Norma by Sofi Okansen translated by Owen F Witesman
What bothered me about this novel was less the magic-realism element (although I’m not a big fan, the sheer zaniness of this one appealed), but that most of the story is related at a distance, offstage or in the past, such that, despite the intriguing plot, I didn’t really engage. But there’s no doubting that Sofi Okansen’s third novel is novel and radically different from her previous When the Doves Disappeared and I also welcomed the chance to read a novel with, like Liesel in my second novel, Underneath, a woman with Pre-Raphaelite hair. Thanks to Atlantic Books for my advance proof copy.
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou translated by Helen Stevenson
So Moses escapes to Pointe-Noire, where he finds a home with a larcenous band of Congolese Merry Men and among the Zairian prostitutes of the Trois-Cents quarter. But the authorities won't leave Moses in peace, and intervene to chase both the Merry Men and the Trois-Cents girls out of town. All this injustice pushes poor Moses over the edge. Could he really be the Robin Hood of the Congo? Or is he just losing his marbles?
Black Moses is a larger-than-life comic tale of a young man obsessed with helping the helpless in an unjust world. It is also a vital new extension of Mabanckou's extraordinary, interlinked body of work dedicated to his native Congo, and confirms his status as one of our great storytellers.
Not my words, I’m afraid, but the publisher’s blurb that made me think I’d like it, pasted here because I can’t construct a narrative out of the book I actually read. It started well, with some vivid scenes illustrating the highlight of the orphans’ week with the arrival of a priest to teach them a new song and dance in which they can forget the cruelties and deprivations of the regime. All that comes to a halt with the communist revolution. Despite this, and half the book set in the orphanage, I didn’t get a strong sense of the children’s lives. Instead, we dip into the back stories of the adults just before they leave the stage. And the escape, which is one of the novel’s main events, happens across only five and a bit pages, with no foreshadowing I noticed, significantly reducing narrative tension. Elsewhere, there is a pattern of events occurring seemingly haphazardly, and subsequently being explained, as if the story is moving backwards. I do appreciate that it’s meant to be satire but it didn’t work for me.
Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for my review copy. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood.
After October’s contests, the 99-word story challenge is back, this time to write about a chair on a porch. My effort shows I’ve got a bit rusty, but I have managed to draw on both these novels. The hair connection to Norma will be obvious; watching spinach grow is a nod to Black Moses.
The chair creaks like old knees, as it rock-a-bye-babys me back and forth, the gentle rhythm drowning my so-much-to-do. Pushed back and farther back, beyond the patio, the rose garden, the vegetable plot. Responsibility retreats beyond the fence, the neighbours’ house, the town. Over fields onto moors and farther, to where the land meets the sea. I could sit and rock and watch the spinach grow.
A clock chimes the work hour. Reluctantly, I rise. And stall. My head jerked back, chairbound by ropes of tangled hair. My supernatural hair knows my needs better than my brain.