The Wrath and the Dawn

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is the beginning of a trilogy retelling the story of Shahrzade. The language is good for a YA novel, if a bit breathless, with many paragraph breaks and emphatic sentence fragments. Shahrzade’s storytelling is less of a focus than romance and court intrigue. In this version of the story, the king who kills his wives is (spoiler alert!) compelled to do so by a curse, which does most of the work of turning him from a serial killer into a Byronic hero. However, in this novel, on his first night with Shahrzade, the king, Khalid, has very “perfunctory” sex with her. She submits, seething with hate. She notes that on the second night, she is getting good at dissociating during these encounters. They don’t have sex again until after they fall in love. But that is what I don’t get. How can she fall in love with a man who raped her?

On the other hand, maybe I’m just being prudish. Maybe it would be almost silly or unrealistic if they didn’t have sex. It makes sense that sex and marriages would work this way in this very patriarchal society, with sex a given. But there’s no way for this kind of sex to be anything but coerced at best, and coerced sex is rape. Khalid never apologizes to Shahrzade for it, although he does decide not to do it again until she consents fully. A question that’s left unanswered is whether or not Khalid slept with every one of the other murdered wives, and whether they consented. Were their final hours spent being violated? The book seems to lead me to answer, probably. Although it also seems possible that he simply stays away from the women, since he is so bad at emotional intimacy and didn’t seem to enjoy the impersonal sex he has with Shahrzade their first night anyway. Shahrzades’ honest gaze at their wedding ceremony is what intrigues him enough to visit her, but rather than asking her questions to begin with, he jumps right into bed, because he can and because he doesn’t have the skills or the guts to talk to her. He seems to begin their conversation with sex, because he doesn’t know what else to say–she says he seems to derive no real pleasure from it. His cowardice leads to her violation. And the narrative does not address this issue at all.

While the story does a great job of describing the couple’s physical attraction, it doesn’t sufficiently explain how Shahrzade deals with these rapes or makes sense of them in the context of their growing relationship. How does her attraction overcome her resentment? When they do finally make love, how do their previous coercive encounters color the act? Does Shahrzade continue to dissociate, even though she no longer needs to escape? Is Khalid still emotionally distant and perfunctory, because that is how he is used to behaving in bed, even though he is trying to express real love?

Ahdieh gives us no answers, but I guess these are my questions: In fiction, is rape a crime that puts a character beyond redemption? Or is there such a place as beyond redemption? What is necessary for that redemption? Can that redemption happen in the same relationship as the rape? Even if a rapist gets redeemed, can he ever deserve a true “happy ending”? Is it exploitative for an author to use this rape–>redemption narrative as a form of character development for a male character? Is it ok for a narrative to gloss over rape and its effects? In stories set in the past and in patriarchal societies, is it realistic to expect that characters act as we 21st century readers would wish them to, with regards to sex and consent? Or is setting irrelevant since all of this is imaginary anyway? I’m not sure what the answers are, and maybe that hesitation is a sign of some thinking I need to do on my own, but I suppose the fact that I felt uncomfortable and unsatisfied around this issue shows that The Wrath and the Dawn didn’t answer these questions sufficiently or convincingly.

The Dark Days Club

The Dark Days Club and The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman

This YA fantasy trilogy is set in the Regency period in England (think Jane Austen). Lady Helen learns she is a Reclaimer, gifted with the strength and talent to fight Deceivers, people possessed by demonic spirits who feed off the life energy of others. Some of the fantasy elements struck me as just silly, especially when I tried to picture them visually, or say the made-up words aloud, but if you just go with it (an approach necessary for enjoying much fantasy) it pays off. The period language is fun, as is the juxtaposition of proper speech with scary, violent situations. Lady Helen is an admirable heroine, brave and selfless. She spends a significant portion of the second book in men’s clothes. Details like period dress, locations, and history are well-researched and informative. Lord Carlston, who inducts Lady Helen into the Dark Days Club and teaches her to be a Reclaimer, qualifies as a classically inscrutable and intense Byronic hero. Supporting characters, especially Darby, Lady Helen’s stout maid, are well-drawn and interesting. The plots are structured around mysteries that Lay Helen ably solves–at considerable personal cost.

I was particularly impressed by the ending of The Dark Days Pact. Goodman set her climax inside a real historical murder, explained the mystery of Lord Carlston’s illness and his strong connection with Lady Helen–and then revealed a complication that will keep them apart. Goodman is currently working on the third book in the trilogy, which doesn’t yet have a release date.

Simple Kids’ Books

These are nice children’s books, but I wouldn’t say they’re interesting or complex enough to cross over and satisfy an adult reader. They feature female protagonists and good use of language. But their problems are either melodramatic or mundane, easily solved and not compelling. I’m not their intended reader, but a 10 year old girl might like them.

Esperanza Rising by Katie Munoz Ryan

This book is about a rich girl in Mexico in 1930, who has to move to California and work on a company farm after she loses her father. There is a  subplot about strikes and deportations. As a Spanish teacher, I liked the way that Spanish words and phrases are sprinkled throughout.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd.

This is a happy story about a girl whose migratory family comes back to its hometown, which she discovers is a magical place. Felicity Pickle makes a friend and they do good deeds and eat magic ice cream. Her talent is for words, and she’s always collecting odd ones, including cute made-up ones like “spindiddly.”

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This long novel is one of the most rewarding and satisfying I’ve read in a while. It’s a first-person bildungsroman about loneliness, addiction, PTSD, the love of beautiful objects, and the far-reaching consequences of actions good and bad. The story begins with 13-year-old Theo losing his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, he befriends a dying man and steals a priceless painting. Motherless, he lives with the rich family of a friend, then with his gambling father in Las Vegas, where he meets a charming drug-addicted Ukranian teenager named Boris, one of the most hilarious, lively, and delightful characters I’ve come across in a while. I’d compare Boris to Alex Perchov from Everything Is Illuminated, because of his adorable way of talking, and because of the way both characters are sweetly innocent, yet also over-experienced for their age. Years later, Theo ends up back in New York, dishonestly managing a struggling antiques business, when his art theft, and Boris, catch up with him. The conclusion surprised me with how happy it was, and then it doused that happiness with a profound, layered philosophical meditation that I’m still pondering. As great as the ending is, getting there is its own pleasure. The story is absolutely engrossing. One of the most remarkable aspects of the book may be the consistency in the quality of the prose over 770 pages. There is at least one sentence on every one of those pages that just sparkles, and often several.

You’ll Grow Out of It

You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein

This memoir is in the same vein as others by Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, and Amy Pohler, though Jessi Klein is not as famous as they are, and she’s somewhat less bombastic than these other comedians. Klein is a writer for comedy shows, most recently and successfully for Inside Amy Schumer, and has been on camera for shows like VH1’s Best Week Ever. But for the most part she seems a little bit more down-to-earth than these other stars, and few of her essays are about show business.

I related to this book so hard. It was like Klein had looked inside my head and seen all my insecurities. Her take on the problem of female beauty–especially what it’s like to long to be effortlessly gorgeous without that natural gift–really hit home for me. She is about eight years older than me–reading this was like a long sleepover with an older cousin whose life has closely mirrored my own, in themes if not in exact events. Klein’s humor is mostly self-deprecation over her own pathetic life. She writes about allowing herself to be treated poorly in relationships, about a nasty breakup, her engagement, wedding dress, fertility problems, aging, and how long it took her to have the courage to make a leap in her career. Her analysis of cultural phenomena like Anthropologie, The Bachelor, porn, and New Age retreat-spas is spot-on and hilarious. She reads the audiobook herself and delivers her writing with irony and sadness. I strongly recommend it to any woman who has ever felt not good enough.