Cinnamon: Samar Yazbek

Translated by Emily Danby

A woman in Damascus wakes in the night, sees a triangle of light where a door is left ajar and walks in. She finds her maid in bed with her husband. She throws the maid out, and immediately regrets it, but finds herself unable to go after her. Over the course of the night, both women go over the events that brought them to this point.

The woman is Hanan, married to an older man, whom she had loved as a cousin but hates as a husband. Frustrated and angry, she spends time with other women like her—wives of successful and well-to-do businessmen—where she finds solace in sex.

The maid, Aliyah, comes from a rough neighbourhood, which Samar Yazbek describes unflinchingly. Her brute of a father is financially reliant on his wife and daughters but does not hesitate to beat them up when the whim takes him. Aliyah hates him and learns fairly early to fight. When she is 10 years old, the father practically sells her to Hanan as a maid. That’s the last Aliyah sees of him—or the rest of her family—for eight years.

Eventually, Hanan seduces Aliyah. But Aliyah is a survivor and knows how to play the game. Living in Hanan’s house protects her from her father and the other thugs living in her neighbourhood. Aliyah uses her seductive power over Hanan to make herself secure, and Hanan becomes completely dependent on her.

The focus in this book is completely on the women. Aliyah grows up fast and learns how to make the system work for her. But she becomes a little too confident of her power, which makes her careless. Hanan is also a victim, forced into a marriage she didn’t want, living out her life without any purpose or meaning. The men are either brutes or ciphers, like Hanan’s husband, only referred to “the old crocodile”.

Samar Yazbek paints a bleak picture where almost all relationships involve some kind of power play, whether it is through sex, class or gender.  There is a fair amount of sex but no love—none of the characters seem to really care for each other. Hanan thinks she loves Aliyah but looking back, Hanan cannot remember a single conversation they had. Hanan desires Aliyah and wants to control and possess her. When Aliyah leaves, she wears Hanan’s high-heeled shoes—among all the presents her mistress gives her, there is not a single pair of shoes.

Les Misérables: Victor Hugo (translated by Norman Denny)

This is probably one of Victor Hugo’s best-known books, popularized by the musical starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway. But since a two-hour film can only provide a brief summary, I decided to read it in its entirety and see for myself why it is so well loved.

Reading Les Misérables is like walking into another world. First published in 1862, and set in France between 1815 and 1832—after the French Revolution and Napoleon—the book is a sprawling canvas with many subplots.

Here is the story, briefly.

Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. The initial sentence of 5 years is stretched to 19 because he keeps trying to escape. It is in prison that he comes across Inspector Javert, who is the overseer of Valjean’s chain gang and who becomes his implacable enemy.

When Valjean is finally freed, he carries a card marking him out to be an ex-convict, which means he is not welcome anywhere. The gentle Bishop Myriel takes him in and by showing him kindness, makes him resolve to be a better man. But old habits are hard to break. By taking a 40-sous coin from a boy, Valjean is denounced for armed robbery and, if caught, would have to return to prison. 

But Valjean has no intention of going back. He adopts a new identity and settles in a small town. He is now Monsieur Madeleine, a successful businessman, liked and trusted and eventually elected mayor. But when the new local chief of police arrives, it is Javert. Javert does not recognize him immediately. When a man is nearly crushed by a cart and no one else will help, Valjean moves the cart single-handedly, and Javert, who has seen only one man with that kind of strength, starts to suspect that M. Madeleine is really Valjean.

However, another person crosses Valjean’s path and changes his life: Fantine, a young woman who has had a child out of wedlock, at a time when this was considered shameful. Unable to support the child, Fantine gives her to a couple whom she thinks are kindly (the nasty Monsieur and Madame Thénardier), sending them a monthly fee for raising her. The child, Cossette, is ill-treated, and Fantine ends up destitute, selling herself to survive. M. Madeleine finds Fantine, puts her in the care of nuns and promises to look for her daughter.

I won’t go into too much detail here—it would take pages—but Fantine dies, and Valjean finds Cossette. The child gives him something to live for. Meanwhile, Javert is still on his trail, and Valjean hasn’t seen the last of the Thénardiers either. He manages to evade Javert and raise Cossette, whom he adores. But Cossette becomes a young woman and falls in love with a young student, Marius, and Valjean finds his contentment threatened. Meanwhile, there is unrest in the country, and Marius and his friends get involved in the June revolution of 1832.

Hugo creates a world that draws you in. He writes with great detail, hence the size of the book—over 1200 pages. Some of the detail is fascinating. But Hugo does have a habit of putting the story on hold while going off at a tangent. I still don’t know why there are so many pages describing the battle of Waterloo in the middle of Valjean’s escape. Valjean ends up on the field where the battle took place, but that’s no reason for the long interlude. I found this a bit trying. But it might be better on a second read where I know what happens and so am not as impatient to get on with the story. Hugo’s knowledge of Paris is truly impressive. There is a section where Valjean walks through the sewer system, which Hugo seems to know well, detailing its history and all its twists and turns.

Some of Hugo’s characters are a bit one-dimensional—for example, Cossette as a young woman and Marius; and the nasty ones, like the Thénadiers (although they are far more interesting and vivid than the young couple). But the two men at the centre of the book—Valjean and Javert—are much more nuanced. Javert has a strong moral code, and Valjean has his darker side. It is interesting that Hugo based both characters on a single man who would have been their contemporary: François Vidoqc, an ex-convict who became the founder of the Surété Nationale, France’s national police force.

Hugo brings the period to life—the politics, the justice system (the fact that a man could be jailed for stealing bread and considered an armed robber for a minor theft is shocking), and the lives of people in all the social strata, from aristocrats to the desperately poor and the thugs in the underworld. You learn about the argot used by criminals in Paris; a little-known order of nuns; and, of course, the battle of Waterloo. All these details—like bits of a mosaic—coalesce into a larger picture, which made me feel as if I was, for a moment, a part of this world.

Washington Black: Esi Edugyan

Although this book starts on a Barbados plantation in 1830, it is not really about slavery but follows a young slave, Washington Black, over six years, starting with his life on the Faith plantation.

As the book begins, Washington is 11 years old, and the owner of the plantation has just died. The new master is the son, Erasmus Black, a cruel man. One night, Wash and the woman who is his protector, Big Kit from Dahomey, are summoned to wait on the table, something unheard of for slaves working in the field. At the end of the dinner, Erasmus’s brother Christopher, known as Titch, engages Washington to help him with his hot air balloon—not because he had seen something exceptional in the boy but because he would be the right weight for ballast.

But Washington’s association with Titch is life-changing. Unlike his brother, Titch is kind to Wash and encourages his talent for drawing. All goes well until the visit of a cousin, Mister Philip, sets in motion a series of events that put Wash in danger. One night, Titch and Wash take to the skies in the hot air balloon and escape the plantation.

Erasmus, furious at the loss of his slave, sets a bounty hunter, Willard, on their trail. They manage to shake him off by going to the Arctic, where Titch is looking for his father, an explorer. Wash eventually makes it back to Nova Scotia without Titch, where he settles down, although the shadow of Willard continues to haunt him. His scientific talents come to the fore after a meeting with a father and daughter team of natural scientists.

I loved Esi Edugyan’s writing and the way she draws characters. Big Kit is a real presence: a big, fierce woman who could make Wash forget about the plantation: to him she was “a marvel, a witness to a world I could not imagine, beyond the reach of the huts and the vicious fields of Faith”. I would have liked to have seen more of her. Mister Philip, while seemingly privileged, is really just a drifter, a man with nothing to live for: “His great passions were not passions, but distractions: one day was but a bridge to the next. He took in the world with a mild dissatisfaction, for the world was of little consequence.”

But Wash and Titch are the most vivid characters: Titch is like mercury; just when I thought I understood him, it turned out that I didn’t. Wash—the heart of the book—is bright and observant but cautious, in the way children become when their survival depends on being alert to any signs of danger.

This is a book about the different degrees of freedom. The hot air balloon is symbolic of escape and breaking bounds, but can only get them so far. In the plantation, Wash asks Big Kit what it means to be free. It means you can go “wherever it is you wanting”, she says, something unimaginable to Wash. When he does become a freedman, he is still a black man in a white man’s world and Willard is on his trail. Sometimes the emotional chains are harder to get rid of: there is a bond with Titch that is hard to break and a caution within Wash that keeps him from getting too close to anyone. And the free world isn’t everything he expects: “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.”

This is a thoughtful, well-written book.

There There: Tommy Orange

Native Americans, or Indians, were the first settlers in North America. But when colonizers from Europe came, they not only took away the Native Americans’ lands and livelihoods but rewrote their narratives. There There is Tommy Orange’s way of reclaiming the narrative of the Native Americans living in the United States today.

“We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and the current state as a people. … We have all the logos and mascots. … Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people—which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.”

The book follows a group of people in Oakland, California, as they prepare to go for a powwow. It builds up a picture through a mosaic of characters, each with his or her fears and dreams.

There is Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, looking after the three grandsons of her sister, Jacqui Red Feather. Feeling responsible for the suicide of her only daughter, and fearing that she would only damage her grandsons, Jacqui won’t come near them. One of the grandsons, Orwil Red Feather, is trying to make sense of what it means to be an Indian (with a bit of help from Google) and is planning to go to the powwow in full regalia. Calvin Johnson doesn’t really identify as Indian; he just sees himself as someone from Oakland. Dene Oxendene is recording the stories of Native Americans to build an oral history of his people. Edwin Black, who once dreamed of being a writer, is an overweight man who lives with his mother and spends his life in front of computer screens.

It isn’t all bleak but many of the characters deal with addiction, depression and alcoholism, and some of them turn to crime. Like Octavio Gomez, whose father died protecting him from bullets, and Tony Loneman, who is suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and is planning to rob the powwow.

Orange dedicates chapters to the individual characters. As the book plays out, heading towards the final confrontation, the web of connections between them becomes clearer.

I loved the way Orange writes. Edwin, avoiding contact at a planning meeting for the powwow “gets out his phone as everyone does now when they want to leave without leaving”. Opal “doesn’t step on cracks. She walks carefully because she has always had the sense that there are holes everywhere, cracks you can slip between—the world, after all, is porous. She lives by a superstition she would never admit to. … She lives by it, like breathing.”

This is a powerful, angry book. The title doesn’t refer to the soothing words you say to a child but is from a quote by Gloria Stein about Oakland: “there isn’t a there there”. But Orange interprets it not to mean that the place is worthless but to mean that nothing stays the same—the “there” she grew up doesn’t exist any more. “[F]or Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

The writing is lyrical and brutal. And using different characters to tell the story means that Tommy Orange gives you a multi-faceted view of what it means to be Native American in the US today. I will end with a final quote that I find apt: “Opal and Jacqui’s mom never let them kill a spider… . Her mom said spiders carry miles of web in their bodies, miles of story, miles of potential home and trap. She said that’s what we are. Home and trap.”

Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey Through Four Decades of Modern Film—Syd Field

What makes a movie great? Why are some movies memorable while others disappear into obscurity? The foundation underlying the performances and the directing is the screenplay. A screenplay can make or break a film. Going to the Movies is a combination of memoirs and a lesson on the art of screenwriting by a man who is known to have written some of the definitive books on the subject, Syd Field.

Field studied film at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s when it was buzzing with talent. One of Field’s early mentors was Jean Renoir, one of the great French film directors, whom he met when he was studying film at the University of California, Berkeley. Renoir believed that film was a “new form of printing” and Lumière, the inventor of the motion picture camera, was the new Gutenberg (who invented printing in the 1400s).

Other students who went on to become famous were a young graduate student called Francis Ford Coppola and Ray Manzarek, who was part of a then little-known band called The Doors. It was the time of the New Wave, a revolt in cinema against the “puff films” (such as wholesome Doris Day fare). The New Wave produced films like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour[1] and Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless, all films that Field admired.

Field also met some of the greats of cinema during the course of his career: Renoir, Michelangelo Antonioni (whom he saw sitting on a bench as an old man and plucked up the courage to talk to) and Sam Peckinpah, with whom Field spent a summer when Peckinpah was writing The Wild Bunch.  

The book follows Field’s career and provides a glimpse into the film business, particularly the Hollywood film industry. He worked at Cinemobile, which started out as a “studio on wheels”, providing the technical and physical aspects of a film’s production. It was the brainchild of Fouad Said, who now wanted to produce his own films and had created Cine Artists. Field’s job was “find material”. For two and a half years, he read through piles of screenplays, looking for the one that would be good enough to go into production. But producers did not read scripts and had a minimal attention span: the script needed to be summarized in a couple of sentences. Among the scripts he pitched successfully were American Graffiti and Rocky, unlike Taxi Driver by Paul Schrader, for which there was no interest.   

Trawling through never-ending piles of scripts allowed Field to understand the elements that make them work—or not. Based on his close reading, Field devised a three-act paradigm that could be applied to most scripts. Briefly, this is how it works: Act 1, the first 20-30 minutes, sets the scene. This is followed by a plot point that pushes the protagonist into Act 2, which Field calls the Confrontation (and which also gives the protagonist his/her goal). Act 3 is the struggle to reach the goal and the resolution.

Field’s analyses films such as Sunset Boulevard, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, Matrix and Casablanca to understand how they function. I enjoyed these analyses, and they made me want to go back to the films, so I could watch them with a different perspective, this time with an awareness of the nuts and bolts of the script.

This is an interesting book, even if you are not planning to write for films. Many cinema-goers do not always pay attention to the scriptwriter, although she/he is fundamental to the film (I do only when the writing stands out). Syd Field shines a light on this essential part of cinema: the writing on which the entire production rests.

[1] I saw Hiroshima Mon Amour when I was studying film, and I can still remember how it moved me, well over 30 years later. A powerful script.

A Gentleman in Moscow: Amor Towles

“If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”

In 1922, a few years after the Bolshevik revolution, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest for writing a poem that the Bolsheviks find incendiary. The Count’s home at the time of sentencing is a suite at the Hotel Metropole. He is moved out of his suite to a small room on the sixth floor, where furniture and odds and ends are stored. Taking it in his stride, the Count picks out the things dearest to him and has them moved upstairs. He eventually finds a way to break the wall into the room next door—through his closet—and fashions for himself a suite of sorts.

The staff at the hotel know and like the Count. He has managed to stash some money and so is able to live reasonably well, eating at the two restaurants, the Piazza and the Boyarsky, which is more upscale. But living in a confined space starts to take its toll on him.

His ennui is broken by a little girl in yellow, Nina, who befriends him. Nina is staying at the hotel while her parents are away and has plenty of time to explore it, not least because she has managed to acquire a passkey to all the rooms. She opens up the hotel for him, taking him to spaces he did not know existed. When she leaves, she makes him a gift of the key. The next time he sees her, she has grown up into a serious young woman who is leaving to work in the provinces.

The years go by, and the Count settles into a daily routine. But Nina hasn’t finished with him. She shows up unexpectedly with her eight-year-old daughter Sofia, and asks him to take care of her while she goes to Siberia to look for her husband. She never comes back, and the man who had prided himself in not forming long-term relationships finds himself taking care of a child and seeing her into adulthood.

Life at the Metropole reflects the changes outside: the clientele shifts from aristocrats to Party apparatchiks. So does the management: an incompetent waiter, whom the Count dubs the Bishop, becomes the manager through his Party connections. The Count works as a waiter at the Boyarsky where he forms a Triumverate with his good friends, Emile, the chef, and Andrey, the headwaiter. They meet every morning to set (and sample) the day’s menu.    

The Count is a wonderful creation: erudite, courteous, observant and determined not to let his circumstances get the better of him. The hotel is full of vividly drawn characters: the hot-tempered and talented Emile, the unflappable Andrey, the seamstress Marina who teaches the Count how to sew, the actress Anna Urbanova with whom he has an on-off affair, Osip, the Party apparatchik who hires the Count to teach him English and French, and so many more.

I enjoyed Towles’s writing. Here is a description of Andrey’s virtuosity as a waiter: “Having led a group of women to their table…Andrey seemed to pull back the chairs all at once. …[W]hen the woman holding the wine list asked for a recommendation, he didn’t point to the 1900 Bordeaux—at least, not in the Teutonic sense. Rather, he slightly extended his index finger in a manner reminiscent of that gesture on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling with which the Prime Mover had transmitted the spark of life.”

This is a masterful book. I couldn’t imagine how Towles would be able to keep up an interesting story within the confines of a hotel. But all of life is there: intrigue, politics, spies, love and friendship; the life of the country is reflected in the goings-on of the hotel. I have to hand it to Towles: the story never flags.

In keeping with the confines of the setting, Towles has set himself limits for his chapter headings: every one of the words begins with an A. I also loved the little icons at the beginning of each section, depicting something that would be central to that part of the story.

Pachinko: Min Jin Lee

“History has failed us, but no matter.”

Pachinko is about Koreans living in Japan, a group of immigrants about whom not a lot has been written in fiction.

The book starts in a little fishing village in Korea. Hoonie, a man with a cleft palate and club foot, and his wife Yangchin run a boarding house in Yeongdo. They have a daughter, Sunja, whom they love. Then Hoonie get tuberculosis and dies. Sunja is seduced by Hansu, a businessman, and becomes pregnant. She thinks he will marry her, but when he admits he has a wife in Osaka in Japan and offers to keep her as a mistress, she refuses to have anything more to do with him. Instead she agrees to marry Isak, a Christian priest and boarder whom she and her mother have nursed through tuberculosis.

Isak and Sunja move to Osaka to live with his brother Yoseb and his wife Kyunghee, and the two women become very close. Sunja is shocked at the way Koreans live in Japan—treated as second-class citizens, their houses are ramshackle and their neighbourhoods poor. The outsider status is made worse for the family because Josep and Isak are Christians, a minority religion.  

Sunja gives birth to Noa, whom the family raise as their own. She later has a second son by Isak, Mozasu. Then their world falls apart as Isak is arrested for reciting the Lord’s Prayer and released only when he is close to death.

It is a time of war in both countries: Korea’s civil war has split the country into two, and Japan has entered the Second World War. In the meantime, Hansu has been keeping an eye on Sanju and Noa, but only makes contact with Sanju after Isak’s death. He arranges for a safe place for the family in the countryside and brings Yangchin to her daughter. Yoseb finds work in Nagasaki.

The story follows the family through their ups and downs. This is a story of endurance—mostly on the part of the women, especially Sunja, who somehow copes with all the hardship that life throws at her. Lee writes with heart—you invest in these people and feel for them.

And the facts are shocking. Koreans are not recognized as citizens in Japan. They are only granted three-year residency permits, which have to be renewed, no matter how long they had lived in the country or even if they were born there. Obtaining a passport is almost impossible. Not welcome in most regular occupations, the one way of making money was for them to run pachinko parlours, which are gaming arcades (pachinko are slot machines).

Mozasu drops out of school and starts working for pachinko parlours and eventually makes his fortune running them. The more intellectual Noa, on the other hand, pretends to be Japanese and is terrified that he would lose his job if the truth came out. He faces the dilemma of many immigrants who want to take on the identity of their adopted homeland but have their roots elsewhere: in the end, they are neither wholly one or the other. The treatment of Koreans as second-class citizens in Japan doesn’t really change much over time: Mozasu’s son Solomon faces it in the 1980s, although it is so normal for him that it takes his American-born girlfriend to see it.

Min Jin Lee does the story of Korean immigrants justice, painting a vivid picture of their lives and of their losses and triumphs. At a time when migration has become a global issue, and they are often seen as “the other”, we need books like this that depict immigrants as people not that different from anyone else.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Life with an Enchanting Tawny Owl—Martin Windrow

“Shaving is tricky with an owl on your right shoulder.”

Especially when the owl sees it as a game, pecking at the razor at the end of each stroke and trying to eat the shaving cream. Meet Mumble, the Tawny Owl with whom Martin Windrow shared 15 years of his life.

Introduced to birds of prey through his older brother Dick, Windrow decides to get one of his own. Enter Wellington, a Little Owl (a species, not a description). It is a disaster from the start. The appropriately named owl (with the Duke’s iron will) had not been hand-reared by a human, and all of Windrow’s attempts to win his trust are met with deep suspicion. Eventually, Wellington escapes.

The second time around is completely different. Windrow’s owl is one of a batch of eggs that are hatched under Dick’s care. When Dick’s son is given the privilege of naming the owl, he calls her Marmite Sandwich, after his favourite thing. Windrow finds Marmite Sandwich in the kitchen, a little ball of feathers with large, shiny eyes.

“‘Kweep’, it said quietly. Enchanted, I leaned closer. It blinked its furry grey eyelids, then jumped very deliberately up on to my right shoulder. It felt like a big, warm dandelion head against my cheek, and it smelt like a milky new kitten. ‘Kweep’, it repeated, very softly.”

On the drive home, the owl escapes from her box and perches on his shoulder throughout the drive, taking a “delicate beak-grip” on his ear to steady herself. Windrow rechristens her Mumble for her way of holding a “quiet conversation with herself, me and the world at large”. And that is the start of a beautiful relationship.

Back in his apartment, Mumble settles into Wellington’s old cage, a large aviary on his balcony (which he has to keep secret from his landlord). Living with what is essentially a wild bird is fascinating, and Windrow is a keen observer. Mumble has a definite personality. She is eternally curious, loves drinking from a dripping tap, riding on the carriage of a typewriter as he types and exploring the back of shelves. Her curiosity can sometimes get her into trouble, like the time she leans over a little too far over the dishwashing water and falls in (and mutters irritably to herself as she slowly dries off). She also tries to feed Windrow bits of raw chicken, and when he avoids the morsels, she tries to stuff them into his ear instead.

As an owlet she is fine with visitors, but as an adult bird she is possessive and attacks anyone else who comes into the apartment. Windrow and Mumble eventually move to the country where she has a larger aviary outdoors.

Windrow’s observations of Mumble are interspersed with a lot of information about owls in general: the different species, how they are coping with the way humans are changing the landscape and their place in folklore. He is obviously passionate about owls and at the end of this book, I felt I had learned a lot about these wonderful birds.

Cutting for Stone: Abraham Verghese

This is a rich story, interweaving the lives of people working at a clinic in Addis Ababa run by a Christian mission (known as the Missing Clinic by the local people and everyone else) with the history of Ethiopia from the 1950s to the late 1970s.

Sister Mary Joseph Praise is a Carmelite nun from Kerala, who is sent to work in Africa by the Abbess of her convent. On the ship, she meets Dr. Thomas Stone, a surgeon, who is also going to work in Africa. They both end up working at Missing, with Sister Mary becoming the doctor’s indispensable right-hand person. They seem to have a professional relationship, so everyone—including the doctor—is stunned when Sister Mary goes into labour with twins. She had managed to keep her pregnancy secret from everyone.

The story is narrated by one of the twins, Marion (named after the famed gynaecologist, J. Marion Sims), who starts the story with his birth and that of his twin, Shiva. The birth is complicated—the twins are joined at the skull, and Sister Mary cannot push them out. The resident gynaecologist, Dr. Hema, being away, Dr. Stone is summoned to help. But faced with trying to save the life of the woman he loves, he loses his nerve. The twins survive, only thanks to the arrival of Dr. Hema, but she cannot save their mother. Shattered, Dr. Stone leaves the clinic and the country without acknowledging his children.

The boys are brought up by Hema and the man who becomes her lover and companion, Dr. Ghosh. The boys grow up at the clinic with Genet, the daughter of the maid, Rosina. Their childhood is relatively happy—Hema and Ghosh make good parents, and Marion-Shiva and Genet are inseparable. But adolescence shifts the dynamic between them, leading to a single action which impacts all their lives. Marion feels betrayed by Shiva, and the twins grow apart. Genet deals with her demons by joining the fight for Eritrean independence.

Politics is always present in the lives of the characters. Colonel Mebratu, who Ghosh’s patient, launches a coup d’état against Emperor Haile Selassie. The coup fails, and the Colonel and his driver, Zemui—Genet’s father—are taken into custody. Rosina goes looking for Zemui and disappears for days, and Ghosh is arrested and imprisoned. Then later, when Genet and a group of Eritreans hijack an Ethiopian Airways plane, a woman identifies Marion as Genet’s friend, which means that he has to leave the country. He goes to the United States to work in an inner-city hospital in Boston, which finally brings him face-to-face with his father.

The characters are rounded and nuanced—no one is purely good or bad. Addis is a character in its own right, and Abraham Verghese brings it to life. When Sister Mary goes into labour, the rainy season had just ended, “its rattle on the corrugated tin roofs of Missing ceasing abruptly like a chatterbox cut off in midsentence. Overnight, in that hushed silence, the meskel flowers bloomed, turning the hillsides of Addis Ababa into gold. In the meadows around Missing the sedge won its battle over mud and swept right up to the paved threshold of the hospital.”

Verghese is a medical doctor and so are most of the characters in this book, including the twins. There is a lot of medical detail about operations and diseases, which some readers may find a little overwhelming but I thought worked, given the context.

Verghese covers decades of Ethiopian history, from the remnants of Italian colonialism to the coups against Haile Sailasse and Eritrea’s fight for independence. But this is at heart a book about people and the messy, complicated relationships we all have. Cutting for Stone is a beautifully written book that you can easily lose yourself in.

Judas: Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange)

“Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960. It is a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unresolved. Some of the buildings still bore the marks of the war that had divided the city a decade earlier. In the background you could hear the distant strains of an accordion, or the plaintive sounds of a harmonica behind closed shutters.”

This first paragraph sets the scene: war, hidden lives and emotions, and religion. The city is Jerusalem. Amos Oz died at the end of 2018, and this is his last book. It is the book of an older man, looking back at the past, wondering about alternative paths that, if taken, might have avoided conflicts that have become entrenched.

Oz has been writing about Israel for years. But in Judas, he raises questions not only about the creation of Israel but about Jesus and the conflictual relationship between Jews and Christians. And at the heart of both these stories is a man labelled a traitor.

Shmuel Ash is a student in Jerusalem, in love with his studies and with Yardena. But Yardena has had enough of him: “Either you’re like an excited puppy…or else you’re lying on your bed for days like an unaired quilt”, she tells him and leaves to marry someone else.

Shmuel’s father loses his business, so Shmuel has to give up university. When he sees an advertisement for a “humanities student with conversational skills and an interest in history” to spend a few hours with a 70-year-old man in return for a small salary and board and lodgings, it seems a perfect way to retreat from the world.

The house in the advertisement is old and draws him into its meandering corridor, much as he is later drawn into the lives of the two people who live there. “[T]he passage was not level, but sloped downhill, as if it were a riverbed, not a dark corridor.” He is interviewed by the old man, Gershom Wald, and a young woman whom he later finds out is his daughter-in-law, Atalia Abravanel. He moves in and becomes part of the household, and inevitably, falls in love with Atalia, the mysterious woman just out of reach.

Shmuel is writing his thesis on Jesus and the Jews, trying to understand the how the animosity between Jews and Christians started. After all, Jesus and his apostles were Jewish. Jesus did not want to start a new religion. According to Shmuel, Judas was a spy sent by the Jewish authorities to infiltrate Jesus’s entourage, to find out more about this young preacher. But Judas starts to believe in Jesus and thinks the only way that Jesus can prove his divinity is to go to Jerusalem. But things do not go as Judas planned. Jesus is crucified, and Judas is labelled a traitor.

There is a parallel story here, which Shmuel learns from Wald and Atalia: the story of her father, Shealtiel Abravanel. Abravanel was also branded a traitor because he challenged Ben Gurion on the foundation of the state of Israel, the only member of the Zionist executive committee to do so. Abravanel believed that Arabs and Israelis could live together, but it had to be done through constant dialogue and not through conflict. Like Judas, he is also banished and lives out his days in the old house. 

The conflict that Abravanel tries to avoid leaves its scars on the family. Micha, Wald’s son and Atalia’s husband, was killed in 1948, presumably by Arabs, during the fighting on the road to Jerusalem.

It is a house of ghosts, still lives and betrayals: Abravanel’s room has been left as it was, a shrine to him, and Wald lives with the memories of his dead son. For Wald and Atalia, there seems to be no way out of the house and the pattern their lives have fallen into.   

Oz has a way with words that bring people and scenes to life. The house and Jerusalem are characters in their own right. The house has grills on the windows but in the courtyard are geraniums, sprouting from “a mass of rusty pots and disused pans, paraffin stoves, buckets, basins, tin cans and even a cracked lavatory bowl, all filled with soil and promoted to the rank of flowerpot. … And over all this, lay the silence of a cold winter’s evening. Not the kind of limpid silence that invites you in, but rather an indifferent, age-old silence that turns its back on you.”

Oz writes beautifully and provocatively. This is a book to savour that leaves you plenty to think about.