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Birgit Vanderbeke – You Would Have Missed Me

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They certainly might have.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 114
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-90867-052-6
First Published: 2016; 15th June 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2019
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Ich freue mich, dass ich geboren bin (I am glad, that I was born)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Birthday number 7; a kitten is still wanted but won’t be coming, mother still brings up her wealthy ex-fiancé, and father remains emotionally distant. As does mother. As the days move on our young narrator talks about her life as a new resident of West Germany where life is plentiful but, for her, still troubled. She misses family friends, struggles to understand house rules, and would like it if her mother let her have a drink more than twice a day.

You Would Have Missed Me is a novella written in the style of a stream of consciousness. A semi-autobiographical work, the book shows the realities of everyday life in 1960s Germany (both sides), and the further realities of life for a child whose parents could be a lot better.

The narrator works through her past, wrapping memories back around every so often, showing the impact of a life of neglect on the psyche of a child. The affect of this neglect, and outright abuse – both emotional and physical – causes problems for the girl who isn’t yet fully able to understand what is going on; she has a fair idea, but there is a lot more for the reader to pick up from the subtext of what Vanderbeke is saying. The abuse is accounted for very slowly, dripping through the narrative.

The differences between East and West Germany are shown often, mostly as items and social mores in the background. In the context of the narrator’s childhood life, the particulars are obviously more noticeable than the general, political, aspect, but there are moments when these are covered enough to clue you in to the wider social contexts. Sometimes the parents’ insults can seem to meld with the standards of living – it’s worth having a quick read up on the intricacies of life in Cold War Germany if it’s not a topic you know much about.

Between these strands, created by them, is the narrator’s fantasy of travel, escaping from everything that has happened in her life to somewhere better, if only for a moment. A snow globe, a gift from a friend in the East who knew a lot about the world, and their later gift of a book she had been wanting to read, H G Wells’ The Time Machine, are key.

The age-appropriate prose has been translated by Jamie Bulloch, who has worked on a good few other Peirene Press publications. Bulloch has opted for a mix of general comprehension and word-for-word; the book both seeming to echo what is surely the original language whilst translating into the English emotional dialect, if you will, the few things that would not work so well, the end result a careful, wonderful, rendering.

As a slice-of-life story that nevertheless recounts a lot of details on a specific few themes, You Would Have Missed Me is very character-driven, almost topic-driven, and whilst it does have an ending, there is a fair amount left for you to decide; the narrator’s story is only on year 7, and so there is plenty of scope to decide the likelihood of the various directions her life could go in regards to the personality she presents you, and how much her fantasies of better places are a part of it (looking at the book as a work of fiction). This is a book about the impact of the Cold War on the general public, and of an upbringing on the rest of someone’s life. It’s difficult to read, it’s sometimes shocking, but it’s a good dose of reality, history, and things that still today need improvement.

I received this book for review.

 
Monica Ali – Brick Lane

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Left To Her Fate.

Publisher: Doubleday (Random House)
Pages: 407
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-385-60484-0
First Published: 2013
Date Reviewed: 20th March 2019
Rating: 3/5

At birth Nazneen was left to fate; she survived. As an adult she is married to Chanu, an older man, and leaves Bangladesh for London. She arrives to a burgeoning community of diaspora, the Bangladeshi population in Tower Hamlets laying roots and working to make a new life. But Nazneen is still leaving things to fate; as the world moves around her she watches; she is the wife Chanu wanted, she’s a friend to others, but she remains somewhat outside, as life continues.

Brick Lane is a novel about the life of an immigrant to London from the 1970s to the early noughties.

Ali’s lengthy book rests on the overall concept of fate, a story the younger Nazneen heard over and over again, called ‘how you were left to your fate’. As such, Nazneen does not often get involved with social events or even friendships when she could if she wanted to; the book is both a reflection of an immigrant’s experience, and the story of Nazneen’s particular life as affected by her mother.

This latter aspect means that Nazneen is a particularly passive character; away from the understandable case of isolation early on, Nazneen has ideas of things she’d like to do but never does anything about it. If this passivity is Ali’s way of writing cultural difference it could have made sense, but Nazneen is among people who are actively part of their local community, and whilst Chanu doesn’t teach her English and does expect the home kept nicely rather than encouraging her to be out and about, he involves her in his educational ideas, discussing neighbours and friends, and invites people over to socialise with them. Effectively, as much as Chanu doesn’t offer active support, it’s Ali herself who puts up the biggest barriers around Nazneen, creating isolation which in the context of the rest of the book is unnatural.

Chanu is an interesting character, at once compelling and utterly irritating. His story is of a potential success; he knows a lot – or, rather, he knows he knows a lot. He can do intellect, but moving forward from that and incorporating the opinions of others, is difficult; he does not get the jobs he wants and misjudges how others think of him. His personality and education means a lot of his dialogue is academic lecture – he’d be at his best in front of a room of students, though he might succeed in sending most of them to sleep.

With Nazneen being the character the book revolves around, there is little story and many dull pages. Due to Ali’s continual application of passivity, the moments that offer real promise are passed over almost as soon as they’ve begun. This is a problem because these moments are to do with conflict – the book’s timeline includes 9/11, the people on the estate are Muslim, and you hear enough from what Nazneen hears about to realise that if Ali had let her be a proper part of her community, like all the other characters, this book would have a lot to say. Where there is a bit included about rioting, most of what happens is missed out.

Nazneen’s life gets a bit more interesting when she meets the young man who brings her clothes to repair, but this is also short-lived and fairly unremarked-upon. That something happens between them doesn’t fit her character – perhaps it serves as a push against fate, but due to Ali’s construction of her personality, it’s effectively a contrived reversal of a contrived character. The ending of the book is what was needed, but coming so late in the day it’s difficult not to wonder whether it wasn’t simply a case of the author noticing she needed to do something with her story if she was to finish it.

The one area where the book is interesting is the letters Nazneen’s sister sends; in Hasina there is good story, and it’s sad that more wasn’t included because Hasina does not let fate run her life. (This is likely the point of the inclusion, to show difference.) It is told in a strange fashion, however, written in broken English when Hasina would have surely written to Nazneen in their mother tongue – and if it is the mother tongue Hasina is writing in, why would it be broken?

A potentially fascinating character and her family are given short shrift, the community seen only through her eyes and thus only seen vaguely, the knock-on effect of a major world event is not given the time it needed. There are plenty of books that cover the various aspects of Brick Lane to better effect.

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Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

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A subway before there was a subway.

Publisher: Fleet (Little, Brown)
Pages: 364
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-708-89840-6
First Published: 2nd August 2016
Date Reviewed: 29th October 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Caesar approaches Cora to ask her to run away from the plantation with him, she considers it for a short while before agreeing – it’s an incredibly dangerous idea but even her fellow slaves are against her and she feels it is worth the likely death to escape. What she doesn’t know is that Caesar has chosen her due to her own mother’s escape and presumed freedom. They may be able to make it to an underground railroad station and hitch a ride on a locomotive that will take them on the first leg of their journey. The railroad has various stations dotted about the country, and it is up to the individual runaway as to whether they stay in a particular place or return to the train and keep travelling.

(The ‘underground railroad’ is a widely known fact of history in the States – any readers who are from other countries that do not cover the railroad in their general curriculum and don’t know about it, will want to read up on it whether before or after having read the book1.)

The Underground Railroad is a historical fantasy about the American slave trade and slavery, and about the country’s history with race as a whole. Using both history from the slavery era and the further racial discrimination that followed in the decades after abolition, Whitehead’s book is both a stunningly creative look at the country’s growth as a nation, and a fantastic commentary and criticism of the same.

This is very much a plot-and-commentary-driven novel. Whitehead has himself said that his initial idea was of what would happen if the underground railroad had been a real train2. He has also said that this choice to make the fantastical railroad the central element of the book allowed him to play with time and different elements of history3.

The other patrollers were boys and men of bad character; the work attracted a type. In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America.

The book starts at a plantation and shows not only the violence and hatred of the slave owners (the book in general is very violent, with Whitehead including various punishments in a way some primary sources do not, his novel making up for the relative censorship in those books) but the hierarchy and violence that arose as a natural consequence of a situation that caused everyone to be focused on their own survival at the detriment of others. As the train takes Cora – the narrative mostly concerns her – to different Southern States, Whitehead uses these assorted pauses to look at different ideas and acted-out discriminatory practices that were not a part of the exact historical time Cora is living in but were a part of the future decades.

This altering of history creates another fantasy thread in the book, though not nearly as close to ‘fantasy’ as the railroad; Cora steps into situations that you’ll rightly see are at odds with the places that came before it. In one such case, the technology in the State seems too far advanced for a short train journey away. Here, mandatory regular health checks for black people in a state that gives them education, housing (if in a dormitory), and relatively lowly jobs, seem at first a thoughtful acknowledgement of escaped slaves’ trauma… until the doctor offers Cora a not-so-elective-as-described sterilisation, discussing how the state is working on health ideas and performing surgeries on black women who have had a couple of children.

The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom. The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land. She knew the white men bragged about the efficiency of the massacres, where they killed women and babies, and strangled their futures in the crib.

Stolen bodies working stolen land.

Whitehead’s commentary on this and other subjects is incredibly blunt yet never leaves that element of fantasy out; it’s safe to say he’s providing a damning criticism but he does what he can to make you question the reality of different concepts. (Though again, as with the railroad, if your knowledge of American history is solid you’ll probably see a lot more of the facts amongst the fiction without having to look them up.)

And then Whitehead returns to the train and gives you a break for a moment so you can consider what you’ve read and consider what might lay ahead. In a similar way he uses chapter breaks for the different States, and changes the character discussed from Cora to a variety of secondary characters. The novel is written in the third person – with one excellent diversion into first person for Caesar’s story – and mainly concerns Cora; Whitehead changes perspective to give details of a scene that Cora is not privvy to, scenes that further explore the purpose of the novel and add different voices and historical perspectives to it. There are notes about laws, and chapters begin with ‘reward’ notices for anyone who turns in the escaped slave discussed within – these appear to be primary sources.

Backing up the story and the commentary is an unsurprisingly good use of language. Whitehead uses controversial words when warranted; as with everything else this book uses extremes in order to display the history correctly and get to the point.

Certainly you have to suspend some belief for the book – a railroad that stretches for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles, created by slaves and only shut down in sections a long time after it was created (the creation itself being a metaphor) – but no more so than at the end, which will produce in you one (or more) of a few possible conclusions as to what has happened, each in turn adding to the various metaphors and making you question everything you’ve already read.

It’s astounding.

The Underground Railroad is not a book to read with a cosy cup of tea and it’s not one to be rushed (as this library user did when the return date crept up on her). It requires your attention, your time, and in a few places your willingness to search for third-party information. For your efforts you will be handsomely rewarded.

Footnotes

1 The historical reality of the railroad, far from Whitehead’s fantastical re-imagining – that many readers have likened to their initial, childhood, conceptions of it – was a secret network of black people, both free men and women and escaped slaves, as well as supportive white people and Native Americans, who aided the escape of slaves from plantations in the Southern States to states further north, and often as far as Canada. The railroad was a network that traded coded information to allow the movements of escapees to pass between them so that various people could aid their escape – the network had people who would themselves visit plantations, people who would house escapees along their route, and people who would work to disrupt the success of any slave owners or slave catchers from using the law to get people back. I’ve written the basics here – the information in the Wikipedia article on the Underground Railroad should suffice in terms of understanding the background to Whitehead’s re-imagining of the network.
2 ‘Before there was Cora, or any other possible protagonist, I was sittin’ around thinking “What if instead of a metaphor, the Underground Railroad was a real train?” So the concept came first before the characters.’ (Whitehead, 2018)
3 ‘…Once I made the choice to have this central fantastic element of a literal underground railroad, it allowed me to play with time and bring in elements of The Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and things like that.’ (Whitehead, 2016)

Online References

Whitehead, Colson (2016) Colson Whitehead’s Subterranean Odyssey, Electric Literature, accessed 28th October 2018.

Whitehead, Colson (2018) Re: I’m author Colson Whitehead – just another down on his luck carny with a pocketful of broken dreams – AMA, Reddit, accessed 28th October 2018.

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Özgür Mumcu – The Peace Machine

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The mechanical dove.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 215
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27394-3
First Published: 2016; 31st May 2018 in English
Date Reviewed: 24th September 2018
Rating: 2.5/5

Original language: Turkish
Original title: Bariş Makinesi (Peace Machine)
Translated by: Mark David Wyers

In the very early 1900s, Celal, an orphan living in Turkey, saves the life of a wealthy man, and the wealthy man adopts him. When Celal grows up he becomes an erotic novelist, sending chapters one by one in secret to Paris where they are printed in a basement and distributed. On a trip to France, Celal is questioned by a policeman who doesn’t want to arrest him, in fact he wants to give him a script by a friend to look over. The script includes the name of Celal’s adopted father and discusses the idea of a machine that would wipe out hatred by disposing of free will.

The Peace Machine is a historical novel about the politics in early 20th century Serbia (public anger that led to the May Coup when the king and his commoner queen were assassinated) and the countries allied with the opposing side. Involving slight magical realism, the book sports an interesting premise but quickly becomes confusing.

The basics of this novel are good. The setting is intriguing – the history’s interesting anyway, but the way in which Mumcu describes it is great, pulling you in from the start. The way Celal’s writing career goes on and the spots of magical realism around are fantastic. And the look into the revolt against the Serbian monarchy is good, too.

But a lot is missed out – the narrative jumps from one situation to another, with Celal moving around for vague reasons; the politics isn’t explained particularly well – unless you’ve a lot of knowledge you have to research it to understand, and even then it’s confusing. The machine itself is barely included, only at the tail end of the narrative, and not described in much detail. It’s ironic, perhaps, that no one in the book is likeable; when they are all looking to make the world peaceful by altering people’s souls with an electrical device one can’t but look askance of the extreme violence that they show to each other, and to others.

A more detailed plot, more developed characters, and more reasoning beyond philosophical concepts, would have made The Peace Machine a better book. As it is, it’s very difficult to get into for more than a few pages at a time, the narrative putting scene changes before information.

I received this book for review.

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Marian Keyes – The Break

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The paperback version of this book was released yesterday.

I can’t get used to living without you by my side… God knows got to make it on my own.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Pages: 658
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-91875-6
First Published: 7th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Amy has been married to Hugh for years. They have one daughter together, and they have Amy’s daughter from a previous marriage and a niece whose parents have never wanted her. Life isn’t perfect but they do okay and are fairly happy. But since Hugh’s father died, and then his best friend too, Hugh hasn’t been coping and one day he tells Amy that he needs to take a break from their marriage for six months, to go to South East Asia, live it up for a bit, and then return. It’s devastating news, but as her family remind her, it means Amy’s on a break too.

The Break is Keyes’ fifteenth full length novel and a whopper of a book. Standing at just over 650 pages (paperback, in shops as of yesterday) it is a fairly big reading commitment to make, but a heck of a good one.

Strictly speaking, the length of the book is too much – there is a lot of description that could easily have been edited out and parts of the story are drawn out too much – but the quality of the reading experience never waivers. It almost goes without saying after all this time, but Keyes’ is very good at taking a very ordinary situation and getting to the heart of the matter without it feeling so; whilst perhaps not as obviously funny as previous novels, the book sports that same light-hearted, easy reading, atmosphere as always, whilst digging deep into issues.

The first is of course the set up of the book. Devoting a great many pages to the consequences of not only Amy’s life during the break, but also spending a lot of time on the aftermath when Hugh returns, means that Keyes’ can spend a lot of time looking at the problems that outside of fiction we often want to sweep under the carpet for the sake of not looking to sentimental or depressive, bad company. This isn’t new, per se – Keyes’ This Charming Man, for example, dealt with even heavier issues very well several years ago – but the length of the book allows it to progress at a good pace; there will likely come a point where you wonder if the author ought not get to the ending already and whenever that occurs for you you’ll soon realise from the text the good reason. It’s a fair device that doesn’t often work – Keyes’ is a rare expert.

Whilst the main topic of the book is important but not, as said above, as heavy as others, there is an element of the plot that takes the story to a completely different level. Particularly in the context of the very recent Irish vote to repeal the eighth amendment, this book is incredibly timely; and in the context of its release in paperback yesterday, it’s worth picking up for the topic alone. Keyes’ explores the impact of an unwanted pregnancy on a teenager living in Ireland. The author looks at the legalities surrounding the wish for an abortion, the way the medical aspects must be attended to, the threat of prison if pills are discovered when packages enter customs from abroad, and the need and subsequent hassle and trauma of travelling to England for an abortion. Keyes does not hold back – whilst she never refers to herself the views are there prominently – and she puts forth the reality of the situation for women very well. The author also looks at the problems surrounding the public voicing of a pro-choice opinion in Ireland.

The characters are pretty great; there’s quite a lot of diversity and the plot points that arise due to the diversity round the book off well. Characters are well written and presented and a lot of time is given to the family element, where a whole other range of diversities rears its head in the family dynamics.

With such a set-up as a break, the ending of the book was always going to divide opinion, no matter which way it went. This is surely a big part of why Keyes spends so long working towards the conclusion; no matter whether you agree with the way she concludes Amy’s tale, you can at least rest assured that Keyes has provided a fully-fledged reasoning for it that works for the character’s happiness. Following this ending is a short epilogue that moves the action forward several years so that the children’s lives – whilst not the main aspect, they are a constant part of the story – can also be concluded.

The Break is a fun way to spend a chunk of your reading time – it offers an easy read but with ample things to take away, and most importantly it keeps you thinking and considering whilst you’re reading; a very good thing.

I received this book for review.

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