family drama

READ THE WORLD – Brunei: Written in Black by K.H. Lim

A snapshot of a few days in the life of ten-year-old Jonathan Lee, attending the funeral of his Ah Kong, or grandfather, and still reeling from the drama of his mother leaving for Australia and his older brother getting kicked out of the house and joining a rock band. Annoyed at being the brunt of his father’s pent-up anger, Jonathan escapes his grandfather’s wake in an empty coffin and embarks on a journey through the backwaters of Brunei to bring his disowned brother back for the funeral and to learn the truth about his absent mother.

Jonathan as a character could be equal parts interesting and infuriating at times. I do tend to struggle reading books from a child’s point of view and with Jonathan he seemed far more confident and surer of himself than the average ten-year-old. He does make brash decisions and argues with his siblings and cousin like any child would but sometimes he came across as older than his years with his ability to talk himself out of (and into) a lot of situations. Then there’s the times when he just seems incredibly bitter about everything he’s got going on in life. Some of it seems like a fair thing to be bitter about like how his father won’t talk about his mother and how he keeps missing her phone calls. Other time’s though it’s like that fatalistic attitude that teenagers have turned up to the max – I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such a dramatic ten-year-old.

The adventure Jonathan goes on to find his older brother who might hold the key to be able to contact their mother is fun one. Just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong but Jonathan never stops trying to achieve his goal. He’s got this single-minded determinedness that’s impressive.

As an atheist (though I was christened a Catholic) I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the descriptions of Ah Kong’s funeral and the various traditions that Jonathan and the rest of the family had to take part in. The funeral is a Chinese one and there’s mentions of another character having been to Malay funerals but not Chinese ones, showing how there’s different tradition in each cultures funeral and that Brunei as a country is a mix of different people with different heritages, which was interesting.

Written in Black is a quick and easy book to read with an engaging story that keeps you turning the page. The plotline about Jonathan’s absent mother isn’t really given a satisfactory resolution though – or much of a resolution to be honest. In some ways it feels like his mother is avoiding him rather than his three other siblings and it’s sad there’s never really an explanation for that or anything to show that she cares about Jonathan just as much as her other children. Besides from that, it’s a fast-paced and decent coming of age story and Jonathan certainly does seem to mature a lot in such a short space of time. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Kuwait: Mama Hissa’s Mice by Saud Alsanousi

Translated by Sawad Hussain.

Growing up together in the Surra section of central Kuwait, Katkout, Fahd, and Sadiq share neither ethnic origin nor religious denomination—only friendship and a rage against the unconscionable sectarian divide turning their lives into war-zone rubble. To lay bare the ugly truths, they form the protest group Fuada’s Kids. Their righteous transgressions have made them targets of both Sunni and Shi’a extremists. They’ve also elicited the concern of Fahd’s grandmother, Mama Hissa, a story-spinning font of piety, wisdom, superstition, and dire warnings, who cautions them that should they anger God, the sky will surely fall. Then one day, after an attack on his neighbourhood leaves him injured, Katkout regains consciousness. His friends are nowhere to be found. Inundated with memories of his past, Katkout begins a search for them in a world that has become unrecognizable but not forsaken.

Mama Hissa’s Mice is one of those stories were the chapters alternate between the present and many years in the past. In the present, forty-two-year-old Katkout wakes up injured in the street and struggles to get to where he and his friends host a radio show in the hopes of finding Fahd and Sadiq there waiting for him. In the past, it’s all about their childhood, their families and what life was like before, during and after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War. The three friends were about twelve or thirteen during the invasion and I personally find it really interesting when big historical and dangerous events are shown through the eyes of a child. Because Katkout and his friends know bad things are happening but they also have fun and don’t always comprehend the seriousness of what’s happening.

Fahd and Sadiq’s fathers are sworn enemies and Katkout often finds himself in the middle of their arguments. Their feud, which sometimes trickles down to the two boys, is because one is Sunni and the other is Shia. Katkout doesn’t understand the differences or what it means to be one and not the other and as a child when he asks his mother which they are she refuses to answer, just saying they are Muslim. Mama Hissa is the matriarch of Fahd’s family and she is the only one that can stop the arguments between the two neighbours. As a child, Katkout loves spending time with her, in their home, listening to her stories and learning a lot.

Though I sometimes like what was happening in the past more than the present, and vice versa, having these two narratives run side by side complimented each other. The tension built in the present as it becomes clear Katkout is hiding something as he and his friends become the targets of violence, meanwhile in the past the political divides become clearer as the boys get older and understand things more.

I found the stud during and after the Gulf War really interesting as the only time I’ve seen it in books or films before is with a focus on the American allied forces and what they were doing, rather than what was happening to the average Kuwaiti. In Mama Hissa’s Mice the American’s weren’t always shown in the best light and it’s shocking how quickly things can change for families overnight when decisions are being made by governments or countries that normally have nothing to do with them.

Mama Hissa’s Mice works best because of the narrative structure. Getting the glimpses of the past and the future and seeing how history repeats itself or how characters ended up on the path they’re on makes things more interesting than if it’d been a linear narrative. Katkout can be a frustrating character, both when he’s a child and an adult, but he is the glue that holds a lot of the other characters together.

Y is for The Year of Spectacular Men (2017)

After graduating and kind of breaking up with her boyfriend, Izzy Klein (Madelyn Deutch) decides to move back to LA from New York and move in with her successful younger sister Sabrina (Zoey Deutch). As Izzy tries to figure out what she wants from life she makes the most of her freedom and binge watches The X-Files and meets many guys who could possibly be “the one”.

I feel after I highlighted the potential nepotism in Quincy, I have to give The Year of Spectacular Men equal treatment. It’s directed by Lea Thompson (who also plays Izzy and Sabrina’s mother) and stars her real-life daughters and while they both have acting experience prior to this film, it’s interesting to think if some of the scenes between the daughters and mother would have the same natural and comforting vibe as these three do.

The Year of Spectacular Men is kind of a combination of coming-of-age story, rom-com, and family drama and as it tries to be so many things at once, it doesn’t always nail each one. I think the aspect that works best is the coming-of-age one as Izzy is at a crossroads in her life, trying to figure out what she wants to do after university. She’s had many different ideas or interests that she’s picked up and then dropped and she is sort of in limbo when it comes to romance. She seems to simultaneously get really attached to a guy while also doing what she can to push them away. It’s as if because she’s so unsure of herself, she’s unsure of any relationship in her life.

Perhaps it’s a given as they are real life sisters but the scenes with Izzy and Sabrina are the highlight of tis film. Their relationship is the heart of the film and it’s interesting how though Sabrina is the younger one, she seems to have her life more together as she has a home, a boyfriend, and a blossoming career as an actress/model. It’d be easy to have Izzy be resentful of her little sister but instead she admires her, helps her and always wants to protect her – even from things that she really shouldn’t. it’s still an interesting dynamic as Sabrina is the one encouraging Izzy to find a job, helps her make connections, and just try and get her out of her spare room.

The humour in The Year of Spectacular Men is more of the quirky and sometimes absurd kind rather than huge laughs. Izzy see things in an unusual way at times and how she acts around other people is sometimes awkward as she’s not totally comfortable in herself.

The Year of Spectacular Men is a pretty breezy rom-com/drama. The familial dynamics are the best and it’s always nice seeing films about messy twentysomething women who don’t have everything figured out. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Mauritania: The Desert and the Drum by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

Trigger warning for rape and loss of a child.

Translated by Rachael McGill.

Everything changes for Rayhana when foreigners with strange machines arrive to mine for metal near her Bedouin camp. One of them is the enigmatic Yahya. Her association with him leads Rayhana to abandon all that she has ever known and flee alone to the city. But when her tribe discover she has stolen their sacred drum, they pursue her to exact their revenge.

I feel like I’ve learnt a lot during my Read the World Project and had a lot of firsts and The Desert and the Drum is another one as it’s the first novel ever to be translated into English from Mauritania. It’s a pretty short and easily readable story with a character that you can’t help but empathise with.

Rayhana is a part of a nomadic tribe that’s big on tradition and honour. As her mother is the tribe leader’s sister, she feels she has a place of importance and honour and will do anything to protect it, even if that means hurting her daughter. While the Bedouin camp is completely different to what I have experience, the whole “keeping up appearances” thing is so universal it was sad to see the way Rayhana was treated by those who supposedly cared about her just to save face.

The chapters tend to alternate between the present when Rayhana is running away, meeting new people, and going into the city for the first time, and the past where she was a part of the tribe, taken advantage of by Yahya and then shunned by her mother. From these chapters in the past, you get to understand more of why Rayhana hates he mother so much but the reasons why she wants to hurt the tribe by stealing their sacred drum are more blurred. I think it’s because she sees her mother as a product of the tribe’s rules and culture so feels everyone is to blame and should suffer but I’m not sure. Are the traditions wrong when only one person is slighted but the others are content with what’s around them?

The Desert and the Drum does end quite abruptly and gives neither the reader nor Rayhana any sort of closure. It’s a bit of a sad story really, and though Rayhana does find help from some people (mostly women) she never truly feels safe as she’s so naïve by how things work in a town or city and some of the men she meets appear to have ulterior motives.

J is for Jenny’s Wedding (2015)

Jenny’s (Katherine Heigl) parents and siblings are always trying to set her up but little do they know she’s already met the right person – her “roommate” Kitty (Alexis Bledel). When Jenny finally feels ready to come out to her family as she and Jenny want to get married, it shakes everything her traditional parents know.

Jenny’s Wedding is one of those films that’s technically about gay characters but is more about their family and how (straight) audiences would relate to the family’s confusion and hurt at being lied to and their general misunderstanding when it comes to their daughter and her relationship. That’s not to say Jenny’s Wedding is bad, just that going into it you’ve got to know it’s not a lesbian romcom and is more a family drama with a dash of gay on the side.

Heigl and Bledel don’t really have any chemistry and not enough time is spent on them to really believe in their relationship, or even believe that they’re more than the roommates they’ve been saying they were for the past five years. Katherine Heigl though did give a great performance whenever she was with her family. She really sells the hurt and fear she had about coming out and how once she feels in a place to be truthful, because of her mother’s (Linda Emond) fear of being judged by her friends and neighbours, is forced to continue lying to keep her happy. How she’s pushed to almost breaking point by her parents continuing to act like everything’s the same while also ignoring huge part of her life and identity is tough to watch.

There’s a side plot with Jenny’s sister Anne (Grace Gunner) who by seeing how happy Jenny is with Kitty, comes to reassess her own marriage and happiness. That was a sweet moment and how Anne and Jenny worked through some of their sibling issues once everything was in the open was good too.

While the overall plot is a bit cliché, the dialogue between various feels authentic and the cast all give good performances. As long as you know it won’t be a romcom and is in fact quite sad and painful at times, Jenny’s Wedding is a decent watch. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Suriname: The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod

Trigger warnings for slavery and all the mistreatment that comes with that.

Set in Suriname between 1965 and 1979, The Cost of Sugar is the story of two Jewish step sisters, Elza and Sarith, descendants of Dutch settlers and the children of a plantation owner. Their pampered existences become intertwined with the fate of the plantations as the slaves decide to fight against the violent repression they have endured for too long.

The Cost of Sugar begins when Elza and Sarith are teenagers. They’d grown up with each other since they were children and were close until they started to think about marriage. They’re two very different people; Elza is kind and sometimes a bit of a doormat whereas Sarith is strong-willed and flighty. That’s kind of a nice way to describe Sarith to be honest.

I think this is the first book I’ve ever read that had a narcissist protagonist, or maybe I’m more aware of what the characteristics of a narcissist are so could actually name and somewhat understand Sarith’s actions. To begin with, Sarith seems like a typical rebellious and jealous teen. She’s beautiful and gets a lot of attention and had sex when doing so before marriage is obviously a big no no but when Elza meets a man and apparently finds love and marriage, Sarith gets jealous. She can’t stand someone else being the centre of attention or getting something she doesn’t have. It isn’t even a case of something she wants, it’s like Sarith doesn’t know what she wants, or she wants something just because someone else has it.

As the years go on it’s clear that Sarith is incredibly self-centred and craves attention. She wants to socialise and go to parties, even when she does get a husband and has a child. She wants to be able to have affairs but as soon as her husband seeks attention elsewhere and maybe even falls in love she does everything in her power to destroy it.

It’s not just the sisters attitudes to love and relationships that is different but also their attitude towards slaves. They’ve both grown up with house girls and slaves and are used to others doing things for them but where Sarith is cruel and sees the servants as lesser than, Elza cares about them and loves those who have been a part of her family for so long. Sure, as they’re slaves it can be argued they don’t have much of a choice about being kind towards Elza but there is a different amount of respect between Elza and her slaves and that of Sarith and hers.

While all the family drama is going on (Elza is content to be a wife and mother while Sarith implodes her life in different ways) there’s also the uprising of runaway slaves who attack plantations, killing the white owners, setting the slaves free and looting and burning what’s left. As The Cost of Sugar is almost always from the white characters points of view, these attacks are seen as a looming threat and it’s almost like a ticking timebomb for how long their life of privilege can last. There are few “good” white characters. Elza’s husband for instance came from the Netherlands to Suriname as an adult so has a different idea of how slaves should be treated as he’s so used to what is seen as the norm there. He teaches his houseboy how to read and write and speak Dutch and gives him the opportunity to earn his freedom. Still, any white character who has slaves and does nothing to change things isn’t that good.

The Cost of Sugar is an interesting look at the that time period and the dynamic between plantation owners and slaves outside of North America. I don’t think I’d read a story that focused on white European slave owners rather than American ones before. While there are certainly a lot of similarities, there were some cultural differences too which was interesting. For instance, the bigotry towards Jewish white people from the protestant white people is brought up throughout the novel. The Cost of Sugar is a pretty engaging read and the short chapters and different characters points of view help make it a quick read. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guinea: The Dark Child by Camara Laye

Translated by Ernest Jones and James Kirkup.

A coming-of-age memoir about Camara Laye’s youth in the village of Koroussa, Guinea. Laye recounts his mother’s supernatural powers, his father’s prestige as a goldsmith, and his own passage into manhood which is marked with rituals. As he gets older, he must choose between his home and his academic talents which could lead him far from his family.

The Dark Child is a very quick and easy read. As it’s a memoir it’s written in the first person and it’s written quite simply, in part presumably because the narrator in question is a young child for most of it – the book ends when he is about eighteen. Camara Laye grew up in the 1930s in a village and he was one of the first in his family to go to school. He grew up experiencing the culture and traditions of his family and people but also started to embrace the slowly encroaching modern world.

There’s one chapter that’s all about when he was circumcised when he was about twelve or thirteen and how that was the moment he, and the other boys, became men. It was interesting but surprising as I just presumed that if a child was going to be circumcised it happened when they were a baby, not when they were prepubescent. The rituals he and the other boys experienced were a huge part of life in their village and while they didn’t really know exactly what was going to happen to them, they knew other boys (or young men) who had gone through it, including their own fathers.

It was interesting to see these rituals from both an outsider and insiders’ perspective. As while most of The Dark Child felt like a present narrative from the eyes of a child, there were moments when Laye would reflect on events as an adult and explain things that he had found out since he experienced them as a child. Things that seemed like magic and real as a child were then explained and were not so scary once he found out how certain things happened. But, as he did go away from home for school as he got older, there were something’s about the traditions that he never learnt the truth about.

This, and other moments like that, shows how embracing modernity can be a double-edged sword. While family may encourage a child to take the opportunities that they didn’t have, it can mean they lose out on learning things that are traditional and part of their community’s history. The Dark Child was an interesting coming-of-age story and how it blends superstition with education shows there’s value in both for people. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Seed (2021)

After being victims of gentrification Rainer (Hanno Koffler) moves his family to the outskirts of the city to a house that needs a lot of work. As he toils away at home and on a building site where his position as site manager is appearing more and more precarious, his thirteen-year-old daughter Doreen (Dora Zygouri) befriends neighbour Mara (Lilith Julie Johna) whose family is a lot richer than her own.

Comparisons to social dramas from Ken Loach can be easily made as Rainer and his family are put through more and more financial and emotional turmoil. However, while the cast is good in their roles – Koffler is especially engaging – the narrative they’re in is pretty simple. As more and more burdens are place on the family, you hardly ever see why this is happening. Is it their family specifically that’s hit a rough patch, or is it part of a wider social issue and they’re not alone in this struggle? Naturally as The Seed is a German film there could well be context clues that I as a Brit living in the UK did not pick up on but it does feel like a simple way to tell this story.

Rainer’s storyline can be frustrating at times as he, like many of his fellow workers, have worked for this company for years and feels some loyalty to it. This is exacerbated by company owner Klose (Robert Stadlober) who makes promises that from an outside perspective you can see he has no intention of keeping. Rainer’s situation shows how while companies may preach that they are a family company and any success benefits all the workers, in reality that’s not the case and no one is irreplaceable.

Doreen’s struggles are typical coming-of-age fare. She’s had to leave behind her friends and the new girl she befriends has a cruel streak. As she yearns for friendship, she finds herself in situations where Mara is convincing her to steal or play dangerous tricks on other girls and when she does stand up for herself, she becomes the target.

The parallels between father and daughter and their struggles couldn’t be more on the nose. While Rainer is having to deal with a cruel and two-faced boss, Doreen is spending time with someone who is more of a bully than a friend. The way their relationship troubles build mirrors one another until they both reach their breaking point. The cutting between Rainer and Doreen’s final confrontations with their tormentors is inevitable and while it’s unsurprising, the way these confrontations turn out lead to an interesting juxtaposition.

The sound design is one notable aspect of The Seed. Any time Rainer gets overwhelmed by his situation, it’s like his anxiety spikes and a high-pitched whining, rumbles of thunder and steady but foreboding drumbeat drown out everything else around him. The sound is suffocating and is a great audio-visualisation of his current emotional state. Continuing the themes of daughter’s life mirroring her father’s, while it doesn’t happen as often to Doreen, the same techniques are implemented when everything becomes too much for her too.

While everything does slowly build to a crescendo, The Seed finishes with an open-ending. After everything that’s come before it’s hard to think of a conclusion that could be happy or even concrete while still being realistic. However, it does mean that you’re left feeling dejected and unsatisfied because as a people we tend to strive for some semblance of hope or light even in the darkest of stories, and here there is very little of that for this family. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Family Stone (2005)

Strait-laced Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) accompanies her boyfriend Everett (Dermot Mulroney) home for Christmas and to meet his outgoing family for the first time. Soon secrets are revealed and Meredith feels like the whole family hates her.

Everett’s family is big and loud and a bit chaotic. Diane Keaton is great at Sybil, the matriarch of the family, and Rachel McAdams as his snarky and brutally honest sister is often very mean but in a wry way that almost makes it OK.

Meredith and Everett do seem like an OK match to begin with and that’s because Everett doesn’t have that much of a personality. It’s how his family reacts to him when he’s with Meredith that comes across as either they’re seeing he’s pretending to be something he’s not, or that they just don’t know him at all. It’s not exactly clear who he is outside of Meredith.

The Family Stone is a bit of an odd film really. It’s a Christmas film I hadn’t even heard of until recently and while it has the typical big family Christmas and all the hijinks that typically ensue it’s also got a bit of a dark streak to it too.

Yeah, Meredith doesn’t really fit in with this family but she doesn’t come across too terrible and unlikeable until a truly cringeworthy scene at the dinner table. Thad (Tyrone Giordano), one of Everett’s brothers, is gay and Meredith sticks her foot in it by saying she doesn’t know how any parent can hope their child’s gay as it makes life so much harder for the child. She doesn’t know when to stop and as much as she tries to explain herself it makes it worse and sound even more homophobic and everyone around that dinner table is perfectly in their right to get mad at her but the way things play out it’s like it’s supposed to be an easy thing to forgive.

There’s also an almost love square thing going on in The Family Stone which I wasn’t expecting and you’ve got to wonder what’s going through some of these characters heads – Everett’s especially. But it does lead to a couple of grown men chasing each other around the house and acting like kids which is something I always find amusing.

I think it’s fitting that The Family Stone is a messy film as the family at the heart of it is messy too. They’ve each got something going on in their lives including bad medical news and not great love lives. All the actors who make up the Stone family do a great job of feeling like a dysfunctional family who do love each other even though they take the mick out of one another.

The Family Stone is like an alternative Christmas film, one of those ones where family meals sometimes end in a fight and not everything can be wrapped up neatly and be a happily ever after. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Belize: Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell

Fourteen-year-old Beka and her best friend Toycie (who’s seventeen) are on the cusp of adulthood. They have family, school and boys to contend with as their home and everyone they know have to deal with the political upheaval as Belize strives towards independence.

Beka Lamb is set in the early 1950s and at this point Belize was a British colony. Throughout the novel there’s mentions of different political parties, how products coming from different countries mean different things, and Beka’s grandmother is heavily involved and up to date with the meetings that are happening in town. I knew nothing of Belize’s history before reading Beka Lamb and the way the politics of the country are interwoven in the story made things easy to understand and gave context to the reasons why characters said and did certain things. Having the story be from Beka’s point of view meant that there was almost a naivety to it at times as she had a lot of growing up to do.

As well as the political upheaval Beka’s family are living through there’s also how the Catholic church is a dominating presence in their lives – especially Beka and Toycie’s as the school they go to is run by nuns. The influence the women at the school have over them and the wider society can’t be underestimated. When Beka’s father asks them for help or even understanding when a situation arises, they refuse saying it’s a slight upon the school and their values.

The friendship between Beka and Toycie is the really heart of this story. Even though there’s three years between them they are really close and help each other in different ways. Toycie can help Beka with her school work while Beka will be a sometimes-reluctant alibi when Toycie wants to sneak out to see a boy. The differences in their homelives are glaring but also shows how strong their friendship is as there’s no resentment from Toycie. Beka lives with her parents, young brothers and her grandmother and while not well-off they don’t struggle financially. Toycie on the other hand lives with her aunt and she does struggle to provide for Toycie and is clearly living below the poverty line.

Beka Lamb is a pretty standard coming of age story; Beka tries to find her voice, do well in school, and stop lying. Having this story set in Belize and in a time of political and social upheaval adds extra layers to Beka’s story and while some thing’s are universal, others are deeply personal. 3/5.