It’s World Book Day – Thursday 6th March 2014. All over the country primary schools are alive with young people dressed as their favourite book character. I’m using World Book Day to recommend five reads from beyond the UK. (Nothing is implied by the order in which these are presented.)
1. Donal Ryan (2012) The Spinning Heart
This is post-crash, rural Ireland. Many people are suffering because of trickery and corruption, or because benefits and services have been reduced, or from the fallout from a murder and a kidnap. The format of the novel is original and effective: it is narrated through the individual voices of the many villagers who feature in the story.
This narrative form helps perceptions develop, especially of the man Bobbie Mahon. Some of the voices/characters don’t quite ring true, for example the two kidnappers. The men emerge as very focused on sex, as violent and physical. The women die young, or put up with a great deal from their menfolk, and some get on with life.
Winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2013. Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013.
2. Hanna Krall (2006) Chasing the King of Hearts
This was a hard, sometimes excoriating read. It follows the search by a Polish and Jewish woman Isabel for her husband in the second world war. I started it, left it, went back to it and read it from the beginning again.
One of its themes is how war makes normal codes of moral behaviour quite redundant. For example, it is hardly shocking that Isabel allows a man who has raped her to describe himself as decent, because he didn’t demand more of her, turn her in or shoot her. Or that she volunteers to use her nursing skills to work with Mendel and survives. On the other hand a curious economy of exchange and favours emerges to which she is faithful, including bargaining with God. Nor does everything come good at the longed-for moment of reconciliation. War changes everything, even love.
The novella is written in a rather bland, flat style, which means that the accumulating atrociousness of the situation can be told as one thing after another. Teeth are knocked out, shoulders dislocated, escapes made, suicides committed, poison bought, names exchanged until nothing matters any more than anything else. This too is horrific.
Another novella from the excellent Peirene Press. Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm
3. Jhumpa Lahiri (2013) The Lowland
From India and USA
This family saga followed Subash and his family from childhood in Calcutta to old age in New Hampshire. There were two very different brothers and the reader is curious – how will their paths differ? The more outgoing Udayan, joins the Naxalites and is summarily executed in front of his parents and wife. Subash marries his wife Gauri because she is pregnant. The story then follows her move to the US, her frustrations with being a mother, and wife to her brother in law. She leaves for a career in California when the child, Bela, is still quite young,.
From this point the novel presents parenthood in various forms – Subash’s who lets everyone believe he is Bela’s father, Gauri’s who left her daughter behind, and Subash’s parents in Calcutta. Bela matures and we know that she will have to confront the truth about her parents, and how her life in America relates to her family’s roots in Calcutta.
Jhumpa Lahiri is a neat writer but while the novel is crammed with events, they are narrated in short paragraphs, with little differentiation between their significance. The questions about family, obligations, genetics, political action vs personal fulfilment, involvement in political murder –are hardly posed, simply offered.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013
4. Ruth Ozeki (2013) A Tale for the Time Being
I loved this novel from Canada and Japan, which had some important things to say about the world and old women! You will find my review here.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.
5. NoViolet Bulawayo (2013) We need new names
From Zimbabwe and USA
Darling lives with her friends in Paradise a shanty town in Zimbabwe. Life used to be better, but during Mugabe’s rule it got worse. Darling and her friends view the adult world through eyes of innocence, games, tree climbing, thieving trips to the affluent suburb of Budapest. This section of the novel is very strong on Darling’s voice, on her ambitions, hopes etc.
She escapes to America, to live with her aunty, in ‘Destroyedmichygen’ and grows up fast as a strange talking illegal African girl. We get snapshots of episodes in her life: a wedding, an illicit trip to the mall, watching x-rated movies with school friends, and a discursive chapter on why people leave. What comes through are the pains of exile, of not living at home.
I enjoyed the strong voice here, the evocation of children’s lives in Zimbabwe. The feistiness and inventiveness of children living in poverty.
This is the fourth of my recommendations nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2013. What a good year it was for world books.
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