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.

William Boyle – City of Margins

William Boyle – City of Margins

New York in the 1990s isn’t an easy place to live. Several people’s paths cross but fate has decided not to grant them a lucky end. Ex-cop Donnie Parascandolo saves Ava Bifulco when her car breaks down. Ava’s grown-up son and teacher Nick wonders how his mother could so easily trust a stranger when he believed her still to mourn his father’s death. Donnie’s ex-wife, on the contrary, is still mourning since she didn’t get over the suicide of their son Gabe whose suicide note is found by another lost soul, Mikey, a college dropout without any plans or future. Unexpectedly, their lives are linked, yet not only by the encounters, but also by the blood that some of them have on their hands.

“City of Margins” is a perfectly pitched genre mix. On the one hand, Boyle meticulously studies and portrays the inhabitants of Brooklyn, a borough which could hardly have been in a worse state than it was at the beginning of the 1990s. On the other hand, it is a cleverly constructed crime novel which admittedly seems a bit outdated in its style but nevertheless is quite tempting. He creates a lively and gripping atmosphere which makes it easy to enter the plot.

The most fascinating was how Boyle links the different characters. Their stories are narrated alternatingly and only slowly is revealed what connects them. None of them has an easy life, nothing is granted, the need to fight every single day, but they know that this fight will not necessarily end in better times. There is a certain melancholy quite close to a depressive mood, but sometimes, this is just how the world works.

A great read with real depth in the character development.

Kate Reed Petty – True Story

kate reed petty true story
Kate Reed Petty – True Story

Nick, Max and Richard are the members of the promising lacrosse team of their college. Apart from doing sports, partying is what they like most, getting drunk and making out with girls. After one especially wild party, rumours spread, but the versions of what happened vary. Richard and Max claim their innocence while Alice cannot really remember, but she is sure that her best friend Haley tells the truth when she asserts that immediately after the deed, the boys boasted about what they had done to her. Years go by, Richard turns into a rich businessman, also Haley made a career in the film industry. Things didn’t turn out that well for the others, Nick is closer to death by drinking or simply being stupid and Alice struggles forever with psychological problems stemming from the assumed assault. It will take years until the four of them confront again and the truth about what happened comes to the light.

One thing is absolutely sure: this novel was different from what I have read before. Normally, it is quite easy to put a plot into a genre or at the maximum having two combined, but here, it is a genre mix in which you never know where it will lead you and what the end might be. There is quite some suspense since the whole plot is moving towards the final confrontation – even though this is not really obvious for quite some time – but it is also really tragic when Alice’s part is told. It did not have that much sympathy for Nick admittedly, a character I more or less despised from the beginning. You make assumptions about what happened but you have to correct them repeatedly, which I liked a lot since this cleverly shows you based how a limited point of view one’s verdict quite often is.

There are several novels, apart from all the psychological books, which give some insight in how much impact an assault can have on a victim’s life. Here, too, Alice is completely thrown off the track after that night, the lively and joyful girl turns into a nervous and easy to exploit, insecure young woman. Richard, on the other hand, seems unaffected by the accusations, he goes to Princeton and makes a career to become the hottest bachelor of the country. Nick is not immediately affected, he is a friend confronted with the question if he should or could believe the boys’, whom he has known forever, version. Yet, he is an example of someone who was gifted and had a promising future but threw it all away with being lazy and preferring partying over working hard for his success.  In the end, you might even see him as a tragic character, but I wouldn’t say so, he had his chances but didn’t take them.

A novel I simply rushed through as I couldn’t put it down anymore once I had started. Quite an interesting approach and a very cleverly crafted plot made it a great read.

Inès Bayard – This Little Family

ines bayard this little family
Inès Bayard – This Little Family

A woman kills herself, her husband and their small son. What has led her to poison their dinner? They are a well-off Parisian family with a successful husband and lovely kid living in a beautiful apartment. What people cannot see is the inside, the inside of the family home and especially the inside of Marie who has been struggling for years to keep her secret well shut behind a friendly facade: she was raped by her CEO after work one evening and is convinced that Thomas is the result of the assault and not her husband’s son. Every day, she has to look in the eye of the small boy and is confronted again with what happened and what she cannot share with anybody. It is not the tragic story of a family, but the heart-breaking story of a woman not just suffering once from the humiliation and attack, but suffering every single day of her life.

Inès Bayard’s novel is one of the most moving and highly disturbing books I have ever read. She starts with the final step of Marie’s desolate and lonely voyage, no surprise where it all will end up, but the way there could hardly be more painful, more emotionally challenging and nevertheless easy to understand and follow.

Marie feels ashamed for what has happened to her, for her body after giving birth, for her behaviour towards her husband. She does not see herself as the victim she is, immediately, after the assault, she has taken the decision to comply with her assailant’s threat not to tell anybody and thinks she now has to stick to it. Her mental state is gradually deteriorating and Bayard meticulously narrates the downwards spiral. Looking at her from the outside, you can see that she is trapped in an unhealthy mental state that she has established and which is completely wrong but yet, it is so understandable how she comes to those conclusions and this almost paranoid view of her situation.

She does not get help or support, nobody even seems to notice her suffering, only when the signs become too obvious is suspicion raised. There might have been ways out of her depression and misery, but she cannot take these roads and thus needs to face her ultimate fate which does not entail living an option.

Without any doubt, Marie is a victim in several respects. But so is her son Thomas and he is the poor boy without any chance to escape or change his fate, he is exposed helplessly to his mother’s hatred which seems unfair, but I think it is not difficult to understand what she sees in him. Is her husband Laurent to blame? Hard to say, the same accounts for Marie’s mother who didn’t do anything other than just cover the traces of her daughter’s state when she becomes aware of it, she does not offer help when it was most needed.

The novel is a wonderful example for what such an event can do to people, how they struggle to survive and hide what has happened. It is deeply moving and frightening to observe which is also due to the author’s style of writing.

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.

Jessie Burton – Die Geheimnisse meiner Mutter

jessie burton die geheimnisse meiner Mutter
Jessie Burton – Die Geheimnisse meiner Mutter

Rose ist ohne Mutter aufgewachsen, als Kind phantasierte sie sich alle möglichen Szenarien zusammen, wo die sein könnte und weshalb sie ihre Tochter einfach verlassen hat. Auch ihr Vater erzählt nicht über die Zeit Anfang der 80er Jahre, wie es dazu kam, dass die Dinge so gelaufen sind. 34 Jahre später jedoch gibt er Rose zwei Bücher von Constance Holden mit der Info, dass diese ihre Mutter gekannt hatte und die letzte war, die Elise gesehen hat, bevor sie verschwand. Rose merkt schnell, dass es nicht einfach ist an die Autorin heranzukommen, durch einen Trick schleicht sie sich als Assistentin in das Leben der älteren Dame, die nach drei Jahrzehnten zum ersten Mal wieder schreibt. Vielleicht findet sie in diesem neuen Roman Antworten auf die vielen Fragen, die sie sich ihr Leben lang schon gestellt hat.

Jessie Burtons Geschichte schildert nicht nur die Suche nach den unbekannten Wurzeln, sondern auch die Suche nach sich selbst und der Frage, wer man eigentlich ist. Rose ist ganz typisch für ihre Generation, die zwar erwachsen ist und einen Studienabschluss hat, aber auch jenseits der 30 noch suchend durch das eigene Leben irrt und nicht weiß, was sie eigentlich von diesem erwartet: eine Beziehung, ein Kind, berufliche Erfüllung? Alles befindet sich in einem fragilen Zustand, weshalb sie sich umso mehr an die Vergangenheit klammert und hofft, durch das Finden ihrer Mutter auch die Antworten zu bekommen, die sie selbst nicht zu geben vermag.

Auf zwei Zeitebenen erleben wir einerseits die Gegenwart Roses und ihre Annäherung an Constance. Je enger die Verbindung zu der Autorin wird, desto weiter entfernt sie sich jedoch auch von ihrem Freund. Was vorher feine Risse in der Beziehung waren, werden plötzlich unüberwindbare Gräben. Der neue Roman scheint biografische Elemente zu enthalten, doch so richtig bringt auch er Rose in ihrer Suche nicht weiter und offen kann sie Constance nicht mit ihren Anliegen konfrontieren, immerhin hat sie sich unter falscher Identität in ihr Haus eingeschlichen. Ebenso wie viele Jahre später ihre Tochter ist auch die junge Elise ist von der Schriftstellerin fasziniert und bereit, alles für diese aufzugeben. Doch das Ungleichgewicht in ihrer Beziehung wird in der Ferne nicht durch die neuen Erfahrungen kompensiert, sondern nur noch offenkundiger und führt unweigerlich in die Katastrophe.

Erzählerisch überzeugt Jessie Burton, beide Handlungsstränge sind sauber gearbeitet und können jeder für sich durchaus begeistern. Allerdings ist bei mir der Funken nicht ganz übergesprungen. Die Faszination, die Constance Holden auf die beiden Frauen ausübt, hat sich mir nicht im gleichen Maße offenbart. Ich fand sie als jüngere und noch mehr als ältere Frau kalt und abweisend, eigentlich kein Mensch, der andere für sich gewinnt, denn an Zuneigung bietet sie wenig und Interesse scheint sie nur für sich selbst zu haben. Elise verfällt ihr als unbedarftes Mädchen, Rose ist eigentlich schon viel weiter im Leben, macht aber eher den Eindruck einer vielleicht 20-Jährigen, die noch keine Vorstellung davon hat, wo ihre Reise hingehen soll. Zwar hat Rose für sich am Ende den Eindruck deutlich weitergekommen zu sein, ich empfinde sie jedoch ähnlich planlos wie zu Beginn und kann nicht wirklich eine Entwicklung erkennen. Für diese Rückkehr zum Ausgangspunkt waren leider ein paar Schleifen zu viel erforderlich, die Geschichte hätte stringenter erzählt werden dürfen.

Nava Ebrahimi – Das Paradies meines Nachbarn

nava ebrahimi das paradies meines nachbarn
Nava Ebrahimi – Das Paradies meines Nachbarn

Der Produktdesigner Sina Koshbin befindet sich gerade etwas in der Sinnkrise als er einen neuen Chef bekommt: Ali Najjar, Star der Szene und wie er mit iranischen Wurzeln. Bei Sina beschränken diese sich jedoch auf seinen Erzeuger, dessen Name und Aussehen er geerbt hat, er beherrscht weder die Sprache noch kennt er das Land. Trotzdem verbindet die beiden das Anderssein und als Ali ihn bittet, mit ihm nach Dubai zu reisen, um dort etwas Wichtiges zu erledigen, begleitet er ihn ohne zu wissen, worauf er sich einlässt. Alis Stiefbruder hat ihn dorthin gebeten, denn er muss ihm von der verstorbenen Mutter einen Brief übergeben und es war ihr Wunsch, dass er dies persönlich tut. Warum Ali den Mann nicht treffen will, kann Sina zunächst nicht nachvollziehen, er soll an seiner Stelle zu dem Treffen gehen und den Brief in Empfang nehmen. Die Begegnung rückt bei Sina nicht nur das Bild des exzentrischen Designers zurecht, sondern lässt auch ihn selbst nicht unberührt.

Wie auch in ihrem Debütroman „Sechzehn Wörter“ führt die Journalistin Nava Ebrahimi in „Das Paradies meines Nachbarn“ alte und neue Heimat zusammen. Sie gehört zur Riege der deutschsprachigen Autoren mit Migrationshintergrund, die über die Literatur ihre biografischen Erfahrungen zugänglich machen und sich in ihren Werken zwischen beiden Ländern bewegen und damit die thematische Bandbreite deutlich ausweiten. Die Herkunft ist das scheinbar verbindende Element der beiden Protagonisten, bald wird jedoch klar, dass dies nur äußerlich der Fall ist und dass die Frage nach Identität, geworden oder geschaffen, sich ganz anders bestimmt.

Sina wie auch Ali sind komplexe Charaktere, was sich erst im Laufe der Handlung offenbart. Sina erscheint zunächst recht typisch frustriert in der Midlife-Crisis, bei der Beförderung übergangen, kennt seine künstlerischen Grenzen und die Luft ist aus seiner Beziehung mit Katharina ebenfalls raus. Durch die Konfrontation mit Ali, der in ihm zunächst auch vorrangig den Iraner erkennt, wird die Frage aufgerissen, wie er sich selbst definiert. Aufgewachsen In Deutschland bei einer deutschen Mutter hat er sich nie als Ausländer begriffen, wird aber immer wieder wegen seines Aussehens und Namens dazu gemacht. Der Kontakt zum Vater ist spärlich, er weiß weder, wo dieser sich aktuell aufhält, noch womit er eigentlich sein Geld verdient. Wie viel kann so ein Mann ihm mitgegeben haben bei der Herausbildung seiner Persönlichkeit?

Bei Ali ist die Herkunft klarer, als Geflüchteter konnte er jedoch eine neue Legende über sich selbst schaffen, angepasst an das, was man gerne von ihm hören wollte, so oft wiederholt, dass er es selbst irgendwann glaubte.

„Ich habe keine andere Wahl, wenn ich kein Opfer sein will.“

Seine Rolle hat ihn hart zu sich und zu anderen werden lassen. Angriff als Verteidigungsmethode hat sich im Laufe der Jahre als erfolgreich herausgestellt und so begegnet er den Menschen aggressiv, um seinen Platz zu behaupten, aber auch, um sie nicht zu nah an sich heranzulassen, denn er weiß, dass er dann Gefahr läuft, dass sie hinter die Fassade blicken können, hinter der er seine Vergangenheit gut verpackt in schöne Geschichten versteckt hält. Nun scheint der Tag gekommen, sich dem zu stellen, was vor seiner Flucht gewesen ist. Und der Schuld, die er in sich trägt. Hier kommt eine dritte Figur ins Spiel, die die Handlung in Gang setzt, deren Rolle jedoch lange unklar bleibt, sich dann aber mit einem lauten Knall zeigt, der den gefeierten Designer nochmals in anderem Licht erscheinen lässt.

Die Autorin überlässt es dem Leser, eine Antwort auf die Frage nach der Verantwortung für das Leben eines anderen zu finden, eine Beurteilung von Ali Najjars Schuld vorzunehmen, die er noch als Kind unbedacht und unwillentlich auf sich geladen hat, diesen Flügelschlag eines Schmetterlings, der jedoch für einen anderen lebensbestimmend werden sollte. Unerwartet wird man so essentiellen Fragen ausgesetzt, auf die es keine schnellen und keine einfachen Antworten geben kann. Großartig erzählt mit einem starken Ende, das einem nachdenklich zurücklässt.

Ein herzlicher Dank geht an das Bloggerportal für das Rezensionsexemplar. Mehr Informationen zu Roman und Autorin finden sich auf der Internetseite der Verlagsgruppe Random House.

Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

douglas stuart shuggie bain
Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

Agnes had so many hopes for her life. Her first husband was simply a disappointment, too well-behaved, too boring. With Shug Bain things could be different. But soon she wakes up still in her childhood room with her parents, aged 39 and mother of three kids. Shug promises a better life and rents them a home in a run-down public housing area on the outskirts of Glasgow. Yet, Shug does not really move in with his family, he is driving his taxi more and more often and spends his free time with other women. Soon enough, Agnes finds comfort in alcohol, her new neighbourhood is the perfect place to drown your thoughts and worries in cans of beer. Shuggie’s older brother Leek and his sister Catherine can distance themselves from their always intoxicated mother, yet, Shuggie is too young and for years, he hopes that one days, Agnes will be sober and they will have a life like any normal family.

Douglas Stuart’s novel is really heart-wrenching. You follow Shuggie’s childhood in the 1980s, a time when life was hard for many working class families who often did not know how to make ends meet which drove many fathers and mothers to alcohol. Shuggie’s love for his mother is unconditional, he is too young to understand the mechanisms behind her addiction and to see what it does not only to her but also to him. It would be too easy to blame Agnes for the misery she brings to herself and her son, she too is a victim of the time she lives in and the society that surrounds her. Industrial times are over in Scotland and the formerly working class turn into a new underclass.

It is not the plot that stands out in this novel, actually, all that happens is a downward spiral of alcoholism and decay that leads to the necessary end one would expect. Much more interesting are the two main characters, mother and son, and their development throughout the novel. Agnes tries to preserve her pride, to be the glamorous and beautiful woman she has once been and who has always attracted men even when times get tough. She keeps her chin up as long as she can – at least when she happens to be sober.

Already at a young age Shuggie has to learn that life will not offer him much. His family’s poverty and his mother’s addiction would be enough challenge in life. However, the older he gets, the more unsure he becomes about who he actually is. As a young boy, he prefers playing with girls’ toys and later he does not really develop an interest in girls either which makes him an easy target of bullying. No matter how deep his mother sinks, he always hopes for better days, days with his father, days without hunger. He is good at observing and even better at doing what is expected of him. He learns quickly how to behave around the different men in their home, how to hide his life from the outside world. In Leanne, he finally finds somebody who can understand him because she herself leads exactly the same life. They only long to be normal, yet, a normal life is not something that their childhood has been destined to.

Quite often you forget how young Shuggie is, his life is miserable but he has perfectly adapted to the circumstances. Douglas Stuart provides insight in a highly dysfunctional family where you can nevertheless find love and affection. It is clear that there is no escape from this life which makes it totally depressing. Somehow, the novel reminds me of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas with the only difference of being set in the 1980s and shown from a female perspective. Agnes is not the angry young woman; she is the desperate middle-aged mother whose dreams are over and who provides only one example to her son: do not expect anything from life or anybody.

An emotionally challenging novel due to its unforgiving realism.

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.

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.