Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open Water is an intensely powerful novel about being seen; not observed or objectified, but seen in all the ways that make a person what they are. Because of this Open Water is more than a love story – which it is: two black artists meet, become best friends and fall in love. It is also an exploration of vulnerability and honesty, a search for freedom in a white world that sees the black body, and particularly the black male body as a perpetrator of violence, as ignorant and illiterate, as criminal. 

More than anything else I’ve read, Caleb Azumah Nelson explores what it means to feel the inevitable fear brought on by this objectification; the fear that life is survived, not lived, because any day could be the day that your life is cut short by some kind of oppressive act, mostly enacted by the police.

This fear is then compounded by a desire to repress and suppress, a fear mingled with anger, also suppressed. The beautiful central character, a photographer – which intensifies the exploration of image and objectification – even in the act of expressing his fear, anger and depression which pushes the rhythms of his heart off-kilter (more metaphor embodied, trauma literary living in his flesh), has to do so at an awkward distance from himself in the liminal space of the second person. 

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The Push by Ashley Audrain

The Push is a thriller with the complexities and difficulties of motherhood at its heart.

Blythe is writing to her ex-husband, Fox, explaining their lives together and since exploring, in particular, her role as a mother to their children Violet and Sam. Blythe’s history as a daughter haunts her mothering and confuses Fox whose family has always been tight-knit, his relationship with his mother a loving and positive one. 

The focus of Blythe’s narrative is her daughter, Violet. Given her own difficult history with her mother, and in turn her mother’s relationship with her own mother who committed suicide, the story allows rooms for us to question natural mothering instincts and to ask whether Blythe might have been predisposed through nature or nurture, to struggle with the demands of motherhood. And the book is full of these difficult questions about how society views motherhood and how those ideals then torture the lives of individual mothers attempting to embrace them. 

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10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

One of the most exciting things about this novel is its structure. Written from the end of Leila’s life as her consciousness flows from her body, dead and dumped in a rubbish bin in Istanbul, we explore her life through those last conscious moments and then watch as her friends attempt to celebrate her life and release her spirit. 

As a prostitute Leila is one of the undesirables, rejected by her family, and therefore buried in the Cemetery of the Companionless, the proper rites of death left unfinished, her grave marked by a small wooden plaque with a painted number that will undoubtedly soon fade into obscurity.

More than a novel about people pushed to the margins in Istanbul, this is a book that celebrates friendship and puts love above politics, religion and propriety.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and tasting the world and lives of its characters through rich sensory prose. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019, 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World is more than worthy of the time it takes to read those dying embers of consciousness.

I’ll be reviewing The Push by Ashley Audrain next.

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Vesta has moved to a lakeside cabin, once an old girl guide outpost, in the middle of a wood with her new dog, Charlie, after the death of her husband, Walter. The novel begins with her and Charlie on a walk. They discover a note in the undergrowth: 

‘Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.’

Vesta, who is in her 70s, has moved to be free of the constraints of her life with her husband whose undermining and irritatingly gentle misogynist approach to their marriage becomes increasingly clear as the novel progresses. Since her move she has acquired Charlie – something Walter would not have tolerated – and embraced the earth, soil and isolation of her home. She has got muddy, eaten and drunk what she likes and written herself to do lists in which every day is pretty much like the last.

But the note introduces mystery. Who is this Magda? Who killed her? Where is the dead body? Who wrote the note?

Vesta becomes obsessed with uncovering these mysteries, and for want of spoiling the plot, ends up rewriting the world around her in her attempt to review her world through Magda’s eyes.

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Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

I was excited about reading this novel. It felt like it would be the perfect Halloween read and I wasn’t wrong. If you can imagine a world in which a virus has made all animal flesh deadly for humans, our hunger for meat leaves only one option available. No guesses as to what that might be.

Once you’ve separated out your herds, made choices about how to dehumanise the meat – remove its vocal chords, never dress it, bring it up in cages, remove pregnant heads’ limbs to keep them from harming themselves, refer to it euphemistically etc. – there is still no getting away from the look of an arm or torso hanging in a butchers shop, or the desirable curve of a naked male or female; the bestial pretence is wafer thin.

Tender is the Flesh is of course an exploration of monstrosity. Who are the real beasts? No question, it is us.

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How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

The storytelling of this novel is tremendously compelling. Moving between the narratives of three generations of one family and the children whose lives were first changed on the fateful day the village madman stole the car keys belonging to the Pexton oil company representatives, we explore the past and present of this one African village with Thula, a child at the time the novel opens, at its heart.

What fascinates me about the novel is not only how wide-hearted it is, but how clear it is at exposing modern day slavery and exploitation. Personal greed and the power of multinational companies are both to blame. The human condition is a complex one that harbours both sacrifice and selfishness, awareness and denial and we are never allowed to rest in any easy dichotomy of goodness and evil, right and wrong.

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Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon

Fragile Monsters comes with many accolades. Hilary Mantel says it ‘Takes an immediate grip on the reader’s imagination and doesn’t let go’ and I would certainly agree. This is a stunning work of fiction whose ideas and characters really stay with you.

Durga grew up in Malaysia but left to study mathematics in Canada and though she has returned to Kuala Lumpur to teach maths at the university, living closer to her grandmother, Durga’s identity straddles these two places and cultures – forcing mathematics and logic upon the power of storytelling and suggestion (though by no means are these things so easily polarised in the novel).

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