The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Loved it, this is my kind of popular summer read, it brought to mind the recent Alaskan classic I read and enjoyed immensely Two Old Women: An Alaskan Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival by Velma Wallis and another that I didn’t enjoy so much A Man Called Ove.

It’s a story of octogenarian women Hortensia and Marion who are neighbours in a suburb in Cape Town, South Africa. Marion is a white woman, born there, who has lived through political change, though not learned much from it, rather she has tried to keep as much distance as she possibly can from ever having to confront her deeply embedded, never dealt with ancestral shame.

Hortensia is a black woman, whose parents left Barbados for London, where she grew up and was educated, becoming a successful textile designer, and marrying an Englishman, with whom she moved to Nigeria and eventually (not sure why) to retire in South Africa.

Both women have had similarly successful professional lives, both run their own businesses, Marion as an architect, though the birth of her children brought her independence to an earlier close than Hortensia.

Now they are neighbours, on the same street committee and keep each in check – they each represent to the other things about themselves that they would never admit shame or hurt them, so instead they take their bitterness out on each other, assuming that the other isn’t capable of understanding their perspective.

Here Marion contemplates her particular shame:
“What Hortensia didn’t seem to understand was that sometimes we have to honour our ancestors and side with them. This meant we justified what was horrible and turned away from what needed scrutiny. This life of ignoring the obvious required a certain amount of stamina. The alternative to this was to set on a path to make rubbish of what had gone before us. This approach – of principles – activism and struggle – required stamina too. All the same, she’d chosen the other one.”

While grumpy old Ove was just plain annoying and unpleasant to spend a whole book with, these two are actually good company, they have interesting back stories, that are drip fed throughout the narrative, they’re funny and although they are going to learn something when their lives inevitably come closer than they would have wished for, there’s not that sense of over the top, moral victory, I liked that while they overcome something by the end, they don’t change too much.

I picked this book up when it was long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 and while it didn’t make the short list, it definitely made my list of authors to continue to watch out for and read.

Yewande Omotoso was also born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria and moved to South Africa where she writes and runs her own architectural practice. This is her second novel. Her debut novel Bom Boy was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Tomorrow begins from another dawn,
when we will be fast asleep.
Remember what I say: not everything will pass.

I like the saying “this too shall pass”, it’s a way of being in the difficult moment, of realising that it will be replaced by something else, it represents a sliver of hope, a reminder of gratitude, that thoughts are not reality, they can be changed. So this quote that “not everything will pass” evokes a kind of heartfelt stab for me, for it pierces that hope and reminds us that some things stay, that they are not seeds of hope, they are reminders of a sadness that endures.

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ felt to me like a novel of ancestral DNA and how living through Chairman Mao’s and the subsequent communist regime imprinted its effect onto people behaviours forcing them to change, leaving its trace in their DNA which was passed on to subsequent generations, who despite living far from where those events took place, continue to live with a feeling they can’t explain, but which affects the way they live, or half-live, as something crucial to living a fulfilled life is missing. This reminds me of what Yaa Gyasi achieves so successfully in her extraordinary novel Homegoing, spanning an even longer historical trajectory of 300 years.

The novel is presented through dual narratives, in Canada today Marie lives alone with her mother, her father Ba, died in Hong Kong far from them both in circumstances they don’t understand, a kind of double abandonment. The alternate narrative is set in her father’s time, with his extended family during the time of and following China’s Cultural Revolution.

We will come to understand that mystery as the daughter of one of her father’s friends Ai-Ming, comes to stay with them and recognises the calligraphy of her father in a box of books under the kitchen table, the first encounter we have with a manuscript called ‘The Book of Records’ a narrative by an unknown author, one that has been added to and copied and left as a message for various characters who became lost over the years.

The title of the manuscript is an allusion to China’s most celebrated work of history, Sima Qian’s Historical Records, completed in 91BCE but kept hidden for fear of the wrath of an emperor who had its author castrated. The telling of history in China was always a dangerous occupation.

We are taken back to China to the home of Ai Ming’s father who is referred to as Sparrow, a composer at the music conservatory, one of his students Kai and his young cousin Zhuli, whose parents are the first to come under the harsh judgement of Mao’s philosophy, because they were landlords, denounced, beaten, thrown from their homes, accused and sent to labour camps for unsubstantiated crimes. The young daughter is deposited with her Aunt and Uncle miles away in the city, under the protection of her Uncle who works for the regime.

He Luting, Composer (1903 – 1999) China

The story follows these three musicians who are passionate about music (which will become the wrong kind of music) and to survive they must suppress their desires, their passion and compromise, the three of them each make different choices, that will affect those around them.

The narrative around the musicians and some of the characters closely mirrors actual events that occurred in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the main concert hall now renamed He Luting Concert Hall, after the Director who “in 1968, after two years of violence and humiliation, was dragged before television cameras by Red Guards to be threatened and physically abused”

In the following quote, Ai-ming listens to what she learns is her father’s music for the first time, music that was destroyed before it could ever be played, recalled from the recesses of the mind of the composer, after 20 years of silence.

“Ai-ming sat on a chair in the corner as her father played the piano, she had never heard him do so before, had not quite realised he was even capable. His entire body, the way he moved, changed. Most of the pieces she recognised from the records (Bach’s Partita No. 6, Couperin, Shostakovich) but there was another piece, a complex figure that seemed to disassemble as she listened, a rope of music,  a spool of wire. It seemed to rise even as it was falling, to lift in volume even as it diminished, a polyphony so unfathomably beautiful it made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. When it stopped tears came abruptly to her eyes.”

This is a tragic novel whose characters spirits are oppressed by a philosophical regime, which mutates into something equally oppressive after the death of Chairman Mao, for a while the younger generation without the memory of the era their parents generation suffered under (and somewhat judging of their inability to challenge the circumstances forced upon them), appear to revolt against the lack of freedom to choose their paths, until they too are brutally crushed in the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, ensuring the new generation understand the power and reach of an authoritarian regime, that no-one is immune to.

Madeleine Thien had originally intended to write a novel about the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, events she vividly remembered watching unfold on television during her teenage years, however over time she began to ask herself more about what had motivated the one million Beijing citizens to come out onto the streets, especially the older generation.

“What gave them the courage to stand up to the government? And, what made them come into the streets to want to protect, in many ways, their children, and another generation? So I think that’s why it ended up going backwards into the Cultural Revolution. I’d been writing about Cambodia before that – the Cambodian genocide – and one thing I’d been thinking a lot about were the musicians. I started thinking about what was it about music that could be so threatening. We often know about the writers who are targeted by totalitarian regimes but looking at musicians is another way in to thinking about what’s threatening to this consolidation of power.” Madeleine Thien, Granta Conversation

Madeleine Thien

This is a must read novel if you wish to reflect on how recent Chinese history affects the present generations, how regimes affect generations of their populations and how even though subsequent generations may not have experienced the past, they continue to feel its effect in their lives today.

It was short listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017.


Further Reading:

Article by Madeleine Thien: After the Cultural Revolution: what western classical music means in China, The Guardian, 8 July 2016

Madeleine Thien Interview : on a solitary childhood in Canada and daring to question the Chinese regime, ‘In China, you learn a lot from what people don’t tell you’, The Guardian, 8 Oct 2016

Conversation with Madeleine Thien: On translating the sensation of music for a reader, the importance of writing about women of colour, and the Chinese conceptual framework of time, Granta Magazine, 3 Oct 2106

Buy a copy of ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ here

 

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2017 #BaileysPrize

Today the judges chose six novels for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 and had this to say:

““It has been a great privilege to Chair the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in a year which has proved exceptional for writing of both quality and originality. It was quite a challenge to whittle this fantastic longlist of 16 books down to only six… These were the six novels that stayed with all of us well beyond the final page.” Tessa Ross

The shortlisted books are as follows:

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀ (review)
The Power  Naomi Alderman
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (review)

In my earlier post on the Baileys Prize Longlist, I listed all the novels with a summary of what they are about, you can refer to that post linked here to know more about all the 16 longlisted books.

For three of the titles below, I have taken a few quotes from Q& A interviews done with the respective authors by the Prize team, to give you a flavour of their motivations in writing the book and their literary inspirations and where that isn’t available, a summary of the blurb.

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing

– In 1990 Canada , 10-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Her name is Ai-ming.
As her relationship with Marie deepens, Ai-ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shangahi Conservatory in the 1960s and events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-ming – and for Marie.

On The Book

“I wanted the novel to unfold in a very specific time frame, the lifetime of an individual – the birth, life and death of a composer we know as Sparrow. He’s born at a historical crossroads: the fall of China’s Republican government and the birth of Communist China. History pulls his life apart, he’s at the mercy of so many forces, and yet he’s also free. In one sense, his life is taken from him; in another, it’s the only life he has and he must live it.”

Quotable Quote

“I’ve been troubled by language for a long time… How language can build meaning but also conceal or demean it.” Madeleine Thien

Literary Heroes

Alice Munro, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Shirley Hazzard, Yiyun Li, Dionne Brand, Hannah Arendt and so many more.

P.S. I have this on my shelf, so I will definitely be reading it next!

The Dark Circle, Linda Grant

– It’s 1949, the Second World War is over and a new decade of recovery is beginning, but for East End teenage twins who have been living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, they are sent away to a sanatorium in Kent to take the cure and submit to the authority of the doctors, learning the deferential way of the patient.

On The Book

“I did two long interviews with a woman who was x-rayed to take up her place at university in 1949. It was when she told me about the sanatorium going over to the NHS and a new influx off patients mixing with the middle-classes, that I knew that there was a story and a novel. I did read up on the history of the disease and its treatments and of course Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and other novels about TB. It has been a rich source for novelists because it involves so much lying around thinking morbid thoughts.” Linda Grant

Quotable Quote

“I became a journalist because it was a means of being paid to knock on the doors of strangers and ask them personal questions and then write about what they had told me, while I was waiting to have a novel to write.”

 

Naomi Alderman, The Power

– Suddenly – tomorrow or the day after – girls find that with a flick of their fingers they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of this extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed, and we look at the world in an entirely new light. What if the power were in women’s hands?

On The Book

“I didn’t start from the idea of making a matriarchal society. But the idea did come from a particular moment in my life. I was going through a really horrible breakup, one of those ones where you wake up every morning, have a cry and then get on with your day. And in the middle of all this emotional turmoil, I got onto the tube and saw a poster advertising a movie with a photograph of a beautiful woman crying, beautifully. And in that moment it felt like the whole of the society I live in saying to me “oh yes, we like it when you cry, we think it’s sexy”. And something just snapped in me and all I could think was: what would it take for me to be able to get onto this tube train and see a sexy photo of a *man* crying? What’s the smallest thing I could change? And this novel is the answer to that question, or at least an attempt to think it through for myself. …I just had this idea about women developing a strange new power.”

Quotable Quote

“Any woman who has made her living in writing is my hero and my friend; what a thing it is to be able to do, and how hard generations of women have fought so that I could be allowed it!” Naomi Alderman

Literary Heroes

Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Cavendish, Ursula Le Guin, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, Carol Shields, Mary Stewart, PD James, Marjane Satrapi, Alice Monroe, Amy Levy, Alison Bechdel, Han Kang.

Stay With Me, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀ (reviewed)

– Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 80s Nigeria, Stay With Me sings with the voices, colours, joys and fears of its surroundings. A devastating story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the wretchedness of grief and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood. It is a tale about our desperate attempts to save ourselves and those we love from heartbreak.

 

The Sport of Kings, C.E. Morgan

– Hellsmouth, an indomitable thoroughbred filly, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavour of raw obsession: to breed a champion.
But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm after a stint in prison, the violence of the Forges’ history and the exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view. Entangled by fear, prejudice and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and power of Hellsmouth.

First Love, Gwendoline Riley

– Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties married to an older man. For now they are in a place of relative peace, but their past battles have left scars. As Neve recalls the decisions that led her to this marriage, she tells of other loves and other debts, from her bullying father and self-involved mother to a musician who played her and a series of lonely flights from place to place. Drawing the reader into the battleground of her relationship, Neve spins a story of helplessness and hostility, an ongoing conflict in which both husband and wife have played a part. But is this, nonetheless, also a story of love?

**************

So there is the shortlist! Easy to pick a favourite when I’ve only read one, I really recommend you read Stay With Me if you haven’t already, it’s a superb book and insight into the pressures of family expectations.

So, which is your favourite from the list, or which are you drawn to read? Any disappointments?

The winning novel will be announced on 7 June 2017!

Order any of the Books Via Book Depository via this link

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 Winner #BaileysPrize

After looking at the six titles shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and after listening to Eric at Lonesome Reader discussing the six titles in-depth, it comes as no surprise to me that this years winner is:

the extraordinary debut, a novel of literary humour and insight:

The Glorious Heresies

by Lisa McInerney

 

Further Reading/Watching

 

 

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 #BaileysPrize

Baileys logo 2016The other literary event that has been progressing while I was offline is the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

I wrote about the announcement of the Baileys 2016 Longlist here, and below are the six titles with short summaries that made up the shortlist announced in early May.

The winner of the prize will be announced Wednesday 8th June, 2016.

Cynthia Bond: Ruby – Heart-breaking tragedy and graphic abuse in lyrical prose, Ruby escapes her past in the 1950’s for New York only to have to return, sending her into a kind of madness. Tortured souls and the redemptive power of love, not for the faint-hearted.

Anne Enright: The Green Road – the story of Rosaleen, Irish matriarch of the Madigan family, and her four children, spanning 30 years, three generations and told from the perspective of each child. Having left Ireland they all return when mother announces she is to sell the family property. The battles we wage for family, faith, and love, told through an acute insight into the sibling characters and the landscape they call home. Bookies favourite.

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies – consequences of a messy murder and cover up continue to reverberate in the lives of five misfits who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society. Dark humour explores Irish 20th C attitudes to sex, family and forces the reader to empathise. A debut that might just topple the rest with its originality, wit and insight.

Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen – Set in Palo Alto, amid the culture clash of new money and old values,  amid the threat of looming wars. Quirky, humorous, contemporary family saga with a protagonist who believes squirrels are talking to her.

Hannah Rothschild: The Improbability of Love – Satire of the London art world amid a character getting over a broken heart, the discovery and mystery of an old painting, a lost masterpiece by an 18th C French artist, a melange of entertaining stories, voices, characters, points of view. Another quirky entry, bit of a ‘love vs couldn’t finish (or even start) it’ novel. Divides readers.

Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life – follows the complicated relationships of four men over decades in NYC, their joys and burdens, Jude’s journey to stability, scarred by a horrific childhood with its prolonged physical and emotional effects. More tortured souls and a big, fat read.  A 5 star rating, readers often hesitate to recommend.

An alternative shortlist can be viewed here, the result of the Shadow Jury of bloggers, coordinated by Naomi at The Writes of Women.

It includes three of the titles that made the official shortlist and today they announced their winning novel, one that didn’t make the official shortlist, Kate Atkinson’s sequel to Life After Life, A God in Ruins:

God in Ruins

Watch this space for the announcement of the official winner:

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction LongList 2016 #IWD2016

Baileys logo 2016Today is International Women’s Day, this year the theme is #PledgeForParity and the Baileys Women’s Prize certainly does a lot to advance that challenge, with their ambition to bring the best women’s writing and female storytellers to ever-wider audiences.

In selecting the following 20 titles for the longlist the Chair of Judges Margaret Mountford shared that:

“We had a hugely enjoyable and stimulating meeting, as there were a great many strong novels in contention. We are delighted with the quality, the imaginative scope and the ambition of our chosen books, a longlist which reflects the judges’ interests and tastes. We hope readers will enjoy the variety of outstanding work on offer.”

Half the longlist are debuts, they represent seven nationalities, four previous shortlisted authors and the first Zimbabwean author to be longlisted for the prize.

The longlisted books are as follows:

Kate AtkinsonA God in Ruins – Teddy, would-be poet, heroic World War II bomber pilot, husband, father, and grandfather, whom we met in her previous book Life after Life navigates the perils and progress of the 20th century.

Shirley BarrettRush Oh! – Australia 1908, Mary supports her father’s boisterous whaling crews during a harsh season, while caring for five brothers and sisters in the wake of their mother’s death.

Cynthia Bond: Ruby – Heart-breaking tragedy and graphic abuse in lyrical prose, Ruby escapes her past only to have to return and it doesn’t sound as pretty as she is.

Geraldine Brooks: The Secret Chord – a retelling of the story of King David, one I’ve read and reviewed.

Becky Chambers: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – the first in a sci-fi series, a martian woman, an alien pilot and a pacifist captain, humanity a minor player in this fun and sometimes dangerous adventure.

Jackie Copleton: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding – A woman opens the door of her Philadelphia home to a badly scarred man claiming to be her grandson, who perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki, with a collection of sealed private letters…

Rachel Elliott: Whispers Through a Megaphone – Miriam, who whispers, hasn’t left the house in 3 years, and today has had enough, she will venture out. Ralph discovers his wife doesn’t love him and runs away. They meet.

Anne Enright: The Green Road – the story of Rosaleen, Irish matriarch of the Madigan family, and her four children, spanning 30 years and three generations. The battles we wage for family, faith, and love.

Petina Gappah: The Book of Memory – Memory, an albino woman imprisoned in Harare, Zimbabwe, has been convicted of the murder of her adopted father. A tale of love, obsession, the relentlessness of fate, the treachery of memory.

Vesna Goldsworthy: Gorsky – A modern Gatsby set amongst contemporary London’s über-rich Russians.

Clio Gray: The Anatomist’s Dream – Born with a defect, abandoned by parents, he joins a carnival, finding friendship among an assortment of ‘freak show’ artists, magicians and entertainers, then meets someone who recommends a cure.

Melissa Harrison: At Hawthorn Time – four lives, the importance of community, our relationship to nature, belonging and the freedom of the unknown, contemplative, for fans of compelling nature writing.

Attica Locke: Pleasantville – legal thriller set during a dangerous game of shadowy politics, a missing girl, election night, a tussle for power, sounds like a TV series, oh yes, she writes those too.

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies – a messy murder affects the lives of five misfits who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society. Dark humour explores Irish 20th C attitudes to sex, family.

Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen – Set in Palo Alto, amid the culture clash of new money and old values,  amid the threat of looming wars. Humorous, contemporary family saga with a cute squirrel cover!

Sara Nović: Girl at War – Zagreb, summer of 1991. Ten-year-old Ana is a carefree tomboy playing in the streets of Croatia, civil war breaks out, tragedy, guerilla warfare, the world child soldiers, a daring escape plan.

Julia Rochester: The House at the Edge of the World – Father of teenage twins falls off a cliff,drunk, soon after their lives separate, they return, delving into the past, their grandfather’s mysterious, painted family record created over an ordnance chart, a lyrical journey through character ad mystery of family.

Hannah Rothschild: The Improbability of Love – A character getting over a broken heart, the discovery and mystery of an old painting, a lost masterpiece by an 18th C French artist, a melange of entertaining stories, voices, characters, points of view.

Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton – Lucy is visited by her mother, whom she hasn’t spoken to in years, while recovering from an operation, a story of family, damaged relationships, unspoken childhood events, coming to terms with the past, navigating the future, keenly observant, deeply human, unforgettable.

Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life – follows the complicated relationships of four men over decades in NYC, their joys and burdens, Jude’s journey to stability, scarred by a horrific childhood with its prolonged physical and emotional effects.

*******

Voila! The final list of 20 novels, I have only read one and it wasn’t my cup of tea, there are lots of new names in the list for me, as well as the familiar. Elizabeth Strout’s new novel looks promising, At Hawthorn Time looks like my kind of book, I’m intrigued by The Book of Memory and Anne Enright’s is bound to be great reading and writing and I’m definitely going to read Kate Atkinson’s follow-up novel eventually.

For a more comprehensive short review of al these titles, check out the link to The Irish Times article below:

No idea who will win but this is the gems are!

Which book(s) appeals to you from the list?

Further Reading:

Article in Irish Times: Lisa McInerney and Anne Enright on Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist

Purchase A Book:

If you wish to buy one of the above books, you can do so via the Book Depository link below, with who I have become affiliated.

Buy One of These Books at Book Depository

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 Winner

British author Ali Smith has won the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction with her sixth novel How to Be Both.

“Ancient and modern meet and speak to each other in this tender, brilliant and witty novel of grief, love, sexuality and shape-shifting identity.”

Shami Chakrabarti, Chair of Judges

Ali Smith

 

How to Be Both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real – and all life’s givens get given a second chance.

The winning title was also chosen by the Shadow Jury, who made their announcement yesterday, see some of their reviews here:

How To Be Both

– reviewed by Eric at The Lonesome Reader

– reviewed by Naomi at The Writes of Women

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