Meg Mason || Sorrow and Bliss

There was a fair chance I would have put aside Sorrow and Bliss, cranky for it being another of those novels on a young woman discontent with her life whilst turning out to be rather successful and popular. Having no reason to complain at all. Sorrow and Bliss’ main person Martha however soon turned out to have ample reason to complain.

The novel starts at the party thrown for Martha’s 40th birthday. The party that will lead to a separation from husband Patrick. From that moment on Mason takes us along in Martha’s life and explains to her readers how things came about. To start with Martha’s parents. Both artists, both with insufficient income to provide a living, a mother who emotionally neglects her daughters. Martha’s aunt is the one who financially supports the family. The difficult family bonds are clear from the start: independence, gratitude (or not), obligations … far from easy.  

In adolescence Martha starts to suffer from depression. Psychoanalysts and psychiatrists are consulted, medicine described. Depression does not go away however. Martha being the main character we are only told the story from her perspective. We are therefore presented with a woman who is gloomy, who stumbles from one temporary job to another, who is totally dependent on her family for her survival.

Martha and Patrick separating is the break point in the novel. From that moment on Martha has to face life on her own, which does not go smoothly at all. Martha indulges in grief and does not notice that she has started to cross her family’s (quite generous) boundaries. Even her sister with whom she is almost symbiotically connected informs her that enough is enough. A visit to a new psychiatrist comes with a shocking revelation.

Previous psychiatrists were never inclined to put a diagnosis to Martha’s depression. This one listens to Martha and right away informs her he suspects ‘……’ (Mason has chosen not to reveal the diagnosis in order to not draw attention to it). If this diagnosis had been given at an early stage Martha would have been treated properly and, not unimportantly, could have tried to have children. Something all the other psychiatrists advised against. Martha’s mother turns out to have suspected all the time, large part of her family and herself suffering from the same disorder. Martha rightly blames her mother for keeping her silence all this time and shuts her out of her life. I cannot really blame her.

Sorrow and Bliss is kind of a coming of age novel in which the protagonists starts the process at a riper age. Forty not  being the age you normally associate with a coming of age novel. The novel does follow the pattern however: problem, problem, problem, awareness, even more awareness and a slow but certain growth (helped by medication in this case) on the road to actual maturity including mending relationships with the other grown-ups in your world. And might I say, Mason does a pretty good job.

Sorrow and Bliss is structured sturdily, written fluently and works it way steadily to the essential moments in the protagonist’s life. The moment she starts growing up she is actually capable of hearing what her family and friends are trying to tell her. She finally learns how to listen. The positive and strong sides of Martha are literally put into words by her family and husband. The fact that she is one of those people who will always be the centre at a party, that she is a hell of a good writer. They all hope that mature Martha will finally come to see her own strength. Martha herself realises she has to take small steps and take things slowly.

My fear that Martha would be a spoiled princess turned out to  be groundless. Mason wrote a convincing novel that shows how a disorder can totally influence one’s life, even more so when the disorder has not been diagnosed. Martha turned out to be a vulnerable heroine, one I could only sympathise with. I sometimes felt sorry for her suffering family, Mason however makes it abundantly clear Martha deserves our sympathy.

Posted in literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Claire Keegan || Small Things Like These

Small Things Like These is a novella, of a mere 110 pages. In those 110 pages Keegan paints a subtle picture of a small Irish village in the gloomy eighties of the previous century. Slowly but certainly quiet is replaced by threat.

Small Things Like These takes place one week before Christmas. Entrepreneur Bill Furlong works hard in order to provide his community with coal and wood, the first snow of the year has been predicted. Bill is your prototype caring and hard-working man. Taking good care of his wife and five daughters, his employees and those who are in need. Worrying about unemployment, poverty like most of his countrymen.  Not judging those who have chosen the wrong way out, drinking, phased with dire circumstances.

Bill is the illegal son of a young woman who has been incredibly lucky. Her family rejected her because of her pregnancy, her employer has allowed her to remain at her house and keep working there. Ending up in a safe environment with her young child, one that probably has allowed Bill more chances than  living with his proper family would have. Thanks to mrs Wilson the young mother even more importantly avoids being admitted to a Magdalene laundry, run by nuns.

The Magdalene Laundries have become infamous in Ireland. Bill turns out to deliver coal at one of the convents and is confronted, a few days before Christmas, with the black side of the laundries. Keegan mercilessly exposes the fact that people must have known about the atrocities committed by the nuns but chose to remain silent. The nuns were better not thwarted, their influence in communities far reaching.

Next Keegan describes the internal search of a man who has been bullied for being born out of wedlock and who comes to realise the narrow escape his mother has made. A man also who comes to realise that his family, his own small centre of the world, is doing allright. He can jeopardise their future by frustrating the nuns. A man furthermore who discovers the truth about his father because of a casual remark and finally understands why his mother was kept on by mrs Wilson.

Keegan’s capacity to paint a complex issue in such few pages is astounding. Her sentences contain references to facts most of her readers could know. They are gems, beautifully written, often containing a deeper level of meaning. The structure of the novella fits perfectly as well: starting of with a superficial description of Bill, diving into his history and circumstances deeper and deeper, connecting it to what is happening so close by. Bill develops from prototype caring and hard-working man to a personality: formed by his past, his hopes for his family

On reviewer stated that he was disappointed for Keegan painting a bleak picture whilst staying at a safe distance. Her previous novels and stories apparently were quite bleak and sinister. I wonder what would the bleak and sinister  be in this novella. Closing your eyes for the fact that young girls are systematicly abused and tortured or closing ones eyes for the threat to your daughter’s future? Keegan probably chose the Christmas setting for a reason. She offers hope, though the reader will never know who is to profit in the long run.  I am impressed by Small Things.

Posted in literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

2021: My Top 10

Leafing through my blog looking for those novels that blew me away I realised 2021 had been a very good year for books indeed. Ten  novels popped up, ones that had given me incredible pleasure, had gone to be nominated for prestigious prices (and in two cases winning them). Novels that lived up to all expectations. I decided that I could not, would not chose between them. All of them being excellent novels I did not even rank them. So, in no specific order at all, my favourites of 2021.  

Susanna Clarke || Piranesi

Susanna Clarke won the Women’s Prize for a reason. In her terrific novel reality and phantasy play a complex game, Piranesi is a mysterious novel about a disarming man. Clarke handles the structure of her novel expertly. Sometimes taking us to the past, sometimes to the present or even another world. As a result the reader is continually challenged to move along with Piranesi, to go along in a number of different concepts. Piranesi had me enthralled.

Yaa Gyasi  || Transcendent Kingdom

I took to main character Gifty immediately. She is the heart-warming centre of a novel that mercilessly points out racism and a natural predisposition for addiction. Injustice returns time and time again in Transcendent Kingdom, sometimes subtly sometimes substantiated by fact. You cannot read the novel without becoming aware of the inequality that determines the lives of too many people, the chances they are being denied. Gifty through it all was a ray of sunshine.

Anna Hope || Expectation a Novel

Hope introduces us to three friends and expertly shows us neither of their lives is perfect. Hope succeeds in life-likely describing their problems and their beautiful moments. There is not a single moment she makes you feel ‘you’ve gone too far now, this is too far-fetched’. Expectation turned out to be the hype that was rightly hyped.

Kazuo Ishiguro || Klara and the Sun

Again and again Ishiguro proves he is an absolute star. Klara is no exception. The threat in the dystopic novel always remains at a distance, referring to dreadful incidents without ever becoming harsh or brutal himself. Klara is our ticket to a frightening world. Yet again it’s Ishiguro’s talent to paint such a world through the eyes of an innocent imperfect creature, to paint a picture of a brutal world hidden behind the dreamy one he presents us with.  Beautiful.

Daisy Johnson || Sisters

Johnson has structured her novel strongly. Slowly but certainly she unravels a growing number of clues. Perfectly controlled and dosed, at the right moment. It makes the reader be on the edge, wanting to know what exactly happened to sisters July and September. Johnson plays with her readers and reveals the desired and the actual truth in the final chapters. A fitting finale to a novel that has been well constructed. A stunning novel is the result.

RC Sheriff || A Fortnight in September

The Fortnight is a stunning portrait of a decent, loving family. It is not just a description of their yearly two weeks of holidays, it is an elegant tale showing us how a few brilliant days can make a dreary or even hard life bearable. The novel was written almost a century ago, new generations of families have been living lives that to do not differ that much basically from the one this family has made for itself. The Fortnight as a result has turned out to be timeless and recognisable.

Richard Powers || Bewilderment

Powers has been one of my favourite writers for a long time. He usually delivers complex novels that are carefully construed. Bewilderment is yet again a strong novel that demonstrates Powers’ talent in combining structure (short chapters only), writing (complex correct sentences) and content perfectly. Bewilderment is also the novel in which Powers masterly and heart-wrenchingly exposes a father’s fear and desperation. Emotion and fact lead to a bitter and utterly painful end that could be seen coming from the start.

Damon Galgut || The Promise

Galgut deserved to win the Booker Prize in 2021. The Promise is a excellent novel that, through four perspectives, gives us an insight, into their lives and into life in South-Africa. Each perspective is given depth through the character belonging to it, in this way leading to a pointed novel that reveals a lot in only a few words. The perspectives also make for a certain lightness, something the tough subject matter rather requires. The Promise is the type of novel that lingers on long after having been finished. The subject matter is timeless and universal. Galgut fortunately the type of writer who is talented enough to combine literary quality and content. A just winner.  

Lauren Groff || Matrix

Groff brightened up my day (I read it when yet another lockdown was looming over us) with a clever novel with many layers of meaning: the world looked at superficially, going deeper and deeper with each step.  All of that from an abbey in the tenth century. Matrix is a multi-layered novel. You can read it as an exciting story about growth taking place in said abbey. You can also see it as an testimony as to the treatment of women in the Middle Ages, showing us furthermore that important jobs for women are still no given. Matrix can also be seen as an allegory for a changing society or organization, showing what can be done when a strong leader takes control. We need a Marie.

Nathan Harris || The Sweetness of Water

Yet again a multi-layered novel with a clear though nuanced message, main characters that are carefully constructed and circumstances that make it difficult to define right or wrong. The Sweetness of Water is a beautiful novel exposing many wrongs. Harris remains nuanced in his writing, the novel never becomes blatant. The nuance of The Sweetness being the way Harris exposes the human behaviour that will lead to violence, cruelty and societal wrongs in the years to come.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Claire Vaye Watkins || I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness

At a certain moment it becomes clear that the main character of I Love You shares her name and her profession with the author of said novel. Even her parents’ history turns out to bear an uncanny likeness to that of Claire Vaye Watkins’ family. I chose not to regard the novel as an autobiography, I look upon it as a novel heavily inspired by Watkins’ own life and family. If only because I  would wish Watkins would not be so unhappy and disturbed as her main character Claire.

Claire is a young mother. Life with a new-born should be tiring but also deeply satisfying. None of that. Claire’s love for her daughter does not come naturally. For one because she is suffering from postnatal depression, for two because Claire is not inclined to embrace motherhood. Her love for her daughter does not outweigh the negatives of motherhood.

Claire does not look upon ‘the happy family’ as the ultimate goal. When she starts sharing her parents’ history with us, you kind of get why. Her father, Paul,  was a drop-out who joined Charles Manson as a young boy. He was not involved in the notorious killing of Sharon Tate, but still, he was definitively not mr. Nice Guy. Claire’s mother has some peculiar habits. Apart from the fact that she practically moves in with Paul the second time she meets him, she cannot stay at one place for a long time, drags along her daughters from one place to the other, has them come along during nightly burglaries. One might conclude something did not go well in Claire’s upbringing.

Ultimately things do seem to come together. She goes to study, lands a job at an university, marries a nice guy and publishes two novels. An encounter with college friends makes it clear that drugs and alcohol have been playing a major part in her life for a long time. And not just in her life: her parents were no strangers to drugs, her mother’s family did not shun alcohol or drugs. Not that strange Claire’s postnatal depression does not go away.

At the start of the novel Claire leaves her husband and child in order to give a lecture, close to her home ground. That trip has Claire think. About herself, her parents, her husband, her life and her child. She concludes that she is definitely not a good mother, wife and writer. I write this down in one sentence, in the novel it is  process taking place over a few hundred pages. Being written down in a style that at moments borders on the hyper, on stream of consciousness.

Watkins manages to have the language in the novel coincide with Claire’s thoughts. She does not make it easy on her readers. She switches topics all the time, all of a sudden introduces new characters, jumping through time when she sees fit. Reading I Love You resembles a blindfolded ride on  rollercoaster. It is quite obvious however Watkins certainly knows what she is doing, she is in control.

At a certain point she introduces letters that have been written by a young Martha, Claire’s mother. I’ve read several reviews that state that those letters are boring, only relevant to a loving daughter. I found that the letters gave an insight into 13-year old Martha being determined by her upbringing, her surroundings, never standing a chance of improving her chances in life. Her being poor white trailer trash would never turn out well for her. Her letters show us that the world already gave up on her before she had even started.

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness is not an easy read, it is intriguing though. I can imagine it not being everybody’s cup of tea. I Love You challenges you and asks of you that you enter an unknown world, to undergo Watkins’ volatile style of writing. If you take on the challenge you will come to acknowledge the enormous talent of Watkins who is in control of her novel from the very start.

Posted in literature | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lauren Groff || Matrix

Praise for Matrix all around. And rightly so. Groff has given us a well-written multi-layered novel: a superficial look on the world, digging slightly deeper and going deeper and deeper. All of it set in a 10th century convent.

In 1158 Marie is forced to go into a convent. Queen Eleanor has judged that the young girl is not marriage material: too big, too ugly, too boisterous, too well-spoken. Into the convent with her it is. Being the queen’s half-sister she does off course start off straight away as the prioress. Convent and court come together quite unambiguously. In the convent the nuns are not exactly overjoyed at the arrival of a rebellious giant of a woman. Still, the queen has spoken.

Marie in 1158 arrives at an abbey that is governed by poverty. The abdess rules by prayer and is taken advantage of by all her farmer tenants. After a first period of understandable resistance Marie decides to save the abbey.  I’ll not disclose in what way she succeeds but take it from me, Marie is a power house. In our time she would easily lead an country or a big business. Marie transforms the abbey from a place where starvation rules into a place of prosperity and tranquility.

Marie is not just a nun, she is also a woman. A woman with feelings, for her maid Cecily, for queen Eleanor. In the abbey she is supposed not to have feelings for particular women, theory and practice do tend to differ. Nuns fall in love with each other, the nun responsible for the sick administers quite a nice take on 19th century psychotherapy: she delivers oral medicine.  Double standards are a given. The nuns are supposed to dedicate their lives to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, in daily life only a few of them are so inclined. Most of them, being forced into a convent, look upon the abbey as the alternative to being forced into marriage. Life in the abbey, thanks to Marie, turns out to be the better alternative: no pawn in male ambition, no victim of lust.

Marie turns out to be quite the ambitious woman. She starts out in order to show her half-sister Eleanor what she is made of. Next it turns out she is quite good at running the abbey. Being inspired by visions does help. Whether those visions were really inspired by a divine power does not really matter. They enable Marie to strengthen the position of the abbey and the women serving in it. They also help her in literally cutting out men. And in a few cases, that ambitious novice determined to be the next abbess.

Groff’s novel spans a long period of time. Matrix starts when Marie is an adolesecent, ends with her dying an old woman. In that period of time England has known pretenders for its crown, Eleanor has grown into a strategist. When she reaches out to Marie re-connecting the family ties is not foremost on her mind. Still, at the end of the novel both women do appear to share a deep, emotional connection. Through the years appreciation, respect and love have grown.

Matrix is a multy-layered novel. One can read it as an exiting novel about the growth of an abbey. In between the lines comment is given on the way people living in micro-cosmos deal with each other. Not all is as well as it seems on the surface.

Matrix is also a novel on the way women were treated in the Middle Ages (and long thereafter). Despite the strategic qualities of the likes of Eleanor and Marie, when things matter they are just women. I must admit that there were moments in the novel I caught myself thinking ‘hold your horses, you are passing the line!’. I doubt whether the thought would have occurred to me (or society) if Marie had been a man. Matrix in no subtle way shows us that in our society also CEO-like jobs for women are not taken for granted .

Matrix finally is also an allegory for a society or organization in change. The things that can be accomplished when a determined and talented leader takes control. The most difficult moment in the novel for me was when, after Marie has died, the new abbess finds the written-down visions. At that moment the courage of Marie in standing up against society becomes evident. Her successor Tilde has nothing on her.  .

Matrix is furthermore beautifully written and structured in a way that supplements all that Groff is sharing with us. Linear but recalling facts from the fact that shed even more light on Marie the woman. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Matrix, Marie will remain with me for a long time.

Posted in literature | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jamie Quatro || Fire Sermon

Sometimes you forget about a book. It is left standing on your bookshelf, gathering dust. Fire Sermon was one of those. There always was another book that just had to be read first. Turns out I denied myself a beautiful novel for far too long.

Fire Sermon kind of resembles 200 pages of contemplation by main character Maggie on the three most important relationships in her life: with her husband Thomas, lover James en with God. What happens does not really matter, Fire Sermon is mostly about what it does to Maggie.

Quatro has Maggie jump through time. At a certain point she even has her contemplating a point far far away in time. As a consequence readers soon realise Maggie has had an lover, has chosen to stay with her husband however. Since Quatro tells Fire Sermon from the perspective of Maggie only, we never get to know the points of view of either Thomas or James. Maggie is always the one sharing tis information with us. Information mostly restricted to her relationship with either one of them.

We are given to understand that the sexual relationship  between Thomas and Maggie at times is hardly pleasant for her. Maggie justifies his painful roughness and his not excepting ‘no for an answer’ by referring to his troublesome youth. Her passive resistance irritates him, she never tells him that he regularly hurts her. Lover James is the opposite. The two have sex only a few times, those times it is absolute cosmic fireworks.

Still, both Maggie and James do not wish to leave their spouses. They are not prepared to sacrifice a basically good marriage to an intensive affair that might burn out itself quite fast. Maggie also considers another element: her relationship with God. Though Fire Sermon hardly painted a picture of a church-going religious woman, her life starts and ends with the idea of God. His opinion on her affair with James is of the utmost importance to Maggie.

Fire Sermon is a search through the psyche of a woman. A woman who is constantly swayed between her feelings of loyalty, duty, lust and desire. The structure of the novel helps clarify Maggie’s psyche. Quatro restricts herself to short chapters in which Maggie embroiders on one specific moment in time. Those chapters are alternated with emails sent by the lovers and actual letters Maggie has written though never sent. Quatro jumping through time means that she can expertly raise expectations leading to the moment her readers finally get to know why Maggie and James did not chose each other.

Add to all of this the fact that Quatro writes beautiful, well-constructed sentences. Often loaded with philosophical meaning. Fire Sermon is not an easy novel. Quatro does not give away things for free, she asks for a certain determination of her readers. The effort is amply rewarded. Fire Sermon is a beautiful novel, one of those that might require a second reading to even better get and appreciate all that is being shared with us.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment