Zero K by Don DeLillo

Jeffrey’s billionaire father, Ross Lockhart, has asked him to travel to an unknown destination in the desert to witness the passing of his wife Artis. The compound he finds himself in is mostly windowless, its residents hidden behind walls of doors only some of which are real. Strange statues and video installations appear at intervals through the myriad corridors. Nondescript meals appear from hatches. Jeff’s only dining companion is a monk in a stolen habit.

Ross tells his son that he is here to say goodbye to Artis as she is taken from the present and frozen for a future that will cure all her ills and provide her with unending life. Somewhere deep in the heart of the compound there is also a facility for those who chose to enter this stasis before death begins to claim them. Zero K is a road that Ross is being tempted towards, but what does this mean for Jeff? How can he reconcile the thought of an unending life for a man who abandoned him and his mother when he was still a child? What new form of materialism, possession, dominion is this? Continue reading

The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker

The Cauliflower is an extraordinary book. Delving back and forth across time, playing with different points of view and different ways of delivering the narrative, the novel takes its name from an anecdote about Sri Ramakrishna, the great guru of Calcutta, who sees god in everything, even the cauliflower.

The book is about the life of Sri Ramakrishna and his life is as playful as Nicola Barker’s delivery. Surrounding Sri Ramakrishna are an interesting cast of characters, the Rani, her favourite son-in-law, Ramakrishna’s nephews, his wife, his mother, and even briefly Mother Teresa. Continue reading

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye

Three Strong Women, though not always easy to read, is a wonderful novel: psychologically rich, surprising in structure and choice of perspective, experimental and challenging. You could open the book expecting a straightforward narrative about three women and though you do indeed read in detail about three women’s lives, it’s not always in the ways you might expect.

Norah has struggled to forge a life for herself in Paris despite being abandoned by her rich father who left her and her mother and sister when they were small. He went back to Senegal taking, without any discussion, their little brother with him.

Now a lawyer and a parent, the novel follows her return to Dakar in response to her father’s call for help. She is shown to her brother’s room. Where is he? Where is her father’s most recent wife? Why is the house so quiet? Continue reading

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

The Book of Memory is the story of Memory, a Zimbabwean woman attempting to write herself into innocence from her incarceration in Chikurubi prison, Harare, where she awaits the death sentence. She is writing to an American journalist who will share her account with her lawyer in the hope that mitigating circumstances can be found and used to free her.

Memory’s case is particularly interesting because she was condemned for killing a white man, a man from whom she would inherit everything, a man who she believes bought her as a child.

And then there is Memory’s appearance.

Memory is no ordinary Zimbabwean: Memory is an albino, plagued by painful sunburn and cracked skin when she lived in the township as a child, feared by others who presume her cursed or full of witchcraft; a person whose skin confuses people when they see her at a distance; someone who doesn’t quite fit in. Continue reading

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

Amaterasu Takahashi moved to America to forget the decimation of her home town, Nagasaki. She lost her daughter and her grandson in the blast of pikadon.  

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding opens as a badly disfigured man turns up on Amaterasu’s doorstep claiming to be the grandson she thought long dead. If this really is Hideo can her grandson heal the pain and loss of the past? There are many secrets in Amaterasu’s history and with the help of letters from Hideo’s adopted father and the diaries of Amaterasu’s daughter, the family saga slowly unfolds.

This is a page-turning, tear-jerking story with quotations from An English Dictionary of Japanese Culture adding an extra dimension to the tale that also sets the thematic tone for each chapter. A lot of thought and research has clearly gone into the creation of A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding.

Though I found myself crying at the end of the novel, I remain uncertain of the overall effect. The way in which the plot unfolds, the many areas of Japanese life covered by the novel, are impressive and yet there is something that still niggles. There is a sense in which I feel I’m running through a list of central characteristics of Japanese culture and society.

I am well aware of how difficult it is to write about a culture that isn’t one’s own and I certainly would not wish to deter others from embarking on cross-cultural projects – perhaps this is exactly where literature should be trying to go – but there is this feeling of ticking cultural boxes and possibly too great a wish not to offend. However, I also think it would be too easy to decide the problem rests with writing about a different culture because A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is not reductive. Rather, I would suggest the problem may lie in the neatness of the novel: everything is carefully tied up, the message of hope (I’m not spoiling the plot by saying this) realistic but also too easy. I’m not left with enough to mull on after my tears have dried. I think what I’m really saying is that while I admire A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, I’m not its ideal reader. I don’t doubt this novel will hit all the bestseller lists and it deserves to do well, it’s just not for me.

Next week I’m reading The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah.