Booker Prize Shortlist 2020

Having not really followed this prize in recent years, finding myself more interested in the diversity of the International Booker Prize for translated fiction; this year, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of titles that were already in my sights, so I thought I’d share the list and plot summaries here, since I plan on reading a few of the titles and I’m interested to see who will win the prize.

Moving With the Times

Personally I think this is a sign that the prize is beginning to move with the times and to recognise that readers and our cultures need exposure to a wider range and scope of voices and stories, if we are ever to move towards greater understanding and tolerance of the other.

The judges had this to say in their summation of the shortlist:

“Every book that we’ve chosen makes one bring all one’s attention and emotions, to understanding what the writer was trying to say and I think that is important.” Margaret Busby

“It’s exciting to realise that there are so many interesting female authors out there. There are so many interesting non-white authors out there giving us different glimpses of what the world is all about, telling interesting and vibrant stories.”  Emily Watson

“We were looking for books that really told a story and grabbed us. We were looking for originality as well. And personally I was also looking for technical mastery, and at the level of the sentence it needed to be really, really superb.” Sameer Rahim

“Every one of these books is an experience which has inspired us and therefore will inspire the reader.” Lemn Sissay

“You have got to read them. If you read this shortlist it will show you where the novel is right now in 2020, and it will give you a pretty good idea of where it might go in the future.”  Lee Child

The 2020 shortlist is:

Booker Prize Shortlist 2020

The plot summaries below come from the Booker Prize website and the links on the author’s names lead to their short biographies.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate Books)

Ethiopia. 1935. With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her new employer, Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilise his strongest men before the Italians invade. Hirut and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia loses hope, Hirut offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms. But how could she have predicted her own personal war, still to come, as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers?

The Shadow King casts light on the women soldiers written out of African and European history. It is a captivating exploration of female power, and what it means to be a woman at war.

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber)

In this tense and psychologically charged novel, Tsitsi Dangarembga channels the hope and potential of one young girl and a fledgling nation to lead us on a journey to discover where lives go after hope has departed.

Here we meet Tambudzai, living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare and anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job. At every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House)

In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, endured a brief stint as a beggar (mostly to spite her affluent parents) and spent years pursuing a dishevelled, homeless ‘artist’ – all with a young child in tow. Now she is forgetting things, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night, and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a woman who never cared for her.

This is a love story and it is a story about betrayal. But not between lovers – between mother and daughter. Sharp as a blade and laced with caustic wit, Avni Doshi tests the limits of what we can know for certain about those we are closest to, and by extension, about ourselves.

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Oneworld Publications)

A daring, passionate and terrifying novel about a mother’s battle to save her daughter in a world ravaged by climate change.

Bea’s five-year-old daughter, Agnes, is wasting away, consumed by the smog and pollution of the over-developed metropolis they call home. If they stay in the city, Agnes will die, but there is only one alternative – joining a group of volunteers in the Wilderness State. This vast expanse of unwelcoming, untamed land is untouched by mankind. Until now. Living as nomadic hunter-gatherers, Bea and Agnes learn how to survive on this unpredictable, often dangerous land. As Agnes embraces the wild freedom of her new existence, Bea realises that saving her daughter’s life means losing her in a different way.

At once a blazing lament of our contempt for nature and a deeply humane portrayal of motherhood, and what it means to be human, The New Wilderness is an extraordinary, compelling novel for our times.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador, Pan Macmillan)

1981 in Glasgow. The city is dying and poverty is on the rise. People watch the lives they had hoped for disappear from view. Agnes Bain had expected more. She dreamed of greater things: a house with its own front door, a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect – but false – teeth). When her philandering husband leaves, she and her three children are trapped in a mining town decimated by Thatcherism. As Agnes turns to alcohol for comfort, her children try their best to save her. One by one they abandon her in order to save themselves.

Shuggie holds out hope the longest. But he has problems of his own: despite all his efforts to pass as a ‘normal boy’, everyone has decided that Shuggie is ‘no right’. Agnes wants to support and protect her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her, including her beloved Shuggie.

Laying bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride, Shuggie Bain is a blistering and heartbreaking debut, and an exploration of the unsinkable love that only children can have for their damaged parents.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Originals, Daunt Books Publishing)

Wallace has spent his summer in the lab breeding a strain of microscopic worms. He is four years into a biochemistry degree at a lakeside Midwestern university, a life that’s a world away from his childhood in Alabama. His father died a few weeks ago, but Wallace didn’t go back for the funeral, and hasn’t told his friends – Miller, Yngve, Cole and Emma. For reasons of self-preservation, he has become used to keeping a wary distance from those closest to him. Over the course of a blustery end-of-summer weekend, the destruction of his work and a series of intense confrontations force Wallace to grapple with the trauma of the past and the question of the future.

Deftly zooming in and out of focus, Real Life is an affecting story about the emotional cost of reckoning with desire, and overcoming pain.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Verdict

So, do any of those sound appealing to you?

I’m currently reading This Mournable Body by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga whose work totally deserves to be on the list. I first read her book Nervous Conditions last year which won the Commonwealth Prize 30 years ago and was a 5 star read for me, her latest novel continues the story of convent educated Tambu and her desire to fulfill her own at times unreachable expectations.

I will also be reading Maaza Mengiste’s work of historical fiction The Shadow King after listening to talk about the book at the Edinburgh Book Festival this month, especially given her passion for the story and the personal connection to her female ancestors, who fought to protect the lives and rights of their families.

The winner will be announced on November 17.

The Bird Within Me by Sara Lundberg (Sweden)

translated by B.J.Epstein

The Swedish Artist Berta Hansson

The concept of this illustrated children’s book really appealed to me. It’s inspired and based on the childhood of the Swedish artist Berta Hansson (1910-1994) during the period in her life when she was 12 years old and wanted to be outdoors in nature or painting or making birds out of clay.

However, her father was strict and serious and her mother was frail and in bed very ill, so she was needed to help out in the home and on the farm, and all the more so when one of her older sisters was sent away to study domestic science, to learn how to become a better homemaker.

She initiates a form of protest.

Housewife. Housewives.

That’s what Dad wants us to be –

Julia, Gunna and me –

because that’s how it’s always been

and that’s how it’s going to be.

A Role Model or a Muse

Berta wanted something else for her life, but had no role model or knowledge of how to make her dreams a reality. Her Uncle Johan whom she secretly admired, painted with oil paints and made fiddles instead of spending all his time on farm work, sadly he was looked down on and derided, referred to as the ‘theatre farmer‘.

Sometimes late at night she would sneak out and wander over to a copse of trees by the Doctor’s house, one of the few people who had ever complimented her art.

The Bird Within Me Painting Muse

Photo by Zaksheuskaya on Pexels.com

I peer in.
He sits in the armchair,
reading and smoking his pipe.
If he saw me, I would die.
Paintings hang on his walls from the floor to the ceiling.
They are so beautiful.
I can’t stop looking at them.
To think that someone has painted them.

Breaking Out

It is a story of family and obligations, and of the longing a child has for something that is difficult to articulate or express in words, little understood by the world of adults who harbour expectations.

How to sustain and realise dreams when the way is not clear.

It’s a celebration of the exploration of art and observation in youth and of the struggle against the familial and cultural conditioning and expectations of girls.

A beautiful and thought provoking book for all ages.

You can find a copy of the book here.

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott

I enjoy fable-like stories or those that reference them and when I saw this title, I was captivated and intrigued by the image and concept of a rain heron. It reminded me of reading Patrick Ness’s The Crane Wife and so I thought why not, see what this eco-fable was about.

Tales of Imaginary Birds and Nature

Eco fable The Rain HeronThe first chapter tells what I imagined was the original fable of the rain heron and the unlucky farmer, and from what I can gather, the author has made this story up as well. It’s a story of a woman running a farm, the daughter of generations of farmers, but one who struggles for many reasons no matter what methods she tries.

Until one day a big storm comes and destroys nearly everything; at the end of which she is found curiously draped over the branches of an old oak tree.

Even more surprising was the large heron that rose out of the floodwaters, leaving not a ripple behind it, that landed on the branch beside her. The birds blue grey feathers were so light, they were near transparent. When it flew off, water fell from its wings like rain. Its appearance changed the fortune of the unlucky farmer, until the neighbour’s jealous son’s envy caused her bad luck to return.

What is A Fable?

So is it a fable? It’s a tale of someone who has bad luck, who for a period their luck changes, but as with life, good luck causes jealously in others, who have destructive tendencies. And so the bad luck continues.

“I just set out to write a story where real characters or characters that felt real had their lives intertwined with the nature fable.”

Arnott then begins a new story in four parts, in which we meet Ren, a woman who has left her home after a military coup and gone to live in the mountains. She is virtually self-sufficient apart from occasional exchanges with a man named Barlow and his son. The outdoor scenes are vivid and believable, Ren is a really interesting character I wish we’d spent more time with.

The Rain Heron Robbie Arnott Crane

Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

We don’t know exactly why she fled or what the coup was about, but the man alerts her to the presence of soldiers searching the mountainside for something, a group of four lead by a young woman referred to as Harker. They are in search of evidence of a myth and they will make Ren suffer until she divulges what she knows and leads them to its source.

In the second part, we go back in time to a seaside settlement on the South  coast and meet Zoe and her Aunt, just as the girl is being initiated into the village tradition of squid ink gathering, a secret trade that is shared with no one. An ambitious Northener arrives seeking knowledge for his ideas and is spurned, he turns towards destructive means and with everything that follows Zoe leaves. This community and environment are really brought alive and I was disappointed when this part ended.

The story returns to Harker and her troops and their journey, here I felt the story waned, a few connections had been made and the interwoven nature of the parts revealed, but neither the landscape nor the characters gain traction, Harker is determined in her mission, but self-destructive in her nature and has lost whatever empathy she ever had. Her previous actions are hard to understand, her transformation(s) not entirely believable.

A Man Writing Women Characters

The Rain Heron A trap

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Most of Arnott’s characters are women and I did find myself pausing early on and wondering why he chose to inhabit so many lead female characters, the unlucky farmer, the woman surviving in the mountain, the leader of the army group. I made a note when this thought arose, because these women were all acting in ways often attributed to men, and I wondered if anyone else had noted this. Harker uses brutal tactics to change Ren’s mind; Ren has abandoned her son.

In an interview Arnott says it made more sense for him to portray those characters as women, because it required them to demonstrate resilience, something he considered more of a female trait within this story.

Because they were spending a lot of time in the wilderness, he thought writing them as male characters would come across as cliché, referring to woman as having:

“that gentle, firm, methodical way of dealing with problems as opposed to letting anger and frustration rise to the surface”

The author says he wasn’t trying to convey a particular message, but the situations he puts his characters in and the familiarity of some of the climatic events that occur make it a thought provoking story, and I think it’s all the better for not coming to any conclusion or moral, for it exists as a catalyst for discussion of those various controversial situations that arise.

The Anti-Hero

My favourite character and the one we spend too little time with was the rain heron, who spends most of the book hidden away, but listening to Arnott talk about his inspiration behind the bird, who he first imagined as a storm, manifest into a bird that had magical qualities and was a kind of anti-hero, made me wish that the heron had more of a presence.

His point here was that in nature, birds and animals are really not interested in humanity, not in the way humans are interested in them, acting from instinct not from consideration or desire. That said, he has created a creature that readers are indeed likely to be fascinated with!

The Rain Heron (2020) was Tasmanian author Robbie Arnott’s second novel, his debut Flames was published in 2018.

The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2006) (Zimbabwe)

A Zimbabwean Trilogy

A year ago I read and loved Nervous Conditions the first book written by a Black woman from Zimbabwe to be published in English. The author won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize with it in 1989, which led to translations in many languages.

Her most recent book, the third in this trilogy This Mournable Body was nominated for the Booker Prize and recently shortlisted. I’m eager to get to it, so this is my first read after WIT month, and I eagerly await what will happen to Tambu,  despite the sense of disillusionment.

Most of this second novel takes place in the ‘Sacred Heart’ catholic girls boarding school she is sent to by her uncle, though the tone is uncomfortably set in the opening pages while she is at home with her family. There is a war going on, ever present in the background, setting them all one edge.

They must attend a compulsory village meeting, where a landmine causes her gun-carrying older sister to lose a leg and her Uncle, her educational sponsor and her hoped for ticket out of the village is charged with being:

not exactly a collaborator, but one whose soul hankered to be at one with the occupying Rhodesian forces. Mutengesi. The people in the village said Babamukuru was one who’d sell every ounce of his own blood for a drop of someone else’s.

Mother Daughter Relationships

Tambu’s relationship with her mother is complicated, she finds little solace there, knowing she can never undo her mother’s resentment, unless she fails.

How does a daughter know that she feels appropriately towards the woman who is her mother? Yes, it was difficult to know what to do with Mai, how to conceive her. I thought I hated her fawning, but what I see I hated is the degree of it. If she was fawning, she was not fawning enough. She diluted it with her spitefulness, the hopeless clawing of a small cornered spirit towards what was beyond it. And if she had spirit, it was not great enough, being shrunk by the bitterness of her temper.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Tambu sets even higher expectations on herself to achieve in her education than her Uncle or anyone else and is frequently self-critical. We know from book one that her sponsorship in education came at the price of her brother’s demise, she wasn’t supposed to be the one to achieve, he was.

Due to her family’s low expectations, she wants to succeed. Due to her Uncle’s sponsorship and high expectations, she needs to succeed. Due to her perceived privilege as one of the few black girls at the mostly white catholic girl’s school, she has to work doubly hard to gain her achievements, with no guarantee of recognition.

As I liked to be good at what I did, I was not afraid of hard work. I would put in what was required to reach the peak I aspired to. It was especially important to be at the top, as it was quite clear to me and to everyone I had to be one of the best. Average simply did not apply; I had to be absolutely outstanding or nothing.

Photo by u0130brahim on Pexels.com

All of these expectations to be and do and know according to a multiplicity of expectations affect her behaviour and attitude, to the point where there is little of her authentic character able to shine forth.

On one level it is the story of a girl from a modest village family trying to become something else and on another level it demonstrates the mutation of an individual, trying to conform to a system that was designed elsewhere, within which she is perceived as being inferior, even though she is the one who is at home, living in her own country and culture. She tries hard to suppress her emotions, fearing they will contribute to her failure.

‘What is the matter?’ Sister was very anxious.
‘I’m fine,’ I told her. My favourite teacher was anxious. But my sister lay first in the sand and then in a hospital bed without a leg. What would Sister do if I told her? What would the other girls do if they heard? They all had their little boxes tight in their chests for their memories of war. There was too much grief here for a room full of girls. Thinking this, I did let go. I forgot about not letting anything out. I kept on wiping so that my tears fell on the cloth sleeve. It was like that when people were kind to you. Sometimes you forgot.

A Colonial Impossibility

It’s a thought-provoking, multi-layered novel and look at an aspect of the effect of colonialism through one girl’s education, her striving to succeed and the systemic prejudice that prevents her from being able to do so in a way that is easier for the Europeans. It’s also about the development of her undu (personhood), something she strives for, that is undermined by the system within which she attempts to develop it.

It is set during the tense and frightening period of fighting against colonial oppression, and the emergence of a new Zimbabwe – news of which occasionally filters in to the school, causing the disappearance of some of the students, and a fear for those like Tambu, who harbour confused, dual loyalties.

Scattered throughout the text are words and phrases in her maternal language, translated at the back, that add to the sense of a cultural insight and a reminder that this isn’t just a coming-of-age story of a young woman in a boarding school, it highlights the increasing dysfunction of one’s ”personhood’ while trying to fit into an alien system that is riddled with a sense of superiority she can never attain, because she is ‘not’.

Further Reading

An Interview with Tsitsi Dangarembga by Caroline Rooney following publication of The Book of Not, June 2007

The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux (2016)

translated by Lazer Lederhendler (from French-Canadian into English).

Reading Women in Translation

French Canadian literature in translationMy final read of August for WITMonth was The Party Wall, French Canadian author Catherine Leroux’s third novel. It was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which annually recognizes the best in Canadian fiction – and has just announced its 14 strong long list for 2020. The translation by Lazer Lederhendler won the Governor General’s Literary Award for translation (French to English).

This novel is told in chapters about paired characters; mother and son, brother and sister, husband and wife; so it stops and starts as we leave one pair and move to the next. There doesn’t initially appear to be a connection (although there is) between the lives so the stories are quite different, creating the effect of reading short stories with the expectation that the threads will come together to reveal the tapestry.

The novel opens with Madeleine (actually it doesn’t but it’s the more memorable opening chapter), a woman who has lost her husband; she visits the spot where his ashes lie beneath a tree and talks to him often. Her son has left home and she hears of him through the many travellers who arrive looking for a bed for a night, people he has given her address. There is a sadness of loss of the other in her, an affliction which is given a bizarre (but true) cause when she is told she is not a biological match for her son, when at last he does return.

The Party Wall Catherine Leroux lighthouse

Photo by Kristina Gain on Pexels.com

From the window of her office, Madeleine looks at the watchman doing his rounds. This is what she does when her eyes need a rest. There’s the sea, of course, but it isn’t at all restful. It’s a struggle, a call, a mystery whispered with every rising tide. The watchman, on the other hand, is calm and predictable. Afflicted by gout, he has never taken a day off. He circles around the lighthouse like a grey satellite; his hobbling in no way diminishes his reassuring presence.

As their lives move forward, the theme of separation becomes apparent, its inherent wounding manifesting in different ways in each pair of lives.

Oddly enough, it was a long time before they realised they had both been adopted. Marie, haunted by her origins, preferred to wait before broaching the subject and kept the truth sealed inside her chest. As for Ariel, his sense of belonging to the Goldstein family was so powerful that he rarely gave any thought to the fact he had been born elsewhere, welcomed into the world by unknown hands, which had passed him on to someone else like a baton in a relay race that was to lead to as yet unseen heights.

Silence as a Familial Weapon

graveyard shift cemetery ghostly presence

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Carmen and Simon are siblings and we meet them around their mother’s deathbed, a woman who never revealed to her children who their father was, controlling them through withholding, keeping them attached through the sliver of possible revelation. Carmen runs marathons to forget, while Simon tries to avoid witnessing his marriage fall apart, removing himself by choosing to work the graveyard shift.

The term “graveyard shift” is perfectly apt: the darkness and silence of a cemetery always mask a ghostly existence, the invisible dramas of the dead and their mourners.

It’s a thought provoking and cleverly constructed novel, however the disjointed stories inevitably expose the weaknesses of one against the strengths of another, and so writing about it a week after reading highlights that which was memorable and that lost to the river of stories who are lost in the current.

Ultimately, what stays with the reader is the importance of the connections we do make, those we choose and those we pursue, for better or worse. A couple of the stories could have evolved into novels in their own right.

The Party Wall has its own logic and its own internal structure and systems: four stories that become intertwined as the book progresses. Three of those came about from extraordinary news stories I had come across. Catherine Leroux

Further Reading

Article CBC/Radio Canada: Catherine Leroux on the literary value of loose ends

Article: How Catherine Leroux ripped fiction from the headlines in The Party Wall

Article: 14 Canadian books make the 2020 longlist for $100k Scotiabank Giller Prize, 8 Sept 2020

Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani

translated by Sophie Lewis (from French)

Reality bites.

Sex and Lies Leila Slimani MoroccoThe last nonfiction book I read was also set in Morocco (at the time referred to as the Spanish Sahara) written by a foreign woman living openly with her boyfriend, it couldn’t be more in contrast with what I’ve just read here – although Sanmao does encounter women living within the oppressive system that is at work in this collection.

In Morocco the ban on ‘fornication’, or zina, isn’t just a moral injunction. Article 490 of the penal code prescribes ‘imprisonment of between one month and one year [for] all persons of opposite sexes, who, not being united by the bonds of marriage, pursue sexual relations’. According to article 489, all ‘preferential or unnatural behaviour between two persons of the same sex will be punished by between six months and three years’ imprisonment’.

Leïla Slimani interviews women who responded to her after the publication of her first novel Adèle, a character she describes as a rather extreme metaphor for the sexual experience of young Moroccan women; it was a book that provoked a dialogue, many women wanted to have that conversation with her, felt safe doing so, inspiring her to collect those stories and publish them for that reason, to provoke a national conversation.

Novels have a magical way of forging a very intimate connection between writers and their readers, of toppling the barriers of shame and mistrust. My hours with those women were very special. And it’s their stories I have tried to give back: the impassioned testimonies of a time and its suffering.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

In these essays Leila Slimani gives a voice to Moroccan women trying to live lives where they can express their natural affinity for love, while living in a culture that both condemns and commodifies sex, where the law punishes and outlaws sex outside marriage, as well as homosexuality and prostitution. The consequences are a unique form of extreme and give rise to behaviours that shock.

It’s both a discomforting read, to encounter this knowledge and hear this testimony for the first time, and encouraging if it means that a space is being created that allows the conversation to happen at all.

However, overall it leaves a heavy feeling of disempowerment, having glimpsed the tip of another nation’s patriarchal iceberg. We are left with the feeling that this is a steep and icy behemoth to conquer. Article 489 is not drawn from sharia or any other religious source, it is in fact identical to the French penal code’s former article 331, repealed in 1982. They are laws inherited directly from the French protectorate.

In a conversation with Egyptian feminist and author Mona Eltahawy about the tussle between the freedom desired and the shackles forced upon women, Eltahawy responded by using words attributed to the great American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who devoted her life to persuading slaves to flee the plantations and claim their freedom.

She is meant to have said: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew were slaves.” Emancipation, Eltahawy told me, is first about raising awareness. If women haven’t fully understood the state of inferiority in which they are kept, they will do nothing but perpetuate it.

Women are stepping out of isolation and sharing their stories everywhere, finding solidarity in that first step, sharing in a safe space, being heard, realising they are not alone.

May it be a stepping stone to change.

I read this book as part of WIT (Women in Translation) month and was fortunate to have been gifted it by a reader, since I participated in the gift swap, so thank you Jess for sending me this book, you can read her review of it on her blog, Around The World One Female Novelist at a Time.

International Booker Prize Winner 2020 + Edinburgh Book Festival

Back in late February thirteen novels in translation made the long list (see plot summaries here) for the International Booker Prize 2020 and then on April 2nd if you recall, these six novels below made the shortlist.

International Booker Prize 2020 shortlist logo

International Booker Winner 2020

After a delay of some months due to the Covid crisis, the winner was announced this evening, 29 year-old Marieke Lucas Rijneveld from The Netherlands, with The Discomfort of Evening and their translator Michele Hutchison.

The Discomfort of Evening International Booker Prize Winner 2020

Author, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

Described as an exciting piece of poetic prose, a subject rarely grappled with – how children grieve, not a novel that allows the reader any distance, visceral and shocking in parts, readers either loved it or hated it or simply did not finish it.

It was probably the least talked about novel of the six, and its win tonight will have been surprising to many.

The Novel Description

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld The Discomfort of Evening International Booker Winner 2020Jas lives with her devout farming family in the rural Netherlands. One winter’s day, her older brother joins an ice skating trip. Resentful at being left alone, she makes a perverse plea to God; he never returns. As grief overwhelms the farm, Jas succumbs to a vortex of increasingly disturbing fantasies, watching her family disintegrate into a darkness that threatens to derail them all.

A bestselling sensation in the Netherlands by a prize-winning young poet, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s debut novel lays everything bare. It is a world of language unlike any other, which Michele Hutchison’s striking translation captures in all its wild, violent beauty.

I can’t say it was on my reading list, the dairy farming environment and strict religious upbringing, biblical references and childish fantasies were a turn off for me, but I did enjoy and was intrigued to listen to the author being interviewed this evening at the Edinburgh Book Festival, which is being held online, so I was able to attend.

Edinburgh Book Festival Online 2020Listening to the author read in Dutch was wonderful and the discussion between the judge, the translator and author worth listening to and may well influence more to discover what the book is about.

To watch that interview in replay, visit the EdBookFest site and check out some of the other interesting talks that are happening.

 

Further Reading

NY Times – A Dark Debut Propels A Dutch Writer to Reluctant Fame

The Guardian: My Family Are Too Scared to Read My Book

Naondel, The Red Abbey Chronicles by Maria Turtschaninoff (Finland)

translated by Annie Prime (from Swedish).

Naondel The Red Abbey Chronicles feminist fantasy WIT MonthNaondel is the name of the ship that will bring the First Women to the island of Menos.

We have already been on the island in the first book of this series, Maresi, where there have been mentions of the names of those who came here first. We know about the safety of this island, a place from which men are forbidden to set foot and we know from the stories of those who are on the island of the menace that exists elsewhere.

The Abbey must never forget what was endured to create this refuge for our successors, a place where women can work and learn side by side.

Now we go back to the beginning, to when these women lived in their own very different communities, with their families and learn how they came to be living together, imprisoned within the same household, there due to the desire of one man, and what it was that drives them ultimately to leave everything behind and seek refuge on this island.

Thus, most of the novel is spent in the oppressive ‘diarahesi’, the place of confinement where Iskan, the Vizier has brought the women within the palace of Ohaddin, to serve and service him. It is an idle life of entrapment, where they have no power over their lives or of their children, reduced to objects of one man’s desire.

I am not unhappy. There is no space inside me for unhappiness.  I am shedding my skin.  Beneath this old skin is one even older.  It is thick and hardy. It shall endure. It has scars along the wrists – one for each offering…With the power of this place  flowing through me, with an offering to the veins of the earth – blood for blood –  there are no walls that can stop the old Garai from emerging.

For Kabira, this place was once her home, long before its inhabitants were eliminated, its geography changed to suit the man who made her his wife. She had powers that came from Anji, something he would steal from her and misuse, bringing decades of torment.

There are few whom I have loved in my overlong life. Two of them I have betrayed. One I have killed. One has turned her back on me. And one has held my death in his hand. There is no beauty in my past. No goodness. Yet I am forcing myself to look back and recall Ohaddin, the palace, and all that came to passe therein.

As each woman joins the diarhesi, with their unique skills and talent, though they initially are weakened by this small life they are bound to; unbeknown to them, they are being prepared for something greater, that will pave the way for others, allowing them too to dream of escape, to a place where women can be safe, healed, educated and thrive.

Naondel Red Abbey Chronicles WIT MonthThe darkness these women endure, the evil that is perpetuated by their ruler, is only alleviated by the foreknowledge that we already know these women will eventually escape it. So we read in anticipation of that event, in the meantime getting to know each of them and the powers they had before they were enslaved.

And so we learn the stories of Kabira the First Mother, Clararas who led their flight, Garai the High Priestess, Estegi the servant and second Mother, Orseola the Dreamweaver, Sulani the Brave, Daera the first Rose, and Iona, who was lost.

Each women is so interesting, it’s almost a pity that we know only as much of her story, as is required to bring her to the palace. Maria Turtschaninoff writes interesting female protagonists, each of the unique and together an even greater force, if they can release themselves from the misused power their master has stolen and act together.

While the women live under the rule of a villainous man, the author never had the intention to create an anti-men series, however the book centres on the lives of the women and how they deal with their dilemma.

We have seen more women in fantasy recently, but they are still very much alone. One lone, strong girl, surrounded by men. And she’s always an anomaly, the one girl. So for me it was important building a community, and my point is not to support the myth that girls can’t be friends.

Fortunately it appears that she has re-entered this world and told the stories of two other characters, which hopefully will be picked up by a publisher and translated into English.

I already have two books published in Swedish and Finnish set in this world, but in very different parts of it, telling very different sorts of stories: Arra and Anaché. One is the story of a mute girl who can hear the songs of the world, and the other of a nomad girl who challenges her whole tribe’s gender norms in order to save her people. Each book I have written has left me with characters and story threads I would love to keep exploring.

Further Reading

My review of Maresi, Book 1 in The Red Abbey Chronicles

Maresi, The Red Abbey Chronicles by Maria Turtschaninoff (Finland)

translated by Annie Prime (from Swedish) – like Tove Jansson, Maria Turtschaninoff is from a Swedish speaking part of Finland.

A Utopian Island of Women

Maresi Finland YA WIT MonthRed Abbey is situated on the island Menos, run by women, a kind of educational refuge that has elements of sounding like a boarding school and a convent. On the mainland some are not even sure if it is myth or reality, but they send their girls there in hope that the rumours are trues. We learn that Maresi was sent there by her family during ‘Hunger Winter’ and that the abundance of food, the genuine care and education she is given makes it a place she adores.

There are many reasons why a girl might come to the island. Sometimes poor families from the coast lands send a daughter here because they can not provide for her. Sometimes a family notice that their daughter has a sharp and enquiring mind and want to give her the best education a woman can get. Sometimes sick and disabled girls come here because they know the sisters can give them the best possible care…Sometimes girls come as runaways… Girls who show a thirst for knowledge in cultures where women are not allowed to know or say anything. In these lands, rumour of the Abbey’s existence lives in women’s songs and and forbidden folk tales told only in whispers, away from enemy ears. Nobody talks openly about our island but most people have heard of it anyway.

The Red Abbey Maresi feminist fantasy YAThere are two maps at the front of the book, one of Red Abbey, a walled area showing various buildings, such as Novice House, Knowledge House, Body’s Spring, Temple of the Rose, named steps and courtyards and a map of the island drawn by ‘Sister 0 in the second year of the reign of our thirty-second mother, based on the original by ‘Garai of the Blood in the reign of First Mother’

As the novel opens a ship is sighted and the girls are joined by Jai, who becomes shadow to Maresi, it is clear she has been traumatised by an experience and continues to live in fear, believing that what she ran from will not relent until she is found.

Most of the first two thirds is made up of understanding their daily life, they are being educated both intellectually and develop a strong connection to nature. The community is able to survive and thrive due to their sustainable harvesting of a red dye from blood snails. Maresi loves nothing more than acquiring knowledge and spends every evening in Knowledge House reading the scrolls.

That evening I chose the ancient tales of the First Sisters. I have always loved reading about their journey to the island, their struggle to build Knowledge House and their survival in the first few years with nothing but fish and foraged wild fruits and berries as sustenance. Life on the island was difficult for the first few years. It did not get easier until some decades later, when they discovered the bloodsnail colony and the silver began to flow in.

Only women and girls are permitted on the island and when a threat seems imminent it requires the women to use all their knowledge and resources and it is as this happens that the girls begin to discover their unique talents and the courage to use them.

Sisterhood, Knowledge, Empowerment and True Courage

Bloodsnails Maresi Red Abbey

Photo by Alin Luna on Pexels.com

Described as a tale of sisterhood, survival and fighting against the odds, I chose this because it sounded like an empowering read for young women/adolescents and because it has been imagined and written by a woman from another culture/language, drawing on her storytelling tradition and experience.

I really enjoyed the story and characters and the community created on the island, it reminded me a little of Madeleine Miller’s Circe, who lives on an island, only she is in exile, so mostly alone, but it has that similar utopian feeling of the desire to create a nurturing environment where women live in harmony with nature and have access to education and knowledge, without the demands or agendas of men or the family dynamic and its expectations.

Maresi is the first in a trilogy, also described as feminist fantasy, the second book is Naondel and the the final Maresi Red Mantle.

Where Does the Inspiration Come From?

What was the inspiration behind the Red Abbey? And what kind of research did you undergo during the writing process? – from an interview by Bluebird Reviews 

It all started with a photograph exhibition.

I saw the exhibition many years before I began working on Maresi. It took place in Helsinki, and showcased photographs from Mount Athos, a Greek peninsula with a 1000-year-old monastic community. The pictures were breathtakingly beautiful and the houses of the monasteries represented crumbling splendour. Many of them were perched on top of steep cliffs, like eagles’ nests. I walked around with my notebook, making notes and getting very inspired.

And also, angry.

Because for a thousand years, no woman has been allowed on the island. Even today only male pilgrims are able to set foot on the island. The women get to take a boat ride and view the monasteries from the sea. And I thought “How is it possible that there’s a place today, in Europe, where women aren’t allowed?” This thought was immediately followed by: “And what would happen if I turned it on its head and there was an island, and an Abbey, where only women and girls are allowed? But because it would be set in my fantasy world, there would be a concrete reason why men are not allowed.”

Can you tell us a bit about the mythology of the Mother, Maiden, and Crone? What’s the background story and where did the idea come from? – interview by Huriyah Quadri, The Selkie

As I created the Red Abbey for the first book, I knew the women and girls had to worship something – it’s an abbey, after all – but in this fantasy world, our religions don’t exist. So I looked further back in history, to what humans believed in before the three monotheistic religions became dominant, and found goddess-worshipping cultures. I researched them, stole the best bits and made my own concoction.

The Author, Maria Turtschaninoff

Teenage and Young Adult author, Maria Turtschaninoff was born in 1977 and lives in Finland. She is the author of many books about magical worlds and has been awarded the Swedish YLE Literature prize and has twice won the Society of Swedish Literature Prize. She has also been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the Carnegie Medal.

Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé (1995)

translated (from French) by Richard Philcox.

A Favourite Author

Maryse Conde Crossing the Mangrove WIT MonthMaryse Condé is one of my favourite authors and I’ve been slowly working my way through her books since she was nominated for the Booker International Prize in 2015, back when it was held every two years, for an author’s lifetime works.

I started with vignettes from her childhood, then moved on to a novel about her grandmother whom she’d never met, then her masterpiece of historical fiction Segu, her own favourite The Story of the Cannibal Woman, A Season in Rihata and now this very Caribbean novel Crossing the Mangrove, which I absolutely loved. Links to my reviews below.

This is almost a form of noir novel; a death provides the catalyst to revealing an island society, portraying all it diversity and colour, its social good and evil – poverty, discrimination and exploitation, and rather than seek a tidy resolution of that death, it demonstrates the folly of that way of thinking, creating instead, a thought-provoking insight into a multi-layered, multi-ethnic mix of minds and bodies, in their states of love, bliss, paranoia, anxiety and confusion.

It is such a great read, I had to force myself to pause halfway in order to savour it. I can imagine rereading it, it’s such a multilayered novel, that can be read for pure entertainment value or thought about more deeply in how it attempts through exquisite storytelling and characterisation, to lay bare the complexity of such a diverse community, it’s impossible to keep up with who is who is what from where, demonstrating how farcical that is anyway and yet nearly everyone contributes to it, the labelling, the judgements, the superiority and inferiority complexes. Brilliant.

“Life’s problems are like trees. We see the trunk, we see the branches and the leaves. But we can’t see the roots, hidden deep down under the ground. And yet it’s their shape and nature and how far they dig into the slimy humus to search for water that we need to know. Then perhaps we would understand.”

Can You Cross A Mangrove?

Crossing the Mangrove Maryse Condé

Mangrove of Sainte Rose, Guadeloupe

The trigger for all of this, in a novel where every chapter takes the perspective of a different character, is the wake of a man found dead in the mangrove. No one really knew Francis Sancher but everyone had had an encounter with him and there were rumours aplenty.

“Nobody ever understands, Madame Ramsaran. Everyone is afraid of understanding. Take me, for instance. As soon as I tried to understand, to ask for an explanation for all those corpses, all that blood, they called me every name under the sun. As soon as I refused to go along with the slogans, they kept a serious eye on me. Nothing is more dangerous than a man who tries to understand.”

I don’t know about the mangroves in Guadeloupe, but recalling the mangrove swamp from a biology field trip at school, they are incredibly difficult to navigate, like a natural defence system, with spiky roots sticking up out of the water, preventing a way forward. They become a tangled array of wet and slimy roots, attracting many species of bugs, insects and critters and are found in locations where salt water and fresh water mix, a buffer between land and sea.  An apt metaphor for navigating a life, for understanding a complex society.

Stories in his Wake

We come to know more about this intriguing stranger who came to Rivière au Sel expecting to die, we learn who cultivated a desire for that to happen, who fell for his charm, a variety of voices that convey the life stories of this diverse group of villagers – young and old, men and women, siblings and parents, illiterates and intellectual elites, peasants and upper class Creoles, those who belong and those who would always be considered outsiders.

Crossing the Mangrove Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé

The multiplicity of voices, narrated through nineteen characters attendant at the wake, creates a portrait of the social, cultural, political, linguistic, intellectual and economic diversity of this Caribbean island society, complete with desire, unrequited love, arranged marriage, jealousy, disappointment, bitterness, greed, exploitation, revenge, racism, classism, joy and hilarity.

“I would say you are a man of great wisdom!” I murmured.

He smiled.

“Wisdom? I wouldn’t say that. Rather that I tried to untangle the skeins of life.”

The dead man is only given voice through those attending his wake, like the author who is given voice through her characters.

The quote above reminds me of all the narratives of Maryse Condé, of her life, her research including the all important oral histories and her own insatiable appetite for “untangling the skeins of life”, presenting them to us through her essays and novels. She truly is a magical and gifted writer, and in this novel she returns to a landscape closer to home, evoking it through this collection of characters beautifully.

“Now Francis Sancher is dead. But he alone has come to an end. The rest of us are alive and continue to live as we’ve always done. Without getting along together. Without liking ourselves. Without sharing anything. The night is waging war and grappling with the shutters. Soon, however, it will surrender to the day and every rooster will crow its defeat. The banana trees, the cabins and the slopes of the mountain will gradually float to the surface of the shadows and prepare to confront the dazzling light of day. We shall greet the new face of tomorrow and I shall say to this daughter of mine:

“I gave birth to you, but I misloved you. I neglected to help you flower and you grew stunted. It’s not too late for our eyes to meet and our hands to touch. Give me your forgiveness.”

In 2018 Maryse Condé was declared the winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature.

Further Reading

Tales From the Heart: True Stories From My Childhood

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother

Segu

The Story of the Cannibal Woman

A Season in Rihata