Category Archives: African authors

Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee [Booker Prize 1983]

I approached J. M Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novella The Life & Times of Michael K hoping against hope it would be easier to penetrate than the last novel I read by him: The Schooldays of Jesus. I found the latter simply baffling as you can tell from my review. The Life & Times of Michael K fortunately proved more straightforward though I can’t say that reading it was a wholly satisfying experience.

It started in a promising fashion with the introduction to Michael, a simple man who has spent his childhood in institutions and works as a gardener in Cape Town. Michael tends to his mother,  a domestic servant to a wealthy family. Michael is a man deformed by a hare lip, a disfigurement which makes people look down on him. They view him as a simpleton, as a doctor later explains:

He is a simpleton, and not even an interesting simpleton. He is a poor helpless soul who has been permitted to wander out on the battlefield, if I may use that word, the battlefield of life, when he should have ben shut away in an institution with high walls, stuffing cushions or watering the flower beds.

Lacking in intellectual power he might be but Michael is a good son who wants to do right by his mother. When she becomes very sick and decides she wants to return to her birthplace, he quits his job so he can take her home. But the country has descended into civil war and martial law has been imposed so he cannot get the proper permits for travel out of the city.   He builds a shoddy rickshaw in which he pushes his mother through the streets and onto the main highways out into the countryside. It’s an arduous journey. The roads are full of armed convoys from whom they must hide and other travellers who want to steel their possessions. At night they have to sleep hidden among straggling roots and wet bracken with only  cold food to eat. His mother’s health declines further but when she dies Michael resolves to carry on alone to deliver his mother’s ashes.

He finds the farm at Prince Albert where his mother once lived but it is abandoned and desolate. Soon, Michael is living in a dug-out, communing with nature, making a garden where he grows melons and barely surviving. His melon-growing might have been highly allegorical but if so its significance was rather lost on me.

Every so often Michael’s quiet and happy existence is disrupted by a war he feels is nothing to do with him. He finds himself in and out of prison and labour camps that have sprung up all over the country, forced to work, and to answer questions he does not understand. His act of defiance is to rejecting the food his captors give him and then to escape, managing to return to the apartment where he and his mother lived in Cape Town. He is still the mute and simple man he was at the beginning, he acknowledges. But he has learned some things from his experiences. One was how to be a better farmer.

The mistake I made, he thought, going back in time, was not to have had plenty of seeds, a different packet of seeds for each pocket…. Then my mistake was to plant all my seeds together in one patch. I should have planted them one at a time spread out over miles of veld in patches of soil no larger than my hand, and drawn a map and kept it with me at all times so that every night I could make a tour of the sites to water them.

And that he is happiest when left alone. Everywhere he goes there are people who want to exercise their form of charity upon him, asking him questions.

They want me to open my heart and tell them the story of a life lived in cages. They want to hear all abut the cages I have lived in as if I  were a budgie or a white mouse or a monkey. … When my story was finished people would have shaken their heads and been sorry and angry and plied me with food and drink;women would have taken me into their beds and mothered me in the dark.  … I have escaped the camps; perhaps, if I lie low, I will escape the charity too.

That reflection and Michael’s interpretation of his experiences represented the flaw in this book for me. They come in the final pages of the novel and feel totally out of character. We’re now far removed from the man described by a doctor in the labour camp as ”an original soul . . . untouched by doctrine, untouched by history . . . evading the peace and the war . . . drifting through time”. Michael along the way acquires sufficient deep insight to ask searching questions and pass comments about whether his time in a camp is a process of self-education.

I understood this was a novel about passive resistance to oppression and about survival but Coetzee had me perplexed by his ending with its last-minute imposition of a “message”. He makes Michael ask: “Is that the moral of it all…that there is time for everything? Is that how morals come?”. Completely out of character, clumsy and unnecessary.  Spoiling an otherwise reasonable yarn.

Footnotes

About the bookThe Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee was published in 1983 by Secker and Warburg. My copy is a paperback edition published by Vintage in 2004. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1983.

About the author: John Maxwell “J. M.” Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. Apart from his fictional writings he is also an essayist, linguist, translator.  He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He relocated to Australia in 2002,  becoming an Australian citizen four years later. He has an impressive record with the Booker prize, the first author to receive the prize twice ( the other was Disgrace  in 1999 (reviewed here).  His novel Summertime, was shortlisted and was hotly tipped to win but ultimately lost out to  Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. He made the longlist in  2003 for Elizabeth Costello, 2005 for Slow Man  and again in 2016 with The Schooldays of Jesus.

Why I read this book: Quite simply I read it because it was one of the books I hadn’t got around to on my Booker prize project

 

The Monster’s Daughter by Michelle Pretorius #bookreviews

the-monsters-daughterThe Monster’s Daughter is an impressively ambitious debut novel by South African born Michelle Pretorius. Many first-time authors would have steered clear of multiple points of view, a plot which shifts between South Africa during the Boer War of the early 1900s and the post apartheid rainbow nation of 2010 and deals with issues of race, obsession and police corruption. But Pretorius dives in fearlessly to deliver a novel that blends historical thriller, sci-fi and police procedural genres.

It begins somewhere in the open landscape of the veld. As war rages between Britain and the Dutch Boers, a doctor in a British concentration camp begins conducting genetic experiments on female prisoners. Two children survive as freaks of nature: Benjamin and Tessa, white skinned, with remarkable piercing eyes and a genetic make up that makes them look far, far younger than their actual ages.

More than 100 years after their birth, Alet Berg, a female police constable, turns up in the backwater town of Unie in disgrace after an affair with a senior officer. Only the intervention of her father, a former high-ranking police officer, has saved her from dismissal. The townspeople don’t like her drinking and swearing, her colleagues don’t rate her and she resents the way she is relegated to menial tasks. Her chance comes when she is called to a remote farm where the body of a woman has been discovered burned beyond immediate recognition. Despite opposition from her commanding officer, Alet is determined to play a part in the investigation. As it proceeds, she is taken into the violent past of her country and that of her father during the apartheid era and the country’s clandestine involvement in the independence wars in Rhodesia and Mozambique.

Threaded throughout the investigation is the story of the two children created in an experiment to design the perfect race. Tessa is adopted by a white British soldier turned farmer and his black wife who rescued the baby from the concentration camp. They and their daughter have to keep moving from place to place in order to survive in a country which forbids inter-racial relationships. As an adult, Tessa keeps moving, changing her name and residence many times over to avoid Benjamin who has fallen in love with her and believes she belongs to him. Thwarted in love, he becomes hard and cold, believing God has chosen him to be his instrument to eliminate oddities like him.

He could never get over the feeling that God was watching him, controlling him, withholding what he desired most until he did as he commanded. Though it had turned from a sharp pain to a dull ache the longing for Tessa was still with him every waking moment.

The Monster’s Daughter is powerful and atmospheric novel set in a context that is unsettling. The experiments that produce Tessa and Benjamin are precursors to those conducted by Mengele in 1940s Germany; then we have the brutal attitude of the British towards the Boers whose farms they raze under Kitchener’s Scorched Earth directive; and , coming into more recent history, the massacre at Soweto. Pretorius is clearly not afraid to delve into contentious social and political issues, showing how some ANC supporters were also culpable of acts of violence in their campaign against oppression.

The question of race features prominently as you’d expect given the history of this country. Pretorius makes it evident that there are no easy resolutions to the tensions created in the past. After Apartheid is made illegal, and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee begins its work to investigate human rights violations and consider amnesties, the resentment remains between white and black South Africans.

These blacks claim they were so oppressed. Let me remind you, nobody in this country has been more oppressed than the Afrikaner in the Boer War, or has everyone forgotten that? Our people suffered more for this land than the blacks ever did. ~but we didn’t go out killing everybody. We rebuilt the nation. We didn’t need to become terrorists or thieves or murderers to do it.

This is a novel that deals with complex moral questions but it doesn’t do so at the expense of characterisation. The individuals who people its pages are not mere ciphers spouting predictable positions, they are flesh and blood who laugh and love in the most difficult circumstances. Alet – as we’ve come to expect in fictional detectives – is a flawed individual but I warmed to her. She rubs people up the wrong way, makes mistakes but every time she’s knocked down she gets back on her feet to prove her opponents wrong.

The Monster’s Daughter isn’t without its flaws. There were so many characters I lost track at times and the final few paragraphs which summarise Alet’s future were unnecessary I thought. I do want to feel the characters I’ve come to know have a life after the book ends but that doesn’t mean I want it all tied up in a neat bow.

On the whole however I did enjoy this book and experiencing a promising new writer.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Monster’s Daughter was published by Melville House in July 2016. The paperback is published in July 2017 by Melville House.

About the Author: Michelle Pretorius was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. She gained an MFA in fiction writing from Colombia College Chicago and is currently studying for her PhD at Ohio University. The Monster’s Daughter is her first novel.

Why I Read This Book: I enjoy fiction from Africa and I love the country of South Africa. So when the publishers asked if I’d be interested in reading this, it wasn’t too difficult a decision. My thanks to Melville House and Michelle Pretorius for giving me many pleasurable hours.

 

Around the world in 10 books

global-reading

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by Broke and Bookish gives me carte blanche to write about anything that takes my fancy. I know many bloggers and readers have a goal this year to broaden their reading horizons by selecting authors from different parts of the world. I’ve been making slow but steady progress down that path for the last few years so I thought this week I would take you all on my reading journey via 10 books I’ve discovered. I’ve selected novels that either a strong sense of the country or culture or that provide an insight into its history.

We start our journey in Asia …

  • India: I had so much choice here. In the end it was a toss up between Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry or The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai at a time (1971) when the country was in the midst of internal upheaval and the Prime Minister uses her secret police to undermine the forces that threaten to disrupt the whole fabric of India. In the end I plumped for The Lives of Others which takes a similar path of portraying a family caught up in political turbulence. Mukherjee’s tale takes place a decade earlier than Mistry’s novel at a time when Communist forces were trying to de-stablise the country. I chose this novel because I had no idea about that aspect of India’s history but I also enjoyed the way Mukerjee showed how the breakdown in the political world was mirrored by a breakdown in the structure of one family.
  • Japan: Norwegian Wood by Murakami Huraki is an exquisitely written novel about love and despair but I chose this because it portrayed a different side of life in Japan. This is not the Japan of kimonos and geishas, of rituals and codes of behaviour but a world seen through the eyes of its young people. Huraki sets much of this novel in Tokyo in 1969, taking us through the student world of late night bars and all night cinemas with not a karoke microphone in sight.
  • China: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Saijie. I knew before reading this novella that intellectuals were considered abhorrent by the Maoist regime in the 1970s and often lost their lives as a result. But I didn’t know that the regime also tried to ‘re-educate’ them by sending them off to live with the peasants in the countryside. Saijie’s novel follows two young boys despatched to a remote village where instead of being cleansed of all tainted ideas, they instead discover new ones through the novels of Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert that they have to hide from the authorities.

Let’s pick up our suitcases and make a brief stop in South America  …

  • Colombia: The Armies by Evelio Rosero Diago. As you sip your next cup of coffee spare a few moments to think about the country from which many of those beans originate. Diago’s novel is set at a time when citizens of Colombia live in fear of armed gangs and drug dealers who hide out in the hills. They may be killed or they may have been made to ‘disappear’. This is what Ismael −a retired teacher – fears has happened to his wife when he returns home to find the place deserted. The result is a deeply moving story about a man who cannot seek safety for himself until he knows the truth about his wife.

And now we’re en route to Africa …

  • South Africa:  I was tempted to go for Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, a classic text set just before the introduction of apartheid but decided instead on a book that shows a completely different side of the country. Fiela’s Child  by Dalene Matthee is set well before the apartheid era but the issue of colour is still very much part of this novel about a white boy who goes missing from his woodcutter family and is found many years later living as the child of a native family. It’s a story that poses a question of which bond is stronger – that of the birth family or the family who raise and nurture the child?
  • Republic of the Congo: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou. This short novel brings some light relief from the serious issues with which a lot of African fiction is concerned. It’s set in a seedy bar and features the host of characters to be found propping up the bar and boring the pants off the other customers with their hard luck stories. In between we get some insights into their thoughts on life in the Congo, the delusional nature of the nation’s male population and the distrust of politicians and the nature of African politicians. It’s great fun to read and to try and spot Mabanckou’s numerous allusions to other texts.

And finally we land in Europe …

  • Finland: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. Until I picked this up from the Pereine Press catalogue I had no idea that Finland had experienced a devastating famine in the late 1860s. This novella holds nothing back in relating the misery caused by that event and the desperate lengths to which its citizens will go to save themselves. One of them – a peasant farmer’s wife from the north – is the focus of the novel. She abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. You read this with a sense of dread about what awaits her.
  • Hungary:  Satantango by László Krasznahorkai. This is an equally grim though fascinating book which exposes the way evil materialises to take advantage of poor and desperate peasants already suffering the misery of an oppressive political regime. Not a book that will make you happy but it will certainly make you thankful not to be living under such a regime.
  • France:  L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. Paris, the ‘city of lights’,  had its dark  side in the nineteenth century. Behind the magnificent facades and glittering wealth were people living in abject poverty amid open sewers and overflowing drains. They dreamed of a different life but – according to Zola’s theory of naturalism – their inherited flaws of character or the environment around them would always bring them down. Zola always bases his novels on meticulous research so you can be sure all the detail of living conditions is far from exaggerated.
  • Italy: Inspector Montelbano series by Andrea Camilleri. I’m going to end with something which could be considered light reading compared to most of the titles in this list. Ask people to name anything associated with Italy and though some will mention ‘art’, ‘heritage’ it won’t be too long before you hear ‘wine’ and ‘pasta.’  Food and Italy are inseparable  which probably explains why Andrea Camilleri devotes so much time to describing the meals eaten by his lead character Inspector Montelbano. Few pages go by without a scene where the Inspector pops into his favourite trattoria for lunch – not for him your typical working day lunch of a sandwich while sat at the computer. This is a full blown three course affair. When he gets home at the end of a long day chasing criminals it’s to find his housekeeper has prepared him something delicious for supper. Camilleri is pretty mean to his readers by listing all these fabulous sounding meals but the tourist board of Sicily must be thrilled because the Montelbano books are guaranteed to make you want to dig out that passport and head for the island.
How are your reading travels going?

If you also are trying to broaden your reading this year, do share your experience. Perhaps you found some other gems for the countries I’ve mentioned. If you need inspiration take a look at the recommendations of bloggers who have written guest posts about the literature from their country – you’ll find them all on the View from Here page.

10 under rated books

10gemsThis week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.

Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.

Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.

From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.

By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.

And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.

If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.

Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.

I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character.  Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.

The Spinning Heart  by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.

And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker  in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make  a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.

 

That’s my list – now it’s your turn  

What books have you read that you’d consider to be under-rated or hidden gems?

African authors to watch?

The longlist for the annual  Etisalat Prize for Literature has just been announced – this is a prize for first time authors from Africa so if you don’t recognise any of the names on this list, don’t panic.

As always South African and Nigerian writers dominate – maybe that has something to do with the fact English is widely spoken in those countries making it easier to get published? I know I’ve found it hard to get translations of authors from some of the smaller countries.  Eligible authors must hold citizenship in an African nation though they can be resident anywhere in the world.

The longlisted titles are:

We have to wait until March next year to discover the winner. There could be some gems here – maybe one of these authors could be the next Chimamande Ngozi Adichie.

Top ten Tuesday: book club recommendations

The Broke and Brookish this week is looking for suggestions for book club reading.

This wouldn’t be an easy one for me since our book club has rather wide ranging tastes – each person chooses a book so it reflects their taste rather than necessarily what the club as a whole likes. We went down the path of chick lit for a while turned me off but I’ve been introduced to some new authors in other month so it’s almost balanced out. For me a good book club read is one that has plenty of issues and dimensions that can lead to a good discussion – I want more than someone saying “I picked this because I thought it would be fun” and that’s all they can say about the book (believe me it has happened). The book choice doesn’t have to be particularly weighty but something to at least get your teeth into.

If I had my wishlist it would include:

book-club-recommendations

I’ve gone for a mixture of styles, subjects and country of origin of the author (too many book clubs seem to focus only on Western literature).

  1. The Many by Wyl Menmuir reviewed here. A Booker long listed title from 2016 that I thought superb. It keeps you guessing about what the main message is.
  2. Another Booker 2016 candidate – and one I would dearly have loved to see win – is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which traces the effect of Communist rule on three musicians. It’s an epic that stretches across centuries and countries. Not always easy to grasp it had tremendous emotional power. Reviewed here 
  3. The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Set in Japan, a wonderful elliptical story in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles.It’s a metaphor for how our lives are constructed by fragments. Reviewed here 
  4. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien. Set in a remote Irish village it examines what happens when a dictator on the run from atrocities he committed in his country attracts the attention of a lonely housewife. This book will have you thinking about actions and consequences and forgiveness.  Reviewed here 
  5. From Korea comes a book that was a knock out bestseller and not just in Korea. Please Look After Mom  by Shin Kyung-sook looks at the mother-child relationship which is thrown into question when an elderly mother goes missing in an underground station while on her way to visit her children. As they search for her they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.Reviewed here 
  6. Possession by A. S Byatt was my choice when I joined the book club. I wasn’t sure I had make the right choice until the meeting but surprisingly we had a great discussion about the different forms possession can take -whether for artifacts f the past or for another individual. Reviewed here
  7. Holiday by Stanley Middleton.Who is he I can hear you asking. Not surprised really.Despite having written more than 40 novels he has more or less disappeared from our radar. A pity. This is a short novel from 1974 in which a middle aged man facing a crisis is his marriage takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside. It’s the same resort he visited year after year as a child when his parents took him for their annual holiday. Reflections of those times  days mingle with more recent and more bitter memories. Good for discussions around nostalgia and relationships. Reviewed here 
  8. L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. It’s not the first book in Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series of 20 titles but this doesn’t matter too much. Read it for its superb rendition of life on the breadline in nineteenth century Paris. You can, if your book club is of an academic mind, get into all kinds of discussion about Zola’s theory of naturalism and inherited conditions. Reviewed here
  9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chances are that your club has already read Half a Yellow Sun which is an earlier novel by Adichie. Americanah gives a view of life for a girl who leaves Nigeria – one of the people who achieves the dream – only to find its not what she expected. Can she make a new life or do the ties that bind back to the homeland prove stronger? It’s a novel about choices you make to fit in with a new way of life and how experience changes you. It might sound rather sombre but there are some outstandingly funny scenes in a hairdressing salon. Reviewed here
  10. Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan: We hope this never happens to anyone. But it does. What if you were one of the passengers in a ferry or cruise liner that is sinking. You’ve got yourself into a lifeboat and are now waiting for rescue. But days go by, water and food supplies dwindle. Who gets to live in those circumstances?  Who deserves to die?  And who has the right to make those decisions?  Those questions lie at the heart of Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel. This isn’t the best written novel I read in 2013 but it was one that stimulated a lot of discussion in our book club meeting. Reviewed here 

Those are just some of the books I’d suggest. What would your recommendations be?

How to read short story collections?

20booksof summerMy list of titles for 20booksofsummer includes two short story collections. The Thing Around my Neck is a collection by Chimamanda  Ngozi Adichie that I picked up in the Oxfam stand at the Hay Festival.  At a library sale I found a copy of An Elegy for Easterly by the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah which earned her the Guardian first book award in 2009.

Both have been on my ‘to read’ pile for about three years so I thought it was time to pay them some attention. Problem is that I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories. I’ve read only one other collection so I don’t know how best to approach reading these two books. I’m hoping those of you who are more regular readers of this form can come up with some recommendations on how to get the most out of reading the collections.

Do I start at the beginning and just work through the stories in the order in which they appear? Or do I begin with the titular story on the basis that this could have special significance – was it chosen because it sets the tone for the collection perhaps? Or do I just choose randomly?

Is it best to dip in and out of the collection, mixing it up with another book? If I do that I’m concerned I might lose the flow but then if I just read one after the other will they start to blur into one?

So far I’ve just glanced over both of these books and have liked what I’ve seen so far. I don’t want to spoil the experience. All advice will be welcomed.

Snapshot May 2016

morris dancersI could pretend that I was up at dawn to greet the first of May in the time honoured way, followed by a bit of a caper around the village maypole. I did neither of these. Nor did I go and watch any Morris Men in action or take part in a May Queen parade. No doubt these things were going on somewhere in the UK today though I suspect there were more people heading to the shopping malls than the village green.

So what was I doing on the first of this month??

Just Finished

I finally got around today to finishing Devoted Ladies by M.J Farrell (otherwise known as Molly Keane), a novel which shocked readers at the time because it featured a lesbian relationship. I’d read about two thirds of it by the time I took off for my long trip to USA but it hadn’t grabbed my interest so I left it behind. Today when I picked it up I found it a lot more interesting and I could see why Keane has such a strong following. I still feel the book sagged in the middle and I wanted a lot more about the tense relationship and battle of wills between Jane and Jessica and less about two cousins Piggy and Hester who live in a run down country house in Ireland. I’m glad however I didn’t give up on it if only because of the way in the final pages Keane showed even a faintly ridiculous figure like Piggy could not forever tolerate being the butt of everyone’s jokes. If this is an indication of  Keane’s ability to create deep and complex characters, I’ll be keen to look for more of her work.

On the Horizon

I’m toying with opening The Gathering by Anne Enright, which won the 2007 Booker Prize. It was her fourth novel and somewhat of a surprise winner – although the unanimous choice of the judges it had been considered an outsider.  This is a novel in which the Hegarty siblings gather in Dublin for the wake of their brother Liam, an alcoholic who killed himself. His sister Veronica uses the opportunity to look through her family’s history to try and make sense of his death. I’ve read the first few pages just to get a feeling for the book and have fallen in love with the immediacy of Enright’s style.

My other option is another Booker prize winner, Life & Times of Michael K by J. M Coetzee which was the 1983 winner. It’s a short work which traces a journey made by Michael K, a poor man with a cleft lip, from Cape Town where he works as a gardener to his mother’s rural birthplace.  Along the way he encounters hardship and hostility. I’ve read only one other book by Coetzee (Disgrace which also won the Booker prize) and loved his style so am hoping Michael K will prove just as rewarding.

Voices from the Commonwealth

letstellthisstoryThe Commonwealth Short Story Prize gives writers from countries not often seen outside their home nation, a chance to reach a global audience. Let’s Tell This Story Properly is a collection of 16 stories from the 10,000 entries the award has attracted in the last three years. The selected stories represent some of the “most promising and original” entries and ones that evoked a strong sense of place according to the publishers. They take us from Asia to Africa and from the Caribbean to South Pacific.

As with most anthologies the selection ranges considerably in subject, style and quality. With many of them I experienced the same feeling I get with many short stories, namely that they end just when they are beginning to get interesting. Some I didn’t connect with at all, others I wondered why the writer felt there was a story to tell, but there were some that felt fresh in approach yet technically accomplished.

My favourites were Elbow by Khadija Mgardie from South Africa about a young orphan boy struggling to make his way in Johannesburg only to find that prejudice comes in many shades of black and Fatima Saleh, the story of a Sudanese refugee in Kenya who takes revenge after she is the victim of a gang rape.

Pride of place however goes the Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, the winner of the prize in 2014 with a story from which the title takes its collection. Let’s Tell this Story Properly is a tightly written and subtly humorous tale of a Ugandan widow living in Manchester, UK who discovers a web of deception about her husband and her marriage. When we first meet Nnam she is alone in her apartment, beginning the process of clearing out all signs of her husband. We begin with humour: Nnam feels she has to strip off her clothes in order to the clean up – an appropriate response given her husband “died in the bathroom with his pants down. He was 45 years old and should have pulled up his pants before he collapsed. The more shame because it was Easter. Who dies naked on Easter?” When Nmam travels back to Uganda for the funeral, the story takes on a more dramatic form.

If you want to find out for yourself how good this is, you can read the story on the commonwealth writers website here.

End Notes

Let’s Tell This Story Properly, edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, is published by Dundurn. My copy was provided by the publishers.

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

crythebelovedcountryIn Cry, The Beloved Country Alan Paton expresses his love for South Africa and his fear for the future of his homeland. His anxiety proved prophetic. In 1948, a few months after the novel was published, the country’s governing National Party implemented the apartheid  system of racial segregation which remained in place until 1994.

Paton sees a deterioration in relations between South Africa’s white and black inhabitants which he believes may have reached a point of no return. While he populates his novel with white South Africans characters who exhibit enlightened attitudes to the country’s black population, he fears that by the time whites as a whole understand the injustices experienced by African blacks, it will be too late. South African blacks will have already reached an irreconcilable level of hatred.

Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom gone …  cry aloud for the man and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end.

Paton uses multiple voices to dramatise the differing attitudes within the country and examine the causes for the breakdown. One of the factors he points to is the destruction of the tribal system and the failure to replace it  with anything that had the same cohesive effect.

Alongside the breakdown in human relationships, Paton points to a fracture in man’s relationship with the land they inhabit. The novel opens in the remote village of Ndotsheni, in the Natal province of eastern South Africa. It’s presented as an idyllic place yet by the second paragraph Paton’s tone has changed to show how the lush green of this setting is fragile. “Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and the man is destroyed”, implores his narrator. What Paton shows is how this appeal has been ignored and instead, the land has been exploited in the rush for gold. Its young people have deserted the farms,  flocking to Johannesburg in search of work only to be sucked up by its noisy, polluted, over-crowded streets and exposed to prostitution, crime and destitution.

Paton relays his message through a dramatic rendering of multiple and dissonant voices and through individual stories. The novel homes in on one man in particular, Kumalo – a simple, devout Zulu clergyman in Ndotsheni who travels to Johannesburg to help his sick sister. While in the city  he hopes to find news of his son and brother, both of whom disappeared after they left Ndotsheni for the city.

What he discovers leaves him disheartened and alienated. He finds his sister living a life of prostitution and alcohol, his brother has become corrupted by a love of power and his own importance and his son is accused of being an accessory to the murder of a young white man campaigning to improve conditions for black Africans. Kumalo sees evidence everywhere of the breakdown of community and values, of the exploitation of workers in the gold mines and the gaping racial and economic divisions that are threatening to split his country.  Returning to his village he begins a friendship with James Jarvis, a white farmer, the father of the murdered man. In his grief over his dead son, Jarvis re-examines his attitudes towards the country’s black population and begins to act to improve life for those who live hear his farm. Together both fathers reach an understanding and they vow to build on the ruins of the tragedy.

What impressed me about this novel wasn’t simply that it is written so beautifully, or that his characters are so well-rounded but that Paton doesn’t simplify the issues or offer any easy solutions. He provides a portrait of goodness, through people like Kumalo’s clergyman friend in Johannesburg, to balance the darkness. His ending suggests there is hope if somehow, someday more people can come together like Jarvis and Kumalo to work as one for their country. But he also acknowledges that it will take individual courage to overcome fear and take the first steps necessary for mending a broken nation. As Kumalo sits alone in the mountains on the day of his son’s execution, he sees darkness engulfing the land but he also sees that the dawn of black emancipation must come. It will not happen in his lifetime but come it will just as the morning dawn “has come for a thousand centuries, never failing.”  And then they can sing “for all the people of Africa, the beloved country, Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, God Save Africa.”

Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel of social protest but it is also a cry for one’s land, for justice and for hope. It’s as powerful now as it was when I first read it more than thirty years ago.

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