Megha Majumdar – A Burning

Megha Majumdar – A Burning

Jivan has seized her chances in life. Having grown up in one of Kolkata’s slums, there was not much to expect, but an NGO enabled her to go to school, learn proper English and see how the middle classes live. Yet, after grade ten, she decides to get a job to support her old and ill parents. The newly earned money also offers luxuries she has never known, cigarettes and even a smartphone. One evening, she witnesses an attack at her local train station and soon after, leaves a comment on Facebook which is widely ignored. Yet, when the culprits cannot be traced, somebody else is needed to pay for the victims and thus, Jivan suddenly finds herself in prison. This can only be a mistake, she is innocent and will soon be free again. But she is totally mistaken there.

Megha Majumdar’s novel is a story about dreams and a better life. Her three protagonists, whose stories are told alternatingly, all have their respective dreams: Jivan wants to live like the middle classes, be able to afford enough food and offer herself some small luxuries. Her friend Lovely, a hijra, dreams of a career in film business and is willing to do everything to promote her career. Jivan’s former teacher PT Sir dreams of power which is unexpectedly provided to him – at the cost of somebody else, but who wouldn’t look for themselves first?

“All of them are ignoring me. The public is wanting blood. The media is wanting death.”

The novel works on several levels, at one end of the scale, there is the personal point of view, at the other end, the political. Looking at the first, we have Jivan and Lovely from the very bottom of the Indian society. They are both working hard and so do Jivan’s parents, nevertheless, they depend on the mercy of others to advance a bit in life. More often than that, they are hit by injustice and at times, beaten in the very sense of the word. It is a highly divided society in which everybody’s place is fixed, upwards mobility is not something to be achieved easily.

On the political level, we see PT Sir and the next big party who have perfected the election campaign in telling people what they want to hear and framing incidents for their own benefit. The individual does not play a role, only in so far as individual politicians want to gain more power and money. One corrupt party is replaced by the next and the novel does not provide the slightest hope of any improvement of the situation.

For the reader, it is quite obvious from the start where all is heading, nevertheless, it is heart-wrenching to follow the unfairness and injustice which are done to Jivan. A great development of the protagonists who are not fully to blame, their behaviour cannot simply be explained by the flaws of their characters, it is the society they live in and to which they simply have adapted to survive. A strong novel which is surely not to be missed.

Jonathan Coe – Mr Wilder and Me

Jonathan Coe – Mr Wilder and Me

With her twin daughters about to leave the family nest, Calista has to reassess her life. Before focussing on raising the girls, she had a career in the film business as a composer which started by sheer coincidence. She still can well remember the events of 1977 when she met director Billy Wilder in LA and was later invited to work as a translator during his shooting of Fedora on the Greek island of Corfu. The weeks there changed her life forever, not only can she see behind the facade of the glamourous film business, but this is also herself turning from innocent girl to adult woman.

When I first happened to read one of Jonathan Coe’s novels, I was totally flashed by his narration and wondered how this author could have gone unnoticed for such a long time. It is no surprise then that also his latest novel “Mr Wilder and Me” was a thoroughly enjoyable read for me which I relished from the first to the last line.

“This was how Mr Wilder liked to work. He liked a busy, gregarious set with lots of people watching from the sidelines: reporters, photographers, hangers-on, passers-by. It was one of the sources of his energy.“

Even though the story tells Calista’s coming-of-age story, it is much more an homage paid to one of the greatest directors of all times. Calista is a wonderful choice to observe the already elderly film maker, with her fresh and naive eye, she can watch him closely without being distracted by the name he has acquired. She is timid and shy, but also sensitive which allows her to see through his public image and understand why Fedora is especially important to him.

“We had both come to the same realization: the realization that what we had to give, nobody really wanted any more.”

His time is already over, a new generation of directors is about to take over and financing the film has been all but easy, yet, he has one last mission to accomplish which lies much more in his family history than in his artistic creativity. The film has been called old-fashioned and from the distance of four decades, one can surely say that it marks the end of an era.

Apart from the plot, it is first of all the atmosphere which is striking. No matter where and at what time of her life, Calista’s mood and often contradictory thoughts and emotions a strongly present and lead the narration. It is not the big drama or event which mark the action, but rather the slow change within the protagonist and her constant careful reassessment of herself. It is a book to read slowly and to simply enjoy.

Delia Owens – Where the Crawdads Sing

delia owens where the crawdads sing
Delia Owens – Where the Crawdads Sing

Einer nach dem anderen geht. Erst die älteren Geschwister, dann die Mutter und zuletzt auch der gewalttätige Vater. Kya bleibt mit sechs Jahren allein zurück in der Hütte im Marschland von North Carolina. Anfang der 1950er Jahre ist der White Trash, der sich dort niederlässt, weitgehend vom Alltagsleben des benachbarten Örtchens ausgeschlossen, Eltern bringen ihren Kindern früh bei, sich von diesen Wilden fernzuhalten und auch der Staat unternimmt nur wenig, um die Fürsorge für Kinder wie Kya zu sichern. So wächst das Mädchen inmitten der Natur mit den Tieren auf. Formale Bildung kennt sie nicht, aber die Landschaft und Vögel bringen ihr alles bei, was sie zum Überleben wissen muss. In Tate findet sie schon in jungen Jahren einen Verbündeten, er ist der einzige, zu dem sie Vertrauen fasst und der wie sie fasziniert ist, von der Vielfalt, die das Land zu bieten hat. Sie lebt weitgehend isoliert, doch das menschliche Bedürfnis nach Zuwendung ist manchmal stärker und kommt auch ohne Enttäuschungen nicht aus.

Delia Owens Debutroman trägt unverkennbare Spuren ihrer früheren Arbeiten, hat sie bereits mehrere Bücher über die afrikanische Savanne geschrieben. Die Natur ist der Dreh- und Angelpunkt des Romans, durch die Augen des jungen Mädchens, das im Einklang mit dieser versucht zu überleben, wird die Geschichte erzählt. Die Menschen sind dabei nur eine weitere, wilde Spezies, die genau wie Vögel und Flusstiere auch, ihre guten und die verabscheuenswürdigen Seiten zeigen.

Es war für mich nur schwer vorstellbar, dass mich eine Geschichte um ein einsames Mädchen im Marschland der 1950er Jahre interessieren könnte. Der Autorin gelingt es jedoch, die Naturbeschreibungen spannend und interessant zu gestalten, so dass man ihnen gerne folgt. Myas Überleben hingegen ist von einer unsäglich traurigen Einsamkeit geprägt, die eine kindliche Naivität nie ablegt, aber gerade durch das Unrecht, das man ihr tut, berührt und nicht wirklich kitschig wird. Der Roman spielt mit starken Emotionen auf der individuellen wie auch gesellschaftlichen Ebene, denn neben Kyas Geschichte wird auch klar, wie stark eine kleine Gemeinschaft sein kann und wie schwer das Leben für Randgruppen – Außenseiter im Marschland, Schwarze – durch diese wird und wie Vorurteile das Denken bestimmen. 

Ob dies alles authentisch und glaubwürdig ist, ist nachrangig, denn der Roman überzeugt durch eine poetische Sprache, die einem als Leser nicht kaltlässt.

Lucy Atkins – Magpie Lane

Lucy-atkins-magpie-lane
Lucy Atkins – Magpie Lane

When Dee returns from an overnight trip to London, the Oxford College Master’s Lodging is a mess: Felicity, the girl she nannies and who suffers from selective mutism has vanished. Her Danish stepmother Mariah never bonded with the girl and since she has given to her own boy, she is totally exhausted and incapable of taking care of this extraordinary 8-year-old. Felicity must have sleepwalked, something she frequently does during her nightmares which have intensified since they moved to the old spooky house. For the police, Dee is one of the prime suspects because Nick Law, Felicity’s father, is convinced of her guilt. So they interview her over several days to get an understanding of the girl’s special situation and the relationship she had with her loving nanny who could never do her any harm, could she?

Lucy Atkins’s “Magpie Lane” is a very clever and creepy novel which brilliantly conveys the atmosphere of an old, dark house where you immediately believe ghosts could wander and haunt the inhabitants. Apart from this, she has created lovely characters who are not only very peculiar but with whom you bond straightaway even though some doubt about Dee’s involvement in Felicity’s vanishing is looming over the story.

I totally adored how Atkins uses the old university town in her novel. First of all, the house itself which provides a long and spine-chilling history, but also the cemeteries and walk ways which have a lot to tell. Apart from the surrounding, the people there also seem to live in the past which is especially tricky for a modern woman like Mariah. Even though she, on the one hand, is kind of “evil stepmother”, things are not that simple. I can understand how frustrating her situation is there: she is just “the wife of”, ignored for not being a real part of the Oxford community and everything with which she normally can charm people does not work here. Additionally, the situation with Felicity is undoubtedly highly challenging for her and then, things become even more dire with her own child crying day in, day out from colic.

Even though Dee is telling the story through the police interviews, Felicity is at the centre. This girl is surely a challenge for everybody but due to Dee’s sensibility you come to love and understand her increasingly. Her nightmares and obsession with death is somehow bizarre and unnerving yet understandable when you get to know her story. My personal highlight was the character of Linklater. The eccentric historian who seems to be completely unaware of the world outside his head fits perfectly in a place like Oxford and plays an important part in creating the somehow Gothic atmosphere.

Atkins’s way of foreshadowing adds to the suspenseful atmosphere and makes it a wonderful read that I enjoyed thoroughly.

Edna O’Brien – Das Mädchen

edna obrien das mädchen
Edna O’Brien – Das Mädchen

Gerade noch ist die Welt der Schulmädchen in Ordnung, doch von einer Sekunde auf die nächste ist nichts mehr so wie es war. Die Milizionäre von Boko Haram überfallen sie und bringen die Schülerinnen in ein Camp im Dschungel. Dort erwarten sie Misshandlungen, Vergewaltigungen, Beschimpfungen und Verachtung. Sie sollen bekehrt werden, konvertieren zum rechten Glauben und Kindersoldaten produzieren für den Kampf der Gotteskrieger. Maryam und Buki sind zwei von ihnen, die die Qualen erdulden müssen, innerlich sterben, um das, was man ihnen äußerlich antut, aushalten zu können. Gemeinsam gelingt ihnen die Flucht und mit Maryams Tochter Babby begeben sie sich auf den langen und beschwerlichen Weg nach Hause. Die Mädchen sind nicht mehr, wer sie waren und auch die Überlebenden ihrer Dörfer sehen sie nicht mehr als die Töchter, die ihnen einst gestohlen wurden.

Edna O’Brien verarbeitet in ihrem Roman das Schicksal der 276 Chibok Mädchen, die im April 2014 von Boko Haram entführt wurden, was weltweit für Aufsehen gesorgt hatte. Sie schildert unverblümt das, was sie in der Gefangenschaft erleben, was sowohl die physischen Misshandlungen aber auch die psychologischen Indoktrinationen mit ihnen tun. Viele der Mädchen bleiben namenlos, beispielhaft für das Schicksal vieler folgt die Erzählung Maryam, die trotz aller Widrigkeiten einen Weg findet, die Situation auszuhalten, weiterzukämpfen und nicht aufzugeben, sondern auf den Morgen und einen besseren Tag zu hoffen.

„Es liegt nicht in unserer Macht, etwas zu ändern“, sagte sie (…).

„Warum nicht?“, fragte ich.

„Weil wir Frauen sind.“

Gerade wurde global der Weltfrauentag gefeiert, die Lebenswelt der nigerianischen Mädchen und Frauen ist weit davon entfernt, ihnen Rechte oder gar Gleichberechtigung einzuräumen. Die Grausamkeiten, die Maryam in Gefangenschaft erleidet, sind nur ein Teil der Erzählung. Nach ihrer beschwerlichen und gefährlichen Rückkehr muss sie erleben, dass sie auch in ihrem Heimatort, ja sogar in ihrer eigenen Familie nicht mehr wirklich willkommen ist. Man nimmt ihr ihr Kind weg, das das Blut des Teufels in sich trägt und macht Maryam selbst mitverantwortlich für das, was man ihr angetan hat. Die Umkehr des Opfers zum Täter ist fast noch perfider als die Gräueltaten der Entführer.

Bisweilen könnte man beim Lesen den Glauben an die Menschheit verlieren, so wie eine der Figuren resigniert feststellt, dass die menschliche Natur teuflisch geworden sei und die Welt nicht mehr die sei, die es mal gab. Aber Edna O’Brien liefert auch die Gegenbeispiele, Buki, die Maryam bei der Flucht nach Kräften unterstützt, der Hirtenstamm, der sie temporär aufnimmt und beschützt und letztlich die Nonnen, die sie und ihr Kind so annehmen, wie sie sind. Maryam fühl sich bisweilen innerlich tot, von jedem Lebenswillen verlassen und doch bleibt am Ende Hoffnung, dass sich alles zum Guten wenden kann. Auch wenn Maryams Mutter nicht an die Macht der Frauen glaubt, ist es aber vielleicht die nächste Generation, die vor dem Hintergrund ihrer eigenen und auch der kollektiven Erfahrungen die Welt zu einem besseren Ort verändern wird können.

Alyssa Sheinmel – What Kind of Girl

alyssa-sheinmel-what-kind-of-girl
Alyssa Sheinmel – What Kind of Girl

He hit her. Again. But this time, she cannot hide it under her clothes, her eye is visible to everybody in school and therefore Maya goes forward to their principal and tells her what Mike Parker, everybody’s darling and sports superstar, has done. Even though it is quite obvious and Maya has no reason to lie, questions like “maybe she provoked him?” and “maybe it was just an accident?” blame her for being the victim. The school is divided and so are the friends. Yet, not only Maya goes through a hard time, her formerly best friend Juniper does so, too, apart from feeling ashamed for not having been the friend Maya would have needed, her break-up with Tess combined with her psychological struggles already keep her mind busy. But this is something that needs action and that’s what Juniper’s parents educated her for: standing up for those who are in need.

I was immediately hooked by Alyssa Sheinmel’s novel, she brilliantly captivates Maya’s thoughts which oscillate between not wanting to be the victim but speaking out for her rights and being strong on the one hand, and feeling insecure about what happened, questioning herself, her own contribution to bringing her boyfriend so far as to hit her again and again on the other. She is young and even though she knows exactly what is right and what is wrong, emotions are not that easy and rarely only black and white.

Providing different perspectives also adds to underline the complexity of a topic which seems so easy to make an opinion about. At first, however, I was a bit confused by the headlines of the chapters which introduce the respective character talking, I first assumed that wide range of girls would be presented until I realised that it is just the two of them perceiving themselves in different roles depending on their mood.

Unfortunately, after a great start, the novel lost focus a bit for my liking. Of course, it is only natural that all teenagers have their own struggles, that none of them really lives a carefree life where all is perfect. Yet, it was a bit too much here: Maya and the violence, Juniper cutting herself and suffering from OCD, drugs abuse – adding too many big topics quite naturally lead to a very shallow and superficial treatment of all of them. Not only did the author miss the chance to provide some insight in the psychological background of each, she treats them like some small bruise that can easily be overcome by just being friends again with your BFF. Simply focussing on Maya and Juniper also did not seize the extent of such an accusation and what it really does to a small community like a school.

Nevertheless, a great read that I enjoyed and which provides some food for thought.

J.T. Ellison – Good Girls Lie

jt-ellison-good-girls-lie
J.T. Ellison – Good Girls Lie

The Goode School will be the perfect place to leave her old life behind. Ash Carlisle has just lost both her parents and is now happy to flee to Marchburg, Virginia, to concentrate on school and forget what happened in Oxford. However, her fellow schoolmates do not like secrets and eye her suspiciously, it is obvious that the newcomer has some interesting things to tell them and this exclusive all-girls school has its own rules that have to be followed. When Ash is exposed and her roommate found dead, her carefully set up facade is threatened to crumble and reveal the real person she so hard tried to hide.

J.T. Ellison has chosen the perfect setting for a mysterious story where everybody has some well-hidden secrets: the old buildings of the élite private school provide the characters with tunnels and undisclosed rooms, a history of secret societies with old passed down hazings and rules that bind the girls, rumours about suspicious deaths and a headmistress with her very own agenda. It all adds up to a thrilling atmosphere where the protagonist herself offers only shady bits and pieces of her own story so that you are well alert not to trust any of them.

I really adored J.T. Ellison’s style of writing, the author brilliantly creates suspense by only hinting at what happened back in England and by insinuating that there is much more to know about Ash. It only takes a couple of pages to dive into the atmosphere of this elite school and its very own rules that seem to have a long history and make the girls bond immediately.

Admittedly, there were some aspects I found not totally convincing, e.g. 16-year-olds acting and plotting like adults, the detective providing the girls with core information about one of the deceased, another detective investigating such a delicate case even though she has been suspended or the headmistress’s behaviour which equals much more the girls’ than would be considered adequate for her position. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the read and the mystery surrounding the characters.

Michael Robotham – Good Girl, Bad Girl

michael-robotham-good-girl-bad-girl
Michael Robotham – Good Girl, Bad Girl

When Evie Cormack was found almost starved hidden behind a secret wall and her so called father killed in the next room, it was clear that this must have a severe impact on the girl’s mind. But who is she? Nobody seems to miss her. Cyrus Haven, forensic psychologist with the Nottingham police, is highly interested in the case of “Angel Face” even though the now young woman refuses all cooperation with carers and doctors who already established that she possesses a unique gift: she can tell if somebody lies. Yet, Cyrus does not have the time to totally focus on her since the body of Jodie Sheehan, figure-skating prodigy, has been found close to her cousin’s home. The deeper the police investigate, the stranger and puzzling the facts that they dig out about the girl become: wasn’t Evie the golden girl with the promising career that everybody believed?

Michael Robotham’s latest thriller does not come with unnerving suspense, it stands out because of two other aspects: first of all, it really goes into the psyche of the protagonists and second, the complex story offers many leads and red herrings that keep you alert and reading on. The characters are much more intricate than you would expect for a mystery novel and thus add a lot of thrill to the plot.

Cyrus Haven, the psychologist, is himself an interesting character since his own family was murdered by his elder brother when he was just a child. The knowledge that not returning home on due time saved him sticks with him and finding his parents’ and sisters’ bodies surely had an impact on him. His subject of study is also designed very interestingly, she does not just react to her experiences of being abused and hidden, quite on the contrary, she is highly intelligent and capable of controlling her moods when interacting with psychologists. She can anticipate what is expected from her and thus play with those who want to gain insight in her brain what she refuses. On the other hand, there are some triggers that make her explode and react uncontrollably. Robotham gives them both a voice and with the first person narration grants a glimpse in their mind.

The murder case comes with many surprises, too. The more you learn about the victim, the more interesting the dead girl gets. She obviously had a certain image that was portrayed to her family and the world, but there are also secrets she kept and only shared with selected persons. Whenever the police are convinced to have established the course of the evening of her assassination, some aspects simply do not fit in the picture and keep them investigating further.

“Good Girl, Bad Girl” really is a psychological thriller that deserves this label. Cyrus and Evie are certainly an odd couple of which I would love to read more.

Joyce Carol Oates – My Life as a Rat

joyce-carol-oates-my-life-as-arat
Joyce Carol Oates – My Life as a Rat

“I was twelve years old. This was the morning of the last day of my childhood.”

Violet Rue has always been her father’s favourite little girl. Just like her older sisters before, but not the brothers. The seventh of the children was loved beyond belief and treated differently. Jerome Kerrigan wasn’t an easy man, expecting his family to be obedient and to follow his orders. His education was strict and very clear. But then, one event changes everything. Her older brothers commit a cruel crime, killing a boy from the neighbourhood, a black boy. Violet Rue knows about it and she knows where the murder weapon is to be found. Keeping this secret is not really an option, but positioning herself against her family means that she has to life a life as a rat, a person who betrayed their closest.

I have read several novels written by Joyce Carol Oates and thus knew that she does not make it easy for her readers and demands a lot. Here, too, the book at times is hard to tolerate, the family situation is shocking and what the girl experiences – also after leaving the family – is merciless, just like reality sometimes is. A very strong narration that especially could convince me due to the tone of the young narrator who is torn between a childish naiveté and the need to grow-up and care for herself far too early.

It’s a novel about family bonds, family secrets, punishment, and all kinds of abuse. Powerfully Oates portrays how strong the core family members are sometimes linked and how the children and partners of abusive husbands sometimes keep silent just to secure their life. Violet knows as a young girl already what is right and what is wrong and that her decision to take the side of the victim will have severe consequences. But she – just like any child in a comparable situation – underestimates the hatred that people might show and how heartlessly her family is ready to cast her out.

A book not especially pleasurable to read but surely not to miss either.