Do Not Say We Have Nothing: Madeleine Thien

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“It was a time of chaos, of bombs and floods, when love songs streamed from the radios and wept down the streets. Music sustained weddings, births, rituals, work, marching, boredom, confrontation and death; music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.”

This novel is an encapsulation of the modern history of China, from the early years of Mao’s rise to the present, seen through the lives to two families. It is a story of upheaval but also of the love of music.

The book starts in Vancouver in 1989. Marie—or Ma-Li—is 10 and living with her mother. One day, the police come to the door to tell them that Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, has committed suicide in Hong Kong. Marie realizes that she actually knows very little about him.

In March 1990, Ai Ming, a young woman fleeing the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Tiannamen Square protestors, comes to live with them. Ai Ming’s father, Sparrow, and Kai were close, and through her, Marie starts to piece together the story of her father’s life.

Their stories are recorded in the handwritten Book of Records, “the shape of a miniature door, bound together with a length of walnut-coloured string”. The book, a mix of fact and fiction, ends up with Marie’s mother. When Marie gives it to Ai Ming, Ai Ming reads to her from it, introducing her to people who seem strangers but—as we will discover—are connected to her. There is Big Mother Knife, with “a jackdaw laugh, a terrible temper, and shouting voice”. Her sister Swirl and husband Wen the Dreamer, the author of the book, have a child, Zhuli. When Swirl and Wen the Dreamer are caught up in the Land Reform for owning property, they leave Zhuli with Big Mother. Zhuli grows up to be a talented violinist.

Zhuli’s love of Western classical music is shared by Big Mother’s son, Sparrow, a gifted composer, who is absorbed by the symphony he is working on. Big Mother named him Sparrow to keep him safe: “the little sparrow was a bird so common that gods and men, idealists and thieves, Communists and Nationalists, would pass over him in disdain”. The third in this trio is Kai, who is a concert pianist. The three become very close, attending a study group that discussed forbidden topics (with the radio turned on loud to discourage any eavesdropping). But soon their world is turned upside down as the Revolution targets musicians who play Western music.

Music is one of the leitmotifs running through the book—the thread binding many of the characters.  Big Mother Knife and Swirl could sing “harmonies so bewitching that problems large and small disappeared the enchantment of their voices”. Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli live and breathe Western classical music.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing brings China’s history to life in the way that good fiction can—by humanizing historical events, showing how ordinary people were affected by them: the  betrayals and the lives destroyed, and the need to hide your inner life. As the Professor in the study group says, “This is a skill we perfect from an early age. How to grind ideas into a fine cloud of dust.”

It is a moving and beautifully written book. As Marie learns the stories of her father and Ai Ming’s family, she discovers the pain and heartache that joins them. This is also a story of a country, as Madelien Thien charts China’s journey from the cataclysmic events of the Revolution to the modern-day consumer society.

Frankenstein in Baghdad: Ahmed Sadaawi

Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

Ahmed Sadaawi takes the story of Frankenstein and transposes it to Baghdad in the early 2000s, in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. Bombs go off regularly on the streets and people die every day. But not all of them get a decent burial—bits of bodies lie rotting on the streets, unclaimed. Wanting to force the authorities to recognize that the body parts are as deserving of a proper burial as whole corpses, Hadi, a rather disreputable junk dealer, starts collecting and stitching them together to make a whole man. He dubs the corpse Whatsitsname.

But things get out of hand. There is a huge explosion on Tayaran Square—a bomber tries to attack the Sadeer Novotel Hotel but is thwarted by Hasib, a young security guard. The hotel is spared the explosion but Hasib is blown up in the process.

Hasib’s soul, released from his body, drifts towards the river, wanting to touch it. He sees a man in a white vest and shorts drifting with the current. “Go and find what happened to your body”, the man says. “Don’t stay here.” A teenager sitting on his grave gives him the same advice. “You have to find it or some other body, or else things will end badly for you.”

But Hasib’s body isn’t whole anymore. He goes looking for another one, finds Whatitsname and moves in.

Hadi wakes up in the morning to find the corpse missing. Hasib/Whatitsname has gone to the house next door, which belongs to Elishva, a widow. She never got over the fact that her son Daniel never returned from the war, although everyone around her is convinced that he is dead. So when Hasib, in his new body, walks into her house, she is convinced that Daniel has come back.

Initially, Hasib/Whatitsname wreaks vengeance on those who are responsible for killing the people whose body parts he is using. But as the parts decompose, he has to keep replacing them, and some of the dead are not exactly innocent themselves. As rumours about him grow, he gathers a following who move in with him. Meanwhile the head of the Tracking and Pursuit Unit has decided to capture this strange creature haunting the streets of Baghdad.

This is a clever book, full of black humour. You do need a strong stomach at times, but it is well worth it. The story is told partly from the perspective of Whatitsname, who records his account for a journalist. The characters are vivid, especially Elishva, whose closest confidants are her cat and a picture of St. George on her wall.

Sadaawi paints a picture of a city caught up in violence and uncertainty but where people still try to get on with their lives. And where everyone has a right to their story, even if it is a creature that is an amalgamation of various humans. It is funny, poignant and in spite of drawing the central idea from Mary Shelley, is utterly original. It is not surprising that it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord—Liel Leibovitz

“Lots of writers have dared walk up to the edge of reason and stare into that great chasm, into the abyss. Very few people have got there and laughed out loud at what they saw. It’s the divine comedy.”

—Bono, on Leonard Cohen

You either love or hate Leonard Cohen’s music. I bought Songs of Leonard Cohen when I was in my early 20s. I had never heard anything like it: the spare songs with minimal instrumentation, the almost monotonous but compelling voice and the clever, beautiful and sometimes funny lyrics (in spite of complaints that his music is suicidal, it’s often laced with humour). The record saw me through a period of deep depression when I was unable to listen to music. It felt like only Cohen’s songs seemed to be able to penetrate the darkness, and it is still one of my favourite albums.

Liel Leibovitz makes it very clear that this is not a biography of Cohen. Instead he tries to understand what makes Cohen so important. As he puts it, there have been better poets, more skilled novelists and songwriters with greater talent. “But Leonard Cohen lingers and thrives because he is not really any of these things, at least not essentially. He is something more intricate, the sort of man whose pores absorb the particles of beauty and grief and truth that float weightlessly all around us yet so few of us note.”

But who was Leonard Cohen and what shaped him? He was from a Jewish family in Montreal. His father, Nathan Cohen, died when he was nine, something that affected him deeply. One of his early influences was his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, who spent almost a year with them after his father’s death. Rabbi Klinitsky-Klein’s Judaism, with “its language of punishment and justice, of damnation and salvation”, was far more fiery than the “polite theology” that the Cohens followed. It was spiritual but also erotic, something that spoke to an adolescent Cohen. This influence can be seen through many of Cohen’s songs: the drawing on images from the Bible and the mix of the sacred and profane. As Cohen puts it: “Real spirituality…has its feet in the mud and its heart in heaven”.

If you know Cohen’s songs, you will enjoy this book. Leibovitz goes into detail about how some of the well-known songs were conceived. When Cohen went into the studio to record Songs of Leonard Cohen, the producer John Simon thought Sisters of Mercy needed a hurdy gurdy to give it a sense of a “mobile healing operation pulling into town” (quite clearly, Simon did not understand what the song was about). Cohen relegated the hurdy gurdy to the background and put the lyrics front and centre, which is where they needed to be. “If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn / They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.” Why would lyrics like these need to be dressed up?

And then, of course, there is Hallelujah, the song that took Cohen a year to write. There are probably around 80 verses but most versions—including Cohen’s—only use a handful of them. The song is a masterpiece of pain and loss.

“Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

What I liked about this book is that it tries to explain what made Cohen the poet/songwriter he was. It is not a gossipy, tell-all book but gives a more in-depth perspective of the times that Cohen lived in—the literary scene in Canada, the rise of the protest song in the US or the politics in Israel—and how he reacted to, and was affected by, these events. Cohen was one of the greatest poets of our times, and this book does his work justice.

Sarah’s Key: Tatiana de Rosnay

“He closed his eyes, like so many other Parisians, during that terrible year of 1942. He had closed his eyes the day of the roundup, when he had seen all those people being driven away, packed on buses, taken God knows where. … My father said that we could never forget. Never. … And it has been there for me, for the past sixty years.”

The past never dies, the saying goes. And so it is in Sarah’s Key

The book starts with the infamous Velodrome d’Hiver roundup, Vel’ d’Hiv for short. In 1942, over 13,000 Jews living in Paris were rounded up by the French police and taken to the Vel’ d’Hiv where they were held without food, water or sanitary facilities before being sent to concentration camps. After the war, the roundups were blamed entirely on the Nazis. It was only in 1995 that the then President Jacques Chirac apologized for the role played by the French police and bureaucrats.

Among the families taken away were the Starzynskis. Until that night, they believed that only the adult men were being taken and that the women and children would be left alone. But when the police knock on the Starzynskis’ door the night of 16 July, they are there to take away the entire family. Sarah, a 10-year-old, locks up her four-year-old brother Michel in a secret cupboard to keep him safe. She takes the key, thinking they will be back the next day.

But, of course, they do not return. Sarah and her parents are sent to a concentration camp in France where first, the men are separated from the women and children, and then the children are separated from their mothers. The adults were sent to Auschwitz. 

Sarah cannot stop thinking of her little brother waiting for her and is determined to get back to him. She manages to escape from the camp with another girl, and the two girls are taken in by an old couple living nearby. But Sarah’s only thought is of her brother, waiting for her in the cupboard.

Sixty years after the roundup, Julia Jarmond, an American woman married to a Frenchman, is living in Paris. She works for an English-language paper and is asked by her editor to write an article on the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup for the 60th anniversary.

Julia sets out to do a short piece but learning about Sarah touches a chord: she has an 11-year-old daughter. As she researches into the fate of the Starzynskis—and especially Sarah—she uncovers a connection between the child and her husband’s family. Julia’s probing stirs old ghosts and long-buried secrets.  

As Julia uncovers what happened to Sarah, she finds herself questioning her own relationships and re-evaluating her life.

Tatiana de Rosnay does not go into a lot of detail on what happened at the camps—there are many other books that do that better. Instead she focuses on a part of French history that is not very well known. And her story is not just about what happened in 1942, but the way it affected the people then and now. Well worth reading.

The Lights of Pointe-Noire: Alain Mabanckou

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Translated by Helen Stevenson

Alain Mabanckou left Congo in 1989, when he was 22, and didn’t go back for 23 years, not even when his mother died. Refusing to accept her death, he keeps up the myth that she is alive and well. “The truth was I dreaded coming face to face with the body of the woman I had last seen smiling, full of life.” But you can only evade the truth for so long. Returning to his hometown, Pointe-Noire, is a way of accepting her death.

His mother’s presence permeates the book. Pauline Kengué was a strong woman who felt it a dishonour to show her vulnerability to her son. He remembers, “I had to peer down deep into those eyes to catch sight of her worries; she had a way of keeping them from me, through a sudden contraction of her pupils.” Abandoned by Mabanckou’s father a few months before his birth, she left her village and moved to the town, determined to raise her child and “scale the endless steps that rose before her”. When Mabanckou was leaving for Paris, Mama Pauline travelled over 500 kilometres to Brazzaville to see him off. They spent a few hours in the café together. As she got up to go, she said to him, “Just don’t disappoint me”. He never saw her again.

A refusal to accept the death of loved ones runs through the book. Mabanckou brings his two dead older sisters “back to life” when he was in primary school to stop his classmates teasing him for being an only child. He says that they are tall, beautiful, speak almost all the known languages and drive in a red Citroën DS. The myth becomes so real that he hears his sisters come into the kitchen at night, looking for food. But he needn’t have worried. Every night, Mama Pauline has been leaving two plates of food for them outside the kitchen door.

The book is full of vivid memories of the people and the places that were part of Mabanckou’s life. The man Mabanckou calls his father is Papa Roger, Mama Pauline’s husband. He writes of him with affection: Papa Roger was responsible for getting Mabanckou interested in reading and probably laid the foundations for his career as a writer.

Then there was Grandma Hélène who took care of people, mostly by feeding them vast quantities of food. All they had to do was drift past her house at mealtimes. Mabanckou and his friend would see adults emerging from her house “fit to burst, like boa constrictors who’ve swallowed an antelope”. She cooked for an army and would remember everyone who hadn’t come to eat her food.

Twenty-three years is a long time, and the town has changed. The Victory Hotel where Papa Roger worked is still standing but the Cinema Rex, where Mabanckou used to watch Bruce Lee films, has become a Pentecostal church. The magic of the movies has been replaced by pastors threatening wrongdoers with hellfire. His old school has been renamed Lycée Victor-Augagneur, after a French colonialist, a man who was probably unknown in his own country.

Coming home is never easy when you have been away a long time. You are tugged by the old stories, legends and the things that have shaped you. But you are also a part of something outside your home—the adult who has made his/her place in the world. The Lights of Pointe-Noire reflects this dichotomy as it moves between childhood memories and the present. It is also a book of memories, grief and acceptance.

And Mama Pauline is always at the centre, like the miracle woman who lives in the moon. When the woman scatters shooting stars from her basket, children are born. And when someone dies, she turns off the stars. She was powerful but in no circumstance was she ever to be mentioned. “We kids would point her out just with a tilt of the nose, a lift of the chin, convinced we mustn’t point at her or utter the slightest sound, or we’d wake the next morning and find we’d been struck deaf or blind.” According to legend, she sacrificed herself to take on the sins of the world.

Looking up at the moon after his mother’s death, Mabanckou wonders if the old woman has retired and been replaced by a younger woman, “the woman I know best and who would have accepted the sacrifice too, the woman who brought me into this world”.

Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: Salman Rushdie

Cover of Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

“This is the story of a jinnia, a great princess of the jinn…who loved a mortal man long ago, in the twelfth century…and of her many descendants.”

This is Salman Rushdie as Scheherazade, narrating events that take place over 1,001 nights. Jinns are creatures of smoke and fire that can change shape, grant wishes and move very fast. That is where the word genie comes from. By making these creatures the centre of this book, Rushdie has let his imagination run riot. There is magic and malevolence, war and heroism. And a long argument between two scholars that carries on even in death and unleashes forces that threaten to destroy the world.

But this is not just about magic and magical creatures—the book is also about the messy affairs of humans. The bulk of it is set in the present, in a world where populists preach hatred and society is polarized.

Here are the bare bones of the plot: Dunia, a jinnia princess with an unusual fondness for the human race (jinns are fairly contemptuous of humans), falls in love with an ageing philosopher, Al Rushd, and bears him many children—collectively known as the Dunyazat—whose defining characteristic is a lack of earlobes (and the odd superpower).

Al Rushd leaves Dunia, and broken-hearted, she returns to Peristan, where the jinns live. The veil that divides the human world and Peristan closes up and stays closed for 800 years. Meanwhile her descendants thrive on Earth, unaware of their non-human ancestry.

A great storm 800 years later (which takes us to our present) creates slits in the veil between the two worlds, letting in not only Dunia, but also more malicious jinns. The “strangenesses” begin and will continue for the next two years, eight months and 28 nights (or 1,001 nights). The world will never be the same again. A woman kills her lover with lightning that pours out of her hand, the laws of gravity don’t work as people levitate or are crushed, and a child left on the doorstep of the Mayor of New York is able to detect the slightest whiff of corruption.

What starts out as mischief is taken much further because of the rivalry between two dead philosophers: Al Rushd, who believes in rationality, and Ghazali, who believes in faith and religion. One of the most fearsome jinns, the Grand Ifrit Zumurrud Shah, owes Ghazali a wish as repayment for release from a tiny bottle where he had been trapped. The long-dead philosopher orders Zumurrud to put fear into the hearts of people, so that they will return to God, thus proving Al-Rushd wrong. Zumurrud has no love for humans and throws himself into the task with gusto, enlisting other jinns to help him. The mayhem soon goes beyond what Ghazali had asked for. As has happened countless times before and will, I suppose, continue to happen, Ghazali unleashes forces that he is then unable to control.

When Dunia finds out, she mobilizes her descendants in the fight against Zumurrud and his cronies, and a war between good and evil plays out on Earth.

Rushdie’s books, however fantastical, tend to be about the state of the world. The chaos in the book will sounds familiar: the rise of fanaticism, identity politics and the events in Afghanistan over the last few decades. This book may be a fantasy, but like the best fantasies, it has more than a kernel of truth. Rushdie once said that politicians create fictions that they masquerade as reality, so it is up to those who create fiction for a living—the writers—to tell the truth. And this is his way of telling us that the world is coming apart at the seams, and we cannot afford to ignore the impending catastrophe.

The book is narrated by someone from the future. We know that our species survived and lives in harmony. We also learn that there have been no more breaches between Peristan and Earth. But the price we pay for not having any jinns or their magic in our lives is the loss of the ability to dream.

Flight Behaviour: Barbara Kingsolver

Dellarobia Turnbow is heading up to the cabin owned by her family to meet a lover, trying to break out of the suffocating life she lives. But she never gets there. An amazing sight on an overlook on the other side of the slope stops her dead in her tracks.

“The forest blazed with its own internal flame. … Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. The flames now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it is poked. The sparks spiralled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against grey sky.”

What Dellarobia sees—and it changes her life—are thousands of Monarch butterflies that have migrated to the Appalachian Mountains, where she lives, for the first time in recorded history. But they are not safe in their new refuge—her father-in-law, Bear, wants to sell the trees to loggers to pay off a debt. She manages to persuade her husband, Cub, to take his parents to the forest before they sign anything.

Cub, amazed at the sight and the fact that his wife somehow knew this (she doesn’t tell him of her trip up the mountain), blurts it out in church. The word gets around, and before long, Dellarobia has become a sensation on the internet, journalists are knocking on her door, and visitors are streaming in to see the butterflies. The phenomenon attracts an entomologist, Dr. Ovid Byron, who opens up a new world for Dellarobia by hiring her as an assistant. Through him and his assistants, she learns a lot about the butterflies—and herself.

Flight Behaviour is a warning about climate change and the perils of ignoring it. The butterflies in the Turnbow forest are there because their usual habitat in Mexico has been destroyed by logging, which not only demolished the butterflies’ habitat but caused a landslide, destroying homes and killing people. Barbara Kingsolver is scathing about the media—the journalist, Tina Ultner, who interviews Dellarobia, is just after a story. When Dellarobia wonders why Tina doesn’t interview Ovid, his assistant tells her, “That’s why they talk to you. Because you don’t really know anything. … They just don’t want to talk to a scientist. It would mess with their story.” Better to see the butterflies’ presence as a miracle than a cause for alarm.

But the book is also about people: how they cope with the lives that they have ended up in, the heartbreaks and disappointments, and, in Dellarobia’s case, with the intrusive nature of fame.

This is a beautifully written book. Kingsolver’s characters are always nuanced, and this book is no exception. The ones that stayed with me were the three women: Dellarobia, who couldn’t go to college because she got pregnant and had to get married; Hester, her mother-in-law, cold and distant, living with her own ghosts; and Dovey, Dellarobia’s best friend, strong, funny and independent. 

What I loved about this book was how Kingsolver takes an issue out of the headlines and brings it down to the level of individual lives. Because in the end, it is the individuals that can really make a difference.

Gun Island: Amitav Ghosh

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Review by Imran Ali Khan

Amitav Ghosh’s new book, Gun Island (Penguin, Random House), has come to us three years since his last book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, where Ghosh contemplates the dangers of climate change, “At exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike”.

And it is here in his new novel, that Ghosh returns to these themes, examining them through the lens of oral narratives, new histories and migration, circling back to myths old and new.

Ghosh’s narrative, a story within several stories, begins at a temple in the Sundarbans in West Bengal. The temple, said to be constructed by the Gun Merchant as a tribute to Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes, becomes the catalyst for the narratives meandering prose. The legend that envelopes the temple is a story that the protagonist Deen sets out to uncover. On a visit to the temple, deep in the vast landscape of the Sunderbans, Deen is bitten by a king cobra who guards the temple. This sets off a series of strange and almost fantastical journeys that blur the borders between the natural and the supernatural, the known and the unknown, taking our protagonist across geographies and through time.

Against the backdrops of Los Angeles, the Sundarbans, Venice and New York, we are left to imagine the metaphorical interplay of the topographical locations Ghosh chooses. Each of these have been the entry point for explorers who built vast empires on the riches they have extracted from defenceless nations. With the conqueror of lands come the conquered of the landthe slaves, who were carried across the oceans to unknown lands to serve ruthless masters. The characters who inhabit the novel are now immigrants of another kind, escaping the poverty of their homes and crossing into borders in search of new homes. Gun Island tells us a story of a time long ago when a man attempted to escape the wrath of a goddess. Interwoven into this are stories of illegal immigrants, of characters in search for imagined lands, and of sea mammals whose homes are being destroyed by industry and capitalism.

Ghosh’s narrative often weaves unbelievable circumstances and uneasy junctures that the characters find themselves in. There are moments in the novel that seem predictable, moments that seem far too good to be true, crafted almost too easily. But it is perhaps the premise of the novel that allows for this blurring of the real and the unreal. In a conversation between Deen and Cinta, we hear the words that echo through the text, “In the seventeenth century no one would ever have said of something that was ‘just a story’ as we moderns do…They knew that only through stories was it possible to enter the most inward mysteries of our existence where nothing that is really important can be proven to exist—like love, loyalty, or even the faculty that makes us turn around when we feel the gaze of a stranger or an animal. Only through stories can invisible or inarticulate or silent being speak to us; it is they who allow the past to reach out to us.”

It is here, in the fractured landscapes that Ghosh draws us into the impact of climate change, that like the story of the Gun Merchant that binds this narrative. And in doing so, Ghosh also draws us into the disappearing lands as seas swell, eating through borders made by man and the irony that surrounds political borders guarded with such fear and dread against illegal migrants who dare cross them. As out characters move across these geographies, they seem to stand at different ends of a spectrum, reflecting each other in inverted reflections, allowing them to contemplate the nature of their actions and thoughts. And it is here, in the conversations that we feel an uncomfortable sense of unacknowledged doom as we stare it in the face every day. 

Middle England: Jonathan Coe

The result of the referendum on Brexit in 2016 sent shockwaves through not only the UK, but Europe and beyond. Looking back now, the “why” is a little clearer—the anger, the fact that many voted emotionally, and the complacency of the ruling elite.

In Middle England, Jonathan Coe captures a country in flux. The novel charts the lives of a group of people, a cast of characters that includes Benjamin Trotter, a writer who has retreated from the world to a remote house in the country; his niece Sophie, an independent young woman; Ian, Sophie’s husband, as suspicious of the “others” as Sophie is open to them; Helena, Ian’s mother, who quotes Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech to an appalled Sophie; and Doug, a journalist and old friend of Benjamin’s.

Initially I found it hard to remember all the characters. But as they are fleshed out, they come into focus. Through a range of characters who differ in political views, age and ethnicities, Coe is able to give us a multi-faceted view of England between 2010 to 2018. The events play out against a backdrop of current events: Gordon Brown’s comment about “that bigoted woman” that lost him the election, the David Cameron-Nick Clegg coalition government, the huge success of the 2012 Olympics (even I watched the opening ceremony, which I almost never do), and, of course, the referendum and its aftermath.

The conversations that Doug has with Nick Ives, Cameron’s Deputy Director of Communication, are indicative of the senseless spin coming out of Downing Street at the time. “Two years ago the world experienced a terrible financial crisis and nobody knows how to deal with it”, says Nigel. “Nobody knows the way forward. I call it radical indecision—the new spirit of our time. And Nick and Dave embody it perfectly.” Nigel means this as a compliment.  

It is this insouciance and complacency that lead to the disastrous result of the referendum. When Nigel announces that the government is going to hold a referendum on leaving the European Union, Doug asks Nigel if the government has a plan B in case Leave wins. Nigel dismisses the idea and accuses Doug of negative thinking. Dave is going to win, no question. “We’re about to embark on an amazing exercise in direct democracy.”  Well, we all know how that worked out.

Brexit becomes a lightning rod for the people like Helena, who sees Cameron as part of an elite that is out of touch with her values. She explains to a visiting Chinese businessman: “The people of Middle England…voted for David Cameron because they had no real choice. The alternative was unthinkable. But if the time ever comes when we are given the opportunity to let him know what we really think of him, then believe me—we will take it.”

Brexit polarized the country, revealing cracks within families and between couples. Sophie complains that Ian, who voted Leave, wasn’t as open as she thought he was, that his “model for relationships comes down to antagonism and competition, not cooperation”. Ian thinks that Sophie lives in a bubble and resents her “attitude of moral superiority”. As their marriage counsellor observes, neither of them even mention politics.

But all is not lost. The book ends on a note of reconciliation. People find a way of living together—at least, some of them do. I have focused on Middle England’s take on Brexit, but there is much more to the book: how political correctedness, taken to the extreme, can damage people (again, in the incident in the book, it is emotion rather than rationality that dominates); the threat of violence against MPs, especially the women; and most of all, the long-lasting relationships that can save our lives and sanity.

I like novels that weave historical or political realities into fiction because they make them more real. I love Coe’s way of doing this and of seeing things from different points of view. There has been some criticism of his “unnecessary” descriptions of events or people that have been in the news, but this assumes that every reader will be familiar with what has happened in Britain in the last 10 years. Or will remember 30 years from now—because this book is going to be around.

Middle England is part of a trilogy that includes The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, but it can be read as a stand-alone book, as I did. I recommend it, not only for the insights but also for the writing—it is engaging and thoroughly enjoyable.

Conclave: Robert Harris

Electing the successor to St. Peter—a man who will be the leader of the Catholic Church, the head of the Vatican and one of the most powerful spiritual leaders in the world—is carried out in strict secrecy. This secrecy and the political intrigues that go on behind the scenes make it a perfect subject for a novel. Although I have read novels about popes—for example, Morris West’s The Shoes of the Fisherman and Frederick Rolfe’s Hadrian the Seventh—this is the first one I’ve come across that focuses on the election itself.

And it is fascinating. The book begins with the death of the Pope. The central character is Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, who has to lead the papal conclave that will elect the new pope. He has been having doubts about his faith, which led to a coldness between him and the recently deceased pope (who resembles the current one, although Robert Harris denies any connection between the two).

Some of the frontrunners are the Secretary of State, Italian Aldo Bellini (Lomeli’s choice); Cardinal Major Penitentiary (confessor-in-chief), Nigerian Joshua Adeyemi; the Camerlengo (Chamberlain), Canadian Joseph Tremblay; and Patriarch of Venice, Italian Goffredo Tedesco. Will the conclave elect the first black pope or will the Italians ensure it is one of their countrymen?

The 108 cardinals who form the conclave are sequestered, forbidden contact with the outside world and from discussing the election within the hearing of any outsiders. Those in the running fall into two rough camps: those who would continue the reforms of the late pope and those who would take the church back into the past, such as Cardinal Tedesco, a vocal critic of the former Pope. Cliques form and shift, and there are those will stop at nothing to discredit their rivals.

Lomeli has to make sure the process and the frontrunners are free from any hint of impropriety or scandal. But this isn’t easy—a woman visits one of the candidates in his room, and another is said to have been dismissed from all his duties by the Pope before he died. And who is the unexpected 108th cardinal whom no one knew about, the man the Pope had made a cardinal in pectore, in secret?

Harris adds a couple of dramatic twists but he doesn’t really need to do much else. The drama is inherent in the way the conclave plays out. He captures the political manoeuvring, and the intrigue and ambition that result from a mix of politics and religion. The book is an easy read, in spite of a lot of detail about the Vatican, which I personally found interesting.

I heard Harris being interviewed on Penguin Podcasts (I would recommend the series to readers), and he said that the Vatican had given him access to both information and the buildings. That is probably why the book feels like an insider’s account. Although I’m not sure what the Vatican would make of the twist in the tale!