family drama

READ THE WORLD – Georgia: The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin.

Trigger warnings for rape, domestic violence, forced abortion, and torture.

At the start of the twentieth century, on the edge of the Russian Empire, a family prospers. It owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe, passed down the generations with great solemnity and caution. A caution which is justified: this is a recipe for ecstasy that carries a very bitter aftertaste. Stasia learns it from her Georgian father and takes it north, following her new husband, Simon, to his posting at the centre of the Russian Revolution in St Petersburg. Stasia’s is only the first in a symphony of grand but all too often doomed romances that swirl from sweet to sour in this epic tale of the red century.

The Eighth Life is a sprawling epic, following one family through the generations for over one hundred years, spanning the twentieth century and beyond. It gives an insight into what life was like in Georgia when it was a part of the USSR and controlled by the powers that be in Moscow, and how the struggle for independence does not go smoothly.

The story of the Jashi family in The Eighth Life is told by Niza to her young niece Brilka. She recounts the family history, from her great-great-grandmother Stasia to her and her sister Daria, and all of the love and tragedy that befalls the family and their close friends in that time. The different members of the family experience so much heartache, it’s almost cruel or depressing how unlucky or sad their lives often turn out. Nothing ever runs smoothly for them, and there are so many instances when actions of previous generations have unforeseen repercussions on their descendants. Whether the tragedies that befall each member of the family is down to having a taste of the amazing yet potentially cursed chocolate, is down to you to decide.

This family saga takes place during the heights of communism. Various historical figures are mentioned either explicitly by name, or through their nicknames or other references. If you know more about the important figures in Russia and USSR’s history, they may be easier to pick up than if you don’t. Personally, I studied the Russian revolution in college and then only have a passing knowledge of Stalin and Lenin and know little about the other important figures of that time. I was still able to follow the passage of time, and with the Jashi family connected to the KGB and Moscow top brass, it was an interesting way to learn more about this period of history and how the extreme rules and surveillance could effect the everyday person.

At over 900 pages long The Eighth Life really is an epic novel. It takes its time to develop the many characters, but it also does a great job at keeping track of the family connections, and the little call backs to past events or conversations work really well. It’s an engaging read, and the writing is often beautiful. It’s fascinating to see how much can change in one person’s lifetime. How history can affect them in both big and small ways, and how events can shape a person so completely.

The Eighth Life is a fascinating yet often harrowing read. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of war or from how cruel people can be to one another, and how some people must close themselves off from feeling anything in order to survive. This might make The Eighth Life sound like a depressing read, and it can be at times as you wonder at how much suffering a person can take, but it also captures the many emotions people go through in life. There’s still love in its various forms, and hope, and freedom. It’s just unfortunate that those who are in love or free, can’t always experience it with the ones they want to the most. 5/5.

REVIEW: Little Women (2019)

The four March sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.

I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott for the first time a couple of years ago. It was a book I thought was just alright, and I didn’t really see how it had become such a classic and my lasting impression of it was how much I hated Amy March. So it was with some trepidation I went to see this latest adaptation, but I was very surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this film and how it made me connect with all of the March sisters and it even made me tolerate Amy.

This feat was accomplished by the actor’s performances and writer and director Greta Gerwig’s brilliant screenplay. There are two timelines happening in Little Women. The present has Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is living in New York and trying to earn a living writing stories until she’s called home as her sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is sick where she reconnects with her mother (Laura Dern) and her older sister Meg (Emma Watson), while Amy (Florence Pugh) is travelling Europe with their Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Then there’s the other timeline that starts 7 years earlier where you can see how the sisters would put on plays, had dreams and aspirations that are so different from one another’s and how they are all determined to make their lives their own.

These timelines are easy to follow due to the characters costumes and how in the flashback scenes, the colours and costumes seem so much brighter, while the colour palette of the present scenes is a lot more muted, mirroring how the sisters have grown up and apart. It’s also fascinating to see the sisters grow into the people we see in the present, and how their relationships may change but continue to be so strong.

Also central to the story of Little Women is the March sisters’ friend and neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). He finds friendship and love and family with the March’s and his relationship with Jo is so important to the two of the but for different reasons.

Little Women has a beautiful score, wonderful costumes that add layers to the already complex characters and is shot so well. Gerwig’s Little Women is funny, touching and it makes you feel so happy and content by the end of it, even if some tears are shed along the way. It’s a delightful story told so well because the actors don’t just play their characters brilliantly, they embody the March sisters’ heart and soul. Ronan and Pugh particularly standout but while Beth and Meg have more understated roles, Scanlen and Watson bring out all of the layers to their characters just as well as Ronan and Pugh.

Little Women was a wonderful surprise in how much I loved it and while it is quite the feminist story, it’s also a universal story about love, family and find your place in the world. 5/5.

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.

REVIEW: Unlikely Angel (1996)

When performer Ruby Diamond (Dolly Parton) meets an untimely demise, she finds she hasn’t done enough to get straight into heaven. Saint Peter (Roddy McDowall) says she has one chance, she needs to reunite a workaholic widower father (Brian Kerwin) and his two children, rebellious teenager Sarah (Alison Mack) and quiet Matthew (Eli Marienthal) before midnight on Christmas Eve.

Everything about Unlikely Angel is cliché and easy to predict but that’s part of its charm. It’s sometimes nice to watch a film where you have a pretty good idea of what all the moments of conflict will be about, and you know everything will turn out alright in the end.

There are all the usual tropes, Sarah acts out wanting attention from her dad, while Matthew is scared his father is going to forget about his mum if they move on, and it’s up to Ruby to smooth things out. Then there’s the time limit element, as Ruby must reunite this feuding family and bring Christmas back to their lives before it’s too late for her.

The interactions between Peter and Ruby were equal parts sweet and amusing. They’re two very different characters but they bounce off each other well as either Ruby pesters Peter for advice, or Peter does something to stop her having “impure thoughts” about the men she might meet.

What I liked about Unlikely Angel was how Ruby grew as a person over the course of the film. She was always likeable (being played by Dolly Parton certainly helps with that) but she always looked out for number one before she died, but she grew to care so much about this family that she puts her potential future in Heaven on the line to see them happy.

There’s a couple of original songs written and sung by Dolly Parton in Unlikely Angel that will either make you get up and dance or profess your love to someone. “Unlikely Angel” (the song not the movie) is actually quite lovely and Dolly Parton’s voice is always beautiful.

Unlikely Angel is peak Christmas TV movie but with added Dolly Parton it means it isn’t quite as grating as it could be. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Haiti: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Narrated by Robin Miles.

Trigger warnings for sexual abuse, child abuse, eating disorders (bulimia), suicide, self-harm, breast cancer and rape.

Sophie is raised by her aunt in an impoverished village in Haiti but when she is twelve years old her mother sends for her and she moves from all she knows to New York City to be with a mother she barely remembers. As Sophie grows up, she clashes with her mother over the “testing” and she tries to find her own way.

“Testing” is a Haitian tradition where a mother would test to see if their daughter is still a virgin by inserting their finger into their daughter’s vagina to check that the hymen is intact. Sophie is mentally and physically scarred by the ordeal as she would have to go through the testing every night once she was in her late teens. It naturally puts a strain on her relationship with her mother, but her mother feels it’s her duty to make sure her daughter stays pure and virtuous, plus it’s something her mother and her aunt was subjected to as well. When Sophie returns to Haiti with her own five-month year old daughter, she learns that the testing happened to her grandmother and her grandmother has no regrets over testing her children even though she knew the pain and humiliation well. The testing is a tradition and is framed as a mother’s job to do to make sure her daughter stays a virgin until she’s married.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is quite a sad book really. It tackles a lot of tough topics (please do heed the trigger warnings) though it doesn’t give all of them the time they deserve to develop. It seems almost impossible how much pain and suffering the women in one family can go through. All the women in Sophie’s family have been hurt in different ways but they are all incredibly resilient because of it. That doesn’t mean they don’t hurt each other though; Sophie and her mother clash a lot and Sophie’s grandmother can be cruel to her daughters.

I found Sophie’s forgiveness of her mother to be too quick for what Sophie had been through. I liked how Sophie struggled with what her mother had done to her, but at the same time understood that her mother tested her out of her version of love and because it’s what happened to her. Still, it didn’t seem like their reconciliation took long at all when Sophie was well in her right to continue to keep her distance from her mother, no matter the pressure her grandmother put on her to forgive her. The ending of Breath, Eyes, Memory felt rushed as another problem or tragedy was added to Sophie and her mother’s lives, taking up the time that could’ve been spent on giving their reconciliation more time to feel natural.

The audio book of Breath, Eyes, Memory is narrated well but the language used in the book is quite simple. It adds some distance from the drama and serious topics do not feel as hard-hitting as they could. Breath, Eyes, Memory is a tough read about family, shared trauma, gender and sexual identity. It’s a lot to cram into a relatively short book and somethings do get lost along the way. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Oman: Celestial Bodies by Johka Alharthi

Translated by Marilyn Booth.

Set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, Celesital Bodies follows the lives of three sisters. Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. These three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present.

The chapters in Celestial Bodies alternate between the first-person point of view of Abdallah and with the third person point of view of different characters. Pretty much every other character has a part of the story told from their point of view, though some are the focus more often than others. This part of the story is, for the most part, told linearly starting with Mayya’s marriage, her having her first child and then as her younger sisters get older, their experiences in marriage and romance. With the chapters from Abdallah’s point of view, they are almost always far in the future from what you read about the sisters, he reflects on his marriage and family, and his relationship with his cruel father.

The way the story jumps back and forth can be a bit confusing as sometimes Abdallah talks about how he perceives events or people before we’ve met them in the other half of the story. It does flesh those events/people out a bit more which is needed as the book spans a good few decades in the way characters reminisce about past events or talk about their children who are now adults when in the previous chapter, they were still young children.

There’s a lot of characters in Celestial Bodies as the story ends up spanning multiple generations. There is a family tree at the start of the book, which is helpful but unfortunately, I read the book on my kindle which made it a bit more difficult to flick back and check who was who and how they related to everyone else.

Celestial Bodies gives an insight into Oman and how the country and its people are changing. There are characters who once were slaves and now that the government has ruled that slavery is illegal, they are free. But while some want to leave the place they grew up and were a slave, wanting to truly be free, others feel that their life is good and that the man who owned them treated them well so why should they leave.

For a book where you only seem to spend a short time with each character as they are at a certain point in their lives before moving forward (or back) months or years, you do get a strong sense of who they are. The three sisters and their marriages are at the centre of this story and out of the three it is Mayya and her husband and children that gets the most attention, so you feel you understand her more than the other two.

Celestial Bodies is a beautiful book about love and family and the changes they go through over time. It also shows how people grow and change, as does the country and culture they are a part of, but those changes sometimes don’t happen at the same time and can cause conflict. 4/5.