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Is it bad to relate super hard to a narrator that other reviewers describe as “unlikable”? Asking for a friend.

(But seriously, is it?)

Weike Wang’s debut novel is a patchwork of the narrator’s internal monologue, memories from her painful childhood, and vignettes of her relationship with a fellow graduate student. Oh, and scientific factoids. Despite how disjointed and piecemeal that sounds, it all comes together into a flowing, almost hypnotic read. The narrator (never named) has a perfectly nice boyfriend and is working on a perfectly adequate advanced degree in chemistry, but both aspects of her life come up against hurdles around the same time. The boyfriend wants to marry her, but her own parents’ dysfunctional disaster of a marriage makes her resistant to the idea. To move forward in her studies she has to have an original idea for research, but now she’s not sure why she even went into science in the first place. Was it because she was good at it, or because she enjoyed it? Neither? Both? The narrator doesn’t know. So she does (what seems to me to be) the logical thing: she burns it all to the ground. She quits grad school in a scene loud and glorious in its destruction, and trashes her relationship too by way of total immobility.

I suppose if I squint, I can see how some readers wouldn’t like being inside this narrator’s head—she overthinks everything, she self-sabotages, she is seemingly incapable of normal human interaction—but for me it was quite comfortable, because it felt a whole lot like being in my own head. While I didn’t suffer the unhappy childhood or fear of romantic commitment the narrator does, her constant discomfort with the unknowableness of life resonated deeply with me. How can a person get married, or choose a career, or gain independence from their parents, when there’s no way to know what happens next? How do we ever know we’re making the right choices? If you think too hard about it, that line of thinking is paralyzing.

If you’re looking for readalikes, this book reminded me of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, even though Lab Girl is a memoir. They’re both about women in science, but they’re also about existential dread and what depression can do to relationships.

Find it at your library!

I've read Sherman Alexie before, but—honesty time—I never really got what the big deal was. I read Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because I was a teacher back in the day and I thought some of my students might like it, but I wasn't the target audience and it was just okay for me. I read Reservation Blues because it's on just about every list of recommended books by Native American writers, and although I found it to be solid literary fiction, for me it wasn't particularly affecting or memorable.

Then I read Indian Killer, and you guys, I GET IT NOW.

Given up by (or perhaps taken away from) his teenage mother, a Native infant is adopted by a white couple who bestows upon him the unsettlingly ironic name of John Smith. Growing up, John realizes he's not white like his parents, but because his birth records are sealed, he has no knowledge of his tribal identity. This hole in his life grows wider with the passing years. John isn't white even though he lives in his parents' white world, but he doesn't know how to be Indian either.

No wonder John Smith is losing his mind.

Meanwhile, a serial killer is stalking the streets of Seattle, scalping his victims with a ceremonial knife, leaving feathers behind as a calling card. John is troubled—his parents, his boss, even the two guys who work at the donut shop know this—but does that mean he's capable of ritualistic murder?

Alexie's novel may have been published 20 years ago, but it has an intense anger that makes it feel very immediate. I mean boiling, lava hot rage. I half expected the pages of my library copy to start steaming.

The thing is, the wounds feel fresh. I couldn't stop thinking about the Standing Rock protest as I read. It has to be so exhausting to keep fighting this same fight over and over again. Less has changed in 20 years than I would have thought.

Maybe nothing has.

Want to be a force for good? Start with your reading habits! I'm featuring books by writers from marginalized groups in direct response to what I see in the news. Follow along with the tag Reading is Activism for more.