Spoiler-Free Mini Reviews: The Women of Brewster Place, The Book of Echoes and Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

2021, whilst not a very active blogging year for me, it was a year where I got to read lots of books by great female authors who were new to me, and these are three of them. The Women of Brewster Place was my favourite of the lot, but the other two were fantastic as well, and I would highly recommend all three if you’re looking for something new to sink your teeth into.

The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor

The Women of Brewster Place is Gloria Naylor’s debut novel and is a collection of interconnecting short stories, it was awarded a National Book Award in 1983. It currently has an average rating of 4.18 on Goodreads and I have given it 5 stars.

“Time’s passage through the memory is like molten glass that can be opaque or crystallize at any given moment at will: a thousand days are melted into one conversation, one glance, one hurt, and one hurt can be shattered and sprinkled over a thousand days.”

I picked this up on a whim in an independent bookshop called Mr B’s Emporium, which if you’re ever in Bath I highly recommend visiting, the bookstore actually has a print called Fox, Finch & Tepper which my copy of this book was published, and I am thrilled they are apparently reprinting such amazing literature.

The Women of Brewster Place follows the lives of seven black women who live there, and tell their stories across time, poverty and hope. With the book split into seven chapters that follow the stories of each character and their trails and tribulations, and whilst each is distinct and acts as their own story, I wouldn’t recommend reading them out of order.

This is the kind of book that grabs you and will refuse to let you go, you will not be able to escape the light and dark that is written here. Furthermore, even if you could you wouldn’t want to let it go because the seven contained within it shine with a brilliance that is impossible to look away from, and whilst I have a favourite (Mattie), I wouldn’t want to give any of these character’s and their stories up.

It feels very much like a real snapshot of women’s lives, with each women telling a new experience and perspective, and showcasing the diversity of this gender (and more specifically of black women’s experience in America), whilst also somehow pinpointing the moments of universal pain that black women, and at times all women, can identify with.

Naylor’s writing is also a masterclass. I have never met a writer before who dances across decades as if that was nothing, she laces sentences with pain until that is all you are aware of, and yet she can fill you with hope just the same. Her writing is extraordinary, and she has become an auto-buy author for me.

The Book of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka

The Book of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka is her debut novel and was first published in 2020, and is a historical fiction novel with some magical realism. It currently has an average rating of 4.06 on Goodreads and I have given it 4 stars.

“Sometimes I hear them cry for me and each day I look, from here to Virginia, to Barbados, to Haiti, to Cuba, to Jamaica, and back again to the Bight of Biafra and the Bight of Benin, and further inwards to my homelands. But every day I return to these London docks, hoping they will, she will, remember and return. And in between, I watch people. I sit and stand among them, watching their beginnings and sometimes their ends.”

I’m not sure where I picked this one up, but I’m really glad I did. I wanted to rush this book, to read it all in one sitting, but I couldn’t as it was my work read and I’m really glad for that, as I think I appreciate the story more for being made to digest it at a slower rate.

The book opens with a chapter titled The Beginning, and what is taking place that night at the West India Docks, London in 1813 with the story then continuing two centuries later, following the lives of Michael and Ngozi, narrated by an African women who lost her life on a slave ship.

This is an incredibly emotive and harrowing read, and not one I would recommend for everyone. It explores generational trauma, racism, the slave trade as well as Britain’s relationship with black men in the late 20th century and onwards. However, there is light to the dark as well with the novel deftly exploring forgiveness, healing and love.

Both protagonists: Simon and Ngozi go through interesting journeys as characters and I feel like they truly evolved through the novel, despite the fact their circumstances forced them both to become adults before their time. Although, I should note Ngozi’s story was easily the one of the two that gripped me more, and this seems to be a common feeling felt by other reviewers, and I wish it had been more balanced.

When I cam to writing this review I was shocked to discover this is Amaka’s debut novel, which is shocking due to it’s quality. Her writing is sublime and there is nothing I would change about the way she has constructed this book. She captures emotions better than a lot of seasoned authors, and I’m excited to see what other stories she has to tell.

If there are any gripes to be made against this book is that it can be predictable. Whilst this is not the end of the world for me, and I do believe it makes sense since this story is really about the journey the two characters face, it is a point against it and might hold it back from being truly exceptional.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is an international bestseller first published in 2016 and sparked a nationwide discussion on feminism and misogyny in South Korea after it’s publication, and the appalling murder of a women at a train station. It currently has an average rating of 4.17 on Goodreads, and I have given it 4 stars.

“The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and customs had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all.”

I’m sure you’ve already seen this all over bookstagram, or on the table at your local bookshop, and wondered why on earth it is everywhere: well, quite simply, because it’s good.

The story follows the life of Kim Jiyoung, a woman living in South Korea, from the days of her early childhood watching her family around her, to life as a grown, married women with children as she breaks down at her in-laws meal. It’s strangely formatted, and that will mean it’s not for everyone, but it is well worth the read.

Reading this as a white women living in England was an odd experience for me, as whilst I know this reflects a Korean women’s experience in her society, there were so many universal experiences and feelings I found myself relating to. I came to feel mad reading them. There were also many things the women in this were forced to go through that I have never experienced, but that didn’t make me any less mad, because they reflected stories you still commonly hear from marginalised communities. So I ended up pointing this down and found myself bristling, and as time went on a bit sad.

I can definitely understand how this could have sparked feminist feeling in South Korea when it was published.

I also like the presentation of the women in this book, they don’t feel actively resigned to the bounds of misogyny they’re forced to live within, but all encapsulate a feeling of weariness in fighting it. It deftly explores whether the age old question of: are women mad? or are women mad?

The format of this book is unusual, and possibly of it’s greatest strength in many regards. It’s very passive, dry and lacks any gut emotive language, however it is full of fully referenced research material on the topics and experiences the protagonist goes through. Cho Nam-Joo doesn’t just talk about what it feels like to be paid less than a man for the same work, she provides the research to show this does happen.

And whilst this is a strength, it’s also the books greatest weakness. Sometimes it was hard to plough through as I wanted to experience what the character was feeling, but was then stopped by statistics and referencing from where these numbers came from. At others, the voice felt slightly too detached for the scene it was dealing with. When it worked, the narrative style really worked, but when it didn’t, it really didn’t.

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