The Read The World Project

READ THE WORLD – Morocco: Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Nineteen-year-old Youssef El-Mekki grew up in a one-room home with his mother down the stinking alleys of Casablanca. He’s always dreamed of escape and then one day, when the father he presumed was dead turns out to be very much alive and very wealthy, Youssef is whisked away from the slums to the luxurious life of Casablanca’s elite. But as he leaves the poverty of his childhood behind, he finds some harsh truths and difficulties he must face.

Secret Son is a traditional coming of age story as Youssef grows a lot as a person as he explores who he is and where he’s come from. Once he finds out about his father, Youssef is quick to leave all he’s known to live what he feels is a better life. He leaves his mother and his friends and moves to a new apartment where every one of his whims are catered for as his father promises him many new things. While Youssef can be criticised for dumping those who had card about him for so long, chapters or passages from other characters points of view show how the people surrounding him, including his mother and his friends, have lied to him many times.

Whereas his mother wants Youssef to get a good education and go to university to better himself, he lacks the drive or ambition to do that. especially once he learns who his father is. Once Youssef and his father get to know one another, Youssef doesn’t see the point of studying as his father can just get him a good job on his word alone. Once again proving the phrase, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Youssef is very naïve really. He’s dreamed of a better life for so long that when he gets that opportunity, he never questions what it might cost him.

Secret Son has a good mix of personal and political drama and it takes the time to examine how the two can overlap. Youssef is Muslim and as he grows up in the slums, he becomes aware of a political party that make a lot of promises to the people who live there. At first, they seem to be a force for good but as time goes on corruption is clear on both sides of the political spectrum. When Yousef’s friends begin to work for the party, Youssef gets tangled up in plans bigger than himself.

Another major aspect of Secret Son is the class divide. Youssef might go from the slums to a penthouse, but he never really fits in with the rich life, and when he visits his mother and friends, he no longer fits there either. The sad thing is that Youssef doesn’t seem to notice how after experiencing his father’s wealth, he no longer fits in either class. The novel definitely doesn’t shy away from the realities of Casablanca and how peoples lives are so different to one another even when they live just a few streets apart.

Secret Son is a very engaging and easy to read book. The writing is simple yet never juvenile and Youssef makes a frustrating, complicated and interesting main character. 4/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Jamaica: Augustown by Kei Miller

11 April 1982 in Augustown, Jamaica. Ma Taffy may be blind, but she sees everything. So, when her great-nephew Kaia comes home from school in tears, what she senses sends a deep fear running through her. While they wait for his mama to come home from work, Ma Taffy recalls the story of the flying preacherman and a great thing that did not happen.

Augustown is a story within a story. There’s what’s happening in the present with Ma Taffy and Kaia, her story of the flying preacherman, and an almost omnipresent narrator that’s looking down on the events that are unfolding and can see the past and future. There are also other characters who live in Augstown that come in and out of the story at different times, and it’s as the story progresses that you can see all these connections between them.

Augustown is a story all about the divide in Jamaican society and how people may try and fail to bridge that divide and perhaps better themselves. There’s rich vs poor, white vs black, Babylon vs Rasta. All these differences and divisions come to a head when Kaia comes home crying after his teacher cuts off his dreadlocks. It’s a shocking thing for the young boy and the community as a whole, and soon the people start to get involved.

The writing style is almost poetic at times as it paints a vivid picture of life in Jamaica in the twentieth century. The stark differences between what the poor Augstown looks like and the rich areas of Jamaica that are in the hills and look down upon Augustown look like are clear. Also, the attitudes between the people who live in the two different areas is realised through the few times when people from each of these worlds interact. There’s talk of code-switching, how someone changes their dialect or use of slang depending on who they’re talking to, and of what opportunities are available to different people.

Augustown is a quick read with engaging themes but unfortunately while I did feel sympathy towards many of the characters, I was never fully drawn into their story. How Augustown shows the divisions of class in Jamaica is eye-opening and it shows how one person’s actions can have ramifications they couldn’t have expected.

READ THE WORLD – Sweden: A Fortune Foretold by Agneta Pleijel

Translated by Marlaine Delargy.

Opening in the 1950s in the quiet university town of Lund, Sweden, A Fortune Foretold follows Neta, a shy and intuitive girl who turns to books whenever life gets difficult. When her Aunt Ricky has her fortune told, Neta becomes fascinated with prophesies, fate and what life could be. By thinking of this she starts to make sense of the chaos of her parents failing marriage.

A Fortune Foretold is a story of childhood, and not a particularly happy one. I didn’t realise straightaway but Neta is a stand in for the author Agneta Pleijel and the book is based on her childhood. Throughout the book there’s times when the narrative voice is like the adult Neta, looking back on events with hindsight and giving her thoughts on what happened now.

The language used throughout the book is melancholy, and the words are often more grown up than Neta is at the time. This fits in with the way it feels like an adult is telling the story of her childhood and has a mature way to express what she at ten years old might be feeling. With the use of more complicated language and Neta’s quietness, it feels like she’s constantly out of sync with the rest of her family. Her parents are both outgoing people and as the oldest of three girls, Neta is sometimes too old for them but not old enough to be around adults.

Neither of Neta’s parents seem to particularly like or want their children. They both are selfish in different ways but as it’s largely told from a child’s point of view, it never really passes judgement on it. Instead, that’s just what Neta’s life and parents are like.

A Fortune Foretold is quite sad as it shows how an emotionally neglectful upbringing can have ramifications for a child as they grow up. From a very young age Neta shuts herself off from the world and becomes quite distant towards others and seeing how a parent’s marriage can fall a part due to secrets and lies has a lasting affect in her.

There are some moving scenes in A Fortune Foretold about growing up and family, but it’s quite a slow story and at times the characters do feel flat and is they are just going through the motions. This may because of the way it was told, like someone recounting past events to a listener, so everything had already happened and so there was no suspense or surprises. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Myanmar: Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi

A collection of letters from the Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, about her experience as a political prisoner, her countries traditions and the affects of inflation and corruption on its people.

The letters span about a year after her release from house arrest in 1995. Some are reflective on her experiences of being a political dissident and that of those of various other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), while others are about the broader affects of being a political prisoner. How it can seriously affect children who only get to see a parent for 15 minutes every fortnight, or how the interrogations and solitary confinement can have mental and physical repercussions.

Each of the fifty-two letters are accompanied by an illustration by Heinn Hter. These illustrations are simple yet beautiful and help paint a vivid picture of the people and the country that Aung San Suu Kyi talks about in each of her letters.

The way Aung San Suu Kyi describes her country, its traditions and its people, is often quite poignant. Her writing is simple yet affecting and the way she can go from describing the beautiful and joyful moments, to the harsher reality that people live in when their wages can’t afford food and they must buy petrol on the black market.

I knew very little about Aung San Suu Kyi before reading this book, only that since she was no longer a political prisoner, she and her party didn’t necessarily live up to people’s expectations and there are some controversies surrounding them. As these letters are from the mid-90s, there’s still a lot of hope and belief in what the future can bring. In this moment of time at least, Aung San Suu Kyi is an eloquent and confident public speaker who doesn’t let the system stand in her way. Multiple times her street is barricaded for differing amounts of time, sometimes the soldiers let people pass to go to her house, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they allow her to leave, when others they don’t. There’s no real reasoning behind it and it’s one of the many odd things that has become a part of her life.

Letters from Burma paints Myanmar to be a beautiful country, but one with a difficult future ahead. The way these letters are a combination of discussions of big political and social upheaval in the country, along with really mundane things like Aung San Suu Kyi being concerned with her home’s leaky roof; makes her seem like a down to earth and also very smart.

Letters from Burma is charming though perhaps a little idealistic. While Aung San Suu Kyi may have had the best intentions in the 1990s, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything went as planned. I’m interested in reading more about Myanmar’s history and what Aung San Suu Kyi has done in the years since her release from house arrest. Still, I think Letters from Burma is a good place to get an overview of what the country was like in the mid-1990s and before.

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.

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 – Greenland: Crimson by Nivaq Korneliussen

Five young people’s lives collide in Nuuk Greenland as secrets are revealed and relationships crumble. Inuk has something to hide and runs from his problems. His sister Fia breaks up with her long-term boyfriend and falls for Sara. Sara is in love with Ivik who holds a big secret. Ivik struggles with gender dysphoria, and transgender identity, while Arnaq, the party queen pulls the strings of manipulation, bringing these five lives to a shocking crescendo.

Translated by Anna Halager.

Crimson is the UK title of Last Night in Nuuk, a book I’d been aware of as it was written by a young Greenlandic author and is set in the country’s capital city. Besides from that, all I knew about the books before diving into it was that it was about the interconnected lives of five young people who are in their early twenties.

Crimson has five chapters and each chapter is from a different character’s point of view. It’s not a truly linear story which makes delving into these characters lives for such a short space of time interesting. As the story progresses some events from previous chapters are retold from a different perspective, through this you can see different sides of an argument or what happened next after the first character had left the party for instance.

Each character, and therefore each chapter, has its own distinct voice. This helps as besides a couple of sentences at the start of the book about each character giving you the most important facts about their lives, you are thrown into this book blind, learning about what makes each character tick in around 30 pages. Some chapters are more like diary entries while others are written like a stream of conscious, this can be a little jarring, but it does make each character feel different.

While these five characters are all connected in some way, they all feel very alone and drifting through the days. Sara is the one who is more obviously depressed while Arnaq uses partying, drinking and sex to ignore her problems even though those three activities often cause her new ones. I feel Crimson is an unflinching look at what it is to be someone in your early twenties, when you’ve got no real career prospects and you don’t truly understand yourself or anything that’s happening around you.

Crimson is a story about people struggling, their connections, love and sexuality. It’s a quick read at less than 180 pages and the way it’s set out, in each chapter you don’t just learn about the current character you’re following, but you see other sides to characters you’ve previously met. Even though this story is set in a country that appears to be so remote it’s almost alien to me, it’s a story that’s universal as young people will have fun and be irresponsible and make mistakes no matter where in the world they’re from. 4/5.