I visited Dhaka by accident. Twice. Back in the days when there were no affordable direct flights from London to Kathmandu I travelled with Bangladesh Biman via Dhaka. On the way out the first time, I don’t even remember changing planes at the airport. On the way back, after a month in Nepal and three and a bit in India, it occurred to me I could visit some Bangladeshi friends I’d made on a work camp in Gujarat and fly home via Dhaka.
In contrast to the three women who shape her through childhood to early middle age, the female narrator of Zadie Smith’s fifth novel is so insipid, she doesn’t even bother to tell us her name. Her mother, a beautiful Jamaican-born feminist, autodidact and activist who resembles Nefertiti, delegates parenting to her less ambitious husband while she plots her escape from the confines of gender, race and class. She barely tolerates our narrator’s intense friendship with Tracey, the only other brown-skinned girl at their North London dancing class. With her doting, but foul-mouthed white English mother and absent African Caribbean father (whom the little girl claims is on tour with Michael Jackson, when he’s actually in prison), Tracey’s allotment of advantage and disadvantage mirrors hers. Their relationship pirouettes around a shared passion and a suppressed mutual envy: while Tracey has the skill and talent to make it to the stage, the narrator’s relative stability with a loving father provide some compensation for her flat feet.
These two novels by established British authors, and published today by two independent presses, both feature an English woman in Africa trying to connect with family, against a backdrop of terrorist attacks and political unrest. Read on to discover the different ways these authors have explored these issues. Thanks to Salt and Legend Press for my review copies.
Busy with my birthday blog tour, my reviews have been somewhat neglected this month. So good to find a theme to link a couple of books together. Set in Britain, My Name Is Leon is about a boy’s struggle to adapt to being too black for adoption; set in the USA, The Lauras is about a woman revisiting the places she was fostered through the eyes of her own child.
The protagonists of novels are often called upon to act more heroically than they might have to in real life. So it can be refreshing to come across main characters who are as ordinary as the rest of us. Here I’m reviewing two novels about the loves and limitations of middle-aged men; the first in America and the second in the UK. Do these characters have enough oomph to keep our interest? Read on for my personal view. (And, for another take on masculinity and compromised morality, see my review of The Faithful Couple.)
Lately, I’ve been contemplating my identity as a novelist: how, on the one hand, it’s a simple statement of fact while, on the other, it represents an existential anxiety about what I’d be if I couldn’t describe myself in terms of something that sounds like a job. So these two novels exploring identity and make-believe, albeit with reference to film rather than fiction, have come along at exactly the right time.
The violence behind the beauty: The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James & Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
Emma and her friend Teddy are Americans visiting a forest reserve in southern India, to make a wildlife documentary about an innovative method of reuniting lost or injured baby elephants with their mothers. Manu, the younger son of a rice farmer, is drawn into the alluring world of ivory hunting following the death of his cousin by a rogue elephant. After being orphaned by poachers and kept in captivity and worked as a temple elephant, the Gravedigger has escaped his chains and is causing havoc in the villages on the edge of the forest. Through these three strands, Tania James tells an engaging and moving story of the conflicting interests in nature conservation. It’s testament to her talent as a writer that it is possible to feel sympathy for each of the flawed characters in this novel, even when none of them come out particularly well – except maybe the elephant who is, after all, just being an elephant.
Many of us are fascinated by where we came from: the parents and places that made us who we are. While it seems we need to leave home, either physically or geographically, to become ourselves, at some point we’re drawn back to reconcile ourselves to the gap between the reality of our personal origins and the myths we’ve been sold or created. Ambivalence about home is such a core feature of my own reading and writing, it’s a struggle to condense it into the ninety-nine words Charli Mills has requested this week on the theme of returning to a place of origin. Join me on a tour of my literary bookshelves while I contemplate my own take on the prompt.
On holiday in Port au Prince, Mireille Duval Jameson is taken at gunpoint from outside her parents’ luxury villa in front of her husband, Michael, and baby son. Held captive, with little food or water, in a suffocating room she calls her cell, by a gang of thugs headed by The Commander, she waits for her father to pay the ransom that will set her free. But Sebastien is not the kind of man to give in to terrorists. Having grown up in Haiti’s blistering poverty himself, although bringing up his family in the USA, he’s not prepared to hand over his hard-earned dollars to men unwilling to work for a living. Besides, rewarding kidnappers increases the risk that they’ll repeat their behaviour, upping the stakes each time. So, while Miri’s husband frantically phones his lawyer back home to see how far he can go towards raising the million-dollar ransom, her father remains calm, calling in a professional negotiator to bargain down his daughter’s price. But, like Kotler in The Betrayers, his principled stance has dreadful consequences for his child, as The Commander and his men inflict their rage on Miri’s body through repeated brutal acts of rape.
Pilgrim Jones has done something shameful: crashed her car into a bus stop and killed three young children, although she has no memory of doing so. Did she swerve to avoid the dog and lose control of the vehicle or, consumed by anger and self-pity after being dumped by her human-rights lawyer husband, was she reckless? Certainly her neighbours in the small Swiss town of Arnau consider her a child murderer and, despite the sympathy of the police, she realises she has to get away. With no particular plan, she flies to Tanzania and, dropping out of a safari, pitches up in Magulu, a shabby village on the road to nowhere, with one bus out a week. Here she finds herself a world away from her former travels with her ex-husband, from her role as a diplomatic wife. Here, where the doctor has no medicine, the policeman no power to uphold the law, violence or the threat of it is ever presence at the periphery of her vision (p82/83):
In the late 1970s, when teenage Jess’s schoolmates would be going to Benidorm for their summer holidays, she accompanies her mother to a summer course for English teachers in East Germany. They spend the other eleven months of the year attempting to interest their fellow residents of a small West Midlands town in the Morning Star, working through their TODO lists and holding branch meetings with just the two of them, cheered on by occasional news from their friends on the other side of the Iron Curtain, widower, Peter, and his daughter, Martina. With Jess’s father dead before she was even born, mother and daughter think and act as one, and Jess has no need for friends at the stuffy grammar-school where she’s marked out as an oddball. With her high ideals and youthful optimism, Jess is content to play her part in the fight against capitalism. Yet the time will come when Jess will question, not only the decisions of her own mother, but the values of the Motherland she’s dreamt of making her home.
Back in the day when I worked with people who had psychotic experiences, it could be something of a challenge to distinguish fact from fiction in the stories they told me about their lives. Now and then I’d find myself wondering what if their seemingly incredible account were actually true?
I was reminded of this on reading the latest novel for the Curtis Brown Book Group. Steven Strauss, twenty-something PA to the charismatic (and now deposed) founder of Resolute Aviation, Raymond Ess, is on a business trip to India with his boss. Since the company’s decline due to the collapse of a prestigious deal, Ess has been on sabbatical, or possibly sick leave. Returning to work with renewed vigour, Ess has a grandiose plan to rescue the company through the purchase of a remarkable invention he came across by chance when lost in rural India. Of course Steven doesn’t believe in the antigravity machine, but he’s persuaded to accompany his boss on his quest to find it in order to keep Ess out of the way while Resolute Aviation goes into receivership. What happens makes Steven – and we, the readers – question the boundary between madness and sanity. In the absence of gravity, what would keep us grounded to the real?
finding truth through fiction
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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