I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

You will be scared. But you won’t know why…

4/5 stars.
ebook, 183 pages.
Read November 16, 2020 to November 19, 2020.

If you have read this book and want to watch the Netflix show, DO NOT WATCH IT. I mean, even if you haven’t read the book I wouldn’t recommend watching the show. It was overly artsy, extremely drawn-out, boring, and missed all the best aspects and feel of the book. However, the book, I assure you is worth reading so just stick with that. A friend recommended this book, and when I first started reading it began as a typical relationship-based fiction but then, oh man, was I in for a surprise.

Jake and his girlfriend are on a road trip to meet Jake’s parents for the first time. The narration is from the girlfriend’s perspective and takes on a stream of consciousness approach as she ruminates about ending the relationship during the snowy ride over the family home.

“I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It’s always there. Always.

Jake once said, “Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.”

And here’s what I’m thinking: I don’t want to be here.”

Outside of a strange reoccurring phone call and message the girlfriend keeps receiving, the road trip itself seems fairly normal until the couple gets to their destination. From there the narrative begins to show frays before completely unravelling during the detour on the trip home that finds Jake and his girlfriend trapt and lost in his old high school. As the girlfriend’s thought process progresses, she explores the inner depths of the psyche that covers everything from existentialism, intelligence, death, being alone, relationships, and mental illness.

“People talk about the ability to endure. To endure anything and everything, to keep going, to be strong. But you can do that only if you’re not alone. That’s always the infrastructure life’s built on. A closeness with others. Alone it all becomes a struggle of mere endurance.”

As the story spirals you come to realise that there is more to story than was initially present. The narrator becomes increasingly unclear all while you’re being sucked into this terrifying psyche. It’s a masterful psychological thriller that allows you to enter the mind of someone on the edge of ruminating between their perceived failings in life and the choice of death.

“What if suffering doesn’t end with death? How can we know? What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape? What if the maggots continue to feed and feed and feed and continue to be felt? This possibility scares me.”

I was on the absolute edge of my seat reading the last quarter of this book. I wasn’t sure if I wanted it all to end while also wanting to get through the anxiety-inducing plot as quickly as possible. It’s not often a book can produce that kind of effect, which is exactly what the Netflix show lacked, especially because it threw in random dance sequences and musical numbers at the pinnacle part of the story that was supposed to be terrifying. Needless to say, I vehemently hated the Netflix adaptation. The book is short, immensely poignant, brilliantly written. It can feel slightly convoluted at times because it’s hard to follow some of the thought processes as the plot comes undone but the feeling this book creates is consistent and remains long after you’ve finished reading. The story pulls you in until you find yourself within its inescapable hole. Arguably, I could also see why some people may not have enjoyed it for the same reasons.

I would recommend this book for those who enjoy psychological fiction and thriller and thought-provoking plots with a thriller or horror twist.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 496 pages.
Read from October 27, 2020 to November 6, 2020.

Another great recommendation that I can’t recall where I got it from. I think I stumbled upon it as historical fiction involving multigenerational stories are concepts I get excited about. It also helps that this book racked up a variety of literary awards in 2017/2018.

Pachinko, as I learned, is a popular type of gambling in Japan that started in the 1920s. The concept of the game is a mash up of a VLT and a pinball machine.

From left to right: a pre war pachinko game, 1970s pachinko machine, bottom photos are of the current modern machines.

Pachinko, in this novel, is a metaphor for the struggles of life, especially that of the Korean family in the story, and many others during is time under Japanese occupation.

“Life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing…”

The story begins in the 1900s with a teen named Sunja around the beginnings of the Japanese occupation detailing her poor but humble life at a fishing village in Korea. She is taken with an older stranger to the village named Hansu who fills her head with love and promises, however, when she falls pregnant he confesses to already having a family in Japan. Hansu is wealthy and does care about Sunja but Sunja is stunned by the betrayal and refuses any help from Hansu despite knowing the social rejection she will face being an unmarried mother. She instead decides to marry a kind, but sickly, minster named Baek Isak who knows her situation and takes her in regardless. Sunja leaves her home and follows her new husband to Japan. She gives birth to her first son Noa and to another son by Baek Isak named Mozasu. She lives with Baek Isak’s brother and sister-in-law in the Korean slums in Japan. While she finds a deep companionship with her sister-in-law, Japan is immensely unkind to Koreans and the conditions in which she lives are worse than they were in Korea. Sunja is stubborn and persistent and shakes conventional norms for the sake of keeping her family fed. Sunja’s sons struggle with acceptance as they are born and raised in Japan but their heritage makes them less than in the eyes of the Japanese. This struggle is particularly awful for Noa, who, is very academically astute, tended to hide is heritage. Mozasu is a much more practical child who grows up to take on a pachinko business, often viewed as dishonourable work. Despite Sunja’s rejection of Hansu, the decision comes to affect her whole life as well as her sons’, as Hansu isn’t so easily deterred.

Pachinko is a deeply moving story that encompasses so many themes and emotions. While the story embodies struggle, it’s very much about love, resilience, standing by your beliefs, and ambition. You become deeply invested in these sturdy and resilient characters as they endure hardship over nearly four generations.

“People are awful. Drink some beer.”

The book emphasises and focuses on strong and stubborn female characters with empathic and equally as strong male characters that compliment them in a compromising and highly patriarchal society. The story itself is very much focused on the characters and doesn’t discuss the nuances of the political situation in too much depth other than the depictions of suffering and persecution that this family endured. I think this approach has made this book accessible to readers who may not enjoy historical fiction. For me, it made me want to learn more about this tumultuous time for Korea as after the Japanese occupation is when the North and South of Korea parted ways, making for a very long and difficult era for Korea and its people.

Overall it was a wonderful and enrapturing read, despite it being a bit long, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction, multigenerational sagas, immersive characters, or an interest in Korean and Japanese culture and relations.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“May your Paths be safe, your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 272 pages.
Read from October 20, 2020 to October 22, 2020.

I read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in 2010, more than 10 years ago. While I remember next to nothing about the book I must have enjoyed it enough to show interest in this new book by the same author. Now that I have read Piranesi and having added a few more years of age (maybe some wisdom in there too), I would probably enjoy re-reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell again. With more than 15 years between the publications of these two books, here is hoping we don’t have to wait that long for another book by this great author.

Piranesi is a curious man living within an even more curious home he calls The House. Its rooms and corridors are infinite and surrounded by oceans with its water that flood and fill rooms with ebbing and flowing with the tides. The rooms are decorated with stunning pieces of art and sculptures as well as ocean wildlife like birds and fish. Piranesi spends his time mapping this labyrinth that he lives in and living off the meagre resources it provides him. There are others in the House but the majority of them are dead in which Piranesi honours their rotting bodies and speculates how they came to be here and their previous existence. He doesn’t get lonely though as there is The Other, a man that comes and goes, talks to him frequently while he carries out his Great and Secret Knowledge research that he is obsessed with. Piranesi never questions his existence or the strange world he lives in until a newcomer, he calls 16, since they are the sixteenth person to come to the House (including the dead) but is warned by The Other to avoid this person at all costs. Piranesi’s inexpiable trust in The Other begins to wane as he begins to communicate with 16 through secret messages. 16 is trying to locate a person he doesn’t know and is inquiring about the bodies with The House. Piranesi begins to wonder if The Other is his friend at all and about his existence within The House, as well as the presence and life of a world outside of The House.

What a concept and plot! There were so many ways this book could have gone wrong since. From the historical references to the abstract concept and world within the book. To truly appreciate the genius of the book you need to know who Giovanni Battista Piranesi is. Piranesi lived in the 1700s and was a respected etcher, painter and architect. He is most known for his series of prints called ‘Carceri d’invenzione or ‘Imaginary Prison‘. The series shows a whimsical labyrinth of underground rooms, stairs, art, and machinery.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi - Le Carceri d'Invenzione - First Edition - 1750 - 01 - Title Plate.jpg
First plate in the first edition of ‘Le Carceri d’Invenzione

This art as well as the artist is the inspiration and metaphor for The House Clarke’s story. When Piranesi’ world begins to unravel is when you start to fully grasp just how crazy this story is. The concept of this story could have easily gone wrong if it were in the hands of any other writer but Clarke executed it perfectly. The story is engaging and whimsical but grounded enough even for those who may not be as interested in fantasy. Having never seen the real ‘Imaginary Prison‘ etches prior to reading this book, Clarke’s imagery and descriptions of The House provided me with the intimate detail and feel of the real etchings. The world that Clarke creates is immensely visceral and as a reader, you come to feel at home in The House, especially because Piranesi’s character is so endearing.

I adored this book and was dismayed at its short length. Even with its historical reference, it wasn’t a requirement to enjoy this story though it adds an immense amount of depth to the story. It’s a book I would reread and would recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or fantasy.