Thursday 29 April 2021

My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

This complex debut poetry collection by Rachel Long is structured in three parts.

The first part, Open explores issues of sexuality, power, exploitation and consent. Poems such as “Night Vigil”, “Apples” and “8” point darkly to child sexual abuse within a church setting.

“During the Three Members prayer, my sister fell asleep
Under a chair, so she never knew
How I sang. Or how I fell silent
When the evangelist with smiling eyes said in his pulpit voice,
Here child”

“Sandwiches” and “Bike” suggest teenage exploration that may or may not have gone to far and exposed the narrator to danger, while in “Helena” a sex worker relives an act of rape by co-worker.

In a sequence of short poems called “Open”, the poem’s narrator wakes in the morning with her mouth open and her hands in her hair, the pose interpreted for her in different ways by different observers.

“What, mum, like screaming?
She says, No, baby, like abandon”

In the second section – A Lineage of Wigs – the poems revolve around Long’s Nigerian mother and Long’s own experiences as a young child.

“Mum’s Snake” tells the story of a curse put on her by her sister, ultimately forcing her to shave off her hair, while “Car Sweetness” captures a moment of tenderness between her parents.

“Some long journeys back,
Mum would lay her hand
Over Dad’s on the gearstick”

There are poems that recall the experience of growing up as a mixed-race child – her schoolmates doubting her fair-haired father is hers, and contrasting her sister’s long, straight hair to hers. Her scalp burning as her mother cornrows her hair.

“All the ‘sheep’s wool’ they love to touch and say eww to at school
has been harvested into rows at the top of my head:
black crown or web.”

The final section, Dolls, is a more generalised exploration of racism. It begins with a pair of poems in which the story of a racist attack is then played out between three dolls – Barbie, Ken, and the dark-skinned Steve. “Black Princess” then painfully reflects the snobbish and racist treatment of Meghan Markle.

Throughout the book there are other poems that are more surreal – their meaning elusive. This isn’t a collection that gives up its secrets easily – but it is one that more than rewards the effort of close reading.

Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, Costa Poetry Award, Forward Prize for best first collection, and the 2021 Jhalak Prize

Listen to Rachel Long reading from My Darling From the Lions at the Coronet Theatre, Nottingham.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie

Avoid If you Dislike: Poems that refuse to give up their meaning easily, challenging the reader to work things out for themselves.

Perfect Accompaniment: Sugared almonds

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here:

Monday 26 April 2021

Antiemetic for Homesickness by Romalyn Ante

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Romalyn Ante's debut collection is full of poems that track the experiences of two generations of Filipino emigrants who have left their country to work abroad, for the NHS and elsewhere.

Romalyn Ante herself came to the UK when she was 16 and is now a nurse practioner. Her mother, like so many others, had previously left her family behind in the Philippines in order to work for the NHS.

Ante’s poetry unveils the truth behind the flippant comment by the Duke of Edinburgh quoted on the opening page (“The Philippines must be half empty; you’re all here running the NHS”) – laying bare the homesickness, the separation from one’s children, the long hours of hard work for little thanks, the racism…

In “Manananggal” she compares the migrant to a creature from Filipino legend which splits itself in two.

I am halved in order to be whole – I rebuild by leaving everything I love.”

The poems also disclose some of the reasons why these workers stay, even in the face of hardship and hostility. They will cannot leave:

“Not until Junior has got his diploma, not until we have nailed a roof on the house and the pen grunts with pigs […] and we have paid off our parents’ grave plots and our children’s …”

In “The Shaman, The Servant” we can see the contrast between the respect shown to a grandfather who was a shaman, a healer, with the image painted “Invisible Woman”of “goddesses of caring and tending, but no one hears when their skulls pound like coconut shells about to crack.”

Ante reminds us that this is a pattern that has been repeated across generations. In the series of short poems scattered through the book, “Tape Recordings for Mama”, she captures the point of view of a child trying to understand why her mother has left.

The poems blend phrases from Tagalog and elements of Filipino culture and tradition with medical jargon and details of hospital procedure. Ante’s use of language is at once challenging and playful. In the ironically titled “Mastering English”, structured like a test paper, she toys with English idioms,

“The phrase a drop in the ocean indicates:

- Very little in comparison with what is expected or needed

- All the migrants who mysteriously vanished at sea.”

There are also poems that mourn the loss of traditional Filipino culture

“When the colonisers came, their brightness bleached the scripts inscribed on our bamboo stems. Our [memory*] was replaced with their hymn.

*written in Babayin script

These poems blend the deeply personal and specific with the universal sense of loss and longing that any immigrant cut off from home would recognise. Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize.

Listen to Romalyn Ante reading from Antiemetic for Homesickness here

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Avoid If you Dislike:  Being reminded of loss and separation

Perfect Accompaniment: A shot of coconut wine

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here:

Monday 19 April 2021

Are We Home Yet? by Katy Massey

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

The memoir opens with Massey’s realisation, at the age of eleven, that her mother is using their comfortable home in Leeds as a place from which to sell sex. She marks that as the point at which she split herself in two.

“In the pause, I am falling apart, literally becoming two people. I remain the plump playmate that Sarah takes me for, but I have also become someone else who floats just above us, watchful. Alert. This version of me knows that something has changed forever […] though I can pretend, that simple young girl has gone forever.”

By the time Massey was in her late teens, her mother had graduated from prostituting herself out of their back room to running a spa-cum-brothel in an industrial area of Leeds. Massey finds herself acting as receptionist, spending long hours chatting to the ‘girls’, recognising the sheer banality of the sex industry, “where good looking, decent women who could hold a conversation offered various sexual services in exchange for money. “

But Massey’s story is far more complex than that one eye-catching headline. There’s the sense of loss associated with her all-but non-existent relationship with her absent father; her complicated relationship with food that goes back to a stepfather who fed her sweets to comfort her for the pain caused by his own tormenting; the issues she has faced as a mixed-race child in an otherwise all white family, and the rarely-spoken-of death of her middle-brother.

The memoir braids together three timelines – Massey’s own childhood, her mother’s younger life, and the present day as she tries to piece it all together and come to terms with her own struggles.

Massey’s writing explores her own ongoing depression and her troubled relationship with her mother with razor-sharp clarity. On bad days:

“Even the street beneath my feet feels somehow insubstantial, as if it may melt and I go through the sinking tarmac until the black sludge closes over my waist, my handbag, my necklace and finally my head and there is no trace of me left.”

At other times, “I walk the street towards Mam’s flat with my loneliness attached to my heels, dragging behind like a recently shed skin.”

There is a breath-taking self-awareness in the way she confesses that “I had made my relationships into broken clocks and gleefully reduced them to their parts. Spreading them out on the kitchen table, fascinated with the possibility in those shiny nuts and wheels, I always realised to late that there was no home of reassembling the, turning them back into something of purpose.”

A powerful study of family dynamics and the toxic legacy of secrets. Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lowborn by Kerry Hudson, My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

Avoid If you Dislike: Memoirs of genteel dysfunctionality.

Perfect Accompaniment: Milky tea and cheese straws

Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction

Buy This Book Here:

Sunday 11 April 2021

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Nate’s big brother, Al, had so much to look forward to. He was a straight-A student, a talented artist, and had a conditional place at Cambridge University. So when he commits suicide, Nate, and his whole family, feel as though they have been shattered into pieces.

Nate is consumed with finding out why Al took his own life, even though his quest takes him into some increasingly dark places and everyone – even his mum and his older brother Saul – are begging his to stop.

The only other person who seems to understand is Megan, a friend of Al’s who shares Nate’s guilt for not doing enough to help Al when they still could.

And The Stars Were Burning Brightly shows, with deep compassion, how suicide, especially unexplained suicide, tears a hole through the hearts of friends and family. Nate is an utterly believable character; it is impossible to read this and not care about him deeply. Al too comes to vivid life on the page, despite the fact he dies three days before the story opens.

Jawando brilliantly captures the way that social media can come to dominate the lives of young people: from unrealistic body images it portrays, to the compulsion to share every minute of every day, the constant intrusion of notifications – and above all the savage cruelty that at times it unleashes and enables.

Yet the author also shows how the internet allows voices to be raised up and shared across the world.

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly is an extraordinary book that highlights the appalling and relentless pressures that can be piled onto teenagers in this age of social media. It comes as no surprise to learn that the novel is based in part on the author’s own lived experience.

I can imagine this book might be triggering for some, but for others, it may well help ease them through a difficult time, or to understand friends who are in a difficult place and need their support. It needs to be in every school library.

Shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Young Adult and Children’s Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith Barton; Out of Heart by Irfan Master, Meat Market by Juno Dawson

Avoid If you Dislike: References to suicide and online bullying

Perfect Accompaniment: Images of the night sky 

Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary

Buy This Book Here:

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Chaya may only be twelve years old, but she has already proved herself a talented thief. Not that she takes things for herself. She only steals to pay for things her struggling neighbours desperately need. And she’s very successful.

Until, that is, she over-reaches herself, goes too far, and brings down disaster on all their heads. From that point on, whatever she does to try and make things better only serves to make things even worse.

But with the help of the royal elephant, Ananda, could Chaya and her friends Neel and Nour actually do something that will bring about real and lasting change, and allow their village and their country to thrive once again?

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant is set in Serendib, a fictionalised version of ancient Sri Lanka. The adventure takes the children from their village just outside the royal palace, deep into the lush jungle, where they will face dangers from leeches to leopards. Friendships and loyalties will be tested to the limit – and Chaya will have to learn that good intentions are not always enough.

A compelling adventure story in a wonderfully realised setting with a brave and resourceful heroine.

Longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Young Adult and Children’s Prize.  

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave; Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan.

Avoid If you Dislike: Leeches. Morally questionable heroines.

Perfect Accompaniment: Papaya

Genre: Children’s (Middle Reader)

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday 8 April 2021

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Set in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin, the Ugandan-Tanzanian War and their aftermath, The First Woman is the story of Kirabo, a young woman from a rural community walking a tightrope between tradition, Europeanisation, and Amin’s despotism.

When the story opens, in 1975, Kirabo is 12, the youngest of an extended family of young people living in the care of her grandfather while they go to school. A gifted storyteller, Kirabo uses her talent to boost her status among the older children.

Beloved as she is of her grandparents, Kirabo’s greatest frustration is that no one will tell her anything about her mother. So she sneaks off to visit her grandmother’s great rival, Nsuuta, their almost-blind neighbour who is reputed to be a witch.

Nsuutu tells her about women’s original state, when “We were not squeezed inside, we were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent. But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it.” But Kirabo is one of those rare children in which the original state is reborn.

At first, Kirabo rejects the First Woman within her, symbolically burying it in Nsuutu’s yard, but as the story progresses, she begins to understand more of how women are repressed, not just by men, but by other women who have absorbed the values of a patriarchal society. Trapped like hens in a cage too small, they turn and peck at one another.

The First Woman follows Kirabo as she goes to live in the city with her father and her un-welcoming stepmother, via her admission to an elite boarding school run by nuns, through love, loss and rejection to the beginnings of maturity as a young woman.

Makumbi’s masterful text manages to balance regret for the loss of what was good in traditions driven out by Christianity and Europeanisation, with a trenchant critique of the patriarchy and internalised misogyny embedded in traditional Ugandan communities.

The story ends in 1983, but one heart-breaking line seems to foreshadow some of Uganda’s more recent pains. In 1979, Kirabo is in boarding school as the war with Tanzania comes closer and closer, but “No parents had come to fetch their girls because nowhere was safer for them than boarding schools. Even Amin’s men would never attack a school.” Sadly, by 1996, the Lord’s Resistance Army had shown it had no such scruples.

Just as the oral story-telling traditions the young Kirabo aspired to wove life-lessons into spell-binding tales, Makumbi weaves commentaries on colonialism, patriarchy, colourism and internalised misogyny into this tender coming of age story.

WINNER of the 2021 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Girl With A Louding Voice by Abu Dare, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Avoid If you Dislike: Stories of woman reclaiming their power

Perfect Accompaniment:
Groundnut stew

Literary Fiction, Coming-of-Age story, Modern Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here:

A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

"Where is the liberty and freedom and rights and justice, when the law says Matthew Johnson owns my child after already owning my wife? What kind of Constitution for the people allows a thing like that? I country can claim that wrong is right, but that’ll never erase the stain of it." 

A More Perfect Union opens with the young Irish labourer, Henry, already driven to the brink of starvation by the venality of his English landlords, facing the horror of another blighted potato crop. When both his parents die within days of each other, he boards a ship for a new life in New York, only to find himself thwarted by yet more anti-Irish prejudice.

Meanwhile, Sarah is sold away from her family on a plantation in Virginia. She narrowly avoids being bought by a man who would clearly use her as a ‘bed-warmer,’ and is taken instead to a plantation run on ‘Christian’ principles, where the slaves are well fed and housed, and whippings are comparatively rare. Yet it remains to case that Sarah’s life is not her own.

When Henry heads south for the life of a travelling blacksmith, their paths cross and there is an immediate (and forbidden) attraction between them – and on one level, more that unites them than divides them. But could Sarah ever see Henry as anything other than another white Master, especially when he is employed to forge shackles to be used on slaves? And can Henry see past the relative security of Sarah’s life and understand what it means that – for Sarah or even her children, or her children’s children – there would never be the faintest possibility of boarding a ship for another life? 

It seems impossible that this story could have a happy ending, but Sarah and Henry find a love so deep that neither is willing to give up until all hope is lost.

Through this deeply personal tale, Huf reveals the desperate tragedy of both the Irish famine and slavery of the Southern plantations – while at the same time demolishing any false equivalence between them.

The novel shows up, too, the ugly hypocrisy of those who preached Christian principles, who claimed that it was ‘benevolent’ slavery was possible, but who viewed an escaping slave as a thief stealing from his master and thought for a white man to want to marry a black woman is “the most immoral proposal ever put.”

A beautiful story made all the more extraordinary with the knowledge that it was inspired by the true story of the author’s own great-great-grandparents. 

Longlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize. 

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Avoid If you Dislike: The demolition of comforting myths about slavery and white complicity.

Perfect Accompaniment:
A picnic in a meadow full of butterflies

Genre: Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here: