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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?

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso [Review]

woman next door

Every now and then you find a book which demonstrates that good storytelling doesn’t require pyrotechnics or literary gymnastics. Of course there will always be room for authors (and their readers) who want to push the boundaries and experiment with time frames, point of view and punctuation (or lack of).  But if the story is as good and the characterisation as sharp as Yewande Omotoso has delivered in The Woman Next Door, then there really isn’t any necessity for uber stylisation.

This is the story of two women. They are neighbours in the upmarket enclave of Katterijn in the suburb of Constantia, Cape Town. Hortensia James is black. Marion Agostino is white. Both are successful career women. Both are recently widowed. Both are strongly opinionated.   They hate each other.

Hortensia is a renowned textile designer originally from Barbados but who has lived most of her life outside her native land. In the opening chapters we meet her as a prickly octagenarian whose husband is close to death. She joins the Katterijn residents’  committee knowing that as the only black member  she will not be welcome. The meetings themselves are dull but Hortensia keeps returning “to mock them, to point out to them they were hypocrites.”

At the meetings her chief antagonist is Marion Agostino, the chairperson and her next door neighbour. Marion has made the residents’s committee her personal fiefdom, dominating the discussions and silencing all challenges to her authority. Having grown up in South Africa she has strong beliefs in the segregation of the country’s black and white population.  To her:

…. most black people were dangerous and they were causing trouble…As a young adult she had explained her country to herself in a way her children were refusing to adopt. With all their prodding it became difficult to see only what was comfortable, to keep looking away from what she’d rather not see. It was in this battle that Marion lost all possibility for happiness.’ 

When a legal claim is submitted by a black family that they are entitled to part of the Katterijn estate the scene is set for a battle between the two women. Marion sees the claim as threatening the stability of house prices. Hortensia believes such comments are driven by little more than bigotry.

The attitudes of these women are so diametrically opposed that it seems hardly likely they could ever learn to accept each other let alone find a way towards friendship. But an unforeseen event does force them to reconsider their relationship and to begin pulling down the armoury of sniping and bickering. As they progress towards acceptance and perhaps the beginning of a friendship of sorts, they are forced to reconsider their lives and the forces that have made them so angry and bitter.

For Hortensia we discover that the acerbic, scathing comments  she dishes out to everyone is the  persona she’s constructed to protect herself from the past.  It had started when, taken to England as a small child, she experienced suspicion and hostility. In college for example she was frozen out by her fellow students:

Hard stares from fellow students and lecturers alike; stares from people who looked through you, not at you; stares intent on disappearing you; and stares you fought by making yourself solid. People found it civilised to imitate the sound of a chimpanzee whenever they passed Hortensia in the corridors.

Success as a designer, a loving marriage with a successful corporate executive and a life together in Nigeria had slain those dragons. But they were reawakened when Hortensia discovered her husband’s infidelity.

She went from just resenting Peter, to the housekeeper, the driver, the market woman. People were slow, simple-minded; they all harboured ill intentions, seemed determined to be unhelpful, especially when their jobs required being of service…  She got good at chopping the legs off people, with no knife, only words. She was always angry and while, initially, she noticed it …  it slowly became what was normal. … Hating after all was a drier form of drowning.

For Marion, the face of control she presents to the world hides the fact that she is deeply worried about  her financial situation. A highly successful architect in her own right she had given up her practice business to raise a family. When her husband died she discovered he’d mismanaged all their affairs. Instead of living out the rest of her life in the style to which she has become accustomed she now faces a string of creditors, poverty and public humiliation. Unsurprisingly she feels angry at what she considers is a betrayal by her husband.

Neither of these women are very likeable characters initially but as we move through the book we do get a deeper appreciation of why they are as they are; and begin to find sympathy for them. The Woman Next Door doesn’t however fit squarely into the category of a ‘feel-good’ novel.  Yes it’s bursting with humour, warmth and sensitivity but it also brims with finely nuanced themes about the experience of the outsider and the nature of man’s capacity to forgive.

Omotoso adroitly places the story of reconciliation between two individuals within a broader theme of reconciliation with the past of a nation. Marion in particular is forced to confront the reality of how the white population treated the country’s black residents. Her researches into the ownership of Katterijn lands reveal some uncomfortable facts about its former existence as a slave estate.

There was a page with names, the script nuclear, smudged. Marion read through some sentences at the bottom, Her teeth came together in her mouth and she tasted something unpleasant at the back of her throat. There were sketches of the different contraptions, straps and turning wheels. In a neat hand someone had explained how far to turn the handle before the first bits of bone would start to break.

It’s Omotoso’s deft handling of the personal and the ‘political’ themes that lifted The Woman Next Door above the ordinary for me. It’s a page turner in the sense the plot is well constructed and the dialogue between the two women so finely tuned that you feel compelled to read on and on. But the almost casual interjections of broader ideas cause you to pause and to reflect.

This is Omotoso’s second novel. It’s well worth reading. It would also make a really good film. I have Judi Dench or Maggie Smith in mind for Marion. Still struggling to think who would be a knock out Hortensia.


End Notes

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso was published May 2016 by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing. Thanks to the publishers for providing me with a copy via NetGalley

Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados. She grew up in Nigeria and moved to South Africa in 1992. Yewande trained as an architect and is a designer, freelance writer, poet and novelist. After completing a Masters degree in Creative Writing, her debut novel Bom Boy was published in 2011 by Modjaji Books. It won the 2012 South African Literary Award for First-Time Published Author, was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize in South Africa as well as the M-Net Literary Awards 2012, and was the runner-up for the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Literature.

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