“Killing Me Softly” (Roberta Flack)

Hello bookish blogosphere! I’ve been away for what feels like a long time. June and July were a big pile of pants and I needed a step back from things. I want to say thank you to the lovely bloggers who contacted me to ask if I was OK, when I really wasn’t. Your kindness genuinely meant a lot.

I’ve only just started reading again after about six long weeks of being unable to digest a single written word. Some very strange things have happened to my reading; I couldn’t deal with fiction for a while so I finally got round to reading some of the biographies that have languished in my TBR for aeons. Then having got back to fiction I’ve started with a subject about as far from my usual fare as its possible to be: serial killers. Except neither novel is really about serial killers…

Firstly, My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2017). This made quite a splash when it came out and I remember large, eye-catching posters on the tube, back when commuting was a thing. It’s a quick read and it was that reason that made me pick up this debut, thinking it was a good way to try and get back into reading.

My logic worked well, and I whizzed through this tale of a murderous sibling, narrated by Korede, a young successful nurse whose talent for cleaning comes in handy when helping her sister Ayoola cover up her deeds.

The novel starts in media res as Ayoola contacts Korede to ask for help having killed her third boyfriend in self-defence. Ayoola is completely oblivious to the seriousness of her crimes and seems to feel no remorse. Although Korede loyally helps her, she is beginning to have doubts as to the nature of Ayoola’s self-defence.

“ ‘Do you not realise the gravity of what you have done? Are you enjoying this?’ I grab a tissue and hand it to her, then take some for myself.

Her eyes go dark and she begins to twirl her dreadlocks.

‘These days you look at me like I’m a monster.’ Her voice is so low, I can barely hear her.

‘I don’t think you’re – ‘

‘This is victim shaming you know.’”

The novel isn’t graphic and the details of the killings are not dwelt on – thankfully, if you’re as squeamish as me. Instead what Braithwaite explores is a complex relationship between sisters and the impact of patriarchal systems on young women. It’s set in Nigeria but the themes certainly resonated with me as a UK reader.

Korede and Ayoola grew up with a violent father and it his weapon that Ayoola uses:

“ ‘The knife is important to me Korede. It is all I have left of him.’

Perhaps if it were someone else at the receiving end of this show of sentimentality, her words would hold some weight. But she cannot fool me.”

No-one questions Ayoola because she is beautiful, no-one pays attention to Korede because she is average looking. Both women suffer under a society that commodifies women, even though Korede is successful in her career as a nurse and Ayoola is a talented clothes designer.

A doctor where Korede works, Tade, seems to be decent but even he follows the predictable path of not noticing what Korede can offer and falling for Ayoola’s looks, projecting his fantasies onto her.

“ ‘She is beautiful and perfect. I never wanted to be with someone this much.’

I rub my forehead with my fingers. He fails to point out the fact that she laughs at the silliest things and never holds a grudge. He doesn’t mention how quick she is to cheat at games or that she can hemstitch a skirt without looking at her fingers. He doesn’t know her best features or her…darkest secrets. And he doesn’t seem to care.”

Ayoola dating Tade adds tension to the narrative – will she try to kill him? Will Korede try to save the man she has feelings for? Who will succeed?

Sometimes satire can leave a bitter taste, but MSTSK avoids this with it’s dry humour and lack of preachiness. It doesn’t attempt crass psychology as to why both women are as they are, it simply presents their lives and upbringing and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions. This light touch means it raises serious issues about contemporary society without losing sight of characters or plot. An impressive debut.

Secondly, Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu (2008, trans. Marina Sofia 2020) which was sent to me by the lovely Marina Sofia who blogs over at Finding Time to Write. She has translated this novel under Corylus Books, the publishing house which she has founded with three others.

MSTSK used a serial killer to satirise patriarchal systems, and Sword uses it in a similar way to satirise political systems. Set in Romania, it forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit who sadly don’t seem to be blogging any more.

Someone is killing Roma people in Bucharest using the titular weapon. There is no apparent motive – except presumably a racist one – and the murders have a competence to them which means the police investigation has very little to go on. This isn’t a police procedural though, and very little of the story is given over to the murders themselves (again, thankfully…) aside from the first. Instead Teodorescu uses the murders to explore the power systems in place in Romania and how this exposes the weaknesses and motivations of those within.

If that sounds dry, it really isn’t. The story whips along and the portrayals of power players feel authentic (Teodorescu is a political analyst). Early on, the petty concerns of Istrate, Head of Comms and Press Relations at the Presidential Office, demonstrate the disregard that the deaths receive. He only likes the social side and travel associated with his job, and the President hates him and so has set up another press office.

“He was briefly tempted to write a report complaining about the lack of professionalism in his team. Instead of getting reports about major problems, the international situation, global crises that could destabilise the Balkan region, an in-depth political analysis, he had to put up with silly homicide stories! He gave up reading the press summary, but resolved to complain about it the next time he met the President.”

The government is concerned, but only in trying to balance appealing to those who might welcome vigilante justice represented by Sword (as the press have nicknamed the killer) because he only kills criminals, and how it will look internationally that they haven’t caught him. The advice given to the Minister of the Interior suggests how to manage the situation in a pre-election year:

“A few heads rolling at all levels in the police force should demonstrate the government is taking things seriously. Admittedly, it also demonstrates how incompetent the police are, but no-one worries about that too much.”

Despite such machinations, the murders continue to rack up and tensions in the country between various groups escalate. The context of Romania finding its place in international capitalist systems after the fall of communism is evoked well but it doesn’t take much imagination – if any – to see parallels across different political systems. I felt this could just as easily be Westminster. There’s something depressingly universal about someone with integrity being forced aside for political expediency:

“ ‘It’s not anger. It’s profound sadness. Because you’ve proven to me yet again that it’s not good enough to be qualified, professional, well-intentioned and to work your socks off… it still won’t get you the respect you deserve.’”

Sword is incisive and uncompromising in its portrayal of corruption and the powerless victims of such systems, but its not depressing. Instead I found it a compelling read and I’d definitely be interested to read more by this author.

Writing this post was difficult as I’m so out of practice, but to end it’s business as usual with an obvious late twentieth century pop choice 😀

“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 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.

“I’m the greatest thing that ever lived! I’m the king of the world! I’m a bad man. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.” (Muhammad Ali)

As usual, I’m a bit behind the times: here is my post to commemorate the death of Olympian/activist/philanthropist/iconic legend Muhammad Ali on 3 June, whose memorial was last Friday.

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Image from here

I thought I would therefore theme this post around ‘greatest’.  Just over a week ago Lisa McInerney won this year’s Bailey’s Prize for her debut novel The Glorious Heresies, so I’ve decided to look at Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which won the Baileys (then the Orange) in 1997 and was chosen as the prize’s Best of the Best in 2015. I’ve paired it with Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie which won the 1981 Booker, and then in 1993 (25 years of the Booker) and 2008 (40 years of the Booker),  it won the Best of the Bookers (the latter by public vote). They are also two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit– away we go!

Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria during the civil war of the 1960s, when there was an attempt to establish Biafra as an independent nation. Focusing on two sisters, Olanna and Kainene, their partners Odenigbo and Richard, and Olanna and Odenigbo’s houseboy Ugwu, the war is explored through its varied but monumental impact on all their lives.

Before the war, Olanna and Odenigbo live a privileged middle class life in the university town of Nsukka, entertaining in the evenings with friends who debate issues of post-colonial identity:

“‘I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different from as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.’”

Ugwu joins them and is mesmerised by their sophistication, and the worlds they open for him through the books they provide. However, Adichie shows that the legacy of colonialism is deep-rooted:

“Master’s English was music, but what Ugwu was hearing now, from this woman, was magic. Hers was a superior language, a luminous language, the kind her heard on Master’s radio, rolling out with clipped precision. It reminded him of slicing a yam with a newly sharpened knife, the easy perfection in every slice.”

As the Igbo people try to establish Biafra and civil war escalates, Olanna, Odenigbo and Ugwu’s lives are ripped apart and Adichie does not pull her punches. There is forced conscription, rape as a weapon, starvation and mutilation. However, there is also reconciliation between the estranged sisters, and Adichie’s focus is not on horrors but on how the human spirit survives against overwhelming odds:

“The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die.”

Adichie is a hugely popular and successful author, and I feel the hype is fully deserved: she’s a brilliant writer. I whizzed through this book – she manages to write a compelling, political, angry, compassionate and highly moving page-turner. What a feat.

Half of a Yellow Sun was adapted into a film in 2013, apparently not that successfully despite a seemingly perfect cast including smoking hot eye candy hugely talented actor Chiwetel Ejiofor:

On to Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981) which like Half of a Yellow Sun was the author’s second novel: so much for the ‘difficult second novel’ theory. It’s taken me about twenty years to read Midnight’s Children, which works out as 6% of a page per day. It’s been quite a ride.

rhpsf

I jest of course, but it did take me 3 goes spread over 20 years to get into this novel.  Normally I would have resigned it to the DNF pile (which is tiny, my TBR aspires to be that size one day – never going to happen) but I kept persevering because people who loved it really loved it and it always cropped up on various book lists (including Le Monde’s , which forms one of my reading challenges).

Now that I’ve read it, I can’t say I loved it – something about Rushdie’s style meant this was always a tough read for me – but I did find it impressive. Midnight’s Children is hugely ambitious, tackling themes around nation-making, history writing, colonialism and culture. Seemingly impossible within one novel, but Rushdie and his massive brain are clearly equal to the task. The story is narrated by Saleem Sinai who is born on the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947, the exact moment that India gained independence from Britain.

“Thanks to the occult tyrannies if those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape.”

Saleem’s story, and that of his family, becomes the story of the nation of India. The novel makes heavy use of magical realism, and I think this is Rushdie’s masterstroke. It would be impossible to explore such enormous themes and multiple events if the novel were entirely grounded in a recognisable reality. By allowing for magic realism, Rushdie can take the story in any direction he needs to.

Saleem discovers that all the children born into India between midnight and 1am on the day of Independence have special powers – his own being telepathy, powered by his enormous nose and blocked sinuses (told you there was magic realism).

“the children of midnight were also the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history. It can happen. Especially in a country which is itself a sort of dream.”

“Midnight has many children; the offspring of Independence were not all human, Violence, corruption, poverty, generals, chaos, greed and pepperpots…I had to go into exile to learn that the children of midnight were more varied than I – even I – had dreamed.”

Saleem is a self-acknowledged unreliable narrator. His memory fails him at times, regarding both events in his own life and those in the wider political history of India. What Rushdie is questioning is the narratives we are all within – family, nation, history, culture – and how there is no one reality for any of us.

“Family history, of course, has its proper dietary laws. One is supposed to swallow and digest only the permitted parts of it, the halal portions of the past, drained of their redness, their blood. Unfortunately this makes the story less juicy, so I am about to become the first and only member of my family to flout the laws of halal. Letting no blood escape from the body of the tale, I arrive at the unspeakable part; and, undaunted, press on.”

I realise I may have made Midnight’s Children sound like a heavy read, and in some ways it is, but it also has a gentle humour running through it to lighten the tone.  I’ve certainly never read anything else like it.

“One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell is overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth”

To end, I can’t help wishing the dress code for book award ceremonies was monochrome cat suits and that winners collected their awards by emerging from a fog of dry ice: