All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our Names is a powerful novel set in the 1970s in Uganda and Midwest America. Narrated by a male African voice whose first given name is never revealed, and a white American social worker, Helen, the novel explores one man’s experience as he moves through different continents finding friendship and love in people with whom he has no genetic kinship.

The male voice speaks of Isaac, his revolutionary friend of the hungry classes who embroils him in war and then helps him escape. The female voice speaks of another Isaac, a man with a borrowed name who has been given his friend’s escape route in the form of a student’s visa to America.

What I like most about All Our Names is the eloquence of the unspoken. The narrative and the style both opt for sparsity creating a novel whose message navigates difficult boundaries through fear’s common ground. Blending in is what keeps you alive but everyone should have the right to stand out, to own the names of their life’s journey. My paltry attempt at summarising these themes shows why it is a good thing for the novel to avoid these crass generalisations.

Just before the middle of the book, our unnamed narrator recounts a story that his father told him as a child about a city that was kept alive by the dreams of its citizens. At first it was an honour to dream of their house, their street, all the municipal buildings, the roads and railways, but as time passed more and more citizens grew tired of always dreaming of the same things. Finally, one man stands up and says he will take away the citizens suffering by doing all their city dreaming for them. Thinking they are now free, they dream all manner of wonders only slowly to discover their streets and shops, the people themselves are shifting and disappearing under this one man’s control. ‘Those who tried to dream of the city again could see only their house or their street as it looked years ago, but that wasn’t dreaming, it was only remembering, and in a world where seeing was power, nostalgia meant nothing.’ (p131)

Something about this dream speaks to one of the problems at the heart of the novel: dreaming is central to change and plodding behind a chosen course without question, without truly seeing the path you are on, will lead you nowhere you want to go. In other words, thinking you are free is one of life’s greatest shackles. Something that often comes to mind when I’m encouraged, yet again, to get a credit card because you need to be in debt before you can be free to borrow. In the name of freedom other countries and peoples have been ravaged and it is the cruelty of power, set against friendship and love, set against personal safety, that this novel seeks to discuss. When you read a novel and feel as if a sharply nailed grasp is constricting the beats of your heart, you know you are reading something challenging, something that speaks directly to you and questions your integrity. I wish I could write something even a little like it.

It doesn’t escape my notice that the American lover and narrator Helen has the name that launched a thousand ships. Will she go back home or will she stay with the newly named Isaac? It’s an ending we aren’t told but need to imagine in our own minds.

Next week I’m reading The Last Lover by Can Xue.

White Hunger by Aki Ollikaine

White Hunger is about the famine in 1867 in Finland and looks at the lives of two very different families – one poor and one rich – whose paths cross and enmesh. The Senator, based on the finance minister of the time whose stringent policies did nothing but provoke the crisis, also has a voice.

I was expecting to love this novel. It has won many literary prizes and has a theme I am usually drawn to. However, I was somehow, like many of the characters within its pages, left in the cold. For the first time in an age of reading translated works, I wondered if it was the translation I was struggling with. Austere prose is one thing, but the novel seemed full of general platitudes about the baseness of man reduced by hunger that did nothing to set my literary desires aflame. I was disappointed. It is nothing new to read of rich people making unfair decisions about poor people. It is nothing new to see poor people turn thief in the face of death. Elevating this into a narrative that forces new neural pathways, that challenges the reader to think differently about poverty and hunger, is what books like this should be doing and whether it was the translation (from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah) or the novel itself, I was disappointingly taken nowhere new.

I say disappointingly because as well as the praise I read for the novel, I also love the publisher’s, Peirene’s, aims and the causes they support. Everything about this book makes me want to love it. And still, I remain unconvinced, unmoved by the image of a boy watching his mother’s dead body slowly shrouded by a blanket of snow. This lack of emotional response comes in a week when I was lucky enough to see the birth of my friend’s beautiful baby son.

I won’t say that you will not enjoy this novel. It is compelling enough. I only wish I could read it in Finnish. Then I would know for sure where my frustrations lie, with the novel or the translation.

I will read Aki Ollikainen’s next novel. There is the seed of something promising here, but more in hope that anticipation.

Next week I’m reading All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu and mulling over the joys of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist.

Terry Pratchett

I’m about to sit down and post about the book I read this week but I can’t blog without mentioning Terry Pratchett who died yesterday, Thursday 12th March 2015. I’ve been heartened to see how many writers have wanted to make known their sorrow over his death and their love of his work. Even if the literary establishment doesn’t recognise him other writers (and of course the public) do because this was a man who knew how to bend your reading ear and tell you a story. This was a man who was never pretentious but who understood and knew how to communicate the strange predicament of being human. Like all brilliant writers his fantasies come closer to the truth than any recordings of fact because he knew how to turn philosophical thought into narrative in such a way that most readers weren’t even aware he was doing it. To my mind that is the work of an artist. I’m going to miss having new works of his to look forward to.

Neverhome by Laird Hunt

Neverhome is a quick and engrossing read set in the American Civil War about a woman who goes to fight in place of her husband. Written in precisely chosen, but simple and colloquial language, Constance’s account is remarkably open and painfully honest; such clear, concise and characterful writing is an unusual treat. There is no sense of an unreliable narrator. This story is raw and well balanced, perhaps almost too well balanced.

I could write a lot more about how the story develops but I would spoil it. I will mention one of my favourite images though and that is of a greenhouse made of portrait glass. Each pane of glass has the image of a soldier or sweetheart printed upon it, slowing fading in the bright sunlight, casting ghostly shadows upon the people and plants within.

I’m not sure I would rank this as a book that will stand among my favourites of all time, but Neverhome is a real story lover’s story, a tale that one could imagine being told by a fireside, pipe and brandy in hand, an intimate account of the ravages of war, the strength of women and the endurable nature of the human race. It would be hard to read this book and not enjoy it.

Next week I’m reading White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen.

The Last Novel by David Markson

Reading The Last Novel is like taking small, deliciously savoured, sips from the most potent cocktail you can think of. The narrator or Novelist, as he calls himself, calls it ‘Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage’ (p8) but that doesn’t feel entirely true. Made up of remembered facts, anecdotes, quotations and the occasional fragment of the Novelist’s experience, the novel is indeed collage-like but like many collages, it is one in which wider pictures emerge from precisely placed and chosen samples: the history of human tolerance, or the lack of it; the story of the generally impoverished or misunderstood artist; a feeling of isolation in the midst of voices long dead, be they friends or works of art.

There were plenty of times when the knowledge revealed by the text reminded me of my own ignorance, but I didn’t feel preached to or looked down upon, it was more like I was being offered an avenue for future exploration. To give you a flavour, here are a few of my favourite sips:

‘It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.                                                                                                 Said Gertrude Stein.’ (p7)

‘The imagination will not perform until it has been flooded by a vast torrent of reading. Announced Petronius.’ (p26)

‘I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems; it’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.   Quoth Philip Larkin.’ (p49)

‘Thinking with someone else’s brain.                                                        Schopenhauer called reading.’ (p67)

‘Reality is under no obligation to be interesting.                                                      Said Borges.’ (p139)

‘The greatest kindness we can show some of the authors of our youth is not to reread them.                                                                                                                      Said François Mauriac.’ (p160)

‘I never saw an ugly thing in my life.                                                                        Said Constable.’ (p165)

I’ll find new favourites in another reading and I’m sure you would find your own. The Last Novel is a book you want to keep on dipping back into. If you feel the need to read something that refreshes the mental palette, then this is the novel for you.

Next week I’ll be reading Neverhome by Laird Hunt.