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 Sgugg. 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 particularly stand out. Shuggie who on arrival is in primary school, well he just isn’t like the other boys, 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 thirtyfive 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 moving to South Africa and 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 is worn off. The it is Shuggies turn, Shuggie who does everything to help his mother discovers that she can’t live with him or anyone in her house when he gets to fifteen years old and she throws him out, 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

Liz Moore ‘Long Bright River’

The first time I found my sister dead, she was sixteen. It was the summer of 2002. Forty-eight hours earlier, on a Friday afternoon, she’d left school with her friends, telling me she’d be back by evening.
She wasn’t.


In the Long Bright River Liz Moore gives us a woman’s take on policing in a run down area of Phiadelphia.
Michaela, known as Mickey has patrolled Kensington, near the river Delaware, a area she was brought up in, over the last thirteen years and watched it slide through the devastation of drugs to a point where the main transactions are either narcotic or drug related, life expectency is short:


Thirteen years ago, when I first started, it happened a few times a year: we’d get a report that someone had fatally overdosed, had been deceased so long that medical intervention was unnecessary. More common were calls about overdoses in progress, and typically those individuals could be revived.


Mickey’s last partner is on sick leave due to an incident that leaves her feeling guilty and she is paired with Lafferty and tries to get him interested, to no avail, in the lives of the people in the area she patrols, her ex-schoolfriend Paula Mulroney who works a corner with Kacey, Mickey’s sister. Kacey hasn’t been seen for a while as a serial killer begins operating on their patch. Mickey is more of a doer then a talker and is comfortable with silence, not to be with Lafferty:

Facts I have learned about Eddie Lafferty in the first hour of our acquaintance: He is forty-three, which makes him eleven years my senior. A late entrant into the PPD. He worked construction until last year, when he took the test. (My back, says Eddie Lafferty. It still bothers me sometimes. Don’t tell anyone.) He’s just rolled off his field training. He has three ex-wives and three almost-grown children. He has a home in the Poconos. He lifts. (I’m a gym rat, says Eddie Lafferty.) He has GERD. Occasionally, he suffers from constipation. He grew up in South Philadelphia and now lives in Mayfair. He splits Eagles season tickets with six friends. His most recent ex-wife was in her twenties. (Maybe that was the problem, says Lafferty, her being immature.) He golfs. He has two rescued pit mixes named Jimbo and Jennie. He played baseball in high school. One of his teammates then was, in fact, our platoon’s sergeant, Kevin Ahearn, and it was Sergeant Ahearn who suggested he consider police work. (Something about this makes sense to me.) Facts Eddie Lafferty has learned about me in the first hour of our acquaintance: I like pistachio ice cream.

The book, veering between then and now, brings us up to date on Mickey and her life, she is saved from her sister’s fate when in her early teens, by a local police after-school initiative, the Police Athletic League. Already back then her younger sister Kacey, more street wise, sees through the officer who takes her under his wing, officer Cleare, a married man, with whom she ends up pregnant.

Liz Moore keeps us following this story through the earnest character of Michaela, juggling between her job and her child, as the deaths pile up, as danger comes close to home and as suspicion points to an unidentified police officer.

This story pulled me in through the refreshing writing of Liz Moore.

First Published in English as “Long Bright River” by Hutchinson in 2020

Joyce Carol Oates ‘A Book of American Martyrs’


Terence Mitchell who’s 29, a former US marine and a member of the catholic right to life organisation, The Lambs of Christ, had spent many hours in prayer before driving to the abortion clinic in Travers City with a double barrelled shotgun. After the shooting of the abortion doctor he made no attempt to escape from the police but surrendered his weapon and made a full confession to authorities


Joyce Carol Oates has taken on a huge work here, to try to render the right to abortion debate readable. In this piece of fiction set in the 1990’s and the aftermath of events she attempts to get up close to both sides of this divide, deep diving into the characters and events portrayed as Luther Dumphy early one morning, turns up at the Broom county women’s centre, follows doctor Guss Vorhees’ car in through the gate and turns his shotgun on Vorhees and his police driver killing both. She uses multiple first person narratives taking us into the minds of the protagonists, their lives and the events that lead them to this point. She begins with Luther Dumphy, who after a “strict” upbringing turns into a wild unreliable youth until he discovers religion at his wive’s church, The Saint Paul missionary church of Jesus, leading to his wish to become a preacher.

We follow his indoctrination process as we discover the background to the “debate” that isn’t one in the mid-west. One day a trip is organised by their church to see a professor Wohlman, an ex-Jesuit who finishes his presentation with the following declaration:


We the undersigned declare a state of war in the struggle to defend innocent human life. We declare our allegiance to the word of Jesus and not the law of man. We declare that we will not shrink from taking all earthly action required to defend innocent human life including the use of force. We declare that whatever force is necessary to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child. We declare that the martyrs Michael Griffin, Lionel Green, Terence Mitchell though they may have broken the law of the state have not broken the law of God though they have shot abortion providers who were about to commit the terrible act of fetuscide they are not guilty of murder but of intervening in the premeditated murder, that is to say that these courageous men committed acts of defence against murderers not to save their own lives but the lives of unborn children therefore their use of lethal force was justified.


Dumphy, who’s daughter had been killed in a road accident as he was driving, is portrayed as a sincere, fragile and easily manipulated person, just enough as to almost feel a certain understanding for him.

Vorhees is investigated mostly through the people around him, his wife and daughter rather than through himself, he was a staunch, even radical defender of women’s rights, at great danger to himself, he chose to work in medical centres where, through fear, no one else was prepared to work. Oates tells us of the Right for Life organisation’s published league tables where the higher up the table the doctors find themselves, the more likely they are to be assassinated, exactly because of these tables, and the pressure put on the law by declaring the perpetrators martyrs. His daughter learns more about him posthumously through interviews she carries out:


Interviews: Was it known to you that your father was a crusader for abortion rights? Did you know as children what abortion rights meant? Did you know that your father performed abortions? Did you know that your father had many enemies? Did you know that your father was considered difficult even by those that were his allies? Have you read your father’s published writings, his famous controversial address to the national women’s leadership conference 1987 in Washington DC? Are you familiar with that? “There cannot be a free democracy in which one sex is shackled to biological destiny”. Are you familiar with this much reiterated remark of doctor Guss Voorhees? Do you or have you ever felt as a girl that you are shackled to biological destiny or did you inherit a strong feminist identity from your parents?


No subject such as this where there is so much hatred, where the two sides cannot talk to each other can exist without hypocrisy, and here there are ladles of it, on Vorhees’ side where in fighting for the freedom of women he essentially takes away the freedom of his family. On the “pro life” side, the following quote goes deep into public relations denials to a case of clear support:


Though our church is staunchly pro life and opposed to abortion in any way shape or form as a legally sanctioned slaughter of the innocents in the United States at the present time. We do not and we have not ever condoned violence against the practitioners of abortion and those associated with them we do not condone violations of state and federal law and we do not excuse those who commit such violations despite of our sympathy for their moral convictions it is a profound step from believing that abortion is state sanctified murder to believing that an individual has the right to assassinate an abortion murderer. The Saint Paul missionary church of Jesusis adamantly opposed to such an act and is in no way associated with the practitioner of such an act. Though I remain in contact with Luther Dumphy currently incarcerated at Chillicothe correctional facility, Chillicothe Ohio. I am not in a position to provide any sort of information about him or to convey remarks made by him to any third party or to the media it is true I am involved in the Luther Dumfy defence fund which welcomes donations to aid in Luther’s appeal to the Ohio State Supreme Court, cheques money orders cash as little as a few dollars as much as several hundred or thousand all are welcome and greatly applicable in the name of Jesus.


As a European, I have trouble understanding this “debate”, but Oates ends with some hope, through the two men’s daughters, that future generations could grow to understand each other.

This is a must read.

First Published in English as “A Book of American Martyrs” by Fourth Estate in 2017
Translated into French by Claude Seban and published by Philippe Rey as “Un livre de martyrs américains” in 2019

Gary Shteyngart ‘Lake Success’


Chatting was his primary activity. The office was overrun by quants and other assorted math geniuses, half their staff now seemed to flow from MIT or its less-endowed counterparts from around the world, while wide-shouldered, charming Princetonians like Barry were left to handle the big picture of yearly separating guys named Ahmed of the Qatar Investment Authority from 2 percent of the assets Barry managed. He did that by talking to them in the broadest, most backslapping former-athlete way possible. All of those hours practicing his “friend moves” in front of the mirror back when he was at Louis Pasteur Middle School had finally paid off. “Friendliest dude on the Street,” some young bro had once called him.


In Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success, Barry runs his own investment fund and is a multimillionaire, lives in Manhattan with other investment bankers, has a beautiful and intelligent wife and a young son, but Barry, the “Mentor” to other up and coming capitalist sharks sees his life unravel as his son, who still doesn’t speak, but continues to scream at three years old, is diagnosed with autism, and as the FBI are closing in on him for insider dealing. Barry’s fund had invested in a company making essential medecin more expensive thus pricing the poor out of medical care. Nostalgic, selfish Barry, echoing a road trip from his early twenties, takes off on a greyhound bus to rediscover “America” and its people, meeting the poor who travel on greyhound busses. He passes by Baltimore, for instance, where he discovers the neighbourhoods featured in “The Wire” only to understand that it has become a tourist attraction and that narcotics have long since moved on, technically and geographically.

The events take place in the run up to the 2016 presidential elections and the fear that Trump could actually win. We discover Barry as having been an adolescent unable to feel part of society and to relate to people but who worked hard to train himself in small talk and smiling which took him to where he is today. He still has trouble controlling his rages and has worked on this with his shrink, becoming a collector of expensive watches:


Whenever he felt this out of control, when the world lurched around him and his own body felt counterfeit, he remembered what his shrink had told him: “Look at your watch.” He looked at his watch. It was a Nomos Minimatik with a champagne-colored dial. Nomos was his new thing. They were not expensive watches, they topped out at 20K, but they were made in the tiny German town of Glashütte, far from all that overpriced Swiss razzle-dazzle, and they stuck to a strict but playful Bauhaus aesthetic. The watch did its work. It calmed him.


Shteyngart also takes us on a visit of the seriously rich in Manhattan, where wealth can be measured by the difference in floors between two apartments in a building. Eventually the road trip ends and life must go on. What has Barry learned from his trip? Will he be a better person? Will he give up investment banking to do “something useful”?

Buy the book!

First Published in English as “Lake Success” in 2018, by Hamish Hamilton.
Translated into French by Stéphane Roques and published as “Lake Success” by Les Éditions de l’Olivier in 2020

The quotes as read in French

Le bavardage était sa principale activité à lui. Le bureau était envahi par les analystes quantitatifs (ou quants) et autre génies des maths, la moitié de leur personnel semblait désormais tout droit sortie de MIT ou de ses équivalents internationaux moins bien pourvus, tandis qu’il revenait aux anciens de Princeton comme Barry, aussi charmants que large d’épaules, de prendre de la hauteur pour mieux délester chaque année tous les Ahmed de l’Authorité d’investissement du Qatar de l’équivalent de 2% des actifs gérés par Barry. Il y parvenait en se livrant aux plus grandes démonstrations d’amitié possibles, digne de l’ancien sportif qu’il était.

Chaque fois qu’il sentait que cela prenait des proportions incontrôlables, que le monde convulsait autour de lui et que son corps lui donnait l’impression d’être une contrefaçon, il se souvenait de ce que lui disait son psy: “Regardez votre montre.”
Il regarda sa montre. C’était une Nomos Minimatik à cadran champagne. Les Nomos était son dada. Elles n’étaient pas chères, coûtaient tout au plus 20 mille dollars, mais étaient fabriquées dans la petite ville allemande de Glashütte, loin de tout le clinquant suisse hors de prix, et s’en tenaient à une esthétique Bauhaus aussi stricte que ludique. La montre tenait son rôle. Elle le calmait.

Robert Harris ‘The Second Sleep’


LATE ON THE afternoon of Tuesday the ninth of April in the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468, a solitary traveller was to be observed picking his way on horseback across the wild moorland of that ancient region of south-western England known since Saxon times as Wessex.


We’re of to Wessex in this Sunday Times #1 bestseller from Robert Harris, I should declare from the outset that had the initial idea, a “Planet of The Apes” moment, a voyage in a mediaeval world that we quickly come to know as our future, been developed in an original way then I would maybe have understood this enthusiasm, but no. **Spoiler Alert**, not that it spoils much! The people of the past were worried and fled before the apocalypse:


We regard our society as having reached a level of sophistication that renders it uniquely vulnerable to total collapse, key sectors and technologies could be affected to such an extent that our chances of finding our way back to the status quo ante could diminish alarming quickly.
Oh yes the ancients had had faith sure enough, their God had been science and it had deserted them.


There are so many thought provoking views of the future out there, including Armagedon moments. Seek and find one, this is not it.

First Published in English as “The Second Sleep” in 2019, by Hutchinson.