoulders all the way to the grave... Maybe we haffi learn from this new generation, Veronica" (240).

"I am proud of you every day. Even on the days that you think are bad" (273).