historical fiction

READ THE WORLD – Latvia: Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

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

Translated by Margita Gailiyis.

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

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

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

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

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

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READ THE WORLD – Estonia: Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid

Translated by Adam Cullen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

READ THE WORLD – Mozambique: Every Man Is A Race by Mia Couto

A collection of 18 short stories that look at a range of issues including civil war, colonialism and corruption against the backdrop of post-independence Mozambique.

These short stories range from three pages long to no more than fifteen pages. Each of them features very different characters, though some of the issues they face are quite similar. A lot of the stories are about or feature outsiders, whether it’s a man who has a lot of birds in “The bird-dreaming baobab” or a Russian woman who has come with her husband to run a mine in “The Russian princess”. There are different types of outsiders, the Russian woman is a white woman so has a level of authority but has no equals or friends, in other stories, the outsiders are black people who are seen as different by the rest of the villages.

Some of the stories are very real, showing peoples lives in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how they were blending the traditional with the new. A lot of the stories are bold though and have magical realism elements. A few of the stories seem like fables while others are just weird. It’s this combination of contrasting stories that makes Every Man Is A Race such a quick and fascinating read.

One of my favourite stories was “The rise of Joāo Bate-Certo” which is about a young man who wanted to live in a city but came home to his village and built a ladder to the clouds and appeared to find a whole new place up there. So many of the stories leave you with more questions than answers or give you a lot to think about.

Every Man Is A Race is a short story collection where there weren’t any short stories that I really disliked. They a vibrant and magical but also often sad and thoughtful. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein.

In a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, lives intelligent and opinionated Lila, a bookish Elena. They are best friends who met aged ten but as they grow older and become teenagers, their paths divide slightly. Elena continues to study while Lila has to work to help her family.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in a four-book series called the Neapolitan Novels. This adult literary fiction series spans the lives of Lila and Elena. My Brilliant Friend begins with Elena receiving a call from Lila’s son saying she’s missing and from there the story jumps back to 1950s Naples and Elena and Lila’s childhood. Elena is the narrator of this story and as it’s from her perspective it’s easy to see that there’s perhaps some bias to how she paints certain characters. Elena idolises Lila, she does what Lila does and Lila’s thirst for knowledge pushes Elena to study harder.

Elena can see very few faults with Lila, both in terms of her personality and her appearance. When it comes to how Elena describes herself, she’s much more critical. She doesn’t like how she looks, and she thinks cruel things about how her mother looks too.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber and I have to say, I think if I’d read the physical copy, I would have gotten bored quickly so the fact it was on audio and I could listen to it as I walked to work or did the cleaning made me continue with it. The narration was good but it’s the story itself that didn’t really grab. The writing is often lovely and paints a vivid picture of post-World War Two Italy and how Elena and the other children don’t understand the political or financial issues they’ve been born into.

In many ways, not a lot happens in My Brilliant Friend. Because it follows Elena and Lila from childhood until their mid-teens, a lot of it is about their school life, the grades they get, what books their read, and as they get a bit older it becomes about boys and dating and going through puberty. For a large proportion of the book I was waiting for something big to happen, but that big thing never came. Yes, there were family arguments and friends had fights, but there was never anything that gripped me.

My Brilliant Friend is very much a character-driven story and I presume by the fourth book the story, and the characters ages, will have caught up to where Elena is informed Lila is missing at the beginning of this book and continue from there. However, there wasn’t enough about My Brilliant Friend that I liked in order to continue with this series. It is very well-written and I found both Elena and Lila equal parts frustrating and sympathetic many times, but their story was never something I truly became invested in. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Romania: The Fox was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller

Translated by Philip Boehm.

Set in Romania during the last months of Communist dictator Ceaușescu’s regime, people struggle to keep their minds and bodies intact in a world that’s permeated with fear. Adina is a young school teacher, Paul is a musician, Clara works in a wire factory, and Pavel is her lover. But one of them is working for the secret police and is reporting on the others.

The Fox was Ever the Hunter was a bit of a difficult read for several reasons and the way it was written was the main one. There were little things like how there are no speech marks when someone is talking, so you definitely needed to pay attention to what’s going on – especially when there was more than one person talking in a paragraph. Then there’s the attention to detail the author has. There’s so much focus on tiny things like the creases in a dress, how ants move, or how the chalk is like on a blackboard, but when it comes to the characters, they don’t get much description or backstory at all. It’s almost like it’s an intense study of the time period it’s set. This writing style makes the characters very distant and hard to connect with, as it’s as if the environment they live in is more important than themselves.

The main plot of the secret police, and someone in their friendship group not being trustworthy, doesn’t really kick in till halfway through the book. The first half of The Fox was Ever the Hunter is more of a study of the environment the characters live in. The intense descriptions make the town feel like a very cold and unwelcoming place to live. It seems almost hopeless and when Adina, Paul, or Clara make an appearance they feel like they’re sleepwalking through their lives.

I could see some people loving how The Fox was Ever the Hunter was written as its prose is often poetic and strangely beautiful, but for me it made it a bit of a slog to read.