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A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

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Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This was voted as one of the best African books of the twentieth century. Written in the late 1980s, it is set in what was then Rhodesia (and is now Zimbabwe) in the 1960s and 1970s. It is actually the first of a trilogy; the third part of which has just been published this year (This Mournable Body, it has been longlisted for the Booker Prize). Dangarembga has also just been arrested for protesting against corruption in Zimbabwe. This novel is partly autobiographical. The title is taken from Sartre’s introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Colonialism, poverty and gender are the key themes in the novel.

The main protagonist is a young girl called Tambu. She only gets to go to school because her older brother has died. As the male child he was the one to be educated.  The opening sentence: “I was not sorry when my brother died”, grabs the attention of the reader. Tambu leaves her own home and parents to live with her uncle Babamukuru and his family at a mission station where she goes to school. Her relationship with her cousin Nyasha is central in showing a different set of issues relating to gender and oppression. Men and women have their place and the novel focusses on the different reactions of the various female characters. The clash of cultures particularly affects Nyasha. She has spent some time in England and is struggling with her African identity and her father’s very traditional concept of what she should be. As she says to Tambu: “I’m not one of them, but I’m not one of you.” Tambu comes to her own conclusions:

“The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack on education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem … But was I didn’t like was the way all the conflicts came back to this question of femaleness.  Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.”

Tambu’s mother sees things in a different way and resents the way her children are taken from her to be educated and are not available to help with the housework and crops:

“And these days it is worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other.   Aiwa!  What will help you, my child, is to learn to carry your burdens with strength.”

Tambu herself does well at her studies and wins a scholarship to a mostly white college run by nuns:

“For was I – I Tambudzai, lately of the mission and before that the homestead – was I Tambudzai, so recently a peasant, was I not entering, as I had promised myself I would, a world where burdens lightened with every step, soon to disappear altogether?  I had an idea that this would happen as I passed through the school gates, those gates that would declare me a young lady, a member of the Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart.  I was impatient to get to those gates.

Although at the very end of the novel Tambu is reassessing her views:

“For I was beginning to have a suspicion, no more than the seed of a suspicion, that I had been too eager to leave the homestead and embrace the ‘Englishness’ of the mission; and after that the more concentrated ‘Englishness’ of Sacred Heart. The suspicion remained for a few days, during which time it transformed itself into guilt, and then I had nightmares.”

Nyasha is the one who sees things more clearly as she battles with an eating disorder and rebels against her parents:

“It’s not their fault. They did it to them too.  You know they did,’ she whispered. ‘To both of them, but especially to him. They put him through it all. But it’s not his fault, he’s good.’ Her voice took on a Rhodesian accent. ‘He’s a good boy, a good munt. A bloody good kaffir,’ she informed in sneering sarcastic tones.  Then she was whispering again. ‘Why do they do it, Tambu,’ she hissed bitterly, her face contorting with rage, ‘to me and to you and to him? Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away.”

This is a very good coming of age story with strong characters, all of whom are well rounded and human with their own faults. The real villains are colonialism and patriarchy. Tambu’s journey is telling and I think I will be reading the rest of the trilogy.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Ships of Heaven by Christopher Somerville

Edited by Books do furnish a room
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The Clear Stream by Marion Shaw

This is a biography of Winifred Holtby. She was a journalist, writer and campaigner and friend of Vera Brittain. She is the subject of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship. She wrote seven novels and her most famous South Riding was published posthumously. Holtby was an active campaigner for feminism, socialism and pacifism. She was on the board of the magazine Time and Tide which was a feminist journal. Holtby was also the first person to write a critical study of Virginia Woolf in 1932 (with Woolf’s cooperation). She was also active in the League of Nations. Holtby spent some time in South Africa where she was lecturing for The League of Nations and campaigning for the unionisation of black workers. Virago have published all Holtby’s novels and short stories.

Shaw has not structured this biography in a conventional way. Each chapter focusses on a particular figure in Holtby’s life. There are chapters on her mother, Vera Brittain, Jean McWilliam, Margaret Rhonnda, Harry Pearson and Virginia Woolf amongst others. It does help to have a little knowledge of Holtby before reading this. Ho;yby died very young (37), but she certainly lived a full life and Shaw manages to comprehensively cover her writings and political activities. She does skirt around Holtby’s sexuality little. Holtby never married and had a sort of on/off relationship with Harry Pearson (mostly off), but there has always been speculation about her relationship with Brittain. They were obviously close and after Holtby’s death when Brittain came to look at publishing their letters she redacted all the terms of endearment in them.

This is a well written biography, which I enjoyed and it helped to have a little knowledge of Holtby to begin with.

7 out of 10

Starting The Familiars by Stacy Halls

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The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

This is a historical novel set in 1491 in the imaginary village of Oakham in Somerset. It is a sort of whodunit (or whydunnit). The narrator is John Reve, the village priest and it is set in the four days before Ash Wednesday. The wealthiest man in the village Thomas Newman has died in the river, but was it suicide, an accident or murder? The antagonist is Reve’s superior, the Dean, who wants a reason for the death and pokes around the village being nosey and generally unpleasant. One thing to note, the story is told backwards, starting on Shrove Tuesday and working back four days. The village is a poor one, unlike surrounding villages.

The prose is rich and some of the descriptions are really good, particularly the cold wet February weather!

“As I waited in silence I felt the universe fall about me in timeless cycles, I heard planets roll and hawthorn come to bud; the church’s stone smelt of a vast deep lake, and the oak panel smelt of autumn woodland, and the pain in my bruised knees was a surge of sweet, hard life

The relationship between Reve and the Dean is a tense one, the reasons for which become clear only gradually. The strands within the novel are complex and woven together well. There are tensions between new ideas and tradition, the importance of ritual, the vital importance of the Church and its structures, the ever present threat of disease and death and grief and loss. Harvey has said that one of her purposes was to explore the nature of confession (and Confession).

I had a few problems with this in terms of historical accuracy (I’m a historian by original training). Reve has a confessional box in his Church, seventy years before they were actually first used. In the descriptions of things European, it feels way too modern and probably owes more to Brexit. There was particular mention of other nearby villages trading in sugar. This was before sugar beet (three hundred years or more before) and before sugar was widely available for anyone but the rich. There was also mention of tea again way before it was available (the first tea houses opening in the mid-1600s). There were other minor niggles in relation to clothing. Although these might be fairly minor they were an irritant.

The relationship between Reve and the Dean is interesting and moves the novel along with their contrasting views of religion and humanity. Some of the other local characters are less well defined. I did enjoy this, but was niggled by the historicity. There are plenty of descriptions of human functions and disease which might make it not for the squeamish but there is a humanity and depth that was warming.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting The Road to Cleethorpes Pier by Margaret Royall

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Disoriental by Negar Djavadi

Where to start? Well I really enjoyed this and there is a great deal to it. It is narrated by Kimia Sadr who escapes from Iran to the West when she is 10 in 1979 with her mother and sisters (her father having left some months earlier. Her father was an academic who had managed to anger both the Shah’s secret police and then Khomeni’s regime in fairly equal measure. It is not a linear story and it just around: as the narrator says:

“Talking about the present means I have to go deep into the past, to cross borders and scale mountains and go back to that lake so enormous they call it a sea. I have to let myself be guided by the flow of images and free associations, the natural fits and starts, the hollows and bumps carved into my memories by time.”

There isn’t a smooth logical progress, so some concentration is required by the reader. It is beautifully written and easy to read (it’s a good translation in my opinion). There are multiple themes running through it: obviously immigration and exile, political dissent, but also motherhood and sexuality, even fertility. The novel won the Lambda literary award for bisexual fiction in 2019. It is also a family history going back to the early twentieth century. Kimia’s father is one of six brothers. We are the audience, a silent witness:

“But you know as well as I do that, to claim to get inside a man’s head, first you need to really know him—to absorb all of the lives he has lived, and all of his struggles, and all of his ghosts. And believe me, If I start there […] I’ll never get around to telling you what I am about to tell you.

The French title combines the words Oriental and desorienter (losing orientation or direction).

Djavadi manages human emotions skilfully and there is something of the Scheherazade about her, but the storytelling is not to please. She writes to define to express the meaning of her history and not to let it disappear:

“With the passage of time, the flesh of events decomposes, leaving only a skeleton of impressions on which to embroider. Undoubtedly there will come a day when even the impressions will only be a memory. And then there won’t be anything left to tell.

There is a snapshot of Iranian history and culture and a dislocation with the move to France:

“In Paris, we didn’t talk to each other anymore, about anything. None of us. Each of us was shut up in a silence mode of stupefaction and adjustment. In a state of unconsciousness. The past was just anecdotes now that could be retold, but were only a vast, white, ruined wasteland.

There are parallel journeys going on with various characters but we follow Kimia through her childhood, adolescence and early adulthood from loving and obedient daughter to rebellious punk. The narration changes and amidst serious events and tragedies there is a vein of humour. The narration revolves around THE EVENT. This is something which occurs in the early 1990s and is pivotal in the family history. As well as a family saga, there is a little bit of love story, a coming of age and remembrance. It is a little Proustian as well.

This is creative and well written. It may have benefitted from being longer, or even a few volumes, but that’s probably me being greedy. Well worth reading.

9 and a half out of 10

Starting The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

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The Road to Cleethorpes Pier by Margaret Royall

This is a recollection of a Lincolnshire childhood in the late 1940s, 50s and 60s. It is written in a combination of prose and poetry with a number of reproduced photographs. A note from the author indicates that the poetry is written in the haibun style. I was born not too far from Cleethorpes and it was the nearest seaside town to where I lived. Consequently my sister and I were taken there on a pretty regular basis in the 1960s and early 70s: so this is rather nostalgic for me. There are periodic historical notes which are helpful.

Royall captures the feel of her childhood looking at school, relatives, the church (her parents were staunch Methodists) and recreation. There is a strong sense of place and I remember the fish and chips quite vividly as well. Royall also captures the feel of the Lincolnshire Wolds as well; something else I have fond memories of.

A good example of the poetic content is one which captures two of Royall’s great aunts and paints a picture of how they lived.

The image is still so clear:

a simple two-up-two-down,

crudely furnished, covered in dust,

its cardboard characters spun from lives

of drudgery in the local factories,

stooped bodies witness to spartan living

 

Great Aunt Nellie swathed in shawls

Squatting on her three legged stool;

her sister Jessie, dripping pail in hand,

returning from her trek to the spring

a life stripped bare to the bones;

cooking simple meals over the fire,

repairing laddered stockings by gaslight.

 

The piano in the parlour groaned

Beneath nests of wooden dolls, tubs of spills,

Whittled by idle hands in slack times ….

On Sundays hymns were belted out full throttle,

Eyes shining in the flicker of candlelight

 

Out in the yard a crude wooden privy yawned,

Old Aunt Sara’s sacking coat, limp on its

peg, offering comfort to generations

of reluctant visitors in inclement weather

 

Royall is good at capturing a sense of place and it is a window into a world that has disappeared to a large degree (although the fish and chips remain!!). The whole is heartfelt and poignant. For me it was a bit of a trip down memory lane and for that reason I loved it.

9 out of 10

Starting Summerwater by Sarah Moss

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Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

This is a debut novel and it won the Portico Prize earlier this year. The Portico Prize is biennial and is awarded to writers from the north of England. I have read a couple of the books on the shortlist (doesn’t have to be a novel) and they have been of a good standard. This one was no exception. It is a coming of age novel, but much more. There is a focus on mother/daughter relationships, but it is also about class. The protagonist Lucy is brought up in a working class area of Sunderland: she leaves to go to university in London. Some time after graduation she goes to spend some time in her late grandfather’s cottage in Ireland. The chapters are short, often very short and not entirely linear. At times this was a minor irritation, but no more. The novel is also about divided loyalties, feeling torn: North vs South, urban vs suburban vs rural, coping with an alcoholic father, trying to fit in. There are strong women characters here, often dealing with alcoholic and unpredictable men and it runs through generations, even Lucy’s grandmother:

“They walked around the streets in the cold, trying to stay wrapped up in the orange fur that pulsed from the street lights. When enough time had passed, my grandmother took them home and they crept up the stairs, being careful not to wake him as he snored on the settee with his mouth open.”

Class and gender are central and it is unusual to read a strong working class northern female voice. It is semi-autobiographical and parts of it mirrors Andrews’ own experience. Andrews looks at stereotypes and her own experience and the tensions growing up and moving on bring:

“When I was a teenager, you would go out in your little dress and your high heels with no coat and loads of make-up. But my more middle class friends didn’t wear make-up and is that a betrayal if you start to mould yourself in this other way of dressing or pressing yourself? It can feel like a betrayal of the women you’ve left behind.”

As Lucy says in the novel:

"I come from a line of immaculately turned-out women, experts in dusting make-up over their faces to conceal the tremors that ran through their lives."

It is set in the late 1990s and 2000s and captures some of the generational tensions:

“I would like to have something to believe in, but it is difficult. Everything my generation was promised got blown away like clouds of smoke curling from the ends of cigarettes in the mouths of bankers and politicians. It is hard not to be cynical and critical of everything, and yet perhaps there is an opening, too. When the present begins to fracture, there is room for the future to be written.”

The novel begins with Lucy’s birth, “It begins with our bodies . . . Safe together in the violet dark and yet already there are spaces beginning to open between us.”

Andrews deals frankly with youth, puberty, finding identity (and losing it), plenty of adolescent angst, but no wallowing in it.

It isn’t dialogue driven and focuses on Lucy and her interior journey. The interiority doesn’t grate because of Andrews’s descriptive powers, which are excellent. Some of the memories may resonate with those of a certain age (much younger than me!) This is a good debut and I will certainly look out for the next novel.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting The Offing by Benjamin Myers

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The Familiars by Stacey Halls

This is a historical novel, set in 1612, the year of the Pendle Witch trials and the trials are the backdrop to the novel. It is also a debut novel and Halls was brought up in the area. She weaves the novel around historical figures and centres it on nearby Gawthorpe Hall. The main protagonist is Fleetwood Shuttleworth, seventeen years old and mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. She is pregnant and desperate to keep the child as she has recently had two miscarriages. The other main actors are her husband Richard, his friend Roger Nowell, a magistrate and Alice Grey, a local woman who acts as Fleetwood’s midwife/wise woman. It is a first person narrative, which can be limiting at times in terms of what else is happening in the local area. Halls does build a sense of dread though with a recurring dream and some clues found by Fleetwood that indicate that her husband may be planning for her demise.

One aspect of the novel is the role of animals. The Pendle witch trials were noteworthy for the descriptions of the use of animals. Victoria Carr has done some work on this and sums up the background well:

“The animal familiars of the Pendle witches feature throughout Thomas Potts’s 1613 pamphlet The wonderfull discoverie of witches in the countie of Lancaster, where we can read reproductions of the examinations taken during these trials. These accounts tell us about the furred imps of the accused witches: Alice Whittle alias Chattox’s dog familiar, named Tibbe; Elizabeth Device’s dog, Ball; James Device’s dog, Dandy; Jennet Preston’s unnamed foal; and the unnamed dog of Alizon Device. These familiars were said to have helped the accused witches harm and even kill their enemies, in exchange for which the witches were told to give their soul to the devil and turn against Christ. Part of what made these creatures so fearsome were their unnatural abilities to cause harm paired with an innocuous appearance that allowed them to extend the witch’s harm beyond her own physical reach.

The animals in this novel play significant roles, especially Puck, Fleetwood’s dog and their presence adds another layer. The novel also focuses on the role of female friendships (the men being singularly unreliable or untrustworthy). The character development in relation to Fleetwood is quite significant and does stretch belief a little, But Halls does build tension when Alice is arrested for witchcraft;

‘Even in life I had been the little ghost, and now I was consigned to death. I held my stomach, and imagined disappearing. It would come soon, no doubt, but it would not be gentle, like the light leaving the sky. It would be painful, and terrifying, and lonely, with no cool hand on my head, no amber eyes willing me calm. There would be a trial, and Alice would die, then I would die, both of us killed in an outbreak of misfortune.’

The book is very readable and the story moves along at a good pace. We see little of the actual trials as the focus is on Fleetwood and her particular issues. There is a distinct gothic edge and perhaps shades of Du Maurier’s Rebecca. There are flaws, but it is an undemanding read and good for the darkening evenings.

7 out of 10

Starting Crime on the Fens by Joy Ellis

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