It’s the start of this year’s book prize season and I love perusing all the lists the judges to create to see what they choose to highlight. One of my favourite prizes of late is the Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize – whose shortlist I so avidly followed last year. It was great to see poet Kayo Chingonyi receive the prize last year for his debut collection “Kumukanda”. The Dylan Thomas Prize is awarded to what the judges deem to be the best published literary work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under.

This year’s longlist has just been announced and it’s got that perfect mix of books I’ve read and admired, books I’ve been meaning to read and a few books I’ve not come across before. On the list are eight novels, two short story collections and two books of poetry. Two that I’ve read and that were also listed for this year’s Costa Book Awards are “Normal People” by Sally Rooney and “Soho” by Richard Scott. Rooney’s immense popularity as one of the most exciting new voices in Ireland today is well deserved and Richard Scott’s disarmingly beautiful and emotional poetry still vividly sticks with me. It’s also wonderful to see the excellent Sarah Perry honoured for her most recent novel “Melmoth” and writer Emma Glass for her wickedly creative slim debut novel “Peach”.

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I’m eager to try reading some of the other books listed before the shortlist is announced on April 2nd. This year’s winner will be announced on May 16th. It’s also fun to note that one of the judges of this year’s prize is writer Kit De Waal!

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Have you read any of the books on this year’s longlist or are you curious to try some of them now?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Even though she ostensibly played a writer on TV, I first became aware of Sarah Jessica Parker’s real life passion for books a few years ago when she posted on Instagram about reading Lisa McInerney’s “The Glorious Heresies”. At the time I had great fun joking with Lisa how this novel could be developed into a “Sex in the City”-style TV show set in Cork because its gritty world of gangs, prostitution and drugs was so ridiculously far removed from the upscale life of sipping Cosmos and designer shoes depicted in that series. But Parker has taken her perceptive eye for great literature to the next level by starting her own imprint SJP under the publisher Hogarth.

I was particularly keen on reading “Golden Child” by Claire Adam, the second novel published by this imprint (in the UK it’s published by Faber & Faber) because it came adorned with blurbs by authors I really admire like Daniel Magariel and Sara Taylor. It’s a moving story of a family in Trinidad who have twin sons, one who develops into the most academically gifted boy in the Caribbean and the other who experiences severe learning difficulties. When one boy goes missing the novel turns into a tense mystery and kept me gripped wondering what was going to happen. But the heart of this novel revolves around questions about favouritism in families and the meaning of sacrifice for a child’s future.

It really pulls on my heartstrings when I read about children who are cast in a certain role within a family and forever carry the burden of those expectations. This works both ways for children who are generalised to be either smart/stupid, responsible/reckless, entertaining/dull or a whole host of opposing roles. The fact that the boys in this story are twins makes the contrast between them all the more vivid as well as the fact that they aren’t treated equally. What this novel shows so powerfully is that children don’t fit into one mould or another, but have unique personalities and quirks which ought to be considered in helping them to achieve their full potential. Only a kindly Irish priest named Father Kavanagh takes the time to see the value in the “problem” child Paul. I do wish more time had been spent fleshing out the character of his twin brother Peter and mother Joy, but the novel mostly focuses on Paul and his father Clyde.

Even though my sympathy naturally went with the children in this story it’s admirable how their father is still so complexly and engagingly depicted. He’s somewhat trapped in a family that’s torn apart by squabbling over inheritance and ardently wants to do the best for his children – despite categorizing them. As a working class man he knows the real value of money and doesn’t want to miss elevating at least one of his children out of the circumstances he was raised in. But he’s put in an impossible and dramatic position where he feels like he has to choose between them. The environment of his rural neighbourhood in Trinidad is depicted as crime-ridden where each house requires security devices and guard dogs to protect the families within.  At the same time, the author portrays the warmth, humour and (oftentimes gossipy) nature of the community.

This is a cleverly structured novel that powerfully portrays the complexities of family life and the difficult choices made in a strained environment.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesClaire Adam

I’ve been raving about how Marlon James’ new novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is one of the publishing events of the year and that it will no doubt be one of the best novels of 2019. Anticipation for this brilliant and radical book has been building like none other! Well, I am thrilled to offer you the chance to win a pair of tickets to see Marlon James discuss “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” at the Southbank Centre in London on February 25th AND win two advance copies of the novel.

  • To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment below with the answer to this question:

    Which novel by Marlon James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize?

  • A winner will be chosen through a random number generator.

  • Terms & Conditions are listed below.

I am so excited to see Marlon James interviewed about this book at the Southbank Centre – especially after reading the recent profile on him discussing it in The New Yorker. Believe me, this is a novel like none other! Be sure to check out my review and response video about reading an early copy to see why I think this novel is so special.  The event will take place during the UK publication week of “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” so this is your chance to get early copies of the novel as well as see the author himself. Good luck!

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  • Terms & Conditions:

1.The prize will consist of two tickets to 'Marlon James: Black Leopard, Red Wolf' on Monday 25 February at Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall + two proof copy of the novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf

2.There is no purchase necessary to enter. 

3. The prize draw opens Friday 25 January and closes Tuesday 29 January, 23:59. 

4. The winner will be contacted directly by Southbank Centre.

5. The prize draw is open to residents of the UK aged 18 or over except employees of Southbank Centre, their families, or anyone professionally connected to the giveaway either themselves or through their families.

6. The winner will be required to provide a contact email for Southbank Centre to facilitate transfer of the prize. Contact details will not be used for marketing purposes unless there is opt in and will not be shared with any third party except for the purpose of delivering the prize 

7. The prizes are as stated in the competition text, are not transferable to another individual and no cash or other alternatives will be offered. Tickets are not transferable to any other Southbank Centre event

8.The prize will be allocated in the winner's name and must be collected by the winner in person at Southbank Centre 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s been a few years since I read Lissa Evans’ excellent novel “Crooked Heart”, but I remember loving her vivid characters and witty writing style. So when I heard that her new novel is a prequel to this earlier book I become intensely curious. “Crooked Heart” opened with a poignant description of Mattie, an aging intellectual who was very active in the Suffragette movement, before describing the journey her ward Noel takes out of London to escape the The Blitz in 1940. “Old Baggage” tells Mattie’s story prior to when the boy Noel came to live with her and depicts Britain at an interesting stage of its political history.

It’s 1928 and many people - including some of the women involved in the Suffragette movement - feel that their overall aims have been achieved because of the new Equal Franchise Act which granted equal voting rights to women and men at the age of 21. However, Mattie is still frustrated by other inequalities between the sexes which persist and there’s also worrying fascist groups gaining in popularity – one of which is led by a former Suffragette. Mattie is the most endearing sort of stickler (who I admire but would be terrified to meet in real life) as she persists in delivering lectures to mostly bored crowds and has a new scheme to empower lackadaisical local girls by marching them through the heath like young activists/explorers. While this all makes it sound like a novel top heavy on history and politics it really doesn’t read that way. Rather, it’s a warm-hearted, comic and ultimately poignant portrayal of a group of women trying to balance their personal desires/values against the limitations of society at that time.

Although the story is a prequel, it felt like no prior knowledge of Mattie was necessary to enjoy this story of her and her household known as “The Mousehole” in Hampstead. It earned this nickname because it was a refuge for suffragettes to recover in when they were released from prison after hunger strikes in what was known as the Cat and Mouse Act. But now Mattie’s only stalwart companion in the house is Florrie Lee who is nicknamed “The Flea.” They are just friends but Florrie possesses latent romantic feelings towards Mattie. Her unexpressed sexuality is subtly described with a lot of feeling and care: “she loved Mattie. Living with her in simple friendship might be akin to dancing the Charleston when what you really ached for was a slow waltz – but the music still played; it was, in its way, still a dance.” It’s interesting how even though Mattie is such a progressive there were social issues even she wasn’t prepared to fight for in this era of history or, perhaps, she wasn’t even aware of them.  

What’s so clever about this novel is the way Evans gives such a compelling and many-sided look at politics from this period, but they are threaded so expertly into the plot they don’t obstruct the pleasure of the story. I found myself heartily engaged in scenes such as Mattie chasing a thief through a fairground or delighting in some deliciously cutting turns of phrase such as when Mattie describes a girl as being “zestless as a marzipan lemon”. Only after reading certain scenes did I think back and reflect on the way complicated social issues were built into the framework of these characters’ stories. It made me consider the difficult personal sacrifices individuals must make for a higher cause and how challenging it is to gain a historical perspective on a time period when you’re living through it. The story also subtly shows how political ideas influence people and reverberate over the greater span of time.

Many other writers would show the grit and agony the Suffragettes went through when starving themselves to protest against flagrant inequalities and the men in power who refused to do anything to change them. Instead, Evans refers to this and shows its continuing impact in Mattie’s dogged attitude lecturing and teaching anyone she encounters. I think this displays an admirable restraint in a writer because the impact of these activists’ self-sacrifice is no less intensely felt and we get a more complex picture of how seismic social changes have a multi-layered effect over time. While it’s important not to blinker ourselves against the horrors of history there can be an anaesthetizing effect when fiction gives detailed descriptions of harrowing situations. So it’s a difficult thing to make readers feel the heat of that anger while not making them want to close themselves off to the reality of it, but this is something Evans does very well.

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Evans also delivers that wonderful pleasure readers can get from reading about characters in situations where social rules are flagrantly disregarded. There’s a memorable scene in a jail where Mattie (as a victim of a crime) is expected to behave in a certain way, but her principles and resentment over the way police abused Suffragettes hilariously prevent her from complying and make her follow her own independent corrective actions. Her persistence and obstinacy to the cause exhausts nearly everyone around her, but she’s not immune to change. The story shows how her attitudes incrementally transform as she must temper her personality to allow for other people’s feelings.

While the primary journey of this novel was such a delight to read, I did feel that the story didn’t deliver an entirely satisfying conclusion for several strands within it. There are some periphery characters who we’re given touching private moments with, but their individual dilemmas feel slightly left behind in the greater sweep of Mattie’s story. She’s undeniably the centre of the novel and she’s such a mesmerising figure she deserves to be the focus. But when she reaches a certain crisis point and fall from grace it feels like everyone else is somewhat short-changed in the process of her redemption. However, the pleasures of this novel are manifold and the skill demonstrated in rendering history in such a lively, complex way is so admirable. It also felt especially moving at the end of “Old Baggage” reading about the genesis of a substitute parent-child relationship which changes so dramatically at the beginning of “Crooked Heart”. Mostly I admire Lissa Evans’ creative and imaginative style of writing about ornery characters in a way that makes me love them.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLissa Evans
6 CommentsPost a comment
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This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Wellcome Book Prize, an award which celebrates fiction and non-fiction that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. The intention of the prize is to raise public involvement and debate around the subject of medicine and health. It’s such a unique focus amongst book prizes whose categories are more general. The prize is indelibly linked to the extraordinary institution that is the Wellcome Collection. This is a free museum and library in central London which engages with the public about issues of health and is a rich resource for many. For instance, Jessie Greengrass wrote the bulk of her novel “Sight” (one of my favourite novels from last year) while working and conducting research in its library – something which is very evident in the text from the way it engages with the history of medicine.

So, to help celebrate this prize’s anniversary, I decided to peruse its history of entrants and read a book that was shortlisted for the prize in 2012. “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” by Mohammed Hanif is a darkly comic novel that begins with the novel’s titular hero Alice being interviewed for a nursing position at the dilapidated Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments in Karachi. It’s a chaotic establishment where blood is sold, medicine is pilfered and nurses are regularly molested (in one vividly horrific scene Alice defends herself with a razor blade). Alice implements simple hygienic procedures which improve the health of many patients, but as a medical facility its run more on faith than it is on science. So when an apparent miracle occurs people flock to the establishment in the hope of being magically cured. It’s a struggle for the rational, but Alice’s main dilemma is overcoming the stigma against her lower caste and Christian background. She seeks to rise above her origins, but things go badly awry.

Hanif’s writing brings the vibrancy and humanity of the city and Pakistani society to life as well as its manifold problems. Running parallel with Alice’s story are the shady dealings of the Gentlemen’s Squad, a police unit that uses strong-arm tactics and is basically a law unto itself. Teddy Butt a bodybuilder (and body waxer) is a freelance thug-for-hire who does odd jobs for them. Alice marries and attaches herself to him in the hope of gaining his protection but when their relationship becomes untenable she finds herself in even more danger. The story shows the absurdities of institutions which are run on reactionary ideas – most poignantly in the hospital’s approach to healthcare both by patients and doctors. The book’s final prologue is a heartrending lament that includes an indictment made by Alice’s father who highlights distinctions between those are deified in our society and those whose memories are besmirched. It’s a compelling and forceful novel.

I’ll be especially interested to follow the prize this year as the chair of judges is author Elif Shafak. A longlist will be announced in February, followed by a shortlist in March and the winner later in the Spring.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMohammed Hanif
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What a wholly-immersive wild adventure this novel is! Going into it I knew Marlon James has a talent for writing intricate sweeping tales from having read his previous novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. That book greatly enhanced his international prominence having won the Booker Prize in 2015. That same year I was one of the judges of The Green Carnation Prize and we also selected his novel as a winner - not just for the magnificence of his storytelling but the meaningful inclusion of gay characters and gay sex in this Jamaican story about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and drug trafficking.

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is very different from that previous book yet still retains James’ unique style, sensibility and alluring mischievousness. Touted as an ‘African Game of Thrones’, it describes a fantastical medieval adventure involving warring kingdoms, witches, giants, shape-shifters and a quest for a missing child. But it’s all firmly rooted in African mythology, language and history. There have been significant examples recently of storytelling whose narratives aren’t wholly based in an Anglo-Saxon past but draw instead upon traditions in African culture. From Tomi Adeyemi’s “Children of Blood and Bone” to Akwaeke Emezi’s “Freshwater” to the phenomenally successful film Black Panther, these tales insist upon the presence of African lore and pay respect to its cultural history whose influence has largely been absent from Western narratives. Marlon James does the same while creating a riveting journey that has all the marks of a fantasy novel but also explores sophisticated ideas about the meaning of storytelling and explicitly adult themes about ambition, relationships, sex and violence.

Recognizing this novel is a significant shift from his more realistic mode of writing, James remarked in an early interview about this novel that “I wanted to go back to being a fantasy geek!” Part of what I loved about reading this book is that it made me feel like a boy again and recall a time when I frequently got lost in magical adventure novels where the world was entirely unpredictable and quickly transformed in spellbinding ways. Books in this mode are such feats of the imagination that they require a character list and detailed maps to help the reader’s journey through this complicated new world. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” includes such aides and this adds to the nostalgic pleasure of embarking on what you know will be a knotty and richly-detailed odyssey.

The story’s hero Tracker becomes estranged from his family and tribe finding a more meaningful connection with a band of rejected deformed children called The Mingi and the charismatic Leopard (who alternately takes the form of a beast or man.) After being endowed with an extremely powerful sense of smell and magical protection from an anti-witch, Tracker (alongside a band of mercenaries and powerful beings) are recruited by a slave trader for a special mission to find a boy who mysteriously disappeared. The significance of this boy and his circumstances remain uncertain even as more details about him are uncovered during a quest which takes many years. Throughout his journeys Tracker encounters enchanted forests, mighty men engaged in gladiatorial fights, a neglected library master, evil shadow beings who walk on ceilings, a possessed village, flesh-eating monsters, doors that act as portals to other parts of the continent, tribes of witches who trade in children’s body parts and fantastical kingdoms. It’s a head-spinning adventure and one which expertly balances mysterious encounters with high intrigue.

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Embedded within this rich tale is a complicated same-sex romance centring around the close connection between Tracker and Leopard. Both are prone to jealousy when Tracker takes up with a chief officer and Leopard has an affair with his bowman. James has spoken before about how he emigrated from his native Jamaica partly because of the homophobic violence there. Leopard remarks at one point how “There are lands where men who love men get their cocks cut off, and are left to bleed to death.” It feels bold and significant that the author continuously includes highly-detailed gay love stories as prominent aspects of his narratives as a way of being true to his experience and insisting these stories have a visible place in broader storytelling. So not only does James orientate readers into largely untapped folklore traditions but he also highlights how same-sex relationships are an equally valid part of African history and mythology.

James also features the ways in which misogyny and rape are inevitable parts of warfare. Battles involve trading in bodies and forced servitude. He shows how sex isn’t always about sexuality but can be a tool in ploys for power and economic dominance. He notes how “the gods gave us nipples and holes and it’s not the cock or the koo, but the gold in your purse that matters.” As a hero, Tracker fights with the sensibility of a vigilante. But the novel fascinatingly probes his own shortcomings as a man questioning whether he has a latent hatred of women and if his violent acts are motivated more by revenge than achieving a sense of larger justice. This complexity of character and display of self-scrutiny makes him much more conflicted than your average fantasy story hero.

While witnessing Tracker’s complex development and following his epic tales, we’re aware that this entire novel is a testimony he’s delivering to an inquisitor in a trial about the fate of the lost boy. This is only the first novel in a proposed trilogy James is writing so this framework is part of a larger story being told and provokes larger metaphysical questions about the meaning of truth. Tracker is aware that we should “never take the story of any god or spirit or magical being to be all true. If the gods created everything, was truth not just another creation?” He doesn’t accept the authority of the divine or any leader who claims to have the backing of divine forces. In fact, Tracker is determinedly sacrilegious as one of his favourite quips is “Fuck the gods!” He’s cognizant that folklore is a decidedly mortal compulsion. If the process of relating history involves infusing it with a purpose and plan then there can’t be any one honest account of the past – including his own. He further asks “What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.”

Since this book is only the first story of a much larger tale, I’m already eager to see how further instalments will enhance a broader understanding of this new complex world filled with competing dynasties that James has created. One of the most fascinating characters in this novel is Sogolon who is also called the Moon Witch and has her own complicated motivations for finding the missing boy. James has already established that the next novel will be told from her perspective so it’ll be fascinating to see how her account will offer a radically different point of view on the events covered in the first book. The author has proven how adept he is at depicting very different but equally convincing voices with the multiplicity of first person accounts in “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. So, while the scale of this planned “Dark Star Trilogy” is truly epic, I have faith he’ll be able to deliver a well-rounded and fully-realised vision of enormous stature. In this first instalment it’s stated how “The world is strange and people keep making it stranger.” I feel like the more we see of this world the weirder it will get and the truer it will seem.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMarlon James
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Many book lovers have fond childhood memories of going to the library and discovering there the wondrous breadth and power of great storytelling. Early in “The Library Book”, author Susan Orlean gives a moving personal account of her burgeoning passion for literature found in the library and also the quality time spent there with her mother as they’d take regular trips to borrow new books. It’s her memories and ardour for the institution which prompts Orlean to explore the bizarre mystery surrounding the horrific fire in Los Angeles’ historic Central Library which occurred on April 29, 1986 and destroyed approximately 400,000 volumes or 20 percent of the library’s holdings. She gives a vivid account of the incident and the case surrounding it - especially the investigation of Harry Peak who was suspected of starting the fire. Moreover, Orlean meditates on the LA library system’s history as well as how libraries are institutions central to many communities. Although it recounts a very bleak incident, this book is ultimately hopeful in describing the resiliency of libraries and books because people’s desire for them keep them alive: “The Library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

Some of my favourite sections of the book are her descriptions of the endearingly quirky people who have organized and run the library system in Los Angeles since its inception in 1872 and the diverse librarians who run it today. It’s bracing discovering how the management of the library was at times wrestled out of the hands of more capable female librarians because the library board believed it was a job for men. There were also bizarrely prescriptive rules in place early on for patrons who were discouraged from reading too many novels or they were labelled as “fiction fiends.” Naturally, as society became more progressive, so did the rules of the library and the ways in which it served the community from the city’s homeless to being more accessible to children, immigrants and the disabled. It was also compelling reading about how libraries have embraced the arrival of the information age and the challenges of updating how information is stored and disseminated to the public. It made me feel for librarians who get asked some of the most bizarre questions imaginable by the public every day.

Orlean spent a lot of time conversing with people who work in many different functions within the library: not just librarians who check books in and out, but people who organize the stock, transport books, guard the library and run community programmes. In this way reading this book felt like getting a tour of the institution itself. Seeing so many levels to its running and management felt similar to watching Frederick Wiseman’s 2017 documentary Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Orlean’s book is also a great conversation starter about what libraries mean to us personally. In this way, it’d be a wonderful companion to reading Ali Smith’s “Public Library” which is a book of short stories as well as a series of testimonies by authors and publishers who’ve found libraries springboards in fostering their passion for literature.

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I also found it fascinating reading about some of the LA Central Library’s most famous patrons including Ray Bradbury who frequented the library in his youth. It’s ironic that the institution which fostered a love of reading for the author of “Fahrenheit 451” would eventually lose so many of its books due to fire decades after this classic novel’s publication. While the mystery surrounding the cause and reason for the destructive fire of 1986 is at the centre of this book, its heart is a celebration of libraries and the people who are devoted to them. “The Library Book” feels like the most wonderfully intimate conversation for book lovers. But it also meaningfully grapples with the struggles that libraries face. Like many places in the world, libraries in the UK are facing increasing budget cuts despite the number of patrons increasing (according to a recent BBC report). I loved using and borrowing from my local library when I first moved to the UK. In recent years I’ve frequented places like The British Library and the London Library for special exhibits like a celebration of Jean Rhys or book prizes such as The Young Writer of the Year Award. But I’d like to return to libraries more frequently for the objects they’re founded upon: books!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSusan Orlean
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When the Costa Book Awards shortlists were announced recently I was surprised to discover I hadn’t read any of the books listed for the first novel category. So I quickly sought to rectify that and picked up “Pieces of Me” by Natalie Hart without knowing anything about it (which is the most delightful way to approach books sometimes.) It’s an engrossing story of a British civilian named Emma who works in Iraq where she meets an American military man named Adam who she marries. Emma’s dual narrative alternately describes the formation of their relationship in this high-pressured foreign environment and their subsequent time living in Colorado dealing with the many-sided repercussions of war. Hart describes with great power the psychological trauma of war and the complicated grief of losing people in combat. She also dynamically explores how this can lead some people to hastily and tragically stigmatize people from different nationalities and religions. Overall, the story explores Emma’s struggle to overcome her sense of dislocation and understand how examining the many parts of her experiences can help her determine the best way forward. I got fully caught up in the heartrending dilemmas of this novel – especially as it reached its thrilling and surprising conclusion. 

I’ve read so few novels that deal with the impact of modern warfare upon the military and their families. The only other book I can recall is Lea Carpenter’s excellent “Eleven Days” which explores the relationship between a mother and son. “Pieces of Me” is divided into three parts which frame the stages of Emma and Adam’s relationship before, during and after his re-deployment to Iraq while she tries to make a life for herself in America. Each stage comes with its own anxieties and issues showing how the pressures of active duty certainly aren’t restricted to the times when people in the military are in combat. It’s alarming how the repercussions of war can so insidiously intrude upon the relationship between people who love each other. Emma describes how “Iraq has invaded. The space between us has been occupied.” The story explores how difficult it often is for people who’ve experienced combat to express the emotions which arise from their trauma. Instead they become locked in a pernicious silence which leads to misplaced anger and self-destruction.

The story gives a balanced view of the hardships of servicemen in the American military and their families as well as Middle Eastern refugees who've been granted asylum in the US. But it also beautifully shows the sense of community and bonds that arise between people in these groups as they endeavour to deal with how war has impacted their families and friends. Emma tries to be a link between disparate groups and do her best to help people, but the friction this sometimes causes makes her question “do we end up helping at all, or just make things worse – for others and ourselves?” The novel soberly acknowledges the insurmountable challenges for an individual when trying to solve the world's problems, but that there are small contributions that can be made to help individuals. It's a resonant and heartfelt novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNatalie Hart
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When I put out a call for what 2018 books I should read before the end of the year, one of the most popular suggestions people made was “Educated” by Tara Westover. This was listed on many people’s books of the year lists – not only book bloggers and booktubers, but everyone from Michelle Obama to Bill Gates. So expectations were high, but I wasn’t let down. This is an extraordinary story and an artfully composed memoir. Westover relates her tale of growing up in an extremely religious Mormon fundamentalist family with a domineering survivalist father in rural Idaho. Her childhood is so removed from the larger world she doesn’t go to school and her birth was never even registered. But in her teenage years she takes her first steps to starting formal education and integrating into society. The conflict of this break from her family and establishing her individuality is so heartrending, but it’s also inspiring in the way it shows how a person’s innate intelligence and resiliency can help them grow into the person they are meant to be.

I’ve previously read some impactful novels (notably Claire Fuller’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” and Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling”) about unstable fathers who try to live in a self sufficient way because they are convinced society is coming to an end and they force their daughters to live in a sheltered way with them. But reading a real account of someone who really grew up in an atmosphere of paranoia and fear was so striking. It really shows the danger both physically and mentally of tearing people away from larger society. For most of Tara’s childhood, her father scrapes a living together collecting and selling metal from a junkyard and he forces his children to work alongside him. He often actively dissuades his children from wearing protective gear which leads to many gruesome injuries. Just as shocking is her mother’s work as a midwife where she uses only natural, home-brewed medicine and faith practices.

Reading about the real physical danger that children born in these situations are exposed to is terrifying enough, but what’s worse is how badly Tara and other children are prepared for dealing with the outside world. It’s a form of abuse that can’t be measured because the debilitating effects aren’t always immediately apparent. Only when Tara goes to college does she understand how sheltered her life has been. Her father believes “College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around” but Tara quickly understands how having no schooling gives her no frame of reference for things which are obvious to other people. For instance, she naively asks in class what the Holocaust was when it comes up in a discussion.

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Tara and some of her siblings are naturally drawn to escaping the circumstances of their childhood to connect with the larger world while others stay in place. The defectors of the family not only discover more about society, but about how harmful some of the practices they lived under were. Tara and some of her siblings learned to live with the frequent physical abuse they suffered from an older brother. Consciously or not, her family built a narrative about his pattern of violent behaviour to normalise it and it’s only when Tara gets outside of it that she can see how abhorrent it really is. It’s harrowing reading about her journey towards being able to tell her own story: “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” But this memoir is ultimately hopeful in testifying how individuals can rise above their circumstances and learn to speak for themselves – even if it means they must leave everything they’ve known and believed behind.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTara Westover
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Reading Edmund White’s books is always a pleasurable experience whether he’s chronicling the contemporary, sashaying back to the distant past in his two excellent historical novels or examining the riveting details of his own experiences. His most recent book “The Unpunished Vice” gives us the rare opportunity to consider his life as a reader and how this naturally coincides with his life as a writer. This account is a natural development for White who has written many book reviews in his life and biographies of a few notable writers including a beautifully voluminous account of Jean Genet and purposefully brief but insightful looks at Proust and Rimbaud. He’s both an avid fan and brilliant participant in the culture of world literature. So it’s absolutely fascinating to read this chronicle of how his experiences have drawn him to certain books and how they've influenced his writing. He gives absorbing commentary on several books as well as the community of authors he knows and interacts with. As a quintessential reader he understands that “Reading is a hobby that never grows stale - and an unpunished vice.”

White may wryly comment on his disorganized approach to reading, but his range of references and the amount of books he alludes to is impressive. He expounds upon classics such as “The Tale of Genji”, “The Sound of the Mountain”, “The Charterhouse of Parma”, “Pale Fire”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Moby Dick”, “In Search of Lost Time” and “Anna Karenina”. These are all books he illuminates with fresh insight and his favourite choices aren’t just due to their critical stature. There’s an ever-mutating canon of literature which slowly changes due to academic reading lists, literary prizes and ardent cheerleading critics. So he easily brushes off some writers who don’t jell with his sensibility like when he observes “I found Thomas Mann rough sledding”. White also comments upon the careers and reputations of writers such as Colette, Cocteau, Jean Giono, Henry Green, Rebecca West, Curzio Malaparte, Emmanuel Carrere, Ronald Firbank, Penelope Fitzgerald and Neel Mukherjee. He expounds upon the social and political influence writers’ ideologies and reputations have had upon their careers and how this sometimes determines whether they remain in print. His perspective on contemporaries and friends such as Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Carey and Yiyun Li also come with tantalizing details of his personal relationships to them – as well as his deep admiration for his husband, the writer Michael Carroll.

Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures for readers is to discover complementary or wildly different opinions on books we personally hold in high or low regard. So it gave me a sly smile reading how White writes “I disliked Yukio Mishima, whom everyone praised” because the only Mishima novel I’ve read left me a little puzzled and nonplussed. But my hackles were raised when White curtly observes how the characters in Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” speak in a way which is indistinguishable from each other. Certainly the style of their sub-conscious speech is of a single poetic tone, but their personalities and perspectives vary dramatically. This is my favourite novel so naturally I’d be touchy about it. But I enjoyed how White’s readings and commentary hits this kind of sweet spotof bookish debate which is somewhere between literary analysis and a book club. Not only did it make me think more dynamically about what I've read, but the idiosyncratic ways we approach books. Against the prevailing tide of readers who look for themselves in literature White quips “People assume that we read to see our reflection, but this reader, at least, prizes difference, strangeness.” 

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It's moving reading about White's motives for wanting to write and engage with literary culture. In addition to his reflections on the craft “For me writing is a performance art”, there's an emotional vulnerability in his analysis of himself and what literature has meant to him. But some of the most powerful parts of this chronicle are in White's pithy summations about the nature of reading and our relationship with books. He remarks how “We live in a world of accidents, contingency, constant change; fiction prepares us for that. It is the only art form that places us in the mind of a perceiver. That is its greatest gift.” Reading is both a way of escaping ourselves and better understanding each other - desires which White vividly describes amidst laying out his lifelong ambitions for literary recognition. In this book he charts the way literature lives with us observing how “We never read the same book twice. But each time it is our book, locked in our innermost heart as we move and change through time.” Just as there have always been communities of authors, there have always been communities of readers. White clearly knows and understands the inherent greediness of bookworms who endlessly desire to read more and more.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEdmund White
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It's time to start making reading plans for 2019 and it's always exciting perusing UK publishers' upcoming lists to see what enticing reads are coming up! So here are some of my most anticipated books that will be published soon. 

As soon as I got an advance copy of Marlon James' new novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” I couldn't wait to read it and plunged right in! It's an epic adventure like none other and I loved this stunning literary fantasy. 

There are exciting new books by established authors I've never read before such as “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean and “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones (whose novel has received praise by everyone from Oprah to Obama.) I had no idea that legendary beat writer & publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was still alive but he turns 100 in 2019 and has a new novel out called “Little Boy”. I've been wanting to start reading popular travel writer Robert Macfarlane for ages and his new book “Underland” sounds like a great place to begin. 

There are several debuts which sound so good including Irish novel “When All is Said” by Anne Griffin, dystopian novel “Wolf Country” by Tunde Farrand, experimental novel “Stubborn Archivist” by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, a novel about books and memory “The Binding” by Bridget Collins, Elizabeth MacNeal's hotly anticipated debut historical novel “The Doll Factory”, a novel about a young woman's life in modern day Kuwait “The Pact We Made” by Layla AlAmmar and poet Katie Hale makes her fictional debut with an incredibly inventive sounding novel “My Name is Monster”. I loved the anthologies of Irish women's writing edited by Sinead Gleeson so I'm thrilled she has a debut collection of essays out “Constellations”. Then there is debut memoir “Out of the Woods” by Luke Turner about confronting uncomfortable emotions after a bad break up. But one of the most anticipated debut novels of the year is “You Will Be Safe Here” by memoirist, journalist and literary-salon extraordinaire Damian Barr. 

Some beloved authors I follow closely and it's always exciting to hear they have new books coming out. Having read French author Leila Slimani's breakout last year I'm really excited to read her new novel “Adele”. Yiyun Li's memoir was one of my favourite books of 2017 so I'm really eager to read her new novel “Where Reason Ends”. I was equally mesmerised by Samanta Schweblin's debut novel and hear her new book of short stories “Mouthful of Birds” is equally eerie and compelling. Max Porter is one of the most exciting writers today having been crowned The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 2016 for his debut and his new novel “Lanny” sounds riveting. Another seriously innovative writer is Swedish Lina Wolff whose new novel is called “The Polyglot Lovers”. I'm hooked on Siri Hustvedt's intelligently powerful writing so her inventive new novel “Memories of the Future” is a must. One of the most challenging and rewarding novels I read in 2015 was by Sandra Newman and her new novel “The Heavens” sounds incredible!

There will also be new novels by Joyce Carol Oates with “My Life as a Rat”, Helen Oyeyemi with “Gingerbread” and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan with “Starling Days”. As I already discussed in my video about the announcement of a sequel to “The Handmaid's Tale” Margaret Atwood will be publishing “The Testaments” and with Elizabeth Strout revisiting her ornery heroine Olive Kitteridge in “Olive, Again” it looks like 2019 will be the year of literary sequels! 

You can also watch me discussing all these books here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZJnfnt8rAU

What books are you most looking forward to in the new year? 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s been a fantastic reading year as I discovered some excellent new debut authors, new books from great authors I’ve read before and several classic novels which I read for the first time. I’ve especially enjoyed following a number of book prizes this year including The Women’s Prize, The Dylan Thomas Prize, The Windham-Campbell Prize, The Booker Prize, The Books Are My Bag Awards and The Young Writer of the Year Award. Of course, what I enjoy most is all the debate and discussion these prizes encourage.

Reading isn’t a race and numbers aren’t important, but in total I read 96 books this year. I enjoyed the experience of reading so many of these but here are ten of my favourites. Click on the book titles to see my full reviews of each book.

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Women Talking by Miriam Toews

This novel based on real life recent events presents a dialogue between women who’ve been egregiously abused and raped by men within their own isolated religious community for years. But without the knowledge or even a common language to connect with the larger world they face the terrifying question: what should they do next? It’s an arresting conversation.

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Truman Capote sought to immortalize his high society female friends in a great work of literature. But, having divulged their most closely-guarded secrets in public, he made himself into a social pariah. This novel imaginatively relates the perspectives of these betrayed women on one of the 20th century’s most infamous writers and how these ladies contributed to shaping the culture of their time. It’s a richly layered delicious feast.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Most individuals born into slavery never have the opportunity to realize their intellectual abilities and artistic talents. But Edugyan’s fantastical adventure novel imagines a rare space where a boy with a passion for science and skills at drawing can travel the world experimenting with different ways of being. This is a compulsively readable wondrous novel.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

One of the most difficult challenges of adulthood is navigating our desires as we change and grow as individuals. Quatro takes a very common story about an individual who enters into an affair and draws out of it a discussion so intimate and transformative it gave me a whole new perspective on my relationships to those closest to me and how I inhabit my own mind, body and soul.  

Problems by Jade Sharma

The wilful, outrageously outspoken and deeply troubled young woman at the centre of this novel should have everything going for her, but finds she can’t get herself together. This story is a frank and darkly hilarious account of her arduous struggle with addiction and deeply-felt struggle to find the will to carry on.  

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Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

This year included the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth and the 40th anniversary of Virago, a publisher renowned for honouring and republishing great female authors. This beautiful new edition of Memento Mori is a synthesis of these celebrations and I loved discovering this outrageous and witty black comedy first published in 1959. It includes relentlessly entertaining characters while also conveying a profound meditation on life and death.

Circe by Madeline Miller

What would motivate an outcast nymph who resides on a remote island to turn sailors into pigs? Miller brilliantly answers this question while relating the life story of this spurned enchantress from Greek mythology. It’s a surprisingly emotional journey as Circe learns how to best harness her considerable powers and find contentment amidst immortality. This novel is so imaginative and gripping.

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

This new novel from America’s greatest writer is wonderfully surprising in how it presents a haunting dystopian tale while simultaneously relating a very autobiographical tale. It dynamically considers difficult questions about personal responsibility while living under questionable government and addresses some of the most pressing issues we face today. It’s a mesmerising story.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

Greengrass’ first novel might not have won the Booker Prize this year, but it demonstrated the considerable talent of this young writer for creating a story which is deeply thoughtful, emotionally gripping and beautifully told. It inventively reaches into the past for answers to questions we hardly dare to speak aloud and reflects on potential ways of seeing.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I’m amazed how a book so compact can contain such a moving and haunting tale. This novel about a unique archaeological weekend follows the journey of a young woman trapped under the influence of her wilful reactionary father. They embark on a dangerous experiment which raises pressing questions about what being English means. It’s an incredibly timely and original tale.

 

What have been some of your favourite books this year? Let me know your top picks or your thoughts about any of the above books in the comments below.

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In 2011, news broke worldwide about eight men belonging to a Mennonite Colony in Bolivia being convicted of a series of sexual assaults committed over several years. Over 130 girls and women had been knocked unconscious using an animal tranquilizer and raped by these men. The horror of these facts were amplified by the knowledge that these women were part of a tight knit isolated community and they were made to believe the attacks were the result of ghosts or demons punishing them for their sins. It’s difficult to imagine the challenges these women faced in such a perilous position, especially because this strictly religious and remote community was all they’d ever known. But Miriam Toews has written an “imagined response” to these incidents in a novel that records several women of three different generations secretly meeting in a hayloft to decide how they will proceed. The options are to do nothing, stay and fight or leave. They only have a couple nights to come to a consensus before the men return with the perpetrators who’ve been let out of jail on bail. It’s an urgent, impassioned conversation that considers issues of faith and the meaning of community/family. I found it so bracing how this novel asks what you’d do when the only world you’ve known has betrayed you so egregiously and robbed you of your humanity.

It’s clear from reading this Guardian interview how personal this novel is for Miriam Towes. Having lived in a Mennonite community herself, she feels “I’m related to them. I could easily have been one of them.” It’s impossible to know how anyone would react to an extreme situation like this and the many women portrayed all have very different reactions. At one point a particularly strong-willed character named Salome comments “our responses are varied and one is not more or less appropriate than the other.” They range from violent anger to pious acceptance to self-destructive despair. It becomes clear over the course of their discussions that these conversations are as much with themselves as with each other for the way they desperately seek to understand and respond to the position they’re in. To create such a multi-layered sense of inner dialogue within such a large cast of characters in such a short novel is truly impressive.

I felt I could understand all the women’s arguments at different points as they plotted out the positive and negatives to their potential course of action. Of course, instinctively I felt the women should leave or physically overcome this male-dominated community. But reading the women’s accounts I was forced to be confronted by the fact of what an extremely isolated existence they’ve lived. They’ve been raised to only know a way of life where they are completely dependent on the men in the village. They aren’t allowed money or an education. They can’t read or write. They’ve never seen a map of the outside world or seen the ocean. They can only even speak a derivative form of Germanic which isn’t spoken by anyone any longer except for Mennonites. So this village is literally their entire world and to leave it would take unimaginable depths of bravery. I was completely captivated by their dilemma and on edge throughout the novel wondering what they’d decide. I also warmed to them as a diverse group of individuals who argue, joke and care for each other in the course of their discussions.

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It’s interesting the way Toews handles the dilemma of how to record these women’s conversations when they can’t read or write. She solves this by narrating the novel from the point of view of a man named August, a Mennonite who lived for many years in England after his parents were excommunicated from the community but he re-joined it as a teacher. He conspires with the women recording their dialogue and assisting them in their plans. His presence adds another dimension to their conversations and another plotline as he has an especially close relationship with one of the women named Ona. It also reinforces the fact that the world has no access to these women’s voices and stories without being filtered through the perspective of a man. To hear these women conversing and have their stories recorded feels like the first step towards achieving a true form of independence and asserting their right to exist apart from the men who have always dominated and controlled their lives. Ona states at one point that “We are aware of many things, instinctively… but to have them articulated in a certain narrative way is pleasing and fun.”

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMiriam Toews
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There’s perhaps no greater challenge to one’s sense of self than travelling to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. This experience is so instantly disorientating and isolating that you’re forced back into a state of infantilism struggling to communicate what you mean with those around you. It also provokes self-reflection making you consider assumptions about the meaning of culture and language. Whenever I’ve spent time in a foreign country I’ve felt simultaneously energised with curiosity and very vulnerable as I pondered these issues. This experience is powerfully conveyed in Iwaki Kei’s novella “Farewell, My Orange”. The story primarily focuses on the experience of two women who move to Australia: Salimah from Nigeria and Sayuri from Japan. They meet in an English language class. Gradually they form a bond amidst their different feelings of estrangement and establish a more robust sense of independence. It’s a poignant tale of friendship that considers the ways in which meaning is filtered through language.

Having left Nigeria with her family under strained circumstances, Salimah’s husband abruptly leaves her. Suddenly she’s the sole provider for her two sons so finds work in the meat department of a grocery store. Along with this enormous responsibility, she takes steps to learn English. Accounts of her experience are interspersed with letters that Sayuri writes to a teacher back in her native Japan. She moved to Australia because of her husband’s work and although she was an advanced student in her native country, she’s forced to enrol in a basic English class to learn the language. When tragedy strikes she must reckon with the direction she wants her life to take. Fascinatingly, the beginning of Salimah and Sayuri’s friendship starts before they can even communicate with each other. Their connection is formed not so much through speaking to each other but an awareness of each other – through gestures and presence. I think this is so interesting because it highlights how our sense of other people is mostly formed from observation rather than what people directly say to us.  

Sayuri’s accounts written in letter form are more naturally self-reflective as she ponders the various ways living somewhere that she doesn’t speak the language is disorientating and sharpens her senses. She observes how “While one lives in a foreign country, language's main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one's fight with the world. You can't fight without a weapon.” It’s curious how language is something that feels second-nature to us most of the time but when we don’t have the right words we’re left defenceless and unable to express our needs. This applies to both basic physical needs and emotions whose subtlety can become completely lost when we can only gesture or speak in broad terms. Therefore, the connection between Salimah, Sayuri and other individuals in their class is formed more from an intuitive understanding of each other’s needs as women and mothers in a country that is foreign to all of them.

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Although so many things about the environment and culture are different for Salimah, the one consistency she clings to is the colour of the setting sun which was the same in Nigeria. It’s really poignant how Kei describes Salimah’s story as the meaning of home slowly shifts for her and this change allows a more expansive potential to grow in ways she never considered before. It’s also shown how expression through language is both communal and highly individual: “the cultivation of the written word, the language that sustains thought, is an individual matter, a thing that endlessly changes as it's propagated inside each person's head.” We instinctively revise what we want to say and write in our minds before putting it out into the world. This is done as we reach for the right words which will better express our feelings and ideas. These women’s stories capture this sense in an absolutely fascinating way and I was greatly moved by their journeys.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesIwaki Kei
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There’s been a notably high number of dystopian novels being published in recent years and it feels like this reflects a widespread anxiety. Novels such as “Station Eleven”, “The Country of Ice Cream Star”, “The Power” and “Hazards of Time Travel” have all taken very different approaches to creating scarily convincing counter-realities to our present landscape, especially in regards to misogynistic attitudes towards women. It’s always interesting to see how new dystopian fiction tries to create an urgent, radical dialogue with society today. The presumption being: if we don’t pay attention to what’s happening around us this nightmarish landscape might come sooner than we think. In the case of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Atwood has famously said the novel contains nothing which hasn’t already happened in the world.

Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel “Leila” deals directly with issues of the caste system in India which has such a far-reaching, complex history and continues to incite horrific instances of violence. The novel takes the divisions between castes to the extreme where physical walls are erected to separate communities from each other, shore in resources for members of “elite” castes and strive towards a “purity” of race and social status. This is filtered through the perspective of Shalini who mourns the disappearance of her daughter Leila when she was suddenly lost after Shalini was seized and taken to a government-sanctioned reform camp. For years she’s secretly schemed how to find her daughter again amidst an aggressively conservative and strict system. Finally her plans might be carried out. We follow her journey as she puts her plot into action and recalls the horrific events which led to this dire situation.

I feel like some of the references in the novel were definitely lost on me because I have such a slim understanding of how the caste system works in India. There’s such a profusion of subcastes and subtleties to the way religion and social status play into how classifications of caste dictate the position of individuals in society that I sometimes felt disorientated and confused. I don’t think that mattered though because what carried me through the story was Shalini’s plight, the urgent concerns of motherhood and the egregious violence inflicted upon her mind and body. I felt the impact of her struggle and Akbar renders scenes of trauma with skilled clarity. Shalini was living quite a comfortable existence in a liberal lifestyle though she was aware that regressive attitudes and mob-like violence inflicted by a puritanical group called the Repeaters were increasing. But all this felt quite removed from her life until it reaches her doorstep and when it does it’s really effective.

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What’s particularly interesting about Akbar’s narrative is that, though Shalini is a very sympathetic character, it gradually becomes apparent that she has her own prejudices and ignorance about the suffering of members of different castes. At the same time, she’s just an ordinary woman whose primary concern is for the welfare of her daughter. But, when the political landscape changes and a woman named Sapna who used to be Shalini’s nanny has acquired a very different social position, Shalini is forced to consider what mental walls she maintained against others. While this shift might feel overstated at points, it’s nonetheless effective in creating a multifaceted story which is as riveting in its mystery as it is in prompting readers to consider how we might all possess forms of  blindness to the suffering of people who are different from us. Akbar’s writing also has a beautiful fluidity which is a pleasure to read. He formerly worked as a journalist and it’s striking how his concern for investigating social issues has now translated into fiction.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPrayaag Akbar