Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Esch lives with her father and brothers in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. It’s a backwater place where they struggle against poverty: eating eggs from their multiplying chickens, wearing hand-me-downs from each other and friends and stealing what they can’t afford.

Esch’s mother died giving birth to Junior, the little brother she and her eldest brother, Randall, raised. Their father’s often drunk, his odd jobs not bringing in quite enough.

They like to hang out in the pit, where Skeetah, Esch’s other brother, has found a stray dog to raise into a fighter. There’s lots of money to be had from fighting dogs. Continue reading

Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam

Bea and Max are newlyweds with a mission to bring God to Advent Island. Max is the missionary, Bea the wife he saved from despair and destitution and took across the seas into the island jungle.

They had no idea the old missionary, a woman with a gammy leg, a facility for the local languages, and a domineering manner, was still there. When she moves back into the mission house with them, the difficult situation of managing the local interpretation of Christianity – centred around the need to cast out the devil in nightly vigils filled with singing, young women writhing on the ground and screaming as the evil is exorcised, along with holy water sprinkled around evil properties – is made worse by the additional burden of her presence. Continue reading

Hold by Michael Donkor

Belinda is a teenager, working as a housekeeper for Aunty and Uncle in Daban, Kumasi, Ghana. Her Mother needed her to find her own way in the world, away from home, and when this rich pair, not actually related, could take her on, it couldn’t have seemed more perfect.

No one told Belinda that they would be picking up a younger girl, Mary, on the way and that she would have to help train Mary to keep the large house with her. Not only was she saying goodbye to her mother forever, she was also taking on a child as well as a household.

Then Aunty and Uncle’s friends from London come to stay. They are so impressed with Belinda that they ask her to come to London to try and bring some Ghanaian magic into their daughter’s life.

Amma is unhappy and disrespectful. Despite being a model student, Amma’s parents can no longer control or understand her and they need help. They think Belinda can help them.

So now, suddenly, when Belinda has lived with the small curve of Mary in her bed, Mary’s defiant laughter in her ears, her life in her heart, Belinda is called to go away to London and fix another child the same age as herself.

We have chapters from both Belinda and Amma’s perspectives. We live the second generation immigrant experience of Amma and we see London and its people through Belinda’s eyes. Her only real connection to home are telephone calls with Mary who moans about her work and offers surprisingly pertinent advice. Mary consistently grasps at all she can get from life, making her as much an inspiration for Belinda as Belinda is for her.

The novel opens with a funeral leaving death hanging over the narrative, the potential of loss a permanent threat.

This is a very beautiful novel that makes the lives of two young girls, on the cusp of adulthood, into something far richer than a straightforward coming of age tale. Generational battles, cultural clashes, moral and social judgement and confusion all rear their heads across the carefully drawn geographies of South London and Daban. And underneath it all beats a message of kindness: kindness to others, yes, but also kindness to the self. There is an emotional depth to the novel that side steps sentiment with carefully unresolved plot lines and strong characters prepared to go back before they can go forward. I thoroughly enjoyed Hold. It asks more questions than it answers, leaving the reader thinking, questioning others and themselves. I hope Hold gains the notoriety it deserves.

American Innovations by Rivka Galchen

There is a questioning consideration to Rivka Galchen’s prose that reveals a consciousness constantly rethinking, an almost circumlocutory labyrinth of aiming for, and not necessarily expecting to reach, accurate representation, all in a rather tongue-in-cheek, relaxed tone. It’s very addictive. All the stories somehow feel as if they flow from the same place even if the characters and situations are different.

I should have written this review as soon as I finished the collection, but instead I allowed life to get in the way and several weeks later I find it difficult to organise my thoughts and memories coherently, but the first story expresses this circumlocutory striving well. ‘The Lost Order’ is about a married woman who finds herself living at home without a job. Her husband lost his wedding ring and he asks her to find it all while a man has called her assuming she’s the takeaway he orders garlic chicken from. But whose or what order is lost?

The woman’s self-consciousness is evident:

…’on the issue of getting dressed I consistently feel myself wishing that I were a man. I don’t mean that in an ineluctable gender disturbance way, it’s not that; it’s that I think I would have an easier time of choosing an outfit. Though having a body is problematic no matter what. Even for a dog. One summer…’ (p5)

When her husband first asks her to look for the ring, she initially says no.

‘It’s not really a decision, it’s more like a discovery. I’m not going to be a woman hopelessly searching for a wedding ring in a public courtyard. Even if the situation does not in fact carry the metaphorical weight it misleadingly seems to carry. Still no. I had recently seen a photograph of Susan Sontag wearing a bear costume but with a serious expression on her face; you could see that she felt uneasy.’ (p7)

And yet there is metaphorical weight. Just as the prose pretends it isn’t striving for coherence, that these sentences are all a bit of light-hearted fun, so does the character and story present an amusing situation that nonetheless carries the weight of metaphor. This story is about relationships and disappointed expectations on multiple levels. What is it that we are meant to do with our time? What really matters? These are questions that play themselves throughout the collection with the imbalance of gendered expectations a constant theme.

In one story a woman’s furniture walks out on her, in another a woman grows a breast on her lower back and yet all these unlikely, surreal things, feel believable, real, almost mundane; strange things happen, the world is not easily explained or contained. American Innovations is a fun and delightful collection. I thoroughly recommend it.  

Anyone who follows my blog will know that I’ve been rather silent lately. I ended up taking an accidental holiday from the blog. Another couple of posts will follow over the next few days so keep a look out. The next will be on Hold by Michael Donkor.