My Nemesisby Charmaine Craig
From the acclaimed author of Miss Burma, longlisted for the National Book Award and the Women’s Prize for Fiction, comes an immersive and searing story of two women, their marriages, and the rivalry between them
From the acclaimed author of Miss Burma, longlisted for the National Book Award and the Women’s Prize for Fiction, comes an immersive and searing story of two women, their marriages, and the rivalry between them
Tessa is a successful writer who develops a friendship, first by correspondence and then in person, with Charlie, a ruggedly handsome philosopher and scholar based in Los Angeles. Sparks fly as they exchange ideas about Camus and masculine desire, and their intellectual connection promises more—but there are obstacles to this burgeoning relationship.
While Tessa’s husband Milton enjoys Charlie’s company on his visits to the East Coast, Charlie’s wife Wah is a different case, and she proves to be both adversary and conundrum to Tessa. Wah’s traditional femininity and subservience to her husband strike Tessa as weaknesses, and she scoffs at the sacrifices Wah makes as adoptive mother to a Burmese girl, Htet, once homeless on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. But Wah has a kind of power too, especially over Charlie, and the conflict between the two women leads to a martini-fueled declaration by Tessa that Wah is “an insult to womankind.” As Tessa is forced to deal with the consequences of her outburst and considers how much she is limited by her own perceptions, she wonders if Wah is really as weak as she has seemed, or if she might have a different kind of strength altogether.
Compassionate and thought-provoking, My Nemesis is a brilliant story of seduction, envy, and the ways we publicly define and privately deceive ourselves today.
Named a Most Anticipated Book by Literary Hub and Electric Literature
“A breakthrough tour de force. Many have tried to give us an unreliable narrator; few have succeeded as well as Craig does . . . Tessa is a brilliant cross between the autobiographical fiction of Rachel Cusk and the untrustworthy narrator Charles Kinbote in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Her narration is revealing and not; her pomposity is porous, funny.”—Carolyn Kellogg, Boston Globe
“Much of the power of this excitingly barbed book is Craig’s complex portrait of a woman for whom rage is the default. A gin-drenched Valkyrie, Tessa weaponises her feminism with cruel aggression . . . Craig has swapped the more lyrical, meandering prose of Miss Burma for a crisper style that carries a distinctly Cuskian chill. Tessa’s tone is confessional but unapologetic, and the prose propulsive but pared back. What begins as a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of that bone-chilling phrase ‘my feminism’—and just to be clear: my emphasis is on the first word—morphs into a much more multi-faceted and challenging story of the destruction of the lives of everyone involved.”—Lucy Scholes, Financial Times
“Taut, bristling and psychologically profound . . . Slimmer, punchier and more tightly wound, My Nemesis highlights [Craig’s] talent for capturing the minutiae of interpersonal drama.”—Economist
“For fans of Siri Hustvedt and Claire Messud, Craig’s third novel, My Nemesis, is the spiky little feminist page-turner you’ve been waiting for . . . The feminism of the novel is interestingly complex and layered, since Tessa’s personal version of it is questioned rather than endorsed . . . Craig deals her narrative tricks with a sure hand.”—Marion Winik, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A study of power dynamics and the roles individuals play in greater systems . . . Tessa is a Camus-obsessed misanthrope who has a thorny relationship with her daughter and a penchant for poking figurative bears, and yet in Craig’s hands she’s a mesmerizing narrator—even as she gets things wrong again and again.”—Keziah Weir, Vanity Fair
“The book explores what it means to be feminine, a feminist, how we perceive these qualities, and how much our identities and beliefs define us. This book is short, sharp, philosophical, and dramatic. It’s insightful and uncomfortable.”—Condé Nast Traveler
“Tessa, the narrator, is uneasily compelling, her flagrant unreliability adding intrigue to a plot in which discourse around race, motherhood and marriage becomes highly combustible.”—Guardian
“A tense psychological thriller probing hot-button topics of race, class, and motherhood.”—Daily Mail (UK)
“Written by the outrageously talented Charmaine Craig, My Nemesis tells the stories of two women, their marriages and their deceptions. Brilliantly speaking to themes of gender, friendship, loyalty, perception and identity, this one will have you thinking.”—Ms. Magazine
“There are shades of Rachel Cusk and even Elena Ferrante in Craig’s tense, cerebral but elegant third novel about a successful married writer, Tessa, who reaches out by correspondence to an LA-based scholar to bond over Camus. But as the relationship deepens, pulling Tessa’s husband into its orbit, Tessa finds herself in a power struggle with the prof’s seemingly docile half-Asian wife—that ‘seemingly’ takes us to some unexpected places.”—Globe and Mail
“A deep exploration of the power dynamics of women, with race and class in play . . . A complex and layered novel. It breaks down a traditional, binary thinking that to be feminine is not to be feminist. The story is a test of compassion, and Craig’s writing offers astute observations of philosophy, female rivalry, duty, and romanticism. The prose is bold—giving us a beautiful insight into the vulnerability of two dissimilar female characters.”—Sharmin Rahman, Shondaland
“Craig’s narrative is masterful and self-assured. Artful in its prose and unsparing in the way it looks at envy and its corrosive effects, My Nemesis is a riveting novel about the stories people tell themselves to justify their shortcomings and what happens when they start to believe these lies.”—Alta
“Charmaine Craig elegantly wrestles with the notion of rivalry between women in My Nemesis, an erudite novel about a woman in love with another woman’s husband . . . Craig’s literary talents cannot be denied in this thoughtful examination of rivalry between women, class differences and empathy.”—Newcity Lit
“The complicated relationship between memoirist Tessa and professor and philosopher Charlie becomes an entry to a layered exploration of the perception of the self and the outside world . . . A simple plot summary cannot capture the depth of Craig’s treatment of such big themes as femininity and masculinity, motherhood and fatherhood, friendship and love . . . Craig offers an effective inquiry into the elusive nature of intimate relationships, whether they stem from love or hate.”—Booklist (starred review)
“An intense portrayal of an intellectual affair as well as a private competition between two women with perfectly balanced moments of tension and introspection . . . Craig never lets her first-person narrator off the hook . . . Cerebral and tense.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A swift and cutting examination of rivalry between two women . . . The writing is biting and propulsive as allegiances shift . . . This confident work is sure to spark conversations.”—Publishers Weekly
“I devoured this sly, seething novel. So marvelously perceptive, so effortlessly elegant, it lays bare the horror of what husbands and wives expect of each other. My Nemesis is a pearl cultivated in justified rage. I loved it.”—Sarah Manguso, author of Very Cold People
“Charmaine Craig’s brilliant anatomization of mid-life art, identity, and infidelity shares in the intellectual grace and precision of its characters’ philosophical pursuits, yet beneath the ruminative surface this book churns with desire and remorse.”—Jonathan Lethem, author of The Arrest
“As deeply empathic as it is thrillingly addictive, My Nemesis is a stunning and brave literary feat. Charmaine Craig’s searing prose and complex vision challenges us to abandon the safety and certainty of our own perspectives. What begins as a novel of female rivalry quickly transforms into a profound spiritual meditation on the danger of our inability—or unwillingness—to imagine and dignify the inner life of the other. With luminous grace, Craig’s writing is a testament to the transcendent power and peace possible when we dare to try.”—Fatima Farheen Mirza, author of A Place for Us
“My Nemesis is an exhilarating act of defiance, a novel that lights a match and sends the whole question of female characters’ likability up in flames. Charmaine Craig is a writer unafraid of contradictions—at once elegant and unruly, cool yet searing—and here she’s given us a fiercely philosophical novel that is also irresistibly, addictively readable.”—Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Likes
“Charmaine Craig’s My Nemesis is a spellbinding highwire act . . . a brutal exposition of the destructive underside of desire and the fragility of familial bonds. Craig’s cutting sentences reveal how easily the life of the mind, sublime and addictive, can be transformed into a weapon that decimates lives. Perhaps most brilliantly, My Nemesis is a warning against the quiet grafting of racial power dynamics onto our most intimate networks of love. My Nemesis is a riveting clear-eyed burn of a book. Read it now!”—Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, author of Savage Tongues
“I was bowled over by this brilliant narrative of desire, complicity, and the limits of empathy. My Nemesis is a compact masterpiece in the confessional mode, one that reverberates long after the last page is turned. Bravo!”—Antoine Wilson, author of Mouth to Mouth
“A blisteringly smart novel about feminism, identity and desire that refuses easy answers and will linger for a long time in my mind.”—Monica Ali, author of Love Marriage
“A timely exposition of trust after trauma . . . In reimagining the extraordinary lives of her mother and grandparents, Craig produces some passages of exquisitely precise description . . . Brings one of Burma’s many lost histories to vivid life.”—New York Times Book Review
“This multigenerational saga portrays the emergence of modern Burma—through British colonialism, wartime occupation by the Japanese, and the independence era . . . Craig ably controls the novel’s historic sweep, and is unsparing in providing details of meticulous torture and wartime horror. She also conveys a strong sense of family.”—New Yorker (Briefly Noted)
“Miss Burma charts both a political history and a deeply personal one—and of those incendiary moments when private and public motivations overlap.”—Los Angeles Times
“An epic roman à clef . . . Masterfully renders the human condition in matters micro and vast . . . Like many of the best books, Miss Burma feels rooted in its time and place, while also laying bare timeless questions of loyalty, infidelity, patriotism, and identity—not to mention the globally perpetuated unfair treatment of women.”—Elle
“[A] riveting account of the treacheries, fractures, and courageous acts of wartime.”—BBC (Ten Books to Read in May)
“Craig expects a good deal of her audience in terms of their appetite for Burmese history, and I hope that many will rise to the occasion, because the rewards are rich . . . A courageous attempt to broaden the way we see others and ourselves, both personally and politically, at home and abroad.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“A gorgeously-written novel that illuminates the universalities of fear and the desires for dignity and freedom.”—Literary Hub
“A story of how modern-day Burma came to be, as well as the tale of one of the most violent and turbulent eras in world history played out. At once beautiful and heartbreaking . . . An incredible family saga.”—Refinery29
“Ambitious . . . Miss Burma is powerful in showing the relentless effect of the political on the personal while covering an important swath of history—and all the while telling an awfully good story.”—Christian Science Monitor
“Rich and layered, a complex weaving of national and personal trauma . . . Craig has written a captivating second novel that skillfully moves from moments of quiet intimacy and introspection to passages portraying the swift evolution of political events as multiple groups and nations vie for control of Burma’s future. Mesmerizing and haunting.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[A] tale of love and disenchantment, loyalty and resentment, recognition and isolation . . . Based on real lives, Craig’s historical novel challenges our assumptions about everything from beauty queens to rebels and reminds us that the course of a nation’s history is often determined by the fallibility of individuals.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Spanning generations and multiple dictators, Craig’s epic novel provides a rich, complex account of Burma and its place within the larger geopolitical theater . . . The language and the images unfold with grace, horror, and intimacy.”—Publishers Weekly
“[An] epic new novel . . . distinctive for its representation of a voice not often documented in history. Craig vividly illustrates the intertwining of the political and the personal.”—Library Journal
“Charmaine Craig wields powerful and vivid prose to illuminate a country and a family trapped not only by war and revolution, but also by desire and loss. Both epic and intimate, Miss Burma is a compelling and disturbing trip through Burmese history and politics.”—Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer
“A sweeping novel of Burma and its complicated history, told from the perspective of people whose voices have been systematically erased from the official record. Charmaine Craig writes about war and exile with an exquisite mix of tenderness and intelligence. A brilliant book.”—Laila Lalami, author of The Moor’s Account
“Miss Burma is a riveting portrayal of human resourcefulness and heroism, and of their inadequacy before the great cataclysms of history. This engrossing novel movingly affirms—in its characters, but also in the elegance and fineness of its craft—the perseverance of dignity in the face of our helplessness.”—Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
“Miss Burma is a book which resonates with meaning, of how we are all actors in our histories and the histories of our nations, it disrupts our settled sense that the past is the past, and shows how it reaches forward to touch the future. It is a powerful, moving and important novel.”—Aminatta Forna, author of The Hired Man
“In beautiful and evocative prose, Miss Burma reminds us of the many ways that war and political repression can scar generations. Yet the real wonder of this powerful book rests in its strong belief that love and determination—and even loss—can help illuminate a path out of the darkest moments. A gem of a novel.”—Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze
Excerpted from My Nemesis © 2023 by Charmaine Craig. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
When I accused Wah of being an insult to women—“an insult to womankind” was my unfortunate phrase—we were sitting with our husbands at a fashionable rooftop restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. It was late, I’d made the mistake of starting in on a third martini, and straightaway I could feel the husbands begin to cower, whereas Wah confronted me with a look of hurt, almost to tell me that I’d betrayed some sort of feminine understanding.
“You’ve misunderstood me, Tessa,” she said, and I noticed that she was panting as though I’d shaken her physically. She cast around for help from her husband, Charlie, whose steady gray eyes were moving between us.
“I think not,” I said, before he could save her.
But, of course, she had a point.
I’d never been able to read Wah, and I still don’t believe that it was a matter merely of culture or ethnicity. True, as our current ethos would have it, she was a “person of mixed race,” something that might have contributed, beyond her unusual look, to the confusion of her submissive and queenlike demeanor. Though I don’t think even her relatives could have told you if her general mode of quietness was due to a timidity on her part or a righteousness that kept her at a remove from others; I don’t think anyone knew if she tended to smile courteously during conversations with that supple mouth of hers because she was incapable of keeping pace with our ideas or privately counting the ways those ideas were imbecilic. What I’m trying to get at is that I found her to be a tangle of both deference and hostility, if also some beauty, which is why, before the restaurant incident (and my unfortunately phrased accusation), I was sympathetic when Charlie suggested he wanted to leave her.
His first letter to me, routed by email through my publisher about nine months prior to all this, was a response to my essay on the question of Camus’s relevance. It’s not often that I allow myself to feel flattered by appreciative words from readers; I think, if you are honest with yourself, you will agree that flattery should be allowed to mean something primarily to the flatterer. But with the first lines of Charlie’s admiring letter, I understood that our minds could keep a certain, rare company. I soon broke my policy of not googling people whose work intrigues me, and after some searching I saw that he was a decently published philosophy professor at a research university near L.A. and, by any contemporary metric, practically invisible online. There was just one photo of him, on his department website: a candid-looking shot of an approachable, disheveled, frankly sexy man of middle age. Understand me: my swift response to his letter wasn’t a matter of loneliness, sexual or otherwise; my husband of seven years, Milton, and I still enjoyed various forms of camaraderie, but when a darkly attractive man from a similar desert of intellectual isolation comes bearing a cup of consolation, one drinks!
Because Milton was semiretired by the time Charlie came into our lives, and because the last of our children from previous marriages had long before left our Brooklyn home, Milton and I had come to enjoy a life of resolute drifting between the city and his family farmhouse upstate. It was at the farm, as we called it, that I tended to receive Charlie’s subsequent messages, which—for more reasons than I then understood—I began to share lavishly with Milton over our evening bottle of chilled wine. Any romantic union benefits from its share of excitements and threats; I suppose part of me thought it wise to remind Milton that others—in this case, a particularly eloquent, impassioned, and handsome man—could fall in love with, at least, my brain. But Milton found his own solace in Charlie’s letters, with their comedic disclosures and humbly put insights. Milton’s decision to phase out of the world of investment banking had been based largely on his desire to cultivate his passion for photography, a passion that was withering in inverse proportion to the amount of time he gave it, while, in his letters, Charlie complained of dying from a lack of scholarly productivity, a “sickness” caused by an inability to exorcise from his system everything he had come to understand yet couldn’t write. Soon enough, in my replies to Charlie, I was quoting Milton’s jocular retorts and bits of sympathetic advice, only occasionally feeling shouldered to the side by their developing male bond. We were three, to be sure, but none of us would have denied that I was the glue that made us three stick.
I see I’ve neglected to mention how the fourth among us fit into all this. Of course, from fairly early on in our correspondence, I’d learned of Charlie’s nearly twenty-year marriage to Wah, of her lectureship position in Asian studies at his university, and of her one book, a work of nonfiction that told the story of a girl sold by her Burmese family to Malaysian child traffickers before her eventual transfer to the United States as an adolescent refugee. I’ll admit that I frequently found myself violating my googling policy in those days, and I soon learned that Wah’s prose (ignored in the few critical reviews of her book that I found online) revealed a certain intellect, whereas her author portrait displayed all the features of dependency and insecurity that my feminism urges me to decry: the wide, wounded gaze; the helpless fragility. Other online photographs showed her clutching at a thin, lost-looking girl: this was Htet, the subject of her book and, as Charlie told me, their now fifteen-year-old adopted daughter, “the fixed point of Wah’s life.” In a sense, it was because of Charlie’s obligation to this relatively new familial arrangement, if not specifically to Htet or Wah, that I began to accept invitations to speak in California—that is, to give the kind of paid public readings and lectures there that since my marriage to Milton I’d had the privilege of generally turning down. You see, Milton and I were both eager to spend time with Charlie, who claimed to be able to get away only when a conference took him east. So it was that for a short period, Milton and I became regular houseguests at the Craftsman that Wah had meticulously restored in their rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in urban L.A.
Let me skip ahead, for a moment, to give you a picture of what life looked like then, when we were all briefly settled into this domestic scene; I mean, when Milton and I stayed at the Craftsman over the course of three or four visits, and Charlie and Wah took care to host various dinner parties for us, and Wah seemed always to be hovering at the edges of things, floating from room to room in one of her too-floral dresses while administering to our needs—unless she was attending to Htet, who only ever emerged to make some claim on her time. With all her capable subservience and her tolerance of the girl, it was almost as though Wah wanted to prove a point: that she was alone, not just in the production of hostessing or parenting, but in the production of their shared life, and that her aloneness both explained her tragedy as Charlie’s wife and ennobled her, for she was strong enough to bear it. But I’m getting ahead of myself, referring to Charlie’s difficulties with Wah and the girl, when what I want is to give a glimpse of how things looked before all the trouble between us got going.