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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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HINTERLAND by Caroline Brothers

hinterland-by-caroline-brothers

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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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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THE MEMORY STONES by Caroline Brothers

the memory stones by caroline brothers

The last book of my idyllic summer holidays and one which I was only half way through before travelling back to England – a transition made all the more difficult by the latter half of the novel being set in part on a Greek island and evoking all that’s so beautiful about this part of the world. A place sorely missed now I am back in a London of which Brothers writes, people “seem to be permanently on the run” and where the pubs are “upholstered like old hookers in tat and ash pocked velvet”. The various locations she summons so effectively are merely backdrops though, for a deeply moving, painful and exquisitely written story about Argentina’s disappeared – and in particular one family, whose pregnant daughter, Graciela, is taken by the authorities one night, and whose lives thereafter are defined by that one event, that condemns them to an existence “in the half light of absence”.

Brother’s writing in the opening few pages is lyrical and laden with warnings, so much so that I found it a little inaccessible and nearly gave up. It’s worth the effort though and once the main story kicks in, this is a compelling read, in which the occasional passage of gorgeous poetry like prose add to the weight of history and power with which the book as a whole is infused.

There’s a strong plot, about which I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s the way that Brothers has captured the agony of waiting, of not knowing, that makes the book really stand out. At it’s heart are school teacher, Yolanda, and surgeon and occasional cartoonist, Osvaldo, who desperately search for any scrap of news about Graciela’s fate. The silence with which their quest is met is, as Yolanda reflects at one point, in relation to Jose, her daughter’s boyfriend, like being “plunged into a well so deep that it had swallowed even the echo of his fall”. She spends a lot of time in what she calls “a breadline for information”, alongside others also “queuing for a small ration of hope”. Both she and her husband long for nothing more than “ordinary life in all its insignificance” – the chance to be a normal family, where normal things happen instead of the most terrible and unbearable of losses; that of your child.

They do bear, it of course, but the emotional and physical price they pay is enormous. Brothers doesn’t shirk from the truth, and in particular we see how the parents’ relationship with their other child is damaged by the search for Graciela. In other characters we have an insight into the guilt of having survived or escaped, and the constant search to try to understand the randomness of it all. She gives us too the complexities of the positions each parent adopts during the novel. The pain and comfort of choosing to believe in disappearance rather than death. The twisted nature of hoping one’s child is in captivity enduring who knows what kind of torment and abuse, rather than in an unmarked grave. As Osvaldo writes “As long as there was doubt I could hold onto her; I could breathe life into the flame of her and keep that flickering alive.” It’s Yolanda’s actions though, in their simplicity, that really drove me to tears – each year she knits two garments for the grandchild she doesn’t even know exists. This passage from Osvaldo made the tears flow even more freely, in a book that I recommend reading in private unless you don’t mind openly weeping on the tube:

“So this is how it happens, how people disappear. It is a transformation in those who are left to wait and wonder, a clouding of the mind so gradual you do no notice until its surface has turned opaque. There is no shock, no sudden realisation. Instead, it happens like this, on a Tuesday afternoon in an empty apartment, with a pile of fading photographs and the rain. Graciela is alive in my memory, but my memory is starting to fade.”

One of Brothers’ characters, Ana, is interested in archaeology and through this, she explores “a fundamental fact about being human”: the need to commemorate past generations in some form and  “this need we have to lay the dead to rest.” What happened under the Argentinian Junta is relatively recent history but, the novelist reminds us, it’s part of a whole human history of suffering, of death and of remembering. Certainly THE MEMORY STONES  doesn’t avoid the torture and brutality of the Argentinian army, “the stupefying Pentothal injections; the night flights over the river that runs to the sea”. But this isn’t a book that is concerned with directly confronting the horrors inflicted on innocent civilians. Rather, it’s about the war waged indirectly on a whole population subjected to the torture of not knowing whether your loved ones have survived or what they have endured. It’s about the terrible cruelty of the imagination and  “how language fails us. How there is word like ‘widow’ or ‘orphan’ for the parent who loses a child.” And it’s about the extent to which we become what happens to us, and are ourselves whoever we turn out to be.

It’s difficult to do justice to THE MEMORY STONES without spoiling it for other readers, but this was easily the best book of my 10 days escape to the sunshine, and probably one of the most memorable I have read this year so far.

 

 

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THE MUSE by Jessie Burton

the muse by jessie burton

Weaving between  1930s Spain on the brink of civil war and 1960s London, this is the story of what happens when a remarkable and previously undiscovered painting is left to a young man named Lawrie. The artist, Isaac Robles, is thought to have perished during the civil war after producing only a handful of works, and when Lawrie Scott brings the painting to small London art gallery, the Skelton, it has a profound effect on one of the gallery’s co-directors,  the eccentric and utterly compelling Marjorie Quick.

Lawrie’s girlfriend Odelle, a young typist and wannabe writer who also works at the Skelton,  is determined to unearth the story of the painting’s provenance, especially when it seems that Marjorie, who is also something of a mentor, is deliberately leaving Odelle clues and prompting her to question whether Lawrie knows more than he is letting on about his inheritance. Odelle’s investigation, together with the Spanish flashbacks, soon reveal that the painting has an even more complex and mysterious past far than the one publicly attributed to it.

 

Odelle is a particular triumph. Not long ago arrived in London from Trinidad, she writes “revenge poems about the English weather”; is defined by the pressure of her desire to be a writer; and lives by the idea that “to think you have a second path is to be a fool”. Odelle stands out, as a black woman – the other secretary at her workplace, Pam, wears “enough black eye shadow to feed five Pharaohs” whilst the only make-up Odelle can find is “bad face poetry” with names such as “Blonde Corn” and “Buttermilk Nude” – and more importantly for her focus and determination.

Equally striking is Isaac Roble’s sister Teresa; fierce, brave and in love with 19 year old Olivia, a condiments heiress and daughter of  Austrian art dealer father Harold and glamorous but depressive Sarah, who have rented a finca for the summer of 1936. Teresa and Isaac arrive clutching seeds and offering to work for the family.  Falling headlong for Isaac, Olivia relinquishes a place at art college opts to stay in Spain and paint, rather than study. Isaac, also a painter is commissioned by Sarah to paint a portrait of her and her daughter, It’s terrible.

Teresa’s strength of will and ability to keep secrets seems to hold this set of volatile and feverish individuals together but she also possesses the power to blow them all apart.  One afternoon, as the civil war encroaches, Isaac hangs a sack stuffed with flour from a branch to help teach them all to shoot a gun and defend themselves. Teresa, on her first shot, aims for the knot: “The packed earth spilled everywhere and the game was ruined”.

It’s clear Burton delights in creating strong, interesting women characters and it’s definitely part of what make this and THE MINIATURIST so readable. She really knows how to tell a story too, and I was reeled in hook line and sinker from the opening scene, which features a toe less woman and a branch of the shoe shop Dolcis, to the final words. I love her evocative and arresting use of language too – a wardrobe is empty apart from “a percussive clutch of hangers” for example, whilst Olivia’s mother is an “English nettle”. The passion and colour of the parts of the novel set in Spain throb from the page and add layering to the sense of danger that Burton builds incredibly effectively, alongside the climactic revelations about Isaac, Olivia and Teresa.

But THE MUSE is more than a good story – it’s about life, love and  the power of the arts. As Odelle reflects at one point: “we studied men like him [Skelton’s Edmund Reede] at school – protected gentleman, rich gentleman, white gentleman, who picked up pens and wrote the world for the rest of us to read.” In both Odelle and Olivia we observe the importance of having a pure space in which to create, the role others can play in forcing talent into the open, and how being recognition or acclaim for a gift can inhibit it from flourishing.

Other reviewers have commented that these themes are rather apt, given the weight of expectation placed on any novelist to follow up a debut as successful as THE MINIATURIST and Burton’s openness about her fears and struggles in this respect. She seems to have overcome that though, and in THE MUSE has produced an impressive, authentic and expressive piece of work that I felt with my every fibre.

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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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