Men without Women: Haruki Murakami

Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen

“Here’s what hurst the most,” Kafuku said. “I didn’t truly understand her—or at least some crucial part of her. And it may well end that way now that she’s dead and gone. Like a small, locked safe lying at the bottom of the ocean. It hurts a lot.”
Tatsuki thought for a moment before speaking.
“But Mr. Kafuku, can any of us ever perfectly understand another person? However much we may love them?”

Love, loneliness, regret…These are the emotions the men in these stories grapple with. Almost all of them have lost a woman, either to another man or to death. How do they cope?

In “Drive My Car”, Kafuku, a widowed actor confides in his female driver, Misaki, about his dead wife’s infidelity and how he got to know her lover Tatsuki. It takes Misaki, almost a stranger, to give him the insight into his wife’s behaviour that helped explain her to him, long after she had gone.

In “Yesterday” (yes, Haruki Murakami is a Beatles fan), Kitaru tries to set up his friend Tanimura with his childhood sweetheart Erika. Kitaru is convinced that Erika will find someone else and he would rather it was someone he knew and liked. In “Independent Organ”, Dr. Tokai, a cosmetic surgeon who has a string of girlfriends, falls in love with a married woman and wastes away because she leaves him.

In one of the most intriguing of the collection, “Samsa in love” Haruki Murakami takes Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis”, where Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find that he has become a huge insect, and turns it on its head. In Murakami’s version, an insect wakes up in a bed one day to find he is a human, Gregor Samsa. Murakami describes how the insect sees his new body.

“Samsa looked down with dismay at his naked body. How ill-formed it was. Worse than ill-formed. Smooth white skin with fragile blue blood vessels visible through it…a soft, unprotected belly…gangly arms and legs (just two of each!); a scrawny, breakable neck… . Could a body so preposterous, so easy to destroy (no shell for protection, no weapons for attack) survive in this world?” But he has to manage with it, and somehow makes his way down the stairs, worrying about the predatory birds outside. Then a female hunchback locksmith rings the doorbell, and Samsa falls in love.

These are just some of the stories. Each one is beautifully crafted, told without sentimentality. Murakami is a wonderful observer of human behaviour—there are no pyrotechnics here, just people trying to make sense of their lives. 

The Shadow of the Wind: Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Translated from Spanish by Lucia Graves

“This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. … When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. …Every book you see here has been someone’s best friend.”

Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a place only a few know about and where Daniel’s father, a bookseller, takes him when he turns 11. The tradition is that when someone visits the cemetery for the first time, he or she must choose a book and adopt it, promising to always keep it alive.

The book is set in Barcelona between 1945 and 1955, during the time of the Franco dictatorship. It was a time when people had to be careful about what they did or said or whom they associated with: getting on the wrong side of those in power could lead to your imprisonment or death. Political prisoners are held in Montjuïc Castle, an old fortress in Barcelona, where they are tortured.

That visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books changes Daniel’s life. The book that he chooses—or that chooses him—is The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. Daniel becomes increasingly obsessed with the book and with its mysterious author. Julián Carax was from Barcelona but had disappeared suddenly and was said to have died in a duel.

Daniel’s search leads him to an abandoned house in the upscale part of Barcelona that used to belong to the Aldaya family, once known as one of the richest families in the city. The house seems to hide secrets about what really happened to Carax, and is not going to give them up easily.

Meanwhile, the shadow of the dictatorship falls on the lives of Daniel and his father. The man they hire to help in the bookshop, Fermín, was a political prisoner, held in Montjuic Castle, where he was tortured by Inspector Fumero. Fumero is a nasty, vengeful man, who is out to get Fermín by any means.

But there is more to Fumero. As Daniel and Fermín start to unravel the mystery of Carax’s life, they find links between him and Fumero. Was Fumero involved in Carax’s death? And who is the man with the scarred face calling himself Laín Coubert (the name of the devil in Carax’s The Shadow of the Wind), and determined to burn every single copy of Carax’s books?

I had read this book when it was first published and reread it after hearing of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafón in June 2020. I remember enjoying it but had forgotten enough to be able to lose myself in the story. It was hard to put down: there are plenty of plots twists, a bit of melodrama and a real sense of place. It’s beautifully written, and Zafón pulls you into his world: a world where things—or people—might not be what they seem, where memories leave scars that don’t heal. And it’s a book about the power of books and stories.

Sometimes a writer creates a place that is so real and so tempting that you want to go there. As a child, that place for me was Narnia, C.S. Lewis’s imaginary world. As an adult, it would be the Cemetery of Forgotten Books: I would love to lose myself in its endless winding corridors and be claimed by a single book.

That’s the best compliment I can pay Zafón—that he still inspires me with the power to dream. I’m very sorry that we will not be reading more books from him, but by giving us the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, he has created an imaginary place that will live forever in the imaginations of his readers.

Girl, Woman, Other: Bernadine Evaristo

A gay artist, an adopted child, a transgender woman, a successful lawyer, an old woman finding she has more in common with her transgender granddaughter than with her straight children…these are just some of the voices you hear in Bernadine Evaristo’s book, which in narrated in turn by 12 British women of colour.

Amma is a gay artist who starts a theatre company with her best friend Dominique. Dominique leaves London to follow Nzinga, an American woman, to a commune in California but the relationship slowly becomes abusive. Amma’s daughter Yazz’s closest friends—her “squad”—include Waris, a Somali woman who chooses to wear a hijab and draws comics featuring a female superhero. Carole rejects the traditions of her mother, Bummi, and becomes a successful lawyer. LaTisha, Carole’s schoolfriend, becomes a businesswoman. Shirley is the teacher who singled out Carole in school and pushed her to make something of herself. There is Megan, who rebels against her mother dressing her up in frocks and eventually breaks free to become transgender and changes her name to Morgan; and Hattie, Megan/Morgan’s grandmother and Hattie’s mother Grace.

All of them are connected in some way and you follow the threads that link them from one narrative to the next. We meet some of them in one narrative and then learn their story when their turn comes to speak. Shirley is the stern teacher in Carole and LaTisha’s narratives, but she has a story too that brought her to where she was. In Carole’s narrative, LaTisha is friend who lets her down but you get her version of the events when she tells her story. And Penelope, whom we first meet as an overbearing teacher in Shirley’s story with whom she has a confrontation, is actually someone dealing with the shock of learning she is adopted and the grief of being abandoned by her mother. Penelope decides to use DNA to find her mother, and the story comes full circle.

The women try to make it in a world that is often skewed towards the men. Shirley is a bright and hardworking student, the one in the family who makes it, not her older brothers.

“who didn’t have to do any housework or even wash their own clothes, whereas she had to spend her Saturday mornings doing both
“who were given first helpings at meals they never had to cook, and extra portions because they were growing lads, including mega-helpings of the most desirable desserts
“who weren’t punished for speaking their mind, whereas she was sent to her room at the slightest sign of insurrection, keep your thoughts to yourself, Shirl”.

Bernadine Evaristo writes about what it means to be a woman of colour, gay or straight. Carole has to deal with the surprise and doubts on the part of new clients when they realize their lawyer is a black woman. The twelve women include people of different ages, sexual orientations and beliefs. Amma’s open, bohemian lifestyle contrasts with Shirley’s more traditional outlook. Megan/Morgan’s story is about the process of refusing to be identified with a particular gender.

Through the lives of these women, Evaristo raises issues about feminism, partriarchy, racism and sexuality. But it is all done without any preaching.

This would be a great book to hear read aloud. She writes in run on sentences broken up into paragraphs, almost the way people would speak.

Evaristo brings these women alive, with their fears and triumphs, joys and sorrows. Listening to their voices—self-assured, shy, angry, boisterous, controlled, sad, happy—you get a picture of what life is like for women of colour.

Black Panther, Red Wolf: Marlon James

 “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”

This is how the book starts. It feels like a spoiler, because the crux of the story is that a man, known only as Tracker, has been paid to look for a boy. He isn’t sure who the boy really is—he gets a different story every time he tries to find out—and there are other people looking for him too. And in spite of the fact that I knew the boy was dead at the start, I was still engaged enough to stay with the book.

Well, almost. The first section rambles and is all over the place. It sets the scene, introducing Tracker’s back story and his reasons for leaving home, and the time he spends with the woman Sangoma and the children she has taken in, each deformed or unusual in some way and rejected by their families: the Giraffe Boy with his long legs, the boy with no legs at all who rolls instead of walking and the Smoke Girl. This is also where he meets the Leopard, a shape shifter who moves between being a man and a leopard. This is a pivotal period in his life: Leopard and he form a bond, and Sangoma casts spells on him that protect him throughout his journey.

The book really gets started with the second section, when Tracker is hired to look for the boy as part of a group. Tracker is a little annoyed at this: he is the best at his job, able to pick up the scent of someone from miles away. But there is something strange about the boy. Many seek him, both humans and other creatures, and some of them are very nasty. It is not always clear who is out to harm him and who to save him. As Tracker says, ““Everywhere I go to find this boy, to save this boy, I run into something worse than what we are saving him from … but we still think monsters are the ones with claws, and scales and skin.”

Marlon James drew on African myths for this book—in fact, he says it’s an African Game of Thrones. There is certainly plenty of violence in it. I’ve read James’s A Book of Night Women about slavery in Jamaica, and I know that he doesn’t stint on violence. But whereas in that book, the violence was very much in context and therefore made sense, here it feels like a splatter-fest. Creatures are killed, heads roll (literally), and scene after scene is littered with body parts.

However, the beings he meets are intriguing: creatures that hunt him but can only walk on ceilings so the only way to stay safe is to sleep in the open, flesh eaters, hyenas that change into humans (or the other way around), a woman with lightning in her veins, a giant, and a sorceress who morphs into a puddle or seeps through walls.

It held my attention until the last 100 pages or so, where I lost interest. The core story was good, in spite of the unnecessary blood-letting, and he should have stopped with the finding of the boy. I like James’s writing and was intrigued by the idea that he drew on African myths. But some of the writing is meant only to shock and has no other purpose, and the book is a couple of hundred pages and a few fight scenes too long. Which is a pity, because it could have been so much better.

Podcast: Reading for our times—Reading around the world

Some years ago, a friend and fellow bookworm, Kristine Goulding, suggested on this blog that we read a book from every country in the world. And so the reading challenge was born, with only one rule: the writer has to be from the country. We’ve taken our time over it, but we are now up to 114 countries out of 200 (I split the UK into four, added Tibet and Western Sahara to make it more interesting).

During the lockdown, Usha Raman, who writes for this blog, started a podcast called Reading for our times. In each episode, people read extracts from books they love, around a particular theme.

This week’s episode, Reading around the world, is based on the reading challenge. Six readers cover the world with extracts from Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany); The Lunatic by Anthony C Winkler (Jamaica); The Book of Masks by Hwan Sun-won (South Korea); Bestiarios by Julio Cortazar (Argentina); Drive your plow over the bones of the dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland); and The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (Angola). The readings are preceded by a chat that Usha and I had about the reading challenge and what it has meant.

Do listen to the podcast and take a virtual trip around the world! Check out the other episodes too: they range from books that were banned in India, South Asian writers and pandemic preoccupations.

The podcast can be found on several platforms, including Anchor.fm and Spotify.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Maya Angelou

“The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.”

Three strong black women stand out in this first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography: Momma, the grandmother Angelou lived with when she was a child; Vivian, Angelou’s mother; and Angelou herself, a bookish, sensitive child who has to grow up quickly.

When her parents’ marriage founders, Angelou, then three years old, and her brother Bailey, four, are sent off to live with Momma in Stamps, Arkansas. They arrive, a little bewildered, but are soon taken under Momma’s wing. The children move between Momma and Vivian over the course of years.

Momma runs the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, where the children work after school. Their uncle Willie, who was hurt during the war, lives with them. This was the Deep South in the 1930s, when segregation and lynching were facts of life. “High points in Stamps were usually negative: droughts, floods, lynching and death.” Angelou paints a picture of a community that was close, surrounded by rampant racism.

Momma is a formidable woman: someone who can navigate the minefield of dealing with white people. But she is not a woman to be pushed around. When a white dentist to whom Momma has lent money without interest when he needed it refuses to treat Angelou’s toothache because he doesn’t treat blacks, Momma is furious. She marches into his office and demands 10 dollars in interest for her loan. He protests but Momma holds her ground—his outrageous behaviour doesn’t qualify him for favours, as far she can see. He hands the money over, and Momma uses it to take Angelou to the coloured dentist.

When Angelou is eight and living with her mother in St. Louis, Vivian’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, who seems gentle enough on the surface, rapes her. When her family finds out they have him arrested. Angelou’s description of the court scene reflects the confusion an eight-year-old feels about rape, worried that she might have been partly to blame. It is heart-breaking.

Vivian comes through as a strong woman, a card player who can hold her own with any man. She believes in letting her children make their own choices and is generally supportive of their decisions. Vivian hopes “for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.” So when she finds out that Angelou, in her final year of high school, is pregnant, she takes it in her stride.

The racism is pervasive. At the graduation ceremony in her school in Stamps, a white man gives a patronizing speech to the students that clearly implies that the real promise of the nation lies in the town’s white school. “The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even on it) would try to be Jesse Owens and Joe Louises.”

But persistence can sometimes pay off. In Oakland, California, faced with a hostile white female streetcar conductor, Angelou decides that, come hell or high water, she is going to become a streetcar conductor. Never mind that no black woman had ever held that job before. Encouraged by Vivian, she refuses to accept defeat, in spite of several rejections until finally, the company gives up and hires her.

This is a powerful story, poignant, funny at times and well-observed. Angelou writes beautifully, whether she is describing pain or just the beauty of a perfect moment. It is a classic, and if you haven’t already read it, you should. Angelou is not only a great writer, but she was also a civil rights activist, and in this book, she combines the two, never hectoring or lecturing, but merely telling us how it was.

And is.

The Bickford Fuse: Andrey Kurkov

Translated from Russian by Boris Dralyuk

This is a strange, dreamlike book. Four men are on journeys across the Soviet Union that make no sense, in a landscape where the laws of physics don’t seem to exist anymore. The journeys start sometime around the end of the Second World War and last for decades.

The self-propelled barge that Junior Seaman Vasily Khairtonov is on makes landfall on the far east of the country. His senior officer, the only other person left on the barge, disappears without instructions. Left with all the ammunition, Kharitonov puts it all together, combines several spools of Bickford fuse into a single thread, attaches one end to a stick of dynamite in the pile and the other to his duffel bag and takes off across the country. He wants to hand the fuse—and the decision of what to do about it—to a friendly if he meets one. Otherwise he will blow everything to bits.

The driver of a truck carrying a large searchlight rolls on in an endless night long after the truck has run out of petrol, first with a passenger and then with Gorych. They keep going, hoping for a dawn that doesn’t come.

Meanwhile, an airship is flying overhead with a single Occupant, sitting on a stool. The engine has died a long time ago, and it is floating with the wind with no hope of ever coming down.

The fourth traveller on a seemingly pointless journey is Andrey, the youngest son of a family who are part of a sect (though they seem to be the only members). They live in a remote area with no contact with any other person. Into this family comes the Invalid, a commander (maybe), who has frying-pan-shaped loudspeakers that broadcast news from a central command. His mission is to put them in remote places up so people are kept informed. But none of the broadcasts seem to make much sense. He talks Andrey into joining him, persuading him that the young man that he would be fighting for the Fatherland. Andrey, who had been wanting to leave, takes up the offer.

But is the war still on or has it been years since hostilities stopped? No one seems to know, but many are convinced that the battles are still raging, and spend their time fighting so-called enemies. The book is full of absurd situations: a camp for musician prisoners, a commander with his two officers in the forest who is convinced they are surrounded by enemies, a town with almost no men where everyone seems to work in a factory making straightjackets, an orchard with trees that bear no fruit because each tree is planted on the grave of a political prisoner, and the broadcasts from the “frying pans” that ask people to set their calendars to different years, depending on where they are.

Then there is the voice in Kharitonov’s dreams: an Englishman called William, born in the late 18th century, who tells him his story from childhood to after his death. William is connected to the seaman but we only find out how at the end.

In his introduction, Kurkov says that Russian leaders like Yeltsin and Krushchev tried to take the country forward but merely succeeded in returning to a mythical past. He blames this on “Soviet man” and The Bickford Fuse is his way of trying to understand Soviet man’s psychology.

All the men on their journeys—and many of the others—keep going because they have been told they must, there is a war on and the Fatherland needs protecting. There is no attempt to question or doubt, even when the circumstances are ridiculous. The war may be over—or not—but people still keep fighting it. No one really knows what is going on. “Go with the current or you’re done for,” says one of the characters.

This is a strange book that took me a while to get into. Kurkov writes about absurd situations in a very matter-of-fact way, as if they were just part of everyday reality. Although much of it doesn’t seem to make sense, yet it has its own kind of logic. Once I accepted the world that Kurkov creates, I enjoyed its unusual, dreamlike narrative.

The World’s Wife: Carol Ann Duffy

History and myth have often focused on men: Sisyphus, Lazarus, Herod, Pilate, Midas, Faust, Freud… But what of their wives? Who were they and what did they think of their men?

These women are brought to life in Carol Ann Duffy’s collection of poems. The wives of the men mentioned above, female figures like Salomé, Circe, Eurydice, Delilah and Medusa, finally have a voice. She also reimagines King Kong and the Kray Twins as women. The result is delightful.

The collection starts with Little Red-Cap, a take on Little Red Riding Hood, where the girl is at “childhood’s edge” when she sees the wolf, “a paperback in his hairy paw,/red wine staining his bearded jaw. … I made quite sure he spotted me, / sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink”. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well for the wolf.

I love reworkings of well-known tales, and this collection delivers. The women are, on the whole, unimpressed with their men. Mrs. Midas watches with a mixture of fascination and horror at the way everything her husband touches turns into gold.

“He tried to light a cigarette. I gazed, entranced,
as the blue flame played on its luteous stem. At least,
I said, you’ll be able to give up smoking for good.”

Mrs. Aesop is bored to distraction with Aesop’s fables. Mrs. Sisyphus is a woman married to a workaholic husband who spends all his time and energy in rolling a boulder up the hill, just to have it roll back down. She would rather he spent more time with her, but he can’t give up his “work”.  

Orpheus and Eurydice aren’t quite the happy couple they’re made out to be in myth. Eurydice is happy to be dead and in the Underworld, away from Orpheus:

“It was a place where language stopped,
a black full stop, a black hole
where words had to come to an end.
… the one place you’d think a girl would be safe
from the kind of man
who follows her around
writing poems”

But to her dismay, Orpheus turns up in the Underworld and persuades the gods to let him take her back. They agree, provided he doesn’t turn around to look at her even once on his way out. But Eurydice flatters him into turning around. His promise to the gods broken, she is free to disappear back into the shadows.

The Kray Twins, reimagined as women, are gangsters like the real Kray Twins (who ran organized crime in London in the 50s and 60s), but the female Twins avenge women who have been ill-treated by their men.

And finally, Mrs Darwin: “Went to the Zoo. / I said to Him – / Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.”

This is a thoroughly enjoyable collection, turning the legends about men on their heads. The title is a reference to the phrase “the world and his wife”, which denies women the right to be part of the world. Duffy has put them back on the centre of the stage, where they should be.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies: John Boyne

The book begins in Ireland in the 1940s: The Catholic Church is all-powerful, and anything outside the norm is not only frowned upon but punished. For example, having a child outside marriage, as Catherine Goggin, a pregnant teenager in an Irish village finds out. She is exposed by the priest and banished from the village. (It turns out later that the priest himself had fathered children out of wedlock.)

Catherine heads for Dublin where she moves in with Seàn and Jack. It takes Catherine a while to realize that they were a gay couple. Being gay in 1940s Ireland was a crime, so the two men were taking a huge risk in living together. When Seàn’s father finds them, it all goes horribly wrong.

Catherine gives her child, Cyril, up for adoption. Charles and Maude Avery, a middle-class couple, raise him. Although Cyril does not have an unhappy childhood, it isn’t one filled with love. Maude is a writer and an eccentric. Charles makes it clear that Cyril is not a real Avery, who is tolerated rather than loved.

Then at 10 years old, he meets Julian, a boy his own age, and is smitten. Already at that age, Cyril realizes that he is different from the others, and it was not something that would be accepted. “Even at that tender age I knew that there was something about me that was different and that it would be impossible ever to put right.” The two boys become friends, but Julian does not suspect that his friend is in love with him. As a gay man in an Ireland where it is still a crime, Cyril has to live a double life, hiding his real self under a mask.

The book follows Cyril as he grows up and joins the civil service. He often eats in the parliament’s cafeteria, where Catherine Goggin rules the roost. Mother and son take a liking to each other without knowing about the very real bond between them.

The book follows Cyril as he eventually leaves Ireland for Amsterdam, where he finds love with a Danish doctor, Bastiaan, and is finally able to live openly as a gay man. The couple move to New York in the 1980s. It may have been a more open time, but prejudice hasn’t exactly disappeared.  AIDS, commonly known as a “gay disease”, is spreading and gay men are held responsible.

Cyril’s story comes full circle, as he returns to Ireland. It is now the 2000s, and Ireland is a very different place.

Through the life of Cyril from his childhood to old age, John Boyne gives us a sense of what it means to be gay and how things have changed—or not—over the decades. It is unimaginable how difficult it was—and still is in some parts of the world—just to be open about who you are.

While Cyril is no saint, which makes him more interesting, Bastiaan is a little too good to be true. But the characters who really come alive here are the women, especially Catherine, who is feisty, strong and funny. My one grip with it is that the book is full of coincidences worthy of a Bollywood film (or Shakespeare?): people meet up against all odds, which drives the story but does require a suspension of disbelief. But on the whole, it is a moving and redemptive story.

Note: The title is from something that the political theorist Hannah Arendt is supposed to have said about the poet W.H. Auden: “life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face”.

Celestial Objects: Jokha Alharthi

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Translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Celestial Objects is a novel by Omani writer Jokha Alharthi that won the Man Booker International Prize in 2019. This makes it unusual—there aren’t a lot of books by Omani writers translated into English, and this is the first novel written originally in Arabic to win the prize.

The novel tells the story of a family the village of al-Awafi, and through their lives, shows the shifts in attitudes and changes taking place in Oman over three generations.  Azzan and Salima have three daughters: Mayya, constantly bent over her sewing machine, bookish Asma and beautiful Khawla. When the book starts, Mayya has just been told she is getting married to Abdullah, a businessman. She is in love with her cousin and doesn’t want to marry Abdullah, but doesn’t feel she has a choice.

Abdullah falls in love with Mayya when he sees her absorbed in her sewing. Like her, he is bound by family—he has a violent father who decides the direction Abdallah’s life will take. Abdullah takes care of his father, but he is also afraid of him, a fear that is so deeply ingrained that it becomes a part of who he is. It is not only the women who are oppressed. Abdullah is caught between wanting to break free and needing to do his duty by his father.

The other two sisters have a bit more of a say in their marriages. Asma agrees to marry Khalid, who has been chosen for her, after giving it some thought. She makes the decision with her head, thinking that Khalid will support her in finishing her studies, which he does.  Khawla refuses Khalid’s brother, saying she is promised to her cousin, a childhood sweetheart. She waits for him to return from Canada, and he turns out to be a wastrel but she marries him anyway.

It was customary for families to own slaves, some of whom worked in the house as domestic help, like Zarifa, owned by Abdullah’s father. She is also his mistress and a surrogate mother to Abdullah. After Abdullah’s mother disappears when he is very young, Zarifa raises him, and she is the one person he is close to.

When slavery is abolished in 1970, Zarifa’s son strikes out for himself, much to his mother’s dismay. He tries to explain to her that no one can own them anymore, that they are free to do as they please, but she will not leave her old master.

This is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Omanis, and the changes that happened over the years. Mayya names her daughter London in spite of opposition from everyone, including Abdallah. It was as if she focused her yearning for other places, for a wider world on her daughter; it was a promise to her child that she will have the opportunities that Mayya never had. And by the time London grows up, things have changed, and she does have more freedom than her mother had.

The book moves back and forth between first-person and third-person narrative. The only character who tells his own story is Abdullah. You see the marriage from his point of view and follow his search for the truth about what really happened to his mother. All the other chapters focus on a particular character in turn. Time is also flexible, moving between the past, present and future, all sometimes with the same chapter. It’s not a device often used and has the effect of a multi-faceted piece, where you get to see the whole picture at once.