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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Reading in #Translation, A Literary Revolution #WITMonth

Sometimes it’s interesting to pause and look back at a reading journey and observe the reading milestones that helped deliver us to where our preferences are today. As many of you who’ve been reading Word by Word for a while will know, I like to read around the world, across cultures and that has led me to read more literature in translation.

It has become easier to find more diverse literature than in the past, thanks to the wonderful community of readers/bloggers who write with passion about books and to initiatives like the annual August ‘Women in Translation’ #WITMonth, also lead by a passionate blogger, Meytal Radzinski who blogs at Biblibio.

Tilted Axis Press was founded in 2015 by Deborah Smith, translator of Korean literature, while she was completing a PhD in contemporary Korean literature. She translated both of Han Kang’s excellent books, which I’ve read and reviewed here, the incredible Human Acts (my personal favourite) and last years Man Booker International Prize winner The Vegetarian. They are a small, not for profit publisher of works that might not otherwise appear in English, books with

“artistic originality, radical vision, the sense that here is something new”

Recently they asked me for my thoughts on  reading literature in translation, and published my response on their website, which I’ve linked here. It also includes a list of some of my favourite novels in translation and some of the excellent bloggers I rely on to keep me informed. Click on the link below to read the article.

My Thoughts on

Reading in Translation, A Literary Revolution

I hope you enjoy it and find a good book to read in translation during August. Do you have a recent favourite book that you’ve read in translation to recommend? Please let me know in the comments below.

 

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

I bought a second-hand copy of Two Old Women, after it was recommended by someone whose reading I follow as one of her favourite books, I remember it being an interesting list of books that I had never heard of and this small book, an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and survival intrigued me enough to get it.

Velma Wallis was born in Fort Yukon, a remote village in interior Alaska and grew up in a traditional Athabaskan family. Alaskan Athabaskans are native to Alaska, the original inhabitants of the interior of Alaska, living a culture of inland creek and river fishing, fabricating what they need from the resources that surround them, living by a matrilineal system in which children belong to the mother’s clan.

They are believed to have descended from Asians who crossed from eastern Siberia into Alaska during an early Ice Age.

The People Velma Wallis writes about in this legend, roamed the land and rivers around the area she was born, following trails that ensured they had access to the necessary resources to survive the changing seasons. They depended on the annual salmon runs and large game as well as small animals, using their skins for warmth.

Growing up in a traditional way, the young Velma also lived in different summer and winter cabins and although no longer a child, she enjoyed the nightly stories her mother continue to narrate. One of those stories was about two old women and their journey through hardship and it lead to her mother reflecting on how she had been able to overcome her own obstacles of old age, despite how physically agonising it could be.

The story held such fascination to her that she wrote it down and it evolved into this little book, once a story handed down from generation to generation, now committed to print so that an ever wider audience could learn from its wisdom.

“This story told me that there is no limit to one’s ability – certainly not age – to accomplish in life what one must. Within each individual in this large and complicated world there lives an astounding potential of greatness. Yet it is rare that these hidden gifts are brought to life unless by chance of fate.” Velma Wallis

The story tells of a group of nomads, People of the arctic region of Alaska who are on the move in search of food, but this particular winter they are beset with problems, the game they usually hunt due to the excess cold have become difficult to find and the smaller animals are not enough to sustain the group. Hunters are fed first, meaning there is often not enough for the women and children.

In the group there are two old women whom the People care for, Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’, younger men set up their shelters, younger women pull their possessions, however they are both known for constantly complaining of their aches and pains. One day, the chief makes a sudden announcement, one that the group has heard of from their stories, but never witnessed within their own band.

“The council and I have arrived at a decision.” The chief paused as if to find the strength to voice his next words. “We are going to have to leave the old ones behind.”

The women are shocked, as are the People, the older woman has a daughter and grandson, however no one objects, not even the daughter, though she leaves her mother a parting gift, one that will be intrinsic to their survival.

The group moves away leaving the stunned women sitting by the remains of their temporary camp. Until they awaken to the reality of their situation and find within them the will to move.

“Yes, in their own way they have condemned us to die! They think we are too old and useless. They forget that we, too, have earned the right to love! So I say if we are going to die, my friend, let us die trying, not sitting.”

And so begins a challenging journey, a reawakening and discovery of talents that had lain dormant from lack of use, as the two women set out to prove their People wrong and more, to set an example, though no one is there to witness it.

It’s a fabulous and poignant story about the value of the accumulation of years, and a reminder for those who arrive there not to lapse into laziness and a sense of entitlement, the respect that they deserve should be earned, the wisdom they are able to impart is not just what is spoken, it can be demonstrated by their actions and attitudes. Its’ beautiful illustrations by James Grant bring the story to life and it is equally an ode to the importance of sharing experiences through friendship and community.

Highly Recommended!

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Salt Houses is a novel that eventually comes full circle, as it follows the female members of a Palestinian family as they flee, move, marry and cope with constantly being and feeling outside where they belong, including between generations and even between siblings.

Each chapter is titled with the name of one of the family, beginning with Salma, the mother of Alia, in Nablus, Palestine, the town she and her husband Hussam and their children fled to in 1948, following the Nakba (catastrophe). Alia is a child of war, barely three years old when they had to flee.

The opening lines are an indication of what is to come and intrigue us to want to know more, they remind me of a visit to Palestine where I first heard about this cultural divination practice, Tasseography, the art of reading coffee grinds, a ritual that dates back thousands of years.

“When Salma peers into her daughter’s coffee cup, she knows instantly she must lie.”

Alia’s older sister is married and lives in Kuwait, a land Alia is reluctant to visit, but when she does in 1967, finds she is unable to return to Palestine due to “the Setback” (the Six-Day-War), thus her children will know a home and culture, even though connected to her heritage, very different from her own.

As each generation makes a move, Hala Alyan takes the reader on an emotional journey of perseverance and loss, against a background of political manoeuvring. While the narrative avoids the conflict and brutality of war and deplacement, we become witness to the separation of a family from its roots, its culture, its land, and in particular the effect on a Palestinian family of the founding of Israel and the conflicts that followed that caused them to become refugees, firstly in their own country and latterly in neighbouring countries.

The separation is not just from their land and traditions, but between perceptions, as family members find it difficult to understand the yearnings of their elders and parents find it difficult to understand the foreigners their have become to them. Fortunately, like with many families, solace can sometimes be found for a child with their grandparent, those who have seen too much to be surprised by anything anymore, who have arrived at acceptance without judgement.

Salt is referred to throughout, invoking memories of family living near the sea displaced inland; fathers who “salted everything after that, even his water,” houses lost, eroded like salt; lives soothed by and almost taken by immersion in salt water. It is everpresent.

“The porcelain surface of the teacup is white as salt; the landscape of dregs, violent.”

Through it all Alia’s husband harbours a secret that torments him, one that he lives with by regularly writing letters that are never sent, seeking atonement.

The novel traverses with diligence a difficult period in the history of Palestine and the Middle East, demonstrating the resilience of humanity to survive, the sacrifices that are made and the cultural poverty that is experienced giving rise to the insatiable desire for families to remain connected, not just to each other but to the small yet important things, the traditional rice dishes, the olive, the orange tree, the desire to keep flowers blooming, no matter where they find themselves.

Their homes may crumble, but their spirits continue to reignite and flourish, wherever their heads may lie.

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian-American author, poet and practicing clinical psychologist living in Brooklyn, who spent her childhood moving between the Middle East and the US.  Salt Houses is her debut novel and is inspired by some of her own extended family experiences.

“I definitely think there was an intergenerational trauma that went along with losing a homeland that you see trickle down through the different generations”  Hala Alyan, NPR interview.

Further Reading:

Dreams, Displacement & DNA: Talking With Hala Alyan About ‘Salt Houses’ What happens when displacement enters your DNA? by Kristin Iversen · May 9, 2017

Note: This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley. I originally reviewed this book for Bookbrowse.

 

 

Eva Sleeps by Francesca Melandri tr. Katherine Gregor

Eva Sleeps is a thought-provoking novel that takes the reader on multiple journeys, as the narrative slowly unravels the mystery that connects Eva, her mother Gerda and Vito.

“Where’s Eva anyway?”

“Eva is sleeping.”

The brown parcel travelled backward along the road it had taken to arrive at that spot: two thousand, seven hundred and ninety-four kilometres in total,there and back.

Eva Sleeps is a reference from Paradise Lost and a quote in the book that is repeated both in the prologue (above) and at the end of the novel, referring to the delivery of a package that arrives from the postal worker for Eva, one that her mother rejects, saying it is unwanted. It is an indirect introduction to the three main characters, introducing a connection that will be alluded through throughout and revealed  by the end after we too have travelled that same journey the package takes.

“Let Eve (for I have drench’d her eyes, Here sleep below, while thou to foresight wak’st.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost, book XI

We meet Eva as she is met at Munich airport by Carlo, he will drive her the three-hour journey across two borders to her home in Sudtirol/Alto Adige in a German-speaking part of northern Italy. It is the beginning of the Easter holiday and the beginning of a longer journey she will make when she receives the call from Vito telling her he doesn’t have long to live and that he’d like to see her again.

Eva’s chapters are titled Kilometre 0, Kilometres 0-35, up to Kilometre 1397 ending with Kilometre 0, Today. These chapters contain her thoughts and observations as she makes the 1400km journey towards the dying Vito in Sicily.

The interposing chapters are Gerda’s story and they are labelled by the years within which her story is narrated, beginning in 1919, a year in which:

“…the peace treaty was being signed in Saint-Germain, with which the victorious powers of the Great War – France, especially – wishing to punish the dying Austrian Empire, assigned South Tyrol to Italy. Italy was very surprised. There had always been talk of liberating Trento and Trieste, but never Bolzano – let alone Bozen. It was perfectly logical. South Tyrolean’s were German people, perfectly at ease in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and didn’t need anyone to liberate them. Even so, after a war that had certainly not been won on the battlefield, Italy ended up with that stretch of the Alps as their unexpected booty.”

It was also the year her father inherited the family home after the death of his parents. The fate of the family would forever be affected by that political decision, for all those native to the area, who overnight were ruled in a language and culture foreign to their ways, making them like strangers in their own country, as people from the poorer southern parts of Italy were sent to live among them, in an effort to try to make these tall, blond people more Italian.

Gerda’s family is poor and as soon as she is old enough she is sent out to work, she works in the kitchen of a large hotel and alongside her striking beauty, develops a talent for creating delectable local dishes, twin characteristics that will lift her out of poverty and give her a measure of independence, much required after her father disowned her upon the arrival of Eva. She finds a way to continue working without losing her daughter.

Alongside the enthralling life of Gerda, who is the most well-rounded and well-known of the characters we follow, we are exposed to the context of the freedom fights of Alto Adige, those who protested against the cultural white-washing, labelled terrorists for their protests when they turn violent.

“Until a few years ago, when you said you were a German speaker from Alto Adige, they thought you were a terrorist. At the very least they’d ask: but why do you people hate Italians so much?

Then things changed. In the weekly supplement of the newspaper, a few months ago, the front cover was devoted to separatist ethnic movements in Europe. It mentioned:

Corsica, Slovakia, Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque country, Kosovo, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and the Po Valley.

The Po Valley!

No sign of Alto Adige.

Eva Sleeps is a provocative novel of journeys, of connections and contradictions across cultures, of love in its many forms, of struggles and conflicts, identity and how we are connected to place.

Told in a compelling narrative while backgrounding the fascinating and little known history of this part of northern Italy, it does what the historical novels often do best, increase our historical knowledge, while highlighting the ricochet effects political decisions can have on humanity, on innocent civilians, making us understand why the oppression that results turn some towards violence and others to seek love, as ways to dull the pain.

The novel is being made into a film.

Note: This book was kindly provided to me by the publisher, Europa Editions.

 

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo #BaileysPrize

Stay With Me is the meaning of the Yoruba, Nigerian first name Rotimi, which in itself is the short version of Oluwarotimi.

“Still they named her Rotimi, a name that implied she was an Abiku child who had come into the world intending to die as soon as she could. Rotimi – stay with me.”

I’m guessing that Ayobami Adebayo uses it as the title to her novel, because it relates to the twin desires of the main characters in the book, Yejide in her yearning to become pregnant and to keep a child, to be the mother she was denied, having been raised by less than kind stepmothers after her mother died in childbirth; and her husband Akin, in his desire to try to keep his wife happy and with him, despite succumbing to the pressures of the stepmothers and his own family, he being the first-born son of the first wife, to produce a son and heir.

“Before I got married I believed love could do anything. I learned soon enough it couldn’t bear the weight of four years without children. If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

Torn between the love of his wife and meeting the expectations of his family, for two years he would resist their suggestions, until the day they came knocking at his door, to inform Yejide that matters had been taken into their hands, that there was nothing she could do but accept it, suggesting it may even help.

“For a while, I did not accept the fact that I had become a first wife, an iyale. Iya Martha was my father’s first wife. When I was a child, I believed she was the unhappiest wife in the family. My opinion did not change as I grew older. At my father’s funeral, she stood beside the freshly dug grave with her narrow eyes narrowed even further and showered curses on every woman my father had made his wife after he had married her. She had begun as always with my long-dead mother, since she was the second woman he had married, the one who had made Iya Martha a first among not-so-equals.”

The narrative is split into five parts and moves between a present in 2008 when Yejide is returning to her husbands hometown for the funeral of his father, and the past which traverses the various stages of their marriage and their attempts to create a family and the effect of the secrets, lies, interferences and silences on their relationship.

The narrative voice moves from first person accounts of both Yejide and Akin, ensuring the reader gains twin perspectives on what is happening (and making us a little unsure of reality) and the more intimate second person narrative in the present day, as each character addresses the other with that more personal “you” voice, they are not in each other’s presence, but they carry on a conversation in their minds, addressing each other, asking questions that will not be answered, wondering what the coming together after all these years will reveal.

The portrayal of the pressures on this couple to meet expectations and the effect of the past on the present are brilliantly conveyed in this engaging novel, which provides a rare insight into a culture and people who live simultaneously in a modern world that hasn’t yet let go of its patriarchal traditions. Denial plays a lead part and when the knowledge it suppresses is at risk of being exposed, violence erupts.

Simultaneously the country is in the midst of a military coup, which also threatens to destabilise the country and puts its citizens in fear for their lives.

The novel also addresses the significant presence of the sickle-cell gene on people’s lives, something that is perhaps little known in the West, but in Nigeria with a population of 112 million people, 25% of adults have or carry the sickle-cell trait, which can cause high infant mortality and problems in later life. It is a genetic blood disorder that affects the haemoglobin within the red blood cells and the recurring pain and complications caused by the disease (for which there is no cure) can interfere with many aspects of a person’s life.

Stay With Me has been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, a worthy contender in my opinion and a unique social perspective on issues that are both universal to us all illustrating how in particular they impact the Nigerian culture.

Buy A Copy of Stay With Me via Book Depository

 

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a popular Turkish author, and a Rumi scholar, raised by her mother and grandmother, experiencing a childhood and influences that fed a fertile imagination. Now based in London, this is her tenth novel. Since reading The Forty Rules of Love, the first of her novels to actively reference her Rumi knowledge and learnings, I’ve read the excellent The Bastard of Istanbul, Honour and her nonfiction essay The Happiness of Blond People. She is an interesting and unique author because of her ability to straddle the thinking of both East and West, captured through engaging characters and storytelling; she demonstrated that for all our supposed differences, we are grappling with similar issues.

Three Daughters of Eve is an interesting, quietly provocative, philosophical novel. Shafak brilliantly sets up a character study of Peri, our Turkish protagonist, who on her way to a dinner party to meet her husband, decides to abandon her car in the middle of a traffic jam, in pursuit of an opportunistic handbag thief.

“Like a magic wand in the wrong hands, the traffic turned minutes into hours, humans into brutes and any trace of sanity into sheer lunacy.”

There is a violent, unsettling altercation after which she will continue on her way, shaken, but in one piece and determined not to change her plans. However this episode and the memories it awakens, will over the course of the evening, reveal her conflicted self and cause her to consider her life and address a significant event of the past, as the present madness moves forward towards astonishing heights.

“Though easy to forget at times, the city was a stormy sea swollen with drifting icebergs of masculinity, and it was better to manoeuvre away from them, gingerly and smartly, for one never knew how much danger lay beneath the surface.”

The three daughters are the three girls who appear in the photo that falls out of her handbag, referred to as the sinner, the believer and the confused. They are three young Muslim students at Oxford university, including Peri (the confused), who will all take the same class with Professor Azur and for a time they will live together. The girls all have different views, as do their fellow classmates, in the class about ‘understanding God’, a guided philosophical think-tank, where the handpicked students are forbidden to discuss religion, and must instead learn to express their opinions without the framework of doctrine.

Thus the novel is narrated across two timelines, the present day Istanbul (2016) en route to and at a bourgeoise dinner party and a period of time at the university in Oxford (2000).

Shirin is the liberal-minded sinner with no excuses or apologies for who she is, she loves to provoke reaction and is a willing accomplice come recruiter to the Professor’s circle, it is she who brings the conservative believer Mona and Peri together.

Shafak’s account of Peri’s parents and family is brilliantly characterised and aptly portrays why she is given the label of ‘confused’, they are complete opposites and over time become even more so, her two brothers are also polar opposite while Peri, loaded with empathy, understands all their positions, but can not stand in either of their shoes. Her plan to study in England, supported by her father and a cause of concern for her mother, was more of an escape for her than the brilliant opportunity her father imagined.

“They were as incompatible as tavern and mosque. The frowns that descended on their brows, the stiffness that infused their voices, identified them not as a couple in love, but as opponents in a game of chess…

Religion had plummeted into their lives as unexpectedly as a meteor, and created a chasm, separating the family into two clashing camps.”

Despite education, philosophical questions and new friends, Peri is a young, Turkish woman coming to live in a foreign country; as I was reading, I couldn’t help but notice the synchronicity between this combination of time, space and circumstance that made Peri vulnerable to manipulative intent and the protagonist of Claire Fuller’s excellent novel Swimming Lessons, a novel that chose not to explore the family background and cultural references of its young, female Norwegian university student, and rather focuses on the life that followed an equally significant turning point.

Here in Elif Shafak’s novel is an attempt to provide an experience with its cultural context. They are both young impressionable women having life-changing experiences in a foreign culture, with little support or guidance, they are lost in an age-appropriate confusion of emotions, one that is not on the same wavelength as the object of their desire.

Elif Shafak speaking in Bulgaria
Photo courtesy of Rayna Tzvetkova

While I enjoyed the novel and love Elif Shafak’s writing and philosophical questioning, there was a point very near the end, where events became too surreal for me to stay captured in the literary bubble of considering that evening dinner party in 2016 legitimate. It may be a satire of the Turkish elite, some of the things that happen and that are said are a mix of humorous and dramatic, however that’s not the tone of the novel as a whole.

I don’t know why the author chose to brings things together in the manner she did, for me personally it distracted from the thought process I’d spent the entire novel developing, and resulted in a suspension of belief, a kind of clocking out. I was waiting for the resolution, that’s where it was heading, and it does attempt to do that, however, as she not so convincingly demonstrates, humans can be unpredictable, and their actions often make no sense at all.

An excellent and thought-provoking novel that I recommend, despite a somewhat less well executed ending.

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Note: This book was an ARC(Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

To purchase a copy via Book Depository, click here