The pile is empty, at least the pile that was the Man Booker Longlist 2015. The final stretch happened to be several short novels, at least novels that did not stretch beyond 300 pages, which is by several standards now considered short.
Anuradha Roy‘s novel Sleeping on Jupiter is a compact but unflinching look at a stolen childhood. We begin the journey on a train, in the sleeping carriage and probably air-conditioned, three elderly women are travelling on a last journey together – Latika, Vidya and Gouri. Gouri is a large, ungainly mass with a steadily more confused mind, she is unreliable and therefore something of a liability, but they are going to Jarmuli on a pilgrimage. Latika, because she wants to travel with her friends and Gouri because she is a believer, Vidya is more the mother-hen, placing cards with their address and contact details in Gouri’s handbag in case she gets lost. In the carriage with them is a young woman – she is chasing her lost childhood. She grew up in Jarmuli, in an ashram as an orphan, kept in unwitting captivity, abused and badly treated by all but the gardener, Jadhu and her friend Piku. Nomi is there scoping for a documentary, while at the same time looking for her past, but as the train stops in a station somewhere, she leaps off and goes to get food, not for herself but for a poor beggar woman, and the train moves off…
We follow these four disparate people for five days having different adventures and mishaps – odd meetings, some deliberate and some accidental, and missed opportunities. Ultimately, we learn more of their secrets, pains and mistakes. It ends quite suddenly, and then some time later we meet Nomi again, burying what remains of her past, shedding the pain and forgiving herself for what was a child-survivor’s instinct, to save herself and abandon her friend.
The prose is pitch-perfect, and some of the scenes are vividly told. The sense of place and of how sound brings up old feelings and memories is profoundly present. In the acknowledgements, Anuradha Roy writes
There are countless horrific cases of child abuse and sexual violence in India. I have drawn on the legal and investigative history of many such incidents; this book is not based on any particular instance.
Although this book is not wholly about any one such case, it does remind us once again about the fragility of childhood. The abuse is nothing like as horrific as the experiences describe in A Little Life, but only quantitatively. The lasting mental and emotional effect is life-changing and appalling.
The last book in the pile, Chigozie Obioma‘s The Fishermen is also about childhood and is a debut novel. Against a background of some violence, four boys and their younger siblings live a life governed by order, discipline and rules in Akure, a town in western Nigeria. But this changes when their father, who works for the Central Bank of Nigeria, is moved away to Yola in the north and can only come home every few weeks. While he is away and their mother is working in the market, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin play truant from school and go fishing in the local river, the dangerous Omi-Ala. Two seminal things happen there – they are seen by a neighbour (who they know will tell their mother) and approached by a madman, Abulu, who issues a horrible and dangerous prophecy…
The whole novel is seen from a distance of years, the teller is Benjamin. Now older and a parent himself, he looks back at the incidents that shaped his life. At the moment which became the fulcrum of all that happened afterwards and the effect it had on his mother and father and obviously, his siblings.
For a first novel, this is something of an accomplishment because the telling is quite straightforward, there is no unnecessary detail but all the same you get a very complete picture of rural Nigeria, of profoundly pagan beliefs held together with sincere Christianity. Abulu has a horrible habit of truth-foretelling, many things that he has said do seem to come about, but he is mad, dirty and fearsome at the same time. Set in an English village this story simply could not bear the weight of the things that happen in this small town, but in an African town they take on a significant and believable ghastliness.
The father has great hopes and ambitions for his family, he prospers and has contacts abroad, there is talk of getting the older boys to Canada but before that can happen, the events that shape this compelling story begin their insidious work…
Definitely a new African voice to look out for.