Wednesday, 28 July 2021

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

The premise of Sunjeev Sahota's third novel, China Room, has elements of a fairytale – three brides married to three brothers, but not permitted to know, even after they are married, which brother is which. It’s a recipe for trouble, and trouble does indeed follow. But this is not a fairytale. It is rural India in the 1920s – a village so tightly bound up with tradition it seems out of touch even to its neighbours.

The three brides inhabit the china room – a small building, barely more than a hut, separate from the rest of the farmstead, where a few willow-pattern plates sit on a stone shelf. From there, heavily veiled every time they step outside, they carry on the work of the household. And at night, their mother-in-law sends one son at a time into a darkened room where neither bride nor groom can see each other’s faces.

The three young brides, who could easily have been reduced to fairytale archetypes, instead come dancing off the page, alive and vivid and down to earth. Even Mai, the matriarch who rules her three sons and their brides, is not permitted to become a pantomime villain. These are real people, painted in sparing but telling detail.

“Mehar is not so obedient a fifteen-year-old that she won’t try to uncover which of the three brothers is her husband. Already, the morning after the wedding, and despite nervous, trembling hands, she combines varying amounts of lemon, garlic and spice in their side plates of sliced onions, and then attempts to detect the particular odour on the man who visits later that night, invisible to her in the dark.”

The second, parallel thread of the story takes place seventy years later, when the great-grandson of Mehar is sent back from England in the summer after his A-Levels to break his heroin addiction. At the now deserted farmstead, alone apart from an occasional visitor and a daily delivery of food, he ponders the stories about his great-grandmother, whom he knows only from a single photograph of her holding him as a new-born baby, and reflects on the sometimes brutal racism that led him down his own dark path.

By allowing the story to bridge two continents and seven decades, Sahota shows how each generation faces its own battles – those at home as well as those that migrate. His prose is at times achingly beautiful.

"What remained was a feeling of quiet rapture, of dawn colours slowly involving themselves with the day, a champagne brightness staring to warm my skin and waving across acres of corn and wheat, the soft green hills that followed no pattern, a distant stone hut that held the horizon and a long, tapered track driving on till I could no longer even imagine that I could see it."

Sahota has the gift of inhabiting his characters’ minds, and drawing the reader in there with him. His empathy is extraordinary and it has resulted in a deeply moving book. Its longlisting for the 2021 Booker Prize is richly deserved.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota; Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup; If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa; A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Avoid If You Dislike: Poetic, thoughtful prose

Perfect Accompaniment: Cauliflower and potato curry

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 26 July 2021

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

A Kind of Spark is a gem of a novel – one to break your heart, inspire you and fill you with joy.

The central character, Addie, is intelligent, curious, articulate and bursting with heart. She is also, like the author, autistic. That means that she can easily be overwhelmed – by sensory inputs and by emotions, both of which she feels with sometimes unbearable intensity.

Like so many neurodivergent people – including Addie’s older sister, Keedie – Addie learns to deal with the outside world by ‘masking’, hiding who she is from the world on a daily, hourly, minute by minute basis. It’s exhausting.

But when Addie begins to learn about the Scottish ‘witches’ – women persecuted for being different, just like her – she knows she needs to do something. In her own tiny village outside Edinburgh, there are records of women who were murdered on suspicion of being witches. Addie believes they should be remembered and honoured. But not everyone agrees.

This is a book about standing up to bullies. About the determination to do the right thing. About facing up honestly to the wrongs of the past, and understanding that until we do so, we cannot effect real change.

It is also a rare, profound and stereotype-free insight into what it can be like to experience our world as a neurodivergent person. McNicholl writes vividly, drawing on her own experience. Her passion, like Addie’s, is clear.

A book for anyone who wants to change the world a little bit – but especially for all the book-loving autistic girls out there, desperate to find themselves within the pages of a book.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Night Bus Hero by Onjali Rauf; Hetty Feather by Jacqueline Wilson

Avoid If You Dislike: Seeing the world in a whole new way

Perfect Accompaniment: Peace and quiet in the corner of a library

Genre: Young Adult

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Thursday, 8 July 2021

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

From the opening pages, The Other Black Girl presents as a modern-day office comedy – a Black woman’s Working Girl, or The Devil Wears Prada. But all is not quite what it appears.

Yes, this is a take-down of the Whiteness of the publishing industry – an expose of the blunders and gaffes of its narrow demographic of gatekeepers. But there is a surreal element to it too. And that surreal element takes satirical aim at those who choose compliance and adjacency to power over solidarity and the fight for equality.

When Nella first sees that another Black woman has been hired by her exclusive (and very White) publishing house, she is delighted. But almost at once, something starts to feel off. She can’t put her finger on it, but just why is Hazel able to worm her way into everyone’s good graces so quickly? And who is sending Nella anonymous notes? Is she just jealous? Or paranoid? Or is something really wrong here?

And just what is in that special hair grease Hazel is so keen to share?

The Other Black Girl is playful and at times downright hilarious – but much of the fabric of the story is based on Harris’s own experiences in the publishing industry. It’s not difficult to draw parallels between the book launch at the centre of the story and one or two recent high-profile launches where embarrassing gaffes have been blamed on the lack of having any non-cis/het/white/middle-class staff senior enough to speak up. The absence of what Nella terms “For Us, by Us: the Effect of Black Eyes on Black Ideas.”

A clever and sharp-toothed debut with a sting in its tail. And I love the symbolism of the cover - the broken teeth of the black Afro comb, stark against the rich yellow background.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams; The Yield by Tara June Winch; The Hundred Year Old Man Who Jumped Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonassen;

Avoid If You Dislike: Wondering off the path of realism

Perfect Accompaniment: A luxury hair treatment

Genre: Comedy, satire, contemporary.

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 28 June 2021

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop, trans Anna Moschovakis

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“Temporary madness in war is bravery’s sister.”

At Night All Blood Is Black is the English-language title of Frère d'âme (lit, “the brother of my soul”), a novel by the French author of Senegalese extraction, David Diop. With his English translator Anna Moschovakis, Diop won the 2021 International Booker Prize for this – the first French-language novelist to do so.

Set in the trenches of the First World War, the novel reveals the terrible damage war can wreck on the human mind – as well as reminding us that soldiers from colonised Africa (“chocolats” in the French slang of the time) were fighting and dying alongside white soldiers (“toubabs”).

Alfa Ndiaye has witnessed the death of his childhood friend, “my more-than brother”, Mandemba Diop. Mandemba died in agony, his guts spilling out over no-man’s land, but Alfa could not bring himself to do as his friend begged him and slit his throat to put him out of his agony. His guilt at his failure to do so turns him into a kind of avenging spirit, haunting the battlefields and inflicting on the German soldiers “the blue-eyed enemy from the other side” what they inflicted on Mandemba.

Diop uses patterns and tropes of African storytelling in the structure of the novel – patterns that are also reminiscent of Old English sagas like Beowolf. Certain phrases repeat over and over again like the beat of a drum. (God’s truth … my more than brother … I, Alfa Ndiaye, son of the old man…) And Alfa’s feats, at first legendary, slowly turn him from hero in the eyes of his fellow soldiers, into a madman or perhaps a sorcerer.

Alfa’s memories of growing up in Senegal with Mandemba also touch on the impact of colonialism on Africa, as village elders are pressured to turn from subsistence farming to cash crops, leaving them dependent on outside buyers into order to feed their families.

Diop, and his translator, use extraordinarily beautiful language to paint a picture of the extreme ugliness of war. Alfa believes he betrayed his friend, but in truth, he, like the soldiers around him, have been betrayed by those who led them into war and who use them as human sacrifices in the interminable futility of trench warfare.

There have been so many novels set in those First World War trenches, that to write something new and unique is an extraordinary achievement. Diop may very well have done just that.

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

Avoid If You Dislike:
Graphic descriptions of war and war wounds

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of mint tea

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, In Translation

Buy This Book Here

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Catriona Troth

 What We Thought of It:

Transcendent Kingdom is the second novel by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi.

As a child, Gifty searched for answers in the absolutism of her evangelical faith. Yet “when I lost my brother […] God was gone in an instant.”

Now she struggles to balance three things – the evangelical faith she has rejected but cannot wholly let go. Her family’s struggles with addiction and depression. And the neuroscience research she has immersed herself in to try and make sense of it all.

“I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing I would never fully know.”

Her brother, a brilliant athlete, died of a heroin addiction that began when he was prescribed opiates for a sports injury. Her mother has since suffered cycles of depression that leave her unable to get out of bed. As Gifty sees it, in both cases, there are issues with reward seeking: in depression, there is too much restraint in seeking pleasure; drug addiction, there is not enough.

The mice she experiments on are addicted to the energy drink, Ensure. They will endure repeated electric shocks in the desperate home of getting another dose. Gifty is looking for ways to turn that reward seeking behaviour. At the back of her mind, there is always the question:

“Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?”

Gifty’s family emigrated from Ghana to America when she was a small child. The racism they have since experienced undoubtedly plays a part in the scars the family all carry. Their father, who is eventually driven back to Ghana by homesickness, learns early on, “how America changed around big black men.” How he had to “try to shrink to size, his long, proud back hunched as he walked with my mother through Walmart, where he was accused to stealing three times in four months.” Nana endures racist abuse from the parents of other team members when he is playing sport. And Gifty overhears members of her church, which has been her sanctuary, remark how “their kind does seem to have a taste for drugs.”

But this is not primarily a story of the harm caused by racism – personal or institutional. It is about a quest to understand what makes us human. What gives us the spark of life and what causes us, sometimes, to throw that gift away. As we follow Gifty along both paths, Gyasi seems to say that science and religion both have insights to offer – and both have limitations.

As she explains in her Acknowledgements, Gyasi has drawn on the research work of a close friend to provide the details of Gifty’s research. The depth of her understanding allows the science behind Gifty’s research to be woven into the fabric of the story – not simply overlaid on it. The clinical detail plays against the lyrical prose, just as, in the themes of the book, science plays against religion, and Amereica’s culture and tradition plays against Ghana’s. Gyasi holds the tension between them to the end, not allowing either one nor the other to win.

Shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Technologies of the Self by Haris A Durrani, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon

Avoid If You Dislike: Descriptions of experiments on animals.

Perfect Accompaniment: Chin chin (Ghanaian fried spiced pastry crisps)

Genre: Contemporary, Literary

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Monday, 14 June 2021

How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness by Jessica Bell


Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought of it:

A exceptional story of female friendship and a speculative take on what today’s (in)actions might mean for the future. Icasia Bloom and her fellow Globe-dwellers are controlled by the State, where decisions are taken out of one’s hands. Trying to keep herself and her son fed, Icasia is a Tatter, offering services for food. Then she meets Selma, who is struggling to set up a bakery. The two women’s lives become intertwined and redefine the term ‘family’.

Bloom’s world is fully rounded, the characters likeable, damaged and resourceful, while the technique of storytelling as treasured heirloom is beautifully done. This tale appears a critique of government control, disguising philosophical questions about mental health, long-term sickness, lack of agency and how the little people pay for the mistakes of the wealthy.

One thing that struck me about the story is that the state is represented by The Book, and all its intrusive ways into people’s lives. There is nowhere to hide but all is done out of care for its citizens. The forced pregnancies, the accelerated deaths and changing laws imposed upon a meek population who accepted a philanthropic rescuer until they had no choice.

A touching, deceptively deep novel for anyone who ever loved.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Only Ever Yours

Avoid if you don’t like: Dystopian fiction, female leads, emotional wringers

Ideal accompaniments: Warm milk, From the Flagstones by Cocteau Twins and an apricot Danish.

Genre: Speculative fiction

Thursday, 3 June 2021

The Yield by Tara June Winch

Catriona Troth

What We thought of It:

After a long absence, August is returning to her home in Massacre Plains, a remote part of central Australia, to attend the funeral of her grandfather, Poppy Albert. But when she gets there, she finds that even her families last fragile hold on what used to be their ancestral land is threatened by the development of a tin mine.

The Yield weaves together three narratives. There is August’s story, of reconnecting with her family, of coming to terms with the loss of Poppy Albert, and of her growing conviction that they could fight the incursion of the mine.

The second is an extended letter, written by the white pastor who set up the original mission on Massacre Plains to protect the local Aboriginal people. His letter both documents the extent and brutality of the atrocities committed by white settlers and reveals the some of the damage caused through his own good intentions.

Finally, there are Poppy Albert’s own writings – his attempt to create a dictionary of his people’s original language. Each word that he captures has a story to go with it – and those stories tell something of the traditions of the original inhabitants of Massacre Plains, of their custodianship of the land and of the environmental degradation brought about through ignoring that deep knowledge.  But fragment by fragment they also reveal the devastating truth behind the family tragedy that led to August leaving Massacre Plains.

Poppy’s dictionary underlines the importance of reclaiming language, because a language reveals a whole different way of thinking. As Poppy says, it sings mountains into existence.

Like this year’s Jhalak Prize winner The First Woman, The Yield explores the intergenerational impact of colonialism – but this time through the lens of an Indigenous people who were all but wiped out by white settlers in the course of their insatiable land grab. It also reflects on how ignorance and the wilful rejection of traditional knowledge and practice has led to the destruction of a delicate ecological balance.

Achingly beautiful. A devastating tally of the cost paid by the relentless drive to expand European ‘civilisation,’ yet containing within it a small flame of hope that some of what has been lost can still reclaimed.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, The Break by Katherena Vermette

Avoid If You Dislike: Confronting the devastating impact of colonialism on a land and its people.

Perfect Accompaniment: Freshwater fish, grilled and flavoured with herbs.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Contemporary, Indigenous Writing, Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here