Booker Prize Longlist 2019 Announced

The longlist, or ‘Booker Dozen’, for the 2019 Booker Prize was announced on Tuesday 23 July.

The list of 13 books was selected by a panel of five judges: founder and director of Hay Festival Peter Florence (Chair); former fiction publisher and editor Liz Calder; novelist, essayist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo; writer, broadcaster and former barrister Afua Hirsch; and concert pianist, conductor and composer Joanna MacGregor.

“If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these. There are Nobel candidates and debutants on this list. There are no favourites; they are all credible winners. They imagine our world, familiar from news cycle disaster and grievance, with wild humour, deep insight and a keen humanity. These writers offer joy and hope. They celebrate the rich complexity of English as a global language. They are exacting, enlightening and entertaining. Really – read all of them.” Peter Florence

Featuring 8 women and 5 men with authors from the UK, Canada, Ireland, Nigeria, the United States, Mexico, Italy, India,  South Africa and Turkey, the nominated titles are:

Margaret Atwood (Canada), The Testaments (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)

– the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, fifteen years later, as told by three female characters.

Kevin Barry (Ireland), Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate Books)

– sex, death, narcotics, sudden violence and old magic in a Spanish port town

Oyinkan Braithwaite (UK/Nigeria), My Sister, The Serial Killer (Atlantic Books)

– a blackly comic novel about how blood is thicker – and more difficult to get out of the carpet – than water.

Lucy Ellmann (USA/UK), Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)

– A scorching indictment of America’s barbarity, past and present, a lament for the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster.

Bernardine Evaristo (UK), Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton)

– Generations of women, the people they have loved and unloved – the complexities of race, sex, gender, politics, friendship, love, fear and regret.

John Lanchester (UK), The Wall (Faber & Faber)

– a chilling fable, dystopian novel that blends the most compelling issues of our time—rising waters, rising fear, rising political division—into a suspenseful story of love, trust, and survival.

Deborah Levy (SouthAfrica/UK), The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)

–  the difficulty of seeing ourselves and others clearly. Specters that come back to haunt old and new love, previous and current incarnations of Europe, conscious and unconscious transgressions, and real and imagined betrayals, while investigating the cyclic nature of history and its reinvention by people in power. And a man crossing Abbey Road.

Valeria Luiselli (Mexico/Italy), Lost Children Archive (4th Estate)

– inspired by the experiences of desperate children crossing the desert border between Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona, and the Apache warriors who made their last stand in the desert, told as a family sets off on a road trip.

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), An Orchestra of Minorities (Little Brown)

– contemporary twist on the Odyssey, narrated by the chi, or spirit of a young poultry farmer, a heart-wrenching epic about destiny and determination.

Max Porter (UK), Lanny (Faber & Faber)

– an experimental fantasy set in an English village where a child goes missing, highlighting societal issues, history and the environment.

Salman Rushdie (UK/India), Quichotte (Jonathan Cape)

– a tour-de-force that is both an homage to an immortal work of literature and a modern masterpiece about the quest for love and family, a dazzling Don Quixote for the modern age.

Elif Shafak (UK/Turkey), 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking)

– After death, a woman’s brain remains active for 10 minutes 38 seconds, during which her memories recall significant moments of her life and stories of 5 close friends she met at key stages in her life.

Jeanette Winterson (UK), Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape)

– a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love – against their better judgement – with a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.  Alternating with chapters narrated by 19 year old Mary Shelley, who is writing a story about creating a non-biological life-form.

The list was chosen from 151 novels published in the UK or Ireland between 1 October 2018 and 30 September 2019. The shortlist will be announced Tuesday 3 September.

I like that it’s such an international list, with voices from a variety of different countries and cultures, bringing more depth and diversity to the prize.

I haven’t read any of these titles, but I’m interested in Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities novel, Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive and Deborah Levy’s and Bernadine Evaristo’s novelsThat said, I’m only reading #WIT Women in Translation during August, so I’ll be watching and reading the reviews of these longlisted titles to see which really tempt me.

And you? Have you read any of these? Interested in any?

Further Reading

The Guardian article: Not Read Them Yet? A cheat’s guide

The Gold Letter by Lena Manta (Greece) tr. Gail Holst-Warhaft

Destiny caresses the few, but molests the many.

Turkish Proverb

Greek and Turkish histories go back a long way, and I profess to knowing little about them, however it’s clear that whichever people you belong to there is likely to be a bias towards their stories, and it as likely that these populations are more mixed than they would like to believe, that there have been generations of cheerful intermingling, despite the differences that keep their identities separate.

The Gold Letter is a story of Greek families living in what was then known as Constantinople (later renamed as Istanbul, one of many name changes – The city was founded in 667 BC and named Byzantium by the Greeks ), and how the same twist of fate affects three generations of the same two families, where a young woman and a young man fall in love, only to have the union thwarted by their parents – in each generation it is for a different reason, beginning with them not being of the same wealth and social status, where marriage was more of a contract between families decided by the father’s.

He had married her not, of course, because he loved her, but because that was what her father had decided…Nobody thought of asking Kleoniki if she wanted to marry the grim Anargyros, with his rough hands and even rougher personality. Besides it was thought to be a very good marriage, since the groom was prosperous and an orphan.
“A big thing, that, my dear!” the matchmaker informed the girl. “Neither a mother-in-law in your face nor a father-in-law to boss you round. Lady and mistress of your own house!”

And in case they thought about falling into the temptations of forbidden love, there were frequent reminders of the sins of those who’d done so and had to flee, “discussed with horror and scorn in hushed voices at evening gatherings and tea parties”.

Even if some woman, deep down inside, understood the girl, she didn’t dare say so. Many romantic souls sighed secretly, calculating what a great love the girl must have felt to run off with her beloved, overlooking the fact that he was a Turk.

Though the son’s obey their fathers and the families are estranged, fate’s determined magnetism continues to bring  subsequent generations together.

He couldn’t shame his father; they hadn’t raised him that way. And the blood of the revolution didn’t run in his veins. He would have to bury his heart.

An abandoned house in Turkey

The story and family history are narrated in the present day as a middle age woman Fenia, arrives from Germany having been summoned by a family lawyer in Athens and told she has inherited a house from a grandfather she never met.

She decides to stay and do up the house and various knocks at the door lead her to meet two relatives, one bearing good wishes, the other hostility and through them she will fill in the gaps in their shared history.

And what is this Gold Letter – a beautiful gift imagined and designed by one son, that becomes an heirloom that will find its way into Fenia’s hands and connect the stories together.

I was a little skeptical when I began reading due to the clear prejudices of the characters, whether it was Greeks against Turks or the attitude of the men towards women and certainly the women in all these generations suffer greatly, those in the present day perhaps most of all. They were indicative of their time and sadly of  reality in some lands where country borders have moved and changed over the years when not everyone can flee, yet they remember the violence and deaths of members of their families in the past, which continues to keep them separate and untrusting for generations.

“My girl, sometimes you meet your fate on the road you took to avoid it.”

I was reminded of the wonderful novel about a friendship between two children in the same village, one of Greek and one of Turkish origin by Louis de Bernieres, Birds Without Wings, also a tragic love story, but one that combines the story of ordinary people’s lives in the 1930’s with a biography of the leader that will shift the balance of power in Turkey. One of my all time favourite books, exceptional.

I enjoyed reading The Gold Letter, covering three generations means there are many characters and connections to juggle so not much time is spent with some. That said, it’s clear the author is a gifted storyteller invested in her characters, whom I enjoyed following.

At times I felt almost like I was watching this on film, it’s an entertaining, episodic family drama of the old tradition, of couples trying to keep up family and cultural traditions as life modernises and social, political circumstances force change.

Lena Manta was born in Istanbul, Turkey, to Greek parents and moved to Greece at a very young age. She lives in Athens, has written 13 books and this is her second to be translated into English.

Buy a copy of The Gold Letter via Book Depository

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

Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech

Maria in the Moon intrigued from the moment I looked at its beautiful cover and read the title, wondering what the significance of it was. This tender novel hooked me from its opening pages and never let go until I heard that chant ‘maria in the moon’ and understood.

We meet Catherine-Maria as she is recalling her beloved Nanny Eve who chose her name and used to call her in a sing-song voice, we read about the Virgin Mary statue passed down from mother to daughter, and become aware of a memory block in childhood.

But one day she stopped singing.
She stopped calling me the long, pretty name she’d chosen when I arrived.
I try now to remember why, but I just can’t.
I think it was winter; I think the sun no longer had the strength to kiss our heads.
I know I’d accidentally smashed the Virgin Mary.

Something stopped all the singing in their house and when she tries to remember all she sees are the shattered porcelain pieces of Pure Mary spread across the floor.

The story is set in Hull 2007, after their wettest summer on record, when 8,000 homes and 1,300 businesses were flooded.

Catherine has had to move out of her home into temporary accommodation and decides to volunteer at the local Flood Crisis helpline, an occupation she already has experience in. Here she remembers her first call at a Crisis Centre.

I’d learned well on the course; I was non-judgemental, patient, gentle. My first caller was a fifty-year-old man who’d been married for thirty years, but had always been desperately in love with his friend Jim.
‘What should I do?’ he’d asked.
It wasn’t for me to tell him, only to listen, ask the right questions, and let him figure out his own feelings. I was shaking when the call ended but felt empowered.

Going to work at the Flood Crisis Centre, taking calls and getting to know others who volunteer to do this kind of work through this novel was fascinating and felt real, it reminded me of reading Eleanor Oliphant and her work environment and interactions, there is a similar feeling of closeness to the characters and an awareness of the character’s underlying solitude, as expressed in this quote from Olivia Laing’s book, The Lonely City:

“…loneliness is hallmarked by an intense desire to bring the experience to a close; something which cannot be achieved by getting out more, but only by developing intimate connections. This is far easier said than done, especially for people whose loneliness arises from a state of loss or exile or prejudice, who have reason to fear or mistrust as well as long for the society of others.”

Her first shift at the Flood Crisis Helpline runs smoothly, and she begins to develop a close connection with her mentor Christopher, however something about this new experience triggers an awakening of her childhood memories, and more disturbingly brings back a recurring dream.

Over the weeks that follow, from the Sunday lunches with her extended family, her conversations with work colleagues and her flatmate Fern, she gains clarity around her own personal mystery and in a dramatic denouement confronts her past and puts a few ghosts plaguing her mind to rest.

Maria in the Moon is one of those books you want to get back to every chance you can, it was gripping until the end, and even the quiet and mundane parts I found riveting. I loved going to work with Catherine and listening to her handling calls, the characters were well formed and contributed to a deeper understanding of the dynamics surrounding her, but also raised questions.

There came a time – and I’m not sure when it was – that I fell out of love with her. Maybe it was after Dad died. She changed. But so did I. Where she had treated me well (but a little coolly) during his lifetime, she now grew impatient, was less willing to talk. Perhaps it was during my forgotten ninth year that I stopped trying to please her and no longer wanted to copy her elegant style. Instead, I did all I could do to oppose and annoy and argue.

I wanted to know more, to ask her how she coped growing up without knowing her Mum, her attachment to Mother (stepmother); there’s an unselfish compassion within her, masking the ache of losing both parents at a young age and her response to it is to stay close to the family she’s been left with, despite the friction, claiming it as her own.

With Louise Beech, there is always depth, there are layers to unfold, there are stories beneath stories. I have my own personal story of a mystical experience while reading her debut novel How to Be Brave (review linked below) and I learned that Maria in the Moon has also inspired a story song, created by singer Carrie Martin, you can read more about its creative inspiration here at Louise Beech – Making Magic With Words.

What more can I say, I’ll read everything Louise Beech writes, she’s entertaining and an inspiring author who writes from the heart and one who’s open to the magic and the mystical.

Buy a Copy of One of Louise Beech’s novels here

Further Reading

My review of her debut novel How To Be Brave

My review of her second novel The Mountain in My Shoe

Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain (France) tr. Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce

Another satisfying light read full of laughs from Antoine Laurain. It’s so rare that a book actually makes me laugh out loud, but this one did, quite a few times.

It’s far-fetched, but knowing he writes an uplifting tale and creates such fun characters makes me want to read everything he writes.

Here, its 2017 and we meet a Parisian man named Hubert who lives in a building that has been in his family for generations, though now he owns only the apartment he lives in. His wife and daughters are away, he had just attended the management committee meeting for residents and on entering his cellar afterwards discovered a dusty 1954 Vintage Beaujolais.

Accidentally locking himself in, he is rescued by Bob from Milwaukee, who’s rented Madame Renaud’s apartment on AirBnB, an activity forbidden by the committee (say you’re the American cousin if anyone asks) so in a gesture of appreciation Hubert invites Bob and two tenants Julien (a cocktail waiter at Harry’s Bar) and Magalie (a restorer of antique ceramics) to join him to open the bottle.

1954 was a special year and the novel has already taken us to the Saint Antoine vineyards in the Beaujolais wine region, just north of Lyon where the grapes may have been infused with a touch of magic from a low flying unidentified object.

Monsieur Pierre Chauveau (Julien’s great grandfather) gave a witness statement on 16 September 1954, describing what he had seen. His unusual testimony was classified by the police as follows:

Report of an unidentified flying object by one Pierre Chauveau, a wine grower residing in Charmally-les-Vignes.

Though mocked locally, the police weren’t as surprised, by the end of 1954 more than 1,000 witness statements and over 500 reports of UFO sightings had been received by the police across the country. No explanation for this phenomenon was ever found and gradually the number of reported sightings fell back to normal levels – between fifty and one hundred a year.

One evening shortly after, he consumed a bottle of the 1954 Beaujolais, gave some to his dog (as was his habit), went out for a walk and they were never seen again.

The morning after the four in Paris drink the vintage wine, they wake up in 1954.

Hubert loosened his tie and walked rapidly back home, trying as best he could to make sense of the morning’s events. Unless it was a dream, Salvador Dalí was staying at the Hotel Meurice, all the buses were vintage, street sellers had reverted to using hand-drawn carts and the large moustachioed man surveying his building work whom he’d greeted as he left this morning was none other than Monsieur Bouvuer himself, the founder of the charcuterie of that name. The charcuterie that had opened in 1954. Hubert stopped. 1954. The same year as the wine.

As they head out into their day, we too are taken back in time and see the city and people’s habits as they were back in the 1950’s. Bob, who had never been to Paris took the longest time to realise he was no longer in 2017.

The four of them have various interesting encounters, Hubert with a long lost relative whose charred diary he finds in the apartment he left empty for 24 years, Julien meets the original Harry MacElhone, founder of the bar he works in and Magalie seeks out her now thirty-one-year old grandmother Odette.

They meet up at Harry’s to discuss their situation and to come up with a plan on how to get themselves back to their present, which will lead them on another adventure to the wine region of Beaujolais.

It’s an entertaining ride, as they journey across old Paris bringing back to life a few memorable characters and places in Paris of a bygone era.

Along the way, we encounter Jean Gabin, Edith Piaf, Salvador Dali, Robert Doisneau, Marcel Aymé, Jacques Prévert, Hubert de Givenchy, Audrey Hepburn, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, the duke of Windsor and the infamous Scotsman of the winebar where the Bloody Mary was said to be invented, Harry MacElhone.

In a blog post Millésime 54 Antoine Laurain briefly mentions that readers will come across these characters in his book and if you click through you’ll see a collection of portraits of some of them.

Le Baiser de l’hotel de ville (The Kiss), 1950
© Robert Doisneau

These encounters reminded me of Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, except here, Antoine Laurain pays tribute to more renowned French celebrity characters of Paris, and its the 1950’s not the 1920’s, inviting the reader to discover who they were and where they used to hang out.

In an interview, Laurain explained that the idea of writing a story where his characters travelled back to the 1950’s came to him long ago, before he wrote The President’s Hat. He adored the work of Doisneau and Brassaï, but he needed a way to bring them back to era. The wine became the way and that surge in UFO sightings that actually occurred in 1954, his point of departure.

Vintage 1954 is an invitation to the reader’s imagination to join Laurain’s adventure in 50’s Paris, to discover the vineyards of the Beaujolais region, and is as pleasurable, if not more than the wine itself.

A full-bodied, sweet novella, with depth, elegance, it is expressive, connected, ultimately one of finesse.

Further Reading

Interview Q&A with Antoine Laurain by Gallic Books – Wine and time travel with Antoine Laurain

The Book Trail Vintage 1954 – a few of the book locations in Paris mapped out with explanations (also links to locations in his previous books)

The President’s Hat (reviewed here)

The Red Notebook (reviewed here)

Smoking Kills (reviewed here)

Buy a Copy of Vintage 1954 via Book Depository

Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko

2019 is becoming my year of reading Silko, this now is the second novel I’ve read after Ceremony and I loved it as much, in some ways perhaps more, given the journey it takes the reader on. It follows on from two other books I read, reviews linked here, her excellent memoir The Turquoise Ledge and a slim collection of letters between Silko and the Pulitzer prize winning poet James Wright, The Delicacy and Strength of Lace.

While Ceremony was the coming of age of a young man set over a short period of time, Garden in the Dunes is more of a historical novel, set in the late 1800’s, tracing the lives of two native American sisters, Indigo and Sister Salt and at various times, their Grandmother and the newlywed white woman Hattie who provides refuge for Indigo for a period of time after she escapes the boarding school she has been imprisoned within.

Hattie and her husband Edward take Indigo with them to Europe for the summer, where she experiences differences in their way of life, but also finds something in the old world that she connects with. Archeological art in Bath, sculptures in a garden in Lucca from pre-Christian Europe create a link with American Indian symbolism through Indigo’s observations and experiences.

Along the way, as she had learned in the dunes, she collects seeds (the old ways) and flower bulbs (a new interest) for replanting when she returns home. She represents the connection to the past and also the future, learning new skills that will improve, add to their lifestyle.

Silko traces the transcultural histories and significances of sacred snakes and their feminine symbolism, unsurprising given her own close relationship to those that dwell beneath her own home in Tuscon. The final scene in the novel is fittingly given over to the return of a snake, a lasting metaphoric image of generational continuance and survival.

The novel rests in numerous locations where the girls live and must adapt, but their spiritual home and the place they always wish to return to, the place where their Sand Lizard people come from are the gardens in the dunes, inland from the river, where there is a natural spring and if enough rain, plentiful opportunity to grow what they need to survive.

Sister Salt remembers everything. The morning the soldiers  and the Indian police came to arrest the Messiah, Grandma Fleet told Sister Salt to run. Run! Run get your little sister! You girls go back to the old gardens! Sister Salt was big and strong. She carried Indigo piggyback whenever her little sister got tired. Indigo doesn’t remember much about that morning except for the shouts and screams.

When the girls are with their Grandmother and return to the gardens they have a purpose, they learn when and how to plant, to prepare food, to stock it, to identify edible plants, they are natural foragers. When they are removed from their natural home, they have to find other ways to survive.

Sherman Institute, Riverside, California

At times it has been necessary to flee, when there is insufficient rain or when pursued by authorities, who effectively kidnap Indian children, separating them from their families and way of life to put them into institutions, forcing another form of education on them, removing their connection to their culture.

The authorities judged Sister Salt to be too much older than the others to be sent away to Indian boarding school. There was hope the little ones might be educated away from their blankets. But this one? Chances were she’d be a troublemaker and might urge the young ones to attempt escape. Orders were for Sister Salt to remain in custody of the Indian agency at Parker while Indigo was sent to the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California.

American Indian Girls in a state run Laundry

Sister Salt is sent to work in an Indian laundry in the vicinity of water dam projects of the Southwest; she and twin sisters she befriends decide to set up their own laundry service, living near one of the dam construction sites, becoming knowledgeable of the needs of the men working there, finding protection and collaboration with the chef Big Candy, the girls surviving together, supporting each other.

Throughout the novel, the men are involved in moneymaking projects, whether it’s Edward collecting orchid samples, his companions seeking rubber plant specimens, the men at the dam with their side interests in illegal gambling, brewing beer and the laundry.

The dam project diverted water to Los Angeles and made Indian lands less productive, initially it provided employment, but slowly the people realise what it is taking away from them, their land, their homes, their riverside livelihoods. Those with profit making motives have little or no concern for the destruction and loss caused in their wake. But they too risk falling victim to their own kind, Silko doesn’t miss the opportunity to make them suffer the consequences of their own greed.

Most native tribes did not adhere to the European view of land as property. For most Indians, land was communal, and its resources were to be protected and shared. This was in direct contradiction to European notions of land as individual property.

Ancient Minoan Snake Goddess

It’s far-reaching in its geographic span and themes, which through adept storytelling are repeated via the behaviours of characters. Women stick together, collaborate, survive and when not separated from each other, begin to thrive, though they remain wary of those from other tribes or cultures. Exploitation, greed and corruption are everywhere, interfering in the way people try to live their lives, imposing their ways, trying to keep people(s) separate or making them conform to a perceived way of being.

Indigo never loses the essence of who she is, despite being groomed and dressed like a white American to accompany Hattie and her prospector/explorer husband and being taken far away to Europe, her heart is like a magnet, she never ceases thinking of her intention to find her sister and mother.

Fortunately, Hattie is a sensitive and intelligent woman, who though the child brings out a maternal response and desire, promises to help her find them when they return. Hattie’s father was a free thinker who encouraged her higher education giving her access to libraries of friends to pursue her studies. She is sympathetic to their ways, but will also confront barriers when trying to cross over in her efforts to support them.

It’s a brilliant depiction of so many issues around origins and identity and the ways people survive and thrive, in particular women. We witness their attempts, how they are thwarted, see them compromise and discover that being with other women provides them with a force, even when they are from different tribes or cultures, sometimes that is a necessary element to their survival, to learn from other women, from other experiences, to share what they know.

Despite being a relatively long read (477 pages), it felt like it could have gone on, some threads leave the reader wondering what happened next, endings come about a little quickly. It could easily have been more than one book.

The final page and the closing sentences are beautifully given over to nature, to a demonstration that though we may grieve at what is passing, nature will always ensure that new life prevails, that something will survive from the ruin. That hope can manifest, though it may not be what we expect.

“Nearly all human cultures plant gardens, and the garden itself has ancient religious connections. For a long time, I’ve been interested in pre-Christian European beliefs, and the pagan devotions to sacred groves of trees and sacred springs. My German translator gave me a fascinating book on the archaeology of Old Europe, and in it I discovered ancient artifacts that showed that the Old European cultures once revered snakes, just as we Pueblo Indian people still do. So I decided to take all these elements – orchids, gladiolus, ancient gardens, Victorian gardens, Native American gardens, Old European figures of Snake-bird Goddesses – and write a novel about two young sisters at the turn of the century.” – Leslie Marmon Silko, Gardens in the Dunes (1999)

“I suppose at the core of my writing is the attempt to identify what it is to be a half- breed or mixed-blooded person; what it is to grow up neither white nor fully traditional Indian. It is for this reason that I hesitate to say that I am representative of Indian poets or Indian people. I am only one human being, one Laguna woman.”  – Leslie Marmon Silko, Laguna Woman (1974)

Buy a Copy of Gardens in the Dunes via Book Depository

Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner 2019 – An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 winner was announced on June 5 and the prize this year went to American author Tayari Jones for her novel An American Marriage, published by One World, who brought us my favourite book of 2018 Kintu by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.  Renowned for publishing:

“emotionally engaging stories with strong narratives and distinctive voices. In addition to being beautifully written, our novels introduce the reader to a different culture or an interesting historical period/event, and deeply explore the human condition in all its vagaries. We aim to publish novels that matter, that stay with you long after the last page is turned”

Professor Kate Williams, Chair of Judges, said:

“This is an exquisitely intimate portrait of a marriage shattered by racial injustice. It is a story of love, loss and loyalty, the resilience of the human spirit painted on a big political canvas – that shines a light on today’s America. We all loved this brilliant book.”

Tayari Jones is the author of four novels, including Silver Sparrow, The Untelling, and Leaving Atlanta. The book was named as a favourite by both Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama; Oprah is in talks to make it into a film.

An American Marriage examines a wrongfully incarcerated man and examines how he, his wife, and their families deal with the fallout. The premise made me remember reading James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk earlier this year, a novella that explores a similar situation and was also released as a film in 2019.

Asked about what inspired her to write the novel, Tayari Jones mentions overhearing a couple talking. Intrigued by the complexity and intensity of their conversation and the issues it raised, she went home and began to write what would become this award wining novel.

I was in a shopping mall, and I heard a couple arguing. They were in love and in trouble. She said, “Roy you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.”  And he shot back, “This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”

While in London, Tayari Jones also shared four books that impacted her as a writer and as a reader.

  • Patricia Highsmith’s Stranger on a Train – a book that taught her that you do not have to sacrifice great writing for a great plot. Highsmith can take the murder plot, turn it on its head, break your heart, mend it again and leave you wanting more.
  • The Oddyssey by Homer – a complicated epic tale she first encountered in a children’s version, reacquainted with and brought vividly to life more recently in Emily Wilson’s new translation, a story that closely influenced her novel.
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – at 13 she lived in Zaria, in the north of Nigeria and studied this classic novella in her literature class, the first time she’d seen a book contextualize an entire group of people. It provided an understanding of history and of literature and its way of explaining to us who we were. The iconic characters, she has never forgotten, nor the effect they had on every person in the class.
  • Toni Morrison’s The Beloved – “the Queen of letters” this novel is simply put the greatest novel of my lifetime, this book explained the way the past influences the future. Our stories are a generational legacy, a story of how to integrate our past into a deeper understanding of who we are. I think of my life as before and after Beloved. Beloved contextualized me as a Black American. It taught me how literature can explain our modern world to ourselves.

Have you read An American Marriage or any of the books Tayari Jones is inspired by?

Buy a Copy of An American Marriage via Book Depository

La Tresse (The Braid) by Laetitia Colombani (France)

This novel La Tresse by Laetitia Colombani was a birthday gift from a friend, at the time I was given it, it wasn’t available in English, however it has since been translated and published in 2019, available under the title The Braid.

It tells the stories of three women living different lives in three countries, each facing a monumental change, each determined to confront that change in their own way, once they overcome the obstacle that stands in their way, and the discrimination that exists in their society, that causes some not to support their efforts.

It’s written in simple language and has the air of a story being told, almost one I can imagine listening to, or watching on film, rather than being lived in the moment.

There is little description, little of the mundane, there is a superficiality to it – almost fable-like, they don’t seem like real lives, there’s an element of cliché in what they each represent. There is a symmetry to the stories, a correlation that creeps up on the reader as we become aware of the pattern that makes these three situations similar and the ‘tresse’ that will create a connection between them.

India – we meet Smita, a young mother from the lowest caste, who is determined that her daughter will not follow in her footsteps, in the disgusting job she and her mother before her have had to do, she has a plan to enable her daughter to obtain an education, that confronts the expectations of her caste.

Sicilie – Guilia left school at 16 to work in her father’s atelier, as he lies unconscious in hospital she discovers he was hiding something from them and it is she who must save the day – through an arranged marriage as her mother suggests – or by stepping up and being courageous, helped by an outsider the community doesn’t accept.

Canada – Sarah is an ambitious lawyer and mother, her private life exists behind a wall of her own making, one she attributes her success to, a wall that comes crumbling down when an illness breaks through it and exposes her.

All three women take on their respective challenges despite the discrimination and obstacles and each will find solace in something unexpected.

I hesitated to read this for some time, just because it was in French, but I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to read and how little I had to look up new vocabulary. I enjoyed it when I did as I discovered new words and scribbled them in pencil in the margins. And then how I come across those words in the external world, resulting in me thinking I really would enjoy to read more of these works that are available in French but not yet in English.

Despite the satisfactory linguistic journey, I’m not sure it is a book I would have picked up normally. It touches on subjects that warrant further exploration, that are a little too conveniently side-stepped or imagined to be easily resolved, which left a quiet discomfort in accepting the outcomes proposed. The author chooses not to delve into the significant issues raised and instead provides this three pronged tale that ties things up a little too neatly at the end.

Any one of these stories could have been developed, their issues explored to raise awareness and encourage discussion; ignoring them feels like a mild form of cultural appropriation. I tried to find out whether the author had a personal connection to any one of the cultures she uses in the novel, but apart from visiting the countries, there doesn’t appear to be.

Yesterday I was in Marseille and visited a number of fabulous exhibitions in the MuCem (Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean) and was inspired by what I encountered there to wish to read more French books, like Frères Migrants by Patrick Chamoiseau, La pesanteur et la grâce by Simone Weil though they may challenge my comprehension. It is a city with a rich history and a wonderful cultural offering that I shall explore more. Perhaps I may try to share some of that here.

Buy a Copy of Laetitia Colombani’s book in French or English