Booker Prize Fiction Shortlist 2021

Today the short list was announced for the Booker Prize for Fiction 2021.

Six novels were chosen, listed below, with summaries and judges comments sourced from the Booker Prize website.

Booker Prize Shortlist 2021

Damon Galgut, The Promise (South Africa)

The Promise Damon GalgutIn Damon Galgut’s deft, powerful story of a diminished family and a troubled land, brutal emotional truths hit home.

The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks, deliciously lethal in its observation of the crash and burn of a white South African family. On their farm outside Pretoria, the Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral.

The younger generation detests everything the family stands for, not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land, yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.

What the Judges Said

“An expansive family novel that explores the interconnected relationships between members of one family through the sequential lens of multiple funerals.

Death assumes here both a closing but also an opening into lives lived. It is an unusual narrative style that balances Faulknerian exuberance with Nabokovian precision, pushes boundaries, and is a testament to the flourishing of the novel in the 21st century.

In The Promise, Damon Galgut makes a strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself that can best be summed up in the question: does true justice exist in this world? The novel’s way of tackling this question is what makes it an accomplishment and truly deserving of its place on the shortlist.”

Anuk Arudpragasam, A Passage North (Sri Lanka)

A Passage North Anuk ArudpragasamAnuk Arudpragasam’s masterful novel is an attempt to come to terms with life in the wake of devastation of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war. As Krishan makes the long journey by train from Colombo into the war-torn Northern Province to attend a family funeral, so begins an astonishing passage into the innermost reaches of a country.

At once a powerful meditation on absence and longing, and an unsparing account of the legacy of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war, this procession to a pyre ‘at the end of the earth’ lays bare the imprints of an island’s past, the unattainable distances between who we are and what we seek.

What the Judges Said

“The story unfurls like smoke as our narrator sifts through memories of a lost love affair while turning over in his mind the strange death of his grandmother’s carer, a woman irrevocably damaged by the death of her young sons in the Sri Lankan civil war.

In hypnotic, incantatory style, Arudpragasam considers how we can find our way in the present while also reckoning with the past.”

Patricia Lockwood, No One is Talking About This  (US)

Noone Is Talking ABout ThisPatricia Lockwood’s sincere and delightfully profane love letter to the infinite scroll, and a meditation on love, language and human connection.

A social media guru travels the world, her entire existence overwhelmed by the internet or what she terms ‘the portal’. ‘Are we in hell?’ The people of the portal ask themselves. ‘Are we all just going to keep doing this until we die?’ Two urgent texts from her mother pierce the guru’s bubble.

As real life collides with the absurdity of the portal, she confronts a world that seems to suggest there is goodness, empathy and justice in the universe – and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.

What the Judges Said

“This is a first novel from a writer already outstanding as a poet and memoirist, and her gifts in both roles are much in evidence in this extremely funny, poignant and challenging book. Patricia Lockwood manages to tell her story in the glancing, mayfly-attention-span idiom of contemporary social media, but she uses this apparently depth-free dialect with precision and even beauty.

The drastic shift of gear in the middle of the story, the introduction of real suffering, love and loss, doesn’t break the seamless flow of wit; but the book’s triumph is in evoking so full a range of emotional discovery and maturing within the unpromising medium of online prattle.

We’re left wondering about the processes by which language expands to cope with the expansiveness of changing human relations and perceptions at the edge of extremity.”

Nadifa Mohamed, The Fortune Men (Somali/UK)

The Fortune Men Nadifa MohamedNadifa Mohamed’s gripping novel about a petty criminal in Cardiff who becomes the last man to be hanged there, wrongfully convicted of murder in 1952.

Mahmood Mattan is a father, a chancer, a petty thief. Many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer. So when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on him, Mahmood isn’t too worried – secure in his innocence in a country where justice is served.

But as the trial nears, it starts to dawn on him that he is in a fight for his life – against conspiracy, prejudice and the ultimate punishment. In the shadow of the hangman’s noose, he realises that the truth may not be enough to save him.

What the Judges Said

“The Fortune Men takes us to a place we haven’t encountered on the page before: the docklands of 1950s Cardiff, jostling with Somali, Welsh, Jewish, Jamaican, and Indian communities, thrown together by the tides of empire and war.

In the story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali sailor accused of murder, Nadifa Mohamed creates a story as local as it is exhilaratingly global. Grippingly-paced and full of complex, richly-drawn characters, the novel combines pointed social observation with a deeply empathetic sensibility.

The Fortune Men demonstrates what historical fiction can achieve at its best—to get inside the head of the past—while implicitly yet urgently underscoring the present-day persistence of racism and injustice.”

Richard Powers, Bewilderment (US)

Bewilderment Richard PowersAn astrobiologist thinks of a creative way to help his rare and troubled son in Richard Powers’ deeply moving and brilliantly original novel.

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist. He is also the widowed father of a most unusual nine-year-old. Robin is loving, funny and full of plans to save the world. He is also about to be expelled, for smashing his friend’s face in with a metal thermos.

What can a father do, when the only solution offered is to put his boy on psychoactive drugs? What can he say, when his boy asks why we are destroying the world? The only thing to do is to take the boy to other planets, while helping him to save this one.

What the Judges Said

“Theo is a widowed astrobiologist raising a troubled nine-year-old son tagged with a ‘special needs’ label. On his mission to help the boy, Robin, he is prepared to engage with experimental treatments.

He dares to decode his son’s mind in order to save him, thereby drawing us into the claustrophobic relationship of a grieving man playing solo parent to a vulnerable child.

Theo’s determination to protect Robin from becoming a prisoner of bureaucracy, something of a high wire act of its own, is beautiful and truly inspiring. That, and his willingness to venture beyond the known world into the cosmos make this book a clarion call for us to wake up and realise what our minds might be truly capable of if we were less obedient to the status quo.”

Maggie Shipstead, Great Circle (US)

Great Circle Maggie ShipsteadThe lives of a fearless female aviator and the actress who portrays her on screen decades later intersect in Maggie Shipstead’s vivid, soaring novel.

Marian Graves was a daredevil all her life, from her wild childhood in the forests of Montana to her daring wartime Spitfire missions. In 1950, she sets off on her ultimate adventure, the Great Circle – a flight around the globe. She is never seen again.

Half a century later, Hadley Baxter, a scandal-ridden Hollywood actress, whose own parents perished in a plane crash, is irresistibly drawn to play Marian Graves. This role will lead her to uncover the real mystery behind the vanished pilot.

What the Judges Said

“A book of tremendous narrative ambition and scale, Great Circle pulled us into its vividly-created worlds—from prohibition-era Montana to wartime Britain to present-day Hollywood—and made us want to dwell in them indefinitely.

Maggie Shipstead has an extraordinary ability to conjure characters and settings so fully-realised one feels one knows them—and spills her story out in one gorgeously-crafted sentence after another.

Absorbing in the manner of the immersive realist novels of the 19th century, the book speaks to ever-present questions about freedom and constraint in womens’ lives.”

The 2021 winner will be announced on Wednesday 3 November.

Have you read any of these books? Are you tempted by any particular title?

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

“I have felt for years that there was much more to say about the psychic distance between west and east and those who tried to make that journey in the 19th century.” Rose Tremain

Islands of Mercy Rose TremainSet in late 1800’s Ireland, Bath, London and Borneo, this is the story of a community of people whose lives intersect in the town of Bath, a dual narrative of events concerning those who live there and the efforts of two men in Borneo with ambitions slightly at cross purposes.

As I reread Tremain’s quote above, and wonder about the journey’s taken by some of the characters, I realise the irony too in the different paths of what a journey west to east meant. For an ambitious woman travelled from Ireland to England and a man from England to Southeast Asia’s Malay archipalego.

The novel opens with the ambitious young woman Clorinda, who travels west to east, from Ireland to Bath, and after some months of work realising she is unlikely to raise her status to where she strives, she sells her family inheritance, a necklace of rubies, to purchase rooms she turns into a salon de thé, where society can mix and gather and she can listen and observe.

One afternoon she observes a couple in earnest conversation, until the young woman abruptly gets up to leave, having taken neither her tea or cake.

old temple facade reflecting in roman baths in england

Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

The young woman Jane, referred to by locals as ‘Angel of the Baths’ is the daughter of the esteemed Doctor Adeane and known for her therapeutic treatments and hands on healing that relieve the aches of the body, the pains of their souls, her voice of encouragement leading them to bathe in the waters of Bath.

The young man is Valentine Ross, also a Doctor, who works for her father. His brother, inspired by Darwin and passionate about nature, is on an expedition and has just arrived where the second part of the narrative takes place, seeking refuge with an Englishman Sir Ralph Savage, referred to as Rajah Sir on the island of Borneo, where he has gifted a parcel of land in return for favours to the Sultan of Brunei, built himself an impressive mansion and is infatuated by a local man Leon, who harbours ambitions of his own.

After this encounter with Valentine, Jane goes to London to spend time with her childless, unmarried, financially independent Aunt Emmilene, an artist. She is like a mother to Jane and it is during this visit that Jane discovers more of the essence of who she is, an aspect captured by her Aunt in a portrait she sits for. The events that unfold create a significant dilemma for Jane, that she must navigate.

The world, Jane already knew, reeked horribly of old, exhausted things. Day could follow day without a single original or exciting moment stirring her pulse. But now Aunt Emmeline – by far the most exceptional and independent person the Adeane family – was going to reveal something new.

brown bare tree on brown rock formation

Photo by Iqx Azmi on Pexels.com

Sir Ralph is intent on improving what the Creator has given him telling his lover that he wished to go down in history as one who had ‘enabled happiness’. Leon advises him to begin by building a road.

‘A road to where?’ Sir Ralph had asked.
‘Sir Raff,’ said Leon? ‘There is no “where” in Sarawak. There is only Nature. Men begin; Nature finishes.’
‘Then what is the point of the road?’
‘The point of the road is to try to be’.

The narrative in Borneo centres on the men and the colonial struggle, whether it’s to create manors and roads and capitalist ventures or chasing butterflies and being distracted by ruined goldmines. Regardless of their pursuits, there are warnings embedded in their endeavours and the risk of danger to those who are ignorant of the environment within which they operate.

At a certain point while reading, when I thought of all the female characters, and realised how strongly independent all of them were, and looked at the relationships they had to the men around them, I wondered if this novel was actually satire. For most of the yearning and longing is done by the male characters, the female characters are all strong and given the era and location, none of them sit around in parlours pining for suitors, they’re too busy creating their lives, working and supporting each other.

It highlights some of the issues of that era, but does so with a cast of characters that are not stereotypical, which makes it all the more interesting to read, because it defies expectation and presents an alternate scenario by focusing on those who defy convention, transgressing this straight-laced, Victorian society daring to live in ways outside mainstream society and getting away with it.

One of the more shocking historical revelations was the mention of the Private Member’s Bill entitled the Married Woman’s Property Act, a measure to address and reverse the fact that though an unmarried woman could inherit, by law, as soon as she married any property automatically was transferred to her husband.

At one point there is a conversation between Jane and her friends in London, where they discuss literature, a french author’s novel is set in a morgue and asks a lot of the reader, not least a strong stomach, they note there is nothing like it in England.

The French and the Russians are the only writers who follow a dark road like this one. Because they have no fear of scandal, no fear of fear. They show human life in all its difficulty. And they know that readers are wolves.
‘Wolves? I have never thought of them like that. Do you think Miss Austen’s readers are wolfish?
‘Yes, Even they. They tear at the flesh of her stories. They love to see the wicked punished or humiliated. Do we not gloat when Fanny Price rejects Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park?

It was an enjoyable read, albeit at times perplexing, because I kept asking myself questions about what the author was doing, when I realised and read more closely the difference in attitudes and dialogue of the male versus female characters. It had this daring and thought provoking intention, that didn’t quite come off in its execution, so there many moments of reader satisfaction. In a brilliant review in the FT, Natalie Whittle describes it exactly:

“In Islands of Mercy, Rose Tremain seizes the traditional image of a cautiously celibate Victorian England and blasts it with a suite of women for whom transgression leads neither to emancipation nor to damnation. Her female characters live spontaneously, sometimes dangerously, but they are not alone in making spirited sexual choices. And, in an act of pleasing literary reversal, it is a “fallen” man who leaves the country in desperate exile. These are the strengths of what is otherwise a problematic narrative, split neatly but strangely into two streams, one in Bath and the other in Borneo.” Natalie Whittle, FT

Further Reading

FT Review: Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain — Victorian transgressions

Review: by Lisa at ANZLitLovers

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing was my One Outstanding read of 2017, and it was a book I initially avoided as it was the subject of much hype and expectation, which can cloud our ability to discern. However it was exactly the kind of book I love, thought provoking, taking the reader outside of their own culture but showing how the threads of an earlier culture have influenced where they are today.

wp-1631377083656.jpgIn a sense that too is at the heart of Transcendent Kingdom, a family from Ghana immigrate to the US, the mother, the father (who the narrator, the daughter Gifty, the only one of the family born in the US, refers to as Chin Chin man), and their son Nana. Though they leave their country behind, something of remains in them, and though they are determined to ascend in their new country, it comes at a price.

I wanted her stories to about her life in Ghana with my father to be filled with all the kings and queens and curses that might explain why my father wasn’t around in terms far grander and more elegant than the simple story I knew. And if our story couldn’t be a fairy tale, then I was willing to accept a tale like the kind I saw on television, back when the only images I saw of Africa were those of people stricken by warfare and famine. But there was no war in my mother’s stories, and if there was hunger it was of a different kind, the simple hunger of those who had been fed one thing but wanted another. A simple hunger, impossible to satisfy.

Gifty is a sixth year PhD student studying neuroscience, observing mice in order to better understand the role of the brain and neural circuitry in relation to the desire for and restraint of reward-seeking behaviour. In other words, the tendency towards addiction or depression.

To know that if only I could understand this little organ inside this one tiny mouse, that understanding still wouldn’t speak to the intricacy of the comparable organ inside my own head. And yet I had to try and understand, to extrapolate from that limited understanding in order to apply it to those of us who made up the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom…

The narrative moves back and forth in time, in the present she works in a lab, while at home her mother stays in bed all day. This is not the first time her mother has succumbed, so memories of the first time return and the events that lead up to the disappointment(s) that became too much. Only now their roles have reversed.

The question I was trying to answer…was: Could optogenetics be used to identify the neural mechanisms involved in psychiatric illnesses where there are issues with reward seeking, like in depression, where there is too much restraint in seeking pleasure, or drug addiction, where there is not enough?

medication pills on yellow background

Photo Anna ShvetsPexels.com

The novel also explores the controversial American opioid issue, how what begins in innocence can lead to devastating consequences. The inspiration behind the science of the novel comes from the work of Yaa Gyasi’s best friend as she shares in the acknowledgments and in the interview below.

‘At the time of writing, the opioid crisis was being reported on near-daily. I found the reporting to be very moving and willing to look at the effects, not only on the people with addiction but the families, too. It was the first time we were seeing an interrogation of the role of pharmaceutical companies in creating this crisis. I wanted to add my voice to the chorus but from the perspective of a black family.’

Though Gifty is focused on the science on what has afflicted her family, she is reluctant to observe or consider her own behaviour, her difficulty in forming relationships or allowing people to get close to her, the consequence of having lived through trauma.

While she pursues the science and looks for a logical answer to her question, she considers the role of faith. Because science doesn’t explain the feelings of shame, of anger, of hatred, self-loathing.

“What is prayer?” my mother asked?
This question stumped me then, stumps me still. I stood there, staring at my mother, waiting for her to give me the answers. Back then, I approached my piety like I did my studies: fastidiously.

It’s a thought provoking novel of seeking to understand human behaviour, of the propensity “to try to make order, make sense, make meaning of the jumble of it all” and to find a way to seek solace and refuge from it all.

Though it took me a little while to get into it, there was a turning point where it began to click and become more than just a story, where the interconnecting threads became apparent. An enjoyable read and follow up to her impressive debut.

Yaa Gyasi

Yaa GyasiYaa Gyasi was born in Mampong, Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Her first novel, Homegoing, was a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best First Novel and was shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction.

In 2017 Yaa Gyasi was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists and in 2019 the BBC selected her debut as one of the 100 Novels that Shaped Our World. Transcendent Kingdom was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. She lives in Berkley, California.

Further Reading

Women’s Prize Shortlist Interview + Reading: ‘I couldn’t imagine having a life where books weren’t important’: Yaa Gyasi on her Inspirations (Interview Begins at 27:30)

Interview : Paris Review: We Take Everything with Us: An Interview with Yaa Gyasi By Langa Chinyoka

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic?

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

I came across this author by chance having seen another of her books reviewed and after a period of not reading, her novel(s) sounded like something I’d quite enjoy as a way back in to reading. There were comparisons made to Anne Tyler, of whom I’ve read and reviewed a couple of novels here Ladder of Years and A Blue Spool of Thread, however having now finished I would say this offers much more beneath the surface of plot.

Booker Prize 2021 Mary Lawson CanadaWhat I wasn’t expecting was to then see this novel long listed for the Booker Prize a short while after I requested it. Doubly intrigued, as this is the only book on that list I have, I began to read.

I loved it.

Not only was it the good choice I had expected for my own personal reasons, it exceeded my expectations in so many ways.

The title is both intriguing and promising and the cover, the way it zooms in on the house in a way that shows little else around it, is such an apt metaphor for the three lives it focuses on, those three windows into their worlds, and the three time sequences it immerses in to portray them.

A character driven mystery that explores boundaries and trust, the characters and their voices are superbly portrayed, they are like closeups, snapshots of little action, complex inner worlds, all of whom have been tilted in some way and are in the process of finding their upright, their wings even; yet there is a clear, interlinked story that ties them together keeping the reader engaged and the plot moving forward at a good pace.

I came to think of these three characters, Mrs Orchard (Elisabeth), the grown up child and previous neighbour of Mrs Orchard, now adult (Liam), and 8 year old current neighbour of Mrs Orchard (Clara), as depicting narratives of past, present and future, that overlap.

When the story begins we meet Clara standing at the window of her house, watching obsessively, waiting for her sister Rose (16) who has run away from home. She is waiting for any sign of her return and is disturbed to see a strange man carrying boxes into Mrs Orchards home next door.

The Inner Journey (Anti-hero)

Rose having gone missing may appear to some as the central drama, however each of the three characters are embarking on their own inner quest that this drama brings to light. Rose and her parents are not central characters, and the mystery of Rose’s disappearance is not allowed to take over the narrative.

This may prove to frustrate some, so tuned in are we to the more dramatic story pushing in to take centre stage. Here, the larger than life character, though involved in the more dangerous narrative, is made into a secondary character, kept at a distant. It’s the Penelope versus Odyseuss dynamic again, as recently depicted in Brenda Lozano’s excellent Loop.

More than disturbed, Clara is anxious because she has the keys to the house to enable her to feed the cat Moses while Mrs Orchard is in hospital. She’d promised she wouldn’t be gone long. Through Clara’s perspective we observe how confusing childhood can be when adults put so much effort into lying and withholding truth from them. In reality, they are extra sensitive to everything outside of and beyond words, cues that enable them to feel truths, therefore making them mistrust adults, whose words deny their truth.

But she had been away long, she’d been away weeks and weeks. Clara had run out of cat food several times and had to ask her mother for money so that she could go and buy some more. (This was before Rose disappeared, when everything was normal and Clara could go wherever she liked.) She’d expected Mrs Orchard to be more reliable, and was disappointed in her. Adults in general were less reliable than they should be, in Clara’s opinion, but she’d thought Mrs Orchard was an exception.

The Lying Life of Adults

wood rooftop building construction

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Clara doesn’t know this yet, but Liam remembers what it was like to be that child and he is the one adult who doesn’t lie to her. But in order to gain her trust, he will be required to step outside his own comfort zone and finds himself getting involved in a community and the lives of people he had no intention of knowing. In the midst of his own mid-life crisis, this unexpected event had given him a welcome distraction, however he had planned to stay 2 weeks and leave.

By six in the evening, nightmarish northern roads notwithstanding, he was walking up the steps of Mrs Orchard’s porch, with Toronto, his career and his marriage behind him.
And now, not much more than twelve hours later, somewhat dazed and very short of sleep, he was sitting in a strange house, which he happened to own, trying to explain it all to a cop.

In an entertaining subplot to his story, his effort to fix a leaking pipe under a sink miraculously leads to him to become the builder’s labourer, in on of those familiar scenarios of “well in order to fix that, first we’re going to have to fix the roof and unfortunately…”

‘How much is all this going to cost?’

‘Materials and labour. Biggest cost is labour, but with you working for free I’ll knock a third off that.’

Liam’s narrative happens ahead of Mrs Orchard’s and Clara’s narrative occurs ahead of Liam’s. It is so subtle and yet so clever as it creates a kind of mystery within the individual story of each character. So we sometimes read of the same event later from a different perspective.

Angelic Attendants

Elisabeth is in hospital (in the past because in the present we know she has already passed away) and her narrative uses the second person (You) as she is speaking to her dead husband (of many years now), who is very present for her, a sign to the reader of how close to her own passing is likely to be. As she speaks to her husband, she is recalling a period many years ago when the boy Liam lived next door with his family. Little clues drop indicating that something happened, something only Elisabeth now remembers.

Times without number I have asked myself how it could have come to that. Now, from a distance thirty years I can see the answer clearly: little by little.

The writing is superb and atmospheric, the structure is sophisticated and yet flows with ease you could read this and be completely unaware of it. The individual voices of the characters are pitch perfect and atmosphere created, remarkable. The drama is understated yet palpable and the mundane slowly gets filled with intrigue and curiosity was the layers are revealed. And it made me laugh out loud – often, little surprises and a fabulous last laugh for the closing scene.

I don’t know if this will make the shortlist but I totally understand why it has been nominated. I’m excited to read more of her work, because this was brilliant.

Highly Recommended.

Mary Lawson, Author

Mary LawsonMary Lawson was born and brought up in a small farming community in southwestern Ontario and moved to England after graduating from McGill University with a degree in psychology.

She is the author of three previous nationally and internationally bestselling novels, Crow Lake, The Other Side of the Bridge, and Road Ends. Crow Lake was a New York Times bestseller and was chosen as a Book of the Year by The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others. The Other Side of the Bridge was longlisted for the Booker Prize.

Further Reading/Listening

Q & A Interview: In conversation with novelist Mary Lawson by Kobo

Video Interview: Reader Meets Writer, Wiley Cash interviews Mary Lawson on A Town Called Solace

N.B. Thank you kindly to the publisher Random House UK for providing a copy for review via Netgalley.

shallow focus photography of gray cat in box

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The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (Zambia)

I read this over a period of four weeks in a group read along in July.

wp-1629985501548..jpgIt is a vast tome, that traverses generations and continents, though the thing that connects them all is the country Zambia.

The novel is book-ended by brief chapters entitled The Falls and The Dam. It begins near the infamous Victoria Falls in an area five miles above the Falls on the banks of the Zambezi River, where it’s deepest and narrowest and easiest for ‘drifting’ a body across the other side.

Here there was an old colonial settlement that came to be known as The Old Drift and an old drifter caught up in an event that sets off the intertwined narrative.

“This is the story of a nation — not a kingdom or people — so it begins, of course, with a white man.”

Split into three sections, within which there are three characters in each, from three parts of a family tree. The Grandmothers, The Mothers, The Children.

It is a sprawling saga by nature of crossing that many generations, though the stories narrow and overlap by the time it comes to the children, the differences between them nothing like the generations before them.

Drifting Across Genre

The Old Drift Namwali Serpell

Zambezi River at the junction of Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana

Its a novel that also crosses genre beginning in a colonial era with European settlers, and the women they brought with them, the secrets they kept, the way they live, what is expected of them.

I enjoyed reading the first part of Sibilla and Agnes and I liked that the chapters were structured that way, that we were reading of the three grandmothers, that we knew this ahead of time.

It felt comforting to be reading inside this known framework, (for such a vast book), so while there were many characters, these women orient the reader.

While reading a section I could hold on to who the characters were however as the sections changed it was often necessary to refer back to the family tree. I enjoyed the first two sections and though I was forewarned that the ending was going to cross genre, it felt somewhat disconnected to the earlier sections and I found myself reluctant to pick it up at times.

In an interview the author when asked about this genre crossing responded that “these collisions are at the heart of the creative process.”

waterfalls

Photo Jonny Lew on Pexels.com

I wondered if it was because I read it over the course of a month, but reading weekly commentary in the ReadAlong group discussing the book, it seems many had a similar issue with the change of pace and narrative direction of the latter part of the novel. Like the river itself, the narrative drifts and wanders, swirls and eddies, then changes pace as it moves towards that vast precipice, converging for the final spill.

“with a sprawling cast that springs from Zambia, England and Italy. Over the course of three generations, Serpell follows historical figures and fictional characters as they converge on Lusaka, drawing them closer into each others’ orbit through independence in 1964, the HIV/Aids epidemic and on into a near future filled with mosquito drones and revolution” – extract from an interview with Richard Lea, Guardian

Further Reading

A Helpful Review: NPR The Old Drift’ Takes The Long View Of Human (And Mosquito) History

Interview:  Guardian Richard Lea speaks to Namwali Serpell The Old Drift ‘As a young woman I wasn’t very nice to myself’

Booker Prize Longlist 2021

Though it was announced at the end of July I wasn’t paying attention during my busy summer, but before the short list is announced on September 14, I wanted to share the long list and short summaries of the titles, as this is often where we might find something that appeals.

The panel of judges this year includes historian Maya Jasanoff (Chair), writer and editor Horatia Harrod, actor Natascha McElhone, twice Booker-shortlisted novelist and professor Chigozie Obioma, and writer and former Archbishop Rowan Williams.

I haven’t read any of the titles but I do have a copy of Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace, which I thought looked like a light read that I might enjoy.

“Readers of every taste and every kind of interest will find something on this list. What we tried to do was hear what the books had to say to us. We find what marks all of these books is a really distinctive voice. Some of them are very lyrical, some of them are very spare, but there is a kind of deliberate quality and attention to the writing in each of these books that makes them really distinct and special.”  Maya Jasanoff, Chair of Judges

Below are the 13 novels long listed.

A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam (Sri Lanka) (Granta Books)

A Passage North Anuk ArudpragasamA Passage North begins with a message from out of the blue: a telephone call informing Krishan that his grandmother’s caretaker, Rani, has died under unexpected circumstances. The news arrives soon after an email from Anjum, an impassioned yet aloof activist Krishnan fell in love with years before while living in Delhi, stirring old memories and desires from a world he left behind.

As Krishan makes the long journey by train from Colombo into the war-torn Northern Province for Rani’s funeral, so begins an astonishing passage into the innermost reaches of a country. At once a powerful meditation on absence and longing, and an unsparing account of the legacy of Sri Lanka’s thirty-year civil war, this procession to a pyre ‘at the end of the earth’ lays bare the imprints of an island’s past, the unattainable distances between who we are and what we seek.

Written with precision and grace, Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel attempts to come to terms with life in the wake of devastation, a poignant memorial for those lost and those still alive.

Second Place, Rachel Cusk, (UK/Canada) (Faber)

Second Place Rachel CuskA woman invites a famed artist to visit the remote coastal region where she lives, in the belief that his vision will penetrate the mystery of her life and landscape. Over the course of one hot summer, his provocative presence provides the frame for a study of female fate and male privilege, of the geometries of human relationships, and of the struggle to live morally between our internal and external worlds.

With its examination of the possibility that art can both save and destroy us, Second Place attempts to affirm the human soul, while grappling with its darkest demons.

The Promise, Damon Galgut, (South Africa) (Chatto & Windus)

The Promise Damon GalgutThe Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for, not  least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.

The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.

In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home.

The Sweetness of Water, Nathan Harris (US) (Tinder Press)

The Sweetness of Water Nathan HarrisIn the dying days of the American Civil War, newly freed brothers Landry and Prentiss find themselves cast into the world without a penny to their names. Forced to hide out in the woods near their former Georgia plantation, they’re soon discovered by the land’s owner, George Walker, a man still reeling from the loss of his son in the war.

When the brothers begin to live and work on George’s farm, tentative bonds of trust and union begin to blossom between the strangers. But this sanctuary survives on a knife’s edge, and it isn’t long before the inhabitants of the nearby town of Old Ox react with fury at alliances being formed a few miles away.

Conjuring a world fraught with tragedy and violence yet threaded through with hope, The Sweetness of Water is a debut novel unique in its power to move and enthrall. An Oprah pick for her July book club and on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro (UK) (Faber)

Klara and the Sun Kazua IshiguroFrom her place in the store, Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, watches carefully the behaviour of those who come in to browse, and those who pass in the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change for ever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.

In Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro looks at our rapidly-changing modern world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator to explore a fundamental question: what does it mean to love? Also on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.

An Island, Karen Jennings (South Africa) (Holland House Books)

An Island Karen JenningsSamuel has lived alone for a long time; one morning he finds the sea has brought someone to offer companionship and to threaten his solitude…

A young refugee washes up unconscious on the beach of a small island inhabited by no one but Samuel, an old lighthouse keeper. Unsettled, Samuel is soon swept up in memories of his former life on the mainland: a life that saw his country suffer under colonisers, then fight for independence, only to fall under the rule of a cruel dictator; and he recalls his own part in its history. In this new man’s presence he begins to consider, as he did in his youth, what is meant by land and to whom it should belong. To what lengths will a person go in order to ensure that what is theirs will not be taken from them?

A novel about guilt and fear, friendship and rejection; about the meaning of home.

A Town Called Solace, Mary Lawson (Canada) (Chatto & Windus)

A Town Called SolaceClara’s sister is missing. Angry, rebellious Rose had a row with their mother, stormed out of the house and simply disappeared. Eight-year-old Clara, isolated by her distraught parents’ efforts to protect her from the truth, is grief-stricken and bewildered. Liam Kane, newly divorced, newly unemployed, newly arrived in this small northern town, moves into the house next door – a house left to him by an old woman he can barely remember — and within hours gets a visit from the police. It seems he’s suspected of a crime.

At the end of her life Elizabeth Orchard is thinking about a crime too, one committed thirty years ago that had tragic consequences for two families and in particular for one small child. She desperately wants to make amends before she dies. Set in Northern Ontario in 1972, A Town Called Solace explores the relationships of these three people brought together by fate and the mistakes of the past. By turns gripping and darkly funny, it uncovers the layers of grief and remorse and love that connect us, but shows that sometimes a new life is possible.

No One is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood (US) (Bloomsbury Circus)

Noone Is Talking ABout ThisA woman known for her viral social media posts travels the world speaking to adoring fans, her entire existence overwhelmed by the internet — or what she terms ‘the portal’. Are we in hell? the people of the portal ask themselves. Who are we serving? Are we all just going to keep doing this until we die?

Two texts from her mother pierce the fray: ‘Something has gone wrong,’ and ‘How soon can you get here?’ As real life and its stakes collide with the increasing absurdity of the portal, the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.

Sincere and profane, No One Is Talking About This is a love letter to the infinite scroll, a meditation on love, language and human connection from an original voice of our time.

The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed (Somalia/UK) (Viking, Penguin)

The Fortune Men Nadifa MohamedMahmood Mattan is a fixture in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, 1952, which bustles with Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. A father, a chancer, a some-time petty thief, he is many things but not a murderer.

So when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on him, Mahmood isn’t too worried. It is true that he has been getting into trouble more often since his Welsh wife Laura left him. But Mahmood is secure in his innocence in a country where he thinks justice is served.

It is only in the run-up to the trial, as the prospect of freedom dwindles, that it will dawn on Mahmood that he is in a terrifying fight for his life — against conspiracy, prejudice and the inhumanity of the state. Under the shadow of the hangman’s noose, he begins to realise that the truth may not be enough to save him.

Bewilderment, Richard Powers (US) (Hutchinson Heinemann)

Bewilderment Richard PowersTheo Byrne is a promising young astrobiologist who has found a way to search for life on other planets dozens of light years away. The widowed father of an unusual nine-year-old, his son Robin is funny, loving and filled with plans. He thinks and feels deeply, adores animals and spends hours painting elaborate pictures. On the verge of being expelled from third grade for smashing his friend’s face with a metal thermos, this rare and troubled boy is being recommended psychoactive drugs.

What can a father do or say when his son wants an explanation for a world that is clearly in love with its own destruction? The only thing for it is to take the boy to other planets, all the while fostering his desperate campaign to help save this one.

China Room, Sunjeev Sahota (UK) (Harvill Secker)

China Room Sunjeev SahotaMehar, a young bride in rural 1929 Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. She and her sisters-in-law, married to three brothers in a single ceremony, spend their days hard at work in the family’s ‘china room’, sequestered from contact with the men.

When Mehar develops a theory as to which of them is hers, a passion is ignited that will put more than one life at risk. Spiralling around Mehar’s story is that of a young man who in 1999 travels from England to the now-deserted farm, its ‘china room’ locked and barred. In enforced flight from the traumas of his adolescence — his experiences of addiction, racism, and estrangement from the culture of his birth — he spends a summer in painful contemplation and recovery, finally finding the strength to return home. Partly inspired by the author’s family history it explores how systems of power affect individual lives and the human capacity to resist them.

Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead (US)(Doubleday)

Great Circle Maggie ShipsteadIn 1920s Montana, wild-hearted orphan Marian Graves spends her days roaming the rugged forests and mountains of her home. When she witnesses the roll, loop and dive of two barnstorming pilots, she promises herself that one day she too will take to the skies.

Years later, after a series of reckless romances and a spell flying to aid the British war effort, Marian embarks on a treacherous flight around the globe in search of the freedom she craves,  never to be seen again.

More than half a century later, Hadley Baxter, a troubled Hollywood starlet beset by scandal, is  drawn to play Marian Graves in her biopic, a role that leads her to probe the deepest mysteries of the vanished pilot’s life.

Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford (UK)(Faber)

Light Perpetual Francis SpuffordLunchtime on a Saturday, 1944: the Woolworths on Bexford High Street in South London receives a delivery of aluminum saucepans. A crowd gathers to see the first new metal in ages—after all, everything’s been melted down for the war effort. An instant later, the crowd is gone; incinerated. Among the shoppers were five young children.

Who were they? What futures did they lose? Inspired by real events, written in luminous prose,  the author reimagines the lives of five souls as they pass through the extraordinary changes of the twentieth-century London.

*  *  *  *  *

That’s it, the 13 books that make up the Booker’s dozen, chosen from 158 submissions. Are there any that jump out at you, that look interesting?

I’m intrigued by Sri Lankan author Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel, I’m always going to be more interested in stories that are set within another culture and I recall wishing to read his first novel, though I never did. Bewilderment seems to be receiving unanimously high praise by those who’ve had the chance to an early copy, but I really have no idea what will make the short list, watch this space to find out!

“Many of them consider how people grapple with the past—whether personal experiences of grief or dislocation or the historical legacies of enslavement, apartheid, and civil war. Many examine intimate relationships placed under stress, and through them meditate on ideas of freedom and obligation, or on what makes us human.”

Booker Longlist 2021

Waiting for the Waters to Rise by Maryse Condé (2021) tr. Richard Philcox

This story (originally published in French in 2010 as En attendant la montée des eaux) follows the character of Babakar, a Doctor from Segu, Mali who delivers babies. In the opening chapter while it pours with rain outside, he is called to attend a birth of a young woman he does not know but recognises, who does not survive the birth. Understanding that the man who accompanies her Movar, is not the father, he claims the baby as his own, seeing it as a sign, a return.

It does occasionally trouble him, what he has done and sure enough, one day Movar returns and tells him of the promise made to the young mother, to return her child to her family in Haiti, from where she had fled. The novel begins in Guadeloupe and moves to Haiti, while also travelling to other places through the backstories of the adjacent characters.

Waiting For the Waters to Rise Maryse CondeThough the story follows Babakar, each time we encounter a new character, there is this digression into their backstory(s), so we learn of all these male characters stories, Babakar (in Mali and the often present apparition of his mother Thécla Minerve), Movar, (in Haiti) Fouad (in Lebanon, though being Palestinian he dreams of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwich) who all come together in Haiti, and underlying the visit, this search to find family and learn why the young mother had fled.

Although the story is about the search for Anais’s (the baby) family, for all that this is an employed man raising a young baby on his own, she was remarkably absent, as were her carers, creating a bit of a disconnect, considering the entire motivation for this grand journey was supposedly her well-being, or the pursuit of this promise. The baby seemed to pose no great inconvenience, which seemed strange, the story centred solely on the male characters.

With so much of the novel told in backstory, there was a lot of ‘telling’ and I found myself reading over parts of those narratives quite quickly as they didn’t seem to progress or relate to the story itself. Perhaps there was something universal in the stories of the three main men, in the collapse of their earlier lives that found them seeking solace in each others company, but it didn’t work for me as well as I had hoped.

The family that Anais came from had its own complicated history and political associations, but was less in the foreground.

It was interesting, having just read Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy by Marie Vieux-Chauvet, to be back in Haiti and to understand more of the references and pick up on the atmosphere of the location, the unpredictability and quasi-fear around certain people, never quite knowing if they are safe or not and that metaphor of the title, suggesting disaster not far off.

close up water drop photography

Photo by PixabayPexels.com

As the novel came to a close, those waters began to rise and there is yet another opportunity to enter into an interesting story as the two characters make a plot direction changing decision and enter into an aspect of the story we will never know. And what about the baby, I wonder, not for the first time?

Maryse Condé is a Guadeloupean author writing in French, the author of many novels including the historical fiction masterpiece Segu and I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem.

She remains a favourite author and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work, last year’s Crossing the Mangrove was just brilliant as were her childhood essays in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood.

Loop by Brenda Lozano tr. Annie McDermott

wp-1629982535768..jpgI picked up Loop for WIT (Women in Translation) month and I loved it. I had few expectations going into reading it and was delightfully surprised by how much I enjoyed its unique, meandering, playful style.

It was also the first work of fiction I have read, after a nine week pause, while I have been working on my own writing project, so its style of short well spaced paragraphs, really suited me. I highlighted hundreds of passages, an indicative sign.

Change. Unlearning yourself is more important than knowing yourself.

It was helpful to listen to the recent Charco Press interview linked below to understand that it is a kind of anti-hero story, inspired by her thinking about The Odyssey’s Penelope while her lover Odysseus is off on his hero’s quest – of the inner journey of the one who waits, the way that quiet contemplation and observation also reveal understanding and epiphanies.

Odysseus, he of the many twists and turns. Penelope, she of the many twists and turns without moving from her armchair. Weaving the notebook by day, unravelling it by night.

Penelope and OdysseusThe narrator is waiting for the return of her boyfriend, who has travelled to Spain after the death of his mother.

His absence coincides with her recovery from an accident, so she has a double experience of waiting, a greater opportunity to observe the familiar and unfamiliar around her, to see patterns, imagine connections, dream and catastrophise.

Childhood is so uncertain, so distant. It’s almost like childhood is the origin of fiction: describing any past event over and over to see how far away you are getting from reality.

And then there is her quiet obsession with notebooks, with the ideal notebook, another subject that evolves in her pursuit of it. It’s thought provoking, funny, full of lots of literary and musical references, which I enjoyed listening to while reading and quite unlike anything else I’ve read. And a nod to Proust. The dude.

I was left with a scar. I think telling stories is a way of putting a scar into words. Since not all blows or falls leave marks, the words are there, ready to be put together in different ways, anywhere, anytime, in response to any fall, however serious or slight.

Random observations over time create patterns and themes, eliciting minor epiphanies.

Wild-Is-The-WindA celebration of the yin aspect of life, the jewel within. And that jewel of a song, sung by both David Bowie and Nina Simone, Wild is the Wind.

…the present is also, as its name suggests, a gift. It doesn’t suggest longing or loss. It’s just a present, a gift, a time with no strings attached which is totally ours, to use however we want, however we please. There are days when I find the future overwhelming, with all the bright lights and commotion.

I highly recommend it if you enjoy plotless narratives that make you think and see meaning in the ordinary. And relate to the little things.

Dwarf things. Small things. Little things in relation to the norm. Insignificant things. Things with different dimensions. Curiously, the stories I like the most are made up of trivialities. Details. Trifles. These days, people look to what’s big. The big picture, big sales figures, success. Bright lights, interviews, breaking news. Whatever’s famous. Importance judged by fame. Maybe small things are subversive. Living on a modest scale compared to the norm. Maybe the dwarf is the hero of our time.

Brenda Lozano Author LoopBrenda Lozano is a novelist, essayist and editor. She was born in Mexico in 1981.

Her novels include Todo nada (2009), Cuaderno ideal (2014) published in English as Loop and the storybook Cómo piensan las piedras (2017). Her most recent novel is Brujas (2020).

Brenda Lozano was recognized by Conaculta, Hay Festival and the British Council as one of the most important writers under 40 years of age in Mexico and named as one of the Bogotá 39, a selection of the best young writers in Latin America.  She also writes for the newspaper El País.

Further Information

On Charco Press’s Instagram IGTV page there is a video interview with Brenda Lozano for WIT Month where she speaks about the process of translation as a part of the art of writing, about her influences as she wrote Loop and about how she has taken the story of Penelope and Odysseus as inspiration.

Don’t be alarmed if this isn’t going anywhere. Don’t expect theories, reliable facts or conclusions. Don’t take any of this too seriously. That’s what universities are for, and theses, and academic studies. Personally, I like cafés, bars and living rooms. Not to mention comfortable cushions. So nice and cosy.

Love Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet tr. Rose Myriam-Réjouis, Val Vinokur

A Haitian Trilogy – Introduction by Edwidge Danticat

Love Anger Madness Marie Vieux ChauvetOriginally published in French as Amour, colère et folie, this trilogy of novellas was originally suppressed upon its initial publication in 1968. Seen as a scathing response to the struggles of race, class and sex that had occurred in Haiti, this major work became an underground classic, would send its author into exile and would finally be released in an authorised edition in France in 2005 (this English version in 2009).

Considered by Edwidge Danticat as the cornerstone of Haitian literature, she opens her introduction telling us that “Fewer than a handful of Haitian writers have, both while alive and dead, inspired as much adulation, analysis, and discussion as Marie Vieux-Chauvet.”

Born in Port-au-Prince in 1916, Marie Vieux-Chauvet was a member of the “occupation generation”, that is, born a year after the United States invaded Haiti, an occupation that would last 19 years. She would use the turmoil of that rebellion as the back-story for Love, the first novella of the trilogy.

“We have been practicing at cutting each other’s throats since Independence,” she writes of the country we Haitians like to remind the world was the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere, home to the only slave revolt that succeeded in producing a nation. What we would rather not say, and what Claire Clamont and Marie Vieux-Chauvet are brave enough to say, is that this same country has continued to fail at reaching its full potential, in part because of foreign interference and domination, but also because of internal strife and power struggles.

In three distinct novellas it unflinchingly manages to condemn totalitarianism and tyranny, with little care of the consequences, an act of courageousness or recklessness, but one that would make a significant and permanent mark in the chronicles of Haitian literature.

Love

The narrator of Love, Claire Clamont, is the eldest of three daughters, of a landowning upper-class family. She is the son her father never had and he wishes her to runs things as he would have them done. However, he hasn’t reckoned on her stubbornness and refusal to affiliate with some of the old ways he indulges, having raised her to think of them as superstitious. As a result she is neither feared nor respected by the workers, whom he had sold parcels of land to fund his political campaigns, a futile effort that has left the family near penniless.

The three sisters of this aristocratic family live together, all coveting the same man, Felicia’s husband. Annette succeeds in seducing him, Claire silently, voyeuristically encouraging her.

Meanwhile, a man sent to reform Haiti is known to use violent, torturous means to get his message across, preying on the innocent.

The love this elder daughter practices is tinged with jealousy, revenge and resentment, laying blame at the feet of an ancestor with dark skin. She resents this ancestor who made her so, resents her father for trying to turn her into the son he never had, resents one sister for marrying a man she loves and the other for having seduced him.

Anger

Anger centres around a family and the day a group of black uniformed paramilitary seize their land, putting stakes in the ground, the grandfather and the young disabled grandson are indignant, the son and his wife wary and afraid, their older daughter Rose is practical, the young adult son Paul going crazy, desires revenge.

Men arrive and plant stakes in the ground of land belonging to a family, they wear black uniforms and invoke fear. Each of the family inside react. Then the concrete arrives. They’re seizing the land and building a wall.

The family is observed, tries to address the injustice, is compromised.

The mother got up slowly, put down her needlework, walked over to the old man and spoke into his ear.

“Look at him, Grandfather,” she whispered, “just look at him.”

The child was clenching his fists and grinding his teeth.

“Who will flog those who have taken our land?” he said without paying any attention to the mother. “Is there no longer a steward who can do it?”

“Alas, no!” the grandfather answered.

“Why not?”

“Because there are ups and downs in the life of a people. As the arrow rises, it gives birth to heroes; when it falls, only cowards come into the world. No steward would agree to stand up to those who have taken our land.”

He told himself that his crippled and sickly grandson was the faint beginning of the next era of heroes and that the arrow had begun its slow ascent only eight years ago. Hundreds more must have come into the world the same time he did, he thought, and with feet and legs as well as a brave soul. A day will come when they will grow up and the birds of prey will have to account for their deeds to every last one of them.

Madness

Madness is narrated by René, a lower class mulatto poet hiding inside his shack, paranoid about what’s going on outside his door and inside his mind, finding solace in a bottle, in rituals to do with voodoo beliefs that most of his life he has rejected and the poet friends he fearfully opens his door to, to offer them refuge. Unclear, what is real and what is the projection of a man’s fearful mind, we read on, aware that under oppression anything is possible.

A thought provoking read that invites the reader to understand more about the historical and present situation in Haiti.

Marie Vieux ChauvetMarie Vieux-Chauvet was a Haitian novelist, poet and playwright, the author of five novels including Dance on the Volcano, Fonds des Negres, Fille d’Haiti and Les Rapaces.

Her works focus on class, color, race, gender, family structure and the upheaval of Haitian political, economic and social society during the United States occupation of Haiti and the dictatorship of François Duvalier. She died in New York in 1973.

Further Reading

Permanent Exile: On Marie Vieux-Chauvet

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

Read Caribbean Book of CinzJune is Caribbean Heritage Month in the US, held to recognise the many contributions they have made, so not surprisingly, it has been picked up by Book of Cinz to create awareness for Caribbean Literature, Caribbean Authors and Authors from Caribbean Heritage for readers, encouraging us all to discover and read more of their works.

The Contemporary Caribbean Woman Writer, Keeping Ancestral Connections Alive

I have a fondness of Caribbean women writers and in years past I have reviewed a number of books by the Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. Crossing the Mangrove  was one of my favourite reads in 2020.

Jamaica Kincaid is another author I admire and her novel The Autobiography of My Mother was an Outstanding Read of 2015. There is something special in the way they writer inter-generational stories, even when some have immigrated, there remains a connection between women in families, even those who have passed, that they have a particular way of expressing that I find magical, as they address themes of identity, belonging and familial connection.

Mythology and Colonisation

It seems that they have developed their own history, mythology, use of language and tradition and not only are they connected to the African diaspora, there is the effect and influence of colonisation, something that both takes away from their essence and has woven itself into their thinking, they can neither rid themselves of it or embrace its legacy.

mermaid of the black conch Monique RoffeyThe Mermaid of Black Conch is an excellent example of the intersection of those effects and her well drawn characters each possess something of that heritage and complication.

Monique Roffey uses a Neo-Taino (people who inhabited the Caribbean 2000 years before the Christian era) legend of a woman transformed into a mermaid, having been cursed by jealous women due to her beauty and effect on men as the foundation of a contemporary story, when this ancient mermaid is captured by an opportunistic and exploitative American man and his son in a fishing competition.

A local fisherman David sings to himself awaiting his catch and the ancient mermaid Aycayia first appears to him. The story is told in part through his journals and in part through the poetic songs of the mermaid and a third person narrative.

She looking like a woman from long ago, like old time Taino people I saw in a history book at school. She face was young and not pretty at all and I recognise something ancient there too. I saw the face of a human woman who lived centuries past, shining at me.

David feels guilty when he hears of the mermaids capture knowing that she has become familiar with his presence. He blames himself for her capture and decides to intervene knowing nothing good will come of her being taken by men not from the island.

Trophy Hunting

photo of man fishing

Photo by William McAllister on Pexels.com

The man who captured her insists she is a fish and has destructive, misogynistic intentions, while his son, whom he had brought with him in the hope of father-son bonding, is appalled but ineffective in stopping him, as are the other men on the boat.

They are a reminder of the many who came before them exploiting the islands natural resources, wishing to claim her bounty as their own.

Uncomfortable yet uncaring, violence and violation has become normalised and the suggestion that she may be worth millions renders them all complicit.

David’s original plan to release her is thwarted as she transforms into a woman, but with few of the skills necessary to survive and he is afraid of people finding out he had sheltered her. He tries to gain her trust, but she is wary of men.

She’d changed his comprehension of what it was to be human. An intuition pestered him that they had met before, that he’d even been searching for her, out there, by those jagged rocks off Murder Bay.

Settler Colonialism and Land Ownership

Miss Arcadia Rain, another island inhabitant lives in the biggest house on the island with her deaf son Reggie. She is local, white and a landowner; she keeps herself distant from the population, though she is as much a part of it as them all. The bay area was her inheritance, it is both her joy and a burden something she struggles to reconcile.

The Rain family had owned almost the whole of St Constance, since 1865, a generation after slavery time. The estate was mostly rainforest high up in the hills, but it came down to St Constance and the bay.

The mermaid becomes friends with Reggie and the two use sign language, to communicate; the friendship brings David and Miss Rain together as they try to figure out what to do.

humpback whale in ocean water on sunny day

Photo: Stefanie Klenner @ Pexels.com

Inevitably there is another jealous woman, and the ill-meaning cackle of those who long ago cursed Aycayia can be heard, as strange things happen on the island making it clear that she is unlikely to be able to stay.

The story explores love, loss, separation, the destructiveness of female jealousy, the ease and allure of male corruption and the repercussions of one family possessing ownership of most of the land in a community.

Although the mermaid is the oldest inhabitant, she is seen as an outsider and her presence brings out the good and the bad in the community, exposing its cracks.

It’s a thought -provoking read and an interesting portrayal of a community living under the influence of its historical past and that influences the behaviour of contemporary inhabitants.

The Mermaid of Black Conch was the 2020 winner of the Costa Book Award, with another Caribbean author Ingrid Persaud winning the Debut Fiction Prize for Love After Love.

Further Reading

The Observer: The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey review – a fishy tale of doomed womanhood by Anthony Cummins

Do you have a favourite Caribbean novel?