Monday, 22 February 2021

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

"Stories twist through the past like hair in a plait. Each strand different, weaving its own."

Fragile Monsters tells the often parallel stories of a grandmother and granddaughter, growing up either side of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War and the Emergency that followed, as the British colony of Malaya struggled to become independent Malaysia.

Durga is a lecturer in mathematics who has recently come back to Malaysia from Canada following an unhappy end to a love affair. She pays a dutiful visit to her Ammuma’s (grandmother’s) home for Diwali. But when an accident with cheap market-bought Diwali fireworks lands Ammuma in hospital, Durga is forced to confront ghosts from both of their pasts.

Durga was brought up by Ammuma after her mother died when she was a baby – or at least that’s what she’s always believed. But then why has she found an obviously much more recent notebook with her mother’s name and address written in a childish hand?

And then there is Tom, now a doctor in the same hospital, with whom Durga shares the guilt of an accident which killed one of their schoolfriends.

The book is laced through with dry-as-bone humour that underlines the prickly relationship between grandmother and granddaughter. (“Granddaughters, she thinks, should stay where they’ve been put.”)

Equally, the mastery of language that was displayed in Menon’s short story collection, Subjunctive Moods, is used here to evoke the atmosphere of Malaysia – from the sticky heat to the class-and-race ridden society that is the legacy of British efforts to divide and rule.

Menon herself is a mathematician, and the text is sprinkled, too, with mathematical metaphors that sent me right back to my student days.

“We leave this as an inference for the reader,’ a mathematician will happily write. Too trustful, these mathematicians. Too trustful by half” she writes - a joke perhaps perhaps only someone who has sat through First Year Maths lectures will fully appreciate. 

A complex and tender story that manages to blend maths with folk legend, and complicated human relationships with scars of war and colonialism.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Ponti by Sharlene Teo, Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera, Subjunctive Moods by Catherine Menon (writing as CG Menon)

Avoid If You Dislike: Overlapping timelines

Perfect Accompaniment:
Rendang curry and tea

Genre: Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 12 February 2021

Mayflies by Andrew O'Hagan

David C. Dawson

What we thought of it:

Only occasionally does a book come along whose every page contains at least one quotable phrase, at least one pithily worded exposition of the human condition that makes you stop and think.

is such a book.

On the surface it's a story about what happens to two friends from a small, nondescript Scottish town. The book starts in their optimistic late teens when they are carefree, daring, and rebellious. Then it jumps forward thirty years to when they are jaded in middle age.

But Mayflies is about far more than that. Woven lightly into this witty story of friendship are significant issues that may at some point affect all of us.

James, the narrator, is eighteen and his best mate Tully Dawson is twenty. They live in Scotland -  “Irvine New Town, east of eternity.”

Tully “had innate charisma, a brilliant record collection, complete fearlessness in political argument, and he knew how to love you more than anybody else.” James is in awe of him.

The first half of the book follows a reckless weekend in Manchester, when the two young men go to the G-Mex for a music festival headlined by The Smiths. Over the weekend they meet up with their friends and reveal dreams, ambitions and their rejection of practically every aspect of conventional life. 

“What we had that day was our story. We didn't have the other bit, the future, and we had no way of knowing what that would be like. Perhaps it would change our memory of all this, or perhaps it would draw from it, nobody knew." 

Thirty years later some of them are married, some of them are divorced. And Tully is about to reveal a major twist in the story. It puts James in an ethical quandary. Its resolution left me thinking for a long time after I’d finished the book.

O’Hagan’s story is genuinely unpredictable. He writes deceptively simple prose, which gives deep insights into our relationships with each other on every page. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Trainspotting by Irvine Walsh

Avoid if you don’t like: References to euthanasia

Ideal accompaniments: An indie soundtrack from the 1980s and a pint of Black & Tan

Genre: Contemporary

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

How do you even begin to talk about a book like Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death? It is a book that defies description, let alone comparison.

It is, at its core, an uplifting meditation on the nature of death. Structured more like a mind-map than a novel, it branches out in multiple directions, using poetry and prose, narrative, monologues and conversations.

At the heart of the story are Wolf, and Mrs Death. One Christmas Eve, Wolf uses the rent money to buy an antique desk with a dusty red leather top. But the desk used to belong to Mrs Death. And sitting at her desk, Wolf begins to hear her stories.

Mrs Death is fed up of the way the world has imagined Death as a man. “For surely only she who bears it, she who gave you life, can be she who has the power to take it. […] And only she who is invisible, ore readily talked over, ignored, betrayed or easily walked past then a woman: a poor old black woman, a homeless black beggar-woman with knotty, natty hair, broken back, walking ever so slowly…”

And she tells her stories to Wolf. Wolf who met her once before, the night a fire swept through their block of flats. The night Wolf's mother died and Wolf didn’t.

As well as listening in on the conversations between Wolf and Mrs Death, we find ourselves in the slums of Victorian England, in 15th Century Spain and 18th C Edinburgh, in Holloway Prison and the Australian Outback. As Wolf says, “This work has a very high dead and death count.”

The book captures the sense of existential crisis so many of us felt, even before Covid-19 took over our lives. “What is wrong with everyone?” Wolf rails. “I am not catastrophising. This is a f*** catastrophe. […] Maybe I’m crying because you aren’t crying with me right now, because you just aren’t mad enough.”

But the book is also incredibly life affirming. Because if life is short and death is inevitable, then is up to us to live it in the best way be can. As Mrs Death exhorts us, “you all need to be heroes, to step up, to speak up, to support each other.”

It is extraordinary, in hindsight, that this book, which must have been completed before the end of 2019, should come to be published just when the whole world has been forced to come to terms with the nearness of death. But though the victims of Covid-19 play no role in the text, Godden has found a way to remember “all we are losing and have lost to the corona virus pandemic [as well as] the murdered, the disappeared, the stolen and the erased. The fallen and the pushed.” The last six pages of the book are left blank, and in her final section, Godden invites her readers to “add your loved one’s name on one of these blank pages, maybe add a date, a memory or a prayer. In this one act of remembrance, we will be united. From now on every single person who reads this book will know their copy contains their own dead. As time passes, if this book is borrowed or passed along, their names will live on.”

In my head, I imagine readers, fifty or a hundred years from now, searching second-hand bookstalls for copies of this book, just to find the secret memorials hidden in each one. Please make it so.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Avoid If You Dislike: In the author’s own words, “If you are sensitive or allergic to talk of the dead or non-living things, use this work in small doses.”

Perfect Accompaniment: “The spicy aroma of jerk chicken and rice and pea. The sizzle of plantain. Curried Goat.”

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 28 January 2021

A River Called Time by Courttia Newland

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

A River Called Time, Courttia Newland’s latest novel, is unlike anything he has written before. It may well be unlike anything you have read before – even if you are familiar with the genre of speculative fiction.

In his Afterword to this book, Newland writes that he set out to write, “a decolonised novel, freed of any adherence to the race-fixated, identity-based reality we live every day. I would mentally free myself from the White Gaze.”

To do so, he constructed a world – in fact, a series of parallel worlds – in which “the Transatlantic Slave Trade, colonisation and the genocide known as Maafa … hadn’t ever taken plate, one in which Europeans treaded Africa as the ancient Greeks once treated Kemit, coming not to pillage, rape and murder, but to learn.”

But these worlds are no Utopias. Most of the parallels contain a version of London (Dinium) in which a large area of the centre has been destroyed by a catastrophic event and replaced by a giant monolith in which millions of inhabitants live their lives without ever emerging from its hermetic space. Within that monolith, there are lives of privilege, lives of poverty and gruelling labour,  and pretty much everything in between.

As we move between the different world, the same cast of characters is reconfigured again and again, playing different roles and standing in different relationships to one another. We even briefly find ourselves in a world that seems indistinguishable from our own. Each one is fully realised, the differences between them sometimes minute and sometimes vast.

The book has been a long time coming. Newland describes how he struggled, first to find a way to write the book he knew he wanted to write, and then to find anyone who was willing to publish it. There were those who thought he should stick with the urban stories he was previously known for. But finally, the book found its publishing home, with Canongate Books.

It is a slippery book – one that refuses to give up easy explanations. Each section is enthralling in its own right - the connections between them elusive but intriguing. Yet the author offers no moral compass. There are no clear ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’. Like Markriss, the character we follow from world to world, we are left to work out for ourselves what constitutes the right choice.

Powerful, liberating and challenging, this book is an explosive new entry to the canon of speculative fiction.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Technologies of the Self by Haris A Durrani, Shadowshaper by Daniel J Older, An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obiama, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Avoid If You Dislike: Books that stubbornly refuse to give up easy explanations..

Perfect Accompaniment:  Spaghetti Bolognaise (if you read the Afterword, you’ll know why!)

Genre: Speculative Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

The Family Tree by Sairish Hussain

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

Spanning almost thirty years, The Family Tree is a portrait of a family riven by a mother’s death in childbirth, by the pressures on Muslim family life of 9/11 and its aftermath, but most of all by a vicious assault that leaves a close friend lying in a coma.

It begins with the father, Amjad, newly bereaved and struggling to cope, trying to comfort his frantically wailing baby girl and his lost and heart-sore son. The profound tenderness in that opening scene will be tested to breaking point in the years that follow, but that little family of three will remain at the core of the story.

It’s a story of love within a family, how it can fracture and what is needed to repair it. And of how, following trauma, friendships can shatter and reform along lines that were previously unimaginable. It encompasses both private grief and public tragedy, and examines what can happen when those two things collide and exert unendurable pressure on a young person on the threshold of life.

Through the story runs image of the shawl that belonged to Neelam, the mother who died giving birth to her daughter. It’s a teal blue pashmina with the mustard-coloured blossom tree stretching along its full length, with birds that flit from branch to branch. In Amjad’s mind, the tree becomes their family tree, and when the children are little, he teaches them to identify the birds with each member of the family. It becomes the golden thread through which the family can find itself again.

This is a novel wide in scope and straightforward in its narrative style. An impressive debut.

Shortlisted for the 2020 Costa First Novel Award.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories involving homelessness, drug addiction and serious assault

Perfect Accompaniment:
Home-made roti

Genre: Contemporary 

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Books of the Year 2020

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

In a bleak year, reading has provided an incredible solace, and a window out into a wider world from a life whose boundaries have contracted dramatically. And oh, my goodness, what a year of reading it has been!

Here, in the order in which I read them, are my books of the year.

The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar

The Pact We Made
is a stunning debut novel by UK-based, Kuwaiti-born novelist Layla AlAmmar.

AlAmmar slowly peels back the layers of Kuwaiti society – a society in which young men and women drink and take drugs and party - just so long as their parents never find out. Where women go to university and take high-powered jobs, but are not considered adults until they marry. Where the police can be called if a couple is seen embracing in public and where arranged marriage is still the default.

The narrator is Dahlia, one of a trio of life-long friends who, as little girls, once made a promise to get married on the same day. This might be another tale of young women negotiating modern life in a traditional society, but Dahlia, we learn, was abused through her teenage years by her mother’s cousin. And it is the lasting consequences of that abuse that reverberate throughout the book.

An powerful, gut-wrenching book that lays out in no uncertain terms the case for women to have control of their bodies and their lives.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line
takes horrifying statistics of children going missing in Indian cities and personalises them, reminding us that, for each and every one, there is a family grieving.

When their friends from school start to go missing, and the police seem wholly uninterested in helping the distressed families, nine-year-old Jai and his friends Pari and Faiz decide to take matters into their own hands and conduct their own investigation. Jai is an avid watcher of police dramas on television and is sure that he knows exactly what needs to be done. But will their zeal just bring them into danger themselves?

The child viewpoint here is wonderfully drawn and Anappara has indeed captured the irrepressible cheekiness of her protagonists. But don’t be fooled. This is not the Famous Five transported to an unnamed Indian city, and the evil that lurks in the basti is no comic book villain who could have got away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky kids. The journalist in Anappara knows the truth is far darker than that.

A heart-breaking story that nonetheless captures the joyous resilience of children living on the brink.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, illus Anshika Khullar

Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo is unlike anything else I have ever read - and I consumed it in two glorious gulps. A joyous celebratory prose poem, it follows the life of a mixed-race (Jamaican / Greek-Cypriot) gay man growing up in London – from a small boy longing for a Barbie to play with, through primary school and high school, to finding a home and family among the Drag Society at University.

It is a story of love and friendship, of acceptance and rejection. Of the complexities of identity. Of the intersections of racism and homophobia, and the strength it takes to overcome them and to be fully and freely yourself.

The simplicity of the language is deceptive. By allowing Michael/Michalis/Mikey/Mike to speak to us directly, in his own voice, whatever his age, Atta gives his words a heart-stopping immediacy, while at the same time exploring some profound ideas.

An absolute joy to read – this is a book I’d like to put in the hands of every teenager and young person still trying to figure out who they are.

Afropean by Johny Pitts

If David Olusoga’s Black and British: a Forgotten History encompassed the long history of Black people in Britain, going back to the Roman period, Afropean: Notes from Black Europe reaches out geographically, exploring the Black experience in Europe from Stockholm to Lisbon, Moscow to Marseilles.

Pitts finds communities often isolated from the cities of which they are nominally part – some vibrant but fragile, like the illegal favelas clinging to the fringes of Lisbon, others desperate and alienated, like those in the semi-derelict remains of 60s brutalist high-rises in Clichy-sous-Bois in Paris. He finds himself mourning the deliberate undermining of working class solidarity, “spinning the presence of black people as a threat rather than in opportunity.”

He reveals the often buried histories that brought African people to Europe – from the earliest origins of the slave trade via 19th Century colonial empire building to the Cold War battle for ideological dominance.

This is a Europe that many of us, as white, middle-class tourists, will never see. It challenges the comfortable idea of Europe as a tolerant and open society and shines a light on how “the European superiority complex has found its way into your psyche ... transferred through a thousand intimate moments, planted in the fertile, innocent and happy memories of childhood.”

Winner of both the 2020 Jhalak Prize and the 2020 Bread and Roses Prize for Radical Publishing

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King is a book I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I first read it. Set during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, it reveals the part played in the war by Ethiopian women

Hirut begins the story as a lowly servant in the household of a wealthy family connection, someone with no power or agency of her own, despised by the lady of the house, treated with intermittent kindness by the master. The only thing she has of her own is a gun, given to her by her late father, who made her promise to keep it always. But when the Italians re-invade the country, it is taken from her, without consultation. She, like all the other women, is expected merely to prepare supplies for the soldiers. It doesn’t occur to anyone that they might fight. But the reality of war against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy changes everything.

Mengiste’s skilful use of language reveals this difference between the almost Homeric view of war when seen from the male point of view, and the direct and personal experience of horror when seen from the female point of view.

A powerful novel about war and colonialism, patriarchy and violence, written from a too-rarely seen point of view, that of a Black African woman.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

Adunni is born into a poor family in a small village in Nigeria. She wants more than anything else to get an education. When her mother dies, that hoped is snatched away. She is married off, aged 14, to a much older man who already has two wives. Yet, on her path from there, via her time as a house girl / domestic slave to a fabulously wealthy Lagos businesswoman, to her ultimate destination, she never loses sight of her passion for learning – and for teaching other Nigerian girls.

Like Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Adunni tells her story in non-standard English – which doesn’t stop her from expressing herself with passion and clarity. Adunni uses every scrap of learning she can to fuel a burning desire for justice

Adunni’s story is at times desperately sad, but it is also a glorious celebration of the emancipating effect of female education. Adunni’s louding voice needs to be heard.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

No sooner was The Vanishing Half published in the UK than my timeline began to fill up with people saying how extraordinary it was. And my goodness, it doesn’t disappoint! From the minute that Desiree Vignes strides onto the page, battered suitcase in one hand, her daughter in the other, the characters fizzle and sizzle and the story zips along.

Desiree is one of two twin girls who, years ago, ran away from Mallard to make a life for themselves far away. But while Desiree defied Mallard to marry a dark skinned Black man and have a child “blue black, like she flown direct from Africa”, her twin, Stella, has achieved the seeming impossible, ‘passed over’ as white and vanished.

An exquisite tour de force of a novel, peopled with flawed and unforgettable characters. and brimming with warmth and compassion.

Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola

What a joy this book was to read!

Bolu Babalola has taken raw material from folk tales and mythology around the world and spun from it a paeon to romantic love, in all its manifestations.

Here are childhood sweethearts and first date flirtations. Partnerships built up over many years and alliances forged in a red-hot minute. Some of the stories and sexy and others tender, some crackle with wit and some are heartbreaking.

As Babalola says in her Author’s Note, many of the original tales were “rife with misogyny and violence and were created within heavily patriarchal contexts.” She has transformed them, placing the women at the centre of their stories; giving them agency, power, discernment.

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

Boy, Everywhere
is the story of Sami’s perilous journey from Syria to the UK and what happens to him and his family once they arrive Manchester. It’s a tough story, based on first-person accounts from other young people who have made the journey.

At every turn it demolishes myths about asylum seekers. It shows what it means to put your lives in the hands of smugglers, to survive terrifying boat crossings, to arrive in the UK only to be locked up in a detention centre with other desperate people – and then when you finally begin to make a life for yourself in your new country, to face bigotry and rejection.

Sami is angry and frustrated as any teenager would be at being torn from his home and his friends. But he is terrified and guilty and confused. To read his story is to want to shelter and protect him. And there are so many Samis out there.

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

What an incredible finish to the year this was.

Reading Love After Love feels like being privileged to dip at intervals into personal diaries of the three protagonists. Their Trini voices ring out strong and true and full of humour.

The narrative is layered and richly. Every time you think you know which way the story is going, it gives itself a little twist and flies off in a new direction – but one that, once you’ve found your feet again, feels completely right and true.

Persaud captures the paradoxes of Trinidad, the beauty side by side with violence. She examines the special nature of the relationship between a single mother and her only son – and what happens when that breaks down. And she picks apart toxic attitudes that encourage, or at least turn a blind eye to, homophobia, domestic violence and alcoholism.

This is a novel that will make you laugh and cry and catch your breath in your throat. If you’ve time to read one more book before ethe end of 2020, it should be this one.

I look forward to sharing more reading with you in 2021!

Thursday, 10 December 2020

Love after Love by Ingrid Persaud

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It

Set in more-or-less present-day Trinidad, with its complex mixture of races and religions - and in particular among the largely Christianised descendants of Indian bonded labourers brought to the island when it was a British colony - Love After Love follows the lives of Miss Betty, her young son Solo, and her gay lodger, Mr Chetan.

Reading it feels like being privileged to dip at intervals into personal diaries of the three protagonists. Their Trini voices ring out strong and true and full of humour.

“If you bounce up your ex after all this time I find God should arrange it to be in a crowded supermarket on a Saturday morning. He and the wife should be vex with one another and the child throwing a tantrum on the floor.”

The narrative is layered and richly textured. Every time you think you know which way the story is going, it gives itself a little twist and flies off in a new direction – but one that, once you’ve found your feet again, feels completely right and true. 

Persaud captures the paradoxes of Trinidad, the beauty side by side with violence.

“We followed the coast road, taking in the beauty of mile after mile of beach lined with coconut trees. If this country didn’t have five hundred plus murders last year alone we would be in paradise.”

She examines the special nature of the relationship between a single mother and her only son – and what happens when that breaks down. And she picks apart toxic attitudes that encourage, or at least turn a blind eye to, homophobia, domestic violence and alcoholism. 

This is a novel that will make you laugh and cry and catch your breath in your throat. So assured are the voices that it is hard to believe that this is Persaud’s debut novel. Mind you, the author has already won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2017 and the BBC National Short Story Award in 2018, so perhaps it should be no surprise that Love After Love is on the shortlist for the 2021 Costa First Novel Award.

An explosively strong debut novel and a welcome addition to the pantheon of fabulous Trinidadian writers like Michelle Innis (She Never Called Me Mother) and Claire Adam (The Golden Child)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Golden Child by Claire Adam, The Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

Avoid If You Dislike: Novels writing in dialect

Perfect Accompaniment: Curried cascadoux (Trinidadian fish)

Genre: Contemporary, Caribbean literature, LGBT

Buy This Book Here