Friday 11 March 2022

Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

“You came to meet a man in the past. There is a mythical bird we have here, Anna. We call it Sankofa. It flies forward with its head facing backwards. It’s a poetic image, but it cannot work in real life.”

Clearing out the house after the death of her mother, Anna comes across a notebook written by the father she never knew. Written when he was a young African student on the fringes of radical politics, it reveals a story she was never told – of how her parents met. Yet it ends abruptly, without explanation as to why he left and never came back.

With these clues to go on, she begins to research his name, and discovers to her shock that her father became the first President of Bamana, the country of his birth. And that his legacy is anything but straightforward.

She first tracks down the British academic who wrote his biography and then, with great trepidation, travels to Bamana to confront her father and learn something about her own identity. But Anna finds herself an obroni (foreigner) in Bamana, out of her depth, pulled in different directions, judging the country – and her father – with European eyes.

Initially suspicious, her father – still a powerful and wealthy man – makes her a Bamanan citizen and then takes her to his country home, an estate where he wields enormous power and where they call him Daasebre: “we cannot thank you enough”.

But other members of the family are less than happy at the appearance of this previously unknown eldest daughter from England. And when Anna begins to challenge some of her father’s actions, things get complicated. Is there a way for Anna to find a reconciliation between the two parts of herself?

Sankofa is an exploration of how identity impacts those of African heritage, of the complicated relationship between Europe and Africa and how it affects them, their values and their sense of self. Onuzo, like Anna, challenges both European and African standards and assumptions.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Poloola; Admiring Silence by Abdulrazak Gurnah; The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu; Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch

Avoid If You Dislike: Fictionalised versions of Africa

Perfect Accompaniment: A bottle of ice cold water and a sketchpad and paints

Genre: Contemporary, Literary

Buy This Book Here

Thursday 10 March 2022

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

The protagonist of Natasha Brown’s Assembly is, to all outward appearances, a success story. Despite her background, despite the colour of her skin, she has ‘made it’. She has a good degree from a prestigious university, a well-paid high-flying job, a relationship with the kind of man who gives her entrĂ©e into British society. She is invited to give talks to young women in schools, to inspire them:

The diversity must be seen. How many young woman and girls have I lied to? How many have seen my grinning face advocating for this or that firm, or this industry, or that university, this life?

But what no one else knows is that she has just received a cancer diagnosis. A cancer that will, without treatment, inevitably kill her. A treatment that she has decided to refuse.

Through the weave of the narrative, the cancer becomes a metaphor for racism, her refusal of treatment a refusal of complicity. A refusal to accept ‘diversity’ and ‘tokenism’ as a sticking plaster in place of rooting out racism and inequality.

Surviving makes me a participant in their narrative. Succeed or fail, my existence only reinforces this construct. I reject it. I reject these options. I reject this life. Yes, I understand the pain. The pain is transformational – transcendent – the undoing of construction. A return, mercifully, to dust.

Brown takes aim at the smug liberality that congratulates itself for the success of a few Black faces while at the same time:

We have seen now, just as then, the readiness of this government and its enterprising Home Secretary to destroy paper, our records and proof. What is citizenship when you’ve watched screaming Go home vans crawl your street? […] When British, reduced to paper, is swept aside and trodden over?

Assembly is short, slim even for a novella. But Brown’s excoriating prose punches well above its slender weight.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy; That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu;

Avoid If You Dislike: Fragmented narratives

Perfect Accompaniment: Tea and toast

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Tuesday 8 March 2022

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Open Water is an astonishing love story – delicate, tender, sensual, intimate.

It is written in the second person – an unknown narrator addressing the male protagonist, a young Black man, throughout as ‘you’. Whoever this narrator is, they are privy to the man’s deepest and most private thoughts and emotions. As readers, we find ourselves at once deep inside the protagonist’s head, and yet at one critical remove from it – a clever, challenging and at times unsettling balancing act.

The man meets the women he falls in love with at a party, when she is still in a relationship with a friend of his. He is a photographer, she a dancer. The connection is immediate and intense, and though neither of them makes a move to act upon it, the electricity between them is enough to fracture her previous relationship.

For a long time, they remain as intimate friends, though the direction of travel of their relationship feels inevitable. Nelson’s descriptions of the slow graceful process of surrendering to love are exquisite:

You’re like a pair of jazz musicians, forever improvising. Or perhaps you are not musicians, but your love manifests in the music. Sometimes, your head tucked into her neck, you can feel her heartbeat thudding like a kick drum. Your smiles a grand piano, the glint in her eye like the twinkle of hands caressing ivory keys.

Yet overshadowing everything is the ugly beat of racism, threatening to warp something inside him.

We are all hurting, you said. We are all trying to love, to breathe, and find ourselves stopped by that which is out of our control. We find ourselves unseen. We find ourselves. Unheard. We find ourselves mislabelled. We who are loud and angry, we who are bold and brash. We who are Black. We find ourselves not saying it how it is. We find ourselves scared. We find ourselves suppressed, you said.

Could this ugliness destroy what is beautiful between them? Even though she knows its poison as well has he does? And if so, is there any way back?

This is prose, but wall between it and poetry is gossamer thin. Each word has been weighed carefully and chosen for its impact on the ear and mind of the reader. You don’t read about this relationship: you live it.

Winner of the 2021 Costa First Novel Award.  

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Who’s Loving You? (ed: Sareeta Domingo); Love after Love by Ingrid Persaud; The Gift of Looking Closely by Al Brookes

Avoid If You Dislike: Second Person Narratives

Perfect Accompaniment: 'Brenda' by Isaiah Rashad

Genre: Literary Fiction, Romance

Buy This Book Here

Monday 7 March 2022

The Crossing by Manjeet Mann


Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Manjeet Mann’s heartbreakingly beautiful verse novella is a book you will never forget.

Written in a form more familiar in music – where two voices sing (or in this case speak) in counterpoint but not in dialogue – it tells the story of two teenagers, Sammy and Nat.

Nat is a teenager from the south coast of England. She has just lost her mother, and with it so much else. Even her passion for swimming in the sea has turned into a dread of the water.

Half a world away, Sammy is in Eritrea, facing a conscription that is in essence a form of bonded labour with no fixed end point. His only choice is to face a difficult journey out of the country to try and reach the safety he believes he can find in Europe.

We die if we stay, we die if we get caught, we might die in the Sahara, we might die in the sea. But one thing is certain: if we escape – we live.

Written in free verse, the last few words of each section become the first few words of the next, weaving the two voices together as the narrative passes back and forth between them. As Sammy’s journey brings him, step by step, towards the French coast, Nat begins to train to do a cross-channel swim to raise money for refugees. But not everyone in her family supports what she is doing.

I guess migration is only a human right if you’re the right type of human.

In this short and simple text Mann succeeds in illuminating an astonishing range of issues. From Sammy’s story we learn of the often-misunderstood motives that drive young people to flee their homes, the horrors of the journey they undertake, the cruelty of the smugglers who exploit their desperation, and the cold indifference of the bureaucracy that meets them at the edge of freedom. From Nat’s story, we learn of the grinding nature of austerity that leaves some as easy prey to extremists, the trap of white saviourism, and what it takes to be a true ally.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu; What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad; Black Flamingo by Dean Atta,

Avoid If You Dislike: Free verse

Perfect Accompaniment: A walk by the edge of the sea

Genre: Young Adult, Poetry

Buy This Book Here