Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Michael Ondaatje, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Warlight’ by Michael Ondaatje

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 285 pages; 2018.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is one of those novels that is almost impossible to review because trying to describe what it is about is as difficult as catching cumulous clouds in a butterfly net.

Boiled down to its most basic premise, it’s a story about a son trying to figure out the secrets of his late mother’s life. But it’s also about the shadowy world of espionage and London’s criminal underworld during the 1940s and 1950s.

It’s divided into two parts. The first, set in London immediately after the Second World War, looks at what happens to 14-year-old Nathaniel, the narrator, and his older sister, Rachel, when they are left in the care of a guardian while their parents head to Singapore for a year. The second, set a dozen years later, details Nathaniel’s investigation into his mother’s hidden past following her untimely death: who exactly was she, and what kind of work did she do during the war?

Mystery and intrigue

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.

So begins the story, which is a mix of boys’ own adventure, mystery, intrigue and coming of age, for in the first part of Warlight Nathaniel is given pretty much free rein to do as he likes. When he’s not at school, he’s doing part-time jobs in restaurants and hotels (largely as a kitchen hand), mixing with people much older than himself, and exploring sex with a working-class girl who’s a little older than himself. He also accompanies an older man (a longtime friend of his mother’s) on furtive sailings up and down the Thames on a mussel barge, smuggling greyhounds into the country.

But this exciting new world, dangerous and life-affirming by turn, comes to a head in a dramatic way, and so when the second part opens we meet an older, more reflective Nathaniel, eager to piece together his mother’s story. Now working in London for the security agencies, he has access to high-level secret information. And what he discovers, ephemeral and mysterious as it appears to the reader, allows him to make sense of his upbringing and the people with whom his mother associated.

Not about plot

This is not a plot-driven novel. I’m not even sure it’s a character-driven one — although it does have a vast cast of characters involved in the field of espionage who are all wonderfully drawn. It could be defined as a mystery novel, even though it’s not about a murder and it’s not the least bit suspenseful. (See how I am struggling to describe what this book is about!)

It’s the prose, elegant and restrained, and the voice of the first-person narrator, coolly detached but not without feeling, that gives Warlight its flavour and makes it so highly readable.

The story is moody and elegiac and highly evocative of another time and place, making this possibly the most London-centric novel I’ve ever read, with its vivid descriptions of the streets and buildings and canals and waterways.

That first magical summer of my life we smuggled more than forty-five dogs a week at the height of the racing season, collecting the gun-shy creatures from a dock near Limehouse onto the mussel boat, and riding the river in darkness into the heart of London towards Lower Thames Street.

There’s a vein of melancholy that runs throughout, which is hard to shake off whenever you lift your eyes from the page, and days after having finished this one I can feel the mood of it lingering in my mind.

The story is a powerful one. It’s reflective of the role some ordinary Londoners played in the Second World War and how their actions haunted them and their families long after it was over.

Warlight was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

This is my 11th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

Author, BIPOC 2021, Bitter Lemon Press, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Publisher, Reading Projects, Riku Onda, Setting, TBR 21

‘The Aosawa Murders’ by Riku Onda

Fiction – paperback; Bitter Lemon Press; 346 pages; 2020. Translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts.

The Aosowa Murders by Riku Ondo turns the normal conventions of the crime novel on its head. Featuring multiple voices and multiple time frames, the story does not have a neat ending. It leaves the reader with more questions than answers. I finished it a week ago and I am still trying to process what happened.

Death by poison

The central focus of the story is a devastating mass murder in which 17 people (including six children) are poisoned and die agonising deaths at a family celebration in an impressive villa by the sea. The prime suspect is the family’s beautiful and bewitching blind daughter, Hisako, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill the loved ones who have given her such a comfortable and “normalised” life?

But The Aosowa Murders is not really a whodunnit because it emerges that another suspect — a young courier who delivered the drinks which were laced with poison — confessed to the crime in a suicide note he left behind when he hanged himself.

Instead, this novel is really about the long-lasting impact of such a horrendous crime on those directly affected by it, including the police who carried out the investigation, those who knew the family well (they were prominent doctors and ran a health clinic) and the local community.

It’s told retrospectively, several decades after the crime, and is as much about a young university student, Makiko, a childhood friend of Hisako’s who wrote a best-selling fictionalised account of what happened, as it is about the actual event and its aftermath.

Eye-witness testimonies

The book is structured around a series of testimonies in which the interviewer remains absent, so you are never quite sure what the questions are or who is asking them. This lends a one-sided dimension to each chapter, but this multi-voiced approach allows the reader to put together a narrative in his or her head, joining the dots and solving the crime without anything being spelt out by the author herself.

This makes for a challenging read, but it’s a refreshing take on the crime novel. It’s almost as if you become the detective and with each passing chapter you gather more “evidence”, some of which is pivotal to the crime and some of which is irrelevant — and the fun is trying to determine which is which.

It’s an excellent portrait of contemporary Japan, its manners and morals, but I think the biggest (and most important) question it raises is this: how do you make sense of a terrible crime if you don’t understand the motive behind it?

If you like books that make you think, then The Aosowa Murders is a good one to tackle, but if you prefer your crime stories to be relatively straightforward with all the loose ends tied up by the end, then this is probably not for you.

The Aosawa Murders won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel and was selected by the New York Times as one of the most notable books of 2020. Lizzy liked it too.

This is my 3rd book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year, and it is my 2nd book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here.

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

‘The Kingdom: A Novel’ by Fuminori Nakamura

Fiction – paperback; Soho Crime; 202 pages; 2016. Translated from the Japanese by Kalau Almony.

The Kingdom: A Novel is typical Fuminori Nakamura fare. Morally dubious central character. Tick. The world of the criminal underclass. Tick. Shadowy goings-on. Tick. Themes of alienation and dislocation. Tick. Sexual violence. Tick.

But this dark mix of anger, excitement and paranoia isn’t enough to sustain what is essentially a fairly mediocre plotline. I came away from this novel thinking I’d wasted my time reading it, which is not what I normally feel when I read Nakamura. I’ve read four of his novels now, but this one — his tenth and supposedly a companion piece to his rather thrilling The Thief — was a major disappointment and left a horrible after taste.

Set in Tokyo, it tells the story of Yurika, a woman employed by a secret organisation to trap men in compromising situations so that they can be blackmailed. She does this by posing as a prostitute, getting the “target” alone, usually in a hotel room, then drugging them so she can take off their clothes and take incriminating photographs.

But when she’s approached by a rival organisation to get information on her boss, she begins to play the two sides off each other in a rather dangerous life-or-death game — with mixed results.

An unconvincing heroine

The Kingdom: A Novel is written in the first person from Yurika’s point of view. I found it difficult to accept her as a female character; her mindset, particularly her obsession with masochistic sex, felt too male. And while Nakamura tries to round her out by giving her a sympathetic back story — she grew up in an orphanage and as a young adult loses two people to whom she is closest, the pain of their loss conveyed via flashbacks — the details didn’t feel convincing to me.

There are some distasteful scenes in the book, too, including many references to (and depictions of) rape. In part, it reads like a misogynist’s sexual fantasy, which probably explains why I didn’t like it very much.

This is despite the fact I admire Nakamura’s prose style, free from adjectives and with every word carefully chosen to move the fast-paced plot ever closer to its conclusion. It’s full of recurring motifs — the moon, guns and glittering jewellery — and explores themes of weakness, obsession, religion and survival in an interesting way. But it lacks any light and is so full of sadistic characters it’s hard to recommend this book to anyone other than a hardened reader of Japanese noir.

This is my 2nd book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here. 

Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Megha Majumdar, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, TBR 21

‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 304 pages; 2020.

This was my first book of 2021 and what a great start to a new year of reading it proved to be!

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, is the kind of literary fiction I really admire. It’s got great characters, a suspenseful plot and focuses on some of the key issues of our time — freedom of speech, social justice, social mobility and corruption — without being heavy-handed about it.

And it has an interesting structure that interleaves different points of view into a single multi-layered story.

UK Edition

The dangers of social media

Set in modern-day India, it tells the story of a young woman living in a slum who is trying to make something of herself as a sales clerk in a clothing store.

But when she expresses a provocative opinion on Facebook it lands her in trouble with the law. From one careless, throwaway line — “I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write” — Jivan is accused of helping to blow up a train, a terrorist act that she witnessed but had no part in organising.

And yet, thanks to the court of public opinion and a forced confession, she is arrested, charged and detained. Her lawyer, inadequate and inexperienced, is really in no position to help her.

But there are two people she knows who may be able to come to her rescue: PT Sir, her former gym teacher who has become swept up in right-wing politics and now makes his living being paid as a dubious witness in court cases he knows absolutely nothing about; and Lovely, a hijra (intersex) actress who learnt English from Jivan and  knows that the “explosives” Jivan was accused of carrying were actually books meant for her lessons.

Both characters, whose stories are told in alternate chapters (in gorgeously distinctive voices), are expected to come to Jivan’s defence, but to do so carries a serious risk, for it will call their own reputations into question. Meanwhile, they must dice with a media hungry for sensation, a public eager to condemn the terrorists and a succession of fame-seeking politicians looking to exploit the situation for their own benefit.

Compelling page-turner

A Burning is a propulsive, compelling story, easily read in a sitting or two. It has all the feel of a suspense novel and yet it doesn’t sacrifice detail (or literary merit, for want of a better description) in the pursuit of a page-turning read.

There are big issues here, not least the ways in which social media gives the false illusion that you can say what you want without repercussions. But it also shines a light on social justice in impoverished places where life is cheap, and how ambition and greed can cause collateral damage (and violence) to communities with no means to fight back.

Majumdar presents the justice system, the media and politics in the worst possible light. The setting may be India, but the Dickensian tale told here could apply almost anywhere in the Western world right now. It’s brilliant food for thought.

Lisa from ANZLitlovers has also reviewed it and so has Tony at Tony’s Book World.

This is my 1st book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year. It’s also my 1st book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021.