A Thousand Splendid Suns - book review

Book Review | A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I don’t like to preach. But if there was ever an important time to read this book, that time is now.

I finished The Kite Runner a week before the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan in August. We all know what happened next: in a matter of hours the tyrranical Taliban had seized control of the entire country and things started looking very dark indeed.

I hadn’t been purposefully reading The Kite Runner at that time. The impending withdrawal of US and UK troops hadn’t seemed to have gathered too much fanfare on the front page. A news story that is devastating even if you know nothing about the country and its people kept me awake at night. The emotional impact felt magnified.

I knew that A Thousand Splendid Suns was not going to be light bedtime reading. Charting three decades of tumultuous Afghan history, the story begins with Mariam, a ‘harami’ – born to an unwed mother, the housemaid of her wealthy father. She grows up with the understanding that as women, our burden is to ‘endure all that falls upon us’ – something she comes to know all too well when she is married off to a middle-aged widower at 15.

Laila is born in the early 90s to a mild-mannered father and an emotionally unstable mother, who has never recovered from her two beloved sons leaving to fight the jihadi cause. When fighting between rival mujahedeen factions in Kabul becomes too much – rockets claiming lives and limbs on a daily basis – the family decide to flee for Pakistan. But they won’t make it past the gates of the city.

‘…For a moment, standing there in the sunlight, it was as though those years had never happened. Her parents’ deaths, her marriage to Rasheed, the killings, the rockets, the Taliban, the beatings, the hunger, even her children, all of it seemed like a dream, a bizarre detour, a mere interlude between that last afternoon together and this moment.’

The power of Hosseini’s writing is in its beauty and simplicity, in his ability to build a rich tapestry of a life and of a moment in history. The story is so enriched – as with The Kite Runner – with the details about Afghani life, from the Titanic craze that gripped the nation in the late 90s (you could even buy a Titanic burqa), to how the family would bury the TV, wrapped in tarpaulin, in the back garden and dig it up again when it was safer to do so. All of these details exist alongside what is for the most part a harrowing, gut-punch of a novel.

There are some contrivances in the plot that felt a little clichéd – young lovers’ first ever night of passion results in a pregnancy, an escape plan is fatalistically foiled – but the novel is less about actions that propel the plot and more about the rich interior lives of the two female protagonists, whose characters grow into their own as the story progresses. Despite innumerable hardships – poverty, violence, persecution – these are women with rich emotional lives, who find strength in each other and in never failing to let go of the small glimmer of hope that things will change for the better.

‘The years had not been kind to Mariam. But perhaps, she thought, there were kinder years waiting still.’

What hit particularly hard was a conversation that takes place shortly after 9/11 when the country is invaded. The Taliban are ousted, but there’s a long way to go until peace and prosperity.  ‘Maybe there will be hope at the other end of this war,’ one of the characters says to another, ‘maybe for the first time in a long time…’ Hosseini wasn’t to know, writing this in the first half of the 2000s, what would happen 15 years later – that perhaps for some, hope has never felt further away.

“I’m sorry,” Laila says, marveling at how every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet, she sees, people find a way to survive, to go on.

https://www.afghanaid.org.uk/

https://www.rescue.org/

https://miles4migrants.org/

Han Kang - Human Acts Book Review

Book Review | Human Acts by Han Kang

It’s 1980, and a country has turned against its people. In Gwangju, South Korea, Dong-ho staffs the municipal gymnasium, tending to the bodies of the dead. “Apparently all the dead will be brought here from now on,” he is told. “They say there’s no room left in the morgues.” A brutal crackdown in response to a call for democracy, where hundreds (or thousands – a disputed figure in the history books) are massacred. Some of them, like Dong-ho, are children. Dong-ho is only fifteen, and he peers into the faces of the dead, desperately searching for his friend Jeong-dae.

‘Why would you sing the national anthem for people who’d been killed by soldiers? […] As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them.’

What follows are vignettes from those who play a part in Dong-ho’s story, charting the reverberating effects of brutality as the decades wane on – from 1980 to the 2010s. It’s at times excruciating to read, but you also can’t look away. In a particularly difficult-to-read chapter, Jeong-dae is a corpse, rotting on a pile. If you’ve read Han Kang’s critically acclaimed (Booker International-winning) The Vegetarian, you’ll know she doesn’t shy away from gut-wrenching, visceral corporality.

‘When they threw a straw sack over the body of the man at the very top, the tower of bodies was transformed into the corpse of some enormous, fantastical beast, its dozens of legs splayed out beneath it.’

But what awaits those imprisoned is almost a fate worse than death; they are met with incessant torture and near-starvation. It’s unthinkable: that this is not ancient history and that a military inflicted such violence against its own people. Later chapters chart the course of an editor grappling with censorship, a mother grieving the loss of her son – before a full circle to Han Kang’s first person narration, as she explains her personal connection to this horrifying piece of history.

It’s sparingly told, but brutally so. There is an understated lyricism in Han Kang’s prose – and Deborah Smith’s translation – where the effects of traumatic experiences linger on the body – and on the means we have to express our trauma.  

‘Gasping for breath in these interstices, tiny islands among language charred out of existence.’

‘The interrogation room of that summer was knitted into our muscle memory, lodged inside our bodies.’

Han Kang is ingenious with perspective, slipping between first, second, and third person perspective. The second-person chapters lend a particularly galling sense of immediacy to the narrative. The devastation is unfurling in real time, and we are a very real part of it.

It feels important to read books like these, to remember the inhumanity we are capable of, but also the humanity. To know that these things happen, decade after decade, all over the world. There are three reasons to tell these stories, one of the characters tells us. ‘Testimony. Meaning. Memory.’

CW/TW for torture, sexual violence

Book Review | Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This immersive, expansive and moving story begins in a coastal town in early nineteenth-century Korea, shortly after the Japanese annexation of the country. Hoonie, the disabled son of a fisherman, is married to fifteen-year-old Yangjin, and together they raise their daughter Sunja while running a boarding house and keeping their heads just above water. Neither Hoonie nor Yangjin can read or write, but through gossip at the market and amongst the fisherman they hear of the horrors of the Japanese occupation as the world teeters towards war.

As a teenager, Sunja catches the eye of Hansu, a Yakuza – gangster – and quickly becomes pregnant by him. When she learns he has a wife and children in Japan, she refuses to have anything further to do with him. Yangjin, resigned to the abject shame this will bring upon their family, is at a loss. But salvation arrives in the form of Isak Baek, a travelling pastor on his way to Japan, who promises to marry Sunja and take her with him to Osaka to raise her baby.

“Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so you should be told this. For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life—but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves.”

Unfolding over the decades, this dazzling book charts the lives of Yangjin, Sunja and their descendants as Korean immigrants in Japanese townships, through and after the war. Lee’s themes are deft and vast and elegantly explored, suffused with historical detail that brings a culture and time in history that I knew very little about vividly to life.

“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”

Lee uplifts the voices of the voiceless; those whom history has ‘failed,’ and this is what makes the novel feel triumphant even as the characters fight against the indifference of fate and suffer the injustices of poverty, racism and war. There’s the startling resilience of Koreans who are considered perpetual outsiders – even as later generations are born in Japan, with Japanese as a first language, they are still prevented from taking professional jobs and driven into the criminal underworld as a way to survive. For Noa, Sunja’s son, his survival is predicated on crafting a new identity as a Japanese man with no ties to Korea. And despite all that is levelled against them, despite the assertion that the lot of a woman is to suffer endlessly, the incredible cast of women in this novel are the backbone of their families, hustling to make money through selling handmade kimchi at market stalls, caring tirelessly for disabled husbands, searching to the ends of the earth for missing sons.

There is huge emotional depth to this book, but the prose itself is restrained and deceptively simple. Easily one of my favourite books of the year; I adored it.  

Read if you enjoyed Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Little Gods by Meng Jin

Book Review | Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

In this sprawling and epic novel, Yaa Gyasi transports us from 18th century Ghana to just before the turn of the millennium in the United States. Effia and Esi are sisters in Ghana, although they have grown up apart, unaware of the existence of the other. When the British slave traders arrive, Effia is married off to one of to a governor and Esi is enslaved by the very same. In the stately castle where Effia now lives, Esi is held prisoner in the dungeons underneath, in unspeakably inhumane conditions. As an exposition, these two narrative threads are stunning in their simplicity and contrast.

‘These tears were a matter of routine. They came for all of the women. They dropped until the clay below them turned to mud. At night, Esi dreamed that if they all cried in unison, the mud would turn to river and they could be washed away into the Atlantic.’

We then follow, in alternating chapters, the descendants of each of the sisters over the generations. One necessary limitation of this approach is that we never spend quite enough time with a character before we are pulled forward decades in time, which is somewhat unsatisfying. And yet there is something about that disorientation and rupture that feels quite deliberate – these stories will only exist to us as fragments.

Nevertheless, even within these fragments of a life, Gyasi builds up a rich picture of horror and humanity. One story that stood out to me was that of H, who, after the abolition of slavery, is convicted on trumped-up charges of looking at a white woman the wrong way.

‘By sunrise the next morning, on a sweltering July day in 1880, H was chained to ten other men and sold by the state of Alabama to work the coal mines just outside of Birmingham.’

H reflects that ‘The convicts working the mines were almost all like him. Black, once slave, once free, now slave again.’ And through the years, as we hear the stories of H’s descendants, for whom the historical legacy of slavery is never far behind them. A nation of people torn from their homeland, who find themselves generations later still unwelcome and yet unable to go anywhere else – for where is ‘home’?

‘He would never truly know who his people were, and who their people were before them, and if there were stories to be heard about where he had come from, he would never hear them.’

The parts of the novel depicting life in America are suffused with historical detail, whereas the scenes in Ghana feel more lacking. Perhaps it’s because the American culture and history is much more familiar to me, I felt that those scenes – although at times a little heavy-handed and trying to do too much – encapsulated the culture of the times far better than the scenes in Ghana. I think that Gyasi could have made the writing work harder for her, enabling her to rely less on telling and more on showing. But those shortcomings don’t detract from the value of this book.

‘“We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.” She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.’

The heart of what makes this novel so effective is the idea of home. While Effia’s descendants remain for the most part in Ghana, they retain strong ties to their ancestral, cultural and linguistic histories. They were never forcibly removed from their country, and so they have a strong sense of where they came from, a sense of belonging. This is never afforded to Esi’s descendants, who will never know their roots. And yet in their survival, they are powerful. And in telling these stories, Gyasi imbues them with power.

‘“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”’

Ambitious, insightful and moving, Homegoing is an impressive debut about the human condition, the violence of colonialist and racist systems, the ripple effects of history, and the strength in survival.

4.25*

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Book Review | The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler

Lulu Hurst is born in the post-war rural South, on an impoverished farm in North Georgia. From a young age, she knows there’s something different about her. She can communicate silently with her disabled younger brother, she can stand down wild animals, and she can captivate others through a penetrating stare. She’s also harbouring a dark secret – she dropped her brother on his head as a baby, and is convinced this is what has caused his stalled development. Her foray into mesmerism is driven, in no small part, by her desire to ‘cure’ her younger brother and atone for her mistake.

But it’s not until a series of events that Lulu is offered the opportunity to escape stultifying existence on the farm. She finds a book in her father’s study entitled The Power of Mesmeric Influence and is enchanted by the idea of being able to use her powers in this way. Shortly afterwards, lightning strikes the family home, opening the door for a thrilling new way of life. In a deeply suspicious age, her father senses an opportunity. They will attribute her powers to the lightning and the transference of an electrical power from the meteorological phenomenon onto the teenage girl.

Knowing this is his chance to pull his family out of debt, Lulu’s father begins honing and showcasing his daughter’s talents, transforming her into ‘The Magnetic Girl’.

‘Chickens clucked and purred around me, spellbound by their meal. Daddy’s idea of an audience behaved like these birds. Throw dry corn on the ground and know what they would do every time.
They would eat.
People would believe.’

He teaches her ‘tricks’ of catapulting fully-grown men across the room, to rave reviews across the state. He then takes her on a show circuit up and down the east coast, a performing pony, while he gathers the spoils. Lulu enjoys the freedom and new experiences this vaudeville affords her, but she struggles to reconcile expectations and reality, duty and desire for independence.

‘That much money was a strong argument against sentimentality. People believed I could conduct electricity with my fingers, that magnetism in my blood mirrored the copper and iron that had risen into me from the earth below my home.’

It may seem hard to believe now, in our age of scepticism, but back in the late 19th century, electricity was a new and unknown entity, and if you lived outside of a major city, it’s not something regular people would have ever encountered. In a deeply suspicious society, ripe for believing in powers beyond the physical world, this offered a unique opportunity – and a whole host of charlatans ready to exploit this vulnerability.

Jessica Handler draws on a real-life historical figure to create this fictionalised account of Lulu’s life, which adds an extra layer of depth and interest to a well-crafted tale. I read very little historical fiction, but I enjoyed the way Handler deftly captures this unique point in history; a society just two decades past the civil war and on the brink of huge technological, political and societal changes to come.

Although this takes place almost 150 years in the past, the character of Lulu is crafted in such a way to make her empathetic and relatable. Her compelling voice in first-person narration gives us an insight into her teenage thoughts, aspirations and struggles – and the boredom and the restlessness of youth. One thing I struggled with was a temporary change in viewpoint early on, when we jump back in time for a perspective from her father during the civil war. This felt jarring, taking us out of Lulu’s shoes but not offering that much more in the way of meaningful perspective or context to justify doing so.

Such a shift in perspective was brief, however, and then we were back with our heroine. Our empathy for her grows as she grapples with her desire to stay true to herself in the face of parental responsibility and the expectation of her adoring public. We see true growth in her character throughout the novel, as she comes into her own and is able to rise and find her voice, offering a unique perspective on the female experience during an intriguing point in American history.

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I was delighted to meet Jessica at a recent book club. I wrote this review prior to meeting her, but listening to her talk about the development process gave a fascinating insight into the birth of this novel.

Perfect Prose #2: All The Light We Cannot See

Having last week finished ‘The Nightingale’, set in occupied France, it got me thinking about the masterpiece that is Anthony Doer’s Pulitzer Prize winning ‘All The Light We Cannot See’, similarly set during the Second World War in Paris. There were so many exquisite passages from this book that it was hard to pick just one, but this one is so utterly perfect that words fail me. For anyone who’s lost someone, this passage provides solace and hope for the things that endure, long after a life has been extinguished.

*

People walk the paths of the gardens below, and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak. Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves traveling into and out of Michel’s machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more crisscross the air than when he lived – maybe a million times more. Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of televisions programs, of e-mails, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in them, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again, I am going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscape we call nations.

And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.

*

From ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doer, published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

‘If I have learnt anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.’

It all begins in the summer of 1939, France. Whispers of war are in the air, but in the small town of Carriveau, where Vianne Mauriac and her husband Antoine watch their daughter Sophie play in the afternoon sunshine, it’s the last thing she wants to think about.

But all too soon, the skies darken over Europe, and a generation of men are heading off into the unknown horrors of war – again.

Vianne’s impetuous younger sister, Isabelle, is sent away from Paris to live in Carriveau, to be kept at arm’s reach from danger. But when the German soldiers begin to arrive in the down, seizing property and valuables, demanding residence in local homes, and indulging on meats, cheeses and fine wines in the midst of crying children slowly growing hungrier, Isabelle cannot sit back and watch.

She soon becomes embroiled in a local organisation taking up resistance against the Germans, spreading reports containing the truth – a rare commodity in an occupied town with no access to the news or radio. Before long, bigger and far more dangerous plans arise. She ventures back to Paris, a city which, less than a year after her departure, has been irrevocably changed.

‘Her beloved city was like a once-beautiful courtesan grown old and thin, weary, abandoned by her lovers. In less than a year, this magnificent city had been stripped of its essence by the endless clatter of German jackboots on the streets and disfigured by swastikas that flew from every monument.’

Her new role as ‘The Nightingale’ is a perilous one. Tasked with aiding foreign airmen who have landed in France and desperate to evade capture, she hatches a plan to assist their escape. But the only way to leave the country is by making the treacherous journey over the Pyrenees on foot. Soon, the Nazis catch wind of her success, putting her in ever-greater danger.

Meanwhile in Carriveau, life changes dramatically for Vianne and Sophie. As a teacher at the local school, Vianne is asked to provide the Nazi stationed at their home, Captain Beck, with a list of the Jewish members of staff. Vianne, thoughtlessly, gives the name of Rachel, her best friend. Soon all Jews in town are fired. Then comes the star of David armbands. Then the trucks arrive. A narrative that is all too familiar to us now – but read through the lens of a personal tragedy, the horror is even more acute. Vianne, overcome with guilt, begins to aid the resistance by finding sanctuary for the Jewish children of the town.

I had high expectations of The Nightingale due to its rave reviews – and for the first half of the book, I felt that such high accolades were unmerited. However, in the second half, the energy picks up and I found myself engrossed.

The last book I read about occupied France during World War Two was the much-acclaimed All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer  – a stunning novel with such meticulous prose and well-crafted narrative that reading it was a fully immersive experience.

The Nightingale isn’t as exquisite a book as Doer’s, but it should be valued in its own right. It should be praised for the way in which it brings to light the bravery of the oft-forgotten heroes of the war, the women who risked everything. Here, these women have a voice. Their stories are just as important as those of the soldiers sent off to the battlefield.

The ending is what pushed this novel up to a four-star rating for me; beautifully well-handled, I found myself in tears as it drew to a close. The novels asks; how do we rebuild a life after our world has been so decimated by war? How can we learn to live with what we have seen, what we have done to survive? How do we conceptualise our existence in the wake of such horrors?

‘He thinks that one’s life can be distilled to a narrative that has a beginning and an end. He knows nothing about the kind of sacrifice that, once made, can never be either fully forgotten or fully borne.’

In these uncertain times, I feel it is more important than ever to remember how hatred, fear, and mistrust of ‘the other’ creates a perfect storm for these unimaginable horrors. We all have a part to play in making sure nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again. After all, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.