Richard Powers ‘Bewilderment’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“Bewilderment”: In order of reading book number 5.


I NEVER BELIEVED THE DIAGNOSES the doctors settled on my son. When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from nonexistent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.


In this complex father-son relationship story, Richard Powers adresses his vision of science’s view of the state of the world in a near future and paints a picture of hopelessness as we collectively head towards our own anhilation.
The narrator, Robin’s father, bringing up his special needs son alone after his wife’s accidental death, is being pushed by society towards treating his 9 year old son with opioids, as illustrated in the opening quote. He resists and one of his wife’s friends offers an experimental treatment for Robin, a new method using a neural feedback loop linked to AI, Robin’s mother had previously helped advance this experimentation also as a subject. Powers uses these two points to show an enlightened child able to question the world with his own mother’s wisdom and a child’s directness before the impending doom.


Clinicians and theorists are rarely going to agree on what constitutes mental health. Is it the ability to function productively in hard conditions or is it more a matter of appropriate response? Constant cheerful optimism may not be the healthiest reaction… I had an awful thought, maybe the last few months of neural feedback were hurting Robin, in the face of the world’s basic brokenness more empathy meant deeper suffering, the question wasn’t why Robin was sliding down again, the question is why the rest of us were staying so insanely sanguine?


Powers’ father is a leading light in looking for life in exo-planets and through discussions with Robin introduces us to Fermi’s paradox and eventually to his son’s vision of the probable solution to this paradox:


At last he said “I think I might know where everybody is.”
It took me a while to remember the question he’d latched onto so long ago on a starry night in the Smokies, the Fermi paradox…
“Remember how you said there might be a big roadblock somewhere.”
“A great filter, that’s what we call it”.
“Like maybe there’s a great filter right at the beginning when molecules turn into living things or it might be when you first evolve a cell or when cells learn to come together or maybe the first brain.”
“Lots of bottlenecks”
“I was just thinking we’ve been looking and listening for sixty years.”
“The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”
“I know but maybe the great filter isn’t behind us maybe it’s ahead of us.”
“And maybe we were just now hitting it, wild, violent and Godlike consciousness, lots and lots of consciousness, exponential and exploding consciousness leveraged up by machines and multiplied by the billions. Power too precarious to last long.”
“Because otherwise, how old did you say the universe is?”
“14 billion years.”
“Because otherwise they’d be here.”


Powers, through the pressure on the father’s project’s funding of the Seeker space telescope, presents to us a barely extrapolated vision of the fight for science against economic obscurantism in our times, illustrated by his thoughts following one of the President’s tweets:


“So called science should stop inventing facts and charging them to the American people….”
The Seeker was just another proxi-battle in the endless American civil war, our side claimed the discovery of earths would increase humanities collective wisdom and empathy, the presidents men said that wisdom and empathy were collectivist plots to crash our standard of living


This is, as always with Powers, an engaged piece of work. A well constructed story and a pessimistic vision of our ineluctable future. Empathy is the way forward but the human race is not capable of enough of this commodity. Robin’s condition is an allegory of the earth’s situation; as for Robin, in one generation since the Meadow’s report, the realisation of the effect of humans on the climate and on our present and future lives has gone from non existant to the centre of preoccupation and as for Robin’s condition politicians and scientists “want to prescribe three different medications”. An interesting read.

First Published in English as “Bewilderment” in 2021 by W. W. Norton and Company

Anuk Arudpragasam ‘A Passage North’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“A Passage North”: In order of reading book number 3.


Waking up each morning we follow by circuitous routes the thread of habit, out of our homes, into the world, and back to our beds at night, move unseeingly through familiar paths, one day giving way to another and one week to the next, so that when in the midst of this daydream something happens and the thread is finally cut, when, in a moment of strong desire or unexpected loss, the rhythms of life are interrupted, we look around and are quietly surprised to see that the world is vaster than we thought, as if we’d been tricked or cheated out of all that time, time that in retrospect appears to have contained nothing of substance, no change and no duration, time that has come and gone but left us somehow untouched.


A passage North is a carefully written introspective book, the opening quote gives an idea of this degree of thought, a great deal of emotion is present but mostly kept at a distance as Krishan is forced to reflect on his life both just before and during his passage north. We learn something of the magnitude of the war between the Tamil Tigers and government forces in the poverty stricken north of Sri Lanka where the Tiger’s were not just beaten but their very trace erased from the land leaving the people in a great state of trauma. Krishan was away from Sri Lanka in India during the war, somehow explaining away to himself what was happening there:


Even now he felt ashamed thinking about his initial reluctance to acknowledge the magnitude of what had happened at the end of the war, as though he’d been hesitant to believe the evidence on his computer screen because his own poor, violated, stateless people were the ones alleging it, as though he’d been unable to take the suffering of his own people seriously till it was validated by the authority of a panel of foreign experts, legitimized by a documentary narrated by a clean-shaven white man standing in front of a camera in suit and tie.


Whilst in India krishan had fallen in love with Anjum, an activist and their story had lasted on and off for several years.

After moving back to his home in Colombo, in the south of Sri Lanka, Krishan is given the opportunity to help his ailing grandmother by employing Rani, a woman from the north that had lost her husband and her son during the war, having Rani away from her home region seemed to be helping her. After news of her death Krishan learnt more about Rani’s life, about her electric scock treatment for trauma, and undertakes the long journey north by train where he is able to reflect on his own life.

This is a very different piece of writing to the other shortlisted books, caught between ancient and modern, violence and gentleness, the events are not yet first hand.

First Published in English as “A Passage North” in 2021 by Random House

Maggie Shipshead ‘Great Circle’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“Great Circle”: In order of reading book number 4.


In my blip of higher education, I had time to take Intro to Philosophy and learn about the panopticon, the hypothetical prison Jeremy Bentham came up with, where there would be one itty-bitty guardhouse at the center of a giant ring of cells. One guard was all you needed because he might be watching at any time, and the idea of being watched matters way more than actually being watched. Then Foucault turned the whole thing into a metaphor about how all you need to discipline and dominate a person or a population is to make them think it’s possible they’re being watched. You could tell the professor wanted us all to think the panopticon was scary and awful, but later, after Archangel made me way too famous, I wanted to take Katie McGee’s preposterous time machine back to that lecture hall and ask him to consider the opposite. Like instead of one guard in the middle, you’re in the middle, and thousands, maybe millions, of guards are watching you—or might be—all the time, no matter where you go.


This is a story about two timelines and two women with a number of things in common, of Marion Graves, the aviator, who dissapeared in 1950 during a round the world attempt passing by both poles and of the actrice chosen to play her role for a film of Marian’s life, Hadley Baxter. Hadley’s parents died in an aircrash when she was young and she was brought up by a Holywood uncle who between drinks and drugs had her taken to a number of castings from which she eventually becomes the young woman epitomised in the opening quote.
Hadley had read the lost logbook of marian in the library:


The lost log book of Marian Graves… It made a big impression on me when I was a kid orphan solidarity you know, team raised by uncles, i thought it would be full of hidden messages like tarot cards….
It’s the perfect sort of book for that isn’t it mostly cryptic bits and pieces what did it tell you? nothing…..really I’m most intrigued by the question of whether or not she intended it to be read at all. I think the fact that she left it behind at least meant that she couldn’t bear to destroy it.


Marian’s life is however the centre point of the book, from surviving a mysterious ship sinking on the atlantic with her twin brother Jamie during the first world war to being brought up, or left to bring herself up by a gambling and drinking uncle who was also a semi renowned painter in Missoula an out of the way town in Missouri where she made and kept, throughout her entire life, her childhood friend Caleb. How did she become an aviator? Well she passed by many steps, marrying a jealous bootlegger and then flying for him before changing her name and going into hiding to escape him:


He’s my friend, Marian said he’s always been my friend am I not allowed to have friends? Her voice rose, do you want me to be completely alone except for you? He sat down heavily the anger going out of him yes he said if I’m being honest
You want to know what we did we talked she gathered herself said as though making an accusation i told Caleb I loved you he looked up, you did when did you start having me followed say it again tell me what you told him he was radiating thrilled pleasure, she felt only hopelessness not now tell me you love me Louder she said When did you start having me followed when you flew to Vancouver only because I was so afraid of losing you…it was for your protection.


Marian becomes an aircraft ferry pilot during the second world war in England before the events around that ship sinking as she was an infant catches up with her. The question Hadley then asks herself and eventually solves is whether Marian really resembles the Marian in the film.

If the prize were to go to a traditional “story” then this book would be an excellent candidate.

First Published in english as “Great Circle” in 2021, by Doubleday

Mary Lawson ‘A Town Called Solace’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“A Town Called Solace”: In order of reading book number 3.


The boxes were in the middle of the floor, which made Clara fidgety. Every time the man came into the living room he had to walk around them. If he’d put them against a wall he wouldn’t have to do that and it would have looked much neater. And why would he bring them in from his car and then not unpack them? At first Clara had thought it meant that he was delivering them for Mrs Orchard and she would unpack them herself when she got home. But she hadn’t come home and the boxes were still there and so was the man, who didn’t belong.


Mary Lawson takes us to northern Ontario, 700 miles north of Toronto in this bitter sweet novel with the aptly named town. Clara, a young child is sat in her window looking out for the return of her sixteen year old sister, Rose, who has run away from home when she observes a stranger in the house opposite, mrs Orchard’s house. Mrs Orchard is Clara’s friend and she has given her a key to feed Moses the cat whilst she is in hospital. As Clara questions what she sees based on her 8 year old experience, her dialogue is reminiscent of another Klara from “Klara and the Sun” as illustrated in the opening quote.

The story is told from three points of view, Clara but also Liam, the stranger from the first quote, arriving after a painful separation and Mrs Orchard who has gone to hospital, the novel explores the implicit link between Liam, who as a young boy lived next to Mrs Orchard before moving away and Clara living next door to Mrs Orchard with both of the adults for different reasons having come to the improbable Solace in pain and both finding a sort of solace. Liam working for a local roofer who it turns out had never left Solace and slowly reflects about his life, even slowly remembering some of the forgotten time before moving away from next door to Mrs Orchard when he was young. The search for Rosa permeates the story, as the policeman says, they run away to Toronto, there really is nowhere else to go. Mrs Orchard thinks about the past, talking to her long dead husband from her hospital bed, talks about the importance of Clara to her and about Liam as she revisits her own traumas:


I can’t tell you how I long for home. Just the normal routines of the day; they’re what I miss most. Putting the kettle on. Perhaps having a little chat with Clara if she pops over after school. I enjoy our conversations very much, you never know where they’re going to end up. She doesn’t make my heart lift the way Liam did, but no other child has ever done that.


This slow moving story as people learn to live with life’s pains grows on you and as a reader you slow down to the speed of the story.

First Published in English as “A Town Called Solace” in 2021 by Vintage

Nadifa Mohamed ‘The Fortune Men’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“The Fortune Men”: In order of reading book number 2.


Mahmood Mattan pushes through the crowd at the bar.
« I said get me another coffee. ». Berlin catches his Trinidadian wife’s waist and steers her towards Mahmood.
« Lou sort this trouble maker another coffee».Image1
Ranged along the bar are many of Tiger Bay’s Somali sailors. They look somewhere between gangsters and dandies in their cravates, pocket chains and trilby hats. Only Mahmood wears a homburg pulled down low over his gaunt face and sad eyes. He is a quiet man always appearing and disappearing silently at the fringes of the sailors or the gamblers or the thieves. Men pull their possessions closer when he is around and keep their eyes on his long elegant fingers.


Nadifa Mohamed takes us on a trip back in time, to Tiger Bay in the early fifties where she draws us a vibrant picture of this area around the docks in Cardiff, and in particular to the Somali sailors washed up on these shores in between ships, or in the case of Mahmood Mattan with wife and children. At the beginning of the book we meet Mattan in Berlin’s milk bar, with a short description which nonetheless gives us a detailed sketch of him as illustrated in the opening quote.

Why were the Somali sailors there in Tiger Bay? Why were sailors of all nationalities there in the early fifties? The answer is obvious but who were these people? It may be difficult to give them names but Nadifa Mohamed brings to life the vibrancy by naming the jobs they filled:


Passing the shops on Bute Street, he finds a few lights still on: at Zussen’s pawnbroker’s where many of his clothes are on hock, at the Cypriot barbershop where he has his hair trimmed and at Volacki’s where he used to buy seafaring kits but now just bags the occasional dress for Laura. The tall grand windows of Cory’s Rest are steamed up, with figures laughing and dancing behind the leaded glass. He peeks his head through the door to check if some of his regulars are there, but the West Indian faces around the snooker table are unfamiliar. He had once belonged to this army of workers pulled in from all over the world, dredged in to replace the thousands of mariners lost in the war: dockers, tallymen, kickers, stevedores, winch men, hatch men, samplers, grain porters, timber porters, tackle men, yard masters, teamers, dock watchmen, needle men, ferrymen, shunters, pilots, tugboatmen, foyboatmen, freshwater men, blacksmiths, jetty clerks, warehousemen, measurers, weighers, dredgermen, lumpers, launch men, lightermen, crane drivers, coal trimmers, and his own battalion, the stokers.


Then to help us understand that immigration isn’t a new thing but is age old, Berlin tells us stories of his own from the beginning of the century, working on the skyscrapers in New York or as an exhibit in the world fair in Germany.

But the story is about a sordid crime, the murder by blade of Violet Volacki the daughter of an Eastern European Jewish father, she runs a shop on Bute street, and also cashes seaman’s cheques. Violet lives with her sister and niece, and one night opens late for a person described as black and is found dead with her throat cut 20 minutes later.

Then begins the search for the killer, a Somali had been seen in Bute street by one witness, Mattan is known to the police for petty larceny and is questioned. Nadifa Mohamed gives us a very credible insight into Mattan’s life, his way of thinking and a possible reason for his not necessarily wanting to tell where he had been.

The story is based on a true life case and the language of his defense lawyer is an eye opener to the level of casual racism at the time.

Yet another excellent choice, a must for the short list!

First Published in English as “The Fortune Men” in 2021 by Viking.

Francis Spufford ‘Light Perpetual’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“Light Perpetual”: In order of reading book number 1.


Those, and also the lucky ones, the energetic ones, the organised ones among the strivers, will go off into the long youthfulness of the prosperous, drinking wine and buying lampshades and able to treat turning thirty as a point in late adolescence. For the rest, though, this is it. This first flowering will be the only one. They’ll have their bloom, and that’s all. By the time they’re thirty, time will have stomped all over them.


Now this book about the East of London is just so full of life, I sort of remember all of these times (a little ouside of the east end of course) except the opening chapter, more from my mother’s memories. The book treats the -what if?- As the V2 bombers rained down on London, Spufford goes back to one of their impacts, of the New Cross Road branch of Woolworth’s building, in the first chapter, four pages that cover several mili-seconds from the moment the bomb pierces the ceiling of the store until it’s explosion and the anhililation of everyone within a considerable distance, including 5 young children. Five young children that Spufford revives in his – what if? -, five young children that he makes relive the rapidly changing years of the 20th century. I’ll add here that thanks to the 21st century we can see, ourselves, another rapidly changing world.

From childhood on we might guess where their lives are taking them, but that’s not taking into account the changes in the world and in the East of London. There is Vern, the wide boy, the chancer, where could he go in the East of London? From little booms to bust in scams, until the money comes to this part of London and then yeah, from big booms to bust.


Maybe he should have gone for the Café Royal? Vern quails as the taxi door opens, and it suddenly seems a long way across the pavement to the steps of Tognozzi’s, and a total toss-up whether McLeish will even get the point of the kind of understated, cripplingly expensive, visited-by-the-Queen poshness that this place represents. Footballers know about the Café Royal. They get taken there with their wives by the management when they win the Cup. There’s gold leaf, and bottles of bubbly going fwoosh, and a picture for the paper. It’s their idea of quality, isn’t it – of the high life? Yeah, he should have taken him there; or to do a bit of that kind of nightclubbing where posh meets gangland.


There’s Alec, a bright young lad, married, young working hard, apprenticed and then a type setter, taking his family forward, Fleet street, until technology gets the better of him and he is forced to face the truth, was his family ever really going forward with him?


Everyone knows that parenthood changes you: but he’d thought that meant the rearrangement that comes at the beginning of it, when you learn that your life is going to be curled protectively around the kids. He doesn’t know what to do with this recent, new rage, where you feel the pattern of hopes and expectations you’ve had for them all this time start to shrivel and unpick, at their initiative; where they let you know that they don’t want, or apparently even understand, what you want for them;


Teddy boys through to skin heads, always angry, seen through Val’s Mike, when your world finally implodes where do you go and how? Well Val takes us there.

Wow, a blast of fresh air, am I glad I chose this book! If the other shortlisted books are as good as this it’ll be one hell of a year.

First Published in English as “Light Perpetual” in 2021 by Faber and Faber.

Probabilities and Booker

Well I said yesterday that I was going to start early on the Booker longlist to reduce my reading after the shortlist is announced. I don’t want to give myself unnecessary reading either, what to do?

After great thought, as a Betting man I thought well, I’ll go for a 1 in 2 chance, so off I go to crunch the sums (the spelling corrector wanted to put sims, since when was crunching sims more likely than crunching sums?). And here reader is the answer

  • If I want to reduce my reading by 1 book, I need only read 1 book
  • If I want to reduce my reading by 2 books, I need to read 3 books (approx)
  • If I want to reduce my reading by 3 books, I need to read 5

So, no point reading 6 books, I’ll stop at 5!

The 2020 Booker prize “And The Winner Is”

As Mentioned in a previous post, this year’s Booker prize, with considerable help from Corona will only be discerned on the 19th of November. As promised I have now read and posted on all six books on the shortlist!!!

If you should agree or dissagree with my league table let me know

So with one week to go before the jury gives its verdict, in all humility, here is a quick run down/comparison of the books and my predicted winner.

Order of reading book number 2. Diane Cook, The New Wilderness

Inter generational strife is a common theme this year in the shortlist, the inter generational strife here is between Agnes and her mother Bea as Agnes is forced to grow up and fight to take care of herself and her community in this, yet another pesimistic dystopian view of the future.

6th place : Diane Cook, The New Wilderness


Order of reading book number 5. Brandon Taylor, Real Life

Wallace, a black research assistant in an all white environment is psychologically damaged by his upbringing and his parents and struggles a losing battle to be recognised for what he aspires to be, and to recognise himself in this white America.

5th place : Brandon Taylor, Real Life


Order of reading book number 1. Douglas stuart, Shuggie Bain

As for all of the books on the short list this includes inter generational relationships, here in the foreground as Shuggie’s mum destroys herself, her family and the young Shuggie through the drink. If your looking for hope, this is not the book for you! The reader feels as if he is there, standing in the disaster zone. You could imagine this filmed by Ken Loach.

4th place : Douglas stuart, Shuggie Bain


Order of reading book number 4. Avni Doshi, Burnt Sugar

Another inter generational book, and to mind the most successful studies the conflicting stories of Antara and her mother Tara, in the past and as Tara becomes dependant and slowly loses her memory. Or is it Tara?

3rd place : Avni Doshi, Burnt Sugar


Order of reading book number 3. Tsitsi Dangaremga, This Mournable Body

One of the other common themes to certain of the books is women fighting, here we see Zimbabwean women years after certain of them had fought in the wars of independance and Tambu’s struggle with herself, these ex-fighting women, the younger generation and her mother. An eye-opener to the role of African women in the fight fight for indepedance and its aftermath.

Runner up : Tsitsi Dangaremga, This Mournable Body


Order of reading book number 6. Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King

The story of Hirut and the war against the Italian fascist invaders in ’36. The poor in Ethiopia were poor and the rich priveledged as Hirut is raped by her employer/resistance army leader, because he can and because he knows he will die in the war leaving no decendance. Raped as her mother before her but finding some redemption and also revenge in her and other womens roles in the fight against the invader.

And the winner is : Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King

I do hope the official Jury gets the right answer !



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