Deepa Anappara – Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

deepa anappara djinn patrol on the purple line
Deepa Anappara – Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

When Bahadur, one of his classmates, goes missing, nine-year-old Jai is determined to solve this case. He has watched so many episodes of Police Patrol that he knows exactly how such a problem is to be treated. Together with his friends Pari and Faiz, he starts to investigate around Purple Line and Bhoot Bazaar. Yet, more and more children and teenagers disappear from their basti and quite obviously, the police are not willing to do anything about it. The parents get either more and more afraid of their children being the next or angry as they feel helpless and powerless.

Deepa Anappara’s novel is a brilliant mixture of an oftentimes very funny plot and an absolutely serious topic. Daily, children go missing on Delhi’s streets without anybody taking notice of it. The life of a child, especially if she or he belongs to a minority, is worth next to nothing, not even the effort to take a note on it. Diverse cultures and religious racism play an important role in this, too. Boys and girls are treated differently and offered different chances in life. Born into the wrong family, you can only count on superstition for a better life since the boundaries are clearly set.

At the beginning of the novel, I totally adored Jai and his friends. They are vividly and wonderfully portrayed. Determined to find out what happened to their friend and equipped with their knowledge from true crime TV series, they start their investigation ignoring all warnings against the dangers that lurk around the bazaar. They take their job very serious and at the same time, just as kids do, ignore the facts that they live in the same slum but come from very different backgrounds.

With the number of children who disappear rising, the novel becomes increasingly serious and loses the light-heartedness of the beginning. The way a slum works becomes gradually more visible and thus, the novel grants insight in a world which is totally unknown to me.

The whole novel is sparkling with life, the characters are quite unique and lovable and it is totally understandable why the novel has been nominated on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.

Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

kate elizabeth russell my dark vanessa
Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

A big dream becomes true when 15-year-old Vanessa Wye is accepted at Browick, an expensive boarding school with an excellent educational programme. Immediately she is hooked by her literature teacher, Jacob Strane, who opens the world of books to her. But this is not the only world he introduces her to. It all starts with some glances, some minutes he makes her linger after class, a careless and random touch until it is what it should not be: sexual abuse of a minor and a student. However, this is just one view, for Vanessa, it is her first love, the first time somebody pays attention to her, tells her she is pretty, appreciates her mind and opinion. Of course, a secret relationship like this will not go unnoticed and when Strane and Vanessa are confronted with the accusations, it is her who is expelled. More than 15 years later, she still wonders how all this could have gone so wrong, they were only in love, that’s all.

Kate Elizabeth Russell’s novel really is a hell of a read. Using the first person narrator perspective, you climb into Vanessa’s head and get her thinking without any filter. More than once I was stunned, abhorred, terrified or just could shake my head in disbelieve. This girl – even as a grown up woman – is totally captured in her construction of the world, her oftentimes limited capacities of assessing a situation and the naivety with which she confronts her treacherous teacher is one of the best and highly authentic characters I have read about in a while. Even though I could hardly be farther away in my own thinking, I can easily imagine that her state of mind can be found in many girls who are insecure and a bit detached from her classmates.

This novel certainly is not for the highly sensitive. Child abuse and sexual harassment have been topics I have been faced with in my job and in my opinion, “My Dark Vanessa” is a superb example of how a molester gets closer to his victim and which techniques of manipulation he can use to make a girl or woman comply with his wishes. Blaming the victim for what has happened is one of the most loathsome strategies but quite typical and more than once I cringed while reading. Several times, Vanessa senses that something is not right, she feels maybe not abused but her wishes and needs are not respected but she does not possess the mental force or the words to express her position. Even when she is older, it takes some time for her to say it out loud what all that happened has to be called. Possibly her own understanding helped her to cope with the situation better than others, nevertheless, at 32, she is a total mess and far from mentally stable.

A wonderful novel in many respects. Not an easy topic to write about, but an exceptional development of the characters and by using flashbacks also an excellent way of presenting two interpretations of the same incident, the younger and the older Vanessa are not the same anymore. “My Dark Vanessa” was highly praised as one of the most remarkable and important debuts of 2020 – I could hardly agree more with this.

Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

clarissa goenawan the perfect world of miwako sumida
Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

When his friends ask him out for a date to have equal numbers of boys and girls, Ryusei is not too keen. But then he meets Miwako and immediately falls for the peculiar girl who is not stunningly attractive and even overtly harsh. They soon find out that they actually have a lot in common, they spend more and more time together and Miwako befriends Ryusei’s older sister Fumi-nee. Even though they become inseparable, they are not a couple, there is something holding Miwako back from really getting attached to the student who adores her. The secret lies in her past but she isn’t ready to tell it. Yet, the moment of confession never comes, she commits suicide before she can explain herself and thus leaves Ryusei and her friends behind wondering what lead her to this drastic step.

“The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida” is a complex study of characters who carry secrets they never want to come out, but which have a deep impact on their personality and behaviour. The main plot centres around the question what lead Miwako to this drastic decision of ending her life. Ryusei, their common friend Chie and also Fumi-nee all have some bits and pieces of knowledge of her, but they cannot put them together to understand the girl. All their perspectives are presented only for the reader to get the whole picture of a deeply disturbed and suffering character.

It is not only Miwako who is interesting in her way of coping with grief and life’s strokes of fate. Ryusei and his sister became orphans at a young age leaving the older girl in charge of her brother and renouncing her own dreams to take care of him. However, the fact that she herself struggled with life and the question of her identity made Miwako open up to her and revealing her secret because she sensed that both their stories were none to be told easily.

Even though a lot of very dire topics are addressed and all the characters have to endure much from the world around them, it is all but a depressing read. For quite some time, they try to cope with their respective situation alone, but just by opening their eyes and having a bit of trust, they could see that there are people around them who are sensitive and emphatic.

Just as the characters, the novel also takes some time to fully unfold and display its strength.

Rosanna Amaka – The Book of Echoes

rosanna amaka the book of echos
Rosanna Amaka – The Book of Echoes

The new decade has just begun when life as he knows it ends for 16-year-old Michael Watson: his mother is murdered in their home and he and his little sisters find themselves alone in Brixton. The person who always told him that people of Jamaican descend have to work two times as hard as others and should keep their head down is gone and it does not take too long until his mother’s concerns are proven right. Thousands of kilometres south in a small Nigerian village, Ngozi has to say goodbye to her mother and younger sisters, she is sent to town to work as a maid and earn money for the family. Two kids who hardly have anything in common except for the very poor and hard start in life. Yet, they are born fighters and in them, they carry the echo of decades of people who had to face a similar situation and also fought for their future.

Rosanna Amaka tells the two very different stories alternatingly, you switch from Thatcher London to chaotic Nigeria and even though the surrounds could hardly differ more, there are some parallels between Michael and Ngozi. It is obvious that their lives have to collide at one point, yet, much less obvious to answer is the question if they will succeed and escape the poor life they are born in.

I totally adored the story around Ngozi even though there is not much to adore in her life. The hardship of her family who does not know how to make ends meet, a father who ignores his kids and later the families who employ and exploit her. Born and raised in Europe, one cannot really imagine the life of a girl of her background:

“’Ngozi, as a woman there are some things we have no choice in,’ she says and gets up from her chair. (…) She goes to sleep and to cry over the innocence her daughter will lose.”

Young girls are the most vulnerable and those who can just take advantage of it. Her employer, the employer’s wife, white men coming to Africa who believe to be superior and to have the right to treat people there like goods – it is not just what they have to endure but also how they seem to accept this as a fact of life, just as Ngozi’s mother put it.

For me, it took a bit too long to bring the two parts together, admittedly, the end was also a bit too foreseeable and sweet. Each on its own works perfectly well and could have done without the other actually. Nevertheless, the novel is beautifully written and I totally enjoyed reading it.

Lily King – Writers & Lovers

lily king writers & lovers
Lily King – Writers & Lovers

Casey Peabody has always wanted to be a writer. At 31, she finds herself waiting tables, living in a run-down garage and with several debt collectors on her heels. For six years she has worked on her novel but somehow it does not work out, too high the pressure from real life. When her mother died a couple of months before, she not only lost her confidant, but constantly feels the big hole this loss left behind in her. Then she meets Oscar, a successful writer and widowed father of two, who seems to be the way out of her misery: a lovely home, stable relationship, two adorable boys, a life without worries. But it does not feel right, especially since there is Silas, too, quite the opposite of Oscar. When Casey is fired from the restaurant and her landlord tells her that the house is to be sold, the anxiety that has accompanied her for years becomes unbearable.

Raise your hand is you never dreamt of writing a novel. Isn’t that what we as avid readers long for? To intrigue others with what is lurking within ourselves and, of course, to be praised and complimented for our artistic capacities. Well, that’s just one side of being a writer, many more authors will actually have to face a life just like Casey: never to know if you can make the ends meet, frustrated because the writing does not move on, the words do not come, taking on any job just to survive and organising the writing around working hours. Lily King has painted quite a realistic picture of a novelist’s situation in “Writers & Lovers”. Yet, that’s by far not all the novel has to offer.

Her protagonist belongs to the generation who struggles to grow-up. They have been promised so much, they were full of energy in their twenties, but now, hitting 30, they have to make a decision: giving up their dreams for a conservative and boring but secure life just like the one their parents lead or going on with a precarious living that feels totally inadequate. No matter how they decide, it could be the wrong choice and the fear of not picking the right thing paralyses them, an overwhelming anxiety takes over control making them incapable of moving on or doing anything at all. They are stuck in a never-ending rat race which covers all areas of their life. Casey is the perfect example of her generation, highly educated, intelligent, good at dealing with people but nevertheless full of doubts about herself and frustrated by the constant setbacks.

I totally adored the novel, it is somehow a coming-of-age at a later age novel. The characters are authentically represented, the emotional states are wonderfully conveyed and thus easy to follow. Even though there is quite some melancholy in it, I did not feel saddened since it also provides a lot of hope just never to give up since all could turn out well in the end.

Magda Szabó – Abigail

magda-szabo-abigail
Magda Szabó – Abigail

WW2 is raging across Europe and has also reached Hungary. Gina Vitay’s father is a general and as such well aware of the dangers that come with Hitler’s advance. He decides to hide his daughter in Matula Institute, a boarding school on the eastern border. Gina is all but used to strict policies as she finds in the closed Puritan world and it does not take too long until she has set the other girls against her. There are rules and there are other rules, breaking the official ones is not a problem, but undermining the secret laws of the girls is punished with exclusion and contempt. It will take Gina a lot of effort to win back the girls’ confidence which she will desperately need since there are dangers looming over her that she is not at all aware of.

Magda Szabó was a Hungarian writer who was forbidden to publish by the Communist Party after being labelled an enemy of the state. “Abigail” is one of her best-known novels which was first published in 1970 and has since then been translated into numerous languages, however, this is the first time it is available in English. In 1993, Szabó was nominated member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts and she is one of the most widely translated and read female Hungarian writers.

The novel cleverly interweaves friendship with the events of the Second World War. The notion of a world of black and white does not hold out against reality anymore and telling a friend from an enemy has become a difficult task. The world of the boarding school is walled off from the outside, the approaching war does not play a role, yet, for Gina, she has to fight her own battles within the old walls of the institution. The dynamics of a group of girls enclosed is very well portrayed in the novel, they develop their own set of order and exercise law if necessary. An interesting aspect is the character of “Abigail”, a statue which come to help if addressed by one of the girls. Until the very end, the readers can only speculate who is behind it and supports the girls against the strict direction of the school.

The spirit of the time of its origin can be read in every line, “Abigail” is far from today’s Young Adult or coming-of-age novels. The beautiful language and lovely details of the characters make it an outstanding document of its time and still worth reading fifty years after it has been written.

Angie Cruz – Dominicana

angie-cruz-dominicana
Angie Cruz – Dominicana

Ana has always been an extraordinarily pretty child, so when she becomes a teenager, her parents see this as a chance to escape their poor situation. At the age of fifteen, she is married to one of the Ruiz brothers, a family making a fortune in the US which allows them to control more and more land in the Dominican Republic. Ana has to follow her new husband to New York where she lives in a poor, rundown apartment and the promises of being able to go to school are soon forgotten. She has to serve Juan and his brothers and if she doesn’t obey or dares to speak up, he shows her with brutal force who has the say in their home. She becomes more and more desperate and finally develops a plan to flee, but she underestimates her new family.

Angie Cruz’s novel is set in the 1960s, but her protagonist’s fate could be as real in 2020. Young and naive girls fall prey to seducing men or are forced by their parents to leave their home country for a supposedly better life abroad where they, with the status as an illegal immigrant, hardly have a chance to escape their domestic situation which is often marked by poverty, oppression and being exposed to violence of all kinds by their domineering husbands. Dependence due to lack of language knowledge often combined with isolation makes them sooner or later give up all opposition and succumbing to the life they are forced to live.

It is easy to sympathise with Ana; at the beginning, she is a lively girl with dreams and vivid emotions even though she has also experienced her parents’ strict and at times brutal education. She is quite clever, nevertheless, the new life in New York overburdens her and she needs some time to accommodate and develop coping strategies. However, then, she becomes the independent thinker I had hoped for, but never egoistically does she only think about herself, she also reflects what any step could mean for her family at home whose situation with the political turmoil of 1965 worsens dramatically.

A wonderful novel about emancipation and a strong-willed young woman which allows a glance behind normally closed doors.

Garth Greenwell – Cleanness

garth-greenwell-cleanness
Garth Greenwell – Cleanness

An American teacher comes to Sofia, Bulgaria, to teach his mother tongue to students who hope to find a better life abroad with a good knowledge of the world language. While the work is satisfying, his love life has become a lot more complicated since homosexuality is not something that is openly shown in the eastern European country. In a Portuguese exchange student, he finds his love, but things are complicated with the countries’ economies struggling and offering not much to foreigners.

The narrator finds himself in a surrounding which differs a lot from his life before, he roams the streets of Sofia discovering and re-discovering old and mysterious places, being lost physically and emotionally. The political and economic situation aren’t easy either which makes it hard for him to fully enjoy his time in this country of wild nature and rich history.

Greenwell definitely has an eye for the details, e.g. the wind playing outside or hitting the windows and smoothly running over his characters’ backs and brilliantly captures his protagonist’s emotional state. Even though the chapters are often like independent episodes, together they form a complete picture. Just like them, all the narrator experiences are pieces of a mosaic that are unique when look at closely, but you have to take a step back to get the full picture.

Some very interesting observations put in a beautiful language, yet, the mass of explicit scenes annoyed me a bit, a lot of it could have been left to the readers’ imagination.

Ali Smith – Herbst

ali-smith-herbst
Ali Smith – Herbst

Der Sommer verabschiedet sich, geht zu Ende, wie auch das Leben von Daniel Gluck langsam aus ihm verschwindet. Mit 101 Jahren hat er viel erlebt und verbringt nun die Tage schlafend im Pflegeheim. Elisabeth besucht ihn dort regelmäßig, um ihm vorzulesen. Sie ist nicht seine Enkelin wie die Pflegerinnen denken, nicht einmal mit ihm verwandt, als Kind wohnten sie und ihre Mutter neben dem damals schon alten Mann und er hat auf ihren Spaziergängen nicht nur ihre Phantasie beflügelt, sondern auch ihre Liebe zu Kunst und Literatur geweckt. Vielleicht ist es gut, dass er nicht mehr sieht, wie sich die Welt verändert, nicht nur der Sommer muss weichen, sondern auch das England, das sie kannten. Das Land, das ihn einst aufgenommen hat und das nun vom Brexit gezeichnet und gespalten ist.

Ali Smiths Roman ist der erste Band eines nach den Jahreszeiten benannten Zyklus, der die Stimmung eines zerrissenen Landes mit einer ausdrucksstarken Poetik einfängt. Sie hat sich damit nicht nur endgültig in die Riege der ganz großen zeitgenössischen britischen Autorinnen katapultiert, sondern wurde hierfür auch auf der Shortlist für den Man Booker Prize 2017 honoriert.

Aus Charles Dickens‘ „Tale of Two Cities“ liest Elisabeth dem schlafenden Daniel vor. Passender als in Analogie zu der berühmten Anfangspassage des mehr als 150 Jahre alten Romans kann man die Stimmung in Großbritannien seit dem Referendum kaum zusammenfassen:

 „Im ganzen Land fanden die Leute, es sei das Falsche. Im ganzen Land fanden die Leute, es sei das Richtige. Im ganzen Land fanden die Leute, sie hätten eigentlich verloren. Im ganzen Land fanden die Leute, sie hätten eigentlich gewonnen. Im ganzen Land fanden die Leute, sie hätten das Richtige und andere hätten das Falsche getan.“

Elisabeth stellt sich jedoch nicht nur die Frage, in welcher Zeit sie lebt, sondern was Zeit überhaupt ist, ist eines der zentralen Rätsel des Romans. Ebenso wie jenes nach der Wahrheit, die die Protagonistin schon als Grundschulmädchen beschäftigt:

Es soll aber die Wahrheit sein, sagte Elisabeth. Es ist für die Nachrichten in Zeitgeschichte. Das merkt doch niemand, sagte ihre Mutter. Erfinde es selber. Die richtigen Nachrichten sind sowieso immer erfunden. Die richtigen Nachrichten sind nicht erfunden, sagte Elisabeth. Es sind Nachrichten. Über das Thema sprechen wir noch mal, wenn du ein bisschen älter bist, sagte ihre Mutter.“

Nachdem sie jahrelang den Kontakt zu Daniel Gluck verloren hatte, leben nun mit den Besuchen im Krankenhaus auch die Erinnerungen an ihre gemeinsamen Nachmittage wieder auf. Noch einmal wird sie das neugierige und wissbegierige Kind, das durch die Augen des weisen Mannes blicken und die Welt erkunden darf.

„Irgendetwas solltest du immer lesen, sagte er. Auch wenn du kein Buch in der Hand hast. Wie sollen wir die Welt sonst ergründen?“

Ist noch zu verstehen, was in England gerade geschieht? Können die Nachrichten die Stimmung einfangen und transportieren? Man sollte nicht so weit gehen wie Elisabeths Mutter, die sie als erfunden abstempelt, aber sie sind selektiv, arrangiert und mit einer gewissen Intention aufbereitet. Bleibt also nur noch die Literatur, um die Wahrheit der Welt zu ergründen? Zumindest eine Wahrheit, die der Figuren, die uns Ali Smith präsentiert. Sie könnte auch ganz anders sein, das wäre dann aber eine andere Geschichte.

Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

bernardine-evaristo-girl-woman-other
Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Twelve different women, twelve different fates. Bernardine Evaristo was awarded the Man Booker Prize 2019 for her novel which does not have a real plot with an all-embracing story but for each of the main characters offers a short insight in their life often at crucial turning point. Their stories overlap, are often cleverly intertwined. What they share is the fact that they address fundamental topics: first of all, I’d say “Girl, Woman, Other“ is a feminist novel since the cause of the woman in modern England, mostly the black woman, is the central topic. Apart from this, relationships, sexuality and gender identity are tackled as well as politics and what it means to be successful.

“His bredren and sistren could damned well speak up for themselves. Why should he carry the burden of representation when it will only hold him back? White people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race.”

What does it mean to be different? To be black or brown in a predominantly white community. To be homosexual or gender fluid in a primarily heterosexual society. To be a working woman when women are supposed to stay at home to take care of the children and the household. Even when the point of disdain has been overcome, the problems and strange reactions have not necessarily and quite often, the singular example who enters a new community has to represent a whole group and loses his or her individuality.

What the characters unites is to differ from the mainstream which does not go unnoticed and uncommented. Most of them go through a tough time which leaves them stronger and makes it easy to empathise with them. The characters are complex, their lives are complicated and at the end of their chapter, they are not the same person they were at the beginning. Which also offers the reader the chance to leave their stand point and to change perspective on certain topics.

The novel is full of life and with the award, the spotlight has been turned on to black female and queer literature which have been awfully underrepresented in literary discussion. This is surely one of the strongest novels of 2019 since it contributes to the ongoing public discourse.