Thursday, 27 June 2013

Reading List: Around the World

A couple of months back, my lovely Aunty Heron took a tumble and accidentally broke herself. Usually an extremely active person, she was confined to the couch and told to stay there for three months! I put together a selection of some of my favourite world novels. I reasoned that if she was physically stuck in Islington, at least her mind could travel to far off climbs.

This was my pick:

Title: The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman
Author: Bruce Robinson (that guy who wrote Withnail & I)
Set in: Kent, England

Set in the UK, but discovered in a second-hand bookshop after an epic road trip across the Nullarbor in 2004. Chosen solely for its show-stopping, titleless cover.

There's a good review which outlines the story:

Thomas's problems begin at home, among a family so eccentric that they make Nancy Mitford's Radletts seem like the Waltons. His grandfather, a First World War veteran whose life was saved by maggots, is obsessed with pornography - writing it, collecting it and, in his youth, even posing for it. His father, who permanently sports a surgical collar, is a vile man of violently right-wing tendencies who spends his evenings watching television and massaging the Doberman's testicles. His mother replaces priceless antiques by charmless reproductions. Only his grandmother and sister, shadowy presences in both house and novel, are relatively normal. Small wonder that, like the young Salvador Dali, Thomas makes his presence felt in the only way he can: by leaving parcels of excrement hidden in the furniture.

With a penchant for pooing, Morse code and Charles Dickens, this is a fantastically provocative and masterfully written coming-of-age story.  Whether you're driving across Australia or taking the tube to work, I highly recommend it.

You can find a fairly sizable extract online.

Heron's verdict? It was her favourite.

Title: Sister of my Heart
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Set in: Calcutta, India

Divakaruni is perhaps best known for her novel Mistress of Spices, which was turned into a film in 2005. I picked that up in the Programme Office in Rwanda several years ago and mentioned how much I enjoyed it, so my family sent out Sister of my Heart as a follow-up. I fell in love with it instantly.

Born in the big old Calcutta house on the same tragic night that both their fathers were mysteriously lost, Sudha and Anju are cousins. Closer even than sisters, they share clothes, worries, dreams in the matriarchal Chatterjee household. But when Sudha discovers a terrible secret about the past, their mutual loyalty is sorely tested.

A family crisis forces their mothers to start the serious business of arranging the girls' marriages, and the pair is torn apart. Sudha moves to her new family's home in rural Bengal, while Anju joins her immigrant husband in California. Although they have both been trained to be perfect wives, nothing has prepared them for the pain, as well as the joy, that each will have to face in her new life.

Steeped in the mysticism of ancient tales, this jewel-like novel shines its light on the bonds of family, on love and loss, against the realities of traditional marriage in modern times.

One of my favourite passages, to give an example:

The storm begins in earnest after the guests have left, when Sudha and I are in my room undressing. We switch off the light and open the big window because we both love storms - the dusty electric smell, the dark, spreading wings of clouds, the ecstatic drumbeat of rain. We are too wound up to sleep, so we take a long time to fold our saris and comb out our hair, to wipe the bindis from our foreheads and clean the kajol from our eyes. Sudha slips Ashok's ring onto her index finger and turns her hand so the diamonds glint suddenly in the lightning, then disappear, then glint again before the next thunderclap.

'But how can you love someone so much when you have only spoken to him twice?' I ask. 'How can you be ready to marry him?'

'It happens,' says Sudha dreamily. Dressed only in her petticoat, her long hair spilling like black water over her bare breasts, she goes to stand at the window. A pipal branch breaks off with a load crash. Wind blows in a gust of rain, and when Sudha turns, I see the drops glittering in her hair like pearls. 'I know why peacocks dance in the rain, don't you?' says my heartbreakingly beautiful cousin. Ashok, I think, if only you could see her like this! Then I am jealously glad that he can't.

'How, Sudha?' I persist. I've got to understand this dangerous current that's sweeping her away from the safe shore where I am left desolately alone.

'I can't explain.' Sudha's forehead creases in perplexity, and I see that love is almost as much a mystery to her as it is to me. Then her face lights up. 'But I can tell you a story about it, and then maybe you'll understand.' 

I find there is usually always a passage in each book I read that remains with me. For this book, that one. Whilst looking for it, I found another I had forgotten. Sorry, I can't resist:

I am sleepy too, but force myself to stay awake. I am looking for shooting stars. I need two of them, just at midnight, because I must make two wishes... Not that Anju believes in falling stars. They are nothing more, she says, than burning meteors, and have no power to help anyone, not even themselves.

I know. But I know also that there are many realities. A ball of flaming gas hurtling to its doom can, if you believe strongly enough, give you your heart's desire. The death of a star, the birth of a new joy in your life. Isn't that how the universe balances things?

The wonder of Divakaruni is that these aren't just isolated passages. Somehow, she manages to write entire books with this level of thought-provoking loveliness.

I bought it for my mum's birthday a few years ago, and it made her cry. There's even a vegan dish named after it!

Title: A Woman of Africa
Author: Nick Roddy
Set in: Cameroon, Africa

I discovered this one by accident, whilst looking for The Other Hand on Amazon. I liked the cover, and the proverb on the front:  If you run from both the sun and the moon you must one day confront your shadow.

It's an extremely unusual book. It begins:
I am an African woman. That's not a political statement. I am not a Whoopee Goldberg or an Oprah Winfrey, a middle-class American in search of an identity or asserting a political right. I am a woman and I am African. That is all there is to it, and that is my tragedy.

Only, it was written by a white, American male, Nick Roddy.

My aunt wasn't all that sold on this and, I must admit, I wasn't expecting much once I read that part in the Prologue. Glad I gave it the benefit of the doubt, though.

It is the story of a woman he met in a bar in Douala, Cameroon. She told him the story of her life, and he wrote it down.

People are used to third-person biographies being written about people, and they are used to gender roles being reversed in fiction - after all, Chris Cleave wrote first-person as an African woman in The Other Hand and Little Bee - but I think the schism comes from writing someone else's story, their biography, first-person. Especially with such contrasting backgrounds as an African female prostitute and an American male oil worker.

Accepting that, it's extremely well told. Apparently: "while writing it [Roddy] was kidnapped by MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) and held captive in the Jungle for 3 weeks."

It's a little expensive in paperback as it's published through Matador, but that's all the more reason to support it. Or you can purchase a Kindle version.


So, that's my brief trip around the world. Hope you enjoy them.

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