Category Archives: historical

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing by yaa gyasi

I picked this up because it’s set in Ghana and my ex spent a year working there recently so I was interested in learning a little about the country’s relatively recent history. As expected it was painful, scarred with exploitation and full of suffering.

Gyasi starts in an Asante village in the 18th century with two half sisters, Efia and Esi. Effia, abandoned by her mother in the bush at birth is sold by her father to James, a British slave trader, to be his wife, and the couple live at cape Coast Castle. Esi, the valuable daughter of an important chief, is seized by local boys working for the slave traders during a raid on her village and also ends up at the castle – in the dungeons, where she’s held until she can be sold and transported to the Americas. HOMEGOING then uses a series of interconnecting stories that picks up and traces each woman’s family over the ensuing years, finishing at the turn of the 21st century.

The individual stories are powerful in and of themselves, so much so that each time one finished to move on to the next I was disappointed to leave them behind, then soon captivated anew by the next. And the stories combine together to make an incredibly rich, moving and well researched whole.

Each of Effia’s descendants inherits a stone that she was given by her mother and that tangibly connects them with family and history. Esi was given a similar stone but lost it in the filth and squalor of the West African dungeons. Nonetheless she too carries the weight of her past and it is passed to her children, and their children and so on. The stories that make up HOMEGOING aren’t just linked by Esi and Effia, they are bound too by the thread of slavery and how its impact continues to resonate, generation after generation. This thread, inevitably, becomes a little looser as we move through time, but whilst on many levels HOMEGOING is about the redemptive nature of love, it also leaves the reader in no doubt whatsoever that nothing can heal the scars Effia and Esi and their descendants continue to bear.

It’s the compelling and credible characters that really make this book, that give it both dark and light, even if at times the historical span means they have to embody a particular stereotype too restrictively – whether that’s the Harlem jazz musician or the missionary scholar. There’s Quey, James and Effia’s mixed race son, who refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps as a slave trader. Then there’s Esi’s child, Ness, born on a plantation in the American South,  who with husband, Sam, later flees the captivity and slavery they’ve known all their lives in one of the most heart wrenching sections of the novel. Decades later there’s Marcus and Marjorie, who meet in the US, unaware that their ancestors were half sisters and who travel together to Ghana.

Marcus is involved in a research project there and as the pair wander on the beach, he yearns to tell Marjorie how overwhelmed he feels with wanting his work to capture “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 of it.”  Any flaws in HOMEGOING seem to arise from the fact that Gyasi’s task is just as enormous, especially when her subject matter throbs with such importance. Yet rather than get lost in this vastness of scale, it looks for roots and finds them in the lives of individuals – and it’s that combination which I think makes the novel such an incredible success and HOMEGOING a book I am sure I will read again and again.

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THE LANTERN by Deborah Lawrenson

the lantern by deborah lawrenson

There’s something very captivating about this sensual, mysterious novel. It evokes its Provencal setting through some gorgeous (if at times over wrought) language that appealed to all my senses, and the way it moves between past and present is seamless and bewitching. Yet overall I felt a bit irritated reading THE LANTERN and in large part I suspect that was because it crossed over every so often into the supernatural. Now I love a bit of supernatural or magic or fantasy in a book. I love a lot of it too, as evidenced by my reading the Harry Potter series about once a year. But these things have their place and, although I have no hard and fast rules, I don’t much like it when ghosts, spells, visitors from other planets or whatever arrive unannounced in a book that I am expecting to be the kind of book where such things do not occur. As it turns out, there are rational explanations for all the supernatural events that take place but none of that is revealed until very close to the end and, by that time,  I am afraid the damage had been done.

At the heart of THE LANTERN is a house called Les Genevriers that has been home to immense happiness and terrible heartbreak. When Eve and Dom, in the midst of a whirlwind romance, buy the house and start the long process of rescuing it from neglect they stir up all sorts of secrets about the previous inhabitants. The random objects Dom and Eve find in the overgrown garden and wonder over are precious memories to Benedicte Lincel, who grew up at Les Genevriers at the time of the Second World War and who is struggling to let go of the past. The house and the events that take place there link Eve and Dom’s story with Benedicte’s, until eventually the two collide with the shocking discovery of a body in the grounds of Les Genevriers.

The slightly oppressive nature of Les Genevriers once the summer has passed, feeds suspicions that Eve has been harbouring about Dom, and these feelings are heightened by his repeated disappearances, news reports of missing local teenage girls, and her lover’s brooding, uncommunicative nature. As she tries to find out the story behind Dom’s break up with his wife, Eve becomes more and more unsure about the man she has followed to the South of France. A friendship with a local French woman who knew Dom’s wife prompts even more questions and when Eve discovers that his ex had been researching the history of former owners of Le Genevriers, the house starts to feel more like a prison that a retreat.

Benedicte’s older sister, Marthe, lost her sight as a young girl and as an adult was a world renowned parfumier. Like many of his generation, their brother Pierre decided that his future lay in getting rich as a factory worker rather than the back breaking work of rural life. Benedicte is the one who stayed at home, caring for her ageing mother and trying to keep Le Genevrier in one piece. When handsome Andre turns up one evening looking for board in return for work, Benedicte starts to feel she may have a future ahead of her and the two soon fall in love. But like everyone in this story, Andre has dark secrets and Benedicte’s heart gets broken – first by him, then by her sister, and finally by her prodigal, bitter and violent brother.

I definitely found Benedicte’s the most moving of the two narratives that make up the book – she’s a far stronger and interesting character than modern day Eve who is a bit too self obsessed and drippy for my liking. But it takes a while before her story really gets going and that also added to my frustration with THE LANTERN, as did the obvious but ultimately undeserved comparisons with Daphne DuMaurier’s REBECCA- a far superior book. There’s no doubt Lawrenson can write and the story is well plotted and richly told. She develops some interesting themes, most notably around blindness and passivity. So it’s a shame that I just didn’t get along with THE LANTERN as well as I might. If you do not have the same prejudices, you may well enjoy it – and at least you are forewarned.

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THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue

the-wonder-by-emma-donoghue

I loved Donoghue’s last novel, ROOM, but wasn’t sure I’d like this as much because its setting is historical – 19th century Ireland to be precise. In fact it’s almost as good and her story telling abilities drew me in from the offset.

The plot is quite simple: Lib, a Nightingale nurse trained in the Crimea, is contracted to watch over eleven year old, Anna, who appears to have survived 4 months of self imposed fasting with no ill effects. The local community think Anna is a holy miracle in their midst, and a committee made up of the local priest, doctor, publican and baronet want independent verification that all is as it seems, not least so they might fully benefit from her potential as a religious tourist attraction. Lib is joined in her task by a local nun and the pair take turns to watch over Anna, monitor her condition and observe whether she is indeed faith personified or in fact a fraud.

Lib is convinced Anna is getting food from somewhere and that she will find her out immediately. So when her thorough searches of the family’s most basic of homes reveals no evidence the girl is eg sneaking into the kitchen at night, she turns her attention elsewhere and variously suspects the doctor, the priest, her nursing colleague the nun and both parents. Hitting related brick walls it’s only as Anna’s condition deteriorates rapidly severely, that Lib is forced to change tack. In doing so she confronts the difficult truth that it is her own presence making Anna sick – that the very act of being observed has changed the subject of the investigation. Buoyed by the words of a passionate journalist she meets at her lodgings, and her growing attachment to the young girl, Lib determines that the matter of miracles must take a backseat to persuading Anna to eat to stay alive. To do that she must better understand why Anna stopped in the first place and that discovery makes Lib wonder whether the girl will ever be safe.

One of the most striking things about WONDER is Lib’s scorn for Ireland and everyone she meets there. She rails at the poverty, ignorance, superstitions and religious fervour. And her fury at the damp and the peat smoke that permeate everything is palpable. Lib stands for progress, for science, yet this is sorely tested as the story unfolds, and she finds herself having to draw on aspects of  the very same faith and folklore she despises in order to save Anna from the inevitable consequences of starvation.

The other most striking thing is the same sense of claustrophobia and oppression that marked out ROOM. But Lib isn’t really in a contained physical space – just one of her own making – and one of the downsides of this novel is that she has the freedom to act sooner and more actively challenge what is so obviously going on, so her refusal to do so is both frustrating and calls her moral superiority into question. We know her reaction to Anna is complicated by a backstory that contains loss and grief, but that doesn’t quite excuse her failure to see what’s staring her in the face, or the way her assumptions about Ireland lead her to wrongly assume all sorts of things about the situation in which she finds herself. Donoghue has given as a flawed protagonist and that’s OK, but she’s also given us one who doesn’t quite measure up to her own self or experiences and that’s less forgivable. Nonetheless, this is a good book, with strong, interesting characters and a compelling narrative – definitely worth the read.

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LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-by-kate-atkinson

A Christmas present from the friend who introduced me to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series – CASE HISTORIES, ONE GOOD TURN, WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS, and STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG. Like that friendship, Atkinson’s books just seem to get better and better and LIFE AFTER LIFE is no exception.

Ursula Todd, born February 11th 1910, lives different versions of her life. In one she falls from a window as a child, in another she lives. In one rendition she succumbs to the Spanish flu brought home by the family’s maid, in another she pushes the maid down the stairs to prevent a trip into London for the end of the First World War celebrations and her coming into contact the with flu. One teenage Ursula is raped by an arrogant American friend of her brother’s named Howie and dies following an abortion. An alternative  survives the abortion but  goes on to marry a mild mannered man who turns out to be a bully that beats her to death. In another life she simply enjoys a delicious innocent kiss with Howie and in a further version again she avoids him completely and instead encounters a neighbour’s son upon whom she is rather sweet. She dies in a Nazi bombing raid on London and on another occasion is part the rescue team pulling bodies out of the same rubble. In some narratives she ends up in Germany, and in some of those is friends with Eva Braun. At times, Ursula seems aware of the points at which her lives diverge, whilst deja vu and thinking one is seeing ghosts take on new meaning in this context. Some versions of herself are clearly less attuned to what’s going on, “We only have one [life] after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” But in one thread she actively chooses to die and follow a particular path that sees her attempt to stop her treasured younger brother, Teddy, being shot down from his plane with an assassination attempt on Hitler that she hopes will avert the whole Second World War.

Amidst all this change, some things remain constant. The housekeeper Mrs Glover’s piccalilli; the haven that is her childhood home, Fox Corner; being her father Hugh’s favourite child and nicknamed Little Bear; the wallpaper on the stairs, trips to the seaside and, in this very English of novels, the weather. The essence of each characters remains true too, from Ursula’s incorrigible aunt Izzie’s flightiness to her older brother Maurice’s pomposity. History is haphazard, and whilst its remembering is important for the way it shapes our lives, who we are and what we choose to do seems far more interesting and impactful in Atkinson’s hands.

When I first began reading the book, I feared that the groundhog day element of it would prove tedious but nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst details and people recur, the stories are sufficiently different at each telling to captivate anew. And, of course, there’s the humour which Atkinson does so well. Ursula’s mother, Sylvie has the best one liners. From bemoaning the messiness of childbirth and asserting that if she’d been in charge of designing the human race she’d have opted for “a well fitting hatch somewhere modest for escape”, to declaring drily and with wonderful timing “sometimes…one can mistake gratitude for love.” When she attends a Third Reich rally with her daughter, Sylvie has little to say other than that the colours of the flag and banner bedecked street are rather dull “as though she were considering asking the national Socialists to decorate her living room.” Somehow this lightness helps ground what could be the rather fanciful notion at the heart of the novel in a reality that is gritty, banal and full of magic.  Atkinson’s ability to capture time and place like few others writers plays a similar role – from velvet hair ribbons to the smell of boiled cabbage, each detail is perfectly chosen to ground her novel and make it sing.

Funny, sad, unusual, startling and as comfortable as a well worn pair of pjyamas this is the kind of writing, story telling and characterisation that I love, especially on a cold winter night, curled up on the sofa. Roll on the sequel,…A GOD IN RUINS.

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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 ICE ROAD by Gillian Slovo

the-ice-road-by-gillian-slovo

I’ve  been fascinated by Russian history since watching a film about the missing princess Anastasia as a child, and when I took a trip to Moscow and Leningrad when studying for history A level it was amazing to see the sheer scale of the buildings and landscape. So this novel, set in the Leningrad of the 1930s absorbed me from the very first page to the last. It’s epic in its reach across the political events of the time and the various lives of Slovo’s beautifully conjured cast: Boris Aleksandrovich and his family, old friend Anton and the child he takes in, and the cleaner, Irina, who he sends on an adventure that both opens her eyes to what’s possible in life and binds them together as the turmoil of the Stalin years unfolds.

There’s snow, passion, political treachery, desperation, food queues, the ballet, lice, parades, a prison where people rot if they are left alive long enough, samovars, a grand ship that needs rescuing, heroism, loyalty, trenches, an American and  ice, more ice and then the ice road, built to bring supplies to the starving citizens  that survived Hitler’s sustained bombing campaign. A moving and evocative book about the everyday acts of kindness and cruelty that shape our lives and the history we live through.

 

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GUERNICA by Dave Boling

guernica-by-dave-boling

I didn’t know very much about what happened to Guernica before reading this book but it was a good excuse to find out more and very timely too, given several politicians and commentators have drawn parallels with what’s currently happening in Aleppo. The author’s end note also puts the events into an ongoing context: “Historians have disputed the death toll from the bombing of Guernica, by the act nonetheless remains at the taproot of the assaults against civilian populations that the world still grieves on an all too regular basis.”

He also notes that he deliberately chose to focus his novel less on the political background and more on the “poverty, oppression, instability, and disenfranchisement that common citizens would have felt.” He does so very effectively, despite the first half of the book being relentlessly positive and upbeat. As we meet the key characters and watch their lives unfold, I kept expecting things to go wrong; people to be stood up at the altar, miscarriages, betrayal or accidents. But these are people enjoying the simple things of life, happy with what they have and fully aware of being blessed. That doesn’t mean things are always easy, but they respond to problems with love, openness and a profound trust that things will work themselves out. They share, they talk and they dance.

At the centre of the story is Justo, his brothers Josepe and Xabier, his wife Mariangeles, their daughter, Miren, her best friend, the blind and orphaned Alaia, and two brothers, Dodo and Miguel. Miren has inherited her mother’s good nature and knack of being adored, “for drawing them near, as if initiating them into her own club of the unrelentingly well intended…She always opened a gate to somewhere they each wished to go. And then she listened.” She can dance on the rim of a wine glass, strides so her black plait swings like a pendulum, and rather than inducing envy, reminds people how life looked before it became complicated. Justo is a giant of a man, literally and metaphorically. His physical strength is matched by an inner sense of purpose that’s deployed protecting those whom he loves. When he tells his daughter’s fiancee about a ritual that involves biting off ram’s testicles, we cannot be sure if it’s fact or fiction, but that doesn’t really matter; it has the desired effect. Mariangeles keeps him in check most of the time and has a clarity of vision and sense of objectivity that makes her the ideal mouthpiece for the many of the historical and political facts Boling weaves into his pastoral idyll. The firebrand Dodo also bring this perspective but is more revolutionary than cool observer, perfectly conveying the Basque passion that throbs through the novel.

As I turned each page having my expectations of disaster confounded each time, there was, nonetheless, a sense of impending doom, after all a novel with such a title is not going to avoid tragedy. This sense was heightened by occasional vignettes starring historical figures such as Picasso, Luftwaffe pilot Von Richthofen and Basque president José Antonio Aguirre, and the effect is to underline the separation between the everyday lives being lived out in Guernica and the storm clouds gathering just out of sight. Miren sums it up when she  admits “these things happened but not to her, not here” and goes on “she felt that if she could just talk to Franco, sit down with him, she could straighten this all out, She could make him see the importance of stopping the war.” It’s a thought I have most days about men like Assad.

All of which makes the shock when it does arrive all the more profound. Not a book to read in public, if you can help it.

Boyling spans decades in the first half of the book, then we get a section that’s just one day: 26 April 1937. Things slow down as they are wont to do in moments of horror and pain. Every graphic detail is recollected, from the sounds to the smells, to the sensation of being lost in the town you’ve known since birth because it’s unrecognisable. A door cannot be shut because “the lower part of a man’s leg, still wearing a black espadrille” blocks it. People rammed into a shelter lick the walls “trying to suck in condensation to fend off the steaming heat”. The wheels of a pram kick up cockerels’ tails of dark fluid.

Then comes the aftermath. Von Richthofen reflects on the bombing and judges it “a genesis moment” and “Effective. Modern. The new war.” Xabier is asked how many people died and replies “When you see a group of boys fused into a blackened mess, you don’t take an inventory. How many died? How many? Death was infinite.”The undead seeking family members, the grieving, the anger and the revenge. Whether that’s taking the lives of those responsible, saving lives, or just stubbornly continuing to live your own.  The children shipped to England for “rest, contentment and – more important still – peace”. Welcomed with open arms and nobody demanding dental checks to verify their age. And the painting, seen and admired around the world, and about which Picasso remarks, when asked by a German soldier “You did this, didn’t you”, “No. You did”. The steady, difficult tasks of rebuilding your home and your life, when everything has changed so dramatically and everywhere is haunted by those you have lost.

A sensual book of every day miracles, GUERNICA is far from perfect – it’s naive at times, suffers from a lack of political analysis and too many easy cliches – but there’s something about it that touched me deeply. Perhaps because, more than anything, it’s a reminder of what living a good life means; that love endures; that sometimes happiness is all the more sweet for the despair that precedes it. A reminder that “if you lose someone you love, you need to redistribute your feelings rather than surrender them. You give them to whoever is left, and the rest you turn towards something that will keep you moving forward”. And that, despite the weight of history, we still have much to learn as a human race about how to avoid the horrors of war.

 

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