The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Salmon Rushdie calls the novel ‘Extraordinary, ambitious, evocative, dazzling’ and I agree that The Old Drift is all of these things. The host of characters from English, Italian, Indian and African, like tributaries to the giant Zambezi, all flow into one family as the novel takes us from the colonial past of Victoria Falls and the creation of the Kariba Dam, into the future when new technologies merge with age-old biology to create a buzzing humming chorus to an exploration of the birth and establishment of Zambia.

The Old Drift is brimming with the politics of colonialism and its imperial capitalist hangover, but it is also alive with story and filled with characters and gods of multiple traditions. Myth and science fiction play together. One Italian, Sibilla is covered in hair so thick and fast growing she must cover herself and shave her face several times a day. English Agnes is blind and falls in love with a black man before she even knows the colour of his skin, but sometimes her skin seems to flicker as if covered with the many eyes of Argus. And there is the chorus of course, the buzzing and seeming malarial mosquitoes that swarm and carry disease, that later mate with nano-drones and lift technology out of human control.

As you see, the novel covers huge areas of human life and the interconnectedness of all the stories is not only delightful, it forces a constant revision of what has gone before, an endless reinterpretation of history. The Old Drift is very clever indeed. We read about missionaries and colonial racists. We see the dynamic between the master and the servant, the educated and the self-educated, the rich and the poor and the complex tensions and prejudices over skin colour. We look at the HIV crisis and the possible uncovering of a cure and how Zambia and other poorer nations continue to be exploited as test subjects for chemical and technological advancements in a global economy. Climate change takes on a new moniker, The Change; its effects no longer dismissable even to the most stubborn.

Alongside the grand subjects are the human characters each of whom has their own trajectory and personality. We follow their lives closely and feel the rise and fall of their ambitions and prospects. There is such a swarm of stories, told over such a length of time that it begins to feel as if humans too are part of that haze of insect voices, a plague upon the earth, living out a time that will one day pale into insignificance in the wider turns of the universe. 

I suspect a further reading would unveil deeper levels of meaning and there are undoubtedly stories that I have not fully understood, but whether you are reading the novel for the journey of its characters or the urgency of its message for change, The Old Drift is a formiddle and gripping read. A very worthy winner of this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award.

I’ll be reviewing A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes next. 

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

I’m a huge fan of Marilynne Robinson. Lila remains one of my favourite books. I opened Jack hoping for that same careful attention to the twists and turns of consciousness. I wasn’t disappointed.

Jack hails from Gilead, the Iowa town that provides the setting for three previous novels of which Lila is one. He is the prodigal son of Gilead’s preacher who has done his best to stay away, thinking his best road is one in which he attempts to be harmless and going home might cause more harm than good.

Jack falls in love with Della, an African-American girl, at a time when interracial marriage was against the law.

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Normal People by Sally Rooney

I came to this novel late. Everyone talked about loving it. I wasn’t drawn to the idea of reading a popular novel about love – not sure what that says about me.

Of course, once I’d opened the pages of this novel set in Dublin and County Sligo, I was there exactly for that intense, early adult exploration of identity through relationships, in this case, one relationship, that between Connell and Marianne.

Connell comes from a single-parent, working class family and, though shy, is popular in school. Marianne, also in a single-parent family, comes from a wealthy, but dysfunctional home. Unashamed to hide her intelligence, unafraid to stand out from the crowd, she is not at all popular in school. Given that Connell’s mum works as a cleaner in Marianne’s house, the two teenagers meet outside of school and form an attachment.

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Daddy by Emma Cline

Daddy is a series of ten short stories that delve right into the heart of character. The stories work well collected together, as each seems to address some darker menace hovering below the normal-looking surface of people’s lives. Each main character has such a specific outlook that behaviours others may recoil from are presented as almost inevitable, sometimes regrettable, but still somehow impossible to avoid.

A father erases his past violent behaviour through the filter of memory and the insistence upon his own change (‘What Can You Do with a General’). Another father, in ‘Northeast Regional’, goes to his son’s school to sort out what will happen after his son assaulted another pupil, all while he’s trying to text a married woman he’s having an affair with. He knows his son only vaguely and is cross when his son’s girlfriend doesn’t eat the food she ordered for lunch. The girlfriend drops her fork and the waitress comes to pick it up and give her another. In a line that seems to sum up the strange mutable sense of individual morality the collection explores, Cline writes:

‘When she retreated, leaving Richard alone with his son and the crying girl, it occurred to him, with the delayed logic of a dream, that the waitress must have thought he was the bad guy in all this.’

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Girls in the Walls by A J Gnuse

Where do you go when your parents are killed in a car crash and you have no immediate family? Where do you feel most safe? The new house your parents have just moved to, or the old one, the one you have most memories in, the one that might still hold remnants of your parents, the odd sock fallen and lost into the places no one thinks to look?

Elise is eleven. She remembers how to get into the house and she finds her way into the walls. A new family live there now. A couple with two boys, the youngest, Eddie, almost two years older than her. He is quiet, considered odd because, amongst other things, he doesn’t like the sounds people make when they eat and has his supper apart from his family. He doesn’t tell them about the lego figure that moved inside his carefully constructed castle, or the books that go missing for days. His big brother thinks playing with lego is lame, that he needs to grow up, to stop being so weird. 

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Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami, trans. by Stephen Snyder

Coin Locker Babies is really hard to summarise. It explores the lives of two boys abandoned by their mothers at birth in coin lockers in Yokohama, Japan. They find each other at the Cherryfield Orphanage and though they are very different, their origins force them into an intense and complex bond of brotherhood that seethes with an undercurrent of need, fear and violence.

The novel seems to begin as one thing and then part way through becomes something else. This isn’t to say that Coin Locker Babies lacks an overarching narrative drive, that’s not quite what I mean, rather that it was hard to anticipate where the plot might turn and while this can be an exciting feeling, I confess to being frustrated at times by where the boys and their lives seemed to be going. But, and this is crucial, it is a hard novel to forget. 

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Real Life by Brandon Taylor

I’m wary of campus novels. There is an allure but also an expectation that I will be about to meet a whole load of intense, self-obsessed and privileged characters whose wider understanding of the world feels limited to their age and experience in a way that isn’t always intoxicating and impassioned enough to mitigate my irritation. Real Life really is, as The New Yorker called it, ‘a new kind of campus novel’. Though the collegiate experience is central to the book, the main character Wallace so finely dissects the minutiae of human interaction, those millisecond pauses in which we read each others’ expressions and interpret each others language, in which we consider how much to say and how much to withhold, that I think I bent down almost half of the pages of the book.

Wallace is studying biochemistry. He has forged a new life for himself away from his roots in Alabama, roots that he rarely shares but that we are given in the only passage of first person that gives us the pain of his childhood abuse at first hand. His father has just died and he didn’t travel back for the funeral. When the book opens he hasn’t yet told his friends.

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Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor trans. by Sophie Hughes

This is an absorbing and overwhelming novel. The flow and rhythm of the prose sucks you in and holds you enthralled. It is very difficult to put down as each new character brings a new perspective upon what happened to the witch found mutilated and floating in the canal near the village of La Matosa in Mexico. Who was the witch? How did she die? Was she even a she?

The relentless nature of the prose that flows without paragraphs, without a sense of breath almost, mirrors that of the oppressive sense of hopelessness that presses in on the characters. This is a village with few prospects for its inhabitants. Money seems to be made from living near the highway, from leaving and heading to the oilfields in the North, or from selling beer, drugs or sex. There is a desperation bred and fed by capitalist desires in a place where jobs are scarce.

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Interview with Heidi James

What a delight to interview Heidi James on the publication of her novel, The Sound Mirror published by Bluemoose Books this August 2020. You can either take a look on my Authors QH page here, or just have a look here. We went from enforced silence to hauntology, abuse to language and back and there were even tears. You’ve been warned.

Buy The Sound Mirror here. Read my review here. Vote for The Sound Mirror to win the Not the Booker Prize. You can do that here.

Pew by Catherine Lacey

Pew is an extraordinary novel. Every word weighty with meaning, measured just so, held up to bright examination and understood to always, even with this level of care, be wanting. It’s a political, intersectional, theological and philosophical exploration of life from the viewpoint of a person who rarely speaks and who likes to sleep in churches when they’re tired.

Found one morning sleeping in a family’s regular pew, the local community is baffled by this person. What age are they? What race are they? Are they male or female? Why don’t they just help them out by speaking a little, by explaining themselves? 

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