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

Buy This Book Here

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