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  • ★★★★-4

Review: Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat (Spoiler-Free)

Look, I don't make the rules. Epistolary novels just hit.

I saw a whole lot of hubbub in other reviews saying that an epistolary story doesn't have literary merit and shouldn't have been short-listed for the Man Booker, etc. But I'm here to say that's wrong. Were you not raised on The Perks of Being a Wallflower? What about Frankenstein? Or, to give a modern example of one of my favorites, Ashley Audrain's The Push?

Anyway, epistolary debate aside, I really loved this book. Naturally, there were perspectives I enjoyed reading from more than others, but I found myself pulled in by the writing style throughout the entire work.

Barakat is very interested in examining behavior and gleaning what parts of people's pasts led them to possess unsavory attributes in the present. For example, the first letter follows a man whose unresolved mommy issues have manifested in an ugly projection onto all women. Every problem in his life become's the fault of his lover:

And every time I've made love to you, I've regretted it. I ask myself, 'What business do I have with this woman? My desire gives her a power I can't stand.'

Each character gets close to realizing their fatal flaw(s), but never quite breaches that dividing line. While frustrating, it signals that Barakat writes with the nuance needed to be able to tackle these stories successfully, especially moving into letters three and beyond.

I could see some readers abandoning ship in this middle section—it's ceaselessly graphic (to a point that I wouldn't knock someone for questioning whether it's necessary). I read a lot of graphic fiction, but excessive sexual violence, or even fantasy, always makes me take a step back and wonder whether its inclusion will cause more harm than good. Because I understand that these characters are meant to be studied, not mimicked, but there's always some part of me that worries not everyone would.

My favorite sections are the first letter, the sixth, and the first two portions of Part Two. The first letter (which I included an excerpt of above) is a great introduction to the narrative and serves its purpose well in terms of both intent and style. The sixth story is what I found most emotionally touching and reminds me of some of Eric LaRocca's short fiction, specifically "You Follow Wherever They Go".

The first two entries of Part Two are where the threads of previous letters begin connecting and the whole miscommunication element of it, coupled with the self-hatred, reallyyyy brought me back into Marianne's perspective from Normal People.

Lastly, I must thank Grant for the recommendation! Never would have found this otherwise.


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