Behold the Dreamers: Imbolo Mbue

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How many people have travelled to the United States over the centuries, hoping to live the American dream? It is the Holy Grail for so many, and often as unattainable as the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end.

Jende Jonga and his wife Nemi are a Cameroonian couple who come to New York in search of a better life. But although Jende has papers that allow him to work and Neni is studying to be a pharmacist, their request for asylum has still not been granted.

Jende gets a job as a driver with Clark Edwards, a director at Lehman Brothers. Meanwhile, Nemi works for Clark’s wife, Cindy, when she needs extra help. The lives of the two couples intertwine with the Jongas being privy to the Edwards’ secrets. Their marriage seems perfect on the surface, but it is starting to fall apart. Lehman Brothers is on the verge of collapse, and Clark’s job is at stake. With the fall of the company, things come to a head, with far-reaching consequences for all of them.

By portraying two families on either side of the social divide, Mbue highlights the contrasts and the parallels between the two worlds. The contrast is set up in the first three pages of the book, when Jende goes to Clark’s office for a job interview. He is nervous: so much depends on Clark hiring him. Jende has got himself a new suit and a resumé, which a volunteer career consultant had written for him. But when he is shown into Clark’s office, Clark barely looks up from the shredder: for him, Jende is yet another applicant.

Power relationships play a major role in this book, and not just between employer and employee. They also exist between couples. The fates of both Nemi and Cindy are determined by their husbands and the decisions they make. Being in America exposes Nemi to another way of life but, in the end, it does not really free her. “This helplessness crushed her, the fact that she had travelled to America only to be reminded of how powerless she was, how unfair life could be.”

This debut novel from Mbue, a Cameroonian writer, is impressive. It is well-written and perceptive, not just about the immigrant experience but more generally about human nature. The characters are all too real and drawn with empathy: no one is evil or purely good. This is much-needed book, especially at a time when it has become easy to judge others without taking the time to listen to their stories. It is a reminder that we all have stories.

Harilal & Sons: Sujit Saraf

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Beginning in 1899 when India was still under British rule, this sprawling narrative takes us through the country’s independence and partition in 1947 and ends in 1972, following the creation of Bangladesh.

At the centre of the story is Harilal, a Marwari[1] merchant. When the story opens, Harilal is 12 years old. He lives in Shekhavati in Rajasthan (northwest India), a village ravaged by drought, where he helps his father in his grain store. This is a time when children were expected to become adults much earlier than they do now. They were married at 12—the age when boys were expected to start work—although the couple did not live together until the girl was 17.

But Hari is restless. He is fascinated by an abandoned haveli, a mansion constructed by Daulatram, a rich merchant. The haveli is beautiful with frescos on its outer walls that depict a world outside Shekhavati. But Daulatram has never lived in it, having died the day it was completed. Hari’s father says that the haveli is a testament to a man who had overreached himself. Marwaris are supposed to be frugal and hide their wealth, not flaunt it by building large, lavish houses.

But the haveli and its frescos spark something in Hari. He knows that his dreams will not be contained in this dry, dusty village. He meets Hemraj Biyani, who runs Daulatram’s business, and talks him into giving him a job in Calcutta. Before leaving, Hari is married to 11-year-old Parmeshwari.

Calcutta is a world away from Shekhavati. Hari cannot believe the abundance of this fertile land. He works for Biyani, running errands for him. Slowly, his confidence builds and he starts to trade for an Englishman. He joins a group of men who bet (illegally) on whether it will rain or not and finds he has a talent for predicting the weather. But the British authorities crack down on illegal betting, and Hari has to leave Calcutta.

He moves to Bogra, a small town in eastern Bengal, where he sets up his own shop called Harilal & Sons. Parmeshwari joins him, and his family expands. The children grow up, get married, have children of their own. One of his sons, Tribhuvan, moves to Calcutta to study law, defying his father’s wishes that his sons and grandsons should be merchants.

Meanwhile, history is running its course. India wins independence, but is divided into two countries, with Pakistan being situated on India’s western and eastern borders. The partition is violent, and there are perpetrators and victims on both sides. The town of Bogra goes to Pakistan, which means that Hari and his family have to flee to India.

Things come full circle as, eventually, Hari returns to Shekhavati to live out his days. He finally understands why Daulatram had built his haveli and, following in the footsteps of the man who had inspired him to leave Shekhavati, builds a haveli of his own next to it.

This is a rich narrative, centering on a community that has been neglected in Indian fiction. Sujit Saraf has drawn on his family history: Harilal is based on Saraf’s grandfather who had left Rajasthan to go to Calcutta. The characters are vividly drawn (although I sometimes got confused keeping up with some of the great-grandchildren). It is interesting to see the history of India from Hari’s point of view: politics is a distant concern, unlike for his son Tribhuvan, who joins the freedom movement.

Saraf’s writing is evocative, for example, this description of the drought in Shekhavati:

“Sand and sky were white. Another dry day. Eyes scoured the bowl above, seeking a wrinkle. July and not a wisp of cloud, not a drop of rain. The young could not recall a summer so stark, the old spoke of the Bhaiya and Saiya famines of fifty-five years ago. In the evenings, in hushed gatherings on sand dunes, under a lonely moon, they told stories.”

One of my gripes, however, is that there isn’t a glossary for readers who are not familiar with Hindi. But then I had bought an Indian edition, so maybe there is a glossary for editions published in the West? But don’t be put off by this. With the history of modern India as a backdrop, the book is an evocative portrait of one of India’s important communities.

[1] Marwaris are a community of traders and merchants, originally from northwest India.

Into the Water: Paula Hawkins

“There are people who are drawn to water, who retain some vestigial, primal sense of where it flows. I believe I am one of them. I am most alive when I am near the water, when I am near this water.”

Nel Abbott was fascinated by the river in Beckford, a small British town, and especially by the Drowning Pool: a place of dark and light, where teenagers came to swim, to jump off the steep cliff into the pool but also known as a suicide spot. When Nel is found dead in the pool, the assumption is that she committed suicide.

But her estranged sister, Jules, does not believe it. Nel was not the sort of person who would kill herself. Was her death linked in some way to the book she was writing about the women who had lost their lives there, including Katie, her daughter Lena’s best friend? And why was Nel obsessed with Libby Seeton, a young woman drowned at the pool for being a witch? Was she right in thinking Beckford was “a place to get rid of troublesome women”?  There is after all, a fair bit of misogyny lurking beneath the surface, both in the town’s present and its past. “People turned a blind eye, though, didn’t they? No one liked to think about the fact that the water in that river was infected with the blood and bile of persecuted women, unhappy women; they drank it every day.”

The story is from the points of view of eleven of the characters—Jules, Lena, Sean and Erin, the detectives on the case, Katie’s mother, to name a few—sometimes in third person, sometimes in first. What I enjoy about this device is that you get the same incident from more than one perspective, or one characters picks up the narrative from another and takes it further.

Like Paula Hawkins’s earlier book, The Girl on the Train, there are no really likeable characters here. But they are interesting because they all conceal secrets, which makes them somewhat unreliable as narrators.

This is a good thriller. Hawkins is skilful at building up the picture from fragments of stories. And the reveals at the end just keep coming! I think The Girl on the Train was better—this book is a little less unusual but will still keep you turning the pages.

Her dedication says it all: “For all the troublemakers”.

Shadowless: Hasan Ali Toptas, translated by Maureen Freely and John Angliss

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I am honestly not sure what to make of this strange, hallucinatory book. Reading it is like wandering into a dream where not everything makes sense. In spite of its title, it is full of shadows and fog. In essence, this is a book about memory and what it means to exist.

The story takes place in a remote village in Anatolia: “there was no village further from the State than this one, and no village further from God”. The day after the muhtar is re-elected, the barber Nuri disappears. The muhtar sends out men to look for him but they return without any news. Another barber mysteriously shows up in the village and takes over Nuri’s shop. Then when the most beautiful girl in the village goes missing, things really start to fall apart.

Meanwhile, Nuri reappears in a barbershop in Istanbul. The people in the barbershop in Istanbul wait, forget the past and sometimes vanish. They either turn up in the village or are never seen again.

The story moves between mirror worlds that are in some way connected. Characters go back and forth between the two worlds, not sure how they got there. Narratives loop back on themselves. It’s not even clear how substantial these two worlds actually are. When the muhtar hears people knocking on his door, he expects the villagers but finds only insubstantial shadows.

People contain within them multiple versions of themselves, all of whom coexist; but sometimes two versions of a person are doing different things. One of the main characters is the watchman, who becomes increasingly depressed as things unravel. “He wafted from street to street, like an empty sack, blown from one wall to the next. He seemed to be shrinking as he went: leaving crumbs of himself on the roads and plains and cliffs and nights he left in his wake.

“But still, inside that crumbling watchman, there were hundreds of other watchmen, each very different from the next. One watchman found the energy to search for the muhtar from time to time. … One wanted to gather up his things and leave the village. One had a good, long cry.”

And there is a writer in the barbershop in Istanbul who seems to know more than he should about the village (it’s the only time the book uses first-person narrative). Do the people exist only in his imagination? Is he writing this story, making the reader part of the creative process, or is he just a part of the story?

The writing is beautiful and lyrical, but trying to make sense of it is trying to grab a fistful of mist. I think I shall reread it, slowly, and allow it to carry me instead of trying to bend it to my reality.

My Name is Lucy Barton: Elizabeth Strout

A woman in a hospital in New York turns from the window to find her estranged mother sitting by her bed. Over the next five days they talk, remembering people they both knew and reestablishing forgotten connections. Then as abruptly as she came, the mother leaves.

The book is narrated by the daughter, Lucy Barton, a writer trying to find her voice. This is a book that does not spill all its secrets: mother and daughter find it hard to express their love for each other but they do not need to—they know. Lucy has obviously had a difficult childhood: her family were very poor, and her father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after coming back from the war. There is some trauma in Lucy’s own childhood but we never find out what it is, just that it exists.

Lucy has made her life in New York with a husband and two children. She doesn’t go back home and hardly speaks to her family. Until one day when she finds her mother sitting by her bed, bringing with her memories of the past.

Reading this is like listening to Lucy’s thoughts moving back and forth in time. Sarah Payne, a writer who taught her, tells her that we all have one story that we tell in different ways. And that is what this book is really about: our memories, both the ones we return to and those we keep firmly locked away, the stories we tell and how we tell them.

My Name is Lucy Barton is beautifully written, with a deep understanding of how people deal with emotional pain. Elizabeth Strout has a way of using language to capture moments, whether it is a feeling or a physical scene. Lucy remarks how once in a while, she hears a child cry, not from tiredness but “with the deepest of desperation”, as she did when she was a child. “I feel almost, then, that I can hear within me the sound of my own heart breaking, the way you can hear outside in the open air—when the conditions were exactly right—the corn growing in the fields of my youth.” I love the thought that a breaking heart or growing corn has a sound.

This book is a pleasure to read, both because of quality of the language and its insights into people. Strout doesn’t strike a false note. The story is moving without ever becoming sentimental; a clear-eyed look at how we deal—or don’t—with all the baggage we carry. The hurts of childhood run deep: “I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.”

I’ll end with a description about night falling in the cornfields which, like the best photographs, encapsulates a mood: “the sun setting behind you, the sky in front becoming pink and soft, then slightly blue again as though it could not stop going on in its beauty, then the land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange line of horizon, but if you turn around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the cover crops already turned, the sky lingering, lingering and then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments.”

Women travellers tell their stories

Think of all the travel books that you have read: how many of them are written by men? Almost all? And yet women have been travelling and writing about it for as long as men. As a reviewer for the website, Women on the Road, I have spent the last few years reading these books. And it has been a delight to discover their rich variety. Some women take off on solo adventures, while others travel with friends or partners; some explore far-flung places and others focus on where they live.

I would like introduce you to some of my favourites. They cover the five continents and are in a variety of styles. What the books have in common is that they go off the beaten track and try to capture the soul of a place.

Almost all the links lead to my reviews on Women on the Road. It’s been hard to pick just a few (I whittled them down to a baker’s dozen) but I hope this list will tempt you to not only read the ones I have recommended but to actively look for travel books by women.

Note: The reviews on Women on the Road are split according to regions. I have highlighted one book per page and listed a few more that can be found on the same page, indicating where they are relative to the highlighted book.

A Short Ride through the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent
This is one of my favourite kinds of books (you will find a few more like this on this list): an intrepid woman travelling on her own. In this case, Antonia Bolingbroke bikes the Ho Chi Minh trail, combining her experiences with its history. She follows the trail through Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos, navigating through jungles and unexploded bombs.

Also on this page (scroll down for the first two; A Revolutionary Ride is at the top of the page)
Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani
Pisani crosses the breadth of this country of 13,466 islands. She speaks the language and is therefore able to communicate with the people, even in remote areas.

Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak
This book is an attempt to understand Papua New Guinea, a country that is not a typical travel destination. Salak visits its interior, walking through almost impenetrable jungles and not letting trivial things like fever get in the way.

A Revolutionary Ride: On the Road in Search of the Real Iran by Lois Pryce
Pryce rides her motorcycle from Iran’s border with Turkey to Shiraz during a time of tense relations between the UK and Iran. As a woman travelling alone in Iran, she worries about her reception but finds the people welcoming and supportive (except for the Revolutionary Guard, who are less impressed with her feat).

Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa
Noo Saro-Wiwa is Ken Saro-Wiwa’s daughter. After her father’s assassination, Saro-Wiwa swears that she will never go back to Nigeria, a promise she keeps for several years. Then she decides to give the country another chance and spends five months there, taking in the ancient Nok sculptures (1000 BC­–500 AD), meeting Nollywood directors and talking to ordinary Nigerians. A portrait of a country from someone who is an insider and an outsider at the same time (something many expats will identify with).

Also on this page (scroll up):
All Strangers are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World by Zora O’Neill
O’Neill journeys to Egypt, the Gulf states, Lebanon and Morocco to practice her Arabic and understand their culture and customs. This is not just a travelogue but a linguistic journey and a glimpse into an ancient region that is now in flux.

The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles
Coles moves to Venice with her husband and three children and writes about what it means to live in a major tourist destination. How do Venetians cope with the vast numbers of people trooping through their city? Funny and insightful.

Also on this page (scroll down):
Forward: Letters Written on a Trip around the World by Lina Boegli
Published in 1905, this is a collection of letters written by a Swiss woman, Lina Boegli, to her friend during her 10-year sojourn through Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Hawaii (an independent country at the time) and the United States. To support herself, Boegli works as she travels. It is inspiring to know that women had been doing this over a century ago.

Tracks by Robyn Davidson
Davidson—yet another intrepid woman—crosses Australia with her dog and three camels (actually four camels: one of them is pregnant). Everything you want to know about camels but were afraid to ask. I love her descriptions of the desert and her encounters with the Aborigines.

Also on this page (scroll down):
Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler
Wheeler goes to Antarctica partly out of curiosity and partly to explore a “landscape of the mind”: a place that is desolate that you are forced to face yourself. Fascinating portrait of a region with no native people and scarcely any wildlife.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Strayed loses her mother and as a way of coping with her grief and facing down her demons, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, albeit with more determination than experience. She loses toenails and a hiking boot but makes it through—both physically and emotionally—with her trusty rucksack, Monster.

Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico by Isabella Tree
In this book, Tree brings together the country’s past and present, looking for the “hidden Mexico”. She visits floating gardens in Mexico City, participates in a peyote ceremony in Chiapas and finds a feisty matriarchal society in Juchitan.

Also on this page (scroll up):
Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker
And now for something completely different: this is not a travelogue in the strict sense, but a new way of looking at a city. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of New Orleans, ranging from carnival routes to where slave pens used to be, and the best places to eat oysters. Each chapter is accompanied by an attractive map. Beautifully produced, this book builds a multifaceted picture of the city.

Photo from Pxhere.com

City on Fire: Garth Risk Hallberg

An ambitious debut, City on Fire paints a portrait of New York in the 60s and 70s, following a group of people as they try to make (or unmake) their lives in the city.

The book begins during Christmas 1976/New Year 1977. It is the time of punk and there is revolution in the air. Mercer is a young black man come up from Alabama to take up a job as a teacher, hoping to break free of his family down South. His lover, William Hamilton-Sweeney, is an artist, also known as Billy Three Sticks when he played in Ex Post Facto, a punk rock band. The Hamilton-Sweeneys are among the richest families in New York, but William has broken with them, including with his beloved sister Regan. His band has been taken over by the appropriately named Nicky Chaos, who becomes obsessed by William. Sam, a young photographer, is a fan of Ex Post Facto and produces her own magazine (zine), which is part diary and part music review.  Charlie, a boy in high school, is in love with Sam and trying to come to terms with his father’s death. Richard Gosford is a veteran journalist writing a story on Sam’s father, a pyrotechnician (fireworks maker, simply put). Deputy Inspector Pulaski is investigating the shooting with which the first part of the book ends. And behind so much of the story is the master manipulator, the Demon Brother, Amory Gould—the brother of Felicia Gould, William and Regan’s stepmother—who is working slowly and surely to take over the Hamilton-Sweeney empire. Although, for me, it is the two creative spirits, Sam and William, who are at the heart of this book.

I will not try to summarize the plot: this is a sprawling book, teeming with characters and plotlines, many of which crisscross each other. The two defining moments are the shooting in the early hours of 1 January 1977 and the New York blackout in July that year. But the story ranges much wider than that: it keeps looping back in time, going over the 1960s and 1970s, stopping for “interludes”—a letter from William’s father, Richard’s article, Sam’s zines—and looping back again, with occasional glimpses into the 2000s as a “where are they now” device. The layering builds up the characters and their stories, sometimes narrating the same incident from different perspectives. This is a novel that sucks you into its world.

And the panorama is huge: from gatherings of the rich to junkies, from punk rock bands to the art world, from pyrotechnics to the corporate world, gay, straight, anarchists, corporate manipulators: you have it all. In its scope, it feels almost Dickensian, doing for New York what Dickens did for London, the city a character in its own right.

Garth Risk Hallberg writes well—some of his writing is like photography, capturing a moment in time. Regan in her father’s study: “At sunset, the south-westerly light, unobstructed by any higher building between here and the river, poured through the jewelbox windows. It has made her feel like a passenger on the Titanic: the vessel was doomed, but the memory would be extravagant.” And I love the way Hallberg describes people: Amory tries to persuade Keith, Regan’s husband, to join the family firm. “Amory’s gestures grew somewhat quantitative, like the gestures of a man trying to purchase fabric in a language he doesn’t speak. The Quanto costa gesture, the No, I couldn’t possibly, the Lachesis gesture of measuring something out to have it cut off. … Keith nodded, like a bird following a bit of waved seed.”

As a debut book, this is impressive. It really captures the 60s and 70s in New York, the social mores and what it must have felt like. The book’s weakness is that it is way too long. There were times I got a impatient with the level of detail, which is really not necessary. Pared down, it would have been a more powerful book.

Listening to the Writer’s Voice

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writer's voiceI’m looking at close to half an hour of standing over the stove, staring into a pot as I stir, maybe stepping away for a few seconds at a time to check on this or that, open the refrigerator and put something away, or just look out the window. I block out the impatient honks from the main road and the rushing motorbikes going way too fast for the narrow streets in my residential area. I put on my newly acquired air pods and flip through my list of podcasts. I really don’t feel like the news, or even news-spinoffs right now. Nor am I in the frame of mind for smart social science. I just want to be told a good old story.

And even better if the story is told by the one who made it all up.

The Writer’s Voice, a podcast from The New Yorker features new fiction read aloud by authors. Curated by the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Triesman, the series is a little over two years old, and now offers a cache of 95 audio stories, with a new reading added every week.

I’ve often caught stories on the podcast that I had passed over in the magazine, or have listened to stories that I had already encountered on the page, and both experiences have been interesting. A story in the June 25, 2018 issue of the magazine, “The Luck of Kokura” for instance, did not grab me in the first few sentences, but I chose to listen to the author,  Gary Shteyngart, reading it for the podcast, and where the I had been unable to turn the page of the printed magazine, I did keep my ear–and my mind–on the reading. Maybe it’s a commitment one makes to listening, especially when it’s the writer’s voice calling, or maybe it is just that one is in any case not doing anything else with the time (remember, I am in the kitchen staring at simmering sambar), but I was fascinated by Shteyngart’s account of a hedge fund manager gone rogue, a sort of between-the-lines psychological study of this peculiar demographic I’ve never been able to understand: Young, Ivy-League educated, highly driven, materially-invested number-crunchers on Wall Street. A story that I had enjoyed in the magazine, “Likes” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (October 3, 2017), came alive in a different way when I listened to Bynum’s reading, making me feel the father’s yearning to be part of his tween daughter’s world, looking for clues to it on her Instagram feed and on the drive to physiotherapy after ballet class. And of course, who would not want to hear old favourites like Zadie Smith or Jhumpa Lahiri read their work, rendered doubly lyrical by word and voice?

Of course, authors are not always the best readers, and a well-written story can become a little less than it is when rendered in an unremarkable voice (there’s a reason why Books on Tape gets actors to read!). But most readers would be willing to cut the writer some slack in this regard–and in some ways, it makes the author something of a “regular person”.

If truth be told, I’ve never been one for audiobooks. I had always assumed that listening would never quite be the same as reading, firmly believing that my seeing eye soaked in more meaning than my hearing ear ever could, that writing needed to be pored over for its elegance and power to really be felt. And yes, give me a book to hold any day over a pair of earbuds and a listening device–there is a definite pleasure in letting one’s eyes travel over a page full of well-written prose. But The Writer’s Voice gives me stories in spaces where I would otherwise not find them, and lets me bring stories into places that otherwise become tedious to occupy–like my car on an hour-long commute.

 

Paper Towns: John Green

“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. … My miracle was this: in all the houses of all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.”

The book is narrated by Quentin Jacobsen, a 17-year-old close to finishing high school in Orlando, Florida. Quentin is a little in love with the free-spirited girl next door. The difference between the two is demonstrated by an incident when they were children. They come across a dead man by a tree. Quentin is horrified, wants to run back and inform the adults, but Margo moves to the corpse to have a closer look. That night she climbs into Quentin’s room through the window. She has been doing a bit of detecting and tells Quentin that the man committed suicide. “Maybe all the strings inside him broke”, she says.

In high school, they drift apart. Quentin is still fascinated by Margo, but she has other friends—Becca and Lacey—and is dating a guy called Jason, while Quentin hangs out with the guys in the band, Ben and Radar. Until one night when Margo taps on his window, talks him into “borrowing” his mother’s car and takes him off on a night’s adventure. She is out for revenge and a bit of fun: Jason has been cheating on her with Becca. The night involves dead fish, paint, Vaseline, and breaking into SeaWorld in the early hours of the morning.

The next morning, Quentin cannot wait to get to school and see Margo. But she does not show up, either that day or the next. Margo has run away from home before, leaving clues to her whereabouts—she does not get on with her parents. Although her parents dismiss her disappearance as an attention-grabbing tactic, they eventually call the police.

But Margo is battling her own demons and is more fragile than any of them realize. Looking down at Orlando on that eventful night, Margo calls it a paper town: “All those paper people in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. … Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All things paper-thin and paper-frail.” In an echo of what she said about the dead man all those years ago, she says of Jason’s and Becca’s betrayal, “It was the last string. It was a lame string, for sure, but it was the only one I had left, and every paper girl needs at least one string, right?”

This image of strings being cut, leaving children adrift, runs through the book. Detective Otis Warren, who is investigating Margo’s disappearance, tells Quentin about kids like Margo: “These kids, they’re like tied-down helium balloons. They strain against the string and they strain against it, and then something happens, and that string gets cut, and they just float away. … Once that string gets cut, kid, you can’t uncut it.”

Quentin is convinced that, this time, instead of leaving clues for her parents, she has left them for him. With a bit of help from Ben, Radar and Lacey, he tries to decipher them, and the trail leads them on a road trip in search of Margo.

The book is really about finding someone you love—not just physically but in the sense of really seeing them for who they are. Quentin only starts to see Margo as a real person after she has been gone for a while. He had idolized her for so long that he only saw the daring, larger-than-life person he had created. Everyone had their own version of Margo, and none of them encompassed the complexity of the whole person. But the search for Margo brings Quentin closer to understanding her—and himself. At the end of the book, he says: “I could see her almost perfectly in this cracked darkness.”

I loved this book. I have to say I grinned through the first couple of chapters. Margo dominates the book although she is only there for a short time—she is present in her absence, so to speak. It takes you back to what it was to be 17 again, when the world was open with possibilities. John Green mixes the humour, the ups and downs of being a teenager with insights on how we relate to one another.

Des ailes au loin: Jadd Hilal

Loosely translated as Away on Wings, this is a story of four generations of Palestinian-Lebanese women for whom migration becomes a way of life. For the moment, it is available only in French, but there is a good chance that it will be translated into English.

The book is a fictionalized account of the lives of four women in Jadd Hilal’s family: his grandmother, Naïma, his mother, Ema, his sister, Dara, and his niece, Lila. (Disclosure: Jadd Hilal’s sister is my colleague, Zeina Hilal.) The book moves between the women, who narrate their lives. Their journeys weave back and forth over Western Asia and Europe. Through the voices of these four strong women, Hilal builds up a picture of how wars and insecurity reverberate on the lives of ordinary people.

The story begins in Haifa, the then capital of Palestine, with Naïma as a young girl. In 1937, she narrowly escapes being killed when the Haganah bomb a marketplace, and her family leave for Shefa Amr in the north. When she is 10, a young man, Jahid, comes to their house and asks for her hand, and by the time Naïma is 12, she is married.

During the civil war in Palestine in 1947, Naïma and Jahid were forced to leave Palestine, so they move to Baalbek in Lebanon—not to the historic city she had imagined, but a refugee camp on its outskirts. Jahid gets a job at UNESCO, Naima is pregnant and the growing family stays on in the city. Until they move again, this time to Damascus. Their daughter, Ema, does not want to leave (like her daughter Dara many years later). For her, airports are “places from where people leave when they stop caring… where the others, with chains of their feet, watch them”. [1]

The family move back to Lebanon. Ema goes to the University of Beirut and marries Zahi, a fellow student, to escape her father’s domination. In June 1982, the war comes to Lebanon. Ema is by now working with the ILO and Zahi with ESCWA (the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia), and they have two children, Dara and Majid. When ESCWA moves its offices from Beirut to Baghdad, the family moves too. But as soon as she can, Ema returns with her children. It is not for long. In 1983, civil war breaks out in the country, and Ema and the children have to leave again, this time for Geneva, the ILO’s headquarters. Dara does not want to leave—she sees leaving as abandonment, much like her mother did.

Dara’s years in Europe only make her more determined to return to Lebanon. At 18, she returns and marries Lotfi, a mason. For some years, she lives a simple and contented life in a village with her husband and children, Lila and Riad. Then in 2006, the Hezbollah capture Israeli soldiers and Israel retaliates with bombs. It is no longer safe, and Dara manages to escape with her children, heading back to Geneva.

Hilal’s writing is lyrical, and brings the women to life: Ema, caught between home and university, without a space to be herself. “I lead two lives,” she says, “but not one in which I feel I can breathe freely.” Dara, with a strong maternal instinct to compensate for her own mother; Lila, annoyed that she won’t be listened to until she is an adult when she has so much to say. And Naïma, dealing with the grief in her life: “I am used to pain. … Suffering becomes a shadow. It lengthens. … But it is always there, waiting for an image, a smell or a taste to show itself.”

The book ends with a sense of calm, of journeys winding down. But the new generation is getting ready to take off. Lila was a child when the bomb that killed the Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri went off. But that is not what she remembers from that day. It is seeing three birds flying out into the distance and thinking that if she closed her eyes tight she would find, on opening them:

“I will find myself flying.
“I will have the one thing that no one else has.
“I will have wings.”

[1] The translations are mine.