In our second round of micro-reviews, we are thinking about place – not just in terms of physical setting, but also the emotional and imagined places that books allow us to inhabit.
This collection includes poetry set on a rumbling train, a novella about a woman for whom time is as much as a place as the otherworldly rural setting in which she finds herself, and a mystery in which the real horror comes from inhabiting the mind of the troubled narrator. With books set from Cairo to the Oregon coast and everywhere in between, you are sure to find a book in this round-up that speaks to your desire to escape.
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat (Catapult Press 2020)
Reviewed by Isabella Scala-Natoli
In Zaina Arafat’s debut novel, You Exist Too Much—what some have called a bildungsroman, and a character study—an unnamed D.C. raised Palestinian-American narrator gets dumped by her girlfriend for her chronic infidelity and goes to rehab, then an MFA program. Across America, Europe, and The Middle East, she learns how to shape her life story into a love-story both shattering in impact and fractured in shape. Each place the narrator takes us to is tied to a person, and another manifestation of the same quest. That is, to find a mother—and in effect—a homeland. On this quest, as readers, we experience with the narrator what I can only describe as growing pains. What I got from reading YETM was the chance to bond with a character who by working out her own flaws, made me consequently realize my own. This sounds negative but it isn’t. It was a pleasant awakening. Like suddenly remembering where you know that person from, the one you saw on the bus earlier. You went to college together. Of course! Your dislike of others stems from your own insecurities. Of course!
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi (Mira Books 2020)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
Historical fiction opens the gateway to a different time and place. The settings themselves make readers long for somewhere they’ve never been. This is the case in Alka Joshi’s debut novel, The Henna Artist.
Set in the 1950s, The Henna Artist transports us back to India a few years after gaining independence from the British. Joshi’s vivid imagery makes India’s past crawl off the page, bringing it to life: “We entered a colonnade flanked by lush gardens. Topiary elephants frolicked on the lawns. Live peacocks pranced around circular fountains. Stone urns sprouted honeysuckle, jasmine and sweet pea” (142). Amidst the color and beauty of historical India, Joshi also gives us a taste of the social, economic, and political climates of the time, shedding light on the difficulties for people of lower castes and women.