Yewande Omotoso || The Woman Next Door

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Omotoso has cunningly used a theme we are acquainted with through film and television: older women who are forced to join forces in later life in order to cope with circumstances. Family and friends have passed away or cannot spare time for their aging mothers. The women appear not to like each other but accept each other’s company through lack of better. Meet Hortensia and Marion. Two neighbours who spend their time bickering and using every chance to put the other down.

A renovation at Hortensia’s leads to the front of Marion’s house collapsing and Hortensia being condemned to her house because of a broken leg. The most practical solution is Marion moving into her neighbour’s, coveted house. As a result they start to see where the other has come from. At the end of the novel something resembling friendship has started to surface. Living in a white, gated community in Capetown, Hortensia being a successful designer despite the colour of her skin, Marion having given up her career as an architect in order to take care of the children does not help a budding friendship along. Marion is forced to accept that apartheid had some pretty nasty sides whilst Hortensia distances herself from everything that has to do with apartheid. She’s from Barbados, she has made it, so why bother?

Omotoso uses their lives to subtly confront her readers with the numerous dark pages of South-African history. Reacting differently when confronted with the lingering effects of apartheid makes the examples Omotoso uses hurt even more. By having both Marion and Hortensia look back in time Omotoso makes clear why Hortensia does not seem bothered with apartheid. It also shows that their lives, though superficially comfortable, have not been all that easy.

At the end of the novel both women have taken a more nuanced and gentle view on life, they have grudgingly accepted each other. They have started to become sort of friends. Hortensia and Marion will never be sweet old ladies, their independence and spunk will make sure of that. The Woman Next Door is a well-written novel that subtly combines personal tragedy with universal injustice. Omotoso has put down the two bickering old ladies perfectly.

Next door

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C.E. Morgan || The Sport of Kings

Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction Longlist 2017

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The library’s comment on The Sport of Kings was ‘a story about two totally different men, bound by their love for horses and racing. This comment hardly does this novel any justice. Those who expect a dramatic story about the impossible friendship between two men will be disappointed. I suspect they will put away the novel after some 20 pages. Not only because the subject appears to be something entirely different, also because C.E. Morgan’s writing is definitely on the difficult side.

The Sport of Kinds is an epic novel on the effects of slavery in the southern American states and on the effect of a loveless upbringing in a rich family as contrasted to a loving upbringing in a hostile slum. The novel consists of long chapters that focus on one of the main persons: Henry Forge, Allmon Shaughnessy and Henrietta Forge. In those chapters Morgan hinges on stream of consciousness. She does not literally take us along from second to second in our main characters minds, she does adopt their way of thinking, their passions in her way of writing. The Forges being intelligent mostly self-schooled intellectuals the first chapters go from philosophy to the bible, theories on race, the anatomy of horses, genetics and geology.

In the first chapters Morgan almost overwhelms her readers with loads and loads of information and torrents of words. Furthermore I found myself repulsed by the ideas of Forge and his southern, racist ancestors. Forge is a hard-liner as it comes to ideas on race and genetics, it makes you understand why racism is still so much alive. In chapter three Morgan jumps to Allmon who presents us with the opposite world of growing up in an aggressive slum, heading almost automatically towards crime and prison. Morgan adapts her writing and her choices of topics to the poor African-American neighbourhood with its lack of schooling, poverty and few chances of escape. Allmon appears to be doomed from the very beginning.

‘The horse’, the race horse as a matter of fact links the Forges and Shaugnessy. The own breeds them, the other takes care of those expensive creatures. The one thing Henry and Allmon have in common is their blinding ambition to earn loads of money in racing. Horse lovers will find the passages on methods of breeding and schooling race horses fairly unpleasant. For some kind of reason those horses are meant to show what they are worth when they are only two years old. When they are three they are supposed to make their owner cash in on the racing track and one year later those same owners can earn disgusting amounts of money producing foals. It hardly matters that a two year old does not have the body that matches the explosion of power it is meant to produce. With a bit of luck bones, muscles and tendons start to fail after the short period of racing. By then the big money has been earned.

Another link between Forge and Shaughnessy is Henrietta, daughter and lover. After having compensated her cold upbringing with a string of one-nights stand, she falls hopelessly in love with Allmon. Unfortunately those who appreciate a decent feel-good novel will also be disappointed. The love between Henrietta and Allmon does not stand a chance, it does not forge a union between their contrasting worlds. No ‘Say Yes to the Dress’-finale with a proud daddy, an emotional groom and a blushing bride for The Sport of Kings.

The Sport of Kings is not a simple novel. It combines a serious message with a tragic history of doomed relationships between people. The horrible ideas on in-breeding horses bear an uncanny resemblance to Forge’s ideas on race. Morgan furthermore consciously toys with her readers and the amount of information they can manage. Somewhere in the middle of the novel she all of a sudden addresses her readers: ‘can you still manage or am I too much?”. I am afraid she might have lost a number of readers by that time. Those that love a challenge will be rewarded with prose that reminded me of poets like Whitman and TS Eliot. They will also be taken along in the tragic lives of Henry, Henrietta and Allmon. No easy read this novel but definitely worth the effort. I hope it gets through to the short list.

Sport

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E.O. Chirovici || The Book of Mirrors

The Book of Mirrors has been applauded in my country. On television it was recommended and praised. As you may imagine I therefore started reading the novel with high expectations. They, unfortunately, were not fulfilled. The Book of Mirrors is well written and constructed, tension is built up expertly, but there is a large number of novels in the genre of psychological thriller of which can be said the same.

In the Book of Mirrors a cold case is investigated once more. It becomes clear that all those involved have their own view on what has happened. Those involved give their account, blame the person they think guilty of murder, and neglect to mention significant details. At the end those forgotten details solve the case.

Was I intrigued? Did I want to keep on reading in order to find out who committed the murder? Well, yes. Was I bored? No. Is this one of the best psychological novels I’ve ever read? Certainly not. The novel lacks depth in the characters and merely toys with clichés of the nerdy mathematician, the attractive overly ambitious psychology student, her ugly duckling friend, the arrogant scientist and the shrewd criminal. Their account of the case sticks to what pertains to the clichés and never borders on the surprising, on the unexpected. Neither was I overly impressed with the clue. It was clever but hardly impressed me by its originality or ingenuity.

Do I advise you not to read The Book of Mirrors? Hardly, the novel is well written and entertaining. Do not start reading with high expectations of its quality however. The Book of Mirrors is decent not excellent.

mirros

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Cynan Jones || Cove

SPOILER ALERT

In a mere 40 pages Cynan Jones paints a man desperate to survive. He has been caught at sea in bad weather and has been hit by lightning. Injuries and all, he has to find a way to return to the coast. As the novel starts with the account of a failed search, the reader suspect things are not going to end all that well.

Jones paints a realistic image of a man stranded at sea in a kayak. He is wounded and confused, his memory fails him, he has no idea who he is and why he is at sea. Shards of recurring memories come to him more and more.
Jones describes what it takes to survive, he does not have the man pondering on his life. It is not the time nor the moment. Instead Jones given us an account of possessions, the burning of the sun, the cold of the night, the fishes, the dolphins, the increasingly strong wind, the pain of the injuries and an occasional memory of a father or a loved one. There is little action in The Cove, still Jones does manage to build up the tension. The coast appearing all of a sudden, finding a piece of tarp and constructing a make-shift sail, it given you reason to hope the man may survive.

The Cove could be called a short story, its clever use of time and shifting perspectives makes it a kind of mini-novel. All the elements of a full-grown novel are present and have been used. The Cove is nothing more or less than the struggle of a man, that is all you get. Jones has restricted himself to the bare essentials and wrote those down beautifully. One gets the image of a writer deleting more and more of what he has originally written down until the novel is what it is: the drive of one man to survive. Just the necessities, the bare facts. And they convince.

Cove

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Edna O’Brien || The Little Red Chairs

Spoiler Alert

Somewhere around page 90 it becomes clear that the charismatic healer who has turned up in a small Irish village, is of a definite violent disposition and that he might not be who he claims to be. The man who up to then is mostly known for his charm and his new age healing methods (treating especially the local women) turns out to be a fugitive, a war criminal who is sought for his atrocities during the Serbian-Bosnian war. On the basis of O’Brien’s description (a poet with a beautiful shock of hair) one might conclude that she has based ‘her’ Vlad on Radovan Karadžić, one of the men responsible for thousands of casualties of war in Srebenica and Sarajewo.

O’Brien did not set her novel in Serbia or Bosnia, (during the novel not a single person is located there), but in a lovely, almost idyllic Irish village. That village welcomes the stranger, Vlad, and offers him the chance to start his practice. He soon becomes an appreciated neighbour. At first the novel does not have a specific main character. at about 1/3rd of The Little Red Chairs Fidelma, a married childless woman, claims this role. She hopes Vlad is willing to get her with child. After some ceremonial doubts the vain man accepts and fathers a child. Some months into the pregnancy Vlad is arrested and taken away to be judged in The Hague. The most gruesome part of the novel takes place on the day he is captured. Fidelma is raped in the most atrocious manner by three men seeking revenge on Vlad.

Fidelma and the novel move to London. At first she wanders around aimlessly, next she is welcomed into the world of fugitives and illegal immigrants. The contrast with her previous comfortable life stings in more than one way. The affluent village abhors her pregnancy and cannot deal with Fidelma’s rape, the villagers leave her to her own devices. The poor underpaid fugitives and illegals who fear for their jobs and are constantly in fear of deportation lovingly help her. Thank God some of them are nasty individuals, The Little Red Chairs would have become very yukkie otherwise.
By situating her novel in Ireland O’Brien has expertly emphasized her message: anyone can be the victim of  war and a war criminal. Precisely because Fidelma is not one of the actual victims of the conflict in Bosnia and Serbia O’Brien pinpoints the atrocities and the horror of any war. The contrast between the lyrical descriptions of Ireland and the cruelties of Sarajewo and Srebenica have the reader acknowledge the war crimes. As far as I am concerned the least convincing parts of the novel were those paragraphs in which ‘real’ victims describe what has happened to them, turning The Little Red Chairs into a journalistic document. The strength of this novel lies in making us realize that war can enter any lovely village, wherever.

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Carrie Brown || The Stargazer’s Sister

The Stargazer’s Sister is a true story, based on the lives of William and Lina Herschel, two astronomers whose discoveries led to major breakthroughs in the 19th century. William was convinced space contained more than could be shown up to that moment, he convinced sceptical scientists through the discovery of new stars and planets. In order to do that the average telescope did not suffice. He struggled hard to be able to build larger, self-designed telescopes. In those days not just a matter of perseverance but also of physical labour, begging for funds and knowledge of materials. Williams’perseverance bordered on fanaticism. Lina was his partner in crime. Though it never can be proven, one does wonder whether it could not have been the other way around in this day and time.

Brown has added personal elements to what is known about the Herschels. Lina’s unhappy childhood determined by an unloving mother and sickness, the people the Herschels worked with, their friends, Lina’s lover when she has given up all hope. Brown has written the novel from the point of view of Lina, who dotes on her big brother and supports him all the way up to and including feeding him while is scanning space for evidence. At times she realizes he does take her for granted; her insecurity makes her accept this. He is the formidable older brother who has saved her from a life with her mean mother. She is the ugly woman who should be thankful she is given the opportunity to dedicate her life to the stars.

Brown shows us chances for women to become scientists were practically non-existing in the 19th century. Since Lina will not marry (far too ugly), she can spend her life in her way to science, an education at university would have been unheard of. Lina’s quick intelligence, the way she grasps new concepts suggests that she is equal to her brother in intelligence, though unfortunately not in gender. One might rightly wonder how far William would have gotten if it had not been for Lina’s steadfast support. It hurts to read about her insecurity both as a scientist as a woman, giving up all hope of a married life.

The Stargazer’s Sister is at times written beautifully, at times tapers off in enumerations. Brown moreover does not manage to make Lina come to life. We are given an insight in her entire life, which spans almost a century, Brown fails to have Lina develop from a young girl to an old woman, fizzling out in platitudes. William is a platitude from start to end, living for science not noticing that his younger sister is not just a brain but also a sensitive person. The Stargazer’s Sister allows us a beautiful insight into the dedication of two scientist, it lacks insight into their personalities.

stargazer

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Sarah Perry || The Essex Serpent

Perry’s first novel surprised because of the underlying tension gradually building up and ending with a surprising bang. In The Essex Serpent the reverse is the case. The fear of a scary, dragon-like sea creature is keeping an entire village in its grip.  The truth, causing the village and all the main characters to  relax once more, turns out to be an anti-climax. William and Cora are the most important characters: the vicar whose wife is dying of tuberculosis, the widow who is trying to regain her freedom and life in the small coastal village. When they meet it is clear that they were meant to be together. William’s world has been given clear boundaries by Perry: wife Stella, the children, some friends and the village. Cora’s world is more difficult. She has two admirers, Martha and Luke, who Perry spends quite a lot of time on. Socialist Martha who is in love with Cora, who spends her time improving the world meanwhile getting her admirer, wealthy Spencer to build decent houses for the poor, and who eventually decides to spend her life with an humble civil servant who got stabbed once and who was saved by brilliant surgeon Luke. His hand is maimed when the original stabber tries to take revenge, he will never operate again. Are you still with me?  Probably not and therein lies the problem of The Essex Serpent. Perry has written a novel that delights with beautifully written prose: exquisite descriptions of nature, of city and village of feelings. The link between all those beautiful descriptions has gone lost in the desire to tell it all. I found myself wandering off, losing focus. William and Cora have to share with too many people, with too many story lines. The deliberate anti-climax when the true origin of the monster is revealed becomes an almost irrelevant – though again beautifully written –  afterthought.  Perry is a gifted writer, one who needs to make choices though, she has to learn to kill her darlings.

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Han Kang || The Vegetarian

SPOILER ALERT

Han Kang was rewarded the International Booker Prize for this novel. I suspect the subtle way it leads to its conclusion has a lot to do with that. The novel consists of three parts that describe determining episodes in its main character’s Yeong-hye life. In part one her husband takes us along in her decision to become a vegetarian, in part two her brother-in-law – an artist – talks about seducing (or rather raping her) in order to create art and in the third part sister In-hye shares her worries over her own life and that of Yeong-hye who by then is being treated in a mental institution. She has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and refuses to eat. She is convinced she has become like a tree or plant and therefore needs fluids only. The reader knows from the start Yeong-hye has not become a vegetarian out of idealistic reasons. In the first part she shares her dreams with us, the ones that have influenced her decision. They are fierce, almost bordering on scary visions, and cause her to her lose sleep and appetite. Unfortunately her family does not put one and one together and does not inquire about those dreams. They prefer forcing her to eat, with words and physical violence. In part three Kang reveals that Yeong-hye’s father has been abusing her, in this way giving the schizophrenia a starting point. In-hye,the only one who visits her sister, slowly realizes that Yeong-hye through her condition and her decision not to eat makes her escape. She also realizes that she also could have escaped if only. The novel is made special by the precise and well-wrought way Kang builds up to In-hye starting to understand what has happened. It helps that sentences are beautiful (for which one may also thank the translator!), that structure and the choice for three storytellers support the story. Yeong-hye changes from a strange, head-strong woman who ruins her husbands career and makes life difficult for her family into a victim. The storytellers add to the build-up: the distant, selfish husband, next the artistic brother-in-law who sacrifices Yeong-hye’s fragility to his own desire to create and finally In-hye who goes from being slightly annoyed with her troublesome sister to the one person who finally understands and helps her. The Vegetarian is a novel that deserves to be read with care and attention. It is short but powerful.

vegatarian

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Dominic Smith || The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Sara de Vos never existed but could easily have existed in which she would have been one of many women who in the past was not taken seriously as a painter and would not have been allowed to paint. A single surviving painting might have hinted at her talent. Dominic Smith takes us along in the world of 17th century Dutch painting dominated by the guilds and Rembrandt. The guilds determined who was allowed to take up a profession as a painter, they determined whose career could florish. Sara de Vos is one of the lucky ones; one of her paintings is bought by a rich family and remains in the family in the centuries to come. Marty de Groot, the last living member, discovers that the painting that is hanging in his bedroom is a fraud and sets out to discover who stole the original. The trail leads to Ellie Shiphley, a young Australian art student who has a talent for restoring paintings and as it turns out for meticulously copying one. 40 Years later Ellis had made Sara the starting point of her university career which is on the verge of crashing: both original and copy are due to arrive in Sydney for an exhibition. Dominic Smith takes his readers along on the search for the truth: about the painting, about Sara de vos and about both Ellie and Marty. What I really liked about the novel was the absolute pleasure Smith must have felt in writing about the paintings, about the techniques. Something that could easily have been tedious was turned in the selling point of the novel, which if one must be true does give in to cliché. Sara, Marty and Ellie remain on the flat side, at the end everything ends well, as if it was unthinkable to plunge one of either three characters into doom. The happy ending has beaten the best ending. I think The Last Painting could been elevated to the next level by adding a touch of edge. I liked it, it was a pleasure to read but it lacked that certain amount of ‘psass’.

sara-de-vos

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Rowan Hisayo Buchanan || Harmless Like You

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan starts her novel with an intriguing meeting between mother and son. It is quite obvious that they have not met in a long long time. Buchanan continues with the life stories of mother Yuki and son Jay, told in alternating chapters. As a result the reader is taken along to the moment mother and son meet again from a vantage point in Yuki’s life. At first I felt Yuki to be your standard troubled teenager. It became quite clear however that her problems seriously exceeded standard issues. Having non-communicative parents and having to grow up in a strange town in a strange country does not help her tendency to depression and self-destruction. Her low self-image causes her to continually doubt herself and the world she has to live in. A doting husband and an adorable husband cannot make the difference. Yuki leaves them and choses to dedicate herself to getting well and making art. We meet son Jay a few days after he has become a father. He looks back at his motherless youth and worries whether he is cut out to be a good father. He realizes that he lacks the usual fierce feelings of fathers for their newborn. His own dad cannot show him the way, he died in a fatal accident on his way to see his granddaucgther for the first time. Jay’s loss and the knowledge that he has to go in search of his mother dominate his chapters. He comes over as a nice guy, one who loves his cat more than his daughter though.

Towards the end of the novel Yuki and Jay are finally reunited. The novel does tend to the cliché from that moment on. Of course Jay forgives his mother for leaving him as a child. of course on receiving the news that his young daughter has been rushed to hospital he realizes just how much he loves her, of course mother and son spend some beautiful days together. Almost casual remarks, “I just realized my mother was just shy’, that keep Buchanan from straying too far.  It does help that Jay and Yuki are quite alike: neither one of them is a natural as far as coping with emotions goes. The structure with alternating chapters is not new and neither is the introduction of each Yuki-chapter with the description of a colour. They do work.  Buchanan furthermore manages to describe her characters with precise detail combining this with an at times poetic style of writing: “I had dark days, blue moons and a golden hour or two.”. Harmless Like You is not a perfect novel, it does take you along perfectly agreeable in the lives of two imperfect people.

harmless

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