The sour milk taste of “Cockroach” by Rawi Hage

hageeditEven Canada Reads 2014 admits that this book does not seem to fit well into the theme “One Novel to Change our Nation”. The title is a little squeemish and stacked up against major bestsellers like “MaddAddam”, “Half-Blood Blues”, and “The Orenda”, “Cockroach” seems the oddball out. But I was determined to read all of the Canada Reads books and managed to find this one at my local used bookstore. In an article with CBC Books on December 12, Samantha Bee, the defender of this book for Canada Reads, insists this book “lifts the veil” to reveal that there are more to people than what we see on the surface and by changing one person’s perception we can change a nation. She also emphasizes that the story is “beautiful written”.

Wow, were these statements misleading.

Yes, the book does lift the veil and show that people are not what they seem on the surface. The narrator at first appears as a depressed, lonely, and poor immigrant who is trying to survive in the cold Toronto landscape. But he is quickly unveiled to be literally insane when he begins hallucinating conversations with an albino cockroach, experiences distorted fantasies with women, and displays a disturbing trend of breaking into acquaintances’ homes and stealing items. So, if this unveiling of the person is supposed to change my perception and in turn the nation, it reveals that I need to be more cautious about who I let in my life because he could turn out to be some crazy man who thinks he is part cockroach and steals my slippers. Not really sure if that is the national change that Canada should be looking for from a book.

I would be more forgiving of the story if I got what the whole point of it is. Is it to show us the difficulties of new immigrants? Is it to give us a picture of insanity? I simply felt caught up in this monotonous pointless circle of events and disturbing thoughts. And then suddenly there is murder and the book just ends! I literally threw the book onto the couch and swore loudly. It was the final straw in a book that I felt strung me along thinking I was going to get a story and instead it was just a mess of jumbled thoughts and actions to no purpose and no resolution.

Unfortunately, I also did not experience the beautiful written word that I was promised by Ms. Bee. Hage relies on endless amounts of similes to express a situation instead of utilizing creative skills to paint a picture or common sense to say I think I’ve described this enough. Here is a representative sentence: “Are you a relative of Shohreh’s? I asked, blowing breath onto my fingers like a cold God creating the world, rubbing my hands like a happy thief, sticking my neck into my shoulders like a turtle, sniffing like a junkie, shivering like a ghost, inquiring like a Spanish inquisitor dreaming of a flamenco dancer to warm my heart” (p 145). Six similes in one sentence!!

There were some redeeming sentences and I did find myself about 3/4 of the way through realizing that I did want to find out how this character’s story progressed (although I am still seriously pissed off with the ending). To continue the simile obsession, this book was like sour milk. You know when you pull the bag out of the fridge wondering if it has gone bad. You do the sniff test but you’re still unsure, so you pour a little bit in a glass. You see no chunks in the bag when you pour, so you know it isn’t really bad. You take a tentative sip from the glass and it seems okay, not fresh but not really sour. You optimistically pour a huge glass and take a swig after eating an Oreo. And then you realize as your mouth is flooded with the gagging sourness that the milk is bad, and you run to the sink to spit it out. That experience of sour milk pretty well describes my experience with this book. I needed to try it out just to be sure it wasn’t good but I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth and won’t be trying it again.

Good luck, Cockroach, in Canada Reads 2014 but I think it is fair to say you will end up down the drain.

1/5 bacon strips


One thought on “The sour milk taste of “Cockroach” by Rawi Hage

  1. Pingback: Canada Reads 2014 virtual book club | bookgaga

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