Review: Caught, by Lisa Moore

caught>>Published: May 2013

>>Finally got around to it: October 2013

He hadn’t looked down on her, though she was trying with all her might to smash him to bits. She was looking for the button that would blow him sky high, but she couldn’t get at it.

He once told her he would do it again if he got the chance.

I’m shocked, she’d said.

I see the whole picture, he said. But what he meant was they had not broken him. They could forget about breaking him. He didn’t judge people. That was what he had that they didn’t have.

There’s something I’d like to ask, she said. What makes you believe you wouldn’t get caught again?

Her earnestness nearly broke him. She was so sincere it almost made him doubt. He would have told her he believed and that was all there was to it.

Believing is believing is believing is believing.

There’s no reason to it. It just is, he would have told her that. But they had run out of time.

***

June 14, 1978: a young man from Newfoundland named David Slaney escapes from prison in Nova Scotia. Slaney’s young, about to turn twenty-five, and has just served four years and two days of a prison term as a direct result of the biggest pot bust in Canadian history—two tons and over a million dollars in Colombian weed. He and his accomplice Brian Hearn were busted coming into port. While Slaney went to prison, Hearn jumped bail, changed his name, and began a new life on the west coast.

With the help of a plan concocted by Hearn, Slaney’s sister, and a few assorted ne’er-do-wells, Slaney is making his way across the country, back to Hearn, then back to Colombia for another shot at glory. Because easy money is easy if you don’t cock it up. Along the way he’ll come into contact with more than a couple lost souls willing to give him a lift or show him some sympathy—because criminal or no, Slaney’s got a good heart, that much is clear—and take a short detour to visit his ex, Jennifer, whose life has gone on without him. Meanwhile, dogging Slaney every step of the way is Patterson, a staff sergeant with the Toronto Drug Section who’s hoping Slaney will lead them to Hearn.

Split into five parts, Lisa Moore’s Caught is a bit of an odd beast. It’s at once harrowing and mundane, trapped halfway between popcorn thriller and “literary” novel without ever confidently setting foot in either pool. The setup is great: we’ve got a prison break, investors in Montreal burned by the bust-gone-wrong from four years earlier, and the opportunity to make amends—to take, by force, the life Slaney feels he is owed. However, it’s in the execution of these ideas that Caught is found lacking, suffering a crisis of identity.

The novel works best in short bursts—vignettes—like with Slaney and the bride-to-be, or when he ducks down to Ottawa to visit Jennifer and the new life she’s won for herself. With Jennifer, we’re given a brief but effective glimpse into their shorthand connection developed in childhood. In fact, the quick detour Moore takes into Slaney and Jennifer’s time together as kids, when she busts him for cheating during a softball game, provides us with all we need to understand how and why they worked so well together in the past. It is the most in-depth and effective character work in the entire novel.

Which brings us to the novel’s downfall: that there really isn’t much of interest to the lives of Moore’s characters. We’re given some details here and there as to who they are and why and how they’re involved—like how Hearn’s actions impacted his father, for example—but for the most part the characters are detailed in unemotional strokes designed to differentiate them from one another by their backgrounds and not by how they are portrayed or what they say. The most troublesome for me was actually Patterson, who, according to his character’s past, has a lot to gain if he succeeds in bringing Slaney and the others to justice, yet seems entirely uninterested in the hunt. There’s no apparent drive or emotional core to any of these people—just actions and reactions to situations like they’re walking from point to point on a narrative line that’s already been sketched out for them. For however much Slaney and Jennifer’s connection worked, it’s such a small part of the overall book that it feels like an overburdened fulcrum on which too much emotional weight has been hung.

Beyond the lack of character, Moore’s writing simply never popped for me. It’s propulsive in terms of driving the plot, but it’s just… well, it’s not interesting—it gets the job done without ever really painting the scene. As a study in streamlining narrative construction, it has its merits—the initial reveal of Patterson’s duplicitous role would not have been so effective were it not for the matter-of-fact presentation of the scene—but as a result the novel lacked sensory and emotional appeal. Yes, like my last review, How to Get Along with Women, the decision to remove quotation marks for dialogue plays personally into this reaction; while it was easier to discern what was and what wasn’t dialogue here than in de Mariaffi’s title, I still felt as if I was being dictated to in a stark, monotone voice. This stylistic decision pushed me away from the story instead of drawing me in.

While the novel picks up emotionally in the final part, becoming somewhat stronger as a character piece as it deals with new themes of forgiveness and finding one’s place in the world, it was too little too late to make me feel what I’d hoped to feel for Slaney in the end; the starkness of everything that had come before robbed Caught’s conclusion of any sort of catharsis.

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Review: How to Get Along with Women, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

women>>Published: October 2012

>>Finally got around to it: October 2013

I aligned myself with another researcher. We held meetings after hours and made lists and lists of questions. In partnership, we created a new study that would follow the men from their formative, pre-man years. This was to be our life’s work. My partner took charge of the Centre for Specimen Generation. It was her job to sweep the men’s holes for tissue, sample the tissue for DNA, fill our test tubes with nutritive agar. We built glass enclosures, fifteen per lab, and incubated the bodies as if they were our own babies. Sturdy volunteers pushed the tiny pre-men out from between their legs.

Predictably, we divided into factions. My research team argued for an increasingly close relationship with the men. Authenticity, we said, depends on empathy. We held a naming ceremony, carried their photos in our wallets.

Some believed the intimacy of this process compromised the study as a whole. These dissenters were removed from the project.

Are we field researchers? the outgoing Chair screamed, and she watched as the Maid Brigade cleaned out her desk—their blue uniforms, their embroidered name tags. I straightened my white coat and stood firm. The lab, I told my loyal colleagues, can be whatever you want it to be. The lab can be the field.

***

A sinister naivety drives much of Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s first published collection of short fiction, How to Get Along with Women. The twelve stories contained within offer a mostly monochromatic spectrum of broken families and tepid, fucked up relationships punctuated by Mariaffi’s sparse, economical prose.

Many of the stories focus on desired relationships that, for one reason or another, can’t or shouldn’t be. “Dancing on the Tether” introduces us to Zelda, her mother Mary, and Tim, Mary’s ex who Zelda wants to fuck, because he’s a stand-up guy who doesn’t beat dogs or command more respect than he deserves. The two young friends in “Kiss Me Like I’m the Last Man on Earth”—a girl and a boy—engage in a game of war that affords their lesser demons opportunity to rise to the surface. “He Ate His French Fries in a Light-Hearted Way” details the unconventional friendship between Del, a thirty-plus-year-old gay man dying of AIDS, and a teenage girl half his age, who, when she departs for university to find herself, abandons the one person to ever mean a damn thing to her.

“Field Work” is far and away the most playful entry in the collection—arguably the only playful entry. The story revolves around scientists—all women—observing the men of the future, who are all quite tiny and, well, useless, having shrunken over time because they were simply no longer needed. Interestingly enough, as much as the story works to knock men down a peg or two, it also serves as a brief indictment of the ways in which women are just as susceptible as men in painting the opposite gender’s worth in broad, stereotypical strokes.

Similar to “Field Work,” “Everything Under Your Feet” showcases a more imaginative, image-focused side of Mariaffi’s writing. The story introduces us to Lydia, who upon finishing school sets out to make her mark on the world, only to settle in the very same place she runs out of gas. She begins running up the side of a nearby mountain every day, determined to do something more worthwhile with her life than becoming just another factory drone (preferring, as she repeats the same actions day in and day out, to be a drone of a different colour). Lydia is certainly the most developed and intriguing character in the collection.

Contrary to the inventiveness and intrigue of these two entries in the collection, however, the stories “Super Carnicería,” “Jim and Nadine, Nadine and Jim,” and the titular “How to Get Along with Women” feel academic and isolated. The latter in particular is a bird’s eye view of a relationship over an extended period of time, told in short vignettes. Reading the story I felt like a voyeuristic neighbour peering in the living room or bedroom window of a couple, and each time I looked in it was another day, or another season, but my connection to the people inside was fleeting and without emotional resonance.

By the end of the collection I felt unexpectedly worn out by Mariaffi’s writing. As much as “Field Work” and “Everything Under Your Feet” are the stand-out stories within this collection, the remaining entries all fell into that unfortunate grey category of “just not all that interesting.” And unfortunately, like at least three other short fiction collections I’ve read this year, How to Get Along with Women saves its weakest for last with “You Know How I Feel.” It’s difficult not to feel at least a little let down when that happens.

Unfortunately, Mariaffi’s disaffected tone overwhelmed the content of her stories for me. So many of the characters within the stories were maudlin and without purpose that it was at times frustratingly dull; it seemed to me while reading the book as if the author were disinterested in her own characters, who mostly lacked distinctive voices of their own. Part of this can be boiled down to the sparseness of Mariaffi’s language, which was often punctuated to its detriment. Another element of this, going part and parcel with the aforementioned, is the stylistic decision of not using quotation marks to denote dialogue. This is a personal thing but worth mentioning as I find when confronted with this decision I often feel as if I’m being held at an emotional distance by the author through their employment of a stylistic device that hampers comprehension and increases the prevailing monotone voice.

How to Get Along with Women has received a tremendous amount of praise since its release, even landing a coveted spot on this year’s Giller Prize longlist. Unfortunately, like Lynn Coady’s recent collection Hellgoing (which was also nominated and subsequently made the shortlist), I simply didn’t feel enough of an emotional connection to any of the characters or stories within this collection.

Review: The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman

121.Ned Beauman-The Teleportation Accident>>Published: July 2012

>>Finally got around to it: October 2013

The triumph of ketamine had coincided with the triumph of another dark horse, to use an unfortunate phrase—a certain pretty girl called Adele Hitler, who was now among the first rank of those all-too-influential foals and fillies. At that first party in Puppenberg, she’d been a novelty item, but by the end of 1931 she was getting more invitations than Brecht, and it wasn’t hard to see why: she could be relied upon to look stunning, she could be relied upon to get entertainingly drunk, and above all she could be relied upon to fuck someone worth gossiping about. Rackenham was just the beginning. When you heard about who Adele Hitler had gone to bed with after a particular party, it was like reading the solution to a really elegant murder mystery: you’d never for a moment suspected that it might be x, but now that you’d found out it really was x, you realised that it could never have been anybody other than x. She fucked Brecht because everybody did, she fucked Brogmann because nobody did; she fucked Littau because he was queer, she fucked Hannah Czenowitz because she was straight; she fucked Hecht because he had a girlfriend, she fucked Klein because he was known to be impotent; she fucked clarinet-playing Negroes and one-legged war veterans, drug dealers and ambassadors’ sons. And this was Adele Hitler’s legend: that in two years of astonishing promiscuity, she hadn’t ever fucked anyone more than once, and she hadn’t ever fucked anyone who could not, in one way or another, be considered a little bit of a coup.

***

In what’s more than likely a bit of deliberate wordplay, Egon Loeser is, in fact, one helluva loser. How much of a loser is he you might ask? Enough to become so hung up on his lust—not love, let me be perfectly clear on that matter—for one woman and one woman only that over the course of several years he chases her from Berlin to Paris, and eventually Los Angeles.

And just who is this loser of a Loeser? At the novel’s opening, in Berlin, 1931, Egon is a set designer for the theatre, actively pursuing his dream production—a recreation of Lavicini’s Teleportation Accident from three hundred years earlier. Along with his best friend Anton Achleitner, Egon spends his time outside of the theatre being dismissive of Berlin society and the local arts scene, lusting after Adele Hitler (no relation), avoiding his ex-lover Marlene Schibelsky, and buying cocaine from Rackenham, a hack writer Egon comes to despise.

When Adele ignores Loeser’s advances, opting instead to sleep with half of German society, both high and low, before departing for Paris, it sets Loeser on a mission to get what he believes to be his. He refuses to accept there might be another woman out there that could satisfy his desires, so he follows Adele to Paris. Once there, our emotionally imbalanced set designer/protagonist becomes the unwitting acquaintance of a man named Scramsfield—an American with a cowardly, humiliating past. Scramsfield is a wannabe confidence man lacking the quality of conviction needed to properly sell his many lies and half-truths. He manages to string poor Loeser along by claiming he knows Adele—along with half of history’s literary greats—and can take him to her… but instead leads Egon around town, bleeding him dry with drinks at every bar and café that will serve them while he continues to peddle his bullshit like he’s selling water from a stand in the middle of the Sahara.

From Paris, Loeser makes his way to Los Angeles, completely oblivious to the situation brewing in the Germany he left behind (that whole messy rise of Hitler and the Nazi party thing). Once there, he meets and falls in with a small crowd of artists, writers, and intellectuals—incredibly made up of some the people he assumed he’d left behind, turning up again as bad pennies always do—while resuming both his search for Adele and his secondary obsession of unearthing new knowledge and information related to Lavicini’s Teleportation Accident. All this while getting himself unexpectedly wrapped up in a plot involving a possible real-life teleportation device and a scientist of decidedly murderous intent.

On its face, Ned Beauman’s second novel has a lot going for it—a deft hand for the deliberate mangling of historical events, excellent wordplay and imagery, and a gift for sarcasm and absurdity. However, despite its many attributes, The Teleportation Accident was a mostly disappointing read. For all Loeser’s idiosyncrasies and hang-ups (such as the return rate of sex for writers—about one good fuck per published book—his petulant behaviour upon meeting Stent Mutton for the first time, and his strange inability to ride in any stranger’s car unless he sits in the back and pretends it’s a taxi), he’s just not that interesting a person to follow around for 350-plus pages. Point of fact, his eccentricities are often more infuriating than they are amusing.

Going a step further, by the beginning of the novel’s third part I found myself struggling to want to finish it. Not only is the narrative devoid of even one genuinely likable character—which would be fine were they at least interesting or compelling in some way—but by this point in the story, more than halfway through, it still felt as if nothing of consequence had happened. When experimental physics finally enter the scene the narrative does pick up a bit, but it comes too little too late to save the book from its own overwhelming cleverness.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy The Teleportation Accident at all. The interplay between Colonel Gorge, who suffers from severe visual agnosia, and his manservant Woodkin is the best and most assuredly comical writing in the entire novel, and offers a great deal of levity to the narrative’s final chapters. Unfortunately, though, that also more or less exemplifies what bothered me most about this title: while the moment-to-moment dialogue is sometimes entertaining, it feels as if it exists in a bubble. It never really offers enough depth or personality—apart from Colonel Gorge, who is at best a side character—to make me care about the characters on the page, all of whom are about as selfish and inwardly turned as one could imagine.

By the novel’s end, I felt more as if I’d read a series of skits or vignettes tied loosely together than having experienced a story. However unintentionally, it’s the author himself who, on page 154, managed to best capture my emotions towards the novel:

He’d wanted to read for a while, but the only novel he’d brought with him to America was Berlin Alexanderplatz, and although after three hundred and nine pages it really felt like it might be about to get going, he though he might need something more potent…

Review: Hellgoing, by Lynn Coady

Hellgoing- Book Cover>>Published: July 2013

>>Finally got around to it: October 2013

Here is what he’s doing. He’s inhaling, and then letting the smoke pour out as he sings. It cascades from his face and swirls heavenward, enveloping them both as he extends the cigarette to his wife. A more honest gesture, now, a gesture like the nurses when they feed her, only loving.

And then of course he takes a look around, a guilty boy. As he has probably been doing intermittently throughout this performance.

And if they think I am going to stand here denouncing this and that, they are not smart. If they think I’m going to slap my palm against the light switch and start hollering for doctors and nurses and the pope, they don’t have to concern themselves. If they suppose I could possibly bother with any such nonsense, let them turn around and get on with what they’re doing. Let them do as they please, the whole bunch of them. Eat and smoke and starve and stand on your head as far as I’m concerned. Live and die and do what you want all over the place. I won’t be the one to say a word.

***

Lynn Coady’s sixth book, coming only two years after her impressive, Giller-shortlisted novel The Antagonist, is a collection of nine caustic short stories detailing an assortment of broken, isolated characters—mostly women—undone by obsessions, miscommunications, and bottled-up resentment.

In “Wireless,” a self-styled alcohol aficionado works to find ways to justify her obsession to a maybe-more-than-a-one-night-stand who shares her addiction, but is seemingly less comfortable admitting to his weaknesses. The emotionally exhausted assistant of a writer on a media blitz in “Dogs in Clothes” is further worn down by frequent notifications from her brother regarding their father’s seemingly unsuccessful open-heart surgery. A pushover of a landlord in “The Natural Elements” dotes in a fatherly way over a tenant—a woman abandoned in an unfamiliar environment by her professor husband.

Intense psychological unrest is prevalent in most of the stories in this collection. In “Take This and Eat it,” a nun attempts to get through to an anorexic girl who is starving herself for God, treading a fine high wire between respecting the girl’s rights to religious freedom and watching, waiting to be convinced her religion is merely a mask for deeper emotional issues. The bride-to-be at the heart of “An Otherworld” has a lust for bondage and an obvious desire to self-punish as if undeserving of happiness or stability. A young woman travels with her boyfriend in “Body Condom” to visit with his father, who, in his drug-addled past, abused and abandoned his family; while the boyfriend’s personality is very much head-in-the-clouds—more likely as a survival mechanism than naivety—his girlfriend’s bitterness bubbles to the surface—bitterness not only about being in love, but about being in love with him. And in “Mr. Hope,” a peculiar friendship blooms over several years between a student and her principal as he tests her to be better than she is, better than the subpar selection of students he’s tired of seeing in school day in and day out.

The two strongest stories in this collection are the titular “Hellgoing” and “Clear Skies.” In the former, a brother and sister come to understand one another as adults, united against emotional parental abuse while also being forced to acknowledge that elements of their parents will always be with them, inside. In the latter, meanwhile, a writer goes to a retreat to discuss her work with her peers… who really aren’t her peers because of how she sees them, as inauthentic approximations of various writers’ stereotypes.

There’s an overarching frustrated, atheistic tone to the stories in Hellgoing—a rejection of the existence of a plan or purpose for any one of us beyond that which we make for ourselves. Collectively, these are lost protagonists who, despite their surface connections and careers, seem more often to skirt the edges of introversion and isolationism. While this harder edge is welcome, the abrasiveness is like flotsam floating to the surface; Coady’s stories are conceptually cutting, as are her characters, but it’s all show—there’s little to any of them beyond anger and discontentment outwardly cast.

Though there are no quote-unquote bad stories in Hellgoing, neither is there any one in particular that stands out in my memory. Coady’s moment-to-moment writing is as good as ever, but unlike the pained and instantly captivating diamond in the rough at the heart of her previous novel, the characters in Hellgoing feel like basic ideas and emotions tied loosely together, and not realized people.

Review: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

9780307596901_custom-dd5af455b48c150d2a8e1bfe8cf3d0a047ee9550-s6-c30>>Published: April 2013

>>Finally got around to it: October 2013

“It’s like waking up, you know? At school, each year, I take out this coffee-table book about the wonders of the world, both natural and man-made, and it’s full of the most incredible photographs—of Ayers Rock, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, Petra, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids—”

“I get it.”

“And the point is that whenever I lose faith in my life, I look at those pictures and I think, ‘You haven’t been here’ and ‘You haven’t seen that,’ and I’m suddenly filled with wonder, like the sky opening, you know, to think that all this exists, and hope, because I might someday experience some of it—the smells, the sounds, what the light is like.”

“So, okay?”

“So this fall, them, it’s been a bit like that: the sky opening; hope. A feeling of possibility. Yes, hope. Like maybe it isn’t all over yet.”

“Why would it all be over?”

“Because I’m thirty-seven and single and I teach elementary school and wear clogs every day.”

***

Nora Marie Eldridge: forty-two and furious that she hasn’t yet set the world ablaze. Nora is an artist trapped in the body of a former third-grade teacher at Appleton Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the beginning of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Nora is reflecting upon her life—what she’s accomplished, and more importantly, what she knows in her heart she still needs to do—and about the family that turned her life upside down a few years previously.

For the most part, Nora’s life has been one of tacit acceptance. Following the prologue set a few years in the future we’re introduced to the Nora we come to know through nine tenths of Messud’s novel—the single teacher approaching middle-age, who suppressed her artistic leanings at her mother’s urging, citing the importance, above all else, of being self-sufficient, and of not being under the thumb of a husband’s financial allowance. Nora’s mother Bella, we soon learn, led a life filled with regret. At sixty-one she was diagnosed with ALS and died having lived more for her family than for herself—a “mistake” Nora would not allow herself to make.

At the start of a new school year, Nora meets Reza Shahid, a new student from overseas who has enrolled in her class—very clearly a caring, compassionate child to whom she takes an immediate liking. Soon Nora meets Reza’s mom, Sirena, an artist with contacts in New York and Paris. It isn’t long before Nora and Sirena recognize in one another similar artistic passions, and together they decide to rent a studio space they can share.

Right away, Nora begins to fall for Sirena—not necessary in love with, but in awe of her; she is enthralled by everything about Sirena, from her worldliness and experience to how she carries herself and the not-so-mild way Nora exoticizes her appearance. This fascination, and the new studio space they share, helps to reinvigorate Nora’s artistic desires; she continues her work crafting small but very detailed dioramas (tiny, elaborate tragedies) while Sirena sets to work on creating larger scale installations designed for public intervention.

Things progress smoothly in this regard until Reza is attacked at school—a rock imbedded in a snowball strikes him near the eye, requiring stitches. The incident causes Sirena’s doubts about living in America to rise to the surface. The family disappears back to Paris over the Christmas holidays, leaving Nora partially despondent until their return. When Sirena again joins Nora in the studio, things are never quite the same, and sudden success and interest in Sirena’s work only hastens the distance slowly growing between them like an ever-widening expanse.

The Woman Upstairs is a frustrating, at times disappointing read. Messud’s novel has a crisis of tone throughout. While bookended with an enticing, anthemic Fight Club-esque “middle children of history” invective—the author expressing her rage at the world passing her by—the majority of the book, told from the first person perspective, feels divided over what it wants to be and what it needs to say. While the narration is often long-winded and erudite, Nora’s speech is sharp, abrasive, and overly defensive, leaving the book with three distinct voices (including the opening and closing segments) that just don’t mesh together. Unfortunately, this leaves Nora a disparate collection of ideas without much in the way of cohesion, which in turn kept me from feeling as if I understood her, or why I should want to.

Similarly, there is unevenness in Nora’s self-styled independence and the speed and voracity in which she gloms on to the Shahid family and their amazing, mysterious ways. She says at one point, “My lifelong secret certainty of specialness, my precious, hidden specialness, was awakened and fed by them, grew insatiable for them, and feared them, too: feared the power they might wield over me, and simply on account of that fear, almost certainly would.” While it’s certainly believable that an interesting or inspiring person entering one’s life at the right time might upend a great many things, the speed at which this happens to Nora—the quickness at which the independence seemingly ingrained in her by her mother is given up to three not terribly three-dimensional characters—is surprising and saps our protagonist of much of her strength. More surprising, again given her tough outer shell (which, if intended to be a mask so easily cracked, did not effectively come across as such) is how she finds ways to justify her dependence on the Shahids and Sirena specifically, citing their need of her.

Messud’s novel is predicated on the idea of “the Woman Upstairs”. Throughout the novel, this concept, capitalized throughout as if a thesis statement, is forced too often on the reader, as if the author feared we’d forget the title of the novel or its meaning, laid out very clearly in the opening chapter:

I’m not an Underground Woman, harboring resentment for my miseries against the whole world…. No Ralph Ellison basement full of lightbulbs for us; no Dostoyevskian metaphorical subterra. We’re always upstairs. We’re not the mad-women in the attic—they get lots of play, one way or another. We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddamn tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.

Unfortunately, the repetition of this thesis statement actually causes it to lose its impact over time; the novel becomes less about how Nora embodies the idea of the Woman Upstairs, and more about how she justifies her own existence by telling herself, over and over again, that this is the label she belongs under—that this is her club, and like all others sharing her lot in life, she’s pissed off that this is all she gets. It almost feels after a time as if she’s a hypochondriac who’s just finished reading up on a horrifying illness, then decides because she shares the same symptoms that she must be suffering the same fate—and she’s going to make damn sure everyone knows about it.

The most glaring tragedy of The Woman Upstairs is in what it sets up and doesn’t deliver upon, and not in what it actually spends so much time trying to say. When Sirena finds success, which invariably removes her from Nora’s very small bubble, Nora is hurt and feels abandoned—entirely because she’s crafted a fantasy of purpose under Sirena’s umbrella, a fantasy that’s based on some imagined love Sirena might have for her, that she’d be able to reconcile if only she actually voiced how she felt instead of keeping everything bottled up, tying her insides into knots of uncertainty (because she’d rather be hurt than risk popping that fantastic bubble and seeing how out of line many of her thoughts about Sirena and her family actually were). In this sense, Nora, fiercely independent Nora, would rather play the part of the victim than admit she might have been mistaken—which is symptomatic of having lived a life primarily consisting of regret, of living in service to her parents’ wishes for her career instead of doing what it was she truly wanted. As a result, Nora is less a character I felt any sort of attachment to and more of a cipher whose worth nearly disappears when Sirena is swallowed up by the larger art community.

So much of The Woman Upstairs is telling us about Nora’s frustration and anger at being the titular Woman Upstairs—but we’re not shown it, not really. Throughout, her actions are reactionary and not incendiary, as she’d want them to be. In the end, her anger at Sirena and the “twist” of the novel’s final pages is justified (as I imagine anyone would be furious by what transpires—by the violation of self and of privacy), but it comes too little too late to make us cheer for Nora’s next step. Without giving too much away, the ending not only betrays any kindness that the Shahids had shown to Nora throughout the novel (especially Sirena’s apparent friendship), but it is also predicated on capturing and stealing a moment so out-of-character for Nora that, when it first happened in the middle of the book, it almost broke me from the narrative.

The characters in The Woman Upstairs—the protagonist and everyone orbiting her—unfortunately never came together for me, nor did the thesis of the Woman Upstairs, which in this case is based upon an individual who did not seem to know who she was, even by the novel’s end. The entire book feels less like a complete, fleshed-out narrative and more of a prologue building to the more interesting story of what Nora does next with her life and how she sets the art world—and her past—on fire.