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A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

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Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

This is the follow on work from “When I Hit You” and there are links between the two. It is also an experimental novel with two parallel streams of narrative on the same page. One narrative is the story being written, the other is a sort of commentary on it, on Kandasamy’s life, on the current political context, especially on Mohdi’s India. The author is present on the page in a very obvious way and there is inevitably an interaction between writer, text and reader. This could have been irritating, clumsy or just over clever. However the interrelation is very pertinent and works well. The reader does have a choice about how to read the text and in what order, but the themes in both texts are linked. A note about the title: “Exquisite Cadavers” was the name of a game surrealist artists played, very similar to consequences. It is also a reference to the Oulipian technique of assembling artworks from pieces contributed by a variety of people. Kandasamy was angered by reviewers describing her previous novel as a memoir, and in her parallel text she comments about her western audience:

“writers like me are interesting because

– we are from a place where horrible things happen, or,
– horrible things have happened to us, or,
– a combination of the above.

No one discusses process with us.

No one discusses our work in the framework of the novel as an evolving form.

No one treats us as writers, only as diarists who survived”

There is an epigraph in the novel which says, “The purpose of avant-garde writing for a writer of colour is to prove that you are human”. Kandasamy has commented that writers of colour are seen not so much as artists, but as “diarists who have survived”

The main novella is the story of a couple Karim (a Tunisian film maker at a film school in London and Maya, a dual heritage British woman. We follow their angsts and Karim’s struggles with his tutors when he tries to make the films he wants rather than the ones they think he ought to make. The parallel text documents Kandasamy’s struggles to feel some empathy for her female protagonist. She finally decides Maya should be pregnant, as she is:

“I cannot make her me. Then again, I cannot relate to her if I do not share anything with her.”

And then another aside about Maya:

“I make her relatable to the British readers, I steal a little of every Englishwoman I see to build the composite. Amy Sarah Claire Naomi Gill Lucy Allison and god yes Kate.”

Kandasamy addresses contemporary issues such as #MeToo, immigration, sexual violence, film criticism, the damage families do to each other, selfhood and the relationship between the individual and history. The marginalia are almost like a diary.

This may challenge your reading habits but it is well worth the effort and this is a thought provoking novel. Kandasamy is fast becoming one of my favourite authors.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Life, end of by Christine Brooke-Rose

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The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years and is Allende’s first novel. It covers ninety years of Chilean history and is written in the form of a family saga with a strong element of magic realism. In part it charts the rise and fall of Salvador Allende, who was deposed in 1973. Although Allende prefers to see it as reflecting the history of Latin America. The novel covers three generations of the Trueba and Del Valle families. The character running through the whole is the family patriarch Esteban Trueba. Allende wrote it in reaction to the news that her grandfather was dying. There is a great deal about the passing of time and the nature of family:

“At times I feel as if I had lived all this before and that I have already written these very words, but I know it was not I: it was another woman, who kept her notebooks so that one day I could use them. I write, she wrote, that memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get the chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously.”

There is a substantial cast of characters, most of them well drawn and substantial. Esteban Trueba is someone you wouldn’t want to know in real life, a violent bully, prone to rages and a “self-made man” who eventually becomes a right wing senator. However Allende expertly weaves all the themes together so that they flow smoothly and the family and the political blend with all the clairvoyance, religion and revolution. The female voices in this are most interesting as is the way they navigate a particularly strong and overbearing patriarchal character. The women strive to maintain their own identities in a setting and context that rejects their agency and experience:

“Clara also brought the saving idea of writing in her mind, without paper or pencil, to keep her thoughts occupied and to escape from the doghouse and live. She suggested that she write a testimony that might one day call attention to the terrible secret she was living through, so that the world would know about this horror that was taking place parallel to the peaceful existence of those who did not want to know, who could afford the illusion of a normal life, and of those who could deny that they were on a raft adrift in a sea of sorrow, ignoring, despite all evidence, that only blocks away from their happy world there were others, these others who live or die on the dark side.”

This is a great novel and I enjoyed it more than One Hundred Years of Solitude. You don’t need me to outline the plot, but it is a reminder of what a tragedy the overthrow of Salvador Allende was and of the brutality of the Pinochet regime.

9 and a half out of 10

Starting A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

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Newfoundland by Rebbecca Ray

This is a long book; at over a thousand pages. Most books of a similar length tend to have an epic sweep about them: Les Miserables, War and Peace and the like. This one doesn’t. It focuses on an imaginary Welsh small town near Aberystwyth called Ynys-morlan. It is a seaside town that is gradually crumbling; hit by decline, by holidays taken abroad and a lack of investment. The cast of characters is limited, not many more than a dozen significant ones and we spend a thousand pages with them. Into this mix comes an American woman, Charlotte Weyland, who buys a house on a hill near the town and does it up. She strikes up a friendship with a local woman, Ruth Lewis, who helps her in the garden. Charlotte has a legacy from her mother which she does not want. It is £33 million and she decides to give it to the town to renovate it. That is the plot, the effects of suddenly getting what you always wanted for your house/business. Beware of what you wish for. Ray looks at the effects on the community and on the relationships of the main characters.

This is not a book with humour in it. The effects of the money are mainly negative for the relationships of the current occupants, although good for the infrastructure. The pace of the novel is slow and some of the slow build tragedies reminded me a little of Hardy. There is a very good exploration of domestic abuse and Ray tries to get into the minds of both parties with some success. Ray’s attempt to explain and understand the mind of the abuser struggles a little with brutal masculinity and attempts to redeem it by explanations of misplaced love and aimless life. Maybe, but I wasn’t convinced, maybe he’s just a brutal thug.

Although this is set in Wales, it does not feel Welsh, the sense of place isn’t that strong, and that’s not entirely true, there is a sense of bleak abandoned seaside town. With the houses that "looked like a line of driftwood that had been piled here by the sea". There are a few loose ends, a few happyish endings and more tragedies. There are also things which took place which made me think: “That would never happen”, particularly a couple of the sexual encounters. It’s a character driven novel with deeply flawed characters that you get to know very well because you spend a thousand pages in their company. If you like that sort of thing then this may be for you. I wanted to like it more.

5 and a half out of 10

Starting Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

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Life, End of by Christine Brooke-Rose

Life, End of

It’s a bit ironic that as I have read this the Covid 19 pandemic has taken hold: it was entirely coincidental. This is Brooke-Rose’s final novel, semi-autobiographical about a writer struggling with the limitations of old age and changing relationships with those around her. The novel is very much bound by the physical limitations of the body as it begins to stop working. I haven’t read much be Brooke-Rose. I sort of enjoyed Textermination, but my thoughts at the time I think were a little over enthusiastic and subsequent reflection has somewhat adjusted them. That being said Brooke-Rose certainly has a way with words and she plays quite effectively with the language of the illnesses of older age: polyneuritis, Zimmer frame and cardio-vascular.

However I did have some problems with the throwaway comments and judgements. Like this one when talking about the struggles with eyesight fading her character has:

“Oh of course blindness is nothing, thousands of people are blind, even children. But are there many both blind and very lame? The two don’t go together. A blind person needs legs to learn from touching walls and furniture; a lame person needs at least one eye to guide the zimmer or the wheelchair. The two together mean total dependence, even guiding a fork to the lips or tea to the cup.”

This is quite a negative approach to disability and at odds with the strengths based approach that social work takes today.

There are better bits. The descriptions of trying to complete ablutions at a sink when one can barely stand. Some reflections on American imperialism (The Unilateral States of America). Cardiovascular problems becoming a play on Vasco da Gama: de Harmer, then Charmer, Qualmer, Alarmer and so on. The narrator splits everyone into two groups T.F.s (True Friends) and O.P.s (Other People). Inevitably the O changes into other, otiose, obstreperous, obsolete, over-sensitive, obtuse, obdurate, oxymoronic and so on. There is lots of this punning, so of it multilingual, some of it very funny: on discovering an eye can have an infarction “How can the eye have a heart-attack? Because it loves, it loves”. And then the end of the novel with the punning about Descartes:

“Dehors before the cart, after all. A cruising mind, as against the mere word-play fun. Meanwhile: Les jeux de maux sont faits

 Parts of this were good and hit the spot, other bits really irritated me, so a mixed bag.

6 out of 10

Starting The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

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Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann

This is scholarly and well researched: a continuation of Kaufmann’s PhD thesis: in other words a proper history book. There is a myth that there were very few people of colour in England in the Tudor period and that Elizabeth 1 made an effort to get rid of those that were. Strictly Kaufmann extends her range to the mid-1620s.  Here ten particular men and women are identified and their stories told. Kaufmann does have a tendency to wander off the point and give background detail, probably because her source material is fairly thin. The main sources of evidence are parish and court records: deaths, baptisms, court cases of variable kinds. We start with a trumpeter at the early Tudor Court, John Blanke who was present at Henry VIII’s coronation and end with Cattalena of Almondsbury in Gloucestershire whose possessions at her death were recorded (including her cow) in the early seventeenth century. She was a free and single woman, living alone in an English village: supporting herself. Another woman, a widow was designated as her executor.

We know there were Africans living in England in the Roman period. By the end of the Tudor period there were communities in most of the ports, but especially in London. Kaufmann has identified 360 people identified as being black in records of the time. As records are only partial there were likely a significant number more. She also identifies that the very confusing Admiralty records have been little researched and they will have much more information as a number of those identified were certainly sailors. This is before the slave trade (apart from a couple of abortive voyages by Hawkins in the 1560s) and before there were any major colonies. Some were here as a result of trade with the West African coast; others were liberated from Spanish or Portuguese ships; some came with particular skills like Jacques Francis who was part of a team of divers who were charged with swimming down to the wreck of the Mary Rose and salvaging what they could.

Kaufmann has an awareness of the times in which she writes:

“as debate about immigration becomes even more vituperative and divisive, it is vital to understand that the British Isles have always been peopled by immigrants. The Black Tudors are just one of a series of different peoples who arrived on these shores in centuries past.”

The science of DNA has added to weight of evidence as well. A man in Wales was able to trace his family tree back to Tudor times and a black servant in one of the great houses. This man, known as Jetto has descendants in many parts of the Britain and even as far as Australia. By the nature of humanity many of those who settled here married as well. All of these migrants were free; slavery wasn’t legal at the time, not in England. There is evidence that many of the pirate ships had crews that were often up to half black, mostly escaped slaves from the Spanish and Portuguese colonies.

This is a fascinating account and being a historian by original training I appreciated the scholarship that went into it. This is very much a starting point and I am sure research will develop the story. There were a few niggles and a few tangents, but on the whole this is a good counterpoint to some traditional Tudor histories.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe

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