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.

Sirens by Joseph Knox – Modern, Mancunian Noir – Book Review

Sirens is the debut crime thriller novel by Joseph Knox, a crime fiction buyer for Waterstones. It is set in the gritty, yet glamorous, streets of after-dark Manchester and keeps its company with the royalty of the city’s underworld.

Our flawed hero, Detective Aidan Waits, is given a reprieve from his suspension from the Manchester police. He is assigned to a secret mission; infiltrate the world of Zain Carver, the king of Manchester’s drug trade, and one of the most dangerous men in the city. At the same time, he is to keep an eye on young Isabelle Rossiter, a troubled teen running away from her privileged life as the daughter of an MP father and heiress mother, and straight into the arms of Carver and his sirens. Naturally, our detective ends up seduced by Carver’s intoxicants, and his even more intoxicating women…

I was lucky enough to attend a launch party for Sirens, which took place at Waterstones Deansgate where Knox earned his stripes in the literary world. This was an exciting event for me. I’ve lived in Manchester for almost a decade now, and could preach about its greatness forever so I’m really excited that the city is appearing in literature.

Manchester is a character in its own right in the novel, with Knox dropping street names and iconic buildings everywhere. What I enjoy is Knox’s familiarity with the city, and his understanding of how it has developed. We have had a real surge in the past couple of years with tall towers shooting up seemingly overnight, and the city centre expanding outwards. What this means is that the city’s less well off are pushed further and further away, with the gentrification of the outer limits of the city leading to less affordable housing. These narrow cracks between the poor and the extremely rich are well exploited by Knox, and it is here that the action unfolds.

Take one example of Knox’s stunning yet humorous imagery. Anyone who lives here is well aware of the Beetham Tower and many of us can see it from where we live. The tallest building in the city by far, it dwarfs all others. During the credit crash, when other developments ground to a halt, Beetham stubbornly rose up and now, as Knox puts it, is a middle finger forever sticking up at the rest of the city.

At the launch party, Knox explained to us that the inspiration behind the novel is his own walks through the city’s streets at night. Knox used to be a bartender at 5th Avenue night club (one of my favourite haunts as a student!), and used to walk the city streets on his way home in the middle of the night. Here he saw the underworld come to life and the city’s less savoury character come out of the shadows. Another inspiration came from a party he attended at a huge house in one of south Manchester’s wealthiest suburbs, where revellers brought pills and no one knew whose party it was. As a fan of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Knox saw this event as a modern day, British re-telling of Gatsby and so the idea of Zain Carver and his house of sirens and underground, drug parties was born. Throw in missing girls, unsolved mysteries and  a troubled narrator and he had himself the perfect plot for a noir novel.

And what could be more noir than Manchester? The rainy, grey streets, the looming towers, the long and winding canal paths… Knox’s writing is dark, with the scenes set mostly at night and always in winter. The secrets uncovered are gritty and gruesome and the plot is well executed. A must read for any fan of dark, British thrillers.

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

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.