Omar Robert Hamilton – The City Always Wins

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Omar Robert Hamilton – The City Always Wins

The promise of a better life. A fight against an unbeatable enemy. A love in a time of upheaval. Almost 20 years under the dictator Mubarak come to an end when masses of people inspired by revolutions in other Muslim countries gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo and force Mubarak to resign. Social media are the new weapons and Mariam and Khalil are in the centre of the protests. They broadcast what is happening to the world and they treat the wounded always in fear of becoming a victim of the police, the army or any other group. Over months they keep their revolution alive, actually living from it, forgetting to eat, forgetting their own life. They feel their power to change something, but is there really hope for Egypt?

Omar Robert Hamilton, known for his fight for the Palestinian cause, combines the real events which took place in Egypt over 1.5 years with the fictitious story about Mariam and Khalil. Both of them are interesting characters. Mariam, on the one hand, who helps the doctors and could, together with her parents, establish a kind of camp hospital where immediate treatment is possible, who consoles the mothers of those who died in the protests and who is stubbornly following her ideals. Khalid, on the other hand, is not even Egyptian but find in the protests a kind of proxy for his family’s omitted fight for the Palestinian cause. With his American passport, he has no need to risk his life, but he is fully immersed in the revolutionary power and the mass movement and helps with his journalistic and technical knowledge. Their love is strong in the beginning, but the common aim slowly makes them drift apart. This becomes obvious when they talk to Mariam’s father about their plans for the future – marriage and children? No common ground can be found anymore, so what hold them together?

The strongest aspect of the novel, however, is the description of the fight. The risks the protesters take are impressively narrated. Their belief in a better country is strong and passionate. Some pieces were scary for somebody who was never close to such a situation: the young people writing the phone numbers of their nearest of kin on their arms so that the beloved can be informed in case of serious injury or death. I can only imagine people not really being ready to die, but accepting a possible death as a necessary danger to take for the cause.

Additionally, the narrative structure is remarkable. Omar Robert Hamilton has structured the novel in thee chapter: Tomorrow, Today, Yesterday. This diametrically opposes the chronological order and makes you wonder. Furthermore, the narrative is accelerated by frequent insertions of newspaper headlines, tweets and the like. The author thus managed to create an atmosphere of tension and excitement, you are really drawn into the plot and the characters’ emotional state of thrill.

Even though the plot is highly political, it is not judgemental at all. We get the uprising from a very personal point of view which I found most interesting and fascinating and important for outsiders. All revolutions are backed by ordinary people who risk everything. This novel most certainly gives them a voice and, most importantly, hints at a critical situation of a country which we tend to forget due to even more serious problems.

Arundhati Roy – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

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Arundhati Roy – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

In Old Delhi, the hijra Anjum sets up her life in a graveyard. She is joined by a former mortuary worker who calls himself Saddam Hussein. Another outcast joins them, Tilottama, and there is a baby who seems to have appeared from nowhere and belong to nobody. This group’s fates are narrated through time and in different places of India and Kashmir. All of the characters face struggles due to the political situation, either protest in Delhi or the long-lasting conflict in the Kashmir region and thus portray India in a very special way – India of the people at the fringe of society.

Arundhati Roy’s second novel might be the most awaited book of 2017. It took her twenty years to write it after her debut success “The God of Small Things” and the yardstick has been set very high for the successor. Admittedly, I struggled with the novel which is mainly caused by the plot’s structure. The story is only in party narrated in a chronological way, other sections are meandering and at times the different characters and setting were not always easy to link with each other for me. Second, the novel is highly political and if you are not familiar with India’s recent history and political struggles, a lot might be lost for you as a reader of this novel (at least I assume so).

Nevertheless, there were also a lot of aspects that I really liked. Arundhati Roy definitely is a master of words. In subtle ways she finds possibilities of expressing what happens and thus adding second or even third meanings. When Anjum has set up her small guest house in the graveyard, she is regularly inspected by municipal officers who are not “man enough” to chase her away. Considering Anjum’s situation as hermaphrodite, this is quite interesting to observe. Then her permanent resident who calls himself “Saddam Hussein”, another outcast who chose this name in admiration for the former leader’s courage in the face of death. Or when Tilo ponders about some men killed in a car accident and their fate and whom this actually concerns since they would have died anyway and wonders about “how to unknow certain things, certain specific things that she knew but did not wish to know” (pos. 3095). Summarising the stat’s situation in political upeheal best are the following two quotes:

“There were rumours and couterrumours. There were rumours that might have been true, and truths that ought to have been just rumours”. (pos. 3681) and “Life went on. Death went on. The war went on.” (pos. 3835)

How can one survive in this situation, especially as an outcast? You have to fight for yourself and accordingly, it is the two women who become strong and leaders – quite a surprise in the country’s strict caste system.

The insight in how India’s society works is for me the most remarkable aspect of the novel. Not considering it as a whole, there are many stories within the novel which give you an understanding of the country’s culture and are thought-provoking.

Dan Mooney – Me, Myself and Them

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Dan Mooney – Me, Myself and Them

Everything is at its best in Denis Murphey’s life. As long as things go as he plans them and as long as there are no odd numbers. His days are highly regulated: waking up at exactly the same time, the amount of minutes he needs in the bathroom, his breakfast. Once a week, he visits his friend Eddie who is in hospital and also once a week, he sees his mother. Everything is at its best. But then Rebecca reappears in town. His ex-girlfriend. How could she? And how can he avoid meeting her? He cannot and soon his life and the life of his four housemates is turned upside down.

At first, there were a lot of things I was wondering about. First of all, of course, Denis’ strange behaviour. That there is a kind of over-control impulse which limits him in his life is quite obvious. He has a fixed plan and he cannot tolerate any variation from it. He seemed to me to suffer from autism spectrum disorder due to his repetitive behaviour patterns and his restricted range of activities and friends. Soon, however, it becomes obvious that something has triggered this behaviour and that he certainly was not born with it. So, the big question arises: what has happened?

Second, the housemates. There are four of them, very singular creatures with distinctive features and somehow destructive traits of character. The fact that they talk to Denis all the time did not necessarily mean for me that they were humans, I guessed at times that they were cats, but this assumption did not really fit with everything in their description and behaviour. When I finally sorted out who or rather what they were, it all made sense.

It is not revealing too much of the story when saying that the protagonist is suffering from a serious mental health problem. A lot of what happens only happens in his brain but he cannot cope with it or even fight it. The demons that haunt him are real for the time being and what is in his head cannot get out or be explained to anybody. He is alone with his fight and several times prone to give up the war he is waging. I really appreciated the metaphor of the four housemates who inhibit Denis and who tell him what to do since this renders it possible for people who have never been in close contact with such an illness to understand not only how those affected feel but first and foremost how difficult it is for them to get back to a “normal” life and to be in command over their life.

All in all, a difficult topic masterly transferred into literature and thus a valuable contribution in the fight for understanding mental health problems.

Howard Jacobson – Pussy

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Howard Jacobson – Pussy

Prince Fracassus, son of the Duke and Duchess of Origen, grows up in the Republic of Urbs-Ludus. This small republic is famous for its high skyscrapers (which do not even let you see the moon) and for its casinos. The boy hardly has any contact with people outside the palace, most of his time he spends in front of TV where he watches reality shows and history lessons on emperors such as Nero. His teachers try to bring the world to him and especially to enlarge his vocabulary, but this is not very successful. Therefore, they go on a trip, maybe the direct contact with the real world might have an impact on him. In the meantime, the old Duke dies, the republic is slowly crumbling and Fracassus will be the one to save his dukedom.

Howard Jacobson’s novel is a satire which makes you laugh out loud and want to cry at the same time. He did not even try to convey his message very subtly, no, he openly holds the mirror up to the electorate and asks them: What have you done? So far, many have criticised President Trump, this is not very difficult since he provides you with so much to attack every day. This is quickly done. Jacobson, however, has a very elaborate way of confrontation.

First of all, the protagonist’s name. “Fracassus” reminds me of the French adjective fracassant which has two meanings: on the one hand, it comprises the idea of spectacular and surprising, on the other hand, it is destructive like a wrecking ball. Both significances go well with the current POTUS. The dukedom was also provided with a telling name: a very original idea to call it the capital of play. The surroundings of the small prince match somehow the Trump tower and the fact that he is famous for building houses and known due to his TV shows is not that very subtle.

Second, the prince’s attitude towards life and people. Even though he has a very limited vocabulary, he knows many words for women, or to be more precise, for prostitutes – which equals women from his point of view. He’d like to reign like an ancient Roman emperor, feeding underlings to the lions, building walls to keep out the unwanted and destroying any kind of protest with strong and quick police intervention. He wants to fight terrorism even if there is none.

Third, his use of twitter – just hilarious. His electoral campaign and the fight with his female opponent and the sharp analysis of her weaknesses – I have hardly ever had to laugh that much while reading. All this is accompanied by Chris Riddell’s charming and funny illustrations of the prince.

Fracassus’ return to his home country to make it great again on the basis of all that he has learnt – e.g. to lie to the people, so they will never expect the truth from you –  it is all very funny to read. Until you realise that this satire of this novel is a reality.

Colm Tóibín – House of Names

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Colm Tóibín – House of Names

Having sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to the gods to make the winds turn, the legendary Greek king Agamemnon returns home after the success in Troy. Yet, his wife Clytemnestra cannot forgive him and together with Aegisthus, her new lover, she plans the murder of her husband. To spare their son Orestes this tragedy, she has him abducted to a faraway place where he will spend the next years and only come back as an adult. On his return, Orestes find the palace dramatically changed. His sister Electra is his only confidant and she convinces him that revenge for the mother’s plot is necessary.

Colm Tóibín has chosen characters of classic Greek mythology for his latest novel. Even though most of their stories are well known since they have been told by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides 2500 years ago and repeatedly been presented on stages all over the world, they have not lost any of their power and relevance. Yet, “House of Names” is not just a repetition of the old story, Colm Tóibín freely adapted the plots and character traits to thus create a new version which is absolutely convincing and entertaining.

What I liked most was having the different characters tell their own stories from their point of view. Thus, chronology is broken up, but we get a much deeper idea of the protagonists and their motives. First of all, Clytemnestra. Her being lured by murder to revenge her daughter and the hatred she feels for Agamemnon is quite impressive. She is a strong woman who can assert herself – but, on the other hand, it is her lover who manipulates her to get into power himself. When it comes to her guilt, especially in front of her son, her outer appearance collapses and suddenly, she is haunted and cannot leave planet earth even after death. She is trapped.

Electra is her actual opponent. It is the daughter’s scheme that finally kills the mother, in their cold-bloodedness, both women are equal. They only differ in the question of the gods’ accountability for what happens on earth.

Orestes is the tragic hero. He wants peace more than anything else, but is tempted into his family’s and friends’ conspiracies under false pretence and thus commits crimes unintentionally. Too weak to force his inherent right to the throne, he has to stand on the side-line when other shape the state.

As said before, the ancient stories have lost nothing of their significance over the time. Most of the seven deadly sins can be found in the story: e.g. Aegisthus’ lust, Electra’s wrath, or Clytemnestra’s pride. Orestes shows some virtues to oppose the negativity: he is kind, especially towards Ianthe, patient when he listens to the elders and in is exile, chaste and generally temperate in his emotions. Good and evil fight over predominance in the world – that’s what we can see in the news every day. Even though the main conflict is an old story, you can easily detect how modern the characters are and this renders the novel relevant also today. Thus, a very successful transformation into our time.

Francesca Segal – The Awkward Age

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Francesca Segal – The Awkward Age

Since her husband died of cancer five years ago, Julia has raised her daughter Gwen alone. Unexpectedly, she falls in love with James whom she teaches to play the piano. Quickly James moves in Julia’s and Gwen’s house and also brings his son Nathan. Gwen and Nathan, both teenagers, are not happy with the new situation. Gwen misses the time when her mother was only focussed on her, Nathan still struggles with his parents‘ divorce and his sister living abroad. The unexpected happens: Nathan and Gwen find out that the other isn’t as bad as they had thought and another unexpected love starts to blossom in the household. The parents are furious when they find out, but the situation gets even worse when 16-year-old Gwen realises that she is pregnant.

Francesca Segal really achieves to make the characters of her novel seem lively and authentic. This is for me the most striking aspect of “The Awkward Age”. Julia who cannot fully immerse in her new love, since she is still close to her deceased husband’s parents and does not want to hurt their feelings even though they encourage her new love. Her own feelings towards her daughter, being caught again and again between the girl and her new partner – one can sense how complicated her emotional life is in those crucial months that the novel covers. I also liked Gwen a lot even though to some extent she is a typical hormone-driven teenager who sometimes falls back into infantile and inadequate behaviour. The grand-parents also struggle with their love life. Even though they have been separated for many years, Iris suddenly feels something like jealousy when Philip falls in love with another woman. Love can be a highly complicated matter.

The most interesting were Julia and James when their kids were fighting. Even though as a couple they are meant to stand on the same side, they frequently find themselves taking their respective children’s defence and opposing each other. It is those complex emotional states that make the novel outstanding since Francesca Segal created conflicts which are absolutely credible and authentic and in which those predicaments can show themselves – quite a crucial test for a new love.

Even though the main conflict is centred around the teenagers, I would not call it young adult novel, the other generations are as present as the youngsters and they quite well portray that love can be complicated no matter how old you are.

Laurent Binet – The 7th Function of Language

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Laurent Binet – The 7th Function of Language

February 1980, after lunch with François Mitterrand, promising politician of the socialists and candidate for the 1981 presidential election, the literary theorist Roland Barthes is run over by a lorry and later dies in hospital. What first looks like an ordinary car accident, turns out to be malicious murder. But who would want to murder Barthes? Superintendent Jacques Bayard has to investigate and soon understands that he does not understand anything at all of what all these intellectuals talk about. He needs help and contacts Simon Herzog, a young lecturer on linguistics who not only has to translate the theoretical paraphernalia but also helps him to unravel the mystery of the 7th function of language.

Forming an opinion on Laurent Binet’s novel is not easy. Well, actually, I really enjoyed it, but I can easily understand people who just hate it and find it boring. So, what does it need for a reader to indulge in it?

  1. If you are a linguist – jackpot. The novel is full of linguistic theory. Having at least a slight notion of what structuralism, deconstruction, semiotics and of course the communicative functions of language are, helps a lot to enjoy the novel since you do not have to pay too much attention to the theoretical passages (which will certainly help if you do not know anything about it).
  2. An interest in French intellectuals, or intellectuals gathering in Paris at the end of the 1970s/beginning of the 1980s. We meet Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, BHL, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Eco, Foucault – also PPDA plays a minor role – and also Derrida and Searle pop up. Seeing them interact is just hilarious. At least as long as you find them interesting.
  3. French politics: Giscard d’Estaing vs. Mitterrand. Two of the greatest politicians of the second half of the 20th century which could hardly differ more than they did.
  4. Secret Societies of scholars – Freemasons, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, whatever.

Yes, it is a kind of crime novel centred around intellectuals. The crime aspect is not that relevant, there is some kind of suspense – you do want to know what is behind all this – but much more it is a brilliant way of integrating philosophy, linguistics, literary studies etc. into a fictional plot. Binet is a mastermind when it comes to presenting the theory and directly using it within the story, he plays with it and with the reader and if you are ready to play the game, you can have real fun. Apart from this, I really enjoyed his style of writing, it is full of irony, playfulness and spirit:

“25 February 1980 has not yet told us everything. That’s the virtue of a novel: it’s never too late.” (pos. 2236)

or

“We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?” (pos. 3450)

And the most amusing comment from poor Simon Herzog is:

“I think I’m trapped in a fucking novel.” (pos. 3899)

For me, just the perfect combination of entertainment (the characters are masterly drawn) and intellectually challenging.

 

Hanif Kureishi – The Nothing

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Hanif Kureishi – The Nothing

Waldo, once a celebrated film maker is now not only old but also disabled and dependent on the people around him. Zenab, his wife can hardly stand his moody and hostile character. Where did the man go for whom she left her first husband? Eddie, also into the arts and always in Waldo’s shadow, comes to their London apartment more and more often until Waldo suspects him to have an affair with Zenab. Waldo starts to survey them secretly in order to confront them with the betrayal.

I really appreciate Hanif Kureishi’s novels and I have read several of them, some over and over again, but I am a bit at a loss with his latest novel. We have a very close observation of a man who is at the end of his life and slowly seems to lose contact with reality and gets increasing hostile. He is clever in manipulating the people around him, this makes him an outstanding character who is everything but lovable and yet interesting to observe in his action and his own void he has created. In contrast, he seems to be really in love with his wife and even though his body is decaying he still has bodily needs, expressed quite openly.

I was wondering what the novel was actually about, since I am used to Kureishi giving his readers food for thought. On the one hand, Waldo explains that being attractive, desirable and charismatic paired with good looks is all that matters. When your old and disabled, nobody cares for you, not matter how successful and influential you once might have been, people immediately forget about you when you do not fit in the picture anymore. This superficiality of our society and especially in the show business definitely is something that should be seen as highly critical. On the other hand, Waldo is face with his upcoming death. Several times he downright asks the other characters to kill him so that it is finally over. He learns the hard way that “growing old isn’t for pussies” (pos. 295) and can never make his peace with his life.

All in all, full of sarcasm and cynicism – but who can resent someone’s bad behaviour when his life is not perceived as worth living anymore and finally comes to an end?

Dorthe Nors – Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

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Dorthe Nors – Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

Sonja, a literary translator for Swedish crime novels, is over forty, so she decides that it is finally time to get her driving license. In Copenhagen’s streets she is not only fighting with the driving school’s car and the other cars, cyclists and pedestrians around her, but also with her instructor Jytte who just does not let her change gears and yells at her all the time. When Sonja complains with the driving school’s boss Folke, she is not sure if with another instructor, she will be able to learn how to move smoothly in the traffic. However, it is not only the failure in driving that worries the translator. She struggles with her current piece of work and especially with her family relationships. Her sister as well as her parents still live in the countryside where she grew up and with whom she hardly has any contact.

Dorthe Nors novel which is nominated for the 2017 International Man Booker Prize is an interesting piece of art. First of all, I found the central topic quite innovative, I cannot recollect ever having read a novel in which learning to drive a car is the focus of the plot. Yet, this is only on the surface the central aspect, Sonja’s driving lessons are much more marked by the complicated relationships and conversations by the characters. Her first instructor, Jytte, is an outstanding person. She is not only outgoing and loud in every aspect, but also not very sensitive with her students. The encounter with a very reflective and intellectual woman who, additionally, is also a bit older and full of insecurity, can only lead to conflict which the two women avoid openly. The second instructor, Folke, is much more receptive to Sonja’s emotional needs than he seems at first.

On the other hand, we have the complicated communication between the sisters which is mainly avoided or unsuccessful. Kate does not want to talk to Sonja, her husband repeatedly has to deny her being at home in order not to be confronted with the sister and old conflicts which have never been solved. Dorthe Nors has found an interesting picture to illustrate their relationship: “If Sonja and Kate were apples, you’d say that they’d fallen on two different sides of the three” (pos. 852). They come from the same tree, but then they lose sight of each other.

Sonja is symbolic for the modern inhabitant of a major city. She has many people around herself, her life is full of different things she can do in town, but underlying it all is a loneliness which sometimes surfaces and makes them aware of the poor quality of the many encounters they have:

“In Copenhagen you could have something else, and her first years were a success. She learned the city’s movements, its dialog, its form. But bit by bit it stopped making sense.” (pos. 1526)

Yet, life in the countryside is also not portrayed as the perfect solution. Much more the question is raised what is important in life and should it be more than just the fulfilment of basic needs.

Even though there is a certain melancholy which marks the novel, there are also funny situations and hilarious dialogues full of absurdity. Life is not only black and white, and sometimes you struggle with it, but as soon as you have found your place and have decided on what is important for you, you can find you balance and go on.

Regarding the nomination for the International Man Booker prize, I found others nominees I have read much more demanding, e.g. Mathias Enard’s “Compass” (review in German) or David Grossman’s “A Horse Walks Into a Bar” (review in German). However, for such a renowned prize, Dorthe Nors’ novel is wonderful to read on different levels.

Megan Hunter – The End We Start From

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Megan Hunter – The End We Start From

A young couple, the woman is pregnant, only a couple of weeks before the due day for her baby. London is threatened by a flood, people are being evacuated and the couple is affected by the environmental crisis, too. But then the relief, they can stay in their home. However, after the birth of Baby Z, they need to leave their home and move in with the husband’s parents. The crisis aggravates, first the grandmother, then the grandfather dies, they run out of food, then they have to leave and find shelter in a refugee camp. As they move from one place to the next, they are separated, not knowing if they will ever see each other again. Baby Z however, is discovering the world, making his first movements, first steps and saying his first words.

The novel is striking because of Megan Hunter’s rather plain style of writing. Short sentences coupled in short paragraphs. The characters do not have names, only the first letter of their Christian name is given. This equals the shortage by which they are increasingly affected and it intensifies the feeling of hardship and stress. You can feel the reduction to the very necessary in each sentence. The paratactic style keeps you informed, but you do not smoothly float through the novel. I have not often read novels in which the style equally thus perfectly the story. And Megan Hunter has a way of putting action into words which makes you stumble quite often, for instance: “The day they don’t come back from shopping is beautiful.” (Po. 88)  How can you ever reduce such a major event in a character’s life in such a sentence ending with an optimistic and promising adjective like “beautiful”?

The young mother is in the centre of the novel. First, we meet her with the well-known fears which all primipara share. But her fears are quickly overshadowed by the crisis which threatens their lives and the deaths of her parents-in-law. It is interesting to see how the style of writing expresses her emotions rather than functions as means for a description of how she perceives her situation.

The opposing developments of, on the one hand, the environmental crisis and on the other the development of Baby Z is masterly designed by the author. The antithesis in the title also picks up this idea. The life they lead before is gone. Your position in your job and in society, your role or roles in life – everything is submerged and questioned, now, all of the survivors have to start anew. The way the characters cope with the situation is also interestingly and convincingly depicted: some can manage, they are true survivors, other try to break out and run away from the situation.

All in all, a short novel which is striking due to the style it is written in.