Book Reviews

This is where members of our society post reviews of some of the books they’re currently reading, as well as some of their favourites. Feel free to send a book review of your own to for publication here!

Zainab Dar reviews Herculine Barbin

Remembering Herculine Barbin by Zainab Dar

Intersex (hermaphrodite): A person born biologically with both male and female sex organs

This is the story of Herculine Barbin, a child raised as a female, brought up in an all-girls school from her teens to her young adult years and then given the shocking revelation that her identity, as a woman, is false.

Herculine Barbin was born in France, Saint-Jean-d’Angély in 1838 and brought up as female. Although her family was poor, she received a charity scholarship to study in a convent where she then spent the rest of her teenage years growing up.

Her memoir Herculine Barbin was found at her bedside table, in the room where she took her life. Contained in what can be considered her diary, memoir, or even death note, were the details of her life growing up, growing ill, the sudden, awful, misery of knowing you were ‘abnormal’ and then the depression and loneliness that followed soon after.

After being examined by doctors, Herculine was given the news of her new identity, that of a man’s. She was intersex. She now needed to adopt male gender roles, needed to conform and fit in like a puzzle piece that just wasn’t cut out the way it supposedly ought to be. Taking her first steps to adjust, she stepped into the church on a Sunday wearing a man’s garbs. No one recognised her, until they did and then shock and judgment painted their faces. Their thoughts: Had she lied about her actual gender just to seduce young girls?

Herculine suffered in silence. Now a ‘he’ by law and medicine. She tried hard to find work and travelled to the city of Paris to apply for jobs but to only be rejected everywhere, forced to live in poverty.

Herculine Barbin’s life was a tragedy, an explicit display of society at its most conforming, gender roles and expectations at their peaks.

In the end, the only way for her to gain an escape from the cruel reality around her of loneliness, judgment and alienation was to kill herself.

My favourite quote:

“Enchained here below by the thousand bonds of your gross, material senses, your spirits cannot plunge into that limpid Ocean of the infinite, where, lost for a day upon your arid shores, my soul drinks deep.”

My interpretation of it:

Herculine, bombarded with societies’ unyielding, harsh treatment and judgment, neglect and hate, her own feeling of loss of identity and abandonment, Herculine finally freed her soul, her true essence and identity, from the toxic world to be with the boundless ocean, free in its waves and its vastness.

For her, being dead was better than being caged in by a suffocating, cruel and judgemental society.

Her death was her crushing of that suffocating hand of society. Her death for her was refusing to be that puzzle piece that forces itself to fit, teaching us too, to fearlessly crush the suffocating pressures of life and to live only by the rules we create for ourselves.

Definitely an intriguing read!

President, Weronika, reviews The Double

Imagine you are a middle aged, awkwardly named history teacher, suffering from a “temporary weakness of spirit ordinarily known as depression,” and, one evening, while watching a film recommended to you by one of your colleagues with a “mania (…) for handing out unasked-for advice,” you find your doppelganger. He is a mediocre actor playing an unimportant role, but he is identical to you down to the placement of the moles and scars on your body. What would you do? Let it slip to the back of your consciousness as common sense is advising you, or would you go out of your way, developing a peculiar obsession over your finding, trying to track your duplicate down and test whether you really are the same; or perhaps to find out who was first; or, if you really are identical, whether you will die in the same way, at the same time?

The Double (O Homem Duplicado), a novel written in 2002 by the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, starts with a most unusual name attached to a most ordinary man, Tertuliano Máximo Alfonso, to whom these unsettlingly specific circumstances apply. Much to the dismay of his common sense, but to the great excitement of the narrator, he chooses the latter option and decides to track his clone down. Although the story is pretty simple, with just a few characters and few subplots, the novel is long and winding, and has often been criticised for being unnecessarily complicated and painfully wordy. Is it worth the read though? ABSOLUTELY!

The theme of the cloned man is one that dates back to The Epic of Gilgamesh, and has since reappeared throughout history in works such as Dostoyevsky’s The Double (1846), Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Double identity seems to be something that has fascinated writers and readers since the beginning of time, but Jose Saramago’s approach is truly unique. The author addresses serious matters with an unparalleled empathy for the human condition, narrating his novel as if he were someone both wise and ignorant. With its distinctive, satirical tone, The Double emanates a sense of comic darkness, irony and humanness, that sink deep into the bones and leave readers shook for days. 

I swallowed this book in one gulp. I laughed, I cried, I got angry, I got excited and I got frustrated; it left me hanging and it left me thinking, coming back to it long after I was done reading. I’m not gonna lie – it’s a strange book, but if you’re like me and you like a little madness in your life from time to time, you are going to love it with all your heart, as I do.

Welfare Officer, Francesca, reviews The Baron in the Trees

The Baron in the Trees was written in 1957 by Italo Calvino, internationally acclaimed Italian author. It is part of the heraldic trilogy, “Our Ancestors”, a collection of novels inspired by impossible images- a nonexistent knight, a cloven discount and a man spending all of his life in the trees. 

Despite the strong metaphorical value present, a reader can simply enjoy the pleasantness of the story- and these books speak to me at age 20 as they did at age 13.

Set during Enlightenment, it tells the unusual story of Cosimo, who, aged twelve, climbs up a tree after a quarrel with his father, promises in anger he would never come down and keeps his promise. He spends all of his life in the trees, on one side distancing himself from the rest of mankind and on the other finding a deeper connection with reality. 

He will find a way to be part of the historical and intellectual life of his times, studying philosophy, exchanging letters with Voltaire, but also fighting pirates and becoming friends with a bandit.

Cosimo lives through his choice with unshakable determination, nevertheless finding in it a dimension of playfulness. In this delicate equilibrium between lightness and seriousness, between the promise of a child and the life of a man, lies the most interesting quality of the novel. This tale of determination and solitude has almost a fairy-tale atmosphere and intertwines adventures and misfortunes with a fast-paced yet never hectic rhythm. 

A beautiful writing style, a multifarious and precise language and prose close to poetry accompany us to the unpredictable conclusion. Closing the book, it leaves the readers with the sensation of having just awakened from the lightest of dreams.

Treasurer, Anna, reviews La Reine Margot

Written in 1845, by the renowned French author Alexandre Dumas, La Reine Margot is a historical novel set in late sixteenth century France. (If you are a fan of The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers or La Dame de Monsoreau, chances are you will like this.) Based on real historical figures – the Valois dynasty – and real events, Dumas constructs an intricate multifaceted world, in which the characters are trapped among power politics, religious conflicts, and betrayal; where love and friendship are put to the test. When reading Dumas you can travel back in time and emerge on the violent streets of Paris, painted by St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and get a glimpse of the secrets and ghastly plots dwelling in the royal palace. And Nostradamus’ little witchy tricks are the absolute cherry on top.

Historical fiction has got to be my favourite genre so if you, like me, thrive off these overly romantic and detailed scriptures, this is definitely a good pick for you. Don’t let the fact that it’s over 600 pages intimidate you, but it is convenient to take it on during summer or whenever you are not drowning in work. I could not let go of the book like my life depended on it (when I first encountered it at the age of 14) and have been shamelessly rereading it ever since.

Head of Prose, Allan, reviews The Gulag Archipelago

Written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer, historian and philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago is unrivalled as my all time favourite non-fiction book, and is arguably one of the most historically important books of the century. Solzhenitsyn was sent to a Soviet labour camp — a Gulag — for his criticism of Stalin; there, he would spend eight years of his life undergoing excruciating and dehumanising treatment as a labour prisoner, and would later be internally exiled.

The Gulag Archipelago is a ‘literary investigation’ of the horrors endured by Solzhenitysn and his fellow zek, inmates of the Gulags, and above that it is an organic testament to the ‘four decades of Soviet terror and oppression’. Solzhenitsyn writes in a brutal realist style, pulling no punches as he evokes bone-chilling memories of the abject conditions of the camps and paints for the reader scene after macabre scene of inhuman suffering. This book is not for the faint of heart, but Solzhenitsyn’s mastery comes from the way he inspires equal parts horror and indignation, peeling back the exhausting horrors of the Gulags to question the moral mechanisms of human nature — what defines evil? What creates it? And what do we do in the face of it?