Tag Archives: book prize

HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie

This book hit me hard. It’s honest, uncomfortable, deeply moving and hurtles towards an ending that both shocked and surprised me.

Twins Aneeka and Parvaiz are at the heart of the story, which revolves around him departing London to work for an Isis media team and her starting up a relationship with the Home Secretary’s son, Eamonn, in a bid to help her brother return home when he realises what he’s got himself into. Also in the mix is their older sister Isma, who herself meets and falls for Eamonn whilst studying overseas and is inadvertently the cause of his path crossing that of Aneeka. Isma incurs her sister’s wrath when she tells the authorities of Parvaiz’s whereabouts and the two fall out, setting in motion a chain of events that sees Aneeka travel to the other side of the world to save her brother.

Essentially a story about whether family matters more than anything else, it comes alive through rich characterisation and a slow but inexorable building of tension. Each  family member is torn in different directions by the pull that religion, sacrifice, ambition and loyalty exert and the overall effect is a searingly candid portrait of a slice of modern Britain. Shamsie really gets under the skin of her protagonists and I appreciated how Parvaiz is neither demonised or let off the hook. Eamonn’s father is a particular triumph – a man who has risen in politics by turning his back on what he defines as the Islam of the past and demanding the very highest standards of himself and his family, who he knows will always be the focus of suspicion, never really part of the establishment.  All their stories beg the question how much does the past shape our presents, and all celebrate the enduring power of love.

Long listed for the Booker prize, pretty much every review will tell you this is a rewrite of the Greek myth of Antigone. If you don’t know how that goes, don’t look it up before you read HOME FIRE – it will spoil things for you and, believe me,  you don’t want to spoil a book this good.

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Filed under drama, love story, Uncategorized

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS by Miriam Toews

I’d been warned this book was upsetting and it definitely was. How could it not be when Elf is intent on killing herself and her sister, Yoli, is intent on stopping her? What I wasn’t prepared for was how funny it is in places, how bitter sweet and how it would totally change my perspective on suicide.

Elf is a successful pianist with a loving husband called Nick and her sister adores her. But Elf just doesn’t want to live. A fast approaching world tour precipitates her latest suicide attempt which sees Yoli rush to her side, along with their mother and Nick. The envelop Elf in their love and care but, as the story unfolds, Yoli is forced to confront the idea that what Elf needs more than anything is to be allowed to die. She researches the possibility of taking her to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, wrestles with whether to tell the rest of the family and makes promises to Elf that she’s still not sure she can keep. Yoli is also making plans to bring her sister home, let her sit and just be and Elf knows this, so is making plans of her own.

It was clear from the outset this book was not going to end happily and yet when it did end as expected I was happy for Elf. What Toews has done is convey just how hard life is if you truly want to die. How the feelings of those anchoring you to life can matter hugely but still not be enough to keep you alive. And how sometimes nothing, not even love, is enough. That’s not something I am prepared to hear very often. Last year, someone I knew – not well but who was loved by a dear friend of mine – killed herself. Reading ALL MY PUNY SORROWS has helped me better understand why she did and to even admire her for her bravery.

Toews own sister killed herself and much of the book is close to her own experiences, including of growing up as a Mennonite. She’s depicted a childhood that’s fizzing with laughter, rich with community and full of love. As an adult, Elf appears to have it all whilst by contrast Yoli’s life is messy and unfulfilled. This messiness provides much of the book’s lightness, as do her tales of a sister who is strong willed, passionate and never does things by halves – as I said, the outcome is inevitable. And yet Toews taps into what most of us would experience in Yoli’s shoes – a blind faith that things are going to turn out differently, against all the evidence and all the odds. It’s this which is both a source of joy in the novel and of sadness. It also means the book doesn’t read as the story of Elf’s death but rather as the story of her life. Far better than the A COMPLICATED KINDNESS, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS spoke to me in all sorts of ways and I hope it might speak to you too.

 

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LULLABY by Leila Slimani

LULLABY opens with two dead children, killed by the nanny. It proceeds to reveal how and why. There’s suspense, tension and mystery. Louise, the nanny is wonderful – the parents love her, the children love her. But stuff gets in the way – like class, humiliation, relative wealth, race, caring as a financial transaction, suspicion, privilege, hypocrisy and insecurity.

Slimani’s novel has a simplicity about it that I found very appealing, but that simplicity belies its depths. The nanny’s relationship with another woman in the neighbourhood, Wafa, only takes up a few pages all in but tells us so much about them both and the worlds they inhabit. Louise’s interactions with Myriam, the children’s mother, are more frequent but similarly laden with layers of meaning.  And questions too, about what price we pay for our choices, about the illusion that parenthood is one more thing at which we will excel, to which we are entitled.

LULLABY is an easy book to read – it’s gripping and well written. Yet the insight into Louise’s life, into the parent’s attitudes towards her,  makes for an uncomfortable read too. And then there’s what you know is coming. The building tension as we wait to find out the motive. The horror and the sadness. The neighbours hindsight and everyone’s remonstrations.  But it adds up to so much more than a thriller. It’s an interesting book about women’s roles and equality and the emotions we hide from others. Unusual and definitely to be recommended.

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THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen

I have been looking at this book for some time and for some reason it always felt like it was going to be hard work, so I put off reading it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Lambert family are a joy to read about. From stubborn, principled Alfred and his wife,  Enid, for whom life’s highlights are weddings and Christmas, to their 3 children – angry Gary, loser Chip and striving Denise.  The joy is because of course, there’s so much more to all of them than I can possibly convey here.

Indeed everything about this book is big, epic even – from landscapes traversed by railroads to ideas and theories. Its  geographical heart is the mid West of America, taking in Lithuania and New York en route. It encompasses dodgy pharmaceutical corporations, celebrity restaurants, the internet sale of most of Vilnius, philanthropists growing vegetables with poor kids, and children setting up CCTV in their own homes. It’s a commentary on the modern economy, the digital age and the American dream. But above all it’s about the space in time when nothing much is happening. Who we are and who we have become. The disappointment, the self-obsession, the tragicomedy and the humiliation. The rot. And how it’s all pretty much inescapable.

Franzen’s greatest skill is perhaps that he has made such a dark and ultimately desperate book feel warm and light-hearted. That there’s much which feels familiar is no doubt largely responsible. What I also felt though was distance – and, I admit, superiority. My life is surely more than waiting for something to happen? More than an attempt to correct the mistakes of my parents? Of course, this is what we all believe – and perhaps delusion is one way to survive. Enid found wonder drugs, Gary alcohol. Denise throws herself into love, work, sex, whilst Chip runs away. Alfred is the only one facing the truth and it’s making him depressed.

I didn’t only put off reading THE CORRECTIONS, I delayed writing this review too, knowing I’d never be able to do it justice.  I don’t pretend to be a literary critic – this blog is intentionally small and personal. A book like this somehow deserves more though and all I can really say is that if ambitious, intelligent proper literature is your thing, please go find the joy.

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EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid

“We are all migrants through time.”

This is the story of Nadia and Saeed – a young couple trying to make their relationship work. It’s also the story of a world on the move. Of people’s fears about war, leaving family behind,  change and difference – all told in Hamid’s extraordinary prose that makes poetry of bombs raining down from the skies.

It starts when Nadia and Saeed meet in a city that might be in Syria, Afghanistan or somewhere similar. She rides a motorbike, lives alone, wears full black robes. He’s the son of a university professor, lives at home, works for an insurance company. He prays, she doesn’t. They get together and when their home becomes unsafe, they flee together, through a magical door, one of many springing up across the world, which takes them to Mykonos. Similar doors later take them to London and San Francisco.

The horrors of public and private executions, relatives and friends blown to bits, the punishment they might expect as unmarried lovers are all powerfully evoked with a simplicity and truthfulness that’s incredibly moving to read. So too, the shock of emerging into a new place, the adjustments they must make and survival techniques they must learn. And then when they discover that the solace they used to seek in one another’s company is no longer a comfort and having journeyed together is no longer enough.

A deeply political book that confronts many of the moral questions in today’a world, EXIT WEST  is at times brutal and heartbreaking,  at others beautiful and magical.  At times, it reads like philosophy, at others it captures details like the enjoyment of a tin of herrings. Every word Hamid writes though held me spellbound, with it’s wisdom and insight. I loved this book, what it had to teach me and how it made me feel. It’s for the joy of finding a book like this that I read so much and the rarity of such a find makes it all the more special.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

This came highly recommended by a friend and also courtesy of various literary award panels. Two stories run in parallel throughout – that of Marie-Laure, a young blind French girl, enthralled by the lives of snails and molluscs, growing up under Nazi occupation and that of Werner, a young German orphan and radio obsessive who can fix pretty much anything and is desperate to escape the mines and the same inevitable death underground that befell his father. The stories weave between their early childhoods and the novel’s present day, where St Malo, home to Marie-Laure and her great uncle Etienne, is being subjected to relentless aerial bombardment by the US Airforce. Etienne is part of the resistance and his radio transmissions have attracted the attention of Werner’s superiors, so the German teenager has been sent to track down their source. Also in town is Reinhold Von Rumpel, in hot pursuit of a legendary and cursed diamond called the Sea of Flame, with which Marie-Laure’s father was entrusted when the war broke out, by the head of the natural history museum where he worked as a locksmith.

Doerr is a great story teller and there’s much I loved about this book. He has created two captivating main characters and a support cast that’s equally interesting. He convincingly brings to life the weight of sadness, the simultaneous futility and opportunity of war, the persistent nature of goodness and of greed. The entwined themes of light, seeing and vision seem to emerge very naturally and, thanks to Doerr’s elegant prose, are readily sustained. And, very important this, there’s a deliberate and very satisfying tying up of loose ends as the book draws to an end.

Yet for some reason I found myself bored reading it. Bored by the pace and the time it took for Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths to cross (an event which in itself was fleeting), by the bloated descriptions of her encounters with nature and his with science, and in particular by the Sea of Flame narrative and Von Rumpel’s emotional landscape.  I was reading it on my kindle so I have no idea how big a book it is but it felt too long – and that’s from someone who loves being immersed in very big books.

There’s no doubt about Doerr’s ambition and talent, and who am I to say he’s not deserving of the many prizes ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE has won. But ultimately, I didn’t manage to really connect with it and nor did I find the light others have come across in its pages. Perhaps it simply just wasn’t right for me at the time of reading. Or perhaps the darkness leaves me needing books where the light is more blinding than subtle.

 

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Filed under drama, historical

SWING TIME by Zadie Smith

Wow – this is Smith back on form and with a novel that’s apparently superficial plot about a young woman working for a Madonna inspired superstar belies its dark heart and complex sub narratives.

It opens with the unnamed narrator hiding out from the press in an upmarket London apartment block. Then it takes us on a journey of discovery about what she has done to end up there. Moving back and forth in time, we explore her childhood on a London estate, raised by a black mother, an ambitious community activist determined to chase an education for them both, and a white father, who turns his back on promotion to go back to working as a postman.

As an adult she has difficult relationships with both parents, caught up as she is in a transient life that spans every continent. They simultaneously make her feel guilty and proud, with encounters prompting both memories and soul searching about the accuracy and meaning of those memories. From a childhood with strong roots and connections she moves into an adult lifestyle where being off line for 72 hours is “among the great examples of personal stoicism and moral endurance of our times”.  Despite her apparent success at escaping the estate where she grew up, the replacement is not as glittering and glamorous as it appears and the lack of real connections with people and places dogs our narrator. She feels she has spent her life attaching herself to the light of other people – first Tracey her childhood friend and dance prodigy, later Aimee, singer, dancer, tyrant, benefactor, adoptive mother and one of a category of people “of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune.”

The layers beneath this story of a girl making something of her life are remarkable. Smith isn’t afraid to tackle big topics here – with a lightness and subtlety that means I often found I had to go back and re-read sections to check I had them right. Most notable is when the narrator discovers Tracey is being abused, a realisation they both treat as “absolutely true and obviously untrue”, prompting the observation “perhaps only children are able to accommodate double-faced facts like these”. The idea of children being a mix of knowing and innocence is something Smith comes back to again and again, including in the shape of a universal “girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

She cleverly picks apart notions of success and happiness, and also delivers wonderfully astute and social commentary. In common with Smith’s other novels, she mocks all her characters and the prejudices, assumptions and inconsistencies with which they go forth into and shape their worlds. So for example, the other mothers disapprove of Tracey’s mother finding a job and neglecting her children almost as much as they were critical of her being a lazy and unemployed. Everyone is trying to better themselves, to escape, to change, and yet, Smith forces us to ask, what exactly does better mean? This is starkly brought home by the contrast between what Aimee’s body guard sees when the entire entourage travel to Gambia to help build a school and what our narrotor sees:  “Where I saw deprivation, injustice, poverty, Granger saw simplicity, a lack of materialism, communal beauty…” And do we measure our own success objectively or always in relation to someone else’s?

SWINGTIME has a soundtrack to die for and language that sings. It has characters that seem familiar and at the same time intriguing. It has a story that flies of the page and says important things about race, about class and about gender. Pretty much all I could want from a novel, really.

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Filed under biographical, drama, Uncategorized