Monthly Archives: December 2016

THE POWER by Naomi Alderman

the-power-by-naomi-alderman

I was in Wales for a few days over New Year and over a lovely relaxed evening meal was trying to explain to someone I was only meeting for the second time just why I loved this book – and I think I came across as rather blood thirsty and vengeful! It’s about a future reality in which the vast majority of women have developed the ability to inflict enormous amounts of pain on others by way of electric shocks delivered through their fingers – and about the anthropological impact of possessing such physical power. I loved it.

The story is about a period of immense change known as the Cataclysm and during which women’s physical power was awoken. A period of time some 5000 years or so prior to when the book is being written and which roughly equates to the early 21st century – or so we deduce thanks to the appearance of an i-pad, which that far in the future is judged to be some kind of plate like implement thanks to the apple motif.  Four different narrators are our main protagonists: Allie, abused by her foster carers as a young girl and who reinvents herself as Mother Eve. Roxy, daughter of a crime boss who sees her mother murdered and fights back, as well as her way into the top echelons of her father’s business.  Margot, an ambitious politician whose daughter doesn’t have the same levels of power as other women (and in whose narrative we get the prescience of a shock US election result courtesy of an electorate choosing lies, immorality and strength over reasoned discourse and calm authority ). And Tunde, the only man and a Nigerian journalist who documents the riots, wars and upheaval caused as different parts of the world adapt to or resist a new reality. These sections are book ended by an exchange of correspondence between the author and a colleague, sharing feedback, reflecting on the recent discovery of historical artefacts, theorising about what life was like before the Cataclysm, and discussing how their work will sit in the political and social context of the day. Alderman’s final line is a smart, sad, laugh out loud, killer than I am smiling wryly just thinking about. It’s worth reading the entire book just for that pleasure.

Let me clarify here and now what I failed to get across during my new year dinner table conversation – the reason I loved THE POWER is because I don’t want one gender to systematically humiliate, oppress, threaten, undermine, rape, abuse and  kill another, and by turning the tables so comprehensively, Naomi Alderman has laid bare the everyday reality we currently inhabit and which is just as shocking as her fictional one. In some countries post Cataclysm men are denied the right to drive and even have their genitals mutilated. Such parallels are obvious but many other extremes of this fictional dystopia are so entrenched that it would be easy to overlook the extent to which they are a powerful part of the present. In a lesser writers’ hands, the point might have been laboured a little too hard but, with a few notable exceptions and mainly in Tunde’s parts of the narrative, Alderman doesn’t do this and her restraint makes THE POWER all the more impressive.

The novel tackles religion, politics, personal relationships. It explores how girls learn to control their power and the alienation felt by those who don’t have it. It doesn’t describe or judge women based on their looks but on what they do, say and think, though Tunde is sexually objectified on a number of occasions. It examines when girls become women, how written and oral stories shape our understanding of history and herstory, whether the ability to inflict pain causes more damage to the wielder or the victim, whether matriarchal societies are kinder than patriarchal ones, the link between violence and power, and whether certain power structures, belief systems and hierarchies are likely to emerge because we are all alike or because of our differences. We get cults, conspiracy theories galore, corruption and control via opiates. In other words, Alderman’s not afraid to take on a lot and mostly she does so with skill and humour. The characters are  a little more two dimensional than I’d have liked but I can forgive this because the whole is so brilliant – energetic, angry and clever. This is how I like my sci-fi and, whilst THE POWER has just sneaked in at the end of 2016, I think it may just be one of my favourite books of the year.

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THE LAST TOWN ON EARTH by Thomas Mullen

the-last-town-on-earth-by-thomas-mullen

“As a deadly epidemic threatens their town, two men must decide its fate.”

I was instantly attracted to this book by its title and these words on the front cover, but it actually turned out very differently from what I had imagined. Less disaster movie or sci-fi survival (think The Road) and more historical commune with moral reckoning (think Little House on the Prairie with everyone turning on one another).

Commonwealth is a remote logging town, established by idealistic socialist Charles and his anti war, trade unionist wife, Rebecca. It’s 1918 and, although engaged in essential war effort work, most of the men in the town haven’t registered for their deferral papers. Barely aware of the war being waged around the world, they are too busy fighting a deadly Spanish flu that’s wiped out vast numbers of those living in the next nearest place, Timber Falls. The residents of Commonwealth vote to put themselves in quarantine and a group of young men volunteer to stand guard over the only road in and out of town. One is Philip, the 16 year old adopted son of Charles and Rebecca, and Graham, their neighbour and good friend, whose wife Amelia is pregnant with their third child. One night, not long into the quarantine, a soldier, apparently lost, approaches the roadblock the townsfolk have set up and pleads with Philip and Graham to let him in. He is hungry, cold and desperate. Graham shoots him and the pair bury the body deep in the woods.

Several nights later another soldier appears and this time only Philip is on guard. Torn between his guilt about what happened previously and his determination to live up to the trust placed in him, the teenager halfheartedly takes on the soldier, only to eventually relent under pressure and agree to help hide him someplace warm and dry overnight. But Philip is soon found out and the town’s elders, fearing the soldier may be carrying the plague, decide to lock him and Philip up for 48 hours until the risk of infection is passed. During their segregation the pair strike up an intense friendship that affects Philip in particular very deeply, causing him to question both the decisions made by his father and the rest of the town, and the pedestal on which he has previously put Graham. When the soldier is accused of being a spy and kept under lock and key whilst Philip walks free, the town he returns too feels like a much changed place, as does his sense of right and wrong.

Despite their best efforts, Commonwealth succumbs to the flu virus and, at the same time, attracts the renewed attention of the Timber Falls authorities who resent attempts to prevent them finding and arresting all the reds and draft dodgers, as they call them. Charles suspects ulterior motives at play and an agenda that’s more about undermining his utopian project than boosting the war effort, but it falls to Philip to confront the sheriff and his men as they drag Commonwealth’s residents onto the streets to humiliate and beat them.

Philip’s is our main perspective on the events that make up THE LAST TOWN ON EARTH and he’s a morally very interesting and convincing character – not quite a man but also not quite fitting the heroic child role into which many  literary 16 years olds are cast. Yet there are huge gaps that Mullen doesn’t seem even interested in filling – how Philip feels about his adopted sibling, for example – and despite being a well told, well paced and thoughtful book, it had something lacking that I think comes from an absence of any really well developed characters. It never really touched or emotionally engaged me, as a result. What’s more, women barely register in Mullen’s novel and the tantalising prospect of learning more about Rebecca’s past, for example, and which kept me turning the pages in anticipation, was never fulfilled.

This is a book about ramifications – the actions we take, what motivates us and how selflessness is often confused with selfishness. It’s a book about manhood, the behaviour that passes for it, especially in a crowd, and how we measure it. It’s a book about freedom: whether that’s something we live in our heads or in the space around us. And it’s a book about how readily we create enemies to fight against and how hard we’ll fight when family and loved ones are threatened.

A good read with a powerful sense of place and history in particular to recommend it, but, all told, THE LAST TOWN ON EARTH wasn’t nearly as good as the book I thought I was picking up when I first read those words on the front cover.

 

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THE FORGETTING TIME by Sharon Guskin

the-forgetting-time-by-sharon-guskin

You Only Live Once. That’s what people said, as if life really mattered because it happened only one time. But what if it was the other way around? What if what you did mattered MORE because life happened again and again, consequences unfolding across centuries and continents? What if you had chances upon chances to love the people you loved, to fix what you screwed up, to get it right?

Jerome Anderson has spent his life researching the possibility that consciousness can survive death. He’s travelled the world documenting incredible cases of children who remember previous lives in huge detail, ache for contact with their previous families and, in some instances, bear birthmarks that are haunting clues to the manner of their previous deaths. Now, diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and the prospect of rapidly losing access to much of his language and vocabulary, Anderson is racing against time to publish his findings and include one more compelling case that will appeal to US audiences.

Janie Zimmerman is Mommie-Mom to 4 year old Noah, conceived during a one night stand on a holiday in Trinidad, and struggling with a son who refuses to be bathed, has horrific nightmares about being pushed under water and incessantly pleads to be taken home. When Noah’s teachers involve protective services out of growing concern over his behaviour and vivid stories, Janie takes to Google in desperation, stumbling upon a link to Anderson’s work. With Noah increasingly distressed, a stream of psychiatrists bleeding her financially and emotionally dry, and her successful career as an architect stalling in the face of crisis after domestic crisis with her son, Janie reaches out to Anderson.

Denise Crawford is just about holding down a job at an old people’s home. Her teenage son, Charlie, is fed but that’s about it, and her musician husband Henry spends his time on the road away from home, trying to escape the memories of  their other son, Tommy, who disappeared at the age of nine and whose body has never been found. Seven years on and Denise still puts up flyers with Tommy’s face on them, urging people to get in touch if they have seen him, hoping beyond hope that theirs will be one of the miracles she’s read about in the papers and Tommy will be returned to them.

THE FORGETTING TIME brings these narratives together in what’s a moving, though somewhat predictable, story.  Guskin captures Anderson’s plight particularly successfully, but all the characters are convincing and touched me hugely. The moments when Denise meets Janie, and Noah meets Charlie are charged with enormous amounts of tension and Guskin rises to the occasion without resorting to cliches or platitudes. Janie’s reflection that the man made constellations she’s replicated on Noah’s ceiling is “the most all of us could handle of the universe” implies Guskin is a true believer in the phenomenon her story explores, but there’s a healthy dose of scepticism throughout and what emerges in the very satisfying Epilogue (for which full marks to the author) is more a sense of how valuable clinging to explanations can be, as we seek comfort in our lives and deaths.

Part mystery, part Jodie Picoultesque women’s fiction and part something undefinable, THE FORGETTING TIME is definitely unforgettable.

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HINTERLAND by Caroline Brothers

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This is a genuinely difficult book to read – not because of the way it’s written but because, although fictional, it’s like reading non fiction. The things happening to two young boys crossing Europe as refugees from Afghanistan are all too real and desperate. The very fact they are having to flee their home and travel alone, choose between going hungry or stealing, spend time in the Jungle camp at Calais and stow away in a refrigerated lorry to reach the small circle of light that is England – it’s all happening to other children and every page is a painful reminder that what is one person’s entertainment is another’s everyday existence.

Kabir and Aryan’s story has a gentle simplicity to it, woven through with moments of heart wrenching, gut punching clarity. Aryan’s map has a symbol for migratory birds along the border between Turkey and Greece – ‘Sanctuary’ he reads. That’s all. No labouring of the point -just the idea left hanging that we protect birds more than we protect children.  One evening, huddling around a fire, Kabir watches a teenager heat a piece of wire in the flames then, calmly, clasp it tight in his fingers and pull it through. “A polished line runs across skin turned yellow with scar tissue.” The boy is getting rid of his finger prints, so he cannot be turned back if he’s caught by border guards. A statement of fact and then the story moves on.

As in THE MEMORY STONES, Brothers writing can be poetic at times, especially when she’s describing the natural world. For example: “A caterpillar pleats and stretches itself along the length of a branch like a tape measure with audacious stripes.” She also has the ability to capture so much in just a few words, such as when an exhausted beyond caring Aryan  “looks up at the stars that are fading in the watery dawn and thinks of the stars where he was born, passive overseers of so much strife, and wonders how long they will have to bear this limbo, suspended between a past they can no longer return to, and a future that’s taking for ever to unfurl.” In just that one line she conveys everything from how small and powerless we ultimately are to the enormous difference we can make with our decisions; from the universal human capacity to hope for something better to our equally large capacity to live according to our differences; and from the way a few months can last a life time and decades can pass in the blink of an eye.

The brothers are typical boys in many ways and yet different in so many others. They hold a litany of cities in their heads so they don’t get lost and to chant at moments of anxiety like a talisman: KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon. They ponder big questions like where they are from – and whether identity is tied up with your birthplace, your history, your culture or something else. They roll in the dirt with puppies, recognising and responding to the desire for affection and playfulness. They are haunted by the memories of their family, distressed to no longer be able to remember how their mother smelt, only that her scent was the same as that carried on her clothes. They form strong bonds with their fellow refugees, especially Hamid, who yearns to study astronomy, attracted by the starlight’s journey starting long before the conflict that has ravaged his country  “if we could imagine ourselves in space, we would be high off the ground, away from all our troubles, and we could see all of life beneath us. It would make all the fighting seem small and unimportant and pointless, and maybe it would make people like peace more”. They cry, love hamburgers, argue, love new trainers, squirm when having their hair cut, love one another. Children, old beyond their years and experiencing things nobody should ever have to go through.

As 2016 comes to a close, what the book had to say about hope really struck a chord with me – this year it’s been a real struggle to stay hopeful. So when Aryan realises that getting into the tunnel under the Channel is likely impossible and acknowledges to himself just how powerfully he’d been holding onto to that prospect as “a last ditch reservoir of hope”, I sobbed my heart out. I sobbed too at the kindness of strangers, the way fellow refugees eyes light up when they see Kabir and are reminded of the sons, cousins, brothers and nephews they have left behind or lost. And I sobbed at the inevitable conclusion to their odyssey in a world where there’s no such thing as a happy ending if you are born the “wrong” side of a border.

HINTERLAND may well be a difficult book to read but such things are relative, and perhaps this story about Aryan and Kabir may prompt some readers into doing whatever they can, however small, to bring a little bit of hope back into the world:

http://www.hummingbirdproject.org.uk/

http://care4calais.org/

http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/

http://www.refugee-action.org.uk/

 

 

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