“Women are most fascinating between the ages of 35 and 40 … Since few women ever pass 40, maximum fascination can continue indefinitely.” (Christian Dior)

On Saturday I had a BIG birthday.

Why thank you, Mr DiCaprio. Yes, ‘twas the big 4-0 for me so this week I’m looking at one book written in 1977 and one book set in 1977. What they’ve taught me about the year of my birth is that much as nostalgia-fest programmes will try and convince me I was born into a glittery glam-rock utopia:

In fact I was born into a post-colonial nightmare of racism and corruption. 1977 was rubbish.

1977: a year so bad even Christoph Waltz looked like this

Firstly, the novel written in 1977, Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a damning indictment of the legacy of colonialism and political corruption. Set in Kenya not long after independence from the British in 1964, it is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. It tells the story of Munira, a teacher; his friend Abdulla, a shopkeeper; Wanja, a barmaid and object of Munira’s affection; and Karega, a young man who wants to know about Munira’s history of school strikes and acts as the voice of communist ideals in the novel. All have moved to the remote village of Ilmorog to try and come to terms with the fallout from the Mau Mau war and build a life for themselves in the new republic.  The title image recurs throughout the story. At its earliest point it is voiced by a child in Munira’s class:

“ ‘Look. A flower with petals of blood.’

It was a solitary red beanflower in a field dominated by white, blue and violet flowers. No matter how you looked at it, it gave you the impression of a flow of blood. Munira bent over it and with a trembling hand plucked it. It had probably been the light playing upon it, for now it was just a red flower.

‘There is no colour called blood. What you mean is that it is red.’ “

What emerges throughout the novel is that of course, there are literally petals of blood. Kenyans have fought and died on their land and their blood is in the earth. Stories of Munira’s school strikes show how indoctrination under empire was a mix of politics, religion and outright racism:

“We saluted the British flag every morning and every evening to the martial sound from the bugles and drums of our school band. Then we would all march in orderly military lines to the chapel to raise choral voices to the Maker: Wash me Redeemer, and I shall be whiter than snow. We would then pray for the continuation of the Empire that had defeated the satanic evil which had erupted in Europe to try the children of God.”

Following severe drought, the residents of Ilmorog travel to Nairobi to speak with their MP. They encounter indifference at best and outright hypocrisy and corruption at worst from businessmen, their MP, a reverend, which allows wa Thiong’o to explore what and who a new society is built on.

“And suddenly it was not her that he was looking at, seeing, but countless other faces in many other places all over the republic. You eat or you are eaten. You fatten on another, or you are fattened upon.”

If this sounds unremittingly bleak, the residents do also encounter a principled lawyer who helps them. If it sounds polemical and more of a treatise than a novel, it isn’t. wa Thiong’o is furious at the injustice and corruption he portrays, but the power of Petals of Blood is that it is never at the expense of believable characters. Munira, Abdulla, Wanja and Karega bring home the human cost of political decision-making and large-scale corruption.

“She had carried dreams in a broken vessel.”

Petals of Blood is an incredible novel. Angry and urgent, ultimately optimistic and with a belief that human beings can make better lives for themselves and for one another, but with a clear-sighted view of the damage we can wreak.

“It was really very beautiful. But at the end of the evening Karega felt very sad. It was like beholding a relic of beauty that had suddenly surfaced, or like listening to a solitary beautiful tune straying, for a time, from a dying world.”

Looking for the name of the translator of this novel, I was surprised to discover that wa Thiong’o wrote in the language of his country’s colonisers. Apparently Petals of Blood was the last time he did so, and he has since written in Gikuyu and Swahili.  He has led a fascinating life, including time as a prisoner of conscience, which you can get a taste of on Wiki.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Secondly, Jubilee by Shelley Harris (2011), set on the day of a street party to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and also in 2007, where a 30 year reunion of the people captured in a famous photo of that day is planned. The photo featured Satish, the son of Ugandan refugees fleeing Idi Amin, sat amidst his white neighbours:

“Here he was after all, an Asian boy happy in his white-majority Buckinghamshire village, and posing only a minimal threat to house prices.”

For reasons of his own, Satish has no desire to recreate that day. In 2007 he is married to a woman he loves, has two children and a successful career as a paediatric cardiologist. He also has an escalating addiction to diazepam.  We know something awful happened to him on the day of the Jubilee, and by moving back and forth in time, Harris is able to show how the celebration built to crisis, and the fallout thirty years later. This is handled deftly, and didn’t get tiresome. Similarly, the period details are in abundance but not too heavily rammed home, possibly because the author is drawing on her lived experience as the daughter of 1970s immigrants to Britain, fleeing apartheid in South Africa.

“mushy peas; scampi; egg-and-bacon sandwiches; chips and mash and roasties – every iteration of the glorious potato; faggots; fry-ups; fish and chips; jelly and rice pudding; apple pie and Artic roll….He wondered what might happen if these were the only things he ate. Would it build up Britishness in him, all this English food? Would it drain his colour, sharpen his soccer skills, send him rushing into church?”

Satish encounters both casual ignorance and outright racist prejudice from his neighbours, and this is not shied away from but also not dwelt on, as young Satish does not dwell on these things. As adult readers, we know where the hatred can lead and its enduring effect on Satish, which lends the novel an underlying sense of menace.

 “What were they exactly? Indian? Ugandan? He had never been clear. But this was neither their country nor their culture, and no matter how many Union Jacks they raised, they would always be waving someone else’s flag.”

Depressingly, these attitudes do  not make the novel a period piece. There is a still need anti-racism marches, with Stand Up to Racism taking place this Saturday, on UN Anti-Racism Day.

Jubilee builds carefully towards its denouement, and shows the long-term damage that blind prejudice can inflict. It also shows how an act of hatred does not define either the perpetrator or the victim, and the power of forgiveness and reconciliation towards the events of our lives and the choices we make. I don’t know what it was about Jubilee that stopped me totally loving it, but it is a good read and effective evocation of a moment in time.

They look this happy because they’re yet to taste the Coronation chicken

To end, the cheesy earworm that was number one the week I was born. I’ve always thought my enduring love of sax solos came from Careless Whisper, but maybe this made an impact at a very impressionable age. All together now: ya-da-da-da-da….

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41 thoughts on ““Women are most fascinating between the ages of 35 and 40 … Since few women ever pass 40, maximum fascination can continue indefinitely.” (Christian Dior)

  1. Happy birthday you young whippersnapper! I turned 8 in ’77, and remember the street party well – a proper east end knees up it was. There was a fancy dress competition – I went as a gypsy – but Bo Peep won (it was a stitch up, i tell ya!). I was absolutely obsessed with Manhatten Transfer. They were my first experience of France and what it meant to be French. Thinking back, it was probably this very song that years later, led to me to seek out existentialist novels, drink copious amounts of wine and wear black polonecks! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Firstly, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! (Hope you had/ are having a big party).

    Secondly… that earworm. Might not be able to sleep tonight ya-da-da-da-daaaa

    Thirdly, how far in advance did you have to read for your 1977 theme? I had a quick look at my equivalent (1972) – books published that year that I’ve read – My Name is Asher Lev and The Giant Jam Sandwich. It was also the year that The Joy of Sex was published (jut saying…). As for novels set in 1972, I’d have that covered with The Stepford Wives. Not the most intellectual choices compared to yours for 1977!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! And I apologise for the earworm, that ya-da-da-da-da really gets in there doesn’t it? For 1977 I basically googled and found 2 that were in the TBR mountain – not a very considered approach!

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  3. Great post. 🍾 I tried to read Jubilee a couple of years ago and just couldn’t get into it. For reasons that now escape me, it just didn’t gel. I gave up on it quite early in. I like the sound of Petals of Blood though.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Many Happy Returns, Madame Bibi. I hope you had a wonderful day! A friend of mine read Jubilee when it came out a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. I think it was a massive nostalgia trip for her as we were teenagers back then…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely! I remember the mothers of classmates who were a few months older than me saying it was absolute torture being pregnant in the summer of 1976. I hope you enjoy Petals of Blood – I look forward to hearing your thoughts 🙂

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  5. 1977! Why, you’re a mere child! For once, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to the vid – I heard that song 5,674,832,189 times back in 1977 and hated it every single time! Even nostalgia hasn’t worked its magic on it. But Mr Waltz’s outfit has reminded me of a really snazzy pair of stripey legwarmers I had back in the day – I looked so incredibly cool! 😉

    The first book sounds amazing – you’ve found some fascinating stuff for your world trip so far. I may have to sneak that one onto the wishlist when nobody’s looking…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely understand about the song – I must admit I was hoping for the Jackson 5, Abba, BeeGees etc for the week I was born, but sadly not…

      Stripy legwarmers – I’m sure you looked the bees knees! Mr Waltz’s outfit is quite extraordinary 😀

      Do sneak Petals of Blood onto the wishlist – no-one will notice 😉 Its a difficult but excellent read, really powerful.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Happy Belated! The big 40 was one of my best birthdays – I don’t think I’ve ever been so spoiled. My husband arranged to have 20 frozen dinners made by the women at church delivered to my freezer to enjoy whenever I didn’t feel like cooking. They disappeared fast! I was hoping it might become a thing, but 2 more birthdays have passed since and nothing. So, enjoy 40! I hope you were as spoiled as I was!
    I looked up the Top 20 song chart for June 1974, and Sundown by Gordon Lightfoot was #1, which is kind of appropriate since he’s a Canadian-born singer. But I like #20 best – One Hell of A Woman by Mac Davis. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love everything about this post! And oh, Christopher?! Judging by that outfit it looks like he could so easily have gone down the Rod, Jane and Freddy/Keith Chegwin route and not come back!

    And I LOVE your birthday number one, and I love that you know it. I also hoped mine would be something cool, but it’s Frankie Vali and the Four Seasons and ‘Oh What a Night’, and I’ve learned to accept and embrace that 🙂
    Hope you had a great day!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. 1. I have never heard of either of those books, and I have just put Pearls of Blood on my reading list;
    2. This is one of my most favourite blogs I follow;
    3. HAPPY BIRTHDAY;
    4. Leo raised a glass to you. I am heartbrokenly jealous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 1. I really hope you enjoy Petals of Blood, it’s so powerful.
      2. Thank you so much! Your blog is one of my favourites too, its always a good day when Becky Says Things 🙂
      3. Thank you – I had a great day and 40 is surprisingly tolerable so far…
      4. Leo raises a glass to all of us 😉

      Like

  9. Pingback: New Books So Far This Year – My Book Strings

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