Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – Book Review

Homegoing is a novel spanning two centuries and following two lines of a family starting with two sisters; one married off to an English slave trader, and one shipped to America as a slave. Both lines are shaped by the slave trade and we follow the descendants to the present day. We touch upon each person’s story for a brief time, each one heartbreaking and painful but each one unique.

What Gyasi manages to achieve in this incredible novel is to take the slave trade out of the history books, and away from statistics and brings it closer to the present day. Gyasi manages to break free from the trap of terrible historical events being a list of statistics and facts and actually brings a voice to a number of stories. This isn’t another tale that makes you feel as if slavery is something that happened a long time ago,  not part of living memory and no longer relevant.  The story of the slave transported from Ghana to work the cotton fields in America is not the only tale to be told, but Gyasi shows us, brutally and honestly, how the legacy of the slave trade is carried through generations of African-Americans, who feel the effects, pain and anger today.

So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?, Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? – Homegoing, Gyasi

We see how each member of the family is affected and touched by it, a legacy that is very difficult to escape. Nothing I have ever read or learnt about the slave trade has affected me quite so much, made me so angry and upset.

This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on. – Homegoing, Gyasi

Another powerful thing that Gyasi achieves with this novel is illustrating how difficult identity is for anyone whose heritage or ethnicity can be traced back to somewhere other than where they live and come of age. There are constant conflicts – when one character, Willie, goes to church she  recalls her father complaining that they’re only praying to the white man’s god or when  another, Marjorie, who emigrated  from Ghana with her parents in the 20th century doesn’t fit in with the African-American girls at school because her culture isn’t ‘black’ the way their culture is. This is a fascinating insight which is goes to show how culture and identity is so fixed to place and quickly develops of its own accord – the girls at school share the same heritage as Marjorie, they all hail from West Africa, yet their cultures have little in common. Gyasi has spoken in an interview how this echoes her own experiences (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/08/yaa-gyasi-slavery-is-on-peoples-minds-it-affects-us-still-interview-homegoing-observer-new-review) having been born in Ghana but raised in Alabama.

I also learnt a lot of new facts, for example how some of the white slave traders living and working in Africa would take African women as wives, even start families with them. Or how different tribes, those more developed or powerful would trade with the Europeans in order to sell  fellow countrymen from different tribes in exchange for money or goods. This novel was as much educational as it was emotional. I would put it on school curriculums for anyone learning about the slave trade. Gyasi’s writing is incredibly powerful, and this is one of the best books I have read this year. I think it will haunt me for quite some time.

How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part 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 it. – Homegoing, Gyasi

Little Hut of Leaping Fishes by Chiew-Siah Tei – Book Review

A historical epic set in 19th Century Imperial China might sound like a difficult read, but Chiew-Siah Tei’s Little Hut of Leaping Fishes is an easy, flowing story and an accessible introduction to learning more about a small segment of China’s colourful history.

The story centres on Mingzhi Chai, the First Born Grandson of the great Master Chai, landlord of Plum Blossom Village (how charming are all the place names?!)

The story follows the trials and triumphs of Mingzhi’s life, and reflects this with the darker life of Mingyuan, Mingzhi’s half brother, and the Second Born Grandson of Master Chai. The characters are rigid, and feel somewhat distant from the reader. I feel this is an intentional technique, which illustrates the rigid life the characters must live by, in Master Chai’s orderly and constrained Mansion, and by living by the rules of Confucianism.

Mingzhi’s character really starts coming to life when he moves away from Plum Blossom Village, and to his own little home , Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, in order to study for exams to become a Mandarin, a lynch pin of Imperial China’s bureaucracy.

Minghzhi comes of age during a tumultuous time for China, when foreign forces arrive to take a share in its riches, whilst the population is weakened as a nationwide addiction to opium takes hold. Mingzhi truly breaks free from the constraints and plans of his grandfather when he begins to adopt modern and open views to foreigners and the cultures they bring with them but at the same time teaches us a lot about Chinese culture and how this can still stand the test of time amidst the changes.

I really enjoyed this book. The prose is very different to what I am used to, and although it was written in English, almost feels like it is a translated copy. That level of being one step  detached from its reader, slightly distant and exotic, really helps to play up the differences of that time and culture, making for a really fascinating and educational read.

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson – Book Review

War is Man’s greatest fall from grace― Kate AtkinsonA God in Ruins

A God in Ruins is a gorgeous read. It traces the life of Teddy Todd, a young man who is a bomber pilot during the Second World War and follows a future, and life, that he didn’t believe he’d ever have. Although Teddy is the hero of our novel, Atkinson also explores the lives, and secrets, of both Teddy’s parents, his daughter and grandchildren.

A novel spanning multiple characters’ lives and decades has the potential to be awkward and may struggle to engross its readers, but Atkinson’s method of storytelling is to weave her tale through different decades and characters, without it ever feeling disjointed or clunky.

What I particularly enjoyed was Atkinson’s perfect and accurate portrayal of the tension between the generations of a family, how one set will never comprehend the choices of the other, without seeing how they’re all actually the same, each rebelling against what came before them.

Be warned though, this is a melancholy read with a heartbreaking ending which left me sobbing on an otherwise very pleasant Saturday afternoon! There’s something so revealing about life in this novel. Sylvie for example, Teddy’s glamorous mother, who on the surface leads a perfect life but actually feels frustrated by the trappings of domesticity and its day to day banality. Or Teddy’s aunt, Izzie, who is written off by her family as a ditzy nuisance, but doesn’t tell them of her heroic efforts as a World War One nurse. What is true and false and what is reality and pure fiction is a continuing theme throughout the novel.

Atkinson also brings home (if you weren’t already aware) the all encompassing, total and utter destruction and desolation that war brings. And I mean, she really hammers it home, without sparing a thought for her reader’s sensitivities. A God in Ruins is brutal and that is why it is brilliant.

That’s not to say it’s all sadness. Like life, the novel is peppered with humour, happiness and moments of extreme joy and passion. I can’t do justice to just how beautifully this is written, there is a quintessential English-ness about Atkinson’s writing which is such a pleasure to read. This is an all encompassing  book about life, family, and what is and isn’t real. I highly recommend it and will be picking up Atkinson’s predecessor to this novel, Life After Life.

“It was possible, she thought, that she had won the race to reach the end of civilization. There was no prize. Obviously.”
― Kate AtkinsonA God in Ruins

City of Thieves by David Benioff – Book Review

I’m late to the party with this book, which was originally published back in 2008, and I hadn’t heard of it until a couple of months ago. It’s a story set during the Second World War, in frozen Leningrad during the years of the Nazi occupations. I’m a sucker for any book  about 20th century European history, but in particular there is something about Russian history that never fails to capture my imagination.

This is quite the story. Two boys, Lev and Kolya, are caught by the police, breaking curfew and desertion respectively, and to save themselves from certain execution (there was no food for city dwellers, let alone prisoners, in wartime Russia) they are set an impossible mission; in starving winter time Russia, find twelve eggs for the upcoming wedding of a famous general’s daughter.

They set off on an impossible escapade encountering everything from cannibals, frozen treks through the endless Russian countryside , mysterious insurgents and murderous Nazis.

The majority of the story’s dialogue focuses on the precarious friendship that develops between Lev and Kolya, one a small, quiet chess genius, whose Jewish ancestry and lack of experience with girls cause him angst in equal parts, and the other a cocky cossack, always ready to impart his unwanted wisdom. This is a coming of age story for the two boys, as much as it is a dangerous escapade.

The story is interesting and zips along quickly, events are quite evenly spaced out and the reader is never having to wait for something to happen. For a quick, light holiday read, it’s great. But I can’t say I got much more from it.

Given some of the horrific events described in the book, I had expected to feel the terror of the war, the coldness of the Russian winter and the hopes and fears of a boy becoming a man whilst living through Europe’s bloodiest hours. Instead, I was left with an interesting, but shallow, tale.

Benioff’s writing didn’t delve deep enough into the horror of what he was writing about. It felt like an action packed tale about two teenagers on an impossible mission, the life endangering moments interspersed by dirty talk about girls. It strikes me this would make a great film or a one off TV series.  The author, David Benioff, is a screenwriter and most famous for being a co-creator of the hit show, Game of Thrones. Maybe the guts, gore and glory of City of Thieves would come alive on the small screen, in a way that it just couldn’t on paper.

Paris, A Moveable Feast and a Literary Pilgrimage

I was in Paris in September, for four sunshine filled days, stalking the very same streets that Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce and Stein wandered, browsing the same bookshops and drinking in the same cafés. It’s a complete cliché, I know, but Paris was astonishingly, almost ridiculously, beautiful. The buildings! The wine! The bookshops! Bookshops everywhere! I’m terrible at directions, but I found my way back to my hotel at night by memorising the bookshops on the route.

Continuing with my list of Parisian clichés, my visit to one bookshop in particular took on a pilgrimage like seriousness. Yeah,  you guessed it. Shakespeare and Company. Now I am well aware this isn’t the original establishment that the likes of my 1920s literary heroes frequented. The original was opened by Silvia Beach on Rue de l’Odéon (the current one is just opposite the river from Notre Dame). It was part shop, part lending library and loaned books to struggling writers. It closed in 1941, during the Nazi Occupation. The current shop still plays its part in encouraging and garnering talent, as writers can sleep there for free if they help out around the shop.

“We would be together and have our books and at night be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

 

I visited on a busy Sunday afternoon and the narrow corridors, crammed with books and tourists were at times hard to navigate in the crowds, but oh what a joy to be there! I purchased Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and just finished it recently. Now I feel sad and nostalgic for a Paris of the past, one that I could never know. It reminds me of the film Midnight in Paris where Gill is in love with the Golden Age of Paris and literature, in the 20s, yet comes to realise that anyone living in any age will always hark back to a ‘better’ time.

Hemingway’s writing is lovely, stark and simple yet I find it evokes deep and dark emotion from any topic that he writes about. The book is about his early years in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and this is the period of time when they had little money and he was breaking away from journalism into fiction. There’s something ludicrous yet delightful in the dialogue between Hemingway and Hadley, it is like two children playing at being grownups. My favourite sections are those about other writers, in particular Fitzgerald, and how with hindsight, it was obvious the tragic paths that Scott and Zelda were leading themselves down.

Hemingway also writes about Gertrude Stein, the woman who had an art collection that would be the envy of many  a modern day Russian billionaire, and the woman that launched countless writers. Stein is the one who coined the phrase the ‘lost generation’ about Hemingway and his fellow writers.  They were the generation that came of age during World War One and came home from war to an unstable Europe, and a fragile future. It is no surprise they turned to the comforts and hedonism of jazz, alcohol and Paris! I wonder what my generation might be nicknamed in the history books of the future? I fear it won’t be complimentary.

Speaking of which, I don’t think I can bring this post to an end without acknowledging recent world events. I really enjoy studying current affairs, history and politics are my favourite subjects, but this blog is about literature and I’ve always thought I would keep politics and opinions far away. That being said, sometimes  events and circumstances can arise that are so colossal that they cannot be ignored. Over the past year I have seen populist opinion in my beloved Europe lurch worryingly to the extreme right.  I have witnessed poor refugees denied the sympathy and assistance that they deserve, instead being met with a hatred that is inexplicable and illogical. I have seen my beloved Britain turn its back on the European Project, a flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece all the same.  And now, I see America elect a privileged, white man who advocates sexually assaulting women upon greeting them, writes off whole religions and openly mocks disabled people on television. I am heartbroken, but more than that, I am angry.

History teaches us that popular opinion and events are cyclical in nature, yet when our world is taking one step back from all the progress we have made, when there is a pull away from intellectualism and a step toward “endarkenment” we must fight it with every last breath, every fibre in our bodies.

But sometimes, when it is all a bit too much, and the news channels make you cry, it is also OK to curl up on the sofa, brew a tea and read about Paris in the 20s.20160925_171612

Why I couldn’t get On the Road with Jack Kerouac – Book Review

On the Road had been on my to-be-read list for many years. Just the title itself is attractive, conjuring up images of my own experiences of the road, watching the world from behind a window. From childhood, every summer, my family and I drove from the UK, across Europe to our homeland in the Balkans. This yearly pilgrimage inspired a love of the road in me. From the unnerving flat lands of Belgium, past the gloriously dark forests of Germany at night, and the heavenly, looming peaks of Austria, I knew the road could bring untold mystery and opportunity. Ever since, I’m always happiest when going somewhere, starting a journey. So I think I projected my own experiences and desires onto what I thought that this book should be like, what it should be about.

When it arrived in my post box, I delved straight in.  And then I pretty much hit a brick wall.

In short, On The Road is the story of Sal Paradise, a struggling writer in New York (*sigh – they’re always struggling, and they’re always in bloody New York*) who yearns for the open road, the endless highway and finally takes the leap thanks to his generous (and in my mind, long suffering) grandma. Throughout the book Sal takes a number of journeys back and forth across America and finally, years later, taking a journey with his best friend (and prime idiot) Dean Moriarty through Mexico. This sounds like it could be great, right?

It’s not. First of all, it was difficult to get into. A few pages in and I’d started thinking about what was for dinner that day or, even worse, my to-do list at the office. The writing seemed disjointed, clunky. I appreciate that Kerouac’s writing style is intentionally like this, and is a post WW2 response to the conservative America of the war years . Maybe it’s just a matter of personal preference but,  for me, the story just didn’t flow.

Next, I really took issue with the content. I had anticipated adventures, a rich plot, the stuff that bourbon and 1950s jazz are made of (and that’s what the blurb on my Penguin copy promises!)  But it was all a bit of an anti-climax. The first trip across America is pure boredom. Sal left New York City for this? Miserable hitch hikes with little food and no fun?  When he eventually hits San Francisco, Sal mulches around a bit with his idiotic friends. There are a few similar cross American trips like this in the book, back and forth, and I forget how many times Sal does it because they all blend into one. Sure, he and his friends go out, get wasted a lot, but they’re just drunk idiots. It’s not enlightening or paving a new lifestyle. They’re just grown men and women who never actually grew up. Yeah, I hate Sal’s friends.

The characters are all awful. I really didn’t like anyone.  I mean, there’s plenty of books I’ve read where the characters are despicable but interesting and likeable. Here, they’re all just annoying, self obsessed idiots who are totally hapless at life. They’re all terrible friends and worse parents. Each of them is infected with this horrendous attitude of being completely selfish, being capable of abandoning their child and wife to drive across the country to pick up an equally selfish friend to just drive about a bit more with no purpose whatsoever. And I’m really not criticising people who choose not to take root or settle down. I think it’s inspiring and brave to travel the world, live on the road, and in the right circumstances, take your children along for the ride. But these hapless idiots aren’t enviable world travellers, they’re just wasters.

Perhaps I’m missing the point? And there will be staunch defenders of the book. I don’t profess to know very much about Beat culture so maybe I would appreciate On the Road more if I learnt about it. But I wanted to be inspired here, wanted to taste that freedom, almost feel the wind in my hair as I went along for the ride. I think the problem is me. I think I wanted this to be travel writing, when really, it is a lifestyle guide for those wanting to break free from society’s constraints.  So maybe it is my fault, but I really wanted to learn about America, feel the  atmosphere of 1950s night life in NYC, jazz bars in New Orleans and the roars of the pacific by San Francisco. Instead, On the Road left me with my feet firmly on the ground and my imagination still very much in Northern England.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – Book Review

Every few summers or so, I accidentally discover a book that takes over my life. This was one of those summers.

Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind dictated what I did with the first week of my annual pilgrimage to the Balkans. I suppose I’ve been back to the homeland so often now that, having explored everything I could as a child, I’m not actually missing much by basking on my balcony in the horrendous heat, ignoring everything around me. It’s a good job too, because that’s exactly what I did. I stole snippets of time between breakfast and family visits, I read at 3am when back from nights out with my friends, and  I even rejected a visit to an outdoor spa in order to have the house and the balconies to myself. (In my defence, I visited that very outdoor spa 9 years ago. That was the summer I discovered Dostoevsky. It was a super windy day, and a few pages of Crime and Punishment were ripped from my grasp and were sent gliding around the pool, attaching themselves to bodies sticky with sun cream. I was distraught.)

I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day.

So this was a book club pick and one I didn’t expect too much from. This month’s theme was historical novels (I immediately thought I’d be stuck reading some horrific bodice ripper set in the boring old Tudor era). Luckily, the vote was won by this, a novel set in post civil war Spain, savaged by Franco’s rule and focusing on a boy who discovers a mysterious book in a forgotten library! Ideal summer reading! Still, I did think it might be a cheap thriller with a juicy plot but pretty rubbish writing.

How glad I was to be wrong!

This was exquisite. Zafon is a genius. The writing is delicious, the portrait of Barcelona, the shelves and shelves of books, the darkened alleys. It is over the top in parts, it is dark and twisted, it is so far away from normal life. It is stunning.  It is peopled by incredible characters – everyone in this story loves books! Actually, they love books to an unhealthy, life endangering extent.

Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it   and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.

So here’s the plot. Our hero, Daniel, is a young boy, whose father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he is allowed to pick any book and take it home. Daniel picks The Shadow of the Wind, a novel by Julian Carax. As Daniel devours the book, he decides to look for more novels by Carax, only to find that Carax, and any trace of his other works, has long since disappeared. Daniel then uncovers a dangerous man, Lain Coubert, who also happens to be a character in Carax’s novel,  lurking in Barcelona’s shadows. Coubert stalks Daniel with the sole intention  finding all of Carax’s novels in order to burn them to ashes.

We then follow Daniel’s journey over his formative adolescent years;  we laugh with him as he befriends the wonderful Fermin Romero De Torres, we follow him as he falls in love with dangerous women, and we watch him get further entwined in the Carax mystery, at great personal cost. This is not a fast paced thriller, this is a slow, luxurious unravelling of a mystery through rich, indulgent language.

Most of us have the good or bad fortune of seeing our lives fall apart so slowly we barely notice.

There are so many stories within this novel. That of Daniel and his coming of age, the heart breaking tale of Julian and Penelope, Spain’s own Romeo and Juliet, and the darkness that lies behind Coubert’s fires.

If you are looking for a historical novel, or to learn more about the Spanish Civil War, this isn’t for you. I can’t really say that we learn much about it (other than it was a pretty rubbish time for Spain) or that it plays any larger role than allowing for the existence of the novel’s most unsavoury character, the despicable Inspector Fumero. But the novel is still Zafon’s love letter to Barcelona, and a romantic one at that.

But the greater love letter here is to books themselves. This is pure indulgence for book lovers, a novel peopled by characters who protect books, sell them, write them, burn them and devote their lives to them. I couldn’t have loved it more. I was imprisoned by it.

                There are worse prisons than words.