Dark Neighbourhood by Vanessa Onwuemezi

This collection of poetic stories settle about the mind in a swarm of emotion, feeling and altered consciousness. They have transformative qualities that shed newly refracted light upon our expectations and shift appearances and genres like costumes in a pageant.

I’d like to hear Vanessa Onwuemezi in conversation with Irenosen Okojie. Both writers twist and slip their pens across fresh uses of English that conjure frightening futures and contemporary reals we do our best to avoid seeing.

I think, for me, ‘Dark Neighbourhood’ – about people waiting in a long line to be let through a gate into a place where they imagine life will be good; a dark vision of today and the future – and ‘Green Afternoon’ – about a man from a wealthy neighbourhood who witnesses the death of a young boy on the back steps of his gated, communal garden – speak most to me. They are about the now and what will be and has been. They are both historic and prophetic. Vanessa Onwuemezi is an amazing writer.

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Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

Otto and Xavier are going on a non-honeymoon on a train that is the home of the allusive magician Ava Kapoor. They are to enjoy the train ride but avoid Ava who will inherit millions only if she can pass a sanity test and must not be disturbed.

Of course they do speak to Ava and learn of the conditions of her inheritance and of her benefactor’s son, Prêm. Who is Prêm? Did he ever exist? Ava has never seen him despite others assuring her of his presence. Why could she not see him? What effect would being unseen, even if only by one person, have? Why did Ava, continue to play her theremin to an empty room, even if she did feel a presence there in the emptiness?

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Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, there is no need for me to praise this book. Plenty of people have already written about it and said how much they enjoyed it. For me, it is the invention of this novel that marks it out. It has a calm and rather antiquated feel. The voice of the narrator, writing his careful journal entries, is eloquent and precise. He describes his days with measured detail.

We begin with him in the House, the endless labyrinth of rooms and halls filled with expressive statues that rise up on all sides. These rooms and halls shift with the flow of the tides whose seas ebb and flow throughout the House.

There is only one other living person in the halls – the Other, who calls our narrator Piranesi. There are, however, infinite numbers of fish and birds and plant life. Piranesi mostly lives off seaweed and dries in for use a fuel.

Then the Other tells him someone is coming – an enemy that Piranesi must hide from for fear of being sent mad. From that point on everything changes…

Piranesi is a beautiful exploration of the human spirit and its way of meeting circumstance with either hope and invention or anger and frustration. Observation brings knowledge but it can also breed either hope or despair depending upon one’s personality.

The halls and statues grow coral when they’ve been flooded, or provide shelter and fresh drinking water from the rain. Sometimes walls collapse or become hidden in the shrouds of low-hanging clouds. It’s an intriguing world within which our own finds a silent mirror. The fabric of our reality feels porous, shimmers with the probability of other parallel worlds only a thought away. It’s hard not to be mesmerised by this vision.

If this sounds like your sort of thing, don’t hesitate. A British Borges opens its covers for you to enter into its many paths.

I’ll be reviewing Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi next.

The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

This beautiful book contains all the world of Earthsea that Ursula Le Guin has set down in writing. Complete with prefaces, afterwards, maps, background in the different continents and islands, the volume has everything you might want to know about this magical world of mages, magic, humans and dragons.

It begins with what was published as a novel for young adults, A Wizard of Earthsea, which introduces us to Ged and the world of magic as we follow his life from childhood into young adulthood. He travels from his home of Gont, to Roke and the seat of the great mages where he unleashes something from the darkness that takes a whole series of novels to fully explore.

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Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

I probably should have written this review right after finishing reading Sally Rooney’s latest novel, but I didn’t. I enjoyed devouring the book, reading it pretty much without interruption until it was done. I enjoyed the careful, considered distance of the narrator and the witty dialogue that seemed to take us one step further away from the novelistic concept of being able to read another’s thoughts. This is, however, countered by the inclusion of emails, written very much like letters, that pass between the two central female characters, Alice and Eileen, both in their 30s.

Alice is a novelist struggling with the pressures of fame who is recovering from depression and seriously uncertain about the value of writing, but at the same time eager to defend her art.

Eileen works for a literary magazine and despite being beautiful and super smart, is unable to generate enough self-confidence to write her own work and to control her love life.

Both women have love interests in the book, which take characteristically for Sally Rooney (and realistically) unstraightforward trajectories based on miscommunication and emotional baggage.

In between the dramatic scenes of courtship and friendship are rather tortured debates about politics, class and sex as well as passages of description that question the equivalence of Alice’s boyfriend’s work in a factory with her work at home on a laptop. Power and its misuses, the agency of a middle class literary folk, are all up for debate and there is a self-conscious level of introspection that is both fascinating and occasionally overbearing. 

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The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim

I read The Iraqi Christ by the same author – Hassam Blasim – and translator, Jonathan Wright, some time ago. You can see that review here. Though some of the stories appear in both collections my response to them has changed somewhat. They are still miraculous stories that play with the traditions of expositional storytelling and the magic of the jinn, but their exploration of violence and the workings of fate, predestination, or simply the arbitrary disconcern of the universe, feel more poignant and more painful to me. These are deeply philosophical and political stories that draw particular attention to the plight of those in war, and to refugees, teasing out the complexities of human conflict.

It would feel trite to give summaries of the stories, partly because I’m not sure I would do them justice after just one reading, but partly because you should go and read them for yourselves. I will, however, choose one story to quote from, ‘The Reality and the Record’ in which we listen to the story of a refugee telling his ‘official’ rather than his ‘real’ story to the immigration office. He says he was an ambulance driver in Baghdad who was serially kidnapped and forced, by different groups, to perform in videos, proclaiming a different identity and set of beliefs, which were then posted online to raise the profile and issues of the latest group who had kidnapped him. In his job as an ambulance driver, he had admired his boss whom he called the Professor. 

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Twelve Days in Persia by Vita Sackville-West

I hadn’t read any Vita Sackville-West before and though I knew of her as an intimate friend of Virginia Woolf and Gertude Bell, my expectations of her writing were hazy. Twelve Days in Persia, an account of her journey across the Bakhtiari Mountains in south-west Iran, was a surprise. 

Yes, there are passages that make a modern reader squirm – she spends a fair amount of time being patronising about the Persian peasant – but she also has some beautiful descriptions of the landscape, realistic accounts of the drudgery and pain of travel, and some provoking thoughts. 

She ends the account in the oil-fields belonging to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. She writes,

It seems not irrelevant to wonder whether in the course of centuries the Anglo-Persian oil-fields may not revert to the solitudes of the Bakhtiari hills, while London, Paris and New York lie with the wild flowers blowing over their stones, and fields of corn bend to the breeze for the bread of the population in some distant capital whose name we do not yet know.

p 137 (Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2009, original Hogarth Press, 1928)

It has made me want to read more of her work.

I’ll be reviewing The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim next.

Zeina by Nawal El Saadawi

I’d not read any Nawal El Saadawi before this novel and I was blown away.

Zeina is the illegitimate child of lauded literary critic, Bodour. Bodour became pregnant after falling in love with a revolutionary killed for his beliefs. She abandons their child to the streets and later marries a journalist who uses her social connections for his own gain.

Bodour has another daughter from her marriage, Mageeda, who loves ends up going to school with Zeina briefly. Zeina is laughed at for her background but their music teacher loves her and praises her slender fingers and her natural talent for music. Even after Zeina is expelled, the music teacher continues to teach her.

Eventually, Zeina becomes a famous singer and musician who praises mothers and accepts street children into her band. A woman who wears no make-up or dramatic outfits or jewellery to perform, but who uplifts all who hear her, even great religious men.

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Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

I loved this book. From the banks of the Nile to the courtrooms of London, the story migrates north and back as the narrator investigates the mysterious life of Mustafa Sa’eed.

We first glimpse Mustafa as the narrator does, as a remembered face among the villagers come to welcome the narrator home from England. His face sticks out because not only was he someone the narrator didn’t recognise, he remained silent whilst the others plied him with questions about the habits of westerners. Why was he so silent? When did he come to this small village? How did he come to be welcomed, accepted and even respected in this close-knit community?

Playing with forms of pre-Islamic poetry, teasing us with glimpses of the past of intelligent Mustafa, we circle around and back over Mustafa’s life, examining the opportunities and dangers of a brilliant mind in the face of discrimination and fetishisation. Women are drawn to Mustafa, but what really makes him feel alive? You’ll have to read the novel to find out.

Season of Migration to the North is one of those books that lingers in the mind. We all know what it feels like to come across someone truly remarkable and find ourselves endlessly wondering about their life and how they came to be the way they are. This should be a classic that sits beside The Heart of Darkness or The Great Gatsby. If you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat.

I’ll be reviewing Zeina by Nawal El Saadawi next.

Seesaw by Timothy Ogene

There is so much to love about this book. Delightfully irreverent about academia and the well-meaning liberal, white west, and yet soulfully engaged in the power of literature and communication between individuals, Seesaw made me laugh out loud and want to cry.

Frank Jasper wrote a slim coming of age novel set in a fictionalised version of his hometown of Port Jumbo, Nigeria. Nothing much came of it. He started work in the post office.

Then an American woman finds a copy whilst visiting her daughter in Nigeria and, on the strength of it, invites Frank to apply to a residency programme in America, the Programme for Emerging Writers at William Blake College in Boston.

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