Author, Book review, Fiction, Jacqueline Woodson, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘Red at the Bone’ by Jacqueline Woodson

Fiction – Kindle edition; W&N; 208 pages; 2020.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone came recommended to me with much fanfare. It’s been nominated for many prizes (including the Women’s Prize for Fiction), been a runaway bestseller and named as one of the books of the year in countless media outlets (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today et al).

It features everything I love in a great story: well-drawn characters, vivid prose, a strong narrative voice, thought-provoking themes (including race, class, sexuality, teen pregnancy, social mobility and ambition) and an original structure that interweaves different storylines and jumps backwards and forwards in time.

But this novella about a Black American family, told from multiple points of view, didn’t really work for me. Perhaps it didn’t help that the week I read it I was distracted by (1) the never-ending USA Presidential Election count and (2) a looming deadline for a massive project at work. Given different circumstances, I may well have found this story more engaging and immersive than I did upon my initial reading.

Melody’s family history

The story revolves around Melody, a 16-year-old about to make her coming of age debut, in 2001. She’s wearing a beautiful white dress that was made for her mother, Iris, who never got to wear it because she fell pregnant when still a schoolgirl.

As Melody descends the staircase in her grandparent’s brownstone house in Brooklyn, the time-shifting narrative explores all the interconnections in Melody’s family, detailing the personal histories of her parents and grandparents, to create an authentic portrait of an ordinary hard-working family wanting the very best for their loved ones.

He wanted Melody to never have hands like his mother’s. And maybe that was what being not poor was. They were not poor. Well, Melody wasn’t.

Red at the Bone highlights the repercussions of a teenage pregnancy on two young parents and their respective families.

It looks at how Melody’s father, Aubry, did not realise he was poor until he met Iris and got introduced to her (slightly larger) world; it shows how Iris, having birthed her daughter at 15, refused to be defined by motherhood and escaped to college to pursue a better, more ambitious life; it examines the struggles of Melody’s grandparents, Sabe and Po’Boy, who grew up in the shadow of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921; and it takes all these narrative threads and cleverly shows how the history of this one family shapes Melody’s values and world view.

It’s an ambitious story wrapped up in one neat package. It’s just a shame it didn’t quite hit the spot for me, but that’s more my fault than that of the author’s. Sometimes it’s simply a case of right book, wrong time…

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Han Kang, Portobello Books, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Korea, TBR40

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 183 pages; 2015. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Quite frankly, Han Kang’s debut novel, The Vegetarian — which I read for Women in Translation Month is a bonkers story.

The premise goes something like this: a married woman becomes a vegetarian in meat-loving South Korea after she keeps having a freakish dream involving lots of blood. Her family reacts angrily to her decision. At a dinner party, her father tries to ram a piece of meat down her throat. She responds by picking up a fruit knife and slashing her wrist. She goes to the hospital. Later, when she’s discharged, her marriage begins to fall apart. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful video artist, develops an unhealthy interest in her body, which is slowly wasting away, and paints flowers all over her naked form. They have sex, get caught by her sister, and then she ends up in a psychiatric ward, where she’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and anorexia, before admitting she really just wants to morph into a tree.

Yes, I told you it was bonkers.

An unsettling metamorphosis

Structured in three parts, it follows Yeong-hye’s metamorphosis from dutiful wife (her husband is arrogant, sexist and sexually abusive) to subversive vegetarian in pursuit of a more “plant-like” existence. We never hear from her directly, because her tale is told from the perspectives of those closest to her: her husband (in part one), her brother-in-law (part two) and her sister (part three).

As the narrative inches forward it becomes increasingly more unsettling and unhinged. Part one is particularly confronting (Yeong-hye’s husband rapes her and treats her abysmally), while part two borders on the pornographic. Part three is a bit more even-keeled, but even so, there are vivid descriptions of unpleasant experiences and medical procedures in a psychiatric facility that are unnerving.

And all this is rendered in cool, detached prose, with an occasional nod to poetic lyricism.

Critically acclaimed

When The Vegetarian was published in 2015 it was greeted with much enthusiastic praise and it won the International Man Booker Prize the following year, but at the risk of sounding churlish, I don’t quite understand the fuss.

It’s certainly original and even though it’s from South Korea, it has that languid, haunting quality that I normally associate with the best fiction from Japan. Similarly, it addresses themes of alienation, misogyny and a refusal to conform to societal conventions, but I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters and the storyline just didn’t hold my interest. Every time I put this book down, I really did not want to pick it up again.

And while I understand the book is saying a lot about the rigid constrictions of South Korean society, about sexual frustration and desire, and the ways in which the female body is used and abused, The Vegetarian — for all its intelligence, ideas and confrontation of taboos — really wasn’t for me.

Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest didn’t much like it either.

This is my 8th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 27th for #TBR40. It has been in my TBR since 2015, having received it unsolicited from the publisher for potential review prior to its official release.

Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Octavia E. Butler, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Parable of the Sower’ by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler

Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline Publishing; 308 pages; 2014.

First published in 1993, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower seems remarkably prescient.

Set in the year 2027 — just 10 years from now — in a small town 20 miles from Los Angeles, it depicts a world in which the normal rules of society have broken down. People live in walled communities to protect themselves from rampaging mobs; food is so expensive people either grow their own or steal it; and water is in short supply.

Jobs are scarce and wages are so low many workers are indentured to the companies that employ them. Guns are a way of life and everyone learns from an early age how to defend themselves in case of violent attack. And most people despise politicians because they’ve failed to “return us to the glory, wealth, and order of the twentieth century”.

But there is a glimmer of hope:

Christopher Charles Morpeth Donner is our new President—President-elect. So what are we in for? Donner has already said that as soon as possible after his inauguration next year, he’ll begin to dismantle the “wasteful, pointless, unnecessary” moon and Mars programs. Near space programs dealing with communications and experimentation will be privatized—sold off. Also, Donner has a plan for putting people back to work. He hopes to get laws changed, suspend “overly restrictive” minimum wage, environmental, and worker protection laws for those employers willing to take on homeless employees and provide them with training and adequate room and board.

How eerily familiar it all sounds, right?

A young narrator

The story is narrated by 15-year-old Lauren Olamina, the daughter of a black Baptist preacher. She has a rare condition called “hyperempathy syndrome”, which means she feels other people’s pain as well as her own, the result of her late mother’s addiction to a drug called Paracetco.

Having this syndrome is shameful, so Lauren keeps it a secret from everyone she knows, but it puts her in mortal danger, for if she sees someone near her dying, whether by gunshot wound, violent rape or something else, she experiences the same symptoms.

So when her community succumbs to a devastating fire attack, which kills all her immediate family and many of her friends, she finds herself in the dangerous “outside world”, confronted by all manner of threats to her hypersensitive “antenna”.

A story of two halves

The book is essentially two halves: the first sets the scene and shows us how complicated, messy and violent the world has become; the second charts Lauren’s time on the road as she heads north with a small group intent on finding refuge in the wilderness. It’s a bit like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but instead of an apocalyptic wasteland Lauren must trudge through an America consumed by paranoia, violent crime, murder, rape and drug addiction.

I admit that I had problems with this dystopian novel. Yes, the themes and issues it presents — about societal breakdown, the importance of empathy and the need to embrace diversity — are particularly relevant and timely given what’s happening across the world right now. But it’s far too long and the prose too pedestrian for my liking. (I had the same problem with Butler’s Fledgling, which I read back in 2010.)

I also didn’t much like the religious overtones, for Lauren’s aim is to set up her own religion called Earthseed. This is designed to help people adapt to a new, constantly changing world in which so many inadequately prepared people have to fend for themselves.

In some quarters Parable of the Sower is billed as a Young Adult novel, so it may just be that I’m not the target audience — yet pretty much everyone in my book group liked it.

Parable of the Sower is the first book of the Earthseed series; the second is the Nebula Award winner Parable of the Talents. As much as I’d like to know what happens to Lauren, I don’t think I will race to read the sequel.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘True Country’ by Kim Scott

True Country by Kim Scott

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 299 pages; 2010.

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.

True Country, Kim Scott’s debut novel, was first published in 1999. It tells the story of Billy, a young teacher, who moves to a remote settlement in Australia’s far north to take up a job at a local school.

Here, in a Christian mission now in decline and a government administrative outpost struggling to keep staff, Billy and his wife, Liz, find themselves thrust into an Aboriginal community that appears to be in disarray. Yet Billy is drawn to the people and the astonishing landscape in which they live in ways that surprise him.

An immensely powerful read about dispossession, the clash between cultures and finding your rightful place in the world, I found True Country the perfect follow-up/companion read to Stan Grant’s memoir Talking to My Country. Both books sing from the same hymn sheet, as it were, and paint a stark, disturbing portrait of what happens when one culture tries to subjugate another.

A remote settlement

When Billy and Liz fly into Karnama this is what they see from the plane window:

We flew over a large curved pool in the river, and saw the mission with its lawns and buildings and plantation. There were small huts and large trees, and a scratch of track that dipped through creeks. It scratched past the powerhouse and the school, turned the corner of the basketball court near the mission gates and continued, lined with coconut palms, past corrugated iron huts to a gravel airstrip in the shape of a cross. Not far from the airstrip the river flows through a gorge before widening to a mangrove-lined mouth and into the sea.

This first impression of a beautiful, semi-ordered landscape is tarnished when the plane banks over the bush on the other side of the settlement and Billy sees that it was “littered with old car bodies, tins, plastic, all sorts of rubbish”. And perhaps that’s a metaphor for this whole, carefully structured, novel, which scratches the dark underbelly of what it is to be a forgotten people living in a community beset by problems, many of them caused by decades long interference from others who think they know better.

It’s only when Billy and Liz settle into their new lodgings and begin work that they pick up on the very real “them” and “us” mentality that exists between the whites and the blacks. Grog is forbidden for Aboriginals, but the priest has his own private supply, for instance, and all the white staff live in well-built air-conditioned housing and have access to vehicles, while the blacks sweat it out in hot corrugated iron shacks and travel everywhere by foot.

Tensions arise between these two cultures, caused primarily by a different set of values. Many of the Aboriginals living in Karnama have so little respect for education that the teachers must wake up their students and practically drag them into the classroom every morning. There is no understanding of the concept of personal property, so that if they “borrow” a car and crash it, it is simply abandoned by the side of the road, and children think nothing of going into a teacher’s unlocked house without their knowledge to rifle through their belongings. And there’s a strong (cynical) belief that the white people, whether teachers, government administrators or clergy, are there simply to make money or to further their careers, they have no real interest in helping the Aboriginal community.

There are deeper, more disturbing problems here, too: alcohol abuse and petrol sniffing is rife (to “kill the world”, as Billy puts it) and the men are violent with each other and their wives (usually after drinking too much grog).

Room for hope

Strangely, for all the shocking incidences in this book (including a violent murder committed by white men), it is not a depressing one. That’s largely due to Billy’s “assimilation”, for want of a better word, into this community, for part-way through the story you come to realise that Billy is not white: he has Aboriginal ancestry, and his reason for moving to this community is to discover that part of himself which, for so long, has remained dormant and unknowable.

There are wonderful descriptions of outings to go fishing and to learn about bush culture and to fall that little bit in love with the varied landscape around him and to appreciate the vagaries of the seasons.

This time of the year […] it is getting hotter. Late in every day the sky comes low, it sags down like it is swollen and bruised. The flies are sticky drinking your sweat. Over on the edge of the sky the lightning stabs the hills. But no rain comes yet. It will.

He strikes up a particularly lovely friendship with Fatima, one of the oldest Aboriginal women living in  Karnama, who sits at his kitchen table and tells him stories that he records on audio tape with a view to transcribing them for his students. It’s perhaps telling that this form of oral history, so much a part of Aboriginal culture, never makes it into written form, for Billy realises that to do so would require too much time and too much editing and he doesn’t think he has the right to alter Fatima’s words: these are not his stories to tell.

An engaging portrait

The novel is largely structured around a series of vignettes and what I would call sketches of characters or scenes, some of which are only a couple of pages long. But this style builds up an engaging portrait of the community, so that you come to learn about the way it works and the people who inhabit it in ways a normal straightforward narrative might not have been able to do.

It’s largely written in the first person, past tense, but there are snatches of present tense to heighten tension and there are passages told in Aboriginal vernacular which lend a vivid, authentic flavour to the prose. It is that vernacular that I loved most, perhaps because much of it so wonderfully conveys the spiritual connection between people and the land:

And it is a beautiful place, this place. Call it our country, our country all ’round here. We got river, we got sea. Got creek, rock, hill, waterfall. We  got bush tucker: apple, potato, sugarbag, bush turkey, kangaroo, barramundi, dugong, turtle… every kind. Sweet mango and coconuts too.

In case you haven’t guessed, I really loved this novel. I loved the way Scott writes about confronting, often shocking, problems but in an intelligent, empathetic way. I loved his poetical use of language. I loved his characters, the whole complex range of them. I loved his descriptions of the landscape. I loved his sense of humour evidenced in descriptions of shambolic corroborees put on for American tourists expecting polished performances. And I loved the redemptive ending. But most of all I loved its big beating heart.

True Country has been widely published, so British and North American readers should be able to source a copy online without too much difficulty.

Kim Scott is of Aboriginal descent. He has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice — for his novels Benang: From the Heart (in 2000, jointly with Thea Astley’s Drylands) and That Deadman Dance (in 2011).

This is my 47th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

Australia, Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scribe, Setting, Stan Grant

‘Talking to My Country’ by Stan Grant

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 240 pages; 2016.

“What does it feel like to be an indigenous person in Australia?”

This is the question journalist Stan Grant wrestles with in a radio interview upon his return to Australia after a decade working overseas. It’s the same question he wrestles with in Talking to My Country, a heartfelt and deeply personal memoir about what it is to be an Aboriginal growing up in Australia.

His response?

I tell Richard [Glover, the interviewer] how vulnerable we can be. I tell him of the little boy I once was who felt so ashamed of his colour that he tried to scrub it off. I tell him of the ache of poverty and how my family had roamed the back roads looking for a home in a land we had lost. I tell him of how a sideways glance or a snickering child could steal our souls. I tell him how we learned to measure our words and lower our voices for fear of being howled down. I tell him that even now despite carving out a place for myself I could so easily be crushed by rejection.

But Talking to My Country is more than just a memoir. It’s also a frank examination of black and white relations, and Australia’s failure to reconcile its shared and troubled history. If, as Grant argues, Australia is a “great country”, it should also step up to the mark and be “held to great account”. He has a point.

Sobering facts

Here are some of the sobering facts peppered throughout Stan’s frank and eye-opening narrative:

  • Aboriginal people represent fewer than three per cent of the population, yet they represent a quarter of the prison population
  • Half of those in juvenile detention centres are indigenous
  • One in five indigenous prisoners try to kill themselves
  • There were 99 deaths in custody in nine years in the decade before 1987. Despite a Royal Commission into black deaths in custody, this figure has increased by 100 per cent in the past two decades
  • Acute depression affects one-third of indigenous people over the age of 15
  • Aboriginals are three times more likely to commit suicide than their white counterparts
  • 50,000 aboriginal children were stolen from their families by the federal and state governments in a misguided attempt to assimilate them
  • Since 2008, when then Prime Minster Kevin Rudd offered a formal apology about the Stolen Generation, the number of aboriginal children removed from their families has increased by 400 per cent
  • Compared with white Australians, Aboriginal Australians have a much lower life expectancy, much higher levels of unemployment and a higher infant mortality rate
  • Six out of 10 white Australians have never met an Aboriginal Australian

But while Grant paints a shameful portrait of a nation divided, he is quick to point out that he is one of the lucky ones. He left school early, but he managed to find a route out of poverty through further education and journalism.

Many of you may know him as a broadcast journalist — he was a correspondent for CNN for a decade covering all kinds of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, but I mainly remember him as the host of the current affairs program Real Life in the mid-1990s. He was the first Aboriginal journalist to be on mainstream TV.

I’m not sure his book offers any solutions to Australia’s troubled past, but what it does do is show how we got into this mess. Grant does not point the finger at white people per se, but at the “system built on white privilege”. He shows that it is only by understanding our past — the shared history, the massacres, the unjust treatment of his people — that we can reconcile what has happened and move into the future together as one united people. Grant states that Aboriginals are constantly told to let it go, but he says it’s not quite as easy as that:

… our history is a living thing. It is physical. it is nose and mouths and faces. It is written on our bodies. […] It is there in the mental scars you often cannot see.

It doesn’t help that Grant, having grown up in the margins of society, still feels a stranger in his own country. “When an anthem is played and a flag is raised we are reminded that our country is no longer ours,” he writes.

Sadness and shame

I came away from this book feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness — and shame. It’s the exact same reaction I had when I read Kim Scott’s confronting novel Benang: Straight from the Heart, about a man who realises he is “the product of a long and considered process” to create a white man from a long line of people with Aboriginal blood.

Talking to My Country is eye-opening and informative. It’s fuelled by anger and shame. I read it feeling my heart breaking with every turn of the page. It’s exactly the kind of book that every Australian should read, but it has wider appeal in showing what happens to people when they are treated differently because of the colour of their skin. In the current political climate, its message seems more important than ever.

This is my 46th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

Author, Book review, Brian Moore, Cristina Henríquez, Five fast reviews, Joseph Kanon, Muriel Spark, Tiziano Scarpa

Five Fast Reviews: Cristina Henriquez, Joseph Kanon, Brian Moore, Tiziano Scarpa and Muriel Spark

Five-fast-reviews-300pix

‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Contemporaries; 286 pages; 2015.

The-book-of-unknown-americansI read Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans for my book group, but it also fitted in quite nicely with #DiverseDecember. It’s a timely story about immigration — to the USA from Latin America — and the challenges those immigrants face on a daily basis.

Written in a light, almost “frothy” style, the novel follows the fortunes of a wide cast of characters in two families. Each character takes it in turn to tell their version of events, but there are also several chapters written as stand-alone “testimonials” by others that have also immigrated to the US. This structure serves to create a clamour of voices that show the ups and downs of moving to a new country and trying to fit in.

The blurb on the back of my edition claims it’s a love story between two teenagers — the brain-damaged Maribel Rivera, who has immigrated with her family to seek specialist education and treatment for her condition, and her neighbour Mayor Toro — and that’s partly true, but the book is more about showcasing life as an immigrant in the US, where the road isn’t always paved with gold and where racism and victimisation is always on the doorstep.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t particularly enamoured of this novel. I didn’t like the structure and thought the themes were overly simplified. But don’t take my word for it — many in my book group really liked it and it’s been a commercial and critical success in the US, where it was named a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book, an NPR Great Read, and named one of the best books of the year by Oprah.com, School Library Journal, and BookPage.

‘Alibi’ by Joseph Kanon

Fiction – paperback; Sphere; 416 pages; 2007.

Alibi by Joseph KanonFor those of you who follow me on social media — and Instagram in particular — you will know I spent Christmas in Venice. It was my fourth visit to the watery city, and this time it was very much about the food and the drink, rather than the architecture and the walking (although there was plenty of that too). I packed Joseph Kanon’s Alibi in my suitcase, because I always love to read books set in the places I’m visiting, and this one certainly didn’t disappoint.

It’s largely billed as a murder mystery, but it feels more like literary fiction than anything else. It’s certainly intelligent, and the crime at its heart is almost too complex to follow, but it’s the scene setting — Venice in 1946, when everyone’s trying to deal with the outfall of the war —  which makes it such a great read. The characterisation is spot on too, especially the leads: Adam Miller, a traumatised war crimes investigator who has left the US Army and is now visiting his widowed mother in Venice,  and Claudia, an Italian Jew, who survived the death camps, with whom he falls in love.

The story, which is fast-paced and compelling (I read it in the space of two days, because I just had to know what happens next), is very much about love, forgiveness, war and moral culpability (one of my favourite themes in fiction and non-fiction). It brought to mind Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon, which I read — and loved — years ago. This was my first Joseph Kanon; it won’t be my last.

‘Lies of Silence’ by Brian Moore

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury Classics; 192 pages; 1995.

Lies of Silence by Brian MooreFirst published in 1990, Lies of Silence is one of those novels I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. I’ve had this little Bloomsbury Classic edition in my TBR pile for years, so when I was casting about for something quick and compelling to read it seemed like a good fit: I wasn’t wrong. From the first word, this is the kind of gripping read that makes your pulse race…

Set during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, it thrusts one man into a moral quandary: on the day he plans to tell his wife he’s leaving her for another, much younger, woman, the IRA orders him to park a car in the car park of the Belfast hotel he manages. Without knowing the specifics, he believes the vehicle contains a bomb. But if he refuses to carry out the task, his wife, who has been taken captive, will be murdered; if he does what he’s told hundreds of hotels guests will be killed by the ensuing explosion. Whichever course of action he takes, there will be far-reaching and deadly repercussions…

In this intelligent, well paced novel, we see the themes of sacrifice, love, religion and war play out on a relatively small canvas. It is not your average psychological thriller. Yes, it’s a real page turner, but the prose style, almost old fashioned with an undercurrent of menace to it, lends it a literary feel. I loved it.

‘Venice is a Fish’ by Tiziano Scarpa

Non-fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 137 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside.

Venice is a Fish by Tiziano ScarpaThis is another book that I read while I was in Venice. Written by a native Venetian, it has real Italian flair: the writing is fresh and original, and much of the anecdotes contained within are humorous and (sometimes) surreal. It is strangely bewitching and, hands down, the most innovative book about Venice I’ve ever read.

Scarpa’s main thesis is that Venice is so beautiful — her paintings, her architecture, her canals — that the visitor can be inflicted with a disease known as “aesthetic radioactivity”, an idea that is pushed so much it soon becomes wearing. However, the book is filled with some good factual information of the historical variety — this isn’t a guide book telling you which hotel to stay in or what restaurant to eat at.

It’s divided into short chapters which are themed around the ways in which the visitor experiences the city. For instance, the first chapter entitled “feet” is about experiencing Venice on foot, “ears” explores the city’s noises and “nose” is about smell, and so on. My favourite, and the one that came in most handy for my trip, was “mouth”, which gave me the courage to order authentic Venetian food (rather than typical pasta and pizza) when out dining. Indeed, it’s thanks to Venice is a Fish that I soon developed an addiction to sarde in saór: fried sardines marinated in a sautéed mixture of onions, wine, vinegar, pine nuts and raisins. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it…

(Note, the book could benefit from a Table of Contents and an index, and the last 40 pages fail to be clearly labelled as appendices.)

Territorial Rights’ by Muriel Spark

Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classic; 224 pages; 2014.

Territorial Rights by Muriel SparkTerritorial Rights is one of Muriel Spark‘s lesser-known novels — and, as I soon found out, there might be a reason for that. I read it on the basis it was set in Venice, so would be perfect holiday fare. To some extent that’s true: this was a very easy read, one that felt frothy and light and gave me several good belly laughs. But the storyline is absolutely bonkers.

I know that Spark’s plots are always a bit crazy and that her characters are often absurd and strange, but this one was filled with so many oddballs and misfits, all carrying on in weird and often abysmal ways, that I couldn’t keep track of who was doing what and why. And the ending, after all that hilarity, was also a bit of a let down.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book — it’s just that there are better Spark novels to spend your time with. But if you like farces, washed down with a good dose of eccentricity, you’d be hard pressed to find anything as perfect as this.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Gun’ by Fuminori Nakamura

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura

Fiction – hardcover; Soho; 198 pages; 2016. Translate from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

My first introduction to Japanese crime writer Fuminori Nakamura was in 2012 when I read his prize-winning novella The Thief, an extraordinary story about a pickpocket who targets the rich and helps the poor.

The Gun, to be published by Soho next week, is another prize-winning book by the same author. It was Nakamura’s debut novel, originally published in hardcover in Japan in 2003 and now published in English for the first time.

Obsessed with a gun

The simple story is about a college student, Nishikawa, who finds a handgun at a crime scene, inexplicably steals it and then becomes obsessed with the weapon. He takes it home, buys special material to wrap it up in, polishes it with a kind of creepy reverence and thinks about it constantly. It becomes more important to him than his sex life:

I returned to my apartment and opened the satchel. The gun was as breathtakingly beautiful as ever. The girl I had just slept with was no comparison for the gun. In this moment, the gun was everything to me, and would be everything to me from now on as well. As I pondered whether or not it was loaded, I gazed at its piercing metallic sheen.

Over the course of the next few months he becomes more and more obsessed by his new illegal possession and decides he needs to use it for its true purpose  — to kill a human being.

A chilling storyline

The most impressive thing about the book is the chilling nature of it. It’s written in fairly pedestrian prose, with scarcely an adjective in it, but it builds up a slow momentum as you begin to wonder whether Nishikawa, who was in an orphanage until the age of six, will ever get caught.

It’s written in the first person, so you only ever get to see things from his point of view, but it soon becomes clear that for all his supposed normality he’s out of touch with his emotions — he never loses his temper (even when he has good reason to), treats his girlfriends abysmally, doesn’t care too much about his parents and even less about the biological father who lies dying in a hospital bed — and only begins to worry when a policeman knocks on his door. Even so, he never seems to understand the consequences of his actions.

But Nishikawa isn’t without heart — he cares about the little boy who lives next door whom he suspects of being physically abused and takes steps to report the situation to the authorities — and is well liked by his peers.

Not your usual crime novel

As with The Thief — and much other Japanese crime fiction I’ve read — this book is not about solving a crime but gives you a glimpse inside the head of a young man who could, potentially, carry out a horrendous criminal act. It asks many questions — what makes good people do bad things? how do you go from committing one small crime to one big one? does the criminal ever feel justified in his actions? how do internal and external events impinge on what happens? — and provides some answers, albeit limited ones.

It shows how an alienated youth, seemingly well-adjusted and well liked, can become caught up in events greater than himself, events that will changes his life in ways he may never have imagined possible before. And it has a lot to say about guns, including their beauty, their craftsmanship, their fascinating appeal — and the violent purpose for which they are designed.

The Gun was originally published in a Japanese literary magazine and was awarded the Shinchō Prize for new writers in 2002.

1001 books, Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Sudan, Tayeb Salih

‘Season of Migration to the North’ by Tayeb Salih

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classic; 169 pages; 2003. Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies.

How people bridge two diverse cultures, the impact of colonisation on Africa by the British, and the ways in which women are treated in both the East and West, are the main subjects of this Arabic language book, which was first published in 1966 as Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal. Banned in the novelist’s native Sudan for many years, it was translated into English in 1969, named as  “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” by the Arab Literary Academy in 2001 and listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

I read it as part of #DiverseDecember and found myself completely drawn into the story of a Sudanese man,  Mustafa Sa’eed, an intellectual prodigy courted by aristocrats and intellectuals alike, who loses all sense of decorum when he moves to London (after being educated in Cairo)  in the 1920s. After committing a string of appalling crimes and serving a sentence for murder, he returns to the Sudan to lead a quiet, understated life with a wife and two young sons in a remote village by the Nile, in the hope that he can start afresh where no one knows his past history.

But when a young man from the same village returns home after many years living in London and befriends him, Mustafa can’t help but tell him about his exploits in the West. What follows is a no-holds barred confession about a life of sexual decadence, a tale which is, by turns, compelling, shocking — and powerful.

An arrogant man’s tale

The story is narrated by the young unnamed man who befriends Mustafa, but large chunks of it are told in Mustafa’s arrogant and conceited voice. Occasionally we meet other characters — many of whom are distinctive, if slightly two-dimensional — such as Wad Rayyes, the old man with a huge sexual appetite, and Bint Majzoub, an old uninhibited woman who smokes, drinks and swears “like a man”.

The prose style is crisp, clear, concise, but there’s a poetical beauty to it, too. The author is particularly good at scene setting, so you feel very much as if you are there, living in the village on the banks of the Nile:

I wandered off into the narrow winding lanes of the village, my face touched by the cold night breezes that blow in heavy with dew from the north, heavy too with the scent of acacia blossom and animal dung, the scent of earth that has just been irrigated after the thirst of days, and the scent of half-ripe corn cobs and the aroma of lemon trees. The village was as usual silent at that hour of the night except for the puttering of the water pump on the bank, the occasional barking of a dog, and the crowing of a lone cock who presently sensed the arrival of dawn and the answering crow of another.

Compelling read

Season of Migration to the North is one of those rare books that is quick and easy to read but is so ripe with meaning and metaphor that I could never possibly unpick it without reading it several times over. Indeed, I raced through it in a matter of hours, so I am positive much of the subtle nuances about colonisation and the differences between Arab-African and European cultures went over my head. That said, some elements did feel dated: an Arab man wreaking his vengeance on the West by simply sleeping with promiscuous women, for instance, appears relatively tame by today’s standards.

But what did jump out at me was the sexual violence that characterises women’s lives, whether living in the West in the 1920s, or the East in the 1960s, and which runs like a menacing undercurrent through the entire narrative. (Mind you, the line between sexual violence and eroticism does feel blurred in places, and the book, unsurprisingly, has been condemned in the past for being pornographic.)

In fact, the book has a menacing tone throughout, the kind of tone that gets under the skin and leaves the reader feeling slightly uncomfortable, as though you’ve been given a seat at a dining table with the devil. This all-pervasive feeling comes to a head at the climax of the novel, which is rather gruesome and bloody but entirely memorable. This is not a fun read, but an important and powerful one.

Author, Book review, Haruki Murakami, Japan, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sport, USA, Vintage

‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Haruki Murakami

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 180 pages; 2009. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel.

Confession time. I’ve never read anything by Haruki Murakami despite owning quite a lot of his backlist. Furthermore, I’m not a runner, so delving into What I Talk About When I Talk About Running might seem like an unusual choice for me to make. But I received this as a “Secret Santa” gift at my book group earlier in the month, and casting about for something light and easy to read last week, this one filled the gap. I found it surprisingly entertaining.

A memoir about running and writing

The book is essentially a memoir about Murakami’s long affair with long-distance running. At the time he wrote the book in 2007, he’d competed in some 26 marathons, one for every year of his amateur running career, so I suspect the total may now be higher.

Interspersed with this thoughts and philosophy on running, Murakami also shares his thoughts on writing (he became a full-time novelist in 1982 after he sold the jazz bar he owned and managed) and the way the two inform each other.

Marathon running is not a sport for everyone, just as being a novelist isn’t a job for everyone. Nobody ever recommended or even desired that I be a novelist — in fact, some tried to stop me. I had the idea to be one, and that’s what I did. Likewise, a person doesn’t become a runner because someone recommends it. People basically become runners because they’re meant to.

He covers the ups and downs of the sport — the joys and challenges it has brought him, including his struggle to overcome lethargy and the “runner’s blues” — and the kinds of places he has visited to compete in events (he’s a regular competitor in the Boston and New York marathons). It soon becomes clear that he’s a dedicated and focussed runner, intent not on the competitive element but on achieving his own personal goals which revolve mainly around time and distance — and keeping in shape. He appears to be motivated purely by his own inner odometer.

And the qualities that he brings to his running — dedication, focus and endurance — is something that is also mirrored in his writing life:

If I am asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist [after talent], that’s easy too: focus — the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you focus effectively, you’ll  be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else. […]After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance.

The loneliness of the sport also seems to suit him. He says he likes his own company — a good trait if you’re a writer — and isn’t a particularly sociable or extroverted person, so spending a lot of time pounding the pavement by himself, with only the rhythm of his breathing for company, suits him.

Later in the book he covers his growing interest in triathlons and his struggle to come to terms with the challenges of the swimming and cycling legs of those events. I was particularly interested to read about his cycling experiences, seeing as I’m a keen cyclist, and I can’t say I concurred with his view that it was a boring sport — “It’s the same movements repeated over and over” — because at least when you’re on a bike you can take in the scenery and fresh air without killing your feet and knees!

A charming read

All in all, I found What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (the title is a riff on Raymond Carver’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) a charming and rather delightful read, told in a straightforward style, with no literary flourishes or allusions to pretension. It’s all very matter of fact and, at times, painfully honest.

It didn’t exactly make me want to strap my running shoes on, but it did make me think about how exercise — for me it’s long distance walking and cycling — can aid, inspire and inform the creative life. And it has also made me more curious to explore Murakami’s extraordinary backlist of novels…

I read this as part of #DiverseDecember.

5 books, Book lists

5 books to read for Diverse December

5-books-200pixThanks to the power of social media and the efforts of two bloggers — Dan, who blogs at From Inside the Dog, and Naomi, who blogs at The Writes of Woman — this month has been designated #DiverseDecember. This encourages everyone to promote and read books by BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers in order to redress the balance, which tends to favour writers from white backgrounds (and usually from the US or UK).

Having read more about the initiative in this brilliant blog post by Naomi, I began to wonder whether I had an inherent bias against BAME writers, too. Though this blog tries to focus on Australian and Irish authors, I was surprised to see I do, actually, read writers from non-white backgrounds, too, though perhaps not as many as I should.

I thought I would highlight five of my favourites since I began book blogging in 2004. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

Song-for-night ‘Song For Night’ by Chris Abani (2007)

This powerful novella is set in an unspecified African nation. The story is told from the perspective of a child soldier, who is taught to detect unexploded land mines with his bare feet and then disable them with a knife. His vocal chords have been cut, “so that we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams” whenever a fellow solider is blown up by a mine. Song for Night is not a pleasant read, but 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.

Yacobian-building ‘The Yacoubian Building’ by Alaa As Aswan (2004)

Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows Egyptian life in the late 20th century through the eyes of a diverse range of characters, all of whom live in a single apartment block. 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 apartments. This allows the author to show the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.

Half-blood-blues ‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan (2011)

This novel about jazz musicians living in Berlin during the Second World War won the Giller Prize in 2011. It is narrated by Sidney Griffiths, a black bass player from Baltimore who spent his formative years in Berlin during the 1930s and 40s, looking back on his life half a century later. The narrative swings back and forth across time — from Berlin and Paris during the war, and Berlin and Poland 50 years later. It’s a fascinating account of one man’s experiences — his love affairs, his musical rivalries and fierce jealousies, his guilt and much-too-late atonement for one cruel act that he can never take back. It’s a thrilling, adventure-filled read.

The-attack ‘The Attack’ by Yasmina Khadra (2007)

The Attack, set in Israel, is about a suicide bomber. It opens with Dr Amin Jaafie, a surgeon in a Tel Aviv hospital, dealing with the bombed and bloodied victims of a terrorist attack in a downtown pizza restaurant that has killed 19 people. As a naturalised Israeli Arab, Dr Jaafie has worked hard to be respected, admired and accepted by the Jewish culture in which he could so easily be cast as an outsider. A dedicated doctor, married to the woman of his dreams, he socialises in fashionable circles, but now his whole life has been turned on its head. What was it about his wife that made her carry out this despicable act, and what clues did he miss? The book follows his quest to find answers to these questions…

Benang ‘Benang: From the Heart’ by Kim Scott (1999)

This story about Australia’s history of white subjugation of indigenous people was joint winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1999. It is narrated by Harvey, who comes to slowly understand his place in his family line — “the product of a long and considered process” to create a white man from a long line of people with aboriginal blood. This process has been overseen by his grandfather as part of a disturbing scientific experiment in which he has been trying to “breed out” the aboriginal blood in successive generations. His efforts mirror those of the settlements and missions in the early part of the 20th century in which Australia operated a crude system of apartheid designed to separate whites from blacks. This incredibly moving, often challenging, book left me with a giant lump in my throat…

For more inspiration, please do check out my BAME writers tag.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend others by BAME writers? Are you taking part in #DiverseDecember?