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All This Belongs to Me: A Novel - Petra Hulova,  Alex Zucker Goodreads recommended this book to me when I looked at Aitmatov's The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, but while both books are set in the same general part of the world, that's all they have in common. The biggest difference being that Aitmatov's book is well-written and enjoyable, and this one is not.

All This Belongs to Me is the story of a family in 20th-century Mongolia, narrated by five women. The primary narrator, Zaya, gets more than half the book, and we follow her for decades, as she grows up in her family's ger (yurt) in the remote steppes, goes to boarding school in town, then moves to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and tries to make her way there. Her daughter, mother, and two sisters also get 15-20 pages each. Their voices are not distinct, but I hardly expected that in a translation; authors have a hard enough time with multiple narrators in their own language.

I'll grant that the author is somewhat clever with the multiple narrators, who have sometimes differing views on events and aren't always reliable. Oyuna, for instance, alternates between telling us what a wonderful person she herself is and spewing venom about her sisters; Hulová doesn't have to point out her bitterness or hypocrisy, and doesn't try. Additionally, the Mongolian setting is fascinating and I did learn some things about life there. There's even some decent imagery. That's about all I can say for it.

And, unfortunately, the writing is just bad.

First, there's no structure, just a bunch of things that happened, and often told out of order. The story doesn't seem to have a point other than summarizing the characters' lives; it doesn't move toward anything and certainly doesn't have a climax.

Second, there aren't really any scenes, just endless narrative summary. There is exactly one line of dialogue in the entire book (is it "dialogue" when no one has a chance to respond before the author leaps back into narrative summary?); it's on page 88. Some authors can do books driven by narrative summary brilliantly (take Isabel Allende for instance), but Hulová isn't among them. And even Allende will throw in a couple lines of dialogue every few pages at least. I doubt the bookjacket writer who praised Hulová's "dead-on ear" even read this book.

Third, the writing is confusing and contradictory. Sentences and paragraphs are disjointed, not connecting to one another in any logical way. Multiple sex scenes are unclear as to whether the woman consented or was raped. The author contradicts herself from the very first page; in the same sentence, Zaya tells us that if she went out in a dust storm she'd choke to death, and then that she sits outside and watches the storms because there's nothing else to do (because if she went outside she'd choke to death). When discussing Inner Mongolia, the Chinese province, she tells us that "[t]he only Chinamen there, though, are the tens of thousands of bastards that our women who are enslaved there give birth to every year," and then two sentences later, that "[t]here are too many Chinese settlers." Not to belabor the point, but if there are Chinese settlers, then there are in fact Chinese people there.

The upshot of the aimless plot, lack of scenes and incoherent writing was that I never enjoyed the story, nor had any true sense of the characters. Hulová might have had some decent characters in her head, but her reluctance to quite let us see them interacting with the world or each other--this insistence on summarizing everything instead, and not even doing that well--means they never come alive. I try to give foreign writers the benefit of the doubt, and maybe this type of writing is normal in her native Czech Republic, but in this case two stars feels generous.