Kazuo Ishiguro ‘KLARA and THE SUN’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“Klara and The Sun”: In order of reading book number 4.


‘He’s a B2,’ Manager said. ‘Third series. For the right child, Rex will make a perfect companion. In particular, I feel he’ll encourage a conscientious and studious attitude in a young person.’
‘Well this young lady here could certainly do with that.’
‘Oh, Mother, he’s perfect.’ Then the mother said: ‘B2, third series. The ones with the solar absorption problems, right?’
She said it just like that, in front of Rex, her smile still on her face. Rex kept smiling too, but the child looked baffled and glanced from Rex to her mother.
‘It’s true,’ Manager said, ‘that the third series had a few minor issues at the start. But those reports were greatly exaggerated. In environments with normal levels of light, there’s no problem whatsoever.’
‘I’ve heard solar malabsorption can lead to further problems,’ the mother said. ‘Even behavioral ones.’


Ishiguro’s Klara is set some time in the not too distant future and lets us compare two feats of engineering, Klara, an AF, an Artificial Friend, developed to be a friend for teenagers and the teenager in question, Josie. Josie who is “lifted”, that is to say as we learn near the middle of the book, genetically engineered, a choice her richer parents were able to make because if you’re not “lifted” you have no real chance of an education.

The story is told by Klara, from the beginning in the shop waiting to be bought, where we learn through Klara of her observations and deductions, Klara is a B2 as illustrated in the opening quote and of course has a very particular relationship with the sun which gives her all of her “nourishment”. Whilst in the shop window, Klara made two observations which were to form her vision of the world, firstly a machine working in the street outside which giving of large amounts of smoke temporarily hides the sun and secondly a drunk passed out on the street who comes around when the sun shines strongly on him.

Soon after being bought by Josie, Klara learns that Josie is very ill and may die (genetic engineering seems to be a risky business, Josie had had a sister that had died at her age and as we learn, if they manage to live through this age then they’ll be ok). So she tries to reason how to save Josie and thinks back to her earlier experience:


I thought too about the time the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man and his dog and considered the important differences between his circumstances and Josie’s. For one thing many passers by had known beggar man and when he’d become weak he had done so on a busy street visible to taxi drivers and runners, any of these people might have drawn the sun’s attention to his condition and that of his dog. Even more significantly I remembered what had been happening not long before the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man, the Cootings Machine had been making its awful pollution.


We learn that people think of AFs as having superstitions but we see through Klara that a partial understanding of the world around you can lead to this. Can the sun help Josie? Through Klara’s observations we learn of the toll of human suffering the technology brings, of people losing their jobs, of communities fighting back. More directly, firstly we see in the shop the differences between the AFs, each with their own personality and then hear Josie’s father wonder about the ironing out of differences between the lifted children:


Mr Paul is an expert engineer I said turning to face him, I was hoping he’d be able to think of something, but the father kept gazing through the windshield at the yard I couldn’t explain it to mosey earlier in the diner, I couldn’t explain why I hate Kapaldi so much, why I can’t bring myself to be civil towards him but I’d like to try and explain it to you Klara if you don’t mind, his switch of subject was highly unwelcome but anxious not to lose his goodwill I said nothing and waited I think I hate Kapaldi because deep down I suspect he may be right that what he claims is true that science has now proved beyond doubt that there is nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer, that people have been living with one another for all this time, centuries loving and hating each other and all on a mistaken premise, a kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better, that’s how Kapaldi sees it and there’s a part of me that fears he’s right.


Josie’s mother would like Klara to learn to be Josie, to replace her for a while if she were to die, to ease the pain. It of course never gets to this and as the book comes to an end, and Klara to the end of her useful life, her observations as to what makes a human individual and why she would not have been able to replace Josie ring true. Finally a whole AF life, for an exceptional AF to really understand humans.

Another most enjoyable book well worth reading.

First Published in English as “KLARA and THE SUN” in 2021 by Faber & Faber.

James Wolff ‘Beside The Syrian Sea’


Our head-doctors are having a field day with you. They’re used to dealing with American problems – the jock with anger-management issues, the overachiever who under-eats – butnow they’ve got all this Downton Abbey shit to get their heads round: English uptightness, too much education, a religious childhood. I’ve never seen them happier.


Move over Edward Snowden, Jonas, the central character in this spy thriller, is coming. Jonas a happy enough analyst in British intelligence learns one day that his father a protestant minister has been kidnapped in Syria by IS. The british government cannot or will not negotiate so Jonas takes it into his mind to negotiate his fathers freedom himself. yes I said analyst, no field experience but lucid, realises he needs help and persuades an alcoholic priest to go back to Syria to try to open talks with IS for him. Jonas takes a large number of government secrets as barter and whilst the government don’t know where or which these secrets are, they don’t intervene too heavily. When the Americans find out they are not too impressed, see the opening quote.

In classic spy who came in from the cold fashion, divide and rule, Jonas plays off different miltant factions against each other. On the way he meets the reason behind the priests alcoholism, who incidentally is furious with him for sending her father back to Syria. The showdown in the desert where the IS fighters sent are British and not particularly competent adds a little “old style spy” atmosphere.

If you like spy fiction about intrigue and not so much about action then this is reasonable fare.

First Published in English as “Beside the Syrian Sea” in 2018 by Bitter Lemon Press

Jeanine Cummins ‘American Dirt’


Luca starts to understand that this is the one thing that all migrants have in common, this is the solidarity that exists among them, though they all come from different places and different circumstances some urban, some rural, some middle class, some poor, some well educated some illiterate, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Mexican, Indian, each of them carry some story of suffering on top of that train and into El Norte beyond. Some like Rebecca share their stories carefully selectively finding a faithful ear and then chanting their words like prayers, other migrants are like blown open grenades telling their anguish compulsively to everyone they meet dispensing their pain like shrapnel so that one day they might wake to find their burdens have grown lighter. Luca wonders what it would be like to blow up like that, nut for now he remains undetonated.


As the book opens, Lydia owns a bookshop in Acapulco and the world is well, she lives with her husband Sebastián, a journalist and her son Luca and her world ends at a family barbecue when gunmen enter her garden and kill all thirteen of her family members present except her and Luca who hide in the shower.

Sure violence is creeping into Acapulco with the drugs but it’s mostly invisible, happens to others then one evening Lydia learns that the reclusive boss of the cartel that has taken over Acapulco, that Sébastián will reveal in tomorrow’s newspaper is a customer she knows who comes to her shop with a bodyguard and who buys poems.

She knows she must run, fast and far but the cartel’s influence is far reaching, you can’t travel on a road between towns without them finding you, any youth could be working for them, all they need is a smart phone and a gun. We follow Lydia and Luca as the travel with other migrants on the roof of “La Bestia”, the freight train and the other migrants they meet, of the sisters Rebecca and the too beautiful Soledad, yes, to be too beautiful is no good thing, who teach them how to join the train:


The wind fuzzes through Luca’s hair as the noise of the train grows closer, the booming clatter and reverberation of those monster wheels hauling themselves along the metal of the track. The very loudness of that noise seems designed as a warning that enters through your ears but lodges in your sternum stay away stay away stay away don’t be crazy don’t be crazy don’t be crazy ..he sees it emerge from beneath his feet mammy peers over the edge of a low guard rail just as the train pulls itself into view it’s good Rebecca smiles at them, nice and slow. Ready, Soledad says. her little sister nods Lydia’s face grim whilst she studies the stretch of the train….Soledad tosses her pack and then follows it with one graceful, chaotic, suicidal lurch she moves her body from the fixed to the moving she drops, Lydia can’t tell how far it is six feet, ten and then the girl is instantly receding, her form growing smaller as she moves away with the train.


Not many of the hopeful migrants they meet actualy make it, far less have any money left on arrival and if they think the cartel only control the roads the they don’t know the power of corruption, but they do. And throughout all this the young boy Luca is working through the grief of losing his father, his abuelo and his abuela, aunts uncles and cousins whilst fighting to stay alive on this long journey:


Luca is exhausted, there’s a tug of war in his heart already between wanting to remember and needing to forget in the months to come Luca will sometimes wish he hadn’t squandered these early days of his grief…because as the forgetting part takes anchor and stays it’ll feel like a treachery.


No one makes this journey for fun, they are all fleeing from something, some are able to talk about their experiences, with difficulty to a chosen trusted person and others, well the are just time bombs waiting to explode. Jeannine Cummins takes us through despair, recovery of sorts and a raw energy to survive. Makes me think of a film I’ve seen “The Golden Dream

First Published in English as “American Dirt” in 2020 by Tinder Press.

Emily St. John Mandel ‘The Glass Hotel’


In their first winter together they flew south to a party at a private club in Miami Beach, Jonathan seemed to belong to an extraordinary number of clubs. “It’s an expensive hobby,” he told Vincent “but I’ve always had a weakness for places where it seems like time slows down.” Yet another clue that Vincent felt she should have picked up, why exactly did he want time to slow down? Was there something in that statement besides a general awareness of mortality some other inevitability that he felt was rushing towards him?


Who is the New York Financier, Jonathan Alkaitis, if you remember Madoff then you’re sort of getting there. This book is about the people around Alkaitis when the stock market takes a serious tumble in 2008 and anyone running a Ponzi scheme is going to be collateral damage. This novel isn’t so much about the central figure, but about the people around him, about Vincent, who was brought up in a remote area on Vancouver Island, one road with no roads in and no roads out, accessible only by boat. One morning whilst Vincent is just a child, her mother goes out in the kayak and never comes home, this event shapes her and her future. Vincent, beautiful Vincent back home on Vancouver island is working in a bar in the hotel Caiette, owned by Alkaitis, and as he can, he just whisks her off to live with himself. But why would a super rich man do this:


I want you close said Jonathan at the beginning….While he didn’t want to marry Vincent he did feel that wedding rings created an impression of stability, in my line of work he said managing other people’s money, steadiness is everything, if I take you out to dinner with clients it’s better for you to be a beautiful young wife than a beautiful young girlfriend. Does Claire know we’re not married?…Only two people in the world know that, you and me….But what kind of man lies to his daughter about being married? There were aspects of the fairy tale that Vincent was careful not to think about too much at the time and later her memories of those years had an abstracted quality as if she stepped temporarily outside of herself.


Does Vincent know anything about Alkaitis’s true business? Well the opening quote tells us that maybe she should have. Alkaitis knows his run cannot go on forever but his need for investors means that he takes down everyone and anyone around him, even people he is fond of invest with him and some lose everything they own. Leon Prevant, a shipping executive is one, he is unfortunate enough to be on holiday in the hotel Caiette when Alkaidis is there and we understand something of his charisma as he has insights into what Leon must be thinking because of his work. Prevant invests his life’s savings, including his pension with Jonanthan and we then follow Leon’s descent after the collapse. Vincent herself, though, just disappears and as a coincidence finds herself working on one of the ships Prevant used to manage. How does it finish? Well remember how it started when Vincent was a young girl?


In memory I’m back at the La Vu D’Or in the interior of gold and red listening to my least favourite of Jonathan’s investors, talk about a singer, no not a singer a Ponzi scheme, “Couldn’t recognise an opportunity,” Lenny Xavier said talking about the singer “whereas me when I met your husband, when I figured out how his fund worked, that right there was an opportunity and I seized it.” I watched Jonathan’s look of alarm, the way he leaned forward as he spoke, his obvious desperation to stop Lenny from talking. “Let’s not bore our lovely wives with investment talk” and Lenny smirked as he raised his glass “my investment performed better than I could ever have imagined”, he knew but of course I knew too, if not the details of the scheme then the fact that there was a scheme because I’d been pretending to be Jonathan’s wife for months by then, it was just that I’d chosen not to understand.


St John Mandel, a National Book Award for Fiction nominee and an Arthur C Clarke award winner has a smooth floating voice in this novel which slowly pulls you in.

First Published in English as “The Glass Hotel” in 2020 by Picador.

Brandon Taylor ‘Real Life’

“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Real Life”: In order of reading book number 5.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


Wallace stood on an upper platform looking down into the scrum, trying to find his particular group of white people, thinking also that it was still possible to turn back, that he could go home and get on with his evening.


Brandon Taylor takes us to a Midwest university where the research assistants are working hard for the opportunity of a career and thus life in academia. Taylor concentrates on a group of young researchers arrived at the same time. There was Miller, a tall lad from Indiana, Cole and his partner from the real world Vincent, Yngve whose father was a surgeon and whose mother taught history at a liberal arts college. And then there was Wallace, the book is really about Wallace who is up from Alabama and black, the opening quote telling us how he sees his friends.

This is yet another book in the selection with serious problems going forward from parent son relationships, Wallace whose mother drank weak beer all day because of her diabetes and whose father leaves them and somehow manages by this to define Wallace’s view of the world:


When I went to middle school my dad moved out of our house he says, he moved up the road into this other house my brother’s dad had built. It used to be an art gallery or something, a house first then an art gallery and then a house again, anyway my dad moved into it and he lived there, I wasn’t allowed to visit . He said he did’t want to see us any more. I asked him why and he said it didn’t matter why, it just was. He didn’t want to see us, me, anymore. Wallace is circling the rim of this old bitterness, can hear his dad’s voice rising up out of the past, that raspy laugh. He shook his head and smiled at Wallace put his hand on Wallace’s shoulder, they were almost equal height then, his fingers bony and knobby. He simply said I don’t want you here and that was it, Wallace was not granted an explanation for the break, for the severing of his family that left him in the house with his mother and his brother. He learned then that somethings have no reason that no matter how he feels he isn’t entitled to an answer from the world.


So, having just watched a documentary on Toni Morrison, I recognise a certain number of the messages in her writing here. Choosing to set the story in an almost exclusively white Midwest university lets Brandon Taylor give full rein to Wallaces feeling of estrangement in his own country, to casual racism and general lack of support for him from his “friends”. As Wallace has had difficulties with his studies, having to work really hard to catch up with the others from a lower starting knowledge base, he understands that in the eyes of some, this was not his initial dissadvantage and that the real dissadvantage will never go away. The smooth talking and racist Romain explains this to him against the background of non intervention from the others:


His deficiencies ….What Romain is referring to is instead a deficiency of whiteness a lack of some requisite saneness, this deficiency cannot be overcome the fact is no matter how hard he tries or how much he learns or how many skills he masters, he will always be provisional in the eyes of these people. No matter how they might be fond of him or gentle with him. “Did I hurt your feelings” Romain asks “I just want to be clear, I think you should stay, you owe the department that much don’t you agree?”
“I don’t have anything to say to that Romain”, Wallace says smiling. To keep his hands from shaking he clenches his fists until his knuckles turn to white ridges of pressure.
“Well think about it.” he says.
“I will thanks”. Emma puts her head on Wallace’s shoulder but she won’t say anything either, can’t bring herself to, no one does, no one ever does. Silence is their way of getting by because if they are silent long enough then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it had never happened. Only Wallace will remember it, that’s the frustrating part.


Amid Wallace’s difficulties with his supervisor who wants him to really consider what he wants to do with his life and his homosexual relationship with Miller where they come close to getting to know something about each other and the sub-surface violence of Miller scares him, he comes to realise that “Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty, maybe that’s all they are doing, lacerating each other and expecting kindness back.” And then there is this quote, the very essence of the book, which explains that Wallace just wants to be noticed and to be looked at as a person with this whole book explaining the impossibility of this simple wish:


Are you on that app?
Which app?
You know the one. Cole flushes as he says this looking away to the trees and to the long winding sidewalk that slopes down to the lake.
The gay one you mean?
That’s it yeah.
Oh yeah, I guess, sometimes.
Wallace deleted the app some weeks ago but this feels like a minor point Cole has always made sure to mention that he is not on the app and that he is relieved to have found Vincent before the advent of such technology, geo-location, finding the nearest queers for fucking or whatever. Wallace always has to keep himself from saying that Cole would have done well on the app he is tall and good looking in an average sort of way he is funny and quippy, gentle. He is also white which is never a disadvantage with gay men but Wallace says none of these things because to say them would disrupt Cole’s view of the average gay man as shallow and kind of stupid, they are shallow and kind of stupid but no more than any other group. Wallace only deleted the app because he had grown tired of watching himself be invisible to them, of the gathering silence in his inbox he wasn’t looking anyway but at the same time he wanted to be looked at the same as any one else.


This is a slow, persistant book, introspective about Wallace. What do you think he would/should do with his life from here?

First Published in English as “Real Life” by Daunt Books in 2020

Maaza Mengiste ‘The Shadow King’


“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Shadow King”: In order of reading book number 6.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020



There is a madwoman on a wild horse blazing through the hills, she is stopping at every church and shouting into the heavens and calling wrathful angels down to Earth. She is a nun shifting into a hyena, an angry spirit screaming vengeance from the tops of barren trees. She is Empress Taitu resurrected to fight these ferenjoch….She is resplendent. She is a fearsome and shocking figure, something both familiar and foreign, frightening and incomprehensible. A woman dressed as a warrior, looking as fierce as any man.


Mazaa Mengiste takes us to the Ethiopia of Haile Selassie, Ras Teferi Mekonnen. To the invasion by Mussollini’s Italy in 1936 and the resistance by the people of Ethiopia. This is still a country of the oral tradition where heroic feats for the country are passed down from generation to generation, as with the ancient Greeks, through legend and song. The previous generation had already fought against the Italian invador and triumphed. Every child, boy or girl, has been taught from a young age by their fathers to load and fire a rifle. In this splendid story Mengiste tells us of a wealthy family, of their servants and of their fight. There are Kidane the head of the family and his wife Aster and their are the cook, known only as “the cook” and the young servant Hirut. As Kidane rides off to raise an army, Aster in the tradition of Ethiopian women decides to do the same. “We women won’t sit by while they march into our homes. This part, at least, the songs have gotten right.” We can see how this can easily become a legend as word of her gets back to the cook and Hirut as illustrated in the opening quote.

Despite great valour and their knowledge of the terrain Kidane’s forces are beaten and forced to the hills by a combination of the Italian’s use of north african soldiers, the Ascari, “those soldiers from Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, and even Ethiopia fighting for the Italians” and the use of aircraft and in particular mustard gas, which as with present day dictators, the Italians simply denied.

Mengiste tells us of the roles of women in Ethiopian society, born to serve and subject to men’s whims, we can imagine why some poorer Ethiopians sided with the Italians With Hirut eventually being raped by Kidane when he realises he will die in the conflict and leave no decendance. The story then moves on via two other major events to the climax of the story.

Firstly, the emperor in defeat flees to England, leaving his country men to fight a guerilla war, but the villagers have no will to fight on until Hirut notices the striking resemblence between one of the soldiers and the king. (The soldier himself named Minim, Nothing because he was born just after death of his older brother would be a modern psychiatrists meal ticket). Minim then becomes the Shadow King of the title with, as was the custom, two female bodyguards, Aster and Hirut.


Kidane glances into the field as the villagers fall to their knees. The emperor comes forward on his white horse, led by his female guards. Kidane takes in Hirut’s uniform, her proud stance, her fierce defiance, and sees his redemption.


Secondly, the sadistic colonel Carlo Fucelli builds a one room prison high in the mountains at a cliff edge, as he had already done in Libya. Fucelli uses the weakness of a soldier, Ettore Navarra whom he knows to be Jewish, As Mussolini begins his persecution, to force him to take photos of the prisoners. As Navarra writes in a letter to his father which he never sends:


Papa, they are making a prison that will hold no prisoners. They are going to fling men into the sky who have no wings. They are going to test the laws of gravity and terror and order me to photograph the ascent and fall. We are going to make Icarus and hurl him into the sun.


Eventually, when Hirut and Aster are captured and kept in this prison as bait to draw Kidane’s army out, Hirut watching The despicable Italian photographer recognises in him the forced subservience she has herself lived under and the sadism of Fucelli towards Navarra. Recognises yes, ultimately forgives, No as in an echo of her previous self he tries to bury a box of his personal photos and papers before fleeing:


Hirut wants to ask aloud what he is doing as he digs, but she already knows. Her heart twists in her chest as she realizes that she is watching an old version of herself, that girl who was a keeper of things she should not have claimed as her own. He is doing as she once did, in the naïve belief that what is buried stays that way, that what is hidden will stay unseen, that what is yours will remain always in your possession. He is being foolish.


This is an astounding book, easily the best I have read in a while. Buy it and enjoy it!

First Published in English as “The Shadow King” by Cannongate Books in 2020

Diane Cook ‘The New Wilderness’

Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The New Wilderness”: In order of reading book number 2.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


He and Bea weren’t married yet, though they knew they would. He was already in love with Agnes. And when he explained fully about the study and his idea, Bea had said, “It seems crazy.” “It is crazy,” he said. “But if we stay, she’ll die.” It came out so flatly, so unequivocal, she felt like he’d slapped her. They stared at each other, not speaking. She thought hours might have passed. She wished that she’d had better thoughts running through her head. Thoughts like, I don’t even need to think—of course that’s what we’ll do. Like, Whatever it takes. But really she thought, So, we have to risk all our lives just to save hers? Is this the rule, or do I have a choice? She looked at Glen and he had that resolute look.


Another 2020 Booker Shortlist book, another complicated mother daughter relationship. Diane Cook, in this dystopian future, tells us the story of Bea and her daughter Agnes. As living in the city becomes impossible for them due to Agnes’s worsening health brought on my the conditions in the city Glen, Bea’s partner is able to get them onto a research program in the Wilderness to save Agnes’ life. As illustrated in the opening quote, Bea is not sure she wants to risk their lives to save Agnes.

Life in the Wilderness turns out to be wild and difficult, many of the original group die from either illness or accidents as the group learns to move and act like the animals around them to find water and to hunt, to skin the animals to obtain leather. All of this is policed by rangers that move them on if they try to settle, give them pointless targets and seem to hide information about the Wilderness but also about the evolution of the City :


Ranger Bob cleared his throat. “You know you were supposed to get along to Lower Post, right?” Her heart skipped. She felt like they were doing everything wrong. “We heard. But we were so close. It didn’t make sense to turn around. And we worried it might have been a mistake . . . ” She trailed off. “It’s not a mistake,” he said, again with a sternness that surprised her. “Granted, Ranger Gabe should have caught up with you earlier. But there were some unexpected events that needed handling.” “Like what?” “Well. Hmm.” He screwed his mouth. “That’s classified.” “Really?” Bea didn’t know why, but she felt incredulous to think there were things she couldn’t know about this place where they ate, drank, slept, and shat. “It’s a big place. You’re not going to know about everything that goes on.”


After following Bea’s story, the book turns towards Agnes, who in the Wilderness learns to grow up quickly and having arrived young understands the animals around them better than the others. Suddenly one day whilst visiting a ranger post Bea runs towards a highway for lorries crossing the wilderness, flags down a lorry and leaves them, Agnès must have been ten or eleven years old. Agnès is chosen by the group to lead them on their walks as she is able, through her understanding of the Wilderness and the animals, to guide them to water and away from danger. Agnes is lead to think about her position in the group:


Agnes had noticed that a mother would only be a mother for so long before she wanted to be something else. No mother she’d ever watched here remained a mother forever. Agnes had been ready for this without knowing it. She hadn’t cried once and that had to mean she was ready for it. She was not a bear cub any longer, but a juvenile on the lookout for her own place in the world. And so when Val called her a fearless leader, Agnes believed her. Val saw her for what she was now. An equal.


This book did not particularly interest me, I’m not sure why this made the shortlist, even the long list.

First Published in English as “The New Wilderness” by Oneworld Publications in 2020

Tsitsi Dangaremga ‘This Mournable body’

“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“This Mournable Body”: In order of reading book number 3.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


Christine has that layer under the skin that cuts off her outside from her inside and allows no communication between the person she once believed she could be and the person she has in fact become. The one does not acknowledge the other’s existence, the women from war are like that, a new kind of being that no one knew before, not exactly male but no longer female. It is rumored the blood stopped flowing to their wombs the first time they killed a person


In this book set in Harare in late 1990’s Zimbabwe, Tambu is trying to exist in a world that has no place for her. Tambu’s education at a Catholic school during the fight for independence has left her with no direct experience of and thus no real links to the generation that fought this war and the war of independence in Mozambique, represented in particular by Christine, illustrated in the opening quote who comes from the same village as Tambu’s family and who is sent to Harare to protect her aunt, Tambu’s landlord, from her aunt’s own sons who want to dispossess her. Tambu is also in her late thirties, too old for the younger generation that make it difficult for her to find a new job in copy writing:


You tortured yourself in the early days…with the idea that you have no one but yourself to blame for leaving your copy writing position. You should have endured the white men who put their names to your tag lines and rhyming couplets. You spend much time regretting digging your own grave over a matter of mere principle. Your age prevents you from obtaining another job in the field for the creative departments are now occupied by people with Mohawk haircuts and rings in eyebrows, tongues and navels.


Tambu tries to take some distance from what is happening to her by narrating this story in the second person referring to herself as “you”, as she first rebels and so loses her copy writing job, she is then forced to leave her hostel because she is too old, moving into Christine’s aunts lodgings and slowly poverty encroaches on her: 


Once a week you go shopping at a tiny supermarket as depressed in its appearance as you are. Leaving the yard you force a spring into your step in order to walk to like a woman with lots of dollar bills lying in the bottom of her bag inside the shop pretense suffocates you as though you were wearing a too tight corset. Completing your purchases you do not want to go out again because your bag bulges with budget pack plastic bottles smallest size sachets and minute boxes cooking oil, glycerin for you skin, candles for power allergies, matches, everything broadcasts your poverty.


Tambu cannot just go back home as her mother lives in a remote village in very difficult conditions. After an incident during a temporary teaching job, when she attacks one of her students, she is eventually rescued from a psychiatric clinic by Christine and one of Tambu’s aunts, both veteran fighters, and is taken to live with her cousin Nyasha. Through living with Nyasha, Tambu realises that life isn’t easy for other’s and gains in her own self esteem, feeling for the first time in her life “superior”.  Nyasha is married to “cousin brother-in-law”, a german and her stay in Europe and return has ill prepared her for Zimbabwe:


You have entered a new realm of impossibility, worse even than the discovery that your cousin has been placed on the slide to impoverishment in spite of her degrees in Europe. You had not believed there was such a thing on this earth as a European without means or money. Now in her reckless manner Nyasha has married one she has made him your relative.


Tambu, through a job in the tourist industry, eventually comes back to her native village, we understand something of the difficulties of her relationship with her mother but this return seems to bring something of the seeds of being able to accept herself and her life. This was a story of a delicate woman, we don’t know if she will find a “raison d’être”, but she is a survivor, an engrossing read.

First Published in English as “This Mournable Body” by Faber & Faber in 2020

Avni Doshi ‘Burnt Sugar’

“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Burnt Sugar”: In order of reading book number 4.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


I wonder how I will love Ma when she is at the end. How will I be able to look after her when the woman I know as my mother is no longer residing in her body? When she no longer has a complete consciousness of who she is and who I am, will it be possible for me to care for her the way I do now, or will I be negligent, the way we are with children who are not our own, or voiceless animals, or the mute, blind and deaf, believing we will get away with it, because decency is something we enact in public, with someone to witness and rate our actions, and if there is no fear of blame, what would the point of it be?


This book told by Antara is the conflictual story of her and her mother Tara in India, beginning in 1981 for Tara’s arranged marriage which Antara likens to a sactioned kidnapping. Each chapter represents a moment in their lives, told in two parts, the first part purtains to the moment in time chosen for the chapter, 1981 then 1986 and other dates, the second part of the chapter tells us of Antara and her husband Dilip and Antara’s relationship with her mother in the present day, advancing in the light of the newly revealed past.

As we learn later on in the book even her very name, given to free her has another effect:


My mother has a beautiful name. Tara. It means star, another name for the goddess Durga. Like Kali Mata. She named me Antara, intimacy, not because she loved the name but because she hated herself. She wanted her child’s life to be as different from hers as it could be. Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother. But in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other.


We learn early in the book tha Tara has Altzeimer’s and begins to lose her mind in her early fifties as illustrated in the opening quote, leaving Antara to worry about and look after both her mother and her grandmother. And this for a mother who ran away from her husband and his family to join a sect whilst Antara was still a young child, in the sect her mother became the latest lover and plaything of the Guru, leaving Antara to be looked after and brought up by Kali Mata, a previous favourite of the same Guru and seemingly not caring about her. then we move forward to learn something of her views on mother daughter relationships:


She continues talking about how difficult things were. These tales have been passed down from mothers to daughters since women had mouths and stories could be told. They contain some moral message, some rites of passage. But they also transfer that feeling all mothers know before their time is done. Guilt.


In this excellent emotionaly complex book there are of course hidden secrets and guilt as well as an ambiguous ending which is in tune with the story. And as for the title, well if you have a mother who due to illness has no restraint or notion of embarassment, well there’s an interesting secret, but of course it comes with a feeling of guilt.

This may be my favourite, the coming posts may confirm this. Buy it!

First Published in English as “Girl in White Cotton” by Fourth Estate in 2019

Douglas Stuart ‘Shuggie Bain’

Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Shuggie Bain”: In order of reading book number 1.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


I said to him well I’ve got two grown boys at home to feed an’ they cannae find any work either so what do you suggest I do about that? He looked at me and he didn’t even blink when he said try South Africa”. She closed the bag, “they’ve never even been to south Lanarkshire never mind South Africa”. She kept rubbing her red thumb. “It ain’t right, the government should do something, shutting down the iron works and the ship building, it’ll be the miners next you watch, South Africa, never! Go all the way to South Africa so that they can build cheap boats there and send them home to put more of our boys out of work, a shower of swine”.
“It’s diamonds” Shugg offered “they go to South Africa to mine diamonds”. The woman looked as if he had contradicted her.
“Well I don’t care what they mine they could be pulling liquorice out of a black man’s arse for all I care, they should be working here at home in Glasgow and eating their mammies cooking.”


Common themes in the selected books this year seem to be the relationship between generations and hardship, here Douglas Stuart takes us back to Glasgow between the seventies and eighties, a city hard hit by the closure of the traditional industries as illustrated in the opening quote between the taxi driver Shugg and a customer. The story seen through the eyes of Shuggie, the youngest son of Agnes and Shugg. He plunges us into the life of the Bains familly which faced with poverty in Glasgow is blown apart by the mother, Agnes’s drink problem, which we visit in frightening everyday detail:


To Agnes Sue-Ellen Ewing was like her reflection but maybe in a fun house mirror she could relate to the alcoholic character and every time she was drunk on the screen Agnes would make a tutting noise and say to Leek “well that’s just like me isn’t it” then she would giggle through chocolaty false teeth. The fake glamour of Sue-Ellen’s tragedy made it look almost enviable. Agnes would tell the tv “it’s a disease you know” and “the poor lassie cannae help it”. Shuggie watched the actress tremble her bottom lip with fake emotion. The whole thing was a pile of lies, where was the head in the oven and the house full of gas? Where were the tears and the half dressed uncles and the sister who would never come home? The curtains lay open and the orange lights came on all over the scheme, Dallas finished and the street began to empty of wains.


The husband and father Shugg, a womaniser, manages to get a council house to rent through a fiddle. The house is in a dessolate pit town just outside of Glasgow where there is no work and everyone seems to be related. Shugg drops them of at their new house and immediately leaves them, not to come back. There is no way out, Agnes and Shuggie stand out. Agnes who no matter what her state dresses as if to go out, the drinking doesn’t initially stand out. Shuggie who on arrival is in primary school, well he just isn’t like the other boys is he? he wishes he was but his favourite toys are long haired coloured ponies whose hair he can brush.

Agnes has a habit she has to feed and with thirty five pounds child support per week, after the drink there isn’t much left for eating, because of his age, Shuggie isn’t a completely reliable narrator, as he and we find out, first his eldest sister leaves home as soon as she can and moves to South Africa never coming back, then his brother Leek leaves home as soon as he can after an argument with Agnes. Agnes is full of anger when she has been drinking and then turns to the phone to call and insult people, with the rapid change in mood when she wakes and the drink has worn off. Then it is Shuggies turn, Shuggie who does everything to help his mother discovers that she can’t live with him or anyone else in her house. When he gets to fifteen years old and she throws him out, he supposes it was probably this way around for his brother.


He believed that if he could fill her every moment with noise then maybe she could stay away from the drink. He stood outside of the bathroom as she peed he told her of the pheasants that Danny tripped with sleeping pills he climbed into her cold bed at night and read non stop as she lay awake, when she could take no more Agnès filled him full of milk of magnesia and was relieved when he was loosened up enough to go back to class.


Douglas Stuart instills in us the way alcohol can tear people apart, the alcoholic and all of the people around them. Shuggie’s life is like Chinese water torture. This book is without hope.

First Published in English as “Shuggie Bain” by Picador in 2020