book review

READ THE WORLD – Latvia: Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

A nameless woman tries to follow her calling as a doctor but then the state steps in. She, along with her daughter, are banished to a village in the Latvian countryside where she’s deprived of a career, her sense of self, and her relationship with her daughter. As her sense of isolation increases, will she and her daughter be able to return to Riga where the beginning of political change begins to stir?

Translated by Margita Gailiyis.

Soviet Milk is told from the alternating perspectives of an unnamed mother and her unnamed daughter between the years 1969 and 1989. During this time Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union and it’s clear from the outset how the state keeps a close eye on its people and the affect it can have on their lives. The alternating perspectives did through me a bit at the beginning as I didn’t realise that’s what was happening but as some of the passages were told from the two characters different points of view, I got the hang of it.

I enjoyed both the mother and the daughter’s point of view. It basically begins when the daughter is born and so you see her grow up, how she learns different things from her mother, and how she begins to see the restrictions placed on her and her family. When she’s a young child she is brought up by her grandmother who is also unnamed (nearly all the characters are unnamed and are instead referred to by their familial status), their relationship is very sweet and the time she spends with her grandmother and step-grandfather are moments of true childhood innocence.

After her mother’s medical career is dashed and they have to move away from the city and her grandparents, that’s when the daughter has to grow up as more often than not, she has to look after herself and her mother. Her mother’s struggles and depression are vividly realised, and the book is well-written enough that makes her actions sympathetic and not solely selfish as one might think.

Soviet Milk was an interesting insight into the psychological affects of living in your homeland when it’s occupied by an outside force. Previous books that I’ve read for the Read the World Project that have been set in countries during the time of the Soviet Union, have either been from a child’s point of view so they don’t understand the gravity of the situation, or its about characters who have just got on with everything. I think this is the book I’ve read where being a part of the Soviet Union had a real affect on the mental health of one of the protagonists. There was still the food shortages and secrets, but there was also the desperate need to be free which the mother had even when living in her own country.

Soviet Milk is a moving and poignant story about the love between a mother, daughter and grandmother and how the Soviet occupation can affect multiple generations. It was a compelling read even though each perspective was just a couple of pages long. 4/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Estonia: Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid

Translated by Adam Cullen.

Destroyed by German and Soviet armies in the war, Tiiana’s home city of Tartu in Estonia has a lot of secrets and she’s slowly unravelling them. The adult world is of cryptic and hushed conversations and Tiiana experience both great events like Stalin’s death, and personal events like the disintegration of her parent’s marriage from the periphery. Ultimately, she is powerless to prevent the great and defining tragedy of her life – the suicide of a loved one.

I liked the way the story was told. Chapters (if they could really be called that) were often only a few pages long. They each began with a year and they’re like a little snapshot into that period of the characters’ lives, especially at the beginning when there weren’t many chapters set in the same year. As the story progressed and Tiiana got older, you spend more time with her in each year, seeing how her life changes in small and big ways.

Burning Cities begins in 1941 when Tiiana’s parents Liisi and Peeter meet, after a few short chapters Tiiana is born in 1946 and then you follow her as she grows up to the year 1962. There are a few chapters set in the 1990s and 2010s throughout the book and as you’re never properly introduced to the narrator in those chapters, it takes a while to make the connections between them and Tiiana as a child.

A lot of things to do with the Second World War or how it was in Estonia before the war doesn’t really register in Tiiana’s every day life, especially when she’s a child. She knows that other children and adults don’t like the Russians but she’s not sure why and when she becomes friends with a Russian boy from the school next door to hers, she questions whether her father’s uncertainties about the friendship is because he’s a boy or because he’s Russian.

Tiiana is a well-written and believable child. She learns to observe people from a young age and is fascinated by books and how there’s apparently different eras that the adults talk about. She’s smart but also sheltered, because of her father’s job she never wants for anything unlike some of her fellow classmates. It’s the little things that make the city of Tartu a strong presence in the novel. It’s a place that’s being rebuilt but there’s so many parts of it that aren’t whole or are broken. This mirrors Tiiana’s parent’s relationship as they drift apart and attempt to hide things from Tiiana to no avail. As Tiiana gets older she becomes more outspoken but she’s still quiet young and naïve and, much like her parents, doesn’t talk about how she feels.

Burning Cities is a story of family secrets and tragedy told, through the most part, through the eyes of a child. It’s a well-written story that often paints a vivid picture, but it still has a hazy quality to it as much of it feels like a memory with some events or people more solid than others. It’s a book that pulls you in from the very beginning, with interesting characters and a haunting writing style. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Greenland: Crimson by Nivaq Korneliussen

Five young people’s lives collide in Nuuk Greenland as secrets are revealed and relationships crumble. Inuk has something to hide and runs from his problems. His sister Fia breaks up with her long-term boyfriend and falls for Sara. Sara is in love with Ivik who holds a big secret. Ivik struggles with gender dysphoria, and transgender identity, while Arnaq, the party queen pulls the strings of manipulation, bringing these five lives to a shocking crescendo.

Translated by Anna Halager.

Crimson is the UK title of Last Night in Nuuk, a book I’d been aware of as it was written by a young Greenlandic author and is set in the country’s capital city. Besides from that, all I knew about the books before diving into it was that it was about the interconnected lives of five young people who are in their early twenties.

Crimson has five chapters and each chapter is from a different character’s point of view. It’s not a truly linear story which makes delving into these characters lives for such a short space of time interesting. As the story progresses some events from previous chapters are retold from a different perspective, through this you can see different sides of an argument or what happened next after the first character had left the party for instance.

Each character, and therefore each chapter, has its own distinct voice. This helps as besides a couple of sentences at the start of the book about each character giving you the most important facts about their lives, you are thrown into this book blind, learning about what makes each character tick in around 30 pages. Some chapters are more like diary entries while others are written like a stream of conscious, this can be a little jarring, but it does make each character feel different.

While these five characters are all connected in some way, they all feel very alone and drifting through the days. Sara is the one who is more obviously depressed while Arnaq uses partying, drinking and sex to ignore her problems even though those three activities often cause her new ones. I feel Crimson is an unflinching look at what it is to be someone in your early twenties, when you’ve got no real career prospects and you don’t truly understand yourself or anything that’s happening around you.

Crimson is a story about people struggling, their connections, love and sexuality. It’s a quick read at less than 180 pages and the way it’s set out, in each chapter you don’t just learn about the current character you’re following, but you see other sides to characters you’ve previously met. Even though this story is set in a country that appears to be so remote it’s almost alien to me, it’s a story that’s universal as young people will have fun and be irresponsible and make mistakes no matter where in the world they’re from. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Netherlands: Safe as Houses by Simone van der Vlugt

Trigger warnings for rape.

Home is supposed the be a safe place, but when a man forces his way into Lisa’s house taking her and her five-year-old daughter Anouk hostage, there’s no where to hide. In the coming days, Lisa will do just about anything to keep her daughter safe, but all the while she wonders why the only witness to her attack has not raised the alarm.

Translated by Michele Hutchison.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Julia Binns and due to both the narration and the story itself, I flew through this book. Safe as Houses is such a compelling story, there’s no slow set-up, instead within the opening chapters Lisa’s home is invaded by a dangerous criminal. It’s fascinating to see how Lisa tries to relate to Kruger, the escaped criminal who has a twisted mind, in order to try and keep herself and her daughter safe. Numours times Lisa ponders how she would react if she didn’t have Anouk with her and this book truly shows the strength of a mother’s determination.

Kruger is a violent man and he sexually assaults and rapes Lisa, believing she’s interested in him and wants it. She shuts down and can’t say no as she’s terrified of what he might do if she puts up a fight. Those scenes are tough to read (or in my case listen to) and they really made my skin crawl.

The emotions of the different characters are fully realised, and they all act in believable ways. Even five-year-old Anouk is neither too mature for her age nor an inconvenience to the plot. She’s a child that on some level knows that things aren’t good as her mother is hit in front of her and they are forced to sleep in the basement, but she also still wants to do finger paints and play with her dolls. When there’s the more everyday moments between Lisa, Kruger and Anouk, having breakfast together, or watching the TV together, it makes everything feel even more unsettling and on a knifes edge.

Safe as Houses is an incredibly fast-paced story so it’s unfortunate that while the conclusion is thrilling, it also comes to an abrupt stop. It’s the sort of ending where I wish there was an epilogue so you could see how the characters are coping because they went through such horrendous things in order to survive. I just wanted a little more from the conclusion after enjoying the rest of the novel.

Safe as Houses is a gripping thriller that’s often tense and scary. It’s a proper page-turner though not necessarily a thriller that will stick in my mind for a long time. Still, it was a strangely enjoyable read. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Côte d’Ivoire: Allah is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma

Birahima is ten years old when he becomes a child-soldier. After his mother’s death he travels to Liberia to find his aunt but on the way there he gets caught up in rebel fighting and must become a child-solider in order to survive.

I found the way Allah is Not Obliged was written was unlike anything I’d really read before. It’s from Birahima’s point of view and it really feels like a child is telling the story. There’s lots of long sentences, as if he’s gotten excited, there’s a lot of repetition of sentences in the space of a couple of paragraphs, and he often stops to explain something mid-sentence or goes off on a tangent. There’s also the brutal honesty that comes from a child. He talks about how he and other child-soldiers are high, they don’t have a lot of food, the way they are in danger; it’s all just a fact of life for him and he tells his story with more wisdom and humour than any ten-year-old should have.

Allah is Not Obliged is set in the 1990s and it blurs the line between fact and fiction. I didn’t google every single name of the war lords and rebels Birahima mentions, but I definitely noticed that the first half of the book there seemed to be more fictional war lords, whereas in the later half of the book, it got quite detailed about what happened in various coups, and the war lords and politicians involved. In the second half of the book, those people Birahima named, were real people. This gave me an insight into West African history that I knew next to nothing about.

Birahima’s story takes place in a number of countries on the West African coast. He gets caught up in different conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone as he travels back and forth, trying to find his aunt while also trying to stick with the men who appear more powerful and therefore are more likely to keep him safe.

Allah is Not Obliged doesn’t shy away from the brutalities of war and because how Birahima’s voice is so knowledgeable and factual about the whole thing, it’s easy to forget he is a child. One thing’s for sure, this book definitely shows how the children who become child-soldiers are forced to grow up very quickly, but at the same time, don’t fully understand everything that is happening around them.

While Allah is Not Obliged is a reasonably short book at just over 200 pages, I found it to be a slow and often dull read, especially towards the end of the book when it got quite dense with the more fact-heavy stuff. it was never a book that I felt compelled to pick up again as the Birahima’s meandering story never really pulled me in. It has an interesting writing style, with Birahima’s voice shining through almost constantly, and it has a weird blend of the brutalities of war and the dark humour these young people have to embrace in order to stay somewhat sane.

READ THE WORLD – Sierra Leone: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

The story of three men in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s. Old academic Elias Cole lies in a hospital bed reminiscing about his life in Freetown in 1969 and his love for Saffia Kamara, the wife of his charismatic colleague. Elsewhere in the hospital is Kai, a gifted young surgeon, is tormented by nightmares from the civil war while British psychologist Adrian Lockheart is working at the hospital, trying to help those who have been affected by the civil war, and trying to find meaning in his work. The three of them meet in different ways and are more connected than they realise.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and this is definitely one of those books I would’ve DNF’d if I was physically reading it. I really didn’t like The Memory of Love for a lot of different reasons.

Firstly, there are the three main characters. Chapters are told from each of their perspectives and Holdbrook-Smith does a good job at distinguishing between these characters with his voice. The three men have a lot of similarities, they’re all smart, stubborn and reserved but the only one I didn’t have a huge problem with was Kai. Kai is kind, thoughtful and a great uncle, his relationship with his eight-year-old nephew is the best. The big difference between Kai and Elias and Adrian, is his attitude towards women. He’s more respectful than the other two, though can still be infatuated. Elias becomes obsessive and almost stalkerish when it comes to Saffia, the way he describes her was unsettling, especially those moments when he could tell he made her feel uncertain or uncomfortable but didn’t care. Adrian has a wife and young daughter in the UK, but that doesn’t stop him cheating on his wife with musician Mamakay. He gets very jealous over Mamakay before they’re even together, and he is often ignorant and patronising of her life. Adrian likes to think he has a connection to Sierra Leone as his mother was almost born there, but really, he’s the white saviour type character and he doesn’t even realise it. Adrian and Elisa both made me angry at different times in the book, and their love stories weren’t that loving or romantic to me.

The story itself was quite dull and very slow. It takes a long time for the connections between these three men to become clear and they all seem to drift through their lives. The Memory of Love is a story about love but it’s not a particularly romantic or even emotional story. I was never engaged with any of the characters or their pasts. There are many examples of how war as affected the country and its people, but it is always like a footnote in the three men’s lives. The people and the country have suffered a great deal of trauma, but I never really felt the full affects of that.

This is a personal taste thing but as someone that can’t watch medical dramas on TV because of the blood and the surgeries, I found listening to some of the description in The Memory of Love really hard going. When Kai is in an operating theatre everything is described in vivid detail; what he and the other medical staff are doing, the blood, the bones, the pus, and it honestly made me feel a bit queasy at times. Another thing that’s described in minute detail is Adrian’s diagnosis of various patients and the ins and outs of various mental health issues. This attention to detail made it feel more like a medical journal than a historical fiction book and made the story almost grind to a halt when it was being all educational.

In The Memory of Love two out of three of the main characters are unlikable, and at times infuriating, the story wasn’t engaging and nothing about it was memorable. I was just going through the motions listening to this on audio, just like the characters were and their lives and romances weren’t captivating at all. 1/5.

READ THE WORLD – Libya: Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda

Translated by Adriana Hunter.

Set in Tripoli in 1960, Hadachinou is a young, lonely boy who is surrounded by the women in his life. In the sweltering heat he sneaks through the sun-drenched streets, listening in on the whispered stories of the women in his life. He becomes an invisible witness to their repressed desires and solely becomes aware of his own.

Under the Tripoli Sky is a very short book at 104 pages and it’s a very meandering kind of story. It’s made up of little snap shots of Hadachinou’s life and the interactions with the different women in his life. There’s his mother and her friends, his aunts and cousins, and a young girl that helps out around his house. He has a lot of freedom and because he’s a child, he often goes unnoticed by his mother when she has her female friends in the house. As he’s unseen he can watch and listen from the side lines, and through his voyeurism he begins to be aware of women’s desires and his own. Though that doesn’t mean he understands them.

The writing in Under the Tripoli Sky is poetic and immersive. The heat, the sand and the sea are easy to imagine as Hadachinou explores his city. There’s almost a dreamlike quality to Under the Tripoli Sky as Hadachinou has so much freedom and a seemingly idyllic childhood. But it’s a dream that we, as the reader, know must come to an end as it’s set before Gaddafi came to power and so the society in Tripoli in this story is quite different to what one might think of Tripoli and Libya today.

Under the Tripoli Sky is a coming of age tale about an inquisitive child. Hadachinou may be privy to more than the adults in his life are aware but that doesn’t mean he understands it all. There’s some interesting insights into Libyan society in the early 1960s, the troubles and traumas that face women but also how things do seem to be evolving, but overall it’s a book that’s composed of vignettes that don’t leave a lasting impression.