historical fiction

READ THE WORLD – Bosnia and Herzegovina: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić

Translated by Anthea Bell.

For young Aleksandar – the best magician in the non-aligned states and painter of unfinished things – life is endowed with a mythic quality in the Bosnian town of Višegrad, a rich playground for his imagination. When his grandfather dies, Aleks channels his storytelling talent to help with his grief. However, when the shadow of war spreads to Visegrad, the world as he knows it stops. Suddenly it is not important how heavy a spider’s life weighs, or why Marko’s horse is related to Superman. Suddenly it is important to have the right name and to pretend that the little Muslim girl Asija is his sister. Then Aleksandar’s parents decide to flee to Germany and he must leave his new friend behind.

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone Is one of those books where quotation marks aren’t used when characters are speaking. Personally, I find this stylistic choice really hard to read and I’m not saying I skim read, but having speech marks make the endless paragraphs easier to read and breaks up the text a bit for me. About midway through there’s some chapters where there isn’t any speech and instead it’s just Aleksandar’s thoughts and how he feels about the situation he’s in and I enjoyed them a lot more as they were easier to read. Then it was back to having conversations where I felt I missed bits because I wasn’t always certain when the dialogue started/ended or who was talking. It did make me smile though as clearly the author knew he was doing as at one point Aleksandar’s teacher gives the class a writing task and the teacher takes a moment to tell him that he has to use quotation marks and mustn’t forget them like he has done in previous work.

Aleksandar is a child at the beginning of the book and so has a child’s understanding of what’s happening when war breaks out, and even before that when his grandfather dies. As his grandfather told him he was magic, Aleksandar believes that he can bring him back from the dead, if only he could find his wand. Even before soldiers arrived in his hometown things are changing as teachers in his school need to now be referred to by “Mr” rather than “Comrade” and Aleksandar is the kind of boy to question things when adults tell him he shouldn’t.

When Aleksandar returns to Bosnia over ten years since he and his family fled to Germany, he’s in his twenties and he finds the place a lot different to how he remembers it. He still has some extended family and friends there and it’s interesting to see how there’s sometimes animosity against him from those who didn’t manage to leave and had to live through the war. He and his parents had it difficult too, having to learn a new language and having little support in a whole new place but it’s clear the trauma and difficulties were different for those who stayed behind.

Though it’s not gone into much I thought it was interesting that it showed that difference as other books I’ve read during my Read the World Project haven’t really shown both sides. Most just follow those who managed to leave or those who lived through the conflict in their hometown, without much consideration of what other people would’ve gone through as their own situation was already so difficult.

As I found How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone so difficult to read, I ended up not really liking the story much. Though the latter half where Aleksandar’s older and always thinking about the girl he had to leave behind and going through the address book to find her was interesting and sweet, it wasn’t enough to get me truly invested in his story.

READ THE WORLD – Lesotho: Chaka by Thomas Mofolo

Translated by Daniel P. Kunene.

This is the fictionalised life-story account of Chaka begins with the future Zulu king’s birth followed by the unwarranted taunts and abuse he receives during childhood and adolescence. Then follows the events leading to Chaka’s status of great Zulu warrior, conqueror, king, and ultimate ruin.

Chaka is one of those stories that’s a blend of fiction and history. Chaka was a real person and this is the account of his life and his rise and fall as a king, but how much of what is in this book is real can be debated.

Chaka is a classic story. It has a father disowning his son and rightful heir due to pressure from his wives, and then that son gaining power and respect elsewhere in order to eventually claim the kingdom that was rightfully theirs. It feels almost Shakespearean at times as there’s a lot of similar themes in Chaka of power, ambition, and cruelty that you see in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Because Chaka’s life is kind of tragic, some things he couldn’t avoid because of the family he was born into, but others were due to his own greed.

Chaka has an omnipresent narrator. Every now and then there’s comments on what happened, or it recounts past historical events to give more context to what’s happening now. It’s a story told in simple language and sometimes feels like it’s a folktale being told around a campfire.

Chaka’s most close friend and ally is Isanusi, a doctor that makes potions and medicines to make Chaka stronger and gives him advice when needed. As the story progresses and Chaka gets more power hungry, it’s hard not to wonder if Isanusi has ulterior motives as he knows a great deal, is a seer, and comes across as more of a witch doctor than a traditional medicine man.

Chaka is an interesting and easy to read story about a king that commanded armies of tens of thousands of men – perhaps even more. Chaka’s accomplishments can’t be denied but his greed and cruelty to the few who did love him, like his mother and the one woman he loved, makes him a flawed but interesting man.

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.

READ THE WORLD – Guinea-Bissau: The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá

Translated by Jethro Soutar.

Ndani leaves her village to seek a better life in the capital, finding work as a maid for a Portuguese family. The mistress of the house, Dona Deolinda, embarks on a mission to save Ndani’s soul through religious teaching, but the master of the house has less righteous intentions. From there Ndani struggles to find love and a home as for so long she’s been told she has evil inside her.

The Ultimate Tragedy has one of those blurbs that pretty much summarises all the major plot points of the book so it was easy to see where things were going if you’d read that like I had. For that reason, the summary I’ve written here is my own version.

The Ultimate Tragedy is a story of colonial Africa from the point of view of the colonialised. This means it’s not often a happy story, especially as some Black characters start to try and reclaim their home and agency but soon find that the systems in society are working against them.

Ndani’s story, like most of the characters stories in The Ultimate Tragedy to be honest, is a sad one. There’re almost no bright moments of happiness in her life and when she does find some, it doesn’t last for long. For that reason, The Ultimate Tragedy is bit slow to read as it’s so relentlessly melancholy.

That being said, there are a few moments or wry humour sprinkled throughout. Often it comes from miscommunication or from having the benefit of hindsight as some of the things Dona Deolinda and other white characters say or do is obviously racist but it’s written in a way that there’s almost a knowing wink to it. Like, “gee aren’t these people dumb and offensive.” I know that probably sounds weird but it’s the best I can describe it. Like these characters are epitome of the White Saviour trope but they are so oblivious to the fact due to the time The Ultimate Tragedy is set, and to read that sort of story now it’s funny because of its ridiculousness.

However, that ridiculousness obviously has a darker and more dangerous side and when Ndani and her loved ones get caught up in it, the injustices they face are so sad and, like the title of the book, tragic.

READ THE WORLD – Montenegro: Milena & Other Social Reforms by Olja Knežević

Translated by the author.

Trigger warnings for drug use, rape, and human trafficking. Milena & Other Social Reforms is also based on a real woman’s life.

Milena thinks she has it all when she lands a job as the President’s interpreter. Bright, young, beautiful, willing to take a chance, she is the embodiment of the new Eastern Europe. But a bold new title comes at a cost. As a country suffers the growing pains of greed, Milena is caught up in the machinery of crime, corruption and human trafficking.

Milena & Other Social Reforms spans over five years or so from the early 2000s when Monetnegro is young and finding its feet after Yugoslavia was dissolved, to the mid-2000s after the country has gotten its independence in 2006. It jumps between two times and places too. In Montenegro when Milena is working as an interpreter and getting to know various politicians and important and well-connected people in the country, and in London years later where she’s started a new life as a nanny for a wealthy Russian family.

It takes a while to really understand just what Milena’s life was like in Montenegro as how her job went from just being an interpreter to almost being a prostitute for the President of the country in order to get information from those he considers both allies and enemies, seemed to be one of those things that happened slowly then all at once. Things snowballed for her but because she had an intimate idea of how the politics and rules of the country worked due to having been in so many important meetings, it sometimes felt like an almost foregone conclusion that this is the position she’d end up in even though she definitely didn’t want it. It’s shocking and sad to see the depths of the corruption Milena encountered, with the police framing people, politicians being involved in everything and elections being fixed.

I liked how the story went between her life in Montenegro and her new life in London. Even though you don’t know the extent of what she went through to begin with, in the London sections it’s clear she’s still not OK and is sometimes struggling to deal with her past. The fact she often hangs out on the roof of the block of flats when she can’t sleep and one of her flatmates is concerned about her doing so is proof of that.

Milena is a smart and resourceful young woman but Milena & Other Social Reforms shows how that is not enough when faced with powerful and cruel men and corruption everywhere. Milena can’t trust the police or doctors or anyone who could be bought off, instead it’s other women that help her. Women who have escaped being trafficked or women who have some international political power (because there’s very few Montenegrin women in politics) or once she’s in London, women from other Eastern European countries who are looking to make a better life for themselves for whatever reason.

Milena & Other Social Reforms can be a tough read at times – in part because this self-translated, self-published novel doesn’t always have the correct English words, spellings or phrasing – but also because it shows the underbelly of the politics of a new country that is trying to show itself in the best light to the rest of the world. Still, it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read and it never shies away from the horrors of corruption and what people (often women) are left to face when they’re just trying to make a better life for themselves. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Tajikistan: The City Where Dreams Come True by Gulsifat Shahidi

A collection of four short stories from the perspective of three generations provides insight into the impact which Tajikistan’s terrible civil war had on its people and its culture during the early ’90s.

Each of the four stories is from a different family members point of view. This is something I didn’t realise before starting the book and instead picked up as I read it and noticed different characters cropping up or that some events were now being shown from a different perspective. The first is Ali who rescued his teacher’s daughter Nekbaht during the violence and the two of them found their way to his uncle. Then Horosho who is revealed to be Nekbaht’s grandfather and one of her only living relatives. There’s a story from Nekbaht’s perspective which picks up after Ali’s story does so you see how both of their lives turned out. The final story is focused on Shernazar who is Ali’s youngest cousin.

I found the way the stories intertwined and fleshed out the characters or events we’d seen in previous stories really well done and interesting. On their own each story is heartfelt and has themes of loss, injustice and hope, but when read back-to-back these themes are even more prominent and it makes each story more compelling and thoughtful.

I had barely even heard of Tajikistan as a country, never mind the civil war and turmoil its people have faced and I think that The City Where Dreams Come True shows the culture and how the people’s lives were affected by the conflict really well. Ali’s life sounds especially normal and almost idyllic before tragedy strikes. All the characters have their own issues but one thing that they have in common is their strong work ethic. Ali, Nekbaht and Shernazar learn that for them to succeed in life and in order for them to have a chance of a better life, for themselves and their families, they need to get a good education as that’s one of the only things that can lead to opportunities.

The City Where Dreams Come True is a very short collection of short stories, the kind that can easily be read in one sitting. That doesn’t make them any less impactful though and the language used, incorporating Russian, Uzbek and Tajik words for objects or in dialogue helps make these stories feel more real. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Andorra: The Mysterious Balloon Man by Albert Salvadó

At the end of the eighteenth century, changes abound all over Europe. France is in conflict with its neighbours (and is losing a monarch too), England and Spain struggle for supremacy in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and on the other side of the ocean and new power is starting to emerge – the United States of America. After realising that traditional spies will no longer work in this changing world, civil servant Alfred Gordon propose that the British secret service should employ Thomas Headking – an Englishman living in Spain who is on the run for killing a nobleman’s son in a duel. From using his business acumen Thomas gains information and secrets, while getting embroiled in romantic drama, that the British could find very useful.

I don’t tend to read reviews of books I know I’m going to read (especially for my Read the World Project) but as I discovered The Mysterious Balloon Man via Goodreads when looking for an author from Andorra, I happened to glance at people’s star ratings and they weren’t particularly high. Because of that I went into this book with some trepidation but then was pleasantly surprised to fine I weirdly enjoyed it.

It is an odd book and is very heavy on the history and politics of the time – there’s a handy table at the beginning showing all the real historical figures in The Mysterious Balloon Man and who they were which was helpful. Because The Mysterious Balloon Man is one of those books where it’s set during real historical events and features a lot of people who really existed, Charles IV the King of Spain and William Pitt the British Prime Minister to name a few, but the main character we follow are all fictious; Alfred Gordon, Sir Arthur Blum (head of intelligence services at the Foreign Office), Thomas Headking and the everyday Spanish people he interacts with whether that’s his business partner (who doesn’t know his partner is a spy) or Maria the deaf-mute woman he helps and becomes his source inside the Spanish Prime Minister’s residence.

The Mysterious Balloon Man is the first book in a trilogy and the titular Balloon Man plays a very minor role in this book and doesn’t even show up until the latter half of the story. Really, The Mysterious Balloon Man is about Thomas Headking becoming a reluctant spy/businessman and all the goings on in the British secret service as they try and keep track of what’s going on in Spain and France and have some infighting too. It’s a slow-moving book with a lot of political goings on so if that’s not your thing then it wouldn’t be for you.

What I was surprised to find in The Mysterious Balloon Man was this incredibly wry sense of humour running through it – especially from Alfred Gordon. There’s a lot of him butting heads with his superior and other civil servants and there’s people who you wonder how on Earth they got to positions of such power when they are so incredibly incompetent (very true to life really). This sort of tongue in cheek humour made the stuffier moments easier to take in.

While all in all it’s hard to see whether or not Thomas and the British secret service really achieved what they set out to do, as they were doing it, I was mostly entertained. I’m not sure when I will continue with this trilogy but there was enough in this first book to not give up on this series. I think mainly I’m intrigued to know more about Ali Bey as the trilogy is called The Shadow of Ali Bey and they only made a brief appearance in this book. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Grenada: The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins

The Ladies are Upstairs is a collection of short stories. The first is about Rain Darling and the following ten follow Doux Thibaut who from the 1930s to the new century negotiates a hard life on the Caribbean island of Paz. As a child there is the shame of poverty and illegitimacy, and there are the hazards of sectarianism in an island divided between Catholic and Protestant, the rigidity of a class and racial system where, if you are Black, your white employer is always right. When Doux is an old lady moving between the homes of her children in Boston and New York, she wonders whether they and her grandchildren really appreciate what her life has taught her.

The first story, “Rain Darling”, is about fifty pages long and sees three women travelling to a hospital to see another, that being Rain. It then goes back and forth between Rain’s present in the hospital and her past from childhood to teen years to adulthood and how one secret shatters her whole world. Rain’s life is a sad one, stuck with an aunt who doesn’t care or nurture her, forcing her to leave school at a young age even though Rain is bright, not being able to be with her mother, sister or her beloved father. It’s really quite depressing.

What makes Rain’s story even sadder is how it’s juxtaposed with Doux’s. They both live lives that have ups and downs but how they, and their families, respond to those hazards of life is vastly different.

Doux is headstrong even as a child and will stand up for herself. She’s also smart and capable but she has teachers and family who support and encourage her. Looking at Rain and Doux it’s easy to see how vastly different a child’s life can be if they have people who care about them. There still may be issues like money, and Doux’s mother can be strict, but the fact that Doux gets to have an education and then goes to have a family of her own shows how life can be a little easier when you’ve got a firm foundation from childhood.

The ten short stories about Doux follow her as she grows up. In most she’s the main character and the story is from her point of view but in some it’s about the people around her including her children and even her midwife. There are also some stories that get a bit creepy which I wasn’t expecting. They’re like short horror stories as a woman finds an abandoned child on the street at night who is not what they seem or a woman who disappears from a car. It’s those kinds of supernatural tales that are passed on as something a friend’s uncle saw once and they’re quite disconcerting after the more standard family drama type stories.

Both Rain and Doux live in Paz, a stand in for Grenada, and the way the landscape and towns are described paint a vivid picture in your head. The fact that characters speak patois and other colloquial languages make them seem more real. Also, how language and speech patterns change over time, especially in Doux’s stories that span sixty or more years, helps show how people and society changes.

The Ladies are Upstairs is an interesting short story collection and consuming Rain and Doux’s stories back-to-back make each of them more layered and interesting.

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.

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.