Sunday, 9 March 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena - Anthony Marra (Chechnya)

In a snow-covered village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as her father is abducted in the middle of the night by Russian soldiers. Their life-long friend and neighbour, Akhmed, has also been watching, and when he finds Havaa he knows of only one person who might be able to help.

For tough-minded doctor Sonja Rabina, it's just another day of trying to keep her bombed-out, abandoned hospital going. When Akhmed arrives with Havaa, asking Sonja for shelter, she has no idea who the pair are. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja's world will shift on its axis, revealing the intricate pattern of connections that binds these three unlikely companions together and unexpectedly decides their fate.

The book begins with a man named Akmed fleeing from his village in war torn Chechnya in the company of a young girl, his best friends daughter. We learn that the girls father has been taken captive and transported to what the author refers to as the Landfill. This somewhat ominous name conjures up images of mass graves, but as the book progresses we learn that it is in fact an interrogation camp, a roofless prison where the prisoners are kept in deep pits. Most of the the characters in this book have been to the Landfill at some point.

Akmed takes the girl to a nearby hospital, entrusting her to the care of a female surgeon named Sonja, having heard of her surgical skills through his own involvement in the war. Akmed strikes a deal with Sonja that in return for the girls safety, he will work at the hospital, where he is soon assisting with amputations, among other things. As the story of these three characters unfolds, we learn of the interconnecting threads that link them together.

For a first novel (at least first published novel), this is an extraordinary piece of work that grips the imagination and will leave the reader pondering as to the nature of war, life and death for many days.

Kiskadee Girl - Maggie Harris (Guyana)

Powerful forces surge through British Guiana as it transforms into independent Guyana, South American forest a bare step away from the towns. Old World chilly proprieties smack against everything the New World embodies. Margaret must navigate her own independence. Scottish, Portuguese, African: all and none of these, this teenager of the emergent Caribbean learns seduction Hollywood-style, but she belongs to more than a century of transgressions. She kisses forbidden faces, the living colours of colonial history. Love and loss come home to her in two men of the river. When Margaret is just fifteen, her father dies. A little later, she packs up her dreams, leaves her riverman and makes the Atlantic crossing. But the spirits of her old geography keep whispering.

This is charming and relatively short read, about the authors early life growing up in what was at the time, British Guiana. This is a small country in the northern part of South America, which is in many times more West Indian in nature. It was perhaps not the best or most interesting book I have read from this part of the world, but nevertheless poignant and beautifully honest in its descriptions of teenage emotions against the backdrop of the country's move towards independence.

The Hired Man - Aminatta Forna (Croatia)

Gost is surrounded by mountains and fields of wild flowers. The summer sun burns. The Croatian winter brings freezing winds. Beyond the boundaries of the town an old house which has lain empty for years is showing signs of life. One of the windows, glass darkened with dirt, today stands open, and the lively chatter of English voices carries across the fallow fields. Laura and her teenage children have arrived.

A short distance away lies the hut of Duro Kolak who lives alone with his two hunting dogs. As he helps Laura with repairs to the old house, they uncover a mosaic beneath the ruined plaster and, in the rising heat of summer, painstakingly restore it. But Gost is not all it seems; conflicts long past still suppurate beneath the scars.

I was surprised to find that the latest of Aminatta's books was set in Croatia, as her previous works, like the author herself, were African themed, and some say, partly autobioghraphical in nature. This then is an interesting departure from her more usual style, and yet it was also the same in that it was set in the aftermath of war, this time in the Balkans.

The narrator is builder Duro, who lives alone on the outskirts of Gost with his two hunting dogs. Gost seems an appropriate name in many ways for this fictional town, as it is one letter removed from ghost, the state in which many of the residents appear to reside. Duro first encounters Laura through the sight of his gun, while out hunting in the woods. When Duro a handyman by trade, learns that Laura has recently moved into the so-called blue house, and plans to renovate it, he volunteers his services, being in need of the work. As the story unfolds, we learn that Duro is already intimately acquainted with both the house and its history, as the former home of his childhood sweetheart and sister of his once best friend.

There are dark under currents beneath the surface as we learn the secrets of both Duro's and the towns past with its role in the ethnic cleansing that took part of the Balkans war. The war has understandably left scars, both physical and psychological upon the inhabitants, not least of all Duro himself. The book cleverlly addresses many of these issues and for many will I am sure leave unanswered and unresolved questions.

The relationships between the various characters are brilliantly betrayed - Laura and her sunny, trusting personality, Kresimir's brutality and Fabjan's hypocrisy. As I said, this book covers many themes. Most of all though, it is a book about survival and the effects of war on a community, a community where the various occupants took sides against each other and are now forced to live with the consequences of that betrayal and guilt.

Butterflies in November: Audur Ava Olafsdottir (Iceland)

After a day of being dumped - twice - and accidentally killing a goose, the narrator begins to dream of tropical holidays far away from the chaos of her current life. instead, she finds her plans wrecked by her best friend's deaf-mute son, thrust into her reluctant care. But when a shared lottery ticket nets the two of them over 40 million kroner, she and the boy head off on a road trip across iceland, taking in cucumber-farming hotels, dead sheep, and any number of her exes desperate for another chance. Blackly comic and uniquely moving, Butterflies in November is an extraordinary, hilarious tale of motherhood, relationships and the legacy of life's mistakes.

Given my love of Iceland, and all things Icelandic, it seems fitting to start 2014 off with an Icelandic book. This one had been on my wish list for a while, having read about it in the airline magazine after my most recent trip to Iceland in October last year, so when I saw it was reduced to 99p I downloaded a copy straight away.

The narrator of the book is a thirty three year old woman with a gift for languages. When we meet her at the beginning of the book, she has been recently dumped by both her lover and her husband. Her husband it turns out has also been having an affair, and is expecting a child with his other woman. When the narrator's pregnant best friend and already single mother Audur is on the way over to help our heroine commiserate, she slips and falls on the ice, necessitating a stay in hospital. Our heroine is then given the task of caring for Audur's five year old deaf-mute son. Following, not one but two lottery wins - one monetary, one a prefabricated summer bungalow in the east of Iceland, where the narrator spent her childhood, the two of them set off on a road trip around Iceland's coast.

The remainder of the book is about this road trip and the things that the two of them encounter - including yes, a cucumber farm, a dead sheep and several exes. During the journey our heroine learns what motherhood really means and makes some life changing decisions.

This is somewhat quirky book that would appeal mostly to other women, due to the motherhood theme and will no doubt have a sizeable audience after the success of her previous work. For me though the book seemed a bit lack lustre and lacked that certain spark. Icelandic is a difficult language to learn, so maybe some of the book was simply lost in translation. It is by no means the best book I have read, but no means the worst either, so I would give this an average rating of 3 stars.

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman: Eve Harris (Israel)

19 year-old Chani lives in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of North West London. She has never had physical contact with a man, but is bound to marry a stranger. The rabbi’s wife teaches her what it means to be a Jewish wife, but Rivka has her own questions to answer. Soon buried secrets, fear and sexual desire bubble to the surface in a story of liberation and choice; not to mention what happens on the wedding night…

This delightful mid length book (350 pages) tells the story of seven orthodox Jews, all of whom are interrelated by either marriage or friendship. Baruch, who is the son of Rabbi Chaim, and his wife Rivka sees Chani at a wedding and decides that the two should meet with a view to arranging a match of their own. His mother, the snobbish and irrepressible Mrs Levy, has other ideas, as no woman, least of all Chani, who comes from a less monied background, could ever be good enough for her son. She as the mother knows best. When she attempts to bribe the matchmaker Mrs Gelbman to put her son off, this backfires spectacularly, as Mrs Gelbman turns the tables. She also pressures Chani, who determinedly digs in her heels, in more ways than one, and so against all the odds, the match is sealed.

The other characters are Avromi, the groom to be's best friend, who stifled by his orthodox upbringing enrols at a secular university. He soon embarks upon a relationship with a non Jewish girl who introduced him to more secular ways. Torn by his conflicting emotions, he ends the relationship and enrols instead in a religious college in Jerusalem. Then there is the Rabbi (Avromi's father), who is to officiate at Baruch and Chani's nuptials, and his wife Rivka. We see flashbacks of their life together in Jerusalem where they met as students and their gradual move towards orthodoxy with the restrictions that this brings, most of all to Rivka.

The wedding eventually goes ahead, with both parties very nervous about the wedding night, as neither (unlike the groom's best friend, or as it turns out his parents before they married) have any knowledge about sex. Predictably it is a complete disaster, but out of that disaster comes communication and understanding, which eventually leads to freedom. These three words are if anything, the theme of the book, for each of these like the characters themselves are inter related. As Baruch and Chani, and indeed Chaim (the Rabbi) and Rivka start to communicate honestly and openly about what they both want and expect from the other, an understanding develops, which ultimately leads to freedom for both of them.

Although I know a little about the lives of orthodox Jews, having been to Israel twice, this provided for me a fascinating insight into their world.