Nina Is Not OK – Shappi Khorsandi

To drink to this level, to stay this fucked up, you need focus and determination and stacks of willpower. If it wasn’t so awful, I’d insist on a medal.

Seventeen-year-old Nina has a drink problem, although she’s not going to acknowledge it any time soon. We meet her being thrown out of a nightclub after giving a guy a blow job by the bar. She’s lost her friends but the guy and his mate come to look for her and walk her down the road to an alley. Sometime later, Nina’s in the back of a taxi.

I clutched my knickers in my hand. They were nice ones. Part of a set from Topshop. Thank God I’d retrieved them. I wanted to put them on but I couldn’t move. Why were my knickers in my hand? Did I fuck one of them? Both of them? Oh dear God no! Shit. No condoms. Not good. The gluey tang of spunk was in my hair.

It doesn’t occur to Nina that she’s been raped. When she returns home, her mum pulls her out of the taxi – alerted by the driver after Nina fell asleep and he couldn’t wake her. The following morning, Nina’s mortified at the thought of her six-year-old sister seeing her and her mum lectures her about her ‘party animal’ behaviour, comparing her to her dad who was also an alcoholic.

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Nina’s finding life particularly difficult of late after her boyfriend, Jamie, left to spend a year in Hong Kong with his dad. He went promising to message every day and then nothing. Eventually he let her know he’d met someone else. Nina’s not taking it well, sending emails to him that veer from total hatred to declarations of undying love. And then he posted pictures of himself and his new girlfriend on Facebook.

Beth had said, ‘Well, that’s a kick in the cunt.’ But it hadn’t been like that. It had been like a thousand kicks in the cunt and a giant fist around my heart squeezing until it burst, again and again and again.

Nina’s friend, Beth, is a feminist. She disagrees with Nina’s attempts to put Jamie’s new girlfriend down, refuses to let Nina be slut-shamed for giving a guy a blow job in a club, and thinks glossy magazines are ‘trash’. She’s a good foil for Nina’s thoughts about pretty much everything. Their other friend, Zoe, is completely gorgeous and really nice. That is until she begins dating Alex, the guy Zoe gave a blow job to.

Throughout the novel, Nina continues on a path of self-destruction, drinking more and more and sleeping with a range of guys in a variety of scenarios. Khorsandi writes without judging Nina although, of course, society has conditioned us to. It’s very difficult to read some of the situations Nina finds herself in and not blame her for failing to keep herself safe. Again, this societal construction wouldn’t apply if the sex of the protagonist were reversed and, as the novel progressed, I found myself increasingly angry at the men who didn’t acquire enthusiastic consent from Nina or, when they did, failed to give any consideration as to how intoxicated she was.

Khorsandi doesn’t shy from putting Nina in a whole range of plausible scenarios in terms of her abuse of alcohol, her sexual encounters, and the role that social media plays in teenagers’ lives. This is a complex, gripping look at a young woman struggling to come to terms with who she is and how society treats females who go against the virginal, nice girl stereotype they’re expected to conform to.

Khorsandi’s a comic so expect some laughs along the way too, although I found that some of the parts that were supposed to be funny – and a teenager would probably laugh at – I couldn’t find amusing: they were just too close to a reality that I find horrifying in my late 30s.

The book’s so compelling that I found myself having to finish reading it in a taxi queue at 1.15am following a trip on the last train home from London on which I usually fall asleep. I highly recommend it whatever age you are but I really think Nina Is Not OK should be handed out on Freshers’ Week and taught in schools as part of sexual consent classes. Not only is Nina Is Not OK a great read, it’s an important one too.

 

Thanks to Ebury for the review copy.

Uptown Thief – Aya de León

“If I was God, women would get paid to sit on our asses and think profound thoughts. We’d only fuck people who turned us on. But as long as the female ass out earns the female brain, there are gonna be sex workers who need our clinic.”

Marisol Rivera runs The María de la Vega Health Clinic for sex workers on Avenue C, downtown New York. She combines it with an escort service to help pay the mortgage. Money’s always tight so she’s found another interesting, lucrative and very much illegal way of covering the mortgage and paying her staff: robbing the safes of a group of CEOs (Chief Executive Officers). All of the CEOs are members of an organisation called Ivy Alpha, ‘the national men’s organization whose members are all Ivy League alumni and Fortune 500 CEOs’. Riveria’s grudge against them is due to a sex trafficking charge against the group which was ‘dropped despite several first-hand accounts by the women allegedly involved’. What better revenge than to have them bankroll a clinic for sex workers?

Marisol’s past includes a sexually and physically abusive uncle from whom she protected her younger sister, Cristina, and a period as a sex worker in order to pay the rent. In her twenties, ‘she spent two years as a mistress to a Fortune 500 VP named Campbell’. Bored, living in his apartment, she began to read the books in his library which mostly consisted of texts included on reading lists for MBA students. Marisol read them all and then taught herself how to crack his safe, for the thrill of it. Clearly both sets of skills have come in handy in her current life.

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In the first few chapters of the novel, three key things happen: firstly, Marisol returns from a heist to find a young girl, Dulce, outside her apartment. Prevented by her codirector, Eva, from admitting her on fire safety grounds, Marisol takes her to her apartment. It’s not long before Dulce’s pimp, Jerry, shows up, true to his word:

“He dumped me at the ER and said to come home when I could walk. There ain’t many places in the city a beat-down whore can go. He said he knew all of them and he’d be watching.”

Secondly, Marisol meets Raul, the brother of her best friend from high school. Raul’s an ex-cop but there’s something about him that gets under Marisol’s skin. Thirdly, she meets Jeremy VanDyke, a billionaire with a proposition for her.

Uptown Heist isn’t the sort of book I’d usually choose to read: it combines what should be an unbelievable heist plot alongside the stories of a range of sex workers and Marisol’s personal life. I agreed to read it because I’ve included Aya de León’s blog posts in my In the Media round-up and I think her pieces on feminism are interesting and thought-provoking. I’m glad I did; I was gripped throughout the whole book. This is a fast-paced tale, cinematic in style, with a clear vein of smart thinking with regards to women and sex – whether for work or pleasure.

Marisol doesn’t work alone, she surrounds herself with other intelligent women – Kim and Jody, who are a couple, and Tyesha, who’s studying for a Masters in Public Health. All three work as escorts in the service attached to the clinic but also as part of Marisol’s heist team. They acknowledge that they’re part of a patriarchal society that sees women as commodities and use this to their advantage. The book’s sex positive both with regards to the women’s choice to work as escorts and their personal sex lives. However, this doesn’t mean that de León avoids showing the other side of sex work, that which is controlled by men and can be unsafe in a range of ways.

Uptown Thief considers victims and villains, often contained within the same person. It raises questions about power and exploitation and the forms they come in. It asks whether women can carve a path through a patriarchal society for themselves and if there are men who can respect that. It’s pacy, dark, funny and empowering. If you’re looking for a summer read that’s smarter than your average crime cum romantic fiction cum sisterhood novel, Uptown Thief is your book.

 

Thanks to Kensington Books for the review copy.

Sleeping on Jupiter – Anuradha Roy

[…]he had looked at her in the way people did: with a certain wariness, the kind that comes from encountering up close an animal that might prove unpredictable. His eyes had rested on her when he thought she wouldn’t notice, taking the measure of her. She was used to it and often played up to it, acting more erratic than she was. It was both method and disguise, one she had perfected as the eternal outsider, a way to disappear when physical escape was impossible.

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Four women travel to Jarmuli, a fictional town on the coast of India. Three are elderly friends – Gouri, Latika and Vidya – on their first outing together, the fourth is a young woman from Oslo, there to research a documentary. All four women are in the same compartment. When the train reaches one of its stops, the young woman jumps out and buys bread rolls and tea for a woman begging on the platform. As she goes to give the woman the food, one of two men ‘idling on the platform’ tries to get her attention and then brushes his arm against her breast.

The girl stepped backward and in a single move that appeared to take no more than a second, she thrust the bread at the woman and flung the hot tea in the man’s face. She kicked his shin and his crotch as his hands flew to his face. The man stumbled, fell to the platform.

All of a sudden, as if watching a silent film, the women in the train saw the food-stall outside starting to slide backwards. The lamp-post by the stall moved two feet back, then three. They saw the girl turning around to see her train moving out of the platform, the girl running towards the train, very fast despite her backpack, running as if her life depended on it, the second of the two men running after her.

The older women don’t see what happens next and worry for the young woman whose fate is unknown to them. The incident sets a tone of fear and unpredictability that hovers over the whole of the narrative.

The young woman – Nomi – tells her story to the reader in a first-person narrative. In it we discover that she has come to Jarmuli because she knows that, as a child, she had grown up nearby, in an ashram where going outside was forbidden.

Roy also tells the story through the viewpoints of the three women, there to see the temple; Badal, the temple guide, and Suraj, a local photographer helping Nomi with her documentary. She covers themes of love, friendship and aging, with a particular focus on dementia. The key theme of the novel, however, is child abuse. It’s a difficult topic to cover, in a number of ways. Roy’s narrative is a historical one, told in past tense, but that doesn’t prevent her from shying away from some graphic and disturbing scenes.

Sleeping on Jupiter is a taut, tense novel that considers power – who holds it and who abuses it – in a range of situations. It’s clear why it was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize; hopefully that nomination will help to bring the book the wide readership it deserves.

 

Thanks to Maclehose Press for the review copy.

 

 

Flying Under the Radar…but well worth your time

2016 is shaping up to be such a corking year in books (thank goodness, eh, considering the state of everything else…) that I was going to do a books of the mid-year point list. However, when I drew up my longlist I noticed that it split neatly into two categories: those books you already know about because everyone is talking about them and those that I wish everyone was talking about because they’re brilliant and haven’t had the recognition they deserve. So here’s twelve books I’ve read so far this year that I think are worthy of your time and attention. Clicking on the covers will take you to my full review.

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

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A new patient arrives at Saint-Paul-De-Mausole, an artist called Vincent van Gogh. The story of the novel, however, belongs to Jeanne Trabuc, the warder’s wife. van Gogh serves as a catalyst for a change in her steady, claustrophobic life. A fantastic portrait of a marriage and the power of art to change how you see the world.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

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Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. (This also gives me an opportunity to point you in the direction of this excellent piece recommending more women novelists you might enjoy by Sarah Ladipo Manyika on Vela: Seven Bold and New International Voices.)

Martin John – Anakana Schofield

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You know that reviewers’ cliche about books staying with you long after you’ve turned the final page? Well I read this in December and I still shudder every time I think about it. Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland, by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in Martin’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta

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A coming-of-age novel in 1970’s Nigeria. Ijeoma discovers her sexuality when she meets Amina. Her mother attempts to ‘correct’ her homosexuality through schooling her in The Bible and manoeuvring her into marriage. Gripping, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful.

Sitting Ducks – Lisa Blower

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The perfect post-Brexit novel if you’re one of those people wondering who was ‘stupid’ enough to vote Leave in those run-down post-industrial towns destroyed by Thatcher and neglected by subsequent administrations. ‘Totty’ Minton’s fed up of being skint, unemployed and living in a house marked for demolition by his former school mate and private property entrepreneur, Malcolm Gandy. Corruption and despair are rife in the lead-up to the 2010 general election and there seems to be no end in sight.

The Living – Anjali Joseph

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Joseph also looks at working class lives. 35-year-old, single mother, Claire, works in one of the UK’s remaining shoe factories and struggles with her teenage son, Jason, while her feud with her mother rumbles on. Arun, a shoe maker and grandfather in Kolhapur, struggles with his health and looks back on his life and marriage. An excellent character study.

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

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The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways although all under the banner of the patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives.

If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

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Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. You can read my interview with Sarayu Srivatsa here.

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

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Simon Limbeau is fatally wounded in a road traffic accident. Pulled from the wreckage and transported to an Intensive Care Unit, the novel charts the progress to the point when Simon’s heart becomes that of Claire Méjan. As the heart’s journey progresses, we meet all of the people involved in transporting it from one body to another. Gripping and fascinating.

Masked Dolls – Shih Chiung-Yu (translated by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland)

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Twenty-three chapters, each one titled ‘Conflict’ and the number of the chapter. Initially these conflicts seem to be individual tales: Judy and her Chinese lover; Jiaying and Lawrence, her Western boyfriend; Jiaying’s father’s stories of World War Two; the person who steals underwear from the flat Jiaying and her friends live in when they’re students; Jiaying’s friend Fat Luo’s increasing hatred of her. But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that these ideas are thematically linked. Greater than the sum of its parts.

Ghostbird – Carol Lovekin

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In a Welsh village where it rains every day in August, fourteen-year-old Cadi Hopkins begins to ask questions about her dead father and sister and why she’s not allowed to go to the lake. Cadi lives with her mother, Violet, with whom she’s locked in an intensified teenage daughter/mother battle. Cadi’s aunt/Violet’s sister-in-law, Lili, lives next door and acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi. Lili also has a contentious relationship with Violet. Nature, magic realism, secrets and family relationships. Atmospheric.

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

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Eileen tells the story of ‘back then’ when she lived with her alcoholic, ex-cop, father, was a secretary in a boys’ juvenile correction facility and met Rebecca Saint John, the beautiful, intelligent, fashionable director of education who befriends Eileen and leads her down a very dark, twisty path.

Show Me a Mountain – Kerry Young

Show Me a Mountain is the third novel in Young’s Twentieth-Century Jamaican trilogy. The first two books being Pao and Gloria. Despite it belonging to a group of novels, the book stands alone – I haven’t read the first two novels although I’m now very keen to.

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This story belongs to Fay Wong, daughter of an African mother and Chinese father, she grows up in their Jamaican mansion in the 1930s with her siblings – older brother, Stanley and younger sister, Daphne – and the housemaid, Sissy.

Fay’s mother is formidable. By page 12, she’s slapped Fay several times and left her naked, locked in the piano room in the house. It seems Fay can do no right:

Every girl I brought home from school was too noisy, or insolent, or stupid. Or too black.

‘What is too black? […] Are you too black, Mama? Because of your hair? Is Stanley too black because he had a black papa? What about Daphne? Dark like she is. Even though Papa her daddy. Is she too black?’

‘Who do you think you are? A little bit of light Chinese skin and some yellow hair and you think you can talk to me any which way you choose?’

Fay tries to escape from her mother’s domination, staying out late after school and then becoming friends with Beverley Chung, the only other mixed-heritage girl at her school. Beverley introduces Fay to her grandmother, a rich, former socialite who enjoys the company of the girls and Tyrone, Beverley’s brother. Fay develops a lively social life, dancing; dating an English man stationed in Jamaica; befriending Isaac, a butcher and communist, and finding work in the army. Regardless, her mother will have the final word:

‘Think you can talk to me any way you like? Well let me tell you, for all your fancy friends and fancy clothes you are still a woman. And a woman needs a husband and, that being the case, it is better to have one who can provide rather than one with nothing in his pockets but his empty hands. A Chinese shopkeeper is as good a catch as you are going to get. You should be counting your blessings instead of turning up your nose.’

Fay’s a spoiled brat – her father’s doing, according to her mother – and life with Yang Pao, will show her a side of Jamaica she’s never really considered before.

Show Me a Mountain explores a society divided by money. It questions whether the damage done to people will always be passed down the familial line or whether cycles can be broken.

Young’s characters are complex, behaving in ways which cast them in both positive and negative lights. The most surprising of them are seen to seek some form of comfort or redemption without necessarily changing their behaviour. Fay is a particularly interesting character to follow, her own development aided by a Catholic priest she seeks out following her marriage.

Young’s descriptions of place and character are vivid and absorbing; I look forward to returning to her world via the first two novels in the series.

 

Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy

Feminism in Storm Sisters, A Guest Post by Mintie Das

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Storm Sisters is a new YA series, written by Mintie Das, following the adventures of five female pirates in the 1780s. Charlie, Sadie, Raquel, Liu and Ingela are smart and handy with a weapon or two as they sail the seas trying to discover what happened on the day their families were attacked. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am delighted to welcome Mintie Das to the blog with a post on feminism in the book.

I’ve been a feminist since I was thirteen. Yet, when I set out to write Storm Sisters, my YA series about five girl pirates sailing the high seas in the 1780s, I didn’t try to write a ‘feminist’ story. What I hoped to do was to write a story about five teen protagonists that were like the females that I know and want to know—smart, courageous, funny, flawed and vulnerable.

I am annoyed by stories featuring girls that segment them as the pretty one, the smart one, the feisty one, etc. As though we can’t be all of those things and more. Part of the fun in writing is to explore the gorgeously complex layers in all of us and then create multi-dimensional characters that reflect those strengths and vulnerabilities. That’s why the Storm Sisters; Charlie, Sadie, Liu, Raquel and Ingela, kick ass and they make mistakes. By creating heroines who represent the different aspects of who we are—the realer they become. That reality, that females are complex with distinct voices and can be more than the romantic interest is feminism to me.

What’s been interesting is that as Storm Sisters goes into publication in nearly twenty countries, it’s been recognized for its multiple female protagonists, each with her own distinct voice. I think of it as a band with rotating lead singers. In fact, in the five book series, each girl takes a turn narrating a different book. While I’m proud that Storm Sisters stands out because of its five female leads, I look forward to a time when stories featuring multiple heroines is the norm.

That’s because sisterhood is at the heart of my adventure series. We all probably know a few mean girls. But there’s already been a lot of stories about them which have helped to perpetuate this idea that catfights and jealousy are the norm between girls when in my experience, this simply isn’t the case.

I don’t actually have any sisters just like my Storm Sisters aren’t related. Their bond—the unconditional love and support they give each other is modeled on the incredible friendships that fuel me. Of course my characters fight too. But they know that no matter how hard they push each other, they always have each other’s backs. I believe as storytellers, the amazing power of our female bonds is one of the best tools we have.

Storm Sisters: The Sinking World begins one year after the Day of Destruction, a day when all 106 Storm ships were annihilated and the parents of Charlie, Sadie, Liu, Raquel and Ingela were murdered. On one level, my series is a dark mystery with lots of twists and turns as the girls are forced to search for the people who destroyed their families. On another level, it’s a story about independence, as the girls, ages eleven to seventeen, struggle with being on their own for the first time while also fighting for their freedom in the harsh world of the 1780s. Their bond is as much about love as it is necessity because without each other, they wouldn’t be able to survive.

Part of the reason I chose the 1780s setting is because the oppression females faced then allowed me to highlight the importance of sisterhood. My girls aren’t pirates just because they love the sea. Especially considering they risk their lives on a daily basis navigating the deadly conditions of maritime life. However, despite the dangers, they choose the sea because on the sea they are free from the violence, abuse and other injustices that females of the eighteenth century faced.

Our world has changed in many ways since the 1780s but unfortunately, not enough. In many parts of the globe today, females are still subjected to the brutality that my characters fight against. Therefore, in the spirit of the sisterhood that is so essential in our continued struggle for equality, I’d like to end this piece by sharing the Storm Sisters creed that begins every book:

On the sea, we are free. Free to be ourselves, free to go where we choose, free to speak our minds. We are not judged lesser either by our sex or our skin. Here we are equal.

And so it is on the sea that we choose to live. Live like our ancestors did.

The history books will erase us. Convince you that girls are not smart, are not brave, and are not powerful. We share our story to show you we are. Most importantly, we share our story to show you that you are, too.

Storm Sisters by Mintie Das is published on 30th June by Bastei Entertainment, price £4.99 in eBook.

You can find out more about the five girls and the book on these other blogs:

Storm Sisters blogtour

 

Tales of Immigration by Levy and Ali

It seems pertinent this week to review two books which take immigration to the UK as one of their central themes. The first is a timely reminder of Britain’s appalling behaviour in the world and that Jamaicans fought alongside us in both wars and then were encouraged to come to the UK to make up labour shortages following World War II. The second is as much about gender as it is race and considers what it’s like to establish a life so far from home.

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Six Stories and an Essay – Andrea Levy

In the essay which begins this slim volume, Levy recalls her childhood, using it to examine the disparity between her parents arrival in Britain and her feelings on the integration of the Caribbean community in the UK.

They believed in order to get on in this country they should live quietly and not make a fuss. They should assimilate and be as respectable as they possibly could. Clean the front step every week. Go to church on Sundays. Keep their children well dressed and scrubbed behind the ears.

Teenage Levy’s sense of being an outsider comes from her working class upbringing. It isn’t until she’s on a racism awareness course at work and joins ‘the white side of the room’ that she begins to explore her experience of being black in Britain. This coincided with her taking a writing course as a hobby.

I am now happy to be called a black British writer, and the fiction I have written has all been about my Caribbean heritage in some way or another.

She points out that the social mix created from the relationship Britain developed with the Caribbean – one of slavery and exploitation initially, followed by a whole range of people moving to the islands – has been erased from our history books.

Levy states her aim for this book (and, I assume, the rest of her work) at the end of the essay:

My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history.

The stories that follow revolve around ideas of power, of fear and of erasure. The first two, The Diary and Deborah show the power of secrets and how they can be used to get what you want – through a diary belonging to a famous actor and extracting violent retribution on a friend in fear of what your father might do to you.

The Polite Way that English People Have introduces Hortense from Small Island on the boat on her way to England. Here she realises her status is going to be reduced in the UK and in The Empty Pram a character who could be Hortense discovers the suspicion she’ll be subjected to simply for being from another country.

Loose Change takes a refugee from Uzbekistan and puts her in conversation with a woman who has the power to help her, while February reveals the erasure of Levy’s mother’s experience by a white teacher and the collection ends with Uriah’s War where the experience of two Jamaican soldiers in the First World War is erased by a sergeant on their return.

Levy introduces the reader to a range of characters and situations. What they all have in common is a sense of erasure or othering by someone, largely due to race but with regards to class. It’s an interesting mix of subjects and one in which Levy begins to explore Caribbean narratives which are expanded upon in Small Island.

Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.

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Brick Lane – Monica Ali

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003 (yes, it has taken me this long to read this book), Brick Lane tells the story of Nazneen’s marriage to Chanu and their move from Bangladesh to Tower Hamlets, London in 1985.

When they arrive in London, eighteen-year-old Nazneen can say only two words in English, sorry and thank you. She is befriended by the rebellious Razia and by Mrs Islam who ‘knew everything about everybody’ but is largely confined to the flat.

Forty-year-old Chanu is pompous. Considering himself an intellectual, he invites the local doctor for dinner, assuming he can see his way to helping Chanu get a promotion at work. While he desires something better for himself and, therefore, his wife, he doesn’t understand why Nazneen would want to learn English. She spends her days looking forward to letters from her sister and seeing that Chanu’s needs are met.

‘Ish’, said Chanu, breathing sharply. ‘Did you draw blood?’ He looked closely at his little toe. He wore only his pyjama bottoms and sat on the bed. Nazneen knelt to the side with a razor blade in her hand. It was time to cut her husband’s corns again. She sliced through the semi-translucent skin, the build-up around the yellow core, and gathered the little dead bits in the palm of her hand.

The couple has two children and the novel follows Nazneen and Chanu as their children grow. Chanu is determined that they will know about their heritage and determinedly teaches them about Bangladesh, much to his daughter’s irritation. His plans to improve their situation in London lead to him becoming entangled with Mrs Islam and her business interests whilst Nazneen discovers what it’s like to be in love.

Ali explores identity and how it’s formed. She considers how relationships are formed far from home when you find yourself part of a community living closely with some you might not have socialised with in alternate circumstances. She portrays a marriage without love but with some affection and the conflict that children can bring as they grow. Brick Lane is an engrossing read and an interesting portrait of a young woman discovering who she is and what she wants from life.

 

 

Negroland – Margo Jefferson

“We’re considered upper-class Negroes and upper-middle-class Americans,” Mother says. But most people would like to consider us Just More Negroes.”

Margo Jefferson grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. Born to a paediatrician father and a socialite mother, she experienced a particular type of privilege: that of the well-off, educated, black family.

Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

She explores her personal experience as a member of Negroland beginning with a letter her mother wrote to a friend during her parents’ time stationed at an army base during WW2. The letter ends ‘Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro. That’s something, huh?’ Jefferson follows it with the times she’s almost been allowed to forget too and the times when she definitely hasn’t. She takes us with her to summer camp where she’s directed to befriend a black boy; to the private, mostly white, school she and her sister attended; to the neighbourhoods the family lived in – mostly white when they arrived, mostly black within a few years; to the hotel in Atlantic City where they’re put in inferior rooms; to university.

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Personal experience is interwoven with the history of those Jefferson identifies as belonging to Negroland: Frances Jackson Coppin and Joseph Willson, for example; and cultural commentary on film, television and the media, discussing those black men and women who did appear on and in those mediums and what they came to represent for black communities.

There are some awful instances of racism and a heart-wrenching moment, reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, when Jefferson confesses ‘she was silly enough to believe her hair would turn blonde when her mother washed it. Fortunately, she aired this belief, and it dies a clean, brisk death’ but there’s also humour. One of my favourite moments comes during a discussion about passing:

Suddenly the fact of racial slippage overwhelmed me. I was excited for days after. I knew something none of my white school friends knew. It wasn’t just that some of us were as good as them, even when they didn’t know it. Some of us were them.

There’s been some discussion this week on Twitter around the idea of ‘identity politics’ and whether they reduce people to characteristics. (If you haven’t come across the debate, Musa Okwonga wrote a point-by-point response to the criticisms on his blog.) As the conversation went on there were some fairly crude comments about levels of privilege in relation to race. I’m going to quote Jefferson at length because I think what she has to say on this, from a self-identified position of privilege, is important:

In Negroland we thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians. Like the Third Eye, the Third Race possessed a wisdom, intuition, and enlightened knowledge the other two races lacked. Its members had education, ambition, sophistication, and standardized verbal dexterity.

– If, as was said, too many of us ached, longed, strove to be be be be White White White White WHITE…

– If (as was said) many us boasted over much of the blood des blancs that for centuries had found blatant or surreptitious ways to flow, course, and trickle tepidly through our veins and arteries (cephalic, aortal, renal, femoral, jugular, subclavian, and superior mesenteric)…

– If we placed too high a value on the looks, manners, and morals called the birthright of the Anglo-Saxon…

White people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They worked just as hard at it. They failed just as often. They failed more often. But they could pass, so no one objected.

Negroland is a superb book. Non-fiction books that meld genres seem to be having a bit of a moment but what this one does differently is consider the intersections of race, class and gender in a way I haven’t seen before. It’s a fascinating read and an insight into an underexplored area of society. Highly recommended.

 

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

‘Jake is going to have a new mum and dad.’
‘Why?’
‘Because, love. Just because. Because he’s a baby, a white baby. And you’re not. Apparently. Because people are horrible and because life isn’t fair, pigeon. Not fair at all.

Carol is struggling following the birth of her second son, Jake. Tony, Jake’s father has no intention of leaving his long-term partner and family and Byron, nine-year-old Leon’s father, did a runner when he was due to go to court. She has no financial support and is suffering from postnatal depression. The only emotional support she receives is from Tina, a neighbour, who also looks after the kids for her.

Sometimes, Tina’s boyfriend comes but when he sees Leon he always says, ‘Again?’ and Tina says, ‘I know’.

cover

When Jake’s four or five months old, Leon goes to Tina’s flat to ask for money. He lies and says his mum’s asked him to go to the shop but Tina goes to Carol’s flat and sees the extent of their issues.

She walks into the sitting room and puts her hand to her mouth. She looks at how untidy Leon has been and how he has sat in front of the telly and eaten his cereal by putting his hand in the box. How he hasn’t put Jake’s nappies in the bin. How he should have opened the window like Tina does in her house and made everywhere smell of baby lotion. Leon sees what Tina sees. Why didn’t he tidy up before he asked her for any money?

She calls social services and Jake and Leon are taken into care, going together to a foster carer’s house. Leon spends his time looking out for Jake, thinking about the things that happened when he lived with his mum and hoping that his mum will get better and come back for them. Instead, Carol disappears and white baby Jake is adopted. Leon, nine-years-old with light brown skin, is left behind with Maureen, the foster carer, with little hope of anyone offering him a permanent home.

The opening chapters of My Name Is Leon are some of the most heart breaking I’ve ever read. de Waal’s nails the perspective of a nine-year-old – no mean feat – and exploits it to convey the horror of the situation Carol and her children find themselves in. Three things make this so impressive: the narrative’s factual (within its fictional world) not manipulative; adult perspectives are skilfully woven in through things Leon sees and hears but can only interpret in limited ways for himself, and it is so utterly realistic. There’s no doubt that de Waal’s experience in family law has supported her portrayal of a single parent family in crisis.

The novel goes on to follow Leon as he remains in foster care, hopes to see his mum again and attempts to find baby Jake. When a social worker brings him a BMX, he begins to visit the local allotments where he starts to hang out with Tufty. Tufty takes a shine to Leon, showing him how to create a garden much to the annoyance of local busybody Mr Devlin. de Waal uses their story to create a subplot about police treatment of black men and prejudice surrounding those whose lives appear to be lived outside of the average experience.

My Name Is Leon is a stunning novel. Heart breaking and precise, it illuminates an experience not often written about.

 

Thanks to Viking for the review copy.

Book Lists for All Humans #2

BookListsforAllHumans

I didn’t expect it to be so soon but here we are, courtesy of this list of Top 10 Books to Make You a Better Person in The Guardian. Four white men (sounding good so far, right?), three men of colour, three white women. Verdict = could do better (the pun wasn’t intended but I’ll take it).

There’s a problem with this list because I don’t know what making someone a ‘better’ person means. Who decides the criteria?

I’ve gone for books that made me think about the world differently (and avoided any I included in list #1 although they’re all relevant too); feel free to interpret it in your own way and leave your suggestions in the comments.

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay
Haiti, kidnapping, rape, privilege, poverty

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman
Dystopia, AAVE, disease, love, war, religion

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta
Love, religion, ‘cures’ for homosexuality, Nigeria, women

Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)
Disability, friendship, love, sexuality

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo
Counterfactual slave narrative, race reversal

The Repercussions – Catherine Hall
War photography, Afghanistan, love, women, history

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik
Hijab, dating, religion, family, writing

Tell No Tales – Eva Dolan
Far right, immigration, politics, crime, corruption

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah
Race, class, albino, women in prison, perspective

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney
Working class, feminism, religion, crime, coming of age

(Links to my reviews.)