Tuesday, April 3, 2012

'Beasts of No Nation' by Uzodinma Iweala

A book about a child soldier in an unnamed west African state sounds a lot like like a book you ought to read rather than one you'd want to. But Nigerian writer Uzodinma Iweala avoids this problem by making his narrator's voice compelling from the very start:

"It is starting like this. I am feeling itch like insect is crawling on my skin, and then my head is just starting to tingle right between my eye, and then I am wanting to sneeze because my nose is itching, and then air is just blowing into my ear and I am hearing so many thing: the clicking of insect, the sound of truck grumbling like one kind of animal, and then the sound of somebody shouting TAKE YOUR POSITION RIGHT NOW! QUICK! QUICK QUICK! MOVE WITH SPEED! MOVE FAST OH! in voice that is just touching my body like knife."

(To sample a larger part of the text, click here).

The entire book is written in this register - a pidgin English that apparently mimics the speech patterns of various west African dialects. Surprisingly, it failed to get on my nerves and I read it with the urgency that the present continuous tends to evoke. Agu, the nine year old narrator is recruited by a band of guerrillas at the start of the book and is quickly brought into the fold by being forced to commit a brutal killing.

(And here, readers, is where I lost my train of thought while I was writing this review a couple of months ago and went scouting the internet for pictures of cats dressed as pirates or something instead. It happens. But since then everyone has got very excited about this Joseph Kony fella and child soldiers have become, like, so hot right now. Would I sound like some prick of a hipster if I said that I was into child soldiers before you all even knew about them? I would. I dunno, read this book instead of watching some shoddy viral video if it's a topic you're concerned with. It's not fun, but it's good.)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

'Exile' by Jakob Ejersbo

"It has to be deeper, otherwise the dogs will get her," Dad says. Doesn't he realize they already have me?

'Exile' was a pure impulse buy for me. I think it attracted my attention simply by its author having a Scandinavian name (I suppose I assumed he might be some new crime fiction writer) and then by having the outline of Africa on its cover. When I saw the backpage blurb about it being part of a trilogy of books about growing up as an ex-pat in Tanzania I was sold, having lived there for three years when I was a kid.

The narrator of this book is Samantha, an endearingly fucked-up teenager who deals with neglectful, dysfunctional parents, a sister growing up and getting on with life faster than her, and life in the pressure-cooker of an international boarding school by smoking and getting shit-faced on booze like konyagi - a rough Tanzanian spirit, and whatever drugs she can lay her hands on. She also seeks out male attention to a pathological degree, and it is really her frequent and misguided dalliances with numerous boys and men that the book revolves around.

Indeed, there are so many men in Samantha's life that it can be hard working keeping tracking of who's who. It seemed a strange move on the author's part until I learned that 'Revolution' - the second part of the trilogy, not due to be published in English until next year - is a collection of short stories featuring characters who play bit-parts in Samantha's life. Having such a such an extensive and eclectic cast presumably allowed Ejersbo a broader canvas to paint with.

It is a book that reeks of urgency, in all kinds of ways.There is a rawness and a panic to nearly all of Samantha's actions, and there is a scathing honesty and simplicity to the words that describe them. Ejersbo -  a Danish writer whose depiction of a Tanzania as rife with poverty and corruption as it was in my day, as it is today, was informed by his own time living there - died of cancer in 2008 and seems to have spent his final months ensuring his trilogy was completed before he succumbed to the disease. If the other parts of the trilogy are as compelling and affecting as this one then he'll have left a notable legacy.

Monday, September 5, 2011

'The Redbreast' by Jo Nesbø

A book about neo-Nazis and psychotic gunmen running around Oslo was a disconcerting thing to be reading on the 22nd of July, 2011, as Anders Breivik went on the rampage. Despite how this sounds, Nesbø has fashioned a surprisingly subtle and intelligent thriller, whose parallels with the Norway attacks are fuel for the fire of those who claim that crime novelists are often the writers with their fingers closest to the national pulse.
Nesbø has been around a while, though he's only really come to prominence on the back of the Stieg Larsson-instigated wave of interest in Scandinavian crime fiction.

'The New _____________' labels of any kind tend to make my teeth all itchy, but it is particularly unhelpful in the case of comparisons between Nesbø and Larsson, as Nesbø is the superior writer by a fjordic mile. Where Larsson throws sordid sex scenes, product placement and half-baked cliffhangers at nearly every chapter, Nesbø brings an informed view of history and society and in his protagonist,  Detective Harry Hole, we get a highly believable, nuanced character capable of evincing genuine pathos.

And a much finer bandwagon to be on.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

'The Motel Life' by Willy Vlautin

Willy Vlautin was originally best-known as the lead songer of alt-country group Richmond Fontaine, but has recently won serious plaudits for his third novel, 'Lean on Pete'. Being a forager in the Hodges Figgis bargain basement, I picked up his previous two novels 'The Motel Life' and 'Northline' first, and set to work on them. 'Motel', his debut, is the more impressive of the two books to my mind.

It tells the story of Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, two brothers from Reno with a troubled background who go on the run after Jerry Lee kills a teenager while drink-driving. Comparisons have been drawn by some reviewers to 'Of Mice and Men', due to the relationship between the simple Jerry Lee and his sparkier brother Frank, who narrates the story. But this is probably unhelpful to Vlautin, as he never even attempts to sketch out his characters as fully as Steinbeck does. What he does do is to whisk the story along; each short chapter a striking vignette of unhappiness and uncertainty with a winsome illustration at the start. Where the book really succeeds is that, rather being edge-of-your-seat thrilling or meaningful in any particular way, it feels like an excellent evocation of what really would happen if two brothers ran away from a crime. The romantic sub-plot, too, is tender and convincing.

'The Motel Life' will likely attract a wider audience next year when it is released as a movie. Provided the film's dialogue is kept as sparse and simple as the novel's is then it shouldn't lose much in the book to screen transition. Either way, it's an agreeably diverting piece of downtrodden Americana, if somewhat lacking the depth to be much more than that.

Friday, May 6, 2011

'Swamplandia!' by Karen Russell

Karen Russell first attracted attention a couple of years ago for her debut short story collection St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised by Wolves. Needless to say, I haven't read it. But there was something beguiling about the cover and plot synopsis of her maiden novel, Swamplandia! , a tale of an odd family who live on an island in the Florida Everglades, where they run their own (eponymous) alligator park, replete with live alligator wrestling shows.

It's a singularly strange book, largely in a positive way. It opens with the death of Hilola Bigtree - alligator wrestler extraordinaire and beloved mother of Osceola, Kiwi and Ava. The book is largely built around the efforts of the three to deal with their mother's death, though only the perspectives of Kiwi (in the third person) and Ava (a more gripping, less amusing first person perspective) are seen. Kiwi's is really a coming of age story, as he travels to the mainland and works a shitty job for a rival theme park in a misguided attempt to raise enough money to keep Swamplandia! afloat without Hilola, its star attraction. Ava is a charming, unreliable narrator who struggles to keep her sanity whilst looking for her older (but still teenaged) sister, Osceola, who has become unhinged enough to run off with a ghost called Louis Thanksgiving, who she intends to marry.

Such a bizarre story, you would imagine, requires strong, vibrant writing to work. And Russell manages that in spades, with memorable descriptions and inventive adjectives in almost every paragraph, without sounding too loose and jazzy. A sampling of any page of the book would throw up vivid sentences, but one particularly striking metaphor is used to explain a character's reaction to a rape, where she feels drawn to her rapist:

 "Once, at Argyle Murphy's fish camp, I watched a little scottie dog get a Gulch bottle broken across its back and then go loping, tongue lolling, towards its owner with the man's beer and its own blood stiffening on its fur - not to attack him, as I'd originally thought, but to lick and lick at the emerald bits lodged in his hand."

Interestingly, in an interview Karen Russell speaks of how her writing process involves a lot of time carefully composing sentences, and how the editing of the book required her to cut a lot of these sentences out. It is arguable that a few more sentences could have been chopped to facilitate a zippier, tidier narrative; though it would take a hard-hearted bastard of an editor to decide which ones. Swamplandia! falls a fair way short of perfection, but the loveliness of its prose means any reader will be glad to have encountered it.

Monday, February 28, 2011

'The Thing Around Your Neck' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A few years back Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came to a secondary school I was teaching in at the time to do a reading and Q&A session for the senior students there. I hadn't read anything of hers at that stage but was aware of the high acclaim there had been for her novels Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibsicus, so I went along out of curiosity. After she'd finished reading some extracts questions were opened to the floor and a girl put up her hand and asked Adichie where she gets her ideas for characters. The author was a few words into her answer before she stopped and asked the girl if she had read any of her books, as she was going to use a particular character to illustrate her answer. When the girl rather shamefacedly admitted that she hadn't Adichie just laughed before continuing her answer, which was to the effect that her characters are nearly always based on people she's met. Then she said "Maybe one day I'll write a story about a girl who asks questions about books she hasn't read."


Adichie's fierce intelligence, along with her biting (and sometimes petulant) wit are what come through in The Thing Around Your Neck - her first collection of short stories. She is a traditionalist in the sense that there is absolutely no gimmickry to her prose, though she rips into certain conventional values mercilessly. 'Cell One', which I have seen singled out as one of the weaker stories in the collection in other reviews, is an excellent opener to my mind, with an elegance of style that matches the grace under pressure of the narrator, save for one outburst.

High standards are maintained throughout, as Adichie plays through her strengths by sticking to the subject matter she knows, that being conflicts of various sorts in her native Nigeria and the difficult experiences of Nigerian immigrants in the USA. You firmly feel that she is basing these stories on personal experiences, some of which are clearly still very raw. Perhaps a little too raw, in some instances, such as 'Monkey Hill' - a tale of frustrations and condescension at an African writers' conference, where Adichie's obvious desire to lampoon someone leads to a mildly cartoonish depiction of a villain, thus threatening the integrity of what is otherwise a very clever story. Although, as Adichie would be at pains to point out, I wasn't there.

The only other criticism I could make of this collection is that on the one occasion when Adichie chooses to narrate a story from a male perspective I felt my immersion in the book waning considerably, as the story didn't have a fraction of the heart of the others. But that is only really a minor glitch, and you can appreciate the fact that Adichie is trying to spread her wings a little. I read much of this book out loud (it helps my wife get to sleep) and the immaculately composed sentences tripped off the tongue, and brought out just the amount of emotion that they were looking too. I look forward to delving further into Adichie's work, along with reading this one again sometime. And I'm glad I'll never have to ask her an uninformed question.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

'In a Strange Room' by Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut achieved a new level of fame last year when In a Strange Room made it onto the Man Booker Prize shortlist. But he had been there before, a few years back, with a very fine book called The Good Doctor. Neither of these books won the prize, which seems a shame, as they are two of the most fascinating, readable literary novels I've encountered. Both possess that quality that only the most special novels have where the reader feels enriched and, in some intangible way, changed by what they have read.

In a Strange Room is, at face value, three pieces of travel writing with only a shared narrator as a common thread. Galgut himself appears to be that narrator, though he makes it clear that this is really a work of fictionalised autobiography fairly early on:

"He sits on the edge of a raised stone floor and stares out unseeingly into the hills around him and now he is thinking of things that happened in the past.  Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was.  But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching."

Throughout the book Galgut moves between referring to the protagonist in the third person (for the most part) and the first person. Surprisingly, this is never confusing to the reader. It simply reads as a way of distinguishing the polished narrative of his experience from the sketchier parts of the story. Thus, when the narrator is at his most confused and emotional vulnerable we are more likely to see 'I'. Whilst the three pieces are ostensibly unconnected, there is an increase in intensity throughout each, which then carries through to the next, culminating in some emotionally coruscating scenes in the final part, where the narrator cares for a manipulative, suicidal friend. Such devastating drama owes much to Galgut's precise, controlled prose. there are no pyrotechnics here,  for he shares a talent with Cormac McCarthy and countryman JM Coetzee for employing a deliberately limited vocabulary to powerful effect.

Galgut has said that this book is about power, love, and guardianship, and how our relationships are defined by one or more of these elements. It is, and more. But for me his true triumph is capturing the disconnectedness of the traveller and the frustrations of thwarted love. Highly recommended.