When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

In her novel When I Hit You we hear the original, unique voice of the writer Meena Kandasamy recounting a story of domestic abuse in southern India. It is not only a harrowing story of escalating violence, but also an account of the effect of this violence on the narrator as a writer. The beginning of the novel contains both these things: we meet her mother, citing the shocking state of her daughter’s feet and the armies of head lice in her hair as proof of her husband’s neglect. But her mother’s lamentations are swiftly overtaken by the writer claiming authorship: I must take some responsibility over my own life. I must write my story.

She begins with a description of Primrose Villa, the house in Mangalore where she spends the first few weeks of her married life. We immediately get the sense of this as a place of confinement-this is the space within which I must move-where she spends her days shopping, cleaning, washing clothes, performing the routine, repetitive household tasks of the perfect wife. These scenes are narrated as if part of a film script, where the narrator is acting a role-except that she’s forbidden the glamour of stardom when ordered by her husband to wear drab, loose fitting clothes, T-shirts and pyjama bottoms, in line with his revolutionary Naxalite beliefs. (One of the many criticisms he throws at her is her petit- bourgeois background and he’s bent on a period of re-education to get her to reject lipstick and hair care in favour of solidarity with her peasant sisters in the fields.)

His control soon extends to her writing life: he insists she delete her Facebook account, takes over her emails and restricts her Internet usage to 3 hours a week, cutting her off from essential contacts and sources as well as from friends. Then the hitting begins, and as with the film script, she adopts a writer’s viewpoint to distance herself and cope with what’s happening: On a dull afternoon, I can catalogue the weapons of abuse that have gathered around the house. The cord of my Mac-Book which left thin, red welts on my arms. The back of the broomstick that pounded me across the length of my back.

The narrative is non-linear and scrolls back, some way in, to tell us how the narrator found herself in this marriage. Her husband is a college lecturer and political activist whom she admired and married on the rebound from a previous love affair. They move to Mangalore where he has a teaching contract and where she hopes to find work. But the reality is that the work never materialises, and, cut off from friends and family, not speaking the local language or having local contacts, she is trapped. She phones her parents regularly and complains about her husband’s controlling behaviour and eventually of his violence. They are concerned but advise her to change, to adapt, to accommodate his demanding ways: depressingly, her mother says she’s been through it and the first year of marriage is the worst. We know from the introduction what ignominy these parents will have to face in Chennai if their daughter leaves a marriage after only four and a half months.

The violence escalates to rape. The narrator begins fearing for her life and at that point determines to get away. She learns something about her husband’s past which she uses to gain the upper hand with him in one of his rages. She is taking control of their narrative, he’s disempowered, and she manages to escape. However, that’s not the end of the story. She makes a complaint to the police about his violence and threat to her life. Two and a half years later the case has still not come to court, her husband has re-invented himself and carried on working and even progressive, liberal people are leaning on her to drop the case. Eventually she takes her father’s advice and leaves the country.

This is a depressing and shocking account of domestic abuse in India and the unwillingness of the Indian state and society to intervene to protect women. But is also a clever and nuanced account of the writer resisting the subjugation of the experience through writing. She employs techniques like the distancing mentioned above. She employs changes of mood and tone to insist on and express the range of her emotions, as in the tender account of the love she felt for the older politician, the tough, sometimes ironic tone of her take on life at Primrose Villa. She also sees the protective power of words: wrapping my body into words, I proof it against the prying eye, against inspection. I have sheathed it against the hands of others. My woman’s body, when it is written down, is rape resistant.  The narrator’s story is fiction and as such she is unassailable: I am the woman at whom society cannot spit or throw stones because this me is a she who is made up only of words on a page,  and yet she is giving voice to the experience of many :…..and the lines she speaks are those that everyone hears in their own voice.

Meena Kandasamy uses her writerly sensibility to approach the issue of domestic abuse with a fresh voice. Completely in control of her material, she combines an account of the brutal abuse suffered by the protagonist with a lyrical insistence on the right of women to be free, defiant, sexual and resistant. When I hit you was deservedly short listed for the Women’s Prize in 2018 and I shall go back to it again and again.

 

 

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Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead- Olga Tokarczuk translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

An old woman living remotely in a Polish forest is woken at night by her neighbour, Oddball. He’s seen the light on in Big Foot’s kitchen, heard his dog barking, and thinks something’s happened to Big Foot. The two set off to investigate and come upon a horrid sight: Big Foot’s twisted corpse lying on the floor of his squalid rural home. He’d choked on a bone from the deer he’d hunted, killed and cooked- the deer’s head and hooves are found by our narrator.

So begins this tale of rural noir, set in a small community near the Polish town of Klødzko, near the Czech border. The narrator, Janine Duszejko, ( though she rejects her name for reasons I didn’t really grasp) is an eccentric: she’s fascinated by astrology and thinks the actions of her fellow human beings, as well as world events, are determined by the stars. She’s an ardent animal lover and some of the writing I liked best was of animals: here the white foxes, moving slowly, one behind the other. Their whiteness against the green meadow was like something from another world. They looked like the diplomatic service of the animal kingdom, come here to reconnoitre. Her love for animals means she’s outraged by the local hunting community, their trapping, poaching and exploitation, and it emerges that one of her missions is to go through the forest releasing animals from the hunters’ traps. When further deaths follow she’s convinced that animals wreaking vengeance are to blame and writes letters to the police telling them so.

Though the narrator is a self sufficient loner, living on the windy plateau known as the Luftzug, she has some friends who are also misfits, or outsiders. Her former pupil, Dizzy,works for the police in IT, but his real passion is for the poetry of William Blake, which is quoted and referred to throughout the novel, becoming a lens through which to see the world, like astrology. She’s fond of Good News, a young woman whose family background meant she was never able to study, and who now runs a shop in town, a mixture of socialist cafe, dry cleaners and fancy-dress costume hire. During the novel she meets Boros, an entomologist investigating the endangered flat bark beetle in her local forest. Then there’s her kindly dermatologist, Dr. Ali, himself a nomad, never staying in one place for longer than two years, who prepares her all kind of exotic ointments and whose phone, he claims, is tapped.

As the novel progresses through the subsequent deaths, the investigations and the community’s speculation, these individuals with their eccentricities and Ailments (and they’ve nearly all got some only occasionally specified health problems) emerge as pitted against the powerful forces of the hunters. We first meet the hunters, those moustachioed men, at the funeral of Big Foot, where they insist that Janine, as the only woman, leads the singing. It becomes clear that the hunters hold the reins of power in this area and their proximity to the Catholic church is hinted at when our narrator expresses her disgust for the elevated hunting platforms, known as pulpits. The true relationship between the hunters and the Catholic church becomes clear towards the end of the book at the extraordinary St. Hubert’s day service, when Father Rustle praises the hunters for helping the Lord God in his act of creation by maintaining stock numbers through the provision of feeding racks for deer, then culling them. It’s like inviting someone to dinner and murdering them, thinks Janine.

The power and delight of this novel lies for me in the character of Janine-I’ve alluded to only a few aspects of her eccentricity here-and her take on the world around her, which we see through her eyes. I enjoyed her careful description of the rural landscape through the changing seasons, and her sense of topography put me in mind of Esther Kinsky’s account of her Italian stay in the first part of her book Hain ( shortly to be published in English as Grove). She combines the practical brain of an engineer- she built bridges before her Ailments rendered her unable to work-with the cosmic worldview of the astrologist philosopher and these two poles are sometimes juxtaposed to comic effect in the book: I laughed at loud at her wondering whether Father Rustle’s administration of the host in communion wouldn’t be aided by a small dishwasher, the kind that fits one set of tableware; he’d only have to press a button and there’d be more time for his sermon. And the success of the regular back and forth in tone from the lofty, cosmic flights of fancy to the vernacular of the humdrum everyday is a testimony to the skill of the translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Still, there was rather too much astrology in the book for me, a world view I’m not that interested in, and only stuck with because it was explained by such a refreshingly unusual narrative voice.

The final denouément brings us back to the beginning, positioning the narrative again in the realm of crime fiction, but the book is also to my mind an account of the struggle of individuals and the vulnerable (including animals) against power and authority in today’s Poland. For me it’s been an intriguing introduction to the work of Olga Tokarczuk, now a Nobel prize winner, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

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Grand Union by Zadie Smith

This short story collection by Zadie Smith is a mixed bag. A British writer, now living in New York, she’s an accomplished critic of both UK and American society, and these clever stories comment on people, relationships, current preoccupations and values on both sides of the pond, often with wit and panache – and with humour too.

My favourite stories are set in the US . Mood is a compilation of shorter texts, where the protagonists are aware of the rapid passing of time and fear ageing: there’s a lovely image at the beginning of dazed city people looking down into their mail boxes their heads stuffed right down the chutes, feet dangling off the ground, looking for something they’ve lost, namely, the summer of their ninth year, which stretched from the early 1600s until approximately the Korean War. The protagonists are people and their pets who appear and reappear, sometimes older, in different texts, so we the readers are engaged in that aha it’s you again character spotting game (which personally I love).

The short piece Medieval Moods: Blood, Black Bile, Bile and Phlegm is both clever and hard-hitting, applying the medieval idea of the four humours to deeply emotive contemporary situations-and then playing with language and meaning. So the pregnant refugee on a dinghy heading for Lampedusa is bleeding and advised to be sanguine. The worker separating a child from its mother in a refugee camp needs to be phlegmatic. The young black student burdened by debt develops a melancholic strain of bile.Then comes the bathos-those Americans and their pets again- when you lose a beloved parrot yes, it’s melancholy you feel.

Escape from New York sees its three protagonists fleeing New York together after some unspecified catastrophic event. The story is narrated from the point of view of Michael, whose response to the terror of the situation is determined by the work he’s had done:his lip’s not just red from anxious biting, it’s been permanently tattooed that colour, he can’t cry easily because of the tattoos round his tear ducts. When I tell you his friends are glamorous Liz with her diamonds, and overweight stress-eating Marlon, you may start thinking wait! I think I know these people! and find yourself responding to the story through the fact or fiction ? lens. Bodily distortion and preoccupation with ageing are just two of the themes which emerge during the flight. They’re manifestations of the self- absorption also expressed by Michael’s overriding concern with how well he’s handling the apocalypse so far, which had me gasping and laughing out loud. But how cleverly plotted this story is, its attention to timing and small detail holding our attention right to the last scene at the IHOP diner.

Careful plotting, timing and pace all work together in the skilfully crafted Big Week to produce that clever short story effect of playing with our expectations and sympathies. So when we first meet Mike McRae, an old bull, tensed muscles in his neck, looking out at the home he’s just left from the bar over the road, you wonder if he’s abused his wife and is now monitoring her. His son’s gentle treatment of him shifts our view a little- he’s lost his job as a cop and is somehow vulnerable. In the second scene he’s driving a client from the airport to downtown Boston. She’s a forty something architect on her way to a conference and as he chats we learn that he lost his police job after a running accident made him addicted to pain relief. The third scene takes place in the library where he’s asking Miss Wendy if he can go back on the Action Committee. We learn he was thrown off for for a theft offence committed while an addict. She told him she could do nothing for him separating each word like she was counting pearls on a necklace. But when she got to the end of the rope there was nothing further. Finally we hear the voice of Marie, his wife, relieved to be out of a loveless marriage, relishing slow time to herself. With concision, and attention to small detail, Zadie Smith lets us in on the feelings around during this Big Week at the end of their marriage.

With one or two exceptions I found the stories set in Britain less engaging. I enjoyed The Lazy River where the narrator is holidaying in Almería with her family and a heap of other Brits and observing the nuances of the British class system. I found Sentimental Education at times funny but also tedious. Here the education of a  young black woman at Cambridge ( I think rather than Oxford) consists of lots of sex, the details of which we’re not spared. But I laughed at the character of Leon, an old friend of her boyfriend Darryl, and living with him in his college rooms. Leon is well integrated into college life, supplying the whole college with drugs, joshing with the Bedders and shagging the Posh Girls- he offered a vision of college life free from the burden of study. But then there were several other stories which were surreal, or just being so meta that I  didn’t get what they were trying to do and disengaged while reading.

There’s some brilliant writing here and an overlap and exploration of themes across the stories set in the US which comment on contemporary US society as well as the nature of fiction. I didn’t find this coherence amongst the stories set in Britain, which was disappointing for a hardback costing £20. (Though I got my copy as part of the ticket at a reading, a new way of selling new titles, I’m discovering). So borrow it from the library or your friend, read, enjoy and note the stories you like to pass on to the next person with the book.

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Berta Isla by Javier Marias translated by Margaret Jull Costa

For a while, she wasn’t sure her husband was her husband, much as, when you’re dozing, you’re not sure whether you’re thinking or dreaming, whether you’re actually in charge of your own thoughts or have completely lost track of them out of sheer exhaustion. Sometimes she thought he was, sometimes not, and at other times, she decided to believe nothing and simply continue living her life with him, or with that man so similar to him, albeit older. But then she, too, had grown older in his absence; she was very young when they married.

So begins Berta Isla, Javier Marias’ most recent novel, and right away we are plunged into Marias’ world of doubt and unknowing, of blurred identities made more obscure by the passage of time. We’ve been there before in A Heart so White and Thus Bad Begins and that feeling of disquiet, of being unsettled, creeps up and takes residence in our minds from the very beginning.

This introduction is in fact a brief fast forward to the end of the story of Berta Isla, a madrileña, and her half Spanish, half English husband, Tom Nevison. They were childhood sweethearts, having met at school in Madrid, and Berta knew as a teenager that he was the man she wanted to marry. They were apart in their late teens, when Tom went to Oxford to study, but married when he returned to Madrid, where he got a job working for the British Embassy. She’d noticed a change in Tom when he returned from Oxford: the easy, carefree Tom had faded rather. He’d become a little anxious, he had problems sleeping, and these troubles became more marked each time he was gearing up to leave Madrid for London. The London trips become more frequent. Tom is away for weeks at a time and Berta has difficulty contacting him. This comes to a head when she’s befriended by an odd Spanish-Irish couple in Madrid who inveigle their way into her confidence and end up endangering the life of their baby- she can’t contact Tom and has to deal with this alone.

In the meantime-the narrative switches back and forth between Berta and Tom throughout the novel- the reader knows that when Tom was finishing his Oxford degree, he’s summoned to the rooms of Oxford don Peter Wheeler. Here, he’s given the infamous tap on the shoulder, i.e. invited to work for the Secret Service, where his talents as a linguist and a mimic would be highly valued. Wheeler uses all the arguments he can drum up to persuade Tom: is he content to lead an ordinary, humdrum life, exerting no influence on the course of world events, an outcast from the universe, or does he want to make a difference, does he want to be involved in the Defence of the Realm? At first, Tom refuses. Then, a set of circumstances arise which put pressure on him and he sees no alternative but to agree. He returns to Madrid, working ostensibly for the embassy but spending more and more time away on the unknown activities Berta is forbidden to ask about.

After the threat to their child, Tom comes back and long Marias- like conversations with Berta ensue-intense, one-to-one, in claustrophobic indoor spaces. He tells her what happened at Oxford and a little about his work for what he calls the Foreign Office. She is aghast at the idea of him being an infiltrator: this is Spain in 1976, just 6 months after the death of Franco, and the memories of the work of the Brigada Política-Social, the sociales, are still very much alive. These were spies working for the Brigada who infiltrated radical groups pretending to be one of them, while passing back information to the Brigada. Berta can’t stand the deception, the pretence of friendship involved in such relationships and is horrified that Thomas could be an infiltrator. Thomas insists he can’t tell her more and they both know she has the choice between accepting this situation or leaving him.

She doesn’t leave him. She’s had a second child by now, a little girl, and has become a lecturer in English literature. She’s somehow got used to the life many married women live, where husbands work away for long periods of time, who just get on with their professional and family lives, supported by family and friends. (Though we meet none of Berta’s friends, move away rarely from her solitary internal monologues). Tom’s final departure happens in 1982, just after the invasion of the Falklands, and this time he doesn’t come back. We’re told how Berta deals with this over the months and years and how the British authorities treat her-and in the last 100 pages learn from Tom’s perspective a little about what’s happened to him in the intervening time. As we know from the beginning Tom does turn up again in Berta’s life, after an absence of many years. He’s a virtual stranger and the quiet ending sees them finding a modus vivendi with which they can go forward. Yet there’s no resolution. They’re both still waiting.

The Secret Service offers up a whole world of possibilities for a writer like Javier Marias with his predilection for concealment, for unknowing and shifting identities. Some familiar tropes drive the plot forward: those claustrophobic one-to-one conversations seen here in the form of the conversation between Oxford don and student, amongst others. There is more of his inventive word play: the twisting of the phrase outcasts from the universe to include the ivory tower don Mr. Southworth in his remote Oxford college, in his post outside the universe. The translator Margaret Jull Costa must be praised here for her rendering of this word play into English. The text is threaded through with literary references too-here T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as well as Shakespeare. ( I actually love it that a married couple discuss the question of treachery through the lens of a scene from Henry V).

But there’s also that, to me at least, less appealing Marias trope of the male gaze, especially at the beginning, which had me thinking ok here we go, do we have to have the female don in the bookshop characterised as a sex goddess? But, as before, I ended up overlooking that, because there are other things which I found compelling-and very chilling. While I was reading, the deliberately oblique, and only occasional, references to Ireland stopped me in my tracks: I’ve recently watched the BBC4 documentary Spotlight on the Troubles:A Secret History and the atmosphere created by Anna Burns in her Man Booker prize winning novel Milkman is forever seared onto my brain. The images and references to the Troubles in Berta Isla hit me hard. But later, while the novel was still percolating through my mind, I’ve become angry at the British establishment, plucking young, inexperienced men and women and luring them into a world from which they’ll never be free, which will prevent them from ever leading a normal life. While the top brass, all knighted, as Marias points out, direct things from afar, remote from what happens to the agents in the field.

This is a powerful and compelling read with its slow but steady pace, its skilful build up of tension and its oblique, glancing references, all contributing to the unsettling atmosphere of uncertain identity, of not knowing. And of course the question of adopting different identities in the Secret Service world just feeds into that larger question of do we ever really know the people we’re closer to, the ones we share our lives with? I enjoyed the way Marias moors these more existential questions in the particular historical and political contexts of 60s and 70s  Madrid and Oxford. And I enjoyed spending time in the Marias world with a female protagonist this time, with Berta Isla.

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The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

A young woman in an old, high-ceilinged flat in Berlin hears a declaration of love from her  musician boyfriend. A twelve year old girl walks out of a hotel in Amsterdam and catches a train to Vienna in search of her dead aunt’s songs. What links these two events wrapping around the 900 pages of The Eighth Life, translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin, is family, and the shared experiences of a family living through the twentieth century, the red century, in Georgia. It’s the wrapping for a vast confectionery of stories, which are multi- generational and truly epic, taking place in Georgia, Russia, London and Berlin, against a background of tumultuous political and historical events. And it’s a history of Georgia too, the most beautiful place on earth, rich in rivers, waterfalls, succulent fruits and..the best wine in the world, poised between Europe and Russia, between autonomy and dependence, and its agonising red century evolution.

The novel is narrated by Niza, the young Berlin woman and from the very beginning we see how the characters are caught up in the history they lived through. Niza’s great-great-grandfather, a confectioner in a provincial town in Georgia before the First World War, enjoys the bourgeois pleasure of reading his newspaper in the town square cafes, while hearing the hum of communism ever louder in the background. The lives of his two daughters, Stasia and Christine, are shaped by the First World War and the Soviet period. Stasia has to give up her dreams of dancing with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris when she marries Simon Jashi, who later becomes an officer with the Red Army. Christine, a stunning beauty, marries a wealthy society toastmaster, but unfortunately catches the eye of the all powerful Little Big Man, aka Beria, the head of the NKVD, the notorious secret police. Stasia’s children, Kostya and Kitty, live through the Second World War, Kostya enjoying a successful career in the Russian navy, Kitty, horribly damaged by her experiences, escapes from Eastern Europe to London, from where she’s able to launch her musical career in the West. The stories of Niza, her sister, Daria and their mother, Elene, are set against the break up of the Soviet Union, the lawlessness, violence and wars which then ensued in Georgia and determined their lives. And these are just a few of the characters who appear in the book. There are other, both major and minor, characters who move centre stage for a while, and then recede, sometimes to appear unexpectedly in a different context, just like the thick and thin threads, the different coloured threads which weave together to form a pattern in the carpet of stories described by Stasia.

One of the huge pleasures of immersing yourself in a book of this length is the depth and development of character and relationships. ( Is this one of the ways in which the novel can be called Tolstoyan? I think so, though it’s decades since I read War and Peace). Sibling relationships are an important theme. We see the different personalities of Kostya and Kitty as children, the correct, neat and tidy boy irritated by his wilder, mischievous sister- and later the adult Kostya, ambitious for his daughter, Elene, infuriated by the unruly female household run by his aunts in Tbilisi.  A wide range of sexual relationships are explored, including exploitative and abusive relationships and rape. Many of these take place as a result of the political power relationships of the time- who is going to refuse Beria sexual favours when we know the cruel atrocities he’s capable of ? With others, the power relationship is not necessarily to do with politics, but more about violence against women- endured by several characters in this novel.There are moving and powerful female friendships- I loved the warm and lively friendship between Stasia and her unconventional friend Sopio whom she meets when she first moves to Tibilisi, while the connection between Kostya’s lover Ida, and the other Ida, the blinded young pianist in besieged Leningrad, reduced me to tears.  And we see relationships change, develop and attenuate over time, the accommodation of married couples, partners who outgrow each other.

The historical context of the novel is told through the characters’ stories but also by way of discursive narrative. So both Beria and Stalin are referred to in the book, notably as they both come from Georgia, and had a particular interest in the fate of Georgia and, in the case of Beria, have a bearing on the plot.  Some of the historical situations in which the characters are involved will be familiar to the general reader, like the Siege of Leningrad, but others were new to me- I’d never heard of the Georgian League, formed from Georgians persuaded by the Germans to fight on their side in World War Two in return for support for an independent Georgia at the end of the war. And the ruthlessness of the Soviet regime evoked repeatedly in the fear and terror felt by characters at many points in the stories is only borne out by the account of the assassination of 25,000 Polish officers and intellectuals at Katyn and the terrible consequences of Order 270 by which all Red Army soldiers who allowed themselves to be taken prisoner were considered traitors- and shot when returned to the Soviet Union.

But it’s not just in accounts of these big and terrible events that the novel communicates Georgia’s history: its strength is also in depicting the characters’ daily lived experiences. So after the collapse of the Soviet Union we see Georgian society descending gradually into chaos. Infrastructure deteriorates, there are frequent electricity cuts, a flourishing black market,pensions not paid, and corruption and criminality is rife. Niza’s friend, David, is stabbed to death for a gold chain, and her card-playing friends start carrying guns as a matter of course. Independence movements in Abkhazia and Ossetia develop into full blown wars with the consequent loss of life war. Drugs, including heroin, enter the country, and play a role in the downward spiral of the beautiful and talented Daria and her husband Lasha. It’s the experience of her country falling apart which induces Niza to get out and try to build a life for herself in Berlin-bringing us back to that morning when Aman says he loves her and a panic phone call from her mother sees her flying out of the door, looking for Brilka.

The title of this book is The Eighth Life (for Brilka), and indeed Brilka is found and brought back to live with her aunt, Niza, in Berlin for a while. Brilka’s trip to Vienna was to find Kitty’s music to use for a dance performance about her family. She asks Niza to provide the stories. Niza agrees and spends a year travelling round Europe researching and reading, and the result is this book.

It’s impossible to do justice to such a big novel in a humble blog post like this. Not only is it long, but there’s such a huge cast of characters and the plot does indeed stretch over a whole century. Some of the subject matter is really gruelling and I take my hat off to the translators for having the steadiness of character to be able to cope with the grimness, never mind the technical demands of the translation. But it’s an utterly compelling and very readable family story, which opened my eyes to Georgia, a part of the world I don’t know, and its tumultuous and painful history. Do read it. It’s one of those books that demands time and commitment, but you won’t regret it.

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My 10 Peak Reads of 2019

How hard to sift through the brilliant books I’ve read this year to find my top favourites- but here they are, some well known prize winners, some more personal choices, all of them books which have resonated with me this year.

  1. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. This novel, reviewed in more detail here, is about journeying, amongst other things. There’s a Mexican American family- two adults, two children- travelling west from New York. There are children making the dangerous journey from Central America to the Mexican/ US border. The journeys are odysseys and there’s plenty of references to Homer and Virgil as well as David Bowie’s Space Oddity. This is a profoundly moving novel and, with its depiction of the children making that perilous journey, very pertinent to our times.
  2. Disoriental by Négar Djavadi. This novel, by the French/ Iranian film maker Négar Djavadi, is translated from French by Tina Kover, and deals with the experiences of Kimiâ, a young Iranian girl whose family has fled political persecution in Iran and is now trying to make her life in France. The structure of the book is intriguing, alternating between the adult Kimiâ in a Parisian clinic, and the history of her family in Iran. It plays cleverly with our expectations in its exploration of identity and is reviewed in more detail here.
  3. Geisterbahn/ Ghost Train by Ursula Krechel. This third novel by one of my favourite German writers, deals, like her others, with the Nazi period. But this time the focus is on events and characters in the city of Trier, following amongst others the lives of a Sinti family and a Communist family during this period. As in Landgericht/ State Justice, the novel embraces both narrative and history, giving us detailed information about real events. It also crosses generations, showing us the consequences and continued trauma of families persecuted in the Nazi period. Ursula Krechel’s writing is intense and at times harrowing but the story of the Sinti family in particular is a story that needs to be heard. It’s not yet been translated into English but you can read more details here.
  4. On the Red Hill by Mike Parker. This is an altogether lighter read and a chance book I came across on a trip to Wales when exploring family links there. It’s about the history of two gay couples who are friends, and the house Rhiw Goch in mid Wales, which the older couple bequeath to Mike Parker and his partner. The book combines some of my favourite genres, nature writing and memoir, and both are evocatively brought to life by the inclusion of many black and white photos, chronicling the lives of the men and the evolution of Rhiw Goch over the years. Reviewed here.
  5. Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. I couldn’t quite face reading this book when I was given it in 2015 after Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But I went back to it this year after visiting Ukraine and reading  The Unwomanly Face of War by the same writer. This is a collection of oral histories gathered a few years after the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine. I found them illuminating, not just in terms of the range of people affected by the accident and their experiences, but also in terms of what these accounts reveal about the Soviet system, its citizens’ faith in that system and their capacity for suffering and endurance given the terrible and tragic twentieth century history they’d lived through. More here.
  6. The Years by Annie Ernaux. More on twentieth century history in this book, translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer and the winner of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2019. It’s a novel but reads like a memoir and charts the life of a French woman born in the early 1940s against a background of political and social change in France. The novel is both intimate in its detailed description of family photos marking seminal moments and in its use of the pronoun we to denote generational experiences and change. This will be of interest to anyone who’s  lived through those changes themselves or is a follower of French culture and society. Reviewed here.
  7. Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon. This is another book which could be classified as memoir, translated from the French by Michael Lucey. It’s one of the books which has stayed with me because it’s an exploration of changing social class,  leaving working class roots behind and the consequences of that, a theme I’m interested in right now. Didier Eribon was the only person in his family to receive a university education and to leave his home town of Reims. This book is about his return after many years, his reconnection with his mother and his reflections on growing up in a family in which he felt fundamentally different- not conforming to social norms of masculinity, being bookish and being gay. Reviewed here.
  8. When I hit you by Meena Kandasamy. This powerful  novel about domestic violence in India was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018. It’s a novel about a brief marriage between an educated young couple in southern India- the woman comes from Chennai- where controlling behaviour from the husband escalates into violence and rape. The woman’s feelings of isolation and desperation are intensified by the fact of living in a culture where women’s obedience and subservience in marriage is the absolute norm. The role of the parents here is interesting and I also admired the variety in tone and voice used to great effect by the narrator. To be reviewed in more detail.
  9. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. This fabulous huge novel won the Man Booker prize this year, 2019, and deservedly so. Its about the lives of 12 women living in Britain today, most of them black. It explores issues of race, sexuality, gender and identity through their stories which cleverly interconnect, and tells us in some cases the history of their arrival in the UK, e.g. the Windrush people. The novel starts off being London centred so it was both a relief and intriguing when it opened up to include the West Country and the North East. The writing is lively, pithy and witty and at times had me laughing out loud. Reviewed here. 
  10. The Eighth Life by Nino Haratschvili. I’ve just finished this epic family novel brilliantly co-translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin- and what a note to finish the year on! It’s a multi-generational family saga set against the background of the twentieth century history of Georgia and was for me as much the story of that country, positioned between Europe and Russia, and very much within the orbit of the Soviet Union for much of the century. The family goes through the Russian revolution, the Communist period, the Second World war, the Soviet and post Soviet era and suffers and endures. Against this historical background we see strong female relationships, family tensions, sibling rivalries, youthful passion and the ebbing away of love. At 900 pages it may be daunting, but it’s extraordinary and worth setting other things on one side to devote yourself to it. Reviewed here.
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Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, Man Booker Prize Winner 2019

This clever and entertaining Booker winning novel explores the intersection of race, class, gender and identity in today’s Britain through the stories of twelve people-‘mostly women, mostly black’.  They’re mostly metropolitan too, though one story takes place in rural Northumberland and Yorkshire. The characters belong to different generations, giving a historical dimension to the experience of black women against a background of social change. Their stories are interconnected in different ways, both through plot and theme, involving the reader in that delicious forensic task of spotting characters and connections as they reappear. And while exploring some issues for women today head on, the writer, Bernadine Evaristo has a light touch with others, raising questions, sometimes inverting the reader’s expectations, making us question our assumptions-and also making us laugh out loud.

The characters come from a range of backgrounds and heritages: Dominique’s father is Indo-Guyanese, her mother Afro- Guyanese, Amma’s mother mixed race Scottish/ Nigerian, her father, Ghanaian. Winsome came to the UK from Jamaica in the 50s as part of the Windrush generation, and Hattie’s ancestors were Ethiopian and Caribbean. Racism is an everyday experience for all of them and Bernadine Evaristo skilfully weaves this into the narratives, showing its changing face as the characters move through history and up the social ladder. So when Winsome and Clovis live briefly in the South West in the 50s, the locals wind down car windows to insult her, refuse her accommodation or service in shops, bar her from cafes and deliberately drive through puddles to splash her as she pushes a pram with two toddlers beside her. Shirley, her daughter, is aware of passengers clutching their handbags tighter as she passes them on the bus and is never sure whether her teacher colleagues’ rudeness in the 70s is down to her race or gender. Carole, a Cambridge graduate and high-flying banker in the 21st century, knows that when she enters a room for a meeting, the client will look at her as if she should be attached to the tea trolley and then past her to the person they are clearly expecting to meet.

Bernadine Evaristo gives us a more nuanced picture when it comes to the male experience of racism: Clovis working at Plymouth docks in the 1950s is accepted by the other stevedores who’ve travelled through the world’s ports and seen people of many nationalities. Slim, settling with Hattie in rural Northumberland in the late 40s, is liked by the community for his pleasant and courteous manners and deep baritone voice in the church choir. Is it just that racism is not a uniform phenomenon and that there are pockets of tolerant people open to people different from themselves? Or is it that these men are doing traditionally male manual jobs and staying in their lower social class, whereas women like Shirley and Carole have ideas beyond their station, breaking into hitherto masculine professional worlds- all the more unprecedented because they’re black?

Moving up the social ladder and the role of education in this move is a theme present in many stories. Bummi is a cleaner, Winsome a bus conductress and they want better paid jobs, with more prestige and less drudgery, for their daughters. So we see Carole, a gifted mathematician, making it to Cambridge and a stellar career in banking. We see her teacher, Mrs. King, dedicated to opening doors for the hard working and talented at the Peckham Comprehensive where she teaches. We see mothers controlling their children’s homework, keen for them to gain the qualifications they didn’t get themselves. However, these experiences are played out in the highly structured class system of the U.K. and its educational offer. We learn that a girl’s chances are better if she goes to New Cross Grammar School with the middle classes of Greenwich and Blackheath, than at Peckham Comprehensive with its escalating problems of poverty and gang violence. And when they do make it to university, how hard it is to enter such an utterly different world. Carole’s reaction on arriving at Cambridge:

she overheard loud reminiscences about the dorms and drugs of boarding school, Christmas holidays in Goa, the Bahamas, gap years spent climbing Machu Picchu, or building a school for the poor in Kenya, 

Nobody talked loudly about growing up in a council flat on a skyscraper estate with a single mother who worked as a cleaner

Nobody talked loudly about never having gone on a single holiday, like ever

Nobody talked loudly about never having been on a plane, seen a play or the sea, or eaten in a restaurant, with waiters

Female sexuality and relationships are a theme and, again, we are given a range of experiences: heterosexual, lesbian, polyamory, transgender. Early sexual experience is common to several characters. One of the characters suffers a gang rape at the age of 13 and tells no one about it. Another character suffers a different sort of rape, an incident of non consensual sex on a first date- and wonders afterwards if she is to blame? The shame and degradation felt by these women afterwards is movingly told. I felt a mixture of sadness and despondency in general at the seemingly irreconcilable desires of young women and  men- she wants a regular boyfriend, someone to talk to, he wants a shag-but also outrage that the perpetrator of the rape is a teacher, a respectable member of society, a fact just thrown in lightly, once, by the writer, to make us think about those men who do such damage with impunity.

Of course, the result of early sex, both consensual and not, is pregnancy, early motherhood and fatherless children, and we see that play out across the generations. LaTisha, Carole’s contemporary at school, has 3 children by the age of 21, raising them alone by working as a supervisor in Fruit and Veg in the local supermarket. Two women of earlier generations also give birth as teenagers: one keeps the baby, but has to leave home, and the other gives her baby up for adoption- and we see the stories of those babies weave in and out of the narrative.

One great strength of the novel is its occasional inversion of our expectations. I mentioned earlier Slim being welcomed and accepted into a rural community. There’s a refreshingly upbeat section where his mixed race mother-in-law Grace is orphaned at the age of 8-and you’re immediately thinking Oh no! Jane Eyre! Lowood School! But Grace is sent to the Northern Association’s Home for Girls where the teachers believe in women’s suffrage and giving their girls a decent elementary education so they can earn their own living. Grace is told she has a natural elegance, given confidence and a sense of self worth here, which stands her in good stead in her later relationship with the man she marries, Joseph Rydendale. (And here again, that light touch- he calls her his Queen Cleopatra, the Lady of the Nile-is he exocitising? She reminds him her heritage is Abyssinian, not Egyptian, he tells her gently it’s called Ethiopia these days, part of a humorous and loving banter in their early relationship. We might call this racism now- but should we be critical of him for attitudes prevalent in the past?) But the most shocking challenge to our expectations- and I’m basing that claim on the reaction of my book group and others-is an expression of sexual desire by one of the twelve which feels very transgressive. To say more would be to spoil.

This is a brilliant kaleidoscope of a book, whose characters and lives touch, interconnect, retreat and reappear. Inevitably, with a range of characters, some will resonate more than others, and I have to say I found the sections with Amma and the London luvvies the least appealing. It was when Carole appeared in the second section that I was really gripped and with the stories all the way. The style is pacy and upbeat, particularly with the lack of full stops, which has irked some readers, but didn’t bother me. Yet beneath the paciness there is meticulous plotting, succinct yet vivid portrayal of character and real emotional depth. And some considerable research has gone into the historical sections. The epilogue has the last word, with Penelope investigating her DNA via Ancestry, to see where she comes from, to find her identity. This is a fantastic novel for our times and a worthy winner of the Booker Prize. Thank you Bernadine Evaristo.

 

 

 

 

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