Equator by Antonin Varenne translated by Sam Taylor
And also his fondness for the brother he always protected, and his love for the woman, a surrogate mother, who took the boys in. But when he hears about the equator, it becomes his lodestar. Pete is sure he’ll find redemption there.
In Guatemala, he’s hired to join the resistance against the corrupt government, but Maria, a Xinca woman and would-be assassin leads to a change of mind. Not that she’s grateful to him for it: Pete’s actions risk more lives than they save. But their journeys intertwine from that moment as they join another doomed mission, to rescue escaped prisoners from the penal colony of French Guiana.
I first met Pete towards the end of author’s previous novel, Retribution Road, one of my favourite reads so far this year. While that focused on the plight of the indigenous people of North America, Equator holds up a mirror to the sociopolitics of the south. Although I didn’t enjoy the sequel quite as much as the former, it’s nevertheless an entertaining read. Thanks to MacLehose Press for my review copy.
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Along with Bangladesh, Zambia is a country I’ve visited ‘accidently’, nipping across the border from Zimbabwe to view the falls from the north. So I enjoyed being reminded of that, and the appropriateness of the falls’ original name, mosi-oa-tunya, the smoke that thunders. But that doesn’t tell you much about the book!
It’s a big book, with nine main characters and each of its three sections enough for a novel in itself, but is there a big theme? Expecting a state-of-the-nation story to complement House of Stone, I was disappointed when, after the entertaining extended prologue, I spent an evening in Italy, followed by a trip to England, although the upper-class antics of Percy’s progeny was fun. Then I thought the theme might be ‘melting pot’ politics, and Africans’ reclaiming their country from the Europeans: beginning with two thirds white couples, all the grandchildren are black or brown.
It’s also about hair! Sibilla, clothed in a pelt that grows at an alarming rate, is a curiosity in Italy but feels more accepted in Lusaka where the whites are expected to be weird. Bernadetta shaves her daughter’s hair so she can attend school like a boy. Sylvia graduates from sex work to hairdressing, while Isabella marries an Indian who trades in wigs and goes on to harvest her daughters’ hair.
You’ll notice the female names, so is it a book about women’s lives? Or mothers in particular (mothers-of-the-nation?), most of them neglectful in some way? Or women’s dependence on men? Sibilla through her hairiness, and Agnes in her blindness, would struggle without their husbands to mediate between them and society, although both pursue their own paths in the end. But it’s men who do the big jobs: from Ronald Banda, engineer on the Kariba dam, his son, Lionel, researching HIV, to teacher, dreamer and activist Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, while the rich women kill time and the poor ones sell their produce, and sometimes their bodies, to make ends meet. Matha, a promising student of Nkoloso’s, and cadet on his ‘Afronaut’ programme, crashes when she becomes pregnant and the father is nowhere to be seen.
Towards the end of my reading, I decided it was about power: the power of nature in the falls, of electricity and, of course, the power of men, especially if they’re white. So good to turn the page and find that thought reflected back to me (p548):
Power’s just an accident that depends on the weakness of others.
Is the accident in question is the arrival of the colonials? Is this a novel about the West’s exploitation of Africa as a whole (p525):
The world hates black people but they love our biological advantages.
I suppose I’d have relished this theme more if Namwali Serpell hadn’t given quite so much narrative power to her white characters. The acknowledgements state ‘The Old Drift includes many fictions and quite a few facts’, suggesting a glorious patchwork of Zambian history, culture and myth. For many readers, the playfulness, along with the beauty and originality of the language, will be more than enough. While I enjoyed it, I’d have been happier with less. Thanks to Hogarth Press for my review copy.
I’m hoping to get back in the swing of weekly 99-word stories, so how do I get from these epics (which was one of last year’s prompts) to chisel (which is this week’s)? Firstly, Charli’s post bemoans her recent wrangles with technology and futuristic tech is one of The Old Drift ‘s many themes. Secondly, Equator is a classic hero’s journey, complete with the part I often overlook, the return to home.
Excitement flutters inside her like the start of a baby. Could it happen, or is it a fairy tale? Amy Johnson flying so high she could chisel a chunk of cheese from the moon.
“Who decided the hospital had to close?” A woman jabs a gnarled finger at the Belgian. “Was it you?”
Rather than solving a mystery, the detective has created one. But, Mrs Christie having summoned him for a reason, Matty wracks her brain for a solution that would appease her guests. “Buck up! We must all forgo some comforts in wartime. Even our dear King George.”
Tea with Mr Windsor
A street so grand the houses had names chiselled on the gateposts. Like gravestones. As at the cemetery, trees lined our route, pushing through the pavement at intervals, as if Briarwood was so healthy, vegetation reigned over stone.
I did not slurp from the saucer or forget to extend my pinkie on raising my cup. I did not drop jam on the Chesterfield or gobble up the dainty sandwiches in one bite. But I thanked the lady who offered me the plate as our host’s wife. How could I know she was the daily woman if she wasn’t introduced?