Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I love listening to poetry in performance, but I am not always good at reading it on the page. Too often, inside my head, the poet’s voice turns into a meaningless sing-song. Fortunately for me, the voice in Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda was strong enough to override even my cloth ear.

Chinogonyi was born in Zambia in 1987 and came to the UK in 1993. The title of this debut volume of poetry, Kumukanda, refers to the initiation rites that young boys of the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi and Mbunda people in north western Zambia must pass through to be considered a man.

“Tata’s people would think me unfinished – a child who never sloughed off the childish estate to cross the river boys of our tribe must cross in order to die and come back grown.”

As the author says, ‘This book approximates such rites of passage in the absence of my original culture.’

The book begins with poems about growing up in south London and a ‘white flight’ town outside London, about his relationship with music and rap and how that helped forge his identity. But Chingonyi moves on from that. In poems such as The ‘N’ word, Casting and Callbacks, he addresses casual racism. In Legerdemain and How To Build Cathedrals, he confronts colonialism and in Kung’anda (home) the Western eye view of Africa reduced to the image of a dying child.

The Nod, Loch Long by Ardarten, Argyll and In Defence of Darkness are love poems of breathtaking tenderness and sensuality. In Curfew, he glimpses the rebellious young woman who is now is Auntie.

A whole group of poems, including the title poem, Kumukanda, address the loss at a young age of both his mother and his father. There is humour here as in the description of his father, “him stood, sequoia among lesser trees, looking good in denim.” And heartbreak, as when he writes of his terminally ill mother, “She’s dying but I won’t call her dead, can’t let mum become a body, a stone, an empty hospital bed.”

Chingonyi said, in an interview with the ICA Bulletin in 2016, that one of his aims in writing is to “chip away at the motion that whiteness is the normative unmediated position from which all other subjectivities deviate.” Which makes him a perfect fit for the Jhalak Prize shortlist.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lemn Sissay, Tendai Huchu, Malika Booker

Avoid If You Dislike: Poems that combine lyrical beauty with razor-sharp political commentary

Perfect Accompaniment: Mussels and dry white wine

Genre: Poetry

Available on Amazon

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Where do I start? This is huge. Not only a broad range of geopolitical considerations, but stuffed with thematic issues and dense with cultural references. If this were a cake, you’d pour brandy on it and set it on fire.

In the historic New York district of The Gardens, a stranger moves in. He seems to have no past and has reinvented himself and his three sons. Nero Golden is a powerful, rich widower, who has adopted Roman monikers for himself and his family.

Against a backdrop of an America electing its first black president, there is a sense of “Yes, we can!” both in the country and this particular family.

The reader gains a unique insight as to how the Goldens (mal)function from their neighbour/friend Rene, orphan, documentary-maker and narrator of this tale. Tragedy in the classical sense alters the fate of the Golden boys while Rene falls victims to cynical manipulation, binding him inextricably to the figure of Nero.

Then a new election looms and this time the front runner is The Joker, a super villain who can work a crowd. Does Batwoman have a chance against such a highly coloured, grinning, bouffant showman?

Rushdie is in his element, cramming in fruity phrases and toothsome allusions, tackling identity, freedom of speech, the American Dream, globalisation, image and delusions of how much control anyone has over their destiny.

Commenting on his Booker of Bookers prizewinner Midnight’s Children, Rushdie said he could not use the cool English of Forster because India was hot. He needed to use language in a way that reflected that. In The Golden House, he has taken the US and the whimsical mood of social media and concocted a rich reflection of itself. A portrait you might put up on Instagram, revealing far more than you realise.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: A Bonfire of the Vanities, Midnight’s Children

Avoid if you don’t like: Epic sagas with contemporary references, a sense of tragedy which will come for you too

Ideal accompaniments: A litre of mineral water and an eight-hour flight east

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

When I Hit You Or Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I climb into the incredible sadness of silence. Wrap its slowness around my shoulders, conceal its shame within the folds of my sari.

If Winnie M Li’s award winning Dark Chapter is the fictionalised account of the author’s brutal rape by a stranger, this is a fictionalised account of another, perhaps more common type of sexual abuse – domestic violence and rape within a marriage.

Kandasamy wrote about the abuse within her own short but brutal marriage in an article for Outlook magazine in 2012. This is not, however, a memoir. Like her unnamed narrator, Kandasamy is a writer – articulate, politically aware, a feminist. As her narrator uses the tools of the writer to survive, to plot her escape and eventually to get away and start life again, so Kandasamy uses fiction to make it possible to tell her story fully and intimately. As the narrator says towards the end of the book:

I am the woman who stands in place of the woman who loathes to enter this story in any of its narrations ... I am the woman conjured up to take on the life of a woman afraid of facing her own reality.

The story is told through many different lenses. It begins with the mother recounting, over and over, the state of her daughter’s feet when she fled home. It covers letters written to imaginary lovers, and deleted before her husband can come home and read them. It goes through story boards of films she will make of her experiences, before dropping, intermittently into unvarnished accounts of a classic pattern of domestic abuse – control, isolation, verbal abuse, physical, sexual, and finally death threats.

This male psychological logic looks at penetration as punishment. This is the rape that disciplines, the rape that penalizes me for the life I have presumably led. This is the rape that tames, the rape that puts me on the path of being a good wife.

There is poetry in this prose, and a humour so dark it’s like pepper on the tongue.

When the narrator finally escapes and speaks about what has happened to her, she faces the shaming women in her position so often meet. Why did she not run away? Why did she stay, if things were as bad as she says? How much of this was really not consensual? Kandasamy answers these questions squarely within the narrative, taking you so deep inside her narrator's head you are forced to understand, to acknowledge the funnelling of her choices into just one, narrow conduit.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li,  A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards, Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Avoid If You Dislike:
Frank and intimate depiction of domestic and sexual violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Cumin and coconut, turmeric and chilli flakes, cinnamon and star anise

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Once Upon A Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2018, this is a memoir of growing up in China, of peasant existence in the 1970s, and the immense changes that have swept over China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. It is also the story of a struggle to develop an identity and a creative voice, first in a collective society, and then later, marooned and isolated as an immigrant in a foreign country.

The memoir overlaps, chronologically, with Madeleine Thien’s sweeping epic, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. But Xiaolu Guo’s family was not one with a long cultural and artistic heritage. Although her father was a state-sanctioned artist, for the most part, her family were illiterate peasants and fishermen, living in the rural and industrial fringes of China, far away from the cultural centres of Shanghai and Beijing.

Despite the declared feminism of Communist doctrine, this was a society where women were treated brutally. Domestic and sexual abuse was rife. Her grandmother, who brought her up for the first few years of her life, was regularly and savagely beaten by her grandfather, and nobody thought it was anything unusual. And when Xiaolu speaks up about her own sexual abuse at the hands of a colleague of her father’s, she finds every one of her university dorm-mates has a parallel story to tell.

Fascinating as Guo’s account of her life in China is, it is her struggle to find a creative voice in a strange country and in an unknown tongue that I found most absorbing. It always seems extraordinary to us stubbornly monoglot Anglophones when someone expresses themselves creatively in a language they did not grow up with. But the gulf that Guo had to cross was far more than merely linguistic. It required an entirely new mode of thinking.

“How could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first person singular all the time? The habitual use of ‘I’ requires thinking of yourself as a separate entity in a society of separate entities.”

I haven’t read any of Guo’s novels, but I am excited to try one now.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Avoid if You Dislike: Frank discussion of sexual and domestic abuse

Perfect Accompaniment: Noodles and tofu

Genre: Autobiography, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore, False Lights & Sacred Lake (

What we thought: This is an outstanding debut novel and it’s no surprise to me it’s become one of the year’s bestsellers and that Hollywood have already snapped up the film rights.

Eleanor Oliphant is a complex human being. She survives each day, locked into her routine, without ever experiencing most of the emotions and sensations we as human beings take for granted. Monday to Friday she does her 9-5 job, eating lunch alone, avoiding human contact, and her weekends start with vodka to help her sleep through till Monday when her working week starts again.

The story joins Eleanor as the rigid routine of the past two decades begins to change when she finds herself drawn into other people’s world and is amazed by the kindness and compassion she finds there. And this is the beginning of both Eleanor discovering herself and the reader discovering the truth of her troubled past. Both of which result in a shocking and dramatic conclusion.

The writing here is superb and it’s hard to believe it’s a first novel. Pace moves us along at a cracking rate and the characters are beyond brilliant. The deeper messages about society in general, our attitudes to mental health, were unmissable - and the humorous traits described from Eleanor’s perspective had me laughing aloud more than once. Her first bikini wax will bring tears to your eyes as well as the characters!

I found myself beyond sad when I got to the final page and had to say goodbye to Eleanor. I hope  she finds happiness in her future and more than anything I hope the author is planning a sequel!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Ruth Hogan, Jo Jo Moyes, Matt Haig.

Avoid if you don’t like: Human beings.

Ideal accompaniments: Magners cider and ice with vol-au-vents and party nibbles.

Genre: Contemporary

Available on Amazon

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Many years ago, when I was doing research in Coventry Central Library, I came across a list they were promoting of books by British Asian authors. One of those books was Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem Aslam’s novel set among the Pakistani community in Bradford, West Yorkshire. It became one of the first novels I read by a British Asian author.

In the intervening years, I lost track of Aslam, so I was delighted to be reintroduced to him via the Jhalak Prize shortlist, which this year includes his novel – the first for many years to be set in Pakistan – The Golden Legend.

The novel opens with the accidental shooting of Massud, one of a husband-and-wife team of architects, by an American. His widow, Nargis, is quickly caught up in the cross-currents of political expediency and religious extremism. As feelings run high, two Christian friends, Helen, whom they have brought up almost as their daughter, and her father Lily, are ensnared in accusations of blasphemy. When the Christian quarter of Badami Bagh is attacked, Helen and Nargis flee to a hidden island when Nargis and Massud once tried to build and mosque that would reconcile the four sects of Islam. Lily has vanished, but they are helped by a disillusioned Kashmiri insurgent, Imran.

The novel contains images of such lyricism they feel almost like the creations of a magical realist – beginning with scale models of two of the world’s most famous mosques, which in the winter form cosy work cabins for the two architects and in summer are winched up into the rafters out of the way. But the novel is in fact rooted firmly – and grimly – in reality. Key events in the novel – the shooting incident involving a CIA contractor with which the book opens, the attack on the Sufi shrine, the death of a Catholic Bishop – all are based on real events. One of the central characters, the Kashmiri Imran, is based on a young man the author met in Pakistan.

The Golden Legend examines religious extremism, intolerance, the concept of blasphemy, and the consequences of India and Pakistan’s long tug of war over Kashmir. Its portrayal of modern day Pakistan is brutal – a searing indictment of the ever-narrowing definition of ‘purity’ applied to determine who belongs in ‘The Land of the Pure’ – first rooting out Hindus and Sikhs, then all-but eliminating other minority religions, and now turning equally ruthlessly on sects within Islam. But just as importantly, The Golden Legend holds up a mirror to Britain and the USA, warning them of the consequences path they have both embarked on, of narrowing what it means to be British or American.

For Aslam, hope for the future lies in the people who are still prepared to struggle for something better. As one of his characters says:

“I am only speaking for myself when I say that despair has to be earned. I personally have not done all that I can to change things. I have not yet earned the right to despair.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: We That Are Young by Preti Taneja; A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories centred round religious and political extremism; lyrical, haunting prose

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of tea and a kulcha (Punjabi naan)

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari, Illus Jane Ray

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

My next review from the Jhalak Prize 2018 longlist is another children’s book, this time for young readers.

Two very different young girls, both facing massive life changes, are eased into their new Secondary School by the wonderful Grace Nuala and her messy colourful art house.

Amy-May’s parents have split up. Her father has gone to live in a tumbledown cottage on a remote hillside, and she’s not sure if that means he doesn’t want her any more. He’s been home schooling her up till now, but she and her mother have moved to the city, and she has to face the prospect of going to a big new school.

We stand and stare at the metal and glass building that looks more like and art gallery than a school. The outlines of hundreds of children move like ants along the corridors. “I can’t come here, mum,” I say, and turn away.

Rima’s journey has been even more difficult. She’s travelled all the way from Syria. She’s known hunger and fear, and her little brother’s leg has been crushed by a bomb. She feels guilty because she’s alive and safe, but she doesn’t want people to see her only as a refugee. She wants people to see who she is.

With the help of Grace, and the volunteer translator Iman, Amy learns that there are so many ways to talk to someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you:

With your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand...You act things out... you let the feeling show in your whole body... whatever way you can to show them you want to be their friend.

Grace makes Worry Angels, little figures to represent her young charges, and when they are ready to fly up to the big school, she gives the angels their wings.

Written in clear, simple English and beautifully illustrated by Jane Ray, this would suit young readers struggling with anxiety or those learning about refugees. But equally, it would be an excellent book for slightly older children learning English as an additional language. Worry Angels is full of warmth and empathy and above all, hope.

You’ll enjoy this if you loved: Azzi In Between by Sarah Garland, The Lost and Found Cat by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories about family breakup or children that have undergone trauma

Perfect Accompaniment: Chocolate Cake

Genre: Children, New Readers

Available on Amazon