Emma Donoghue – Room

‘“What’s wrong with needing?” “It’s hard to explain.” … “My teeth feel a bit better if I stop thinking about them,” she tells me. “How come?” “It’s called mind over matter. If we don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”’

Spoiler alert: this post contains major spoilers.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.

Emma Donoghue’s Room was first published in 2010 and is based on what was one of the biggest, and perhaps most shocking, news stories of 2008 – that of Josef Fritzl. Fritzl imprisoned, raped, violated and bore seven children with his daughter over 24 years in the town of Amstetten, Austria. Room, then, tells the story about a woman – ‘Ma’ – and her son Jack who are held captive by ‘Old Nick’ over a period of several years. The story is told from Jack’s perspective and accordingly written in the language of a child. Jack was born in captivity and has only ever known the room he grew up in.

The question that stuck with me when I started reading the book is, is it possible to bring such a difficult topic to life and make it seem realistic at the same time? In Donoghue’s case it is. Room as a story works because it is told from Jack’s point of view and not from Ma’s or Old Nick’s. Because, can you really write a story from the point of view of a kidnapped woman, if you haven’t experienced a similar situation yourself? It seems impossible, although I don’t think anyone but a woman could have written a book like this. Moreover, it is impossible to even try to imagine what goes on in the mind of a man like that. One of the best points of the book is in fact that Old Nick isn’t described much at all, or doesn’t really play much of a role. He’s only there when he comes to “visit” Ma at night or when he brings food or other items Ma and Jack need to survive. Jack has to hide in the wardrobe every time Old Nick is there, so we never get to see him. Nevertheless the reader always feels his presence in Ma’s and Jack’s life. This creates a feeling of suspense and tension, in turn making the story more realistic.

‘Nothing makes Ma scared. Except Old Nick maybe. Mostly she calls him just him, I didn’t even know the name for him until I saw a cartoon about a guy that comes in the night called Old Nick. I called the real one that because he comes in the night, but he doesn’t look like the TV guy with a beard and horns and stuff. I asked Ma once is he old, and she said he’s nearly double her which is pretty old.’

‘When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it’s 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops. I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t count, because I always do. What about the nights I’m asleep? I don’t know, maybe Ma does the counting.’

It’s easy to think that this book is a story about kidnapping and violence – and in a way it is, of course. However, fundamentally I think it is a story of motherhood and the relationship between a mother and her son. Ma does everything to keep Jack out of harm’s way and to protect him and tries to bring him up in as normal a way as possible, for example insisting on a daily routine. Yet at the same time it becomes clear that Ma probably couldn’t survive without Jack – that he gives her focus and balance, that without him she would probably not survive captivity. 

‘“I figure there must be something wrong,” he’s saying to Ma, “you’ve never let me get a good look since the day he was born. Poor little freak’s got two heads or something?” … “He’s just shy.” “He’s got no reason to be shy of me,” says Old Nick. “Never laid a hand on him.” … “Let’s just go to bed.” Ma’s voice is strange. Old Nick does a kind of laugh. “I know what you need, missy.” “Come on,” she says again. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you manners?” Lamp goes out. But Ma doesn’t have a mother. Bed’s loud, that’s him getting in. … I don’t want to count the creaks but I do.’

This is another reason, in my opinion, why the book works – because it focuses on motherhood and the mother-son relationship, rather than the difficult – and perhaps indescribable – topic of the kidnapping. 

The story starts when Jack turns five and goes on to tell Ma’s and Jack’s daily life in the room – their routine, the way Ma makes sure Jack keeps himself occupied and learns things, what they eat, their games etc. Basically, it shows the love of a mother who tries to give her son as normal a life as possible under impossible circumstances. And it also shows the strategies a mother employs for herself and her son to be able to survive a situation like the one they find themselves in. Before meals, they for example pray, and then they play games like Hum where they have to guess songs or like Labyrinth, which is made out of toilet paper or like Bouncy Ball or Eggsnake which is made out of egg shells. They watch TV but Ma turns the commercials silent as the commercials “mush” the human brain and they have different tasks each day – Tuesday is for cleaning and Thursday for doing laundry, for example. 

‘We have a pretty busy morning. First we undo Pirate Ship that we made last week and turn it into Tank. Balloon is the driver, she used to be as big as Ma’s head and pink and fat, now she’s small like my fist only red and wrinkly. We only blow up one when it’s the first of the month, so we can’t make Balloon a sister till it’s April. Ma plays with Tank too but not as long. She gets sick of things fast, it’s from being an adult.’

‘Monday is laundry day, we get into Bath with socks, underwears, my gray pants that ketchup squirted on, the sheets and dish towels, and we squish all the dirt out.’

‘Lunch is bean salad, my second worst favorite. After nap we do Scream every day but not Saturdays or Sundays. We clear our throats and climb up on Table to be nearer Skylight, … Then we shish with fingers on lips. I asked Ma once what we’re listening for and she said just in case, you never know.’

And yet there are days when Ma doesn’t wake up – giving the reader an idea of her situation and what she is going through, and how she probably would not survive without Jack, who is giving her focus.

‘Today is one of the days when Ma is Gone. She won’t wake up properly. She’s here but not really. She stays in Bed with the pillows on her head.’

Ma and Jack eventually escape – I won’t say how – and the story after is the only part I’m not convinced by. I still like it, but I’m not convinced it’s realistic. Again, it is hard to make a story like that realistic (can you ever, after all, recover from something like that?) but it feels too rushed. The way they reconnect with Ma’s family, stay in a clinic, deal with the press, eventually get a place of their own in an independent living residential facility feels too rushed in the sense that I don’t think anyone can recover from an experience and move on from it that quickly. By “move on” I mean in the sense of living a sort of independent life. Of course, I don’t know how much time passes between their rescue and the end of the book but the way it’s told, it doesn’t seem like it’s a lot of time. At the same time I wouldn’t know how to describe it any better or add anything more to it. Perhaps the only thing that would have improved this part of the book would have been to describe in more detail (it is mentioned at one point or two) how much time in total had passed – months, a year or more? That would have made the story’s ending a bit more plausible.

‘In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, but she and Steppa don’t have jobs, so I don’t know how persons with jobs do the jobs and all the living as well. In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter over all the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there’s only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.’

‘Also everywhere I’m looking at kids, adults mostly don’t seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there’s a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn’t even hear.’

‘“Remember”, she says on the way to the white car, “we don’t hug strangers. Even nice ones.” “Why not?” “We just don’t, we save our hugs for people we love.” “I love that boy Walker.” “Jack, you never saw him before in your life.”’

‘Driving home I see the playground but it’s all wrong, the swings are on the opposite side. “Oh Jack, that’s a different one,” says Grandma. “There’s playgrounds in every town.” Lots of the world seems to be a repeat.’

‘“It’s perverse,” Ma is telling Dr. Clay, “all those years, I was craving company. But now I don’t seem up to it.” … “Most days … Jack’s enough for me.” “ ‘The Sould selects her own Society – Then – shuts the Door – ‘“ That’s his poem voice. Ma nods. “Yeah, but it’s not how I remember myself.” “You had to change to survive.” Noreen looks up. “Don’t forget, you’d have changed anyway. Moving into your twenties, having a child – you wouldn’t have stayed the same.” Ma just drinks her coffee.’

Overall, Donoghue’s Room is highly recommendable – and I’m certainly not the only one that thinks so. It is a bestseller after all and the movie earned Brie Larson an Academy Award for Best Actress (not that the Oscars count for much, in my opinion). It’s a powerful and shocking yet touching and moving book at the same time. I would definitely recommend it.

About Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue is an Irish-Canadian writer. Born in Dublin in 1969, she gained a BA in English and French from University College Dublin and in 1997 received her PhD from the University of Cambridge. She has been a writer since the age of 23 and writes fiction, which she is best known for, history and drama for radio, stage and screen. Room, an international bestseller was shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes. More on her website.

Marleen Haushofer – Die Wand

Ich habe den Phantasielosen ihren Mangel nie angekreidet, manchmal habe ich sie sogar um ihn beneidet. Sie hatten ein leichteres und angenehmeres Leben als die anderen.

Ich fürchte mich auch heute noch, weil ich weiß, dass ich nur leben kann, wenn ich gewisse Dinge nicht begreife.

Spoiler alert: this post contains some spoilers.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.

So, it’s been ages since I wrote my last blog post – I’ve had so much to do, started a new job, travelled a bit – basically, life got in between. But I will try posting more regularly again from now on – I really enjoy reading and writing about books, after all. Anyway, I’ve chosen Marlen Haushofer’s Die Wand as my next book to discuss. It’s a book I would have loved to read in my German literature class. My teacher, I’m sure, would have had lots to say about it (I’ve always loved reading but my German literature teacher really taught me how to think and analyse – I really wouldn’t be where I am today without her). Die Wand is a fascinating book and its message can only be guessed. In fact, it’s a book that bothers me. The way I interpret it, it’s a criticism of modern-day society, which I like and find interesting. But what bothers me are the narrator’s decisions and thoughts. I’ll explain both further down – I’ll give a brief overview of the story first.

Die Wand is about a woman, in her forties, who takes a trip with her cousin and her cousin’s husband to their hunting lodge in the mountains (presumably the Austrian alps). The cousin and her husband go to the village for a few drinks, leaving the woman (who is the narrator of the story) behind with Luchs, the pet dog. By morning the woman finds that the cousin and her husband have not returned. She goes to look for them but on her way to the village finds her path blocked by an invisible wall. Behind the wall, all life seems to have come to an end – the woman sees a man, for example, who looks more like a statue, not moving and even falling over after some time. 

This is where the story starts, but I won’t go into much more detail – it would spoil the whole book. It is, briefly put, a story of a woman cut off from the rest of the world (if the world even still exists) by an invisible wall, with only animals as companions. It’s a story about how she survives and deals with it. There must be lots and lots of interpretations of Die Wand already, it’s a famous book after all, but, in my opinion, it is a criticism of modern society. 

In the below quotes, the woman, writing about her experience, for example says that humans are the only enemy she’s ever known; that humans can’t be animals, but are worse than animals; she admits that she’s never been scared in the forest but that she’s always been afraid walking through a city because she could meet humans there; the woman finds her past life insufficient and thinks that humans lived in slavery before and had no freedom. Moreover, she says the forest will eventually reach the wall and reclaim the land stolen by humans, but that the forest does not want humans to come back. She thinks the last time she really saw things with her eyes was when she was a child, since then she has forgotten that the world is or was once beautiful, young and untouched but also terrible. She says that in her past life, she always had to rush somewhere and do so many different things at the same time but once she got anywhere, she always had to wait. She, furthermore, mentions that animals are easier to love than humans and thinks that whatever she studied in her past life had always been for exams but not really to learn something.

Der einzige Feind, den ich in meinem bisherigen Leben gekannt hatte, war der Mensch gewesen.

Ich klammerte mich geradezu an die spärlichen Reste menschlicher Ordnung … Gewisse Gewohnheiten habe ich übrigens nie abgelegt. … Vielleicht fürchte ich, wenn ich anders könnte, würde ich langsam aufhören, ein Mensch zu sein, und würde bald schmutzig und stinkend umherkriechen und unverständliche Laute ausstoßen. Nicht dass ich fürchte, ein Tier zu werden, das wäre nicht sehr schlimm, aber ein Mensch kann niemals ein Tier werden, er stürzt am Tier vorbei in einen Abgrund.’

Ich hab mich nie nachts im Wald gefürchtet, während ich in der Stadt immer ängstlich war. Warum das so war, weiß ich nicht, wahrscheinlich weil ich nie daran dachte, dass ich auch im Wald auf Menschen treffen könnte.

Während des langen Rückwegs dachte ich über mein früheres Leben nach und fand es in jeder Hinsicht ungenügend.

Ich möchte wissen, wo die genaue Uhrzeit geblieben ist, jetzt, da es keine Menschen gibt. … Wenn man schon in der Sklaverei lebt, ist es gut, sich an die Vorschriften zu halten und den Herrn nicht zu verstimmen.

Um unsere Freiheit ist es sehr traurig bestellt. Wahrscheinlich hat es sie nie anderswo als auf dem Papier gegeben. Von äußerer Freiheit konnte wohl nie die Rede sein, aber ich habe auch nie einen Menschen gekannt, der innerlich frei gewesen wäre.

… später wird der Wald bis zur Wand vordringen und sich das Land zurückerobern, das ihm der Mensch geraubt hat. … Und der Wald will nicht, dass die Menschen zurückkommen.

Seit meiner Kindheit hatte ich es verlernt, die Dinge mit eigenen Augen zu sehen, und ich hatte vergessen, dass die Welt einmal jung, unberührt und sehr schön und schrecklich gewesen war.

Seit ich langsamer geworden bin, ist der Wald um mich erst lebendig geworden. … Früher war ich immer irgendwohin unterwegs, immer in großer Eile und erfüllt von einer rasenden Ungeduld, denn überall, wo ich anlangte, musste ich erst einmal lange warten.

Ich hatte immer nur für die Prüfungen gelernt, …

Immer schon hatte ich eine Abneigung gegen schwere Lasten gehabt, und immer hatte ich mich abschleppen müssen. Zuerst mit der unmäßig geschwollenen Schultasche, dann mit Koffern, Kindern, Einkaufstaschen und Kohlenkübeln, und jetzt, nach Heubündeln und Holzscheiteln, auch noch mit einem Butterfaß.

Nur ist es eben viel leichter, Bella oder die Katze zu lieben, als einen Menschen.

These are just examples. However, it certainly seems that the woman is done with the world as we know it – and I would assume this would be Western civilisation. Perhaps the world is criticised this much in the book because of the time it was written in? The narrator frequently says that the wall might have been put up by “ victorious powers” – perhaps this refers to the Cold War, during which the book, I believe, was written? Perhaps the author wants to tell us that the world as it existed then, during the Cold War, did not make sense? 

More specifically, as the below quotes show (and yes, they’re all in German – but I still think translating them wouldn’t make sense, they’d lose all their meaning), the narrator is also done with being a woman in the world as she knew it before the wall. She for example says that a man can easily not do work – and why should he? Men, she argues, don’t have to fear criticism, after all. The woman further says that she’s always had anxiety issues – something a man would never understand but every woman would. And finally, she says that the world as she knew it was hostile towards women, that women found this world strange and creepy. (The last point is something I couldn’t agree more on.)

Die Möglichkeit, Arbeit von sich zu wälzen, muss für jeden Mann eine große Versuchung sein. Und warum sollte ein Mann, der keine Kritik zu befürchten hat, überhaupt nicht arbeiten. Nein, es ist schon besser, wenn ich alleine bin. Es wäre auch nicht gut für mich, mit einem schwächeren Partner zusammen zu sein, ich würde einen Schatten aus ihm machen und ihn zu Tode versorgen.

Ich habe an derartigen Ängsten gelitten, solange ich mich zurück erinnere, und ich werde darunter leiden, solange irgendein Geschöpf lebt, das mir anvertraut ist. … ein Mann hätte mich nicht verstanden, und die Frauen, denen ging es doch genau wie mir.

… immer nur eine geplagte, überforderte Frau von mittelmäßigem Verstand, obendrein in einer Welt, die den Frauen feindlich gegenüberstand und ihnen fremd und unheimlich war.

So, we have a woman who is clearly done with the modern world – who seems glad, even, that the wall exists. Now that the wall exists, she never has to rush through shopping malls again, for example; never has to put up a tree for Christmas again; she never has to be bored again (according to her, everyone was stunned with boredom, in the past world); and no one can ever change her plans in the forest, as she is all by herself.

Ich musste nie wieder durch Kaufhäuser rennen und unnötige Dinge kaufen. Es gab keinen riesigen geputzten Baum, der im geheizten Zimmer langsam verdorrte, statt im Wald zu grünen und zu wachsen, …

Wir waren alle ganz betäubt vor Langweile. … Die Wand hat unter anderem auch die Langweile getötet.

Hier im Wald konnte niemand meine Pläne durchkreuzen …

At the same time – does the wall even really exist? Or does it exist only in her imagination? The fact that she’s so happy about the wall, about having left her old life and being cut off from the world, about being around nature and animals rather than humans makes me think so. Moreover, she never actively tries to escape her situation – if I had been in her situation, for example, I would’ve walked along the wall, tried to find a way out, perhaps dig a hole underneath it. But she never does that – even though she mentions she might in the future. She also says that the wall really doesn’t bother her – that she will eventually have to deal with it because she won’t be able to live there forever, but that at the present time, she doesn’t want to think about that. The fact that it apparently will be so easy for her to escape her situation also makes me think that, perhaps, the wall doesn’t exist in real life, but only in her imagination. That perhaps the narrator chose to live far away from everyone, even her family, and does not want to be part of the world anymore, because she doesn’t like it and, perhaps, can’t deal with it either. She also, right at the end, shoots the only man (and I believe it’s important that it’s a man, not a woman) she sees – this means that there are other people out there, whether within the wall or not (depending on whether it exists), but she clearly doesn’t want to have anything to do with other humans. She wants to be alone.

Wenn ich einmal von hier weggehe, werde ich das Loch unter der Wand so tief graben, dass dieser Wald nie zu einer Falle werden kann.

Die Wand ist ein Ding, das weder tot noch lebendig ist, sie geht mich in Wahrheit nichts an, und deshalb träume ich nicht von ihr. Eines Tages werde ich mich mit ihr befassen müssen, weil ich nicht immer hier werde leben können. Aber bis dahin will ich nichts mit ihr zu tun haben.

This is what makes this book interesting – there is so much you can take from it (valid criticism of our world and of how it treats women, especially) but so much you have to guess, too. I haven’t discussed all themes (animals, nature, the stable door, for example) – I’ll leave that for someone else to do. I really enjoyed Haushofer’s language too – and also liked the narrator. This is a rather short post (it was all about getting into the habit of posting again) but, overall, I would really recommend Die Wand. It’s a great book. 

About Marleen Haushofer

Marlen Haushofer was born in Austria in 1920. She studied German studies and literature in Vienna and Graz and was married with two children. She won the Grand Austrian State Prize for Literature in 1968 and died in 1970. Die Wand is her most famous book.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust

… the loudest protests were created out of whispers. To protect new post-independence citizen children, like most new Kenya parents denying soul betrayals, Nyipir built illusions of another Kenya, shouting out the words of the national anthem when he could as if the volume alone would remove the rust eating into national hopes. Keeping mouths, ears, and eyes shut, parents had partitioned sorrow, purchased even more silence, and promised a “better future.”

… because an unshared story can break a heart that carries it alone for too long.

Spoiler alert: this post contains some spoilers.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust is probably the most challenging book I’ve discussed so far. It’s not an easy read – the language can be difficult, and so can the topic. You’ll also struggle if you don’t have at least a basic understanding of Kenyan history (which I have, so that helped). But I really enjoyed reading the book, so I wanted to give this review a go.

Dust is set against the backdrop of Kenya’s 2007 elections and their violent and chaotic aftermath. The story starts with the death of a young man, Odidi Oganda, a disillusioned engineer turned gang member, who is shot by the police on the streets of Nairobi. His sister Ajany, an artist, returns to Kenya from Brazil to mourn him, reuniting with her father, Nyipir, and mother, Akai, at Wuoth Ogik, their home. Odidi’s death takes place on election night, while his body is brought back to Wuoth Ogik on a day ‘when distorted election results will set a bucolic country afire. The outside world is drenched with human noises of accusations and counteraccusations, election rigging, and the miracle of mathematical votes that multiply and divide themselves.’ Events unfold from Odidi’s death, which shakes the family and brings back secrets and memories from the past. The story is subsequently told from different perspectives – Nyipir’s, Akai’s, Isaiah’s (a British man looking for his long-lost father in Kenya) – and at different times, all the way back to colonial Kenya, the Second World War, the Mau Mau War, Tom Mboya’s death.  

Owuor’s book is, I think, her view of Kenya. At the same time, she wants to show how Kenya and its people can move forward. She paints a picture of a country that hasn’t yet found itself. In Owuor’s book, Kenya is a country that is haunted by its history, past violence, secrets and a silence embedded throughout society. It is a country that is, perhaps, built on an illusion, an illusion that seems to erupt in the violent aftermath of the 2007 elections. 

To me, the overall message Owuor wants to give us is that of silence. That after the violence of British colonialism, the Mau Mau War and Mboya’s death, Kenya rather than addressing its history cloaked itself in silence and created an illusion of a country that actually doesn’t exist. 

The past’s beckon is persistent. From the air, Nyipir peers down at an expanding abyss. His country, his home, is ripping itself apart. Stillborn ballot revolution. These 2007 elections were supposed to be simple, the next small jump into a light-filled Kenyan future. Everything had instead disintegrated into a single, unending howl by the nation’s unrequited dead. This country, this haunted ideal, all its poor, broken promises. … His people had never set their nation on fire before. … a chubby man will mutter an oath that will render him the president of a burning, dying country. The deed will add fuel to an already out-of-control national grieving. … Memories are solitary ghosts.

But then came the fear. It split words into smaller and smaller fragments until words became secret, suffocating, and silent.

‘The dying had started long ago. Long before the murder of prophets named Pio, Tom, Argwings, Ronald, Kungu, Josiah, Ouko, Mbae. The others, the “disappeared unknown.” National doors slammed over vaults of secrets. Soon the wise chose cowardice, a way of life: not hearing, not seeing, never asking, because sound, like dreams, could cause death. Sound gave up names, especially those of friends. It co-opted silence as an eavesdropper; casual conversations heard were delivered to the state to murder.’

From that day, their days were stuffed with choked fear, suffocated by the family habit of silence.

After Mboya, Kenya’s official languages: English, Kiswahili, and Silence. There was also memory.

But Kenya and its people are haunted by something – by secrets and memories. Owuor says memories are ‘ghosts’, implying that they haunt something. Kenya and its people still seem to be searching for something, perhaps their identity, as do the characters in the book. Isaiah searches for his father, Ajany chases after Odidi’s shadows, Nyipir is haunted by Burma, where his father and brother died during the Second World War. The whole country, imprisoned by silence, seems to be haunted by its violent history, a history that can come back and explode at any time.

… Much later, the horror was painted over and replaced with myths of triumph, repeated, repeated again, then adorned in all seasons of retelling. Nyipir waited for the inheritors of these silences to call out the names of their undead dead. Not a word. Now, fifty years later, the murdered were shrieking from earth tombs of enforced, timeless stillness, wailing for their forgotten, chopped up lives.

Perhaps history and silence and memories and secrets are like dust – everywhere. 

One of Owuor’s central questions in the book is what endures. It’s a different answer every time – sometimes it’s time, then it’s absence, then it’s silence. But then, it’s also starting again. Because despite Kenya’s chaotic history, Owuor’s message is one of forgiveness – she apparently wants Kenya to move forward:

Her whisper. “Forget?” Ajany stares at her father, her body trembling in disbelief. A thought. No. They wait. “Forgive.” His voice wilts. The burden of his choice.

He murmurs, “What to do about the world.” Petrus grinds out, “What does it need?” “Memory loss.” The Trader turns to Petrus, his face sunken. “Like me.”’

And despite the often grim picture Owuor paints of her country, despite the title, it is a country that is very much alive, a country that is home. The landscape is often described in beautiful detail and water – which creates life – plays a central role, suggesting that new beginnings are possible. 

Hearing echoes of landscape, feeling its shape inside her, how it formed her, its earth soaking up her tears, its dust in her brother’s body. Wuoth Ogik: home.

One more thing: Owuor – rightly – seems to take issue with how Africa is viewed by or reported on from the rest of the world (especially, perhaps, the Western world). It seems to be a distorted view for her, she not only criticises it but makes fun of it too, as she does of the so-called solutions the rest of the world has for Africa. Isaiah, for example, shares a table with a few other Europeans and one of them is ironically described as an ‘explorer-blogger’. They talk about the following:

‘“Is zeir trivial vor finished?” asks the German. “I hear, and I vas at vance understanding a pis festival, ja? Viz ze lake, by ze lake, near ze lake. I vill speak to my embassy and ve shall gazer ze desert tribes.” His voice crescendos: “Zey vill sing, zey vill dance. Togezer, ja. Zey vill illuminate metaphorical pis and from ze lake pis vill be a mirror, like ze memory.” The explorer’s tone is droll. “And yet the desert nations’ work schedules might not coincide with your ‘peace’ plans – animals to pasture, journeys to make, people to meet, that sort of thing.” “But ve must insist. Zey must conform.” A frown. Sarcasm missed.

Moreover, Ajany watches a news report on CNN while in a restaurant:

Undated recycled post-election violence scenes on CNN, panga-wielding Kenyans setting their country alight explained in the voice of an “Africa specialist” from Louisiana, whose accent clangs all over his disapproval. Cut to news from tidy Anglo-Saxon worlds – a sequence of pretty, orderly spaces explained with tender adjectives. Sniggering from another table. Ajany overhears the tail end of a joke: “We were terrified the country was going to the dogs. But it was worse; it was given to the Africans.” … The joker is a scruffy foreign-correspondent type wearing scuffed leather sandals. His eyes carry the ravenous gawk of Must-Become-Authoritative-Protagonist-of-Bad-African-Happening types. His bespectacled companions are a droopy man, something of the I-speak-for-Africa worthiness of Bono about him, …

Overall, Owuor’s book is difficult to read – there are many things happening at the same time and it takes a while to understand how the characters and events relate to each other. Her language – which I actually don’t like – can be quite difficult, too (it’s quite harsh and short sometimes, especially in the dialogues). I haven’t discussed everything that is happening in the book, or even told its whole story, and what I’ve discussed is my interpretation only – others might see the story and its message in a different way. It is, however, a beautiful book, and even if it takes a while to get into it, I’d definitely recommend it. In fact, I’ve liked it so much – or have been so much intrigued and fascinated by Dust – that I can’t wait to read Owuor’s next book, The Dragonfly Sea (which I’m planning to buy as soon as it’s available on Kindle).

About Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor was born in Kenya and lives in Nairobi. She won the 2003 Caine Prize and has received the Chevening Scholarship and an Iowa Writers’ Fellowship. She was named Woman of the Year (Culture and the Arts) by Eve magazine in Kenya in 2004 for her contribution to the country’s literature and arts. From 2003 to 2005, she was executive director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival, and she has also been a TEDx Nairobi speaker and a Lannan Foundation resident. Dust was nominated for the Folio Prize.

Oyinkan Braithwaite – My Sister, the Serial Killer

‘The knife was for her protection. You never knew with men, they wanted what they wanted when they wanted it.’

Spoiler alert: this post contains some spoilers.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer is a little different from the other books I’ve written about so far. It’s much lighter reading (even though the title suggests otherwise), and by that I mean it doesn’t necessarily deal with serious topics such as slavery. Not that it doesn’t have important messages (it does) but I think My Sister, the Serial Killer is meant as entertainment. It’s a quick read, too (I finished it in a day). That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend it or that I didn’t like it, however. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing about it now.

Braithwaite’s book can be considered a crime story, and a refreshingly different one too. That’s because men and boyfriends are being murdered here, and by a woman – rather than women being murdered by men, which we usually get. Watch any crime show on Netflix and I guarantee you one of the first episodes will be about the murder or rape or murder and rape of a woman at the hands of a creepy, crazy, male serial killer. So that’s why I liked My Sister, the Serial Killer already – it’s different. 

And the book certainly has an ominous start: 

‘Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

We (or I did, at least) expect quite a tense story after a beginning like that. A true crime story, that is. However, that actually isn’t the case. While this book certainly is crime, at its centre lies the relationship between the two sisters. The actual crimes become unimportant – it is never really explained why Ayoola kills these men, for example. Korede is the older sister of the two and works as a nurse in a hospital. She is obsessed with cleaning and keeping everything in order and she does everything for her sister. Ayoola is the younger sister of the two. She has her own clothing line which she markets on social media and is described as stunningly beautiful but also self-obsessed. She is the serial killer, of course. Now, I like the story of the book but I actually don’t like the two sisters, especially Korede, whose perspective the story is told from. As mentioned, Korede always puts her sister first, she’s not very confident and doesn’t like being the one who always has to do everything but at the same time she can’t help herself. She pities herself and is codependent on Ayoola and won’t change her own situation. This is a very black-and-white summary, of course. The sisters, it transpires in the end, are codependent on each other and Korede isn’t always the innocent one – but I don’t want to give away too much. Why they are like that and why they can’t get rid of each other, we find out later in the book: it is because of their difficult upbringing with their violent father, who only cared about his reputation and nothing else. This perhaps explains why reputation is still important to both sisters too, each in their own way. Their father has since died but he still plays a significant role in the book; he always seems to be the shadow lurking in the dark and following the two sisters. 

Moreover, I don’t like Korede because of how she swoons over Tade, the handsome doctor in her hospital. I simply don’t know if her behaviour towards him is realistic – do women really act like that? Of course, in the book every woman who meets Tade is obsessed with him (as is every man who meets Ayoola), but I simply can’t imagine or understand such behaviour. Of course, we are all into one celebrity (or more) but I’ve never found myself running after an actual person like Korede does with Tade. And I also don’t like the way Braithwaite describes these scenes (or really, I don’t like any scenes in any book where a woman swoons over a man and makes her whole behaviour and thoughts dependent on him). Perhaps this is too far from my imagination. 

The men in the story don’t come off well, anyway. Tade isn’t ‘deep’ and only wants a ‘pretty face’ (they ‘all do’), Korede’s and Ayoola’s father is violent and the other men, especially Ayoola’s various admirers and boyfriends, don’t really matter. The exception is perhaps Muhtar, but then he’s in a coma for most of the book – acting as Korede’s only, but of course quiet friend. 

There is one other thing I was impressed with while reading this book – Braithwaite’s understanding of social media and social media trends. It’s refreshing to see a writer who can talk about these things confidently and gets it right, too. Even though no one uses Snapchat anymore – and I’m pretty sure no one did in 2018 when the book was published (it was in February of that year after all, when Snapchat lost billions because Kylie Jenner tweeted she doesn’t use it anymore)…But anyway, I can forgive Braithwaite the fact she’s wrong about Snapchat. It’s still good to see a writer who knows about social media – again, so many shows and books get it wrong (especially German TV but then Germany is so behind on all things technology). Braithwaite of course uses social media to demonstrate Ayoola’s character. Ayoola for example posts a picture of herself and the man she killed when #FemiDurandisMissing is trending (later, #NaijaJollofvsKenyanJollof takes over, showing how arbitrary and brutal social media is), snapchats videos of the food they are cooking and uses social media to promote her clothing line. But even Korede uses YouTube – to watch a makeup tutorial – and binge watches TV shows. Yinka, another nurse, plays Candy Crush, and Muhtar uses WhatsApp. 

Moreover, in an interview, Braithwaite said the following: 

‘“I wouldn’t want to write a novel and people feel that I’m speaking to a Nigerian experience – I’m speaking to my experience, to the things I’m interested in, and that’s all I can do.”’

Braithwaite is an older sister herself, so what she says here is certainly true – we can assume that she writes from her own experience (although I doubt anyone in her family is a serial killer). I’ve noticed this in all the other books I’ve reviewed so far. I’m sure Gyasi’s character Marjorie in Homegoing (post here) is based on her own life, for example. One of the characters in Card’s These Ghosts are Family (post here) studies to become a librarian, Card’s own profession. Then we have Zeh, who writes about a village close to Berlin in Unterleuten (post here) – a village that might be similar to the one she lives in herself. The exception is (I hope!) Yanagihara – as I’ve said in my post, I’ve no idea what brings her to write a story like the one in A Little Life… In any case, it’s interesting to see that we mainly seem to write about the things that we know. It does make sense, though – if I ever end up writing a story or a book (and I’ve thought about it!), I’d probably do the same…

Overall, Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer is an entertaining book with lots of interesting and important messages. It’s an easy read but well worth it – I would definitely recommend it. 

About Oyinkan Braithwaite 

Oyinkan Braithwaite is a Nigerian-British writer. Born in Lagos in 1988, she spent her childhood both in Nigeria and the UK. She studied at the University of Surrey and Kingston University before moving back to Lagos in 2012. She has previously worked in publishing. My Sister, the Serial Killer is her first book and has been widely praised and nominated for several awards. 

Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing

‘“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”’

‘“The white man’s god is just like the white man. He thinks he is the only god, just like the white man thinks he is the only man. But the only reason he is god instead of Nyame or Chukwu or whoever is because we let him be. We do not fight him. We do not even question him. The white man told us he was the way, and we said yes, but when has the white man ever told us something was good for us and that the thing was really good? They say you are an African witch, and so what? So what? Who told them what a witch was?”’

Spoiler alert: this post contains minor spoilers.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.

I’ve been wanting to write about Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing for ages because it might just be the best book I read in the past year or more. It’s definitely one of my favourite books, it’s a book that kind of just overwhelmed me, if you know what I mean. I loved everything about it, from Gyasi’s language to her characters and the way she structures her story. One of the characters in the book, Marjorie, is searching for books that she loves, that she can ‘feel inside of her’. Homegoing is certainly a book like that for me.

The book is divided into two parts, and each chapter is told from the perspective of one specific character. The story starts with Effia in Fanteland (Fanteland is the central coastal region of present-day Ghana). Effia marries the British governor of Cape Coast Castle. Before she leaves her village with him, she receives a golden-black stone pendant which once belonged to her mother. The second chapter tells the story of Esi, who is born in Asanteland (also in present-day Ghana) and becomes a slave when her village is overrun by a rival one. Esi is Effia’s half-sister, even though neither of them knows, and Esi receives a similar golden-black stone pendant from her mother before she is taken away. Esi’s pendant is left in the dungeons at Cape Coast Castle when she is moved to the ships to be taken to the US as a slave. Esi’s chapter includes the following quote:

‘… in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.

It is thus how the story continues: the following chapters are about Effia’s and Esi’s descendants up to the present day, one family line in Ghana and the other in the US. The story is told in alternating chapters, hence the next chapter is about Quey, Effia’s son, the one after that about Ness, Esi’s daughter, a slave on a plantation in the US, the one after that about Quey’s son James, and so on. The story takes us from 18th century Ghana to different times and places in both countries – like the Fugitive Slave Act, the British-Asante wars, Ghanaian independence or the civil rights movement. Yet while each chapter is separate and has its own story, the book always flows. In fact, I love how interconnected everything is – something I generally love in a book. I love reading about a fact or an aspect in one chapter, with it then reappearing ten chapters later. So it is with Homegoing. And I also love following a story over different generations (a reason why I like One Hundred Years of Solitude so much). It’s a difficult way to tell a story but Gyasi masters it perfectly. 

The great thing about Homegoing is its detail. Even though each character, for example, only gets one chapter, we still get to know their stories, thoughts and opinions. Moreover, the stories are rich in historical detail – whether that’s the British role in what is now Ghana (James), plantation life (Ness), Ghanaian independence (Yaw), racism (Willie) and segregation (Sonny) in the US or the heroin crisis in Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s (Sonny). We really feel that we are in these places – we get a true sense of the events that are happening and, more importantly, of what the characters are going through. We understand their thoughts and situations, we feel with them and can imagine what it’s like to be them. The book truly brings its characters and events to life and this is, I think, one of the greatest strengths of Homegoing

‘For Sonny, the problem with America wasn’t segregation but the fact that you could not, in fact, segregate. Sonny had been trying to get away from white people for as long as he could remember, but, big as this country was, there was nowhere to go. Not even Harlem, where white folks owned just about everything an eye could see or a hand could touch. What Sonny wanted was Africa. … The practice of segregation still meant that Sonny had to see white people sitting at the front of every bus he took, that he got called “boy” by every other snot-nosed white kid in sight. The practice of segregation meant that he had to feel his separateness as inequality, and that was what he could not take.’

‘Harlem and heroin. Heroin and Harlem. Sonny could no longer think of one without thinking of the other.’

There are, of course, many themes and topics discussed in this book. I may have a tendency (if you haven’t noticed) to look at everything in historical terms but my overall interpretation – what I think Gyasi wants to tell us – is that everything is interconnected and that we are all affected by what happened to the generations before us. Effia, for example, is born during fire and it is fire that haunts her descendants – the fire would haunt Effia’s father, ‘his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued’. Then there is the ocean, in which so many slaves died during their passage to the Americas. The Old Lady can still hear voices in the ocean and Marcus is scared of it – because the ocean doesn’t have an end – at the very end of the book. Gyasi, of course, discusses the effect of British involvement and colonialism as well as slave trade and slavery on present-day Ghana. Esi’s and Ness’s chapters paint a vivid picture of what the slave trade and slavery in the US meant. It is acknowledged that everyone played a role in the slave trade and again, I think her point is to show that the slave trade and slavery has affected and still affects the generations after, for example: 

‘“I know what you are thinking,” she finally said. “Everyone is a part of this. Asante, Fante, Ga. British, Dutch, and American. And you are not wrong to think like this. It is how we are all taught to think. But I do not want to think this way. …”’

‘“… Besides, if we go to the white man for school, we will just learn the way the white man wants us to learn. We will come back and build the country the white man wants us to build. One that continues to serve them. We will never be free.”’

‘”You keep doin’ what you doin’ and the white man don’t got to do it no more. He ain’t got to sell you or put you in a coal mine to own you. He’ll own you just as is, and he’ll say you the one who did it. He’ll say it’s your fault.”’

Gyasi also deals with racism in the US and elsewhere. It is brought up in different ways – for example, by demonstrating how the use of language affects us all:

‘Since moving to the Castle, she’d discovered that only white men talked of “black magic”. As though magic had a color’.

‘The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad”, this thing “white” and this thing “black”, was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.

‘… white men smiling just meant more evil was coming with the next wave …’

‘… Marjorie was made aware, yet again, that here “white” could be the way a person talked; “black”, the music a person listened to.’

Cape Coast Castle is a reappearing theme in the book and, I believe, illustrates best how history still affects us, especially that of the slave trade, slavery and racism. For anyone who doesn’t know Ghanaian history or the history of the transatlantic slave trade, Cape Coast Castle was originally built by the Portuguese as a trading post but became one of the countless “slave castles” along the Cold Coast of Africa (now Ghana). Cape Coast Castle was one of the largest such castles. Essentially, it was the place where Europeans “kept” the slaves before “shipping them off” to the Americas. The “door of no return” was the last place the slaves stepped through before crossing the Atlantic. I visited Cape Coast Castle while on holiday in Ghana and it reminds me of the Nazi concentration camps I’ve visited in Europe (and I’ve been to a few – Dachau, Mauthausen and Sachsenhausen). It’s history we rarely hear about, which, in my opinion, is shocking and disgraceful. I’d recommend anyone to read up on it and visit one of the castles while on a trip to Ghana. The Castle is, of course, essential in the beginning of the story – it is where Effia lives with her husband and where Esi is imprisoned. But it reappears throughout the book (e.g. in Abena’s chapter) right up until the very last two chapters (Marjorie and Marcus). But the book ends on a positive note and perhaps what Gyasi actually wants to tell us that while history is always there, even in the present, it doesn’t always have to negatively affect us. 

I’m not sure I’ve given Homegoing the recognition it deserves – my post is rather short, as I didn’t want to give away too much. Just know that Homegoing simply is a fantastic book and that I would highly recommend it to anyone.

About Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi is a Ghanaian-American writer. Born in Ghana, she moved to the US in 1991 and mostly grew up in Alabama. She has a Bachelor in English from Stanford University and holds a Master’s Degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a creative writing programme from the University of Iowa. Homegoing is her debut novel and was published in 2016, when she was just 26. The book has been nominated for and received several awards, including the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction and the American Book Award.

Maisy Card – These Ghosts are Family

‘In the ground they found that they could speak to their mothers. All the women who had ever been transformed under a blood moon. They were not alone. Somehow, though they were trapped in that grave, they were everywhere, with everyone at the same time. The women told the three little girls how to blaze across the night sky. How to shed their skin. How to make people forget after you fed on them, and, most important, how to get older, and when they were old, how to get younger.’

Spoiler alert: this post contains spoilers.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s. 

I added Maisy Card’s These Ghosts are Family to my list of recommendations before I even finished it – I liked it that much. At the same time, I struggled writing this post. This is perhaps because the book is more complicated than it appears to be at first glance, so much so that it is easier to analyse than review it. I will consequently discuss three themes which I detected while reading These Ghosts are Family: family, ghosts and the supernatural.

The book is divided into different parts, each told by a different character at a different time. Parts of the story are set in the present day, parts in the 2010s and 2000s, then we have parts which are set in the 1990s and the 1960s and then again others which take place in the 19th century. The story is mostly set in Jamaica and the US, although parts take place in the UK, too. The characters, finally, are all connected to each other – by family, history, time or place (to put it very simply). There is Abel Paisley, his daughter Estelle Solomon and her daughter Caren – all based in New York, although Abel’s story of course begins in Jamaica. Then there is Vera, Abel’s first wife, Vera’s daughter Irene and her son Vincent, and their houseboy Bernard. Their stories are set in both Jamaica and the US. There is Debbie, an American whose ancestors were plantation and slave owners in Jamaica. Then there is Ruthie, also an American, who is Abel’s daughter from an affair. There are Abe and Chloe, Irene’s children. And finally, there are Florence, Louise Paisley and Peta-Gay Fowler, whose stories take place in 19th century Jamaica. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first theme I noticed is that of family. Most characters seem to have a complicated relationship with their families; yet at the same time they can’t let go of them – they are, perhaps, ‘haunted’. There is the recurring idea that the characters want to run away from or leave their families. Vera, for example, leaves her family to ‘start a new life with Abel’.  Abel, then, feels a ‘sense of freedom’ when he fakes his own death, only ‘dampened’ by the thought of the family he ‘left behind’. Nevertheless, he doesn’t seem to be very sorry about leaving his old life and family behind, at least not until the very end of his life. Estelle feels grateful that her ‘family does not even exist’ when Abel tells her he faked his own death, and Caren finds ‘it hard to think of anything else besides getting away’ from her family. Irene moves ‘farther and farther from Jamaica’ so she doesn’t have to see her mother, who she has been running away from ‘her whole life’. Nevertheless, through her death it is Vera who leaves Irene in the end. Bernard wants to remind Irene and Vincent that he is ‘family too’, but they don’t see him like that. Ruthie, finally, is ‘running away’ so she does not ‘have to face anybody’. The exception to the rule is Debbie. Debbie, contrary to most characters in the book, is dependent on her father, who pays for her rent, and wonders how she would ‘manage without him’. She doesn’t seem to want to ‘run away’ from him, although her relationship with her father is complicated, too. 

The theme of ghosts is of course, and the title gives it away, related to the theme of family. The ghosts haunting the characters in the book are family ghosts, as we have seen: Abel is haunted by the family he leaves behind, especially Vera; Irene is haunted by Vera; Bernard as well; Caren is haunted by Estelle. The characters all try to live their own lives but can’t let go of their families and their family histories. They are consequently haunted by more than family; they are haunted by personal tragedy, love and loss and, ultimately, regret. 

The ghosts in this book aren’t only family, however. The ghosts are also history – colonialism and slavery, for example. Debbie is for example haunted by her ancestors’ past as plantation and slave owners and thinks that history is ‘easier to digest’ when you are ‘disconnected from it’, that sometimes knowledge is ‘overrated’. I believe the characters are also haunted by Jamaica, that is, the characters that have left Jamaica to live somewhere else, such as in the US. Estelle for example thinks that her parents speak of Jamaica as a country that only exists in their minds but not in real life. Moreover, in another chapter, funerals are mentioned as the ‘only reason to come home again’ – to me, this means that some people who left never want to ‘come home’ to Jamaica, but that they can’t let go of it either. 

Racism also plays a great part in Card’s book – perhaps it is another ghost the characters are haunted by. Vera for example learns from her mother Patricia that ‘whiteness was partly a state of mind’ and that ‘near white was enough white’. Some Jamaicans, meanwhile, leave the country because of people like Bernard; it is because of him that they have to abandon their ‘education’, their ‘almost-white, brown, and high-yellow privilege’. But in the foreign countries, they are ‘Bernards’ – the ‘underclass’, ‘health aides, janitors, and nannies’. Card describes a racism that is both inflicted by others and self-inflicted; she appears to criticise an attitude certain Jamaicans presently hold or have held in the past, one that is damaging to their own people. Now, as a white European woman it is difficult for me to write about racism – not in the sense that I can’t see it when it is mentioned in the book (or in real life, of course), but in the sense that I won’t ever truly be able to understand it or imagine what it feels like. What I’ve written here is therefore not meant in the sense that I understand racism; it is simply my interpretation of Card’s words.

What I can, however, understand or imagine is how white people deal (or not deal) with racism. This is something Card brings up in Debbie’s chapter, which rightly criticises white people and their attitude. It is for example mentioned that most white people ‘were apologetic’ about the past – slavery, in this case – but that ‘some were openly hostile when anyone suggested that they had something to apologize for’. Others yet were ‘defensive’ which Debbie thinks is the ‘worst reaction’. Moreover, Debbie doesn’t want the ‘only black curator at the museum’ to ‘think that she was one of those white people who were in denial about their white privilege’. Perhaps it is this white privilege which allows Debbie to be able to rely on her family, while the other (mostly black) characters have to run away from theirs? Furthermore, Debbie has a dream about being in, presumably, 19th century Jamaica and afterwards wonders if ‘all white people secretly have some strange antebellum or colonial fantasy’. Because she has ancestors who were plantation owners in Jamaica, Debbie thinks that Jamaican culture is ‘in a way, her culture too’. Finally, Vincent, following his marriage to Debbie, wonders: ‘There was something about the way she was constantly showing him off to her friends that made him uneasy. He felt just like another figurine she’d picked up on her travels’.

There is one more issue Card deals with in her book: violence and discrimination against women. And this is another reason why I like this book –  because I think it particularly emphasises these two issues. Card seems to focus on women especially when she describes the violence slaves had to endure in 19th century Jamaica. She uses Maddie, Cleo and Florence (who is later sentenced to death) for this, who are tortured by Harold Fowler on his plantation. Moreover, Louise Paisley finds out more about plantation life: ‘First, he told me about life on the plantation, how it would be for girls like me. How men compete to be the first to break in the girls. I didn’t quite understand the phrase. I was used to hearing it only applied to horses, but he explained it to me. It was nothing but a game to them. I shuddered to think of it.’ Louise is later used to criticise attitudes towards people from a mixed-race background, again including self-inflicted attitudes. 

Nevertheless, Card also deals with the discrimination white women had to face in, again, 19th century Jamaica – for example Katrin, Harold Fowler’s wife, and Peta-Gay Fowler, who for example says: ‘My mother was just a dog to him. We women are all dogs to men, as I saw it back then. Some of us were treated better because of our pedigree. If we were pure breeds, rare breeds, we could be married at least, but we were all raised for breeding nonetheless.’

Finally, there is the more general theme of the supernatural in These Ghosts are Family. Ghosts are, of course, supernatural, but Card uses other examples. I am, of course, referring to the Three Little Girls. I’m not sure I completely grasp the meaning behind them, what Card wants to show us through them. Yet they have to be discussed – they seem too important in Card’s story. The Three Little Girls make their first appearance during Vera’s funeral and eventually follow Bernard into the bush. We meet them again in the very last chapter, called ‘How We Are Born’, which takes place in Harold Town, Jamaica, from 1999 to 2010. The Three Little Girls in their white dresses are, as we find out, apparently vampires or something similar – emerging from the bushes, they eat all the town’s or village’s animals and even steal a baby. They can also change into cats and birds, apparently, and don’t grow older. The villagers eventually kill and bury them, but they resurrect when a private detective digs them up years later. 

As I said, I’m not sure what the Three Little Girls stand for – perhaps, because vampires suck away blood, hence life, the Three Little Girls stand for all the ghosts that suck away the life of the book’s characters – family, history, racism? The chapter is called ‘How We Are Born’ – perhaps this means that we are born with something destructive, like the Three Little Girls are,  with ghosts that won’t leave us for the rest of our lives but that we nevertheless survive?

The only thing I didn’t like about These Ghosts are Family is that it somehow feels unfinished. Card says that These Ghosts are Family was, among others, inspired by Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing (one of my favourite books – post here…). This is true: similar to Homegoing, each chapter in Card’s book is told by a different character at a different time. However, Gyasi’s Homegoing is told chronologically and while every character only gets one chapter, we find out enough about them, their feelings and the events that shape them; so the story overall feels completed. This can’t be said for These Ghosts are Family, though. I would have liked to find out more about certain characters and their stories. Right at the beginning of the book, for example, we find out that Solomon Stanford is actually Abel Paisley who faked his own death. The first chapter is about how Abel confesses this to his two daughters and granddaughter. And yet we never properly find out what the three women think about Abel’s confession – we get the basics, that’s it. I also would have liked to find out more about certain other characters, such as Ruthie. We get to know different perspectives, different stories and different histories, and I also like how Card plays with different narrators – sometimes it’s a first-, sometimes a third- and sometimes a second-person narrator; but it just feels like there is more to some of the characters, that the stories Card tells us about their lives feel shortened, not completed. Moreover, I prefer Gyasi’s way of telling her story chronologically – it is easier to understand and make the connections between the different characters. Not that the story in These Ghosts are Family is difficult to follow; but I did find it confusing sometimes and it would have been easier had it been told chronologically.  

But these are the only parts I didn’t like about These Ghosts are Family – I liked everything else. This has, as usual, to do with how much we can learn from the book. As you will know by now, I love history, so it was interesting to find out more about Jamaica and its history while reading the book – both are topics I don’t know much about. The book has made me want to find out more (which is always good!), so I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more books about Jamaica. For now, however, I would recommend These Ghosts are Family to anyone who is interested. 

About Maisy Card

Maisy Card was born in Jamaica and raised in both Jamaica and the US. She graduated from Rutgers University with a Master in Library and Information Sciences and holds a Bachelor in English and American Literature from Wesleyan University. She is a writer and public librarian and her work has appeared in Lenny Letter, School Library, Agni, Sycamore Review, Liars’ League NYC and Ampersand Review. These Ghosts are Family is her first book. More on her website

Hanya Yanagihara – A Little Life

‘The axiom of equality states that x always equals x: it assumes that if you have a conceptual thing named x, that it must always be equivalent to itself, that it has a uniqueness about it, that it is in possession of something so irreducible that we must assume it is absolutely, unchangeably equivalent to itself for all time, that its very elementalness can never be altered. But it is impossible to prove. … But now he knows for certain how true the axiom is, because he himself – his very life – had proven it. The person I was will always be the person I am, he realizes. The context may have changed: he may be in this apartment, and he may have a job that he enjoys and that pays him well, and he may have parents and friends he loves. He may be respected; in court, he may even be feared. But fundamentally, he is the same person, … he knows that x will always equal x, no matter what he does, …’

Spoiler alert: this post contains major spoilers.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s. 

When I look for new books to read, I usually google lists of books that have just come out, online recommendations or books that have been nominated for or received awards. I also go for books that have been recommended to me by friends or family. And, of course, I choose books by writers I read before and know are good. But I rarely read online or print reviews, mainly because I want to build my own opinion and not be influenced by others. This approach mostly works, but sometimes it doesn’t. With A Little Life, it didn’t. I definitely should have picked up a review of Yanagihara’s book before reading it. It’s not that A Little Life isn’t good – in fact, it is quite impressive – it just wasn’t for me. The book is about four men living in New York. The story starts in their late twenties and ends when they are in their early fifties, although we find out about their younger years as well. 

The main character seems to be Jude, one of the four men, who was sexually and physically abused in the most horrific ways as a child and teenager. The other three men are Willem, who is closest to Jude, Malcolm and JB. There is also Harold, a former university professor of Jude’s who later together with his wife Julia adopts him, and Andy, Jude’s doctor and friend. Moreover, we get to know (to a certain extent) other friends of the main group, including Richard and India and the two Henry Youngs. The story is told from different perspectives, starting with Willem’s, JB’s and Malcolm’s in the first part. After that, however, it is almost exclusively told by Jude, Willem and Harold. I don’t understand why JB and Malcolm get their own sections at all, to be honest – it seems quite irrelevant to the rest of the story. Harold is also the only one who gets to be a first-person narrator, possibly because he, with JB, is the only one who remains at the end. To put it very briefly, the story is basically centred around Jude, what happened to him when he was young as well as his present mental and physical struggles, and how the different characters view and engage with him and his problems.

I won’t discuss the storyline further at this point – it is simply too complicated and I am not at all sure I grasp the meaning behind the story, what Yanagihara wants to tell us. The point is, I absolutely cannot relate to it. Four middle-aged men living their lives in New York and dealing with their various struggles and problems? It couldn’t be further from my own life. This is where I should have read about the book before opening it myself. But I don’t regret reading the book, although it did take me quite a long time to get through it (at least the first half, the second was a little better). I never regret reading a book, even if it is difficult to read or about a topic I’m not interested in (the only two books I’ve never finished are Mann’s Der Zauberberg and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury). Reading never seems like a waste of time to me (unlike watching TV) and I can always find something to take out of a book. 

And so it is with A Little Life. There were parts of it I didn’t like and yet it is an impressive book. But let me start with the parts I didn’t like. First, there is absolutely no female perspective in the book. The main characters are Jude, Willem, Malcolm, JB, Harold and Andy. Women are only mentioned in passing (as wives, girlfriends or friends) and don’t get much of a say. They don’t play a role in the story. The exception is perhaps Ana, who briefly takes care of Jude when he is rescued from his abusers (all male, too) as a 15-year old. But then, she dies soon after. One can only wonder – would Jude have had a different, perhaps better life if he had had a close female friend, a woman he can trust (even his therapist is a man)? My answer is, yes, probably.

The lack of female perspectives in this book leads me to two other questions. How does a female writer, in this case Yanagihara, end up writing such a story? And I don’t only mean the story’s male focus, I am also referring to the abuse Jude suffers. Admittedly, I haven’t had the time or opportunity to research Yanagihara and her background but it is nevertheless a question I am asking myself. Moreover, in a different post I talked about the fact that male writers often come across as ridiculous when writing about or from a female perspective. Now, A Little Life is a male-centred book written by a woman, which makes me wonder – is the same true for women writing about men or from a male point of view? 

The biggest problem I have with A Little Life is, however, Jude himself. I don’t like him, which of course makes the book quite hard to read, with him being the main character. Why do I not like him? Well, for starters, he is too self-centred and obsessed as well as selfish. The way I read it, everything is about him – and despite his abuse as a child and teenager I can’t really feel with Jude: he doesn’t try to take matters into his own hands and get better. I cannot like people like that. I’m a strong believer in people following their own paths and making changes if necessary. Jude does in a way create a life for himself but he never makes the changes necessary to overcome his past. 

Furthermore, I don’t like how everyone else seems to be obsessed or even dependent on Jude: Malcolm, who builds Jude’s houses to accommodate his disabilities, Andy, who tries and tries to improve his health, as well as Willem, whose younger, disabled brother died, and Harold, who lost his first son to a rare illness. Both Willem and Harold can’t bear the thought of losing Jude. In my opinion this is because of their earlier losses. They do have their independent lives, but they can’t stop worrying about Jude. This comes at a cost to their own health. They almost become as dependent on Jude’s struggles and life as Jude himself. They can never properly move on with their own lives. Neither Jude nor Willem or Harold can change: Jude can’t move on from his past and his obsession with himself and his body; and Willem and Harold can’t move on from their past losses and therefore become dependent on taking care of Jude. 

Only JB isn’t (as) dependent on Jude; in fact, at one point he mocks Jude while on drugs and Jude can’t forgive him – and therefore, neither can Willem. JB is left out although deep down he still seeks the others’ approval. Yet I think this is why he is one of the few people left at the end: because he is not (as) dependent and because he is left out and doesn’t play a great role in Jude’s and Willem’s lives after a certain point.

Moreover, I don’t quite like Yanagihara’s style or tone. It is often dark and implies misery and, of course, the book is full of misery. This is in fact another point I don’t like. I think there is too much misery in the book. Does Willem’s brother really need to be disabled and die? Does Harold’s first son have to have a rare illness and die? Does JB have to become a drug-addict? And then, there is Jude himself, of course: after the monastery and Brother Luke and the trucks, do we really need Dr. Traylor as well? Does Willem really need to die (his death is predictable and consequential with the rest of the story, though: it inflicts more misery on Jude)? I am, of course, fully aware that there are stories like Jude’s in real life. But do we really need it in this book? Doesn’t Yanagihara overdo it a little bit and thereby make it a little less believable? And again, what causes her to write about so much misery, and male misery at that? 

And yet the book is impressive. It is, first of all, very detailed. There is clearly lots of thought and research and knowledge behind it. Yanagihara describes different professions – film, maths, architecture, law and arts – as well as places – they all travel across the world – in great detail. We as the reader really believe Yanagihara “knows her stuff” when these topics or places are mentioned. This makes me think she spent a lot of time researching and consulting various experts. This deserves recognition. Similarly, I like the way she includes lots of “everyday” things we can relate to – whether that’s relating to student life or life as a young professional. This suggests she knows or has researched about different ways of life. She may simply have a natural feel for different lifestyles as well. And finally, while I don’t like the characters’ self-obsession, I like the way Yanagihara actually describes their feelings, thoughts and self-doubts. The language is very detailed and helps us understand the different characters better. Related to that, I like how Yanagihara plays with different perspectives. It makes the story more unpredictable but connects the different people and events to each other at the same time. 

Finally, I will discuss the title of the book – ‘A Little Life’. What does it mean? Well, there are quite a few different ways to interpret it. The term itself, ‘a little life’, could refer to an ‘average’, small life led by a ‘normal’ person. We can find some support for this interpretation in the book: the four men lead ‘little’ or ‘average’ lives in the sense that they have a ‘normal’ group of friends, go to or host ‘average’ dinner parties or go travelling like any other ‘normal’ person. Indeed, Jude is obsessed with being looked at as ‘normal’. And yet not one of them leads an ‘average’ life. They all go to Yale or another one of the famous US universities and become successful lawyers, actors, architects and artists. Could ‘a little life’ therefore be ironic? Or does it refer to Jude getting to ‘live a little’, to experience ‘a little of life’, despite his terrible past? 

Would I recommend A Little Life? Yes and no – it depends on what kind of person you are and what kind of topic you like to read about. Yanagihara certainly is a great writer and storyteller and A Little Life an impressive book. There is certainly a lot to talk, ask and think about after reading the book. Nevertheless, A Little Life wasn’t for me. That doesn’t mean, however, that other people won’t enjoy it. If you like or are interested in the topic, then, but only then, would I recommend it.

About Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara is an American writer and journalist. She grew up in Hawaii. She is editor-in-chief of T: The New York Times Style Magazine and previously worked for Conde Nast Traveller. Her first novel, The People in the Trees, was published in 2013 and is based on the real-life case of virologist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek.

Azar Nafisi – Reading Lolita in Tehran

‘Evil in Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to “see” others, hence to empathize with them. What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennet) as well as the worst (Humbert). We are all capable of becoming the blind censor, of imposing our visions and desires on others.’

Spoiler alert: this post contains spoilers.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.

Reading Lolita in Tehran was undoubtedly one of my highlights in the past year. The book isn’t fiction, of course; it is a memoir which tells us of Azar Nafisi’s life in Iran between the start of the Iranian Revolution, and 1997, when she leaves Iran for the US. She tells us of her return to Iran during the revolution and of life in the Islamic Republic and during the Iran-Iraq War. A professor for Western literature, Nafisi narrates how she is expelled from university and starts another job at a different university some years later before quitting and founding her own private literature class at home with a select number of (female) students. 

The book is divided into four sections: ‘Lolita’, ‘Gatsby’, ‘James’ and ‘Austen’. Each section discusses these (and other) works of literature and, in my opinion, relates them not only to Nafisi’s personal life but also to life in the Islamic Republic in general. Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, is about a middle-aged man, known as Humbert Humbert, who engages in a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old, Dolores Haze (‘Lolita’). I haven’t read Lolita, but it appears that Humbert practically seizes Dolores and that the story is only told by Humbert, who is an unreliable narrator – the reader finds out little to nothing about Dolores and her point of view: she is silenced. Lolita appears to be a metaphor for life in the Islamic Republic as a woman.

‘Yet I suppose that if I were to go against my own recommendation and choose a work of fiction that would most resonate with our lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it would not be The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or even 1984 but perhaps Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading or better yet, Lolita.’

‘Our class was shaped within this context, in an attempt to escape the gaze of the blind censor for a few hours each week. There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom. And like Lolita, we took every opportunity to flaunt our insubordination: by showing a little hair from under our scarves, insinuating a little color into the drab uniformity of our appearances, growing our nails, falling love and listening to forbidden music.’

‘The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another. We don’t know what Lolita would have become if Humbert had not engulfed her. Yet the novel, the finished work, is hopeful, beautiful even, a defense not just of beauty but of life, ordinary everyday life, all the normal pleasures that Lolita, like Yassi, was deprived of.’

This is, as usual, my personal take on a book and I won’t discuss every aspect, storyline and detail. In any case, Reading Lolita in Tehran has been much reviewed, analysed and written about already – published in 2003, the book became an instant bestseller and has been translated into over 30 languages. Despite this, I want to write about it: it is a book from which we can learn a lot. 

One reason I like Reading Lolita in Tehran so much is because I am fascinated by Iranian history. I took a course on Iran during my Master’s Degree in History at the LSE and while I focussed more on the Shah and US-Iranian relations up to 1978/79, I am still very much interested in what happened in Iran after the revolution. The great thing about Reading Lolita in Tehran is its highly personal nature. We get to know Nafisi’s life and her opinions and find out more about life in the Islamic Republic and what Nafisi thinks of it. She provides us with much detail and it is in those details that we learn many new things about Iran. While I’m not claiming to be an expert on the country, I’ve thoroughly studied Iranian history and yet Reading Lolita in Tehran has taught me so much. Iran, I think, is a country much misunderstood and misrepresented in the West, both by politicians and the media. While much has changed since the book was published in 2003, Reading Lolita in Tehran can teach us a lot and improve our understanding of Iran. This, I think, is where the book’s value lies. 

‘The theme of the class was the relation between fiction and reality. We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherazade, from A Thousand and One Nights, along with Western classics – Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller, The Dean’s December and, yes, Lolita.’

‘The first day I asked my students what they thought fiction should accomplish, why one should bother to read fiction at all. … I explained that most great works of imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted.  It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable. I told my student I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes.’

I also love the general idea behind Reading Lolita in Tehran – using works of fiction to analyse, or reflect, on life. It’s certainly an original, if not unusual, way to structure a book. I’ve said this in one of my other posts but I believe this to be one of the key roles books should take: to reflect on life, society and the world in general. It’s my way of reading a book, anyway: I always look out for things I can relate to or that I think tell me something about the wider world. That isn’t to say, of course, that books always have to have a meaning. Sometimes, they are just what they say they are: works of fiction, with no reference to real life. 

Nafisi uses ‘Lolita’, ‘Gatsby’, ‘James’ and ‘Austen’ to give her story structure. An added bonus is of course that Nafisi discusses these works in the process, providing the reader with extra information and analysis. I haven’t read Lolita or James and will therefore focus on the other two, in particular Gatsby. I won’t discuss Austen much – although I love her books, I don’t actually think Austen contributes much to the story in Reading Lolita in Tehran, except in a few cases (for example when Nafisi talks about relationships between women and men). 

Gatsby, in turn, clearly contributes to the story (I call it a story, even though it’s a memoir). One example stands out to me: after a student complaint on Gatsby, Nafisi decides to put the book on trial, with a prosecutor, a lawyer for the defense, a defendant and a jury – she calls it ‘the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran versus The Great Gatsby. It is fascinating to see what the students accuse Gatsby of and how they defend it. In fact, Nafisi says that the class’s ‘discussions of Gatsby for a short while seemed as electric and important as the ideological conflicts raging over the country’. Some students – mainly the religious and radical revolutionaries – accuse the book of being immoral, others defend it. Others again – the leftist students, for example – defend it against the religious students, but with similar arguments: it needs to be read because one needs to understand the American enemy.

‘No, Professor, not against Mr. Gatsby himself but against the novel. The novel was immoral. It taught the youth the wrong stuff; it poisoned their minds – surely I could see? I could not. I reminded him that Gatsby was a work of fiction and not a how-to manual. … Maybe Gatsby was all right for the Americans, but not for our revolutionary youth. … There was, for Mr. Nyazi, no difference between the fiction of Fitzgerald and the facts of his own life. The Great Gatsby was representative of things American, and America was poison for us; it certainly was. We should teach Iranian students to fight against American immorality, he said. He looked earnest; he had come to me in all goodwill.’

‘A few of the leftist activists defended the novel. I felt they did so partly because the Muslim activists were so dead set against it. In essence, their defense was not so different from Nyazi’s condemnation. They said that we needed to read fiction like The Great Gatsby because we needed to know about the immorality of American culture. They felt we should read more revolutionary material, but that we should read books like this as well, to understand the enemy.’

‘The novel was its own defense. Perhaps we had a few things to learn from it, from Mr Fitzgerald. She had not learned from reading it that adultery was good or that we should all become shysters. Did people all go on strike or head west after reading Steinbeck? Did they go whaling after Melville? Are people not a little more complex than that? And are revolutionaries devoid of personal feelings and emotions? Do they never fall in love, or enjoy beauty? This is an amazing book, she said quietly. It teaches you to value your dreams but to be wary of them also, to look for integrity in unusual places. Anyway, she enjoyed reading it, and that counts too, can’t you see?’

And, similar to Lolita, Nafisi compares Gatsby to her present situation in Iran (in this case, the Revolution): 

‘Dreams, Mr. Nyazi, are perfect ideals, complete in themselves. How can you impose them on a constantly changing, imperfect, incomplete reality? You would become a Humbert, destroying the object of your dream; or a Gatsby, destroying yourself. … how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby’s. He wanted to fulfil his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream?’

Moreover, Nafisi has a great way of describing people in her book. She paints the people in very fine detail, with very colourful language. I am, of course, referring to the way she describes the seven students of her private literature class: Manna, Mahshid, Nassrin, Yassi, Azin, Mitra and Sanaz (as well as Nima, Manna’s husband). From the very first pages of the book, we get to know their personalities. Manna is the ‘poet’ with a ‘withdrawn and private nature’, Mahshid sensitive and like porcelain, who adds another dimension to the word ‘lady’, Yassi the ‘comedian’ of the group. Azin is always ‘outrageous and outspoken’, relishing the ‘shock value of her actions and comments’, while Mitra is perhaps the ‘calmest’ in the group. Sanaz, then, is torn between ‘her desire for independence and need for approval’, while Nassrin can’t be described, she is her ‘own definition’. They are a ‘peculiar mix of fragility and courage’, loners, ‘who did not belong to any particular group or sect’. Nafisi goes on to describe their individual stories in more detail throughout the book, and it is in those stories that we find out more about daily life in Iran. 

The only character I don’t like is the ‘magician’ – a man Nafisi apparently turns to when she needs help, advice or support. I’m not sure why I don’t like him. Perhaps because in a story defined by women, it is a man she turns to for help? Perhaps because of the term ‘magician’ which gives this character a kind of superpower, makes him better or smarter than the rest? It is possible that I’ve misunderstood the ‘magician’ and the role Nafisi assigns him in her life; however the parts of the story which feature him were the only ones I didn’t enjoy.

One more point:  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve learned a lot reading this book – especially about daily life and, more importantly, about the situation of women in the Islamic Republic. However, I will not attempt to discuss this in further detail: I’m a white Western woman and can only to a certain extent imagine the struggles people face in the rest of the world, including Iran. Instead, I put together a list of quotes from the book which I found most impressive. You can find them at the bottom of this post – and, to my readers who have read The Handmaid’s Tale – do some of these quotes seem familiar?

Overall, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Reading Lolita in Tehran – thanks to its personal nature and how much we learn from the book, the way Nafisi describes people and, of course, the way she uses books to aid her story. I’d highly recommend it.

About Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi is an Iranian writer and professor of English literature. Raised in Tehran, she completed her studies in England before moving to Switzerland. She holds a PhD in English and American literature from the University of Oklahoma. She returned to Iran in 1979, where she taught at several universities. She left Iran for the US in 1997 and became an American citizen in 2008. Between 1997 and 2017, Nafisi worked at the Foreign Policy Institute of John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Her other works include: Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memoirs of a Prodigal Daughter, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books and BiBi and the Green Voice, a book for children. More on her website.

Quotes

  • Do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.’ 
  • This is Tehran for me: its absences were more real than its presences.’
  • ‘Teaching in the Islamic Republic, like any other vocation, was subservient to politics and subject to arbitrary rules. Always, the joy of teaching was marred by divisions and considerations forced on us by the regime – how well could one teach when the main concern of university officials was not the quality of one’s work but the color of one’s lips, the subversive potential of a single strand of hair? Could one really concentrate on one’s job when what preoccupied the faculty was how to excise the word wine from a Hemingway story, when they decided not to teach Bronte because she appeared to condone adultery?’
  • ‘Reality has become so intolerable, she said, so bleak, that all I can paint now are the colors of my dreams.’
  • ‘There were two very important men dominating Sanaz’s life at the time. The first was her brother. He was nineteen years old and had not yet finished high school and was the darling of their parents, who, after two girls, one of whom had died at the age of three, had finally been blessed with a son. He was spoiled, and his one obsession in life was Sanaz. He had taken to proving his masculinity by spying on her, listening to her phone conversations, driving her car around and monitoring her actions.’
  • ‘We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent – namely ideology. This was a country where all gestures, even the most private, where interpreted in political terms. The colors of my head scarf or my father’s tie were symbols of Western decadence and imperialist tendencies. Not wearing a beard, shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, clapping or whistling in public meetings, were likewise considered Western and therefore decadent, part of the plot by imperialists to bring down our culture.’
  • ‘How can describe this other world outside the room? I have no choice but to appeal once again to your imagination.’
  • A few weeks ago, while driving down the George Washington Memorial Parkway, my children and I were reminiscing about Iran. I noticed with a sudden misgiving the alien tone they had adopted when talking about their own country. They kept repeating “they”, “they over there”. Over where? … They did not remember many things. Some memories made them sad and nostalgic; others they dismissed. … What triggered our reminiscences? Was it the Doors CD that my children were so accustomed to hearing in Iran? … Even while we lived in Iran, they, like most kids of their background, had little affection for Persian music. For them, Persian music was identified with political songs and military marches – for pleasure they turned somewhere else. I was shocked to realise that their childhood memories of songs and films in Iran would be the Doors, the Marx Brothers and Michael Jackson.’ 
  • ‘Perhaps it is only now and from this distance, when I am able to speak of these experiences openly and without fear, that I can begin to understand them and overcome my own terrible sense of helplessness. In Iran a strange distance informed our relation to these daily experiences of brutality and humiliation. There, we spoke as if the events did not belong to us; like schizophrenic patients, we tried to keep ourselves away from that other self, at once intimate and alien.’
  • ‘There were discrepancies, or essential paradoxes, in my idea of “home”. There was the familiar Iran I felt nostalgic about, the place of parents and friends and summer nights by the Caspian Sea. Yet just as real was this other, reconstructed, Iran about which we talked in meeting after meeting, quarrelling about what the masses in Iran wanted. Apparently, as the movement grew more radical in the seventies, the masses wanted us to serve no alcohol in our celebrations and not to dance or play “decadent” music: only folk or revolutionary music were allowed. They wanted the girls to cut their hair short or wear it in pigtails. They wanted us to avoid the bourgeois habits of studying.’ 
  • ‘In a few month’s time, Fitzgerald and Hemingway were very difficult to find. The government could not remove all of the books from the stores, but gradually it closed down some of the most important foreign-language bookstores and blocked the distribution of foreign books in Iran.’
  • ‘My experiences, especially my teaching experiences, in Iran have been framed by the feel and touch of that aborted handshake, …’
  • ‘After we all helped create this mess, we were not doomed to have the Islamic Republic.’
  • ‘We in ancient countries have our past – we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future.’
  • ‘Battles were being fought and lost. One of the most significant of these was over women’s rights: from the very start, the government had waged a war against women …’
  • ‘“The law?” Vida interrupted him. “You guys came in and changed the laws. Is it the law? So was wearing the yellow star in Nazi Germany. Should all the Jews have worn the star because it was the blasted law?”’
  • ‘Like all ideologues before them, the Islamic revolutionaries seemed to believe that writers were the guardians of morality. This displaced view of writers, ironically, gave them a sacred place, and at the same time it paralyzed them. The price they had to pay for their new pre-eminence was a kind of aesthetic impotence.’
  • ‘Sometimes, almost unconsciously, I would withdraw my hands into my wide sleeves and start touching my legs or my stomach. Do they exist? Do I exist? This stomach, this leg, these hands. Unfortunately, the Revolutionary Guards and the guardians of our morality did not see the world with the same eyes as me. They saw hands, faces and pink lipstick; they saw strands of hair and unruly socks where I saw some ethereal being drifting soundlessly down the street.’
  • ‘If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat.’
  • ‘It is said that the personal is political. That is not true, of course. At the core of the fight for political rights is the desire to protect ourselves, to prevent the political from intruding on our individual lives. Personal and political are interdependent but not one and the same thing. The realm of imagination is a bridge between them, constantly refashioning one in terms of the other. … When I am asked about life in the Islamic Republic of Iran, I cannot separate the most personal and private aspects of our existence from the gaze of the blind censor. I think of my girls, who came from very different backgrounds. Their dilemmas, regardless of their backgrounds and beliefs, were shared, and stemmed from the confiscation of their most intimate moments and private aspirations by the regime. This conflict lay at the heart of the paradox created by Islamic rule.’
  • ‘“You should stop blaming the Islamic Republic for all our problems”, said my magician.’
  • ‘Every great book we read became a challenge to the ruling ideology. It became a potential threat and menace not so much because of what it said but how it said it, the attitude it took towards life and fiction.’
  • ‘“ … about how all of us – girls like me, who have read their Austen and Nabokov and all that, who talk about Derrida and Barthes and the world situation – how we know nothing, nothing about the relation between a man and a woman, about what it means to go out with a man.”’
  • ‘Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe, … if you’re forced into having sex with someone you dislike, you make your mind blank – you pretend to be somewhere else, you tend to forget your body, you hate your body. That’s what we do over here. We are constantly pretending to be somewhere else – we either plan it or dream it.’
  • ‘Daisy was the character my female students most identified with. Some of them became obsessed. … her courage, something they felt they had lacked.’
  • ‘I left Tehran on June 24, 1997, for the green light that Gatsby once believed in.’
  • ‘I left Iran, but Iran did not leave me. Much has changed in appearance since Bijan and I left. There is more defiance in Manna’s gait and those of other women; their scarves are more colorful and their robes much shorter; they wear makeup now and walk freely with men who are not their brothers, fathers or husbands. Parallel to this, the raids and arrests and public executions also persist. But there is a stronger demand for freedom.’

Juli Zeh – Unterleuten

‘Unterleuten war ein Lebensraum, eine Herkunft, ja, sogar eine Weltanschauung. Lebensräume konnten vergiftet, eine Herkunft zerstört und Weltanschauungen in ihr Gegenteil verkehrt werden.’

Spoiler alert: this post contains minor spoilers, especially relating to certain characters.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.

My second book review will be a little shorter than the first – mainly because it’s of a German-language book, Juli Zeh’s Unterleuten, and this blog is intended for an English speaking audience. Unlike some of Zeh’s other books, Unterleuten hasn’t yet been translated into English. It therefore doesn’t make sense to write a long review about a book that most of you won’t be able to read. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist blogging about Unterleuten – it was too good not to. This is the second book by Zeh I’ve read – the first being a handbook on horses – and I have to say I am very impressed. 

The book is a social novel set in the fictional village of Unterleuten in Brandenburg, close to Berlin. Unterleuten gets into turmoil when an investment firm wants to build a wind farm next to the village. The book recounts how this changes the village and affects individual people, their relationships to each other as well as the community as a whole. The story is divided into several parts and chapters, with each chapter told from the perspective of a specific character. We get an understanding of the different characters, their thoughts and opinions. Additionally, we find out how the different characters view each other and what kind of assumptions they make about each other. These assumptions are mostly wrong, and this makes the book an excellent example or illustration of human behaviour, relationships and interaction. Zeh’s great sense of detail and her use of language and style – often ironic – highlights this even more. I love Zeh’s language but I won’t go into detail here: it would be near impossible for me to translate it for non-German speakers without losing its meaning. At the same time, German speakers will get a sense of the language when they read the book. 

It is fascinating to read how the characters and their relationships to each other develop and change throughout the book. They are affected not only by the plan to build a wind farm near the village but by the village dynamics themselves. There is, for example, Gerhard and Jule, a couple that is new to Unterleuten. Gerhard, previously a teacher at a university in Berlin, now works as a bird conservationist, while Jule is a PhD-student-turned-full-time-mother. Their relationship, whilst perhaps not loving, is stable at the beginning. This, however, changes throughout the book. Terrorised by their neighbour and affected by the developments in the village, Jule turns increasingly hysterical and Gerhard ends up getting arrested for beating up that same neighbour. In the end, Jule moves back to Berlin and they separate. Then there is Gombrowski, the wealthy farmer born in Unterleuten and disliked by most, who ends up losing not only his dog – which he resembles – but also his wife and Hilde Kessler, his neighbour and close friend. And finally there is Linda Franzen, who recently moved to Unterleuten with her boyfriend and is described as a strong-willed girl who tries to ‘take over’ the village. She personally is my favourite character, and not only because she is a horse rider (which the author Juli Zeh is as well). It is refreshing to see that Zeh chooses a 20-something year old girl to be the most strong-minded character in the whole book (at least to me). Though Linda Franzen ultimately isn’t without faults either and the end to her story is in fact quite tragic. 

Unterleuten is not only a portrayal but also an analysis of human behaviour and interaction. The name of the village itself gives this away: Unterleuten literally means ‘Unter Leuten’, or ‘Among People’. In fact, the village itself seems to have its own dynamic, it seems to be its own ‘entity’. The villagers sort their issues among themselves and rarely call the police. In addition, the village seems to be set at a distance from other places – it doesn’t even have its own sewage system. This gives the impression of a place that likes to keep to itself and resents outside involvement. Furthermore, the villagers aren’t just transformed by the wind farm plans, but by Unterleuten itself, especially newcomers like Gerhard, Jule and Linda. Unterleuten is at one point described as a ‘space to live’, an ‘origin’, a ‘worldview’. However, ‘spaces to live’ can be ‘poisoned’, ‘origins’ ‘destroyed’ and ‘worldviews’ remade. This sentence essentially sums up my understanding of Unterleuten.

Unterleuten, moreover, is not only a reflection of human interaction but also of modern German society. The book tells us how the village was affected by Communism and its collapse in 1989/1990, by German reunification as well as the financial crisis in 2007/2008 and not least by the onset of new technologies, such as wind farms. 

To a degree, Unterleuten reminds me of the village and town I grew up in. While I’m from Bavaria and Unterleuten is set in Brandenburg, former East Germany (an important point in the book), there are similarities: My town isn’t hit by the kind of disasters described in the book, yet it is a similar, close-knit community with its own characteristics, oddities even, and its own ‘worldview’. I think this is why I enjoyed the book so much: I can relate to it. It is a great book not only because of its style and language, great sense of detail, characters and story but also because it tells us so much about both human behaviour and interaction as well as society itself. 

To my German audience: I would highly recommend it. 

About Juli Zeh

Juli Zeh is a German writer. Born in Bonn in 1974, she studied law in Passau and Leipzig. She holds a PhD in international law from the University of Saarbrücken and has lived in New York City and Krakau. Zeh currently resides near Berlin. Her other works include Adler und Engel (Eagles and Angels), Spieltrieb (Gaming Instinct), Schilf (Dark Matter), Leere Herzen and Neujahr.

Margaret Atwood – The Testaments

‘Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience from God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.’

Spoiler alert: this post contains major spoilers.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in the post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.

For my very first review, I’ve chosen The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, arguably one of the most anticipated books of 2019 and one that I was eager to get my hands on. I had loved The Handmaid’s Tale, one of those rare books which ticks every box – great use of language, well thought-out and crafted characters and a story that inspires you to reflect on what is happening in the world. The latter is something that I love in a book. In fact, it is what I think books should be all about – not only to entertain but to engage with today’s society and world as well.

While I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, I found its sequel disappointing. First, like so many others, I don’t think this sequel was necessary. While The Handmaid’s Tale does leave us with an open ending, the story feels completed. It feels like Atwood wrote The Testaments to make her fans happy, especially following the great success of the Hulu TV series. Moreover, The Testaments seems rushed and is in my opinion spiked with stereotypes. Atwood uses an angry voice that is built on stereotypes from the modern world to get her points across. We don’t get the narrator’s point of view anymore, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, but the writer’s.

The things described in these quotes – incapable, soft female brains, girls not being allowed to read – of course fit with the picture Atwood has painted of Gilead. Women and girls are confronted with these views across the world on a daily basis and that should never be dismissed. However, I think Atwood makes life too easy for herself when using such stereotypes to portray Gilead. I call them stereotypes because I think Atwood could have used much more intelligent examples. It should have been obvious that ‘girls with weak brains’ is part of Gilead’s ideology, anyway. Indeed, Atwood seems so eager to describe and warn us of a world where women are hated and mistreated, that she simply turns to common cliches to do so. Atwood’s desire is understandable in the present climate, with global threats against women greater than ever. Nevertheless, it makes The Testaments almost too biased and thus less credible. The Handmaid’s Tale is more intelligent. Atwood’s language in The Handmaid’s Tale is a language that I would call impersonal, dispassionate, even unemotional to a degree. This isn’t bad, though; on the contrary, it aids The Handmaid’s Tale’s story while the reader still gets a clear idea of Offred’s thoughts. The almost rational language not only creates an aura of constant suspense and tension, it also makes the story plausible. Yet it still manages to criticise Gilead and, on certain occasions, also reflects on present society, that is, Western society, and its faults. It would be easy to dismiss Gilead as another utopian idea; however, thanks to Atwood’s great use of language, to the reader it seems realistic throughout the whole book. 

‘…because the urges of men were terrible things and those needed to be curbed. … Whatever our shapes and features, we were snares and enticements despite ourselves, we were the innocent and blameless causes that through our very nature could make men drunk with lust …’

‘What my father was doing in there was said to be very important – the important things that men did, too important for females to meddle with because they had smaller brains that were incapable of thinking large thoughts …’

‘Blood was polluting, especially when it came out of girls …’

‘That was a talent women had because of their special brains, which were not hard and focused like the brains of men but soft and damp and warm and enveloping …’

‘The world was infested with men who were certain to be tempted by girls who’d strayed out of bounds: such girls would be viewed as loose in their morals. …’

‘… and stared down at the book. What was inside it that made it so dangerous to girls like me? So flammable, so ruinous?’

Another problem I have with The Testaments is that the story is overly predictable. It is rather obvious from the start that Daisy is Baby Nicole, that Agnes Jemima is Offred and Nick’s baby and that the information eventually bringing down Gilead comes from Aunt Lydia. Furthermore, the end of the story feels more like an action movie with a happy ending than a serious novel. I am referring to Agnes Jemima/Aunt Victoria and Daisy/Jade/Nicole’s escape from Gilead and Gilead’s eventual collapse. Yet the end also feels rushed – how does Gilead fall, exactly? It is briefly mentioned later in the book (The Thirteenth Symposium), but it would have been interesting to get more detail, anyway. 

There are, of course, also things I like about The Testaments. I for example like the way Atwood depicts the clash between the two worlds, Gilead and Canada, when Agnes/Aunt Victoria, Becka/Aunt Immortelle and Daisy/Jade/Nicole meet.

‘“Only one glory? Hair?” Jade said. … “Why would you want to shame yourself by shaving your head?” I asked as gently as I could. If you were a woman, having no hair was a mark of disgrace ….’

‘“Working out”, she said. “It’s like exercising. You have to keep strong.” “Men are strong in body,” said Becka. “And in mind. Women are strong in spirit. …” “Why do you think you need to be strong in body?” I asked her. I was becoming more and more curious about her pagan beliefs. … “Well that’s convenient!” said Jade. “Sou you should just let them do whatever?” “You shouldn’t entice men,” said Becka. “What happens if you do is partly your fault.” … “Victim-blaming?” she said. “Really?” “Pardon?” said Becka. …’

Moreover, it is interesting to find out more about the wider world in which Gilead is set when reading about the Gileadean refugee situation. In fact, as a student of international relations, I would have considered it fascinating to know more about this world, and how other countries view Gilead.

‘“A couple of years ago we could have got you out through Saint-Pierre”, said Elijah, “but the French have closed that down. And after the refugee riots England’s a no-go, Italy’s the same, Germany – the smaller European ones. None of them want trouble with Gilead. Not to mention outrage from their own people, the mood being what it is. Even New Zealand’s shut the door.” “Some of them say they welcome women fugitives from Gilead, but you wouldn’t last a day in most of them, you’d be sex-trafficked”, said Ada. “And forget South America, too many dictators. …”’

I am also a fan of the book’s final chapter – The Thirteenth Symposium. This is the part of the book that, in my opinion, provides most food for thought. Set, I think, decades after the fall of Gilead, The Thirteenth Symposium is a conference on Gileadean Studies. The reader is able to find out more about how the world has developed: Women are in leadership positions once more. Yet sexism is still alive and well – in the #metoo era, that feels like a criticism of present Western society. 

‘Now that women are usurping leadership positions to such a terrifying extent, I hope you will not be too severe on me. I did take to heart your comments about my little jokes at the Twelfth Symposium – I admit some of them were not in the best of taste – and I will attempt not to reoffend.’

What I like best about The Thirteenth Symposium, however, is that it shows us how we, as humans, reflect on the past. It asks us to study the past so we may not make the same mistakes in the future. Being a historian myself, this is something I take to heart every day and consider to be highly important.

‘How our organization has grown, and with such good reason. We must continue to remind ourselves of the wrong turnings taken in the past so we do not repeat them.’

At the same time, The Thirteenth Symposium tells us that Gilead has been neglected in academic studies for decades and that it was a graduate student who found witness files. To me, this signals that Gilead had already been half-forgotten.The Gileadean Studies organisation has grown, the chapter says, however, is that because of interest only, or a real desire to engage with the past? Moreover, Professor Pieixoto, the conference’s main speaker, jokes while talking about Gilead. The audience’s laughter demonstrates how lightly humans take the past if they are not directly affected by it. 

‘Who would have thought that Gileadean Studies – neglected for so many decades – would suddenly have gained so greatly in popularity? Those of us who have laboured in the dim and obscure corners of academe for so long are not used to the bewildering glare of the limelight.’

‘It was not until Mia Smith, one of our graduate students in search of a thesis topic, opened the file that the true nature of its contents became apparent.

‘…a microdot embedded in a scarified tattoo, which I must say is a novel method of information delivery (laughter) …’

My review of The Thirteenth Symposium is more of an analysis. However, I still think it’s important, as – again – it can be referred to the present. Violence and wars are happening across the globe every day and have been for centuries, yet we as humans don’t do enough, or indeed anything at all, to stop them. Isn’t it time we took the past more seriously and make sure it isn’t repeated?

So, would I recommend The Testaments? After my review, you’d probably think I’d give a clear ‘no’ as an answer to this question. The Testaments is disappointing in terms of language and style and the plot is neither original nor surprising. It cannot be compared with The Handmaid’s Tale, which is spectacular in every sense. Nevertheless, I’d urge everyone to read both – The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. This is simply because they address such an important topic – the oppression of women in a totalitarian state, as well as the violence and control of said state towards its citizens in general. In the current political climate – with democracy in decline across the globe and populism and violence against women on the rise – it simply must be read. Both books are not only a reminder of the threats people, especially women, face across the world. They are also a reminder of what’s at stake and what we could lose.

About Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Canada. She was educated at the University of Toronto and Radcliffe College. Atwood has worked at several universities in Canada and the US and has written more than 50 books, which have been translated into more than 45 languages. Her other works include Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, The MaddAddam Trilogy and Hag-Seed. She lives in Toronto. More on her website.