historical fiction

READ THE WORLD – Slovakia: The Equestrienne by Uršuľa Kovalyk

Translated by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood.

1984, in a small town in the east of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Karolína is growing up. Her mother has too many boyfriends and her forceful but caring grandmother carries a knife. In an attempt to escape her hard and monotonous life, Karolína joins a riding school at the edge of town. There she befriends Romana, a girl with one leg shorter than the other, and Matilda, a rider and trainer who helps the girls overcome their physical limitations. Together they form a successful trick riding team and soon the small town doesn’t seem so small anymore for Karolína.

The blurb on my copy of The Equestrienne calls it a novel, but at 80 pages I’d say it’s more of a novella. Either way, The Equestrienne is a short, kind of bittersweet coming of age story. I always find it difficult to talk about such short books that are focussed on a short period of time. It spans about sixteen years as that’s roughly the age Karolína is when the story ends, but a lot of her childhood is glossed over and it’s when she’s around twelve and discovers the stables – along with a teenage boy called Arpi – that she starts to come into her own. At the stables Karolína makes a friend for the first time. And with Arpi she discovers cigarettes and music like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.

Change is a big element to The Equestrienne and Karolína’s life. Naturally, she’s growing up and maturing, having her first period has a big impact on her, but there’s the political changes happening in the background as the Soviet Union begins to dissolve. There’s a lot of moments of hope because of these changes, but equally there’s disappointment as they go from one dictatorship to another – capitalism.

The women in The Equestrienne are all fleshed out and interesting, which is a feat considering how short it is, and the only named male character is Arpi. All the other men are pushed to the background or become a threat to Karolína’s happiness or safety. The relationships between the different female characters are strong too. Karolína’s grandmother makes a huge impact on her life as she’s a force to be reckoned with and while to begin with Karolína often doesn’t understand or like her mother and her choices, as she matures she see’s the everyday strains she’s under. Then Matilda and Romana each give Karolína confidence and companionship in a time when she felt so alone.

The Equestrienne is a short but effective story that’s sad and sweet. It’s a universal coming of age story, but by having it set in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic means you can learn more about that culture and history and how things like the economy affected its people. 4/5.

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.

READ THE WORLD – Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aïtmatov

Translated by James Riordan.

Jamilia’s husband is off fighting at the front. She spends her days hauling sacks of grain from the threshing floor to the train station in their small village in the Caucasus, accompanied by Seit, her young brother-in-law, and Daniyar, a sullen newcomer to the village who has been wounded on the battlefield. Seit observes the beautiful, spirited Jamilia spurn men’s advances, and wince at the dispassionate letters she receives from her husband, while she also draws closer to Daniyar.

Jamilia is a very short book at around 90 pages and it’s just one long chapter. Jamilia is told from Seit’s perspective and he narrates the story in the first person. It’s a simple story in terms of plot, a young woman in a small farming community potentially finds a better and stronger love while her husband is away, and in terms of writing. The writing is so simple that it often reads like Seit is sat with you, telling you the story. That come partly the tenses as sometimes the narrative voice knows more than the present-Seit would.

Considering this book was published in the 1950s, Jamilia herself could almost be described as a manic pixie dreamgirl. Seit is infatuated with her, as are a lot of the other men in the village, and as it’s from Seit’s point of view, you never really get to see much of Jamilia’s personality or her hopes, dreams and desires. You just see her through Seit’s eyes, and his judgement is clouded by his own feelings for her.

Jamilia is one of those books that even though it’s so short it took days to get through. I think that’s because of a few things. One, the story didn’t really grab me, I thought there’d be an illicit romance and more drama when there really wasn’t and it was just a series of events in these farming peoples lives. Two, I thought it’d be from Jamilia’s point of view so you could see her conflict about being drawn to a man who wasn’t her husband and have more of an insight into her seeing she is the titular character. And three, the writing style was so simple it ended up being boring so even when there was something different happening in the plot, I wasn’t really engaged with it.

Looking at Goodreads a lot of people seem to really like this book so maybe I’m in the wrong, or it could be down to the translation. Either way I’m glad to have now crossed off Kyrgyzstan from my Read the World Project.

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.

READ THE WORLD – Mauritius: The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah

Translated by Geoffrey Strachan.

Ten-year-old Raj is oblivious to the Second World War being fought far beyond his tiny island home. His mother is his sole company while his father works as a prison guard, so Raj dreams of friendship. One day, from the far-away world, a ship brings to the island Jewish exiles who have been refused entry to Israel. David, a recently orphaned boy of his own age, becomes the friend that he has longed for, and Raj takes it upon himself to help David escape from the prison. As they flee through sub-tropical forests and devastating storms, the boys battle hunger and malaria – and forge a friendship only death could destroy.

The Last Brother is one of those stories where a much older character reminisces about certain events of their past and how it affected them. In this instance, Raj is an old man close to his eighties and he’s thinking about David, their friendship and the games and adventures they had and what he would’ve done differently if he could. This means you are kind of aware of how things are probably going to turn out before you get to that part of the story.

Something I really liked about The Last Brother was how it made me think about the Second World War from a completely different perspective. As someone who’s British and grew up in the UK, in school I learnt about the Second World War from the UK perspective and about the European countries (and America and Japan) involved with the conflict. The world is a big place and while it’s something I hadn’t thought about before, there would naturally be parts of the world where the conflict didn’t touch or the people, especially children, were unaware of what was happening between other nations.

The difference between adult-Raj and child-Raj’s narrative voice is distinct and I feel the author really captured the innocence a ten-year-old has, even if they have experienced violence they are resilient and still want to have fun with a friend. Both Raj and David have experienced personal tragedy though Raj can’t comprehend how and why David and the other Jewish refugees have ended up in his small corner of the world, and in a prison as well. David doesn’t talk about his life or how he became an orphan much, as the reader with prior knowledge of the persecution of the Jews in Europe you can see his trauma but with Raj being so unaware of world events, he doesn’t see David as a victim, he just sees a friend.

The way Raj and David form such a firm friendship in such a short space of time is sweet and realistic. As is how far Raj will go to try and protect David even if his plans are misguided. The Last Brother is a deceptively simple story because it’s largely told through the eyes of a child, but that makes it all the more affecting.

READ THE WORLD – Liberia: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Narrated by Wayétu Moore.

Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them.

I enjoy memoirs narrated by the author, but this was the first fiction audiobook I’ve listened to that was narrated by the author which was an interesting experience, and I think Moore did a good job.

She Would Be King has beautiful, lyrical writing which was very nice to listen to. I’m not sure how easy I’d have found it to physically read the story though. As She Would Be King is narrated by an omnipresent voice, one you learn who it is and how they relate to the characters as the story progresses, and I think that makes it feel like you are being told this mythical tale by an old storyteller.

While the writing in She Would Be King is generally poetic, the violence Gbessa, June Dey, Norman and many other characters face is not glossed over. The beatings, whippings and forced abortion are written in detail, forcing you to face the atrocities’ that were committed to generations of people.

She Would Be King is a mix of historical fiction and fantasy. It takes place during the early-mid 1800s and the effects of slavery and colonialism is a big part of the characters lives. June Dey is raised on a plantation while Norman Aragon grows up being measured and experimented on by his father as he tries to learn more about the power he believes his son has inherited. Gbessa is the only one of the three who has always lived in West Africa, but with her dark skin and red hair she was shunned by the villagers and called a witch. The fantasy element, though it probably could be classed as magical realism, is the fact three characters all have “superpowers”, immortality, invisibility and being bullet proof. How they each discover these abilities and how they, and others, react to them is a big part of their growth as characters.

The pacing of She Would Be King is uneven, and with this all-knowing narrator it’s hard to get into begin with. Some elements of the story seem rushed and then in others it’s difficult to tell how much time has passed for a character, for instance I was surprised when a character said Gbessa had been in certain town for five years, I wouldn’t have said it was that long.

She Would Be King is a magical story about the formation of Liberia, how people can change, how they can find their own family or home, but also how they can’t forget about who they are. She Would Be King feels like a retelling of a legend, it can be hard to follow or connect with some characters at times, but it’s still and impressive tale. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guadeloupe: The Restless by Gerty Dambury

Translated by Judith G. Miller.

Guadeloupe, a French overseas department, May 1967. Nine-year-old Émilienne Absalon is struggling with the sudden disappearance of her teacher, Madame Ladal, and her father at the onset of a workers’ strike. As violence throws the city into chaos, characters both living and dead take the stage to help Émilienne find those she’s lost, and in the process rewrite Caribbean history.

This may sound weird, but I found The Restless so easy to read and was thirty pages into it before I realised, and that made me instantly like this book. Perhaps it’s because I was in the middle of a fantasy/sci-fi short story anthology when I decided I needed something different. While the short story anthology was good, I struggled going from one story to another when I wanted to spend more time with the different characters or learn more about the different worlds, so it was nice to feel settled in one place with a clearly defined protagonist again.

I really liked how the story unfolded in The Restless. The chapters alternate between Émilienne’s point of view and other character’s point of view. These other characters are family members, neighbours or other people connected to the Absalon family somehow – and some are dead, and some are ghosts. Each character had a distinct voice which certainly helped with the chapters not from Émilienne’s point of view as sometimes they’d start and you wouldn’t be sure who was now recounting their tale, just that it was a different person to before.

Émilienne is a great character. The author does a great job of showing how a child would experience and try to understand suddenly losing an important figure in her life like a teacher. How some things are difficult to explain to a child because they’re to do with governments and fears of communism and having ideas that are deemed inappropriate, but how the child can still pick up on how something isn’t right or is unfair. Add to the fact her father, who she believes can explain to her what happened to her teacher, hasn’t been home for days leads her to be very unsettled. Also, Émilienne and her fellow classmates’ anger and frustrations of the sudden dismissal of their teacher mirrors those of the workers who want their wages to increase.

In The Restless’s prologue, it gives a short overview of the talks between management and construction workers union that led to work stoppages in Pointe-à-Pitre and, after the breakdown of negotiation, violence as the police were ordered to fire on the demonstrators. This is important as it’s the backdrop to Émilienne’s stress of her missing teacher and father, and it provides context for the anti-union sentiment that you slowly learn her teacher was a victim of and provides reasons for her fathers absence.

The Restless is a relatively short but effective book. It juggles its characters well and provides both a child’s perspective to sudden violence that they cant comprehend a reason for, and various adults perspectives, some only just learning about their workers rights, some who have died and were struggling in different ways, and some who are just trying to get by. 4/5.

REVIEW: Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide is the sequel to Dread Nation so there may be vague spoilers for the first book in this review.

After the fall of Summerland, Jane McKeene hoped her life would get simpler: Get out of town, stay alive, and head west to California to find her mother. But nothing is easy or as it seems and soon after Jane arrives in a town called Nicodermus, she comes to believe it’s not as safe as everyone believes. Jane soon finds herself on a dark path as she’s out for revenge and closes herself off from the world. But one person won’t let her shut herself off completely. Katherine Deveraux never expected to be allied with Jane McKeene. But after the hell she has endured, she knows friends are hard to come by – and that Jane needs her, too, whether Jane wants to admit it or not.

Amazingly, Deathless Divide is even better than its predecessor. It’s told in dual perspective with the chapters alternating between Jane’s point of view and Katherine’s. it’s great getting to see things from Katherine’s perspective and she becomes a much more fleshed out character as you learn more about her past and how she struggles with the fact she can pass for white. Also, both perspectives are equally gripping and they both have distinct voices which is always a plus for dual narratives.

Jane honestly has gone through so much and she is such a fighter, but her quest for revenge and how desensitised she has become to killing the dead, puts her in a precarious place. She likes to think she doesn’t need anyone but that’s not the case and it takes a long time for her to sort all those feelings out in her head.

Jane and Katherine’s friendship is really the heart and soul of this book. Jane needs Katherine and Katherine wants to be Jane’s friend. They balance each other out and have fought and survived together, meaning they know one another unlike anyone else. There are other relationships in Deathless Divide, romantic or otherwise, but none of them are as strong or as important as Jane and Katherine’s.

In Deathless Divide you learn more about how the shamblers (the undead) have affected the rest of the country, and there’s even mentions of outbreaks around the world showing it’s not a localised event. Deathless Divide combines different genres and themes in an interesting way; it’s a survivors story, there’s Western elements, there’s a deeper discussion of bioethics and experimentation, and there’s a lot of trauma and how that can effect someone’s psyche.

All the while Deathless Divide continues to work as an alternate history because there are so many actual historical elements included and adapted for this scenario. For instance, the explanation for the Chinese arriving on the West Coast and how that effects things and how no matter what, it’s Black people who are always at the bottom of the theoretical social ladder.

Deathless Divide really goes to dark and unexpected places and it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities Jane and Katherine live in the; the racism, the cruelty, the threat of death at any moment – from shamblers or humans – and it’s still an action-packed story with lots of twists and turns. It also has a very satisfying if a little bittersweet ending to what really is a fantastic duology. 5/5.

REVIEW: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

When the War Between the States was derailed when the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, America’s history took a different turn. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. Jane McKeene is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect rich white folk. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane, but not one Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies – not all of them undead.

I find alternate history stories fascinating. They can easily not work if they change the outcome of a big historical event, but then present things are 100% better or a lot of society’s problems are solved now that change has been made. That’s not the case with Dread Nation. While the outcome of the Civil War is different as the Union states and the Confederacy have had to stop fighting in order to fight the dead, that doesn’t mean prejudices and racism has disappeared.

Jane and the other Black girls at her combat school now have a skill that can be used by society, but that doesn’t mean they are treated well by white people, especially those in positions of power. It’s the way Dread Nation combines the horror of racism with the horror of zombies that is really interesting. Jane is not just fighting against the dead, but also the systematic racism that’s prevalent in every situation she encounters.

Jane is a great character. It took me a little while to warm to her as she’s so headstrong and doesn’t know when to stop when it comes to answering back her superiors. But she’s also smart, resourceful, and can lie like a rug. She’s one for tall tales and can think outside the box which is important when she’s put in dangerous situations.

Her reluctant friendship with Katherine, another girl from the school who can pass for white (which in term brings about a lot of interesting discussions of race and how Katherine feels about what her perceived skin colour can get her), is great as they are so different. Jane is a rule-breaker, constantly looking to learn things people would rather people like her didn’t, whereas Katherine is more reserved, looking forward to the life of an Attendant and doesn’t wish to rock the boat. They are both extremely capable of taking down the undead, or shamblers as they’re known.

The shamblers are unsettling and the way they’re described makes their presence felt almost constantly. They are a threat that’s always on the peripheral of Jane’s life, and when one or two or a dozen are near, it’s a fight to survive.

Dread Nation is a fast-paced, action-packed story with an interesting premise that lives up to the potential. It’s the first book in a series and I’m looking forward to continue it as there’s still so much to learn about the shamblers, how they group together, and what the government of each state is planning to do about them. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Hungary: The Door by Magda Szabó

Translated by Len Rix and narrated by Siân Thomas.

Emerence is a domestic servant – strong, fierce, eccentric, and with a reputation for being a first-rate housekeeper. When Magda, a young Hungarian writer, takes her on she never imagines how important this woman will become to her. It takes twenty years for a complex trust between them to be slowly, carefully built. But Emerence has secrets and vulnerabilities beneath her indomitable exterior which will test Magda’s friendship and change the complexion of both their lives irreversibly.

The Door was an interesting read. From the very beginning you’re captivated by the relationship between the two women and how it developed over time. Magda narrates the story of their relationship. She and her husband are quite privileged and so they can do their writing and not be bothered by such trivialities as housework, they employ Emerence as their housekeeper. That is after Emerence interviews them and deems them suitable employers.

From the outset, the relationship between Magda and Emerence was interesting because they had such different personalities. Emerence was secretive and had her own way of judging what was important or not. Magda was more “normal” and often cared about how things would appear to others. A lot of the times they clashed was because neither of them were very good at communicating what they were feeling or wanted.

At times, neither of them were particularly likeable and they were both so set in their ways it was frustrating to see them not try and understand the other. Over time, Magda learns to understand Emerence and her moods, but Emerence never seemed to understand or appreciate what was important to Magda if she saw it as frivolous.

The title refers to the door of Emerence’s home. She is an incredibly secretive woman and lets no one inside her home, including the police. Her refusal to do such a normal thing as welcome others into her home confuses Magda and adds to the mystery of Emerence.

The narrator of the audiobook did a really good job, changing their voice slightly for key characters and the pace they narrated really added to the haunting tone of the book. Because The Door is generally a melancholy read. Emerence has had a difficult life and the way she slowly opens up and describes events makes both Magda and you as the reader, wonder if everything could possibly be true. The Door is set in Hungary from around the 1960s and spans a couple of decades, and there’s often references to World War II and its effects on the country and the people, and also the government rules. It often seems like it was a difficult time for everyone and even Magda and her husband struggled at times, but then there is also a clear class divide between Magda and Emerence.

The Door was a fascinating read about two very different women and how they eventually found a common ground. It’s nice to see such a complex friendship where they both make mistakes and aren’t always clear about how they feel. 4/5.