My Top 9 Favourite Literary Couples: Part 4

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Hello, my dear strangers!

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write this final part of the journey through my favourite literary characters, but the novel I’m about to describe is one of those that always leave me feeling somewhat weak and drained, despite its unparalleled beauty. Hence, it’s taken me a while to focus my thoughts and transform them into, more or less, coherent sentences. Hope you enjoy. Parts 1, 2 & 3.

1. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini – Laila and Tariq

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If I had a Euro for every time I tried to write a review about this novel and failed miserably at it, I’d be a very rich woman today. Each and every time I tried to, a lump the size of an apple would form in my throat, my eyes would well up and I’d give up after three sentences. Sometimes, the human emotion defeats the written and spoken word and renders it unnecessary. Nevertheless, since this time my objective isn’t to present the entire novel, but merely Laila’s point of view, I’ll give it a go. However, I must make a slight digression here to tell you that this is an incredible novel that you should definitely read, regardless of your genre preference. The choice is yours, but if you decide to do it, then my advice to you would be to stop reading my review, since it’s riddled with spoilers.

To understand the conditions and circumstances of this love story and its appeal, you first have to understand the day-to-day lives of the majority of Afghan women. Most women who live in countries where their actions and behaviour aren’t defined by religion and tradition cannot possibly fathom what that’s like. I won’t pretend to have all the information and all the knowledge, since I haven’t done any extensive research on the subject, but I am not completely ignorant either. I’ve seen many documentaries, I’ve read statistics and I’ve talked to my Afghan students about the living conditions of average Afghan women. Blaming religions, especially particular religions and religions foreign to us, comes easy to most people. It comes very easy to me, too, what with me being an atheist. But, when you compare the holy books of several major world religions, you come to a conclusion that they are all almost equally misogynistic. Christianity is the major religion of my homeland, yet I’m not defined by it, at all. I have a choice not to get involved with it and I’m free to exercise my choice without any fear of a backlash. Afghan women don’t have that same freedom when it comes to their religion. And that’s where tradition and culture come into play.

Tribal laws and custom reign supreme in their country. Women regularly get imprisoned for ’crimes’ such as running away from abusive households, running away from forced and child marriages and eloping with the men they love. They also get imprisoned when they get raped, since it’s considered adultery. Honour killings are commonplace as well. My culture or, more precisely, the culture of my country and the society I was raised in, allows me to freely turn my back on the religion of my ancestors. In Afghanistan, the culture and society don’t allow for this. What’s more, the words of the holy book get twisted out of proportion and many crimes go unpunished, since they’re widely considered to be in the spirit of Islam. Add to that the fact that Afghanistan ranks as the second most illiterate country in the world and you’ll get a clearer image of how this dangerous cocktail of ignorance, religion and tradition, coupled with ongoing unrest, has helped shape the issues this country faces today.

Just thinking about the magnitude of it all makes me feel scared for my wonderful students, glad that they managed to escape such a regime and, frankly, grateful that I’m not in their shoes. And everything that I’ve described here applies to the situation at present, which cannot even compare to the terror these people endured under the mujahideen and other fundamentalists. That’s the backdrop of the story, one that the reader has to keep in mind in order to fully appreciate the story of Laila and Tariq.

From the very first sentence of Laila’s part of the novel, the reader gets an insight into just how much Tariq means to her. Laila is nine-years-old at the beginning of her story. Tariq is two years older and wears a leg prosthesis, courtesy of a land mine. She lives with her parents, her two elder brothers she barely has any recollection of having gone off to fight the Soviets. However, none of them are the first ones to get mentioned. Tariq is the one she thinks about first. He has gone to visit his uncle for a fortnight and Laila is finding the separation from her best friend difficult to bear.

The fate of your average Afghan woman doesn’t apply to Laila, at least not during her childhood. Her parents are highly educated, her Babi being an over-qualified manual worker, a delicate, soft-spoken, mild-mannered man who stresses the importance of education and peace and her Mammy being a hot-tempered tempest of a woman, prone to long episodes of depression and mourning the absence of her sons. Laila prefers her father and the peace and tranquility he brings to her world. He is an open-minded and progressive thinker who doesn’t think less of the fairer sex and one of the few decent men in the novel, the one who sets a high standard for other men to live up to and a role model for Laila. His influence will be especially important in the later parts of the novel, once Laila finds herself married to a man who is a complete opposite of her gentle father. Her Mammy, however, spends most of her time in bed with her sorrow and, when she does decide to speak and be active, spends that time attacking Babi and pointing out his flaws.

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Their home is an unhappy one, which is probably why Laila prefers spending time with Tariq and his family, having meals with them, playing cards and chess with Tariq and vicariously experiencing what a happy household should look like. Tariq is both her closest friend and her confidant. They talk to each other every day, go on walks, help each other with homework and, every night, they shine flashlights into each others’ rooms, a nightly ritual which brings them both lots of joy.

Tariq is very protective of her. During his absence, Laila gets teased by an older boy who squirts his urine into her hair. Even though at first she decides to keep quiet about it, his arrogant demeanour provokes her into telling Tariq about it. Tariq attacks the boy with his leg prosthesis and the boy never picks on Laila again.

And then, the first of many tragedies strikes Laila’s family when her two brothers die in the fighting. Her mother sinks further into depression and, while Laila sympathises, she cannot truly feel any sorrow over their loss, since they left when she was just a toddler, two men who were her brothers, yet complete strangers. She admits to herself that the only boy she considers her true brother, Tariq, is alive and well. As a result, Laila begins shouldering more and more of the household chores, tending to her bereaved mother, and even begins fearing Mammy would commit suicide. It’s clear to see that she’s taking on much more than she should at her young age. When Mammy does speak, her words are only of her sons, without much consideration for Laila’s feelings. Laila has always lived in her brothers’ shadow, but now that they are dead, she sees no way of stepping out of it whatsoever.

Years pass and the political climate in Afghanistan keeps changing, with the Soviets slowly losing their dominion. The tension between Laila and Tariq keeps growing. They’re aware of this, though still too young to put a finger on it. Clearly, these are two people who are just meant for each other.

A few years later, Laila is fourteen and Tariq sixteen. A lot of things have changed. Tariq’s father has suffered a series of strokes which have left him weak and moody. One of Laila’s closest friends has been married off to a much older man by her father. When the last of the Soviets leave the country, Mammy finally livens up again. She decides to throw a party. During the preparations, she muses how her daughter has grown and warns her that an Afghan woman has to work hard to keep her reputation untarnished, alluding to Laila’s close friendship with Tariq. Laila tries to reassure her that they’re just friends, but deep inside knows that she has fallen head over heels in love with him. When he’s with her, she can barely keep her heart from pounding straight out of her chest. When he isn’t, he’s all she thinks about. The neighbourhood has started to take notice of them as well, frequently gossiping behind their backs and giving them unwanted looks. Tariq has changed, too. He’s grown taller, begun shaving and working out and taken up smoking, all with an air of contemptuous indifference to him.

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During the party, Laila does her best to ignore Tariq, so as not to breathe further life into rumours about them. But then he gives her a subtle nod to follow him outside and she does. Through playful banter and harmless jokes at each others’ expense, Tariq reveals that he has eyes only for her. They’re interrupted by loud sounds of commotion coming from the party and rush back to see that two men have begun fighting over politics, with others joining in. Eventually, Tariq throws himself into the scuffle as well to try to break it off, though he’s soon beaten and comes out with his prosthesis undone.

And that’s when everything changes and takes a turn for the worse, when political talks fail and rockets begin raining down on Kabul.

Kabul has now become a battlefield, divided into sections by feuding warlords. After each nearby explosion, Laila rushes out into the street, praying to find Tariq’s house still standing. Things get so bad that Babi pulls her out of school and Tariq buys a gun for protection. When Laila asks him if he’d be capable of killing someone with it, he says he’d do it for her. Then he leans in and, amid the despair and smoke and constant fear, they share their first kiss, thus creating their own little oasis of peace. Babi longs to flee Kabul, but Mammy doesn’t want to leave, certain that peace is impending. One day, one of Laila’s friends gets killed by a stray rocket. Peace is nowhere in sight and Laila only has the occasional clandestine meetings with Tariq to look forward to, as if his kisses were enough to erase everything.

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And then, Tariq’s elderly parents make the decision to leave Afghanistan. The lovers’ final scene together is one of the most heartwarming and heartwrenching I have ever read. Laila is furious and dejected and begins slapping Tariq, angry at the entire mess their lives have become. Then they start kissing again and, before they know it, they’re down on the rug, hurriedly, yet tenderly making love, their audacious decision spurred on by the fact that they might never see each other again. Afterwards, Tariq asks her to come with him. He professes his love for her and asks her to marry him. Laila is overjoyed, yet crushed by the circumstances. Her obstinate mother refuses to leave, her father won’t do it without her and Laila can’t bring herself to leave them behind and let them face the violence and the uncertainty alone. She refuses Tariq’s offer, yet he keeps pleading with her. Laila makes him leave, but he stays by her door, pounding at it, promising her he would come back for her one day. And then he leaves.

Seventeen days later, Mammy finally agrees to leave. They start packing and Laila’s spirits lift again, for they’re going to Pakistan where Tariq is. She dreams of reuniting with him, of their two families filling out paperwork together and moving away together and, ultimately, living together. But, it’s not to be. A rocket strikes their house, killing Laila’s parents and leaving her severely wounded. She gets taken in and nursed back to health by her neighbours, a married couple named Rasheed and Mariam.

After she gets better, Laila makes the decision to leave for Pakistan. However, a man comes to see her. He tells her that he was a patient in a hospital in Peshawar where he met Tariq. The refugee lorry Tariq was in, he says, got bombed and Tariq lost his other leg too before succumbing to his wounds and dying. Laila’s entire world comes crashing down.

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But then, she realises that she’s pregnant. A part of Tariq still lives on inside her and, she reasons, the baby cannot possibly be brought up in a refugee camp. So, when Rasheed offers to take her on as a second wife, Laila accepts, hoping to pass off Tariq’s child as his own. What she doesn’t realise, however, is that Rasheed is a monster and that the wonderful treatment at the hands of men she has enjoyed with her father and Tariq is over. She marries Rasheed, a man of about sixty, and starts a sexual relationship with this man who’s old enough to be her grandfather, the first of many sacrifices she makes as a mother.

Laila has a strained relationship with Rasheed’s first wife, Mariam. The older woman resents Laila, even though Laila does nothing to aggravate her and it is indeed Rasheed who’s creating the drift between them. A few months later, Laila gives birth to a daughter, Aziza. Rasheed, a narrow-minded, primitive man, is outraged, for he wanted a son. Rasheed gives Aziza the cold shoulder, growing moodier by the day. However, Aziza’s presence and Laila’s fair treatment warm up Mariam’s heart and the two women begin bonding. Little by little, they start opening up to each other, finding comfort in the others’ words, sharing a common enemy. Mariam tells her of her sad life, which I won’t go into now, and, in return, Laila tells her that she’s been stealing money from their husband for months, that she plans on leaving and that Aziza, like Mariam herself, is a harami, an illegitimate lovechild.

The day finally comes. The women wait for Rasheed to leave for work and then catch a taxi to the bus station. The newly imposed laws say that women are not allowed to travel without male companions, so Laila finds a man who looks trustworthy and asks him to pretend he’s her cousin in order for them to safely travel to Peshawar. However, the man turns them in to the police and Laila, Mariam and Aziza are escorted back to the enraged Rasheed. He beats Mariam bloody and locks her up in a toolshed and locks Laila and Aziza in one of the rooms, leaving them without food and water for days. Laila slips in and out of consciousness, dreaming of Tariq and of introducing Aziza to her real father. Just when Laila begins to think that they’ll die in the room, Rasheed unlocks the door and lets them out, kicking her and threatening to kill Aziza and Mariam before her very eyes if she ever tries to do something similar again.

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Two and a half years later, the Taliban enter the city, bringing with them a slew of oppressive rules, many of them aimed at women. What little safety and freedom women enjoyed thus far are now gone. However, not a chapter goes by that Laila doesn’t think back to Tariq. He may be dead, but is never far from her thoughts. She finds comfort in her memories, dreaming of the day when her life will take a turn for the better. Rasheed, however, grows more suspicious every day, questioning Laila about the nature of her friendship with Tariq and pointing out some of Aziza’s features which resemble neither Rasheed nor Laila’s. Laila does her best to stifle his doubts.

Shortly afterwards, Laila learns she’s pregnant again. At first, she contemplates ending the pregnancy with a metal spoke, fearing she would never be able to love Rasheed’s child as much as Tariq’s. In the end, she decides against it. Nine months later, there is only one centre in Kabul where women can deliver babies, a dirty, squalid building without any adequate equipment. There are only two doctors and the place is swarming with injured women. Laila gets admitted after hours of waiting around in pain. It’s ascertained that Laila needs a Caesarean and there are no anesthetics in the hospital. The baby needs to be delivered immediately or it will die. Through unimaginable pain, Laila gives birth to a son, Zalmai.

Rasheed adores Zalmai and gives him everything that he previously denied to Aziza, a mere girl. When Rasheed is away, Zalmai is a good-natured little boy. However, in his father’s presence, Zalmai becomes obstinate and spoiled, turning on his mother and Mariam. Years pass, with the two women still at the mercy of Rasheed’s temper and his violent bouts of anger. One time, he suggests making Aziza beg in the streets for money. Laila adamantly refuses. He slaps her. She punches him back. And he then shoves the barrel of his gun in her mouth.

Drought ravages Kabul. Then Rasheed’s shoeshop, their only source of income, burns down. The family sells everything they can spare. Food becomes scarce in their household, with Laila’s children getting thinner and thinner each day.

Things get so bad that Laila becomes forced to place Aziza in an orphanage. At first, Rasheed agrees to accompany them as they go and visit her, but later on, he refuses to and Laila goes alone, suffering beatings from the Taliban for the innocent crime of being a woman caught wandering the streets without a male companion.

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And then, once again, everything changes. Laila and Mariam catch Zalmai shouting at some stranger in the yard one evening. Not believing her eyes, Laila sees that it’s Tariq. Almost ten years have passed since the last time they saw each other, that fateful afternoon when Aziza was conceived. Rasheed paid that man to come and lie to Laila, to tell her that Tariq had died, so she wouldn’t leave to go looking for him. But, Tariq has kept the promise he made. He has come back for Laila.

Their reunion, now as adults, as people who have endured so much and grown so much, is one of the toughest chapters I’ve ever read. The irony crushes you, the what ifs and the if onlys taking your breath away. Tariq is now a twenty-five-year-old man, complete with an adult’s movements and gestures, a world’s worth of sorrow and humiliation hidden behind his slow words, his tired small smile. He slowly starts weaving his story and the reader learns about everything that happened to him since he left Afghanistan, at least the parts he chooses to tell Laila. The rest are too painful, at least for their first encounter.

Tariq tells her about his time in Pakistan, how crowded and unsanitary the conditions in the refugee camp were, how he watched endless children die and get buried, how his own father didn’t survive their first winter there. He tells her about his mother catching pneumonia and almost dying, about how he threatened a younger boy with a shard of glass in order to steal his blanket for his mother, about the scarce job opportunities and how he never got chosen for a job, on account of his leg. He goes on to tell her how he was paid to smuggle hashish, but got caught and ended up in prison. He doesn’t tell her much about his time there and Laila can see that he’s still haunted by the memories. It was during his imprisonment that his mother died of exposure.

Tariq would go on to serve seven years. When he got out, he went to another Pakistani town, where his cellmate’s brother ran a hotel. Tariq did well over there, working as a janitor and a handyman, before saving up enough money to go back and look for Laila. Laila is crushed by the circumstances that have kept them separated for so long. She tells him about the man who lied to her about Tariq dying. He understands. She tells him about their daughter. He wants to meet her.

Later that day, Zalmai tells his father that a man was in their house, oblivious to the harm his words would cause. Rasheed locks him up in his room, then comes back to murder his wives. While he’s choking the life out of Laila, Mariam, disgusted by the mistreatment she has endured at his hands for nearly thirty years, musters enough courage and kills him with a shovel. Laila is frantic, desperately trying to think of ways of saving them both, but Mariam has already made her decision. She turns herself in and the Taliban execute her, sacrificing herself so that Laila can live.

Afterwards, Laila escapes with her children and Tariq to Pakistan, to the small town where he works in a hotel. They get married that same day. A few days later, Laila tells Aziza that Tariq is her real father. This conversation and Laila’s thoughts on the father-daughter relationship she sees forming always leaves me sobbing. Tariq also comes to love Zalmai and is tender and patient with the boy’s rebuttals. He and Laila slowly resume their former rhythm, now robbed of innocence, but stronger than before.

However, after a year or so, Laila starts longing for the familiar streets of her childhood again. The dust from bombs has barely settled in Kabul, yet she hears of numerous instances of progress being made and decides to go back. When she asks Tariq if he’d go with her, he answers he would follow her to the end of the world. They pack up and travel back, making a stop at the town of Herat, where Laila bids her final farewell to Mariam, before going back to the city where they were born and raised.

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Once there, Laila and Tariq take to renovating the orphanage where Aziza once had to stay. Tariq does the manual labour, while Laila works as the teacher, in the process becoming a surrogate mother to the war-ravaged orphans. At the end of the novel, she is expecting her third child. Every evening, Tariq, Aziza and Zalmai offer their thoughts on what the baby’s name should be. However, only boys’ names are at play. If it’s a girl, Laila has already decided to name her Mariam.

Before I go on about the relationship, I am going to make a quick digression and say a few words about Mariam, simply because I feel like I have an obligation to. Her life consists of abuse, neglect and inescapable circumstances. Long before delving into Laila’s story, the author gives us an account of Mariam’s childhood, her marriage and her pregnancies. I won’t go into detail about it all, but just wanted you to know that there’s more to the novel than just Laila and Tariq. Another thing I like about the mother-daughter relationship that Mariam and Laila share is how ultimately Mariam proves to be Laila’s saviour. Behind the gruesome treatment of women depicted in its pages, this novel really does convey a feminist message. Laila does the best she can with the cards that she’s been dealt, but once she finds herself fighting for her life, suffocating under Rasheed’s merciless grasp, it is Mariam who delivers a fatal blow to him and the one who sacrifices herself so that Laila and her children may escape the punishment. It isn’t Tariq who swoops in on his white horse and kills Rasheed, but Mariam. It isn’t a man who rescues Laila, but a woman, a mother.

A friend of mine who’s also read both Between Shades of Gray and A Thousand Splendid Suns has asked me why I prefer Laila and Tariq over Lina and Andrius. Two reasons, I guess. First, Ruta Sepetys leaves out a huge chunk of the story untold, which is fine, in and of itself, but leaves readers with lots of questions, questions that can easily be answered with a bit of imagination. But, still, I place Laila and Tariq’s reunion and overall relationship above Lina and Andrius’ because of all those small details. Hosseini goes to great length to show how the two characters have changed individually and how their relationship has changed and matured. Both couples get separated by war, spending a decade, give or take a few years, apart, that much is true. In the end, we find out that Lina and Andrius find their way back to each other in a single line of a letter, which, I repeat, is fine. But Hosseini gives us dozens and dozens of pages on what went on with Tariq during his absence, while he was presumed dead, and the minute details of his and Laila’s relationship after it resumes. As a detail-oriented person, I appreciate that immensely.

And the second reason would be that, as far as Afghans go, both Laila and Tariq stand out. The more documentaries I watch, the more statistics and stories I read and the more I talk to my students about it, the more I realise how rare men like Tariq and Laila’s Babi are in the Afghan society. Now, don’t get me wrong – of course I don’t think that Afghan men are inherently horrible husbands. Psychology teaches us that the majority of our behavioural patterns are a result of nurture, not nature, which is why we should never underestimate the power of tradition and custom. A wide majority of Afghan boys get taught very early on that they are superior to girls. In many rural areas, girls are still being considered property, being sold off to pay family debts. Not having grown up in such a household, Laila maintains the mentality of an emancipated woman. Not having grown up in such a household, Tariq places women on an equal footing with men. There are numerous instances of this, scenes which may slip by unnoticed, simply because you never thought such trivialities could ever be challenged in a different society. Laila tells Tariq she wants to move back to Kabul. She tells him she wants to make a stop in Herat to learn more about Mariam’s early life. Once there, she takes a taxi and goes to Mariam’s childhood home on her own. In another household, in another marriage, a wife wouldn’t even dream of speaking her mind and telling her husband about what she wanted, let alone uprooting her family and going off somewhere alone. Although, sadly, we have learned to associate such behaviour with conservative cultures that heavily rely on religion, don’t make a mistake thinking such behaviour is exclusive to underdeveloped countries. One of my closest friends lives in Switzerland, the promised land of plenty and personal liberty, yet her own marriage is no better than prison. Open your eyes, take a good look at the people around you and you’ll discover a sundry of marriages in which one partner always seems to dominate the other one.

There is so much to be said about this relationship, most of which cannot even be put into words, at least not by me. The amount of love and respect Laila and Tariq share is unbelievable. They start off as friends, almost siblings, but are clearly meant for each other, and begin to develop romantic feelings for each other as soon as they’re old enough to. It isn’t puppy love, though. Even in its infancy, their love is tremendously strong and pure. The icing on the cake is that it doesn’t dwindle with time, but grows stronger still.

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Ten years pass. Ten full years. I cannot possibly overstress that fact. Ten years. Laila thinks that Tariq is dead, yet still loves him. Tariq has no idea what’s become of Laila and doesn’t hope for much when he comes back looking for her, yet he still does it. He doesn’t consider her ‘broken’ or ‘impure’ just because she’s married and has given birth to another man’s child, which, might I add, is a horrible notion that’s also widespread in the so-called civilised Western countries. Instead, he apologises for bringing disruption to her life and promises to leave her alone if that’s what she wants. When she assures him that she doesn’t, he helps her escape to a more peaceful life. Her children become their children. He immediately resumes his parental responsibilities, without a second thought, loving both his biological child and the child of another man.

Tariq never presumes anything, never demands that his rights be heard, never expects anything other than what Laila willingly offers to him. And, when she announces she wants to go back to Kabul, he tells her he’d follow her anywhere. There is no jealousy, no vanity and no submissiveness in their relationship, on either part. When they reunite, hardship, not time, but hardship has taken a toll on them physically. They’re both in their mid-twenties, yet have aged prematurely, are missing teeth and experience chronic pain that will probably never completely go away. Yet, there is no judgement, there are no petty remarks. They accept each other completely, the good and the bad.

I feel like there’s more to be said about Laila and Tariq and the love they share and there probably is, volumes and volumes, but I’ve run myself dry. It’s essentially inconceivable in today’s world that a love such as this one exists, yet every now and again, we hear of real-life instances of the tremendous sacrifices and feats people make for their loved ones, of acts which don’t make much sense to most people, yet deep inside, I believe that most people cherish such stories, be they real, fictional or inspired by real events. They cherish them and secretly long for them for, at the end of the day, it really does all come down to love, dumb as it may sound. I’ve chosen to limit myself to romantic love in these four parts, yet let us not forget about the other shapes and forms love takes. Parental love, love among siblings, friends, grandparents and grandchildren, love towards our lazy pets, love for inanimate objects and abstract notions which we desire, love for good books and good food and good times, love for ourselves and, perhaps the most important one of all, that indescribable love we feel for something undefined and untermed, something you feel when you wake up little before the break of dawn that makes you so ridiculously happy to be there. I don’t know if you realise what I’m talking about. Maybe I don’t even realise it myself. Or perhaps I’m confusing it all with a different sensation. Anyway, imagine your lives without all these different types of love and how bleak they would be. Few people have it all at all times. Maybe you’ve found a wonderful partner, but your grandpa is dead. Or perhaps your grandpa is consoling you over the death of your partner. Or perhaps you’re not an animal lover (get the Hell off my blog). In any case – love.

I really hope you enjoyed my list and decide to give some of these titles a shot. Parts 1, 2 & 3 are waiting for you.

Keep the love alive 🙂

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My Top 9 Favourite Literary Couples: Part 3

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Hello, my dear strangers!

With parts 1 and 2 done and dusted, I’m moving on with part 3 of my voyage through romantic feelings and the literary couples who helped evoke them. Enjoy.

3. Parce que je t’aime by Guillaume Musso – Connor and Evie

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It is extremely tricky to talk about this relationship without revealing any major spoilers. And, this is actually the only book on the list I feel an obligation with to be more careful about, since it’s amazing and it would be a great pity for anyone to find out what happens without actually reading the novel for themselves. Be that as it may, I’ll give it a go anyway.

First of all, Connor is about twenty years older than Evie and much of the story revolves around him and his childhood, ages before Evie gets born. He is the first one we get to meet and fall in love with.

Connor grew up in the mean streets of Chicago with his best friend Mark. Abandoned by his parents while he was still a baby, Connor was bounced around from foster family to foster family, receiving little love and attention. The only meaningful bond he has is with Mark, the janitor’s son, in whom he recognises a kindred spirit. The two boys are fond of learning, they’re intelligent and highly intuitive, dreaming of pursuing careers in psychology. However, their dream is riddled with obstacles, as their day-to-day lives include severe poverty, emotional neglect and abuse by parents and other authority figures and a childhood spent among street gangs, violence and drugs. In the words of the author – Mark is straight-forward, tenacious and emphatic, though more frail and pliable. Connor is quiet and sensible, but very mysterious and obsessed with the quest for perfection, even at that young age. They dream of leaving the Ghetto behind and forging a new life for themselves.

One night, two local thugs trap Connor in a dumpster and set him on fire. Months of relentless recuperation ensue. A part of his finger has to be amputated, he’s weak and constantly in danger of infection, he’s lost the ability to write with his right hand and has to rely on his left, half of his body is covered with gruesome scars and rehab is a torture. Connor has to learn to function anew and to learn basic actions, such as eating, walking, sitting, all over again. Mark is there with him, but it’s not enough. His attackers, he learns, never got arrested. Desperate and more isolated than ever, Connor starts hatching a revenge plan.

After painstaking efforts, Connor enacts his vengeance, setting his attackers on fire and letting them burn before his very eyes, musing over his lost integrity, childhood and humanity.

Snatching the gangsters’ money, Connor takes Mark to the train station, hands him the cash and tells him to leave for New York, thinking that his life is over and that he’ll surely have to pay for what he has done. He collapses on the train station and Mark drags him into one of the cars. From then on, Connor sinks further and further into depression and it is up to Mark to take care of them both. He rents them an apartment in New York, enrolls them into Uni and things slowly start getting better, though Connor is still haunted by nightmares and his conscience. However, he was born to be a psychologist and ends up wowing his professors, gets taken under their wings and runs away from his past into academia. The damage on his body bothers him, but the one on his soul seems irreparable. Connor shies away from people, becoming more and more isolated and drawn into himself and sceptical of people’s intentions.

A few years later, he and Mark become extremely successful in their field. Mark has met and married, in his own words – the woman of his dreams and has become a father. He advises Connor to do the same, but Connor is still wary of people and deeply regrets the murder he committed. Then, Mark’s daughter disappears and everything collapses.

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Evie lives in Las Vegas with her mother. Her mother has done everything imaginable in her life. She drank, she did drugs, she sold her body and is now slowly dying. The only hope for her body is a transplant. They are extremely poor, living in a trailer, her mother basically bed-ridden, with the underage Evie taking it upon herself to provide for them by scrubbing the floors of a prestigious Vegas hotel. I’ve always found Las Vegas to be a deplorable city, a city of vice with no cultural qualities whatsoever, but after reading this novel, I feel even more strongly about it. Evie dreams of a better life and tries to focus on the present moment, escaping into books and rare moments of solitude and daydreaming.

One day, her mother’s doctor informs them that a donor was found and they quickly go to the hospital. The lives of mother and daughter finally seem to be going in the right direction. However, blood tests reveal that Evie’s mother has been taking alcohol, which is strongly forbidden and the transplant is passed on to someone else. Evie’s mother insists that that’s a lie. However, having already been lied to countless times, Evie refuses to believe her. A few months later, her mother passes away.

An unknown woman approaches Evie after the funeral and reveals that the doctor in charge of her mother offered to give the coveted liver transplant to the woman instead for a handsome sum. Evie is crushed and guilt-ridden, but cannot bring herself to blame the woman who accepted the offer after years and years of severe illness. Desperate, Evie resolves to kill the doctor and buys a bus ticket for New York, where he relocated.

Once there, alone and destitute, Evie spots a promising-looking briefcase in the passenger seat of a fancy car. She quickly opens the door, snatches the briefcase and flees the scene, only to be caught by the owner, none other than Connor.

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This is as far as I go. To reveal anything more would be to break the sacred bond among readers and spoil any and all enjoyment to be had from reading this novel. I will tell you this, though. Evie and Connor are just two of the major characters, whose stories are all intertwined. Trust me – there is a lot more to this book than meets the eye. From my descriptions, you may think that everything is clear and that you are more or less capable of filling in the holes I left behind. But, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. As I have already mentioned, there are other immensely captivating characters whose lives are closely related to Evie and Connor’s. The whole novel reads as a superb mystery/thriller, which is probably why so many people love it. But, that’s just the surface of things. Underneath it all lies a superbly written drama about what it means to be human, about the bonds we make, the losses we suffer, the unbearable grief we carry with us, the guilt that never leaves us, the bleak childhood pictures we drag with us into adulthood and the love that sets us free.

This is one of my favourite books and, no matter how many fantastic books I read in the future, it will always, always, always be in my top ten. I have read it many times and will read it many more in the coming decades and, just as I have so far, I will always bawl my eyes out while doing so, because this is a novel of incredible strength that dissects our psyche and strips us bare, to the very foundations of our beings, relentless in its pursuit of truth, beauty, salvation and love in a world that seldom forgives and rarely allows for happiness without a price.

2. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys – Lina and Andrius

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Between Shades of Gray is a fantastic novel that can be read in four hours or less, but one that stays with you forever. A little-known and seldom explored aspect of WWII is pushed to the forefront in this book, that of Stalin’s deportations of Baltic nations to Siberian camps. The story follows one such family that had the misfortune to be exiled from their homes and that had everything stolen from them.

Lina is a teenage girl who dreams of becoming an artist. She certainly has the gift for it and even gets accepted to a prestigious art academy. However, her homeland of Lithuania gets annexed by the Soviet Union, with members of NKVD barging into her house one evening and taking Lina, her mother and her younger brother Jonas away. They get forced onto a cattle train and shipped off to a work camp. Whilst en route, Lina and her family meet and befriend many characters integral to the story, including Andrius, a handsome boy Lina’s age and his beautiful mother.

Once in camp, Lina and her fellow countrymen suffer unspeakable atrocities at the hands of Soviet soldiers. Food is scarce, the climate unforgiving and the work excruciating. Lina’s father was taken to prison. During their brief encounter, he instructed her to sketch everything and pass it along, so one day her drawings may find their way to him and allow him to locate his family. Because of this, Jonas quickly befriends Andrius, in whom the young boy sees a friend and a paternal figure of a sort. Lina is interested in him as well, though she’s far too stubborn and independent to admit this.

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The daily torture never ceases and life is very hard for Lina and her family. However, she notices that Andrius and his mother are frequently spared both the psychological and physical torment their fellow prisoners endure. Furthermore, Lina notes that Andrius always seems warmer, cleaner and better-fed than the rest of them. Inexplicably, he always seems to be in possession of extra food, cigarettes and other amenities the prisoners value, which he selflessly distributes among the less fortunate. One day, she follows Andrius and discovers that his mother lives in the barracks, serving drinks to soldiers, well-dressed, with make-up on her face and a nice hairdo, all of which leads Lina to believe that she and Andrius are secretly working for their enemy as spies.

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Later on, she accuses Andrius of betraying their people. He furiously reveals the truth to her – his mother was taken as a prostitute for the soldiers when they threatened to kill her son. Andrius, who has always been extremely kind, gentle and caring towards Lina and her family, distances himself from and refuses to speak with her, angry and hurt by her accusation. His position really is an impossible one. He blames himself for his mother’s predicament, contemplating suicide every day in hopes of releasing her. They receive scorn from several ungrateful Lithuanians who would have gone hungry many times, had it not been for Andrius and his mother sharing their generous food portions and being in a better position to steal supplies. Most people pity them, though. Even those who are enraged find a way to quiet themselves, for they know that there isn’t a soul in the camp who would want to trade places with Andrius’ mother.

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Slowly, however, Lina and Andrius find their way back to each other, helping each other any way that they can. The tension between them continues to grow every day and their feelings deepen. In their squalid surroundings, there is little for Lina to hope for. The only things keeping her afloat are the hope that her sketches are reaching her father and Andrius.

Even before he and Lina get romantically involved, you can’t help but love Andrius. Lina and Jonas are practically strangers, yet he cares for them deeply from day one, doing everything he can to ensure their survival and constantly trying to protect them from vile acts that they’re exposed to on a daily basis. Plus, on Lina’s birthday, he gives her the best and most romantic present any bookworm could wish for – a novel, with his own witty little remarks and love notes scribbled on its margins. All in all, Andrius is a selfless, righteous and intelligent man you can’t help but root for.

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However, before their relationship is even given a chance to blossom, they get separated when Lina and her family find themselves on a relocation list. Their farewell scene is extremely touching, in turns heartwarming and heartbreaking. Lina, Jonas and their mother get sent to another camp beyond the Arctic Circle, essentially all the way up to the North Pole, making the reader realise that, compared to the new camp, the old one may as well have been a five-star hotel. Lina’s mother dies there, in what is perhaps the bleakest chapter of the novel. I won’t go into that now, because her mother is one of the most amazing literary characters I’ve ever had the honour and the pleasure to read about and listing all her attributes and instances of her amazing strength would take me all day long.

After her mother dies, Lina becomes even more determined to survive. However, the conditions are appalling and many people die during their first Polar Night. Dysentery, lice and typhus are everywhere and Jonas nearly dies himself, before being nursed back to health by a kind doctor.

That is where the novel ends, though Lina’s journey continues. In the epilogue, we find out that Lina and Jonas spent twelve years in captivity in the second camp, before finally returning to Lithuania and reuniting with Andrius. Lina and Andrius end up getting married and, though this conclusion is soothing, it is not nearly soothing enough. Not after everything they’ve gone through.

‘Good men are often more practical than pretty’ said Mother. ‘Andrius just happens to be both.’

Nearly a year in the first camp and then more than a decade of slavery in the second camp located in the northernmost regions of our planet. I cannot even begin to grasp what it must have been like, nor do I want to. The ending is bittersweet, though I would have liked their reunion included in the storyline. We don’t even know what was happening to our misfortunate siblings during those twelve years, let alone how Andrius fared. How did they all survive? What did they do? Ahh, so many questions left unanswered!

I’m trying to imagine their reunion after so many years of fear, humiliation and inhumanity. For the world, the war ended in 1945, but it wasn’t until 1954 that Lina and Jonas returned to their homeland. Jonas would have been in his early twenties, with Lina and Andrius pushing thirty, their innocence, their childhoods, their dignity all stolen away from them. Lina and Andrius would not have seen each other in over a decade, so the question on my mind is – how can love survive such depravity, such isolation and so many hardships? I have no idea, but apparently, in few select cases, it can.

Krasivaya. It means beautiful, but with strength. Unique.

I look at this list of mine and am stupefied by the sheer amount of trials and tribulations our lovers have had to overcome and all the pain and misery they’ve had to endure, especially Lina and Andrius and my number one couple. Then I look beyond my laptop screen at the couples that surround me, their frivolous concerns, their petty bickering and the minute details that ruin their relationships, prompting me to conclude that there was never any real love there even to begin with. Then I look at myself and am glad, in a way, that I’ve never had a casual fling with someone, that the few relationships in my life were all based on something stronger than fleeting attraction and that I’d rather stoically endure the rare pangs of loneliness than ever condemn myself to empty relationships.

90% of dysfunctional relationships I see around me are a result of loneliness. In my opinion, people prematurely enter relationships that are simply not good for them. They don’t set aside enough time to work on themselves and their confidence and they don’t give themselves enough time to grow into individuals content enough with themselves, so that no amount of loneliness could ever make them lower their standards and expectations. It’s as if these people aren’t running towards relationships, but running away from something else into them. And that’s how we end up with unhappy couples and empty relationships that lack true meaning.

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However, many people seem to find great satisfaction in such relationships and seem very happy. The entire world seems to work well on them. Good for them, I say. But, I can’t do it. I’ve never been able to do it and, as I grow older (and, hopefully, wiser), I’m beginning to realise that I never will be able to. And, just when it seems that the entire world seems content with swiping potential partners on their phones as if they weren’t real people, a book like this one comes along, coupled with a real relationship you see someone in your vicinity forming, and you realise that it isn’t all hopeless. There are still people out there who fight for real love and who are capable of finding enough strength within themselves to love, despite a mountain of atrocities they may have had to survive.

P.S. There’s more good news – we’ll soon have a movie based on this novel to watch. Can’t wait!

Hope you liked it.

Parts 1 and 2.

Part 4 coming soon.

Keep reading 🙂

My Top 9 Favourite Literary Couples: Part 2

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Hello, my dear strangers!

I hope you enjoyed part 1 of my list. Here’s part 2, in which I introduce four or, more precisely, five new couples from five incredible novels (or, more precisely, four novels and one play).

 

7. The March Family Series by Louisa May Alcott – Jo March and Friedrich Bhaer

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I’m sure many of you are familiar with this series and its four novels revolving around the March family – Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. There’s plenty of romance and warm feelings to be found within its pages and a plethora of worthy relationships that deserve attention. There’s Jo and Laurie, Laurie and Amy, Mr. and Mrs. March, Meg and John, even the one-sided and never fulfilled relationship between Dan and Bess which I found endlessly touching and simultaneously heart wrenching. I love the character of Dan and could go on, day and night, explaining why.

But, that is not the subject today. The subject on the table right now is the relationship and marriage of Jo March and Friedrich Bhaer. I intentionally wrote Jo March and not Jo Bhaer, because the development of her character begins well before she gets married. Jo March is me. I’m sure that there are plenty of introverted, bookwormy, rebellious girls out there who have related to Jo over the centuries, but I’m arrogant enough to say – Jo March is me. She is one of the most successful and well-rounded female characters in the history of literature and I write that with utmost confidence and assuredness. There’ll always be lady-like characters out there like Meg, gentle souls like Beth and vain little book-burning, self-centred brats like Amy, but Jo is… Well, not one of a kind, but she certainly does stand out.

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But, seriously, just as there have always been girls like Meg, Beth and Amy, there have always been and always will be girls like Jo. Girls that care about books, inner strength and integrity more than they do about fashion and make-up and proper behaviour. Girls that have an active, vivid imagination and live to write/read. Girls that find it difficult to fit in and are, in turns proud of the fact, yet also a bit daunted by the loneliness they might one day face. Girls that make up for poor social skills with their unintentional charisma, charm and wit. Girls who push boundaries for women and find small ways of making the world a better place every day. Jo March was, quite frankly, the first completely successful female character of such above-mentioned traits to grace our bookshelves and our lives, centuries before the creation of Hermione Granger.

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Her husband, Fritz Bhaer is sort of like a male equivalent of her, though not really. I’d say he’s more pragmatic, even though he can be quite idealistic too. He gave up everything, sold everything he owned (except for certain precious books) and came to a new continent in search of better luck. Quite a bold move, in and of itself. He appreciates the arts just as much as Jo does, is humble, kind and supportive. His well-rounded and mature character may be attributed to his age, which is why I spent the better half of my childhood thinking I’d never truly fall in love till the day I met an older gentleman, one quite like Fritz. Jo’s fire complements his serenity and Friedrich’s practicality complements her idealism. They’re a match made in heaven and they both possess enough patience and love in their hearts to open up a school teeming with problematic kids who require lots of attention and care. That’s the kind of people Jo and Fritz are – an admirable, generous couple that will forever stay in my memory.

 

6. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo – Cosette and Marius

This is only an excerpt about their relationship from a longer review of the novel. If you wish to read the entire review, click here.

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One of my favourite and, definitely more pleasurable parts of the novel, was Marius and Cosette’s love story. At first it seemed unlikely, mostly because of Cosette’s naivety and cluelessness, but then it grew on me. Their first encounters in the park were so endearing and I was extremely glad that their love was first shown from Marius’s perspective. His initial unawareness and then the slow descent into the madness of love were so well described.

At first it seemed forced, as if Hugo was determined to create a love story were there was absolutely no chemistry between the characters, but I ended up liking it so much, that Cosette and Marius climbed their way onto my top 9 literary couples list. I won’t lie: until the very end, I felt like their relationship was not one of equals. Marius bore much heavier burdens than Cosette did and her easy-going and trusting nature at times made me look upon them and picture them as a brother and his little sister, rather than two lovers. Excluding her earliest years (which Cosette barely even remembered in her later life), she grew up into the typical damsel in distress. She was loved and cherished by everyone. She spent most of her life living in an ivory tower. She was fiercely protected first by Fantine, then by Jean Valjean and then by Marius. She was unaware of so many things happening around her and couldn’t see past her own little world. This may, in part, be Jean Valjean’s fault.

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Marius, on the other hand, while his struggles could by no means be compared to those of Jean Valjean, still had much more darkness to him and carried many more burdens than she did. At times, his brooding nature irritated me, especially the decision he made after he had found out that Cosette was leaving France, but his self-imposed isolation, his solitary ways and his stubbornness soon endeared him to me, for he much reminded me of myself. Cosette’s early years spent in struggles can hardly compare to everything Marius has had to endure – the truth about his father, his decision to leave his grandfather, the years he spent in poverty (during which he stayed generous, might I add), his quest to find Cosette, the burden of Jean Valjean’s past. Those are just some of the things he has had to endure, things that Cosette not only didn’t have to go through, but also remained ignorant of.

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I like them. I like them very much, since they made their way onto my top 9 couples, but no madness will ever compel me to say or write that their relationship was one of equal partners.

 

5. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee – George and Martha

I think I have already explained my sentiments regarding this couple in my review of the play and feel no need to repeat myself. So, if you wish to, you can read the review here.

 

4. Tre Metri Sopra Il Cielo/Ho Voglia Di Te by Federico Moccia – Step and Babi/Step and Gin

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Now, you may be wondering why I have two relationships here instead of just one, but to my mind, they’re inextricable. Also, I believe that these two relationships and their respective books merit the most exposition, since they’re not so well-known, so just bear with me.

In the first novel, we meet Stefano, called Step. He seems like your typical motorcycle-riding, physical-force-coercing, dining-and-dashing, beer-guzzling, illegal-races-participating, staying-out-all-night bad boy. Yawn… Or, so I thought. Here’s the deal with Step – bad boys are everywhere, in our literature, our movies, our lives, even when they don’t deserve the title. After all, everyone has their own perception of what constitutes a bad boy. For some, it’s a mafia boss, for others – simply a boy who gets detention every once in a while. But, what 90% of them have in common is that, more often than not, they are American characters written by American authors for American readers. Step is European. Now, that may not sound like much to you, but it does to me. Thing is, I can spot the difference immediately. Americans generally tend to be more squeamish and will tag the bad boy label to basically anyone. So really, in defence of American bad boys, it’s really not their fault. It’s the fault of those behind them, their authors, their writers, their producers. Also, they’ve been done to death. European bad boys, not nearly as much. Hence, Step really does stand out, in a variety of ways.

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Anyway, in the first novel Step falls in love with Babi, a well-to-do girl who has high expectations to live up to. She is an early riser, rarely drinks (with the exception of only the finest wines), maintains a healthy diet, exercises, goes to a private school, is a good student, an obedient daughter, pampered and loved by everyone – a model child. Now, when you have such opposites as these ones who share a genuine love and strong attraction, more often than not, you have the girl abandoning her rigid ways, standing up to her family and finally, after the last straw, discarding her good girl persona and riding off into the sunset on the back of her man’s motorcycle. Or, alternatively, you have the guy discarding his bad boy persona and settling down with the woman who has managed to tame his wild ways. Not here though. And that’s just one of the things I love about these books and the way they’re written – realism.

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Babi does defy the expectations for a while, getting in constant quarrels with her overbearing, status-conscious mother, risking her well-being, education and future for Step. But, eventually, she realises who she is and that Step simply doesn’t fit into her life at all. One time, Step gets thrown out of a club for initiating a fight with a guy who made a comment about Babi’s rear end. Another time they’re fleeing the restaurant because Step and his friends refuse to pay. Another time Babi invites Step over while she’s babysitting, hoping for some intimate downtime, but then a slew of his raucous friends appear, trashing the place, giving weed to the little boy she’s looking after and stealing jewellery from the apartment, for which Babi gets the blame. And yet another time, Babi perjures herself in court in order to save Step from doing time. Enough is enough, she realises and breaks up with him. Step is inconsolable, but the worst is yet to come when his best friend dies in the illegal races they partake in. Step has had enough and decides to leave for New York.

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Two years later, he makes a decision to move back to Rome and that’s when the second book begins. Step is now a much more toned down version of his former self. His hormones, teen angst, aggression and overall impulsiveness have strongly diminished. He no longer races and even gets a job working for a television programme. He’s still grieving though, grieving over the loss of his best friend, the relationship with his mother, the breakup with Babi. Enter Gin. She’s a spirited girl Step meets when he catches her trying to steal his petrol. He teaches her a lesson in the most charming of ways, by taking her out for an unexpected dinner. Next, it’s revealed that Gin works for the same programme. They keep running into each other and his feelings for her start intensifying. However, Babi is never far from his thoughts.

Everything is going great until one day, Step unexpectedly runs into Babi at a party. They talk, catch up and end up sleeping with each other. But, as Step painfully comes to realise, the reunion he kept hoping for for so long turns out to be bittersweet, at best. Babi is simply not the girl he used to love. She’s changed so drastically that Step no longer has any doubts concerning his feelings. It turns out that Babi lured him only to prove to herself that she no longer loved him, since she’s soon getting married, as she later admits to Step.

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Step forgives her, but cannot forgive himself. He tells Gin all about it. She’s heartbroken at first, but they later come to reconcile. Through her diary entries we come to realise that she and Step met at the same party where he met Babi, though Step has no recollection of this. We find out that Gin fell in love with him that very night and has spent every day since dreaming of him, following him around, jotting down notes on his activities, even befriending his mother, constantly thinking of ways of getting closer to him, watching him and loving him from afar.

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I chose to put both relationships on this list and to place them equally, since they’re both extremely formative and extremely important. You may recognise your own relationships in them. The first book revolves around that first gripping love, that sudden descent into the madness and the passion of it all and describes perfectly the recklessness of falling in love for the first time. One’s first real love and first real relationship can hardly be described as a relationship, if I’m to be honest. It’s more like preparation, a wannabe mock relationship condensed into a much shorter period of time, with emotions all over the place. It happens, it’s there and then it just goes away. And, since it usually happens at a very young, unprepared age, you tend to be a lot more forgiving, understanding and tolerant. You are more likely to turn a blind eye to the screw-ups your first partner makes. It is all beautiful and magical for a while, but then life knocks you down, revealing all the discrepancies you spent so much time trying to ignore. So, no matter how strong, pure and addictive that first love is, it is seldom strong enough to withstand all the punches in store. I have heaps of respect and admiration for this novel for presenting that hectic, chaotic, rushed first romance and its inevitable demise with such accuracy and heart, yet without embellishments.

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The second novel is perhaps even better, in my opinion at least (though I know many who would disagree with me). It demonstrates what comes after. So, you’ve had the most romantic, turbulent and powerful relationship of your life. Now what? What could possibly be strong enough, genuine enough or mesmerising enough to top it? What act could follow? Hard as it may seem, life goes on. New loves emerge to replace the old ones. Only, these new ones are capable of being even stronger and more genuine than that first one. Simply because they are more real. And you and your partner even more compatible. There’s no more reason to ignore the ugly truth and hide behind your love, using it as a shield for all the illogical stuff. Step and Babi spent more time shielding themselves than anything else, I’m certain, and justifying their relationship to themselves and others, while with Gin there was simply no need, on either part.

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The girls themselves are completely captivating. Babi remains somewhat of a mythical presence in the second book, but even throughout the first one, she’s a queen on her pedestal. Babi has this almost magnetic charm to her and a unique ability to present herself as vulnerable, innocent and straight-laced. We see boyfriend after boyfriend of hers falling for her and never quite recuperating. Her first boyfriend screwed up and knew that patching things up with Babi would be trickier than with any other woman. Alfredo, her boyfriend after Step, re-enters the second novel as a desperate alcoholic, lurking about her building, hoping to rekindle their affair. Step is utterly destroyed after she breaks up with him. All of them have a really hard time getting back to normal after a relationship with someone like Babi, someone who cares for and respects herself, someone who knows her price and agrees to haggle only when completely enamoured. Babi is adored by everyone, though truly loved only by Step. Yet, even those who don’t love her and don’t really know her – adore her, as she represents something they could rarely get to have.

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As time goes by, Babi grows more and more conscious of her status and reputation. She comes from a good, reputable family, attends the best private schools and Universities, goes to elegant parties with the elite, dresses smartly, always says the right thing, is easily offended – a spoiled, self-centred, proud, aloof snob committed to living her life her way. She stands out like a sore thumb when amidst Step and his crowd. At one point, after another of Step’s illegal escapades, she gets angry with him and tells him about the kind of life she envisions for herself – a tranquil, hassle-free one. It’s evident that there’s no room for someone like him in her future.

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Gin, on the other hand, is completely free with herself. She doesn’t hide behind shiny veneers, reputation and false modesty. Her desires are out in the open. She is fun, gregarious, easy-going, forgiving, enjoys pulling pranks and even elaborate schemes, she’s open, honest, caring, funny, confident, yet vulnerable, ready to leap in, no pretenses, no masks, what you see is what you get + so much more. She isn’t superficial by any account though, but bold, daring; isn’t squeamish about all the things Babi used to complain about, yet maintains her standards. She and Step are much more compatible, they relish their time together, always trying to one-up the other one, playing sweet games, not getting easily insulted over every single little thing, but growing together and learning from each other.

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The reason I find these characters so appealing is that I see much of myself in them. There’s a lot of Step in me, especially regarding his relationship with his mother and even the rest of his family, for that matter. As far as Babi and Gin go, I’d say I’m a bit of both. I maintain high standards and find it difficult to care for someone, I am not overly concerned with my reputation, I’m easy-going, yet difficult. I don’t guzzle beer straight from the bottle like Gin does, but much like Babi prefer a nice glass of wine or a cocktail. I am picky about who I spend time with, yet treat everyone with respect. I don’t wear my heart out on my sleeve like Gin, yet am utterly insane sometimes with the way I think and act (stalking Step or someone else doesn’t sound like that much of a crazy idea, especially when you can back it up with big words such as love). Once I discard someone, I rid myself of them completely. There are no second chances with me. So, maybe I’m leaning a bit towards Babi. Or perhaps Gin. Not sure. In any case, what I like is that there are no good guys or bad guys here. There are just people.

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From my descriptions, you may be ready to label Gin as a cool chick you’d like to hang out with and Babi as a cold, elitist bitch who thinks way too highly of herself, but things are simply not so black and white. At one point, Babi, faced with the disintegration of her parents’ marriage and preparing for her own upcoming nuptials, contemplates inviting Step to the wedding. The author muses that she’s become even worse than her mother, an overbearing, over-demanding ice queen who drove her husband away into the arms of another (not that I’m justifying adultery, but you don’t know her mother). At that moment, I believe that we’re given a glimpse into Babi’s future. Will her cold, merciless demeanour drive her own husband away?

One of the things I love about these two books is that it’s not all about the romance. Far from it. Great portions are dedicated to friendships, rivalries, siblings, parents and everything else in between. We see Step and Babi and later Gin interacting with the various people in their lives, we see them struggling with work and studies, their tense relationships with family members, their flings and past flames, we see their parents worrying about aging and their spouses and children, their professors coping with loneliness, the overall methods people use to deal with life (and death), to feel alive, to feel loved, to feel important in this world and so on and so forth. I can’t stand novels where lovers’ lives revolve only around their relationship, completely oblivious of the wider world and the bigger picture. My favourite part and the most heartbreaking one has got to be Step’s reunion with his estranged mother, mere days before she’s to die.

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Another thing I like about these books is that these love stories were largely told from the guy’s perspective, especially the second one. I mean, how often does that happen? I’m almost sad that they’re not more well-known. Unfortunately, there are no translations into English as far as I know. I read them in Spanish and I guess you’ll just have to stick to already existing translations or, better yet, try the original, if you’re fluent in Italian. I’ve also recently heard that a third novel has been released and can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Part 1 is waiting for you.

Part 3 coming soon.

Keep reading 🙂

My Top 9 Favourite Literary Couples: Part 1

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Hello, my dear strangers!

I’m in the mood for love. Every once in a while, this odd sensation will engulf me, making me think about love, a subject which is usually the furthest one away from my mind. I am currently boyfriendless and girlfriendless and have been for a while, opting to focus on my academics, my writing and my various projects aimed at saving money for travelling. So, needless to say, I’m pretty certain my subconscious is sending me early warning signs that I should find a way to incorporate romance in that equation. But, until the time I finally do meet someone interesting and fall in love (which I’ve always found hard to do), I’m left with my books. Every now and again, I’ll revisit one of these books to help me get that warm, fuzzy feeling inside and remind me that the best is yet to come.

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A word about me and romance books ⇒ Over the years, I’ve read some, not many, but some romance books. And it’s happened to me very rarely (read: never) that I actually appreciate that book for its genre. I’ve already accepted the fact that I’ll never truly enjoy the romantic in a romance novel, because the books within this genre are all about love and relationships, which I find very tiring. If the protagonist happens to be, let’s say female (male works too, though it’s usually women), she’ll spend the entirety of the novel’s plot fixated on her relationship. There are no friends in her life, there is no job, no school, no Uni, no siblings, parents, duties and obligations, chores, financial struggles whatsoever… unless they’re somehow related to her significant other.

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For example, if the heroine has a dog, those dog’s health problems will never be mentioned, unless her significant other happens to be a vet. A protagonist’s struggles with writing essays will never be mentioned, unless the object of his affection happens to be a tutor or a teaching assistant and so forth and so forth. Well, maybe I’m stretching it a tad here, but you know how these books are. 90% of the plot revolves around the relationship even before there is an actual relationship to talk about. It’s annoying and irritating and cringe-worthy and I so seldom get to enjoy these books and when I do, my enjoyment has absolutely nothing to do with the romance in question. For instance, perhaps you’ve heard of Nora Roberts. She writes cheesy, cloyingly bad romance novels. I’ve read a few and the only one I’ve enjoyed was Montana Sky. There are three relationships in that novel and none of them brought me any enjoyment whatsoever. The single reason I enjoyed it was because of its, admittedly idealised, depiction of farm life on a vast cattle ranch in Montana.

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That being said, I basically never get my romance fix from the romance genre. Most literary relationships I like and admire come from other genres, genres that incorporate a wide variety of stories within them, but still manage to include a heartwarming love story. Now, either those are few and far between or I’m romance allergic, which could help explain why I struggled to list even mere ten couples, before deciding to settle on nine. Naturally, I will have to venture a bit into the plot itself but, for the most part, I will only be focusing on my chosen couples. However, please remember that there is far more to these books than just what I opt to describe. I wouldn’t want any of these books suffering the loss of a potential reader simply because you decide to judge them according to my descriptions, which are incomplete and focus only on one aspect of the story.

Warning! In order to discuss these couples and relationships the way they and the authors behind them deserve, I will be revealing a lot of spoilers. You’ve been warned. So, without further ado, let me present my top 9 favourite literary couples.

 

9. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling – Molly and Arthur Weasley

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Molly and Arthur have endured together more than most couples ever have to, in magical world or otherwise. They have stayed together and loved each other through poverty, two wars, lots of kids, the shunning of the magical community for their liberal ways, the kidnapping of their daughter, the estrangement and straying of their son, constant danger, the death of a child and so much more. They’ve never shied away from responsibilities and perils, taking upon themselves many burdens, such as acting as surrogate parents to The Chosen One, lending their home to secret organisations, trembling in constant fear of the repercussions their lifestyle may bring, treating one kid for a curse-stricken ear and another for a case of semi-werewolfism. They raised Fred and George (which is an accomplishment in and of itself) and watched kid after kid of theirs enlist in the battle against Him (yes, I am still afraid to utter or type his name).

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There were some relatable issues in their family, such as “I don’t like the girl my son’s about to marry” and “Oh, I wish that handsome celebrity wizard would notice my hair” and “Oh, how I wish I knew the exact purpose of a rubber ducky”, accompanied by a whole range of pranks thrown by the twins, but on the whole, the problems facing this couple and their entire family are the ones most of us have never had to face. Molly and Arthur stood strong through it all and managed to build a powerful circle of good friends and allies like no other power couple in this entire series. They’ve been humiliated, attacked, even rendered superfluous on several occasions, but they held each other’s hand through it all and managed to fight their way through to the other side and a better life. Their life story takes up a very small portion of the series’ plot and isn’t overly romantic when you look at it, but it is strong and durable and consistent. And that is why I love Molly and Arthur and the love they share.

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8. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson – The unnamed protagonist and Marianne Engel

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The Gargoyle begins with a description of a modern-day cynic who has lost all faith in this world and has become an empty shell of a man. His life isn’t a life at all. It’s an existence. He is a deeply sceptical actor working in the porn industry with quite a few addictions to his name. One night, he gets into a car accident in which most of his body gets badly burnt. When he wakes up in his hospital room in the burn ward, he realises that his appearance now finally reflects the man he is inside, gives up all hope and begins hatching a suicide plan. That’s when a young, eccentric woman named Marianne Engel starts visiting him. It appears that she might have a few mental problems, but is overall pleasant and comforting. She is a sculptress and a storyteller, drawing the burned man in with her tales of great love that have taken place across the centuries in all corners of the world.

However, our protagonist doesn’t accept her presence so easily and is fighting his morphine addiction to boot. There are several other, well-rounded characters that he keeps coming into contact with, all of them renewing hope in his heart, against his wishes. It isn’t long before Marianne tells him that the two of them used to be lovers in 14th century Germany. As it turns out, she used to be a nun in a convent where he was brought to, badly injured. As she treats his wounds, he reveals to her that he is a member of a mercenary clan. They fall in love and flee the monastery, get married and conceive a baby. However, they soon run into his old gang who want to kill him for being a deserter. Heavily pregnant, Marianne escapes and watches from afar as the men torture and burn her husband. She aims an arrow straight into his heart, mercy-killing him.

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To be honest, I’ve only read The Gargoyle once, about six years ago or so, so a lot of the details are foggy in my mind. However, I do plan on rereading it one of these days. The point it’s trying to make, in my opinion, is that there is no creature so contemptible as to not be worthy of love. Anyway, there are gobs of interesting details in this novel, from the protagonist’s morphine addiction and suicide plans to the lives of the hospital staff to Marianne’s task from God and its consequences. It is a tale of falling back in love with life and realising that it is never too late to start anew and that no matter how despicable you may be and how many bad things you’ve done, there will always be someone out there ready to love you.

Part 2 coming soon. Keep reading 🙂

A Song of Ice and Fire: A Clash of Kings

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Ciao, my dear strangers!

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A Clash of Kings begins with a red comet soaring through the sky, a harbinger of what’s to come, or perhaps a sinister omen of everything dire about to happen to the characters we met in A Game of Thrones. Each point-of-view character interprets it in their own way, beginning with Cressen, an elderly Maester in the service of Stannis, younger brother to the late King Robert. Cressen fears that Stannis has had his mind poisoned by Melisandre of Asshai, a sorceress or priestess, if you will. She comes from Essos and is in the service of a religion foreign to Westeros, that of R’hllor, a fervent supporter of the Lord of Light. Cressen comes up with a scheme to murder her with a cup of poisoned wine, but she proves to be impervious to it and he dies instead. Stannis thinks little of his death and continues to heed Melisandre’s advice. Not that she’s much loved, though.

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Davos, one of the newly-introduced POV characters, is a loyal knight to Stannis who mistrusts Melisandre as well. He used to be a smuggler, an outlaw, but was taken into Stannis’s service after having saved the entire castle from starvation during a siege many years prior. Nevertheless, Davos is still looked down upon by many lords of higher birth and hopes that his sons will secure more favourable opinions in the court. Davos is easily one of my favourite new characters. His demeanour, down-to-Earth nature, common sense and unwavering loyalty make him stand out as quite a respectable individual in the fickle world of Westeros, though his devotion is somewhat puzzling, as the lord he supports is neither well-loved nor terribly righteous, it seems.

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Lord Stannis Baratheon is a cold, brooding man who rules in Dragonstone, the ancestral seat of House Targaryen, as it turns out. Upon hearing news of King Joffrey’s illegitimacy, he proclaims himself King and joins the war in order to advance his own interests and secure the Iron Throne. Heavily outnumbered, he resorts to Melisandre’s sorcery and blood magic.

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Another pretender to the throne is Robert and Stannis’s youngest brother – Renly. Even though he isn’t the most suitable contender, according to the laws of primogeniture, Renly is nevertheless well-loved by noblemen and common folk alike. He secures a large army by marrying Margaery, daughter of Mace Tyrell, thus uniting the two great Houses. His only hamartia, it seems, is his inability to take war seriously and his illusions of grandeur. Ok, so two hamartias.

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Across the Narrow Sea, we have yet another claimant. Daenerys Targaryen, having torched her husband along with a witch who’d murdered their unborn son and having managed to hatch three dragon eggs, seems the farthest away from sitting on the Iron Throne, not only geographically. After Drogo’s death, her Khalasar disbanded, leaving her with only a handful of loyal bloodriders, her devoted Ser Jorah and a slew of elderly people, women and children. Knowing that the first army they run into will slaughter them all and steal her dragons, Daenerys decides to follow the red comet across the Red Waste, a barren, desolate desert with no end in sight. Many of her people die on the perilous journey and Daenerys herself doesn’t seem to be able to go on for much longer.

After a brief respite in a ghost town, she sends three of her bloodriders to scout what lies ahead. One of them comes back with three strangers, a wealthy merchant, a warlock and a mysterious masked woman who all hail from the city of Qarth, where they offer her and her people a safe haven. At first, Daenerys is well received, with gifts and even marriage proposals coming her way. However, she soon discovers that the rulers of the city have no desire to help her win back the Iron Throne and turns to Pyat Pree, a warlock, for help. He leads her to the House of the Undying in what is perhaps the most interesting and riveting chapter in the entire tome. It is in there that she sees many gruesome visions, which make the reader question whether all she’s seeing is real or not. Somehow, through a maze of tricks and lurking darkness, she manages to find a way to the audience chamber of the Undying, a group of ghost-like creatures who show her visions of things past, present and future. Amidst it all, she also sees a vision of her eldest brother, Rhaegar with his wife Elia and their newborn son. Rhaegar utters some very intriguing words which perplex his sister and leave her obsessing over them for the rest of the novel.

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Soon after, though, Daenerys gets attacked by the Undying and only manages to escape the House and the treacherous Pyat Pree with the help of Drogon, her favoured dragon. After that, however, her luck seems to have dried up in Qarth. Instead of receiving gifts, she now gets showered with threats and realises she must leave the city as soon as possible, for the warlocks have vowed revenge against her, what with Drogon burning down their House. She starts looking for ships when she gets attacked by a manticore, sent by the warlocks, and gets rescued by two strangers – Belwas and Arstan Whitebeard, who claim they have been sent by Illyrio Mopatis, whose house Daenerys and Viserys stayed in before the events of the first novel, to escort her safely back to the Free Cities. Her luck seems to be changing at last.

There is one issue I will take with her part of the story. In a thousand pages, she only had five chapters. Her story is immensely interesting and five chapters simply don’t cover it. Though I will admit that the accompanying descriptions were superbly written. I especially enjoyed all those subtle nuances portrayed during the group’s strife in the Red Waste. You know that they are struggling, yet what made the experience even more vivid and visceral were Martin’s thorough illustrations of every single detail that took place, no matter how small or insignificant it may appear.

So, we have Joffrey sitting on the Iron Throne and Stannis, Renly and Daenerys vying for it. But, that’s not the end of Sires. There are others who don’t necessarily wish to rule over the entire realm, but seek independence. One such is Robb Stark, late Eddard Stark’s eldest trueborn son. He’s been proclaimed the King in the North and has won every battle he’s fought, even managing to capture Jaime Lannister, though all at great a personal cost. Robb stays a bit passive in this novel, opting to stay at Riverrun, the seat of his mother’s House, and instead sending envoys to secure alliances. He sends his mother – Catelyn, a woman whose grief is masterfully described in her chapters, to rally Renly to their cause. However, before anything can get resolved, Renly is murdered by a shadow thought to have been conjured by Melisandre at the behest of Stannis, in order to get rid of the younger brother he never loved and take a step closer to the throne. Catelyn is present at Renly’s hour of death, as is Brienne, a recently appointed knight of his Kingsguard. Outraged lords, having discovered Renly’s corpse, believe Brienne is to blame and try to kill her, but Catelyn and her escape. Having witnessed Catelyn’s bravery and stoicism, Brienne pledges loyalty to her. Renly’s other followers are not as loyal though and many of them choose to side with Stannis.

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Another envoy Robb sends is his friend, Theon of the House Greyjoy. Theon was taken as a ward of House Stark after his father’s failed rebellion against the throne, but had never received any mistreatment and was raised as one of Lord Eddard’s own children. However, upon arrival to Pyke, the seat of his House, Theon’s loyalty drastically shifts. His ego booms and, faced with the disapproval of his father, uncles and sister, Theon decides to prove his worth and loyalty to his family by betraying Robb. His father, Balon, proclaims himself the King of the Iron Islands and sends his children to secure posts on land. Theon has his heart set out for Winterfell, which he seizes, forcing Bran to yield.

However, Bran has forged some alliances of his own, namely – the Reed siblings. With their help, Bran finally manages to recognise his powers for what they are. Bran frequently enters the mind of Summer, his direwolf, prompting the siblings to realise that he is a skinchanger. They flee Theon’s clutches, along with Hodor, Osha, Rickon and the direwolves. Theon goes frantic trying to find them, before resolving to fake their deaths, the news of which deeply shakes Catelyn and forces her to resort to desperate measures. Bran and Rickon manage to escape though and go their separate ways, Rickon with Osha to loyal banners of House Stark and Bran’s party north.

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Theon’s luck, however, changes. Left to defend Winterfell with only a handful of men, he desperately keeps sending ravens to his father and sister both, knowing that neither of them would be able to reach him in time, even if they wanted to. He keeps Stark banners at bay by threatening them with the lives of his hostages, before another twist of fate comes to pass. Reek, a repugnant servant of Ramsay Snow, the bastard son of Roose Bolton, comes to Theon’s service and slays the northerners, rescuing Theon from certain death. However, Reek soon turns on Theon and burns Winterfell to its very foundations, revealing himself as the real Ramsay Snow. Theon’s fate, at this point, seems uncertain.

The most enjoyable parts of his journey were his inner struggles. At some level, Theon knows that betraying Robb and seizing Winterfell for his own is a terrible choice to make, a choice that frequently comes back to haunt him. His own family is less-than-impressed by him and greatly mistrusts him and the people he’s grown up with as a ward of the Starks now despise him for the turncloak that he is. Theon is torn between the two families, knowing full well he cannot please them both. His chapters are a joy to read, though certainly very grim and ridden with doubts and despair or, as the author himself would put it – the struggle between good and evil within the individual human heart.

Jon ventures beyond the Wall with a party of rangers to a bleak, desolate landscape. Their objective is to find his uncle, Benjen Stark, and learn what the wildlings are up to. They have a King of their own, as well – Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall. For a long while, they encounter neither man nor hearth, with villages left burnt and deserted. Finally, the Lord Commander decides to stay put and wait for the return of a ranging party, led by the experienced, world-weary Qhorin Halfhand. The veteran ranger means to take a smaller party deeper into wildling territory so as to get a hang of their plans and takes Jon with him.

They stumble upon a small group of wildlings and it is there that Jon kills his first man – a rite of passage of sorts in the unforgiving world of Westeros. He moves on to kill another, only to discover it is a woman, which stays his hand. Left alone to determine her fate, Jon can’t bring himself to kill her and releases her instead. Their small group grows smaller every day, with men of the Night’s Watch either being sent away on some errand by Qhorin or sacrificing themselves to ensure the progress of the rest. In the end, it comes down to only Qhorin and Jon. Jon learns another very important fact about himself – much like his younger brother Bran, Jon is a warg, capable of entering Ghost’s mind in his dreams. During one such episode, he witnesses thousands of wildlings, along with giants and mammoths, seemingly preparing for battle.

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Jon’s greatest test comes when the Halfhand orders him to infiltrate the ranks of the wildlings and learn inside information, before returning to the Wall. He tells him to do everything they ask of him, lest he be recognised for a fraud. When wildlings come, led by the Lord of Bones, Jon recognises among them Ygritte, the woman whose life he saved. They instruct him to kill his brother and, with Ghost’s help, he does so, realising that Qhorin knew all along what they would ask of him. Under the pretence of wanting to join the free folk, Jon goes off with them into the wilderness.

Arya, meanwhile, travels with Yoren of the Night’s Watch and his group of recruits, mostly made up of hardened criminals and orphaned boys. Posing as a boy, Arya hopes to reach Winterfell soon, but her dreams disperse when their party gets attacked by some Lannister men and Yoren gets killed. Left to survive in the woods with a handful of untrained, frightened children, including Hot Pie, a delightfully anxious baker and Gendry, whom her father had identified as one of King Robert’s bastards, Arya has to rely on her wits and shaky friendships.

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Soon after, though, they get captured by Lannister men and taken to Harrenhal, a castle said to be haunted, and there endure daily fear and torture. However, having saved a recruit for the Night’s Watch called Jaqen from certain death, as well as two others, Arya gets informed that a debt must be paid. Jaqen tells her that she saved three souls, thus effectively stealing them from the God of Death, and that now she has the right to name any three people for him to offer to his God. Arya names two men who have slighted her and offers Jaqen’s own name as the third. In exchange for unnaming him, Arya forces Jaqen to help her release some of her brother’s men the foes are keeping in the dungeons. Before leaving for Essos, Jaqen gives her a coin from the Free City of Braavos, which could play a larger role in the coming days.

However, Roose Bolton, father to the odious Ramsay and Lord of the Dreadfort, comes to take charge of the castle. Knowing that her only chance lies in flight, Arya finds her courage again and kills a sentinel, allowing her, Gendry and Hot Pie to escape.

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I must say that I absolutely loved Arya’s chapters, especially those she spent surviving in the woods with the other children. How different and more empowering her situation is compared to her sister’s. Arya is perhaps the most resourceful of all the characters, in the league with Daenerys and Tyrion, adapting herself to her surroundings and current situations almost seamlessly, fighting her way to independence and freedom. I love the certain amount of respect she commands among her fellow survivors, her adaptability, her bravery and single-mindedness.

Another reason I found her chapters so interesting is that they perfectly illustrate what such dark times of war and turmoil mean for the common folk. In this new situation, Arya must rely completely on herself. She can no longer hide behind her powerful family name and no longer enjoys the privileges that come with it, not even remotely so. She is now one of the small people, often invisible to the eyes of the great. Their lives and fates matter little to noble lords and ladies and, to survive, they must learn to fend for themselves. A perfect example of the gap between expectations and reality is Arya’s friend, Lommy Greenhands, who simply doesn’t seem to grasp the situation at all.

Sansa has to deal with arguably less and arguably more than her sister, in certain contexts, and bears it with her own sense of dignity, maybe not quite as aggressively or effectively as Arya, but deals with her strife the only way she knows how. She endures daily torture by Joffrey, at the mercy of his knights, his mother and the Hound, the one whose demeanour scares her the most, yet the one whose honesty she comes to appreciate and value. She has no swords and no armour, relying instead on mendacity and courtesies to get her through the day. At one point, she saves Dontos, a drunken knight, from Joffrey’s death sentence and, in exchange, he promises to get her out of King’s Landing and safely back to her family. It is this promise that keeps Sansa afloat.

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As Stannis’s fleet led by Ser Davos attacks the city, Sansa seeks refuge with the Queen and other ladies of court. Terrified by the fighting, she is no longer certain which she desires more – Stannis’s victory or his defeat. His fleet gets destroyed however, by united forces of Lord Tywin Lannister and House Tyrell, who abandon Renly’s cause and side with the Crown. Lord Mace Tyrell proposes Joffrey wed his daughter Margaery and the young King concurs. Sansa is elated, at least until she learns that he can still bed her and impregnate her if he so wishes. Dontos assures her that they will flee the day of the royal wedding and gives her a hairnet as a sort of an amulet.

At the behest of his father, Tyrion arrives to King’s Landing to serve as the acting Hand of the King. Uncertain whom to trust, he plays a game involving several of the members of the Small Council and identifies Grand Maester Pycelle as the Queen’s informant. He goes on to send Janos Slynt, a knight who participated in the slaughtering of Robert’s bastards, including a baby, to the Wall and replaces everyone he distrusts with his own men. During the course of the novel, we see his love for Shae, a prostitute he picked up whilst fighting the Starks, deepen. He frequently thinks back to his first wife, a prostitute he fell in love with and wed when he was much younger, wondering whether Shae truly cares for him.

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Faced with the imminent threat of Stannis, Tyrion devises a plan to beat him using wildfire, a controversial substance the Mad King used to kill his enemies. Though victory is uncertain for some time, even with wildfire, the Lannisters ultimately defeat Stannis at what comes to be known as the Battle of the Blackwater. After Joffrey leaves the battle, causing soldiers to lose heart, Tyrion steps in, simultaneously shaming them and encouraging them to defend their city. However, one of the Kingsguard attacks Tyrion, presumably at Cersei’s behest, and tries to kill him, but Tyrion gets rescued by his squire – Pod. Afterward, Tyrion learns that most of his nose has been sliced off. His final chapter ends with him sitting in a dark room, removed from the Tower of the King his father now claims, in pain, his efforts downplayed, wondering if there is anyone left he could trust.

There, I think I’ve pretty much covered everything. This novel answers some of the questions raised in the previous one, though it adds a lot of its own as well. For instance, for the life of me I cannot understand why Arya didn’t join the Glovers once she’d set them free. Maybe I’ve missed something. Oh, well. There’s lots of foreshadowing and I can’t wait to get my hands on the remaining books to clear some of the questions I’ve still got in abundance.

Maybe not as strong as the first novel, but still brilliantly steered, superbly written, gruesomely raw and realistic (so. many. rapes.), yet comforting at times. No matter what’s happening, you can always look back on a novel such as this one and think – if these characters can survive and become stronger after everything that’s happened to their minds, bodies and souls, surely I can defeat the challenges of the 21st century. Even though, the more time elapses, the more our world seems to resemble that of Westeros and Essos, with all their brutality and cruelty. It’s somewhat perplexing to think that we read novels such as this one for pleasure and enjoyment, yet frown at the things we hear in the news. But, such is life.

Keep reading  🙂