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

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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

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