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Okay, so this book was definitely not my cup of tea… My first thought after finishing this book was “What the f!%k did I just read!?”
My first reaction after finishing the book was to give it 1 star, which is something I’m not sure if I’ve ever done before. Out of the ten stories, the one that I liked the most was Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers. The idea of a camp for people who can’t sleep, or have various sleep-related issues, sounds pretty cool to me (not including the incontinent cabin). So that fact that I was able to find one story that I liked, made me want to bump my rating from 1 star, to 2. But then I went back to Goodreads to see what other people were saying about it, and that’s when I realized that I was in the minority because this book has a 3.79 rating on Goodreads, which led me to believe that maybe I was just missing something vital. While many reviewers seemed to toss about terms like “imaginative” and “quirky”, I definitely felt like “confused” and “nonsensical” applied better. I wasn’t sure where these stories were happening, and mostly, I wasn’t sure what what was even happening. So back to Goodreads I went for a little more research.
One of the genres on Goodreads for this book is Magical Realism, which my mind literally translated to magic in the real world. But of course, not wanting to discuss something without a baseline of familiarity with it I went to The Google™ and decided to do a little searching. Apparently I wasn’t the only one that struggled with this concept because the Book Riot published a helpful article titled What Is Magical Realism? In short, Emma Allmann, the author of this article, posits that Magical Realism is “a chance for authors to show an alternative to an accepted reality.” Which, hey, isn’t that what magic is in the first place? But then she goes further and says, “Ultimately magical realism uses magical elements to make a point about reality. This is as opposed to stories that are solidly in the fantasy or sci-fi genres which are often separate from our own reality.”
I don’t consider myself a novice reading. I taught myself how to read at the age of 2 and then never looked back – but this Magical Realism was completely new to me. The information above is something that would have been really useful for me to know before reading this book, rather than after. I could have spent time reading each story trying to figure out which aspect of reality Russell was commenting on. Instead I had to look back with hindsight and see if I could figure it out. At that point, I had already read the entire book in a frustrated state of mind. Obviously it’s been hard for me to get over my frustrated feelings.
As an example, I’ll take a quick look at the first story in the book. I got the sense that the first story took place in a swamp-like location, rather than the beachy vibes I got from the other stories (and I later learned at book club that Russell actually expands on the first story in her book Swamplandia!). This story is about two sisters – the younger sister named Ava. Ava’s older sister has a ghost for a boyfriend. ♈ Ava can’t see her sister’s boyfriend, but she hears them making out and I’m pretty sure, at least at one point, she hears the sister was having sex with her ghost boyfriend!? So, not expecting this to be magical realism, I’m like……wut?♈
But if we view this story through the lens of Magical Realism, we can try to pick apart what point Russell is trying to make about reality. The easiest example that I can think of is a commentary on what it’s like for two sisters who aren’t super close in age but have to share a room. How do these sisters cope when one of them is almost an adult and does adult things, and the other is younger and maybe hasn’t gone through puberty yet? ♈ The fact that Ava heard her sister having sex with her boyfriend could very simply be the younger sister hearing the older sister on her journey of self-discovery which manifests in the act of masturbation. ♈
When looking at it that way, the craziness that is that first story, started to take the shape of something a lot more rational than just the words that I took at face value. I just wish that I’d known this going in because I probably would have been a lot less frustrated with the whole book.
Now that I got my frustration with Magical Realism out of the way, I’ll finish this review up with a few more warnings. I gleaned from the mention of the Bowl-A-Bed hotel in a few of the stories that most of them seem to take place on the same island or near-sea location, but as far as continuity, that’s where it ends. So if you’re the type of person who likes your short story anthologies to be similar to each other and maybe share a consistent theme, then this is probably not the book for you. Though one of the women in my book club said that the overall theme that she gleaned from the book was parents who are remarkably un-involved in their children’s lives, which I agree could stand as a theme. While there are parents in the sense that they help build a back story to each child’s story, they really aren’t that involved in the actual stories.
My biggest frustration was that most, if not all, of the stories seemed to end on a cliffhanger! 😬 As a general rule I dislike cliffhangers. It could be my inability to connect with the various stories led me to miss important things, but shouldn’t the stories….end… I don’t know…..cohesively? Every story left me feeling like there was unfinished business. So with all of that explanation in mind, I think I’ll end my review here.
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Have you come across this Magical Realism genre before? If so, did you get it right away, or did it take some time? What books do you think fall under this genre?