So my quest to read the Orange Long List inevitably missed out on completion before the short list was announced. I managed 7 if I count Room which I had already read and managed to read three of those actually now on the short list. Certainly one of those was my favourite read so far so was pleased to see it progressing. I was disappointed for Wendy Law-Yone whose book The Road to Wanting I thought was very powerful indeed.
This first one I read and thoroughly enjoyed was The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna. Set in Sierre Leone the story is told by two main characters, a British psychologist and a local history professor, tired and dying, with a third male, a local doctor, a significant presence throughout the book and all becoming joined through their interaction with a single woman, Nenebah or Mamakay who is daughter to one and lover to the two others. This intertwining of lives in itself is a great feature of the book and the literary quality of the writing makes the novel flow.
At the heart though is the unfolding of the horrors of civil war which makes the book a disturbing read. Instead of focusing on the war years itself the novel focuses on the memories and silences which follow wars of such deep atrocities. It is hard to imagine the horrors which are inflicted on ordinary people during such a civil war with atrocities becoming daily the norm and people just finding ways to get through and survive though many do so disturbed and frankly often diminished way, with memories disturbing their present day existence as portrayed by the local doctor Kai. Some of the contradictions which post-war arrangements throw up are sketched through this novel and have a powerful impact. Adrian, the psychologist, somewhat naively is seeking to understand the impact on people’s lives whilst also seeing it as a trip to resolve difficulties in his own marriage. The professor is trying to re-write his own history to leave a sweeter memory than the reality would portray. Novels can unpack the aftermath of wars in ways in which those living refuse to tell and shy away from. The silence which ensues is not a silence of forgetting but a silence of survival. Kai expresses this most poignantly in the novel. Unable to leave behind the past but unable to express his feelings and thoughts about it. I am pleased this has been short listed I think it is a strong contender (though of course I have three still to read!!)
The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna was for me slightly unsatisfactory. using the device of telling four separate stories spread over different eras including a 1984 Orwellian story set in the future (why is the future always painted in this way?). It focuses around some of the tensions of child-birth and the centrality of this process to the lives of women. I found some of the elements interesting but overall did not feel that its structure and style was convincing. The theme of mothering and motherhood was weaved quite nicely into the four stories but I thought the device was clever rather than convincing. The telling of child-birth is not an easy call and the central story of Brigit is told well and reminded me how as a man you are often just a passenger in these crucial moments, never able to read the wishes of your loved one during the birthing process. It’s worth a read I think and certainly I have now read book reviews which are very positive about it. Welcome anyone’s thoughts?
I next read Grace Williams says it loud by Emma Henderson which I found a deeply engrossing novel told from the perspective of someone with cerebral palsy living through the institutional regimes of the 1950s-1980s. She was placed into care at 11 following polio as well her lot was indeed a harsh one. Here was a flimsy five stone girl with a hump, a withered arm, poor motor skills, and perhaps most crucially little communicative skills living almost in a parallel world which the novel portrays well. The author uses a device of allowing Grace to observe her world and the story is told from her observations. As she is regarded as a mental defective it leaves open the question of whether Grace in fact had more skills than others saw or whether it is just a device to enable us to see this world from the perspective of someone unable to communicate. In any event it works well. As one book review comments:
‘As the novel unfolds, we get used to this radical mismatch between Grace’s inner life, which we are privy to, and her effect in the world outside. It’s as if a wall is built around her, preventing her from reaching out. The wall is language’ (http://bit.ly/9UaFgD)
A harrowing series of sometimes brutal and abusive incidents are described as the novel progresses. However this does not make you recoil from the novel. far from it. The novel succeeds through a wry humour and a stoicism of the narrator who interprets her life in a candid and often engaging way so that she manages to transcend all the bad things she sees and experiences and reaches some kind of steady acceptable state of living within the community care arrangements of the early 1980s. The love affair between her (Grace) and Daniel, a boy with no arms who is also an epileptic is sympathetically portrayed and very powerfully presented. His disappearance mid-way through the novel is heart-rending though typically is not communicated to Grace who simply has to live with that loss and it serves as a poignant reminder of how limiting Grace’s life is as she cannot herself find out what has happened and cannot communicate that to her family and friends as she struggles to find effective ways to communicate. I think this was a risky and difficult subject done exceedingly well by the author and deservedly makes the short list.
Just three more to read!! Hurry up Amazon get them posted to me!!
- Nicole Krauss (American)– Great House; Viking; 3rd Novel
- Téa Obreht
(Serbian/American) – The Tiger’s Wife; Weidenfeld &
Nicolson; 1st Novel
- Kathleen Winter (Canadian) – Annabel; Jonathan Cape; 1st