Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

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.

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.

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.

Captivating Tale of Loss And Longing: The Jeweller [review]

The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis. Translator: Gwen Davies

With The Jeweller award-winning author Caryl Lewis has created a gem of a novel about the despair and longing of a solitary woman. 

The Jeweller

Mari lives in a small cottage on the edge of a West Wales seaside town, alone but for her pet monkey and photographs of strangers. By day she operates a market stall selling vintage clothing and jewellery collected by clearing the houses of the dead. By night she works on shaping and polishing an emerald so its rare ‘fingerprint’ can be revealed.

In the midst of velvety green was a fingerprint – a bubble of air in a perfect pattern. …. A blooming foliage they called “garden” is quite common in an emerald but a single fingerprint is rare. The inclusion would make the gem easy to break but so lovely if she managed to cut it right.

As she searches for the inner beauty of her gem, Mari also searches for answers about her past. What she eventually discovers transforms her outlook on life and her relationships with the market stall holders who are her only friends. But the journey to a new life requires the loss of the old one, including the pet whose presence has sustained her through her darkest moments.

I loved the way Caryl Lewis shows the close bond between Mari and Nanw, her monkey. Nanw regularly misbehaves, throwing all her toys out of the cage, and driving Mari to distraction with her constant demands for attention. But then when night falls, and it’s just the two of them in the cottage, there is comfort in the monkey’s presence.

Mari lay back on the bed with a happy Nanw, nosetip touching nose, one gaze wrapped in the other’s as though it were a gift shared. Leathery hands combing human hair, both close to sleep.

Nanw’s decline and the effect it has on Mari is a deeply moving and almost mythical episode in the novel. I understood that it marked a watershed in Mari’s life, and that she could not move forward until this part of her life came to an end. And yet I was so rooted in this relationship that a large part of me felt the wrench when it came to an end.

This was the first novel by Caryl Lewis that I’ve read. It captured my attention immediately because Mari is such a richly complex and engaging character. She tries to give this impression that she has everything in her life under control but it’s all a front. She is in reality a desperately sad and vulnerable woman. It’s fortunate that she has in Mo, another market trader, a friend upon whom she can rely.

The Jeweller is beautifully written, with a lyrical quality that is a testament to the skills of Gwen Davies’ translation. If you want to experience this for yourself, read an exclusive extract from the opening of the book.

The Jeweller: Fast Facts

Cary Lewis. Photography by Keith Morris

Caryl Lewis is an award-winning Welsh-language author who has published eleven books for adults, three novels for young adults, and thirteen children’s books.

She won the Wales Book of the Year Awards in 2005 with Martha, Jac a Sianco  (Martha, Jack and Shanco), and Y Bwthyn (The Cottage) in 2016.

The Jeweller was published in Welsh as Y Gemydd in 2007.

Caryl Lewis has also written extensively for cinema and television.  Her credits include the adaptation of Welsh-language scripts for the acclaimed “Nordic Cymru” crime series Hinterland which was produced back-to-back in Welsh and English.

Her short story The Root can be read on line here

Prepare To Be Entranced By Agatha Christie’s Dream House

On a placid river bank in Devon, tucked away from inquisitive eyes, stands a Georgian mansion once owned by Agatha Christie. 

Greenway House was  a “dream house” and “the loveliest place in the world”  according to Christie. It was a place where ‘The Queen of Crime” could retreat from the public eye and surround herself with  family and friends. 

Agatha Christie home in Devon
Greenway, Agatha Christie’s retreat

Devon itself had a special place in her heart because it was where she was born.  She maintained a house there throughout her life although she and her husband also had a home in Berkshire. 

She often used her characters to extol the beauty of the region. ‘Devon is so beautiful, those hills and the red cliffs,’ Vera Claythorne says in And Then There Were None.  

And the county’s  hills, islands and coves  inspired the characters and locations  of many of her novels.   Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple both ventured to the area around Torquay (the town of Christie’s birth) to solve heinous crimes.

Greenway itself featured prominently in the 1956 murder mystery Dead Man’s Folly. In the book it is described as a small, white, one-storey building set back from the road with a small railed garden round it. The internal layout is that of Greenway as are the paths that wander through woodland and gardens down to the riverside quay.

The book’s description is so close to the reality that Greenway was used as the setting of the 2013 television adaptation of Dead Man’s Folly, with David Suchet in his last performance as Poirot.

David Suchet at Agatha Christie's home Greenway
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. The front porch of Greenway is in the background

A Bargain Home That Lasted A Lifetime

Agatha Christie bought Greenway in 1938 when she noticed it was up for sale. In her  autobiography she described it as ‘a house that my mother had always said, and I had thought also, was the most perfect of the various properties on the Dart.’

She and her husband, the noted archaeologist, Max Mallowen, went to view the property. It was as idyllic as she remembered from her childhood. The couple were astounded to learn the asking price of £6,000 was so low. 

They drove away excited by their visit. She records she told her husband: ’It’s incredibly cheap,’ I said. ‘It’s got 33 acres, it doesn’t look in bad condition either, wants decorating, that’s all.’

Greenway was never Agatha’s primary residence, it was the family holiday retreat—a place where the family gathered for Christmas and Easter, and where she spent her summers. Locally she was always known as Mrs Mallowen .

In 1940, while Mallowan was working for the Anglo-Turkish Relief Committee in London, Agatha Christie used Greenway as her base. The danger presented by German air attacks did not deter her from her work. She wrote to her agent Edmund Cork: ‘A great deal of air activity here – bombs all round are whistling down!’ 

War Disrupts the Peaceful Retreat

The Christies had to move out in 1943, when the house was requisitioned for use as officers’ quarters for the US navy. In January 1944 a flotilla of twenty four landing crafts together with their commanders and support staff, arrived in the River Dart from the USA. More than 50 captains and members of the planning team stayed in the house until just before D-Day.

When they were allowed back into their home after the end of the war it was to find two additions to the property. Agatha Christie was deeply unhappy about the 14 lavatories she had been left and went into battle with the Admiralty to get them removed.

The second addition was much more welcome. The library in the house was as a recreation and ‘mess room’ by the officers. During their six-month stay a landing craft captain who was a graphic artist, painted a frieze on the walls, depicting places visited by the flotilla in the 11 months it took them to reach Greenway.

Agatha Christie home
The frieze loved so much by Agatha Christie she wanted to keep it

The Admiralty offered to paint it over, but Christie refused, saying that it would be a historic memorial and she was delighted to keep it in her house. She enjoyed the ‘slightly glorified exaggeration of the woods of Greenway” and a representation of a pin-up girl in the nude “which I have always supposed to represent the hopes at journey’s end when the war was over.’

Agatha Christie at Home

In 1959 Greenway was made over to Christie’s daughter, Rosalind, who moved to live at the estate with her husband in 1968. After Christie’s death in 1976, Rosalind took on the role of safeguarding her mother’s work and reputation. The family donated the house to the National Trust in 2000 giving fans of the writer the chance to walk in her footsteps. 

I visited Greenway in 2018. The National Trust has done a fabulous job in preserving the spirit of the place (working closely with her grandson). As you walk through each room there are signs everywhere of how the Mallowen family spent their time at Greenway.

There are dominoes and card games laid out in front of the fire in the drawing room which also boasts a Steinway Piano. The hallway is festooned with picnic baskets and walking sticks and of course the library is walled with bookcases.

One of the many china collections owned by Agatha Christie

Agatha and her husband seem to have been great collectors. There are little silverware items on a bedside table, lots of china in display cabinets and – the most wonderful assembly of lacquered and wooden boxes. Every room looks as if the family has just left and will return in a few moments.

Personal items in the main bedroom

It’s a delight to wander through the house but if you decide to make your own trip there, do make time to take in the gardens. I was there in the midst of a very hot summer’s day but if you go in spring you’ll apparently find a magnificent display of rhododendron and camellias. If ever there was a good reason for me to pay a return visit, this would be it.

This is part of a series in which I look at the homes that provided shelter, solace and inspiration for some of history’s greatest literary talents. If you’ve made a literary pilgrimage do leave a comment to describe your experience.

Dystopian crime mash up The Last fails to deliver

The Last by Hanna Jameson

Dystopian fiction meets crime thriller in Hanna Jameson’s much-praised debut novel The Last

This is not a harmonious marriage however. The Last is novel in which the two genres seem to be in conflict with each other instead of blending into a new and exciting narrative style.  

The Last by Hanna Jameson

The premise is an interesting one. A nuclear war has destroyed much of the Western world. The guests at a hotel deep in the Swiss countryside learn the truth in text messages sent hurriedly by their loved ones in the destroyed cities.

Twenty people remain in the hotel, cut off from the outside world and fearful whether help will arrive.  As days roll into weeks and the sun never shines or rust coloured clouds produce rain, the survivors become ever mor fearful for their future.

Some cannot deal with the uncertainty and immediately make plans to get to the nearest airport, ferry port or border. Others decide that suicide will bring a blessed relief. 

In the midst of the upheaval, the body of a young girl is found in a water tank. No-one recognises her or even recalls seeing her in the hotel. But it’s clear that she was murdered and the murderer may still be in the hotel. 

As the days progress, one guest, the American historian Jon Keller,  decides to make it his mission to search for the truth about the girl. He begins keeping a daily journal of events,  interviews with all the remaining guests and searches of the 1,000 rooms.

It’s through Jon’s eyes that we follow the reactions of his fellow guests, all of whom, have, until now been strangers. 

The Last contains plenty of dramatic incidents. The survivors discover bandits in the woods outside the hotel; an expedition to find food in the nearest city results in death and one guest suffers a drugs overdose.  

An Overcooked Narrative

But it felt like  Hanna Jameson was trying too hard, throwing just about everything possible into the mix. Strange footsteps in the night. A hotel with a history of unexplained deaths. Guests who disappear never to be seen again. Rivalries between the survivors. Uncertainty on who can be trusted and who is a danger.

If this is all familiar ground so too is Hannah Jameson’s depiction of how a group of people would react in the fact of catastrophe. They argue a lot; challenge the right of anyone to lay down rules; resort to violence; worry about radiation poisoning; suffer guilt about family members etc etc.

But it’s hard to get attached to any of them because they are ‘types’ rather than characters; people who seem to have been chosen because they can prove useful to the narrative.

We have a doctor, a chef and a security expert . One guest is a student who turns out to be an ace with a gun. There’s also a guy whose job involves working with traumatised children – very handy for trying to tease info out of the two children in the hotel.

I never felt invested in any of these characters and in fact kept forgetting who they were. Their tendency to speak in platitudes and cliches didn’t help make them any more real.

… what we think of as right and wrong doesn’t exist anymore. Everything that happened before, it has no meaning now.

Murder Mystery Fizzles Out

Throwing a murder into the mixture didn’t really help. It’s honestly a mystery why it was even included because it’s not particularly central to the story. No-one in the hotel other than Jon seems particularly bothered about finding the murderer; they’re more concerned with just surviving. And even Jon seems to forget about his quest periodically.

I could be entirely wrong but my suspicion is that the murder element was slotted into the plot part way through the writing; a kind of force fit rather than an integral part of the story.

The Last is a promising concept. It’s been compared to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Stephen King’s The Shining but the comparison doesn’t work. There’s little of Christie’s sense of mystery and even less of King’s menacing atmosphere.

Though it’s a fun read in many ways and does keep you reading the pages, ultimately the book doesn’t live up to its original promise.

Haunted by A Gentle Survivor [Review]

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

It would be hard to find a book on my shelves with a less exciting title than A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. The synopsis didn’t sound promising either. Which is why this novella remained on those shelves unread for two years.

But all assumptions this would be a dull book were swept aside after only five pages. Although nothing of any great magnitude happens throughout the 160 pages, this tale of a quiet, unassuming man who lives a simple life in an alpine valley, captivated and bewitched me.

A Whole Life

A Whole Life is exactly what it says on the cover: the tale of the entire life of one man.

That man is Andreas Egger. His life is unremarkable. He never achieves greatness. He can’t boast of sporting prowess or exceptional intelligence. Nor can he point to awards or inventions. He’s just a dependable man, a hard worker who simply wants to get on with life as quietly as possible.

He was a good worker, didn’t ask for much, barely spoke, and tolerated the heat of the sun in the fields as well as the biting cold in the forest. He took on any kind of work and did it reliably and without grumbling.

Andreas arrives in an Austrian mountain village as a four year old boy. He dies more than 70 years later, only once having left the valley when called up towards the end of the 2nd World War.

Life does not prove kind to this man.

Andreas has no clear memory of his mother, never mentions any father. The relative who gives him a home beats him so extensively, he’s left with a permanent link. But somehow Andreas, slow of speech and awkward in his movements, survives.

He grows strong, stronger than any other man in his village. He finds love only to lose it after a pitifully short time; escapes death in avalanches and storms while working as a cable car mechanic and endures hell as a Russian prisoner of war.

When he returns to his valley he makes his home in a sparsely furnished one room shed embedded into the hillside. To earn a living he reinvents himself as a guide for tourists on walking holidays.

Sometimes it was a little lonely up there, but he didn’t regard his loneliness as a deficiency. He had no one but he all he needed and that was enough.

Despite all the hardships, Andreas never descends into self pity or recriminations. Never rages against his ill-fortune. He’s not without hopes and desires but doesn’t fret about what might have been.

In his life he too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again. But he was still here. 

Andreas simply accepts his lot and endures whatever life throws at him. One day at a time.

Amazed By Life

The Whole Life gives us a tender portrait of an unassuming man endowed with more capacity for forbearance than most individuals. Seethaler’s narrative voice is equally calm and measured throughout, drawing us ever deeper into Andreas’ inner thoughts as we follow every twist and turn of this man’s life.

The other villagers view him as an odd figure, “an old man who lived in a dugout, talked to himself, and crouched in a freezing cold mountain stream to wash every morning.”

But though his needs are simple, Andreas is not a simple man in the sense of lacking in intelligence. He delights in the beauty of the landscape around him. He marvels at the changes in the world around him; the arrival of electricity in the valley, man’s landing on the Moon. He accepts them all in the spirit of “silent amazement” and wonder, with which he views his own life:

He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn’t afraid of death. He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.”

This is an evocative, tender novella, lacking in sentimentality yet deeply moving in its portrayal of a quiet soul.

Fast Facts: A Whole Life

Robert Seethaler was born in Vienna but grew up in Germany.  

A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins, was his fifth novel but the first to be translated into English. It was published in 2015 and went on to be shortlisted for 2017 Booker International Prize and the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award

I read this as part of my booksofsummer reading list.

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