It's usually only in retrospect that we can consider the seismic importance of major political events we lived through in our childhood. “The Remainder” opens with an account of the children of Chilean revolutionaries whose parents are having a party on the evening of 1988 when Pinochet is voted out of office. Of course, the children are more interested in sneaking sips of alcohol and fostering their own obsessions while the adults are embroiled in politics. Many years later the three children Paloma, Iquela and Felipe embark in a hearse on a surreal road trip. They want to retrieve the body of Paloma's mother which has been lost in transport because a volcanic eruption has covered nearby cities in ash and has caused the plane transporting the body to be redirected. The lyrical prose describe the rich intricacy of their interactions and shifting relationships with each other as well as their stumbling efforts to make sense of the political circumstances they were raised in. This is vibrant story that captures all the complexities of feeling experienced by a particular country's new generation burdened with the weight of the past. 

It's impressive how the prose is mainly composed of big blocks of dense text which are filled with oblique references, yet there's an admirable lightness of style which make them compulsively readable. Chapters switch between the perspectives of Iquela who has a tense distant relationship with her mother and Felipe who turns the country's numerous dead into a mathematical equation he feels obliged to solve. A strong subtle bond develops between Iquela and Paloma who has lived abroad for years so her experience contrasts sharply against Iquela's circumscribed existence. In Felipe's more rhapsodic sections he has emotionally-fraught brief encounters with both the living and the dead. There's a great pleasure in following their chaotic journey which is filled with all the angst and humour of young people trying to figure out their place in the world and navigate the shifting depths of their own desires.

At times It felt like a hallucinatory experience reading this novel – partly because they take some strong drugs left from Paloma's mother's illness and partly because of the haunting physical setting of a city coated in ash. But I found it easy to relate to their ardent confusion trying to connect to a proceeding generation who lost themselves in an imagined future. Felipe's mathematical mission “to count objects so that they became associated with a perfect, seamless figure” takes on a great poignancy as these three young people face the reality of innumerable casualties lost amidst a crushing former dictatorship. Though they don't embody the values of their parents, these queer young people have inherited the fallout of that generation’s conflicts. This novel currently shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize powerfully captures this tension in a way which is imaginative and convincing.


It’s interesting how when Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel “My Sister, the Serial Killer” was first published at the beginning of this year it received a lot of positive responses, but when it was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize it started to receive a lot more criticism by people who don’t feel it’s “prize worthy”. Personally, one of the things I enjoy most about book prizes are that they push me to read books I haven’t got around to yet so I was glad to finally experience Braithwaite’s novel for myself. I thought I’d really enjoy reading it and I absolutely did. It’s narrated from the perspective of Korede, a nurse who has lived somewhat in the shadow of her more beautiful and vivacious sister Ayoola. But unfortunately Ayoola has a habit of murdering her boyfriends when they anger her and Ayoola helps her cover these crimes up. When Ayoola becomes romantically involved with a doctor named Tade who Korede also desires things become even more complicated. It’s a fast-paced and thrilling story about sisterhood and the roles of women in society.

I enjoyed how Korede comes across as an uptight but largely sympathetic character who feels protective of her sister above all else. Although they are nothing but supportive to each other in person, the complexities of their relationship are drawn in the way second-hand information is related through the figure of Tade who makes very different claims about what the sisters say about each other. Braithwaite creates a lot of tension in the way the characters slyly try to manipulate and distort perceptions. I also appreciated the way the backstory of the girls’ complicated home life and difficulties with their father cemented an early bond between them and a propensity for acting outside what is morally and legally right in order to survive. All this formed a lot of suspense which kept me gripped to the end and wondering how the story would conclude.

I do get why some people have said this novel doesn’t seem to be making any larger statements. It’s an effective psychological suspense story. It lightly touches upon a number of issues. Ayoola’s beauty gives her a number of privileges and allows people to give her the benefit of the doubt whereas Korede is treated more like a villain because of how she looks and her serious demeanour. Ultimately this says a lot more about the way men treat women and the social expectations placed upon women more than the women’s actions. But the story doesn’t delve too deeply into these topics. I certainly cared about the characters and how the story would resolve itself. Maybe that’s enough and prize winners don’t need to be ground-breaking artistic works with a big message. Regardless of book prize politics I’m glad this novel was given more exposure and I’m sure a lot of people have enjoyed reading it.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

When I can't sleep at night I have a habit of watching nature documentaries. At one point I found a programme that focuses on marsupials and there were two episodes on wombats. After discovering more about these rodent-like burrowers I was absolutely smitten and have become obsessed with watching videos about them ever since. It turns out I'm not alone as the Pre-Raphaelite artists of mid-nineteenth century London were also keen on these curious creatures – as described in this article about Dante Gabriel Rossetti's pet wombats. Elizabeth Macneal sent this to me because she is also a fan of wombats and one prominently features in her wonderfully immersive debut novel “The Doll Factory”. I always enjoy reading riveting Dickensian historical novels and Macneal's excellent book is at the same level as Sarah Waters' “Fingersmith” and Imogen Hermes Gowar's “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock”, but when I encountered the character of Guinevere the wombat in “The Doll Factory” I fell firmly in love with it. 

The novel is immediately captivating as it describes the tale of the Whittle sisters who work in a doll shop where they painstakingly fashion and paint dolls under the watchful gaze of the bullying proprietress. One sister named Iris who has a misshapen clavicle aspires to become an artist and practices her painting in secret. There's also Silas who is a peculiar taxidermist who fashions curiosities out of animal carcases which he sometimes sells to artists to use as models for their painting. Connecting these two characters is a crafty and sensitive ten year old boy named Albie who is saving to buy himself a new set of teeth while also trying to navigate the hard city streets doing odd jobs like procuring material for the doll shop or animal carcases for Silas. Their stories are set against the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the atmosphere is evoked with such excellent detail so that you feel the chaos, excitement and gritty realness of the city at this time.

Iris becomes involved in a movement of artists (which includes Gabriel Rossetti) during this period who self-consciously identified themselves as the PRB and sought to use intense colours, abundant detail and complex compositions in their artwork. She develops her craft while simultaneously working as a model for a particular artist. Macneal intelligently describes her difficult position as a woman in this period as she is shunned by her family for not sticking to a more traditional role and as a creative individual whose work won't be considered fairly alongside her male contemporaries. The plight of women is also depicted in the lives of different prostitutes (including Albie's sister) who are largely treated as disposable.

Drawing by Gabriel Rossetti of Jane Morris and his wombat Top

Drawing by Gabriel Rossetti of Jane Morris and his wombat Top

Something this novel does so powerfully is capture the psychology of a character so steeped in his misogyny he doesn't recognize the violence he unleashes upon women as a crime. We follow his vile logic imagining scenarios of how he expects women to react to him so that when they act differently in reality he feels entirely justified in the violence he inflicts upon them. This is a chillingly effective technique of narrative which reminds me of the final section of Rachel Kushner's “The Mars Room”. While Macneal vividly captures a sociopath's logic, she describes with equal power Albie's good-hearted viewpoint. Though he may seem abrupt and evasive on the outside he has deep feelings and sympathy for the women closest to him. Something Macneal does so well in creating her characters is show how their words and actions don't always convey how they really feel about the people in their lives. In this way the author creates a lot of dramatic tension because we can see how people's pride and stubbornness can obstruct them from fostering the relationships they really desire.

I was thoroughly engaged and gripped throughout this powerful story which is written with such intelligence. It creatively meditates on the subjects of art and obsession – and if you happen to be a fan of wombats you'll be enthralled by the role one plays in the plot as well as the hilarious ingenuity of a character who writes a poem from the perspective of a remorseful wombat!

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
You Will be Safe Here Damian Barr.jpeg

It’s especially exciting as a reader when I start a novel and immediately feel engrossed by the story. This is a difficult thing to accomplish because it’s not just the content that needs to grip me but the style and tone of the narrative have to confidently guide me into the fictional world being presented. But I did feel wholly inside the story of “You Will Be Safe Here” by Damian Barr starting with the prologue where a teenage boy named Willem is forcibly taken by his parents to a sinister institution in 2010 and this feeling continued into the first chapter when a woman named Sarah describes her fear at the sight of distant smoke in 1901 as she knows this means military forces are nearing her farm. 

So begin the stories of two different South African individuals at opposite ends of a century. This immersive novel explores the egregious fact of British-run concentration camps during The Second Boer War and camps in the present day designed to toughen up white young South African men who are deemed too effeminate or soft. These institutions are prisons that go by different names because they are purportedly for their inhabitants’ safety and improvement, but they’re really a slow form of torture. Through their pernicious practices we see warring ideologies about what makes the South African national identity and the unfortunate individuals who are the casualties of this political battle. It’s a heartrending tale, but it’s filled with so many beautifully realized moments that I didn’t want to look away and could relate to these characters’ stories (even though they are far different from my own life.)

A largely unknown truth this novel presents is the history of how the British operated concentration camps in South Africa from 1900-1902. Most people (including me) think of concentration camps as a Nazi invention during WWII, but prior to that they were implemented during the Second Boer War as a British military strategy to break up guerrilla campaigns. Civilian homes were destroyed and the inhabitants were herded into these poorly run camps to prevent the Boers resupplying from a home base. Thousands of civilians died in these overcrowded camps – mostly because of malnourishment and disease. This was shocking to discover and the story vividly brings us into the reality of what it was like to be interred in one of these camps. Though they weren’t designed as death camps that’s what they became for many. The novel movingly shows that there was cruelty but also moments of human kindness, friendship and a complex community spirit which arose in the face of adversity. 

Being immersed in this history, it was difficult to see how Barr would create a bridge between this tale from the past and the one set in the near-present day. But the way he connects the two is gracefully done as we recognize characters between the two sections and see how the politics of the past can still be felt today. The thing which really drew me to Willem’s character is his bookish nature as he prefers spending time in the library at school rather than playing sports. Stories present an escape from his present where he’s ruthlessly bullied and ostracised. But what I most admire about the way the author handles Willem’s character and his storyline is that he’s not shown to have any particular sexuality though he’s labelled by his father and other boys as a “moffie”. Whether he’s still uncertain about his sexuality or keeps it private isn’t a concern for the reader and this better highlights how the issue is really the standards of masculinity all boys in this environment are being held to. Equally, a friendship Willem develops with another boy is delicately and complexly handled when it could have so easily become a cliché in the hands of a less talented writer.

A British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War

A British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War

This novel came with a huge amount of expectation. Not only was Damian Barr’s first book a compassionate and insightful memoir about growing up in the time of Thatcher. But he also regularly hosts the most impressive and glitziest literary salon in London where the guests he interviews include some of the best and most famous writers of today. Interacting with such literary greats puts a lot of pressure on this host to create a first novel that's really something special, but the result is so original, impactful and mesmerising to read that it's a real triumph. I've been lucky enough to get to know Damian a bit over the years and I always feel a lot of anxiety reading something by a writer I know because if I don't enjoy it I need to awkwardly explain to them I don't think it's their best (or pretend I've not found time to read it.) So I was thrilled to discover what a genuine joy it was reading this story and what an impressive, finely researched, artfully constructed novel it is! It's really made me rethink how I look at history – the many ways victorious nations conveniently forget their failings and crimes when teaching world history. I also felt such a connection to the characters that they're going to linger in my imagination for a long time.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDamian Barr
Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton .jpg

“Remembered” begins with a newspaper clipping from 1910 recounting a tragic event where a black man drove a streetcar into a Philadelphia department store. We then follow the near hallucinatory experience as the driver Edward's mother Ms Spring rushes to his side in the hospital alongside the ghost of her sister Tempe. Though this calamitous day is already filled with drama and intrigue where Edward is accused of intentionally crashing the streetcar amidst his rumoured involvement with the distempered local union, his story is only the backdrop for the time Ms Spring spends with him. The novel primarily concerns her disclosing to her son the true story of his origins and her own challenging journey from being born as a slave on a plantation to freedom. She feels it's important that he knows and understands this personal history because “Most of what I’m about to tell you ain’t in no history book, no newspaper article, no encyclopedia. There’s a whole heap of stories don’t ever get told.” This novel tells a story which is moving and surprising in many ways showing the complex mentality and relationships which develop amidst the horrors of slavery. It's an impactful, uniquely told tale.

I really admire it when an author is able to portray a situation of grave moral complexity through characters who take egregious action because they are in extreme circumstances. I've not read many novels that dare to depict such a story. One of the only examples I can think of is Anoshi Irani's tremendous novel “The Parcel” which is told from the point of view of a hijra who considers it her duty to psychologically prepare newly purchased adolescent girls for a life of sexual slavery. Here a character performs an evil task but she is doing it out of charitable necessity because the only other option (as she sees it) is death. A character of equal complexity is depicted in Yvonne Battle-Felton's novel in the figure of Mama Skins. She's determined to prevent more children from being born into slavery on the plantation and takes extreme measures to stop this from happening. It presents a great challenge for readers because they are at once sympathetic to her struggle but horrified by her actions. Yet this is a point of view which needs to be voiced to better understand the individual realities of our complex socio-economic environment. The heartbreak comes not just from the poisonous reality of slavery but the way individual options become so warped.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the nation's transition from slavery to freedom wasn't smooth or easy. Another remarkable thing this story does is show through Spring's story how information was withheld and manipulated while the Emancipation Proclamation took time to be implemented across the nation. The author has an impressive skill for conveying both the sensory and social atmosphere of Spring's journey, but there are times when the vigorous action of the circumstances becomes confusing to follow. What works impressively well is the supernatural element of the spirit of Tempe who accompanies her sister Spring. Such an element in a novel can sometimes feel tacked on or cliched, but here feels touching and natural to her experience. There's a powerful energy which propels the story forward as Spring recalls it through the difficult hours of Edward's time in hospital. This is a courageous, passionate and rousing novel that demands we consider the complexities of history.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

There have been many excellent novels about the immigrant experience in America. But I feel like the richly detailed and engrossing story of “America Is Not the Heart” by Elaine Castillo shows a really unique point of view I've not read about before. The story primarily revolves around Geronima De Vera who is nicknamed Hero when she arrives in America from the Philippines. She goes to live with her aunt, uncle and feisty young cousin Roni in Milpitas (a suburb outside San Jose, California) where she primarily helps looks after the 7 year old girl. As an illegal immigrant she’s not able to seek out work despite being a trained doctor back in the Philippines. Even if she had papers to find employment she’d have to retrain in medicine as her uncle has painfully discovered. Though he was a highly respected surgeon in the Philippines he can only find low-paid manual work in America. Hero has gone through many difficult experiences to arrive here and the novel slowly discloses the complexity of her life over the course of the novel, but it integrates this so gracefully into accounts of Hero’s day-to-day life in this Filipino-American community and her relationship with a woman she meets there named Rosalyn. Of course Hero’s life has been shaped by her heritage, but the story doesn’t hang on the question of national identity as much as how she’s constantly evolving as an individual.  

It’s especially striking to read a novel that centres around a bisexual female protagonist and the story powerfully captures the development of Hero’s sexuality – alongside Rosalyn’s who is refreshingly blunt in her forthright desire to be with Hero. Not since reading Amy Bloom’s novel “White Houses” have I read a novel that considers so meaningfully the dynamics of physical intimacy. This novel deals with that so honestly without feeling the need to mask the act using lyrical language or overwrought prose. It straightforwardly lays out how desire, pleasure and emotion mingle in sex. But it also shows the challenges of building a same-sex relationship with the influence of family and a tight-knit community around them.

Surrounding Hero’s very personal story Castillo powerfully describes the way economics shape people’s lives more than questions of nationality or politics. She includes how corporate enterprise manipulates the living standards and health of whole communities. The story also shows how poverty makes people aliens within their own society: “You already know that the first thing that makes you foreign to a place is being born poor in it.” The novel is filled with people trying to belong by buying the right perfume or correcting their skin, but no matter how much they try to change there are elemental parts of their being which stick: “your accent still hasn't left, and you're starting to understand what it means to have baggage. Baggage means no matter how far you go, no matter how many times you immigrate, there are countries in you you'll never leave.” What I loved most about this novel is how it demonstrates that Hero is like a country unto herself changing in time and led only be an instinctual feeling for what she wants her future to be.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElaine Castillo

Some books leave me with little to say except I loved the experience of reading them. Maybe I should leave it at that in regards to this particular novel. But it's funny because Anne Griffin's debut novel “When All is Said” is a story that's so dominated by story itself it doesn't invite the reader to do anything but listen in rapt delight. It's told from the perspective of 84 year-old Irish farmer and businessman Maurice who sits in a bar having several drinks to honour people who've had a significant impact upon his life. And the experience of reading this book is like that feeling of listening to an old man brimming with tales to tell: some wickedly funny, some heart-wrenchingly sad and some that come with twists so disarming they left me stunned. So by the end of the book I was left feeling like this man's life had washed over me. I was moved by all his disappointments, passions and sorrows. There's also a blissful sense of release because Maurice is someone who always had difficulty expressing his feelings throughout his life and found it challenging to communicate as he suffered from a learning disability. Like the inverse of a series of reminiscences at a funeral, his narrative at this very late stage in his life is the most beautiful tribute to the people who made him who he is and a profound kind of letting go. 

Naturally, because Maurice has lived so long, he has observed many physical and social changes to his country. Like in John Boyne's “The Heart's Invisible Furies”, part of what's so mesmerising about this man's story is to realize how much things can change in the course of a lifetime. It's shocking now to read how several decades ago a very young man like Maurice who comes from a desperately poor family could go to work on an estate and receive such horrific verbal and physical abuse from the lords of the manor. And this shows so poignantly how feelings of hurt and a desire for revenge can come to dominate a man's life. Maurice also describes why he's had such trouble emotionally opening up and being forthright about what he wants in life: “People didn’t really do that back then, encourage and support. You were threatened into being who you were supposed to be.” For a new generation that's raised with gentle words of encouragement and a sense that you should become the person you're supposed to be, it's quite sobering to realise how difficult it'd be to grow up under such strict tutelage.

Part of the immense pleasure I found in this novel is in it's all-encompassing Irish-ness. And no man is more Irish than Maurice: a straight talking self-made man of the Earth, loyal to his wife, likes a good drink and tells a spellbinding tale. His sensibility mixes humour with sorrow, humility with the grandiloquent and irony with the utmost sincerity. These dualities make his tales so bewitching and pleasurable to read. Perhaps he sums up his own feelings for the people closest to him best when describing the relationship that existed between his wife and her mother: “There was a love but of the Irish kind, reserved and embarrassed by its own humanity.” But here in this novel he finally divulges his experiences and unvoiced feelings to commemorate all the details of his fascinating life.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnne Griffin
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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.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesClaire Adam

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.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNatalie Hart

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.


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.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPrayaag Akbar

The bold premise of Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel is that it’s primarily narrated – not by Ada, the girl whose coming-of-age tale is at this novel’s centre - but from the perspective of multiple deities and cosmic forces that inhabit her. Ada’s parents are Saul, a Nigerian Catholic doctor, and Saachi, a Malaysian nurse, but Ada is also an ogbanje (child spirit destined to be born and die multiple times) and a child of Ala, an Igbo deity. As such, she doesn’t exist as a singular individual but a plurality of selves encased within one being. Ada’s life is plotted out to us from birth to young adulthood, but rather than following the nuanced emotion of her development we’re given details from the many spirits who inhabit her. The narrative alternates between a collective “we” and others who appear over the course of her life, especially a spirit named Asughara who crucially appears around the time of Ada’s puberty. These entities plot and scheme from within her, influence her actions, strategize to protect her and act as bemused witnesses to Ada’s human concerns. This radical choice in perspective demands that the reader accept their presence as a reality rather than imaginary manifestations of a troubled girl. In doing so, this courageous and inventive novel challenges Western assumptions about identity.

Being so ensconced in the perspectives of these spirits does create a curious distance from the central character. This is exacerbated by frequent references to her as “The Ada” rather than just Ada because they see her as a physical vessel who will only temporarily house them before they move on. Curiously, Ada is both central and secondary within the story as she herself describes: “In many ways, I am not even real. I am not even here.” Ada experiences many issues which other novels would expand upon in great detail such as self-harm, sexual abuse, an eating disorder, suicidal tendencies, bisexuality and being transgendered. However, rather than view these as conditions which need counselling or treatment, the narrative lists them as effects that arise out of Ada’s being inhabited by multiple spirits. This may frustrate readers who aren’t accustomed to considering issues in this way or having them treated so glancingly. Ada’s development is centred more on her being able to accept and coexist with these entities rather than seeking to suppress, ignore or dismiss them. The novel traces how she names these spirits which inhabit her and adopts different identity labels which best suit her because “When you name something, it comes into existence-did you know that? There is strength there, bone-white power injected in a rush, like a trembling drug.”

It’s refreshing how the novel approaches a story of fractured national and racial identity quite differently from novels that deal with similar themes. Where great novels such as “We Need New Names” or “Americanah” focus on the struggle of girls caught between two cultures, Emezi’s novel charts the way in which Ada comes to trust her inner reality rather than adjusting to what the external world wants to impose upon her. The supernatural state of being portrayed in “Freshwater” might be classified as an offspring of magical realism if this were not a term that has become so politically complicated and fraught. In his novel “Augustown”, Kei Miller wrote powerfully about the way this genre has become linked to Western views about supernatural stories that come from cultures deemed by some to be “primitive”. Emezi is forthright and unambiguous about the way she posits Ada’s story. It’s not a question of believing in the supernatural parts of her story, but in respecting the integrity of someone who comes from another culture.


Less convincing is that fact that the novel doesn’t deal with morally complicated aspects of the Nigerian culture that Ada eventually identifies and reconnects with. Given the fact that Nigeria actively legislates against LGBT rights and by the end Ada identifies as transgendered, it feels troublesome that discussions of potential clashes don’t ever arise. Nor is it addressed how female circumcision was sometimes practiced to correct individuals who were thought to be ogbanje. Certainly these laws and practices don’t encompass the beliefs of the entire country and Igbo culture has a distinct tradition of same-sex couples. But nevertheless, it feels like the belief systems that Ada adopts after returning to Nigeria are somewhat idealized without allowing any room to question how they are sometimes practiced. I also took issue with the way Ada’s brief forays with same sex desire are only expressed through the creation of another entity that inhabits her who she names Saint Vincent. When Ada tries to kiss a girl it’s not with her own lips, but this man within her who uses her lips. That same-sex desire can only be realized through the mediation of gendered identities feels oddly regressive for a novel that in many other ways respects the integrity of the individual.  

Despite these reservations, the impassioned point of view and inventive writing in “Freshwater” is something very worth celebrating.

This post also appeared on Open Letters Review:

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAkwaeke Emezi

Daisy Johnson's debut book of short stories 'Fen' was a bewitching example of how modern-day real-world issues could be given a darkly imaginative fairy tale spin. So I've been greatly anticipating her debut novel which references both 'Hansel and Gretel' and the myth of Oedipus. Before reading it I went to see Johnson speak at a Waterstones event focused on modern reimaginings of myths (since it's a literary trope so in vogue at the moment given recent novels from writers such as Kamila Shamsie, Madeline Miller and Colm Toibin.) It was a relief to hear Johnson explain that she wrote “Everything Under” in such a way that no knowledge of the Oedipus myth is necessary to understand this new novel since my only familiarity with Sophocles' tragedy is mainly through the complex made famous by Freud. Nor have I read the original fairy tale of 'Hansel and Gretel' since I was very young. 

So I went into reading this novel focusing purely on the story itself rather than how it relates to these classic tales. I wasn't disappointed because I'm so drawn to the universal themes she writes about, her characters who are outsiders on the margins of society and her strikingly distinct writing style. The beginning is so powerful in how it beautifully describes the sense of how we are tied to a sense of home which has forgotten us. However, I was quite confused throughout sections of this novel which jump through large periods of time and between characters. The story involves adoptions, gender fluidity, the disorientating effects of dementia and an elusive mysterious river monster named 'The Bonak'. But, by the end of the novel, I was fully engrossed and moved by how the pieces of the story slid together to form an impactful conclusion. It's the sort of book which I know will benefit from a rereading now that I understand its characters/plot better and the classic myths which were reworked into its structure.

A character named Gretel is at the centre of the story which primarily focuses on her quest to understand the past she's consciously forgot and find her mother Sarah who she's been estranged from for many years. The reason for Johnson's jigsaw style of storytelling seems to be rooted in a belief of how memories are necessarily distorted and also on a philosophy of life which is asserted by a character named Charlie. He claims that “life is sort of a spinning thing. Like a planet or a moon going round a planet… Sometimes it’s facing one direction but only for a second and then it’s spinning and spinning, revolving on its base so fast it’s impossible to really see. Except sometimes you catch a glimpse and you sit there and you know that’s what it would have been like if things had gone differently, that is the way it could have been.” Her characters can clearly envision different paths for their lives but find themselves curiously fated to follow trajectories that lead to dissolution and loneliness because of the bodies, families and circumstances they are born into. They are fettered by the past rather than liberated by a deeper understanding of it: “The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor.”

It's interesting how Gretel's profession as a lexicographer seems to be a reaction against the instability of her upbringing where she and Sarah were so isolated they created a language for themselves: “They cut themselves off from the world linguistically as well as physically. They were a species of their own.” It's a compelling example of the way groups of people continuously splinter off from society, form cultures of their own and fold back into larger civilization to better inform and transform it. Just like time and language, gender and sexuality are never constant things in this novel. I really appreciated the complex way Johnson shows how her characters feel their way into inhabiting their bodies and expressing who they really are. Unlike most coming of age stories, there's a dark-edged violence to the anticipation of sex for Gretel when her mother Sarah gives a condom demonstration using a knife which tears through the material. Johnson excels at creating disturbing and tantalizing imagery which shakes the reader out of a complacent understanding of the world and this novel is a wondrous black gem of a book.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDaisy Johnson

It’s so bizarre when reading one novel after another to discover coincidental and surprising connections between them. Right after I finished reading Madeline Miller’s “Circe” I started reading Sharlene Teo’s debut novel “Ponti” since it’s one I’ve been anticipating and I wanted to finish it before going to the latest Lush Book Club hosted by Anna James. I soon realized one of the main characters is called Circe as well. While it’s a really evocative name from Greek mythology, it’s certainly not a common one so it was a fun surprise. But this is just an incidental comment about my process of reading what turned out to be a novel that’s so distinct and engrossing.

Since its publication earlier this year, “Ponti” made a splash on social media after receiving a briskly cutting review in the Guardian from Julie Myserson who criticised the “writing workshop” feel of certain scenes and the “limitations of creative writing courses.” In particular she objects to the turns of phrase in sections narrated by Circe whose somewhat self-consciously crude language is actually a crucial part of her character. The review sparked a flurry of responses defending both the value of writing courses and the creativity Teo demonstrates in this complex novel. It was good to hear that Teo herself felt unperturbed about the criticism when Anna asked her about it at the book club discussion. She sensibly sees the value in the debate for how it encouraged people to discuss her novel more and how it also raised interesting issues surrounding creativity/writing courses. I simply note all this because, despite Myserson’s dismissive tone about the book, I found “Ponti” to be refreshingly original and emotionally arresting. 

Teo uses such an interesting structure for “Ponti” which rotates between three different characters’ perspectives in three different decades. This felt slightly disorientating at first until the story so compellingly began to fit together. For a part of the book I couldn’t help longing to only remain with Szu whose story follows her in the early 2000s navigating her awkward teen years and friendship with Circe. Szu also lives under the shadow of her more glamorous mother Amisa, an obscure film star whose only role consisted of acting in a trilogy of cult horror movies but she now makes a living as a con artist psychic alongside Szu’s auntie. However, as the novel progressed the revolving perspectives and connections combined to create a thrilling momentum. The way its told says something quite poignant about the meaning of time, memory and grief. In one section a character observes how “Grief makes ghosts of people. I don’t just mean the ones lost, but the leftover people.” In a way, Amisa, Szu and Circe are all living ghosts who are unable to fulfil their potential because of disappointments or trauma that they’ve experienced.

The relationships between all three of the characters is so sensitively composed. It felt bracingly honest how Szu and Circe develop a bond, but their connection slips away as soon as Szu needs Circe the most. They aren’t simply misfits within their school who form a friendship over being outcasts. Their relationship constantly shifts and reforms just as they are building and reforming a sense of identity in these crucial teenage years. Circe reflects that “The truth is Szu and I told half-fictions to each other. We were complicit in our mutual exaggerations.” Teo captures so well the sense of story telling between friends as a self-mythologizing enterprise and an exploration between the lines of candour/confession and emotional truth/historic accuracy. She also shows the heart breaking way friends can outgrow one another.

It was lovely meeting Sharlene Teo at the Lush Book Club

It was lovely meeting Sharlene Teo at the Lush Book Club

Equally, Szu’s relationship with her mother Amisa is movingly portrayed as Szu feels such pride in her mother’s acting career despite it being short lived and unsuccessful. In one of the most striking scenes Szu desperately tries to interest a classmate in Amisa’s films even when the girl obviously doesn't care. It felt strikingly realistic how Szu feels a mixture of pride and repulsion for her mother. For whatever reason, Amisa doesn’t feel the kind of bond with her daughter where she can gain any satisfaction from the daughter’s admiration. Instead she shuns Szu and hunkers down in her bitterness at not having achieved the kind of fame that her potential suggested she might reach. This disconnect between mother and daughter is heart wrenching, especially in the way their relationship ultimately plays out. There’s also an unsettling poignancy in the way Amisa’s film role was that of a female vampiric ghost from Malay mythology. A version of the legend relates how the Pontianak originated from a child being stillborn. In this novel it’s ironic that here’s a child capable of loving her mother, but instead Amisa selfishly only longs for the love of the wider world. Her ego is what makes her become a kind of monster.

It's a deeply engaging reading experience. Overall, I feel “Ponti” is strikingly sophisticated in how it creatively incorporates a well-known trope from horror movies to say something meaningful about the tragic disconnect which can occur in our most important relationships.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSharlene Teo

I’ve always had very conflicted feelings about Truman Capote. This is the author who wrote the achingly beautiful autobiographical short story ‘A Christmas Memory’ which my cousin read to an enraptured audience every year at his annual Christmas party. And, of course, he penned the novella ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ whose whiff of glamour surrounding Holly Golightly’s tale of self-creation made the teenage me desperate to move to a city. But Capote was also the man who spat venom about countless figures I admire from my favourite author Joyce Carol Oates who he called “a joke monster who ought to be beheaded in a public auditorium” to Meryl Streep who he called “the Creep. Ooh, God, she looks like a chicken.” Many years later, Oates had the last word and proved who really succeeded and endured by tweeting on October 14th 2013: “Ironic that I am a judge for the Truman Capote award when Capote in a druggy interview said he hated me & that I should be executed. LOL.” So I’ve never made the effort to read some of Capote’s most enduring works like “In Cold Blood” and “Music for Chameleons” and certainly not his notorious unfinished novel “Answered Prayers”. But I was thrilled to better come to understand an interpretation and look at Capote’s complex, spirited and ultimately tragic life through reading Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel “Swan Song” about the high-society heroines Capote befriended and shockingly betrayed.

In 1975, Capote published excerpts from his unfinished novel “Answered Prayers” in Esquire which presented thinly veiled portraits of several wealthy, powerful trend-setters and their husbands. He spilled all the tea about their romantic trysts and dirty laundry. These women such as Babe Paley (a style icon), Slim Keith (a socialite credited with discovering Lauren Bacall), Gloria Guinness (a beauty rumoured to have once been a Nazi spy) and Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s younger sister) had confided in Capote over the years and made him a firm fixture of their elite circle. He had a charisma, wit and talent for giving people what they needed. Capote sought to immortalize their stories in literature and reveal the sordid truth about their husbands by writing his new novel which he envisioned as a 20th century version of “Remembrance of Things Past”. The women didn’t see it this way and expelled him from their group, turning him into a social outcast. Capote sought to turn these flesh and blood women who he referred to as his “swans” into characters, but Greenberg-Jephcott endeavours to give them their voices and identities back in her novel. It’s narrated from their collective perspective as they observe Capote’s downfall as well as devoting sections to their individual stories. Fascinatingly, the author also includes multiple versions of Capote’s life tailored to appeal to the different women’s personalities. It builds to a complex portrait that raises questions about the difference between fact and fiction, the boundaries between self-creation and self-delusion and the real meaning of love/friendship.

These are all themes threaded throughout Capote’s own work so it’s fascinating the way Greenberg-Jephcott posits how he grappled with these problems within his own life. It also asks what the difference is between drawing upon real life for the sake of art and the degree to which an author exploits those closest to him. Of course, decades after all the dust has settled, almost no one cares about the particulars of these women’s affairs which were once tabloid headlines. If Capote was able to capture something about universal concepts of ambition and betrayal while also describing the particulars of a bygone age of American history his writing would have lasting value. But what responsibility should he have had to respecting his friends’ privacy? And how much was he motivated to write these things as an elaborate revenge upon the high society which shunned his mother and drove her to suicide? Greenberg-Jephcott weaves ideas into her narrative about Capote’s lowly upbringing, the community and family who rejected him and his intense longing for his mother’s approval. It’s fascinating how the author shows Capote to be at once a fragile boy and a vindictive genius in one alcohol/drug-fuelled gluttonous man.


All this is such rich material that it’s almost easy to forget the admirable writing skills Greenberg-Jephcott deploys in bringing this complex story to life. The novel bursts with details about some of the most important figures of the age that these women mingled with – everyone from the Kennedys to Hollywood bigwigs to Diego Rivera to macho blowhards like Ernst Hemingway and Gore Vidal – as well as honouring the admirable accomplishments of the women themselves. There are such evocative descriptions of place from the rural landscape of Capote’s Louisiana upbringing to sun-bleached afternoons on the Italian Riviera to glitzy parties in New York City. The author captures inflections of speech from Southern drawls to society slang. It makes for vivid and mesmerising reading. I was particularly interested in the descriptions of Capote’s relationship to his childhood friend Harper Lee who mostly existed on the periphery of his life but played an important part. In a way, it seems a shame that he didn’t value and cultivate this continuous friendship over the course of his life rather than seek to gain favour with the high society he aspired to join. If he’d sought favour with his intellectual equals rather than needlessly trashing them out of what I can only suppose was jealousy he might have established more stable and enduring friendships. But his example shows how even a genius with great psychological insight can be toppled by the mechanisms of his own ego. He was also the product of a part of American culture that’s relentlessly aspirational and wealth-driven in a way that often leads to bloated excess and dissolution.

The wonderful thing is that “Swan Song” doesn’t read like a tragic tale, but a celebration of beauty and art and intimacy. There is peril, loss and a price to pay, but there’s also an infectious spirit to the many scintillating personalities the author brilliantly portrays that made me want to lean in and listen.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Part of me has always felt a simmering sense of panic, that some unknown danger or threat could be lurking around every corner. Fear can be such a powerful impetus in our lives both for motivating us to keep ourselves safe and hindering us from fully engaging with the world. It feels essential that children should be nurtured in a way that allows them to be cautious without being so panicked they seal themselves off from experience. So I was really struck how Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel “The Water Cure” creatively and dramatically describes a group of three sisters who exist in a perpetual state of fear. In one collectively narrated part of the story they ominously feel: “Emergency has always been with us, if not present emergency then always the idea that it is coming.” They live in a deserted and dilapidated estate on an island within the fenced boundaries designated by their mother and father who is referred to as “King”. They’ve been taught that the society outside of this circumscribed space is diseased and toxic so they never leave it and subsist on tinned foodstuffs while performing arcane and painful rituals to cleanse themselves and keep them safe. They are warned in particular about the dangers of men and how some men thrive on the toxic environment surrounding them. In the past, sick women arrived on their shores, but they didn’t live long. And one day two men and a boy arrive so that their carefully ordered existence is disrupted. In her portrayal of this intensely isolated family, Mackintosh’s hypnotic story shows the unwieldy process of development, the transformative effect of passion and the inbuilt tension between genders.

It feels really effective how this novel is partly like a dystopian fable, but rather than build or explain the reasons for this poisoned world it’s focused through the innocent point of view of the girls who’ve never known anything outside of this existence. So all we understand about the world is through their limited first person or collective narratives. All we get are a scattering of hints like this from middle sister Lia: “Every year the seasons become warmer and it is the earth telling me that change is coming.” It becomes more a survivalist story as we gradually learn their odd and violent purification practices and gradually discover the truth about their lives. In doing so, the novel explores more about the development of their natural instincts and identities which sometimes clash with the stringent rules their parents have designated for them.

Mackintosh has a really striking way of writing about the body and the rituals the family perform highlight the sometimes uncomfortable ways we inhabit our own bodies. It’s like their exteriors need to be toughened through processes of cutting, isolated meditation, ingesting huge amounts of salt water and temporary suffocation as a way of preparing them for the inevitable violence of the world: “Pain is a currency like the talismans we sewed for the sick women, a give and take, a way to strengthen and prepare the body.” They are also trials by which these sick women can return to life and themselves after encountering trauma “It was beautiful to see, Mother pointed out. A woman becoming whole again. It’s true that, after the water cure, their bodies had a new solidity, as if somebody had redrawn their outlines. Their eyes were clear, ready to return.” But the sisters, whose lives are so insulated and who only know the pain that’s been designated by these rituals, have a very different relationship with their bodies. Lia strikingly describes how being looked at with desire causes her to inhabit her skin in an entirely different way: “My body, up until now, has been just a thing that bled. A thing with vast reserves of pain. A strange instrument that I don’t always understand. But something kicks in, triggered by the looking.” This is such a powerful way of describing the way as we develop and encounter the gaze of others it can transform how we feel about ourselves and the relationship we have with our own bodies.


The story also forms a really powerful metaphorical representation of the uneasy power relationship between men and women. The sisters have been reared to believe that men are incredibly violent creatures. Men are the most violent threat outside the fences surrounding their home but this violence is also such a substantial part of human existence its internalized as well: “The violence came for all women, border or no border. It was already in our blood, in our collective memory. And one day the men would come for us too.” Yet when the sisters actually encounter the small group of men who arrive on their doorstep they discover how gender dynamics are really much more complicated. It felt very powerful and haunting how the story both affirms and undermines notions that the relationship between different genders must be prone to some inevitable violence.

What I enjoyed and admired so much about this novel is the way it tells what is essentially a traditional story about family and romance, but in such a uniquely dark way that is like a curious blend of “Lord of the Flies”, Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides” and Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve”. The accumulation of observations the girls make have a forceful impact which makes the fabulous setting have a real-world resonance. I was especially moved by the way Mackintosh describes the position of being someone’s child: “It has always been that we are what you made us, and so our survival is a tacit endorsement of you, however much we might hate that. But our lives are our lives.” This feels like a statement that could be made by anyone who has to come to grips with the peculiarities of their origins and the unique way they’ve been raised, but who must embrace the challenges of their own free will in order to move forward in life. The account of the sisters told in “The Water Cure” is both a wonderful testament to that hard-earned independence and a tale so engaging I was gripped throughout this impressive novel. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment