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Into the Dark Continent by Henry Morton Stanley

 

This is my second read in preparation to rereading Heart of Darkness. This is the Folio Society volume and consists of two contemporary accounts by Henry Morton Stanley. Firstly, “How I found Livingstone”, which is the account of how Stanley searched for and found David Livingstone at Ujiji (“Dr Livingstone I presume” fame). Secondly, “Through the Dark Continent”, Stanley’s account of how he mapped parts of the interior of Africa travelling from Zanzibar to the Eastern coast (including the river then known as the Congo) from 1874 to 1877. If you want to understand what colonialism is really about read this. Stanley went on to work for the Belgian King, Leopold, helping him to turn the area into his own fiefdom.

This is not easy to read because of the casual brutality and sheer arrogance of Stanley himself. Stanley took a party of over two hundred people (figures suggest 228) across Africa and over half of them didn’t make it to the other side. Stanley felt the best way to encourage good performance was to beat those who disobeyed. The general approach to tribes they met was to barter with the extensive supplies they had with them. However, if some groups happened to object to a large party strangers led by three white men wandering through their ancestral lands and decided to object, Stanley wasn’t averse to fighting (he had rifles and muskets). During the journey it is recorded that 32 pitched battles were fought as well as many more minor skirmishes. Stanley periodically describes the wildlife. However being a white male aspiring to middle/upper class values the descriptions usually involved how he managed to shoot said wildlife. His attitude and approach to African women is truly awful. Of course, the white Europeans were not the only ones exploiting the region at the time and Stanley met and traded with Arab traders who were in the region to get slaves and ivory. Stanley feels superior to them because the countries he represents have abolished slavery (the irony of the situation is clearly lost on him). Stanley also occasionally remembers his religion and tries to convert those he meets (as do the Arab traders, to Islam). As much of the territory he traverses is unmapped, Stanley also names rivers and lakes (which already have names given to them by those who live there) after friends and benefactors.

Stanley’s attitude to those he meets does vary; those who do as he wants he can be generous towards; but to get a clear idea of the man, read this:

“For the half-castes I have great contempt. They are neither black nor white, neither good nor bad, neither to be admired nor hated, They are all things, at all times.... If I saw a miserable, half-starved negro, I was always sure to be told, he belonged to a half-caste. Cringing and hypocritical, cowardly and debased, treacherous and mean ... this syphilitic, blear-eyed, pallid-skinned, abortion of an Africanized Arab”

Stanley holds life (any life other than those with white skin) very cheap. There is more emotion in the description of the death of his dog than there is when he loses a native bearer.

Stanley saw opportunities for commerce, civilization and conversion and this is Imperialism at its most sharp and obvious. It must also be said that some of his contemporaries were also critical of his cruelty and his practices.

I suspect Stanley’s writings were also the inspiration for some of the adventure novels set in Africa at this time (Rider Haggard for instance). It is a salutary read and does illustrate some of what Conrad was writing about in Heart of Darkness.

 

3 out of 10

 

Starting An Image of Africa by Chinua Achebe

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An Image of Africa by Chinua Achebe

 

This consists of two essays by Chinua Achebe. The first is “An image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” and this is why I read this. The second is “The Trouble with Nigeria”.

The second essay is Achebe making an impassioned argument about the problems of his home country Nigeria and was published in 1983. It is a polemical piece of writing outlining what Achebe feels Nigeria’s problems are. He outlines problems like tribalism, corruption, the standard of those entering politics and use of resources. It is interesting but very much not for me to comment on and I want to focus on the arguments about Heart of Darkness.

Achebe’s essay on Heart of Darkness was delivered as a lecture in 1975 and has been in print ever since. I am going to try to make this a review of the essay rather than a review of Heart of Darkness because I’m reading that next! The central point is that Conrad’s novel is at its most simple racist because it dehumanises the people of Africa and Conrad uses Africa and its people as a foil and backdrop to make his points about European civilisation. Whilst Achebe does make the point that Conrad is not responsible for the European vision of Africa, but he argues he does clearly have a problem with blackness as these quotes used show; the first by Conrad, the second by Achebe;

“A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards”

 

“Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts. Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting”

 

Criticism has come from some academics like Watts who have suggested Achebe is implying that whites cannot judge the text because of their race.

Another quote from Achebe will help at this point;

"Africa as setting and backdrop, which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?"

Achebe talked about his views on Conrad to Caryl Phillips and again I can’t outdo his eloquence;

"You see, those who say that Conrad is on my side because he is against colonial rule do not understand that I know who is on my side. And where is the proof that he is on my side? A few statements about it not being a very nice thing to exploit people who have flat noses? This is his defence against imperial control? If so it is not enough. It is simply not enough. If you are going to be on my side what is required is a better argument. Ultimately you have to admit that Africans are people. You cannot diminish a people's humanity and defend them."

Achebe acknowledges that Conrad is a great writer and uses words brilliantly, but it is because he is a great writer that Achebe is critical;

 

“.. we have very few who have the talent and who are in the right place, and to lose even one is a tragedy. We cannot afford to lose such artists. It is sheer cussedness to wilfully turn and walk away from the truth, and for what? Really, for what? I expect a great artist, a man who has explored, a man who is interested in Africa, not to make life more difficult for us. Why do this? Why make our lives more difficult? In this sense Conrad is a disappointment."

 

Achebe makes a good case; on to Heart of Darkness

8 out of 10

Starting Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain

I really enjoyed and appreciated this novel, after having read some of Hosain’s shorter fiction last year. It is set in the 1930s and 1940s towards the end of British rule in India and on to partition. It is told from the perspective of Laila, a member of a fairly privileged taluqdar family. It starts when she is fifteen and spans almost twenty years. It covers a period of great change and Hosain illustrates how the change affects a family with traditional values and the strains of modernity vs tradition. It is also told from a woman’s perspective and looks at the changing nature of the role of women in that society. The novel is partly autobiographical and the title is a quote from T S Eliot, The Hollow Men;

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams

In death's dream kingdom

These do not appear:

There, the eyes are

Sunlight on a broken column

There is insight into what purdah meant for women and how marriages are arranged. Reflections on the interior life of a family are set besides the struggle for independence, colonialism and religious tensions within the community. The very different lives and roles of the servants are also part of the picture.

The family home (or Ashiana, the nest) is immensely important in the novel and everything centres on it and it is society in miniature. Jasbir Jain argues;

“Ashiana in Sunlight on a Broken Column serves as a microcosm of the world at large with not only its womenfolk in purdah but its retinue of servants who represent the community at large. It has a living relationship with the past not merely through the culture it cultivates but also through the house at Hasanpur at the outskirts of the city, which symbolizes continuity and permanence”

Laila is given an education and this creates tension within herself as she realizes how restrictive her upbringing has been. There is however a tension here as she realizes that freedom of thought does not equate to a freedom of action. This is a critique of the old traditions and ways; not without nostalgia however. The family is split at Partition and Hosain is able to portray different approaches to the ending of colonial rule and different ideas about the future; some support Congress, some the Muslim League.

The novel is beautifully written and I have the virago edition (thanks goodness for virago). It’s about tradition, change, love and loss and it is also a snapshot of a particular ending of colonial rule and all the struggle and danger that went with it. Well worth reading.

8 and a half out of 10

 

Starting Kiskadee Girl by Maggie Harris

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The Temple by Stephen Spender

 

This is Stephen Spender’s only novel. A draft was written in 1929 and amended in the early 1930s, but not published until 1988. It was shown to a publisher in the 1930s but was deemed unpublishable because of its open portrayal of gay relationships. The novel is autobiographical, portraying a twenty year old Oxford poet on a holiday in Hamburg and on the Rhine. It is the height of the Weimar Republic and the lifestyle is hedonistic and carefree. There is a second part set three years later, again in Hamburg where the protagonist, Paul returns to Hamburg and the friends he made three years earlier. This time there is a cloud on the horizon in the form of Nazism which is affecting his friends in different ways. There is a clear sense of foreboding.

Paul, the protagonist, is clearly Spender; the other two Englishmen in the novel William Bradshaw and Simon Wilmot are Isherwood and Auden respectively. The main German characters, Ernst, Joachim (the photographer Herbert List) and Willy are distinct and contrasting. They move in different directions over the three years. Willy has a Nazi girlfriend. Joachim’s boyfriend in the first part, Heinrich is still just on the scene in 1932. However his main friends are now Nazis and he breaks with Joachim, who gets beaten up and has his flat trashed. Ernst has become much more serious and business minded.

The writers Auden, Isherwood, Spender and Upward are all linked together from this time and Spender is primarily known as a poet. His one foray into novel writing does not compare with Isherwood’s writing from this time; but the themes are similar; the struggle for sexual freedom and this stimulating political dissent. The lure of Weimar Germany was obvious; criminal sanctions against homosexuality had been lifted. Also the fact that the Soviet Union had also revoked laws against homosexuality made communism more attractive. Contrast with more conservative Britain and its censorship laws (1928-9 saw the trial relating to The Well of Loneliness). The Temple does not have the power and life of Isherwood, but it does consider the political implications of sexual dissent. The whole is also interesting when juxtaposed with Spender’s later ambivalence about his youth and his sexuality.

It is an interesting contrast with Isherwood and Auden; not as powerful, but it captures a moment in time and there is a feeling of innocence which contrasts well with its loss at the end of the book.

7 out of 10

 

Starting Clash by Ellen Wilkinsob

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Kiskadee Girl by Maggie Harris

 

This is an autobiographical novel of author Maggie Harris’s childhood in Guyana. Growing up in the 1950s and 60s in a time of great change with the coming of independence; a new country trying to find its way after slavery and colonialism. Harris describes the tensions of growing up with the old ways of tradition and discipline being challenged by the cultural changes of the 1960s. The music of 1960s Britain and the Caribbean fuse and there is a sense of change.

Harris herself sums up the melting pot and mixture of cultures that make up Guyana with ancestry from Portugal, Scotland, Africa and the Caribbean.

The memoir has a tremendous sense of energy and is written with great warmth and affection. Life was at times harsh, but there is a sense of magic and dreaming. I was also struck with Harris’s relationship with her diary/journal, which she referred to as Book. Book reflects her changing moods, loves and friendships and almost feels like a character in the memoir. Religion and school and family life inevitably feature heavily and there is plenty of childhood mischief and scrapes. Although Harris herself is inevitably at the centre of it all she allows all the other characters plenty of space so that the reader gets to know them as well.

I really enjoyed this and I didn’t want the memoir to end and that is a compliment. Harris vividly captures a time and place; the change from colonial to independent rule juxtaposed with the change from childhood to adolescence. It was not a surprise to me that Harris is a poet; her writing suggests that.

8 and a half out of 10

 

Starting Kindred by Octavia Butler

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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

 

There is so much hype about this book and it is so reviewed, quoted and revered; so much part of the literary canon; that a more measured and considered read may not seem possible. It has helped to read some background material first; some from the period and relating to imperialism in Africa and also Achebe’s pertinent and succinct critique.

This is quite a brief novella without a great deal of substance. It starts with the trope of a group of men telling tales; almost like a Victorian ghost story. Marlow is the storyteller and he also features in a number of other works by Conrad. As Conrad said to his publisher; “It is a story of the Congo. There is no love interest in it and no woman—only incidentally”. Pretty much the story is as follows; man seeks job involving travel, gets job piloting steamer in the Congo. Man travels to Congo. Man finds climate and circumstances quite testing and discovers Europeans die quite easily and regularly. Man describes jungle and its peoples in pretty negative terms. Man hears stories about Kurtz who runs the station furthest away. Man pilots boat up the Congo and describes strange and foreign land; even gets to shoot assorted natives. Man arrives at Kurtz’s station and hears account of him from another European. Man meets Kurtz and Kurtz promptly dies. Author invents snappy and profound last words which will ensure the damn thing is read forever. Man goes home and lies to Kurtz’s Intended. That’s it. There is some descriptive prose. There you have it; a parable of Imperialism (and men).

Tempted as I am to leave it at that; there are some points to make; the start of the novel;

“The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway—a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.

 

"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth."”

Note the use of the word has rather than is. There is a strong sense throughout that the Europeans are civilised by dint of time and progression and Africa is not for the same reasons. It is also argued that Conrad is criticising imperialism. If only it were so. He was aware of the awful conditions in the Congo as a result of the area being run as a personal fiefdom by the Belgian King. Conrad was a firm supporter of all things British and reading around HoD it is clear that Conrad felt Imperialism was ok as long as it was British because the British were humane exploiters! After all Marlow’s job was procured by his aunt and sealed over a cup of tea!

Then there is the question of racism. Achebe describes Conrad as a “bloody racist” and who am I to argue. It is not just or even primarily the language. The “natives” are clearly seen as other and lesser. The descriptions of the man who has learnt how to do a particular task on the steamer; the helmsman: indicate that Marlow pretty much saw him as not only as an extension of the boat, but as someone who had learnt a task by rote and not an independent and autonomous human being. If you treat other human beings as less or inferior, then what happens to them, their fate, becomes equally insignificant. The backdrop is the scramble for territory and resources in Africa. The residents of Africa are secondary to this process and it did not occur that the lands and resources might be theirs and not to be plundered to fuel western capitalism.

There’s plenty more to say, but that’s enough for now.

 

4 out of 10

Starting Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

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Interesting! Heart of Darkness is vaguely on my wishlist. It's such a well known book, but I don't think I have found anyone who has actually enjoyed it!

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It is I think over-rated, but there are some parts which stand out (Kurtz's last words) which have entered modern mythology.

 

Shades of Greene by Jeremy Lewis

 

This is a dense and hefty account of the family of Graham Greene, the novelist. It is effectively a biography of twelve people. This account starts with two brothers, Charles and Edward Greene. Charles was headmaster at Berkhamstead School and Edward was a coffee merchant who had just moved back from Brazil and settled near his brother. Charles and Edward had six children each and this book is about those twelve children.

Amongst the twelve are a novelist, a Director-General of the BBC, various assorted spies, a world renowned endocrinologist (who also attempted to climb Everest and who was the first to show that pre-menstrual tension was hormonal and not “hysterical”), two pacifists (one of whom was interned during the Second World War), a fellow traveller with Isherwood and Huxley in California after the war, a supporter of Mao, a spy for the Japanese, one of the creators of the modern Labour Party, several journalists; the list goes on.

Lewis has picked a large canvas and inevitably much is crammed into the book. There is some interesting insight into the history of the BBC and the workings of the intelligence services during the war. Hugh Greene’s policy of liberalising the BBC juxtaposed with the campaigns against tolerance by Mary Whitehouse are fascinating. Whilst there is a good deal about Graham Greene, there is nothing about his novels. This is unfortunate as Greene tended to work out his life and beliefs in his novels.

I felt that the most interesting person in the family was an aunt; Alice. She taught in a girl’s school in South Africa. She was friends with Olive Schreiner and Gandhi. Along with her partner Elizabeth Molteno and Emily Hobhouse she helped to write an influential report on the concentration camps the British set up after the Boer War. Sadly she only merited two or three pages.

This is a competent and detailed work, but it is heavy going.

 

6 out of 10

Starting Bringing the Empire Home by Zine Magubane

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Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

 

A collection of four short stories by Tillie Olson; my version is published by virago modern classics (who else!). The stories are:

I Stand Here Ironing

Hey Sailor, What Ship?

Oh Yes

Tell me a Riddle

Tillie Olsen (1912-2007) was an early feminist, union organiser and communist. Her writing was limited by raising a family and this was an issue she focussed on in later life. She wrote a study of quiet periods in the productive lives of women writers; making the comment that before the mid twentieth century great women writers had either been childless or had staff to look after them.

The stories are about family life and its tensions. I Stand here Ironing is told from the perspective of a mother of five children, looking back at the way she parented her first child, Emily and feeling guilty that this may be the reason Emily is having problems now. She reflects on Emily’s father leaving her at eight months and having to work whilst Emily was young.

Oh Yes is about a childhood friendship, which crosses a racial divide and which fades as the girls grow and the differences in upbringing and expectations divide them.

Hey Sailor, What Ship is about Whitey, an aging merchant seaman back in port and drinking his wages. He visits a family he knows (the same family as in Oh Yes) and stays with them for a while. The construction of the story is interesting; the voice of each family member has its own strength and weight and we see the situation from each perspective. Whitey is a man in decline, but there are hints of a radical past. As this is set in the early 1950s, in the era of McCarthyism, such pasts have their dangers. Olsen makes Whitey more interesting; although living in a very masculine world, he is happy to help to clean the house and care for the children. The story is more complex than it first appears.

Tell me a Riddle is about a couple who have been married over 40 years; they have brought up their children and are left with each other and that is the problem. They want different things and don’t really like each other and both feel trapped. Their children are baffled by their bickering. Then the wife is diagnosed with a terminal illness. This is the longest story in the book and is really a novella. It won the O Henry prize in 1961 and is I think, one of the best short stories I have read.

Olsen has a very distinctive voice; she was self-taught and the writing is unusual, there is brevity in the prose, but also poetry. It is firmly in the post-war modernist tradition, but it is born of struggle and radicalism. There is an awful lot in this story, including an exploration of the relationship between personal and collective histories.

The tension between the couple is illustrated by their different wants. David wants to move to a retirement community run by his fraternity; Eva wants to remain where she is in her home. David sees her as a burden preventing his happiness, whilst Eva wants to “able at last to live within, and not move to the rhythms of others”. Death and remembrance are pivotal later, adding a poignancy to Eva’s situation. This is a powerful short story that needs to be read and reread. I am not surprised that Olsen was an important part of the second wave of feminism; she has a clear voice and her thoughts on family are still very pertinent.

 

8 and a half out of 10

 

Starting South Riding by Winifred Holtby

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The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

 

A remarkable book; and it won the Booker! When I sat down on finishing it to think about the themes I realised how much ground Roy had covered and in such a beautifully written way. The themes include the caste system, religious tensions, communism, forbidden love, history and colonialism, class, culture, to name but a few. It is a family saga told in the third person and is not really sequential; the plot in outline is known from fairly early in the book.

The plot revolves around twins Rahel and Esthappen, but is seen mainly from Rahel’s point of view. Other family players include their mother Ammu, their uncle Chacko, great aunt Baby Kochamma; Chacko’s daughter Sophie Mol is much heralded during the book and pivotal, but only plays a small part. Other important characters include Velutha, an untouchable who works at the family pickle factory.

Roy’s characters bend and break rules, they cross boundaries (“boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom”), they transgress. Although this is set in Kerala in South India away from Partition affected areas, separation and demarcation are still are still significant. Recently I’ve read Heart of Darkness and I was hoping I’d seen the last of HoD references for some time; but no. Roy employs them is quite a significant way. Kari Saipu, the Englishman who “went native” is a Kurtz type, explicitly so, but Chacko (who is an Anglophile) also plays a similar role. This is especially the case when he says in reference to the family business “My factory, my pineapples, my pickles” (contrast with Kurtz, “My intended, my ivory, my station”). The setting Ayemenem, becomes a sort of heart of darkness for several characters. The divisional lines between east and west and between masculine and feminine are clear. Chacko is able to do what Ammu cannot in terms of intimate relationships. In life and in death Ammu is persistently penalised and persecuted by tradition, culture, by male chauvinism, by denial of education, in life and in death.

The narrative is grim and tragic, but Roy writes with great style and even humour about profound and important themes. The book doesn’t need me to promote it, but if you haven’t read it; please do.

9 out of 10

 

Starting An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

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Great review! I thought I had this on my Kindle but it appears I don't. I know it's one I've always been aware of and I've probably picked it up and put it back down so many times in bookshops. My library has a copy on the shelves, so I shall keep an eye out for it.

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Thanks Bobblybear; it is worth looking out for.

 

Orange Laughter by Leone Ross

 

Leone Ross was born in England and brought up in Jamaica and this is her second novel. The into from Ross’s website is a good summation;

tells the story of Tony Pellar, a man of fading fortunes and beauty, who finds himself in the subway tunnels of New York in 1995. Tony is battling insanity, as he is pursued by the spectre of Agatha, a woman who took care of him during his childhood in North Carolina.

Increasingly violent and confused, Tony writes to his childhood friend, Mikey, begging him to tell him the story of their childhood, details that he has forgotten but must use as the laughter of the woman he calls the Soul Snatcher follows him through the gloom.

The novel returns to the South during the civil rights movement as Tony and Mikey share the secrets of lost innocence, murder and twisted love in a desperate chance to save themselves and create a future.”

The narrative, flits between New York in the 1990s and North Carolina in the 1960s. In places it is very powerful and moving, the first paragraph is an example;

 

I stooped over the child and looked at him for a long time but I felt nothing I wondered if he was garbage I hunkered down a foot away and stared at his body at first he looked like a sack then a mattress torn apart I stretched and I could see his arm and the tilt of his pelvis I stared hard WAS it a child you know the darkness plays with all our minds down here I didn't want to touch I tried to decide not to know but I'm not an animal baby so I reached out for the pathetic coat he wore I couldn't see its colour and I wondered where the sound was coming from a raw sorrow song I wondered who was crying over his crumpled face dang I saw the tears falling onto his little arm I watched them fall and I was thinking there are so many leaks down here then I realised the leak was me

it was me”.

 

Tony lives in the subway system of New York, on the edge of society and battling with mental illness. This Tony is not a sympathetic figure: violent towards women and self-absorbed. As the narrative moves backwards and forwards the reader begins to piece together the story and understand his history. Tony is introduced as a child who does not talk and who is living with Agatha following his mother’s death. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mikey, a white boy who is similarly isolated because of his weight. The narrative lays out the complex interrelationships and Ross builds the suspense well towards a powerful scene at the end of the novel. The reader will have seen some of the ending coming but there are some significant twists which are unexpected. Ross explores racism, loss and betrayal and at times there is a Faulkneresque feel to it all, although the descriptive power is sharper with people then place. There is also a good deal about relationships between the genders. Ross is on record as saying that Tony is an amalgam of three of her previous boyfriends; he is a haunting character, although the compassion the reader feels for Tony the child is not transferred to Tony the adult. Agatha, however is different and for me she held the whole together.

It took me a while to get into this, but as the pieces fell into place I became clear that this was a powerful, challenging and not very comfortable to read novel.

8 out of 10

Starting The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

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Clash by Ellen Wilkinson

This is the first of Ellen Wilkinson’s two novels; it is semi-autobiographical and concerns the General Strike and its immediate aftermath when the Trades Unions went back to work and the miners stayed out.

Ellen Wilkinson was an interesting and controversial figure who seems to have been largely airbrushed out of labour history; given the prominence she had in her time. Her list of achievements is significant. Known as Red Ellen (because of her politics and hair colour), she was a trade unionist, feminist and socialist, born in 1891. She tried teaching, but was too modern in her methods, leading one school inspector to tell her she would be better off as a missionary in China. She worked for women’s suffrage, opposed the First World War and read history at Manchester University (an achievement for a working class woman), then becoming involved in trade unionism, by 1924 she was one of the earliest women MPs. She was heavily involved in the General Strike; she employed her oratorical skills well and worked tirelessly. By 1935 she was MP for Jarrow and was one of the organisers and leaders of the 1936 Jarrow march. She spoke in the House of Commons about the march;

 

“As I marched down that road with those men, all of whom I knew well, whom I had worked with in my own constituency, as I marched with them hour after hour, just talking—I come from the working class myself, and my father was unemployed, but I have never known what it was to miss a meal that I wanted—it was just as we walked and talked so intimately that I began to understand something of what it meant, day after day after day, to get up and not know what you were going to do, and never have a copper in your pocket for anything. I mean that it was a revelation to me, and no amount of investigation, and going down for a week, and no amount of talking with these men in the ordinary political sense would have taught me so much.”

 

During the war she was part of the Churchill government and was responsible for civil defence. In the 1945 Labour government she was minister of education and fought hard for the raising of the school leaving age. She was less convinced by the idea of the comprehensive system because she thought it was a way of ensuring the very poorest and most deprived would never escape from their backgrounds. Wilkinson died in 1947, still young (my age, I would say that!); she had worked herself relentlessly for many years, her hatred of poverty and injustice led her to a life of direct action. Her uncompromising feminism was seen as a threat was seen by the male dominated labour party of her time as a threat to their idealised model of working class family life. She never married; she did have relationships with men, but these were secondary to her work and her approach is summed up by Joan, the main protagonist of the novel;

 

“Now so much has been won, the vote, open professions, and all that, there must be some women in this generation who will put their job first and who will tackle some of these problems that are left lying around…Big things for humanity are only won by someone’s sacrifice.”

 

She even had a relationship with one of the main figures in the Labour Party, Herbert Morrison (grandfather of Peter Mandelson the architect of New Labour). There is a great deal more to Wilkinson’s life; she packed a great deal in. But what of the novel’

It is one of Wilkinson’s two works of fiction, her active life saw to that. The main protagonist is Joan Craig is a working class trade unionist activist who is sent down to London to assist with organising the General Strike. She meets some more middle class supporters of socialism, including members of the Bloomsbury Group. There are some wonderful portraits/satires of the Bloomsberries, including one who I am sure is meant to be Virginia Woolf. They are sharp satires, but not without some affection. There did come a point where I said to myself, Oh no, not a love triangle! However Wilkinson manages Joan’s two suitors very well. Tony Dacre is the husband of another Bloomsbury figure and he is attracted to socialism because he is attracted to Joan; he wants her to give up her work for him and settle down and have a family, he will contemplate her writing a little. This is complicated by the fact Joan does love him. Gerald Blain is an ex-soldier who was severely wounded in the war. He is a committed socialist and is attracted to Joan because of her commitment to socialism. This gives Wilkinson plenty of scope to explore Joan’s/women’s very genuine dilemmas and to look carefully at each side of the argument.

The strike is the backdrop and the heart of the novel and there are some powerful descriptions of a mining community, particularly the women in it. Again Wilkinson explores the dilemmas surrounding the tensions created by giving women power in strike situations, which means taking it from men. The dilemmas are real and handled with understanding of both sides.

The novel is dialogue based and is a little stilted at times. There are two examples of sloppy writing in relation to race which I would have tried to ignore once upon a time, but not now. It does explore genuine issues facing the early feminist and socialist movements with perception and sympathy. Wilkinson saw herself as an agent of change and she imparts this sense of destiny to Joan in the novel. Wilkinson puts the words in Joan’s mouth;

“If a woman of brains and power choses a career as the most important thing in her life, she must make it a whole time job if she is to compete on equal terms with men of her calibre. She may have love affairs, even marry, but if she means to do big things, then work is in the front of the picture … freedom does not mean just slopping around”.

It is an easy read with some good exploration of the issues facing women in the socialist movements of the time; issues which sadly have not really gone away. The importance of Virago Modern Classics cannot be underestimated for publishing works like this which are too easily forgotten.

 

8 out of 10

 

Starting The Torrents of Spring by Turgenev

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Kindred by Octavia Butler

This is sci-fi/fantasy written by a black woman and very effective it is too. The concept is an interesting one. There is an interview with Octavia Butler where she speaks about hearing a Black Power activist criticize his ancestors who submitted to slavery and did not fight back enough; she wondered how he would have coped if he had lived in those times and an idea was born.

The novel starts in 1976; Dana is a black woman married to a white man (Kevin) and living in California. Suddenly and without warning she finds herself in the antebellum South in Maryland where she saves a small white boy (Rufus Weylin) from drowning. As various others arrive on the scene she finds her actions misunderstood and is threatened with a shotgun. She then goes back to her own time to find she has only been away a few seconds. It transpires that Rufus is a distant ancestor who fathers a child with a black woman. The tie between them means that when Rufus is in danger she goes back to where and when he is and when she is in danger she returns. She starts to keep a bag of useful things with her. The stays vary in length and can be months. Her husband tries to hold onto her on one occasion and finds himself transported with her. He is not close by when she is in danger and she returns without him. On her return she finds five years has passed.

The novel is very well written and Butler builds up the tension effectively and manages to make the novel so many things; a historical novel looking at slavery and racism, science fiction/fantasy, it feels like a memoir despite being fiction and a penetrating analysis of interpersonal relationships.

Butler has done her research;

In order to research this novel, I had to read a lot of slave narratives, and I read some unbelievably ghastly accounts of punishments. I mean that weren't even punishments -- people were simply tortured to death.

There were masters that you could deal with that you could kind of make a deal with, but it was unspoken. Then there were the ones that were just crazy that were going to hurt you no matter what. Then there were the ones that didn't care, that would just hire someone to look after things."

 

And had a clear goal in mind;

 

"The reason for my writing this novel really was to try to make people feel the past as well as understand the facts of it to understand it (the slavery experience) in your skin, in your mind, in your emotions, to feel it."

 

Of course setting the novel in 1976 was no coincidence, being bicentennial year and it was a way of asking if and how things have changed and whether it should be celebrated.

There are lots of interesting by-ways, one being the relationship between Dana and Kevin. When he is transported back in time he has to pretend he is Dana’s owner (well that’s one view of marriage!) and his life is one of much more ease and comfort than Dana’s, she is living and working with the slaves. He comments;

“This place isn’t what I would have imagined. No overseer. No more work than people can manage” and “This could be a great time to live in. I keep thinking what an experience it would be to stay in it - go West and watch the building of the country, see how much of the Old West mythology is true”.

He doesn’t grasp that the myths of the Old West are built on the suffering of Native Americans and slavery.

This is a great novel that ought to be required reading; my copy was published by The Women’s Press and is part of their science fiction series.

9 out of 10

Starting Kin: New Fiction by Black and Asian Women edited by Karen McCarthy

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An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

A collection of short stories by a Zimbabwean writer previously unknown to me; thirteen stories, all bar one set in Zimbabwe. They focus on recent history, post-independence. The characters struggle with the vicissitudes of daily life, bureaucracy, hyperinflation, the pomposity of those in authority, AIDS, misogyny, unfaithful partners (mostly men), corruption and yearning.  Gappah is also interested in the motivations of those who wrong as well as those who are wronged.

The Easterly of the title is a shanty town that was cleared and destroyed by the government. Gappah manages to capture the initial sense of optimism following the end of colonial/white rule. The long shadow of AIDS is present; usually referred to by officialdom as “a long illness”. Although the men are human, they tend to treat women very badly and Gappah says a lot with humour, as in the story “At the Sound of the Last Post” where a wife is reflecting at her husband’s funeral; “Like the worthless dogs that are his countrymen, my husband believed that his penis was wasted if he was faithful to just one woman”.

The writing is sharp with a strong vein of humour with dissects the subject being examined (Gappah is a lawyer and it shows). “The Mupandawana Dancing Champion” is a delight with a very original ending. The play on words in the story (The Mupandawana Dancing Competition has an acronym which is the same as the main opposition; the Movement for Democratic Change) illustrates the sheer silliness of those in power when the local MP is called to account by the governor for promoting a dance competition which also promotes the opposition (by means of acronym);

“What business does a ruling party MP have in promoting the opposition, the puppets, those led by tea boys, the detractors who do not understand that the land is the economy and the economy is the land and that the country will never be a colony again, those who seek to reverse the consolidation of the gains of our struggle.”

However stories like An Elegy for Easterly have a much sharper effect and here Gappah tackles the story of a squatter community, the daily trials and struggle to survive. It also broaches mental illness with the character of Martha Mupengo. Equally Gappah can also make the reader feel sorry for a rather pompous diplomat who is new to e-mail and loses money to a lottery scam.

The theme of lament runs through the stories, but it is also a paean to the people of Zimbabwe.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

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Torrents of Spring by Turgenev

 

It’s a while since I read any Turgenev and this is regarded as one of Turgenev’s better novels, if not his best known. Like Proust’s madeleine, here a garnet cross triggers recollection in Sanin. Sanin is 52 and the cross takes him back thirty years, to his youth and first love.

Sanin was travelling and visited Frankfurt; passing a shop he is called in to assist a boy in distress. He successfully provides aid and is very taken with the boy’s elder sister Gemma. The family take him out as thanks and he meets Gemma’s very uptight fiancé Herr Kluber. Whilst they are out an army officer insults Gemma. Kluber takes the party away, but Sanin stays behind and challenges the officer and they end up fighting a duel. The upshot is Gemma breaks with Kluber and becomes engaged to Sanin. Sanin impulsively decides to sell his estate (peasants and all) to marry Gemma. All this has taken just a few days. Sanin meets an old school friend Polozov who says his wife, who is rich may buy his estate. Sanin travels to Wiesbaden where she is staying to negotiate a sale and finds another beautiful and charming woman, Maria. Unknown to Sanin husband and wife have a wager that she can seduce him.

As you can see the plot is fairly thin and the themes involved are innocence, passion, obsession and the power of memory (not to mention the stupidity of men!). According to Turgenev this is an autobiographical novel, very much true to life. It is certainly well written and easy to read. It is true that Turgenev had a lifelong affair/obsession with the opera singer Pauline Viardot; he travelled Europe to be near her and never married. It was certainly a brave novel to write; Sanin is not a sympathetic character, but a stupid, self-centred and careless young man with little thought for the feelings of others. There is a remarkable passage towards the end of the novel when Maria Polozov asks Sanin what he is going to do:

“'I am going where you will be, and will be with you till you drive me away,' he answered with despair and pressed close to him the hands of his sovereign. She freed her hands, laid them on his head, and clutched at his hair with her fingers. She slowly turned over and twisted the unresisting hair, drew herself up, her lips curled with triumph, while her eyes, wide and clear, almost white, expressed nothing but the ruthlessness and glutted joy of conquest. The hawk, as it clutches a captured bird, has eyes like that.”

Tell me this is not the virgin/'lady of the night' dichotomy all over again. We have nineteen year old Gemma who is innocent and vulnerable and we have Maria who is a cold-hearted seductress; oh dear it appears we do!

There are some very good minor characters, especially Pantaleone and Emilio and the whole is well constructed. It was written when Turgenev was in his 50s and shows a certain cynicism about first love and illustrates the stupidity of youth. The female characters though well drawn are somewhat predictable and one-dimensional, although they have a little more nuance than some of Dickens’s heroines. It’s an easy introduction to Turgenev because of its brevity and ease of reading.

7 out of 10

Starting I will not Serve by Eveline Mahyere

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The Ice-Shirt by William Vollmann

 

The first of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series about the American people, landscape and continent, and about the relationships between Native Americans and those moving to the continent. This novel charts the movement of people of Norse origin to Iceland Greenland and finally to the coast of America. It reads like a saga and Vollmann has used contemporary sources and has drawn from the Heimskringla and especially the Flatyjarbok (a saga from a fourteenth century Icelandic source).

There is a certain fantasticalness about it and the New York Times review describes it thus;

Imagine a performance of Wagner's ''Ring'' cycle directed by Sam Peckinpah, with a new libretto by J. R. R. Tolkien and occasional music by Aaron Copland.”

The saga follows refugees from the Norse lands like Eirik the Red who settled initially in Iceland and focusses on two of his daughters Freydis and Gudrid. There are demons and trolls and lots of magical occurrences but underneath are age-old and modern tensions. The human impetus to explore and to colonise and to spread; the effects on native peoples and tensions between the two. Vollmann indicates that the peoples from the Old World took with them to the new world greed and the will to power and also the frost and ice. He seamlessly weaves together scraps of historical information and narrative fiction and then intersperses it with snapshots of his own experiences of travelling in the areas in question for his research. The end of the novel skates over several hundred years of history and mistreatment of the peoples of the lands. There is a sense of old myth; Cain vs Abel if you will. An unspoilt idyll ruined by those from outside/overseas. It’s possible the arrival of the Norse peoples can be seen as the Fall, original sin. Vollmann does refer to the Norse visits and explorations as the beginning of a process of degradation.

There are lots of references and an extensive glossaries, but the whole is rather effective. One of the things I like about Vollmann, from the limited amount of his work I have read, is the way he looks in difficult places and gives a voice to those who have no voice. I found the ending a little unsatisfactory, but that’s my opinion. However if you like myth and saga this may appeal, but as always with Vollmann there is more to it than meets the eye.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Up the Junction by Nell Dunn

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Up the Junction by Nell Dunn

 

A collection of short stories published in 1963 which later became a TV play and a film; neither were as hard-hitting as the book. It is set in the Battersea area of London and the Junction in the title is Clapham railway junction which is close by. The title has come to mean other things since then; remember the Squeeze song. It is an examination of the lives of working class women at a time when homosexuality and abortion were still illegal. The narrative is dialogue led, very raw and shocking and driven by an elusive narrator who is almost absent. The book is a series of vignettes which are dialogue led and linked by a number of female characters. There is no judgement by the narrator and the reader is left to make a judgement (or not).

There is a strong comic feel to it all, but the themes are grim and distressing at times;

“Sylvie pisses in the road. “Quick Sylvie there’s a car comin’ in ter park!” The headlights beam. “Pull yer drawers up!”

“It’s alright” She jumps to her feet, “I don’t wear no drawers Friday nights, it’s ‘andy””

And this;

“Finally the ambulance arrived. They took Rube away, but they left behind the baby, which had now grown cold. Later Sylvie took him, wrapped in the Daily Mirror and threw him down the toilet.”

The women work in a sweet factory and we hear about their lives and loves, the struggle to manage and the fecklessness of their men. It’s all about survival and most purchases are on HP and the Tally Man visits every week (these days we call them loan sharks). You hang onto an unfaithful husband because the alternative means going on National Assistance and starving. There is a sense from the women of sexual freedom, but this is before the pill and the price is pregnancy and a back street abortion, and the descriptions are graphic. The women are much more powerful than the men, and although they are prone to receiving violence from men, they are a community and look after each other.

There is a mix of traditional and modern in the views expressed and the women are focussed on trying to get as much out of life as possible;

“what you don’t get caught for you’re entitled to do”. It’s not Sex in the City, but it’s not far off and it’s a long way from Edith Wharton!

It is powerful stuff, but it is important to note that it is observation. Nell Dunn comes from an upper class background. She is descended from Charles the Second, via Nell Gwyn however. Her grandfather was the fifth Earl Rosslyn; well known in popular song for being the “Man who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”, who subsequently lost all he gained. The upbringing was wealthy but bohemian and Dunn left her convent school at fourteen. She moved into the Battersea area with her husband Jeremy Sandford (later known for Cathy Come Home), and worked in the factory she described.

For me this puts the novel in the same league as Orwell’s observations, but it is well observed and still has the power to shock. There are references to the recently arrived West Indian immigrants which are in keeping with the strength of the language in the rest of the novel and may reflect the language of the time, but are offensive. However the men are the principal villains, but necessary ones because the women are rather fond of the functions they perform.

This is easily readable in one sitting; the cityscape it is set in is one of dereliction; the slums were being demolished and there was still a lot of destruction from the war. It is wonderfully vivid and again many thanks to virago.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting She knew she was Right by Ivy Litvinov

Edited by Books do furnish a room

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Kin by Karen McCarthy

 

Short stories and new fiction by British Black and Asian women. Contributions from Jamika Ajalon, Francesca Beard, Donna Daley-Clarke, Krishna Dutta, Diana Evans, Barbara Graham, Amanthi Harris, Heather Imani, Sharon Jennings, Kalbinder Kaur, Shiromi Pinto, Ranbir Sahota, Nicola Sinclair, Saradha Soobrayen and Gemma Weekes. It’s quite a mixed bags and the stories are quite varied. There is a general theme of kin and families and secrets are themes of a number of stories; but kin is seen more as a political construct so “the people we dance, eat and sleep with and the friends we can trust and rely on are family too”. The introduction by Karen McCarthy also speaks of a kindred of writers. Kinship here is a fairly loose mode. McCarthy wanted stories that we urban and edgy and she has managed that. There are stories here which create a sense of unease and a couple that have really shocking twists at the end.

This was written over ten years ago and I feel the writers are of a certain age as there are several references to the long hot summer of 1976, which I too remember. This may also be an indication that if you are Black or Asian and a writer it is very difficult to get work published/recognized.

One of the best stories is the first one “Martini” by Heather Imani which looks at the lives of girls of about 14, growing up and dealing with feelings about boys disrupting school work. The others are a very varied bunch and include, drugs, dominatrixes, vampirism, sexual abuse, psychic dysfunction, and violence. The ties that bind them together are quite loose and there is even an attempt at horror/science fiction (which doesn’t convince). Some are very bleak, some humerous and sometimes jumping between the two can feel odd.

The sheer variety will mean that there will be something here for most readers and there are one or two writers here that I will certainly watch out for in terms of other works.

7 out of 10

Starting You can't get lost in Cape Town by Zoe Wicomb

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The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

 

There is a tendency to assume that anything that has won the Booker prize must be problematic, however I found this winner to actually pretty good. The novel moves points of view and location regularly. It shifts between the foothills of the Himalayas near Kalimpong (set in 1986 with the Gorkhaland movement as a backdrop) and New York and periodically goes back to the pre-war colonial period. The main characters centre on the household of Jemubhai a retired judge, Sai (his granddaughter), the cook, Mutt the dog and Gyan (Sai’s tutor who visits periodically). In New York is Biju, the cook’s son who is scraping a living working illegally in New York restaurants. There is also a cast of eccentric characters in the household’s social circle. The novel also moves back to the judge’s past and his time in England studying law, his marriage and his gradual disillusionment.

Colonialism and post-colonialism feature as themes as does identity and its loss (and this inheritance moving through generations). The novel is split into short chapters and each chapter into brief fragments which move the narrative along quickly, often between comedy and tragedy. This is a funny book and there are some hilarious moments, often juxtaposed with moments of real pathos and tragedy. There is also a sense of decay and regret and an illumination of human cupidity and delusion; delineated with care and concern. An elderly character, Lola, pontificates about Naipaul’s A Bend in the River;

“I think he's strange. Stuck in the past ... He has not progressed. Colonial neurosis, he's never freed himself from it”

It is an ironic and telling comment.

Desai says that her novel “tries to capture what it means to live between East and West and what it means to be an immigrant” and goes on to say that it also explores at a deeper level, “what happens when a Western element is introduced into a country that is not of the West”. Desai also asks “What happens when you take people from a poor country and place them in a wealthy one. How does the imbalance between these two worlds change a person's thinking and feeling? How do these changes manifest themselves in a personal sphere, a political sphere, over time?”

Desai’s genius is to explore all these themes within the context of a very human and poignant story. The novel tells a compact family tale in broad scope raising issues and difficulties facing the inheritors of colonial domination. Sai’s feelings give a sense of the inheritance; “Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own tiny happiness and live safely within it.”

Easy to read and deceptively deep; this is a good novel with much to recommend it.

8 and a half out of 10

 

Starting Mother to Mother by Sindiwe Magona

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I Will Not Serve by Eveline Mahyere

 

This is Eveline Mahyere’s only novel and shortly after she wrote it, she committed suicide at the age of 32 in 1957. Information about Mahyere is limited; there is no all singing all dancing wiki page. The virago edition has biographical information and is the Antonia White translation. It is certainly autobiographical and tells the story of Sylvie, a seventeen year old who has been expelled from her convent school three months before her Baccalaureate for falling passionately in love with her teacher Julienne, a 25 year old nun.

Mahyere’s education took a similar path, being expelled from her Lycee and being sent to a convent school (although the Lycee eventually took her back as the nuns could not cope with her nonconformity). Although born in Geneva, Mahyere spent much of her time in Paris and in the novel Sylvie throws herself into the bohemianism of demi-monde Paris of the 1950s. Mahyere experienced ongoing mental health problems, identified at the time as depression and she had spoken about suicide to her brother and said “If I feel desperate enough to do it, I mustn’t fail”. She didn’t. An excerpt from her suicide note is telling;

“…at last I’ve managed to smile again (it’s true my death amuses me!). It’s marvellous to die as if one were doing something entertaining”

On the surface this may appear to be a novel of teenage angst and unrequited passion, and, of course, it is that, but it is much more. Compared to A Catcher in the Rye and Bonjour Tristesse, this is far better. The language is poetic and the characters well developed and Mahyere addresses profound themes.

“Why, up to now, have I never been able to love people unless I substituted them for God? Where did I get this mania? Doubtless from my craving that God would at last reply. Exhausted by my monologue, I created God on earth and launched frantically into a dialogue. Is it surprising that so much sublimity soon became ridiculous?”

A good deal of the novel is epistolary, as Sylvie writes to Julienne, who sometimes writes back. The secondary characters, Sylvie’s friends Claude and Albine are well drawn and even the beloved object Julienne is not a cardboard cut-out as she wrestles with her feelings for Sylvie, and whether to finally commit to her novitiate. It is important to remember Julienne is only 25 and fairly new to the convent, having trained as an architect.

Inevitably, given that Sylvie has been attending a Convent School and has fallen in love with a nun, there is a certain amount of religion present. It is possible to speculate whether there is any correlation between Julienne and the Virgin Mary; both of whom are unattainable. One can also ask whether it is the idea of love and passion which drives Sylvie rather than its actuality. There are moments in the book where one feels that Sylvie takes a step back from trying to make her love more physical. At a couple of their meetings one feels that if Sylvie had been more decisive Julienne would have responded; but would that have broken the spell. There is nothing salacious here, but there is intensity and passion and a good deal of irreverence; Sylvie towards the end of the book gets drunk on whisky;

““I’m spewing up God,” enunciated Sylvie, bent double over the wash-basin.”

This is a haunting novel and I suspect Sylvie will stay with me for a long time. I really don’t understand why this doesn’t rank with the other great coming of age novels of the time; it’s much better. Again thanks to virago for publishing this. It is out of print in English and French, but I think it is available for download.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Arms and the Girl by Stevie Davies

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Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

 

This is a fable, almost a fantasy with an all knowing narrator/story teller. I must admit I am sometimes wary of fantasies (remember The Alchemist!!), but I enjoyed this one. It is a reworking of a Senegalese tale, “Ansige Karamba the Glutton”, the main protagonist being Paama, his wife. She is driven away by his greed and selfishness and returns to her family home. She is noticed by the djombi (undying ones), some of whom gives her the Chaos Stick, a totem that has some power. However, another djombi (with an indigo skin, hence the title) claims the right to wield it. A fantastical journey ensues.

Karen Lord speaks thus about Paama, the main character;

“It was a risk, making Paama the protagonist. After all, what makes for good living does not always make for good story. But Paama told me very clearly the kind of heroine she was going to be and the plot moulded itself around her personality. She failed, and did not despair; cried, and stayed strong; left, and returned on her own terms. Her enemy expected a head-on confrontation, but she countered with strategic yielding. She kept making choices, good and bad, and never stopped learning from the bad and improving on the good. She mastered the art of serendipity, which is more than mere luck. She wielded the Stick well.”

And she sums up her tale in this way;

“Don’t get distracted by the talking animals, the deathless beings, the Object of Power and the other staples of fantasy that I’ve added to Paama’s story. Redemption in Indigo is a novel which celebrates ordinary people and everyday magic, because sometimes all it takes to be a heroine is to choose wisely, walk softly and carry a small Stick.”

This is Lord’s first novel and she has continued to write speculative fiction based on tropes from Caribbean and African tradition. I’m going to quote from Lord again, talking about her work and what Caribbean speculative fiction is and how it differs from other types, because she writes rather well

“Location, language, worldview. It won’t be set in the same places, it won’t be told in the same voice, and it won’t seek the same outcomes. The Caribbean is a beautiful paradox: insular and cosmopolitan, ancient and modern, radical and conservative, accommodating and unforgiving.”

 

The novel moves at a good pace and is easy to read and in a fabulist narrative it is a good to encounter a strong female protagonist and there’s a nice little twist at the end. It is essentially about change and choices, learning and teaching. Food is also a central theme;

“I have heard tales of how magnificently she can cook. I could relate for you a description of a morsel of her honey-almond cake, a delicacy which is light enough to melt on the tip of the tongue and yet it lingers on the palate with its subtle flavours long into the dream-filled reaches of the night. I could sing the praises, second-hand, alas, of her traveller's soup, a concoction of smoothly blended and balanced vegetables and herbs guaranteed to put heart and strength back into the bones of the weariest voyager.... I have just this moment recalled a certain jar that sits in her kitchen, filled with dried fruit steeping in spice spirit, red wine, cinnamon, and nutmeg, patiently awaiting that day months or even years hence when it will be baked into a festival cake that will turn the head of the most seasonal toper."

The novel is well written and has great human warmth and it was good to come across a fable that is Non-European roots. Lord herself is an interesting character and I will certainly read more of her work.

8 out of 10

 

Starting Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo

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I see you read Kindred by Octavia Butler back in the spring.  I'm glad you liked it.  I haven't read it yet, but I recently put it on my wishlist.  I've heard a lot of good stuff about her novels.  Is that the only one that you've read of hers?

Edited by nursenblack

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Nursenblack; yes it is the first, but hopefully not the last because I enjoyed it!

 

She Knew She Was Right by Ivy Litvinov

 

Another treasure from Virago and I couldn’t resist the title because it is a play on the Trollope novel He Knew He Was Right. This is a collection of short stories, some are linked.

Ivy Low Litvinov was an English writer and translator (Russian) who married Maxim Litvinov a Bolshevik revolutionary and colleague of Lenin, in 1916. After the Russian Revolution she spent much of the remainder of her life in Russia. Her husband was a diplomat, periodically falling foul of Stalin, but holding high office as well. Litvinov’s life has been well documented by John Carswell; she wrote a few novels in her early years (Her early novels were notorious for their frank approach to female sexual attitudes), the short stories were written in the 1950s and 1960s, the time when most of her translation work was done. Litvinov was a strong character who knew her own mind. It is reported that Stalin said to Maxim Litvinov, “You have an extremely courageous and outspoken wife”.

The first four stories are set in England and are loosely based on Litvinov’s early life. A couple of the later ones are also set in England, all the rest in Russia.

In the early English stories one gets the sense of a life and times already disappeared. The Russian stories depict daily life in the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 50s. The shadow of the Gulag is in the background of the stories, often in a subtle way. There is little mention of ideology or Marxism; Litvinov gets her point across by her portrayal of human relationships. There is a devastating portrayal of familial unhappiness in Old Woman and The Boy who Laughed examines the effect disability has on a family. Apartheid is one of the better stories. It focuses on the Russian habit of renting a dacha for the summer. A bourgeois couple rent a dacha and find their landlady has her young granddaughter staying. Both sides try to keep the children apart; impossible, of course. Gradually the couple discover that the child’s mother is in a labour camp. The child innocently reports positive tales of her visits and becomes a rather sinister and uncomfortable figure forcing the couple and the reader to acknowledge something that was hidden.

The last story, “Pussy Cat Pussy Cat, Where Have You Been?” is an oddity and we see Russian society through the eyes of a cat and his ancestors. I’m not sure it quite works, but it is interesting and a clever way of getting a point across.

I enjoyed these stories and Litvinov has a very understated way of getting her point across; she uses language well and is especially strong on constructing a tenuous relationship and exploring the results (especially Portrait of a Lady and the linked story Flight from Bright Shores). The stories are noteworthy for their strong female characters (although the cat in the last story is male), often coping in difficult situations.

Litvinov is an interesting character and I will keep an eye open for her earlier work, but these are good stories and worth looking out for.

8 and a half out of ten

Starting Dorothy Edwards by Claire Flay

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Nursenblack; yes it is the first, but hopefully not the last because I enjoyed it!

 

She Knew She Was Right by Ivy Litvinov

 

 

Goes right on my Wish List, to be purchased next week. :)  Thanks!

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