Quite the interesting combination in today’s book review post as I dive into my thoughts and feelings on Ling Ma’s short story collection Bliss Montage, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun and a completely underground autobiography that you have probably never heard of called Spare by Prince Harry.
BLISS MONTAGE – ★★★
What happens when fantasy tears through the screen of the everyday to wake us up? Could that waking be our end?
In Bliss Montage, Ling Ma brings us eight tales of people making their way through the madness and reality of our collective delusions: love and loneliness, connection and possession, friendship, motherhood, the idea of home. From a woman who lives in a house with all of her ex-boyfriends, to a toxic friendship built around a drug that makes you invisible, to an ancient ritual that might heal you of anything if you bury yourself alive, these and other scenarios reveal that the outlandish and the everyday are shockingly, deceptively, heartbreakingly similar.
Bliss Montage was a mixed bag. On the one hand, I’m dying to pick Ling Ma’s brain because some of the stories were WILD. On the other, I was left craving more variety and excitement in this collection. I know, how much more variety and excitement can you get when one of the stories is literally about a woman leaving a wine bar to do the deed with a yeti (yes, you read that right) but Ling Ma’s clean, straight-forward style of prose felt very limiting. Despite all the absurdity and hyperrealism, it meant that all the stories blurred into one and it felt very hard to distinguish the various narrative voices.
I love the obsession of ‘Oranges’ and the slow poignant horror of ‘G’ but ‘Returning’ was the shining star for me. It follow a young woman who travels with her husband to his homeland to take part in an unusual ritual. There was an uneasy eeriness that pervaded the entire story that really made it stand out among the rest. That being said, Bliss Montage is not a collection that I’d likely revisit. This in part due to the bizarreness of many of Ma’s stories but also because the fact that the stories felt identical in tone. While Ma explores themes family dynamics, relationships and life contentment in an intruging way, the narration of Bliss Montage was dry and unsatisfying.
KLARA AND THE SUN – ★★★★★
From her place in the store, Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change forever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.
In Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro looks at our rapidly changing modern world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator to explore a fundamental question: what does it mean to love?
Protect Klara at all costs!! Klara and the Sun is a haunting exploration of the human condition with a very charming AI robot at the heart of it. Klara is the ultimate cinnamon roll who is far too good and too pure for this world. It’s a novel that is full of joy and sadness – I still get oddly teary-eyed thinking about it even though it has been many months since I finished reading.
We meet Klara as she waits in the AF store to be purchased, following her observations of the human world outside the store and her deep desire to serve her future human friend. Then, she is finally chosen by Josie, a sickly teenager. Ishiguro subtly hints at genetic engineering a few times throughout the novel and we can infer that, in this futuristic world, privileged children are ‘lifted’, or genetically modified to provide them with an academic advantage. Yet, there are consequences, including social isolation and an adverse impact on the child’s health that can even result in death. As Klara settles into Josie’s home, she becomes part of a bizarre project spearheaded by Josie’s mother to assauge her grief and guilt over not just Josie’s ill health, but the death of Josie’s sister.
It’s very slow paced but I found that Klara and the Sun is best savoured when you take a moment to really ponder the themes that Ishiguro explores, including love, free will, morality, sacrifice and the nature of humanity and inhumanity. For an AI robot, Klara never once feels monotone or cold. She’s so genuine – brimming with childish innocence and curiousity and I cried a pool of tears at the ending scene in the scrap yard with all the discarded AFs. Yet, despite Klara’s ability to feel real to the reader, she is still treated as an object throughout the novel. She is used up, and then discarded, and as we follow Klara on her journey as an AF, we observe the pain she feels at the often inhumane way in which she is treated by the world around her. It’s a novel that still, as I write this, has the power to unnerve me and make me feel like crying – it will stay with me forever.
SPARE – ★★★★★
It was one of the most searing images of the twentieth century: two young boys, two princes, walking behind their mother’s coffin as the world watched in sorrow—and horror. As Princess Diana was laid to rest, billions wondered what Prince William and Prince Harry must be thinking and feeling—and how their lives would play out from that point on.
For Harry, this is that story at last.
This is a hard one to rate because while it’s not the most groundbreaking autobiography I’ve ever read, the content was hugely enjoyable. Kudos to Harry’s ghostwriter because, for the most part, Spare is really well written. I came for the gossip and the drama, which Harry did provide, but I stayed for the book’s really powerful exploration of grief and trauma and how it haunts you throughout your life.
Maybe I’m biased as someone who has lost a parent but I found Spare to be very heartful and vulnerable. It’s raw. He shares stories from his childhood, about his mother, life as a Royal, his mental health as well as his military career, charitable work and, of course, falling in love with Meghan and deciding to leave the Royal Family for his own safety and sanity.
The heavier themes aside, there’s a good amount of fun and silliness in Spare even though I’m not 100% certain that Harry intended for there to be. The Elizabeth Arden cream anecdote was a moment of WTF-ness and I’m still struggling to understand why that was signed off for inclusion. I will say the Rehabber Kooks moment is iconic and is only made more hilarious by the fact that he’s so deadly serious about it. Honestly, if you haven’t listened to the audiobook snippet of him narrating this moment himself, please do. The delivery is EVERYTHING.
Spare will always have its critics. I’m not a royalist by any means, but I do quite like Meghan and cannot fathom dealing with the insane amount of abuse she receives day in and day out. Love them or hate them, Spare really is an honest, oddly relatable and refreshing read.