February 2020 Reading: The Incendiaries; Freshwater; Motherhood; Tin Man; Melmoth; The Golden State; Crudo; Fruit of the Drunken Tree

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon (2018)

I have had an absolutely brilliant month of reading this month, and it kicked off with this understated and intelligently slantwise examination of a cult group named ‘Jejah’ in a fictional East Coast college town. The protagonist, Will, watches helplessly as his ex-girlfriend is drawn in by a former missionary, John Leal, a mysterious figure who drifts around campus barefoot and tells stories of dubious reliability about his past.

There is so much that is well done here, but what I enjoyed the most was the fact that we see Phoebe’s entrance into the cult from the same point of view as Will – like him, we are unable to enter fully into the world of the group. We are on the periphery, watching her disappear into it. Will’s frustration at being ‘left behind’ is echoed in the reader’s own feelings – we see glimpses of what goes on in Jejah but nothing more than that. Will himself is a slippery character, too – he lies about his lack of wealth and shape-shifts to fit in according to the people he is with. His relationship with Phoebe is not some grand love story, and the novel is stronger for it. This is confident, layered writing that manages to be both restrained and highly detailed. I look forward to reading more work by Kwon.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (2018)

I am going to find it hard to write a coherent review of this novel, because I loved it so much, but I will try. It tells the story of Ada, a girl born to a Nigerian father and a Malaysian mother, who starts life in her father’s homeland and then leaves home at sixteen to attend college in Virginia. Ada was born with gods inside her, and if that isn’t the most perfect, blisteringly fierce premise for a novel, I don’t know what is. She is an ogbanje, a spirit child who would not normally have survived childhood. The novel starts with the collective ‘we’ of the gods inside her, lyrical and almost gentle, but other voices join in: a traumatic event releases Asughara, who seeks out sexual pleasure through Ada’s body, but loves and defends her as she does so.

There is so much I enjoyed about this book, but one thing that stood out was the way that the author tackles head-on the notion that this might be a clever metaphor for mental illness. Ada herself wonders if she is mad, until she meets another character who also has a god inside her, and she realises that her experience cannot be explained in terms of schizophrenia or a similar condition. I could practically hear Emezi shouting: “No, she ACTUALLY has gods inside her!” and I loved it. This is a book that grabbed me by the heart and squeezed tight, until I began to wonder if this could be true. I wish I could read it again for the first time and experience afresh its painful, funny, modern-and-yet-ancient beauty. I will be rereading this A LOT.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti (2018)

Normally, when I hear a book described as Important with a capital letter, I tend to shy away a little. However, Heti’s book had such an impact on my thoughts for days after I finished it that I am very glad I gave it a go. In basic terms, it is a kind of auto-fiction, in which the narrator is trying to decide whether or not she wants a child. She goes on a three year journey, and the writing of the book itself becomes a crucial part of the process. She uses a form of divination involving coins, constructing a kind of Platonic questioning process where she herself provides the answers.

I had some challenges to overcome with this book: the narrator is not exactly likeable, which was a struggle for me at the beginning, but then I realised that this was actually a crucial aspect of the novel – like My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a brilliant book I read last year, the unlikeable female protagonist performs an important role in questioning our assumptions about women. As I mentioned when reviewing Moshfegh’s book, literature is chock-full of absolutely despicable men that we read about with glee – unpleasant women are far rarer. And the narrator of Motherhood isn’t exactly horrible – I just found it hard to empathise with her, and that is absolutely fine in this case. I am sure part of this is due to finding the subject matter confronting: as a mother of two, I probably have to confess that I did not give the question of whether or not to have children very much thought at all, and I suppose it reminded me of how blindly we stumble along doing what is expected of us. (Disclaimer: I do not regret having children, they are my sun, moon and stars, and may also some day read this. Love you, darlings). This was the first of two very different books I read with motherhood at their centre this month, and it is well worth the discomfort I felt at certain points.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman (2017)

In any other month of reading, this beautiful novel would have been an absolute standout. As it is, it was yet another gem in a month of gems. The first narrator, Ellis, a widower who works in a car plant in Oxford smoothing out dents, is a hugely sympathetic, well-drawn character, whose ‘what-might-have-been’ list is tragically long. Memories of his childhood friend, Michael, and his wife, Annie, form a delicate tracery around his mundane existence, ghosts weaving a gossamer pattern that is both beautiful and haunting. When the novel switches to Michael’s point of view, I was reminded at times of Makkai’s The Great Believers, though the mentions of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s are not as central here.

The relationship between Ellis, Michael and Annie emerges as a rare and gorgeous thing, tragic and tender, fragile as butterfly wings. This is a complex novel that is emotional but never overly sentimental, and I certainly want to read more from this author.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry (2018)

Yet another hit for February, this is a carefully constructed novel that uses ‘found’ texts to add extra layers to a complicated story that has the same mythic stature as Perry’s The Essex Serpent. Melmoth is doomed to wander the earth, seeking out atrocities and bearing witness to the worst actions of mankind. In modern-day Prague, Helen, a woman who denies herself life’s small pleasures as penance for past sins, is living in self-imposed exile when she comes across the story of Melmoth. The book, like Melmoth herself, wanders far and wide, from Czechoslovakia in World War II to Manila to England to Turkey.

Full of fantastic characters, gothic settings and a sense of past and present jostling for prime position, this book possibly contained one or two too many sub-narratives for me, but only because I loved each story so much I wanted to spend more time there. The sub-plot set in Turkey towards the end of the book was beautiful and moving, but by that stage I was slightly resentful about being torn away from the main narrative yet again. On the whole, though, I thoroughly recommend this book – Perry is fast becoming a firm favourite of mine.

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling (2018)

The second book this month which focuses on motherhood – it was really interesting to read this not long after reading Heti’s novel. It is quite different, having more of a conventional narrative and a more relatable, sympathetic protagonist. Daphne walks out of her job in San Francisco, takes her toddler Honey and heads off to her family’s mobile home in Northern California, drawn by an unknown longing and the scent of juniper bushes.

I have never read such a vivid and accurate (by which I mean commensurate with my own experience!) portrayal of motherhood in fiction. The way in which Kiesling uses run-on sentences and harried, breathless prose to list the endless small tasks of caring for a baby/toddler felt almost painfully real to me. The mundane, tedious nature of this phase of parenting is probably rarely depicted in fiction because it just is so dull, but here the author skillfully manages to convey its swerving highs and lows, and the tedium in between, while maintaining the pace of the story. It is quite a feat. Alongside this is ‘real life’: Daphne’s husband is stuck in Turkey because of a green card issue; there are radicals in Altavista who want to secede from California; she befriends Alice, a great character, elderly and fierce and full of stories that reveal themselves piece by piece. I just loved the way that the thread of caring for Honey is carried through every dramatic event, every plot twist and turn – it really highlights how this job of motherhood cannot be put aside, even when things seem to be falling apart. The ending was ever so slightly overdone, for me, but all in all I thought this book was brilliant.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras (2018)

This novel had me at the title. Based on events from the author’s own life, this stunningly written book relates the story of the Santiagos, a middle-class family who live in Bogota during the narco-terrorism reign of Pablo Escobar. I have to admit, I’ve had a bit of a fascination with Escobar since watching the excellent series Narcos, and it was really interesting to see the story from a completely different perspective. Escobar is a shadowy but ever-present figure who looms large in seven-year-old Chula’s imagination, and the violent events caused by his dominance shatter the family’s delicate equilibrium more than once.

The book is narrated in turns by Chula and by Petrona, the Santiago’s maid, who lives in the poverty-stricken invasiones. The story opens with Chula in the States, contemplating a photograph sent to her by Petrona, setting up the connection between these two characters. Chula is a fantastic narrator, and the author uses her childish naivety to explore the terrible events of the novel from a more innocent perspective. Petrona is given fewer, shorter chapters as a first-person narrator, and this worked really well for me – it subtly highlighted that this is Chula’s story, and that she is in some way trying to ‘give voice’ to Petrona, who cannot speak as freely. There are strong memoir-ish overtones, which reminded me at times of the excellent Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre, but Rojas Contreras is also a beautiful prose-writer, and the images, particularly those involving the ‘Drunken Tree’ itself, are poetic and tinged with just a gilding of magical realism in this very realistic story.

It has been the most wonderful month of reading, and I hope I’ve managed to convey how much I have enjoyed all of these books. Do let me know if you have read or plan to read any of them in the comments, and of course, reading recommendations are always welcome!


Review: Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings (2019)

I have to admit that when I was first made aware of this novel, I did experience a slight jolt. My own novel-in-progress is also set in a mining town in Southern Africa, and when a description of this book arrived in my email inbox, I wondered if perhaps the universe was playing a cruel trick on me. Luckily, the differences are sufficiently reassuring that I can put aside my ‘panicked writer’ cap and don my ‘objective reader’ one (I may have to get actual caps one day) in order to review a book which matches up so uncannily to my own interests.

Set in 1886 in Namaqualand, the copper mining district of the Cape Colony, Upturned Earth opens with the arrival of William Hull, who is due to take over as magistrate. He soon finds out that his is a job no one else wanted: it is a thankless task, beset by the difficulty of working in a town which is unofficially run by the Cape Copper Mining Company. At the head of the CCMC in Okiep is superintendent Townsend, whose grip on the town borders on tyrannical. Jennings very cleverly sets up the opening of her novel so that it has all the hallmarks of a nineteenth century adventure tale: the arrival of the white man in a strange land, an overload of sensory details to build up a picture of the exotic location, and formal dialogue that harks back to an earlier time. She then proceeds to brilliantly subvert these tropes in the story that follows.

Hull’s third person narrative is interspersed with that of a second protagonist, the Xhosa mining labourer Molefi Noki, who at the start of the novel is travelling back to the mine after his first visit home for five years. The difficulties he faces are juxtaposed with the minor inconveniences of Hull’s ‘settling in period’ – not only has Noki just lost yet another child, he is also seeking information about his brother, a fellow mine worker, who has been jailed for drunken behaviour and not heard of since. Through her use of these two protagonists, Jennings is able to explore the diverse inhabitants of the town, creating a portrait of life under brutal circumstances for those doing the labouring, and touches of luxury for those at the top.

Though Noki is the more sympathetic of the two characters, I appreciated the fact that both were complex men, not on the same side by any means, but not diametrically opposed. Hull is impulsive, almost childishly stubborn, and at times quite unlikeable, despite his desire to do the right thing. I felt this was a strength of the novel: he is both admirable and also sometimes quite wrong in his judgements and assessments of character. I would have liked a bit more of his internal thoughts, in order to better understand him, and I could easily have spent more time inside both Hull’s and Noki’s heads. (However, I think that wishing a novel was longer is a good sign.) There are different registers at play in the book, which worked very well for me, and flashes of brilliance in Jennings’ prose which definitely make me want to read more from this author.

Upturned Earth is a novel with the power to shock: just when you might relax into what seems at times like a conventional historical novel, the plot takes several violent turns. I don’t want to spoil the story here, but I have to applaud Jennings for her deft balancing of so many strands: from a ghoulish, almost gothic-horror subplot involving the jailer, to two catastrophic events that both have relevance for contemporary times. This is a historical novel which cannot be confined to the past. The title could not be more apt, for here we have history excavated, shaken up, the truth of the violence which continues to this day brought to light. Written partly in response to the Marikana Massacre of 2012, the book reminds us, as the author states in her notes, of “the exploitation, conditions and corruption that began in the 1850s and continue to the present.” The characters’ mentions of mining communities in other parts of the world open it up further as a global issue, and the ambiguity of the book’s ending reminds us that this is not a finished story by any means.

Upturned Earth is published by Holland Park Press http://www.hollandparkpress.co.uk

NOTE: I received a gifted copy of this novel from Holland Park Press in exchange for an honest review.

January 2020 Reading: Old Filth; The Beggar Maid; The Yacoubian Building; Lullaby; Flights; The Friend; Heads of the Colored People

Old Filth by Jane Gardam (2004)

This book is a wonderful example of how to build up a portrait of a character, in this case the eponymous ‘Filth’ (which stands for Failed In London, Try Hong Kong), real name Edward Feathers, a retired judge who grew up as a ‘Raj orphan’ and has recently become a widower. The novel flits back and forth between his childhood and adulthood, and we gradually learn more about his life in a way that is both engaging and naturalistic. There is a playfulness to the overheard conversations, presented as scripts, which give us other people’s views of Filth, and these contrast nicely with the more straightforward narrative of his life.

At the heart of the book is the repressed trauma of the absence of parental love – his mother died giving birth to him, and his father, a district head in Malaysia, sent the young boy to England, as was the custom. The subtle tragedy of being taken away from his Malay nanny is poignantly and beautifully depicted at this point in the book. The adventures of Feathers’ life are both eccentric and engaging, and Gardam never leans too heavily on comedy or farce, as might be the temptation with such a deliciously old-fashioned creation. This is a clever, quiet book, and I was pleased to learn that it is the first in a trilogy – I shall certainly be reading the rest.

The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro (1972)

There’s always another Munro collection to read, and it is always a pleasure. This one, subtitled ‘Stories of Flo and Rose’, is more novel-like than previous collections I have read. Spanning nearly forty years, it explores the complex relationship between Flo and her stepdaughter Rose, though the focus is more on the latter. These linked stories are, as I have come to expect from Munro, insightful and true, and helped me to define what it is that I find so extraordinary about her work. Nothing is simple or universal in Munro’s world: every interaction is unique, a product of the whole of the characters’ histories, everything they are and that has shaped them.

I find myself wondering how on earth she writes with so much truth – is it by keeping her subject matter close to her own experience, following the infamous advice to ‘write what you know’? Whatever the secret, reading a Munro story is like reading a document of reality rather than anything that could be termed mere fiction – a very special experience indeed.

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswarmy (2002; translated by Humphrey T. Davies in 2009)

Considering that I spent a fairly large portion of my childhood in the Middle East, I have read shamefully little Arabic literature, something I mean to rectify. This bestselling Arabic novel has been sensitively and effectively translated by Davies, and presents an insight into life in Cairo, showing characters from different walks of life, flicking between them in an almost cinematic way. The building at the heart of the novel is a literal representation of the split between the upper classes, who inhabit its posh apartments and offices, and the working class who form a community in the former storage units on the roof. From Zaki Bey, a womaniser in his sixties used to the finer things in life, to Taha, the pious son of the doorman, whose involvement with a militant Muslim group has an easily traceable cause after he is tortured at the hands of the Egyptian police, characters appear and disappear, sometimes too quickly, their tales presented in short sharp bursts that occasionally left me slightly frustrated. However, I feel I learned an awful lot about a place I didn’t really know anything about, and for me, that is always an exciting way to feel about a novel.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani (2016; translated by Sam Taylor in 2018)

Let me begin by saying that you do not want to embark upon reading this novel at 1am when you can’t sleep, fooled by the title into thinking that it might help you nod off. The horrific opening makes this crystal clear: “The baby is dead.” From the very start, we learn that the nanny, Louise, has murdered the two children in her care; as such, this thriller sets itself up as one of motive rather than a who-done-it. Quite apart from the fact that I now never want to leave my kids’ side ever, ever again, I found it very hard to get over the horror of the premise, which jarred with the clipped, almost terse tone of the narration. I never felt that the book came close to explaining Louise as a character – the third person narration kept her firmly at a distance, and by the end, I felt that nothing had been resolved, and I was left wondering why I had endured the horrors of this story. (I also went straight into the kids’ bedroom to check on them, obviously).

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (2007; translated by Jennifer Croft in 2017)

This book, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018, has been compared to the work of W.G. Sebald, for most a ringing endorsement, but enough to put me off had I known it before I began reading. Luckily, it is far more playful than Sebald’s work, offering vignettes and musings on modern-day travel, interspersed with historical sections, often based on real figures from the past.

The narrator, the author’s alter-ego, has some insightful things to say about travel, such as a passage in which she perfectly describes that seemingly endless hour before a plane lands in the early morning. There is also an intriguing fascination with anatomy, and details of dissections, preserving methods and collections of body parts tread just the right side of gruesome to be interesting. There were one or two points where the disjointed nature of the book annoyed me, such as when the thriller-ish story of Kunicki, whose family disappears on a Croatian island, was interrupted and ‘cut out’ for many, many pages. But that is the kind of book this is – not a single, cohesive story, but a wide-ranging and brilliantly imaginative project. It gave me the impression of having access to a highly polished writing notebook, as if all those midnight scrawlings and 3am ideas had been given space to breathe and develop, but not corralled into a conventional narrative shape. There are moments of sheer brilliance here, which is the pay off for such a bold experiment.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)

There is also something of the writer’s notebook, perhaps even more overtly, in Nunez’s novel, which depicts a woman mourning a friend and fellow writer who has committed suicide. In a set-up which sounds irresistibly comic, he leaves her his Great Dane, despite the fact that she lives in a tiny rented apartment. Despite the potential humour of this situation, what is wrought instead is a poignant and deeply moving meditation on the nature of grief, the writing life, and friendship. This is a thought-provoking and philosophical book, written in a careful and deliberate tone, though it still maintains elements of humour and a deep sense of empathy. It is perhaps the only book I have read which also does not trivialise our relationships with our pets, understanding instead that humans’ relationships with animals can be just as profound as their relationships with other people.

Heads of The Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (2018)

This short story collection is full of self-awareness and a cool irony, delving into the needling questions of what it means to be an upper-middle-class black person in modern America. Set apart as much by privilege as by race, the characters in these stories find themselves the only black students at a private school, in a yoga class, and so on. The humour here is biting – in the letters between two highly educated mothers of private school girls, Thompson-Spires flirts with total parody, and in a later story, she manages to make a story about a woman with a fetish for amputees very funny indeed. Social media references abound, with one story in particular, ‘Suicide, Watch’, exploring the Instagram lifestyle in full comi-tragic glory, posing the question of what it means to be ‘black’ when there are so many other identities to worry about these days. The collection as a whole is strengthened by recurring characters, and I found it full of a refreshing sharpness, zesty and full of life. I hope to read more by this author.

I’m already slightly behind my goal if I want to read 100 books this year, so will be speeding through as many works as possible in February. If you have any reading suggestions, please let me know in the comments!