A Brief Summary Of Each Book Long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize, and My Favorites in Order

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1. The Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli: an impeccable portrayal of friendships, told with the hope and innocence of young men who are facing danger ahead, the kind only war can bring.

2. Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: a mystery of sorts, with the love of animals at its core, but also including the eccentricities of a woman dismayed by the world around her.

3. Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi: a story of several generations living in Oman, showing me life in the Middle East in ways that do not make me feel the need to writhe against their culture, nor defend my own.

4. The Shape of The Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: a disconcerting view of history as we’ve been taught, reminding us that what we know to be true probably isn’t. Especially if it comes from the hands of the government.

5. The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa: depicting the difficulties of immigration for those who need to leave their country and those who try to help them.

6. The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann: a German man travels through Japan tracing Basho’s footsteps as he describes nature and tries to find himself.

7. At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong: an architect recognizes the mistakes he made for his own growth and profession at the expense of others when it’s too late to do anything about them.

8. The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg: a bitter account of the dreadful life led by Valerie Solanas, the woman who tried to kill Andy Warhol.

9. Love In The Time of The Millennium by Can Xue: a bizarre, nonlinear account of characters searching for love and meaning in China.

10. The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran: counts and recounts the bodies of the dead in Santiago, Chile, through the eyes of two friends, hoping to make sense of the city around them.

11. Jokes for The Gunman by Mazen Maarouf: short stories about war, pain, and disappointment told with distressing irony, often from youthful points of view.

12. Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin: incredibly imaginative short stories of the vilest nature with not a shred of hope or redemption in any of them.

13. The Years by Annie Ernaux: one woman’s memoirs, with a particular emphasis on France, ultimately reflecting her disappointment with authority in general and men in particular as she recounts the experiences of her life. Some of which are universal.

And now I await the official announcement of the short list from the Man Booker International Prize judges, due April 9, wondering which six of these thirteen will be the favored ones. Meanwhile, the Shadow Jury finishes their reading of the long list and is compiling a list of our favorite six. Do not expect that my favorites will reflect the Shadow Jury’s favorites. From the comments and scores we have determined in private so far, I can already see that there are large differences of opinion. But, this is what makes reading together so much fun: finding out what is critical to one another in the literary world.

Love In The New Millennium by Can Xue (translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

Reading Love In the New Millenium is like dreaming a bad dream: disjointed things are happening on every page, with no clear significance or meaning (to me).

“Do you understand everything now?” she asked.

Wei Bo did not understand at all. What sort of woman was A Si’s mother? Why had Long Sixiang wanted him to come here? His sole impression was that the old woman had a cruel temper.

“No, Sixiang, I don’t understand.”

“Good!” Ling Sixiang clapped her hands. ” Your not understanding is understanding!”

These are the kind of nonsensical sentences that fill the pages at the beginning of this book.

“People come and go so quickly here!” said Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. And they do in Can Xue’s world, too. We don’t really know Wei Bo, except that he is forty-eight and works in a soap factory. We don’t really know any of the women who are a part of his life: Niu Cuilan or A Si (his lovers); nor Xiao Yuan, his wife. We discover that Cuilan and A Si worked in the cotton mill, and then gained employment in the health spa as prostitutes; the later life-style seems easier than the former. There are also Long Sixiang and Jin Zhu, the Gold Pearl. They have left working in the cotton mill as well, to become prostitutes though they are old and had a hard time getting started in the business. These women come and go from Wei Bo’s life with relative ease.

Many things go in and out of Wei Bo’s life. I don’t know what to make of paragraphs like this one, involving an elderly woman who has sung La Traviata for forty years, and walks with Wei Bo after the performance.

“Where do you live?” (He asks her.)

“Over on that side, in the fifteen-story building. It’s been lovely to take a walk with you.

The actress walked in the direction of the tall building. A gust of wind lifted her black skirt, and Wei Bo saw her fly upward like a great bird, both feet leaving the ground. She alighted at the entrance to the building. The door opened itself, she all but flapped through it, then the door shut. The large black door with its pair of copper ring handles made a mournful impression. Before long her aria emerged through an upstairs window, although Wei Bo could not understand a word…” (p. 74)

Wei Bo could not understand a word? Neither, sadly, could I.

Most of this novel was incomprehensible to me, and it frustrated me as I read. But, I could not put it down. It called me to continue, to wander down the path that Can Xue created so that I could see what might lie ahead. Or, under a leaf. Or, in the fifth room of a cave dwelling. The occurrances in this novel are bizarre, to be sure, but the imagery is quite astonishing. Like the vivid cover on the front, there is a richness in design and color which mimics the writing inside. It is like nothing I have ever read before. I don’t know what to make of it. But, I think I like it.

Her songs aren’t about our past life, or about the emotional life of people today, but instead about the life we have never even imagined.

(Thanks to Yale University Press for a copy of this book to review.)

Find a most excellent review of this novel here.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

Only a piece of machinery could possibly carry all the world’s pain. Only a machine, simple, effective and just. But if everything were to happen mechanically, our prayers wouldn’t be needed. (p. 49)

Well, this is a strange and endearing book. It reads, in part, almost like a fairy tale where macabre goings-on are carried out by the forest folk.

It is the elderly Janina Duszejko’s opinion that animals are committing the murders which have occurred on the Plateau where she lives in one of three cottages. As the novel begins, she is pulled awake in the middle of the night by her neighbor, Oddball, who takes her over to Big Foot’s house where the later has been discovered dead. He has a freshly killed Deer head on the table and a small bone on which he choked to death in his mouth. “One Creature had devoured another, in the silence and stillness of the Night.” (p. 26)

As Janina searches for Big Foot’s identity card, on the sideboard and in the drawers, she comes across a wad of photographs, one of which utterly shocks her.

I looked at it more closely, and was about to lay it aside. It took me a while to understand what I was looking at. Suddenly, total silence fell, and I found myself right in the middle of it. I stared at the picture. My body tensed, I was ready to do battle. My head began to spin, and a dismal wailing rose in my years, a roar, as if from over the horizon an army of thousands was approaching – voices, the clank of iron, the creak of wheels in the distance. Anger makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits. (p. 27)

The names of things and emotions are capitalized in this novel. The Animals. The Deer. The Little Girls, Tools, or even Hypothesis. It casts a disconcerting importance on parts of the English language, making it almost other worldly. It mimics, perhaps, William Blake’s style from which her title comes:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” (William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

And yet, what Olga Tokarczuk says about the animals, I, too, hold very much to be true. “Animals have a very strong sense of justice,” she writes. (p. 202) They certainly seem more capable of understanding the nature of things than we human Beings.

You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves…And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other. (p. 223)
Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead tells the story of Janina, her grown up student Dizzy (who translates Blake’s poetry), and the men living around her who love to shoot. But, it is so much more than that. Within the pages of this book, Olga Tokarczuk picks up much larger themes: of relationship, and religion, and a deep seated sense of justice for the unprotected; for those she loves.
My copy is filled with tabs, marking places which I feel I could have written myself for how profoundly I feel them. Places such as these:
There’s also a stony precipice nearby, but anyone who thinks it’s a natural feature would be mistaken, for it’s the remains of an old quarry, which used to take bites out of the Plateau and would surely have consumed the whole thing eventually in the avid mouths of its diggers. They say there are plans to start it up again, at which point we shall vanish from the face of the Earth, devoured by Machines. (p. 58)
and
I see us moving about blindly in eternal Gloom, like May bugs trapped in a box by a cruel child. It’s easy to harm and injure us, to smash up our intricately assembled, bizarre existence. I interpret everything as abnormal, terrible and threatening.
and
‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘It’s attitude towards Animals. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ (p. 109)
and
Crime has come to be regarded as a normal, everyday activity. Everyone commits it. That’s just how the world would look if concentration camps became the norm. Nobody would see anything wrong with them.”
and
I worked at a school and taught the children various useful things: English, handicrafts and geography. I always did my best to capture their attention fully, to have them remember important things not out of fear of a bad mark but out of genuine passion.
Janina’s passion, which I cannot help but see as part of Olga’s herself, is a great and tumultuous thing. It takes over her being, giving her a purpose from which she will not swerve. She may not have the answers, not be able to solve the wounds of this world by her own actions, but she is searching for Light. On page 48, in the beginning of the novel, Olga writes:
It undoubtedly gave us respite, and the corpse (Big Foot’s) lying there became more and more unreal, until it was just an excuse for this gathering of hard-working people on the windy Plateau. We sang about the real Light that exists somewhere far away, imperceptible for now, but that we shall behold as soon as we die. Now we can only see it through a pane of glass, or in a crooked mirror, but one day we shall stand face to face with it. And it will enfold us, for it is our mother this Light, and we came from it.
That is a little different from that verse in Corinthians of which it resonates, but it reflects the fact that many of us are searching for the Light:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)
I loved this book. Hubert Mingarelli’s The Four Soldiers and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead are by far my two favorite books from the long list. I have two more to go before I am done: Love in The Time of The Millennium by Can Xue and The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran. Then I shall give you a one sentence summary of each of the thirteen, should you not have taken the time to read all of them as I did, for the short list will be announced April 9, 2019.
(Thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for a copy of Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead to review.)

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

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Photo credit here.

One of the best parts of reading translated literature is going to the places it will take you, even if only in your head. I have never been to Oman, on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. I have never eaten dates with my coffee for breakfast, or worn silver bangles and earrings and anklets, but I have had my hands hannaed, and I thought the designs were beautiful. The whole culture intrigues me.

Celestial Bodies is a novel of life in al-Awafi, a small and poor village outside of Muscat, the largest city and capital of Oman. There is the mother, Salima, and her three daughters: Mayya, Asma and Khawla (who loves lipstick and Harlequin Romance novels). There is Silima’s husband, Azzan, who secretly sleeps with a Bedouin woman named Qamar, the Moon. And, there is Abdallah, son of Merchant Sulayman, husband of Mayya, whose voice is interspersed with each chapter of the novel. He tells us of the terrible fear he had as a child, being hung upside down in a well filled with darkness and snakes by his father who would not hear his screams.

Perhaps most interesting of all is Zarifa, the slave who becomes Merchant Sulayman’s secret lover, and Abdallah’s mother after his birth mother has been killed in complications having to do with a basil plant. Zarifa is a large woman, of heart as well as girth. Her story tells of a whole different strata within the many layers of this society.

Each parent, each child, each cousin, sister, aunt, uncle and grandparent has a life which is intricately woven within this novel. It is an intriguing story, and a fascinating depiction of a world I know little about. I found it well written and multi-faceted, as every book long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize ought to be. (Celestial Bodies also won the 2010 Best Omani Novel Award.)

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

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This is a rather shocking story which reads, forgive me, a little bit like watching the film Thelma and Louise. You can sense the imminent danger that lies ahead from the very first page.

Two young and naive girls from Holland, vacationing in their parents’ country of Morocco, come across a young man named Saleh. He leads them through alleyways to a hovel, where the ceiling is little higher than the door, and introduces them to a young man named Murat, with terribly decayed teeth, and his mother. They are living the poorest existence, and yet set out a tray of dates and tasteless pastries for their visitors, giving the very best of what they have.

One of the girls, named Thouraya, wears Miu Miu sunglasses and carries a D&G rose-pink bag over her shoulder, “looking like a film star on her way to do charity work.”

She couldn’t stand the poverty, the heat, and the dust. It exhausted her. There was compassion in her, but beneath the surface also the conviction that poor people had only themselves to blame for living like this. A kind of payback for something. That thought bore her up a little, made it easier to tolerate what she was seeing.

But Thouraya and her friend Ilham begrudgingly agree to do as Murat’s mother begs them on her knees; they agree to take Murat in their rented Audi, stuffing him in the trunk where the spare tyre goes, piling suitcases on top of him to keep him hidden. Lots of Moroccans cross like this, according to Saleh. It happens all the time.

If they don’t help, they are heartless and selfish. If they do help, they take dreadful chances of being apprehended.  It is a terrible dilemma.

If her (Ilham’s) own parents hadn’t risked the crossing, she might be in the same situation as this woman on her knees, this desperate family that smelled of poverty. A bitter feeling of gall rose up in her – she, the ingrate, who had been given every chance in life, was now denying that to someone else.

Of course, they decide to hide Murat in the car as they cross on a ferry, and of course (as you can tell by the title), he dies of suffocation in the trunk. When Saleh sees that Murat is dead, he takes the money given to them and flees. The girls must figure out what to do with the body, and having no money, on their own. They are thousands of kilometers from home, and they have the gas left for only a couple of hundred kilometers.

It makes for an interesting story, of people taking advantage of one another, but more importantly addressing an issue so prevalent today: immigration. Murat’s body in the trunk starts to produce a terrible smell, as someone from the shadow jury pointed out, so like the smell that immigrants give for those who don’t want them in their country.

As the Man Booker International Prize so often does, The Death of Murat Idrissi makes a profound political, as well as a literary, statement.

(Thank you to Scribe Publications for the copy of this book to review.)

The Years by Annie Ernaux (translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer, Man Booker International Prize 2019): Addendum

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I have begun this book several times and been impressed until I get halfway through. There are brilliant insights into life in France, life in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the life of a girl growing up in such a time frame. Consider these quotes:

Religion was the sole font of morality. It bestowed human dignity, without which our lives would resemble those of dogs.

and

Only teachers were allowed to ask questions. If we did not understand a word or explanation, the fault was ours.

and

The future is too immense for her to imagine. It will happen, that’s all.

Annie Ernaux explores memory, both hers, her family’s, and even the world’s at large. “Where were you,” she asks, “on September 11, 2001?”

I love these quotes regarding our memories:

Like sexual desire, memory never stops. It pairs the dead with the living, real with imaginary beings, dreams with history.

or

They were saddled with other people’s memories and a secret nostalgia for the time they’d missed by so little, along with the hope of living it one day…

But. Halfway through this memoir, a piece which was the co-winner of the 2019 French-American Foundation Translation Prize in Nonfiction, yet was included in the Man Booker International Prize which awards the “best, eligible full-length novel”, I became so weary I had to lay it down. Endless streams of observations like this, pertinent as some may be, became exhausting to read.

Clearly the official judges, and the members of the Shadow Jury, do not agree with me. They have given reason, plausible I’m sure, as to why The Years should be included as a piece of fiction. Perhaps that is all that needs to be said: our memories are not fully real.

Do not be surprised to see this on the Shadow Jury’s short list, nor, I dare say, on the official short list. It just won’t be on mine.

(Thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for a copy of The Years to review.)

Addendum: After reading this interview with The Guardian, my dislike for The Years became clearer to me.

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong (translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

I had a hard time following this novel as I read. It seems simple enough: a story about Moon Hollow, a slum in Korea where parents and their children have to fight for their existence. But there are many points of view, many different names, and no heading at the beginning of each chapter to indicate which character may be narrating the story.

Is is it Park Minwoo, who was able to lift himself out of poverty, go to college, become an architect, and all the while fail to consider the people he’s left behind in the slum? Is it Cha Soona, the beautiful girl who loves him? Or, is it Jung Wohee, the beginning playwright and director who has inserted herself, unbeknownst to Minwoo, into their lives? It all becomes clear in the end, while on the way to the conclusion there are terrible stories of life in the slum.

Park Minwoo’s father fries fishcakes, Cha Soona’s family make noodles, and one group of children establish a shoe shine business. A group of ten raggedy-looking boys all work as shoeshine boys for Jaemyung, including his younger brother, Jaegeun.  They are not about to lose their business to a kid named Tomak, who suddenly comes in from another neighborhood and tells them to find work elsewhere, especially as it is Jaemyung who keeps the family together after the death of his father. The fights that ensue, as he earns the right to keep his shoeshine stands, are terrifying and brutal. They are what is necessary to survive.

It is disturbing to me that Park Minwoo is able to extricate himself so completely from this environment. On one hand, he is to be commended for gaining the knowledge and skill necessary to be a skilled architect, one who has worked himself up from such extreme poverty. On the other, how is it that he is able to distance himself so completely from his family and friends in their ramshackle houses?

In the past, when slum neighborhoods were rebuilt, construction company employees would go door to door to offer some form of appeasement and get their signatures, but nowadays the process went no further than a reconstruction committee’s approval…Perfectly good buildings were ruthlessly demolished, the excavators letting out their terrible roars, while helpless shouts and cries rang out from among the protesters. The families would hold out for three or four days, but as the street filled with wreckage and rubble, they would start to leave, one or two at a time, and the community would fall apart, as splintered and fragmented as their demolished homes.

Hwang Sok-yung’s novel is surely not appicable to Korea alone. With it, he causes us to look at the poverty around us, much of it overshadowed by mansions behind thick walls. How much responsibility do we bear to alleviate some of the suffering, not only for the good of the people, but for the good of ourselves?

On the last page, Park Minwoo is divorced and living alone. His professional success has brought him neither love nor family, and the last line is this:

And so I stood, in the middle of the sidewalk of what was once Moon Hollow, like a man who’d lost his way.

It is a bitter, sharp awareness that he has come to, facing the consequences of the choices he has made.

(Thanks to Scribe publishers for a copy of At Dusk to review for the Man Booker International Prize. Find another review of this book at Tony’s Reading List.)

Jokes for The Gunman by Mazen Maarouf (translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

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Here we have a collection of stories told from the perspective of the young. The narrators seem to believe in their ability to overcome the death and fear which surrounds them. Their wishful thinking wounds me in its futility.

One of them thinks he will be able to buy a glass eye for his father; at the end of the story we learn the son must wear a glass eye after losing his in a game where a ball strikes him in the head. My sorrow for him is mitigated by the fact that he wanted to sell his deaf twin brother to get the money for his father’s eye.

Another father who plays the gramophone in a bar loses both his arms when a bomb strikes. He asks his son to give him one of his arms, for him being reduced to one is better than the father having none.

In “Biscuit”, a son drives his mother to a care-home, not because she has Alzheimer’s, “but to make sure she goes on believing the biscuit story.” A story he told her when an elderly man was killed at an intersection as they were passing through. The fantastic story he told involved this man “hopping nimbly between the vehicles, avoiding one car, dodging and weaving, whirling around, spinning like a wheel, doing splits and throwing feeble punches.” Whenever the old man touched the side of a car, he would turn it into a biscuit. Making it much more palatable a situation, of course, than the man spinning futively to his death.

“Aquarium” is about a clot of blood, which could or could not be a foetus. The couple loves it, and names it Munir, and keeps it in an aquarium. Of course there had to be such a story, in times like these when people don’t seem to know when life starts.

As you can see, not all of the stories are about war, although most of them are. They are interesting, and bizarre, but not nearly as dreadful as Samanta Schweblin’s collection reviewed earlier.

It’s interesting that two of the thirteen books on the long list are short stories. I always think the novel has so much more power.

(Thanks to Granta for the copy of Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf to review.)

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (translated from the German by Jen Calleja, Man Booker International Prize 2010)

The first thing I loved about this book was how it mirrored my experience in Japan this October. I could immediately relate to seeing Japan for the first time from a Westerner’s point of view. The cleanliness, the bare beauty, the efficiency, everything described was similar to what I noticed as well.

Gilbert Silvester has dreamed that his wife Mathilde has been cheating on him. And so he flies to Tokyo on a transcontinental flight, leaving quite abruptly.

Soon he meets Yosa Tamagotchi, who is poised to throw himself in front of a train because he is terrified he won’t pass his exams. Because his beard is trendy and neat, and Gilbert is a beard researcher, Gilbert decides to speak to him. Because Yosa is a Japanese young man, and therefore extremely polite, he interrupts his plan to talk with Gilbert.

Gilbert suggests there must be a better place for Yosa’s intentions. He decides to follow the poet Basho’s footsteps to Matsushima, “the most beautiful place in Japan, the bay of pine islands.” They would travel to the pine islands, taking the same route Basho took; it would be a pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual cleansing.

Somewhere along the way, Yosa disappears. We do not find out if he has changed his mind, or if he has gone elsewhere to fulfill his original plan. Several times, Gilbert thinks he sees him, but perhaps it was only a reflection in the tea bowl or in a dream.

Gilbert makes it to the pine islands himself. He writes haiku as Basho did, and explores his journey.

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Far away from home

pine trees as old as the stones –

fleeting clouds above.

This haiku examined the relationship between durability and ephemerality, the unremitting transitoriness of things, of travelling.

It is such a quiet kind of book that I didn’t realize its impact until I closed it. Only then could I see that the implications are universal. We are all ephemeral.

p.s. The night has passed since I finished this book and wrote this extremely brief post. I am still thinking about all the nuances within its pages, about the haikus and how difficult they must have been to translate accurately.

Typical of so many Japanese novels, The Pine Islands is more of a “slice of life”: dropping us in, and pulling us out, of the story before anything is truly settled. We take the pilgrimage with Gilbert, mimicking Basho’s travels. And the more I think about it, the more the novel has crept into my mind like a mist which will not readily dissipate.

(Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for my copy of The Pine Islands.)

A Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

I’ll make this short, as I don’t like to disparage authors or their hard work. Also, I sent my opinion out in Twitter and Instagram, so you may already know this.

I didn’t like A Mouthful of Birds.

This collection of short stories had an auspicious beginning. The first story, “Headlights”, tells of a bride abandoned by her husband while she’s still in her wedding dress standing by the side of a road. One has the idea that the field nearby is filled with abandoned brides who are screaming; near the end, a trail of headlights are seen coming back.

Another story, “Preserves”, has a pregnant woman not emotionally prepared to have her baby yet. After seeing a doctor, who has developed a solution, she spits an almond shaped object into a jar of fluid.

The story taking the title of the collection, “A Mouthful of Birds,” has a set of parents who do not know what to do with their daughter who thrives on eating birds. Alive and whole.

“The Test” is a horrible story about a man who must kill a dog to prove that he can follow orders and eventually kill a person. He bashes a dog over the head with a shovel, but doesn’t quite kill it. Instead, the dog is in agony, and the man learns he didn’t qualify because he hesitated when given the order to strike.

Each story is more upsetting then the previous one. I suppose you could say the writing is imaginative; it certainly is bizarre. But ultimately, the dark violence became overwhelming, and I came away from this book quite distraught. If literature reflects life, I am concerned about how Samanta Schweblin sees the world.