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

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

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

A big story about A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara – Book Review

Hanya Yanagihara’s epic novel is a magnificent, yet flawed and improbable masterpiece.

I read many reviews before committing to this book, and it seemed to divide reviewers. Its average rating is an impressive 4.26 star average on Goodreads, yet amongst the praise and adoration for this book, there is also much dislike and rejection. I sit, rather unhelpfully but realistically, on the fence though leaning perhaps into the eager arms of the believers, drawn to the celebration of this novel, rather than the cynical castigation.

So here’s the deal. The A Little Life follows a group of four male graduates (JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude) who are best friends as they find a place for themselves in New York City following University. I say follows, but two of the characters, Malcolm and JB, quickly recede into the background becoming only useful tools and plot devices for the author. This is a shame. Malcolm in particular is an undeveloped character with so much brewing under the surface. It’s strange that Yangihara introduces us to all four of the boys equally, we read sections of the book from the point of view of each one of the boys and then that formula suddenly stops. I’m not sure why, other than to focus in on Jude, the centre of the story and Willem, the highly improbable, unrealistic Willem.

We soon discover that Jude’s past holds many dark tales of child abuse, first learning that he cuts himself to ‘cleanse himself’ of these memories and then, slowly, Yanaghara drip feeds us the terrible history. The drip feeding mirrors Jude’s own mental processes; there will be a happy event and it will then be tarred by flashbacks to Jude’s past terrors, much the same way that Jude’s mind can never escape the past, despite his present day successes.

The book is long, and it ought to be. The prose is well written and I like it, although I know there has been plenty of criticism. The sheer expanse of the book is part of its extraordinariness. Perhaps because I read this over a busy month and it took me a while to finish, but by the time I came to the end of the book, I could barely remember what the characters had been like when I had started. The novel covers approximately four to five decades of events, more if you include the flashbacks to Jude’s early life, and it is so detailed and so incredibly full. It is also astonishingly terrifyingly.

The detail of abuse that is contained isn’t for the faint hearted and there are many moments of anguish. It is absorbing and often I found that I felt quite separate to my own life, a sombre, morose mood would descend on me. I used to have to shake myself after reading certain sections, remind myself that this is fiction, it’s not my life. It is an extremely powerful book and its depiction of abuse, and particularly the devastating impact it can and will have on the victim’s adult life and ability to trust and develop relationships is honest and necessary.

And yet. And yet, it wouldn’t be fair not to document its pitfalls, its tendency toward the frustrating.

One of the things that really gets to me is how unrealistically successful everyone in the novel is! All four friends develop incredible careers; JB is featured at MOMA at a very early stage of his art career, Jude become a top litigator, Willem a world famous actor (yet bizarrely seeming to only do random indie films with titles that wouldn’t, not in our world anyway, bring commercial success), and Malcolm is a world famous architect. I’m sorry, but this never happens. Only in super privileged circles, where if you go to an elite private school and all your friends have parents with important contacts would all your  friends become so ridiculously successful, otherwise it just doesn’t happen. It would have been an interesting angle to have at least one bitter, unsuccessful friend. There is also the envious amount of globetrotting they all do. Meeting up with acquaintances in Europe, going off on long jaunts to Asia. Jude has certain injuries which cause him to find daily life in New York a struggle, yet trekking around Bhutan is casually mentioned in one brief paragraph.

We then have the impossible kindness of Jude’s friends. His doctor, Willem, his law professor, his neighbour, they all seem to devote their lives to trying to make Jude’s better, to look out for him. But these are all professional people with lives of their own; it is unrealistic. Although this book is a beautiful testament to the wonderful power of friendship, it is a dream, a fantasy. Friends let each other down. Especially when the person to whom they devote so much of their energies  is as impenetrable as Jude is. Jude is remarkably clever and talented at many things;  cooking, piano, maths. This draws people and admiration but his inability to be intimate, to share things about himself, his constant pulling away would in reality shut off a lot of people yet the characters here keep pushing.

We feel sorry for Jude, our hearts ache for what he has experienced, but Yanagihara doesn’t allow Jude to give anything back and humans are not infallible, we do often give up, we become exasperated and in some instances, with Jude’s refusal to appreciate the goodness of his  adult life or at least give some energy into helping himself leads to the reader feeling frustrated, and then, ashamed of that frustration.

Interestingly, and on a separate note, there is a dearth of female characters in this book. Ana, Jude’s first care worker who actually helps him, is introduced to us only in the past tense of a flashback and we learn only that she helped him finally escape his childhood. Julia, his adopted mother, is merely a paper character, serving the purpose of Harold’s wife. All the other characters with whom Jude has meaningful contact are male. Jude’s abusers are male and Jude’s saviours are male. I’m not sure why Jude forms barely any relationships with women, perhaps because for the first 16 years of his life he was only ever in the company of men, perhaps he has no understanding of them. It seems odd to me and I don’t understand it; women are, it seems, the only ones who haven’t hurt him. Wouldn’t it have been logical to Jude’s untrusting heart to befriend them, trust them over men? This one is something I never could work out.

So perhaps it is unsurprising that I struggle to decide how I really feel about this book. A Little Life received much attention and acclaim. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It won the Book Industry Award for Fiction. It is so unusual, so new and just magnificent. Yet it is really, really flawed, a story set in an alternate universe almost and I feel it would be naive of me not to point this out. But, it seems, it’s not enough for me to dislike it.

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.

Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky, a Gatsby for the modern age

When I purchased Gorsky, I didn’t know that it was essentially a retelling of The Great Gatsby set in modern day London, but it didn’t take me long to work it out. From the off, we have Nick, a poor Serbian bookseller who ends up befriending a mysterious Russian billionaire who moves to London’s upper class Kensington and Chelsea in order to build a mansion and win back the love of his life, the beautiful Natalia. In order to do so, he puts on lavish parties and employs Nick to put together the greatest private library in Europe. The Gatsby parallels are not subtle and sometimes, a tad too obvious.

However, despite the heavy borrowing from Fitzgerald’s classic, which Goldsworthy herself readily acknowledges, there is much to be praised in this entertaining debut.

On a personal level, I can relate a lot to our narrator and author. Goldsworthy is from Serbia and , much like me, our narrator, Nikola Kimovic fled his native homeland during the Balkan civil wars. Although our countries were on opposite sides of the war, there is much I recognise in Kimovic’s behaviour and reactions. Although England has been his home now for a while, he works well as a narrator as his character is always one step away from the centre of action. Although he blends in, has a job and makes friends, the reader gets the impression that he is sometimes merely  observing the action and changes taking place around him, taking note. It is clear that Nick is attracted and drawn into London’s world of riches and hedonism, so different to the sparse, urban communism he knew at home.  I also completely understand why he is drawn into the world of the Russians. As Goldsworthy writes in her Acknowledgments, the Balkan culture has always been intertwined and drawn to the Russian authors. I have felt this too and I loved playing Russian Author Bingo as Goldsworthy namedropped the greats throughout the novel. Although my heritage might lend more to its roots from the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, I have always loved the great Russian writers and the names that sound so familiar to me. I suppose that is the beauty that you get with a multicultural country, and a nice reminder that there is more that we have in common than that which divides us.

Moving on, let me tell you about the plot. This echoes the journey taken by Gatsby and has  a similarly tragic ending. This time it is played out against 2010s London, with the unreal and almost sickening riches the city offers illustrated by Gorsky’s incredible house, the lavish parties and the unstable characters that Nick meets along the way. My favourite scenes, though, are those in Fynch’s bookshop where Nick works and where he first meets Gorsky and receives his task; to fill Gorksy’s new library with the greatest works ever written, with first editions and something to seduce anyone, whatever their tastse. Only a true book lover could have written these passages and I purposely read these sections slower, to savour them all the more.

Goldsworthy also tells a good tale of London now and her observations of the sickening amount of money being brought in by billionaires, money the source of which we can’t quite pin down, is wise.

How can the human capacity for happiness continue to take in such luxuries?

I’ve never been quite comfortable with excess displays of cash and wealth, perhaps due to my background, and it never struck me as an English thing to do either, to be too obvious with your wealth. The female characters here have little else to do than to be beautiful servants to money, marrying rich men that they don’t truly love, as in Natalia’s case, and pursuing wealth at any chance, like her best friend, and Nick’s lover, Gery.  Natalia it seems has little choice but to flow with the wind, and when Gorsky comes back into her life after many years, she puts up little fight. We catch glimmers of her potential; she is an art history graduate who wants to put together an exhibit about a Russian artist, but she never actually achieves her ambition, despite the great amounts of cash and opportunity at her disposal. I always feel slightly deflated when a novel has next to no strong female role models but I can see why it is done here, and so it is not  a complete turn off.

All in all, lovers of Gatsby should definitely give Gorsky a go, if for nothing but to check off the Gatsby parallels. I enjoyed this novel, for its literary references and for its perfect portrait of trying to find a life and a role as a foreigner in a city of mega wealth.