The Read The World Project

READ THE WORLD – Djibouti: Passage of Tears by Abdourahman A. Waberi

Translated by David and Nicole Ball.

Djibril, a young Djiboutian voluntarily exiled in Montreal, returns to his native land to prepare a report for an American economic intelligence firm. Meanwhile, a shadowy, threatening figure imprisoned in an island cell seems to know Djibril’s every move.

I’m not sure what to make of this book to be perfectly honest. It’s a whole mixture of genres and I’m not sure that works a lot of the time. There are elements of a spy novel, of epistolary novel with Djibril’s notes on his findings in Djibouti, and of political thriller and crime fiction.

Djibril has returned to his home country about fifteen years after he left and made a life for himself in Canada. He’s had little to no contact with his family in all that time. Now back in Djibouti, he’s researching the political landscape for his firm as it’s an area of strategic importance for the transportation of the world’s oil supply.

There are little insights into what Djibouti and its people are like, however at the same time it feels like it could be any impoverished country. Djibril reflects on what the country was like when he was growing up and what he’s seeing now, but it’s written by and for someone who already knows the place. I’m not saying every book that’s set in a different country to my own needs to give a lot of descriptions or back story, but having gone into Passage of Tears knowing nothing about of Djibouti, it feels a shame that I have learnt nothing about the country – or at least nothing that has stuck with me.

I think it’s Passage of Tears’ writing style that I struggled with. The chapters alternate between Djbril’s point of view where his thoughts often jump back and forth between what he’s looking into now for his company, and his childhood memories, and an unnamed person who is imprisoned and appears to be talking to the reader, or Djibril. As the story progresses you can piece together who the imprisoned person is likely to be, but he too starts to go onto different tangents and it’s hard to focus in on the present narrative and what is supposed to be happening in this meandering plot. Extracts of writing about Walter Benjamin appear in the imprisoned man’s section and Walter Benjamin is a name I recognised but didn’t know who he was so that was a bit confusing as well, especially when towards the end of the book, half of each chapter seemed to be about him, not what’s currently happening in Djibouti.

I think they’re themes in Passage of Tears, but they often seemed muddled due to the characters voices not being strong. Themes of the effects of post-colonialism, terrorism and globalisation are there but the only one that really stood out is how America has historically meddled in so many countries history’s and politics that it’s no wonder there’s reactionary action from extremist groups.

Overall for such a reasonably short book (just over 200 pages), Passage of Tears was a drag to read a lot of the time and didn’t have characters that were easy to engage with.

READ THE WORLD – Trinidad and Tobago: Difficult Fruit by Lauren K. Alleyne

A poetry collection that is a journey which includes coming to terms with sexual violence and loss, with celebrating love and connection, and bearing witness to the world that shaped that journey.

I don’t often read poetry, mainly because I feel I don’t “get it” and don’t get enjoyment from it. With Difficult Fruit however, I found the poems to be affecting and easy to connect with and understand.

The poems deal with growing up and loss, how someone feels when burying a friend or dealing with an assault on their body and mind. Some poems are quite upsetting or uncomfortable as it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities people go through, especially women as they grow up.

The poems in the collection are short, often no more than a page long and they are written in different styles. Some with one long stanza, while others are broken up in parts.

One of my favourite poems in the collection was “The Hoodie Stands Witness for Trayvon Martin” which personifies the hoody that Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was shot and killed in 2012, wears. It’s short and unsettling and really affecting, especially as it’s about a real event and person that’s shocking and unjust. I don’t think I’d ever read a poem before that was so obviously about a certain event or person and it made me really stop and consider the poem and what it was saying.

I often find poems easy to just read and move onto the next one without much thought because they’re short and are about different things. However, with Difficult Fruit I found myself stopping to consider the meaning of a lot of the poems as while they were short, they were impactful. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Uruguay: The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers

Translated by Kit Maude.

The novella follows Rebeca Linke and her attempt to live her life how she wishes and free herself from a hostile society.

The Naked Woman was first published in Uruguay in 1950 and I can see why it caused a stir then. It depicts female nudity and empowerment, and the violent reaction a whole town has towards that. The Naked Woman is one of those books that I wish I’d read at university, or as part of a book club, because it’s a story that would be great to discuss with others as there’s so many interesting themes and moments in it. There’s fantastical elements and dream like sequences, making it difficult to puzzle out what’s real and what’s in Rebeca’s mind, especially at the beginning. In part, because it’s hard to believe why a woman would wander naked in the woods and fields and be so without her inhibitions.

The Naked Woman is a short but powerful story. It shows the fragility and viciousness of the male ego and how it can corrupt the society they’re a part of. The men of the town have a violent and almost primitive reaction to Rebeca’s nudity. It’s horrifying as so many of them, both young and old, become obsessed with the idea of her and disgusted by her. It’s as if they feel Rebeca has the audacity to wander the fields naked and in doing so, she is being sinful, and when they look upon her, they are too, and they can’t cope with that.

The Naked Woman presents a lot of ideas about feminism, sex, religion, and power. It doesn’t really give any answers to all these themes or solid explanations for Rebeca and other characters actions, which is as intriguing as it is frustrating. This is another reason I think it’d be a great book to discuss with others.

The writing in The Naked Woman is evocative and often fantastical. The Naked Woman reminded me a bit of the few books I’ve read by Angela Carter, so if you’ve read and liked Carter, then you should try Somers work. The Naked Woman is a really interesting story and it’s one that will stick with me for a while, even if I’d have liked more answers. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – The Bahamas: Woman Take Two: A play in three acts by Telcine Turner

Set in The Bahamas in the early 1970s, Woman Take Two tells the tale of a few people forging alliances for themselves – for love and/or money. There’s Harold Davies, a businessman who will do anything to save face and further his career, including using his teenage daughter Sofia in his nefarious plans. Then there’s Beverly Humes and her fiancé Lionel Joseph who find themselves entangled in Harold Davies’s schemes.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a play and I always find it an interesting experience. Woman Take Two is a very short play with just three acts and 93 pages. The story is relatively short, and the action only takes place over a couple of times, but there’s still some good character beats which would make it an interesting play to see performed. I liked how in the dialogue there were colloquialisms and they also defined what they meant. The colloquialisms added a sense of realism to the characters and made the dialogue flow easily.

Harold is not a nice person and he is cruel to both his employees and his family. He is a strong patriarch that won’t take no for an answer. It’s difficult to tell if he is good at manipulating others, or if it’s just the people he manipulates are naïve and trusting.

A lot of the problems that face characters in Woman Take Two, especially Lionel and Beverly, could’ve been solved if they had actually communicated better. Lionel especially went a roundabout way to explain himself and the situation he was in, wasting time and other people’s trust. Obviously, you need conflict in a play, but this was one that seemed contrived and had the potential to be easily solved.

Woman Take Two is an interesting play about relationships, greed, and mistrust. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Comoros: A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir

Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.

Teenage girl Eel lives on the Comorian island of Anjouan with her twin sister Rattler and their father All-Knowing. Eel is curious about the world beyond what her overbearing father dictates. When she meets handsome fisherman, Voracious, who offers her the possibility of a life of liberation and love she cannot foresee what it will cost her or the fateful path it will lead her down.

A Girl Called Eel is a 271-page story that’s told in just one sentence. I wasn’t sure what to make of that to begin with, but it worked well, make it an impactful read and one that was easy to follow. There is still a lot of commas in this one sentence, along with line breaks, so it isn’t just pages and pages of block text. Having the story be told by Eel in one, almost desperate, sentence adds to the feel that it is a long string of conscious thought. Especially as ever now and then she interrupts herself, saying how she’s getting ahead of herself or mentioning what’s happening to her in the present as she recounts her past.

Eel basically tells her life story up to that moment, her and her sisters’ birth, how they got such unusual names, how she met and instantly fell in love with Voracious, and how her life unravelled, though if she hadn’t have been so naïve, she could’ve seen the warning signs miles away. Because that’s the thing about Eel, because she’s so inquisitive and studious and quiet, she believes she’s smarter and more capable than she is. She looks down on her fellow students, believing them to be trying too hard just because they open their textbooks, and she thinks her sister is wasting her life, hanging out with friends all the time, but when Rattler does try to focus more on herself and her future, Eel just scoffs and feels no one can change who they are.

Eel is a fascinating character to me. She’s headstrong and determined and curious, loves Voracious with her whole heart but she’s also incredibly self-centred and unfeeling towards a lot of other people. As she tells her life story, she doesn’t shy away from the cruel thoughts she thought in the moment, or the ones she now thinks with hindsight. She thinks she’s smarter and more aware of the world than she is, which then makes her more naïve and childish. All this doesn’t make her a particularly likeable character, but it does make her interesting.

The format of A Girl Called Eel, along with a compelling, if not likeable narrator, makes an almost typical story of a girl getting taken for a fool by an older man more interesting and engaging.

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.

READ THE WORLD – Turkey: The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

Sixteenth century Istanbul: Jahan is only a boy when he arrives in the city bearing an extraordinary gift for the Sultan. He has no family or possessions to his name except Chota, a rare white elephant destined for the palace menagerie. There they learn to guard against the scheming of animal tamers, gypsies, deceitful courtiers and the mischievous Princess Mihrimah. Jahan travels on Chota’s back to the furthest corners of the Sultan’s kingdom and back again. But one day he catches the eye of the royal architect, Sinan, a chance encounter destined to change Jahan’s fortunes forever as it enables him to enter the marble halls where the treacherous plot.

I found The Architect’s Apprentice a really slow read. That’s because it is more of a character study of Jahan and while there are incidents in his life, they are like a footnote in how he grows as a person. There’s really not as much action as I was expecting, especially with the blurb mentioning lies and deceit – I thought there would be a lot more political intrigue than there was.

A lot of time passes in The Architect’s Apprentice, it spans decades of Jahan’s life, and it really took me a while to realise that. I didn’t realise that Jahan was growing up because it seemed to take a long time for him to start maturing and evolving as a person. Plus, while things were happening to him, it just seemed like it was one event after the other and it was difficult to gage the passage of time.

For the most part I did like the writing in The Architect’s Apprentice. There’s some lovely passages and the descriptions of Instanbul and the various temples and buildings Jahan is involved with building and designing are vivid. It really does make the city feel alive and it often felt more of an interesting character than the human characters.

The relationship between Jahan and Chota the elephant was a big part of the story and one of the more interesting parts. They were incredibly close, and it frequently seemed like Chota understood what Jahan was saying and what was happening around them. The times when Jahan was with Chota made him feel like more of a real person as Chota seemed to bring out the best of him and he seemed more animated and not just a spectator in his own life when he was with Chota.

Perhaps it’s my fault going into The Architect’s Apprentice with vastly different expectations so what the book actually was, was a disappointment. Still if you like a slow-paced historical fiction novel set during the height of the Ottoman Empire then maybe try The Architect’s Apprentice. 2/5.