On Beauty

One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father.

Zadie Smith doesn’t write plots, she creates characters.

On Beauty is an every-day-of-the-life story of the Belsey family. Mother, father, two sons and a daughter in an university town. As the father is white, the mother black and the children (therefore) mixed, daily life involves judgment against skin colour as well. Especially Levi, the youngest son, spends a lot of thought (and action) on his place in society and how his skin colour influences it.

In this daily life there are troubles at the university, affairs, trying to create friendships and children who can’t find their spot in society.  There is no apocalypse, no aliens. Only, almost paralysing painful, human daily life.

This takes some getting used to. The only way the story moves is through time and character depth. Some of the characters keep making the same mistakes, and they are human and threedimensional enough to get under your skin. Don’t read this for an adventure, read this to get to meet new people.

On Beauty, Zadie Smith, Hamilton 2006

The Taliban Cricket Club

He hadn’t forgotten me.

Karo from Persephone Magazine tries on a regular basis to get us interested in cricket. It’s one of the reasons I took this book from the library. Another is that I’m always on the lookout for writers and stories from outside my known Western culture. A novel is an easy way to peek behind the curtain, especially when it comes to countries that – in the not-novel world – are still inaccessible.

Rukshana used to be a bright, curious journalist. Than the Taliban took over and locked her up inside her burqa, but she is determined to let the real story come out and continues to write under a pseudonym. The story that tells about how innocents are being shot in the streets and discarded as trash. How the religious police will take offense in everything just so they can be violent and steal. Rukshana’s daily life and that of her small family is a war zone.
A very small light at the horizon comes from news about Afghanistan starting a cricket team. The winners of the national competition may go to Pakistan for international games. Basically, way out of this world. Of course Rukshana can’t play, she’s a woman, but she knows how to and she thinks this is the chance for her brother and cousins to escape. Training them in a burqa is impossible, so she dresses up as a young man.

Other worries and threats loom, laced with details of the country’s history. It’s lost potential in the most cruel way. Every character knows that their life is in danger in Afghanistan, yet find it so very hard to leave.

And the cricket? Much more interested, but still don’t understand much about it.

The Taliban Cricket Club, Timeri N. Murari, Ecco 2012

Bitter Leaf

Many things distinguish a place, its rolling hills or turquoise waters.

Sometimes daily life can be a fairy tale. What I liked about Bitter Leaf how magic (was it even magic?) is effortlessly weaved into the story. No “Here Comes The Talking Guitar” but “the guitar whispered this and that”. This, combined with the bright colours of the village Mannobe and the people living there, almost gave me the feeling that the pages of the book were technicolour.

In a small village you can still have larger than life characters. Like Babylon, a Casanova with no roots. The twins M’elle and Mabel that seem to feed everyone in their little restaurant, the man they call Prophet or the gorgeous Jericho, a headstrong girl that left for the city, but returned for ..what exactly?

Each one of them has a problem involving love. Too much, too little, unsure where and with whom to find it. That’s the story in two sentences, it’s how they find it, which roads they walk until they find the right direction, that adds the flavour. In the meantime the reader becomes a passive village inhabitant, up to date on what boils underneath the surface.

Bitter Leaf is a village caught in paper.

Bitter Leaf, Chioma Okereke, Virago 2010

NW

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts.

A story about those that want to be more than where they came from and fight for it, and about those that slip into the rut that their ancestors have created for them. Not a history story, but contemporary London.

Keisha (later Natalie) and Leah are the main characters, you’re a fly on the wall at several situations, back and forth through the ages. There is a third character, sandwiched between their story lines, but – with me – he failed to stay upright in the fight for sticking around in my mind. Which is kind of fitting, because he fails to stay upright in life as well.
Keisha is the first in her family to get a thorough education, she wants different surroundings but becomes disappointed when these things don’t bring her pure happiness either.
Leah goes through the paces until she realizes they lead her to a place she doesn’t want to be. To a person she possibly doesn’t want to be.

NW can well be considered as a social commentary, but without any high horses or Loud Messages. These people are the commentary and the part that are commented on. Are they less for having no goals or wanting to escape their backgrounds? Is NW a cesspool or just another place where people try to make a living?

Sometimes the language, the people and the hopelessness of it all frustrated me. But for anyone who looks a peek beneath the hood of “our Western culture” I’d recommend this book.

NW, Zadie Smith, Hamilton 2012

solace of the road

I breezed down the line of cars, so cool you’d never know I was looking for a way to board the boat.

This story shows that you don’t need ten thousand words and great gestures to tell an emotional story. The smallness, the futility of it all makes Holly’s story in solace of the road possibly linger longer than a big show would have.

Holly is in a house for unwanted children. She’s been out for a few times, but there never was a click with the adoptive family. There are few adults she trusts, she misses her mother and the past they share and is stuck in a rut. Things happen and she decides to take her life in her own hands. With a blond wig on she isn’t small, deserted Holly any more, she’s cool, crazy Solace. Who’s going to travel from England back to Ireland, back to her mother.

Siobhan Dowd shows with small details what’s life like if you feel like you’re the only one in the world who cares about you, how someone can rewrite their own history and how devastating it can be to discover something outside that story. And all this without any pity, without any Life Lessons in the spotlight. It just happens. Holly has to come through. And you’re left behind, wondering if she will.

solace of the road, Siobhan Dowd, David Fickling Books 2009

The Bride That Time Forgot

Hello there!

I’m pretty sure I liked this mix up of senior chick lit times contemporary fantasy times classic fantasy. It was messy, though.

The main story is about Brenda and her small town where supernatural things happen. She’s a senior combination of Buffy and Giles (both of the Vampire Slayer) and – with her friend Effie – makes sure things don’t get too weird. Which happens when her best friend falls in love with a vampire, a cult following from another world shows up and an old friend slash demon hunter returns to Brenda. And all this while Brenda tries to keep her B&B on its feet.

I suspect this is part of a series or at least easier to read when you’ve read something by Magrs before. Because now it was three small novels in one.

Still, lovely world building and silly fun. A (late) Summer read if I ever read one.

The Bride That Time Forgot, Paul Magrs, Headline Review 2011

Communion Town

Do you remember how you came to this city, Ulya?

I could have added nine more first sentences because Communion Town is a collection of (short) stories. Each of those has a different protagonist, but the city is such a strong character that it never gives you the feeling of completely starting over with every new chapter. The people pass by, the city will stay forever, unchanging.

Magic realism doesn’t cover this, it’s somehow more and less than that. The abnormal is added in small details, in an effortless way without it ever being thrust into your face. The stories are fragile, scary, sweet but almost contained. No flowery prose, no Big Messages. Each story was a small peek into another exciting world.

Communion Town is really a world contained between two book covers.

Communion Town – A City in Ten Chapters, Sam Thompson, Fourth Estate 2012