Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Healing Women magic realism slavery freedomI loved how this historical novel focuses on the lives of these women, Rue her mother May Belle and grandmother Ma Doe and the community within which they live, without allowing the narrative to stray over too far into the lives and homes of those who diminished their lives.

It is set in two time periods, just before and just after the civil war, so Freedomtime from 1867 onward Surrender 1865 and Slaverytime from May 1861. In particular it inhabits the Reconstruction era, the brief hollow of time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Jim Crow era, ten years that would have been strangely bittersweet, fraught with disbelief.

Mostly the narrative revolves around Rue who wasn’t taught her mother’s skills yet learned them all the same. Healing and conjuring, midwifery and herbal remedies. Setting things to right.

Other slavefolk got hired out for their washing, for their carpentering, for their fine greasy cooking. Miss May Belle was hired for her hoodooing.

“Hoodoo,” Miss May Belle used to say “is black folks currency.”

She had admitted only once, to Rue, in confidence: “The thing about curses is that you can know who you’ve wronged the most by who you fear has the notion to curse you.”

By shifting the narrative back and forth to tell the story, the reader, like Rue is kept in suspense regarding some of the terrible wrongs done to people, some on the connections and relations between people.

photography of fruits on a tray

Photo Valeria Boltneva @Pexels.com

In the slave masters house there is a young girl Varnia, who is Rue’s age and her playmate. Then there is Sarah, also of similar age, who gives birth in the opening pages to a baby born enveiled in a caul, which provokes people’s superstitions. Rue develops a connection to this baby who seems other worldly.

When the communities babies begin to suffer from a mysterious illness, they begin to distrust her and her methods and rely instead on a charistmatic travelling preacher Bruh Abel, whom Rue has strange feelings for. She hatches a plan to try and bring favour back her way, but it backfires on her and she will seek his help to restore their faith.

She’d known him for what he was then. He was a clear-water cure sweetened with nothing more than clever words a con man’s type of conjure.

Conjure Women CovrIn May Belle’s time, one of the ways to effect a conjure was to make a doll that bore a resemblance to the person and if possible to access strands of hair to entwine with whatever material was used. Varina has porcelain dolls that Rue admires and is envious of, when she discovers her mother is making a doll that faintly resembles her, she pretends not to notice she has discovered it, and will mask even further her disappointment when she misreads its purpose.

Reading this story, made me reflect on how many historical fiction narratives of slavery, civil war and early freedom are told from within the Household and the fields. And how as readers we often come to expect that. How refreshing that Afia Atakora stays with these women and tells their stories from a different vantage point, not needing to take us into the politics of their war, or the lives or agenda of those in the House.

There is one scene where Rue is present for an event that takes place inside the Master’s house and it is telling that she observes the entire scene from within a locked box, that she can lift only slightly, therefore only seeing a sliver of what takes place.

Atakora does the same to her readers, when it comes to observing slave masters and mistresses and white people in her narrative. They never take centre stage even if they still maintain the ability to commit gross acts that impact the lives of her characters.

“We tend to paint slavery in America in broad strokes. There are these pervasive singular images of overseers and cotton fields. We think of it in terms of Amendments and Proclamations and Battles. But it’s a vast 200+ years of history filled with nuance and complexity and no two experiences could have possibly been alike.”

It’s a novel that demonstrates the effect of conditioning, regardless of changed circumstances, the legacy of bondage and the aspects of genetic inheritance that refuse to be extinguished through the will of others.

“Rue-baby” Miss May Belle would’ve said, “there ain’t no easier lie to tell folks than the one they wanna believe.”

A thought provoking read that shakes up conventional storytelling and vantage points.

Further Reading

Interview: A Conversation with Afia Atakora on Conjure Women

Afia Atakora

Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. She graduated from New York University and has an MFA from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the De Alba Fellowship. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers.

 

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve tr. Adriana Hunter

Winter Flowers Angélique VilleneuveWinter Flowers (Les Fleurs d’hiver) by Angélique Villenueuve, translated by Adriana Hunter is published Oct 7 by Peirene Press, a boutique publishing house, specialising in high-quality first-translations of contemporary European novellas that can be read in an afternoon.

Review

A young woman in 1918 Paris is considered one of the fortunate, when her husband returns from war injured. Wearing a face mask. He lived. He is not the same man who left. When Toussaint Caillet was transferred from the department of facial injuries at Val-de-Grâce military hospital, he sent Jeanne a one sentence note ordering her not to visit.

They have a 3 year old daughter who only knows her father by the portrait of the soldier on the wall of their cramped quarters. She has two fathers, the Papa who left and the man who returned.

Of course she’d expected that the war and his injury would have changed him, but she’d never tried to imagine the scale or even the nature of this disruption. The letter he’d sent her in January 1917 had been a dark window and, once she’d stomached the pain of it, she’d made a point of not reopening it.

Jeanne works from home making artificial flowers, she is trying to be patient and understanding, but her husband’s refusal to engage inflames her.

Sitting at her table, Jeanne senses nothing. It has to be said that the huge red dahlias, whose wound-like qualities are accentuated by the light of the oil lamp, completely absorb her in a swirl of scarlet. The repeated gestures gradually steal over her body, leaving no part of her in which she can drift. When Jeanne sleeps or closes her eyes, when she’s most absent in mind or body, she knows this much: the flowers are still there and always will be.

red dahlia winter flowers angélique villeneuve wound like

Photo David JakabPexels.com

When he finally leaves the room, she follows him. It is not the first time.

Her neighbour Sidonie, a seamstress, has lost almost everything, they support each other. She is about to be tipped over the edge.

Winter Flowers exquisitely renders a situation many lived through and few understood. The silence and destruction of men who survived, who came back traumatised. Who never spoke of what happened. Who may or may not have healed. And the women who stood beside them, who persevered, who sacrificed and learned to live with the reality of what they too had lost.

Like all women whose husbands or sons had been mobilised, though, she’d heard countless stories about men’s homecomings. Poor women. Those who entrusted a sheep to their country  were given back a lion. Someone who’d sent out a young lad was said to have come home an old man, or mad.

And there were so many, Jeanne was well aware, who would never come home at all.

Despite the terrible events and circumstances, the hopes and fears, the woman too must participate and receive the words of recognition from those in power, despite their grief, unable to express their truth.

The mayor’s words are incomprehensible they come and go and sting. Jeanne doesn’t know whether it’s up to them, the women here, these workwomen, to tame the words and arrange them in the correct order, whether it’s really to them that they’re addressed. They flow too quickly. They fly too high. There are too many of them.

Thunder and fire, men freezing and caked in mud and half poisoned by noxious gases, heroes, brothers, love, defeat, hope, victory, history peace, blood, martyrs, children. His speech is riddled with these impassioned fragments. And, just like the battles experienced by those who are now dead, these official words accumulate terrifyingly, chaotically over the gathering. It’s a bombardment, and Jeanne, busy as she is shoring up her neighbour’s faltering frame, struggles to withstand its fire for more than a few minutes.

It is a lament, a form of consolation, a living mourning, of how a family rebuilds itself after an event that has wreaked devastation on them all. Day by day, acknowledging the small wins, with patience, forgiveness, empathy and imagination.

I loved it.  A heart-rending, visceral account of loss and the accompanying overwhelm of steadfast perseverance. The tidal-like edge of madness and the surreal act of continuing despite it. Women.

Every few pages, I marked passages, highlighted sentences and rereading them as I write this, felt like going back to beginning and reading it over again, so rare is it to encounter this perspective, to share how it might have been for those who waited and wailed, who persevered and attempted to recreate a new life from the wreck of what returned.

Angélique Villeneuve writes with great empathy, sensitivity and understanding in narrating a story from the little explored perspective of the young working woman dealing with the aftermath of war, in which they have all changed and must live in a post traumatic world, with little knowledge of how to navigate it.

Angélique Villeneuve, Author

Born in Paris in 1965, Angélique Villeneuve lived in Sweden and India before returning to her native France. The author of eight novels, she has also written numerous children’s books and poetry.

Les Fleurs d’hiver, originally published in 2014, won four literary prizes: the 2014 Prix Millepages, the 2015 Prix La Passerelle and Prix de la Ville de Rambouillet, and the 2016 Prix du Livre de Caractère de Quintin.

Villeneuve’s novel Maria (2018), won the SGDL Grand Prix for fiction. Her most recent work, La Belle Lumière (2020), is a fictional account of the life of Helen Keller’s mother.

Winter Flowers is the first of her books to be translated into English.

Adriana Hunter, Translator

An award-winning British translator, Adriana Hunter has translated over ninety books from French, mostly works of literary fiction. She won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize for her translation of Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (Peirene Press, 2010) and the 2013 French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Hervé Le Tellier’s Electrico W. Her translations have been shortlisted twice for the International Booker Prize.

N.B. Thank you to Peirene Press for providing me a review copy.

Winter Flowers Angélique Villeneuve French Literature

Sugar by Bernice McFadden

I just love the way that right from the first pages Bernice McFadden’s characters jump off the page and in this case Sugar Lacey makes her grand entrance, dragging her suitcase, strutting through the small town of the deep south, Bigelow, Arkansas (1950’s) in her high heels, tight dress, brightly coloured wig and nonchalant attitude,  peering through the window of the hairdresser knowing that would be where all the talk happens, and on to number 10 Grove Street, her new abode, right next door to Pearl and Joe.

Sugar Lacey Vintage ClassicPearl has promised the Reverend to welcome this newcomer, but she wasn’t expecting the shock of seeing Sugar’s face and who it reminds her of, nor the sudden flurry of visitors who want to sit in her kitchen in case they get a peek at this unwelcome new resident, whom they’re so inquisitive of.

Was this the woman the Reverend spoke of? The woman Pearl had been asked to guide and help eventually lead into the flock? Was this her? This woman didn’t look like she’d ever spent a second in a house of worship, much less knew what one was. But there was something else too. A slither of something familiar that Pearl was yet to put her finger on.

When they do spot her, they’re certainly given more to talk about.

Sugar has grown up not knowing her family, raised by the three Lacey sisters before setting out and discovering how much tougher life is on your own. Pearl still hasn’t got over the loss of her daughter Jude and many things about her life, date from that moment, who she was before and who she is now.

When she finally plucks up the courage to go next door and introduce herself, she can’t herself from commenting on what she thinks is an unusual name, asking Sugar if that’s her nickname.

“No, that’s my Christian name. Why? Don’t you know sugar is brown first? White folks couldn’t stand the fact that something so sweet shared the same colour as the people who cut the cane, slopped the hogs and picked the cotton. So they bleached it to resemble them, and now they done gone and fooled everybody. You included.”

Pearl and Sugar develop an unlikely friendship, the one challenging the other to change perspective, enabling them both to meet somewhere in the middle, an improvement for both of them in the way they had been living their lives.

As we know, life never sits still, change and disruption often arrive uninvited and when they do Sugar must make a decision. The book closes with a few threads indicating that there could be more to come and indeed there is, Sugar being the first in the Sugar Lacey trilogy of novels.

In this wonderful debut novel, 20 years after being first published, now available in the UK, we encounter the enchanting, captivating and entertaining storytelling of Bernice McFadden, her unforgettable characters and the community that surrounds them.

McFadden is an author who I will happily read all her work, there’s something reliable and comforting when you sit down with one of her works, knowing you’re not going to want to put it down until it’s finished, but forcing yourself to do so, because you want the experience to linger.

The second novel This Bitter Earth will be published in the UK by Vintage Classics in August 2022 and sees Sugar leaving Bigelow and returning to her childhood home, where she learns the truth about her parentage: a terrible tale of unrequited love, of one man’s enduring hatred, and of the black magic that has cursed generations of Lacey women.

Bernice L. McFadden

Bernice McFaddenBernice L. McFadden is the author of ten critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere Is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012), and Glorious, which was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine and was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award.

Her most recent novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies (Jacaranda Books), was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2019. Sugar featured in the Richard and Judy Autumn 2021 Bookclub.

She is a three-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of three awards from the BCALA. McFadden lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Other Works by Bernice McFadden Reviewed Here

Praise SongPraise Song For the Butterflies

– a visit to Ghana in 2007 where she met two women who told her about a rehabilitation centre and a tradition referred to as trokosi are the inspiration for this intriguing, excellent novel.

The Book of HarlanThe Book of Harlan

– one of my top reads of 2020, a truly immersive read, inspired by the lives of some of the authors ancestors and the little known history of Black Americans in Paris circa WWII.

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?

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

The International Booker Prize Shortlist 2021

Since I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump I didn’t post about the International Booker longlist when it came out, and to be honest, nothing on it really jumped out at me, so I felt little motivation to share it.

However I do like to have a record of what was highlighted, so I’m sharing below the six books that have made the shortlist and below that the longlist. Clicking on any of the titles will take you a description of the book.

I don’t have any of these to read and I’m unlikely for the moment to add to my list of reading, since I’m looking for more of an uplifting read at the moment.

The 2021 International Booker Prize longlist

I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping, Yale University Press

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Mocschovakis, Pushkin Press

A novel that captures the tragedy of a young man’s mind hurtling towards madness and tells the little-heard story of the Senegalese who fought for France on the Western Front during WW1.

Alfa Ndiaye and Mademba Diop are two of the many Senegalese tirailleurs fighting in the Great War under the French flag. Whenever Captain Armand blows his whistle they climb out of their trenches to attack the blue-eyed enemy.  One day Mademba is mortally wounded, and without his friend, his more-than-brother, Alfa is alone amidst the savagery of the trenches, far from all he knows and holds dear. He throws himself into combat with renewed vigour, but soon begins to scare even his own comrades in arms.

 

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway, Peirene Press

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, Granta Books

Unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women, these stories walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror, with a resounding tenderness toward those in pain, in fear and in limbo. As terrifying as they are socially conscious, the stories press into the unspoken – fetish, illness, the female body, the darkness of human history – with bracing urgency. A woman is sexually obsessed with the human heart; a lost, rotting baby crawls out of a backyard and into a bedroom; a pair of teenage girls can’t let go of their idol; an entire neighbourhood is cursed to death when it fails to respond correctly to a moral dilemma.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin Press

Albert Einstein opens a letter sent to him from the Eastern Front during the First World War. Inside, he finds the first exact solution to the equations of general relativity, unaware that it contains a monster that could destroy his life’s work. The great mathematician Alexander Grothendieck tunnels so deeply into abstraction that he tries to cut all ties with the world, terrified of the horror his discoveries might cause. Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg battle over the soul of physics after creating two equivalent yet opposed versions of quantum mechanics. Their fight will tear the very fabric of reality, revealing a world stranger than they could have ever imagined.

The Perfect Nine: The Epic Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author, VINTAGE, Harvill Secker

The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, Lolli Editions

Structured as a series of witness statements compiled by a workplace commission, The Employees follows the crew of the Six-Thousand Ship which consists of those who were born, and those who were made, those who will die, and those who will not. When the ship takes on a number of strange objects from the planet New Discovery, the crew is perplexed to find itself becoming deeply attached to them, and human and humanoid employees alike start aching for the same things: warmth and intimacy, loved ones who have passed, shopping and child-rearing, our shared, far-away Earth, which now only persists in memory.

Gradually, the crew members come to see their work in a new light, and each employee is compelled to ask themselves whether they can carry on as before – and what it means to be truly living. Wracked by all kinds of longing, The Employees probes what it means to be human, emotionally and ontologically, while simultaneously delivering an overdue critique of a life governed by work and the logic of productivity.

Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty, World Editions

An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith, Quercus, MacLehose Press

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Fitzcarraldo Editions

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo Editions

The story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century. Following the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova builds the story out of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs left behind: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia.

In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with intellectual curiosity and a soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley, And Other Stories

The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Pan Macmillan, Picador

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century takes on the powerful and the privileged. It quickly becomes more about the bourgeoisie. Peasants, the poor living in towns, who are still being promised that equality will be granted to them in heaven, begin to ask themselves: and why not equality now, here on earth? There follows a furious struggle. Out of this chaos steps Thomas Müntzer, a complex and controversial figure. Sifting through history, Éric Vuillard extracts the story of one man whose terrible and novelesque life casts light on the times in which he lived – a moment when Europe was in flux. Inspired by the recent gilets jaunes protests in France: a populist, grassroots protest movement – led by workers – for economic justice. While The War of the Poor is about 16th-century Europe, this short polemic has a lot to say about inequality now.

Have you read anything on this longlist?

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

International Booker Prize Winner 2020 + Edinburgh Book Festival

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

International Booker Prize 2020 shortlist logo

International Booker Winner 2020

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

The Discomfort of Evening International Booker Prize Winner 2020

Author, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

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

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

The Novel Description

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further Reading

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

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

Auē by Becky Manawatu

I read this with a feeling of mild apprehension throughout, which grew by the end and had me staying up late to finish it, to move beyond that feeling that something bad was going to happen. Now I can say, yes, it’s okay, step outside the comfort zone and read it. It’s brilliant.

Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2020

Aue Becky Manawatu Makaro Press Literary Fiction ReviewAuē has just won the annual NZ Book Award for fiction. I read last year’s winner Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy, inspired by the true story of a young Northern Irish man who travelled to NZ in the 1950’s seeking employment opportunities and a future only to meet a tragic, unjust end.

I saw that Becky Manawatu had written a personal essay about her sister, so I read The novelist whose sister married into the Mongrel Mob.

It made me think of that dark television series I didn’t like, created by Jane Campion Top of the Lake; Auē too is set in the South Island, a land of extreme beauty and few humans – I thought, do I really want to read this?

Despite the current of fear created by the essay and that TV series, something about it felt unique and standalone, the heartfelt reviews on Goodreads ultimately convinced me, like this line from Kayla Polamalu:and her publisher, who described her as ‘a writer to her bones — such a talent, such a heart.’

“This book has created an ache in my chest that I’ll carry with me for a long time. It is awful in such a way that it is brilliant, sentences so visceral my breath would stop.
It is triumphant too – the spades of sorrow matched by spades of hope.”

Having read and enjoyed Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen with it’s Irish vernacular, I was interested to read something with a connection to Māori, a language and culture I learned and adored from the age of 5 until 12, I hoped it wasn’t going to be too visceral.

Review of Auē

Auē – to cry, howl, groan, wail, bawl

The story is told from three narrative perspectives, with chapters highlighting either Ārama (an 8 year old boy Ari), Taukiri (his older brother) and Jade & Toko (a couple).

South Island Aue Becky Manawatu Literary fiction

Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

It begins with Ari being dropped off at his Aunty Kat’s home by his brother Taukiri, who then departs and drives north, severing contact with everyone as he crosses the channel on the ferry to the North Island jetting his ringing telephone into the tide.

Sitting on his own on a beach on Christmas day, eating Marmite sandwiches Taukiri thinks about his little brother. It’s the first time he’s been close to the sea since Bones Bay. A place whose story has yet to be revealed.

One year Ari got a box of chocolates, and when the box was empty, he cut out photos of me and him, pictures of waves and surfboards and a guitar and glued them to the box to give to me for my birthday. That empty chocolate box was the best present I’d ever been given.

It becomes clear that the narratives of the two boys are set in the present and that of the couple in the past. The novel moves forward fleshing out its main characters who we grow more and more attached to, building tension and slowly revealing the connection between them all.

Despite Taukiri’s desperation to remove the past, it continues to haunt him, memories mix with things he sees and hears, a kaleidoscope of confused images assault him.

I guessed it would be this way for me and Ari. We would look for pieces of everyone we’d lost, in mirrors and crowds.
That’s how Ari would come to feel about me – that he’d lost me and had to search for me in places where I wasn’t.
He’d get over that though. It’d get easier.

Occasionally there is an italicized voice of someone not present, a lyrical incantation of the wind, or the presence of a spirit, observing – familiar and yet just outside of reach, pushing the reader on towards clarification.

Django Aue Becky Manawatu Makaro PressAri befriends the neighbours daughter Beth, she lives with her Dad and Ari prefers the atmosphere over there, even though some of the things Beth likes scare him. Beth is brilliant, a little kid with a whole lot of attitude, the confidence of being reassuring well-loved, if dangerously naive due to a little parental inattentiveness. And those drop-dead, three words she utters that steal or perhaps save the narrative.

‘Let’s go to my place and watch Django.’
‘Why do you like that movie so much?’
‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world and we gotta stay ahead of the game.’
‘That’s not how the world really is.’
‘Isn’t it? Like I said that rabbit was probably an orphan, like you are. Like I sort of am.’

Jade is the child who grew up in a House like the one from Top of the Lake. A scary place. Her parents are no longer there, but she was reclaimed by the new inhabitants. Reading her chapters is unsettling, she seems not to possess a mind of her own and every time she almost breaks free, trauma arrives unbidden. Used to it, she blames herself for existing, the inherited trauma of past generations.

his soft hand as he spoke of the violence that ended her father’s life reminded her of something. The only type of love she knew. Fury then remorse and forgiveness.

It’s a compelling, riveting story that feels likes riding the waves, moments of joy at the heights, the threat of doom as they crash.  And the poetry of the in-between, the goodness inherent within the young and those who have been loved, the healing that can happen when families reconnect, the ceaseless drama of life. The characterisation is so well done, unsentimental but deeply empathetic, the vulnerability of some sits in deep contrast to the brutal nature of others, the tension almost unbearable.

A 5 star read – extraordinary literary fiction.

Three Words – Read this Book

Mākaro Press is named after a nearby island, Mākaro was the niece of the legendary great Maori explorer Kupe, who discovered Aotearoa (New Zealand) around the 10th century and named two islands after his nieces Mākaro and Matiu. Like their uncle they are considered imaginative, curious and courageous, like this indie press. Publishing literary fiction and run by Mary McCallum and her son Paul Stewart, I leave you with the publisher’s words on this extraordinary book:

Makaro Press Aue Becky Manawatu

I published Auē because it is a deeply powerful, very real and beautifully written book about New Zealanders living hard-scrabble lives. Māori who carry generations of trauma in their bones that spills out here in one family in a small town.

The characters are compelling and the story holds the reader tightly as it winds through the interconnected lives of Ārama and Beth, Taukiri, Toko and Jade, and another who watches and weeps.

There is darkness, yes, but there is elation too in the beauty of the writing, and in the telling of the story at the micro level with the two children, and in the incredible moment when the tide turns … I’ve read the climax of the book so many times because it is so damned good. Mary McCallum, Mākaro Press

If you’re interested in reading this book and having trouble finding a copy, it’s currently available as an ebook direct from the indie publisher Mākaro Press.

Further Reading

Read the First Chapter – the beautiful, shocking first chapter of Auē

Personal Essay – A Day’s Grace by Becky Manawatu

Article by Mary McCallum, The Spinoff – The rise and triumphant rise of Makaro Press