Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif.jpg

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

One of my highlights from last year’s reading was participating in a Jean Rhys reading week. So when I saw that Waterstones Gower Street is doing a ‘Forgotten Fiction’ reading group where they’ll be discussing Jean Rhys’ “Voyage in the Dark” as well as Lynne Reid Banks’ seminal book first published in 1960, I jumped at the chance to read this classic novel for the first time. Before I even started reading I felt a big bout of nostalgia as I realized Reid Banks also wrote one of my favourite children’s books “The Indian in the Cupboard.” This imaginative drama takes place in a child’s bedroom where he can bring his toys to life and I connected with it so strongly when I was young. It’s interesting to now read Reid Banks’ gritty realist novel that represents the experience of being a single young woman whose father has thrown her out of their home for being pregnant. The novel incisively portrays the social prejudices the heroine Jane faces and the internalized shame she feels as a consequence, but also how her strength of will helps her endure and establish a new life for herself.

Although Jane works at a decently-paid job, after her father expels her from their house she moves into a seedy and bug-infested boarding house in Fulham. She feels that “In some obscure way I wanted to punish myself, I wanted to put myself in the setting that seemed proper to my situation.” The attic room she takes has an odd L-shape and twines around the room of her neighbour John, a black musician who increasingly becomes a devoted friend. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help wincing at Jane’s descriptions of John who she claims at different times to have an “animal” smell and a “negro odour.” This is symptomatic of a present-day difficulty with this novel. Although Jane’s position of being an unmarried pregnant woman who refuses to get rid of her baby must have been quite a radically liberal stance in her time, the way she describes people of colour and gay people is problematic and cringe-worthy.

Early on in the novel when she was working within an acting troupe she describes her antagonistic relationship with a gay actor who fancies her boyfriend Terry. She and Terry make out in front of this gay man to show him that they are “normal” and that he is not. Later on she visits a curry house and remarks how the Indians who serve her smile “in an enigmatic Eastern way.” It’s interesting thinking how progressive it must have been at the time to portray homosexuals and racial minorities in any way within a novel. However, no one could write such descriptions now without being considered bigoted. But, in a way, I’m glad that Jane’s provincial point of view is so blatant as it highlights her unconscious prejudices and how they contrast so sharply against the prejudice she receives as an unmarried pregnant woman in this time. She’s sympathetic and friendly with the racial and sexual minorities that she meets in the novel, but she was probably totally naïve about the way her attitude denigrated these people. Interestingly she seems more conscious of the effect her ex-boyfriend Terry’s anti-Semitic attitude has on her Jewish neighbour Toby.

None of this detracts from this novel’s moving and well portrayed story. Some of the strongest scenes show how powerless and vulnerable a woman in Jane’s situation was made to feel. She goes to visit a doctor to confirm her suspicion that she’s pregnant and she recounts how he realizes that she’s unmarried and therefore “he looked at me reproachfully. I stared back at him, feeling suddenly angry. I hadn’t come to him to be looked at like that. He wasn’t my father, it was nothing to him. But I couldn’t think of any stinging words to say; I just sat there, feeling angry and humiliated.” The scene devolves into an even more egregious situation. I felt totally outraged that someone in such a perilous situation should be lambasted with such moralistic judgement and shady medical practices in this era before the 1967 Abortion Act in England. Of course, the most biting and cruel scenes are when she receives contempt for accidentally becoming pregnant from her own father and the man she later falls in love.

Jane feels an overwhelming sense of shame when she understands the full extent of the public’s opinion of her: “I was right in the middle of a moment of truth, and it was still and quiet and empty in there, as it is supposed to be in the heart of a tornado.” However, the novel is certainly not all bleak as she also experiences wonderful moments of sympathy and kindness from strangers, a friend and another family member. Nor are doctors all bad once she manages to find a sensible one. It’s encouraging to read a story about someone who can survive and thrive despite the social stigma which has been attached to her – much in the same way as Joyce Carol Oates portrayed in her novel “We Were the Mulvaneys.” Where Reid Banks’ novel really excels is the complex way she shows how Jane can overcome her own self-loathing about her situation and transform it into a source of strength. I'm looking forward to going to the reading group and considering the parallels and differences between Jean Rhys' writing and Reid Banks'.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

There’s something so irresistible about a story where old people behave badly. Maybe it’s because we all wish we had the right to say exactly what we feel without worrying about future consequences. “The Woman Next Door” focuses on two elderly neighbours Hortensia and Marion who live in a small upscale community in South Africa. Both are professionally successful independent women, but they don’t get along at all and don’t feel the need to pretend to get on. This leads to a lot of amusing confrontations and bitchy banter, especially at the neighbourhood meetings which are more glorified social occasions than gatherings to talk business. However, both these women are experiencing severe personal problems whose difficulties are amplified by their advanced age. On top of this claims are being made upon the land around them as compensation for the slaves of past generations who inhabited this area. They grudgingly become more reliant upon each other to navigate these difficulties, but that doesn’t mean either of them are willing to burry the hatchet.

Omotoso has a skilful way of describing the mindset of elderly life showing how it is not simply a time of accumulated regret but also a time where certain desires still burn just a brightly. Loss is something that both of the women have to deal with perpetually: “time was wicked and had fingers to take things.” Hortensia and Marion are very proud individuals. Their sense of dignity is lost when they are increasingly unable to take care of themselves because of physical or financial problems. To deal with this they have to improvise, strike bargains with each other and strategically manipulate those around them. All the while they churn over memories of their development and the choices they made in their lives which are recounted in passages throughout the novel. 

I also really liked what a unique view of human relationships this novel gives. It lays out how (despite appearances) people can be quite selfish and superficial. Omotoso describes this quite well when recounting Marion’s feelings for some other neighbours called the Van Struikers: “Because she didn’t like them, Marion had made them her friends, attending all their soirees, noticed that behind the money their marriage was a sham and took comfort in this.” It’s cruelly honest how people can quite often take pleasure in the suffering of others not only to bolster their own egos but because it pulls the curtain back on the facades some people put up. This also plays out in how Marion deals with her long-serving housekeeper. In one scene it’s described how she discovers the housekeeper has been buying a better quality toilet paper than Marion herself buys. So she feels the need to buy better toilet paper for herself henceforth. This is not only a fine example of how someone can be ridiculously petty, but also the way in which Marion asserts her superiority as a member of the white upper class.

An interview with author Yewande Omotoso.

A continuous bone of contention between Hortensia and Marion is their racial difference. As a black woman of Caribbean descent who was raised in England and lived for some time in Nigeria, Hortensia is especially attuned to the hypocritical attitudes of certain white people that proclaim they aren’t racist, but their actions say something very different. Marion’s skewed sense of equality is inherited from her previous generation’s prejudices. It’s described how for Marion “there was no one to ask about what was real history and what was not. Her parents weren’t in the business of telling these two kinds of histories apart; they weren’t in the history business at all.” She didn’t have access to a rounded view of the past with its multiplicity of view points. So when she’s suddenly confronted with the truth of what actually took place on the land they inhabit she’s jolted into certain horrifying realizations.

This is a really enjoyable novel which balances a story about two warring neighbours with darker subjects of betrayal, complicated forms of racism and the perilous position of elderly people who have no support network. It’s unfortunate that not all the plot points (such as the petitions for land claims and the story of an illegitimate child) aren’t developed quite as fully as they could have been because the narrative is so weighted down by flashbacks to the women’s life stories. As interesting as these back stories are they pull the reader out of the drama happening in the present. It’s also a shame that we’re not given more about how these professionally successful women achieved the unusual status that they did. And no matter how much Omotoso tries to steer the story away from being a "two bitter old neighbours who are really frenemies" tale it seemed to be just that in the end. Nevertheless, it’s a refreshing and interesting novel featuring characters we seldom get to read about.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYewande Omotoso
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It’s a bold enterprise to take a novel as renowned and loved as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and recast it in modern day London with Russian and Balkan characters. This is what Vesna Goldsworthy has done with her novel “Gorsky” but this isn’t merely an intellectual exercise. Rather, it’s a clever way of taking Fitzgerald’s critique of a certain milieu of 1920s American society based around decadence, social change and wild aspirations and overlaying it upon modern English society to see what close parallels can be made. Goldsworthy uses the same arrangement of characters to create a fated love story played out amidst the most outrageous excesses of capitalism. In doing so she creates an engaging and fascinating view of London today.

Nikolai or “Nick” works in a dilapidated bookstore in Chelsea, an affluent London neighbourhood that he’s nicknamed ‘Chelski’ because of the influx of millionaire foreigners buying up property within the area. As a well-educated immigrant outsider whose home and family were obliterated by war, he’s found a calm reclusive existence for himself in London where he spends his days reading and catering to the few customers who happen into the shop. But one day he becomes infatuated with a beautiful Russian woman named Natalia Summerscale who shows a keen interest in obscure art books. Delivering her literature to her, he ingratiates himself into Natalia’s affluent home and becomes acquainted with her rich husband Tom. At the same time, he finds cheap rent in a tiny cottage adjoining a Chelsea property that is undergoing a massive overhaul by the mysterious Russian oligarch Roman Gorsky. In the same way that Gatsby uses his supreme wealth to orchestrate ways to capture the heart of Daisy, Gorsky seeks to win Natalia after a lifetime of obsessing over her.

Nikolai observes the love triangle of Natalia, Gorsky and Tom play out to its inevitable fateful end. He is charged by Gorsky to curate a library of the rarest literature in the world for his elaborately-conceived new home/museum. It's like a bookish person's dream job! Subsequently, he's also swept into a world of excessive parties, privately-owned Greek isles and bad-acting high society. But he’s never fooled into thinking that this inconceivably wealthy arena holds the key to happiness. He observes “Everything around me… was harmoniously orchestrated, beautiful to look at, yet the cumulative effect was melancholy, as though some unquenchable thirst lurked at the heart of it all.” Indeed, most everyone he meets seems secretly prone to desperation and loneliness. Even among the upper-classes, a former gold medallist named Gery remarks how “It’s a cruel city. People do all sorts to survive. They deal, they steal. If they are men. If they are women, the sell their bodies.” Later Nikolai remarks that “I had never thought money shielded you from anything.” Gorsky is the most withdrawn and melancholy of them all because for all his billions and however much he’s desired by everyone he meets, he doesn’t have the love of his life.

One of the many rare manuscripts Gorsky acquires is Pushkin's poem of undying love for Anna Kern.

One of the many rare manuscripts Gorsky acquires is Pushkin's poem of undying love for Anna Kern.

One of the best things about this novel is its comic and warmly-satirical physical descriptions of London. Winter is described as “months of slushy semifreddo” and a “dirty duvet of cloud covers the city.” Goldsworthy is also excellent at conveying the social layers of the city with its various ethnic neighbourhoods and how these have changed over time. She observes that “just behind the Serbian church, one of the many indistinguishable Victorian terraces that housed Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s, then the Spanish and Portuguese labourers from what were then impoverished Iberian dictatorships, and finally a wave of North Africans escaping Maghrebian politics and the grimness of French satellite towns.” It’s a dynamic portrait of how London is a city that experiences influxes of immigrants escaping particular political and social troubles. But she’s also careful to show the pitfalls and how “There is a cruel freedom about this city, the freedom of an entire world on the make.”

I was cautious about approaching this novel when Simon of Savidge Reads told me about its connection to Fitzgerald. As much as “Gatsby” is lauded as an American classic, it’s not one of my favourite books. However, there is something so vibrant and playful about “Gorsky” which makes this novel very readable. It's an original and compelling story in its own right. It shows how whether you come to London with no opportunities or every opportunity, fulfilment can never be reached through money alone.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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