Judas: Amos Oz

Translated from Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cure for Death by Lightning: Gail Anderson-Dargatz

“The scrapbook was my mother’s way of setting down the days so they wouldn’t be forgotten. This story is my way. No one can tell me these events didn’t happen or it was all a girl’s fantasy. The reminders are there, in that scrapbook, and I remember them all.”

During the Second World War, Beth Weeks was 15, living on a farm in British Columbia with her parents and her brother Dan. Her father, John, used to be a gentle man but became unpredictable and paranoid after he went into the forest chasing a bear that had attacked Beth. The Indians from the nearby reservation said he was taken by the spirit of Coyote, who lies in wait for those who are weak.

John’s mood swings have the family living in a constant state of tension. Dan has been threatening to sign up for the war but he doesn’t trust his father with Beth (with good reason, as it turns out). There is an undercurrent of rebellion in the house because of the way John treats Dennis and Billy, the two hired hands from the reservation nearby. Beth is being pursued by an unseen thing—there are sounds of rushing winds like something is running towards her, but she never sees anything. Could it be Coyote, looking for a wife?

Beth’s mother finds solace by turning to her dead mother for comfort and advice. Beth finds hers in the Indians from the reservation, especially in Billy and Nora, a girl her age with a bell necklace. The girls rebuild Nora’s great-grandmother’s underground hut and go there when Beth’s father or Nora’s mother get too much for them.

Beth’s mother records the events around her in her scrapbook: the day when it rained blue flax, covering the earth in flowers, the time when Sarah Kemp is killed by a bear, and the night John set fire to the hut of the Swede, their neighbour, with whom he had a running battle over boundaries.

Gail Anderson-Dargatz has an eye for detail, not just of the landscape but the way people interact with one another. At Sarah’s funeral, her senile grandmother mistakes Beth for her grand-daughter: “The whole crowd was still and staring expectantly, greedily, not shuffling self-consciously as they would if Mrs. Halley would have mistaken one of the pretty Hambrook sisters for Sarah. They watched to see what would happen next. They watched to gossip later.”

The land and the rhythm of the seasons are an intrinsic part of the story. Anderson-Dargatz’s description of living on a farm made me wonder if she was writing from experience—it is so real, you can smell it and hear it. The making of beet wine (there are recipes scattered throughout the book), bringing in the harvest, and the milking of cows every morning, no matter what else is happening in your life. They pick up on your mood, so if you are upset, they can make milking very difficult.

The characters are very well-drawn—no one is entirely good or bad, they’re just regular people with their flaws and strengths. Beth, the centre of the story, is a strong character. She has to deal with a difficult father, bullying in school and a mother who isn’t always there, but somehow manages to get through it. Even John, who is a difficult character to like, has moments of fragility.

And yes, there is a cure for death by lightning, “written in thick, messy blue ink in my mother’s scrapbook, under the recipe for my father’s favorite pancakes:

Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more.”

Macbeth: Jo Nesbo

Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett

A town in Scotland where the sun never breaks through the clouds, pollution hangs heavy, unemployment is high and people are in thrall to a potent drug called the brew, manufactured and sold by the drug lord, Hecate.

This is the setting for Jo Nesbo’s grim, gritty reworking of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.[1]  He turns it into a police procedural, set around the 1980s (I think).[2] Macbeth is the head of the town’s SWAT team. A former drug addict, he is well-liked and respected by his colleagues. The new police commissioner, Duncan, wants to clean up the town by getting rid of Hecate. This isn’t going to be easy: Hecate’s tentacles spread deep into the town, and many in the local government and police are in his pocket.

As the book starts, Duff, a police inspector, has been tipped off about a large shipment of drugs arriving at the port. Thinking that he would get all the credit if he pulls it off by himself, he does not inform Duncan and turns down Macbeth’s offer of help. But things go wrong, and Macbeth—who is there with his team, including his trusted friend, Banquo—saves the day.

Walking back from the raid, Macbeth and Banquo are stopped by two women of indeterminate age with ravaged faces and “cold inscrutable [eyes] that don’t let you in, that only reflect their surroundings”. The women are joined by Strega, a man-woman in leopard-skin tight, who works for Hecate. The women predict that Macbeth will become head of the Organized Crime Unit and then Chief Commissioner. He dismisses them but then, as soon as he gets back to the police station, Duncan makes him head of Organized Crime. This is the beginning of the end for him: as Strega says to Hecate, “If people see the soothsayer’s first prophecy fulfilled, they’ll believe the next one blindly”.

Macbeth shares the day’s events with Lady, the beautiful owner of a posh casino, with whom he is in love. Lady, who is more ruthless and more ambitious than Macbeth, sees an opportunity to consolidate power and persuades Macbeth to murder Duncan. At first horrified by the idea, Macbeth eventually buys into Lady’s argument that together, the couple can do a lot of good for the town. (At least that’s what he tells himself.) He murders Duncan and takes over his job as Chief Commissioner, fulfilling the women’s prophecy. But the murder opens the door to his addiction. He takes a bit of the brew to get his courage up for the murder, and he is hooked. The drug fuels his paranoia, and the murders spiral out of control. Lady is made of sterner stuff but she has her demons too, and gradually, they both start to unravel.

Meanwhile Duff has realized what is going on, and is on the run from Macbeth. He joins up with other cops who take the fight to Macbeth. But will getting rid of one man really get rid of the endemic corruption?  

Nesbo sticks quite closely to the original. There are some nice touches: the brew is concocted by the two ravaged women from their secret recipe said to contain “toad’s glands, bumblebee wings, juice from rats’ tails”—like the witches’ brew. Naming their boss Hecate echoes the play too, where she is the goddess of witchcraft. Hecate in the book does not need witchcraft to cast his spell over the town: all he needs is the brew.

The betrayals in the novel feel more visceral than in the play. Macbeth is a character we are familiar with: the incorruptible cop who breaks the rules and gets results. So when Macbeth agrees to kill Duncan, he goes against the stereotype (I did think he agreed a little too easily, though).  Banquo is not a contemporary of Macbeth’s as he is in the play—he is the man who took Macbeth in as a child and gave him a home, which makes Banquo’s murder even more shocking. The bond between Macbeth and his nemesis, Duff (the Macduff character in the play) is also something Nesbo has added. The two men were at an orphanage together and know each other’s secrets. This creates an intimacy but also an uneasy relationship, which brings more depth to their conflict.

Nesbo underlines the filth in the town: the moral corruption is reflected in the weather and the pollution, unlike Fife a short distance away, which is bathed in sunlight. But the men living there choose to do so, as if too much light will expose them for what they are. The book opens with rain, following a single raindrop as it finds its way down to the main characters, a device Nesbo uses again at the end.

This is a book about power, which is the real drug here. Everyone is on the make and will stop at nothing to further their own ends. It fits right in with the world Nesbo has created in his other books. I found it compelling: the violence could be appalling but I couldn’t tear myself away from the story. I usually have trouble with books where none of the characters are sympathetic. Not here.


[1] Macbeth is part of a series commissioned by Hogarth Press, a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s plays. Margaret Atwood’s reworking of The Tempest, Hag-Seed, has also been reviewed on this site.

[2] Before cell phones, at any rate.

Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat—Chris Stewart

It all began when Chris Stewart, 29 and out of work, bumps into a friend. “My great-aunt Jane has been on at me for weeks to find her a skipper [for her yacht], and I thought of you straightaway.” Which was a little odd because Stewart had never been on a boat before, never mind knowing how to sail. But he needed the job so he decided to keep minor details like that to himself.

A book, Teach Yourself Sailing, teaches him the jargon and how to tell one boat from another. He hopes this would be enough to impress grand-aunt Jane at their first meeting. (It is.) He is to pick up the boat, a Cornish Crabber, from a marina near Athens where it was being fixed by a Captain Bob Weare. He is to sail it to the island of Spetses, where Jane and her husband Bob would spend the summer. A dream job—provided Stewart could actually sail a boat.

He enlists the help of Keith, a “rather malodorous person with a black beard [and] a chubby boyish face” who has a crush on Stewart’s girlfriend, Ana, and who owns a boat, a “twenty-one-foot craft banged together out of plywood and tin”. All does not go well. There is thick fog and the boat capsizes, pitching them into the freezing sea. Fortunately, Keith knows how to right the boat by standing on it, and they survive.

Classes with a professional sailor, Tom Cunliffe, give Stewart enough knowledge to go to Athens with some confidence. He finds the Crabber in a terrible state—mouldy and without an engine. Stewart rescues it from Captain Bob and hands it over to two Greeks, both called Nikos. When Stewart worries that the keys are still with Captain Bob, one of the Nikos points out: “Keys are for engine. You got no engine.” Problem solved. New engine, new keys.

By the time Stewart has finished his stint with Jane, he is hooked on sailing. When Cunliffe asks if he would join his crew to sail to Newfoundland, Stewart jumps at it. They set out from Brighton on a rainy day in April, via Norway and Greenland. It is the first time that Stewart was going to be on a boat for weeks on end. He describes living on a boat: sharing a small space with other people (including Cunliffe’s wife and four-year-old daughter) in a small space, keeping watches at night while trying not to fall asleep, the cold, and the comforting tones of the shipping forecast. (And a very funny bit about trying to pee from the side of the ship in the freezing cold.)

They stop in a little town called Norheimsund, in Norway. The already stunning landscape of the fjords is heightened with white apple blossoms “as if bright patches of snow had lingered in the warm green valleys”. Norway is expensive so they live on fish they catch. A group of Norwegian men who come over for a night of drinking are horrified by this, and bring them enough smoked leg of lamb to last for the rest of the journey (which Stewart suspects wasn’t obtained entirely legally).

I love Stewart’s writing: he’s funny and lyrical and his vivid descriptions makes you feel you are there. And you can tell why people do get hooked on sailing: “as the land drops away astern, all the woes and worries that afflicted you on dry land—all the things you ought to have done but have left undone, all the drab detritus and clutter of your daily existence—slough away like the old dry skin of a snake”.

Chris Stewart is best known for the books he has written about living in Alpujarras in Andalucia, Spain,[1] and for briefly being a drummer in Genesis. I am so glad they kicked him out—it would have been a real loss to the book world if he was still drumming!


[1] See my reviews of his books: A Parrot in the Pepper Tree on this blog and Driving Over Lemons for Women on the Road (scroll down to the bottom of the page: it was the first one I wrote for the website!).

Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling—Philip Pullman

“[T]he image of the reader is solitary. We are each alone when we enter the borderland and go on to explore what lies in it and beyond it, in the book we’re engaged with. True, we can come back and and talk about it, and if we talk well and truthfully and interestingly enough we might entice other readers into it, and they too will explore it—but they too will be alone there until they in turn come back and tell us what they found there.”

Daemon Voices is a collection of Philip Pullman’s essays, articles and talks, mostly on storytelling, reading and the craft of writing, but also on politics, art and religion.

Pullman is best known for his fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials. Ostensibly for young adults, these books—like all good writing—crosses age boundaries (and it is worth noting that Pullman didn’t intend the trilogy for a particular audience). I find this happening less now, but writing for children or young adults has often been scoffed at as not being as “serious” or “important” as writing for adults. Pullman dismisses this and is passionate about the importance of children’s literature. Good writing for children or young adults, as he points out, is every bit as important as that for adults. And as for adults reading children’s books, he quotes CS Lewis: “I now like hock, which I am sure I did not like as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had one pleasure, I now have two.”

Writers have responsibilities, says Pullman. They have a duty to their readers to use language well (something that as an editor, I can’t agree with more): be clear and aware of what you are saying. But there is also their responsibility to their families: after all, to be a writer is a job, and they have to make sure they earn enough to provide for their loved ones. I have read a lot on writing and writers but very few say anything about the money-making side of it.  

There is so much here that I am only going to pick out a few things. We get a lot of insight on how Pullman wrote his books, especially His Dark Materials. It takes a single element to give an idea that spark that brings it to life. The first book fell into place when he came up with the idea (or the idea came to him, as he puts it) of daemons. A daemon is an animal version of a person that is constantly with them—the soul, in a way, that is external but part of them. It changes shapes in children and settles into a particular animal when they reach puberty. So when Lyra, the heroine of the trilogy, hears of children who daemons are being cut away from them, it is shocking not just to her but to the reader, and sets the trilogy in motion.

In His Dark Materials, the forces of good fight the Church to stop it taking control of Dust, the essence of consciousness. This reflects Pullman’s view of organized religion. He is not an atheist, because he finds that atheism can be equally totalitarian (something I had noticed too and was glad to find someone else agreeing with me).  

I loved Pullman’s perspective on the story of Adam and Eve, which makes sense. He sees the apple as the fruit of knowledge, which humans had to eat so they could be aware of the world around them. Hence the self-awareness that results when Adam and Eve bite into it, much as we become aware of ourselves when we cross the threshold into adulthood. Once you reach that threshold, there is no way back to innocence. But that does not mean that the Garden of Eden is closed to us forever—the way back is through what Pullman calls “the back door”, through wisdom and understanding.

The reader as explorer: The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

There are also essays on narratives in art, where he examines well-known paintings (there are illustrations, both in colour and black and white). His dissection of Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”, which I’ve known for a long time (my interest in art was sparked by the Impressionists), made me see it in a completely different light. And the quote that I begin this review with is illustrated with “The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friederich: again, a different take on a familiar painting, where the explorer is the reader.

There is some repetition, but that’s hard to avoid in a collection like this. There are things that I disagree with (his dislike of fantasy fiction like Lord of the Rings, for one), but this book wouldn’t be worth its salt if I agreed with everything. If you are a budding (or already established) writer, if you’re passionate about words and stories, then get this book. You don’t need to read it cover to cover—as I did—but can dip into it. There are essays here that I know I will be going back to. His writing makes me want to sit down with him over a meal and have a long discussion about books, writing and everything else.

Written in Black: K.H. Lim

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Jonathan is a 10-year-old boy in Brunei. He lives with his father and brother Aaron and sister Jen. His mother has gone away, ostensibly for health reasons, and his older brother Michael left to join a rock band. When the book starts, Jonathan’s uncle, Ah Peh, calls to tell him his grandfather’s death.

The family leave for Ah Peh’s house where the funeral is going to take place. Jonathan is desperate to speak to his mother, to find out when—or if—she is coming back. He doesn’t believe she is sick but knows that she was deeply unhappy. He keeps missing her calls, and his father won’t tell him anything. Just before they leave for the funeral, he finds out that she will be going to Dubai the next day and will not be able to call from there.

In Ah Peh’s house, his cousin Kevin—a spoiled, overfed child his age—tells him that he is in touch with Michael, who speaks regularly to his mother. Jonathan tries to get Kevin to call Michael but the number has changed. Looking through Michael’s Facebook account, the boys figure out that he will be at the Friendly Garden Pool Centre in Badir, a nearby town, at 1:30 pm the next day.

The day of the funeral, a truck arrives to deliver the coffin. The address on the side of the truck is a place in Badir. Fed up at being shut out by his father and blamed for everything and determined to speak to his mother, Jonathan stows away in the truck, hoping to meet his brother. But it’s not that simple: there are two more coffins to deliver.

That’s how his journey begins. Jonathan leaves the truck at an unknown place and wanders into a derelict house filled with what seem to be voodoo dolls. He is rescued from feral dogs by a gang of poklans (Brunei punks) who make him buy glue for them to sniff, and is helped by Mohidin, a rather weird shopkeeper.

Lim uses Jonathan’s journey to give the reader a glimpse into the real Brunei, which I found fascinating. All I knew about the country was the wealth, both of its ruler, the Sultan, and the kingdom itself.

I also loved KH Lim’s ability to capture the details of a scene. Jonathan knows his grandfather’s shoes are Italian because the soles were emblazoned with “Armany” and “Definitely Made in Italy”. Lim describes an old guard on a plastic chair, snoozing in front of a shop next to an ice-cream machine, which “sat next to him like a mechanical grandchild desperate for attention, its orange, green and pink buttons so bright with deluded optimism and so close to being able to distract one away from the rust marks and cobwebs that had gathered around the rest of its neglected body.”

This book is heart-breaking and funny, and you root for Jonathan as you watch him mature and become more assertive about what he wants, earning a grudging respect from those around him.

Warlight: Michael Ondaatje

Review by Usha Raman

“The lost sequence in a life, they say, is the thing we always search out.”

“We order our lives with barely held stories”

Memory is a strange thing; it reveals the ephemeral nature of experience and the power of its reconstruction. It builds stories where none existed. And it imbues monochromatic lives with colours drawn more from imagination than life. But we need memory in order to make meaning of life, and in Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, Nathaniel’s search for the lost sequence of his mother’s life is in many ways the search for the meaning of his own. The novel is set in the confusing time after the second world war, when London is still limping back to a normalcy that will forever remain elusive, and nothing is what it seems—and neither, as Nathaniel discovers, are people.

Abandoned by their parents to the guardianship of a mysterious and unknowable man they fondly dub The Moth, Nathaniel and his sister Rachel spend their teenage years in an adventurous fog, encountering a series of not-quite-mainstream adults, none of whom seem to be engaged in easily explainable occupations. There is the Darter, a one-time boxer and greyhound-smuggling, gun-running womanizer who, unmindful of propriety or danger, takes the young Nathaniel on his nighttime river runs and introduces him to the women in his life. Among these is Olive Lawrence, a cloud-reading ethnographer who has a surprising connection with the intelligence services.

The children’s discovery of duplicity—or intrigue—begins when they find their mother’s packed trunk left behind in the basement, revealing her departure, ostensibly to join their father in his posting to Singapore, to be a charade. While Rachel takes this to be a betrayal that never be forgiven, even when her mother returns to reclaim her life with them, Nathaniel seeks to fill out the years of her absence, to fill in the shadowy outlines of a past that could, possibly, give him a sense of the person she was. And in that process, find that his own memories are fickle things, meaning one thing at one moment, rendered false the next.

It’s no coincidence that as an adult Nathaniel finds himself recruited to work in the archives of war intelligence, a fitting place in which to recover the memory of his mother, a key figure in wartime espionage, and her association with the oddly named Marsh Felon, the man who drew her into the ring of spies and away from her life in domesticity. The fragments of their story unfold in the dim light left behind by war records, buried deep in the filing cabinets of the British secret service. And in the pursuit of his mother’s life, he is forced to rearrange the meanings of his own memories—sometimes with devastating results.

Warlight has been my introduction to Ondaatje, a writer whom I have been meaning to read for years. It has left me thirsting for more of the textured prose, the spare yet powerful characterization, and the suggestive outline of plot that seem to be his forte. You want to pause and drink in the meanings that seem to speak not just to and from the characters in the book, but to your life as well. This is his eighth novel, one that The Guardian hails as another instance of “magic from a past master”. Clearly, I have a lot of magic to catch up on.

Kafka on the Shore: Haruki Murakami

Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel

A man talks to cats, fish and leeches rain down from the sky, a man dressed like Johnny Walker (of whisky fame) is making a flute from cats’ souls, and a stone opens the door to another world. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Haruki Murakami.

The book begins with an account of a strange incident just after the Second World War. A teacher and a group of children go foraging for mushrooms in a forest. Suddenly all the children pass out on the forest floor. When they come to, they have no memory of the incident except for one, who never really comes back whole. The children are examined but the doctors find nothing strange or unusual.

The book follows two characters: Kafka Tamura, a 15-year-old who runs away from home to escape his father’s prophecy, an Oedipal curse, and to find his mother; and Nakata, a middle-aged man (“not very bright”, in his words) who can talk to cats. Kafka’s mother left when he was very young, taking his sister with her, leaving the father to bring him up. Nakata is the boy who almost did not survive the incident on the hill—one of the brightest students, he emerged from his coma unable to read but able to talk to cats. As an adult, using this unique gift, he helps people find their missing cats.

Kafka ends up in a library in Takamatsu—the last place he thinks his father will look for him—where he is befriended by Oshima and the person who runs the library, Miss Saeki. In the meantime, Nakata has been involved in a murder and is on the run, but also on a quest to find a stone that can open the door into another world. He is helped by Hoshino, a truck driver who gives him a lift.

As the story develops, Kafka and Nakata’s paths start to converge. Kafka reads in the paper that his father has been brutally murdered and the police are looking for him to find out what he knows. But who killed the father? Was he the Johnny Walker character whom Nakata stabbed?

Despite the murder, this is not a whodunit. It is about people trying to make sense of their pasts and their identities. And sometimes that requires walking into an alternative universe that is buried deep in the forest near Oshima’s cabin and guarded by two soldiers left behind from the Second World War.

Kafka on the Shore is a fascinating book that does not answer all the questions it raises. Murakami builds his story through interconnected layers where repercussions from events ripple out beyond their immediate surroundings. This book is never predictable—you never know how it is going to unfold.

My only gripe is that the translation uses Americanisms which seem a bit strange coming from Japanese characters (like “Jeez Louise”). But that’s a small complaint. Read this book—it is utterly strange and compelling.

Frida Folk: Gaby Franger

Review by Sadhana Ramchander

Book translated from German by Gita Wolf

Frida Folk celebrates, in an unusual manner, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and her many ‘avatars’.

This is indeed a fascinating book! It documents an unbelievable variety of interpretations of Frida­—the woman and the artist—by crafts-people and artists from all over the world. From murals to traditional tin shrines to hand bags and cushion covers to T-shirts and clay figurines, this book features them all. In the process, it entices you to read more about Frida, and also to see and understand her own paintings, which by the way, are NOT featured in this book.

I found the chapter on the art of the Aguilar Sisters very interesting. Their folk figures are original and unique. One of the sisters makes a Frida figurine with a child, even though Frida never had a child. This artist says, “maybe she didn’t have one when she was alive, but now that she’s dead, she gets one in my work.” It takes courage to say this, and only another artist can muster this courage!

The chapters are short, the writing lucid, and the book well laid out, bright and cheerful. The last part of the book titled, “Frida waits at every corner” is a collection of Fridamania photographs by Rafael Doniz.

Frida Folk is not a book you read and put away. It is a book you want to keep re-reading and looking at. And at the end of it, it makes you want to start your own collection of Frida memorabilia. The book reiterates Frida’s cult status and the fact that it is indeed very rare for an artist to be as popular as her, anywhere in the world.

Frida’s sister, Christina Kahlo, is a guest author. The chief photographer is Rafael Doniz. Published by Tara Books, Chennai, India, the book has been designed by Ragini Siruguri and production supervised by C. Arumugam. The German version is titled Frida Pop.

Exit West: Mohsin Hamid

A man and a woman meet in a city in what is probably Syria and fall in love. Civil war is initially just a distant presence in their lives. But then it all starts to fall apart, and strange doors start opening up, leading out of the country.

Nadia and Saeed meet at a class. He is a little intimidated by her wearing a full black robe—which she uses to keep men at bay—but asks her out to coffee. They start to see each other, meeting at Nadia’s apartment, sometimes smoking a joint on her balcony.

The differences between them are clear from the start. Nadia is fiercely independent and lives in her own apartment, having fought with her family who did not approve and wanted her to get married. Saeed lives with his parents, both academics, and is very close to them both.

But the unrest in the city, which is getting closer to the couple every day, affects their lives. People talk in hushed tones about doors opening up in the city that lead to other countries, doors that are carefully guarded by the militia. These are like wormholes in time and space, and are completely unpredictable: any door “could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all”.

Things become unbearable, and it is important that the couple leave while they still can. They pay a man to guide them to a door and walk out into Greece and then to London. But uprooted from their city and living in another where they are not accepted strains their relationship. They draw apart: Nadia integrating with the fellow refugees who are from other parts of the world, and Saeed looking to those from his own country.

Mohsin Hamid is good at describing the slow creep of civil unrest and war. At first, it’s just the small things that happen in other parts of the city, then there is curfew, and the banality of living in conflict: the bombed-out tank that becomes part of the landscape and the way people adapt to living in an impossible situation.

This is a timely book about what makes people leave and what it means to be a refugee—not just the physical hardships and compromises they make but also what it does to relationships. Using the doors is clever—it avoids recounting the journey so that Hamid can focus on the conflict and the displacement: the guilt at leaving loved ones behind and trying to make sense of, and fit into, a new culture.

At this time of hostility towards the other, of fortresses and walls, and of opposition in many countries to the UN Global Compact on Migration, this book goes a long way in humanizing refugees—essentially, people like us caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Writing that sentence, I feel that I am stating the obvious, but reading the news from various parts of the world, it is something that we have forgotten.