Author, Book review, Caroline Goode, London, Non-fiction, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Honour: Achieving Justice for Banaz Mahmod’ by Caroline Goode

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Oneworld; 240 pages; 2020.

My first case as DCI did not start with a body. There was no post-mortem, not even a crime scene. Everything about the investigation was upside down, it was like working in reverse. We didn’t know who or what we were looking for. Unlike most murders, we didn’t even know if this one had happened.

These are the words of Caroline Goode, the newly promoted Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) in charge of one of the most challenging investigations the London-based Metropolitan Police Homicide and Serious Crime Command has led in recent times.

The case revolved around Banaz Mahmod, a 20-year-old Iraqi Kurdish woman living in South London, who disappeared in January 2006. She was reported missing by her boyfriend who was concerned she was not answering his calls.

Later it transpired that Banaz had been murdered in a so-called honour killing because she had brought shame on her family by leaving an abusive forced marriage. After an extensive search by police, her body was found buried in a suitcase at a Birmingham address.

This book, Honour: Achieving Justice for Banaz Mahmod, charts the timeline from Banaz’s initial contact with police where she claimed her life was in danger right through to the convictions and trials of those responsible for her death.

Seeking justice

Written in a no-nonsense, almost “chatty” prose style, it’s a compelling read that showcases the author’s tenacity and determination to get justice for a woman she’d never met.

I cared more about this case than I can put into words. What had happened to a beautiful, innocent young woman was an evil crime, a terrible betrayal and an offence to every value I hold dear. Moreover, it was a murder that had arisen partly out of police failures. In my mind, there was more than one injustice to be redressed here. I had lived and breathed and slept this case. I have never cared about another case this much in my whole professional life. I badly wanted to bring those cowardly killers to justice.

For DCI Goode and her team, just getting the investigation off the ground, when there was no body and no real evidence that a murder had even occurred, was a challenge in itself. But even when the investigation progressed and it became increasingly clear that Banaz’s family did not have her best interests at heart, it became even more challenging, for how do you convince anyone, let alone a jury, that someone’s parents would actively condone and organise the death of a daughter?

The thought of a father killing his own child purely for his own reputation was abhorrent, but the concept of a mother being involved in that was completely anathema. I could not and cannot understand how it can be in a woman’s interests to commit or enable acts of violence against any other woman, least of all her own daughter, in order to perpetuate a patriarchal society that does not benefit women.

Groundbreaking case

From reading this book, it is clear that the Banaz Mahmod case was groundbreaking because it threw a light on a crime not well understood or even recognised in the UK. Goode describes it as a “game changer” and one that exposed a culture she knew little about.

I had spent several years working in Child Protection and seen children sexually, physically, emotionally abused or neglected. Each case was a heartbreaker. But I had never come across this cynical disassociation, this depersonalisation, this hatred. This was a young woman who, just days before, her family had supposedly loved, and the scale of collusion by the rest of the community was astounding.

After Mahmod’s killers were brought to justice, DCI Goode went on to train other police officers in honour-based violence awareness. She was given the Queen’s Police Medal in 2011 and is now retired.

Honour: Achieving Justice for Banaz Mahmod is a good example of a true-life police procedural. It shows the painstaking, time-consuming steps police must take to build up a solid case for the prosecution, how they put pieces of the puzzle together to form a whole, how they live and breath their work to bring people to justice. It shows the inner-most workings of a truly complex murder investigation that spanned the UK and Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s fast-paced, compelling and utterly shocking in places.

The case was turned into an ITV two-part drama series, Honour, starring Keeley Hawes as DCI Goode. It was screened in the UK earlier this year. I believe it’s on 7plus in Australia but am yet to watch it.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, Frances Macken, Ireland, literary fiction, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting

‘You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here’ by Frances Macken

Fiction – paperback; Oneworld; 288 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Anyone who has ever grown up in the countryside or a small community knows that you have to make your own fun, which makes the title of Frances Macken’s debut novel spot on.

Set in the (presumably fictional) small Irish village of Glenbruff in County Roscommon, You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here focuses on a female trio who have to do exactly that during their childhood. But like many childhood friendships, there are tensions and rivalries between them, which are amplified when they become adults.

The story, which is set in the 1990s, is told from Katie’s first-person point of view and follows her from childhood to her mid-twenties. She’s the one caught in the middle, because she adores Evelyn, the bold, pretty one, but endures Maeve, who “has large slate-grey eyes that droop at the outer corners, like a sad dog” and just so happens to be Evelyn’s cousin. She would rather keep Evelyn all to herself but…

…unfortunately for me […] when you’re cousins it’s a given that you’re friends; it’s a bad sign if you can’t be friends with your own cousin, and even if the cousin is in the wrong, you stand by them. That’s the rule of being cousins.

But Katie’s friendship with Evelyn is interrupted by the arrival of a glamourous girl from Dublin called Pamela, who threatens Evelyn’s role as the dominant personality. It is only when Pamela disappears — a frightening crime that is never fully resolved in the novel — that an uneasy equilibrium is restored.

Friends who grow apart

Most of the novel charts the ups and downs of Katie’s relationship with Evelyn. Both characters are flawed — Katie is insecure, judgemental and occasionally petty — but over time Eveyln’s true colours are revealed: she’s mean, often cruel, and prone to narcissism and jealousy.

When Evelyn misses out on an art college place their friendship is put to the test, for Katie secures a university place in Dublin and moves to the city, something the pair had promised each other to do together. From then on, things are never quite the same between them. Katie finds city life lonely but she builds resilience and learns to open her mind to new experiences, not all of them good; Evelyn doesn’t lose her sense of ambition but because she remains in Glenbruff doesn’t grow much as a person.

Written with a keen insight into female friendships and dripping with wit and charm, You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here is a truly immersive story. Macken has a visual eye, bringing simple scenes to life with a carefully chosen word or perceptive detail, and her ear for dialogue is pitch-perfect.  The ways in which she captures the pull of the places we call home and the people from our childhoods who shape our lives is also impressive.

You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here is a book about toxic female friendships, ambition, growing up and facing the consequences of the decisions we make. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t wish to damn it with faint praise but it reminded me of the very best of Maeve Binchy’s work, albeit set it in a more modern era.

This is my 2nd novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. It was sent to me unsolicited from the publisher for review in the last week of May, so just snuck onto my TBR pile in time. 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Durian Sukegawa, Fiction, Japan, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting

‘Sweet Bean Paste’ by Durian Sukegawa

Sweet Bean Paste

Fiction – paperback; OneWorld; 224 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts.

Hot on the heels of my thoughts on Convenience Store Woman, here are my thoughts on another rather delightful Japanese novel in English translation.

Author Durian Sukegawa says he wrote Sweet Bean Paste as an attempt to explore “the meaning of life with a fresh perspective”.

The result is a bittersweet tale about finding friendship in the unlikeliest of places, living your best life, no matter how humble or difficult that might be, and the importance of doing what you love and making a contribution to society.

The confectioner and the old lady

Written in gently nuanced prose, the book focuses on two main characters —Sentaro, who runs a Doraharu shop selling dorayaki (pancakes filled with sweet bean paste), and Tokue, a 76-year-old lady who enters his shop and offers to work for him — and a subsidiary character, school girl Wakana, who is a regular customer.

Initially, Sentaro is skeptical of Tokue’s offer. He’s got a troubled past and is only working in the shop to pay off a gambling debt. He doesn’t want to do anything to rock the boat or put his job in jeopardy.

But when Tokue not only offers to work at a vastly reduced rate but happily prepares a batch of sweet bean paste that tastes incredible, he can hardly say no. She’s hired, but on one condition: she must not be seen by the customers because she has severely deformed hands that might turn people off.

Before long, Sentaro is selling more and more dorayaki thanks to Tokue’s delicious bean paste, while Tokue, desperate to help out in the increasingly busy front-of-house, ignores Sentaro’s rule and begins spending time with the customers — mainly schoolgirls who love her tendency to chat and offer kindly advice.

**Spoiler alert**

To temper the risk of the story becoming overly cloying (and sickly sweet) at this stage, the author delivers a sucker-punch about half way through: we discover that Tokue’s hands became deformed when she contracted Hansen’s disease (once known as leprosy) as a young girl. She’s no longer infectious, but rumours have spread and now the confectionary shop’s booming business is on the slide.

Sweet Bean Paste then morphs into a melancholic, deeply thoughtful rumination on what it is to be an outcast and survive. It shows how the stigma of Hansen’s disease had long-lasting and often tragic repercussions on patients who were forcibly removed from their families and made to live in state-run sanatoriums for decades — often long after being cured.

While there’s an element of spirituality that runs throughout the narrative — about the simple ways in which we find purpose in our lives —  it’s done with a lightness of touch, so it never feels too obvious.

I found it a rather delightful read, both poignant and poetic, the kind of story that is super easy to read but stays with you long after you’ve reached the final page.

Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Oneworld, Publisher, Samanta Schweblin

‘Fever Dream’ by Samanta Schweblin

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

Fiction – hardcover; Oneworld; 151 pages; 2017. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Take a handful of suspense, mix it with a dash of horror and pepper it with enough octane to fuel a small fire. The result? Samantha Schweblin’s experimental novella Fever Dream.

The story is told in dialogue between two characters called Amanda and David, who may be mistaken for mother and son, but they are not related.

Amanda is lying in a hospital bed and is on the brink of dying, while David sits beside her and quizzes her about the events leading up to her hospitalisation. What ensues is a fast-paced and rather strange tale, which has a powerful and shocking twist right at the very end.

Caught up in a nightmare

Fever Dream is aptly named because reading it is akin to being caught up in an illogical dream. Initially, the conversation between Amanda and David is hard to follow. It’s so choppy and disorienting that only the formatting of the text — italic for David’s voice, normal for Amanda’s — helps the reader navigate their urgent chat.

It’s urgent because Amanda is dying and David is keen to discover “the exact moment when the worms come into being”. It’s not clear whether the worms are figurative or real, but as the story comes to life it begins to make more sense.

David, it turns out, was accidentally poisoned six years earlier. His mother was so desperate to save his life she entered into an arrangement with a local woman who could perform miracles: she sent David’s soul into another person’s body so he wouldn’t die.

Amanda knows this has happened, because David’s mother, Carla, told her about it, albeit reluctantly:

“If I tell you”, she says, “you won’t want him to play with Nina [Amanda’s young daughter].”
“But Carla, come on, how could I not want that.”
“You won’t, Amanda,” she says, and her eyes fill with tears. […] “He was mine. Not anymore.”
I look at her, confused.
“He doesn’t belong to me anymore.”
“Carla, children are forever.”
“No, dear,” she says. She has long nails, and she points at me, her finger level with my eyes.

A building sense of dread

As the conversation between Amanda and David develops over time the reader begins to feel a building sense of dread. It’s a horror story like no other, for Fever Dream does not follow the normal conventions of the genre. (In that sense it reminded me a little of  Ian Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.)

On the surface everything appears normal — Amanda and her daughter go on holiday, they befriend Carla and her son — but then there’s a dramatic shift in mood. It’s never quite clear whether Carla’s story is even true, but it has such an effect on Amanda that a level of paranoia develops. It’s like being told you’re living in a haunted house; suddenly you see ghosts everywhere.

Schweblin, who was chosen by Granta as one of the 22 best writers in Spanish under the age of 30, is very good at playing on fears — especially between mothers and their children. There’s a recurring motif throughout, that of the “rescue distance” that Amanda describes as “the variable distance separating me from my daughter”. It’s something she’s constantly calculating so that if anything happens to Nina she can be within striking distance to save her.

Carla, too, is so enamoured of her son she will do anything to protect him — even if that means selling his soul to keep him alive.

There are other recurring motifs — racehorses, a gold bikini and a stuffed toy mole — but what they mean is anybody’s guess.

Indeed, you could assign that same argument to the novella itself. It’s a wonderfully absurd and surreal tale, but there’s so much going on in it only the canniest of readers will understand it all. I read it in one sitting and find myself still trying to unpick it a week later…

A Yi, Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, crime/thriller, Fiction, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting

‘A Perfect Crime’ by A Yi

A-Perfect-Crime

Fiction – hardcover; Oneworld Publications; 224 pages; 2015. Translated from the Chinese by Anna Holmwood.

I do love a dark crime novel — and A Yi’s A Perfect Crime is probably one of the darkest I’ve read in a long time.

Set in China, it follows the exploits of a disaffected 19-year-old student who decides he’s so bored he needs to do something to make his life more exciting. Where others might go on a holiday or take up a new hobby, this nameless young man decides to murder a fellow student by luring her into the apartment he shares with his aunt. Here, he brutally stabs her to death and then shoves her body into a washing machine. He then goes on the run, criss-crossing the country, in what turns out to be a cat-and-mouse game with the police.

Will he get caught?

A Perfect Crime isn’t your traditional who dunnit, because we know up front who committed the crime. We also know how he did it, and, because it’s told entirely from his point of view, we also know why he did it, even if we may not understand his reasoning or logic. What we don’t know is whether he will get caught, and if he does get caught, will he get away with it or begin to show remorse?

This makes the book quite an original take on a genre that can often be predictable or trot out the same old tropes. And despite the fact the reader knows the who, why and how of the narrator’s horrid and brutal crime, the author manages to achieve a high level of tension throughout. I raced through this in just a handful of sittings and felt slightly wrung out by the end of it.

It’s an incredibly bleak story, one that often brought to mind Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and MJ Hyland’s This is How, two books that are fascinating portraits of murderers who commit extraordinary violent murders almost on a whim. I was also reminded of the very best Japanese crime fiction — for instance, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief and Shuichi Yoshida’ Villain — which explore the dark recesses of Japanese society.

A dark glimpse at Chinese culture

Interestingly, I heard the author speak about this book (via a translator) at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival earlier in the week. He said the book was based on a true crime and that he wanted to explore the dark underbelly of Chinese culture, but he did not want to glorify the crime, hence he did not give the narrator a name.

Having now read the book, I can see that his experience in law enforcement (he was a policeman for five years) and as a journalist/editor, has come to the fore. Not only does the content of the book feel authentic, in particular, the crime and the judicial process that follows, it reads like a dream — the prose is action-driven, clean, bare-boned and there’s not a word out of place.

But while A Perfect Crime is set in China and gives us a glimpse of a society undergoing super-quick change, this is essentially a universal story of what can happen to young men, who are disaffected, bored and uninspired by the life they see before them — no matter where they live.

For another take on this book, please see Stu’s review.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, historical fiction, Joseph Boyden, literary fiction, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting

‘The Orenda’ by Joseph Boyden

Orenda

Fiction – hardcover; Oneworld; 496 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Joseph Boyden is a Giller Prize-winning author — his second novel, Through Black Spruce, won the prize in 2008. His third novel, The Orenda, was long-listed for this year’s Giller, but did not make the cut when the shortlist was announced earlier this month. The Shadow Giller Prize Jury made the unusual decision of  “calling in” the title and we will be considering it alongside the five books on the official list vying for the prize. This means we may well decide that The Orenda is worthy of the Giller, even if the official jury overlooked it.

I have to admit that out of all the books I’ve read on the shortlist so far, this is by far my favourite. I loved it on many levels — indeed, I was completely enraptured by it — and almost three weeks after having finished it, the story still lingers in my mind.

But I must post a warning here: this book includes many gruesome and violent scenes. They are not gratuitous, but they are visceral, and some readers may decide this really isn’t for them. That, however, would be a great shame, because this is a terrific novel about the “birth” of Canada as a nation and the subsequent struggle between two starkly different belief systems: that of several First Nations tribes and that of the French Jesuits trying to convert them to Catholicism and a western way of life.

Canadian wilderness

Set in the 17th century, The Orenda plunges the reader into the vast wilderness of Eastern Canada and takes us on a sometimes terrifying, occasionally humorous, but always fascinating journey following members of the Huron nation as they go about their daily lives over the course of many seasons.

This natural world is brought vividly to life through Boyden’s beautiful prose — indeed, every time I opened the pages of this book it was like stepping into another world, so vastly different to my own, but so wonderfully rich and evocative that I would feel a sense of dislocation whenever I closed the book and went about my normal life.

The story revolves around three main characters: Bird, a Huron warrior mourning the loss of his wife and daughters killed by the Iroquois; Snow Falls, an Iroquois child, kidnapped by the Huron and brought up by Bird as his new daughter; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary, determined to convert the savages to Catholicism. Each character takes their turn to tell their story in alternate chapters — and each is written in the first person, present tense, which provides a sense of urgency and immediacy. A fourth character, Gosling, a medicine woman features heavily, but does not narrate her story.

There’s no real plot, but that doesn’t matter. The reader follows events as they happen in chronological order, so that you get a sense of the passing seasons — the harsh winters, the excitement of spring’s arrival, the long lazy summers, and the stockpiling of food and resources in the autumn — and the ways in which each character is changed by circumstances and experiences. Indeed, you see Snow Falls grow from an angry, avenge-seeking child into a kind-hearted young woman, and you witness Christophe’s struggle to make sense of a people he initially fails to understand but later comes to respect in his own strange way. You also come to appreciate how the Huron feel threatened by the French, who are beginning to encroach on their territory.

Cycle of violence

The story does much to highlight the way of life of the Huron — their customs, including the way they bury the dead, and their ongoing war with the Iroquois, which involves acts of stomach-churning cruelty — throat slitting and finger amputation, to name but two — as part of a value system very much focused on avengement. This seemingly endless cycle of violence is one of the book’s central themes — at what point will these “savages” decide to break the cycle of violence and act in a “civilised” manner? Is it when Snow Falls innocently points out that the Iroquois and the Huron speak the same language and grow the same food “yet we’re enemies, bent on destroying one another”? Is it when Bird takes a stand and says enough is enough? Or is it when Christophe and his fellow missionaries succeed in their mission to covert everyone to the same religion?

Perhaps the beauty of the book lies in Boyden’s ability to let the characters muddle their way through the moral ambiguities without ever casting his own judgement or glossing over the intricacy of their separate viewpoints. Indeed, the story’s emotional impact comes from the reader contrasting what we know now from what happened then. It is this kind of storytelling — asking the reader to consider where today’s problems between different cultures originated — that reminded me of Australian writer Kim Scott’s award-winning That Dead Man Dance, which explores how aboriginal Australians and the colonial settlers, once close, became so vastly opposed.

While The Orenda does not offer any solutions, the climax of this bumper-sized novel points to the futility of so much conflict, culminating as it does in a full-scale war between the Huron and Jesuits against the Haudenosaunee. This rages for days and does not end well — for anyone.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, dystopian, Fiction, Ninni Holmqvist, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting, Sweden

‘The Unit’ by Ninni Holmqvist

TheUnit

Fiction – paperback; Oneworld Publications; 272 pages; 2010. Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit is set in a dystopian future where a human being’s worth is measured by their ability and willingness to marry and have children. If you have failed to settle down and reproduce by the age of 50, for women, and 60, for men, you are immediately shipped off to a special facility — The Unit, of the title.

Here, under the ever-watchful eyes of CCTV cameras and well-attuned listening devices, you can live the rest of your days in relative comfort, with your every whim — bar freedom — catered for. But this comes at a price, for the Unit is essentially a donor bank for biological material. And that biological material is sourced from those “dispensable” 50- and 60-year-olds who are its captive residents.

This is a rather chilling premise for a book, no?

The story is told through the eyes of Dorrit Wegner, a writer who is checked into The Unit for failing to be a “productive” member of society. She had been lead to believe, as a young woman, that…

…getting by, coping, standing on your own two feet — financially, socially, mentally and emotionally — was important and that was sufficient. Children and a family were something that could come later, or even something you could choose to do without.

But when a new political party, the Capital Democrats, swept to power, those values got turned on their head. Laws were changed incrementally — equal amounts of parental leave for men and women, compulsory daycare for children — so that “there is no longer any excuse not to have children. Nor is there any excuse not to work when you have children”.

But Dorrit, who had several lovers over the years, never found the right man to settle down with, so children never entered the equation.

Once ensconced in her own little apartment at The Unit, Dorrit develops close friendships with other residents. For the most part her new life is a contented one. She escapes the more unpleasant medical experiments and surgical procedures that rob her friends of body parts. But then something totally unexpected happens — she falls in love with an older man — and things take a turn for the better, or do they?

I’m not going to say any more, for fear of spoiling the plot. But this is a remarkably thought-provoking novel. I suspect because the author is Swedish she is having a sly little dig at Scandinavian principles of social responsibility and Sweden’s tendency towards “popular movements”. But there’s plenty of commentary about the role of women in society, too, not least the notion that there must be something morally wrong (or mentally deficient) with women who choose not to have children.

The book brings to mind various other dystopian novels, in particular Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (in terms of organ donation) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (mainly in the surveillance aspects). And while I haven’t read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m sure there are similarities with that too.

But despite these weighty comparisons, The Unit suffers from turgid prose, the kind that is so dry and matter-of-fact that it began to wear very thin after just a few short chapters. Yes, the ideas presented here made me angry, outraged and sad by turn, but I found it difficult to like this tell-don’t-show style — highly reminiscent of Octavia E. Butler — with its over-emphasis on describing things — long walks down corridors, what people ate for dinner — in such a dull way.

There’s no denying that The Unit is an interesting book, but, in my view, the writing style let it down. For another take on the same novel, I urge you to read Maxine Clarke’s review at Petrona.