All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our NamesFinding a book like this on the English language shelves of our local French library, is one of life’s small pleasures in a world that offers few escapes these days from tragic reality.

A book like this, by an author named Dinaw Mengestu, winner of the Guardian First Book Prize for his debut novel Children of the Revolution, chosen as one of the 20 best writers under 40 by The New Yorker in 2010, born in Ethiopia and raised in the suburbs of Chicago – well I cast all other reading plans aside and jumped right in, relishing the feel of the hardback, admiring the simplicity of such a striking cover and anticipating a joyous, literary ride.

The title All Our Names, reminded me immediately of Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s  We Need New Names, hers a reference to the move to America, while Mengestu delves further back and makes us realise just how deep and far-reaching the naming ritual is.

“On the bus ride to the capital, I gave up all the names my parents had given me. I was almost twenty-five, but by any measure, much younger. …I tried to think of myself as a revolutionary in the making, though I had come to the capital with other ambitions.”

Library Entrance

The Library Where This Book Lives

Ill-prepared for the world that awaited him, he assumed the few Victorian novels he had read would prepare him for studying literature, having been inspired by reading of a conference of a group of African writers and scholars in a newspaper that had belatedly arrived in his village.

“No one I met believed I was a revolutionary, and I didn’t have the heart to claim I wanted to be a writer.”

Right from the opening pages, when he meets the young man who tells him his name ‘for now is Isaac’, we are made aware of the significance and dispensability of names.

“Isaac” was the name his parents had given him and, until it was necessary for us to flee the capital, the only name he wanted. His parents had died, in the last round of fighting that came just before independence. “Isaac” was their legacy to him, and when his revolutionary dreams came to an end, and he had to choose between leaving and staying, that name became his last and most precious gift to me.

UgandaThe story is narrated in alternate chapters, one entitled Isaac, the other Helen. Isaac takes place during a short period in the life of the male protagonist after he has left the family village somewhere in Ethiopia, planning never to return, arriving in Kampala, a city in Uganda where he hopes to study at the university.

It is there he meets the young man named Isaac, recognising in him a similar ambition and humble origins, though in his presence he is also aware of an undercurrent of fear and trepidation, not yet realising, but intuiting the dangerous depths Isaac is capable of descending  into in order to achieve that ambition.

The Helen chapters take place in a small midwest town in the US, Helen is the social worker assigned to him when he arrives from Africa; she installs him in accommodation and helps him to adjust to the new life as a foreign exchange student.

The relationship becomes complicated when boundaries are breached, as the two offer each other something of an escape from their very different pasts.

It is a simple story possessing its own undercurrent that pulls the twin narratives along, the emotional pull in Helen’s story, her struggle to navigate the space between her feelings for him and society’s expectations and in the Isaac chapters, a mounting tension as student protests and harmless revolutionary activities turn sinister and violence becomes the shortest and most effective negotiating tool to obtaining power.

Set in the 1970’s during the Ugandan post-colonial revolt, this novel was hard to put down and offered a unique insight into one example of the kind of experience that might have occurred to any refugee fleeing a violent uprising. Equally, it aptly depicts the discomfort of even the most liberal, unjudging character, raised in a quiet, conservative town, whose wavers between ignoring and following her instinct to abandon all she knows in order to follow her heart.

“I wonder whether, if before meeting Isaac I had tried to challenge the easy, small-time bigotry that was so common to our daily lives that i noticed it only in it extremes. I might have felt a little less shame that evening. It’s possible that I might have been able to release some of it slowly over the years, like one of those pressure valves that let out enough steam on a constant basis to keep the pipes from bursting. It’s also equally possible that such relief is impossible, that, regardless of what we do, we are tied to all the prejudices in our country and the crimes that come with them.”

The Burgess BoysIt reminded me a little of Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys (read and reviewed in 2013), which I was a little disappointed by, this is the kind of book I was expecting, but understandably, she wrote it from the perspective of the Burgess boys, whereas Dinaw Mengestu gives us both perspectives and the story is all the more powerful for it.

Mengestu writes in an engaging and flawless style, his storytelling and insights are enough to convince me I will definitely be reading more of his work soon.


Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk tr. Michiel Heyns

Marlene Van Niekerk was one of the ten nominees for the Man Booker International Prize 2015, before this prize joined forces with the IFFP (International Foreign Fiction Prize). The newly created prize will retain the name Man Booker International Prize, but will follow the format of the IFFP, which was to nominate a book published in the year of the prize, not an author’s oeuvre of work.


I have been reading the work of Maryse Condé, one of the ten nominees and I chose Marlene Van Niekerk’s Agaat after reading Rough Ghosts excellent and enticing review, linked below.

Agaat is the name of the adopted daughter/maidservant, taken into Milla’s home at 4-years-old, in a state of neglect, her arm disabled, rescued from an abusive, dysfunctional existence that might fill the vacuum inside a barren woman allowing her to create a useful child/companion, trained in all aspects of family and farming life.

Milla is the only child of a farming family and set to inherit and work her own farm, she is poised to marry Jak as the book opens. The novel explores the growing tension in their relationship through Milla’s diaries and the effect of Milla bringing Agaat into their (at the time) childless marriage. Twelve years into that bereft marriage she gives birth to a son.

AgaatThe chapters alternate between life as it was on the farm and the present, when Agaat, now a mature woman is caring for dying 67-year-old Milla, as her body shuts down, paralysed, infirm, communicating only through her eyes with this character she “tamed” whom she is now dependent on for everything.

Agaat is set on a the farm Milla inherited from her mother in South Africa, from the early years of apartheid until its dying days, just as Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress come into power. Milla takes over the farm when she marries Jak, the couple seem well-suited on the surface, though cracks and resentments appear early in the marriage, deepening to suggest otherwise.

Agaat is witness to, victim of and in many ways, moulded by this relationship, the family and the farm itself. She will learn everything from Milla, all that is required to run the home, the farm ; she will  help raise the son and establish a unique bond with him, passing to him her own knowledge, a consciousness more rooted in the land and its culture than any colonising people are ever capable of embracing. Rarely rebellious, it is in small but important ways that Agaat subverts the intentions of her masters, she who will ultimately inherit all.

The novel is narrated from Milla’s shifting point of view, the present tense, first person (I) view, a stream of consciousness narrative, in the latter weeks of her life when she lies bedridden, almost paralysed, in advanced stage motor neurone disease; the past tense, second person (you) view as she remembers episodes from the past, no doubt prompted by Agaat’s reading to her from the bundle of diaries she has kept over the years, both the original entries and annotations written in at a later time. The novel is bookended by a prologue and epilogue that give voice to the estranged son, something of a mystery and strangely absent from much of the narrative.

Agaat has become Milla’s specialist nurse and caregiver, tending to her needs with a detached, precision-like efficiency, communicating through the eyes, blinking an intuitive, telepathic like conversation, the result of a lifelong, if at times acerbic intimacy, command and control. The roles are now reversed, the landscape has changed and we are uncertain whether these actions are driven by love, hate, a sense of duty, a learned, stalwart independence, revenge or the imagined interpretations of a dying, guilt-ridden patroness.

French Version Cover

French Version Cover

We never enter into Agaat’s perspective, we view her through her mistress’s interpretation and the more we come to know about their relationship, the less sure we are of Agaat’s motives and feelings, unsettled by all that has come before, as we become aware that Milla’s present day view has to a certain extent rewritten the past into a more easily digested form.

There is something that Milla wants from Agaat and it is this minor battle of wills that provides a dramatic thread throughout Milla’s dying days. Agaat avoids fulfilling the request, bringing her mistress everything but the things she wants, a set of maps of the farm, like her body, the thing she is losing control of and the maps represent her last effort at retaining some form of control.

For a long time after finishing Agaat, I was not able to adequately express what I thought of it, I found it very disturbing. It is a story that stays with the reader a long time and reviewing it required a lengthy incubation period.

I read reviews in the New York Times and Rumpus (see links below) where critics referred to it as an allegory, convinced that these characters represented an abstract idea, that of apartheid, that it was there to teach or explain some kind of moral lesson. Sarah Pett, in her academic article refers to it as an ‘unruly text’, something that upends and disturbs the reader and here I find more resonance, along with these words proffered by the author herself, suggesting that these characters and this story should invite questions:

“…novels are texts of structured ambiguity that enable many readings. My reading of the text is no more valid than yours at this or any other point.  What I am mainly interested in as an author is to complicate matters…in such a densely patterned way that the text will not stop eliciting questions and that it will refuse to provide any definite answers to questions such as the ones you (and I) might ask.” Marlene Van Niekerk

In my reading of the story, the focus isn’t as much an indictment of apartheid, as a portrayal of that aspect of humanity, in which people attempt to enslave, train and/or control the other for a selfish purpose, as with slavery, as we know of the past and now of the present, often disguised as something else, it can be what an employer asks of an employee, a parent of a child, a human trafficker of its victims, a husband of a wife and it can occur in the reverse, the victim becomes the oppressor.

UK Cover Version of Agaat

UK Cover Version of Agaat

What is portrayed between Milla and Agaat seems to me something other than South Africa’s political policy of the 1940-1980’s, for that would be to limit it, it is born of it for sure, it shows what we are all capable of, depending on what we are born into, what we are influenced by and how we respond to those things. It is about how we think things through, with whom we share, discuss and listen, igniting and strengthening those neural parts of the brain whose inflammation will solidify that thinking, strengthening the belief and justification in our resultant behaviours.

I disliked being witness to it, to the playing along with the way things were for Milla on the farm, fulfilling her familial and societal expectations, flaunting them by taking in Agaat and exploiting her, with ignorant, self-righteous justification. However I couldn’t help wondering if Agaat was equally capable of the same. Disturbing and difficult to write about.

The allegory, if it is so, lacks any moral message, true the victim may eventually inherit the earth, however she too seems as likely to become the oppressor, for it is not the colour of one’s skin that dictates moral or good, all are capable of the same, we are weights on the end of the pendulum and depending on which way it is currently swinging, and where we are positioned, we could all too easily become either victim or oppressor.

Do read Rough Ghosts’ review, his will convince you to read it.

Further Reading:

Rough GhostsAnd Her Name Was Good

Liesl Schillinger, New York Times: Truth and Reconciliation

Luke Gerwe, Rumpus: Agaat

Sarah Pett, University of YorkThe via dolorosa in the Southern hemisphere: Reading illness and dying in Marlene van Nieker’s Agaat (2006)

Lotusland by David Joiner

LotuslandLotusland starts out with the main protagonist Nathan, taking a long train journey from Saigon in the south of Vietnam where he lives, to Hanoi, the capital where he will visit his friend Anthony who he hasn’t been in touch with for some time.

Ironically, he reflects on the many things in his life that he perceives have always been a long wait for him. Ironic, because he is a character who has difficulty keeping a commitment, distracted too easily by the allure of the new and unknown, like the girl with the pink hair he meets on the train, or the attraction and undivided attention he gives to a new feature article he is asked to write, neglecting other commitments.

What follows is a well written story exploring the relationships between these two expatriate American men living in Vietnam, both their relationships to each other and the local women they marry/befriend and their contrasting attitudes to work.

Girl With a Fan by Công Quốc Hà Source: Wikipedia

Girl With a Fan by Công Quốc Hà
Source: Wikipedia

Nathan, a struggling writer, considers entering Anthony’s real estate business to make money, promising he is serious this time, though his word is rapidly thwarted by his developing relationship with the pink-haired woman, a traditional Vietnamese lacquer artist and gallery owner Le, in the weeks before he is supposed to leave Saigon and move to Hanoi.

“Somehow the mystery of the painting excited him even more than Anthony’s job offer. As he prepared to return to Saigon with the task of wrapping up his life there, the offer paled in importance to the chance he had of getting to know her.”

Anthony, now a successful business owner, husband and father of two small children he can’t communicate with, is barely in control of his rapid success or family life, unsure whether to rely on his friend, though it is clear he needs him for more than just work reasons.

The couples are like the escaped and the escapee, almost doomed from the beginning as they represent that often classic situation of the allure of a foreign culture, where the aims of the individuals are the opposite to each other despite their attraction.

Le has an interview at the American consulate for a visa and has made it clear to Nathan that that is the basis of her interest in him, a fact he seems intent on ignoring, preferring to pursue the illusion of a more intimate relationship.

“How’d it go?” He touched her hand, her arm, her cheek. “You’re still alive, and your body’s intact – all good signs.”

“It went okay,” she said, giving him a quick hug. “It’s hard to tell with Americans. They’re serious but also friendly. I don’t know what’s real. The worst part was dealing with the Vietnamese staff. They look down on people like me.”

It’s an often painful, uncomfortable read as David Joiner makes no excuses for his characters’ flaws and we witness that selfish aspect of humanity in which every person appears to want something from the other yet rarely puts the needs of the other before their own before acting or speaking.

Like a falling trail of dominoes, each person wants something from the next, though rarely is the desire reciprocated, individuals search for that thing just beyond their reach without appreciating what they have at hand. Blindness, illusion, disillusion, the impulse to escape.

It reminded me of a quote from Jamaica Kincaid’s expansive essay A Small Place, on her returning to the island of Antigua where she grew up, after many years of being away.

“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go – so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

David Joiner excels in evoking the sense of being in Hanoi, a city I visited 20 years ago and adored (see my photos above). I was quickly transported back there through his ability to develop a vivid sense of place and found those passages where the action is accompanied by this strong sense of the surroundings captivating.

“In Hanoi the French presence could still be felt, preserved in the architecture and layout, whereas in Saigon the atmosphere still harked back 30 or 40 years to the American era, the notion of aesthetics crowded out by the practicalities of war.”

I was shocked to find myself at the final page, an abrupt ending that leaves the reader with much to think about and likely to provoke discussion about the mix of post-war opportunity, life in foreign cultures, immigration, freedom and entrapment, capitalism and whether and or how it is possible to overcome the clash of cultures within a relationship.

Hanoi by Cheong Source: Wikipedia

Hanoi by Cheong
Source: Wikipedia

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer tr. Shaun Whiteside

The WallHaushofer’s novel begins on the 5th of November, the day the protagonist, a middle-aged woman, begins to write a report of what has occurred over the last two years, since she became isolated in a hunting lodge in the Austrian Alps, where she had been visiting her cousin Luise and Luise’s husband Hugo.

Some kind of unwitnessed catastrophic event occurs, creating an invisible wall between that which lives and that which doesn’t.

As I started reading and then discovered what The WallWake Elizabeth Knox was, I recalled Elizabeth Knox’s Wake, where a similar event occurs, though rather than one woman as we observe in Marlen Haushofer’s modern classic The Wall, with Knox we followed what happened to a group of survivors adding elements of fantasy and horror that suspend belief  allowing the reader to interpret it more as the form of entertainment it was written to be.

In The Wall, Luise and Hugo walk to the nearby Alpine village one evening, putting them on the deathly side of the catastrophic event. Sending their dog Lynx home before them, he becomes one of the important and constant companions of this lone woman, who will learn what it takes to survive.

Eventually she realises she is living in the forest completely alone, she is joined by a cow she names Bella whom she hopes is pregnant, an old cat who will also give birth, and she finds a sack of potatoes she can plant and some beans which she will also use to create a crop. She is grateful to Hugo for his forethought.

“At the time everyone was talking about nuclear wars and their consequences, and this led Hugo to keep a little store of food and other important things in his hunting-lodge.”

The book recalls the days, the months, the seasons, the work she creates for herself, the relationship between her and the animals, her nurturing of them and attempt to protect them from the harsh elements of the environment and their interactions with her, that remind her of her duty to survive.

Lynx prodded me with his muzzle and pushed me sideways. Maybe he didn’t like the flood, maybe he also felt that I was miles away and wanted to attract some attention. As always on such occasions I followed him in the end. He knew much better than I did what was good for me.

It is written in a stream of conscious style that never becomes monotonous, despite the monotony of her days, she must live in the present to survive and that depends very much on caring for the needs of the animal life that support her. She must deal with her own mental turbulence and anguish, discovering that her manual labours and constant activity, though tiring, keep her from the dangers of over thinking and decline.

By cutting timber, in fact, I missed a very fine Indian summer. I didn’t see the landscape at all, obsessed as I was by the thought of stacking up a big enough supply of wood.  Once the last log had been stored under the verandah I had a stretch and decided to treat myself a little. It’s strange, in fact, how slight my pleasure is every time I complete a task. Once it’s out of the way I forget it,  and think about new things to do. Even at that time I didn’t allow myself much time to recover. That’s how it always was: while I was slaving away I dreamt about how I would quietly and peacefully rest on the bench, but as soon as I finally sat down on the bench I grew restless, and started looking out for new work to do. I don’t think this was due to any particular industriousness, since by nature I’m rather lethargic,  but was probably through self-protection, for what would I have done otherwise but remember and brood? That was exactly what I mustn’t do, so what was there to do but more work? I didn’t even have to look for work, it turned up insistently of its own accord.

EndlessI was also reminded of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, another book of survival in the European forest lands, a novel that contains distractions other than just survival, it being about a daughter whose father has taken her off to survive in the forest.

Marlen Haushofer’s protagonist has no zombies or deranged father’s to contend with, purely one woman’s survival and existence alongside a select few animals.

I found it utterly compelling and could not put it down. It is a brilliant novel that strips away the noise and manic obsessions of society placing one woman in a basic situation that will exhibit humanity’s natural feminine instinct to nurture, to protect, to achieve and survive while intermittently falling prey to the melancholic tendencies of mind that threaten to derail us. It does this without the use of fantastical elements apart from the existence of the wall itself, making it feel realistic and believable.

Marlen Haushofer wrote the book in the early 1960’s and it wasn’t published until 1968, two years before her premature death at the age of 49. The book was resurrected 15 years later when discovered by the feminist and anti-nuclear movements and has since been translated into 18 languages and made into a major motion picture by the Director Julian Pölsler. Deserving of being categorised as a modern classic.

The Wall is a muted critique of consumerism and a delicate poem in praise of nature, a challenge to violence and patriarchy, an encomium to peace and life-giving femininity, a meditation on time, an observation on the differences and similarities between animals and humans, and a timeless minor masterpiece. Jerry Whyte , Film critic on Julian Pölsler’s film adaptation

Wall Movie

Highly recommended and thank you to Vishy (click here for his review) for recommending it to me.

The Autobiography of my Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of my Mother is a book that was being discarded from our local English library that I pounced on when I discovered it in the collection of books that hadn’t been borrowed for years and therefore must make way for others.

The 7 books I rescued from the Annual Library Sale!

The 7 books I rescued from the Annual Library Sale!

I already have two slim novellas by the same author that sit unread, but something about this novel, for it is fiction, despite the playful title, insisted it should be read at once. Not just a fabulous cover, which is repeated inside as chapter headings, each chapter reveals a section of the photo, until the last one revealing the entire portrait – but the comments from various publications and writers who sang its praise back in 1996 when it was first published.

“Writing in precise, lyrical prose that uses the repetition of images and words to build a musical rhythm, Jamaica Kincaid conjures up the world of Dominica in all its beauty and casual cruelty, a world in which the magical coexists with the mundane, a world in which the ghosts of colonialism still haunt the relationships between men and women. In doing so she has written a powerful and disturbing book.” NEW YORK TIMES

And let me say from the outset, I absolutely loved this book, its language, its voice, its poetry, the complexity of its narrator, who could be so distant yet simultaneously get so under your skin. There is a raw but brutal honesty to it, that disturbs and is to be admired at the same time, it is so full of contrasts and so compelling and beats its rhythm so loud, I almost can’t describe it.

Now that I have finished it, I want to read more by Kincaid and just now before writing this review I looked up a little about the author’s own life, and now I am even more intrigued, what an amazing story and experiences which are often at the heart of what she channels through her stories. A unique voice indeed.

So for those who, like me, knew little about this author, a little background before talking about the novel.

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in the capital city of St. John’s, Antigua in 1949.  Antigua is a small island in the West Indies (a region of the Caribbean basin), colonised by the British in 1632 that became independent in 1981.



Her mother was from Dominica and her biological father, a West Indian chauffeur, whom she didn’t meet until her thirties.  Kincaid was an only child until she was nine, when the first of her three brothers was born. Until then she’d had the sole attention of her mother, so life changed dramatically thereafter and at 17 she left for America, severing ties with her family and did not return to Antigua for 20 years, though it resonated deep within her creativity.

She still lives in the US today and teaches at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. Her most recent novel See Now Then was published in 2013 after a 10 year absence, depicting in her original style the unravelling of an interracial marriage.

Autobiography MotherIn the autobiography of my mother, we encounter Xuela Claudette Richardson, who narrates her life looking back over seventy years, though the sense of her life reads as if it is being lived in the present, so vivid are the memories, so visceral the experiences. Her mother died in child birth and her father left her with his laundry woman until she was seven, when he remarried and came back for her.

She recalls the moment vividly through the senses and how it made her feel.

“I thanked Eunice for taking care of me. I did not mean it, I could not mean it, I did not know how to mean it, but I would mean it now. I did not say goodbye; in the world that I lived in then and the world that I live in now goodbyes do not exist, it is a small world. All my belongings were in a muslin knapsack and he placed them in a bag that was on the donkey he had been riding. He placed me on the donkey and sat behind me. And this was how we looked as my back was turned on the small house in which I spent the first seven years of my life…”

Through the narrator looking back over years and at events that she re-experiences as she recalls them, we see how it was then, that something, whether it is the lack of maternal love or the makeup of this character, nature or nurture, contributes to her way of being in the world in an emotionally detached way. She responds to instincts and observes acutely her own responses and is able to look back on them and describe and account for them, but there is a sense of something missing, that appears through the recurring dream of a mother climbing up and away from her and the questions she asks herself throughout her life.

“Who was my father? Not just who was he to me, his child – but who was he? He was a policeman, but not an ordinary policeman; he inspired more than the expected amount of fear for someone in his position…At the time I came to live with him, he has just mastered the mask that he wore as a face for the remainder of his life: the skin taut, the eyes small and drawn back as though deep inside his head, so that it wasn’t possible to get a clue to him from them, his lips parted in a smile. He seemed trustworthy.”

Yet nothing is ever as it seems and she depicts her father as dishonest and grows up in a culture and environment of distrust, discouraged from making friendships, made to see that no one can be trusted.

“We were not friends; such a thing was discouraged. We were never to trust each other. This was like a motto repeated to us by our parents; it was a part of my upbringing, like a form of good manners: You cannot trust these people, my father would say to me, the very words the other children’s parents were saying to them, perhaps even at the same time. That “these people” were ourselves, that this insistence on mistrust of others – that people who looked so very much like each other, who shared a common history of suffering and humiliation and enslavement, should be taught to mistrust each other, even as children, is no longer a mystery to me. The people we should naturally have mistrusted were beyond our influence completely; what we needed to defeat them, to rid ourselves of them, was something far more powerful than mistrust. To mistrust each other was just one of many feelings we had for each other, all of them the opposite of love, all of them standing in the place of love.”

Her father’s wife who is resentful toward Xuela and reminds her often that she can’t be her father’s daughter, soon bears two children, a boy and a girl. Though there is no love between them, Xuela doesn’t hate her, she has sympathy for her.

“Her tragedy was greater than mine; her mother did not love her, but her mother was alive, and every day she saw her mother and every day her mother let her know she was not loved. My mother was dead.”

At 15, her father removes her from his home and takes her to live with a business partner and his wife as a boarder. She develops a close friendship with the wife, Madame LaBatte, observing with the same acuity their relationship and way of living and enters womanhood herself, observing and experiencing changes in her own body and the effect it elicits in others.

She makes decisions about her own womanhood, about her body, about mothering. And she lives her life in accordance with those decisions. She marries, she discovers love and seems never to lose that ability to see through the illusions that surround all those things without sacrificing pleasure and contentedness.

“And this man I married was one of the victors, and so much a part of him was this situation, the situation of the conqueror, that only through a book of history could he be reminded of a time when he might have been something other, something like me, the vanquished, the defeated. When he looked at the night sky, it was closed off; so, too, was the midday sky, closed off; the seas were closed off, the ground on which he walked was closed off. He did not have a future, he had only the past, he lived in that way; it was not a past he was responsible for all by himself, it was a past he had inherited. He did not object to his inheritance; it was a good one, only it did not bring happiness; and his reply to such an assertion would be the correct one: What can bring happiness? At the moment the conqueror asks such a question, his defeat is secure.”

And at the end I ask, who is writing this story? Who is this mother who had no mother and no children? And in the dying pages, she will answer the question and we may realise we knew it all along.

the autobiography of my Mother plumbs the depths of maternal love and its lack, mother daughter relationships, self-love, absent fathers and the latent influences of enslavement and occupation, how they continue to distort reality even when they are no longer present.

I find it almost impossible to describe the reading experience, except that it left me asking “How did I not know about this book?” The voice is so unique and powerful and much more than an imagination, it is rooted in something strong and yet transparent and is utterly compelling.  Don’t read this for story, this is about writing and thus reading through the senses, Jamaica Kincaid creates prose that inhabits them all.

A 5 star read for me!



Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius tr. Jamie Bulloch

Portrait of the MotherThis 117 page long single sentence in a novella, is the third and final book in the Peirene Press series entitled Female Voices: Inner Realities.

If you missed the first two, you can read my reviews here:

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (translated from French by Adriana Hunter)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell)

In my previous review I mention the enticing page at the beginning of all Peirene books where publisher Mieke Ziervogel shares what drew her to choosing this book for translation into English.

Here is a glimpse at what she says about this book:

Portrait 2

The book is set in Rome in 1943 when Italy and Germany remain allies during the second world war. The narrative takes place during an afternoon stroll as our young woman on the brink of becoming a mother is walking towards a Lutheran church where she will attend a classical concert.

Eight months pregnant, she is the young wife of a German solider and had been waiting for him to join her in Rome; after briefly reuniting, one day later he is redeployed to Tunisia. Alone again so soon, she walks to the Bach concert thinking about how her life has changed now as a married woman and how distant she feels from everything around her. She recalls recent memories of the short time spent with her husband wondering whether he will return to her safely or not.

Rome 1943Being outside her own country, without her husband and not yet active in her role as mother, it is as if she becomes more acutely aware of who she is, there is little to distract her and she often prefers to keep to herself.

Even the friendship that naturally developed with her room-mate Ilse, she keeps in check, worrying about the implications of being associated with those whose views are more vociferous than her own, she who wishes for a quiet life.

she worried about Ilse, who rarely had a good word to say about authority that was

invested by God, about Hitler and Mussolini, only a few days ago she had said Hitler always demanded that people show no weakness, but human beings were not made like that, and Mussolini always demanded that people had to hate the enemy, but the Italians that she knew were not fond of hatred, why should they hate the English and the Americans,

fortunately Ilse had broken off at this point, perhaps out of consideration for her, because she,

the younger woman, who was always silent when national and political questions were discussed, had just for a second wondered why it was necessary to hate the British and Americans, and in the same instant this forbidden thought made her feel guilty, confused and horrified,

She is not despondent for she has a deep faith and whenever her thoughts turn towards herself she recalls that war is God’s most difficult trial, lamenting:

“God, who is love, delivers this all to us, that it may benefit us in the end,

for it was un-Christian to shed tears for one’s own misfortune and to forget the far greater misfortunes of others, the joys of life were limitless”

Her thoughts enable the reader to understand her reluctance to do anything that might jeopardise what slim chance she may have at a normal life, she dislikes that by virtue of being foreign she already stands out, the opposite of what might give her peace of mind.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a spellbinding portrayal of one woman’s internal conversation, her method of coping with the strangeness of her environment, talking herself into maintaining a calm state of mind, rationalising why they have found themselves in this situation. Though it is a trial for her, it is not enough to prevent her dreaming of the life she wishes they were living, something that seems increasingly like a fantasy, as the probability of her husband’s return grows slimmer as each day passes.

Poignant in its simplicity, expressing that universal feminine desire for love in a safe, nurturing environment.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan


A novel of the cruelty of war, the tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love.

I started reading this in July/August 2014, during the summer and to begin with I was fine with reading it, but by halfway I found myself not wanting to pick it up, the scenes described, horrific, grueling, they went on for too long, they were so vivid, my insides contracted each time I picked it up.

I read reviews, entered into discussions and debate about the necessity of being so exposed to such scenes as a way of understanding what men went through in war and I am not one to avoid that, but I couldn’t balance that intellectual point of view with the sickness I felt on reading this.

I was reading it on the kindle and at 50% I decided to stop and I picked up Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth which I reviewed here, the true story of her wartime experience, some distance from the war but dealing with the effect of it, both in the hospitals where she volunteered and the letters from her fiance, brother and friends who were all fighting and who would all lose their lives.

Vera’s story brought meaning and understanding, empathy and insight, but it didn’t make me feel sick. Her life afterwards was affected by her experience in a positive way, it is a grand testament to a woman’s work and need to more than understand, but to make a contribution to try to change the world and our violent, destructive tendencies.

Richard Flanagan’s book then won the Booker Prize, so I tried again. I sped through the next 100 pages and had to pause again as that sick feeling refused to go away. So I stopped.

Today for the third and last time I picked the book up once again, but by now I could almost feel the pages of horror coming, whether it was Dorrigo trying to sew up his friends leg or watching the beating of a friend. And now I say enough. This book has many, many fans and has brought the author immense and deserved success, however, it doesn’t need my contribution and I don’t need to continue to torture myself by trying to read it, in the hope of some kind of enlightenment.

I read 65% and I am sure I missed out the redeeming parts of the book.

All QuietI leave it there and will turn to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front instead to conclude a year of anniversary reads for WWI.

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