The Far Field

I am thirty years old and that is nothing.

This library haul had a 75 percent success rate, with The Far Field being the concluding chapter (heh) of that rate.

And – as it sometimes is with good stories – with this one it’s hard to put into words what exactly is good about it. It’s not like the naive, spoiled protagonist is easy to love, nor are the other characters particularly likeable. The plot could well be called Eat Pray Love with poverty tourism, so honestly, Madhuri Vijay had the stacks against her.

But there’s so much humanity in these characters and their stories. The randomness of things, people and situations brought together and bringing the worst or the best out in each other. You could say that the protagonist leaves a trail of destruction behind, but does she even have that kind of power? What is there to destruct in a war zone?

This book is coming of age, a rapport of ordinary life in contested country, a confrontation with bias. It’s written in such an appealing way that sometimes the plot arrives second because you’re just enjoying the words.

It’s good.

The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay, Grove Press 2019

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race

It wasn’t until my second year of university that I started to think about black British history.

I guess August was for non-fiction, or that This Lovely City just put me in the mindset to learn more about black British history. Because of course, of course – in some way you know that the islands aren’t an utopia for black and brown people, but how much of black history is focused on the USA (effectively making it possible for Europeans to dodge any responsibility?)? Turns out – when it comes to my knowledge – a lot.

Don’t write this title off as a history book now (why would you write off any book because it has history, you don’t love history?), because as anything involving people; history is just one part of it. As Eddo-Lodge explains it probably better than I do: intersectionality is a thing, and you can’t discuss a human issue without looking at the place where it intersects.

So, this book is about history, about feminism, about the media and white privilege. It’s about health and education, and every other part of human life. In clearly cut chapters, in clear language, Eddo-Lodge doesn’t only answer the title’s question, but also explains to you why you should take responsibility regarding it.

And just like that, I’ve got my first book for my students to read (from).

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Bloomsbury 2017

This Lovely City

The basement club spat Lawrie out into the dirty maze of Soho, a freezing mist settling over him like a damp jacket.

The pretty cover will definitely throw you off: this isn’t a light, bubbly story about a fabulous time in black music history. This is a novel about black British history, and there’s little prettiness about that.

Jamaicans are ‘invited’ to come to the motherland, but England isn’t a loving mother. Black people are denied on every level of daily living, and when a baby is found, police and white citizens take it as an excuse to go full out racist.

Louise Hare shows the endless fear and frustration as well, making you move from ‘Why not just go back?’ to ‘Why don’t you stand up for yourself?’ and ‘Why is everybody such a wanker?’. Lawrie doesn’t want much in life, but because he’s black there’s a lot of people out there that actively sabotage him.

The Empire Windrush and their people aren’t fiction, nor was their treatment of them. So even though this is an interesting look at London after the Second World War, there’s no fun and bubbles to be found here.

This Lovely City, Louise Hare, House of Anansi Press 2020

Frankissstein

Lake Geneva, 1816

Reality is water-soluble.

Now, what to think and say about this one? Unlike The Body in Question, I’m struggling because I’m thinking too much about this story. It’s bewildering, it’s scary, it’s also kind of soothing with showing you how humans and their ideas about identity, life and death have always been around and probably forever will be (in whatever shape).

This isn’t a retelling of Frankenstein, or maybe partly, or maybe only inspired by it. Mary Shelley gets a plot, so does Ry and Victor Stein. There’s layers and century-deep connections, but never in a Gotcha!-way.

Winterson surprised me with a memoir I liked (which doesn’t happen often, as recently mentioned), but I didn’t know what to expect with a novel of hers. After Frankissstein, I still don’t. I find it hard to believe that she could write something like this again, if it’s even a ‘this’.

I’d recommend this novel to everyone who allows themselves to be taken along for a ride. I’d also recommend it because I still don’t know how to place this story and would love to pick other people’s brains. While still in their heads, of course.

Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson, Jonathan Cape London 2019

An American Marriage

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t.

Layers upon layers to uncover and think about in a book that could just be summarised by its title: yep, it’s about a marriage. Between Americans. But these Americans are Black, one of them is wrongfully incarcerated and what is a marriage if it’s largely between people of one is in prison?

This way, Tayari Jones looks at the prison system, racism, the institution of marriage, the first ones in families to go study and the burden that comes with it. This is a story that creeps under the skin, leaves you staring in the distance afterwards – empty and fulfilled at the same time.

Because what would have happened if Roy wouldn’t have been locked up? The marriage wasn’t perfect, but which one is? What if they would never have married? What if they would have grown up in another state or even another country? In what ways is the USA to blame for this entire situation? How is ancestry to blame (if so)?

It’s a testament to Jones’ writing that none of this adds an essay-like feeling to the novel: it’s a story first. A painful one, with glimmers of hope.

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones, Harper Collins 2018

Pastorale

Oscar liet de woorden van de leraar los – hij wist alles al.

Ja, tsja, ja, wat is dit nu precies? Ook al zitten er een paar eeuwen tussen, deed Pastorale mij soms aan Hasse Simonsdochter denken. Misschien dezelfde omgeving plus dat typische ‘Ha, lekker Nederlands’-gevoel? Het is in ieder geval niet dat er veel meer overeenkomsten zijn.

In Pastorale gaat het om een kleine gereformeerde gemeenschap waar in/tegenaan Molukkers gedumpt zijn ten tijde van KNIL. Het woord segregatie valt maar een paar keer, maar alle acties spreken duidelijk genoeg: zowel de Molukse Nederlandsers als de inboorlingen beschouwen het als een tijdelijke situatie.

Daarnaast is er Louise. Zij gelooft niet meer. Ze is terug thuis, maar een compleet buitenstaander. Hoe ze daar mee omgaat, en vindt dat ze daarmee om moet gaat, wisselt nog al.

Oscar zweeft tussen dat alles door, of is hij juist zo passief dat zijn complete zijn bewegingloos is? Hij komt in contact met de Molukse inwoners en leert er meer dan hij op school voorgeschoteld krijgt.

Nergens wordt nadrukkelijk genoemd in welke tijd dit speelt, en omdat dit kleine dorp al zo stil in de geschiedenis ligt, wordt het verhaal en haar karakters nog een tikje meer vervreemdend. Dit is een geschiedenisboek, maar net alsof het de geschiedenis van een andere versie van Nederland geeft.

Dus, wat is het? Je tijd waard.

Pastorale, Stephan Enter, Uitgeverij van Oorschot 2019

Niemand vertelt je hier ooit wat

Ze gaan me opereren vandaag.

Het was een situatie waarin vijf sterren een realiteit waren, en die situatie maak ik niet vaak mee als veel-lezende zeur en extra kritisch persoon op Nederlandse auteurs. Maar verdorie: Erik Nieuwenhuis was mijn intense hekel aan open eindes vergeten. Lap, het boek had zelfs langer gemogen wat mij betreft!

Spoiler. Misschien is het niet eens een echt open einde, het verhaal kan best als afgesloten beschouwd worden. Maar er gebeuren vreemde dingen in het verzorgtehuis waarvan Michiel zich niet eens kan herinneren hoe hij er is gekomen en waarom hij er is. En er wordt steeds meer lucht gepompt in de ballon van ‘WAT DAN?’ maar de ballon ontploft maar niet.

Mensen die wel beter los kunnen laten, of het niet erg vinden om zelf de gaten in te vullen, zullen zeker genieten van het lachwekkende want langzaam in unheimlich verandert.

Is dit nu al het tweede Nederlandse boek dit jaar waar ik positief over ben?

Niemand vertelt je hier ooit wat, Erik Nieuwenhuis, Brooklyn 2019

De buitenvrouw

Leerlingen in de eindexamenklassen vonden Theo Altena de minst erge die je voor Nederlands kon krijgen.

Enkele uren nadat mijn moeder mij wees op de Joost Zwagerman-essay prijs (ik twijfel nog over een onderwerp), vond ik dit boek in een buitenbiebje. Toeval bestaat niet?

Dit was mijn eerste boek van de auteur: Nederlandse schrijvers, zeker mannelijke, kunnen mij niet bekoren. Hoogste tijd was daar een uitzondering in, maar ook weer niet op zo’n manier dat ik mij voorlopig een Mulisch-fan noem.

Naast het essay-toeval was het de samenvatting waarvoor ik het boek wel wilde proberen: man wordt zich bewust van racisme in zijn directe omgeving en man is docent Nederlands op het voortgezet onderwijs. En volgens de recensies beschrijft Zwagerman beide dingen zoals het is!

Ik ben docent Engels op het MBO dus ik kan niet alles vergelijken, maar verder is het toch wel zeer regelmatig best confronterend. En het ‘dat is niet racistisch!’ waar je ook bij anders normaal nuchtere mensen tegen aanloopt – ook.

Natuurlijk, ik had de precieze details niet nodig van de lichaamsdelen van Theo’s minnares, maar verder was ik zeer verrast door hoe makkelijk dit boek was en hoe vermakelijk ik het vond.

De buitenvrouw, Joost Zwagerman, De Arbeiderspers 1994

Split Tooth

Sometimes we would hide in the closet when the drunks came home from the bar.

I struggled with this one, even though ‘struggle’ feels like too weak a word while at the same time sounding like a complaint.  While I was definitely annoyed, made uncomfortable and felt disgusted by this book, ‘struggle’ feels like I was fighting with the structure or built of the book. While it was the story, the actions, the implications, the anger and danger.

Yeah, all this was a lot.

And if it wouldn’t have been for the ending in which all of it came together so perfectly, so cleansing, so enlightened – I wouldn’t even have reviewed this on Goodreads. I would have been left behind with the aforementioned feelings.

Because Split Tooth isn’t a chronological story or just an ~experience~ or something in between: from time to time I felt like I was reading along with the notes of some world-building deity, but definitely one on a bad day. So much anger and frustration for humanity, but so much love and awe for nature. Is there even a main character, and is she an active or terribly passive one?

Split Tooth doesn’t provide answers or pointers, it’s just there while at the same time clawing at your brain to be allowed to reside there permanently.

Split Tooth, Tanya Tagaq, Viking 2018

The Dutch House

The first time our father brought Andrea to the Dutch House, Sandy, our housekeeper, came to my sister’s room and told us to come downstairs.

I changed my mind on this book maybe three – four times. Pretty cover -> meh summary -> positive reviews -> where is this story going? -> Oh. Oh wow.

Wasn’t that an exciting trip to go on?

This book is the house it’s about, but at the same time its story never gets as bright and colourful as the interior of the house. Even before the big thing that changes everything happens, there’s a thick gray layer over not just the people of this story, but the story itself.

It doesn’t make the story less appealing, but it did make me long towards that version of the story: if Ann Patchett would halfway flip to the owners under whom the house prospered, I wouldn’t even have minded and this coming from the woman who despises different times – same houses stories.

Still, the story as it is found its way under my skin. On family, on bitterness, on deciding what you need for yourself instead of for someone else. And in the end – yes: oh wow.

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett, HarperCollins 2019