Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Kamila Shamsie, literary fiction, London, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2018.

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is an astute, highly readable and compelling novel about the ways in which familial and patriotic loyalties can be tested when love and politics collide.

Set in modern-day Britain, it’s the first novel I’ve read that has fleshed out what makes young Muslim men become radicalised and join ISIS. It also asks important questions about nationality, citizenship and whether terrorists can ever be reformed after they have fought abroad to create a (failed) Caliphate.

Structured around three siblings

The story is framed around three siblings of Pakistani heritage — twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, and their older sister Isma, who raised them when they became orphaned. Their father, whom they have never known, was a jihadist, famously said to have died en-route to being imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.

Each sibling’s story is told in a separate section so that we come to understand their individual motivations, dreams and fears.

Two additional characters — Karamat Lone, the UK’s outspoken Home Secretary, who is also of Pakistani heritage and a Muslim, and his spoilt young adult son, Eamonn, who becomes sexually involved with Aneeka — also get their own sections.

Airport interrogation

When the book opens we are thrust into the world of an airport interrogation. Isma, finally free of her duty to raise her younger twin siblings, is heading to the US to commence a PhD programme in sociology. She already knows she’s on a watchlist, thanks to her father’s history, so she has been careful not to pack anything that may be interpreted the wrong way, so no Quoran and no family photographs, but the hostility and the sense of injustice is palpable throughout the questioning.

‘Do you consider yourself British?’ the man said.
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.

This sets the scene for the rest of the story, which shows, often in painstaking detail, how British-born Muslims are often regarded — by the media, by authorities, by politicians and by members of the public — as being terrorists or of having terrorist sympathies, and how they must negotiate this world of suspicion, either by lying low or playing along.

Shamsie is very good at highlighting how the public mood, often set by posturing politicians, gives rise to a climate of fear. Lone, the Home Secretary, is the son of immigrants but is, himself, anti-immigrant. On TV he speaks tough about British values and plots to extend his own powers so that he can revoke British citizenship so that it applies to British-born single passport holders only. It is his actions and his words that help fan the paranoia surrounding anyone of the Islamic faith living in Britain.

But the story really hinges on Parvais, the twin brother, who pursues the idea that his father was a hero he’d like to emulate. More by accident than design, he falls in with what we might term “the wrong crowd” and finds himself heading to Syria to join the media arm of ISIS. He tells his twin sister he’s going to Turkey for a holiday so that his “disappearance” doesn’t arouse suspicion. Of course, it’s no plot spoiler to reveal that everyone, including his two sisters, knows what he has done — after he has done it.

Based on a Greek myth

What is perhaps less obvious is the individual reactions to Parvais’ decision. Even Parvais’ own reaction, once the realisation of what he has done sinks in, demonstrates that being young and idealistic is no match for reality and taking responsibility for your actions.

Many reviews of Home Fire make much of the fact that the story is based on the ancient Greek myth of Antigone. If you know that myth, the ending probably won’t surprise you, but I’m woefully uneducated in this regard and found the conclusion quite shocking and profound.

This is a smart, thought-provoking and fearless novel. It was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award and won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review.

2017 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, Hachette Australia, Literary prizes, Maxine Beneba Clarke, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Hate Race’ by Maxine Beneba Clarke

The Hate Race

Non-fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 272 pages; 2016.

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean descent. Her memoir, The Hate Race, tells the story of what it is like to grow up black in white middle-class Australia. It has recently been shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize.

This unflinching account charts Clarke’s experiences at school, where she was routinely bullied for the colour of her skin and where teachers and other people in authority turned a blind eye. “It’s just a bit of teasing,” the school counsellor tells Clarke, who, by the time she was a teenager, had been subjected to endless  “teasing” for almost a decade. The ongoing verbal abuse had manifested itself in a rather alarming physical way: Clarke would scratch her face in her sleep, a psychological attempt to claw her way out of her skin, a form of self-harm that would leave her with nasty facial bruises.

At five and a half, racism had already changed me.
After a while you start to breath it. Another kid’s parents stare over at your family on the first day of school with that look on their faces. You make a mental note to stay away from that kid. When you have to choose working partners in numbers, you discreetly shuffle over to the opposite side of the room. You tell a teacher someone is calling you names. Blackie. Monkey girl. Golliwog. The teacher stares at you, exasperated, as if to say: Do you really expect me to do something about it? The next time you have a grievance, you look for a different teacher. This is how it changes us. This is how we’re altered.

Clarke and her two siblings — an older sister and a younger brother — were born in Australia. Her dad was born in Jamaica but emigrated to the UK in the late 1950s, where he gained a PhD in mathematics. Her mother, from Guyana in the West Indies, was a stage actress living in London. The married couple emigrated to Australia after Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech made them want to live somewhere more welcoming. They chose Australia on the basis Clarke’s dad had worked alongside a young Australian couple at Nottingham University who had recently returned home.

But from the get-go Clarke admits that her family were the only black people in the community and were regarded with a mixture of fascination and suspicion. It is only when Clarke goes to school and learns about Australian aboriginals that she realises the country has a long-established black community that has been usurped (and often massacred) by the whites.

Every day racism

A large part of the book documents Clarke’s experience of casual and not-so-casual racism, mainly in the classroom but also out in the real world, where less talented peers were often granted privileges for which she was overlooked.

In one instance, Clarke relates the story of how she missed out on winning a top award for a public speaking competition. The prize went to a less confident white girl whose father was greatly respected within the community. The father, to his credit, tells Clarke that she was the best speaker in the room — but he does nothing to change the outcome.

That’s one of the messages that runs throughout this story: that standing on the sidelines and saying nothing when wrong is being done makes you complicit in the act. This realisation comes early to Clarke, when her and her younger brother are confronted on their new bikes by a gang who call them names and start throwing stones at them. Clarke’s friends don’t help or defend them — they simply run away:

But the scene at the bike park just kept looping in my head. Her silence. The way they’d suddenly disappeared. I knew they were scared. I knew they were just kids. But so were we. My friend’s silence hurt more than the names we’d been called — more than seeing my brother’s bloody, grazed knee.

While The Hate Race is essentially a collection of anecdotes from Clarke’s childhood, all told in an entertaining and forthright style (and not without a smidgen of humour to lighten the despair), this catalogue of abuse makes for a damning indictment on Australian society in the 1980s and 1990s. Is it any better now, I wonder?

In her acknowledgements, Clarke states that she loves Australia but believes people could be kinder to one another:

I wrote this book because I believe stories like these need to be written into Australian letters. Stories like mine need to be heard, and seen, both by those outside of them and those with similar tales. I wanted to show the lasting impact of living in a brown body in Australia in the eighties and nineties on one child. I want to show the extreme toll that casual, overt and institutionalised racism can take: the way it erodes us all.

This is my third book for #AWW2017.

If you liked this, you might also like:

  • Talking to my Country by Stan Grant: a heartrending account of what it is like to be an indigenous person in Australia.
  • Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (not reviewed on this site, but I read it in 2014): an eye-opening read about racism in sport.
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, Books in translation, Fiction, holocaust, literary fiction, Merethe Lindstrøm, Norway, Other Press

‘Days in the History of Silence’ by Merethe Lindstrøm

Days_in_the_history_of_silence

Fiction – paperback; Other Press; 224 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce.

A couple of wet and wild Fridays ago I managed to escape the office an hour early and treated myself to a little browse in Daunt Books on Cheapside. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but for some reason I was drawn to Merethe Lindstrøm’s Days in the History of Silence and kept picking it up.

I had never heard of the author, nor the book, but I decided I had to buy it. There was something about it which suited my mood and the mood of the weather — cold, damp, melancholic. As it turns out, it proved to be a rather morose but elegant and thought-provoking read, perfect for a rainy weekend.

A quiet life

The story is about a Norwegian couple, Eva and Simon, who are living quiet lives in retirement — he was a physician, she was a high school teacher. But this is no ordinary couple. They have spent their entire married life together keeping secrets from their children — three daughters, who are now grown up with families of their own.

The first is that Eva had a child out of wedlock before she met and married Simon —  she gave her son up for adoption when he was six months old and has never seen him since, although she has often thought about him and once tried to track him down (secretly, of course).

The second is that Simon is a Jew from Eastern Europe, whose family went into hiding when the Nazis came to power. He was the sole survivor of the Holocaust — everyone else he knew perished in the extermination camps — but he later discovered that he had a cousin living in Berlin, which revived traumatic memories and plunged him into a severe depression.

Now, in their later lives, Eva and Simon have another secret to keep: they have dismissed the home help they hired (under pressure from their daughters) for reasons they don’t wish to discuss.

Growing old

The story is narrated by Eva, so that we only ever hear her side of events, but it is clear she loves Simon very much and that she is worried about him — he has recently become incredibly reticent and is showing signs of dementia.

His silence came gradually over the course of a few months, half a year. He might say thanks for the meal or bye. He has become as formal as a hotel guest, seemingly as frosty as a random passenger you bump into on a bus. Only now and again do I see him standing gazing out the window or smiling at something he is reading or watching on television, and I think he is back. As though it really is a journey he has embarked upon. But if I ask what he is watching, what is amusing, he just looks at me uncomprehendingly. The physician, one of his junior colleagues, say he has quite simply become old. The solution, for of course there are solutions to situations like this, why should we consult a physician otherwise, is a centre for the elderly, a day care centre where Simon spends time twice a week.

Now the daughters are putting pressure on Eva to consider putting him in a home, something she tries to ignore for as long as possible. Meanwhile, she finds herself mourning the loss of Marija, the home help, whom she treated as a substitute daughter. All of this forces her to think about her life and her marriage, episodes of which are recalled flashback style in prose that is both elegant and incisive.

Failure to deal with the past

So, while the book is essentially about marriage and family — in particular, what it is to lose family members, whether by giving them up for adoption or having them die in the Holocaust — it’s also a heartfelt and moving treatise on growing old and what happens when we suppress memories or fail to talk about sensitive subjects for such a long time.

Admittedly, it isn’t a particularly cheerful read, but it’s an intimate portrait of an elderly woman grappling with her past and her future, trying to do the right thing for her own sake and the sake of her husband. I found it a highly focused and intelligent read, brimful of humanity, wisdom and psychological insight. It’s infused with a gentle melancholia and leaves one aching to be upfront and transparent with the ones you love.

Days in the History of Silence won the Norwegian Critics’ Prize for Literature in 2011 and the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2012.

Australia, Author, Book review, Craig Silvey, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Windmill Books

‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey

Jasper_jones

Fiction – paperback; Windmill Books; 304 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Oh dear. I’ve read a string of rather mediocre books recently and, sadly, this one falls into that category too.

Jasper Jones has only just been published in the UK, but it’s been out in Australia for six months or so and garnered plenty of critical and commercial acclaim. Indeed it’s been named on this year’s shortlist of Australia’s prestigious fiction prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, which should give some indication of its literary merit. However, in my view, it’s far from being anything other than fairly ordinary.

The book is set in a Western Australian mining town in the 1960s in the summer which opens with Doug Walters’ test cricket debut, in which he scored a century against England, and the disappearance of the Beaumont children at Glenelg Beach on Australia Day in 1966. In the six weeks or so between these two pivotal events in Australian history, 13-year-old Charlie Buckton gets caught up in a pivotal event of his own.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say he gets carolled by the town’s teenage outcast, Jasper Jones, into hiding the body of a girl who has been found hanging from a tree. Jasper, who is half Aboriginal and likes a whisky or two, is such a bad boy he believes that he will be blamed for the girl’s death, hence the desperate need to get rid of the “evidence”. Why Charlie gets roped into it is never made entirely clear, but it sets up the premise for the rest of the book in which Charlie’s summer is plagued by the very real fear that his involvement in the crime will be discovered.

I suppose you could call this a coming-of-age story, because it charts Charlie’s last not-quite carefree summer as a child on the cusp of becoming an adolescent. He spends most of his time hanging out with his friend, Jeffrey Lu, falling in love with Eliza Wishart, and avoiding the wrath of his mother.

But while Silvey paints a convincing portrait of a teenage boy coming to terms with his loss of innocence, he is far less convincing on so many other fronts. The prose style is overly verbose, to the point of being over-written, and the broad brush stroke references to racism in a small town (as a consequence of the Vietnam war), just seem trite. (I’m reminded of Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand, which referred to asylum seekers in Britain in a similar manner.) And it doesn’t help that Charlie and Jeffrey feel too contemporary to be living in the mid 1960s. I mean, what kids back then made jokes about “coming out”? I’m not even sure that phrase was in use in 1965 (although I’m willing to be corrected).

I’m slightly puzzled as to why this book has received so many glowing reviews. Yes, it’s a nice story and there’s a real urgency to the first couple of chapters. Yes, the camaraderie and banter between Charlie and Jeffrey is deliciously funny if somewhat cheesy and peurile. And yes, there’s a stand-out description of a local cricket match in which Jeffrey plays a star role.

But on the whole I found the book slightly wearisome and most of the scenes felt forced and contrived. It’s almost like Silvey modelled his style on Bryce Courtenay after watching reruns of the Wonder Years. Throwing in a few topical issues, such as racism, just hammers home the point that this book is simply trying too hard on so many different levels. What were the Miles Franklin judges thinking?

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Grove Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’ by Richard Flanagan

Soundof

Fiction – paperback; Grove Press; 425 pages; 1997.

I seem to be on a roll with Australian books. This one, my third in a matter of weeks, is by Richard Flanagan, who first came to international prominence with Gould’s Book of Fish, which I read several years ago and loved very much. The book went on to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2002.

Prior to this Flanagan had written two other novels: Death of a River Guide, in 1994, and The Sound of One Hand Clapping, in 1997. Like Gould’s Book of Fish, both are set in Tasmania, an island state of Australia, where the author resides.

At its most basic level The Sound of One Hand Clapping is about the strained relationship between a father and daughter, but it is far more complicated than that, touching on a wide range of issues including poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence and wartime atrocities, all set within the social and historical context of Australia’s immigrant past.

This is a book that possesses a strangely heady mix of bleakness and despair, tempered by moments of clarity and joy. Initially I wrestled with the writing style, because Flanagan is prone to overly-long sentences that sometimes so twist and bend out of shape you feel like you’re riding a rollercoaster:

In that long Autumn of 1959, when elsewhere the world was sensing change so big and hard in its coming that it was like the trembling of the earth announcing the arrival of a yet to be seen locomotive, in that month of April in the city of Hobart, nothing much looked like it could ever change around a town that had grown used to never being anything but the arse end of everything: mean, hard and dirty, where civic ambition meant buying up old colonial buildings and bulldozing them quick and covering the dust promptly with asphalt for cars most people were yet to own, where town pride meant tossing any unlucky ferro found lying in the park into the can, and where a sense of community equated with calling anybody with skin darker than fair a boong bastard unless he worse snappy clothes in which case he was a filthy wog bastard — in that month of April when the cold slowly began its winter’s journey, spreading its way down over weeks from the mountain’s steel-blue flanks, on an early Saturday morning, an FJ was wending its way through the scummy back streets of north Hobart to the home of Umberto Picotti.

And it can be hard to get a foothold on the essence of the story when the narrative is non-linear, shunting backwards and forwards in time, and told from two different perspectives.

But in many ways this is what makes The Sound of One Hand Clapping such a wonderfully rich and beguiling read. Hypnotic and unbearably sad in places, it’s a very human tale about two people locked together by a shared past who struggle to rise above the pain of their circumstances.

The story begins in 1954 when Slovenian couple Bojan and Maria Buloh, both scarred by the horrors of the Second World War, immigrate to Australia. Bojan, along with hundreds of other European immigrants, finds work as a labourer on a construction project to build a massive hydroelectric dam in the rugged Tasmanian highlands. Here the weather is harsh and living conditions primitive. One stormy evening Maria packs her bags and leaves her husband and three-year-old daughter Sonja behind. She is never seen alive again.

What enfolds over the next 35 years is essentially the nub of this compelling novel. Bojan drowns his grief in drink and struggles to make a decent life for his daughter. Sonja, unbearably miserable, eventually flees to the mainland. It is only when she is about to become a mother herself that she decides to re-establish contact, returning to Tasmania to make amends with her now elderly father. Her life’s story is then told in a series of flashbacks intercut with chapters from Bojan’s point of view.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a book about new beginnings that shatters the myth of Australia as the “lucky country”. It does not shy away from presenting white Australians as uncouth, uncultured and racist at a period in the country’s history at which immigration was running at an all-time high. For that reason alone, it is a refreshing — and challenging — read.

This critically acclaimed novel won the 1998 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Best Novel, the 1999 ABA Australian Book of the Year Prize and was shortlisted for the 1998 Miles Franklin Award. It was made into a film directed by Richard Flanagan in 1998.