Ayòbámi Adébáyò || Stay With Me

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Short List

Spoiler Alert

From the start it is clear that main characters Yejide’s and Akin’s marriage fell through. In the pages that follow Adébáyò shows us how. By switching perspectives of time and character, the reader is shown step by step what caused the separation. It also becomes quit obvious that nothing is what it appears at first sight. Furthermore Adébáyò links the downfall of one marriage to traditional Nigerian society being on the brink of moving into modern times. It is no problem that Yejide has gone to university and has become a successful entrepreneur, it does constitute a problem that she has not fulfilled her main role as a wife: to deliver baby’s, which naturally is her problem. It does not occur to either family that Akin might be to blame.

By changing perspectives of character and time, Adébáyò does not only subtly reveal the truth, she also allows the reader to penetrate into the characters of Akin and Yejide and to relate them to circumstances. A minor flaw might be that Adébáyò is slightly more critical of Akin than of Yejide, the truth being that either cannot stand up against the claims of society. Akin however does accept that his wife is blamed for their marriage remaining childless, he does set in motion a chain of occurrences he can no longer control. Or accept. Yejide is mostly to blame for being loyal, for accepting desperate measures in order to become pregnant.

Stay With Me is a beautiful novel on two difficult subjects: to have and to lose children. By maintaining a certain amount of aloofness in telling the story Adébáyò never succumbs to being tacky. She shows us the difficult choices traditional society forces upon two people who love each other, the pain and sorrow that cause man and wife to grow apart, the struggle between love and truth for both. The subject matter being sufficiently sad, Adébáyò apparently did not feel the need to put more emphasize on it. The violins are never allowed to erupt, their restraint allows Stay With Me to be a touching novel that through its aloofness shows true pain and sorrow. For those who know me by now, my type of novel. I absolutely loved it.

Stay

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Nathan Hill || The Nix

At the station I was confronted with posters advertizing The Nix for months and months. It took ages for the novel to arrive through the library, I was definitely not the only one wanting to read it. In such cases I always worry the hype might be bigger than the novel itself. In this case I had no need to worry, The Nix was worth the long wait. In it Nathan Hill links a rather far-fetched act of terrorism to the lives of Faye and her son Samuel. Hill switches effortlessly between Faye growing up in the sixties, ending up unintended in student revolts, and Samuel facing the now. Not having lived up to expectations as a promising young writer, he has to settle for being a professor at a rather mediocre college. He spends most of his time thinking of the woman he has adored his entire life, violinist Bethany, and playing a video game for hours and hours.

Step by step Hill reveals the truth behind the moment in which Faye throws gravel at a would-be presidential candidate. Each story line has a purpose, each character has a role to play in the events leading to this supposedly act of terrorism, providing Hill with a perfect stage to make us look critically at our modern age and time. The passage in which student Laura tells Samuel why she has been forced to plagiarize her essay is brilliant and could have been part of sitcom Girls easily. Gamer Pwnage is a loser in the real world, as super elf he is triumphant. He dedicates many hours to his favourite game, causing his body to fail gradually.

I loved this novel in which several story lines come together effortlessly and in which proto-type characters are developed to the point they become convincing. The people in The Nix are not perfect, they, with a single exception, are rather ordinary people trying to live their ordinary lives. Faye becomes a security risk because of intrigues and political aspirations she has no part in whatsoever. She just happens to be present when jealousy and ambition exact their toll. She is made into an example of our vulnerability in a complex society controlled by fear of what might happen.

The Nix reminded me of Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the quintessential novels of the eighties. I hope Hills debut will not be a one only. If he keeps up the good work, he might follow into the path of born story-tellers like Charles Dickens, John Irving or David Mitchell who unravel story-lines into one gratifying finale. Don’t miss The Nix, I’d say.

Nix

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Naomi Alderman || The Power

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Short List

SPOILER ALERT

Alderman has written a convincing novel about a world in which women are able to seize power by virtue of a newly developed anatomical device called a skein. From the moment women can control men by literally electrocuting them with their skein a grab for power starts. At the end things do not end well: do not think Alderman sends us the message that a women-controlled world would be perfect, on the contrary: a women-controlled world sucks as much as any world controlled by the power-hungry, the religious fanatic or the criminal. It is disconcerting to read about the disturbed schizophrenic who can become the leader of a new religion, about the politician who goes for control of the world with the help of a female ‘peace-force’ or the daughter of the ruthless criminal who steps into her father’s footsteps and starts selling a drug that makes the skein even more powerful (and drives the women using it mad).

Alderman safes one determining fact for the final pages: her novel does not start in the now but in a women-controlled society somewhere around 7017 that bears a striking resemblance to our current society. By confusing us she sends her message through loud and clear: we humans have a tendency to succumb to power and money or to listen to religious nutcases, whatever their gender.

This message is the one thing making me doubt whether The Power is an excellent novel or a very well written pamphlet. At a certain point I felt the message taking over, becoming the more important issue in the novel. Alderman became slightly pushy in sending it across, in this way making the literary quality of the novel secondary.
Alderman has written a decent novel that sends a powerful message across. Somewhere in the novel the message takes over. I was relieved to find out that the most cynical of all characters, criminal Roxy, turns out to be the one who can see sense at the end. Her skein being surgically removed might have had something to do with that, making her taking her distance from her previous power-hungry and religiously fanatic pals also slightly obvious: Alderman is once more pushing the message through too loud.

Power

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Maria Sempre || Today It Will Be Different

I read on the internet that Today It Will Be Different will be made into a movie starring Julia Roberts. I dare wager a bet that she’ll run around with uncombed hair, no (visible) make-up and clothes that would have had her sent to Trinny and Susannah or Stacy and Clinton in real-life. How else to show that main character Eleanor is having a hard time of living life? With her caring husband, her failed career, her growing son, the energetic younger parents of his class mates, her pushy friends, the not-cool city she has had to move to and mostly, herself. Oh dear, life does get tricky when gravity takes a hold on your body, when wrinkles appear and no longer can be made to disappear and when younger males do no longer consider you flirt-worthy. I was supposed to have been charmed and amused by Eleanor and her efforts to improve life. Sorry, I found her obnoxious and too into herself. She only got interesting when Sempre started revealing the facts about her troublesome relationship with her younger sister. At that moment Sempre, who can actually write very well, got me and I wanted to keep on reading for the first moment. What a pity about 1/5th of the novel was dedicated to Eleanor and her sister, 4/5th is mainly a struggling main character not accepting a fairly good life. What a pity the publisher did not advice Sempre to focus on the two sisters, that could have been a promising novel. This one did not do it for me.

Today

 

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Michael Chabon || Moonglow

Moonglow is a feel good novel. Chabon takes his readers along in the life of a sympathetic engineer, type act first think later, with a rather inflexible focus on things. On his deathbed he talks about his life whilst his grandson, an author, is listening and taking notes. The truth about certain aspects of the family history is finally revealed.

Granddad, who is after all dying, does not tell his story chronologically, he rather jumps about the place. His grandson copies the account, rambling and all. Though I am convinced Chabon put much thought into the structure of his novel, the result as far as I am concerned is that I am continually leafing through the novel trying to get back on track. That Chabon is sidetracked continually, deviating from the main story, associating all the time sharing rather irrelevant information does not make it any easier to keep track. I was happy to be reading a paper copy that made leafing through the pages possible.

Granddad does have a certain roguish charm. In those episodes he, at a pretty advanced age, starts chasing a python eating pets in the compound for the elderly in order to impress a possible love interest he makes you want to cuddle him. His French-Jewish wife who has come out of World War 2 with an unhealthy fascination for a skinless horse which makes her end up in psychiatric care several times fascinates. I would have preferred it however if Chabon had stuck slightly closer to their story.

Moonglow could be considered a sturdy and serious variation on the theme that became quite popular with a certain Swedish guy leaving through the window. Chabon does take his readers along in the horrors of World War 2, the difficult decisions that are required of countries and individuals in a period of war and the grandfathers’s fascination for rockets. That does not make for a literary masterpiece, as it was acclaimed in one of my country’s most popular television shows (making the sales of the novels they discuss go sky high). Moonglow is entertaining, nothing less nothing more. I’d advise you to read the novel when you have some time on your hands and to use a paper copy, it does make it simpler to leaf through the pages.

Moonglow

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Annie Proulx || Barkskins

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To be frank, I’m not sure Barkskins is a stunning novel. I personally am not that fond of historic novels with lots and lots of enumerations. And given the fact that Proulx embarks on a journey spanning four centuries of family history, from the first settlers in Canada till now, enumeration is what you get. I was just not taken with the way Proulx had us catch up with family members: in a few pages she summarized life and death of several Sels or Duquets (paying special attention to the gruesome way in which most of them died in accidents or of diseases long forgotten). When Proulx decides to spend more time on one character that person comes to life, making me thoroughly enjoy that particular chapter.

Barkskins is not just a family chronicle, it is also the history of the forest on the Northern-American continent. I would even go so far as to say that the forest is the main character, not the Sels or Duquets. The ruthless manner in which settlers started cutting down the forest is downright upsetting, especially bearing in mind that their mentality is still very much alive. Profit is what counts; environment and nature lose. Forest after forest after forest is cut down to still the desire for material: ships, houses have to be build, wheat has to be grown. Many trees are cut down, woods are burnt down, complete areas left open to erosion. Those who start to think of preservation are seen as nitwits who just do not get it. Or barbaric natives who do not grasp what the Good Lord expects of them: hard work, use the material the Good Lord has provided you with. To live respectfully of what nature has to offer? The lazy bums, no wonder they have never amounted to anything.

The Native-Americans in the novel dying of disease, addiction, poverty, violence and years and years of hatred is no surprise but still confronts. Proulx shows how some Mi’Kmaw survive by retreating into the real wilderness. With their knowledge of plants and wildlife they can make do. Proulx also shows civilization coming closer and closer, leaving the Mi’Kmaw no choice but to incorporate Western methods into their lives. Those who go for the easier profit tend to get the most dangerous jobs chopping trees, are killed in terrible accidents or get addicted to alcohol. Those who remain loyal to their life style make ends meet, just.

Barkskins is an ode to the forest and a call for action to respectfully treat the few original forests that remain. I felt the novel overall was too long-winded due to the many enumerations. In those chapters Proulx gave over to her love for writing she effortlessly showed her talent. Those chapters and the ode to the forest may not make for the best novel ever written, they do make for an important one.

Barkskins

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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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