family drama

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.

READ THE WORLD – Cape Verde: The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio

Translated by Jethro Soutar.

Serrano is an isolated village where a so-called madwoman roams. One day a young woman is found in the forest by Jerónimo and though the villagers are suspicious of this foreigner Jerónimo falls in love with her. When she gives birth and then disappears, Jerónimo raises and loves her daughter who he names Filipa. Years later the two are estranged and as Filipa becomes a business woman in the city, the village of Serrano is under threat by plans to build a dam. As villagers are forced to move, will Jerónimo and Filipa be able to reconnect?

The Madwoman of Serrano is a book that slowly grew on me and the last couple of chapters surprised me when there were some impactful moments there that I wasn’t expecting and actually made me realise how invested I was in some of these characters.

I think what I struggled to begin with with The Madwoman of Serrano was the narrative structure. It bounces between different characters points of view (not that confusing) and different time periods (what did throw me). To begin with there was no mention of Jerónimo and then when he does meet the mysterious woman, after that the time shifts from decades in the future where Filipa is an adult with her own teen daughter, to back when she’s five years old, to when she’s a teenager and back again. Tracking Filipa’s age is one of the only ways I could try and orientate myself. Especially once I realised what was happening because when it went from an adult-Filipa point of view chapter to a Jerónimo point of view I’d think they were in the same time period until there’s mentions of young-Filipa who appears to be mute, still living with Jerónimo in the village.

The village of Serrano are full of people who are not happy and seem to relish in the misfortune of others. They don’t like Filipa when she’s mute, the men of the village judge the women and the women can be mean towards anyone else they see as lesser than. The madwoman, a woman who is probably seen as mad as she’s independent and wise and perhaps a bit magical, lives at the edge of this society. She strikes up a friendship with young Filipa when no one but Jerónimo cares for her, which in turn does make Filipa more shunned as what sane child would spend time with a madwoman.

The Madwoman of Serrano does a good job of showing the toxicity of the small town (or in this case village) mentality, and how the patriarchy can harm the men as well as the women. Though the midwife of the village is the most important figure, men in the village see sex as their right and will beat any woman who refuses for whatever reason.

Some of the characters in the village are so horrible it’s a wonder that someone like Jerónimo manages to be so kind – though he’s not always kind, how he treats his wife is horrible but does feed into how the people of the village, the men especially, never talk about their emotions.

The Madwoman of Serrano is a strangely captivating book once I’d gotten my head around the time jumps. Slowly backstories are revealed and minor events mentioned in passing chapters before suddenly have meaning The Madwoman of Serrano is mostly a story about family, and the family you choose whether that’s friends or adoptive family. There’s also the idea of fate having a hand in characters lives, and there’s the odd unexplainable moment that can only be put down to magic.

READ THE WORLD – Turkmenistan: The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar

Translated by W.M. Coulson.

After industrialists convince a village of fishermen and their families on the coast of the Caspian Sea, they start to make plans to move to the city. All but one, Araz refuses to leave and give up his ancestral home and his trade of being a fisherman. As tensions rise between Araz and the elderly fishermen, the ghost of Aypi, a woman betrayed and murdered by her husband and her village, begins to exact revenge on the villagers.

The Tale of Aypi is such a strange little story. It’s one that starts out relatively simple but then becomes a story that’s laced with mystery and magic as it becomes difficult to tell what is and isn’t real.

There’s a lot of true to life problems Araz and the other fisherman are facing. The majority of them have come to terms with the fact they are being forcibly relocated, and many of them are starting to see it as a necessity in order to keep connected to their children and grandchildren, as their city-living is so different to village life. Araz is like a one man protest as even his wife is looking to the future outside the village, even though she wouldn’t tell him that. The way Araz is almost abducted by the police so corrupt officials can hold and intimidate him to try and get him to agree to move from the village is very uncomfortable but also almost funny as Araz has such a strong sense of purpose he refuses to move.

Then there’s the ghost of Aypi. The way she interacts with the village and its people is interesting. It’s like she changes shape depending on who she is trying to influence or torment, and the thin line between real and imaginary is always there. Sometimes she’s a physical presence, she can be seen by the villagers and have conversations with them, while there’s other times where she attacks them in a fit of rage and they see a sandstorm. Then there’s also the blurring between dreams and reality where thing’s happen before someone wakes up and is unsettled by the whole encounter.

Aypi’s rage is certainly justified, and she offers some interesting ideas on the roles of men and women and their relationship in society. How what both men and women want has changed so men are more interested in finding foreign wives to fit in their strict moulds as the local women are striving for something else. There are some impactful lines like: “Women’ve lost their natural personality, and men’ve become too submissive and they can’t take it anymore.”

The Tale of Aypi is odd and melancholy as so many characters in this story have sad or hard lives. While many of the villagers have decided to give in and move, it’s clear that they won’t have it easy when they’re in the city as their attitudes are so different to people from the city. The Tale of Aypi is a story of community and cultural clash. The inclusion of Aypi the vengeful spirit is sometimes hard to follow as she often goes from being an almost solid person to some sort of spirit who isn’t connect to anything. Still, The Tale of Aypi is a compelling story and at less than 200 pages it packs in a lot of thoughts and ideas into it.

READ THE WORLD – Malta: In the Name of the Father (and of the Son) by Immanuel Mifsud

Translated by Albert Gatt.

After the funeral, a grieving son starts reading the diary his dead father had kept during the Second World War. As he turns each page, searching for a trace of the man he remembers, a portrait of an individual unfolds; a figure made both strange and familiar through the handwritten observations, the yearnings and the confessions.

At under 70 pages this novella manages to be impactful and almost whimsical at the same time. It can be a little hard to follow at times as the unnamed narrator tends to jump back and forth in his memories of his father. Sometimes he’s recounting a story of when he was a young child, and what he felt in that moment, while in others he’s then looking back on an event with through the eyes of his adult self, offering a different perspective to the one he had as a child.

The first chapter was the most interesting to me as that contained extracts from the father’s diary from when he joined the British army, in the King’s Own Malta Regiment in December 1939 at age nineteen. A lot of it was just the everyday goings on of life in the army but the diary is the springboard for the son’s thoughts about his father’s time in the military and how that shaped him as a man.

What it means to be a man and how soldiers and men don’t cry is a big factor. How the father’s attitude towards his son for any perceived weakness, how the son likes the feeling of tears running down his face, and how he only ever saw his father cry twice and both times his father had tried to hide it from everyone. It’s clear to see how this strict masculinity has affected the son and caused him to rethink certain elements of himself. It’s something he also muses about, masculinity and the role of a father, when he has his own son.

One thing that was a bit unusual, was how the narrator would bring in quotes or ideas from different writers and theorists and then relate them to his father and his memories of him. This little novella had footnotes with references to textbooks and it made the reading experience a real mix of things.

With the theory stuff it sometimes seemed academic, then there was the historical aspect, giving a brief rundown of the political landscape in Malta and how his father interacted with it, and then there’s the family and relationship history making it a condensed memoir. All these elements means that when reading it, there’s a distance to In the Name of the Father (and of the Son). It’s like the narrator is looking through the fog of memory, trying to work through his grief and thoughts. It’s an interesting and thoughtful reading experience and one that cant help but leave you feeling a little melancholy. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guyana: In Praise of Love and Children by Beryl Gilroy

After false starts in teaching and social work, Melda Hayley finds her mission in fostering the damaged children of the first generation of Black settlers in a deeply racist 1950s Britain. But though Melda finds daily uplift in her work, her inner life starts to come apart. Her brother Arnie has married a white woman and his defection from the family and the distress Melda witnesses in the children she fosters causes her own buried wounds to weep. But though the past drives Melda towards breakdown, she finds strength there too, especially in the memories of the loving, supporting women of the yards.

In Praise of Love and Children is a story about love. Not romantic love, though some secondary characters are in relationships, but familial love. The love Melda does (or doesn’t) feel from certain members of her family are a big part of this story, likewise how she has a huge capacity to love the many children she fosters. Some might be only for a few weeks while others find a home with her for years.

I’m not sure how to write about this without coming across ignorant and/or racist but I’ll give it a go. When Melda moves to London and stays with her older brother Arnie she meets his girlfriend Trudi (who later becomes his wife and mother of his child), a white woman who had escaped to Switzerland after her family was killed in Germany when she was a teenager. Melda has an instant dislike for Trudi and it’s clear it’s because Trudi is a white woman and Melda feels she is turning Arnie into something he is not and distancing him from their family. I found those passages hard to read as Melda has a visceral hatred for Trudi. It took me (a white woman) by surprise and it did make me a little uncomfortable. After thinking about it though, I think it made me uncomfortable more because it surprised me. I hadn’t really seen this hatred in a book like this before. I think it’s because in media – films, books and TV – that’s set in the past, so often the Black characters are shown to be the better people in the face of racism, they turn the other cheek or do their best to ignore it and not interact. In In Praise of Love and Children Melda isn’t passive, she knows her own mind and is unafraid to show hostility towards Trudi, even when at times it seems like Trudi is generally trying to be friendly towards her future sister-in-law.

It’s interesting because the conflict between Melda and Trudi becomes this underlying element throughout the whole book. While it is tied to Melda’s view on white people, it’s also tied to how she sees and feels about her family. Family is very important to her and while she believes that the children must always defer to the parents and they are their family first, with Arnie he starts to see Trudi as his priority rather than his parents and siblings that are either in London or New York.

I’ve read books, and seen a lot of film/TV, set in post-segregation America but I haven’t really experienced as much media about Black Britons post-WWII. Starting out set in the 1950s and spanning nearly two decades, In Praise of Love and Children is a small snapshot into life in Britain for the children of what we now call the Windrush generation. People from former British Empire and Commonwealth countries, especially those in the Caribbean, were encouraged to come to the UK to live and work and make a home here. There’s the little racist comments Melda hears about the few Black children in her class from the white headteacher or other staff, and there’s the mention of the culture shock parents have in bringing up their children without the support of a wider community that they had in their villages back home. There’s a line I really liked, and it can (unfortunately) be applied to people looking for a better life for themselves and their family today: “Immigrant workers went from having a firm identity – of family, village, island or religion – to having only a nominal one: foreigner.”

I ended up really enjoying In Praise of Love and Children. I thought Melda’s capacity for love after growing up being abused by her mother was admirable. There’s flashbacks to her childhood and the care and support she got from the women of the yards near her childhood home, was enough to help her when her mother’s love wasn’t there. She is a principled character and may verge on cutting of her nose to spite her face territory, but she is also caring and just. For a pretty short book (it’s under 150 pages) In Praise of Love and Children manages to pack an emotional punch as Melda tries to discover who she is and make a success of her dream to foster and care for such troubled children. 4/5.

REVIEW: Ava (2020)

Ava (Jessica Chastain) left her family behind years ago after becoming a deadly assassin who works for a black ops organisation. As Ava tries to reconnect with her mother (Geena Davis), sister (Jess Weixler) and ex-fiancé (Common), the repercussions of a job gone wrong make themselves known, she is forced to fight for her own survival.

Ava is a combination of two different genres – family drama and action thriller – and it does neither well. The family drama aspect is dull and while the thriller part is more convoluted with Ava’s mentor (John Malkovich) and employer (Colin Farrell) fighting over if she’s still capable at her job. By blending the two genres and plotlines, neither aspect is given the development it needs to be compelling. The family drama stuff drags, and the conflict between members of the black ops organisation feels out of place.

I’m a person of simple tastes and I’ll always like seeing actresses fight, and beat, guys in hand-to-hand combat, however a film isn’t a good film simply because it has that. The fight scenes are brutal, and Chastain often does end up covered in blood and bruises, but the sequences are so badly edited that they are neither easy to follow or engaging.

So often this films just seems to be going through the motions; Ava gets betrayed by her employers, she argues with her family, she gets in a fight or a shootout. It’s like the script was full of tick boxes of action or narrative beats but few of them connect with each other, so the overall plot isn’t cohesive or entertaining.

Ava is dull and generic, so if you like some mindless 90-minute action film then this would suit but it’s not memorable at all. Even though the scene with Chastain taking down a bunch of guys while wearing a backless red dress is pretty cool. 1/5.

READ THE WORLD – Zambia: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Narrated by Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

In 1904, in a smoky room at the hotel across the river, an Old Drifter named Percy M. Clark, foggy with fever, makes a mistake that entangles the fates of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy. This sets off a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families (black, white, brown) as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond. As the generations pass, their lives – their triumphs, errors, losses and hopes – form a symphony about what it means to be human.

I shall preface this review by saying it took me over two months to listen to this audiobook. Audiobooks are something I tend to listen to when I’m out and about and as I’m not going anywhere due to a pandemic it took me lot longer to read this book than normal. I think this probably did affect how much I enjoyed The Old Drift as it’s such a sprawling generational epic that I’d sometimes forget characters names between times I was listening or find it difficult to remember the different familial connections.

The Old Drift is a generational story, and it is interesting how three generations of three families can keep encountering one another in different ways and in different times. There’s romance and conflicts and just passing freak meetings, and often younger generations have no idea that their parents or grandparents may have met in some capacity before. Characters hear stories about things that as the reader you’ve already seen from someone else’s point of view and you realise that while some characters in these families might not meet themselves, they may have mutual friends or even passing strangers who have talked to them both at some point or another.

People in all three families go through love and loss, have children, and jobs and while there are universal struggles or life events The Old Drift does a good job at showing how their different backgrounds can have an effect on things. One family is descended from Italian immigrants/colonisers and one of their children then marries an Indian hairdresser. Another family is descended from a Black Zambian and a white English blind woman who ran away with her husband back to his home country. And the third family is Black, born and raised in Zambia. Due to their differences in wealth and education these families have very different lives and attitudes. One odd thing does connect them all and that’s hairdressers. A lot of the major life events for these characters happen in a hair salon or because of a hairdresser.

There’s a sci-fi element to The Old Drift I wasn’t expecting. As the story gets to the twenty-first century, there’s the technology we know, iPhones and drones for example, but then there’s advanced tech imbedded in people’s hands so they can use their had like a phone. It has a torch in a fingertip and their palm is a holographic touchscreen connected to the internet. It’s a bit jarring having these futuristic elements after previously appearing to be very true to the various periods of history these generations of characters have been living through – the AIDS epidemic plays a big role in many characters lives when the story gets to the 1980s.

There’s so much going on in The Old Drift that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who and how they’re connect, nevermind finding meaning and some sort of thread to follow through this story. Seeing events from different characters points of view, some more in depth than others, lets you see how different people react to events, how it can be a big deal for some and barely a memory for others, but this can get a little repetitive.

I’m really not sure what else to say about The Old Drift. It is an impressive debut novel and one a may have found easier to follow if I didn’t have such huge gaps between picking it up. There’s a lot of tragedy in these characters lives and maybe it’s because you only see snapshots of their lives at different times but there certainly seems to be more sad moments than happy ones. This, along with how long the book is and the often lyrical narrative, does make The Old Drift a bit dense and hard to get through.

REVIEW: Fast Colour (2018)

After years in hiding, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is forced to go on the run when her superhuman abilities are discovered. Years after abandoning her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and her young daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), the only place Ruth has left to hide is with them.

The three generations of this family all have abilities and while there’s similarities between them, they each have a different level of control to them. The abilities themselves, to break things down and rebuild them, to see the colours of the universe, for being a mythology that’s so different from the big blockbuster superhero films we are used to seeing, it’s explained well and it is captivating.

Fast Colour is one of those quiet sci-fi films. It’s a film about superpowered characters, but their abilities are not really the driving force of this story, instead it’s the relationships. It’s the moments where you get to see these three people just inhabit the same space that really work. There’s a static shot of the kitchen and slowly the three of them come in at different moments, easily moving around one another as they make breakfast together that hits home how even though Ruth hasn’t been with her mother and daughter for so long, they’re still a family and are connected to one another.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the standout here. Her guilt, fear and regret when it comes to how she acted in the past towards her family is palpable and I would say she gives a star performance, but to be honest she’s been giving great performances for years and it’s everyone else who needs to take notice. Lorraine Toussaint is also great. Her world weariness and desire to do anything to keep her family safe, her calm guidance when it comes to trying to teach her daughter and granddaughter their abilities, it all hides a pillar of strength and power more than those who’d seek to harm her daughter could imagine.

Fast Colour is just a beautiful film about familiar ties and inner strength. It has a beautiful and often haunting score by Rob Simonsen, that compliments the open, deserted spaces of a middle America where so many people are struggling. Fast Colour is a striking and impressive film, and it’s one that’s likely to stick with me for a while. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Greece: Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki

Translated by Karen Van Dyck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: Practical Magic (1998)

There’s said to be a curse on the Owens women – any man who they fall in love with will surely die. Witch sisters Sally and Gillian (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) are unlucky in love and just trying to get by in a town that’s scared of them and their family. But after Gilliam’s boyfriend dies suddenly and a detective (Aidan Quinn) starts asking questions, things get more difficult for them.

Practical Magic is just a delight and the fact that it has a 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is a travesty! Do these people not appreciate and love the power of sisterhood, love and female relationships?! Because this is what Practical Magic is. It’s like a love letter to sisters and family and the power women can have, even when things go a bit wrong, and it’s brilliant.

Sally and Gillian were raised by the eccentric aunts, Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest), and the relationships these four women have are the heart and the soul of this film. The aunts are funny and weird, but they love their nieces so much and try to teach them all they know about magic. Sally has more of innate gift for it, but Gillian has some powers too, but their biggest gift is how in tune with one another they are. Bullock and Kidman have amazing chemistry and they feel like sisters, they argue and laugh and know each other better than anyone. If I’m being honest the tone of Practical Magic is kinda all over the place, but this film definitely wouldn’t have worked so well without these two leads.

Speaking of tone; there’s comedy, horror, romance, crime – it’s a mix of so many things but it works! The whole aesthetic for Practical Magic is peak 90s witchy vibes. The costumes, the setting (especially the house where the majority of the film takes place), the fact that Sally’s job involves creating plant-based remedies – to coin a popular internet term, it’s all very cottagecore. The soundtrack is very 90s too but there’s so many good songs on it from Stevie Nicks, Faith Hill, Joni Mitchell and more. The score by Alan Silvestri is great too. A lot of it feels homely and suits the setting of a small town on a small island where everyone knows each other.

Honestly Practical Magic was so much fun and so heart-warming. I often found myself with a huge smile on my face because of these women and their love and respect for one another. Yeah, the “big bad” of the film is them apparently not being able to have a lasting relationship with a man, but the driving force for the Owens family, and even some of the other women in the town, is love for one another and the lengths they’ll go to keep each other safe. 5/5.