The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante translated Ann Goldstein

Another excellent example of Elena Ferrante’s ability to zoom in close, with intensity into the subconscious of her protagonist, this time through the lens of a girl entering adolescence.

The Lying Life of Adults Elena Ferrante Ann GoldsteinFrom the opening pages, as Giovanna overhears a random comment from her father, it expands in her mind and overtakes her physically and mentally like a disease, affecting her mind, causing her to act in certain ways.

To the reader it may seem irrational, but to the hormone affected adolescent everything is magnified and causes her to imagine, lash out, withdraw, have moments of tenderness followed by hate and indifference.

She is uncomfortable in her skin and mind, lurching between strategies of action and non-action, always confrontational.

Though warned against her and until now they’ve never met, Giovanna cultivates a relationship with her estranged Aunt Vittoria, seeing her as a convenient tool of provocation and a source of not always reliable information.

She spewed bitterness, and yet those words now brought me relief, I repeated them in my mind. They affirmed the existence of a strong and positive bond, they demanded it. My aunt hadn’t said: you have my face or at least you look something like me; my aunt had said: you don’t belong only to your mother and father, you’re mine, too, you belong to the whole family that he came from, and anyone who belongs to us is never alone, is charged with energy.

It is a roller coaster of emotions and a river of consciousness as we ride along, wondering who is going to survive these years unscathed.

The Class Divide

There is the intensity we’ve come to expect of Ferrante, the twisted emotions and imaginings of her protagonist leading the story, reading the surface of behaviours of adults around her, creating confusion, with that precise, recognisable linguistic clarity. Her father and Aunt represent a class divide that Giovanni witnesses, growing up on one side her father has escaped to, and now intrigued by the other that her Aunt inhabits.

Their mutual hatred remained intact, and I soon gave up any attempt at mediation. I began instead to say to myself explicitly that that hatred was an advantage for me: if my father and his sister made peace, my encounters with Vittoria wouldn’t be exclusive, I might be downgraded to niece, and certainly I would lose the role of friend, confidante, accomplice. Sometimes I felt that if they stopped hating each other I would do something to make them start again.

I can’t really talk about the novel in the singular as I see her individual novels now as a tapestry of different women characters from Naples, in various stages of their life – the two friends in My Brilliant Friend, the daughter in Troubling Love and the betrayed wife of The Days of Abandonment.

The Lying Life of Adults Elena Ferrante

Photo by Luidi Cardoso on Pexels.com

Inside the overthinking mind of an adolescent and the pushing boundary-like behaviours, exposing that lying life, provoking reactions, seeing the damage of truth-telling and then the transition, an increasing self-awareness, noticing a reduced need to react to annoyances, about one’s parents, one’s friends, teachers, family. A letting go. A transition. Decisions. To care or not to care.

I behaved like that certainly to feel free from all the old bonds, to make it clear that I didn’t care anymore about the judgment of relatives and friends, their values, their wanting me to be consistent with what they imagined themselves to be.

Ferrante provides the reader no easy conclusions, makes no judgments, but leads you down paths that will confront you with your own, as you carry on a conversation inside your own mind, wondering and trying to guess what her character might do next.

As the novel nears the end, it reads almost like a thriller, as we can see she is moving towards adulthood, her behaviours are less volatile, she feels less of a need to respond so violently, and yet, there is the danger that now she is becoming one of them – an adult – those who hide their behaviours behind lies.

Raw, intense, a delightful, refreshing, “stand up to them” protagonist.

My Reviews of Ferrante Books

Photo by Emre Kuzu on Pexels.com

Troubling Love (novel)

The Days of Abandonment (novel)

The Neapolitan Quartet: (tetralogy – 4 novels)

My Brilliant Friend

The Story of a New Name

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

The Story of the Lost Child

Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey (nonfiction)

Further Reading

Review, Guardian:  a rebel rich girl comes of age

Elena Ferrante Shares 40 Favourite Books by Female Authors

 

Elena Ferrante Shares 40 Favourite Books by Female Authors

As I’m currently reading her most recent novel, The Lying Life of Adults published in September 2020 and being a fan of many of her books to date, including My Brilliant Friend, The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love and Frantumaglia, I was interested to learn thanks to the publisher Europa Editions that:

Elena Ferrante has compiled a list of novels close to her heart, all by women authors, and exclusively for Bookshop.org, the new alternative to Amazon for socially conscious shoppers wanting to support high street bookshops when they shop online.

Given the type of characters and narratives Elena Ferrante is known for, her stories usually set in or have a connection with the working class neighbourhood of Naples and concern female protagonists coming to terms with their situation, whether they are girls, young mothers, grieving daughters or an adolescent trying to make sense of the adult world, I thought it would be interesting to know which authors she gravitates towards, who she has been influenced by and being Italian, she is likely to have read books that might be outside the common anglo reading mainstream.

I’m sharing the list here as an easy reference for me to look at and will link any of the titles I have already read to my reviews. I have read 13 of the titles, though only reviewed six of them.

Elena FerranteI’ve also added the countries the author is associated with, either by birth and/or nationality, as I find that helpful, it being one of the criteria by which I decide whether to read a book or not – to avoid always reading works from the same cultural influence.

The list is quite Euro-American influenced, with only one African representation (or two if you count Doris Lessing), so while not quite as diverse as what I like to read, it’s an interesting exploration of the female pysche through female literature of the ages from those cultures represented.

I did also read that the list was limited by what is available in English and by what is available from the Bookshop, so there are titles that haven’t been shared because either they haven’t been translated into English or are not available. I wish they had been included because that might have sparked an even more interesting debate about the lack of availability of works in other languages and to hear the chorus of readers who might have helped persuade publishers to do something about that.

Juliana at The Blank Garden has more to say about that in her critique of the list (see the link to her blog post below), she is very widely read across languages, a wonderful reviewer and has read 28 of the titles. I’ll be referring to her favourites of Elena’s favourites as a further guide!

Elena Ferrante’s top 40 books by female authors

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria/America)
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Canada)
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Iran/Australia) translated by Anonymous
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann (Austria) translated by Philip Boehm (German)
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (US)
Outline by Rachel Cusk (UK)
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (US)
A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (Iran/France) translated by Tina Kover
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (France) translated by Barbara Bray
The Years by Annie Ernaux (France) translated by Alison Strayer
Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg (Italy) translated by Jenny McPhee
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (US)
Motherhood by Sheila Heti (Canada)
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (Austria) translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (Japan) translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (US/India)
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (Zimbabwe/UK)
The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector (Ukraine/Brazil) translated by Idra Novey
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)
Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein
Beloved by Toni Morrison (US)
Dear Life by Alice Munro (Canada)
The Bell by Iris Murdoch (UK)
Accabadora by Michela Murgia (Italy) translated by Silvester Mazzarella
Le Bal by Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine/France) translated by Sandra Smith
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (US)
The Love Object: Selected Stories by Edna O’Brien (Ireland)
A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (US)
Evening Descends Upon the Hills: Stories from Naples by Anna Maria Ortese (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein & Jenny McPhee
Gilead by Marylynne Robinson (US)
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Ireland)
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (India)
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (UK)
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (US)
The Door by Magda Szabò (Hungary) translated by Len Rix
Cassandra by Christa Wolf (Poland/Germany) translated by Jan van Heurck
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (US)
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (Belgium/US) translated by Grace Frick

Further Reading

Critic of the List: Elena Ferrante’s Shopping Advice | Reading Project

Article, Guardian: ‘This is revolutionary’: new online bookshop unites indies to rival Amazon

Article, Guardian: List by pseudonymous author of Neapolitan novels includes Zadie Smith, Sally Rooney and several Italian classics

 

Booker Prize 2020 Winner – Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart has won the Booker Prize  2020 for his Scottish working-class novel, Shuggie Bain, a novel that follows a boy growing up in poverty in 1980s Glasgow with a mother who is battling addiction.

Booker Prize Winner 2020 National Book Award WinnerIt was inspired by some of his own personal experience, his mother died of alcoholism when he was 16.

Here’s what the judges had to say:

Shuggie Bain has so much heart and it does much to put you so deeply inside the society of impoverished Glasgow in the 1980’s. Emily Wilson

It’s heartrending, it’s hopeful, but it’s also desperately sad, it has humour, it has so many qualities, it’s fiction at its best. Margaret Busby

The author, through the two magnificent characters at the centre of this book, they lead us through this world and they are the spark of humanity that makes the pain bearable. Sameer Rahim

The poetic prose and the clear characterisation and sense of place, that has to make this the number one. Lemn Sissay

For future generations of our readers I sincerely think it will be a long term classic that is loved, admired and remembered for a very long time. Lee Child

Glasgow Scotland Shuggie Bain Douglas Stuart

‘Glasgow’ – Photo, Anna Urlapova on Pexels.com

Scottish Prime Minister and avid reader, Nicola Sturgeon describing it as a raw, searing and beautifully tender novel, mentioned that Douglas Stuart becomes the second Scot to have won the prize; his book also a finalist for the National Book Award (an American Literature Prize) for Fiction awarded this week, that prize won by Charles Yu for Interior Chinatown.

“When James Kelman won in the mid-90s, Scottish voices were seen as disruptive and outside the norm. And now to see Shuggie at the centre of it, I can’t express it,” he said. “Young boys like me growing up in 80s Glasgow, this wasn’t ever anything I would have dreamed of.”

Writing about Glasgow from the US “brought clarity, but it also allowed me to fall in love with the city again”, describing it as “a city of reluctant optimists by default”.

“How would we have survived otherwise?” he asked. “When you don’t have the comfort of money, then you are forced to deal with life on the frontlines, and sometimes love, humour, optimism is all you can bring to a bad situation.”

– extract from interview with Stuart by the Guardian

The only two I have read from the shortlist were Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body.  Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is already considered a modern classic, one I’d highly recommend if you haven’t already read it.

I have been seeing excellent reviews of Shuggie Bain so I may read it in the months to come. Although I have Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze on my shelf, so that might be sooner!

Booker Prize Shortlist 2020

Have you read Shuggie Bain? If so, what did you think of it?

Further Reading

Article: Douglas Stuart wins Booker Prize – the Guardian

 

Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy tr. Aylmer Maude

The Kindness of Enemies Shamil ImamI read Hadji Murad because it was referenced in the last pages of Leila Aboulela’s excellent The Kindness of Enemies and is set in the same location as the historical part of her book, 1850’s Caucasus. Aboulela’s book centres on the kidnap of A Russian Princess and her time in captivity under the protection of the Highlander Shamil Imam. He wishes to trade her for his son, help captive by the Russians for more than ten years.

Tolstoy was in the Russian army for a time and clearly witnessed many missions. One of the events he had knowledge of and wrote about, though this novella was published post-humously by his wife, was the defection to Russia and subsequent killing of one of Shamil Khan’s chieftans, another Highlander, Hadji Murad.

Though I’m not a huge fan of the classics, there are some exceptions and I did enjoy Anna Karenina, however having read Aboulela’s version which really brings the characters alive and highlights their dilemmas so openly, I found it hard to connect with Tolstoy’s tale, which rarely touches on lives other than the soldiers and noble decision makers.

Hadji Murad Thistle Leo Tolstoy

Photo by nastia on Pexels.com

The opening scene though is brilliant, the ploughed field, bereft of life, everything turned over, leaves only one sturdy thistle, half destroyed but for that one stalk still standing tall, the flower head emitting its bold crimson colour.

The land was well tilled and nowhere was there a blade of grass or any kind of plant to be seen; it was all black. “Ah, what a destructive creature is man… How many different plant lives he destroys to support his own experience!” thought I, involuntarily looking round for some living thing in this lifeless black field.

It is the scene that brings back the memory of this man Hadji Murad and compels him to write out those pages, perhaps purging himself of a ghastly memory.

“What energy!” I thought. “Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won’t submit.” And I remembered a Caucasian episode of years ago, which I had partly seen myself, partly heard of from eye-witnesses, and in part imagined.

It does make me think that he had intended not to publish it, that perhaps it was written for another purpose altogether. Particularly as, at the time he wrote it (1896-1903)

he was spending most of his time writing his virulent tracts against the art of fiction and denouncing some of the best writers in the world, including Shakespeare.

In conclusion, it highlights to me the importance of reading various perspectives of history, not just one side or the other, but also across gender. It is refreshing to read a female historian’s fictional version of an age old conflict, inhabiting characters who observe from positions of lesser power, of oppression, for their powers of observation are that much stronger than the privileged, it being one of their necessary survival instincts.

The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela (2015)

Earlier this year I read my first book by Leila Aboulela Bird Summons (2019), a wonderful novel about three immigrant women, born in different countries but living in Scotland, setting off on a holiday in the Highlands, to pay homage to Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman convert to Islam to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

I really enjoyed it for many reasons, confirming I wished to read more of her work, thus I chose The Kindness of Enemies as her next book to read, one I have had my eye on for some years, having refused to buy earlier because of the dreadful cover. That may sound whimsical, but I think that earlier cover does this book a great disservice, the way it turns readers away.

Being Muslim and an Academic in 21st century Scotland

Hadji Murad Tolstoy Leila AboulelaI was completely drawn into the dual narrative story and loved both parts of it, modern day Scotland and mid 1800’s Russia and the Caucasus.

The contemporary story centres around Natasha Wilson (born Natasha Hussein to a Russian mother and Sudanese father, themselves the product of a Russian university education, her name is changed when her mother marries a Scot). A university lecturer in Scotland, her research concerns the life of the Caucasian Highlander, Shamil Imam.

Natasha is friends with Malak, of Russian/Persian parentage; her son Oz, is in her class and they possess a historical artefact belonging to Shamil Imam, due to an ancestral connection. Natasha is in their home when Oz is arrested for downloading  materials related to jihad and she too comes under suspicion, her telephone and laptop seized.

“I was seeing in these awkward composites my own liminal self. The two sides of me that were slammed together against their will, that refused to mix. I was a failed hybrid, made up of unalloyed selves. My Russian mother who regretted marrying my Sudanese father. My African father who came to hate his white wife. My atheist mother who blotted out my Muslim heritage. My Arab father who gave me up to Europe without a fight. I was the freak. I had been told so and I had been taught so and I had chewed on this verdict to the extent that, no matter what, I could never purge myself of it entirely.”

Meanwhile, in Sudan, her father whom she hasn’t seen for 20 years is dying and there is pressure for her to go and see him, along with feelings of resentment and ill-will, demanding her to stand up for herself and her existence, a daughter of mixed heritage, living a life she has created for herself.

“It was an effort formulating this summary, explaining myself. I preferred the distant past, centuries that were over and done with, ghosts that posed no direct threat. History could be milked for this cause or that. We observed it always with hindsight, projecting onto it our modern convictions and anxieties.”

Being Muslim and a Caucasian Highlander in the 19th century

Interwoven between chapters of Natasha’s story, we are transported to the Caucasus territory in the 1850’s, to a period during the conflict between the Highlander mountain men lead by Shamil Imam who were resisting Tsarist Russia from expanding into their territory.

Shamil Imam, the Chieftan of Dagestan, led an armed resistance for thirty years, he appears in Leo Tolstoy’s classic posthumous novella Hadji Murad.  Through imagination and historical fact, Leila Aboulela enters his territory and home, bringing us a view from the spaces women and children inhabit, not just that of men, as Tolstoy does.

Caucasus Pricess Anna of Georgia kidnap

In earlier years, to settle a conflict, Shamil was only able to negotiate peace by surrendering his son Jamaleldin, who for the next ten years or so was raised as part of the Tsar’s family (as his godson). Now Shamil’s men have captured the  Russian Princess Anna (previously of Georgia – her grandfather Gregory XI, the last King of Georgia, ceded the territory to Russia), her French governess and two children Alexander and Lydia.

“Nothing has caused me so much pain as treachery. If the Russians would fight me honourably, I would not mind living the rest of my life in a state of war. But they tricked me; in Akhulgo they treated me like a criminal, not a warrior, and they sent my son far away to St Petersburg.”

The Kindness of Enemies follows these stories and although one carries the heavyweight magnitude of a well-known story of significant characters in history, the foreshadowing of it by a modern story, brings to light the many aspects of the past, whose threads might be seen as being current today.

Kindness and Empathy, Another Perspective

Much of the literature of the Caucasus in the literary imagination is told from the Russian perspective, by grand novelists like Tolstoy and Pushkin, whereas Leila Aboulela, by setting this historical period during the time of the Princess’s capture, takes us on that journey, re-imagining events that took place, understanding better the complicated and mixed sympathies of Princess Anna, a young mother, exploring her loss and how those eight months in captivity might have changed her.

The Kindness of Enemies Leila Aboulela The Queen's Gambit

Photo by Charlie Solorzano on Pexels.com

She also presents the perspective of young Jamaleldin in another light, how his childhood memories lie dormant yet present, his mixed feelings of the return, his strange and estranged reality of feeling part of himself belonging to both worlds, the Highlands and to St Petersburg.

There was a time when it had all been much simpler. He rescued from the wild, Nicholas the benevolent godfather. He the pet, Nicholas the mighty. He the puppet, Nicholas the conductor, the thrower of crumbs, the arranger of roles, the changer of destinies. Jamaleldin the chess piece, and now Shamil had changed the rules of the game.

In the contemporary world, Natasha experiences something of the same, born of culturally different parents, spending her childhood in one country, her adulthood in another. She must create her own sense of belonging, to find peace of mind somehow. Being neither one thing or the other, having no one place called home, hers, by necessity is a spiritual journey, determined by the need for the soul to find home, rather than body or mind.

“I said that I was not a good Muslim but that I was not a bad person. I said I had a brother that I wanted to keep in touch with. I said that I wanted to give up my share of the inheritance to him. Apart from my father’s Russian books and Russian keepsakes, I wanted nothing. I said that I did not come here today to fight over money or for the share of a house. I came so that I would not be an outcast, so that I would, even in a small way, faintly, marginally, tentatively, belong.”

Highly Recommended.

My Reviews of Interest

Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela

Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina tr. Lisa Hayden

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself, Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Further Reading/Watching

Interview: Leila Aboulela Discusses The Kindness of Enemies The Arab Weekly

Review: For the Joy of Reading: The Kindness of Enemies by David Kenvyn

Documentary: Mountain Men and Holy Wars – film-maker Taran Davies traces the life and legacy of Shamil Imam

Article: Why do we Continue to Use the Word Caucasian? by Yolanda Moses, Professor of Anthropology

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

I couldn’t stop thinking about this trilogy and all that it depicted after reading, and wasn’t sure how to even write about it, with all it’s implications, meaning and symbolism, implicit within the story and its complicated, unlikable but understandable protagonist.

This Mournable Body Nervous Conditions

Nervous Conditions The Trilogy

A month since I finished it, I waited so I could listen live to Sara Collins (author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton) interview Tsitsi Dangarembga for the London Review Bookshop, following on from her Booker Prize shortlisting.

This exceptional interview should be available soon, one I highly recommend listening to. Dangarembga is such an asset to Zimbabwe and to world literature, for all that she pours into her work and the example she sets in her life, a form of “celebration in resistance”.

Her first book Nervous Conditions, published 30 years ago, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1988 and was hailed as a masterpiece by the grandfather of African literature Chinua Achebe. It was a 5 star read for me, brilliant.

Preview of Nervous Conditions & The Book of Not

Tsitsi Dangarembga Nervous Conditions trilogyOn the surface, as we discover in the first two books of this trilogy (each book can be read stand alone) Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not (links to my reviews below), this is the story of Tambudzai, a girl from a Zimbabwean village.

We are witness to her coming of age and entry into adulthood and how that is influenced by her encounters with the outside world, beginning with her cousin Nyasha and family, who return from living in England changed, possessed of an air Tambudzai aspires to, knowing she will only acquire it via a certain type of education.

Though she succeeds, it marks the beginning of her losing something of herself, in the way that every country that was ever colonised, began a simultaneous descent when their vision of themselves too, was slanted in another direction.

Tambudzai is diligent and focused on becoming something that “others” approve of and pursues it relentlessly, in the belief that this will enable her to succeed and create a more self-gratifying life than she would have been destined for in the destitute village she came from.

This Mournable Body

In This Mournable Body, Tambudzai is at a low point, she has left a job at an ad agency on a principle, having had her work used and feted without acknowledgement. It is a resentment she has never uttered, nor been supported in, and knows it is futile to pursue. Wrongs happen in silence, rights are not up for discussion. But now she is without a job and approaching the limit of the acceptable age to be dwelling in a girl’s hostel.

This Mournable Body Tsitsi Dangarembga

Photo by Drigo Diniz on Pexels.com

As the novel opens, she views herself in the mirror and sees reflected a hideous image, something Collins asked Dangarembga to explain the symbolism of.

“She is consumed with self loathing, and this goes back to, how being black is, if you have not really made that psychological and internal journey, one can still take on all the negativity around blackness from society and internalise it, so in her bid to become educated and shake off everything that she sees as negative and simply disastrous from her life in the village, she has internalised all that, and this is what she sees when she looks into the mirror. She sees a hideous monster that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with. And the whole book really is trying to bring her perception of herself and her actual self together in a healthier manner.”

She moves to a widow’s home and ponders another route out of her self-imposed stuckness. While helping herself to the contents of the vegetable garden, she imagines seducing one of the widow’s sons, though never acts on it. Homemaking has never been one of her aspirations.

Returning to teaching, we recall her experience as a pupil, however what she encounters are wholly different children, the “born-frees”, born after the independence of 1980, who she has difficulty relating to, having been conditioned by a colonial style education.

She considers writing to her cousin Nyasha, who is now living in Berlin, for advice on leaving Zimbabwe, as she begins to feel more and more out of place.

You do not post the letter. Instead, you tear it up and laugh bitterly at yourself: If you cannot build a life in your own country, how will you do so in another? Were you not offered an escape from penury and its accompanying dereliction of dreams through many years of education provided by your babamukuru, your uncle, first at his mission, then at a highly respected convent?

Writing in the Second Person Narrative Style

Author Tsitsi Dangarembga ZimbabweWe see Dangarembga’s evolution as a writer, in her decision to use the second person (you) narrative perspective, something I noticed straight away as it gives the reader a jolt and then it reels you in, making you step inside the mind of the protagonist and experience her thoughts and actions first-hand.

“It created a kind of intimacy that forces the reader to listen and engage with and it enables someone to unburden themselves.”

Tambu has always adapted to fit in and tried to excel to overcome obstacles, in the classroom signs of mental unease appear, she reaches breaking point. And tips over.

Returning to her cousins home, she is further disillusioned, unwilling to accept her reality, her aspirations still carry foreign expectations.

It’s a life of pursuit and escape as each new venture brushes up against values and principles that force her to act when she realises she is compromising who she is. Denial battles with mental stability. When ants appear it’s a sign that a course-correction is required.

Collins describes that use of the second person as a form of “shaking the reader awake” and asks if the novel intended to take a nation and shake it awake. Although it wasn’t Dangarembga’s intention to write specifically about the nation, that is perhaps something that unfolds as she explains:

“You can not be who you are outside of the context that you are living in, and so of course your context is going to determine you. The question for a writer is how far do I want to follow that kind of interconnection between an individual and society and for me that has been my subject matter in these three novels.”

And here in this longer quote, she speaks about the necessity and importance of an individual and a nation to be able to have choices, to be able to reflect, something that is taken for granted by those who are not oppressed.

“The idea of shaking awake was on my mind, my feeling was that our society in Zimbabwe does not really reflect very much, it’s very much about getting the next meal, making sure that things are working and this goes back into our culture pre-colonial days, because it was never the utopia that people like to think it is sometimes, and especially the state likes us to think that everything was wonderful pre-colonial days. 

There were our fair share of troubles, and the climate here has never been very abundant, so just the general things of food and surviving were very practical issues that people had to engage with and there wasn’t that much time to reflect

I felt that we needed to find a way to reflect, but to reflect in a way that wasn’t about pointing fingers and reflecting externally, but to see how we are part of the whole process and then if we understand how the ways we think and behave and the culture that we have built up, is complicit in creating the conditions that we are living in now, I felt that we would perhaps be able to think our way out of the situation. It had to be done gently, it had to be done in a non-accusatory manner and so these were the things on my mind when I wrote This Mournable Body.”

When NPR’s Sacha Pfeiffer interviewed the author, she asked what message Tsitsi Dangarembga was giving to young Zimbabweans, given the despair of her anti-hero Tambudzai:

“What happens is up to us because Tambudzai – all she’s concerned with is getting ahead in her own life. I show that that kind of attitude may lead to a person getting what they want for some time. But in the end, the repercussions of that kind of behaviour are going to be felt by everybody…because since the economy is so difficult, people think, I just have to put my head down and do what’s best for me. But that doesn’t solve the community – and – national – level issues that we have to engage with.”

Highly Recommended and gets my vote to win the Booker Prize 2020.

My Reviews of Zimbabwean Literature

Novuyo Rose Tshuma ZimbabweNervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga Book #1

The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga Book #2

House of Stone by Novuyo Rose Tshuma – Highly Recommended by Tsitsi Dangarembga (published 2018)

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (shortlisted for Booker Prize & the Guardian First Book Award, 2013)

Further Reading

Review: This Mournable Body by Mphuthumi Ntabeni

Born Free: 40 Years After Independence in Zimbabwe by Thandekile Moyo

Listen/Read: Sacha Pfeiffer NPR, interviews Tsitsi Dangarembga ‘This Mournable Body’: A Novel About Life In Independent Zimbabwe

Article, New Yorker by Teju Cole: Unmournable Bodies – inspiration for the title

Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan

Savage Her Reply Deirdre SullivanI was drawn to read this having never heard of the Irish myth, fairytale The Children of Lir and I was intrigued by the Gaelic names and words. I’m planning to read Tangleweed and Brine, a collection of shorter retold stories by the same author as well.

I loved the structure of the book, the italicised pages preceding some chapters that narrate a classic version of the tale, followed by the author’s chapter which provides greater depth and is told from the point of view of Aife, the middle sister, married off to Lir after her sister died in childbirth, who casts a spell on these children that disgraces her forever, and is punished in turn.

In an interview the author speaks of having an affection for the story since first encountering an illustrated version, as a child in the Galway City Library.

I was pulled to her, so much of the narrative unfolds because of the force of her, her need for love, her anger and her strength, but she disappears once she has been shamed and punished, transformed into a demon of the air. I didn’t know what a demon of the air was, but I wanted to know.

Fostered, Remarried & Step-Mothered

I can imagine she is usually depicted as sinister, she is a stepmother after all and they seemed destined to not be capable of any act of kindness or heroism in storytelling across all cultures, so I suppose we ought to be grateful that at least she will encounter forgiveness. I did hold out hope that perhaps the author might have dug deeper or stretched the imagination to somehow redeem this woman’s callous actions even more. I wish there could have been room for more engagement with the source of her pain and regret.

It is a strange tale as her actions seem to be on account of her character – or perhaps due to a deep unacknowledged resentment at having been severed and separated, along with her two sisters, from their parents at a young age – rather than any apparent bad treatment by the husband or father as one might expect. Something in her motive remains a mystery despite the little soul searching she does.

“Perhaps I am a dark, unpleasant creature. But I am my own creature. I am mine, my feet on the earth and the water in my soul and fire in my heart. And when all is taken from me I will still have my anger and my pain and they will feed me.”

Calligrams, Poems and the Artful Language Of Ogham

The artwork and use of feathers is brilliant, I enjoyed that each chapter had a mysterious, almost cryptic illustration of calligrams and poems laid out in particular shapes, their titles words from a language I’d never heard of. The shapes mimic the characters (and many letters are said to be linked to trees), using letters of the earliest Irish medieval alphabet Ogham.

I couldn’t help but add my own little autumn tree representation to some of the pages below, the photos can be seen and read more clearly in this thread I created here. It is a day for rituals after all.

Reaffirming once again (having just read A Ghost in the Throat) the importance of poetry, storytelling and creativity to Irish myth and culture, in its many forms.

The Author, Deirdre Sullivan

is an award winning author from Galway, Ireland and this is her tenth book, which has been shortlisted for an Irish Book Award 2020. Her collection of dark and witchy fairytale retellings, Tangleweed and Brine won Book of the Year at the 2018 Children’s Books Ireland awards and Young Adult Book of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. Her play Wake was performed at No Ropes theatre company in February 2019.

Further Reading

Interview: A Deeply Felt Book: Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan

A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio

translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Europa Editions Italian Literature Donatella Di PietrantonioA Girl Returned came to my attention because I like to see what Europa Editions are going to be publishing, they are known for bringing Italian literature to readers of the English language and their big title in 2020 will be Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. One I will be reading soon.

The Adoptee Experience

I chose to read A Girl Returned because I am interested in reading as much as possible, fiction or nonfiction, stories that portray the adoptee experience. And the premise of this book is shocking as the title suggests, when a thirteen year old girl is returned to the family she is born into without being told why or there appearing to be any clear motive.

Though as anyone with a connection with adoption will know, it is rare for the process to exist without the presence of secrets, lies, clandestine activities, resentments, heartbreak and denial.

Book Review

I was thirteen, yet I didn’t know my other mother.

The story opens as a 13-year-old girl struggles up the stairs of an apartment with an unwieldy suitcase and a bag of jumbled shoes. The door is opened by her sister Adriana, whom she has never met.

We looked like each then, more than we do as adults.

Through the months of adjustment that follow, thrown back into the reluctant family she was born into, events are narrated with hindsight, as her memory of that vision of her sister attests. She is determined to unravel the cause of this separation and abandonment by both sets of parents, at birth by her biological family and at 13 by her adoptive family, the latter, whose love she never questioned.

Photo by Ian Panelo on Pexels.com

Aware her mother had been suffering, she continues to worry and wonder about her, we the reader do too, trying to imagine and fearful of what might have ailed her that she was unable to share with her only daughter.

Who knew how my mother was. Whether she’d started eating again, whether she was getting out of bed more often. Or if instead she’d been taken to hospital. She hadn’t wanted to tell me anything about her illness, certainly she didn’t want to frighten me, but I had seen her suffering in the past months, she hadn’t even gone to the beach, she who was usually there in the first warm days of May. With her permission I went to our umbrella by myself, since I was grown up now, she said. I had gone the day before my departure and had even had fun with my friends: I didn’t believe that my parents would really find the courage to give me back.

As time passes, small clues diminish her resolve and trust in those around her, who seem to believe in or at least practice, silence and deception. The only way will be to take matters into her own hands.

The idea came to me at night, I reported it to Patrizia in the morning under the umbrella.

The one unexpected joy in her changed circumstances, though she accepts it reluctantly and is wary of it, is the fierce love, and admiration tinged with jealousy, she receives from her younger sister. Like candle light in a dark room, she is luminous yet capable of harm. There are wild differences, given their different upbringings, but there exists the thread of undeniable connection.

I wasn’t acquainted with hunger and I lived like a foreigner among the hungry. The privilege I bore from my earlier life distinguished me, isolated me in the family. I was the arminuta, the one who’d returned. I spoke another language and I no longer knew who I belonged to. I envied my classmates in the town, and even Adriana, for the certainty of their mothers.

Identity, Exile and The Mother

In a brilliant essay-style review, translator Stiliana Milkova suggests that the main concern of the novel is how essential the role of the mother is to our sense of identity.

Looking at mothers as the figures that determine and define who we are allows us to think about A Girl Returned as a novel about exile and dislocation, rather than simply motherhood. The Arminuta (a word that in the language of the Abruzzo region of Italy means “the returned”) is unexpectedly forced to leave her maternal home, or what she considers her maternal home, and exiled to a place whose customs, and even the language, are almost foreign to her.

The longer she stays in this forced exile, the more detached she becomes from both her present and her past, to who she was, is. So much had been tied to a mother’s love or bond. Though she remembers the feeling of being loved, she now questions it, faced with such devastating evidence.

In certain melancholy moods, I felt forgotten. I’d fallen out of her thoughts. There was no longer any reason to exist in the world. I softly repeated the word mamma a hundred times, until it lost all meaning and was only an exercise of the lips. I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now.

Photo by Bahaa A. Shawqi on Pexels.com

A short novel, A Girl Returned packs a powerful, moving punch and generously provides that glimmer of hope, in an unexpected alliance. Rereading these passages I highlighted makes me wish to repeat the entire reading experience, the shock, the solace, the resistance and resilience.

We look less like each other now, but we find the same meaning in this being thrown into the world.

Highly Recommended.

Reviews

Bella Mia by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, review by HeavenAli (Published in 2014, translated to English in 2016)

My Mother is a River by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, review by HeavenAli (Published in 2011, translated into English 2015)

Further Reading

Reviews by Translators: The Mother Of All Questions: Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s “A Girl Returned,” tr. Ann Goldstein by Stiliano Milkova

Article New York Times: ‘The Ferrante Effect’: In Italy, Women Writers Are Ascendant by Anna Momigliano

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of the book.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

I was eager to read The Shadow King (shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020) to learn more about the history of the country, although perhaps if I am honest, I am more interested in the people and the culture, without reference to another culture that is trying to invade or colonise it. Ethiopia became one of only two African nations to have never been colonised, despite attempts following the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 when 14 European countries divided Africa among themselves.

Ethiopia Flag the Shadow King

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

For the culture, the people and their history are so much more than the slim chapters that get all the attention, when power hungry regions and men look for prestige and/or revenge and the media (with its inevitable bias) makes everyone look. And if those nations that invade come out looking bad, or worse humiliated (especially by women), then you can be sure the stories will be buried and/or rewritten so as not to offend the innocent of their own country.

Italy Invades Ethiopia 1935

Ethiopia defeated Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa in the nineteenth century (1896), saving them from Italian colonisation, so their subsequent aggressive incursion in 1935, one that provides a framework for this novel, might be seen as revenge or an attempt to boost Italian national prestige by exercising this second attempt to assert control and join their European brothers in having a colony of their own.

The Shadow King Maaza MengisteBut the novel isn’t about politics, it concerns a few players and characters, who we are given glimpses of, in a style that is like a series of snapshots, a narrative that therefore has gaps and not the fluidity of a traditional story, nor enables us to really get to know too well the characters, limited as we are by this kaleidoscopic technique.

A Photo or A Thousand Words

I heard/saw Maaza Mengiste during the (online) Edinburgh BookFest this year and learned that she was indeed aided in her research and imagination by a set of photographs, something that reminded me of On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, an author who also used photographs to aid her storytelling ( a memoir of her mother), however Cumming shares the photographs with the reader and Mengiste  shares two, requiring the words to work even harder for the reader. I found this device here a distraction, not expecting a literary device, I had expected more of a character lead historical narrative, a warning not to create expectations before reading. In the talk she gave, she showed some of the photographs that had inspired some of the narrative, she had surrounded herself with them as she wrote.

A Woman’s Lot & What She is Capable Of

We meet orphaned Hirute, who works as a maid for a husband and wife of nobility, Aster and Kidane, brought into their family due to a promise made to her parents. A fractious relationship exists between the three of them, there is dependence, resentment, attraction, jealousy and comradeship. A heady mix. With the nation at war, and tired of waiting for Kidane to return, the women decide to participate in the fight, an inclination also connected to the gun Hirute was left by her father, one that Kidane took from her, that she is determined to retrieve and use.

Ethiopian Woman The Shadow King Maaza MengisteOne evening they listen to the radio and hear the (now) famous words of Empress Menen of Ethiopia disclosing the aggression to the World Women’s League,  appealing to all world nations:

“We all know that war destroys mankind, and in spite of differences in race, creed, and religion, women all across the world despise war because its fruit is nothing but destruction.

War kills our husbands, our brothers, and our children. It destroys our homes, and scatters our families. At this hour and in such a tragic and sad period, when aggressors are planning to bring a heavy war into our lives, we would like to bring this to the attention of all women through the world, that it is their duty to voice and express solidarity against such acts.”

Women participated in this war, not just an historical fact, but one that Mengiste discovered lay in her own family, (her great-grandmother enlisted to fight). It was a subject few talked about, and one that history books seem to have omitted, to the point where few female veterans remain, whose stories can be told. One can see how easily their experiences are relegated to myth and the author is to be commended for the 10 years of perseverance it took to bring this story to light.

Though she uses her imagination, it is historical fiction after all, this is not a fantasy or adventure, and the role these women took on and the sacrifices and risks they took in doing so, meant they were heroines not in the traditional masculine sense, but that they showed solidarity towards keeping these invaders away and presented an image of provocation and strength, one that no European army, likely had ever seen.

“I realised that the closer I looked at women, the more I began to understand the many different battles that they were fighting; the conflicts were on the battlefields, but they also happened in the military camps. Women had to contend with multi-layered violence; there is fighting as soldiers, but there is fighting as women whose bodies are imagined to be the territories for their compatriots.”

Space is also given to a conflicted soldier in the Italian army, who, while fighting under orders from his own country, learns that his own survival is under threat, when all soldiers are asked to complete a census. Though he states his religion as none, his  name makes him a target of another European aggression going on at that time. He provides a counterpoint to the aggression and his occupation as photographer, a man who sits for hours in contemplation of his subject, often under orders, is a source of both horror and soulful reflection.

Never Admit Defeat, What About Forgiveness?

In an interview, Mengiste tells of a visit to Calabria in the south of Italy for her first book (set in 1974), when a man stood and asked if he could talk to her about 1935; it was a tense and emotional moment from a man asking for forgiveness for what his father had been involved in.

Italy has not talked about this history; it’s still difficult for Italians to comprehend what they did in east Africa. A few people grumbled for him to sit down. But he was visibly shaken and emotional. He told me that his father was a pilot during the war. He said: “My father dropped poison on your people. How do I ask for your forgiveness?” And he started crying.

It was at that moment that I said to myself: “My God, this history is not done, this war that feels distant but is not distant. There’s still the question, How do we bridge this gap between us?”

The Shadow King goes some way towards bridging that gap and opens the way for more to seek answers and ask more questions and to remember that women are not a mere footnote in history, there are thousands of untold stories from the past of their endeavours.

This was a slow moving, challenging read, many may not have the patience required to read it, but I’m glad I persevered.

Maaza Mengiste, Author

was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1974. Her family fled the Ethiopian revolution when she was a child a history she explores in her first novel, one I’m looking forward to reading.  A Fulbright Scholar and professor in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation programme at Queens College, she is the author of The Shadow King and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, named one of the Guardian’s Ten Best Contemporary African Books. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and the New York Times.

Further Reading

New York Times Interview : The ‘Detective Work’ Behind a War Novel by Wadzanai Mhute Nov 12, 2020

Guardian Interview: The Language of War is Always Masculine

10 Surprising Facts About Ethiopia

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.