Wednesday, 26 February 2020

A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes

Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought of It

A Tall History of Sugar, set in Jamaica, tells the story of Moshe, a foundling child discovered floating in basket of reeds among the sea grapes, and Arrii, the girl just one year older who becomes his friend, protector and interpreter. When they are little, the two are so close they can read each other’ thoughts. But life has a habit of getting in the way.

The novel opens in 1958 and ends in the present day, explicitly in the era of Trump and Brexit. It is a close up view of rural, post-independence Jamaica and its struggles to shake off the suffocating ties of the ‘Mother Country’.

“England was all around us, all the time. Right next door. Not just any door, but a glass door you could push and go straight through to the other side.”

Moshe is a misfit. Not just a foundling but racially impossible to classify. His skin his pale as clotted cream and desperately fragile, his features African, and his hair and eyes a strange two tone. He is also a talented artist, destined for international recognition.

Moshe’s sexuality, as well as his race, is ambiguous. His relationship with the avowedly gay character, Alva, reflects Jamaica’s own struggle coming to terms with gay relationships – another legacy of colonialism.

The politics is of the time is there. And the music. But also a sense of magic. It’s in the two children’s ability to read each other’s minds. In the mysterious way they track down the old woman who can tell Moshe something about his birth, and in the duppies that haunt a clearing near Moshe’s home, “spending their nights quarrelling and cooking insatiable meals in three-footed Dutch pots”. Yet Forbes herself rejects the label of Magic Realism and calls the book instead a Fairytale.

This use of a fairytale form allows Forbes to reflect the deeper history of Jamaica – such as the lasting scar of slavery, symbolised in Arrii’s family curse– a birthmark that torments them to agony at the start of every sugar harvest – and Moshe’s inability to tolerate even a trace of sugar.

The story is ostensibly told by Arrii, yet the voice of the novel shifts back and forth, easy as breathing, between first and third person, and between standard English and Jamaican patois. It’s unsettling at first, but fascinating, shifting our perspective in and out. At one point, between sections, there is even a wry step outside the frame of the novel, as the author notes that, “There are now too many spelling and grammatical errors in A Tall History of Sugar to make automatic corrections ... Oh, Lord, what is the correct and singular language to carry this freight, this translations of griefs?”

Forbes does indeed seem to be creating the language in which to tell the stories of her country. A bold and fascinating novel that weaves a spell around the reader.

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: Empire of the Wild by Cherie Dimaline, Augustown by Kei Miller

Avoid If You Dislike: A somewhat ambivalent relationship with male homosexuality

Perfect Accompaniment: Bean stew with callaloo and Bob Marley’s Redemption Song

Genre: Literary Fiction, Adult Fairy Tale

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

I read Year of the Monkey in those in-between days after Christmas and before New Year, when you don’t really know what day it is and don’t really care. The intention was to read a little each day and soak up Smith’s account of her 2016, digesting her inimitable blend of fact, fiction and flights of fancy.

I read it in one day.

She’s freewheeling in every sense. Her poetic prose swoops between dreams and waking; she hitches rides with the silent and the verbose; those lost to her are present in thoughts and strange shifts in the political landscape draw both cool observation and heated reaction.

The references to what she reads, sees, photographs and experiences with one foot in the past and another in the present draws the reader into her lighthouse, scanning the cultural and political landscape like a kaleidoscope.

This is a book in which to lose yourself, let go and see what happens. After you’ve finished, it will feel like the most extraordinary dream.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: M Train, Jack Kerouac, Naked Lunch

Avoid if you don’t like: Fractured narratives, internal monologues, dreams

Ideal accompaniments: Huevos rancheros, black coffee and a shot of tequila

Genre: Memoir

Available on Amazon

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

Buy This Book Here

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