A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume

I was hesitant to start this knowing it was the last of Sara Baume’s books I had on my shelf to read. I find her work so nourishing and unique, she’s quickly become one of my favourite authors. So what joy, part way through reading this, to learn there is a novel due out in Apr 2022, Seven Steeples.

Navigating the In-Between

Irish literary fiction Visual ArtistA Line Made By Walking takes place over one summer when 26 year old Frankie quits her Dublin bedsit and returns briefly to her parent’s home, before deciding to move temporarily into her grandmother’s slightly decrepit cottage that has long been on the market, since her death over a year ago.

It is a place where she can wallow and wait out a period of depression, create something meaningful, take walks, cycle and test herself on works of art. Her art school days are over, but finding meaning through artistic expression, looking for and noticing it around her, remains important, necessary.

“Why must I test myself? Because no one else will, not any more. Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head. I must slide new drawers into chests and attach new rollers to armchairs. I must maintain the old highboys and sideboards and whatnots. Polish, patch, dust, buff. And, from scratch, I must build new frames and appendages; I must fill the drawers and roll along.”

Art Creates Structure

Each chapter is titled with a different roadkill or animal species (not living) she has encountered nearby. Everything in the vicinity, plus her stream of consciousness thoughts, link together to create a seamless narrative, like the ripples of a stream bubbling over stones, moving around obstacles. Separate but part of something whole.

Sara Baume Irish literature Bicycle Cycling Ireland

Photo by Bogdan R. Anton on Pexels.com

Though she is not herself at this time, Frankie creates purpose in each day, and while not under observation, makes slow progress. Her mother worries, but allows her the freedom she needs. She resists conventional treatment and takes quiet charge of her own healing.

My parents did not want me to come here to stay. They are, like everybody, fearful of being completely alone and suspicious of people who choose to be. They hesitate, like everybody, to understand how it could heal me, as I believe it can. I believe: I am less fearful of being alone than I am of not being alone.

She fixes the bicycle in the shed and establishes a routine and purpose, an affirmation of the natural order of things, that all life passes. Her grandmother, the dog, a robin, rabbit, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog and badger. Her photographs grace each chapter.

“Here is another rule for my project: no pets, only wild things. So it can be about the immense poignancy of how, in the course of ordinary life, we only get to look closely at the sublime once it has dropped to the ditch, once the maggots have already arrived at work.”

Artwork Word Association

Though it possesses the barest of plots, I loved it’s meandering style and waymarker structure through an incredible recollection of over seventy art installations, like rabbit holes the reader can burrow into, something Baume encourages us to do.

I urge readers to seek out, perceive and interpret these artworks for themselves.

A Line Made By Walking Sara BaumeThe line made by walking crops up three or four times in the novel, in reference to artworks, the first time in Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows (1890) and represents the division between the field and sky, the sadness inherent in life. It was his final painting.

Having left the city behind, the narrative is as much immersed in the observations of nature around her, in the discoveries to be made on a walk, a cycle, a drive, a visit somewhere; her poetic voice making even the mundane mesmerising.

Again, the novel reads for me, as if the author is speaking, I forget there is a fictional protagonist, after reading her nonfiction Handiwork and listening to Sara Baume talk about her own art making projects, her presence is always there, lurking within the brush strokes of her characters.

Absolutely loved it.

Further Reading/Listening

Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain : “An artist, first and foremost”. An Interview with Sara Baume by Margarita Estévez-Saá

Guardian Interview: Sara Baume: ‘I always wanted to be an art monster’ Feb 2017, Alex Clark

Sara Baume, Author, Visual Artist

Sara Baume Irish AuthorSara Baume, born in 1984, was raised and now lives in County Cork, after having studied Fine Art at Dun Laoghaire College of Art, and Design and Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin.

Her fiction and criticism have been published in anthologies, newspapers and journals such as Irish Times, the Guardian, the Stinging Fly and Granta.

She has published two critically acclaimed novels, spill simmer falter wither (2015) winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and A Line Made by Walking (2017) shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and a work of creative nonfiction Handiwork (2020).

“Baume’s protagonists in both her novels and short stories are solitary people, misfits of our society, mostly representatives of those human beings who find it difficult to adapt themselves to contemporary standards and conventions and who look for different ways of living or rather try to establish alternative communities of life.”

Pre-Order Seven Steeples

If you are interested in the forthcoming novel, it’s available to pre-order as a Limited Edition here

It is a novel about a couple that pushes against traditional expectations, moving with their dogs to the Irish countryside where they embed themselves in nature and make attempts to disappear from society.

Seven Steeples Sara Baume

The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

Described as a compelling novel about two women caught in a constricting web of tradition, class, gender, and motherhood and set in Nigeria, I requested this novel via NetGalley earlier this year immediately attracted by the premise and the setting.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2021, Canada’s Literary Award

Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist Nigerian literary fictionCoincidentally, the day I started reading it, I became aware it was one of the five shortlisted novels for the Canadian literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize on the same day the winner was to be announced.

It didn’t win – that award went to journalist/novelist Omar El Akkad for What Strange Paradise, a novel that examines the current refugee crisis and the lengths to which people will go to find home, safety and belonging – however The Son of the House is already an award winning novel and one that addresses important contemporary issues and one I highly recommend reading.

Review

I really enjoyed The Son of the House right from the opening pages; the intrigue set up by the fact that two women have just been kidnapped from within their car on a residential street, we know nothing about who they are or why this has happened. However, it is not the drama that takes centre stage, it is the lives of the characters, who we will come to know.

These two do know this kind of thing can happen and the woman who drove castigates herself for having taken that particular road.

We did not entertain the idea that the police might save us, guns blazing, as happened in the movies. The police themselves, people said, would sometimes tell the family of kidnapped persons to go pay the ransom so that harm would not come to their loved one. They had neither the resources nor the serious desire to pursue kidnappers. There was even speculation that the police might be complicit in some kidnappings. So our only hope, like many kidnapping victims in this country, was that our people would come up with the money.

Since they are going to be spending time together, they decide to share their stories. And thus the reader must wait while getting to know these two women and the circumstances that lead to this intersection of their lives.

Their lives are very different, and both equally fascinating and riveting to read about.

Nwabulu, Orphan, Housemaid, Mother

gender women expectations motherhood The Son of the House

Photo by Breston Kenya on Pexels.com

Nwabulu, lost her mother when she was born and her father remarried soon after.

From that day, the peace and joy of our home moved somewhere else; peace and joy could not stay in the same room as Mama Nkemdilim’s jealousy.

Her stepmother resents her and at the first offer, sends her away to serve for a family. Innocent, yet she seems to go from one terrible situation to another, no adult looking out for her, she is vulnerable to the outside world, even within the supposed confines of an employer’s home.

I had been a housemaid for nearly half my life when I met Urenna. My first sojourn as a housemaid began when I was ten.

She finds a situation finally that suits her, only to be disgraced and sent back again to the village. The situation that occurs is the first instance we become aware of the presence and significance of ‘the son of the house’.

I was a housemaid. He was the son of the house. He would not really know what it was like to work in a place and live and sleep there but still know that it was not home. He would not know and I could not put it into words.

Back in the village, an older woman who has lost her son, appears to offer solace to Nwabulu, but her life too revolves around this traditional symbol, and the lengths to which she will go to fulfill it are devastating.

Although this is a story of women, it is also about the intersection of women and the importance, presence and success of this symbol, ‘the son of the house’ to their society and how it impacts their lives as girls, sisters, young women, and as mothers.

Julie, Sister, Unmarried daughter, Second wife

parental authority expectations gender The Son of the House

Photo by Monstera on Pexels.com

The second woman Julie is single and contentedly having an affair with a married man. She has one brother and he is supposed to be the example and support of his family, according to how their father has raised them.

“By joining the church and getting an education,” he continued, “I brought light to my family. It is the duty of each new person in the line to bring something good to the family, to keep the family going.”

However, due to her brother’s problems, her father makes this her responsibility, on his death bed, that she will work to ensure the success of her brother in meeting his familial duties – here again we realise that these stories, these women’s lives revolve in some way around maintaining the tradition, the status of the patriarchy, in the elevation of and presence of ‘the son of the house’.

I would make a better son of the house, I sometimes thought. But what fell to me was not carrying on the family name but ensuring that the one who was to do so succeeded.

Unexpected Friendships, Synchronicity’s

Cheluchi OnyeMelukwe Onubia Europa Editions UKAs their stories unfold, we also discover the importance of these women’s friendships, both of them have been helped by their best female friend at a turning point in their lives and the mystery gradually unfolds as to what has brought these unexpected allies together.

It’s a riveting read and an insight into Nigerian culture and classism, into how two very different women navigate a traditional patriarchal society and not only survive, but the lengths to which they will go to both meet those cultural/societal expectations, to develop resilience, how they find ways to rise beyond it.

I loved the book and thought the characters were realistic and intriguing and the sense of place evocative.

Here’s the fabulous UK cover version, it was published in the UK by my favourite publisher, Europa Editions in May 2021. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Review, Brittle Paper: Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s The Son of the House reviewed by Ikhide Ikheloa

Interview, Olongo Africa: I am a child of the 80’s an interview with Uchechukwu Umezurike

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, Author

The Son of the House Nigerian LiteratureCheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is a Nigerian-Canadian lawyer, academic and writer.

She holds a doctorate in law from Dalhousie University and works in the areas of health, gender, and violence against women and children.

Cheluchi divides her time between Lagos and Halifax.

The Son of the House was shortlisted for Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize 2021, winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2021, and winner of the Best International Fiction Book Award, Sharjah International Book Fair 2019.

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

Literary fiction that manages to be utterly compelling, thought provoking, intense and revelatory. Set in 1970’s East London. It was long listed for the Booker Prize in 2011 and nominated for The Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in 2013.

I read A Cupboard Full of Coats during October with Didi’s Read Soul Lit ReadAlong group on Goodreads.

A Visitation

Booker longlisted Black british literary fictionIt is 14 years since Jinx’s mother died and the knock on her door by a friend of her mother’s she hasn’t seen since then, initiates this weekend like no other, which will bring back all the emotion, rage, resentment, passion and sorrow that has been pushed down so deep for years.

It is an intense and provocative beginning that reveals just enough to pique interest and make the reader begin to ask questions, that we hope the story will reveal. Who was responsible for what happened back then and what part did each of them play?

When Lemon arrives at her door, his first words are “he’s out”.

There were changes around his face; the crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes were wider fanned, the bags beneath them full and heavy, and his old skin bore new lines. His eyes were red-rimmed, the whites yellowed, the expression intense as he looked at me, already asking questions, talking of things that should be whispered even when alone, and it was me that looked away, looked down, wondering if my own eyes were as eloquent as his, afraid that they might be speaking volumes, scared of the things they might have already said.

Jinx’s five year old son Ben arrives for the weekend, a shared custody arrangement; it goes badly, she is reactive, he is upset.

Effect of Unconscious Trauma

There is a sense of suppressed trauma that impacts her ability to mother. The son tries to reach out to her and is unable to connect. Her perceptions and behaviour are inexplicable. When she views her son interacting with Lemon, she can’t grasp the ease they demonstrate.

I was in shock. I had never heard my son like this before. I had simply thought he was a morose child, because morose was how he always was with me. I had never seen this side of him, this laughing chattiness, the non-stop outpouring of everything going on in his life, the pleasure he took from his accomplishments, such as they were. And I felt hurt. Really hurt. Wounded to the core just listening to how natural and happy he could be with a virtual stranger, when I had been trying for nearly five years to have a relationship with him and had come up against brick after brick after brick.

Throughout the course of the weekend, we learn about the lives of Jinx and her mother, widowed at a young age having married a much older man.

The one thing my mother always said about Mr Jackson was that he was a decent man, that he took proper care of things, including this mortgage-free house that he left to her, which she then left to me when I was sixteen and she was dead. Decent enough to ask no more of her than that she occupy it and dedicate her life to raising me, forsaking all other men till I had grown up. ‘Grown up’ she interpreted to mean when I was sixteen. It was ironic that I actually had grown up then. Sixteen and overnight my childhood was over.

Will We Ever Understand Domestic Violence?

rain weather London Black British literary fiction

Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

We learn about the beginning of her mum’s relationship with Berris. Of his moving in and taking over, Jinx’s growing resentment and jealousy. His volatile nature and her mother’s acceptance of it, of those coats he gives her as apologies.

There are many different kinds of rain, and England is famous for all of them. There are showers that start with a light drizzle, then build up to a steady pour. Then there’s rain that begins drip, drip, gets heavy, then stops then starts and stops and starts again. Then there’s sudden rain that falls quickly when it’s sunny, like its only ambition is to make a rainbow and once it’s done that, it stops. If I had to describe Berris as rain, he was none of those, and the words ‘You won’t even know he’s here’ turned out to be the understatement of the year.

Friendship

A Cupboard Full of Coats Yvvette Edwards

Photo by Mary Taylor on Pexels.com

When the narrative moves back to her sixteenth year, Jinx is her final year at school, sitting O levels. We meet her best friend Sam and observe that she too is going through a transition, two girls that used to do everything together, begin to diverge.

Their relationship begins to change when after a few days of absence the teacher no longer calls Sam’s name in roll call.

It’s like the beginning of the application of a moral code, something stronger than friendship, when womanhood approaches and white lies creep in between friends, as they navigate the shifting status on that precipice between girl and woman, when boys and men begin to enter their lives.

Narrative Structure

The narrative is structured in alternate chapters of the past and the present, so as the weekend progresses, with Lemon’s visit, there is a gradual thawing out and opening up, on both their parts, as Jinx listens and begins to open up, remembering, recalling, each filling in the gaps of the other’s perception of what happened around the time of her mother’s death.

The past concentrates on those month’s leading up to her mother’s death, building suspense as the story closes in on that final day, that until now, no one really had the complete picture of what occurred.

Reading it, we ask ourselves, can healing take place over a weekend? What will Lemon’s visit reveal? What is Jinx hiding?

A Cupboard Full of Coats explores relationships, jealousy, independence, co-dependence and the transitions that happen as a girl becomes a woman, a mother a lover and the vulnerability of women.

The atmosphere she creates, the intensity, the adept characterisation, the confessions and revelations make for a compelling read. Though I read it over a week when I was busy, each time I picked it up, it gripped me and I highlighted thought provoking passages all the way through. The conversation the group had about the book was dynamic, there was a lot of outrage expressed against the characters, the live discussion was a rewarding way to end the book.

Highly Recommended. I’ll definitely be reading her next novel and hope to see more from this talented British author.

Yvvette Edwards, Author

Black British literary fictionYvvette Edwards is a British East Londoner of Montserratian origin and author of two novels, A Cupboard Full of Coats and The Mother.  Her short stories have been published in anthologies including New Daughters of Africa, and broadcast on radio.

Her work has been nominated for a number of literary awards including the Booker Prize. She is particularly interested in writing that challenges the single narrative, giving voice to characters who are absent or under-represented in contemporary fiction.

She was a judge for the inaugural Jhalak Prize for Writers of Colour and the George Floyd Short Story Competition. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Further Information

OneWorld Publications: Yvvette Edwards discusses A Cupboard Full of Coats

The Independent: A Matter of Black and White

Booker Prize Winner 2021

Today the Booker Prize winner for 2021 was announced from the shortlist of these six novels below:

Booker Prize Fiction Shortlist 2021

You can see all the titles and read mini descriptions of all the 13 novels that were longlisted here:

Having reread the entire shortlist three times the judges have decided:

The Winner

The Promise by South African writer Damon Galgut

The Promise Damon Galgut

Description

The 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.

Judges Comment

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

Another author I haven’t read, I might have to check it out! Have you read this or anything by Damon Galgut?

Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat tr. Marilyn Booth

Those Who Are Lost

Lebanese Arabic LiteratureWritten in three parts, this award winning novel by Lebanese author Hada Barakat, is composed of a series of six letters written in a stream of consciousness narrative that are interlinked.  The letters are read, but not by their intended recipient, found between the pages of a book, dug out of a bin or otherwise encountered. They prompt the finder to write their own letter.

They are a kind of confession, written by the marginalised, floundering in exile. The letters excavate a depth of feeling that is raw, that traverses memory, hurts, an indifferent ability to cause pain, love, sorrow, longing, an abuse of kindness, a deterioration of the psyche.

“With this novel, I wanted to really listen to those millions of wandering souls who can’t speak for themselves: migrants. Their desperation to leave their country, no matter the cost, even if they know their lives will be at stake.”

Some of the letters are written to a family member, others to a lover, others to nameless recipients.

They are all experiencing deep loss having either been removed from all they’ve known or been connected to, or have been abandoned. Below, I’ve chosen a quote from each letter to give a sense of the narrative.

An undocumented immigrant writes to his former lover. He is unkind and doesn’t understand why she tolerates him. We learn that his mother put him on a train alone when he was eight or nine, effectively abandoning him, a sacrifice to gift him the education she never had. A man across from him is watching him through the window. Paranoia.

I’ve never written a letter in my life. Not a single one. There was a letter in my mind, which I brooded over for years, rewriting it in my head again and again. But I never wrote it down. After all, my mother could hardly read, and so I expect she would have taken my letter to one of the village men with enough education to read it to her. That would have been a disaster though!

a book in arabic writings

Photo by SafaPexels.com

A woman in a hotel room writes to a man from her past. She finds a perplexing letter in the pages of the telephone directory in the room. She wonders whether it was the man who penned it or the woman to which he wrote who left it there and why. It was clearly unfinished. She recalls the sweet succulence of the medlar fruits they ate walking the streets of Beirut.

This sweetness has nothing to do with the act of remembering. It’s not the delicious and sweet because it is linked to the past, to the time of our youth, where nostalgia for that time gives everything we can’t bring back a more beautiful sheen. Nothing in my childhood or my adolescence has ever prompted a longing for the past, a past that seems to me more like a prison than anything else. I am not here in this room in order to return to what was, nor to see you and thus see with you the charming young woman I once was, or how lovely and robust the springtime was that year, there in my home country. That country is gone now, it is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase, leaving only shards scattered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could produce only a pure, unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.

flowers desk pen letter

Photo by KoolShootersPexels.com

An escaped torturer recounts his crimes to his mother. He got the idea to write a letter from observing a woman taking some folded papers from her handbag, read them, then tear them in half and drop them in a bin. He retrieves them.

You would say I deserve all this. You might even disown me, calling me the Devil’s offspring. And if I think of my father, I’d have to admit that you have a point. Still, after all that I’ve been through, is there any point in believing that if I asked you to pardon me, you might do it?

I know you won’t, I know there’s really no hope.

A former prostitute writes to her brother. She is on a plane that had been delayed due to the arrest of a passenger. She found a crumpled up letter shoved between the seat and the wall.

I know why security took him away in handcuffs, because I have a letter in my pocket that this man wrote to his mother. He must have tried to hide it before they reached him, because it’s not the kind of letter anyone would just forget about or be careless enough to lose.

A young queer man recounts to his estranged father his partner’s battle with AIDS. He stumbles across a letter written by a woman in a storage locker at a bar he worked in. That was two years ago, recently he reread it.

I read it again and again, as if I knew that woman personally. Or as if I could actually see her in front of me, asking someone’s forgiveness but discovering she could not get it. And not just because her letter would never arrive. It’s about the need we all have for someone to listen to us, and then to decide they will pardon us no matter what we have done.

Those Who Are Searching

In this second part, brief extracts focused on those who have some connection to the letter writers, those who are trying to find their place, searching, also at a loss.

Those Who Are Left Behind

Finally, the mailman leaves his own note, sheltering in the bombed out remains of the post office.

Neither the internet nor anything else would do away with the need for my rounds, not even after internet cafés were springing up everywhere like mushrooms.

Displaced, at a loss, rootless, untethered. Like the roll of the dice they were born into a place and era where stability, home and belonging would be denied them.

Haunting, at times disturbing, it is a compelling read, the rootlessness and isolation felt by the reader, due to the manner in which the letters are written. The edge of despair palpable. It’s as if the one who stayed, surrounded by destruction, is the only one left with a sense of belonging.

Further Reading

Article: The Return of the NonProdigal Sons by Hoda Barakat

Hoda Barakat

Winner International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2019Hoda Barakat was born in Beirut in 1952. She has worked in teaching and journalism and lives in France. She has published six novels, two plays, a book of short stories and a book of memoirs, as well as contributing to books written in French. Her work has been translated into a number of languages.

She received the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ in 2002 and the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite National’ in 2008.

Her novels include: The Stone of Laughter (1990), Disciples of Passion (1993), The Tiller of Waters (2000) which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and My Master and my Lover (2004). The Kingdom of This Earth (2012) reached the IPAF longlist in 2013. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, given (at that time) every two years to honour a writer’s achievement in fiction. Voices of the Lost won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction ((IPAF) in 2019.

N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me a review copy

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.

 

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I was looking forward to reading this after it won the Women’s Prize for fiction and having been tempted by her earlier work, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but put off by the length of it.

Piranesi Winner Susanna ClarkeFantasy isn’t a genre I read very often, but one I have a nostalgic feeling for, having loved it when I was a child. The problem usually being that it becomes harder to evoke the magical feeling that a child’s imagination is capable of creating. However I was willing to try and decided to read it on a day I’d have few interruptions.

I learned after finished it, that the name Piranesi, is likely to have been inspired by the 18th century Italian classical archaeologist, architect and artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1728) and his series of 16 etchings, Carceri d’invenzione or Imaginary Prisons, depicting enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and towers and bas-relief type sculptures.

If Jonathan Strange was a riotous meeting of Austen and Dickens, then Piranesi’s pole stars are Jorge Luis Borges and CS Lewis. “I found Lewis at a very impressionable age and then he sort of organised the inside of my head,” she says. “And that’s just the way it has been ever since.”

Review

Piranesi, the main character of the novel, lives in a house that has walls and multiple levels and statues and tides and fish and the bones of 13 bodies. More than a house, this is his world. Nothing outside this house exists for Piranesi and as we read we slowly begin to imagine it ourselves.

I spent today working at my usual tasks: fishing, gathering seaweed, working on my Catalogue of Statues.

Piranesi is content, though inquisitive. There is only one other person in his world, whom he refers to as The Other. The Other calls him Piranesi.

Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people. Possibly there have been more; but I am a scientist and I must proceed according to the evidence. Of the fifteen people whose existence is verifiable, only Myself and the Other are living.

It is clear to the reader that Piranesi is more open and honest with The Other than he is with Piranesi. Thus the mystery underlying the story, about who he is and what he is withholding from Piranesi.

Piranesi keeps journals, using his own calendar creation and indexing system. These will help him understand.

The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it.

Piranesi CoverDespite Piranesi’s scientific status, he is developing a connection to the World within he lives, in which he is able to ask questions and intuit answers.

The Other warns him about things that may happen and Piranesi has to use what knowledge he has and his developing ability to sense things, to navigate this new situation. To understand messages and develop meaning from his observations that inspire those intuitive nudges.

The warning of the birds – if that was what it was – seemed on the face of it nonsensical, but I decided nonetheless to follow this unusual line of reasoning and see where it took me.

I enjoyed reading it and the slow way that the reader is made to experience something of Piranesi’s own “forgetting”, by only seeing and understanding what is around him, without an appreciation for what exists outside the world, the House, he currently resides in. And his development of that other sense that provides meaning.

This realisation – the realisation of the Insignificance of the Knowledge – came to me in the form of a Revelation. What I mean by this is that I knew it to be true before I understood why or what steps had led me there.

I loved the not knowing, and that process of beginning to understand, the sense of there being an acknowledgment of so much more than what was in the story. Of the natural world, connectedness, a sense of the divine, that all these things are seen as transgressive, the act of forgetting due to rational thought and science becoming the only true authority.

If anything, I felt it stopped short and wondered if this might not have been a longer story, had it been able to develop further, perhaps it reflects the state of where the world is, stuck in this era of rational thought, on the precipice of rediscovering ancient knowledge and intuitive power, of realising who and what we really are, our capacity if we can move beyond the current limitations. I enjoyed it in the moment of reading it, but due to the limitations and sparseness of his world, I’m not sure that it stay long with me.

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Taking on uncanny relevance this year, this austere story of one man’s isolation explores profound questions of freedom by Justine Jordan

Guardian Interview – how the celebration of solitude in Piranesi, grew from her experience of a long illness

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.

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

This was a brilliant read and the kind of cross cultural, reading journey I love.

Colonialism Capitalism Africa Cameroon Literary fictionImbolo Mbue takes you back to the fictional African village, Kosawa in the 1980’s. It could be in any number of countries, a fact acknowledged by naming her characters after real towns and cities.

She tells what should be a simple story, about how the village has been affected by the interventions of outsiders and those placed in power within their own country and the people’s attempt to seek and find justice.

Mostly the story is narrated through the multi-generational members of one family, of Thula and her brother Juba, their mother Saleh, grandmother Yaya, uncle Bongo and then the third person plural (we) of The Children, Thula’s age mates. It reaches back to the 1970’s and travels through to the current day.

Seeking Justice, Inviting Retribution

The issue the village initially attempts to address is the polluting of the river and air, resulting in the poisoning of the land, the destruction of their farming way of life and the deaths of too many of their children, since this latest American corporation Pexton, arrived and began drilling for oil.

Though the villages allowed the corporation to drill for oil, based on assurances that all would be more than well for them, they suspect their problems are due to contamination created by the activities of Pexton. The corporation deny all and their paid village representative tries to downplay the gravity of their losses. Continue reading

Booker Prize Fiction Shortlist 2021

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

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

Booker Prize Shortlist 2021

Damon Galgut, The Promise (South Africa)

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

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

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

What the Judges Said

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

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

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

Anuk Arudpragasam, A Passage North (Sri Lanka)

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

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

What the Judges Said

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Judges Said

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

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

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

Nadifa Mohamed, The Fortune Men (Somali/UK)

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

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

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

What the Judges Said

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

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

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

Richard Powers, Bewilderment (US)

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

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

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

What the Judges Said

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

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

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

Maggie Shipstead, Great Circle (US)

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

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

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

What the Judges Said

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

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

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

The 2021 winner will be announced on Wednesday 3 November.

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