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.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Set across the Gold Coast of Africa and several states in America, Homegoing tells the story of one family as the descendants of two sisters, Effia and Esi, travel back and forth from Ghana. We are given multiple different views of the slave trade and of how heritage, tribe and skin colour affect the choices people make.

It is very easy to fall under the spell of this novel. The storytelling is so compelling and elements of the magical real, that bring ancestral memory to life, weave delightful patterns across so many different lives. Continue reading

A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

I’m delighted to be part of the Blog Tour for the paperback edition of A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf published by Aurum Press and out March 1st. It is one of those books from which you absorb information without realising it. With a forward from Margaret Atwood, it’s a manifesto for female literary friendship.

Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney have been interested in literary female friendship for some time. Not believing that the famous male literary friendships, like Coleridge and Wordsworth or F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, had no female counterparts, A Secret Sisterhood is the culmination of a journey begun in 2014 with Emily and Emma’s Something Rhymed project which celebrates a whole host of different female author pairings. Continue reading

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Asymmetry is a novel of three parts. The first is about a young woman named Alice, an aspiring writer, who has a love affair with the literary giant, Ezra Blazer. It’s set in New York. The second is about an Iraqi-American economist, Amar, held by immigration in Heathrow, London in 2008. The third is the transcript of Ezra Blazer’s appearance on the BBC Radio 4 show ‘Desert Island Discs’. Continue reading

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, trans. by Tim Parks

There is nothing sweet about this novel. Though it is a short and quick read, every word resounds with a silent echo that makes the clean, sharp prose searing and intense.

Set in Switzerland, the narrator speaks of her time at various boarding schools and of one friend at a certain school in particular: Frédérique, a clever, beautiful girl who keeps her distance from the others. The narrator wants Frédérique for her own. Continue reading

Fire on the Mountain by Jean McNeil – Blog Tour and Book Giveaway

Fire on the Mountain is a formidable novel. Like a mountain itself it is daunting and alluring. It stands loudly in the landscape, crying to be made sense of, the air thinner at its summit, more rarified, the winds harsh against it. The writing is searing and fierce, though even the most minutely explored character has a complexity that allows for empathy whether we like them or not. To summarise the novel, is to diminish it because it is about much more than the plot, but I’m going to give you a brief sense anyway (no spoilers you don’t get from the back cover, I promise). Continue reading

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Eighteenth Century London, whores, merchants and mermaids; The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock has them all and knows how to play each part to create a beautiful symphony. The language is rich and unguent. The characters full of emotions and desires.

Sometimes you open a book and feel certain of where it is headed, but The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock takes surprising roads in its exploration of the different strata of London. We follow one young mixed race girl as she rejects notions of a black brotherhood. We are confronted by the anger of shipbuilders not paid properly for their honest work that supports a whole Empire of trade. And we see the scope of women’s lives in the poor and new middle-classes. Continue reading