Review no 6: Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone (Sierra Leone)

AFRICA

A Long Way Gone is an important and often beautifully written war memoir set during the civil conflict of the 1990s in Sierra Leone.

In choosing books from African writers, I have no desire to reinforce stereotypes about the continent as underdeveloped, war-torn and characterised by widespread famine.

However, I remember a neighbour of mine from Sierra Leone telling me that she hated firework night in the UK as it reminded her of the civil conflict she’d lived through. I was shocked, and sad for her, but I couldn’t begin to imagine what that must have been like.

I also remember reading about the horrors of brutalised, drugged child soldiers when doing research on the international organizations working in particular areas of West and Central Africa in the 1990s for work, and wondered what hope there could be for such children, if they survived their experiences physically.

When I came across this memoir by Ishmael Beah, and saw that it had sold over 600,000 copies worldwide, I was surprised I had never heard of it before.

The book details Ishmael’s normal childhood as a rap-mad kid, whose life is suddenly ripped apart by rebel attacks on his village, and on many others. He is forced to survive day to day, encountering peril from every side, before eventually being enlisted into the army by the age of 12. He becomes dependent both on drugs, including brown brown, a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder, and on the perpetration of violence, which he is encouraged to see as a way of avenging his losses.

Ishmael’s horrific experiences are vividly and unflinchingly described, as are his close relationships with some of his fellow kids, and the small kindnesses he encounters amid his nightmarish existence.

Just as compelling and moving as the losses he endures and the endemic brutality, is his rehabilitation with the aid of UNICEF, and his transformation into a human rights activist and political science graduate.

The subject matter means that this is not an easy read, but I think it is an important book, and one I’m glad to have read.

Review no 5: Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (Turkey)

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

I went to see Elif Shafak speak at an event at the British Library recently, and was impressed. A political scientist and champion of minority rights as well as an author, she’s charismatic, beautiful and spoke intelligently of the need for engagement between cultures in order to challenge and break down populist stereotypes and prejudices. She also spoke thought-provokingly about our expectations of literature from other places: for example, our preconceptions mean that we might not expect, say, an Afghan woman to write a work of sci-fi.

Shafak is living in the UK, effectively in exile from her homeland of Turkey, where she remains the country’s most popular female novelist. However, by writing about controversial topics, such as the Armenian genocide, she has come into conflict with the authorities, which also apparently see her engagement in her fiction with topics such as the abuse of children as tantamount to their promotion.

Shafak previously wrote in Turkish, but several years ago began writing in English, which is obviously not her first language. Her mastery of her adopted tongue is impressive.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, published in 2019 by Viking, follows the life of a murdered prostitute, Tequila Leila, through a series of vignettes. These are experienced in time-bending flashback as her mind is shutting down in the 10 minutes and 38 seconds after her killing.

I don’t like to give too much away in terms of storyline, but the book doesn’t shy away from tackling the various prejudices and abuses suffered by both Tequila Leila and other characters in the novel, and is polemical in preaching a worthwhile message of equality and tolerance. Sometimes, to a liberal Western reader, these points can feel a bit claw-hammered in.

The book is also a celebration of friendship, as despite her hardships, Tequila Leila has been surrounded in her life by a diverse circle of supportive companions.

Amid the often difficult subject matter is also humour, and even slapstick. This is particularly the case during the latter part of the novel, when her friends determine to ensure that Tequila Leila receives an appropriate burial. Although I enjoyed the book overall, I could imagine it might work best as a film. I’m also not wholly convinced that the concept of the book, based on the neurological processes surrounding death, entirely works.

10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World is above all a love letter to Istanbul, which is beautifully and sensuously described. The novel has, somewhat surprisingly in my opinion, been shortlisted for the 2019 Booker prize.

Review no 4: Olafur Eliasson, In Real Life

@ Tate Modern, London, UK from July 2019 until January 2020

DENMARK – ICELAND : EUROPE

Olafur Eliasson, born in 1967, is an exciting and accessible contemporary artist, who was brought up in Denmark and Iceland. In the 1990s he moved to Berlin, Germany, where he established the Studio Olafur Eliasson. In 2003 I visited his evocative Weather Project , which filled the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. I remember visitors sprawled on their backs under a simulated glowing sun, relaxing in a hazy fog.

The exhibition In Real Life is a retrospective covering Eliasson’s career from the early 1990s to the present, and displaying works that ‘elicit and perturb our impressions of colour, light, sound and material’ (Michelle Kuo, MOMA).

I visited the exhibition with my children (aged 10 to 15). It is very much an exhibition to go to with someone else. My youngest daughter was in a ferocious mood, so it didn’t go entirely as I’d planned, but the interactive elements lent themselves to a family day out, and my son, in particular, really engaged with the exhibition and had a great time.

My eldest sneered a bit at Window Projection (1990), which she wrote off as student juvenalia. Beauty (1993), however, shown below, we found really effective: a soaking wet curtain of mist, in a darkened room, through which magical rainbows appear to materialise by means of the effective projection of light.

The exhibition also features a wall of living moss (Moss Wall, 1994), and a 39 metre tunnel suffused with glowing misty light (Din blinde passager or Your blind passenger, 2010), which we had to feel our way along. The exhibition was crowded with excited children, so any contemplative sense was lost from this experience. One (positive!) review I read, however, genuinely likened the process of passing through the tunnel to how the writer imagines it is to die. Presumably they visited in term time!

Eliasson is interested in stimulating the senses, but also in documenting environmental degradation. Over two decades he has taken a series of photographs which details the changing Icelandic landscape. (My copy of the Extinction Rebellion handbook arrives today…)

In Real Life is definitely worth a visit, or probably even two: one with noisy family members, one at opening or closing time with a quiet friend.

Eliasson hasn’t dislodged my favourite Danish artist from the no 1 spot though. The wonderful Vilhelm Hammershøi will always be one of my favourite artists of all time.

Review no 3: Genki Kawamura, If Cats Disappeared from the World (Japan)

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

Translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland

“What would you sacrifice for an extra day of life?”

This novel has sold over 1 million copies in Japan, and has been made into a film. I spotted the book in a branch of Waterstones when I was visiting family, and was attracted by the title, and the cover design.

Don’t judge a book by its cover! I didn’t much enjoy it, but it was mercifully short.

The book is written from the perspective of a young man who discovers that he is dying from a brain tumour. He has few personal connections, and is estranged from his father following the death of his mother several years earlier. His closest companion is his cat Cabbage.

The unnamed protagonist is given the chance to make a kind of Mephistophelesian deal with the devil – amusingly dressed in dodgy Hawaiian shirts – who allows him to remove one thing from the world in return for an extra day of life. How far will our hero take it?

The book is an easy read, written with humour and a positive message about connecting with others and not wasting hours fiddling about on your phone.

However, the names of the protagonist’s pets were the most enjoyable part of the book for me. The rest seemed derivative and banal, with the narrator having lived his life without progressing beyond base-level self-awareness.

Review no 2: Sam Selvon (1923-1994), The Lonely Londoners (Trinidad and Tobago)

THE AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

“I think I can say without a trace of modesty that I was the first Caribbean writer to explore and employ dialect in a full-length novel where it was used in both narrative and dialogue” – Sam Selvon

The Lonely Londoners, Sam Selvon’s most famous novel, was published in 1956, and was probably the first novel to be inspired by the immigrant experience of the so-called Windrush generation. Given the Windrush scandal of 2018 in the UK, this book seemed a timely and pertinent read.

Selvon was born into a middle-class family in Trinidad and Tobago to an Indian father and an Indian-Scottish mother. He served in the Trinidadian Navy and then worked in publishing, before moving to England in 1950, out of a sense of adventure. He stayed in England until the late 1970s, before moving to Canada, and finally returning to Trinidad, where he died.

On his arrival in England, according to the writer Sukhdev Sandhu, Selvon became more “aware of the richness and diversity of Caribbean speech”. The Lonely Londoners is written in Caribbean dialect, which led contemporaneous critics to dismiss it as “an amusing social documentary of West Indian manners”, according to the writer Susheila Nasta. Now it has safely achieved the status of a classic, and is viewed as a groundbreaking exemplar of Caribbean immigrant writing.

The Lonely Londoners’ distinctive narrative voice is closely entwined with the voices of the Caribbean characters who are making their way in London, which, however familiar it might be (and I have lived in London for nearly 30 years), is made strange to the reader, like “another planet”.

The book’s main characters are overwhelmingly male, and their attitude to women can seem somewhat challenging in the post-#metoo era. However, since the majority of West Indian immigrants in the 1950s were male (husbands might bring their family over later, once they were more settled), it makes sense that the book is written from an overwhelmingly male perspective, and that is reflects the mores of the time.

The varied and diverse characters – from, for example, Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados and Nigeria – are related in a series of vignettes, bound together by their common experiences and their connection to the central figure, Moses. Moses is an established member of the migrant community, and an – albeit rather reluctant – source of support and advice for new arrivals.

Overall, this is a short, lyrical, often moving book about the disillusionment of the 1950s Caribbean migrant experience, encounters with endemic racism, a pervasive sense of displacement, and nostalgia for a lost past, shot through with humour.

“Under the kiff-kiff laughter, behind the ballad and the episode, the what-happening, the summer-is-hearts, he could see a great aimlessness, a great restless, swaying movement that leaving you standing in the same spot. As if a forlorn shadow of doom fall on all the spades in the country.”

Review no 1: Tove Jansson (1914-2001) , The True Deceiver (Finland)

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

EUROPE

****

“I loved this book. It’s cool in both senses of the word, understated yet exciting …. The characters still haunt me.” – Ruth Rendell

It wasn’t until I went to an amazing exhibition on the life and work of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London at the beginning of 2018 that I fully realised that Tove Jansson wasn’t only well known for her Moomin books.

Jansson was the daughter of Finnish artists from the country’s Swedish-speaking minority, and studied art in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, as well as in Helsinki and Paris. From her 50s she wrote several books for adults. The True Deceiver was published in 1982, but appeared in English translation only in 2009.

I chose it pragmatically, on the basis that my husband (a childhood Moomin fan) owns it, and it was just sitting there on the bookshelf downstairs. He has several of her novels in translation, but this particular one was included by Boyd Tonkin in his pick of The 100 Best Novels in Translation in 2019.

The prose in The True Believer is disarmingly simple, but the book is much more nuanced than it first appears. The descriptions of the landscape and the small hamlet in which the story is set are beautifully evocative. I found this particularly the case as I was reading the book during the summer months, when snow and months-long ice seemed an even more alien experience than usual.

“People woke up late because there was no longer any morning. The village lay soundless under untouched snow until the children were let out and dug tunnels and caves and shrieked and were left to themselves”.

Strange, yellow-eyed Katri Kling lives with her 15-year-old orphaned brother Mats and her nameless, yellow-eyed dog in an attic above a shop, where she lies, unsleeping, worrying about money.

Meanwhile, an old lady, Anna Amelin, illustrates whimsical books featuring flowery rabbits and lives alone in a villa that is dubbed by the locals as the ‘rabbit house’, along with her long-dead parents’ overflowing paperwork and disused furniture.

This novel has a mythological feel, and fairly crackles with ice. It is a beautiful, short book about withholding and trusting, about the difference between the surface and what lies beneath, about alienation and acceptance, and about the casual cruelties and intimacies of small-town life.