A Month of Reading – September 2022

September was an excellent reading month in terms of quality. I managed six books in all – a mix of early 20th century literature, translated lit, a biography, a short story collection, a Booker Prize longlisted title, and of course, the eighth book from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – The Trap – for #PilgrimageTogether.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first five you can click on the links.

THE PACHINKO PARLOUR by Elisa Shua Dusapin (Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Set in Tokyo during a sultry summer, The Pachinko Parlour is an atmospheric, haunting tale of loneliness, identity, connection and the all-pervading sense of ambiguity felt by people whose lives are at crossroads.

Our narrator is Claire, a young woman in her late twenties, who has arrived in Tokyo to spend the summer with her maternal grandparents. Claire’s grandparents are Korean, but were forced to flee to Japan in 1952 when Korea was embroiled in a civil war. Having made a life for themselves in Japan, they haven’t visited Korea since. For Claire this particular vacation in Tokyo is loaded with a mission. She is intent on making the trip with her grandparents to Korea, so that they can revisit their roots, and yet she is gripped by a sense that her grandparents are ambivalent. 

For the most part, Claire is by herself, the hours stretched empty before her. On other days, Claire visits the home of ten-year old Mieko whose mother, Henriette, has employed her to teach the girl some French.  Claire and Mieko develop a close but fragile bond as both seek to connect and belong in their own way.

The Pachinko Parlour, then, is a lyrical meditation on identity and the need to belong, an exploration of displacement both physically and figuratively, and the loneliness we feel within our own families. Delicate, elegantly written and drenched with a tinge of melancholia, Dusapin’s prose displays her signature restraint and poise making The Pachinko Parlour a pretty irresistible read.  

I USED TO LIVE HERE ONCE: THE HAUNTED LIFE OF JEAN RHYS by Miranda Seymour

I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour is a superb, immersive and moving biography of the incredibly talented Jean Rhys chronicling her turbulent life right from her early years in Dominica which were to haunt her for the rest of her life to remote Devon where she spent year final years; the highs and lows of her writing career, catapulting her from obscurity to international renown; how writing was a vital force in her life, an anchor when all else around her was in shambles.

Seymour’s biography is a meticulously researched, wonderfully written, engrossing biography painting a vivid picture of a proud, brilliant, highly volatile but tremendously talented writer. Rhys had to battle many a crisis but she had the iron will and capacity to somehow bounce back; unlike the archetypical ‘Rhys woman’ she was never a victim but a resourceful woman who dug deep to forge ahead. Moreover, I liked how Seymour provided context to each of Rhys’s novels and some of her finest stories which often drew on the rich material that marked her life.

CURSED BUNNY by Bora Chung (Translated from the Korean by Anton Hur)

Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.

“The Embodiment” is a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores, while the titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. While a later story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.

The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works. 

SOMETHING IN DISGUISE by Elizabeth Jane Howard  

Something in Disguise is a sad, chilling, darkly funny tale of loneliness within relationships told with Howard’s consummate ease and style. The book opens with a marriage – Alice, the meek daughter of Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, is to wed a well-to-do conservative chap, Leslie Mount, a man who she met on one of her recent holidays.

The Colonel has been married thrice – Alice is his daughter from his first marriage. His third and current wife, May, also has two children from an earlier marriage; adults in their early 20s – Oliver and Elizabeth. Oliver and Elizabeth can’t stand their stepfather – the Colonel is an insufferable bore, one of those dry, old-fashioned men who have a set, unimaginative way of living and thinking, often imposing their demands on women. With May not good at managing the house, that burden always fell on Alice, but now with Alice starting the next chapter in her life, who is going to fill her shoes?

Oliver particularly detests the Colonel, always pouncing on any opportunity to needle him, and immediately convinces Elizabeth to come live with him at their Lincoln street flat in London, a considerably attractive proposition as opposed to being stuck forever at Monk’s Close, a monstrosity of a house in the countryside where the Colonel and May reside. That’s the basic set-up but as the novel progresses, there’s a love story that unfolds, while at the same time a sense of claustrophobia sharpens as some sinister happenings begin to come to the fore.

Something in Disguise, then, is a brilliant tale of ‘domestic horror’ – the palpable feeling of being trapped; signals of impending doom that evoke a mood of creeping dread in the reader. The final pages, particularly, heighten this effect making this a novel that will linger in the mind for a while.

TRUST by Hernan Diaz  

Set in early 20th century New York, Trust by Hernan Diaz is a cleverly constructed, fascinating tale of money, deception, power and the ultimate question of who controls the narrative.

The novel is made up of four sections each providing a different point of view – the first section called “Bonds” is a novel written by a forgotten author Harold Vanner thatnarrates the story of Benjamin Rask whose astounding success on Wall Street and the stock markets during the heydays of the 1920s, transforms him into one of the richest men in the world. The second section is an autobiography by Andrew Bevel, and it quickly becomes clear that Benjamin Rask is a fictional version of Andrew Bevel himself. The biggest anomaly in both the accounts is the depiction of Mildred Bevel (Helen Rask in Vanner’s novel), who remains an enigma, all the more because there are marked differences in how her personality and her circumstances have been highlighted by both men. Is the fictional woman real or is the real woman a figment of the imagination?

The third section focuses on Ida Partenza, an Italian immigrant, employed as Bevel’s secretary chiefly to type out his autobiography as per instructions given by him personally, and she is hell bent on discovering the truth about Mildred Bevel, while in fourth section titled “Futures”, we hear from Mildred Bevel herself.

While Trust, in a way, is a commentary on the excesses of Wall Street, itis really a novel about how stories are told (what is revealed, hidden, enhanced or diluted), how viewpoints often differ and how power can warp reality and ultimately influence the narrative.

THE TRAP (PILGRIMAGE 3) by Dorothy Richardson

The Trap is the eighth installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, afterPointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim, Deadlock and Revolving Lights.

In The Trap, we once again see Miriam in a different environment. While the last four books saw her lodging at Mrs Bailey’s on Tansley Street with a room of her own, in The Trap we see Miriam change her lodgings and share a room with a woman called Selina Holland. Given Miriam’s penchant for independence and solitude, it is perhaps a surprise that she has taken this step, but as readers we accept and go along because Richardson chooses not to provide an explanation.

At first, Miriam is excited at this prospect of a big change in her circumstances…

Left to herself, she would now go out, not only for tea but for the whole evening, into a world renewed. There would be one of those incidents that punctually present themselves at such moments, a link in the chain of life as it appears only when one is cut off from fixed circumstances. She would come home lost and refreshed. Laze through Sunday morning. Roam about the rooms amongst things askew as though thrown up by an earthquake, their exposed strata storied with memory and promise. There would be indelible hours of reading and dreaming, of harvesting the lively thought that comes when one is neither here nor there, but poised in bright light between a life ended and a life not yet begun. The blissful state would last until dusk deepened towards evening and would leave her filled with a fresh realisation of the wonder of being alive and in the midst of life, and with strength to welcome the week slowly turning its unknown bright face towards her through the London night.

In the previous novels, while we see Miriam’s resolve to stay true to her wish to be on her own (her rejection of Shatov’s proposal was partly influenced by this), we also see her social circle expand, and one gets the sense that there is a conflict within her – while she is prefers being alone, she is not completely averse to company.

At first, the two women eagerly set up the room they are to share with their furnishings. It’s a new experience for Miriam, but that novelty rapidly wears off as differences between the two start creeping up. First, Miriam quickly learns that her love for reading does not find much resonance with Selina. But much to Miriam’s dismay, Selina also has strong negative opinions on Donizetti’s, Miriam’s favourite café, which had always been a refuge and a haven during her time in London. 

As the novel progresses, Miriam sees the real William Butler Yeats in a room across the road, and also frets about meeting the landlord to pay the rent, feeling claustrophobic when she is compelled to chat with his mother. Then there’s another neighbour Miriam and Selina gossip about – Mr Perrance, a sculptor, prone to causing a disturbance regularly, amplified by his heavy drinking and verbal brawls with his wife. Miriam also becomes increasingly unhappy with the dinginess of their room made all the more palpable when the Brooms pay her a visit. The Brooms are reserved in their opinion, but Miriam is more than thankful to take them out to tea.

Ultimately, Miriam and Selina have a huge argument which only reinforces the failure of Miriam’s social experiment with hints provided to the reader that this is not an arrangement Miriam is likely to continue.

That’s it for September. October has started on a slow note where I’m taking my time to read A Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff and O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker both of which I’m really enjoying. I do intend to also read the ninth and tenth books from the Pilgrimage series – Oberland and Dawn’s Left Hand.  

A Month of Reading – August 2022

August was a great month of reading in terms of quality, especially because it also focused on Women in Translation (WIT). I read three books for WIT Month (a novel, a novella and a short story collection) covering three languages (Japanese, Spanish and Danish), along with a Booker Prize longlisted title, a contemporary debut novel, and of course, the seventh book from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – Revolving Lights.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first five you can click on the links.

SPACE INVADERS by Nona Fernández (Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)

In her novella Space Invaders, using this cult game as a motif and through a series of visions, dreams and fragmented memories, Nona Fernández brilliantly captures the essence of growing up in the shadow of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship in Chile.

These set of childhood friends are now adults, but they remain haunted by events when they were young, particularly those around their mysterious classmate Estrella Gonzalez, who one day suddenly disappears. They vaguely recall rigid class assemblies and class performances imbibing nationalistic fervor. Estrella, herself, is a potent force in their dreams, but the dreams are all different (“Different as our minds, different as our memories, different as we are and as we’ve become”). 

Space Invaders, then, is a stunning achievement, a haunting dream-like novella of childhood, the loss of innocence it entails, and real life under junta rule whose very nature remains opaque and unfathomable.

THE COLONY by Audrey Magee

Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Audrey Magee’s The Colony is an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an English artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, but eventually settles down. Lloyd is explicitly told not sketch the island’s residents, but while he initially agrees, soon enough he breaks that rule. After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture. Hence to him, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence. The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two.

There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths.

SCATTERED ALL OVER THE EARTH by Yoko Tawada (Translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani)

Scattered All Over the Earth is a wonderfully strange, beguiling novel of language, nationality, climate change, friendship and connection set against a dystopian backdrop.

The book is set in the not-too distant-future, the details of which remain vague. However, we are told that Japan has completely disappeared off the face of the earth; oblivious of the drastic impact on climate, a terrible national policy put in place by the Japanese government leads to Japan entirely sinking into the sea. So much so that henceforth it is no longer called Japan, but remembered as the ‘land of sushi.’ Its inhabitants are now scattered all over the earth, lending the novel its name.

The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole. Among its myriad themes, what I really loved about the story was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other.  

 A POSTCARD FOR ANNIE by Ida Jessen (Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)

A Postcard for Annie is a quiet, exquisite collection of short stories of ordinary lives; the highs and lows of marriage and family life told in lucid, restrained prose suffused with great emotional depth.

The first piece titled “An Excursion” is a beautiful story of a marriage, of how it changes people, of the ties that bind couples despite their differences, while “December is a Cruel Month” is a heartbreaking story on grief, loss, the tender and often tense relationships between parents and their children. In an “An Argument”, a married woman, as the title suggests, argues with her husband on how the physical intimacy between them has deteriorated, while “In My Hometown”, the last story in the collection, is a short piece told in the first person about village secrets, the private lives that people lead and how we don’t know people as well as we think we do.

Each of the six tales is drenched with a quiet beauty, marked by the author’s penetrating gaze into her characters’ outer lives and their innermost feelings.

CHILDREN OF PARADISE by Camilla Grudova

Children of Paradise is a lovely, beguiling tale of cinema, flimsy friendships, loneliness and the evils of corporate takeovers. Our protagonist is a young twenty-something woman called Holly who at the beginning of the first chapter sees a sign outside Paradise cinema advertising that they are looking for recruits. Paradise is one of the oldest cinemas in the city located in a decrepit building. Holly is hired on the spot, but in the beginning, the work is arduous, and Holly struggles to the point of tears but holds on. Holly also grapples with loneliness as her colleagues, a circle of close-knit oddballs, are initially hostile towards her. Gradually, the ice breaks and Holly finds herself enmeshed in their world, made up of cinema, drugs and casual flings. Until one day, a major development threatens to uproot their already fragile existence.

Surreal and immersive, Children of Paradise effortlessly packs in an array of themes – cinema, capitalism and camaraderie – into its 196 pages, churning out an offering that is truly original in the way it views the world.

REVOLVING LIGHTS (PILGRIMAGE 3) by Dorothy Richardson

Revolving Lights is the seventh installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim and Deadlock.

Revolving Lights immediately follows the events from Deadlock, but at the same time is also marked by a series of flashbacks with Miriam recalling certain events in the immediate past.

In terms of structure, it again differs from the earlier books – there are four long chapters, each focusing on certain key episodes during Miriam’s life. The book begins with Miriam’s thoughts as she walks the streets of London to Mrs Bailey’s boarding house on Tansley Street. As Miriam reminisces on various events we learn of her conversation with Hypo Wilson where she talks about Michael Shatov and airs her views on women artists…

“Well, the thing is, that whereas a few men here and there are creators, originators … artists, women are this all the time.”

“My dear Miriam, I don’t know what women are. I’m enormously interested in sex; but I don’t know anything about it. Nobody does. That’s just where we are.”

“You are doubtful about ‘emancipating’ women, because you think it will upset their sex-life.”

“I don’t know anything, Miriam. No personality. No knowledge. But there’s Miss Waugh, with a thoroughly able career behind her; been everywhere, done everything, my dear Miriam; come out of it all, shouting you back into the nursery.”

“I don’t know her. Perhaps she’s jealous, like a man, of her freedom. But the point is, there’s no emancipation to be done. Women are emancipated.”

“Prove it, Miriam.”

“I can. Through their pre-eminence in an art. The art of making atmospheres. It’s as big an art as any other. Most women can exercise it, for reasons, by fits and starts. The best women work at it the whole of the time. Not one man in a million is aware of it. It’s like air within the air. It may be deadly.”

She recalls a picnic with the Orlys in the previous summer around the time of Leyton Orly’s engagement…

And they had suddenly asked her to their picnic. And she had been back, for the whole of that summer’s afternoon, in the world of women; and the forgotten things, that had first driven her away from it, had emerged again, no longer mysterious, and with more of meaning in them, so that she had been able to achieve an appearance of conformity, and had felt that they regarded her not with the adoration or half-pitying dislike she had had from women in the past, but as a woman, though only as a weird sort of female who needed teaching. They had no kind of fear of her; not because they were massed there in strength. Any one of them, singly, would, she had felt, have been equal to her in any sort of circumstances; her superior; a rather impatient but absolutely loyal and chivalrous guide in the lonely exclusive feminine life.

At one point, Miriam is also disconcerted by the sudden appearance of the opportunistic Eleanor Dear (“lliterate, hampered, feeling her way all the time. And yet with a perfect knowledge. Perfect comprehension in her smile”).

I could have kept it up, with good coats and skirts and pretty evening gowns. Playing games. Living hilariously in roomy country houses, snubbing “outsiders,” circling in a perpetual round of family events, visits to town, everything fixed by family happenings, hosts of relations always about, everything, even sorrow, shared and distributed by large rejoicing groups; the warm wide middle circle of English life … secure. And just as the sense of belonging was at its height, punctually, Eleanor had come, sweeping everything away.

The next key episode focuses on her evening with Michael Shatov and his friends the Lintoffs, who are revolutionaries. But more importantly, Shatov proposes to Miriam and she firmly declines…

“You know we can’t; you know how separate we are. You have seen it again and again and agreed. You see it now; only you are carried away by this man’s first impression. Quite a wrong one. I know the sort of woman he means. Who accepts a man’s idea and leaves him to go about his work undisturbed; sure that her attention is distracted from his full life by practical preoccupations. It’s perfectly easy to create that impression, on any man. Of bright complacency. All the busy married women are creating it all the time, helplessly. Men lean and feed and are kept going, and in their moments of gratitude they laud women to the skies. At other moments, amongst themselves, they call them materialists, animals, half-human, imperfectly civilised creatures of instinct, sacrificed to sex. And all the time they have no suspicion of the individual life going on behind the surface.”

Although Miriam does not regret her decision, she does waver for a moment (“All the things she had made him contemplate would be forgotten…. He would plunge into the life he used to call normal…. That was jealousy; flaming through her being; pressing on her mind”).

Miriam spends a long summer vacation with the Wilsons – Hypo (modeled on H.G. Wells) and Alma. Miriam’s has conflicted feelings about Hypo. On the one hand, she revels in the knowledge that he is interested in her thoughts, but on the other hand, she is repelled by his views on  women (“To shreds she would tear his twofold vision of women as bright intelligent response or complacently smiling audience”).  

While Revolving Lights for the most part focuses on Miriam’s thoughts and her flashbacks, there is often a sudden but interesting switch in narration from the third person to the first person, a technique I first came across in Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. Revolving Lights also continues to focus on Miriam’s strong opinions on the dynamics between men and women, the pleasures of solitude, the joy of London and the sense of freedom she experiences when strolling the city’s streets, a feeling particularly accentuated after she immediately rejects Shatov’s proposal. Richardson also excels in the way she describes light, which particularly comes alive during Miriam’s stay with the Wilsons, at their Bonnycliff residence by the sea. One gets the sense that Miriam has evolved a great deal since Pointed Roofs, both by the substance of her interior monologues and the way social encounters and interactions have shaped her. Revolving Lights didn’t always make for easy reading, but it was interesting enough for me to want to continue with the series. On to The Trap and Oberland next!

That’s it for August. In September, I started Hernan Diaz’s Booker longlisted novel Trust as well as Elisa Shua Dusapin’s The Pachinko Parlour, both very good. Plans on the anvil also include reading the seventh and eighth books from the Pilgrimage series – The Trap and Oberland (I continue to lag behind for #PilgrimageTogether).

The Colony – Audrey Magee

Audrey Magee’s The Colony came on my radar thanks as always to Book Twitter and also because of its inclusion on the 2022 Booker Prize longlist. It’s such a terrific novel, very deserving of the accolades being heaped upon it.

More than halfway through the book, Mr Lloyd, an Englishman and Mr Masson, a Frenchman, are typically engaged in another one of their combative conversations. Mr Masson, a linguist and a passionate supporter of endangered languages, resents the Englishman, fearing his unhealthy influence on the island’s residents, the unwelcome changes that will be felt not only in how they communicate but also in the way they think. Mr Lloyd, a painter, looking to revive his artistic career, has arrived on the island seeking solitude and introspection, some much needed inspiration for his art, but the Frenchman’s presence threatens to derail his plans. The two can’t stand each other and Masson, particularly, laments how Lloyd’s presence is slowly resulting in the island’s younger generation switching to speaking English rather than preserve their Irish roots. Lloyd, of course, does not see the problem in that; it is after all a matter of choice. And he, in turn, goads Masson, questioning the Frenchman’s hypocrisy – why does Masson wax so eloquently on Irish heritage and criticize England, when his own country France has colonized Algeria. So why isn’t Masson fighting to preserve Arabic culture in Algeria?

This is just one of the many ideas and exchanges that lace Audrey Magee’s The Colony, an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

A LAYERED STORY & VIBRANT CAST OF CHARACTERS

The Colony is set around the time of the Troubles, a very violent period for England and Ireland who were at loggerheads over the fate of Northern Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Carrying his easel and other painting paraphernalia, he enlists the help of two boatmen to ferry him across the waters to the island, even though he is fairly warned of how arduous the journey will be. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, complaining of certain aspects of the cottage rented not being to his requirements, but eventually settles down. Lloyd is explicitly told not sketch the island’s residents, but while he initially agrees, soon enough he breaks that rule.

After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and known to the islanders because he had stayed there in the prior years too for the purposes of his research. To Masson, an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence.

The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two.

We then come to the island’s residents themselves, four generations of a fisherman family residing there; a family which forms the cornerstone of Masson’s research.

The oldest is Bean Uí Fhloinn, the great grandmother, who is ancient in every sense of the word and speaks and understands only Irish, refusing to let outside influences sway her. She remains Masson’s favourite character, a sort of a symbol of her heritage, a potent bulwark against foreign influences. Masson assiduously records her talk on his tape-recorder, reveling in the unique inflections and patterns in her manner of speech. Her daughter, Bean Uí Néill, understands English but does not speak it and in that sense is closer in outlook to her mother. The next generation, Bean Uí Néill’s daughter Mairéad and Mairéad’s son James are a different kettle of fish (pun intended), more welcoming of the Englishman and his thinking. Lloyd’s influence is palpable in Mairéad and James; Mairéad begins to speak some English when she is with him, while James the truly bilingual one in the family, easily fluent in both English and Irish, sticks to speaking English around him. James is enamoured by Lloyd’s profession as an artist and aspires to be an artist himself ready to travel with Lloyd to London for an exhibition; he rebels against his family tradition of being a fisherman, not interested in the least to emulate his late father, uncle and grandfather – fishermen who drowned many years ago in a storm.

James seethes about being holed up on the island and while he performs his duties of catching rabbits for dinner, he shows no aptitude for training as a fisherman. Slowly but surely he begins to spend more and more time with Lloyd, entranced by his paintings, and even begins to dabble in art himself. James also dislikes Masson for the latter’s insistence on calling him by his Irish name Seamus, despite James vocally expressing his displeasure.

Mairéad grieves her husband who drowned along with her brother and father and begins wondering whether household chores are all she is destined to do and if there is life beyond the island. She sleeps with Masson, which everyone is aware of; and in an intense desire to venture into unchartered territory she also begins to secretly model for Lloyd during the day, a fact that she keeps to herself although suspicions are subsequently roused.

Last but not the least are Francis and Micheál…Francis is Mairéad’s brother-in-law and wishes to eventually marry her, he is conservative to the core and remains dubious of Lloyd’s intentions. While Micheál is the typical businessman who sniffing an opportunity, promises both Masson and Lloyd a quiet accommodation without informing beforehand of the other man’s presence, purely motivated by money.

The island seems cut-off from the mainland, but news from the north filters through to its inhabitants leading to fraught discussions. Alternating between the narratives on the island are short reportage-type paragraphs highlighting bombing and terrorist activities, as well as murder and killings rampant from both the Irish and the English side.  

THOUGHT-PROVOKING THEMES AND IDEAS

The Colony, then, is an allegorical tale; a rich, unique, multilayered novel on the complexities of colonization, the nuances associated with embracing global culture, evolution of society and what it means to preserve culture and heritage in an ever-changing world. It’s a meditation on language and identity and how the two are often interconnected.

The legacy of colonialism and its complications, particularly, forms the nucleus of the novel. Going back in history, European countries such as Britain, France, Netherlands, Spain and Portugal among others were notorious in amassing colonies in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries; they were rivals showing off not only their military strength but also the nations they ruled which were termed as “colonies”; countries they captured through the guise of trade and by taking advantage of their political weakness. Yes, there was progress made in infrastructure, healthcare and literacy, but one could not deny the loss of identity, widespread exploitation and constant conflict either.

In the book, the gradual death of Irish language and heritage and the emergence of English as a potent force is a topic explored through Masson’s dissertation as he observes the four generations of inhabitants on that remote island.  Often, history is an account of victories and conquests, the winners script the narrative, the vanquished are pushed to the margins, their stories obliterated. The same holds true for languages, why some die, others evolve and a few like the English language take centre-stage globally. As various nations seek progress, growth and rapid change in the quest for better opportunities and improved standards of living, the language that is widely accepted globally becomes the chief mode of communication, and in the tryst between English and Irish, the annals of history gave greater weight to the former.

The novel also explores the tug of war between the idea of embracing new cultures and expanding one’s outlook versus fiercely protecting one’s heritage and resisting change – James is the voice of the younger generation, ambitious, willing to experiment and seek better opportunities for himself rather than being tied down by tradition and the old way of life. His great grandmother is the complete opposite, preferring to preserve her roots, resisting change with an iron will and happy to be self-sufficient and exist within the confines of the island; content with her world however narrow it is and not at all interested in broadening her outlook. 

Masson, himself, is a complex character in this regard. He might hate the English for playing a major role in diminishing the worth of the Irish language and roots, but has somewhat of a complicated history himself as evinced from the series of flashbacks that offer glimpses into his childhood. Born to a French father and an Algerian mother, Masson’s mother takes great pains to educate her son in Arabic but Masson resists it with all his might as he identifies more with his French roots. Masson’s father is an uncouth soldier, and the mother finds herself increasingly isolated, yearning for a life of literature, culture and ideas. She finds solace in frequenting Arabic cafes with its atmosphere of intellectual discussions, and tries to project some of her hopes onto Masson but to no avail. Here’s Masson’s father inwardly lashing at the Algerians…

…indifferent to his status as a decorated soldier, indifferent when those men should be on their knees in gratitude to him for his service to the country, for risking his life against the savages in Algeria, those dirty nomads who emerged from the desert sands to demand independence from France when it was France that paved their streets, educated their children, built their towns, their town halls, their schools, hospitals, houses, supplied their water, their sanitation. All of it built by France.

The book also dwells on questions of what constitutes art, the professional but nebulous relationship between an artist and his pupil, what can be recorded and what can’t and how the views accordingly vary, and of course the process itself of creating art.

He drew waves pounding the rock, sea hammering the cliff, ocean crashing into the island. He drew water foaming and frothing, water splashing, water surging, page after page, none of it capturing the thundering roar of the Atlantic Ocean on its passage east from America, south-east from the Arctic Circle. How do you draw noise, Mr Lloyd? How do I paint the clangour of battle between ocean and land, sea and rock? The sounds reverberating against the stone, cracking the air? The raucousness of gulls? Of terns? I draw them open-beaked, but still they are silent.

UNIQUE WRITING STYLE

There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths. As the book progresses, often, we see shifts in perspectives in the middle of a paragraph reminiscent of Galgut’s writing particularly in The Promise. Through her crisp, spare writing style punctuated with bursts of poetic intensity, Magee brilliantly conveys a stream of ideas and brings out the intricacies of the themes she explores through myriad perspectives. The first quarter of the novel has a filmic feel to it particularly when we are inside Lloyd’s mind as he perceives his surroundings in terms of paintings he might be inspired to create.

They left the harbour, passing rocks blackened and washed smooth by waves, gulls resting on the stagnant surface, starting as they rowed past.

self-portrait: with gulls and rocks

self-portrait: with boatmen, gulls and rocks

TO CONCLUDE WITH SOME POINTS TO PONDER

In a nutshell, The Colony is a brilliant book, a worthy inclusion on the Booker Prize longlist, one that explores contentious issues – colonialism, violence, culture – that remain topics of intense debates even today. As an Indian, it forced me to think a bit about British colonial rule in India and its implications. While Indians have reaped benefits of being fluent in the English language and have emerged as a force to reckon with on the global centre-stage, the question still remains – would we have progressed had the British not ruled the country for over 200 years? Amartya Sen has penned a very insightful article in this regard for The Guardian. I’ll leave you with the following paragraphs from his piece…

“It is extremely hard to guess with any confidence what course the history of the Indian subcontinent would have taken had the British conquest not occurred. Would India have moved, like Japan, towards modernisation in an increasingly globalising world, or would it have remained resistant to change, like Afghanistan, or would it have hastened slowly, like Thailand?

“I was persuaded that Marx was basically right in his diagnosis of the need for some radical change in India, as its old order was crumbling as a result of not having been a part of the intellectual and economic globalisation that the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution had initiated across the world (along with, alas, colonialism).

There was arguably, however, a serious flaw in Marx’s thesis, in particular in his implicit presumption that the British conquest was the only window on the modern world that could have opened for India. What India needed at the time was more constructive globalisation, but that is not the same thing as imperialism. The distinction is important.”

The Promise – Damon Galgut

A decade ago, Damon Galgut captured my imagination when I devoured three of his novels in quick successionThe Good Doctor, The Impostor and In A Strange Room. All were excellent, but the latter two were even more so. His last offering Arctic Summer, while elegantly written, was somehow not in, the same league as his ‘holy trinity’ of novels, but an earlier novel, The Quarry, was quite interesting and a precursor to what Galgut was capable of writing. And now we have The Promise, released earlier this month, where Galgut is once again in top form.

The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts. 

The first section dwells on the funeral of Ma, or Rachel Swart, and is set in the 1980s at the height of apartheid. The Swarts own and live on a dilapidated farm deep in the countryside. Manie Swart, who heads the family, runs a reptile park, having recently found solace in religion. With Rachel’s death, Manie is left with their three children – the eldest is Anton, followed by Astrid, and then the youngest of the brood, Amor.

When the book opens, we are first introduced to Amor, who while at her boarding school is informed of her mother’s death.

The moment the metal box speaks her name, Amor knows it’s happened. She’s been in a tense, headachy mood all day, almost like she had a warning in a dream but can’t remember what it is. Some sign or image, just under the surface. Trouble down below. Fire underground.

It’s a moment that feels unreal to her, and she follows through the motions, utterly dazed. Although her mother’s death was expected given the progress of her illness, Amor can’t quite come to terms with it.

It’s at Rachel’s funeral that the true colours of the Swart family start spilling out; their racist tendencies come to the fore. For instance, Manie Swart, his sister Tannie Marina and her husband Oom Ockie find it difficult to accept that Rachel has gone back to her original religion and has wished for a Jewish funeral.

It’s the usual topic, about how Ma has betrayed the whole family by changing her religion. Correction, by going back to her old religion. To being a Jew! Her aunt has been extremely vocal on this subject for the past half a year, ever since Ma fell ill, but what is Amor supposed to do about it? She’s just a child, she has no power, and anyway what’s so wrong about going back to your own religion if you want to?

The spotlight then zooms to Salome, the Swarts’ dedicated housemaid, who despite her many years of service as well as nursing Rachel in her final years, is hardly noticed by the rest of the Swarts and remains invisible.

To the Swarts, Salome is just a minor figure in the background. Yet, her future is the central premise of the novel, the essential moral core that rests on ‘the promise’ Rachel eked out from Manie in her last days. The promise pertains to Salome being given ownership of Lombard Place, the house where she has resided for a long time. It’s a promise that Manie refuses to acknowledge after Rachel’s death. That blank refusal shocks Amor, and it’s the first lesson that she learns regarding her family, they are well and truly lost.

Meanwhile, as the novel lurches forward in time, a picture of the Swart children begins to emerge. Anton, a soldier at the time of his mother’s funeral, deserts the Army, spends several years hiding, and only resurfaces when the political winds of change are blowing in the country – Mandela is elected PM and apartheid is abolished. Tormented by the fact that he shot a mother at the beginning of the book, Anton stares at a bleak future over the course of the novel as he gradually sinks deeper into debt and despair.

Every day since he left home has been imprinted on him as a visceral, primal endeavor and he doesn’t dwell on any of it, nothing to be savoured there. Survival isn’t instructive, just demeaning. The things he does recall with any clarity he tries not to, pushing them under the surface. Part of what you do to keep going.

You keep going because if you do there will eventually be an end. South Africa has changed, conscription stopped two years ago. Jesus, what he did by deserting the army, he’s a hero, not a criminal, amazing how fast that changed.

In sharp contrast, his younger sister Amor is quite an enigmatic, fascinating character, whose single-minded focus of giving Salome her rightful due is as powerful as the flash of lightning that strikes her at a young age. After the blatant disregard shown by her father towards her deceased mother’s wishes, Amor spends the next many years as far away from her family as possible. While she chooses to build a new life in Europe, she never really settles down, eschews meaningful relationships, as she restlessly flits from one city to another. Later, she finds her calling as a nurse working long hours in an AIDS hospital in Durban. Amor’s extreme form of selflessness is construed by her brother as her way of righting the wrongs of her morally wayward family.

Last but not the least is Astrid, the middle child, who settles for marriage and children, a destiny that fails to excite her and fills her with existential angst. Essentially frivolous and morally empty as the senior Swarts, Astrid resents Amor’s transformation into a beautiful woman, while her own looks begin to fade away.

Throughout the years, the siblings keep drifting away from each other, they barely keep in touch, and are only ever united during the four funerals.  Despite their fractured relationship, the one thing that binds Anton and Amor is their deep contempt for their family, which is tottering at the edge of ruin.

One of the key themes explored in The Promise is racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era. This is primarily showcased in Salome’s treatment. During apartheid, the rights of blacks were severely restricted and they were not allowed to own property, a fact that the Swarts hold onto in their denial of fulfilling ‘the promise’. But with the dawn of a new era and dramatic shift in South Africa’s political landscape, the Swarts’ attitude towards Salome hardly undergoes a sea of change.

Amor, appearing half asleep, winds her way slowly upright to a single question. Um, what about Salome?

Excuse me?

Salome, who works at the farm.

Until this moment, everyone in the room has worn an almost stupid air. But now a tremor runs through the group, as if a tuning fork has been struck on the edge of the scene.

That old story, Astrid says. You’re still on that?

It was sorted out a long time ago, Tannie Marina says. We’re not going backwards now.

Amor shakes her head.  It wasn’t possible for Salome to own the land. But the laws have changed and now she can.

She can, Astrid says. But she’s not going to. Don’t be stupid.

South Africa may have embarked on a new path sprinting towards progress, but Salome’s status remains the same. On paper, apartheid has been dismantled, but this is not really reflected in the ground reality, the country’s evolution has been anything but smooth.

The Swarts are the epitome of this racist thinking, first brought to our notice when they fail to understand why Rachel had to go back to her Jewish roots. Seeds of racism are also sown in Astrid, who when cheating on her second husband, worries whether she has committed a sin, not because she is having an extra-marital affair but because she is having this affair with a black man.

We are also shown how South Africa’s economic progress has paved the way for unchecked greed and rampant corruption. Money permeates the motives of many, and even religion is not spared from its poisonous pull.

Money is what it’s all about. An abstraction that shapes your fate. Notes with numbers on them, each a cryptic IOU, not the real thing itself, but the numbers denote your power and there can never be enough.

This is apparent in how the Swart property is divided among the children and also in the way the local pastor wields his influence on the family, his greed for land ensuring that he extracts quite a bit from them eventually. Indeed, the tenuous relationship between the Swart family members is a symbol for the broader social and political fabric of South Africa struggling to hold its people together against a volatile backdrop.

But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye. Indeed, Galgut’s unique narrative technique was on display in his brilliant book In A Strange Room, where he effortlessly switched between the first and the third person in the space of a paragraph. This is very much a trait in this novel too, but Galgut takes it to the next level. While In A Strange Room, the narration was from the author’s own point of view, here the narrative eye takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards.

She (Salome) shuffles off slowly around the koppie to her house, I mean the Lombard place…

The tone is as sharp as a knife and at times laced with subtle moments of black comedy. Galgut is wonderful as ever at creating an atmosphere of unease, as his characters, increasingly unmoored and unsteady, stumble towards their ominous fates. Powerful in its indictment of a country afflicted by racism and corruption, The Promise, then, is another winner from the Galgut oeuvre, and fully deserves being longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.