Author, Book review, Books in translation, Egypt, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Maclehose Press, Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing, Picador, Publisher, Roland Schimmelpfennig, Saqi Books, Setting, UK, USA

3 novellas by Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing and Roland Schimmelpfennig

I do love a good novella.

Wikipedia defines these books as “somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words”, but I generally think anything under 150 pages qualifies. Alternatively, anything I can read in around two hours is a novella to me.

Here are three excellent novellas I’ve read recently, all of which I highly recommend.

‘Memoirs of a Woman Doctor’ by Nawal El Saadawi

Fiction – paperback; Saqi Books; 128 pages; 2019. Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

First published in Nawal El Saadawi’s native Egypt in 1960, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is a fictionalised account of growing up female in a restrictive culture where women are second-class citizens and often denied a chance of an education.

In this first-person story, our narrator defies tradition — and her family’s claustrophobic expectations that she’ll marry and produce children — to go to medical school. Here, in the autopsy room, she dissects a male body — her first encounter with a naked man — and “in the course of it men lost their dread power and illusory greatness in my eyes”.

Later, she forgoes her independence to marry a man, but that turns sour when he tries to control her at home. She wastes no time in divorcing him — a huge no-no in Egyptian society — wondering if she will ever find a partner who respects her as a person and not as a “chattel” to own and objectify. The ending, I’m happy to say, is a satisfying one.

This fast-paced novella, which spans decades in less than 120 pages, reveals the sexism at the heart of Egyptian culture and the courage required for a woman to be accepted in a profession long dominated by men. It has proved an excellent introduction to this author’s work, which has just been reissued by Saqi Books as part of a new series of classic work by writers from the Middle East and North Africa.

‘Crudo’ by Olivia Laing

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 176 pages; 2018.

I ate up Olivia Laing’s Crudo in an afternoon. It is an amazing little book about the power of now — or, more specifically, the summer of 2017 — when the main character, Kathy, turns 40 and falls in love but is scared of committing herself to the one man. She goes ahead with the wedding regardless.

It is all stream-of-consciousness, written in a fast-paced, fragmentary style, but riveting and so akin to my own line of thinking about the modern world — Brexit, Trump’s America, politics, social justice and climate change et al —  that it almost feels as if it fell out of my own head.

Supposedly based on the work of Kathy Acker, whom I had to look up on Wikipedia (her entry is a fascinating read in its own right), it took me on a short but jam-packed journey about art and love and life and everything in between. A wow of a book that I hope to read again sometime soon.

‘One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century’ by Roland Schimmelpfennig

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 240 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

This German novella has been reviewed favourably by Annabel at Annabookbel and Susan at A Life in Books, but I think I probably saw it first at Winstonsdad’s Blog.

It’s a highly original story that follows a diverse group of disparate characters living in Poland and Germany who are all united by one thing: they have spied the same rare wild wolf in the snow en-route to Berlin.

Written by a German playwright, the book is intensely cinematic and told in a fragmentary style using sparse prose and small vignettes which provide glimpses into the lives of those who people it, including two young people on the run, a Polish construction worker and his pregnant girlfriend, a small business owner who runs a kiosk with his wife, and a woman intent on burning her mother’s diaries.

It’s an absorbing, if somewhat elusive, read, one that requires a bit of focus to keep track of who’s who as the narrative twists and loops around itself, a bit like the wandering wolf at the heart of the tale. But on the whole, this is a fascinating portrait of modern Berlin and its diverse population after unification.

Have you read any of these books? Do you like novellas? Do you have any favourites you can recommend?

Australia, Author, Book review, Egypt, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Sceptre, Setting, Thomas Keneally

‘The Daughters of Mars’ by Thomas Keneally

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 520 pages; 2012.

Australian writer Thomas Keneally is probably best known for his novel Schindler’s Ark, which won the Booker Prize in 1982 and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film (under the name Schindler’s List) by Steven Spielberg in 1994. But he has a vast backlist of novels (34 at last count!) and non-fiction books (18!) to his name, some of which have lingered in my TBR for years.

The Daughters of Mars, which was published in 2012, is a powerful novel about two sisters from rural NSW who are nurses during the Great War. I extracted it from my shelves to take with me on a recent trip to Abu Dhabi and found it the perfect holiday read. At more than 500 pages of densely packed prose, it kept me entertained for an entire week, which meant I really didn’t need to take any other reading material with me.

The book is one of those proper epics that traverses continents, hemispheres and world history, and tells the story, not only of sibling rivalries, family obligations and small-town jealousies, but of what it was like to go to the other side of the earth to nurse the men so horribly maimed and injured, first in the Dardanelles, then on the Western Front. Keneally brings to life so much of that brutal conflict, I found myself grimacing in places, wiping tears away at others. Yet this book is never soppy or sentimental.

Sister act

Initially, the two sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, have quite a strained relationship. When the book opens, their mother, who has endured an agonising battle with cancer, has died at home, where the pair of them have taken it in turns to offer palliative care. But there are suspicions that Naomi euthanised her using an overdose of morphine that Sally stole from the local hospital in which she works. Yet this “crime” is never discussed openly between the sisters, and this guilty secret hangs over their relationship for the entire length of the book.

But thrown together in war-torn Europe, the Durances learn to depend upon one another in ways they would never have had to back home, and their  cool relationship thaws to one of friendship and love. If that makes The Daughters of Mars sound overly heart-warming, let me assure you that it never quite feels that way.

While there is some romance (each of them meets potential life partners during their years abroad), this is not a saccharine read. Indeed, any leanings towards soppiness is tempered by the brutality they must confront on the hospital ship, where soldiers maimed during the failed campaign at Gallipoli are brought on board for treatment (or to die), and later in the emergency field hospitals and clearing stations near the Western Front, where the injuries treated are more horrific than anyone could ever imagine, thanks largely to the use of gas — tear gas, chloropicrin, phosgene and chlorine, for instance — which burned eyes and airways.

There was a new gas now — mustard gas. It did not cripple the membranes and crimp the alveoli. It burned all membranes instead. It burned the eyes, the face, the mucous membranes and the walls of the lung. The mustard victims arrived at the gas ward stripped naked by the orderlies in reception and carried on a clean stretcher in a clean blanket. For the oily vapours of the chemical which had entered their clothing could burn them through fabric. […] The nurses did what could be done to help the naked and blistered, grasping men to gargle out the poison, to wash it from their noses and eyes. But the bodies of the gassed themselves exuded the poison, and every quarter of an hour nurses must go outside and take the fresh air and cough their throats clear of the communicated venom.

Throughout the novel, medical procedures and treatments are described in exacting — and visceral — detail, which helps to make the carnage, the turmoil and the trauma so vivid. The fact that both sisters are constantly aware of their own mortality is also an important element of the story, for they survive the sinking of their hospital ship and later lose newly made friends and colleagues to all manner of illness and injury. It makes their own ongoing survival seem such a miracle: why are they spared when so many others have not been?

A Great War epic

The Daughters of Mars is a wide-ranging epic that spans the length of the Great War, but what makes it different to other war fiction is its focus on what it was like to be a volunteer nurse far from home during a conflict we only ever seem to read about from a man’s perspective. It’s warm and intimate, and the female voices ring true at every turn.  It’s definitely a worthy addition to that great canon of literature about the First World War.

Finally, I have to mention the ending, which seems to attract a rather mixed reaction from those I know who have read this book. Of course, I’m not going to outline what happens here, but let me say this: I liked it. It has lingered in my mind ever since, and I think that’s a  good sign that it has worked. Many others won’t agree.

For other takes, please see Lisa’s review on ANZ LitLovers and Karen’s review on Booker Talk.

This novel is published in the UK, US and Canada.

I chose it as my book of the month for Waterstones.

This is my 25th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

Author, Book review, Egypt, Fiction, historical fiction, Michelle Moran, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Nefertiti’ by Michelle Moran


Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 528 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of the author’s publicist.

Nefertiti is one of ancient Egypt’s most legendary rulers. She was the Second Wife of the heretic king Akhenaten and, as Queen, had just as much influence and status as her husband. Renowned for her extraordinary beauty, she was more than a pretty face — as this compelling novel by Michelle Moran demonstrates.

In fact, the Nefertiti presented in this book is not exactly the most likeable of characters. She’s manipulative, calculating and shrewd. Despite the fact she was chosen to marry Akhenaten because everyone believed she was level-headed enough to tame his erratic, egotistical tendencies, she does the exact opposite. When her husband marks his rule by elevating a minor god, Aten, to a position of power, obliterating Amun and destroying all of Amun’s temples, she doesn’t bat an eyelid but actually encourages him to make further irregular and unpopular decisions.

And if that wasn’t enough, she’s riddled by jealousy over the Pharoah’s First Wife, Kiya, who has already given birth to a son and heir, and does whatever she can to bed her husband in an attempt to produce the next prince — with mixed results.

All the while Nefertiti’s younger sister, Mutnodjmet (Mutny), is treated like a slave who must obey the Queen’s every whim. As she watches Egypt become besieged by religious and cultural changes that she is powerless to stop, Mutny dreams of the day she can escape the clutches of the Royal Family so that she can live a quiet life, growing herbs and other plants in her own little oasis. When she falls in love with the General Nakhtmin, she thinks she may have found her “get out clause”, but alas, Nefertiti doesn’t exactly see it that way…

This is a dramatic family saga that is full of corruption, intrigue and dirty tricks that kept me on tenterhooks throughout. Mutny is a delightful narrator, patient and wise, who charts her sister’s rise from teenage Queen to Egyptian goddess. And while I’m not sure how historically accurate Nefertiti’s portrayal is, this book certainly captures the flavour, sights and sounds of ancient Egypt so that it’s easy imagining yourself sailing down the Nile, or tucking into platters of honeyed nuts, plump figs and pomegranates, or wandering the altars draped in gold and crowned in myrrh.

The style of story-telling reminded me very much of Anita Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers, which is also about one girl’s journey from innocence to adulthood, although Nefertiti is less about the subjugation of women and more about the subjugation of an entire race of people, male and female alike.

This is by no means high-brow literary fiction, but it’s an entertaining, fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable romp, with a smidgen of romance, a touch of war and a little bit of double-dealing thrown in for good measure. I found the ending surprisingly suspenseful but despite the 460-odd pages I didn’t want the story to draw to close, and I was genuinely sad when I reached the final page.

I had a lot of fun reading Nefertiti and I suspect many others will do so too.

Alaa As Aswany, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Egypt, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Yacoubian Building’ by Alaa As Aswany


Fiction – hardcover; Fourth Estate; 272 pages; 2007. Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies.

The Yacoubian Building
has been a best seller in its native Egypt and throughout the Arabic world since publication in 2002. It was translated into English in 2004 but has come to more prominent attention because it was made into a film of the same name last year. This hardcover edition was published in 2007.

Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows modern Egyptian life through the eyes of a diverse range of characters, all of whom live in an apartment block called the Yacoubian Building.

Similar in style to Nicholas Rinaldi’s Between Two Rivers, which is set in a Manhattan residential building, it charts the struggles of a wide cross-section of society, from the underclass that live in cramped conditions in converted storage rooms on the roof of the building, to the wealthy residents who inhabit the building’s individual apartments.

There are so many characters in the book that a list is printed at the front for reference. The main ones include: a wealthy and elderly playboy (Zaki Bey el Dessouki); a bright and ambitious young man who wants to enter the Police Acadamy but joins a militant Islamist organisation instead (Taha el Shazli); a beautiful girl who supports her family by taking a poorly paid job in a clothing shop which is run by a man who expects sexual favours (Busayna); a shirtmaker and petty schemer (Malak); the gay editor-in-chief of a French language newspaper (Hatim Rasheed); and a self-made millionaire who has a secret second marriage to satisfy his ever-present libido (Hagg Muhammad Azzam).

Each of these characters are incredibly interesting in their own right — with secrets to keep and struggles to overcome — but Aswany makes things more intriguing by having some of them bump into each other in often surprising and unpredictable ways. While this helps drive the narrative forward, it also allows the reader to appreciate the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.

In fact, Aswany’s book is a highly political one, showing as it does a society rife with bribery and corruption and riddled with poverty and violence, the result of a political system dominated by a single party. Here, the disenchanted populace dream of escape to foreign lands to live better lives. Some also see Islamic extremism as a viable method of creating a better society.

Western readers may also be shocked at the role that women are forced to play in this culture. They are not only objectified but they are conditioned to believe that it is up to them to modify their behaviour in order to meet the sexual demands of the male population. If that means you need to put up with your boss’s advances at work, then so be it, there’s no such thing as sexual harrassment here.

There’s no doubt that The Yacoubian Building is a powerful, thought-provoking and controversial read, but it’s also an entertaining and enlightening one, and I was sad when it came to an end. I very much recommend it, particularly if you want to experience an eye-opening glimpse of a culture not widely written about in western literature.