Book Review: Hellfire by Leesa Gazi

In my last post — a review of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous — I wrote, “If the fences are eventually lifted, where will we go from there?” Strangely, Leesa Gazi’s Hellfire, translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya, starts from there. Lovely gets out of the house for the first time all by herself. She is 40. As the book begins, the narrator tells us, “Getting out of the house, however, was a task as hard and complicated as crossing the pulserat, that final bridge of the afterlife spanning the fires of hell.” Hellfire answers the questions — why did Lovely take 40 years to do something that’s as unassuming as stepping out of the house by herself? Does Lovely cross the bridge? Or does the fire engulf her? If Lovely crosses the bridge, is she the same person when she reaches the other end? Or will she be permanently marked by Freedom?

Leesa Gazi’s Hellfire is 198 pages long. The rich, layered story of Farida Khanam and her daughters Lovely and Beauty unfolds like a fast-paced psychological thriller in those measly 198 pages. I keep harking back to the number of pages because despite being ridiculously short, the narrative bursts forth like water that gushes out just after a dam collapses. There is real force in Gazi’s storytelling, and Nadiya’s translation ensures that the force is not impeded.

For 40 years, Farida Khanam has always kept Lovely and Beauty on her watch. For children raised by Asian mothers, being under the constant supervision of their mothers is an everyday thing. But Farida Khanam stalks her own children. For instance, when Lovely and Beauty sit in their classroom, Farida Khanam watches them from their balcony that’s right opposite to their school. When they go out, she accompanies them. Every contact with the outside world is severed. The daughters’ privacy is limited to their bedrooms. The house is their bubble. They age, arrive well into middle-age, without experiencing the conventional milestones, trials, heartbreaks, joys, and triumphs of life. A golden cage is a cage all the same.

The reason why Farida Khanam keeps her daughter under lock and key is the story of what patriarchal societies do to women. We meet the important women in Farida Khanam’s life, and how they transfer their trauma to her. We see how they make Farida Khanam a woman of steel and a woman who cannot see the pain and damage she inflicts on her daughters. We meet the not-so-important men in her life, and how they are victims of patriarchy themselves, and how women continue to bear men’s cross. Gazi narrates each character’s story with the unwavering confidence of a creator who knows about every fibre of her characters’ being. But the most fascinating aspect of Gazi’s narration is how it’s impossible to guess the path the story would take despite knowing the characters and their motivation. In my copy, the last line of the story is the last line in the book itself. There are no acknowledgements, and notes about the author and the translator after the story ends. So, I was left reeling in shock when I read the last line. The punch in the gut was so sudden that I was breathless for a brief moment.

Hellfire is wild and disturbing, and it’s incredible and important. What makes it outstanding though is how the horror is omnipresent and surreal. Imagine this — you are ensconced in your bedroom, but the clouds suddenly become dark, and terrifying thoughts cross your mind. You just can’t say what’s bothering you, but you can feel a sense of impending doom. The horror that Hellfire holds is quite like what Shirley Jackson wrote in We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Nothing is explicit. In Hellfire, there is no mention of physical violence too. But the terror rises out of the characters’ realisation that how seemingly normal things are on the surface, and how just a chink is enough to see how deeply ruined they are.

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous By Ocean Vuong

I am always looking for something sweet, something ugly, something that talks about what it means to be human, something that can tell me that there is meaning and that this life is not absurd, and something that can hold space for me to salvage myself. Even when I read a pop-science book on how to survive black holes, I wait for the writer to pause, look into my eyes and say, “D, we are nothing. But by reading, you form your own meaning. By being alive now, you are something.” As a privileged woman with limited amount of experience in life, I lose the entitlement to say that I find meaning to my own existence in a book written by an author who is an immigrant, gay, whose family has survived a war, and who comes from a class, in all probabilities, definitely worse than where I was when I was a child. But I read to get answers. I read to find my current location. I read to feel less lonely. I am relying on people, who have lived a long life in time that’s long and short to them, to guide me, to endure this little life, to feel fully alive.

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a difficult read. It’s more difficult than Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End. Pain hosts the stories. Li’s narrator writes to her son who has passed away, and Vuong’s Little Dog writes to his mother who can’t read. They both have the liberty to empty the bubbling cauldron in their hearts, for their recipients are never going to write back to them. Li does hear back from her son, but that’s her grief talking, her imagination bridging the gap. From my vantage point, it’s freedom to not receive a response; it’s cathartic. The impatience of the recipient is eliminated while writing. Both the books are similar in the way they break words, put them in a tube, only to lift it to light, to keep turning it to form and to show various shapes and colours. What keeps shifting and appearing is truly a spectacle.

In an autofiction, the boundaries between fact and fiction are blurred. At several junctures, while reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading a memoir, but a novel. It’s Little Dog’s story written by Ocean Vuong who has pulled myriad threads from the fabric of his own life to weave this story. I shouldn’t have let myself feel disoriented because there aren’t many memoirs as lyrical and poetic as Vuong’s novel. But is it possible to relate one’s life only using poetry, or words which are poetic and filled with metaphors? On the other hand, the details pertaining to practicalities demand to be packed in words clinical and functional. Then can the memoir be termed poetic? That’s where I can see that autofiction breathes. It exhales things which memoirs hold back.

Vuong’s poetry and story are in a constant battle in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. They both fight to be in the forefront. I see them as two drivers taking turns to drive an enormous vehicle, on a very long highway. The speed is not constant, the vehicle responds to each driver differently, but the journey is memorable all the same. When the same vehicle is going to be steered by the same drivers again, at a distant point in future, the passing scenery could be entirely different.

Throughout the book, Vuong uses animal cruelty as an analogy. Animals are constantly in pain in his words. It made me flinch. Having been motivated by my love for animals, I even threw the net of skepticism on Vuong’s storytelling, and wondered if he loved animals at all. How could these analogies and metaphors stem from the mind and heart of someone who loves animals! Vuong answered my question in the last chapter. Who are we, human beings, if not animals ourselves, confined on this planet, surviving torture, succumbing to several forms of cruelties, and waiting for the gates to be opened! If the fences are eventually lifted, where will we go from there?

Book Review: Long Live The Post Horn by Vigdis Hjorth

Trigger Warning: This blog contains mentions of suicide and depression.

There was a lid over the world. As in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, I thought. I wondered if I should read it again, but surely it would only intensify my sense of isolation, I punch my fists into the air as if to smash the glass, but nothing happened. Where are the others, I thought. If it’s true, as it’s claimed, that other people really exist. I’m swimming underwater, I thought. They scream and shout and carry on on TV, but what for? Anyone can work out that life is ultimately a losing game.

The physiological and social needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy are met. According to a bourgeois, that should keep Ellinor happy. If she ‘complains’ about anything else in life, she would be shamed for it. She would be attacked for not acknowledging her privilege. But her struggles are real. She wonders why she has to wake up every morning. Why should she call her mother? Why is her sister so full of hope despite the terrible things which happened to her? Why? What is a routine? What is repetition? Why is she on this planet? Who put her on it? If someone put her on it, doesn’t she have the right to time her exit? All those impassive faces, the sea of humanity that she crosses on the road every day, how do they all feel about being here? Do they talk about it? Do they want to talk about it? If they talk, is the world ready to be stabbed by their truth? When Ellinor says, “Being human isn’t easy,” she becomes my voice too. She gives words to the existential dread that smothers me often every night.

Fight for a cause, came a whisper from the hallway.

In the first many pages of Vigdis Hjorth’s Long Live The Post Horn (translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund) Ellinor’s depression is palpable. Her struggle intensifies after a colleague dies by suicide. The book triggers; it’s relentless at it. At some point in time, I asked myself if I wanted to continue reading at all. But when Ellinor starts working with Norwegian Postal Workers Union, the novel transcends into an ode to letters, post office, and postal workers. Ellinor’s reluctant interactions with the postal workers are so moving and inspiring that I want to write a letter to somebody, and I want to assume the responsibility of protecting the postal workers’ job, and the dying art of letter writing. Hjorth has a subtle argument with me about the damaging effect of capitalism on my life and mental health. When Ellinor’s and the postal workers’ lives intersect, it becomes the classic, life-affirming situation of who-rescues-whom.

What do we do with our despair if our lives are too small to contain it? Deny our despair and ignore our beating hearts, remain at odds with ourselves and fight ourselves, or accept that there’s so much we’ll never understand intellectually and try to live with things which don’t add up, that what’s most important might be something we can only just sense, and teach our brains to illuminate our hearts and help us live with contradictions that can’t be cancelled out and become open to the idea that being a mere mortal is enough, more than enough in most respects, and once we’re alive, try to live with gratitude and passion…

I am going to shift to cynicism now. When someone is given the hand to walk away from the edge of life, what happens to them after that moment? Most books end there. They pander to the readers who demand happy ending, a fairy tale. Ellinor gets something to fight for. If she wins, what will happen to her after the glow of victory fades? Does she go back to being Sylvia Plath’s protagonist? Does she flit from one cause to another? My argument is not that I hate books which choose to give hope, but I want books to be more honest about depression and the ruthless way it relapses. Books aim for a crescendo. The aha-aha moment when the protagonist will be bathed in light. When I finished reading Long Live The Post Horn, I wasn’t infected by the hope that tried to emanate from my tablet. It’s been a week since I finished reading the book, and I have presented several questions to myself on why I wasn’t affected by its optimism. I have decided to blame it on the pandemic. Ellinor’s questions on existential dread continue to circle in my head. My post office may arrive soon. Or, I will find it in my heart to see the post offices in my life already. Maybe, not. But, above all, there are words, and I will crawl into their all-knowing embrace.