Avni Doshi – Burnt Sugar

Avni Doshi – Burnt Sugar

Artist Antara has just been married when her mother Tara shows first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. With her mother losing her memory gradually, the daughter starts to remember what they both went through. The time when her father still lived with them, then, the time at an ashram where kids where more or less left to themselves while Tara was deeply in love with a guru, her time at a Christian, yet not so very philanthropic and humane, boarding school. As an adult, Antara learns that there are rules she is not aware of but which are highly important to others e.g. for her mother-in-law and which she better adhered to.

„I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.“

Avni Doshi’s debut novel has been shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, the first draft was written during a stay India and won the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize, all in all, it took her seven years to complete the book. The relationship between mother and daughter always remains the main focus of Antara’s thinking and her art since she is under a constant emotional pressure. Even though it is highly toxic, she cannot – of course – get rid of it.

The author’s observation and especially the way she describes the mother’s gradual memory loss are particularly striking. The contrast between tradition and a modern way of life, obviously present everywhere in India, is also powerfully depicted.

Having heard so much praise of the novel I really was looking forward to read it, yet, I struggled with the negativity. The relationship between mother and daughter, the mother’s neglect of her small child, the injustice Antara experiences again and again – it is not easy to endure. Maybe it just wasn’t the best time to read it – 2020 has offered by far enough negative news and after months of pandemic, who doesn’t slowly become depressed?

Bill Clegg – The End of the Day

Bill Clegg – The End of the Day

Dana Goss, a wealthy heiress only a couple of years shy of 70, decides to visit Jackie, once her best friend with whom she shared everything, but whom she has not seen for almost five decades. Jackie sees Dana approach but hides and does not open the door. It triggers memories of a time long long ago. At the same time, a young man meets his father to tell him about his new-born granddaughter, soon after, the father dies from an aneurysm, not only leaving his son behind but also many questions. His mother Alice might answer them but this would mean revealing a secret she has kept to herself for so many years that she cannot reveal it now. Taxi driver Lupita Lopez in Kauai is also unexpectedly confronted with the almost forgotten past when she receives a phone call. All these lives are connected by events that each of them has ignored successfully.

Bill Clegg’s story is set in the fictional town of Wells in Connecticut where the old farm house is the starting point of some live changing events. The different characters narrate their stories thus filling gaps the other leave and adding another perspective to what has been told before. They all try to hide things they do not want to think about, but those secrets push to the surface to be ultimately revealed.

At first, the different accounts seem only loosely connected, it takes some time to understand how they are linked and why after all those years, the memory of that time is still that hurtful. The characters are all complex in themselves and presented in detail thus giving insight in their state of mind and thinking. There is not the ultimate good guy and the bad guy; it is lives having taken a turn which is not to be undone, decision that have been made which also had consequences, good ones as well as bad ones. Thus, a wonderful illustration of how life on earth works sometimes.

Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies

Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies

Tully Dawson is the best friend one could ever wish for. When James’ struggles with his parents become unsupportable, he takes him to his home. Their friendship is based on music and the bands they admire and what both of them are sure of: they never want to become like their fathers. Ayrshire sooner or later becomes too enclosed, simply too small for them, so together with some friends they plan a weekend in Manchester, one of 1980s hot spots of music. And they do have the time of their life in only a couple of hours. Even though they all move on afterwards, the friendship between Tully and James goes deeper and even though they live on different ends of the island, thirty years on, James is the person Tully calls first when he has bad news.

“I suppose we could have (…) asked his opinion, but being young is a kind of warfare in which the great enemy is experience.”

Andrew O’Hagan’s novel oscillates between celebrating youth and the time of total light-footedness and the darkest side of human life. In the first part, we meet a bunch of youngsters for whom the Tenth Summer festival at the G-Mex centre in Manchester is the biggest event in their life so far. In 2017, they have not only aged but also acquired another attitude to life. Both have their time and place, it is the privilege of the teenage years to be carefree and live for the moment, harsh reality will come later, and it does.

“ ’It’s like an explosion of life happening and then it’s gone,’ he said. ‘We had our time, buddy. I’ve come to terms with it (…)’”

What I enjoyed most was to see how James and Tully had formed a bond for life. They shared the good times and also the bad ones. Nothing, not even their wives, could come between them since only with each other they could talk openly. Tully is a truly charismatic character which you come to like immediately which makes it even sadder to see how fate does not grant him more time on earth. The end is deeply moving, but seeing how full of emotion and life the first part war, you can accept it even if you don’t like it. It raises some very core questions each reader has to answer for himself, the way O’Hagan confronts us with them, however, is brilliant.

Ayad Akhtar – Homeland Elegien

Ayad Akhtar – Homeland Elegien

Elegie, die – ein sehnsuchtsvolles Klagelied, das ist es, was Ayad Akhtar auf sein Heimatland USA schreibt. Als Kind pakistanischer Eltern in Amerika geboren und aufgewachsen, sieht er sich zunehmend damit konfrontiert, als Ausländer wahrgenommen zu werden und als ungläubiger Muslim für radikale Islamisten sprechen zu sollen. Die gesellschaftliche Spaltung erlebt er auch in seiner Familie, das einst mit offenen Armen empfangende Einwandererland grenzt immer mehr aus und selbst diejenigen, die schon Jahrzehnte im Land sind und sich eine Existenz aufgebaut haben, beginnen zu zweifeln. Das Land ist tief gespalten, wie auch die Familie des Erzählers, deren Geschichte er erzählt, wobei sich offenbar Fakt und Fiktion locker vermischen, eine eindeutige Antwort auf diese Frage, was wahr und was erdacht ist, bleibt der Autor nämlich schuldig.

Ayad Akhtar ist kein Unbekannter, 2013 erhielt er den Pulitzer Preis für sein Bühnenstück „Disgraced“, in welchem er ebenfalls einen innerlich zerrissenen Charakter in den Mittelpunkt stellt. Sein aktuelles Buch, irgendwo zwischen Memoiren und Roman anzusiedeln, greift die Thematik wieder auf und gibt einen Einblick in die Gedanken- und Erlebniswelt der zweiten Generation von Einwanderern, deren Welt durch die globalen Ereignisse in nachhaltiger Weise erschüttert wird.

Vielfach verläuft der Riss, den der Autor im Land wahrnimmt, auch zwischen ihm selbst und seinem Vater. Jener erfolgreiche Arzt, der den amerikanischen Traum verwirklicht hat und dessen Sohn sich den schönen, aber brotlosen Künsten verschrieben hat. Der Vater 2016 als glühender Anhänger Donald Trumps, seinem einstigen Patienten, der Sohn, der sich derweil um die väterliche mentale Gesundheit sorgt. Aber auch die Entwicklungen mit Mittleren Osten bleiben nicht unbemerkt: die Radikalisierung der Verwandten, deren Abwendung von den USA, die sie nach ihrem Empfinden im Stich gelassen und das Land im Chaos zurückgelassen haben, fordert den Familienfrieden heraus und führen schließlich zur Erkenntnis:

„Wir Muslime lebten in einem christlichen Land, so sahen wir es, jedenfalls in den Familien, die ich kannte. Wir lebten in einem christlichen Land, aber wir verstanden das Christentum nicht. Wir verstanden und respektierten es nicht.“

Viele Jahre des Zusammenlebens haben zu immer mehr Entfremdung geführt, zwischen den einzelnen Bevölkerungsgruppen, aber auch in den Betroffenen selbst. Der ansteigende Rassismus und offene Ablehnung tragen ihren Teil bei.

Ganz unterschiedliche Aspekte greift Akhtar auf, mal persönlicher, mal essayistischer. Sein Denken ist uramerikanisch, leicht kann er sich mit den großen Denkern identifizieren, gehört damit aber immer mehr einer intellektuellen Minderheit an. Seit 9/11 allerdings ist für ihn der Traum ein Stück weit ausgeträumt, er wird nie ankommen in seinem Heimatland, das sich von ihm entfremdet und dessen großer Verheißung er nachtrauert.

Kurz vor den Wahlen eine schmerzhafte Analyse des Landes der unbegrenzten Möglichkeiten, was jedoch immer auch die Möglichkeit des grandiosen Scheiterns eingeschlossen hat.

Daisy Johnson – Sisters

Daisy Johnson – Sisters

Two sisters, September and July, just 10 months apart in age but sticking together like twins, even more, just as if they were only one person. In Oxford, where they first lived with their mother, an author of children’s books featuring two girls just like her own daughters, they were always in trouble and didn’t make friends with the other kids. By moving to the old family house, their mother hopes things will get easier. However, the spooky surroundings with walls who could tell decades of dark stories, triggers something between the girls which makes their unhealthy bond even more dangerous for the younger and weaker of the two sisters.

Daisy Johnson portrays a sisterly connection which goes far beyond what is known to link siblings. The fact that the girls are born within only a couple of months makes them grow up and experience everything together. They are like one person separated incidentally, also their character seems to have split in the two: September the wild and furious one, July, in contrast, obedient and more thoughtful. Since she is younger, she easily gives in to her sister’s will and thus follows without ever challenging her.

The atmosphere is gloomy in every line. Right from the start, you sense that some catastrophe is looming and just waiting to present itself. Even though at times, the sisterly bond also seems to be protective, the negative impact is obvious. Their mother is detached, she suffers from a depression which makes it impossible for her to see what is coming, she senses that the relationship her daughters have formed in detrimental, even harmful for July, but she is unable to do something about it.

An intense and vivid narrative with quite some eerie notes.

Meg Wolitzer – Das ist dein Leben

Meg Wolitzer – Das ist dein Leben

Dottie Engels ist in den 1980ern alleinerziehende Mutter zweier Töchter und ein Star am Comedy Himmel. Überall erkennt man sie sofort, extrovertiert wie sie ist, wird sie sofort zum Zentrum jeder Gesellschaft. Erica und Opal müssen häufig auf sie verzichten, während Dottie in Los Angeles auf der Bühne steht, werden sie von Babysittern, die sich jedoch kaum um sie kümmern, in New York betreut. Was Dottie zu ihrem Markenzeichen gemacht hat – der selbstironische Umgang mit ihrem Übergewicht und dem offenkundig weit entfernten Schönheitsideal – wird für die 16-jährige Erica zunehmend zum Problem. Sie kann mit ihrem Körper nicht so entspannt umgehen wie die Mutter, mehr und mehr zieht sie sich zurück, bis irgendwann der völlige Bruch kommt. Auch für Opal und Dottie beginnen schwere Zeiten, als der Publikumsgeschmack sich ändert und der Stern der Mutter langsam sinkt.

Meg Wolitzer ist erst in den letzten Jahren in Deutschland als Autorin der Durchbruch gelungen, „Das ist dein Leben“ hat sie im Original schon 1988 veröffentlicht und man merkt dem Roman an, dass er noch nicht über die sprachliche Raffinesse und die überzeugende Figurenzeichnung verfügt, mit denen ihre späteren Romane „The Interestings“, „Belzhar“, „Die Ehefrau“ oder „The Female Persuasion“ mich restlos begeistern konnten.

Im Zentrum steht die Beziehung zwischen Mutter und den Töchtern. Dottie liebt diese über alles, trotz ihrer häufigen Abwesenheit wird sie ihrer Rolle als schützende Mutter gerecht, allerdings kann sie auf die zunehmenden Depressionen Ericas nicht wirklich reagieren. Opal, die 5 Jahre jünger ist, vergöttert die Mutter, was auch zu dem Auseinanderdriften der Schwestern führt. In Opal und Erica werden zwei gänzlich verschiedene Seiten von femininer Jugend aufgezeigt, die sich jedoch um die zentralen Aspekte des Umgangs mit dem eigenen Körper und auch den innerfamiliären Beziehungen drehen.

Es ist ein Roman seiner Zeit, das Kabelfernsehen mit seinen eigenen Regeln gibt es in der Form heute nicht mehr, auch die später gerade in New York zentrale Drogenproblematik, die ebenfalls aufgegriffen wird und vor allem der Lebensstil mit Fast Food und ohne die geringste Rücksichtnahme auf Körper und Gesundheit sind heute für Personen des Showbiz und öffentlichen Lebens kaum mehr vorstellbar.

Thematisch hat der Roman vieles zu bieten, nichtsdestotrotz konnte er mich leider nicht im erwarteten Maße für sich gewinnen. Es liegt eine Schwermut über der Handlung, die bisweilen erdrückend wirkt, so manche Länge forderte auch die Geduld heraus.  Auch die Figuren blieben mir oft zu eindimensional und reduziert auf wenige Aspekte, um überzeugend zu wirken.

Roddy Doyle – Love

Roddy Doyle – Love

A summer evening, two old friends meeting in a Dublin restaurant. They haven’t seen each other for quite some time, Joe still lives in Ireland, David and his family have moved to England. They have grown up with each other, shared all firsts of life and stayed in contact for several decades, now coming close to the age of 60. What starts as a joyful evening of old pals turns into an introspection and questioning of values, of memories which suddenly do seem to differ and of a friendship which after all those years is threatened to break up.

Roddy Doyle’s novel is really astonishing with regard to the liveliness and authenticity with which it is told. The text consists in large parts of dialogue between Joe and David which gives you really the impression of sitting at the table with them, listing to their conversation and taking part in the evening – just without all the drinking. It was all but difficult to imagine the scene and also the way they interact is totally genuine. This is only interrupted by insights in David’s thoughts, while he is talking to his friend, he is reassessing what he hears and, as a reader, you soon get aware that there are things he does not share with Joe albeit the latter is supposedly his best friend.

Even though I liked to learn about the two characters’ points of view, their pondering and wondering, the novel did not really get me hooked. First of all, I guess the imbalance between the two, getting access to one’s thoughts whereas the other is only shown from outside, did not really convince me. Quite naturally, the plot is highly repetitive which is absolutely authentic and believable, yet, not that interesting when you read it. There are funny moments as there is a very strong ending which really made up for a lot in my opinion. In the end, I remain of mixed opinion concerning the novel.

Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

The unnamed narrator is visiting a friend with terminal cancer who is in hospital in another town. She stays with a retired librarian with a cat but her host is quite reclusive and they hardly have any contact during her stay. Between the visits, she ponders about other people in her life: her former partner of whom she attends a public speech on the dystopian future we are facing, her old neighbour who can hardly manage alone, a woman she met in her gym who went through drastic changes, each of them starting point for another in-depth reflection. Her encounters reflect the whole range of people and therefore also introduce pestering issues of our time: the way women are judged and how their position in society and in a family is seen, how we treat the elderly and – the most important aspect – how do we want to die and what will remain of us. Quite unexpectedly, her poorly friend asks her a favour which will target core questions the narrator cannot easily answer for herself.

Just as in her former novel “The Friend”, it is a minor event – then an abandoned dog, here a visit to the hospital – which initiates an interesting journey into the depth of human nature. The narrator’s experiences and encounters are analysed and questioned, it is an introspection which nevertheless is far from very individual and personal but, quite on the contrary, concerns everybody. Especially being close to a dying friend has a huge impact on her thinking, far beyond the question if we should rather ask “What are you going through” instead of “How are you”.

The core issue revolves around suffering and pain and the question how much a human being can endure. How do you go on living in a world which does not seem to have a future, at least not an interesting or desiring one. The plot is minimal, at times rather feels like a collection of anecdotes, but looking at it as a whole, you get an idea of the protagonist who is sad, to a certain extent disillusioned, but not grim. She is still capable of attachment and fondness, even though she knows that it won’t last this time. Every single word becomes meaningful and should be use with care therefore.

Repeatedly, Nunez also has her narrator share her reading experiences with the reader and thus transgresses the boundaries of genres once more. She certainly pushes the limits in many respects and engages the reader in thinking. One of the most interesting questions for me was the one rotating around the problem of what can be reported and by whom the act of narration should be carried out, especially when it comes to experiences of general interest. The narrator questions if there is even a language capable of conveying experiences adequately or if, in the end, all language must fail to authentically depict what somebody underwent.

Nunez’ language surely is plentiful enough to engage you in an interesting inner – and hopefully also outer – dialogue.

Christine Wunnicke – Die Dame mit der bemalten Hand

Christine Wunnicke – Die Dame mit der bemalten Hand

Zwei Männer begegnen sich im 18. Jahrhundert in der Fremde auf einer einsamen Insel, von der sie beide schnellstmöglich wieder wegwollen. Carsten Niebuhr reist aus Deutschland nach Elephanta / Gharapuri, eigentlich wollte er nach Arabien, Meister Musa indes kommt aus Jaipur, will eigentlich nach Mekka und strandet ebenfalls auf dem mysteriösen Eiland mit zwei Namen, je nachdem aus welcher Himmelsrichtung man auf sie blickt. Ein Berg bildet den Mittelpunkt, dessen Besteigung aufgrund des Gestrüpps und der wilden Tiere einiges von den Besuchern fordert, die jedoch am Ende mit einer alten Tempelanlage belohnt werden – auch wenn diese inzwischen im Besitz von Affen ist. Es beginnt das Beschnuppern und Missverstehen, der Wettkampf zwischen östlicher und westlicher Sicht auf die Welt und die Gestirne und die Konfrontation zweier sehr verschiedener Individuen.

„Gharapuri lag in der Mitte zwischen zwei Schrecken, Arabien und Jaipur. Völlig sinnlos lag es im Meer. So drückte der Meister das aus. Malik hätte lieber anders gesagt, ›unsichtbar‹ oder ›bescheiden‹. Gott der Allsehende, falls er jemals etwas verpasste, verpasste vielleicht Gharapuri.“

Christine Wunnicke konnte mich bereits 2017 mit ihrem Roman „Katie“ überraschen und begeistern. Für diesen war sie bereits auf der Longlist für den Deutschen Buchpreis nominiert, im aktuellen Jahr hat sie es mit ihrem Werk auf die Shortlist geschafft und meiner Einschätzung nach hat der Roman auch das Potenzial zum Sieger. Nicht nur besticht er durch einen versierten Sprachwitz, der alle Feinheiten der interkulturellen Verständigungsbemühung vollends ausreizt, daneben bekommt auch die vermeintlich aufgeklärte und erhabene Wissenschaft gehörigen Gegenwind, dem man mit einem Schmunzeln folgt.

Ustad Musa ibn Zayn ad-Din Qasim ibn Qasim ibn Lutfullah al-Munaggim al-Lahuri, so der vollständige Name des indischen Astronoms, der es inzwischen aufgegeben hat, den Menschen seine Erkenntnisse näherzubringen, sind diese doch tatsächlich nur daran interessiert, seine Astrolabien in Szene gesetzt auszustellen statt deren Funktionsweise zu begreifen. Auf dem gottverlassenen Berg trifft er auf den ziemlich mitgenommenen Europäer, der sichtlich unter Sumpffieber und Wahnschüben leidet und sich inzwischen über seine Professoren ärgert, die bequem zu Hause sitzen und ihm die beschwerliche Reise aufzwingen. Ein Austausch unter Gelehrten entspinnt sich und keiner spart an guten Ratschlägen und Weisheiten:

„»Was in einer indischen Wand sitzt und schnaubt«, sagte al-Lahuri, »ist erfahrungsgemäß indisch. Mit dieser Regel kommst du recht weit.« Damit wandte er sich ab und ließ den Europäer mit seinen Fragen allein.“

In gleich mehrerlei Hinsicht schildert der Roman Figuren lost in translation. Nicht nur die Sprachbarrieren verhindern gelingende Kommunikation, auch der egozentrische Blick, die narzisstische Überzeugung der eigenen Überlegenheit lässt den Austausch nicht gelingen. Rein menschlich begegnen sich Niebuhr und Meister Musa, hilft letzterer dem Deutschen sein Fieber zu überstehen, in der Deutung der Welt und des Firmaments jedoch liegt einzig Potenzial zum Streit und nicht zur Erkenntniserweiterung.

Die Zweideutigkeit der Sprache und der beginnende Kolonialismus durch die Briten, die als zufällige trottelige Retter ihren Auftritt haben, zerstören letztlich alle Hoffnung auf gegenseitige Bereicherung, obwohl diese auf der individuellen Ebene sogar gelingen könnte. Der Rest ist Geschichte und leider nicht nur Fiebertraum.

Ali Smith – Summer

Ali Smith – Summer

The seasonal quartet comes to a conclusion with “Summer” which is set in the troubling spring of 2020. Teenagers Sacha and Robert know about the problems the planet faces, not just the virus which locks them down, but climate change, the refugee crisis, Brexit and the unreliability of media and the political class make them ponder about the times they are living in. But it is not only the big issues that trouble the siblings, also the typical quarrels of brother and sister and their parents’ separation occupy their minds. But other times, too, challenged people and nevertheless lead to great outcomes.

Once more, just like in her former novels, not only the ones belonging to the quartet, there is so much in it which makes it really difficult to review. Many aspects mentioned are worth commenting on, in the first place, Ali Smith’s writing, again, is simply marvellous, the way she uses language in this specific novel also moves to a metalevel discussing words and the ability to express oneself also without using oral language. In a times when words are misused to blind and mislead people – some doing this even quite overtly – you have to become even more careful with what you say and easily realise that maybe the language as we know and use it is not enough anymore.

I really adored her characters in this novel, first and foremost Robert, even though he also behaves, quite typical for his age, nasty at times. He is on the brink of losing his childish innocence, clever as he is, he asks questions and investigates and even though only 13 years old, can brilliantly analyse the politicians’ deceit. When investigating Einstein, a mastermind he admires for his scientific achievement, he also becomes aware of the fact that sometimes, people can have two sides at the same time which might be difficult to bring together.

Topics which were addressed in the former parts are now picked up again and thus, “Summer” forms a perfect conclusion. Even with the sheer mass of big problems, Smith’s novel provides hope, especially with the young generation portrayed here. They are heroes and have the capacity of making a change. For Sacha, climate activists, NHS workers and Black Lives Matter protesters are heroes according to her definition:

“I have a vision that the modern sense of being a hero is like shining a bright light on things that need to be seen. I guess that if someone does this it brings its own consequences.”

In her understanding, everybody can become a hero, we only have to start.