If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail Rosewood

If I Had Two Lives is a story of a child who spends her childhood in Vietnam, her early adulthood in America then makes a return visit to her homeland to confront aspects of her past she wishes to resolve.

In Part One she is escorted by her solider to a secretive military camp where her mother has spent the last four years, she is seven years old and has been separated from her mother for four years.

The mother is distant, busy, under suspicion, she is an energy consultant, the girl tries to please her, get her attention. She struggles to connect with her in the way her heart yearns, becoming overly attentive to trying to please her in a way that children who aren’t able to  take having parents there for them for granted might react.

Whenever she has to travel anywhere she is accompanied by this same solider. She clings to him even though he discourages it. She befriends a motherless little girl she finds playing a game stacking bricks, their time together establishes some of the few memories of childhood they will retain, both haunted by the last time they see each other.

There is a strange, unsafe vibe around the little girl’s father. She develops a desire to hurt something, after killing a fish with her bare hands, her angst morphs into thoughtless cruelty towards the little girl. Suddenly her time there is over, she is again escorted, this time across the China border onto a plane to America.

Years later, I understood that Mother had made sure nobody saw me enter the camp and nobody saw me leave; that the erasure of my records in Vietnam would be complete when I boarded the plane…I told myself that once I got to the US, I would turn around, take a different plane back to Vietnam, go get the little girl so we could leave the camp together for good.  We’d talked about escaping together so many times that being forced to go without her was unthinkable.

In Part Two the girl has been sent to America, her mother having promised (unfulfilled) to follow her there, drifting from the homes of relatives to friends, she outwears her welcome with them all and becomes isolated, alone. Haunted by the memories of her youth, she follows a stranger home because he reminds her of her solider. She befriends a young woman who reminds her of the little girl. Her life is laced with illusion, faces that morph into those who have haunted her past. She is not the only one with a past, living with the effects of trauma and her attempts to reconnect expose her to the nightmares of others, also trying to remember or forget.

“Try telling them some other tales that don’t fit their presumptions. Vietnam” – he dropped his cigarette and crushed it with the toe of his shoe. “Is a war, not a country. Anything besides is irrelevant.”

Meeting both these strangers changes the course of her life dramatically and will push her to confront her past, revisit her home country and look for what she has lost. And to make amends.

More and more I resembled my own mother as I with-held facts and became an accomplice in helping my daughters obscure their origins.

It’s a hard book to describe and one that is disturbing in parts to read, laced with a sadness for a girl that it seems was unwanted, although she was given opportunities, just not love or affection, in turn her own life seems without purpose and missing something that can be felt not described. Her return will provide her a different perspective and bring her closer to understanding her mother and her intention for her daughter, realising she has something of that in her as well.

“When you leave the old country at an age not young enough to get adopted into the new and not old enough to know how to reject it, you become this mutant thing: between borders, between languages, between memories.” He pressed his temples. “If you ask me, I think it’s easier to reinvent than to retrace. You’re not the only one, you know. Look at this city and its faces. You’re not the only one with an ungraspable history.”

I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it, but it was thought-provoking and made me wonder about the inspiration and experience behind writing it and of the number of sad lives being lived by others, neither from one place nor another, without families, trying to make sense of the world. And of effects of unhealed trauma and displacement.

“If I had two lives to live, I would have done it differently,” she said. “Anything worth having requires your sacrifice, even your personal happiness.”

More than storytelling, despite being fiction, this novel is about what happens to those who leave their homeland, a victim in ways to what they have left, how some are able to manage their past experience, using it to try to improve the situation for others, while others remain a victim to forces and feelings they find difficult to live with, causing them to inflict pain on others or when it gets too much, on themselves, without seeming to, or unable to care who gets hurt in the process.

I am reminded of Cambodian author Vaddey Ratner whose family were evicted from their homeland, she uses fiction in her novel In The Shadow of the Banyan to express memories born of her childhood experience, and although it was traumatic, she was determined to take what was a sad chapter in her country’s history and show us something of its beauty and culture.

 It isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy. What I wanted to articulate is something more universal, more indicative, I believe, of the human experience our struggle to hang onto life, our desire to live, even in the most awful circumstances. – Vaddey Ratner

Abbigail N. Rosewood was born in Vietnam, where she lived until the age of twelve.

This novel was born out of the aching pleasure of rearranging memories, reinventing the past – a personal need to solve my childhood’s mysteries, figure out how I arrived here, and to give myself the emotional conclusions that real life doesn’t afford.

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for providing me with a review copy to read.

Buy a Copy of this book via BookDepository.

Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (Guatemala) tr. Ellen Jones

As I mentioned in this recent post, this year I’m reading a selection of contemporary Latin American fiction, thanks to a subscription with Charco Press. The first novella for the year is a collection of interconnected short stories, (reminding me of the Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s excellent collection Revenge) Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes from Guatemala.

A man named Don Henrik is the connection between the stories, and though he is not the centre of any story until the end, through each tale narrated we come to know the hardships he has encountered as he struggled to run his various business ventures, we learn about the equally difficult life path his brother followed, and how that contributed to his father’s financial difficulties. Though it is not focused on in particular, we also know he is a foreigner, we imagine how his may have contributed to the challenges he and his family have encountered.

Don Henrik seems like a man who wants to live an ordinary life, he has the fortitude to create something out of nothing, he is kind, but he lives in a society where men give in to temptation, and are lead astray by a desire, by greed, by revenge, addiction and so always there are situations to be dealt with. He is an entrepreneur, but still learning the ways of men and nature in his adopted country.

Trout are delicate creatures and can’t handle temperatures over thirteen degrees. That’s why Don Henrik  bought his land right at the top of the mountain, because he wanted icy, cold spring water. But despite being delicate,  they’re completely savage.  They eat meat, even their own.Little cannibals, my Ermina called them.

Photo by The Lazy Artist Gallery on Pexels.com

Set in the Guatemalan countryside and forest, it is a place that appears to offer rest and tranquility and yet is beset with an undercurrent of hostility and violence, infiltrated by merciless entrepreneurs, hitmen, father’s desperate to go straight, endangering their daughters and their dog, and the plain stupid, caught in a gullible web of thinking they can make easy money, only to meet premature death.

What begins as one of the most endearing stories, becomes the one that almost prevents me finishing the book, involving the relationship between a young calf and a dog, it’s when men come between them that things turn despicable, I couldn’t help but see the young cow as a metaphor for women, who are the usual targets for such brutality.

Some will relate to its Hemingway-esque style, for me it was a straight forward, easy read, though I began to feel like I was reading a book likely to be enjoyed more by men readers, as it launched quickly into a tale of infidelity, of a man with a loyal wife and daughters distracted by a young shop girl, willing to sacrifice everything for a few moments of pleasure; men arriving with guns intent on teaching a lesson to other men, taking out their violent intent on an innocent animal, the bond between two men, their lives and friendship endangered by their descent into drugs and recklessly pursuing an activity (involving a boat and diving) while under the influence.

Personally, I find I have less and less tolerance for stories that depict women in this way, even if it represents a reality, it becomes tiresome. As a reader, I find I’m looking for a paradigm shift in the way female characters are depicted, something I am sure is coming, as I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Don Henrik isn’t the cause of any of this, is it bad karma, neglect or naivety, he is often absent, trusting his partners and workers to get on with the job, it is here that cracks form, that others seize their malevolent opportunity. He is a good man, he donated a kidney to his wife, he is tired, he’s found another good woman and just wants peace, but he’s a land owner, there are those who covet what he has, his desire for tranquility in this world he inhabits, observed by so much dysfunction, is an impossible ask.

Ist edition cover, Francisco Tún artwork

In an interview Fuentes is asked about his writing of this book while living outside of Guatemala and revealed his observation and interest, having moved abroad in how people spoke and expressed themselves. He viewed an accent as something like a regions ideology, that we assumed ours to be neutral, but that it revealed much about how the speaker saw the world.

I look at Guatemala, and it’s a tiny country, but one with very talented narrators. And each region of the country tells stories in different ways. The way people tell stories in the mountains is very different from how people in the eastern part of the country tell them, or those living by the coast, or in the city, undoubtedly; I paid attention to that. I was always interested in the conversations taking place between the city and rural areas. Living abroad allowed me to pay attention to these conversations from a different vantage point, and a character like Henrik enabled me to move back and forth between those two worlds.

In his excellent, expansive review, Tom Blake provides a political perspective of Guatemalan and Latin American literature, suggesting that much of it has centred around themes of ‘displacement, disappearance, deracination’ suggesting that Fuentes offered a different view, the view of those who remain. He acknowledged that Fuentes held up a mirror to a masculine world, though went a little far in my opinion in suggesting that ‘the women hold immense, almost supernatural power’.

In doing so, he provides insights into why displacement might occur, why humans feel the need to move in their thousands to countries whose promises were exposed long ago as over-optimistic or fraudulent. But that is not his primary concern. These are stories about various types of hardship and conflict, where hardship is unending and conflict is self-perpetuating. His protagonists stick around to meet their difficulties head-on; they create tiny worlds around themselves where bizarre details become normal, where flirtatious cows walk on their hind legs and, frenzied fish turn to cannibalism. Thomas Blake

Rodrigo FuentesConsidered to be one of the most prominent names among the new generation of Guatemalan writers, Rodrigo Fuentes (1984) won the Carátula Central American Short Story Prize (2014) as well as the Juegos Florales of Quetzaltenango Short Story Prize (2008).

Trout, Belly Up was shortlisted for the 2018 Premio Hispanoamericano de Cuento Gabriel García Márquez, the most prestigious prize awarded to short-story writers in Latin America. It has been published in Guatemala, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia, as well as in France. Rodrigo currently lectures at the College of the Holy Cross in the United States, and lives between Providence and Guatemala. This is his first book to appear in English.

Ellen Jones is a researcher and translator based in London. She has a PhD from Queen Mary University of London and writes about multilingualism and translation in contemporary Latin American literature. Her reviews have appeared in publications including the Times Literary Supplement and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and her translations in publications including the Guardian and Latin American Literature Today. She has been Criticism Editor at Asymptote since 2014.

Further Reading

Jumping Between the Urban and the Rural: An Interview with Rodrigo Fuentes by José García Escobar

Review of Trout Belly Up by Thomas Blake

Man Booker International Prize shortlist 2019 – #translatedfiction

The Man Booker International Prize, celebrates newly translated fiction into English; this years judges have now whittled their long list down to six titles, giving us this interesting and diverse shortlist below. Though you’ll find a lot of translated fiction on the pages of this blog, it’s a niche that’s dominated by small publishers, so less known and indulged by the wider reading public.

Things are changing however and readers are becoming more discerning and aware of being made to seem ignorant by publishers who’ve stuck predominantly to nationalistic loyalties. I say this personally, as I discovered when I moved to France that without even making an effort you are just as likely here to read Russian, Colombian or Japanese authors as you are French authors. 45% of their fiction is translated! 5% of ours is.

Do we really only want to be offered stories written by authors from one country, to read thoughts generated in the imagination of only one original language?

Though we are in a climate of Brexit and an era of vociferous intolerance towards multiculturalism; storytelling and literature in translation offer a quiet route to developing empathy and understanding of ‘the other’ and a reminder that we can both learn something new and find the familiar in words from elsewhere.

The prize equally awards the translator, which should boost the industry and help translators take on more projects bringing us more excellent literature from elsewhere. The shortlist includes five languages, Arabic, French, German, Polish and Spanish from six different cultures.

Bettany Hughes, chair of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize judging panel, said:

‘Wisdom in all its forms is here. Unexpected and unpredictable narratives compelled us to choose this vigorous shortlist. Subversive and intellectually ambitious with welcome flashes of wit, each book nourishes creative conversation. We were struck by the lucidity and supple strength of all the translations.’

The six titles are listed below, summaries edited from the prize’s website: click on title to purchase a copy.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Oman) tr. Marilyn Booth (Arabic) Sandstone Press

Set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who emigrated to Canada. The three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society, slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present. Elegantly structured and taut, it tells of Oman’s coming-of-age through the prism of one family’s losses and loves.

“No matter where you are, love, loss, friendship, pain and hope are the same feelings and humanity still has a lot of work to do to believe in this truth.” Jokha Alharti

The Years by Annie Ernaux(France) tr. Alison Strayer (French) Fitzcarraldo Editions

Considered by many to be the iconic French memoirist’s defining work, a narrative of the period 1941 to 2006 told through the lens of memory, impressions past and present, photos, books, songs, radio, television, advertising, and news headlines. Local dialect, words of the times, slogans, brands and names for ever-proliferating objects are given voice. The author’s voice continually dissolves and re-emerges as Ernaux makes the passage of time palpable. Time itself, inexorable, narrates its own course, consigning all other narrators to anonymity. A new kind of autobiography emerges, at once subjective and impersonal, private and collective, a remembrance of things past.

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann tr. Jen Calleja (German) Profile Books, Serpent’s Tail

When Gilbert, a journeyman lecturer on beard fashions awakes from a dream that his wife has cheated on him, he flees to Japan. In discovering the travel writings of the great Japanese poet Basho, he finds a purpose: a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the poet to see the moon rise over the pine islands of Matsushima. Falling in step with another pilgrim – a Japanese student with a copy of The Complete Manual of Suicide – Gilbert travels across Basho’s disappearing Japan with Yosa, one in search of his perfect ending and the other a new beginning that might give his life meaning. A serene, playful, moving story of the transformations we seek and those we find along the way.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Polish) Fitzcarraldo Editions

In a remote village in south-west Poland Janina Dusezjko, an eccentric woman in her 60s, describes the events surrounding the disappearance of her two dogs. When members of a local hunting club are found murdered, she becomes involved in the investigation. No conventional crime story, this novel offers thought-provoking ideas on perceptions of madness, social injustice against people who are marginalised, animal rights, the hypocrisy of traditional religion, and belief in predestiny.

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia) tr. Anne McLean (Spanish) Quercus, MacLehose Press

Pacing the dark corridors of a hospital during the birth of his twin daughters, Juan Gabriel Vásquez befriends a physician. Through him he meets Carlos Carballo, a man consumed by a conspiracy theory about the assassination of a politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948. He tries to persuade Vásquez to write a novel about the murder, but despite repeated refusals Vásquez is drawn into the conspiracy when Gaitán’s vertebrae, stored in a glass jar at a mutual friend’s house, goes missing. Sparking a turn of events, Varquez opens up a second, darker conspiracy about the assassination of another politician, Rafael Uribe Uribe, in 1914.

“It’s a novel about past violences written at a time in which my country was trying to find some form of present peace. It turns around two political murders that shaped Colombian history in the twentieth century, and it uses them to think about the ways in which violence can be inherited: an act committed half a century ago can influence and even determine our private lives in the present. Deep down, how does political violence work? How does it change our private lives?” Juan Gabriel Vasquez

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (Chile) tr. Sophie Hughes (Spanish) And Other Stories

Santiago, Chile. The city is covered in ash. Three children of ex-militants are facing a past they can neither remember nor forget. Felipe sees dead bodies on park benches, counting them in an obsessive quest to tally figures with the official death toll. He is searching for the perfect zero, a life with no remainder. Iquela and Paloma are also searching for a way to live on. When the body of Paloma’s mother gets lost in transit, the three take a hearse and a handful of pills up the cordillera for a road trip with a difference. Intense, intelligent, and extraordinarily sensitive to the shape and weight of words, this remarkable debut presents a new way to count the cost of generational trauma.

******

I haven’t read any of the titles shortlisted, I’ve been watching since the long list came out, the one that most intrigues me is Celestial Bodies, because it promises to highlight aspects of Oman’s history as shown through the story of three sister’s lives. While The Shape of the Ruins sounds intriguing, I’m a little wary of it seeming a little like Roberto Bolano’s 2666 another lengthy South American novel that centred around unsolved murders, that was too much for me.

I’m also intrigued by Olga Tokarczuk’s latest, she won the prize last year, though this is said to be a different and lighter read to Flights that can be read on multiple levels, with its elements of mystery, nature writing and reflective, philosophical inclinations.

So have you read any of the novels on the shortlist? Do you already have a favourite?

The winner will be announced on May 21.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

This novel is like nothing else I’ve ever read, it describes an inner world, an occupied mind, from that inside. It puts the reader in a position of imagining, perhaps even to a certain degree understanding, what it might be like to have your subconscious and conscious mind occupied by other entities, entities with a voice, with personality, that from time to time take over the body, affect behaviour, talk to you and through you.

Reality is depicted from their perspective, giving full voice to the multiple entities, birthed (through traumas) at different times during the life of Ada (her name though her father told her just meant ‘precious’, in its truest form, meant, the egg of a python), who was born a girl (though doesn’t stay one) in Nigeria and educated in America, where much of the narrative takes place.

We become aware of their presence from the opening pages, before they are awakened within Ada, in a chapter that is utterly compelling as we come to realise who the ‘we‘ is that is narrating much of the story. And ‘we‘ is not the only non-human narrator.

These personalities inhabit a place (referred to in the text as the marble room) within the body/mind, they lie dormant until they are awakened, they keep each other company in that space, they co-habit this one body and constantly justify their existence and inclinations and sometimes act out on them, though they too seem capable of evolving, just as their human needs to and does. And just in case you think this is sounding like fantasy or science fiction, it’s not, this is a semi-autobiographical novel, much of it corresponds to the author’s experience and perceived reality of the world.

These multiple entities exist, they are not illusions or metaphors, they have names and characteristics that manifest into different behaviours through human ‘Ada’ who simultaneously suffers from them, is supported by them, at times is even dependent on them. They are one, but with many aspects that from the external perspective risk being judged as something labelled otherwise depending on the country/culture – such as personality disorder or schizophrenia due to our limited view in defining other states of being. When one entity is more present, Ada’s way of being in the world alternates between her human personality and that of the other presence, whether it’s we, Asughara, or Saint Vincent.

Ogbanje by Akwaeke Emezi

From the perspective of Nigerian ontology (philosophical study of the nature of being), Ada (as the author also self-identifies) may be perceived as ‘ogbanje‘, a child that usually doesn’t live long and is often reborn into the same family. It is believed that these children recognise the difficulty of living in this world and choose to leave it, only on arriving at the gates of heaven they’re denied entry, they’re judged as being lazy and indolent and are sent back to try again. When they are present in the world, they often have particular psychic abilities and/or an other-worldliness about them, they’re believed by some to be possessed, they don’t particularly enjoy the dense, limited human body and experience.

Ogbanje (noun): An embodied spirit passing as human, who transitions rapidly between birth and death, i.e. possessing the ability to ‘come and go’.

Only the child Ada is saved from a death that might have sent her back by her father, a modern Igbo man with medical training from the Soviet Union and years of living in London. He did not believe in anything superstitious that might have made him view the scene he rescued her from as anything other than death. In rescuing her, he prevents the entities from leaving.

He had no idea what he had done.

Akwaeke Emezi depicts these influences and describes being human as a temporary vessel for this other kind of presence which until Ada understands and accepts it, she will continue to suffer as if she is one and not all of them. The ability to make them so real to the reader, to create what feel like real characters from them, is astounding.

“All the madnesses, each and every blinding one, they can all be traced back to the gates. Those carved monstrosities, those clay and chalk portals, existing everywhere and nowhere and all at once. They open, things are born, they close. The opening is easy, a pushing out, an expansion, an inhalation: the dust of divinity released into the world. It has to be a temporary channel, though, a thing that is sealed afterward, because the gates stink of knowledge, they cannot be left swinging wide like a slack mouth, leaking mindlessly. That would contaminate the human world – bodies are not meant to remember things from the other side. There are rules. But these are gods and they move like heated water, so the rules are softened and stretched. The gods do not care. It is not them after all, that will pay the cost.”

At one point Ada seeks out a therapist and at first her entities don’t notice, they are not always present, but they’d told her to keep them inside her head, in the marble room, so no one could see them.

So when she started looking up her “symptoms”, it felt like a betrayal – like she thought we were abnormal. How can we be, when we were her and she was us? I watched her try to tell people about us and I smiled when they told her it was normal to have different parts of yourself.

The entities try to fulfill their destiny (to return to their spirit siblings) and thus sabotage Ada’s attempts to live a human life with minimal suffering. It’s a constant challenge to navigate life, until they learn to live in harmony and she understands her purpose after an encounter with a historian, who tells her what she needs to accept.

“The name that was given to you has many connotations, you hear?” He wore glasses and spoke in a rush of words. “The python’s egg means a precious child. A child of the gods, or the deity themself. The experiences you’ve had suggest that there is a spiritual connection, which you need to go and learn about. Your journey will not be complete until you do that.” He leaned back and folded his arms. “There is nothing more anybody can tell you. It’s important for you to understand your place on this earth.”

Truly an astounding, transparent work that takes an understanding of the being part of human into another dimension. The way it seamlessly moves from the material to the immaterial, combining human and spiritual aspects of selves, on a journey to assemble some way of living with them both, in a world where the majority live within and perceive only one aspect and dimension, a world indeed, where it can be dangerous to articulate this alternate reality.

I thought it was brilliant, definitely a 5 star read for me and truly deserving of being on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

A debut novel said to have an autobiographical slant, this is how Akwaeke Emezi brilliantly articulates what the writing of it meant to them in an interview with Ms. magazine:

I wrote Freshwater as an analysis of sorts—the ogbanje figuring out what it is, ascribing legibility to itself. We look at our worlds through a limited range of lenses, and making this book meant choosing a different center to tell the story from, a different lens to look through.

Once that shift was made, it came with such clarity—the world finally making sense. Being a strange thing in a human world and not knowing what you are is immensely difficult, and I think Freshwater walks us pretty intimately through what living in that space feels like.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

New Yorker: A Startling Debut Novel Explores the Freedom of Being Multiple by Katy Waldman

Interview: The Ms. Q&A: Akwaeke Emezi on Freshwater and Finding Home by Taliah Mancini

N.B. Thank you to publisher Grove Atlantic for providing a review copy.

Buy a copy of Freshwater via Book Depository

Women’s Prize For Fiction 2019 Longlist

Between 1996 and 2012 it was known as the Orange Prize for Fiction, and between 2014 and 2017 the Baileys Prize for Fiction, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is a favourite literary award of many, awarded annually to an outstanding novel that demonstrates excellence, quality, originality and accessibility.

The Prize has recently evolved to charitable status as The Women’s Prize Trust and now invites anyone who wishes to contribute to its ongoing success, to support it through their donation lead Patron Scheme, which offers varying levels of participation and reward.

Their charitable objectives seek to honour & celebrate the widest possible range of women’s voices and stories from all over the world by:

  • shining a spotlight on overlooked and forgotten women’s stories
  • promoting gender equality
  • supporting literacy, research and educational initiatives to help inspire the readers & the writers of tomorrow
  • providing a year-round digital platform for women’s voices and offering a range of live events, encouraging debate between readers & writers.

After passionate discussion, the judges of 2019 have come up with the following longlist of 16 novels, the Chair, Professor Kate Williams had this to say:

“I am thrilled to share this longlist – sixteen incredible books by a diverse group of women, from the UK and countries across the world, all brilliant stories that sweep you into another world. Each of them have been a privilege to read, and they have taken us into places a million miles from each other, exploring the lives of women and men in so many different but utterly compelling ways.”

I have copied the book summaries below from the Women’s Prize website  and provided title links to Book Depository, if you wish to buy a book (with free shipping). Personally, I have read two, the excellent Man Booker Prize winning Milkman by Anna Burns (my review here) and Bernice McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies (my review here), which I enjoyed so much, I ordered her historical fiction novel The Book of Harlan.

The Greek myth retellings seem to be in the ascendant, I like that they’ve chosen empowered female heroines, I have a copy of Freshwater, which from the moment I read its premise I’ve wanted to read, so I’ll definitely be reading that.

I’ve read Mexican born author Valeria Luiselli’s essays Sidewalks her novel stands out, as it was born of her experience as a volunteer court interpreter for children – the “illegal aliens” helping them with intake questionnaires that might establish a case for asylum for them, the subject of another essay collection Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions. In Lost Children Archive, she tells the story of one family, though don’t expect a straight forward narrative, as I recall from reading her previously, she’s an introspective, philosophical meanderer interested in spaces, voids and the edges of things, not a traditional storyteller.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – There was a woman at the heart of the Trojan war whose voice has been silent – till now. Briseis was a queen until her city was destroyed. Now she is a slave to Achilles, the man who butchered her husband and brothers. Trapped in a world defined by men, can she survive to become the author of her own story?Discover the greatest Greek myth of all – retold by the witness history forgot.

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton – It is 1910 and Philadelphia is burning. The last place Spring wants to be is in the rundown, coloured section of a hospital surrounded by the groans of sick people and the ghost of her dead sister. But as her son Edward lays dying, she has no other choice. There’re whispers that Edward drove a streetcar into a shop window. Some people think it was an accident, others claim that it was his fault, the police are certain that he was part of a darker agenda. Is he guilty? Can they find the truth? All Spring knows is that time is running out. She has to tell him the story of how he came to be. With the help of her dead sister, newspaper clippings and reconstructed memories, she must find a way to get through to him. To shatter the silences that governed her life, she will do everything she can to lead him home.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other

The Pisces by Melissa Broder – Lucy has been writing her dissertation for nine years when she and her boyfriend have a dramatic break up. After she hits rock bottom, her sister in Los Angeles insists that Lucy dog-sit for the summer. Staying in a gorgeous house on Venice Beach, Lucy can find little relief from her anxiety – not in the Greek chorus of women in her love addiction therapy group, not in her frequent Tinder excursions, not even in Dominic the dog’s easy affection. Everything changes when Lucy becomes entranced by an eerily attractive swimmer while sitting alone on the beach rocks one night. But when Lucy learns the truth about his identity, their relationship, and Lucy’s understanding of what love should look like, take a very unexpected turn.

Milkman by Anna Burns – In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous. Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi – Ada was born with one foot on the other side. Having prayed her into existence, her parents Saul and Saachi struggle to deal with the volatile and contradictory spirits peopling their troubled girl.When Ada comes of age and heads to college, the entities within her grow in power and agency. An assault leads to a crystallization of her selves: Asughara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves – now protective, now hedonistic – seize control of Ada, her life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.Narrated from the perspectives of the various selves within Ada, and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater explores the metaphysics of identity and being. Feeling explodes through the language of this scalding novel, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans – South London, 2008. Two couples find themselves at a moment of reckoning, on the brink of acceptance or revolution. Melissa has a new baby and doesn’t want to let it change her but, in the crooked walls of a narrow Victorian terrace, she begins to disappear. Michael, growing daily more accustomed to his commute, still loves Melissa but can’t quite get close enough to her to stay faithful. Meanwhile out in the suburbs, Stephanie is happy with Damian and their three children, but the death of Damian’s father has thrown him into crisis – or is it something, or someone, else? Are they all just in the wrong place? Are any of them prepared to take the leap?

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott – In the autumn of 1975, after two decades of intimate friendships, Truman Capote detonated a literary grenade, forever rupturing the elite circle he’d worked so hard to infiltrate. Why did he do it, knowing what he stood to lose? Was it to punish them? To make them pay for their manners, money and celebrated names? Or did he simply refuse to believe that they could ever stop loving him? Whatever the motive, one thing remains indisputable: nine years after achieving wild success with In Cold Blood, Capote committed an act of professional and social suicide with his most lethal of weapons . . . Words.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of the American Dream. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. Until one day they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.Devastated and unmoored, Celestial finds herself struggling to hold on to the love that has been her centre, taking comfort in Andre, their closest friend. When Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, he returns home ready to resume their life together.A masterpiece of storytelling, An American Marriage offers a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three unforgettable characters who are at once bound together and separated by forces beyond their control.

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lilian Li – The popular Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland has been serving devoted regulars for decades, but behind the staff’s professional smiles simmer tensions, heartaches and grudges from decades of bustling restaurant life.Owner Jimmy Han has ambitions for a new high-end fusion place, hoping to eclipse his late father’s homely establishment. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, is more concerned with restoring the dignity of the family name than his faltering relationship with his own teenaged daughter, Annie. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, year to turn their thirty-year friendship into something more, while Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. When disaster strikes and Pat and Annie find themselves in a dangerous game that means tragedy for the Duck House, their families must finally confront the conflicts and loyalties simmering beneath the red and gold lanterns.

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn – When Alina’s brother-in-law defects to the West, she and her husband become persons of interest to the secret services, causing both of their careers to come grinding to a halt.As the strain takes its toll on their marriage, Alina turns to her aunt for help – the wife of a communist leader and a secret practitioner of the old folk ways.Set in 1970s communist Romania, Sophie van Llewyn’s novella-in-flash draws upon magic realism to weave a tale of everyday troubles, that can’t be put down.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli – A family in New York packs the car and sets out on a road trip. A mother, a father, a boy and a girl, they head south-west, to the Apacheria, the regions of the US which used to be Mexico. They drive for hours through desert and mountains. They stop at diners when they’re hungry and sleep in motels when it gets dark. The little girl tells surreal knock knock jokes and makes them all laugh. The little boy educates them all and corrects them when they’re wrong. The mother and the father are barely speaking to each other. Meanwhile, thousands of children are journeying north, travelling to the US border from Central America and Mexico. A grandmother or aunt has packed a backpack for them, putting in a bible, one toy, some clean underwear. They have been met by a coyote: a man who speaks to them roughly and frightens them. They cross a river on rubber tubing and walk for days, saving whatever food and water they can. Then they climb to the top of a train and travel precariously in the open container on top. Not all of them will make it to the border.

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden – Abeo Kata lives a comfortable, happy life in West Africa as the privileged nine-year-old daughter of a government employee and stay-at-home mother. But when the Katas’ idyllic lifestyle takes a turn for the worse, Abeo’s father, following his mother’s advice, places her in a religious shrine, hoping that the sacrifice of his daughter will serve as religious atonement for the crimes of his ancestors. Unspeakable acts befall Abeo for the fifteen years she is enslaved within the shrine. When she is finally rescued, broken and battered, she must struggle to overcome her past, endure the revelation of family secrets, and learn to trust and love again.

Circe by Madeline Miller – In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – Teenage Silvie and her parents are living in a hut in Northumberland as an exercise in experimental archaeology. Her father is a difficult man, obsessed with imagining and enacting the harshness of Iron Age life. Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax.

Normal People by Sally Rooney -Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years. This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us – blazingly – about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney’s second novel breathes fiction with new life.

******

So have you read any of these or are you planning to?

Further Reading

Interview Valeria Luiselli: ‘Children chase after life, even if it ends up killing them’
by Emma Brockes, the Guardian

The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar

I discovered this debut novel after seeing an article on Electric Lit by author R.O. Kwon 48 Books By Women and Nonbinary Authors of Color to Read in 2019. I recognised many, but a new name that jumped out at me was debut author Devi S. Laskar.

Kwon added the book to her list based on a recommendation by writer, editor and professor Kiese Laymon, who said he’d “never read a novel that does nearly as much in so few pages,” and that the book is “as narratively beautiful as it is brutal.”

If that wasn’t enough, Nayomi Munaweera, author of the excellent Island of a Thousand Mirrors, and What Lies Between Us said:

“Devi S .Laskar has written a beautiful, harrowing fever dream of a novel. This is a book that insists on no uncertain terms and despite horrific institutional and everyday racism that South Asian Americans are indeed Americans. This is a book I have been waiting a very long time for. A monumental achievement.”

Before telling you about the novel, I’ll just share that I found it masterful. I hadn’t meant to read it too quickly, but I was so entranced and captivated by it, by the voice, by the structure, by its fierce intelligence and grasp of so many aspects, that I couldn’t help myself but read it in two sittings. However, I recommend you take your time, as it deserves close reading.

I’ve since looked at it again and tried to analyse what the author has done, how this novel, that is also an essay, a social commentary, a dual narrative of one characters perspective, past and present, works. It’s a stunning piece of literature, thoroughly deserved of the praise mentioned above. I would love to see it make tonight’s shortlist for the Women’s Fiction Prize 2019.

Review

The Atlas of Reds and Blues takes place over the course of a morning. In the opening line, a woman we will come to know as The Mother has just been shot in her driveway:

Now this fainting, this falling, this landing so ungainly.

A working mother whose husband is often away on business moves her family from Atlanta to the suburbs, discovering not much has changed since her childhood in a small Southern town.

She embodies a second generation American experience, viewed through vivid snippets of her working and family life, looking back, recounting memories that have lead to this moment. It is told by one character but in a dual narrative, (1) the semi-conscious present moment, a stream-of-consciousness awareness of what she sees, hears, smells, feels and wonders, lying there unmoving and (2) short chapters of the past, both recent as The Mother and further back as the Real Thing, daughter of Bengali immigrants. All the characters are referred to with labels such as Baby Sister, Middle Daughter, her hero, man of the hour, similar to Anna Burns’s Milkman.

The present moment narrative arrives in short staccato-like bursts, sometimes a sentence, maybe two, a snatch of dialogue, an unbidden memory, a flash of blue sky, a moment of lucidity. This a more lengthy example:

“She closes her eyes and a kaleidoscope appears, the blue of the sky giving way to the red pulse of pain near her stomach…The pain is less when she doesn’t give in to the light show. But the light show is hard to ignore: every time she opens or closes her eyes, the blues and blood reds are reinvented; she is witnessing the continents shifting, the tectonic plates of years shifting and crashing into each other.”

It is a beautiful, bittersweet cornucopia of blues and reds, colours littered throughout the text alluding to a multitude of contrasts.

Though ostensibly a novel, on closer rereading, I wonder if it has elements of an essay, something I have a heightened awareness of at the moment, after attending a wonderful talk last week by writer Jennifer Delahunty entitled ‘The Art and Power of the Personal Essay, from Montaigne to Zadie Smith’.

Asked about the difference between the essay and an Op-Ed (Opinion Editorial) she described the essay as posing a question the writer is able to explore without necessarily positing an opinion, the intention being to encourage engagement with the subject by the reader.

Our protagonist lying bleeding on her driveway, poses questions that the ensuing chapters serve to explore. She uses the symbol of the doll to illustrate the complexity of being non-white growing up in America and thus poses her question.

Like children, most dolls are made only to be seen, put on display. Real live dolls are taught to remain stoic, bear witness in silence, no matter how the consumer judges. The radio dispatcher squawks and a policeman’s voice describes her: Black hair. Brown skin. Gray sweatpants. Brown T-shirt. Flip-flops.

The dispatcher’s voice drawls.  “Is she Black?” A lawn mower sputters to life nearby and drowns out the policeman’s reply.

Third Monday of May 2010. When you put American clothes on a brown-skinned doll, what do people see? The clothes? Or the whole doll? Or only the skin?

Fifty or so pages later, another reference:

The question can be stripped bare, a striped white line on the highway separating those stuck in traffic from those who are flying down the road: Has anything of significance changed in the last forty-three years?

There is a section entitled Inciting Incidents:

…in which the narrator attempts to decide which particular incident set her on the path of this particular life story, concrete driveway and all, without sprinkling regret and bitterness over everything upon which she stews, without uttering the word no…

Fourteen potential inciting incidents follow, thought-provoking turning points in the Mother’s life, incidents that culminate over time, leading to resistance or acceptance. The first time they read as more experiences, the second time I read more closely looking for the incident, seeing the accumulation of “isms” she has encountered as a woman of colour in the workplace, a neighbour, wife, sister and mother to daughters in today’s America.

What does it mean truly, to be invisible? Her stillness, her ability to remain calm while high-decibel insults are hurled inches from her face and ears. To pretend nothing has been said. To pretend deafness. Or her chameleon’s ability to blend in, a nondescript body in a dark blouse and black jeans leaning against the pay phone at the hospital waiting room, or standing outside the courtroom’s double doors or by the fire engine at the crime scene, yellow do not cross tape isolating one place from its larger context. To pretend the oak tree across the street’s steadfast patience, to pretend paralysis. To watch but pretend blindness. Never look anyone on the eye. Or maybe restraint. Knowing her lack of reaction is the only thing keeping her alive, over and again. Knowing the first time she hits back is the last time she’ll ever have the opportunity to do so.

Laskar is first and foremost a poet, so while it may have been described as harrowing, it also illuminates. Her captivating prose and lyrical repetition draw the reader in, creating a desire to unravel the mystery her many literary devices allude to, to step back from the pieces and see the whole. The book’s structure is inspired by one of her favorite poetry forms, the pantoum, a Malayan folk poem or verse form. In a pantoum, a phrase is repeated throughout, subtle changes in meaning occur due to different contexts.

 “This book is one giant pantoum because the beginning is the end, and she’s considering things over and over.” Devi S. Laskar

It was also partly inspired by a raid on her home, where a gun was pointed at her and she experienced her life flash in front of her eyes.

Almost impossible to review, it is a thought-provoking, unique novel that I haven’t stopped thinking about long after finishing it. Brilliant. Highly Recommended, likely to be one of my favourite reads of 2019.

Buy a Copy of The Atlas of Reds and Blues via Book Depository

N.B. Thank you kindly to Counterpoint Press for sending me a copy to review.

Every Light in the House Burnin’ by Andrea Levy

Sadly the wonderful author Andrea Levy, well-known for her Orange Prize winning novel Small Island (2004), passed away on February 14, 2019. I remember reading it when I lived in London and the joy of a new literary prize that highlighted exactly the kind of stories and authors I liked to read. Her fifth novel The Long Song (2010) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. It was turned into a 3 part television adaptation, screened in Dec 2018.

 

Andrea Levy’s debut novel Every Light in the House Burnin’ reads like an intimate portrayal of family life, so much so that it felt like reading about the author’s childhood, clearly she drew from it. Capturing the essence of family life from perceived childhood injustices that many will recognise, to the humorous anecdotes a clash of cultures brings, when children are raised in a different country to their parents, she immerses into family life and reimagines those poignant moments that shaped her. From the Guardian Obituary, her family description reads like an addendum to the novel.

Her father, Winston Levy, travelled to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948, and was joined six months later by his wife, Amy (nee Ridguard), who had been trained as a schoolteacher in Kingston, Jamaica. Both parents were of mixed race. Her father’s Jewish father emigrated to Jamaica after the first world war and converted to Christianity, and her mother was descended from William Ridsguard, a white plantation attorney who had a child with his black housekeeper. Both parents came to England expecting greater opportunities, but found that their qualifications were rejected.

The novel is a portrait of a family in London, the children of Jamaican immigrants, narrated from the point of view of the youngest child Angela (referred to also as Anne), it brings to life moments in their family life that impacted them all, through carefully realised characters, to the beginning of the decline, just after her father’s retirement.

In one scene Anne is left with her father during their holiday at the beach, her mother and other siblings have gone out. Her father has spent most of the holiday lying on the couch, not at all tempted by the sandy beaches or the sea, but Anne is persistent. Reluctantly he agrees.

I smiled as I watched my Dad haul himself from the sofa. I waited for fifteen minutes before my Dad emerged from his bedroom. He was dressed in his grey suit. The only sign that he was about to take part in a leisure activity and not have a day at work was that he was not wearing a tie and had the top button of his shirt undone.

The challenges have only just begun. Anne wants to sit in the sun, an idea her father rejects, suggesting a secluded spot further back, where the ice cream hut has created the only shade on the beach. Initially he relents to sit in her spot, but refuses to join her in the water, too cold. After her swim, as she lies down to enjoy the warmth of the sun, a shadow looms over her.

‘You shouldn’t sit in the sun too long. You want to turn red like those English people – you shouldn’t sit in the sun’
‘Everybody else’ –
‘Cha’, my dad insisted before I had time to finish. ‘We’re not like everybody else.’

The story turns towards their encounter with the father’s decline and the navigation of the NHS health service, a lack of knowledge, the pain and difficulties encountered as a result, resolved only when the daughter pushes and insists on their behalf. Alternate moments of perseverance and giving up, driven by a need, pushed back by intimidation and shame. Here, Anne offers to visit the Doctor to ask for stronger pain medication.

‘But,’ my mum began, ‘but you can’t just go and see him. He’s a busy man. He might not see you.’ Her voice said ‘go’ and ‘don’t go’ at the same time.

Aspects of the past come to light later on, were they secrets, those things family members never talked about, which end up buried and become secret-like. When an Aunt visits telling them how things are back home in Jamaica and asks about their newfound life in England, the land of opportunity, things not said are loud in their omission. If there was regret, it’s been long-buried, replaced by silence and resignation, not to be discussed.

There are many light and humorous moments, interspersed with the reality of the struggle the family has in fitting in, within a culture where there are expectations about how to do things and underlying racism or indifference toward outsiders. They do their best to integrate, to pass on their stoic values to their children, who only realise as they become adults how difficult it had been for them.

I knew this society better than my parents. My parents’ strategy was to keep as quiet as possible in the hope that no one would know they had sneaked into this country. They wanted to be no bother at all. But I had grown up in its English ways. I could confront it, rail against it, fight it, because it was mine – a birthright.

It was a beautiful beginning to her literary career, a fictional novel that paid tribute to her parent’s and siblings lives, that demonstrates the empathy Levy had for her characters and the pure gift of storytelling that would take her on to deserved critical acclaim. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Click Here to Buy One of Andrea Levy’s Novels via Book Depository (free shipping)