book review

READ THE WORLD – Saint Kitts and Nevis: Only God Can Make a Tree by Bertram Roach

Adrian is the son of a black Caribbean woman and an Irish immigrant father and is blessed with the pale skin and European features to allow him social mobility in the rigidly hierarchical society of twentieth-century Caribbean life. He falls in love but is offered the opportunity to improve his social standing, and thus the rest of his life, if he can suppress his heart’s desire and decide with his head. Will he choose Julia, the only woman he has ever really loved, and settle for being an overseer, or will he opt for the plantation-owner’s daughter, Alice Mills, who could provide him with the social standing he has always dreamed of?

Only God Can Make a Tree is a short book at less than 150 pages, and it is a quick read both because of its length and because of the writing style. It’s written very simply and is very much a book where it tells you what’s happening and what characters are feeling rather than showing you through metaphors or flowery language. This makes it seem like it’s not a very well-written book as you can’t easily connect with the characters and the plot is just laid out in front of you. It took a while to get used to how it was written, but its blunt, on the nose approach to this story did make it easy to read and sometimes engaging.

For such a short book it covers a lot of time and different characters lives. Adrian is the main character but as the choices he makes have knock on effects onto the people around him, you get snippets from other characters points of view as they struggle to deal with the fallout of his actions. The latter half of the book spans more time as Adrian fathers’ children and they grow up and have to live with Adrian being their father and what that can mean for them.

Adrian is a character that’s equal parts infuriating and sympathetic. While his actions are his own, and they are often reckless and hurt women who do love him, he is boxed in by the hierarchical society and has limited options if he desires to climb the social ladder. Adrian has high aspirations in a society that won’t really allow him to have those aspirations. He is a man that’s almost trapped between two societies because of his parentage, he can pass for white a lot of the time, but at the same time many white people will never see him as anything but black and will treat him accordingly. There’s also how Adrian appears to be destined to make similar mistakes to his own father, and all the rum that’s available is not good for any of the characters.

The sections about life in Saint Kitts and Nevis in the twentieth century were interesting. White, often English, people still owned the cotton and sugar cane plantations but now they pay people to work the land, albeit very cheaply. The former slaves are now labourers. As not a lot of time has passed since the abolition of slavery, there’s still some tension as the white plantation owners believe that the black people are still savages deep down. Often the glimpses of Caribbean society and how it works were more interesting than Adrian’s life. Though that being said, how Caribbean society works had a direct effect on Adrian and how is life panned out so the intersection between the two was also interesting.

I read Only God Can Make a Tree in less than two hours but I’m not sure how long this story will stick with me. It’s a concise family saga that gives a unique insight into post-slavery Caribbean and how one man’s aspirations can have long-lasting and unexpected effects. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD: Bangladesh – The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

Maya Haque – outspoken, passionate, headstrong – has been estranged from her brother Sohail for almost a decade. When she returns home to Dhaka hoping for a reconciliation, she discovers he has transformed beyond recognition. Can the two, both scarred by war, come together again? And what of Sohail’s young son, Zaid, caught between worlds but desperate to belong?

I didn’t realise this until I went to Goodreads to mark this book as read, but The Good Muslim is the sequel to A Golden Age. I didn’t know The Good Muslim was a sequel and I don’t feel I really missed out on anything as it reads like a standalone novel.

The chapters alternate between different points in time, the early 1970s and the mid-1980s. The chapters in the early 1970s are during the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War, as Sohail comes back from the war and he and his family attempt to get used to what peace means. The chapters in the 1980s are when Maya has returned home after being away for over seven years. She struggles to reconnect with her brother and a nephew she doesn’t know. The vast majority of The Good Muslim is from Maya’s point of view, in both the flashbacks and the present day.

A lot of the tragedy of these two siblings drifting apart comes from the fact that they are so different. They are either headstrong or reserved, and either they don’t listen to one another or are unwilling to talk about their experiences. Sohail is haunted by his actions during the war, while Maya has been dealing with the aftereffects of the war as she has worked in clinics across the country, performing abortions on women who were raped by soldiers and were shunned by their families. Both Maya and Sohail are affected by the conflict but they deal with it in different ways and it can be frustrating to see how they keep meeting at cross-purposes when they clearly did care about one another.

The rift that developed between Maya and Sohail is ultimately down to religion. After the war, Sohail becomes very religious, in fact he’s almost a zealot who appears to have his own followers and he forgets about all other responsibilities and attachments as he pursues his commitment to his faith. Maya doesn’t understand this or how much her brother could change after the war. Maya’s stubbornness is frustrating at times as she is so convinced that her idea of religion is the correct one and barely even attempts to understand her brother and his beliefs. Meeting her young nephew, she tries to help him as he doesn’t go to school and has no structure to his life. This adds to the conflict between Maya and Sohail as he has vastly different ideas of what his son should be learning and how he should be living.

The ending of The Good Muslim is what has the most impact, but unfortunately the kind of slow burn of a plot as you gradually learn more about Maya and Sohail’s experiences during the war and how that shaped them into who they are today, does take a bit too long to pull you in and make you deeply care about the two of them. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – The Channel Islands: The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards

Narrated by Roy Dotrice.

Eighty years old, Ebenezer has lived his whole life on the Channel Island of Guernsey, a stony speck of a place caught between the coasts of England and France yet a world apart from either. Ebenezer himself is fiercely independent, but as he reaches the end of his life, he is determined to tell his own story and the stories of those he has known.

First of all, I’ll say that I did really enjoy the narration by Roy Dotrice. I don’t know if they are an old man themselves or they’re just that good at voices and accents but they truly embodied the cantankerous Ebenezer Le Page. It was like listening to an old relative recount their life in the corner of the living room and as they rambled on so much and mentioned so many people it was almost easier to just nod your head and tune them out. I think I might have done that with The Book of Ebenezer Le Page as there’s not a lot that has stuck with me and I’m only writing this review the day after I finished the audiobook!

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is a sprawling epic about one mans life. Ebenezer is writing about his past 80 years of life and all the people he’s met, loved and lost. He is one of the oldest people on Guernsey and has never left the island. He talks about so many people that it would’ve been handy to have had a family tree! So many people that he mentions are his cousins (or second or third or fourth cousins), or sometimes they are known as cousins, but they aren’t actually blood related. Then there’s his friends that he talks about too that might also be distantly related to him in some way.

Ebenezer lives through two world wars and remarkably doesn’t seem too changed by either of them. Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War but while how Ebenezer dealt with the occupation is featured, it’s not an overly big or dramatic event – it’s just something that he and his friends and neighbours have to deal with. Having to just “get on with things” seems to have been Ebenezer’s life moto. He’s a proud man, and a self-sufficient one, and he’s happy to work for a living rather than getting a pension in his old age.

Ebenezer really is the epitome of an old man who has seen many things and just doesn’t know how the world works anymore. It can make him equally judgmental and oblivious. For instance, he’s very quick to judge some people and can take an instant dislike to some of them. However, when he opens his home up to tourists and has a gay couple stay with him, he thinks they are very pleasant chaps and doesn’t understand why a neighbour would say horrible things about them. It’s hard to tell whether he just doesn’t think “that sort of thing” goes on, or if he genuinely doesn’t care.

It’s not the events or anecdotes in The Book of Ebenezer Le Page that have stuck with me, instead it’s the feeling this book gave me. It’s strangely nice to hear someone, even a fictional someone, tell you their life story and see how it intersects with real world events. Ebenezer has a distinct narrative voice so even though he is obviously telling you about the various events and people in his life, they are still interesting because of how he felt about them.

I wouldn’t read The Book of Ebenezer Le Page again, and I’m not sure who I would recommend it to, but it is a strangely calming and enjoyable read and an interesting way to see how and island and its people may or may not have changed over the decades. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Algeria: The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry by Assia Djebar

Translated by Tegan Raleigh.

A collection of short stories that were written in 1995 and 1996 – a time when, by official accounts, some two thousand Algerians were killed in Islamist assassinations and government army reprisals.

This collection of short stories is split into two parts. The first is titled “Between Desire and Death” and the stories are equal parts romance and the horror of death and violence. The second is titled “Between France and Algeria” and centre on characters who are pulled between the two countries and may not feel they fully belong in either of them.

Even though they were more shocking and tougher to read, I preferred the stories in the first part of The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry. They are little snapshots into a character’s life as they deal with the threat of violence and assassination for their beliefs or heritage, or its about what happens after a loved one is killed. The stories focus on women and how they struggle to deal with the changing cultural landscape in Algeria. There’s some liberation but then there’s those who fear liberation and want to kill those who they feel don’t have the correct values.

There’s an underlying feeling of grief through all of the stories in The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry. Grief for a loved one who is assassinated, grief for the loss of naivety, grief for the loss of a culture, a home, or a language. A lot of the stories feature characters who were born and raised in Algeria but then moved to France as they got older. With that move came the issue of identity, whether they saw themselves as Algerian or French or a mixture of both, and perhaps guilt or fear over what was happening in Algeria, especially if they were removed from it and seemingly safe.

Once again, reading a book for my Read the World Project has led me to do more research about a certain moment in a countries history that I knew nothing about. These short stories came about from conversations between the author and fellow Algerians who lived in Paris, so there’s truth behind the fiction which makes these stories even more wrenching. The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry is a collection of short stories where each one is impactful as the last. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Chile: In the Distance with You by Carla Guelfenbein

Translated by John Cullen.

Vera Sigall, now eighty years old, has lived a mysterious, ascetic life far from the limelight of literary circles. This powerful character has a profound effect on those around her – Daniel, an architect and her neighbour and friend, unhappy in his marriage and career; Emilia, a Franco-Chilean student who travels to Santiago to write a thesis on the elusive Vera; and Horacio, an acclaimed poet with whom Vera had a tumultuous, passionate affair in her youth. When Vera suffers an accident that puts her in an induced coma in hospital, Daniel, Emilia, and Horacio are brought together and as they tell their stories, they reconstruct Vera’s past, and search for their own identities.

I found the writing in In the Distance with You to be beautiful and almost lyrical at times. The whole story is like a love letter to an author and to their works and the people surrounding Vera really feel connected to her in different ways. In some ways In the Distance with You is a story about stories; the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell others, and the ones we may write and publish to great acclaim.

In the Distance with You is told from three different points of view – Daniel’s, Emilia’s and Horacio’s – with the chapters alternating between the three of them. Daniel is the one who discovers Vera after her accident and tries to figure out what caused it as she lies in hospital. He’s a character that grew on me over the course of the book, as he grew as a person. He starts off being quite self-absorbed and only really cares about what’s happening with Vera, pushing his wife aside in the process, but when he meets Emilia, he finds someone else that he cares about and starts to open up more. Emilia learns so much about Vera from her own works and studying the few bits of information there is about her past. It’s interesting to see how a novelist may put bits of them into a story and it’s through these breadcrumbs that Emilia starts to put together a picture of the kind of woman Vera is. Horacio keeps his distance after Vera’s accident and instead revisits the past; how the two of them met, fell in love and worked together on their writing.

The mystery at the heart of the novel is Vera and her life. She’s pretty much a recluse with Daniel being the only person who saw her regularly, and even he doesn’t know that much about her past. As the story progresses, the layers of Vera’s life are slowly pealed back by each of the three main characters, and it’s only through all three of their point of views do you get a full picture of who Vera is. It’s interesting having a book so focused on a character that spends the majority of the story in a comatose state. Daniel, Emilia and Horacio orbit Vera even when she’s unresponsive and her being in that state almost forces them to reconsider who they are and what they want from life and those around them.

In the Distance with You is beautifully written story with fully realised characters. They’re flawed and it’s fascinating to see how even though Daniel, Emilia, and Horacio are very different people, they are connected by a love of or fascination with one person. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Barbados: The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke

Narrated by Robin Miles

Trigger warnings for rape, sexual assault, racism.

On a Caribbean island in the 1950s, elderly Mary Gertrude Mathilda commits murder. As she explains herself to police, her story exposes the ugly underbelly of life on Caribbean plantations, with its slavery and brutality.

This is one of those books that I’m very glad I listened to the audiobook. The characters speak in creole and it’s something I find easier to understand when hearing it compared to reading it. A good 90% of the book is in that kind of vernacular as the characters talk a lot and describe events and places in great detail.

Even though I listened to the audiobook, I still found The Polished Hoe a bit of a slog to get through. The story takes place over one night as Mary Gertrude Mathilda gives her statement to the police Sergeant Percy. But her statement is more than the how and the why of the murder, it’s Mary Gertrude Mathilda’s life story and how it’s entwined with the history of the island. You don’t learn the how of the murder till the last couple of chapters but the reasons why Mary Gertrude Mathilda would commit murder is sprinkled throughout the story with the final reason that provokes her to finally act is revealed towards the end of the novel.

Mary Gertrude Mathilda grew up on a plantation, working in the fields, then in the kitchen as she got older. She was also repeatedly raped by Mr Belfeels, the plantation owner. The descriptions of their encounters and the assaults she experienced are vivid, but she also recounts them in such a matter of fact way that there’s a distance there too. Even as an adolescent she knows what is happening to her is wrong, but she also knows there’s nothing she can say or do to make it stop.

There are also long sections from Percy’s point of view. He’s been infatuated with Mary Gertrude Mathilda since he was a teenager and he struggles to put his fantasies aside when he’s with her, listening to her story. They are both well-written and well-developed characters, full of contradictions and flaws and aspirations. There is a long history between them and they each delve into a different part of it at different times throughout the book. You get the sense of how their friendship could’ve been much stronger if there wasn’t the issue of perceived class that divided them – Mary Gertrude Mathilda is well respected in the community because of her connection to Mr Belfeels while Percy is just a police officer, even if he is the Sergeant.

It was hard to follow the general plot of The Polished Hoe and both Mary Gertrude Mathilda’s and Percy’s trains of thought in the novel. While the story takes place over one night, they recount historic events and how it’s affected them both and the islands inhabitants. The story meanders from different times and places and jumps back and forth from different points and ideas. The writing definitely captured how people speak as Mary Gertrude Mathilda would start talking about one thing and then that would inspire her to go onto another topic before circling back around to finish what she was originally saying.

The Polished Hoe is well-written but while the characters are well-defined, the actual plot is thin on the ground and it’s more about two characters reminiscing about their experiences. It has a lot of detail of what life on a plantation is like and covers tough topics like racism, slavery, rape and white privilege but those themes, while obviously important, aren’t enough to make an engaging story. I kept reading The Polished Hoe because it was an audiobook (so it was easy) and because I wanted to know what Mary Gertrude Mathilda had actually done and what was the repercussions but unfortunately not all of those questions were answered in a satisfactory way or at all. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Serbia: Fear and His Servant by Mirjana Novaković

Translated by Terence McEneny.

Serbia in the eighteenth century is a battleground of empires, with the Ottomans on one side and the Habsburgs on the other. When Count Otto von Hausburg arrives in Belgrade with his trusted servant Novak, they learn of tales of vampires and missing men. In the besieged capital, safe for now behind the fortress walls, Princess Maria Augusta waits for love to save her troubled soul. But who is the strange, charismatic count, and can we trust the story he is telling us? While some call him the Devil, he appears to have all the fears and pettiness of an ordinary man.

It took me over a month to read Fear and His Servant. Not because I didn’t like it, when I was reading it I did enjoy it, but so much was happening in my life that even when I did have free time to read I didn’t have the right mental headspace to actually sit down and read that often. I think some of the issues I had with Fear and His Servant are down to how long it took me to read it. For instance, I’d get confused by who was who and how they were connected because it’d been so long since I’d picked it up that I’d forgotten characters names. Also, the language used and the writing style is very reminiscent of eighteenth century writing even though the book was written in the twenty-first century. It can take a while to get used to it, but it also helps bring you into the story as it makes the setting and the characters feel more alive.

Fear and His Servant is from both von Hausburg’s and Maria Augusta’s point of view, but it isn’t always that clear when it switches between them. Slowly I started to pick up which character was narrating the story as they each have a unique voice. Von Hausburg is sarcastic and blunt and he has a sort of charm about him, even though he is the Devil. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise the blurb stating “The Devil and Princess Maria Augusta of Thurn and Taxis tell unreliable tales of vampires and political intrigue in eighteenth-century Serbia” isn’t a metaphor and the Devil is actually a main character. It’s quite a fun experience reading a story from the point of view of the Devil, especially as he’s not as fearless or all-powerful as one might think, and every now and then there’s flashbacks to Biblical times as he tells stories of Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene.

Princess Maria’s side of the story is like she’s recounting the events to an unnamed person who prompts her every now and then, but you only have Maria’s responses. She seems to go off on a tangent more often than not and sometimes mentions things that have not yet happened in the main story.

As the story progresses and von Hausburg and Princess Maria journey with a group of men to find the truth about the vampires, their stories start to diverge. You read about events from each of their perspectives and sometimes they’re slightly different and in others they are vastly different. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not, as not only to their accounts differ from each other’s, but at times they contradict themselves. It makes the story both intriguing and confusing.

Fear and His Servant is an interesting story with compelling points of view. It’s sometimes funny, is sometimes eerie, and it’s also sometimes confusing. It’s an interesting premise and it’s certainly a book like nothing I’ve read in recent years, but I think having such large gaps between when I’d pick it up, had a detrimental effect on the overall reading experience.