Harvest of Thorns by Shimmer Chinodya

Harvest of Thorns covers three generations of one family as Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe. The novel opens with Benjamin returning from the bush war, a hero who can no longer be called a rebel. A few days later a pregnant woman, who he intends to make his wife, follows him.

A lot has changed since the war, not just in the country but in Benjamin’s family and as the novel moves through parts two, three and four we learn about his mother and how she met and married his father, we learn about what it was like to run away to war, and are given glimpses of the future.

The story is full of hope, but it is also alive to the painful discrepancies of war, especially a war fought mostly by the very young. Benjamin himself isn’t even eighteen when he goes to join the gorillas. Learning how to become a man, sexually and politically, how to decide whose authority to trust, how to accept responsibility even for the acts he regrets, is something Benjamin has to do as he fights. There are a lot of births – Zimbabwe, adulthood, children – and they all have their thematic as well as their narrative parts to play. This is clever and pleasing but the narrative is also sometimes a little disjointed and disorientating.

My favourite part of the book is when Benjamin’s commander tells a story around a camp fire after a terrible battle in which one of their large camps was bombed and many were killed. The story is a parable telling of how the white man came to Zimbabwe with a smiling face and steadily, stealthily at first, took both land and labour. How they left local people with nothing but ‘a harvest of thorns’ so their only means of survival was to depend upon them.

This is of course the story that gives the novel its title.

What is the country left with when the white men have gone? Thorns. Men who have missed out on schooling, men whose government jobs involved making tea. And Benjamin’s family don’t escape Chinodya’s searing eye: extreme religion, a desire for the comfortable life, to put their heads in the sand, all these faults and more are displayed in this honest look at family life and human beings. The difference is that the harvest is theirs.

Unsentimental, complex and honest, Harvest of Thorns is an intriguing novel whose rough edges thrum with emotion. You will know if this is your sort of book and if it is you won’t be disappointed.

This week I’m reading Melissa Bailey’s second novel, Beyond the Sea.

Love’s Dilemma by Walije Gondwe

Love’s Dilemma is part of the Macmillan Pacesetters series that was extremely popular in Africa from the 1970s-1990s. Though mainly publishing writers from Nigeria, the series encompassed writing from all over Africa becoming extremely popular. These were the books that young educated Africans wanted to read. These books were fun, exciting, topical and unpretentious.

Knowing this, I still didn’t really know what to expect of Love’s Dilemma. I imagined I might get something of an African Mills and Boon, but there is much more to this short novel than that. Love’s Dilemma simply and carefully outlines the difficulties of Towera’s life. She is a young educated woman, with a child and a failed marriage behind her, working as the only woman in The Department of Agriculture. When she meets her new colleague, Luka, a whole new romantic story unravels, one which doesn’t revel in cheesy epithets of desire, but instead creates a cohesive worldview, a snapshot of Malawian society in the 1980s.

Walije Gondwe uses her words carefully and the concrete descriptions are masterfully evocative:

Towera was sitting down under a large tree, with her legs crossed, doing some embroidery, while the labourers were hard at work with their hoes and rakes on the tobacco plots. One of the men, who had been answering the call of nature in the bush a few yards away, came running, still fastening the hooks and buttons on his somewhat overworked short trousers. (p24)

I admit that some of the appeal of this novel for me is a desire to better understand what it feels like to be a Malawian woman – perhaps of the 1990s but I’m quibbling now – and I feel a nostalgia for the place itself, but I really enjoyed the novel and feel sad that we currently see so few African novels making it onto our bookshelves. And while this novel won’t be to everyone’s taste, I found Gondwe’s writing sensually evocative. I enjoyed reading about the food and seeing the small gestures of those we love somehow elevated into significance.

I have ordered Walije Gondwe’s other pacesetter novels and I look forward to reading them.

Next week, to continue the African theme, I’m reading Harvest of Thorns by Shimmer Chinodya.

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

A Death in the Family is the first of a six-volume autobiographical novel, The Struggle. This book is about Knausgaard’s relationship with his father and focuses mainly on his childhood and early adulthood.

I rushed at this novel with a sense of hunger: the great reviews and the general reverence for Knausgaard’s writing were enticing. What I found does excite and inspire me, but it also reminds me of everything I find difficult to swallow about the canon.

Comparing Knausgaard to Proust makes a lot of sense. A Death in the Family tackles the maze of memory, how sensory triggers from the current moment create an insurgence of the past that in turn influences the present. There are passages where the words sing, creating a shared sense of experience, paragraphs which give legitimacy to banal and inappropriate thoughts one might otherwise have been ashamed of. But, and this is a significant but, I feel the constant presence of Knausgaard’s ego with the same distaste in which I feel Proust’s.

There is a chauvinism, a delight in feeling, which almost tips into the sentimental, that overwhelms any proclivity or desire for the other. Other people are considered, indeed thought in depth about, worried over, but for me at least, the writing lacks empathy for anyone other than Knausgaard himself.

Yes, I want to turn the corners of many pages to mark passages that speak to me about the way our world works or that echo my own thoughts, but collectively and as a whole there is a sense of mid-life crisis, a sense of self-importance that I simply can’t ignore. Whether this is a dramatized version of the reality of authorship in general is something I should really ask of myself. However, this self-centered self-aggrandizement is also the reason why the writing is so moving.

The book is a portal into another person’s mind, where Knausgaard’s experience of life is painstakingly recorded and recreated for us to experience alongside him.

It’s a love/hate thing. A mirror of the kind of relationship he has with his father and the kind of relationship I have with literature with a capital ‘L’. How do you acknowledge the father, bare witness to him, battle for equality (if not supremacy) with him, without giving the self an idolatrous dominion? How do you tackle the subjects of death and the desire to force life into some coherent shape without asserting the ego? These are questions I long to solve in my own work and if Knausgaard’s writing is really about the desire to understand the self and its origins he is indeed writing the novel whose insights we would all like to use to unlock our own identities. As a record of what it means to live in privileged Western Europe in the late 1900s and early 2000s, A Death in the Family feels significant regardless of the ego involved.

I will read more of these novels but I will enter them armed with the knowledge that while I admire the writing I can’t always say that I admire the man.

Next week (this week!), I’m reading Love’s Dilemma by Walije Gondwe.

Unthology 7 edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

This is my first collection in the Unthology series and I’m pleased to say that it lives up to its hype. Unthology 7 is a coherent, interesting and challenging collection of short fiction. There will definitely be a story here for you.

You might join recession office workers and obsess over spiders living outside a skyscraper (‘Spiders’ by David Martin). You may enjoy imagining what it would be like to witness your own funeral (‘Green by Roelof Bakker) or kill with homeopathy (‘The Morning Person’ by Adrian Cross). You might like to contemplate the two sides of a love story (‘On the truth and lies of the love story’ by Charlie Hill) or consider how teenage difficulty plays out in later life (‘Open Windows’ by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt and ‘The Harp and the Thorn Tree’ by Amanda Oosthuizen).

I think my favourite story is ‘Free Hardcore’ by Dan Powell. There is a real beauty in how he wields the power of the unspoken and the magic of the image – something the short story can do so effectively – creating a jewel of a story that feels finished and polished but continues to provoke thought.

Overall, there is a tendency to lean towards the flatulent (to quote from ‘Green’ by Roelof Bakker whose story isn’t in the least flatulent itself), but this tendency also means a leaning towards a desire for fresh expression and a longing to ring new meaning from the paltry selection of words at our disposal. It’s the kind of collection that inspires a desire to do some creative writing and that is possibly one of the best things anthologies can do. Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones have put together a cracked collection that encourages me to read more from the authors they’ve selected.

Next week, I’m reading A Death in the Family by Knausgaard.