Friday Book Review: Under the Tongue

This is one of the texts that appears in my doctoral dissertation, so I’m actually writing about a reread. Nevertheless, I think Yvonne Vera’s novella is well worth a reflective post. It’s a stunning book, though the content is extremely upsetting. I definitely recommend looking into Vera’s work.

Yvonne Vera, Under the Tongue

Something I loved about this book:

One of the reasons I first fell in love with Yvonne Vera’s writing is because she infuses it with poetry and extremely rich imagery that is difficult to find in a lot of prose. This is also true of her in conversation, as I’ve read interviews and found lyricism in how she talks about her writing process and craft. Even given the content of Under the Tongue, which is truly difficult to navigate given the nature and levels of violence described, Vera’s prose makes for a dazzling, if heartbreaking, read. Her voice is, for me, one that holds a reader gently but doesn’t let go until the book is finished, and even then, you are left hearing echoes long after you’ve stopped reading.

Something that took me by surprise:

Because this was a reread, as I’ve mentioned, I was much more aware of the structure of the book than when I first read it. The novella centers around two major traumatic events: a war and a violent rape. The rape bookends the rest of the narrative, with Vera including at the beginning of the novella a highly stylized, nature imagery-heavy depiction of the assault. The end of the text includes the same scene of rape, but without the stylized language or adornment that it had at the beginning. This stripping down of an already difficult scene makes the second depiction of the attack that much more impactful, and I think it was a powerful choice. I wasn’t aware of this effect even as I experienced it the first time I read the book, so I was struck by how compelling this structural subtlety really was for me upon rereading.

Something I noticed as a writer:

This book leaves me thinking about the ways in which atrocities should be represented. I’ve definitely read and viewed representations of violence that have done things “wrong”: sensationalizing, caricaturing, cheapening, or glamorizing what are truly horrific realities. But Vera’s novella leaves a reader shaken and thinking about what was just witnessed, and that seems appropriate to me. I’m dealing with some challenging content in one of my works-in-progress now, and reading Under the Tongue and seeing how Vera handles difficult subject matter has been invaluable in helping me parse how I will move forward with my work. She’s an author that any writer would benefit from reading, but those who are working with difficult subject matter should absolutely read this novella.

Yvonne Vera is a writer I am excited to explore further. I’ve taken a bunch of her books out of my university library, and they’re at the top of my summer list. She tends to write shorter works, and I’ve been very interested in novellas and stories of late because I’m curious about what short forms are capable of accomplishing that long forms don’t. That makes her a perfect addition to an already exciting list of books I’m aiming to read in the immediate future. If you’re into poetry or language that does the unexpected, her work should definitely appear on your TBR list.

I hope that May has brought you some very good reads! Always feel free to share those with me in the comments section. I love a good book recommendation!

Until next time, I wish you happy adventures in reading!


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