Monthly Archives: January 2016

RIVER ROAD by Carol Goodman

river road by carol goodman

The adverts on the tube about this book lured me in: a dark, intense psychological thriller, they promised. I am here to warn you  – don’t be fooled like I was.

It’s not a bad book, and there are definitely some on the edge of your chair moments, but it’s not a patch on the better end of this kind of genre and there’s something a bit self conscious about the writing and the plot that means it’s all too controlled, contained and deliberate for my liking.

River Road is where creative writing professor Nan Lewis’ daughter was killed in a hit and run accident six years ago. So when, late one snowy night after a few drinks, she hits a deer in the very same black spot, it brings back painful memories. Next morning a student’s body is found in the ditch where Nan’s car came off the road and she’s number one suspect. So begins a plot that twists and turns more for effect than to add anything substantial to the narrative – I guessed who did it almost from page one. Nan’s demons and her obvious commitment as a teacher are Goodman’s most successful accomplishments, the rest is at best mediocre and at worst – such as when a drugs gang are intriduced – a series of cliches. It snows a great deal, which I guess is supposed to be chilling but actually just made me feel irritated that nobody was better equipped for their local climate. Walking around in ballet flats in the depths of an upstate New York winter – really?

I enjoyed the only other book I’ve read by Goodman, THE LAKE OF DEAD LANGUAGES, which really is intense and dark, but RIVER ROAD was a let down and, apart from a scene towards the end where Nan marks the death of her daughter, failed to move me or get under my skin. As I say, it’s not bad, but it’s not good either – it just left me rather indifferent, which is no recommendation.

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GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

go set a watchman by harper lee

Like so many people, I can recall reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at school – and I fell in love with it. I wanted to be Scout, for my Dad to be just like Atticus, and this early encounter with evidence of the difference individuals can make lit a fire in me that has burned fiercely ever since.  All of which makes GO SET A WATCHMAN such a disappointment. It was actually Lee’s first attempt at a novel, but she was advised to discard it in order to develop the elements that really work – those in which a grown up Scout reminisces about her childhood. That’s how TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was born and the advice Lee got was definitely wise.

In GO SET A WATCHMAN we meet 25 year old Scout, now living in New York and known more usually as Jean Louise, on a return visit to Maycombe, where her father, riddled with arthritis, still lives and still practises law. At the heart of the story (although we don’t get to it for some time)  is her discovery that, whilst Atticus remains the embodiment of “integrity, humour and patience” he is, nonetheless, not perfect. The book’s climax is Jean Louise’s subsequent realisation (with a great deal of help) that he must, therefore, be abandoned as her moral compass.

Arguments about free speech, the importance of the constitution and some of the complex factors that contributed to the US Civil War make an appearance but they feel stilted and superficial. So too do Lee’s attempts to explore the disconnect between a remembered childhood and the reality of adulthood. Jean Louise struggles to come to terms with the way her home town is changing – she is caught between the past and the present. She must endure the meaningless prattle of her married school friends, the constant social constraints imposed by her Aunt Alexandra and the knowledge that her relationship with Calpurnia, the woman who raised her, is not “colour blind”. But some of the sympathy we might feel is clouded by the fact that Jean Louise is all over-reaction; the hot hotheadedness we loved in the younger Scout is less appealing now and I found myself growing impatient with her inability to try to understand other’s points of view.

And there are gaps – unforgivable gaps. Jem is dead yet we learn very little about either how or the impact on his sister and father. Jean Louise is contemplating marriage to her old friend Hank, yet their relationship seems to have come out of the blue and it’s left hanging and unresolved at the end. Some of their interactions are done very well and there’s often deep humour in Lee’s depiction of the deep South. But as stories and characters go, there’s more miss than hit, sadly.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book – and of by far and away the most contemporary relevance – is Lee’s representation of the pervasive racism that rears its ugly head on the streets of Jean Louise’s Southern hometown.  And even this works only because the racist Atticus of GO SET A WATCHMAN is such a stark contrast to the man we met in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. It’s not just Scout’s moral compass that is out – a whole generation needs to make the adjustment. Perhaps that’s what I’ll take most from this book: a civil rights activist in the making, Jean Louise challenges what she sees and hears, but unless we all actively do the same, the prejudice that begins where reason ends, to quote Atticus’ brother, will continue to thrive.

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THE NEW ODYSSEY by Patrick Kingsley

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of this pre-publication because my boss has been asked to provide an endorsement for the back cover. Once it hits the shops I think every politician, policy maker, and “anti-immigration” journalist should be required to read a copy. Only the most stony-hearted or stubborn could surely fail to be effected by this compilation of evidence, personal stories and common sense. Parts of Kingsley’s book literally had me sobbing my eyes out but there’s plenty for those most moved by statistics and trends too. And it adds up to an incredibly effective debunking of the idea that erecting ever high fences or refusing the right to work, will discourage those fleeing war, torture and other forms of violence or suffering.

Instead, he argues, we need an asylum policy that’s shared by all EU member states – one that’s humane and efficient. We also need to grant refugees the right to dignity and that includes allowing them the right to work, to access schools and public services, as well as fighting for that right to be upheld in countries like Egypt and Turkey too. The remarkable stories Kingsley tells in his book underline why this is so very important: “The choice is not between the current crisis and blissful isolation. The choice is between the current crisis and an orderly, managed system of mass migration. You can have one, or the other. There is no easy middle ground.”

Through travelling with various families and individuals, interviewing smugglers and sharing Hashem al-Souki’s own personal Odyssey, Kingsley manages to make an overwhelming subject hugely accessible. This is what investigative journalism should look like and it’s also why I tend to stay away from reading non fiction – it just hurts too much.
There are a number of truths that permeate THE LAST ODYSSEY. The first is self evident to me but bears repeating because it’s not widely understood – nobody undertakes the journey to Europe unless what they are leaving behind is far worse than the dangers they’ll encounter en route. And Kingsley honestly details those dangers – be they of drowning, of arrest, detention and torture, of ending up without water in the Sahara, of being separated from your teenage child because the authorities don’t believe their age or that you are related, of rape, of suffocating in the back of a truck, of being ripped off by smugglers or sold to organ harvesters, of simply being at the mercy of the elements and of unscrupulous individuals. Balance this against forced conscription in Eritrea, the Assad regime’s brutality in Syria, insurgencies in northern Pakistan, and genocide in Darfur, and there’s just one word for it – desperation.

What also comes across loud and clear is that whilst very few are purely economic migrants, you cannot divorce the current crisis from economic factors. So poverty in countries like Nigeria fuels both the movement of people and also the boom in those prepared to “work” as smugglers or benefit in other ways from the trade. Syrians who have fled to Libya or Jordan but who have no employment or housing prospects there move on.

Time and again people talk to Kingsley about historical debt. How their parents or grandparents were given refuge during the Second World War, prompting them to break the law to help refugees arriving today in their communities. How citizens of the Balkan states remember fleeing terror and war not that long ago and want to reciprocate the welcome offered them. How vast numbers of Greeks, now living on islands like Lesvos which are the goal for many of those braving the Mediterranean in overcrowded dinghies, are the descendants of those forced to leave Turkey in the 1920s and who British and American boats picked up from the beaches so they could safely escape approaching armies. We also meet some families who have literally been on the move for generations, fleeing Palestine, then Kuwait, now Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan.

A large part of the power of this book is that it humanises the crisis, by giving the people behind the headlines names, jobs, feelings and pasts. In much the same way that the photo of Aylan Kurdi’s body on the beach  woke much of the UK up to the refugee crisis, Kingsley’s writing similarly provides a way to connect with something that’s otherwise almost unimaginable. It also pays tribute to the very best and worst of human nature, our ability to hope beyond reason and endure beyond hardship.

But above all it’s real, it’s angry, as well it should be, and it’s a call to action. By highlighting the remarkable ways in which people all over the world are making a terrible situation just that little bit better, Kingsley has very cleverly shown the reader ways of refusing to comply with the mainstream narrative that would have us believe our fellow human beings are somehow less deserving of safety and security.

So if you get the chance to read this, please do so. And if you don’t please just read these words from one of the men Kingsley meets: “Someone without their own country hasn’t got anything to lose”.

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HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

half of a yellow sun by chimamanda kgozi adichie

I loved AMERICANAH and had high hopes for its predecessor, Adichie’s acclaimed novel revolving around the lives of a Nigerian couple,  Olanna and Odenigbo,  their houseboy, Ugwu, and a white man, Richard. It tells the story of the Biafran war (Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war) from their different perspectives, spanning Ugwu’s forced conscription, Olanna’s breakdown following the murder of her cousins, Odenigbo’s infidelity and Richard’s attempts to research and write about Igbo-Ukwu art. Above all this is a book of contrasts – between the hardship and suffering that follows Biafra’s declaration of independence and the characters lives before the war strikes, between their hopes and dreams and what turns out to be the reality, and between their perceptions of themselves and who they discover they are when confronted by violence, starvation and loss. Pre-war, the “news was unreal, functioning only as fodder for the evening talk, for Odenigbo’s rants and impassioned articles” but it soon dictates, transforms and ultimately becomes their lives.

There’s no doubting that Adichie is a marvellous story teller. I was captivated from the opening pages onwards, and the pleasure I got from reading this book is enhanced further by her astute observations  about human nature, in all its complexities and contradictions.  Simple phrases say a vast amount, for example this from Olanna about Odengibo: “Then she wished, more rationally, that she could love him without needing him. Need gave him power without his trying; need was the choicelessness she often felt around him”. Olanna in particular is a triumph – especially as an all too rare positive portrayal of an outspoken, thoughtful and black woman.

Ugwu is hugely likeable as well, from his humorous lusting after shapely girls to the way he compares politicians with the “slimy sink” that happens “whenever he drained a pot of boiled beans”. The change he undergoes during the war may well be the most profound in the long run, but Adichie has enough confidence not to labour this point – subtle and light of touch, she trusts in her readers as much as she trusts her story.

Richard’s character is probably the least successful – or at least it’s the one I found least convincing. His relationship with Olanna’s sister doesn’t quite ring true One episode involving him did move me hugely though, and Adichie exhorts all our senses to great effect in order to convey the horror he experiences when going through security one day at Kano airport.

From Olanna’s inability to stop her child getting ill and Odenigbo’s distress at not knowing whether his mother’s body has been buried, to Ugwu’s coming of age in a bar frequented by soldiers and Richard’s failure as a writer, shame plays a huge role in the book. But despite this, and despite the horror and massacres that are the backdrop to Adichie’s story, she has managed to write a book that’s actually hugely uplifting. Human cruelty abounds but so too does kindness, gentleness and goodness.  Whilst I didn’t enjoy HALF OF A YELLOW SUN as much as AMERICANAH, it is a remarkable book and so too is this slice of Nigerian history on which Adichie has successfully used fiction to shine a light.

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