Reviews

Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic

a multi-layered, complex novel, deceptive in its first-impression gentleness, and just like Nev, I’m still experiencing the effects of it unfolding even after it has ended

Double Negative is one of those novels that you keep thinking about long after you’ve read them. Not for some shocking storyline or a bizarre setting but because it has sDouble Negative by Ivan Vladislavicmany layers that it takes a while to understand them. We follow Nev, a dropout university student at the start of the book and a photographer at the end of it. By then, he is just starting to get known, and spends some time with a blogger cum journalist Janie driving around Johannesburg and taking photographs of walls and letter boxes. Rewind back to Nev’s younger days, and we see him in a reversed situation, spending a day – arranged by his father who is worried about Nev’s future – with a famous photographer Auerbach, following him as he shows the city to a British journalist.

The day with Janie is post-apartheid. The day with Auerbach – when the apartheid regime is still in full swing, albeit amongst protests and demonstrations that Nev had taken part in, although not as actively as some. Shortly after the day with Auerbach Nev leaves Johannesburg for London.

Ten years away is a long time. Any country in crisis would probably be different after a decade, and upon his return, Nev sets out to find his way around the city he used to know by heart. But the place has changed, there are new areas, new streets, new walls everywhere, and Nev drives around this newness, trying to make sense of it by taking photographs.

Nev did not consciously intend to become a photographer, and even as he finds his first fame, he rejects the idea of being an artist, or even a real photographer like Auerbach. He is not a storyteller, he is convinced, he is uninterested, even disgusted in what goes on behind the walls he photographs. And yet one of the first things Nev does when he returns to his home town after a decade in London is find one of the houses he and Auerbach were supposed to visit, the house Nev had picked himself. What he finds there will become  –  he doesn’t really know what, all he knows is that he has to hold on to it, to make it part of his next project. Everyone seems to have moved on, almost forgotten the past, while Nev is still feeling the earth trembling, shaking, the country still marked by what used it be.

First published on Bookmunch on 25 October 2013

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We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

a nostalgic story of shattered dreams that at times loses itself in too many socio-political issues

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Darling is an imaginative, intelligent and constantly hungry child living in Zimbabwe, in a tin house where the bed is made out of a mattress stuffed with old cloth and chicken’s feathers.  Her commentary on life is matter-of-fact and astute, yet funny in a precocious child kind of way. Darling’s dream is to live in America, ‘My America’, she calls it, and imagines plentiful food, clothes, big beautiful houses  and a Lamborghini that she will surely drive once she gets there. Her friends with Chekhovian names like Bastard and Godknows dream too – like Darling, they want to leave their ghetto called Paradise and become ‘real’ people – but for now they spend their days stealing guavas from the gardens in the wealthy Budapest, playing Find Bin Laden and Country-Game, and watching the adults try to cope with the demise of their country.

Eventually Darling gets a chance to realise her dream when her aunt Fostalina, brings the girl to Michigan, or DestroyedMichygen, as Darling  and her friends call it. But America is not what she expected. Homesick and frustrated at not being able to visit her friends and family in Zimbabwe  – Darling’s visa has by now expired and she is an illegal, just like her aunt and uncle – the teenager watches her dream dissipate into the reality of low paid jobs, community college and now also pressure from those she left behind. Pressure to write, pressure to telephone, pressure that Aunt Fostalina is under to send money home. Life is not easier here at all, Darling starts to realise. Not everyone is rich, and most immigrants work very hard, and not as doctors and lawyers but as cleaners, packers and nursing homes staff.

Writer Helon Habila has made an interesting point in his review of We Need New Names about the seeming anxiety of the author to cover every topic considered ‘African’, be it genocide, Aids, political violence or child abuse, all in the first hundred or so pages before Darling’s arrival to America. Even Darling’s poetic, original voice does not change the fact that the long list of ‘African issues’ distracts from the real story, even if just for the mere reason that one would need a much longer, and a very different kind of novel to cover them all. Still, it is the second part of the novel  – the American part – that jars the most.  As Darling finds America bland and disappointing, her voice changes to that of a critical, sharp teenager whose sense of wonder slowly turns into sarcasm, and the ending is somehow more bleak than all the horrors of Darling’s previous life. Her impressions of America are far from favourable, and at times far-fetched. It is, after all, hard to believe that a girl who sang Lady Gaga’s songs with her friends in Paradise, has never heard of aerobics and is shocked by her aunt’s at-home workouts.

I too had a list of things I found strange or different when I first came to Britain from Russia at the age of eighteen but even a teenager must realise that no country is just one thing, and no people are just bad or just good. In Darling’s eyes, America is fat, cold, obsessed with looks and inaccessible to the poor. An African man must be marrying a fat white girl purely for the papers, and a pretty rich girl Kate has no right to be depressed and bulimic just because her boyfriend has dumped her – for how can she really suffer if she has not lived through real hunger? This one-sided view lets both Darling and the novel down.

We Need New Names dips and rises, stronger in some places, weaker in others. Darling’s adventures in Zimbabwe are fascinating because of her great storytelling but seem a little Hollywood-like , as if intended to please an audience. Her American life is as disappointing to read about as it must be for her to live through. The overall theme is not that new or original but there are still many parts that are beautifully written, and the chapter called How They Lived is a standalone cry of pain that sums up a lot of Darling’s new experiences. The author’s love for her country is evident in Darling’s nostalgia for her childhood, no matter how difficult it had been. It is just a shame that the love for her culture prevents her from falling in love with her new surroundings – it is hard if not impossible to survive just on nostalgia.

First published on Bookmunch on 18 September 2013

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The poetic premise of an immigrant plagued by nostalgic yet painful memories is somewhat ruined by the detached prose that goes on for a little too long.

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Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel, The Lowland, tells the story of two brothers from Tollygunge, in Calcutta. Subhash is calm, sensible and conventional. Udayan is rebellious, political in his views. As he becomes more and more involved in the Naxalite movement that is emerging in India, his views get more radical, until one day he is arrested for acts of terrorism.

Subhash is by then a PhD student in America and has no idea of what’s happening at home. His own life is far from exciting, his only act of rebellion his orderly affair with an American woman. But when Udayan is killed by the police, Subhash returns home to find that Udayan’s wife, Gauri, is pregnant, and badly treated by her in-laws who had never approved of her in the first place. Unexpectedly, Subhash offers to marry Gauri in order to give her a chance to start over and, to his parents’ dismay, she accepts.

The novel spans across half a century, taking us through Subhash and Gauri’s life together and then apart, Subhash’s voice sometimes replaced by Gauri’s as she leaves her husband and daughter and moves away to pursue her work in Philosophy. Towards the end more voices appear – that of Subhash’s elderly mother Bijoli, of Gauri’s daughter Bela, even the voice of Udayan. They fill in the gaps that did not really need to be filled, drawing the novel out to the point of no mystery remaining, nothing left unanswered.

Lahiri’s prose is sparse, at times poetic but always reserved just like the characters she chooses to focus on, resembling philosophical research where one sees both sides of the story, dispassionately accepting the reality of human condition. It does not cause the reader to worry or even care too much about the characters, but instead simply demonstrates their struggles as if in a documentary about fish.

Despite all that, it somehow reads easily – except for the pages at the start of the novel that focus on the political picture of the time and seem to be more suited to an unexciting essay in history – and eventually arrives at a fully-researched – if a little too much – ending.

First published on Bookmunch on 1 October 2013

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All The Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell

has all the ingredients of a bestseller – it is fast-paced, well-written and with a mystery to unveil

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Lara is in her late thirties and has just lost her mother. She is now an orphan – her father, a prominent plastic surgeon from Belfast, died in a helicopter crash when Lucy was just twelve. Her life as she knew it crashed at that moment too, with her father’s double life, and Lara’s family, suddenly becoming the favourite topic of national tabloids. Not only did it turn out that he had a wife and two other children in Belfast, but Lara’s mother had known all about it. She wouldn’t talk about it though, despite Lara’s attempts to get to the truth. When her mother dies, Lara starts writing about her childhood, first from her own perspective, then as a story of her mother, Jane Moorhouse.

From imagining her mother’s life to deciding to meet her half-brother Michael in Belfast, Lara’s quest will take her on a journey of confronting, and finally accepting, her past.

Caldwell’s writing is accessible and light and it is no wonder that the novel ended up on BBC Radio 4’s Book At Bedtime. Her strong plot keeps the reader hooked right to the satisfying ending.

This is hardly my favourite book of the year but it is a very enjoyable read from start to finish. A great one to take on a journey or a holiday.

First published on Bookmunch on 29 April 2013

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You Have 24 Hours To Love Us by Guy Ware

a clever, playfully uncanny debut collection that has left me looking forward to more of Guy Ware’s writing

Guy Ware’s debut short story collection is called You Have 24 Hours To Love Us. It took me roughly that amount of time to read through it for the first time and immediately fall in love with the author’s style.guyware

Ware’s take on life is original and thought-provoking but not without a hint of humour. In ‘In Plain Sight’, a chicken farmer Stan in a far away country is suddenly put under blockade by a government led by a President and a General Weedon from the other side of the world. ‘You have twenty-four hours to love us,’ they tell him. They build a concrete wall around his friend Jeannie’s goat farm, and then they play ‘Imagine’ over and over again on one end of the wall, and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ on the other, until all their goats die. Then they bomb the farm with chicken carcasses. The satirical resemblance with the Western approach of dealing with those who, as they put it, ‘don’t want to join the twenty-first century’, is clear, as is the allusion to all ‘chicken farmers’ who are ‘a threat’ to Weedon’s security.

In ‘Hostage’, a woman takes a wrong turn on her way home and walks into a different life, a life that could be hers, with the identical IKEA wardrobe in a similar semi-detached house and with its own grief and sorrow. When she cannot bear her own life, she will make a choice. Another favourite of mine, ‘All Downhill From Here’, is a story of Noah’s Ark told from the perspective of one of the creatures the captain took with him, a hoofed mammal similar to a wolf. As she stays on top of the hill with the old captain, watching with him the appearance of the new world, she thinks about the other wolf, Yvan, who was too late to board the boat. That is what she believes anyway.

Guy Ware is not an author that makes reading too easy for us. He leaves enough gaps to require a few rereads, some thinking, a couple of days’ of the story sinking in. His stories are diverse, his topics fascinating: the identities we choose, the turns we take, the illusions we prefer to believe in.

First published on Bookmunch on 10 January 2013

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The Taste Of Apple Seeds by Katharina Hagena

katharinahagenaWhen Katharina Hagena’s latest novel The Taste of Apple Seeds (translated from German by Jamie Bulloch) landed in my lap, I was hoping for a similar exquisite pleasure as I experienced when I read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. There is a house here too, also in Germany. There are several generations, their stories tangled up around a family secret. There is even a lake. But here the similarities end.

It starts with Iris Berger, a young woman brought up in Baden, who comes to the village of Bootshaven for her grandmother Bertha’s funeral. Bertha has left her house to Iris, and as we wait for Iris to decide whether to accept her inheritance, we find out about a secret that is still affecting the surviving members of the family.

The memories from Iris’s childhood, mixed in with her ideas and half-forgotten facts and tales about her extended family, are beautifully written, and I only wish that the rest of the novel was as good.  Alas, as soon as we are back in our times, the whimsical haze of the years past disappears and is replaced with ordinary, often repetitive writing that would be better placed in an uncomplicated chick-lit novel with the plot of a single slightly odd woman finally finding petite bourgeoisie- style happiness with a childhood friend she used to ignore.

Riding around the village on her grandfather Hinnerk’s bike, dressed in her dead aunt’s clothes that seem to be constantly getting soaked with sweat, and periodically dunking herself into the nearby lake, managing to bump into her solicitor and childhood friend-cum-the-man-she-fancies Max whenever she swims naked, Iris seems to have no personality unless she is talking about her mysterious family.  Iris’s cousin Rosmarie and her best friend Mira’s relationship is intense and dangerous, and Bertha’s magical garden with its apple trees and redcurrants that turn white is another character in the novel. Maybe the past always seems more romantic than the present, but the difference here is too striking to be enjoyed.

I struggle to see why this book became a bestseller in France and Spain as the blurb informs us. I’d rather re-read Visitation an extra time to take away the unsatisfying taste of the apple seeds.

First published on Bookmunch on 9 January 2013

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Where Have You Been by Joseph O’Connor

a multi-layered, thought-provoking collection that might bring with it a bout of sweet nostalgia.

Joseph O’Connor’s first short story collection (plus a novella) in over twenty years,Where Have You Been? reads in one go. For November it is perfect – broodingly melancholic even in its most comedic moments.josephoconnor

O’Connor’s characters are as diverse as his topics – a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer, a suicidal civil servant, a young Irish couple desperate to make it in the 1860s America.  One minute we are in London of 1988, arguing with some Irish Republicans at a wedding and worrying about a sister who says she has lost her legs in Paris. Another story – and we are in Dublin, another yet – in the village of Glasthule, near Dun Laoghaire.

And through all this diversity – one theme, of family and fatherhood, whether in a personal sense or maybe in a wider meaning of our relationship to our roots, to our countries, wherever they are. Of course, for O’Connor it is Ireland, but the torturous love to one’s native land mixed with sometimes pride, sometimes, pain and embarrassment, and often unresolved feelings that a child might feel for their parent – this love is something anyone can understand without ever setting foot in Ireland.

‘The Wexford Girl’ and ‘The Death of The Civil Servant’ are my favourite short stories in this collection. In ‘The Wexford Girl’, a son recalls some poignant memories of his childhood, and of his father. In ‘The Death of the Civil Servant’, there is a son and father relationship too, and an ending that will keep you guessing, and possibly hoping.  The novella, which gave its name to the collection, is almost a long short story too. Cian, having experienced a nervous breakdown, meets an English girl, a production designer who is in Ireland to shoot a television remake of Wuthering Heights. An affair starts, but the result of it will be surprising to all involved, including the reader.

First published on Bookmunch on 21 November 2012

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Dare Me by Megan Abbott

a crime novel with a twist – or a tuck – that you will want to read in one go

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Welcome to the world of cheerleaders! Not the silly pink pom-pom shaking ones but the hard-core athletes who train every day and survive on potassium broth, the ones who do hundreds of tucks at a time and crave KitKats only to vomit them back out in order to stay thin. Doesn’t sound too exciting? Or at least not if you are over twenty and don’t want to remember your teenage angst, or if you are not at all curious to find out what everyone else did while you practised your piano and learnt French. Or was that just me? But come on, brace yourself and you will be greatly rewarded, for Megan Abbott’s new novel is one of the best I have ever read when it comes to small-town teenage girls. Or cheerleaders.

Besides, there will be a crime, and an extremely well-plotted one. But first things first.

There are two girls – Addy and Beth. They are best friends, and as it often happens, the harmony in their touching friendship is achieved by one of them – Beth – being the boss, and the other – obviously Addy – being Beth’s sidekick. They are both in a cheerleading crew, and Beth is the captain and the top girl (if you are not familiar with the cheerleading terminology, you have to read the book). But then comes new coach Colette French, a young beautiful woman with a husband, a daughter and some secrets.

As you would expect, Coach French seems very cool to the girls, or at least to everyone apart from Beth who becomes jealous, a situation exacerbated  by the fact that Coach announces that there will be no more captain. Add to that the fact that the girls are bored, Coach is bored and Coach’s husband is just boring. Or so it seems. Or maybe he is. But anyway, there you have the perfect plot. Well, that and some other important facts that I cannot disclose for the fear of spoiling it for you.

All in all, Dare Me is a great portrait of young girls in their last year of making it through boredom, with tons of free time and an urge to finally start living their lives. The twists of the plot and some shocking antics of the characters will keep you reading and the tension will stay high right until the end. I doubt it will change your life forever, but then imagine what it would be like if every book you read changed your life! We are not teens anymore, after all.

First published on Bookmunch on 24 April 2012

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