book review

READ THE WORLD – Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aïtmatov

Translated by James Riordan.

Jamilia’s husband is off fighting at the front. She spends her days hauling sacks of grain from the threshing floor to the train station in their small village in the Caucasus, accompanied by Seit, her young brother-in-law, and Daniyar, a sullen newcomer to the village who has been wounded on the battlefield. Seit observes the beautiful, spirited Jamilia spurn men’s advances, and wince at the dispassionate letters she receives from her husband, while she also draws closer to Daniyar.

Jamilia is a very short book at around 90 pages and it’s just one long chapter. Jamilia is told from Seit’s perspective and he narrates the story in the first person. It’s a simple story in terms of plot, a young woman in a small farming community potentially finds a better and stronger love while her husband is away, and in terms of writing. The writing is so simple that it often reads like Seit is sat with you, telling you the story. That come partly the tenses as sometimes the narrative voice knows more than the present-Seit would.

Considering this book was published in the 1950s, Jamilia herself could almost be described as a manic pixie dreamgirl. Seit is infatuated with her, as are a lot of the other men in the village, and as it’s from Seit’s point of view, you never really get to see much of Jamilia’s personality or her hopes, dreams and desires. You just see her through Seit’s eyes, and his judgement is clouded by his own feelings for her.

Jamilia is one of those books that even though it’s so short it took days to get through. I think that’s because of a few things. One, the story didn’t really grab me, I thought there’d be an illicit romance and more drama when there really wasn’t and it was just a series of events in these farming peoples lives. Two, I thought it’d be from Jamilia’s point of view so you could see her conflict about being drawn to a man who wasn’t her husband and have more of an insight into her seeing she is the titular character. And three, the writing style was so simple it ended up being boring so even when there was something different happening in the plot, I wasn’t really engaged with it.

Looking at Goodreads a lot of people seem to really like this book so maybe I’m in the wrong, or it could be down to the translation. Either way I’m glad to have now crossed off Kyrgyzstan from my Read the World Project.

READ THE WORLD – Greece: Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki

Translated by Karen Van Dyck.

Living in a big old house surrounded by a beautiful garden in the countryside outside Athens are Maria, the oldest sister, as sexually bold as she is eager to settle down and have a family of her own; beautiful but distant Infanta; and dreamy and rebellious Katerina. Over three summers, the girls share and keep secrets, fall in and out of love, try to figure out their parents and other members of the tribe of adults, and worry about and wonder who they are.

The majority of Three Summers is told from Katerina’s perspective and in the first person. Though there are the odd chapters from other characters perspectives, mainly the other two sisters, and those are written in the third person so it’s easy to tell when you’re momentarily stepping away from Katerina’s viewpoint.

Three Summers is set in the 1930s before the Second World War and the sisters do all seem to live an idyllic life. At the start of the novel, so during the first summer, they are twenty, eighteen and sixteen. They spend their time lying in the fields, talking to one another about their thoughts and dreams, and also generally getting the attention of the young me they know. They also think about their separated parents and other family dramas. They live with their mother, aunt and grandfather while their father, who is both a banker and an inventor, lives in Athens.

I found Three Summers quite slow going. At times that suited the story as it evokes the feeling of lazy summer days where the days blur into one, but on the other hand it made it more difficult to connect with the characters and on the whole I didn’t really care about them.

Maria was the sister that was the easiest to understand, she knows what she wants and decides who and when she’s going to marry quickly. Infanta is more reserved and at some points I wondered if she was written to be asexual or aromantic because of how distant she was towards the young man who clearly likes her. It could have been natural shyness or nerves but some of her reactions to strong emotions sometimes seemed more extreme for that. Katerina is more bold than her sisters and her curiosity and actions often made her mother despair. She doesn’t seem to fit in this family and while she does say she falls in love with a neighbour, it’s hard to tell if she really has and she’s not using him as a gateway to adventure.

The writing in Three Summers is quite flowery and paints vivid pictures of the old house and the surrounding countryside, but that sort of thing isn’t really for me and it wasn’t keeping my attention by the end of book. Maybe it’s because I did find myself skim reading the last section of the book, which was about the events of the third summer, but I did find it difficult to keep track of some of the friends and neighbours, how they were connected to the sisters and what they thought of them.

Because it’s set just across three summers and is more of a slice of life type story, there are some things that are open ended and potential relationships not yet pursued which is a little frustrating but that’s the nature of this kind of story. Three Summers is a coming of age story and it’s one that fans of period dramas may like a lot. It has the will they/won’t they relationships but with more of a stiff upper lip as young women weren’t allowed to be forthright with their wants in the 1930s.

READ THE WORLD – Mauritius: The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah

Translated by Geoffrey Strachan.

Ten-year-old Raj is oblivious to the Second World War being fought far beyond his tiny island home. His mother is his sole company while his father works as a prison guard, so Raj dreams of friendship. One day, from the far-away world, a ship brings to the island Jewish exiles who have been refused entry to Israel. David, a recently orphaned boy of his own age, becomes the friend that he has longed for, and Raj takes it upon himself to help David escape from the prison. As they flee through sub-tropical forests and devastating storms, the boys battle hunger and malaria – and forge a friendship only death could destroy.

The Last Brother is one of those stories where a much older character reminisces about certain events of their past and how it affected them. In this instance, Raj is an old man close to his eighties and he’s thinking about David, their friendship and the games and adventures they had and what he would’ve done differently if he could. This means you are kind of aware of how things are probably going to turn out before you get to that part of the story.

Something I really liked about The Last Brother was how it made me think about the Second World War from a completely different perspective. As someone who’s British and grew up in the UK, in school I learnt about the Second World War from the UK perspective and about the European countries (and America and Japan) involved with the conflict. The world is a big place and while it’s something I hadn’t thought about before, there would naturally be parts of the world where the conflict didn’t touch or the people, especially children, were unaware of what was happening between other nations.

The difference between adult-Raj and child-Raj’s narrative voice is distinct and I feel the author really captured the innocence a ten-year-old has, even if they have experienced violence they are resilient and still want to have fun with a friend. Both Raj and David have experienced personal tragedy though Raj can’t comprehend how and why David and the other Jewish refugees have ended up in his small corner of the world, and in a prison as well. David doesn’t talk about his life or how he became an orphan much, as the reader with prior knowledge of the persecution of the Jews in Europe you can see his trauma but with Raj being so unaware of world events, he doesn’t see David as a victim, he just sees a friend.

The way Raj and David form such a firm friendship in such a short space of time is sweet and realistic. As is how far Raj will go to try and protect David even if his plans are misguided. The Last Brother is a deceptively simple story because it’s largely told through the eyes of a child, but that makes it all the more affecting.

READ THE WORLD – Botswana: The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow

When a twelve-year-old girl goes missing near her village, the local police tell her mother and the villagers that she has been taken by a wild animal. Five years later, young government employee Amantle Bokaa finds a box bearing the label ‘Neo Kakang: CRB 45/94’. It contains evidence of human involvement in the affair. So begins an undercover struggle for justice and retribution.

Predominantly set in a rural village in Botswana in 1999, The Screaming of the Innocent is a story of ritual murder and a cover up. Have to say I found the opening chapters very difficult to get through and uncomfortable to read. They are set in 1994 and follow the men who are watching young Neo and planning how they are going to take her. The description in those chapters is vivid as you get into the minds of deprived but powerful men, as they watch Neo, describing her young body in a sexual manner. It almost made me feel queasy and that was the most striking part of the book. Then there’s the five-year time jump, and it’s not till much later that you discover what exactly they did to Neo and again it’s in graphic detail.

The Screaming of the Innocent is a relatively short book (just over 200 pages) and I thought the way the story was told was interesting. From the beginning you know who the men are who took Neo, but you don’t know how they got away with it – was it corruption or incompetence. It’s a fight for justice as long-lost evidence is discovered and someone who wasn’t even in the same region when the girl was taken, is pulled into the village’s turmoil and becomes their spokesperson.

While The Screaming of the Innocent is told from multiple perspectives as different characters remember what happened after Neo’s disappearance all those years ago, Amantle could be called the main character in the present. She discovers the evidence and has no idea of the impact it’ll have on her life or those in the village she’s just arrived in. She is someone who wants to fight for what’s right and is very earnest. She has connections to lawyers through friends and she almost has a fake it till you make it in her quest for the village’s to find out the truth. It can be a little grating as she’s so serious and focused and doesn’t always seem to realise the potential consequences of her actions as she’s convinced her method is the best.

The scenes where Amantle and her lawyer friends discuss the case and theorise what might have happened to Neo and how and why the evidence ended up where it did for five years was one of the most interesting parts of the story. The Screaming of the Innocent doesn’t feel complete though as while Amantle gets the answers she seeks, there’s still the longer fight for justice still to come.

The Screaming of the Innocent is one of those crime/mystery stories where by the end of it you as the reader know the answers, and even some of the characters do, but that doesn’t mean they’re good answers or ones that give people closure or justice. It’s a bit frustrating really as personally I like my crime stories where everyone gets their comeuppance.

Still, The Screaming of the Innocent being set in the 90s and a place and culture so different to my own was interesting. I didn’t always like how it was written, it seemed very simplistic at times – especially after the impactful opening chapters – but the story was a compelling one. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Yemen: A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi Al-Ahdal

Translated by William Maynard Hutchins.

Under the watchful eyes of the men in her community the beautiful, virtuous university student Jasmine goes about her daily business, keeping to herself and avoiding the male gaze at all costs. That is until one Valentine’s Day, when she disappears without a trace. As the details surrounding her sudden disappearance emerge the mystery deepens. Sexual depravity, honour, obsession; the motives are numerous and the suspects plentiful. Family, friends, fellow students and nosey neighbours are quick to make their own judgements on the case, but the truth may be far stranger than anyone anticipates.

I found A Land Without Jasmine strangely captivating. It’s a super short novel, less than 100 pages, and has seven chapters, each from a different character’s perspective. The first is from Jasmine’s, as she describes the heated gazes she receives from all men, young and old, even when wearing her niqab. How uncomfortable she feels, how their attention often makes her feel anxious as she wishes to be treated for more than what she looks like. The following chapters are from the perspective of detectives, neighbours, and family as they try and piece together what has happened to Jasmine.

The way Jasmine describes the unwanted attention she receives is uncomfortable to read, but what’s even more uncomfortable is when the story is from the point of view of her teenage neighbour who is infatuated with her. He, like a lot of the other male characters, seems to be unable to separate his desires and dreams from reality. His desires are explicit, and he becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to Jasmine, forgetting to look out for himself or how his actions might be perceived by the police or Jasmine’s family.

I thought the writing in A Land Without Jasmine was often very good and provocative. However, there were some phrases that felt a bit stilted down to a choice of a word when another might’ve been more suitable but that was likely to be down to the translation. It did take me a little while to get into the story though. I think that was down to it being written in first person and I can’t remember the last book I read that was written in that tense. I think sometimes first-person narrative can make the writing seem more simplistic. At some points this seemed to work in the novels advantage, as it sometimes made statements more impactful, but at other points it made reading it feel slow and awkward.

A Land Without Jasmine is a almost a sexy mystery story – though while it does have erotic language in it, the way the characters objectify and belittle Jasmine doesn’t make it particularly sexy or appealing. There are some moments of wry sense of humour here, and how it brings in family politics, the importance and power of different family tribes for one, is interesting as that’s something I knew little about. A Land Without Jasmine is a strange mystery but once you get into the writing style, it becomes a compelling one. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Sudan: Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise is a very short (just 72 pages long) but impactful short story collection. There are ten stories in the collection, the shortest one is just two pages long while the longest is nine pages with the others being somewhere in between.

I think this is the shortest short story collection I’ve ever read, and I was impressed by how much the author could say in so few words. “A Week of Love” is the two-page story that follows the evolution of a relationship and it easily shows the various emotions and uncertainty when you like someone new.

A lot of the stories are about something that seems so everyone can relate to as it’s so mundane, like a person’s thoughts as they travel on a bus, or someone desperate to find a job to support their family. Many of the stories are a little snapshot into peoples lives in Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, and the mental and physical struggles they have.

My favourite story in the collection was “Thirteen Months of Sunrise”, it has discussions of identity and the differences and similarities between people and cultures from Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

It’s hard to really talk about Thirteen Months of Sunrise because the stories were so short! Still, it’s a great translation and the stories are interesting and thoughtful. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Cameroon: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Narrated by Prentice Onayem.

New York, 2007. After two long years apart, Jende Jonga has brought his wife Neni and their six-year-old son from Cameroon to join him in the land of opportunity. Drawn by the promise of America they are seeking the chance of a better life for them and their son. When Jende lands a dream job as chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive, Neni finds herself taken into the confidence of his glamorous wife Cindy. The Edwards are powerful and privileged: dazzling examples of what America can offer to those who are prepared to strive for it. But when the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, all four lives are dramatically upended.

I really enjoyed how Behold the Dreamers took place in the recent past and how it showed the many big changes in a short space of time. There’s mentions of the race for Democratic nominees for President between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, and how when Obama got the nomination and then the presidency how Jende saw it as a sign that he and his family could achieve anything in America. Knowing about the financial crash and how that’s going to have a huge knock-on effect on the Jonga’s and Edwards’ makes there an air of tension in the story, it’s like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop while the majority of the characters have no idea what’s about to hit them.

There’s a lot of themes in Behold the Dreamers, a lot of them surrounding the highs and lows of being an immigrant. There’s the loneliness, monotony and uncertainty surrounding trying get the correct papers to stay in the country or to work or to get an education. There are so many hoops for Jende and Neni to jump through, but they also find their own community with fellow immigrants who have lived and worked in New York for far longer than they have.

Behold the Dreamers does a good job at showing how the American Dream is portrayed to immigrants and how over time it often becomes clear that it is an impossible dream. However, for Neni she can only see the good about life in America, especially when comparing it to life in Cameroon. Neni in sees America through rose-tinted glasses. She’d watched episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air in Cameroon and thought that could be her life, and even when she watches other media like Boyz n the Hood she feels that’s the outlier, really life in America can be great for Black people like her. Her naivety and optimism are almost painful, especially when thinking about what is currently (and has been for years) going on in America and the rest of the world right now.

The Jonga’s are well-rounded characters and you can understand both Neni and Jende’s feelings when they’re trying to earn money for their families. Both of their relationships with the Edwards’ is interesting. While he never stops seeing Clark as his boss, Jende wants to look after him and protects his secrets, unconsciously getting entwined in his life far more than the average employee should. Neni on the other hand, never sees her work for Cindy (as a housekeeper/nanny for their young son) as more than it is. While she appreciates when Cindy might give her old clothes that were going to a charity shop anyway, she never stops seeing the social and economic divide between them and doesn’t see why she should help Cindy when she won’t help herself.

A lot of the time the problems the Edwards’ face often feel like #FirstWorldProblems – especially when compared to the Jonga’s. However, Behold the Dreamers makes it clear how while their lives are so different, money really can’t solve all of the Edwards’ problems. Cindy is lonely, she thinks her husband is cheating because he’s never home and always working, she drinks and often seems unhappy. Her issues are big for her and while she does sometimes try to offer Neni money or guidance, she can’t comprehend the uncertainty the Jonga’s are going through as they wait for the next immigration court date.

Behold the Dreamers covers so many themes and ideas while still making a compelling story. You want the Jonga’s to achieve their dreams, but the many barriers in their way slowly become clear and should they really spend their lives struggling for the idea of the American Dream? 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Bhutan: Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti by Kunzang Choden

Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti is a collection of twenty-two stories set in four different regions of Bhutan. The presence of the yeti is ubiquitous to the kingdoms of the Himalayas, where beliefs and attitudes related to it go beyond scientific judgment and analysis.

This short story collection is really quite interesting. Choden has listened and talked to village elders throughout Bhutan to write down the stories or folktales that had previously just been verbally passed down the generations. The way the stories are written are simple but effective and they do feel like you’re just listening to a tale that often has some sort of lesson for the listener to learn. A lot of the stories seemed like fables with the people who encountered the yetis (or the migoe as the Bhutanese call them) learning something, or making horrendous mistakes that then the listener will learn from.

The migoi are often described as “a giant hairy man with the features of a monkey”. All of the descriptions are very vivid, especially for the female yetis with their “huge sagging breasts… swinging and rolling on its chest” and there’s also illustrations in Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti which was an unexpected but nice surprise and it really adds to the stories. Everyone has an idea of what a yeti looks like thanks to popular culture, but to see how the Bhutanese sees them, which is generally similar to the Western version but has some different things like how they possess the “dipshing” which enables it to turn invisible at will.

Some of the stories in Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti are quite gruesome as the people who encounter the yeti either anger it and therefore it harms them, or from their own fear or desire to be perceived as strong, they do their best to capture or kill the yeti.

Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti is a short but interesting read. It’s fun to hear different stories about yetis and how while they generally have similar attributes throughout the different regions of Bhutan, there are some differences in terms of the spirituality or legends surrounding the yetis. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Liberia: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Narrated by Wayétu Moore.

Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them.

I enjoy memoirs narrated by the author, but this was the first fiction audiobook I’ve listened to that was narrated by the author which was an interesting experience, and I think Moore did a good job.

She Would Be King has beautiful, lyrical writing which was very nice to listen to. I’m not sure how easy I’d have found it to physically read the story though. As She Would Be King is narrated by an omnipresent voice, one you learn who it is and how they relate to the characters as the story progresses, and I think that makes it feel like you are being told this mythical tale by an old storyteller.

While the writing in She Would Be King is generally poetic, the violence Gbessa, June Dey, Norman and many other characters face is not glossed over. The beatings, whippings and forced abortion are written in detail, forcing you to face the atrocities’ that were committed to generations of people.

She Would Be King is a mix of historical fiction and fantasy. It takes place during the early-mid 1800s and the effects of slavery and colonialism is a big part of the characters lives. June Dey is raised on a plantation while Norman Aragon grows up being measured and experimented on by his father as he tries to learn more about the power he believes his son has inherited. Gbessa is the only one of the three who has always lived in West Africa, but with her dark skin and red hair she was shunned by the villagers and called a witch. The fantasy element, though it probably could be classed as magical realism, is the fact three characters all have “superpowers”, immortality, invisibility and being bullet proof. How they each discover these abilities and how they, and others, react to them is a big part of their growth as characters.

The pacing of She Would Be King is uneven, and with this all-knowing narrator it’s hard to get into begin with. Some elements of the story seem rushed and then in others it’s difficult to tell how much time has passed for a character, for instance I was surprised when a character said Gbessa had been in certain town for five years, I wouldn’t have said it was that long.

She Would Be King is a magical story about the formation of Liberia, how people can change, how they can find their own family or home, but also how they can’t forget about who they are. She Would Be King feels like a retelling of a legend, it can be hard to follow or connect with some characters at times, but it’s still and impressive tale. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guadeloupe: The Restless by Gerty Dambury

Translated by Judith G. Miller.

Guadeloupe, a French overseas department, May 1967. Nine-year-old Émilienne Absalon is struggling with the sudden disappearance of her teacher, Madame Ladal, and her father at the onset of a workers’ strike. As violence throws the city into chaos, characters both living and dead take the stage to help Émilienne find those she’s lost, and in the process rewrite Caribbean history.

This may sound weird, but I found The Restless so easy to read and was thirty pages into it before I realised, and that made me instantly like this book. Perhaps it’s because I was in the middle of a fantasy/sci-fi short story anthology when I decided I needed something different. While the short story anthology was good, I struggled going from one story to another when I wanted to spend more time with the different characters or learn more about the different worlds, so it was nice to feel settled in one place with a clearly defined protagonist again.

I really liked how the story unfolded in The Restless. The chapters alternate between Émilienne’s point of view and other character’s point of view. These other characters are family members, neighbours or other people connected to the Absalon family somehow – and some are dead, and some are ghosts. Each character had a distinct voice which certainly helped with the chapters not from Émilienne’s point of view as sometimes they’d start and you wouldn’t be sure who was now recounting their tale, just that it was a different person to before.

Émilienne is a great character. The author does a great job of showing how a child would experience and try to understand suddenly losing an important figure in her life like a teacher. How some things are difficult to explain to a child because they’re to do with governments and fears of communism and having ideas that are deemed inappropriate, but how the child can still pick up on how something isn’t right or is unfair. Add to the fact her father, who she believes can explain to her what happened to her teacher, hasn’t been home for days leads her to be very unsettled. Also, Émilienne and her fellow classmates’ anger and frustrations of the sudden dismissal of their teacher mirrors those of the workers who want their wages to increase.

In The Restless’s prologue, it gives a short overview of the talks between management and construction workers union that led to work stoppages in Pointe-à-Pitre and, after the breakdown of negotiation, violence as the police were ordered to fire on the demonstrators. This is important as it’s the backdrop to Émilienne’s stress of her missing teacher and father, and it provides context for the anti-union sentiment that you slowly learn her teacher was a victim of and provides reasons for her fathers absence.

The Restless is a relatively short but effective book. It juggles its characters well and provides both a child’s perspective to sudden violence that they cant comprehend a reason for, and various adults perspectives, some only just learning about their workers rights, some who have died and were struggling in different ways, and some who are just trying to get by. 4/5.