Saturday, 15 February 2020

The Empire of the Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Joan had been searching for her lost husband for eleven months and six days, since last October, when they’d fought about selling the land she’d inherited from her father and he’d put on his grey jacket and walked out, then screen door banging behind him.”

Earlier this year I reviewed Cherie Dimaline’s Marrow Thieves, her brilliant dystopia for Young Adults. The Empire of the Wild, by contrast, is definitely a book for adults. Nevertheless, it retains a strong element of magic realism.

Hungover and on the edge of despair, Joan stumbles on a tent set up in the supermarket car park. It belongs to a revival group doing the rounds of Métis communities. And the charismatic preacher leading the service is her husband Victor. Except that he insists that he isn’t. He is the Rev Eugene Wolff and there isn’t so much as a flicker of recognition in his eyes.

But Joan refuses to give up. She believes that Victor has become a victim of the Rogarou – a werewolf-like beasts that, in Metis tradition, haunts roads and woods.

“He was a wolf, a man, a wolf. He was clothed, he was naked in his fur, he wore moccasins to jig. He was whatever made you shiver, but was always there, standing by the road, whistling to the stars ... as close and distant as ancestors.”

And no matter what it costs, Joan is determined to get her husband back.

Dimaline has woven a powerful tale from the warp of daily life in Métis communities and the weft of traditions that reach back deep into history. She captures the visceral longing for a missing partner, for the touch of their hands, the smell of their skin. She shows up, too, the cynical use of religion as a tool to manipulate Indigenous and Métis communities.

Joan is tough, funny, resilient – maybe a little bit crazy but you’d definitely want her on your side. And you wouldn’t bet against her.

The Empire of the Wild is the book you get when a writer takes control of their own stories, their own traditions. It embodies the struggle for survival of Indigenous and Metis cultures against the unstoppable march of Western settler society. It’s hilarious, scary, fascinating and unputtdownable.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Son of the Trickster by Eden Robinson, Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, Augustown by Kei Miller, American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Avoid If You Dislike: Magic Realism

Perfect Accompaniment: Labatts beer and a Johnny Cash soundtrack

Genre: Literary Fiction, Indigenous Authors, Magic Realism

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Saturday, 8 February 2020

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Through her novel about a family home crumbling, Kingsolver addresses many contemporary issues with subtlety and nuance. At the centre of the story is a house in New Jersey. Inherited by Willa Knox in modern-day America, it seems like a sanctuary for her family until she discovers it is collapsing.

Her only hope is a grant, by proving how the house has 19th century historical value. Enter the second thread – a science teacher who believes in Darwin and his biologist neighbour.

The twin narratives flip back and forth, each shining a light on past and present dilemmas and in particular, the frustration with popular opinion.

The novel addresses social structure then and now, with some alarming parallels. Anti-evolution mobs baying for Darwin to be hanged versus political rallies chanting similar punitive measures.

Willa is a middle-aged woman whose sense of confusion as to generational attitudes and shifting sands makes it one of those books you need to stop reading and think.

My favourite kind.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Lacuna, The Travelling Horn-Player by Barbara Trapido

Avoid if you don’t like: Contemporary reflections on politics and social issues, historical and contemporary blends

Ideal accompaniments: Mint tea, love soup and Billie Holiday singing God Bless the Child

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy this book here

Thursday, 30 January 2020

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Nonso is a Nigerian poultry farmer, living alone, still grieving the death of his father. One day, returning from market, where he has bought some new hens and a fine white cockerel, he saves the life a woman who appears on the verge of throwing herself from a bridge. Months later, he runs into her again, at a petrol station. They fall in love, but the social gulf between them places an impossible burden on his shoulders and leads him to choices that will have terrible consequences.

An Orchestra of Minorities is rooted deep in Igbo cosmology. The narrator is Nonso’s chi, or spirit – closer perhaps to what Europeans might term a guardian angel, but dwelling within the person rather than watching over them from on high. He recounts the story of Nonso’s life – testifying to the great celestial court of Bechukwu.

The chi has passed through many human lifetimes, which allows him to refer to things far beyond Nonso’s knowledge - such as slavery - and also to the values of traditional Igbo society, that are being overrun by the values of the White Man.

“It is the White Man who has trampled on your traditions. It is he who has seduced the slept with your ancestral spirits. It is to him that the gods of your land have submitted their hears, and he has shaved them clean, down to the skin of their scalps ... He has spat in the face of your wisdoms, and your valiant mythologies are silent before him.”

The Orchestra of Minorities in the title describes the mournful crying of the hens when one of their flock has been snatched by the hawk. Yet his lover, Ndali, is quick to draw parallels to how the powerful exploit the weak.

“They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.”
Nonso is a punchbag to the whole world, suffering blow after blow, indignity after indignity, until he can take no more - which is what has led his chi to plead for him in the celestial court.

Obioma’s language is full of poetic richness while at the same time being grounded in day to day realities – from Nonso’s brutal reaction to an attacking hawk to his worries about dirty clothes and dirty dishes when Ndali first comes to visit.

Shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories with a supernatural element

Perfect Accompaniment: Ugba (traditional Igbo dish)

Genre: Literary Fiction

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Wednesday, 22 January 2020

This Brutal House by Niven Govinden

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Niven Govinden’s This Brutal House is set amongst the New York Drag Ball scene, where rival Houses, led by House Mothers, compete to outdo each other in costume, attitude and above all voguing.

The book opens with a group of the House Mothers staging a silent protest on the steps of City Hall to highlight the lack of response by the authorities to the disappearance of a number of their ‘children’. This section is written in an unusual first-person-plural collective stream of consciousness:

“They have used ‘no’ and ‘unfortunately’ and ‘unable’ as pacifiers, shushing us the way a nanny calms an agitated baby. We are unwanted noise, not to be seen or heard.”

Collective silence has become the most powerful voice they have.

The narrative then passes on to the novel’s main protagonist, Teddy. Teddy was once one of the House Mothers’ children, one of many who fled rejection from their own families and found a home amongst the drag queens. But though he competed for them for a time in the Drag Ball scene, he was never really comfortable as a performer. Instead, he became the devoted follower of one of them, Sherry, while the Mothers supported him in getting the education that would allow him to break free.

Sherry is now one of the missing, and though Teddy believes he knows what happened to her, he will not tell the Mothers because he cannot bring himself to crush their hope.

The education they helped him get has led him to work for City Hall and because of his known connection with the Mothers, he is charged with monitoring the protest and bringing it to a close. He does everything he can so smooth things over – but will a fatal misjudgement destroy everything he has sought to protect?

The voice of the Caller periodically breaks through the narrative, holding forth for pages at a time:

“She walks. She works. She vogues. Triple threat, bitches...”

This Brutal House shows the sadness behind the glamour and flamboyance of the Drag Ball Scene – young people rejected by their biological families and discounted by the authorities; older ‘Mothers,’ nurturing, yet ageing inevitably in a world that values youth and glamour...

Dark, disturbing and hypnotic.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Beasts of Electra Drive by Rohan Quine, Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, POSE (FX TV series)

Avoid If You Dislike: Passages in stream-of-consciousness style

Perfect Accompaniment: Tacos

Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBTQIA+ Fiction

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“I realized a long time ago that, in a lot of ways, my body is not strictly mine. It’s a shared entity, something to be criticized, guarded, commented on, and violated.”

The Pact We Made is a stunning debut novel by UK-based, Kuwaiti-born novelist Layla AlAmmar.

AlAmmar slowly peels back the layers of Kuwaiti society – a society in which young men and women drink and take drugs and party - just so long as their parents never find out. Where women go to university and take high-powered jobs, but are not considered adults until they marry. Where the police can be called if a couple is seen embracing in public and where arranged marriage is still the default.

“We like to think of ourselves as a well-traveled, cultured and thoroughly modern people. Xenophiles who welcomed expats long before Dubai ... We’re the ones who brought cellphones and commercial airlines to the Gulf. We’re the ones in constant search for the new, the wondrous the techtastic.

The narrator is Dahlia, one of a trio of life-long friends who, as little girls, once made a promise to get married on the same day. But now they are in their late twenties. Two of them, Mona and Zaina, are married but Dahlia continues to turn down suitor after suitor, to the fury of her increasingly desperate mother.

This might be another tale of young women negotiating modern life in a traditional society, but Dahlia, we learn, was abused through her teenage years by her mother’s cousin. And it is the lasting consequences of that abuse that reverberate throughout the book.

On the surface, all appears to be well, but underneath every day is a struggle.

“It sometimes felt like I as put my past in a hole and spent my time shoveling dirt into it, but like some cheap horror movie, it kept trying to claw its way out ... So, I sailed the world’s longest river; fake it till you make it, and all that. Normal behaviour is a language you can learn”
This balancing act cannot be sustained forever and in the end Dahlia will be driven to a devastating choice.

AlAmmar’s language is fresh and original without ever being flowery. Time and again she catches you with a phrase that takes your breath away. The constant panic Dahlia feels, for example, takes on the form of a demon – the yathoom – who “comes in the night, sits on your chest, feet splayed in a squat, growing heavier and heavier until you wake because you can no longer breathe.”

An extraordinarily powerful, gut-wrenching book that lays out in no uncertain terms the case for  women to have control of their bodies and their lives.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, When I Hit You by Meena Kendasamy

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories centred on the aftermath of sexual abuse

Perfect Accompaniment:
Goya’s Los Caprichos and a cup of saffron tea

Genre: Literary Fiction

Monday, 6 January 2020

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

"No doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair? But who’d want to read one of those?" 

Frannie Langton was born a slave in Jamaica, educated for his own amusement by her master, then brought to London and given by to another man. Now she is in Newgate gaol, accused of murdering that man and his wife. And she is writing her confessions. But is she really the ‘Mulatta Murderess’?

Sara Collins darkly gothic historical novel explores, among other things, the way the institution of slavery distorted every human relationship, even that between mother and child. It exposes the ugliness of the roots of 'race science' and the vile length to which some were prepared to go to disprove the humanity of black people.

While still a young child, Frannie has been compelled to act as assistant to one such ‘scientist’. Being complicit in his experiments allows her a bare edge of privilege over the other slaves, and has given her a kind of Stockholm syndrome, so much so that she is outraged when she is given away to his erstwhile colleague, Benham.

But Benham has a wife, a troubled woman in some ways as trapped in her life as Frannie herself. Their relationship – passionate, sensual but bent out of shape as much by their power-imbalance as by Madam’s opium addiction – will lead Frannie to her cell in Newgate.

As Catherine Johnson’s Freedom did for young readers, The Confessions of Frannie Langton reclaims the long history of Black people in England. It shows up the hypocrisy of some, at least, of the anti-slavers, as well as those, like Benham, who imagine it is possible to ‘reform’ the institution.

"What no one will admit about the anti-slavers is that they’ve got a slaver’s appetite for misery, even if they want to do different things with it."

Even though her life hangs in the balance, Frannie refuses to dish up suffering to satisfy the appetites of the public, or to use her thrall either to opium or to her erstwhile slavemaster as convenient excuse. Whatever she has or has not done, Frannie will own it.

Collins’ writing is rich with period detail without being weighed down by it.From the slave plantation – called, with the bleakest of irony, Paradise – to the Benhams’ London town house, to the city’s brothels and boxing rings, each time and place is vividly evoked.

A stunning debut that is an unsurprising winner of the Costa First Novel Award.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan; The Long Song by Andrea Levy; Beloved by Toni Morrison; Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Avoid If You Dislike: Gothic Flavoured Historical Fiction

Perfect Accompaniment: Raisin cake, golden and sweet with sugar

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Funny,” he said, “how the poor and the wretched are always being blame for their own misfortunes, isn’t it? As though the Jews who wash up on our shored are responsible for the pogroms against them and the filth that our own poor live in.”

I am always excited by the release of a new Sam Wyndham mystery, but never more so than by this one, the fourth in the series.

This time the story takes place over two time lines, and we see not only the weary Sam Wyndham of 1922, doggedly trying to free himself of opium addiction, but also the young Sam Wyndham, wet behind the ears and newly recruited into the police in London, as two cases at either ends of his career become entangled together.

Even the title operates on several levels – as the word East can be taken as referring simultaneously to Assam, east of Sam’s usual haunts in Calcutta, to Whitechapel in the east end of London – and to the patronising orientalist term for anywhere east of central Europe. 

As Mukherjee explains in his interview in the Hindustani Times “It was going to be my homage to Agatha Christie... where a body is found in a room which is locked from the inside. But I have been very depressed and angered by everything that’s going on in the world, and in Britain. So I couldn’t just write my little locked room mystery. As an author, and just as a person, I had to write something which spoke to what is happening in the world.”

As the quote with which I opened this review indicates, there are close and uncomfortable parallels between attitudes toward the Jewish refugees who found themselves in the East End of London in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and those towards the Muslim communities that live there today. And Mukherjee could not resist drawing out those parallels in this gripping historical crime thriller.

We left Sam at the end of Smoke and Ashes travelling towards Assam to undergo a cure for his opium addiction. But on the last leg of his journey to the ashram, he sees a ghost from his past. Maybe it’s just an opium induced illusion, but as Sam says, it’s hard to forget the face of a man who’s tried to kill you.

From that point, the two timelines weave in and out through the course of the story, giving us not one but two locked room mysteries. 

The book also contains Surendranath’s most direct challenge yet to Sam’s unthinking support of the status quo. The young officer doesn’t appear until towards the end of the book this time, but when he does, he is given charge of the investigation, something his white suspects don’t take kindly to. When Sam upbraids him for the way he speaks to one of them, he responds:

“I addressed him with no derogatory epithets. He on the other hand called me a heathen runt, a jumped up subaltern. You have nothing to say about that?”

The two men's relationship is slowly and irrevocably shifting, just as the relationship between Britain and India is shifting. And Mukherjee’s depiction of it continues to go from strength to strength. He has said that he sees Sam and Surendrenath as two sides of his own character – the Scottish and the Bengali, which is perhaps how he can write both characters so sympathetically. 

All I can say is, roll on 1923! 

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Previous Sam Wyndham mysteries by Abir Mukherjee. Ripper Street (BBC TV) House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Avoid If You Dislike: Descriptions of addicts going cold turkey

Perfect Accompaniment: Death in the Yeast – Pale Ale specially brewed for the release of Death in the East by Southwark Brewing. Or any fine Pale Ale.

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

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