Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie #ManBookerPrize

I read Home Fire in two days, I thought it was brilliantly done, heartbreaking, tragic, essential. It’s been long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and certainly makes my short list! I’m looking forward to reading more of the author’s back list.

Underpinning the novel is the premise of Sophocles’ 5thC BC play Antigone, an exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual’s human rights and those who must protect the state’s security.

Before reading Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, I downloaded a translation of Antigone to read, she acknowledges herself that Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone (Oberon Books, 2015) and The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone by Seamus Heaney were constant companions as she wrote, expressing gratitude too, for the children’s book version The Story of Antigone and its author Ali Smith.

In Ali Smith’s version there is a discussion at the end of the book about what stories are, which reads:

“Stories are a kind of nourishment. We do need them, and the fact that the story of Antigone, a story about a girl who wants to honour the body of her dead brother, and why she does, keeps being told suggests that we do need this story, that it might be one of the ways that we make life and death meaningful, that it might be a way to help us understand life and death, and that there’s something nourishing in it, even though it is full of terrible and difficult things, a very dark story full of sadness.”

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is a contemporary retelling of the classic play, set in contemporary London. Even though I knew the premise of the story from having read the play, the story unfolded as if I had no prior knowledge of its likely outcome, it has its own unique surprises and insights, making it a compelling read.

We meet Isma, the eldest daughter of a family, who’ve been raised by their mother and grandmother, as she announces to her twin brother and sister Aneeka and Parvaiz that she is going to the US to complete her PhD studies that were put on pause after the death of their mother and grandmother within the space of a year, leaving her to become the mother to griefstruck twelve-year-old twins. She had briefly known her father, but the twins never.

The rigorous interrogation she is put through on leaving the UK reveal something in her family background that their entire family has tried to keep quiet, just wanting to move on with their lives, that their father had abandoned them and gone to fight as a jihadi in Afghanistan and had died en route to Guantanamo.

While in the US, Isma meets Eamonn, the son of a British politician she detests, setting in motion a litany of events that will have a catastrophic impact on both their families.

“Eamonn, that was his name. How they’d laughed in Wembley when the newspaper article accompanying the family picture revealed this detail, an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – Ayman become Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated.”

For Parvaiz, the only son, the lack of a father figure created a void, his grandmother had been the only family member willing to talk about him, but her stories were always of the boy, never of the man he became, a subject she was reluctant to be drawn into.

“He had always watched boys and their fathers with an avidity composed primarily of hunger. Whenever any of those fathers had made a certain gesture towards him – a hand placed on the back of his neck, the word ‘son’, an invitation to a football match – he’d retreat, both ashamed and afraid in a jumbled way that only grew more so as the years passed and the world of girls and boys grew more separate, so there were times he was not a twin to a twin but rather the only male in a house that knew all the secrets that women shared with on another but none that fathers taught their son.”

It’s a riveting, intense novel that propels the reader forward, even while something in us wants to resist what we can feel coming. It pits love against loyalty, family versus country, and cruelly displays how hard it is for families to distance themselves from the negative patterns of their ancestral past.

Kamila Shamsie was born in Karachi and now lives in London, a dual citizen of the UK and Pakistan. Her debut novel In The City by the Sea, written while still in college, was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in the UK and every novel since then has been highly acclaimed and shortlisted or won a literary prize, in 2013 she was included in the Granta list of 20 best young British writers.

Her novels are (linked to Goodreads):

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

Click here to Purchase a copy of

Home Fire via Book Depository

Swing Time by Zadie Smith #ManBookerPrize

The original Swing Time is a film clip of Fred Astaire dancing on stage at a cabaret, with a giant screen behind him, in which three shadow versions of himself attempt to keep up with his energy, his footwork, his dance. In the end they give up and walk off leaving him alone to continue, enrapturing his audience.

In Zadie Smith’s opening to her Swing Time, the protagonist is sitting in London’s Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames, having walked aimlessly from the apartment she’s been hiding out in, opposite Lord’s Cricket Ground in St John’s Wood into the city, crossed the river and spontaneously bought a ticket to an event.

During this “conversation with an Austrian film director” they show this clip, which she is very familiar with from her own childhood obsession, and watching it now, she realises how much she has been a shadow in the lives of others, never taking centre stage in her own life, despite the strong passion for music and dance she has had within her all along.

“I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

Structured in seven parts, from Early Days, Early and Late, Intermission, through Middle Passage, Night and Day, Day and Night to Late Days the novel shows the family life and friendship of the protagonist and her friend Tracey, two girls who take dance classes together when they are seven years old, who live on adjoining North London housing estates, with mothers who aspire for their children to have a different experience than their own and while some may judge them otherwise, they do the best they can to make that so.

“At this early stage Tracey and I were not friends or enemies or even acquaintances: we barely spoke. Yet there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.”

Tracey is outspoken, the more talented dancer and ambitious, she masks her curiosity and disappointments with malice, telling her friend, they had things “the wrong way around”.

“With everyone else it’s the dad” she says, and because I knew this to be more or less accurate I could think of nothing more to say. “When your dad’s white it means…” she continued, but at that moment Lily Bingham came and stood next to us and I never did learn what it meant when your Dad was white.

Jeni LeGon with Bojangles in a scene from the movie, Hooray for Love. [Merlin Archive]

Tracey’s dance ambitions take her to a special school where she can develop those skills, while her friend reluctantly follows the more academic route her mother has paved for her, ignoring her own passion for singing those old-time songs and the early days Fred Astaire and Jeni LeGon (see her in the video clip below) dance moves. She studies media and looks for admin jobs and for a short time is drawn back into Tracey’s world as a stagehand, when Tracey lands a role in a West End musical.

During her first media job, she has a chance encounter with an ambitious Australian pop star, who later requests her to work for her. The singer attempts to bring her out of her reservedness by taking her somewhere where she feels most herself, a bike ride to Hampstead Heath. Her life is thus viewed through the lens of a woman of extraordinary means, who has a certain kind of power to do and to have anything and anyone she wants, a life that is facilitated by those she employs to keep her from the untidy reality of real life.

It reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend in its premise of the female friendship, two girls who’ve known each other since childhood, who are simultaneously attracted and repelled by each other, who separate but never entirely sever their precarious connection, toxic yet familiar, fulfilling an unhealed need to be witnessed in their entirety.

The plot takes our narrator out of London to New York and into an African country where the singer wishes to make a difference to girls’ lives by opening a school. Sending her in advance and on numerous occasions, she sees and experiences aspects of life there at greater depth than her employer and becomes increasingly frustrated by what others fail to see, that which she is unable to adequately communicate.

It has not been her place to be forthright (a weakness that while it stayed that way served her well), however she can’t ignore it, especially not since her mother began to realise her own aspirations, rising up out of her situation, educating herself as an adult and becoming a local politician/activist with strong views on West African dictatorships and celebrities that adopt babies from poverty-stricken countries.

If London was unreal, if New York was unreal, they were powerful stage shows: as soon as we were back inside them they not only seemed real but the only possible reality, and decisions made about the village from these locations always appeared to have a certain plausibility while we were making them, and only later, when one or other of us arrived back here, and crossed this river, did the potential absurdity of whatever it was become clear.”

It’s a rich, exciting, thought-provoking novel, even if being the employee of a pop star may sound unreal. In effect, it is more about whether escaping one’s roots and elevating oneself in or associated with fame or success equates to a sense of fulfilment, or whether one is empowered by finding and following one’s passion. Our narrator is attracted to those who appear to her to be true to themselves, focused and unafraid to express it.

As she did with NW, Zadie Smith creates a strong sense of place and community, and through her choice of characters shares many poignant insights and realities of mothers and daughters and the effect the past exerts on the choices they make in the future.

I admit, I do love this novel all the more for having lived in North London for eight years, and in the latter years, in an estate in Kilburn, so I remember these streets and this community from a period in the late 1990’s that brings it alive more so than if it were set in a city I’d never lived in. It’s not necessary to know it, but if you do, it’s like the icing on the cake! I’ve read all Zadie Smith’s novels except The Autograph Man and I’d say now that Swing Time is my favourite. I hope to see it make the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Brilliantly executed, highly recommended.

Man Booker Prize Long list 2017

Today the Man Booker Prize long list for 2017 was announced, a prize that was introduced originally to try to get people to read the more literary titles, that often struggled to attain the popularity or success of their bestselling genre cousins, it was promoted as a prize for “the best novel in the opinion of the judges”, an objective that remains true today, and one of the reasons that for me, given its subjectivity, the long list is where the true gems lie!

I have only read one on the list, Exit West and have yet to review it, and I have one on the shelf Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. I’d like to read The Underground Railroad, Solar Bones, and Resevoir 13. I’m also interested to read a Kamila Shamsie novel, not sure if it will be this one or an earlier novel. What are you tempted by from the list?

Here is the list below, with summaries extracted from the Man Booker website:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber) – Archibald Isaac Ferguson, only child of Rose and Stanley is born in New Jersey on March 3, 1947. Ferguson’s life then takes four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four Fergusons made of the same genetic material, four boys who are the same boy, go on to lead four parallel, entirely different lives.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber) – After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, Thomas McNulty and John Cole, barely 17 years, go to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War. Having fled  hardships themselves, they find these days vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they are both witness to and complicit in. Their lives are further enriched and endangered when an Indian girl crosses their path.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) – Linda, 14, lives on a dying commune on the edge of a lake. She and her parents are the last remaining inhabitants, the others having long since left amid bitter acrimony. She has grown up isolated both by geography and her understanding of the world, an outsider at school, regarded as a freak.

One day she notices the arrival of a young family in a cabin on the opposite side of the lake. She starts to befriend the mother and son and for the first time feels a sense of belonging that has been missing from her life, until the father arrives home and she fails to see the terrible warning signs.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton) – In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, Saeed and Nadia begin to fall for each amid the sound of bombs getting closer and despite the radio announcing new laws, curfews and public executions. Not safe for a woman to be alone, or to stay any longer, they hear rumours of strange black doors in secret places across the city, doors that lead to London or San Francisco, Greece or Dubai. Nadia and Saeed to seek out one such door, joining the great outpouring of those fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)  – Marcus Conway has come a long way to stand in the kitchen of his home and remember the rhythms and routines of his life. Considering with his engineer’s mind how things – bridges, banking systems, marriages – are constructed – and how they may come apart.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate) – Midwinter, a teenage girl on holiday has gone missing in the hills at the heart of England. Villagers join the search, fanning out across the moors as police set up roadblocks and news reporters descends on their quiet home. Meanwhile, work must continue: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed. The search goes on, as does everyday life. As the seasons unfold some leave the village, others are pulled back, come together or break apart. There are births and deaths; secrets kept and exposed; livelihoods made and lost; small kindnesses and unanticipated betrayals. Bats hang in the eaves of the church and herons stand sentry in the river; fieldfares flock in the hawthorn trees and badgers and foxes prowl deep in the woods – mating and fighting, hunting and dying.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals) – Daniel is heading north, looking for someone. The simplicity of his  life has turned sour and fearful. Back then, Daniel and Cathy were not like other children at school, and were less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and returned with rage in his eyes. But when he was home he was at peace. He told them the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. That wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, circled like vultures. All the while, a terrible violence in Daddy grew. A lyrical commentary on contemporary English society and one family’s precarious place in it; an exploration of how deep the bond between father and child can go.

The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton) – In a city graveyard, a resident unrolls a threadbare Persian carpet between two graves. On a sidewalk, a baby appears suddenly, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. In a snowy valley, a father writes to his five-year-old daughter about the number of people who attended her funeral. 

A cast of characters caught up in the tide of history. Told with a whisper, a shout, tears and laughter, it is a love story and a provocation. Its heroes, present and departed, human and animal, have been broken by the world we live in and then mended by love – and for this reason, they will never surrender.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury) – On 22 February 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln is laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That night, shattered by grief, his father Abraham arrives at the cemetery, alone, under cover of darkness.

All evening, Abraham Lincoln paces the graveyard unsettled by the death of his beloved boy, and the grim shadow of a war without end. Meanwhile Willie is trapped between the dead and the living – drawn to his father with whom he can no longer communicate, existing in a ghostly world populated by the recently passed and the long dead. Unfolding over a single night, narrated by multiple voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is an exploration of death, grief and the deeper meaning and possibilities of life.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury) – Isma is free. After years raising her twin siblings following their mother’s death, she is studying in America. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. The son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birth right to live up to – or defy. Two families’ fates are devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton) – How about Autumn 2016? Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The UK is in pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation summer.

Autumn is a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means. This first in a seasonal quartet casts an eye over our own time.  Who are we? What are we made of? Shakespearian jeu d’esprit, Keatsian melancholy, the sheer bright energy of 1960s Pop art: the centuries cast their eyes over our own history-making. From the imagination of Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton) – Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and true identity, how they shape us and how we can survive them. Moving from north-west London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.

Two brown girls dream of being dancers – but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early 20s, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either…

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet) –  Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

Whitehead’s Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom. At each stop, Cora encounters a different world. The narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. It is a story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a reflection on history.

Happy Reading!

The Short List will be announced 13 September

Winner announced 17 October

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Order one of the books from Book Depository

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.

 

Ties by Domenico Starnone (Italy) tr. Jhumpa Lahiri

Ties is a novel about the short and long-term effect of the first grand infidelity, on a couple, on their adult children and even on the life of their cat.

As I began to read, I had a strange feeling of deja vu, or should I say deja lu, the voice of the woman who writes the letters in the opening chapters isn’t the same, but the premise of her abandonment, being left with two children, it’s as if this novel reignited elements of how I imagined Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I read last summer.

I found myself back there, in the same apartment, experiencing the same circumstances, only these were not the reflections of the same woman, nor of the same writer – well no – this is a man writing these letters from a woman (Vanda) and then in a voice that rings more true, that of the man (Aldo) who abandons, who wanted to suspend the life he found himself in, in pursuit of something that claimed nothing more than pleasure from him.

In Ferrante’s devastating, gripping novel, the voice of the wife takes hold of the reader from the outset, she is calm and rational, appearing reasonable on the outside, all the while anger and rage builds inside her like a furnace. We enter the narrative in this safe space, then feel it slowly disintegrate as that raging inferno can no longer be contained and erupts, spilling hazardously into reality.

In contrast Starnone’s protagonist Vanda, through excerpts from a few of the letters she wrote Aldo, that he rereads  40 years after they were written, is angry, opinionated and doesn’t hold back from sharing any of the catastrophic thoughts that come to her, about the damage he has done and is doing to her and the children.

The narrative structure is interesting, as the story is set around the departure and return of Vanda and Aldo from a holiday at the sea. They are in their 70’s and for the week they will be away, they’ve asked their adult children, who no longer speak to each other, to feed the cat.

The three parts of the novel encompass, book one, the letters Vanda wrote when her husband left her, book two, the departure for the holiday and the return narrated by Aldo, within which he deconstructs the marriage and his part in it. The return to their apartment and the circumstance they find themselves in, evoking in him a long period of contemplation, going over events, memories and perceptions as he tries to understand how it all came to this.

I held back. In general, faced with difficult situations, I slow down; I try to avoid making the wrong moves. She, on the other hand, after a moment of bewilderment, dives headfirst into terror, fighting it with everything she’s got. She’s always behaved this way, ever since I’ve known her, and it was what she did now.

There is one scene where Aldo discovers an old photo of Vanda and it is as if he sees her for the first time, he sees something of the essence of her in youth, and now fifty years later, has a partial realisation of what he has lost, of what he has failed to see, and by doing so, has extinguished in her.

I recognised the features of that period: flimsy clothes she sewed herself, scuffed shoes with worn-out heels, no make-up on her large eyes. What I didn’t recognise on the other hand, was her youth. This, then, was what was alien to me: her youth. In those pictures Vanda radiated a glow which – I discovered – I had no recollection of, not even a spark that allowed me to say: Yes she used to be like this.

And book three, narrated by the daughter Anna, on one of the alternate days she has agreed to feed the cat, convincing her brother who she hasn’t seen since he was favoured in her Aunt’s will years ago, to meet her there.

The novel is called Ties, a translation of Lacci or laces, which has a double meaning in Italian, meaning both the cords that we use to tie shoes and the connections or bonds between people and or things, a metaphor for the ties that continue to bind despite separation, distance, change, age. There are attempts to let go, by all the characters, attempts to distance, to free themselves of the bonds that tie, but none that really succeed. In some, the attempt to separate will result in the creation of new and more numerous ties, the son Sandro moves from one relationship to another, each resulting in another child.

It’s an intriguing novel, with what I felt was a slightly bizarre and unexpected ending. The story invoked immediate comparisons with The Days of Abandonment, however the experience of reading this novel was like viewing these lives from the outside, like looking at things from a distance, provoking a more questioning response, whereas Ferrante’s novel succeeds in transporting the reader into the narrative, it’s more cathartic and slightly terrifying, as she brings you to the edge of sanity, making you sense the danger in letting that temporary instability be observed by the outside world, a situation that many women in past centuries were indeed committed to asylums for, provoked as they often were by the cool, insensitive abandonment of the patriarch.

P.S. After reading the novel and writing the review, I’ve since seen a couple of articles that speculate 1), that Domenico Starnone might be Elena Ferrante (I don’t think so) and 2), that he may be married to the woman who uses the pseudonym, Elena Ferrante. Whether or not the latter is true, there is indeed a link between the two novels, the literary comparison of more interest than the pursuit of the personal lives of authors who wish to remain anonymous and separate from their work.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me with a copy of Ties.

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2017 #BaileysPrize

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

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

The shortlisted books are as follows:

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

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

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

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing

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

On The Book

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

Quotable Quote

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

Literary Heroes

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

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

The Dark Circle, Linda Grant

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

On The Book

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

Quotable Quote

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

 

Naomi Alderman, The Power

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

On The Book

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

Quotable Quote

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

Literary Heroes

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

Stay With Me, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀ (reviewed)

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

 

The Sport of Kings, C.E. Morgan

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

First Love, Gwendoline Riley

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

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

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

The winning novel will be announced on 7 June 2017!

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Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list #MBI2017

The Man Booker International Prize used to appear every two years and the authors nominated were not just writers in translation, they were from outside the UK and a nomination was for their body of work, not for one recently published book. That prize, for a translated work of fiction was called, the IFFP (Independent Foreign Fiction Prize).

Now the two have joined together, with the format being the same as the IFFP prize and the name Man Booker International.

The judges for 2017  are Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, translator Daniel Hahn; award-winning poet Helen Mort; Turkish author and academic Elif Shafak and Nigerian-born writer Chika Unigwe.

“Fiction in translation is flourishing: in these times when walls are being built, this explosion of brilliant ideas from around the world arriving into the English language feels more important than ever.” Nick Barley, Chair

Last year the prize was won by the South Korean author Han Kang and her translator Deborah Smith, for The Vegetarian.

MBI long list 2017

The 2017 longlist comprises 13 titles (from 126 submissions) translated into English from 11 languages: (summaries extracted from the Man Booker Prize website), the shortlist will be announced on April 20 and the winner on June 14th.

Title, Author (nationality), Translator

Compass by Mathias Enard (France), (tr. Charlotte Mandell) – As night falls over Vienna, Franz Ritter, an insomniac musicologist, takes to his sickbed with an unspecified illness and spends a restless night drifting between dreams and memories, revisiting important chapters of his life: his ongoing fascination with the Middle East and his numerous travels to Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran, and writers, artists, musicians, academics, orientalists, and explorers who populate this vast dreamscape. An immersive, nocturnal, musical novel, full of generous erudition and bittersweet humour, Compass is a journey and a declaration of admiration, a quest for the otherness inside us all and a hand reaching out.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (Poland), (tr.Eliza Marciniak) – Wiola lives in a close-knit agricultural community in 1980s Poland. Wiola’s father was a deserter but now he is a taxidermist. Wiola’s mother tells her that killing spiders brings on storms. Wiola must never enter the seamstresses’s ‘secret’ room. Wiola collects matchbox labels. Wiola is a good Catholic girl brought up with fables and nurtured on superstition. Wiola lives in a Poland both recent and lost in time. Swallowing Mercury is about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days. In vivid prose filled with texture, colour and sound, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child’s. From childhood to adolescence, Wiola dances to the strange music of her own imagination.

A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel) (tr.Jessica Cohen) – In a comedy club in a small Israeli town, an audience arrives expecting an evening of amusement and see a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling before their eyes. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell. Dovale Gee, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), (tr.David McKay) – Shortly before his death, Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain gave his grandson a set of notebooks containing detailed memories of his life. He grew up in poverty around 1900, the son of a struggling church painter who died young, and went to work in an iron foundry at 13. Afternoons with his father working on a church fresco were heaven; the iron foundry an inferno. During WW1, Urbain was on the front line confronting the invading Germans, haunted by events he can’t forget. War ends, he marries, then tragedy. Urbain recovers and like the obedient soldier he is, dutifully fulfils the expectations of family. Observations of a marriage with a sad secret at its heart, consolation found in art and painting.

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), Don Bartlett (tr.Don Shaw) – Ingrid Barrøy is born on a family owned island, her father dreams of a jetty to connect them to the mainland, but closer ties to the wider world come at a price. Her mother has her own dreams – and a question Ingrid must never ask. Island life is hard, so when Ingrid comes of age, she is sent to work for one of the wealthy families on the coast. But Norway too is waking up to a wider world, a modern world that is capricious and can be cruel. Tragedy strikes, and Ingrid must fight to protect the home she thought she had left behind.

The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (Albania), (tr.John Hodgson) – At the heart of the Ottoman Empire, in the main square of Constantinople, a niche is carved into ancient stone. Here, the sultan displays the severed heads of his adversaries. People flock to see the latest head and gossip about the state of the empire: the province of Albania is demanding independence again, and the niche awaits a new trophy. Tundj Hata, the imperial courier, is charged with transporting heads to the capital – a task he relishes and performs with fervour. But as he travels through obscure and impoverished territories, he makes money from illicit side-shows, offering villagers the spectacle of death. The head of the rebellious Albanian governor would fetch a very high price.

Fish Have No Feet by Jon Kalman Stefansson (Iceland), (tr.Phil Roughton) – Keflavik: a town that has been called the darkest place in Iceland, surrounded by black lava fields, hemmed in by a sea that may not be fished. Its livelihood depends entirely on a U.S. military base, a conduit for American influences that shaped Icelandic culture and ethics from the 1950s to the dawn of the new millennium. It is to Keflavik that Ari, a writer and publisher, returns from Copenhagen at the behest of his dying father, two years after walking out on his wife and children. He is beset by memories of his youth, spent or misspent listening to Pink Floyd and the Beatles, fraternising with American servicemen – who are regarded by the locals with a mixture of admiration and contempt – and discovering girls. There is one girl in particular he could never forget – her fate has stayed with him all his life.

The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke (China), (tr.Carlos Rojas)  – With the Yi River on one side and the Balou Mountains on the other, the village of Explosion was founded a thousand years ago by refugees fleeing a volcanic eruption. But in the post-Mao era, the name takes on a new significance as the rural community grows explosively from a small village to a town to a city to a vast megalopolis. Behind this rapid expansion, three rival clans linked together by a web of ambition, madness and greed,  transform their hometown into a Babylon of modern times – an unrivalled urban superpower built on lies, sex and thievery.

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (France), (tr.Helen Stevenson) – 1970 in the People’s Republic of Congo, a Marxist-Leninist revolution is ushering in a new age. Over at the orphanage on the outskirts of Pointe-Noire where young Moses has grown up, the revolution has strengthened the reign of terror of Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako, the institution’s corrupt director. So Moses escapes to Pointe-Noire, where he finds a home with a larcenous band of Congolese Merry Men and among the Zairean prostitutes of the Trois-Cents quarter. But the authorities won’t leave Moses in peace, and intervene to chase both the Merry Men and the Trois-Cents girls out of town. All this injustice pushes poor Moses over the edge. Could he really be the Robin Hood of the Congo? Or is he just losing his marbles?

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany), (tr.Katy Derbyshire) – Bricks and Mortar is the story of a city’s sex trade in the former GDR, from 1989 to the present day, charting the development of the industry from prohibition to legality in the 20 years following the reunification of Germany. It focuses on the rise and fall of one man from football hooligan to large-scale landlord and service-provider for prostitutes to, ultimately, a man persecuted by those he once trusted. And other voices: women who work in prostitution, their clients, small-time gangsters, an ex-jockey searching for his drug-addict daughter, a businessman from the West, a girl forced into child prostitution, a detective, a pirate radio presenter…

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), (tr.Misha Hoekstra) – Sonja is an intelligent single woman in her 40s whose life lacks focus. The situation must change – but where to start? By learning to drive, perhaps. After all, how hard can it be? Very, as it turns out. Six months in, Sonja is still baffled by the basics and her instructor is eccentric. Sonja is also struggling with an acute case of vertigo, a sister who won’t talk to her, and a masseuse who is determined to solve her spiritual problems. Frenetic city life is a constant reminder that every man (and woman) is an island: she misses her rural childhood where ceilings were high and the sky was endless. Shifting gears is not proving easy.

Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), (tr. Nicholas de Lange) – Set in the still-divided Jerusalem of 1959-60, Judas is a tragi-comic coming-of-age tale and a radical rethinking of the concept of treason. Shmuel, a young, idealistic student, is drawn to a strange house and its mysterious occupants within. As he starts to uncover the house’s tangled history, he reaches an understanding that harks back not only to the beginning of the Jewish-Arab conflict, but also to the beginning of Jerusalem itself – to Christianity, to Judaism, to Judas.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), (tr.Megan McDowell) – A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. The two seem anxious and, at David’s ever more insistent prompting, Amanda recounts a series of events from the apparently recent past. As David pushes her to recall whatever trauma has landed her in her terminal state, he unwittingly opens a chest of horrors, and suddenly the terrifying nature of their reality is brought into shocking focus.

*******

 I haven’t read any of these titles, I’m naturally drawn towards the French translations, since they give me an idea of what people here are reading and enjoying, Black Moses sounds like an entertaining read.
Eileen Battersby has written an excellent article discussing the nominations, giving her opinion on them and a few notable omissions, I’ll be rereading her views before deciding what I might read and checking out the Shadow Panel reviews, a group of bloggers who will be reading the list and making their own conclusions on a short list and winner, from the 13 chosen here.
Further Reading:

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