Tag Archives: Africa

Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 6

Zadie Smith, you love her or you don’t. This is what I have found among readers that I talk to. Sadly, I am among those who don’t really care for her books and I feel it is only fair to come right out with this straightaway.

Swing TimeSpring Time is a novel about two girls, the narrator and Tracey. The two girls meet with their mothers in a cemetery, of all places. Their lives are inextricably linked from there on. Tracey and the narrator go to a dance class with Miss Isabel, piano played by Mr Booth. Tracey is a natural, the narrator has flat feet and only a limited sense of rhythm. The competition begins right there.

Tracey lives with her enormous mother and no obvious other parent; the narrator lives with both her parents, white father who is unambitious, conscientious and caring (apparently) and her mother is a Jamaican, resolute, selfish, ambitious and driven.

The area is North London, more or less. Don’t use this novel as an A-Z!

The lives of the two girls, all narrated in the first person, go from that first meeting through teenage and into adulthood, the predictable paths of these two and their parents looks set to play out according to script, but then this is a novel and it is by Zadie Smith.

I do think this is likely to be on the shortlist. It is clever, surprising and wilful. Will I be ecstatic if it wins? No. But I do admire Zadie Smith for mining a rich source of material from her locality and her people (not necessarily those related to her, as per Sebastian Barry, but those close by). I had a friend who was the priest at St Mary’s Willesden, and these people were in his congregation, everyone one of them.



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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 4

There are a great many novels dealing with slavery and the Underground Railroad and to mention only a few: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sacred Hunger and The Last Runaway barely covers the ground. Some of them deal with the subject in a slightly glossed over fashion and others go deep into the fleshiness of it.

Underground RailwayThe latest in this long line, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, spares the reader nothing. The story of Cora begins in the forests of Africa with her grandmother Ajarry, at the time a small child. Eventually Ajarry arrives on the Randall estate, and at some point in the dreadful progression, this estate switches to cotton.

Cotton demands many hands, you only have to read Gone with the Wind to know that, planting is the first hazard; weevils, drought, lightning strikes are next, but then there is the picking. For picking you needs many and nimble fingers and the negro slave was the answer.

The Randall estate eventually passes to the two sons, one takes the Southern plantation and the other the Northern. Ajarry has passed on long since, and Mabel, her daughter, has by now had a daughter of her own, Cora.

At the beginning of the novel, not the backstory, Mabel is a hunted runaway and Cora a young, abandoned child. We are spared nothing, not the labour, not the beatings, not the rapes and not the fear. The pages are saturated in it.

This novel has, not surprisingly, already won one book award, The National Book Award Winner 2016 (of America). Endorsed by Obama and Oprah Winfrey this climbed the America charts and has now climbed the British lists.

This is Cora’s story, possibly a unique account, but more probably one that would have been familiar to many African slaves. It is a tale of courage, indomitability, fear, joy and survival against the weight of white suppression. It is not a book to enjoy, but one to learn from and consider. unsworthAnd like Barry Unsworth‘s Sacred Hunger, it makes very clear the relationship between Britain’s prosperity and slavery. It was not only the traders in human misery who were implicated – but each and every person who took a mouthful of sugar, drank rum or wore fine cotton.

Its position on the shortlist is a likely outcome.

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Blogging the Booker 2015 – 9 Last but not least

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.

JupiterAnuradha 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, FishermenChigozie 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.


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An old favourite rediscovered

Do you have books in a pile that you keep meaning to pick up and read but somehow seem to slip past as other books arrive for immediate attention?

In the Falling Snow by Caryl Phillips is one such. Since I love Caryl Phillips writing I am not sure why I didn’t get around to reading this until now since it was written in 2009 and I probably got it then.

Caryl Phillips writing is very straightforward, he does not pull any punches. Most of his books, if not all, deal with ordinary people who are coping with immigration. Either as immigrants themselves or as English people, especially in the Midlands and the North, who are coping with their own relationships with immigrants. Caryl Phillips himself comes from St Kitts and now lives in both London and New York.

scan0002In his novel, In the Falling Snow our protagonists are living in London. Keith and Annabelle are now living apart having been married for twenty-five years ever since leaving university. Keith has been a social worker but is presently out of work, or possibly on garden leave, after an unfortunate affair with a colleague which went viral when he broke it off.

Keith is himself what his school mates called a “halfie”. His father having left the Caribbean after the death of his own parents meets and has sexual relations with a young white girl, who falls pregnant just as Jamie has met and is about to marry Brenda. Keith has a strange and dislocated childhood, his own father does not live with his mother but with Brenda and while he is still very young he lives with his mother and her present partner, but when she dies this man brings Keith around to Brenda and her father and leaves him there.

Keith himself also marries an English, middle-class girl whose parents do not approve of the liaison and they have a teenage son Laurie. Laurie is proving extremely troublesome which necessitates uncomfortable parent evenings and interviews with the headmaster, and finally the local police station.

While all this is going on, Keith has his own parent problems as does Annabelle. Keith’s father lives alone in the North of England and he has to go up to visit him, which is depressing since his father is difficult and is clearly not managing well on his own. Annabelle’s mother is declining in a care home.

Between them, Keith and Annabelle are struggling with their own relationship, with parenting their difficult and surly son and with their own parent’s predicaments. These are ordinary people struggling with quite ordinary lives, we can all recognise them and their troubles. Caryl Phillips pinpoints the way in which larger themes can been seen through the lens of a smaller life; this is a poignant and troubled novel, written with elegant and subtle humour.

In another and much older book, A Distant Shore, Caryl Phillips points his lens at a very different situation. We learn over the length of the novel the “back story” of the two main characters Solomon and Dorothy. Dorothy has been required to take early retirement and has moved back to a new development in a midland town called Weston, where she grew up. The cul-de-sac in which she lives and a neighbouring cul-de-sac is perched above the main town, in the bungalow next to hers lives Solomon, the local handyman and caretaker/security officer, who also acts as a volunteer driver for the local health centre.scan0001

As we pass from Part I to Part II and so on, we gradually come to see what extraordinary circumstances have brought Solomon to England and who he has been before he became the man we have met so far. The same with Dorothy, a woman who has been married but is separated from her husband, Brian. Her liaisons get her into difficulties and finally she goes to live with her estranged sister, Sheila but there too, she is faced with the problems that are insurmountable. Eventually, her mind gives up the struggle and she ends up in a care home.

Again this is elegiac, subtle and thought provoking writing. We can identify with these people even if we do not in any way share their experiences.

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57th LFF – it might have been love

I am seldom bored in a film, but The Police Officer’s Wife tried my patience to its limit. 175 minutes of what? 59 short chapters about four characters in a landscape; two characters in an abusive relationship – Kalle and Christina and their daughter Clara, plus an older man who said nothing, never met the other three and might conceivably been Kalle as an old man living on his own…

I am quite in favour of unusual presentation, but Philip Gröning (I think that might be pronounced Groaning which would be highly appropriate) took the unusual step of blacking out the screen with Augang (Beginning) and Ende (Ending) of each chapter. The first three were non-verbal, as were several others. Chapter 1 was utterly baffling, we were in a wood and someone ran past; Chapter 2 cannot even remember what that was, we were indoors I think; Chapter 3 we met the old man in a snowy landscape, at first he had his back to the camera, then he turned and faced it, a woman with a dog walks past and another dog ran forward to greet them. We met the old man several more times: we watched as he got dressed, he made a small meal and ate it, and he slept in the chair, we also went into his kitchen but there was no sign of him. We met Kalle: coming home from work, taking of his uniform, stowing his gun and going upstairs, and so on, sometimes he was with a colleague doing policemen’s stuff – sorting out traffic accidents, driving round the street etc. and sometimes he was at home and a lot of the time that was not pretty and we also met Christine and Clara: Christine showed Clara interesting things outside, planted seeds and sang songs; she was clearly depressed and hardly ever got fully dressed and probably wasn’t washing as at one point Clara said she smelled nasty. She loved Kalle, but he said she destroyed him and he was clearly destroying her – what to make of it?

I don’t know, I found it boring. It was unclear what the point was and as there was no continuity, the chapters seemed not to have a distinct sequence, there were spring scenes and winter scenes and summer barley, but in the right order – no, not really so were we to understand that this took several years? Why in that case did Clara not get appreciably older? There was some shocking violence, and Christina got some awful bruises – so clearly this was an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Did she drown the daughter and herself? Maybe?

The day was redeemed however by the second film: Half of a Yellow Sun by Biyi Bandele, with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Joseph Mawle, Anika Noni Rose and Onyeka Onwenu as Mama. Set between Nigerian Independence Day and the unsuccessful Biafra Civil War we follow the lives of twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, the screenplay is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. A long line up of actors, the producer and the director and Chimamanda herself were there for the Q&A. It is a great film and is coming to the UK in February or thereabouts, watch out for it, interestingly this was in the Dare section, it is also a love story of tremendous tenderness and penetrating pain; and a nationalistic hymn to Biafra’s disastrous struggle to create a separate state.

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