Africa, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ by Sebastian Barry

Temporary-gentleman

Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sebastian Barry has mined both sides of his family’s history for his fiction, and his latest novel, The Temporary Gentleman, is no exception. In this case we meet his grandfather, Jack McNulty, a man with an interesting — and dark — story to tell.

An intimate voice

Written in the form of a memoir, the book details Jack’s rather colourful life. It covers his time as a doltish student who meets and falls in love with the beautiful Mai Kirwan in the west of Ireland through to their rather tumultuous (and sad) marriage. He also relays his experiences as a “temporary gentleman” in the British Army during the Second World War to his later career as an engineer and UN observer, mainly in Africa, where he now resides.

Throughout his tale, Jack’s tone of voice is raw and intimate. You get the impression you are the person to whom he wishes to confess all his past sins. But Jack is not all he seems — and the further you get into the book, the more you realise he’s being slightly economical with the truth.

And yet, despite all his flaws, Jack appears to be a likeable man, genuinely perplexed by the trouble and pain in his life, never quite frank or brave enough to properly confront his demons, all of which makes him such a delicious fictional character to follow.

Rhythm of the prose

As ever with a Sebastian Barry novel, the prose in The Temporary Gentleman is distinctive in its lyricism and musicality. There are sentences here which “sing”, and it’s the rhythm of them that makes reading Barry such a joy. You know when something particularly exciting (or dreadful) is about to happen because there’s a sudden absence of full stops — an entire sentence can span two pages, punctuated by well-spaced commas, so that a kind of breathless quality ensues, one that is only matched by the hammering of the reader’s heartbeat.

And my heart did, indeed, hammer quite a lot while reading this book. And I also found myself becoming quietly shocked by Jack’s behaviour and his inability to take real responsibility for his actions.

In fact, the more I read, the more I wanted to hear Mai’s side of the story, and when I met Barry at his book launch in London and asked if he would ever tell her tale he said he already had — in the 1998 theatre production Our Lady of Sligo.

Family connections

Readers who are familiar with Barry’s The Secret Scripture are bound to get a new insight into Rose McNultry from this new novel — Rose is Jack’s sister-in-law and she is mentioned in passing several times during the course of The Temporary Gentleman. Similarly, Eneas McNulty, who stars in Barry’s first novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, is also referenced.

It’s not that you need to have read these books beforehand (I’ve not read the one about Eneas), but they certainly deepen your appreciation for Barry’s skill as a novelist when you notice the connections between family members and their various storylines interleaved across several volumes. It’s an impressive achievement.

If I was to fault anything with the book it is that Jack’s main narrative is regularly interrupted by short interludes describing what he did last night, for instance, or what he plans to do tomorrow. Sometimes these feel a little like a prop (or a crutch), while Barry tries to figure out what to write next. But that’s a truly minor quibble.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Jack McNulty’s company — even if he turned out to be the bad guy or, as the title makes clear, the temporary gentleman in Barry’s family tree.

Africa, Author, Book review, Canada, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Nigeria, Publisher, Setting, Viking, Will Ferguson

‘419’ by Will Ferguson

419

Fiction – hardcover; Viking Books; 399 pages; 2012.

For me, the best kind of literature is the kind that makes you look at something afresh or takes you to a location (or time in history) that you would never normally visit. Will Ferguson’s 419 is that kind of literature.

In short, it is about a Canadian man who gets stung by a Nigerian email scam, but it is also about the cultural and financial disparity between Africa and the West. It is a heady mix of adventure story, crime fiction and global thriller — albeit with a distinctive 21st century twist.

Caught in a web of deception

This rather ambitious novel has multiple storylines and a wide cast of characters. The central thread revolves around the death of Henry Curtis, a retired school teacher now working as a part-time watchman, who dies in an unusual traffic accident: his car, travelling at very high speeds, runs off the road one night and tumbles into a snowy ravine underneath a bridge. Initially, it is thought he may have hit a patch of black ice, but later, when it is revealed that his car made two attempts to leave the road, his death is chalked up as suicide.

When the home he shares with his wife — also a retired school teacher — is repossessed by the bank, it appears that Mr Curtis had numerous, and hefty, financial debts. He had, rather naively, been taken in my an email scam (known in Nigeria as “419” after the criminal code which makes this kind of activity illegal), the type most of us would ignore or delete if they made their way through our SPAM filter.

SUBJECT: Urgent Matter to the Attention of Mr. Henry Curtis. Please do not turn away!
RECEIVED: September 12, 11:42PM

Complements of the season! With warm heart I offer you wishes of good health from Africa. I am contacting you today regarding an urgent business proposal, and though this letter may reach you as a surprise, I implore you to take the time to go through it carefully as the decision you make will go a long ways toward determining the future and continued existence of a young woman’s happiness.
Sir, I am writing today on behalf of Miss Sandra, daughter of Dr. Atta, late Director & Chairman of the Contract Award Committee for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. As you may know, Dr. Atta died tragically in a helicopter crash in the Niger Delta under circumstances most suspicious. Miss Sandra’s uncle vowed to care for her, but he too has fallen afoul of government-backed criminals…

His two adult children — Warren and Laura — take his death and the impending loss of the family home in different ways. Warren, a married man with children, is prone to loud outbursts, all air and fury, while Laura, a single woman who makes her living as a copy editor, decides to beat the scammers at their own game.

Multiple storylines

In a second storyline, we meet the scammer — Winston — who runs his one-man operation out of a cyber cafe in Lagos. Winston is cleverer than most — he’s figured out that it pays to choose your targets carefully and “once hooked, it became a matter of playing them, of reeling in the line, overcoming their initial resistance, giving them slack at certain times, pulling taut at others”. But Winston is playing a dangerous game, because the world of cyberscamming is deftly controlled by street-gang syndicates who don’t appreciate those who go it alone.

A third storyline introduces Nnamdi, an innocent boy from a fishing village in the Niger Delta, who becomes unwittingly tied up with a Nigerian “mafia” boss who runs many of these internet scams. But when we first meet Nnamdi, he is working on Bonny Island — the terminus of the Trans-Niger Pipeline at the mouth of the Delta — where he “took motors apart and put them back together. He oiled bearings, cleaned cogs, replaced timing belts”. His situation is in stark contrast to the rest of his peers, many of whom are blowing up pipelines and kidnapping Western employees to get the message across that the global oil corporations are not welcome in the Delta.

Later, he meets and rescues a pregnant woman, who is from the Sahel “from a clan rumoured to carry Arabian blood in their veins”. This storyline — perhaps the weakest of the multiple ones that Ferguson juggles in choppy, sometimes staccato fashion — serves to show us how innocent, well-meaning people, such as Nmadi, can get caught up in events bigger than themselves. And it also shows us how corruption permeates through almost every facet of Nigerian life.

Ambitious novel

From my description above, it’s pretty clear that 419 is a big, sprawling novel, filled with all kinds of social, political and economic messages about the state of the world today.

It’s by no means a perfect novel — sometimes it feels like facts, especially the ways in which these “419 scams” work are being shoe-horned in, and it can never seem to work out its mind whether it’s a literary novel, a travel adventure or a sociopolitical thriller. It also experiments with style — sometimes the chapters are only several paragraphs long, and the section about Nnamdi could almost be extracted as a stand alone novella — not always successfully.

But, on the whole, this is a gripping read, one that feels authentic and edgy. It takes a big picture view and marries a cracking good plot with finely crafted prose and believable characters. And I suspect it would make a brilliant film, not least because of Ferguson’s eye for detail and the visual quality of his writing.

Of the three Giller Prize shortlisted novels I have reviewed so far, I would be more than happy to see this one win it.

Acorn Digital Press, Africa, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Ros Wynne-Jones, Setting

‘Something Is Going to Fall Like Rain’ by Ros Wynne-Jones

Something-is-going-to-fall-like-rain

Fiction – Kindle edition; Acorn Digital Press; 250 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the author.

“El Niño caused the drought, but human beings caused the famine,” admits one of the aid workers very early on in this story, which is, by turns, inspiring, terrifying, heart-hammering and desperately sad. First published in 2009 and recently re-released in a Kindle edition, Something is Going to Fall Like Rain is set in southern Sudan some 10 years before it acquired independence.

An African adventure

The story is told from the point-of-view of a female aid worker, Maria Marshall, a trainee doctor from London, who is grieving over the death of her single parent mother.

Not long after Maria arrives in the remote village of Adek, in war-torn southern Sudan, and meets her two colleagues — Billy, from the US, and Sean, from Northern Ireland — than the local airfield is bombed. This means all three aid workers are now trapped, because the roads are too treacherous for travel, and a news blackout is put in place in case the story should “attract the attention of Government militias interested in Western hostage taking”.

Now that she no longer has the option to return home, Maria must adapt to a new way of life and confront the reality of famine and sickness, “where everyone has lost someone. Fathers and brothers to the war, daughters to famine and childbirth, mothers to rape and sickness, children to bombs”.

We stayed put and the food drops came down from the sky, a beacon attracting many more thousands of people from across Bahr el Ghazal and up into the neighbouring province of Darfur, drawing like a magnet any family capable of walking. New arrivals told us thousands more people – the sick, the very  youngest and the elderly – were being buried daily by their surviving relatives in dusty graves across the plains towards Adek or left marooned in flooded villages facing certain famine and death. Arriving in Adek meant at least a fragile chance of life, however desperately short we were of food. But it also made the village even more vulnerable than before – a sitting duck target for militia attack or Government bombings. “It’s a cat and mouse game now,” Billy said.

Maria makes friends with many of the village residents, including a young boy who has been severely crippled by polio and the Chief who wanders around in a woman’s dressing gown unaware of how ridiculous he looks, and learns about the Dinka way of life. And all the while she works around the clock helping to distribute basic food aid to the thousands of famine victims who flock to the camp.

Hints of a lucky escape

For much of the story, it feels like nothing much happens, but because the narrative is being told  retrospectively by Maria ten years later, we get hints of something terrible occurring. It is these small nuggets  of information interspersed through Maria’s chronological account of hertime in Adek that keeps the reader  turning the pages. What happened when she was there? And how did she return to the UK?

I admit to myself for perhaps the first time, that the malaria is not the only recurring  damage from Southern Sudan. That a decade ago a part of me died in Adek’s marketplace. That my label of ‘survivor’ is not the whole story because not all of me survived. After Sudan, something closed off hard inside me, suddenly and painfully, as if a part of my inner self had been cauterised without anaesthetic, irreparably and violently damaged. Something burned and blackened began lurking in the corners of my imagination, a wounded minotaur stalking the bloodied chambers of my heart and mind.

An authentic tale

The best thing about Something is Going to Fall Like Rain is that it feels authentic. That’s probably because Wynne-Jones is an award-winning journalist who has worked in conflict zones around the world — from South Sudan to East Timor, Kosovo to Rwanda — and I suspect much of it is based on first-hand experience.

She is able to bring Africa and her people to life, and she can also write searingly good sentences, too:

The empty glass Ark stood grounded on dry land, sitting astride its own Godless in-land Ararat. Above the noise of the traffic, it seemed to me I could actually hear the sky-scrapers scraping the grey sky.

But occasionally the prose feels a bit forced when background information on the political situation is being explained — usually via extended pieces of dialogue — and I would have liked to have known more about Sean and Billy, both of whom seemed slightly two dimensional. But these are minor quibbles.

This is an excellent read, harrowing in places, heartwarming in others. And as a debut novel it is confident and self-assured. If you liked Andrea Eames’ The White Shadow, Chris Abani’s Song for Night and Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, then add this one to your list, because it is of a similar heart-rending ilk.

Africa, Akashic Books, Author, Book review, Chris Abani, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Song For Night’ by Chris Abani

Song-for-night

Fiction – paperback; Akashic Books; 168 pages; 2007.

Earlier this year I read a profoundly disturbing and confronting novel — Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali — about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Chris Abani’s novella, Song for Night, treads similar territory, but it is set in an unspecified West African nation at a time of war. (Given that the main character speaks Igbo, a language from south-eastern Nigeria, that is probably the likely location of the book.)

The story is told from the perspective of a child soldier, a ghost who travels the countryside looking for the platoon from which he was separated. He is known as My Luck, an ironic name given he’s lead a short and rather unlucky life: his father, a Muslim cleric in a country of Roman Catholics, is murdered “before the hate began” and not long later his mother is killed in front of him.

When he is 12 he is recruited for a “special mission”, something that gives meaning to a life already in disarray:

I had been selected to be part of an elite team, a team of engineers highly trained in locating and eliminating the threat of clandestine enemy explosives. Even though I had no idea what clandestine enemy explosives were, I was thrilled. Who wouldn’t be after three weeks of training and all the time marching for hours in the hot sun doing drills with a carved wooden gun while waiting for the real thing — either from the French who had promised weapons or from the front, where they had been liberated from the recently dead.

Under the wing of Major Essien, nicknamed John Wayne, My Luck is taught to detect unexploded mines with his bare feet and then disable them with a jungle knife, a dangerous occupation, made all the more cruel by having his vocal chords cut — “so that we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams” whenever a fellow solider is blown up by a mine.

This is a horrific, hate-filled world that Abani presents here — and some of the scenes depicted are sickening in the extreme. But there’s a strange beauty at work — the prose is often poetic and dreamlike — as My Luck traverses the landscape, alone and unaided, and often under the cover of night, as he searches for the people who accidentally left him behind.

During this adrenalin trip across rebel territory littered with bloated corpses and mass graves, where one false move could end in death, My Luck recalls events which have lead him to this point in time. It is three years into a brutal civil war, so there is much to tell. There’s the looting, the rapes, the love affair with a platoon member — and the constant, overbearing tiredness of survival. You want to egg him on, to continue his quest, but then you wonder if there would be any point? Surely, My Luck is trapped in an endless cycle of death and destruction?

Song for Night is not a pleasant read, and if you’re troubled by scenes of violence and bloodshed it’s probably not for you. But this is an important book, one that feels “truthful” about a world few of us know anything about and, thankfully, have no experience in. Amid the terror and the brutality, there is a deep, underlying humanity here, about what it is like to have your childhood stolen from you, a world in which life is cheap and hate comes easily.

Africa, Author, Book review, Chris Cleave, England, Fiction, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting

‘The Other Hand’ by Chris Cleave

OtherHand

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 378 pages; 2009.

Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand was shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Novel Award. It is one of those books I kept picking up in bookstores and then putting down. I was intrigued but also skeptical. The blurb, surely, was a marketing ploy?

This is what the blurb on my edition says:

“We don’t want to tell you what happens in this story. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again — the story starts there… Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.”

And then Valerie, who reads my blog emailed me, to suggest I might like it. “I expected to see it listed as one of the books you have reviewed,” she wrote. “And when I didn’t, I decided to email you.  It is one of those books you want to tell a friend about…”

I relented and bought myself a copy the next day. I’ll admit I still wasn’t convinced, and the letter from the editor, on the very first page, only raised my hackles. “Dear Reader,” it began. “You don’t know me. I’m Chris Cleave’s editor, and I’m writing to tell you how extraordinary The Other Hand is. As publishers, naturally we only publish  books that we love, but every now and then something comes along that is so special it gives us goosebumps.”

She then compares the novel to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark. By this stage the phrase “she doth protest to much” was running through my head.

Still, I was prepared to banish my preconceptions and give the book a fair go, and I raced through it in a matter of days.

Obviously, I can’t tell you much about the plot, but I can tell you what I thought of the story.

Quite frankly, I didn’t think it lived up to the hype. It’s an interesting story and it moves along at a fair old pace. There are scenes that are truly shocking and others that are good for a giggle. The characterisation is good, although not entirely believable, and there’s enough social commentary to give the illusion that you’re reading something deep and meaningful.

But on the whole this is a book that feels manipulative. The “reveals” — almost one per chapter — are cheap tricks designed to give you a fright or challenge your assumptions. While they might add some excitement to the novel, they end up trivialising quite important subject matter — illegal immigration, suicide and violence, to name but a few.

Perhaps Cleave didn’t want to write a hard-hitting novel and that’s fine, but as soon as your editor starts comparing you to Schindler’s Ark, one of the most hard-hitting novels of the past 40 years, it creates a pretty monumental and, dare I say it, unrealistic expectation in the average reader’s mind.

I suspect The Other Hand, which has been published in the USA and Canada under the title Little Bee, will resonate with readers who like quick, accessible reads about unfamiliar subjects, but for me it was too superficial, too cartoonish and too calculating to deliver on its promises. If you’ve read it I’d be interested in knowing what you thought. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion I may well be the only person in the world who didn’t love it to bits…

Abacus, Africa, Alexander McCall Smith, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ by Alexander McCall Smith

No1Ladies

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 256 pages; 2003.

This book and the others in Alexander McCall Smith’s charming series seem to be flavour of the month right now.

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is certainly an intriguing and quaint book. The central character, Mma Ramotswe, is utterly lovely and especially kind-hearted and the setting of rural Botswana is wonderfully realised.

That’s the good bit.

The bad bit, as far as I’m concerned, is the writing (which is far too simplistic for readers like me who enjoy being challenged) and the plot (which doesn’t exist).

Each self-contained chapter reads like a series of short stories or anecdotes, which is fine if that’s what you like reading, but I found myself becoming bored with this book very quickly. I also struggled to appreciate the stripped back prose which is childlike in its simplicity.

I think this book would appeal to those who don’t read very often or to those over-tired readers who want something they can cruise through with their brain disengaged.

A pleasant enough read, but I won’t be bothering with the rest of the titles in the series.