Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

I’ve been lax in keeping up with reviewing my #WITMonth reading, mostly because I’ve been busy helping to launch the programme for Manchester Literature Festival. I mention that because Ariana Harwicz, the author of Die, My Love will be at the Festival on Saturday 20thOctober. I can’t wait to hear her talk about this powerful, angry book.

The unnamed narrator of Die, My Love is an immigrant, a wife, a mother of a sixth-month-old son. She is also a woman full of rage and lust and love and hate.

I lay back in the grass among the fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular.

Full of contradictions, she loves her family but feels stifled by them. Life has become alien to her in every way. The book chronicles her increasingly desperate and often violent attempts to reconcile herself with the version of womanhood patriarchal society expects of her.

Something I always used to hate about living in the countryside, and that I now relish, is that you spend all your time killing things […] I trap [flies] in the jar with a swift twist of the lid, then sit with the baby on my knee and watch them slide around in the jelly. Sitting comfortably on the swing, I electrocute bees and teach the wasp that wants a piece of me a lesson. My son and I stuff clusters of ants into matchboxes and set them on fire.

The anger that women are expected to supress explodes everywhere – in the supermarket, in the bedroom, at family gatherings. The narrator is given help and support but it only emphasises the question of whether women or society are at fault.

The book’s written in short chapters – some as fleeting as pieces of flash fiction – that move forward in time while circling the same issues, much like in life. The tone is abrupt and sharp, echoing the feelings of the narrator. Die, My Love isn’t an easy read, either in terms of its subject matter or its delivery, but it is an angry, passionate and powerful exploration of a woman on the edge.

Thanks to Charco Books for the review copy.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli (translated by Lizzie Davis)

August is my favourite bookish month of the year: women in translation month. Lots of bloggers and publishers get involved; you can follow what’s happening via the hashtag #WITMonth and the @Read_WIT account run by Meytal Radzinski who founded the whole thing. I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else is reading and discussing.

First up for me is a very timely book in terms of the recent incarceration of immigrant children in America (although there are messages here for many other countries including the UK). It’s a little bit of a cheat too as Luiselli wrote some of the text in English – the book began life as an article for Freeman’s and then was expanded on in Spanish and those sections were translated by Lizzie Davis – but this is an important piece of work and #WITMonth seemed a good time to review it.

In 2015, Luiselli begins work as a volunteer translator interviewing unaccompanied migrant children who’ve crossed the border from Mexico into the United States of America.

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

Luiselli divides her account of her experience into four stages: border, court, home, community. This comes from a list her niece sees on a board in one of the interview rooms; it’s there to help the migrant children recall their journey into the country. She parallels their journey with parts from her own life. Luiselli and her husband are also migrants. Having applied for their green cards, they can’t leave the country so drive across to Arizona as a holiday. They are stopped by border patrol who want to know what business they have being there.

The forty questions in the book’s title refer to those the children are asked in order for the group of charities who offer support to assess how they might build a legal case for them. Question seven is “Did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?” This allows Luiselli to give us the statistics:

Eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way.

The number of abduction victims between April and September 2010 was 11,333.

Some sources estimate that, since 2006, around 120,000 migrants have disappeared in their transit through Mexico.

She makes it clear that listening to the children’s stories horrifies her but it is these details that can be used to strengthen their case to stay in the U.S.

As she undertakes this work, Luiselli teaches an Advanced Conversation class at a local university. There she begins to discuss the immigration crisis. This leads to the students deciding to do something positive and hopeful and allows Luiselli to follow one of the boys she has interpreted for to something close to an ending. What this also highlights though is how the U.S. is complicit in the creation of these migrants: the boy, who she calls Manu, encounters the same problem in New York state which led him to leave Mexico in the first place.

Of course, America isn’t the only country to create a situation which leads to migration and then close its borders – the UK and other European countries have done the same, most recently with Syrian refugees.

Luiselli’s reason for writing the book is a very clear message to us all:

…perhaps the only way to grant any justice – were that even possible – is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalising horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.

The horror and the violence are made stark in Tell Me How It Ends. It’s a difficult book to read at times but, as Luiselli says, it’s also one we can’t afford to look away from.

Trauma in Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Kindred by Octavia Butler and Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

My favourite thing on Twitter at the moment is the monthly discussions about sci-fi and fantasy books by women, led by the writer Gem Todd (author of Defender and Hunted as GX Todd). Each month we vote on a selection of books before reading and then discussing the most popular choice. In May and June we discussed two novels by black women which dealt with different types of trauma – the classic Kindred by Octavia Butler and the Afrofuturist, soon-to-be a HBO series, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.

Kindred is the story of Dana, a 26-year-old black woman living a few miles from LA with her white husband, Kevin. It’s 1976. As they unpack the boxes in their new home, Dana begins to feel dizzy and sick. She’s pulled from 1976 to 1815 where a young white boy, Rufus, is drowning. Dana saves him but then is almost shot by the boy’s father. As she stares down the barrel of his rifle, she travels forwards to 1976 where Kevin tells her she’s only been missing for a few seconds.

Later that evening, Dana finds herself back with Rufus who is now three or four years older and attempting to set fire to the curtains in the room he’s in. It soon becomes clear that Rufus is the son of a plantation owner and also a relative of Dana’s.

Over the course of the novel, Dana is repeatedly called to Rufus when he is in mortal danger. She’s tied to him in the sense that she seems to be the only person who can save him from himself and also because she exists due to his relationship with her ancestor, Alice, a free black girl who lives outside the bounds of the plantation with her mother, who is also free.

The complexity of Dana’s link to Rufus allows Butler to explore ideas of structural inequality, complicity and the way in which horrific behaviour can be normalised.

Kevin and I became more a part of the household, familiar, accepted, accepting. That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatize. Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history – adjusting to our places in the household of a slaveholder.

Kindred is a difficult and disturbing read – as it should be. The moral complexity of Butler’s tale also makes it a thoughtful one and raises questions about our own behaviour in a time where white supremacy is highly visible once again.

Onyesonwu is the protagonist of Who Fears Death, the title being the meaning of her name in an ancient language. Onyesonwu is an Ewu – the product of rape – and has been shunned because of it. The novel begins with her telling us that the father who raised her, who looked beyond what she was to who she was, died. In the four years since his death a lot has happened. She dictates this to an unknown scribe with a laptop during the two days she has left to live.

She tells of her upbringing in the desert with her mother. Of finally settling in a town and going to school. Of the friends she makes, including Mwita, a boy who is also Ewu. She also reveals that she is more than she seems:

“There was a vulture,” I said. “Looking right at me. Close enough for me to see its eyes. I threw a rock at it and as it flew off, one of its feathers fell off. A long black one. I…went and picked it up. I was standing there wishing I could fly as it did. And then…I don’t…”
“You changed,” Mwita said. He was looking at me very closely.
“Yeah! I became the vulture. I swear to you! I’m not making this..”
“You’re an Eshu,” he said.
“A what?” The word sounded like a sneeze.
“An Eshu. You can shape-shift, among other things.”

Onyesonwu is being hunted by something that repeatedly appears to her as an oval eye. In order to help her harness her powers and defeat the thing that seeks her, she tries to get Aro, the sorcerer, to teach her. He rejects her while apprenticing Mwita. Why? Because she’s a girl.

Who Fears Death is a coming of age story that deals with first love, friendship and sex. It also looks at power – who has it, how it can be used, how to defeat it and what happens when it goes wrong. Okorafor considers how society treats women, including men who would view themselves as supportive of women but still fall foul of their own egos. The book’s strength lies in Onyesonwu’s youth and flaws – she doesn’t transform into a strong, all-conquering woman but has to deal with her fallibility and her mistakes – and also in the friendship between four young women, including Onyesonwu, which develops as the novel progresses. It’s an interesting and inventive story but also a slightly overlong one.

Thanks to Headline for the review copy of Kindred.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner 2018

Last night The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 was awarded to Kamila Shamsie for the brilliant Home Fire. The judges referred to the book as ‘a novel of our time’ and I’d agree that Shamsie’s retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone is a compelling update exploring issues around immigration, assimilation and terrorism. I read it in one sitting; my review is here.

There was some number crunching with regards to The Women’s Prize on The Bookseller yesterday. The article looked at the trends in terms of previous winners. In the 23 years of the prize, Kamila Shamsie is only the fourth woman of colour to win the award and the first since 2007. What’s most interesting about the three previous winners is that they’ve gone on to be three of the top four biggest sellers (see snippet below); I’d be delighted to see Shamsie go on to join them.

Cut from the Same Cloth edited by Sabeena Akhtar

Occasionally I use this blog to write about projects that I think are important/necessary. Today it’s one that’s being crowdfunded via the innovative publisher Unbound. Cut from the Same Cloth is an anthology of essays written by British hijabis and edited by the brilliant Sabeena Akhtar, who you might know from her work with Media Diversified, Bare Lit Festival and Tilted Axis Press.

From the Unbound website:

Perceived as the visual representation of Islam, hijab-wearing Muslim women are often harangued at work, at home and in public life yet are rarely afforded a platform of their own.

In books and in the media we are spoken on behalf of often by men, non-hijabis, and non-Muslims. Whether it is radical commentators sensationalising our existence or stereotypical norms being perpetuated by the same old faces, hijabis are tired. Too often we are seen to exist only in statistics, whilst others gain a platform off the back of the hostilities we face.

Cut from the Same Cloth seeks to tip the balance back in our favour. The collection will feature essays from 15 middle and working class women of all ages and races who will look beyond the tired tropes exhausted by the media and offer honest insight into the issues that really affect our lives. From modern pop culture to anti-blackness, women’s rights, working life; this first of its kind anthology will examine a cross section of British hijabis and the breadth of our experiences. It’s time we, as a society, stopped the hijab-splaining and listened to the people who know.

It’s time for change.

This anthology will include essays from Sabeena Akhtar, Azeezat Johnson, Hodan Yusuf, Myriam Francois, Ra’ifah Rafiq, Raisa Hassan, Rumana Lasker, Shaista Aziz, Sofia Rehman, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Suma Din, Sumaya Kassim and Yvonne Ridley.

Back in December 2015, I was part of the #DiverseDecember campaign. It feels as though things have begun to move on since then – The Jhalak Prize was founded in 2016; The Good Immigrant was crowdfunded in three days, went on to be a best seller and was voted the British public’s favourite book of 2016 at the Books Are My Bag Readers Awards; four of the six books that make up this year’s shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction are written by women of colour. But there remains a hierarchy of acceptability with regards to whose voices appear on our shelves and in our media, whose voices we listen to. I’ve contributed to Cut from the Same Cloth because, to quote Flavia Dzodan, ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’. As I type, the project is 69% funded; if you’re able and would like to contribute to the project, the crowdfunding page is here.

America Is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo + interview

You’ve just turned twenty-nine years old, your accent still hasn’t left, and you’re starting to understand what it means to have baggage. Baggage means no matter how far you go, no matter how far you immigrate, there are countries in you you’ll never leave.

America Is Not the Heart begins with a thirty-page, second person prologue which tells the story of Paz from her early childhood in the Philippines to the moment she gives birth to her daughter in a hospital in America. While Paz recedes into the background for most of the book, she remains at the core of the story. It is Paz who works two jobs, sending money to a variety of relatives and it is Paz who Hero, the protagonist of the novel, upsets on her arrival to America.

First impressions didn’t have to be everything, but she didn’t yet know that Paz was the kind of person who made judgements about people based on whether or not they treated her like she was beneath them, that she was a sensitive scanner of gaze-overs and under-words, that those judgements helped move Paz through the world, told her whom she could laugh with her mouth wide open in front of, and who she had to wear perfume next to. There were a thousand ways Hero could have walked into the house in Milpitas that day to begin things, but Paz lifted the suitcase again, straightened her back, and closed off her heart.

Hero is the niece of Pol, Paz’s middle class husband. She arrives at their house as an illegal immigrant, a member of the New People’s Army, a captive of war who’s been tortured and has two broken thumbs which have healed badly. Unable to work, she spends her time cleaning the house and looking after Paz and Pol’s daughter, Roni. It’s her care of Roni which will introduce Hero to a new group of friends and a relationship with Rosalyn.

Castillo explores ideas of home – what does it mean and where do we find it – through family, friends, food, music, politics and love. She considers how someone rebuilds their life after trauma and how that differs for people belonging to different classes.

Although Hero is the protagonist of the novel, Castillo moves between viewpoints. Two-thirds of the way into the book, there is a second chapter written in second person. This time from the perspective of Hero’s lover Rosalyn.

The first time you ate a girl out was in 1985, somewhere south of Echo Park, your first time out of the Bay since you’d arrived from Manila when you were five.

Castillo’s writing is fierce and absorbing. She builds a portrait of a community through a web of relationships, a lot of food and the integration of the languages spoken into the text of the novel. Her characters are complex – intriguing and infuriating in equal measure – and it is this which renders them as human. America Is Not the Heart is a bold, compelling debut novel.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Elaine Castillo on the date of the UK publication of the book. We discussed bi-visibility, writing in second person and telling stories of immigrant communities.

Thanks to Atlantic for the review copy and to Elaine Castillo and Kirsty Doole for the interview.

She Called Me Woman – Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak ed. Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan and Rafeeat Aliyu

I’m very pleased to have an extract from She Called Me a Woman – Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak, and a short clip of two of the book’s editors discussing their hopes for it. The book is published by Cassava Republic in the UK,

From the publisher:

She Called Me Woman is a collection of first-hand accounts by a community telling their stories on their own terms. This engaging and groundbreaking collection of queer women’s narratives includes stories of first time love and curiosity, navigating same-sex feelings and spirituality, growing up gender non-conforming and overcoming family and society’s expectations. What does it means to be a queer Nigerian? How does one embrace the label of ‘woman’? While some tell of self-acceptance, others talk of friendship and building a home in the midst of the anti-same sex marriage law. The narrators range from those who knew they were gay from a very early age to those who discovered their attraction to the same sex later in life. The stories challenge the stereotypes of what we assume is lesbian, bisexual, gay, and *trans in Nigeria and they offer us a raw, first-hand look into the lives and realities of our family, friends, neighbours and co-workers who are queer.

The editors:

Azeenarh Mohammed is a trained lawyer and a queer, feminist, holistic security trainer who spends her time training non-for-profit organisations on tools and tactics for digital and physical security and psycho-social well-being. Azeenarh is active in the queer women’s issues in Nigeria and has written on queerness and technology for publications like This is Africa, Perspectives, and Premium TimesNG. 

Chitra Nagarajan is an activist, researcher and writer. She has spent the last 15 years working on human rights and peace building and is involved in feminist, anti-racist, anti-fundamentalist and queer movements. She currently lives and works in Maiduguri, Nigeria, focusing on conflict mitigation, civilian protection and women’s rights. 

Aisha Salau has a BA in Marketing and works in communication and research. She is particularly interested in sex and sexuality in both modern and historical Nigeria. 

Why Do I Have To Ask You To Consider Me Human? 

In Yorubaland, girls have sex with girls all the time, especially while growing up – your next-door neighbour, your cousin. I have had all kinds of sex. I have had sex with men and sex with women. I like men but not in a sexual way. I love all the men in my life – but I’m not attracted to them. I refer to myself as queer because I’m more emotionally attached to women.

When I met the woman I’m living with now, she made me realise how much I love and enjoy talking with women. I really liked her. I said, ‘Let’s have sex and see if we enjoy each other’s bodies.’ When we moved to this area, we were formally dating but after we had lived together a few months, I realised she didn’t like children and that neither of us could have the kind of relationship we wanted. We are both still sexually attracted to each other and have sex but we are not seeing each other. We are just friends. I know she sees other people. For me, if I find somebody, that’s great but I can’t deal with a lot of the women I meet.

I have no idea if people around us know about the two of us. When we first moved to this area, we sat down in a bus and some random woman sat down beside us and said, ‘Awww, the way you treated your wife is so beautiful.’ I said, ‘She’s not my wife. She’s my sister.’ Some okada riders have said, ‘This your girlfriend is fine o.’

In my circles, we have long debates and my friends are pro-gay rights. They are feminists. I choose my friends well. All my male friends see me as an adventurous girl. I think they thought I was just experimenting about two years ago. I don’t know what they think now. When I meet them, I always go with her. Everyone thinks we are dating and it’s good. It’s like I’m making a statement. They tease us and they’re fine with it. On the other hand, I’ve lost jobs because of my sexuality. I got a job two weeks ago that I lost because somebody told them I was a lesbian. I was banking on that money.

Things have really changed on this issue since I was young. People weren’t so religious back then. They weren’t so corrupt. We use ‘lakiriboto’ to describe women who go against the grain, women who won’t sleep with men, including those who go with other women. The first time I saw two girls kissing was in my grandmother’s house – my aunt and one of the girls. They were all sleeping on this long mattress they would spread on the floor. The two of them would have sex and nobody would turn. My grandmother’s younger sister lived in Ghana for a long time. When she became old, she went to the house of this young girl who lived in the next compound and said she wanted to marry her. She promised to take care of the girl, send her to school, take care of all her expenses – and they gave her out in marriage. She married her so the girl could take care of her. They’re both dead now but the practice of women marrying women was common in the past – and I think it still is.

This is one of the reasons I love living in this neighbourhood. People are still living the way they were. Technology is not as fast here. They use old phones. We have a man who dresses obviously as a woman. Everyone knows him. They call him Baba Sango and think he gets possessed by the spirit of Sango. We have girls who dress like boys. Nobody looks at them in a weird way. We have all sorts of people and there’s still the polygamous way of life, which is a great way to cover a lot. Two women, best friends, would say they are marrying the same man, then they would marry other women for their husbands. They would say ‘I’m marrying a woman for myself and my husband can have part of it.’ A lot of these things are covered up under the Agbole system. You don’t know who has children or who does not because there are always children in the compound and everybody’s called by some child’s name. Nobody cares if you are married or not. The compound system really worked for them.

They still have it here but it’s changing. People are moving out of their compounds and becoming individuals. Now people have a really bad name for it. People are seen going to churches and mosques. Imams are saying that the women who sleep with women or the men who sleep with men are all going to hell. They pretend to be moralistic. They don’t remember that, when they were boys, they used to have sex with each other in all these corners. They still have these ‘all boys’ clubs’ where men meet. We all pretend to be religious and moralistic so that we can be accepted.

I want to see a community that is stronger, more educated, with people coming to knowledge of themselves. A community that is bolder. I want to tell people that they should be themselves. It’s when you are yourself that you can accept other people. I always say that it took me almost half my life to get to this point.

When I talk to young people, I tell them, ‘Don’t waste years struggling with yourself. Just accept yourself the way you are.’

– DK, age 42, Oyo

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

‘You know what fathers and sons are like.’

‘Not really, no.’

‘They’re our guides into manhood, for starters […] We want to be like them; we want to be better than them. We want to be the only people in the world who are allowed to be better than them.’

Home Fire begins from the perspective of one of the women. Isma is about to miss her flight to America where she has a place to do a PhD in sociology at Amherst. She’s been detained by immigration in the UK who search and interrogate her. ‘He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.’ Eventually she’s allowed to leave but not before she’s missed her flight.

Eventually Isma arrives in Massachusetts where she meets Eamonn Lone, son of the British politician Karamat Lone. Isma recognises Eamonn. When she was younger there was a photograph of the local cricket team in the house of a family friend. Karamat Lone was on it. Isma overheard her grandmother telling someone of the cruelty he’d shown their family when he could’ve acted otherwise. However, Isma doesn’t reveal to Eamonn that she knows who he is and a relationship begins to develop between them.

Isma’s family situation is complicated. Her mother and grandmother died within a year, leaving her to parent her twelve-year-old twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. Aneeka is at home in London, attending college. Parvaiz has left, occasionally letting Aneeka know via Skype messages that he’s okay.

Shamsie intertwines the two families in order to explore relationships, love and loyalty. Through the range of characters, she creates a complex view of what it means to be a Muslim, exploring different perspectives within Muslim communities. This is at its most stark with Karamat Lone and Aneeka. Lone is known as Lone Wolf due to his championing by the tabloids who see him ‘as a lone crusader taking on the backwardness of British Muslims’. Not long after his appointment as Home Secretary, he returns to the secondary school he attended in Bradford to give a speech.

‘You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours. And look at all you miss out on because of it.’

Aneeka wears the hijab, prays and is teetotal. She’s also about to enter Lone’s life and have a profound effect.

Home Fire is a retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone. While a number of recent retellings of Greek and Shakespearean plays have fallen short, Shamsie pulls this one off with aplomb. The novel uses the key themes and follows the structure of the source play but its characters, settings and ideas are contemporary and highly relevant. As the story moves from character to character – Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Anneka, Karamat – the sense of urgency builds. Home Fire is a compelling, tightly crafted novel; I read it in one sitting.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal

‘There’s a trick to time […] You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or longer,’ he says.

The Trick to Time begins in the present day in a southern seaside town. Mona, nearing 60, runs a shop from which she paints, dresses and sells collectible dolls. Before the end of the first chapter it becomes clear that some of these dolls serve a particular purpose. A woman arrives with a carefully wrapped parcel; she’s grieving:

‘I’ll tell you what, let me give you this.’ Mona takes a business card from the counter and writes her address on the back. ‘That’s me. Shall we say next Wednesday at 4.00 p.m.? Would that suit you?’ The woman nods and Mona smiles. ‘I just need the weight.’

The woman’s voice is a whisper when she speaks. ‘Five pounds seven ounces,’ she says and looks around as though she’s told a secret.

The dolls Mona paints and dresses are made by a local carpenter. She collects them from his workshop every few days. Their conversations suggest they have a working relationship but Mona’s observations show she worries about him too. He lives alone in the workshop and is haphazard at taking care of himself.

Alongside the now, de Waal contracts time and tells the story of Mona’s youth and young adulthood. In these sections of the novel we see her grow up in a small Irish town, raised by her father after her mum dies of cancer. In 1972, she leaves for Birmingham and meets William who, after a short courtship, she marries.

The Trick to Time considers the impact events that happen when we are younger have on our lives as we get older; how our desires and youthful optimism can be eroded, and how we can either weave these events into a new version of life or allow them to dominate it. This is exemplified by two of the minor characters, Karl and Bridie, as well as Mona.

Karl, who Mona spots looking out of his flat window at 5 a.m., is grief stricken after his friend Andreas’ death. Mona begins dating him after they bump into each other in a café; he becomes a catalyst for change in her.

Bridie lives in the village near Mona and her father. They visit her every month.

‘Why doesn’t she visit us instead?’ asks Mona. She is fourteen.

‘Good question,’ her father replies as though he’d never thought of it before.

‘At least then I could do some mending or shell the peas while she has the clock stopped.’

Her father laughs and squeezes her arm in close. ‘Ah, she’s a conjuror all right is Bridie O’Connor. I’ve never known a longer hour. But.’

And his ‘but’ says everything. Mona knows the words that come after. But she’s family, sort of, and she loves you. But she’s lonely. But she lives alone. But it’s the right thing to do. But we have to think of more people than ourselves alone. But have a heart, Mona.

In her debut novel My Name Is Leon, de Waal examined the difficulties of working class, single motherhood and the care system for children of colour with diligence and without descending into sentimentality. In The Trick to Time she applies the same focus to grief, compelling the reader to invest in these characters and their lives, taking us to the dark places which have shaped who they’ve become. There are points where the novel is difficult to read but it isn’t without hope; sometimes the control of time is ours.

Thanks to Viking for the review copy.

The Idiot – Elif Batuman

Selin arrives at Harvard to begin her university education as the internet is becoming more widely used. One of the first things she’s given is an email address:

And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it any time.

With this Batuman introduces the key themes of the novel: language, communication and unrequited love. It is via email that Selin will later attempt to progress a friendship with a fellow student.

Initially, Selin tries to navigate her way through which courses to take, who to hang out with and how her relationship with her roommates will work. Eventually she gets into a routine, particularly with her Russian class which meets every day. There she reconnects with Ralph, who she’s met previously at a summer program, and Ivan who becomes her unrequited crush. She is also befriended by Svetlana who’s seen Selin in Linguistics 101.

Some of the reading for the Russian class is a text called Nina in Siberia. It’s been written especially for beginner students using only the grammar they’ve learned so far. In the first section, a man named Ivan has left the protagonist Nina a letter saying he’s left for Siberia.

I found myself reading and rereading Ivan’s letter as if he’d written it to me, trying to figure out where he was and whether he cared about me or not.

When Selin begins to email the real Ivan, she uses the letter as a template to start their correspondence. It’s also via Ivan that she spends the summer in Europe, mostly in Hungary, teaching English in a village. His friend runs the scheme and Ivan tells Selin that he’ll be in Budapest so they can see each other on the weekends.

The Idiot explores some interesting ideas around language and communication. Batuman considers what it means to think and speak in different languages, how communicating electronically or by phone is different to communicating in person, and what you can teach someone about a language that isn’t their first one.

Selin’s trying to work out how to be in the world and the narrative meanders along with her as she tries different friendships and experiences. The Idiot is clever – the exploration of language and the intertextual play is well done and interesting – however, there is a little too much meandering as Selin negotiates a year at university. Worth reading if you want to take an intellectual wander.


Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.