Booker International Prize Shortlist 2022

In my recent absence, six translated novels have been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize including book from six languages: Korean, Norwegian, Japanese, Spanish, Hindi and Polish.

Wildly original works of literature that will captivate readers, this year’s shortlisted books all explore trauma, whether on an individual or societal level. 

Translated literary fiction

Summaries of the novels are below, with the judges comments. The winners of the prize will be named on 26 May 2022.

The Shortlist

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (Japan) Translated by Sam Bett, David Boyd

HeavenTold through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy subjected to relentless bullying, Heaven is a haunting novel of the threat of violence that can stalk our teenage years.

Instead of putting up resistance, the boy suffers in complete resignation. His sole ally is a girl classmate, similarly outcast and preyed upon by the bullies. They meet in secret to take solace in each other’s company, unaware that their relationship has not gone unnoticed by their tormentors.

Mieko Kawakami’s deceptively simple yet profound work stands as a testament to her remarkable literary talent. Here, she asks us to question the fate of the meek in a society that favours the strong, and the lengths to which even children will go in their learnt cruelty.

An intense, claustrophobic novel, Heaven uses its tale of middle school bullying to enact
Nietzsche’s critique of morality.

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (Argentina) Translated by Frances Riddle

Elena KnowsA unique story that interweaves crime fiction with intimate tales of morality and the search for individual freedom.

After Rita is found dead in the bell tower of the church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit.

Chronicling a difficult journey across the suburbs of the city, an old debt and a revealing conversation, Elena Knows unravels the secrets of its characters and the hidden facets of authoritarianism and hypocrisy in our society.

“Claudia Piñeiro’s short and deeply felt novel, evokes the loneliness of ageing and the uncertainty of memory. Frances Riddle’s brutal yet sparing translation suggests the shadows and light of noir without ever eclipsing the very human tragedy at the core of the book.”

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse (Norway) Translated by Damion Searls

A New NameJon Fosse delivers both a transcendent exploration of the human condition and a radically ‘other’ reading experience – incantatory, hypnotic, and utterly unique.

Asle is an ageing painter who lives alone on the coast of Norway. His only friends are his neighbour, Åsleik, a traditional fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, a gallerist who lives in the city. There, in Bjørgvin, lives another Asle, also a painter but lonely and consumed by alcohol. Asle and Asle are doppelgängers – two versions of the same person, two versions of the same life, both grappling with existential questions.

Written in melodious and hypnotic ‘slow prose’, this is the final instalment of Fosse’s Septology, the major prose work by ‘the Beckett of the twenty-first century’ (Le Monde).

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (India) Translated by Daisy Rockwell

Tomb of SandAn urgent yet engaging protest against the destructive impact of borders, whether between religions, countries or genders.

In northern India, an 80-year-old woman slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease of life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two. To her family’s consternation, Ma then insists on travelling to Pakistan, confronting the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition.

Despite its serious themes, Geetanjali Shree’s light touch and exuberant wordplay ensures that Tomb of Sand remains constantly playful – and utterly original.

A loud and irresistible novel.

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) Translated by Jennifer Croft

The Books of JacobOlga Tokarczuk’s portrayal of Enlightenment Europe on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.
In the mid-18th century, as new ideas begin to sweep the continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following.

In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires as he reinvents himself again and again. He converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order with scandalous rumours of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs.

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (South Korea) Translated by Anton Hur

Cursed BunnyBora Chung presents a genre-defying collection of short stories, which blur the lines between magical realism, horror and science fiction.
Korean author Bora Chung uses elements of the fantastic and surreal to address the very real horrors and cruelties of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society. Anton Hur’s translation skilfully captures the way Chung’s prose effortlessly glides from the terrifying to the wryly humorous. Winner of a PEN/Haim Grant.

While the stories in Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung blend elements of horror, fantasy and the surreal, each is viscerally rooted in the real fears and pressures of everyday life.

The China Factory by Mary Costello

It’s week three of Reading Ireland Month and today I’m sharing thoughts on a book of short stories by Irish author Mary Costello, The China Factory.

Threads of Inspiration

Irish Literature Reading Ireland MonthI’ve heard many say good things about her debut novel Academy Street and when her most recent novel The River Capture was published, a self-confessed homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses, I decided I would start at the beginning with Costello’s short stories.

I will read The River Capture later, as April is the One Dublin, One Book initiative and their chosen read for 2022 is Nora by Nuala O’Connor another book with a James Joyce connection. It is a bold reimagining of the life of James Joyce’s wife and muse, Nora, the model for his character Molly Bloom in Ulysses.

The Dublin City Libraries initiative encourages people to read a book connected with the capital city during the month of April every year.

Capturing a Voice

The China Factory Mary Costello

Photo by cottonbro Pexels.com

The 12 stories that make up The China Factory create a strong sense of authorial voice. Highly observant, sensitive characters, steeped in melancholy. They are practiced at holding back, trying not to make a ripple in the external world, until unforseen events pitch them into interactions, all the while controlling that emotional seepage.

In the opening story, The China Factory, a young woman works a summer job in a china factory, catching a ride with a quiet man named Gus, who she is distantly related to. She works at the sponger’s station, wiping off lines the moulds leave on clay cups.

I smiled when I passed the other girls those first days, and longed to speak, but feared that words would betray the yearning for friendship that I felt inside.

For a while she becomes closer to the girls, listening to their gossip, they quiz her about Gus, the freak, sharing an overheard story of his childhood that disturbs her. When a wayward man appears with a gun, Gus will surprise them all, and years later the impact of that summer job, his actions and her guilt will continue to haunt her.

dreamy woman with crossed legs sitting near window

Photo by L.SummerPexels.com

In Things I See a woman lies in bed, hyper aware of her husbands movements downstairs, she relays scenes in her mind of being close to him, but even in her imagination she holds back. She fears not growing old, but of growing different.

There is something severe and imperious in Don’s bearing that makes me resist.

She works full time and her husband cares for their six year old child. Her sister Lucy who is visiting, seems more at ease in the family than she does. The things she sees, hears, picks up on, imagines, occupy her mind, creating a distance, a corner from which she has entrapped herself. A witness. Stifled. Knowing she will not change anything, though her indecision will imprint itself on her face and in her demeanour.

And I think this is how things are, and this is how they will remain, and with every new night and every new wind I know that am cornered too, and I will remain, because I can not unlove him.

Drudgery, Dignity and Denial

The stories examine aspects of everyday life and highlight the hidden selves, the thoughts beneath the actions, the things that people hide from each other, from themselves, the cover stories and meaningless conversations that patch over the cracks that might reveal the reality.

In The Patio Man, a gardener knows nothing about his employer, a young frail woman observes him from the window, she struggles to articulate what she requires from him, until the moment she must ask him to drive her to the hospital. Still nothing is ever said, just small talk that takes the mind elsewhere, far from the catastrophic event occurring in the present.

The collection opens with an epigram from Rilke’s poem Autumn:

And night by night, down into solitude,

the heavy earth falls far from every star.

We are all falling. This hand’s falling too –

all have this falling-sickness none withstands.

which sets the tone and theme of falling – into and out of love, of relationships, to one’s death, in and out of the kaleidoscope of emotions, whether expressed or suppressed, no one is immune to the falling-sickness.

While the stories capture that voice particular to the author, that melancholy can wear on the reader, repeated time and again as it does, manifesting in the many losses and unfortunate events each story portrays, the quiet outer acceptance of discordant inner turmoil.

That said, I am looking forward to engaging with a longer story, hoping for the chance of redemption a novel might bring.

Mary Costello, Author

Academy Street The China Factory River CaptureMary Costello is an Irish short story writer and novelist from Galway now living in Dublin.

Her collection of short stories, The China Factory ( 2012), was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award.

Her second book and first novel, Academy Street, was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the Costa First Novel Prize and the EU Prize for Literature in 2014. The novel went on to win the Irish Novel of the Year Award as well as the Irish Book of the Year. Her second novel The River Capture was published in 2019.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Polish Literature Novel Prize Winner Blake AstrologySomewhere on a plateau above a small forested village in Poland, near the border with the Czech Republic, lives Janina, except she doesn’t like that name, she insists on being called Mrs Duszejko.

An astute observer of things around her, she is more of a winter type, has knowledge and interest in the influence of planets and houses, likes to translate Blake’s poetry and read his letters, has great respect for all sentient beings, except perhaps those who hunt Animals for sport and take joy in it.

The novel opens as her neighbour whom she refers to as Oddball knocks on her door very early one morning to inform her that their mutual neighbour Big Foot is dead. The two visit his home and do what they thing good neighbours should do, respectfully arranging the contorted corpse, though Oddball’s son Black Coat (a policeman) later tells them off for moving the body.

Our Feet Connect Us

Mrs Duszejko observing his feet:

They astonished me. I have always regarded feet as the most intimate and personal part of our bodies, and not the genitals, not the heart, or even the brain, organs of no great significance that are too highly valued. It is in the feet that all knowledge of Mankind lies hidden; the body sends them a weighty sense of who we really are and how we relate to the earth. It’s in the touch of the earth, at its point of contact with  the body that the whole mystery is located – the fact that we’re built of elements of matter, while also being alien to it, separated from it. The feet – these are our plugs into the socket. And now those naked feet gave me proof that his origin was different. He couldn’t have been human. He must have been some sort of nameless form, one of the kind that – as Blake tells us – melts metal into infinity, changes order into chaos.

Referring to her Little Girls draws attention to another mystery, and while she doesn’t share the story of what happened to them initially, they are an absent presence throughout the story, a conundrum that will eventually be revealed, including its connection to the death of the neighbour.

brown deer under trees

Photo by Devon Rockola on Pexels.com

Described as reclusive, unconventional and eccentric, she might well be the most sane person in the village, certainly she is one of the more interesting. An intellectual and a mystic, a lover of nature, philosophy, astrological influences, animals and wildlife, surviving in a village that reveres hunting, an activity undertaken by the Commandant of Police, the local priest, the village President and other dominating types puts her in the firm minority – despite her isolation, she finds her circle within the community.

Unhappy at the way the authorities are conducting their investigation, convinced by clues she has observed – ominous deer tracks – she writes to the police bringing their attention to her theory of revenge by wildlife against the actions of hunting humans. And recalls her earlier reports to them about Big Foot’s poaching activities. Death brings another element to her theory, the effect of astrological shifts and patterns.

I could also tell that he didn’t understand everything that I was saying – firstly for the obvious reason that I was using arguments alien to him, but also because he had a limited vocabulary. And that he was the type of Person who despises anything he can’t understand.

A Community of Soul Mates

A sow on trial in at Lavegny in 1457 from The Book of DaysDizzy, a former student, now her 30 year old friend, helps with the Blake translations, though is unconvinced by some of her  theories concerning astrology and the revenge of animals, bolstered by her having discovered real animal trials, which peaked in 14th to 16th century Europe.

It was believed by many medieval authorities that ‘crimes’ committed by animals were the devil’s work and letting them go unpunished would provide an opportunity for the devil to take over human affairs.

Dizzy, who’s prone to effusive digressions on the topic of Blake’s symbolism, has never shared my passion for Astrology. That’s because he was born too late. His generation has Pluto in Libra, which somewhat weakens their vigilance. And they think they can balance hell. I don’t believe they will manage it.

Drive Your PLow Over the Bones of the Dead Olga Tokarczuk PolishWhen he challenges her for going around telling people about those Animals, concerned for her reputation, she  is outraged.

‘One has to tell people what to think. There’s no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it.’

Another of the villagers is the young woman who runs a vintage clothing shop, a place Janina discovered one day when she was frozen through and hungry. The characters she befriends represent hope in an otherwise worrisome society.

The whole thing was a mixture of socialist café, dry cleaner’s and fancy-dress costume hire. And in the middle of it all was Good News.

That’s what I called her.  This name suggested itself irresistibly, at first sight.

Mrs Duszejko (Janina) is fed up and no longer young, she says what she thinks and doesn’t care what others think of her. She reads the signs and takes action. She’s an unexpected delightfully, transgressive heroine, of her own existential thriller.

I absolutely loved it and was surprised at how accessible a read it was, given this is an author who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her power to provoke by telling a story is only heightened by the suggestion on the back cover that her ideas presented here caused a genuine political uproar in Poland.

Further Reading

The Guardian: Interview – Olga Tokarczuk: ‘I was very naive. I thought Poland would be able to discuss the dark areas of our history’ by Claire Armitstead

Olga Tokarczuk, Author

Polish literature Nobel Prize LiteratureOlga Tokarczuk is an Aquarian, a Psychologist and Jungian expert, a Polish essayist and author of nine novels, three short story collections and her work has been translated into forty-five languages.

Her novel Flights won the 2018 International Booker Prize, in Jennifer Croft’s translation. In 2019, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Primeval and Other Times (1996) was her first work translated into English in 2010.

Her most recently translated novel, written over six years, The Books of Jacob (2014) was published in English in Nov 2021.

Best Books Read in 2021 Part 2: Top 10 Fiction

Best Books of 2021 Autofiction Forough FarrokhzadAs mentioned in my previous post, my One Outstanding Read of The Year for 2021 was Maryam Diener’s Beyond Black There is No Colour: The Story of Forough Farrokhzad (2020), a work of fiction written in the first person, a novella that stays true to the life of Iranian poet and film-maker Forough Farrokhzad.

Heartfelt, illuminating, inspiring, a beautiful telling of an exceptional life.

Top 10 Fiction 2021

If you’ve seen that post, you’ll have seen that I read books from around the world, so no surprise that my Top 10 Fiction reads come from 9 different countries. In no particular order, but grouped thematically, here are my favourite fiction reads of the year, click on the title to read the original review:

Native Wisdom and Legacy from the Antipodes

Maori Literature Modern Classic1. Potiki by Patricia Grace (NZ) (1986) – First published in New Zealand 35 years ago and now published in the UK as a Penguin modern classic, the timeless narrative of Potiki is a demonstration of the clash of cultures, of the native against the coloniser, of the attempt to maintain a way of life that is perceived as backward against the encroachment of a capitalist driven greed that is willing to use whatever means necessary to get what it wants.

Through thoughtful character creation and storytelling around Hemi and Roimata’s tangata whenua (family) and their circumstance, it infiltrates the cultural differences and attitudes that exist and how the actions of those in power with their single agenda, affect a people whose way of life, customs and beliefs are different.

A tour de force, I absolutely loved it. A classic indeed.

Indigenous Literature Aboriginal Australia2. The Yield by Tara June Winch (Australia) (2019) – Coincidentally, shortly after reading Potiki, I picked up the award winning Australian contemporary novel The Yield, which tells a layered story of the Aboriginal connection to the land, their language and customs.

A story told in three voices and narrative perspectives, Grandfather Poppy’s voice speaks from the past, sharing words in a dictionary he was creating. Threaded throughout the text, his words preserve a culture, they are evidence that a civilisation existed, one that was threatened with extinction. His granddaughter has returned from abroad and is trying to save the family from eviction. And the Reverend’s letters from the 1800’s which shed light on the past.

African Appreciation and Perspective

Colonialism Capitalism Envirnmental Pollution Africa Literary fiction3. How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue (Cameroon/US) (2021) – With a not dissimilar theme, set in an(y) African village, Mbue’s characters are named after actual cities and towns. It is the 70’s and the inhabitants are suffering ill health from the effect of pollution of the water table, so they decide to address the local leadership.

The story, narrated through different members of Thula’s family and the collective “we” of her friends, follows each generation’s attempt to seek justice and retribution, and the increasing complexity of resistance, as the narrative moves from the past up to the present.

An allegory for all those without political influence living with the damaging effects of the disrespect of the land, the Earth, of not seeing her as the Mother or our connection to her; it’s an absolute must read, sure to become a classic.

The First Woman Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi4. The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda/UK) (2020) – this was hotly anticipated given her debut novel Kintu was my One Outstanding Read of 2018 and equally brilliant in its character formation and storytelling. Definitely a favourite author.

Set in Uganda, it is the coming-of-age story of Kirabo, as she becomes aware of a mystery surrounding her birth. Of a silence. Her grandmother tells her she has “the original state” of the first woman in her, part of the enigma she will come to understand.

As with Kintu, Makumbi steps beyond colonial influence, almost entirely removing it, to tell an authentic, far reaching story of a primeval culture and its women. In the US, it’s titled A Girl Is A Body of Water.

Cheluchi OnyeMelukwe Onubia Europa Editions UK5. The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia (Nigeria/Canada) (2021) – Set in Nigeria, as the story begins we meet two women Nwabulu and Julie, who will pass days imprisoned together waiting for their families to respond to a ransom request.

The alternating narrative returns us to the beginning, to their separate, contrasting lives, that lead them to this drama, while exploring the influence and impact on them and all women, of Nigerian society’s elevation in importance of “the son of the house“.

It is a clever, very human exploration of class, family lives disrupted, parental influence, the tenacity and resilience of women, of their ‘survive and thrive’ instinct as they navigate a man’s world.

A riveting and insightful read, and an exceptional new literary voice.

Irish Reflection and Resistance to Conformity

Sara Baume Ireland Dogs in Literature Miterary Fiction6. Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (Ireland) (2015) – This was my very first book of the year, and one I chose because I adore and still think about and implore people to read her work of nonfiction Handiwork, the first of her books I read in 2020. I was curious to see what Baume’s fiction would be like and what a joyful and unique encounter it has been.

We meet a hermit-like 57 year old man (except I read the whole novel intermittently imagining I’m reading/seeing through the eyes of a character more like Baume) and OneEye, the injured, undisciplined dog who he has taken in, who he is thinking and talking to, in this second person “you” narrative. As we get to know him, we learn how out of character that was and the trouble it has caused, while following his road-trip attempt to flee the situation and himself (+ dog) altogether.

It’s a slow unravelling, beautifully written and cleverly constructed journey, with a surprise twist, that was pure joy to read. Reflective, poignant and daring, it’s one you’ll keep thinking about long after reading.

Irish literary fiction Visual Artist7. A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume (Ireland) (2017) – I can’t help it, she’s become one my current favourite authors, so I end the year reading the 2nd novel by Sara Baume and again have an impression of reading autofiction. 

26 year old Frankie quits her Dublin bedsit and moves home, then a week later into her grandmother’s abandoned, neglected (for sale) home. She’s taking time out, but rather than mope about, takes charge of her situation, starts an art project and tests herself on works on art, remembering.

It’s a novel about a young woman in a transition, learning something about herself, with the shadow and memory of her grandmother over her, healing from life. Extraordinary.

And very pleased to hear a new novel Seven Steeples is due out in April 2022!

Women in Translation

The year wouldn’t be complete without fiction from other countries in translation and though I didn’t read during August’s WIT Month, I did still read a few titles throughout the year and these three really stood out as firm favourites. And not surprisingly, they’re from my three favourite independent presses!

Women Wait for Their Men & The Empty Nest Unhinges Her

Winter Flowers Angélique Villeneuve8. Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (France) tr. Adriana Hunter (WWI) (2021) Peirene Press an utterly compelling novella, set in the closing days of WWI that delves into the lives and perspective of a young woman Jeanne and her daughter as they wait for her injured husband to return. He’s been rehabilitating in a facial injury hospital and has forbidden her to visit. Now he returns and we witness the change.

Unlike many war stories, this is not about the active participants, but the unseen, unheard, rarely if ever spoken about, aftermath. Written with profound empathy and courage, it’s intense, riveting and unforgettable.

Women in Translation Mexico9. Loop by Brenda Lozano tr. Annie McDermott (Mexico) (2019) Charco Press – this totally took me by surprise, languishing on my shelf not realising the playful literary gem that lay within. 

 Inspired by Lozano’s contemplation of The Odyssey’s Penelope while her lover Odysseus is off on his hero’s quest – it’s the circular loop of the anti-hero story, the inner journey of the one who waits; revealing the way that contemplation and observation reveal understanding and epiphanies. In her notebooks she observes the familiar and unfamiliar around her, sees patterns, imagines connections, dreams and catastrophises. Wild is the Wind.

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

Pure fun, slightly quirky, lightheartedly philosophical, many unexpected laugh out loud moments. Loved it!

psychological thriller film Italian10. The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein (Italy) (2008) Europa EditionsLast but certainly not least, the only Ferrante novel I had not yet read, and the shortest (so if you haven’t ventured yet perhaps try this before the My Brilliant Friend tetralogy). With the film due to hit the screens, I wanted to read it before being tempted to watch.

For me, The Days of Abandonment was Ferrante’s most intense reading experience, while this novel lulls the reader into a deliciously, false sense of anticipated joy, especially for any women approaching the empty nest era of life and dreaming of an idyllic Mediterranean beach holiday. It’s a story that zooms in on another ‘moment in life’, transition, where freedom and longing clash with frustration and resentment, as subconscious memories (and perhaps unbalanced hormones) project themselves onto the present, inappropriately, dangerously.

It’s both reminiscent and inviting, until it’s disrupted, Ferrante writing is so evocative in creating a sense of place and mood, and getting into the dark shadow mind of her characters.

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Let me know if you’ve read and enjoyed any of the above, or share any of your own favourite reads of 2021 in the comments below!

Next up Top Non Fiction Reads of 2021…

 

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.

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