My Name is Leon: Kit de Waal

My name is LeonWhen we first meet him, Leon is 8 years old, going on 9. He is in the hospital with his mother Carol, holding his baby brother, Jake, for the first time. This first scene sets up the way things are going to be: Leon holding his new brother with care, Carol going off for a cigarette before feeding Jake, and eventually the nurse leaving Leon to look after his baby brother alone.

And so it goes. Carol is unstable, dependent on prescription drugs and barely able to look after herself, never mind her two sons. Leon steps in and takes care of Jake, feeding him and changing his nappies. Eventually Carol goes into a drug-induced coma, and the neighbour calls in an ambulance and social services.

The boys are taken in by Maureen, an older woman who has fostered more than 20 children over her career. She is obviously good with children and creates a sense of security for Leon. But the boys have different fathers and therefore different fates: Leon is mixed race with a Caribbean father, and Jake is white. Jake is adopted quite quickly but social services cannot find a family to take Leon. Maureen realizes the devastating effect that breaking up the brothers is going to have on Leon but is powerless to stop it.

When Maureen has a stroke and has to go to hospital, Leon has to move again, this time to Maureen’s sister, Sylvia. He has lost so much: his mother, whom he hardly sees now, his brother and then Maureen. He develops behavioural problems: he has no friends in school, he steals and acts out his anger. The one plus he has going for him is that although Sylvia is not the maternal figure that Maureen has been, she genuinely cares about him.

Leon’s world widens when one of the social workers gives him a bike. Riding around Sylvia’s neighbourhood, he discovers an allotment near Sylvia’s house. He becomes friendly with two men there: Tufty, a Caribbean man, who introduces him to racial politics and Mr. Devlin, an Irishman, who seems a little suspect. The two men cannot stand each other but have a lot to teach him (including how to grow beans).

As you can tell from the title, Leon is the centre of the book. It is told from his point of view and he feels so real: a child trying to be an adult, dealing with abandonment and grown-ups who are not always there for him. He feels it is up to him to bring his family back together because no one else seems to want to. It’s heart-wrenching: he is so convinced he can do it, but as the reader you are aware that the world doesn’t work that way.

I spent a lot of the book dreading what was going to happen to Leon, but Kit de Waal never lets things get too fraught. Characters are drawn with a lot of empathy—none of them are saints but nor are they horrible. They’re just people, trying to do the best they can.

De Wall has advised social services on adoption and mother was a foster mother, so she obviously knows her subject. Although social services don’t always come off well, this book is not an exposé of the things can go wrong. It is a warm, empathetic book, and it’s good to be reminded of the humanity of ordinary people, especially in the current climate.

Not So Stories, edited by David Thomas Moore

Not-so-storiesWhen I was a child, I loved Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, tales of how animals became what they are: how the leopard got its spots, the camel its hump and the rhinoceros its skin. But it’s a book that doesn’t age well. Kipling, after all, was part of the British Empire and believed that colonization was a force for good that helped to improve the lot of the “natives”.

So if you’re looking for an alternative version, here it is. Although I’m not sure that you could read all of these to your children, it’s a book whose time has come. Nikesh Shukla begins his foreword with a quote from Junot Diaz: “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

To me, this quote not only sums up the thinking behind Not So Stories, but the way it subverts conventional thinking. The collection that David Thomas Anderson has put together is diverse, both in terms of the background of the authors—which include Australian Aborigine, Malaysian, Philippines, Iranian and Indian (disclosure: Achala Upendran, one of the authors, is the daughter of a friend, Usha Raman, who writes for this blog)—but also in terms of genre: folk tales, fantasy, horror and realism.

There is a lot to enjoy here: Cassandra Khaw’s sly tale of how Spider persuaded Man to give her venom, which he did without thinking because she was such a small harmless thing (he was in for a surprise!); Joseph E. Coles’s angry account of panther who is kidnapped and made to fight in the Roman arenas; and Achala Upendran’s upending of the traditional account about First Woman and First Man: not woman as temptress but man as oppressor. There are those who lose their roots and find them again: Wayne Santos’s Yuan Ching, whose job is to keep the ghosts of the dead from entering the city but is distracted by her English boyfriend; and Georgina Kamsike’s Nina, who rediscovers her Indian identity after her grandmother dies. And the colonizer is definitely not a force for the good—quite the opposite.

That’s just a sample. I look forward to more retold tales, to diverse voices. We all need ourselves reflected.

The Sellout: Paul Beatty

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. … I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. … But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”

The narrator is Me, son of F.U. Me, a psychologist who home-schooled him, reading him academic papers instead of bedtime stories. The Mes are descended from the Kentucky Mees, one of the first black families to settle in southwest Los Angeles (his father dropped the second “e” from the name). Me is in court is because he has tried to reintroduce segregation to Dickens, the majority black-Latino agrarian ghetto he calls home. Dickens is so run-down that, to save Los Angeles embarrassment, it has been wiped off the map. Segregation is Me’s way of trying to put Dickens back on the map.

It starts with a sign posted in the local bus driven by Marpessa, the unrequited love of Me’s life. The sign says PRIORITY SEATING FOR SENIORS, DISABLED AND WHITES and is a birthday present from Me to his good friend Hominy. Finding that people start behaving better on the bus, Me follows it up with a billboard opposite the local school announcing a new academy for whites only, which results in higher test scores in the school.

This is a delightfully subversive book that turns racism in the US on its head. I found myself squirming and laughing out loud at the same time. Paul Beatty has a wicked sense of humour, and everything—and everyone—is fair game. Me describes his trip to Washington: “Yesterday afternoon, like some sandal-shoed Ethiop from the sticks of the darkest of the Los Angeles jungle, I ventured from the hotel and joined the hajj of blue-jeaned yokels that paraded slowly and patriotically past the empire’s historic landmarks.” When the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals—a group of black intellectuals established by his father—suggest that Me take his father’s place as leader of the group, Me mocks it as “The Kim Jong-un of ghetto conceptualism”. And there is the delightful reworking of The Charge of the Light Brigade: “The Charge of the Light-Skinned Spade”.

But there is so much here that I feel I have only skimmed the surface. Like the best comedy, Beatty uses the humour to make some serious points, including about the mass appeal of racial stereotypes in entertainment. Hominy was once a child actor in Little Rascals, the popular TV series about a group of kids of different ethnicities. Hominy is proud of his work, in spite of the fact that the show used racial stereotypes for humour.

The Sellout, by subverting racism, raises questions about the civil rights movement, the US Constitution and racial equality. I can see why it won the Man Booker Prize—it is original and thought-provoking.

Revisiting old favourites

A few years ago, a friend challenged me to post a photograph of my 10 favourite books on this blog. The list took a while to put together, and I finally came up with 15.

I’m an inveterate list maker, so I tend to keep running lists in my head of my 10 (or 15 or 20) best books, albums and movies. But while I listen to the albums often, and go back to the movies from time to time, I realized that I hadn’t actually read the books on my list for years—just dipped into them.

So over the next year, I’m going to revisit these old friends. I came across them for the first time when I was much younger—how will I see them now? Some of them, like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Sonnets, reflected who I was then—or thought I was (if I remember correctly, that was 1978). Forty years later, will these poems speak to me as they once did? I have grown and changed, as we all do when life happens to us. Can I still tap into the magic that these books once held for me?

There are a few on the list that I know almost by heart. One of them is Under Milk Wood, which I have reviewed on this blog. The copy my husband gave me (there’s a story there that you can find in the review) is falling apart, so I’m very careful with it. But we do have a complete recording of the play, and we can both recite whole passages of it. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and Macbeth are works that I know well but haven’t read for years. My latest memories of both is watching films based on them—Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which wasn’t entirely true to the original, and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, which was. And with the publication of a new series from Hogarth Press where well-known writers rework Shakespeare plays into contemporary novels, this might be a good time to go back to the originals.

For the last several years, I have been focusing on books that I haven’t read before. There are so many new ones published that it is impossible to keep up, and I often feel I need a couple of lifetimes to get anywhere. And the reading challenge some of us set ourselves a few years ago has opened up a whole new world of writing from countries around the world.

In the effort to read widely and as much as I can, I have neglected the ones that have been part of my life for a long time. I am not going to stop reading new books but will intersperse them with these old familiars, letting them tell me their stories again. And while I’m about it, I might add a couple to that ever-growing list. I am thinking of Flicker by Theodore Roszak, which I read in the 1990s and was very taken with at the time. It’s a sort of whodunit (in the Umberto Eco mould) about film and semiotics, so right up my street. And one that is eminently dippable, my father’s copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which does not list quotes by subject, ready to be inserted into a speech, but by author and work, which makes it a delight—like having the best extracts from literature at your fingertips.

As I read these books, I will write about them on this blog. And if you want to share your own list of favourites or your thoughts on rereading them, I would love to hear from you.

Ghost Stories: E.F. Benson (selected and introduced by Mark Gatiss)

This collection comes with an introduction by Mark Gatiss, best known for playing Mycroft in the TV series, Sherlock. I discovered that Gatiss and I share a love of Victorian ghost stories: he made a documentary on the life of the greatest of them, M.R. James, a writer who was Benson’s contemporary and influenced him.

Although I still think no one beats James at creating atmosphere, I enjoyed these stories. One of my favourites is The Room in the Tower. The narrator has a recurring nightmare that he is in a country house with a particular family. The dream always ends with the dreaded words from the hostess, “Jack will show you your room: I have given you the room in the tower”. What is it that lurks in the tower that so terrifies him?

Supernatural goings on lurk in seemingly normal places: in the village of Maxley, “rich in amenities and beauty”  a new resident is not really the friendly, outgoing person she seems to be; on a visit to the countryside, on “a golden day that every now and then leaks out of paradise and drips to earth”, the narrator walks through a forest that harbours something very strange and nasty; and the panels in a church in Polearn, a remote village in West Cornwall, tell of a pestilence that walks in the dark. And you will never look at caterpillars in the same way again.

But Benson also pokes fun at mediums and is sceptical of “ghost-hunting” in old creaky houses. In The Bus Conductor, two friends who spend a night in an old house, hoping to see a ghost, come away with nothing but a few scares. (The ghost appears later in a normal London street.)

Benson’s descriptions, especially of the English countryside, are beautifully written: “once out of the shadow of the wood the stream lay in flaming pools of molten crimson of the sunset, and lost itself in the haze of woodland distances”. But there is always a dark side: the forest without woodland animals or birdsong, where a thing moves with a “certain stealthy heaviness”, emitting a foul odour. And for me, the scariest image in the book: the figure haunting the room in the tower, glimpsed briefly in a flash of lightening, watching the narrator as he lay in bed.

Ghost stories tap into our fear of the unknown, and the Victorian writers gave us just enough detail to allow our imaginations to fill in the gap. That is their secret, and that is why some of the scariest, most enduring ghost stories come from that period.

To the Back of Beyond: Peter Stamm, translated by translated by Michael Hofmann

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What happens when a man walks out of his seemingly perfect life?

Thomas and Astrid live in a village in northern Switzerland. Thomas has a steady job, they have two children, a nice house and a marriage that seems to work. Until one evening, back from a holiday in Spain, they put the children to bed and sit outside with a glass of wine and the paper. Astrid goes in to check on the son, Konrad. Thomas leaves his unfinished glass of wine and walks out of the gate. And keeps walking.

Astrid, in the meantime, goes to bed, thinking Thomas will follow. She doesn’t really notice his absence until halfway through the day. She makes excuses for his absence to his secretary and the children, hoping that he would come back. But he doesn’t, and she goes to the police.

The book alternates between the two: Thomas, as he manages to survive with whatever he had in his pockets, staying out of sight, sleeping rough; and Astrid, trying to maintain an appearance of normality, especially for the children. She tracks down his whereabouts when he uses his credit card but he has already moved on.

Thomas does not have any obvious motivation for leaving: the day he walks out is like any other. But Peter Stamm, in summing up Thomas’s life so far, gives you a glimpse of what he was escaping from: “he had functioned in the way expected of him, without it being ever discussed”. The freedom Thomas craves is the freedom from expectations. Now, wandering through the countryside, he lives in the moment, surviving in whatever way he can, with nothing to prove to anyone.

Stamm’s writing is spare and deceptively simple. He describes the events dispassionately: there is emotion but for the most part it is kept just under the surface. The writing emphasises the way both Thomas and Astrid keep an emotional distance from their lives and from those around them. When their daughter Ella was a baby and cried incessantly, Astrid would sometimes leave her alone in the house and go and sit on a bench by the station. And in a strange way, she seems to understand Thomas’s need to leave.

I loved Stamm’s writing and the economical way he can capture a scene. The family goes to a barbeque with Thomas’s handball teammates. “Astrid sat at a table with three couples who seemed to be friends and were sharing village gossip, with loud shouts of laughter. … By the time Thomas finally jammed onto the bench facing her, laughing at some comment or other that someone had called out, she said she was tired and wanted to go home… she had the feeling that she couldn’t stand the noise and merriment for another minute. In spite of that, they didn’t go home until much later, after midnight, when there was a chill in the air.”

This book is about relationships and love, and also loss, the empty place at the table, the slowly fading memory of someone dear. Astrid, describing him to the police, “had the sense that Thomas was rigidifying as she described him, becoming unrecognizable, the image of a dead man”. At one point when she thinks he is dead, she imagines Thomas’s family and friends trying to keep his memory alive by telling and retelling stories about him which “over the years would come to stand in for him, and finally, ironically, cause him to disappear.”

But the core of the book is the love between Thomas and Astrid. In an odd way, their relationship strengthens away from each other. Stamm has written an unusual and rather haunting book.

Behold the Dreamers: Imbolo Mbue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harilal & Sons: Sujit Saraf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Water: Paula Hawkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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