Author Archives: BookerTalk

Washington Black Travels To Freedom [BookReview]

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Did you love adventure stories as a child?

Washington Black, the Booker shortlisted novel by Esi Edugyan, is very much in the mould of the adventure novel although written with an adult reader in mind. It has many of the elements of the adventure tale: a courageous character who goes on a perilous quest to a far-flung location; high octane escapades in the form of a balloon flight and storms; and an ogre who shadows the protagonist wherever he goes.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

But to label it simply as an adventure novel would be a gross injustice because this is a multi-layered, hybrid novel in which excitement and thrills are married with thoughtful exploration. It’s a novel crafted with panache that uses thrills, coincidences and twists of fate to explore the nature of enslavement and freedom.

Washington Black opens on a cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados where her eponymous hero, George Washington (“Wash”) Black, is a young orphan slave. Christopher “Titch” Wilde, brother of the plantation owner, picks Wash to be his personal assistant in an attempt to build a hot air balloon.

Flight To Freedom

The child proves to be a quick learner with a sharp mind and a latent talent as an illustrator.  As Titch and Wash form a bond through their joint endeavour, fate thrusts them even closer. The pair literally take flight from the Caribbean to protect Wash from accusations of murder and almost certain execution. A nomadic existence ensues, taking the boy to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and, finally, Morocco.

It’s a clever device that enables Esi Edugyan to greatly expand her scope. The early chapters which describe the physical brutality and emotional pain of slavery are vivid and memorable. But it’s when Wash is removed from the daily cruelty of slavery that the breadth and ambition of Washington Black become evident.

How Does It Feel To Be Free?

Edugyan’s interest is no less than the nature of freedom itself. Though her protagonist is no longer a plantation slave as Wash roams the world he carries with him the physical marks of his former servitude. A brand on his chest can be hidden but the fascial disfigurement caused by a failed experiment is all too evident. It makes him easy prey for the bounty hunter who stalks him from continent to continent years after slavery is abolished.

As a child Wash had asked a slave woman who befriended him, how it felt to be free. It was, she said, the ability to “go wherever it is you wanting.” But now he has this long desired free movement, he becomes terrified by that freedom. It is, he thinks, like “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.

He can never entirely separate his new self from his old. Even when he has become an accomplished, though unacknowledged, marine scientist he still thinks of himself as a “disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”

Journey To Understanding

The countries he visits become allegories of his journey to understand who he really is, and just as significantly, what he means to Titch. He had thought Titch was his friend but then the two became estranged in what Wash sees as an act of betrayal.

For years afterwards, Wash is in turmoil, constantly questioning whether Titch had valued him for as a person, or as a useful pair of hands or an abject creature in need of rescue. In an emotionally charged scene he finally gets to confront Titch.

I was nothing to you. You never saw me as your equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.

That yearning for truth and for recognition haunts Washington Black. The boy who escaped bondage and eluded a slave catcher has grown up through the course of the novel. But as a young man he is still questioning the past and until he finds the answers, we sense that he will never be happy. Whether he does so by the time we reach the final page is still in doubt since Esi Edugyan leaves us with the kind of ending that is open to more than one interpretation.

What is clear however is that this is a fascinating novel that ranges far and wide geographically but never strays from the central idea about freedom as a state of mind as well as a physical entity.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Fast Facts

Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan was raised in Alberta, Canada after her parents immigrated from Ghana. Despite favourable reviews for her debut novel  The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, she struggled to find a publisher for her next work. she abandoned that to write Half-Blood Blues, about a young mixed-race jazz musician, for which she won the Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011.

Washington Black, her third novel, was published in September 2018. It won the Giller Prize that year making Edugyan only the third writer to win the award twice. Washington Black was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

My Favourite Reading Spaces

Hilary Mantel

Are you a lover of the sun-drenched lounger or do you prefer a chilled-out garden swing?

Do you hanker for a window seat or would you sooner have a fireside armchair?

Maybe your idea of reading heaven lies between the bed sheets?

Hilary Mantel speaks for many readers who count down the minutes until we can climb into bed and pick up the latest book on our bedside table.

My day is not complete unless I can end it with time to indulge in my favourite pastime. Reading in bed is a way to escape the real world, a chance to separate from the humdrum routines of life.

If I had a particularly rubbish day at work, this became the time I could push it aside; delighting in the knowledge there was absolutely nothing else I had to except snuggle down and read.

The number 1 favourite place to read

Age makes no difference it seems when it comes to listing bed as a favourite place to read.

In the summer of 2019, the National Literacy Trust in the UK asked children for their favourite spots to read. Beds came top of the list. Other top contenders included sofas, libraries, buses, trains and planes.

A few (imaginative? foolhardy?) children said their favourite reading escape took place on a trampoline. I’ll take their word for that; I know if I gave it a go it would turn out a disaster.

Readers are a resourceful bunch of people. Railway stations; parks; cafes; dental surgeries. We’ve mastered the art of reading anywhere and everywhere. No matter where we are, you can be sure we’ll have found a corner where we can open a book and zone out from what’s around us.

But given the choice, there are some reading spaces we prefer above all others. They’re our go to spots. The places that are ‘special’. And they’re different for each of us.

Garden Reading Paradise

Hilary Mantel clearly enjoys reading in bed but her favourite place to read is at home in Devon with the sound of the sea in the background.

My home isn’t close enough to the sea to hear the waves but I do cherish the summer when I get to spend reading in the garden.

My background soundtrack comes from the birds that use our pond as their personal bathing pool. They gather in a line on top of the fence waiting for the signal that the coast is clear. Then the entire gang swoop down into the pond for a good splash until the next signal that it’s time to return to the fence. It’s quite a pantomime performance.

We’ve just completed an entire garden make-over, including replacing the pond (it was leaking) so I hope these visitors will appreciate the new premium bathing facilities. Until the summer returns however the garden reading space is out of bounds.

Favourite reading spaces
Under construction: new reading space takes shape

Reading Plus View= Bliss

Holidays and reading go hand in hand for me. But you won’t find me book in hand on a sun lounger on a beach. I’m more likely to be sat on a bench in a park or in the garden of the hotel or rental apartment.

There’s something ultra special about looking up from a book to view an ancient monument or the cupolas of a mediaeval town. I’m equally happy casting my eye over lavender coloured louvre shutters or terracotta tiles.

Of all the many places I’ve travelled, here are three that have a special place in my affection. I’d love to return one day.

Favourite reading space
Villefranche, Cote D’Azur, France

Ok so I didn’t have a book with me when this photo was taken but I was engaged in literary endeavours; revising for a university module on the nineteenth century novel. The view over the bay towards Cap Ferrat made the revision bearable.

Kagga Kamma, South Africa

Definitely the strangest place I’ve ever stayed: a room fashioned from a cave in South Africa. If you don’t believe me, here’s the bedroom which came complete with large spider on the ceiling directly above the bed.

Favourite reading space

From the little terrace there was an uninterrupted view across the wilderness towards Namibia. Empty except for a few scorpions, ostriches, antelopes, zebras and leopards.

Favourite reading space
Miyazu Gardens, Nelson, New Zealand

Amid the carefully arranged rocks and foliage of Miyazu Gardens on the edge of the town of Nelson in New Zealand, I found the most perfect reading haven. It’s a small space but the designers created a maze of little paths taking me over bridges, through pergolas to this wonderful reflecting pool. A few hours in the shade here was bliss.

Where Is YOUR Favourite Reading Space?

I’ve told you about the places I love to read. Now it’s your turn.

Do you, like Mantel, look forward to bedtime so you can read? Where do you normally do your reading? And where is your favourite reading space of all time?

Fighting for Dignity Amid The Indian Maelstrom [book review]

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

If you ever end up as a passenger on a commuter train in Mumbai, there’s one word you will rapidly get accustomed to hearing.

Adjust

It’s the cry that goes up at each station as a new batch of passengers scramble to board an already crammed train. This will be a train built to carry around 1,000 people. But there are 4,000 who need to use it to get to work each day.

A Fine Balance

The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed. The train’s brief deception jolted its riders. The bulge of humans hanging out of the doorway distended perilously, like a soap bubble at its limits.

Prologue: A Fine Balance

Every seat is occupied. Passengers hang out of doors because there’s no standing space inside. Some have taken to the train roof. But the hoards on the platform still insist on boarding so the rule is everyone already inside, has to ‘adjust’ to accommodate the newcomers.  

Adjust isn’t just a word; it’s an expression of an attitude to life in Mumbai and across the whole of India.

Adjustment and adaptation is how people in India deal with pretty much anything. Lack of physical space; new political regimes; half finished roads; energy shortages. The response invariably seems to be “We will manage this.” . There’s even a name for this attitude – bharosa – a type of trust, faith, belief and confidence that things will just work out in the end.

Survival is a Balancing Act

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Adjustment, flexibility, balance. The four characters in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry constantly bring those elements into play as they try to navigate the maelstrom that is India.

The novel is set during the State of Emergency in the mid 1970s, a time of political turmoil and human rights violations, including detention, torture and forced sterilisation. Although the prime minister Indira Gandhi is never named, her presence is felt throughout the novel as the instigator of a period of cruelty and corruption, press censorship

These events serve as a backdrop for a tale of four strangers whose lives intersect in a cramped apartment in an unnamed city by the sea .

Strangers in Adversity

Dina Dalal is a spirited Parsi widow who is determined to maintain her independence from her rich brother and his pressure to re-marry. She supplements her income as a seamstress by renting a room to Maneck Kohlah, a naive college student from a hill station.

Joining them are two tailors, Ishvar Darji and his nephew Omprakash who had to flee their village as a result of caste violence. But their hopes of sanctuary and a new life in the city are dashed the very night they arrive. Jobs are scare and accommodation limited to a shack in a slum near a ditch running with raw sewage.

The life of a poor working man is a precarious existence they discover. As one of Mistry’s most memorable, and horrific characters The Beggerman puts it:

People forget how vulnerable they are despite their shirts and shoes and briefcases, how this hungry and cruel world could strip them, put them in the same position as my beggars.” 

As circumstances thrust the four strangers together they find that survival requires constant re-adjustment of their attitudes and expectations. As one character explains the reality to the tailors:

“You cannot draw lines and compartments and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair. In the end it’s all a question of balance.”

Which sounds good in theory but these two men get more than their fair share of despair in A Fine Balance. They lurch from one crisis to another: a forced labour camp; a slum clearance programme; compulsory castration. The only beacon of hope is the growing friendship they enjoy with Dina and Maneck.

Legitimised Violence and Anarchy

Rohinton Mistry portrays the huge effort of will it takes for the poorer members of Indian society to survive. All around them they see corruption, social anarchy and violence but little regard for individual desire, hopes or dreams.

Most of the plot is driven by Rohinton Mistry’s intention to show the worst elements of Indian society. The State of Emergency facilitates a period of legitimised violence and repression but Mistry shows that it also gives free rein to a world in which people will do anything to survive, even if what they do, harms other people. It’s a country of mob rule, where the helpless are exploited by those on the next rung up the social ladder.

As the characters move from distrust to respect and friendship, A Fine Balance provides a panoramic view of the constant struggle by Indian working people to maintain dignity and to survive in a world determined to crush them.

The Fine Balance of Despair And Hope

One ‘solution’ advocated by part of the population, is to balance positivity with despair. Yet it’s no surprise that at times some of Mistry’s characters are forced to question the validity of such an attitude. As Maneck reflects:

Did life treat everyone so wantonly, ripping the good things to pieces while letting bad things fester and grow like fungus on unrefrigerated food? Vasantrao Valmik the proofreader would say it was all part of living, that the secret of survival was to balance hope and despair, to embrace change. But embrace misery and destruction? No.”

Later, a rent collector forced to get heavy handed with his tenants asks:.

This was life? Or a cruel joke? He no longer believed that the scales would ever balance fairly.

The Fine Balance is a story saturated with pain relieved with few glimmers of hope. By the end of the book we’ve become such good friends with these 4 people, so invested in their lives that you hope they achieve even a modicum of happiness. But the closing pages bring a sickening finality to such hopes.

A Fine Balance: Fast Facts

A Fine Balance is the second novel by Rohinton Mistry. Published in 1995 it won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and the Giller Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize.

Rohinton Mistry

Rohinton Mistry was born in 1952 and grew up in Bombay, India. In 1975 he emigrated to Canada, where he began a course in English and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

His debut novel, Such a Long Journey, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and the Governor General’s Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Six Degrees from Sex To Friendship

What connects a true story about women’s sex lives in the 21st century with a novel about friendship in Japan?

No that’s not a trick question.

It’s my feeble attempt to signal the latest episode of Six Degrees of Separation, a sort of literary version of a word association game.

This month we begin with Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, a book which has made it to the top of the New York Times best seller list. I’ve not read it or in fact even heard about it but apparently its an in-depth look at the sex drive of American women.

Women and sex. An easy choice for book number one in my chain.

A scene from the 1969 film of Women in Love directed by Ken Russell

In Women In Love , D H Lawrence focused on the loves and lives of two women: Gudrun Brangwen (a painter) and her schoolteacher sister Ursula.

Its high sexual content and the intensity of the relationship between these women and their lovers caused controversy when the book came out in 1920. One critic described it as “dirt in heaps—festering, putrid heaps which smell to high Heaven.”

Lawrence is one of those authors who has been in and out of favour. At the time of his death in 1930 he was viewed as a man who had wasted his talents on producing pornography. But he had huge fans in E M Forster and F R Leavis. It was heir view of Lawrence as a great imaginative talent that prevailed so much that in the 60s and 70s Lawrence was a stalwart of university reading lists. 

But now? You barely hear his name and I doubt he’s required reading for any literature students. 

The fickle world of literary criticism might have put paid to D H Lawrence but it was the making of Kate Chopin.

Her novella The Awakening was reviled when it was published in 1899 – “essentially vulgar” was one contemporary’s description.  But the growth of modern feminist literary criticism since the 1960s brought a re-evaluation of Chopin’s work.  The Awakening is now considered a landmark in feminist literature for its portrayal of a woman whose emotional and sexual awakening led her to walk out on her husband and children. 

The protagonist of All Passion Spent, the book I’ve just finished reading, didn’t walk out on her husband but his death was the catalyst for her decision to forge a new path in life.

At 88 years old Lady Slane’s children think they know what’s best for her and how she should live out the rest of her life. But this is one woman who’s done suppressing her own desires while being the dutiful wife of a great man. Now its time for her to strike out on her own, finding new friendships and re-discovering one from her past. .

Lady S put me in mind of the widow in Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

Mrs P is not as wealthy but she shares a similar distaste for spending her twilight years in her daughter’s home. The Claremont Hotel introduces her to a mixed bag of similarly displaced guests who have developed their own strategies for dealing with the loneliness of old age and its financial challenges. 

Talking of hotels brings me to A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles which focuses on Count Alexander Rostov, a charming aristocrat who falls foul of the new Communist ruling party. They sentence him to imprisonment in a tiny attic room in Moscow’s swanky Hotel Metropol. 

Not an easy feat to fashion an engaging tale from a character whose is limited to the walls of the hotel. But Towles gets around the problem by having the world come to the Count. The result is a novel rich in atmosphere and human drama that celebrates dignity, loyalty and friendship.

Friendship is central to the plot of my final book in this month’s chain: Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto. The setting is not as grand as the Hotel Metropole however because it takes place in a small seaside inn in Japan. Two girls who were once close friends reunite at the inn for one last summer before the place is closed. Like most of the Japanese novels I’ve read this was beautifully atmospheric.

And there I think it’s time to bring this chain to an end. We’ve travelled from America to England, from Russia to Japan. Touched on sex, old age, feminism and friendship. Where would your six degree of separation take you? Play along by visiting the host Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best) 

Sympathy Fails For A Perpetual Cad

The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki

Roopa Farooki’s fifth novel The Flying Man is a strange one. It’s a brave author who attempts to win sympathy for a protagonist who is anything but likeable. It’s a gamble that didn’t quite pay off.

The eponymous flying man – so called because of his habit of flitting from one country to another – is Maqil Karamis, charlatan and fraudster extraordinaire. He keeps one step ahead of detection by adopting new identities and moving his base of operation. One time political activist, playwright and journalist, he morphs into a gambler, businessman, fraudster and thief.

Despite the light-hearted tone of Farooki’s narrative, Maqil isn’t the kind of rogue for whom you can have even a sneaking admiration because, with each new assumed identity, he leaves behind a trail of abandoned wives and children.

This is a man who seems perpetually in flight.

In his youth he flees from what he views as the stultifying conventionality of his family home in Pakistan, preferring the freedom of life as a student in New York. He arrives with three identities: Maqil to his family; Sonny to his mother and Sunny to his father.

But “let loose in the Land of the Free … ” he quickly assumes a fourth more enigmatic identity as MSK, “the campus international man of mystery.” Even this isn’t enough for him and he tries on more ‘costumes’ before deciding he quite likes being Mike Cram “an anonymous man who could be from anywhere.”

Over the course of the book he turns up as Mehmet Khan, Miguel Caram and Mikhail Lee in Paris, Cairo, London and Hong Kong. Along the way he collects three wives, though doesn’t bother with the niceties of divorce. When he’s had enough of the relationship, or the effects of his conniving, fraudulent activities threaten to catch up with him, he just disappears.

Rogue or cad?

The Flying Man verges on being a fun adventure novel but the humour never overcame my general feeling of unease about the sordid way in which Maqil treats his family.

Though he tries to court our sympathy with the occasional moment of self candour, his ‘mea culpa’ isn’t convincing. For this is a man who has made such a success of being a fraud, it’s hard to believe anything he says. I was more in sympathy with his second wife Samira and the twins he abandons, than with this chameleon. He wasn’t a loveable rogue, more of a cad who shies from anything that involves commitment or responsibility.

Maybe I would have been more empathetic if I’d understood more clearly why Maqil had this compulsion to be constantly on the move. But we seldom got deep enough into his personality to discover his motivation beyond a sense that he hates to be bored. Is that enough to make him a believable character? Not in my book. I wanted a fully rounded character but what I got was a shadowy figure that flitted from page to page.

This experience hasn’t put me off reading Roopa Farooki, I just have to find the right book.

The Flying Man: Fast Facts

Roopa Farooki was born in Lahore, Pakistan, but moved with her family to London when she was seven months old. She worked in advertising before she turned to writing fiction full-time.

Her first novel Bitter Sweets was published in the UK in 2007 and shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers that year.

The Flying Man, published in January 2012 , was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012. 

Bizarre And Mysterious Deaths of 10 Famous Authors

quote on death

Albert Camus is right up to a point; we are all destined to die. But if you’re an author then the “when and how” your characters meet their end do matter.  

Some opt for a quiet fading away to the last breath, others prefer the grand gesture along the lines of Madame Bovary. But the deaths of the authors themselves can be just as strange. 

Here are of the most unusual – and bizarre – ways in which famous authors said farewell to this world. 

Albert Camus 1913-1960

Where better to begin than with Albert Camus himself.

On January 4,1960, Camus was in a car on his way to Paris with his friend Michel Gallimard.   Gallimard who was driving, suddenly lost control of the car on an icy patch and slammed into a tree. Both Camus and Gallimard were killed.

About 50 years after this event, stories began circulating that Camus was killed by Soviet spies on the direction of the Soviet Foreign Minister Dmitri Shepilov. They supposedly used a special kind of equipment which could make a hole in the tyre of the car at speed (sounds very James Bond to me). Why would Camus have been targeted? He had written an article three years before his death in which he attacked and criticised Shepilov.

It’s a conspiracy theory that’s never been substantiated.

Emile Zola 1840-1902

Conspiracy theorists were also in evidence in 1902 when the body of the French realist author Emile Zola was discovered at his home in Paris.

He had woken, feeling sick, at 3am on 29 September but he told his wife not to rouse their servants. When day broke she was found unconscious and he was dead.

Carbon monoxide poisoning was suspected but many people raised the possibility he’d been murdered by anti-Dreyfusards (a reaction to Zola’s involvement in the infamous Dreyfus affair.)

An inquest was ordered. Tests conducted on the fireplaces of the Paris house did not discover any blockages. The coroner gave a verdict of death by natural causes but refused to make his report public.

The cause of Zola’s death is still the subject of considerable debate.

Nikolai Gogol (31 March 1809 – 4 March 1852) 

Debate rages too about the death of the Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol.

In 1852 he was in a state of deep depression. On the night of 24 February he burned some of his manuscripts (containing most of the second part of Dead Souls.) He claimed this was a mistake, the result of a practical joke played on him by the Devil.  

He went to bed, refused all food and died in great pain nine days later. Officially he died as a result of starvation.

His grave at Danilov Monastery was marked by a large stone and topped by a Russian Orthodox cross. In 1931 when Russian authorities decided to demolish the monastery and transfer Gogol’s remains, they supposedly discovered that his body was lying face down. This became the catalyst for a theory that he had been buried alive. Sounds a bit of an odd theory to me.

Edgar Allan Poe 1809 – 1849

For a man described as “father of detective fiction” it seems fitting that Poe’s own death should be shrouded in mystery.

On October 3, 1849 Poe was discovered in a delirious condition at a tavern in Baltimore. The doctor who was summoned described Poe as looking hagggard, unwashed and dishevelled.

Poe was taken to hospital, denied visitors and kept in a room with barred windows in a section of the building reserved for drunks. He died a few days later.

The precise cause of Poe’s death is disputed. His first doctor (a supporter of the Temperance movement) was convinced it was the result of alcoholism. This was the line followed by newspapers at the time who reported Poe’s death as “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation”, (both euphemisms for deaths from unhealthy causes such as alcoholism).

Poe’s second doctor disagreed and said there was “not the slightest odor of liquor upon his breath or person”.  

Theories have abounded ever since, ranging from hypoglycemia to murder and suicide.  The truth is however likely to remain a mystery since no medical records including Poe’s death certificate have been discovered.

Tennessee Williams 1911-1983

The American playwright Tennessee Williams left behind his own mystery when he died on 25 February 1983.

He  choked on a small bottle cap. The medical examiner identified it as the kind of cap that you’d find on eye droppers or nasal spray containers.

The real mystery is of course how the hell did Williams miss his eyes (or nose) and end up sticking the cap into his mouth? I’m wondering whether he found the cap stuck and stuck it between his teeth to unscrew it (done that loads of time myself). Then swallowed at the wrong moment. There’s a lesson there probably…

Mark Twain 1835-1910

Though Mark Twain, (the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens) died of natural causes, it’s the date of his death that is decidedly strange.

Twain was born on 30 November 1835; the day on which Halley’s Comet made one of its rare appearances. He apparently once joked that he would die the next time it was visible (a phenomenon that occurs only every 75-76 years).

The comet was next seen on 20 April 1910. Twain died the following day.

Charles Dickens 1812-1870

There’s no mystery about when Charles Dickens died. But there is a question mark about where the event happened.

Dickens was not in good health in the summer of 1870 though he continued with a full programme of appearances and readings. On 8 June, after working all day on Edwin Drood, he suffered a stroke. He never regained consciousness.

The following day he died, supposedly in his home at Gads Hill Place. However the biographer Claire Tomalin has suggested Dickens was actually in Peckham when he suffered the stroke. His mistress Ellen Ternan and her maids had him taken back to Gad’s Hill so the public wouldn’t discover the truth about their relationship.

Leo Tolstoy 1828-1910

The death of the man considered the greatest of all novelists, was anything but a private affair.

He’d walked out on his wife of 48 years, leaving their home secretly in the middle of the night. In his farewell letter he told her he was “leaving worldly life to spend the last days of my life in solitude and quiet”.

On a train south he was taken ill and forced to stop at the railway station of Astapovo, a remote Russian village. The stationmaster give him the use of his house.

Tolstoy’s health declined but he was not to be allowed to go in solitude. When news got out of his condition and his location, hundreds of his admirers flocked to Astapovo. Hot on their heels was a Pathé News camera team and reporters from all over the world. Their regular updates were sometimes wildly inaccurate:

“Tolstoy is Better … The Count Is Very Weak, but the Doctors Say There Is No Immediate Danger,” ran one headline in the New York Times yet the man was drifting in an out of consciousness at the time.

The only person not allowed at his bedside was his wife. Not until the very end did Tolstoy’s friends allow her to enter the room.

Oscar Wilde 1854-1900

The playwright and novelist died a broken man. Penniless and disgraced by his conviction for homosexuality and subsequent imprisonment, he had fled to Paris upon his release.

There he died from meningitis in a seedy apartment.

Opinions vary about the cause of his condition, His physicians reported that it was an ear infection sustained while in prison. A 1988 biography by Richard Ellmann however claimed it was connected to syphilis which Wilde himself said he had contracted from a prostitute while a student at Oxford.

Wilde’s family, through his grandson Merlin Holland, have naturally disputed this claim. Extensive research by a London neurologist and two ear surgeons appear to back up the family’s position – they found no definitive proof of syphilis.

Yukio Mishima 1925-1970

Yukio Mishima died not as a result of accident or misfortune but from a deliberate an act of political protest. It was a gruesome

Mishma, the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century. In 1968 his attention moved away from literature to the political arena when he created the Tatenokai, a private right-wing militia. The movement wanted to see the restoration of the Emperor of Japan.

On 25th November 1970 Yukio and four members of the Tatenokai went to the Tokyo offices of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. They barricaded the building, and tied the commandant to his chair.

Yukio Mishima went out onto the balcony with a manifesto and a list of demands and addressed the gathered soldiers below with the intention of inspiring a coup d’état to restore power to the emperor.

He was mocked and jeered. He went inside and performed seppuku (a ritual suicide) by cutting open his belly and disembowelling himself. A fewllow Tatenokai member tried to decapitate the author but failed despite several attempts.

Desperation Drives Ageing Woman To Seek Refuge [book review]

Nagasaki by Eric Faye

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Lyrics Eleanor Rigby, Paul McCartney

People in Japan were astounded by a strange story of a homeless woman that appeared in the national press in 2008. The 58-year-old woman had managed to slip into the apartment of a meteorology worker and live there in a cupboard, undetected, for a year.

Nagasaki by Eric Faye

She was discovered only when, suspicious about the disappearance of food from his fridge, he installed a video surveillance camera in his apartment.

We searched the house … checking everywhere someone could possibly hide,” Itakura [police spokesperson] said. “When we slid open the shelf closet, there she was, nervously curled up on her side.”

This real life story forms the basis of Nagasaki, a novella by the French journalist Eric Faye which won the Académie Française Grand Prix du Roman in 2010.

Faye could have written it as a thriller in which the mysterious events experienced by the apartment owner have a menacing tone. Instead he turns this curious incident into a reflective narrative about loneliness and  the way in which people can just drop unnoticed through chinks in society.

Lonely Office Worker Seeks Friends

The narrative is told from the point of view of Kobo Shimura, a fifty-six-year old man who finds life has simply passed him by.

He lives alone, has never achieved any lasting relationship and has little in common  with his colleagues at the bureau of meteorology.  They go out to lunch and for post-work drinking sessions but this sense of comradeship eludes Shimura.

Instead he spends his lunch break searching for ‘friends’ on Facebook and his evenings talking back to the television news presenters. Even his home is on the fringes of the community:

Imagine a man in his fifties disappointed to have reached middle age so quickly and utterly, residing in his modest house in a suburb of Nagasaki with very steep streets. Picture these snakes of soft asphalt slithering up the hillsides until they reach the point where all the urban scum of corrugated iron, tarpaulins, tiles and God knows what peters out beside a wall of straggly, crooked bamboo. This is where I live. Who am I?  Without wishing to overstate matters, I don’t amount to much.  As a single man, I cultivate certain habits which keep me out of trouble and allow me to tell myself I have at least some redeeming features.

Each day is much like the previous day, turning him into a man who becomes increasingly fussy and tormented by the noise of cicadas that seem everywhere in the city.

What disturbs this equilibrium is his growing sense that food items are going missing, and that someone (or perhaps something) is getting into his flat and stealing the ingredients of his fish supper and his orange juice.

Shimura is naturally shocked when the culprit is found but is even more disturbed by the realisation of how closely he and his intruder had lived for a year.

An Awakening to Reality

Initially resentful of the woman, he begins to sympathise with her and to understand how circumstances had forced her to take refuge in his home. Even so, he cannot bear the thought of remaining in this apartment which will forever now be tainted by her presence. 

His experience opens his consciousness to his city’s history, seeing a parallel in the way it had tried, but failed, to protect itself from intruding foreign traders hundreds of years earlier.  

The woman’s intrusion also causes him to question his life and to see it more clearly.  Watching news reports about the trend in creating robots to look after the country’s ageing population he sees that his fate is to die alone with only a robot to care for him.

Having pulled us so effectively into Shimura’s world, Faye leaves us dangling while he introduces the perspective of the other party in this human drama, the intruder herself.

In the second part of the story we get to hear of the sequence of events, including the effects of Japan’s deep economic recession at the time,  that led her to find shelter in his home. Faye shows not only how someone’s life can cycle downwards until they have no place to go.

As interesting as it was to understand why she ended up in the apartment and the painstaking efforts she made to keep her presence secret, it was Shimura’s story that held my interest more and was written more compellingly.

This was overall however an excellent story which makes you think about your own future in old age and how many other people there are as isolated as Shimura or as desperate as his unwanted houseguest. A chilling thought..

Fast Facts: Nagasaki and Eric Fray

Nagasaki by Eric Faye was published in English in 2014 by Gallic Books, translated from French by Emily Boyce.  It’s been translated into 20 languages.

The real life story upon which his novel is based was widely reported internationally

Eric Faye was born in Limoges, France. He is also a journalist, editor-translator in the Paris offices of the Reuters news agency.

Reading horizons: Episode 22

Reading Horizons: September 2019

What I’m reading now

I’ve just started a book that was an international best seller in 2018. I’m honestly not sure I want to read this but it was loaned by a friend so I feel obliged to at least give it a try. Whether I finish it remains to be seen.

The subject matter alone makes The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, a challenging book. It’s described as the ‘true’ story of how a Slovakian Jew fell in love with a girl he was tattooing at the concentration camp. But I’ve also seen articles challenging the accuracy and authenticity of the ‘facts’ presented in the book. And that’s making me feel particularly uncomfortable.

What I just finished reading

Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance was on my #15booksofsummer reading list but I ran out of time. It was going to go back into the bookcase but so many other bloggers commented that it was a wonderful novel, that I changed my mind.

A Fine Balance

I’m really glad I did because this turned out to be exactly the kind of novel I love. It’s a long book – more than 600 pages – but it’s so well written that it just zips along.

A Fine Balance follows four strangers whose lives intersect at a time of political turmoil in India. The government’s declaration of a State of Internal Emergency sparks a wave of arbitrary violence and brutal repression. This is a story of the hopes and dreams of three men and one woman and how they discover friendship in adversity.

What I’ll read next

Now this is never an easy question because I’m such a ditherer.. Right now I have a hankering for a classic so could go for one of the books from my classics club list . When I was having a root around the bookcase a couple of nights ago I came across Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent which was published in 1932.

All Passion Spent

I’ve seen this described as her best and most popular novel, “irreverently funny and surprisingly moving”.  All Passion Spent is the story of an 88 year old, newly widowed woman who refuses to let her children dictate how she spends the rest of her life. I’ve dipped into the book and liked what I found on the first few pages.

It could be interesting to follow this up with something by her friend and lover Virginia Woolf. A re-read of To The Lighthouse is long overdue but I also have The Voyage Out which I’ve never read.

Or I could go down the path of gardens given Sackville-West’s status as a garden designer par excellence. Maybe Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim would be a fitting companion read.

Invariably I don’t make the decision until right at the moment when I’m ready to start reading something new.


Those are my plans – what’s on your reading horizon for the next few weeks?


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Heart-rending Homage To A Devoted Mother [review]

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

Scholastique Mukasonga’s parents and siblings were victims of the hatred directed towards members of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. They were were forcibly relocated from their village amid growing violence perpetrated by the country’s Hutu majority.

The Barefoot Woman is Mukasonga’s touching testament to her mother Stefania; a fierce but loving woman determined to protect both her family and the ancient traditions of her people.

Like all the families who took refuge in makeshift huts at Nyamata, the Mukasonga family was on constant alert for Hutu soldiers. They regularly pillaged the houses, looking for weapons and people plotting to escape to nearby Burundi. Scholastique’s mother Stefania had only one thought:

… one single project day in and day out, one sole reason to go on surviving: saving her children.

She devised ever more ingenious places for her daughters to hide and ways for them to escape. Stefania left piles of wild grass in the fields just big enough to shelter three little girls, cut secret doors into the walls of their home and hid food supplies underground.

Over time Stefania “developed a sixth sense, the sense of an animal forever on the lookout for predators”. She left nothing to chance, often calling a dress rehearsal at night so that when the raiders came, the children knew precisely what to do. The hiding places fooled no-one, least of all the soldiers searching for the Tutsi “cockroaches”, but Stefania never relaxed her guard for a second.

Resolve and Determination

The Barefoot Woman is a dark tale of life in exile. Despite the constant fear of death and rape, the displaced families put their energies into re-creating some semblance of their past life. It took imagination and tenacity because the land selected by the Hutus for the displaced Tutsis was not very fertile. By tradition herders of cattle, the Tutsis had also seen all their cows burned by the Hutus.

But they still managed to sow, grow and harvest their crops of beans, corn, and sorghum, send children to school and arrange marriages for their children.

Mukasonga also relates how Stefania and the other village women try to protect their old traditions. They weave grass cradles for babies; tell stories around the fire in the inzu ( a family straw hut) and teach their feet to see in the dark so they can walk home at night without injury. But when the inevitable happens and someone falls ill, the women turn to their stores of plants, tubers and leaves to mix a remedy.

A Way of Life Destroyed

Mukasonga’s memories of these rituals and her mother’s insistence on keeping up the old practices, are suffused with affection. She brings the woman to life from the dry, cracked layers of mud on her feet to the pipe she smokes at the end of the day.

But it’s a way of life that has disappeared. There are precious few houses like Stefania’s left in Rwanda today, Mukasonga recalls, except for those in museums …

… like the skeletons of huge beasts dead for millions of years. But in my memory the inzu is not that empty carcass, it’s a house full of life, of children’s laughter, of young girls’ lively chatter, the quiet singsong of storytelling, the scrape of the grinding stone on the sorghum grains, the bubbling of the jugs full of fermenting beer, and just by the front door, the rhythmic pounding of the pestle in the mortar.

The Barefoot Woman is a tribute born from horror. Thirty-seven members of Mukasonga’s family were killed by Hutus in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Her childhood home of Nyamata saw some of of the greatest atrocities during that period with an estimated 10,000 people murdered inside the local church and thousands more outside. 

Mukasonga escaped this fate because she had won education scholarships that took her out of the village. In 1973 she had fled to Burundi following a wave of attacks on Tutsi students at her college.

A Daughter’s Tribute

The Barefoot Woman is an attempt to fulfil via language the daughter’s duty she could not fulfil in person. In the beginning of the book we learn that Stefania would often gather her three daughters and tell them “A mother’s dead body is not to be seen. You’ll have to cover me, my daughters, that’s your job and no one else’s.”

But Stefania’s body was never found; her “poor remains dissolved into the stench of the genocide’s monstrous mass grave” so all her daughter has to offer are words/

I never did cover my mother’s body with her pagne. No one was there to cover her. Maybe the murderers lingered over the corpse their machetes had dismembered. Maybe blood-drunk hyenas and dogs fed on her flesh. …. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.

This is a book written first and foremost out of love. But it exists also because Scholastique Mukasonga refuses to let her story and that of her family While its focus is on one family’s experience it is also the story of suffering by all minority groups forced to abandon their homes. Impossible to put down. Impossible to forget.


The Barefoot Woman: Fast Facts

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga was translated from the French by Jordan Stump. It was published in 2018 by Archipelego Books. You can read extracts Literary Hub or the Tin House site

Scholastique Mukasonga was born in Rwanda in 1956. When she was four years old her family was displaced to an under-developed district of the country. She left Burundi to settle in France in 1992, two years before the Rwanda Genocide.

Her 2017 memoir Cockroaches was a finalist for the LA Times Charles Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose. 

The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis: Extract

The Jewellery by Caryl Lewis

Chapter 1

“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy…”

Mari opened her eyes. Down on her knees, she saw shapes forming in the dark. There came that fluttering sound again. At the little window, day was close; the wind’s thin breath a cloud on the glass. A flutter, like fingers leafing through pages. She got up to look. Against the cold glass, a butterfly beat a muted prayer for escape. Her pupils got darker, helping her penetrate the grey. When she was a little girl they’d say butterflies were just leaves reincarnated. She’d mulled it over then, her mood lifted on a fancy of fortunes befalling a girl in a world where one small leaf can bloom all colours, sprout wings, up sticks and up up away into the sunset. She shivered. 

The noise had awoken Nanw, who stretched out lazily. Mari went over and chattered to her softly to keep her calm. The sea was breathing in the distance, dark against the growing light, and seagulls were being flung across the air like litter. The butterfly nagged gently like an old flame. Should she let it outside, it was sure to die, weak and failing as it already was from a winter in the cottage. But it was desperate to be let go. Nanw sat up, enchanted by the ragged wings. Mari caught it at the corner of the glass, cupping her hands around it as though she were receiving communion. She nudged open the sash with her elbow, the wings pulsing weakly on her palm. She stretched her arms out and a gust snatched the insect away across the garden. Now you could hear the ringing of wind in the rigging of boats below. Fear crept through her. She banged the window shut and drew the loose folds of her nightie around her. She gazed into the gloom, the butterfly’s powder a gold dust on her fingertips. 

“Amen,” she whispered. 

Nanw was mimicking her by leaning against her cage’s grid, arms clutched round her body. The weak light glowed silver in Mari’s hair, and ruby across the dark face of the monkey. 

The chill had crept up Mari’s spine so she fetched a cardigan and hooked it over her shoulders. She let the cat into the bedroom to keep Nanw company while she had her breakfast. 

The cottage was nestled on a remote road above the sea, surrounded by crooked trees. Opposite the low doorway, across the road, was an old stile marking the way down to the beach. The three small rooms were filled with clutter. Mari’s treasures choked the narrow kitchen passage, and vintage clothes hung along each wall. Papers were piled all anyhow, while the thick walls were so badly affected by damp that she had to keep a fire going in the bedroom. She went barefoot along the lino to the kitchen and lowered an egg on a spoon into a saucepan of water. She dried the spoon on her nightie, thrusting it into some cranny of an old wireless needing technical TLC after Nanw broke the aerial in a fit of temper. Mari listened to the radio’s far-off voices as she made herself a cup of tea. She left the teabag steaming on the sink. 

She waited for the egg to rap out in Morse code that it was ready, and she sat down to eat at that early hour. Mari finished her egg, leaving the shell rocking on the table. 

In the bedroom she put on two pairs of socks, and pushed her petticoat into the top of her trousers. Tying her money bag around her waist, she hid it under rolls of jumper. She threw some nuts over to Nanw who set to cracking them, eager for the next one even before she’d had the first. Years ago, the monkey would have gone with her mistress: she had been good for business. But times had changed; one nip and a customer would play hell. Mari crouched to say goodbye, stroking her little black hands, while Nanw tried to filch the bracelets chiming around Mari’s wrists. The cat half-woke and whipped her tail in envy. 

“Stay here now, sweetie; the cat’ll keep you company.” 

Mari stood up, letting go of the hands which curled back around the bars. Nanw turned her big eyes on her. Mari shut the door and went into the front room. She rummaged among the teddies in the toy chest and found a deep leather box. She held it tight against her breast like a child and carried it out carefully to the car, locking the door behind her. 

Squalls stifled the sound of the engine starting up. The clock’s staccato said quarter to five. Dry leaves and rubbish were being blown about the garden. From her cell, Nanw saw the car depart, and she glanced out into the garden at a small colourful leaf clutching at blades of grass. The cat began to purr. 

The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis, translation from Welsh by Gwen Davies. Published September 2019 by Honno. This extract is published with the permission of the author and publisher. My review of the novel is here.

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