“Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” (R. D. Laing)

Some friends of mine recently got married in a beautiful venue, which used to be a mental health hospital. A lovely time was had by all. People were struck at how nice it was, and it got me wondering: why? Were they expecting the institution to be grim in itself, or was it the thought that somehow all that pain remains and would be felt? It seemed to be a bit of both. Clearly the idea of a place where mental health is treated is a powerful one. It’s no surprise then, that it’s proved a tempting choice for writers, so it’s led me to this week’s theme of novels set in mental health units. Rest assured Reader: although powerful, neither of my choices are depressing. At this time of year it can feel like everyone’s mental health is under siege and we just don’t need it. In fact, here’s a little pick-me-up for us all:

On with books! Firstly, All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leao (2008, trans.Zoe Perry and Stefan Tobler 2013). This novella is only 107 pages long but it is one of the most affecting and powerful pieces I have ever read. Rodrigo de Souza Leao died in a psychiatric clinic in Rio de Janeiro in 2009, shortly after this was published. All Dogs Are Blue takes the reader into life inside such an institution, and does so with an unblinking gaze, humour, warmth and blistering truth.

The narrator is 36-year-old overweight man who has swallowed ‘a chip’ which alters his behaviour. This has led to his incarceration. There isn’t a plot, it wouldn’t make sense if there was. Instead, the narrator takes us through his daily experiences and reminiscences about his past.

“The Christian says hallelujah. She takes my hand. I take out my dick and can’t play snooker. I go back to my nine-by-twelve cubicle, where they put me to smile bayoneting my veins. Grab the flesh, stretch the flesh, shove another injection in.”

The narrator never tries to convince us of his sanity. Rather, we are given his world view, one which is sometimes shocking in its clarity amongst flights from reality:

“If it could bark and eat, what would a blue dog eat? Blue food? And if it got ill. Would it take blue medicine? A lot of medicines are blue, including Haldol. I take Haldol to be under no illusions that I’ll die mad one day, somewhere dirty, without any food.”

Despite detailing an individual in dire circumstances, All Dogs Are Blue is not a depressing book. This is because the narrator is resilient and self-aware, even as he experiences psychotic delusions. There is humour found in his hallucinatory companions, nineteenth century French writers:

“Rimbaud wasn’t used to modern stuff, He was a guy from another time. He had to learn everything. He’d never written another poem. But he was a good companion for wasting away the hours and for poker.”

Whereas Baudelaire can be a bit more moody.

De Souza Leao also writes with great beauty and poetry:

“Everything went green like the colour of my brother Bruno’s eyes and the colour of the sea. Rimbaud was happy and decided not to kill himself.

Everything went Van Gogh. The light of things changed.”

But the humour and the poetry do not detract from the pain. Rather, they capture it in the most effective way to draw you in to begin to understand an extreme experience that thankfully, most of us will not endure.

“I break everything because I’m made of shards and when the shards invite me to, I wreak havoc.”

Through an individual experience, the wider issue of how we treat the mentally ill is addressed. De Souza Leao doesn’t offer answers but he poses uncomfortable questions about institutionalised mental healthcare:

“Mostly, they only wanted you to keep your mouth shut all the time, like no-one deserved to hear you say anything noble or important.”

All Dogs Are Blue is a stunning, heartbreaking novella. It is also yet another example of the brilliant work being done by not-for-profit publishers And Other Stories bringing translated fiction to a wider audience.

Secondly, a novel which examines the impact on family when a member has enduring mental ill health, The Gravity of Love by Sara Stridsberg (2014, trans. Deborah Bragan-Turner 2016). I was inspired to pick this up after reading Kate’s wonderful review. It’s also another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Narrated by Jackie, it tells of her relationship with her alcoholic father Jim, who is an inpatient at Beckomberga Hospital in Stockholm. This was one of the largest mental health hospitals in Europe, but was closed in 1995 as the focus on care shifted to the community.

Image from here

Jackie finds herself drawn to her father and to the hospital, visiting repeatedly throughout her young life, despite the pain it causes.

“The light that has always been in his eyes is there no longer. The beautiful, terrifying desolate light that spilled over, illuminating the night around him and betraying a special kind of intensity and recklessness, something unstoppable, a raging fire, the sheerest drop.”

Stridsberg is excellent at capturing the complexities of loving someone who is hell-bent on self-destruction; the contradictory state whereby the person and what they seem to promise constantly shifts and hope of a better future never quite dies.

“All at once he sounds like the Jim I find so hard to remember, the way he was before the alcohol, before the devastation; if there really is such a thing as before.”

Jim is treated with compassion but the selfishness of his behaviour is not shied away from. He is the alcoholic but the disease that affects far more than just him:

“Every morning, a great despondency in his chest that stretches out like a wasteland. A blazing sun within him, his blood screaming for the warmed brandy running through his veins.”

Jackie makes highly questionable decisions herself and while this is clearly due to Jim’s impact on her life, Stridsberg is wise enough to present these decisions as they stand and not pull them apart in trite pseudo-psychological interpretations. We never entirely understand what draws Jackie relentlessly back to Beckomberga, because she doesn’t entirely understand it herself.

“Each time I walk through the hospital gates the rest of the world slides away, like the tide that recedes to lay bare another shoreline”

The Gravity of Love is about families, about how they make us who we are and how we make us who we are. Stridsberg explores a variety of familial relationships with great subtlety, but it is also a story of individuals’ relationships with institutions. Jackie’s relationship with Beckomberga is complex, and similarly, the inpatients’ relationship with the hospital is shown to be ambivalent, both supportive and restrictive:

“People say that former patients keep returning to Clock-House Park at Beckomberga, that they stand under the trees with their hands pressed on the sun-bleached walls, as if the institution’s heart were still beating within – a weak human pulse against my hand when I touch the faint blood-red colour of the façade.”

The fate of the last patient of the hospital, Olaf, is a sad one and this description of his experience just absolutely floored me:

 “He has always walked alone with the stamp of illness imprinted under his skin, visible to all apart from himself. Whenever he has approached a girl she has shied away. Every time he has offered his hand to someone it has been construed as hostile and he has been banished back to the hospital.”

Although very different from All Dogs Are Blue, Stridsberg is similarly challenging in her questions around how we treat mental illness: institutionally, societally, politically and individually. A beautifully written, poetic novel that never lets the style detract from the substance.

To end, I promised a return to 80s pop videos this week, and so I thought I’d pick an artist who has been very open about his struggles with bipolar disorder. The fact that I’ve been in love with him for 37 years is purely coincidental 😉

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“Adventure is just bad planning.” (Roald Amundsen, leader of the first expedition to reach the South Pole)

Happy New Year! My 2018 is rubbish so far but I’m hopeful of improvement – I’ve caught the horrible virus everyone is down with at the moment. According to fellow sufferer Rev. Richard Coles on twitter, it’s God’s way of telling you to watch a boxset.  My virus-addled brain can’t focus on the plot of a single episode of something at the moment, never mind a whole boxset (so this post may be even less coherent than usual). I’m fed up and bored and so I thought I’d look at people pushing themselves to physical extremes when I can’t even get off my sofa at the moment without a 5-point plan.  It will also be another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Off to Antarctica!

Firstly, The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (1991) which tells the story of Scott’s disastrous attempt to reach the South Pole. Five sections are narrated by different members of the party with Scott in the middle. It’s an effective approach, building a picture of the different personalities involved and the disintegration of their hopes.

Petty Officer Evans begins the tale, full of military loyalty to their leader.

“Being down a crevasse together is no excuse for stepping out of line. All I know is I’d die with the man, and for him, God help me, if the necessity arose.”

However, through Dr Wilson, Bainbridge articulates the changes taking place in society at the time of the expedition, just into the second decade of the twentieth century.

“All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule. The validity of the class system, the motives of respectable, educated men are now as much under scrutiny of the magnifying glass as the parasites feeding off the Scottish grouse.”

The men are clinging onto ideas in the face of unstoppable forces, both societally at home, and environmentally in the Antarctic. They are doomed to failure.

Scott takes up the middle portion of the book and Bainbridge brilliantly captures all his contradictions. He is arrogant yet doubtful, single-minded yet insightful.

“justifying my actions would have been simply no good for morale. Like it or not, and God knows, half the time I don’t, someone has to take the decisions – along with the consequences.”

His motivations are mixed. He claims it as a scientific expedition for Empire, yet is furious when he is beaten to the Pole.

“I came to sanity under Bill’s tuition. He wisely said I must continue as if nothing happened, as if Amundsen didn’t exist. It was unthinkable that our scientific projects should be sacrificed in a vulgar scramble to reach the Pole.”

Yet Bainbridge never allows us to despise his hubris. To do so would mean we lose our empathy with the men who he led to their deaths, and the novel would lose its enormous emotional power. As Lieutenant Bowers observes:

“I think I know what ails the Owner. He’s absolutely sound as regards what’s right, but he lacks conviction. He simply isn’t stupid enough to be convinced his is the only way. In the circumstances, it’s a dangerous trait.”

That’s not say that by the time we get to sceptical, reticent Oates, I wasn’t pleased to hear someone expressing their anger and frustration at their leader.

“I’ve never known such a man for making mistakes and shifting the blame onto others.”

However, as the nearness of death, their body parts rotting, the tedium of days desperately clinging to life in an inhospitable landscape starts to send them all insane with desperation, even Oates admits:

“Truth to tell, I think he was the only one among us capable of making any decisions.”

Bainbridge is a wonderful writer and even though we know what happened, she still manages to create tension and drama from the men’s horrific situation. She is also able to capture the landscape as beautifully and evocatively as she does the men’s psychology.

“Those who envisage this place as nothing more than a godforsaken plateau of ice and snow are mistaken. For one there are outcrops of jet-black rock about which the wind blows so fiercely the snow can never settle; and for another, the ice, being subject to reflections of sun and sea, is never purely white but tinged with rose and cobalt-blue and every shade of violet, the whole set against skies, days or night, that run through all the colours of the spectrum.”

The Birthday Boys is a short novel (181 pages) but none the less for it. It is Bainbridge at the height of her powers and as such, it is immense.

Secondly, a quick foray into Antarctica by Claire Keegan (1999) because I’ve got quite carried away with Beryl. This is Keegan’s first collection of short stories and it’s remarkably assured with a strong narrative voice. I actually found the titular story the weakest, but I suspect maybe it’s dated a wee bit. My favourite stories in the collection were those set in rural Ireland. The Ginger Rogers Sermon was devastating. The narrator is a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, living on her parents farm in a place where there’s not much to do.

Don’t ask me why we called him Slapper Jim. My mother stamped his image in my head, and I was at an age when pictures of a man precede the man himself. The posters verify: Thin Lizzie with a V of chest exposed, Pat Spillane’s legs racing across my bedroom wall…I was the girl with the sweet tooth and a taste for men.”

The taste for men is problematic when you have feelings and knowledge, but not a great deal of understanding. Adulthood is approaching rapidly but childhood also lingers:

“Now that I am thirteen I am sectioned off from men. It happens in school too, in gym class. I play basketball and jump over hurdles and come back all red-faced and sweaty and talk non-stop in class. Nobody sits beside me because I smell like an afterbirth. I wear the pads and Lily of the Valley and go dancing down the pub. Slapper Jim is always there with the bantam. I waltz around in the cigarette smoke with old men my father knows.”

This is the tone of The Ginger Rogers Sermon exactly: matter-of-fact, unsentimental, funny and sad. A tragedy occurs, arising from disturbing circumstances, yet the ending contains some hope. As in many of Keegan’s stories, things are unresolved and the story is stronger for it.

Keegan has spent time in the States and some of her stories are set there. The final one, Passport Soup, is one of these, a sad tale of the parents of a missing child. Keegan is brilliant at capturing deep feeling without melodrama, in beautiful but sparse prose:

“Frank Corso has lost his appetite. He pushes his plate aside and gets up and puts the milk carton with his daughter’s photograph back in the refrigerator and goes to bed. The sheets are cold. He hears a wedge of snow fall from the eaves of the roof onto the drift beneath the window. Snow falling, compounding cold. Daylight bleaches the walls before he finally sleeps.”

This is a powerful collection of stories, and if you’re not keen on short stories but want to give them a go, it’s a good place to start. Keegan absolutely understands the form, she doesn’t waste a word. Unfortunately, she seems to publish rarely: her second collection came 8 years later, followed after another 3 years by a stand-alone ‘long short story’. That’s not a criticism though – quality like this is worth waiting for.

To end, a tasteful video for once (clearly I really am ill), narrated by the insurpassable Sir David & full of arresting images (normal cheesy service will resume next week):

“Is solace anywhere more comforting than that in the arms of a sister?” (Alice Walker)

October is Black History Month in the UK, so here is a little contribution, two wonderful novels by black women that I want to gush about 😊

Firstly, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (2015), a remarkably accomplished debut novel, set in the years during & immediately after the Biafran civil war.

Ijeoma loses her beloved father in the war:

“Uzo. It was the kind of name I’d have liked to fold up and hold in the palm of my hand, if names could be folded and held that way. So that if I were ever lost, all I’d have to do would be to open up my palm and allow the name, like a torchlight, to show me the way.”

Her mother struggles to cope with her grief and so Ijeoma is sent away, and it is then that she meets Amina. The young women’s mutual attraction is problematic within their highly religious society (not only are they gay, but Ijeoma is a Christian Igbo while Amina is a Muslim Hausa), and so their secret romance is always tempered with the knowledge that they could be torn apart at any moment:

“When our lips finally met, she kissed me hungrily, as if she’d been waiting for this all along. I breathed in the scent of her, deeply, as if to take in an excess of it, as if to build a reserve for that one day when she would be gone.”

Ijeoma’s sexuality forces her to question much that forms the foundation of her life in Nigeria, not least the religion she has been brought up to and educated within.

“Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories? Woman was created for man, yes. But why did that mean woman could not also have been created for another woman? Or man for another man? Infinite possibilities, and each one of them perfectly viable.”

Being gay is a dangerous thing for Ijeoma and the threat is very real; at one point a club she is in is raided. The women hide in a bunker left over from the war, but one who doesn’t make it is brutally murdered. Okparanta captures the fallout from the war and the ongoing violence faced by gay Nigerians in a dramatic but never sensationalist way. Under these pressures, Ijeoma tries to lead a conventional life but it unsurprisingly leads to true misery for all those involved:

“I acknowledge to myself that sometimes I am a snail. I move myself by gliding. I contract my muscles and produce a slime of tears. Sometimes you see the tears and sometimes you don’t. It is my tears that allow me to glide. I glide slowly. But, slowly, I glide. It is a while before I am gone.”

Under the Udala Trees is very much rooted in a particular country at a particular time, but it has something to say as well that is beyond the specific. It is most definitely about the continued criminalisation of gay people in Nigeria, and it is also about how all of us have to question the beliefs and structures we are raised within, and find our own way to be free:

“That tethering way in which the familiar manages to grab ahold of us and pin us down.”

This is an accomplished first novel, and Okparanta is a wise writer. She creates beautiful prose, compelling characters and a well-paced story, and she has important things to say about the world and those of us in it.

“Sometimes it is hard to know to whom the tragedy really belongs.”

I’m excited to see what she does next.

Secondly, The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (1972, trans. Barbara Bray 2015), and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

I wanted to read this after seeing Claire’s wonderful review at Word by Word (over a year ago – I get there in the end…) My copy is the New York Review of Books edition, which I recommend for a sensitive, enthusiastic introduction by Jamaica Kincaid.

Narrated by Telumee, it tells the story of her life on the island of Guadeloupe, and the women she is descended from. The opening paragraph is just beautiful:

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane-swept, mosquito-ridden island.  But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing in my garden, just like any other old woman of my age, til death comes and takes me as I dream. Me and all my joy.”

Part One tells the story of her mother Victory, and her grandmother, Queen With No Name, who raises Telumee. Her great-grandmother was a freed slave and her descendants have lives which are hard and with more than their fair share of grief, but also with moments of love and joy.  After her father is stabbed, Telumee’s mother is swamped in grief, until she falls in love again. She doesn’t want her young daughter living with them, and so Telumee goes to live with Queen Without Name:

“Grandmother was past the age for bending over the white man’s earth binding canes, weeding and hoeing, withstanding the wind, and pickling her body in the sun as she had done all her life. It was her turn to be an elder; the level of her life had fallen; it was now a thin trickle flowing slowly among the rocks, just a little stirring every day, a little effort and a little reward.”

Telumee grows up in the loving home of her grandmother but Queen Without Name cannot protect her from making a disastrous marriage. Telumee survives though, and The Bridge of Beyond is a tale of overcoming adversity, of finding strength within yourself that you didn’t know you had, and of drawing on the strength of other women to help you endure.

“Through all her last days Grandmother was whistling up a wind for me, to fill my sails so that I could resume my voyage.”

Schwarz-Bart is a beautiful writer who captures an individual voice compassionately without descending into cliché. I’ll definitely be looking to read more of her work.

“That’s why I have a lot of love and good energy in me – that universal energy is a Ghanaian thing.” (Stormzy)

6 March this year was the 60th anniversary of Ghana’s independence from British rule.

Celebrations are going on throughout the year and those of you who follow Darkowaa’s excellent blog African Book Addict! will have seen her 3-part series GH at 60 | Our Writers & Their Books which looked at 75 Ghanaian writers and certainly caused my TBR to reach even more astronomical heights. As an attempt to reduce the mountain by at least 2, this week I’m looking at 2 novels by writers of Ghanaian heritage. It’s also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Happy Anniversary Ghana!

Firstly, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (2011) which was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize (as it then was) and the Booker, and won the Giller Prize. Narrated by jazz musician Sid Griffiths, it tells the story of jazz prodigy Hieronymous Falk, a 19 year old ‘Mischling’ (half white European, half black African) and the band he plays in, trying to carry on working in Europe under threat from the Nazis during the Second World War. The narrative shifts between 1939-40 in the build up to when Hiero is arrested and sent to a concentration camp; and 1992, where Sid and his frenemy Chip attend a documentary about Hiero and then undertake a journey to Poland.

“See, Half Blood Blues, 3 min 33 secs, is almost all I got out of that time. I ain’t sore about it. Ain’t no glory made from being dependable. But it started Chip’s career a second time. Jolted the man awake again. And, well, it made Hiero one of them most famous jazz trumpeters of his generation.”

The documentary and journey force Sid to look back on probably the most complex, confusing time of his life. He was a young man, there was sexual jealousy and musical rivalry, and there is survivors’ guilt. Sid could pass for white and had fake papers, but at what price?

“So we passed, sure. But there was passing, and there was passing. Sometimes it seemed like we’d passed right out of own skins.”

Edugyan captures the terror of living under Nazi occupation while the band await papers to get them out of France:

“I was crying soundlessly. I dragged my damn face against my sleeve, feeling ashamed. I ain’t never thought fear had a taste. It does. In that small darkness it was a thing filling my nostrils, thick as sand in my throat, and I near choked on it.”

She also writes evocatively about the music of the band, something which is essentially impossible to capture in words:

“Wasn’t like nothing I ever heard before. The kid came in at a strange angle, made the notes glitter like crystal.”

Half Blood Blues offers a well-researched, evocative portrayal of a time that has been well-documented but from a perspective that has been underrepresented: black experience in World War II. Hiero remains an enigma throughout the tale and so we don’t hear of black experience in the concentration camps but rather as artists declared enemies of the state. The novel never falters under the weight of its research however, and it is psychologically astute:

“I guess mercy is a muscle like any other. You got to exercise it, or it just cramp right up.”

Sid does not behave well at times and his selfish actions have tragic ramifications. However, Edugyan is merciful to her characters and ultimately Half Blood Blues is about redemption, forgiveness and acceptance of ourselves and others. I found the end really moving which meant I got a little teary on the tube – but there’s usually someone having a cry on the Underground so it drew very little attention 😉

Secondly, Homegoing, the debut novel by Yaa Gyasi (2016). Recently I’ve found that contemporary novels garnering hype and rapturous reviews are leaving me distinctly underwhelmed so I approached Homegoing with some trepidation. But I will add to the hype surrounding this novel by suggesting I think it deserved #ALLTHEPLAUDITS. It was hugely ambitious, and I thought Gyasi totally pulled it off, which is just astonishing considering it’s her first novel.

It begins in the eighteenth century with separated sisters in the Gold Coast (part of modern day Ghana):

“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.”

Effia is taken to a fort, The Castle, to become the mistress of a British commander (ie slave trader):

“her whole life Baaba had beat her and made her feel small, and she had fought back with her beauty, a silent weapon, but a powerful one, which had led her to the feet of a chief.”

Her sister Esi meanwhile, is trapped in the dungeons of The Castle, to be exported as part of the slave trade.

“[He] had grown accustomed to the smell of shit, but fear was one smell that would stand out forever. It curled his nose and brought tears to his eyes, but he had learned long ago how to keep himself from crying.”

They don’t know about one another, and subsequent chapters alternate between the stories of their descendants, some in Ghana, some in the United States. Each generation is tracked through, and Gyasi demonstrates that just because slavery ends, the subjugation and marginalisation of people of colour does not.

“The British had no intention of leaving Africa, even once the slave trade ended. They owned the Castle, and, though they had yet to speak it aloud, they intended to own the land as well.”

Gyasi’s ambition is huge: Homecoming tracks over 200 years of history to demonstrate how the legacy of slavery survives to this day.  That she does this through a compelling story with people you care about despite only being with them for a chapter marks her out as a formidable storyteller.

 “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.”

At times I found Homecoming an almost unbearable read. The injustice, the violence, the depravity of what human beings can do to one another, turning a blind eye in the acquisition of money, made it an incredibly tough read in places. Gyasi does not dwell on violence, but nor does she shy away from the realities of what she is depicting.

 “The older Jo got, the more he understood…that sometimes staying free required unimaginable sacrifice.”

Gyasi is a huge talent, and a writer with something important to say. I’m really excited to see what she does next.

Happy 60th Birthday Ghana!

“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….

“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible” (Javier Pascual Salcedo)

Last week I looked at politics with a big P; this week I thought I’d look at politics with a small p, the civil servants and bureaucrats that keep the machine turning. Hence one novel about a postman and one about a clerk, and two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Firstly, The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault (2005, trans. Liedewy Hawke, 2008) which I first heard about over at Naomi’s blog Consumed by Ink – do check out her review! This novella (108 pages) is a wee gem. It tells the story of Bilodo, the titular mail deliverer, who loves his job.

“He wouldn’t have wanted to swap places with anyone in the world, Except perhaps with another postman.”

He spends his days delivering mail and practising calligraphy, and his nights steaming open the (increasingly rare) personal letters which he subsequently delivers the next day. He is a loner who enjoys the drama of life at a step removed:

“Love in every grammatical form and every possible tone, dished up in every imaginable shape: passionate letters or courteous ones, sometimes suggestive and sometimes chaste, either calm or dramatic, occasionally violent, often lyrical, and especially moving when the feelings were expressed in simple terms, and never quite as touching as  when the emotions hid between the lines, burning away almost invisibly behind a screen of innocuous words.”

Eventually though, he comes to obsess about one correspondence only, that between Segolene, a teacher in Guadalupe, and Gaston, a Canadian poet, which takes place through an exchange of haikus. Gradually Bilodo’s life becomes narrower and narrower as he is convinced he is in love with Segolene:

“Bilodo dreamt, and wished for nothing else; he wanted only to continue on like this, to keep savouring the dazzling dreams and ecstatic visions Segolene’s words conjured up for him. His only desire was that the pleasant status quo might endure, that nothing would disturb his quiet bliss.”

Needless to say, the status quo does not endure. Rather Bilodo’s life starts to rapidly unravel and reconstruct in a way that challenges who he is and his sense of self. I can’t say too much more for fear of spoilers in such a short book, but it is a beautifully written tale that has stayed with me.  Miraculously, Bilodo seems sad and misguided rather than creepy and disturbing.  The haikus are a great touch and a surprising source of comedy as Bilodo tries his hand and fails miserably. It’s most certainly a peculiar tale, melancholy yet playful, and with a truly surprising ending.

Secondly, All the Names by Nobel Prize- winning author Jose Saramago (1997, trans. Margaret Jull Costa, 1999). Superficially at least, this has many similarities with The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman. A male loner becomes obsessed with a woman he has never met, and his life is increasingly consumed in the quest for knowledge of her, whilst remaining removed from the woman herself. But All the Names has a very different feel to it, almost fabulist and bordering on the surreal.

Senhor Jose works in the Central Registry for Births, Marriages and Deaths. He thinks of himself as elderly although he’s only in his 50s, and is a reliable, unobstrusive worker.

“the Registry contains a record of everything and everyone, thanks to the persistent efforts of an unbroken line of great registrars, all that is most sublime and most trivial about public office has been brought together, the qualities that make the civil servant a creature apart, both usufructuary and dependent on the physical and mental space defined by the reach of his pen nib.”

However, Senhor Jose secretly flouts the Registry’s rules, by compiling records of celebrities, tracking the events in their lives and using the Registry’s documents to do so. In such a regimented place where everyone follows numerous rules, customs and protocols, the increased use of file documents is noted. At this point though, Senhor Jose accidently takes the file card of a perfectly ordinary woman, and subsequently becomes obsessed with piecing together her life without arousing the suspicions of his monolith employer.

“One of the many mysteries in life in the Central Registry, which really would be worth investigating if the matter of Senhor Jose and the unknown woman had not absorbed all our attention, was how the staff, despite the traffic jams affecting the city, always managed to arrive at work in the same order, first the clerks, regardless of length of service, then the deputy who opened the door, then the senior clerks, in order of precedence, then the oldest deputy, and finally, the Registrar, who arrives when he has to arrive and does not have to answer to anyone. Anyway, the fact stands recorded.”

As Senhor Jose pieces together the woman’s history, Saramago is able to explore enormous themes around life, death, purpose, memorial, memory, the state and individual free will. He does so with such wit and humanity that it is never a heavy going, but rather a careful balance of compassion and absurdity which makes for an unsettling, though-provoking read.

“There was almost an absolute silence, you could scarcely hear the noise made by the few cars still out and about in the city. What you could hear most clearly was a muffled sound that rose and fell, like a distant bellows, but Senhor Jose was used to that, it was the Central Registry breathing.”

To end, I know Pete Burns is singing about vinyl not paper, but there are surprisingly few pop songs about administrative record-keeping:

“Let it snow!” (Dean Martin)

Or, you know, don’t.  A friend of mine from the east coast of America asked me last week why all the weather reports in the UK were focussing on snowmageddon when really, very little happened. A German colleague is baffled every year by our total inability to deal with anything above a flurry. I have no answers for them. What I do have, in honour of the snow that barely made an appearance last week, is novels where there is serious snow. Snow that means business. Snow you have to dig yourself out of. If only because then I get to include this gif:

199676-penguin-in-the-snow

Firstly Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson (2010, tr.2015 Quentin Bates 2015). I’m not a huge reader of crime fiction set any time after the middle of the last century, but I was convinced by the enthusiastic reviews of FictionFan and Sarah from Hard Book Habit, and the promise that this was like a golden age crime novel but with a contemporary, Icelandic setting (the author translated Agatha Christie into Icelandic when he was 17).

Rookie copper Ari Thor Arason leaves Reykjavik and his girlfriend behind to take a posting in the remote town of Siglufjordur, in the far north of Iceland. A place so small you don’t need to drive to get around, and only accessible via a mountain pass.

“On the right were the snow white mountains, magnificent and formidable, while on the other side was a terrifying, sheer drop onto the expanse of Skagafjordur. One mistake on a patch of ice and there would be no tomorrow…he relaxed as the tunnel entrance finally approached. They had made it all the way in one piece. But his relief was short-lived. He expected a broad, well-lit modern tunnel, but what lay in front of him looked forbidding. It was a narrow single track. Ari Thor later learned it had been carved through the mountainside more than forty years ago when there were only a few tunnels in Iceland. It didn’t help that water dripped here and there from the unseen rock ceiling above. Ari Thor suddenly felt himself struck by a feeling he had never experienced before – an overwhelming claustrophobia.”

As Ari Thor settles into life in place where everyone knows everyone and no-one locks their doors, a local celebrity falls down some stairs whilst drunk and dies (or did he? or was he?) When a woman is found close to death, bleeding out in the snow in her garden, the police start to suspect that the two may be linked. As “every winter is a heavy winter in Siglufjordur”, the mountain pass is soon made unpassable through an avalanche, and so essentially what  Jonasson has done is use the snow to create a claustrophobic, tense, locked-room murder mystery (please commend me on my enormous restraint in avoiding snow-based puns like ‘chilling’ or ‘unsettling’, despite the fact it is both those things).

Snowblind is a short novel (252 pages in my edition) and so I can’t say much more without spoilers. What I will say is that it feels resolutely contemporary with references to the financial crash which devastated Iceland at the time (although for the once-busy port of Siglufjordur, “if there’s a recession here, it comes from the sea”) whilst at the same time being part of a tradition of non-gory, page-turning whodunits. Siglufjordur itself is wonderfully evoked, with a real sense of place created, whilst at the same time becoming a fictional other, and somewhat eerie.

Siglufjordur

Siglufjordur

Image from here

“This peaceful little town was being compressed by the snow, no longer a familiar winter embrace but a threat like never before. The white was no longer pure, but tinged blood red.”

Secondly, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg (1992, tr. F David 1993) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit (new year’s resolution from now on – stop being so euro-centric with this challenge). I distinctly remember all the hype around this novel when it first came out. Not that I’m slow on the uptake, but 24 years later, I’ve finally read it. These days we are awash with antisocial-genius detectives but back in the day Smilla Jaspersen may have been more of a novelty:

“I feel the same way about solitude as some people feel about the blessing of the church. It’s the light of grace for me.”

Smilla does need people, even if she doesn’t like to admit it, and when her neighbour, six year old  Isiah, falls to his death from a roof, she is galvanised to act:

“Isiah’s death is an irregularity, an eruption that produced a fissure. That fissure has set me free. For a brief time, and I can’t explain how, I have been set in motion, I have become a foreign body skating on top of the ice.”

Smilla, half-Greenlandic, can read the snow and she knows Isiah’s last footprints tell a different story to the one the authorities are spinning. This is a theme throughout the novel, which is as much a commentary on post-colonial power structures as it a detective story. Smilla has a history of far left political activism and is not easily cowed by those trying to silence her. I found her a believable, idiosyncratic heroine and really enjoyed her matter-of-fact voice:

 “The knives I keep in my apartment are just sharp enough to open envelopes with… I don’t need anything sharper. Otherwise, on bad days, it might easily occur to me that I could always go and stand in the bathroom and slit my throat. Against such a contingency it’s nice to have the added security of needing to go downstairs and borrow a decent knife from a neighbour.”

My quibble would be that I thought the story lost momentum a bit when Smilla left Denmark and journeyed towards Greenland; I think the return to the land of her childhood was inevitable so maybe it needed a heavier edit earlier in the novel. But overall, an intriguing premise for an intelligent mystery with a strong political message.

“Reading snow is like listening to music. To describe what you’ve read is to try and explain music in writing.”

To end, the unintentionally hilarious trailer for the film adaptation. So very earnest, so very heavy-handed 😀  (and yet still following the Hollywood tradition of whitewashing, unless Julia Ormond is part-indigenous Greenlander?)