Tag Archives: prize winner

Review: The Tiger’s Wife

The 2011 winner of the Women’s Prize, The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, was my most recent buddy read. Reactions to it have been quite mixed (both in the buddy read and in general), so definitely check out more reviews if it’s a title that interest you. (I’ll add the reviews from my reading buddies for this title here as they appear: Callum, Naty, Rachel…)

thetigerswifeIn the novel, Natalia and her friend, both doctors in the Balkans, are traveling to an orphanage across the border of their country to deliver medicine to children on the other side. Still trying to reconcile her feelings over the newly divided country and the aftermath of war, Natalia also learns that her grandfather, a beloved mentor and revered member of the community- has died, supposedly on his way to visit her. While she helps distribute the medicine and tries to persuade the travelers in town (who are digging for a body left behind 12 years ago) to allow their children to be treated as well, she must now also attempt to retrieve her grandfather’s things from the morgue. Interwoven with this series of events, she also recounts two stories she’s heard about her grandfather’s past, both involving death, and both featuring a bit of magic.

“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life […] One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.”

Unfortunately, at a little over 300 pages The Tiger’s Wife somehow felt excessively long and drawn-out to me- probably because despite including plenty of individual moments that I adored, several larger aspects were ineffective for me. My reading experience was filled with pros and cons, landing me somewhere in the middle of the wide range of opinions surrounding this book.

At heart, The Tiger’s Wife is a story of superstition and belief, of what people tell themselves to cope with what is happening to or around them. Both of the stories from Natalia’s grandfather’s past include a magical realism element that may or may not be taken at face value, a choice that allows the reader to see how these characters might have accepted such outlandish stories to begin with. Though I’m not always a fan of magical realism, I thoroughly enjoyed those elements in this novel. I thought the magical chapters were the most engaging to read, and they gave me something deeper to think about than the surface details of the story. But after so much attention is given to these magical tales throughout the book, the payoff for them seems too rushed and insufficient for them to warrant so much page time. Pro, meet con.

The two largest pieces that didn’t work for me were 1) the structure, and 2) the narrator, who provides the framework for the story.

The book alternates between three story lines: that of the Deathless Man, that of the Tiger’s Wife, and that of the narrator’s experience with the orphanage. The relationship between Natalia and her grandfather is also explored piecemeal through historical anecdotes sprinkled throughout, which touch on the political conflict in the Balkans from the time of the world wars onward. Though the stories (historical, political, personal, magical) do tie together at the end, I found the constant switching between such disparate narratives to be disorienting, and not conducive to compulsive reading. Even within each chapter, our narrator jumps through time to explore not only the narratives themselves, but also the histories of each of the main players. Though each chapter eventually drew me in with one plot point or another, having to switch back to another story line in the next chapter, and then not necessarily from the point at which the last relevant chapter left off, made it easy to set the novel down at every break and harder to pick back up. Every chapter takes patience and an effort to adjust.

Additionally, and also damaging to my reading experience, I thought the narrator felt like an unnecessary addendum to the story. Until her trek up the mountain on the heels of a mysterious figure (at the very end of the book), she contributes very little- no personality, no opinions, no actions beyond what is necessary to move the plot along. Primarily, I felt The Tiger’s Wife to be the grandfather’s story, and including a granddaughter at all seemed only a convenient way to frame the story after his death, since death is so crucial to the two biggest stories of his life. Even from a logistical standpoint though, it seems an awkward narrative choice; only one of these two major stories is actually given to Natalia by her grandfather, the other she must collect from various sources while visiting the village of his youth, and she does this several years after her trip to the orphanage; this means that the entire narrative is actually told from a futuristic viewpoint, when the narrator finally holds all of the stories together, though I found no further insight or reflection as usually accompanies a story told retrospectively. The events surrounding the orphanage visit seem like they’ve happened just yesterday, just a moment ago, not from some future point of clarity. Even setting the strange timing aside, Natalia doesn’t express much emotion about any of the book’s events, which makes her feel like a third party in someone else’s show rather than an active participant in her own. Ultimately, I just didn’t find her voice useful or engaging.

“Slightly younger, we had been unable to ration our enthusiasm for living under the yoke of war; now, we couldn’t regulate our inability to part with it.”

And now that I’ve complained my way through several paragraphs, it’s time for the upside: the writing. I suppose opinions will be divided on this as well, but I loved Obreht’s style in this book. The prose is sumptuous and evocative, full of imagery and deep characterization (aside from Natalia). The details didn’t all feel necessary, as I’ve outlined above, and in the end the story didn’t quite pull together as strongly as I’d been hoping it would, but something about the writing of this book felt so promising, so hopeful, that even when I found myself disappointed in other aspects, I wouldn’t have considered giving up on the book. She’s clearly a talented writer, and The Tiger’s Wife is all the more impressive for the fact that it’s Obreht’s debut. It examines timeless and fascinating concepts: grief, death, political upheaval, superstition- and ties them all to a specific time and place. For the right reader,  I imagine this book can be a great success. A reader more interested in historical fiction, magical realism, and beautiful prose, with a clearer picture of the Balkans’ political history. Sadly, that didn’t quite seem to be me.

” ‘People become very upset,’ Gavo tells me, ‘when they find out they are going to die. […] They behave very strangely,’ he says. ‘They are suddenly filled with life. Suddenly they want to fight for things, ask questions. They want to throw hot water in your face, or beat you senseless with an umbrella, or hit you in the head with a rock. Suddenly they remember things they have to do, people they have forgotten. All that refusal, all that resistance. Such a luxury.’ “

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think this has been my least favorite of the Women’s Prize winners I’ve read thus far, though I don’t regret the read. I’m certainly not discouraged from trying more titles from the list of Women’s Prize winners, and I might still pick up Obreht’s 2019 release, Inland, at some point as well, though I would appreciate anyone who’s read it (or read both, preferably) weighing in on whether I might get along with it any better?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Spell of Winter

CW: rape, incest, parental abandonment, animal (horse) injury, death of loved ones, abortion

My journey through the Women’s Prize winners list continued this month with Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, my first Dunmore read and the very first novel to win the Women’s Prize (back when it was called the Orange Prize). I buddy read this one with some amazing bloggers, and suggest you check out their reviews as well! Here are the links for: Callum, Rachel, Naty, Sarah (review pending) and Hannah (review pending – I’ll update these links as reviews appear)!

aspellofwinterIn the novel, Cathy narrates the story of her upbringing in a remote part of England on the cusp of WWI. Her family is falling apart as fast as the manor they live in, leaving Cathy and her brother Rob to parse rumors and secrets for the truth of their missing parents. Raised by an emotionally distant grandfather with particular ideas for their futures and by overly-involved house staff, Cathy and Rob form a close bond- perhaps too close- that causes further emotional fracturing as the two finally reach adulthood and gain a wider sense of the world than they had ever known in the manor. It’s a tragic tale of the lasting effects one person’s actions can have on another, and of coming of age in a rapidly changing world.

“My grandfather had turned my parents into shadows, and, as far as I knew, everybody had agreed to it.”

Despite the word “winter” in the title, this is an excellent book to reach for at the height of spooky season (it would also be great for winter, of course). Much of the book has a very Gothic feel- it’s not a high-tension mystery or supernatural fright fest, so don’t enter this one expecting Daphne du Maurier or Shirley Jackson. Though so many of the details are eerie and unusual, its a fairly straightforward story of one girl’s quest for adulthood. That said, the element that I enjoyed the most was the atmospheric Gothic touch that turns nearly everything from Cathy’s childhood slightly sinister.

” ‘A pity there hasn’t been a death in the family,’ said Kate. ‘With your skin you’d look like a queen in black.’ “

There’s some truly devastating content here, and I had to put the book down a few times to let my emotions catch up with me- usually I’m an embarrassingly cold reader and not particularly affected by fictional details, so this response is a standout; I was completely captivated by these characters and their situation. Cathy’s grandfather comes from no one and nothing, and is focused on building a home and legacy for the future generations of his family. Cathy’s mother doesn’t feel she fits in this dream and runs away- alone. Her father is so distraught that he’s eventually admitted to a sanatorium as a mental patient. Her brother is the only one who really understands what her life has been like, and keeps her close. Her governess takes pity on pretty, almost-orphaned Cathy and loves her nearly to the point of obsession. Kate, the young woman who attends to both children and the house’s upkeep (among other household staff), is dedicated to her duties but longs for a life of her own in which she’s entitled to more than a leaking attic bedroom. No one means Cathy ill, and their own motives are generally good and reasonable, but the girl is deeply hurt by all of them. Dunmore presents the reader with a masterpiece of characterization full of human intrigue and desperation, and this is the area in which she succeeds without question.

“I wonder sometimes, if it’s the people themselves who keep you company, or the idea of the them. The idea you have of them.”

I found myself less enthusiastic about the ending of the novel. Though the entire book was a very quick and engrossing read for me, there’s a definite shift in the last third or so of the novel when the war finally comes into play that made the structure of the book start to fall apart for me. To some degree, this might be down to no more than a pacing issue, but it led to a lot of confusion on my part of what this book was aiming to do. Is it a war story? I’m still not sure, though I think not. It’s hard to relegate such an important world event that clearly impacted these characters immensely to a mere chapter in their lives, but I do wonder whether the backdrop of this particular time period actually adds anything to the story. It certainly adds more tragedy to Cathy’s life, and the time period explains certain habits / ways of life at the manor, but I would argue that it doesn’t change Cathy’s relationships with any of the main characters, which in my opinion is the central focus of this story. Thus, I couldn’t quite appreciate the tonal shift.

I also thought the book’s ending chapter somewhat anticlimactic; the final scenes depict the first time Cathy is able to make reasonably informed decisions in her own interest, and seeing convictions from her younger years overturned is a victory in itself, but I found the ease with which she makes those choices and the apparent lack of conflict in following them through rather bizarre. It also seemed surprisingly emotionless after the string of heart-wrenching tragedies leading up to it. It wasn’t, for me, a satisfactory conclusion, though I felt the book a worthwhile read regardless, and enjoyed engaging with its themes.

“Abandoning, betraying, powerful, she had filled our dreams as she would never have done if we’d had her living presence. They were confused dreams from which I woke with an ache of guilt. I hadn’t loved her enough. If I had loved her more, she would never have gone. I had saved half my bar of nougat for her but then I had eaten it.”

All told, I would say this is an excellent choice of literature if you’re looking for something dark and bleak that examines a childhood without parental guidance and affection, forbidden love, familial obligations, and a life of seclusion. Dunmore’s writing is both flowing and haunting, easy to read but also determined to crawl under the reader’s skin. The synopsis on the cover (and on Goodreads) offers little in the way of what to expect, and I can see where not knowing what you’re getting into here could lead to less than favorable experiences for some readers, though the right audience will find this a gorgeous (if grim) book. It’s a tricky title to recommend, so I won’t be pushing this one on anyone, but I do hope that those interested enough to pick up A Spell of Winter will find as much to appreciate in its pages as I did.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a very difficult book to describe, and a difficult story to explain my reaction to, so I’m not sure I’ve done it any justice. Dunmore is clearly a skilled writer (I look forward to reading more of her work, though I haven’t had a chance to thumb through her backlist yet and pick out a follow-up; feel free to recommend any of her titles!), and I think this was a deserving book to take the first Women’s Prize win. (I look forward to reading more past winners as well!). It’s hard to say I enjoyed the read when most of it was really very sad, but… I absolutely did.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

CW: cancer/terminal illness, molestation and rape, verbal abuse, parental abandonment, self-destructive behavior, beatings/physical abuse, emotional abuse… (I’m realizing that some of the CWs might be spoilery, so I’ll stop here with the warning that anyone trying to avoid specific triggers should ask or look deeper into the book’s content before reading because there’s more.)

This was my first year reading the entire Women’s Prize longlist, and it certainly won’t be my last! Though I didn’t love all of the titles (or the direction the judges went with the shortlist, but that’s another matter), it was an enjoyable and worthwhile experience, and sparked my interest in reading more of the past winners. Fortunately, I found a great group to tackle this project with! First up was 2014 winner Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, a buddy read with Hannah, Callum, Sarah, Naty, and Rachel.

agirlisahalfformedthingIn the novel, our unnamed protagonist narrates her life experiences to her older brother. The boy has been hindered for much of his life as the result of a childhood brain tumor that’s been expected to recur. The girl has been victim to all sorts of heartbreak and abuse in the meantime- her father’s abandonment of the family, her mother’s cruelty, inappropriate sexual attention from her uncle, and more. Her traumas shape her into a self-destructive person without a sense of identity separate from the horrors that have defined her life.

“Peel the skin off why don’t you, rip it from my bone.”

The first thing to note about this book, even before worrying about the difficult content, is the challenging writing style. McBride uses a unique form of stream-of-consciousness writing that presents as fragmented gasps and spurts and appears almost nonsensical upon first inspection. I needed to read the first three chapters twice to feel that I had a reasonable grasp of what was being conveyed; even after I reached a point at which I was able to resume a normal reading pace, I never broke past the sense that I was translating or deciphering the prose while reading, rather than understanding it organically. The writing plays with sentence structure, capitalization, spelling, etc. In the interest of full disclosure, here’s a small sample from the most experimental chapter:

“Puk blodd over me frum. In the next but. Let me iar. Soon I’n dead I’m sre. Loose. Ver the aIrWays. Here. mY nose my mOuth I. VOMit. Clear. CleaR. He stopS up gETs. Stands uP. Look. And I breath. ANd I breath my.”

It hardly looks like English here, but this is the point at which I finally started crying and live-texting a friend over how absurd and profound it seemed that anything written in this way could have such an effect. I’m sure this will alienate many readers who aren’t prepared for it, but a large part of the book’s brilliance is tied to the fact that this complicated style makes a perfect fit for the tone and content of the book; no other style would have done this story the same justice. Through most of my time with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, I expected to rate the book 4 stars, with 1 removed for the dense and chaotic writing, but finally toward the end it worked a particular sort of magic in which it moved me not despite the way it was written, but precisely because it was written this way.

I would never have been able to comprehend what I was reading if I had listened to this book for the first time on audio, but after reading I went back to listen to a sample of McBride narrating the audiobook and was just as stunned with the style in that format. It is readable, but you must be willing to fully engage.

“There’s no room in this part of me anymore. Relief. I think. What’s next and next? It’s surely coming now.”

As far as content, I don’t want to say much beyond that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is absolutely brutal. It’s not a long book, and McBride doesn’t waste time lingering over the most painful moments or spoon-feeding their implications to the reader.Nor does she shy away from the narrator’s hard truths. It’s revelatory, rather than uplifting. Don’t expect a happy ending here.

What you can expect is an emotionally and psychologically observant account of the effects that abuse can have on a child, and on a woman. From our protagonist’s confused sense of self to alternating rebellious and acquiescent behavior, there’s no question that her traumas- whether she understood them to be traumas or not- have played a role in every aspect of her life afterward. She’s not so much broken as grown askew, molded into shapes that others demanded of her and punished when she didn’t fit. It’s an important glimpse into just how damaging some actions can be, and no reader should expect to emerge unscathed. I certainly didn’t.

“Thanks for the fuck you thanks for that I hear his walking crunching. Foot foot. Go. Him Away.”

It’s hard to recommend this book widely while both the content and writing seem designed to push the reader to every extreme. But if, somehow, you’re still with me at this point and not running as fast as you can from the bare power of this book, it might be worth a try.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is absolutely one of the most complex and accomplished books I have ever read, as well as one of the most emotionally taxing. I walked around in a bit of a stupor the night I finished it, and agree entirely with the jacket: “It is a book you will never forget.” This is one of a very few books I’ve read this year that I can confidently say will find its way to my Favorite Books of 2019 list, and I certainly plan to read more from McBride, as well as more former Women’s Prize winners. Even though I tremble at the thought of encountering another story like this.

What’s the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Milkman

I’ve been reading the Man Booker longlist this year, and had the good fortune to be reading Anna Burns’s Milkman when it was announced as the 2018 winner in mid-October. That was a fun experience that I was not entirely expecting. I still had one book left on the shortlist at that time in addition to half of Milkman, so I wasn’t even ready to make an informed guess about who the winner might be. Now that I’m ready to reflect… I’m so glad this book won.

milkmanAbout the book: Middle Sister prefers avoiding the troubled times she lives in by reading novels from centuries past– reading even while she’s walking, as a distraction from the present world. Unfortunately, the other members of her community do not see her reading-while-walking as a suitable form of self-defense, and as she becomes more difficult for them to understand she also becomes a target of their cruel gossip. Soon everyone is saying that Middle Sister is having an affair with Milkman, and so many are so vehemently on board that Middle Sister seems to have no choice left but to give in to Milkman’s demands. As she learns firsthand how hard it can be to make people listen rather than assume, she also discovers that some of her own assumptions have long been incorrect, and that she is just as much to blame for shutting out the truth as anyone else.

“I’d have lost power, such as was my power, if I’d tried to explain and to win over all those gossiping about me. So I’d kept silent, I said. I’d asked no questions, answered no questions, gave no confirmation, no refutation. That way, I’d said, I’d hoped to maintain a border to keep my mind separate. That way, I’d said, I’d hoped to ground and protect myself.”

Before I talk more about the plot, I want to take a look at the unique writing style Burns uses in this novel because I think that will be the element that makes or breaks this novel for many readers.

The writing is full of placeholder names for places and people, nouns-turned-verbs, and objects that all but become their descriptions. The sentences run on and on in a manner very similar to (though not quite, in my opinion, actual) stream-of-consciousness narration. Paragraphs go on for pages, chapters seem never to end. I am usually a reader drawn to short paragraphs and short chapters myself, but something about the narrator’s voice in Milkman succeeded in pulling me in, and those long sentences made it nearly impossible to let the book go. “Just one more paragraph” turned into an excuse to read a few more pages, and enough was never enough. The ease of distinguishing characters by their relation to the narrator or other inherent characteristics seemed like a convenient way to get right to the meat of the story without bothering with all the fancy window dressing usually required to bring a fictional world to life. For all of Milkman’s long-windedness, it is not a novel stuffed with surplus. Names and world building are important, yes, but not so much in Milkman. Instead of dwelling on what other books set up as required background, it skips over what it doesn’t need to get right to the point.

“Some too, would make mention of the actual word ‘rumour’, as in ‘Rumour says’, before going on to personify rumour, as if it wasn’t they who were launching or perpetuation Rumour themselves.”

The point. Middle Sister’s affair (or not) with Milkman. The way her community forces her hand, though they’re still there to save her when she needs it. This is a book about community, about assumption, and about individual truths. The basics of the plot are given away in the first paragraph; the rest of the novel is spent examining how such a strange and horrible situation could occur, and the escalating sense of Middle Sister’s isolation even while (because) she seems to be the first topic on everybody’s mind. Burns may take the scenic route through this novel, but she never loses track of where she’s going, and the answers she provides is worth the time spent searching for them– but if you’re one of the lucky readers (like me) who can fall completely in love with Milkman‘s style, you’ll enjoy the journey to the answers just as much.

“I wasn’t sure anymore what was plausible, what was exaggeration, what might be reality or delusion or paranoia.”

Let’s not overlook the other characters. Burns does a fantastic job of bringing in each player’s story at just the right time, referencing it ahead of time to pique the reader’s interest, but only giving the details when the scaffolding of the main story is ready for that extra layer. When I think a book is well-written, I often say the writer exercises a great command of language. In this case, though Burns certainly knows her way around words, what she has most command of here is the bundle of threads that make up the main plot, divided into individual strands of smaller character arcs. She weaves the characters in and out of Middle Sister’s story without ever seeming to lose track of any of the filaments that bind them all. I will remember Tablets Girl and Nuclear Boy and Real Milkman and First Brother-in-Law for a long time, to list a few.

And if you are one of the lucky readers who completely jives with Burns’s writing style, there’s the humor to appreciate, too. Most of the themes and morals of this book are ominous and serious, reflecting on the poor ways humans treat one another, especially as part of a larger group. But even so, Burns has an ironic sense of humor that goes to the heart of what people understand but don’t say, and it invariably lightens the mood. This line was my favorite:

“She admonished him, saying ‘I think I hate you,’ which meant she didn’t because ‘I think I hate you’ is the same as ‘probably I hate you’, which is the same as ‘I don’t know if I hate you’, which is the same as ‘I don’t hate you, oh my God, my love, I love you, still love you, always, always have I loved you and never have I stopped loving you’. “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I was immediately hooked in the first pages, but then I wavered for a while on whether or not the style was truly working for me. By 50 pages, I was hooked again, this time for good. The book worked for me, entirely. I cannot list a single flaw. I can, however, see myself rereading Milkman, and I’m certainly more interested in reading backlisted Booker Prize winners after enjoying this one as much as I did.

Other Man Booker reviews (in order of descending favoritism): Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap. I’ve also read The Overstory and Sabrina, and will have reviews for those up soon!

Have you read this year’s Man Booker winner? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Home Fire

I’m still slowly making my way through the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction nominees that I was most interested in this year, and of course that list of titles included the winner, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. After a disappointing thriller spree and before my Man Booker nominee choices arrived, I decided it was finally time to pick up Home Fire.

homefireAbout the book: Two British Muslim families based in London struggle to fit their beliefs into a world that doesn’t want to accept them as-is. Isma Pasha, the eldest daughter of a known jihadi fighter, is all too familiar with being judged and accused based on her race and religion. Karamat Lone, recently appointed Home Secretary, tries to limit such injustices by encouraging British Muslims to change their ways in order to make their religion fit popular opinion. Isma’s and Lone’s families overlap throughout the novel, sometimes on the same side but most often in opposition. Islamophobia shapes their lives, but so do the choices and betrayals that occur within the Muslim community, and within their own families.

“He rested his head on his knees. He didn’t know how to break out of these currents of history, how to shake free of the demons he had attached to his own heels.”

I knew going in that Home Fire was a retelling of Sophocles’s ancient Greek play, Antigone; I have read the play (twice), but it’s been a long time and I wasn’t sure how many of the plot points I remembered clearly. Fortunately, as I read Home Fire, the parallels became obvious and by the time I reached the end of the book I remembered a lot more about Antigone than I had going in. I’m mentioning this because I think prior knowledge of Antigone will play a roll in your reading of Home Fire, though I can only speak to my own experience. I would say prior knowledge of Antigone is strongly recommended, though not strictly required, for reading this novel.

Aside from the fact that it’s a great classic retelling, this novel was also a learning experience for me. There’s not much of a Muslim community in rural Iowa, where I’ve spent most of my life, so while Islam and Islamophobia are certainly concepts I’ve been aware of, I’ve never found much connection to them before reading this novel. I feel like I can see a part of the world now that I was blind to before, which is a big part of why I read in the first place. I’ll certainly be reaching for more books with Muslim main characters in the future.

What I love most about this particular story is the way these characters fit together. Though each character alone is a bit one-dimensional, they all have a roll to play in the greater story, and together they’re powerful. Shamsie gives each main character their own perspective chapters, usually two chapters in a row before the focus shifts to another character. At first I found this disappointing- I liked Isma’s opening chapters but felt like they had only just scratched the surface of her character; I wanted more. But as I encountered each subsequent character and watched their narratives flow from one to another like a baton passed between racers, I came to appreciate this format, which fits the story well. Even the characters I didn’t like kept me turning pages.

“Laughing, he said, ‘Cancer or Islam- which is the greater affliction?’ “

In the end I had only two small complaints. The first, that Aneeka’s dedication to her twin felt incongruous at times. In the time before Isma leaves for America, her twin siblings begin drifting apart, and while Parvaiz’s sense of betrayal at that separation felt visceral and justifiable, Aneeka’s attitude toward it seemed too aloof and uncaring to convince me she felt as strong a bond with her twin as she claimed to. Her later actions do show devotion, but somehow the relationship never quite convinced me of its closeness. It felt like someone who is not a twin trying to describe what it is like to be a twin, but I’m not a twin myself and I can’t pretend to know Shamsie’s life so I don’t have any authority on that subject. It only gave me pause because Anneka and Parvais’s relationship is so central to the plot, and needed to be strong.

My other complaint, which reversed completely and became a boon for me by the end of the novel, was the level of betrayal in this book. There are a lot of betrayals, small and large, against family members, community members, country members, etc. Every main character in this book betrays someone close to them, and there were times when reading the betrayals was very difficult and upsetting. At one point, I considered stopping my read of Home Fire because reading the betrayals felt like its own brand of torture. But I persevered, and in the end I appreciated how strongly the characters’ actions affected me because it proved my emotional investment in the story- a strong plus for Home Fire. There’s undeniable beauty in the heart-wrenching details.

“Grief was the step-sibling they’d grown up with, unwanted and inevitable. Grief the amniotic fluid of their lives. Grief she could look in the eye while her twin stared over its shoulder and told her of the world that lay beyond. Grief changed its shape to fit your contours- enveloping you as a second skin you eventually learnt to slip into and resume your life. Grief was the deal God struck with the Angel of Death, who wanted an unpassable river to separate the living from the dead; grief the bridge that would allow the dead to flit among the living, their footsteps overhead, their laughter around the corner, their posture in the bodies of strangers you would follow down the street willing them never to turn around. Grief was what you owed the dead for the necessary crime of living on without them.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I can see why this book won the Women’s Prize this year, and I’ll definitely be reading more of the titles that caught my eye from the longlist. There’ve definitely been some gems among the nominees I’ve read so far. I’m also interested in reading further from Shamsie’s published novels, though I’m not sure yet which one I’ll start with. (Please leave me suggestions if you’ve read other Shamsie books that you’ve loved.)

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like Greek retellings and haven’t yet picked up Madeline Miller’s Circe, I recommend that you give that novel a try. Circe is more of a fantasy/mythological story, and to me its modern touch was undeniable, but it’s certainly a beautiful story with plenty of recognizable Greek references to enjoy.
  2. If you like prize-nominated books about hardships faced by minority groups, you should pick up Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a multi-generational narrative about African slavery in both Africa and America. This one’s another incredibly moving (though unsentimental) story of identity.
  3. If you want to pick up another 2018 Women’s Prize nominee and don’t know which one to reach for next, try Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, a powerful feminist story about an Indian marriage that devolves into abuse and manipulation.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Underground Railroad

I’ve seen Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad on quite a few shelves since its publication toward the end of 2016, but somehow I failed to form a definite opinion about whether or not I wanted to read it until the final two weeks of 2017, when I suddenly needed a Pulitzer Prize winning book to complete my reading challenge. As I perused the list of winners and considered the titles most readily available, The Underground Railroad was the one that jumped out at me, and I had to pick it up immediately. I’m glad I did.

theundergroundrailroadAbout the book: Cora was born on the Randall plantation in pre-Civil War Georgia. When she was ten years old, her mother ran away, leaving Cora behind. As a teenager, Cora is presented with a similar opportunity: she can leave slavery behind and escape with Caesar, who has a connection with the Underground Railroad. Once she steps foot off the Randall property, she’ll either end up free or dead. Although the outcome may sound simple, the journey is anything but. The train ride itself doesn’t take much time, but Cora spends months– years– trying to escape the “crimes” she left behind her and find the life she’s been told she can have off the plantation. “Free” never quite seems like an accurate description of Cora’s situation though, and there’s always the danger that she’ll be returned to Randall for a gruesome fate. A trail of deaths and injustices follows Cora on her search for safety as she travels through a wide range of places with all manner of people and discovers how deep prejudice can run.

“But we have all been branded even if you can’t see it, inside if not without.”

“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes– believes with all its heart– that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

One of the most intriguing aspects about this particular Underground Railroad story was the use of a real underground train as part of the system. This new twist is also, I think, the main reason that Whitehead’s novel does not read like any other Underground Railroad tale I’ve ever encountered. The actual traveling between states takes so much less time than traversing on foot that the focus stays firmly on the characters: their lives and choices and hardships.

“Then it comes, always– the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.”

In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead allows the story to radiate out from Cora. We see sections about Caesar (her escape-mate), Cora’s mother and her mother’s mother, and even the slave hunter who’s dedicated himself to tracking Cora down. The reader may not agree with all of these characters’ choices, but the wider view of influencers in Cora’s life humanizes characters that might otherwise have been stock heroes or villains. Whitehead shows the reader the pasts that made each of them who they are, and how those people helped form Cora’s character and life conditions. We also see through Cora’s eyes at many different stages of her life rather than solely the time frame of her escape attempt. Cora herself is easy to appreciate, but the additional perspectives give the story a wider scope and a higher feel of plausibility. Whitehead balances the nuances of the multiple views expertly.

“Somewhere, years ago, she had stepped off the path of life and could no longer find her way back to the family of people.”

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”

The only thing I would change about this book is the way it jumps through time. Normally I appreciate stories that start in medias res; I appreciate when characters don’t waste time explaining things blatantly to the reader that they wouldn’t be explaining if they weren’t aware that they were narrating a book, things that the reader can learn as the story progresses; but each new chapter of this book, and sometimes sections within chapters, seem to start in different times and places than where it left off, and it was often confusing for several sentences, paragraphs, or even pages how we had gotten from one point to the other and where we had ended up. There are lots of smaller stories within the overall arc of The Underground Railroad, and each of them jumps right in to the important parts without going into those helpful background details like time and place, and the big event that made him/her leave point A for point B in the first place. The Underground Railroad is a book that requires constant attention, but it will get you where you’re going in the end and it’s worth the extra puzzling to discover the truths Cora has to share.

“Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.”

“The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a great read, a book with pages that practically turn themselves because of the engaging plot and sympathetic characters, but also a book that teaches. For the first time since US history lessons in elementary school, I felt like I was reading a new story about the Underground Railroad, something that connected with me emotionally and still felt like it had relevant messages about kindness and equality even in a time when slavery no longer exists in the US. I’m definitely feeling encouraged to pick up more Pulitzer Prize winners.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Color Purple by Alice Walker is indeed another Pulitzer Prize winner that I read recently and highly respected. It also focuses on racism in southern US, although this time in the early 1900s. It also challenges misogyny and other forms of oppression, in a very uplifting and exciting way. It’s not to be read lightly, as it deals with some pretty heavy subjects, including rape and abuse, but it has some great messages to share for readers willing to brave its stormy seas.

Have you read any Pulitzer Prize books that you would recommend?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant