Thursday, 25 June 2020

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It

In the Prologue to her debut novel, The Girl with the Louding Voice, Abi Daré quotes from the Nigerian Book of Facts, 2014:

“Nigeria is the richest country in Africa. Sadly, over 100 million Nigerians live in poverty.”

That dichotomy is at the heart of this book.

Adunni is born into a poor family in a small village in Nigeria. She want more than anything else to get an education

“That day, I tell myself that even if if I am not getting anything in this life, I will go to school I will finish my primary and secondary and university schooling and go to university, because I don’t just want to have any kind of voice...I want a louding voice.”

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. Here, she rages against the assumption that she exists just to breed more children.

“Why fill up the world with sad childrens that are not having a chance to go to school? Why make the world to be one big sad, silent place because all the childrens are not having a voice?”

Adunni uses every scrap of learning she can to fuel a burning desire for justice – for herself and for others, like Khadija, her husband’s second wife who have suffered even more. Her curiosity and sense of justice also drive her to find out what happened to Rebecca, her employer’s previous house girl, whom no one seems to want to talk about.

“The Slavery Abolition Act was signed in the year 1822,” I say. [...] “People are still breaking the Act. I want to do something to make it stop [...] to stop slave-trading of the mind, not just of the body.”

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 Girl with the Louding Voice won the 2018 Bath Novel Award and is shortlisted for the 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: When Trouble Sleeps by Leye Adenle; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara;

Avoid If You Dislike: Books written largely in non-standard English

Perfect Accompaniment: Spiced meat pie

Genre: Contemporary, Literary

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Wonderland by Juno Dawson

Reviewer: David C Dawson

What we thought:

Amazingly, this is Dawson’s (no relation!) twentieth young adult novel. I gave her debut novel Hollow Pike a rave review here on Bookmuse four years ago.

Dawson’s come a long way since her debut novel in 2012, both personally and in her writing. Wonderland has a hard edge to it, without losing the humour Dawson managed so well in her previous novels.

Alice Dodgson is a privileged young aspirant trans-woman who’s bored with the dreary academia of her expensive private school. Her friend Bunny has gone missing, and Alice goes to find her. That’s when she discovers the elite Wonderland Party, and meets a host of drug and sex addicted characters, including Dinah and the Tweedle Twins.

As you can probably tell already, the references to Lewis Carol’s classic children’s story are prolific, clever and witty. But Dawson uses the rough framework of Carol’s story to explore a host of complex issues, including sexuality, privilege, mental health, and drug taking. At times it’s a very dark and shocking read.

The issues Dawson tackles are highly relevant to young people today, and she deals with them in an honest, and emotionally mature way, which is so refreshing. At several points in the book my middle-aged, middle-class mind had to pause and ask the question: is this appropriate for a young adult? The answer came swiftly: definitely.

Dawson clearly draws on her experience as a trans-woman, and sections of the book feel almost autobiographical. But before you dismiss it as an angsty teenage read, let me reassure you that the writing is tight, and the plot is complex and intriguing.

Highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Holly Jackson, Sophie McKenzie

Avoid if you don’t like: Some explicit sex, drug references, suicide references

Ideal accompaniments: Jam tarts

Genre: Young Adult, LGBTQ

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 11 June 2020

You People by Nikita Lalwani

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Nikita Lalwani's You People takes place in London, among the marginalised and dispossessed, asylum seekers and “Illegal” immigrants, those with no right to work and no resource to public funds, scrabbling to scratch a living while trying to make the case to be allowed to remain in the UK. It focuses in particular on those still fleeing torture in Sri Lanka.

Freedom from Torture has documented ongoing cases of torture by state officials in Sri Lanka. But survivors continue to find it difficult to prove their cases and to be given refugee status by the UK Home Office. While they try to make their case, they are not allowed to work or to study and they have to live on asylum seeker support allowance of just £35 per week.

You People tells to story of some of those who have fallen through the cracks, or are still struggling to get documented status. One of the two main point-of-view characters is Shan, who has fled Sri Lanka after the murder of his father, leaving behind his wife and child. He, along with several others like him, are working in a restaurant owned by Tuli, fellow Sri Lankan and benefactor who operates in the grey areas of the law.

The other point of view character is Nia, half Welsh, half Indian, white-passing, but with her own troubled past, who works at the restaurant as a waitress. Nia is torn between wanting to help, and horror both at the cool way Tuli ignores the law when it suits him and the god-like way he appears choose who to help.

Nia acts as our eyes and ears, critiquing Tuli’s actions while at the same time being brought face to face with the very real desperation that necessitates them.

Shan on the other hand is fighting for his existence, knowing that to be sent back to Sri Lanka is very likely a death sentence for him, yet torn apart with guilt for the wife and child he abandoned and now cannot contact.

This is a hugely relevant, contemporary story, born out of the UK’s so-called Hostile Environment for those it deems illegal immigrants. It’s a story that reveals the human consequences of those policies, while subtly testing the reader with moral choices. Who do we choose to help? To whom do we give the benefit of the doubt – and why?

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Happiness by Aminatta Forna, The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, Hostile Environment by Maya Goodfellow, Gifted by Nikita Lalwani

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of people living under the radar

Perfect Accompaniment: Chilli and garlic prawns, and a glass of wine

Genre: Contemporary Ficton , Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 4 June 2020

A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It

Roger Robinson’s collection of poems, A Portable Paradise, begins far from paradise, in the inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower in London 14th June 2017. These searing poems capture some of the horror of that night – as well as the long struggle for justice that has followed.

How is it I’m begging you for housing, when you burnt my building down?” one voice asks.

In the second section, a series of short, intense poems focuses on artists and writers - from John Milton and George Stubbs, to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Toni Morrison.

The third section is a series of profound reflections on Black History and how slavery and colonialism continue to feed through into the present. The short poem, Beware has, in the last few days, become appallingly timely.

When police place knees
at your throat, you may not live
to tell of choking.

‘It Soon Come’ captures the simmering tensions of the days and hours before anger and injustice boils over on the streets, while in ‘Citizen III’, Robinson gives voice to the Black man who has lived and worked in the UK all his life, only to be told he is to be sent home.

‘The Darkening Red of Your Blood’ is a version of ‘the Talk’ that all Black parents are forced to give their children – especially their sons:

At some point you will be stopped
by the police for no valid reason
They will ask unnecessary questions
They will say something to try
To degrade you
Do not fall for it

Do not be the ink of a new obituary

The final section is deeply personal. It deals with such things as an unwanted breakup with a lover and the birth of a severely premature baby with tenderness and love.

The title comes from a poem about Folsom Prison Writing Workshop

Poems can make minds move freely,
Books are a portable paradise
While I am faced with all my guilty freed

This book will certainly let your mind move freely. A Portable Paradise is a deeply moving collection and it is not hard to see why it has won both the 2019 TS Eliot Prize and 2020 Ondaatje Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Roy Mc Farlane, The Healing Next Time; Jay Bernard, Surge; Carol Ann Duffy, The World’s Wife

Avoid If You Dislike: Poems that remind you of the fragility of life, or those that force you to confront systemic racism

Perfect Accompaniment: Stormzy: Blinded by your Grace Pt II

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In 1589, King James VI of Scotland was awaiting the arrival of his bride, Anne of Denmark, when a storm blew up that battered the fleet of ships in which she was failing, with the lost of many lives. He then tried to sail to Denmark himself to bring her home but another storm forced him back to Scotland. James became convinced that the storms were the work of witches trying to prevent his marriage and – taking as his text “suffer not a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18) – he began a campaign of terror, torture and execution against those(mostly women) who were suspected of witchcraft.

This brand of militant Calvinism was exported, not only (famously) to Salem Massachusetts but, as Kiran Millwood Hargraves’ gripping historical novel shows, to places such as Finnmark in northern Norway, where Scottish witchfinders were employed by King Christian of Denmark.

The Mercies begins with another sudden and violent storm – one which wiped out a fishing fleet and more or less the entire male population of the tiny community of Vardø in northeastern Norway. The women are left to fend for themselves, but such radical independence attracts the suspicion of the King and his Lensman is sent to investigate.

The story is told through the eyes of two women. The first is Maren, one of the women of Vardø, who has lost father, brother and betrothed to the storm, and has learnt to take boats out to fish in order to feed her family. The second is Ursa, brought up with her sister in Bergen and newly married to the Scottish commissioner chosen by the Lensman to weed out potential witches.

As suspicion spreads through the once-close community in a well worn path, an unexpected alliance grows between Maren and Ursa . The women’s independence, their sexuality, any traditions not sanctified by the church – all can be used against them. And this compulsion to police women’s bodies is further bound up with racism and bigotry against the Sámi people, who once mingled freely with the rest of the community but whose reluctance to accept Christianity has made them objects of suspicion. Given the terror of witches brewing storms, their once-valued skills of ‘wind-weaving’ become to be seen as the work of the devil.

For all their talk of the mercies of God, the zeal of the Lensman and his commissioner in rooting out witchcraft has no room for mercy at all.

This is Millwood Hargraves’ first adult novel. Just as she did for younger readers with The Island at the End of Everything, she has taken historical events and written a story of extraordinary intimacy, that vividly conjures up a unique community. The story of a witch hunt may be familiar, but by drawing us in so deeply, Millwood Hargraves tells it anew.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, The Break by Katherena Vermette, Blood Rose Angel by Liza Perrat

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of witchcraft and torture

Perfect Accompaniment: Venison stew and a glass of beer

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, LGBTQIA+

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday, 21 May 2020

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Reviewer: David C. Dawson

What we thought:

“And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.”

This is a book that divided the critics. Well, it polarised them actually. It won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Novel in 2013. But it also had some pretty nasty tongue-lashings from the critics on The New York Times and The Guardian among others.

Well I loved it.

It’s a tragic love story. Miller retells Homer’s heroic story of Achilles in the Trojan Wars from the point of view of his companion Patroclus. The exact nature of the two men’s relationship has been debated through the centuries. In Miller’s novel you are left with no doubt. They were lovers from their teens. The relationship is passionate, strong and long lasting. At least, it lasts until Patroclus is killed in battle (no spoiler alert if you've read your ancient Greek!). The death of Patroclus leaves Miller with a problem, given the novel is narrated by him. Unabashed, she continues his narration from beyond the grave. Surprisingly, it works.

This is such a beautiful book to read. Miller has a wonderfully contemporary style, which sits well in the ancient setting. Critics have attacked the book’s accessibility, accusing it of being “a good beach read in the style of Dawson’s Creek”. A reference not lost on me with my surname! I disagree strongly with this disparaging criticism. I enjoyed Miller’s writing style and the way she gave life to her characters. This is in no way a dry historical novel. It’s rich in emotion and action and ultimately very moving.

A very accessible read that will help many people get into the ancient Greek myths and legends.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Open Arms of the Sea by Jasper Dorgan

Avoid If You Dislike: Some description of gay sex, some bloody battle description

Perfect Accompaniment: An ouzo and olives

Genre: LGBTQI, Historical, Romance

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 14 May 2020

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought:

When the Italian army invades Ethiopia in 1935 and Emperor Haile Selassie is forced to feel to the England, a Shadow King takes his place, a young lookalike whose guards are female soldiers. This the the little-known story of the women who fought alongside men in the second Italian-Ethiopian war – women including the author’s own grandmother. Ordinary women, peasants and servants, with no previous training, who took up arms to defend their country against an army larger and far better equipped their own.

But if the outward battle is against Italian colonialism, the women are forced to fight on many fronts – against the inequality and patriarchal nature of Ethiopian society of the period, and against sexual violence inflicted by their own sides.

Mengiste has written (in this article published in Lithub in September 2019) about the photographs she has been collecting for years – photographs taken for the most part by young Italian soldiers who thought they were embarking on a foreign adventure. One in particular gave birth to the principal character, Hirut.

“She is in her teens and her hair is pulled away from her face ... I imagine that she is ... doing her best to focus her attention on something besides the intrusive photographer.”

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.

In the early stages of the war the battles, scene mostly from a male point of view, are written as if they were part of a Homeric saga – full of heroism and grand gestures.

“Their high-flung arms. That quivering beam of light curving through the field like a god’s mocking defiance. See Fisseha fall, that last son of Samuel. See Girmay stumble, that only child of Mulu [...] Listen to the wind vibrate with spear and flung stone and hoarse shouts and agonised cries.”

The later battles, when Hirut is in the thick of it, the tone changes to a more personal experience of horror:

“Soon she is thrown into the sweep of dust clouds, other figures pushing against her, around her, to make their way to the enemy. She feels like she runs alone, a solitary figure balancing on slippery rocks. Then she trips over grass and find herself helplessly caught in her own momentum.”

The men in the novel – particularly those , both Italian and Ethiopian, who come from their ruling classes – have been conditioned from childhood into a kind of unseeing cruelty – a cruelty capable of even recognising itself for what it is. As Mengiste writes (again in the article from Lithub), "I have come to realize that the history of women in war has often been contested because the bodies of women have also been battlefields on which distorted ideas of manhood were made.”

In the novel, the photographs are taken by Ettore, an Italian soldier whose father is a non-practising Jew. As Nazism closes in on his family back home and census forms arrive from Italy to identify Jewish soldiers, Ettore continues to follow orders to document the atrocities committed by his commanding officer, in the hopes that obedience will save him.

Ettore may himself be a victim, but Mengiste never allows him the easy luxury of forgiveness – he must take responsibility for his own choices.

Finally, a series of Interludes runs through the novel - brief scenes in which the Emperor Haile Selassie listens repeatedly - obsessively even - to a recording of the opera Aida, which tells the story of an Ethiopian princess captured by Egyptians. The way he chafes against the story of how she falls in love with her captor feels like a plea for Ethiopia to tell its own stories.

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.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

Avoid If You Dislike: Close up descriptions of war and sexual violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Daro wat with Injera (Ethiopian spicy stew with fermented pancakes)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy this book here:

Thursday, 7 May 2020

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought of It

“My mother is from the Amhara people in Ethiopia. It is a tradition of the Amhara to leave messages in the first name of a child. In Amharic, the name Lemn means Why?”

Lemn Sissay’s My Name is Why is a forensic analysis of his own case files – the case files of a Black child taken into care, his name changed to make it all-but impossible for his birth mother to trace him.

Every one of those files is measured against his own memories. Together they paint a picture of a family who take in a child they believe to have been abandoned, who make him part of the family and who appear to love him – but who reject him brutally at the first sign of adolescent rebellion. Thereafter, Sissay (by now called ‘Norman’) is shunted between children’s homes with little care for his actual needs, reaching at last a place that is little better than a prison in disguise..

As Sissay himself says, “the most institutionalised people in the care system are the workers.”On the whole, those social workers who come into direct contact with the young ‘Norman’ come across as caring and concerned, if somewhat blinkered. (And the consistency of care he receives, being in the charge of just two principal social workers through his childhood seems downright remarkable by recent standards.) But those higher up, those with the power to make decisions about his life, show little or no understanding of his needs, nor of the day-to-day impact racism is having on the developing adolescent.

I first saw Lemn Sissay on stage in Trafalgar Square, at the party to celebrate the first ever World Book Night in 2011 , where he gave a tour de force performance of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. I knew nothing about his background at the time, but just a year earlier he had made a radio documentary, Child of the State, where he returned to Wigan to try and access his own files, only to be told they were lost. It was only in 2015 that the files were finally recovered and he was able to read them and unpick the lies he had been told.

Out of that experience grew the stage show, The Report, in which Sissay responded to a reading, by Julie Hesmondhalgh of the psychologist’s report into the impact on him of his abuse.

The book can never be as raw as that theatre experience must have been. Yet Sissay’s pain and anger and still clear on every page. Even choosing to read the files, having fought to see them, was a not an easy decision.

“A friend burned her files when she received them from the Authority. Another cannot read them to this say. I’ll start by simply recording my reactions to the first early documents and we’ll see how it unfolds.”

A book so personal it feels almost intrusive to be reading it. Yet essential to understand how a child can be taken from his mother by the agents of the State – something which we now know has been replicated over and over with different groups of mothers and children around the world, with devastating consequences.

“I am not defined by scars,” writes Sissay, “But by the incredible ability to heal.”

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: Lowborn by Kerry Hudson, Natives by Akala, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Perfect Accompaniment: Bacon butty and hot tea

Avoid If You Dislike: Unvarnished descriptions of a child’s life in the care system

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 30 April 2020

The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of the French Historical, The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and Australian 1970s series: The Silent Kookaburra and The Swooping Magpie.
What we thought: The Guesthouse is a dark, suspenseful and intriguing mystery by Abbie Frost. Before her boyfriend died, Hannah had planned a trip to The Guesthouse, but she decides to go anyway, to relax and to get her life back.

However, as a group of strangers come together in this house on the isolated Irish coast, she soon discovers this will be no relaxing holiday.

Dark secrets abound in this spooky, ghostly setting, which Hannah will need to figure out before it’s too late. Nothing is as it seems, and what is real? And who should she trust?

There are several novels out now that use this storyline of a group of strangers trapped, and in danger, but the many twists and turns of The Guesthouse had me gripped from the start, and guessing right till the end.

The characters are skillfully drawn, their stories entirely credible, and it was hard to figure out which one I should have sympathy for.

I look forward to more dark tales of suspense and tension from this talented new author.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Dark, suspenseful tales.

Avoid if you dislike: spooky settings and things that go bump in the night.
Genre: Psychological thriller

Buy this book here

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought of it:

In 2017, Kendasamy published When I Hit You Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. She made it clear it was not a memoir. Nevertheless, many insisted on focusing on the parallels to Kandasamy’s own short but brutal marriage and ignoring the pyrotechnic brilliance of her prose or the intricacy of the novel’s structure.

“No one discusses the process with us. No one discussion our work in the framework of the movel as an evolving form. No one treats us as writers.”

Exquisite Cadavers is Kandasamy’s attempt to reclaim her right to set the boundaries between her life and her fiction. The title references the game of Consequences, sometimes called Exquisite Cadaver, where each player writes a section of a story, knowing only the final word of the previous section. The novel is structured in two parts – the fiction, centred on the marriage of two people deliberately as different from Kandasamy and her husband as possible, and a parallel set of marginalia, a glimpse into the author’s reflections and inspirations, journal entries of what is happening in her life as the novel is taking shape on the page.

Karim, the fictional husband, is a Tunisian film student, living in London, frustrated by the casual expectation that he can only make certain kinds of films, tell certain kinds of stories. Maya, his wife, is English, sometimes blind to his struggles. We as readers become privy to the minutiae of their daily lives, to the banality of domesticity, even as Karim asks himself if he should return to Tunis to join its political struggles.

“Nothing hides mutual disdain as well as a marriage. Noting hides a marriage-in-shambles as well as a spruced up, orderly home.”

In the marginalia, by contrast, we get a mixture of diary entries from Kandasamy’s own domestic life and a furious commentary – on her own writing process and on the unfolding political situation in India.

If you love the privilege of dipping into a writer’s notebooks, of rummaging in the “messy attics” of their minds and observing the process of creation, then this novel is for you.

One word of warning, though – I do not recommend buying this as an ebook. The careful formatting of side-by-side narratives is entirely lost, leaving you with two broken sequences that force you constantly to go back and forth to pick up the thread you last dropped. It is a pity that the publisher did not treat the book at they might a graphic novel and ensure that the formatting remained as intended.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Ordinary People by Diana Evans, glimpses of author's notebooks

Avoid If You Dislike: Throwing away the conventional rules of story-telling

Perfect Accompaniment: Darjeeling tea

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Darkness Comes by John Lynch

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of the French Historical, The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and Australian 1970s series: The Silent Kookaburra and The Swooping Magpie.

What we thought: I don’t think I’m smart enough to understand everything about John Lynch’s clever novel, Darkness Comes.  

But, at the end of the day, I found this a highly entertaining read and thoroughly enjoyed this judgement-day-style trial of Ted Bailey’s life.

Ted is about as flawed a person as you could get –– womanizer, drug dealer, arms seller, murderer. Hardly a likeable character. But somehow the author evokes in us, sympathy for him. Perhaps we can all see some of ourselves in Ted? 

In the end, I found myself fighting in Ted’s corner as –– now on the verge of death –– each part of his life is exposed, and judged. I found myself wanting him to win, whatever that means. Judged worthy of Heaven, or sent to Hell? Or perhaps neither, if they don’t exist?

The vast cast of characters –– people who have featured in Ted Bailey’s life –– is not, as I first imagined, difficult to follow, as each one is transient (like most of the people we meet in life), making an almost ethereal appearance, and I just enjoyed each fleeting moment with the different characters. Which, so “they” say, we should do in real life. 

I felt the author was drawing parallels with all of us, through each character; that they represented a type of living individual to whom we can all relate.

I did wonder if Ted Bailey represented our human conscience. However that’s something for each reader to decide for him/herself.

Apart from being an extremely well-written novel, with its quirky storyline, very real, and flawed, characters, and easy-to-read, lyrical prose, I would highly recommend Darkness Comes as an entertaining, ingenious look at life and its many nuances.

You’ll like this if you: flawed characters and out-of-the-ordinary tales.

Avoid if you don’t like: political and religious content.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction.

Buy this book here

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

As Irenosen Okojie explains in the opening to the titular story in this, her second short story collection, a nudibranch is “a soft-bodied, marine Gastropod mollusc, which shed their shells after their larval stage ... known for their often extraordinary colours and striking forms.” It’s a fair enough description of these often mind-bending stories that explore humans at their most vulnerable.

Okojie has said that she was inspired by Nigerian oral story telling tradition – by memories of her grandmother telling stories that were often surreal, always with a moral. The stories may be rooted in that tradition but they are both modern and global. Her settings range from London to Martinique, Llanberis to Mozambique, via Berlin, Japan and Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

The subjects are equally varied. A paintballing weekend becomes the scene of a revenge tragedy. A homeless Japanese man searches for his lost lover. A hip-hop artist recovering from a nervous breakdown finds temporary solace with a trans woman called Dee-light ...

Yet such one-line descriptions fail to give any true sense of these stories, which spool out each time in unexpected directions – surreal often violent, full of images of flesh being devoured, of body parts functioning autonomously.

These are not stories that give up their meaning easily. You have to work at them, and even then the author’s intent may elude you. In that way, the experience is closer to walking through a gallery of expressionist paintings, where the symbolism remains always just beyond your grasp.

Longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie, The Beautiful Side of the Moon by Leye Adenle

Avoid If You Dislike: Surrealism and violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Pressed tongue

Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction, Surrealism

Buy This Book Here:

Monday, 6 April 2020

Flèche by Mary Jean Chan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Mary Jean Chan’s poetry collection, Flèche, was the Winner of the 2019 Costa Poetry Award and is now longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

As a youngster in Hong Kong, Mary Jean Chan was a member of a fencing team and in fencing, flèche is an attacking move. But Chan plays too with its original meaning in French – arrow – as well as its homophone, flesh.

In ‘Practice’ she describes how the androgynous nature of the fencing uniform gave her ‘the closest thing I knew to desire,’ allowing the girls to become ‘princes in a fairytale with a twist, since there were no princesses to be taken, wed.’ Other poems deal with awkwardness of falling in love and the everyday joys Chan shares with her partner.

Chan’s mother grew up in China during the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution and the sequence, ‘My Mother’s Fables’ deals with the brutalities and deprivations she experienced, the hunger that never entirely left her.

Many of the poems deal with her mother’s struggle to accept Chan’s sexuality and the strain that creates between them. In ‘Conversation with Fantasy Mother’ for example, she imagines a mother who took her coming out “as calmly as a pond accept a stone flung into its depth / You sieved my tears, added an egg, then baked a beautiful cake.” But ‘The Window’ reveals the truth, when she tells herself ‘you will refuse your mother’s rage, her spit, her tongue heavy like the heaviest of stones.’ And with the sequence ‘Twenty-four Filial Exemplars,’ based on a classic Chinese text on filial piety, you feel the weight of expectation that a child should be ready to sacrifice themselves for their parent.

Each poem is a vignette, pared down to its bare essentials, each syllable feeling as if it has been carefully chosen and placed. As she writes in ‘Calligraphy,’ a poem on the instructions for creating perfect Chinese characters,

Seeds of in unfurl suddenly from
Your wrist, blooming into time.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta,

Avoid If You Dislike: Reading about difficult mother-daughter relationships

Perfect Accompaniment: salted egg and pickled carrot

Genre: Poetry, LGBTQIA+

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Afropean – Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Johny Pitts was born in Sheffield, son of an African-American actor and singer and a white working class mother, and grew up “a Northern Soul baby.” But conscious that European was still being used as a synonym for ‘white’, one cold October morning, he set out in search of “a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity at large ... where being black in Europe didn’t necessarily mean being an immigrant.”

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.

“What about black Europe ... found in the equivocal and untidy lived experiences of its communities? Black Europe from the streets up?”

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.”

“Very often, Europe’s black workforce inhabits the liminal terrain I’d just experienced, as cleaners, taxi drivers, porters, security guards, ticket sellers and nightclub bouncers; they are there and not there.”

Along the way, he draws on the experiences of earlier black writers such as James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, Carol Phillips. He reminds us of figures from the past we often conveniently forget had a black heritage, such as Alexandre Dumas – grandson of an enslaved woman from Haiti – and Alexander Pushkin, whose great-grandfather was kidnapped in Africa and sold to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. And he finds differing attitudes to Blackness in different countries – from outright denial via historical amnesia and structural racism to naked bigotry.

“When a society has so convinced itself it isn’t racist, it feels vindicated and victimized when immigrants who are responding to very real racism raise their voices.”

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. He has his illusions shattered in Stockholm, which he’d previously only seen through the lens of a comfortable middle class, and finds at last, in Marseilles, a place to which he knows he will return.

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.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved
: Black and British: a forgotten history by David Olusoga; Stopping Places by Damian le Bas

Avoid If You Dislike:
Having your idea of a tolerant, post-racist society challenged (but read it anyway).

Perfect Accompaniment:
A fresh baked baguette and a glass of orange juice.

Non-Fiction, Travel Writing

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 30 March 2020

Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It’s 1960. In post-colonial Ceylon, Mrs Bandaranaika, just been elected Prime Minister, making her the world’s first non-hereditary female head of government. Land reforms are coming – reforms that worry the landowning gentry as much as they disappoint others. And by making Sinhal the country’s official language and ignoring Tamil, the foundations are being laid for the sectarian divisions that will later tear the country apart.

But for twelve year old Kairo, out of school and at a loose end, the most exciting thing is the sudden appearance of the charismatic and daring Jay. Jay is a strange mixture of kindness and casual cruelty. His fondness for wild birds does not stop him catching and caging them. Likewise, he picks up friends, binds them to him, only to drop them with a casual disregard when they no longer fit his purposes.

Quite early on, I caught echoes of the Great Gatsby. It’s there in the names – Jay and Kairo – and in the trope of the new neighbour who dazzles with his comparative wealth and a recklessness that seems to court disaster. And it’s there in certain aspects of the unfolding plot too.

The way the story of the two boys interweaves with the politics of newly independent nation – glimpsed and half understood via adult arguments – gives the book the feel of an extended metaphor for post-colonial politics. As Kairo observes about when Jay moved his birds into a larger aviary:

“The whole thing was rocking me with contradictory emotions ... I could see this was not freedom for the birds; merely the exchange of one cage for a bigger one. The fundamental nature of their lives had not changed.”

Unlike, say, Deepa Anappara's Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line,  the story, though told from Kairo’s point of view, is not seen through the eyes of a twelve year old. The voice is that of adult looking back on his life as he hovered on the brink of adolescence. The text is laced with the sadness of foreknowledge, with knowing how it will all end.

In many ways it almost feels as if the book could have been written in the 1960s. One thing that made me slightly uneasy were the casual references to things like ‘warpaint’, ‘teepees’ ‘braves’ and ‘tomahawks’ – commonplaces of many boys’ imaginary games of the period (and since) but which, used carelessly, can be offensive to indigenous people. It’s the familiar dilemma of balancing period accuracy of language with modern-day understanding of racist tropes. Yet it is clear that the choice to retain this language is not something Gunesekera took lightly. His acknowledgements include thanks given to “the Banff centre in the lands of Treaty 7 territory where the past, present and future generations of Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot, and Tauut’ina Nations and acknowledged and honoured.”

Like Priti Taneja's We That Are Young, Suncatcher is a novel that takes the framework of a English-language classic and transforms it into the means to interrogate the state of a South Asian nation.

Longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: RK Narayan Swami and Friends, Priti Taneja We That Are Young

Avoid If You Dislike: stories of hunting and caged animals

Perfect Accompaniment: chocolate milkshake and a wild bike ride

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Coming of Age story

Buy This Book Here