Thursday, 9 July 2020

That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:


Those who annually drag out the tired old cliché that “the English novel is dead” should perhaps lift up their eyes: they would find so much exciting experimentation beyond familiar horizons. Just this year, for instance, I have read three very different novels which play with the boundaries between poetry. The first two were Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl Woman Other, the second Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo and the third is Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me, winner of the 2020 Desmond Elliot Prize.

That Reminds Me
is the story of K, London born child of Ghanaian parents. His life is recounted in a series of vignettes, most less than a page in length: moments captured in prose so tight it verges on poetry. It begins with K being fostered out to a white family who live in the countryside – an experience that mixes love with harsh discipline. Then, after a return to the family home, with an often-absent father and a mother who gets up a dawn to clean the local school, a baby brother is born. K has an ambivalent relationship with the church that is so important in his mother’s life. And both brothers experience, in different ways, the pressures of growing up poor and black in London.

The book is divided into five sections, each opening with a drawing of a tiny spider and an invocation to Anansi – trickster, story teller and spider god – and each dealing with a different period of K’s life. We see, almost frame by frame, how the world chips away at K’s sense of self. One of the books most shocking moments comes when K removes jacket to wash away a tiny stain on the front of his shirt, to reveal a sleeve soaked in blood from acts of self harm.

The novel is scattered with small details of the Ghanaian culture of K’s family. Chasing up some of the references (like the Nyame Mwu na Mawu symbol worn by mourners at a funeral – meaning “God never dies, therefore I cannot die”) is worth it to enrich understanding.

With writing so spare, a whole history can be tied up in a single sentence whose meaning is left to be unpacked - such as when he writes “My dark skin saved my father from social services but no one saved me.” At times that meaning can be elusive, but the text bears patient rereading.

That Reminds Me is the first novel published by Stormzy’s imprint, Merky Books. It’s a bold, adventurous start that promises great riches to come.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay; This Brutal House by Niven Govinden; In Our Mad and Dangerous City by Guy Gunaratne

Avoid If You Dislike: fragmented narratives

Perfect Accompaniment: Ghanaian pepper soup

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 2 July 2020

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Nnenna is the only child of single mother and Cambridge Classics graduate Joanie and a Nigerian father she has never met. She and her mother are close, but Nnenna has never been able to get her mother to talk about her father. So when she begins to explore her Igbo heritage, she does so in secrecy.

The book captures the intensity of the relationship between a single mother and her only daughter, and the peculiar pain (for both of them) of the daughter’s first adolescent rebellion. It examines what it means to grow up without knowing about a significant part of your heritage, and how a white parent, however well-intentioned, can be blind to the impact that has on their child.

The story is peppered with examples of the sort of everyday sexism and racism women of colour face every day. (“I’m not normally attracted to girls like you but...”) You can see how these begin to chip away at Nnenna’s sense of self, as she imagines the conversations her teachers might be having about her behind her back.

This book was not quite what I was expecting when I first opened it, and as when you step onto something that is moving in a way you don’t expect, it can take a little while to get used to the direction of travel. The tone early on reminded me of books like Frederic Raphael’s Glittering Prizes, which looked at the lives of Cambridge graduates in the 1950s to 70s. And though Nnenna is central to the story, the narrative is divided between her, her parents and their group of Cambridge friends in the 1990s, and in the present day, her mother, one of those friends (a gay West Indian man) and a couple of Nnenna’s friends. Through those additional characters, the book also explores generational, class and cultural attitudes to gay men, and shines a light on exploitation within the gay community too.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between this and Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing, which shares some of the same themes. Nnenna’s world, among largely well-off pupils at a high-achieving school in Manchester, is a long way from Abu and Karl’s London comprehensive. But teenage dilemmas remain much the same, regardless of background.

A witty, troubling tale of coming of age as a mixed-race child of a single, white mother.

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney was shortlisted for the 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing

Avoid If You Dislike: Narratives shared among a large number of characters

Perfect Accompaniment: Groundrice and fried plantain

Genre: Contemporary, Coming of Age, LGBTQ

Buy This Book Here

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
om

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: