Tag Archives: In the Orchard the Swallows

My name in books

Here’s an idea that took my fancy which I first saw on A life in Books blog in August this year. Susan got it from someone who got it from someone else. It’s a satisfying idea: an acrostic of my name in books I have read in the last 12 months. The quality and my enjoyment of these books are variable. I reviewed many of the ones I thought were really good and have included the links to the reviews.

The Acrostic

220 Fernet BrC Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

A All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

R Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

O Outline by Rachel Cusk

L Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

N Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

E The Erl-King by Michel Tournier. Translated from the French by Barbara Bray

220 Little Girls

L The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen

O In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs

D Do It Like a Woman … and change the world by Caroline Criado-Perez

G Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

E Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

 

 

 

 

Excuse the little cheat. It was impossible without. Can you do one with your name books?

Woman Reading by Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924) in Tokyo National Museum via WikiCommons

Woman Reading by Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924) in Tokyo National Museum via WikiCommons

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5 books for World Book Day

Thursday 5th March is World Book Day. At my grandson’s pre-school they are asked to dress up as a favourite character from a book. I wonder what people would think if I accompanied my Gruffalo to pre-school down the village street dressed as Elizabeth Bennett.

Remove that thought and consider instead five world books – my contribution to the celebrations.157 book pile

  1. Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal (2008) Peirene Press. Translated from the Catalan by Laura McGoughlin and Paul Mitchell

The story concerns Conxa who at the age of 13 leaves her too-big family to live with her childless aunt in a nearby village in the hillside. It is the early 1920s. She lives a patient and level headed life, marries Jaume and has three children by him. The village community is everything, with its customs, rituals, tolerances and slow change until the Civil War intervenes and her husband is taken from her.

157 Stone coverThis is the quiet story of a woman living close to subsistence level, valuing family connections, friends, differences, and respect built up by years of honouring and community. Large events shape life, as do poverty, seasons, the demands of land, family and animals.

Each stone in the landslide is necessary to the existence of the landslide; each stone is affected by others around them; a landslide is dangerous.

One of my bookish pleasures is my subscription to Peirene Press, which each year brings me three novellas, translations of European fiction. Here’s a second Peirene publication.

  1. Under the Tripoli Sky, by Kamal Ben Hameda (2011) Peirene. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

157 Triploi coverA boy grows up in Tripoli before Gadafi comes to power. The heat of the city, the poverty of many families, the iron conventions that ruled the lives of women are all evoked. The child is lonely and spends much of his time with women. The novel is suffused with affection for women, their humour and warmth (including physical warmth), their resilience and their resolution in the face of bad treatment and abuse by men. We are treated to the physical sweet smelling environment of women, together with much spicy and tasty and sweet food. This is a book about the divisions of life between male and female, and adults and children in Libya at the time.

  1. Zebra Crossing, by Meg Vandermerwe (2013) Oneworld

157 Z Crossing coverFrom the southern end of the African continent comes a novel by a Zimbabwean about migration into South Africa. It’s a grim story of exploitation of immigrants and life on the underside of poverty.

Chipo is an albino Zimbabwean, who following the death of her mother from AIDs escapes with her brother George by crossing to South Africa. They live in a shared room with twins from their home village.

It is the year of the World Cup and there are rumours of xenophobic violence after the final. Chipo and her brother cook up a scheme with Dr Ongani to use Chipo’s appearance to cast magic for people who bet on the World Cup. This leads to her exploitation, imprisonment and eventual abandonment.

Recommended on Annecdotalist’s blog.

  1. In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) faber and faber

148 Orchard coverI reviewed this book in January 2015, recommending it for its fragility and poetic qualities.

In northern Pakistan the unnamed narrator has returned to his family farm and the pomegranate orchard, which he loved as a child. Everything has changed for he has been in prison for 15 years, since he was a boy of 14. He sits in the orchard and writes.

The novel asks, what sustains people in extreme pain? And what heals them?

  1. Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) 4th Estate

Shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014.

This is a long book about Ifemelu and her childhood boyfriend Obinze growing up in Nigeria at the time of military dictatorship. Both aspire to escape as soon as possible. Ifemelu goes to America where she stays for 17 years. Obinze tries to follow her, can’t get a visa, so goes to the UK and is deported. At the time of the story Ifemelu is planning to return to Lagos, and Obinze is a married man, made rich by some suspect property deals for a man known as Chief.

The story is framed by Ifemelu’s trip to get her hair prepared for her journey home, which takes hours and she has to travel from Princeton to a less salubrious part of New Haven to find the right shop. She reflects on her life in America, as a student, attempting to find work, even taking some sex work, and then beginning her blog, which is successful enough to bring her an income.

Obinze in the meantime has had to demean himself in the UK, rent the identity of another person to work and live in pretty squalid conditions. He is on the point of getting the right to remain through marriage when he is deported.

157 Americanah coverThe more interesting themes of this novel are to do with identity and home country, race, blogging, the effects of life on relationships, and vice versa. Much of the story is about the on-off communications between Ifemelu and Obinze during her absence, and then when she returns. In the end … Well it is a love story.

 

What world books would you recommend?

 

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In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs

There is a poetic quality to this book. It can be found in its sparseness and the observations of the flight of the swallows, the orchard of pomegranates. The title indicates a certain fragility, a carefulness, consideredness, by the inversion of the usual word order. The narrator is speaking quietly. He is considering extreme pain and suffering and we want to know what has sustained him.

148 Orchard cover

The narrator is unnamed, perhaps indicating he could be any human being. He tells the reader that he is now 29. He has returned to his family farm and the pomegranate orchard, which he loved as a child. The culture of the fruit, how it ripens, how it should be cared for runs through the novel.

He is not addressing us but Saba, the daughter of the local political leader. Everything has changed for he has been in prison for 15 years, since he was 14. He had made the mistake of falling for Saba. Her father had him beaten and imprisoned, without trial. His release was as arbitrary as his imprisonment and he has to learn all over again how to survive in his new environment. Although he has returned to the orchard of his childhood everything has changed. This is north Pakistan.

148 pomegranate treeHe is helped by the kindly Abbas, who takes him into his house. He also has a daughter, Alifa, whose future education is threatened by the Taliban’s campaign against schools.

The narrator is an innocent, who learned to survive in his prison through the use of his imagination: recalling Saba and the night they spent in the orchard, the swallows that fly there. His recovery is helped by the kindness of Abbas and by writing to Saba, who will never know of him. He must first face the physical difficulties.

I have had to learn again how to write. I had almost forgotten, and it was painful to grip the pen in my hand for any length of time. My thumb tingled with numbness, and my palm would freeze in agonising contortions so that I had to massage my grip free. But my two teachers, one old and one young, have been patient with me, and my long ago lessons have not left me entirely. I was soon able to sit and write with Alifa. It is true that my hand still aches as I work, that I must pause often and stretch my fingers before I take up the pen again, to allow the cramps to fade, but the process of adding words to the page brings so much pleasure that I do not mind the discomfort that accompanies it. In the cold morning air it takes a minute before the ink in my pen flows, and I write with it against the skin of my arm until it comes, not wishing to deface the pages of the notebook until I can write on them cleanly. (76)

This is a careful description of the physicality of handwriting. It points up one of the stylistic pleasures of the book. Adjectives are used sparingly, even in descriptive passages. Instead the narrator reports sights, sounds and smells in an even way. Yet he lets us know his reactions, for example when he first visits Abbas’s garden and is reminded of prison by the walls, but then lets the smell of the roses comfort his body. We learn too of the intensity of small pleasures, and of quiet lives.

And, yes, the notebook: its covering card is dyed violet, like the sky at dusk, at the last moment before darkness. Its paper is handmade, mulched together and pressed down then dried in the sun, before it was cut into sheets and folded into books. The pages bear the marks of their construction, and recorded in the texture of each page must be some evidence of the individual who made them. Within the paper are fine flecks of chipped wood, and threads run beneath the surface like the fossilised remains of creatures we used to find in the rocks, in places along the roadside. The firm tip of my ballpoint pen travels pleasurably over them. Along the spine, three holes have been pierced with an awl, and the loose leaves are tied through them with rough string. The string is long, so that it may be wrapped around the book to bind it; it trails loose now, as I write in the open leaves. (76-7)

Aah, this is the physical pleasure of handmade paper. What writer, what lover of stationery doesn’t recognise this?

Pomegranate photo via wikicommons Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Pomegranate photo via wikicommons Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

This simple style is also effective for reporting some of the worst experiences of the narrator.

They held me down and beat my feet. I had never known such agony – each strike travelling instantly through the entire body, my nerves lit with awful pain. It caused my stomach to seize, and I vomited, almost choking on it before I could turn my head and spit it from my mouth. The policeman swore, and beat me harder. I screamed and screamed. I struggled, but could not move. (53)

The observation that this treatment is randomly inflicted and only to relieve the boredom of the guards is yet more chilling.

The novel is structured in short scenes that move between his recovery and the events that led to his imprisonment. The reader asks, what sustains people when they are suffering? What heals them? And we know the answer, but it is beautifully and gently presented here: love, beauty, kindness, connecting, the good things about humankind.

Other readers have reviewed this book:

Mirza Waheed commented on the lingering quality of the book in a review in the Guardian.

The Hungry Reader blogger also commented on its unforgettableness, and suggested everyone should read it.

And for some of Peter Hobbs’s own story, his connection with Pakistan, his own form of imprisonment, read this article from the Canadian National Post. Peter Hobbs lived in Canada for a couple of years.

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) published by faber and faber (139 pp)

Any thoughts about this book? How did you react to it?

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