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