Conclave: Richard 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 Richard 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!

Abburi Chayadevi (1933-2019): A writer who never stopped asking questions

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By Sadhana Ramchander

In 2016, when Anuradha Gunupati and I met 83-year old Abburi Chayadevi to tell her about our plans to publish a book on her writing and craft, she asked, “Why do we need this book? I am already suffering from fame.” I was delighted to find that she still asked questions! Witty, and with a very good sense of humour, Chayadevi’s eyes sparkled when she spoke. She always had a lot to say and laugh about, as she sat in the room that she shared with her sister Yashodhara in the home for the aged where she had chosen to live.

Our book – Why shouldn’t girls laugh? Abburi Chayadevi – her words and craft – was published by Saptaparni in 2017. It is a bilingual (English and Telugu) book that tells her story, combining her literary work and using her crafts as illustrations. There was no official launch because she did not want one. Little did we realise at that time that, two years later, she would be gone. Perhaps this was the answer to her question, “Why do we need this book?”

Abburi Chayadevi was a writer of Telugu short stories and essays, and a very important part of the Telugu literary world. She was a “gentle” feminist, and even though she led an apparently conservative life, she expressed her feminism through her stories. In this sense, her life was a series of short stories, mostly biographical.

When Chayadevi was growing up in the 1930s, Indian women were not supposed to smile or laugh loudly. “Why not?” she asked boldly. There was also a practice in traditional households, for a menstruating woman to stay away from everyone else, becoming a sort of untouchable person. She protested against this unjust practice in two short stories: “Moodu naalla muchata” and “Amalina malinam”.

Chayadevi found it strange that women who got married became meek and never spoke their minds. Her own father was very dictatorial. To vent her helplessness and anger at her father’s attitude, she wrote a story called “Anubandham” for her college magazine.

And then she herself got married, which gave her many more questions to ask!

In “‘Upagraham -1”, she asks why newly married men so quickly begin taking their wives for granted. Why did her husband marry her if he was busy working all the time and could not spend time with her? She also found it strange that men did not express affection the way women did.

In another popular story titled, “Bonsai brathukulu”, she likened the life of a married woman to a bonsai that is pruned and shaped. She tells her sister, “Look at the bonsai you have tended so lovingly. It looks proper and sweet, like a housewife. See how delicate it is. It can’t withstand a storm and is dependent on someone for its care. A woman’s life is like that of a bonsai.”

She challenged the status quo despite being married to Abburi Varadarajeswara Rau—the well-known journalist, intellectual and poet, who was supportive yet quite chauvinistic and gave her opportunities to ask questions!

She wrote a serious and introspective story titled “Prayanam”, in which she dealt with the subject of rape. The story concludes that a rape could be compared to a car accident: if the fault was of the other driver, then why then should the woman be blamed? The story ends on a very positive note, with the raped woman being supported by a man who respects her.

Her gripping and realistic stories not only answered her own questions but touched the hearts of many readers as they identified familiar situations. She also wrote an autobiography, using photos from her family albums to illustrate her narrative.

Taken from Why shouldn’t girls laugh?

Chayadevi was more than a writer: she also very skilled at craft and doll making – all from recycled material. She was also very fond of selfies and cats. Always practical and independent, she gave away all her possessions and lived by herself in an old age home in the last years of her life.

Abburi Chayadevi passed away on 28 June 2019 after a brief illness, and as per her wishes, her eyes and body were donated to a medical college. She is someone I admire very much, and the book I did on her was one of my most challenging assignments. I feel as though I lost a dear friend. No doubt she will live on forever through her writings.

Note: Some of Chayadevi’s short stories have been translated into English. The collection has been published as Bonsai Life and other stories by Author Press. Why shouldn’t girls laugh? can be ordered from Saptaparni (mail[at]saptaparni.com).

La bouche pleine de terre: Branimir Šćepanović

Translated from Serbian by Jean Descat

Although this book exists in English (as The Mouth Full of Earth), it is out of print. But I found it intriguing and beautifully written, so am sharing it with you anyway. (And for readers who read in French or Serbian.)

A man comes home to Montenegro to die—he has just learned that he has a fatal disease. On an impulse, he gets off the train at a small station. Not far from the station, two hunters are camping. The man walks out of the station and seeing the two men, turns around and walks away. The hunters decide to follow him. What starts out as simple curiosity turns into a hunt, and the man from the train finds himself running from a growing number of pursuers.

The book is narrated in first person by one of the hunters and in third person by the man from the train in interspersed paragraphs. So as the story develops, you get the two sides consecutively.

Where does the hostility to a complete stranger come from? What are the stories we tell ourselves to justify our anger? The hunter is self-aware enough to try to understand his feelings: the shift from curiosity to anger after what he perceives to be a mocking gesture (but in reality, is nothing of the kind). After a time, the hunter cannot even remember why he is so angry. The man on the train, on the other hand, decides that he might want to live after all. Or at least, not to die humiliated and hated. “These unknown men, whose faces he had already forgotten, constituted a danger that had to be avoided. He had no desire to join these people who might…turn him away from his project or stop him from accomplishing it.”[1] If he was going to die after all, he was going to do it his way.

This book is not a thriller—it is a reflection on how we see the “other” and about what it means to be alive. I thought I knew where the story was going but I was wrong.

Branimir Šćepanović writes lyrically. The man on the train feels that he is connected in some way to the two hunters “through a bizarre and probably indissoluble link. Perplexed, he looked up to the sky as if he was searching, in that infinite mirror, for distant and confused reflections of memories that could help him know, or at least glimpse, the existence of this link. But his gaze… could only find an isolated bird, too real to be an omen.”

Šćepanović packs a lot into a slim volume—questions about existence, about our place in the world, and the things that drive us. The fact that it is written almost as a fable makes it more powerful. Although it was written in 1974, it still feels relevant.


[1] The translations are mine and therefore not very good. It is more to give an idea of the text—the original (or translation, in this case) is much better written.

Tombland: CJ Sansom

I wasn’t going to write this, since I’ve already reviewed a book in the Shardlake series (Dark Fire). But Tombland is a little different—it is not just a murder mystery but also describes a little-known event in English history.

The series centres around Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer in London, who used to work for Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. When Cromwell fell, he continued working for the royal family. Henry VIII died at the end of the last book, and Shardlake is now working for the 15-year-old Lady Elizabeth, who would eventually become Elizabeth I.

This book is set in 1549. King Edward VI, an 11-year-old boy, is on the throne, with his uncle Lord Somerset, in charge as Protector. There is unrest in the country: Lord Somerset is waging a war against Scotland, which does not seem to be achieving anything except emptying the coffers. People are suffering from unemployment and rising prices to pay for the war. Big landowners are fencing off common lands for their sheep, leaving poor farmers less and less space to graze their livestock.

Shardlake is summoned by Lady Elizabeth and asked to look into the death of a woman, Edith Boleyn, who had come to see her, claiming to be a distant relation. Edith’s body was found stuck headfirst into a stream near Norwich. When Shardlake and his assistant Nicholas Overton arrive in Norwich, they find that Edith’s husband, John Boleyn, has been accused of the murder. Shardlake is sceptical, convinced that Boleyn has been framed.

They meet Edith’s father, Gawen Reynolds, a rich and influential man in Norwich. He is also quite clearly a violent man, a trait inherited by Edith’s twin sons, Gerald and Barnabas, a pair of thugs who want to see their father hang. Shardlake’s investigations do not go down well with the trio. And to make things worse, he manages to annoy Richard Southwell, a man whom many have warned should not be crossed.

In the meantime, the promised justice for the poor has not materialized, and they decide that they have had enough. A mass movement starts to take hold, led by John Kett and his brother William. The Ketts amass thousands[1] at Mousehold Heath, just outside Norwich. Greedy and unjust landlords are brought to trial with the people as jury. Shardlake gets caught up in the movement, helping to ensure that the trials are fair. But in spite of the so-called rebels’ clear allegiance to the king and the peaceful nature of their protest, there is a war brewing: the rich are not about to let peasants take power away from them.

Unlike the other books in the series, where Shardlake’s investigation takes centre stage, CJ Sansom gives almost equal weight to both these stories—the imagined and the historical. The investigation takes a back seat as Sansom describes Kett’s rebellion. The end of the whodunit, however, although not a complete surprise, is satisfying.

At the end of the last book, it felt like this series had come to an end. I am so glad that it hasn’t. Shardlake is a wonderful character. His disability makes him an outsider, as does his strong sense of justice that does not always bend to the desires of his powerful patrons. I look forward to more books in the series.


[1] Estimates say they numbered around 16,000.

The Book of Dust, Book 1: La Belle Sauvage—Philip Pullman

A mysterious substance called Dust; the alethiometer, an instrument that can reveal the truth; and daemons, animal-shaped manifestations of people’s inner selves: we are in familiar territory, the world of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. Almost 20 years after the last book in the trilogy was published, Pullman is revisiting its universe, taking us back 12 years when Lyra, the intrepid heroine of His Dark Materials is still a baby. The Magisterium—an institution of organized religion that not only wants to control this world but all the alternate worlds that exist—is already a force to be reckoned with.

A centuries-old witches’ prophecy says that Lyra will save the world—a prophecy that puts her in danger from the Magisterium. She is handed her over to the nuns at the priory of St. Rosamund by a group of important men who want to protect her. Malcolm, a 10-year-old boy who visits the nuns, loves the child the minute he sees her and is determined to protect her.

An observant child who keeps his counsel, Malcolm learns a lot from the conversations he overhears in his parents’ pub. He learns about Dust, a substance that the Magisterium has forbidden anyone from talking about. He hears the gyptians (gypsies) talk about an imminent flood that will sweep everything away.

Malcolm gets to know Hannah Relf, a woman working on understanding the alethiometer—another thing forbidden by the Magisterium, which is seeking out the instruments and destroying them. Hannah is working for Oakley Street, an organization against the Magisterium. Malcolm and Hannah meet regularly, and the boy passes on what he overhears in the pub.

Eventually the floods come, and Malcolm and Alice, a young girl working in the pub, take Lyra and escape in his boat, La Belle Sauvage. Malcolm decides to take Lyra to her father in London, where she will be safe. The trio are pursued by Bonneville, a nasty piece of work—all charm on the surface but vicious beneath. His true nature is revealed by his daemon, a snarling, three-legged hyena; the man is so deranged that he harms his own daemon.

I have read His Dark Materials and was glad when Pullman revived this world—it is so strange and compelling. The overwhelming mood of The Book of Dust is one of shadows and lurking menace. Pullman does this so well that there are times when it feels claustrophobic. The Magisterium has spies everywhere and is ruthless. And then there is Bonneville, a constant maniacal presence. The world Malcolm and Alice are thrown into is a far cry from the warmth of the pub—they are on their own, trying to keep Lyra safe from forces they don’t entirely understand.

There is a lovely passage when Malcolm, exhausted and battered, thinks of home: “his mother’s kitchen, her calm sardonic presence, shepherd’s pies and apple crumbles and steam and warmth, and his father laughing and telling stories and telling the football results and listening as Malcolm told him about this theory or that discovery and being proud of him; and before he could help it he was sobbing as if his heart had been broken, and it was his fate to drift forever on a worldwide flood further and further away from everything that was home, and they would never know where he was”.

Judging by this book, The Book of Dust trilogy is going to be much darker than His Dark Materials. An appropriate reflection of our times.

See also my review of Philip Pullman’s essays, Daemon Voices.

The Red-Haired Woman: Orhan Pamuk

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Translated from Turkish by Ekin Oklap

Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel is about obsession, guilt and the destructive relations between fathers and sons.

The novel is narrated by Cem, looking back on himself as a 16-year-old boy. His father, a pharmacist and a communist, is often absent—he is either in prison for his communist beliefs or with another woman. When he disappears for a while, leaving the family without support, it is up to Cem to provide for them. He is apprenticed to a well-digger, Mahmut, who has been given a job on the outskirts of Istanbul. Mahmut takes Cem under his wing, becoming a surrogate father figure.

The land they are working on is barren, and the water seems elusive, although Mahmut is convinced that they would find it if they dig deep enough. In the evenings, they go to the nearby town of Örgören. That is where Cem first sees the red-haired woman. He is struck by her beauty and air of mystery and becomes besotted with her, as only a 16-year-old can. She seems to recognize him, which only fuels his obsession. He finds excuses to go into town in the evenings and tries to find out more about her.

Then there is an accident at the well, and Cem is left with a feeling of guilt, which he carries with him for decades afterwards. He marries Ayşe, and the marriage seems happy. The couple’s real estate company is very successful, making them financially well off. But Cem’s guilt is always with him, creating a distance between him and other people: “What had happened at the well would always bar me from the joys of an ordinary life”.

Meanwhile, Istanbul is growing and the outskirts are being absorbed into the city. One day the area near Örgören where the well used to be is up for sale. Cem has a chance of going back to resolve all the unanswered questions that have been nagging at him. What he finds changes his view of his past and of himself.  

This is a book of contrasts: between tradition—Mahmut’s age-old way of digging wells by hand, one of “the last practitioners of an art that had existed for thousands of years”—and the modern—the way Istanbul grows into a bustling, modern city. It is also about the clash between youth and age, and between what is imagined and reality.

But the central theme of the book is in its three epigraphs: two on Oedipus­—the king who mistakenly killed his father—by Nietzsche and Sophocles, and one from Ferdowzi’s Shahnamah about Rustom, the king who mistakenly killed his son Sohrab. In The Red-Haired Woman, Pamuk dissects the way relations between fathers and sons can go wrong, how they can be full of minefields that explode when you least expect it. The two myths are always present in the story, so much so that it is clear that the ending would revolve around one of them.

I have enjoyed other books by Pamuk, but they can be a little dense. The Red-Haired Woman is the one I’ve found easiest to read, and it is also one of the most haunting. It starts out as a simple tale of a young boy’s coming of age but becomes quite dark. There is so much sadness here for the way fathers and sons can destroy each other, often thoughtlessly.

The History of Bees: Maja Lunde

Translated from Norwegian by Diane Oatley

We are in the midst of the sixth extinction and are losing species at an alarming rate. But we seem to have trouble recognizing the scale of the loss. How many of us associate lazy summer afternoons with the buzzing of bees? Not to mention the fruit and nuts we take for granted, crops that rely on them for pollination. But already in 1998, countries in Europe were noticing that bees were abandoning their hives. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) became a global phenomenon over the next few years, affecting North America in 2006.

Maja Lunde charts this disappearance over three centuries and interweaves narratives about three sets of parents and children and their connections with bees.

The three main characters live in three centuries and on three continents. In England in 1852, William is recovering from a bad bout of depression and finds release in designing the perfect hive; in the United States in 2007, George is battling with colony collapse disorder in his hives; and in China in 2098, Tao, who works as a manual pollinator because the bees have disappeared, is looking for her young son.

William has been in bed for months with severe depression. The only thing that gets him out of bed is a need to prove himself to his son, Edmund, and leave him a legacy. William is going to design the perfect hive—not a straw one as was common then, but one designed like a house with frames. But Edmund is a wastrel and a drunk, and it takes William a while to see that his real heir is his older daughter Charlotte, working quietly by his side.

George, a bee-keeper, makes a living selling honey and driving his bees out to areas where the local bees have gone, so that fruit trees can be pollinated. He is angry with his son Tom who, instead of taking over the business, wants to be a writer. But George is also hit by the CCD that affected the other parts of North America.

By the time we get to Tao, the bees have completely disappeared, leaving humans to painstakingly pollinate by hand. As Tao says, “We were a pioneer nation in pollution and so we became a pioneer nation in pollination. A paradox had saved us.” One day, when she and her husband Guan and three-year-old son Wei Wen go out for a picnic, the boy runs off to play. The parents find him in the forest, listless and comatose. The authorities are worried about the cause of his sickness and rush him to Beijing. Tao, determined to find out what happened to her son, goes in search of him.

The chapters move back and forth between the three narratives. The stories that Lunde weaves of William, George and Tao and their children are very moving and very human. But this is also a history of bees, and Lunde shows how, over three centuries, these very familiar creatures go from abundance to extinction.

The book provides both warning and hope: if we don’t do something about the way we treat our planet, our survival as a species will be under threat. But maybe there is still time to set things right. Maybe.

Cinnamon: Samar Yazbek

Translated from Arabic 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 from French 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 nephew, 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.