Nathan Harris || The Sweetness of Water

Booker Prize Longlist 2021

I was slightly concerned The Sweetness of Water would turn out to be one of those message-driven novels that kind of loses all its subtlety bringing down the message. I did not need to have worried. Harris has written a novel with many layers: a clear message, main characters that are carefully constructed and circumstances in which right or wrong cannot always be strictly defined.

The circumstances: the American Civil War has just come to an end, the South has lost, both sides have suffered many victims, slavery is abolished, peace and quiet are not to be found as et. In the small village of Old Ox the end of the war has only made clear who are the powers that be, an end to slavery does not signify an end to injustice and cruelty.

Two former enslaved young boys, the brothers Landry and Prentiss, have left the plantation they have always been made to work. They intent to move up north, in search of a  better future. The offer of wealthy landowner George Walker to work for hem for a while, receiving full payment, is accepted – with some trepidation. None of them can know this offer is the start of a series of dramatic events.

George Walker has always been an outsider. He has inherited land and money from his father, he has never had to work in order to make a living. His wife Isabella is used to his sligthly peculiar behaviour and accepts him for who he is. Accepting the arrival of Landry and Prentiss, moving into her barn. Their arrival helps her cope with her son’s death.

Neither George nor Isabella realise their neighbours are hardly enthusiastic about them hiring and paying well two former enslaved men. It is quite clear that the previous owners of the enslaved were kind of hoping they’d just stick around en keep on working for them, for free. Landry and Prentiss set the wrong example. When George and Isabella are told to send the boys away, they refuse. They chose to help people, colour not a determining factor.

I’ll not give away what sets into motion a series of dramatic events. You have to read The Sweetness in order to find out. I was impressed by the nuanced way Harris shows us the ways war and slavery effect live in a village. The way the powers that be do not want any change, do not welcome do-gooders like George and Isabella who do not take into account vested interests. No surprise the Klu Klux Klan will spring into action in a few years time. Old Ox is just your average village in which good and bad are both alive and kicking.

Harris is a talented writer who produces beautiful language and knows how to play with perspective. He goes from George to Landry to Prentiss to Isabella, the variety allowing him to go back in time. To early memories of the boy’s mother, of their suffering as enslaved people. To the first meeting between George and Isabella, to George’s mother mercilessly selling the young house slave George has befriended.

Awful events take place in The Sweetness of Water. Harris fortunately does not describe them explicitly. The nuance of the novel once more shows when at such a precise moment George’s toughest opponent realises George is not the enemy, has been a good neighbour for years. The nuance also shows in the ending. Old Ox is preparing for years and years of violence and racism, George and Isabella who chose their own paths, not bothering about the colour of one’s skin, provide hope that one day all will be well.

The Sweetness of Water is a beautiful novel, in which Harris addresses many wrongs. He does so relentlessly nuanced. The novel never becomes blatantly loud. This nuance is what stresses the human behaviour that irrevocably will lead to violence, pain and many wrongs.

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Francis Spufford || Light Perpetual

Booker Prize Longlist 2021

During the Blitz five children are killed in London in 1944. Spufford has given them a second chance in Light Perpetual: the bomb does not drop, they keep on living. What will happen next? Does the world change, does it become a better place for them not dying? Will it become clear to us that their deaths would have been a major loss to mankind? No, not really.

Vern, Jo, Valerie, Alex and Ben do not lead extraordinary lives. They do not change the world in a spectacular way. In their own way they do contribute to the well being of their fellow beings. Or not. Vern turns out to be a bully who during his entire life does not hesitate to financially abuse others as long as he benefits. Valerie falls for an extremely unpleasant ultra-right man who takes her along in a downward spiral of violence. She has to wait for his death to start making amends.

The five, with a single short-termed exception, live the lives of the average human being. Or rather, Londoner. School, work, falling in love, depression, marriage, getting children, growing old, worrying about your children, getting a welcome second chance, contributing in a small personal way to a society that is quite all right, all comes by. And since the novel has a span of some 65 year, Spufford through the five treats us to (major) changes in society.

The head of the school in the fifties not believing any of his pupils will succeed. The rise of the neo-Nazis as well as that of pop music and flower power. The rol of unions becoming less and less as an effect of new technologies changing work. Jobs that become superfluous or come into existence. Better medicine and health care that enable patients to become full members of society. From living in your own bubble to sharing life and love with Black British from the Commonwealth. Spufford uses it all.

Ligth Perpetual starts with the energy of the bomb. That energy she has translated into words in a magical way. She presents us with an energetic stream of words with an exceptional amount of adjectives and detailed descriptions. Fats, witty, colourful, describing the world in such a manner iet becomes almost tangible, almost manic.

And next you notice the speed slowing down. Gradually. With the growing of the years, the aging of the characters the energy of the language slows down as wel. From an explosion of expertly chosen words Ligth Perpetual transforms into a steadily flowing stream of words, carefully fitted into complex sentences. Francis Spufford would never fit into accessible reading. And am I glad she does not! The fun of writing jumps of her pages, resulting in major pleasure whilst reading sentences that comprise at least half a page. I did so enjoy myself!

Spufford has chosen to take big steps in time. She does not takes us along in synchronic lives, she jumps ahead taking major leaps. Which is kind of a pity considering I would have loved to have read about the intervening years. On the other hand it stresses the feeling of time going faster and faster the older you get, it stresses the inevitability of time passing and growing old. After each leap we meet the five again; the number of pages dedicated to them differs every time, in this way showing differences and similarities between them. Apart from their age, the five have little in common.

Spufford has written a clever novel that does require attention from the reader, certainly at the explosive start. It contains that many words in that many complex sentences I had to go back several times in order to grasp what was being said. That same explosiveness made it almost into a sport to continue reading. Gradually going from an intensive workout to a steady pace at the end, feeling satisfied and content with the effort. I loved it. Well done!

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Imbolo Mbue || How Beautiful We Were

How Beautiful We Were is one of those novels you should read when you want to know why we have to think twice about using oil. The novel explicitly describes what happens when a Western-world oil company  joins forces with a local dictator: people and nature become victims.

Living used to be good in the small village of Kosawa. Its villagers were proud of their land, felt deeply connected to it. The arrival of Pexton changes it all. The villagers remain proud and continue feeling connected, the pollution of their environment however is dramatic. The vapours coming from the oil pumps, the spillages, the poisonous substances dumped into the water. Images we all have come to know from Nigeria for instance.

Every month a Pexton employee keeps the villagers dangling. Making vague promises, giving away nothing. One single man changes all of this, he causes a small rift in the balance. This single deed changes the lives of the village people, in a positive and in a negative way. Kosawa is symbolic for how corruption ruins the lives of people in more than one way. And symbolic for the way maintaining century-old traditions is sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse.

Kosawa is the symbolic victim of the world’s unbridled craving for oil and money. The fate of village people and their young children matters less than selling many gallons of oil, acquiring even more money, becoming even more powerful. Kosawa is also symbolic for ancient role patterns in a traditional village, patterns that are slow to change. One of the girls in the village being allowed to go to secondary school and American college is a result of that one single deed having effect on everything in the village. Villagers who abhor violence feeling nevertheless forced to use it: the aftermath of power, corruption, greed and this one person rising to the occasion.  

How Beautiful We Were is a novel about large-scale pollution of nature and the almost inhuman attitude this requires of the powers that be. Decision-makers who, at the moment of writing this, still do not get that nature and men are worth more than all of those gallons of oil. How Beautiful we Were is furthermore also a novel about change that comes about when the modern world and tradition meet.

Kosawa is a traditional village with many customs to be proud of. It is also a village of traditional role patterns. Hunting is for the men, cooking and taking care of the children for the women. Male adolescents are allowed to frolic until getting married, young girls are in search of a suitable husband from the moment they start having their periods. No husband no future, no fate worse than being too unattractive to become a first wife.  

Mbue subtly shows how fighting for nature and health also leads to a tiny bit of emancipation in the village. Maybe the arrival of well-meaning Americans has caused a ripple in the position of women as well. Mbue also shows us that the village people are victims of circumstances, nevertheless lacking slightly in standing up for themselves. Maintaining valuable traditions does have its downsights.

Mbue does not stick to chronology completely. She has her characters look back and forward, throwing in a casual remark referring to the future once in a while. The most remarkable about the novel is her play with perspective. She changes it regularly, in this way allowing us a glimpse into the lives of even the supporting roles. The most interesting aspect is the one of the children, or rather, one specific group of children, all born in the same year.  This group performs the part of the ancient Greek chorus. As a group they comment on what’s happening, on what becomes of certain people. As a group they go from chorus to main character.

How Beautiul We Were is a well written, clever novel that balances language, structure and perspective all in aid of the urgent message: stop polluting the world and abusing innocent people. Mbue shows us precisely where power corrupts, greed de-humanises. How Beautfil We Were is not a novel you casually read, its message – certainly with the Glasgow-hangover still prominent, is there to stay.

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Carys Davies || The Mission House

Davies has written a novel which focusses on relationships. Or rather, on the way events determine our capability to have fulfilling relationships. Or not.

Main character Hilary Bird is an anxious person. I suspect that in real life he would have been categorized as too shy, with a touch of autism. Whatever. Hilary Bird has been afraid of life all of his life. He has only one fulfilling relationship in his life, with his sisters. A possible love thwarted by his own clumsiness. At work he could no longer cope with all the changes, new demands and loud-mouthed co-workers and visitors. He is at home, trying to get a new hold on life. It is absolutely astonishing he has chosen to go travelling, without his sister. To a country known for its abundancy of colour, noice, smells and people: India.

And no, India does not go well with Hilary. When he hears about a town in the mountains that is cool and quiet he does not hesitate to take a train and travel there. In the train he is rescues by the Padre, who offers him a room in his mission house. The Padre is a preacher who has been left kind of lost after his wife’s death. Obsessively searching a husband for his protégé Priscilla. He wants her to be well cared for when he is no longer of capable of taking care of her himself.

At arrival in the town Hilary is jumped on by taxi drivers who want to take him anywhere. He ignores the all; when he has a nasty fall later on, one of them helps him. Hilary pays back this Jamshed’s act of kindness by making him the designated driver. Jamshed brings Hilary to the places he wants to explore. A relationship develops, a meaningful one in Jamshed’s eyes.

The Mission House takes us along in Hilary’s going abouts in the quiet and peaceful town and the mission house itself. The image of a man who did not cope with demands and the increasingly hectic character of our society. Who has never learnt how to relate to other people, does not understand their behaviour. It is not surprising he overstays his welcome in the mission house. Of course he pays the Padre for his stay, still. Hilary does not seem to understand there is a limit to one’s stay.

Not that the Padre is helpful. He starts to involve Hilary more and more in the daily life at the mission house. He hopes Hilary can help him prepare Priscilla for marriage by offering her classes in English, baking and sowing. The Padre does not realise both Hilary and Priscilla have their own hopes for these classes. Hilary for one is lulled into believing he is more than welcome to stay at the mission house. Not realising he is totally misunderstanding what the Padre is aiming at.

The Mission House is a novel that focuses on small, daily things. Davies excels in describing men and their surroundings in detailed, exquisite elaborations. Her style of writing emphasizes life consisting of small, some positive some negative, occurrences. That chain of small events presents life in the mission house going on seemingly smoothly, without any hickups. Those chapters introducing Jamshed’s nephew introduce us to an unexpexted twist.

Davies has set down Hilary perfectly. I could just see the man, could understand why he is clumsy when it comes to dealing with people. The drama in his life is evident. Drama on a small, personal scale, nevertheless sad and touching. Hilary was not made for this life in this hectic society, he simply misses those qualities needed to cope with daily life. Davies treats him with respect, thereby showing that society fails when it comes to dealing with people who are less well-prepared to deal with demands and changes of modern life.

The Padre and Priscilla kind of remained clichés: the preacher who means well and does not realise what is taking place right beneath his nose, the protégé who is preparing a life of her own unnoticed by those who love her. I did not really get the relationship between Hilary and Jamshed. I just do not understand why the older taxi driver was so taken by Hilary, why their relationship grew out to be more than business. Davies failed to enlighten me.

The Mission House is a novel that calmly goes on until an unexpected twist delivers fuss and drama. I enjoyed the way Davies drew the lives and the environment of the main characters in careful detail. The drama in Hilary’s life was felt through the pages, Davies made me feel for the man en had me hoping for a good outcome.

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Who will win the Booker Prize?

Though I always tried to read the winner, I did not intensely follow the Booker until I started writing my blogs on BooksandLiliane. Over the past years I have never felt myself in the position that I enjoyed reading all the novels on the shortlist. There were always one or two novels on the list I did not dig at all. This year naturally I  do have my favourite, I’d not be bitterly disappointed however if one of the others would win. On the contrary.  A lovely feeling to be directed at six beautiful novels.

I do know whose name I’d hope to hear on Wednesday. Not Anuk Arudpragasam despite loving his A Passage North. Nor Nadifa Mohamed who told a shocking true tale. Or Maggie Shipstead who took her readers along in the life of one of the first female pilots. Nor Patricia Lockwood whose tribute to her young niece was touching and beautifully written.  

If I were allowed to vote I’d probably be in doubt until the very final moment. I find a choice between Damon Galgut and Richard Powers almost impossible to make. Both writers were nominate for the Booker before, I’d love for either of them to finally win. Galgut for writing a novel that stayed with me a long time. About a universal and timeless topic; message and literary quality in perfect balance. Powers for being an all-time favourite whose novels I have devoured,  being moved, touched deeply by one of his novels for the first time. From page one it was clear that things were not going to end well; a father’s love and concern for his unique son dominating all.

What a relief I do not need to vote. I can just sit back and await the final verdict knowing that either novel will be a just winner. What a splendid way to prepare for the judge’s verdict.

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Anuk Arudpragasam || A Passage North

Shortlist 2021

Not a lot happens in A Passage North. Nevertheless Arudpragasam succeeds in sharing an awful lot of information with his readers. He has chosen a contemplative style of writing and uses this to ‘transport’ thoughts, facts and reflections. In this wrapping up beautiful, bitter and horrific moments.

At the start of the novel main character Krishan receives the news that the carer for two years of his grandmother has died. He decides to pay his respects by going to her cremation, signifying a long trip by train from Colombo to the north of Sri Lanka. The novel takes place in a mere two days, from the phone call to the moment Krishan walks away from the burial ground. In the 365 needed to describe these two days the narrator shares all of Krishan’s thoughts with us.

Thoughts about his previous lover Anjum, an Indian woman who is determined to dedicate her life to good causes, caring for the underprivileged. A woman furthermore who is capable of loving without attachments. She has had her difficult moments in love, they have only made her more determined to follow her own, quite difficult path.

Thoughts about poetry, about literature. Entire sections dedicated to summaries of traditional Sri Lankan or Indian (religious) stories, Thoughts also of a more phiolospical nature. Arudpradagam subtly jumps from literature and fact to contemplative reflections on life and death, on live, on responsibility. Often ending in quite beautifully contemplations.

Thoughts also about his country, Sri Lanka, the long period it has suffered from silence when Tamil Tigers fought against the government. A conflict that has come to an end but which can still be felt and seen everywhere on the island. Kirshan never took sides, for the major part of the conflict he was abroad, studying in India. Because of Anjum he has come to consider his responsibility towards his country. He returned to Sri Lanka and worked in the conflict-ridden areas for many years. At the start of the novel he has returned to his parental home.

Rani, the carer, did live right in the centre of the conflict; both her sons were killed because of it. A drama she has never recuperated from. Arudpragasam uses Krishan’s thoughts to share bare fact with the readers. The tortures in prisons, the suicide missions of hard-core Tamil Tigers killing many people. Arudpragasam does not chose to elaborate on the why and how of the conflict, history leading up to a civil strife between Tamils, muslims and Hindu’s. He restricts himself to describing the terrible aftereffects of the conflict.

A Passage North is one long contemplation. Arudpragasam uses Krishan’s thoughts to jump between facts and in time. Krishan is not so much the main character as the vehicle that provides room for reflection. There is no chronological structure, the reflections are almost casual in appearance. One thought will give way to another on a totally different topic. A Passage North kind of resembles an air balloon being softly blown by the wind. The narrator providing a certain restriction, the balloon changes direction many times, is never caught up in a gale.

I suspect some readers will find A Passage North too slow, too contemplative. I must admit I appreciated all the horrors of the conflict being carefully embedded in the soft breeze. I just do not like explicit descriptions of violence. Violence unfortunately has turned out to be part of Sri Lankan history, it had to be part of the novel. I personally find the carefully embedded atrocities to be more effective than the straight into your face ones.

I get why this novel made it to the Booker Shortlist. Arudpragasam has taken me along almost casually in the life of a young Sri Lankan man. In this way resolutely directing me towards the painful history of his country.

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Nadifa Mohamed || The Fortune Men

Shortlist 2021

Mixed feelings after having finished The Fortune Men. I had trouble getting into the novel, a day after reading the final pages I wonder whether Mohamed has not tried to do too much to make her message come over. That message hits the reader hard, it could have been even more overwhelming.

The Fortune Men is based on a true story. Main character Mahmood Mattan is a Somalian sailor who is accused of killing a woman in Cardiff, in the fifties of the previous century. He is innocent, nevertheless he is found guilty by the jury and is executed. Many years later the case is re-opened, this time Mahmood is found innocent. His execution a matter of unabashed racism.

Violet Volacki is a single woman in her forties. She runs the pawn shop her father opened. She is efficient, lends money where necessary, allows people to buy things on credit. The shop is situated in a Cardiff area close to the harbour, it has become less and less safe through the years. Violet, her sister Diana en niece Gracie continue living in the parental home, noticing the changes that are taking place. Mahmood Mattan is a young man, a Somalian sailor. He has chosen to stay in Cardiff because he has fallen in love with a white British woman, Laura. They have three children, their marriage however is not going well. Laura has told Mahmood to leave, he has to rent a room in a boarding house.

Violet and her sister are pillars of (Jewish) society who have earned their place in the lower working-class district. Mahmood is a newcomer who is regarded with suspicion. Violet is respected, her neighbours might have their ideas about her pawn-shop, they do consider her a respectable woman. One who is well-behaved and does not cross the law. Mahmood is a different story. He has a somewhat personal take on property, considers petty theft a right, does not hesitate to cheat and is mostly busy gambling together spending money. He is a petty criminal, known to the police.

Is Mahmood a likeable main character? No, not really. He is cheeky, cocky, impudent. He does not get that his behaviour does not sit well with friends and neighbours. He is fighting over petty things with too many people, losing their sympathy. Only at a late moment do we find out he does not know how to read or write, has hardly had any education, grew up in a country where people defined their own laws. He does not get at all that his impudent behaviour after having been arrested only worsens his case.

The Fortune Men is an enormous complaint against racism, that’ll be obvious. Racism at the police, racism from the white British who consider Mahmood, who has had the temerity to marry one of their own, an ideal scapegoat. Racism at the court that condemns an innocent man. An innocent man who unfortunately did not help himself with his rash, unthinking behaviour. Does that sanction him being put to death? No way. Mahmood’s cocky character should not have mattered.

As a reader I tend to waver on the subject of sympathising with Mahmood. I found I could not stomach Mahmood’s big mouth well. I only started feeling a certain degree of sympathy for him after he has been sent to jail. Then Mohamed starts talking about his past, then we find out what triggers him, what motivates him. In the first part of the novel I struggled with a main character I could not respect. In the second part of the novel I found myself starting to understand him.

It does not help that I found the novel kind of messy at the start. This messiness reflects the disorder in the neighbourhood. I do wonder however whether the novel would not have profited from a stronger focus. Now we are presented with two story lines, one of which kind of peters out. Mahmoods story line grows stronger and stronger, becoming more and more convincing. At that point the novel finally grabbed me. Despite the disorder at the start Mohamed does present her readers with some beautiful writing. There are many chapters in which she shows she can create exquisite well-constructed sentences, beautifully describing situations and people.

Mixed feelings. Horror that someone dies in such a terrible manner, dissatisfaction with Mohamed not presenting his case as strongly as she could. I can imagine people being charmed by her approach, appreciating the way she presents the disorder. They’ll be the ones rooting for her to win the Booker.

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Richard Powers ||Bewilderment

2021 Shortlist

I must have read everything by Richard Powers and every time I am blown away by his work. This novel is no exception, even though Bewilderment is not a typical Powers. Usually the writer abounds in intricate story lines with several perspectives that come together perfectly towards the end. Bewilderment restricts itself to one story line. A story line that had you by the throat from the very start. Powers has added a hitherto unknown element: a play with emotion.

Theo Byrne and his son Robin are the main protagonists of Bewilderment. Wife and mother Aly, who crashed her car whilst trying to avoid a possum, is omni-present in their heads and hearts. Bewilderment is told from the perspective of Theo. Robin is the one asking questions, making remarks, in italics – typographically distinguishable.

After an almost blissful start with father and son spending quality time together watching stars somewhere in the mountains, page four starts with the elephant in the room. Robin is a child who has been labelled, a diagnosis has been made. He cannot control his temper, can be out of control. His school wants him on medication, Theo refuses. He does not agree with the diagnoses, recognizes his son’s anger attacks, struggles to find a solution that will not have his child  dazed.

The alternative turns out to be an experimental computer treatment that kind of combines EMDR, mindfulness and ZEN. Robin profits from the treatments and this becomes even more obvious when he is given access to his mother’s energy waves (recorded in a previous experiment) and is told to follow those (sorry, it is kind of difficult to describe this treatment correctly). Robin changes from a difficult child into one who controls his emotions and deals with life in an almost grow-up way.

Robin nevertheless is not your typical child. He demands to be home schooled, is fascinated by nature and is extremely distraught by global warming leading to animals and plants becoming extinct. Influence by his mother and Greta Thunberg he becomes an activist. An activist that is still a child that does not comprehend the way social media or the powers to be work. He is sorely disappointed every time people find him cute whilst not taking him seriously.

I suspect Theo might have been labelled too. He is a scientist who searches for life forms in the universe, working together with like-minded scientists. He seems not to grasp the demands of modern times completely. Theo provides the planets they discover with a history and a story. I never really understood how he did this, I do know the stories about alien life on far away planets had me as fascinated as Robin. It is not completely surprising he does not quite fit the curriculum at his school.

The story line is straight-forward: Powers takes us along in the lives of Theo and Robin. He larders their time line with scientific elements from Theo’s career. As the novel proceeds the number of critical comments on the political climate increases. Powers turns out to be a bit of an activitist himself. It is quite clear he is not a fan of the previous president of the United States, without mentioning his name once. In his novel Powers has the liberty to show us things could have turned out even worse..

Bewilderment is saturated with despair. Powers does not achieve this by giving in to exuberant descriptions. He subtly adds words expressing doubt and fear into Theo’s thoughts. The entire novel oozes Theo’s fear that he cannot cope with Robin on his own, the growing certainty that Robin is a special child, the desperation of not being able to prevent Robins’ specialness in negativity. Controllable only by medication that takes away his highs and his lows.

Bewilderment is a cleverly written novel in which Powers shows once again he can perfectly manage structure (only short chapters in this novel), style of writing (beautifully constructed long sentences) and content. Focussing on Theo’s attempts to keep Robin as perfect as he is.  Bewilderment turns out to be the novel in which Powers transforms Theo’s despair into a compelling second story line. Emotions and facts lead to a heartbreaking conclusion you feel coming right from the start.

I was under the spell of Bewilderment from the first moment on. Powers yet again proves he is one of the best writers of this day and age. Bewilderment deserves the spot on the shortlist, I rate his chances of winning this year high. I suspect I will be rooting for Powers.

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Damon Galgut || The Promise

Shortlist 2021

Galgut has written a clever novel that through the use of four different perspectives allows us to look inside the lives of the main characters at the same time subtly giving us insight the South-African state of mind. When the novel is situated does not become explicit, that South-Africa is about to change comes along loud and clear.

The central focus of the novel is on the Swart family. Galgut has divided their stories into four parts: Ma, Pa, Astrid and Anton. The reason why become obvious whilst reading on. Only daughter Amor is lacking from this structure. Her perspective though definitely is dealt with. The most intriguing element of The Promise being the fact that Galgut shifts from perspective continually. Sometimes even in the middle of a paragraph. Starting with Pa, switching to the preacher and back again. As a reader you are constantly alert on getting the perspective right. Is it one of the characters or maybe even the narrator?

The narrator in this case is not all-knowing. He/she is more of an outsider who comments on the situation from time to time, reflects, never making annoying remarks like ‘if only Amor had known …’. This narrator adds another layer of depth to the novel, making sure that all the  personal perspectives of the main and other characters become part of a bigger picture. A style element that works exceptionally well.  

The Swart family is not your average South-African white family. Ma has given up her own religion on marrying, only to return to Judaism when she is dying. A source of pain and frustration for her husband, who by the way is completely under the spell of a manipulative preacher. Ma is also the one who has her husband promise that he will gift the house she has been living in for ever to maid Salome. Amor is the only one who is willing to actually act on the promise, her father and siblings refuse to discuss the matter. Her family neglecting the dying wish of Ma causes a permanent rift between Amor and the others.

What I loved about The Promise is the fact that Galgut only uses a minimum of information in order to paint a picture of the family. He does not need elaborate descriptions to typify them. As a result the Swart hardly develop as persons, which does not really matter. The family members do not stand on their own, the each represent a type of South-African or even universal person any reader could recognize.

The Promise is a cleverly constructed novel in which Galgut makes perfect use of elements of style. The changes in perspective in combination with the type casting of the family make for a sharp novel that tells a lot in few words. The many changes in perspective also make for a certain lightness, something the demanding topic can use.

The Promise is the type of novel you keep dwelling on. The topic is timeless and universal. Galgut fortunately the type of writer who manages to balance literary quality and message. He combines them in a splendid manner. I am pretty sure The Promise is a sturdy contender for the Booker in 2021.

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Nick Bradley || The Cat and the City

Sometimes you miss out on a novel completely and you are all of a sudden gifted a little jewel on your birthday. The Cat and the City had escaped my attention, fortunately I was given a second chance.

The Cat and the City has two main characters: Tokia and a calico cat. The novel is actually a collection of short stories, containing recognizable elements of the other stories. The cat for instance, and Tokio off course. A city on the eve of the Olympics (though pre-Corona) in which the old, traditional and a newer world collide, in which people try to find a place of their own in an environment that is human contact unfriendly.

Bradley has clustered stories on diverging characters and made them in to one cohesive account. Sometimes by a chance meeting in a cafe, sometime because characters occur in several stories. Bradley creates cohesiveness whilst maintaining sufficient space to tell the varying stories. The cat is the one consistent element, present in every story. Sometimes just on a picture, sometimes almost the main character.

Tokio presents itself as a vibrant metropolis, one with high demands on its inhabitants. The city is busy, moving and growing, Japanese society being even more demanding when it comes to work codes. Living space is not easy to come by, outsiders are feeling less and less welcome. The Olympics make for a clean, restored and revitalised city. One might wonder whether everybody is happy about the consequences of having a tidied city.

Bradley introduces us to hard-working folk who do their utmost to build a life. He also has us step into the underground world of the homeless and the criminal. Offering us an insight at the same time into the problems of young people trying to establish meaningful relationships. Their careers are demanding, Japanese culture makes it extremely difficult for women especially to have a relationship with a man on an equal basis. The stories address all the above in an almost intrusive way.

What I loved about The Cat and the City is the light-footed way Bradley presents the stories managing to address serious issues all the same. Almost playful in a way that keeps the reader alert to the underlying, darker layers. The Cat and the City is not just a collection of nice stories, the darker layers make for its ultimate strength; subtly processed, omnipresent. And well, it does add a nice touch that the obvious main character is a mischievous calico, just like my own Sophy and Tinker. No explanation required for fellow calico owners.

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