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THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES by Kate Tempest

Harry is a high end drug dealer, in partnership with her lifelong friend and back-watcher Leon. One night she meets and falls for Becky, a dancer, who also waits tables in the family cafe and gives massages to strangers in hotel rooms. She notices Pete in the family cafe because he’s reading a book written by Becky’s estranged father. The two get talking then get together. Pete is Harry’s half brother but none of them realise the connection until Harry throws a surprise party for Pete. A surprise party at which Harry also discovers she knows Becky’s drug dealing uncles – and not in a good way.

THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES explodes into being as Leon, Harry and Becky are fleeing London with a suitcase full of money. The opening prose is pure poetry  and it only gets better and better. This book is gritty, funny, sexy and like nothing you’ve ever read before. Tempest has created characters that are so real it hurts sometimes. They are linked not just by the story she’s woven but by being variously abandoned and ambitious, and the bricks of their lives, from childhood upwards, are carefully laid and cemented together, generation on generation.

Tempest has captured London too, “cocksure, alert to danger, charming”, in particular parts of my south east corner where “The road is strewn with picked clean rib bones, and the faint smell of boozy piss mixes with the sweet rot of skunk smoke.” But she’s been clever enough not to let the city take centre stage, with a story and a pace that’s irrepressible.

A book about the bass line, THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES thrums with truth, from lines like “People are killing for Gods again. Money is killing us all.” to the way Tempest steadily unpicks the relationship women have with their bodies and their sexuality. It’s a book with purpose but never feels worthy. A book that’s incredibly daring but never tries too hard.

Tempest is a poet, a rapper and spoken word performer. She gives us phrases like “Harry’s voice is a broken window, letting the rain in.” and “She swallowed her doubt, but the hook stuck in the flesh of her mouth, pulling her upwards, away from him.” At times the words on the page feel like song lyrics, so I wasn’t surprised to learn after reading it that THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES is a companion piece to her Mercury Music Prize shortlisted debut album EVERYBODY DOWN.  It certainly made me sing. It made me want to fling open windows too and read passages to passers by, at the same time as wanting to hunker down and greedily savour every word in the peace of my own company.  Extraordinary.

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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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BREXIT – WHAT THE HELL HAPPENS NOW? by Ian Dunt

brexit-what-the-hell-happens-next-by-ian-dunt

Everyone should read this book – leavers, remainers, regreters and still undecideds. It’s informative, thorough and very accessible. It’s also terrifying. From the fiendishly difficult process of negotiating with the WTO to the real scale of unpreparedness, and even ignorance, in the Government’s Department for Exiting the EU, Dunt sets out how many obstacles and challenges we must overcome. A reluctant remainer himself, Dunt gives us the good with the bad – there’s just far less good to write home about. And some things, he admits, could go either way, depending on how the Government plays its hand. His assessment of their performance to date, doesn’t inspire confidence though and there’s enough behind the scenes insight that chimes with what’s already in the public domain, to back up his conclusion, that in all probability, things are not going to be pretty. Honest, direct and, I’ll say it again, terrifying, this book kept me awake at night.

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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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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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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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