How do you write about a people whose heritage is not your own when their issues are so pressing and require further dissemination and discussion? How do you relate across the barriers of race and privilege? These are some of the issues that Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams grapple with as they explore the history of the island of Diego Garcia, part of the Chagos Islands, and its people, the Chagossians, who were forced from their home by the British in 1973.
It’s a collaborative work that investigates how literature can interrogate history and political crime and it works especially well in this context in which the British and the Americans collaborated in an acknowledged fiction of denial that any people ever lived on Chagos so that their plans for military advantage in the Indian Ocean could be implemented.
This is the issue that Damaris and Oliver Pablo, two writer friends in Edinburgh in 2014, become obsessed with after meeting a poet called Diego, named after the lost island of his people. Oliver has just lost his brother to suicide. The story of Oliver and Damaris’ sadness touches, empathises with Deigo’s sadness, or sagren, the Chagos word for a sadness so deep it leads to death.
There are simply so many ideas and forms of writing in this novel that are exciting to read. There is the idea of ‘fictive criticism’ that Damaris comes up with, or the idea that Oliver’s refusal to write is a kind of refusal of whiteness, the idea that their writing is a kind of anti-literature, that seeking new forms is the most urgent kind of non essential work that anyone can do, that solidarity requires writing outside of the self, that any form of radical writing requires ‘writing with failure’ (quotation from poet, Saradha Soobrayen).
This is a novel that shines with the multi-faceted brilliance of the blood diamond: it is beautiful and filled with sacrifice, daring and horror. The ghosts of the Chagossians, haunt the light of the diamond facets, crying out for justice that is yet to be theirs.
I’ll be going back and back to this book. It is inspirational.
I’ll be reviewing We That Are Young by Preti Taneja next.
This is a fantastic book. The protagonist, Ky Tran is a character desperate to fit in, who believes hard work will somehow help her achieve her dreams no matter the odds.
It’s easy to feel sympathy for Ky. A daughter of immigrants from Vietnam, she’s worked hard to earn her internship at the Herald Sun in Melbourne, and continues to push herself in ways none of her colleagues do. But then she gets a call from home that she initially ignores. Her parents usually ring to ask her something stupid and she’s in no hurry to go back to Cabramatta, the poor and crime-ridden area of Sydney she grew up in.
Then she listens to the call…
Her brother was killed at a restaurant on the night of his high school graduation. Ky had persuaded her parents to let him go out.
In a desperate attempt to find out what happened that night, and why her well-behaved, clever, brother was killed, Ky is forced to investigate the complexities of Cabramatta and the realities of her own past in ways she has thus far managed to avoid. Racism, addiction, poverty and the hardships refugee families face, slowly unstitch her approach to her parents, her brother, and her childhood friend, Minnie, with whom she fell out all those years ago when she started hanging out with the naughty crowd.
It’s one of those books that makes you see things afresh. It’s a gripping, hard-hitting, and thoroughly necessary story not just of Sydney in the 1990s, but for today. I definitely recommend this novel and look forward to reading what Tracey Lien writes next.
I’ll be reviewing Diego Garcia by Natasha Soobramanien & Luke Williams next.
I was excited about reading The Bitch by Pilar Quintana, translated by Lisa Dillman. So many people had told me about it.
It begins with the story of a dead mother dog, a bitch poisoned and buried in the sand whose puppies will likely not survive without her. Damaris takes one of these puppies for herself and slowly over the weeks other puppies, given to different homes, die off. Damaris’ puppy stays alive.
The Bitch is one of those books that isn’t about a thriller-like plot, but instead sharply focuses on the pressures that weigh on Damaris like the oppressive heat of summer. Orphaned, the child who was playing with the local rich boy when he drowned at sea, barren and desperately unhappy, Damaris forges on, trying her best to care for those around her and her puppy who is like the child she never had. But is a mother’s love unconditional, or enough to calm wayward children? What can true love give another? Is there ever enough to assuage the relentless onslaught of living?
As I was reading, I felt a little disappointment given how much praise had been given to the novel, but as it lingers in my mind I appreciate it more and more. The novel leaves a taste in the mouth, a bitter tang of iron and sweat that makes me suck at my cheeks and long for a glass of water. It’s a feeling of being in a small, hot room, unable to escape. It’s excellent.
I’ll be reviewing All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lieu next.
When Anders wakes up one morning to discover that he has changed colour overnight and now has brown skin, his transformation is the beginning of many such changes across town.
At first, there are struggles to accept these changes, especially as some old friends, colleagues and family do not always recognise those who have changed. People are sometimes afraid to go to work or even leave the house. There is violence, riots, unrest.
But what begins as something that deeply disturbs Anders, turns into a book that is mostly quiet, that acknowledges the things that have a greater impact than surface skin colour.
Anders was drifting away from his on and off again girlfriend, Orna. The change brings them closer as he is vulnerable in front of her.
Anders had a bad relationship with his father and didn’t even know he was sick until he ran to him to escape racist violence. He ends up tending his father in his illness, watching the last white man of the town die.
Of course Anders and the community are forced to face the inherent racism in their town and their families, but face it they do. The radical nature of this book is that the violence doesn’t continue to escalate, instead the radical idea of acceptance is calmly presented as the probable outcome of the disappearance of white people. In the end the new generation don’t care to know about a past in which their relatives were once white.
It’s a surprising and fascinating book that will certainly hit headlines.
I’ll be reviewing The Bitch by Pilar Quintana next.
seven steeples is a striking book. A novel of landscape and season that follows the shifts in hedgerow with poetical finesse, describing two people who leave behind a life of others, slowly enmeshing their lives in a solitude explored from the outside in. Through the objects and shifts in flora and fauna, the rubbish of tourists and hearty greetings of the local farmer, we become intimate with their isolation, their patterns of behaviour. It’s mesmerising.
I’m not going to say a whole lot more about the book. What really draws one in is the beauty of the writing because the dreamlike distance of the characters is both enticing and disconcerting. There is an intimacy to it. The way life can pass by with little happening, with little ‘achievement’ as the natural world continues to turn. It has certainly made me want to read her other work.
I also have a confession to make. I’ve struggled to keep up with the blog during my PhD so what follows will be short reviews summarising the books I’ve read and haven’t reviewed immediately after reading. For this, many apologies. I’ll be reviewing: The Bitch by Pilar Quintana, All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien and Diego Garcia by Natasha Soobramanien & Luke Williams.
Charco Press does it again. I have a bit of an obsession with Latin American literature at the moment and hadn’t read any of Selva Almada’s work yet. This was a fantastic place to start.
Two young men, Pájaro Tamai and Marciano Miranda, lie dying amidst the dry grass and rubbish of a local recreation site currently being used by the fairground. Two men whose fathers were enemies. Two men who, briefly, were best friends as children and leant to become enemies through the prejudice of their fathers.
Both men are brickmakers and both are visited by their dead or missing fathers in their last minutes as we learn the history of their short lives and the feud between them, until they finally collapse. Masculinity comes under scrutiny in this lyrical and visceral tale in which love comes with costs.
It’s a beautifully written and translated (by Annie McDermott) book and I can’t wait to read more of Almada’s work. I’m a huge fan of Charco Press. The commissioning editors have excellent taste, the translators are top notch and I would be impoverished without their endeavours to bring Latin American contemporary writing to English readers. Thank you Charco Press and if you haven’t, buy one of their books now.
I’ll be reviewing Seven Steeples by Sara Baume next.
Three university friends, Zainab, Funmi and Enitan, meet all together for the first time in thirty years at the wedding of Funmi’s daughter, Destiny. Though the friends have maintained their friendship through WhatsApp and email, the complications of busy lives have kept them from all meeting in person.
Enitan has been living in New York after eloping with a white man, hasn’t spent much time back in Nigeria, and is returning with news of her impending divorce and her daughter, with whom she has a fractious relationship. Zainab is caring for a sick husband and her four sons and is exhausted and no longer financially comfortable. Funmi is living in luxury thanks to her rich husband and his undoubtedly shady business deals, and is more concerned with how things look than how her daughter feels.
1518, in and around Strasbourg, one starving, desperate woman starts to dance in the market square. It’s not long before others join her.
In the meantime, Lisbet, mistress of the bees on a farm outside the city, is waiting for her sister, a woman she has never met, to return from her punishment in the mountains. No one has told her why Agnethe was sent away, not even Lisbet’s best friend Ida.
This is a fascinating book exploring the work of Harold Gillies, a pioneer in the medicine and art of plastic surgery, developing in response to the horrors of the industrialised war of World War I.
New weapons led to facial injuries rarely seen before, certainly not on this scale, and this required new practice to provide soldiers and veterans with a chance, not only to eat and close eyelids, but also to live with themselves. Facial injuries weren’t viewed with the same level of heroism as other forms of injury and often led to depression and social ostracism. The bloody toll of WWI is recounted alongside the professional lives of Gillies and others working to heal the most taboo of wounds that turned men into monsters when the real monster was war itself.
I can’t say this book is enjoyable to read, but it is a fabulous introduction to a truly fascinating area of surgery and provides a different perspective on the Great War and its legacies.
I was meant to be reviewing Reverse Engineering from Scratch Books and I will get on to that soon. I’ve found the blog harder to maintain since working on the PhD but you have reviews of The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Dele Weds Destiny by Tomi Obaro to look forward to very soon.
Set in and around Bannin Bay in Western Australia in the late 1800s, Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter follows the journey of young Eliza Brightwell as she goes in search of her father who disappeared from his pearling vessel the night before he was due back on land.
Eliza came with her family to Bannin Bay when she was still a child. Her father came to make his fortune. A kind man, he encourages her to investigate the new land they live in and arranged for Eliza to learn the land and creatures from a native man now accused of her father’s murder.
Is her father really dead? Can any pearler truly be kind? Who can she trust in this hard, hot world?