Homegoing by Yaa Ngasi

homegoing-yaa-gyasiAstonishing, a work of art, an interwoven tapestry of stories that weave across the generations to create something so beautiful, so heartfelt, the thing that connects them is so strong, even when it isn’t known by its characters, somehow Yaa Ngasi conveys that to the reader, so that by the end when something quite magical happens, there is a feeling of grieving for all that has passed and of relief that something new has been found.

I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.

How to give it justice in a review, it is so much more than story, we are so much more than our own personal experience and the place(s) we have lived.

Just as Han Kang, the South Korean author of the novel Human Acts wrote in consideration of two fundamental questions about humanity, Yaa Gyasi tells us in an article for the New York Times (referenced below) that she too began to write with a vague but important question that she put at the top of her blank screen: What does it mean to be black in America?

She further explains her inspiration in an article for the Observer (also below)

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Homegoing begins with the image of a partial family tree, with two strands and the novel will follow just one family member down each strand, the first two characters who begin these family lines are the daughters of Maame, Effia and Esi.

Effia, whom the villagers said was a baby born of the fire, believed she would marry the village chief, but would be married to a British slave trader and live upstairs in the Cape Coast Castle.

‘The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.’

Effia’s father, Cobbe would lose his crop of yams that night, a precious crop known to sustain families far and wide and with it, through his mind would flit a premonition that would reverberate through subsequent generations:

He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued.’

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Esi, whose father was a Big Man, in expressing her empathy for their house girl, would precipitate events that lead her to be captured and chained in the dungeons beneath that same castle, awaiting the slave trading ships that would transport them to their slave masters in America.

‘They took them out into the light. The scent of ocean water hit her nose. The taste of salt clung to her throat. The soldiers marched them down to an open door that led to sand and water, and they all began to walk out on to it.’

In these first two chapters of Effia and Esi, the recurring twin symbols of fire and water are introduced, something that each generation subconsciously carries with them and passes on, they will reappear through fears, dreams, experiences, a kind of deep primal scar they don’t even know requires healing, its origins so far back, so removed from anything that can be easily articulated.

Fire (yang) is like the curse of the slave trade, raging through the lives of each generation, even when they appear to have escaped it, as with Kojo’s story, a baby passed to the arms of a woman who helped slaves escape, whose parents are captured, but he will live freely, only to have one member of the family cruelly snatched, perpetuating the cycle yet again, orphaning another child, who must start over and scrape together a life from nothing.

‘They didn’t now about Jo’s fear of people in uniform, didn’t know what it was like to lie silent and barely breathing under the floorboards of a Quaker house, listening to the sound of a catcher’s boot heel stomp above you. Jo had worked so hard so his children wouldn’t have to inherit his fear, but now he wished they had just the tiniest morsel of it.’

Water (yin) to me is the endless expanse, the rootlessness, floating on the surface, feet never able to get a grip, efforts floundering. This symbol is carried throughout Essi’s family line, a cast of characters whose wheels are turning, who work hard, but suffer one setback after another.

The novel is structured around one chapter for each character, alternately between the twin sides of the family, the narrative perspective changing to focus on the new generation, through whom we learn something of what happened to the character in the previous generation, who’ve we left two chapters ago. Importantly, because Yaa Gyasi decides not to write in the present with flashbacks, but writes from the perspective of each character in their present, the novel never falters, it doesn’t suffer from the idling effect of flashbacks, it keeps up the pace by putting the reader at the centre of the drama in every chapter. We must live all of it.

The irony of the structure is that we read an entire family history and see how the events of the past affect the future, how patterns repeat, how fears are carried forward, how strong feelings are connected to roots and origins, we see it, while they experience the loss, the frustration, the inability to comprehend that it is not just the actions of one life that affect that life’s outcome.

This book is like a legacy, a long legacy that revolves between the sadness of loss and the human struggle to move forward, to survive, to do better, to improve. And also a legacy of the feeling of not belonging that is carried within those who have been uprooted, who no longer belong to one place or another, who if they are lucky might find someone to whom they can ignite or perhaps even extinguish that yearning ‘to belong’.

‘We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.’ She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.’

And in writing this novel, Yaa Gyasi perhaps achieves something of what her final character Marcus is unable to articulate to Marjorie as to why his research feels futile, spurning his grandmother’s suggestion that he perhaps had the gift of visions, trying to find answers in a more tangible way, through research and study.

“What is the point Marcus?”
She stopped walking. For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there. It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it. To have felt it. How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside it.

Yes, she achieves it through literature, through fiction. And this is literature at its most powerful and best.

This novel is going to win awards in 2017, undoubtedly.

*****

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 and raised in the US, moving around in early childhood but living in Huntsville, Alabama from the age of 10. She is the daughter of a francophone African literature professor and a nurse and completed her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, University of Iowa. She wrote this, her debut novel at the age of 26.

Further Reading

New York Times, Sunday Review – Opinion, June 18, 2016 – I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?

Review, The Observer, January 8, 2017 – Yaa Gyasi: ‘Slavery is on people’s minds. It affects us still’

 

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Homegoing via BookDepository

10 Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2017, Mirrors, Blooms, Wonder, War, Not Nothing

I’m not really into making reading lists, but I do make lots of reading piles of books I think I might read next, which often then get changed, as I’ll read a great review of a book I have on the shelf and be convinced I have to read it sooner, now it’s come to my attention.

So here are five books on my pile at the moment and five waiting on my kindle to start the year with, though don’t be surprised if you find me reading and reviewing something entirely different!

Five From The Shelf

2017-reads

thousand-mirrorsIsland of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka) – Last year I read her second novel What Lies Between Us and it made my top 5 fiction reads and this one is her debut which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Dublin Impac Prize and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. It’s about two families on either side of the conflict during the long civil war, told though the eyes of the eldest daughter of each family.

cereusCereus Blooms at Night, Shani Mootoo (Trinidad) – Part of my fascination with reading stories by women from the Caribbean culture, this one came to my attention last year and is said to be a fascinating narrative propelled by vivdly drawn characters, set on a fictional island, a mystery about a reclusive old woman accused of murder.

sense-of-wonderA Sense of Wonder, The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane, & the Ordinary, edited by Brian Doyle– a beautiful Christmas gift from a dear friend containing an anthology of powerful stories, essays and reflections from some of the world’s best writers including Pico Iyer, Mary Oliver, Barry Lopez, Helen Garner, Cynthia Ozick

foundlings-warThe Founding’s War, Michel Déon (France) #RIP – the French writer who lived in Ireland, with over 50 novels, plays and essays published, just passed away Dec 28 at the age of 97 years. Having read his novel The Foundling Boy, translated into English by Gallic Books, I’m going to read the sequel A Foundling’s War as a tribute to his lifetime of considerable achievement.

do-not-sayDo Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien (Canada/China) – no need to say much about this one, shortlisted for the Man Booker 2016 and I would say it was The People’s Choice, the book most people loved most from the list and one I picked to read when the longlist came out. Secrets from the revolution, a pianist and a composer, intimate and political.

5 on the Kindle

three-daughters-of-eveThree Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak (Turkey) – I’ve been a fan of Rumi scholar Elif Shafak since she wrote The Forty Rules of Love and have since read The Bastard of IstanbulHonour and her essay The Happiness of Blond People – A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity so I’m looking forward to her latest which she says tackles the confusion of Turkey, faith and God from Turkey to Oxford and back.

exit-westExit West, Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan) – literary novel of new love in a time of war which causes them to immigrate when the world is in crisis – by a renowned author, with a couple of rave reviews, time to get on the band wagon, a timely novel.

the-good-peopleThe Good People, Hannah Kent (Australia/Ireland) – well I missed Burial Rites, her debut historical novel set in Iceland, about a woman who was executed, so I’m going for her second novel, this one set in Country Kerry, Ireland in 1825 in a time of traditions and superstitions surrounding those born a little different, and women who are vilified for having anything to do with them. I hope it’s as good as her debut!

breaking-connectionsBreaking Connections, Albert Wendt (Samoa) – Reading around the world brings me down under to leading Pacific writer Albert Wendt’s new novel by the excellent Huia Publishers. A group whose members refer to themselves as the Tribe, mainly Polynesian grow up together, rise from poverty and become successful professionals, bound by love and fierce loyalty. When one of them is killed, they face an ensuing crisis.

train-to-pakistanTrain to PakistanKhushwant Singh (Pakistan/India) – a classic set in the partition, that was recommended me to me last year after reading Where The River Parts by Radhika Swarup.

 

 

Plenty to choose from there, I hope you are looking forward to some exciting reads to start the new year as well.

Let me know what you’re looking forward to!

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Top Reads 2016

In 2016, I read 55 books, just over my ongoing intention, to read a book a week.

I managed to read books by authors from 26 different countries and 19 of them, just over a third, were translations. My absolute favourite book of the year, was written by an author from Guadeloupe, translated from French into English, and 3 of my top 5 fiction reads were translated.

Outstanding Read of 2016
Bridge of Beyond

The book that has stayed with me, that I loved above all else was Simone Schwarz- Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, a novel that touched on the lives of three generations of women from the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe, narrated by the granddaughter Telumee as she grows up on the island, learning from experience and the traditions of her culture, guided by the wisdom of her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’. A masterpiece of Caribbean literature, “an unforgettable hymn to the resilience and power of women,” translated from French, republished as a New York Review of Books (NYRB) classic.

Top 5 Fiction Reads

Human ActsHuman Acts, Han Kang (South Korea) tr. Deborah Smith

As much a work of art as novel, Human Acts is an attempt to understand a despicable act of humanity through story telling, Han Kang was one of the most thought provoking authors of 2016 for me, equally incredible was her novel The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

What Lies Between UsWhat Lies Between Us, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka)

Like The Bridge of Beyond, Munaweera’s work is evocative of place and she brings a childhood in the gardens of Sri Lanka alive. A woman remembers her past from behind the walls of a cell, and as she reveals her upbringing and the changes that brought her family to live in America, we wonder what went terribly wrong, that caused her to lose everything. And best book cover!

zoraTheir Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (USA)

I finally read this great American classic and it was absolutely fantastic, another story that touches on multiple generations of women and how the lives of each affects the other, as they all wish a different life for the future generation. Janie is determined to live her life differently, but some lessons have to be lived thought and not told. The prose is astounding, melodic and the whole reading experience one I’ll never forget.

FirdausWoman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) tr. Sherif Hetata

An internationally renowned feminist writer, activist, physician, psychiatrist and prolific writer, I’d been wanting to read her for some time and during August, reading books by Women authors in translation #WITMonth was the perfect opportunity. And what a novel! Inspired by real events, after she was given the opportunity to interview a woman who had been been imprisoned for killing a man and due to be executed, she retells this story of Firdous, too beautiful and poor to pass through life unscathed, who finds the desire to lift herself and others out of oppression and will pay the ultimate price. Haunting, beautiful, a must read author and book!

Days of AbandonmentDays of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante (Italy) tr. Ann Goldstein

The year wouldn’t be complete without Elena Ferrante, the reclusive Italian author whose identity was outed this year, although I didn’t read any of the reports, preferring she remain as unknown to me now as before. Days of Abandonment was published before her popular tetrology which began with My Brilliant Friend and is a compelling, searing account of one woman’s descent into semi madness following abandonment by her husband, in the days where the hurt prevents her from seeing things objectively and her rationality leaves her. It’s full of tension, as she has two young children and Ferrante uses her incredible talent to make the reader live through the entire uncomfortable experience of this roller coaster ride of temporary insanity.

Top Non Fiction Reads

Memoir

Brother Im DyingBrother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

A beautiful memoir of her father and his brother, alternating between Haiti and America, it is a tribute to a special relationship and an insight into the sacrifices people make to better the lives of others, whether its family or their community. I’ve read her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory she is a wonderful writer with a gift for compassionate storytelling.

why-be-happyWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (UK)

Wow, this is the adoption memoir that tops all others, a literary tour de force, an entertaining, horrifying account of a young girl’s childhood, survived by a strong passion for life and literature that gets her through some tough moments and develops an iron will to pursue the joy that appeals so much more than the conformity her mother sought. Brilliant.

woman-on-the-edgeA Woman on the Edge of Time by Jeremy Gavron (UK)

Less a memoir of the son, than one of his obsession to understand why his mother, when she appeared to have everything a young woman would ever want, decided to end it all. Having never asked questions about his mother’s suicide, Jeremy Gavron, now a father of two girls becomes obsessed with knowing who she was and what pressures lead her to her end. Early 1960’s insight.

The Blue Satin NightgownThe Blue Satin Nightgown by Karin Crilly (US)

A reading highlight of the year for me, I’ve seen Karin’s book go through many stages leading to publication this year, in my review you’ll read how I was involved a little in its development. I knew it would be a success, as we sipped champagne together in Aix after she won the Good Life in France short story competition for the first chapter, Scattered Dreams. Last seen, Karin and her friend Judy were in China continuing their adventures, which age will never hamper and there’s a mysterious new man appearing in her recent Facebook posts, suggesting she may be writing a sequel perhaps?

Soul Food

This year, in particular after the harrowing experience accompanying my 14-year-old daughter through back surgery to correct a curvature of the spine, I read a few books by authors published by Hay House, whose radio show I often  listen to. I’m already a fan and follower of Colette Baron-Reid and her book Uncharted came out this year, and through her I discovered, listened to and read What if This is Heaven by Anita Moorjani, Making Life Easy by Christiane Northrup and I’m still slow reading a few others. During challenging times, these authors are a soothing balm, reminding us of much we may already know, offering an alternative perspective on how we see things and tips for remaining grounded and healthy in body, mind and spirit.

Special Mentions

how-to-be-braveUnforgettable Reading Experience Ever: How to Be Brave, Louise Beech(UK)

I couldn’t let the year pass without mentioning the extraordinary reading experience of Louise Beech’s How to Be Brave. I read this book while I was in the hospital with my daughter and it was surreal, a captivating, incredible story, based partly on true events, both those of the author and her daughter, who are both coming to terms with a recent diagnosis of Type1 diabetes and a retelling of her grandfather’s epic journey lost at sea, after their ship was destroyed.

Bonjour TristesseBest Translations: Bonjour Tristesse(France) & The Whispering Muse (Iceland)

Two fabulous novellas, from Iceland, Sjón’s The Whispering Muse was my first read of the year for 2016 and I loved it, it’s a kind of parody of The Argonauts and had me looking up references to the Greek classic and enjoying both the story and its connections.

Bonjour Tristesse is an excellent, slim summer read, of a young woman’s regret, a heady summer on the French Riviera, engaging as she has a deft ability to portray her minds workings and see herself interacting with the others, aware of her own manipulative ability and yet unable to stop herself. Brilliant.

GeorgiaBest Fictional Biography: Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, Dawn Tripp (US)

I love the work of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, she’s probably my favourite artist in fact. And she was an incredible woman, who lived a long time and had an intriguing relationship with her husband, who discovered her as one of his protege, the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Steiglitz. Dawn Tripp has done an outstanding job of researching her life, bringing to this novel, insights from new material available and succeeds in doing what hasn’t really been done before, channelling the voice of the artist, providing a perspective that is loyal to the artist and how she may have thought.

Brief HistoryBiggest, Most Satisfying Challenge: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James (Jamaica)

Written a large part in Jamaican patois, with a wide array of characters, this 700+ page book won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and was my summer chunkster for 2016. I gave it 5 stars for sheer effort, even though it’s not really my style of book, I tend to prefer the stories by women writers from around the Caribbean, Marlon James is perhaps too modern for me, he moves his story out of generational tradition and into the cold, dark, masculine front lines of survival, jealousy and ambition in a trigger happy, drug induced frightening world that is far from sleepy villages I prefer to inhabit.

Biggest Disappointment: The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, Herta Muller (Romania)(DNF)

It wasn’t on my reading list and I should have listened to my instinct, but since I was reading books by women in translation and I’d been sent this by the publisher (unsolicited), and it was a novel by a Nobel Prize winning author I attempted it. Impossible. Incomprehensible. Stop. Prize winning authors and books should be looked at like any other book I tell myself, forget about what a committee of 18 Swedish writers, linguists, literary scholars, historians and a prominent jurist with life tenure think, they are not you.

Well that’s it for 2016, another great reading year!

What was your outstanding read for 2016?

 

Man Booker Prize Winner 2016 #FinestFiction

I’ve not really been following the prize this year, although I listed the titles of the longlist as they are generally where I identify the book or author I’m most likely to be interested in.  You can find the Man Booker Longlist here.

So the book that stood out for me from the longlist and the only one I have a copy of ready to read, actually made the shortlist which was Madeleine Thien (Canada) – Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Here are the titles from the shortlist and if you scroll down the winner will be revealed at the bottom of the page!

The 2016 Shortlist

Paul Beatty (US) The Sellout (Oneworld)

  • Satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant

Deborah Levy (UK) Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)

  • Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She and her mother travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant in the hope that he might cure her unpredictable limb paralysis. A profound exploration of the sting of sexuality, of unspoken female rage, myth and modernity, the lure of hypochondria.

Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) His Bloody Project (Contraband)

  • A brutal triple murder in a remote northwestern crofting community in 1869 leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae. There’s no question that Macrae is guilty, but the police and courts must uncover what drove him to murder the local village constable. And who were the other two victims?

Ottessa Moshfegh (US) Eileen (Jonathan Cape)

  • A lonely young woman working in a boys’ prison outside Boston in the early 60s is pulled into a very strange crime, in a mordant, harrowing story of obsession and suspense. Set in the snowy landscape of coastal New England in the days leading up to Christmas. 5 “repugnant, vile, fierce, exhibitionistic” stars said Jaidee, who recommends it for those willing to see the darkness in women.

David Szalay (Canada-UK) All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)

  • Nine men. Each at a different stage of life, all living away from home, striving – in the suburbs of Prague, beside a Belgian motorway, in a cheap Cypriot hotel – to understand just what it means to be alive, here and now. A piercing portrayal of 21st-century manhood.

Madeleine Thien (Canada) Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

  • In Canada in 1991, ten-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 story brings to life one of the most significant political regimes of the 20th century and its traumatic legacy, which still resonates for a new generation. A gripping evocation of the persuasive power of revolution and its effects on personal and national identity, and an unforgettable meditation on China today.

And the Winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for 2016 is….

*****

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

 

 

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Totally brilliant and original, what a voice, a narrative and an insight into a woman’s desire for fulfilment.

yin_yang_by_fallen_eyeIf you have read or were considering reading Marlon James Booker winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, then this is the Yin to his Yang, this is the feminine yearn to his masculine ambition.

Immersed in the dynamic culture of the American South, its language, traditions and folklore and equally fascinated by it, Zora Neale Hurston had instant access to a rich depth of stories, songs, incidents, idiomatic phrases and metaphors and an adept ear for the rhythm of speech patterns. With her literary intelligence and skill, she brings it together with remarkable power and beauty to the written page.

Their Eyes were Watching God is an American classic, the esteemed author Toni Morrison called her “One of the greatest writers of our time”, though she may be lesser known beyond those shores. There has been much written about her work and of this particular novel, criticized by feminists at the time of publication, yet come to be more appreciated and understood with time.

Alice Walker’s essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” revived interest in the author and since then there have been numerous new editions published. It was originally published in 1937.

Zora Neale Hurston tells the story of Janie, a girl raised by her Nanny, who was an ex-slave and therefore wanting to protect her daughter and grand-daughter from the things she feared, which amounted to marriage to a man with land or money or to live under the wings of a good, white family.

zoraUnable to protect her daughter, who was raped by her schoolteacher, her focus moves to Janie, whom the daughter leaves her with. As soon as adolescence beckons she arranges for her to marry an older farmer with land. Janie dreams of love and fulfilment and when mentions not finding it in this marriage is reprimanded by her grandmother for her romantic notions.

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.Janie had had no chance to know things, so she had to ask. Did marriage end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated? Did marriage compel love like the sun the day?”

She moves on and marries Joe Sparks who takes her to a new town in Florida, a town built by black people for black people. It isn’t as Joe expects, so he sets about continuing its creation, getting himself elected as mayor and becoming a wealthy man. Janie becomes his showpiece, working in the shop, however he curtails her interactions with the community, thwarting her ability to be herself, even making her cover her hair due to his jealousy.

“She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market place to sell.  Been set for still-bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sang all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed.  So they beat him down to nothing but sparks, but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.”

Finally, her quest will become fulfilled, though not without its share of life’s ordinary and extraordinary sufferings, when she meets Tea Cake and they manage to ride life’s roller coaster of events and emotions, working together to deal with the demons and living their dream.

“Dis is uh love game.  Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine.”

The excellent afterword of the Virago edition I read, says the following to explain one of the reasons this novel has attributed such notoriety today and why it is that she achieved something so rare.

Black women had been portrayed as characters in numerous novels by blacks and non-blacks. But these portraits were limited by the stereotypical images of, on the one hand, the ham-fisted matriarch, strong and loyal in the defense of the white family she serves (but unable to control or protect her own family without the guidance of some white person), and, on the other, the amoral, instinctual slut. Between these two stereotypes stood the tragic mulatto: too refined and sensitive to live under the repressive conditions endured by ordinary blacks and too coloured to enter the white world.

Even the few idealised portraits of black women evoked these negative stereotypes. The idealisations were morally uplifting and politically laudable, but their literary importance rests upon just that: the correctness of their moral and political stance. Their value lies in their illuminations of the society’s workings and their insights into the ways oppression is institutionalised. They provide, however, few insights into character or consciousness. And when we go (to use Alice Walker’s lovely phrase) in search of our mother’s gardens, it’s not really to learn who trampled on them or how or even why – we usually know that already. Rather, it’s to learn what our mothers planted there, what they thought as they sowed, and how they survived the blighting of so many fruits. Zora Hurston’s life and work present us with insights into just these concerns.” Sherley Anne Williams

Zora Neale Hurston’s depiction of Janie’s life provides a wonderful insight into the character and consciousness of a woman of her era, drawing from her own experience, though the character of Janie has a different personality to Hurston, providing a look not so much into the experiences, but of the yearnings and emotional life of women, their quest for fulfilment and self-discovery and though it’s not without obstacles, allows a little light to shine on those moments where her life does reach that bitter-sweet destination, leaving wisdom in its wake.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (1892-1960) was born in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in America. Her life there, nine years of wanderings is described in her book Dust Tracks on the Road. She studied at Howard University and began to write, attracting the attention of the Harlem Renaissance with her essays and short fiction and won a scholarship to Barnard College where she studied Cultural Anthropology, subsequently spending four years researching folklore on the South and publishing another five books including this novel and a collection of tales, songs, games and voodoo practices from the time.

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang tr. Deborah Smith #WITMonth

A novel in three acts that centre around the middle sister whose behaviour goes relatively unnoticed by those around her until she decides to become vegetarian, because “I had a dream“.

I’m already under the spell of Han Kang, having read Human Acts earlier this year, an extraordinary and unique book and I find The Vegetarian equally compelling, perhaps even more disturbing, a visceral, disturbing depiction of the fragility of the mind and the strange mechanisms, illusions we attach to in order to cope. It won the Man Booker International Prize 2016 and I’m reading it as part of #WITMonth, reading women in translation.

The Vegetarian reminded me of the distressing yet refined style and experience of reading Yoko Ogawa’s novel of interlinked stories Revenge and the shock and compulsion of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but really it is in a league of its own, a remarkable literary expression of the effect of people, our external environment and of our internal methods of coping, questions Han Kang poses through the situations she puts these characters into and our observations of what then happens.

The book is structured into three parts:

I. The Vegetarian – right from the beginning Kang draws up the husband and wife (Yeong-hye) characters with such precision, skill and intrigue, I was completely hooked from those initial pages. Their uneventful life changes suddenly with her decision to become vegetarian, bringing out the worst in everyone.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her…However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.

II. Mongolian Mark – this is a reference to a kind of birthmark that disappears post adolescence, it becomes the cause of an infatuation by Yeong-hye’s narcissistic brother-in-law, the obsessive video artist who is inspired to create what he perceives will be his greatest work, if he can convince his sister-in-law to become the subject of his oeuvre, and balance the fine line between art and pornography.

‘Will the dreams stop now?’ she muttered, her voice barely audible.

III. Flaming Trees Yeong-hye is in a psychiatric hospital, her sister her only visitor, the visits and the realisations she is having take their toll on her as she begins to understand her sisters descent from being human into believing that she is like or wishes to become a tree, that all she needs is sunlight and moisture, slowly depriving her human form of sustenance.

This pain and insomnia which, unbeknownst to others, now has In-hye in its grip – might Yeong-hye have passed through this same phase herself, a long time ago and more quickly than most people? Might Yeong-hye’s current condition be the natural progression from what her sister has recently been experiencing? Perhaps, at some point, Yeong-hye had simply let fall the slender thread which had kept her connected with everyday life.

It’s a sad tale of a woman’s descent into madness and how it affects those around her and has the reader wondering if this was brought about by the effect of attitudes and behaviour towards this one woman or whether this was something that was in her all along, something that is in everyone and under certain terrible circumstances can degenerate a sensitive human being into such a state.

Not one to let the reader off so easily Han Kang explores all avenues and leaves the reader continuing to ponder the same questions that perhaps inspired her to create this extraordinary, award-winning novel.

Click Here to Buy a Copy of The Vegetarian via Book Depository

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The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2016 #FinestFiction

Thirteen novels make up the Booker Dozen longlist, a list with a lot of new names that few predicted. Six are by women, seven by men, with five American writers, six British, one Canadian and one South African.

The biggest name is probably two-time winner J.M.Coetzee and there are the familiar names of Deborah Levy (shortlisted in 2012 for Swimming Home), Elizabeth Strout and AL Kennedy, as well as four debut authors.

Booker Longlist

Chair of the 2016 judges, Amanda Foreman, commented:

‘This is a very exciting year. The range of books is broad and the quality extremely high. Each novel provoked intense discussion and, at times, passionate debate, challenging our expectations of what a novel is and can be…From the historical to the contemporary, the satirical to the polemical, the novels in this list come from both established writers and new voices. The writing is uniformly fresh, energetic and important. It is a longlist to be relished.’

The Longlist – click on the title to find a Goodreads summary of the book

Paul Beatty (US) – The Sellout 

J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian) – The Schooldays of Jesus 

A.L. Kennedy (UK) – Serious Sweet

Deborah Levy (UK) – Hot Milk 

Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) – His Bloody Project

Ian McGuire (UK) – The North Water 

David Means (US) – Hystopia

Wyl Menmuir (UK) – The Many 

Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen

Virginia Reeves (US) – Work Like Any Other 

Elizabeth Strout (US) – My Name Is Lucy Barton

David Szalay (Canada-UK) – All That Man Is 

Madeleine Thien (Canada) – Do Not Say We Have Nothing 

WIT logoI’m focusing on reading Women In Translation #WITMonth during August, so I won’t be reading too many on this list, though I have dipped into Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the book that appeals to me the most – a story of musicians, composers, two generations of an extended family, from the Chinese cultural revolution to a new life in modern-day Vancouver.

I’m also keep to read Deborah Levy and can tell you that Elizabeth Strout’s book My Name is Lucy Barton has had many great reviews.

For now, I’m 100 pages into reading last years Man Booker Prize winner by Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings and wow – it’s like entering into another world, a dark, dangerous, impulsive world inside a Jamaican ghetto, via a range of characters and voices.

The Shortlist and Winner Announcements

The shortlist of six books will be announced on Tuesday 13 September and the winner will be announced on Tuesday 25 October.

Click Here to Buy Any Book On the Longlist Via Book Depository

So, have you read any of the books on the list?